The 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.

He 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.

He 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.

The banger cleared his throat. "I need to talk to you about--"

"Don't 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 in daylight."

"You know about my brother?" Ernesto said.


"He's going on trial. All he's got is a public defender. And the charges are serious, felony possession."

Dona 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."

Ernesto 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.

"Let me see the money," she said.

Ernesto 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.

Dona 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."

Ernesto 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."

He 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 doors.

Smirking, he wondered how long it would take for the money to find its way into her purse.

She 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."

"I'm not ignorant. Unlike most of the people you lure in here."

"Don't talk that way. Disrespect towards me, that's one thing. But to them--" she jerked her thumb at the cabinet. "Very foolish."

"I'll be more careful."

"Do you remember what I need you to do? This afternoon?"

Said it like she was his mother. Don't forget your errands, mijo. He couldn't keep his shoulders from slumping.

"I asked you a question."

"Yes. I remember."

"Good." 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?"

"I'm afraid of poverty," he said.


Dirty deeds for the witch-lady.

A 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.

The things he did for money.

This 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.

The 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:




Didn't 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.

Someone tapped on the passenger-side window.

He 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.

He 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."

She 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.

He shook her hand. "Jesus."

"Well, 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."


He 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.

"You own this place?" he said, nodding towards the shop.

"Yup. Sole proprietor, though I've got some help."

He 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.

There 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.

"Cody?" she called out. "I'm back."

A 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.

"Cody, this is Mr. Jesus," Ellen said. "We get any company while I was out?"

"Just Snakebite. He's waiting in the back."

"But no customers, huh?"

"Not a one."

"Well, 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."

He liked her lack of pretense. "How long have you been open?"

"Two 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."

He 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.

A 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.

He nodded at Vega; the quick, tilt-your-chin-back gesture of a fellow vato, and left the shop through the front door.

Ellen parted the curtains. "You know that guy, don't you?"

"His name's Manuel Reyes, but everyone calls him Cantil."

"I thought his nickname was Snakebite."

"Close enough. A Cantil is a Mexican pit-viper. Their venom rots flesh. Manuel was unlucky enough to be struck in the face."

"Yeah, he told me the whole story." She crooked her finger. "Come on back."

He 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.

"It's 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 dealer."

"Really?" 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."

"Is that part of the reading?"

"Not 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."


"Let me see your hand."

He 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?"


"That's 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."

"Yes." Kind of unsettling, how she was getting all this.

"Now 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."

She 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.

Behind them, the curtains clicked. Cody walked in, turned, and walked out as quick as he came.

"Are you and him . . .?" Vega said.

"It doesn't matter."

"It doesn't?"

"No," she said, and crawled onto his lap.


Dona Cruz wanted a report as soon as he got back to the house.

She 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.

"The little gringa's going to cut into my business," she said, after he'd finished.

"I don't see how she's a threat. No gangster would want to be seen going into her place, believe me."

Scowling, 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."

"What do you expect me to do about it?"

Smoke drifted out of her nostrils. "Something illegal. Your hands aren't clean. What if her shop was to burn down?"

"Huh-uh. First thing police ask is who benefits. They'd check you out, find out about me and my record, and that's it."

"Can't 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?"

"Absolutely not."

"What if . . .?" her face seemed to darken. "What if I asked you to steal something of hers? Something small, personal. Any object would do."

"That's not going to stop her."

She 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.

"It would if I put a hex on it," she said.


He figured the whole idea was harmless.

She 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.

Even 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.

Unless . . .

He 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.

So he'd steal from Ellen. It wasn't going to be difficult.

Because after she'd blown him, back in the shop, she'd invited him to her place for the evening.


He 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.

He 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.

She 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 tacky couple.

"You 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.

But she backpedaled as he started to press against her, drawing him into a front room with very little in the way of furnishings. "Zen," she explained.

She 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 another house.

"When 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."

"A lot of people had that idea."

"Well, 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."

"You got that, how about a chelada?"

She looked mystified.

"Take equal parts beer and tomato juice, plus some salt and lime. Sounds nasty, but it isn't."

"I'll take your word on that."


Three 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 host.

They 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.

Vega 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."

"Down the hall to the left."

He 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?

He 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.

Tequila 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--

Had it moved?

It had.

He 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 hand.

They looked at each other. Cantil licked his lips, and when his tongue slid out it was forked like a serpent's.

Vega 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 couple minutes.

From farther down the hall someone was yelling. Ellen?

It 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?

Run, a voice told him.

He 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 coming.

He snatched up a small table and swung it at him.

Cody 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.

He didn't get up.

Vega 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.

Then the metal thing again.


Snakes bit into his wrist. Through the slit of his eyelids he saw a snake-man and a golden she-demon looking down at him.

"His eyes just moved," the snake-man said. "Go ahead, ask him some questions."

The 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?"

He couldn't answer. Too fascinated.

"Can he understand me?"

"I think you gave him too much."

"Fuck that. You hit him too hard."

"Guy's a fucking bull, man. I had to hit him. And Cody's still out. We should take him to the hospital."

"He'll 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 it?"

He 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 her.


He 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.

Fucking Ellen.

He'd 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.

It 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.

He 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.

They were dry by the time he'd flagged down a produce truck willing to take him back to town.


The 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 happened.

But when he got there the Lincoln and the MG coupe were parked out front.

He 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.

"No revenge today, alright?"

The 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.

Whatever rage he'd been feeling evaporated as Vega looked down the smooth-bore barrel.

"Come inside," Cantil said.

The 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."

"Good. She tell you how they drugged me, tied me up--"

Dona 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.

"I've always been fascinated with curanderas," Ellen said. "Dona Cruz has agreed to take me on as a student."

"For a fee," the Dona added.

"Well fuck me," Vega said.

"And I'm changing my name," Ellen said, not hearing him, "from Ellen Redfeather to Elena Atzlan. What do you think of that?"

What he thought was these two spiders deserved each other. He grabbed a cold Modelo from the counter and went looking for his keys.

Mr. Elliott lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. This story marks his fifth in Plots With Guns--hay cinco, cuentelos, ninos y ninas. He's had work published in Thuglit, Out of the Gutter, A Twist of Noir, Darkest before the Dawn, and Hardluck Stories, among others, and he's got a piece slated for the much-anticipated Beat to a Pulp print anthology coming out later this year.