Sunday, 26 January 2014

Meet Me at the Prancing Pony

Which books have shaped you -- helped make you who you are and, if you're a writer, influenced your imaginary landscape?

For me, these come instantly to mind:

First, Lord of The Rings. I was 10 when I discovered it, and I devoured it in great gulps. I probably didn't understand half of it -- I know I skipped a lot; I wasn't a fan of long battle sequences -- but what got me was the world. It was real. That was all there was to it. I was positive that Middle Earth had once really existed, and that if I could just go back in time somehow, I could live those adventures along with Frodo and Strider. I even had the exact rendezvous point decided: I'd meet up with them at The Prancing Pony in Bree. (I think I even worked out the date, though of course it was in the Middle Earth calendar. Minor technicality.)

Yes, it's true: I was the sort of child who, even at 10, half-believed in going back in time. I was also the sort of child who would skulk through the woods near her house with a 'knife' made of stone, pretending to be one of the Lord of the Rings characters. I'd have died of embarrassment if anyone had seen me; I was laughed at enough at school already. But it still felt very real. Tolkien's work had touched something deep inside of me that had needed nourishing, and gave me a love of fantasy that has never ended.

From there I found the work of Tove Jansson (moomins!). And Carol Kendall's The Gammage Cup. And C.S. Lewis and Narnia, of course.

As a quick aside, I don't know how the Narnia series is published in the US now, but the editions I had back in the 70's didn't Americanise the text. There were still words like 'bluebottle' for 'fly', and 'row' for 'argument'. My father scribbled notes in the margins to translate all of this for me, and I LOVED it. The exotic-to-me words were part of the appeal: the sense that these stories happened someplace that was not the US, and gasp, shock -- they said things differently there! Pure magic. I'm painting with a broad brush when I say this, but in general I think it's deeply misguided to homogenise stories. Hey, let kids know that their immediate world isn't the only one that exists. This can only be a good thing.

Lloyd Alexander's The Prydain Chronicles was another series I wanted to step into and live in forever. If you haven't heard of Lloyd Alexander, you're probably reading this in the UK where he's not well-known, even though he totally should be (and his Prydain stories were inspired by Welsh myth). While it was the world itself that I really loved in LOTR (oh, and Pippin and Merry: the only two who seemed to have a sense of humour), in Alexander's work it was more the characters. Taran the assistant pigkeeper. Eilonwy the princess (who was totally kick-ass and not frilly in the slightest; oh, how I wanted to be Eilonwy!). Fflewddur Fflam the bard. I had a huge crush on Fflewddur. Taran the hero was too bland. Fflewddur was funny and brave AND HAD A GIANT CAT FOR A STEED. Seriously, who needed Taran? 

That was always my tendency, actually: to have a crush on the main character's sidekick, rather than the MC himself. Sidekicks were usually quirkier, with a better sense of humour; they seemed to have more intriguing pasts. I had a feeling that they'd be far more interesting to hang out with, even if they weren't as pretty.

Fantasy wasn't my only love; real-life stories had their place, too. One of my favourites was one you probably haven't heard of (but I'll be so excited if you have): The Secret Summer of L.E.B by Barbara Brooks Wallace. A blurb about it online says, "Lizabeth risks her popularity with the other sixth graders by becoming friends with the class outcast." And yes, it is about that, but there's so much more to it. The story is actually a very gentle romance; possibly one of the first I ever read. The class outcast is the truly lovely Loren, who got off on the wrong foot with the other kids and never recovered from it. I could identify with that; I was bullied myself in school until I was able to change year groups. AND Loren shared my love of Tolkien! He and Lizabeth bonded over hobbits! They met in an abandoned house which they began to fix up together -- and that idea of an abandoned place that you can call your own reappears again and again in my own writing now. In terms of the romance, all that happened was that Lizabeth and Loren eventually held hands, but I copied that passage out in my diary and swooned over it. I wanted a Loren for myself.

K.M. Peyton was the first author who broke my heart. I was addicted to her Flambards series, and SO in love with Will. (Spoiler alert!) When he died at the start of the third book, I literally couldn't believe it. I remember feeling cold, and immediately shutting the book and putting it back on my shelf. I couldn't bear to read it, not without Will. It was literally years before I picked it up again....and then, of course, I fell in love with Dick. And then discovered later on that there was a FOURTH book, where Christina's marriage to Dick doesn't work out and she falls in love with MARK. It was enough to make you dizzy, but Peyton pulled it off with her absolutely honest writing. I always imagined that she got Christina and Dick together at the end of book 3, and then started thinking about it: would that really work out? What would actually happen? (I met Peyton at a publishing party a few years ago, and was utterly tongue-tied.)

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton spoke to me with its grittiness and sense of truth. I sobbed over Johnny's death, and remember writing in my diary that I longed to be a writer of similar power someday: someone who could make people cry. I didn't know, then, that tears are sometimes easier to achieve than laughter. I hope I manage to do both now.

Finally, my beloved Barbara Wersba. She's another one you might not have heard of if you're in the UK, but her Tunes for a Small Harmonica saved my sanity as a teenager. Like authors Judy Blume and Norma Klein, Wersba said to me, You are not alone. The things you feel are perfectly normal.

And she was FUNNY. And bittersweet. And quirky. I love all her books, but Tunes was the first I discovered. If you've never read her work before, check it out. Believe me, you've got a treat in store.

Looking back at all of these, it's probably no coincidence that I now write fantasy which is heavily rooted in real life: the world as we know it, but with a twist. (And with romance, of course!) The books I loved growing up created that landscape, and I owe them so much.

What books have shaped you? Tell me -- I'd love to hear about them.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Birth of Alex

Alex is the hero of my Angel series -- and as I've said in interviews, he's been in my head for a long time.

You see, I've always wanted to be a writer, though I didn't get serious about it until my early twenties. My first completed novel was a comedic fantasy romp loosely based on The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which (rightly) remained unpublished. It was that novel that almost all writers go through: the first, awful one that sits in a drawer forever.

After that, I wasn't sure what to write next -- until one day I saw the film Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. In it, the fictionalised Andersen is a shoemaker who lives with Peter, his young apprentice. The orphaned Peter is much more streetwise and realistic than the dreamy Andersen, and I just really liked the whole vibe between them: the friendship between the adult boy and the child-like man.

Suddenly an amazing idea came. This was my next novel -- a story showing this sort of friendship. It would be set in a medieval fantasy world. My apprentice would be named Alex, and he would formerly have been a thief, beaten and left for dead by his partners. He'd then be found by Griffin Candlemaker, who saves his life.

(Wow -- such a sense of nostalgia, typing that name. Griffin is a character who I loved dearly.)

New-story excitement bubbling through me, I made pages and pages of notes on a legal pad -- which for you Brits is an oversized pad of yellow paper. The ideas, the characters, the world, just poured out from my pen. Alex would be 14 at the story's start; it would span two years of his life.

Finally I was ready to start writing. Here's how the story opened:

"Are you dead? Answer me, boy, answer me, please -- are you dead or alive?"

The blackness that filled Alex's mind turned slowly to greyness. The voice kept talking, and talking, pressing with its question: are you alive or dead? Answer, answer me, please.

Bewildered by the insistence in the voice, Alex struggled to surface through the murky waters of his consciousness. He felt rough fingers brush his face, slap their way down the front of his jerkin -- Cully? he thought. And then memory flooded back, and he groaned. You win, Cully, you win -- I won't tell anyone, just don't hit me anymore. 

"You win," he mumbled, but there seemed to be something wrong with his lips. With his whole face, in fact. He licked his lips, tasted something salty on them, and struggled to speak again.

"Alive, then," said the voice. "Don't talk. You can talk later."

Alex groaned again, louder, as he felt himself being picked up and carried. Pain burst from every inch of his body. He tried to open his eyes and couldn't; he half-sobbed, and wondered where unconsciousness was now that he wanted it.

"I know," said the voice. "You're worried about being too heavy for me. Well, worry not, my friend; Griffin Candlemaker has carried a heavier load than you in his time." A pause in stride, and Alex felt himself being shifted in the man's arms. 

"Should have just slung you over my shoulder, I suppose," confided the voice, "but I suspect your ribs are a bit worse for wear. Hardly worth saving you just to puncture your lung for you. I'm sure you'll agree once you can talk again."

The pain overcame Alex, and he submitted to the swarming black. Afterwards, though, the thing he remembered was not the pain, but the honest relief in the man's voice when he realised that Alex was alive. 

Did you recognise the name 'Cully'? In Angel, he was a father figure to Alex. I named him Cully as a personal nod to this early incarnation of Alex...though as you may have gleaned, the Cully in this story was very different.

Anyway, Alex, now partially lame, is taken in by Griffin and must make a new life for himself; we see his eventual transformation from an angry young thief to a master carver who takes the name Alex Deftblade (the novel's title). He meets Jhia, a mysterious girl with long blonde hair, and falls in love with her -- but the real love story, if I can use the term loosely, was between Alex and Griffin: their growing friendship. 

To make a long story short (ho ho), Alex Deftblade got taken on by a publisher and my excitement knew no bounds. It even got to front-cover stage; a gorgeous one was painted by the amazing artist Les Edwards.

Right about now, you may be thinking, "Wait, this book got published? Where can I get it?"

Alas, you can't.

Although Alex Deftblade had good things going for it -- some not-terrible writing and characters that came to life -- it was also very flawed; the story didn't come together at all. Looking back now with more experience, I'm surprised that it got taken on, but I suppose my publishers were swayed by its potential. Sadly, potential isn't always enough. I undertook rewrite after rewrite -- sixteen drafts in all -- but the story never gelled to anyone's satisfaction. So the decision was made to put that novel aside and publish my next one instead: the very-different Child X.

OK, that was tough, I admit it. I loved my characters a lot -- especially my angry young thief. I felt as if I'd failed them.

Years passed. I wrote four middle-grade novels: all of them, like Child X, were firmly rooted in real life. Eventually I moved into series fiction for young readers. I wrote stories about a school for fairies; tiny magical cats; an underwater club for seahorses.

Through it all, Alex stayed in my mind. He refused to go away, in fact. And an idea started to grow: what if I ditched everything about Alex Deftblade except the characters, and put Alex in a contemporary setting?

Jhia -- by then renamed Willow -- became a teenage psychic who'd 'seen' something that put her in danger; Alex became the teenage hitman hired to kill her. Griffin, to my sorrow, had to be discarded: one of the issues with AD had always been that there wasn't room to develop the love story with Jhia. I had to decide whether I wanted to write a romance, or a story about friendship.

Well, you know the answer. (I'm a hopeless romantic. Sue me.) 

But if Alex was a real-life hitman, a happy ending wasn't too likely. I mean, hello...a murderer for a boyfriend? He'd have to die at the end, or at least go off to prison forever. Not the stuff romance is made of.

Enter the paranormal element. Bingo! If Alex was a killer of non-humans in order to save the world, I could keep the sexy 'assassin' vibe without so many moral quandaries. When I then got the idea about turning our conceptions of angels upside down, the story came together very quickly.

As I rethought Alex's backstory to fit all of this, an older, more thoughtful Alex emerged -- one who'd been raised to be a killer from a young age; who cared deeply about what he did but had also never felt as if he had a choice. Blunt, yet kind. Capable but not arrogant.

And afraid to ever love again until he met Willow -- and fell for the girl who was supposed to be his enemy.

So there you go. The genesis of Alex Kylar -- from those first tiny seeds of watching Hans Christian Andersen to the character who's in the Angel series today. My husband claims that he can't really see the two Alexs as the same character. Perhaps it's something only the author can tell. Their backstories and actions may be totally different...but their souls are the same.

In a cool postscript to Alex's story, my husband Googled 'Alex Deftblade' once and found the front cover art by Les Edwards for sale on his website. Guess where it is now? Framed and hanging over our bed.

I think things happen for a reason. I'm glad that Alex's story didn't get published as Alex Deftblade -- because then I never would have written Angel. And, to me, that's the Alex who was meant to be.
I still love these images, though: the world of the angry young thief who refused to leave my mind.

Thanks, Alex.









  

Sunday, 12 January 2014

To the Writing Cave, Batman!


First, I am VERY excited, because my novella Soul Mates comes out this Wednesday the 15th. And wow -- that cover has not become any less gorgeous, no matter how often I look at it. (A lot.) I've blogged about the story here, including an extract. I hope you enjoy it if you feel inspired to pick it up. (Don't expect it to be as long as the Angel books, though; it's very short! Think of it as a tasty snack.) 

On to other things...!

I recently held Q&A sessions on both Twitter and my Facebook author page. These were so much fun! There were some really great questions, both about writing and the Angel series. People are often surprised, I think, at some of the elements of the series that were originally unplanned -- such as Seb, and Mexico. Yeah, minor little things like that! If you'd like the full scoop, just check out that link to my FB page above; the whole Q&A session is on there.

Anyway, here's the thing: I held the Q&As in the first place partly because I love connecting with my readers -- if you follow me on Twitter or have liked my FB page, you'll know how often I'm around ("TOO OFTEN!" shout my editors) -- but also because I'm about to set off on an intensive journey and won't be as accessible for a while.

You see, I'm about to go into my writing cave.

Every writer's different. For me, though, a time always comes with a novel when the groundwork's complete and all that's left is to get your head down and WRITE.

I've reached that point with my WIP. It's the first of a new trilogy: another big, epic world (why do I keep doing this to myself? Why?). Much of the early work consisted of going for long walks, muttering aloud to myself; writing pages and pages about the characters; getting their names right; writing reams of material that was rubbish and I knew it -- but I was feeling my way into the story and there aren't any shortcuts for that.

Now, at last, I'm over 70K in. In terms of pure wordage, I'm about halfway through. (The finished book will probably only be a little longer than Angel -- I write long and then trim!) Despite the outstanding word count, though, much more than half the work has been done, because it's pretty much all straight in my head now. 

All that's left is to write it.

I'll confess something that may surprise you: the actual writing is my least favourite part. I love it, of course, but I find it SO HARD sometimes. Talking with other authors recently, I was surprised to find that I'm not alone in this. It seems to be pretty freakin' common, actually. You wouldn't believe the excuses we all find to stay away from our WIPs every day. (Being a writer basically means hanging out on Facebook and talking to other writers about how you're just about to start writing. Honest. Any second now.)

The truly fun parts, to me? Getting that amazing story idea. Thinking it through. The magic of characters first coming to life. And that breathtaking moment when you've finished the first draft and can start editing.

Oh, I'm an editing geek, I'll admit it. I find it endlessly involving and rewarding. Hours pass in minutes as I rewrite, trim, shape, hone. And yes, of course there are times in the initial writing where the words take wings and soar -- but for me, those aren't as common. Writing's the hard part; the payoff is finally having a draft in place you can play with.

Anyway, some writers can flit effortlessly between Twitter, Facebook and their imaginary worlds. I wish I were one, but I'm not. Social media is just too instantly rewarding, as opposed to the slow, brick-by-brick task of novel-building. All I want to do is keep hitting the 'refresh' button. (We need a 'refresh' button in real life, don't you think?)

Hence the retreat into my writing cave.

What does this mean, you ask? Well, I'll still be blogging every Sunday, and if you Tweet me or drop me a line on FB, I'll definitely answer when I can. But I won't be as visible as I was. I won't be randomly tweeting about my coffee addiction and my cat and how I'm still in my pyjamas at 2pm. (As I write this, it's 2.30 in the afternoon and yes, I'm still in my pyjamas.)

Instead, I'll be immersing myself totally in my story, from the moment I wake up every morning. I'll hide my smart phone from myself so I'm not tempted. (If I need to get really hard-core, I'll have my husband take it into work with him.) And I'll write word by word until I get it done. The real world will start to go dim around the edges; I'll have one foot in my story at all times. My long-suffering husband knows this phase well: it's the one where I gaze at him while he talks without taking in a single word.

And at the end of it...I'll have a draft in place. I can hardly wait.

I know I've been somewhat mysterious about my WIP. I wish I could Reveal All here -- believe me, I'm dying to talk about it! But the time will come, I promise.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this image of my main character. She's actually a French model; I saw her photo in a newspaper my husband was reading and practically ripped it out of his hands. Because it was HER, my main character, and I recognised her instantly, despite that awful jacket. In fact, I didn't even notice the jacket until later; I was too mesmerised by her expression. Her firm jaw. Her steady gaze. This picture's on my desk now.

Meet Amity:


So, if you miss my tweets or Facebook presence over these next few months, you'll know who to blame! But I think -- hope -- that her story's going to be worth any amount of time I have to spend in the writing cave. She's been excellent company so far.

See you next week!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Glimpses of a Different Fire, Part 4 - A Symbol Found


2014 is finally upon us: a shiny, brand-new year where anything can happen. Do you have your New Year's resolutions? Mine are to continue having a work-life balance -- for a while there I didn't, and my brain started to melt, which, trust me, was no fun at all -- and to start exercising again. Walks are almost magical things when you're a writer: story ideas come flying into place.

2014 will be a year of writing, writing, writing for me: I'll finish the first book of the new trilogy, and since it's not coming out until 2015, I'll be able to plunge seamlessly into the second. In other words, I'll be completely immersed in my own world for most of the year. BLISS. This is the part of writing I love the best. My imaginary people are very real to me...but you probably knew that already!

Which brings us to the final extract from the alternate Angel Fire. I've been looking forward to sharing this excerpt almost more than any other, but it does take a tiny bit of explaining. Remember I mentioned that one of the issues with this version of Fire was Willow’s dreams of Raziel, and what those ultimately meant?

Well, basically, the idea was that Willow would become lured to Raziel through a mix of his psychic machinations and her deep desire for a father, which of course he totally exploited.

This idea came about while brainstorming with my editor-at-the-time, and we both got REALLY excited by it. But, as sometimes happens, the characters refused to play along. As it turned out, Willow would never become intrigued by Raziel -- not after what he’d done to her beloved mother. And so when I first got to those sections of the story (at the very end of this final extract), I had to stop writing, because I realized I was forcing Willow to act in a way that she wouldn’t. When this happens you have to pay attention to it. Forcing your characters against their will is like having zombies staggering through your stories. It just. Does. Not. Work.

Another issue was the Hunter, and who he/she turned out to be. (Have you guessed yet? I’ll reveal all at the very end!)

But these are just barely-felt undercurrents in this final extract, which to me has some of the most enjoyable material yet. I had SO much fun writing this: Jonah reappears, and Villa has a starring role.

Enjoy!


This scene begins exactly where the last scene in Part 3 ended.

Turning back to the others, Alex saw Willow still sitting on the sofa, alone now as she stared at the TV with an odd expression on her face. He sat down beside her. “Hey. What’s up?”

She didn’t answer; looking at the TV, Alex saw the reason why for himself. Raziel was on the screen – old footage showing the angel walking through the Church of Angels’ main cathedral in Denver. As
Alex watched, the camera froze on Raziel’s handsome, arrogant face; the image of him grew smaller and flew to a corner of the screen as a photo of another man appeared, standing in a lavish office and smiling.

Listening to the rapid commentary, surprise lashed through Alex: Willow’s father was no longer running the Church of Angels. Apparently someone called Pascabel was now in charge – undoubtedly another angel, with a name like that.

Alex stared at the screen, oddly unsettled. At least when Raziel had been head of the Church, Alex had known exactly where the bastard was. The news commentary was frustratingly vague, saying only that Raziel had left to ‘pursue other interests’. Why would someone who got off on power as much as Raziel did step down? Or had the angel instead been forced – and if so, what did that mean?

“Are you taking this in?” he asked Willow. “He’s not in charge of the Church of Angels anymore.”

She blinked, looking up as if she’d only just realised Alex was there. “He’s not? No, I – I didn’t really catch it, I was just…” she swallowed, her glance sliding back to the TV.

“Willow?” He took her arms, turning her gently towards him. “Babe, what is it?” Though he thought he knew – she still had the nightmare sometimes, of Raziel feeding from her mother; it couldn’t be much fun for her to see him now, staring out at her from a TV screen.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m fine. I just thought I felt…” Her golden-brown hair glinted in the harsh lighting as she shook her head. “I’m fine,” she repeated.

“Felt what?” asked Alex. Across the warehouse, there was a rattling swoosh as the ball went through the net; a few whoops of triumph.

“Hey Alex, you coming?” shouted Sam, jogging a few paces towards them.

“In a minute,” he called back without looking up.

Willow took a deep breath. “A presence,” she said. Her green eyes flew to his, troubled. “Earlier today, I thought I felt him. Sort of – probing at my mind. I slammed him out so quickly that I thought I must have just imagined it, but ever since then, there’s been this…thing there.”

A coldness swept Alex; his hands tightened on her arms. “What kind of thing?” he said sharply.

She hesitated, looking at the TV again. Seeing that Raziel’s image was now gone, she seemed to relax somewhat. “I can’t really explain. It’s just a feeling. As if a trail has been left now, between our two minds. Alex, it feels … forgotten. I don’t think Raziel knows it’s there.”

He stared at her. In a day that had been full of unpleasant shocks, he thought that this one had a chance at the number one slot. “Come on,” he said, rising quickly to his feet. Ignoring the interested glances from the other AKs, he led her across the warehouse to their stained-glass room; he couldn’t discuss this out in the open, with everyone waiting for him to go play basketball.

Once they were alone, he sat her down on their rumpled bed, holding her hands in his. “Right, tell me everything.”

She did so, explaining how she had felt the angel’s familiar energy just as she was ending the training session with Mike. She swallowed, looking shaken. “It all happened so fast, but it felt awful. Like my mind had been violated.”

“I knew something was wrong.” Alex touched her face. “Jesus, Willow, why didn’t you tell me?”

She let out a breath. “I didn’t want it to be true, I guess. I hated even the thought of him thinking about me, much less trying to pry into my brain.” She shuddered.

“Do you think he got anything?”

Willow shook her head. “I don’t see how; he was only there a second or two before I blocked him out. But I can still feel this sensation. It’s like the fact that he tried to look into my mind has left a
path to his mind – one he doesn’t even know about.”

Alex fell silent, his thoughts whirling. Raziel had gone quiet for months – and now, on the same day that the Council arrived in Mexico City, he was probing at Willow’s mind. He didn’t know whether the two were connected, but as a sequence of events, he didn’t find them very comforting.

She touched his arm. “What are you thinking?”

He snorted, scraping his hair back. “I’m thinking that I should go back up to the US and try taking him out again,” he admitted. “And make sure not to miss this time.”

“But – Alex, no!” Willow sat up on her knees. “Don’t you see? What if I’m right, and he doesn’t know that this path is there? I could use it myself, to find out what he knows! He must have so much information that we need, maybe even about the rogue angels! I could – ”

“No,” he broke in. “Willow, I don’t like the sound of this. Whatever's there, I think you need to keep away from it.”

“You’re thinking like a boyfriend, not a leader,” she said softly.

“No, I’m thinking like a boyfriend and a leader,” he retorted. “It’s not just your safety I’m thinking of. You don’t know anything about this ‘path’; you could lead Raziel straight to us.”

Willow hesitated, sinking back onto her heels. “I guess that’s a risk,” she said finally. “But this trail doesn’t seem deliberate. I don’t think he even knows it’s there.”

Willow – ”

“This could be our only chance to find the rogue angels!” she burst out. “Alex – ” she gripped his hands. “I know how hopeless it is, OK? Even if we manage to get other camps going, it could take us years. It’ll be too late. We’re going to lose this war if we don’t do something big; we both know it!”

“Listen to me,” he said in a low voice. “Those guys out there – they’re all we’ve got. I’m not going to start risking their lives, not like this.”

Her green eyes were frustrated. “You already are, though,” she countered. “You said you’d take them on a hunt soon – you told me just today that they’re not ready for it yet, remember?”

The reminder needled at Alex. “Yeah, and I’ll be right there, in case anything goes wrong,” he said curtly. “I can’t be right there when you go sneaking around in Raziel’s mind, can I?”

“I don’t need you to be!” she said, her exasperation clear. “Look, you’re the gun expert – fine, I’m the psychic expert! Psychic consultant, remember? So let me do my job!”

“Let me do mine,” he said. “The answer’s no.”

Willow stiffened, breathing in sharply at his tone. “Right,” she said after a pause. “You know, I sort of thought we were a team. Silly me.”

“We are a team – oh, Christ.” He scraped his hand over his face, hating this. He and Willow argued so seldom that it was doubly upsetting when they did. “Look, you know how much I need you. But I’m the one responsible; I’m the one those guys are depending on. If any of them die, it’s my fault.”

Though neither of them said his brother’s name, sudden understanding crossed Willow’s face, battling with the frustration she clearly felt. “Alex, don’t you see?” she said. “They’re all going to die anyway if we don’t do something big. Everyone is – the whole world.” The words seared through him.

“You know I’m right,” she added softly. “We can’t afford not to use something like this; it could change everything.”

Out in the warehouse, the basketball game was still going on; Alex could hear the steady beat of the ball, the shouts of the guys. He tried to imagine that it had been Manuel who had come to him with this, somehow, or Brendan. Would his response be the same, or was Willow correct – was the root of his unease actually his fears for her own safety?

He honestly didn’t know.

She sat looking at him, her green eyes steady on his. Incongruously, he felt a pang for her pale blond hair. She was still beautiful, but being a brunette wasn’t Willow; it never would be. Keeping her safe was all that mattered, though. If a box of hair dye could do that, then god, he’d buy a hundred of them.

But she was right. This time, it couldn’t be about protecting her. This link to Raziel might be their only real chance.

“All right,” said Alex finally, his voice gruff. “Do your job.”

Willow nodded. Glancing towards the warehouse, she said, “Not now, though. Tonight, when it’s quiet.” She leaned forward and kissed him, then leaned her forehead against his.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Both of them jumped as the basketball crashed against the corrugated metal wall just outside their room. “Oops!” called Sam’s voice as the ball dribbled to a stop. “But hey, Alex, if you’re finished in there, we could use another player.”

***

That night Willow checks out the psychic link, but becomes distracted by Raziel’s memories of her mother before she can find out about the rogue angels. These memories, to her surprise, seem to show that Raziel truly loved her mother and hadn’t meant to hurt her. Willow is shaken, and intrigued despite herself.

***

Jonah sat on a bench in the Zocalo, gazing up at the Catedral Metropolitana. According to his guidebook, this was one of the largest cathedrals in the western hemisphere. It had taken almost three hundred years to build; had been standing on this site in some form since the fifteen-hundreds.

And now it was devoted to the angels.

Jonah shuddered. Things had been bad enough in the United States – in Mexico City it was even worse. The day before he’d arrived, the Seraphic Council had taken up residence; now the place was angel-crazy. Dozens of people walking through the square had on angel wings --- they were the new status symbol, showing that you’d seen an angel.

Been fed from by one, in other words.

Jonah gazed sadly at a little girl with dark braids, whose angel wings bobbed against the back of her striped sweater. When he’d worked for the Church, he’d thought how wonderful it was that angels appeared to the young, too, bringing them hope like everyone else. Bile filled his mouth. God, what a sap he’d been.

He’d been in Mexico City for almost two weeks now, wandering the streets until his feet were sore – wondering why, exactly, he had thought it possible to find Alex in a city of over twenty million people. The place went on forever.

But the video image he’d seen of Alex had been here, in the Zocalo – so for the last few days, Jonah had started just hanging out in the square, reasoning that he was more likely to find Alex if he stayed in one place and let the young assassin’s path cross his.

And two days ago, he’d found something that seemed to back this theory up.

As the Aztec drums started again, Jonah glanced over at the Monte De Piedad. He’d been withdrawing some cash when he'd seen what he first took to be an insect on the cash point’s console. Looking closer, his heart had almost stopped.

It was a drawing of a tiny halo, with a gun pointing at it.

He had touched it, hardly daring to hope that it might be real. But it was. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Alex had almost certainly been here, and had left this – what? Signal? For who?

Finally Jonah had realised that he’d been standing there staring for far too long; the people waiting behind him were getting restless. Grabbing his pesos, he’d started to walk away…and had then turned around to rejoin the line, just to reassure himself that he hadn’t imagined it, that the drawing was really of a gun and a halo.

It was. This time as he looked at it, Jonah had felt a wide grin break across his face. For the first time since he’d arrived, he started to hope that this wasn’t a completely insane venture.

Being this far from the cash point was making him nervous, though: if Alex did show up, Jonah might not reach him before he vanished into the crowds. The thought was his worst nightmare. Jonah left the vast square and took up his vigil near the cash point again, leaning against a doorway not far away.

Hours passed with no Alex. Finally it got to be sunset. Restlessly, Jonah walked a little way down the street, towards the group of Aztec concheros dancers. Leaning against a parking sign, he could keep an eye on the cash point and watch them at the same time. The dancers went for hours non-stop, and wore only loincloths, the bells around their ankles jangling rhythmically.

Jonah gazed at them, gloomily taking in their toned muscles – which reminded him that if he did find Alex, the guy was likely to laugh at him for even thinking that he could be an Angel Killer.

Another man in Aztec dress drifted through the crowd, holding a bowl of burning incense and herbs. Before Jonah could stop him, the man stepped close, snaking the bowl all around Jonah so that its smoke made his eyes stream.

“To get rid of evil spirits,” said the man, holding his hand out.

Jonah grimaced; he must have tourist written all over him. He dug into his jeans pocket and handed over a few pesos. The limpia moved on, his elaborate Aztec headdress spiking over the crowd.

Jonah sighed and glanced back towards the cash point. Tucking his hands in the pockets of his blue hooded sweatshirt, he started to head back – and then froze as an angel appeared, flying towards him in a wreath of pure white light. Her face looked so serene, so full of caring for him. And he knew it was all a lie, but longing pierced Jonah's heart anyway.

The angel landed in front of him, her wings stretching out towards the sunset. “Do not be afraid,” she said in a melodic voice. “This will be so pleasurable for us both…”

Jonah couldn’t speak. The angel lit up the sidewalk like a sun, so that the rest of the world faded away. Beams of light streamed from her fingers as she reached towards him – and then recoiled with a sudden hiss.

The angel shivered back to her human form: an attractive woman with brown hair. With a grimace of distaste, she turned from Jonah and strode off down the sidewalk. Jonah swallowed and slumped back against the parking sign. If he hadn’t been marshalled, he’d have angel burn right now.

Then a slight movement caught his eye. A thin Mexican with longish hair and a goatee stood in the shadow of a nearby building, just tucking something away under his shirt.

A gun.

Jonah’s heart thudded as their eyes met -- the gunman was looking right at him. He felt almost dizzy with sudden hope, but hesitated, not sure he was putting the puzzle pieces together correctly. The guy didn’t have to be an Angel Killer to have a gun; maybe he was just a criminal.

The gunman seemed to be hesitating too, frowning at Jonah as if trying to work something out. Finally he shrugged, and turned away. A moment later his thin shoulders had disappeared into the crowd.

Jonah came back to himself with a start. “No, wait!” he called.

He lurched after the guy, weaving his way through the steady stream of people. Catching up with the gunman, he grabbed his arm; the man spun towards him, jerking away.

“What?” he snapped in English.

“You were going to shoot the angel, weren’t you?” blurted Jonah.

The gunman’s brown eyes narrowed. For a moment he didn’t answer. He and Jonah stood unmoving on the sidewalk, with people jostling past them.

Si, I was going to try,” he said finally, his voice wary. He looked around twenty; a couple of years younger than Jonah himself.

Jonah’s pulse pounded. “Does that mean you’re an Angel Killer? Do you know Alex?”

There was a dark alley adjacent to the sidewalk; the guy had him into it and up against a wall so fast
that Jonah hardly knew what had hit him. “Who are you?” he hissed, his gun at Jonah’s throat. “You’re not the Hunter – who are you?”

“The – the Hunter?” stammered Jonah. The cold metal seemed to burn against his skin. “I – no, I – I’ve been trying to find Alex.”

Por que? What do you want with him?”

Jonah licked his lips; his mouth felt as dry as bone. “I want to join him. To be an Angel Killer.”

The man went silent, his gaze flicking coldly over Jonah as if weighing him. Jonah’s heart slammed against his chest as he wondered if he was about to get shot after all – the guy looked perfectly capable of it.

“I met Alex when the Second Wave arrived,” Jonah went on, his voice trembling slightly. “I helped Willow when she tried to stop it. I’ve been looking for him, for both of them, for weeks now. I saw the – the drawing on the cash machine…” he fell quiet, cursing himself for babbling and wondering why he hadn’t learned from his experience with Alex: grabbing the arms of people who carried guns really wasn’t such a great idea.

There was a long pause. Finally the man lowered the gun an inch or so. “You are a friend, then?”

Jonah let out a shaky breath; the gun had been digging painfully into his throat. “Not really,” he said. “But they know who I am. They know I’m an ally.”

The gunman’s expression was still wary; Jonah couldn’t tell whether he believed him. “Why did the angel change her mind?” he asked abruptly. “She is about to feed, and then she stops. I have never seen this before.”

Jonah felt the pang of guilt that always went through him whenever he thought about being protected, when so many millions weren’t. “Because I’ve been marshalled,” he said. “That means – ”

“I know what it means,” broke in the man. He nodded slowly, his eyes still taking Jonah in. “OK,” he said at last, as if he’d reached a decision. “You better come with me.”

Jonah hesitated, glancing down at the gun still in the guy’s hand. What did ‘come with me’ mean? Had he passed some sort of muster, or was he about to be taken somewhere to be shot in private? “You mean – to see Alex?”

Si.” To Jonah’s immense relief, the man tucked the gun away under his shirt, into the waistband of his black jeans. A look of slight amusement crossed his lean features as he glanced at Jonah again. “I saw you receive the limpia’s blessing,” he said. “It didn’t seem to work.”

Jonah looked blankly at him, and then he got it – the incense and herbs the limpia had wafted over him had been meant to deflect evil spirits; a moment later, the angel had appeared.

“Well, but she didn’t feed from me,” he pointed out.

“True,” said the man with a shrug. “I’m Villa,” he added.

“Jonah.” He put his hand out automatically, though it struck him the moment he did so that it was a pretty dorky thing to do, under the circumstances.

After a beat, the man shook it. Jonah could feel the wiry strength of his fingers, and remembering how fast Villa had had him up against a wall, Jonah thought again that his chances of becoming an Angel Killer were depressingly remote. Even if he were more physically fit, he couldn’t imagine being able to take such decisive action – he’d be more likely to over-think any situation until it was too late.

“My bike’s this way,” said Villa, starting out of the alley.

Jonah hurried to catch up with him and cleared his throat. “So, um – does Alex have a group, or something?”

Si,” said Villa briefly.

“Is Willow there, too?”

“Oh, yes,” said Villa. He was standing at the side of the street, waiting for a break in the traffic. In the
Zocalo, the long, endless bulk of the Palacio Nacional was lit up with the coming of night, looking far more festive than it ever did in the daytime. Standing beside Villa, Jonah realised that although he himself was hardly fat, he was much heavier than his companion – the guy was like a rangy alley cat.

As they started across the road, jubilance swept Jonah, adding a bounce to his steps. God, he had done it – he'd really almost found Alex. Smiling, he said, “You know, when I first saw your gun, I didn’t know whether you were an Angel Killer – I thought you might just be a criminal.”

Villa gave him a dry look as they reached the other side of the street. “I am,” he said. “But I am an Angel Killer also.”

The bounce faded from Jonah’s steps. “Oh,” he said weakly, unsure whether Villa was joking. Recalling the moment he’d thought he was about to get shot, he had a feeling that he probably wasn’t.

Villa snorted. “Don’t worry, I won’t steal from you,” he said. He glanced at the Timex on Jonah’s wrist. “Though if you had a decent watch, I might be tempted.”

Jonah had never been on a motorcycle before, and Villa turned out to be just as insane a driver as everyone else in Mexico City, whipping in and out of traffic like a darting fish – so that Jonah, riding behind him, clung to him unabashedly, certain with every leaning turn that he was about to die.

Finally they pulled off the main road and onto a shadowy, run-down street. Villa turned onto a crumbling drive adjacent to a warehouse, trundling the bike to a stop beside a side door.

“Here?” Jonah got off the bike, feeling wobbly as he gazed at the dark shape looming up before them.

Si.” Villa pulled off his helmet and wheeled the bike to the metal door with Jonah trailing after him. There was a flat red button beside the door; Villa slapped it with one hand.

A moment later, a male voice with an American accent said, “Hey, Villa. Who’s that?”

Jonah was startled, and then saw the security peephole in the door. “He says he knows Alex,” Villa called back.

The voice turned surprised. “Really? Wow. OK, wait there.”

A few minutes passed. Standing in the cool Mexico City night beside a self-proclaimed criminal, Jonah started to get nervous, wondering if Alex would even remember him. If he didn’t – if he looked out the peephole and said, “What are you talking about? I’ve never seen that guy before in my life” – what would happen then? Would Villa shoot him after all, and steal his inadequate Timex?

When the door at last swung open, it was Alex himself standing there, wearing faded jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. His dark hair was rumpled; his bluish eyes wide as he took them in.

“What the hell?” he said. “Jonah? What are you doing here?”

Jonah’s knees almost buckled in relief. “Hi,” he said. His hands turned to anxious fists in his sweatshirt pockets. “I …wanted to talk to you.”

Alex stared at him. Jonah couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but could almost hear his mind whirring. “You wanted to talk to me,” he repeated. “You’ve come sort of a long way for that, haven’t you? How did you find us, anyway?”

“He saw the drawing,” put in Villa before Jonah could respond. “I found him hanging around the Zocalo, almost getting fed from by an angel.”

Jonah winced. It made him sound like a stray puppy, or something.

But unexpectedly, a slow smile grew across Alex’s face. “You saw the drawing? Really? Oh man, it worked.” He moved to one side, motioning them both in.

Villa pushed his bike inside; following, Jonah looked around in a daze, taking in the stained glass windows, the statues, the exercise equipment. There were guys pounding away on the machines; a couple of others playing basketball with their shirts off; still others doing target practise, coolly aiming guns as they fired. Jonah felt a mix of excitement and envy. He couldn’t imagine that Alex was going to do anything but throw him out; how could he hope to add anything to this group?

“So he wasn’t lying just to keep me from shooting him, at least – you do know him,” commented Villa. His black hair looked almost blue in the harsh light. Rolling his motorcycle alongside another one that stood against the wall, he flicked its kickstand down.

Alex nodded, his eyes not leaving Jonah. “Yeah,” he said. “He worked for the Church of Angels.”

Villa stiffened, his head snapping towards Jonah – who shrank backwards, certain that he was about to get attacked. “You did not tell me that,” he said coldly.

Alex stretched a hand out towards Villa, touching his arm. “It’s OK,” he said. “He’s on our side. You are, aren’t you?” he added to Jonah. “You haven’t changed your mind?”

Even through Alex’s shirt, Jonah could tell how toned he was, how sleekly muscular. The other guys all looked the same; it was like he’d wandered into the glossy pages of a men’s health magazine. What was he doing here? But it was too late to turn back now; he had to at least say the words.

“No, I haven’t changed my mind,” he said. “In fact, I, um…I’m here because I want to join you. To be an Angel Killer,” he clarified, just so there wouldn’t be any doubt about exactly how much of a fool he was making of himself.

Alex had moved away to lock the door; at Jonah’s words, he turned quickly around again, his eyebrows shooting up. “Really?”

Jonah nodded, his fingernails digging into his palms. “Yeah. I know that it’s probably a stupid idea. I mean, you’ve probably got lots of – of requirements, or –” He stopped in confusion; Alex was laughing.

“I’ve got what?” he said. “No, come on, that’s great. Jesus, we could really use you.”

Jonah blinked; he honestly thought for a second that he had heard him wrong. “You could?”

“Oh god, yes. You must have so much information about the angels –” Alex broke off as a petite, pretty girl with summery brown hair appeared; it took Jonah a beat to realise that this was Willow, with dyed hair.

“Jonah?” she said, her green eyes huge. “Oh my god, Jonah!”

Before he knew it, she had thrown herself at him, hugging him hard. He was stunned. At first he hardly knew where to put his hands, but then, ridiculously, tears filled his eyes and he found himself hugging her back. Though he’d only met Willow for a matter of minutes before the Second Wave of angels had arrived, it felt as if something deep had been forged between them; they had both nearly died that day.

“Hi,” he said as they pulled apart. He swallowed, wiping his eyes.

“Hi,” she said, her cheeks pink. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to – attack you.”

Alex rested a hand on Jonah’s shoulder. “You OK?”

“Yeah,” said Jonah, feeling like an idiot. He brushed his palm against his damp cheek again. “Sorry.”

Jonah was surprised at the depth of understanding in Alex’s eyes. “Don’t apologise,” he said. “Listen, do you want some coffee? Or something to eat? We have got food, haven’t we?” he added to Villa.

“Barely,” said Villa. He stood leaning against his motorcycle, thin as a knife blade. “I need to, ah…arrange another delivery. Enough for tonight, though.”

Alex grinned. “Thank Christ for that; they get surly when I don’t feed them.” He clapped Jonah on the back. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to everyone.”

“Wait,” said Jonah, hardly able to believe that it was going to be this simple. He pushed a hand through his tumble of dark curls. “You’re, um – you’re sure about this, right? You really want me to stay?”

“Are you staying?” cried Willow, her face lighting up. “Oh, that’s great!”

Alex looked amused. “Yeah, I’m sure,” he said. “Are you kidding me? You’ve been marshalled; you can’t be hurt by the angels. Plus, you know about them in a way that nobody else does – we could seriously use you.”

“I guess, but –” Jonah glanced across the warehouse at the guys playing basketball; their hard muscles gleamed with sweat. “It’s just that…I’m not very athletic, and I don’t know how to shoot a gun, or–” he broke off in confusion. What are you doing? he shouted at himself. It was like Alex had deviated from the script by not saying no, and now Jonah was trying to feed him the correct lines despite himself.

But Alex just shrugged. “So? It doesn’t take a genius to use a treadmill and pump weights. And half of these guys didn’t know how to shoot, either, when they first came.”

“Jonah, you have to stay,” said Willow. Briefly, she touched his arm. Her face was so alive, so pretty. “Please. You have to.”

“Yeah, or she’ll attack you again,” said Alex in a teasing voice. His gaze was full of warmth as he regarded Willow; the expression on her face was the same as she glanced back at him. Remembering how he’d seen them kiss before they’d escaped from the Church of Angels, Jonah felt happiness curl through him. In those dark months following the Second Wave, he had liked thinking of the two of them together, being there for each other – he was glad that they still were.

“Ha, yes, the team lives in dread of my attacks,” said Willow, her eyes dancing as she made a face at Alex.

Si, they are very scary,” put in Villa with a smile. He looked much more relaxed now, as if the man who’d rammed a gun against Jonah’s throat with such violence had never existed. Jonah wondered fleetingly if Alex knew he was a criminal – and then realised that of course he must, but clearly trusted him anyway.

“What’s scary?” demanded a muscular guy with short sandy brown hair, coming over to them. He’d been one of the basketball players, his bare chest still shiny with sweat. There was a white towel draped around his neck; he swiped his face with it.

“Me, apparently,” said Willow.

The guy guffawed. “You? Nah, you’re a cutie, even when you’re swoopin’ that angel at us. Who’s this?” He nodded at Jonah; his accent was pure Texas.

“A new recruit, if he can make up his mind to stay,” said Alex. “Sam, this is Jonah. Jonah, Sam.”

“Hey, really?” Sam stuck his hand out. There was a tattoo on one of his bulging biceps – a black AK in gothic lettering. “That’s great. What can we do to convince you to stay here at the nuthouse with us?”

Jonah was starting to feel like he was in a dream. The few times that he’d allowed himself to imagine actually being accepted as an Angel Killer, he’d pictured grudging tolerance until he managed to prove himself in some way, not people practically begging him to stay.

He glanced at Alex as he shook Sam’s hand. “I, uh…I’m feeling pretty convinced already,” he confessed.

“You mean you’ll stay?” said Willow quickly.

He nodded. Suddenly he was grinning like an idiot. “Yeah. I’ll stay.”

***

The next few days passed in a blur. Jonah began working out; shot a gun for the first time in his life. He tried to find his chakra points, so that he could scan for angels and see them at will; started getting to know the other AKs, and the dynamics of the place.

It was always busy, always buzzing. Alex – who had struck Jonah as somewhat brusque the single previous time they’d met, even given the circumstances – turned out to be unexpectedly easy-going, though with a calm sense of authority that kept everyone in line. The group obviously respected him greatly, despite the fact that he was younger than a lot of them; he never had to tell them anything twice.

All the guys treated Willow like a favourite little sister, and she bantered with them good-naturedly. It was clear how deeply in love she and Alex were. Though the two rarely touched in front of the others, at times Jonah caught glances between them that made his chest tighten with poignancy. He hadn’t had a girlfriend in years. When he’d worked for the angels, it had seemed enough to give his life to such a worthy cause.

As the days passed, Jonah started to become aware of – not tensions in the camp, exactly, but a sense of expectancy, as if the AKs were all eager for some sort of news to break.

“What’s going on?” he said to Mike when he’d been there for three days. “It’s like everyone’s waiting for something.” They were side by side on the treadmills, with Jonah trying not to puff as he spoke. Mike was striding along like he could go on forever.

“Yeah, we are,” admitted Mike, punching at his machine’s controls. It whirred as it sharpened the incline. “Alex has said that he’ll take some of us on a hunt soon…the guys are just waiting for him to tell us when, and who’s going.” He shrugged. “I won’t be; I only started seeing Willow’s angel a couple of weeks ago.” He shot Jonah a glance. “Hey, what do you think? About her being a half-angel? Pretty weird, huh?”

Sweat was streaming down Jonah’s face, and he hadn’t even run a mile. “Yeah,” he got out. “The angels aren’t supposed to be able to breed. Raziel was really shocked when he heard there was a half-angel around.”

Though Jonah had been afraid that the other AKs would scorn him for having worked for the angels, the opposite seemed true – everyone was fascinated to hear about his experiences. Which, perversely, made him less eager to talk about them. His time at the Church of Angels still felt very personal, in a strange way.

Mike grimaced. “God, if even the angels don’t know what’s going on with that…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I wonder if there’s any more half-angels?”

“Raziel didn’t think so,” said Jonah. “But I guess there’s no way to tell.” His words came out in a pant. Finally giving up, he lowered the speed on his machine, slowing to a brisk walk. “Willow’s great, though,” he added. “You should have seen her when the Second Wave arrived. She was so incredibly brave.”

Mike nodded. “Yeah, everyone here thinks really highly of her. We’re lucky to have her on our side.”

The statement startled Jonah somewhat; it hadn’t occurred to him that there could be any question about which side Willow was on. But thinking about it, he could see that as far as most of the guys were concerned, she might have been just as likely to side with the angels as with the humans.

The idea seemed ludicrous to Jonah. He had been there that day; no one who had seen Willow risk her life so unhesitatingly could even consider the possibility that she might join the invaders.

After the workout, his hair still damp from his shower, Jonah came across Willow herself in the kitchen, leaning against the counter and staring into space.

“Hi,” he said, putting some water on to boil for coffee. She didn’t answer, and he glanced at her; there was an intense expression on her face, almost as if she was listening to something he couldn’t hear. A small smile played around her lips.

“Willow?”

She had a mug in her hand; the coffee it held sloshed as she started. “Oh!” She looked down in
consternation; it had splattered onto her top. “Sorry, I was miles away.” Taking a sip of coffee, she grimaced. “Agh, it’s gotten cold now.” She spilled it down the sink and then grabbed a paper towel, dabbing at her shirt.

Jonah hesitated; she seemed uncharacteristically edgy. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine. Just daydreaming.” Throwing the paper towel away, she spooned a fresh teaspoon of instant coffee into her mug. “Can I have some of your water when it’s boiled?”

“Yeah, of course.” The sink was a mess of dirty mugs as usual. Jonah started washing them without thinking; he hated seeing clutter pile up. “Sure you’re all right?”

Her long hair was tied in a knot at the nape of her neck, and moved a little as she nodded. “Completely. And how are you doing? Are you getting used to all of this yet?”

Jonah let it go. She did seem OK now; maybe she’d just been lost in thought, as she’d said. “Sort of. Apart from aching in muscles that I never even knew I had.”

“Yeah, working out for the first time will do that to you.” Her smile turned impish. “So are you going to get an AK tattoo?”

Jonah laughed self-consciously. He’d never thought of himself as even remotely the tattoo type; he couldn’t help feeling that he hadn’t earned the right to have one yet.

“Maybe. When I can actually hit the target more than twice in a row.” He looked at her as he placed a clean mug on the side of the sink. “What about you, do you have one?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t want a tattoo on my arm. If I got one, it would be someplace more private…plus I think I’d want it sort of personalised.”

Jonah's cheeks reddened at the mention of a tattoo in a private place. “Personalised?” he said, thankful that she’d thrown him something else he could comment on.

She smiled shyly, pouring the boiling water over both of their coffee grounds. For a moment he thought she wasn’t going to answer, and then she said, “AJK, instead of just AK.” She darted him a glance. “Alex’s middle name is James,” she explained.

“Oh,” said Jonah softly. He dried his hands off. “That’s – really nice.” He tried to imagine a girl wanting a permanent memento of his own initials, and failed.

“He thinks you’re doing really well, by the way,” added Willow, stirring milk into her coffee. “He said that for someone who’s never shot before, you’ve got steady hands.”

Jonah was certain that she was just trying to make him feel good. He went silent for a moment, blowing on the hot liquid. “All of this is so totally different from anything I’ve ever done before,” he said finally. “I was sure when I first came that Alex was going to tell me to get lost.”

Willow’s eyes widened. “Oh god, no, never! He’s so glad that you’re here. So am I. You know so much – ”

“About the angels, yeah,” Jonah finished. Propping himself against the counter, he smiled ruefully, looking down as he crossed his ankles. “I guess I want to be useful in other ways, too. I want to actually be out there killing angels, not just kept around because of what I know.”

To his surprise, she laughed. “Jonah, you’ve only been here for three days; you’re still learning! You will be out there fighting someday, and then you’ll be incredibly useful, not just ‘useful’.” She regarded him, her head cocked to one side. “You know, I think you’re being too hard on yourself,” she announced.

Jonah shrugged. He’d been told that for most of his life – by teachers, friends; everyone, in fact, except his own family, who seemed to think that he was nowhere near hard enough. “Yeah, probably,” he said.

Willow started to say something else, and then broke off as Alex’s voice rang through the warehouse. “OK, you guys, listen up!”

He and Willow went to the doorway of the kitchen. Alex stood beside the makeshift table with the map of Mexico City on it, wearing a long-sleeved white thermal shirt with a faded blue concert t-shirt over it. The other AKs were stopping what they were doing, turning towards him eagerly.

“I guess this is it,” murmured Willow, a troubled look on her face. She sighed. “God, I can just feel how excited everyone is…”

“Right, I’ve been promising you a hunt,” said Alex when the room was silent. “So let's do it tomorrow night, in the Zocalo. It should be quiet then, but there’s sure to be some angels around; I’ll see how you guys do in a real-life situation. Sound OK?”

“Better than OK,” said Sam, his eyes gleaming. “Now come on, Chief, put me out of my misery – ”

“Yeah, you’re going,” broke in Alex. He snorted slightly, smiling as he regarded the Texan. “I don’t think I could hold you back if I tried, could I?”

“Damn straight,” said Sam with a grin.

“So it’s going to be me, Willow, Sam and Manuel,” went on Alex. His gaze went to where the thief stood near the target range, gun in hand. “Villa, I know you’re pretty much ready too, mi amigo, but I need you to stay behind for this one. If anything happens to me, then you’re in charge, entiende?”

Si,” said Villa, nodding. “But next time – ”

“Yeah, don’t worry. If this hunt works out we’ll start going out on a regular basis, and I’ll rotate people.” Watching, Jonah thought he saw frustration cross Alex’s face. Straightening from the table, Alex said, “Right, let’s get back to work. And you’ve all been doing great, by the way. Good work, all of you.”

Even Jonah, as completely un-psychic as he was, could feel the exultant mood pulsing through the warehouse as everyone returned to what they’d been doing; there was a party atmosphere bubbling away just under the surface. Sam was beaming broadly, and exchanged a high five with Brendan.

Beside him, Willow’s eyes were still troubled. “It’s driving him crazy, not being able to go out hunting every day,” she said in a low voice. She was watching Alex as he leaned over the map, discussing something with Manuel. “Even if we do start going out, it won’t be nearly as often as he’d like – he just can’t leave everyone on their own that much, when he’s the only expert we have.”

Jonah nodded, realising now what the frustrated look had been about. “I’m, uh – surprised that he’s letting you go,” he commented, glancing down at her.

Willow shrugged as she tucked a strand of brown hair back into her bun. “He’d rather I didn’t,” she said simply. “But he knows better than to try to stop me.” She gave him a slight smile, and handed him her coffee mug. “Anyway, I’d better go work on my target practise – you’re not the only one who’d never shot a gun before. And believe me, I really hated guns.”

Jonah gazed after Willow’s slim form as she moved across the warehouse to where the targets where. She said something to Villa, who nodded, handing her his pistol and watching as she took aim. He
made a comment, adjusting her grip. Willow’s face was taut with concentration; Jonah could tell she wasn’t enjoying this much.

It was in stark contrast to the look that had been on her face when he’d first come into the kitchen. She’d been concentrating then, too, but there had been a certain dreaminess to it; a sense of glad absorption – until Jonah had spoken to her, and jolted her out of it.

As he rinsed out both their coffee mugs, he wondered again what Willow had been thinking about.


And that’s all she wrote!

After this point, I had to face the fact that as much as I liked a lot of the individual scenes, some really basic things about the novel weren’t coming together. So it was back to the drawing board. I rethought it, threw out almost all of it, and wrote the Angel Fire that’s now on the shelves. (Believe me, aspiring writers – it’s MUCH easier to start over again in a situation like this, rather than try to keep the scenes you like and rewrite around them!)

In this final extract, I particularly enjoyed writing the scenes in Jonah’s point of view. It was a lot of fun to show Willow, Alex and Villa through someone else’s eyes. And I've always loved Jonah as a character -- he's so much more capable than he realises. One of my ideas for Jonah – which I think I’d discarded by the time I wrote this draft – was going to be a romance between him and Kara (then named Mia). I KNOW, I KNOW! It would never have worked, would it? Or at least, not with the Jonah we know now. He’d have had to toughen up quite a bit before Kara wouldn't just chew him up and spit him out.

Anyway, I was sorry to have to lose Jonah in the published version of Fire, but I knew that with Seb in place, there wasn’t room for another ‘friend’ figure for Willow (to be honest, there probably wasn’t room for him in this original version, either). But I really like how Jonah's story arc ended up in the published books -- he still plays an important role, yet does it in his own way, rather than simply becoming another AK. (And I’m sure that he and Nina make a much saner couple than he and Kara ever could have been!)

Have you figured out the identity of the Hunter yet – the shadowy killer who’s been shooting angels in Mexico City? Well, my original idea was that this would turn out to be Jake, Alex’s brother, who hadn’t died after all, and wouldn’t be happy that his brother was now with a half-angel. (This was my plan way back from the time of the first book -- which is why Jake fell down a cliff rather than being killed outright by the attacking angel.) I still think this would have been an amazing twist, but I just couldn’t get the logistics of it to work out...so Jake remained dead. And in fact, I’m glad now that it happened that way. I think it’s more honest and feels more true.

What about Villa, the thief who I’ve structured these extracts around? As I’ve mentioned, Villa was in love with Willow, but  didn’t want anything to actually happen between them. He knew that he was no good for her, given his criminal lifestyle – which we get a much stronger sense of in this final extract. Suddenly you see a whole different side to Villa: the violence that he's needed to embrace in order to survive. Although it was never explained in these extracts, the woven bracelet Villa always wore had an emblem of Santa Muerte on it -- the Mexican 'saint' of Death.

You may recall in the published Fire that Seb takes Willow to Tepito, the violent barrio of his youth. That idea originally came from my thoughts about this version. At some point, Villa was going to take Willow to Tepito to protect her. Though I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen, my feeling was that Villa would need to confront the leaders of organized crime in some way, sacrificing himself for the Angel Killers. I envisioned him tying his bracelet around Willow's wrist before they'd kiss just once -- out of love on Villa's part, and sorrow on Willow's, who sensed what was coming. Villa would then smile sadly and send her on her way, realising what could never be. And then, perhaps, he'd die in a rain of gunfire, sacrificing himself for her and the others.

Before all of you new Villa-fans shout “NOOOO!” and throw things at your computer screens, I’ll add that I don’t know if I would have actually done it. I love Villa, and I don’t like breaking my own heart when I write. Anyway, it didn’t happen – Villa is still around in my mind, and may well decide to star in a story of his own someday!

If you have any questions or comments about these extracts, please drop me a line and let me know! I'd love to hear. Meanwhile, thanks for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed these glimpses of a different Fire – I’ve had a lot of fun sharing them.

Happy 2014!