Derek Lee





Derek had a love/hate relationship with opium. On the one had, it was a wonderful depressant for the senses when one needed to cope with existing in a Boring time. On the other hand, that dulling of the faculties was absolutely maddening, because he needed to be on the move, observing, his mind rebelling at stagnation. The poppy dulled things just enough that it all rested on the very edge of his consciousness, that infinitesimal itch that is just out of reach. Sometimes, it could be ignored. Most of the time, it was just infuriating, so he hadn’t bothered with opium in years.

Later, he’d attribute it to his general drowsiness, but the opium hit and Derek dropped into a drowsy stupor within…a really short amount of time. He dropped, and found himself in a carnival car, the kind you’d find in a rinky-dink amusement park haunted house.

In fact, given a opium-slowed glance about the surroundings, it was a haunted house—if a haunted house had replaced all of its ghosts and shoddy effects with funhouse mirrors of all varieties.

Glancing to the right and left as the mirrors passed by (the car was clearly moving, the creaking of movement along the track could be heard—albeit strangely muffled—but it seemed like he was the one sitting still), Derek flinched and revised his opinions. It wasn’t a haunted house filled with funhouse mirrors. It was a haunted house in which all the funhouse mirrors of every hodunk carnival in the country had participated in an unholy orgy. The sheer number of mirrors, all of them slightly different, would have bordered on overwhelming even had Derek been operating at top speed.

And, well… he wasn’t quite.

Shaking his head to try and clear the spasms, some of the mirrors nipped at his attentions from the corners of his vision.

He wasn’t the only one seated in the car reflected in some of them.

Billy from fourth grade and the stupid hamster he’d brought to school one day. He hated that fucking hamster—it was all Billy had bragged about for the two weeks prior. So he’d added peanuts to the hamster’s feed bag when Billy brought it to school to show off, and a couple of weeks later when Billy arrived in tears, Derek had allowed himself a vindictive sense of satisfaction. His throat suddenly constricted, tightening, breath coming only in reedy wisps. His vision swam as he fought to take in air, and then fading to black as his pulse accelerated, pounding in his ears. And then nothing.

His eyes jolted open, and Derek found himself caught in a mirror on the opposite side of the track, this time reflecting fifteen-year-old Anthony, school bully. One of Anthony’s favorite targets, Derek had made a point one day of telling a couple of choice people that he was going to the woods near the school with his new GameBoy to hangout under his favorite tree. Predictably, Anthony had followed. Derek had rushed up the tree, up into the branches where the bigger boy wouldn’t be able to follow safely. And like all bullies, Anthony wasn’t about to exert any more effort than he had to; he was content to just hang around the base of the trunk and force Derek to remain in the upper branches—at least, he was until Derek managed to peg him with the paintball pistol he’d stolen from a neighbor’s garage. Anthony had flown into a rage and climbed into the tree after him. He was close enough that Derek could see the hate in his eyes (or maybe that was just the paint) before he realized his mistake and the branches gave way beneath him, sending him careening down to the ground with a muffled whump-crunch.

This time, though, Anthony somehow made it to him, and Derek felt his body break as it tumbled through the branches of the tree, hitting the ground with a shocking shattering of bone and piercing of flesh.

Back in the car, Derek jerked out of the mirror vision with a shout. Shying away from the sides of the track, he glanced upward to avoid the confrontations the mirrors gave, only to find that the ceiling was also covered. Visions of all of his victims from years past began filtering through, bloody and gruesome and all ending with the turnabout of hismurder.

He died more times than he could keep track of.

As the final victim took his revenge, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel, the carnival car moving slowly towards it. It looked warm, and wonderful, and Derek turned toward it even as his lifeblood spilled from his body.

And then he heard a sound.

Typical, he thought. Even in death, shit doesn’t get any easier.

The light rushed closer, far quicker than the pace of the carnival car, and he distinctly heard and felt the horn and engine of the oncoming train. The rumbling light reached him, crashed over him, and then dissipated to leave him standing in the brush near to the shaman under a dull grey sky, body whole once more.


“Some of ‘em come in easy, some of ‘em come in hard…” Doc Pleasant watched Derek’s arrival, clicking his tongue. “An’ some of ‘em come in with a goddamned ten piece band.”

He stamped his staff against the ground and it clattered, the click of bone against bone. The thing was huge, a good foot and a half taller than Doc Pleasant, who was no small man, himself, and it appeared to be a particularly gruesome sickle - farming as imagined by Goya.

The handle was made of stacked, polished vertebrae, connected in some unseen manner, that tapped against each other each time the instrument moved. The blade was huge, made of polished bone that glistened in the moonlight, and had the air of the guillotine about it. There was no gore about it, no hint or suggestion of dried blood, but somehow, it was all the more sinister for that.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Doc Pleasant tapped the staff again, harder this time. Impatient. “Well, what you waitin’ on, boy? Get up and get on with it!”

With that admonition, he turned and headed down the path, the bones playing their own little danse macabre as he walked.

Derek rose and brushed himself off before following. This Doc Pleasant was morbid and creepifying, much more so than the one back in the material plane. In a weird way, it made him feel a little more comfortable. He settled into a stroll a few steps back and away from the shaman.

The (presumably) good doctor headed off down the path towards the coast. Not hurrying, perhaps, but definitely with the intent of keeping a good distance between him and the critter behind him. As hoodoo man, he’d seen a lot of real shit in his day, but few things gave him the willies like having that boy staring at his back did.

He was used to being the one giving the willies; his pride was mortally offended that some mere snot-nosed boy could possibly usurp that. It was time to return the favor.

“What did you see, boy?” he called back, punctuating his words with a tap of his sickle, letting the crack of bones settle in the air.

The images of those he’d killed flashed in Derek’s vision a moment, but if there was one perk to the trip he had just taken it was that he’d been somewhat desensitized. Once past the initial onslaught, it had become just a matter of weathering the storm.

“Oh, y’know,” he said with a shrug. “Some of my usual. A lot of dead people.” The sound of Doc Pleasant’s bone scythe provided a disturbing (to normal, not-Derek people) yet appropriate underscore.

“Little different to see it from the other side, eh?” The Hoodoo man said, smirking. “Weren’t near so much fun, I reckon.”

“Ehhhh,” Derek made a half-affirming noise. “Maybe not. But, quite informative.” He drifted off a moment in thought. “Always was curious as to what dying was like. Can’tquite experience that in life, though. Not like that. Limited engagement, one-night-only sort of thing normally.”

“Me, I wouldn’t worry too much,” Doc Pleasant said, altogether too cheerful. “You keep up the way you’re headin’ and that limited engagement gon’ be an extended run. You ever consider, though, maybe all them people you sent off weren’t so curious ‘bout dying as you be?”

Derek thought about that a moment before shrugging it away. “Not really,” he said, nonchalant. “Always were more important things to consider. If they tried to stiff me money, if they were genuinely bad types, if I was Bored, if the rent was coming due.” He skirted a larger rock in their path, shrugging again even though Doc Pleasant wasn’t facing his direction. “Never seemed super-important.”

“Not to you, maybe.”

Clack. Clack. Clack.

“You ever looked at one of them poor bastards you killed and think maybe you shouldn’ta hurt them?” Pleasant asked, genuinely curious, himself.

No questioning, just a response. “Nope. How’s that scythe stay together?”

“Magic.” Doc Pleasant smirked. “Why? You wanting to get one for yourself or somethin’?”

“Just curious. Too big to fit in a pocket, no good to me.” Speaking of pockets… Derek shoved his hands into his, feeling around. Nope. No canisters of salt or iron. Not that he’d really expect them to do any good in this place if he’d needed something, but still. Felt kind of naked without them.

“Guess you be thinking this ain’t such a bad place, eh?”

“Jury’s still out.”

They reached an open stretch of sand, mostly obscured by heavy fog. The sounds and scent of the ocean trickled through, though, suggesting they were on a beach. The Hoodoo man headed off into the fog, and it melted away, revealing a gondola decorated with brightly colored flowers, and a grinning skull as the figurehead.

“Come on, then,” Pleasant said, stepping into the boat. “Let’s get moving, eh?”

Derek arched an eyebrow and considered the gondola and choice of decorations for a moment before following. “Should I call you Charon?”

The ferryman snickered. “If that floats your boat, do as you will.”

Breathing out a soft, brief chuckle, Derek settled down, leaving his fate to the Hoodoo gondolier for the moment.

The trip to the island was silent, save for the splash of the scythe - now, somehow, a gondola pole - in the water.

The island itself was covered with a dense fog, so heavy that it was nearly impossible to see one’s hand before one’s face. The Doc produced a large, white candle, painted with crude symbols. He snapped his fingers, and it lit, burning away the fog in a small radius around him.

“Take this, boy,” he said, offering it to Derek. “You gon’ be needin’ it.”

He nodded towards the center of the island. “Now, git.”

Derek accepted the candle and stepped from the gondola onto the shore, glancing about his meager field of vision for some sort of detail in his surroundings.

The place seemed empty, and, aside from the damp sand that sunk beneath him with every step, there were no hints of where he was, or even what “here” looked like.

Blinking, he knelt for a closer look at the sand, running his fingers through it and picking up a clump. As it crumbled away in his hand, a breeze picked up, causing the fog to swirl and eddy and bringing the sound of whispers to Derek’s ears. Rising slowly, he tried to make out the words. There was something oddly familiar about it all, and he set off in the direction he thought it might be coming from. The chase for the source of the sounds led him up an inclined grade, working against both gravity and the sucking sand as he ascended. As grassy patches began to take command of the landscape under his feet, the wind shifted again, and Derek lost the whispering. Glancing about, he strained to hear anything.

There, to his right. Again with the familiar, can’t-quite-place-it quality that was going to drive him absolutely batty. He set off again, pushing through the fog almost quicker than the candle could burn it away.

He wandered in such a manner for minutes, the whispers shifting locations on him, but always drawing him ever further inland—or so he thought. Abruptly, the wind came up around him, stronger than before, bringing with it more than a single whispered conversation. Spinning around, Derek searched in the fog for a direction, a source, anything, stumbling first one way then another. He paused as the breeze buffeted his body to attempt to get his bearings, and realized he’d lost all sense of direction. The whispers—still unintelligible—grew ever louder and more persistent.

Boo, motherfucker,” a voice hissed near his ear.

Derek twitched, throwing an elbow back toward the voice with one arm while reaching to grab for a knife with the other—and coming up completely empty.

The voice snickered. “Not so bad-ass now, little cono, are you?”

Taking a quick step forward, Derek turned. A lean Hispanic man stood there, leering in his direction. There was something familiar about him, too. Derek narrowed his eyes, on-edge and trying to calm his nerves down. “You know, technically, the vagina is the tougher of the two genitals.” He scanned the immediate environment for possible weapons if he needed one, but came up short.

The man blinked out of existence, then whispered from immediately behind Derek. “Remember me?”

Derek whirled, but saw nothing beyond the roiling fog. His waking nightmare came back with a vengeance with a side of reality. “Um…” His breath caught high in his chest. “Can’t say I do.”

The man hissed, this time appearing right next to him, reaching out to wrap icy, insubstantial fingers around Derek’s throat. “Hijo de puta! You bled me out like a fuckingmarrano, and you don’t even remember me?”

The chill of the spectre’s touch bled right through to Derek’s core and he felt, maybe for the first time, the shards of true fear deep in his gut. “What? It’s not like you were my first time. And you definitely weren’t my last.” Well. Depending on how things panned out here, that might end up truer than he meant.

“An honorable man,” the man ground out, through spectral teeth, “remembers the names of the men he kills!” He slammed his fist into Derek’s gut - an icy blast that hit with the force of an arctic gale, knocking the slender young man to ground and looming over him. “Are you a fucking honorable man, pinche perra?”

Derek blinked up at the ghost and started cackling. “Honorable? Honorable? Fuck you, too. I’d be the first to tell you I’m not honorable.”

The man kicked Derek in the gut, knocking the air out of him. “The man you killed,” he said, bending down and staring at the young man, “is Jesús Manuel Cortez. Remember the fucking name, puta!

Part of him was wondering just how the fuck the guy—Jesús—was connecting with him, but the rest of him was too busy getting assaulted by the guy to care. What he wouldn’t have given for some salt right then. “Fine, fine, jeez. All right, I’ll remember.” Anything to get this guy off his case. “Jesús Manuel Cortez.” He blinked. “Cortez. Cortez…. the narco?”

The incoming kick halted in midair. “Si.”

Right. Something something powder laughter gringo sneak murder cover. He barely remembered the specifics. “Uh… yeah. Hi.” He thought about making a quip about business being dead but held his tongue in favor of not getting his astral ass whooped. Again.

Cortez sniffed, spat in the sand, and shook his head. “You’re fucking pathetic. You just kill ‘cause you enjoy it, don’t you?” He nudged Derek with his foot, not gently. “Admit it. You’re a fucking psychopath.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Derek protested. “Did I ever claim to be any fucking thing else?” He met Cortez’s disgusted expression. “And, sometimes, it’s because I need to scrounge up rent money, and other times there are reasonable… reasons… I can’t think of them right now, but they were there… and sometimes I just get, well. Bored.” He started a slow move to rise.

Stay!” Cortez barked, when Derek moved, and aimed another kick at his ribs. “You move and I swear to La Muerte I’ll rip your fucking head off and shit down your neck.”

With a wary eye on Derek, he took a step away to pick up the candle that Derek had dropped - surprisingly still lit, despite landing on its side. He eyed it, then looked over at Derek with disgust. “You know what? Fuck this. Fuck you. I could kick the shit out of you all day and it wouldn’t do a fucking bit of good, you stupid little chingado.”

He stared at the candle, muttering under his breath, and an odd expression crept over his face. “Diligite inimicos vestros, benefacite his qui oderunt vos, et orate pro persequentibus et calumniantibus vos…” he muttered, in the cadence of the liturgy.

A slow smile spread across his lips - feral, cunning and amused. “Pray for my enemies, huh? I think I’m going to do just that.

“You,” he said, pointing at Derek, “Don’t move. We’re gonna have a word with the White Lady herself.”

Derek blinked. White Lady…? Did he mean…


Oh, shit.

He crouched down in the sand, at an angle where he could keep an eye on Derek, and carefully smoothed the earth and set the candle upright on the makeshift altar he was building. Concentrating with all his will, he spat out some unintelligible words, and roses appeared in his hands - huge, red and white blossoms, which he tenderly arranged around the candle.

Eyeing Derek, to make sure he wasn’t up to any mischief, he cleared his throat and began to chant:

Santisima Muerte,

Te me arrodillo con lágrimas en mis ojos
Te pido un gran favor con todo mi corazón.

Concédeme tus bendiciones,
tus milagros y otorgame las bendiciones
de tu diestra poderosa.

No hay nada que usted no pueda quitar,
todo lo que tienes que hacer otorgarlo y se concederá -
Te pido un gran favor con todo mi corazón y mi alma:
concédeme tu bondad

Te doy las gracias por toda tu bondad y tu protección!

Settling back on his heels, he crossed himself. “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritu Sanctu…Amen.”

“There,” he said, satisfied. “That should do it.”

Derek’s mouth worked for a moment. “…Great. Awesome.” Shit shit fuck shit. If half the things he’d heard and read about Santa Muerte were true…

Silence for the moment, then the rustle of silk and satin in the air. The voice that followed was deep, husky - definitely feminine, but with a certain, dolorous quality that - all things considered - seemed appropriate. “My blessings upon you, child. What is the favor you ask?”

Oh, shit.

Silence for the moment, then the rustle of silk and satin in the air. The voice that followed was deep, husky - definitely feminine, but with a certain, dolorous quality that - all things considered - seemed appropriate. “My blessings upon you, child. What is the favor you ask?”

Oh, shit.

An air of beatitude settled over Cortez, and the look on his face was nothing short of bliss. “Santisima…” he breathed, bending down to press his lips to the hem of her bridal gown. “Ah,Santisima*!”

“Yes, yes,” she said, sounding a little amused. “I’m here. What can I do for you?”

Cortez blinked, apparently not expecting the demi-goddess before him to be so prosaic as to sound like a customer service representative.

“Santa Muerte,” he said, adopting a worshipful posture, “my…ah…friend here,” and he nodded at Derek, “is suffering from an affliction. A horrible affliction!”

’Friend,’ he says. Think he means the other thing.

“Well, he’s here,” Muerte said, eyeing Derek, “and death is a pretty significant affliction, I’ll grant you that.”

“No, no,” Cortez said, then looked up, horrified. “Not that I would correct you, Santisima. In addition to, ah, death, he suffers a great illness - one that prevents him from sharing in the joys and sorrows of others.”

Why the fuck would I want to share?

She looked at Derek, head tilted. “Sure, okay. I can see that.”

“I can hardly bear to see my dear friend struggle through life…ah…err…death…with such a handicap,” he said, more pious than any priest at the high altar. “I have called upon you to beg a favor…”

“Yeah, yeah, get on with it. You want me to heal your…’friend’?” she asked, curving her fingers in quotes around the word.

He nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes, Senora. I beg this favor with all my heart.”

“Huh,” she said, prodding Derek with one delicate, bare foot. “That could be amusing. “ She shrugged. “Sure, why the hell not? It’s been a slow day.”

She knelt beside Derek, bending over to watch his face. “Ready for your faith healing,corazon?”

Derek blinked as she knelt by him, taking in the clean—if well-worn at the lower hem—wedding dress, the roses decorating the top of the dress and in her tumbling locks, and the intricate facepaint. “…What’s the catch, Señora de las Sombras?” he asked. What’s in it for me? was maybe more along the lines of what he was really asking, but he didn’t say that. It seemed he was rapidly developing a general rule about showing respect around avatars of Death.

“Oooh, a thinky boy,” she said, clapping her hands delightedly. “Thinky boys are always fun. No catch, Thinky, no catch at all. Free healing! What’s not to like about that? You’ll get to see all kinds of new, interestings things. I’ll even show you a bunch of reallyinteresting things, myself!”

Well, that got Derek’s attention. “I approve of interesting…” he said, still slightly skeptical. “…but I’m actually perfectly content with who I am. Got no qualms about it.”

“‘Course you don’t,” Cortez muttered.

“Of course, of course,” La Muerte said, in soothing tones. “Consider this a little…extra. Something to let you see things you never saw before.” She gave him a sly look. “Interesting things.”

He rolled his eyes at Cortez and then arched an eyebrow at the deity in the dress. “I’ve had a lot of that happening in the last couple of days. Almost think I should pace myself on the Seeing Interesting Things.” At her continued look, he clarified. “Hey, I said ‘almost’.”

“So that’s a yes, then?” she asked, smiling broadly. “Please say yes. I can’t wait to help. I don’t often get to do interesting things, you know.”

Someone normal might have been disconcerted by her enthusiasm.

Guess it was a good thing that Derek wasn’t exactly… normal.

“Yes, sure, fine. Whatever floats your boat, Señora.”

She clapped her hands, bouncing a little in the sand beside him. “So exciting! Let’s see, let’s see, how to do this…” She thought about it for a moment, then, “Oh yeah, I got it.”

Smiling, she bent over and brushed her lips against his, a gentle kiss. “There,” she said, “that should do it.”

He blinked again. That was distinctly uninteresting for something that was supposed to reveal interesting things… but that wasn’t so bad, really.

Where the FUCK did that come from.

La Muerte smirked, watching the confusion on his face. “Working as intended,” she said, sitting back on her heels. “You ready to go see the sights, Thinky? There’s lots to see here.”

“Ummm, I guess…?” He stood and brushed the sand off his hands, then blinked and remembered the general rule about being nice to avatars of Death, and offered the demigoddess a hand.

…Weird, but a little late to back off now.

“Thinky is a gentleman,” she said, looking over at Cortez, who had a surprisingly sour expression on his face for someone who’d just had a prayer granted.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “A real gentleman. I think I’m just going to tag along. See the gentleman in action, you know?”

“Come on, then,” she said, tugging at Derek’s arm. “Off we go.”

They wandered the foggy banks in silence for a time. Well, Derek wandered. He figured that Santa Muerte knew exactly where they were. Maddening.

“Okay, so I’ve not seen—” The demigoddess reached over and placed a finger to his lips, hushing him as she thoughtfully and significantly gazed into the fog out of the corner of her eye. Derek took the hint and peered, listening.

The sound of muffled voices reached through the eddying fog, familiar as before, except for one distinct difference. This time, the sounds were growing clearer.

“Wait. I think I recognize…” he started, eyes widening slightly. Turning towards Santa Muerte, he continued “Is that one of the interesting things?”

A single nod and a pursed, sly smile.

Derek eyed her for a moment before venturing toward the sound, the avatar of death’s hand slipping from his arm. He stepped carefully through the fog for a few steps as vague shapes appeared in the distance. The fog was dissipating. Derek moved quicker, closing on the scene, and drew up short as the details unfolded in front of him.

An black SUV was parked near the end of a shipping pier. Muffled sounds and small, jerky movements could be discerned from outside the tinted windows. Then everything went still and silent. A moment later, a slender figure with a ball cap pulled low emerged from a rear door and slipped beneath the car.

This one.

Derek didn’t bother to remember most of his kills, but he remembered this one. Brian Campbell, dirty representative, paying back the Chinese crime organization. Easy enough to trace digitally, and once he hacked the SUV’s computer, easy enough to track physically. And when word came through to bring the money to Pier 80, Derek had made sure he was in the SUV when Campbell gave his handlers the slip.

He watched Then-Derek extricate himself from under the vehicle and move around to the passenger door. This was the point where he’d emptied the briefcase of money into a knapsack of his own, because fuck yeah, rent money. That done, Then-Derek shut and locked the SUV before hurrying away and out of sight beyond some shipping containers.

Fast forward twelve minutes. Derek remembered the strain of dodging cameras and finding his way to the top layer of a short stack of containers, and vowing to work out more. He didn’t think he’d followed through too well.

Two sedans pull into the vicinity and a number of figures step out onto the pier. After it became apparent no one was going to emerge from the SUV, they approached the vehicle and busted it open.

Heh. The shock on their faces, looking at Campbell’s listless body. He hadn’t gone his usual route of just making the victim bleed. No, Campbell had gotten seven grams of sodium thiopental straight into the bloodstream. Raised voices reached Then-Derek’s ears as one of the Chinese gangsters pulled out the briefcase and held up the note he’d left inside implicating the Russian mob as the perpetrators.

That was his cue.

They ran, Then-Derek smiled and pressed a button, and the SUV exploded. The two guys left with the cars managed to survive the blast and scrambled into the vehicles, pulling out phones in a panic as they peeled out of the pier.

He’d made it out of the pier without anyone the wiser, the next year’s worth of rent, and a nice chunk of spending cash alongside, and an escalated tension in the organized crime of the city to keep suspicion off third parties.

Derek let himself feel a little flush of pride, reliving the moment. That plan had gone off extraordinarily well and he hadn’t wanted to jinx it, so it was the only one of its kind.

“I suppose there’s something to be said for creativity,” La Muerte said, lips pursed.

She snapped her fingers and the scene faded, but other vignettes took it place - some long, some momentarily brief, all vivid.

If the SUV bombing had been a large stone dropped in a pond, what Derek was observing now were the ripples. The loss of a politician leading to another stepping into place, the deaths of the criminal gangsters being tallied and accounted for and replaced, of more people being drawn into the mire of the political and criminal worlds. The effect Campbell’s death had on his family—his wife, his children—and not just in the immediate future, but also in the interceding years since. The relations of the mob men, too.

And then the water that is displaced when a large stone drops into a pond returned in droplets and streamers, each starting their own pattern of ripples. Escalating tensions between crime fronts, a silently acknowledged war, and all of the casualties therein. Second- and third-degree interactions of the people directly affected by the bombing. Most of the ripples impacting in distinctly negative ways. Men, women, children, no discrimination. So much death, directly and indirectly caused by his actions.

That sense of pride twisted within Derek, writhing into something else… something different. Something he hadn’t ever really felt before and something for which he had no name.

He didn’t like it. He turned to Santa Muerte, a pained, quizzical expression on his face.

“Consequences,” she said, shrugging lightly. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

They walked on, coming upon another scene. “Does this seem familiar at all?” she asked, winking at Derek. “Perhaps you recognize some of the players on this stage?”

He peered. “Nope, noth—wait.” Recognition dawned. It was… whatshisface. The… huh. What was his profession again? …Riiiiight, the guy from just the previous day.

“Oh, yeah. That guy. Him. The one. Yeah.”

Quick, simple, and to the point. Quite literally, edge of blade to knife point. Disposing of the gloves and poncho took longer than the actual murder.

The corner of his eye twitched ever so slightly as he watched.


The crack of Santa Muerte’s fingers startled Derek so much, lost in the moment as he was, he physically jumped, twisting frantically to look at her. At her smile, he exhaled the breath he was holding and turned back to the scene, new images where once his victim had stood.

Family. Friends. Coworkers. Lovers.

Ripples in the stream, much as before.

She gently guided him along a trail both deliberate and not necessarily predetermined. At every turn, another scene played out, another person lost their life, another ring of expanding consequences revealed itself, and Derek felt himself start to fray.

The most recent started to fade and as the crowd of people surrounding the fallen form of his victim melted away into the fog, he spun to face the demigoddess in the wedding dress, the turmoil of… things… roiling inside his being.

What the fuck is happening?!?” Derek half-sobbed, half-screamed. “What did you fuckingdo to me?” His legs crumpled, dropping him to his knees as he stared out into the turbulent fog. “What is— I don’t— The -the-the—”

La Muerte touched his shoulder - and there was something soothing about it, something calming. “You’ve been making offerings to me your whole life, Thinky, but you’ve never understood the true cost of what you’ve given. A gift isn’t really a gift, an offering is no real offering, if the giver doesn’t understand what they’re giving.”

Her hand moved up to stroke his hair. “Now, my Thinky boy,” she half-whispered, half-cooed, “you begin to understand. Isn’t that exciting?!”

Derek rested his forehead against her hipbone as his breathing settled. It was still shaky, but no longer on the verge of hyperventilating. Baby steps. “…‘Exciting’? I suppose… It really depends on one’s definition of ‘exciting’.” And what the hell did she mean, “exciting”? Was she expecting, wanting him to continue? After putting him through that?

“My acolytes,” she tugged ever so gently at his hair, then returned to stroking it, “need more than enthusiasm for the job, you know. It is a sacred obligation, Thinky; there areexpectations. I couldn’t possibly have you going around sending me offerings without the proper protocol, could I?”

“Heaven forbid.” The irony of that statement landed after a moment and his breathing stabilized more as the slight sense of amusement ran through him. “Do I need to fill anything out in triplicate?”

“Oooh, Thinky’s got a mouth on him!” Muerte clapped her hands, practically dancing in delight. “Did you hear that, Jesús?” She looked around for the dead narco, who was watching, arms folded, with an increasingly sour expression on his face.

Señora,” he began, stopped, then just shook his head. “Yeah, whatever.”

“Hush, hush,” La Muerte said to Cortez, touching her finger to her lips. “You had your time as My acolyte, Stabby. If you’d listened to my warnings, then Thinky here wouldn’t have killed you. You know how much pouting irritates me…”

Cortez growled, staring at Derek with something rather more intense than murder in his eyes. “I don’t think he got the message, Señora. I think the little pinche pendejo needs to see more interesting shit…”

“Hmmm…” La Muerte turned back to Derek. “Do you need to see more interesting things, Thinky? There’s still lots and lots to go! I wouldn’t want you to miss out…”

He’d just barely recovered from the first thing, and now she wanted more? Much as he may have wanted to just call things then and there, his instincts were screaming at him to not. Her comment to Cortez about warnings echoed in his mind.

He rose slowly, brushing the sand from his knees. Looking between the ghost and the goddess for a moment, Derek took in a breath before blowing it out. “Missing out would be quite the shame, I think…”

At least it couldn’t be Boring.

…Thank God, or whoever. Something remained the same.

That didn’t seem to be the response she was expecting, for she went silent, staring at Derek for a moment, nibbling at a finger. Some sort of internal dialog seemed to be occurring, for she raised an eyebrow…then shook her head; scrunched her nose, made a tsking sound, then finally, clapped her hands.

“I think the point has been made,” she said, though she added, as a quiet aside, “for the moment, anyway.”

She took Derek’s hand and tucked it in the crook of her arm. “Let’s go for walkies,” she suggested, looking back over her shoulder at Cortez and making a face. “Without an audience, Stabby.”

Well, that could end well or terrifyingly horrendous.

They strolled across the endless plain of sand, her presence seeming to generate enough light that their path was illuminated enough to walk without stumbling. She was silent until they reached a small shrine, clearly devoted to Muerte herself - the skeleton in a wedding dress on the altar was, at the very least, a dead give-away.

Candles were arranged around the shrine, but remained unlit. The flowers arranged around the little altar were withered and dried. A neat little prie-dieu adorned with a crucifix was set in front of the altar, a direct symbol of the syncretism that the cult ofNuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte represented.

“Shhh,” La Muerte said, resting her free hand on Derek’s, indicating he should stop there with her. And as they waited and watched, a figure appeared, heading towards the shrine. Indistinct at first, she - for it was a woman - became clearer as moved closer. Dark haired, with a Hispanic cast to her features, she couldn’t have been more than thirty or thirty-five, but fatigue and strain had taken its toll on her. She approached the shrine, carrying shopping bags in her hands, and a baby in a sling on her back.

Setting down the bags, she pulled out a duster and began methodically cleaning the shrine - sweeping away dust from the altar and the prie-dieu, removing the dead flowers and straightening the candles and objects on the altar. Fresh flowers were retrieved from the bags and placed around the shrine. Matches were retrieved and the candles in their glass jars were lit…then set at a careful distance from the altar itself.

She examined the shrine, found it to her satisfaction and brushed off her hands, straightening her clothes and smoothing back her hair. The baby, dressed in white jammies and sleeping peacefully in its sling, was carefully removed from her back and she cradled it in her arms, nuzzling its cheek, for a moment, before laying it gently on the altar.

“Your Mama,” La Muerte murmured to Derek, “was always so devout. Nice lady. Really clean, too. Always one of my favorites, you know. Even if she hadn’t…well, nevermindthat.”

The woman knelt at the prie-dieu, rattling off a prayer in Spanish, hands clasped. Once finished, though, she watched her child, laying there on the altar, and smiled - the gesture lighting up her face and draining away some of the fatigue.

“Here he is, Señora,” she said, her voice strangely loud in the silence. “Derek Clemente Lee. Seven pounds, six ounces. The doctors say he’s as healthy as he can be, even if he was born early. Thank you, Señora, thank you…”

She was quiet for a moment, contemplating the child, the circumstances that had brought to ask Santa Muerte for help with a birth.

“He hasn’t been baptized yet,” she continued, as though she were speaking to someone standing right there with her - and perhaps she was. “I promised him to you, first. HisPapa doesn’t understand why I wanted to wait.”

A sigh, then a deep inhale. “I don’t know what kind of life you can give him, Señora. I’m afraid to ask, even. But I keep my promises. I…I can only hope that you will continue to keep yours…”

La Muerte snapped her fingers and the scene froze, then - almost indiscernible at first - began to fade away.

“I’ve kept my promise,” she murmured, as much to the fading figure of the mother kneeling at her altar as to Derek, himself. “He is safe, he thrives…insofar as he can.” She shrugged, adding, rather more pragmatically, “A girl can only do so much, you know.”

Once again, Derek was rendered speechless. His mother had… and she still went along with his father to have him sent to those therapy sessions? What had caused his mother to go to the Señora…?

“Well, that explains a lot.”


“Y’know, some.”


“Okay, only a little bit, really.” He blinked as the image of his kneeling mother finished dissipating. He gave Santa Muerte a quizzical glance, but one without any formed question behind it.

“You were promised to me,” La Muerte said, disengaging herself from Derek so that she could turn and look him in the eye, “but that isn’t enough. My acolytes must come to me willingly; I cannot take them.” She wrinkled her nose. “As much as I might want to, sometimes, more’s the pity.”

“Anyway, my point is - it’s been a circuitous route, but you’ve come to me at last. I was starting to wonder if I needed to start putting up billboards.” She clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Oh, Thinky, you’re so very good at ignoring the the obvious, sometimes.”

“You’re here though,” she continued, “and that’s all that matters. What are they calling the job back in the living world? Guardians, isn’t it, this time around?”

Derek rolled his eyes. “Obvious is Boring, a lot of the time. And yeah, I think so. Sounds right. I was more taken with the paycheck and provided housing, to be honest.”

“See what I mean, Thinky?” La Muerte waved a finger. “Not paying attention. That nice young lady did drop some really obvious hints about what the job involved. Now, there’sone I wish I could have taken.” She sighed, wagging her head in regret. “Opportunity lost there, I’m telling you. I snoozed and lost, apparently.”

Anyway,” she gave Derek a big, toothy smile, “I keep getting distracted from the point here. What I’m trying to say is, you signed a contract back in the living world, sure, but that’s not enough. Being my acolyte, receiving my power, is an oath that lasts beyond the grave. Tell me, Thinky: Do you understand that? Do you wish to be my Hand in the daylight world?”

He arched an eyebrow. “Distracted, huh? Gee, where have we heard that before tonight?” He let out a soft, breathy snort. “Let’s see, Scary and Stabby on the contract…” See, see? He had been paying some attention. His eyes traced the swirling eddies of the fog for a moment or five as he thought things over. “…Sure, let’s add Thinky to the resume.”

La Muerte clapped her hands, dancing in place as a loud roll of the thunder sounded and lightning flashed around them. “Your oath has been witnessed by the Gods, Thinky! You wear my mark now. Or,” she smirked, “you will, in a second, anyway. You’re right handed, right? Here,” she grabbed his right hand, “give me your hand.”

Without waiting for him to respond, she took her hand in his, palm up, and began to trace lines along the tender skin.

“There,” she said, lifting her finger, then murmuring a word in an ancient language, completely foreign to Derek’s ear. With the word came pain - searing, fiery pain, and though he jerked in reflex, she held his wrist, keeping him from moving until, after a second or two, the pain was gone.

“My mark, Thinky,” she said, showing him his palm. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Derek glanced down, following the lines of the tattoo. When he looked back up, Santa Muerte was gone.

“You gonna fucking shut up for the ride back? Don’ think I can deal with any more of your thrice goddamned ten-piece band no more t’night.” Doc Pleasant and the gondola were not ten paces away from him, bone scythe as huge and creepifying as ever.

Derek made his way over the sand and made a face at the Hoodoo man as he climbed into the gondola. “Y’know… if my music’s too loud… you’re too old.”

Something flashed quick in the shaman’s eyes and was just as quick gone as he pushed off from the shore. Derek quirked a smile, settling forward on his knees and closing his eyes for the journey back.

He could have sworn he heard Doc Pleasant muttering to get in the last word. “‘Bout damned time. Ain’t got room in this boat for no ten-piece band anyhow.”