Rosy had made many wishes when Leon was a child, whispered many prayers as she watched him grow. As a journalist in the Dirty War, she had known he had many troubles coming. So she wished and prayed, hoping the world would have more kindness for him than it had for her.
Her last one was answered. It had been a muttered prayer after she’d been shot in her garden one balmy evening, the consequence of her story exposing a politician abusing sex workers.
“Dear God, please don’t let my son die by violence,” she had whispered, hands covering the holes in her abdomen. She staggered towards the house: fear spiked her blood. They had gone in after Leon’s screams. He was only six. She heard shots ring out, but Leon came running. He had held her, screaming for help, and she shushed his worry. She could accept her death as long as he was safe.
While Rosy had prayed to her own God, that deity had taken a stance of inaction after the murder of his son by man and was not about to start intervening. An odd angel might intercede, but no miracles were coming for Leon. A miracle was not what he had received however: it was a blessing.
His grandmother discovered it after a drive-by.
Leticia had been in the borough a long time, she was used to the sounds of the guns at night, but she knew they could scare Leon. He slept under a soft blanket in the summer heat and that was poor comfort for a frightened boy.
She stopped in the door of his room, startled by a silhouette beside his bed. Tall and lithe, wrapped in a long, red dress, the woman was looking at Leon. She would be pretty, Leticia supposed, but the pretty ones got in trouble too.
“If you are hiding from the police, I won’t call them,” Leticia said, raising herself to her full height. “But I must ask you to leave. I don’t want his sleep disturbed.”
“That will not happen, Leticia Nunez,” came the response, a reedy voice that scraped along the goose bumps it raised.
“How do you know my name?”
“You know me, Leticia,” she replied, glancing over her shoulder. Her face was smooth yellowed bone, the smiling jaw hanging loose. Leticia crossed herself, fear coating her chest.
“I would beg you to take me. I knew he shouldn’t have lived that night, that those men who shot my girl would have him too. If there's blood to be paid, please take mine. He is so young, his mother was so young too. I've lived well. I would walk into the next world with you.” Leticia knew she was committing a sin in offering her life, for was it not suicide? But she couldn’t lose her grandson. Rosy’s death had shaken her heart from her chest and left a throbbing wound. She would not survive Leon being ripped from her too.
“You do not need to beg,” the voice dismissed, turning away. “He is mine and he will not to be taken until his time. I am not here to take him from you.” The jaw didn’t move.
“Why are you here, Lady?” Leticia whimpered, tears of relief brimming over.
“He is marked as mine. His mother’s blood paid for him. Violence will not kill him, though luck or illness can. He can be injured, he can be hurt, but he will not die. When it is his time, I will come, and he will serve me in watching the dead and observing their festivals.”
“Mictecacihuatl,” Leticia gasped. “The Pale Lady watches my boy?”
“It is nice to hear the old names,” the woman’s sigh was close to a laugh. “Until his time here is fulfilled, I will ensure his safety. I grant many favours, Leticia, and I demand many things from those I favour. I will demand much from you. Teach him my worship, keep a shrine for me. Show me how well he does and I will bring good fortune. I will not rescind my gift, but bad luck always stalks around. Give me reason to keep it from your door.”
“Yes, Lady,” Leticia nodded, clutching her rosary and squeezing her eyes closed against tears still burning there.
“I will never be cruel, Leticia,” the Pale Lady promised, stroking a bony hand over Leon’s brow. “Gods have time to see things grow, and I would see mine do well.”
Leticia nodded, unable to say anything past the lump in her throat.
When she looked again, the Pale Lady was gone and Leon slept on, blanket tangled around his thin legs. She crossed herself and moved to her kitchen, looking for space. She cried as she cleared beside the stove, a good spot for worship. She set a picture of Rosy alongside it and noted shops she could go to buy an effigy. She would take Leon with her. Death was not to be feared, but Leon would have to be braver than most. Her priest was going to think her mad.
Whether or not his grandmother was mad was not something Leon would tolerate being discussed. He didn’t care if she was. He had grown up in her house, received her care since his mother was stolen from him, and he would defend her honour and her home as long as he had the chance.
He was currently exercising such a chance, staring down two junkies trying to break in. One carried a crowbar and the other simply glowered, fingers twitching at his sides.
“You’re not welcome here.” Leon sighed, tapping his bat against the doorjamb.
“No one will help you stop us.” Twitchy smirked.
“I don’t need help. Don’t you idiots know this house?”
“Those rumours don’t mean shit, that’s just your crazy grandma spooking people,” spat Crowbar.
“I wouldn’t insult the lady; she tells the truth.”
“Shut up and let us in, kid.”
“Oh, you can come in.” Leon laughed back at Twitchy, sharp and bright. “If you can get past me.” He rolled up his sleeves, folding the cuffs as he watched them.
“You’re about twelve, you think you’ll stop us?” Crowbar laughed, pushing Twitchy forward.
“I’m nineteen, fucktard, and why don’t you come try?” Leon held his arms up, welcoming the attack. He wasn’t disappointed. Twitchy pulled a blade and made to stab him. Leon leaned in, smirking when the knife slid home. It stung, of course, but it wouldn’t last. He smiled wide at Twitchy, swinging his bat up one-handed.
“Want to try that again, friend, or will you find some other house?” Leon asked. The knife was pulled back and thrust again, a vicious jab Leon suspected was meant to sever something important.
“Your friend seems to have gone mute,” Leon called to Crowbar, tapping his bat on Twitchy’s head. He could smell the sharp tang of his fear and sneered, “I’d take him away before I’m forced to defend myself.”
“Antonio, what’s going on?” muttered Crowbar.
“He’s a little shocked his trick didn’t work is all. Move him, or I will.”
“You won’t do shit,” mumbled Twitchy, yanking the knife again. Leon tsked, gripping the bat in both hands and swinging up, cracking Twitchy in the jaw. The man’s head snapped back and he staggered, blood pouring down his chin.
“You little shit, you think you can do that? We’re part of Francisco’s crew, you’ll be in the river before night,” shouted Crowbar, yanking Twitchy away.
“Let me know how that goes for you.” Leon shrugged, resting the bat on his shoulder. “And don’t come bothering my grandmother’s house again.”
He slipped out of his shirt, tossing it onto the sofa. His vest was ruined. He sought the shrine in the kitchen, kissing the picture of Rosy and whispering a prayer to his benefactor. His grandmother had never lied to Leon about her. She had, however, told him not to tell people why they prayed to Santa Muerte and simply remind them all houses need luck.
Leticia had been shunned at church, the thundering minister disavowing her one Sunday morning. Leon never forgot how she had stood, taken his hand, and walked out. She had kept her pride. She still prayed, Leon heard her at night, whispering petitions to her god and kissing her rosary. Leon didn’t hold much truck with that, but he knew it comforted her.
He washed the blood off, running his fingers over the smooth richness of new scars. Another for his collection: a life of risky behavior mapped.
The door opened behind him and he yelped, charging towards it. He was greeted by his grandmother’s huffing face, her basket overfull as always. He laughed, tugging it from her and pecking her cheek.
“You should have taken me,” he chided, ushering her towards her chair and bringing a cup of cool red tea.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” she shushed, sipping gratefully. “Though I did spy a nice boy. He’s on Miguel’s stall.”
“You can’t be matchmaking for me when I’m already claimed, Grandmother.” Leon rolled his eyes at her.
“You aren’t claimed yet, you may as well enjoy yourself. Since you insist on rushing towards the Pale Lady, I may as well get to see you enjoy yourself too.”
Leon smiled, plucking his own tea from the fridge and sitting across from her. “It seems bad luck to invite someone else.”
“Your mother would not want the life she bargained for to be a lonely one,” Leticia said, sipping again.
“I don’t know what sort of life she expected but the college didn’t agree with her vision.”
“They were scared: it is not the same. They lost many. They still remember the four hundred dead at Tlatelolco. And your mother.”
“They shouldn't be cowards while espousing the virtues of learning,” Leon muttered, chewing the inside of his cheek.
“Not everyone is as brave as you, little lion,” Leticia smiled, eyeing his slumped shoulders. “And not everyone could survive what you have, blessing or no. Have you been fighting again?”
“Two of Francisco's tried to break in.”
“They must be new. Francisco's better than that.” She frowned, peeling an orange and handing him a segment.
“I don’t think any of them are good, Grandmother.”
“None of his would have killed your mother,” she said pointedly.
He chewed thoughtfully on the fruit, running his tongue over the flesh. “It’s not exactly a high standard.”
“But it is the one we have for now.”
“You’re right, for now it is.” He nodded.
“Do you want to come to the market tomorrow? Miguel asks after you. And I could introduce his new boy.”
“Why is this boy so nice?” Leon asked with an indulgent smirk.
“He’s a fine boy. Foreign, I think, he’s a bit pale, but tall and polite and a lovely smile.” Her eyes twinkled. “He looks strong. A little skinny, but I would fix that for you.” She winked and Leon snorted into his tea.
He listened to her gossip from the market, smiling at her stories. He was lulled close to dozing by the time she finished; the familiarity of her voice mixing with the morning’s heat.
He stood, stretching before kissing her on the head as he tugged his shirt back on.
“What trouble are you off to now?” she asked, following him into the kitchen.
“Just to work,” he said, kissing the photo of Rosy. “You want me to pick anything up?”
“No, I brought back half the market, we’ll be fine.”
He loped out of the house, buttoning his shirt as he went. The bar wasn’t open for a few hours but he liked to be in when the delivery arrived. He wasn’t officially on the payroll, but Naima, the boss, liked having him around.
The truck was pulling up as he arrived, the chubby driver, Jorge, scrambling out of the cab. Leon nodded to him, kicking at the dust coating the tires.
“Naima about?” he asked, wiping sweat off with a much-abused handkerchief.
“I’ll check,” Leon said, walking through the back and calling out.
“What do you want?” she shouted.
“Jorge wants to see you for the order,” he yelled back, wedging the door open.
“Always some other thing,” she muttered as she came, wiping ink off her hands. They moved to her dark hair, twisting it into a bun. “What is it?” she barked at the driver.
“We had to switch out the anejo, because of the festivals. You have extra vodka instead.”
“Is that all? No one cares.” She ran a critical eye over the dispatch sheet, then scribbled a signature. The pen went into her bun and she clipped back into her office.
“You cared enough to order it,” Jorge muttered, helping Leon unload.
“She’s busy. It’ll be a better day tomorrow.” Leon shrugged. He was grateful for his lack of vest, he was already sweating.
“If you say so.” The driver sighed, waving his cap for some breeze. “You and her a thing?”
“No!” Leon laughed, shaking his head.
“What does she keep you around for then?” Jorge asked, eyeing him.
“You’re tiny. Strong looking,” Jorge added hastily, seeing Leon’s glare. “But tiny.”
“I’m good at what I do, short guys have better reach. I can get in and have your kidneys for pie before you’ve even hit me.” Leon laughed, swiping the cap from pudgy fingers and planting it firmly on Jorge’s head.
“Point taken.” Jorge grumbled, shutting the back and climbing into his cab.
“Safe trip back,” Leon called after the truck. He trotted back in, a crate under one arm.
“You need anything or want me out of the way?” he called to Naima.
“Out of the way, I need room to do my work.”
“All right, I’ll finish off the delivery. Where’s Alicia?”
“Doctor’s visit, she’ll be in just before opening.”
“Want me to do the tables then?”
“If it will keep you out of my way, yes.”
“All right, boss,” he said, ducking out.
The morning went quick with the work, the bar stocked and spotless before the chef rolled in.
“How goes the day, David?” Leon called, leaning at the galley window.
“Terrible, some jackasses broke into my daughter’s flat!”
“Sorry for your troubles.”
“They didn’t even manage to take anything, just busted in her window, then scarpered.”
“At least it’s just the cost of the window then?” Leon asked.
“I suppose so. It’s poor, though, the police aren’t bothered.”
“They never do when they’re getting paid to look the other way,” Leon agreed, and the chef clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Sorry, Leon, I should never have said that.”
“It’s fine, it’s true. Alicia and Elizabeth should be here shortly, the delivery is in the storeroom.”
“That’s great, thank you. How is the queen?”
“Needs peace to do the books. She’ll be sunshine once they’re done.”
“I’ll make her favourite as the special then, sweeten her up.”
“Good plan.” Leon winked, ducking away from the window and wiping the bar down again.
Leon opened the shutters and took his spot at the bar, flicking through his dog-eared copy of Fahrenheit 541. He had read a lot, and loved many, but Bradbury created a world he could feel. He was here for a few reasons, to keep the peace and to help out behind the bar when things got busy, but he got to read during the quiet times.
“What has that frown on your face, young one?” Elizabeth asked, leaning against the bar. Her plump chest sat on the wood and Leon studiously looked away. She knew his leanings and delighted in being inappropriate.
“Just thinking about things,” Leon said, sipping his lemonade.
“Heavy things if your brows are anything to go by.”
“I need to speak to Francisco.”
“Why would you go riling that old dog?”
“Two of his pups tried breaking into the house.”
“Silly boys,” Elizabeth sighed. “You caught them?”
“Got one of them in the chin with my old baseball bat.” Leon smirked, winking at her cackling laughter.
“That’s our Leon, always looking after us.” She grinned, ruffling his hair.
He rolled his eyes and combed it back to his preferred neatness. “Less of that, I can’t defend you if I look like a scruffy thug.”
“I’ll leave you be. Can you help out with the food today? Alicia is slow and we don’t want grumbling customers.”
“Hurt her ankle again?”
“Not that, no.” Elizabeth leaned in, beckoning him. “She’s in a woman’s way, but she isn’t telling anyone yet. Rafael can’t get the priest to marry them until next month and they don’t want people to know until after.”
Leon nodded, glancing over at Alicia. He imagined the ghost of a bump under her apron and smiled. She returned it in a bright flash. He went back to his book, eyeing the tables.
They were recovering from the lunchtime rush when the stranger arrived. He sat at the bar, a few seats from Leon, and ordered a rare steak with strong beer. His accent was off, almost local but rough round the edges, snagging Leon’s ears. His skin wasn’t white but he was certainly paler than anyone else.
“You work at Miguel’s stall?” Leon asked, glancing up to meet his eyes. They were the rich amber of a cat’s.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“My grandmother met you this morning. Stocky lady, streaks in the front of her hair.”
“Leticia! She was charming. Miguel mentioned she had a grandson, but he spoke like you were a child.”
“He remembers when I was, I’ve lived with Grandmother a while.” Leon shrugged.
“I’m Michael,” the stranger grinned, holding a hand out.
“Leon.” He took the hand, shaking it firmly. It was cool from his beer.
“So why are you lurking in a bar on a lazy afternoon, Leon?” Michael asked, slicing into his steak. Blood ran onto his plate, settling around the crescents of green beans.
“I’m the help. I keep out ruffians and cover the occasional table.”
“And how do I get you to cover mine?” Michael asked with a flick of his eyes to the stool beside him. His hair rustled in its low pony tail, catching the lights of the bar.
“You’re already next to me, is that not covered?” Leon laughed, tapping his fingers along his book.
“Maybe I feel the need for extra protection? I’m new here, I need someone to show me the town.”
“I’m more well known for the bad side, aren’t I, Elizabeth?” Leon asked, laughing at her blush.
“He’s a lovely young man who has a habit of getting into fights,” the older woman commented, busying herself with taking the empty bottles out.
“Fights?” Michael asked, watching Leon.
“I have a low tolerance for violence. I tend to stop it.”
“By getting involved?” Michael chuckled, those amber eyes flicking over Leon’s chest. Leon saw why his grandmother said skinny. The man was thin but his shirt stretched nicely at the shoulders and his arms ran in smooth curves under the sleeves.
“Ending a fight is important.” Leon shrugged, his face heating. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” Michael replied with a scandalised laugh, “Why, do I seem old?”
“No, I just wondered why you were working with Miguel.”
“That’s just for money. I’m traveling. I get to a place and then earn enough for moving on. Working a stall lets me see the borough while still having some free time. Speaking of which, when do you get off?”
“I finish at six.”
“Take me sightseeing.”
Leon coughed his sip of lemonade back into the glass, eyeing the man over the rim.
“I can’t tonight,” he said after he recovered. “But I wouldn’t mind another night.”
“Touring some other starry-eyed young thing round the town?” Michael asked with a tilt of his chin.
“No, I have to sort out something for my grandmother.”
“Want a hand?”
“You don’t even know what it is,” laughed Leon.
“So long as it’s not skinning dogs, I’m certain I’ll be able to assist.”
“I would need you to sit in a bar.”
“Oh no, a bar! How will I cope?”
“It might take a while,” Leon continued, rolling his eyes.
A sound caught his attention: the clean crunch of glass breaking. He looked up, seeing a stricken-looking Alicia at a table with two men. Leon could see she was near tears and hopped off his seat. “Save that thought,” he told Michael, brushing his shoulder as he passed.
“You stupid cow, now look what you’ve done,” shouted an unfortunately familiar voice.
“I didn’t touch the jug, sir, he was pouring it,” Alicia said. Leon could hear the tremor in her voice and slipped next to her.
“Do we have a problem, gentlemen?” he asked with a tight smile.
“What are you doing here?” spat Twitchy. A wonderful bruise was blooming purple along his jaw.
“I work here. What happened, Alicia?”
“They wouldn’t let me pour their water, the short one grabbed it off me,” she whispered, sniffling.
“You go get a fresh jug, eh?” Leon suggested kindly, steering her away and glaring at them over his shoulder.
“I want my meal free, she got water all over me,” Crowbar near shouted.
“You keep the noise up and I’ll have you out the door. I already dealt with you once today.”
“What you gonna do?” Twitchy sneered.
“I’ll go home and get my bat.”
“Let’s leave, Antonio,” Crowbar said, jostling Twitchy out of his seat. “You wouldn’t want food that’s been near that freak anyway.”
“Such assholes,” muttered Leon, returning to his perch as they traipsed out.
“Troublemakers?” Michael asked.
“Just some druggies not on their leash yet.”
“Addicts can be assholes,” Michael nodded, sipping his beer.
“They’ll be better once their boss has them trained.”
“And until then?”
“We keep an eye on them. They misbehave then…” He punched a first into his palm and smirked at Michael.
“Direct action, I like it,” laughed Michael, amber eyes sparkling. Leon hadn’t seen eyes like them before. He wanted to see them more.
They passed the remaining hour in comfortable chatter and Leon was happy to clock out.
“Don’t they need someone for the evening?” Michael asked as they meandered towards Leon’s house.
“I have my grandmother to worry over, so I just do the day.”
“You love her a lot.”
“She took me in when I was six, raised me up. It was risky, I could have been targeted for a contract, but she did.”
“It’s fine, same old story. She was a journalist, pissed off the wrong politician, got shot. One of many, it’s just what they did back then”
“The Dirty War was brutal,” Michael hummed.
“But Grandmother took me in anyway. She had to sacrifice a lot for me, so I look after her.”
“A grandson most could only dream of.”
“Most of my family aren’t around, but that’s because of work. They all moved for different jobs. Event organisers. Lots of following the crowds for festivals.”
“Sounds exciting.” Leon smiled, letting his hand brush against Michael’s. Michael gripped Leon’s little finger in his own, giving a short squeeze. “I bet they’re busy with the new year coming, big parties for the new millennium.”
“They just adore it: the crowds, the drinks, the energy. It’s in the blood.”
They reached Leon’s house and his stomach dropped. The door was open: no lights. His heart hammered as he bolted forward, pushing through the door and shouting for his grandmother.
He stopped as he reached the kitchen, a howl ripping out of him. The smell of the blood was heavy, cloying in his throat and strangling off his cry. She was on the floor, face down, one armed stretched out towards their shrine. There was an ugly gash down her neck and blood pooled around her head in a dark halo. No breath disturbed it.
Rough hands were pulling his shoulders, manhandling him away from her.
“Don’t look,” hissed a voice in his ear, tugging him close and backing out of the room. He was dumped into a chair and immediately made to get up again, receiving a rough shove to the shoulders. “Don’t look!” Michael repeated, pinning him down with his weight.
“I need the shrine,” Leon choked out.
“You need to call the police,” Michael countered.
“They won’t do anything, the boss pays them off.” He was too hot, the living room too small for both of them and his rage too.
“I need to go to the shrine. And I need to cover her. Get that blanket.” Leon pointed numbly to his grandmother’s chair. Blood was loud in his ears, rushing through him like a river. Michael grabbed the wool cover and passed it to Leon’s hands, standing in the doorway.
“I can do it, if you’d prefer.”
“No,” Leon said, pushing past him and swallowing against the smell. He gently rolled her over, putting her hands on her chest and her rosary on top of them. He closed her eyes, draping the colourful blanket over her and kissing her forehead. She was cold.
He moved to the shrine, kissing the photo of Rosy, then focusing on the grinning skull icon. He stared hard, tugging on his connection.
“Why do you call to me?” He heard her behind him, a voice of dead leaves and dust creeping over his scalp.
“My grandmother is dead, murdered.”
“We are protected from violence,” Leon cried, his voice cracking as he glanced to the body.
“You are protected,” the voice replied. Leon turned and saw a tall woman with the face of a skull and robes red as his grandmother’s blood. He looked away again, his sobs shaking his chest. “She has my favour, and I will take her over the river to the next world, but your mother’s prayer was only for you.”
“Does my protection still stand?”
“Yes, it will until it is your time.” The voice made underneath Leon’s skin seethe: he wanted to scratch until blood poured down his arms.
“Then I ask for your kindness in taking her over.”
“She already has that. She served me well with you.”
“She didn’t believe in you. She still prayed to Him.”
“She did,” the skull agreed. “But many people pray to more than one of us.”
“Can you tell me who did it?”
“Why do you ask me a question you already know the answer to?” the voice was a droll whisper, the itch under Leon’s skin near unbearable.
“For confirmation, Lady. Never to waste your time.”
“It was the two you interrupted.”
“Thank you,” Leon said, kneeling before her.
She was gone in a rustle of dead things and Leon saw Michael leaning against the door.
“When Miguel said you were touched by death, I thought he meant you were unlucky,” he said, his brows high.
“It’s been argued I’m both.”
“Are you going to call the police?”
“No. I’m going to have my meeting.”
The place Francisco ran was a pretentious thing, mood lighting and knock-off art to mask the mob rooms in the back. Leon stalked through the gloom towards the stools, nodding to the bartender.
“Julio, can you look after my friend?” Leon called, clapping Michael’s shoulder.
“Of course,” Julio replied, a smile ruffling his tufted moustache. The bar was busy and Michael should be safe.
“I’ll be back shortly, have your beer.”
Michael nodded, slipping into a stool and chatting to Julio. Leon didn’t know why the foreigner was still here but it helped focus his mind. His coat billowed out as he jogged up the stairs, blood pulsing at his temples. He barged through the door.
“Leon, an unexpected pleasure,” Francisco smiled. He didn’t move from behind his desk. He was a toad of a man: thin hair slicked back and gold glittering at his throat. His suit, valiantly stretched over his stomach, was shiny under the electric lights. Two guards flanked his desk, eyeing Leon.
“If I’m unexpected, then your crew is getting slack on you, Francisco.” Leon’s gaze flicked to the men.
“Truthfully, they aren’t. I did hear two new ones tried to break into your house. I’ve explained our understanding.”
“One of them stabbed me,” Leon barked, yanking his shirt to show the new scars. “And when they knew I was at work, they went back to the house and killed my grandmother.” The smell of smoke and leather was grating in his nose, the hot lights burning his puffy eyes.
“No one in my crew would hurt Leticia, she’s off-limits.”
“No one else would be stupid enough. I know it was them.”
“You saw it?” Francisco challenged.
“I asked those who did.”
“I’ll deal with them.” The older man shrugged.
“Not good enough.”
“Leon, I cannot be seen to be handing men over, that’s preposterous,” Francisco laughed.
“Give me them or I will take them. You know I can.”
“I know you have been very lucky despite interfering with my business,” Francisco replied, leaning over his desk. “Luck can run out.”
“Do you want to have one of your statues test how lucky I am?” Leon asked, slipping his bat free. “Feel like paying someone to get blood out of that suit?”
“We can take him,” the left-hand goon muttered, hand slipping into his jacket.
Leon smirked, blowing him a kiss. “Try it.”
“Fine, get rid of him.” Francisco sighed, nodding.
A pop sounded and Leon felt the bullet go into his chest, laughing through the burn of it. Pain was an amazing focal point. He took a deep breath and turned towards the man, gripping his bat. Leon leaned into the swing, the dull twang of metal confirming connection with the man’s skull. The man groaned and folded in half, onto his knees. Leon raised the bat high and brought it down sharp. A cracking rippled through the room and the body flattened.
“You next?” Leon panted to the other one. The bullet was still a bright heat in his lung and he knew he would have to cough it out.
“Don’t just gape, kill him!” Francisco shouted.
The goon lunged, a blade drawn. Leon swatted his arm away and grabbed on, twisting around his thick torso to avoid being crushed. A hand grabbed him, yanking his jacket and bringing the blade arcing into his stomach. Leon hissed air and brought his fist down on the man’s wrist, jarring the hand open. They scrabbled for it, but Leon got purchase, stabbing the man’s throat and ripping the blade forward. He spluttered against the stream of blood that poured on to his face, gagging and rolling out from under the weight of the gasping man.
“Where are they, Francisco?” he asked, palming the switchblade and standing. He shuddered at the kick of four bullets pounding into his chest, coughing up some of the blood he’d swallowed.
“What the fuck are you?”
“You know me.” Leon smiled, his teeth red and blood slick down the column of his throat. “You know why our house was left alone. Now you can keep wasting bullets on me, and watch me keep talking to you, or you can tell me where they are.”
Leon leaned over the desk, pressing his forehead into the shaking pistol Francisco held. “Which would you prefer?” he asked, eyeing the cartel leader along the barrel.
“They’re in the stockroom.”
“Thank you. If there are guards—”
“There won’t be.” Francisco spat, wiping his gun down and slipping it away. “I won’t throw more men at you, devil.”
“Good to know we understand each other,” Leon said, nodding. He scooped up his bat, leaving the office. He jogged down to the steps towards the store room, the switchblade nestled in his pocket.
He found Michael still at the bar, sipping something expensive.
“Julio thought I might need something stronger than beer,” Michael supplied to Leon’s raised brow.
“Surely the decor isn’t that bad,” Leon scoffed.
“He said you were getting killed and this was to lessen the shock.”
“Polite of him, we must tip.” Leon glanced to Julio and flashed his stained smile. The smell of the alcohol was starting to give him a headache, though that could also have been the adrenaline.
“You have blood on you.” Michael ran a finger along his neck, just below the collar line.
“I’ll fix it back home.”
“You’re going back there?”
“I need to call the police about Grandmother.”
“Now you want them?”
“They’ll do their part,” Leon shrugged. “The rest is dealt with.” He began to cough, spitting into a discarded glass. If Michael heard the clink of metal, he was polite enough not to mention it.
They walked back towards Leon’s home, silent in the warm evening.
“You think there will be retaliation?” Michael asked as they passed the threshold.
“I don’t think Francisco wants to lose more people yet. Maybe in a while.”
“Will you wait for it?”
“I don’t know,” Leon replied, huffing at the smell of blood still seeping through the house.
He stalled as he entered the living room, the Pale Lady sat neatly on his grandmother’s chair.
“You have been busy, Leon,” she said in her wheezing whisper.
“I have.” He nodded, glancing at Michael. He was watching the skeleton-faced woman. “I sought vengeance for Leticia.”
“She would not have approved of your methods.”
“It’s the only thing they understand,” he shot back, forcing the bristling out of his shoulders.
“Humans are always so sure of absolutes,” she breathed, the eyeless skull looking over him. “Gods know things are and aren’t, and reach everything between.”
“I don’t understand, Lady.”
“I am tired, Leon. I have a proposition.”
“I have undertaken this role for hundred years and my face has changed as my people did. I wish to rest, and I wish to live. For that, I must find someone to do as I did. I want you.”
Leon felt his world tilt sideways and it wasn’t until Michael’s hands were pulling him upright he realised he’d collapsed. His head rang with the breathy words. He felt the uncomfortable itch of another bullet coming up his throat.
“Why me?” he choked out, coughing around the metal leaving his body.
“You understand the price of death, and have dealt it. I do not kill, that is my husband’s role, but I help souls pass on. You have the kindness and the cruelty to do this.”
“And what about your husband? If I take your role, he will be without a wife.”
“Our kind are not really of your genders, Leon,” the woman laughed, chiding. “You make us these for your worship, but souls do not have such a thing. You would not, if you took up my mantle.”
“Could I leave?”
“As I have, yes.”
Leon hugged his knees to his chest. He thought of his grandmother and seeing her in the afterlife. His mother, her smile and gentle voice.
“All right,” he whispered. He stood and moved towards her. “Yes.”
“I am pleased,” she hissed, standing to embrace him, “Mictlantecuhtli has been so impressed with you.” Leon tensed, a chill moving through him.
“My husband, the Pale Man.”
“I thought I was only watched by you.”
“Only she watched you growing,” Michael said, stepping into the room and smiling at Leon. He had too many teeth, his hungry grin showing them crammed in close together, and he stroked along Leon’s arm with his cool hand. “But I do look forward to seeing what you become. And to continue our sightseeing.”
“You want me after those murders?” Leon croaked, crowded between the two beings.
“I wanted you after your decision for vengeance, though I appreciate humans tend to require a little more time.”
Leon nodded mutely, his heart hammering in his throat.
“Let me show you,” the Pale Lady said, taking his face in soft hands and bringing it to meet hers. He fell into the kiss, the rushing of his blood, and Michael’s hum of approval guiding him to the sound of a great river.