Authors: Mercedes Lackey
Rosemary Edghill and Mercedes Lackey
Copyright © 2011 by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2011 by RosettaBooks, LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Electronic edition published 2011 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795322945
For (Sara) Elizabeth Barnett, without whose eleventh-hour copyedit this book wouldn't be here now.
New York might as well have been on an entirely different planet from El Paso, and as bad as life there had been there at the end, after three months here, Tomas Torres wished he was still back there.
Mamacita had moved them all up from El Paso when her cousin promised good jobs up north. They sure as hell hadn’t been making it in El Paso; it had been a steady downhill drop since Papi walked out on them three years ago. Not that he’d been all that much help once he’d started drinking hard, acting out with craziness that had terrified Mamacita and infuriated Tomas, and losing the good job at the garage that he’d had since before Tomas had been born. But at least while he’d still been with them, there’d usually been a paycheck. Bills got paid. Food got put on the table. With him gone—
Mamacita had tried to get a job, any job, but in El Paso, with the Border so close, why pay benefits and decent money when you could hire los pollitos with no green card and no papers for a few dollars an hour?
Then Mama’s cousin Carmelita came through with three bus tickets to New York and the promise of work. But somehow even that hadn’t turned out right. There were jobs, but it was expensive to live in New York, even in El Barrio. And even though Mamacita had a degree in Education from the University of Mexico, it didn’t matter. The only job she could get was as a maid, cleaning up other peoples’ dirt. Being solamente una criada didn’t pay well, either; she had to work two jobs just to pay the rent on their tiny noisy stinking one-bedroom apartment. He didn’t even have his own bedroom any more. He slept on a couch in the living room. And to make everything worse, he hadn’t been sleeping well lately at all.
He hated the way Mamacita looked, tired all the time now. Hated that she was never home, or that when she was, she never had time for either him or Rosalita any more. All she did was work or pray. He could hear her Rosalitario beads softly clicking in the early morning hours in-between shifts, “Lo ruego hago algo de se”—I pray he makes something of himself. He hated when she prayed for him, too. If God had been going to help them, He should have done it a long time ago.
It was the end of April, and the weather should have been nice for weeks to come—the three of them had gotten here in January, and that had been horrible; no warm clothes, and no money to buy any. But instead of spring weather, which still would have been too cold for Tomas, since summer couldn’t come soon enough for him, they’d gotten an early heat wave. It suited him just fine, but everybody around here was bitching about it. The one thing he’d learned for certain about El Norte and El Manzana Grande was that nobody was ever satisfied with anything here. Only his little sister Rosalita was happy, and that was because she had the same friends she’d had back home. Of course those friends were invisible, and nobody could hear them but her, but at least his little hermana was happy. ‘Lita was five years younger than Tomas was—ten to his fifteen—she’d only been seven when Papi had finally left three years ago, and really hadn’t seemed to notice the drinking and the fights at all. The one thing Tomas was determined on was that ‘Lita would always only see good things around her. At least she enjoyed school here, and all her teachers loved her.
That was why, though Tomas had never bothered to attend school himself once they arrived in El Norte, he walked Rosalita to her school every morning and picked her up every afternoon.
They’d stopped at the corner bodega, partly to cool off after the long hot walk back from ‘Lita’s school—the little corner grocery store a long block from their apartment was air-conditioned—and partly so that ‘Lita could pick out a treat. He knew he shouldn’t waste their food money on things like that—wasn’t Mamacita working two jobs just to keep food on the table?—But he couldn’t resist spoiling ‘Lita every chance he got, and it was only a dollar or two. He was more than willing to skip lunch a few days a week just to see her smile.
Besides, there were other good reasons for stopping at this particular bodega.
He browsed the bakery rack as an excuse to check out the hot cholas at the magazine rack while ‘Lita hung over the freezer at the front of the store. She always took forever, even though she always ended up choosing the same thing: a cherry Ice Rocket. The cholas were wearing gang colors, so he certainly wasn’t stupid enough to even look at them directly, but they were certainly easy on the eyes. There were three of them, giggling over each other’s shoulders and talking trash about the chicas in El Fuego magazine. One was asi, one was nice and one… oh, too bad she was chola, because Tomas had every intention of living to see sixteen. He’d gotten along fine with the clicas back home, but he’d never been crazy enough to run with any of them, and he wasn’t going to make that mistake here, either. In El Paso he’d been someone to respect; he’d managed to stay out of the gangs by virtue of having a skill they all valued, because he could fix cars. The kids from the clicas would toss him a couple of Benjamins for dropping stolen superchargers in their rides, or hooking up mad wattage stereo systems in their trunks. He hooked up the veteranos and the vatos from Nuestra Familia for free, ‘cause that’s how you got respect Norteño-style, but that didn’t mean he wanted to join a gang—or become an ex-con—himself. For what he could do he was respected like the other vatos in the barrio, kept his clothes and his do-rags brown or gray, and nobody messed with him. But here—he didn’t have jack. He was still new to the hood, just a caló speaking pachuco in most people’s eyes. Before he got anywhere he’d have to get more juice. All over again.
It would help if there was money. That was another thing that had been supposed to be easy and hadn’t been. He’d dropped out of school when they got here—well, not exactly “dropped out”; Mamacita had registered Rosalita, but she’d assumed he’d register himself, and he hadn’t turned in the paperwork after she signed it. It was that simple; in the eyes of the New York State Department of Education he didn’t exist. He’d meant to pick up an odd job or two to help out. He could tune cars because he’d been helping Papi at the garage from the time he could walk; the one thing his father had done for him that he valued was teach him to fix cars.
But no one seemed to turn their own wrenches around here, and there weren’t that many cars to begin with, maybe because there was next to no place to park. He’d quickly found out that no one but the drug-dealers were hiring, and no way was he going to work for a dealer, selling primo or chiva to some whacked out base-head. He had his suspicions that part or all of his father’s craziness had been due to drugs, and he wanted no part of that.
Tomas was trying to walk a wary line here; being respected by the gangs without having to be one of them—he’d managed it in Texas, but he’d been in that barrio forever, and he was the wrench. Get into a gang and the next thing you knew, there’d be shootings, and drive-bys, and maybe Rosalita caught in the crossfire—or maybe she’d end up as one of their pets; hiding their guns and drugs, and in a few years being pressured to—
No. No way. Rosalita was gonna make it in the gringo world, and that meant Tomas had to find some slick, smart way to make a lot of money. Enough so Mamacita could stop working. Enough for Rosalita to go to college. Enough for Tomas to get his own wheels. He’d chop the top, kick up both turbos’ boost, rebuild the cylinders so he could drop a hundred shot of NOS in it. He’d put in a hydraulics kit, and drop it so low-profile that it would smoke any lo-rider, a dancer, yeah. He’d build her himself, with his own two hands. He could do that.
Suddenly he was wrenched out of the happy day-dream he’d taken refuge in so often lately. The cholas were reacting to something he couldn’t see; they began inching, crouched over, towards the door.
His gut screamed an alert. Where was Rosalita?
He looked around wildly and spotted her. She’d left the ice cream case and was standing by the counter, her frozen treat forgotten in her hand. There was a man standing next to her—too close.
And he had a gun.
“Hand over da cash, man!”
The harsh words made Tomas freeze, and sent the three girls scuttling out the door to freedom.
“No worries. Keep cool, man.” Mr. de la Yedra was in no mood to argue with a man holding a loaded .45. Especially not one that looked as loco as this one.
Neither was Tomas—except—except that Rosalita was there, right there, next to him. Tomas wanted to run right up to him and snatch her to safety. Wanted to jump this fool, slam the guy to the ground for even being near his little hermana with a loaded gun in his hand. Rosalita seemed to be frozen there, like a scared rabbit. He felt rage, rage like he’d never felt before, boiling up inside him as the dude waved the piece in the air. His fear and anger felt like lava, burning in him, not with pain, but with power—
“That’s all?” The gunman screamed as Mr. de la Yedra literally emptied the register drawer out onto the counter for him “You get me more, you hear me? You open the safe—”
Rosalita, move! Tomas thought furiously. Stop standing there like you think he won’t see you!
But Rosalita didn’t move, not one inch. The invisible friends she was always talking to weren’t giving her any good advice today.
“I don’t have a safe, Mister,” Carlos de la Yedra whispered. He was a old man, and he’d never been kind, not even to ‘Lita, but Tomas felt sorry for him now. “I can’t afford a safe. My wife picked up the money and took it to the bank an hour ago, that’s all I have, take it—”
“Then you get that money from the bank!” the gunman shrieked at the top of his lungs. “You call that bitch wife of yours and you tell her to get that money back outta the bank right now, or—or—”
And then the unthinkable happened. The gunman reached out and snatched Rosalita by the arm. She dropped the Ice Rocket to the floor and let out a shrill scream that twisted in Tomas’s gut like a knife. The man shouted something unintelligible and jammed the barrel of his gun against the side of her head, and ‘Lita went instantly silent.
“You get that money or I’ll—”
The rage in Tomas boiled over and something exploded deep inside. His vision washed red, and heat erupted from him like he was standing in a fire, except the fire was inside him, not outside him. There was no thinking now, only furia. He straightened out of his crouch and stepped out into the aisle.
“LET. HER. GO!” he roared.
And in an instinctive gesture, without any thought at all, he pulled back his arm as if he was pitching a rock at the gunman. He threw as hard as he could, as the startled gunman turned in Tomas’s direction.
There had been nothing in his hand when he threw.
But something had left it.
A ball of fire.
The fire struck the gunman square in the face, splattering over his skin as if it were liquid and pelting the counter-top with tiny droplets of flame.
The gunman screamed like a girl and clawed at his face with both hands, hitting himself in the nose with the gun. It might have been funny under other circumstances, but Tomas was in no mood to laugh. He was already hitting him with another fireball, this time to the chest. This one clung, and the gunman’s shirt began to burn.
Tomas couldn’t understand it. Where was this coming from? It felt almost as if it was being pulled from inside him, from his anger, but how could that be?
Rosalita scrambled out of the way, beginning to scream again, and Mr. de la Yedra ducked under the counter. Rosalita ran toward the only safety she could see—Tomas—skidding to a halt as he threw a third fireball toward the gunman. As the third missile left his hand, Tomas felt something pulling inside his chest until the fireball separated from him and sped towards the thug. He ran forward and grabbed Rosalita in the split-second before she ran for the door by herself. For an instant, Tomas hesitated. By now the gunman was afire, and he was stumbling around the front of the store, screaming in pain and crashing into the displays of chips and candy bars. Mr. de la Yedra was still hiding behind the counter.
He’s gonna catch the store on fire—