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Authors: Christopher Farnsworth

The Eternal World

BOOK: The Eternal World
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DEDICATION

For Jean,
forever

 

EPIGRAPH

. . . and, as they were an ignorant people, they all set out in search of this river, which was supposed to possess the powers of rejuvenating old men and women. So eager were they in their search, that they did not pass a river, a brook, a lake, or even a swamp, without bathing in it; and even to this day they have not ceased to look for it, but always without success.

—HERNANDO D’ESCALANTE FONTANEDA,
On the Country and Ancient Indian Tribes of Florida,
1575

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Eternal World
is based on the story and ideas by Monnie Wills and Tom Jacobson. I’d like to thank them for letting me play in their sandbox.

 

PROLOGUE

FLORIDA

1527

T
HE CONQUISTADOR WAS
DYING.

They had set upon his men without warning, their fire-hardened arrows and spears punching through Spanish armor like paper. Their heavy wooden clubs, studded with shark teeth, crushed skulls and tore flesh and muscle from bone.

His men panicked. His commands were lost in the sudden screams of pain and fear. He was knocked from his horse and thrown to the ground. There was no strategy, no order of battle, only pitched and desperate fighting.

Within moments, he was separated, surrounded by the endless green and the echoing screams of his men.

Something struck his leg, and he looked down and saw the arrow buried there. He saw a flash of copper-colored skin at the edge of his vision.

He’d thought he was lucky to be hit only in the thigh. He pulled the arrow out by its shaft, and saw the savage who had shot him disappear into the heavy green of the forest at the side of the trail.

Half-mad with rage, he crashed into the trees on foot, determined to make at least one of his enemies pay for this.

First he had run, then he had limped, and now he dragged the leg along behind him.

He realized now the arrow was poisoned. Sweat stung his eyes. Insects crawled on his face, under his armor, in his hair. Pus spilled from the wound like warm egg yolk.

He removed his armor, piece by piece, leaving it behind like fragments of shell on a beach. His rifle was gone, left behind at the scene of the fight. His pistol was empty and useless in his belt. His provisions had been carried by the men at the back of the line, who were surely dead now.

All he had left was his sword. He used it to swat at the branches as he tried to hack a path through the jungle.

He did not know where he was going. He thought he heard water, and he thought a drink might cool the fever that was raging in him now. But even though he was ankle-deep in mud, he could not find the source of the water. He tried to follow the sun, which seemed only to stick in place, blazing above his head.

It was growing difficult to breathe. He lost the sword somewhere along the way. He didn’t remember dropping it.

The soldier stumbled upon a trail—narrow and partially overgrown, but he could see fresh footprints in the mud. He moved forward as best he could, supporting himself by leaning on the trees between steps.

Finally, he staggered into a clearing. The sun was even more cruel without the canopy of shade in the forest.

He saw a cave: a dark opening in an overgrown hill rising out of the ground. He heard the trickle of water again, echoing from within the hole.

He could no longer swallow, his tongue was so dry and his throat so raw. But it would be nice to get out of the heat.

He fell inside the mouth of the cavern and dragged his body out of the sun with the last of his strength. He knew he would never find the water. This was where he would die. It was a good enough place, he thought. He had spanned an ocean and crossed the world and found only death. He did not need to get any farther from home.

Here, he could rest.

His eyes closed. He heard the voices of his mother and his father. He saw his childhood home. Smelled bread baking in the kitchen. He smiled.

He felt a cool hand on his cheek. He opened his eyes.

There was an angel looking down at him. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

His smile grew wider. She looked troubled, and she spoke in the tongue of angels, trying to tell him something mere human ears could not understand. It didn’t matter. He wanted to tell her it was all right. He was prepared for judgment. His soul and his conscience were clear.

He closed his eyes again. Wherever she would take him, he was ready.

 

CHAPTER 1

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO

TWO WEEKS AGO

T
HE BUTCHER CROSSED
the bridge on foot at El Paso. With a few days in the sun, he was dark enough to pass as one of the many day
laborers on their way home to Juárez for the evening after long hours cleaning, cooking, and mowing the lawns of white people.

He wore sagging dad jeans and a T-shirt that said Metallica and a sweat-stained trucker cap, all fished out of a Goodwill bin. His face was still unlined, his body strong and young. One woman glanced in his direction and gave him a friendly smile. He smiled back, showing all his fine white teeth. She looked away quickly, and surreptitiously crossed herself.

He tried not to laugh. It wasn’t easy. He wanted to tell her that he’d believed once, too. Now he knew better.

Now he was God, or as close as any of these people would ever see.

Once, he had been Juan de Aznar y Sandoval. For a while, he’d variously been known as the Moonlight Murderer, the Servant Girl Annihilator, Bible John, and the Torso Killer. Now he was known best as El Carnicero, El Verdugo, El Sanguinario—the Butcher of Juárez.

Juárez was a city regularly drenched in blood. People died every day in the relentless drug war between the cartels and the military. So many died that the government was unable—or unwilling—to keep an accurate body count. The usual estimate was about eight murders a day. In a city where life was so cheap, it was easy to lose track.

It took real effort to rise above the usual background noise of gunfire. But over the years, people began to notice: young women—girls, really—who worked at the maquiladoras, the factories that straddled the border, were turning up dead.

In 1993, seventeen women were found slashed, strangled, mutilated, and, in one case, burned. They all suffered similar cuts to their breasts. The next year, at least eleven were killed. Eighteen the year after that, and more the year after that, and after that.

The victims, all girls, were drawn to Juárez from their villages in the country with the promise of good jobs. Their pictures began to appear in the newspapers, the faces beaming right next to graphic descriptions of the rape and mutilation their bodies had endured.

People finally began to count all those faces, and all the bodies found in fields or vacant lots or back alleys. Some people got as high as four hundred over a ten-year span.

The police said that was impossible. They said no one man could be responsible for so many deaths. When the outrage over their inaction became too much, they would arrest someone and try to pin all the murders on him.

But the girls kept dying, no matter what the police did or said.

Now most people, if they thought of him at all, believed he was an urban legend. There was even a song about him. He heard it played on a cheap portable stereo as he was walking over the bridge one night. It took him a moment to realize that someone had composed a
narcocorrido
about him:

Oh little girl,

watch where you walk tonight,

Oh little girl,

watch where you go,

Don’t you know the Butcher is waiting for you,

Stay here with me tonight,

Or the Butcher will claim your soul.

Idiots, he thought. Singing hymns to the man who was slaughtering them. The
narcocorridos
were full of praise for the lords of the cartels, or their gunmen—he’d even heard one about Osama bin Laden. It only confirmed his belief that these people were in love with death, a whole culture bent on suicide, like a herd of cattle running over a cliff.

But he had to admit he found himself humming the tune. It was catchy.

Aznar was not stupid. He was careful. He changed his signature style every other victim now, so that he could not be tracked by the slashing of breasts or a particular weapon or method of murder. He could control the urge for months at a time, staying in his cheap little hovel on the Texas side of the border, keeping quiet, keeping to himself.

But eventually, he would realize, why bother?

He had passed from reality into folklore. No one would ever catch him, because he was like the weather now: simply a condition of life, inevitable and uncontrollable. The police would not even try to stop him, because that would be admitting he existed. The citizens would simply accept him, and every time another body turned up, they would shrug and move on. People still had to go to work, go shopping, and raise their kids. They had their own problems. That was Juárez: proof that people could get used to anything.

This is why he loved the walk across the bridge. For him, Juárez was a playground, and every time, it made him giddy as a child.

Tonight, the Butcher was back.

THE GIRLS FILED OUT
of the factory like an offering made just for him. He scanned their faces, looking for the right one for tonight as they hurried back to their little shacks. They would get some food or some sleep or change into their good clothes and hit the clubs that stayed open into the early morning to cater to them.

No one heeded the warning in the song about the Butcher. There was simply no way for women to stay off the streets in Juárez after dark. The factories worked around the clock, manufacturing plastic toys and gadgets to fill the shelves of the stores up north.

Every night, he had his choice of targets. A seemingly endless supply.

That’s not to say he didn’t have a type. He did. Anyone looking at the photos of his victims would see the common threads binding them all together. All were young, late teens or not far into their twenties, attractive, and, at least superficially, resembled one another. They could all have been sisters, or cousins, from a very large and very unlucky family.

But no one would know the real reason he chose them all. They all looked like her. He would never get tired of killing her. He thought of it as practice for the day when he’d finally get his chance at the real thing.

For tonight, he’d have to be satisfied with another stand-in.

He waited outside the gates of the factory—this one assembled toys from plastic components made in Taiwan and then shipped them back across the Pacific. Many of the girls on the line weren’t much older than the children who’d play with the finished products.

He ignored them. It wasn’t that he valued them or thought them innocent—none of these mongrels were innocent, in his mind—but they did not look enough like her.

Then he caught a glimpse of an older girl, already turning in a different direction from the stream of night-shift workers.

He caught himself. She looked so much like her, he had to be careful not to stare too hard. He didn’t want anyone to notice him.

But the resemblance—it was too close to let her go. She would be perfect.

He waited an appropriate length of time, and then was drawn after her down the same dark streets.

JUÁREZ WAS BOTH TOO
poor and too corrupt for streetlights or sidewalks off the main avenues. The shadows were deep enough for him to hide every time the girl looked over her shoulder. She knew he was there, but she couldn’t see him.

She must have lived in the cheapest possible rentals—the slapped-together houses on the far end of the city, parallel to the river and near the railroad tracks. Quite literally, the wrong side of the tracks: bodies were dumped here all the time, along with whatever trash and waste that couldn’t be recycled by the countless scavengers and pickers. The shacks were often just four walls and a roof put up over a dirt floor, without water or heat or electricity. The people who lived there were either new to Juárez or had simply given up.

She looked new. Her dress still had some white in it, and there was still some life in her movements.

Aznar was happy; she was going to be worth his effort.

She abruptly turned into an alley between the shells of two buildings near the tracks that had been burned out in a recent dispute between the cartels and the military.

It was time for him to show himself.

He moved out of the shadows, almost gliding over the dirt and broken concrete. He’d try to take his time with her, but he knew it was going to be over quick. The first one of the night always was. And anyway, he could still catch at least two more before morning.

Aznar entered the mouth of the alley and deliberately knocked over a pile of trash. Old cardboard slithered to the ground, taking several wads of plastic bags with it. It sounded nicely ominous to him.

He already had his knife in his hand. He’d planned on gutting his victims tonight, pulling out their entrails and showing them off in the moonlight. It was a cheap, handmade thing—once a kitchen knife, now wrapped with duct tape for a handle, sharpened to a razor’s edge. It was ugly and mean and perfect.

He wanted her to turn and see him. He wanted to see the fear in her eyes.

She wasn’t there.

Impossible, he thought. He was faster than her, faster than anyone could be, and there was nothing big enough for her to hide behind here.

He ran to the end of the alley, frantic with disappointment.

He saw a soiled dress, still white in places, in the corner of his eye. She dropped on him from above, leaping from one of the dead windows in the empty building.

It was a twenty-foot fall from the window to the alley. No ordinary girl could have made the leap without breaking bones.

But then, no ordinary man could have taken the force of her landing without breaking his neck.

He fell and rolled away from her, and regained his feet instantly. They stood and faced each other.

It wasn’t a girl who looked like her.

It was her.

In disbelief, he said her name: “Shako.”

She returned his greeting. “Aznar,” she said.

Then they went for each other.

SHE WOULD HAVE LIKED
to be able to deal with Aznar from a distance. He was dangerous. But she had to be sure it was him. She had to see him face-to-face.

He was good with the knife. He turned it expertly in his hands as he advanced on her, alternating between short, stabbing thrusts and wide slashes that drove her back. He moved so fast the blade seemed to flow like water in the dim light.

But she’d seen it before. He’d changed nothing, apparently learned nothing, since their last encounter.

And she was not defenseless.

She took a flat wedge from the holster she wore like a garter on her thigh. With the press of a button, it sprang a telescoping handle. She took the grip in her left hand, and then, when Aznar stabbed at her again, swung hard for his skull.

He barely dodged in time, the metal ax coming within millimeters of his eyes. It was crafted of a titanium alloy, a high-tech re-creation of a tomahawk.

She was not above using guns or bombs or even missile strikes if it came to that. But it was important to her that all of the Council see her face before they died. Given the chance, she would stick with the old ways.

Aznar fell on his back, his feet sliding out from under him in his sudden retreat. She slashed downward, and realized her mistake. This was a feint, meant to get her overextended and off-balance. He stabbed upward, coming out of a crouch.

She pulled back and caught his knife with her ax hard enough to send sparks flying, but not hard enough to knock it from his grip.

She didn’t let up. Didn’t let him up. He was still kneeling, still slashing desperately at her. She swung for his head again, and, when he ducked, drove her foot into the bridge of his nose. There was a sharp cracking noise and Aznar flipped over onto his back.

He thrashed wildly, scrambling on the ground on all fours. She realized Aznar was going to run.

No. Not this time. She thought she’d had him in Serbia; she wasn’t going to let him get away again.

She leaped forward and sliced through the meat of one of his legs with a stroke that almost looked like a golf swing.

He screamed and bucked as if electrocuted. He never could handle pain. Not at all, she remembered.

Before she could lift her ax again, however, he turned and threw his knife at her.

It buried itself in her left shoulder, up to the hilt. Her arm went numb: he’d taken out the nerve cluster there as deftly as a surgeon.

He struggled up from the ground and gave her a lupine grin.

“Don’t look so pleased,” she snarled. Wincing, she yanked the knife from her body. A fresh gout of blood ran freely, soaking the top of her dress. “I’ve got your knife.”

She held the knife in her near-dead hand and clumsily transferred her ax to her right.

His grin grew even wider. “Keep it,” he said. “I’ll use this one.”

And he drew another, just as large and ugly as the first, from under his jacket.

She staggered back a few steps.

He came after her, limping.

He adjusted the rhythm of his attack now, putting his weight on his good leg as he stabbed at her, then dancing back, favoring the bad one, when he dodged.

She clumsily parried his blade with the ax, but he broke through her defense easily. She thought he might have nicked her lung. Breathing was becoming difficult.

Within a few more seconds, he’d opened shallow slashes on her arms, her breasts, and her legs.

He was enjoying himself now. She could see it in the orgasmic light in his eyes, his smile now almost serene. This was what he lived for; he was toying with her.

She wasn’t worried. The cuts Aznar had inflicted were superficial. They would have closed instantly if her body were not already trying to heal the major wound in her shoulder. Even the nerves would knit themselves back together, good as new, in a matter of hours.

After all, it wasn’t like Aznar had dipped his blades in poison.

She had.

A little of the light went out of his eyes at first. A string of drool fell from his lips, and he began to look confused. He redoubled his efforts, pushing harder, stabbing, trying to close in for the deathblow.

He couldn’t do it. He was getting slower. His leg still dragged, when it should have healed as fast as she could. Sweat drenched his face for the first time, despite the warmth of the night.

BOOK: The Eternal World
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