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Introductions

Jingles ran through the door with fervent determination. He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew that it was bad and he knew that his master needed help. He ran through the kitchen, barking and searching, but his master’s family was no where to be found. He ran through the living room and still nothing. Down the hallway he ran, his claws tapping lightly on the hardwood floor, checking rooms and knowing that if nobody was downstairs they most certainly would be upstairs.

Jingles was a small, white and brown chihuahua and he loved his master. She fed him, took care of him, comforted him and played with him. They had been playing outside when something happened. It took Jingles a while to figure out that something bad had happened because Master had oftentimes played silly games. Jingles thought that this time was one of those times, until he realized that this time something was wrong. Something was wrong and now time was of the essence.

Barking and yelping for help, Jingles ran up the stairs as quickly as his little legs would carry him. He ran into the big room where he found Master’s mother on the floor, bending and twisting as she often did. She paid him little attention and when he realized that he was being ignored, he pushed against her thigh while continuing to bark and yelp.

“Yes, Jingles, I see you, but I can’t play right now. Go find Candace.”

1

She continued her twisting and bending, doing her best to follow the television lady who was also twisting and bending. Jingles pushed into her with more urgency and then ran toward the door, whimpering and whining as he went. Upon reaching the door he turned to see that she had not come with him. She was still stretching—and ignoring him! It had to be now! She had to follow!

Jingles ran back and nipped her on the leg. Master’s mother cried out and Jingles quickly moved back, but did not run away.

“Jingles! What is wrong with you!”

He had her full attention now and although she was obviously very angry he knew that she was ready to listen. He barked again and ran to the door. Upon reaching the door he turned back and barked some more. He ran to her again and then back to the door, then back and forth, barking and yelping, and finally her facial expression changed as she recognized that something was wrong.

“What is it, Jingles?”

He barked and twitched as she looked at the doorway.

“Is everything alright?” She looked back to him and he again ran to the door, stopping short to turn back, yelping and barking for her to follow.

“You’re making me nervous, Jingles.”

She was getting up. He had done it! Follow me! he barked, and scooted out of the room.

“Candace?”

Master’s mother was following, but not as quickly as Jingles would have liked. He was now standing on one of the stairs and began barking again.

“Candace!”

2

Her fear was growing, Jingles could sense it.

“Where is she, Jingles? Come on, show me ...”

Jingles ran down the stairs and bolted across the hallway, the tiny bells on his collar bouncing madly against his chest.

“Candace!”

Jingles burst through his little door and now he was outside, speeding along the patio, barking and calling to Master, letting her know that he had gotten help. Master would be alright now, she just had to be. He stopped at the water’s edge, at the side of the slippery rocks where he and Master had been playing just a short time ago.

“CANDACE!”

Brooke Cutter shrieked when she saw her daughter at the bottom of the swimming pool, motionless and distorted by the gentle ripples of the water’s surface. Without hesitation she jumped in, reaching down to grasp her daughters hair which was floating and swaying as if tiny tentacles straining for rescue. She pulled on her daughter’s head and the body followed with sickeningly little resistance. Panic rushed through Brooke as she reached under one of her daughter’s limp arms and began kicking for the surface, stretching and pulling until both she and Candace had broken through.

“CANDACE!” she screamed, spitting out water and splashing toward the shallow end of the pool. There was no way to get her out of the deep end, but the shallow end had steps.

Jingles was barking wildly, following the two ladies along the edge of the pool, wanting to help, but not wanting to jump in. Good dog, Brooke thought. Don’t you get in my way.

3

“HELP!” Brooke screamed, struggling to swim faster. “Hang on, baby, hang on—SOMEBODY, HELP!” Somebody had to be home. She lived in a tract-housing community and somebody was always home. She reached the steps and began dragging her daughter’s lifeless body out of the water. Tears streaked down her face as she wrestled with thoughts that her daughter could be dead. How long had she been down there?

“Come on Candace, please no, please no—HELP!” She began shaking her daughter. “CANDACE! Wake up baby, wake up ...” She checked for a pulse but there was nothing. “Okay,” she whispered, “you can do this ...” She tilted her daughter’s head back to listen for breathing ... nothing. “No, no, no, no ...” She moaned and whimpered while placing one hand on top of the other and then both hands at the center of her daughter’s chest. She then used her body weight to push down, just as the instructors had taught her and because her husband had been right, if they were getting a pool, he had said, they all needed to learn CPR. Except this was no rubber dummy, this was her daughter. “Please, God, please, God, please ...”

As Brooke pushed down on her daughter, a song by a group that she couldn’t remember bounced wildly within her mind ... ‘ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive ...’ it was a popular song, but it was also the suggested rhythm for keeping time during compressions, or so the CPR instructor had said. It had sounded good then, but what sort of sick bastard chooses a song with the words, ‘stayin’ alive’, as a means to keep time, while struggling to save somebody’s life? Brooke was beginning to panic and knew that she couldn’t do that.

“COME ON CANDACE! WORK WITH ME!”

Somebody came running into the back yard and Jingles began barking with protective ferocity.

“Whoa, Jingles,” the man said, “it’s alright, it’s alright ...”

It was Mr. Harris from two houses down and he had seen

enough to see that there was trouble. “What do you need, Brooke?”

4

“JINGLES, QUIET!” Brooke snapped and the little dog was startled silent.

“Call an ambulance!” she shouted, and Mr. Harris pulled out his phone to do just that.

“Alright baby, help is on the way, stay with me ...” Brooke Cutter choked back a sob, wiped tears from her face, and remembered that it was the Bee Gees who had sung that song. She cried out and sobbed at the recollection and with fresh tears swelling in her eyes, continued compressions on her daughter’s chest ... ‘ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive ...’

: :

Few things were more frustrating than to sink from the highest heights of anticipation to the lowest lows of boredom. Yet here he was, lounging in a patio chair and passing time by trying to convince himself that there was something he had missed. Except that he hadn’t missed anything. Everything that he figured was perfect and without blemish. No matter what path, option, or action might be taken, he had an answer for it. Except that he had thought these same things prior to his last adventure and that adventure had nearly destroyed him.

Then again, it wasn’t his planning that had been at fault, it was the stunning reality that people could be enhanced in ways that he hadn’t thought possible. How does one plan for something that was thought to be impossible? In all honesty, he was lucky to be sitting here. What’s more, and thanks to his recently acquired friendships, he was lucky to have this assignment. He was lucky, but he had also earned the opportunity. He was well known and mostly well respected and if he could pull off this latest challenge ...

5

Sunesis paused to think about the rewards, but stopped himself before getting carried away or depressed. Now was not the time to dream, or even to work. Now was the time to wait. He hated to wait, but accepted the inevitability. Eventually, everything must wait for something, but waiting was not something that he liked to do alone, which was why he was hosting a party at his penthouse apartment. What better way to fight boredom than to surround yourself with boring people, so that you can watch them make fools of themselves. He smiled as an inebriated man stumbled and fell onto the stone surface that surrounded the swimming pool. People laughed at the drunkard before helping him to his feet and then he stumbled off, holding his head while trying to salvage his dignity.

A beautiful blonde woman clad in a white bikini top and matching white sarong knelt beside Sunesis. “Are you ready for me?” she asked, a coy smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

“I’m ready for you to get me another drink,” he said, holding up and lightly shaking an empty tumbler.

She frowned at being treated like a servant, expecting her beauty to sway him like it no doubt had swayed any number of pathetic imps before him, but she took the glass and moved off toward the bar.

With one less distraction, Sunesis was allowed to return to his thoughts and wondered again how he might capitalize on this newest opportunity. He then wondered if he could capitalize on this opportunity. It was entirely possible that he had reached the peak of his ambitions.

6

There really was only one more rung on the ladder, but he realized in that instant that he truly did not want that rung to be his. At least not now. Could he ever aspire to that top rung? What would he do with that amount of power, and did he really want it or was it just something to think about? It was a topic that had crossed his thoughts for many years. Was it the acquisition of power, or the struggle to acquire power, that excited him? There was of course one answer to that question and that answer was yes. Both the struggle and the acquisition were exciting to him.

He took a deep breath and enjoyed the moment. He had been entrusted with a grand vision and looked forward to its implementation. Somewhere, among all of the fluff and crap that was the human race, was the first of many. A prototype to confirm reliability and encourage mass production.

“Here’s your drink, sir,” said bikini blonde, having returned from the bar. Rather than kneeling down beside him, and offering the drink in a civilized manner, she stood above him with an extended arm, holding the glass down to him as if he were a patron at a roadside inn.

He exhaled an irritable sigh. “What is your name again?”

Bikini blonde grunted softly, shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe that her name might be forgotten. “Carli,” she reminded. “You said that this weekend would be unforgettable, but I gotta tell ya, so far it’s pretty forgettable.”

Sunesis smiled and accepted the drink from her outstretched hand. “How unfortunate for you. Why don’t we start over. How about you go somewhere else and offer yourself to somebody else.”

“Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

7

Bikini blonde held up her hand and stormed off. Sunesis smiled at the thought that maybe she would run into inebriated guy. Wouldn’t that be a hoot.

“Mr. Sunesis?” A voice called from the far side of the patio. It was an underling who had been assigned to a conveyor search, and he was smiling. He was also holding a leather folder. “I have a criteria match.”

Sunesis waved the underling over, careful not to get too excited. He had already rejected over a dozen “criteria matches” and while they all had indeed met his initial requests, they all likewise had failed to dazzle. It was one thing to check items from a list, it was something else entirely to make such a list unnecessary.

“Here you are, sir,” underling said. “I apologize for interrupting your party.”

Sunesis took the folder and opened it to the first page, reading the prospect’s name, “Candace Marie Cutter”. He liked it. Cutter had a strong, slasher-type appeal to it. Under the heading “Also replies to:” was the name “Candy”. He liked it a lot. Candy Cutter, he thought. What a fantastic designation. He closed the folder and turned to address his subordinate.

“Before you answer my questions, understand that you are not to exaggerate or attempt to deceive me in any way. Am I clear?”

With eyes slightly wider, and fear more noticeable, underling nodded quickly. He knew who Sunesis was and more important, what he was capable of doing.

Sunesis held up the folder. “Have you shown this to anybody or talked about this to anybody?”

“No sir, I do just what I’m told. I review subjects and if a subject passes evaluation, I bring that information to you. That’s all of it.”

8

“So I would be correct in asserting that you and I are the only one’s to have seen this?”

“Yes sir.”

“You understand what happens to you if I find out that somebody knew about this before I wanted them to know about this, correct?”

“Yes sir.”

Sunesis swung his feet from the lounge chair and smiled at his petrified guest. “Mark this file ULO.” He was about to leave when a mischievous thought pushed its way free. “Stay a while, if you like. There’s a young blonde woman in a white bikini that might interest you.” Sunesis stood and whacked the surprised underling on the side of the shoulder. “Well done, Bill, well done.”

“Thank you sir,” Bill replied, somewhat surprised. He watched Sunesis leave by way of a set of stairs and even though his name wasn’t Bill, he took great pride in knowing that he had pleased a universal lord.

: :

“Are you alright, miss?” a muffled voice inquired.

Candace didn’t know if she was alright, or who had asked the question, or where she was, or why she was so cold. What she did know was that her hearing wasn’t working so well. There was a dull ringing in her ears and the words that she did hear were barely audible. She managed a questioning grunt as her eyes adjusted to a white landscape topped with ice skates.

“Alright everyone, let’s give the young lady some space.”

9

It was the same voice, cascading down like a melody from a French poet ... except that the man wasn’t speaking French, nor did he have a French accent. Candace didn’t know what made her think of a French poet. Did she even know any French poets? She didn’t think so, but she wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment. Was she lying on ice? As she struggled to gain her senses, she felt herself being lifted.

“Make way, please, let’s get her to the bench, make way.”

Candace was being assisted by a handsome man who was holding her up and helping her to a nearby bench. She must have smiled because the man smiled at her before turning back to the others who had gathered around. “She’ll be alright, just a bit of a tumble.”

Handsome man eased her onto the bench where she slumped before regaining some of the muscle memory that allowed her to sit upright.

“Easy,” handsome man said, doing his best to prop her against the bench backrest. When it appeared that Candace was stable, he asked, “May I sit?”

It took a few moments, but finally Candace groaned, “Please.”

Handsome man sat next to her while those around her began to disperse. Before long, the sounds of laughter and other human interactions were in the air.

“You’ll be alright in a few minutes,” handsome man said.

True enough, the fog within her mind was beginning to clear and she was beginning to remember things. Her name was Candace, “Candy” to her friends, and she was a senior in high school. Good information to be sure, but where was she now and how did she get here?

“Do you know your name?” handsome man asked, causing her to answer his question with a hasty question of her own.

“Who are you, again?”

10

He chuckled. “My name is Sunesis, and you are?”

Sunesis, she thought. “What a strange name.” She felt a world of embarrassment as she wondered if she had said that last part out loud. “Did I say that last part out loud?” she asked, knowing that she had. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“It’s quite alright,” Sunesis said, smiling and holding up a hand to excuse the gaffe. “You’ve had quite a fall.”

“If you say so,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t remember what happened.” She looked around to see a white winterland of snow capped houses surrounding a small frozen pond. Across the pond were children throwing snowballs at each other, while the pond itself carried people of all ages who were skating, twirling, or practicing ice hockey. Except that she did remember this ... not how she got here, but where this was. What this was. This was her old neighborhood. She used to skate on this very pond. Her old house was just around the corner.

“What is this?” she asked. “How did I get here?” She looked to Sunesis who offered nothing more than an awkward smile, before turning back to look behind her. “That’s Mrs. Anderson’s house, or at least it used to be.” She swiveled again to face the pond. “And that used to be the Larson’s. I used to skate here when I was a kid.” She closed her eyes and placed her hand to her head, pressing against it to make the memories appear. “What’s going on?”

She opened her eyes to see one powdery flake float to a majestic stop atop the shoulder of handsome man’s navy blue suit jacket. One flake followed another, followed by dozens more and hundreds after that.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Sunesis asked.

11

She looked past him to see the street that she had walked so many times in her youth. She saw the houses and the trees and the frozen white pond. A scarf tumbled across the ice and she told herself that this had to be a dream. “I’m dreaming,” she said. Any second now and she would wake. “Wake up, Candace, this isn’t real.”

“Oh, it’s real, Candy.”

What did he call me? She was surprised and nervous, the way that dreams could often make a person surprised and nervous. She didn’t like it. “What did you call me?”

“Your friends call you Candy, do they not?”

“My friends do,” she allowed, “but you’re not a friend.”

Sunesis leaned against the backrest of the bench. “Ouch. I may not be a friend, but I’m the only one here and that’s got to count for something.”

“Not much.”

“Be that as it may, I do know quite a bit about you. Where you were born, where you grew up, where you had your first kiss. I know that your friends call you Candy and I know that you used to enjoy playing here when you were a little girl.” He waved his hand at the expansive landscape. “An elegant replication of your memories. Quite nicely done, if I do say so myself.”

Has to be a dream ...

Candace looked at the surrounding emptiness and wondered how else she might have gotten here. A soft gust of wind passed across her face and she noticed that the snow was no longer falling. She looked up to see if the snow had subsided completely and jerked to startled attention. “Who are they?” she cried. “What’s going on?”

12

Above her and looking down, waving to her from a circular catwalk of perhaps fifty feet up, were four little people. Above and beyond this first set of little people were other catwalks and rafters that allowed travel for perhaps a dozen more. She gasped while taking in the sights of little people, ropes, pulleys and a variety of lights. She was on a very large sound stage and with the illusion having been broken, it was suddenly obvious that this place wasn’t real. She turned to question Sunesis but he was no longer there.

“I’ve got a proposal for you, Candy.” He was behind her!

She turned toward the voice and saw him sitting in a pool-side lounge chair, the sudden change of scenery causing her to shriek and tumble off the bench. Except the bench was no longer a bench, but was instead a similar lounge chair to what Sunesis was sitting in.

“What is this?” she asked, feeling very much like a mouse in a maze, gaining insights only when peering around corners. One such insight was the table between them, carrying food and drinks with a large umbrella rising from its center to provide shade from the glaring sun.

“What the hell?” Candace struggled to make sense of what her eyes were seeing. She tried to get up but her arms and legs weren’t cooperating. She was no longer at the ice pond but was instead at a resort or a large home, sitting on a wooden deck or patio. Sunesis was no longer wearing a blue suit, which he had been wearing at the ice pond and which Candace had thought odd at the time, but was now wearing white linen clothes and open-toed sandals. How did he change so fast? How did this place change so fast? She looked past the large umbrella to see blue sky above. Instead of catwalks, rafters, and little people, there were soft wispy clouds offering little protection from a bright, sunny day.

13

In front of her, and beyond Sunesis, was an endless pool, the water of which sparkled like glass covered with diamonds. Instead of snow and trees and houses, her surroundings now included potted plants, bushes and chairs. Somehow, she had gone from sound stage to resort in the blink of an eye. She closed her eyes, squeezing them shut and bringing her hands to her head. Something might pop, she thought. Something might burst, break, or otherwise cause her to wake up.

“Candy, please, have something to eat.”

“Stop calling me that!” she snapped. She stayed where she was, whimpering softly at the realization that this might not be a dream. “What is this?” she asked, not wanting an answer. This had to be a dream, but there were so many details that she could see, feel, hear and smell ... she was frightened. She felt the wood beneath her and the sun above her. She felt her hands covering her eyes and her elbows resting upon her knees. She even felt the soft puffs of breath passing over her wrists as she struggled to gain composure.

“This is the first day of the rest of your life,” Sunesis said in a cheery, almost sing-song manner. “But we really should be moving this along. I mean honestly, how long do you want to sit there blubbering?”

“Blubbering?” she lowered her arms and felt fresh waves of anger. “Should I be laughing? I don’t know where I am. I don’t know how I got here or who you are. For all I know this is some kind of crazy kidnapping.”

Sunesis looked genuinely puzzled. “Candy ... does this feel like a kidnapping? Crazy or otherwise?”

He took a drink from a short glass, presumably an alcoholic drink, and the ice cubes rattled against the glass in a way that made her thirsty. Dream or no dream, she needed a drink.

14

“I need a drink,” she said, standing and then adjusting the lounge chair so that she could sit close to the table.

“Be my guest.”

At the center of the table were various bottles of alcohol, soda, juices, and a bucket of ice. There were also glasses and an assortment of snack foods and appetizers. Some of those appetizers smelled wonderful and her thirst was suddenly pushed aside by a somewhat demanding stomach rumble. Her fear rumbled too as she wondered if dreams allowed rumbling stomachs. Worry later, she thought, picking up a piece of warm pita bread and placing it into her mouth. It was delicious and she quickly took another. This piece she dipped into a small bowl of tzatziki sauce and took a bit more time to enjoy it.

Awfully tasty dream, her mind whispered.

“If you have something to say, get on with it,” she said, accepting that dreams didn’t last very long. She reached for a bottle of wine and eagerly filled a goblet to the brim. She wasn’t much of a drinker, and oftentimes her friends would tease her about it, but she felt that now was a good time to indulge.

Sunesis swirled the liquid in his glass and it seemed to Candace that he was either contemplating his words or holding back his anger. When he did speak, his tone and demeanor were that of somebody discussing a topic as trivial as brown shoes. “How do you feel about killing people?” he asked.

Killing people? Candace had no idea where this was going. A dream within a dream, she thought. That’s what this is. That’s what it must be. She swallowed her wine before answering, deciding to play along. “Random people, or specific people?”

Sunesis offered a restrained smile. “Random people and specific people. Do you think you could do it?”

15

She shrugged as if the question were ridiculous but accepted that a dream within a dream allowed for a certain amount of ridiculous. “Sure.”

“Do you think that you would feel badly about it?”

She stared at Sunesis, hoping there was a point to this. “Depends on the person, I suppose.”

“What if the person was really bad?” he asked with a playful smile.

Candace took another drink of wine, waiting for the punchline or the laugh that would end this creepy discussion. “Is this some kind of test?”

“Not at all, just some light-hearted chit-chat to pass the time. Morbid perhaps, but interesting just the same. We’ve already established that you could kill and that you might feel badly about it, depending upon the person, but remember that self-preservation is different than hunting somebody down.”

“So now I’m hunting people down in this hypothetical murder spree?”

“Hypothetically.”

She snickered. “Do I have a hypothetical shotgun?”

“Do you know how to use a shotgun?”

“No, but since we’re talking out of our butts, I’d prefer to be well armed.”

Sunesis laughed, approving of the conversation and the banter. It made Candace nervous.

“What if you didn’t need weapons? What if you could do things that no other human could do? Things that would make you nearly invincible?”

“What, like a super-hero?” she made sure to convey her sarcasm.

“Yes, a super hero. A real-life super hero.”

16

She laughed. “This is an interesting dream, I’ll give you that.” Another drink went down and the warming, alcoholic fluid felt mighty fine. “Super Candace. Is that the idea? If that were the case I might just grab ‘em all and take ‘em to jail.”

“No revenge then?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“What if, as part of some diabolical deal, you were given such abilities, but the one condition to those abilities was that you had to kill people.”

Candace felt her brow furrow and thought it strange to notice something like that in a dream. “I can only be Super Candace if I agree to kill people?”

“Precisely. Super powers in exchange for some super killing or else I present this offer to somebody else, with the condition that you become their first target.”

“What?” Dream or not, that was a pretty bad deal. “What kind of a deal is that?”

Sunesis swirled his drink and reached out to pluck a grape from the table, which he quickly popped into his mouth. “That, my dear Candy, is the deal that I am proposing.” And then he laughed. It was a cruel laugh that trailed off to a satisfied sigh and received alcohol as a reward.

Candace set her wine glass on the table and did her best to control her trembling hands. This no longer felt like a dream and it terrified her. She hoped to wake soon but it didn’t happen. “You’re serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

“How long would I have to do this?”

“For as long as your natural life allows.”

And now it was her turn to laugh. It was a terrified and confused laugh and she didn’t know whether to gulp down more wine or stick a fork in her eye. MUST be a dream ...

“What’s it going to be?” he asked.

17

It’s a dream, so make a decision and get the hell outta here, she thought. She liked that answer and whether it was really an answer or just a paranoid thought, it sounded great. “How many people do I have to kill?”

“As many as you like.”

“How about none?” Another nervous laugh.

Sunesis wasn’t laughing.

“One?” she offered.

“This is an on-going arrangement, Candy. When you stop killing, I start looking for your replacement.”

“Well that clears it up, doesn’t it?” she didn’t expect an answer and didn’t get one. “But I get super-human abilities, right? Like what? What do you consider super-human?” She was stalling now and didn’t know why.

“Super strength, super speed, things like that.”

“And all I have to do is kill people?”

“Correct.”

“As many as I like?”

His stare was his answer.

“Okay, I’m sorry, but this is a bit crazy, you know? One hundred, one thousand, for as long as my natural life allows. Got it. Fine, deal. Can I wake up now?”

He chuckled. “While I like the enthusiasm, I’m not sure you’re taking this entirely serious.”

“Oh I’m taking it seriously. I kill people and get super powers or I don’t kill people and get dead. Some deal. Do I at least get these powers first, because that would go a long way in helping me to kill people that I otherwise wouldn’t kill.”

“You will be enhanced when you wake, but controlling your abilities will require practice.”

“Got it. Practice self-control and then kill people. That’s it? That’s the deal?”

18

A soft smile. “That’s the deal.”

Candace nodded. “Can’t you just kill people?”

A light chuckle. “Of course, but it’s more fun to make others do it.”

“So this is a business meets pleasure sort of thing?”

“Yes, my business meets my pleasure.”

“Why me?” Candace wanted to wake, but she also wanted answers. “I’m sure there would be plenty of takers for something like this.”

“You’re probably right in that regard, but enhancing a human does put a certain amount of stress on the brain. I can’t just wait until somebody falls asleep or smokes too much weed. I need deep slumber and that means coma patients, of which there are few, of which I chose you.”

Candace puffed out a disappointed laugh. “Lucky me.”

“Indeed.”

“Sarcasm. Can I go now?”

Another drink, followed by another snake-charmer smile. “You may,” he replied. “Close your eyes and when you open them ...”

Candace squeezed her eyes shut and when she opened them she was in a hospital bed, in a hospital room, surrounded by her family. Her mother must have noticed her looking around because she screamed with delight.

“Candace! Oh, Candace, can you hear me?”

She could hear her. She was startled by the outburst but she welcomed the attention. She was awake. She had been dreaming ...

: :

19

It didn’t last long, just a few short bursts of gunfire that caused men to scream, furniture to break and glass to shatter. From the office in the back of the building, Casta Yago hadn’t thought anybody foolish enough to come through the front door, but somebody had. There was a maddening span of silence that allowed him to think about running to his car, but of course that’s where the ambush would be. No, he was stuck. He was trapped in a room and more than likely he would die in this room. As if confirmation were needed, he heard footsteps in the hallway. During business hours Casta would have never heard those footsteps due to the music and sounds of a restaurant full of people, but it was not business hours, not legal business hours.

He heard the grinding of glass beneath some of those footsteps and knew that whoever was beyond the office door was getting closer. He waited for somebody to call out to him, hoping to tell him that everything was alright, but that didn’t happen. He wanted to call out but he held his tongue. He was pretty sure who was coming and felt no need to hasten the meeting. For the first time in a long time, Casta Yago was afraid.

There was a light knocking at the office door and Casta held up his hand, quieting those who were in the room with him. There were two other men, each as nervous as he was, and each holding two guns for a total of six which Casta doubted would be enough. Whoever this Taxman character was, if indeed it was him on the other side of that door, he had gotten through four of his men in less than one minute.

“Casta Yago,” an exuberant voice declared. “You really shouldn’t be doing this. All I want is the money. Just go out the back door and that will be that. Tell your boss that I’m satisfied with his payment and he won’t see me again for at least five years.”

20

Casta didn’t answer because he didn’t know what to say. There was no way that one man could walk into the front door of a restaurant, with multiple guns trained on that door, and not be killed. There was no way and yet that man was talking to him now.

“I’ve already disposed of your four friends,” the voice continued. “There’s no need to add three more for the coroner.”

A tempting offer, Casta thought, except that he would be dead if he returned without the money. He could run and hide, but he doubted that he would get very far. As good as he was at following orders, he was not very good at giving them, even to himself. He could try and run with the money sitting before him, but that amount of money meant that sooner or later, somebody like this Taxman guy would find him. Nope, this was it. Death was on the other side of that door and Casta Yago decided to greet him with bullets.

He fired a few rounds into the door and waited. He had hoped to hear a shriek or a groan of pain and would have been ecstatic to hear a body drop, but all he heard was laughter. His skin crawled, this wasn’t right. This was not right ...

“Not cool, Yago,” said the disapproving voice. “Not cool at all.”

Casta looked at his two assistants, each as stunned as he, and then the sounds of a turning knob and a creaky door informed them that the Taxman had arrived.

21

He was at least six feet tall, dressed in black and wearing a long black jacket. He had olive skin, dark hair, and looked to be physically fit. There was not a scratch on him and he smiled as if greeting old friends. More peculiar than his smile was the fact that both of his hands were in his pockets. He wasn’t carrying a gun or any weapon at all. Casta fired again and this time his associates joined him. They began screaming as the Taxman walked closer and Casta thought that he saw sparks flying from in front of this guy as bullets ricocheted into walls. Five, ten, twenty shots fired with none of them reaching their target.

It was the Taxman who struck next and he only needed to wave his hand to send the shooters violently into the back wall. It was a brick wall and each had gone head first, leaving a round, bloody impact before crumpling to the ground. An apathetic Taxman stepped to a desk which supported seven large duffel bags. He unzipped one, removed a few stacks of cash and set those on the table. When he was finished, he zipped up the bag and snapped his fingers. Three men came into the room to retrieve the bags, while a fourth delivered a final bullet to the head of Casta and his associates. Quick, clean, and out the back door, the shooter followed the bag-handlers, who followed the Taxman, who followed his own set of rules.

: :

“Hey, Zu, you in the pool this week?”

Detective Michael Zuniga, “Zu” to his friends, held out his arms in a questioning manner. Why was it that just as he shoved food into his mouth, that’s when people asked him questions. He gestured for Williams to bring him the football sheet and then proceeded to wipe hot sauce and sour cream from his chin.

22

“You still owe me for last week,” Williams reminded, upon dropping the piece of paper onto Zu’s desk.

Zu swallowed quickly and then answered, “I’m good for it.”

“I won’t hold my breath,” Williams laughed, walking off to get more suckers to gamble away ten bucks.

Zu folded the paper and stuffed it into his pocket. Maybe he could look at it later. He shook his head and took another bite of his burrito. How busy can one guy get, he wondered. And when is this prick gonna make a mistake? As he chewed, Zu contemplated the recent actions of one Mr. Taxman. Seven dead in a Spanish restaurant. It was a good restaurant too, with live music, Salsa dancing on Thursdays and some really good empanadas. He had been there on a number of occasions and was a little bummed to think that it might be closed indefinitely. Such was the life of a restaurateur with ties to organized crime, but Zu was getting tired of these crime scenes that made no sense and concluded with some nutjob leaving behind a decent amount of cash.

Dead bodies and a stack of cash had become the Taxman’s calling card. Nobody had a name, other than “The Taxman”, nobody knew what he looked like, which gang he rolled with or where he was from. Whoever he was, he had been doing this for years and it pissed Zu off. It was also very impressive that this nutjob hadn’t been caught, which pissed Zu off even more. There was a part of Zu that wanted to let the Taxman keep doing what he was doing because he was robbing and killing crooks so keep up the good work. Of course the obvious consequence of crook robbing crooks, and crook killing crooks, was that the rest of the city had to deal with it. Zu really wanted to nail this guy, if for nothing more than disrupting one of his favorite restaurants.

23

He looked again at the crime scene report that lay open before him. It was the same as it always was, lots of dead guys, all of which belonging to the same crew, which meant that none of the Taxman’s crew were killed, and every death appeared to be some form of body manipulation and-or a single shot to the head. That single shot was also always done by one pistol. It wasn’t the same pistol at every scene, but each scene had a pistol shot to the head and whichever pistol was used at the scene, was used for every head at that scene.

Making matters worse was the spray pattern of bullets. Soon-to-be dead guys would fire in all directions, but nothing was fired back, except for the one bullet that always found its way into somebody’s brain. It was the same thing here. How could a guy walk into a restaurant, get through a spray of bullets, and then kill seven crooks with only one pistol? Detective Zuniga took a drink of his soda and wished that he had never heard of the Taxman.

AWARENESS

Candace opened the door and was surprised to be greeted with a standing ovation by her class. She wouldn’t have called herself a popular girl, but she was on the volleyball team and most of the students knew who she was. More than likely this welcoming was the idea of her teacher, Mrs. Wilks, who liked to do corny things but did them so well that most of her students didn’t mind. Truth be told, most of the kids loved Mrs. Wilks.

“There’s our sleeping beauty,” Mrs. Wilks cheered, and the clapping increased, and some of the more obnoxious kids even shouted and whistled.

Candace was only slightly embarrassed and laughed accordingly. She had been “awake” from her coma for the about three weeks and had gone through one doctor visit after another. She had gone to physical therapy, seen a shrink a few times, and was just recently cleared to rejoin society. She had been interviewed by one of the local TV stations and one of the local newspapers, which was little more than a large blog, and had to admit that it was fun to be the center of attention, even if she had done nothing to deserve it. Her homeroom class was not much different—a few minutes of genuine curiosity—with the same probability that in the next few days, nobody would care.

“Alright, class, time to shut it,” Mrs. Wilks said, holding up her hand. She then helped Candace with her backpack, setting it down next to the teacher’s desk while positioning Candace in front of the class. “Everybody who has not been in a coma recently may return to their seat.”

While waiting for the class to settle, which included groans and fake laughter, Mrs. Wilks smiled at Candace, touching her shoulder in the gentle, caring way that her mother often did.

24

“Alright, class, we’re all so thankful to have Candace back,” Mrs. Wilks gave Candace a quick hug, “but I also know that we’re all very interested to hear her story and ask a few questions. Well I talked with Candace, and her parents, and they thought it would be fine to talk about what she experienced, but remember that this is her first day back, so we’ll just see how it goes. Candace, are you still alright to share your story?”

Candace smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“Would you like a chair?”

“No thanks, I think I’ll stand for a bit, if that’s alright.”

“Whatever you like.” Mrs. Wilks chose to sit in a chair at the side of the room. “For those of us who don’t know,” she began, “how did you wind up in a coma?”

Candace had already talked about this with her doctor, her shrink, her family, a few of her friends and a couple of reporters, but it was suddenly an invasive experience to speak in front of thirty-one people that she didn’t know very well. Word travels fast in a high school and she wondered how she might be treated by the other students. She hadn’t really thought about it but she was thinking about it now. Would she be stared at by all of the kids in her other classes the way that these kids were staring at her now? Would they tell their friends? Would those kids stare at her? She suddenly wanted this day to be over with and even wished that she could fast-forward to the day when nobody cared.

25

“Is it alright if I lean against your desk?” she asked Mrs. Wilks.

“Of course. You can sit on it if you like, or I can have Edgar bring you a chair.”

Edgar was on the football team, was big and strong, and if anything in Mrs. Wilks class needed moving, he was the guy. Candace smiled. “Thanks, I’ll just lean.” She looked at the others, who were looking at her, and wondered what they might be thinking. What would she be thinking about if she were waiting for somebody to talk about their near-death experience? Get on with it, she thought and started talking ...

“I don’t remember exactly how I went into the coma, but the best we could figure, uh, my family and the doctor and me, is that I hit my head and fell into our swimming pool.” She paused after noticing that her hands were clammy and took a second to calm herself. Her friends smiled encouragement and even those that she didn’t know very well were waiting patiently.

“We have a swimming pool and at the deep end is a little rock feature that is also a water slide. My dog and I, Jingles, we sometimes play catch with a tennis ball and I throw it into the pool and he gets it and brings it back. Anyway, the best we can figure is that I must have been on the rock water slide and slipped.” She reached up to the back of her head. “The doctor said I had a nice bump on the back of my head, about here, and that it must have knocked me out.”

Mrs. Wilks had gotten up while Candace was speaking and quietly retrieved a bottle of water from her desk drawer. She then placed the water on the desk. Candace hadn’t realized that she was thirsty, but apparently Mrs. Wilks thought it a good idea to have water at the ready. Candace smiled and made a mental note to always try and be as considerate as Mrs. Wilks.

26

“Thank you,” she said, as Mrs. Wilks sat down. She then cracked open the bottle and took a quick drink. “Sorry,” she said to the class, even though there was nothing to be sorry about.

“You’re doing fine, Candace.” Mrs. Wilks encouraged. “Would you like to take a break?”

Candace shook her head while returning the water to the table. “I’m fine, just needed a quick whistle wetter. So here’s sort of the funny, amazing part. My dog is really the one who saved me. I had sunk to the bottom of the pool, I was out, and my mom tells me that Jingles ran into the house, through his little dog door, found her and started barking and whimpering like crazy. At first my mom thought he just wanted to play, but then she noticed that he was running back and forth, barking, yelping, and seemed stressed. Like he was trying to get her attention. So she follows him out to the pool and sees me at the bottom. She jumps in and pulls me out and while she’s screaming for help, one of our neighbors comes to the backyard. He sees what’s happening, calls nine-one-one and the paramedics come and take me to the hospital.”

Candace took another drink, surprised at how dry a mouth can get when it’s talking about stuff that it doesn’t really want to talk about.

“So here’s the weird part. I remember having a crazy dream that seemed to last about five minutes. I don’t know if that was the last five minutes before I woke up, or if each minute lasted one day, but those five minutes really felt like I was somewhere else, and I could feel things that I’ve never felt in a dream. It was weird and it made no sense but one minute I was at a pond that I used to ice skate at when I was a little girl, and the next minute I’m at some sort of hotel resort, next to a swimming pool, and this man tells me that I can have super powers ...” Candace stopped herself, realizing that she was babbling a bit, but more important, realizing that she was about to talk about the deal she had made with Sunesis. Sunesis ... she still remembered that name and probably always would.

27

“It was a weird dream,” she concluded.

Mrs. Wilks stood and walked to Candace, placing a hand on her back in a gesture of comfort. “Wow, Candace, thank you for sharing that with us.” She seemed to sense that Candace was a bit rattled and quickly rubbed and patted her shoulder. “Class, can we give a soft round of applause for Candace?” Which the class readily supplied. Mrs. Wilks leaned in. “Would you like to skip the questions?”

Candace did, but knew that she would be asked questions either now or at some later point and preferred to get it over with. “I’m alright,” she offered. Mrs. Wilks wasn’t completely convinced, but accepted the response.

“Alright, class, Candace will take some questions, but only one at a time, so raise your hand and she will choose who gets to speak.” Hands went up as if responding to an offer for free money.

Candace pointed to a chubby girl in the second row. “Gretchen.” Not many people saw past the weight, but Candace knew her to be a fun, outgoing girl.

“How does it feel to know that you almost died?”

Candace hadn’t thought about that because she hadn’t felt close to dying. “Honestly, I don’t feel anything about it. Even now, it doesn’t feel like I avoided death, it just feels like I was asleep longer than I should have been. It’s not like I survived a plane crash or something like that. I just had a long nap.” There were a few chuckles and then hands rose again.

28

Candace looked at her best friend, Ashley, who was smiling and shaking her head. Ashley was one of the few people who did not raise her hand because the two of them had already talked about the coma. Ashley had also already asked a lot of the questions that Candace would probably be asked throughout the day. Although unintentionally, Ashley had prepped her for the day and Candace was now appreciative of that fact.

“Jake.”

“I’ve seen some TV shows where people who die see a bright light, or visit with other dead people, or hear the voice of God. Did anything like that happen to you?”

Candace had wondered if Sunesis was something more than a dream. If he was more than a dream, she wondered what he might be. If he had been real, he wasn’t an angel because angels don’t ask people to kill other people, at least not in the stories that she had heard about. She did her best to present a persuasive smile, as if Jake’s ideas were ridiculous. “I had a weird dream that included ice skating and sunny skies, but nothing so dramatic as the voice of God.”

“Edgar.”

“How did you feel when you woke up?”

“You mean physically or emotionally?”

“Physically. Did your body work alright? Was your mind working alright? Stuff like that.”

“I felt sore. My muscles were stiff from being in the same position for five days, but other than that, my body was alright. My mind was good too, but I was confused about what happened and I guess it was like being drunk and not knowing who took you home.”

29

“Not that any of you should know about that,” Mrs. Wilks interrupted, “seeing as how you are all under age.” She offered a weak smile, knowing the truth about teenagers, presumably from having been one herself.

There were a few laughs as most of the class had been drunk at some point in their young lives and Candace smiled at the joke’s reception, knowing that she was usually the one driving those drunks home. She would never be dumb enough to drink and drive, and even got her own drinks at parties for fear of being drugged and raped. Two of the many lessons she had learned from her over-protective father.

More questions were asked, until her classmates were sufficiently bored, and then it was business as usual. Mrs. Wilks told her again how happy they all were to have her back, safe and sound, and after another round of applause, Candace took her seat. That was her day. From classroom to classroom she received similar treatments, with similar questions, and ultimately, similar boredom. When the final bell rang, she had simply had her fifteen minutes of fame and that was that. It was time to move on.

: :

Candace never grew tired of coming home to an excited dog. As soon as she opened the front door, Jingles would greet her with barking and twirling and a wagging tail. “Hi, boy,” she said, kneeling down to scratch his head. “Did you miss me?” Jingles barked in the affirmative.

“Is that you, Candace?”

30

“It’s me,” she called to her mom. Candace closed the front door and walked to the kitchen.

“How was school?” her mom asked. She was sitting at the table with papers spread out before her.

“Fine. I was a bit of a celebrity, but I don’t think it will last much longer. Maybe another day, but I think the novelty is over.”

“Were you tired at all?”

“Not one bit. When do you think I can go back to practice?” Candace missed playing volleyball and needed to get back to keep her spot on the team. Plus, she now needed extra footage to prove that her coma hadn’t affected her play. She had a decent shot at a scholarship, and was in contact with several coaches, but she needed to keep playing. She had the height, at five-foot-nine, the grades, and the tournament experience, but if any of those coaches found out that she was no longer playing, or wasn’t playing regularly, or had problems as a result of her coma ...

“Next week at the earliest. Unless doctor Sing says otherwise.”

Candace let out a frustrated sigh, but accepted that it was probably for the best. “Alright,” she agreed. “Sucks, but alright. If you need anything, I’ll be in my room.”

She left the kitchen, yelled “Hey, bro!” to her six year old brother, who was where he always was after school, in front of the television, then began her home exercise program by hopping up the stairs. Jingles followed her, pausing at the step behind her as she hopped, and then trotted into the room after her. He was very protective of her as of late, not wanting to let her out of his sight. Candace closed the door behind her, dropped her backpack on the bed and quickly changed from school clothes to workout clothes.

31

“Alright Jingles, let’s get to it,” she said, clapping once for motivation. Jingles wasn’t very motivated, but he did flick out his tongue in what Candace accepted as canine agreement.

Stretching, light exercises and television had been her routine as of late and today would be no different. She grabbed the remote control and sat on the floor with her legs wide.

“Hammy’s, Jingles, gotta keep ‘em loose.” Jingles sat next to her, as he often did, and Candace rubbed his back, as she often did. She pointed the remote at the TV, pushed the power button, and nothing happened. She pushed it again, taking a moment to focus her aim, but still nothing. That’s when she remembered that the batteries had needed to be replaced. She looked to her desk, where her mother had placed a new package of double A’s, and groaned. She didn’t want to get up.

“Get the batteries, Jingles, come on!”

Jingles looked at her, panting lightly, then quickly looked away. If she wanted those batteries, she concluded, she would have to get them herself.

Maybe I can reach them, she thought, lifting slightly and stretching out with her right hand. “Almost ...” Her fingers were just touching the package when it suddenly rattled and shook atop the desk. She jerked her hand back and Jingles, startled, bounced quickly to his feet. He stared at her and then up at the desk and then back to her.

“Sorry, boy,” she said, scratching his head. She was breathing a tad quicker now and wondered if what she had seen was really what she had seen. Had she imagined it? Had there been a slight tremor through the house? She took a second to collect herself, then adjusted her legs toward the desk. She exhaled as if ready to serve a match point and was surprised to feel both nervous and excited about the possibility that she had somehow made those batteries wobble.

32

“Only one way to find out,” she said, stretching out her hand. “Match point, Jingles.” A bit of fun build-up for a situation that had probably been just her imagination. “Everybody’s watching ...” She stared at the batteries, then back to Jingles, then back to the batteries, straining and focusing and—they moved!

“Did you see that, boy!” she screamed, rubbing Jingles vigorously with both hands. He responded by barking with excitement.

“Alright, Jingles, I know. I know, it’s exciting ...” she stopped rubbing him and took another moment to calm down. “So what does it mean? I made a package of batteries jiggle, but so what?” She looked to the batteries and then back to Jingles. “They moved because of me, didn’t they?” No answer from Jingles, but another deep breath from Candace. “Right, one more time.”

She adjusted herself again, now sitting cross-legged and relaxed. This time she would not stretch toward the batteries, this time she would try moving the batteries toward her—with her mind. She kept her arms at her side and simply stared at the package. A few seconds passed and Jingles began to growl, apparently not liking the strain that Candace was exhibiting.

“It’s alright, boy,” she assured. “Now, sshhhsh!” Jingles quieted and Candace tried again. Seconds passed and then seconds more and she felt as though she would burst. She was trying too hard. “Relax,” she whispered.

33

She relaxed and tried again, staring at the batteries while staying calm and focused instead of strained and tense. The batteries began to rattle. Candace squealed a bit, but pushed through her excitement while feeling a warm sensation start at her chest and expand throughout her body. A soft gasp escaped her mouth as the power suddenly reversed its direction. Currents of air or waves of energy brushed against her and then the batteries slid across the desk, into the air, and into her quickly raised hand, slapping against her palm as she blurted out a startled cry. Jingles, wanting none of it, whimpered and scurried to his pillow.

Candace had seized the airborne delivery and whooped with excitement and laughter. “Did you see that!” She looked at Jingles, then back to the batteries in her hand. “Jingles!”

“Fun, isn’t it?” a voice from behind her said.

Candace jerked and twisted, startled by the voice and terrified to see a man sitting on her bed. She screamed and pushed herself away, slamming into the legs of her desk which then banged against the wall. Jingles jumped over his master’s foot and began growling and barking in a wild rage. Candace tried to get up, but her feet slipped and kicked along the carpeted floor causing more terror and more screaming. “MOM!” she cried. “MOM!”

“There’s no need for that, Candy,” the man said.

He was sitting on her bed, his legs outstretched and hanging over the edge. Her bed was against the far wall and he was leaning against that wall with pillows propped up behind him. It was him! Sunesis was here and he was sitting on her bed and all she could do was scream ...

34

“Candace, what is it?!” her mom shouted, bursting into the room and nearly giving Candace a heart attack.

Candace turned and screamed at the intrusion. Jingles turned and barked at the intrusion. Sunesis laughed and offered some condescending advice ...

“This is no way to prove to your mother that you’re ready to return to the volleyball court.”

“Candace! Candace!”

Candace had turned her attention back to Sunesis and was staring at him with wide-eyed terror. Her mom fell to her knees and seized her daughter’s face between her hands. Jingles continued to bark and growl while mom struggled to gain eye contact.

“CANDACE! What happened?”

“Yes, Candace, what happened?” Sunesis sat with his hands folded in his lap and a wide, playful grin on his smug face.

Candace was breathing in short bursts now, not taking her eyes off a man who caused zero concern for her mom. It was as if she hadn’t seen him ...

“Candace?”

Her mom’s tone had calmed because she had calmed. She was no longer screaming and Jingles was no longer barking. He was growling, but he was doing so quietly.

“Candace, honey, what is it?”

Sunesis waved to her and she was a breath away from screaming again when her mother gently shook her head.

“CANDACE!” she shouted, forcing eye contact. “What happened?”

Candace looked to Sunesis and then back to her mother.

“Look mom, look!” she prodded, turning her mom’s head toward the bed. “Do you see him?”

35

“She won’t see me, Candy.”

“See who?”

“Only you can see me.”

Candace felt as if she would cry. “You don’t see him?”

Jingles saw him and continued to growl at the unwanted visitor.

Her mom looked at her with fear and concern, then noticed the change of clothing and concern became curiosity. “Were you exercising?” she asked. It was more than a question, it was hope for a mother who wanted to believe that her daughter wasn’t crazy. Exercise and stress so early after a coma must be the reason for the outburst. Candace saw it as if it were written across her mother’s forehead. Crazy is alright, so long as there’s a reason and so long as that reason is temporary.

“Yes, but I had just started and then—”

“Aah, no ‘buts’. You’re supposed to be taking it easy.” Great relief washed over her mom’s face and Candace knew that she had just set her volleyball schedule back at least a week. She peeked up to her bed and saw Sunesis nodding in agreement.

“I tried to warn you,” he said and Jingles barked his displeasure.

“Jingles, quiet!” Mom raised a palm to silence the dog and then she squeezed her daughter. “It’s gonna be alright.” They rocked slowly on the floor and then her mom kissed her on the cheek before getting up to leave the room. “You’ll be alright, you just need some rest.”

“Your mother is right, Candy,” Sunesis said from the chair in the corner. Candace twitched as the voice, and the man, had moved from bed to chair without getting up to get there. He simply was where he once wasn’t.

36

“I’m old, but I’m quick, and we need to talk.”

“Alright, honey, let’s get you rested up.” Her mom returned with a small cup of water and a wash cloth. She was walking quickly and her movements were deliberate, which she did when she was distracted. Mom set the cup down and pulled back the blankets on the bed. “Come on, in you go. I need to call doctor Sing and you need to rest.”

Candace knew that her mom would not take “no” for an answer. Other than that, she didn’t know much. She was either crazy or entering the first stages of crazy. What she had thought was a dream apparently wasn’t, unless she was dreaming now, which she couldn’t be sure of because she thought she was dreaming the last time she had seen this guy. But if she wasn’t dreaming now then how did he get in her room and why didn’t her mom see him or hear him? Even when he was speaking, with her mom right next to her, she hadn’t heard him.

“Is it alright if Jingles stays?” Candace asked, nearly pleading, not wanting to be alone with crazy dream guy.

Her mom hesitated, but decided that it couldn’t hurt. “Alright, but I don’t want you playing.”

Candace nodded. “Bedtime, Jingles,” she said, motioning to his pillow while she got up and moved to her bed. Jingles growled toward Sunesis and then trotted over to the pillow. Upon reaching the pillow, he growled again and set his head down, watching the strange man and looking none too happy about it.

“I’ll check on you in a bit,” her mom said, “but let’s just take it easy.” She tucked in the blanket and placed the washcloth on her forehead. “Get some rest,” she reminded, and walked briskly out the door.

37

“What a sweet woman,” Sunesis said.

Candace closed her eyes and a tear slid down her cheek. She was crazy or she was dreaming.

“You’re not crazy, Candy. You’re not dreaming either.” Sunesis adjusted himself in the chair. “You’re learning.”

Candace began to sob lightly and Jingles stood tense at his pillow.

“Sit up, Candy, there’s no need to be afraid. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Candace did as she was told and opened her eyes, placing the washcloth beside her. She was afraid, but compliant. He hadn’t hurt her before and so she hoped that he wouldn’t hurt her now. She leaned against the wall, holding her blankets close, wishing she had a pit bull instead of a chihuahua.

Sunesis smiled as if remembering a joke or a funny story. “During our last visit, I told you that you would have super human abilities and yet you get excited over floating batteries?” He chuckled. “I knew that you weren’t taking me entirely serious. That little parlor trick you did is not even close to what you can learn to do.”

Candace didn’t move, holding the blanket against her as if it were a magical shield. “That wasn’t a dream?”

“No.”

“You gave me powers?”

“Yes.”

“Can I give them back?” They both knew the answer to this, but the words had come out before she had really thought to ask.

“It would be more difficult to kill the people that you had promised to kill.”

38

Candace felt her eyes swelling with tears as she remembered what she had agreed to. “I don’t want to kill people,” she moaned.

“Ah, so you do remember our visit.”

She nodded her head. “I remember that it felt like a dream and that I only agreed so that I could wake up.”

“You did wake up, and here you are.”

“But that shouldn’t count,” she said. “Deals made during dreams shouldn’t count.”

“Maybe they shouldn’t,” he toyed, “but they do.”

“Why are you doing this?” she asked. “How are you doing this? What are you?”

“Good questions,” Sunesis allowed, nodding slowly in a way that annoyed her. It was a mocking nod, informing her that if answers were coming, they would only come by his timing.

She grunted sharply and threw herself onto the bed, pulling the blankets up to her chin in a fiery display of impatience. “You wake me when you’re ready to talk,” she snapped. “Maybe you’ve got nothing better to do, but I like to keep things moving.”

What got moving was the bed she was lying in. It leapt up and slammed her into the ceiling and then dropped to catch her fall. Candace screamed, sitting up in a rage while Jingles barked his displeasure. “What the hell?!” she yelled.

“Exactly!” Sunesis shouted. “What the hell! As in, what the hell, why not kill some people?” He laughed at his own levity. “Hey mom, guess what? If I don’t kill some people, I’ll be dead in a couple of weeks.” He chuckled and nodded toward the dog. “Even Jingles there is speechless.”

39

Jingles appeared to be barking fiercely, his little body shaking and straining but his mouth wasn’t making any noise. Candace shook her head, wondering if the ceiling slam had damaged her hearing except that she could hear the ringing of the bell around his neck. There were no sounds from his mouth, but his bell ... “What did you do to my dog?”

Candace heard the rapid ascent of footsteps on stairs and seconds later her door burst open. “What is going on up here?” her mom shouted. “Jingles, shut it!” She clapped loudly and Jingles jerked to attention. His little tongue lashing out in nervous fits as he looked at Sunesis, then Candace, then mom, and then back and forth, growling because he was unsure of his role. He started barking again and that’s when mom shooed him out the door. “Jingles! That’s enough. Out! Go, scoot.” Jingles left the room, whimpering softly, but stayed close to the door.

“What was that banging?” her mother asked.

“Yes, Candy, what was that banging?” Sunesis repeated.

Candace could hear Jingles growling in the hallway. He was nervous. She was nervous. This wasn’t a dream ... “Sorry, mom. Something startled Jingles, I guess, and his barking startled me. I think I must have hit the wall with my arm or something. I’m alright.”

Her mom let out a sigh of relief and walked over to check her forehead and cheeks. “You don’t feel warm, but you need to take it easy, alright?” It wasn’t really a question and Candace nodded that she understood.

Her mom walked out of the room and scolded Jingles. “And you, mister, are going outside.” She closed the door and Candace was alone with Sunesis. Again, her mother hadn’t seen him. He had been sitting there the whole time and she hadn’t seen him. He wasn’t human. At least, he was no longer human because humans couldn’t do what he did. Ghost? Vampire? Candace was in serious trouble ...

40

“Are you ready to talk now?” he asked.

“Does it matter?” she replied.

“Yes, actually it does. I have a lot to share, you have a lot to learn.” He brandished a condescending smile. “I could kill you now.”

Not the answer she wanted to hear.

“Candy, this is simple, you kill people or I find somebody who will. If I’m forced to find somebody else, that somebody will start with you. Those are the headlines but there is more to the story.”

Candace felt as though she might hyperventilate. Her heart was racing and her eyes were holding back tears. This didn’t make sense. She was seventeen, supposed to be thinking about college, life, boys, volleyball ... how could she kill people?

“It’s easy to kill, Candy, especially with the powers that I’ve given you.”

She felt violated, her mind was somehow an open book to this thing. “Are you reading my mind?” she asked.

“No, but I rarely wish that I could. I can decipher human reactions in just about any situation. Years of experience.”

“So you’re not human?”

He chuckled. “Hardly.”

“What are you then?”

“We’ll get to that.”

She placed her head in her hands, feeling as though it might explode. “Why me?” she asked.

41

“You represent a very interesting, and important, case study for me. To be perfectly honest, which I rarely am, I’ve never done this before. You’re the first of what I hope to be many more to come. However, I very much want to impress my boss with this first attempt, which means I need somebody special. I believe that somebody is you.”

“Why?” Candace whimpered. “I’m not special. I don’t know how to kill.”

Sunesis offered a reassuring grin. “Everybody knows how to kill, Candy. The tricky part is getting away with it. Besides, you are special. Your name alone has a great, slasher-type appeal to it—Cutter. That’s an English surname, is it not.” He did not wait for an answer. “What a fantastic juxtaposition of sweet and sour, fun and frightening, good and evil. Candy Cutter! He spread his hands apart as if visualizing her name in lights, on a billboard perhaps or a theatre marquee. It’s perfect! You’re perfect! You’re young, smart, athletic, charismatic, beautiful, and I don’t intend to let it go to waste.”

Sunesis was genuinely excited and it made Candace sick to share in that excitement. As if she were being recruited to the University of Murder and Sunesis was that school’s greatest recruiter.

She was silent for a few seconds, unsure what to ask, or even what to think.

“Don’t think, Candy,” Sunesis mocked, after perceiving her thoughts yet again. “I will explain some things, you will listen, and then you may ask questions. Understood?”

Candace released her head and placed her arms on her lap, grasping the blanket in each hand. She stuttered out a few quick breaths and nodded reluctantly.

42

“Excellent!” Sunesis clapped his hands together and settled into his chair.

Apparently it was story time because Sunesis looked as though he was about to tell a whopper ...

“First, you asked what I am. Well, believe it or not, I am what you might refer to as a demon. Not a ghost, vampire, werewolf or alien, but a demon from a world that you might know as Hell. Actually, there are many names for my kind and quite a few for my world, but for all intents and purposes, I am a demon and I come from Hell.”

Candace felt her skin tingle and a shiver run through her. She also found it difficult to breath. A demon? They’re real? Why would a demon bother with her? What had she done? What could she do? She was terrified, but intrigued.

“For as long as I can remember, it has been possible for a demon to possess a human host. A disgusting habit, I say, but some enjoy the rest, or the mischief that they can cause and so they wrap themselves in repugnant suits of skin and hair, sweat and foul smells. Not me. Not now, not ever. Disgusting as it is, it is referred to as indwelling and there are many of my kind that would like to see the practice eradicated. Actually, there are many of my kind that would like to see those who practice the practice eradicated, but that’s not important. What is important is there are demons who need to be controlled and that’s where you come in. I want you to control those who need controlling.”

Candace felt as though she would puke. “What does controlling demons have to do with killing people?”

“Everything. Once a demon indwells a host, that person is pretty much done. Mind and body, controlled. And since demons don’t like to leave unless they can leave into something better, killing the host is the quickest, easiest way to instigate a capture.”

43

“I have to kill a human in order to capture a demon?”

“Yes. Of course you’re free to kill non-possessed people as well, old boyfriend, bitchy teammate, teacher ... Even if you choose to rid the streets of criminals, it’s all encouraged, so long as you kill the possessed as well.”

He paused and Candace wasn’t sure if he was trying to appear diplomatic or condescending.

“Trust me, once you get the swing of things, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is. This world carries seven billion people, give or take, what will it matter if you remove a few hundred, or even a few thousand?”

He paused, knowing that this was a lot to take in. “Questions?”

She had questions alright and her mouth opened to ask those questions, but it quickly closed as she thought about her words. Where to begin? There’s a demon in my room. He wants me to kill people. If I don’t kill people, I die.

“Is this some kind of game for you?”

Sunesis thought about this for a moment. “Yes and no. It is a game, but it also serves a purpose. Hell is always ready to receive new souls and encouraging humans to send us those souls is an irony that never gets old.”

“Threatening to kill me is encouragement?” Candace scoffed. “Why don’t you kill them?”

“Oh no, Candy, I have far too much to do to waste my talents here. Think of this as a little side business that I’ve picked up. My real job is far more interesting than running around a dying planet killing already dying people. No, I will be strictly an observer on this. Well, unless I want to get involved, which I may from time to time.” He smiled in a way that informed Candace that yes, he was messing with her.

44

“So what, you’ll be like my parole officer?”

Sunesis laughed. “No, not a parole officer. I don’t want you checking in with me. Rest assured that I will be checking in with you.”

“So you’ll be more like a guidance counselor?”

“If that makes you feel better, than guidance counselor it is.”

“Guiding me to what, how to kill? I’m a killer now? An assassin? Candace, the demon assassin?”

More laughter followed by a hearty cheer. “Yes! Now you’re getting it! Candy Cutter, demon assassin!” He pronounced her new title as if narrating the trailer to a new action movie. “I like it and what a fun twist, don’t you think? You have demon powers, you get to assassinate people possessed by demons and anybody that gets in your way or otherwise annoys you. Not a bad gig when you think about it.”

She didn’t want to think about it.

“Alright,” Sunesis clapped, “that’s it for me.”

He stood and walked over to stand next to her bed. She shrank back against the wall, dreading the idea that he might touch her.

“Here’s the deal, Candy, like anything attempted, the first time is always the most difficult. Thankfully for you, and as guidance counselor extraordinaire, I’ll be helping you along. I know you’re confused but trust me, it will get easier. Take the rest of the week, experiment with your powers and if you have any questions write them down.” He turned and walked to the door, opened it, and was about to leave when he turned back. “Do you have a black dress?”

45

“A black dress?” Candace was relieved that he was leaving, but struggled to understand what a black dress would have to do with anything. “I have four, why?”

“Of course you do,” he smirked. “Choose one for Saturday.”

He left the room, the door closed behind him, and Candy Cutter, demon assassin, began to cry.

PROCESS

Carlos Esperanza found his keys in the sock drawer. He grumbled at this latest example of mind-mush and wondered if the drugs were starting to affect him. No time to think about that now as he was already late. He turned off the closet light and was about to head for the garage when the doorbell rang. He paused to think about who might be coming over, but decided that whoever was at the door had not been invited.

Carlos removed the forty caliber revolver from his waist holster and moved slowly toward the door. It was only six in the evening so it very well could be a neighbor. Still, better safe than sorry meant that he carry a weapon and check the small, wall-mounted monitor which allowed him to see the front porch by way of closed-circuit camera. Carlos pushed the view button and saw an empty porch. He stood motionless for a few seconds, straining to hear anything outside. When he heard nothing, he pressed the speak button and said, “Hello?”

“Hello, Carlos,” a voice said from the living room.

Carlos stumbled against the wall, but recovered quickly to point his gun toward the voice.

“Don’t shoot,” said the smiling intruder, holding up his arms in mock surrender.

46

Carlos grunted and sighed, recognizing his friend and returning his revolver to its holster. “Man, I almost shot you.” He then noticed that another man was sitting in his favorite chair. It was dark in that corner of the room but Carlos soon realized who that man was—the Taxman had paid him a visit.

“What’s going on?” Carlos asked, doing his best to conceal the fear in his voice.

His friend shrugged in a regretful way. “Time to give up the body, Carlos.”

“What? You were serious?” Carlos chuckled and immediately wished that he hadn’t.

“Did he not tell you that the warning had come from me?” Taxman interrupted.

Carlos felt like a mouse facing the jaws of a hungry cat. He knew of the Taxman’s exploits and knew that he was no match in a physical confrontation. His own abilities were of a more subtle nature. He was extremely good at gaining trust, building relationships and creating alliances. He used humor and charm to get what he wanted while Taxman used intimidation and violence. Now was not the time to joke. Or to lie.

“He did tell me.” Carlos looked quickly to his friend, hoping for help, but expecting none.

“You were told and yet you did not take Edgar seriously. Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Uh ...”

“Edgar told you that if you brought any more attention to our operations, that you would be required to give up the body. Edgar told you that I was the one warning you. Edgar told you these things and yet you did not take him seriously. Why would you not take him seriously? Do you think he would joke about a warning from me? Do you think that anybody would joke about a warning from me? Do you think that I joke about such things? Do you think at all or do you expect your inane wit to move you beyond the ranks of delivery boy?”

47

Carlos dared not answer. It was best to accept his punishment, rather than risk further offense.

“I want you out of that body, Carlos, because I have a new body for you.”

Carlos heard the soft grunting before he actually saw the animal, but from the hallway of his luxurious home, which he now knew would be taken from him, came an ugly, brown warthog. Carlos was near tears, but he knew that it was either this pig or something much worse.

“Might there be someway to atone for my actions?” Carlos pleaded. He raised his hands and knelt before the Taxman. Tears were close to erupting from his eyes, but he knew that if he showed that amount of weakness, he would never receive leniency.

“This is your atonement, Sakif.”

To hear his rivaaja name caused a moment of near panic. How long had it been since he heard that name? Thousands of years? Just after the wars, he thought. And how many bodies had been his? Hundreds? Sakif had lived within Carlos for twelve years and now seemed destined to downsize into a warthog. How long would he be required to walk on all fours? Would he become somebody’s pet or would he be shown the door and expected to fend for himself? It was a humiliating proposition and yet, to live inside of a pig was still living. To refuse the transfer meant certain destruction. It was his own fault. He had been reckless with his collections, his control of women and his use of alcohol and drugs.

48

“You will reside in this beast until I send for you and if I find that you have left this animal, prior to my allowing you to leave, I will personally hunt you down and make good your destruction. Do you understand?”

Sakif gasped as he felt a tear slide down the cheek of Carlos. He was losing control of his human host who was again feeling things that he hated to feel—fear, depression, pain ... all of the emotions that had allowed Sakif to enter Carlos so long ago. Sakif could do nothing for Carlos now and leaned forward, removing himself from the husk that now slumped forward. Carlos moaned and tumbled to his side. Sakif stood and for the first time in a long time, bore horrified witness to his weakened, red, hairless and gnarled body.

Thin grooves and cuts streaked like spider webs along his hands and arms. There was no muscle definition, there was simply red parts connecting to form a larger red unit. He was rivaaja again, scorched, mutilated, humiliated. He lowered himself to hands and knees and scurried toward the pig, entering through its left ear. There was a violent squeal as the beast ran itself into the back of a nearby couch. It grunted and kicked, squealed and jerked, slamming its head and body against furniture and walls until finally lying on the ground, rolling and twitching in a last effort to rid itself of the unwanted intruder.

“Edgar,” the Taxman began, “I want you to take that thing to Africa. Drop it in the Serengeti and then meet me back at the restaurant.

“You got it, boss.” Edgar picked up the still twitching pig and walked out of the room.

49

Taxman stood and looked down at a helpless Carlos. It was a pathetic sight really, this human bag slumped over and moaning, but after a long indwelling the host was all but drained. Rivaaja never slept which meant their human host never slept which meant these pathetic beings developed a dependency on the being within. When that being left, the human shell was little more than a gelatinous mass.

Taxman walked over to Carlos and removed his revolver from its holster, emptying all but one round before placing the gun, and the bullets, on a nearby coffee table. He then propped up Carlos to a sitting position on the floor, leaning him against one of two couches in the room. When he was satisfied that the body would not slump, he retrieved the gun and smiled.

Carlos Esperanza felt as if he were waking from the dead. He could hardly move and couldn’t remember how he ended up on the floor in his living room. His mouth was dry, his body was weak and his head was pounding which made him think that maybe he had been drinking or doing drugs or both. He struggled to lift his head but the best he could do was roll it to his shoulder where it sat like a rotting melon.

“Who are you?” Carlos slurred, noticing a strange man standing beside him. There was no answer, but Carlos felt something being placed into his hand. He looked down to see a gun, a revolver, and the strange man walking away. “Wait ...” Carlos could barely speak, but the man was leaving and Carlos needed help. “Please ...”

50

As Carlos was watching the man leave, his hand suddenly raised up from the floor, floating and swaying in the air as if struggling to take flight. Carlos tried to lower his hand and to release the gun but neither happened. A flash of terror raced through his mind as his arm lifted up and brought the gun dangerously close to his head. What was happening? He tried again to call out to the stranger, but the man was gone, out the front door and leaving Carlos to defend himself against himself.

Carlos heard a faint “clunk” as the weapon’s barrel made contact against the side of his head. He closed his eyes and waited for the blast but it didn’t come. Instead, there was the unmistakable “click” of the hammer dropping. Carlos gasped at the empty chamber. Was this a sick joke? Another “click”, and then another, and with each click, Carlos flinched, twitched, and gasped. What is this? Why is this happening? How is this happening? “Click”. BLAST! Darkness.

: :

Candace was still crying when she heard gentle scratching at her bedroom door. For the briefest of moments she thought that maybe Sunesis had returned, until she recognized the soft whimpers of her concerned dog. She crawled cautiously to the door, wondering if this could be some kind of trick, but quickly accepted that there was no reason for tricks. Sunesis didn’t need tricks. He was in complete control and they both knew it.

She opened the door and Jingles rushed in, jumping against her body and licking her face. He was shaking as he often did when he was nervous or scared, but that didn’t stop him from alternating between face licks and room surveillance. She scooped up her dog and closed the door. “I know, boy, that mean man is gone. It’s just us. You’re alright.”

51

She sat on the floor and leaned against her bed, crossing her legs and holding Jingles like a protective mother. Jingles in turn snuggled against her belly and they sat quietly until her own mother called her to dinner. Dinner? Who could eat after a demon slammed you into the ceiling and threatened to have you killed unless you killed people who happened to be possessed by other demons? She didn’t move or respond and only when her mom came to check on her, with her younger brother sneaking peeks into the room, did she ask to be excused. There was a somewhat concerned pause, followed by a bit of maternal fussing, but she soon left the room and Candace was again able to contemplate her future.

She stroked Jingles while pushing through a haze of worrisome thoughts and troubling ideas. She was stuck. How was this possible? She had never believed in demons or anything spiritual, certainly not God, although she didn’t not believe in God, she had just never thought about any of it. Heaven, Hell, good, evil, what did it mean? If demons could force humans to do things, did that mean angels could help? Would God help? Was there a God?

If there were demons then there must be a god, but what kind of a demon was she dealing with and what kind of god might be willing to help? The idea of God seemed to appeal to a variety of religions, which meant that it was possible to have a variety of demons. Was Sunesis a Catholic demon or a Muslim demon? Did it work like that? Was this a test? Should she be calling out to God, and if so, which god?

52

“I need help,” she whimpered, looking up at the ceiling ...

Jingles began to wiggle and groan and Candace realized that she had been squeezing and stroking him with more vigor than she had intended. “Oh, I’m sorry, boy,” she said, rubbing him quickly and kissing his head. He seemed to understand that she was a mess and began wagging his tail while licking her hands. She smiled, grateful for the distraction and the freeing of her mind from troubling thoughts.

“This just can’t be real,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

She forced a smile for her four-legged best friend. “What do you say we sleep on it, huh?” Jingles agreed and left her lap to jump up on the bed. Candace didn’t know what time it was and didn’t care. She was exhausted and wanted very badly for this day to be over. She climbed into bed and lifted the sheet and blanket for Jingles to cozy up next to her, which he did without hesitation.

“It can’t be real, Jingles, but what if it is?”

She felt the tears beginning to swell as the pressures of a world she was just beginning to understand suddenly seemed meaningless. A demon wanted her. A demon! She was scared, but tired. Oh, so tired. Tomorrow. I’ll worry about it tomorrow. She felt Jingles licking her arm and the demanding pull of a necessary sleep.

: :

Detective Michael Zuniga stopped the car at the south end of the cemetery and took his customary moment to reflect. It always struck him as somehow wrong that a place of death could be so well-tended and green, while the city around it, with so many people still living and breathing, could be so down-trodden and drab. Not that it was all bad. There were of course nice areas and the occasional police victories, but those seemed few and far apart when case after case involved murder, rape and other assorted methods of people wrecking other people. Even this cemetery, which should have been a place to avoid, had become a respite from the grinding sadness and violence that was his job.

53

So it was that a trip to the cemetery became his therapy. It wasn’t that he enjoyed coming here, but he always felt better when he did. As strange as it might seem to others, it helped him to think and it kept the guilt away. Well, it kept the guilt mostly away. Besides, as therapy goes, the cemetery was a gold-mine. It was free, it revolved around his schedule, and it was outdoors. Win, win, and win.

Zuniga retrieved a folder and small paper bag from the passenger seat and got out of the car. He closed the driver door, hit the lock button on his key remote and went to the back where he removed a wooden folding chair from the trunk. With hands full he began the short walk up the gently sloping hill to where his daughter lay. A slight breeze blew across his face and he smiled at the thought that he was being welcomed.

“It’s me,” he said quietly. “Got some new stuff to talk about.”

Upon reaching his daughter’s headstone, he leaned the chair against a nearby tree which allowed him to set down the folder and small bag. He then opened the chair, sat beside his daughter and removed a chocolate cupcake from the bag.

“I thought you might like chocolate today,” he said, placing the cupcake at the base of her stone. He then folded the bag, picked up the folder and placed the bag inside. He sighed as he reviewed the folder’s contents.

54

“Got another bad one here, Jazzy, and I’m hoping you can help me out.” He paused, wondering if he would ever stop coming here (which is what he wondered every time he came here), but quickly decided that he probably wouldn’t (which is what he decided every time he thought about it), and so he continued (which is what he always did).

“There’s a guy who robs and kills people, bad people, they’re all crooks, but still, it’s robbing and killing and someday there could be some innocent death so I’d like to get this guy before that happens. Anyway, this guy robs and kills and then leaves a stack of cash behind. Maybe it’s a joke, maybe he’s looking for publicity—yes, maybe it’s a woman, but for now let’s just refer to the suspect as he because it’s easier and it’s more likely, alright?”

He smiled down at his daughter and wondered what he always wondered—what kind of person would she have become? He would never know of course, but for now, she was a great listener and it helped to hear himself think without the seemingly endless interruptions of phones ringing, printers printing, and any number of sounds that happened in a room full of people.

“Maybe the cash doesn’t mean anything? Maybe.” He nodded in agreement and felt the familiar comfort of talking to himself as if he were actually talking with her. “I think it’s some kind of warning to whoever he’s stealing from, but I can’t figure out the warning. Could be an offer, like he’s allowing the person he’s stealing from to still operate, but only on a very small level. He’s telling whoever that they’re no longer in charge. He’s the new boss.” He nodded again.

“So, a new player, plays rough, offers a small piece of the pie instead of taking it all, which would leave a whole lot of bitterness and establish zero loyalty. So why do it?” He glanced up at the blue sky and wondered if this might be a race thing. He doubted it, but for the next forty minutes he talked to his daughter about racial possibilities, cultural possibilities, and anything else that popped into his mind.