The Nanny War Journals

Michael Panush

When Maria Cortes was twelve years old, the militiamen came to her village in the Colombian jungle. Maybe the village's headman had forgotten to pay his tribute to the right person, or maybe he had shown some sympathy to the nearby communist guerillas. In the end, the reason didn't matter. The right-wing militias had training from the School of the Americas, the best brutality that the CIA had to offer, and they didn't need much of a reason to utilize it.

They killed men, women and children. They tortured and they raped and burned everyone that was left. Maria was the oldest of four children. She was the only survivor of her entire family. They left her with six M-16 rounds in her chest inside her burning hut. She managed to drag herself outside before passing out, still hearing gunfire and shouts ringing in her ears. Maria lay there in the bloody dust for a long time, until the soldiers from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the FARC-EP – found her and dragged her out into the jungle.

They healed her there, took the bullets out of her, gave her an AK-47 and a combat vest, and put her to work. Maria excelled at warfare. All she had to do was think about her family and her village, and killing was easy as taking a breath. She grew older on the battlefield, and when she was fourteen-years old, she had over a hundred notches on her rifle and was feared by the paramilitaries and the Colombian government both. The CIA's folder on her seemed to grow daily. She believed in the Marxist cause of the peasant rebels with all of her heart, and never lacked for inspiration and loyalty.

Since La Violencia of the 1950s, Colombia had been torn by rebellions and bloody civil war. American interests and the drug trade poured money into the conflict, and FARC-EP became one of the major powerhouses amongst the jungle fighters. It didn't matter that Maria was still a child to them. One fourth of their soldiers were under eighteen after all. They cared about sticking around, and fanatics like Maria Cortes were perfect. They would take out helicopters with RPGs, detonate government buildings, watch over shipments to the Cartels, intimidate the locals into support, all without questioning the FARC's high command.

But Maria was no fool, much to FARC's dismay. She realized that their peasant's revolution seemed awfully concerned with the trade in cocaine. She knew that their leaders had feet of clay, and seemed to care just as much about making money and Marx's teachings. She could recite lines from Mao's Little Red Book by heart and kept a picture of Che Guevera next to her cot, like her mother had kept an icon of Christ, but she still began to think that something wasn't quite right about her life.

The sneaking suspicion grew as she turned seventeen. She was now a feared FARC soldier, known as the Bruja de Medellin for her bloody work for the Cartels. Maria Cortes learned more skills every day, from infiltration to marksmanship to demolitions, and employed it all in bloody support of the cause.

The FARC-EP detected no small amount of promise in her. They decided to move her to their kidnapping division, one of their major money-making operations alongside drug-running. That was their mistake.

Watching over bags of cocaine and dealing with corrupt politicians and slimy drug kingpins was one thing. Helping pull children away from their families, hauling screaming wives out of their houses with guns to their heads, and demanding payment from tearful families was something else entirely.

Maria remembered her parents and her own family. As the oldest, she was expected to take care of the younger children, and help her parents with running the family. She even took a little pride in doing so. Now she was tearing families apart, and she didn't like it.

After she turned twenty, it became too much. Her squad had kidnapped a five-year-old girl, the only daughter of some governor, and demanded a ransom he couldn't afford. It was a public relations exercise, and everyone knew they were going to execute the girl when her father failed to pay, leaving her corpse as a warning to everyone else that the FARC-EP meant business.

Maria couldn't stand it. She watched the little girl, tied to the chair in the tent where they kept their prisoners, not even bothering to cry any more. Her head was just slumped down, like the life had already left her. Maria knew there was nothing in Marx's teachings or Lenin's writings about this. She went to the squad's armory and grabbed as many weapons as she could.

She had twenty men in her squad, all hardcore guerillas. By the end of the hour, she and the young hostage were the only ones alive in the camp. Maria moved quickly, freed the girl, and took her back through the jungle to Bogota. FARC-EP realized what had happened quickly and tried to stop her.

They sent a helicopter, representing a large investment in funds from the Coke Trade and covert Venezuelan funding. Maria had taken an RPG with her. She left the helicopter smoldering on the jungle floor. She knew now that she could never go back to the leftist guerillas. She had chosen her own path, and she accepted it.

When Maria brought the little girl back to her father, when she saw the way he held her and she smiled back at him, she felt, for the first time since the right-wing paramilitary men had destroyed her village, that she had done something undeniably good. The governor was eternally grateful. He offered Maria money, or a position of power in the new army, now getting costly support from America's haphazard Plan Colombia, but Maria didn't want anything like that.

She asked for a ticket north, and the governor complied. Soon, he put her on a boat to the Yucatan, and from she crossed the border into Mexico.

Maria faced a bit of a dilemma as she moved northwards through Mexico. The money the governor had given her wouldn't last long. And she had to do something with her life. The Mexican Cartels were reaching the zenith in their power, and the battle between the colorfully named drug lords and their powerful militias were heating up. She could go to work for them, easily using her name as the Bruja de Medellin to get an easy job as a high-level enforcer.

But as Maria thought of it, she turned the idea down. That meant more kidnapping, more working for scumbag drug lords and murdering innocent people. She ignored the violence around her and headed north. She brought her guns with her, of course, but rarely used them.

By the time she crossed the border – an easy task after years of sneaking through heavily patrolled stretches of jungle – she still had no idea what she wanted to do. She decided to head to New York. Why go anywhere else, after all. But as for the work she would do there, she had no idea.

When Maria made it to New York, she had enough cash left for a small apartment in Washington Heights, and to take classes in English at a local school. Maria had memorized how to field strip and assemble seven different kinds of assault rifle under heavy enemy fire, so picking up another language wasn't difficult. But she knew her cash reserves would run out by the time she finished the class.

Luckily, another woman in Maria's class, a Dominican mother of three named Juana, recognized Maria's problem and had a solution. "You like kids, don't you?" she asked one day, as they were finishing class. "There are many rich people, right here in the city, who need someone to look after their kids while they are working – which is all the time. You can get paid a lot of money, and the work is not difficult. I know you would be a good nanny."

"I'm not so sure…" Maria said. After what she had been through, working as nanny seemed an impossibility. A rifle could not learn to be a tool for peace, after all. "Don't you need references? And will they check if you're legal?"

"They pay in cash. These Upper East Side rich people, they don't care much about the law, as long as they can save some money. And I can get you all the references you need." Juana's eyes lit up. "I am a nanny for the Van Allens, and they have a friend who is looking for a new nanny for two children, both not too young and not too difficult. I could recommend you." She smiled and patted her friend's shoulder. "I guarantee you will get the job. Why don't you try it? Maybe you will like it."

"I guess it can't hurt to try," Maria agreed.

"That's the spirit!" Juana agreed.

Maria got the job the next week. The nannies had a network, connected at playgrounds and soccer games, where gossip and talk let them find support and work. Maria knew about networks of support for rebels amongst rural villages, and this wasn't that different. She followed Juana's instructions and reached the house of the Goldfarbs, an affluent Upper East Side Family with two children, and got to work.

The job was different from her work with FARC-EP, but not terribly so. Troops had to be mobilized, supplies for sorties had to be packed, and discipline had to be maintained. The Goldfarbs had two children, a nine-year-old girl named Penny and a seven-year-old named Fielding. They were good kids, with the kind of nervous politeness cultivated by busy parents, and Maria enjoyed working with them. By the end of the first week, she was looking forward to every day at work.

She told them a little about her past when they asked, but not too much. Penny and Fielding both somewhat understood that Maria had done some very bad things in the past, but now she was kind and polite to them, if a little stern, and they didn't ask any more.

But Maria didn't know that a shadowy group had been doing research on her since she left Bogota. She didn't know that there was something searching for her, all the way from the shadows of the past. She didn't know that she would find terror reaching out from the past for her – as well as a valuable ally.

It all started one sunny Fall Saturday, when Maria Cortes took Penny and Fielding to Central Park, to feed the ducks and see the autumn leaves. They walked together, Maria holding Fielding's hand as they headed down one of the winding roads through the park. Fielding looked at the tall trees with leaves like fire, and then back at Maria. Penny was ahead of them, searching for the occasional squirrel that crossed the strip of gravel pathway.

"Miss Maria?" Fielding asked, looking up at his nanny. He was a spindly boy, with hair like straw. He wore a blue collared shirt and plaid shorts, a dark navy coat wrapped around his thin shoulders. "Were you ever a soldier? We were talking about that in school, and I thought about you."

"I was a soldier, a long time ago, and very far away," Maria agreed.

"And mommy and daddy, they don't know about it?" Fielding wondered.

"That's right." Maria wore a pair of long trousers and a pea coat, a voluminous jacket that reached her knees. She carried a pair of Colt automatics in crossed shoulder-holsters – force of habit from Colombia – and the long coat helped cover it. Her hair was raven black, and cut short, reaching just under her ears. Wide sunglasses covered her eyes. A pair of hoop earrings, imitation silver, gleamed in the low sunlight.

"Maybe you should tell them," Fielding suggested.

Penny turned around. "She doesn't have to tell them anything. Maria can do what she wants," Penny suggested. Her russet hair was done in a loose pony tail, and she wore a long-sleeved shirt under her pink coat and scarf. She smiled up at her nanny. "Right, Maria?"

Maria shrugged. "I just don't see how it affects my job." She pointed ahead, to the nearest duck pond. "There's the ducks. You guys want to go and give them some bread? I bet they would like that. But we'd better hurry. Your mom wants to see you for lunch at her office, remember?"

"She won't be too busy?" Fielding asked.

"She promised me she wouldn't," Maria agreed. "Come on. Let's go see the ducks."

They hurried to the edge of the lake and Maria opened her backpack and handed the kids a loaf of bread. She carried a single fragmentation grenade in the bottom backpack, another holdover from her time in the jungle, and moved her hand around it to reach the bread. Maria stood back and watched as Field and Penny tossed bits of bread into the water, and the ducks paddled over to reach them. It was a quiet morning, and the kids seemed happy enough. Maria allowed herself a smile.

Then she felt a tingle running down her neck like sudden electricity. She had felt it often enough in the jungle and knew what it meant – she was being watched. Maria slowly turned around and saw three men with suits and shaved heads. Their suits were black and their ties matched. All three of them wore sunglasses, and seemed to be doing their best to look similar. Maria folded her arms as they walked towards her, elbowing past a solitary jogger as they moved to the shore of the lake. New York was a strange city, and three men dressed identically wasn't that odd. But they were heading straight towards her.

The three men drew a bit closer, and Maria saw they were wearing golden necklaces, featuring three golden Hs fused together in a stylized arch. They were armed too. Maria had been on enough ops to know when someone was packing and trying to hide it. She turned to face them. "Hello," she said, giving them a quick nod. "You want something?"

The man in the middle removed his sunglasses. He had a round nose and thick fingers. His bald head looked like a turtle, peeking out of its shell. He smiled calmly. "Just a question, Miss Cortes," he said. He nodded at her surprise. "That's right. We know who you are. We've been got all kinds of supporters, and the CIA and DEA have quite a collection of files on you. The Bruja de Medellin is someone worth keeping an eye on. It did take a long time to figure out you were in New York. But it was worth it."

Maria took a step closer to him. "What the hell do you want, cabron?" she hissed.

"We want you to help us lead humanity to the next level of spiritual awakening and mental wellness," he explained, drawing out each word as he slid his sunglasses into his pocket. "The name's Ixion Varlowe. I'm in charge of a like-minded group of friends, devoted to improving ourselves through spiritual means. We call ourselves the Hecaterologists, after Hecate, the Greek Goddess of witches, and we have quite a pedigree. Rather fortuitous, isn't it? Given your nom de guerre, I mean."

"Not interested," Maria replied. She looked back at the kids. "Fielding! Penny! Get over here! We should be leaving soon!"

The kids finished tossing in the last bits of their breads, leaving the squabbling horde of ducks behind and hurrying over to Maria's side. She stood between them and the three Hecaterologists, scanning the park and the trees. It was too empty, especially for a Saturday morning. If the Hecaterologists had access to CIA and DEA files, perhaps they had arranged for the cops to look the other way, just for this morning. The law always for sale in Colombia and Maria would not be surprised if that was the case here as well.

Varlowe shook his head. "You don't understand. We require your essence for a ritual that will remake the world. You should be honored that Hecate has chosen you – the modern Amazon – for this joyous calling."

"Well, pendejo, I ain't." Maria took Fielding's hand. "I'm leaving now. Find someone else for your crazy religious crap."

But Varlowe shook his head. "I'm afraid that's not an option. This ritual has been in the works for years. I mean that quite literally – the Hecaterologists have been working on this since the 1880s, and we can't allow anyone screwing the pooch just now." He smiled as he held out his hand. "Now, I don't want to get nasty, but you're really forcing me down a negative path, Miss Cortes. You do have these nice little children to worry about. I'm sure you don't want anything bad to—"

Maria pulled the automatic from her coat and slammed it against Varlowe's head. "Now you gone and made a dumb mistake, Varlowe," she hissed. "You threatened the kids. Back off now or I'll blow you apart." Fielding let out a whimper of sudden panic and Penny screamed. Maria kept the gun on Varlowe. She'd have to reassure the kids later.

Varlowe ignored the Colt. "The weapons of man cannot harm the beloved of Hecate. All roads lead to her. You have transgressed, Miss Cortes. You will be a part of the Amazon Project, whether you want to or not. And that's too bad for your young charges."

There was no time to pull the trigger and remove Varlowe's brains. She reached down and swept up Fielding, pulling him close to her as a sniper rifle thundered away and a bullet cracked the pavement. Maria held Fielding close to her and grabbed Penny's hand.

"Come on!" she cried, as they dashed down the pathway. "Just stay close to me, and don't run, and we'll get out, okay? Just stay close to me, and you won't be hurt. I promise." She muttered to herself in Spanish as she looked over her shoulder. The three Hecaterologists drew heavy revolvers and started firing after her. She felt the whine as a bullet arced past her shoulder and another cracked into the sidewalk at her feet. Penny followed her without a word, and Fielding was blinking away tears. She could feel the wetness on her shirt.

She felt awful. These kids had lives of comfort and privilege, of tutors and music lessons and private schools and play dates, and she had dragged them into a war. Maria looked down at Fielding. "Hey," she whispered, coming to a stop by a park bench. "It will be okay. I promise." She set him down and looked at Penny. "Look after your brother, Penny. Go into the bushes there and stay very still, okay?" she said, retrieving the second pistol. "This will be over very soon."

"O-okay, Maria," Penny agreed. She and Fielding stepped into the bushes, ducking under the carefully trimmed leaves.

Maria walked back into the road and faced the two Hecaterologists charging her way. "That's the problem with revolvers," she said, raising both automatics to face them. "You fire six bullets and what do you got?" She started shooting, two quick shots for each of the cultist gunmen. The double-tap was an old ritual, and the recoil running up her arm was familiar, almost comforting. "Nothing."

She turned around, raising her pistols into the tree. "And Mr. Sniper? You are not so smart either. Otherwise, you would have picked a place in those trees where I can't see the sun's glare on your scope." She opened fire, unloading both of the clips. It was a wild shot, but she put enough lead into the air and hit her target. A Hecaterologist in a dark leather jacket, his head shaved just like the others, tumbled down from the branches, blood spurting from a fatal wound in his chest. Maria let him cough up blood on the sidewalk, before putting a bullet through his skull.

Calmly, she reloaded both her pistols and picked up his rifle. "Dragunov," she said, working the bolt on the semi-automatic weapon and dropping to a crouch as she scanned the pathway and the sidewalk of the street. A pair of black vans was parked on the street's edge, their windows tinted and their walls bulletproof. Maria cursed.

"Fielding? Penny? You can come out now, but don't look at the dead man. Look at my face and it will be okay." She stood up, slinging the sniper rifle over her shoulder and faced Penny and Fielding. They stepped out hesitantly. Fielding's had stopped crying, but his eyes were wide.

"It's like a video game?" he asked. "Like on the Wii?"

"Not at all," Maria said. "But I won't let anything hurt you." She looked back at the street, considering her options. She reached into her backpack and pocketed the grenade. That was going to come in handy.

But the Hecaterologists had another gunman in the park, and he decided to make his move. Maria could hear him blundering through the trees and bushes for nearly two minutes before he reached them, and she calmly turned around and sent a pair of bullets into his kneecaps. "Close your eyes, kids!" she told the Goldfarb kids. "Close your eyes and cover your ears! You shouldn't see this!"

The Hecaterologist tumbled onto the sidewalk, screaming hoarsely as blood coursed from his knees. Maria pulled the Desert Eagle handgun from the sidewalk and set it in the backpack. Fielding and Penny weren't looking, and Maria was glad of that. They wouldn't lose their innocence. She wouldn't let them.

"Spic whore!" the Hecaterologist snarled. "We should've picked someone else!"

"That's right." Maria put her pistol to his head. "Maybe then you'd survive this. What do you want with me?"

"Ask Varlowe. Even I don't understand it. Something to do with the old guard, way back in the past. Varlowe's great-grandfather was even involved. It was all during the Victorian Age or something, I don't know. Oh Christ…" he reached into his trench coat. Maria saw the glint of steel. "But you're screwed now, you know that, you stinking wetback?"

"I don't know," Maria replied. "You seem in worse shape than me."

"Yeah. I don't have the Dooms after me. The Daughters of Night. The Sisters of Fate. The Wraiths of Living Shadow. The Keres." He pulled a combat knife from his coat and slammed it into his chest. "And all they need…is the smell of blood."

As he fell backwards, Maria felt a cold wind rush down the street. She looked up into the sky, her keen eyes scanning the banks of clouds as she felt a chill whisper pass her face, like a low-flying aircraft. Maria had no idea what the Keres, was but she doubted it was anything good.

"Miss Maria!" Fielding pointed behind Maria's shoulder. "There's some cloud coming to eat us!"

Maria turned around. Fielding's description was somewhat true. A churning mass of darkness came speeding down from the gray sky, wrapped round with living ribbons of undulating smoke. It was like a living blob of tar, coal and a storm-wracked cloud, but Maria could see a pair of glowing red eyes somewhere in its center. A pair of long, bony arms, like dead black branches, reached out from the mass of clouds and reached for her. It wasn't alone. A swarm of Keres followed the first cloud, coming down like a formation of birds from the sky.

"Figure me for some cheap chimba just gonna roll over with some smoke and mirrors. Screw that." Maria raised her rifle. "All right, kids," she said, bringing it up to her shoulder. There was no time to look down the scope. "When I start shooting, you run through the trees there and head to the street. I will be right behind you. Don't go to the sidewalk and the curb right away, because more of the Hecaterologists are waiting there. Wait for me."

"What will you do to them?" Penny asked, a tremor in her voice.

"I will get rid of them. Kill them if I have to." Maria looked down at the children. "I don't want you to fall into my world, and I know that it can absorb children very easily. That is my worst nightmare. But I will not let you get hurt. So you must be brave and do what I say, until this is over. Can you do that?"

"Yes, Miss Maria." Fielding nodded gravely.

"I-I think so." Penny was very bright for her age and a little more hesitant, but she still trusted her nanny.

"Okay." Maria fired the sniper rifle, sending a single bullet into the leader of the Keres. The shell sped through the smoke, letting a stream of chunky, tar-like gore spew out from inside the monster. The wraith started to shriek, and it sounded like a throaty, terrible parody of a baby's cry. Maria had no time to be frightened. "Go!" she told the children. "Get to the trees, near the sidewalk! Hurry!"

They took off running, and Maria followed. She fired behind her, taking down the Keres one after the other, then tossing down her sniper rifle and drawing out one of her Colt automatics and the grenade. She followed the Goldfarb kids off the gravel pathway and up a hill strewn with fallen leaves, around the trees and then to the slope overlooking the sidewalk and the deserted street.

She stopped, and stepped in front of Fielding and Penny. "Okay, good job," she said, knowing that the Keres were closing in from behind. Just like she expected, the Hecaterologists were slow to respond. They fumbled for their shotguns and pistols, and turned to face Maria. "Now, crouch down, and make yourselves as small as possible. Cover your ears and open your mouths. I am going to make a very loud noise." She popped the pin on her grenade.

The Hecaterologists started going up the hill. "There she is!" one bald, uniformed cultist cried as he raised his shotgun. "Take her alive and waste the kids! Come on, boys, for the spiritual awakening and transcendence of—"

Maria let them have the grenade. The explosion tore through sidewalk, spraying dirt and chunks of concrete into the street. One of the black-windowed vans toppled over, fire boiling under its hood. A severed leg landed next to Maria, and she pushed it away. The remains of the Hecaterologists were scattered across the sidewalk and gutter, bleeding, screaming and smoldering. Back in the jungle, Maria would have called in mortars to finish off the enemy, pounding them bit by bit into bloody oblivion. But there was no time for that here.

"Keep your eyes closed and hold onto my hands," Maria said, holstering her automatic. "We've got to run very fast." She took the hand of Fielding and Penny and hurried down the hill. Both kids kept their eyes closed. They were too scared to do anything else.

They hurried across the street and then down the block. Maria scanned up and down the streets, looking for more Hecaterologists. The way seemed clear. She hurried forward. They must have slipped through their cordon, because after going down a block and through an alley, they were back in normal New York. The kids opened their eyes and saw the usual packed streets and sidewalks full of pedestrians briskly striding about, including other nannies and their charges.

"Are we safe now?" Fielding asked, keeping his voice at a whisper.

"I don't think so. They must have spies around the city. They're watching for us, I think." She smiled at the kids. "How would you like to go to my house?"

"That sounds pretty cool," Penny agreed. "But I thought we were supposed to meet with our mom for lunch?"

"I'm really sorry, but I don't think we can do that. It's just a little too dangerous." Maria raised her hand, waiting for one of the speeding yellow cabs to stop. Sometimes, cab drivers forgot she existed, but today she had a little bit of luck.

A turbaned fellow stopped his cab and nodded for them to get in. "Washington Heights. I'll give you the address when we get there," Maria said. She helped the children in and then sat between them. She hadn't let go of their hands, and they didn't seem to want her to. The cab driver sped off, taking them into the choked streets.

Fielding was full of questions, though still had a quiet fear. "Who were those people?" he asked. "The heck-a-ders…hec-ologists—hecatear…"

"Hecaterologists." Maria pronounced it properly, though not without difficultly. Now that they were relatively safe, she could consider who her opponents were and start planning a course of action. She had heard the name before, maybe in some glossy magazine at the hairdresser's salon, or on a late night news show. "I think they are a religion," she said.

The cab driver looked back at her, keeping one eye on the road as he honked his horn and fought for a space on the expressway. "I think they are more of a cult, madam, though with lots of money. My cousin, she wanted to join the Hecaterologists, but we persuaded her not to, thank god. They wanted her to empty her bank account into the group's treasury, and go live with them on a compound they have, out of town and in the woods of upstate. Then they'd fly her to their big base in California."

"Why would anyone do that?" Penny asked. "It seems stupid. No offense to your cousin or anything, mister."

"People do stupid things," Maria said. She thought of the constant violence in Colombia. "And their reasons are never good enough." She looked back at the cab driver. "Do you know anything about the Hecaterologists?"

"Well, some movie stars have joined them, and they are pretty popular. They have tons of money, and that gives them a lot of power. And they have been involved in quite a few scandals, so that money comes in handy when they're settling in court." He smiled. "And their beliefs, well, they are just silly. Did you know, they actually come from some kooks in the Victorian Age? They worship an ancient Greek Goddess, and witchcraft, and all kinds of nutty crap."

Maria remembered the Keres. Maybe it wasn't so nutty after all. "Thank you," she said. When he dropped her and the Goldfarb children off at her house in Washington Heights, she gave him an extra large tip.

She entered her apartment building, and said hello to the receptionist as she headed to the elevator. The receptionist gave a lollypop to each of the Goldfarb children, and they munched on them as the elevator sped up the stairs. Maria had bought a room at the top, with roof access. She paid double for her room, just to keep everything off the books and away from the government. The building's owners saw her as a polite, studious and very nice woman running from some trouble, and didn't put up any fuss.

As Maria reached the hallway outside of her apartment, her cell phone started to buzz. "Hijo de puta," she whispered under her breath as she brought it to her ear. It was Ellen Goldfarb. She couldn't be happy.

"Hello, Mrs. Goldfarb," Maria said.

"Maria, hi." Ellen spoke a little slower around Maria, enunciating every word. "Look, it's about twelve-fifteen and you're not here with the kids. Are you stuck in traffic or something?"

"I'm afraid not. We had some trouble in Central Park."

"Oh my god." Ellen's voice's sped up, and her nervousness was apparent. "There was a bomb threat called in and they kept everyone out of the area, and then found a bunch of dead people, and that a grenade had gone off. Now there's connection to a corruption charge in the NYPD, and they still don't know where it's gonna end. Are you and the kids okay? Do you need me to send a car for you?" Like most the Upper East Side rich, Ellen Goldfarb believed all problems could be solved with money.

"We're fine," Maria said. She couldn't tell Ellen that they had been attacked, that she had killed half a dozen men and was a trained guerilla commando. "The kids are with me and they are safe. I'll look after them, and I'll get them back by tonight. I promise."

"Well, maybe I'd better send a car. Just to see them. I mean, a terrorist attack isn't something that happens every day."

"I'm sorry. You're breaking up. I can't hear you." Maria sighed as she closed her phone and pocketed it. Ellen Goldfarb meant well, but like most Americans, she tended to blunder into things and cause even more trouble, despite her enthusiasm. And this situation was completely unique, with honest-to-god monsters attacking. Maria would solve it herself.

She opened the door of her apartment. It had a bedroom, a living room and kitchen, all sparsely furnished. "Now go sit down and watch some TV," Maria said, pointing to the worn overstuffed couch in the center of the room. "Don't touch anything. I mean that now. Don't touch anything. Can you do that?"

"Yes, Miss Maria," Fielding agreed and his sister nodded.

She led them into the room. Weapons covered every inch of her wall. They ranged from pistols to submachine guns and assault rifles to heavy armaments, like an M60 Heavy Machine Gun, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher right above her bed. Crates of ammunition filled her kitchen, and a box of semtex rested at the foot of her bed. She had been cleaning an M4 with an underslung grenade launcher, and the fragments of that rested on her kitchen table.

Some of her armory she had stolen from FARC in Colombia, and brought with her to America. She had acquired more in Mexico, and kept an eye on both the black and legal markets in New York for useful pieces. One of the most important laws of the jungle was that whoever had the biggest gun usually won. Maria was careful to follow that law.

Maria knelt down before the television and switched it to Nickelodeon. As the chirping tunes of Spongebob filled her apartment, Maria Cortes loaded for war. She slid a bulletproof vest over her shirt and under her pea coat, grabbed a Kalashnikov and slung it over shoulder, and took a moment to take her machete, a familiar weapon and tool from Colombia, and slid it into her belt. She put more ammunition, including several clips for the Desert Eagle, and grenades in the backpack, keeping one eye on the kids all the while.

She turned on her computer and ran a quick internet search on the Hecaterologists. Everything the cab driver told her was confirmed. She looked up their compound in Upstate New York, in case she needed to go on the offensive. Additional intel was always useful.

Then her apartment's phone rang. Maria picked it up. It was the voice of the receptionist, an elderly Puerto Rican. "Maria?" she asked. "Some people here, looking for you. They don't look friendly. I told them you weren't going to see visitors, and they stepped outside, but now they're going up the fire escape. Should I call the police?"

"No, por favor," Maria replied, holding the phone close to her. "Do not do that. I will deal with them. And thank you for your help." She hung up, then looked back at the wall of her kitchen and grabbed a combat shotgun. She worked the pump as she walked to the TV. "I'm going to step outside for a little," Maria said, turning the volume of the television up as far as it could go. Spongebob's chirping voice boomed through her apartment. "Stay here, and don't worry."

Fielding stared up at her with wide eyes. "Please be careful," he said.

"I will." Maria gave him a smile and ruffled his hair, then pulled herself through the window and sat on the fire escape. She rested the shotgun on her knee and looked down. There were four of them, working their way up. They had traded in their suits for Kevlar vests and helmets, all stealth black. Maria shrugged as she brought the shotgun to her shoulder. They'd be at her level soon enough. She might as well surprise them.

"Hey! Pendejos!" she called, and they looked up, just as Maria started shooting. Her first shotgun blast scored a headshot, ripping through skull and bone and sending the Hecaterologist's body to slump on the steel grating. Her second shot blasted off a leg, but it knocked her attacker off of his perch and he tumbled the twelve stories to the ground, his severed limb falling after him. The other two took two shells in each before they slumped against the wall.

Maria cursed. The owners of the building would be upset at her, and she might have to help them get rid of the bodies. Not that difficult, but it was still a hassle. Then she heard a deep rumble, a constant mechanical roar coming from the sky. She looked upwards and saw a helicopter, sleek, black and with a rifleman in the door, swinging down to strafe her building. She cursed as she stepped back inside. The Hecaterologists had a fortune from their worshippers, and they were using every penny of it against her.

The helicopter's engine drowned out the kids' cartoon, and Penny and Fielding ran to Maria. She set her shotgun down on the table and pulled them close to her. "I've got to go to the roof!" she yelled. "Just for a little! Stay here! Don't follow me! It will be dangerous, but I will keep you safe!"

They nodded. Maria looked at the Goldfarb kids. She hadn't fully realized how much affection she had for them, especially now that they were threatened. But she liked their curiosity and their kindness, and hated the way their parents neglected them. She gave them each a quick kiss on the forehead, grabbed her RPG from the wall, slung her shotgun over her shoulder, and headed up the stairwell to the roof.

The helicopter hung suspended in the sky above her, a sleek black metal bird slowly bearing down on her. Maria raised the RPG to her shoulder and looked down the scope. She had dropped tons of helicopters before, but for some reason she couldn't fathom, her hands were shaking like leaves in the wind. She gritted her teeth. "Come on, Maria," she whispered. "Make those kids proud."

The rifleman in the helicopter started to fire. He had a scoped rifle, but firing from a moving aircraft was no easy task, and he missed his first shot, kicking up concrete next to Maria. She took her time, aimed and then squeezed on the firing stud.

Sudden heat burned at Maria's side as the rocket streamed out, sparks and smoke pouring out from the tail. The rocket flew into the nose of the helicopter, knocking it back and straining the steel. The engine was gone in seconds and the whole aircraft pitched forward. Maria had misjudged the distance and she turned to run, leaping forward at the last second as the helicopter smashed down into the roof behind her. Shrapnel, fire and smoke sprayed across the roof, and Maria kept her head down until the explosion burned out.

She looked up at the helicopter. The gunner lay sprawled near her, his legs broken from the crash. He was inching towards his rifle. He paused to look at Maria. "D-don't—" he started, but Maria had already emptied her shotgun into his skull.

She looked at the remains of the helicopter and shook her head. That would draw some cops, maybe lose her the apartment. But that didn't matter. The kids were safe, for now at least. Maria reloaded her shogun and headed back to the stairwell leading into her apartment. But as her boots clicked down on the cement steps, she heard glass shatter and Penny and Fielding scream.

Maria doubled her pace, running to her apartment with her shotgun in her hands. The wide window of her apartment had shattered, and one of the Keres was speeding away, a dark cloud of pure malevolence with glaring red eyes and cadaverous, long hands topped with claws. Trapped inside of the wraith's smoky body, still crying for her help, was Fielding and Penny.

"Miss Maria!" Fielding cried, as Maria hurried to the window ledge and reached out for them. But it was too late. They were floating away, and Maria couldn't go after them unless she sprouted a pair of wings.

"Don't worry!" she told them, knowing how pathetic her words sounded. "I'll find you! I'll save you! I promise you will be safe!" She sat there, yelling out useless comforting words until the children and the Keres that stole them had vanished into the distance.

Maria tossed down the shotgun and reached for one of her sniper rifles, but they were already out of range. She wouldn't have risked hurting the children anyway. The flickering screen of the computer caught her eye as she hit the remote and turned off the cartoons on TV. The computer still showed the directions to the Hecaterologist Compound in Upstate New York.

Quickly, she printed out the directions as she finished assembling her M4 and the grenade launcher. She loaded it, put a few more clips on her belt, and stuffed the Semtex into her backpack. It was time to go in heavy, loud as all Hell and twice as angry.

Maria finished loading the M4, tucked it under her coat and walked to the elevator. She'd get the children out, no matter how many monsters, gunmen and religious idiots she had to slaughter to do it.

After leaving the lobby without saying a word to the receptionist, Maria stood on the sidewalk and looked around. She couldn't take a cab to the Hecaterologist compound, not when she was fully armed. She reached for her cell phone, cursing herself as she knew who she had to call. But then someone caught her eye.

It was another woman, dressed very strangely, even for New York. The other woman stood next to her on the sidewalk and they exchanged a glance. She was thin and had a stately appearance, with brown hair in a neat bun and round spectacles. She wore a strange white dress, very old fashioned and with a gold striped tie tucked into her short coat. A rosewood violin case rested on a strap around her thin shoulder.

"Pardon me, madam," she said, nodding to Maria. "But I appear to be dreadfully lost. Could you tell me where exactly I am?" She had a British accent, but upper class and refined. It sounded like something you'd only see in movies.

Maria shook her head. She didn't have time for this. "Washington Heights," she said. "New York."

"Oh. I do apologize, but I appear to be in a New York quite unfamiliar to me, though I have visited this city often. Is this not an Irish neighborhood?"

"It's been Hispanic for years," Maria replied.

"What year is this, exactly?" the strange woman asked.

Maria told her, and she saw the odd woman's eyes widen. "Oh my," she whispered, taking a step back. "Good heavens. I have been thrust forward in time over a hundred years. No wonder this city is so strange, with everyone wearing underwear and everything so wonderfully clean. I am in the far future." She looked at Marie's coat, bulletproof vest and spotted the rifle. "Do people in this time normally carry weapons openly on the street?"

"No," Maria said. "Look, I really have to go. I don't know what happened to you, but I don't—"

"It was the Greek curio, in the shop. It must have been enchanted," the time traveler explained, more to herself than to Maria. "I knew I recognized that shopkeeper. He's Percival Varlowe, the leader of those Hecate fellows."

"Hecate?" Now Maria was surprised. "Varlowe?" She took a step back. "Who are you?"

"My name is Minerva Underhill. I am the governess to the Runtle Family, who reside at a manor in Upstate New York. While I was taking the children for a day's outing in Wellington, a small town near the manor, I was shown a statue of Kronos, the Greek God of Time, by a mysterious individual who referred to me as an Amazon. It brought me here, as soon as I touched it." She reached for her violin case. "Good Lord. I left the children with him, and he does strike me as a noble fellow. He's Percival Varlowe, the mystic of the Blessed Brotherhood of Hecaterian Mysteries."

Now Maria knew there was a connection between her and Minerva. "My name is Maria Cortes," she said. "Minerva, we got something in common." She told Minerva the whole story, of how she was attacked in the park by the descendants of the Victorian Cult, pursued to her apartment, only to lose the children to some cloud-monster called a Keres.

"Ker, actually, is the correct singular term for the magical beast of which you described," Minerva explained. "My mother is a noted ghost-breaker and medium, and taught me well about mystical creatures. Keres are harvesters of the dead, and hunt down the wounded and dying on the battlefield. They are servants of Hecate, and if her followers can summon them and throw me forward in time, then they are doubtlessly formidable foes."

Maria's head couldn't stop spinning. Time travel and magic were attacking her world, and she was unprepared for it. But she thought of the children. Their safety had to be assured, and that meant attacking the Hecaterologist compound.

"I'm going to get the kids back from the Hecaterologist bastards," she said, patting her rifle. "It will be very dangerous. You should get a room somewhere. I will give you some money, and I'll ask if they have a way to send you back, if there is anyone left alive by the time I'm finished."

"You're a soldier? A nanny and a soldier?" Minerva asked. "Is that normal in this strange time?"

"No. I was a soldier in my home, in Colombia. Then I came here and got a job. I like the kids I work with and I won't let them get hurt by no crazy cult."

Minerva nodded. "Well, Miss Cortes, I will have you know that I am the daughter of Sir Francis Underhill, the famed explorer, and he taught me well in the arts of combat. I will not let you walk into the jaws of danger alone, despite your past experience with martial matters. Furthermore, I have no small experience with the occult, and that may come in handy."

Before Maria could protest, Minerva opened her violin case and withdrew a belt full of weapons. There were long Japanese daggers in wooden cases, a sawed-off shotgun, a few glass vials, and a crossbow and quiver of barbed arrows. Maria stared in surprise at Minerva. "Suit yourself," she said. "But don't slow me down." She reached for her cell phone.

"What exactly are you doing with that piece of metal?" Minerva asked, as Maria pressed one of the numbers she kept on speed dial.

"It's a phone. Like a telephone, you know? I am calling someone to give us a ride."

"And who is this gentleman of your acquaintance?" Minerva wondered. "Can we trust him?"

"We can trust him, yes. But he is no gentleman."

Fifteen minutes after she made the call, Maria's friend T-Bone came to pick them up. T-Bone was a white kid from Jersey who liked playing gangster, and was actually pretty good at it. A familiar figure in his lime green convertible with platinum gold rims, T-Bone worked as a messenger and delivery boy between the various mobs, who tolerated him because he was completely harmless. Maria had arranged weapons deliveries with him in the past, and he had taken a liking to her.

He came pulling up to the curb in his convertible, grinning at her as he squealed on the breaks. "Chica," he said, licking his lips and pushing back his backwards baseball cap. "You looking fine today! What you need?"He wore a t-shirt several sizes too big and baggy pants, with half a dozen clanking necklaces. Minerva stared at him like he was some runaway from the circus.

"A ride." Maria handed him the instructions to the Hecaterologist compound. As she reached out, her coat opened and he saw her bulletproof vest, machete, and assault rifle.

"Damn, girl!" T-Bone slapped his knee. "You strapped! You going to wet some bad mutha—"

"We are going to rescue a pair of frightened children, sir," Minerva said, with perfect politeness. "Violence may be involved, but I'm afraid it is terribly necessary."

"Aight, aight." T-Bone nodded as he jabbed a thumb at the seat behind him. "Get in and we rolling. And may I say that you are one fine looking lady. Don't think I seen you around, but those are some bomb-ass threads you're rocking. You tight with the Latina Fire over here?"

"We just met. And thank you very much for your compliments. You are most kind." Minerva replied, sitting carefully in the seat. T-Bone started the engine and sped into the street, speeding out of the city as fast as his engine and the crowded road would allow.

Maria looked at her. "You seem kind of used to it," she said. "Like you ain't surprised or nothing."

"Panicking would serve little purpose. My charges may be in grave danger, and their safety is my priority," Minerva explained. "Also, I am rather used to such strange matters. I can guarantee my safety, so that is assured."

"You like the kids your work with?" Maria asked. "The Runtles?"

"Phillip and Penelope. The boy is seven years of age, and the girl is nine. They are exemplary children."

"Those are the same ages of my kids!" Maria said, shaking her head. "Some goddamn coincidence. Fielding is the boy's name, and Penny is the girl. They're very sweet, and I'm worried about them like nothing else on earth. But it's kind of weird, you know. They're not ours. They never will be, and yet we care about them just as much as their mothers. My boss, she means well, but she's always going out at night to Broadway or some art opening, and she's working during the day."

"A similar situation prevails at the Runtle Household," Minerva explained. "It appears the passage of time has done little for our careers." She turned to T-Bone. "I do hope we're not boring you with the talk of our activities, Mr. Bone."

"Hell no," T-Bone replied, spinning the wheel to change lanes. "When two fine-ass honeys are sharing my ride, I just close my mouth and watch, know what I'm saying?"

"I believe I know precisely of what you speak," Minerva replied, with a quick grin.

They drove on out of the city and into the woods. T-Bone pumped up some particularly obscene gagnsta rap on the radio, and Maria tried her best to ignore it. She started thinking of battle plans, preparing her assault on the compound. Her internet search had turned up some pretty good intel, and it would all be useful in the assault.

The ride went too long for Maria's comfort, but it finally reached its end. T-Bone looked up from the printed map. "Aight, aight," he said, nodding his head. "It's just down the road a bit, then on the left. You want me to drop you and your gats off, or are you gonna go all commando on them through the forest, know what I'm saying?"

"Kill the engine and wait for us." Maria reached for the door and hopped out. "Hopefully, this won't take long."

T-Bone nodded. "Yeah. This place is far enough out that Five-Oh ain't gonna be wise when you start smoking fools. But you need some back-up, you just holler and I'll come running with my nine."

"If we need your help, we'll really be in trouble," Maria replied. "But thanks for the ride. Come on, Minerva." The Victorian governess followed her out of the car and they walked into the woods. They moved silently, and it was hard to tell who was quieter.

They reached the compound, approaching it from the south. Maria knelt down and raised the assault rifle to her shoulder. The Hecaterologists had spared no expense on their base. A barbed wire fence ringed it. Several guard towers stood around the dome-shape buildings, which were in a circular formation. The place was built around the ruins of some Victorian estate, and the Hellenic columns and blackened walls remained next to the modern barracks. Hecaterologist cultists in their identical suits stood around at attention, armed with all manner of weapons.

Maria and Minerva exchanged a glance. "Maria, my dear, how do you propose to crack this nut?" Minerva asked.

"Go in hard. Hit them from here and freak them out, then get in there and finish them off." She switched to the M4's grenade launcher. "These pricks probably took a class taught by some ex-military defense instructor. They've never seen a real war. Now it's coming for them."

"And what shall I do?"

"I'll cover you, but hang back until we move in. Our goal is the big round house in the middle. That looks like where they'll be keeping any captives. If any weird stuff comes in, you take it out. But don't get ahead of me, or you might get cut off."

"I can handle myself quite well, thank you," Minerva said. "I'll follow your lead though. That is an awfully strange and large firearm, Miss Cortes. I shudder to think of the destructive power created by the weapon smiths of your time."

"Yeah," Maria agreed. "Sometimes, I can hardly believe what they can do."

She raised the M4 to her shoulder and opened fire with the underslung grenade launcher. The projectile flew through the air, and Maria had calculated the attack perfectly. It struck the top of the nearest watchtower, blasting apart the steel rails and tossing the riflemen in bleeding chunks to the floor. Maria stood up and started running forward, reloading the grenade launcher as she ran.

The Hecaterologists ran to the side of the electrified fence to stop her. Like she expected, they packed close together, firing through the holes in the chain link fence as Maria charged. They struggled to get a clear shot, making themselves a perfect target. She fired the grenade launcher again, tearing a hole in the fence that threw a dozen Hecaterologists back in screaming, smoldering disarray.

Maria started shooting, giving a burst to the survivors as she stepped into the compound. They charged out of their barracks, grabbing weapons in their haste to stop her. Maria held her ground and opened fire, gunning down the Hecaterologists as they appeared. She worked the flanks, herding them in and keeping them from reaching cover, and then gave them another grenade when they were packed where she wanted them.

Screams and gunfire echoed through the compound. Minerva stood next to Maria, clearly unnerved by how lethally the Bruja De Medellin dispatched her foes. Soon, the first wave of Hecaterologists lay dead and bleeding on the ground. Both women moved inwards to the main building of the compound.

As they neared the doors of the gray cement dome of a bunker, half a dozen Hecaterologists attacked them from behind one of the barracks – and a Ker soared blackly in the sky above them. "Good Lord!" Minerva cried, ducking for cover behind a stack of crates, as Maria returned fire. "Get your head down, Miss Cortes! That flying devil must be dispatched with great care."

"And how'll you do that?" Maria asked.

Minerva drew out both blades. "Hack it into little bits, I suppose," she said. "Now, kindly provide some covering fire." She leapt out of her hiding place, and right into the middle of the Hecaterologists. She moved among them like a living bolt of lightning, slashing a blade through an arm or a leg, delivering a kick that shattered bone, and dancing away before the Hecaterologists could touch her. Minerva danced through them, taking out six men in that many seconds, and leaving them bloody, broken, but alive and moaning, on the cement floor. Maria added a burst of lead, but she hardly needed to.

The Ker swooped down for Minerva, but she was ready for it. She plunged both of her Japanese daggers upwards, hacking off the skeletal hands of the creature, then swung the blades around and slashed open its chest. The smoke boiled away, and the Ker sank to the ground. Maria saw that it was an almost feminine fiend, a skeletal crone with ebony skin, matted hair and fading red eyes.

"Witch spirits," Minerva said, looking up at Maria. "The way seems clear. We'd best hurry, if we are to reach your young charges in time."

Maria nodded as she hurried over to join her new ally. "You didn't kill them?" she asked, stepping over a fallen Hecaterologist.

"My father taught me that all life is precious, whether it is some criminal brute or a charging savage. I don't take lives, not if I can help it." She lowered her eyes. "I don't mean to offend you or call your ways into questions, as I have no doubt your time is far harsher than mine, but it appears you have a different philosophy."

"My father died when I was little. My mother and my two little sisters and brother were killed too. I watched it all, with six bullets in my chest, when I was twelve-years-old." She sighed. They had reached the doors of the largest building in the compound, and Maria popped another grenade into her rifle. "I will not let any harm come to the Goldfarb kids, and if that means slaughtering these cabrones, then I'll gladly do that."

She fired the grenade into the door, blasting the steel entryway backwards and taking out the Hecaterologists near the door. Minerva hurried inside, her crossbow ready in her hands. Maria followed her, cursing as she reloaded the clip of her M4. There were more in the backpack, but there was little time to reload. She followed Minerva inside.

Inside was a large, empty amphitheatre, with rows of cement seats surrounding a dirt stage. Ixion Varlowe stood on the stage, standing next to a strange glowing statue of a winged and bearded god. The statue crackled with arcane bolts of blue energy, and it hummed like active machinery. Ixion held Fielding's navy blue jacket over his arm.

"Hijo de puta!" Maria raised her rifle. "Tell me where he is or you will die. I have seen the Cartels work at torturing a man, and I will use every one of their tricks against you."

"There's no need, Miss Cortes." Varlowe pointed to the statue. "Your children are currently in this very place, only over a hundred years ago. This enchanted statue of Kronos sent them back." He smiled at Minerva Underhill. "Miss Underhill, the Runtle children are there as well."

"What do you want with them?" Minerva asked. "I'll aid in your demise, sir, if you do not tell me immediately. What game are you playing? And how is your ancestor, Percival Varlowe, connected to this?"

"You met him, didn't you?" Varlowe asked. "I wish I had that glory. I read his papers, of course, and followed his instructions. He tried to perform the ritual, back in your time, Miss Underhill, which would unlock the next level of humanity, and make him into a god. He failed, of course, and the Varlowe Family Manor was destroyed in a tremendous explosion. I built our compound in its ruins, actually."

"And why did the ritual fail?" Maria asked. She realized the answer. "Because you needed two Amazons."

"Correct. It is a complex spell, as anything created by the Goddess of Witches must be. Time travel is needed, for both the subjects, and other particulars that you wouldn't understand. But you were chosen, Maria and Minerva. You should be honored. This has been in the works for decades."

Maria and Minerva exchanged a glance. "I'm certain a trap is waiting for us, Miss Cortes, back in my time," Minerva said. "And yet—"

"The kids are there. I won't let them get hurt." Maria held out her hand. "You can call me Maria."

"Thank you." Minerva clasped Maria's hand. Both women stepped up and touched the statue of Kronos. Maria felt the wind blow around her, rustling her dark hair and running down the small of her back. The colors around her seemed to run, like a painting drenched in rain. Everything disappeared, and Maria felt her stomach rise inside of her. She was going backwards in time, to the Victorian Era, and God only knew what danger awaited her and Minerva.

When her vision cleared, Maria felt the ground shift under her feet. Minerva grabbed her shoulder and steadied her. "Easy now," Minerva said. They were in some dark hallway in some Gilded Age house, the hall lit by flickering gaslight and lined with pictures of Greek gods and glaring forest deities. Maria steadied herself quickly, gripping tightly to the handle of her M4. She focused on putting one foot in front of the other. A set of double doors stood at the end of the hall. Darkness came in through the wide windows. It was night outside, and it must be the evening back in the present as well. Time travel was certainly strange.

"So we just walk in there?" Maria asked. "Seems kind of stupid."

"We're loaded and prepared," Minerva replied. "I think we'll be ready for anything."

They walked over to the door. Maria pushed it open with the muzzle of her rifle. The doors swung backwards, revealing a wide foyer, filled with strange idols, mystical stones, gleaming crystals and other magical devices that formed an altar big enough to cover nearly the entire massive room. Three great statues of Hecate, one as a maiden, one as a woman, and one as a crone, stood in the center of the room, surrounding by a pentagram of blazing blue flame.

The acolytes of the Blessed Brotherhood of Hecaterian Mysteries were scattered throughout the room, all dressed in black robes and fearsome horned masks of dark wood. They were armed, with gun belts equipped with silver-handled revolvers around their waists, and long rifles in their hands. Maria raised her rifle, but Minerva pointed to the center of the room that changed matters considerably.

Percival Varlowe stood in a dark suit, waistcoat and tie. He had the smooth bald head and round nose of his son, though he wore a downturned moustache, hiding any features of his mouth. The Goldfarb and Runtle children stood in front of him. Penny held onto her brother's shoulder, and Penelope had a protective arm wrapped around Phillip. It was strange to see the suit, vest and peaked cap of the Victorian boy, and the fine black dress of his sister, especially next to the nice, but casual clothes of the Goldfarbs. Maria felt a pain in her side, sharp as a gunshot, when she saw them.

"Let them go," Maria cried, raising her rifle. "Or I'll leave you and your scumbags dead all over your fancy house! You got me, mister? I'll blow your fricking head off if you harm a hair on their heads!"

Percival Varlowe smiled. "Well, hang me from a yew tree," he said. "You must be from the far future, just like these children. I can't believe it. Those papers I left behind for my successors met with approval and will now lead to my apotheosis." He looked down at Maria and Minerva. "And you, my dear ladies, are the Amazons, who have both crossed the tides of time, required for the spell."

Minerva aimed her crossbow at Varlowe, following Maria's machine gun. "I'm afraid your plan has a major flaw, sir – we Amazons may not acquiesce to being mere ingredients in your cursed recipe."

"I know there would be some consternation on your part." He grabbed Fielding's arm and pulled the boy away from his sister, while his cultists spun their rifles to cover the other children. He drew out a curved silver dagger. "Drop your weapons and raise your hands, or I'll slit the brat's throat!"

"M-Maria!" Fielding cried, staring up at her with wide blue eyes.

Without hesitation, Maria dropped her assault rifle. She scowled as she unslung her pistols and let the backpack, coat and even machete and its sheath fall to the ground. Minerva did the same. She looked at Maria. "I can't risk it," she said. "Bloody Hell, I just can't."

"Yeah," Maria agreed.

Percival smiled. "For all of your combative powers you are so drearily predictable." He pushed Fielding away and turned to his men. "Bind their hands and place them near the statues. Take the children outside. We'll deal with them later."

The masked cultists moved quickly. They grabbed Maria and Minerva's arms and bound them tightly with silk chords, then grabbed their shoulders and pushed them into the pentagram, in the shadow of the three statues. At gunpoint, they walked the four children out of the room. Fielding, Phillip, Penny and Penelope looked back at their nanny and governess, their eyes wide and nervous. Penny started to say something, but then she and the other kids were forced outside in the hall, the door slammed shut behind her.

Percival Varlowe walked around the pentagram, circling the two women like a predator. "Well, well," he said. "Here we are. Moments before I take my rightful place as a god. I have already torn the laws of time asunder thanks to this little beauty." He patted his pocket, and Maria saw a small statue of Kronos, doubtlessly the enchanted idol that sent Minerva forward in time, wrapped in a handkerchief and peeking out. "And all it will take is a couple, vital drops of your blood."

"You're a fool," Minerva replied. "Dealing with a goddess as capricious and murderous as Hecate will only end with your destruction. In fact, I've heard your great-grandson in the future tell of this night – do you know it ends with your death and an explosion tearing apart your manor?"

Varlowe shrugged. "Well, my dear, it's time to change history." He raised his arms and nodded to his cultists. "Begin the ritual."

They began to chant, and Maria looked at Minerva for some kind of comfort. The cultists spoke in some archaic Greek, singing and overlapping in bizarre, inhuman tones. The blue flames of the pentagram rose and fell, becoming a living curtain of shifting energy. Maria struggled at the ropes on her wrist, but they wouldn't budge. She cursed herself a thousand times. Running into enemy territory, in an enemy time, was the kind of idiocy that would have earned her a paramilitary bullet between the eyes back in the FARC. But that made sense, she guessed. She had gone to America, became soft, became a nanny. Maybe this was all that she deserved.

But as the cultists chanted and Varlowe turned to face them, raising his hands like a deranged choir director, Minerva let out a quick gasp. Maria followed her eyes and saw the door near the hallway opening up. Penelope stuck her head, and then looked back and nodded. Fielding and Phillip stepped inside, ducking behind a crate of arcane supplies. They hid there for a few terrible seconds, and then were joined by their sisters.

"Miss Maria!" Fielding whispered, leaning out of his hiding place. "We're not leaving you!" Penelope and Penny dashed out for the pile of weapons, each grabbing one of the blades, and then hurried back to their hiding place. Penelope's dress ruffled, and Varlowe turned in their direction.

"Get back!" Maria mouthed. "They'll see you!"

Maria and Minerva both risked a glance at Varlowe. He looked at crate and took a single step towards it, then turned away. He was focused on his godhood, as were all the cultists, and they had no time for anything else.

As soon as he looked away, Penelope and Penny stepped out. Penny held Maria's machete, struggling to hold the heavy blade in its black leather sheathe. Penelope had both of Minerva's Wakizashi daggers. Inch by inch, they stepped forward, and Maria could only hope with all her heart that they would be discovered.

They tossed the blades into the air, over the flickering flames. The machete fell with a clatter at Maria's feet, and Minerva's two daggers landed next to her. But the noise raised by the fallen weapons finally got Varlowe's attention. He turned around from the ritual and looked at the kids.

"Oh," he said, motioning for the chanting to stop as he produced his curved dagger. "Looks like the youngsters are still causing trouble, eh? I'll deal with them now." He walked across to them, grabbing Penny's arm and pulling her close to him. "Come on, darling," he said, pulling back his dagger. "Maybe a little blood will help the ritual."

Maria frantically reached down and fumbled to open the machete. She pulled it free, and pressed the blade to her bonds. Penny didn't cry, just stared angrily at her captor. "Penny!" Fielding cried, and ran to his sister. Varlowe swung the handle of his blade into the boy's forehead, knocking him on his back. Phillip wanted to help as well, but Penelope held him back, not wanting her brother to get hurt. Fielding lay on the ground, holding his bloody nose and staring at his sister.

"Enough distractions," Varlowe said, putting the dagger to Penny's throat. "Let's finish this."

"Hey! Pendejo!" Maria had finished cutting the rope. She leapt through the fire, holding her machete high. "Get your hands off the girl."

"Kill her!" Varlowe shouted. "Kill them both!"

The cultists aimed their rifles at Minerva and Maria. "Rescue your charge," Minerva said. "I'll deal with these bastards." Without another world, she leapt up onto the stairwell of the foyer, nearly flying through the air with both daggers pulled back. Minerva hacked her way through the cultists, her every blow slashing off one of their hands or skewering their stomachs.

Maria ran towards Varlowe. A cultist stepped in front of her, raising his rifle. "Bolt-action?" Maria asked, swinging her machete down. "Pathetic." She took off his head in a spray of gore before he had a chance to fire, and then leapt for Varlowe and Penny. She pushed him to the ground and got him away from Penny. "Run outside!" she told the kids. "Stay together! Do not watch!"

The kids hurried away while Varlowe slashed at Maria with his curved dagger. The knife sunk into her shoulder and blood dripped down Maria's bullet proof vest. But she didn't let it stop her. Rage was powering her now, and no wound could stop her. She hacked down with the machete, lopping off Varlowe's left hand, and then slamming her knee into his chest. He sank down and she cracked the handle of her machete against his head.

"Goddamn…greaser!" Varlowe whispered, dropping his dagger. He took a faltering step backwards, and then reached into his coat. Too fast, he drew a pearl-handled revolver. He leveled it at Maria. "Doesn't matter if you kill me. My successor….he'll fix things."

Before he could fire, a Wakizashi dagger flew through the air. It shot straight into Varlowe's forehead, sinking through his skull and reaching his brain. He sat down, staring forward as blood dribbled down his face. Maria looked back at Minerva. All of Varlowe's cultists were wounded and had tossed their rifles down, running for the nearest exist. Minerva had stopped them.

"Your successor," Maria repeated, pulling back her machete. "Is next." She swung down the blade, slashing deep into Varlowe's chest. She gutted him in an instant.

Minerva hurried down and stood next to her. "What now?" Minerva asked. She paused to pull out the statue of Kronos from Varlowe's pocket, careful to keep it wrapped in the handkerchief. "This should be very helpful in returning you and those Goldfarb children back to your proper time. But we simply can't leave all of these occult ritual items lying about for anyone to find them. They are far too dangerous."

Maria walked to her backpack. She pulled back the zipper, and withdrew a block of semtex and a detonator. "History says this manor was destroyed in an explosion," she said. "Why do anything else?"

They worked quickly, both women grabbing their weapons, and Maria planting the charges while Minerva took the children outside. When Maria finished, she followed Minerva out of the manor.

The Varlowe Manor was located in the deep woods of Upstate New York, and they walked down the stone pathway to the old house until they were far enough away from the blast zone. Maria looked down at Phillip and Fielding, Penelope and Penny. They were talking amiably, discussing the differences between their times.

"Can Fielding stay with us, Miss Minnie?" Phillip asked. "Everything he says is quite interesting."

"Phillip's really cool," Fielding agreed. "Do you know, they don't have video games, or TV, or movies, or anything."

"I'm not that cold," Phillip said. "And I have plenty of toys." He smiled at Fielding. "Maybe I could give you some? Can they stay, Miss Minnie?"

"They have to get back to their parents, darling. And so must you and your sister. However, I think providing them with a gift is possible," Minerva said. She turned to Maria. "In Central Park – go to the oak tree overlooking the main lake. I'll mark it with an 'M. ' My children shall leave some presents for yours."

Maria nodded. "And I got something for you." She reached into her backpack and withdrew the Desert Eagle, with several clips of ammunition. "It's semi-automatic. High caliber, and punches hard. Nothing in this age should be able to match it."

Minerva's eyes lit up. "Good heavens. A gun from the future. That is quite the gift." She looked back up at Maria. "I believe it's time to destroy Varlowe Manor."

"You can do the honors." Maria handed Minerva the detonator. Minerva pressed it. The explosion tore through the front of the manor. The windows and walls fell inwards as the flame forced through the structure, a cloud of smoke and black fire pouring up into the night sky. The manor crumpled, only a few charred walls, and balustrades remaining.

"Good to know that's sorted out," Minerva said. She held out the statue. "You'll want to be going back to your time, I suppose. It seems a frightful place to be, full of noise, and violence and terrible weapons. But as long as there are good people such as you, and your wonderful children in it, then I suppose it can't be that bad."

"It's good to meet you, Minerva," Maria replied. "I don't know if it's possible, but I hope we meet again."

"We live in a strange world. Time travel may well occur again," Minerva said, with a shrug.

They finished their goodbyes. "Come on, kids," Maria said. "Your parents must be waiting for you."

Penny and Fielding hurried to Maria's side. They reached out and touched the statue of Kronos together, and once more the colors ran and the ground wet under Maria's feet. Maria held onto Penny and Fielding's hands as they raced to their home, back to the future.

They emerged just outside of the Hecaterologist Compound. Fielding stepped forward and sank to his knees, but Penny helped him up. Maria gave him a Kleenex for his bleeding nose. "You're all right?" Maria asked. "Okay. Let's go and go home now. You must be very tired. I know I am."

"Thank you, Miss Maria," Fielding said. "For saving us and everything."

"Thanks," Penny said, with a little smile. They took Maria's hands, and walked out through the woods and towards the road.

But when they got there, they saw that T-Bone had company. A red minivan was parked behind T-Bone's convertible. It was Herman Goldfarb's car. Herman and Ellen Goldfarb stood there, both dressed in business suits and their faces creased with worry. Then they saw Maria and the kids, they ran forward, running towards their children.

"Mommy! Daddy!" Fielding and Penny embraced their parents, and Maria stepped back to watch. She looked up at T-Bone and motioned him to be quiet.

"Oh, thank god," Ellen Goldfarb said, holding Fielding close to her. "Oh, my little boy, thank god you're all right." She looked up at Maria. "But you, Maria, have a lot of explaining to do! What the hell happened in Central Park? And then a gunfight at your apartment? We traced your cell phone, and it led us out here, in the goddamn woods, with this idiot MTV reject? Where were you? What were you doing with my children?"

"Yo, I'm right here," T-Bone said. "Don't go insulting me or nothing."

"Honey…" Herman started, but Ellen shook her head.

"We don't know anything about her, Herman!" Ellen cried. "Maybe she's some gang-banger's girlfriend! You know, a lot of Puerto Ricans are into that, and maybe this was a kidnapping that went wrong or something!"

"She saved us!" Penny cried. "These Hecaterologists tried to attack us, and she saved us!"

"Hush, kiddo, you're too young to understand—" Ellen started, but Maria interrupted her.

"I'm Colombian," Maria said. Both Ellen and Herman stared at her. "And since I was twelve years old, I fought for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as a guerilla warrior. I left them and came up here, and got a job working for you. And I would never harm Fielding or Penny, or let them get hurt. I swear on my soul, that I wouldn't."

Maria heard a boot crunch in dry leaves. She turned around and saw Ixion Varlowe standing there, an assault rifle in his hands. "Kill my great-grandfather. Slaughter my men. Ruin my dreams of spiritual transcendence!" he said, raising the rifle. "I'll kill you and your brats, you spic slut! I'll kill you all!"

He raised the rifle, but Maria was quicker. She pulled both automatics from her coat and fired, striking Varlowe in the chest and throat. He tumbled back, gagging as the rifle fell from his hands. Maria fired, putting two straight in his skull. She looked back at the Goldfarbs. "I'm sorry," she said. "If you want, you can fire me. I'll get out of town too."

"You saved my babies," Ellen said, staring in awe at Maria as she held her son close. She smiled. She could see the affection in Maria's eyes, and there was no arguing with it. "No. You'll still work for us. We'll give you a raise even. Maria, I wouldn't have it any other way."

She stood up and let go of Fielding, and Herman let go of Penny. They ran over to Maria and she hugged both of them. T-Bone wiped a hand across his eye. "Ah, man," he said. "That's a real heart-warmer. I just got…I got something in my eye."

They returned to their cars and went back to New York.

Two weeks later, Maria took the kids to Central Park again. They found the Oak tree near the lake, with an 'M' carved in the trunk by a Wakizashi dagger. They dug around under the roots, and soon found a carefully sealed box. Maria opened it and Fielding and Penny stared in awe at what lay inside.

There were tin solders in shakos and red uniforms, a hand-stitched teddy bear and a rubber ball, and more other toys, all priceless and from another time, waiting for the Goldfarb children. There was a note, carefully written in Minerva's neat hand, and signed by her, Penelope and Phillip.

"To our future friends," Maria read, smiling at the amazement of Penny and Fielding. Somehow, even against the endlessness of history, it was good to know Maria wasn't alone.

-The End-

14