Callie Delgado was familiar with poor choices. She’d made plenty.
She’d eaten only Hostess products for a solid month when she was twelve. She’d cold-cocked one of her mom’s boyfriends when she’d caught him raiding the pantry. She hadn’t turned her brother in when he’d stolen drugs from a hospital where she’d worked. She lost her job and career path because she chose family first. Always. She didn’t regret those decisions. Not really. Not in the keep-you-up-at-night way. Not in the wonder-who-you’ve-become way.
Tiny beetles burrowed beneath her skin. Instead of grinding a palm down her arm to still the sensation, she had to “embrace the magic.” Whatever the hell that meant. The black stone flask was buzzing hard enough to make her question if her fingers had gone numb. She squeezed the flask, and the heated thrum of the container now pulsed beneath her palm. The flask was ready, even if Callie wasn’t.
The woman standing before Callie stomped her foot. “Can we get this over with? My husband will be home soon, and we are attending the seven o’clock services.”
Services. Callie was about to pull a soul out of this woman’s body, and she wanted to pretend that faith was a priority. Fucking Gem City. “You could have come to the shop if you wanted an appointment.”
The woman reeled back like Callie had swiped at her gaudy pearls. “The children…need me.”
Three kiddos ran around in the next room oblivious to the fact mommy was doubled up on souls so she could sin without feeling dirty. “What’d you need the soul for anyway?” Callie asked. She popped the cap of the flask, and then keened her head to the right until her neck cracked. Like she needed to be limber for this shit.
“With this?” She gestured to the three kids, all too young for school. “I need a little thrill. So, I pick up a thing or two I don’t pay for, and thanks to your boss the Church doesn’t need to worry about it.”
This lady had no shame. Maybe that’s what renting souls did for you. It took away your shame. Your guilt. Your honor. Callie wasn’t certain. She’d only had an extra soul in her once and it didn’t make her feel protected or powerful or prideful. It’d squicked her out, and mostly she just appreciated that it’d concealed her fingerprints, because she’d also done some illegal shit while using a borrowed soul. Unlike this woman, though, Callie had zero desire for a repeat.
This conversation was pointless. Callie extended her arm until the metal mouth of the flask pressed against the woman’s sternum, beneath the trio of druzy pendants that cost more than Callie’s rent. Heat blossomed and wilted beneath her palm. She capped the flask and tucked in her back jean pocket. Her hoodie was already zipped, but Callie tugged the tab upward until it was fully sealed.
Her shoulder grazed the other woman’s as she strode to the door.
“Am I square with him?” the renter asked.
In the last several weeks of repossessing rented souls for the Soul Charmer of Gem City, Callie had heard this question a dozen different ways. Most were variants of fear. They didn’t want to have a man who could steal your soul mad at them. They didn’t want him to send the muscle out to beat them black and blue. They weren’t all too scared of Callie, but then they didn’t know what she could do. Neither did she. That was the problem. This woman, though, that lilt and pleading tone in her voice? She wanted to make sure he’d be ready to rent to her again. Callie ran the pad of her thumb across her fingernails and the thin layer of ice coating them. Yes, this woman was square with the Charmer, but did she understand what she’d given up? The ice on Callie’s nails proved this woman was broken, missing pieces now, and she ready for more.
Callie could almost relate. “Yeah. Your account is settled.” It was the most comfort Callie could give her. If only the Soul Charmer would settle with Callie. His magic snapped and roiled within her body, demanding release. Callie wished she could oblige, but despite yanking souls out of delinquent renters, she didn’t know enough to control it. Not owning her own body, not controlling the power within it, was more painful than she cared to admit. At least she wasn’t innocent. None of them were.
Callie ignored the chill beginning to lock her fingers in place. She was getting good at it, and that worried her. She tucked her hands into her pockets and hurried out the front door. Gravel from the yard peppered the sidewalk. She sidestepped the small rocks and kept her eyes on the motorcycle idling at the curb.
Derek held out a helmet to her. The bike was massive, but he looked natural atop it. Broad shoulders wrapped in a well-worn leather jacket and just the right amount of scruff on his chin presented every bit the image of badass. He’d cultivated the look, but Callie softened as his gaze met hers. She took the helmet from him, but didn’t immediately put it on.
“Remind me why I had to do that,” Callie said, voice low.
Stretching her fingers didn’t erase the echo of ice. The chill lingered in her mind, even if her hands were no longer supernaturally cold. Streaks of ruby and gold slithered behind the snowcapped Taos Mountains in the distance. The roads weren’t icy in Gem City yet, but winter in the high desert might be enough to make her perpetually cold. At least then she wouldn’t have to acknowledge every soul renter she passed at the 7-Eleven.
“Because he pays you to.”
“He doesn’t pay me, actually.” Callie’s grumble punched past the wind whipping against her back.
Derek’s response was a deep rumble of a sigh. He climbed off the motorcycle. Callie took a half step backward, so she wouldn’t have to incline her head to meet his gaze. He brushed a few loose strands of her dark hair behind her ear. The wind must fear the powers of the Soul Charmer’s muscle, because her locks didn’t budge. “I don’t want to argue over your apprenticeship.”
Spitting the term suggested otherwise, but Callie didn’t correct him. “I meant why you didn’t come inside with me to collect the soul.”
They were a team. Since the beginning, which didn’t feel like the mere weeks it’d been. She was just the one with the magic in her bones to get the flask to pull the souls out of people. She needed someone to scare them into compliance. She was short, did not know how to wrestle, and the heaviest thing she lifted on a regular basis was a 25 lb. bag of flour. She needed Derek’s muscle and menace. The bonus of having someone she trusted at her back? Also very important.
“You got it done without me.” He grazed his scarred knuckles along her jaw. Callie leaned in to the touch.
“It would have been easier…”
When they were alone he laughed with his whole body. People were peeking through blinds at them now, and Derek’s chuckle barely passed his lips. “Not every job requires me.”
Callie took his hand in hers and squeezed. “Disagree.”
“The boss thinks otherwise. He wants you to try doing the easy retrievals solo.”
“He hasn’t taught me shit. He can’t just go shoving me out of the nest like a demented mama bird.”
“Please never call him a mama ever again.”
Callie laughed loudly imagining her de facto boss covered in feathers. She let her voice carry around the cul-de-sac. Let them listen. They were the ones pretending to be better than who they truly were. At least she was upfront about her shit.
The woman Callie had retrieved the soul from opened her front door to shush them. Callie flipped her the bird, and then tugged on her helmet.
Quality time with deadbeat soul renters in upscale housing who set her teeth on edge and forced ice into her palms was not exactly making her feel like a magician. If she was going to be able to pull souls from people’s bodies she should at least feel like a goddamn magician.
“Fine, let’s go talk to the old man.”
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