banger came on time for his appointment. A little
guy with soulful eyes and sideburns that reached all the way to
his chin, despite having a shaved head. Blue-black tats on the crook
of skin between his left thumb and forefinger. Vega pressed himself
closer to the door's crack, squinted. Yes, he could make them out.
The letters 'B' and 'S' with a tiny cross between. Barrio Sombra.
watched Dona Cruz invite the guy in and gesture towards a table
covered with white cloth. The banger sat, averting his eyes while
she lit candles. She'd wrapped a shawl around her head and shoulders,
and the cloth made fluttering sounds as she reached out and worked
the flint wheel of an ancient lighter. Vega thought she looked like
a priest preparing for midnight mass.
was hiding in a closet, barely big enough to hold him. His shoulders
brushed the Dona's old pantsuits and linen dresses. He figured it
was a hundred degrees in there.
banger cleared his throat. "I need to talk to you about--"
tell me, Ernesto," Dona Cruz said, settling down across from him.
"I know what brought you here. I see it in your face. Also certain
stars, which I can see through the roof of the house. Yes, even
know about my brother?" Ernesto said.
going on trial. All he's got is a public defender. And the charges
are serious, felony possession."
Cruz waved her hand. She set a tall green candle on the table between
them. "You think for a moment about what you want. For your brother.
Maybe the judge, deep down, he turns out to be an understanding
person. Maybe the jails are too full, and they put your brother
out on probation. Think about that."
nodded. Dona Cruz took the old lighter out of her pocket and held
it to the candle's wick. Sssnkt. Another flame joined the
others, already dancing in the room.
me see the money," she said.
pulled a wallet out of his back pocket. He thumbed several bills
and pushed them across the table. Vega squinted again; they were
hundreds. Christ. The kid didn't have the money to buy his brother
a decent lawyer, but just enough to blow on the local bruja.
What a waste.
Cruz snapped open a silver case and withdrew a cigarette. She leaned
forward and lit it using the candle's flame, took a couple puffs,
and passed it across the table to Ernesto, who puffed as well. She
put the cigarette back in her mouth. "I'll see to it that your thoughts
and prayers go to the right saint. Don't worry about your brother.
Tell your family not to worry, either."
shook her hand, his eyes welling up. He thanked her ten times and
probably would've kissed her wrinkled forehead, but she told him
she had work to do. When the kid turned to go Vega saw the tell-tale
bulge wedged against the back of his shirt. An automatic pistol.
The reason Dona Cruz kept him around during her "readings."
waited until Ernesto had left before squeezing out of the closet.
Sweat dripped from his temples. He watched Dona Cruz open the big
greasewood cabinet--the armario magica--where she kept her
witch's dolls. Over the old woman's shoulders he glimpsed a procession
of gaudily dressed saints, some of whom he recognized, and some
who seemed to have Mayan or Aztec origins. Prominent was a stuffed
Horned Owl. Dona Cruz put the money in a clay bowl at its feet.
After a moment's silence, she took the cigarette from her mouth
and pressed it against the wooden lips of one of the saints, a somber
man in a green robe with gold trim. Then she closed the cabinet
he wondered how long it would take for the money to find its way
into her purse.
turned and caught the smile on his face. Her eyes narrowed. "For
someone with so much Yaqui blood," she said, tapping his broad chest,
"you don't put much faith in spirits."
not ignorant. Unlike most of the people you lure in here."
talk that way. Disrespect towards me, that's one thing. But to them--"
she jerked her thumb at the cabinet. "Very foolish."
be more careful."
you remember what I need you to do? This afternoon?"
it like she was his mother. Don't forget your errands, mijo.
He couldn't keep his shoulders from slumping.
asked you a question."
She stepped close enough for him to smell the tobacco on her breath.
The top of her shawled head only reached the bottom of his neck,
but that didn't stop her from grabbing his shirt and pulling him
down until he was level with her eyes. She smiled; her teeth a panoply
of yellowed enamel and gold. "Are you afraid of me, Vega?"
afraid of poverty," he said.
deeds for the witch-lady.
week earlier she'd asked him to score several ounces of human fat.
She was making a special candle, she explained. He'd told her fat
was fat, he could go down to the rendering plant and get as much
as needed, but she told him no, he'd get her the real thing or he
could hit the pavement, and don't try to fool her because she'd
know. So he'd gotten a part time job at the regional medical
center, wheeling bodies down to the morgue. Kept a box-cutter and
a plastic baggie with him at all times. A transient came in, victim
of a stabbing, and when the pathologist got around to recording
her autopsy, she'd noted an eight-inch chunk taken out of his flabby
thigh that looked different from the rest of the wounds.
things he did for money.
time around what she wanted was less creepy. Some competition had
just opened downtown, and she'd asked him to check it out. He borrowed
his cousin's catering van and drove to the address she'd given.
building was a small shop, sharing a wall with an unfinished furniture
store. He parked across the street. A sign hung from the front awning
read "Wayward Spirits." Below that, taped to the window, was a poster
depicting a shirtless Indian with flowing white hair. He had his
arms spread out wide and a big rainbow stretched over his head.
Hand-painted letters next to the poster read:
look like much. He took out a clipboard and pretended to fiddle
with it, keeping a sidelong eye on the entrance. Fifteen minutes
rolled by and no one went in or out. The van was growing hotter,
so he reached for the keys to get the AC started.
tapped on the passenger-side window.
startled, almost dropping the keys. He hadn't heard any footsteps.
A woman peered at him through the window, one hand shielding the
top of her forehead. She had short black hair and a narrow face.
Something long and white dangled from each ear.
reached over and rolled down the window, not sure what to say. But
it didn't matter because she started talking. "So you're the caterer,
huh? I didn't order any catering. Pretty sure the furniture guy
didn't, either. So you're on your lunch break or you're curious
about the shop. I'm thinking curious." She thrust a hand into the
cab. "Ellen Redfeather."
spoke fast and jittery, like she'd just gulped a couple espressos,
and there was a nasal twang to her voice Vega couldn't place. Eastern
Seaboard, maybe. He looked down at her hand. Silver and turquoise
rings on every finger, plus about a dozen silver bangles encircling
her wrist. The white things hanging from her ears were eagle's feathers,
dipped in an inch and a half of red paint.
shook her hand. "Jesus."
Hay-Soos, you want to come inside, check the place out? We
haven't had many customers today, so who knows, maybe you'll get
a free reading."
opened the door and stepped out. The strange little woman walked
around to the front of the van. She wore white suede moccasins,
which explained why he hadn't heard any footfalls.
own this place?" he said, nodding towards the shop.
Sole proprietor, though I've got some help."
followed her skinny ass across the street. She seemed to be putting
some extra swish in it. He couldn't tell how old she was--late thirties
or well-preserved forties, probably. A chime jangled as she pushed
open the front door. He stepped into the familiar smells of incense
and candles, plus book-binding.
were a lot of books. Slick covers crammed into hardwood shelves
or stacked in piles, some still in boxes. He glanced at the titles.
Accumulating Positive Energy and Wealth. Meso-American Diet Secrets.
The Shaman's Guide to Good Sex.
she called out. "I'm back."
beaded curtain at the rear of the shop rustled. Slipping through
came a tall guy with sandy blond hair and a beard to match. He nodded
to Ellen and shuffled over, an unopened packing box in his arms.
Sleepy-eyed dude, but built like your classic SoCal weightlifter.
Sculpted biceps straining under the box's weight. His gaze drifted
to Vega and he gave him a banal smile.
this is Mr. Jesus," Ellen said. "We get any company while I was
Snakebite. He's waiting in the back."
no customers, huh?"
shit." She turned to Vega. "What is it with people in this town?
Nobody got any problems? If this was Long Island the neurotics would
be lined up around the building already."
liked her lack of pretense. "How long have you been open?"
days. Yeah, I suppose it's premature to be thinking bankruptcy."
She waved a jangling hand towards the curtain. "Look, I've got to
talk to my associate for a second. When I'm done you and I are going
to have a serious reading. One you can tell all your friends about."
watched her slink away. Behind him, Cody had torn the box open and
was shoveling out books, humming as he worked. Too absorbed for
conversation. Vega drifted towards the back of the store. He could
hear Ellen's staccato voice, talking with a male. The guy wasn't
getting too many words in. Vega tried to peer sideways through the
curtain, and just in time caught a pair of jeans about to break
through the plastic beads.
dark-skinned Hispanic man stepped out. About his own height, but
slender, wearing a maroon guayabera shirt. Vega recognized him.
It was hard not to. The man's face had an open wound the size of
a half-dollar, just below his cheek. You could see right through
it to a piece of yellowed jawbone underneath. The flesh around the
wound had withered and turned a shiny black.
nodded at Vega; the quick, tilt-your-chin-back gesture of a fellow
vato, and left the shop through the front door.
parted the curtains. "You know that guy, don't you?"
name's Manuel Reyes, but everyone calls him Cantil."
thought his nickname was Snakebite."
enough. A Cantil is a Mexican pit-viper. Their venom rots flesh.
Manuel was unlucky enough to be struck in the face."
he told me the whole story." She crooked her finger. "Come on back."
followed her into what looked like an ordinary stock room. Or half
of it, anyways. The other half had a glass-topped table and two
plush chairs. Several rocks with purple crystals jutting over their
surfaces had been arranged atop the table, surrounding a deck of
black, oversized Tarot cards.
none of my business," he said, taking a seat, "but you might want
to be more careful with the company you keep. Cantil's a known drug
Ellen arched an eyebrow. She took a small plastic baggie out of
her pocket and tossed it next to the cards. The baggie had white
powder in it. "Huh."
that part of the reading?"
officially, but you can have some if you want." She opened the baggie
and shook out a crude little line across the table. Snuffed it up
without a straw or rolled-up twenty. "Harsh," she said, wrinkling
her nose. "You might be wondering why someone as spiritually advanced
as me is snorting drugs. The answer is I deny myself no experiences.
I'm above conventional morality."
me see your hand."
held out his right and she took it. Her fingers danced over his
palm, rubbing the calluses and stroking his thumb and pinkie. "Oh
God, you've got big hands." She writhed in her chair. "Okay, aside
from day labor, first thing I see is that you're not who you appear
to be. You're here, in my shop now, under some pretense. Right?"
a 'yes.' It's okay, Mr. Jesus. We're living in a deceitful world
and I accept that. Second thing, and this is coming across clear,
is that you don't believe in much. I'm talking spirituality, religion,
matters of faith."
Kind of unsettling, how she was getting all this.
here's something interesting." She edged her chair closer to him,
leaning forward until one of her knees was touching his under the
table. "You're part Indio. I can see that much in your face.
Especially the cheekbones, which are gorgeous by the way. I think--Yaqui.
Yes. That has to be it."
was breathing faster now. He could smell the faint chemical stink
of whatever it was she'd snorted. She ran a finger down the bridge
of his nose. Her touch felt fever-hot.
them, the curtains clicked. Cody walked in, turned, and walked out
as quick as he came.
you and him . . .?" Vega said.
she said, and crawled onto his lap.
Cruz wanted a report as soon as he got back to the house.
sat in a chair in the little kitchen, an open bottle of Heradurra
on the table and a fat roach smoldering between her fingers. As
Vega talked, she took long pulls straight from the bottle and sucked
down enough chronic to stone the Mexican army.
little gringa's going to cut into my business," she said,
after he'd finished.
don't see how she's a threat. No gangster would want to be seen
going into her place, believe me."
the Dona gestured at him with her blunt. "You think all my clients
are hoods? This woman steals away the richer people and I'm in trouble.
You're in trouble, seeing as how I pay you."
do you expect me to do about it?"
drifted out of her nostrils. "Something illegal. Your hands aren't
clean. What if her shop was to burn down?"
First thing police ask is who benefits. They'd check you out, find
out about me and my record, and that's it."
you threaten her, then? Beat her up a little?" She tapped at his
bicep. "What good are all those muscles, you can't use them?"
if . . .?" her face seemed to darken. "What if I asked you to steal
something of hers? Something small, personal. Any object would do."
not going to stop her."
stared at him for a long moment, eyes unblinking. Like the Horned
Owl in the big greasewood cabinet. He knew it was a trick she used.
If you stared back you'd start to feel the emptiness floating around
her corneas, and have to look away.
would if I put a hex on it," she said.
figured the whole idea was harmless.
couldn't really curse anybody, so why not go along with it?
All he had to do was boost something of Ellen's, say one of her
rings or those silver bangles she had on her wrist. The Dona would
do her weird bruja crap and nothing would happen.
better, he could pretend to steal from Ellen, and just hand over
some scarf or ring he bought at the swapmeet. How would Dona Cruz
know? She hadn't seen her before.
. . .
hated to admit it, but there was something to the old woman's powers.
Nothing mystical; he reasoned she was just good at reading people.
She might be able to tell if he was lying. Like before, with the
human fat and the candle. He'd contemplated cheating, but whenever
he was around her he'd get nervous, and she had that way of looking
through you, like she could see the thoughts scrolling on the back
of your head.
he'd steal from Ellen. It wasn't going to be difficult.
after she'd blown him, back in the shop, she'd invited him to her
place for the evening.
put on his one good silk shirt and a pair of black jeans, with a
Concho belt his sister had given him. Slipped into his least-scuffed
boots. He'd had to return the catering van to his cousin, which
would've left him without a ride, but he'd convinced Dona Cruz to
lend him her sky-blue Lincoln.
drove out into the foothills, squinting against the sun. Ellen's
directions led to a subdivision that was still being built. At the
end of the first street stood a single finished home, with dirt
for a lawn and a restored MG coupe parked out front.
met him at the door. She had on a short gold robe with leopard spots
and a matching terrycloth headband. Her feathers had been swapped
out for a pair of jade earrings that dangled all the way to her
shoulders. What with his Concho belt and shirt, they made a pretty
look delicious," she said, and hugged him. He could feel her nipples
through the robe's thin material, and damn if he wasn't already
responding. Maybe they could go at it right here, in the doorway.
There wasn't anyone around.
she backpedaled as he started to press against her, drawing him
into a front room with very little in the way of furnishings. "Zen,"
led him through a sliding glass door out onto the patio. Even by
his standards, it wasn't much. An eight by five concrete slab with
two lawn chairs. The backyard view consisted of a low mountain,
mostly hidden behind cinderblock wall and the ceiling joists of
I came here I thought it'd be all sage and saguaros, with coyotes
howling in the distance," she said. "I didn't figure on sprawl."
lot of people had that idea."
maybe if the shop takes off I can get a place farther out. What're
you drinking? I've got some Snap E Tom if you want a bloody Mary."
got that, how about a chelada?"
equal parts beer and tomato juice, plus some salt and lime. Sounds
nasty, but it isn't."
take your word on that."
drinks in and he got tired of all the tomato juice, switched to
straight beer, and some point after that switched again to tequila.
Ellen kept asking him how the drinks tasted, like a self-conscious
talked while the sky darkened and flights of tiny bats stumbled
around in the desert air. Ellen described how her spiritual transformation--she
called it an "apotheosis," then explained what the word meant--had
occurred while she was attending a rehab in Malibu, the same place
where she'd met Cody. "After that I stopped listening to all the
bullshit the therapists were telling us," she said.
was thinking how he'd have to steal something, before he got too
wasted. "Need to piss," he said, which was also true, and pushed
himself up from the lawn chair. Bright sparks pulsed at the corners
of his eyes. He swayed for a second. "Sorry, but tequila never hits
me until I move."
the hall to the left."
stepped through the sliding glass door. Veins of white light were
threading across his vision, making it hard to see. Christ. How
many had he had?
found the hallway and lurched down it to the bathroom. There was
a tub shower with sparkly gold curtains on one side and the toilet
and sink counter on the other. About a hundred squat red candles
had been arranged on the counter. He ran water and splashed some
on his face. When he glanced up into the mirror his features seemed
distorted, and the web of light was still there. Growing, in fact.
had never done this to him before. He leaned closer to the mirror.
It was crazy, but his eyes were retreating back farther into his
head. Shriveling up. He saw the reflection of the gold curtain behind
him, and the sparkles were sliding across the plastic surface, forming
whorls. The curtain rippled--
turned, and in a sudden motion grabbed the curtain, tore it free.
Plastic rings rained down. Cantil stood in the tub, his arms raised
in surprise. He wore a black track suit. A length of nylon cord,
long enough to strangle someone with, trailed down from his right
looked at each other. Cantil licked his lips, and when his tongue
slid out it was forked like a serpent's.
hit him. His arm thrust back and shot forward, an open-palm blow
that struck Cantil in the chest, rocked him back against the tiled
wall and rattled his teeth. He slumped, still conscious. Vega snatched
up the nylon cord, thinking he'd twist it around his neck for a
farther down the hall someone was yelling. Ellen?
dawned on him, then, what this date was. She'd put something in
his drinks. Not a knock-out drug, though. He was hallucinating.
God, had she put . . . was it Mescaline?
a voice told him.
bolted down the hallway. Cody was waiting in the front room. He
stood rigid, feet spread apart, left forearm raised and his right
hand curled in a fist, palm facing upwards. Breathing through his
nose. Vega recognized the karate stance and had to force back a
laugh. For some reason it struck him as funny. Cody twisted, shifted
his weight to his back right foot and brought his left knee up,
chambering for a roundhouse kick. Even drugged, Vega could see it
snatched up a small table and swung it at him.
tried to block. Forty pounds of hardwood, backed by Vega's jailhouse
muscle, smacked into his forearm with a crunch. The table kept going,
slammed against the side of Cody's head and swept him over the back
of a futon couch. Cody, couch, and table struck the tiled floor.
didn't get up.
groped for the front door knob, but the room was spinning and diamond
box patterns kept bursting from his temples, dazzling him with silver-white
glare. He touched the knob's warm metal. A sound to his left made
him turn. He saw Ellen slide the glass door shut behind her and
lock it, face calm. She smiled at him and opened the folds of her
robe. Naked underneath, and all Vega could think as she shrugged
off the garment was how skinny she was, not much pubic hair, and
there was a crescendo of steps behind him, feet slapping on tile,
and something struck the back of his neck, hard metal, and plastic
CD cases went clattering all around him, as he dropped to one knee.
the metal thing again.
bit into his wrist. Through the slit of his eyelids he saw a snake-man
and a golden she-demon looking down at him.
eyes just moved," the snake-man said. "Go ahead, ask him some questions."
she-demon hunkered close. Her face was a mask hammered from a single
sheet of gold, and when she talked her words formed shining hieroglyphs
that hung in the air. "Mr. Jesus, did that old woman send you to
spy on me today? You work for her, don't you?"
couldn't answer. Too fascinated.
he understand me?"
think you gave him too much."
that. You hit him too hard."
a fucking bull, man. I had to hit him. And Cody's still out. We
should take him to the hospital."
wake up." The mask leaned closer, its eyes gaping like twin bullet
holes. "Mr. Jesus, you shouldn't mess with us, okay? We're bad people.
Snakebite knows all about your boss, so tell her to lay off. Got
opened his mouth and vomited a stream of blood. Some of it splashed
the she-demon. She cursed and drew back, and the world receded around
came to feeling hot blacktop against his cheek. His wrists were
bound behind him. Morning sunlight lanced down through the branches
of a Palo Verde tree. He lay on his side in what looked like an
abandoned cul-de-sac. Off in the distance he could see houses.
pissed himself. Red vomit--tomato juice, not blood--crusted the
front of his good shirt. His stomach roiled and his throat felt
so dry it wanted to close up. The back of his neck throbbed from
where the CD rack had struck.
took him several minutes, but he worked free of the nylon cords
binding his wrist, minus a little skin. They'd left him his wallet,
but his keys, including the keys to the Lincoln, were gone. He couldn't
drive back even if he found the car.
started walking down the cul-de-sac. They'd dumped him in an aborted
subdivision; a bunch of empty lots that had been leveled and staked
out before the developer's money dried up. Fifteen minutes later
he'd crossed a rural road and found a canal running alongside a
field of iceberg lettuce. He eyed the lapping water, wondering about
pesticides and other shit, but it wasn't like he could hike up to
somebody's house and ask for a drink. He took a couple careful sips,
then stripped off his silk shirt and washed it. Nobody was coming
up the road, so he peeled out of his jeans and washed them, too.
Put his clothes on sopping wet.
were dry by the time he'd flagged down a produce truck willing to
take him back to town.
driver let him off five blocks from Dona Cruz's house. Five blocks
in a hundred and ten degree heat, blisters already forming under
his boot's hard leather, and he was thinking how he'd explain what
when he got there the Lincoln and the MG coupe were parked out front.
slunk around to the back yard, heard voices and music slipping out
through the kitchen window. A glance inside showed the Dona sitting
in her usual chair. Across from her sat Ellen, talking animatedly,
gesturing with her hands. The two women laughed. About a dozen empty
bottles of Negro Modelo occupied the table between them.
revenge today, alright?"
back door had opened. Cantil leaned out through the frame and leveled
a shotgun with a cut-off stock. His other hand held an icepack against
the back of his head.
rage he'd been feeling evaporated as Vega looked down the smooth-bore
inside," Cantil said.
Dona didn't look too happy to see him. "You took your time, getting
back here. Ellen brought my car around this morning. She decided
to do the civil thing, and talk to me face to face. She told me
what you did to her friend Cody. They had to take him to the emergency
room last night."
She tell you how they drugged me, tied me up--"
Cruz raised a wrinkled palm. "I don't want to hear anymore. This
has all been a misunderstanding, and Ellen and I have decided to
put it past us." She snaked her arm across the table and covered
Ellen's hand with her own. They grinned like sisters.
always been fascinated with curanderas," Ellen said. "Dona
Cruz has agreed to take me on as a student."
a fee," the Dona added.
fuck me," Vega said.
I'm changing my name," Ellen said, not hearing him, "from Ellen
Redfeather to Elena Atzlan. What do you think of that?"
he thought was these two spiders deserved each other. He grabbed
a cold Modelo from the counter and went looking for his keys.