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Authors: Michael M. Hughes

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BOOK: Witch Lights
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Mantu shot him a glance. “It's been brewing for a while. I was starting to wonder about them. About Jeremy in particular. With Micah and our operation in Blackwater, it was all clear. Officially, Micah took his orders from Jeremy, sure, but we were left on our own. Micah called the shots, and I never had reason to doubt him. Everything made sense. Straight up black and white. Now?” He shook his head. “Just shitty shades of gray.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. Things I used to believe in…I'm not so certain of anymore. It's all changed. I'm not sure what it is, but there's been stuff going on behind the scenes. Seriously weird shit.”

“Like what?”

The muscles in Mantu's jaw flexed. “I heard there was some kind of breakthrough in the magical workings. All Jeremy has been concentrating on for the past year are the contact rituals. That's his thing; it's always been his thing. And one morning all of the Nine—”

“Nine?”

“The core. The inner circle. They all left in a hurry. Headed to some archaeological dig. They were gone for six days, all hush-hush, to some buried site in the jungle. And then, when they came back, everything was different. Whatever they did out there changed them.”

Ray thought back to the robed, hooded cultists at the Hand and shivered. He'd avoided thinking about magic and rituals and the craziness that happened there. He still wasn't ready to think about the implications of it, so he didn't.

“And they got fixated on rounding up people like you. People who have had contact experiences. Bringing them to Eleusis. We started getting UFO contactees, psychics, witches, shamans, spirit mediums from all over the world. It was a recruiting drive. But the details of what they were working on was hush-hush. And me? I'm just a soldier. Following orders, not asking questions. They never told me jack, so I just listened to what I could overhear and tried to read between the lines.”

“Why do you think they need all those people?” Ray asked.

“Hell if I know. But all the other projects got pushed to the side. You're a big deal to Jeremy, Ray. You made contact as a kid, and then again in Blackwater—that puts you at the top of the list. And whatever came through those lights was deeply interesting to Crawford
and
to Jeremy. If that thing had gone feral, or brought along some of its friends…I can't even think about that.”

“And I never want to have anything to do with that shit again.” The nightmares still regularly tore him from sleep, and just thinking about it made his mouth dry. Having something alien inside his head and trying out his body like a cheap suit was something he swore he would never allow again. “You must have some idea. What the point of it all is?”

Mantu shook his head. “I don't. I have my suspicions. Whatever Jeremy found at that buried temple in the jungle had something to do with the contact rituals. Whatever they discovered, it lit a fire in him to accelerate the work. It became his sole focus. What it is that he found, though—I have no clue. And I'm talked out, Ray. I need to rest. Your turn to take the wheel.”

Chapter Five

The next morning, on Ellen and William's fourth day in captivity, El Varón quietly approached Ellen at the enormous wooden dinner table. She was absentmindedly picking at a plate of black beans, rice, and shrimp, and William was playing a horrid shooter game on a game console, the kind of game she would never have allowed him to play at home. After the dark shift in Steve's personality on his return from the Middle East she couldn't stomach the hyper-realistic violence of video games.

“Juanita makes nice food, doesn't she?”

Ellen jumped. El Varón sat next to her. He was wearing a crisp white shirt and a linen suit and looked much healthier than he had the previous day, with only a trace of the previous day's pallor. If he had been ill, he had gotten suddenly and remarkably better.

“Yes,” Ellen said, barely a whisper. “Very nice.”

El Varón sighed. “I am sorry. I know you are still not happy here. But you will be. Things will get better—I can promise you that.”

Ellen pushed a shrimp around in circles.

He put his hand on top of hers and she pulled away. “Please don't touch me.” His hands were thin, almost elegant—a woman's hands—and the nails looked like they'd been meticulously manicured. The slender fingers were cold as ice.

He smiled as if he'd been the subject of a child's tantrum, and she wished she could smash a hammer against his ridiculously white teeth. “Ellen, I have found out something I must tell you.” He glanced into the nearby room where William was blowing hordes of digital humans to bloody shreds, then leaned closer. “She—the woman who is looking for you and
Weel-yam
—has made it very clear she will pay
very
much money for the two of you.”

Ellen put down her fork.

“Many of my associates—here and in your country—have heard that she is offering a very large reward. Not enough to tempt me, of course. But there are many greedy and desperate men who would do anything for that kind of money. It is those men I worry about.”

“What are you trying to say?” Was he trying to scare her? Or were there really others seeking them out?

“I just want you to be aware of how dangerous my situation is. So you can appreciate what I am doing for you. You and
Weel-yam.
She is a woman with many friends, and some of those friends would love to have my business for their own.” His face was so close now she could smell his breath. Minty, as if he'd just brushed those awful teeth. And his cologne reminded her of the stuff teenage boys wore—heavy and nauseating.

“So why are you doing us this favor? Why not just turn us over and take the money?” she asked.

He looked her directly in the eye and put his hand on hers. Despite every muscle in her body screaming in revulsion, she let his damp, cool palm settle there. “Because, Ellen, if she is so desperate to have you, there must be some reason, yes? A woman with such a high price on her head”—he glanced into the other room—“and on her son's. Why, I wonder? Maybe you know?”

Ellen looked away, then back into his eyes. Anyone meeting him for the first time might have mistaken those eyes as friendly. Empathetic, even. But El Varón lived in an armed fortress and made his fortune in blood money. And sociopaths were good at pretending to be nice, ordinary men—something he most certainly wasn't. “I don't know. I honestly have no idea what she wants with us.” Except that she did. It was purely vengeance. To get back at Ray, of course, but also at the two of them for getting away. Lily wasn't the type to let something go. But El Varón didn't need to know that.

El Varón shrugged. “It doesn't matter. You are here now, and while you are here, you are my guests, and I am a man who treats his guests well. And I also find you to be very interesting.” His hand tightened around hers. “My profession is a lonely one, Ellen. All around me”—he waved his arms—“are men. They are loyal, and they would die for me, as many have. They are good soldiers. But a man needs a break from soldiers and lieutenants. Especially a man of culture and refinement. By their nature, many of my employees are rather brutal. I cannot talk to them about my many interests or discuss things beyond the ugly aspects of my trade. There is an empty hole in my life.”

Yeah, and probably lots of holes in the jungle outside these walls,
she thought.
One of them with the body of the woman who slept in my room before me. With the blond hair I found in the hairbrush. Which hole was she buried in?

“I found you and brought you and William here because I knew she was looking for you. And your friend—Ray is his name, yes?—who my employees unfortunately missed. But now I see their mistake was fortunate for me. I will not lie to you, Ellen—my first thoughts were to make a deal with her. To just hand the two of you over and collect the bounty. I have very much money, Ellen, but as they say, there is always room in life for more of two things: money and love.”

Ellen's body stiffened.

“But then I saw you when you arrived. With your charm and beauty and the fire and spirit of a hundred women. Many men in my country want their women to fix their meals and bring them drinks and remain quiet unless they are spoken to. I am not that kind of man. I have servants to cook my food and clean for me. And I find conversations with women to be stimulating. So much more than the brutish, boring discussions of men. You are creatures so very different from us, and I am endlessly fascinated by those differences.”

Ellen nodded.
Well, aren't you the progressive feminist.
The creep was trying to play her, but maybe she could turn it against him. Mantu had taught her some basic aikido—a martial art that turns the attacker's energy back against him. She could use her own subtler form against El Varón if she had to—turning her attractiveness to him as a weapon.

“And the boy—he is very special, too. He is—I'm sorry, I do not have the word in English—
místico.
Very intelligent, but his perception goes beyond the normal.”

She forced herself to smile. “He is. A very smart kid.” She didn't like him talking about William. And he seemed to have sensed William's unusual ability—how so, she couldn't begin to guess. Unless he, too, had some sort of psychic ability.

His free hand brushed her hair back from her face. She flinched, despite trying not to. But it only seemed to make him smile wider. “So you will remain here, as my guest. Because I think you will learn to be happy. Maybe very happy in time. And with me, you will be safe from all harm. You and William
.

He has to know I'm not buying any of this.
“Maybe we will get used to it. If there's such a high price on our heads, I'm glad you're keeping us safe. Away from her. And I do appreciate that. I'm sure William does, too.” She cupped her other hand over his and struggled to keep a slight smile on her face when all she wanted to do was claw out his eyes.

El Varón brightened. “And I have been thinking of how to make you even happier. I can take you somewhere away from here. I know I get tired of being inside these walls for so long, but I have many other homes. One of them in Honduras has a private beach. You can have ladies to wait on you, and the loveliest clothes and jewelry—jade and silver and diamonds. I can give you a life that many women can only dream of.”

Please don't kiss me. Jesus God, please don't try to kiss me.

“Mom?”

Ellen yanked her hands from El Varón's, but William had seen it all. His face was blank, but she knew what his eyes were saying. And it made her want to vomit.

El Varón stood. “William
,
I was just telling your mother about my plans for the two of you. About a trip we can take to my private villa on a very nice beach. Where you can play in the sea and listen to the howler monkeys at night. Does that sound like something you would like?”

Ellen forced a smile but shot William a quick look that said
Don't worry. I got this.

William turned, silently, and walked away.

“He will come around,” El Varón said.

“I think he will,” Ellen answered.
Fat chance of that.

—

Ray and Mantu stopped the next morning at a tiny restaurant that was nothing more than a covered patio outside a cinder block house with two small white plastic tables and a few chairs. Ray's stomach was still upset from the rum, so he ordered
kaq-ik,
a rich turkey stew he'd grown to love. Mantu ordered a plate of
chuchitos
—chicken wrapped in a corn leaf and covered with a pile of pickled cabbage.

The owners of the
comedor,
a short Mayan couple, eyed Mantu from behind a corrugated steel wall. Black men were a rarity in many parts of rural Guatemala, much more so than white
gringos,
and although Mantu attempted to pass as a Garifuna, he lacked the subtleties of the Carib speech. Ray and Mantu were an odd couple, which meant they had to be extra cautious. More than once Mantu had been asked if he was an American sports star, to which he usually replied, “Yes. I play professional Ping-Pong.”

Ray spooned a hunk of turkey into his mouth. “Where next, Captain?” He hated eating soup with his makeup on because the steam sometimes made the prosthesis on his cheek tighten uncomfortably. But
kaq-ik
was too good to pass up.

Mantu waited until he had finished chewing. “North. To El Petén. Near the border with Mexico. One big giant-assed jungle full of jaguars and snakes and narcos.”

“Including our narco. Tell me more about this guy.”

Mantu glanced around and lowered his voice. “They probably don't speak English here, but let's keep this on the down-low.”

Ray nodded.

“He's known as ‘the Gentleman,' and he acts like one—kind to the ladies, dresses really nice, and he talks like someone refined. But if he's a gentleman, Adolf Hitler was only a little less gentle than him. You feel me? He's a capo of all the capos. He runs drugs from Colombia through Mexico and into the States. Mostly meth now, but still plenty of coke. He has the Zetas running scared. The fucking
Zetas,
Ray—guys who leave bags of severed heads as their calling cards. Even they don't fuck with him. He wiped out an entire
village
in Mexico. I'm talking seventy, eighty men and boys. All because someone dissed him—nobody even knows what happened, but someone didn't pay him the proper respect. That village is nothing but widows and little girls now. He was too much of a gentleman to kill the ladies.”

“Jesus,” Ray whispered. “How come he gets away with it? The cops can't do anything?”

Mantu laughed. “You've been south of border for how long now and you still don't get it? Guys like him own the government, the police, and the judges. He builds the schools. Your kid gets sick, he pays the doctor. They have a fucking parade for him, man. They sing songs about him on the radio because he owns the goddamned radio station.”

Ray put down his fork. He was losing his appetite. “And we're going to do what? Walk up to his house and knock on his door? Just ask him to let Ellen and William go?”

Mantu took another bite of the cabbage. “I'm working on that.”

“You keep working on it.” Ray put his head in his hands. He had to trust him. Mantu had saved his ass more than once. Maybe, just maybe, he could do it again.

—

Ray awoke to Mantu hissing at him. “Get up, man. There's a roadblock ahead.”

Ray rubbed his eyes and sat up. He'd barely slept and it felt like his head was full of wet cotton. But a roadblock was bad. Really bad, especially for a
gringo
and a black man with a car full of guns and Brotherhood technology. The headlights illuminated a couple of soldiers in the road ahead, and military vehicles parked in the mud alongside them. They had just let a garishly painted bus pass, and Ray and Mantu were next in line. Both soldiers hefted their automatic rifles.

“Get your paperwork together,” Mantu barked. “Christ, man, your makeup looks like shit.”

Ray poked at his face. His nose prosthesis had slipped while he was asleep. He quickly pressed the sticky sides onto his cheekbones. The adhesive might hold if he was lucky. If not, it was going to be damn difficult to explain why his nose was sliding off his face.

Mantu pulled the van over to the side of the road. “Remember the protocol. Don't fuck up.”

Ray took a deep breath. They'd drilled on this dozens of times, but it still made him nervous. Encounters with the cops and military were always a gamble. None of their own people wanted anything to do with them, especially those who had suffered through the grueling, bloody civil war. Cops and soldiers were held just a hair above the bandits who robbed people along the roads—and often there was little difference between the two.

Mantu rolled down the window, but before he could say anything a soldier yelled at him to get out of the van. He stepped out, and the soldier yanked open the side door. He stared at Ray.

“Cómo estás, gringo?”
He beckoned with his finger.

Ray stepped out.
Please don't let my goddamn nose fall off.

The soldier asked for their papers. Ray handed his passport to the soldier, who smiled with a mouth full of brown teeth. He read the name, glanced at the photo. “Edward Michaels,” he read. “
Estados Unidos.
You no look so good,
Señor
Edward Michaels. You been in a fight,
gringo
?” He laughed, a raspy, phlegmy rattle.

“Mi esposa,”
Ray said. My wife. Hoping to get a laugh. It didn't work.

The cop asked if they had any contraband in the van. “No,” Ray said.

Mantu had been pulled away by another soldier. And another now had joined them, blocking Ray's view. Sweat dripped off his brow and ran down the side of his fake nose.

BOOK: Witch Lights
6.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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