Killing rites, p.6
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       Killing Rites, p.6
 

         Part #4 of The Black Suns Daughter series by M. L. N. Hanover
Page 6

 

  We waited. I looked around. Across the street and about twenty yards farther along, a small house hunkered down in the snow. The windows had sheet plastic over the screens and a television flickered inside, blurred to mere light and movement. On the street, a beat-up gray Yukon and a sedan that had first hit the road when I was getting out of grade school.

  Thirty or forty crows perched in the bare cottonwood across the street, calling to one another and shifting uncomfortably like old men at a bus station.

  There was something wrong. It wasn’t the stillness, exactly. Or the cold. Or the quiet. The world felt thin here, the spiritual world just outside ours—the place that we called the Pleroma or Next Door—close enough to touch. The sanctuary at San Esteban felt like magic, and it made my flesh crawl. Ex knocked on the door again.

  “Maybe they’re out doing the thing,” I said. “Wind demon busting. ”

  “They’re here,” he said, nodding toward the car and Yukon.

  The crows clacked at one another accusingly. There was a term, I thought, for a group of crows the same way there was for a school of fish or a pride of lions. It was right on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t quite remember it. With my black coat and hair, I felt like I should be able to spread my arms and fly up to the winter-killed tree, squat on the branches, and look down at the world.

  As if alarmed that I’d even think it, the crows took to the air, cawing and beating their wings. They circled up into the hazy white sky, turned south, and departed. I watched them go, and behind me, the blue doors opened. The man who stood in the shadows beyond was maybe thirty. His skin was the brown of eggshells, and his black hair was combed straight back. A sense of weariness weighted down the air around him; I kept expecting him to sway on his feet. He wore the Roman collar under a thick wool sweater. When he spoke, it was with an accent that made me think of being eight years old with a crush on Ricky Ricardo. Old Havana, as romantic and unreal as Middle-earth.

  “I’m sorry. You’ve come at a very bad time. You’ll have to go away. Come back later. ”

  “You don’t recognize me, do you?” Ex said.

  The man in the doorway looked up, shocked. His eyes were so brown they were black, and his expression changed from a shock that was almost fear to disbelief to an incandescent joy in the course of a single breath.

  “Chewy? Is that you?”

  Chewy? I thought, and Ex grinned and held his hands out at his sides as if say, Here I am. Old Havana stepped out into the light. In the sun, the few gray hairs at his temples shone in the light, but they didn’t make him look old so much as prematurely gray. He took Ex in a bear hug, and I stepped back in case his enthusiasm spilled over onto me.

  “What are you doing here?” Old Havana said as he returned Ex to the ground. “I haven’t heard from you in years. Not since Isabel—”

  “It’s been a long time,” Ex said. “Chapin didn’t mention me, then. ”

  “No. Except … Were you the mysterious errand down in Santa Fe?”

  “If it was yesterday, then I probably was. ”

  Old Havana nodded more to himself than to Ex. Looking at him more closely now, I saw he was less Desi Arnaz and more Benicio Del Toro. He had the same distance in the eyes and the same well-worn masculine pretty. He looked at me as if noticing that I was there.

  “This is Jayné,” Ex said. “Janyé, this is Miguel Contreras. Father Contreras, I guess. ”

  Old Havana—Miguel—nodded to me, smiling. I pulled a hand out of my pocket and waved.

  “Hey,” I said.

  “She’s why we came,” Ex said. “We need to talk to him. ”

  “We’re in the middle of a ceremony. ”

  “Akkadian wind demon,” Ex said.

  Miguel nodded, paused, then nodded again.

  “We’ve been going for three days. The girl’s in the back, and the devil wants her bad. Won’t give her up. We’ve been pulling shifts. ”

  Ex frowned.

  “You mean he came down to see me in the middle of a rite?”

  “We thought it was strange too,” Miguel said. “Maybe a little less strange, seeing it’s you. Are you here to help?”

  Ex laughed softly. When he sighed, his breath was a plume of white.

  “No,” he said. “I came to make demands, actually. But I’ll help if I can. If he’ll let me. ”

  “Come in,” Miguel said, gesturing toward the still-open doors. “Both of you, please. ”

  As if he’d said the magic word, about half of my anxiety faded. The sense that the town was malefic and aware of me didn’t vanish, but it faded. The crows—gone now, anyway—

  seemed less like they’d been talking about me. I followed Ex through the doorway and into the warm darkness. The interior was all brick floors with thick Navajo rugs. The white stucco walls were wavy and uneven in a way that spoke of handcraft, and the dark wooden doorways were set so low that even I had to duck a little when I went from room to room. Religious paintings and sculptures hung in every room. Christ hung from His cross of wood or ceramic or worked iron. Mary wept or looked on serenely while her son died. A few of the paintings were bleak images of hell, heavy with threat and misery. I wondered who had painted them. Men’s voices rumbled in the distance, talking low among themselves. The air smelled of wood smoke and old incense.

  There were no corridors or hallways, just one room following on another like a maze. They were all lit, but the wiring was stuck on the exterior of the walls and painted white; the building was older than electricity. We passed a window that looked out into bare courtyard, and I could feel the cold pressing in from the glass. Miguel led us through four or five doorways, Ex sometimes going ahead of me, sometimes behind. At one door, we passed through almost together.

  “Xavier, I get. Ex, I get. But Chewy?” I said softly.

  He actually blushed a little.

  “Long story,” he said. “Tell you later. ”

  “Promises, promises. ”

  The kitchen was as small as any of the rooms we’d been through. An enameled gas stove sat in the corner like a refugee from the 1920s. A mini-fridge out of a dorm room hummed to itself on the opposite wall. A fireplace had a high, roaring fire in it, and iron fixtures somebody could hang a pot of gruel from. The worn gray couch on the far wall didn’t go with the decor, and a small dinner table with a motley variety of straight-backed chairs had been shoved a little to the side to accommodate it.

  An older man—fat, but also tall and solid—lay on the couch with his arm over his eyes. Two others were sitting at the little table, an interrupted game of dominos spread out between them. Between the roundness of the table and the weirdly organic shape the tiles had taken, I thought of mold growing in a petri dish. Which made me think of Aubrey and the research biology labs he’d worked in. And then about breaking up with him in the darkened hospital in Chicago. For a moment—less than a breath—I was under Grace Memorial again, my hands bloody and an innocent man begging that I not bury him alive. And then I was back in the real world. Nauseated, my heart racing. But back. No one noticed.

  One of the men at the table—thin and Anglo with close-cut sandy hair—yawped with delight and came toward Ex with open arms. The other one—young-faced, with a weak chin his goatee couldn’t quite apologize for—looked on in benign confusion. The big one on the couch grunted and tried to turn away from the noise, sleep more important than anything except maybe a fire. Thin Man took Ex in his arms, thumping him soundly on the back. Unfortunate Goatee smiled at me, and I nodded back.

  “Chewy was Father Chapin’s star student when I first joined up,” Miguel was saying to Unfortunate Goatee. I felt like the new kid at school, left out and alone and vaguely threatened by how happy everyone else seemed to be. I balled my fists in my pocket and willed myself to be calm. There was nothing to be afraid of. I was being stupid.

  “The prodigal returns, returns, returns,
Thin Man crowed. “I’d kill you the fatted calf, but we are a strictly lentils-and-greens affair these days. ”

  “Dinner at O’Keefe’s?” Unfortunate Goatee said.

  “Yes, that!” Thin Man said through his grin. “You’ll love the place. Utter hole. Looks like food poisoning on a stick, but they?re wonderful. What are you doing here? Where have you been?”

  The sleeping man gave up, rolled to his side, and squinted up at Ex through red-rimmed eyelids.

  “Xavier,” he rumbled.

  “Tamblen,” Ex said. It seemed to exhaust the conversation between the two of them, and Ex turned back to Thin Man. “I’ve been … I’ve been traveling. I was renting a garage in Denver for a few years, using that for my home base. ”

  “Keeping out of trouble, I hope,” Thin Man said.

  “Wouldn’t go that far,” Ex said. “This is Jayné Heller. ”

  The men’s collective attention turned to me. The silence was fraught, and I didn’t understand the weight it carried. I wasn’t the only one to notice either. Unfortunate Goatee was looking at the other priests in confusion. Thin Man let go of Ex and smiled at me.

  “Well,” he said, “I suppose abandoning one’s vows does carry certain benefits. ”

  “Carsey,” the big one—Tamblen—said, and the Thin Man held up a palm to stop him.

  “Joking, Tamblen, my dear. Only joking,” he said, and then held his hand out to me. I expected a false, bitchy smile, and so the naked sorrow in his expression was off-putting. “You’re Chewy’s girlfriend?”

  I shook his hand. He was strong despite his build, and his skin was warm.

  “Employer,” I said. Thin Man—Carsey—blinked at me as if he hadn’t understood. I clarified. “I’m his employer. ”

  “Jayné hired me and a couple of others,” Ex said. “We’ve been helping her put some things together. It’s a long story. I talked to Father Chapin about it yesterday, and we came up here to … follow up. ”
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