Being a god, even a minor one, used to be a lot different. You’d wake up every couple of centuries, make a statue burp your name, and bask in the terror and awe of your adoring worshippers. These days, not so much. Mortals have imprisoned lightning in thinky-boxes, ridden tubes of explosions into space—oh yeah, and they venerate cartoon mascots who actively implore them to have candy for breakfast. How can I compete with that? There was a time when people chanted my name while making burnt offerings. I’ve tried chanting my own name at barbecues, but it just isn’t the same. As for animal sacrifices… well, dyeing kittens green should count, right? (On an unrelated note, does anyone know how to get off animal shelters’ watchlists?).
I stared avidly out of the airplane window. Central America rolled past, the capital of Belize just coming into view on the horizon. Belmopan, I think. My companion, a gigantic one-eyed mortal, thoughtfully studied a handwritten checklist.
“I don’t need an airplane,” I said suddenly. “I could fly if I wanted to. I’m a god. It’s easy.”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t,” Iggy genially replied.
“It’s a matter of principle. A real god doesn’t land with bugs in her teeth. She lounges in comfort, demanding tribute in the form of tiny bottles of booze.”
“Yeah. Speaking of which, Sammy. Those things are crazy expensive, so—”
“SILENCE, MORTAL!” I cried. Iggy grinned and went back to perusing his checklist. I’ll count that as a victory. I brushed off my white linen robes, the chunky gold plates that crossed from shoulder to hip clanking dully. All right, so I don’t have an animal head like all the cool gods, but there’s something to be said for feet that don’t quite touch the ground and a subtle full-body glow. For one thing, I’m my own night-light. Top that, Ereshkigal!
“Anyway,” I continued, “I was thinking. We’ll need a pretty powerful weapon to take out Old Mother Okembe, right?”
Iggy shrugged. “We’ve got a year, year and a half before we have to start hunting her. Time enough to take paying missions, even ridiculous little nothing-jobs like this.” He glanced sidelong at me. “And we need the money, don’t we, since one of us keeps sensing something horrible and scary going down in Bermuda?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “I had a feeling.”
“Uh-huh. I never knew that fighting evil required so much lounging on the beach, not to mention fruity drinks infested with colorful little umbrellas.”
“That’s because you lack style, mortal.” I gazed haughtily at him. “Keep in mind, I’m incredibly powerful. Right now, I’m working on ways to let people have super-candy for breakfast. So maybe you shouldn’t question me so much.”
Iggy burst out laughing. “You were an Egyptian princess of brief and minor divinity, who spent five thousand years lying comatose in a cave, looking like she was wrapped in toilet paper.”
“MUMMIES ARE SCARY!!”
“Some gods are genuinely terrifying,” Iggy said philosophically. “Others have the incredible power of being punched in the face repeatedly, by me. If your biggest power is making me reassess what I use to wipe my butt, you’ve got more problems than I can solve.”
“Anyway,” I said doggedly, “we need a weapon. Me. I can be that weapon. All we need is to get me more worship, so I can be powerful.”
“Not this again,” Iggy groaned.
“I’ve got it all worked out!” I said heatedly. “What’s popular? Sports! Mortals herd obediently around their TVs, slack-jawed and drooling, watching steroidal dinks point wildly at the sky and insist that God made them win. But! If God picked the winner, it’s also inescapably true that God picked the loser!”
I thumped my chest proudly. “I… am going to be the god of losers!”
“No argument here,” Iggy said with a straight face. I tried to smite him. There was a flash, a pop, and a minuscule mushroom cloud rose from a mole on his left arm. His eyebrows rose.
“Just think!” I said. “Anyone who loses can blame Sammy, goddess of Those Annoying Putts That Glide Around The Rim But Don’t Quite Go In! Mortals love it when they can blame someone else for their own shortcomings! Plus, for every ball-kicky guy who’s good enough to do it for a living, there are millions of frustrated, failed, washed-up losers. Everyone will worship me! It’s just that easy!”
“Let me know how it goes,” Iggy said, smiling a little as he returned to his list.
“I have all these great ideas…” I complained, staring out the airplane window.
I was able to make out more details as we slowly descended. Some part of my mind had expected trackless jungle, but this part of Belize was mostly rolling farmland and the occasional highway. At least the trees were tropical and exciting. A flock of bright white birds crossed below us, little more than shining specks. I glanced at Iggy, unsure if he’d want to see them.
“You know,” he said quietly, “you could go back to Bermuda if you really wanted. We can afford it. We’ve got most of the money that Harrington left in his will.”
“No, see, mortals are fragile. They’re constantly bursting into flames and falling down wells and getting paper cuts and stuff. You need me.”
“You’re a god,” he teased me. “Why should you care what I need?”
I glared at Iggy. He was gigantic for a mortal, handsome in a rough-hewn way, and currently struggling to hide an uncouth smirk. The eyepatch wasn’t particularly stylish—how about some glittering sequins or flashing lights?—but this, again, falls under the heading of “Sammy’s awesome ideas that no one ever listens to.”
“Because I like you,” I mumbled under my breath.
“Sorry, what was that?” he said, grinning. “I didn’t quite hear you.”
“I’m surprised you can hear anything, listening through big blobs of variously discolored meat like that.”
“They’re called ears.”
“They’re called a fashion catastrophe, but we’ll deal with that later. How do mortals even work? It’s like someone punched hamburgers into the shape of a person, but then it actually woke up and decided it could dance. Flesh. Ugh. I don’t think so.”
“I like it,” Iggy said.
“We’re not here to talk about your shortcomings.” I gazed out the window, frowning a little. “Liking you… it’s a weakness. A failing on my part. You’ll squeak and go out in less time then it takes to sneeze… well, god-sneeze, which—believe me—if you saw it, you’d be impressed. You’ll amuse me until you break, and then I’ll skip merrily along to my next amusement. That’s how it should be. But mortals… they’re sticky. Did I ever tell you about the tomb-robber who stole my liver?”
“Not that I remember.”
I shook my head. “A couple thousand years ago, this jerk made off with a nice jar that happened to contain my liver. I was bound to my mortal remains at the time, but he’d taken just enough of me that I could haunt him real good. The problem was his daughter. She was goofy, funny, and kind of a dork. I liked her. Eventually, I manifested physically and pretended to be a distant cousin come to visit. Was it wrong of me, as a god, to like a pathetic, disgusting, inadequate meatpile of a mortal?”
Iggy raised an eyebrow. “Did you call her that to her face?”
“Only once, and only as a distraction, because we’d gone skinny-dipping, and I discovered I couldn’t break the surface. You know… walking on water? I think I covered for it pretty good.”
“So what happened?”
My smile faded. “Her father sold the jar to a rich jackass. I was bound to my mortal remains, so… I had to go with it. I never saw her again.”
“Yeah. And the rich jackass ate my liver to gain its power. Sure, I haunted him bad enough that he had to have an exorcism on his ass, but it just wasn’t worth it.”
Iggy nodded thoughtfully. “You’re one of the good ones. Most gods deserve to be hunted down and put away. Back in the safari days, on the hunt for the university, I saw what gods could do. Grabby, selfish, arrogant clowns, the lot of them. A proper god doesn’t notice or care how much suffering she causes, so long as she gets what she wants—right?”
I shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. “I never said I endorsed that obviously correct view.”
“It was fun, hunting ‘em down,” Iggy said nostalgically. “Load the right guns with enough weirdness and power, and you can impose smoking-hot, mach-three justice on just about anything. I suppose I made the world a better place. I dunno. Exploding some asshole god’s head at fifty paces has charms all its own.”
“Just as well you didn’t pull that on me. I would have poked you with one of those fruity little umbrellas.”
Iggy snorted. “I made a side trip, once, to track down a troublemaker of a goddess in New Zealand. She was a tiny thing, feathers sticking out all over the place, and her job—her very purpose in existence—was to protect the moa.”
I frowned. “Aren’t they extinct?”
“For thousands of years. She’d been slowly going crazy all that time. Can you imagine what it would be like, searching for your dead children… forever? She mostly ended up running around kicking people in the nuts for having a chicken dinner. It was the clearest case I ever saw of a god who had to be taken out.”
Iggy shrugged. “I guess I was careless. Last I heard, she’d escaped on an ostrich farm outside of Newark. Don’t worry. I made sure it was run by a jerk farmer who deserved to get kicked in the nuts every now and then.”
I grinned, taking his hand. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
It wasn’t long before we landed. The tourists and business travelers walked in a straggling line across the tarmac, but there was a small party waiting just for us. The woman at their head was short, rounded, and pleasantly crazy around the eyes. Her socks were purple, and hand-stitched with demented, misshapen stars and moons. I suddenly knew what I was getting for Christmas. The man next to her was almost as short, dour, and bore the dirt and stains of a confirmed outdoorsman who either didn’t realize how shabby he looked, or didn’t care.
“Welcome to Belize!” the woman said. “I’m Emilia Agala, Department of Energy, Under-Secretary of the Unfathomable. This is my brother, Marco, who’ll notarize the forms for all the artifacts you’re returning to us. And—” She gasped audibly, noticing me for the first time. “Are you a god?”
“I may be immaculate in my perfection,” I said modestly, “all-knowing, all-powerful, and she-who-transcends-utterly, but the answer is, yes, you can buy T-shirts with my face on them!”
“Really?” she said eagerly.
“Of course. Stores all up and down the Mississippi stock them, even if they don’t know it yet, after I snuck in with a marker and did them the favor of improving their boring, blank stock. You’re welcome.”
“Amazing,” Emilia said, looking at me reverently. “Twenty years I’ve read books, studied photographs… but to see a real, waking god!”
“It gets old real fast,” Iggy assured her.
“And I’m Marco Agala,” the dour little man admitted. “Department of Natural Resources. National Parks.”
“National Parks?” Iggy frowned. “What are you doing here?”
“This is off the clock.” Marco shrugged. “I’m in town for a hearing anyway, so why not take an extra job? Emilia does favors for me sometimes, whether I want her to or not. Gets me out of the house, she says.”
Iggy patted down his clothes; along with more pockets than seemed healthy or wise, they bore the stains of many strange trails in distant lands. He finally found what he was looking for—a bottle opener fashioned from a hunk of wood and a single troll’s tooth.
“Tell you what,” he said. “You know Belize better than I do. You find us the most remarkable and unique local booze, and it’ll be my treat.”
Marco’s dour face, for a moment, actually managed a smile. “Huh. You may not be a total waste of time,” he mused.
“So, what’s it like, being a god?” Emilia said, gazing wide-eyed at me. “Can I fire you out of a cannon?”
“I, uh… what?”
“Well, see, I’ve been watching internet videos where people drop watermelons off of buildings…”
“…and they burst like flowers blooming as they land on the heads of students from three stories up!” I said enthusiastically. “Um. Which I’ve seen in videos. Because I would never, ever do that in real life.”
“Right. They’re pretty, but they’re all the same after a while. But if I fired you at a pile of watermelons—”
“Holding sparklers in both hands?” I suggested.
Iggy cleared his throat. “Professor Agala—”
“Emilia, please, Mr. Eagleton.”
“Sammy the Great,” I helpfully said.
Iggy pointed back toward the plane. “Looks like they’re unloading the good stuff. Wanna get this repatriation underway?”
An involved dance of paperwork, officials, forms and permissions followed, which I mostly ignored, since it wasn’t about me. When it was finally over, I led the way to the terminal, a bunch of locals wheeling a long line of crates behind us. Waiting just inside the building was a pack of reporters bristling with cameras, lights and microphones.
“Oh, look, someone informed the local media,” I purred. Iggy slapped his hand to his forehead. I strode over to them, holding my hands up for attention. “What a surprise!” I said. “I’m so embarrassed. Yes, I’m selflessly giving hundreds and hundreds of gods to the good people of Belize, but I’m far too modest to take credit for it! Also, my name is Sammy. S-A-M-M-Y.”
Marco sidled up beside me. “My tiny mortal brain is too small to hold such big thoughts,” he said sardonically. “Can you make it easier for me? These gods you’re giving us, where did they come from in the first place?”
“They’re… well… from Belize,” I said, flustered. “But Professor Harrington (my adoptive father!), when he was alive, was the only man in the world who could handle truly inimical gods. For your own protection, he had to collect them and take them away to the United States.”
“Oh, boy!” Emilia said, her face lighting up. “You mean you’re giving us evil gods, ones that eat peoples’ faces and compel rampant jaywalking in all who behold them? Wow!”
“No, no! We’re only returning the harmless, the kind, the sleeping, the…” I stopped, cameras flashing madly all around me. I had a feeling like I’d stepped on a stuffed bunny, only to have it blow my face off. “Edmund Harrington was a great man,” I said stiffly.
“A great man with sticky hands,” Marco noted drolly. “He took the evil gods that would have hurt us, true. According to you, he also took the harmless, the kind, the sleeping—in other words, the beating heart of our history and culture. Me, I call him a hero beyond heroes, a triumphant blazing icon of truth and purity. How strange that you call him a sneaking thief who grabbed everything off the walls of our house because, after all, the people who actually lived there didn’t count.”
“EDMUND HARRINGTON WAS A HERO AND A SAINT!”
“Easy, easy,” Iggy said, resting his hand on my shoulder. “He had his good side. Two or three of ‘em, given the size of the man. But he also felt that no one but him understood gods… or deserved to have any.”
“I have complete confidence in Sammy,” Emilia said, waving merrily at the press. “If she says she’s here to bestow presents on us poor backward savages, I can’t wait to hear her reasoning!”
The cameras were still flashing madly. I swallowed hard. “I… apologize,” I said. “Taking all that stuff from you, it… it was wrong. It needs to be made right. And it will. Why don’t you tell them?”
Emilia happily stepped in front of the media. I sagged against Iggy, wiping the sweat from my brow. Well, not that I sweat, being a god, but I do ooze beads of gold-flecked incense at unpredictable moments.
“Professor Harrington was too cool to be a saint,” I muttered.
Iggy smiled. “No joke. Who’d want to be one of them? Bunch of decapitated bozos, if you ask me.”
“Right! If they ever made a stained-glass window of him, they’d have to show him riding a dinosaur and exploding!” I squeezed Iggy’s arm thankfully. I shouldn’t have gotten upset. Getting stirred up over mortal business makes about as much sense as marrying a mayfly. Blink and they’re gone. Blink again, and everyone who even remembers their name has vanished from the world. My smile slipped. Every mortal is swiftly forgotten. Even my father.
“I’ll carry his name into the next millennium,” I murmured.
Emilia finally finished her talk, and the four of us started toward the exit. I say “started”, because we were immediately intercepted by a gaggle of airport-security types who looked anything but amused.
“If you’d come with us, sir?”
“What’s the matter?” Emilia asked. “I documented every incoming god myself.”
“It isn’t the gods. It’s his guns.”
“Oh!” She shot a startled look at Iggy. “You came armed, just to hand over a bunch of rocks?”
“You don’t have much real-life experience, do you?” Iggy said, amused. “Always assume the universe is out to get you. Going to the toilet without a gun is the surest way to make sure you find Cthulhu splashing around down there.”
“In which case, the smart thing would be to visit an international food festival on the hottest day of the year,” I said with gusto. “Go—without a gun!—to the nastiest port-a-potty you can find. Show that poor horror-god terrors beyond his capacity to imagine.”
Iggy groaned, looking at the security types that surrounded us. “Why do I have a feeling this ain’t gonna be fun?”
“You could turn around and leave,” Emilia suggested. “Customs wouldn’t have to paw through your stuff if you just left the country, right? The repatriated gods are in our custody. You’ve done your job.”
“Naw,” Iggy said easily. “I’ll do the square thing. Check ‘em off my list one by one, nudge ‘em with wands to see they don’t try and poke my soul out. The usual.”
Emilia and Marco waited with the crates while Iggy and I followed airport security to a back room. Iggy’s guns were spread out over three tables, with a few less identifiable weapons lurking in the corners of the room. I was amused to see that, in addition to airport security, there were also two hooded monks waiting for us, a crystal-bedecked spiritualist, and several military types with fully automatic rifles. They must have been there for me, right? I mean, having an unlicensed god enter your country must be pretty scary.
“Rawr!” I said, making clawing gestures at one of the soldiers. He shot me a puzzled glance.
A no-nonsense military type strode over to us, slapping her hands down on one of the tables. “We could allow normal things into our country, things we understand, with the right forms,” she said. “Hunting rifles, say. But this? This is not normal.” She tapped a rifle which seemed to be eating itself, the tarnished metal molded into screaming, melting faces.
“Sure it is,” Iggy said bluffly. “I hunt deer with that all the time. And sometimes, sheerly by accident, I miss and hit a steaming abortion of slime and teeth that’s trying to suck the dreams out of a weeping widow. That there’s the H-5 Excommunicator,” he said with gusto. “See the two barrels? Fires two half-bullets, one infused with the relics of saints, and the other with the saliva of infidels and apostates. Plenty of fun when they meet. Well, if you like lots and lots of fire.”
“The safety of our citizens is not a joke,” she said stiffly.
“I’ll say!” I said eagerly. “What are you going to do to me? Strap a bible to my head? Embed my hands up to the wrist in giant corks? Make me pinky-swear I won’t turn anyone into a pillar of salt?”
She glanced at me. “I’ve read the reports. You can go.”
“Oh, come on! I’m super dangerous! I’m pretty sure I poked a girl’s soul out that one time when I sneezed.”
“You can go.”
“I’m dangerous!” I insisted. “Ask anyone who was on the road while Iggy was teaching me to drive!”
“I can vouch for that,” Iggy said ruefully.
The officer sighed, finally looking at me full on. “Fine. Prove it. Smite me.”
I reddened. Truth be told, I was still tired from zapping Iggy on the plane. Until I gained more worshippers and more power, I was going to have to husband my strength in a distinctly un-god-like display of restraint. “I don’t perform on command,” I said haughtily.
She turned back to Iggy, ignoring me completely. “What about this one?” she asked, tapping an overly elaborate pistol.
“Aw, that little thing? I mean, that’s hardly even a gun. The fairystopper, it’s more for warnings.”
I shifted from foot to foot as they went over lumpy crystal wands laden with malignant tumors, long wicked knives bearing suspicious and disturbing stains, and guns that neither made sense nor seemed to exist entirely in our world.
“I am, too, powerful,” I muttered. “I’m twice as dangerous as the H-5 Excommunicator.”
Iggy glanced back at me. “I know you are.”
“You do? Really?”
“Sure. The safety’s on. It’s not dangerous at all. Whereas you, in theory, could trip over a walnut, flail for balance, and poke my other eye out.”
I sighed. “Fine. What the hell. I’ll take it.”
For a while, it didn’t look good for us. The turning point came when our interlocutors realized that, as weird and complicated as Iggy’s guns were, they were actually pretty bad for shooting mortals—a lot worse than normal hunting rifles, in fact. With that, and the papers already signed by under-secretary Agala, we were cleared to leave with gratifying speed.
Once everything was loaded, we followed a small convoy of trucks through Belmopan (Iggy drove, to my eternal disappointment). I stuck my head out the window, waiting for amazing and exotic animals to smack me in the face. I was disappointed. The buildings might be more colorful, the streets narrower than I was used to, but it wasn’t all that different from cities anywhere in the world. I turned to say something to Iggy… and spotted a crazy dark-blue bird dart over the road, its eyes ringed with white like tiny goggles that gave it a look of perpetual bewilderment.
“LOOK!” I bellowed.
“WHAT?!” Iggy cried, swerving and almost hitting a pedestrian.
“Aw, you missed it. Nice driving, by the way. I could do better than that.”
His grip tightened until the steering wheel creaked, but he said nothing.
We finally pulled up in front of the Department of Occult Sciences, a building that the government shared with the University of Belize. It was four stories, square, and utterly unremarkable… except for the hundreds of thousands of day-of-the-dead figurines that had been cemented to the walls. I raised my eyebrows at that unbroken expanse of leering skeletons, cheerful corpses, and gesticulating heroes. Between them, an equal number of fat candles ran with wax that gave the whole building a melting, dripping, colorful facade.
“I like it!” I said heartily.
“Agreed,” Iggy said simply, moving his phone in a slow arc and taking half a dozen pictures. “Shall we?”
Emilia and Marco were waiting in front of the building. A third mortal had joined them, wearing a business suit and exuding confidence and authority. I immediately marked him as the evil developer I’d have to defeat in the third act by putting on a show with my scrappy underdog dance crew. You can’t fool me—I’ve seen movies about the eternal struggle between slobs and snobs, and I know which one I am.
“Iggy, Sammy,” Emilia said, “I’d like you to meet my friend Ozan Huy who… well… keeps getting referred to me over silly little misunderstandings.”
“A pleasure,” Ozan said, in a way that wasn’t sinister at all. Which, come to think of it, may have been proof that he was hiding something.
“This,” I said, staring at Ozan and pointing to my eye, which was my way of saying, ‘I’m watching you’. He politely handed me a handkerchief.
“Whatever you got picked up for this time, can it wait?” Emilia asked. “I’m kind in the middle of something.”
“Be grateful,” Marco told Ozan. “It’s not too late for you to escape. Me? I agreed to notarize some forms, and the next thing I knew, my sister was handing me watermelons and shooting gods at me from cannons.”
Ozan shot a startled look at the dour little man. “Well… I suppose it could wait. It’s about those will-o’-the-wisps I bottled up in flashlights. The warning label says they’ll try to lead you astray, but some idiot went and got her head stuck in a magic fish anyway.”
Emilia stared at him for three long beats. “I think we’d better go up to my office.”
“Hold on.” Iggy gestured at the line of students carting crated-up gods to a first-floor loading bay, where an elevator platform chugged and groaned and lowered them to the basement. “Until the handover is official, wherever they go, I go.”
“They’ve waited this long. They can wait another few minutes.” Without waiting for a response, Emilia started up the stairs to the second floor. Iggy hesitated, then shrugged and followed her.
Emilia’s office was on the fourth floor, and it was one of the strangest and most charming places I’d ever seen. There weren’t any working lights, but then, she didn’t really need them. Moss was everywhere, growing prodigiously even in the dark, furring walls and floor and furniture alike. Stacks of wooden pallets rose like alien mushroom pillars, crammed with every bit of weirdness and power that Emilia had ever collected. Many were broken. Some were empty, and it wasn’t hard to see where their inhabitants had gone. Tiny inhuman faces peered at us from gaps in the moss. Gold-plated fireflies flashed lazily from hidden crannies. For one breathtaking moment, hundreds of luminous lizards poured across the walls in a flashing, strobing horde so afflicted with stripes, it dazzled the eyes and made it impossible to pick out any one of them. Squat stone heads sat huddled on her desk, glaring at us with wildly exaggerated expressions of bloodlust and hate.
“What’s with all the howling nasties?” I said.
“Are they?” Emilia smiled, sitting in a moss-furred chair. Glowing green spores puffed into the air, illuminating its every swirl and eddy. “You’re a god, so I suppose you know everything. But then, you may be testing me by telling me lies and seeing if I have enough faith in the brains you gave me to call you on your bullshit.”
“Yeah,” I said, as Iggy snorted with laughter, “that.”
“In my experience, people are people. We’re not smarter or better or different from the Mayans just because we have access to frozen pizza. Maybe these statues were carved in earnest. Or.” She smiled brightly. “Maybe the Mayans were just like us. Maybe some of them had a very peculiar, very morbid sense of humor.”
I took a closer look at the leering statues. I had a momentary feeling that they were laughing at me, but I shook it off. Take it from someone who knows; arguing with rocks never helped anyone.
“So, Ozan, were you actually arrested this time, or was it just a warning?” Emilia asked, using a sodding knife to cut through moss and get at the papers on her desk. Ozan said something, I guess, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Glowing spores poured from the wounded moss, and Emilia’s office was suddenly alive with moving, swirling light. I could actually see the air, an intricate tapestry of interlocking eddies that never stopped changing. I spun around and around in the glowing air, entranced by the swirling vortexes that spun off my arms, sending bright shock-wave ripples bouncing and refracting from every corner of the room. Iggy spun his hand in languid circles, equally bemused. For a moment, I knew what it was like to live inside a stained-glass window.
“C’mon, live a little!” I told Marco, who was sitting in a corner with his arms crossed.
“What’s the point? Pretty lights, helping no one, meaning nothing. The world isn’t like this. Not for me.”
“If you flapped your damn hand a little, it would be.”
“Now, now,” Iggy said. “If he doesn’t feel like it…”
“But I’m a god!” I said. “I’m great at fixing people! Tell me what’s wrong with you and I’ll solve it. Bang! Done.”
Marco just shook his head, so I squinted one eye real small and popped the other real big, which I’ve been assured (by Iggy) is an awe-inspiring look that strikes fear into the hearts of mortals. Marco recoiled.
“Can gods have heart attacks?” he asked nervously. “Are you all right? Emilia would never forgive me if I killed off her first real, actual god.”
“All right, all right!” he said, completely unnerved. I shot a triumphant look at Iggy, who was holding back laughter for some reason. Marco sat for a time, looking ill at ease. I made another face at him. He quailed.
“Tell me,” I insisted.
“It’s my job in the National Parks,” Marco finally said. “Too often, I don’t get to do what I actually love. It can be… difficult. See, poachers know they can sell exotic wildlife, and don’t care how much of it dies on the way to market. Sometimes I find the crates. Sometimes, when I open them, there’s nothing left alive at all.”
“Um,” I said.
“Then there’s trees being stripped for illegal lumber, or pristine forest razed to grow marijuana, or Mayan temples—the sole remaining link to our history—stripped to provide trinkets for tourists. Sure, it would be nice to have fun, and sing, and dance all day, but not everyone can live with their head in the clouds. Someone has to take what life dishes out, no matter how hard it hurts.”
Iggy let out a low whistle, sending a tiny tornado-like vortex through the glowing motes in the air.
“Bullshit,” I said pragmatically. “You’re here in this room the same amount of time whether you enjoy yourself or not. Your suffering doesn’t win the forest any favors, and having fun wouldn’t do it any harm.”
“There’s something to that,” Iggy admitted. “Me, I’ll never run out of problems so long as people still suffer under the yoke of superstition. Hunting down bitch-nasty gods… it can hurt. It can be a real slog. But that just makes it twice as important to chug beer two-fisted when you get back to civilization. Enjoy what you’ve got!”
“I should have known you wouldn’t understand,” Marco said, turning away from us.
Emilia and Ozan were still deep in conversation, which I found intensely boring. Fidgeting, I got up and walked around Emilia’s office. Along the wall was something that might have been a bookshelf, once, if the squared-off lumps under the moss were any indication. I used the sodding knife to cut through so I could take a look, but the books had fused into so many starchy lumps. So much for that. I resumed pacing, kicking up a minor lightstorm from the moss-covered floor as I snapped my fingers in an excess of nervous energy. Iggy stared at me.
I forced myself to stop. Why was I so fidgety? Somewhere deep down, I realized, I felt distinctly ill at ease. Believe me, that’s a big deal for a god. Gods don’t get sick. We don’t get indigestion. We most certainly don’t barf enthusiastically all over the place, even if certain charmingly repulsive cartoons make it look like a fun part of the mortal experience that the urbane goddess really should try, and which Iggy will not shut up about, even though I’ve repeatedly assured him he hallucinated the incident in question. I turned a slow circle, trying to pinpoint the source of my unease. I stiffened. Yes. Faintly, throbbing at the edge of consciousness, was a miasma of foulness and power that I hadn’t felt in almost a year. I turned. I looked Iggy right in the eye.
“She’s here,” I said.
Iggy jumped up, the fairystopper appearing as if by magic in his hand. “Wait!” Emilia cried, but we were already sprinting out into the hall, where a mix of students and government types stared in shock at the gun in Iggy’s hand.
“Don’t mind us!” I shouted. “It’s just routine maintenance. Gods love being shot. Wheee!”
“Can we get on with it?” Iggy muttered.
I hastily led him to the nearest stairwell. Outside an open window, I spotted an incredibly bright, red little bird. It looked friendly, not like the sarcastic assholes I usually get as talking animal sidekicks.
“I like this place,” I decided.
I took the stairs two at a tine, finally emerging into a huge basement warehouse that was empty save for the crates we’d brought with us. They looked woefully small, crammed into just one corner of that wide, empty space.
“Well?” Iggy said, his good eye restlessly scanning the blank concrete walls.
“It’s definitely Old Mother Okembe. I can feel her. She’s close.”
“She’s got to be after something,” he muttered. “Open the crates. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
I found a crowbar and went to town on the crates while Iggy dropped into a crouch, keeping watch. The first one was crammed with all kinds of dormant deities; statues and masks, carvings and stelae, jaguar-stones and hummingbird-glyphs. I could feel the power in them, a coursing force of will that tugged at my very being, forcing it to conform to their desires. Gods can be such jerks sometimes. The next crate was better. There was something smirking and bemused about the spirits residing within the stone heads, like the “fun” grandpa who gets a little too excited about running after kids with a chainsaw on Halloween.
“These are my kind of people,” I decided. “Beyond my reach, though. Weird. They’re kind of dormant and not-dormant at the same time…”
“Can we get on with it?”
“Oh! Right.” The next crate contained featureless stone spheres, more friezes and stelae, assorted sculptures and rough-hewn carvings. I moved on to the next one. The wood splintered and broke away, and I found myself staring at a huge stone bier that seemed oddly dark—because, I realized, it was hungrily devouring everything it could reach… even light.
Something in my voice made him turn. He scowled fiercely.
“What the hell’s that doing here? Someone made a mistake. It’s Aztec.”
“Is it,” I said knowingly. “Is it.” Iggy waited. I reddened slightly. “The thing about omniscience,” I said, “is that lesser minds like your own can get a real inferiority complex, being exposed to it. That’s why I so often pretend not to know things. For your sake.”
“Now, can you—without being excessively smug—tell me what’s going on?”
Iggy opened his mouth. I held up my hand.
“That’s Aztec,” he repeated, pointing to the crate. “Belize was part of the Mayan empire. It shouldn’t be here.”
“Ah.” I glanced at the imposing stone frieze. “Think the locals will notice?”
“Given that it’s Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death? Yeah, I think they might.”
“Goddess of death,” I snorted. “Like you mortals even need one. You break so easy, sometime I wonder if there’s anything that doesn’t kill you. Depending on how much oxygen is around, you either turn blue or burst into flames. Make up your mind!”
He looked at me strangely. “Burst into flames?”
“Don’t blame me! Those students signed up for the experiment of their own free will! How could I know I didn’t actually have the authority to give them a psych credit? Plus, why are college students so flammable these days? I blame explicit song lyrics.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, modern music is pretty terrible. What, no one can be bothered to play jazz sistrum or knock out a dynamite solo on the arghul? Gimme a break!”
Shaking his head, Iggy took out his phone. In moments, he’d raised the museum back in the States, and was yapping to Walter about the Aztec god that had mistakenly been shipped here. Walter claimed it wasn’t his fault, and the two went off on incredibly boring tangents concerning permissions and paperwork. I checked my pockets to see if I’d maybe forgotten a mint in there. Then, given that I’m God, I checked again. Sadly, mints failed to miraculously manifest in my pockets. I mean, I did find a small dead fish, but come on. What kind of miracle is that?
“Someone put Mictecacihuatl on the list!” Iggy said, frustrated. “Fine. Fine! No, I’ll just… what?” He glanced at me. “Walter says you’ll want to hear this.”
I took the phone, a little puzzled as I put it to my ear. “Hello?”
“One moment,” Walter said. There was a rustling as someone else came on the line.
“ME GROCK, GOD OF THUNDER!” bellowed a resounding voice, following by a truly impressive series of booms.
“GROCK!” I cried gladly. “You’re back!”
“YES! Grock’s mighty, meaty, sweaty back will crush all who oppose his friend Sammy! But explain to Grock,” he said, a puzzled note creeping into his voice. “The Slim Black Box of Tormented Souls, or ‘phone’, contains many voices. Grock shouts his desires, and summons pizza-slave to fulfill them. But why is Sammy’s voice in Box? Is Sammy trapped inside giant pizza?”
“All right, NOW I know what I’m getting for Christmas,” I muttered. “Grock, honey, I’m fine.”
“Then who trapped Sammy? Was it birds?! GROCK WILL DESTROY ALL BIRDS!!”
“It wasn’t birds! It was… uhh… evil wizards. They shrank me and sealed me inside Walter’s phone. The only way I can escape—”
Grock bellowed in inarticulate rage, which was followed by banging and scraping and Walter’s outraged yelps.
“GROCK WILL RESCUE HIS FRIEND SAMMY! RELEASE HER! RELEASE HER NOW, OR CONTEND WITH THE MIGHTY BOWELS OF GROCK!!!”
“Grock, no! I was kidding! Don’t eat the phone! DON’T EAT THE—” There was a loud crunching sound, and then the line went dead. “Walter hung up for some reason,” I said, handing it back to Iggy.
Rolling his eyes, he put the phone away. Just then, Emilia arrived, out of breath and carrying several wicked-looking wands she must have retrieved from storage.
“Ah, good,” Iggy said, reaching for them. “I could really use some—”
Emilia took a step back. “These belong to the people of Belize,” she said uncertainly.
“And if you had any experience beyond books and theory, I’d be all for letting you use them,” Iggy patiently explained, “but we’re up against a real god that really wants to eat your face, and—”
“Iggy,” I said. I put my hand on his arm. Together, we turned.
The god—the thing—stood some thirty feet behind us and ten feet up in the air. Not hovering, exactly. Just standing there as if gravity were a mere annoyance, well beneath its notice. It wore a black cloak that flared like a ghost ship’s tattered sails, a cloak made of stitched and abraded skin. Strangest of all, the thing had no head. It was dormant, I realized, a mere vehicle to transport the smaller god that rode where its head should be.
“Old Mother Okembe,” I said through clenched teeth. Iggy drew the fairystopper and fired off a shot, which slowed dramatically before falling to the ground with a clank. Old Mother Okembe favored us with a loathsome smile. She was little more than a shrunken head, but there was something about her glistening black eyes that seemed to dominate the room, her cruelty and power looming over me like the moon outweighs the moths who chase her.
“So, little one,” she said, her voice as strong and rich as the Grandmother Of All Grandmothers, “are you tired of your mortal plaything yet? That one—” She glanced contemptuously at Iggy. “—is already broken. Or hasn’t he told you about the cancer?”
“She’s lying,” Iggy said flatly.
“Do you imagine it matters?” Old Mother Okembe said, her black eyes bulging. “Cancer today, old age tomorrow. What are mortals but shattered toys, fun for a moment, but yielding grief and regrets forever? Already your father is gone. Already you pay an eternity of mourning for a moment’s diversion.”
“You’re wrong,” I said simply. “All I have to do is close my eyes and remember. Yes, there’s grief, but his warmth and his love will be with me forever.”
“Forever!” she said scornfully, seeming to loom over me. “You can’t even begin to imagine, child. When the last mountain falls and the oceans turn to dust, I will still be here. And I will be young. Look at the tiny, scurrying mortals who think they can stop me. It would be amusing, if they weren’t too insignificant to deserve my notice. But you… you could be very slightly useful to me. I would reward you, yes, and more than you deserve, at that. Have I mentioned that I’m good at deals?”
“Iggy,” I said evenly, “blow her damn head off.”
“With pleasure!” he said, sighting along the fairystopper.
“Stop!” Emilia cried, peering out from behind her crate. “You can’t fight her! The god she’s riding, he’s a god of war! To fight him is to worship him!”
Iggy looked at her, taken aback. “What the hell am I supposed to do, defeat her with the power of hugs?”
“Maybe if I eat a rainbow of different cakes and power-barf all over her?” I asked hopefully.
“C’mon, I’ve got to take a shot,” Iggy pleaded. “Asshole gods gassing on about how great they are, it makes my trigger finger itchy.”
“I’ve got an exercise that might help with that,” I said. Using both hands, I shot double-barreled obscene gestures at Old Mother Okembe. Smirking, Iggy followed suit.
Okembe scowled at us. “You’ll be wanting a lesson, then… and, generous as I am, this one’s free. A passive little god like you, who merely asks for worship, will never have it. Mortals can ignore words—but they can’t ignore pain. The more they suffer, the more they believe, the very moment of their extinction most of all. Observe.”
The god she was riding whirled around, his cloak flaring, and they disappeared. At the same time, a rumbling rasp of rock on rock erupted behind us. A crate exploded, and a rough-hewn stone man rose to his full ten-foot height, every bit of his body covered with petroglyphs like weird and elaborate tattoos.
“Don’t damage it!” Emilia cried from her hiding place. “Those carvings are historically significant!”
Iggy grimaced. “Oh, for the love of—”
“We can do it!” I said. “Remember the Malachite Monkey of Minsk?”
I sprinted straight toward the golem. Foolhardy? Not for a god. Miracles may elude me, but I’m still indestructible. The creature’s stone fist got REALLY big REALLY fast, and I was suddenly flying in the other direction, flipping end-over-end the whole way. It was fun. I hit the wall, got to my feet, and ran right back into the fray. After a year together, Iggy and I worked like a well-oiled machine (a phrase which confuses me, since Iggy didn’t seem to appreciate it the last time I oiled his computer for him). I darted in and out, distracting the thing, drawing its attention and its blows while Iggy took various colored chalks from his Emergency Kit and drew weird twisting symbols around it. When Iggy took off his shirt, I sprinted around and around the golem, getting it to turn in place. Iggy darted forward, stuffing his shirt into the thing’s joints and fouling its legs. It staggered, arms wheeling, and fell with a resounding crash. Iggy threw himself on top of the golem, holding it down while I touched the pattern he’d drawn, lending it a pulse of godly power. Light flared, flames shot up, and the golem lay still, stunned. Flushed with success, I commanded my godly Talent to reveal itself at last (I mean, I had to have one, didn’t I? All the cool gods have lightning or volcanoes or plush dinosaur bath puppets). I strained with all my might, willing something—anything—to happen. The fish in my pocket came to life, flopped once, and promptly asphyxiated. Okay, so maybe not that. Emilia cautiously emerged from her hiding place.
“Is it over?”
“Not hardly,” Iggy said. “We need to break Old Mother Okembe’s control over ol’ hematite-head, here. Expose him to something different, maybe. Like when I used those genetically-engineered cabbage-flavored goats to train all those chupacabras into vegans.”
“He’s local,” Emilia pointed out. “Maybe if I told him one of his own stories, he’d remember how he’s supposed to be.”
“Go for it.”
I stumbled, feeling faint. I hadn’t used that much power, had I? I did my best to walk it off, despite the fact that I felt a little dazed. I passed various dormant gods, finally reaching the great slab that had contained Mickey-whatsis, the Aztec goddess of death. It was broken wide open—and the person-shaped hole inside was completely empty.
“Iggy,” I said quietly.
“What?” he said, hurrying over.
“She tricked us. Old Mother Okembe. The golem was just a distraction. We were so busy chasing the penny she tossed past our ear, we didn’t even notice her walking off with the diamonds. This is what she really wanted.”
He stood beside me, pensively sucking his lip. Behind us, Emilia’s voice rose and fell in a storytelling lilt. I don’t think she’d noticed yet.
“We promised we wouldn’t hunt Old Mother Okembe for another year,” Iggy said, “and we won’t… but we didn’t make any such promise for Mictecacihuatl. We’re the ones that brought her here. We’re the ones that lost track of her. We’d damn well better be the ones that bring her back in.”
“I dispute that. This is a marketing issue. One, we’ve just given our hosts a free bonus god, above and beyond our promises! Two, she’s the goddess of death, right? If we advertise Belize as a great place to send people you hate, I bet tourism will shoot up! Three, we’ve done our job. It’s finished. No one’s paying us any more.”
Iggy grinned. “Fine. Go back to Bermuda. I’m just a fragile mortal, apt to explosively auto-decapitate every time I get a splinter. I’m sure chasing the physical incarnation of Death won’t hurt me any.”
My shoulders slumped. “Damn it, Iggy.”
“Face it. I need you. And you need m—”
“—a mortal plaything who occasionally amuses me,” I corrected him. I looked into his good eye, my expression softening. “I really do, don’t I?” I said wonderingly. I turned to Emilia: “DO YOU HAVE CANDY IN BELIZE?”
“Of course,” she said, confused.
I glanced at Iggy. “I’m in.”
“Stupid girl,” I corrected him.
I crossed over to the door, or started to. About halfway there, gravity decided to be a real bitch. The warehouse spiralled drunkenly around me and the floor swung up to smack me in the face.
“She fell over,” Emilia said uncertainly.
“Oh sure, that’s the lazy way of saying that the entire earth, jealous of my beauty, leapt up and attacked me,” I tried to say, but it came out “mumble mumble MUMBLE mumble.”
“I was afraid this might happen,” Iggy sighed, bending over me. “Saw something similar that time in Yellowstone. The spirits of the angry dead are bad enough, but when they infect prairie dogs—well, you whack one down, eight more pop up. It stops being funny once you run out of ammo.”
“What did you do?” Emilia said, fascinated.
“What we had to,” Iggy said philosophically. “We persuaded a wise old spirit coyote to help us. I infested him with fleas, which started to glow and speak in tongues as they fed on his godly juices. Sammy read them hippy-dippy self-help books until they were babbling bullshit in a thousand chiming voices. Then she used her power to transfer the fleas to the prairie dogs. Poor suckers didn’t stand a chance. Inside a week, every one of the undead spirits had gone to its rest, gratefully accepting death as its only escape. The prairie dogs went back to being prairie dogs. The spirit coyote, well, he lost too much of himself. He went dormant. Damned shame, but at least Yellowstone will have a fine statue in their visitor center for the next eight thousand years.”
“Sammy is dormant?” Emilia asked, sounding worried as she crouched next to me. “What should we do? Should we worship her? Come on, everyone! Clap your hands and let’s believe!”
“She’s not a fairy,” Iggy patiently explained, “and she’s not dormant, not yet. This happened in Yellowstone, too, after she overexerted herself. Let me try something.” He took a knee, leaning down to whisper in my ear: “About time! Wait until I tell everyone what a passive, good little girl you’ve become!”
“MmmRARRG!” I protested, batting at him.
“She’ll be okay,” he said quietly. “She will. We just have to draw her back into the world. Does any place around here have crazy-expensive desserts?” He looked at me with calculating eyes. “I’ve got a university credit card, and since this is an emergency… I’m buying.”
With a universe-spanning effort, I sat up, the warehouse spinning around me. “You can’t manipulate me that easily,” I gasped. “Fortunately, as a god, I manipulated you into thinking you could manipulate me by offering me exactly what I wanted all along. Wow, I’m good!”
“She’s back,” Iggy said ruefully. He picked me up and slung me over his shoulder, ignoring my feeble complaints. After texting her brother to let him know where we were going, Emilia followed, genuflecting and chanting my name. Needless to say, I approved. I was liking her better and better. Soon we were out on the street, threading our way through the bustling city.
We found a cafe down a winding side street. Iggy settled me into a chair, then sat next to me and took my hand. Marco soon joined us, with Ozan following right behind. Emilia, wide-eyed, told them about our battle with Old Mother Okembe while a waitress brought out menus. My eyes moved down the dessert list in a desultory way. They stopped. I licked my lips.
“Papaya cheesecake,” I said firmly.
“Did I mention that she’s back?” Iggy said ruefully.
“Banana-chocolate pie. Sweet potato pudding. Belizean rum truffles.”
“Pick one,” he suggested.
I looked at Iggy, my eyes wide and searching. “You want me to get better, don’t you?”
“I ask that question every day,” he said ruefully. “Fine. Bring it all,” he told the waitress, who looked quietly amused as she took down our order. “Don’t expect to win this big every day.”
“I’ll win big any time I want! I’m God, and I can prove it!”
“Not this again,” Iggy grumbled.
“No, listen. I like people to be happy. People like to have money. Therefore, logically, praying to me is the exact same thing as saving and investing! I’ll sell indulgences in the form of scratch-off tickets… match three Sammys and win!”
“Don’t change the subject! As soon as my prophets, the TV commercial actors, spread the word that I want everyone to be rich, I’ll be swimming in prayers! I’m God!”
“Point,” Iggy said, lifting his forefinger. “You’re god. Therefore, you’re omniscient and omnipotent. Therefore, you don’t want me to be rich, or I would be. The fact that I’m poor proves that you’re a skinflint bitch who likes laughing at me and stealing my stuff.”
“Everything makes sense, now!” Marco said wonderingly. Emilia, who was still quietly chanting my name, stifled a giggle. Ozan, on the phone to Europe, rolled his eyes and moved farther away.
“No, see, I want you to have everything you ask for, after you ask for it, as a reward for your faith,” I hazarded.
“So you inflicted poverty on innocent children, torturing them for years and years until they were old enough to beg for a relief that never came?” Iggy said contemptuously. “If you wanted me to be rich, I’d be rich. From the evidence, saying you want me to be rich is precisely as accurate as saying you want a shark on my head.”
“That could be arranged,” I said ominously.
Emilia finally stopped chanting my name to take a sip of water. “This is all so new to me. I knew gods could be active, and I knew they could be dormant. I didn’t realize there was anything in-between.”
“I just got a little tired, is all,” I said uncomfortably.
“You need to get used to the way things are now.” Iggy turned to Emilia. “She used to have a lot more juice. Her face and name were on a bunch of romance novels, and she got all kinds of literary pseudo-worship.”
“Literary pseudo-worship?” Ozan said guardedly. “Is that what it sounds like?”
“Yup. Thousands of people all reading the same book, suspending disbelief, channeling their thoughts into the same place. Almost as good as regular old faith. Those books came out a while ago, though, and I guess her readers moved on. Worshippers are hard to come by these days.”
Ozan sucked his lip. “So… does literary pseudo-worship only apply to books? Or could you get it from, say, kids’ cartoons?”
Iggy raised an eyebrow. “Cartoons? As in, preaching to millions of undiscriminating kids who’ll believe anything? Why do you ask?”
Ozan managed a sickly smile. “The European Union has been funding a project, run by me, to teach our kids about their own culture. You know, by having aliens fight giant robots and explode. But mostly, by showing them the stories of their ancestors—including gods.”
“Which ones?” I demanded. “Did you use their real names?”
“Not for the hero-gods. None of the real ones matched the surplus action figures I bought cheap in bulk and re-painted. But when it came to the bad guy, well…” He seemed to shrink in on himself. “I wanted the villain to be an outsider, so our local gods would be the good guys. I picked… Old Mother Okembe.”
Iggy surged to his feet. “You’ve been channeling power and belief to HER?!”
“It’s my fault,” Emilia said quietly, her face dead white. “Ozan came to me for advice. I’d just read an article about how a mighty god-slayer and his mouthy sidekick defeated her utterly. If she was truly gone, well, what was the risk?”
Iggy sank back into his chair, breathing heavily. “Can you shut it down?” he asked Ozan.
“No, it’s okay, we’re covered. There’s a parental warning!” For the first time, Ozan seemed to notice the blood vessels pulsing on Iggy’s neck. “But yes, I can shut it down. Although… given that I own the merchandising rights, and have a crazy amount of plush Okembe dolls on pre-order… but no, you’re right. I’ll shut it down. Saving people from a ravening god, that’s me. I’m just considerate that way.”
The desserts arrived. I could have hogged them all for myself, I suppose, but it was more fun to be generous and then steal bites when no one was looking. When I tried to spear some of Iggy’s papaya cheesecake, without commenting or even seeming to notice, he duelled me fork-to-fork in a shower of clashing metal. What can I say? He just gets me.
“Why does a god need to eat?” Marco asked dubiously.
“I don’t need to, but come on!” I said. “Half the world’s delights are swirled together in this pie. Don’t be surprised I’m eating it; be surprised I haven’t miraculously manifested a couple dozen more mouths so I could eat it harder.” I gestured at him with my fork. “It’s digestion I don’t go in for. Talk about a disturbing process with horrifying by-products. I’ll have you know that I turn food into delightfully colorful, scented pearls!”
“How do you get them out?”
I suppressed a burp. “Never mind that.”
Iggy cleared his throat. “So, Sammy—think you can track Mictecacihuatl?”
I shrugged. “Probably. There’s so much boring old non-god stuff around here, anything really powerful should stand out a mile. I’m betting we’re good for a day or two.”
“Ooh, a hunt!” Emilia said, excited. “Can I come?”
Iggy’s eyes narrowed. “This ain’t no action movie,” he said. “Hunting gods is half preparation and half boring routine. At the very end there’s a moment of excitement when the Revelation Cannon sends the disembodied eyes of dormant deities screaming past, trailing flame and smoke… but if you’ve done your job right, there’s no fight at all. Just an ending.”
“I could be useful,” Emilia argued. “Last year, we had a problem with a ghost maiden along the river, mourning the unfaithful lout who drove her to suicide. I set up a dating profile for her online, and in no time we had droves of guys driving out to the river to meet her.”
“Did she fall in love?” I asked eagerly.
“Nope. I wrote the profile so she’d only attract losers and jerks—which taught her to stop defining herself by the guys who wanted her. Last I heard, she was haunting an aquatic center in Belize City, finally at peace with herself.”
“Nice,” Iggy admitted, “but we’ll do this alone.”
Emilia tapped her fingers on the table. “I don’t know that I can permit you to do that.”
“Now I need your permission?” Iggy said acidly. “Hey, feel free to take Death on all by yourself. Send me a postcard. Let me know how it goes.”
“Let’s say I have a pizza,” Emilia said seriously. “It’s my pizza. If I want pepperoni on it, should I give it to Sammy, along with a dollar, and then turn my back—blindly trusting she won’t steal a bite?”
“‘Stealing’ sounds so gauche,” I noted. “Given that I’m God, and deserve a bite, I prefer to call it ‘pre-emptive tithing’.”
“Or. Do I give her the dollar—and then watch and supervise what she does to my property?” Emilia said. “Belize is my country. This is my job. I want your help. I’m asking for your help. But it would be wildly irresponsible not to supervise you.” She couldn’t suppress a smirk. “Plus, I’ll finally get to see some of the stuff I’ve only read about!”
Iggy scowled. “If there were less danger, fine. But there isn’t. Sammy can take a T-shirt cannon to the face and not die, and I’ve resigned myself to whatever comes… but the distraction of worrying about you could very well be the end of me. You’re not coming.”
Emilia leaned back in her chair, regarding us with wide, guileless eyes. “Well, I suppose you know best. I’m sure our problems seem simple and quaint to you. Like the problem of poaching. How do you feel about that?” she asked me.
“What?” I said, surprised. “Uh… well, it’s terrible, of course.”
“Exactly! And what do you think should be done about it?”
“It should be… stopped?”
Emilia turned to Marco. “There. A solution! Aren’t you stupid for not thinking of it first? ‘It should be stopped’. Such subtle brilliance. We’ve lived and breathed Belizean culture for decades, while they’ve been here less than a day. Thank goodness the Americans came to save us!”
Marco snorted. “The Americans,” he said, “are idiots and fools.”
“Stop talking about Iggy that way!” I snapped.
“Or what?” Marco snarled. “You’ll prove how right you are by punching me in the face until I agree with you?”
I surged to my feet. “Maybe if you went out there and did something about poaching, instead of moping around eating my cake, you wouldn’t have these problems!”
Marco slammed both hands on the table. “Cut down a tree, it’s gone. Steal an artifact, it’s gone. Hunt a bird to extinction, it’s gone. It’s short-sighted and stupid. But how can I tell a man starving to death, desperate and afraid, not to feed his family? Tell me what to do! I beg you, exalted American, come save me! I’m obviously too stupid to help myself. Ignore my laws! Shoot what you want! Steal everything I’ve got, just like your skulking thief of a father—I thank you for it!”
“That’s it, dead man!” I growled, starting for him. Iggy pragmatically reached up and smeared rum truffle all over my face, which brought me to a screeching halt. I’ll fight anyone, anytime, but not when I look like a one-year-old with a birthday cake. These days, you never know who’s got a camera.
“Sit,” Iggy said, putting his hand on my arm. “Emilia, we’re sorry. We’re your guests, and we’ll try to remember that.” He managed a lopsided smile. “Hell, we’ll even take you along to supervise our hunt, if that’s really what you want.”
Emilia spoke soothingly to Marco. I sat down. To get back at Iggy, I smeared an equal amount of truffle on his face—then eyed him, wondering if there was a dignified, godly way to get away with licking him. Maybe if I looked supremely bored while doing it. Sadly, Iggy cleaned up with a napkin before I could put my plan into action. An awkward silence settled over the gathering.
“So, uh, crazy weather, huh?” I said to Ozan as I cleaned off my own face.
I narrowed my eyes, inwardly planning his downfall at the hands of my spunky, can-do, montage-prone orphans and their junk-built but surprisingly capable robot. The silence at the table stretched on, growing more awkward by the moment.
“I’m sure we’ll find Mictecacihuatl in no time,” Emilia said. “Shall we get started first thing tomorrow?”
Iggy smiled ruefully. “I suppose we shall.”
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