Chapter II, Blue Lace
I opened my eyes to a sunlit room. It looked the same as always, with my TV table in the middle of the room and my bed against the wall to the right. Across the room, beyond the TV, the “kitchen” was no more than a narrow counter with space behind it for a stove and refrigerator. A barred window above the sink let sunlight sift through the gauzy blue curtains I had sewn.
My mother’s dress hung above the bed, a wedding huipil she had never worn, a white dress she had woven with cotton, lace, and downy white feathers, embroidered with flowers in blue, red, and gold thread around the square neckline. It was gorgeous. Not only did it cover the peeling paint on the wall, but it also reminded me of Chiapas whenever I was homesick and lonely.
I rubbed my eyes and peered at my watch. 9:00 a.m. That meant I had seven hours until my shift at the Blue Knight. Exhausted, I changed into a white nightgown that came to my knees and crawled into bed.
Sleep, real sleep this time, settled over me like a quilt stitched from the clouds.
The sound of a dog barking outside woke me up. The clock on my TV table said it was two in the afternoon. I went to wash my face, and the bathroom mirror gave me a sobering reflection. I looked ten years older, with a bruise on my cheek where Nug had hit me. Maybe that was why Nug was aging so fast, because his ugly lifestyle had squeezed out his vitality.
He was right, though, the bastard. I was afraid to go to the police. My family had come to America in 1981, so we were eligible for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Unfortunately, neither my mother nor Manuel understood English well enough to keep our file up to date. I was trying to straighten it out, but since I was underage and without a legal guardian, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t understand all the bureaucracy, and I feared if I made waves, they would put me in foster care or pack me off to Chiapas where I had no family or prospects. Only a few more months and I would be eighteen. Just keep trying, I thought. You can do it. I would save money for college, get legal, and have a real life without Nug killing my dreams with his fists or his body.
Right now, though, I had to get ready for work. I changed into one of my uniforms for the restaurant. They all looked the same, a blue laced-up bodice, a blue mini-skirt with fluffy white underskirts, and stiletto heels. I didn’t much like the style, but the colors and cloth were pretty. I knew the only reason they gave me the job was because I looked good in their waitress outfit. Maybe they even knew I was underage. I just made sure I did my job well, never made waves, and smiled at the patrons, who gave me good tips. It didn’t hurt, either, that I was better at math than any of the other waitresses.
When I was ready to leave, I opened the apartment door—and almost jumped back inside.
Althor was outside, asleep.
He was sitting against the wall by the door, his knees drawn up to his chest, his head resting on them as if he were an overworked bodyguard who had given in to exhaustion. Seeing him in the light, I realized his hair wasn’t blond after all. The sun had streaked it gold, but underneath it was red, almost purple. It reminded me of the merlot wine we served at the restaurant. Even stranger, the color looked real, not like he had dyed his hair.
He was older than I had first thought, too, well into his thirties. The previous night I had assumed he was Anglo, but now I had no idea what to think. His skin had a metallic tint, like bronze or gold. It was subtle, so I hadn’t noticed before, but with the sunlight from the window down the hall slanting across his arms, the tint became more visible.
I knelt next to him. “Althor?”
He opened his eyes and blinked at me, groggy and slow.
What the—? I knew he had eyes; I had seen them last night. But when his lashes lifted, they uncovered nothing but a gold shimmer. No pupils, no irises, no whites, no nothing. Just gold.
“¡Ay, carumba!” I said. “I don’t believe it.”
His forehead creased and he looked around the hall for whatever it was that I didn’t believe. As he searched, that gold rolled up from his eyes like a retracting eyelid. Underneath, he had normal eyes. Almost normal. They were an unusual color, like grapes that grow in big, juicy clusters. I had heard about people with violet eyes, but I’d assumed it meant dark blue. I had never imagined the color could be so vivid.
Althor stretched out his legs and rubbed his eyes as if they were perfectly normal. He said, “It is late,” and his voice resonated on “late” with a deep note, like the bass on a piano.
“You stayed out here all night?” I asked.
He massaged the back of his neck, working at the muscles, which surely had to ache given the way he had been sleeping. “The idea seemed like a good one.”
I could hardly believe he had done that for me. “Are you all right? What happened to your eyes?”
He blinked at me. “My eyes?”
He shrugged. “The inner lids are like my grandfather’s. He had—I am not sure what is the English word. Differences from birth.”
Differences? Did he mean birth defects? I winced, hoping I hadn’t offended him.
“Your day is so short,” he said, yawning. “I need to reset my internal clock.”
“It’s spring. The days are long.” I rubbed my finger along his biceps. The gold didn’t come off.
He watched me touch him, his look turning sleepy. Bedroom eyes, my friend Rosa would say. Taking my hand, he curled his fingers around mine. “I was worried about you.”
“I’m okay.” I squeezed his fingers and said what I should have told him before. “Thank you for last night. I don’t want to think what would’ve happened if you hadn’t helped me.”
He lifted my hand and pressed his lips against my knuckles, his teeth just barely touching the skin, not kissing exactly, more like biting. It was strange. But nice. I couldn’t believe he was out here, though. I didn’t know any other guy who would guard my door all night.
“You were watching over me,” I said. “Protecting a girl you don’t hardly know.”
“Why do you call yourself a girl?” Althor started to reach for me, then paused. When I didn’t object, he pulled me into a hug. I held him tight, my cheek against his ear, his curls tickling my nose. Closing my eyes, I willed that moment to last forever, as if I could preserve it in amber and take it wherever I went, to bring out for comfort whenever the loneliness became too much
After a moment, I pulled back my head. “I have to go to work. If I’m late, I’ll lose my job.”
“Can I walk you there?” he asked.
I laughed, that kind of soft embarrassed sound you make when a person you want to like you acts as if he does. “Okay.”
“I am sorry about last night. I should have asked then.”
“I wanted you to.”
“You did?” His teeth flashed in a smile. “I keep thinking, ‘She will say something.’ But nothing. So I believed you had not the interest.” He hesitated. “I think, though, that your customs here are not like ours. That expectations for women and men are different than what I am used to.”
I had no idea how to answer that.
We came out of the building into afternoon sunshine. For a moment Althor’s face blanked. Then he came back to normal. “It is fourteen hours since I first meet you.”
I hadn’t realized that much time had passed. “Is that a problem?”
“No.” He paused. “It is fine.”
I could tell it wasn’t fine. His tension created a pale mist around him. Yet despite that, he meant to stick around. It seemed a good sign.
As we walked along, an old Ford rumbled along Miner Street. Althor spun around as the car went by us and walked backward, staring until the Ford disappeared around a corner. Then he swung back around to me. “Amazing! Another car, even more vintage.”
Vintage? Then I realized he meant a classic car. How I knew, I wasn’t sure. I must have overheard Jake, my ex-boyfriend, use the word. He was the best mechanic around here and seriously into old cars. English was his second language, after Spanish, but when it came to cars, he knew more than anyone else in either language.
I also noticed another oddness about Althor. Just a moment ago, his hands had been free, but now he held a gold box with rounded edges. Where had that come from? His clothes had no pockets, at least none I could see. Although the box resembled his transcom, it was different than what he had showed me last night. Yet even as I watched, this new box was changing color and becoming less rounded.
“Is that your transcom?” I asked.
He glanced at his hand. “Oh. Yes.” The box’s panels flickered, red, gold, blue.
“My friend Josh makes gadgets like that,” I said. “Radios and stuff.”
“I doubt he make a transcom.”
“Are you still looking for signals?”
“No. I check my Jag.” Althor paused. “I am check my Jag.” He squinted at me. “I checking my Jag?”
I smiled. “I am checking my Jag.”
His face blanked as if he were a machine. “Yes, that clarifies the syntax. I will set it as the correct grammatical construction. I am checking my Jag.”
What the blazes? On those last sentences, his had spoken in perfect English.
His expression returned to normal and he continued in his heavy accent as if nothing had happened. “I don’t use English much. It takes a while to reintegrate the programs.”
“You mean, on your plane?” That made no sense, but it didn’t sound any stranger than anything else he just said.
“You said you were a pilot.”
“It’s not an airplane. It is a ship for space.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. He looked so serious. “Oh, Althor. If you really have a space ship, how is it up there while you’re here?”
“I sent it back up.”
He lifted his transcom. “With this.”
“How can that box make a ship take off?”
“The hull acts as an antenna.” He spoke casually, as if his words were perfectly normal. “It receives transcom signals on a narrow bandwidth and sends them to the onboard web system.”
Oooookay. Though I had to admit, it made sense in a bizarre sort of way. Not that I was any expert on space ship antennas. “And that box is flying your ship right now?”
“No. The Jag flies itself.” He glanced around at the street with its potholes and broken manhole covers. “I think it is more safe in orbit than down here.”
That seemed unlikely, especially if his ship had no pilot. Not that I really believed he had a ship. “It’s not safe up there, either, you know. The military will find it.”
He shook his head. “It has a *****”
He paused, thinking. “I believe the word translates as ‘shroud.’ The shroud, it polarizes a film on the hull of my ship. So the hull, it becomes a surface that reflects nothing. The shroud also projects false readings to fool devices. And its evasion programs monitor space around the ship, making it change course to avoid objects—” He broke off, staring past me, his mouth opening.
I turned to look, wondering what could be even more bizarre than what he had just told me. We had come around the corner into view of San Carlos Boulevard, an ordinary street, though bigger than most, with a lot of traffic, and also stores that lined both sides of the road. Everything looked normal.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The cars.” He motioned at San Carlos as if he had found a pot of gold. “I’ve never seen so many in good running condition before. This is why the air smells bad, isn’t it?”
No kidding. Who would have figured that smog would get him so worked up. “It gets even worse later in the day.” I missed the clean mountain air of Nabenchauk.
“Your trees have no ****?” he asked.
He paused, flipping into machine mode and then back to normal. “Filters. Engineered molecules that sift pollutants out of the air and convert them to nontoxic chemicals.”
“Well, no.” What a great thought. “It sounds like a cool idea, though.”
Up ahead, a bus pulled into a stop on San Carlos. My bus. Damn! If I missed it, I would be late to work. I broke into a run, and Althor strode easily at my side. We reached the stop just as the bus was pulling away from the curb. When I banged on the side of the bus, the driver gave us an annoyed glance, then relaxed when he saw me. He halted the bus and even smiled as he opened the door. It was a relief; not all the drivers would let you on after they left the stop. This guy was one of the nice ones, and he often drove this route, so he knew me.
I put my fare in the coin collector, then glanced back. Althor had followed me and was standing there watching with curiosity. If I hadn’t known him, though, I would have only seen how he loomed, towering, unsmiling, his bare arms bulging with muscles, the metal on his wrist guards glinting. When the driver glanced at Althor, his smile vanished and his hands tightened on the steering wheel.
I spoke to Althor in a low voice. “Do you have the fare?”
“Fare?” He tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
The driver spoke curtly. “Either he pays up or he leaves.”
“It’s no problem,” I said quickly. I paid for Althor, then took his arm and tugged him down the aisle before the driver could kick him off the bus.
The driver closed the door and pulled into the street. Everyone stared as Althor and I made our way down the crowded aisle. No seats were empty, so we stood near the back, holding onto the overhead bar while the bus bumped down the street. Althor gazed out the window, his fascination with the view making faint arcs of light around us, like translucent gold arrows looping through the bus.
After a while, when he had taken his fill of the sights, he turned to me. “What did you put in that machine at the front?”
“It’s called money,” I said dryly. “I take it you don’t have any.”
“Coins? Good gods, no.” He didn’t seem the least embarrassed by his impoverished state. “That is what those metal disks were? Actual coins?”
I gave him my most unimpressed look, the one I saved for guys who called me “girlie” when I was waiting tables. “Yeah, real honest-to-goodness coins.” So okay, he wasn’t the dream date. I didn’t mind sometimes paying my own way; obviously he wasn’t any richer than the rest of us. Even so. I had no intention of always picking up the bill. That didn’t seem to fit him, though. Maybe I was naïve, but Althor didn’t strike me as the deadbeat type.
We fell silent after that, and Althor went back to gazing at the city as we rolled along the hazy, sunlit streets of Los Angeles. Potholes cratered the baked asphalt and the bus rattled along, making it difficult to talk. That was fine with me; I didn’t want Althor to start in about space ships where people could overhear. He was no longer holding the transcom, though I had no idea where he had stowed the box, given the close fit of his clothes.
I was on time for work, thank goodness; we reached the Blue Knight restaurant at about ten to four. Out in the front, a blue and white striped canopy snapped in a crisp breeze. Robert, the doorman, stood at his post by the main entrance all decked out in his snazzy blue uniform with its gold buttons and ironed trousers. He was doing his best to look snootily aloof, which didn’t work so well given that he was such a good-natured guy. The restaurant owners tried to make the place upscale, and they almost succeeded. It was still a bar and grille, nothing compared to the high rent places uptown, but fancier than most around here. I especially liked weekend nights, when a blues trio played in the bar, a piano guy, a dude with one of those huge upright basses, and a drummer who always wore sunglasses. They filled the smoky air with tunes from another era, and time when women wore long, slinky dresses instead of fluffy mini-skirts, and men in zoot suits carried trumpets instead of sub-machine guns.
I waved to Robert, and he waved back with a boyish grin, then remembered himself and straightened up, tugging his uniform jacket into place, doing his futile best to look snobbish. I took Althor around to the back entrance.
We went in the back door. It smelled good inside the building, like fresh soap and old leather from the seats out in the main room. Right away we ran into Brad Steinham, the manager, a big Anglo guy wearing darks slacks and a wrinkled white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was helping the bartender carry boxes of what looked like cans and jars. They were clearing out one of the back storerooms, moving all the boxes into a different storeroom on the right.
“Hey, Brad,” I said.
He glanced up, started to smile, then saw Althor and scowled.
“You okay?” he asked me, as abrupt as usual. “You look tired.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I gave him my most reassuring smile. “This is my friend, Althor.” To Althor, I said, “This is Brad. He runs the place.”
Brad put down the box he was carrying and straightened up, looking over the giant I had brought into his restaurant. Althor nodded to him, sizing up Brad while Brad sized him up. And Brad was sizing him up, literally. He might as well have come right out and asked Althor how much he could bench-press.
Glancing at me, Brad motioned at the box he had put on the floor. “We sprung some leaks in two of the storerooms. Have to move everything before it rains tomorrow.” He looked at Althor again and Althor looked back.
“You want a job?” Brad asked him. “My bartender has been moving the boxes, but I need him at the bar. You help us clean out the storerooms, I’ll pay you five bucks an hour.”
Althor blinked at him. “You are requesting that I provide manual labor for a wage?”
I almost groaned. Did he always talk like that?
Fortunately Brad just said, “That’s right.” He tilted his head at me. “Tina’ll be here eight hours. You work that long and I’ll pay you forty dollars.”
“All right,” Althor said. “What do I do?”
Huh. I wouldn’t have expected Althor to agree so easily to such a grind of a job.
Brad pointed to the storeroom where we could see the bartender heaving up a box. “Follow him. He’ll show you.”
Althor went into the room and spoke to the bartender, a dark-haired guy dressed a blue vest and grey trousers. The bartender nodded toward a stack of boxes, his face red as he struggled to pick up one from his own stack. Althor went where he pointed and easily hefted up two boxes, moving like a well-oiled machine. He carried them over to the other guy with no sign of strain and stood waiting for the bartender to show him where to go.
“Good Lord,” Brad muttered. “Where do you find these hulks?” He turned to me. “No way can we finish both those storerooms tonight. If he works out with no problems, I can maybe give him a few more hours tomorrow.”
“You’re a prince, Brad.” I hesitated. “Are you still thinking, too, about hiring Mario fulltime?” It had been a week since the last time I had asked him about Mario.
It was a moment before Brad answered. “I don’t know.”
“You said he did a good job that night he filled in for your bouncer.”
I couldn’t let it go. “He’s a hard worker. Really. He’d do right by your restaurant.” Mario needed a job. He was trying so hard to turn around his life. His expertise was in fixing up old cars. He and my old boyfriend Jake loved working their magic on broken down wrecks; that was what made them such good friends. But none of the garages around here had any openings, a least not for him.
Brad blew out a gust of air. “Tina, he’s got a rap sheet a mile long. Possession of a dangerous weapon. Carrying a concealed firearm. Assault with a deadly weapon. Felony battery. Attempted murder, for Christ’s sake.”
I knew how it looked. Most of the charges had come from a fight that went down between VSC and Nug’s gang after my cousin Manuel died. The cops had busted Mario for carrying a Mac-10 machine pistol. They hit him hard for the gun because they couldn’t make the attempted murder charge stick. They also wanted Mario and Nug off the street before the fighting went out of control. Both Mario and Nug had served time at Soledad, but no one had gone to jail for Manuel’s death. The police never found enough evidence to make an arrest. Except I knew Nug had killed him. We all knew. I hoped Nug rotted in some dark place that made hell look like a party.
“They dropped the worst charges,” I said. “Mario’s done his time for the rest.”
Brad spoke awkwardly. “I’ll think about it.”
I could guess what think about it meant. He wasn’t going to offer Mario a job either, just like everyone else had turned down Mario’s applications. How wasMariosupposed to “rehabilitate” himself when no one would give him a chance? He was smart, strong, and loyal, and he worked hard. Yeah, he was the head of VSC, but that meant he was being a leader. A good leader. The other guys looked up to him and a lot of girls wanted him, not only because he was the big man in this part of town, but also because he treated people well and never beat on his woman. All that employers saw when they looked at him, though, was his hardened face, the tats on his arms, his worn-out clothes, and the knife scar on his cheek.
Brad motioned at Althor, who was walking with the bartender to the other storeroom. “How does your friend get his skin to glint like that?”
“I don’t know.” Right now, I wasn’t feeling charitable enough toward Brad to say more.
“And purple hair.” Brad shook his head as he walked away. “Sometimes I can’t figure what you kids call style.”
I watched Althor carry two more boxes out of the storeroom. “Kid” was hardly accurate. He was a grown man well out of his youth. For once I was glad that when I was tired, I looked older than my age. If Althor knew I was only seventeen, he might change his mind about hanging with me. Not that I had any family left who would come after him. Nug had seen to that when he murdered my last living kin.
At midnight, I found Althor in one of the leaky but now empty storerooms. He and Brad were sitting on the floor with two of the other waitresses, Sami and Delia, the four of them drinking coffee and eating jellyrolls from Winchell’s. Brad was actually beaming, wonder of all wonders, and Tami and Delia were flirting with Althor. My Althor.
“Hi.” I stood awkwardly in the doorway, torn between being uncertain about Althor and wanting to shove Tami and Delia away from him.
“Hey.” Brad grinned at me. “Look at this!” He spread his arms, indicating the empty room. “Althor finished both storerooms.”
“That’s great,” I said.
Althor remained silent as Tami snuggled up to his side, her long blond hair falling across his arm. He wasn’t paying attention to her, but for all I knew, that meant zip. She was older than me and as pretty as one of those girls in Nug’s lingerie catalogue. Maybe Althor wanted me to get lost.
Whatever he thought, he just stood up. “Have you finished?” he asked me.
I nodded, trying to act nonchalant. “Sí, estoy acabada.” Then, flustered, realizing I’d answered in Spanish instead of English, I added, “I’m done.”
Althor barely said good-bye to the others as he left. He didn’t say much while we waited at the bus stop, either. Maybe he was irked at me for interrupting their party. Either that, or he was tired. Come to think of it, after clearing out two storerooms in one night, he was probably exhausted.
The bus pulled up and Althor followed my lead. He tried to pay with a twenty dollar bill Brad must have given him, but the bus driver just stared at him. So I pushed the money back at Althor and paid for him myself. After we sat toward the back of the bus, he put his arm over my shoulders and pulled me against his side. I rested my head against him, relieved finally to relax.
“Oh.” Althor suddenly sat up. “I forgot.” He pulled two bills out from under his belt and gave them to me. “Here.”
Startled, I looked at the two twenties he had pushed into my hand. “Why are you giving them to me?”
He settled back in his seat with his arm around me again. “I’ve no idea what I would do with them.”
“You don’t know what to do with money?” That was a first.
He spoke drowsily. “In abstract, I suppose. I never carry any.”
“I can’t take this.” I tried to give him back the bills. “It’s your pay. You earned it.”
“I don’t need it. Really.”
“How do you support yourself?”
“Salary, family…” He yawned as his voice trailed off. “How about you keep them for me?”
I hesitated. “Okay. Just until you need it.”
Althor rested his cheek against the top of my head, wrapping his arms around me as if he were a boy going to sleep with his favorite stuffed animal. I almost laughed at the unlikely image. My eyes soon drooped closed, and I drowsed next to him.
I woke up in time to ring for our stop. Althor followed me out the back door, rubbing his eyes. Instead of trying to walk down the narrow steps on the bus, he just jumped over them, down to the street. We headed to my apartment in silence. At first I thought he was bored, that he was walking me home only because he felt obligated. I was so busy feeling self-conscious that it took a while for his mood to register. Finally it soaked into my mind that he felt clumsy too. It was odd; he seemed so confident, uncaring of what people thought of him. Except with me. Why?
As we walked up Miner Street, Althor grunted and massaged the small of his back.
“I can’t believe you moved all those boxes in one night,” I said. “You must be sore.”
“That’s what that man Brad said, too.” He gave a wry smile. “Ragnar would say the hard work is good for me.”
“Ragnar. Admiral Ragnar Bloodmark. A family friend.” His face relaxed. “He’s been my mentor since I was a small boy. Like a second father.”
It was impossible for me to imagine having even one father, let alone two. “You’re lucky.”
“He could never replace my father. But he means a lot to me.”
“Is your father a pilot, too?” Hey, his father could be an interstellar king. That would fit with Josh’s games. It was harder and harder to believe, though, that Althor was playing a game.
“A pilot?” Althor laughed good-naturedly. “No, he is a bard.”
“That’s right. He has a spectacular voice.” His mood turned pensive. “My father and Ragnar, they don’t have much liking for each other. They are opposites. Ragnar understood when I wanted to be a Jagernaut. He is a military man. My father, all he sees is that I might die.”
I spoke softly. “That’s because he loves you.” I wished I could say the same about my nonexistent father.
Althor brushed his hand over my hair, and I picked up a lovely sense, as if he wanted to make contact in some way he couldn’t define himself, to touch me with a drop of the love his family had given him. I caught his fingers and kissed his knuckles the way he had kissed mine earlier today. As I let his hand go, his pleased surprise shimmered in the air around him.
Although we were silent after that, it was comfortable, neither of us feeling the need to talk. Eventually he started playing with his transcom. Once again, it appeared out of nowhere, As he worked, his good mood vanished.
After a few moments, I said, “What’s wrong?”
“The Jag,” he muttered, intent on his work. “It has problems.”
The rest of Lighting Strike, Book I, is available for download for Kindle, Nook, and iTunes.