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Thick cigar smoke circled the dwarf’s head before it wound its way up and joined the incense that permeated the temple. He stood just outside the central circle, low steps fanned out behind him. Four pillars stood tall on the far side of the circle. The outer two were palest marble, while the inner two were burnished steel that gleamed in the dim light from the smoking braziers. In the center of the circle stood a low table of the same white marble of the outer pillars. A young woman sat behind it on plush pillows, her eyes downcast as the squat man approached.
“You have something for me, Raina?” Marlowe asked in between tugs on his cigar.
The woman tucked her curly dark hair behind one ear as she laid a silk wrapped bundle on the table. Her fingers lifted one corner of the silk covering at a time, carefully laying open the fabric with precise, carefully measured movements. The last corner of cloth opened to reveal a thick deck of cards. Mystic symbols, some squat and blocky, others wispy like the smoke above the dwarf’s head adorned the back of each card. Raina reverently took the deck into her hands and began to shuffle.
“I think so, yes,” she answered the dwarf.
“Can I get a hint or do I have to wait for the main event?”
Raina glanced briefly away from her cards, a twinkle in her eyes as she caught the man’s eyes. “Patience has never been one of your virtues.”
Marlowe shrugged. “Virtues are more trouble than they’re worth. I avoid them whenever possible.”
The dwarf fell silent as he watched the young woman cut the deck, then cut it again. She shuffled the cards together before cutting the cards one last time. She laid the deck to one side, her thin, graceful fingers light upon their smooth surface.
Raina glanced up at the dwarf, one eyebrow raised. “Ready?”
He stared into her deep brown eyes for a long moment. Marlowe closed his eyes and took a deep lungful of lavender, coriander and tobacco. He let it burn in his chest a moment before he exhaled and opened his eyes. “This is about the new players entering the scene, isn’t it?” His voice was low and rough.
Raina said nothing, her hand poised above the cards.
Marlowe sighed then waved his cigar at her to continue.
She turned over the first card and laid it before her on the flawless marble. “The Magician,” she said, her voice somehow hollow, as if she spoke down a long tunnel. “Will. Mastery. Creative talents. The ability to draw power from above and direct it through desire into manifestation.
Marlowe frowned, but kept silent. Scions, then, he thought to himself. That ought to make things interesting.
“There will be four,” the oracle continued. She drew another card and laid it beside the first, but on its side. “The Knight of Cups. A young man. Graceful, poetic, but indolent. A dreamer of sensual delights. When reversed, he is untruthful. He represents swindling, trickery, and fraud.”
It was a stupid risk, the type he always told himself never to take. Yet there he stood in the middle of the natural history museum, ignoring the crowd around him while he debated the wisdom of liberating the Egyptian wing of its riches. Pierce usually had a good instinct for knowing what scores were too good to be true. He’d come to rely on that little nagging voice of doubt that had warned him away from risky targets many times in the past. Yet, this time his inner voice was silent.
He’d figured out the museum was having security problems the moment he stepped out of his luxury sedan. Pierce handed his key absently to the valet as he noticed the unusually high concentration of men in severe black suits and poorly concealed earpieces. He made it a point to linger near a few of the guards as he mingled with the other guests, and picked up a few bits of information from their idle communications. It seemed the security system had gone on the fritz at the last minute. Rather than risk the wrath of the museum’s board of directors by cancelling the party, the event planners had opted to cover the deficiency with an excessive amount of manpower.
While their vulnerability amused Pierce to no end, the downed security systems had not been enough to tempt him. He’d chatted amiably with the other rich and idle, taking extra pleasure in spending time with those who so obviously disapproved of him and the collection of erotic night clubs that everyone assumed had earned him his fortune. It wasn’t until he noticed the pair of guards outside the Egyptian wing move away from their posts that his interest was captured. Pierce continued his rounds, moving opposite the guards as the guards made their way around the gathering and up one of the sweeping marble staircases that led to the second floor of the museum.
The Egyptian wing. Home to a recent exhibit of rare artifacts found in some forgotten pharaoh’s tomb and on loan to the museum from Cairo. Pierce had kept a close eye on the exhibit since its arrival, and had even toured the relics on more than one occasion. He’d cased out all possible avenues of relieving the museum of some of the choicer pieces, but had decided against it. Despite what would most likely be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get anywhere near the invaluable relics, the museum had done their job too well. Pierce loved a challenge, but he wasn’t stupid.
Yet tonight the Egyptian wing stood open and unguarded. Pierce placed an empty champagne flute on the tray of a passing waiter as he edged away from the crowd. He slipped unnoticed behind one of the massive columns that supported the upper level balcony and walked casually through the shadows, passed the unmanned arch and into the deserted wing of the museum.
Pierce ignored the standard array of displays, including several mummified remains and the precious valuables that had been found along with them. He arrived at the new exhibit and slipped beneath the velvet rope that was the only barrier between him and its riches.
“What to take, what to take,” Pierce muttered beneath his breath. “I seem to be spoiled for choice.” He glanced at a display case of ancient coins, but moved on. He chuckled as he passed a row of elaborate headpieces. It would be quite a shock to the curators in the morning to discover one of those missing. Yet he had no easy way of carrying one out without attracting attention.
“Ahh, that should do nicely,” he whispered as he moved across the plush carpet to the central display. He knew from his prior visits that the case displayed the wide array of surprisingly well persevered weaponry that had been discovered in the tomb. Well preserved and encrusted with a stunning variety of precious gems and metals. He glanced at the subtly wired security measures which would detect any breach of the display case. The telltale lights were out. The case was completely unprotected.
“It seems to be my lucky night,” Pierce said as he gently lifted one of the glass panels from the top of the case. “Father always said fortune favors the bold.”
“That’s true, I do.”
It took all of Pierce’s nerve not to flinch and drop the glass pane he was holding open. He carefully lowered the cover back into place and took a deep breath. The practiced smile, warm and charming while revealing nothing, settled on his features as he turned to see who had found him. The bluff he was about to voice froze on his lips.
The woman wore a long black evening gown, which simultaneously covered everything yet left little to the imagination. She leaned against the display of ancient coins, curving her body in a way that accentuated it in all the right ways. She laughed and brushed her lustrous black hair away from her face.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you, dear brother,” she said. “You needn’t look so shocked. I’m here to lend a hand.”
Pierce’s mouth, suddenly dry, hung open a long moment before he was able to reassemble enough thought to say anything. “I’m…” he faltered, “I’m… You’re mis…” He stopped, closed his mouth with a click, and then tried again. “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else, my dear. I have no brothers or sisters. I’m certain I’d remember one as beautiful as…”
“We’re only half-siblings if you want to be pedantic,” the woman interrupted him with a wave of her hand. “I understand the confusion, though. Mother has had so many children it can be difficult to keep track of us all. Our mother does get around.” She winked.
“I’ve never met my mother,” Pierce replied. He frowned. Why had he said that? He should be thinking of a way to maneuver the woman back to the crowd without alerting her or the guards. Guards which would no doubt return any minute. Yet, he stood staring at her like a hapless teen, talking about his family.
The woman stood and ran one hand casually along the curve of her hip to settle the folds of her dress. “That’s why I’m here,” she said. “Mother sent me to have a little chat with you. She would have come herself, but you know how she is. She was a little… preoccupied when we talked. I think Ares was impatient to pick up where they left off when I interrupted them.” Her smile widened and she gave Pierce a casual roll of her eyes.
“Wait,” Pierce ran a hand through his short cropped beard. His mind spun furiously, unable to catch any useful purchase in the bizarre twists and turns of the conversation. “Ares? Just who do you think my mother is?”
The woman’s laughter was like a silver chime. “Why, Aphrodite of course. Don’t be silly.”
Aphrodite. The name thrummed through him like someone had reached inside his chest and plucked a deep and resonant chord. It was ridiculous. Aphrodite? His mother had died in a car crash when he was very young. The idea that she had really been the Greek goddess of love and beauty was absurd. Yet his mother had long been a mystery he’d yearned to solve. It had nestled deep within him, the one lock he could never seem to crack. Aphrodite. The name pushed through all his carefully ordered arguments that such a thing was impossible. It wormed its way deep into his core and settled perfectly into the lock hidden deep within. Pierce’s mind reeled.
“At any rate,” the woman continued, seemingly oblivious to the impact of her words. “Helping you out with your little adventure this evening seemed like the least I could do for my little brother. Nevertheless, you really ought to be leaving before someone starts nosing around.” She crossed the carpeted floor to stand next to Pierce, and withdrew an expensive leather briefcase from alongside the case he’d been about to pilfer. “I took the liberty of selecting a few items for you. I hope you appreciate them.”
Pierce’s hands numbly took hold of the handle without any conscious decision on his part to do so. His sister winked again and made her way across the exhibit and around another display towards the shadows at the back of the hall.
Pierce slowly emerged from the turmoil of his thoughts. “Wait,” he took a step. The woman turned to glance back at him. “I have questions,” he said. “Will I see you again?” He barked an unsteady laugh. “I don’t even know your name.”
The woman gave a shrug of her pale shoulders. “Whenever you feel like having a chat, just use the coin.” She turned and disappeared into the shadow cloaked recesses of the exhibit. “And my name,” she said, her voice drifting back to Pierce through the darkness, “is Tyche.”
Pierce blinked, glanced at his watch. He cursed under his breath, gripped the briefcase a little more confidently, and headed back towards the museum’s foyer and the party.
“What the hell just happened,” he muttered as he approached the archway which was miraculously still clear of guards, “And what damn coin?”
The thief stopped abruptly just inside the arch. He slipped to one side, hidden within the dark recesses of the arch while his eyes followed the pair of guards that were making their way back towards his location. “Damnit,” he cursed under his breath.
A collective sigh rustled through the entire gathering. Pierce frowned and tore his attention away from the guards to look at the rest of the guests. Every single person gathered in the hall had stopped their conversations and turned to look at the top of the stairs to the balcony. The thief frowned, then turned to follow their gaze and suddenly understood. At the top of the curved staircase stood the most breathtaking example of feminine beauty Pierce had ever beheld. The entire gathering stood enthralled, reduced to nothing but an audience to behold the woman’s radiance. Pierce could almost feel the adoration of the men rippling through the air, the envy of every woman a sharp prickly undercurrent. The lock in his chest turned with a resounding click and fell free. In that moment he knew with absolute certainty the truth of Tyche’s words.
His mother looked out across her adoring audience and smiled. Her eyes settled briefly on Pierce and she gave a slight nod. He blinked, somehow free of her spell, though no less amazed at her perfection. Pierce glanced at the guards to confirm that they, too, were enthralled by her presence, and then slipped out from the arch. He walked slow and steady around the edge of the gathering. Pierce could tell the woman on the stairs was making her slow descent by watching the steadily shifting angle of everyone’s head as they swiveled their gaze to follow her every move.
Pierce pushed open the door and slipped out into the cool evening air. He didn’t dare glance back over his shoulder, lest he be caught once again in her aura. He took a long, deep breath to calm his trembling shoulders.
The valet retrieved his car, and Pierce settled into the comforting embrace of its leather seats. He drove across town in a daze, hardly noticing the sights as he made his way home. Instead of returning home, he found himself pulling into the private entrance at the back of the nightclub where he kept his office. He sat for several long moments in complete silence.
Finally, Pierce turned and stared at the briefcase that sat innocuously in the passenger seat beside him. He slid the case onto his lap and flipped open the latches with a click. The lid opened to gentle pressure and revealed an interior lined in dark velvet. A wooden case, burnished to a deep shine and covered with hieroglyphs, occupied the majority of the case. His attention, however, was caught by what lay on top of the wooden case. Pierce’s fingers trembled as he pulled back the thin silk cloth to reveal a coin the size of a half dollar, glinting reddish gold in the dim light. The metal was somehow warm to the touch as he lifted it from the cloth. The front face was etched with the picture of three nude women, each with one hand on the large apple held between them. The word “Kallisti” curved along the bottom edge. Pierce flipped it over and gasped. Tyche’s face stared back at him from the coin, the same mischievous sparkle in her eye somehow captured in the gold.
Marlowe’s cigar dangled from his short fingers, almost forgotten. He stared at the two cards laid on the table and waited. He held his breath as Raina’s fingers slid across the top of her deck and lifted another card free. She laid it beside the Knight of Cups, likewise on its side.
“The Page of Pentacles,” she murmured. “In this case, a young woman with an interest in learning, new ideas and mysteries. An introvert and a bringer of messages. Reversed, she takes too great a pleasure in the material. Wasteful luxury and loss.”
Alia idly played with the cereal in the bottom of her bowl while her father read the newspaper in his traditional stony silence. Khem pushed up against her ankles insistently and she reached down to give the cat a quick scratch beneath his chin.
“I wish you wouldn’t wear that.”
Alia forced her attention back to her father, who was staring at her over the top of his paper.
“What?” she asked.
“That thing.” He glared at her throat. “I wish you’d take it off.”
She hadn’t realized her fingers hand returned from stroking the cat to rest on the cool metal of the ankh necklace she wore around her neck. “It was Mom’s,” she said.
“Thanks for reminding me,” he said. Paper crinkled as he shoved the Times down onto the empty chair beside him and stood. He banged the dishes together a little more than was necessary as he collected the remains of breakfast and carried them to the sink.
Alia’s eyes had already drifted to stare out the window at the sullen grey sky beyond. Slowly, a fragment of that morning’s vision started to coalesce in her mind. She continued running her finger idly across the ankh about her neck as if it could somehow force the images to come into focus.
“I saw a cat,” she said quietly. “At least I think it was a cat.”
“What’s that?” Her father asked as he splashed water over the dishes before putting them in the washer.
“A big cat,” she repeated. “With a deep throaty roar. The gold eyes said it would take me to the answers.”
Her father frowned at her as he dried his hands on a dishcloth. “What cat? What answers? What are you talking about?” He sighed. “I hate when you’re like this. You know I don’t understand a thing you’re talking about.”
Alia’s hands dropped to her lap. It was gone. That was as much as she could remember. It was more than she used to be able to recall of her strange visions. She wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or nervous about her increased recall.
She looked up to find her father staring at her in silence.
“That’s okay, dad,” she said, rising from the table. “I don’t understand me either.”
She pulled a wad of money from her back pocket and dropped it on the kitchen table. “For groceries,” she said. She grabbed her bag from the corner and headed for the back door.
“Do I want to know where you keep getting this money?” her father asked as he pushed at the crumpled bills with one finger.
“Probably not,” Alia said without looking back as the screen door slammed shut behind her.
She’d already picked up her allotment of cars for the shop that week, but Alia knew her father needed the extra cash, no matter what he said. She strolled along the streets of the club district, surrounded by people yet alone with her thoughts. It was a good area for a quick score. The trendy nightspots catered to the young and affluent. After the drinks began to flow, most wandered far from where they parked, and would likely have to take a cab home anyways. Their precious beamers and ‘vettes wouldn’t be missed until they came looking for them sometime late the following day. By then the shop would already have long since stripped the vehicle of identification and moved it on to be sold.
It was still early for the night crowd to have truly settled into debauchery, so Alia settled into the mouth of a dark alley to wait. She wasn’t afraid of the kind of predators most people feared. Lowlifes couldn’t accost someone they couldn’t catch. Nevertheless, when a shadow detached itself from the deeper darkness and scuttled across the concrete towards her, she jerked back against the alley wall.
A pair of golden eyes peered up at her as a dark furred body rubbed across her legs.
Alia stared at the cat’s golden eyes, some memory shifting deep in her mind. The moment passed and the memory was gone. She sighed.
“Khem, you almost gave me a heart attack.” She reached down to scratch behind his ears, but the cat ducked away from her and retreated further into the alley. Khem turned his eyes back to her and meowed.
Alia stared. She’d heard the meow, no different than any she’d ever heard from the cat who’d been her companion for as long as she could remember. Yet this time… it was as if his vocalization, along with the twitch of his whiskers, the tilt of his ears, had all coalesced in her mind and somehow made sense.
Without thinking, she followed. One hand unconsciously wrapped around her necklace, Alia trailed in the wake of the cat as it trotted silently to the far end of the alley. The pair emerged into a small parking area tucked behind one of the more popular nightclubs. It was empty except for one older model Jaguar.
“Okay, what now?” Alia asked the cat.
In response, Khem walked across the lot and sat down next to the car. He turned back to look at Alia, his head tilted as if to say, Coming?
“Sure,” Alia muttered to herself. “Why not? It’s as good a car to boost as any.”
She walked around the vehicle, checked and disabled all the obvious security measures. The car was in remarkable condition. She ran her fingertips along the smooth curve of its hood. “XJ6 I think,” she said, staring at the silver predator captured in mid-leap that adorned the car’s prow.
Khem meowed. Hurry up.
“Fine, fine.” Alia pulled the rest of her tools from her bag and set to work. Moments later, the door popped open and Alia slipped inside. She took a moment to breathe in the rich aroma of old leather and cleaning products that only came with older cars that had been meticulously cared for. She hotwired the ignition with a minimum of damage to the interior and started the engine. The Jag roared to life, its engine a deep throaty rumble that Alia could feel in her bones.
The huge cat roared as she stepped on the gas. Khem watched her with golden eyes from the passenger seat. Alia trembled as images flashed through her mind and were as swiftly gone.
Khem let out a long throbbing purr. Relax. It’s okay. Let’s go.
Alia put the car into gear and rolled out the far end of the lot and into the night.
“Okay,” Alia closed her eyes as she pulled up to a stoplight on her way out of the club district. “Just breathe,” she muttered to herself. “Get it together, Nazir. You’re already a little off. You don’t need to go any more crazy.”
The light turned green and she eased the vehicle into traffic. “Let’s just get this thing to the shop and pretend like this night never happened.”
Alia stared at the cat. “What do you mean we’re not taking it to the shop?”
Pierce emerged from his office after another long night talking to Tyche. It had taken him a while to figure out how to use the coin to contact her, but ever since he’d been making use of it just about every evening. He still couldn’t quite wrap his brain around everything she told him, but it was equally obvious that his world was changing and he needed to absorb as much as he possibly could if he was going to keep up.
Checking the huge Rolex around his wrist, he noticed it was close to three in the morning. Last call had come and gone, and the club was now the domain of the cleaners. He headed out the back entrance and locked up behind him before heading down the stairs to the private lot around back. He stopped halfway down the stairs and growled in frustration. He’d forgotten that the lot would be empty. His car had been stolen two nights before.
He turned to head back into the office to call a cab, but stopped when his eye caught sight of the front grill of a car in the lot. Pierce walked the rest of the way down the stairs and rounded the corner of the building. He blinked in surprise. There, idling in its accustomed spot, sat his Jag. Behind the wheel sat a lithe young woman, her tousled hair a cloud around her head.
Pierce ran a hand along his bearded jaw, then smiled. “Have an attack of conscience or are you looking for a reward?”
“Neither,” the girl replied. Her dark eyes peered at him from within the car, steady and unmoving.
“At least you haven’t hurt the old girl,” Pierce said as he looked over the condition of his car.
The car thief said nothing.
Pierce’s eyebrows rose as he noticed the street light reflecting off the eyes of a cat in the passenger seat.
“Did the cat put you up to it?” Pierce put on one of his easy smiles.
“Kinda,” the girl said.
“Right.” Pierce frowned at her. She hadn’t cracked the faintest hint of a smile. “Well, if you and the cat would like to take off, I’d be willing to forget about the whole thing.”
“Nope,” the girl said.
Pierce’s smile faded. “As amusing as this is, we’re not getting anywhere with all this witty repartee. Why don’t you just tell me what you want?”
The cat on the passenger seat shifted, and the young woman tilted her head as if listening to something. “You have something that belongs to me.”
Pierce glanced at the frayed ends of the girl’s sleeve and frowned. “I doubt it. I don’t think you have anything I’d want. Other than my car, that is.”
She stared at him in silence.
“How is it you’ve come to believe I am in possession of your property?” Pierce was growing weary of the entire conversation. He glanced around the small parking lot, but saw no way of preventing the car thief from stomping on the gas and launching out the end of the alley if he tried to stop her. He reached slowly into his pocket and felt the warm surface of the gold coin against his fingers.
“Khem says you do,” the girl shrugged in the direction of the passenger seat.
“The cat,” Pierce said. He palmed the coin. “The cat talks to you. Sure. Okay. Well, in that case…”
“Your coin won’t help,” she interrupted.
“Your coin. I’ve seen this. You throw it, but it doesn’t work. I just drive away. It comes back like it does, but you don’t get what you want. It’d probably be easier if you just didn’t. Didn’t throw the coin.”
Pierce stared at her. He let the coin slip back into his pocket. “What exactly do you think I have of yours?” His voice was cold and flat.
“Khem says you were given an old box, covered in hieroglyphs. It’s for me. From my mother.”
The box. His attention had been so absorbed with the coin that he hadn’t even opened the box that Tyche had put in the briefcase.
He nodded slowly. “I see. Tyche said someone might come looking for it. I thought she meant the police, but clearly I was mistaken.”
“So you’ll give it to me?”
Pierce looked at her for a moment. A smile stretched across his face, genuine this time. “You seem pretty good with cars, and I bet you’re at least a halfway decent thief as well. I’ll make you a deal.”
The young woman’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded for him to continue.
“I’ve got a little job coming up. I could use some skilled help. I give you the box. In return, you lend me a hand with my project.”
“I thought you got your car back in return,” she said.
“Call it a good will gesture, if you like. Besides,” Pierce said, his smile growing wider, “I suspect this is the kind of job you might enjoy.
“You need a third,” she said.
He did. Pierce scratched his beard. How could she possibly know that?
“Let’s take this a step at a time…” he said.
“I know where we’re supposed to find him,” she cut him off. “Get in the car.”
This night was just getting more and more interesting. “Fine,” Pierce sighed. “I’ll play along if it will make you happy. Let’s go meet this gentleman.” He tugged on the driver side door handle. “Move over?”
“Nope,” she said. “Get the box first.” The first signs of a smile appeared at the corner of her lips. “And I drive.”
The braziers had ceased to smoke, their coals a soft light in the dim chamber. Marlowe shifted his weight, his legs throbbing with tension. Questions bubbled through his mind, but he knew better than to interrupt the oracle while she was in the middle of a foretelling. The whimsies of Fate were not to be toyed with. He ground his teeth and forced himself into silence.
Raina paused, her hand a half inch above the deck. Her forehead creased in a frown and her eyes darkened. She touched the next card slowly, carefully, as if handling a deadly creature. She slid it free of the deck and laid it sideways beside the others.
“The King of Swords,” she said. Her words were low and husky in the dark. “A man, dark of hair and eyes. A professional with the power of life and death. Firm in both enmity and friendship. He is a man with many ideas and designs. Reversed…” she paused, licked her lips. “Reversed he is distrustful, suspicious. Plotting. Barbarity. Power for disruption.”
The cold steel handcuffs chafed against his wrists. Jose Patron picked up the pen that rolled toward him across the table and awkwardly began to fill out the paperwork. The form, to be completed in triplicate, was more complex than the ones he’d suffered through when he applied to medical school. His writing came out like a second grader’s scrawl as he fumbled around the metal restraints.
“You’re filling that out incorrectly,” the scrawny old man across the table said. “You’ll have to throw it out and start all over again.”
Jose glared at the bureaucrat. The old man caught his gaze and leered. Jose suspected he could see the man’s entire skull as the hideous grin stretched skin taut across bone. Patron pushed the ruined form away with a grunt. The bureaucrat’s grin grew wider.
The skeletal man slid a replacement form beneath Jose’s manacled hands. He then opened a briefcase and dropped a stack of similar papers on the table with a thud. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, boy,” he said, his voice a dry rasp. “If you keep bungling the forms, we’ll be here all day.” The look on his face made it clear he relished the idea of keeping Jose trapped in bureaucratic purgatory for as long as possible.
“I don’t even know why I need to fill these out,” Jose said. He glared at the new blank form in front of him, unwilling to meet the old man’s gaze. “I won’t be staying. My parents will have me out of here in no time.”
The bureaucrat’s dry chuckle sent shivers down Jose’s spine. “Don’t get your hopes up, boy.” He pushed the stack of paperwork across the table. “Your adopted parents can’t reach you here. No, you’re mine now, and I won’t let go of you so easily. You’re going to be here for a long time.”
Patron rolled his eyes. “Whatever, man. You don’t know who my parents are. Their lawyer will blow gaping holes through these charges and I’ll be out of here before you can even finish filing these stupid forms.” He dropped the pen on the stack and nudged them away as he leaned back from the table.
The bureaucrat’s smile only widened. He said nothing, but slid the papers inexorably back across the table to Patron. Jose stared at him a moment, then sighed and picked up the pen.
Jose refused to get up as the rattle of keys twisted in the lock of his cell. He lay on his cot, staring at the painted concrete ceiling where some former inmate had scratched a series of tick marks, as if in some old prison break movie. Patron hoped whoever had made those marks had finally earned his freedom. For himself, Jose had long since given up ever seeing the outside of the penitentiary.
A familiar rasping chuckle filled the cell as the bars slid open. “I see you’ve finally accepted your new situation.” The bureaucrat was skeletally thin in his faded brown suit. Jose imagined the man could probably step through the bars without having the guard open the door. The prisoner returned his gaze to the ceiling and said nothing.
“Tsk, tsk,” the old man said. Thin lips pulled back from small, yellowed teeth. “Is that any way to treat your only visitor?”
It was true. In the three months since Jose had found himself incarcerated in this hellhole, not one person from the outside world had come to see him. His lawyer had never appeared. Not one coworker or any of the people he’d once called friends had bothered to visit. His parents had neglected to see him either, but that was hardly a surprise. Their precious reputations could hardly withstand a trip to see their adopted son in prison. Yet, they’d always bailed him out before. Every time he’d landed himself in trouble, they’d discreetly used their wealth and influence to ensure whatever charges he faced were swept beneath the carpet and just as swiftly forgotten.
He’d heard about their efforts second hand, of course. The bureaucrat seemed to derive some perverse glee out of keeping Jose updated with their failures. A new judge had been appointed, a real stickler, and one which did not appreciate his family’s significant donations to the judicial retirement fund. Jose’s lawyer had faced charges of his own, disbarred for ethics violations. The replacement was barely out of law school and had somehow managed to misfile paperwork with the courts which resulted in extensive delays before Jose’s case would even be heard.
After the old man had dropped by four or five times, his skull face leering with glee every time he conveyed the most recent news that meant Patron was stuck, Jose had finally given up. It was clear someone somewhere was out to get him. His unwavering confidence in the wealth and influence of his parents wavered and then collapsed entirely.
“Yes, that’s right,” the old man said. His liver spotted face somehow managed to smile even wider. “It’s good you’re finally accepting the truth. You’re going to be here with me for as long as I wish it.”
Jose sat up on his bunk and slammed a hand against the metal frame. “Why are you doing this to me?” His voice rasped from disuse. It sounded eerily similar to that of the bureaucrat as it grated through the space of the small cell.
The old man’s grin faded. His bloodshot eyes pinned Patron in their glare. “Because you were born,” the man snarled.
The blood drained from Jose’s face as he stared at the bureaucrat. The rail thin man in the wrinkled suit seemed to fade away, and in its place stood a skeletal horror. Paper thin skin lay cracked and brittle over fleshless bone. Cold, sinister stars glimmered in the dark hair that clung to the creature’s skull. A pulsing, throbbing organ (the liver, Jose’s rational mind whispered) hung pendulously from a gaping hole beneath the thing’s ribcage. Human eyes blinked and rolled where they lay intertwined in a necklace around its shriveled neck, and its clawed hands rent the air in bitter fury.
Jose lurched back across his bed and hit the concrete wall. His head rebounded from the impact, and for a moment his vision faded into darkness and stars. When his sight returned he stared at his visitor, but the creature was gone. The horrific vision had faded, and once more the thin liver spotted bureaucrat stood before him.
“What are you?” Jose whispered.
“My name is Mictlantecuhtli,” the bureaucrat said. The withered, raspy voice was gone. His words echoed around the cell and pressed painfully into Jose’s ears. “Some know me as Santa Muerte. But you,” a malevolent grin spread across his face, “can call me Father.”
Jose settled the suit jacket over his shoulders and pulled the sleeves of his shirt taut. The clothes had been in storage for months and were badly in need of dry cleaning and pressing, but they felt fantastic after the orange jumpsuit he’d become accustomed to. He smiled as he ran his fingers over the expensive fabric.
“Don’t get too pleased with yourself, boy,” the raspy voice said.
Patron frowned and turned to face the withered bureaucrat. The old man entered the processing room, a large manila envelope held beneath one arm. “Your freedom comes at a price. Never forget that.” The bureaucrat settled himself in a chair across the table from Patron.
Jose nodded. “I understand,” he said. “I’m expected to serve you. Act as your emissary, I suppose. But what exactly does that entail?”
The bureaucrat chuckled. “Have no fear, boy. I don’t ask much. Just a little blood, a little sacrifice.” He smiled at the startled expression on Jose’s face, but it was short lived.
“Dark days are coming,” the old man’s expression was flat. “We gods need all the little solders we can lay our hands on if we mean to survive.” He favored Patron with a blank look for a moment before he continued. “I’m not unreasonable, however. I expect you to survive. Mictlan awaits your arrival, but there is much I require of you before that day.” He pushed the envelope across the table towards Patron. “You’ll need tools.”
Jose sat and hesitantly pulled the envelope closer. His fingers pried open the latch and popped open the envelope. A silver ring toppled onto the table. Patron picked it up and turned it in his fingers. A fierce skull grinned back at him, blood red rubies set in its eye sockets.
“The Ring of Death’s Boundary,” said Jose’s true father. The man spoke in a strange forgotten dialect, yet Jose’s mind heard the true meaning of the words.
He slipped the ring onto his finger and reached into the bag. This time he retrieved a heavily ornamented amulet on a metal chain. A wide amber eye set in the center stared back at him, unblinking. Jose gently laid a finger on the eye and sighed when he felt that it was glassy and smooth. A jewel, nothing more.
“Plucked from my own necklace,” the old man said. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Never forget.”
The next item from the envelope came in a small case. Jose popped the lid and almost spilled the clear liquid within. He peered closer, and saw a single contact lens floated in the solution. It rolled over and he noticed the lens was not clear like standard corrective contacts, nor was it colored like the cosmetic lenses used in costumes. Instead, an elaborate pattern was etched on its surface, and a tiny skull leered out from where it would sit above his pupil.
“What is this?” Jose asked as he closed the case over the lens.
“Life,” the bureaucrat said. “Death. You only have power to change that which you can see.”
Patron stared at him for a moment. When it became clear the man had said as much as he was going to, Jose upturned the envelope to drop the final item onto the table. A long obsidian blade clattered across the metal surface. Its grip was intricately carved in the form of an Aztec warrior, crouched and ready for battle. The inky black blade extended almost a foot and a half from the hilt and was glassy smooth. Jose carefully picked up the weapon and ran a finger along the blade. Its edge carried the unmistakable gleam that Patron recognized from the razor sharpness of his own scalpels. Looking closer, he noticed the deep black of the obsidian carried a hint of reddish brown near the tip and along its edge.
“Is this what I think it is?” Jose asked, staring at his reflection in the wicked weapon.
“As I said,” the old man sneered. “A little blood, a little sacrifice.”
Cool, fresh air flooded his lungs as Jose stepped onto the shoulder of the road outside the penitentiary. He clutched the manila envelope beneath one arm, and glanced back at the imposing structure behind him. Patron couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought he caught a glimpse of a pale, liver spotted face peering down at him from a window of the administrative wing. He turned away as gravel crunched beneath tires.
A sleek luxury sedan kicked up dust as it pulled to a halt across the street. Jose frowned as he noticed two faces peering out of the car at him. He crossed the street as the driver’s window lowered. Within, a pale young face framed with a shroud of black hair stared back at him.
“Do I know you?” Patron asked.
The girl shook her head once. “Prisoner of bone and blood,” she murmured to herself. She turned to the man in the passenger seat. “He’s the one.”
The passenger leaned forward and smiled at Patron. He ran a finger absently across his immaculately manicured beard, before he stretched past the girl to offer his hand to Jose.
“The name is Pierce,” he gave Patron a smile that was as carefully cultivated as his beard. “Edward Pierce.”
Jose shook the man’s hand and frowned. “Again, do I know you?”
“Not yet,” Pierce replied, “but I have the feeling we will remedy that shortly.”
“What is it you want?”
“It would seem you’re at loose ends,” Pierce glanced back at the prison gate, “and it just so happens we have a job that could use an extra pair of hands. A pair of hands with your unique set of abilities.”
Patron ran a hand through his dark hair. “How do you know anything about me? Or even that I was being released today?”
“I saw you,” the girl said. She played absently with an ankh necklace about her neck while her dark eyes remained locked on his face. “I dreamt you. I think.” She frowned and her gaze slid past Patron’s face into empty air.
Pierce cleared his throat. “Yes, well. This may sound rather odd, but the girl’s ah… visions… have proved worthwhile in the past.” He studied Patron for a moment before he continued. “I suspect we all share a similar divergence in our ancestry, if you follow my meaning.”
Jose’s eyebrows raised and he peered closer at the pair in the car. He couldn’t quite pin it down but there was definitely something about the two. The air itself almost seemed to hum about them, as if the whole world opened its eyes and was paying close attention as the three met along the side of the road.
Pierce’s gleaming smile grew wider. “Yes, I see that you do. Well? What do you say? Will you hear us out?”
“What kind of job are we talking about?” Patron asked.
“One that offers better opportunities than bagging groceries while staying at a halfway house, I can assure you.” Pierce reached behind the driver’s seat and pushed open the sedan’s rear door. “Step inside my office, if you will.”
Jose glanced once more at the penitentiary, but the window was now empty. He took a deep breath, let it out, and slid inside the car.
“Let’s go,” he said. He didn’t look back as the sedan slid onto the road and left the prison far behind.
Raina was still. She sat with her head downcast, one hand laid atop the deck, the other over the cards already in play. Silence fell as the last of the incense and smoke rose into the filters far above.
Marlowe stood on the very edge of the circle. His muscles ached with the urge to dash forward and reveal the next card himself. So much depended on his understanding of the oracle’s words, on the actions of the people she now saw in her cards. He forced himself to remain still, silent.
“There remains but one,” Raina’s hollow voice said from the gloom in the center of the temple. Her hand rasped across the next card, started to slide it free, then stopped. “He is in shadow, hidden and unformed. He…“ Her voice fell quiet.
The last of the light died as the final coals faded into ash.
Marlowe heard a low sigh of released breath and almost screamed. She’d lost the thread.
“I’m sorry, Marlowe. That’s all there is.” Raina pressed a hand to a stud beneath the table and a ring of overhead lights blared into life. She peered at the dwarf between lowered eyelids, only partially because of the blazing lights.
The dwarf let out an explosive breath. He wanted to howl, he wanted to curse and shout. Yet he knew it was not the girl’s fault. She’d seen all she could. Fate’s whimsy was his problem to deal with now, not hers.
“It’s more than we had before,” he said. He forced a smile. “You done good, kiddo. I’ll take it from here.”