|Divinity I: Revolution of the Spheres
Author: Guede Mazaka
Finding El was harder than expected, as the fucker seemed to have gone to ground. He’d left a trail of bodies on his way out of town square, but after that even the rumors were saying nada. If Sands didn’t know better, he would have said that jangle-ass had gone back into retirement.
Fat chance of that, though. Before Sands had gotten to him, only the Mexican cartels had been after him. Now it was them plus the CIA plus the Colombians plus anyone who thought he’d look pretty nice heading up Mexico and wanted to be careful. Well, that was what fucking heroics got you, after all.
Yeah, Sands was grumpy. He’d had to give up on the wise-ass t-shirts and all the other stuff that’d made things fun, since he couldn’t afford to be that dependent on other people’s eyes. Now he probably looked like a two-bit Johnny Cash knock-off, but at least the black meant he didn’t have to worry about how much blood he had splattered on him. Cruelty killed by inches; small mercies did it by the millimeter.
There’d been a ruckus up by the border that had sounded promising, but one walk-around the town and Sands knew it wasn’t El. Not enough exploded ruins, for one. And for another, the talk in the bars was all about some gringos running from up north, jeers about fucking crazy Americans flying free among the barflies. That cinched it—even the bartenders didn’t crack jokes about El anymore. Sands had a feeling that they crossed themselves instead, but so far he hadn’t had an opportunity to ask without sounding like a fawning groupie.
//…winged a border guard. Fuckers. If they were going to fuck up the routes for us, should’ve gone the whole way and killed the son of a bitch. I got two families and no way to move ‘em, they’re so thick on the border.//
//…Famous. They’re the weirdos who kill bad guys, remember?//
//Fuck, they’re never going to have enough ammo in Mexico. Hey, another round right here!//
That sounded a little familiar. If it wasn’t for the American part, Sands would’ve thought that maybe El’s friends had struck out to do some freelancing. But that wasn’t it, and that was about all that he was going to hear here. He dug around till he found the bills with the right corners folded down, then tossed them down and got the hell out.
Even in a border town, Americans stood out. It was funny how just a hundred yards and the whole goddamn landscape could change, turn raw and brutal instead of just boringly Old West—at least, that was how Sands remembered it being like. He spat at the reminder and wandered down a sideroad, harmlessly tapping his cane as he listened for more news.
Instead what he got was a pair of fucking muggers. Jesus Christ, how fucking long had it taken El’s legend to get around? Two weeks and Sands hadn’t exactly been idle, yet he still had numbfucks targeting him.
There was a heavy one and a light one; the heavyset guy was doing a bad job of blending into the background, given the number of scoldings he got because of trampled feet, and the light guy was walking fast to overtake Sands. Just up ahead the breeze whistled differently—alleyway. That’d be where it went down. Sands checked for people ahead of him, then casually hiked up his cane and paused to get himself a smoke. He had the match out when someone lightly touched him on the arm.
“Señor, can I—”
The steps behind broke into a dead run and the man holding Sands’ arm yanked him sideways so his cane banged against a trashcan. It rang like hell and for a moment, overloaded his senses. Goddamn—
--knife at his throat, the second guy pinning back his shoulders. Too close for maneuvering, and fuck, was Sands annoyed about being caught like that. “Where money, huh? Where—”
“Fuck off,” Sands hissed. In response the blade bit into his throat and that really, really fucking pissed him off—
It smelled like charred meat. Rotten, charred, disgusting meat. The pressure was gone from Sands’ arms and the knife wasn’t there anymore, but oddly enough, he still felt a little lightheaded. And God, the fucking stench.
Waving his hand, he stumbled sideways a few feet and rubbed the trace of blood from his throat. Not any worse than a shaving cut.
Some prodding with his cane found him the outline of a human leg, but when he poked harder, the goddamn thing sort of fell apart and raised up a hellacious new stink. Sands snorted hard to clear his nose and shook his head to clear his mind. Yeah. He could do that. Quieter than shooting someone.
Still didn’t make the clean-up any better. Fucking hell, he’d rather had fucking super-healing than this shit. He wanted his—fucking--eyes--back. Not a bunch of crispy lowlife scumbags.
If he couldn’t have his eyes, then he could at least have El fucking show up so he could stop with the wandering blind tourist shit and get down to business. For that matter, find out what business was in the first place, because he had no idea and naturally, his memory didn’t cover that. God forbid the good gods tell the not-so-good ones what the plan for the end of the world was.
“Fuck, I’m whining. I don’t whine. I seethe and connive.” Sands made his way into a slightly breezier alley and leaned against the wall for a smoke and a recalculation. So. El was around again, and he probably had those mangy mutts with him courtesy of Sky-Daddy. He also probably had a better idea of what was going down, but he didn’t want to talk.
If the All-father had been on earth, he would’ve done something by now and gotten in touch; he never could resist slummin’ it. And fucking hypocrite, he thought he could sit in judgment on Sands.
Chalk one up for dead. The two American nutballs messing up the border probably weren’t involved, but on the other hand…Sands had a funny feeling. Sort of an ‘big balls in town, time to scramble’ feeling, and after his little misstep with Ajedrez and Barillo, he wasn’t inclined to screw up again. Unfortunately, the set-up he got this time didn’t allow for strategic retreats. So find the damn Americans, learn ‘em about Mexico’s ways, and then figure out if the apocalypse was on its way again, and if so, if there was any fucking way Sands could avoid sailing on a ship of dead man’s nails again. Christ on a pogo, but even during his freewheeling rogue CIA agent days he’d had more taste than that.
“So you’re a pair of criminals on the run, you know fuck all about Mexico except the movies, and you need to hide. Where do you go?” Drag. The nicotine was a nice buzz, but nowadays the real hit was off the burn, the residual heat of the sparks that seared the top of Sands’ mouth and made it curl in fond familiarity.
He stepped out of the alley and tapped the nearest passing set of footsteps. Men’s shoes from the sound of them. “Hey, cabròn. I’m here to look at churches. Architecture—stone carvings and shit, you know? Want to give me the twenty-dollar tour?”
* * *
Murphy was twitching and making little hurt noises again. But when Connor shook him, he just moaned louder so Connor had to stuff his wrist in Murph’s mouth. They were on thin enough ice as it was and they couldn’t afford to be heard.
Someone walked in below so the planks creaked and groaned; Connor silently cursed and eeled himself on top of Murphy, using his weight to keep his brother from making any sound. It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of positions, straining his left leg and pulling an ache from the half-healed bullet wound in his side, but it wasn’t like he had much of a choice.
He hadn’t had a choice for a while, whispered a tiny little voice in his head. Connor told it to fuck off.
Whoever was in the church took his goddamn time looking around. Walked slow, considering, and stopped a lot to look at stuff. Every step they took frayed another one of Connor’s nerves, and he was already strung out by the fucking heat and the incomprehensible town and Da dying and Smecker losing it—fucking shite, Smecker had killed Da. Smecker killed Da. Smecker. Killed.
No, no time to think about that. First they had to find whatever it was that Da wanted them to find in Mexico. Though Jesus Christ only knew that was going to be a fucking pointless hunt. They didn’t know what it was because Da had died and it was all gone to hell. Just Murph left, and Murph was chewing on Connor’s wrist fair to bite it completely off, the fucker.
The sweat dripped down Connor’s face and blurred his eyes when he automatically looked at Murphy, smearing the shadows so that for a second, Murphy’s face was dark and elongated. But then he blinked, and there was Murphy staring back at him.
Connor just about jumped, but Murph seized his shoulder and squeezed fit to break bones, and all the while he was looking at Connor with a fear that curdled Connor’s blood.
Below another plank creaked; the visitor was over by the altar. Murph minutely shook his head. Frowning, Connor arched an eyebrow. There was a big crack only an inch to his left, where he could see the altar without even stretching, and maybe whoever was down there was…
Murphy shook his head again, and this time he was glaring, line of his jaw like concrete. With a shrug of his shoulders, Connor gave in. He held his position till the footsteps finally, finally walked out.
Then he yanked his arm from Murph’s mouth and smacked the bastard one. “Your great fucking teeth—”
“Ssss.” And not even an apologetic look before Murphy was squirming over to the edge of their little loft and peering over.
Connor laid a hand on his shoulder to yank him back and give him a good yelling, but then he realized Murph was still shaking. So he held his peace while his brother watched…whatever was down there. Though Connor didn’t hear anything, enough had happened to make him wary anyway. The hair on his neck was prickling, though that could’ve been from all the sweat drying to itchiness on it. And his stomach lurched oddly once, when he almost thought he could feel eyes staring up at him.
Finally Murphy pushed himself back. He rumpled his sweaty hair out of his face—getting long as a girl’s since it wasn’t like they had time for trips to the barber—and blew out a breath, looking worried. Then he switched to staring at Connor, like he was going to say something, but at the last moment he caught a glimpse of Connor’s side. Instantly he was poking and muttering at it. “Fuck. You cracked the scabs—bleeding.”
“We keep running. Not like I can help it,” Connor muttered, yanking the bandages tighter. He hoped it would scab over soon, because the heat was truly awful and the layers of sweat and dirt they had melted onto them were bad enough without adding that. “What the fuck was that about?”
“Remembered a bit. Not a big deal. We need to get moving anyway.” Odd for him, Murph didn’t stop to argue with Connor but instead leaned past him and started to push their stuff together. His hands were still shaking so that he almost spilled their bullets.
Connor bit back the urge to just knock some sense into the idjit. “Where? To what? Who the fuck made you king of the hill? There’s fifty fucking million people out looking for us because of that shite-fest with the border guard. We go out and they’ll have us in.”
“Well, we can’t stay here.” Fucking moron started pushing their guns into their duffel without even checking their safeties.
Before the idiot blew his head off, Connor grabbed Murphy’s hand and made him stop. That sent a fresh stab through his side, but that could go blow itself. “Murph, what the fuck is going on? I let you drive because I was too fucking busy bleeding, but now I’m not, really, and I want to know more than ‘I remembered something’ or ‘Da must’ve mentioned it when you weren’t looking.’ What the hell did he tell you? What are we here for?”
“You let me, you feckin’ gobshite? You were about two shakes from kicking it and I—”
“Tell me what the—”
“Fine!” Murphy shoved off and flopped back a yard, turning his shoulder to Connor. He snarled wordlessly at the wrecked old benches below. His hands were pressed against the wood so hard that the flesh was going white, and he kept digging at the rough planks with his nails. The muscle in his shoulder flexed—spasmed, more like, and he swallowed like it was his last swallow on earth.
Connor sighed and wrapped an arm around himself, trying to hold in the hurt. “Sorry.”
“No, I’m—it’s just fucking crazy. You’ll think Da and Smecker drove me round the bend, or some such.” Quick as he’d shoved off, Murphy came back to hug Connor and snug his head beneath Connor’s chin, like he wanted to crawl inside Connor’s skin. His nails were sunk deep into Connor’s back. “Been having dreams. Well—sometimes. Sometimes they’re when I’m awake, like flashes. I think—Da—did something. When he died. Started something. I remember things that I shouldn’t.”
“Like what?” The tremble in Murphy’s voice more than anything was frightening Connor. It couldn’t be insanity, because Rocco was gone and so was Da and they hadn’t been half as close as Murph was. It couldn’t. So he had to believe whatever Murphy said.
Funny how things had reversed themselves. Used to be it’d been the other way around.
Murphy pressed his lips to Connor’s jaw, and then wriggled up to give Connor a ferocious kiss. Pain in side and fear of everything aside, it left Connor reeling with nothing in him but the desire for more. But when he leaned down, Murph held him off. The other man cradled Connor’s face in his hands and stared anxiously at him; the bags under his eyes and the strained, red-veined whites of them made him old, older than he should’ve been even with the aging of hunting and being hunting. “Connor. D’ye trust me?”
The last time Murphy had said that, in that tone, he’d been holding out tickets to America.
Connor drew a ragged breath. “Aye. Always.”
“All right.” Murphy drew back and dangerously close to the edge of the platform. He saw Connor starting to reach out a guarding arm and waved him off. “No. No, it’ll be fine. Just—”
He tipped off the edge.
JesusChristnononoGodfuckingno--Connor got himself to the edge, scream in his heart and heart in his throat. But…there was no splintering crash of wood, no moaning death-cry.
He looked over and his heart stopped.
A pale-faced Murphy balanced easily on a shattered pole that couldn’t be more than an inch or so across the top. He tried to smile, but it was so forced he looked like he’d drunk poison. “See?”
Breathe. Breathe. Connor…breathed. Relaxed the crushing hold he had on the edge and laid his head on his arm. “Oh, Christ.”
“You fucking bastard,” Connor said more loudly. He arched up and…and it was a damn good thing he was still up top, because otherwise he would’ve been strangling Murphy. Since he couldn’t, he punched wood. Dust pattered Murph’s wide-eyed face. “You goddamn lunatic.”
“I’m sorry,” Murphy replied, voice small. He hopped—floated—glided—off his perch and ran fingers through his hair again. “Look, we’ve got to go. That—that guy in here. I think he could tell.”
A miracle? some tiny, incredibly resistant and stupid part of Connor suggested. But he knew better. And at this point, he was just…so tired. And so busy running from everything that they didn’t have time to deal with, that they couldn’t deal with because if they did then they’d go mad. And so alone, wrenched up by the roots and on the run and only Murph left.
He raked at his own hair. Any longer, he thought stupidly, and he’d have to start tying it back. “I’m coming down.”
Connor started to go for the ladder, but Murph made a noise. Oh, right. After properly packing their stuff, Connor dropped the bag over the side. Then he balanced himself on the edge, said a quick Hail Mary and tipped over himself.
He’d always figured floating would feel different, maybe like being drunk. But this wasn’t any different than walking. He was falling, but it seemed slower so he could flip around and get his feet down and even pick out a landing spot. And when he touched ground, he did it so lightly that he barely raised any dust.
“Holy Christ,” came a hoarse whisper. Then Murph was grabbing him by the shoulders and frantically kissing him, and Connor realized that it actually hadn’t been very long. Maybe a second.
“See how you like it, then.” But he didn’t mean it, and Murphy knew that. Connor pressed a hand to his side and turned to the door. “What else are you remembering?”
Murphy gave him a hunted look. “That I wish we’d picked up Spanish, too.”
* * *
The noonday sun was unforgiving and Fideo didn’t care, for he was stretched out on the ledge that ran around the roof, neck bared to the rays. Occasionally the wind would ruffle his hair off his face so El could see the other man was snoring.
Lorenzo, on the other hand, was nervy and restless, unable to sit still. He would lean against the ledge for a moment before bouncing to his feet and stalking about the roof, muttering to himself. When he finally noticed El, he yelped like a coyote. “Goddamn it, don’t do that!”
//Sorry.// El eased all the way out of the door and walked over to take a seat by Fideo’s head. He pulled off his gauntlet and rolled up his sleeve to adjust the gun tucked in it. //I found them. And Sands is in town as well.//
//Well, great. That makes it a fucking party, then.// The breeze rose and Lorenzo sank, dropping to lean his head against El’s knee. He settled a little when El squeezed his shoulder, but couldn’t stop tapping his fingers. “Name’s Connor and Murphy…McMah…MacManus. Brothers. Irish. Running from the fucking FBI. And the cartels hate them almost as much as they do you—while you were cutting down from this end, they were working on the guys who get the drugs in the U. S.”
Fideo lurched over so his arm dangled down and bumped against Lorenzo’s arm. //Bad for profit.//
//Bad for everything. This place is crawling with gunmen from everybody. We’d be lucky to get out without them. Fucking powderkeg. All that’s missing is the match//, Lorenzo growled.
No, that was there. The faint smell of ashes on the wind told El that Sands was starting to mess around again. Lorenzo probably knew it too, but was ignoring it because it was just too much for him on top of everything else. El slid his gun all the way out of his sleeve and put it on the ledge, then spun it. When it stopped, he leaned forward in that direction and took a good sniff.
They were on the move. So was Sands and…oh. Someone was driving into town, and El couldn’t tell who they were. Which was doubly bad, because there weren’t many that powerful and the ones that were shouldn’t have been hiding from him.
“He’s off.” Suddenly Fideo was lucid, and more importantly, worried. He looked in the same direction El was. “Not good. He’ll get us all killed again.”
“Who?” El asked, but Fideo clammed up. By now El knew better than to force Fideo to talk, but it did still grate.
They weren’t originally his, he reminded himself. No reason to expect their lives in Mexico and all they’d shared to overrule the past. No reason—except El’s increasing dislike of that past. Even with all the pain he’d suffered in this life, he liked it better.
He swung himself off the ledge, pulling Lorenzo up as he went. “You two go get the brothers. I have a feeling they wouldn’t shoot you as fast. I’ll get Sands, and meet you at the Santa Brigida Church at dusk. And stay out of the way of…whoever that is.”
//Like Sands would be any less quick to draw on you//, Lorenzo snorted. But he did as he was told.
He was right, but there was a bit more between Sands and El than angry vengeance. That nonsense conversation they’d had in the restaurant—El had never, ever bragged about killing his brother before. Yet there he had been, prickles running up his back as he’d stared at the too-smug Americano cowboy, and he hadn’t been able to help joining in on the pissing contest. It had been a wonder that neither of them had remembered right then and there.
Thunderheads were just beginning to roll across the sky above, elongating the shadows that stretched after El as he loped down an alley. The smell of ozone cut sharply through the air and the rattle of doors, windows, wall-talismans and the like set up a rumbling beat that he knew well. It told him Sands was looking into a church about fifteen minutes away. El hung a left and slipped through a few backyards in order to shave five minutes from that.
Lorenzo did, however, have a point. Sands would shoot first and listen after, and he couldn’t be allowed to do that because they didn’t have the time or the freedom.
Ironic. In order to have that, El had to play by the rules for a while. He shrugged and jogged around another corner; it was a game he’d been forced into before.
The street seemed clear enough, but halfway across El’s head suddenly split in half. He grabbed at it and lurched, threw himself to the other side, hoping that not too much of his brains would spill out. His shoulder hit a wall and it jarred gray over his eyes. When he breathed, he did so jagged and deep. He swayed, lightheaded, and his feet came down on something brittle.
El’s vision cleared and he understood that his head was still in one piece. Beside him a boy of ten or so was babbling about the gringo that had nearly run him over, pudgy arm jabbing at the car that was speeding away. It had nearly crested the hill by the time El looked, but he didn’t have to see to know it wasn’t Sands or the other two.
He still had no idea who it was, and when he tentatively felt for an answer, all he felt was blackness. It was soft, slightly yielding, and there was the ominous sensation of heat in it, as if it held back an inferno. When El pushed harder, blinding pain slammed through his head again. The car, however, continued on.
Either they thought he was too weak to bother with, or they didn’t know what they were doing. Neither scenario had the odds in El’s favor.
Sands was moving. El yanked up his head and ignored the boy, then pushed off the wall. As he walked, he covertly checked his guns. It was going to be a rough day.
* * *
Ed flopped on the cheap bed of his cheap motel room, clicked on the news and then clicked it right back off. All that was on was the dust-up between the Border Patrol and the twins, and he really didn’t fucking want to think about that right now. Fuck, he could’ve been back in Boston enjoying a hot-dog and a beer at a Sox game. But no, he was on the wrong side of the Mexican border and hacking it with the fucking Fed. Why?
He covered his face with both hands. “Sm—Paul, you goddamn sonofabitch. The least you could’ve done is go nuts out loud. Give us some more warning.”
Someone knocked at the door. In the two seconds that Ed spent thinking about not opening it, they smashed against it so hard that one of the hinges nearly tore out.
“Christ! Hang on, all right? I’m coming, I’m coming…” He dragged himself off the bed and to the door, which he opened only because come nighttime, he still wanted a way to lock out the rest of the world.
In the hall was Agent Vera Dandi, her lithe little body accessorized with take-out and a worn-looking, sad-faced Latino man. She beamed like a fluorescent light bulb. “Can I come in?”
Sure she could. Come on in and be all bouncy about getting back her rogue colleague while Ed did his very own Smecker imitation because goddammit, he missed the fucker. He really missed him. He was worried badly enough for the smell of the food Dandi was carrying to make his stomach want to puke.
Ed faked a smile. “Yeah, sure. Interagency cooperation and all that.”
The other guy flinched, then chuckled. But he didn’t offer anything besides a decent handshake and a, “Jorge Ramirez, retired FBI.”
“Though the ageny wishes you weren’t. Jorge, this is Detective Ed Greenly of the Boston PD,” Vera caroled. She set down the food on the bedside table and her pert ass twitched beneath her tan skirt, and God, did Ed wish he could still get it up for women. “We’ve got reason to believe the MacManus brothers are heading for Culiacan, and Jorge’s been living there for several years. He’s been kind enough to advise us on the local situation.”
“Culiacan? That was on the news…right, wasn’t there some huge street fight there a couple months back?” Speaking of a couple months, it’d only taken that long for Smecker to have Ed fucking trained to read nervous twitches by reflex. Ramirez was getting all sorts of funny buttons pushed, and showing it too.
Vera nodded as she sat down on the bed. She waved for the men to sit as well, as if it wasn’t Ed’s room. Ambitious man-eater, for all the smiles. “Yes. Now, Detective Greenly, can you just give us a quick briefer on Agent Smecker’s possible mental state? Then Jorge can tell us where he might go.”
“Wherever the twins are,” Ed muttered. He caught Vera’s sharp look and faked a cough to cover up his grumpiness. “Okay. I take it you know the bare bones—Smecker got put on the original string of killings, back when it was only the brothers. He was taken off when their father joined because some other guy who’d put Il Duce away wanted a second crack at the nut and had seniority.”
“Agent Honir. Shot by Il Duce in New York last month.” One by one, Vera was opening up the take-out boxes. The smell still made Ed ill.
He got off the bed, dragged over the chair and flipped it around to face the other two. That got him a bit more fresh air. “Anyway, Smecker wasn’t too happy about that. He kept up on the twins on the side, did a little private work.”
“Profilers. They’re always possessive of their cases,” said Ramirez. He and Vera shared a silent joke.
A little annoyed at being left out, Ed cleared his throat. “It wasn’t really a big deal—made him grumpier than normal when he thought—um—that Honir was fucking up—until maybe two months ago. Then he…I think that’s when he started getting obsessed with them.” Lies like the fucking rug did. Smecker was in deep from the moment he stole Ed’s thunder. “I mean, they were making the job a little easier, what with all the killing criminals and all.”
Vera arched an eyebrow. “But still breaking the law.” She smiled again and held out a taco.
“No thanks. I ate already. And yeah, I know that. An idiot knows that. But you wanted to know about Smecker, didn’t you?” She was making shushing sounds, like he was a scared alley-cat or something, and for a second Ed was tempted to smash that taco back in her face. But he swallowed that down and went on with the story. “He was worn out with all the infighting that happened, every two-bit fuck wanting to take over where the Yakavettas had left off…anyway, I think he started admiring the MacManuses. Kinda understandable, isn’t it? They were taking down the dumbshits that were giving him headaches all night.”
Thank God, but neither of them asked about how Ed knew it was all night. Ramirez picked at one of the burritos for a few seconds before discreetly pushing it away, while Vera dug into her taco without a sign of disgust. “Got too deep into their heads,” she mumbled.
Yeah, she could afford to say that. She probably had never seen more of a slum than the time it took to case a crime scene, let alone grown up in one. Then again, sometimes Ed wondered how the fuck those three micks could be so sure of themselves. Whether they ever fucked up. “Then a month ago we started getting these cases. Looked like the MacManus M. O, but from what we knew they weren’t anywhere in the vicinity. Still, it drove Smecker nuts. By then…by then I guess he really felt on the twins’ side, and since all these new victims were apparently innocent of anything…”
“Copycat killer. Your theory, right?” Vera took a moment to daintily dab the sauce from her mouth. Her taco leaked and smeared reddish juice all over her fingers, and for a second Ed was reminded of how Paul had always gotten right into the dirty work. Insane bastard always gave away when there was a new murder by the blood crusted in his hair.
“Yeah, more or less. But he—she—whoever the fuck they were, they were good. That didn’t help. Smecker gets kind of…wound up about unsolvables.” The kind that would drop hickeys all over Ed’s neck and then leave him gasping and still bent over the fucking car. Except lately sex hadn’t been anywhere near them. It was probably a good thing; with the fierce hollow look that Smecker had had going those last few days, he might have really ripped Ed apart without even realizing.
Ed stifled a laugh. Like the bastard cared in any case. He’d already gone round the bend by the time he’d complimented Ed, so that didn’t count.
Nodding, Vera polished off the last of her taco. She ate fast for such a handful of a woman. “Oh, I remember that. He’s sort of a role model and cautionary tale rolled into one at the Academy.”
“He’d probably like that,” Ramirez laughed. He saw the puzzled look on Ed’s face and answered it. “I crossed paths with him a few times. Top of the field, but not a man you offer a beer to.”
Not unless the point was to get fucked and fucked over all at once. Maybe Ed had…what was it…maschist—masochistic tendencies. He was actually gritting his teeth because of what they were saying about Smecker, as if he was supposed to be the only guy who got to bitch about the man. “Well, he’s off the fucking field now. We were investigating a triple murder done like the Irish way—nasty shit. Husband, wife and ten-year-old daughter. I think it was the kid that got to Smecker.”
“And finding out that there really was a copycat killer, down to the blue jeans and shades. Only it was them who’d been doing the Midwest, and the real MacManuses had actually been in Boston the whole time.” Vera abruptly dropped the cute act and straightened up, her voice cool as the ice Ed wished he had for his head. She carelessly examined her nails. “Smecker was good. He found out before anyone else, and *pop*--” she illustrated by clicking her tongue “—the bubble burst. Couldn’t take the disillusionment and went after them.”
“Hey. Hey. We don’t know for sure that it was the MacManuses after all. God fucking knows it’s been open season with vigilante nuts all over, and forensics said Il Duce and at least one twin was hurting too bad to have been up to much over the week prior.” That had come out too defensive. The other two were staring at Ed like suddenly they were worried he’d lose it. “What? I just talked to Duffy—there’s still too many holes for a solid case. I’m not gonna push a leaky verdict, or else I’d be as bad as them.”
Okay. Breathe. Look pissed off. Ed dug his fingers into his knees…and nearly fell over with relief when Vera and Ramirez seemed to buy it.
The other man laced his hands together. “It doesn’t matter. Smecker thinks it was the MacManuses, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, right. He—” had been fucking keeping me up with the pacing and midnight whiskey binges “—I don’t think he was sleeping much, and he was spending every spare minute that I saw trying to see if the MacManuses connected. His mind’s gone.”
God, that hurt. It was true, and it was probably better to get it into the open, but Ed still didn’t want to say it. Deep down Paul had gotten to be to him like the Saints were to Paul, and it was just…painful, watching the man go to pieces. Painful and frustrating and goddammit, Ed wasn’t sure whether he’d let himself get taken along as a walking encyclopedia on Smecker’s personality because he wanted the man’s sly sarcastic bitterness back or because he wanted to kill the twins for being able to do this to Paul. For meaning that much to him, when all Ed really was boiled down to a nice ass, a towel to clean up hangovers, and a coffee-retriever.
“He still seems to be thinking pretty hard,” Ramirez said. “He got through the extra patrols set up to look for him and the MacManuses.”
“Oh, yeah, he can still fucking think all right. He could do that when he was plastered to hell and back.” Ed pinched at his nose and ignored the coy looks Ramirez and Vera were giving each other. Suddenly he was very, very fucking tired and he just couldn’t muster the effort to give a shit about the little clique they were forming. “But he’s nuts. Crazy. I mean, he had his weird tics but when it came down to it, he was a professional. Getting the case gift-wrapped for the prosecution was his thing. He never got…like, attached.”
Someone squeezed his shoulder. Much to Ed’s surprise, it turned out to be Ramirez. “Whoever told you that was lying through his teeth,” the other man said with startling kindness. “We all get attached, one way or another. Every profiler comes close to losing it at least once because he got sucked into a case.”
“Occupational hazard. Yeah, I get it,” Ed sighed. He rubbed at the side of his face. “So why Culiacan? What the hell’s there?”
“Trouble. You understand that strictly speaking, we aren’t supposed to be able to operate in Mexico. But the Mexican President has allowed a special team to go down since it’s Smecker and he was a senior FBI agent.” Vera smoothed down her skirt and pulled out a map of the country. “The twins, though, can’t be touched since they’ve crossed the border. Thing is, they have killed some very good customers of the drug cartels down here. The only semi-safe city is Culiacan, since that street fight just about wiped out all the cartel there and no one has yet managed to seize the territory.”
The rest of the evening was spent talking about strategy, and where the twins and thus Smecker were most likely to go once in Culiacan. Halfway through, a thunderstorm rolled through and Ed got up to make sure his window was shut.
Weird fucking thing happened. He had his hand on the latch and was shoving because the damn window was stuck on its runners, and he happened to glance at the reflection in the glass just as lightning streaked the sky. Ramirez had his back to Ed, but Vera was facing him and when the lightning made the world glow, she…changed. Then she went back to normal.
Ed stared through the window. Then he shook himself, hard, and swore once again that he was not going fucking crazy over that miserable grouchy jackass.
* * *
Sands struck gold with his ninth church. Thank fucking Jesus-babies because he was getting really fucking sick of tripping over steps and listening to his guide go on and on and on about goddamn local miracles. Like Sands couldn’t smell the blood and crack on him. He shoved a twenty at the man and sweetly told him to leave. Whereupon the man did. Probably more because he thought he saw one fine, fine woman smiling at him from the corner than because of the money. It was Sands’ devout wish that that woman actually turned out to be a hag; her steps had sounded like it and that had been why he’d thrown the illusion over her.
He had made his way halfway down the aisle when his cell rang. Swearing softly, Sands fumbled to get it out before a priest heard and shoved him out; nobody ever called him these days and sheer curiosity made him answer. “Hi, Shapechanger at large answering. You want a blonde, brunette or a redhead?”
The line crackled, then went clear so Sands could easily make out the tired sigh. *Sands, knock it off.*
“Jorge! I haven’t heard from you since…” While Sands rambled, he tipped down his sunglasses and slowly scanned the church. If the murmury feeling in his blood was right, somewhere around here should be something that wasn’t fucking pitch-black. “…oh, right. Since you gave me a cheery wave and left a poor helpless blind guy to bleed to death.”
*You sound pretty alive to me.* The smug bastard’s chuckle echoed way, way back.
Sands nearly whacked himself for being such a blind—okay, he hated that metaphor—not seeing—fucking cowshit luck!—for not getting it before. “Oh. You.”
*I’m sitting this one out. That’s why I’m calling. FBI Agent Paul Smecker is tracking the MacManus brothers.*
“And why, exactly, would I give a fuck? Maybe I’m sitting this one out too.” Of course he wasn’t. Downside of being nastiest of the nasty was having to show up for all the showdowns, unlike one-trick ponies like Ramirez. He kept looking. There didn’t seem to be anything on the ground floor, so Sands swung out the cane and headed for the stairs.
Then he stopped. Very carefully did not look to the side, where there was the faintest glowing outline of…a door. A door in the fucking blackness. God, he needed to kill somebody. That one fucking second where he’d actually thought it was a way out before realizing the truth…
*Believe me, you’ll give a fuck. See you around.* And the line clicked off.
For the first moment, Sands gaped. For the second moment, he gritted his teeth and thought about impaling somebody; he could hear a priest’s robe rustling somewhere. And for the third moment, he snickered. “Ramirez, you fucking piece of shit. Not all of your teeth have fallen out yet.”
Had to respect that a little, even while Sands was making a note to himself to figure out a way to extraction those left with as much pain as possible. He hiked his cane beneath his arm and reached out till he touched the top of a bench. Using that as a guide, he made his way over to the glowing outline. He carefully put out a hand and felt wood. Patting around a bit more, he soon understood that he was standing in front of the confessional. No fucking shit. It was the modern age and everyone had finally come around to his sense of humor.
Somehow he’d expected to be enjoying it more.
Sands got himself another cigarette lighted. He heard stiff footsteps bearing down on him and dribbled smoke from the corner of his mouth. After a confused moment, the priest wandered away. That was going to give him fucked-up nightmares.
Speaking of…might as well deal with this. Another drag, and then Sands used his cane to open the door. Two gigantic ravens, colored a soft grey, fluttered anxiously and darted their wicked beaks back and forth. Outside a peal of thunder overtook the church bells that were ringing the hour.
For a long moment, Sands just rejoiced in the ability to see.
Then his sarcasm got the better of him.
“Hi,” Sands said. “Nice, nice birdies. Want some breadcrumbs, or would you rather have the eyes of corpses to pick at?”
“Fuck you,” cawed one. Irish. Well, that was a tad closer geographically to their old dominion, but otherwise it was about as far off as Mexico or America. Christ on a pogo, who’d done the planning for where everyone got to show up for the second round? Did they import some Arabian weirdo?
The other one held one wing close to his side like it was broken. His beak bobbed so Sands got a good look at how sharp his beak was—translate for bigass gun. “Look, man, I don’t want to kill anybody in a church, and you don’t want to die, so—”
“We just met and you’re already second-guessing me? Plus you don’t have the guts to kill in a church? Fuck, you two’ll be dead by tomorrow.” They were a bit cuter than Sands remembered. Or maybe it was just he’d never seen them ruffled and scared shitless and on their own before. If he didn’t need them to fix a few games and if he wasn’t fucking blind…never mind. Actually, he’d probably get real bored real fast. They still sounded innocent. Tainted and having issues with liking it was more Sands’ speed. “Listen, Munin, you better get your fucking gun out of my face and pay attention if—”
“What did you call me?” The first one suddenly went limp and staring. The second one seemed torn between putting a hole in Smecker, church or no church, and curling protectively over…
…oh. Oh, this was too rich. They were remembering in pieces and they were either fucking each other or damn close to it. Brilliant. What Sands would do for the time and slack to really fuck around with this…no, survive first, play later. Lesson that Ajedrez taught him. “Munin. Ring a bell?”
It certainly rang thunder. Both of them shivered. The other one lowered his beak—gun. “Who the hell are you?”
“Sands. Loki. You know, never could make up my mind whether I wanted to fuck or fuck over your Daddy.” And damn, they could be quick. Almost perfectly synchronized with the way they came at Sands from either side. Only a fast slash of the cane kept them back.
“Da would never—”
“Wait, Da…not…Connor…Da was—wasn’t—Mother of God, my head hurts with this.”
Okay, they hadn’t gotten around to remembering that bit yet. Sands twitched a couple of fingers, then stopped. Fuck, that was…he would’ve expected Sky-Daddy’s pets to have held out longer. They were really new to this.
He was not a goddamn baby-sitter. “Well, fucking great. I didn’t mean your Da, whoever the hell he was this time around. I meant—never mind. Hey, do I get reciprocation or what?”
“Murphy,” came quick as a bullet from Munin.
Huginn needed another moment, but finally he tucked back his wounded wing—arm—and muttered, “Connor MacManus.”
“You going to help us?” Murphy asked. Demanding little shit.
Sands made a face and reached for another cigarette. Nicotine was nearly as good as mead for dulling the stupidity of the world. It also helped him concentrate so he could see them as men and not birds. “Much as it sticks in my craw, yeah. Hang on.” He’d banged a knee against that car outside… “Okay, there’s this Caddy around the back. Unlocked, doesn’t need a key to start. Now, if this sad excuse for a puppetshow keeps going like it has been, I’m betting we need to go to—”
“Culiacan.” Murphy hiccupped and looked utterly terrified of himself.
“Wait.” Connor cocked his head. His hand unconsciously wound through the loop of his brother’s arm and clutched Murphy’s gunhand.
Something crawled up Sands’ spine and tried to die. He hunched his shoulders and shook it off. “Oh, it’s okay. We need that bastard too—”
“No. No, it’s not okay. He tried to kill us! He shot Da and he shot at Murph and he’s fucking nuts!” Suddenly Connor was all awkward whirl, his feathers—coat—swooping about as he grabbed for Murphy, grabbed for the duffel bag that apparently was it for their luggage, tried to grab for Sands.
Well, Sands wasn’t having any of that. He fucking well remembered how to defend himself. “He shot at you? What, did he lose his mind?”
“Who? Who’s com—” Murphy locked eyes with Connor. Then he was scrambling just as fast. “Fuck! Yes! Yes, he did and he wants us dead—wait, that shouldn’t be…”
“Later, Murph,” Connor tersely barked. Once again he tried to grab at Sands, and once again, Sands stepped out of his way.
This time, it was because that thunder was getting really, really fucking loud. Okay. Him. He would show up just when a gunfight was about to start.
Sands had had a long, long time to plan how he was going to greet his dear old compatriot again and this wasn’t it. On the other hand, nobody got to die yet, and if that other bastard was willing to shoot at the fucking birds, then he probably didn’t recognize Mr. Thunder either. Not good.
If Sands wasn’t a baby-sitter, then he really, really wasn’t a hero.
He yanked one last smoke from his cigarette and then pinched out the tip. “C’mere. Now, goddamn—thank you for your promptness.”
A bit of ashes on their foreheads, a little misdirection normally wouldn’t work, but given the confused state of who—oh, fucking Ramirez. No wonder he’d bother to call about some colleague of his who’d lost the plot. “Would that by any chance be FBI Agent Paul Smecker?”
Murphy blinked. “What, can’t you lean out and take a look for yourself?”
“No, fuckmook, I can’t.” Their little gasps when Sands ripped off his sunglasses made him feel marginally better. “Yeah, it’s really fucked this time around. Now get out there and—Murphy, you drive. Connor, keep tabs on Smecker. Hole up in someplace that isn’t a fucking church so you can kill people. And don’t give rides to strange mariachis. Off you go, children.”
He waited till their footsteps had faded from hearing. Then Sands ground the heel of his hand between his eyebrows and groaned. “I did not just save someone’s fucking ass. Fuck.”
Right. Time to save his own ass. Sands hurried back towards the altar, whacking knees and hips and elbows because there wasn’t time for the cane, and scrambled for the big candles. He snapped his fingers and the heat of the flames rose so fast his fingers were nearly caught in them. Not that that mattered now, but reflex made him pull away.
There. That should confuse Smecker for a good long while, and now Sands was just going to hustle himself out one of the many, many side-doors all Mexican churches seemed to have.
Behind him was the unmistakable sound of pure rage flinging open the main church doors. Sands let the side-door shut silently and speed-tiptoed into the alley, where he…spun and slammed his cane into somebody’s side. Somebody that grunted and punched him in the jaw so he stumbled backwards into a trashcan. “Goddamn it, you pisspoor excuse for a guitarist. Do you want to bring him out here?”
“So you know there’s something wrong with him,” El said. The jingling of his chains was in rhythm with the rolling thunder so Sands could barely hear it, and he was about equal with Sands so if he didn’t want Sands to see him, then Sands couldn’t see him. “Where are they?”
Sands sniffed. “You got the fucking pooches. Aw. That’s such a cute bequest. As for the other two, they flew the coop, so to speak.”
He had the distinct feeling that El wanted to repeatedly slam him into the wall. Something about how lightning blew a transformer nearby. Behind Sands. Well, lightning was marginally in his area of expertise.
“You…this is your fault.” The sounds were too chaotic to guide Sands, but El did have a distinctive presence. Coming up on the left. “You started it too early, so now we have to do it again.”
“My fault? My fucking fault? You bastards did…my children weren’t even grown yet! You could’ve waited, maybe tried to win them over to your side, but no, you had to go with paranoia and brute force…” Three feet, two, one. El’s swing whistled harmlessly over Sands’ head as he ducked and reached for his gun. The spin should’ve given him the momentum to pull it and knock the knees out from under El as well, but El had gotten fast. Well, he wasn’t built like a fucking mountain this time…Sands choked and spat as an elbow chopped down on his back. Another one knocked his gun from him, and he dropped his cane when El punched him in the stomach.
“You tried to kill me!”
Sands let himself fall and shoved into a roll to come up a good five feet from El. He listened in hope, but no, no frantic smacking sounds. So the fire he’d lit in the rubbish around them hadn’t caught El—whoops. Nearly got fried there. Last thing he needed was charred skin—then he’d really look like a Mexican skeleton cartoon. “Which time?”
“And you killed my friend!” Too fast for a dodge, El rushed Sands and took them both out of the alley. A well-placed knee and a twist saw that El broke their landing on the sidewalk, but the other man took it like…well, he snarled and headbutted Sands. Skull like concrete.
“Yeah? Well, what about my son? He had a lot more potential than fucking Baldur ever did…” Sands growled, clawing for El’s eyes.
El froze, fingers tight on Sands’ throat. “I was talking about the guitar-maker.”
Lucky bastard. That was possibly the only thing that would’ve distracted Sands from taking advantage of the lapse and mauling El like he’d been mauled. “What? What the hell about him? He wasn’t even—”
“He was my friend.” Pause. “And I don’t care about that shit,” El said. Deliberately with just a hint of spite. “That was then. I don’t want to do that anymore.”
“Well, you should’ve given a bit more than a shit about my son.” Now that they’d stopped, Sands had lost the rhythm of their fighting and had to think again. He was supposed to be negotiating an alliance. He’d planned this down to the last arch of an eyebrow. And El just messed it up without even trying.
Very slowly, something began to penetrate the darkness. A kind of reddish-yellow blob that eventually settled into the outlines of a man. Interestingly enough, El looked like El. And El had the most curious look on his face. “Did you actually care for them? Hel and Fenris and Jormungand?”
The names sounded peculiar when spoken with a Spanish accent. Possibly that was why Sands was thrown enough to answer truthfully. “No. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t capable of it. Not that I ever had a chance to try, damn those three bitches.”
“But you’re pissed off anyway about Jormungand.” El mulled that over. Somewhere along the line, he’d finally learned to hide his emotions. It briefly occurred to Sands that maybe he shouldn’t have dismissed Cucuy’s and Belini’s stories about El so quickly; he could have used more knowledge about what had happened prior to Dias de Los Muertos.
The other man suddenly let go of Sands and rolled gracefully to his feet. Then he actually helped pull Sands up. “I’m sorry about killing him,” El said, and he sounded like he might mean it. He wasn’t dripping with regret, but that wouldn’t have been believable, whereas his somewhat distant apology was. “But I didn’t have a choice either. He was trying to kill me.”
“Good boy. Just like his daddy,” Sands cooed. He watched in disbelief as El almost grinned. “So…what? No, wait, don’t tell me—your stint as a mortal left you so enamored of it that you say to hell with this Fate shit and wanna stay a weak, aging human that can get sick and has to shit and loses loved ones and eventually dies.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?” El asked. He pulled back his hair into a ponytail, then went into the alley. A second later, he came out and handed Sands’ gun and cane to him.
Next thing Sands knew, he’d be saving women tied to railroad tracks and giving lectures on the importance of instilling morals in the young. Jesu-fucking Christ.
He shook his head. “No, I just like to fuck things up. So are we actually going to have a civil conversation now?”
“I think—” El started.
And then the church exploded.
Instead of finishing his sentence, El grabbed Sands’ arm and dragged him off at a dead run. As much as Sands wished he could argue, just on principle, the other man was right. It’d be suicidal to tackle Smecker without a plan.
“What—you are whistling?” El shouted, incredulous.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it!” Sands cheerfully sang back. He had a reputation to maintain, after all, and lately it’d taken a few dings.