Clementine Valley was a small town about fourteen miles away that was even more pathetic and backwater than Clementine. It had a strip mall, a run down theater, a few boarded up ghost-town type buildings (which were a meager tourist attraction) and a boarded up K-Mart (which attracted no one).
“Turn here,” the parrot said.
The Hyundai fishtailed as Fiona made too-sharp of a turn onto a poorly paved road. It had so many bumps and stones in the road that it made even the new car’s shocks jostle alarmingly. Sophie’s breath was rattling, and Fiona stole glances back at her. “Is she still breathing? Are you sure we should be here? Why didn’t we just call nine one one?”
“I am trusting you! She looks sick, is all. We should take her to the hospital.”
“No. Hospital can’t do nothing about curses.”
Finally, they pulled up to a house out in the desert. It had a mailbox out by the edge of the drive, and a ring of prickly pears in front of a block wall that hid the house from view. Somewhere a dog barked angrily, but she couldn’t see one, as all the houses were set back too far from the road.
Fiona opened the passenger side, which made Sophie’s legs dangle out. “Should I pick her up? Is it okay to touch her?”
“I dunno. I’ll go get the bruja and see what she says. Wait here.” The parrot flew over the wall. Fiona waited, watching Sophie’s eyelids flutter. Her breathing was ragged.
An old lady ran out from the house, followed closely by an old hippy guy. The woman looked like she was in her sixties or maybe early seventies, and her hair was more gray than black. She wore a brightly colored flowing skirt and sensible shoes, and carried a black handbag that looked like one of those old-fashioned doctor’s kits.
The guy said his name was Jimmy. He was a little younger than her, maybe in his fifties. He had long hair in a thin braid down his back, a tee shirt whose silk screening had long faded, and shorts that showed off his knobby knees. He had both a scrawny frame and a potbelly, like a pregnant model. The parrot flew overhead.
“Where is she?” the lady asked, then looked at the feet sticking out of the car and answered her own question. She opened her bag and took out what looked like a braid of human hair. It was about as long as her arm, and had been tied at both ends. The lady used it to loop around Sophie’s ankle, then dragged Sophie backwards out of the car. Sophie was still clutching the dead sparrow.
“Drainer?” Jimmy asked her, nodding at the sparrow.
“Looks like. We’re gonna need the bone.”
Jimmy ran back towards the house.
The lady took what looked like an ornamental silver scalpel out of her handbag. It had a tiny leather sheath for the head, and was studded with onyx and turquoise. She took the leather sheath off and made slashing motions in the air around the sparrow.
“What are you doing?”
“The mage trapped the sparrow into the drainer. As long as it keeps fluttering around, trying to escape, your friend will keep taking damage. I have to… there.”
“What do you mean, fluttering? It’s dead,” Fiona said. “It died when she touched it. Are you going to bring it back?”
The lady gave Fiona a look. “Can’t fix dead. I just cut its soul loose.”
Jimmy came running back with a handful of wood. He had a long bone tucked under his arm. It looked like one of those big cow bones that you give dogs to chew on, except that it was much thinner. He handed the bone to the lady, then made a small circle in the gravel with his foot. He dumped the wood into it and then crouched down. Using a lighter and his breath, he set it ablaze. He was a lot better at making a campfire than Fiona was, because in no time, the fire crackled.
“Now for the hard part,” the old witch lady said. Using the braid like a lasso, she looped Sophie’s fingers. She tugged on the braid, but Sophie’s hand was clutched so tightly around the bird that she mostly just ended up flopping Sophie’s arm around. After two or three more attempts, she got her hand open enough that the tablet and the dead bird rolled onto the ground. As soon as it did, she used the bone to putt it into the fire, just like miniature golf.
For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then Sophie took a huge breath and began coughing. She coughed so hard she began to heave, and then she heaved up an amorphous blob of black goo that hit the gravel and twitched before dissipating like a puff of smoke.
The old lady turned and walked back to the house with the bone tucked under her arm.
“Damn. That was something, wasn’t it?” the parrot said. There weren’t any trees between the wall and the street, so the parrot was sitting on the ground.
“Yeah,” Fiona agreed. “Looks like she took care of Sophie. I guess you were right.”
“Of course I was. Hey, Pinky, heads up,” the parrot said, and flew to her shoulder. Even with the warning, she flung her arms up protectively and almost knocked the bird off before he could land. She didn’t like the jerk of a bird—he swore too much, for one thing—but she had to admit that without his help Sophie would still be twitching and gasping for breath, if she wasn’t dead.
“So, um, are we done?” Fiona asked the old guy, Jimmy. The parrot was lighter than she expected.
“No, your friend should really come in and rest for a while.” Jimmy helped Sophie to her feet. Sophie didn’t say anything, and she looked a little queasy. “We also need to talk about payment.”
“Oh. Right. Well, this sucks. I hardly have any money, and what I do have I need to live on until I get a paycheck. Do you have installment plans? We both lost our jobs yesterday.”
“I’ll ask Lupe.” Jimmy shrugged. “It’s not up to me. I’m just her apprentice.”
“You’re her apprentice?”
He nodded, and led them past the wall and into a courtyard. A dry fountain had aloe planted in it, and a mesquite tree shaded the courtyard and half of the house. Four metal chairs sat around a table. He pulled one of the metal chairs and helped Sophie sit down.
“Isn’t that a little… I mean, I always figured apprentice meant, like, a kid.”
Jimmy laughed. “No one’s too old to learn something new. Anyway, I’ve been here so long I’m more like an assistant by this point. I’ll probably work for her grandson when he takes over.”
Without warning, the parrot launched himself off her shoulder and into the mesquite tree. She rubbed her shoulder and looked up at it.
“You want a parrot? Cause we got an extra one.” Fiona sat in one of the other chairs. “Have you been studying with her for long? What made you decide to learn magic?”
“When the world changed, I changed too.”
“Oh, you’re one of those people.” She tried to keep a straight face. Thousands of people claimed that the magic apocalypse had turned them into something non-human. Ninety five percent of them were sad, pathetic losers who mistakenly thought that pretending to be a fallen angel or a vampire or whatever would make them less of a sad, pathetic loser. “What are you then?”
“No. I know what you’re going to say. I’m not like one of those people who think they’re turning into an elf.”
“I wasn’t gonna say it,” she lied.
“I mean that my priorities changed. I had a pretty good job, but it wasn’t thrilling me like it used to. So I semi-retired, went to part time, and started taking magic classes at Clementine Community College.”
“You can learn magic at a community college?”
“Not well. They teach theory, but you can’t get a job with theory. That’s why I apprenticed with Lupe here. She’s the real deal.”
“So, um, is she a biomancer?” Fiona asked. Sophie didn’t look like she was interested in talking.
“No, she’s an absoluter,” he said. “She specializes in dissolving other people’s spells. That’s what Lupe’s family has done for generations. She just makes more money off of it now that magic is working better for everyone. Speaking of which, since it was an emergency, I’ll see if she can do favor chits instead of money. What do you do for a living?” He directed this at Sophie.
“I’m a warder,” Sophie said. “Or, at least, I was before my aunt fired me.”
“And I set the wards,” Fiona said. “Even though I only did it for one day. I’m also a chef, and I can cut hair, and I have half of a massage therapy license.”
“Lupe might be willing to accept something in lieu of cash. Let me go ask her.” Jimmy got up from the table and walked into the house.
“So you wanna just dine-n-dash? Get in the car and skip out?” Fiona asked Sophie. “Jimmy and Lupe don’t know who we are.”
Sophie just blinked at her, like she was in the fever-and-exhaustion stage of a really bad flu.
“I’m not saying I’d do that all the time, but neither of us are in—”
The door leading from the house creaked open. Fiona turned and saw a cute young guy who looked like he might be Lupe’s son or grandson. He wore his obsidian-black hair loose over his shoulders, and he had a tank top that showed off nicely cut arms. When he came closer, Sophie and Fiona both sat up a little straighter. Jimmy walked next to him.
“Lupe is willing to take favor chits,” Jimmy said. “As long as you both accept one.”
“What’s a favor chit?” She glanced at the cute guy, then forced herself to stop staring.
“It’s a small spell that she’ll use to cement a promise from you. When she needs a favor, you’ll have to help her out.”
The cute guy hadn’t said anything, but when Fiona looked at him, he seemed to be looking at her as well. He was slender, and looked like he was in his early to mid twenties. He looked mostly Hispanic, with more than a little bit of Indian in him. With that long, black hair, Fiona thought he belonged on the cover of a romance novel, seducing a pioneer’s daughter. She wouldn’t mind being that pioneer’s daughter.
“We have to do anything she asks? Like the Godfather? That’s not going to be illegal is it? Cause I’m not gonna kill people or sleep with people just because my roommate touched a sparrow.”
“No,” Jimmy laughed. “Probably just a day’s work. You both have to accept though. She wants two favors.”
“I touched the bird,” Sophie said. “You don’t have to.”
“You sure you won’t just take a parrot in exchange?” Fiona asked.
“Ha, ha, very funny,” the parrot said.
The old guy gave the parrot a weird look, like he was just now figuring out that the parrot was sentient. “Is this your pet?”
“No,” Fiona said. “It’s complicated. I’ll do a favor for Lupe. I can clean her house or whatever.” Besides, if she came back here, she’d have more of a chance to flirt with Mr. Hottie here. He hadn’t said anything, but she could tell he was interested in her.
“Me too,” Sophie said. “I’ll do Lupe a favor.”
The cute guy was standing there holding a box, not saying anything, but obviously checking Fiona out.
“Okay.” Jimmy turned to the cute guy. “Xavier, you wanna stop staring at the pretty girls and do this spell?”
Xavier looked flustered but smiled. He sat down at the table and opened a small box with the logo of a chocolate company on it. Inside were rolls of wooden coins, held together by tape, and individual packages of what looked like fluted pen caps. He took Sophie’s hand, and held the pen cap up to her fingertip. It clicked, and Fiona realized that it was one of those things that diabetics use to stick their fingers for blood tests. Xavier kneaded Sophie’s hand to release a drop of blood, which he put on the wooden disk. He held his hand over the disk and concentrated, then slipped the disk into an envelope.
Fiona held out her hand. When he took it, she gave him her best smile and was rewarded by the sight of him fumbling the disks and finger sticks so that they spilled out onto the table. Jimmy gave him a look, then bent over to pick them up. If the cute guy hadn’t been so dark skinned, Fiona thought he would have been blushing. He pricked Fiona’s finger and dotted a disk with blood.
“Name,” Jimmy asked. He slipped the disk into an envelope and handed both envelopes to the cute guy.
“What?” Sophie asked.
“We’re absoluters, not psychics,” Jimmy said. “We need to know your names.”
“I’m Fiona,” she said, looking at the cute guy. “And she’s Sophie. And I guess you’re Xavier?”
“Do you have a girlfriend, Xavier?” Fiona asked, batting her eyelashes at him.
Xavier shook his head. He was definitely blushing.
“I’d better get your phone numbers too,” Jimmy said. He glanced at Xavier and made an amused snort. “In case we need to contact you.”
Xavier gathered up the envelopes and put them back in the box quickly, hurrying off to the house as if he wanted to get out of there. He did pause right before he got to the door though, and he glanced back at Fiona with those intense, bedroom eyes. She winked at him.