|Divinity III: Wind-Age, Wolf-Age, Mileage
Author: Guede Mazaka
Once the glow of finally having a certainty about something had worn off, Paul should have known better than to pick at the scab. Hell, he was good enough at pretending to keep his bosses fooled into thinking he still had the edge, so he should have been able to pull off pretending he still had the faith. ‘Should have’ being the operative words.
He did his best when he was totally immersed, all his senses redirected into one channel. For a long time, getting into the heads of criminals and reverse-engineering scenarios from forensic evidence had been enough. He’d never even had the problem of getting “stuck” in some sick fuck’s head, which probably took out more profilers than did on-the-job injuries; Paul was smarter than the vast majority of the idiots and even the prime catches out there, and so it was always easy to keep himself separate by seeing where he could’ve done better. If he’d a mind to switch professions.
But that had stopped being enough when he’d realized that the justice system’s institutional corruption and sheer stupidity was undoing all his brilliant work behind his back. It infuriated him and rubbed him raw and there was nothing he could do about it except down a whiskey, grit his teeth and make the next case airtight. Only there was no such thing, and as time went on, the canker inside of him had spread.
What would have stopped it would have been if there was a way he could ensure that his conclusions were turned into judgments, but that was impossible. His jurisdiction ended when the case went to court.
The Saints had seemed like the perfect solution to his frustration-weakened mind. He would feed them the right men, they would see that the right men were punished, and punished as they should be, and finally Paul could let some of the bile leak out of him.
“Fucking stupid fag,” Paul snarled. He tossed his butt out the window and slouched on the seat to watch mile after mile of desert crawl past him. Goddamned repetitive land. It wasn’t any good for him—there was nothing on which he could concentrate, and nothing to keep him perpetually distracted. So all he could do was drive and stew and seethe.
He’d been wrong—no, they’d been wrong. The brothers and their goddamn super-Catholic father, they’d lost their minds. They had thought themselves always right, and they’d gone over the edge.
If they’d just fucking listened--the car skewed and it nearly went off the road before Paul realized that he was grinding his heel into the accelerator. He wrenched the car back onto the road, jounced over a crack as wide as a leg and almost went over the other side because he overcompensated.
The car slewed back onto the road. A pit caught the left rear wheel, but Paul wrestled with the tire a bit and the car straightened out without much of a fuss. Once he was cruising steadily again, he slouched back with an explosive breath. His eyes flicked over the instrument panel, noted with faint annoyance the low gas, then drifted out to the road. Mexico was vengeance country. Sweeping, unforgiving, somehow grand in its grinding-down of men’s souls. Not much like the petty grit and gutter of the American urban landscape.
Nevertheless Paul almost wished he was back in Boston. Keeping it small, keeping it meaningless in the broader view…that had let him ignore a lot more. He could go his own wild way and if he felt like real shit, he could rip on Greenly and pretend the Saints weren’t his problem anymore.
“A bit more than a fuck and a dumbass, so take the compliment and scram,” Paul snorted. He had no idea who he was talking to, he didn’t care, and he needed a smoke. So he got one and blew rings into the windshield so he could watch them break.
Those cocky little Irish shits. They’d been tolerable in the beginning, even likable—he’d admired their panache and he felt no shame about jacking off a couple of times to their lilt in his head—but they had never been smarter than him. Not deliberately. It’d all been circumstances conspiring in their favor, since after all God loved fools and hated those who might, just might, be a little smarter than he’d expected.
So did that make Paul a demon to the MacManus’ angels? He’d killed Il Duce—killed that man of Yakavetta’s, for that matter, and if he hadn’t put his gun to Yakavetta’s head, he had still done his damnedest to make sure that those guns were loaded.
He exhaled without bothering to shape the smoke, but it made shapes anyway. Paul gazed at them through shuttered eyes while the nicotine mingled with the growing certainty in his blood, mellowed it out so the jangling fever faded into the background. Even the scenery wasn’t looking so depressing any more.
It had almost worked. He and the twins had almost made it work, almost fit his brains and their faith together to make something good. But something had fucked it up, gotten in the way. Il Duce, coming in after trying to kill his own sons—
“Idiot,” Paul drawled. The smoke scrawled itself into a horse with too many legs, a freak for a freak.
--and then he and his mission had gotten Connor and Murphy by the nose and led them off into country-wide disorderly mayhem. Paul had met the man twice, and neither time had he found peace in Il Duce’s presence. That was where he’d gotten confused—what worked for the brothers did not necessarily work for him. They’d been trusting little pets, terrified beneath their wisecracks and closing in on their father’s steps, and they had listened to a man who had been stuck in fucking solitary for the past decade or so instead of someone who’d been beaten up and shoved in time’s passing shit till he’d become one with it. So it wasn’t really their fault, Paul supposed. Il Duce had taken them when he hadn’t had the brains or the right to them. He’d lost his wisdom.
No, Paul didn’t feel guilty about shooting him. Not at all. Not in the least. What Paul felt was worry—worry that he was not going to be able to right everything in time. That it would not happen as it should, that they would not play the roles that they were given and that they had to play.
But he was on their trail, and he was making excellent time. They were confused, weakened, skirting the madness of disillusionment, and they would be easy enough to see to.
Paul sucked a last time on his cigarette before throwing it out the window. He sat back, one hand resting easily on the wheel, and watched the great blue sky roll on and on. It was better to look at than the land. More beautiful. More perfect, and it changed less than the ground. He could almost picture himself up there, looking down and seeing the whole view while all the others only knew bits and pieces.
He’d been dreaming of it all his life, and now he was going to earn the chance to finally rise that high.
The image of Greenly inexplicably popped into Paul’s head again, but he quickly missed that thought. Greenly had some wits beneath his posturing, but in the end he was only an ordinary man. He had no place in this: blundering chance was the lot of the mundane and destiny was the lot of the extraordinary.
For a moment, Paul felt sadness. He irritably dismissed that feeling and glared at the road, his anger rising again in a biting, itching wave. He wished once again that he’d been able to catch the twins while they were still in Boston; here, he had too much time to think.
* * *
They were still three-quarters of the way from Culiacan and Vera wanted to push on. She was making that loudly clear to the AFN agents escorting them, but they were equally resolute in their determination to stop for the night in a hotel. One of them was jabbering on his cell at his boss, one stood stone-faced with his arms folded across his chest, and one was patiently trying to argue Vera to a standstill. Ed almost felt sorry for that one, since she really could pull out the bitch when she wanted to.
None of them were paying any attention to him—as usual, since it wasn’t time to try and delve into Smecker’s head—so he picked up his room key and went upstairs. It was a tad nicer than the last place, and if he wasn’t biting his goddamned nails so much over Paul, the bed would have looked like the first stop. But Vera had had to remind him that hey, maybe it was all a misunderstanding and it could be cleared up and Paul would act sane again.
Total bullshit. Ed banged his bag on the dresser-top, banged the lid off the ice-bucket, banged the ice-bucket off the table and banged his way out of his room. To-tal bull-shit. Even if all it’d take to get Paul’s mind back on the straights was proving to him that the Saints hadn’t gone on a murderous, pointless rampage, the issues he was going to have about fucking up might just send him right back into insanity.
“Wouldn’t be fucking guilt, since he doesn’t give a shit about people. But his pride and his devotion to being always fucking right--oh, that’s gonna give him whiplash,” Ed muttered. He stomped down the hall, got to the other end before he realized he’d missed the ice machine, and stomped all the way back before he—
--Ed stared at the window they’d put at the end of the corridor and wondered if they’d call him insane if he threw the ice-bucket through it. Maybe they’d even send him back to Boston.
Sure, like he wanted to be there and settling for the little scraps of play-by-play—if there actually were any—that the higher-ups let trickle down. At least here he had a chance of seeing it in person.
“Only if Paul ends up dead, then what, smart guy?”
It took a moment for Ed to realize that he was trying to talk the way Paul did. Fucking Christ, what was he? Some kind of sap? Some pathetic fag so obvious that Vera had probably been laughing her ass off since she’d seen him—
--well, that was fucking brilliant. Now there was a small dent in the wall and his goddamned hand hurt. He hadn’t broken the skin, but the knuckles were going to swell like a bitch in the morning.
Ed sighed and tried to pull himself together. Yeah, it was trying to live up to Paul’s standards, but hell, Ed had looked up to him for a reason. Even if he had been a bitch of a guy.
He trudged back down the hall and this time, he didn’t miss the ice machine. He slid his bucket beneath the spout and smacked the button till it was full. Doing that took a little bit of the edge off his frustration.
The vending machines weren’t bad and Ed was feeling pretty hungry since he hadn’t been able to stomach much of the Mexican food. He dug out his wallet.
Somebody was coming down the hall and nattering on their cell at the same time, but just when Ed was beginning to make out the words, they quieted down. They kept walking till he could see them—or her, that was. Vera. Figured.
“They swear by all the gods that they’ve got blockades on every way in and out of Culiacan, but somehow I don’t believe them,” she said. Arms over her chest, she leaned a shoulder against the wall and watched him get his snacks. “Ed, you still up to this? Because I can go ahead and you can catch—”
“I’m up to it. No need to worry about me.” The fucking deposit slot was almost too narrow for his hand to fit through, and when he tried to pull his hand out, the flap came down to mash on the back of his hand. He tamped down the swears for her, but didn’t spare the machine any with his wrestling with it. “They better not be counting on him driving in. Smecker’s way smarter than that, and he could walk it. He wore out beat cops by the dozen.”
She h’mmed and just kept on eyeballing him, even after he’d gotten his hand and food free. Ed caught himself rolling his shoulders to get rid of the crawling sensation her stare was giving his back. Something about her was funny, and it wasn’t the usual funny that came with women clawing through a place like the FBI. It was…
It was a little like the feeling he’d gotten around Paul in the last few days before Smecker had lost it, like she was laser-focused on something and wound up so tight about it that she was vibrating with the strain. “Did you know Smecker?”
Ed looked up quick, but he only glimpsed the tail-end of surprise on her face. Yeah, she was hiding something, but she did it damned good.
“Only by reputation,” Vera coolly said. She turned around. “I’ll be in my room, two doors left of yours. We start at five tomorrow morning.”
It would’ve worked if Ed hadn’t been sensitized to Paul’s kind of lying. And once again, that was the same as Vera’s way of doing it.
“You know, all I want is to know what’s going on,” he muttered to his chips.
* * *
It wasn’t much more than a blip in Paul’s peripheral vision, but he knew it was coming. He didn’t think about how; now was not the time to be doubting his methods. He knew they worked for what he wanted them to do, and the ethical and moral appropriateness of them was already included in his debate about the twins.
No. That was not a debate, and Paul needed to stop thinking about it that way.
He pulled over and then, when it was obvious he wouldn’t be interrupted, backed up till he was parallel to it. Then he got out of the car and ambled the four yards or so to the scraps of cloth. There he knelt down and took a good look. Occasionally he poked carefully at one with his finger, but he made sure not to disarrange them.
They had been clothing once, but had been hastily ripped up—their edges were frayed, but some tears were relatively clean and were across the weave of the fabric, so whoever had done this had used a knife, then had torn with his hands. Part of a shirt. A cotton t-shirt, Paul thought, and his suspicions were confirmed when he turned up a piece of the collar. There were also scraps of what had been cotton briefs; those looked as if they’d been wadded against a wound, for dried blood darkly dotted them. He grazed a fingertip across one and knew it was Connor’s blood.
Life on the run hadn’t done the twins much good judging by the glimpse Paul had had of them, just before they’d fled out a window and left him to kill their father. But life on the run from him seemed to be treating them even worse. The rags were yellowed with the sweat they’d soaked in, streaked with dirt and dust, and they smelled of pain. Desperation. Loss of control, confusion.
That made sense. They were smart enough with the many tongues and clever in a fight, but they needed outside impetus to give them direction. From the story that Paul had had from their own mouths, they’d first gotten spurred by an inadvertent tip from the Russians about a boss coming in…and probably further revenge, though the little angels had stoutly denied that. Then it’d been Rocco. Dumbass he was, but he’d been able to feed them enough guiding information to keep them going till someone with a head for the long-term had shown up.
Goddamn it. Paul had contacted them first. It should have been him, not Il Duce.
He abruptly had to tuck his hands in his sleeves to keep from tearing up the rags. But that wouldn’t do, given the people he had following him and the others trying to follow the brothers, and so he left them where they were. Went back to the car and while he was on that train of thought, wondered about the other pair that he suspected had interfered at the church. And the one that was sneakily tailing him, staying just far enough back that it wasn’t worth turning around and quickly dealing with her before he went after the twins.
Somewhere deep inside, a voice that sounded like Greenly wondered how the hell Paul had known there’d been two others or that the one after him now was a woman. He hadn’t seen any of them.
Paul told it to shut up. It was irrelevant at this stage, and he needed to concentrate.
* * *
The Buick had a lot more leg-room, even if the A/C decided to crap out after ten minutes. Now that Sands could do things again, the heat wasn’t such a problem. In fact, it was positively stimulating. Too bad the company was such a wet rag.
“So he is FBI,” El was saying.
Sands rolled his eyes—could the man be any slower? Well…he reached into El’s jacket and fumbled for cigarillos. They smelled like they’d have a hell of a better kick than the cheap shit with which Sands had had to put up.
Ow. Okay, so El was still fast at the grab-wrist-crush-wrist routine. “If you’re going to be this repetitive, you’d better keep me buzzed on nicotine.”
“Or fuck you.” The really annoying thing about El was that his voice could be read as bored, amused, or flirtatious, depending on how long Sands thought about it. And Sands shouldn’t have to think about it when it came to jangle-ass, seeing as how he’d been able to run circles around the bastard before. “You could have asked.”
“Yeah, but that takes all the fun out of it.” Once his hand had been released, Sands took the offered cigarillo and warily retreated to smush against the door. He flicked a flame to the end. Then out of curiosity, he rolled the flame across the back of his hand and watched out a faint outline of his hand emerged. For the first time in months, he saw part of himself.
The taste was sweet.
It went sour in the blink of an eye, and Sands was dragging on the cigarillo before he could pay attention to how he must look to El. “Like I give a fuck when I’ve got to light my own goddamn face on fire to see it.”
“If it doesn’t hurt, you might want to try. You aren’t ugly.” The window screeched as El rolled it down. But God knew whose benefit that was for, seeing that all he did when Sands blew a lungful of smoke at him was breathe deeply.
Sands resisted the urge to squirm and decided this new edition of his favorite punching bag had gotten too goddamn canny. This wasn’t supposed to be how it worked. El was supposed to be muscle and Sands was supposed to be brains, and there was supposed to be some kind of détente till Sky-Daddy got around to breaking his word one too many times and bringing on the last battle.
Of course, having it go like it was supposed to was exactly what they were trying to avoid. “Mortality really did a number on you, didn’t it?”
“You don’t seem to have a problem with it,” El said. Almost carelessly, but Sands doubted that that word was even in El’s vocabulary anymore. “Smecker.”
“Yes, he’s FBI.” Fucking half-assed production would make them stick to normal, slow methods of traveling. Even with El cruising at a speed Sands found decent, they wouldn’t make Culiacan before the day was out. Maybe if they drove through the night…but in the meantime, they were avoiding everybody so that left a lot of free time. It was sensible to spend it hashing out a plan, but sensible stung like salt in a wound. “He’s a profiler, Organized Crime Task Force last I checked. He makes himself think like a criminal to track them down and take out their entire organization. Your kind of guy.”
Sands agreed. “But he’s good. And he’s lasted a fucking long time. Usually guys like him either burn out or go native, end up thinking they’re the guys that they’re trying to skullfuck and then they have to get shot. It’s sort of like putting an old horse out of its misery.”
“I am curious…was that what the CIA was planning to do with you?”
The drawling bastard probably had resulted from the fucking of a flamenco whore and an especially pissy bull. Hopefully the bull had gotten its head whacked off after a really, really agonizing bullfight. “He was a weird fucker. I never did meet him, but word gets around about guys like him. First off, he’s flaming like this—” Sands shoved his fire-tipped middle finger through the lighted circle of the index finger and thumb of his other hand “—and second off, he doesn’t give a shit who knows it. The FBI would’ve downgraded him ages ago, except he’s just that good and because he’s not a bad coffee-room lawyer, either.”
“Sounds like you so far.” El dug something from his jacket, then held it out to Sands. Since Sands couldn’t see the object he was holding, it took a second to figure out the smartass son of a bitch wanted him to light a cigarillo for him.
Pissant hunk of Mexicali shitbag. Sands flared a big old flame at El.
But the goddamned bastard’s reflexes still worked. El yanked his hand back so fast that all Sands ended up doing was scorching the ceiling and…yeah, lighting the fucker’s smoke. “Thank you.”
“Fuck you. What they did do was shove all the hard cases at him and hope he got killed. No go. Eventually I hear they got used to him, the way I bet you get used to STD sores from making love to so many strange guitars. He’s kind of an institution now. Settled in Boston to take on the various ethnic flavors of Mafia, and that’s the last I heard of him.” Sands waited for a reaction to his jibe, but got nothing. Nada. Sometimes he regretted getting everyone else killed during Dias de Los Muertos just because that lost him his only sure way of getting a rise out of El. “Hey, what about your wife and kid? Aren’t you supposed to be loyal to them or something?”
El’s faint slouch didn’t even stiffen. It was like he could predict everything that came out of Sands’ mouth and thus had figured out a way to not give a shit. “I am loyal to them, in my way. This world killed them, but they loved it and so I will not let it be replaced.”
“I wasn’t referring to that. Then again, you met up with your wife while you were avenging some other girlfriend. Serial monogamy? That’s an improvement over the last time.” The ravens and the wolves were nearly to Culiacan. Smecker, whoever’s role he had taken on, couldn’t be felt but Sands had a hunch that he wasn’t that far behind the birdies. Man, he really…how many could be strong enough to block out Sands and El? Oh. Oh, fuck.
A ghost of a laugh floated from El. “You figured it out.”
“It’s not fucking funny, you psychotic twang-nut. If Smecker’s him, and Smecker is nuts, then we’re in deep fucking shit.” Never mind about El’s love life—they were really, really fucked and they needed an out. They needed leverage and a crack. “Couldn’t you have sent somebody else to babysit the birdies? When’s the last time your puppies got their head out of the doggie-bowl?”
“Lorenzo and Fideo can handle themselves till we get there,” El calmly replied. “Why’d Smecker go crazy?”
“Why?” Well, that was a good question, and to Sands’ line of thinking, Ramirez owed him a little more than a rain-check for giving him a crack at Barillo. Sands got out his cell.
* * *
Paul pulled over again for gas when he was only about a half-hour short of Culiacan. The station was a ragtag shack with walls that seemed to consist mostly of faded posters. One good northern wind and it’d blow right over.
While the tank was filling up, Paul walked around the back and gazed over the way from which he’d come. The road still was peculiarly empty, according to the drowsy clerk manning the station; normally there was a low but steady traffic that ran all day and all night. It was still dark now, but the air retained its sleepy heat that gently battered at the senses and the light pollution from the city set up a hazy, fluorescent dome over the land.
Someone was trying to clear the battlefield for them. Paul spun on his heel and walked into the station. The clerk had fallen asleep and, no matter how much Paul shook him, the man refused to wake. He wore a foolish smile that Paul had seen on longtime crack addicts, and his limbs were so floppy that he didn’t even bruise when Paul dropped his arm on the counter.
Heavy-handed. After leaving the money for it and the gas on the counter, Paul snagged a bottle of tequila for the road. It wasn’t mead, but it would do.
His ravens had paired up with his wolves. Insolent beasts. No matter if others had seen to them in this life—they were still his and they should have remembered that. For that matter, his son and his blood-brother should have remembered the inevitability of fate. He did wonder at what the rogue Norn seemed to be up to, but a moment later he dismissed such concerns. Even they could only foresee the future; they couldn’t rewrite it. Oaths would always be broken, corruption and death would always bring down the greatest undertakings. Everything rotted and rotted till it had to be swept away and made anew.
He had hoped that the new God would have altered the progression, but as was to be expected, he had been proven wrong. The end had to be brought on again.
There was a noise. A sharp, piercing sound that distracted him.
Paul swam up to the surface and stared wildly at the land around him, wondering what the hell he’d been doing. He was supposed to be fixing his damn fuck-up with the Saints once and for all, so why was he thinking about…he didn’t have a brother, or a son.
He stared at the coyote that had tipped over the garbage. It stayed well back, but its eyes met his in a challenge. Pathetic, really, when he could wipe it out with a thought.
The coyote dropped its eyes. Equilibrium restored, he stalked back to his car.
* * *
In the middle of getting Connor onto the bed, Lorenzo suddenly winced and grabbed at his head. He nearly dropped Connor, and as it was, having to take on all of his brother’s weight without warning sent Murphy toppling back onto the mattress. Connor’s knee whacked the breath from his stomach so he couldn’t even crawl out from under him, but instead had to lie there and wheeze. “The…fuck…was…that…for…?”
“He’s sorry,” Fideo said. For once, he didn’t look drunk. Actually, he looked worried for Lorenzo.
But when he reached for the other man, Lorenzo slapped away his hand. Then Lorenzo stomped down half the room, stopped before the mirror and leaned against the dresser with his head down and his shoulders protectively hunching up. He pressed the heels of his hands into his temples. “Fuck.”
“Who’s coming?” Fideo went over to the window and stuck out his head, sniffing like a dog.
Wolf, some part of Murphy automatically corrected. Then he had to lie flat while yet another memory hit him. At least they were coming in bunches now, and he didn’t have to sit around and twiddle his thumbs till he got the second piece that made the first one make sense. “Shouldn’t you two be fatter, like?”
“What? Oh, those stupid names.” Lorenzo flapped a rude gesture at him. “Hey, there’s more to greed and gluttony than eating all the time.” Then he said something rapid in Spanish to Fideo, who was still hanging out the window. “Your buddy’s on the way.”
“Smecker? Grand.” Connor grunted in pain as he slid free of Murphy, then limply flopped on the bed. He kept one hand pressed hard against his side.
Concerned, Murphy poked till Connor let him look at it. None of the stitches had ripped free, thank God, but it wasn’t looking too good. The skin around it felt like tenderized beef, soft and slightly swollen, and the color was off. Murphy prayed that it wasn’t getting infected. Since they no longer had Smecker’s connections, there wasn’t much of a chance of them getting drugs for it. “What the fuck happened to him, anyway? Last time we talked, he sounded okay.”
“No, he didn’t. He was pissed off about something. You didn’t hear because you left while he was talking to Da.” Fideo came over and offered Connor a hip-flask, which didn’t smell of vintage but hell, it was still alcohol. It pissed Connor off that Murphy got to it first, but he didn’t put up any of a fight.
That was worrying. Murphy forewent taking a badly-needed shot and instead wet some of the cleaner bandages, then started dabbing the wound. What they really needed was a doctor—the wound should’ve been more healed by now, and Murphy was beginning to fear that they’d accidentally left a piece of the bullet in it. “He never did like Da—he shot him, remember? Can’t get more obvious than that. Did you hear what about?”
When the pain started getting to it, Connor wriggled. But Murphy wasn’t having any of that and pinned Connor’s hip by pushing his knee over it. He reached for Connor’s arms, but Fideo was already holding those down. Murphy paused, biting his lip.
They didn’t have time for jealous shit, he told himself. Anyway, Fideo was staring at Lorenzo. Just pretend it’s Rocco and finish cleaning it, Murphy repeated to himself. “Hey. So what’s going on? Why…” a look for Connor’s opinion before chancing it; Connor shrugged and nodded “…why do I remember I don’t like Sands when I’ve never meant him before?”
Lorenzo snickered and dropped himself into a chair. A beat later, he pulled up his legs and coiled himself in a way that should’ve looked either awkward or kiddie but somehow worked for him. Not that Murphy was checking him out—it was just that something told Murphy the guy was supposed to be acting like a restless guard-dog.
“What? Didn’t you remember all of it at once?”
Murphy made it pretty bloody obvious that no, they hadn’t.
That got Lorenzo’s attention, and he spent a couple seconds thinking it over before he got back to Murphy. “Guess that makes sense. If you two got it back in one piece, your minds would probably explode.”
“Got what back?” Connor growled. He hissed and bit at the mattress. “Shite. Watch it, Murph.”
“I’m trying, but you keep fucking moving…and yeah, what are you talking about? I’m getting bloody tired of running around without knowing why.” An incredible amount of dirt was coming off with the alcohol; they really could use a shower, if there was time.
Lorenzo was back to looking like his migraine was trying to eat him from inside out. “Okay. Listen up, gringos, because I probably am gonna only have time to tell this once. We all used to be gods, we’re gods again, and that happened because the end of the world is coming.”
Murphy blinked, processing that. Then he took a big swig from the flask and passed it to Connor, ignoring his brother’s bitching about elders getting first dibs. Another bit of memory fell into place. “So what were you?”
“Woden’s wolves. Basically, we killed a lot and finished his food.” It appeared that Fideo thought Murphy was done with needing his help. He let go of Connor and rolled over to curl up on one corner.
“Who?” Connor asked. He pushed himself up on his arms and hit Fideo till the other man…snored.
It didn’t matter anyway, because Murphy could answer for him. “Ruler of the gods. Fuck. We were his—”
“—ravens. You—” Lorenzo cocked a finger at Murphy “—housed his memory, and you—” snapped at Connor “—were his thought. Not that you did his thinking for him, but you helped him juggle things, gave out orders and shit.”
At first Murphy noticed only because his palms were still resting on Connor, for the trembling was so slight that it couldn’t be seen. But it swiftly got worse till Connor was shaking the bed all by himself. He even woke up Fideo.
“That can’t be possible,” Connor hissed. His voice could have ground diamond to dust. “It can’t. There’s only one God—”
“I never fucking said there wasn’t,” Lorenzo interrupted. He heaved a sigh and got himself out of the chair to pace up and down the room. “There is just one. But back then, there were more. And then we killed ourselves off in a goddamn big last battle so He could take over. But guess what? Somebody set off the alarm, so we’ve got to do it all again.”
Bad side and all, Connor damn near jumped him, but before he could, Murphy was shoving him down. His brother hit at him and twisted himself around to give Murphy a good yelling, but he fell silent when he saw Murphy’s face. “Murph?”
“He’s right.” Murphy swallowed hard and started to pray, then angrily cut himself off. “He’s right. Of all the fucking--Christ. It isn’t right. God isn’t supposed to be—”
* * *
“Flawed,” he exhaled. With it he blew out a double lungful of smoke and surveyed the scene.
From the outside, Culiacan looked more or less like any other Mexican town. Maybe it was more banged about from the coup d’état, but the traditional architecture desperately tried to blend into the background, and the modern buildings had been subtly beaten by the elements unless they did the same.
A closer look showed that someone had rang the alarm. The streets were nearly empty and not much feeling of life came from the windows even though dawn was fairly advanced. It couldn’t be the coup d’état, for street wars like that came regularly as the Santa Aña here and the people were used to living around them. No, this smacked of arrangement.
Probably the Norn. It would be interesting to see exactly what she was up to, but he could wait till she drove into town and showed her hand. In the meantime, she had made it a good deal easier for him to locate his missing servants. Flawed plan, if she had wanted to show up for the final act. At this rate, he’d have it all wrapped and done before she even saw the city lights. Slow bird gets the boot in the ass.
He blinked and shook his head, slowing down. Something wasn’t right. Why he would think something like that? And who the hell was Greenly?
Never mind. Geri was doing something. Damned wolf, did he still think he could pull this off on his own?
* * *
Instead of sleeping, Vera had been busy sweettalking the AFN agents so that when Ed came downstairs at crack of fucking dawn, he found that she’d gotten rid of their driver. She and he were going into Culiacan by themselves.
Well, on the off-chance that this was going to end up anything like when Smecker got really worked up, Ed would rather not have an audience. He shouldered his bag and walked out past the AFN agents, who were all either chattering excitedly into their cells or looking like they wanted to punch something.
“Something’s up—people have been leaving Culiacan since the middle of the night, and when asked they can’t really give a good reason. Except that they just had to.” Sounded like something out of X-Files to Ed, but Vera was taking it without a single hair on her head getting ruffled. She led the way to the car. “This place had a weird reputation before this whole mess. Something about being an old battlefield.”
“No shit.” The night hadn’t been all that restful and despite everything that should have been keeping him jumping, Ed couldn’t help dozing off as soon as his ass hit the seat.
“So much for him,” he heard Vera mutter.
Maybe fifteen minutes, maybe an hour later Ed woke enough to hear to Vera’s cell go off. She swore and fumbled to answer it. “Hello? You. How the hell did you get this—oh, Jorge. That bastard.”
At that, Ed woke up a bit more but was careful not to show it.
Vera’s tone went far more icy than she’d ever let Ed hear, and her words were brittle as icicles. “I suggest you attend to your end of matters. If Smecker behaves as predicted, then—what do you mean, you’re not—but it has to happen. He has to do it.”
Ed’s hackles started to rise. He’d always wondered how badly Paul’s superiors had had it in for him if he was ready to throw away a stellar career to help the twins.
“He will do it. He’s not crazy—he’s only remembering,” Vera snapped. “Listen, you sneaky little—oh. You.”
Switched to talking to somebody else. And whoever this somebody else was, they clearly were surprising—and scaring—the hell out of Vera. First she was all condescending, but five seconds into the conversation, the atmosphere chilled and she let the car drift nearly into the other lane before she caught herself. Ed hoped to God that his last-minute attempt to make his yelp sound like a snore had worked.
Vera wasn’t paying any attention to him, so maybe it had. “…I don’t believe you. Well, yes, I was reborn a mortal as well, but I don’t see what that has to do with…I am not wrong.”
The person on the other end of the line apparently hung up. The side of Vera’s mouth that was facing Ed screwed tight and she clicked off her cell like what she really wanted to do was slam it through the window.
Not much of what he’d heard had made sense--reborn a mortal? Had everybody gone fucking nuts?—but what did make sense told him he wasn’t going to do much good hanging about with Vera. The best she probably had in store for him was using him as some kind of bait, or poker chip, and Ed was sick and tired of getting pushed around by other people. He only let Paul get away with it because…because
…he barely remembered not to snarl aloud. Ed flopped over and caught some sleep while he could. He wouldn’t have a chance to grab his own transportation till they stopped. Until then, he prayed that Paul could hold off on the complete breakdown for a little longer.
* * *
He stopped in front of a building that was a metaphor for the state of modern civilization: the rot in its structural elements grumbled and moaned beneath the hastily splashed-on paint and the trendy decorations. There were two levels and several backdoors…which he saw to with a quick thought. Above him, surprise turned to panic turned to a grim determination that he had to respect, even if he was about to crush it.
Something was weighing down his side—had been weighing down his side for days now. Being who he was, he didn’t need the gun, but he felt strangely loathe to abandon it.
There was no one manning the hotel desk, and no one got in his way as he eased up the stairs. He ran his hand over the rail, but came up with only a light layer of dust; the hotel had been kept up until very recently. Well. Perhaps Verdandi had a point. There wasn’t any real need for the people to see this happen, since they wouldn’t even have a moment to realize what was going on before they were wiped out.
Curiously enough, the four upstairs weren’t running. They weren’t even changing rooms, but he knew better than to expect them to have finally come to their senses and be waiting for him. He cracked his knuckles, then let his fingers relax. It would have been easier if his spear had survived in some form, but he could do without it. After all, it was only a tool. As you are only tools, though failed ones.
A wolf howled very near—defiant, challenging. The breath of the other one was loud and almost masked the sound of rapid, fluttering heartbeats ready to burst their cages in sheer panic. He smiled at it, and he lifted his hands—
--a wall of fire suddenly rose in front of him. He cursed and stumbled back only to singe himself on a wall of the same behind, and two more on either side. His damned body was still mostly mortal, so he couldn’t merely plunge straight through…he reached out and yanked out the flames by the roots. A satisfyingly pained string of oaths drifted up from the ground floor.
He was about to deal with that ill-willed spirit once and for all when a dark shape came hurtling at him. Geri’s teeth tore at his arm, but he beat the beast off and then drew the gun. The wolf was fast but his will was faster and his shot took the wolf in the shoulder. It scrambled aside before sinking heavily, still frothing at the mouth in rage.
“Disobey me and that is the price paid,” he said. Below, Loki attempted to raise an illusion of shrinking walls barring him from his own former pet, but he shattered the spell.
“Go fuck yourself,” the wolf growled. Quite distinctly, considering blood was dripping from its teeth, and in a Mexican accent.
The incongruity sparked uncertainty in him, and his sight wavered just in time to show him a young man with a bloody shoulder that was about the age of the…no. There were no Saints worthy of the name. That was another illusion, and it was a wolf before him.
He gritted his teeth and wrapped his will around the recalcitrant beast, squeezing till it strangled on its own chokes, tongue lolling redly from its mouth. “You dare defy me?”
And then, just as it was working up its growl of rebellion, he loosened his grip. Came closer and stroked its head between the ears as he’d used to, let his fingers weave remembrances of rewards and contentment beneath the hand of its master. He thought he felt it succumbing.
But that, like everything else, was only an illusion. The damned beast was only lulling him into relaxing his guard so it could lunge. Its teeth snapped an inch from his throat before he got his hands around its throat and swung it over the railing.
“Get him!” called his own son. And then lightning blazed past him, spinning him about with its fury, and thunder roared till the whole building shook.
“Christ, El. Your fucking doggie weighs a ton.” So Loki and Thor. A shame that they couldn’t have made such a lasting peace when he’d wanted them to.
No matter. It was the eve of Ragnarok and allegiances, grudges no longer mattered because they were all about to be swept away. Even blood…
He met his son and they both came away with bruises from it. The walls rattled, tried to ooze between them, but he crushed that illusion hard enough to send Loki reeling for a time.
“You do not have to start this,” said his son. Thunder passed back and forth between his hands, rumbling louder and louder as he shaped it. “There’s no need.”
“Of course there is a need. Things are spiraling downward and they can no longer be corrected. This is fate.” He watched the way his son moved; the heat had transmuted the old brute giant-killing force to something quicksilver. Far more graceful. “And even if it were not, those are my ravens and my wolves.”
His son feinted, then pivoted to throw thunder. It crashed into the wall as he dove and got his son around the waist. They grappled for several moments before they leaped free of each other; he had a sprained finger and bruising along his face, but his son was limping.
“They’re their own selves now,” his son was saying. “You saw. Lorenzo threw off your hand without any help from me.”
The insolent—rage screamed through him and he readied himself to rush the other man. But just as he was starting to, a door burst open. “Smecker? Smecker, what the hell are you doing? What did we do? Why did you kill Da?”
* * *
Several weeks of uncomprehending pain and frustration had built up one hell of a speech in Connor’s head, but he only got that far before he froze. Jesus Christ.
The big Mexican with his back to Connor looked like the kind of man who could do damage. But Smecker, for all that his intelligence grooved his face, had never had that kind of air. Right now…right now Smecker was standing in the hallway, suit torn and dirty, face like a skeleton and eyes like fiery whirlwinds, and he looked like he was indeed capable of ending the world.
He’d frozen stiff upon seeing Connor, and something in his face kept Connor from moving even when Murphy was yanking his arm and calling him a madman, even when Fideo yanked his brother away—and nobody did that to Murph while Connor was around.
It looked like the top layer of Smecker’s face was trying to lift off. Like…like it wasn’t him in there, it wasn’t him with the weird flashing mist swirling around his hands. Only it was, and the real Smecker was in there too, and…it didn’t make sense.
Then Smecker exploded. “You! What did you do? What did you fucking do? You took me for a goddamn ride, that’s what! You and your cute little Irish mantra, your kill-the-evildoer act…what the hell are you going to say to Mary-Louise Malley? What, you goddamned fuckhole!”
That was Smecker. Connor didn’t need to see the way everyone was gaping and relaxing to know that. “Who?”
“The girl. The girl! I have over fifteen bodies in the morgue for this month—fucking families!—without so much as an unpaid parking ticket between them, and they were all shot by unknown paired shooters in the back of the head while kneeling, and their arms were crossed afterwards and there were fucking pennies! Pennies! On their eyes!”
“What the fuck? We didn’t do them!” Murphy shouted. “Connor and Da got shot up in Detroit and we came back for help! We were too busy lying low! We haven’t killed anybody in six weeks!”
Smecker stopped mid-yell, frowning and thinking it over…and that was when whatever else was in there with him got hold of him again. But by then the guy he’d been fighting had barreled through the door and was steamrolling Connor towards…towards the balcony.
“Wait a fuck—” Connor started, but then half the room literally exploded away from Smecker, and Connor was too busy fending off splinters and glass to think about whether the Mexican guy could soar.
Well, not exactly. But he landed all right—better than Connor did—and the moment they hit the ground, they were running for the others. That weird blind guy and Fideo were hustling Murphy into a huge old Buick, and Connor could hear Lorenzo swearing in the backseat.
Just as Connor got thrown in the front, something howled from the half-ruined building. It damn well wasn’t Smecker; that voice almost made the sky shake, though Connor couldn’t make out the words.
Murphy could. His fingers dug into the flesh of Connor’s wrist till it went bloodless. “It’s me. He’s calling for me.”
“Because you remember how to do it, or you will. And the fuckass can’t remember for himself. Oh, the sorry son of a…” Sands was smart enough to cut himself off before Connor had to smack him one.
“He’s not getting his hands on my brother—whoever the fuck he is right now,” Connor snarled.
“No…” The Mexican who’d tossed Connor over the balcony brushed his hand over Lorenzo’s face. They said something with eyes, and then the guy pulled himself out of the car. He started walking away, and Sands went after him.
Not that it was any of Connor’s business, but they had just saved his and Murph’s ass.
Fideo clucked, like he knew exactly what Connor was thinking. Then he floored it so Lorenzo yelled in pain and Murphy nearly slid out the door before Connor wrenched it closed. “Not a good idea. Let them deal with it.”
“They can’t deal with it forever, judging by what I was seeing back there. And we need to fix this little mistake Smecker’s got in thinking we killed a pack of innocents,” Connor gritted out.
“Later. You can’t do it now, and Lorenzo’s bleeding all over.”
Lorenzo snapped something very rude in Spanish. His face was white and he was shaking, though Connor didn’t think the man had lost enough blood for that to be the reason. Then Connor looked down at himself and Murph and realized that they were trembling just as badly.
Part of him was screaming because they were running from…whoever was with Smecker. Part of him was surprised that the scream wasn’t as loud as he thought it was supposed to be. And part of him didn’t give a shit about anything except setting things right. Something had gone wrong, and no matter whose fault it was, it had to be fixed. “If no one else’ll do it…”
Murphy nodded, catching on. “Your side okay?’ When Connor grunted an affirmative, Murph crawled into the backseat and started dealing with Lorenzo’s shoulder.
“Where are we going?” Connor asked.
Fideo gave him a twisted smile and crossed himself by way of explanation. “Sanctuary.”
It was blasphemy, but Connor broke down and laughed. Too much for the moment for him to take.
* * *
“Give me a moment,” Sands said.
El did nothing of the sort, but the other man didn’t seem to care. He kept up with El as they darted through alleys, doubled back on their trail and finally scrambled onto a handy rooftop. Of course, he swore and set fire to whatever he tripped over, but he seemed oddly cheerful about it.
“Okay, got it. We’re bait, that’s a pissed-off and mentally-unbalanced All-father, and we need to buy time till…what? You realize that both of us—and I really hate admitting this—can’t handle him, right? Even Verdandi’s lost control. That FBI bitch.” Sands deftly managed a tricky slither across the tiles, then nearly bumped himself off the roof.
Before he really thought about it, El had yanked him back. He let go before Sands could do more than beam smugly at him and waited for Smecker to catch up; in Smecker’s current state, it should take a while before he realized that he was chasing the wrong people. “What CIA method is that?”
“SWAG method.” Now that they’d stopped, Sands leaned on his cane and panted. “Scientific Wild-Ass Guess, asshole. You might’ve gotten more subtle, but you’re still pretty predictable. We need a plan.”
“I’m listening.” And El did. Mostly to the sound of various explosions that were slowly nearing their position.
Sands finally sighed and shrugged. “You’re just like a tampon. You get the greatest spot in the world and all you do with it is soak up disgusting bodily fluids. The only thing we can do is try and get Smecker out—the mortal Smecker. Then we can talk about maybe not ending the fucking world. Because you know, us not playing along makes it harder, but he can still do it on his own.”
“So we need to make him care.” El thought back to the screaming fit Smecker had had when one of the brothers had appeared. He didn’t like to think about it, but chances of that appeared to be very slim; Woden had briefly broken to let out Smecker, but Smecker hadn’t seemed like he wanted the twins to live any more than Woden had.
“What a brilliant insight, El. I never would’ve thought.” Something large blew up, making Sands wince. When he’d straightened again, he ended up slightly closer to El. His next words were slightly more sober. “You know, we could really use some of that vaunted dumb luck that’s not supposed to exist in a destiny-ruled world. Like now.”
* * *
Ed thought it was a little funny that Vera was taking so long in the bathroom, but hell, he wasn’t going to question his good luck. He scooted over to the driver’s side and reached under the wheel…
…only to sigh and get out of the damned car to steal the one parked next to it. The kind of logic that said boosting from a complete stranger was better than boosting from a woman who’d be alone in Mexico was the kind that Smecker would’ve shaved till the blood run and then called fuzzy, but fuck it. With all the other dilemmas that Ed was trying to unknot, he figured he could let this one be.
He got onto the highway before he noticed the tiny figure running out of the gas station. But then he rounded the curve and Vera dropped out of sight.
Paul, you really, really fucking owe me one for this. At the least, you could stop sending me for fucking coffee.
Fuck. At this point, Ed would probably do something embarrassing like cry if he could get Paul to pull that shit on him.
Later, anyway. First he had to get into town.