An Excerpt from Nightkeepers

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The blonde leaning over the garden center’s display table of annual flats was wearing a tight pink tank top and no bra. Not that Strike was looking or anything.

“I just love impatiens, don’t you?” She bent over further to select just the right six-pack of flowers, giving him an eye-full.

Hello. He dialed down the water wand he’d been using to fertilize the hanging begonias, and moved around the table. “Impatiens are pretty enough,” he said, pretending to look at the flowers. “But I prefer the full sun varieties, myself. No tan lines.”

She shot him a gotcha look before nodding at his right arm. “Nice ink. Aztec, right?”

He normally wore long-sleeved shirts to avoid just this sort of conversation, especially from people who noticed that his business partners, Jox and Red-Boar, wore similar glyphs. Today was summer-hot, though, and he’d gone with cutoffs and a black t-shirt that bared his marks: the jaguar that symbolized his bloodline and the ju that marked him as royalty.

“They’re Mayan.” He could’ve told her that the Maya had been the only society in the New World to develop a fully-functional writing system, or that it was because they, like the Egyptians two millennia earlier, had been taught by an older warrior culture that went back twenty thousand years or so to Atlantis.

He didn’t tell her that because one, she’d think he was whacked; two, lectures weren’t sexy; and three, the details, like the forearm marks, weren’t relevant anymore. The barrier was sealed, the Nightkeepers unnecessary. In four-plus years, the Great Conjunction would come and go with nothing more than a Michael Bay disaster movie and some empty hype.

Hopefully.

“Very nice,” she said again, and it was clear she wasn’t just talking about the marks.

“Thanks.” Strike was bigger than average- most Nightkeepers were, or had been- and he kept himself fighting fit. Add that to deep blue eyes, shoulder-length black hair worn in a ponytail regardless of trends, and a close-clipped jawline beard, and he had a look that either fascinated women or scared them off, depending.

The blonde didn’t seem scared as she took a long look around the garden center.

The sturdy barn-red store was flanked with plastic-covered greenhouses, with the one- and five-gallon shrubs grouped out front like leafy islands sprouting from an ocean of parking lot. The balled-and-burlapped trees were set around the perimeter, and tables of flowers and veg flats were strategically placed so shoppers couldn’t miss them on the way in. “This place is cute,” she said finally. “Yours?”

In other words, was he an owner, a contract landscaper working out of the nursery, or a schlub who, at thirty-three, watered plants for a living at seven bucks an hour? “Mine and my partners’,” he said, wondering how she’d react if he told her it was a little bit of all of those things.

He was part owner, along with Jox and Red-Boar, because all three of their names were on the Nightkeeper Fund started by his umpteen-great grandfather after he’d sold off most of the old artifacts. Strike also did some landscaping now and then, when he got the itch. And yeah, he was thirty-three, and although he had an MBA from Harvard Biz and used it to manage the Fund, at the moment his career pretty much consisted of watering plants and discussing the intricacies of dried versus composted cow manure.

That, and studying spells that hadn’t worked in twenty-four years.

“Want to give me a behind the scenes tour?” The blonde shot him a look of pure invitation that normally would’ve had his glands sitting up and taking notice. Now, though, his libido sort of shrugged and yawned, which gave him serious pause. Oh, come on. How could he not be interested in getting some of that?

He ought to be. . . hell, he was trying to be, but he was doing the auto-flirt thing- and had been for the past few weeks- all because of some seriously funky, sexed-up dreams that had him waking up horny as hell. He could clearly picture the woman in those dreams: her high-cheekboned face and pale blue eyes, a set of full lips that seemed made to wrap around a guy and hang on for the ride, and white-blonde hair that sifted through his fingers like spun platinum.

He looked at pink-top again to make sure. Nope, wrong blonde. Assuming, of course, there was a ‘right’ blonde. . . which was a serious stretch because even if the barrier was active- which it wasn’t- and he’d gone through the talent ceremony at puberty to get his full powers- which he hadn’t- Nightkeeper males weren’t supposed to be precogs. Which meant the dreams were just dreams, and he should be good to go.

Only he wasn’t.

“There’s really not much to see out back.” He smiled in an effort to soften the brush-off. “Besides, I’ve got to keep working. My boss is a real ball-buster.” There was even a bit of truth to that- Jox might be the royal winikin and thus technically Strike’s servant, but the garden center was his baby, and woe to he who skimped on watering duty.

Surprise flicked across the blonde’s face, along with a hint of temper he figured she was entitled to. “Really? Wow. Guess I called that wrong.”

“My bad, not yours.” He cranked the water wand and hit a hanging pot of salmon-colored begonias. “Enjoy the impatiens.”

As she huffed off and the begonia pot overflowed, a voice from behind Strike said, “What are you, fucking stupid?”

Exhaling and counting to ten backwards, Strike dealt with the water first, shutting it off and dropping the hose. Then he turned and held out a hand. “That’ll be five bucks, Rabbit.”

Wearing low-slung jeans, heavy workboots and a black hooded track jacket even though it was in the high eighties and rising, with the hood pulled up over his shaved-bald head and his iPod buds stuck firmly in his ears, Red-Boar’s seventeen year-old son was dressed to depress, and wore the ‘tude to match.

Smirking, the kid dug in his pocket, pulled out a ten and slapped it in Strike’s palm to pay the “no saying ‘fuck’ on the job” fine they’d been forced to institute when Rabbit graduated high school a full year ahead of schedule, blew off his SATs to joyride down the coast in Jox’s truck, and then emailed all his completed college applications to the US Embassy in Honduras while swearing to Jox and Strike that he’d submitted the apps on time.

He’d probably figured- hoped- that his father would cut ties after those stunts, leaving him free to do whatever the hell he wanted. Instead, Red-Boar- aka the sole survivor of the Solstice Massacre- had surprised all of them by rousing his PTSD-zonked self long enough to ground Rabbit’s ass, cancel his AmEx, julienne his license and order the kid to work at the garden center all summer, where he’d promptly started cussing out the customers. Thus, the fuck fine.

Strike pocketed the ten. “You want change?”

“Put it on account.” The kid’s eyes, so light blue they were almost gray, followed the blonde into the store. “But seriously. How can you not want a piece of that?”

“I take it you’re done pruning out back?”

Jox and Strike did their best to keep Rabbit away from the front of the store as much as possible because they never knew what he’d get into next. Sometimes his ideas were brilliant, sometimes terrifying, quite often both. But Rabbit was Red-Boar’s son, which meant he was one of them. It also meant that he was at a serious disadvantage, because his father was a head case and nobody knew a damn thing about his mother except Red-Boar, who wasn’t talking. So Strike tried to cut the kid some slack. In the end, the four of them were a family, albeit a seriously dysfunctional one.

Rabbit lifted a shoulder, still focused on the front of the store even though the blonde was long gone. “Why don’t you check on the pruning for yourself, Strike-out?”

“In other words, no.” Strike rubbed absently at his wrist, which had started aching early that morning, along with most of the rest of his body. He was tired, and vaguely pissed off for no good reason. There was nothing wrong, but there was nothing particularly right, either.

He was used to living with Jox, Red-Boar and Rabbit in a strange bacheloresque symbiosis that was part necessity, part history, but it wasn’t the life he would’ve picked. Four and a half more years until the world doesn’t end, he reminded himself. You’ve just got to hang on until then.

“Delivery’s here,” Rabbit said, shifting his attention as an eighteen-wheeler turned up the driveway. “I’ll sign for it.”

“No way.” Strike grabbed Rabbit by the back of his hood, knowing the kid was just as likely to blow straight past the truck and down the street to the liquor store, bucking for another shoplifting conviction. He headed the teen toward the greenhouse with a shove. “Prune. Now.”

“Fuck you.”

Strike patted his pocket, where he’d stuck the ten. “We’re even.”

He signed for the delivery- more cow shit- and headed into the store, which was functional and homey without being unrelentingly cute.

The walls were lined with shelves and bins holding everything from fifty-cent peat cakes to three hundred dollar customized bird feeders, complete with advanced squirrel deterrent systems that made no sense to Strike because, hey, squirrels were people, too. Rows of freestanding shelves held the seeds and chemicals, and twenty-pounders of fertilizer, crabgrass killer and Slug-B-Gone were stacked neatly in a row headed for the check-out area, where books and magazines competed for space with other point-of-purchase doodads. The counter was paneled in rustic wood like the rest of the shop, and the high-tech cash register was disguised to look like something out of the forties.

Behind the counter, Jox was perched on a barstool chatting with the blonde, who he’d apparently talked into a pink ceramic pot for her impatiens, along with a bonsai money tree.

The winikin was wearing khakis and a green long-sleeve jersey that covered the two jaguar glyphs on his arm- one for Strike, the other for his sister. Anna might’ve renounced her magic and taken off, but the bloodline connection remained unbroken. Jox’s dark skin was relatively unlined for his fifty-seven years, his close-cropped hair shot through with silver. He looked relaxed enough, but his expression was edged with the same tension Strike felt in his own gut, the same sense of dread mingled with anticipation.

The thirteenth prophecy spoke of the final five years before the Great Conjunction, when a great sacrifice would be required to keep the Banol Kax from coming to earth and precipitating the big Game Over. Thing was, King Scarred-Jaguar’s attack on the intersection twenty-four years ago had sealed the barrier, preventing the few surviving Nightkeepers- i.e. Strike, Red-Boar and Anna- from using their powers. The seal also prevented the Banol Kax- and the gods, for that matter- from even communicating with the earthly plane, never mind reaching through the barrier to posess a willing- or unwilling- host. In all those things, Scarred-Jaguar’s vision had proven true, though it had cost him the Nightkeepers.

Had it been worth it? Strike didn’t know, and a whole hell of a lot of the answer depended on whether the barrier stayed sealed through the final five-year countdown.

With her purchase concluded, the blonde wiggled out, winking at Strike. “Your loss.”

“No doubt.” He watched her go, thinking that Rabbit was right. He was an idiot. Scratching a red patch on his inner wrist- he must’ve gotten nailed by a spider or something- he told Jox, “Your shit’s here.”

“Thanks.” The winikin skirted the counter and headed for the back, where a set of swinging doors led to the warehouse and loading dock. “Watch the register for a few minutes. I want to make sure they didn’t send me broken bags again.”

“Ah, yes. A smell to remember.” Strike took Jox’s customary place on the barstool behind the counter, swallowing hard against a sudden, unexpected surge of nausea.

A glance around the storefront showed a few browsers, but nobody who looked like they needed immediate attention. Which was a good thing, because all of a sudden he wasn’t feeling so hot. His wrist was burning like a sonofabitch, and when he looked down he saw three right hands where there should’ve only been one. A quick grab told him he hadn’t sprouted extra limbs; he was seeing triple. He was also sweating like a pig, and the idea of sticking his head in the john so he could barf in peace was sounding real good.

Narrowing his eyes to cut the spin, he groped for the phone to buzz Jox out back, and came up with a utility knife instead. This’ll do, he thought out of nowhere.

Moving without conscious volition, he flipped the knife open and sliced the blade across his right palm. Blood spilled over, tracking down his wrist and across his glyph marks. Then the pain hit, first from the cut, and again when he slithered off the barstool and landed hard on his knees. His head spun and the nausea increased, but it was more like a pressure in his throat, a burning compulsion to say- what?

Jesus, what the fuck’s going on? he thought, but the acid burning at the back of his throat told his head what his heart already knew. It was the summer solstice, one of the four days each year that the barrier used to be at its thinnest, when a Nightkeeper’s powers had been strongest.

The barrier- and his powers- were coming back on line after all these years.

Panic mingled with excitement as blood dripped onto the floor, pooling near his right knee. The warm smell touched his nostrils, tangy and sweet and calling to something inside him, something that ripped at his chest like fear. Like heartache.

“Pasaj,” he whispered. The word was the basic command for a Nightkeeper to open a connection to the barrier, to his ancestors, and it hadn’t worked since the massacre. Except that now, gray-green mist filled his brain and the world started to slide sideways beneath him. “Pasaj!” he said again, louder. “Are you out there? Talk to me, damn it!”

He heard distant voices, a woman’s cry of alarm. “He’s bleeding! Someone help!”

Inside his head, though, there was nothing beyond the spin, and the terrible, awful pressure in his throat. Then he saw something in the grayness behind his eyelids. A single slender thread of yellow in the fog. Holy crap. Acting on instinct, he reached out with his mind and touched the thread, grabbed onto it, and whispered the second word of the barrier spell. “Och.” Enter.

And the world around him vanished.