Sunday, 29 December 2013

Glimpses of a Different Fire, Part 3 - The Arrival

Well, the turkey's been eaten, the crackers have been pulled, and New Year's Eve is right around the corner. I hope you're all having a wonderful holiday season, and that Santa was good to you this year. My husband received major brownie points by giving me not only a day trip to Nirvana spa, but...wait for it...a new pair of slippers! Best present ever, and yes, I am serious. My old ones were falling to pieces; these are sheepskin-lined with alpaca wool trim. SO SOFT. Pardon me while I wiggle my toes for a bit and sigh in luxurious bliss.

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.

My father.

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.”

“They don’t?”

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.”

“Comments?”

“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?”

“Oh, much.”

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.



Sunday, 22 December 2013

Glimpses of a Different Fire, Part 2 - The Hunter Walks


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.

It wasn’t.

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.

Some story on CNN. A foreign city he didn’t recognise, with a golden angel high on a pedestal. Jonah grimaced; angel images abounded these days. The camera panned over a crowd scene: people cheering, holding up signs in Spanish. Jonah’s high school Spanish deciphered: We love the angels! He sighed and rubbed his forehead, wondering about heading over to the pinball machine.

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.

I glanced over my shoulder as I fastened my jeans, reassuring myself for the hundredth time that no one could see anything through the thick coloured glass. But the stained glass figures themselves seemed to be watching: the trio of doves; the lamb, the shepherd with his sheep.

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.

Almost.

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.)

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.