Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 13

Enemy of the state.

I wasn’t sure if that was what I was considered or not.

To my relief, Teagan stayed down once struck, not fighting any longer. Either that or he’d been knocked out. I couldn’t be sure as they dragged me up two floors.

Once there, Haynesworth dismissed the other men and escorted me to a room at the far corner of the building. Once inside the conference room, I saw both Father and Elena sitting in chairs on the far side. Then I noted the ropes securing them in their seats, as well as six armed guards standing around them. All indicators pointed to the fact that we were done for.

I refused to show any fear.

“What’s going on?” I demanded as Haynesworth prodded me forward and shut the door behind me. “Father?“

“Your father is none of your concern,” Yaron’s icy voice interjected, the back of a chair from the far end of the table turning to see me. From his vantage point, he’d been looking out the window over the city. Pitch dark eyes glared, looking straight through me. “I’m in charge now.”

That boded ill. So he’d inserted himself as the Presidente? As my eyes swiveled toward my father, he sputtered out, “This is outrageous!”

“Shut up,” Yaron barked out forbiddingly. On his cue one of the guards smacked my father on the head from behind. Then Yaron’s eyes settled back on me with pensive scrutiny. “But there is still a question as to what to do with you. You’re a spy.”

I refused to betray my trepidation as he left that accusation hanging. “And what evidence do you have of that? That the Lynx decided to come to me in an emergency instead of you? That a woman ambushed me in the dressing room yesterday and scared me? I mean, I’ve sat on the knowledge that my father murdered my aunt for years now. What makes you think I’d side with the Forge now after I’ve remained silent for so long after learning that?”

As I said those damning words, my father paled and looked down at his lap. More to my interest, Haynesworth shifted from where he stood in the corner, eyes widening with understanding. Apparently he hadn’t known about Lola after all.

“I’m not concerned with where your allegiances lie,” Yaron sneered, clasping his hands together. “Or why you decided to disobey orders to leave. My interest is why the Lynx would visit you twice. Perhaps even more than you’re willing to let on…”

Then the question came as to what he was planning to do about his musings. Before I could question him, he flicked a finger at me. “Take her and dispose of the others. I’ll meet you after the press conference…”

A thrill of fear hit me square in the chest as both Elena and Father were immediately seized and secured, guns aimed at their heads. While I hated them both, I didn’t want to watch them die firsthand either.

“Dispose?!” my father bellowed, though not fighting them as he was hauled to his feet.

“Your position is at an end, Francisco,” Yaron replied calmly, much like he’d been bothered by a mere fly. Death apparently didn’t disturb, move, or deter his conscience. “You overstepped your bounds. You are of no more use to us…”

I looked away as he and Elena took to begging, pleading for their lives and assuring their loyalty to the Hacienda. Though with morbid amusement to the highest, I noted that neither of them pled on my behalf or even considered me at all. I meant nothing to them.

As Haynesworth came over and snatched my wrist, I didn’t fight him. I walked compliantly alongside him as he escorted me out, stifling my conscience as Elena and Father were left behind. Surviving was my concern for now.

Especially as we rounded the corner and I saw ten men waiting, all in riot gear. As Haynesworth pushed me forward, I knew I had to move quickly. Wait until they were least expecting it and then run. Otherwise I’d never get away.

Haynesworth said nothing to me, acting as if he’d never met me before in his life. Now knowing that he’d easily sacrifice me to save himself, I put my hands up and allowed myself to be ushered along. He likely wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me if his own salvation depended on it.

But as we came out to the main part of the floor next to the elevator, off to where patients were, a new kind of dismay came to me.

As the elevator opened, I swallowed hard as an orderly wheeled out a stretcher. On it rested Kit, lying on his side. They must’ve been transferring him up to the floor for intensive care.

Pausing in sipping on the soda they’d given him, his eyes riveted on me as he was wheeled past. Then they swiveled around between the ten armed men surrounding me, inclusive of Haynesworth. “Aiyla?”

A cat-like smile appeared on Haynesworth’s face as he prodded me forward, knowing exactly what he was doing. “Get in.”

“Go home, Kit,” I whispered brokenly, looking at the floor.

Gunfire echoed from the hall we’d just vacated, prompting me to jump violently and nearly fall over, skittering back instinctively at the sound. With my nerves shot, the sound startled me.

As I accidentally knocked into one of the men behind me, he responded viciously. Stars erupted in front of my eyes as he struck me in the back of my head, presumably with the butt of his gun.

Landing on my knees, I cried out as my hands were pulled out from under me and I was pinned down from behind. Giving up on the idea of peacefully complying, I kicked out as my head was slammed hard into the linoleum.

In the back of my mind, I heard a roar from my other side, Kit lashing out at those who’d abused me. Managing to look up regardless of being pinned, I saw him launch off the stretcher. Despite being so grievously injured, he threw his orderly off as they attempted to restrain him. “Get your hands off her!”

“Kit, don’t!” I cried, knowing that the police would have absolutely no qualms about shooting him if he posed enough of a problem. As I tried to sit up, I was slammed back down, this time by three men.

“Sedate her,” Haynesworth ordered with open boredom, gesturing at me. “Easier to transport her then.”

Crying out as I saw Kit likewise being tackled to the ground, I stifled a sob. Despite my warning and all his injuries, he was doing his best to fight his way to my side. From my vantage point, I could see his eyes. They remained focused on me with steely determination, desperation etched on every feature as he fought to free me.

Throwing off a second orderly as they nabbed him, he managed to get a few feet further before being taken down and pinned to the ground by two more who had run up. But as they produced a taser to try and subdue him, I screamed out, “Don’t hurt him! Leave him alone-“

I cut off as my head was jerked, pulled up by the hair and a needle jammed into my neck. I barely felt the sting, my mind too preoccupied on the man before me.

“Aiyla?!” Kit cried out, still struggling as a heaviness fell over my mind. Everything started to slow with a sluggish haze as the drug hit me, my body shutting down despite my best efforts.

In the slowness of the moment, Kit’s face crumpled into despair, eyes locked on mine. His voice came out with a whimper as he called out my name again and began to cry over his failure, the sound almost as desolate as the feeling overcoming me.

I tried to respond but couldn’t as the drug incapacitated me. I was released as I sagged forward, hitting the ground front first. I tried to keep my head up but couldn’t. Control fled from me as I slid one hand toward Kit, reaching for him despite the haze sliding over my mind.

All I could see was his sobbing face as the darkness swallowed me whole.


Next week’s chapter promises to be explosive. Until then, love and hugs…

Author Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

Copyright 2020 Del Muerta Sanctum of Hell Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

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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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 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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Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 2

If you missed the prologue last week, make sure to read it HERE to catch up before reading chapter one! Otherwise, enjoy this week’s chapter:

Copyright Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel 2019


Chapter One: Anna

Imagine living your life inside a body bag, breathing through a minuscule hole poked in the side to get oxygen. You’re desperate to escape but the zipper is on the outside, out of reach, and the plastic refuses to rip.

That’s how I live my life.

That is my existence.

It’s a wonder I don’t suffocate.

Currently every ounce of my aggravation was being taken out on the aging punching bag in the corner of my suite. Left strike. Right strike. Someone’s head was getting bashed in my mind, namely my mother’s… and I didn’t feel guilty considering what she’d pulled this morning. Obsessing over my diet was one thing. Deciding to starve me was another.

But as my sneaker got stuck on the Velcro edge of the bag, leaving me to wobble unsteadily on my feet, I cursed. “Crappy piece of-“

“Your father would throw a fit if he heard that.”

Unable to turn to Mortimer as he came in and still stuck by one shoe, all I could do was laugh sarcastically as I loosened the shoelaces that’d gotten caught. “He can kiss my ass. There aren’t any TV cameras around; are there?”

There would never be one in this room. Daddy dearest wanted to broadcast to the public that I was a dainty, perfectly primped and competently obedient woman. Showing the fact that I was a fighter and one that could kick most of his security teams’ collective asses wasn’t his idea of a good daughter.

As the presidente of Dejado Atrás, or so the public thought, he was the subject of a federally funded reality television show. Every part of his life was televised to the public on Friday nights. To my condescension, I was also expected to appear weekly. Lucky me.

Finally managing to get unstuck, I smirked. Looking back at Mortimer, his eyebrows were definitely up; his greying buzzcut wet with rain. I smirked, gesturing at the bag. “What? No comments on my error?”

Usually he would. Mortimer had been by my side since I was ten, teaching me how to fight. Considering my father’s position of power, he’d done his best to turn me into an absolute beast in case I ever was captured. His lip quirked. “You already know the critique. I merely came with news…”

I groaned in a manner that I didn’t dare do on camera. “Don’t tell me. I have to meet with another ambassador.” I wiped off the sweat that was dripping down from my brow. “Tell them how honored I am to meet their worthless ass?”

He chuckled, going to sit by the door.  “You’re in a fine fettle.”

I leaned on the punching bag with a weary chuckle. “Heard Dad on the phone with the loser from Espocha City. Wonder if he’ll have the balls to approach me with that moron.”

Mortimer sniggered as I rolled my eyes, pitching my voice down to imitate my father. “Pumpkin, I’ve found you a very special man, one even more corrupt than I am. You’ll make a perfect couple, providing you don’t tell him how morally repugnant you find his business practices…“

He shook his head at my ranting. I could tell he agreed, though he didn’t dare say so for fear it’d get back to his boss. “Aiyla, you’re his daughter. Get over it. Can’t change it. Gotta get used to the bullshit like I did if you want to survive.”

I nodded, glumly tightening my gloves. As the former head of my father’s security and before that an army beret, he knew everything. “I know. Just another day in the life of chica numero uno, the most useless-“

“You’re not useless.”

“Sitting pretty is useless,” I grumbled, looking at him. I knew damn well just what everyone outside of these walls thought of me. I was collectively despised.

“Ah,” he said theatrically, his murky grey eyes solemn as he leaned forward. “I take it your proposal to become spokesperson for the children’s literacy grant was blackballed?”

Bingo. I punched the bag again, this time with renewed vigor. “Of course. I have too much on my plate already.“ I kicked the bag and then sucker punched it, gritting my teeth. “Especially since there’s only so many times I can straighten my lipstick in a day!”

“For once, your father is correct,” Mortimer harrumphed.

That declaration certainly got my attention. I turned to look at him, seeing his amusement gone as he rubbed his hands together. Whatever it was, he was dreading telling me. “Aiyla, they’ve decided to broadcast the Tourney again.”

No. God, no.

I sat down on the floor with a dull plunk, my knees without feeling. They were holding it again. The Tourney was a series of deathly televised games where men would compete, supposedly to win a chance at ten million dollars. Oh, plus my hand in marriage to cement themselves as an elite.

What all the entrants didn’t know was that it was rigged; not to test the contestants but to kill them all right there on the silver screen. Pure entertainment to cater to the bloodlust of masses; the height of reality television. Blood sold just as well as sex and the TV networks knew it.

It was my father’s sick idea of boosting public ‘morale’ with the idea the winner, too, could become one of us if he survived.

But my father didn’t know what the less fortunate public called the Tourney behind his back: Espectáculo de Asesinato. The Murder Show. A real morale booster for sure. And we were considered the murderers.

“He’ll announce it at the press conference tomorrow along with the names of the competitors,” he continued, looking troubled.

Estan loco!” I said, referring both to the show itself and the willing competitors. Father had already managed to dig up contestants; more morons who would die for a worthless competition. I slammed my fist on the floor. “How many lunatics did he get this time?!”

“Ten.” I groaned and flopped back on the mat, letting a few more four-letter words slip past my lips. Mortimer grunted, always a sure sign that he was on the edge of admitting what he really thought but decided against it. “Don’t upset yourself. They’re grown men. It’s their choice.”

“All this is a con,” I groaned, running a hand through my hair and looking at the ceiling. “A trick to make people think there’s a one in a zillion shot that they could win. How can they not see that?!”

My last sentence ended with me shouting. Thirty men had died already, and all in my name. Their deaths were televised across the country, this being the third year in a row.

“Power is a tempting lure; as are you,” Mortimer said simply, lugging himself up to come over to me with arms crossed.

I snorted humorlessly, ready for another round with the punching bag despite having done so for the last hour. “Yeah, because a piece of ass and a wad of cash is really worth dying over.”

Getting up, I met Mortimer’s stare evenly. He was only a bit taller than me, a stocky but strong man. And he knew exactly what I was going to ask. “Your father isn’t here. Don’t waste your breath-“

“I said nothing the last time,” I declared, raring to go confront him. “I know damn well how much money there is to be made off of this! All the elites involved do! They know no one will survive and reel in the advertising money all the same! Now he has ten new victims.”

Mortimer put his hand out to stop me, placing it on my shoulder. He shook his head, still somber. “Nor does he care.”

“I have to try!”

This time he physically stopped me, stepping in front of me. He took my shoulders in his hands, making me stop and face him. “Aiyla,” he said softly, dropping his normally brusque tone. “You can’t stop it. The system is designed so that-“

“No one can fight it,” I whispered, knowing that if he was saying it was futile, it really was. I lowered my eyes to the floor. “Even me.”

Much like the citizens, I was trapped. Father was only a figurehead, controlled by the more powerful shadow state behind the scenes. He was a puppet for them to manipulate, a face for the public to equate as the leader and falsely blame for their troubles.

As his daughter I was held to the same standards. If I displeased those in true control, I’d be killed. I was an unwilling marionette, one that was manipulated every day of my life. A lamb for the slaughter before the golden calf of society. At twenty four years old, there was absolutely nothing in this life that was mine; not even my face.

He tipped my chin up. There was no hint of a smile in his eyes as he muttered, “These men are all volunteers. They’re not your problem.”

I smiled sadly, putting my hand on top of his. “Dangle a diamond in front of a beggar long enough and they’ll do anything for it. But I’m no diamond. I’m a crystal. Looks like a diamond only because it’s been polished for so long.” I shook my head. “Rub off the shine and it’ll crack.”

“Your beauty isn’t a curse.”

“I don’t care what I look like,” I grumbled as he gave me a teensy hug and then stepped back.

No matter how much he obviously wanted to comfort me, Mortimer knew better than to get too chummy with me in this place. Cameras were everywhere and we both knew if Father started to feel threatened as my ‘paternal figure’, he’d fire Mortimer in a heartbeat. I forced myself to smile, keeping my usual sarcasm as a defense. “Everything in my life is superficial except you.”

He cracked a rare smile, the expression fleeting from his features. “You are a diamond, hun. You’re as hard as one, as well as the strongest person I know. Someday you’ll see.”

For the millionth time ever, I wished that Mortimer was my true family. In my heart, he already was. He’d been by my side since forever, teaching me everything he knew. I even stayed at his house a few times when boarding school had holidays and my parents were away. He and Aunty Lola would do their best to care for me.

He went to say something else, but we were interrupted as my personal assistant came trouncing in. For all intents and purposes, I despised the woman but knew better than to tell her that. Tiny thrived on making me miserable and I knew she could turn up her efforts to an even higher notch.  

Her name didn’t fit all two hundred pounds of her as she charged toward me, her black hair pulled into an insanely tight bun. But my stomach bottomed out as I saw that she had another garment bag.

“Aiyla, you have a dinner with the police chief’s son,” she proclaimed, acting more like I was her servant than her boss. Then again, she answered to my mother Elena so any control I had over her was a farce. She tapped her tablet, barely even looking at me and clearly already put out. “You’re supposed to have been ready-“

“Gorgen can handle me like this,” I grunted, unbothered while taking another chug of water. “I used to kick his butt every week in boxing class before Dad decided I was ‘above’ taking public classes.”

She sniffed with impatience. ”You’re so predictable, Anna.“

“My name is Aiyla,” I snapped, officially losing patience. “If you want me to listen to you at all, use my friggin’ name.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know that the statistics of the poll showed that the public prefers a European name. We need to make the citizens more comfortable.“

Comfortable was another word for pliable. “Yes, because giving me a bland, European name in a Latin American dominated culture is really going to make me popular,” I growled, my eyes narrowing and hers mirroring the movement. “Need to keep them passive, right?”

Mortimer choked on a laugh, cackling as he strode off. He hated Tiny just about as much as I did. She knew it, too, thrusting the garment bag at me. ”Get changed.”

“If you don’t like it, then quit,” I challenged, snatching it from her.

She tutted, absolutely scandalized. “When I took the job I was assured you were socially pliable.“

Socially pliable equated with being dragged along like a yap yap dog in her wake. I.e., I’d be her bitch.

“If ya wanna keep your job, give me a little more sugar and drop the spice, sweetheart,” I drawled, bearing down on her. Tiny squared her jaw, looking like she wanted to scream at me. I smiled, letting her know that despite my general tolerance for her orders, I wasn’t going to give in. “Bring the car around…”

She quickly disappeared from my suite, loathing radiating out of her every pore. Looking over at Mortimer, I shrugged as I saw his open amusement. “What little power I’ve got isn’t going to be wasted.”

He just chuckled as I headed for the bathroom to change. “Enjoy your ‘date’. Tell Gorgen that I hope his left hook has improved since the last time you beat the crap out of him.”

All I did was wink, draping the garment bag over my shoulder as I went.

***

Two hours later and I was beyond bored.

Sitting in the upscale, five-star restaurant on an obscenely hard plastic bar chair, I was wishing it’d cone complete with a punching bag like the one I’d left behind with Mortimer. Gorgen had yet to show, leaving me alone, looking like an idiot and trussed up like a Barbie doll.

Done up in a pastel pink suit with a pencil skirt, silk blouse, diamonds on my neck and pointy shoes, I oozed high fashion. What it didn’t scream was ‘me’. I hated everything about it, even down to the body that was currently in it.

Oh no. I liked me right fine. I just hated my bleached, blonde hair and the pale tinge my skin had taken on since mother insisted I needed skin treatments to lighten my ‘commoner’ colored tan skin. Between that and feeling grouchy because of the diet they’d stuck me on, my heels were killing me.

Sipping on sparkling water with lemon, I stared at the bottle of Jack that was behind the bar. Could’ve done with a shot of that right about now but I knew better. The glasses on the table were glinting with the flashes of the paparazzi’s cameras. They were all outside watching me, snapping photos from the outside of the restaurant. The entire wall of this place was glass. Bulletproof glass, but glass all the same.

My pink-dyed fur stole fell on the floor again and this time I just left it there. I hated the damn thing with the fox’s head still attached. It should’ve been alive; not slaughtered for the sake of high fashion.

As a waiter came up, I turned toward him. I noted that he appeared too young to be working here, but he had a kind smile. He even had the same light, cognac-colored skin and dark hair that I once had. His hazel eyes rested shrewdly on me, taking in my continued vigil in front of the window.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked for the fifth time, looking me over. “You look like you could use-“

“Cyanide with a side of arsenic,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, not bothering to hide my aggravation.

He smirked with a wink, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Best I can do is a suicide. Our bartender is a magic maker. Had a sip once and that was enough to knock me for a loop.”

At least he had a sense of humor. “I’ll pass.”

The last thing I needed was to get smashed in front of the cameras. Then again, screw it. I knew another form of preferable suicide. I smiled at him. “You know what? Bring me a hot fudge sundae. Better: two.” I gestured at the empty seat next to me. “It’ll kill my mother when she sees it in the headlines tomorrow. ‘Presidente’s daughter commits diet suicide’.” I sneered. “An absolute tragedy. Put it on Gorgen’s tab.”

He smirked, enjoying my behavior. “Hardly a tragedy, miss. If your date can’t appreciate you, then he’s not worthy of you.” I stirred my drink with my straw, eyebrows up as he added flirtatiously, “I wasn’t kidding when I offered you anything you like.”

I took a sip, drinking him in a little with my eyes. By the looks of him, he was certainly a looker but a little young for me.

“You’re very cute,” I said slowly, enjoying myself but also withdrawing from him. “But take my advice. You may want to bite into an apple, but sometimes even the shiniest red sheen can turn out to be rotten to the core.”

He stared at me for a second, clearly unnerved with my candor before moving off to do as I ordered. I lost my patience and slipped my shoes off, turning my back to the window entirely. I snapped my fingers and the AI drapes lowered over it, shrouding me inside.

I closed my eyes, feeling the tightness of my skin from the makeup and wondering just what it’d take to get it all off. I felt like a wall with peeling paint, my lips dry from the matte lipstick that’d been painted on.

But as I heard footsteps and then something being placed on the bar next to me, I opened my eyes. There were three sundaes in front of me: one with candy, another with cookie crumbs, and the last with sprinkles. And next to them stood someone I knew all too well.

“I didn’t know what toppings you’d like, so I had all three made differently,” Ryan Haynesworth said with some amusement, noting my shoes on the floor along with the stole. His flashing blue eyes were filled with laughter. That and a great deal of lust.

He held out a whipped cream container. “I brought the whipped cream since you drew the curtains. You can eat straight out of the can without fear.” He lowered his voice, sitting next to me with a saucy wink. “Or off of me. Say the word and I’ll have the restaurant cleared for us. You’re worth it.”

I took a spoon and pulled the sundae with the cookie crumbs toward me. “Ah, Ryan. You’re always so… sweetly inappropriate.”

He laughed, taking his jacket uniform off and sitting next to me. Since he and Gorgen were brothers, he had the same striking blonde hair and light features. Despite being of an elite status, he was on the police force as a captain.

I extended a spoon to him. “Take your pick.”

He pulled the candy sundae toward himself, still eyeing me with amusement. “I don’t mind double dipping so help yourself. You can dip into my ice cream anytime.” He wasn’t talking about the sweets either as he took a bite. “You’re trying to spite your mother with calories, eh?”

He licked his spoon suggestively and I rolled my eyes. “Now you’re just trying to get my goat.”

“Now why would I go for your goat when I can have you?” he said with some humor and dug further into his ice cream. “My brother sends his apologies. He was… waylaid. Emphasis on laid.”

“Send my regards to his hookers because that man needs a sure thing,” I retorted, making him chuckle. “So you came instead? My hero…”

“Hero? Well, I could be,” he said, making me snicker again. “Just say the word.”

Oh, dear Lord. I turned to him, sensing he was doing his best to be outrageous. His eyes were glinting with ulterior motives as always. I crossed my legs, leaning back in my chair. “Why are you here?”

“I’m your personal escort until the games are officially over,” he said with no further humor, dropping his teasing. Seeing my revulsion with that announcement his eyes hardened and he chuckled. He took my hand and squeezed it, saying in a teasing tone, “I’ll be as sexually obnoxious as possible to keep you distracted. I promise.”

That I could believe. “Why, thank you,” I said dryly, taking another spoon of vanilla ice cream. As I felt something go up the inside of my calf, I looked down.

Ryan smirked at me. “Complimentary footsie is included in the ‘obnoxious’ package.” I rolled my eyes as he leaned forward deviously. “And believe me, the ‘package’ is fabulous. You should really consider inspecting the goods…”

As he sat back with cat-like smugness, I looked at him and all he entailed. While he was undoubtedly attractive, he knew it and that immediately turned me off. His arrogance was legendary. As his eyebrows went up, I said, “We do this every time we cross paths, Ryan. We both know you don’t want me.”

It was a game just to see how far he could get me to go. There was absolutely no chemistry between us, other than the innuendo banter to see who could outsmart the other party. He rolled his eyes, knowing I was dismissing him. “Oh, I want you; just minus the hideous pink fur stole.”

This time I laughed and he chuckled. That was a load of bunk, the quip made purely to get a reaction out of me. I stood in a fluid motion, bending to pick up the stole and then draping it over his shoulders. I kissed his cheek as I slipped my shoes back on. “See you tomorrow.”

He chuckled, wrinkling his nose at the pink fur around his neck. “I’ll be there cocked, loaded and ready to go.”

“I’m sure,” I said dryly, heading for the exit. His low laughter followed me, his focus probably shifting to bedding one of the waitresses who had been flitting around the restaurant. He was a notorious womanizer, one with immense success at landing himself willing prey.

Eyes followed me as I headed for the back entrance, all from people who were dining in the obscenely expensive restaurant. The waitstaff stayed out of my way, keeping a reverent distance.

The limo was supposed to wait in the back for me, away from the crowds out front. I texted the driver to make sure he was waiting and got an immediate response. Passing the kitchen, I headed out but, to my displeasure, once outside there was no limo. I looked both ways, seeing no cars whatsoever. Adding to my unease, the door snapped shut behind me almost like it’d been closed from within.

Immediately my hand went for my clutch, thinking of the handgun I kept inside it. Now on red alert I drew it, taking the safety off. I slipped my heels off, knowing they’d be nothing more than a hinderance in a fight.

The damp alley was dimly lit so I wasn’t able to see beyond another ten feet from me. Only an orange, overhead light shone, giving it a stark, creepy look. A dumpster was on one side, blocking the view beyond it.

Whirling as I heard a noise from behind it, I aimed and stepped out to keep the area in view. I hastily lowered my gun as I saw my previous waiter yelp and then put his hands up. He’d been behind the dumpster, apparently sneaking in a drink. His glass bottle fell from his hand and smashed on the pavement.

“Whoa!” he sputtered out, hands still up as I studied him with suspicion. “Please don’t shoot me. My family won’t be able to afford the loss of income if I die!“

Clearly he wasn’t the fighting kind. He looked even younger out here than he did inside – maybe on the edge of seventeen – and remained absolutely terrified. I lowered the weapon. He heaved a sigh of relief as I stepped forward. “You seen a town car?”

“No,” he said, looking around bewilderedly. “Usually VIPs go out the front, so I thought you were my boss coming to yell at me.”

I nodded, wondering where my driver had gone to. I studied the alley and rooftops beyond, wondering if I was in for an ambush. It wasn’t the first time nor especially the last. And since Father wanted people to believe we lived in utopia here and didn’t need protection, I had no bodyguards to fall back on either.

Leaving the alley and going on the main street would be dangerous. I was so ill-liked that I’d probably be attacked.

The young waiter ambled up, mournfully looking at his smashed bottle. “And no, I haven’t been drinking. I don’t handle liquor well, so I put root beer in the bottle to stop my co-workers from making fun of me. I’m Alvin-“

Alvin was clearly a friendly talker. I grunted, paying him little attention besides monitoring his movement. He frowned. “Shouldn’t you be out of here by now? VIPs never linger.“

“Driver’s bailed and the door locked before I could get back in,” I grumbled, having stuck my hand in my pocket and pressing the panic button on my alarm system. It’d alert the police and I had a very bad feeling I’d be needing them. The question was where Ryan had gone to.

Alvin’s eyes widened in alarm. “Locked? That shouldn’t be.”

He went to the door, testing it himself. It didn’t budge, confirming to me that we were in for a rough time of it. But as he looked back to say something, his eyes darted past me to widen with dread.

Following his gaze, I spotted men coming from the mouth of the alley. There were seven, all in black with their faces covered with black bandanas. I aimed the gun squarely at the closest’s chest, not taking any chances. Lord knew they were probably looking to abduct not kill, but I wasn’t taking any risks.

Surprising me, however, Alvin put himself in front of me. He squared his shoulders, saying with authority, “This is private property!”

Somehow I doubted very much that the men would be dissuaded by that. They were toting heavy automatic weapons.

My eyes darted around, spotting a fire escape about fifty feet away, but I wasn’t going to make that. They’d likely shoot before I could get to it. Not to mention one side of it was held up by a rusty bolt half hanging out of the brick wall. Any weight on it could bring it crashing down.

“Alvin, run,” I muttered, seeing he wasn’t going to back down. Preparing to defend me, his fists were clenched but he was in no way a threat. He hadn’t grown into his body yet, still more scrawny than muscular.

He stepped forward before I could stop him and was instantly struck down, the man closest punching him out. I edged away from them toward the back of the alley, keeping the gun aimed at the biggest’s head as they stepped around Alvin’s limp form.

“Whatever it is you want, it’s not worth dying over,” I snarled, edging back as they prowled forward. A trigger-happy woman was something nobody ever wanted to deal with, so they would probably try to sway me into giving up.

None of them stopped and, if anything, a few hands were twitching toward their own guns. One snickered at me, clearly not bothered by my threat. “You sure about that, Anna?”

They all laughed together, making my stomach sink. There’d be no ending this peacefully. Their leader gestured at my gun. “Put that down before you hurt yourself.”

“It won’t sting a bit if I shred your brain,” I threatened, still creeping toward the other end of the alley. At worst, I could wedge myself in the narrow to try to avoid them grabbing me. If I kept them talking long enough, I could keep them at bay until the police answered the summons from my panic button.

As one lunged for me, another used the distraction to his advantage, coming at me from the side. Before he could subdue me, I officially decided to stop playing nice.

Firing on the one going to grab me, it hit him square in the chest. But to my disgruntlement, other than staggering back a little, it didn’t stop him. He must’ve been wearing a concealed, bulletproof vest, most likely meaning the rest were, too.

I kept my aim true, hissing out, “Next one goes in the head. Tell me what you want and you might live.”

The back of the alley was getting closer as I paced backward. I refused to be cornered. They didn’t know what I was planning, matching my every step just like I wanted. They would be right under my target ambush zone in a minute.

They moved into a tight, half semi-circle around me, blocking any attempts to run past them. They’d obviously taken me to be an untrained fool. The lead one sneered from behind his mask, “Come quietly. There’s only five bullets left in that pistol now, and seven of us…”

I snickered, making them pause. “Only need one.”

Looking up, I shot the faulty bolt holding up the end of the fire escape. As I broke the bolt, it groaned and crashed down on top of all seven; the men crying out as it landed on them. Darting around it as they struggled to get free, I headed straight for back door of the restaurant.

I shot out the lock on it and attempted to kick it in. I reeled back as it failed to move, somehow barred shut from the inside. Deciding to abandon the idea as I heard movement behind me, I whirled for the open end of the alley. Better to risk running into the street than to remain within firing range. Before I could make it two steps, I was grabbed from behind.

Now down to three bullets, I pitched forward, trying to throw my assailant over my back. He anticipated my move, jerking back and dragging me with him.

Taking my next shot and managing to get one arm out of his grip, I fired at his foot. He screeched and then fell as I pistol whipped him, taking him down.

Whirling to see only two more of the men coming at me, the rest trapped under the fire escape, I decided to make sure they wouldn’t stop me from escaping. I popped one of them in the neck and then aimed directly at the second one’s forehead.

He paused mid-run, skidding to a halt with fear. His eyes widened and then abruptly changed course, booking it for the open end of the alley. I snorted humorlessly. “Yeah, you’d better run, you lousy, mother f-“

Hearing a noise from behind me, I whipped around to aim at a male figure in the shadow of the dumpster. While I couldn’t see him well, I could make out that he put his hands up as my finger twitched on the trigger.

“Whoa,” a heavily vocoded voice said to me, leaving me to see a set of shining eyes widen in the gloom. “I come in peace. Don’t shoot.”

Not altogether assured, I bellowed, “I warn you-“

“You took out all these guys before I could, chica, so chill,” the man said, cutting me off and stepping out further into the light.

Thoroughly bewildered as I saw black attire with what looked like some kind of a mask-helmet with two huge, horn-like things on top, it took me a second to realize they resembled some kind of animal ears. Between them and his black, flapping cape, I was absolutely astounded. What the hell was this supposed to be?

Apparently he could see my incredulity. He grinned, the lower half of his face discernable; only his eyes visible otherwise. “I’ll take credit for scaring the last guy off, but the rest was all you.” He looked over at the fire escape that was still pinning down several of the struggling men. “I came when I heard the scuffle but I was too late. Not to mention unnecessary.” He looked back to me, grin widening. “I’m impressed, chica.”

He was clearly from somewhere in the lower end of the city. While he had a voice changer, he carried the accent of one of the less wealthy ends of town. And one so thick that if it’d been any of my father’s men here, they likely wouldn’t have understood him.

Still unsure what his game was and deciding to cut the crap, I asked in Spanish, “You a cop?”

He laughed, flat out annoying me as he replied in what I was sure was his usual Spanish dialect. “Nah. If I were with the fuzz, you think I’d be talking with you? You look awfully guilty with that pile of bodies behind you.”

He was yanking me around now. I could hear humor in his voice, despite the voice changer in the side of his mask. He leaned against the wall, completely unbothered by the gun I kept aimed at him.

Your driver won’t be coming,” he added further, clearly waiting for me to lower my weapon. I did so slowly, realizing he wasn’t out to harm me. “Those men got to him before they could you.”

So that was where my ride went. As I studied the newcomer further, I couldn’t help but ask in English, “Who are you?”

If anything, he reminded me of a Zorro-wannabe. He only smiled wider, as if he’d been waiting for the question. He reverted back to English as well. “I am the Lynx.”

That didn’t sound right. Had I misheard? “The link?”

His smile faded a little, using his foot to nudge the fellow who I’d pistol whipped. “Uh, no. The Lynx.”

Completely stymied, I gave in and asked, “The link to what?”

He rolled his eyes, starting to look frustrated. “Ai! No, señorita. The Lynx. You know. See the ears? El lince? Meow?”

As he pointed at the enormous ears on the top of his mask, suddenly I understood. “Oh, a ‘lynx’?”

He nodded, satisfied with my recognition. Now remembering what my father had been bitching about a few days previous, the word ‘vigilante’ had been mentioned, as had a mysterious Lynx that’d been interfering with police territories. And here he stood in front of me now.

Knowing that the police absolutely hated him, as did all of the elites, I inclined my head. “Well, ‘Lynxy’, while I thank you for the assistance, you’d better scram. My entourage doesn’t like civilian interference.“

  Hearing my tone change, he cocked his head. “Eh. Watch it. Do I know you? Swear I’ve heard your snotty tone before. Few gatos speak with such authority.”

Now he was just sassing me right back, calling me a ‘cat’ in his disparaging manner. I rolled my eyes and suddenly his eyes zeroed in on me. He pointed at me with one fingerless-gloved hand. “Si! That’s it! Señorita Anna Gobacheva. The Presidente’s daughter.”

    Didn’t sound like he was altogether that fond of me. I inclined my head before turning, deciding that humoring my vigilante tagalong would be bad on a number of levels and mostly for him.

“Wait. Now that I know who you are, we should talk,” he insisted, getting a belligerent tone and following behind me, refusing to give up.

I sighed. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the time-”

“For anyone,” he finished incorrectly for me, cutting me off and thinking I was dismissing him. A gaze of steel met mine. “What I want to know is how it is all you silver spoonfed aristocrats can brush off the people’s suffering! They die by the thousands while you pad tu billeteras-“

Recognizing the word for wallet, I rounded on him. This one talked big, but didn’t know who the hell he was attacking. “You think I like it?! You think I don’t get angry over the same thing?!”

He got up in my face, not altogether much taller than me. It put us on the same level, nose-to-nose while he snarled, “That diamond necklace on your chest could feed an entire slum for a month! That tells me where your intentions lie! If you gave a damn-“

“If I gave a damn I’d be dead,” I growled back, not backing off in the slightest and jabbing him in the chest. “You’ve no idea what you’re talking about! Don’t waste your breath. I’ve wasted mine too many times-“

“All you care about is yourself,” he spat in my face, starting to get riled up. “I can see that now-“

“Oh, can you? Then congratulations on seeing through all their bullshit,” I snapped, making him pause. I shrugged, mocking him. “You’ve obviously figured out that my father’s ‘social preservation’ campaign is a farce. Or is it you’re too short for the armed forces?”

The Lynx turned mottled red below his mask, my jab hitting its mark. If I was five-four, he was barely five-five. The tension between us was fierce, neither of us backing down.

I sighed and shook my head. “Look, we would agree on every point you make. But I can’t help you. I can’t help anybody. It’s not that I won’t. It’s that I can’t.”

“I don’t believe that,” he said with just as much ferocity as before, not softening one bit.

I looked down, unhappy with the way that things had turned out between us. “Believe what you want. Now I’d suggest you go. My security team will be here soon. Then you’d get to see just how much control I’ve got. They’ll shoot you even if I order them not to.”

He just glared at me, completely unmoved by my statement. I looked at the gun in my hands, wishing he’d leave. “Do yourself a favor. If you want justice, keep this up. But don’t expect any help because you won’t get it.“

“Then don’t expect me to help you the next time you’re in trouble,” he snapped, looking me over with hatred. “Because-“

Hearing sirens coming, I turned to the opening of the alley. Realizing I should warn the Lynx, I turned back. But no one was there.

All that was left was the downed fire escape and the bodies of the men who’d been knocked out. Where the hell did he go? It was like he’d evaporated.

Hearing a groan, I stepped back to Alvin. He stirred with a pained grimace, looking up at me groggily with widening eyes as he came to. “Oh, God! Where did-?”

He sat up, seeing the remainders of the men who’d tried to take me. His eyes came back to me with astonishment. “Did you – you’ve must’ve – are they dead?!“

I extended a hand to him as a few cop cars pulled up at the opening of the alley, flooding it with blue and red light. Their doors opened as Alvin took my hand, rubbing his head where he’d been hit.

I sighed as he stood, all the security getting out and thinking he’d been an attacker because of his ethnic features. Alvin let out a frightened squawk and threw his hands up as I shook my head. This was not going to end well; that was for sure.

 “Just let me do the talking…”


And that’s it for chapter one! Sparks certainly flew between Aiyla and the illustrious Lynx. Any predictions for next week’s edition? I’m all ears and so is the Lynx – wink, wink! I know. A bad joke but still.

If you’re enjoying this story, make sure to mark it as ‘currently reading’ on Goodreads HERE and share this blog post with your friends. The more people reading, the more likely I am to release extra chapters at a time.

Thanks for tuning in and much love during the quarantine! We’re all in this together and I want to be there for you, my dear readers. Hugs to you!

– XO Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

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Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 1 | The Prologue

Remember that serial novel I was promising you my dear readers to keep you entertained during the quarantine? Without further ado, I present:

DEL MUERTA: Sanctum of Hell Series
Welcome to Infierno. Directly translated: welcome to Hell…
In the city of Dejado Atrás lurks a dark secret; a paradox that hides behind the veneer of democratic deception. Dictators will fall and vigilantes will rise in this dystopian action novel.

Without further ado, here is the first part of Del Muerta. I hope you love this novel as much as I have loved writing the characters. Each one is dear to my heart, even down the low, rotten scoundrels. And there are plenty of them in this series, believe me. No more spoilers, I’ll let you enjoy the story.

Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel


Prologue

Restless sirens pierced the dark as five silhouettes raced across the rooftops of Dejado Atrás. The wraith-like figures flitted over the lip of the nearest roof, jumping to the fire escape below to scramble into the protective cover of the alley.

One was livid; the other four no different but all a united front as they dove behind the shadows of a forgotten dumpster.

The ghetto of Infierno lay beyond them; the dim streets as black as the hearts of those who governed it. It was their home to protect. Their sanctuary. Yet simultaneously their hell. Hunted like common animals, they were constantly chased within an inch of their lives.

The searchlight of the armored police car roved over their hiding spot, then disappeared as it drove past. In a flash it was gone, still scanning for the vigilantes that dared defy its authority. All breathed a collective sigh of relief, the danger silently ebbing away.

 “This is getting out of hand,” the alias called the Chupacabra muttered, breathing hard as her hazel eyes combed the surroundings. Pulling off her mask, she shook her head. “We can’t even meet without them trying to catch us.“

“Ya think? We need to get inside information about how the Hacienda operates,” another of the five murmured; the Reverend’s eyes glinting with barely concealed fury as he gave the other four a cursory glance. “Otherwise the Forge is going to bury us all.”

Nobody disagreed, thinking of the uprising that regularly attacked the governance of the city. The members of the rebellion didn’t care who they killed in the process, so long as they claimed control. Almost as corrupt as the regime in current control, neither side of the fight cared about the inhabitants of the metropolis. 

Only one of the five dared to reply.

“Already done. I’ve infiltrated Tourney,” the Lynx replied, removing his mask as the others turned to stare at him. The original vigilante of the city, he shook out his hair, damp from the drizzling rain. “I’ll get the information we need-“

“The Tourney?! Are you insane?!” Chupacabra hissed in horror at her foster brother, knowing he was already willing to sacrifice himself to defend them all. “Everyone who enters it winds up six feet under! You’ll die!”

“It’s our only option,” he insisted, his cherry wood eyes as solemn as the grave he would likely wind up in. “Once in, I’ll report back what information I can get. They’re housing the contestants in the manor. I’ll have direct access to the inside.”

“What about fixing that bitch of a daughter the presidente’s got? The ‘prize’ of the whole bloodbath?” Eden snickered, leaning against the brick wall of the alley. His grin was positively sinister, his fingers suggestively tracing the holstered gun at his hip. “Worst comes to worst, you kill her-“

“Or the complete opposite. You seduce her,” the Chupacabra said with an equally fiendish gleam in her eye, relishing the idea. She pulled off her flesh-colored gloves and brushed her raven hair back. “Use her to get the information we want. Then discard her when we’re done.”

The Lynx’s eyes gleamed at the thought of finally exacting revenge on those who had murdered his wife and daughter. Yes, that idea had a certain ring to it. A tempting, cloying edge that he couldn’t resist.

Everyone in the city hated ‘Princess’ Anna of the Hacienda as she sat poised on her royally pompous duff, pampered with riches and spoils while the rest of the world starved. She was no princess by blood; only as a common derogatory nickname amongst the people of the city. Fixing her for good would do everyone a favor beyond measure, even just for morale’s sake.

But the Lynx had a better idea still.

“No. I seduce her to our cause,” he said, seeing the other four brighten as they considered the idea. “What better way to get back at them than to corrupt the one thing they count on to continue their regime?”

All five shared a conspiratorial smile, thinking of all the havoc they could wreak working from the inside out of the deep state of Dejado Atrás. With this move, they could potentially outmaneuver the entire government. Using intel they’d steal, they’d at long last take down the corruption that saturated the streets.

Before they could plan further, however, searchlights flickered back into the alley. Discovering they’d been conned, the police had returned. Four of the five scattered like frightened rabbits, heading in different directions as the light blinded their eyes.

Instead of fleeing with them, the Lynx quickly ascended the fire escape to lead to the roof above. Not caring if he was caught so long as the others escaped, he scrambled over the top of the building as the policemen followed in hot pursuit. The Hacienda couldn’t stop what he’d started; a movement to recover the city from their grip. Vigilantes were sprouting up in every corner to best them; to fight for what was right.

Darting past the billboard video screen atop the roof, he stifled a grim smile. Princess Anna glared out of the billboard advertising the Tourney with bored apathy. She had no idea just what was coming for her.

The Lynx only laughed as a shot rang out, a bullet ricocheting off the billboard screen and missing him entirely as the police fired. Two more bullets zipped past and missed, the yells of the pursuing officers demanding he surrender. To hell with that.

Like the phantom spirit that he was, he disappeared into the night without a trace; without a whisper of a sound. Before the eyes of the disbelieving officers, once over the side of the building, the Lynx was gone.

As they searched through the dawn, the promise of revenge hung in the air like smoke over a smoldering fire. Even if the Lynx had to give up his life, at least freedom would belong to the people of Infierno once more.

Dejado Atrás would be free at any price. Princess Anna was going down.

- Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Copyright 2019 

I hope you enjoyed the prologue! Be nice to me and comment your predictions about the story below and I might just release chapter one tomorrow instead of making you wait another week for it!

PS. Make sure to sign up to be alerted every time a new chapter is released. As a thanks for signing up, you’ll receive a free gift just from me.

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Love and hugs,

Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

Announcing Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | A New Serial Dystopian Action Series

Remember that serial novel I was promising you my dear readers to keep you entertained during the quarantine? Without further ado, I present:


DEL MUERTA: Sanctum of Hell Series
Welcome to Infierno. Directly translated: welcome to Hell…
In the city of Dejado Atrás lurks a dark secret; a paradox that hides behind the veneer of democratic deception. Dictators will fall and vigilantes will rise in this dystopian action series.

❤️☢️

Tune in every Friday for a new chapter / podcast in the Sanctum of Hell series by yours truly. All episodes of the chapters will be posted here on this site in text and in audio form for your enjoyment.

I am so looking forward to sharing this story with you. In addition to my usual flair of action in my books, this series is very special to me. It covers some very difficult topics which are so very relevant to this current time. It also explores cultural traditions such as El Dia de Los Muertos. And yes, as always, from the POV from a kick ass heroine.

All in all, while it’s a dangerous world out there, so my aim is to keep you distracted and hopefully entertained while this storm passes. Sign up for my email list and I’ll even send you reminders about when every chapter is posted.

All my love and prayers,

Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

CHAPTER DIRECTORY

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 1 | The Prologue

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 2

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 3

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

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

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 6 – Poison

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 7

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 8 – Treachery


https://maggielynnheronheidel.com/
https://sanctumofhell.wordpress.com/