That was the sexiest set of salt and pepper shakers I'd ever seen.
Briefly, I imagined Chance's reaction to my infatuation. Corine, he'd say, why don't you make love to them? You're making me jealous, woman. With some effort, I put him from my mind. My ex didn't deserve to be the voice inside my head.
Instead I focused on the treasures I'd found outside my back door. Crafted of pure silver, they depicted lovers reaching toward each other, separated by whatever distance their owners dictated. I studied the artful lines and the graceful arches of the spines. These were classically inspired, likely a representation of Eros and Psyche. On closer inspection, I noted that the pepper flowed from holes in Psyche's fingertips. I couldn't believe where the salt came from.
Wonderful. The designer had a sense of humor.
I didn't expect trouble from these two. Mentally bracing myself, I curled my left palm—now marked with a flower pentacle—around Psyche, lifting her out of the pretty white box. Heat flared, but it brought no pain. As I'd thought, there was no trauma attached. Though I would have loved to keep these, my gift whispered of the fortune I'd make selling them to a professor visiting from Spain. In my mind's eye, I saw a flickering image of my prospective buyer. I'd recognize her when she came in, and make sure to show them to her.
After the mess in Georgia, I was happy to be in Mexico. Things hadn't been the same since I found my mother's necklace; for a moment, I saw myself kneeling in that demon grove, shadows gone green from the Spanish moss, the smell of verdant decay in my nose like a damp, mildewed rag. I reached out and took the necklace—against Jesse Saldana's warnings—and lived my mother's death. I hadn't survived it, or at least, when I came back, everything had changed. My ability was no longer the simple "touch" it once was; I thought I'd received my mother's power, but I wasn't a trained witch. Nor did I know who to trust with the revelation. At this point, I didn't know how to discipline my new power, and that was made for a bad situation, considering the cost at which I'd gained it. In time, I'd move beyond the pain of all those deaths in Kilmer, and these peaceful months at home had helped.
But I was curious about these salt and pepper shakers. As a handler—someone who could read the histories of charged objects—sometimes I wanted to see the stories, even when I didn't have to, especially when there was no grief or trauma involved. I didn't read every item that came across the counter in the pawnshop, but when I thought something might have a happy story to tell, I wanted to see it for myself.
As I reached toward Eros, the bell above my door tinkled. Sunlight cut through the shadows, golden motes of dust whirling in the air and hinting at how hot it was outside. The heavy rock walls and cool plaster interior made it possible for me to stand my shop with just a simple oscillating fan. In fact, it was cooler than any un-air-conditioned building I'd ever seen in the U.S.
I recognized the man standing in the doorway, though he was not either of the ones I might've expected. Kel Ferguson stood well over six feet and he was heavily muscled. Tattoos covered his skin, even on his skull, written in angelic script. He had eyes like shadowed ice and he professed to be the Hand of God, tasked with killing those who would push the world toward the end of days. Once, in Laredo, he'd claimed if he had been on the job at the time, he could've prevented the Holocaust.
I didn't know if he was crazy, but I did know the man was damn near unkillable. In Texas, I had watched him take multiple wounds so deep they showed bone; I saw him fall. And then he rose again, ready to fight on. Whatever else he might be, I was pretty sure he wasn't entirely human. I also wasn't sure whether we were still on the same side. I froze, eyeing him across the counter.
"Corine." He inclined his head toward the saltshaker. "Don't touch that."
My right hand rested on the counter, mere inches away from Eros. I'd intended to read him, now that Psyche had told me where they were destined to wind up. Another thirty seconds and it would've been too late, assuming he was right in his warning. Somehow I didn't think Kel had come all this way to mess with my head.
"Why not?" There was no point in remarking on his lack of niceties.
"It's hexed," he told me.
Damn. Despite my uncertainty about his motives, I didn't doubt him. After what I'd seen him do in Laredo, I had to take him seriously. His reactions and recovery came from something greater than insanity; that was for sure. I wasn't ready to admit he had a direct line to the divine or anything, but his presence had saved my ass once before. There could be no discounting him now.
It was lucky I hadn't lifted Eros out of the box he'd come in. In all honesty, I didn't know who had sent the set. I'd found them this morning and assumed they comprised part of Señor Alvarez's last shipment—that could've been a costly mistake.
Alvarez had done a stellar job running the pawnshop while I was gone, but he seemed relieved to be out of the store. Much as I didn't understand it, he preferred being on the street looking for lost riches. Hm. On the other hand, maybe I knew why he didn't want to deal with customers all day. That was my least favorite part of running the place.
Belatedly, I realized I was fixating on the mundane to keep fear from paralyzing me. A hex meant nothing good, but it remained to be seen how bad it was. I squared my shoulders and edged the white case away from me with the heel of my hand.
"The killing kind."
A shudder rolled through me. "So if I'd picked it up, I'd be dead on the floor. Right now."
Dammit, I owed him my life. Again. I hated having unpaid debts. Right now, I could think of better positions to be in: I owed my life to both God's Hand and a demon who said to call him Maury, which wasn't his real name, but he didn't want me summoning or binding him. Talk about your grandiose games of tug-of-war.
"That's why I'm here," he said, and the tattoos against his skull glowed just a little, as if bearing witness.
I raised a brow. "To save me?"
"I've been assigned as your guardian until the immediate danger passes. I'm told you're going to be important."
"Oh, no." I shook my head. "I helped Chance find his mother. I took care of business in Kilmer, and now I'm finished. I run a pawnshop. That's all I want or need. It's a good life."
"Very well," he said. "For the moment, put aside the matter of whether you have a role to play in things to come. Do you think you'll survive to enjoy the quiet life if you don't deal with Montoya?"
Montoya. Christ on a cracker, that name brought back memories I didn't want. In rescuing Chance's mother, I'd pissed off the jefe of a major cartel. It wasn't like television, where it was all automatic weapons, either. These days, the cartels used warlocks, shamans, and voodoo priests—any advantage to get their merchandise to market and crush their rivals. Chance's luck would keep him safe, even if his mother hadn't forced Montoya to swear off pursuing vengeance against her son—and she'd called the Knights of Hell to witness the agreement.
So Chance was fine. Like a cat, he always landed on his feet. And I didn't miss him at all. Really, I didn't. He'd expected me to give up everything I'd built on my own here, just slide right back into the life I had left behind. But I was a different person. I wouldn't go back, and if he'd wanted me as much as he claimed, he would've considered making some changes too, not expected me to yield everything for the joy of being with him.
Unfortunately, that left me as a scapegoat. Any good practitioner could've scryed for information on those responsible for the raid on his property. That meant Jesse, Chuch, and Eva might be vulnerable too. Me… well, crap. Kel was right. I was screwed.
"So he knows where I am. Why didn't he send someone?"
"You know why."
As I considered, I realized the hexed saltshaker was cleaner than a thug with a machete. Severed heads made the news, but some cartels didn't want that kind of press. It interfered with business. And if Kel hadn't come in, I'd be a silent statistic; Montoya could not have planned for God's Hand.
I sighed. "What now?"
"You muster your allies," he answered. "And plan for war."
Allies, hm. There's always Booke, and Jesse will be happy to consult. Shannon won't let me keep her out of this, if I know the girl at all.
Booke was my occult expert in the U.K. whom I'd met online through mutual friends. Currently I didn't know what role Jesse Saldana played in my life; he wanted to be my boyfriend, but long-distance relationships were too hard, so right now he was my friend and mentor with an eye on a relationship upgrade, if one of us ever decided to relocate.
As for Shannon, I met her in Kilmer, and I wouldn't have survived those dark woods without her; in the end, her ability to summon and speak to spirits had saved us all. Like me, she bore an unusual gift and came from a painful past. I saw a lot of myself in her, which was part of why I cared about her. I wanted so much better for her than I'd managed at first on my own.
So I took her under my wing; she went with me to Texas and then accompanied me from there to Mexico City. Although she was young, I couldn't claim she was immature. I'd been like that too. Growing up different in a tiny, cursed town squashed the child right out of you.
I went on with the mental inventory, thinking of the coolest married couple I knew, Chuch and Eva Ortiz. But I refuse to drag them into my problems. It's been months, and she's about ready to have her baby. I can't permit more than peripheral contact, in case Montoya doesn't know about them already.
And he might. It's impossible to judge.
Which meant I'd accepted Kel's assessment. I wouldn't be thinking of who I could turn to for help if I didn't believe him about the threat. Shit.
I glanced up to find him watching me in silence; doubtless he knew the exact moment I worked out the fact that my options were limited. With a frown, I handed Psyche over, and he set her back in the box. In a gesture more symbolic than helpful, I put the lid on it.
"We should go see someone who might be able to tell us what kind of spell was used on this thing."
He nodded. "Do you have any contacts here?"
Tia worked on Tuesdays and Fridays at the market, where she kept a stall selling charms and potions. On other days, she cleaned houses. She was a wizened woman with wispy gray hair that she wore in a messy bun, and her clothing consisted of housedresses covered with aprons in competing floral patterns.
I loved her.
"We should go."
"Not until Shannon gets back. I can't leave the store unattended."
Kel gave the impression of incredulity without shifting his expression. "You don't think this is more important than selling a few gewgaws?"
"Actually, no. If I don't have money to pay my bills and eat, then I might as well fondle Eros, because I'd rather die fast than starve in the streets. You probably don't have to worry about such things, being God's Hand and all."
To my surprise, he said, "Point."
"If it comes to another extended journey…"—I so didn't want to go—"I'll make alternate arrangements."
His mouth twitched. "As you think best."
Right, because you're just a holy warrior and you'd never tell me what to do. I wasn't buying that for a minute. Oddly, I realized I wasn't scared of him. This time, I didn't ask him to swear he meant me no harm. If he said he had been sent to protect me, however little I understood that call, then I believed him.
I got us both some limonada from the fridge upstairs and we drank in silence. Shannon returned a few minutes later, arms laden with plastic grocery bags. She liked doing the food shopping—and since I didn't, I was happy to let her.
She was talking when she came through the front door, something about the way the sun hit the bougainvillea on the adobe walls, but her words dried up when she spotted Kel. I took a couple of the bags from her, not that she noticed. Two spots of color burned on her cheeks; though we'd been here a while, she stayed out of the sun, preferring her pallor and dyed-black Goth hair.
"Who's this?" she asked, eyes wide and avid.
Good lord, she was smitten. I'd never seen her look at anyone this way, and we had some sexy neighbors. I tried to see him through her eyes—maybe it was the muscles and the tats? Along with a pair of jeans, Kel wore a plain white dress shirt, but most of the buttons were open to reveal a clean undershirt. Through the fabric showed glimmers of dark ink, as if he were a secret work of art ready to be unveiled to the right hands.
Sure, he was bald, but he had a strong jaw and those icy, mysterious eyes. Damn, now I could see it too. This was the last thing I needed.
Clearing my throat, I answered belatedly, "Kel Ferguson. He's an old friend."
That was true enough. With my eyes, I told him not to go into the whole Hand of God business with her. She'd probably decide his modern-day-paladin status meant he was perfect for whatever she had in mind. I didn't like to think about it; she was almost nineteen and a boiling cauldron of hormones.
"Nice to meet you." Kel extended a hand. Apparently, he was capable of pretending to be normal, at least for short stretches.
She shook his hand with a little quiver of pleasure. I wondered if he noticed. "I'm Shannon, Corine's roommate."
That was a good way to describe our situation to an outsider. I was also her mentor, helping her learn about her gift—which was summoning and speaking to the dead via vintage radio—as best I could. So far, we seemed to be doing all right. She was a lot happier and safer than she'd been in Kilmer, at least.
"You never told me about him." She cut me a reproachful look.
I grinned. "The better to surprise you with. Now, we have an errand to run. We'll wait until you get the food put away and then I need you to mind the shop."
"Give me a minute. I'll be right back."
True to her word, she didn't linger upstairs. In short order she took my place behind the counter and I picked up the white box. Maybe Tia could tell us something, and that would give us a place to start. Magic left a trail, and all its practitioners possessed an astral tell. If Tia couldn't provide any insights, I'd call Booke, who could examine the object in the planes.
"Thanks. We'll be back later."
"It's my turn to cook," Shannon said. "Should I make enough for a guest?"
Subtle. I slid him an inquiring look. From what distance did he plan to guard me? Would it be up close and personal or did he prefer to sit outside in an SUV like they did in the movies? I felt pretty sure that holy warriors didn't operate like spies, though.
"I was hoping you'd invite me to sleep on your couch, so dinner would be welcome."
She brightened. "Consider yourself invited."
"Ready?" I asked him.
He responded with a nod, so we headed out the back, which led us through a jumble of crates and piles of junk I had yet to examine. The metal door opened into an alley littered with broken pavement. Two stray dogs fought over food scraps, and I gave them a wide berth. There was no point in unleashing the fearsome fury of God's Hand on a couple of hounds.
Heat hung in the air, making it feel dry and sharp in the lungs. Kel didn't appear affected by it—of course he wouldn't—but I was sweating by the time we reached the corner. He must've known the market was within walking distance, because he never suggested we drive.
A tangle of electrical wires hung over my street with shady trees guarding the parrot-bright buildings. Sun dappled the concrete and found bits of crystal to make it sparkle. The sidewalk was rough and uneven; he took my arm a couple of times to help me over slabs of overlapping cement. Houses with their high walls and sturdy gates gave way to businesses: a doctor's office, a dry cleaner's, an OXXO—a convenience store—and the comedor, where I bought my beans and rice. Overhead, the sky was too blue and beautiful for me to want to believe that somewhere in this lovely country, a powerful man wanted me dead, but if I didn't take action, he would get his wish.
We came to a busy street, the one with the farmacia on the corner, and waited until it was clear. An old man sold flowers and magazines in the median; he raised his hand in greeting. Everyone recognized me around here, most likely because of the hair. Once a week, I walked down to buy a copy of Muy Interesante and practice my Spanish reading. Sometimes I bought un ramo de rosas too—it seemed criminal not to when one could do so for ten pesos.
At the first gap between zooming cars, Kel shepherded me across as if I'd never done this before. I cut him a look, eyes narrowed against the sunlight, and I would've sworn for a brief instant that God's Hand was smiling. By the time we passed into the side street shaded by tall buildings and stately laurel trees, I decided I must've been mistaken.
The avenida that led to the marketplace took us up a steep incline; walking in the mountains was much harder than hiking on level ground, and by the time we reached the top, I was puffing a bit. So much for my resolution to work out—in some regards, I didn't have much discipline.
Acacia and rubber trees lined this backstreet, and a park opened up inside the framework of buildings, after we crossed one more road. From here I could see the red awnings, where people sold fresh fruit, vegetables, cleaning supplies, clothing, knockoff designer handbags, and homemade food, along with even more interesting items. Tia offered some of the most intriguing selections you could find anywhere in the city, in fact.
Kel broke the silence at last, following my gaze up the mountain, where the market sat at the far end of the park. "Is that where we'll find her?"
I thought he knew the answer already, but he studied my face, as if seeking confirmation. So I nodded and led him across the brownish grass. Four kids were swinging as we passed by; their cries echoing as we climbed the final hill.
My palm sweated where I held the white box; it was a little unnerving to carry something that could kill me. I didn't want this, but Montoya's gambit signaled an end to my hard-won peace. Deep down, I always knew the confrontation was inevitable. You didn't do what I did and get away with it.
When we drew closer, I inhaled the scent of hot melted cheese, chorizo, and tacos al pastor. At the far end of the market, a man had set up a grill, and he was serving a queue of customers who devoured his food standing up. Kel glanced that way, and I shook my head, smiling.
"Shannon will never forgive you if you eat elsewhere. Come on. Tia's over here."