Sunday, 15 December 2013

Glimpses of a Different Fire, Part 1 - Meeting the Thief

I'm excited, I'll admit it. Because today I'm going to start sharing with you some extracts from the original version of Angel Fire.

See, the Angel Fire which was published as the sequel to Angel wasn’t my first attempt at the story. I wrote almost 60,000 words of a very different Angel Fire before I realised that it wasn't working and I’d have to rethink the storyline. But reading back through this early, unfinished draft recently, I was surprised by how much I REALLY liked a lot of the material. I thought fans of the series might also enjoy this glimpse of the-Fire-that-might-have-been, so I've decided to share my favourite sections here on the blog as a four-week series. (Hey, what's a blog for if you can't publish your outtakes on it?)

These extracts are definitely self-indulgent. I've given them only a light edit, and have resisted the urge to rewrite anything. I try to always keep an eye on pacing when I edit, but not when I write a first draft. So I have to confess there's some stuff here that would normally end up on the cutting-room floor (including a lot of the banter between Willow and Alex!) Basically, this is a behind-the-scenes version that my readers don't usually get to see. I don’t pretend it's a perfect draft or a polished draft – ha! far from it – but hopefully it’s a fun draft.
 

I'll be loosely structuring this material around a character named Villa, who never made it into the final version of the book. I have a real soft spot for him, though, and loved the role he was going to play in the story. In some ways, Villa (pronounced Vee-ya) is an early version of Seb. (Team Alex, don’t hate him for that! There was never going to be a Villa/Willow romance, I promise.) As the extracts continue they'll include a lot more than this, though: an alternative look at Jonah’s role in the series; early glimpses of characters that we grew to know in Fire and Fever, and most of all, some Willow and Alex material that I really love.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explain more about Villa's role and how I saw this different version of the story unfolding. You can read it as a writing exercise, or simply as an added extra to the series: an alternative vision of what might have been. Mostly, I just want to share what I think is some really fun material, warts and all.

Let me know what you think; I'd love to hear. Happy reading! 






This first extract takes place near the start of the story. Alex and Willow are travelling through Mexico, searching for a place to establish a base from which to fight the angels and recruit new Angel Killers. Meanwhile Willow has been troubled by nightmares of Raziel. 


They drove for almost an hour, heading further south. Finally a pockmarked metal sign came into view, announcing the town of Caliente. Slowing down as they entered the town limits, Alex glanced around him, taking it in. The place looked like several other small Mexican towns they’d seen by now: run-down houses, children playing in the street, a main square with a church. It wasn’t the Church of Angels, thankfully. Not yet, at least.

Trundling around the perimeter of the square, Alex idled into a space near the café. Killing the engine, he pulled his helmet off and rapidly lifted his consciousness above his crown chakra, doing a quick scan of the area. Good; no angels nearby – though as usual, his pistol was in the holster he wore under the waistband of his jeans, just in case.

 
“What do you think, would this place be OK for us?” he said to Willow as they got off the bike. Sometimes she got feelings about locations instantly; sometimes it took her a while.

Willow’s long hair was windswept from the journey as she took off her own helmet; absently, she smoothed it with both hands as she gazed around her, tying it back into a knot. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “There’s something here, but…” she trailed off with a frown, obviously concentrating hard.

Alex kept quiet, letting her think. While she did, he leaned against the bike, smiling slightly as he took in her small, slim figure; her elfin face with its delicately pointed chin and wide green eyes. She was so beautiful. Even now, he wasn’t sure how he’d managed to get so lucky as to have her, but he was thankful for it every day of his life.

“I don’t know,” Willow repeated after a pause. She gave him a troubled look. “I don’t think this is the right place, but I don’t think we should leave yet.”

Alex felt surprise rustle through him. That was a new one. “Yeah, OK,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder at the café; it was getting close to lunchtime. “Do you want to just hang out here for a while?”

“All right,” nodded Willow.

Inside, the café was plain, functional, with wooden tables and hardly any decoration, apart from a battered-looking poster advertising a bullfight on one wall. Thankfully, they’d been able to park near enough that they could keep an eye on the bike through the window – everything that they owned was loaded onto it. Not to mention that it was their only transportation.

Una cerveza y una coca-cola, por favor,” said Alex, leaning against the counter.

“Tapas for lunch, right?” said Willow, catching the word for ‘beer’.

He nodded. “Sound OK?” If you bought alcohol, then a lot of places in Mexico would bring you tapas, complimentary bar snacks – and they weren’t stingy about keeping them coming for hours, even if you nursed your drink along. They’d fed themselves that way a lot since crossing the border, to save money.

“Free food always sounds OK,” said Willow cheerfully, leaning briefly against him. He rubbed her shoulder, grateful for the hundredth time since coming here with her that she wasn’t the type to complain. And it wasn’t as if she wouldn’t have had anything to gripe about. Apart from having to watch every peso, the camping had often been rough, without even a stream nearby, so that the only bathing possible was with bottled water and their ancient, second-hand towel. After almost a month, he was ready to kill for a hot shower, and he liked to camp – he could imagine how Willow, who hadn’t even slept in a tent before this, must feel. But she’d never breathed a word of protest.

As he handed over twenty pesos for their drinks, Alex tried not to think about how much money he had left. The salary he’d gotten from the CIA had been so large that he’d started taking it for granted. Living off his dwindling fund of emergency cash was a different story – and he still wasn’t sure how they were going to finance their plans to recruit and train new Angel Killers. He sighed as he put his wallet away. He supposed they’d have to get jobs at some point, though he couldn’t really imagine working construction or something while angels took over the world.

“It’ll be all right,” said Willow softly, catching his mood as she often did. He was used to it by now, and didn’t bother trying to deny that anything was wrong.

“Yeah, I know,” he said instead, hoping that she was right.

Their drinks arrived; he picked them up and he and Willow walked to a table together. As they sat down, he noticed several men in the café glancing over at them, their eyes lingering on the graceful lines of Willow’s neck; her small, perfect figure. Irritation stirred through Alex, along with wry amusement. Gringas – non-Mexican women – got a lot of attention down here; he knew that if he hadn’t been with Willow, three or four guys would have slithered over to her already, trying to pick her up.

They sat in silence for a moment; Willow gazed down at her Coke, adjusting the glass bottle carefully on the table. Suddenly Alex noticed that the two frown lines were evident on her forehead. He touched them lightly with his finger. “Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”

Willow made a face. “Oh – my stupid dream. I wish I could stop thinking about it.” She propped her chin on her hand with a sigh. “It’s just…I used to always wonder what my dad was like, you know? I mean, I hated him for what he did to Mom, but I still wondered. I guess deep down, I hoped that maybe I’d meet him someday, and that he’d turn out to be OK…that it would all have been a mistake.” She grimaced, looking down.

Some mistake. Alex squeezed her hand in sympathy. His own father, Martin, might have been driven and obsessed, but he had still cared about him and his older brother, Jake. Alex remembered afternoons spent in his father’s tiny house in the New Mexico camp where he’d been raised, sitting at the table with maps spread out while his dad explained strategy to him, with classical music from the battery-powered radio playing in the background. “You’ve got a good head for this,” his father had told him. Maybe Martin had sort of lost it in the end, but Alex was proud of him; proud of what he had accomplished out of nothing. And he knew that his father had been proud of him, too – him and Jake, both.

Having Raziel for a father would be worse than nothing at all.

Alex felt something tighten in his chest as he looked at Willow’s downcast face. He’d known that life wasn’t fair since he was five years old, but that didn’t make it any easier, seeing Willow have to deal with this. He thought he’d give anything if he could just take it away, somehow – wipe all knowledge of Raziel right out of her mind.

“I wish I could make it better for you,” he said, linking his fingers through hers. “I really do.”

Her face relaxed, the two little lines disappearing. “You do make it better, though,” she said, tightening her hand. “Alex, you have no idea how much.”

Alex smiled slightly. He hoped he did, though he didn’t know how. He started to say something else, and then the proprietor appeared with two bowls of tapas – one of diced, fried potatoes with peppers, the other some sort of meat with dried chillies. “Par el appetite,” he said, placing them in front of them.

Gracias,” said Willow, looking more like herself again. “Por favor, senor, que es…um, que es el carne? Es pollo?” She pointed at the meat.

Alex took a swig of beer to hide his sudden grin. He loved Willow’s halting Spanish; her accent was incredibly cute. The proprietor obviously agreed; like so many men down here, he seemed entranced by her golden-brown hair and green eyes. Smiling, he launched into a lengthy explanation about the local dish of turkey and dried chillies, and ended up bringing another bowl of it for them.

“Wow, I guess he knows how much you like chillies,” said Alex as the man returned to the bar.

At the appearance of the second bowl, Willow had seemed torn between alarm and laughter. “Oh, very funny,” she muttered, nudging him under the table. She twisted in her seat, glancing back at the bar. “Alex, he’s watching me now; he expects me to eat it.”

“Nah, just have the potatoes. Don’t be a hero.” He slid them across the table to her. Growing up in New Mexico, he’d practically been raised on spicy food – the hotter, the better. But as he’d found out before they’d even been in Mexico a day, Willow didn’t do hot and spicy. It had taken only a single chilli pepper to leave her gasping for breath, her eyes streaming.

She chewed her lip, looking tempted. “No, I’ve got to at least try the turkey, after he was so nice. It’s OK, I’ll just…pick around the chillies.” She bit into a strip of turkey and caught her breath; he could tell she was trying not to fan her mouth. “Oh, my gosh!” She downed a quick gulp of Coke.

Alex laughed; he couldn’t help it. In retrospect, bringing her to a country that lived off spicy food probably hadn’t been the best idea. “Here, give them to me,” he said, pulling the bowl towards him and munching a chilli whole. “You are such a lightweight.”

“Argh, the Coke isn’t helping; I need some beer to wash it away with.” Willow reached across for his beer and took a long swig. “There, that’s better,” she said, letting out a breath. “How can you just sit there eating them? Why doesn’t your mouth catch fire?”

“Indestructible,” he said.

“You must be.”

As they smiled at each other, Alex felt a deep happiness wrap through him, despite the constant worry of what the angels were doing in their world. He had never thought he could ever love anyone as much as he loved Willow; his life before he’d met her seemed like a black and white movie now, devoid of colour. He leaned forward. “Come here, you’re too far away,” he said.

Willow’s eyes danced; glancing around them, she leaned across the table and kissed him. Then she laughed, half-groaning as she wiped her mouth. “Your lips are all spicy.”

“Sorry,” grinned Alex, sitting back.

Shaking her head, she reached for his beer again – and stopped with it halfway to her mouth, alarm crossing her face. Turning quickly, she glanced out the window. “Alex, the bike!” She shoved up out of her chair.

He was out of the café before she was, bursting out through the door. A pickup truck had parked in front of the building while they’d been inside, blocking the bike from their view. As he hurtled around the side of it he saw a guy standing over the Shadow with a hammer and screwdriver. Alex didn’t know how he planned on using them, but had no intention of finding out.

“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted in Spanish. “Get away from my bike!”

The guy jerked upright, startled. Alex had a glimpse of a black goatee and longish hair before he turned and ran, his footsteps echoing down the street. Jogging to a stop as he reached the Shadow, Alex quickly looked it over; to his relief, it seemed fine. “What was the deal with the hammer and screwdriver?” he asked Willow as she came up behind him.

“You can break into the ignition that way,” said Willow, hugging her elbows. Her dyed brown hair had tumbled down from its bun, and hung loosely across her shoulders. “It’s faster than hotwiring.”

Alex nodded grimly. A thief, what a surprise. And if Willow hadn’t sensed it, the bastard would have gotten away with it, too, taking everything they owned. He glared down the street. The urge to chase after the guy and pound him one was extremely tempting.

Willow squeezed his arm, rubbing it gently. “Alex, it’s OK. We’ve still got the bike.”

Her touch calmed him somewhat; he blew out a breath and nodded. “Yeah, thanks to you.”

Willow started to say something else and then broke off with a sharp intake of breath, her grip on his arm abruptly tightening as she looked upwards. Reading her face, Alex moved rapidly through his chakra points again … and just caught the white gleam of an angel as it drifted down behind the rooftops, gliding out of view towards the ground.

They looked at each other. Willow’s eyes were wide, her face pale. “It’s about to feed,” she said in a soft voice. She was right; the thing’s silvery aura had hardly had any hint of blue to its edges.

And suddenly Alex knew, simply knew, who its victim was going to be. For a second he considered just leaving the thieving asshole and going back into the café. Then he swore and straddled the bike, starting the ignition. “Come on, we’d better go see,” he said, lifting his voice above the sudden roar.

Willow climbed on behind him and they took off, the bike quickly eating the distance down the street. “Which way, can you tell?” called Alex over his shoulder.

“Right, I think,” said Willow loudly, leaning close to his ear to be heard. Her hands on his waist were tense. He leaned into the turn, feeling Willow shift her weight behind him. There were parked cars to either side of the street; houses with flaking whitewash and faded wooden doors. Another turn took them into a small square, and Alex squinted at the sudden dazzle of angelic light. It danced on the houses; the fountain at the square’s centre looked almost on fire.

The angel, a female, was near the fountain, smiling in anticipation as she advanced slowly towards a man. The thief, of course. His eyes were bulging as he stared at the shining creature with its fierce, beautiful face; its wings that seemed to stretch on forever, like fields of snow. His mouth opened and closed as he struggled to speak. No words came.

“Don’t be afraid,” said the angel in a voice of velvet. Her robes of light shimmered as she moved towards him. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” She took no notice of the arrival of the motorcycle as Alex idled to a stop a few houses away. Most humans couldn’t see angels unless they were about to be fed from; the creatures were used to going about their business undisturbed.

Glancing around, Alex reached under his shirt and pulled the pistol from his waistband. His silencer was in his jeans pocket; in seconds he’d fished it out and had it screwed on.

“Think it’s one of the rogues?” he murmured to Willow. The rogue angels were on the side of the humans, and did something called marshalling in an attempt to help them – which looked like feeding, but wasn’t. Alex had shot at least one rogue that he knew of, and had no desire to shoot any more. Their numbers were few enough as it was.

“I don’t think so,” Willow whispered back. “It feels too – eager.” He felt her repressed shudder.

“Right, in that case…sorry to interrupt your dinner, sweetheart,” muttered Alex. Tracking the angel as she moved, he took aim at the deep, pure white at the very centre of her halo.

“Oh god, there’s another one!” burst out Willow. “Wait, I’ll hold it off.”

He nodded, not taking his eyes from the first angel’s halo. “Be careful,” he said.

“I will be.” He felt a quick shifting behind him, and then the gleaming form of Willow’s angel flew past, swooping upwards. Though he knew that Willow could handle herself – and as far as they knew, her angel form couldn’t be hurt by other angels – he still couldn’t help worrying whenever she confronted one. Neither of them knew what it might do to her if her angel was injured.

The first angel had nearly reached the thief; her smile was gentleness itself. “This will be so wonderful for both of us,” she was saying. She reached out, almost touching his energy; her halo throbbed and pulsed in expectancy. The thief gave a whimper, screwing his eyes shut and ducking his head. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I do...”

Willow’s angel flashed by overhead and she looked up sharply, surprise and anger falling across her face. “Who – ”

Alex pulled the trigger.

As the bullet hit, her halo gave a shivering leap. Its energy seemed to tremble, waver…and then the angel exploded into flying shards of light. The thief was thrown backwards with the blast; he cried out as he struck the pavement. Fragments of light drifted down like confetti, sparkling gently in the sun.

Glancing upwards, Alex saw the second angel, a male, hovering above the fountain in a radiant fury of light and wings. It had clearly recognised Willow, and was snarling in frustration, trying to dart sideways around her to reach her human form. Good luck with that, thought Alex dryly as he watched the angel’s fruitless lunges. Willow’s angel was smaller than most – only slightly larger than her human size – and incredibly nimble in the air, like a kestrel.

He took aim on the male angel’s halo. “I’m on it!” he called, and Willow’s angel immediately wheeled away on one shining wing, heading back towards her human body. For a moment the angel seemed to hesitate, unsure whether to follow – and then Alex shot, and petals of light filled the air once more.

Willow’s human form was still sitting on the bike behind him; he heard her let out a shaky breath. Getting off the bike, he kissed her. “Good one,” he said softly, stroking her hair back. Though she hated the angels’ presence in their world as much as he did, he knew she found it difficult to watch them being killed.

“You too,” she said, managing a smile. She glanced over at the thief. “What about our friend?”

Alex rolled his eyes. “Yeah, gosh, I hope he’s OK.” Putting the gun back into his holster, he went over to the thief. The guy still lay stunned, staring dazedly at the empty space where the angel had stood. He started as Alex grabbed his arm, helping him roughly to his feet.

“Hello again,” he said in Spanish. “Remember me?” The guy wasn’t much older than him, he saw, and an inch or so taller – but thin, with a narrow face. With his shoulder-length hair and goatee, he looked like he should be a starving artist in a garret somewhere. The starving part, at least, wouldn’t have bothered Alex in the slightest.

The thief gaped at him. “You – you saved me,” he stammered.

The world seemed to go still. Alex could hear the faint pattering of the fountain; a car in the next street. “I what?” he said.

“You saved me,” repeated the thief. He was still clutching the screwdriver; the hammer had dropped when he fell. “The cabrona was about to get me, and you…” he swallowed; Alex saw his Adam’s apple move. “Thank you,” he said, his voice fervent.

Alex felt a chill. Humans rescued from angels did not think of themselves as ‘saved’; he’d had to listen to more awe-struck exclamations of angelic beauty than he could count over the years. “What are you talking about?” he said. Willow had come up behind him, and was listening intently.

The thief blinked. “You … you did save me, right? I mean, she was there, and then she just – exploded. Wasn’t that you?” He glanced at the spot where the angel had been again, barely holding back a shiver.

“Yes, but –” Alex broke off, his thoughts wheeling as he remembered the thief ducking his head away from the angel’s touch. What the hell was going on? Somehow, he’d known that the angel was to be feared.

“Listen, maybe – maybe we should talk,” he said slowly.

The thief looked wary suddenly, his dark eyes narrowing. Bending down, he picked up the hammer and shoved it into his back jeans pocket; the head stuck out like a flag. “Por que? Your bike is fine; I didn’t take it.”

“I don’t want to talk to you about my bike,” gritted out Alex. “Just – come on. Please. I’ll buy you a drink, OK?” The irony of spending money on a guy who’d just tried to rob him flashed past.

The thief hesitated, glancing from Alex to Willow. His suspicion seemed to lessen somewhat as he looked at her; finally he shrugged his thin shoulders. “Yes, OK. Why not?”


***

When the three of them entered the café together, the proprietor was just clearing their table. “Ah, you came back!” he said, beaming at Alex and Willow. Then he caught sight of who was with them, and his eyebrows lowered. “Ricardo,” he said heavily, drawing the word out.

The thief gave him an ironic salute as they sat down. Alex ordered drinks for them all, and then leaned forward on his forearms. “So your name’s Ricardo?”

He pulled a face. “Yes, but call me by my last name, Villa. Everyone does; that guy just says Ricardo to annoy me.”

“Villa,” repeated Alex in disbelief. “As in, what? Pancho Villa?”

Si, my great-grandfather.” Villa drew himself up straight in his chair.

Great, thought Alex. If the guy was telling the truth, then he was related to one of the most notorious bandits in Mexican history.

“My name is Willow,” said Willow, speaking slowly as she got the words right. “And this is Alex.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Villa, shaking her hand. He gave Alex a sideways glance; Alex could see him deciding that an offer to shake his hand might be a bit risky, still.

“You speak Spanish really well, man,” he said to Alex instead. “Like a native.” He leaned back as the proprietor arrived with their drinks. “But you – you’re still learning, right?” he asked Willow, pronouncing his words slowly. “Should I speak English? My English isn’t as good as his Spanish, but it’s not bad.”

Willow gave an embarrassed smile. “Yes, if you don’t mind,” she said in English.

Despite himself, Alex felt a flicker of appreciation for Villa, that he’d noticed Willow’s awkwardness with the language and was trying to help. Plus, unlike almost every other man they’d encountered, he actually wasn’t staring at her as if she was a bowl of ice cream and he’d been out in the sun all day, which made a change.

“So, what did you want to talk to me about?” said Villa, taking a swig of beer. His English was heavily accented, but fluent enough.

Alex wasn’t even sure how to word it. “You…didn’t want the angel to touch you,” he said.

Villa’s eyebrows shot up. “Should I have?” he asked. He glanced at the bar snacks; Willow slid one of the bowls towards him. “Gracias,” he said, picking out a strip of turkey.

“No, definitely not,” said Alex. “But most people are sort of – entranced by them. Like, hypnotised, almost. When I get to them afterwards, all they can talk about is how beautiful the angel is. So why didn’t you?”

Villa was chewing the turkey; at Alex’s words his brown eyes widened and he swallowed. “When you get to them afterwards,” he repeated. “What do you mean? How often do you do this?”

“A lot,” said Alex shortly. “But can you just answer the question?”

“Please,” put in Willow. “It’s really important.”

Villa was silent for a moment, picking at the label on his beer bottle. “Si, she was beautiful,” he said finally. “I don’t know. I see the angels on TV when they all fly in, and I think…their eyes are cold. I don’t know what they’re doing here, but I’m not sure it’s so good as everyone thinks. And when that cabrona wanted to touch me, she looked …” He trailed off, grimacing at the memory. “Hungry,” he finished. He shrugged, embarrassed. “Maybe I just don’t trust beautiful women.”

Alex stared at him, hardly able to believe what he was hearing. True, Villa had stood frozen as the angel advanced, but to gaze into one of those creature’s eyes and not be swept away – to see them for what they really were – was something that normally took years of training and experience.

Beside him, Willow had gone very still. With a glance at Alex, she leaned forward, propping her forearms on the table. “You’re right, the angel was hungry,” she said. “They’re invaders here, feeding off humans. They’ve been doing it for centuries, but it’s much worse now.”

Villa had been reaching for another piece of turkey; he stopped as Willow went on, explaining how the angels fed from human energy, and how their touch caused angel burn, resulting in physical harm and an emotional fervour for the angels themselves.

“There are millions of them in our world now,” she finished sadly. “Their own world is dying, so they’re coming here. If they’re not stopped somehow, then humanity will probably be destroyed in a few years.”

“Is this true?” whispered Villa. His eyes flew to Alex as if for confirmation. Reading it in his expression, the thief sank back in his seat and scraped an unsteady hand over his face. “So if that thing had touched me…”

“Let’s just say you wouldn’t have thanked me for killing it,” said Alex. He smiled wryly, tapping his beer against the table. “You’d probably be filling out your membership form for the Church of Angels right about now.”

Villa cringed. “It all makes sense. Jesus, it all makes sense.” He shoved his dark hair back with both hands, looking dazed. “So many people here I used to know, who are different now … and in el DF, it is even worse.” He pronounced the letters the Spanish way: day effay.

“Mexico City,” said Alex to Willow, catching her confused look. “Mexicans call it el DF, for Distrito Federal.”

Villa nodded. “I have family here, but I live in el DF; that’s where I’m from. “And there it is like…” he shook his head. “These past few weeks, people have been going even more angel crazy than usual. You’d have to see it to believe it. If what you say is true, I think half the angels who just arrived must have gone there. Feeding off people…” Anger flushed his thin face suddenly; taking a swig of beer, he leaned forward.

“What can I do?” he asked, his voice low and intent. “You killed that angel, yes? How can I do the same thing? I can’t just sit back and let them take over my city – my country –”

“I trained for years,” said Alex slowly. An idea was starting to form in his head, though he wasn’t ready to give voice to it – wasn’t even sure, yet, exactly what it was he was thinking. “I was part of a team in the US, but – they’re all dead now, apart from me.” Shrugging out of the left arm of his plaid shirt, he pushed up the sleeve of his t-shirt, showing Villa his tattoo. “For Angel Killer,” he said.

The thief gazed at it. “AK,” he mused, stroking his goatee. “So mine would need to be AA. Angel Asesino.”

“Yours?” said Alex with a frown, pulling his shirt on again. But somehow he wasn’t really surprised; this whole encounter was beginning to take on a sense of inevitability.

Si,” said Villa eagerly. “You’ll let me join you, right? What did you use to kill the cabrona – a gun? I’m a good shot. I’m from Tepito; we know how to use weapons there.”

Alex didn’t doubt it; Tepito was notorious for being the most crime-ridden, violent barrio in Mexico City – which, in the largest city in the world, was probably saying something. Leaning back in his seat, he regarded the thief. The truth was that Villa was already ahead of a lot of the AKs he’d worked with, just from being able to resist an angel’s eyes. Could he really be trusted, though?

“You just tried to steal my bike,” he pointed out dryly.

Villa looked surprised. “Si, but that was before I know you. Your bike is safe now, I promise. And if you’re the only Angel Asesino left, then you must need more, right?”

That was an understatement. Alex felt his mouth twist in acknowledgement.

Willow cleared her throat. “Villa, this may sound sort of strange, but … can I touch your hand?” she asked.

Villa blinked. “My hand?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Er…por que? Why?”

“Please?” said Willow without answering. “It’s nothing bad, I promise.”

Villa’s gaze flicked to Alex. When there was no protest, he slowly held his hand out across the table. There was a multi-coloured cloth bracelet around his wrist, with a small silver disc hanging from it. Shutting her eyes, Willow closed her fingers around Villa’s, holding his hand firmly. Alex watched as the seconds passed in silence. Though obviously uneasy, Villa sat very still, his eyes on Willow’s face.

Finally Willow released his hand. Opening her eyes again, she considered Villa with a thoughtful expression. “We can trust him,” she said to Alex.

Across the table, Villa’s eyes widened. “You are – I don’t know the word in English,” he said. “Vidente.”

“Yeah, she’s psychic,” said Alex absently, rubbing his jaw. He glanced at Villa. “Look, could you give us a minute?” he said.

Villa hesitated, and then shrugged. “Si. I’ll get another drink.” Pushing his chair back, he went up to the counter.

“What did you see?” Alex asked in an undertone.

Willow took a sip of her Coke. “A lot about his life up until now. Petty crime, some gang involvement. He hasn’t exactly been an angel.” She realised what she’d said, and gave a grimacing smile. “He’s always lived in a violent area; crime is pretty much all he knows – and there’s been times when he’s had to be violent too, to survive. It’s not really his nature, but he won’t hesitate if he feels like it’s necessary.”

Alex nodded; none of this was particularly surprising to him.

“About the future, I didn’t see all that much, but it’s because his future is wrapped up with ours,” Willow went on. “Alex, when I say we can trust him, I mean – we can really trust him. It might sound strange, with the life he’s had, but he’s a good guy. And he’s very loyal if he likes someone; he’d never betray us. In fact, I get the feeling he can really help us.”

“Help us how?” he said. “You mean, apart from being another gun?”

She nodded, tucking back a strand of her golden-brown hair. “I’m not sure exactly, but I think he can. And there’s something else. We need to go with him, back to Mexico City. I think it’s the place we’ve been looking for.”

Alex fell silent, taking all of this in. Mexico City was a concrete sprawl of humanity with over twenty million people in it. When they’d talked about finding a safe base from which to recruit and train new AKs, going there had never even occurred to him – but in a way, it wasn’t a bad idea. With so many people there, they’d be able to keep a low profile in the crowd; it would also be a lot easier to recruit new Angel Killers.

The downside, of course, was that it sounded like the place was seething with angels.

“What about your aura?” he asked. Willow’s aura – the energy that surrounded every living thing – was a shimmering silver colour with lavender lights: a distinct mix of angel and human. “In smaller places like this, we can do a scan and keep you away from angels, if there’s more activity than we can handle. In a city that size, there’s no way in hell we could do that. Any angel that saw your aura would know exactly who you are – and if they were in their human form, we couldn’t take them out. If they were in a crowd, we might not even be able to see them.”

At the thought of anything happening to Willow, he heard his voice harden. The angels still wanted to kill her, he had no doubt about that. He saw again the male that he’d just shot; the creature would have happily ripped her life force away in seconds.

“I know,” said Willow. She bit her lip, worry lighting her green eyes. “But – how much of a danger is it? I mean, how often do angels scan auras when they’re in their human bodies? Don’t they usually wait until they’re in their angel form, about to feed?”

“The ones I’ve tracked usually do,” he admitted.

“And you’ve tracked hundreds,” she pointed out. “So it must be pretty typical. If an angel saw my aura when it was about to feed, then we’d probably see it, too. We’d have a good chance of getting it.”

Alex blew out a breath. When it came to Willow’s safety, probably and good chance were not his favourite words. Yet everything she said made sense. For that matter, being where the action was made sense, if they actually hoped to make a difference to the number of angels in the world. And if it would be difficult for them to spot a particular aura in a crowd, at least the same would be true for the angels, too. Yeah … all very logical.

He’d already almost lost Willow once. He’d die if anything happened to her.

Looking down, he took her hand, playing with her fingers. “How strongly do you feel we should go there?” he asked finally.

“Really strongly,” she said without hesitating. “Alex, it’s the place we need to be; I’m sure of it. It’s hard to explain, but…from what I felt in Villa’s hand, it’s like there’s going to be a – a convergence
soon; lots of lines intersecting in the same place. And we’re a part of it too; we need to be there.”

He glanced up sharply. “A part of what? What’s going to be happening?”

Willow bit her lip, looking troubled. “I don’t know. There’s just…things we need to be there for.”

Alex shook his head with a slight smile, touching her face. “I’m a lot happier with specific details, you know that? 'Things we need to be there for' just makes me want to go buy an extra magazine for my gun.”

“I don’t blame you – I’d feel the same way,” she said, reaching up and squeezing his hand. “But the feeling I’m getting doesn’t have to mean anything bad, you know. It might just be that there are people there who we need to meet and train, or something.”

Alex hoped that was all it was. If he were by himself, he wouldn’t care so much, but since falling in love with Willow it felt as if his life wasn’t really his own anymore; he’d become almost hyper-aware of anything that might be a threat to her.

She gave a small smile. “Sorry. Having a psychic girlfriend must be a lot of fun, huh?”

He couldn’t help smiling, too; she looked so anxious. “Oh, it’s got its good points, actually.” Leaning forward on his elbows, he kissed her across the table, relishing the soft warmth of her lips. “Right, I guess it looks like we’re going, then,” he said after a pause. Willow nodded, rubbing his arm.

Alex looked over at the counter. Villa stood some distance away, drinking a beer and talking to someone, obviously waiting for him and Willow to finish before he came back to their table. He caught the thief’s eye, and a moment later Villa returned, dropping into his seat.

“So, Willow says we can trust you,” said Alex without preamble.

Villa glanced at Willow, his expression a mix of wariness and interest. “I won’t ask what else you saw about me.”

She smiled. “Nothing too bad.”

A rueful look crossed the thief’s lean face. “Really? Then you didn’t search very far. But yes, you can trust me.” Fiddling with the bowl of tapas, Villa’s gaze went to Alex. “So…you will train me, and let me fight with you?”

Alex almost laughed as he realised: Christ, they’d done it; they’d recruited their first Angel Killer. Life really didn’t turn out the way you expected it to, sometimes. He offered his hand across the table. “Yeah, I’ll train you. Welcome to being an AK.”

Villa shook it with a smile. “AA,” he corrected. “Angel Asesino.”

“He’s got a point,” said Willow with a grin. “When in Mexico…”

***

Over more drinks and tapas, Alex told Villa about the plan to go to el DF and recruit more Angel Killers there, if they could. “What do you think, is it a good idea?” he asked.

Villa’s face lit up. “Si, very much so. In Mexico City is Mexico; there is everything there. And I can’t be the only one not sure of the angels. You’ll find a good team. That is your plan, right?” he added. “To have a team, like – ” he nodded at Alex’s arm. “The one you had.”

The team he’d had. A sharp pang went through Alex as he thought of everyone who was gone now. His dad. His brother Jake. Cully, who’d fallen victim to angel burn and been like a second father to him. And the dozens of AKs who’d been working solo in the field when the angels had them assassinated: Rita, with her wry sense of humour; Juan, one of the best leaders he’d ever worked under. Kara, with her exotic beauty and utter fearlessness, who’d been the first of the AKs to get a tattoo done. He and Jake had both had crushes on her at various points.

The thought of them being shot still felt like a punch in the gut to Alex, even a month after hearing the news. He’d known most of the Angel Killers for years – had grown up knowing some of them. He’d gone camping with them on hunts, played cards with them until dawn.

Nothing could ever be like the team he’d had.

“Yeah,” he said, managing a smile. “That’s my plan.” Wordlessly, Willow squeezed his hand under the table, and he rubbed her fingers, grateful for her touch.

Shaking the momentary sadness away, Alex went on, “I need to train a team so we can start fighting – but I also need to just get as many AKs trained as I can, so that some of them can set up their own camps, back in the US and Canada. We’ve got to get Angel Killers fighting there, too, even if Willow and I are down here in Mexico.”

He’d thought about it a lot these past few weeks, and was certain this was the right course of action. In his father’s day, a single camp with a handful of fighters might have been enough, but that idea no longer even stood a chance. If the human race had any hope of survival, then the AKs couldn’t be localised in just one area – he needed to have a whole network of camps, spread out all over the place.

Villa nodded slowly, taking this in. “Por que?” he said suddenly. “Why are you down here, I mean? Why not stay in the US, since you are both Americans?”

Why not, indeed? Alex gave a wry shrug. “Neither of us are the angels’ favourite people, exactly. Things were getting pretty unsafe for us there. For Willow, especially.”

Villa glanced at her in surprise, as if he wasn’t certain whether Alex was joking or not. “Wait, I can see why he would not be liked – the last Angel Killer. But you? Why do the angels not like you?”

Alex saw Willow’s muscles tense – and realised that even though she thought Villa could be trusted, she wasn’t at all certain how he might react initially to the news about what she was. “Because – they think I can destroy them, somehow,” she said, shifting in her seat. “I don’t know if they’re right or not, but that’s what they think.”

“All by yourself?” Villa looked like he was waiting for the punch line.

Willow nodded, and took a breath. “It’s because of what I am. You see, the reason I’m psychic…is because I’m half-angel.”

Shock fell across Villa’s face; his slight joking mood vanished. “Half angel? But how – ”

“My father,” said Willow steadily. “In their human form, angels can have relationships with humans. And apparently they can’t usually breed, but…” she shrugged. “I seem to be an exception. I have a dual nature; my angel self looks almost exactly like the angel that attacked you today. I’m nothing like them, though; I don’t – feed off humans.”

Resting his arm along the back of her chair, Alex stroked her shoulder; he could tell how difficult it was for her to even say the words. Relaxing a fraction, Willow looked down at her Coke, playing with the bottle. “Anyway… if you’re going to be working with us, then you needed to know.”

Staring at her, Villa murmured something in Spanish that Alex didn’t catch, and he stiffened, wondering if Villa was going to react as badly to Willow’s half-angel nature as he himself had when he’d first met her. But something very like sympathy flashed through the thief’s brown eyes.

“So … what is that like for you?” he asked finally.

Willow looked up. A surprised smile grew across her elfin face. “Um – it was really hard, when I first found out. It’s OK now, though. I mean, I hate what the angels are doing in our world, but … I like who I am.”

Villa looked thoughtful as he took a swig of his beer. “Si, that means a lot – to like who you are.” There was a pause, and then as if nothing had been said, he started talking about el DF, and possible places that they might use as a base. “I know people there,” he said with an expressive shrug. “I’ve got, ah – connections that might help us.”

Respect to the guy, thought Alex as the conversation moved on. Serious respect, in fact; he himself hadn’t managed to take in that information without treating Willow like a pariah for days.

And all at once he knew two things. One was that he liked the thief a lot, actually … and two, he was really glad that Villa had tried to steal his bike.



5 comments:

  1. love it! but I still prefer the published one! xx

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  2. I actually like this one better. It makes...well, I don't know. I like this guy, and I wish he'd made it in the published books. :)

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  3. Thanks both of you for your comments! Personally, I just think of this as a *different* version, not necessarily better or worse if you look at it on a scene-by-scene basis - but it's definitely worse in terms of the overall storyline, which I just couldn't get to come together. Which is why we have a different Fire on the shelves. ;) Bookworm, I really like Villa, too - maybe we'll see him again in another story someday!

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  4. OMG!!! Love it!!! I wish he had been in ťHę book!!! Since dat can't happen, I wish he gets a role in ťHę angel movie series( I really hope ťHę movie happens!!) U r awsm!!!

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  5. I really enjoyed this! I think Villa is a strong, interesting character! Too bad he didn't make it into the story, but getting to read outtakes is just making my day! :)

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