If Death Is the Answer, What Was the Question?

Lust sizzled through me. There were two of them, a matched pair. I knew a woman wasn’t supposed to want such things, but sometimes we had desires—dark desires—that couldn’t be denied. There was no doubt about it.

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.

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.

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’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?”

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.

“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.