Ortega was proud of the knife.
He’d had it made in Miami of the finest steel, according to the specifications his padrino had given him. It was exactly seven inches long, no more than two inches wide at any part, and quite sharp. It had been his first test, proof of his sincerity, his dedication, and he’d spent a long time polishing it to a high sheen. Now, when the light inside the car struck it, the blade gleamed. He touched his fingertip to the razor edge.
Padrino smiled. “Show me how perfect, Manuel.”
Ortega pressed his finger down against the blade, moved it back and forth. Blood bubbled and oozed from the cut. “See?” He held out his finger.
“Rub it on the sides of the blade.”
He did. The blood streaked on the steel, red against silver, and seemed to pulse and throb, beckoning, whispering of promises to be kept. Padrino took the knife, slipped it inside the leather sheath, and switched off the light. He didn’t open the door, didn’t move at all.
The dark crept in, rubbing up against them, a dog in heat. The car’s clock ticked loudly in the silence. Ortega counted the seconds and listened to the sounds in the woods and sucked on his bloody finger, waiting for Padrino’s next command. This, too, was part of the lesson. An apprentice had to cultivate patience, to know when to wait, when to act, when to remain still and centered. It was a difficult lesson; Ortega hated to wait.
“Help me with the bike,” Padrino said finally, opening the door and stepping outside.
Ortega exited quickly, shoes sinking into a bed of pine needles. The dark smelled sweet, of pine and spring and impending rain. A breeze dried the perspiration on his face. It had begun.
Padrino unlocked the trunk and he and Ortega pulled out the bicycle. They checked the tires, the light on the handlebars, the brakes. Padrino wrapped the knife in a jacket and put it in the rear basket. “Time check, Manuel.”
“Half past two.”
“Same here. I’ll arrive at three sharp. Make sure the door isn’t locked and that she’s in the kitchen.”
“I know what to do.”
Padrino heard the annoyance in his voice and chuckled. It was a low, husky sound, unpleasant. “Just making sure. What happens after I arrive?”
Ortega told him, repeating the plan step by step.
“Good, Manuel. You have an excellent memory.”
Ortega got back in the car and rolled down the window. His finger throbbed a little where he’d cut it, and he sucked on it as he started the engine. He didn’t turn on the headlights until he was on the road, and only then did he glance in the rearview mirror. The bike was nowhere in sight.
Thunder rumbled in the distance: the voice of Changó, who ruled fire, thunder, lightning. An excellent sign, Ortega thought.
The little bungalow was less than a mile away, on a dead-end dirt road, set back among pines, brush, nicely hidden. It was such an ideal place, Ortega knew it had been divinely selected, that Ikú was clearing the path for them, facilitating things.
He stopped behind Rikki’s VW Rabbit. The porch light was on; she had waited up for him. Something small and sharp plucked at his heart as he walked to the door, and he hesitated before his hand touched the knob. It’s necessary, he reminded himself. The way to power was not an easy road. There were rules to observe. Details to be carried out. Sacrifices to be made for the higher vision.
An apprentice must obey and prove worthy: Padrino had told him this repeatedly.
Ortega’s hand turned the knob, and he stepped into the tiny kitchen.
He smelled baked apples and coffee. Music drifted from one of the other rooms: Sergio Mendez. Brazil. One of Rikki’s fantasies. She appeared in the doorway, dark hair pulled away from her face with barrettes, exposing the long lines of her neck. She was wearing tight khaki slacks, spiked heels, a plain cotton blouse, and the red and black beads he had given her. Her face was scrubbed clean of makeup; her cheeks glowed.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” she said, fixing a hand to her shapely hip.
“I told you I would.”
“Hmm. You’ve told me lots of things, Manuel. Not all of them true.”
“Mi amor, please. I don’t want to argue. I am here, no?” He moved toward her, into the scent of her perfume, and kissed her.
Her lips were unyielding; her hand remained on her hip, and the other armhung at her side. He hated her a little for that. “Don’t be angry.” He touched the sides of her mouth, moving it into a smile, and she laughed and slapped his hand away. “Okay, okay. C’mon, let’s have some apple pie and coffee.”
“Whose place is this?” he asked.
“A friend’s. She’s away for awhile. I’m watering her plants.”
Her high heels clicked against the tile floor as she walked over to the stove. Ortega turned, watching her from the back. Nice, very nice. Dancing had kept her in excellent shape. Her legs were long, slender, and solid, her buttocks were firm, her waist narrow. Ikú would be pleased.
They had apple pie and coffee at the butcher-block table, night owls who kept to their own schedule. She understood the nature of darkness, as he did.
Ortega glanced surreptitiously at his watch, checking the time. He asked for a second piece of pie, even though he didn’t want it, and for a refill on the coffee, even though the first cup was already pumping through him. Speeding up his heart. Making him sweat.
Rikki chatted. He nodded. Murmured something now and then. Looked at the time again.
At exactly 2:55, he polished off the last of his pie and helped her clear the table. He rinsed the dishes, thoroughly scrubbing everything he’d touched. When he turned off the porch light, he used a piece of Kleenex. He made sure the door was unlocked.
“How about a glass of wine?” she asked.
“Sure.” He came up behind her as she stood at the refrigerator and nuzzled her neck. “We’ll take it into the bedroom with us.”
“Hmm.” She leaned back against him, trusting, blind.
He knew he would be one of the primary suspects later. But this too was part of his test as an apprentice, one of the ways in which he demonstrated his trust in Ikú, his belief in the god’s protection of those who served him. He would also have an alibi. After all, he lived in the world of men as fully as he did in the world of sorcery, and he had to exhibit the ability to bridge the two.
He turned her around, kissing her, softening her up, then danced with her, swaying to the music, and she laughed. Ortega loved the sound of it, so American, so coy. He kept her back to the door now as it opened, as Padrino slipped inside, the unsheathed knife at his side, parallel to his body.
Ortega’s heart beat a little faster. Everything was working perfectly, just as they’d planned. Padrino moved closer. Closer. And then something went wrong. The music stopped. Rikki stepped away from him. Said she would change the record, put on something more romantic, and why didn’t he grab the wine and—
Her head suddenly whipped around. “What’re you …
Then she saw his knife and screamed as she lurched for the door to the living room. Ortega grabbed her, clamped a hand over her mouth, pinned her arms behind her. She struggled, screamed into his hand, kicked, bit, and he yelled, “Just do it!”
Padrino sank the blade into her solar plexus. Rikki gasped and went limp in Ortega’s arms. He kept holding her as the blade tore upward in precisely the way the ritual required. This part was important, Ortega knew it was. But he couldn’t help feeling sickened when her limbs twitched and she expelled one last rasp of air. Bloody spittle splattered Padrino’s face seconds before he pulled the knife out.
“Let her go, Manuel.”
She crumpled to the floor at Ortega’s feet; Her hair had slipped loose from the clips that had held it. Her shoes had come off. For a moment or two, his heart ached for her. He wanted to brush the strands of hair from her cheeks, her forehead, wanted to pick her up, hold her, rock her, comfort her.
But Padrino was saying something, and when Ortega glanced up, the man’s eyes were hard stones that burned at the center. Mad eyes, Ortega thought.
“Don’t ever tell me what to do again, Manuel.”
“You were just standing there. I couldn’t hold her much longer.”
He ignored the remark and pulled out a pair of latex gloves identical to the ones he wore. “Put these on. You know what to do now. I’ll get the keys to her car.”
He held out the knife, the perfect knife, and Ortega took it and did what had to be done.
It was drizzling when Ortega carried her outside in a garbage bag and slid her into the back of her VW Rabbit. Padrino fastened the bike to the luggage rack on top of it. “I’ll meet you in the woods.”
He started toward his own car, but Padrino caught his arm. “You did real well, Manuel. But we’re not finished yet.”
“You’re all right?”
But it was a lie. The moment the Rabbit was out of sight, Ortega stopped his car, threw open the door, and stumbled out. He fell to his knees and vomited in the road. His head swirled with the smell of Rikki’s blood. The scent of her perfume clung to his shirt. He felt the imprint of her mouth against his.
The rain came down harder, drops kissing the back of his neck. He rocked onto his heels and raised his head, eyes turning toward the sky. Thunder rumbled. Lightning scorched a trail through the dark. The rain cooled his burning cheeks but didn’t wash away the stink of her blood. He moved his hands through the dirt, faster and faster as he wept, as he sobbed. He rubbed the dirt on his arms and neck and face, trying to scrub the smell away.
He collapsed, sprawled in the dirt like a dog, and the rain poured down, drenching his clothes, chilling him to the bone.
After a time, he didn’t know how long, he smelled only the rain and the earth and his own sorrow. Until now, he didn’t know that sorrow had a smell, but it did, and it was worse than the stink of blood, of death.
He lifted himself up, climbed into his car and drove toward the woods, shivering, teeth chattering, his head throbbing. The ritual had to be completed.
It was necessary. And the worst was yet to come.