This is the second chapter after the Ice Monster! scene. If you haven't read that one yet, I'll leave it up a little while longer.
These scenes are a bit of lull, some character development, some establishing the baseline that gets disrupted, before all heck breaks loose very soon.
The first 25% of your novel or story should set up your main character and show them as they are, with all their flaws and all their virtues. It should show the relationships that they have in place and introduce many of the major characters.
If you haven't read Chapter One, an Ice Monster! scene, you can click here to read it now. It'll be posted for a few more weeks, but then it will go away.
If you sign up for email updates (over there on the right side bar), you'll get an update when I post Chapter Three: The Secret Police State.
Chapter Two: The Bat Cave
Back in the Bat Cave, after cleaning and securing her weapons, Angel poured herself a cup of decaf and, at her desk, pulled up the paperwork on her tablet computer. Use of lethal force paperwork would take the rest of the day. Wording her explanation of the gunman’s shotgun blast that was pointed in the general direction of the authority vehicles would require delicacy.
This paperwork was important to the internal affairs investigation, which would begin immediately. After all the statements were received, the police department would stage a reenactment to fill in details.
The grand jury investigation would start in a few days, too. After an officer-involved shooting, a grand jury always hears the evidence and decides if there’s a reason to investigate further. Angel would need to testify, but she doubted the grand jury would be a problem for her.
She would do it right, of course: confer with the department’s lawyer and union representative, practice phrasing her answers to best effect, and all that legal rot.
She sighed. Even after she saved an innocent life, she had to defend her actions. Fine. She could do that, too.
Angel would be on administrative leave all that time, an enforced vacation that she loathed. If all went well, she should be back in the office in a week. The department got more efficient every time she shot someone.
The use-of-force form filled her tablet’s screen: little boxes to check and lines for typing out the details. She started tapping boxes to indicate the standoff’s conditions: brutal sun and heat, mid-day, downtown Phoenix business district.
Some police hated the paperwork and bitched about it. Some did it so sloppily that it was illegible and unintelligible, even typed.
Angel’s paperwork was accurate and precise. She wrote complete paragraphs where warranted and bulleted lists where those were more clear. Her punctuation was impeccable. She did not fight rules; she used them to do her job perfectly.
Inside her desk drawer, her cell phone beeped. And beeped again. And again.
Texts from her extended family were piling up, and the beeping was getting more frantic with each text. She checked the phone.
There was two texts from her younger brother Lupan, but none from her youngest brother Wyatt. That was odd. Usually, Wyatt texted at least twice as much as Lupan.
She took out the phone, tapped open her mass-text app, and texted all twenty-eight of her family members who had texted her in the last hour, including both her brothers plus the family’s social media page, that she was fine, that no one in the department had been more than superficially wounded, that what they were seeing on the news was indeed the whole story, and thanks for their collective concern.
They were nosy and intrusive and smothering, and it was good to be back in Arizona with her people. Her cousin Tony was one of several cousins-of-some-degree in law enforcement.
Other relatives lived on the other side of the law.
Texts and missed calls from her team members were also arriving, as they realized she wasn’t in the van with them.
Holy shit, Day. Great shot. U ok? from Jack Jordan, her side two sniper who had wanted to take the shot.
Great shot. U ok? from Hunter Yarnell, her least capable sniper who had managed to get side four today, due to scheduling. He was pretty good, if the shot was under five hundred yards. Beyond that, his aim was more and more sketchy, and he got excited too easily.
She texted them back her thanks and assurances that she was all right.
With her holy duties of familial and team obligation accomplished, she dropped the phone into her purse and resumed the paperwork while she waited for her team to return from the scene.
The Bat Cave was the SWAT team’s combined weapon storeroom and office space. It was quiet now, and her breathing echoed the air conditioner’s whoosh. Depending on the legend, the room had either been named after Bat Cave Mine in northern Arizona, because the SAU always seemed to be deep in some kind of guano, or else for the Bat Cave at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, because when the the blad-clad operators thundered out the door to an assignment, they looked like the nightly exodus of 800,000 bats swirling out of the cave.
The special operations team of the Phoenix Police Department was actually called SAU, for Special Assignments Unit, but most people still called it SWAT. The storeroom/office had seemed cramped to Angel when she’d first been hired by the Phoenix PD, after the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, or CIRG, headquarters at Quantico. The Bat Cave was deep inside the department’s headquarters, windowless and yet stunningly bright from the neon tubes overhead. Guns packed the walls: rifles, pistols, machine guns, and shotguns. It looked like a bunker for the end of the world.
Near the door, the trophy case glittered gold, silver, and blue.
The center area was a warren of blue-upholstered cubicles.
After being with the Phoenix PD for two years, Angel thought the Bat Cave was cozy and personable, not faceless and authoritarian like federal offices. When the team was there, it was indeed reminiscent of a cave as the bats took flight at sunrise, circling and whirling as they gathered speed, calling to each other and throwing challenges, before they took to the wind.
As a the primary sniper and leader of the sniper team, Angel’s desk was near the center, within everyone’s shouting distance. The previous leader’s desk had been in an office down the hall, behind a closed door. She liked being in the middle, surrounded by her team, ready to run with them when they got a job.
Beyond the blue, padded cubicle walls, Angel heard the Bat Cave’s door open and crash closed.
“Angel of Death! You in here?” Mace Young’s voice was hoarse and loud as he called her though the cubicle maze.
She smiled because she had figured that Mace would find her first. Their teams were still en route in the personnel carriers. Angel had caught a ride back to the office on the ghetto bird. Mace had probably bent traffic laws getting back so fast. She called, “In here, Mace.”
Mace swung around her cubicle wall, riding a wheeled office chair. The secretaries called him ruggedly handsome, which meant that he should have had plastic surgery to fix his broken nose and sun-worn skin, and yet he was still good-looking despite the damage. He said, “Tony wants to talk to you, but he isn’t back yet. He’s still at the scene with the investigators.”
“Thanks.” Her cousin Tony wanted to discuss the hostage situation, which was not a surprise. Tony was such an extrovert that most of the time he didn’t know what he thought until his opinion came out his mouth.
“Nice shot,” Mace added.
She hid her smile. Now Mace was going to brag. He could not compliment without establishing his bone fides.
He said, “Of course, during Desert Storm, we made those kinds of head shots every day.”
“Do tell.” She kept tapping X’s into boxes on the use-of-force form on her tablet.
Mace’s rolling hand gesture indicated that his spiel was getting warmed up. “But we sniped in between laser-painting targets for air support strikes. We were prone in our hides for eighteen hours a day.”
“Right.” Angel stretched her right arm, the one that cramped up during long hours in a sniper hide, even with the tripod support on her rifle.
Mace’s eyes crinkled as he grinned because he knew that Angel knew that he was just talking. “Because we operators were in Bagdad weeks ahead of the regular forces’ invasion of Kuwait, living off the land. Now that was a war, Desert Storm. Quick in, hard fight, quick out. Because ‘what is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.’”
All of Mace’s stories ended with a quote by Sun Tzu or some other military philosopher, and so Angel knew it was time to change the subject. “Right. You going to let Freedom go out with that boy yet?”
“Now you wait a minute, there,” Mace said. Freedom was his seventeen-year-old, beautiful, blond daughter. “She isn’t old enough to date.”
“Sure she is. What were you doing at seventeen?” Angel knew that was a cheap shot, but their conversations often consisted of good-natured cheap shots. It relaxed them between jobs.
“And that’s exactly why she’s not allowed to date. Do you have any idea the stuff I was into at seventeen?” Mace became righteously petulant. “She should be glad I let her leave the house.”
“But Freedom is such a nice girl. She’s just like you.”
Mock terror bugged his eyes. “I should lock her in the attic.”
“You taught your daughters to rappel,” Angel said, still typing. “She’d escape the first night.”
“I could lay mines in the yard. That would cut down on those pesky neighborhood kids running after their basketballs, too.” This, with the air that it was a good idea.
Angel played the voice of reason to Mace’s overzealous father act. “Your three-year-old might get hurt in your urban minefield.”
“Troublesome little toddler. He cannot follow orders. Liberty wants to know if you’re all right after taking the shot.” Liberty was Mace’s wife and the staunch matriarch to his clan. Mace used his wife as an excuse for anything emotional.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Angel said.
“You’re sure about that. There are people you can talk to, you know. The union has resources in place for lethal force PTSD.”
Mace was sweet, worrying about her like that, even though he was being a little patronizing because he, with at least sixty kills on his conscience, would be crowing his own fortitude if he’d taken the shot. If Liberty had not instructed him to inquire after Angel’s mental health, Mace probably would have just punched Angel in the arm in solidarity. Mace and Liberty both vacillated between being Angel’s friends and trying to stand in for her parents, even though neither of them was old enough to be one of her parents.
Angel didn’t need parents, but Mace and Liberty were good friends to her.
“Mace, I’m fine,” she said. “That suspect was an evil bastard who desperately needed to be shot. His death was the best possible outcome of that situation. That fucker was going to blow that poor woman’s head off.”
Mace said, “Oh, my tender virgin ears,” and covered his assaulted ears.
Angel spouted her own philosophy. “There may or may not have been some formative event in that bastard’s childhood that opened up the bad road for him, but he went wrong all by himself. He had choices in his life. He wasn’t a kidnapped teenager in some African rebel camp who had to fight or die. That man chose be a human trafficker and hold those people for ransom. He chose to duct-tape a shotgun to a small, innocent stranger’s neck. He was all eager and aquiver, waiting to pull that trigger. I was stone cold when I took that shot, and I still am.” She didn’t have a philosopher’s quote to end her speech.
He laughed. “Been working on that long?”
“Every night as I fall into a deep, sweet sleep, knowing that now I only shoot evil bastards.”
Mace nodded, slowly. Angel knew he was thinking about his military years. He had only told the bad stories once, when his mother had passed away. Angel had stayed up with him all night in his living room, drinking lemonade and listening.
“Yeah,” Mace said. “I get that. But you haven’t taken down anyone for a while.”
Angel said, gently, “Just because I haven’t killed another human being for six months doesn’t mean I’m out of practice.”
“One hundred and eighty-three days,” she said. “A new professional record.”
“All right, then. It was a nice shot. That bass-hat dropped like spilled pudding. Oh, by the way,” and that meant that Mace was again coming to a major point in his conversation. “My missus is making chicken fried steak tonight. Shall I ask her to throw one in the deep fryer for you?”
Mrs. Liberty Young was an uncommonly good cook, and her comfort food dishes were exceedingly comforting. Angel suspected Liberty of changing her menu when she saw the shooting on the news, just to entice Angel with that crispy, creamy chicken fried steak so she could mother the poor sniper who had such a hard job.
Angel was fine, though. She should walk her dog and exercise. Shooting that target did not make this day any more important than any other day on the job.
Yet, they were talking about Liberty’s chicken fried steak. Her gravy was amazing, too. “I’d love to. What time?”
“I’ll text her. Probably six o’clock. And don’t forget about Tony. He should be back in an hour or so. If you hurry, you can duck him.”
“Right. I’ll leave in half an hour.” She could pick up her dog from her neighbor before going to Mace’s house. Karyoke loved herding the Young family’s small dogs and small children.
She went back to typing the use-of-force report on her tablet computer, cross-referencing the electronic records generated by everyone involved during the standoff, from the first-responding patrolmen, to Mace’s assault team who had been preparing to blast their way into the house before the obese criminal had made his theatrical stand with his hostage, to the negotiators who had tried and failed to talk that bastard out of doing one last stupid, evil thing.
Karyoke, Angel’s Australian shepherd, panted in the back seat of her gray sedan as she pulled into the driveway at Mace’s house. She glanced at him through her rear-view mirror and smiled. He looked nervous but certainly wasn’t panicking. Slowly, he was getting over his PTSD about riding in cars.
Kary had been a bomb-sniffing police dog for two years when he had scented on a bomb on a reporter’s car. As he was trained to do, he sat and gazed up at his handler. The bomb was a shaped charge, and timed, and it went off. Kary’s fur had been mildly scorched, but his beloved police officer handler had been blown to a fine pink mist right beside him as he watched.
Angel had been one of the first people to get to the dog after the blast and pulled him away from the burning wreck.
For the first six months afterward, they had walked everywhere, even the three miles over to Mace’s house and then home again after supper. With the desert summer approaching, it was good that Kary could manage the short ride.
She walked around and let him out of the car. He shook himself, jangling his tags, and obviously recognized Mace’s house since he trotted up to the front door, wagging.
Angel slammed the car door. Her car was the most common make and model, middle-class, middle-aged, and midway in monochrome color between black and white. Mace joked that it was the perfect sniper hide: no one would even notice it existed.
Mace’s dark red 1967 Mustang, a muscle car, was parked in the carport beside her. The hood was open, and his tool box rested on the frame, waiting. They often tuned up the toy to decompress from work.
She leaned against the car, scanning her thirty-three new texts from her family and friends, which ran the gamut from “Oh ok,” to impressive text diatribes about the state of morality in the world. Angel shook her head. Her family was nuts.
Lupan had texted that he was glad Angel had survived.
Wyatt still hadn’t texted. This was weird. She pinged him with a quick “Where are u? U ok?” and followed Kary to the Youngs’ house.
At the front door, Liberty was waiting for them. She greeted the dog first. “Hello, Kary. Who’s a good boy? Did you ride in the car? Was it okay? That’s a good boy. Colt!” she yelled behind her, and her six-year-old son peered around her sofa-cushion hips. “Take Kary to the back yard, would you, love?”
She stood up from rubbing Kary’s ears and held out her chubby arms to Angel.
Angel bent down and hugged her. Angel wasn’t naturally a huggy person, but Mace’s family were huggers, especially when they deemed that someone must need comforting.
Liberty asked, very quietly, for she would not want to upset her children, “Are you okay, Angel dear?”
Angel had known this was coming. Liberty would need reassurances. Liberty had been a hunter all her life, and she understood the taking of life and that killing a person, even an evil one, was a terrible thing. “Yes, Lib. I’m fine.”
Her blue eyes were wet with sympathy. “You’re sure?”
Sadly, Angel’s own family did not require so much convincing. “Yes, honey. I’m sure.”
“Absolutely sure?” Liberty pressed.
“Really, I’m fine.”
Lib’s manicured eyebrow arched. “Then I made chicken fried steak for nothing?”
Angel laughed. “Never for nothing, Lib. Surely it’ll soothe any residual trauma.”
“Right. Come on in.” She whisked Angel in the front door of the small, ranch house. Her living room furniture was rustic country rooster red. “Mace, your work wife is here!”
“That’s terrible,” Angel said to her. “I am not.”
She and Mace were colleagues, not a couple. In the FBI, she had stayed away from poaching on federal land, and she certainly didn’t want anyone to think otherwise.
Liberty appraised Angel with the practiced eye of an eldest sister. “At least you showered. Freedom! Kimber!”
The seventeen- and fifteen-year-old daughters, respectively, came out of the hallway. Their matching Wedgewood blue eyes were wide with helpfulness and goodness. Beretta, the twelve-year-old daughter, more ornery but no less good, followed behind them.
Liberty said, “Girls, help Angel freshen up, will you? Perhaps some mascara. And some foundation. A lady is never caught without foundation.”
This was not standard operating procedure. Liberty’s chicken fried steak was a treat, but Angel didn’t usually have to dress for dinner to get it. “I don’t need make-up. It’s just us, right?”
Liberty looked innocent. Really damned innocent. She said, “I may have invited over a friend of mine’s brother. He said he liked chicken fried steak.”
“No. Oh, no. Lib, I killed someone today. I’m traumatized. I need to chow down on comfort food, and I don’t want be set up on a blind date.”
Liberty’s glance was unimpressed. “That ship has sailed. Go with the girls.”
Angel did not want to deal with a nice young man tonight, and he would be nice. Like all Liberty’s friends’ male relatives, he would be as wholesome and chivalrous as a Nebraska farm boy from the 1950’s. Angel just didn’t like any of those things in a man, and she just wanted to eat some comfort food with so much artery-clogging fat that it might be considered a suicide attempt. “I’ll just take my dog and go home.”
Liberty’s shrewd smile was triumphant. “You wouldn’t want to traumatize that poor Kary with another car ride so soon, and he’s having a ball in the back yard herding the boys and the Pekineses.” Liberty turned and assumed her ruling matron role. “Girls, put some make-up on her, and do something with her hair.”
The girls pulled Angel down the hall. It was like riding a dogsled towed by three blond, giggling puppies.
Angel was resigned to trading an evening of being pleasant to a naive young man in order to eat Liberty’s chicken fried steak. She suspected that Liberty’s menu and agenda had been planned before the standoff that afternoon and had nearly been derailed by it, rather than afterward as a consolation dinner.
This was a set up in both senses of the word.
Angel smiled. The nice young man would probably be horrified by the amount of food she ate. Angel often joked that she ate like a hummingbird: three times her weight. That’s the amount of fuel it took to run a six-foot-tall, massive skeleton ten miles a day and then bench press two hundred pounds.
Her stamina and strength had saved her life four times.
The wispy little teenage girls tugged her over to an actual, real vanity table in their room. They each had color-coded milk crates for their own make-up sets. They compared foundation colors and then peered at her in the bright lights around the vanity’s mirror.
“I think these are too light,” Freedom said.
“They’re all too light,” Kimber said. “We have ten compacts of base between us, and they’re all too light.”
Beretta, the youngest one, peered up at Angel. “You’ve got dark skin.”
“I’m part Native American,” Angel told her gently, “and I’m tanned.” Because she spent a lot of time outside, practicing to kill people.
The girls huddled over the compacts, occasionally sneaking a peek at her, then hurriedly glancing back down and strategizing.
Angel recognized their dismay as the same trepidation that her cousin Lola had evinced for weeks while painting her firstborn’s nursery. Those walls had ended up with seven layers of various shades of pale pink on them. Angel thought the room was perceptibly smaller by the time the baby came home.
“Bronzer,” Kimber finally said. “We can mix in some of Beretta’s cream bronzer.”
Their concoctions sounded experimental. Angel asked, “I’m not going to turn orange, am I?”
The girls looked startled, like little blond bunnies in blind.
Freedom, the eldest, said, “We could just use translucent powder.”
“Mom will not be satisfied,” Kimber said. “Mom said to put foundation on her.”
Such a matriarch-centric family unit seemed odd to Angel. Her own mother had passed away just a few years ago. Because Angel’s father was often on deployments, Angel had been the alpha male of the house and had taught her two younger brothers, Lupan and Wyatt, to hunt and play sports. Her mother hadn’t taught Angel to cook, but Angel could gut, butcher, and grill any animal she killed.
Freedom nodded at whatever they were mixing. “Let’s see how it looks.”
They painted Angel’s face with the serious precision of art students during a final exam.
“Hold still,” Kimber said.
Angel sighed. All this just for chicken fried steak.
Usually, Angel avoided dating, and Liberty knew that, which was why she threw in the deep-fried-meat bribe. Dating clashed with Angel’s Angel of Death reputation, and it brought back some old memories that were better left alone. She occasionally went out to bars and picked up a guy for a night or a couple nights, but that wasn’t a date.
Dating implied wanting more, and she didn’t.
They did a pretty good job of matching Angel’s skin tone, and her skin turned out to look about its usual shade but smoother. With a little pale pink blush, light eyeliner and mascara, some lip gloss, Angel looked like a sweet, sheltered teenager’s idea of a pretty young woman.
Then they yanked and gelled her hair into a passable French twist. Angel was surprised that it was long enough to do that, but it had been years since she had even tried to tie it into an updo. Her hair had been very short when she had been with the FBI, for practical reasons. She had camped in a sniper hide in Colombia for two straight weeks one time, eating MREs, occasionally wiping down with baby wipes.
The girls examined their results, high-fived all around, and scampered to report to their mother.
Angel touched up their work with some darker eye shadow from a palette with probably fifty shades on it, a sweep of bronzer under her cheekbones, and a dusting of powder. She didn’t want to look little-girl pretty. She was a thirty-two-year-old woman, not a nineteen-year-old girl. Sweet ingénue makeup looked silly on her.
During her touch-up, she found black greasepaint that had worked its way into her hair near her temple. She had scrubbed off the black and gray diagonal camouflage stripes when she had returned to the office, but obviously missed some. She scratched it off.
The more mature make-up made Angel look a little more exotic, a little more sexy, less like she might be all aquiver in the presence of a man. It was an improvement.
Angel examined her odd appearance. With regular make-up on, her facial features were exaggerated: her eyes bigger and lined, her cheekbones more defined, and her lips redder and shinier. It felt odd to emphasize her face rather than to break up the eye-catching symmetry of eyes, nose, and mouth so she could blend into shadows.
Dating was hunting of a different kind, she figured.
She looked a little closer. Even through the girls’ foundation, sun damage spotted the skin near her hairline. The spots fit together like a turtle’s shell, not like cute little freckles at all.
Well, she had spent most of her life outside. As a kid, she certainly hadn’t corralled her brothers and applied sunscreen to them all. When she was with the HRT, her sniper’s pack weighed sixty pounds, plus she usually carried or dragged her guns and guns’ cases, and that left no extra space for a bottle of sunscreen.
She touched the spots near her black hair, tied back so tightly.
She had made her choices, and so she accepted the damage as her due.
Men wouldn’t worry about something as superficial as sun damage, would they? She would ask Mace if his broken nose and rough skin concerned him. They would share a good laugh over it while they were working on his car. Mace would probably tell her to rub some dirt on the sun spots.
She smiled at herself in the light-ringed mirror. Dirt was as good a facial as any.
When she smiled, she looked more presentable.
She checked her phone again. Wyatt still hadn’t texted. She wondered what he was up to. Sometimes he disappeared into the Southern Arizona high desert near Geronimo’s Stronghold for a few days or week to live off the land, just to get away from everything. Angel was worried about him. He repaired cars for a living, and his hours had been cut lately because he didn’t want to learn about the new vehicle computers. Older cars were becoming scarcer, and his jobs were drying up. He would have been a great mountain man, back in the 1800’s, or an Apache scout. Her brother could cut sign better than anyone Angel knew.
She texted him again and hung up her phone, still worried.
Angel really didn’t want to emerge from the virgins’ girl cave and be presented to Liberty’s potential suitor. Last time, Liberty’s chosen man had been nice, but so boring. Angel didn’t know what kind of man she could find interesting. Her job made the rest of her life seem to be painted in shades of pale beige. Shining bullets and a dark sniper’s hide were tough competition.
Mace would understand why she couldn’t really be interested in Liberty’s boring young men with their boring lives and boring small talk.
Angel stood and made her way to the living room.
Mace was laying on his Man-lounger, with his sons Colt and Remy splayed on the chair’s arms and leaning on his broad shoulders. They were watching car racing on Mace’s huge television. They flinched and shifted in unison, urging their favored car to go faster.
His muscle-bound arms tightened around his offspring as they bent around a turn with their car.
Angel decided not to start that discussion. Maybe Mace wouldn’t understand.
Liberty bustled out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. “Angel, I see the girls cleaned you up. Good. The table is all set. Would you like some iced tea?”
“Sure. Thanks, Lib.” Angel wasn’t sure what to do with her hands. She seemed useless when confronted by Liberty.
“Freedom! Bring the tea!” she called back to the kitchen. “Mo will be here in a few minutes,” Liberty said.
“Mo? Is that his name, Mo?” Angel wondered if his name was Mortimer, or Maurice, perhaps.
Liberty frowned. “Yes. His parents are very devout. Here’s your tea.”
Freedom, now beside Angel, held out the dew-dripping glass.
“Thanks, honey.” Angel took the cold glass and sipped the sweet tea. “What’s he do?”
“Gracious, Angel,” Liberty said, brightening. “You actually sound curious. Are you going to be nice to this one?”
“I was nice to the last one.” It wasn’t her fault he was squeamish.
Liberty said, “This time, try to be a girl, all right?”
Angel bit back a retort about not being a girl, that she was an adult woman, but Liberty was a good friend and a nice woman, and one makes allowances for nice woman friends who are, after all, doing something that they perceive as a nice gesture, even if she felt trapped into meeting a guy who she was sure was going to be a boring disaster. “All right, Lib. I’ll be on my best behavior.”
Liberty looked suspicious. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing! Good behavior. Honest.” Angel went to find Mace.
She wanted to swear, but she didn’t swear around Mace’s kids. The one time that she had said “Goddamn” when Freedom around, the girl had jumped like Angel had poked her with a sharp stick and looked upset for an hour. They were nice kids, awfully sheltered, but nice.
In the living room, Angel sat on the couch and watched car racing with the males.
Outside the front window, past the lush, perfect lawn, a black low-end knock-off of a luxury sedan drove up and parked in front of the house. Angel watched through the window and barely had time to wonder who in their right mind would drive a black car in Phoenix unless they were trying to incinerate their own ass when summer came when a man emerged from the car.
The man stood, and his belt buckle was above the black roof of the car. He was tall, probably taller than Angel, and quite good looking in a sandy blond way. She usually liked darker men but she could be flexible. Indeed, if the man was cute enough, she could be surprisingly flexible despite her muscular physique.
His blond hair was very precisely cut, conservative but not shorn like the military regulation style, so Angel thought he looked shaggy. He wore a dark suit and, after carefully closing the car door, he walked around the car, inspecting. Only after a full circuit did he walk up the driveway to the door.
Angel refrained from interpreting his fastidious vehicle inspection. He might have driven on a street where the city had been chip-sealing or behind a garbage truck, or borrowed the car from a friend.
When the doorbell chimed, Liberty rushed to the door and whipped it open. “Mo! Mo, dear. We’re almost ready for supper. Would you like some sweet tea?”
So this was Mo. Angel wasn’t disappointed yet.
Mace leaned out from under his sons and said to Angel, “You look like a prize heifer, all gussied up with blue ribbons for the 4-H show.”
“Thanks.” She wondered if Mace was trying to sabotage Angel’s date or his own wife, or merely commiserating with Angel. He was often an unwilling co-conspirator in Liberty’s romantic schemes.
Mace glanced at Mo, still standing with Liberty in the doorway. “He looks like he’s selling brooms.”
Liberty bustled in and to present the man to Angel. She stood, and as she’d suspected, the man had about an inch on her. “Hi,” she said.
“Howdy,” Mo said and smiled. His accent was oddly Texan, and he had light brown eyes.
They shook hands. He squeezed her hand a little hard, but she didn’t wring out his hand in return. That was her trigger hand, and Angel had all sorts of muscle in that hand. She could have crushed his hand.
See? Best behavior. She made a note of that for her defense during Liberty’s inevitable blind date post-mortem.
Liberty beamed up at the two of them from below their shoulders and made the formal introduction. “Angel, this is Mo Blythe. Mo, this is Angel Day. She works with Mace at the police department.”
Mace, still in his recliner and half-buried by sons, snorted.
If that was all that Liberty had vouchsafed to Mo about Angel’s job, then this was going to be an interesting supper full of surprising revelations.
Liberty probably hadn’t mentioned Angel’s tattoo, either. My, wouldn’t that be a shock for one of Liberty’s nice young men.
Maybe Angel shouldn’t say too much about gunning down a suspect that afternoon. Maybe that was what Liberty had meant when she had said that Angel should try to be “a girl.”
Yet, if this Mo guy wanted to date a “girl,” the kind who didn’t routinely rain death from above upon evildoers, then Mo and Angel weren’t going to date anyway or certainly not for very long, so nothing Angel said was going to matter in the long run.
If nothing Angel said was going to matter, then she could just be generally polite to Mo and tuck in Liberty’s chicken fried steak without feeling guilty that she didn’t want to date anyone, even one of Liberty’s nice young men.
At that, the perfect solution presented itself: just eat the fried meat as if this wasn’t a blind date.
Angel reached back into her shellacked hair and pulled out the few pins, then shook it down. It nearly brushed her shoulders, but not quite. She smiled at him. “Nice to meet you, Mo.”
“Wow,” he said. He looked confused. “Your hair is really short.”
Angel laughed. “I’ve been growing it out. You should have seen it two years ago. Hey, I think Liberty’s chicken fried steak is just about ready. Mace, you hungry?”
Mace tumbled the boys off his lap and folded up the recliner. “I was born hungry.”
Angel said, “Let’s roll.”
The Young family had conspired to seat Angel and Mo beside each other. Angel took her place just as Lib brought the platter of crispy meat out of the kitchen. Her daughters brought out the side dishes and, Angel noted happily, Beretta had the gravy boat. The aroma was deep-fried heaven.
Angel and Mo both inhaled deeply and sighed.
She smiled at him. Anyone who appreciated Liberty’s chicken fried steak had at least one redeeming quality.
Mo smiled back. He asked, “Read any good books lately?”
Maybe this guy was okay. Liberty’s previous manfind had only read very conservative political blogs and religious sermons. Angel said, “I’m reading my way through last year’s award winners’ lists—the Booker, the National Book Awards—plus I’ve struck a vein of really excellent indies. You’re a reader?”
Mo smirked. “You read fiction?”
Angel suspected that something bad was happening. “Yes. I majored in English Literature in college. You?”
Mo smiled at her, but his smile had taken on a condescending edge. “I only read non-fiction. I like to learn something when I read. Fiction is just made-up stories.”
Angel had a thousand rebuttals to that, from “fully experiencing what it is to be human” to “the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” and “to tell the truth, rather than mere facts,” and finally finding “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything,” but it all jumbled up in Angel’s head, congealed in her astonishment that someone would think that reading only non-fiction was a virtue, so she said, “Oh?”
Liberty nodded at Angel approvingly.
Angel decided to change the subject. “So what do you do?”
Mo was smug. “I’m a pharmacist. It’s a very demanding job, you know. I saved a woman from a nasty interaction today by noting that she was on a blood thinner, warfarin, and she had a yeast infection, so her doctor just dashed off a prescription for fluconazole, the oral treatment, and those two together can significantly increase the plasma concentrations and hypoprothrombinemic effect of warfarin by inhibiting CYP450 2C9, which is the isoenzyme responsible for the metabolic clearance of the biologically active D-enantiomer of the drug. In addition, fluconazole inhibits the enzymes CYP450 2C19 and 3A4, which metabolize the R enantiomer of warfarin, so that’s a double whammy right there. That’s a dangerous combination.”
Angel had dozed off during the pharmacology lecture and only woke up when she heard Mo say dangerous. “Fascinating,” she said.
“I saved her life, probably,” he continued, “and wouldn’t you know it? The manager of the pharmacy department bawled me out for taking too much time with her. He was just irate that we had customers lined up, waiting. So he took five more minutes to scream at me. I’m an adult man. I should quit.”
Angel was distracted by Liberty’s unsubtle coaching and thus she forgot to be a girl. “What a jerk. I would’ve shot him.”
Liberty gasped a little.
Mace snorted into his iced tea. It slopped over the rim and onto his empty plate. Liberty handed him a napkin, and he mopped it off his plate.
Angel glanced at Liberty. Her eyes were bugging out, and her head was vibrating from side-to-side.
Mo looked startled. “Well, that’s, well, that’s just silly. I can’t believe that a sweet little thing like you could ever shoot someone.”
Mace laughed out loud. The Young girls studiously passed serving dishes and did not make eye contact, lest they giggle.
Angel considered what to say and how to say it. She decided on the truth. “I shot someone today.”
Mo was dismissive. “No you didn’t.”
“I sure did.” Angel said and took the dish of heaped full of mashed potatoes from Liberty. Angel dodged Liberty’s reproachful look over the potatoes.
“You’re joking.” He looked at Mace, who was leering at him and on the verge of cracking up.
Angel should have known that anything that amused Mace that much was probably the wrong thing to say, yet she persisted, “I’m a sniper with the police department. I stop bad guys before they kill innocent people, usually hostages.”
“Oh, really?” Mo asked, still not believing. “Have you shot many people?”
“Yep.” No one ever asked how many hostages’ lives she had saved by sniping violent suspects, only how many people she had killed.
Mo looked startled.
Mace, now grinning wickedly, nodded to Mo.
Mo slowly realized that it wasn’t a joke. He asked Angel, “You killed someone today?”
“It was broadcast live. You can probably catch the footage on the ten o’clock news.” Angel was enjoying shocking him, and she knew that it wasn’t a nice thing to do, but she did it anyway. She wasn’t even sure why she did it but it seemed compulsive, so she ate a bite of the creamy potatoes. Her nose filled with the smell of butter.
Mace added, “Yeah, it was a great shot, too. Perfectly spotted. Perfectly calculated. What was it, two hundred yards?” he asked Angel.
“Two hundred nine,” Angel told him and dished up corn. Well, what she did for a living was going to enter the conversation eventually, and while Angel was sorry that Liberty was disappointed, Angel couldn’t pretend that she was not the Angel of Death. She had earned that nickname.
Mace said, “Two-oh-nine. Nice. The suspect dropped like bloody cement dumped out of a wheelbarrow. You should see it on the news tonight. It was gorgeous.”
Mo looked at Liberty, who shrugged at him.
“Well,” Mo said. Different expressions passed over his pale face: confusion, dismay, and a shimmer of revulsion. “Well,” he said again. “We should eat.”
Angel handed him Liberty’s creamy mashed potatoes, a starchy mountain running with yellow rivulets of real butter, and then she speared a large slab of Liberty’s chicken fried steak from the platter in the middle of the table. The batter was so crunchy that the cutlet did not flop when Angel transferred it to her plate.
Mo didn’t talk much to Angel for the rest of the meal, which was fine because Angel was busy eating Lib’s food and clogging her own arteries. Damn, but it was good. Every bite was crunchy or creamy or tender or flakey and all of it was dripping with gravy. She ate half-again as much as Mo.
Mo was unfailingly polite, however, and shook hands with her before he left, but didn’t ask for her phone number.
Liberty rolled her eyes at Angel after he was gone. “I suppose he wasn’t right for you.”
“Afraid not,” Angel said and grinned. She was still feeling the chicken fried afterglow.
“Well, back to the drawing board,” Lib said. “What do you like in a man?”
“Someone more,” Angel thought about the men she liked, but couldn’t come up with anything brilliant, “manly.”
“Like Mace,” Liberty said and smiled.
“Well, not too much like Mace.” Angel did not want Lib to be suspicious or jealous. Angel had no designs on Mace. She stayed on the straight and narrow when it came to married men. Always. Angel had a strong sense of honor, and she would never steal a man from a commitment to another person. It repulsed her. Plus, she would not want a man who was so dishonorable that he would break such a commitment, either. Nope, never.
Liberty smiled at her. “I know, honey. If only he had a younger brother.”
To be nice, Angel agreed, “That would be good.”
“Or we could share.” Liberty had been born in a small town on the Utah-Arizona border, one with an unusual husband-to-wife ratio. She had had seven mothers and thirty-six siblings.
Angel recognized that Lib had offered her a compliment, but Angel had been raised Baptist. Polygamy gave her the willies. Plus, Mace had been raised in mainstream Mesa. Surely he would not go for such things. He’d better not. “Lib, you’re a very generous woman, but I am very creeped out by that offer.”
“Okay, fine.” Liberty rolled her eyes. “But we could be sister-wives.”
Angel didn’t want to insult Liberty, but she needed to quash this idea, now. “Honey, you don’t want to be my sister-wife. I don’t even pick up my own socks.”
“Well, for you, I would think about it. I’ll try to find someone more ‘manly’ for you next time.”
“Lib, there doesn’t need to be a next time. I’m perfectly fine. This is exactly how I want to live my life. I own a house. I get to kill bad guys. I even have a dog.”
“But you want children, don’t you?” Lib’s wide eyes were astonished. “A family? Grandchildren?”
“I don’t know, Lib. Probably not. I’m just not that kind of,” Angel chose her word, “woman.”
“But, you must want a family.”
“I have a family. I’m close to my siblings and my cousins, and their kids. There are usually a few unmarried aunts and uncles in every generation of our family, who pick up the slack with the teenagers.”
“Yes, but they’re usually gay.” Liberty said with conviction.
“Some of them, sure. But some aren’t and weren’t. My family’s weird. The unmarried aunts and uncles were,” and Angel searched around, trying to find words, and finally came up with, “warriors. They didn’t marry because they couldn’t have those ties, but they saved their families when war broke out.”
“Oh, you’re not like that,” Liberty cajoled. “You want to get married and have kids.”
“Lib, I really don’t.” Angel couldn’t even imagine it.
“Well, next time, I’ll try to find someone more ‘manly.’ Would it help if he didn’t bathe regularly?”
Now Liberty was teasing and everything was all right again.
Angel said, “Not quite that manly.”
After Mo left, in the quiet cool of the evening, Mace and Angel worked on Mace’s car.
Angel couldn’t help herself. “So what is ‘Mo’ short for? He high-tailed it out of here before I could ask him.”
Mace smirked. “Mah-roan-i.”
Angel was confused. “How does he get ‘Mo’ out of that?”
“It’s spelled like ‘Moron-i.’”
“What?” Good Lord, that poor boy, that his parents had named him something so awful. Pun names were urban legends—Rosy and Harry Bottom or Razzi Barry—but that was just cruel.
“His older brothers are named Nephi and Elijah.”
“And that makes it better, how?” Angel twisted free a black-crusted bolt and dropped it into her hand.
Mace said, “They’re all angels from the Book of Mormon.”
Angel felt an angry violence well up in her. “Did they not know how people would pronounce it? Were they from some other country and didn’t speak English? My God, how did he survive grade school?”
“They were from a small community in Utah. It’s a common name, there.”
Angel wanted to grab Mo’s parents’ stupid throats and shake them for deliberating screwing with him. Who would do that to a kid? Mace named his kids after guns, but they were at least normal-sounding names, especially in the West, and not a synonym for stupidity. “Names like that just piss me off.”
“Well, Mo’s done all right with it. He’s a deacon in the church.”
“What assholes.” Angel was still incensed.
“Oh, my. My tender ears.”
“Whatever. Hey, I’m taking my team rock climbing this weekend over at Papago Park. You in?”
“Heck, yeah. I’ll bring my slacker team and race you to the top.”
“We weren’t planning to race. We’re going to get to the top without being seen. Anybody can run up a damn hill.”
When Angel got home, she sat on her couch with Kary for a moment before getting ready for bed. Her dog Kary needed some human time, Angel could tell. She texted with one thumb while rubbing Kary’s furry tummy with her other hand and cooing to him. He lay limp over her lap, belly-up. He was so relaxed that his tongue lolled sideways and had fallen out of his snout. Where his tongue touched Angel’s pant leg, the fabric was slowly wicking the dog’s saliva out of his mouth and becoming soggy, but Angel didn’t mind. Slobbering was just part of being a dog.
Her living room furniture was overstuffed brown blobs, and the carpet and walls were beige. Mace described it as Angel’s suburban sniper hide.
Only the art drew one’s attention. The sculpture and paintings were all ethnographic and violent: African dead spirit masks, Polynesian statues representing howling war gods, photographs of petroglyphs about hunting bison and bear, and a watercolor painting of Lozen, a woman warrior of the Chiricahua Apache in the middle 1800’s, riding a horse at hell-bent speed across the desert, holding a rifle before her like a spear. The family rumor was that Lozen was a great-something-something-grand aunt, so when Angel had found the picture, she had bought it.
The small house had three bedrooms: Angel’s bedroom, a guest bedroom for cousins who dropped by, and her weapons storeroom.
Angel texted to Wyatt: Yo! Brother the Youngest! Where the hell are you? I feel slighted that you haven’t congratulated me on my gorgeous shot this afternoon.
And to Lupan: Have you heard from Wyatt? Did he go walkabout again? I haven’t heard from him.
Neither message conveyed Angel’s worry: that Wyatt had done something stupid this time, or that something stupid had happened to him. Wyatt lived down near the border between Arizona and Mexico, and all sorts of stupid things happened down there. Stupid things and violent things.
Their whole family had a prideful preoccupation with the Apache, believing their diluted Chiricahua blood to be evidence of toughness, honor, and intelligence. Hunting traditions had been passed down, dimming in history with each generation, but it was more than that. An unusually high percentage of their family joined elite military or law enforcement units or found other occupations where violence was routine. A warrior gene ran through Angel’s family, and with it, the chaos of the trickster god Coyote.
Wyatt felt Coyote’s call as much as any of them, but he hadn’t found a place to exercise his talents.
When Wyatt was in high school and Angel was in college, he had come to visit her on a recon trip and stayed in her dorm room, much to her roommate’s delight until she found out that Wyatt was only sixteen. Even as a teenager, he had been six feet two and gloweringly good-looking, and Jodie had finally slept someplace else until he had gone home.
That visit had been right after September 11, 2001, when all Angel’s plans had changed. She had been researching the military and intelligence services, deciding how she could best kill terrorists. Her grief process had blown through denial and bargaining—the television’s incessant coverage convinced her that the attack had happened, and she knew that Reese had gotten on the plane—and within days she had settled in a cold vengeful rage. At first, she wanted to be in one of the military’s elite units, the SEALs or Delta Force, but the recruiters had bald-faced told her that girls weren’t allowed to play.
The FBI, however, had fewer sexist barriers and, when the G-man she met with saw that she was six-feet-plus, fit, tough, and already an excellent shot, he explained the career path that could lead her to the Hostage Rescue Team because, early in his career, he had been on the assault team. He also explained the many career paths within the FBI that she could also pursue, “all of which would be excellent choices for someone of her,” he cleared his shotgun-pocked throat and subtly glanced at her physique, “abilities and motivation.”
When Wyatt found out that she was seriously considering the FBI, he flipped. “Thou shalt not kill,” he quoted at her, and “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but it was not an injunction to join Caesar.
When she was resolute that she was going to go kill some terrorists any way that the government would let her, Wyatt left that night and, for the first time, went out into the desert with only a hunting knife.
He had been gone for two weeks, living off what he could catch or scavenge in the desert. The whole family had been frantic with worry, trying to find his trail but they never found his car to begin the search. He had finally come out, three pounds thinner and with an obsessive light burning in his black eyes, and they had all yelled at him.
With each cousin who had joined the military, Wyatt retreated farther into his defiance.
Angel and Wyatt had never discussed her career choice again, but his comments ranged from sanctimonious to anarchist.
“Jesus was the first anarchist,” Wyatt had told her only a few weeks ago at a cousins’ potluck supper in Tucson. “When he was talking about carrying the Legionnaire’s pack for an extra mile, he wasn’t talking about a pack.”
Damn it, Angel was worried. She wished Wyatt would text or call or update his online status, anything that would let her know that he wasn’t out in the desert somewhere, dead.
Thanks for reading!
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