Her sigh fairly dripped with exasperation- God forbid I make you do your job, lady -but in the end she just put me on hold. I was treated to the plaintive strains of an orchestral version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” followed by something that might have been “Hazy Shade of Winter” before it was butchered-a damn travesty. Finally, the line clicked live again.

“Mr. Dawson?” The words were deep and gravelly around the edges, the voice of a whiskey drinker and lifetime smoker. This was my man.

“Mr. Brandt. How have you been?” I hadn’t seen Walter Brandt since my job for him almost three years ago. He was one of my early ones. I wondered if he still had the same graying handlebar mustache, but I couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask. I envied that mustache, but Mira had sworn to divorce me if I even thought about copying it. I had to make do with my beard in the winter and be clean shaven the rest of the time.

“I’ve been… doing well. The cancer is officially in remission. But somehow, I doubt this is a standard follow- up phone call.”

“Did you give my card to someone?”

His voice lowered, though I knew he had to be alone in his office. “Yes, I did. Nelson Kidd.” He nearly whispered the name, as if we were trading state secrets.

“And you truly believe he has come to see the error of his ways?” It mattered, you know, at least to me. I wouldn’t help someone just looking for the easy way out. That’s how they usually wound up in trouble in the first place. Maybe I hadn’t mastered my great compassion for the sake of man. I’d have to work on that.

Brandt hesitated before he answered, thinking it over. I’d have called him a liar if he hadn’t. “I believe so, yes.”

“You know the rules. Is he going to check out?”

“I… think so. Truthfully, he didn’t go into a lot of detail. He is ashamed.”

“He should be.” I rocked the chair back into its upright position. “That’s all I needed to know. You have a lovely day, Mr. Brandt.”

“You, too, Mr. Dawson. God bless.” We hung up. I suppose I didn’t mind the blessing so much, despite not being a religious man myself. He meant well.

My fingers traced slowly over Nelson Kidd’s name on my notepad, and I sighed in disappointment. It was one thing for Joe Schmoe businessman to fall, but somehow baseball players should have been exempt. They were the true heroes of my childhood. I still had most of my original card collection, and though I didn’t get to play anymore, I still followed the season avidly.

Nelson Kidd had been a star in his day, leading the league in almost every category a pitcher can. But, like all of us, he got old, and his arm started flagging. Teams traded him four or five times in one year, always for someone younger and faster. Everyone labeled him as done, and there was talk of moving him to the minors if he didn’t retire.

Two years ago, he made his miraculous comeback. It ended with a World Series title for his Arizona team, and the first perfect World Series game since Don Larsen in 1956. It was made even more spectacular when he tested clean for every steroid and enhancement drug they could think of. The fans, the newspapers, the agents went wild, and despite his age, he was suddenly able to name his price wherever he wanted to go.

I knew now how he’d done it. I think I would have preferred the drugs. Nothing is sacred anymore.

With a heavy heart, I called the number he’d given me. He answered on the first ring. “Mr. Kidd? I am listening,” I said.

“Oh, I… um… Well, I have a bit of a problem, and I was told you were an expert in such matters.”

I had to laugh. The human penchant for understatement never fails to amuse me. “No, sir, you do not have a ‘bit of a problem.’ You made a pact with demonic forces. You sold your soul to the devil, and now you want me to get it back. This qualifies as a huge problem.”

It always takes people a moment to recover when I put things so plainly, and in the silence I added, “I will meet you at the Chino’s across the street from your hotel. You have one hour to convince me.”


I hung up the phone, and it immediately rang in my hand. Then it hit the floor with a clatter, where it proceeded to buzz itself in happy little circles under my desk. Okay, yes, there was a bit of flinching, but you see how manly you are when a giant joy buzzer goes off unexpectedly. Mental note: Take the cell phone off vibrate.

I fished it out, banging my head on the desk only once, and checked the caller ID. This number was also unfamiliar, and not local. I eyed it warily. I’d never received a request for two jobs in one day before, but I supposed anything was possible-possible in the same sense that, yes, I could get struck by lightning four times in the same week.

No matter how I glared at the little device, it refused to offer up any more of its secrets. I was finally obliged to answer it.

“Hello?” Retrieving an elastic tie from my desk, I gathered my shoulder-length hair into a ponytail. I was still getting used to the shorter length, but the longer hair had become a liability.

“Dawson. Good morning.”

I winced and held the phone away from my ear. “Ivan?” With that thick Ukrainian accent and booming baritone voice, it couldn’t be anyone else. I could barely make his words out over the unmistakable clamor of an airport in the background.

“ Tak. It is much good to be hearing your voice.” The man had been traveling in and out of the United States for the better part of thirty-five years, and his English was still horrible. I loved it.

Out of habit, I checked my desk calendar. “I don’t have to check in for two more weeks, so to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Rosaline was to be calling me.” I frowned and had to wait for the next part of his statement for clarification. Okay, maybe the broken English wasn’t so much fun, sometimes.


“And she is not to be hearing from Miguel for two weeks past.”

Translation, for those who don’t speak “Ivan”: Rosaline had called, and she hadn’t heard from Miguel for two weeks. I frowned harder. Sure, the business takes us out of contact sometimes, but I have never failed to call my wife for two weeks straight. If I ever did, I’d never be able to come home again. She’d kill me.

“Did he miss his check-in?”

“ Ni, not yet. But it is to being most unusual for him.” Ivan sounded worried. I think that bothered me more than anything. When the old man is worried, deep shit is going down.

“And his weapon wasn’t delivered to you?”

“ Ni. Have you to been speaking with him? Did you know of his most recent mission?”

“I haven’t talked to him in a couple months. Rosaline doesn’t know where he was going last?”

“I am to be flying into Mexico City later today. I will be finding out what I can.”

“Yeah, Ivan, keep me posted. Let me know if there’s anything we can do from here.”

“The phone lines there are not to being stable, and they are not to having a connection to the Internet. Perhaps I will to be having you relay messages to Grapevine, when I am able to be making contact?”

“Yeah, I can do that. Hey, you be careful down there, okay?”

“ Tak, I will be doing that. May God be keeping you safe, Dawson.”

After we hung up, I wondered if all these blessings were going to jinx me.

We called ourselves champions. I didn’t choose the name; it had been that way longer than anyone could remember. We shared no race, no country, and our reasons were as varied as our backgrounds. Men-and women- like us had been fighting the good fight for millennia.

Some were warrior-priests, tied to the church. Some were holy men, shamans who drew power from the land. We were mercenaries, and monks, and everything in between. We battled with blades and hammers, pipes and bats-whatever we had that we were comfortable with. Most-in fact all save me-also had that little something extra. Call it faith; call it voodoo-the religion doesn’t seem to matter. Hell, even the atheists of the group have it.

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