Sharpie magic is the best magic.
I stand on the side of the road, cool fall breeze blowing through the scrub brush. Half a dozen trucks pull out of a gated, hillside compound in the moonlight, kicking up dust and gravel. The men in the truck beds wear ballistic vests, skull-printed face masks, wicked looking guns clutched tight in their hands.
I wave as they go by, but they have no idea I’m here. I’ve got a “Hi My Name Is” sticker on my chest with the words “NO ESTOY AQUÍ” written in Sharpie and pumped with enough magic to keep me hidden from them. I didn’t need to write it in Spanish, the magic doesn’t work that way, but I’ve been speaking almost nothing but for the last two months, and it helps me focus.
They’re on their way down to a warehouse on the outskirts of Tepehuanes, Mexico just down the road. It holds several thousand kilos of heroin in varying degrees of processing. It’s currently on fire.
I set the fire.
I don’t care about the heroin or the Sinaloa Cartel men entrusted with operating and guarding it. I just need them out of the compound. With them gone there should be about half a dozen men left inside. Plus the one I came to talk to.
The estate of Manuel Bustillo is fairly modest by narco standards. He’s not terribly important in the Sinaloa Cartel. Middleman stuff. Processes heroin, cocaine, meth. I hear he used to handle a lot of pot coming up from the south, but with medical marijuana in the U.S. getting so popular and so much weed being grown inside the states, the cartels have had a hard time moving product. Things are tough all over.
I’m not here because Bustillo is a Sinaloa man, or because he’s a murderer, thug and all around bad guy. I’ve hung out with worse people. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I might be worse people.
I don’t much care about Bustillo at all, actually. I’m here because he’s a stepping stone. A link in a chain. I’m looking for someone, and he’s going to help me find her.
I got his name from a guy in Hermosillo a couple weeks back. And I got that guy’s name from somebody in Ensenada, whose name I got in Tijuana. I found out about the Tijuana guy from somebody in San Diego, who I tracked down from a guy whose arms I broke in an alley behind a strip bar in Los Angeles.
It’s been a busy few months.
Bustillo’s house sits on ten acres of hilltop Durango real estate looking down on rocks and scrub brush. It’s surrounded by an electrified fence and a ten-foot-high, brick wall. Spanish Colonial. Terra cotta tile, fake adobe.
I sling my messenger bag over my shoulder, pick up my Benelli M4 twelve-gauge, and stroll unseen through the gate before the two men watching it shut it up tighter than a nun’s butthole.
The men in the courtyard have no idea I’m here, but once the gunfire starts—and boy howdy is there gonna be gunfire—the Sharpie magic’s going to be pretty useless. Them not seeing me depends on them believing they can’t see me. It’s hard to ignore a guy firing at you with a shotgun at the best of times.
I find a convenient spot out of the way and take a seat. The men walk the courtyard nervously fingering the triggers on their guns. A while later I check my pocket watch, an antique, railroad grade, 1911 Sangamo Special. Aside from being a nasty piece of magic that can twist time into ugly knots if you use it right, it’s a really good watch.
It’s been half an hour. That should give Bustillo’s men enough time to get down to the warehouse and out of my hair. I slide the watch into my coat pocket and pick up the Benelli.
“If it helps,” I say, though I know the spell keeps them from hearing me, “this isn’t personal.” I unload a couple of shells into the backs of their knees and they drop, screaming. If they get to a hospital soon they might not die. But if they do, well, them’s the breaks.
The front door to the main house is this massive oak monstrosity that looks like it was pulled from a cathedral. Religious carvings all over it. Lots of Virgin of Guadalupe stuff. Considering who I’m looking to find from Bustillo the irony is almost too much to bear.
I dig a couple more shells out of the messenger bag slung across my shoulder and load them into the shotgun. For backup I’ve got a variety of magical charms and a World War II era Browning Hi-Power, an ugly Nazi pistol with decades of evil energy baked into its frame. I can tap into that with my own magic and really fuck a guy up.
I’ve been watching Bustillo’s place for the last couple of weeks trying to figure out how to get close to him. He’s not the sort of person you just make an appointment with. Or someone who’s likely to tell you what you want to know.
I’ve kept a low profile, stayed hidden. It wasn’t until I saw a shipment to the warehouse come in on a couple of semis that I got the idea to set the place on fire.
I won’t have a lot of time before they get back, but it should be enough. At some point they’re just going to write the whole place off as a loss. Tepehuanes doesn’t exactly have a robust firefighting force. The warehouse is the most modern building in the whole town.
I give it less than an hour before they come gunning for me. They should already be getting frantic phone calls to come back. I need to get in, get my answers from Bustillo, and then get the hell out before thirty guys with AKs come busting in on the party.
I put the barrel of the Benelli against the door lock and pull the trigger, blowing a hole the size of a cantaloupe out of the wood. Sure, I could have just tried the handle, but where’s the fun in that? I wouldn’t get the satisfying shriek as buckshot tears into the poor bastard on the other side of the door. I step out of the way and let the inevitable rain of bullets punch through the wood in return.
The guy I shot through the door stares at me as I kick it open, the Sharpie spell too weak to hide me from him, anymore. The door was thick enough to stop a lot of the shot, but more than enough went through to make this a really bad day for him.
He points his gun at me in shaking hands. A crappy, little TEC-9—I didn’t think they made those anymore—and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. I hit him in the head with the butt of the shotgun and he goes down like a drunk prom date.
There are a lot of ghosts here at the compound. Echoes in the courtyard, mindless recordings of people’s last moments. Every one of them an execution. Bullet to the head kind of stuff. All in nearly the same spot. They blend into each other like fractals, jerking this way and that as phantom bullets enter their heads over and over again. A few Haunts, too. Again, murders. Ghosts trapped in the house until their essence drains away to whatever afterlife they’re destined for.
And then there are the Wanderers, self-aware spirits borne of trauma and tragedy, but not locked to any particular location, they travel from place to place doing, well, whatever they do. Watching mostly, being hungry and looking for some shreds of life to feed on.
That’s the thing about ghosts. There’s not much going on in the land of the dead. Most can’t even see the living, just like most of the living can’t see them.
But they can sure as hell see me. I show up to them like a neon sign that says GOOD EATS. They want life. Any life. Lucky for all of us they’re on that side of the veil. So when I attract their attention they follow me around like hungry wolves after caribou.
Yay for necromancy, huh?
Counting the murdered in Mexico’s drug war is tough. Anywhere from fifty-thousand to over a hundred in the last five years alone. Not all of them leave ghosts. Not all of those ghosts become Wanderers.
But holy fuck are there a lot of them. I picked up a handful in El Zona Norte, Tijuana’s red light district. Murdered prostitutes and student protesters, low level cartel bagmen caught in a cross-fire, police officers, tourists, locals in the wrong place at the wrong time. In each city I’ve picked up more. Some of them I even killed myself. They’ve been trying to keep up as best they can. They’re not fast and I have a car, but they’re tenacious little bastards.
There are at least forty standing behind me, following me around as I shoot the place up. I’ve been seeing ghosts my entire life, so an audience of the dead is nothing new. But standing room only can get a little nerve wracking. I could push them away, but there are so many dead around more would just take their place.
The foyer is terra cotta red tile covered in rugs, wrought iron chandeliers. Real old school Spanish style. I hear two sets of running feet coming down the hallway. At this point, the Sharpie magic’s useless. I’ve made too much noise and the magic can only do so much. I take up a position on the edge of the doorway and wait.
Two men with AK-47s run into the foyer, see the guy on the floor. One of them’s stupid and runs for him, the other one’s smart and turns to check the rest of the room. I put buckshot in his chest before he can fill me full of .30 caliber rounds and another into the back of his buddy’s knee. I kick the guns away from the one who’s still alive, even though I’m pretty sure he won’t be conscious long.
If I hadn’t made so much noise the sticker on my chest would have let me come in here and walk right on by everybody. Could have caught Bustillo in his bathroom or something. Or I could have used one of the perks of my particular magical knack and popped over to the ghost’s side, walked past Bustillo’s guards and popped back. It’s not fun, it’s not safe, but sometimes it’s damn convenient.
Aside from the fact that the ghost’s side of the world will leech out my life if I stay too long, they’ll try to eat me. With all of the dead here and the ones that have been following me it would be like jumping into a shark tank wearing a suit made out of meat.
But the truth is that I wanted to do this loud and I wanted to do it messy. Word’s been spreading the last couple of months of “The Gringo With No Eyes”. Some scary motherfucker with eyeballs black as midnight asking questions, causing problems when he doesn’t like the answers. I get to be the boogeyman. My newfound reputation has made this trip a lot easier.
Plus I have anger issues.
It’s a big house, lots of hallways going off the foyer, a staircase leading to the upper floor. Finding Bustillo could take time I don’t have. I dig a charm, a small hematite pyramid carved with runes and hanging from a string, out of my messenger bag. I let it dangle from the string and in a few seconds the charm rises, pointing down the left hallway, then veering sharply to the right. I pocket the charm, load a couple more shells into the Benelli and head down the hall.
Twenty feet and a right hand turn leads me to a pair of open double doors. Like the front door, these are heavy oak. Bustillo, a slight man with a balding head and a mustache you could sweep streets with, sits behind a desk in the room, a fat, little submachine gun on the desk in easy reach. Next to that is a bottle of tequila and two shot glasses. Both of his hands are in plain view.
Either Bustillo is very stupid or this is a trap. I don’t think he’s stupid.
“Eric Carter,” he says. “Come in, come in. Have a seat.” His Spanish is flawless, cultured, unlike my shoddy American accent. He pours a measure of tequila into each shot glass. He gestures at the chair opposite him. “I won’t shoot if you won’t.”
“Fair enough,” I say and step slowly into the room. I’ve been keeping a low profile in Tepehuanes while I’ve been scoping out Bustillo’s estate, using Sharpie magic to hide from the locals or make them think I’m something I’m not. I’ve never used my name. The fact that he knows it is troubling.
“Inspired move,” he says. “Burning my warehouse. I was wondering how you were going to get my men to leave the estate. You put in so much effort, it would be rude of me not to play along.”
I’m not sensing any active spells, and I’m not seeing anything on the walls, floor or ceiling that might be a magical trap. Of course he could have a claymore sitting under the chair to shoot up, but that seems a bit drastic, even when dealing with me.
I sit, placing the Benelli onto the desk, my hand on the pistol grip, finger hovering over the trigger.
“You were expecting me,” I say.
“I was. Been waiting for weeks. Had I known you would show such caution I would have made myself a more tempting target.”
“This isn’t how this usually goes,” I say. “There’s a lot more screaming involved. Broken fingers, that kinda thing.”
“Oh, I heard plenty of screaming. The men you shot were stealing from me, so you have my thanks. We have all the time we need. The others won’t be back for a while. They think the heroin is important.”
“And you don’t?”
“Only as a tool. Like money is a tool. Or a gun is a tool. Or magic is a tool.”
“You’re a mage.”
“A minor talent at best. Not someone with nearly your standing. Tell me, why do they call you the Gringo With No Eyes? I have heard rumors, but I don’t know if they’re true. Is it the sunglasses?”
“No,” I say and take them off. The whites and iris of my eyes are gone, replaced with pitch black orbs. I tend to wear sunglasses a lot so as not to scare the straights. It’s an unfortunate side effect of a bad decision I made a while back. Kind of like chlamydia.
He cocks an eyebrow, curiosity on his face. “I see.”
“So why’d you send your men away, Mister Minor Talent? You’re either awfully certain that I won’t just kneecap you and make you tell me what I want to know, or you’re monumentally stupid.”
“Hopefully the former. I know where the one you’re looking for is. And I’m happy to tell you.”
Everyone else I’ve talked to has had a little more information—talk to this guy, that guy knows something, maybe see this other guy—but they’ve all just been links in a chain. Breadcrumbs leading me further and further down the trail.
Bustillo is just one more of them. He might think he’s important, they all think they’re important, and him being a mage is just going to reinforce that. But he’s only as useful as what he knows and what he can give me.
I think he’s going to be surprised when he figures that out.
“You’re a mage. You know what I’m here for. You are just full of surprises. And here I thought I was going to have to torture you, or . . .”
I pull a small, obsidian knife from my inner coat pocket. The handle is simple wood and leather, the blade only a few inches long. It’s wicked sharp and I’ve been through three custom sheaths already. I place it on the table. Manuel stares at it, looking nervous.
“Perhaps it is time for a drink,” he says and lifts his shot glass, his hand shaking a little.
“Perhaps it is.” I’m not worried about poison, my body is crawling with tattoos infused with spells for protection. I have at least three against poison. I think. Maybe four? I’ve lost track over the years.
I take my hand off the shotgun, but hold on to the knife. It’s the more dangerous of the two. We down our shots. If it’s poisoned it’s worth it. It’s damn good tequila.
“I see you’ve heard of the knife,” I say. “Mictlantecuhtli’s blade. The Aztec king of the dead made this for Xipe-Totec, the Flayed God, to carve the skins of his enemies and absorb them into himself. A few quick cuts, toss the skin over the shoulders and everything a person is, everything they know, goes to the one who uses it. You’re not gonna make me use it, are you, Manuel?”
“No,” he says, eyes firmly on the blade.
“I’m glad to hear that. I don’t know what nest of vipers are bouncing around inside your head, but believe me I don’t want you in mine. Now you seem awfully eager to be having this conversation. Why is that?”
“Señora de las Sombras told me to,” he says. Lady of The Shadows. Also known as La Flaca, Señora Negra, La Madrina.
“I’m not looking for Santa Muerte,” I say. Which is true. I know exactly where she is.
A while back I got backed into a corner, and to get out of it I made a deal with an Aztec death goddess. She used to go by the name Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead. In more recent years she’s transformed, recreating herself as Santa Muerte, Saint Death.
Her movement, religion, cult, whatever you want to call it, has spread to over two million devotees throughout Mexico and the United States and across the world, getting bigger every day. She’s seen as the Narco Saint, a protector of killers and thugs, but she’s so much more than that. She’s a protector of the innocent, an instrument of vengeance, and, oddly enough, a love sorceress.
And she’s my wife.
That was the deal I made. Marry my power to hers. Necromancy and a death goddess. I got the pitch black eyes and a ring covered in calaveras on my hand. She got me. I’m her champion, her consort. Neither of which is a job I’m particularly thrilled with. She’s got some other plan in mind for me but I don’t know what it is.
I had a friend, Darius, who told me it was a bad idea. I should have listened to him. He’s had some experience with her, though I don’t know what kind. He had the sort of perspective you’re not gonna get from most people.
Darius is special. He’s a Djinn. Hundreds of years old if he’s a day. He came over to California five hundred years ago with Cabrillo, and his bottle got lost in Los Angeles. Now he uses it as a pocket universe and lets people in from time to time so he doesn’t get bored.
Once I took the deal with Santa Muerte, he and I were on the outs. Should have listened to him. Wouldn’t be in this mess if I had.
The thing Santa Muerte didn’t tell me was that she already had a husband. Mictlantecuhtli, King of Mictlan. Darius told me he was dead. Turns out not quite. Dead gods are more complicated than I thought. It was more like sleeping. Sitting in a tomb in Mictlan, a statue locked in jade.
And by a fucked up piece of cosmic logic—Mictlantecuhtli is the King of Mictlan, but the King of Mictlan is married to Mictecacihuatl and since I’m married to Mictecacihuatl I’m the King of Mictlan—he and I are trading places. I’m getting access to his power. But I’m also slowly becoming jade, the stone replacing my flesh like petrified wood. He’s slowly becoming . . . whatever it is Aztec death gods count as flesh. I don’t really know.
The last time I saw him I was just beginning to change and he was still stuck in his tomb in Mictlan. Now a good forty percent of my body is green stone, flexible, movable, but stone nonetheless.
“Her avatar, then,” Bustillo says. “Tabitha Cheung.”
“Ah,” I say. “Now her, she’s the one I’m looking for.”