Nothing. Running west from Uvalde to Del Rio, Highway 90 cuts through eighty-five miles of nothing. Only occasional cell towers and billboards for Alamo Village break up the monotony of the scrub brush and asphalt.
I did stop in Brackettville, but not to visit any old movie sets. Rather, I stopped off at a Valero to go pee and buy a couple of burritos to placate the monster in my stomach. Back in my car, I gnawed on one burrito and checked my brand new map o' Del Rio and Eagle Pass. Not that I really risked getting lost—there are simply no side roads between here and there.
Back on the road, I went over the facts of the case in my head. I had no real reason to be headed to Del Rio. It wasn't within my jurisdiction, just a simple missing persons case.
Last Friday, seventeen-year-old Yolanda Cardenas had disappeared, leaving behind her four-month-old daughter. She didn't have many friends, or go to school, or make any ripples at all in society. So when the police found nothing at all, they assumed she had simply slipped across the border to be with her boyfriend, a recently-deported Mexican national.
Her grandmother wasn't buying the official story. She happened to go to the same church as Donny Zapata, my lieutenant in far west Texas. Yesterday after Mass, she had cornered him and begged him for help. He, in turn, had called me. Was there anything supernatural going on? No, nothing at all. Not in Del Rio, not in Eagle Pass, not even on up to Kerrville and out to El Paso. Just a poor brown girl who had dropped off the face of the earth, and no one with a badge seemed to care.
An hour and a half later, still well before noon, I was in my room at the Ramada Inn. I had never actually been to Del Rio before. I had been through Del Rio. Fifteen years ago. As a part of a mission trip to Acuña. We had parked our church van out back of the McDonald's for a bathroom break, but that was it. There had been no sight seeing.
I unpacked my small suitcase and laid on the bed before pulling out my cell phone to call Donny. I badly needed to set up a meeting with Yolanda Cardenas's grandmother.
“Donny, it's Vangie. Just got to town. Can you set up a meeting?”
“Already done. Hour and a half from now. I'll call to confirm. You in the Ramada?”
“Meet you in the lobby in about an hour? Won't take but about ten minutes to get to her place. We can go over the case on the way.” He paused, and I could almost see him struggling with whether to ask th next question. He would. They always did. I gritted my teeth in frustration, and mentally prepared my lecture. But he only said “Are you okay, mija?” and that in a way that sounded as if he meant it.
I let out the breath slowly, tried to ignore the stinging in my eyes. “Yeah. I'm fine. It's really not half as bad as it's been made out to be.” Rumor used the term baby daddy a lot and had me getting fired. Yay for the twenty-first century. I fiddled the small silver ring on my right hand that had everyone confused. “I'm not going to be forced to resign in disgrace. Or at all.”
“Good. Good.” He didn't sound very convinced.
We said our goodbyes. I hit the end button on my phone and picked up the remote. Half an hour to watch TV. Half an hour to get dressed while watching TV. That'd work. I settled onto the bed on my side, canted over in a position the midwife assured me would encourage the baby to settle in a head down position facing my butt. Poteet's werewolf population had a three percent c-section rate, so I'd sleep hanging upside down if she told me to. I looked at my watch. It was a man's watch, and had cost more than my cell phone, but the important part was that it displayed two time zones. It was 10:15 on a Monday morning in Del Rio, and that meant it was a quarter past six in the evening in Baghdad. I tried to think about what Carl was doing right now, and drew a blank. Maybe he'd had a chance to e-mail. I leveraged myself upright and as I did the phone rang. I flopped back down on the bed and scrabbled for it, answering without looking at the number. “Hello?”
“Baby.” Hallelujah! It was Carl! And he sounded tired.
“You sound tired.”
He chuckled weakly. “I am. I've been out with a supply convoy. And now I'm surrounded by Fobbits.” I heard a protest, and a whacking sound.
“But at least you have ice cream.”
I'd far prefer my girls. But I'll take ice cream. You needed
It was my turn to laugh. I didn't think I'd ever get used to Carl's very focused sixth sense. “I was just missing you.” It was a hard thing to admit, even now. Me heap big independent woman. Yeah. That.
“I miss you. I can't talk long. I just wanted to know you're okay. How's my daughter?”
“You don't know I'm having a girl.” I wasn't having any ultrasounds.
“I know. I love you. Don't worry about me.”
“I love you too.” He'd already hung up. I closed my phone and stared at it. I should be used to all of this by now, but I wasn't. Mary, my midwife, had warned me that hormones would make erratic not only my magic but also my actions and emotions. Definitely why I couldn't communicate with ghosts anymore. Probably also why I wanted to throw my phone at the TV and spend the rest of the morning crying.
But it was time to change clothes. Work. Yay. Right then I was wearing maternity jeans and an oversize Tony Parker t-shirt. My normal working clothes? Yes, but not ones that exactly screamed “I'm from the government and I'm here to help.” I had a fairly limited supply of “office” clothes at the best of times. Now, I had pretty much one black dress and an abundance of brightly colored blazers. And one black one, which I put on now. My Glock went in my left pocket, my badge on my right lapel. I didn't usually wear it, but right now it was all about the image. So I skinned my hair back into a tight bun and suffered makeup. A utilitarian purse—bought just for this trip—and matching black flats completed things. I looked rather like a disgruntled Goth rent-a-cop. And fat.
I left for the lobby, trying to think brown thoughts. During the summer I looked like more than the quarter Mexican I was, but in early April I was white as could be. Sometimes that was good, sometimes it wasn't. Today, who knew? I couldn't get around my Anglo last names, so it was a moot point.
Donny was waiting for me when I got to the lobby. He was a compact man, first generation American. His skin was the color of toffee, his close-cropped hair startlingly white, his bearing announcing to all he was still a Marine. He was wearing a charcoal suit, double breasted, with a white shirt and a dove gray tie. Together, we looked like we were on our way to a funeral. I really hoped to avoid that on this trip.
Donny greeted me with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. Not de rigeur for the Office of Magical Investigations, but typical Donny. “You look radiant.”
“Thank you. Is that the case file?”
“It is.” He handed me a folder. It was distressingly thin. “There's a copy of the police report, but you'll have to get in touch with the investigating officer for info on what they've actually done, though I don't think it's much. I tried to find out some stuff on my own, but I don't have the nifty badge.”
There was a small sitting area in the lobby, furnished with a small couch and a few armchairs, and we went here and sat down. I flipped the file open to peruse it. Staring back at me was a senior portrait, a copper-skinned young girl with permed black hair and too much eyeliner. Could've been my own graduation photo, almost. The girl was pretty, and her gaze was open and direct. “She graduated?”
“Sí. A year early. Not your typical teen mom.”
“Not at all. Is that why her grandmother thinks she didn't leave? I mean, other than having left her baby.”
My head came up. “No nursing mom would abandon a four-month-old.” I flipped through the folder. According to the police report, Yolanda had last been seen, as far as her grandmother knew, as she left her job as a carhop at Sonic at midnight. She'd gotten into her car and driven off into the night. Her grandmother had been awoken at four in the morning by the baby crying and found neither Yolanda nor her car.
that was where it ended. Once I got the police files, there would be
more. I didn't know anyone on the police force in Del Rio. Pulling
rank on them would take time, and annoy the detectives. I had a
better idea—and a friend on the police force back home. I held
up a finger. “Give me a minute. I need to make a phone call.”
I pulled my phone out of my purse. “Deontay. This is Vangie.
I need a favor. No, not that kind of favor, you pervert. A work
favor. Do you know anyone on the Del Rio PD?”
Maria Magdalena Cardenas y Garcia lived on Garza Lane, the first street east of the Mexican border. Sixty-two years old, she was the very picture of the Mexican grandmother, Texas edition. Her skin was nearly as pale as mine, her hair—worn very long in a braid down to her butt—was equal parts black and gray. She wore dark pink pilled polyester slacks, a short-sleeved plaid blouse, and sensible shoes. She had a lined face and kind eyes, and spoke in halting English.
“Yolanda is...is a good girl. Good mama. She broke up with that boy they say she went to a month before he was deported. He hit her. That's why he got deported. She...” Ms Cardenas trailed off, then said something to Donny in Spanish.
He turned to me and translated. “She says he got deported because he beat her up and she prosecuted.”
We learned nothing else of real help. Our next stop was a lunch meeting with Mike Stein at a little restaurant near my hotel. Donny dropped me off after I assured him I would be well able to walk the block back to the Ramada.
I found Stein easily in spite of the lunch rush. For one, he was obviously a half-breed like me. For another, he was a werewolf.
Stein's head jerked up when he saw me, nostrils flaring. He stood up and smiled, took a half step toward me before stopping abruptly and seeming to realize he was in public. I was actually getting used to that reaction from strange werewolves. He sat back down in the booth, wrapping Tough Cop around himself with a visible effort. Great. He'd decided not to like me in spite of how good I knew I smelled.
I slid into the booth seat across from him. “Good afternoon. I'm Vangie Aldrich.” I resisted the temptation to offer him my hand across the table. No reason for me to be an ass as well. “I'm sure Deontay told you that I'm the Magical Examiner for west Texas.”
He nodded. “Mark Stein. I brought the files for the Cardenas case. I'm not sure why you're involved in this. We found no indication of supernatural involvement.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Let's say it's a favor for a friend.” The waitress appeared at tableside. I ordered a tea and a cheeseburger without needing to look at the menu. God bless Texas.
Stein waited until the woman walked off, then pulled a manila folder from the booth seat beside him. It wasn't as thick as I'd hoped, but at least it was nowhere near as thin as the first file I'd seen today. “I'm actually not the detective who was assigned to this case. I'm just the only person willing to meet with you. No one really likes federal agents poking their noses into city business.”
I ignored the gripe, instead flipping the folder open. There was the same photo of Yolanda I'd already seen. The same police report. There was also a still from a surveillance video that showed Yolanda, in her uniform, getting into her car in the Sonic parking lot. Another showed her going through the McDonald's drive through. She'd taken her visor off and her hair down. She was a startlingly pretty young woman. But now she wasn't wearing any make-up, and tiredness made her look older. She did not look like she was anticipating anything.
“Can you give me a rundown?”
“Probably not much more than you already know. She got off work at Sonic when they closed at midnight. We have surveillance video of her getting into her car five minutes later, and of her going through the Mickey D's drive thru at ten after. And that's it.”
“Any of her crossing the border?”
“Then why the hell do you think she's in Mexico?”
“Her car was found along the border. She has known family and associates in Acuña, chief among them her boyfriend. People don't just sneak into America, you know. Sometimes they sneak the other way too.”
“But her ex-boyfriend beat her up. And she has a small baby.”
He shrugged. “Trust me, people do weirder shit all the time. We got no indication that she didn't leave of her own free will.”
Nothing. That's what I had. An hour later, I threw the file down on the bed in my hotel room and growled in frustration. I wanted to scream. I had nothing to go on. No reason, even, to think that one thing or another had happened to her. She could have gone to Mexico. She could be buried in a shallow grave in all the godforsaken scrub brush just half a mile outside this city, or drowned in Lake Amistad. I simply had no clue, and no leads.
I went to walk it out.
Historic downtown Del Rio was more nothing. It seemed that more than half the buildings were unoccupied, and the bulk of those that were, the businesses weren't open.
I stopped and sat down on a green metal bench to rest. There was a Compass Bank at the other end of the block, and this was doing a brisk business. Cars would park along Main Street, people would get out, be in the bank five minutes, return, get in their car, and leave. The bank drive-thru was moving briskly as well.
There was plenty of movement, in fact. I had noticed it on the short drive from the hotel. Not quite fifty thousand people lived in Del Rio, and from the looks of it, at least half were going somewhere right now.
Not that any of that helped me.
Settling myself comfortably on the bench, I relaxed enough to slip into a light trance. I had checked out the area in Magesight earlier, but it had only confirmed my suspicions that Del Rio was a town barely hanging on.
I sent my consciousness out now. It wasn't so much an out of body experience as simply becoming aware of a greater area. “Erweitern” I whispered on every exhale. “Sehen,” on every intake of breath. Expand. See.
I switched in to Magesight again, this time able to see Del Rio's downtown in its entirety.
I could do this back home in San Antonio as well. There, downtown pulsed with an almost unimaginable brilliance. It is what you would expect from that city, a riotous affair of colors, of emotion, of life, all slowly rotating around the city's literal and figurative heart—the Alamo.
Here, there was nothing of the sort. Del Rio probably had a center, a heart, but it wasn't downtown. Here there were only slow-moving eddies, centered on nothing in particular, dull and thin. Only an occasional bright spark lit up, along the roadways. Someone arguing in a car, perhaps.
I stayed that way for several long minutes. Time enough to get a feel for the current norm. It wasn't healthy, but it didn't seem as if anything was effecting it outside of simple apathy. Del Rio was mostly a town of transients; between the Mexican border and Laughlin Air Force Base, everyone wanted to be somewhere else.
Myself included. I was about to shut things down when I saw a dull throb of red. It was so faint I almost missed it. It faded and then came again, slightly weaker this time. I collapsed back down into myself with an almost physical jarring. A second later I was up and running.
Well, more like a fast walk. But I was moving as fast as I safely could with changed center of gravity. I had seen something like that before. The last time, I'd been too late. I'd also been not pregnant, and had known exactly where I was going.
Luckily, Del Rio was smaller, and there were fewer people. I slipped into Magesight again, but it was only short range. I had a pretty good idea of where I'd seen the red pulse, but it would be all too easy to get it wrong. I turned the corner and stopped short to let a small bus pass. When it went by, I was finally able to see the red pulse again.
Directly across the street was an empty lot. Beyond that was the ruin of a church. I picked my way carefully through the potholes comprising the street, and broke into a flat-out run once across. Probably a poor decision, but I really had no other choice.
I came to the church and stopped short. There was no way in. No easy way, at least. I walked around to the doors. They were boarded over. I called power to me in a great rush, and blasted through the wood and any doors that might have been behind them. From across the street I heard a shout. Good. Someone would get help.
It was probably lucky no one had been standing behind the doors. I called a ball of fire. In my hand it stayed cool and blue, and was a good source of light. Not to mention a ready weapon: if I threw it, it would instantaneously flash over into real fire, and crispy-critter anyone in its path.
The inside of the church was a mess. I could tell that a few of the windows to my right had been broken out, and it looked as if vagrants had wintered here. Pews had been upended, beer cans were scattered about, as well as hymnals, and a thick cloud of dust filled the air where my destruction of the doors had not only created debris but stirred up dirt and ash.
All of these things slowed me down. I was forced to pick my way carefully over and around litter. I had to drop Magesight, because with it I could not see at all. So I did not find her by the red beat of her aura but by normal hearing—a whimper, as if in pain.
I scrambled toward the sound as quickly as I could. She was in the apse to the side of the altar, a small closet where the sacristy was. She was naked, battered and bloody, and her hair was a mess, but it was still very obvious who she was.
At the sound of her name, she flinched back.
“It's okay. I'm Evangeline Aldrich. I'm here to help.” As an afterthought, I unpinned my badge and showed it to her. “You're safe. I promise. Come on, let's get you to a hospital.” So saying, I pulled my jacket off and covered her with it, checking first for any obvious injuries. There were none visible, but when I touched her arm she gasped in pain. Great. Broken.
“I—I can't get up. Are you the police?”
“Something like that.” I sat back on my heels, momentarily at a loss. I needed to get her out of there now, but it wasn't like I could pick her up.
“Ma'am? Ma'am, are you okay?”
I looked over my shoulder. A young priest carefully picked his way toward me. He was Anglo, and even blond, and for a moment it sent a hot band of loneliness around my heart. But only for a moment. He looked hearty enough, and other men were beginning to come in too. God bless Texas. “I'm fine. She's not. We need to get her out of here.”
The priest, even with me now, looked into the sacristy and shuddered. “Are you sure we should move her? Maybe we should wait for EMS. I already called...”
Yolanda had closed her eyes and huddled into my jacket. “That's great, but we need to get her out of here now. There is something in here...”
God love him, the priest immediately scooped her up and started picking his way towards the door, wincing each time she whimpered. Which meant it was a much slower process than I'd have liked, but nothing appeared from the shadows to bite our heads off, much as my skin crawled in belated recognition of the evil that permeated the once-sanctuary.
Outside, the priest sat down very carefully, with Yolanda still cradled in his arms. I could hear the ambulance, but it was still a few blocks away. A small crowd was beginning to form, most of the people hanging back, uncertain of what was going on. Two men whom we'd passed on the way out now stood at the church's doorway, just outside. I walked over to them. “Don't let anyone in there.” I flashed my badge to be sure they'd listen, then dug out my cell phone. “Donny? I've got our missing person.”
Two hours later, I was sitting beside Yolanda Cardenas's hospital bed. Her right arm was fractured in two places, both ankles were broken, and so were three ribs. Add to that the multiple cuts, scrapes, and bruises—not to mention incipient pneumonia—and it was no wonder she'd been barely hanging on when I found her.
There would also be a psychological price to pay, I was sure, but right now there was no sign of it. Yolanda had the bed up and her baby cradled carefully in her left arm. Said baby was nursing happily—and noisily—one foot in the air, kicking in time to her satisfied grunts. Yolanda smiled at the baby, smoothing her hair, and then turned to look at me. “Thank you.”
I nodded. “It was my job. And my pleasure. Thank your grandmother, not me. It was her determination that saved you. I just got lucky.”
“For which I give thanks. You're a Maga?”
“You'll still work once you have the baby. When are you due?”
“June. And yes, I'll work. I have to. I'm the only person in south Texas with the skill and the ability.”
“I haven't had the baby tested. Do you think I should?”
I opened my mouth to say yes, and then closed it. “It's an incredibly rare mutation. It typically requires a blood test. If you'll let me hold her, I can give you a good idea of whether it's worthwhile.”
Yolanda thought for a minute. The baby popped off and gave her mama a milky smile. That seemed to decide her, and she covered her breast and then passed the baby to me. I took her and cradled her for a moment, then turned her until she lay back along my arms, her feet pressing against my belly. She was a beautiful baby, with light brown skin, dark eyes, and silky black hair. Small gold hoops winked from her ears; milk dribbled from the corner of her mouth. She gave me one of those wise baby looks, but there was no particular weight behind it.
To be sure, I called a small bit of power, slipping into Magesight. Without any magic active, her aura wouldn't look any different, but I needed it to see magic. The baby had a healthy, golden aura, a ring of blue showing happiness. I pushed my magic gently into her. She squirmed a little bit. It wasn't painful, but it was a little uncomfortable. Like gas. There was no answering resonance, just the slip of my power through her.
I shook my head and handed her back to her mother, feeling only slight disappointment. “There's nothing there.” I blushed at my terminology. “I mean, she has no inherent magic. She might well be a skilled Magician, should she choose that path of study.” A reassuring thump came from inside me. There would always be a new generation of Magi.
“So, can we discuss what happened to you?”
Dusk found me again at the derelict church, accompanied this time by the priest. His name was Zachary Taylor, “like the president”; he was dressed tonight in full liturgical garb: white robe, purple stole, rosary in one hand and a censer in the other.
“So you're saying we have to re-sanctify the church?”
I shook my head. “Not sanctify. Only the presence of believers provides sanctity. We're just here to purify it.” And hopefully to draw out the critter that had been holding Yolanda captive. But I was trying to downplay that part. Rev. Taylor was already going out on a limb for me. I didn't want to test him any further than I just had to. The presence of a holy man would be protective, and hopefully make my life a little easier.
We stopped before the hole where the doors had been. It was criss-crossed with yellow caution tape. The local police had wanted to board it over, but I'd pulled rank. I needed to get back in there, after all. Stein wasn't happy, but he had brought along five uniformed officers, plus two ambulances and what looked like a dozen EMTs.
Everybody was armed to the teeth but me and the priest. I just had my trusty G30, and it was holstered. The men across the street looked as if they'd raided the Tactical Response Unit's armory. In addition to their normal carry guns there were shotguns, flash-bang grenades, and what I was pretty sure was an RPG launcher. Even the EMTs had guns. And there was Donny. He was still wearing the suit from earlier, but he looked like he'd really enjoyed the end of the assault weapons ban. He had an AK-47 slung across his back, double bandoleers of fire potions, something black and nasty in one hand, and freaking Desert Eagle in a holster. He grinned at me, bouncing up onto the balls of his feet. It'd been a while since he got to have this much fun, I guessed.
There were also two fire trucks, beau coup roadblocks, and klieg lights for when it hit full dark. Did I mention we were set up in the street in front of the courthouse? I had maybe half an hour before the media descended on this. Thankfully, Del Rio was too small to have any local affiliates.
I turned to Rev. Taylor and pulled a cross out of my pocket. It was woven of rosemary that grew in the yard of his church. Donny had made it for me earlier in the day, and on the drive over I had imbued it with protective power. I pinned the cross on his robe, and pushed a little power into it to activate it. A quick check in Magesight showed it was working—a thick band of what appeared to be thorns hugged his aura tight. I called a ball of fire to my right hand and reached to take down the caution tape with my left. And that's when the shit went rodeo.
When I had asked Yolanda what happened to her, this is what she said:
“Do you know the story of La Llorona?”
“There are a few different ones. The story I heard, she was a mestizo girl who drowned her children accidentally while trying to hide them from Spanish soldiers.”
“Most versions aren't so complimentary toward her. The one mi abuela told, she was a poor Mexican girl who had an affair with a rich Spaniard, and she drowned her children to spite him when he married another woman.”
“And now she wails because of the loss of her children.”
“I was driving around some Friday night before going home. I do that some. It helps me think. I was driving by the church and I heard a scream, and then a sob.”
“So you went to check.”
“Por supuesto. I parked behind the church and got out and followed the sound. All I heard was crying. I went around to the other side and I saw this...thing. I thought it was a ghost to begin with. It—she was white, no eyes, a hole for a mouth. But then she screamed at me, and I couldn't move. That's the last I remember.”
When the good father and I stepped across the church's threshold, the curtain came down. I heard shouts from across the road, followed by the report of weapons being fired. I spun around to see what had happened, but it was as if a bank of fog had risen up, blocking our view of the men outside and theirs of us. I pressed my hand against it and met resistance. Almost immediately, my palm started to burn as if I'd stuck it against a block of dry ice.
I snatched my hand back and shook it. It was numb. Thank God I'd reached out with my right hand and not my left. I probably could have blasted through it, but I had other things to worry about right then. Rev. Taylor yelped, and when I turned around again, there was a black-clad figure holding him by the throat.
Okay, that was unexpected. I threw my fireball—and my light source—by instinct. It hit the figure, which screamed and dropped the priest. I called another fireball, this time giving it a twist, and flung it up toward the roof. It would hang there and give us light.
The figure turned toward me, ignoring Rev. Taylor, who had dropped to his knees and started praying the Rosary. Smart man. The black-clad thing was probably a zombie, given that it was still moving after the fireball, and with some purpose. I drew my pistol and shot it in the head. As Sean Connery once said, once your head comes away from your neck, it's all over. Three bullets, and the head was gone and from the smell it had indeed been a zombie. Rev. Taylor probably wouldn't talk to me after this. His eyes were closed now, and he was praying louder.
I looked around, but didn't see anymore zombies. Weird. Where there was one, there were usually twenty. The sounds of a fight kept up outside. Maybe that's where the rest were. Whatever. I had a job to do, and no time to figure it out. They had enough firepower anyway. I knelt down by Rev. Taylor. “Stay here. Don't stop, no matter what.” He nodded, and I levered myself back up. To have had this case seven months ago.
I had a bottle of holy water in my pocket and I pulled it out now with my still-numb right hand, keeping my gun in my left. I fumbled the cap off—the priest had blessed some Evian, of all things. I walked slowly up what had been the center aisle, dribbling water as I went. Pews I detoured around, everything else I stepped over. I wondered why this church had been abandoned with so much in it. Not just the pews and Bibles and hymnals, but liturgical banners, acolytes' crosses, even a church flag.
I prayed as I went, the Lord's Prayer, then the Nicene Creed, then just whatever I remembered from the liturgy. I went out of order—there's a reason Satanists perform Mass backwards, even if they don't understand it. My prayers, and Rev. Taylor's, and the holy water, started to braid together and draw down magic.
Religious faith is a powerful thing. If you believe that everything comes from God, so too must magic. Prayers which are supplication make magic available to worshipers, something Wiccans seem to understand, and some gnostics. I was one of the most powerful Magi even weakened by pregnancy, but the power we were calling down here was exponentially greater, and there were only two of us. I couldn't use it for my own ends, but I could guide it.
I didn't make it to the altar. I didn't expect to. The banshee—La Llorona—burst up from behind the altar before I even cleared the final row of pews. I threw the holy water, almost shouting the last words of my prayer--”Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” The bottle hit her on the hosanna, and went right through, as if she was actually the ghost she seemed. It hit the altar and broke, splashing purifying water everywhere.
Three things happened almost at once: The banshee screamed, the priest said “Amen,” and the level of ambient power in the room doubled. The last two were the only things that saved me from the first, but the sonic shock of it still sent me to my knees. I was paralyzed for a split second. The banshee reached out toward me. Toward my baby. I felt something wet between my legs, and screamed back at the banshee. Strong emotions increase your ability to hold power. I called all the power I could hold and sent it formless toward the banshee.
Whenever I sent out power without direction, it takes the form of the element I am most in tune with. A giant wall of flame, fully as tall as the interior of the church, whooshed over the banshee, shredding her into nothingness. It wouldn't have worked, but I am a necromancer, and I have power over things from the underworld.
The second the evil spirit departed from this reality, the power in the church changed again, with a tone as pure as a rung bell. Then I realized the bell really was ringing, as joyously as at a wedding. Then I realized the church was burning. I started scrambling backwards on my hands and knees, desperate to get out. Exhausted by the expenditure of power, I fell onto my side. The last thing I knew, Rev. Taylor was there beside me, lifting me up and screaming for an EMT.
I awoke untold hours later, in a hospital bed. Matthew, my twin, was by my side. A sooty stubble decorated his face, his eyes were bloodshot, and his longish hair looked like it hadn't been brushed in a week.
“What-?” I pressed a hand to my stomach. It was flat. I thought back to the pain, to the liquid I'd felt. “My God.” I struggled to sit up. “My baby!”
Matt smiled. It was thin, but sincere. “She's okay.”
I sank back down, fumbled for the button that would raise the head of my bed. “She? What happened?”
“Placental abruption. Emergency c-section. You were both transported back here; closest place with an NICU.”
“How long have I been out?”
“A little under twenty hours, from what I understand. You were semi-conscious when the reverend carried you out of the church, and you've been slipping in and out of it ever since.”
“Oh. How is Donny?”
“OK. They got jumped by zombies. They were just starting to lose ground when they all dropped.”
“Good. Can I see my daughter?” I smoothed my hand over my stomach, where my baby had resided only thirty weeks. Not long enough. My heart ached. My breasts ached. I needed to see her, to assure myself she was okay. I jabbed the call button. “I need to see my baby.”
It took too damned long to get to her. The nurse came right away, but I had to suffer through my vitals being checked, and then prove I could move my legs and sit up without passing out, and only then was I allowed to stand.
“Your entire family is here,” the nurse told me with a gentle smile as we waited for a wheelchair to be brought in. I could stand, but walking more than a few steps was going to be out of the question for a while. “Quite a sight to see.”
I glared at her. My magic, back full force now that I wasn't carrying another human in my body, flared up and threatened to spill over. I reined it back with some effort. Even a wastebasket fire would slow me down too much. “Not all of them. My husband is in Iraq. So are two of my brothers.”
The nurse—a light-complected black woman—paled a little. “I'm sorry. I thought that was everyone.”
A knock at the door, and someone else in scrubs brought in the wheelchair. “Can we go now. I need to see my daughter.”
We passed through the waiting room on our way to the elevators that would take me up one floor to the NICU. I wanted to see my mom, if only for a minute. I was surprised she'd let Matt be the one to sit with me, but twin trumps mom. She hopped up when she saw me, and gave the stink-eye to my brother until he relinquished the wheelchair to her. “Mamá.” She laid her hand on my hair, briefly.
“Mi ijita. Eres una madre también.” My daughter. You're a mother too. I nodded, crying openly now.
“Let's go,” I said to the nurse.
The nurse talked to me while we walked to the NICU. I didn't shut her up because it was information that I needed. My daughter weighed 3lb 2oz, great for a 30-weeker. She was, amazingly, breathing pretty well on her own, and was getting supplemental oxygen through a nasal cannula. I would find her in a warming bed, under bilirubin lights because she was jaundiced. A cousin—which probably meant one of the Poteet weres—had donated some breast-milk, which they'd tube fed her. She had tolerated it well.
Just inside the NICU, I was handed off to a different nurse. The woman—older, Anglo, with short hair—supported me in my shuffle toward a curtained alcove. This, I was told, was for my privacy, but I suspected they weren't certain exactly what to do with a Mage-born child. They had not given me any blood because they weren't sure I would be a match. They didn't seem to realize we were both fully human.
I didn't care, though. I just wanted my baby.
Inside the curtain, I got my first look at my daughter. She was asleep on her tummy, legs drawn up underneath her, head turned to face me. The bili lights weren't on at the moment, so there was nothing covering her eyes. On top of a small crocheted blanket, she looked tiny, her diaper too large for her. Only a few wisps of blonde hair peeked out from under a little pink cap, also crocheted, and she lacked the chubby smushiness I was used to from my brothers' babies. Even tiny, yellowed, and asleep, though, she looked like Carl. I stopped beside her bed, staring at her hungrily. She opened her eyes and stared back, and I felt that little electric tingle that let me know I was looking at another mage. I reached into her bed and gently touched her cheek with one finger. “Can I--” My voice broke. “Can I hold her?”
The nurse nodded, and guided me to a glider. Within minutes I was cuddling my daughter against my bare chest, her tiny little head tucked under my chin and the blanket over both of us. I felt tears slip down my face again, but this time they were tears of relief. She was okay. We were both okay. I was never going back to Del Rio. Not even if the chupacabra killed every goat in Val Verde County. They'd just have to deal with it.
I didn't realize I'd said this out loud until the nurse snickered. I blushed, and she spoke quickly to cover it up. “Does she have a name yet?”
I opened my mouth. Closed it, and thought. “Hosanna,” I said finally. “Her name is Hosanna.”