Ahem. For the past two weeks, I've been sharing extracts from the original, unfinished Angel Fire. Though flawed as a novel (trust me, it definitely was!), it does have some scenes I really enjoy. This third extract might be of particular interest to any aspiring writers out there: it's the one most similar to parts of the published Fire. When I wrote the Angel Fire that's now on the shelves, I'd metaphorically ditched this earlier version and didn't refer back, but it didn't matter: the dialogue and situations that I liked best still stayed in my mind. (Though I can barely recall people's names or what I did last week, I've got a memory like a steel trap for stories!)
Yet there are also significant differences. @awesome_Khae on Twitter put her finger on the main one: "I love the fact that they treat Willow nicely in the 2nd extract!" I have to confess that I loved that, too -- writing joking banter is a lot of fun, and there's a lot of it in this extract as well (the 'kitten' sequence is a favourite!).
But ultimately, drama is about tension. My concern was that things would be too easy for Willow if everyone in the group liked her -- when you're a writer, you tend to be evil to your main characters like that. So in the published Fire, Willow found acceptance from the other AKs much more elusive, which of course then fed into why she became so close to Seb and her difficulties with Alex.
Villa, the character who I'm structuring these extracts around, appears mostly at the end this time. But Villa fans, don't despair -- he has quite a starring role next week.
Here's the third glimpse of a different Fire. Enjoy!
I sat cross-legged on the warehouse floor with my angel hovering overhead. Five AKs sat in a semicircle around me.
“Can everyone see my angel?” I asked in halting Spanish.
Jorge and Raul nodded as they gazed at her. Mike didn’t answer, but I could tell the answer was no: his eyes were narrowed, his muscles tense.
In general, our Mexican AKs found learning to view the ethereal plane a lot easier than the Americans. As a country, Mexico had a kind of magical, slightly surreal feel to it anyway; the boundaries of what people accepted as normal were just wider.
Mike, though, had been an engineering major before he’d headed down to Mexico City, and was having a hard time even admitting that there were such things as chakra points. If he hadn’t narrowly missed being fed from by an angel – and then gone seeking answers to his questions – I was sure he wouldn’t be here now.
“Relax, Mike,” I told him, switching to English. “Start with your heart chakra. Imagine it; see its green light.”
He let out a frustrated breath. “Yeah, but I’m just imagining it. It’s not real. This stuff is so woo-woo…”
“Just go with it, OK?”
“Go with it,” he instructed himself in a mutter. With a steeling of muscles, he started again. I held back a sigh. I was sure this was a guy thing; a lot of them thought the only way to master this stuff was to bludgeon it into submission.
With my angel still hovering above, I got up. “The rest of you – watch my angel as she flies,” I said. “If she darts at you try not to lose your concentration.”
As my angel self soared upwards, I went and crouched beside Mike. “Look, you’ve got to relax.”
“I am relaxed,” he gritted out.
I touched his forearm; it was like steel wires. “Really?”
Glancing down, he saw what I meant and groaned. “Maybe I’m just not cut out for this stuff.” He tried to smile. “Give me a bridge to build and I’m fine, but…”
I made a quick decision. “Come on,” I said, standing up. “Let’s get a cup of coffee.”
In the small kitchen, Mike leaned against the counter. He was tall and thin, with mouse-brown hair. “The thing is, I know this stuff is real,” he said glumly, watching as I washed out a couple of mugs from the ever-present cluster in the sink. “I can’t explain the angel that I saw otherwise. I can’t explain how a perfectly capable, sane guy like Alex can do what he does otherwise. But actually making myself do it…”
“Stop right there,” I said, handing him a mug and the instant coffee. “That’s the problem. You’re trying to make yourself. It has to be more gentle.”
“Gentle,” he repeated, looking worried.
I tried to think how to explain it. “Look, what if there was a frightened kitten that you were trying to make friends with?”
Mike gave a rueful smile as he poured boiling water into his mug. “Willow. Please tell me that you’re not seriously using a kitten analogy here.”
“Listen! You wouldn’t go stomping up to it, saying, Kitten! Be friends with me or else! Would you? You’d sort of crouch down beside it, and maybe put your hand out, and wait for it to come to you.”
Mike shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said after a pause. “I’m really not getting this. Are you saying that my chakra points are the kitten? And that I should be doing…what, in that case? Nothing at all? How am I supposed to get it, if I don’t try?”
“No, I’m saying…” I took a sip of coffee, frustrated at my inability to explain this. “OK, forget the kitten.”
“Thank god for that.”
“What about when you first wake up in the morning, and you’ve just had a really good dream that you’re trying to hang onto? Do you know that feeling?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, sure.”
“What do you do?”
Mike’s forehead creased. “Well…if you go at them too directly, then dreams just sort of disappear, don’t they?” he said finally. “So I guess I try to stay sort of half-asleep, and dreamy…and not really force it, but just let it come.”
I opened my eyes wide, motioning my hand at him as I waited for him to get it. His own eyes widened abruptly. “Oh!” He put his coffee down with a splash. “Wait, I think I understand!”
I could sense his excitement; his relief at finally finding a concept that made sense to him. I was relieved, too. Mike was smart, calm, sensible – he’d be a great AK, if we could just get him over this hump.
Back out in the warehouse, the difference was apparent immediately. He sat with his muscles loose, his eyes dreamily half-closed. As my angel swooped overhead, I sat next to him, guiding him through the chakra points.
“…and finally the crown chakra,” I finished. “See its violet light…and now lift yourself up above it…”
Wondering what would happen, I flew my angel self near to him. “Oh, Christ!” he yelped, almost falling over as he jerked backwards. Then he started laughing. “Willow, I saw your angel! I really saw her!”
“I know,” I said with a grin. There was scattered applause as some of the others realised what had happened. Across the room, Alex’s eyes met mine. Good one, he mouthed.
By the end of the session, Mike was seeing my angel every time. “Thank you,” he said fervently as he finally rose to his feet. “I thought I was never going to get that.” Then he grinned. “But I’ve got to tell you, that kitten analogy was pretty crap.”
“Noted,” I said. “The kitten analogy has been banned forever.”
I was just getting to my own feet when it happened.
A sort of hush settled over my mind; I felt quick, probing presence. Jumbled images swept past: a rush of wings; a shining city. My mother standing in her apartment, her eyes adoring. My skin turned clammy. I knew this energy -- I had felt it before.
I slammed my mind shut. Somehow I’d risen to my feet. I stood shaking, feeling light-headed.
“Willow?” Alex was there, gripping my shoulders. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine,” I managed. “I just…had a sort of weird moment.” I didn’t sound fine, not even to myself.
Ignoring the fact that we were right in the middle of the warehouse with AKs everywhere, Alex put his arms around me and drew me close. “Hey, it’s OK,” he whispered, rubbing my back. “You’re OK…”
I started to protest, then I just swallowed and pressed against him. After a moment he kissed my head. “What happened?” he asked. The other AKs had all drifted away, leaving us alone.
When I checked again, the weird sense was gone. Raziel couldn't really have been in my mind, could he? How would that even be possible?
I shook my head. “Nothing," I said slowly. "I mean – I thought I felt something, but I must have been wrong.”
One of Alex’s dark eyebrows rose. “Willow.”
“Honestly, I’m OK.”
He hesitated, scanning my face. “Are you sure? You looked…”
“I’m sure.” I managed a smile. “And I thought the rule was no PDAs, remember?”
Finally Alex relaxed and shrugged. “Hey, rules are made to be broken. In fact, here – I think I’ll break another one.” He kissed me lightly, our lips lingering together. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled down at me. “Do you feel like going out for a while?”
I stared at him. “Out? What – you mean, just the two of us?”
Alex nodded. “Yeah, Brendan’s been talking about the rogue angels again. He has another idea about this congregation point thing; I told him we’d check it out.”
“You did?” I started laughing. “Alex…”
“Yeah, I know,” he said with a grin. “But he might be on to something this time -- I'll explain when we get there. I thought we could take a look, anyway. Plus, you know … maybe make out a little.”
“That is an amazing plan,” I said solemnly. “Especially the making out part.”
“Yeah, I sort of like that part, myself. Right, guys, listen up!” called Alex, all banter gone now.
The Angel Killers started reappearing, drifting back in from the kitchen and the outside door, some of them pausing to stub out cigarettes. “Willow and I are going to go check on something,” Alex continued. “Take a half-hour break, and then Villa, I’d like you to run target practise. Entiende?”
“Si, that’s fine,” said Villa, his thin form propped against the kitchen doorway. He wasn’t always here – somehow, he seemed to have a slightly different status than the other AKs – but when he was, he often helped Alex with target practise. He hadn’t exaggerated about what a good shot he was.
Only Sam looked irritated. “Man, aren’t we ever going to see some action?” he complained. “Whole city full of angels out there, and here we all are, just kicking back and taking our sweet time.”
“You’re in training; there’s a difference,” said Alex shortly. “If you start shooting at angels before you’re ready, you’ll just draw them straight to you.”
“Yeah, but we are ready – some of us, at least,” argued Sam.
“I’m the judge of that, not you,” said Alex. Sam’s expression turned mulish. “If you don’t like it, then leave,” went on Alex. “But I’m not letting any of you get killed, if I can help it – I’ve seen enough of that already.”
A silence fell. Everyone knew that Alex had been an AK for most of his life; the things he had seen and done were sort of legendary to them, even though he hardly ever talked about them.
“Yeah, okay,” muttered Sam finally.
As everyone returned to their break, Alex went over and spoke privately to him. Sam looked contrite as he said something, and Alex smiled and slapped him on the back before returning to me.
“Is he all right?” I asked as we wheeled the Shadow out the side entrance.
Alex nodded. “He’s just at a really tricky stage. Trained enough to want to get out there, but inexperienced enough to think he’s ready for it.” He sighed and handed me my helmet. “We’re already doing everything so fast that my dad would have burst a blood vessel – but there’s just no way in hell that I can start letting them go on hunts yet.”
I knew that if anyone was itching to go out on hunts, it was Alex himself. If Sam thought it grated on him to not be out there fighting, he should have tried being Alex for a change.
A few minutes later, we were roaring down the Mexico City streets. The strange moment where I’d thought I felt Raziel fluttered back to me…but when I explored my mind again, to my relief, whatever it had been was still gone.
“There’s another one,” said Willow, raising her voice over the steady throb of drums from the Aztec dancers in the square.
Alex nodded; he’d seen the angel, too. The creature had just appeared around the corner in its human form. Like the others, she strode past the bench where he and Willow sat, her attention on the crowd watching the dancers. She changed to her angel self with a shiver and Alex tensed, ready to shoot – but after circling once in the air, the gleaming angel shuddered back into her human form and continued on her way.
Willow let out a breath. “Didn’t see anyone tasty enough, I guess.”
“No, I guess not.” Once he was sure the angel was gone, Alex bent his head to Willow’s. Tasting her soft lips, he wished briefly that he’d done this the other way around – sent the AKs to check out the theory, leaving him and Willow alone at the base – but he didn’t particularly trust Sam not to get excited and start shooting at things. Even if the thought of being truly alone with Willow made his blood feel ready to explode.
“Are you going to tell me why we’re sitting here?” asked Willow finally.
With an effort, Alex pushed away thoughts of their tiny bedroom. “Yep.” He motioned to a nearby cash point. A line of people stood waiting to use it. “Look,” he said. “It’s the one place that all the angels have ignored.”
Willow’s brow furrowed. “Well, yeah – they’d rather head for the crowd watching the dancers; there’s more of a choice.”
“Not just that,” said Alex. “Anyone standing in line who stops moving forward will get shoved aside. Angels like to feed undisturbed.”
Willow shrugged. “All right, so what does that have to do with us?”
“Because angels hardly ever use cash points themselves.”
Alex shook his head. “All the ones I’ve seen either use plastic, or get what they want by creeping people out with their eyes. Remember our idea about finding a place to leave a signal for the Hunter?” He nodded at the cash point.
An amazed smile grew across Willow’s face. “Oh my god, that’s brilliant! And Brendan thought of this?”
“Well, sort of.” Alex scraped a hand through his hair, giving her an amused glance. “He thought the rogue angels might have a special bank account set up.”
“OK, that sounds more like him.”
Alex pulled a pen from his back pocket and sketched a tiny symbol on Willow’s palm. “Here – if you were part of the Hunter’s gang and you saw that, what would you do?”
She considered it carefully, her golden brown hair gleaming in the sunlight. “I’d know exactly what it meant,” she said. “I’d be worried that it might be a trap, but … I’d have to start coming back here a lot more often, to see if I could find out who’d left it.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’d do, too.” It was a slim chance, but probably the best one they were going to get. “Right,” Alex said, rising from the bench. “Let’s go do this French Resistance thing, and see what happens.”
They joined the line; in a few minutes Alex was standing at the cash machine. Quickly, he sketched the symbol on a corner of the panel. It looked small and insignificant against the grey metal.
As they walked away to the steady rhythm of the dancers’ drums, Willow turned to look back at the machine. “Good luck,” she murmured to it.
They’d left the motorcycle nearby. Alex’s steps slowed. “Wait a minute, we’re not going back yet, are we?”
Willow raised an eyebrow. “You mean we haven’t finished playing hooky? Hey, I always knew you were a bad boy. I approve.”
They got some tlacoyos from a street vendor and ate them in a nearby park. Willow turned sideways on the bench as she leaned against him; for a while they sat in companionable silence, relishing being alone together.
“What if we really do manage to get rid of the angels?” Willow said finally. “What would you want to do then?”
Alex had hardly even considered it; the war itself was too consuming. Dropping his head back onto the bench, he looked up at the trees. “I don’t know," he said. "I could never work in an office, punching a time clock; I’d go batshit. Something where I was outside a lot, I guess.”
“A park ranger?” suggested Willow.
He laughed, lifting his head to look at her. He’d been thinking more along the lines of a target-shooting range. “Don’t they have to wear those uniforms? And those stupid hats?”
“You would look very sexy in a uniform,” she informed him. “But OK, a prospector, then.”
“Yeah, panning for gold all day…that’s more like it.” He kissed the top of her head. “What about you? If none of this had ever happened, what would you have wanted to do?”
She shrugged. “Well, I never really wanted to go to college. Which is, like – not something you admit. But school just never seemed to have anything to do with my actual life.”
Alex nodded. Personally, he couldn’t imagine anything more boring than being cooped up in a classroom all day.
“And I knew that I could always make a living giving readings to people, though I don’t really like charging money for it,” Willow went on. “I’ve thought about working in a garage – except that dealing with all the comments would get old pretty fast.”
“Yeah, you know…Wow, Blondie, are you sure you can fix that great big car all by your little self?” Willow shuddered in disgust, and Alex grinned, seeing her point. Her voice turned thoughtful. “No, what I really wanted to do was something with engines, but maybe using them as art. Like – sculpture that moves.”
“Yeah?” Alex looked down at her in surprise, though on second thought, he shouldn’t have been – Willow definitely had an artistic bent; it was obvious just in the way she’d decorated their small room. “That sounds amazing,” he said.
She shrugged, her green eyes smiling at him. “Someday, maybe. You can pan for gold and I’ll make sculptures, and we’ll be the ultimate hippie couple.”
He tickled her face with a strand of her hair. “No, I’ve got to do something better than panning for gold if you’re going to be having shows at art galleries…you’ll be all elegant, and I’ll just be this scruffy guy with a beard following you around.”
Willow laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll still introduce you to all my artistic friends. You’ll have to ditch the beard, though.”
“I can’t have a beard?”
“No, definitely not.” She tilted her head towards him – but just as their lips touched he felt her stiffen; his eyes flew open. She was staring at the sky, her expression slack. “Alex…”
He started to move through his chakra points, then realised he could see it anyway: a river of angels flying high overhead. Hundreds of them. Thousands.
Alex swore, jumping to his feet. “Come on, we’ve got to see where they’re going!”
They ran through the park and burst out onto the street. Chaos. Cars were screeching to a halt as drivers spotted the angels; horns blared; people were falling to their knees on the sidewalk, crying for joy.
“We are all saved! They’ve come!” cried a middle-aged woman in Spanish, clasping her hands together fervently as she gazed upwards
They were already here, thought Alex grimly. Only now, for some ominous reason, they were making a very public show of it.
He and Willow plunged across the street, lurching their way through the zig-zag of cars; scrambling over kissing bumpers. Alex dodged to one side as a taxi jolted to a stop, narrowly missing him.
The driver got out in a daze. “Madre mia…” he breathed, crossing himself as he stared at the sky. The angels were still flowing past, disappearing over buildings as they headed towards the Zocalo, their wings almost too bright to look at.
The motorcycle was where they’d left it. Alex threw himself onto it; in seconds Willow was behind him. The street was impossible.
“Hang on!” he called to her. Kicking the clutch, he lurched them up onto the sidewalk, weaving the Shadow through the staring crowds. A splintering crash came from behind as two cars ploughed into each other; the steady drone of car alarms bleated through the air. Willow’s slender arms were tight around his waist.
The Zocalo opened up before them, its expanse oddly quiet – the drums’ incessant beat had stilled as the Aztec dancers stared upwards. The angels were flying across the square diagonally, heading south-west. Alex swerved the Shadow onto the Zocalo itself, picking up speed as they hurtled across it.
“I think I know where they might be going,” Willow shouted in his ear. “Get on the Paseo de la Reforma.”
It was one of the city’s main avenues. The moment she said it, Alex knew, too.
As they came off the Zocalo, he veered sharply west. They were now on a road that obviously hadn’t seen the angels yet, though the traffic was as congested as it always was in el DF. Gritting his teeth, Alex hurtled them up onto the sidewalk again; screams as people scrambled out of their way. Willow’s fingers dug tensely into his sides.
Several streets later the Paseo de la Reforma appeared. They thudded off the sidewalk and screeched onto it, leaning into the turn. Far off, Alex could see the angels again, heading exactly where he’d thought. In the foreground was Mexico City’s famous angel monument – el angel, a golden, glorious winged creature standing high on a pedestal – framed by hundreds of real angels soaring away behind her into the distance.
They were aiming straight for the Torre Mayor, the tallest building in Mexico.
The green glass tower stood like a solitary sentinel, spiking up over the other structures. Across the street, the bronze lions flanking the entrance to the Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s largest park, looked on impassively at the scene.
Cars were starting to see the angels now; a domino effect swept up the Paseo de la Reforma as traffic lurched to a stop. Alex pulled over onto the grassy centre of the avenue and yanked his helmet off as he watched the angels veer up to the top of the Torre Mayor, darting about it like moths around a flame.
Willow got off the bike, her eyes wide. “What’s happening?” she whispered.
Alex shook his head. “Christ, I don’t know.” The angels were disappearing into the building -- there had to be some sort of entrance up there. Finally the last one winked from view.
Alex couldn’t stop staring at the tower. Seeing them like that, a thousand strong, flying confidently through the air – and realising that this wasn’t even a fraction of what they were fighting against…his head began to pound. His tiny band of partly-trained AKs was a joke against these odds.
They were going to lose.
Around them, the world was slowly coming back to life, the sound of engines filling the air as the traffic once more began to flow. Willow touched his arm. “Alex…I know it looks bad, but we still have to try.”
“Yeah, I know. ‘Lost Causes R Us’, right?” He saw her stricken expression and let out a breath. “Sorry,” he said, scraping a hand roughly over his face. “You’re right, we’ve got to try. As long as I’m alive, I would never not try. But…” he trailed off and tried to smile. The urge to get back on the bike with her and just go live in the mountains somewhere had never been stronger.
“Come on,” he said. “We’d better tell the troops what’s up.”
“Council?” shouted Sam at the TV screen. “Who the hell knew they had a freakin’ council?”
They were sitting in the small lounge area in a corner of the warehouse, all of them clustered around the old TV. Alex sat on the floor against the sagging sofa with his legs stretched out, drinking a cup of coffee and feigning a relaxation that he didn’t feel. Willow was perched on the sofa behind him, her leg just touching his side.
The images on the TV screen were shaky, taken from cell phones. As the commentator spoke excitedly, angels flew around the top of the tower. Apparently they’d made an announcement after they’d so dramatically taken up residence in the Torre Mayor: the city had just witnessed the arrival of the Seraphic Council and its staff, setting up their new seat of power.
“Estamos condenados,” murmured Manuel, staring at the screen. “So many of them…”
“No more than before,” said Alex. “This doesn’t change anything, guys – we still have the exact same chance against them as we did yesterday. Better, even; we know more about them now.”
He kept his voice businesslike, and could see the others relaxing slightly, taking reassurance from his calmness. Because what else could he do? Even against such impossible odds, they couldn’t just abandon the world to the angels.
Behind him on the sofa, Willow stroked the back of his neck, unseen by the others. Her light touch felt like sanity. Alex really wasn’t sure now how his dad had managed it – being in charge on his own, with no one to confide his true feelings to.
“The question is, how can we use this?” said Villa. He sat perched beside Willow on one of the sofa’s battered arms; the two were good friends, and often gravitated together. In fact, Alex suspected that Villa had a crush on Willow, though he knew that the thief would never do anything to betray his trust.
Now Villa’s usual joking demeanour was gone; just as when he’d first heard about the angels in his city, his expression was tight with anger. “There must be some way, something we can do – as you say, this is information we do not have before.”
Alex shook his head. “I’m not sure we can use it yet. We don’t know enough about this Council of theirs.”
Villa shrugged his thin shoulders. “We know it’s important to them.”
“Yeah, we gotta do something!” burst out Sam. “They come flapping in here like they own the place – hell, what if we took out their damn Council? That’d show them!”
Excitement stirred through the small group. “God, can you imagine it…?” started Brendan, his eyes wide.
“Yeah, I can, actually.” Alex’s voice sliced through the sudden mood. “It’d be a bloodbath. You guys aren’t trained yet, remember? And what – now you want to go storming the Torre Mayor and take out their Council?”
“Well, we can’t just sit here!” Sam jumped up from the floor, pacing restlessly. “We’ve gotta make a statement, show them what’s what!”
“I’m not risking lives to make a statement,” said Alex flatly. “If I thought doing away with their Council might do some good, then maybe. But all it would do would tip them off that we’re here, big-time. Would you rather die to make a statement, or play it smart and have a chance at getting rid of them for good?”
“Do we have a chance?” asked Villa softly. The room stilled. “Because if we don’t, I don’t mind dying for a statement.”
Alex didn’t hesitate. “Yes, we have a chance,” he said. “If we didn’t, then I sure as hell wouldn’t be sharing a warehouse with you guys; I’d be shacked up somewhere with my girlfriend.” He draped his arm over Willow’s knees … and didn’t mention that part of him had been tempted to do exactly that just a few hours previously.
Laughter broke the tension. Above him, he felt Willow swat his shoulder; she was laughing too. “Hello, shacked up? Do you mind?”
“Living in sin,” he amended. “Is that better?”
“Si, I suppose you wouldn’t be here unless you thought we had a chance,” said Manuel in his quiet voice as the laughter died down. “Unless you enjoy lost causes.”
“Me? Yeah, right.” Squeezing Willow’s legs, Alex dropped his arm, choosing his words carefully. “Look, I won’t lie to you – the odds aren’t great. But yeah, we’ve got a chance. If we start acting like a bunch of Rambos, though, all that’ll happen is that we’ll die fast, and then humanity will be toast.”
Silence fell as everyone took this in; he saw a few nods. Letting out a groan, Sam flopped back down to the floor. “Oh, hell, that’s so reasonable it makes my head hurt. I know you’re right. It’s just – galling, to see them like that…”
“Tell me about it,” said Alex wryly. “Listen, I’ve been hating the angels for a lot longer than any of you; do you think I enjoyed seeing them swarm in here, setting up their own government? But we’ve got to play it safe to survive. We’re in occupied territory, here.”
Villa let out a breath, raking his hair back with both hands. “Si, it’s true. But if we could just do something…”
“How about going on a hunt soon?” The words came out with no planning, born at least partly of his own frustration. The AKs perked up immediately, looking at him with hopeful glances.
“Really?” said Sam with a grin.
“Yeah,” said Alex. “Not all of you. But a real hunt, maybe in a week or two. I might as well start seeing what you’re made of when you’re up against the real thing, instead of just Willow’s angel diving at you.”
Privately, he had a feeling that he wouldn’t be able to hold Sam back for much longer anyway; the Texan would just take off and fight on his own. At least this way, Alex would have a chance to make sure he didn’t get killed – or worse, succumb to angel burn and tell the creatures everything about them.
“Hey, you know it’s not easy, trying to scare them,” put in Willow, her voice innocent. “Unless it’s Mike, of course.” She shot the ex-engineer an arch smile, and he winced good-naturedly as everyone snickered, recalling his screech of surprise as he’d seen Willow’s angel for the first time.
“No way, it was the kittens I was scared of,” he protested. “Those were some seriously scary kittens.”
“Kittens?” Alex started laughing too, looking back over his shoulder at Willow. “Wait, did I miss something here?”
“It was a new training technique,” she said gravely. “It’s gone now, though.”
Brendan glanced at the clock. “Speaking of training, should we get back to it?”
It was tempting to say yes, but they’d already put in a long day. Remembering how his father had tended to drive everyone into the ground until they were ready to either kill each other or rebel, Alex shook his head. “Nah, we’ll start again tomorrow. How about some basketball?”
As everyone started to get up, Villa took Alex’s arm and drew him to one side. “So, you say the odds aren’t great – what does that mean, exactly? A thousand to one? Ten thousand, a million?”
More than anyone else apart from Willow, Alex knew that Villa really got what they were up against. Most of the Americans had been raised on movies that showed the good guys always winning, even against impossible odds. They couldn’t really comprehend that Luke Skywalker in his solitary X-wing was a lot likelier to get blown out of the sky instead of bringing down the Death Star. Even some of the Mexicans succumbed to this mentality – but the thief held no such illusions. Under his good humour, Villa had a ruthlessly realistic worldview that matched Alex’s own.
“Look, I don’t know, OK?” said Alex in a low voice as the steady dribbling of the basketball started up behind them. “But if I had to guess … let’s say more than ten thousand to one, but less than a million.”
Villa’s black eyebrows flew up; he gave a wry smile. “More than ten thousand to one, but less than a million,” he repeated. “Are you sure making a statement’s not a good idea?”
“We can’t,” said Alex simply. “We just can’t. We’re practically the only ones in the world who know how to fight them.”
“Si,” murmured Villa. Finally he shrugged. “Interesting odds, mi amigo. But a big payoff, if we manage to win.” He gave Alex a considering look. “Tell me, are you a gambling man?”
“Not usually,” Alex admitted. “But this time…yeah, I guess I am.”
Villa nodded, and stroked his goatee. “I am not a gambler either,” he said after a pause. “I never had anything I was willing to lose. But I’ll join you on this one. What the hell – if we lose, we both lose our shirts together, right?”
For ‘shirts’ read ‘lives’: they both knew it. Alex smiled slightly. He knew that with Villa, it was more a matter of joining the man, rather than the cause – as Willow had said when they’d first met him, the thief was loyal only if he liked you.
“Thanks,” he said. “I mean it, Villa.”
Villa shrugged again, flashing his white smile. “Ah, I’ve done stupider things. Not much, though.” He glanced over at the basketball players and gave an amused shudder; he didn’t do sports.
“I’ll see you,” he said, slapping Alex’s arm lightly. “Tomorrow?”
“Si,” said Alex. “Tomorrow.”
Hope you enjoyed reading. As always, I love hearing your comments, so please keep them coming! And don't forget to check back next week for the fourth and final extract -- which might even be my favourite, because I love Villa's role in it so much. Meanwhile, I hope you all have a wonderful New Year's Eve, and here's to a fabulous 2014.
My New Year's resolutions? That's easy: get the first book of the new trilogy finished and give my new slippers lots of wear and tear.
The second part, at least, should be a doddle.