Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 8 – Treachery

Hello my dear readers! Enjoy this week’s edition. If you’ve missed previous chapters, here’s the directory! Enjoy!

Chapter Seven

For once, I was envious of Elena’s ability to tune out the real world. That and her sedatives. I could’ve done with a few of those.

Dinner had been marred with the news of a riot uptown. Faced with being fired by the union, a workers’ brawl had started two blocks up from where we were dining. Then it spread as people began protesting the police presence.

I’d watched part of it through a window of the restaurant as it raged down on the street two levels below us; completely aghast as chaos reigned and tear gas was fired mercilessly on the crowds.

While Teagan had advised taking me back to the Hacienda, Ryan had refused and finished eating without thinking much of the uprising. My suspicion was that he’d seen plenty of similar revolts and that this was of absolutely no shock to him.

What the hell was going on in this city?

Once we’d returned home, Ryan didn’t seem to understand my continued edginess. As Teagan discreetly hung back to give us privacy and slunk off into another hall, Ryan sighed. Placing a hand on my back as he escorted me to my suite, he murmured, “You’ve been quiet all night.”

“The incident left me… unnerved,” I admitted, wondering just what I should do. I didn’t dare let on to him what the woman had said; not until I spoke with Mortimer. If it got out that the rebellion leaders were eyeing me, I had no doubt those in power would either manipulate me further or outright kill me. “Is there a rebellion going on?”

He stared at me, expression inscrutable. “It’s nothing to worry about. It’s preposterous really; people wanting what they can’t have.” He touched my cheek. “You’re perfectly safe.”

Forestalling me as I went to question him further, he spun me around to pin me against the wall, caging me in with his arms. As my breath hitched, a smirk played at his lips.

“Now what is it I have to do to get your attention? I’m not used to being ignored… especially by such an enticing tease,” he murmured, his eyes taking on a predatory quality as he pressed a kiss to my neck. One hand dragged me closer by the waist.

Now he was closing in for the kill, looking to land himself in my bed. Unsure of what to do as he kissed his way upward, I just put my hand to his chest.  “Don’t you think you’re moving a bit fast?”

I squeaked as he kissed me roughly, capturing my lips. The kiss was overtly seductive, telling me exactly where he expected the evening to head. Although the contact wasn’t by any means unpleasant, I kept my eyes open, trying to push him off.

Especially as his hand slid down toward my ass and pulled me against him so that I could feel the pressing bulge in his pants. While I didn’t want to have to deck him, I was rapidly running out of options otherwise.

“Ryan, let’s not,” I said, trying to get my mouth away from him.

But he wasn’t listening.

That quickly ended.

“Hmm… Isn’t this where the man’s supposed to make sure the lady is on the same page…?”

Ryan surfaced, likewise hearing Kit’s liltingly annoyed tone. I looked to the side, spotting Kit standing at the top of the third level stairs, watching us with disgust. My cheeks burned.

Ryan straightened, though not moving from where he had me pinned. “Mr. Arenciana, don’t you have a taco somewhere with your name on it?”

The atmosphere in the room solidified into unnatural stillness; a smoldering tension hanging in the air like the calm before a destructive thunderstorm.

Kit only smiled more cagily, much like a cobra coiled ready to strike. “Perhaps a hot chocolate would be more like it considering my ancestors were Aztecs. If they encountered an adversary, they’d cannibalize and drink their blood. Fortunately, I prefer more diplomatic pursuits…”

The words held such a violent edge that I inhaled sharply. His eyes almost glowed, focused on Ryan with raw enmity. “But then again, I can take a hint. Some people refuse to, even from a beautiful woman.”

Taking the opportunity as Ryan shifted to face Kit, I slipped out of his grip. Before he could stop me, I got in my room and shut the door in his face. Locking it and leaning on it heavily from the other side, I heard Kit laugh. “Perhaps there’s a taco with her name on it somewhere, too. Somehow I very much doubt she fancies a European cream puff considering she didn’t seem even remotely tempted by your… cannoli.”

My jaw popped open, almost wishing I could see the two of their faces as that bomb dropped. Especially as Ryan chuckled darkly, “You know, once the Tourney is over, it’ll be my honor to attend your funeral.”

If Kit came down the stairs now, I didn’t doubt that there’d be a fight. As it was, he ever so spitefully added, “It’s eating at you that she hasn’t jumped at your proposal, isn’t it? That she can see through you to what you really are.”

“I’d watch myself if I were you,” Ryan snapped out, his voice hard with restrained hostility. “Who knows when you could suffer an unexpected accident before game day.”

Kit laughed, the sound so deep that it sounded like a growl. “I’m quaking in my boots. G’night… Cream puff…”

As Ryan’s footsteps disappeared back toward the next hall, I hurried over to the outside balcony. Knowing that Kit was coming as I heard his footsteps, I called up to him. “Kit?”

His head come over the side, peering down at me angelically. “¿Si senorita?”

I jumped as he leapt over the railing without warning and did a somersault in the process, landing effortlessly beside me in a crouch. He grinned, satisfied with himself as he straightened. “Wow. I’m getting good at that-“

“Hands up!”

Kit’s hands jerked up on reflex as a gun came over the side of the next railing. Teagan emerged from the doorway, eyes fixed on Kit. Then he spotted me, appearing surprised by my presence. “I knew it! You were in her suite earlier!” he accused, refocusing back in on Kit with aggravated scrutiny.

“She has a minifridge. I got her some yogurt and it needed to be refrigerated,” Kit said with boredom, rolling his eyes. “You gonna shoot me over that?”

“I invited him, Teagan,” I murmured, gesturing for him to stand down. The urge to laugh despite the situation was difficult to resist. The contrast between the two of them was laughable; Teagan making Kit look like a shrimp by size comparison. With Teagan well over six feet and Kit just over my height, it reminded me sharply of a chihuahua cornered by a much larger dog. One that refused to stop barking back.

“And where were you when she was being molested by the goose stepping Nazi wannabe?!” Kit demanded, predictably mouthing off.

“He did what?!” As Teagan’s gaze flickered over to me in question, I nodded. In an instant his expression turned to anger. “We’ll talk about the incident privately. I’ll be over here listening for if you need me, Aiyla.” He lowered the weapon, giving Kit the death glare. “As for you, use the damn door next time. I shoot first and ask questions later…”

Before another argument could erupt (and I was sure there would be one if I didn’t preempt it), I dragged Kit inside. He scoffed the whole way, chest puffed out. “Trigger happy, ain’t he?”

Not willing to respond to that, I shut the door and kicked my heels off. Kit sauntered into the room further in front of me, stretching with a yawn. “Had a full night?” As I didn’t reply, he muttered further, “Don’t tell me you actually wanted that slime bucket.“

“Is there a rebellion going on?” I demanded curtly, not in any mood for his babble. I turned, seeing his expression change. “I had a woman ambush me, saying she was sent by the Lynx.”

The oddest expression crossed his face before vanishing. “Did she? I’ve heard of this Lynx. Women swoon when they hear of his valor. He saved you the other evening, yes? What did you think?”

More than confused with his switch in tone and intent interest in my thoughts on the matter, I simply shook my head. “Cocky. Arrogant. Dead if he keeps this up.”

“Sounds like he’s got a thing for you, sending one of his people to see you,” he said, sitting on the arm of the couch. Then his eyes traveled lower over my dress. “And in a get up like that, there’s little doubt why.”

“Either way, it leaves me with a very large problem considering she threatened me,” I muttered, pulling a sweater on over it. I shivered, just thinking about the ordeal. “I help the resistance, I’m dead. If I don’t, they kill me. Either way I’m screwed.”

He looked at me sharply. “She threatened you? And what do you mean you’re dead if you help? They probably only meant to provide them with inside information.”

“My father is a figurehead, Kit. We’re controlled by a group of more powerful elites. A shadow government if you will. If they even suspect I’m sympathetic to this rebellion, they’ll get rid of me faster than you can blink,” I admitted with a shudder, not caring if he knew any more.

Kit’s eyes narrowed, taking it in. “A shadow government?”

“If the rebellion thinks deposing him is going to accomplish anything, they’re deluded,” I said, heading for the decanter of whiskey I kept on the counter. I needed it to calm my nerves. “The controlling powers will just replace him with another puppet. It’s what they do. If that happens, they’ll cut all loose ends. And me with them.”

He caught me before I could reach for the decanter, making me sit on the nearest chair. He took both of my hands, looking more troubled than I’d seen him before. “Drinking isn’t good with your health issues,” he said gently. “If you want something, I’ll get you the yogurt.”

I shook my head at the offer, looking at our hands. He sighed, perching himself on the arm of the chair next to me. “But I need you to explain to me what’s going on. You’re saying that your father has no governing power? None at all?”

“He may come up with ideas, but they’re all vetted by those in control. They give him orders; he carries them out,” I admitted, closing my eyes. “Once I graduated from school, I was dragged into all this. They warned me that any wrong move on my part could kill us all. Any wrong move on his or Elena’s part as well.”

All the blood drained from his face as I murmured, “If the rebellion comes to kill him, they’ll silence me permanently. There’s no winning.”

Unable to bear the look of fear on his face, I just looked at the ground. “If it gets back to them that the woman was looking to recruit me, they might even take action at the mere insinuation that I betrayed them.”

“Then we keep it secret,” he murmured, brushing my hair back and kissing the top of my head to comfort me. He sighed. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise I’ll keep your secret safe, mi vida.”

At those unexpected words, all my composure cracked. Having concealed my anxiety from everyone all night, those words were the break in my personal Hoover dam. All the memories came rushing back to me in an instant, reminding me of just what I’d lost. A sob broke free from me.

He jumped, not expecting the sound. He took my face in his palms, making me look at him. “Hey, it’s going to be okay. Don’t cry.“

“No. It’s just that my aunt always used to call me that,” I sniffled, trying to pull away to hide my weakness. I made sure no one ever got to see me cry. “Before she…”

Before she’d been ripped away from me. Before she left me in this mess; a broken wreck with no one left to turn to.

“Ah. I – oh, to hell with it.” He plunked down onto the chair beside me and took me in his arms, hugging me to his chest. I wound up crying on his shoulder, too far gone to stop as he rubbed my back to comfort me. “Just let it out. Cry on me all you want. I’ll bet that bastard cream puff would get upset over your ruining his shirt, eh?”

He murmured, stroking my hair to attempt to soothe me as I cried, unsuccessfully trying to stop. Every time I just about put a stopper in it, another wave of pain would wash over me. He snatched a tissue from the box on the coffee table to dab it under my eyes. “It’s going to be okay.”

“No, it’s not,” I whined, beyond consolation. “This shouldn’t be my life. I belonged back in Cataluacan. It’s all my fault!”

“What’s your fault?”

“My aunt, she…” I swallowed hard, realizing he didn’t know what I was talking about. I shook against him, thinking about it. “She as good as raised me. But when I graduated, my parents demanded I come back to live here, decreeing I’d never see her again. They wouldn’t tell me why. When I resisted, they sent a security team a night early to drag me out. If I’d gone along with it peacefully, then we’d still have been there. The usual security team wouldn’t have left that night and…”

The horror washed over me all over again, reliving how the news had been broken to me.

“She was murdered,” I sobbed, feeling his arms constrict around me in response. “Burglars broke in and killed her before burning the house down. They must’ve seen us leave and thought there’d be valuables.”

Shaking so hard that the chair was vibrating, I choked out, “My aunt – my fault – everything I do always ends up wrong…“

“No, not your fault,” he murmured to me sorrowfully.

“She always told me to be myself, but I can’t anymore. She wouldn’t even recognize me with what they’ve done to my face!”

“Your face?” he asked, tipping my chin up to him.

I sniffled. “They made a plastic surgeon change… get rid of my freckles and suck all the fat out of my face. Since I always spoke to her in Spanish, I had a certain way of talking. So they got me a dialect coach to change how I spoke. They even changed my name a second time.”

Seeing the sympathy in his eyes, I shook my head and tried to move away. “Trust me, Kit. You don’t want me. Everything about me is one big lie-“

“Leila.”

As he spoke that name, I just froze. He dabbed the tissue under my eyes gently, a new knowledge burning in his gaze. “Señora Lola’s niece, Leila, right? Señora Lola Clarita in Cataluacan?”

“How – how did you know to call me that?” I said, voice coming out with a rasp. “My aunt was the only one who ever did. Elena insisted Leila was a common name, so she initially called me Aiyla instead.”

“Because I knew her,” he said softly with a sad smile. “Used to deliver her groceries in the morning as a kid. She bought vegetables and herbs from mi tia’s garden. They were friends so Señora Lola would always give me a cookie and some milk before I left. She would tell me that I ought to stay so I could meet her niece when she came home. But I never did.”

As Kit pulled a wallet from his pocket, I was astounded as he showed me a singed photo. It was a picture of Lola and me from when I was fifteen. “When I found this in the ashes of the house, I decided that I’d try to find her dear Leila to return it someday. I never could until now because I’d been looking under the wrong name.”

He pressed it into my hands. I held it gingerly, afraid it’d fall apart in my fingers. I traced the edges reverently, treasuring it. Beyond words, I just looked at him.

“You don’t look altogether that different,” he insisted, tucking my hair behind my ear. “But there’s something you should know about her murder. She wasn’t killed by burglars.”

My heart felt as if it stopped in my chest when I heard those words. My stomach dropped like a lead weight before fire took over my veins, anger sparking in my soul.

“Then who?” I demanded, my voice coming out almost guttural with rage.

Sadness clouded his features. “The police. I had forgotten her order for the day and went back to deliver them. The sun was going down as I came around the corner and I saw the blaze in the sky. Then I saw the house was on fire.”

He paused, hesitating as I hung on every word. “I tried to get in to see if she was inside but the door was locked. Looking in the window, I saw them. They shot her point blank. She’d been threatening to tell the world something if you weren’t brought back to her. I don’t know what.”

Air wouldn’t come into my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. Time seemed to stop in my mind as I processed what he was telling me, almost wishing the former lie I’d known to be the real way she died. This truth was even worse, knowing that it’d been a hit.

“I got away before they noticed me,” he whispered in a broken voice, still watching me intently. “Hid as they left. The head of your father’s police at the time drove away. Haynesworth’s father.” His face saddened further. “I couldn’t understand why the presidente would be interested in Señora Lola… until now. Now I know the truth.”

He looked at me squarely, chilling anger clear on his face. “He made sure you could never go back. So he alone would have control over you. Your father murdered her.”


And that’s it for part eight! Ending on a bit of a cliffhanger this week, but I want to her your predictions for the next chapter. A new side of Haynesworth was revealed tonight and a terrible revelation unearthed.

Until next Friday, you’ll have to wait and see what happens. Stay tuned…

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Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 7

Here’s the continuation of last week’s cliffhanger! For the previous chapters, click here. Otherwise, enjoy!

Chapter Six:

Soft sheets met my skin as I came to. My mouth felt as dry as the Atacama Desert; my body heavier than a lead weight. The memory of Kit begging me to hold on sounded in my mind, reminding me that something had gone terribly wrong. Everything on me felt like it was burning.

With a whine, I tried to speak. Feeling an odd sensation on my mouth and nose, I opened my eyes a crack. There was an oxygen mask hissing air into my nose; pain in my wrists. Looking down, I saw an IV digging into my skin. While I was in my bed, there were all kinds of medical equipment surrounding me.

Looking further, I discovered that I was far from alone. Mortimer sat in one corner, his eyes darker than I’d ever seen them. Fury emanated from every feature, along with a grim determination that chilled me.

“What happened?” I croaked, discovering my throat was terribly sore. Spotting a strange wand on the table at the foot of my bed, I realized that the soreness had likely come from a tube being rammed down my throat to pump my stomach. Either that or to keep air in my lungs.

“Tiny got the bright idea to give you your mother’s pills,” he muttered, his voice so deep in his chest that it sounded more like a wolf’s growl. His eyes flashed with barely restrained wrath. “Except your mother lied when she told Tiny they were sedatives…”

Dread settled into my gut, realizing that I hadn’t merely experienced a bad reaction. I’d unwittingly overdosed on some kind of drug. “What were they?”

“Don’t know yet,” he muttered, standing to come closer. “Some kind of designer drug, though. You’re lucky you spat them out when you did or you’d be…”

He trailed off, gritting his teeth. I extended a weak hand to him and he took it, sitting on the edge of the bed next to me. “That guy, the one you helped, kept you breathing until the paramedics got here.”

Kit had saved my life? A small, unbidden smile came to my lips as I was flooded with gratitude. Then a new anxiety came to me. “They didn’t hurt him for being down here, did they?”

“Considering he’s the hero, they only locked him in his room,” Mortimer assured me as I tried to sit up, brushing my hair back soothingly. “While they tried to originally pin the blame on him, once the pills were confiscated from Tiny…”

He stopped talking as a man in a white coat, whom I could only assume was a doctor, strode in with a tablet, the older man smiling with relief. “Ah, Miss Anna, you’re awake.”

“Tiny gave me… She said it was a sedative,” I said with a wavering voice, worried that Kit would be punished for her transgression.

The doctor nodded, though his eyes narrowed in on me with a different kind of scrutiny. “Yes, but my concern is you’re severely underweight. It’s hindering your body’s recovery.”

Before I could speak, Mortimer rumbled, “She’s not anorexic and will eat like a horse… if it’s allowed. But she does get hypoglycemic.”

Dismay flooded the doctor’s expression. “That should’ve been reported to her GP. Symptoms of her diabetes-”

That got my attention. “Diabetes?”

“That must be a mistake,” Mortimer asserted, giving the doctor a curious look.

“That’s odd. All her medical records indicate she has it,” the doctor muttered, looking at the results on his tablet. He looked up at me with sympathy, worry clouding his eyes. “Let me inquire of her usual GP. In the meantime, she needs some immediate calories.”

“Drawer,” I said quietly, gesturing at the night table next to me.

Mortimer obligingly opened the drawer, so I pointed at the pillowcase hidden within. He handed it to me as I pulled the oxygen mask down and immediately dug in, especially appreciative of the supplies Kit had provided me earlier.

Having forgotten about the Danish until now, I was more than happy to tear a hunk out of it with my teeth. While it hurt my throat, the gooiness of it soothed the raw burn.

The doctor didn’t comment on the odd way I’d hidden my food, though he did quip, “I’ll be back in a moment, hopefully with answers.”

As he headed out, I looked into Mortimer’s watchful eyes. I could read everything in them. “How bad do I look?”

“Frail,” he responded bluntly, radiating tension. “But –“

The evening didn’t seem to be heading in any less an exciting direction as Mortimer jumped up to defend me; his Glock aimed at the balcony door as it opened from the outside in. “What the hell-?!”

“It’s okay,” I murmured to Mortimer, noting he refused to stand down despite the recognition between the two parties.

“You won’t shoot me,” Kit said confidently, striding in with his eyes directly focused on me and unbothered in the slightest by Mortimer’s reaction. They softened with relief as he saw me eating and he came to sit on the very edge of the bed. “You all right, querida? You had us scared but good. You were poisoned, yes? Hard to hear from upstairs…”

Mortimer looked between the two of us, clearly displeased by the arrival and lowered his weapon. I held up my hand with the IV pumping fluids into my veins. “Yes, though by accident. It wasn’t intentional on Tiny’s part.”

His brow furrowed, deepening into scrutiny as if I were lying. “Oh? Then why’d they take her out back and give her the firing squad?”

Horror gripped at my heart. “No…”

“I’m guessing that Elena denied taking any drugs to wash her hands of the whole thing,” Mortimer muttered, seeing me upset. While Tiny was an absolute monster, I didn’t believe she deserved to die by any means. Especially not for my mother’s lies.

One of Kit’s eyebrows went up. “So they just shoot her? No trial?”

“Not in this end of the regime,” Mortimer said without any hesitation, likely also aiming it as a caution to Kit of what could occur.

As his name was called from the doorway by one of his men, he shot us a warning look. “I’ll be back.”

Kit didn’t seem to notice the warning aimed his way as Mortimer strode out. Noting his eyes lingering on me with grim intensity, I looked down and popped another piece of Danish in my mouth. “Please don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’m pathetic.“

“You’re not,” he insisted firmly with a heavy sigh, trying to catch my eyes as I studiously avoided his. “I’m just sorry. I had no idea this was how you lived. You’re essentially an actress, one forced to smile.“

“One who doesn’t get paid damn good enough,” I muttered, ripping into a second Danish while I could. “It never used to be like this. When I was growing up, they never bothered with me except at the holidays.”

Absentmindedly toying with the locket around my neck, I stared at the opposite wall. Times had been so much better then, living with my aunt. She’d moved to the area adjacent to the school so I could live with her after school hours were over. Other than during the holidays, my father and Elena never brought me home.

Every good childhood memory – scratch that – every good memory in my life had been with Lola. Then in an instant, she was torn away from me. The day after I turned eighteen, she was murdered. And I’d been brought here permanently, given the duty of public appearances as an adult.

With her death, something in me had died. It’d remained stone cold ever since, my soul more listless with every passing day. Even as the years had passed, I never fully recovered.

“I’ll bet you have a nice family with your tia and Alvin,” I murmured, trying to divert attention from me and also a tad envious. “Mine was like that, too, once upon a time…”

Before Kit could reply, my father strode in. Much like his usual, he didn’t appear the slightest bit ruffled by what’d happened to me. “Darling, are you all right? We caught that horrible woman red handed. The whole situation has been taken care of.”

Every word sounded scripted and fake. Noting that he hadn’t paused to hear if I was indeed all right, I forced myself to sit up. “The doctor said I may have diabetes –“

“Diabetes? That’s an underprivileged person’s ailment,” he said over me, seeming appalled by the idea. I was likewise sickened, not believing my ears with this one. Then he spotted Kit, doing a doubletake. “How did you get down here?”

Sparing Kit from answering (other than by shooting my father a look of absolute loathing), I was relieved to see the doctor stepping in. The man soured when he saw who was present. “Ah, there you are. It’s in her records that your daughter was previously diagnosed with type two diabetes.“

Something told me that the doctor had already questioned my father and likewise gotten the ‘underprivileged’ quip considering his loftily irritated, authoritative tone. Father just shrugged.

“Since childhood,” the doctor said with further frustration at his continued denial. He ignored him entirely as he came to me, the kindly older gentleman adding, “You are of the small percentage of patients whose bodies produce enough insulin to get by, but only if your diet and lifestyle don’t overwhelm it. In your medical files, it said that so long as you were monitored and eating correctly, medication was not needed-“

“This must be a mistake,” Father said arrogantly.

“Her diet must include the proper nutrients or it will kill her!!” the doctor exclaimed with open exasperation, rounding on him.

“Can’t she just take injections?” he asked in return.

Rather than argue, the doctor appealed to me with a far gentler tone. “Would you prefer to discuss your medical needs confidentially?”

Without Father being present was the unvoiced intonation. The fellow eyed me, almost looking like he’d personally enjoy throwing my father out if I requested it. I shook my head, knowing that it wouldn’t matter. Father would immediately make his own diagnosis once the doctor was gone.

“My recommendation is for an in-house nutritionist,” he said with resignation, checking my IV. “To help return your weight back to the ideal BMI without upsetting your insulin levels.”

“Her BMI has already been calculated by our fitness professional,” Father said obnoxiously, not giving in.

“She’s underweight!”

“We’ll get a second opinion on all this…”

As the doctor turned on him, finally losing his temper over the treatment I was receiving, I just shrank into the bed. Now I had new worries to deal with besides starvation. If I didn’t eat, I could be at risk in another way. My fainting spell with Alvin would’ve ended a lot worse if he hadn’t intervened with the juice.

Likewise having reached the end of his tolerance, Kit came up to my side. He fluffed my pillow and blocked them from my view by sitting next to me, putting his back to them. He snatched a bottle of water from the nightstand, handing it to me. “Drink. Next he’ll be rationing your water intake, too…”

His tone dripped with venomous hatred toward my father, focusing in on me with worry and prodding my hand as I failed to take it. I shook my head, preoccupied. “You need to get out of here, Kit.”

“Mmm? Yes, they’ll probably attempt to kick me out in a minute.“

“No, I meant about-“

I cut off with a squeak as he pulled the oxygen mask over my mouth and nose. He chuckled deep in his chest without humor, imitating what I’d done to him back at the first Tourney event with the oxygen. “So we’re back to trying to get rid of me, eh?”

“She was after you, Kit,” I said without softening the blow, pulling the mask back down so he could hear me. “The spoons were Elena’s idea.”

His eyebrows went up again as he took my hand, far from bothered. “Because I don’t know fancy-shmancy etiquette, eh? I appreciate you trying to defend me again, but this time it put you in the crosshairs. I can take care of myself.” He looked at my hand, comparing the size of it to his. “You have tiny hands.”

For the first time, I wondered just what Kit had faced before he came here. No matter the situation, he didn’t show any fear and refused to back down when confronted with danger. “Whatever your reasons, they’re not worth it,” I said, refusing to be dissuaded. “Run.”

“And leave you to be starved?” he said without one ounce of teasing, still looking at my fingers. “What kind of man would I be then?”

The statement was especially poignant as my father came stomping over to my bedside, a complete contrast to Kit’s concern.

“Mr. Arenciana, go to your room,” he ordered without feeling, arms crossed with defiance despite having had the kind doctor thrown out. “I need to speak to my daughter.”

Kit did as asked, never taking his eyes off me. He winked, giving my hand a squeeze. “Feel better, chica.”

As he walked out, I didn’t miss the downright murderous look he shot at my father. The look in his eyes promised violent retribution, though I couldn’t fathom how he’d get it . He was hidden from my view with the closing of the door. 

“Darling, I’m sure this is just a misdiagnosis,” Father said, reclaiming my attention as he patted my head like he had when I was six.

“Then how did Auntie Lola know?” I murmured, remembering how she’d bring me to the doctor regularly to have my blood checked. Even more suspicious, she had diabetes herself. She’d have recognized the signs. I stared him directly in the eyes. “You were the one who always dealt with my childhood care. Why hide it from me?”

He sighed heavily as if burdened by the accusation. Why he would lie I couldn’t fathom, though it seemed he had. His cell phone rang, saving him from having to answer. “You need to put the past behind you, Anna. I have to take this.“

“It’s Aiyla!” I thundered, my throat protesting with pain as I yelled. “You named me so deal with it! We’re not in public!”

But he was already gone with the closing of the door.

Unable to resist the urge, I threw the thing closest to me at the door. The victim was the water bottle in hand, landing with a crack and the cap popping off to spill water all over the floor.

Watching as the liquid pooled out, I realized it echoed my current state. If I kept going like this, I would crack. This incident snapped all the restraints in my mind about just where my safety stood. If I did nothing, I would fall by their hands by my own passivity. Fight it, and I knew not where I would wind up, though at least I could say I wasn’t complicit in my death.

If anything, I owed my dear aunt that much. She’d given so much to stand by me. Allowing myself to continue the downward spiral would be an insult to her memory.

This had to end. Enough was enough.

The phone beside me rang, prompting me to shut the damn thing up.  Unfortunately for me, the touch screen answered instead of shutting it off. “What?!”

“If you’re able to answer with such vigor, I suppose it’s a good sign,” Ryan’s amused voice purred back, making me grumble in response. “My mother got a call from Elena, looking for sympathy because apparently you’ve ‘contracted’ diabetes. I mean, really? Contracted?”

“Guess she’s not upset over my being poisoned then,” I groused, flopping back on the pillows. The IV was beeping something awful, frustrating me further.

Dead silence reigned for a few seconds. “Poisoned?” he repeated in an entirely different tone, the humor fading. “I’ll be there in minutes.”

He hung up, leaving me to shake my head. But as Mortimer came in, I rolled my eyes. “Haynesworth is coming in hot.”

“Swell,” he grunted, looking like he was ready to beat the crap out of someone. His nostrils flared, looking at me and apparently having overheard everything, including the diagnosis. “This all counts as abuse and I can’t do one damn thing about it. You’ve gotten so used to the ill treatment that you just take it.”

I didn’t dare tell him that my ‘not taking it’ earlier was what prompted Tiny to drug me. He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I’m assigning a permanent security detail to you – whether you like it or not – to report directly back to me.”

Considering I’d refused a permanent bodyguard before, all I could do was scowl. He noticed. “Sorry, hun. I know you can defend yourself against attack. But you need a different kind of defense now.”

I nodded slowly, knowing he was right. “Thank you, Mort.”

His eyes clouded over, looking as if he had so much more to say. But we both knew that there were infinite ears to hear everything. Everyone in this building was always eager to improve their position with the elite and usually at someone else’s expense.

It didn’t stop him, however, from stooping down and giving me a rare hug. I buried my head in his neck, embracing him in return. “We’ll figure something out,” he promised me gruffly, sounding suspiciously choked up. He shuddered. “Came close to losing you today.”

“You know better,” I muttered, trying to cheer him up as I drew back a little. “I’m like a jackass. Too stubborn to die.”

He smiled at me, eyes glinting with unshed tears. “Well, at least we’ve got that much in common.” I laughed weakly and he sighed. “Just never forget you’re the daughter I never had. This isn’t the end of this. Not by a long shot. There will be a reckoning.”

Deeply touched, I didn’t have time to question him as there was a soft knock. Seeing Haynesworth in the doorway watching the two of us, I wondered just how much he’d heard. And while he was an ally, I didn’t trust him all the same.

Mortimer mussed my hair up affectionately before nodding in his direction. “I’ll be out on the balcony, getting some air if you need me.”

Meaning there was no way in hell he was leaving me alone tonight, but he’d give us a little privacy. Haynesworth nodded as he placed two large paper bags on the bed. His eyes traveled over me minus his signature smirk, surprisingly concerned as Mortimer stepped out. It only deepened as he read the label on the IV bag on the pole next to me.

“These are the drugs EMTs give people when they’ve overdosed,” he murmured, looking me over with suspicion.

I shot him a frank look. “If I wanted to die, don’t you think I’d have been more creative with the method? Let alone succeeded?”

His lips twitched in response, lifting up the clove of garlic from the edge of the pillowcase with the candies in it. “A talisman to ward Elena off perhaps?”

Vampirism? Now that would explain a few things. I snatched it from him, tucking it away. “An inside joke from a friend.”

Ryan was last person I needed to know of Kit’s interference. He inclined his head, stepping over to pull out the containers of takeout. My mouth watered at the smell. His smirk returned, placing a container in front of me. “From your resident hero perhaps? You seemed to have freely doled your attention out to him.”

It didn’t surprise me that there was a jealous angle in there somewhere. Despite our consistent game of baiting each other, I didn’t doubt that Ryan resented the idea of me giving my attention to someone else. “I find Kit’s blatant honesty refreshing.”

“So you don’t want him?”

The question was too casual. I accepted a fork as he offered it to me. “I don’t allow myself to think in that avenue of thought.”

“Yes, you keep your heart nicely tucked away where no one can get to it,” he replied with a glint in his eye, sitting down to eat before offering me a breadstick.

I accepted and took a bite. “Why indulge what isn’t possible? My life has been chosen for me, as will be my future husband.” He nodded as if disappointed by my answer. “Why are you really here? The extent of our relationship doesn’t usually include house calls.”

 “Perhaps I decided on a traditionalist approach,” he said, twirling his fork around his pasta. “Romance as opposed to pure sex.”

“Is this your way of hinting that you’ve been trying to get my attention previously and failed?” I asked wryly, digging into my food. As he shrugged, I snickered, “I know better. I’m only a game you play whenever you bore of your expensive toys and pinup girlfriends.”

“No games. You’re a forever kind of girl, Anna, not someone I would have a fling with,” he said with an uncomfortable edge.

“And you want ‘forever’ now?” I asked skeptically.

“Perhaps. We both share a common desire for justice. As wife of the head of Dejado Atrás’ police, you’d get it,” he said, picking a stray bay leaf out of his lasagna.

Now he was hinting at marriage? “You’ve been promoted?”

“They’re grooming me for the position. My family has been prodding me to settle down, but I’ve no interest in letting them choose my spouse,” he admitted, seeing my dubious expression.

Both my eyebrows were rising. “So you’re after a marriage of convenience with me? So much for romance.”

He laughed lightly. “You’d hardly be a convenience, Anna. Your true nature is to be opinionated, despite your being beaten into submission.” He leaned in, preparing to dangle whatever he thought the clinching argument was. “With me, you’d be out of your mother’s reach. I don’t micromanage diets or clothes. In fact, I prefer no clothes at all.”

I looked at the ceiling. “So that’s why you brought me all the food: a bribe.”

“And to see if you were all right.”

“I know you, Ryan. This isn’t like you,” I said, not buying it. I crossed my arms. “How long have you been planning this?”

“Long enough to have this for you.”

As he pulled out a small jewelry box and placed it on my palm, I gingerly opened the lid. Inside sat a sparkling engagement ring, one that must’ve cost him quite the pretty penny.  

“I have few enough choices, Anna. I want my wife to be one of them,” he admitted, scratching his head. “I enjoy my time with you and have toyed with the idea for a while. When I heard what your family has done to you… Well, I think this could be the solution for us both.”

“You do know that there is no way for me to answer this proposal, right?” I said gently, extending it back to him.

He put his palm up, not accepting it back. “They can’t stop me from popping the question on live TV. They’d be forced to go along with it. You have full choice here.”

There wasn’t one ounce of pleasure in me at this idea. This move would be strategic at best, no love between the two of us. “Emotions have no place in this decision, do they?”

“Weren’t you the one upset by men plying you with false declarations of love?” he said with a hint of irony. I closed my eyes. “I think we both would be considerably happier with each other than with anyone else. Your mother is favoring my elder brother for your hand and I don’t want to see a drunk, often abusive man as your keeper. With me, you’d have your life back. And I…”

He trailed off, seeming to see something in his mind that deeply disturbed him. “Well, I’d get more prestige, being married to the presidente’s daughter, not that I’d need it.”

I didn’t stop him as he reached to touch my cheek, looking into my eyes. “You really are beautiful, you know. Not many women can pull off the withered look, complete with an IV pole and still keep my attention.”

Smiling despite myself, I looked down. “I think you should eat your dinner before it gets cold, Ryan.”

He nodded, withdrawing at my subtle cue and offering me another breadstick. “But you’ll think about it?”

I inclined my head, wondering if there was even really much choice in the matter. At the current moment, I didn’t see another way out. But I still hated being backed into a corner. “I will.”

***

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well. But as morning rolled around and I awoke, I was more than amused to hear singing. Very bad singing, in fact. As I rolled over, I cringed at the sound. Since it was coming from the floor above, my guess was Kit was taking a shower.

Considering my IV had been taken out the night before, I was free to head over to the balcony door. While my body felt more tired than normal, I felt two hundred percent better than twelve hours ago.

Stepping out into the sun, I smiled as I discovered another pillowcase had been thrown down, along with a tulip.

A tulip that looked suspiciously like one that I’d spotted the gardeners planting a week ago on the grounds. Inside the pillowcase was a small box of granola bars and three apples, along with a note.

Contraband goods. I have leftovers from last night since you had ‘company’.

  • Kit

“You look better.”

Looking up, I discovered him peering down as he toweled dry. Noting that he was once again sauntering around in the buff as he shook out his wet hair, I said, “Your singing woke me.”

He shrugged, leaning over the side to see me better. “Yes, I’m not pop star material. But it beats an alarm clock.”

Settling in and biting into an apple, I allowed myself to enjoy his company. “How do you keep getting in and out to get the food? Not that I’ll complain, but you can’t be flying over rooftops. What’s your secret?”

A very smug expression came to his face, almost like he was immensely enjoying an inside joke. “Security only patrols where they think someone will get in. They don’t care about someone getting out so that takes care of half the problem.”

Not altogether convinced, I bit another hunk out of the apple. He chuckled, watching me with interest. “I came down to see you again after ‘Prince Charming’ left, but you’d already dozed off.  He really thinks his shit don’t stink, si? Coming while you were weak to spin his ideas to you. Tcha! Despicable.”

That was one of my first deductions as well, though his disgust was apparent. “So you heard…”

“He’s banking on all of us contestants dying and waltzing off with the prize himself,” Kit seethed, apparently no love lost between him and Ryan. His hands clenched over the railing before forcing his voice into a more amiable tone. “I heard you two last night. You haven’t allowed yourself to entertain ideas of me? I’m either impressed by your ability to lie to yourself or depressed by it.” He gestured at himself with humor. “You can’t be immune to all this.”

“I don’t fantasize about dead men,” I parried back, taking another bite and enjoying the view of all he entailed while I could.

A wicked grin came to his face as he leaned over even further. “Oh, but I’m alive now, chica. And willing to prove it.”

An unwelcome thrill ran down my spine as he stared down at me with a cat-like gaze, his eyes alight with mischievous intentions. As I involuntarily gulped, he smiled even wider. “Dead men don’t sing, right? You like me. You just don’t want to admit it.”

I rolled my eyes, knowing better than to go for the bait. Kit only chuckled. “Did I hit a nerve? I’d like to hit every nerve you have in a way that wouldn’t leave you complaining…”

Now he was really going for it. I tossed the core of the apple up at him and he dodged it with a laugh. “Speaking of nerve…”

“Chica, I’m not blind. I can see you eyeing me from down there,” he said with open satisfaction, still not moving to get dressed. As I crossed my arms, he added, “Care for me to come down? I’m not nearly as shy as you are and my constitution could do with a boost…”

As I headed inside and knowing better than to respond to his reference to what the shrink had said yesterday, his laughter followed me. I growled under my breath, knowing that this was going to become more of a problem now that he knew Haynesworth was after me. “Pain in the ass.”

A very sexy pain in the ass, but still.

As I walked in, I saw a note on my door. It informed me that I had an afternoon shopping appointment with Elena and her friends.

Goodie for me.

Feeling particularly rebellious and realizing that I wouldn’t win no matter what I did, I made a decision. One that I knew would bite me in the butt, but I no longer cared. Without a personal assistant to rat me out for the first time in a number of years, there would be no one to police me before I went in public. There was great opportunity.

Twenty minutes later, the stretch limo was waiting. Getting inside, I was startled to find I wasn’t alone. A rather burly man in a black jacket with a dark set of shades looked up from his phone as I got in.

“Hello, miss. I’m your new security detail. Mortimer sent me,” he rumbled, giving me a once over as I warily strapped myself in.

That wasn’t what had me confused. Seeing his face as he pulled his glasses off, recognition tickled my brain. “Don’t I know you?”

With his sun-bleached hair and tanned skin, I knew I’d seen him somewhere. To my interest, a bright flush colored his cheeks. “Yes, I’m Mortimer’s nephew.“

“Teagan,” I finished with easy remembrance, though baffled by this turnaround. Last time I’d seen him, he’d been three times smaller around the shoulders. That and his voice had gotten rougher. “You shadowed him while you were training. And spilled lemonade on Elena.”

He shifted uncomfortably, looking anywhere but directly at me. “Yes. My apologies.”

I snorted amusedly, now knowing why Mortimer had sent him.

“Don’t apologize. That was the highlight of my year.”

 I’d met him a few times during my teens, so I had no obligation to hide my personality in front of him. We’d even sparred a few times with Mortimer coaching us. Joining the armed forces since then certainly agreed with him. Last time I saw him, he’d been a nervous, ungainly mess. Now I was sure that he had no trouble landing women.

He nodded, slate grey eyes watching me with unerring accuracy. “I’m to accompany you daily and procure you ‘sufficient’ meals when they’re not provided. Anything else I should know?”

I scowled. “I don’t like being babysat, Teagan.”

“Considering you took great joy in socking me in the jaw, I know you can defend yourself. I’m just back up,” he said with a dry edge, mouth set in a firm line. “And I go by Monster now.” As I shot him an inquisitive look, he muttered, “You don’t want to know why.”

I very much doubted that, especially with his succinctly contrite attitude. If anything, it was acutely uncomfortable the way he studied me, rigidly sitting in his seat. Getting the distinct feeling that he’d noticed I’d forgone makeup entirely, as well as worn low cut jeans and a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones across the bust, I smirked. The shirt exposed my arms and revealed my tan skin: the one thing that those in charge did their best to hide.

Knowing there would be trouble, I couldn’t hide my glee. The best part was that Elena would be amongst her friends. She couldn’t complain about my appearance, lest she admit she didn’t have full control over me. And by the time I got into the store, all the paparazzi would have gotten photos. She wouldn’t be able to undo what I’d done.

If Teagan had any opinion on the matter, he kept it to himself as we rode the rest of the way in silence.

Once out of the car in the fashion district, he followed three feet behind me. But good Lord was he tall compared to when we’d last met. What worried me was the obviously hindering limp he walked with. It was new. All he did was shoot me a cold look as he caught me staring at his foot over my shoulder. Apparently it wasn’t my business what’d happened.

While I knew paparazzi cameras were likely catching me from every street corner, I gave them the satisfaction of waving at them. Made damn sure that they caught my appearance and would be buzzing about it. By the time it made it back to those in charge, their complaints would be too late.

Coming up on my mother’s group of friends, however, I was less than pleased as all eyes turned to me. They blinked like a bunch of wide-eyed owls. Elena stared with equal surprise, not expecting my different appearance.

The only appreciative face in the crowd was Haynesworth. Apparently having tagged along with his mother (and likely to suck up to mine to make her amenable with the idea of us marrying), his eyes raked down my frame with interest. I hadn’t expected him to be here, nor to see him in full dress uniform and armed. What was up with that?

His mother stared at me over her cat eye glasses. “Anna, dear? Did you get a tan?“

“My God, Anna, you look radiant,” Ryan said with exaggerated volume over his mother’s question. He kissed my hand, his eyes meeting mine alluringly. “Like the Fountain of Youth. No wonder Mother’s jealous.”

Gardenia Haynesworth sniffed with indignance at his quip, though not daring to rebuke her baby boy. Her eyes flashed in my direction. “Hardly. Shall we?”

Teagan nodded, adjusting his earpiece. “The store is all clear.”

Elena just stared, eyes squinted with aggravation at me as we headed in. Considering her friends were clearly envious over my appearance, she couldn’t protest like she sorely wanted to.

Much to my amusement, her eyes then traveled over Teagan instead. Apparently she’d forgotten about their prior mishap, especially as her eyes fell to his nether end.

Once inside the store, I did my best to disappear. Usually the women were terrible gossips so I made myself scarce. Teagan shadowed me from a polite distance, never taking his eyes off me. But as I picked up a hanger, I felt another presence sidle up behind me.

“I want to see you in that,” Ryan hissed in my ear, having managed to extricate himself from his mother. Following his gaze, I then spotted a floor length evening dress off to the side.

“Most men would,” I quipped, his breath tickling my neck. The fire engine red, formfitting gown with slits up both legs and a dropped neckline was obscenely suggestive.

He pressed a kiss to my neck. “Have you thought about my offer?”

“Not one way or the other,” I teased, slipping past him.

He caught me by the waist. “Ah, so I’ve yet to tempt you? What do I have to do?” he hissed in my ear, his teeth grazing the lobe. I shivered as he murmured, “Is my mother watching? I can feel her glare from here.”

Seeing Gardenia staring at me with disapproval, I just gulped. That was one thing I hadn’t factored in. If I played into this game, she’d be my potential mother-in-law. “Yes.”

I felt his lips pull into a smirk at my ear. “Wear the dress to dinner with me. I’m going to ask for your size…”

As he breezed past me, his hand lingering over my back, I just sighed. Now he was dressing me?

Catching Teagan’s eye, I was surprised to see them fixed on Haynsworth’s back as he left me. Seeing that I’d caught him glaring, he shot me a forced smile. Then I discovered why. “I see he’s staking claim…”

Turning to Elena as she prowled up behind me, I saw another martini in her hand. She jerked her head in a short nod. “Look, about yesterday…”

Was there remorse about nearly killing me with her lies? I looked away, not willing to rehash the obvious. “You need to stop with the drugs,” I murmured. “For your sake.”

“It should simply be noted that I’m not the one who decided on your diet,” she said crisply, taking a sip of her drink while she eyed my exposed skin. “I don’t care what you weigh or eat.”

Or if I lived apparently. She snorted, taking a sip. “We’re under pressure, Anna. We have our parts to play or else… The rebellion has strained everything on us, including your father’s position …”

Was that a thinly veiled warning? Before I could question her, she’d moved off and back to her friends. But a rebellion? This was news to me. Just what was going on out in the city? I wasn’t allowed access to television or internet, so I was in the dark.

Now I definitely had reason to go to dinner with Haynesworth; if only to interrogate him. As he sidled up to me, he murmured huskily, “It’s waiting for you, plus a few accoutrements to go with it…”

Deciding to oblige only to sate my own curiosity, I went to the dressing room. Less than thrilled to discover that he’d selected undergarments and that he’d already paid for them, I just changed.

Stepping out to go to the floor length mirror at the end of the dressing rooms, I frowned. While the gown was undeniably sexy, it made me feel like a hunk of meat.

Not paying much attention as a dressing room attendant strolled up behind me, I almost jumped as she asked, “Don’t like it?”

“Feel like a whore,” I muttered, turning and groaning at the back view. Mesh plunged right down to right over the small of my back. It seemed that Haynesworth wasn’t just dressing me, but also setting me up to go home with him at the end of the evening.

The woman clucked, leaning against the wall to watch me. “And how does that differ from your usual role, Aiyla? The Hacienda has made you into theirs…”

It was if a cold dose of water trickled down the back of my spine as she used my real name. The one unknown to anyone outside the manor’s walls.

Turning to face her, she didn’t move, though her eyes focused on me with an intensity that left me immobile. Now looking directly at her, I realized my first impression had been wrong. She didn’t work here. Her clothes didn’t quite fit with the employee code and the nametag must’ve been stolen. And I was cornered between her and the exit, seeing there was a blade sheathed at her hip.

The question was how she’d gotten past Teagan with him on guard in front of the dressing rooms. I cursed internally, realizing that my gun was in the stall I’d just vacated, leaving me defenseless.

“You got a reason for insulting me or is this just your way of trying to make friends?” I said, keeping my stance prepared in case she attacked. “You have a name?”

All she did was chuckle, cynically amused as she ignored the question. “The Lynx decided we ought to speak,” she murmured, crossing her legs as she remained against the wall. “We can see you’re not one of the traditional Elites…”

The Lynx? Last I checked, he personally reviled me. On the alert with her impromptu appearance, I merely asked, “And you’re who?”

“A friend of his,” she purred, amber eyes visible beneath the bangs of what I was sure was a black wig. “You see, you’re in a very special position. One that could help us. We need allies.”

I didn’t doubt that considering anyone who opposed the Elite’s regime was hunted mercilessly and executed. “For what?”

“The resistance,” she stated as if it were a no brainer. “We fight back against the corruption and tyranny. The Forge is no better than the Hacienda. The Lynx thinks you’re the one to help our cause. You’re obviously unhappy acting as a puppet for them to manipulate. With us you could become a voice to stop the endless violence. The police are of no help. Crime is rampant.”

That I knew, despite Ryan’s continued denial of there being a crime problem in the city. Still, I crossed my arms. “I think you have the wrong woman, lady. I have no standing to help you with.”

A fierce smile took over her features. “That’s what you think. But we’re willing to meet your price.”

Now I had a price? “That being?”

“We can get you out of the Hacienda… if you join us,” she said, dangling that lure in front of me. “We’ll be waiting when you’re ready.”

That had a very interesting spin to it. The question was how they knew I was dissatisfied with my current life. Nobody inside Elite’s circles would dare let on. There had to be a spy in the ordinance, parroting back information to those in the resistance, whomever they might be.

“And if I’m never ready?” I asked cautiously.

“Then you’ll get what’s coming to you…”

As she backed away and headed into one of the dressing room stalls, I officially lost my temper. Following her to give her a piece of my mind and peering in the stall, the hairs on the back of my neck rose higher. It was deserted. Empty as if she’d never been there in the first place.

All but fleeing from the area since I knew I was exposed, I nearly crashed into Teagan and Haynesworth. They were nose to nose in the entranceway, Teagan snarling, “She’s not a toy to play with. Back off!”

“And if I don’t?!” Haynesworth sneered, jabbing him in the chest.

 “There’s someone in there!” I sputtered out, tripping on the hem of the dress in the process. Teagan caught me as I nearly fell, shunting me back to Haynesworth as he perceived the danger. “Threatened me-“

Not hesitating, he drew his weapon. “Keep her back.”

If Ryan resented being ordered around, he didn’t let on as he shielded me; hands twitching toward his own weapon. I watched as Teagan headed around the corner, gun first.

All I could do was shiver, the sound of silence pervading over our rapid breathing. Blood crashed around in my ears, realizing that I’d been caught severely unaware. If the resistance was looking for my help, then they were likely planning on waging a war. One that I’d likely be a casualty of when they struck… if I didn’t ally myself with them. The question was who the Forge was, the other unknown mentioned party.

After a minute, Teagan called back from beyond our view, “All clear. Signal your security to sweep the premises. There’s a ceiling vent open, so they got in through the air system. Get her out of here!”

As I huffed out in relief that Teagan was safe, Ryan’s expression set into anger, ushering me from the premises before one more word could be uttered.

For now, I was secure. Nevertheless, for the future a new enemy had set its sights on me. The Lynx had made it clear I had a choice to make. One that could cost me my life if I didn’t comply.

On the other end of the spectrum, if I went along with any demands, I’d be murdered for sure. I didn’t doubt for a second that if I went against the hierarchy controlling my father, they’d take me out.

I now had an absolute bullseye painted on my forehead no matter what path I chose. With three opposing sides apparently out there, I was neatly cornered in between them.

“Don’t worry. We’ll keep you safe,” Ryan crooned to me as he helped me into the limo, mistaking my anxiety for the fact that I’d been cornered. He patted my hand as the car started. “Nothing to worry about at all…”

Oh, yes. Nothing at all.

I wanted to scream.



Copyright 2020 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel


Things are definitely starting to heat up in Dejado Atrás! Any predictions about Aiyla’s sudden visitor? Or perhaps why her health issues were hidden? And the proposal! You’ll have to wait ’till next week to find out!

Love and hugs to you all, Maggie Lynn

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Finding Joy Amidst Covid-19: A Hard Dose of Truth (Opinion)

Salutations, Summer 2020! As I write this, I am safely cocooned while observing social distancing under a beach umbrella on my deck; Mishka sunbathing next to me. The seductive warmth of the sun is refreshing after spending all winter growling about the icy chill while huddled next to a space heater.

The summer weather is here, which, in typical human form, means all the people who were complaining it was too cold will now be bemoaning the complete opposite. Then again, those who have been complaining about the lockdowns’ tedium now will have something new to bitch about.

Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

The sun gives you vitamin D which will help you to fight off the virus, folks. Stop complaining, turn off your AC and go sunbathe. I don’t care if you have to sit in front of a window inside to get it or have to sit on your front porch, just do it. Turn both ‘negatives’ into a positive and absorb your free virus fighting nutrient, no prescription or vaccine needles in sight.

This concludes my public safety announcement, thank you very much. I’ll step off my soap box. I’m getting off track.

Now still, everything feels deceptively calm from my rural corner of the woods. While the human world remains riveted to their TVs over the global pandemic, nature creeps on. The larger bumblebees are divebombing me while I sit, performing aerial kamikaze dogfights (they do this every year and attack each other, don’t ask me why). Birds are singing, flowers are blooming and all the new young of the woods are experiencing life for the first time.

Meanwhile all the humans in the neighborhood are out buzzing on their lawnmowers, killing their lawns while wearing masks. Ah, the joys of nature.

Still, this scene gives a lesson that has escaped most of our attention. Nature has raged on while we sit in fear, and largely without noticing any difference. Life goes on outside our own personal bubbles, regardless of what fearmongers insist.

While I poke fun, perhaps what I am trying to say is to enjoy life while you can. If anything, this pandemic has shown that our time is not proven or guaranteed to any of us. Instead of complaining (and believe me, I’ve seen it increasing 300% daily on social media), we so easily overlook that while we’re living, we’ve largely forgotten how to live.

Considering your smart appliances and cell phones, can you say you’ve spent much time enjoying life without them as of late? Both before the quarantine and after alike? I could ramble on about the dangers of allowing self-convenience to erode our self-sufficiency (if you don’t know how to boil water, you’re partially in the demographic I’m referring to), but I’d rather focus on the positive.

Choose one fun thing to do today that doesn’t involve technology as your host. I’ll bet you can very easily and without much thought. If not, then you have therein proved my point about self-reliance for me.

Coming from a scifi-fantasy-dystopian author like me, just what would you do if all the computers died tomorrow? Leaving out the survivalist end of that horror-esque scenario (good grief to those who can’t even boil water), what would you do to find joy once more if your tech devices died? To add a more science fiction spin, perhaps I’ll rephrase it to: what if Hal or big brother died? What would you do then?

Your joy should not hinge on your technology or on the state of the world around you. Perhaps the biggest casualties of this century is not what we think it is. Perhaps it is losing what it means to be human in this technological-transhumanism era; giving ourselves up to the soulless devices so freely.

In this moment, I dare you to take a few seconds to breathe. Let go of your fears and ask yourself what brings you the simplest kind of joy? That elusive feeling of peace and wholeness that nothing else can bring? You don’t need to leave your home to find it either, despite those complaining of cabin fever.

In the millennial era as it is, I have refused to hinge my life on whatever device is in my hands. And as I watch the world dissolve into chaos, I wonder if so many of those who are dissatisfied with their containment were truly living life at all before they were sequestered.

Inner happiness should not depend on anyone or anything around you. Despite loved ones or friends being a blessing to your life, they cannot carry your inner burdens for you. Your inner peace and joy rest within you, as they always have. And despite the advertisements to tell you otherwise for every new product on the market, they always will.

You alone control the inside of your mind. Never let anyone tell you anything otherwise. Fear may be our greatest enemy, operating unseen much like the virus that is has enhanced. But it has not won yet. And I pray it never will.

Find your joy. For in this era, perhaps it is all you have.


God bless you and your families. And to the essential workers out there, may you be blessed.

PS. My inner joy literally does comes from the inside of my own mind. I included this bit so that those who are annoyed (and there are always a few who don’t agree with me), will know I am not preaching to a choir. While I enjoy nature, music and many other things, all I need is a pen and paper to bring myself inner quiet. Even at that, when I don’t have those, my mind is still at its most content creating the stories and characters you have all come to know so well, both on paper and on film.

I pray that you find your inner joy as well, if you haven’t already.

XO Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel


If your inner joy is largely based in reading, make sure to check out my novels and series page. I bet that your next favorite book is there somewhere and I love bringing people to new worlds and adventures. Also make sure to check out Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell. Every Friday there’s a new free chapter for you to escape into the city of Dejado Atrás!

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 6 – Poison

Hello dear reader! Here’s to hoping that your weekend finds you healthy and safe. We’re all in this together and I will keep praying for you all.

Without further ado, here’s the much anticipated chapter six of Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell. If you haven’t been reading along every week, here’s a directory of the previous chapters.

Otherwise enjoy!

The tone of the story takes a disastrous turn this week, so make sure to read to the end…

Reader discretion is advised

PART I (PROLOGUE) PART IIPART III PART IV PART V

Part Five: Poison

The afterglow of Kit’s midnight visit was soon gone as I lay on my couch the next afternoon. As usual for every Saturday, my overly coiffed shrink droned on and on from my armchair.

I only tuned in every two minutes. Every three days he was here invading my suite, insisting I have a session whether I needed it or not. And today, like most visits, I tended toward not.

“How did it make you feel?” he asked me finally, having ended his dirge about how stress could lower my ability to cope with life. He twirled a pencil between his fingers; not overly interested in my responses.

“Watching the contestants die?” I asked incredulously. He nodded with all seriousness, so I said with open venom, “Like any compassionate human being: horrible. Appalled.“

“Sad? Defeated?”

“I don’t need anti-depressants,” I drawled, knowing where he was heading with the question.

His eyebrows went up over his glasses, his glazed blue eyes completely blank. “Never said you did. However, you rarely speak of things that bring joy to your life. I’ve noted your hostility toward me. It indicates you’re still angry over my appointment as your personal emotional coach.”

Aggravated that Elena hired someone to ‘coach’ my emotions? Hell yes. I rolled my eyes. “You’re paid to listen to me whine. As for my disdain, you represent my biggest problem,” I said, sorely missing my punching bag and thinking that Dr. Breezeman would make a mighty fine replacement for it. “There’s only one damn emotional issue that I have and it’s lack of control! And you know damn well you can’t fix that, yet you charge six hundred an hour to sate my mother’s whims!“

“Yes. Let it all out,” he crooned with apparent boredom, only adding gasoline to the already brewing fire. “Bottling up your anger-“

“My punching bag gets better results than you do!” I bellowed. “You know what I want?! To have a piece of cheesecake whenever I damn well please, despite my mother’s vicarious anorexia!”

“Good, Anna. Keep going.“

“And to… to…” I puttered out as I saw him watching his phone, not paying the slightest attention to me as he played a game. Deflating, I turned to the open balcony. “Want to run away.”

As my voice faded, my shoulders drooped forward. It was true. I longed to run, to head back to the small village of Cataluacan on the edge of the city where I attended the private boarding school. It was so quiet there. So peaceful. Every part of me belonged there, even down to my bronzy skin.

The times I had spent with my aunt there were lost to me, but the memories were enough to remind me that there had been a time when life had been pleasant. All that changed with her death.

The wonder doc didn’t notice my change in tone, instead adding, “Well, judging by your newfound frustration, I’m going to suggest you take up meditation and remove sugar from your diet.“

I didn’t have sugar in my diet. I’d complained about that to him fifteen minutes ago.

“And add two more sessions a week,” he added, scribbling on his notepad as if it’d verify his obvious attempt to squeeze extra change out of my parents. “You need to get out more. Your mother worries since you never go out with your friends.“

“They’re not friends. They want to be on TV,” I said hollowly, feeling worse with his every word. I had no friends.

“And you never date,” he continued, oblivious to my true suffering. I didn’t even bother to turn to him as he droned, “Sex is important for a healthy constitution. I think you need a boyfriend.”

“No doubt my mother has a chosen candidate,” I muttered.

“A vibrator can only do so much-“

Whoa Nelly. I looked over my shoulder, beyond flabbergasted with that declaration. “I don’t have one, though I’m sure Elena can attest to their benefits considering how overly ‘fond’ she is of my father.“

“We worry that you’ll develop unwarranted attachments,” he said, clasping his hands together and missing my sarcasm completely. “Depression can play tricks with the mind.”

“Oh, I get it. Mother was embarrassed by my saving Kit, so she’s interpreted it as I must be desperate for male attention,” I snapped, crossing my arms. “So she’s sent you to parrot her ‘concerns’ to me.”

 He stopped, not sure what to say since I’d hit the issue straight on the head. Breezeman pursed his lips, his spine straightening. Then he smiled. “Perhaps you should consider setting more realistic, attainable goals. You’d be happier.”

Oh, this son of a gun was something else. My eyes narrowed into slits. “Attainable?”

“If you live by the standards you are given instead of the ones you set for yourself, I am sure complacency will come to you,” he said with the warmth of a robot. His smile was pure plastic. “Then joy as you discover that your limitations aren’t restrictions at all, but mere constraints you’ve placed upon yourself. You could try to enjoy time with the men who are compatible with your political status.”

I sat on the couch, crossing my legs to him. “You mean give up the idea of finding a man who loves me and settle with being the perfect wife… no matter how I’m treated.”

“Precisely,” he said in a tone as if I was a toddler, putting his hands up. “If you set your sights on what you can have, then you won’t resent what you can’t.”

“So to give in and give up hope is to find ‘happiness’?”

“You speak as if it’s a bad thing,” he chirped reproachfully. “You know so little of this world, Anna. Who taught you such foolish notions? Such falsities? Life is balance. Think of the people in jails or on the streets. They set their sights on the unattainable as well. If they hadn’t, they’d still be happy.“

“Yes. Happily ignorant of all the drug lords, crime and poverty,” I said in an acquiescing, mindlessly sweet tone as if to agree with him. One that didn’t at all match the oozing sarcasm in my words.

“Precisely,” he agreed. Then I watched as his brain backtracked, realizing what he’d acceded to. “Oh, no. I meant-“

“Yes, what did you mean?” I hissed with contempt.

His mouth set in a hard line. “Our session is done for today. Again, meditation, no sugar, and-“

“Sex?” I said flatly, already dismissing him. My brainwashing session had ended yet again without success. As he got up and headed for the door, all huffy over my easily outwitting him for the umpteenth time, I decided to dig it in even more. I called liltingly after him, “And, doc? Whatever medication it is you’re personally on, might wanna lower the dose. You’re losing your edge…”

The door slammed in response. Point one for me. Probably temporarily since he’d tattle on my belligerence, but I didn’t care. But as a voice floated in from the direction of the balcony, I jumped.

“See, senorita? My attention is now doctor prescribed,” Kit called down from above, apparently having been eavesdropping. But as a pillowcase dropped down to my balcony, I sat up. “Catch you later, querida. Gotta go to some ridiculous luncheon…“

Despite my internal curiosity about what was in the bag, I refused to move. “I don’t take kindly to spying,” I projected forbiddingly.

He snickered in response. “Sure you do. Hasta leugo, chica.”

A white wildflower dropped from above, landing on the pillowcase. His footsteps and the sound of a door shutting overhead proved to me that he’d gone. Unable to quell my curiosity anymore, I headed over. Inside the pillowcase I was astounded to discover a care package: foot soak, gel shoe pads, some candies, bandages and a clove of garlic.

Garlic? Then I spotted the note at the bottom of the bag, scrawled in barely legible handwriting.    

Couldn’t get the cheesecake, but I’ll try for later when I get our dinner. Adios, Aiyla. P.S., I’m all up for the doctor’s orders. A healthy constitution is very important…

Kit.’

Sitting back with a smile, I stopped myself as I realized he was getting to me. And I couldn’t let myself get attached. Any day now, he would be dead. Either way, the question was how he’d gotten these items. He must’ve gotten out of the manor somehow. The question was how he was sneaking past the security teams. Lucky bastard. Maybe I could get him to teach me how he’d escaped.

All the same, I couldn’t stop myself from taking the wildflower with me after stuffing the items in my night table. Its scent was comforting; simple and soothing unlike my usual surroundings.

Replaying the words of the shrink, I shuddered at the idea of settling with a man of my parents’ choosing. All the men they’d set me up with so far were greedy and one dimensional. Either they’d wanted my body or the status that came with it.

The dates with them had left me empty and dead, especially after a few spent the night with me. Whether I wanted to sleep with them or not wasn’t in question. It was just expected.

In some small way, I envied Kit. For whatever reason, he had chosen to come here. It was his choice, odd as it was. Stupid, but a choice all the same. It left me wondering what his life was like and why he’d come. Was probable death and a slim chance of survival really more preferable? What were his motives?

As Tiny came tromping in to announce that father wanted to see me, I had no further time to consider it. Within two minutes, I was in his office. As I stepped into the mahogany-trimmed room, he looked up from his desk. “Anna, don’t you look radiant! I take it the treatments are working?”

Color me weirded out. His greying hair was disheveled; his reading glasses askew as if he’d been roughed up. And perhaps he had been. I never was kept abreast of how the elite hierarchy felt over the things he did. All I knew was sometimes they were pleased; other times violently unimpressed.

As he stared, expecting an answer, I just stared at the floor before sitting. “I think you’ve got me mixed up with Elena since she gets Botox.”

He nodded, not altogether interested in my response as he removed his glasses and sighed. “You know, darling, I don’t think you know how appreciated you are. I know how tiring it is for you to go through the Tourney, but it does such good for the city. They adore you.”

Yes. Right. I cleared my throat. “Be that as it may I don’t understand why my proposal of reading at the library was rejected.”

He clasped his hands together as if the answer were obvious. “Literacy is something we really don’t want to flaunt in citizens’ faces. It’s not socially economical. In the trade schools the curriculums are focused on how to make a living; not skills unnecessary to good citizenship. Reading is a luxury, not that you’d know.”

“The general populace is illiterate?” I snapped, knowing that was a blatant lie. “Then why are there libraries?”

“For the older generations who are able to read. But for the newer generations, the need for them will decline and they’ll be phased out. Social gathering places will take over the former library space, lessening the need for new construction.”

Holy hell. They were getting rid of libraries?

“So you can see how reading to the children would be a bad idea,” he said, absentmindedly checking his phone. “It would unfairly set their hopes on the unattainable.”

“Unattainable?”

He lit up, pleased with the question. “Yes. Part of my new published manifesto called Attainable Sustainability: Guidelines for Good Citizenship. You weren’t given a copy?”

I smiled without humor. “I believe my psychiatrist must’ve been given an advance copy.”

The sniveling rat bastard shrink. Now he was trying to quote ‘manifestos’ to me?

Father nodded, eyes filled with nothing but pride at his own work, even though it sounded like something straight out of Communist China. With every passing moment, I couldn’t believe how deluded he was. He believed his every word. “Yes, I’d heard you were seeing one. Your mother told me you’ve been so stressed that you were overeating.”

I let out an indignant sniff. “Overeating constitutes consuming a cheese cube in her eyes.”

As his phone rang and he answered jovially, I peered over at what I could only guess was the manifesto. Just reading the table of contents, I was less than impressed that the scientists were now insisting it was good for the city to eat less. Less waste, less greenhouse gas. And morbidly, in my own brain, I added that if everyone starved to death, there’d be less ‘global warming’ as well.

As he hung up, I just rolled my eyes as I read through it. “Where do you get the scientists to back this crap up?” As his expression soured, I muttered, “I’m not ignorant. If you wanted me to be, you should have sent me to one of the ‘good citizen’ schools. And even then, we both know the students enrolled there won’t believe it either.”  

Father sighed, brushing back his hair. Opaque, hazel eyes met mine. “It’s good for them, dear. It helps their mental state and provides incentive. If they strive to be a good enough citizen, they can be like you.”

No wonder they all hated me. I’d been made into Dejado Atrás’ own personal Marie Antoinette. “That’s what they’re fed?”

He nodded. “With hard work they can attain rewards as part of the new point system. Doing things like picking up refuse can earn them points towards experiences such as designer shopping, concerts –“

“Don’t points count toward food?” I interrupted with open incredulousness. The city had no food stamp programs as it was.

“Of course. They can be redeemed at five-star restaurants once they reach certain point values,” he said as if offended by the question.

“And how many pieces of trash would that take?!”

His brow furrowed. “I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask my advisors. I came up with the idea of sustainability; they came up with the details. Either way, the Tourney will be over soon so the stress will be gone. I was surprised how into it your mother was this time. She even came up with one of the challenges.”

That got my immediate attention. “Did she really?”

“Yes! Brilliant actually – testing the contestants’ etiquette,” he mused, scratching his chin. “To see who knows the difference between the course cutlery. You know, all the different utensils. That even sometimes confuses me as well…”

Alarms were going off in my head. Somehow I very much doubted that Kit would know the difference between a shrimp and a salad fork. “And if they don’t know?”

He shrugged, unbothered by the idea. “Poison, I think. I’m not sure. I mean, if you’re that curious turn on the TV –“

I leapt to my feet with such force that my chair fell backward. “The challenge is now?!”

“Yes. More contestants survived the initial round than anticipated, so I obliged her and added another event,” he said, going back to his paperwork. “Elena was delighted her idea was included –“

I didn’t listen to any more of his prattling as I practically flew out of the room. All I could do was pray that the event hadn’t yet started. Kit had said he was headed to a luncheon, so I doubted he had a clue what lay ahead.

As I came across Tiny in the next hall down, I demanded, “Where is the next challenge taking place?”

“The guest dining room,” she replied dismissively while staring at her planner, most likely preparing to go into a dirge about the rest of my day. “You have an appointment with – where are you going?!”

Not waiting for her to follow, I took off up the stairs. The dread settling into my gut was noxious, knowing in my soul that Elena’s stroke of genius was directly aimed at Kit.

The other competitors were wealthy enough to have dined in more upscale establishments. Elena knew that in a challenge like this, Kit would be at a severe disadvantage. And with the irreverent way he stuffed himself with Chinese food last night, I very much doubted that propriety was something he ever thought about.

He was as good as dead.

Skidding around the corner in my slippers, I came upon the scene. TV crew members were watching monitors; the screens displaying the room beyond us where all the competitors were seated and filmed by hidden cameras. Double doors separated me from getting in to where they were gathered around a dining room table.

As I tried to dash through, one of the directors stepped in my way. “Sorry, the challenge is already underway. No one is allowed in.”

“You don’t understand,” I begged, putting my hands up to him. “I’m supposed to be –“

All I could do was watch the monitors as he shunted me aside, knowing I’d been too late. Two burly security men stood in my way. There was no way I was getting in, even if I fought them.

The contestants were seated at a table in the room beyond us, penguin-like servers placing steaming bowls of soup in front of them. As the waiters politely bowed and took their leave, the contestants looked at the cutlery and then at each other. It was damn obvious that none of them knew it was a challenge. No rules had been explained. None of them knew of the silent danger.

Bewilderment ran up and down the table.

Kit stared at his place setting dubiously, making my heart sink further. Six spoons rested in front of him, much like the other contestants’ place settings. My guess was that the poison lay on all the spoons except the soup spoon. The only difference between his place setting and the other contestants’ was a paper coffee cup that he must’ve brought with him into the luncheon.

He picked up one of the spoons and raised an eyebrow. “Just how many courses do you people eat with spoons?”

The reality star wannabe blew over her bowl, trying to cool the contents. “They’re for the pallet cleansers, salad, coffee and desserts.”

Kit just rolled his eyes, loosening his tie. “Like they actually eat that much. Anna sure as hell doesn’t.”

Getting no response as the others proceeded to eat, Kit just sat back and watched as they each picked up their choice of spoons. Only one of the others picked the wrong utensil: the deceptively similar salad spoon.

I inhaled sharply, knowing that the blonde-haired fellow had just signed his death certificate. “Oh, no…”

But as Kit likewise picked up the wrong one, I abandoned decorum. I rushed to get to the door, but the nearest of the two security men stopped me. “Sorry, miss. You’re not allowed in.”

Unlike most on the security team, there was only sympathy in this man’s eyes. He knew what was happening beyond the doors. But while he felt sorry over my panic, he wouldn’t jeopardize his job.

I turned away, looking back to the screen.

Kit was still watching the others… and strangely his own bowl as well. Then he shrugged. “Eh, to hell with it.”

There were no words for the relief I felt as he proceeded to pick up his paper coffee cup and emptied it into the houseplant behind him. To the mounting incredulity of his fellow competitors, he picked up his bowl of tomato soup and carefully poured it into the cup.

“What on earth are you doing?!” the one with the wrong spoon demanded, completely scandalized.

Kit merely snickered, cheekily toasting the cup at him. “I’m one of those people who can’t seem to eat without spilling it down their front. Better to appear impolite than an outright slob. This isn’t my dress shirt, so don’t wanna ruin it.”

“Yes. It’s not like you could afford one of your own,” the reality star wannabe scoffed hatefully, sipping at her spoonful of soup and dabbing at her lips with a napkin.

Kit just stared at her, nose wrinkled with distaste. “You know, you may not have one, but I think you still suffer from ‘little dick’ syndrome. All you do is bitch and complain. And there ain’t no amount of money that makes a man interested in that kind of an attitude, even though you’ve bought yourself a bigger set of…”

As he took a sip from the cup and gestured at her ample chest as it bulged out of her low-cut shirt, the rest of the competitors cackled. The ‘set’ in question swelled with indignance. “I’m a lesbian!”

“Didn’t seem that way when you came on to me yesterday,” Kit said with complete irreverence, taking another taste of his soup before putting it down. He rolled it around in his mouth for a few seconds before muttering. “Needs some spice. Everything served here is so bland.“

The blonde-haired man snapped as if personally insulted, “You’re out of your depth here, Joe.”

Apparently used to getting lip from the other contestants, Kit merely replied with snark, “So says the only one in the room eating with a different spoon. Either you’re out of your own depth or your snot has gotten bigger than your nose.”

Interrupting what I was sure was going to be an epic argument, a loud ping sounded as one of the others accidently dropped their spoon on the floor. Rather than stop eating, he simply picked up another spoon from his settings. I groaned as I realized the body count was up to a solid two and this time because of a mere accident on the man’s part.

From the camera angle, it looked as if Kit’d completely confused the reality star by the mention of snot. She stared at him without comprehension. “What?”

Kit smiled all the wider. The grin quickly faded as he looked at the blonde fellow across from him with concern, having noticed his state. “You okay, man? You’ve gone awfully pale.“

I put a hand to my mouth as the fellow started choking, dropping the spoonful that’d been poised at his lips. The dance with death had begun, the toxin finally hitting him. Spittle foamed at his mouth, letting everyone know that he wasn’t just choking on his food. Expressions of alarm ran down the table, realizing something was very wrong.

Despite the pervading panic, Kit jumped up and ran around the table to help. He prepared to thump the dying fellow on the back to clear his airways, but was already too late.

Before he could, the man fell forward and faceplanted in his bowl. Red liquid sloshed and splashed on the table, almost like blood on the white tablecloth.

All parties froze, however, as a second man down the table started sputtering as well; the one who’d dropped his spoon. I just shook my head, knowing that his demise was likewise sealed.  

“Poison,” the reality star wannabe whispered, dropping her spoon; never having moved to help either of them.

Kit took one wary look around the table and then at his cup before promptly sticking his finger far into his mouth. Doing the smart thing to save himself by provoking his gag reflex, he bent over and vomited into the potted plant behind him. He retched a few times, ignoring the others as they freaked out.

I just shook my head as the second man died, this time with a less dramatic death. His eyes just went vacant and he stopped breathing, going limp in his chair.

Kit stood up straight and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, eyeing the two of them with revulsion. He flinched as the announcer hosting the games came through the opposite set of double doors, having been waiting for his cue. Two cameramen followed him.

Done up much like the day previous in a suit and tie, he grinned as he held his microphone up to his mouth. “Congratulations! You have all advanced to the third round-“

“Not all of us,” Kit muttered in an undertone, still eyeing the nearest dead contestant. He looked around wildly, running a hand through his hair. “Son of a bitch-“

“This was a challenge?!” the wannabe roared at the announcer, throwing her napkin at him with ill temper.

He nodded solemnly, though with the slightest touch of glee at her outrage. Messy, emotional performances always equaled good ratings with television viewers. “Indeed. You know your table etiquette to a tee and chose the correct spoons!” Not bothering to listen to her response, he turned to the camera. “Thanks to our sponsors –“

“My God. Not even eating is safe anymore!” Kit projected loudly over him, staring around with horror. “Ay dios mio!”

“Have a great rest of the day, citizens,” the announcer unsuccessfully tried to continue.

Mi auntie can’t say being a slob is such a bad thing anymore,” Kit said to himself as he stared around, seeming unaware that he was drowning out the attempts of the host. “Geez! Saved my life –“

“Make sure to tune in to the next challenge. Ciao for now and see you soon!” the host proclaimed over him, winking at the camera as it cut. As soon as the feed was off, the announcer shot Kit a dirty look and stomped out.

No longer under any obligation, the security men did nothing to stop me as I barged past and threw open the double doors of the room. Seeing Kit checking the pulse of the expired man, I asked weakly, “Is he-?”

He nodded somberly, gently pushing the fellow’s eyelids down and murmuring a prayer over him. “Oh, yeah. He’s a goner.”

As I bowed my head, I was startled as I was poked hard in the chest. Discovering that the reality star wannabe had gotten up in my face, I skittered back.

“Did you know about this?!” she screeched at me, following after me with fury as I backed up. Her crazy eyes warned me that something in her had just snapped and that I was about to be her scapegoat. “You could have warned me!”

“The event was arranged this morning without anyone telling me-“

A screech so shrill came out of her that I jumped and nearly slid on the hardwood floor in my slippers. Her hands formed into claw-like fists. “I could have died, you miserable –“

As I opened my mouth to defend myself, I was more than shocked as she went to wallop me. Before the two security men could get to her, however, Kit ever so helpfully snagged her by the back of her shirt.

As she tried to whirl around and hit him, he held her in place without effort. “Knock it off. She didn’t know.”

“Of course you’d believe that!” she screeched, trying to elbow him.

“Look at her. If they wanted her here, she would’ve been done up with makeup and all that,” Kit said, unbothered by her fury and releasing her as she waved a fist in his face.

Altogether unbothered as she and the others as the filed out, their reactions varying between anger and unease at the deaths, Kit stood in front of me. I just crossed my arms, biting my lip. “They wouldn’t let me in.”

He nodded, scratching his head before looking back at the other two victims. “I can believe it. You must have had ditched your-“

“There you are!”

Tiny stomped in, floor shaking under her weight, apparently having finally located me. Kit shot Tiny a sardonic a look, deliberately edging away from her. “Speaking of…”

“You missed your social call with the senator’s daughter!” she thundered at me, seething with aggravation and her hair on end from running around. Waving the planner in my face, she snarled, “It screwed up my whole schedule!”

I squared my chin, not in the mood to deal with her typical tantrum. “Be that as it may, I need a few minutes to collect my thoughts.”

“Give her a minute; eh, chica? She’s just upset,” Kit agreed with diplomacy, shooting Tiny a winning smile and turning on the charm to back me up.

That charm faded as Tiny snapped back viciously, “You shut up, wetback! You’ve caused enough trouble!”

That was it. I saw red.

Between her obliviousness to the bodies being carted out of the room and the ill-timed slur, I was ready to explode. While Kit’s expression veered into resentment, there was also a hint of resignation. He was used to taunts and degradation.

I nabbed Tiny by the collar of her shirt, shocking her completely. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll apologize, cancel the rest of my afternoon and get the hell out of my face!” I snarled, snatching her planner and throwing it. Papers fluttered down around us like snow, scattering across the floor.

Her eyes bulged out with defiance. “You have no authority –“

“Unless you want a well-deserved fist in the mouth,” I hissed, towering over as she puffed up, “you’ll apologize to him! I’m at the end of my rope, my patience and Lord knows my tolerance!”

Tiny just stared at me silently, her dark eyes narrowing into ferociously dangerous slits before nodding to concede.

Releasing her, it seemed my victory was too soon and too easy.

To my dismay, instead of doing as ordered, she pulled a small bottle out of her pocket. Snatching my hand, she poured out two white pills on my palm. “Swallow them,” she ordered, thrusting my hand toward my face.

“What are these?” I asked warily, not knowing where this tactic had come from. Kit likewise eyed them, not expecting this move. He looked between the two of us, not sure whether to intervene or not.  

“Sedatives. Your psychologist prescribed them as an emergency after yesterday’s behavior. Swallow them or your mother will be notified,” she said with a cat-like quality, believing she had neatly defeated my attempt at dominance.

If I took on her dare and refused, Elena would likely decide I needed full-time monitoring and medication. Either that or a stint at ‘rehab’, the place where celebrities were sent to be remodeled into whatever their handlers wanted.

My outburst had just potentially cost me a great deal. Looking at the pills, a plan formed in my mind. Bowing my head, I popped them in my mouth and pretended to swallow.

Kit protested, trying to stop me but he was too late.

With her request met, Tiny smiled with vile satisfaction. “Good,” she praised, almost like I was a dog she was trying to train. “Now go to your room and take a rest.”

Not bothering to give her a reply, I trudged out. Kit followed, eyeing me worriedly. “What the ‘ell-?”

Rounding the next corner and out of Tiny’s view, I spat the pills in the nearest vase. I spat a second time to get rid of the foul taste that’d worked into my throat. As I straightened, Kit stood in front of me. His eyebrows formed into an angry ‘V’ shape as he demanded, “They drug you?”

“Not like this,” I admitted, gesturing for him to follow as I headed toward my area of the house. He followed close by my side as I muttered, “My attempt to help you has cost me more than you realize. Usually they try to get me to drink. Are you hungry?”

“Er, yes and no,” he said, watching me worriedly and shrugged. “I’m not particularly eager to eat ‘inhouse’ again, so to speak and for obvious reasons…”

“I can get you something. They won’t spike it if it’s ordered in my name,” I said, trying not to gag at the horrible metallic aftertaste from the pills.  

“Yeah, but won’t your mother get mad if you order two meals?”

“I won’t be ordering a second meal,” I admitted, heading down the stairs.

Kit’s lips parted to protest at the idea of my giving up a meal for him and he tried to follow me, but I put hand up. “You’re not allowed down in this area. Wait until I bring it to you. Room above mine, right?”

His expression turned inscrutable as I headed down, though he kept muttering mutinously after me. I ignored him until I was inside my suite and then sagged against the door.

The oddest feeling was seeping into my veins, almost like they were turning to ice. A chill that only made me grow more anxious came over me. Never having had sedatives before, I shrugged the feeling off. Perhaps it was a normal side effect since I was sure a slight bit of the pills had made it into my body.

Speaking into the AI command system to send an order to the kitchen,  I muttered faintly, “Send a sandwich plus a coffee.”

Hanging up, I was apprehensive as to why my world was starting to spin. Putting my hand on my desk to steady myself, the walls were moving as if they were live snakes. I blinked, trying to clear my vision as my knees weakened. Unable to fight it, I started to sink to the floor.

Forestalling me, however, hands caught me.

“Whoa, chica. Easy,” Kit’s voice murmured in my ear, his likely having come down via the balcony again. My attempt to reply was less than easy as I started to feel as though my chest was being compressed. “Do you need some juice? Hypoglycemic?”

As he helped me over to the nearby chair, I shook my head; trying not to lose myself in my growing panic. “I think … some of the medication got in my system. They were powdery…”

Kit’s worried expression swam in front of my eyes as he squatted in front of me. “If that’s the case, I think she gave you too high a dose. Your eyes are all dilated…”

My vision was the least of my problems as the pressure in my chest increased, leaving me to pant for air.  “Something wrong. Hard to breathe – need to call – “

His expression turned to dismay as he stood, looking toward the entrance of my suite and unwilling to leave me to get help. “Somebody get in here! We need help!”

My vision blurred out as I snatched the cell phone in my pocket, dialing for Mortimer. My hands shook as I waited for it to connect. As I heard the line click, I whispered through my constricting throat, “Mortimer… need help. I think… I think…”

As my hand went numb, my arm dropped to my side and the phone slipped through my fingers.

Everything was moving in slow motion; whites, reds and blacks moving more brightly in my eyes. It was like a kaleidoscope of color; grotesque chaos spinning in my mind.

Kit caught me before I could fall, steadying me and trying to get me to look at him. He shook me gently as I failed to respond. “Chica, you still with me? Aiyla? Aiyla?!”

As my eyes began to drift closed, my heart felt as if it’d stop it was beating so fast. Being dragged away from my own body, all I could try to do was breathe. And even at that, I was failing, the motion growing harder by the second.

“Come on, stay with me,” Kit’s frightened voice pleaded as the sound of many footsteps crashed in my ears. All at once, the sound of shouting converged on us as security arrived. Questions were being asked, the men radioing for backup as they discovered the scene.

“Kit?” I wheezed, sensation fading from my limbs.

“Just keep breathing,” he begged me, the feeling of a hand on my cheek trying to rouse me. “Keep holding on!”

But I couldn’t assure him. I slipped away like the ebb of a dwindling tide, far away from the world I knew.

In an instant I was gone, dragged under the crimson surge.

Copyright 2020 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel


And that’s it for this weeks chapter! Left you on a bit of a cliffhanger here, so make sure to comment your predictions. Yes, I’m a very mean author making you wait until next week to see what happens to our protagonist miss Aiyla, but maybe if you comment your support, I’ll release snippets early!

Thanks for keeping up so far with the story! You’re awesome!

And make sure to pick up your copy of DIVIDE before you go this week! Instead of my usual gift offering of Still Death, I thought I’d mix it up for you guys!

This week the short story received a bit of a makeover since I redid the cover, so I thought you’d like to celebrate with me. This gift is in limited to the first fifty people, so make sure to claim it before the deal is gone!

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 5 – Splash Dunk

Hello dear reader! Here’s to hoping that your Friday is going off without a hitch. Without further ado, here’s chapter five of Del Muerta. If you haven’t been reading along every week, here’s a directory of the previous chapters. Otherwise enjoy!

Chapter Five – Splash Dunk

The congratulatory dinner was going swimmingly for those who cared about its success. Father was still raving about the ratings from the TV stations’ broadcasts.

The dance floor oversaw the entire hall, letting me see all the VIPs who turned up for the event. Twenty round tables lay before us, all lit by dim candles. The string quartet in the corner played a mournfully boring tune. Everyone who was somebody (or wanted to be), was here; the height of the social season.

I wanted to gouge all their eyeballs out. Between all the fake laughter and the congratulations over what a ‘glorious event’ it’d been, I was ready to commit a massacre.

Elena was still drugged out of her mind over in the corner. Though this time it was sedatives making her drugged, not the cocaine she’d snorted between commercial breaks.  

I grimaced as I waltzed with Haynesworth, willing my pain to go away. My hands and knees were still throbbing with pain from earlier. Like the games, this dinner was televised. A few pop stars had performed already, doing some elaborate, ritual-like dance numbers that made me even more sick on the inside.

My anger was starting to wear off again.  Now I was just emotionally wrecked. I stared straight ahead as we danced, without seeing what was in front of me. But I blinked as I realized that Haynesworth had spoken to me.

He leaned down and hissed in my ear, seeing that I hadn’t been paying attention. “I said you look marvelous in that color.”

Was it bad that I couldn’t remember what color I was wearing?

Since I was practically tottering along because of my heavily blistered feet, he kept one eye on me. “I wasn’t kidding,” he said, his eyes glinting mischievously. “You look like an angel.“

“A pained angel,” I grumbled, avoiding his eyes as his hand tightened on my waist.

Haynesworth chuckled, reeling me in closer. He knew all eyes were on us and he was quite obviously enjoying that fact. “Relax. You seem tense.”

“You wonder why?” I hissed back, wincing with every step. “My mother is stoned, Father is drunk, and I’m…”

“Stuck sober?” he chuckled, starting to annoy me. He seemed scarcely aware of my pain, continuing with, “But a vision of fashion and the envy of every woman in the room.” When I didn’t reply, he tried to further cheer me by adding, “All the cameras are on you. Smile.”

I did, feeling like it was more of a snarl than anything. Faces whirled by as we waltzed, Haynesworth dipping me to the floor. But that was where my tolerance ended. The boning of the dress dug into my side, making me cringe. He noticed as he righted me, seeing my pained expression. “Something wrong?”

“Just need to get to bed,” I said truthfully, patting his chest and stepping back.

He merely smirked in response. “Care for me to join you?”

All I could do was stare at him, beyond the ability to respond with any emotion. I gave up trying to think of a response and just shrugged. “G’night.”

Heading for the door, I didn’t care who’d try to stop me this time. I needed an out before I fell apart. Fortunately for me, no one tried.

The doormen opened the double doors for me as I headed toward the private area of the hacienda where no one but the family was allowed. In two minutes I was there, beyond the eyes of those at the event.

Finally able to breathe without an audience, I slipped my shoes off and hobbled up the curved staircase. Before I could make it far, I heard a voice call out after me. “Is that squid always like that?”

Turning back wearily, I discovered Kit behind me on the bottom step. He leaned up against the railing with a snicker, clad in an ill-fitting suit. “Yeah, they didn’t expect me to make it, so they lent me this penguin suit last minute. But that slick-ass police guy is as slimy as they come.” He rolled his eyes, hands stuck in his pockets. “Anyone can see you were miserable, yet he dragged you around the dance floor like a ragdoll.“

If it were any other day, I’d have been morbidly amused by his commentary. But for now, I sighed and shifted my shoes to my other hand. “I need to get to bed, Kit.”

He smiled with lopsided sadness. “Sure. I’d planned to ask you to salsa with me but then I saw how pained you were. But we need to talk.“

“I can’t,” I said flatly, turning to go. But I paused, murmuring back to him over my shoulder. “I’m glad you survived.”

Kit nodded, his playful exasperation fading. “Si. But you’re still thinking of those who didn’t. I can see it. Go take care of your feet.”

Before one more word could be said, he headed for the staff stairway. That meant they must’ve been housing the competitors somewhere in house and on premises. I should’ve remembered that they’d done that with the other competitions, but I hadn’t cared enough about it to keep it in mind.

Heading up to my room, I sighed as I made it in the door to my suite. If it were any other evening, I’d be giving my punching bag another round of beating. But after today, all I wanted was a bath to force my muscles to unlock from all the stress. Quickly stripping off my dress, then lingerie which included a full corset, I threw them on the bed. I ran the bath as I let my hair down and removed my makeup.

Once the majority of it was gone, I sank into the enormous whirlpool tub. The water was soothingly warm, though my scrapes stung. Giving in to the urge, I ducked under the surface and held my breath. Hopefully it’d permeate the hairspray.

Surfacing, I took in a deep breath and sat up. As I leaned back against the wall of the tub, I had a near heart attack as a voice sounded from next to me.

“You know…” Kit said from his perch on the edge of the tub. I hastily dunked my body below the water in alarm and covered my breasts with my arms. He met my eyes with some humor, continuing, “I think I’m starting to get why you’re so uptight. That corset inside on your bed isn’t meant to enhance. It’s meant to flatten what all designers hate and every man ogles.”

He kept speaking even as I sputtered, looking around wildly to figure out where the hell he’d come from. “How did you get in here?!”

“Same way I got through the maze unscathed,” he said with some smugness, wiggling his eyebrows. “I know you wondered why I chose ropes instead of weapons…”

“You shouldn’t be in here!”

“Probably,” he admitted with a shrug before gesturing back out at the bedroom. “But I came with a peace offering since I saw your poor excuse of a meal earlier. They served me the equivalent of a last supper, anything I wanted before the event, so I asked for Chinese.”

He chuckled, sitting forward over the tub’s edge as I glared at him. “I have a good sampling of leftovers so you can choose what you want. I stuck them all in the microwave before I came down.” Before I could stop him, he seized my hand to inspect the angry, red scrapes on my palm. “Sorry about that. She was stoned, right?”

Knowing better than to answer, I said through my teeth, “Let me get out.”

He got up with a nod, sauntering toward the door. “I’ll be out here. And no worries, chica. I may be unorthodox, but I’m no creepizoid.”

As soon as he was away from the door, I hopped out of the tub and pulled my terrycloth robe on. Not bothering to dry myself and completely outraged that he’d gotten in here, I charged out after him into the main room of the suite.

Kit was perched on my couch munching on an egg roll with about ten boxes of Chinese takeaway in front of him on the table. Somehow in the short time since we’d parted ways downstairs, he’d divested himself of his suit, throw on jeans and a black T-shirt, and carted the food here. The question in my mind was still how. My door remained locked.

“Take your pick,” he said with a full mouth, gesturing at the boxes with a set of chopsticks. “I thought you looked thin last night, but then I saw you in the tub. You’re about twenty pounds too skinny and not by choice.“

He wasn’t wrong. The salad that’d been brought to me earlier was so tiny that I felt hungrier than when I started. I was below a hundred and five pounds. Any more lost and I’d be positively skeletal.

Looking to my balcony, I saw the door ajar with a rope dangling down from above it. There was another balcony above my room on the fourth floor. “So that’s how you got in.”

He only winked. “Same way I got through the maze. I disappeared on the cameras, right?”

I nodded, reluctantly letting him stay just to sate my curiosity. The panic button I kept was three feet away if I needed it.

Kit snickered, digging into one of the boxes. “A month ago one of my buddies offered me to go work a construction gig. It turned out to be the maze being built. Figured out as we built it that I could climb up on the walls. Got the idea watching the stray cats walking along the beams one afternoon.”

He spoke so fast, voice going up and down in pitch with an excitable tone, that I struggled to keep up with it all. He sniggered. “Spent the better part of my early childhood in a circus, so I’m damn good at tightrope walking. Also knew where the construction was the strongest, considering I hammered in most of the nails.”

He shoveled a wad of noodles into his mouth as I sat on the edge of the couch, just watching him. He smiled, this time with humor. “You don’t know what to do with me, do you?”

“I can’t seem to get past your audacity,” I admitted, looking at the open Chinese boxes. He’d helped himself to all of them. I’d wait a few minutes before partaking on one that he’d already chowed down into. Less chance of poison, though I very much doubted that was his aim.

Kit merely shrugged. “I waited until you got in the tub. You got to see me in all my glory ‘n I didn’t take advantage of you in the same state of nature.”

He tossed a plastic fork in my direction as I warily sat on the chair across from him and put my feet up. He laughed merrily, pointing his chopsticks at me. “Besides, I know you were planning on throwing yourself a guilt trip pity party. I’m here as a distraction. You should be thanking me.”

Something told me that Kit was an almighty chatterbox. He talked fast with emotion and a great deal of gusto. For whatever reason, he’d decided we were going to be friends and that was that. For now I’d play along, providing he kept a feasible distance from me.

I peered inside one of the boxes of noodles he’d put down. Lo Mein looked good right about now. I twirled my fork around then took a bite. Oh, yes. Mother would throw a fit if she knew about this. Then as Kit shifted a little closer and abruptly picked up my foot, I squawked, “What’re you-?!”

My objection turned into a sigh as he massaged the bottom of my foot. I looked at him questioningly and he shrugged. “You came to my aid, so I figure I can repay you by taking care of this. They look painful and I hate seeing people in pain around me, so humor me.”

I would if he kept up what he was doing. Despite my better judgement, it felt too good to tell him to stop. He glanced up at me, continuing, “Whoever orders your shoes doesn’t care altogether much about your comfort.”

That I definitely agreed with. He smiled wider, seeing I was eating. “Yeah, you’re not a rice cake kind of a girl. So tell me of yourself, chica. I’m amazed you’ve kept any muscle on with the way you eat. I’ll bet the punching bag back there has borne the brunt of your aggravation.”

So he’d noticed it. “I box.”

“Box?” he repeated, seeming to test the idea out in his mind. Then he nodded. “I can fight, too. Grew up in the rough end of town. But you move with grace, so I’ll bet you were a dancer, too.”

Man, did he speak fast. And he was observant. I took another bite before conceding, “Rhythmic gymnastics. Once I graduated, I wasn’t allowed to keep competing.”

He picked up my other foot to rub it. “You really don’t have much say in anything, do you?”

That left me pausing, catching his eyes and then looking away. “If you get caught in here, you’re going to be in trouble.”

“You’re not going to rat me out so why worry?” he said.

“Oh, won’t I?”

“No, querida,” he said with something akin to triumph. “Who else will bring your takeout every night that I’m here?”

That made my amusement fade fast. “Providing you live, that is.”

“I will,” he said confidently. “God didn’t create something He’d give up on in me.”

Switching tactics, I said pointedly, “Does your tia know you’re here?”

His expression flickered guiltily. “Eh, no. We don’t own a TV, so she won’t know until I go home. Alvin stayed with her today.”

I choked on my noodles and his triumphant grin came back. “Sending him to school over a juice box. When he told me, that was the final straw. I had to come back. You’re a keeper.”

So he knew Alvin? Did that meant Kit’s tia was Alvin’s as well? She ran the orphanage. But something was still off with Kit’s story. Way off. My eyes narrowed. “You’re here for another reason. Don’t feed me that line.“

“Believe what you want, Aiyla. You’ll come around.” I cut off my protest as he hit a particularly nice spot on my foot. He chuckled. “Feels good, eh? I give good neck rubs, too. You wait ‘n see.”

That made me scowl. He seemed to get a bang out of my reactions, continuing to chuckle as he said, “Yeah, I know. You’re waiting for an excuse to kick me out. But I’m being so nice you can’t complain.”

I said nothing for a minute, letting him massage my foot. But he kept talking. “Or is it usually Haynesworth up here with you, catering to your every need? He’s no idiot.”

He just laughed as I yanked my foot away after hearing the innuendo. “He wishes,” I sniffed, starting to get annoyed again.

Kit leaned over, his eyes full of devious intentions. “Interesting. With the way he’s been talking, one would think he tucks himself in your bed every night. Should I worry about him dropping by unannounced?”

 “Worried about crowd control?” I parried with a forbidding edge.

“No. You don’t seem the type to be parading men in and out of here. You don’t really say much,” he continued, pausing in his babbling. “Is that a choice or a force of habit? You certainly had a way with words this morning, practically foaming at the mouth over my reappearance. Gato got your tongue?”

Boy, did he have nerve. I sat back. “I find listening a lot more telling.”

“Why do they call you Anna?” he asked, managing to ask the wrong question again. “Your real name is nice and you look better without all the war paint they put on your face.”

Now he was venturing into territory I wasn’t comfortable with. “It’s supposed to put citizens at ease. Make me seem like one of them with a more socially acceptable name.”

He snorted derisively, rolling his eyes. “If they want to appeal, they should stop doing you up as a… Well, I’ll bite the bullet.” He looked me dead in the eye. “You come across as a stuck-up snob. Then again, now knowing what they make you wear, I’m guessing the ‘snob’ expression is actually one of pain. Between your shoes and flattening contraptions-“

Okay. That was it. I’d officially reached my limit. Mr. Chatterbox was starting to give me a headache. ”Look, I need to get some sleep.”

“I’ll shut up,” he said abruptly, changing his tune. “Maybe I should ask what you like to eat besides Chinese so I can request it tomorrow evening. Italian maybe?”

“Nothing with garlic,” I said flatly. “Mother will notice.”

He just stared at me. “She gives you the sniff test? Gee, mi Auntie is strict, but at least she’s sweet.“

“Are you always this much of a chatterbox?”

Adorably enough, he giggled unrepentantly. “Si. That’s not a turn off, is it? I can’t help myself. Been that way since I was little. Whatever I think comes out of my mouth. I’m nothing but honest since I don’t have time to come up with lies.”

He stopped for a few seconds, regarding me shrewdly before pointing at me as if something was dawning on him. “So that’s it. You’re used to the political horse shi-“ He stopped, editing himself. “BS. So used to the BS that you’re on overload with me.” He clapped his hands together. “Yes. You’re quiet, censoring everything you say. It’s like verbal boxing, always on the defense-“

“Kit…“

“And when you had whiskey last night, your defenses came down,” he continued while ignoring me, looking up at the ceiling while he thought about it.

So I decided to try a different handle. “Joe…“

“Oh, don’t tell me I have to get you drunk to open up to me again,” he said with all seriousness, looking at me.

Biting back my aggravation, I said calmly, “Mr. Arenciana, I’ve had a very trying day and my patience is at an all-time low. I want-“

“Yes, what is it you want?” he interrupted pointedly, going for a new angle. He leaned toward me, eyes daring me to reply. “I’ll bet you’ve never been allowed to think about that. That’s your problem. You know exactly what you want, but are trapped and cannot attain it. I – oop.” Kit cut off with an embarrassed grimace as he saw my expression close off. “I crossed a line, yes?”

I stood in one fluid motion, standing over him. “You want to know what I want?!”

“Considering your reaction, not really. But I get the point,” he said hastily, catapulting over the back of the couch and darting to the balcony next to the rope. He bowed to me facetiously. “Until tomorrow, señorita. I shall ponder your garlic-free meal.” He winked. “You’ll miss me.”

Before I could say one more word, he gave the rope a yank and it quickly pulled him up. As I went over to the balcony, I looked up and saw him vanish over the railing above mine. So he was staying above me?

To my surprise, a white rose was then tossed down to my feet. “Adios, chica. Hasta manana.

 As he went inside, I stooped down to pick up the rose. I sniffed it, finding it fragrant unlike all the sterilized roses my father kept in the house. I smiled at the gift, stroking the soft petals.

Looking up as I heard a chuckle from above, I discovered Kit still watching me. I immediately scowled and he laughed, going inside for real this time. The sound of a door shutting confirmed it.

Stepping back and closing my own door, I wiggled my toes against the cold floor. Whether I liked him or not, he certainly did a good job on my feet. The quiet now pervading over my room wasn’t nearly as preferable as I’d thought it would be.

Sighing and confused about how to interpret his ‘affections’, or whatever Kit’s real aims were, I headed to bed.

But first I placed the rose in a cup with water, letting it live for another day.


Copyright 2020 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

That’s it for this week’s chapter! What’s your take on the budding relationship between Kit and Aiyla? And where has the illustrious Lynx gotten to? Comment any predictions you have ’cause I love to hear from you guys!

If you can’t wait until next week for the next edition, make sure to check out Destiny in the Shadows and Väktare of All Realms series. If you’re enjoying this novel, I’m sure those will be right up your alley as well. All of my published novels are now on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and all other major online retailers for your reading convenience as of this week! You can check out my whole catalog of science fiction and urban fantasy novels here.

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Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 4: Game Day

Happy Friday everyone! Without further ado, I present part 4 of Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell. If you missed the previous chapters, here’s the directory for you. Otherwise, enjoy!

Part Uno

Part Dos

Part Tres


Chapter Three – Game Day One

Copyright Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel 2020

Hell had found me again.

Sitting in the makeup chair set up on the premises of the backstage area, I harrumphed. They were primping me for the cameras that would broadcast the games. One person was doing my nails; adding fake ones on top of my dry nails, cracked from all the polish. Another was doing my make up while yet one more was putting on my shoes for me.

Overall I felt like a show poodle.

Still, only ten victims instead of eleven. At least I’d saved one man. That was something.

I surfaced from my thoughts as the makeup artist clucked, “Those dark circles are getting worse. Maybe you’re anemic.”

“Considering Elena is forcing sugar free, carb free veganism on me, I don’t doubt it,” I mumbled, allowing her to apply foundation. This morning’s breakfast consisted of five grapes and a teaspoonful of oatmeal; an all-time low. ”And I – yow!”

I glared at the girl lacing my shoes, barely able to feel my toes at this point. “You don’t need to tie them that tight!”

She grimaced apologetically. “I’m not. They’re a size too small.”

Great. First a corset and now my feet were going to be squeezed, too. Beyond bored, I stared at the TV screen in front of me. Elena was having herself done up behind a screen on my other side, so I knew better than to talk to people anymore than necessary. Better to let the sleeping giant stay drowsy lest she cause a scene.

As the stylist walked away for a minute, I snatched her soda off the table beside me and took a few sips. Better to steal some sugar to stave off hypoglycemia than to faint on live TV.

But as something flashed onto the TV screen, I choked on the soda and it came out my nose. I coughed and snatched up a tissue to clean myself, trying to convince myself that what was on the news wasn’t real. No, Kit really was on television being interviewed. I snatched the remote and turned up the volume. “What the hell?!”

“So you’re the eleventh contestant?” the reporter asked, extending a microphone to Kit who was absolutely beaming. “What motivated you to compete?”

“Son of a bitch!” I swore, leaning forward in my chair. He was still competing after all?!

“Truthfully, at first it was the money,” Kit admitted without any shyness. He full on grinned, displaying dimples while flashing a dazzling smile. Unlike the day previous, he was dressed to kill. “But then I met Anna and whew! She knocked mi socks off! So I compete to see her again and steal some more of her time, plus hopefully her heart as well.”

The remote cracked in my grip. I could practically feel my blood pressure rising, if not boiling. I’d been double crossed but good, and had no intention of letting him get away with this.

“Finish what you’re doing,” I seethed to the stylist who’d returned behind me. “I’ve something to attend to…”

She knew better than to mess with me.

Ten minutes later I was striding into the men’s locker area where the competitors were changing their clothes. Storming through with heels killing me already, a few of the contestants looked up as I passed.

“Whoo,” the most obnoxious of them that I’d met yesterday drawled, sitting back on the bench as I passed. “Looks like the lady couldn’t resist seeing her suitors…“

Whatever look I shot him, it must’ve been something close to murderous considering he flat out quailed. I stomped around him and kept looking for my target. Passing another row of lockers, I found my man.

Kit was completely drenched, a towel wrapped around his waist after getting out of the shower.

“You,” I growled loud enough to make him jump and turn with surprise. I charged down the row at him, fists clenched. “What the hell are you doing back here?!”

He flinched, sensing oncoming wrath. Then he recovered, saying warily, “Ah. So you are an early riser. Didn’t think you’d find out until later at the actual event.” He looked down to my toes and then back up to my eyes with some humor. “Then again, it must take a long time to truss you up like that.”

Absolutely incensed that he would joke with me, my eyes narrowed as he chuckled. Not after what happened between us last night. Apparently my reaction only made him more amused. He cocked his head, eyes glinting as he teased, “You know, you’re just as sexy when you’re mad.“

“Why are you here?” I demanded, stepping up to him.

Quite literally nose to nose since he was only an inch taller than me, he didn’t move or break eye contact, staring into mine unflinchingly. “Mi tia is getting her cancer treatment right now.“

“Answer the question, or so help me God!“

“Easy,” he said, putting his hands up in surrender, retreating an inch and rocking back on his heels. “I can see you’re pissed and my response might antagonize you even more, so I’d suggest you sit.”

 Needless to say, I didn’t move. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, looking at the ceiling while he decided what to say.

Ai. Okay, when you revealed yourself to me last night, you made me feel… I couldn’t get you out of my mind and that never happens,” he admitted, leaving me absolutely incredulous. He shrugged. “I remembered what mi madre used to say to me. ‘Joey, if you find love, never let it go’-“

“You’re back because you’re ‘in love’ with me?” I asked with a forbidding edge that almost ended in a hiss.

He had the audacity to smile again. “Not yet. But could be. So I came back to find out.” His grin widened further, seeing my fury only intensify. “See, chica? Out of all the men who’ve said that to you, I’m the only one who meant it.”

So livid that I’d silently begun to shake, I merely growled, “After all I said…”

He waved me off, opening one of the lockers and not listening. “Meh. You think I’m going to die. No, no. You don’t know me, but you will. I ain’t goin’ to die today.”

I stepped up to him, slamming the locker shut again as he tried to open it. “Go home!”

All he did was chuckle, amused with my anger. “No. But pray thee tell how you intend to make me?” he taunted, deliberately pushing more of my buttons. He looked over my body with appreciation. “That get up they have you in is ridiculous, but I know what’s underneath after seeing you last night. You’re a temptation.“

“Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness?” I asked quickly. Maybe if he had they’d disqualify him. Mentally unstable people were unable to compete and I could get him thrown out.

“You’re funny,” he said infuriatingly, reopening the locker. He took out a comb and looked down, eyebrows up as he noticed my outlandish lace-up booties. “You don’t believe me yet, but I think you’ll come around.”

My jaw may or may not have clattered to the floor as he dropped his towel, standing proud as a peacock, stark naked in front of me. He smirked, seeing my thunderstruck reaction. “I have to get dressed now, but feel free to stay and chat… and watch. I’m not shy. Stay as long as you like.”

I could certainly believe that. Instead I waved my fist in his face, riled even further with him if that was possible. “You nasty bastard! You got me with the whole sob story.“

“Eh,” he grunted, patting himself dry. “It’s all true! I can call her on the phone if you like.“

Losing my patience entirely, I turned to stomp back out. To my intense misfortune, however, my heel got stuck in the grout between the tiles. I yipped and abruptly lost my balance, teetering on my feet. I recovered as Kit caught me, steadying me from behind.

“Whoa. Steady,” he chided, stepping to the side of me and keeping a hand on my arm to keep me up. “Los zappatos esta feo y estupida!

Ignoring his jibe about my shoes, I snapped, “Let go!”

He did immediately, allowing me to bend down to get free. The heel wouldn’t budge. He rolled his eyes, stooping down to try and loosen my shoe. I gave in and steadied myself by putting one hand on his shoulder and the other on the locker nearest to me.

“Who designs these things?” he asked, working his hand around it to wedge it up. “Deathtrap, blister makers…“

I ground my teeth together as his other hand lingered on my calf, steadying me. Going to shoot him another dirty look, I hastily decided that was a very bad idea considering he was still unclothed. All it did was give me an overhead view of his rear end. And while it was by no means an unpleasant view, I was in absolutely no mood to admit he was in good shape. Very good shape in fact.

Whatever Kit did for a living, he was all muscle. He had a lithe, cat-like runner’s body and not one that was likely acquired in a gym either.

Further adding to my good humor, Tiny came around the corner with her clipboard. She stopped dead in her tracks, obviously preparing to yell at me before seeing all that Kit entailed. “Anna, what are you doing?!”

“Her shoe is stuck,” Kit replied cheerfully, just as unbothered by her arrival as he was with mine. “Un momento, por favor. Almost got it…”

He lifted my foot, the heel to my shoe still intact and undamaged. He stood smoothly as I put my foot down, carefully avoiding the crack. He came up to my level, still grinning with open self-satisfaction. “See? No harm done.”

Oh, did I want to smack him. He knew exactly what I was thinking, too, and enjoyed it on some level, getting a bang out of my aggravation.

“Thank you,” I ground out through my teeth, turning to haughtily storm out with what was left of my dignity.

That sure as hell didn’t happen. As soon as I put weight on the offending shoe, the heel snapped. Getting it out of the floor must’ve weakened it. I started to tip over sideways and Kit caught me again. This time I landed halfway on his chest and in his arms.

“Careful,” he murmured in my ear, laughter in his voice. He straightened me, hands lingering on my waist. He winked. “No need to swoon, señorita. I’ll put my pants on now.”

 It was official. I absolutely hated him. Shooting him one last scathing look, I stomped out of the locker room on the balls of my feet to avoid the broken heel. His laughter followed me out.

 ***

Two hours later, new shoes were the least of my troubles. My nerves were shot.

I stood over the field of the underground maze. It’d been specifically built over the soccer field, a layer over the top so they were enclosed below with cameras throughout. And in that maze was a death trap. It was essentially one giant mouse trap made for men, filled with dangers of all kinds: animals, poisons, and booby traps.

Standing next to my father, we overlooked the field. Elena was on my other side, already drunk. As for me, I was filled with nothing but dread. I’d stood here three times before, and all three were filled with death and gut-wrenching guilt.

I might even have been experiencing a panic attack, perhaps a remnant of PTSD restimulated from the previous games. I knew what was coming. Worse even, I would have to watch without flinching.

As it was, all eleven of the competitors stood before us in a line, clad in the simple rugged clothes that they were given. All looked pensive, though it varied between confidence and a few who appeared outright terrified. The reality star wannabe had planted herself in front of the camera.

The only one to even look directly at me was Kit. He stood at the farthest end of the line, completely unfazed by the proceedings. He rubbed his hands together, leaving them white with some kind of powder. It reminded me of the chalk gymnasts used to get a better grip on their equipment.

He caught my eye and winked, seeing my attention. Then his brow furrowed into concern watching me. I was trying to breathe steadily to not hyperventilate, and I was sure it showed on my face.

Then I saw the crew director signal the proceedings to start. Suddenly feeling sick, I turned sideways and vomited onto the grass. Elena grumbled as I retched a few more times, losing what little I’d eaten.

“Do you need a relaxant to calm down or will you finally get a grip?” she asked, disgusted with me. Father hadn’t even noticed me at all, still totally absorbed with the task at hand.

I straightened, wiping my mouth off with the back of my hand. “No. I need for this insanity to stop-“

She didn’t have time to reply as the ten second count down to going live on the air started. I made the sign of the cross over my chest, praying to the Lord that He wouldn’t hold me accountable for all this.

As Father started speaking to the public who I was sure were all lined up around their TVs resentfully, I stared straight ahead. My eyes didn’t focus on any one thing, attempting to dissociate from everything. But as he came to the final intro, I closed my eyes in pained silence to listen.

“All competitors have chosen one weapon to bring into the tunnels,” he said, his voice perfectly bored with the proceedings. Then he cleared his throat. “Er, no. Actually, one competitor has chosen another method.”

My eyes quickly found Kit. He was the only one with a rope with a spike attached to it and looped around his shoulder like the equipment like a mountain climber’s. Even more irreverent to it all, he’d put gum in his mouth. He stood chewing, ignoring all the cameras as they zoomed in on him. He blew a bubble and popped it, completely unfazed.

“All who emerge from the maze will continue to the next round,” Father announced, reading from the teleprompter. Then he addressed the contestants, warning, “You will have one hour to make it through to the exit of the maze. At that time, the maze will fill with poisonous gas. All still inside will perish.”

Death. Muerte. It circled them all like a vulture, ready to take them. It sickened me.

“Anna, please wish all the competitors good luck,” he instructed me, sounding like someone commanding a dog.

My legs felt like they were going to give out on me they were so weak. I made it to the first of the competitors, the reality TV wannabe and shook her hand. I did the same with each one after that, knowing there was nothing else left for me to do. I’d warned them and they’d all stayed.

Er, no. One had gone and promptly come back. As I got to Kit, I no longer felt anger. I stuck my hand out, treating our interaction as if it were a goodbye. Most likely, it would be.

But as he took my hand to shake on it, he did something different than the rest. He kissed my hand, bringing it to his lips before I could stop him. He looked at me playfully, seeing my surprise. “Breathe, chica. Nice new shoes.”

I pulled my hand away abruptly and he chuckled. Then his eyebrows went up, leaving me mortified as I saw that one of my fake nails had come off in his hand. A few of the competitors snickered, spotting it, too.  

“Relax,” he ordered, offering it back to me. “You’ll sweat the rest off, too, and then your makeup if you don’t calm down.“

“Quiet!” the reality TV wannabe from down on the end hissed. “We’re not supposed to speak!”

Kit merely rolled his eyes as I took off for where I was supposed to stand.

A huge television screen rose behind the contestants, ready to broadcast what transpired in the maze. I could feel my heart in my mouth; my heartbeat pounding loud in my ears. The group of contestants headed toward the mouth of the tunnel, readying for the start and all focused except for one.

My eyebrows rose as Kit blew me a kiss with another roguish wink and sauntered off after them, lagging behind leisurely. Either he had a severe lack of respect for authority, or he was just a ham for the cameras. It could’ve been either or both.

“How undignified,” Elena sniffed under her breath, nose wrinkled at his behavior. “Good thing he’s going to die. I’d hate having a buffoon for a son-in-law.”

Forcing myself not to cringe as my father fired off the starting pistol, I watched as all of the men ran into the tunnel. Again, all except one, Kit rolling up his sleeves and strolling in at a leisurely pace.

“Idiot,” Elena hissed as I gulped, wondering just what Kit’s plan was. Or even better, if he had one.

While Kit came across altogether unmoved by the idea of death, I was pretty sure it was because he had a plan. One that made him unbearably smug every time he thought about it.

Also assuring me of that, I scoured the enormous screen that was televising what transpired underground. All the competitors had headed in different directions. But as I searched the different views, all broadcast simultaneously, I only counted ten competitors.

Where had Kit gone?

Echoing my question, the camera crew director was avidly conferring with his people manning the cameras. They were having the same problem. Kit had seemingly vanished once in the maze. None of the cameras could find him.

Inside the black painted walls of the maze with minimal lighting, I was beginning to notice a pattern. There was absolutely no way for the competitors to know where the traps were. Every wall was painted the same dark color, visible only to us because of the night vision cameras. And as the first victims of the games was claimed by death, I put a hand over my mouth.

None of it was censored by the cameras as the man was impaled by spikes that shot out of the wall. If I hadn’t already hurled, I would’ve right then. The spikes went right through his head. I looked away with a curse, wishing I could block the grotesque sight from my mind.  

“You all right, sweetheart? You look tense,” Father asked, politely concerned about me.

“Who wouldn’t be?” I muttered, seeing once again that none of the people here were at all bothered by the gruesome death.

Father misconstrued my unease, however. He reached over to pat my hand. “Don’t worry. I know the designers of the challenges. None of the contestants will make it through to the last challenge. You won’t have to wed any of them, pumpkin.”

I wanted to scream at him with that last bit. I wasn’t worried about marrying anyone. I was at wits’ end as the carnage continued, four more men dying in succession and quickly, especially as they got to the halfway point in the labyrinth.

Between anxiety and the innards-squeezing corset, I could barely breathe. I didn’t move as the commercial breaks rolled, even as the camera that’d been squarely pointed at me to capture my reactions paused in its broadcast.

I felt like I might faint I was under so much pressure and I was sure it showed. As my makeup person powdered my nose, I could see concern written in her expression. As a champagne was offered to me, I took it eagerly and downed it in one gulp. It was the only way I was going to ever make it through this without a nervous breakdown.

Fifty-five minutes into the competition, Kit was still nowhere to be seen. The broadcast director was throwing an outright fit over it though it was the least of their troubles. For whatever reason, the walls of the maze were shaking and throwing off the cameras covering the competition.

One wall at a time, something was moving succinctly through the maze. It kept rocking the mounted cameras and no one could figure out what was doing it.

“Maybe there’s a cat,” one of the crew suggested from somewhere behind me. “On top of the walls. The stadium has a feral problem.“

“One hell of a big cat to shake it that bad,” another scoffed. “If that’s what’s doing it…”

“Five more minutes,” Father commented, looking at his watch with apparent boredom. He stood, smoothing his suit down. He extended a hand to Elena who grumbled. He sighed. “Come. We must head to the exit in case any of the contestants make it through for the next round of the competition.”

I stood on shaky legs, praying to God and all the saints at least a few would come out alive. After sitting through it all, I couldn’t feel my knees. I followed, trying to not crumple to the ground.

We made it across to the exit just as the first contestant made it out of the tunnel. The reality TV star wannabe had made it through in one piece. Her clothes were singed, but she was otherwise okay. Perhaps her father had somehow told her where the traps would be.

I clapped with everyone else, the elites in the stadium breaking into applause. Nauseating me completely, the wannabe merely grinned and waved back to them all, enjoying their attention.

I kept clapping as two more men came out of the exit, then the fourth. But as a fifth live creature came running out after him, Elena screamed. And I didn’t blame her.

The fourth man was apparently being chased by a lion from inside the maze and it followed him out with a fierce roar, dangerously close to where we were standing. Before I could move, our security team shot it before it could leap onto the man.

Feeling immensely sorry for the creature as it reeled and fell, I looked away as it died. Unlike the eleven morons who had volunteered for this, the lion hadn’t. It was just plainly hungry, ribs showing through its fur.

“One minute,” my father murmured, looking to the entrance with unblinking eyes.

I followed his gaze, saying the Lord’s prayer under my breath as the seconds ticked down. There were only two men left in the maze, one being Kit. While he wasn’t visible, the other was seen springing for the exit. But as I noted where he was, I realized he wasn’t far enough through. And as the clock counted down the last few seconds, I closed my eyes to block out the sight. He was about to be gassed as was Kit, wherever he’d disappeared to.

Three, two, one…

I cringed as the buzzer went off, announcing the end. Bowing my head as the chambers released the toxic gas, the last man choked and fell, succumbing to the toxin.

Kit was dead. He had to be. Nothing was left alive in there. Not even any animals that had been left as traps would’ve been able to breathe.

I put a hand to my mouth, eyes welling up with tears. Seven gone. Even one was too much, but this many was unheard of during the first event.   

“Well done to the four champions,” my father announced over the prevalent clapping; the crowd completely entertained. He stood, facing them. “Your merit has been proven today-“

He stopped, cutting off his well-rehearsed speech. My breath caught in my throat as I heard coughing coming from the inside of the tunnel. Looking up, I saw Kit stagger out of the entrance, a handkerchief over his nose. He waved it around in front of his face, trying to clear the air.

Scarcely believing my eyes, I couldn’t stop myself from rushing forward despite Elena’s outraged call after me. I made it over to him and caught him just as he stumbled, crashing to his knees as he tried to breathe.

“Get some oxygen!” I ordered the medical staff who was on hand (all who looked positively incredulous that he was still alive). “Hurry!”

Ai,” Kit wheezed, rubbing the handkerchief over his eyes to wipe away the toxin that’d been sprayed on him. “Nasty stuff-“

Abandoning my composure altogether and insanely relieved, I pulled my sleeve up over my hand and dabbed it at where he was rubbing. “Here.“

He stopped and blearily opened his eyes, both widening as he saw who was helping him. “Oh. It’s you.”

Ignoring his talking, I looked to the medic who’d come over with an oxygen mask in hand. He extended it to me, opening a bag to prepare treatment on Kit. Before I could get the mask on his face, to my insane disbelief, Kit smirked at me with a cough. “See? I’d told you I’d live-“

He shut up as I shoved the mask over his face. I was no mood to be sassed. “Save your breath.“

“I’m an idiot,” he wheezed out, prompting me to nod along with him in agreement. “I was almost out when I heard that other guy choking on the gas and went back for him. He’d already croaked by the time I got there.“

“Just breathe,” I ordered, checking him over for more injuries. “I-“

I yipped in surprise as I was hauled forcibly backward by my shoulder.

“What are you doing?!” Elena snarled at me, trying to drag me away from Kit. “You’re going to ruin your dress!”

I went to protest but failed completely in my ridiculously tall heels. I looked back at Kit to make sure he was okay and he gave me a weak thumbs up.

“The four other contestants will be offended by your preferential treatment,” Elena hissed, absolutely scandalized by my compassion as she grabbed me by the wrist.

“He was choking,” I exclaimed, trying to get her to let go. In her mad haste to take me back to my seat, she hadn’t noticed that I could barely keep up and couldn’t take big steps because of the limited movement the skirt gave me. I stumbled over the grass and landed hard on my knees due to the absurdly tight pencil skirt.

She kept going, ignoring as I cried out and scraped both of my knees. “Stop, Mother! Ow-“

“Elena, stop,” Father exclaimed, coming to my aid as she continued on without noticing I’d gone down. She kept walking, yanking me behind her as I tried to stand and kept tipping over.

In some part of my mind, I realized that she must’ve taken something. I knew she popped pills but had never seen her like this before. She was completely out of it.

To hell with my clothes. I took my free hand and reached down to rip the skirt. But before I could, a hand grasped my free shoulder from behind and then grabbed my mother’s hand on my other wrist.

“Let go of her!” Kit commanded, using a menacing, authoritative tone that I hadn’t heard from him before. He shook her off, getting me to my feet before standing protectively in front of me. He stayed there, shielding me as Father arrived.

“She’s high,” Kit hissed back to me, sounding appalled.

Seeing her now as she glared back at Kit, her eyes were dilated.

“Oh, dear, Elena,” Father said, steering her away from all the cameras which had followed us. “I do believe you’ve gotten too much sun. Let’s get you inside…“

Kit just looked between the two of them with another wheeze, cursing in Spanish. He looked back at me and I just shook my head, forestalling any questions by jerking my head back at the cameras.

He rolled his eyes, seizing my hands to look at the scrapes on them and grumbling to the EMT who’d arrived, “Get her some bandages and antiseptic. Nasty puta. High as a friggin’ kite!“

I sputtered as a couple of guards came up and nabbed him, hauling him back away from me. Kit didn’t take it very nicely, trying to jerk his body out of their grip. “Eh! Get your paws off me!“

“You!”

I turned warily as Tiny stomped up to me and looking pissed to hell. Her eyebrows were jammed over her eyes, telling me I was in for it. She grabbed me by the back of my jacket, forcing me to turn and then shoved me toward the stair that led back into the inner stadium. But not before growling at me, “This is all your fault, rushing over like that! You looked like a commoner!”

“He was choking,” I protested, trying to peer back and earning myself a sharp prod in the back.

 “Get inside before you screw anything else up!” she hissed after me.

I nearly stumbled again, biting my tongue to stop myself from screaming at her. That or crying. It wasn’t my fault that my mother had gotten herself high again.

Stomping off the field, I made it into the tunnel that led out of the stadium. Once out of public view, I snapped. I took my shoe off and threw it at the wall. I kicked the other one off with equal force and it bounced off the concrete block wall closest to me.

Somewhere between wanting to beat the hell out of someone and the urge to break down and cry, I leaned wearily against the wall. I slid down and sat on the floor. Putting my head in my hands, I bit back tears.

This was no life. I always ended up like this. While the world thought I lived the high life, I was little more than a slave to my parents’ whims. A toy – no – a puppet for them to exploit for the whole world to see.

Hearing approaching footsteps, I wiped my nose. Seeing Mortimer squat in front of me with a grim expression, I forced myself to smile. He sighed and patted my hand. “Come on, tiger. Let’s get my favorite soldier mopped up.”

I nodded, knowing he was absolutely furious just by the set of his eyes. As they scanned the blood covering my knees and hands, a muscle in his jaw twitched. But he knew better than to say a word. If either of us expressed our displeasure in a way that angered the hierarchy, we both knew we’d suffer and the price we’d have to pay.

So letting him help me to my feet, I just wearily leaned into his side as he took me home… if one could call it home, that is.


That wraps up this week’s chapter! Any predictions for the next week? Anyone dare guess what was causing the walls to shake? No guesses on where Aiyla and Kit’s relationship is heading or perhaps the identity of the Lynx? per a few of your requests, I’ve prepared to release the

If you’re enjoying the story, make sure to subscribe for my newsletter. Each week I’ll send you an alert when the next chapter is up. As thanks for joining, I’ll send you a free copy of my best selling ebook Still Death from my Destiny in the Shadows series.

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An Assassin In Time – SciFi Book Review (SA Asthana)

This book leaves you with more internal questions than you began with, and in the best possible way as a reader. Ones that will tease your mind long after you finish reading…

With elements of time travel, history, and science fiction, this short story reaches beyond its minute length. If anything, it leaves your own mind to wonder what happened after it ends and the consequences of altering time. If you modify history, does it mean that humanity will be bettered for it? It begs the question if killing is justified when many other lives are spared… especially if the savior in question has a grudge of her own and one that is shared by many. Is it still morally right to kill?

Slight spoiler alert. This story involves talk of the Holocaust and Hitler, so those triggered by the topic may wish to skip this title. Otherwise, it is a very good short read.

Now if only it were a full length book, S.A. Asthana. You’d have an immediate customer in me if you were to make it a full length novel.

Four stars

About the story:

What if you were tasked with traveling back in time to alter history and save millions of lives?
For Navy Seal Jessica Kravitz, that is precisely the assignment. But will she have what it takes to make history by changing it? How far will she go to save lives? Would she be willing to kill? Read and see. If you like thrilling science fiction, strong female characters, and time travel, this story is for you…”


If you enjoyed this review, make sure to sign up for my newsletter. As a thanks, I’ll send you a free Ebook from my Destiny in the Shadows series.

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Taking Submissions for Fantasy & SciFi Books To Review

Okay my dear readers and fellow authors. I’m tentatively looking for some book suggestions to review for this blog. And when I say tentatively, I mean because I have specifics. Yes, I’m a fusspot, as are many of your fellow readers here.

Looking for:

– Fantasy with emphasis on action and adventure (romance is okay, but no erotica please). Bonus if its urban fantasy, paranormal, shifters, fairy tale retellings, etc.
– Scifi (again, action heavy books are preferred. No erotica). Space opera isn’t a favorite, but we’re willing to give it a try.
– ASSASSIN BOOKS BOTH GENRES WILL MAKE IT TO THE TOP OF THE PILE 😁THEY’RE PARTICULARLY FAVORED BY READERS
– Love female POVs, but either gender is fine
– Would like the books to be on KU if possible. If not and you are an Indie author willing to send an ARC, indicate in your submission.

EXTRA BONUS: If you’re an author and tell me you’ll share the review when I post it on this blog, it helps increase your chances of being chosen

If your suggestion is excluded from the criteria or isn’t chosen, please don’t be offended. Your book choices are still awesome, I still love them, but I (and many readers here!) just can’t handle certain genres like horror. I need to sleep and due to an overactive brain, have a tendency to bring what I’ve read into my dream 😂 When I jaw Jurassic World recently, I wound up dreaming the T-Rex chasing me that night!

Okay, folks. Have at it. My TBR review pile is gonna lap my house by the time I’m done. I can just feel it 😂

Make sure to comment your submission and links to be considered.

Nexus (The Hollow Men #1) Book Review

When I opened this book, I was ambushed with monsters of a human making that demanded I turn the page. From the get go, this book grabbed my attention.

While dystopian, post-apocalyptic YA science fiction is not my usual preferred reading genre, this book stood out with a maturity that makes it apt for all ages. With plot points of AI machines attempting to exterminate the remains humanity, it brings up questions that should be on every mind. What are the consequences of integrating human elements with machine, especially emotions? And what about the interpretation of desires that could rule both our kind and artificial intelligence?  Wrapped up with a message of love conquers all, I enjoyed the story.

The only drawbacks are for those who have nightmares easily and frightening situations leave them unable to sleep, it might not be the book for you. While it is most definitely science fiction, there is an element of horror due to the Hollow Men sequences. It also includes mild LGBT themes for those who might be offended by the POV from a young man.

Overall, it is a very good read and the ending leaves you wondering what will happen next. Five stars, Mr. Joshua Grant.

Here’s more about the novel:

“When the Hollow Men came, humanity fell. Forced to scrape out an existence from the rubble with the rest of the survivors, Jonah Byerly struggles to get by. Hunted by dark murderous things, he yearns for something more—a hope from civilization long past, for love and acceptance. But Jonah isn’t like the others as much as he would like to be. He harbors a secret, a shadow in his soul that could revive humanity…or see it drown in the endless hunger of the Hollow Men…”

Did you enjoy this review? Before you go, make sure to pick up your free bonus E-book from my Destiny in the Shadows series, STILL DEATH.

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 3

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Series

If you missed the PROLOGUE or PART 2 last week, make sure to read it them to catch up before reading chapter two! I don’t want you guys getting Otherwise, enjoy this week’s chapter!

Copyright 2019 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel


Chapter Two: Chance Encounters

The press conference grated on my every last nerve.

Standing beside my father… Er, no. Standing just behind him as always, I grimaced as the ten would-be suitors lined up for the press. That is, the ‘would-be-dead’ suitors as I called them.

Only one had even looked at me over the last half hour, telling exactly why they were all truly here. Money. It always led back to the grandeur of money and fame. Oh, and death. Apparently they all craved that. The only surprise so far was that instead of ten men, it was nine.

The tenth was a woman. Now there was a female competing for my hand. You just couldn’t make this crap up.

My father looked them over with pride. Pride over what I wasn’t sure, but pride all the same as he read out from the teleprompter, “Today marks the start of the new Tourney cycle.” I ground my teeth together as he continued, “We honor those who have previously competed and encourage those who have come to compete in this round. My daughter is excited by the prospect…“

That was it. I tuned out. While he was content speaking, his greying hair gelled to the point it didn’t move, I was squirming inside.

Seeing one of the contestants looking at me (and thankfully of the male variety), I met his eyes. He licked his lips and I was instantly repulsed. I looked away, dying on the inside as I realized that though I wanted nothing to do with him, he’d soon be dead. But as I felt a nudge, I realized that I’d been spoken to.

“Anna,” my father said, completely calm despite the media frenzy going on in front of us with all the reporters and their microphones. “Do you wish to speak a few words of encouragement?”

Hell no but I knew better than to refuse the direct order. I was expected to speak. The punishment if I refused wasn’t worth it. My pre-prepared speech was waiting on the teleprompter.

I forced myself to smile, going to the podium. Hands clenching on the side of the flat surface, I began, “Thank you, Father. What would we do without your courageous leadership?”

We’d probably all go on just fine but I didn’t dare intone that. He merely simpered, buying my fake display of affection as I smiled at him. His green eyes were filled with nothing but satisfaction as I added, “And the bold battle that these men are about to undertake, all for the chance they can beat the odds…”

What a load of crock. Still I continued. “I’m humbled by their devotion to our city. Much like the forty men in the last competitions…“

I stuttered as I read the words they wanted me to say. I kept fumbling as I read in my mind, ‘Their bravery was considerable. We remember the past contestants with fondness’

The words stuck in my throat. I couldn’t mock the dead and that’s what these words were: a sham. My knees felt weak and my hands trembled. I couldn’t do it.

Elena stared at me from the audience, eyes narrowing. Though my mother’s expression didn’t waver due to her Botox, I could see pure fury kindling in her eyes. Even the upbraiding I’d get from her wasn’t enough to dissuade me. I cleared my throat, averting my eyes as they began to tear up. “My speech isn’t – can’t see it well. Sorry. Thank you.”

Even if I appeared ungrateful, somewhere in the heavens there were forty men who’d understand why I was rattling apart. All the saints and angels were party to my panic attacks whenever the Tourney commenced.

I headed offstage and behind the curtains to where the working people were: the caterers. A few looked up and quickly went back to ignoring me. But I wasn’t the only one who’d come in.

“What was the hell was that?!” my mother demanded, stomping up to me as I turned. He beige pantsuit clashed fabulously with the mottled red rising in her cheeks.

Better to lie than ‘fess up, so I said simply, “Teleprompter malfunctioned.“

“I was farther away and could read every word,” she seethed, absolutely scandalized because I hadn’t done as told. Her hair was even quivering, despite the hairspray coating her blonde-dyed locks. “Why did you deviate?! You embarrassed us!“

  Now bored with her, I reached for a Danish on a tray that would be heading out to the social after the conference. She smacked my hand, snapping, “Don’t you dare! Not after the ice cream last night! You need to fit in the sample sizes you’re given.“

“I worked out for three hours before the ice cream,” I grumbled. “Didn’t have any breakfast…“

She wasn’t listening. Elena stepped up to me, examining my face with unnerving proximity. “And dark circles! What have I told you?! If you can’t sleep, take a sedative! Your appearance-“

“I won’t take a pill just to suit your standards,” I hissed, smacking her hand away. “I couldn’t sleep because I was attacked! Adrenaline rushes with that kind of experience; not that you’d know.”

“At least you didn’t get any bruises,” she sniffed, still inspecting me. “The designers would’ve been livid if their creations were marred by your appearance.“

That stunned me. My mother had sunk to yet another new low. Fussing over my appearance when I could’ve been killed? Just classic.

Deciding to change subject before I lost my cool, I muttered, “Did any of them ‘fess up as to why they tried to abduct me? Motives?”

She shrugged with an apparent lack of interest. “All I know is the firing squad took care of them.” Snatching a carrot stick from one of the trays, she plopped it in my hand. “You need to mingle with the guests for the press to see. And for God’s sake, straighten your lipstick!”

She stomped off in her Jimmy Choos, leaving me to groan. I looked at the silver serving tray beside me, noticing my reflection. “Yeah, except I’m not wearing any lipstick.”

I traced my bare lips, the reflection mirroring the movement. I saw beauty, but it did nothing for me. None of it was mine. Even my eyes held contact lenses which changed my normally topaz brown eyes to blue. Every part of me was forcibly changed. Apparently I looked too much like the locals to be pretty in their eyes. Nothing about me was ever good enough.

I straightened my dress, wincing considering it was three sizes too small even though I was already a size two.

Feeling weak from not eating was the norm for me, especially since Mother had denied me access to the kitchen a month ago. All meals were delivered to me now unless I was eating out. A measly quarter of a grapefruit every morning, a salad without any dressing for lunch, and then whatever the cooks felt like torturing me with at night was how I sustained myself.

Heading out to converse with the wolves, I re-emerged from behind the curtain. Immediately a reporter snagged me, demanding, “Anna! What are you wearing?”

“Clothes,” I said dully, not in a tolerant nor forthcoming mood. “Do I look nude to you?”

He didn’t catch my cynicism. “And your thoughts on the vigilante crisis?”

That caught my attention. “Crisis?”

He nodded, gleeful that he’d get my unfiltered thoughts on the subject. “The rise of citizens engaging in police-like behavior. What’s your opinion on this dangerous new trend?”

Noting the word ‘dangerous’ and already knowing my father’s opinion on the matter, I replied, “Well, considering a vigilante came to my aid last night, can’t say I’m opposed to them.”

Take that and stuff it in your peace pipe, Elena, I thought to myself. My mother would have a fit when she learned of this, but after this morning I didn’t care.

“Came to your aid?” the reporter prompted, almost salivating at the idea of getting himself another story.

I nodded, not going to add much further. “I was attacked and my driver murdered. The police didn’t come fast enough, so the Lynx arrived before they did. The facts speak for themselves. There’s no opinion on the matter. It’s simply what he did.”

He just stared at me, completely astounded by my candor. None of us aristocraps, er, excuse me, aristocrats ever let on about matters such as that.

Before he could ask anything else, I waltzed away. Really starting to feel faint, I needed to find somewhere to sit while the spell passed. My stomach was churning and my head spinning, but I couldn’t let any of the guests see. Either way, I needed to eat something more than a carrot stick.

Getting to the main table where a servant was manning the buffet, I reached for a piece of toast. I was angered as he blocked my hand with his tongs, saying, “Sorry, miss. Orders are that you can’t partake. Would you care for some water?”

“Water?” I asked, smelling my mother’s interference a mile away. He was watching me with some fear, obviously worried that I’d make a scene. My mother would have him fired in an instant if he deviated from her wishes.

I didn’t even stay to hear his reply. Apparently in Elena’s world, two carrot sticks were enough to live on. Either way, I needed to find somewhere to sit. It was either that or fall down, and I’d never hear the end of it if I did.

Heading for the garden behind the tents, I made it to the patio. I breathed deeply, trying to stifle the feeling of being out of control of my own body. I got hypoglycemic often enough, but this was far worse than the usual.

“Sorry, miss,” a familiar voice said, leading me to stop in surprise. Then the owner of the voice stood, having been sitting for a minute and drinking something. Alvin caught sight of me and then relaxed, making me wonder what he was doing here. “Oh, it’s you. Thought you were my boss…”

“Alvin,” I said weakly, greeting him as I put a hand on the railing to steady himself. While I was surprised to find him here, I didn’t have the energy to question it much. “What’re you doing here?”

He ran a hand through his hair, saying animatedly, “Catering company. Work two jobs. Hey, are you okay? I still can’t believe Haynesworth let you venture outside on your own.“

He cut himself off, reddening under my eyes and knowing he’d said too much. Heads usually rolled when people spoke their minds. “Sorry. I babble. You okay?”

“No worries,” I said even more softly, seeing that all the garden chairs had been removed. And if I sat on the ground, my skin-tight skirt would most definitely split. “I’m fine.“

“You don’t look fine,” Alvin said worriedly, looking me over with unease. He took a hesitant step closer. “You’re kinda pale-“

 “I get hypoglycemic when I don’t eat,” I said, closing my eyes and trying focus on the warmth of the sunshine.

Apparently Alvin was more astounded than I’d thought. He came up to me, saying, “So you’re the one who my boss said couldn’t be served from the buffet. I thought he was kidding when he said the daughter wasn’t allowed to be fed what the other guests are eating.“

I grimaced and focused on standing upright. The world was spinning something terrible. He stood right next to me now, asking further, “Why can’t you eat?”

“None of your concern.”

“It will be if you pass out,” he said, eyeing me up and down with concern. “You’re not doing a good job of-“

That was it. I lost the battle against my body and my knees gave out on me. Most fortunately, Alvin caught me before I hit the ground. He wavered a little bit, not sure of his own strength before lowering me to the ground. He supported my shoulders as I struggled to stay conscious. “Hey, stay with me! I got you-“

My head lolled on his shoulder a little, but I felt him shifting under me. He was talking fast to himself as my eyes fluttered, me failing to keep them open. “No, can’t get her food from in there, so-“

I heard crinkling, then my lip was touched. After a second, I realized it was a small straw. Alvin nudged me, instructing me, “Drink. To hell with my job. I’m not going to sit ‘n watch this, doing nuthin’-“

When I didn’t respond fast enough, he prodded me again. “Anna? Anna?! Come on, drink!”

I dimly took a sip, realizing it was grape juice. I took another as he murmured over me, sounding relieved. After another few minutes, I started to feel a tad stronger, taking a deeper sip. I put my hand over his on the juice box and he sighed with relief, letting me have it entirely.

“There we go,” he said with a great deal of relief as I chugged it down. “Depriving their own daughter of food. That’s a new one.”

I just nodded, hitting the end of the juice. I didn’t feel resilient enough to move yet, but the terrible feeling of losing grip was gone. Alvin kept me against his shoulder, just watching me with worry. “Thank you.”

“Good thing I always keep a drink on me,” he said, rubbing my shoulder. “Got kidney problems, so I know the feeling. Consider this my second attempt to save you, though this time more successfully.”

I shifted out of his grip slightly, seeing him blush. “I can usually handle the strain-“

“They do this to you often?!” he questioned with some horror.

I didn’t answer that. Something told me Mother’s paranoia over my diet was only going to get worse, though it’d only escalated to this level recently. “You’re very kind.”

“Hardly,” he stuttered, further embarrassed by my compliment as I watched him. “We’re all human. It’s not like I could let you pass out.”

I nodded, sensing I’d better not praise him too much. His blushing was starting to look painful he was so pink. “Won’t you be in trouble for taking a break?”

“No. If I tell my boss what happened, he’ll be kissing my ass,” he said with some amusement. “His worthless bum would be the one on the line if you were hurt.”

I sat back, looking at him even more closely. Out in the direct light, I realized he looked even younger than the night previous. “How old are you, Alvin? Shouldn’t you be in school?”

He shrugged, looking less happy. “Seventeen. Had to quit. A man’s gotta eat and so does my family…” He looked down. “But I’ll admit it does stink. I was up for a scholarship to the fancy schmancy prep school before that… Yeah.”

“Which school?” I demanded.

His chest puffed out with a bit of pride. “Tennison Prep. Biochemistry scholarship.”

Thinking on it for a minute, I murmured, “I’ll do you a favor. Consider your scholarship reinstated. I know the headmaster. He’d kiss my undercarriage if I demanded him to.”

He just stared at me. “You’d do that?”

“You save my ass; I help yours,” I said, sitting up more.

He looked like he might practically levitate off the ground he looked so happy. Then he deflated just as quickly. “I can’t. My mother runs an orphanage. We depend on my job as well on my brother’s.“

“If you spend a semester at this school, you’ll be able to support your whole family permanently,” I said sagely, knowing it was true. “You’ll be able to get a job anywhere.”

His jaw worked up and down while he thought about it. He looked at me then, just staring at me with an unrecognizable emotion. “All this because I gave you a juice box?”

  I smiled, happy for once that I could do something. A phone call I could manage to do without inciting my parents’ wrath. “I guess it’s your lucky day.”

“Oh, my gosh,” he gushed, putting his hands to his cheeks in delight. “Wait ‘till Mami hears! She’ll want to crown you for sainthood! I know I do.”

I chuckled, making it to my feet. He immediately launched to his, going to steady me. I patted his hand, amused by his attitude. While he was seventeen, something told me that Alvin was still more boy than man. Nor did I want him to lose his kind, generous nature.

 “Quit your job,” I said, straightening my skirt. “I’ll give the headmaster a call this afternoon. But I’d better head back in before I’m missed. What’s your full name?“

“Alvin Jose Rodriguez, biochem student,” he said so fast I barely caught it, monitoring me like I might drop again at a moment’s notice. He walked beside me, keeping one hand slightly extended in case he needed to grab me again. “Can’t I do anything for you? I mean, I still feel like I only gave you a juice box!”

I shook my head, waving him off. “A juice box is enough for me.”

He stood stymied for a second. “Why?”

I smiled at him, ducking my head as I went back to the people inside and glanced back over my shoulder. “Because no one has ever cared enough to give me one in this place before,” I said softly.

His face fell, hearing the sadness in my words. His lips parted, but I forestalled him by putting a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you, Alvin.”

He just stood stricken as I left, heading for the main area. I didn’t think he ever expected that to come out of me. Nor did I think he would let it go. Maybe he’d learn from it and keep far away from the world of the aristocrats in the city. He seemed like a smart guy.

As Tiny unfortunately found me, dragging me back to the main stage for the continued press conference, she thrust me out in front of the curtain. I saw my father sitting alongside Elena, both apparently waiting. I avoided both their eyes, sitting quickly beside them.

Elena was drinking vodka and it was only ten AM. Father was chatting with the press, laughing jovially as if there wasn’t a problem in the world. Apparently I hadn’t been missed.

But as I saw Alvin surface in the midst of the crowd at the very back and wave at me, I gave him a little wave back. He grinned with a wink and disappeared, hopefully heading home for good.

“Who was that?” Elena hissed under her breath, having seen the exchange. “You cannot be seen waving at civilians. Then they’ll think you’re dishing out preferential treatment amongst them.“

 Once again, I tuned her out with a half nod so she’d think I was listening. I looked at her hands, eyeing the martini glass. “Mother, it’s not even noon.”

Judging by the look she shot me, it was already five o’clock somewhere. She looked me over with some disgust. “That suit is too tight on you.”

Oh, here we go. “It’s a sample size 00. Of course it is.“

“It should fit!”

“On a skeleton perhaps,” I grumbled under my breath.

“Of course my daughter is eager to meet all the contestants,” my father proclaimed to the press, making me inwardly groan. He nudged me, smiling with a jovially fake edge. “I certainly would be if one of them was a possible spouse. Right, sweetiekins?”

I didn’t even reply, just flashing a small, tight smile at the row of chairs where the contestants sat. No one reacted.

Taking my cue, I rose to head for where the meeting would take place. I knew the drill. While this end of the event wouldn’t be televised, it was always the most frustrating part of the competition. Every time it was held, I tried fruitlessly to convince the contestants to back out and go home. I’d failed over forty times now.

My heels clacked against the marble floors, heading into the main house. The walls were richly green, the smell of paint still lingering from my mother’s last remodeling. All the new art was trendy, expensive pieces. Every single one held no beauty for me.

Tiny followed, reading off orders that I barely listened to. All of it was pure nonsense anyway. But as I made my way into the meeting room, I rolled my eyes. In one corner sat an extensively stocked bar. One I was sure wasn’t for the contestants. I gathered Elena had decided I was allowed to drink but not to eat. Real smart. As it was, the teensy juice box Alvin had given me would likely hold me until lunch, but I was starting to feel weak again.

Then again if she was complaining I didn’t fit into this outfit, who knew what they’d serve me next. Maybe a bouillon cube would be my next meal.

I nodded dismissively to Tiny as she trounced off, trying to mentally prepare myself for the contestants. While no one ever listened to me, I still would try. Then at least when they were all dead, I could console myself by saying I’d tried to warn them.

Pouring myself a water from the bar as she disappeared, I dumped four lemon quarters and a maraschino cherry into the glass. Better to get as much sugar in my system as possible, even if it was unbearably sour… and while Tiny was out of the room so Elena wouldn’t hear about it. 

Hearing the door, I turned to my first suitor. It turned out to be the lone woman in the competition.

 In heels, she stood tall against the height of the door, looking absolutely bored out of her mind. I dimly remembered having seen the overly quaffed woman before, murmuring, “Munson. You’re the daughter of the diplomat Brandon Munson. Are you Charline?”

 She nodded, stepping forward. His eyes were set on me, though they didn’t match the tone of her next statement. “Yes. And you’re even more beautiful than the last I time saw-“

I put my hand up, already reaching my limit. “Save it. Tell me why you’re really here. You already possess power and money, and we both know you’re no lesbian.”

Charline smirked, looking relieved on some level that she didn’t have to suck up to me. “So you’re a really straight to the point kind. No pleasantries, no nothing…” I’m sure my eyebrows went up as she continued, clasping her perfectly manicured hands together, “Fine. I’m up for a reality TV series and need the attention. The exposure from the games will launch my show.”

Oh, brother. I sat, sipping on my drink before saying with some humor, “You’re willing to die for that?”

Charline stuck her nose in the air with confidence. “I won’t die. My father wouldn’t allow it.”

Man, this one was deluded. Her hair looked like it’d come from a bleach bottle, so maybe that’s what’d fried her brain. “So you’d marry me and pose as gay just to get a TV show?”

She shrugged, unbothered. “A high-profile divorce isn’t bad for ratings.”

That statement left me to look at the bar behind me. Maybe having a few wouldn’t be a bad idea for the rest of the afternoon, because something told me it was going to be a very long day.

God help me.

….

Nine suitors plus a reality star wannabe were headed for death. Not one had listened to me. And now back in my room as the sun began to set, I was absolutely exhausted.

None of the men cared for me and instead were after the money and glory. I could see it. They knew I knew it. Two of them had outright laughed in my face when I suggested they back out of the games.

Thankfully I had some privacy for now. I stripped off my itchy designer dress and put on comfortable sweatpants. Taking my makeup off, I let my hair down. Under my foundation was treatment serum, the stuff practically bleach for my skin at my mother’s insistance.

I took my contacts out, at least happy that I’d managed to make the call for Alvin. Bright and early tomorrow morning, a representative of the school would head to his address. He’d get his scholarship after all.

Looking at myself in the mirror, I sighed. I hoped he’d do well. Personally, I enjoyed living down in that end of the city. It was the suburbs; poor people but lovely in spirit. When I’d been at the school my dear aunt had lived in the area.

Thinking of her wouldn’t do me any good now, though. The dead were something to be envied in my eyes. They didn’t have to lie every day for fear that their father would be deposed. Or worse, fear of being persecuted if they didn’t. If I disobeyed too much, there was always the fear that the people who controlled my father would have me shot.

Even the way I spoke was altered. Because I sounded too ethnic, having spoken with a Spanish inflection due to all the time I spent with Auntie Lola, they changed me. They altered my appearance and hired a speech coach for me.

But I refused to change myself entirely. I may have been forced (quite literally) during the day to sound the way I wanted, but once in the privacy of my suite, I did whatever the hell I wanted and sounded it, too.

Living by my own rules was completely out of the question once out of my suite. If I ran anyway, I’d be hunted down and forcefully drugged.

With the threat of being put into a comatose state by sedatives and anti-depressives, much like Elena, I generally did as told. It just wasn’t worth fighting. Either way, my life was a total farce.

Giving in to the urge, I went to the decanter on my desk and poured myself a glass of whisky. The PA system sounded off with an annoying tone and I groaned. “What?”

“Come downstairs,” Tiny snapped into her end of the line, making me curse. “There was a last minute entrant. You need to come meet him and be photographed.”

“Can’t it wait?” I whined, looking longingly at the couch I wanted to curl up on. “I took off all my makeup already.”

“No,” she said snottily. “We’ll have no time tomorrow.”

“Then send him up here,” I growled, in no mood for her obnoxiousness at this hour. She started protesting, so I snapped, “When I said I have all my makeup off, I meant it. If you want me to meet him tonight, it’s the only way I’ll be seeing him. Either send him up or I’ll meet him tomorrow. I don’t give a damn either way.”

A pause followed, Tiny thinking the idea over. “He’ll be up in a minute. We’ll get the photo tomorrow.”

Knowing Tiny would likely blame the photographer and get him fired for this purely to save her own ass, I just hung up. I took a sip of whiskey, preparing for yet another money-crazed moron to be thrust into my company.

I ran a hand through my hair and then abruptly stopped, feeling how dry it’d become. It was like straw it’d been bleached so much.

Hearing my door open and the hall guards outside speaking to someone, I sighed. But it quickly caught my interest as I heard some excitable sputtering, a new male voice yipping at them.

“Eh! When you said you’d search me, I didn’t give permission to stick your hand down there! Geez! No wonder you snicker at all us chicos!”

Getting the drift whoever was coming in was quite the character, and likely someone from the other end of town, I was highly amused as the newcomer proceeded to tell them all off in Spanish. The double doors opened, revealing a somewhat shorter figure. The fellow threw his arms up, back still to me as he yelled at them.

As the guards snapped the doors shut in his face, I dryly asked to the fellow, “You didn’t joke that you had a bomb in your pants, did you?”

The fellow turned to me, almost doing a doubletake as he looked me up and down. Unlike the others who been groomed to come see me, he was done up in a ratty looking set of jeans and a black T-shirt. He hoisted the jeans up in the back. “Apparently didn’t need to. I thought I was meeting the Presidente’s daughter.”

Sighing inwardly and realizing he didn’t recognize me at all, I muttered, “I look different in person. Most people do off the TV.”

He gave me a really weird look. “So they change your eye color?”

At least he was observant. That might keep him alive longer. I gestured at my couch, disregarding the question. “Sit. May I offer you a drink?”

He shook his head, warily coming further in the room as he glanced around. Deciding to forsake manners since he was completely uncooperative, I sat down with my glass of whiskey in hand and crossed my legs. “So… your name?”

“Joe,” he grunted, sticking his hands in his jean pockets and not moving any further into the room. “Joe Arenciana. But everyone calls me Kit. But I’ll bet your secret service people already told you that.”

I snorted, noting that whoever Kit was, he certainly didn’t seem fond of me. If anything, he appeared to resent his being here on some level. His lip remained slightly curled in a sneer as I replied, “No. As of five minutes ago, I was only aware of ten kamikazes. You’re the eleventh. Please sit.”

He did ever so warily and on the farthest end of the couch from me, monitoring me as if I were a wild animal. Not with fear, but with a great deal of loathing. I looked him over, seeing he was clearly of an ethnic variety my father didn’t overly endear himself to. Latino, perhaps with some Indian somewhere in his ancestry.

While he was attractive, that quality was heavily marred by the hawk-like look in his eyes. Their cherry wood tones were dark and hateful, making me wonder why he’d come. I could swear we’d met before, though I knew not where or when.

Then he looked away. “Sorry. This is all a bit hard to take. I’ve seen you in person, but you look and sound entirely different now.”

My eyebrows went up. So he noticed my accent differed from when I was out in public? “I gather your disappointment with me isn’t enough to discourage you from competing?”

“Hardly,” he retorted, sitting back a little. “You seem less plastic now, but I’m not fooled. Makeup or not, there’s much you can’t fake.”

Intrigued by his attitude, I replied, “Well, Mr. Arenciana, you’ll be the first contestant who hasn’t lied through their teeth and attempted to spin me a tale of love at first sight. Or second in your case, if you’ve seen me before.” I put my glass on the table in front of me. “I’ll still ask why you’re here to compete, though I suspect I know the answer. Tell me, is it the –“

“The money,” he said without hesitation.

I paused, trying to decide what to say next. “The idea of death doesn’t bother you?”

One of his eyebrows went up. “Who says I’ll die?”

“I do,” I said frankly, not bothering to BS him. I stared him down. “I’ve watched forty others bite it. I expected another ten, not eleven. Is money really worth dying over?”

“Yes,” he said firmly, making my heart sink. “I need it for mi tia’s cancer treatment. Without it, she’ll die.” I sucked in a sharp breath as he shot me a reproachful glare.  “I gather that’s a shock for you elites, not immediately getting medical care. But we lower class peoples need-“

“Cancer?” I asked softly.

He squared his chin. “It’s either compete for your hand or watch her kick the bucket. So si, it’s for the money. Is that honest enough for you, chica?”

His biting tone told me what I’d already suspected; he detested me. I sat thinking for a second. “How much do you need?”

“Ten grand,” he said, seeing my eyebrows rise and taking it entirely the wrong way. “I know that seems like a small amount to you, but to us-“

Making a decision, I stood and headed for my desk. He cut off, watching me with disdain. “Is this a dismissal?”

Opening my simple keepsake box, I pulled out my most prized possession. The simple gold cross was battered, worn and the setting on the lone diamond in the center almost broken. But I knew what I had to do. It’d be enough to save Kit and his family.

The diamond was loose and I’d planned to have it fixed. Instead I whacked it hard on the counter and the setting gave in and cracked. The stone broke off. Taking it in my hand, I went back to Kit. He’d been watching me with open confusion. I sat beside him, extending the stone to him. “Take this. Pawn it and get the money.”

He just stared at me for a second, then at the stone.

“¿Que?” He then translated it to English, thinking I didn’t speak the language. “Um, what?”

“This will be enough to cover it,” I murmured, extending my hand closer. “Take it and go. Then you won’t have to compete.”

He didn’t move one millimeter. “You’re giving me a diamond?”

I shrugged. “I’d give you more jewelry to help her, but then my people would wonder what happened to it. They’ll ask questions and I can’t…” I shook my head, thinking of the consequences. Nothing was mine. “Just take it and get her all fixed up. If you can, take what’s left over and get out of this province. Healthcare is better elsewhere. This city-“

Before I could finish, he pointed angrily to my whiskey on the table. “How much have you had?”

I looked at the ground, trying not to lose my cool. “Only a sip…“

“No!” he said flatly, shoving my hand away with something akin to disgust. “I don’t want to be accused of theft tomorrow when you’re sober!“

That was it. I’d finally had it with his attitude. I stood in one fluid motion, my fist clenching over the stone as I snarled, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to watch forty men die?! You may think I’m a selfish bitch, but I’m ‘egotistical’ enough to not want eleven more graves filled because of me! Take the damn jewel! If it means one less funeral for me to attend, then it’ll be worth it!”

I shook my head and turned away. “I’m not drunk. I’ve tried to talk every single man whose gone into these games out of it, but none have listened. I spent the whole afternoon trying to reason with this new batch of lunatics…“

Oh hell. Now I was starting to lose it. My voice shook as I walked away from him. “I don’t usually drink at all. I hate the damn stuff, but it’s either that or…“

Or cry myself to sleep, knowing what was coming in the morning: more death. I wiped my cheek of the one tear that had escaped, facing him and seeing Kit now completely baffled. I stuck my hand out to him. “Take the damn jewel, get out, and don’t come back. It saves both you and your tia. Go.”

He stared at me for a minute more before coming to stand in front of me, looking dazed. His eyes were different now, no longer filled with blazing hatred. But they were full of what I thought was sympathy and I hated that. I squared my chin under his study, refusing to back down.

Kit looked at the stone in my palm and ran a hand through his hair. “That’ll pay for a lot more than her treatment. I don’t need – we don’t – look, there’s got to be something else,” he stuttered, completely astounded by my generosity. “Something less valuable to you.“

“It’s all I have,” I admitted, shaking my head. I laughed humorlessly and put the diamond on his palm. “Nothing else is mine. The designers take back everything at the end of the season. My Auntie Lola would want it to be yours. She’d be happy to know she helped someone from beyond her grave.“

He just stared at me instead of at the stone, somewhere between wonder and incredulousness. That and looking me over with a speculative eye. He was obviously rethinking his opinion of me and not in a way I liked. I averted my eyes, shifting back on my heels. “Please don’t look at me like that. I know I don’t match what they make me look like on TV-“

“No, chica,” he said, his voice taking on a more soft, cordial tone. “I’m not judging. When I said…“ He looked at the diamond. “You’re beautiful. I hated that you were even more perfect without makeup. I wanted to think all of you was phony.”

I went to turn away, but stopped as he asked me, “It’s all an act, isn’t it? I came in here thinking I was dealing with just another lousy bureaucrat. I’m sorry.”

I forced myself to laugh, facing him again. “Don’t be. And don’t fool yourself. I’m everything you thought I was. I just don’t do well with guilt.”

Kit clearly didn’t believe me. “It’s too late to convince me of that, Anna-“

“Aiyla,” I corrected sharply before I could stop myself. “That’s my name.“

Realizing I’d just given away a very important detail to a civilian, I cut off. None of them were supposed to know my name. If word of this got out, I’d be in a huge amount of trouble. Fortunately for me, I was sure Kit wouldn’t be believed if he told anyone.

“Aiyla,” he repeated, testing it out. The strangest expression crossed his face, one of recognition. Then it was gone. “It suits you. Are the same people who made you into someone else the same ones who changed your name?”

He was way too smart for his own good. I took a step back, knowing better than to answer that for both of our sakes. He’d been here for far too long. Questions would be asked if I kept him for a minute more.

“Our time is up, Mr. Arencianna,” I said, adopting my brisk tone again. I clasped my hands together. “You should get that to your tia.”

He looked at the stone and then put his hand in his pocket, hearing his dismissal. “Si. She runs an orphanage, so you really did just make an impact. I just don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.“

Heading to the door abruptly, I held it open for him. “No need. Just get your tia well and help her with the orphans. There are far too many of them in this province.”

It wasn’t called Murder City for nothing. Dejado Atrás was known for its grim life expectancy, depending on where you lived in the ghettos.

He came to me, still dazed with what I’d done. “Can I at least shake your hand?” I shook on it and he gripped my hand as I tried to pull away, looking into my eyes. “Gracias, Aiyla. I will not forget.”

“Don’t mention it.” I forestalled him as he went to object. “I mean it. I’ll get in trouble.”

He nodded, looking troubled. “I’ll only tell mi tia. She can keep a secret. But you won’t stop me from telling everyone how nice you are, leaving out the details. It’s the least I can do.”

We stood looking at each other for a few more seconds, Kit seeming loath to leave. Then he shrugged. “Don’t get too drunk, chica.”

I nodded, lips twitching toward an emotionless smile. “Adios.”  

He smiled at me, this time with a little warmth and sorrow. “Hasta luego.

As he stepped out, surprisingly troubled looking, I shut the door behind him. Going to my glass of whiskey, I picked it up for another swig.

Looking at the amber liquid, I found I had no urge to drink it any longer.


And that’s it for this week’s edition! Feel free to share the links to these chapters as you please. I’m still awaiting Spotify to approve the podcast edition of the seies, so bear with me! Hopefully by next week, not only will you have a new chapter, but also an audio of it as well.

Any predictions for me? I do so love when people guess what’s coming next!

Either way, I hope you enjoyed chapter two. If you’re enjoying this serial novel, make sure to sign up for my newsletter. I’ll send you an alert every time a new chapter is published, plus as a thanks for joining, I’ll send you a free copy of my best selling ebook STILL DEATH.

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