Christmas is almost upon us! If you're here in the UK, you know how wet and miserable it's been.
"I'm dreaming of a grey Christmas" doesn't have much of a ring to it, does it? Personally, I've been spending a lot of time snuggled up in my lovely wool pashmina and comfy slippers. I love it that Christmas shopping can be done in front of your computer now, without even setting foot outside. DEFINITELY an improvement over crowded shopping malls.
So, last week I shared the first extract from the original, unfinished Angel Fire. And wow -- I've really loved reading all of your responses to this piece, here on the blog and also on Facebook, Twitter, and the comments you've sent through my website. A lot of you love Villa already, which fills me with glee as I have a real soft spot for him myself! Keep your comments coming - I'd love to hear what you think.
A lot of you have wondered why this version wasn't ultimately the one published. Mostly, it just had too much going on, like a puzzle with too many pieces. There was one puzzle piece -- Willow's nightmares of Raziel, and what these eventually turn out to mean -- that I was never really happy with. When I finally took it out, I was left without any emotional arc for Willow. (The technical term for this is 'ARGH!') At that point, it was easier to just start over, even though many elements I'd really liked -- particularly Villa, and Jonah's role -- ended up falling by the wayside.
But it all worked out. I love, very much, the version of Fire that's on the shelves now. It's definitely the right one: the way the story was meant to be. Still, I'm enjoying sharing these glimpses of a different Fire with you, and agree with everyone who's said that you'd love to see Villa in a story of his own someday. I'd love that, too. So who knows -- it may happen!
In this second extract, there's first a short sequence featuring Jonah, and then a longer one from Willow’s point of view, where we again see Villa.
Without further ado...here's part two, for all of you to cosy up with over Christmas!
I’ve always loved Jonah as a character -- he's so much braver than he thinks he is -- and had planned for him to have a larger role in the series than he ultimately had. Here's his first section from the original Angel Fire. (Some of you may recognise this from the ‘deleted scenes’ section of the UK ebook of Angel Fever.)
It was strange, being back on his old college campus. Jonah walked slowly down the sidewalk that led from the Science block, remembering the day two years ago when his life had changed forever.
He’d been trudging along this very path, worried about his biology grade, wondering glumly if he should give up on his degree. It wasn’t as if he even wanted it anyway. No one would be surprised that he hadn’t managed to cut it in college – certainly not his family, and least of all Jonah himself. But he’d been too gutless to actually make the decision and face the fallout from his parents, and so he’d kept going to classes out of some ghastly mix of cowardice and inertia, waiting for the inevitable failure to solve the problem for him. That was what his whole life had been like, so far: waiting for the inevitable failure.
And then he’d seen the angel.
Jonah paused as he came to the exact spot, near an oak tree that grew beside the path. A winter breeze stirred the dark curls around the edge of his thermal cap as in his mind, he saw the angel flying towards him again: her wings, shining like sunlight on new snow; her beautiful, peaceful face.
Do not be afraid, she had said. I have something to give you.
And she had. She’d given him the courage to change.
Jonah sighed and leaned against the tree, ignoring a group of laughing students heading past. The realisation that angels really existed had brought magic, wonder, hope to his life. To find out that yes, they existed, but everything else about them was a lie, had sliced his moorings right out from under him. He’d been stunned these last few months, wondering what he was supposed to do now. It was as if there’d never been any magic in his life at all.
Jonah pushed off the tree and started walking again, staring down at his scuffed shoes. Part of him wished that he hadn’t escaped, that day back at the Denver cathedral. What was the point of living when the loss of the angels was a constant pain inside of him? Even now, knowing that it was all a lie, he’d give anything if he could believe in their goodness again.
Reaching the parking lot, Jonah headed dully for his car. He supposed he’d return to the cheap furnished apartment he was renting. Yes, and then think these same pointless thoughts a few more thousand times. He winced. No, maybe he’d just go for a drive – try to clear his head.
Digging in his jeans pocket for his keys, Jonah froze.
There was a man with a neat brown beard standing a few cars away: a teacher, maybe. His car door was still open, as if he’d just gotten out of it, and he was staring upwards, smiling.
“You’re real,” Jonah heard him say. The smile on the man’s face widened as he went silent.
Jonah felt sick suddenly. Since the arrival of the Second Wave, the angels seemed to be everywhere; too many times to count these last few months, he’d seen the faraway smile of someone being fed from by one.
As Jonah leaned limply against his car, unable to look away, he wondered yet again why he was so special. For he was immune to the angels’ touch; when his angel had given him courage, she’d also done something to his aura, making him undesirable to the predators. But why should someone as spineless as him be protected, why?
You made a mistake, he thought sadly to his angel. Oh god, you made such a mistake, choosing me.
Gradually, the victim came back to himself, blinking, and Jonah knew the angel must have left. The man took a briefcase from his car and slowly shut the door, glancing upwards again with that same wondering smile. As he walked off, he was unsteady on his feet.
I wonder what he’s got, Jonah thought glumly as he took out his keys. What new disease was even now coursing its way through the man’s body? His muscles tightened with helpless anger. What right did the angels have to do this, as if humans were nothing more than – than fuel?
If I were an Angel Killer, I could have stopped it.
The thought surged through him like a lightning bolt. Jonah went still; all at once his heart was pounding. Him…an Angel Killer?
In his mind he saw Alex again, standing in the Church of Angels cathedral holding a gun on him. It had struck Jonah then that Alex, though several years younger, was older than he himself would ever be. Yes, he realised now – because Alex had been facing the enemy for years, actually doing something about it. Unlike Jonah, who’d spent these last three months wishing he’d never found out the truth. He had no idea where Alex and Willow had gone after his brief encounter with them, but he bet it wasn’t someplace to lick their wounds and feel sorry for themselves. No, they’d be out there fighting the angels.
Could he join them?
Suddenly Jonah was filled with a hope so strong it was almost painful. Getting into his car he reversed quickly out of the parking lot, heading back to his apartment after all. He knew exactly who he needed to call – he just prayed that he still had the number.
Once back in his apartment he sprinted to the bedroom. On the chest of drawers was a pile of business cards, still lying from where he’d tossed them a week ago, when he’d cleaned out his wallet
from sheer boredom. Grabbing them up, Jonah flipped through them, his fingers trembling. It had to be here. It had to be.
Jonah went through the cards again, then a third time. “Please, please,” he muttered as he slapped each one down – as if some miracle might suddenly produce the business card from the CIA agent who’d recruited him to help with the attack on the Second Wave.
No miracle occurred. And now, belatedly, he remembered: he’d thrown the card away in a hotel room in Wyoming, a few days after his escape from the cathedral. He’d been in despair, wishing that he’d never even heard of Sophie and Nate, the two agents who’d ripped the blinders from his eyes. He’d also been drunk, for almost the first time in his life. He’d torn the card into little pieces and hurled them violently in the wastepaper basket; they’d be rotting away in some landfill by now.
Jonah slowly sank down onto the sagging bed. What now? Sophie was the last agent left from Project Angel. The business card with her handwritten cell phone number had been the only way to reach her. As for the Angel Killers, all the field agents had been assassinated, except for Alex. And Alex could be anywhere by now.
It was a complete dead end.
Slowly, Jonah pulled off his cap, releasing his dark, springy curls. It felt as if the disappointment might crush him completely. Why, though? It wasn’t as if they’d have actually accepted him as an Angel Killer. No one in their right mind would ever hand him a loaded gun and trust him to protect someone with it. What had he been thinking? He’d never even shot an air rifle before.
On a scale of dumb ideas, it was pretty impressive, all right.
Yet over the days that followed, it wouldn’t leave him. He thought about it as he went to the store, pushing a shopping cart around and buying food that he didn’t want. He thought about it as he thumbed dully through a college catalogue, wondering if he could work up the interest to take a few classes. He thought about it as he took his morning shower, gazing down at his body with its lack of muscles and realising afresh what a stupid idea it had been – him, an Angel Killer. He scrubbed shampoo into his scalp almost viciously, tilting his head back into the burning water and relishing the stings when the soap got into his eyes.
Finally Jonah found himself in a sports bar one night, simply because another night at home alone in front of his TV set would have driven him crazy. And even there, he found himself watching TV anyway – sitting at the bar with a Bud Light and staring dully up at the screen, though it was impossible to hear it with the rock music that was pulsing through the air.
When he glanced at the screen again, he saw Alex.
“Turn it up, turn it up!” he yelled, scrambling on top of the bar to reach the TV. He cranked up the volume and heard “…such as this angelic demonstration in the Zocalo, the city’s main square. People from all around the world are flocking to the city, lured by the hope of angels. In fact, they say if you love the angels at all…this is the place to be!”
A commercial came on. “Wait! What city? Where?” cried Jonah, banging his hand on the TV set.
The entire sports bar was staring at him. “Dude,” said the bartender slowly. “You are going to get down off my bar. Now.”
Jonah climbed down, red-faced but with hope thudding through him. He’d watch CNN when he got home; they always played the same stories over and over. In fact, he’d go now. Leaving his beer half-full he started to zip up his jacket. The guy at the next stool was eyeing at him warily.
“Whoa,” he said. “You must really be into Mexico City, huh?”
Jonah felt like kissing him. “Is that where it was? Are you sure?”
The guy nodded. “Yeah, I was there last year. That square, the Zocalo? It’s wild, man – it’s like the biggest square in the world.” He dribbled a few Planters peanuts into his mouth from a bag. “And listen, the place was obsessed enough about the angels last year – looks like it’s just gotten unreal now.” His gaze narrowed as he studied Jonah. “You’re not into the angels, are you? I mean, I know a lot of people are, but – ”
“No, not me,” Jonah assured him. Happiness was singing through him. Of course – Alex was in Mexico City. Far away from the US, where he and Willow were in so much danger, but still in a place where he could fight the angels.
When Jonah got home, he taped the story and watched the crowd scene over and over. It was just a sweeping pan of the camera, but it showed Alex, he was sure of it, the expression on his handsome face in stark contrast to the exultant cheers. Was that Willow beside him? Jonah frowned, rewinding and freezing the frame. He couldn’t tell; the girl was half-hidden, and had red hair instead of Willow’s distinctive blonde. But that was definitely Alex. No doubt.
Still staring at the screen, Jonah slumped back against the worn sofa, clutching his head and grinning. He’d found the last remaining Angel Killer; the one person on the planet who could teach him how to fight the angels. Yes, there was still the little detail of actually finding him, in a city of twenty million people – but at least he had a reason to hope now.
And after these last three months, that felt…pretty good, actually.
Part of the issue with this version of Fire was that it felt as if it had two different openings. The following extract from Willow’s point of view could almost be the story’s beginning, yet takes place 25,000 words in. But it has a lot of material I really like, including another look at Villa.
As I've said, there were never any plans for a Villa/Willow romance. What I actually saw happening was perhaps more poignant. Villa falls in love with Willow – but given his criminal lifestyle, knows that he’s no good for her and wouldn't want anything to happen between them even if it could. Villa is not someone to show his true feelings, though (just like Seb, who has more than a little in common with him) – and he and Willow have become firm friends.
‘The Hunter’ referred to in this extract was another reason I couldn’t make this version of Fire work. For now, I’ll let you speculate about who The Hunter was going to turn out to be!
You may recognise the setting here from the published Angel Fire, when Seb takes Willow to his bolt-hole in Tepito. Having imagined that abandoned warehouse full of church relics, I wasn’t about to not use it. And, for members of Team Sam, the scenes that follow are when the brash Texan walked into my mind for the very first time.
I woke up slowly, with a vague sense that something was different. I was too tired to care. Nestling more deeply into the sleeping bags, I pressed my face against the pillow. But now that I was more awake, the background noises sharpened into distinct sound. The whir and pound of the treadmill; the buzz of voices talking.
Sam, I thought blearily, listening to the treadmill. He worked out as much as Alex, and normally started his day with it. Finally giving up and opening my eyes, I saw that the lights in the warehouse were on. They shone brightly through the stained glass of the tiny room I shared with Alex, so that soft rainbow patches fell across my skin. That was what had felt different; it was later than usual. Why had Alex let me sleep?
Then I remembered. I’d had the nightmare again.
I groaned, letting my forearm fall across my eyes. What was wrong with me? Yes, OK, Raziel was my father. He was a predator who was responsible for my mother’s illness. But it had all happened years ago; it was hardly hot off the press.
So why couldn’t I stop dreaming about it?
As I got out of bed, my feet cringed away from the cold cement floor. You’d think I’d be used to it, after over two months here. Reaching for my clothes, I pulled on a battered pair of jeans, and a bright blue sweater I’d bought for just a few pesos at one of the outdoor marketplaces.
No angels. I’d rather have not had any privacy at all than be surrounded by angels in my sleep. Some of the guys had wanted to use the angel windows for target practise, but Alex wouldn’t let them. None of this stuff really belonged to us. So all of those windows were still stored where we’d first found them, stacked up against one wall.
When Alex and I had first talked about finding a safe base from which to recruit and train new Angel Killers, I could never, not in hundred lifetimes, have imagined that we’d end up in a warehouse full of religious artefacts in the middle of Mexico City.
Our tiny bedroom was made of six large stained-glass windows, hinged together to form a screen, with the corrugated metal of the warehouse making up the fourth wall. The mattress that Villa had gotten for us sat directly on the floor. It almost filled the small area, with the shelves we’d made taking up the rest of it. We didn’t need a lot of space; neither of us had very much. Though a bit more privacy would have been nice.
Extremely nice, actually.
When I stepped out into the cavernous main space of the warehouse, my eyes found Alex immediately. He and a few of the others were standing around a large table made from a door and a couple of sawhorses, staring down at a map of Mexico City.
“Buenos dias,” I said as I went over to them.
Manuel and Carlos flashed white smiles as they returned the greeting. Brendan just lifted one hand in a wave. “Si, pero Alex … ” he was saying excitedly, tapping the map. Yes, but Alex…
Most of the Angel Killers spoke English, but Spanish was used a lot at the camp, since many of the AKs were Mexican. Before this, my only experience of another language had been trying not to nod off during French class.
Brendan, on the other hand, had been a Spanish major in school. Even so, his Spanish sounded nothing like Alex’s; it was like something out of a textbook. Alex wasn’t listening to him anyway – at the sound of my voice, he looked up, his eyes smiling as he saw me.
“Morning,” he said. His dark hair was rumpled; he wore jeans and a long-sleeved white thermal shirt. Warmth stirred through me as a private look passed briefly between us, and then he turned back to the map.
“Look, I’ve told you before, there isn’t a pattern to it,” he said, switching to English. “They just feed on whoever looks the most appetising to them, that’s all.”
Brendan’s voice rose. “Yes, but just listen, OK? There were three angels feeding in the Zocalo yesterday – three! And then the day before, don’t you remember, there were three of them right here, just half a mile away –”
“Four,” corrected Manuel in his mild voice.
“Si, four,” said Carlos, nodding. He and Manuel were cousins from a remote town in the Sierra Madres.
“It wasn’t, it was three!” Brendan scraped his hands through his hair, so that it looked like an auburn explosion. He was small and wiry, with terrier-like energy. He frowned. “No, wait …was it four?”
“It was four,” said Alex. He took a swig of coffee; I could tell that he was struggling not to lose his patience. “Brendan, seriously, you’re on a losing battle with this, OK? They’re angels, not algebra.”
I held back a smile. Brendan liked things to be very logical; he couldn’t seem to grasp that angels weren’t some sort of equation, where all you had to do was plug in the right numbers and you’d get an answer. I wished he was right; it would make our lives a lot easier.
“All right, fine,” said Brendan sulkily. “What about the rogue angels, though? There has to be some place where they – they congregate, or –”
“Why?” asked Alex. “They might just work on their own, you know. They don’t have to have a secret clubhouse.”
I could hear the frustration in his voice. These past couple of months, it had become clear what kind of odds we were facing. They were very…challenging, if you wanted to put a positive spin on it. But if we could just hook up with some of the rogue angels, all of us working together, it would make a big difference. So far, though, the rogues had remained frustratingly elusive.
Glancing up, Brendan seemed to actually notice me this time. “Willow, what do you think?” he said. “Hey, yeah – come on, you’re half angel! If you were a rogue, then you’d have a congregation point, right? That would be the mindset, wouldn’t it?”
I stared at him. “Um…”
With an Oh god, I can’t believe we actually recruited this guy look, Alex began to chuckle helplessly, pinching the bridge of his nose; Manuel and Carlos were shaking their heads and smiling.
“You’re a dipshit, Brendan,” shouted Sam from the work-out area in the far corner. He was about Alex’s height, with short sandy brown hair.
“No, I don’t think that would be the mindset,” I said finally, trying not to laugh. “I think, actually, that after an initial meeting where we all agreed on what we were doing, I’d probably never contact the others again, so that we could all stay safe.”
He frowned. “Oh. Is that what your psychic sense says?”
“No, that’s what my common sense says.”
“Yeah, and I think she’s completely right,” said Alex. He drained his coffee. “Brendan, you’ve got to stop thinking about this like it’s a movie; it could get you killed someday. There’s no logic, no congregation point. Just a lot of angels that we have to kill, without getting killed ourselves. OK?”
“Yeah, I get it,” muttered Brendan, his cheeks red.
It was almost time for target practise; leaving the map, Brendan and the others went over to start setting things up. The two of us left alone for a rare moment, Alex leaned against the makeshift table. “How are you?” he said softly.
I made a face. “I’m fine. I’m just so sick of that stupid dream…thanks for letting me sleep late.”
“That’s all right. You looked pretty zonked.” My hand was on the table; unobtrusively, Alex moved his own hand over it, one of his fingers lightly stroking one of mine. “Will you be OK to start training some of them with the energy work pretty soon?”
Just the feel of that single finger, moving over mine, was…doing things to me. I cleared my throat. “Yeah, let me just get some coffee and a piece of toast. Twenty minutes?”
“Whenever you’re ready.” I could tell that he wanted to kiss me, but neither of us moved; we’d decided from the start that it wouldn’t be great for the two of us to go around swooning over each other in front of everyone. The look in his eyes now almost made up for not being able to really touch him.
Squeezing my hand slightly, Alex pulled his away and glanced over at Brendan, who was arguing with Manuel over where to set up the targets. He shook his head. “I blame you for that guy, you know,” he said teasingly. “You told me he was OK.”
“He is!” I said, laughing. We’d had this conversation before. “He just – has a bit of a learning curve to get through.”
“Psychic sense or common sense?”
“Psychic sense, this time.”
Alex raised a dark eyebrow. “Hmm. I think I’m starting to appreciate your common sense a lot more.” He looked back at the targets. “Right, I’d better get over there. See you later.”
“See you later,” I echoed, feeling a slight pang that we hadn’t had longer to talk. But it was always like this now. The only time we really had alone together was at night, and even then we were surrounded by people.
As I moved across the warehouse towards the small kitchen, I passed various religious statues, standing against the metal wall like people at a party waiting to dance. One of them had a hat perched on its white marble head with Texas Aggies on it: Sam’s idea of a joke.
As people flocked to the Church of Angels, ordinary churches were closing down in droves. In the last year or two, many had begun placing their things in storage, so that the buildings wouldn’t get
looted. Then, as church leaders themselves succumbed to angel burn, these storage facilities sometimes slipped through the cracks.
This warehouse near the centrito historico was one of those forgotten places. It had been found for us by Villa, of course. Apparently one of his ‘friends’ had been using it for something else before we got to it, which explained the bathroom and kitchen.
We didn’t ask too many questions, to be honest – we were just glad to finally have a base. Though the place was more than a little surreal, it was large enough for all the AKs to live and be trained here, and private enough that no one bothered us.
In the kitchen, I filled a small pot with water and put it on to boil, groaning when I saw the sink full of dirty mugs. I washed one out and spooned some instant coffee in.
My hand slowed as the images from my nightmare came creeping back.
My mother’s face, so rapturous, so loving. And my father, taking his pleasure without caring what he was doing to her. I stared blindly at the water as it began to steam. Why couldn’t all of this just go away?
“Ah! Mi amiga, you’re making coffee,” said Villa cheerfully as he came in. “And I know what you’re saying to yourself! How can I make Villa happy this fine day? You’ll be so pleased to know that it’s simple.” Nimbly hefting himself up on the counter, he sat dangling his long legs with an innocent expression.
The distraction was a relief. I shoved the nightmare from me and shook my head, unable to hold back a smile. “You know what? I wasn’t actually saying that to myself.”
“Oh. But you were about to, right?” he said hopefully.
I rolled my eyes as I rinsed out another mug, and spooned coffee into that one, too. I wouldn’t let anyone else get away with this. I’d learned that if I didn’t say ‘no’ pretty firmly, the Mexican men – and some of the Americans, too – would expect me to be the official coffee-girl and general cleaner-upper. Which, I’m sorry, wasn’t even remotely going to happen.
I usually found myself making an exception for Villa, though. Maybe because he’d accepted me for what I was, right from the start.
After we’d arrived in Mexico City with Villa, things had happened really quickly – first getting set up with this place, and then finding several other new recruits, all in the space of a week or so.
Once they knew what the angels really were, none of our recruits had taken my half-angel nature in their stride. There was usually this sense of suspicion, or distaste, or even revulsion when they found out what I was. And I understood, I really did. It had been hard for me to come to terms with, too. Yet it still hurt, even if most of them came around fairly quickly once they got to know me. The few who didn’t, Alex hadn’t hesitated to get rid of.
But right from the start, Villa had just … never seemed bothered by it. He had this ability to simply shrug and accept things that was very appealing when you were the only half-angel on a team of Angel Killers. Maybe it was because as a thief, he was an outsider too – though we couldn’t have done without him so far. He kept us going practically single-handedly with crates of food, not to mention supplying the guns and weapons that we needed.
I remembered Alex raising an eyebrow when Villa had first started carting stuff in, like a cat proudly bringing a mouse home to its owners. “Do I need to be asking questions about this?” he’d asked.
“No,” Villa had told him with a grin. “I’ve got connections, remember? Let’s just say…they’re friends who want the Angel Asesinos to succeed.”
The role that Villa’s ‘friends’ played was ironic. When people had angel burn, they perceived their predators as being good and kind. Here in el DF, this had manifested itself in an enormous campaign: Make Our City Worthy of the Angels! Crime was being cracked down on; bars and nightclubs were shutting down daily.
Plenty of citizens were delighted, whether they had angel burn or not. Others were just alarmed. Mexico City had taken on a fin de siecle feel, like in the last days of Berlin before World War Two. Lots of people were partying hard; there seemed to be a sense that they’d better grab the good times now, before they were snatched away forever by the angel-loving do-gooders. So reading between the lines, Villa’s ‘friends’ had a vested interest in the city not being cleaned up.
It was kind of funny, when you thought about it: organised crime and the Angel Killers, being on the same side to save humanity.
I finished making the coffee, and handed Villa his. He took four sugars, which made me shudder every time I had to spoon it all in.
“So, did you hear?” he said, blowing on the liquid to cool it. He was wearing a grey long-sleeved t-shirt with the sleeves pushed up. Around one wrist was the braided cloth bracelet he always wore; its silver disc flashed in the light.
I shook my head as I got out the bread and put a slice in the toaster. “Hear what?”
“The Hunter walks,” intoned Villa, his brown eyes sparkling.
Interest leapt through me. “What? Really?”
Villa nodded. “This morning, with my own eyes. I was out – ah –” he coughed shiftily – “doing a few errands, and I saw a woman standing there in the plaza, with that look on her face.” He mimed the vacant, euphoric stare of someone who was being fed from by an angel.
I winced as my nightmare flashed into my mind again. “Oh, no.” Slowly, I put my coffee down.
“Si,” said Villa. “So, I moved up through my chakras, and I saw the angel – ”
“Really? Hey, good for you,” I broke in, trying to smile. Villa had a lot of natural talent, but he’d really struggled with getting a grip on the chakra points at first.
He nodded, inclining his head. “Gracias. Anyway, I see the angel – it is a male – and I am just thinking of my gun, and wondering whether I can draw and shoot the ijo without being seen. And then suddenly – pow!” He clapped his hands, brushing them off each other so that I almost expected sparks to fly. “The angel is gone. Exploded, dead.”
“And it wasn’t one of us,” I said to myself. I knew it couldn’t have been. None of our AKs were trained enough yet for Alex to send them out as a team on their own – though Manuel was close, and Sam thought he was.
Villa shook his head. “No. Someone else. The same someone else we’ve encountered a few times before.”
My toast popped up; still thinking of the Hunter, I reached for it absently, putting it on a small plate. Just as I was peering into the fridge to find the butter, there was a loud buzzing noise.
“Oh no,” I said, glancing up apprehensively. As if in answer, the lights flickered and went off. The warehouse fell into shadows, lit only by the small line of windows near the ceiling. As the exercise machines went abruptly silent, I heard Sam give a yelp on the treadmill.
“Not again,” I moaned. I dropped my head in my hands on the counter and waited for the inevitable.
“Willow!” chorused several voices. “The generator!”
“I hate that generator,” I muttered. More accurately, the generator seemed to hate me. And though several of the guys were good with engines, the thing was completely cantankerous – I was the only one who was always able to get it going again.
Beside me, there was a sliding sound as Villa leaned down from his perch on the counter and opened a drawer. A second later his thin face was lit from below with a flashlight. “You need this, perhaps?”
“Thanks,” I said, taking it. “I don’t know why your buddies can’t get us a new generator, by the way.”
He spread his arms blamelessly. “I will ask them,” he said. He always said that.
I sighed, envisioning the dusty, cobwebby utility closet where the generator lurked. Grabbing my toolbox from a cupboard under the counter, I started to head out into the main section of the warehouse. Then came Sam’s bellow, with its strong Texan drawl:
“Yo, WILLOW! Get your cute little butt over to that generator!”
My eyebrows flew up wryly, and I stopped in my tracks. Silence from the darkened warehouse.
“Man, you’ve done it now,” muttered someone.
“Your cute little what?” said Villa, sounding like he was trying not to laugh. “My English…”
“Never mind!” Amusement was battling with irritation. Amusement was in the lead, just about. Sam was a good guy. They all were, or else we wouldn’t have them here. He was just very…Texan, sometimes.
“You better apologise, Sam,” said someone. It sounded like Brendan.
“What’d I say?” he demanded, affronted. “I said it was cute, didn’t I?”
“Sam. Dude, seriously. Apologise, or we won’t get it fixed.”
“How do you say apologise in Spanish?” I whispered to Villa.
“Apologizar,” he said.
“Apologizar en Espanol!” I called out from the kitchen. “Y pedir que el generador en Espanol!”
A stunned pause. “Oh, man, she wants me to ask her to the fix the generator in Spanish? Quick, y’all, how do I say that?”
“Nah, this is your problem – we’re staying out of it,” came Alex’s voice. I could just barely see him in the shadows, leaning casually against the table with his arms crossed over his chest.
“Hey, she’s your girlfriend!”
“And? Sorry, you’re on your own here, amigo.”
“Yes, only you better figure it out quick,” said Manuel. “We’re all waiting.”
“Uh…lo siento!” cried Sam towards the kitchen. “Lo siento mucho!”
“There, you see?” said Villa from the counter. Reaching for my toast, he tore a piece off and dipped it into his coffee, munching it like it was a doughnut. “He is very sorry.”
“Yeah, but he’s not finished, yet.” I moved the plate away. “Don’t eat all my toast.”
“It will just go cold while you fix the generator.”
“Who said I’m fixing it?”
He chuckled. “Ah, harsh, harsh…”
From out in the warehouse, Sam’s voice was becoming more and more strained. “Lo siento mucho…y…el generator, por favor…did I mention lo siento mucho? Ah, hell, Willow, can’t you just take pity and fix the damn thing?”
That’s when I started laughing. OK, Sam was sort of a Neanderthal sometimes, but he was still pretty funny. I came out of the kitchen with my toolbox; a few cheers greeted me.
“All right, Willow,” said Sam. He stood in the gloom beside the silent treadmill with a towel looped around his muscular shoulders, beaming. “See, I knew you weren’t really mad at me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Can we please recruit some other girls?” I said to Alex as I reached him. “Please?”
He smiled; he was holding the piece of chalk that we used to mark things on the map, tapping it against his palm. “I promise, we’re not recruiting only guys on purpose. We’ll find some other girls soon.” He glanced towards the utility closet at the other end of the warehouse. “Want some help?”
“That’s OK. Why don’t you go lie down or something, until I’m done?” He was constantly working, and looked so tired, with faint circles under his eyes.
“No, come on, I’ll give you a hand,” he said, tossing the chalk aside. The other AKs were drifting towards the kitchen, or out the back door for a smoke. When the generator blew, it was like the fire alarm going off in school; everyone got to just chill for a while, until it was time to head back in to class.
Apart from me. Half an hour later, I was lying on the grimy floor of the utility closet with half the innards of the generator spread out around me. “Oh, I hate this thing,” I muttered, swiping at a dusty
cobweb on my cheek. “It’s so ancient.”
Alex was on his stomach too, holding the flashlight and handing tools across. “Hey, I thought you liked ancient engines,” he said. “Are you finally admitting they belong in museums?”
“I like classics,” I corrected him grumpily. It was the fan belt again; I’d known it would be. “This generator is not a classic. And no, it doesn’t belong in a museum; it belongs in a garbage dump.”
His voice held a laugh. “I’m not saying ‘Mustang’, OK? I’m just thinking it, really loudly.”
“Yeah, I can hear you from here.” Remembering, I glanced back over my shoulder at him. “Hey, did Villa tell you what he saw this morning?”
“No, I was busy with target practise when he came in. What’s up?”
I told him about Villa’s encounter with the shadowy figure some of the guys had nicknamed ‘the Hunter’. We’d suspected for a while now that someone else was here in Mexico City shooting angels, but this was the first time any of us had come so close to the mystery gunman.
“What do you think?” I asked as I struggled to unscrew one of the rusty bolts. “Is it just one person, or could it be another group like us?”
Alex shook his head in the gloom. “Either’s possible, I guess. I just want to know who the hell they are, so we can find them. We’d be a lot more effective if we all banded together.”
The bolt finally gave way; I put it aside and started on the next one. “Too bad we can’t just beam the secret AK signal at the sky,” I joked. “Or put an ad in the paper: Mystery Angel Killer, call this number!”
There was a pause. When Alex spoke again, his tone was musing. “You know, that’s actually not a bad idea.”
“It’s not?” The wrench paused in my hand as I glanced over my shoulder. “Um, Alex, I think you’ve been hanging out with Brendan for too long.”
He laughed. “Listen, it’s your fault if I’ve finally gone completely batshit because of that guy…no, I’m serious. I mean, not an ad, obviously, but I wonder if we could think of some kind of symbol that someone else fighting the angels would recognise. We’d just have to be careful to put it someplace where the angels wouldn’t be likely to see.”
I nodded slowly, seeing what he meant. “Like the sort of stuff that the French Resistance used to do.”
“What’s the French Resistance?” he asked.
It was funny. In most ways Alex knew more than anyone I’d ever met – but there were these odd little pockets of things he’d never heard of, just from never having gone to school.
As I finished wrestling the hateful bolts off, I told him everything I could remember about the French Resistance from my sophomore History class: the Nazi occupation of France; the Vichy government; cells of resistance fighters working alone, with no idea of who their colleagues were. He listened intently.
“Yeah, that’s a lot like us, isn’t it?” he said when I’d finished. I could tell he was mulling over everything I’d told him, sifting it carefully to see if we could use any of it ourselves. “OK, I’m going to think about this some more – we could definitely be on to something here.”
The fan belt fixed, I started reassembling the engine, and the conversation turned to other things: how the AKs were doing with their training; how peaceful Alex had thought I’d looked that morning as I’d nestled into my pillow, so that he couldn’t bring himself to wake me up; the fact that he still wouldn’t admit that Casablanca was the greatest movie of all time. His favourite was The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, which was way too violent for me. And also, come on – Clint Eastwood in a blanket?
“Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat,” he countered when I said this. “Plus, you know that the guy was
only about your height, right? I think he had to stand on a box or something when he was making out with Ingrid Bergman.”
I burst out laughing. “That is so not true!”
“Seriously. How could I even make that up?”
“Well, anyway, it’s got nothing to do with the movie. You’re admitting defeat, if that’s all you’ve got.” I gave the wrench a final turn. “There,” I muttered.
“Is that it?” asked Alex, still angling the flashlight.
“Yeah, pretty much. Until next time.” I scooted partway out, looking for the bolt caps I had put aside earlier. “I’ve just got to put these back on, then I can get the power going. Would you hand me that wrench again?”
Sitting up, Alex started to reach for it, and then stopped. “Actually … I’ve got a better idea,” he said, gently taking the bolt caps from my hand and laying them aside.
“What –” I started, and then he took my head in his hands and kissed me.
Fire leapt through us both. Our mouths grew urgent – the heat of them together; our pulses, beating so hard that they were all I could hear. I pressed against him, slipping my hands under his shirt and stroking his chest, his smooth back, anything I could reach. Alex’s lips travelled to my neck, so that I shivered and could hardly breathe.
“It’s driving me crazy,” he said hoarsely. His hands were under my sweater, caressing me. “Seeing you all day, not being able to touch you – and even at night, we’re not really alone – ”
“Oh, god, Alex, I know…”
A few endless minutes passed. We sank to the floor – and then I tensed as the sound of nearby voices drifted into the closet, along with the echoing thud of a ball.
No! For some reason, Sam had chosen this particular moment to bring his basketball out. Why, why? He’d barely even be able to see it with the generator off. But I could hear him and some of the others dribbling it around, calling to each other, and then a banging rattle came just above us as someone sent it through the hoop we’d attached to the wall.
Alex and I sat up; we were both breathing hard. For a moment he just held me close, our hearts crashing together. “Should I tell them to go away?” he whispered into my hair. “Just say the word; I’ll send them all out on a hunt right now. I don’t care if they’re not fully trained.”
Even through my frustration, I started giggling. “Yeah, because we need lots of privacy to fix the generator…”
“Hey, it’s complicated. It takes a lot of concentration.” Then he groaned, dropping his forehead onto my shoulder with a rueful laugh. “Oh, Willow…”
“I know,” I said shakily, stroking his hair. “Me, too.” Even though I knew that neither of us really wanted our first time to be in a utility closet … right up until the moment Sam had turned up with his basketball, it had been pretty tempting.
“Right,” said Alex finally. “I guess we’d better get this thing going again.”
“Yeah.” I let out a breath. I had never cared less about the generator. Alex held the flashlight while I got the bolt caps back into place. “That’s it,” I said. “I just need to switch the power back on.”
Alex smiled slightly in the dim light. Touching my cheek, he brushed another cobweb away. “I love you,” he said in a low voice. “One of these days we’ll have privacy again.”
“I love you too,” I said, kissing him. “And that would be … really, really nice.” That was the understatement of my life. Getting to my feet, I stretched to flip the power switch on. A whirr from the generator, and the lights flickered on again. Applause and whistles came from the main room.
When I turned around, Alex was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, watching me with a grin. “You know what – Sam was right. It is pretty cute.”
Hope you enjoyed this week’s extract! And I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season. From myself, my husband and my cat…MERRY CHRISTMAS!
(Not my actual cat. Thankfully for me.)