While Sebastiano Tenazi stumbled out of his hidey-hole and went to keep his appointment, Maria Figuerido was also making her way back to the simple room she had taken above a restaurant not far from the main shopping area of Rome. It was the part-time position as waitress which allowed her to be here in the city and suitably employed as a cover. Always she was at the command of the master whenever he should summon. She knew he would need her soon. Events were going to start rolling forward with the unrestrained progress of a runaway train now.
* * * * * * *
Maria had been born in the late 70's in the western Venezuelan village of Puerto Ayacucho on the Orinoco River bordering Colombia, deep in the jungles of South America. She was raised in an environment of poverty that was unprecedented to most of the modern world, and nearly incomprehensible to the affluent nations. She had been the middle child of seven, and had watched life unfold around her through eyes glazed with hunger. Her parents were old by the time they were in their late twenties. She had watched three of her siblings die of starvation, another of a fever for which there was no medical help, and had vowed that somehow, someway she would not spend the rest of her life in such circumstances. Sooner or later she would escape, run away from the parents who depended on her to beg in the streets when a mere child, and later as she blossomed into a young teen, to offer her body to whoever would pay money to use her; money that her father channeled to feed the rest of the family. She would sell her soul to the devil if she had to in order to escape the ravages she had experienced.
Maria had somehow maintained her beauty of body throughout the ordeal, perhaps because she possessed a steel will that was absent in the rest of the family. Even her two surviving older brothers seemed disinclined to strike out on their own to better themselves, feeling an obligation to their parents who had suffered inordinately the burdens of responsibility overwhelming.
Maria endured no such emotional ties. She got the hell out and blocked all images of her parents and siblings suffering from abject poverty. She was not there in her 16th year when her mother and father succumbed to malnutrition and disease that took both their lives.
Her tale was not new, nor unique; simply one of millions of poor who would do anything to make life more bearable. In the entrails of the Venezuelan villages it was her beauty of body that had given her an edge.
Nevertheless, her attractiveness was also a mask, a concealing camouflage to the bitterness, hatred and every dark emotion that corroded her heart. She sought only to reek vengeance upon a society that allowed such poverty.
At sixteen she was doing tricks on the streets of Caracas. After some time spent in prostitution, drug smuggling, later gun trafficking and leftist movements, she had finally caught the eye of a very wealthy entrepreneur from Buenos Aires. The man had taken her under his wing, and transformed her into a goddess.
For a while it was a good arrangement. He used her...and she used him to further her own goals. Then the day came when she was pronounced fit to pay back her sponsor in the high-pressured world of modeling. It was off to Paris for the glamorous Maria. Her benefactor accompanied her and opened all the right doors, taught her all the right moves, and believed her gushing gratitude.
One cloudy day at the Louvre she had met a figure in the shadows who had seemed to know more about her in one second than any human being had ever known. He had offered her a chance to belong to his organization; one that watched out for its members with care and concern. Ah, the price of a soul.
From that point on she would lack for nothing, but her services had to be above suspicion. She would do what she was told without question, and she would receive her reward. Maria accepted, knowing that eventually she would be able to fulfill her own personal goals of revenge through this strange man with eyes that hypnotized and read souls in the flash of an eyelash.
One night in the nineties her benefactor was called to a splashy nightclub on the Left Bank. Maria remained in the apartment, begging off with a headache. It was the turning point for her. Unknown to her benefactor she had contacted some underworld figures and paid them secretly from the money she had made as a model. They had provided her with explosives and the knowledge she needed to use them.
They had also arranged the contact to lure her benefactor out.
It was no small annoyance for her to rig her benefactor's Peugeot with enough plastic explosives to leave only ashes floating about when all was said and done. She had accomplished her task with such calm that any normal person would have recoiled in horror at the lack of human emotion present in this creature. She had taken the precaution to cover her moves. Moreover, unbeknownst to her benefactor, she had transferred his wealth into a private Swiss account. Cleaned him out. He would not be able to discover it until the next morning. If he turned that key on the ignition he would never know. He did and there was no tomorrow for yet another stepping stone in Maria's life.
From France it was on to Geneva where soon after she met up with the Swede Larz Zimmerman, a close friend of Guillaume Brunatti's and a member of the Legion. Larz however had been weak, had vacillated when push came to shove. He had bungled a few jobs and the Legion wanted things cleaned up. They had sent in Maria. It was no time before she had Larz dangling on a string of devotion to her womanly charms, and from that point on it was only a short interlude before she was able to lure him to his death in a remote area of the Italian Alps.
She had enjoyed murdering him. Hands-on experience of this kind alleviated some of the angry hatred which boiled within her. After that, she had reaped untold financial rewards, first from the transferred funds of her late benefactor, and then from the master himself as she came to think of this man who appeared when it was necessary, and then only briefly. She was finally a full-fledged member of the Legion of the Basilisk. Next she had been asked to join forces with one Guillaume Brunatti. From there on it had been quite simple. She had obeyed. She had received her reward. She could not exhaust her thirst for revenge. For some reason, no one ever connected her to the death of her benefactor, or Larz Zimmerman. Another courtesy afforded by loyalty to the one who owned her. The master had her right where he wanted. She was still a slave.
Alone this evening in her modest apartment above the restaurant, as Maria readied for bed she thought with satisfaction that the master was cultivating her for a special position within his new kingdom. She had visions of what she expected it to be: visions, even, of what her role would be. Maybe this aloof man who came out of nowhere now and then and set plans in motion which rocked the world would then have the time to find out just what she could really offer a man. That, Maria had learned long ago, was the only real power any woman had on earth. She intended to be that woman. She intended for the master to never forget it.
With those thoughts she dozed into dormition. In repose her face was utterly beautiful. No wonder she fooled so many people, cajoled so many men. No wonder the master sought her out. She was perfect. On the outside a succulent peach to be savored; inside the flesh rotting away with the worm of evil devouring her inch by inch, transforming her. Yet Maria did not recognize the metamorphosis. The master would not let her see...not yet, anyway.
As she breathed freely this night, evil stoked the coals of her soul and the Black Fire collected within her, ready to be spewed forth at the master's whim.
While Maria slept, Sebastiano Tenazi made his way through a blind haze of alcohol to a side street off the Via Magdalena. There the man would be waiting for him. He went by instinct. There was not a section of Rome he did not know well, particularly the less savory sections. That was one thing that surprised Sebastiano. The man he met seemed too well-educated, cultured. Yet, he showed no fear or loathing of being in parts of the city where no reasonable person would venture, especially after dark.
He found the designated shop window with the clock in the window, and stumbled a few more feet to an alleyway which veered off to the left. Halfway along this narrow passageway the man he expected suddenly stepped out of the shadows near one of the buildings, as if appearing from nowhere.
"I was there, just like you told me. Si?" Sebastiano was beaming with pride.
"Good. And what did you see?"
"There were four of them, like you said. Wary. Looking over their shoulders all the while. Yet cocky, know my meaning? Si?"
"Explain," the man ordered, staying well into the shadows so that he appeared one with them.
Sebastiano tried to get his depleted brain to function. Damn, he better remember before this guy found another stool-pidgeon. But the man had other ideas. He thought Sebastiano useful. He stepped forward and raised a hand, the arm clothed in a black garment, and the hand covered by a rich black leather glove. He placed the hand upon the beggar's head and peered steadily into his eyes. It was just possible to see a faint glow in the darkness, like a small laser beam which connected the two individuals together. Then the man lowered his hand and Tenazi spoke clearly.
"They seemed all puffed up. Proud of something they had done, I guess. Like you had told me, I had removed just a small piece of the weather-stripping, but it was hard to hear their voices through the door."
"I know. Go on, " assured the mysterious man in black.
"Well, they talked about the coming victory. The power each of them would have. The preparations that needed to be made for a new phase. And then they would wait to see what was needed next. But when they came out, I was well-hidden beneath the boxes and crates, like I told you." Sebastiano looked up and pleaded, "You have now my reward?"
"Not yet. Soon. Go on, Sebastiano."
"Anyway, the woman she left first. Haughty she was. Acted regal, like some queen. The well-dressed mustachioed man - an Italian - left next, hurrying away, although he told the woman he wanted to meet her later. Then the rather burly man, the one who seemed the most nervous of any of them. He also was Italian. Like he suspected something wasn't right, but he could not put his finger on it. Finally, the foreign-looking man was last to go. Cautious man, cunning too, this one. Looked over his shoulder before he went. Was I ever glad I stayed hidden till I was sure it was clear. Now?"
"Almost, Senor Tenazi, almost. Just a bit more."
"By the time I crawled out of the hiding place and got to the street, there was no sign of any of them. So, I guess they did what you wanted them to do. I don't know. They were there. So was I."
"And you did very well. Thank you, Sebastiano. Here, roll up your sleeve. I'll give you something for tonight's pains, yes?"
"Si," Tenazi agreed eagerly, pushing up the torn sleeve to expose his bare flesh that was marked with many needle pricks. The black gloved hand reached into a breast pocket and withdrew a syringe, which he expertly plunged into the beggar's arm. The old drunk never flinched, and in seconds after the needle was extracted he murmured, "And I thank you, master. Thank you. Wonderful. No pain now. Everything is okay again."
"My pleasure, Sebastiano. I have some other things for you, too." The figure of the man bent, reaching behind him where he brought forth several large bottles of the finest Chianti, though for the old man's sake he had put them in paper bags.
"Ah, the best. You are too good to an old fool like me," Tenazi apologized.
"You serve me well, Sebastiano. And I have some more of the opiate, too. It's of excellent quality. It will tide you over till we meet again."
"Yeah, sure." Tenazi could not believe his good fortune. "I guess that's all then?"
"For tonight, my dear Tenazi. Go to your rest. I'll summon you when you are needed next."
Sebastiano somehow managed to weave his drugged way back out of the alley, back down the side street and into the wider Via Magdalena. He had not looked back. Had he, he would have seen nothing but shadows. The figure in black had vanished.
The old beggar had no place in particular to go. He didn't care. He felt wonderful. Relaxed. Everything was perfect with his world at this moment. He just wanted to lie down and sleep and think of nothing. That was life's sweetest gift to him - nothingness, he thought. He found a bench about ten yards down the street and crawled behind the bushes to the side where a small park was formed by the joining of two central squares that would be active with the voices of children in the morn.
For now all was quiet. He never worried about tomorrow. Today, the moment was all that he cared about, all that he could handle. He lay down, pillowing his head on his arm, and drifted off into the luxury of the opium which dulled all memory...save one. The memory of the man with the strange eyes of burning coal!
Little did Sebastiano know the full scope of how the beast had been unleashed!
Next issue: Part II - The Smoldering - Fourth Chapter - Episode One
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!