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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I’m not your brother."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Zee!" she shouted happily.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

"So?" Callie shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"You found the money?"

"Somethin’ like that," he replied flatly.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did it?"

Casey nodded. "Would you like it?"

"Yes, I’ll…take a look before we go."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No calls, no messages, nothing from her…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," she pronounced distinctly.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My bad, ru—ummm…what do I call you, then?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No." Magali croaked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How long?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So, you have a place to crash?"

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

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

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

"But, Martina—"

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

"How much?" Magali joined in.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How’s forty?"

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

"Thanks, umm…"

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

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

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

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

"Come on, I’ll show you the place."

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Continued - Part 3

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