Though muffled by distance and tinted Escalade windows, the crowd’s angry chants were still distinct. Maria closed her eyes and breathed in. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. She exhaled. Charlotte regarded her with folded arms.
“I still advise against this, you know. There are other ways.”
“There are other ways,” said Maria, “but there are not better ways. No guts, no glory, you know.”
With a lithe forefinger, Charlotte swept back a single bit of loose hair and tucked it back with the rest. “Yes, well, if you want to be a goddess, you’ll need to come up with some original platitudes.”
“A little Gibran, a little Nietzsche, and I’m set. No one reads them anymore anyway. Everyone will think I made it up.”
Charlotte reached over and squeezed Maria’s hand. “Please don’t do this.”
Maria raised the slender hand to her lips and kissed it. “I’m not worried. You shouldn’t be worried.”
“What if you lose your memory?”
“I’m satisfied with what we saw from the test subjects.”
“Six out of seven. That may be good, but it isn’t amazing.”
“I’m destined to do this, Charlotte. That’s why we acquired the technology from that bumbling fool, and that’s why you helped me plan everything.” She patted Charlotte’s hand and turned again to the window. “Everything will be fine – you’re just nervous.”
A dozen men and women passed in front of the Escalade, heading toward the protest. Four men held the image of Santa Muerte on their shoulders – a skeleton decked in the gaudy garb of the Madonna. Four more were dressed as Santa Muerte, wearing skeleton masks and carrying globes and sickles. The rest brandished furious signs with misspelled criticisms of La Iglesia Catolica, Gobierno, and Estados Unidos.
“I’m ready for this. I’m ready to change the world. Death is the only deity this world has ever had, and I’m going to kill her.”
A single tear appeared in Charlotte’s eye. She quickly wiped it away. “Well,” she said, “we are prepared. The men know what to do. I’ll make sure everything goes as planned.”
“I read Chaucer last night. ‘The Pardoner’s Tale.’ Have you read it?”
“A bunch of drunken males are disgusted with the sorry state of humanity. The Black Plague is killing everyone around them, so they decide to do the world a favor and kill Death. And do you know what happens?”
“They all kill each other over a bag of gold.”
“That isn’t exactly heartening, I must say.”
“Yes, well, I’m neither drunk nor in need of money. And I’m certainly not male, thank God.” She inhaled again. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.
“Okay, let’s do it.” She pulled up her sleeve and extended her arm to Charlotte. Charlotte reached down to the floorboard and retrieved a black plastic box. Opening it, she retrieved a syringe and needle. Wordlessly, she injected the fluid into Maria’s shoulder.
“Activate the power source as you start to get into the crowd,” said Charlotte.
“I know. Thank you.” Maria opened the door and left without looking back. Charlotte whispered something to the closed door.
“Did you say something, boss?” asked the driver.
“No,” said Charlotte. She watched Maria as she marched after the crowd holding the Santa Muerte, which had now come to the far end of the alley. She touched her earpiece. “All units check in.” Five brusque voices responded. “Lead is moving into position.”
Maria splished through the grimy water of the alley and emerged into the plaza, the far end of which was full of protesters shouting and waving signs as they gathered around a life-size image of Santa Muerte. Standing on a makeshift platform four feet above the ground, a “priest” of Santa Muerte, clothed in black and red robes, shouted accusations and vows into a megaphone, and the crowd echoed in unison. No más persecución! No más persecución! Maria moved quickly and purposefully through the crowd, trying not to pay attention to the sweaty bodies that pressed against hers. Reaching down, she felt the metal band around her waist and flicked the power switch. Pushing through the crowd, she managed to get to the stage, and she pulled herself up onto it. The priest regarded her, but he was in mid-harangue and could not react immediately. In a swift and determined motion, she toppled Santa Muerte, ripped off her head, and stomped the skull to pieces on the stage.
A group of eight large tattoo-laden hombres with skeleton masks were on her in a heartbeat, crowding around her and pummeling her with meaty fists. She felt bones crack, and blood gushed from her lips.
“Católica!” She heard them say, along with some more colorful words.
They beat her, spat upon her, and ripped her shirt open, but it did not go beyond that. One of the eight men produced a cudgel and hit her over the head with it.
Everything went dark.
The man with the cudgel hit her a few more times, but she felt nothing. They lifted her limp body triumphantly into the air, and blood poured from her mouth, face, and head. Behind them, the faithful were dutifully piecing their idol back together. Some others in the crowd scrambled to get a piece of her as well, but the big hombres punched, pushed, and kicked them off of the platform. Repeatedly flinging Maria’s limp body into the air above their heads, they led the crowd in a chant: Santa Muerte! Santa Muerte! Santa Muerte!
Charlotte was watching from the Escalade. “Alright,” she said. “Move in.”
Men in black appeared from the four corners of the plaza. Their faces were covered with ski masks, and red crescents were painted on their chests. No one regarded them at first, but then the shooting started. People in front of the men in black dropped to the ground, some writhing in agony, others still. Los musulmanes! Came the cry. Terroristas! The chanting stopped, and protesters began to flee in every direction. Some, undeterred, ventured toward the armed men with knives, cudgels, and fists. These got filled with bullets. The rest of the crowd dispersed, and the tattooed men dropped Maria’s body beside the broken goddess.
As the plaza emptied, the men in black closed around the stage. Several of them stomped on the tangled robes and broken pieces of what had been Santa Muerte. They raised their weapons into the air. “Allahu akbar!” they chanted. “Allahu akbar!”
Suddenly, Maria moved. She wiped the blood away from her face and raised herself onto her hands and knees. Shocked, the “Muslims” backed away. Cowering eyes from the surrounding buildings watched as she said something to them. In response, one of them raised his rifle and shot her in the chest. Video evidence would later show that gore clearly flew out of an exit wound on her back, but she remained standing and continued to speak. Frightened, the men in black fled the scene.
Charlotte’s Escalade was already driving away. Sirens were audible in the distance, and Charlotte was already on the phone with her man in the police force. Everything was proceeding as planned.
“Alright, all units pull back.”
Charlotte watched the scene play out on the television mounted into the back of the seat. There had been several news teams already on site to catch the protest, of course. None of them were on the payroll: she had simply tipped them off that something “out of the ordinary” was going to happen. They would assume that she had been affiliated with the “Muslims.” Well, that was technically true.
The police were fanning out in search of Muslim militants, but they would find none. Meanwhile, Maria was standing silently in the plaza, surrounded by the bodies of the dead and dying. Wary people slowly emerged from their hiding places and watched this woman who had frightened off the terrorists.
Charlotte heaved a breath and pressed on her earpiece.
Policemen filed into the plaza from multiple directions, followed by paramedics. As the police drew near the woman on the stage, though, they lowered their rifles and raised their heads. While the paramedics scrambled to find the living among the dead, Maria strode toward the nearest body. It was a boy, probably fourteen or fifteen, with several bullet wounds through his torso. She touched him gently and muttered a few phrases in Latin. Suddenly, the boy sat up and looked around with wide eyes. The policemen fell to their knees, and the paramedics were dumbfounded. A cry went up from the buildings that had been silent, and people flooded out from their shelters.
Maria moved on from one body to another, touching them and whispering mysterious words. One by one, they all regained consciousness and sat up with wide eyes. What they saw was an angel of mercy, battered and bloody as the Lord on the cross, with her clothes torn and one breast exposed as if to symbolize her sacred maternal calling.
The former protesters were pressing closer now, and the journalists were not far behind. They gathered the victims from all around the plaza and brought them to the majestic woman by the stage. Mothers cried for her to save their sons. Husbands pleaded with her to revive their wives.
Maria stepped up onto the stage and strode over to the pile of cloth and fake bones of what had once been a terrible deity. She stooped down and removed the robes. Shaking them free of the clutter, she pulled them over her shoulders and wrapped her body in them. Reaching down again, she picked up the megaphone that the Santa Muerte priest had left there. As she held it to her lips, the crowd became eerily silent.
“I am the Virgin Maria,” she said. “And I have come to save you from death.”