Authors: Jenny Schwartz
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal
“I can’t be your hero, Sara.” Filip took his hand from her breasts and fisted it on the ground beside him. Hell, he couldn’t even stay and cuddle with her. Solomon’s curse was closing around him, pulling him back with the power of Vince’s wish to Khan’s house, back to whatever torture Khan had prepared. Jay had to be rescued and the simplest method would be to kill Khan.
He’d wanted to kill him. Crippled on the carpet, pain beating through his bones, he’d intended to kill Khan, to snap the frail human spine and send the man’s soul hurtling to judgement.
Sara had stopped him with her compassion and innocence, and her strength. Afterward, she’d seen him vulnerable and held him while he shook apart with pain and the violation of his being. The carpet had twisted his power against him, holding him with his own strength.
“I don’t want a hero, Filip.” Sara sat up. The moonlight played over her white breasts. “Heroes ride off into the sunset. I want a lover. I want someone who comes back to me.”
“I can’t even promise you that.” He cursed under his breath and stood to pull on jeans. “I’m a damn djinni, Sara. My time, my life, is not my own. I can’t stay with you now. I can’t promise Vince’s last wish will let me return. And when his three wishes are complete, I’m trapped again in my bottle till the next human master commands me. I’m not worth your time.”
She sat naked and shivering as he dragged on a shirt. She sat silent.
She raised her hand and put it on his thigh. “Do you want to return to me?”
He felt the heat of her hand and looked down at her uptilted face, so solemn in the moonlight. “Yes, God help me. Yes.” He caught her hand and dragged her up and into his arms. He kissed her hard, taking the memory of her, taking what he could while he could.
He was a selfish, greedy bastard.
The muscles of his chest twisted with Solomon’s curse and his own regrets. “Angel, you are pure joy.”
He dematerialised and reappeared on the roof of the house beside Khan’s. This close to Jay, the pressure of Solomon’s curse and Vince’s wish released him a fraction. He grabbed at a chimney for balance. He’d feared the curse would hurl him into Khan’s house—and unprepared, into the man’s power. But it seemed he had a moment to plan, a chance to choose his confrontation.
There is a spark of redemption in him,
Sara’s voice whispered in his memory.
If someone killed Sara, Filip knew he’d take revenge—but he wouldn’t use an innocent like Jay to get it. Khan was suffering, but there was no honour in what he did.
Still, there was nothing wrong with his brains. Filip had underestimated the man once, he wouldn’t again. Clearly, Khan’s grandfather had been a scholar of the old ways, and the grandson could have inherited more than demon traps. There were invocations that summoned demons, spilling blood and selling souls.
Filip’s lips tightened, drawing back from his teeth. His father was a demon and would think it amusing to answer a summons from Khan to fight his own son.
But Sara had seen a spark of redemption in Khan’s soul. He hoped she was right because a man who had that spark couldn’t have bargained with demons.
Short of demons, there were other precautions Khan could have taken—protective spells, both offensive and defensive.
A bullet tended to cut through all of them, if Filip could line up a shot.
But Khan knew to expect him. Materialising in the living room and shooting him was too simple. Khan would have laid a booby trap. Filip would have to approach obliquely, testing the ground before he advanced.
“Hell.” Filip leaped off the roof of the house.
Sara hadn’t bothered with rudimentary precautions. He could sense her presence. The reckless angel had materialised inside Khan’s house, setting off God knew what traps.
Sara concentrated. There wasn’t time for elaborate planning. If she wanted to intervene—meddle—in the situation with Khan, then she had to beat Filip to Jay and spring any traps Khan might have prepared to trap a djinni.
And please, God, don’t let them trap an angel.
She wasn’t a stoic. Filip had writhed in silent agony. Sara knew she’d scream.
No time, no time.
Her only hope of beating Filip to Jay was her suspicion he’d take a few moments to plan his strategy for disabling Khan.
“Clothes!” Materialising naked wouldn’t help anyone. She balanced a moment on the cloud cover over Melbourne and blinked on sage green and cream yoga shirt and pants, the sort of comfortable clothes she usually wore.
She’d forgotten shoes, Sara realised as she materialised in the living room of Khan’s house and the old carpet squished beneath her feet. At least she’d remembered not to land on the magic carpet that had trapped Filip.
She put a hand to the wall and tried to ignore the dizziness of re-materialising.
The living room looked different. For a start, the television was off and the room brightly lit. But the light didn’t come from the bare overhead globe. Khan had fixed a spotlight and it shone on a dingy patch of wall. There was something scribbled there, over the faded wallpaper.
Thank heaven for her archivist training in languages. Sara squinted against the glare. The message was in Arabic, scrawled with a thick black marker.
Only I know the antidote to the poison Jay’s taken.
“Oh, Lord.” Khan had found a way to protect himself from immediate death, but not from torture.
“Who are you?”
Sara jumped. Her questioner was Jay, not Khan. She looked around but Khan wasn’t in the room. “Ssh.” Perhaps this was her chance. She could rescue Jay and—
“Sara, would you get out of here?” Filip appeared and he was angry.
“Oh, man. Either I’m drugged or that idiot’s right, you two are demons.” Jay’s blue eyes were faintly red-rimmed, hinting at tears and tiredness. A chain looped through handcuffs now bolted her to the wall. She pointed at Filip. “You just poofed out of existence an hour ago. Khan got seriously stressed. Like even more than he already was. And now you’ve appeared.”
“I’m not a demon, but you could be drugged,” Sara began. She resisted Filip’s tight grip on her arm. In a minute he’d throw her out of the house. “Filip, have you seen the writing on the wall?”
He focused and groaned. “Another complication.”
“Did you expect me to make it easy for you?” Khan stood in the doorway. He took a key from his pocket and threw it to Jay. “Put the handcuffs and key down beside you when you’ve got them unlocked.”
“You know, if you let me go, you could go to the bathroom without all this fuss.”
Sara saw Filip’s mouth twitch and she agreed. The girl had spunk.
Khan ignored Jay’s comment and studied Sara. Of average height, he stood like a soldier and his eyes were a tawny shade of hazel. “If not a demon, what are you? A human would trip the security on this house.”
“What she is is leaving,” Filip said.
Sara frowned. “I’m an angel.”
“Mine?” Jay crashed the conversation. The handcuffs rattled to the floor.
Sara winced at the discordant rattle of imprisonment. “No. I’m not a guardian angel.”
Jay dropped the cuff key. “So where is she? He? Oh no, don’t tell me it’s him.” Jay indicated Filip with a flick of her hand. “Khan’s already beaten him once.”
“I’m not an angel. And I underestimated him. I didn’t expect magic.”
“Who does?” Jay shook her head, trying to clear it. “I think I’m tripping. Magic, demons, angels.” She paused, suddenly wistful. “It would have been nice to have a guardian angel.”
“You have one,” Sara assured her. “Everyone does.”
Jay folded her arms. “So where is she?”
“Good question.” Khan leaned against the doorframe, a knife in his right hand. His thumb caressed the bone handle. “Where are angels when they’re needed?”
“Watching, caring.” Sara hesitated. She knew from her cousin Mischa that being a guardian angel could break your heart. Sometimes all you could do was be there. One person’s free will could damn another person to living hell. “We can’t live people’s lives for them.”
“And their deaths?” Khan prompted. The shadows of a heavy beard emphasised the hollows of his gaunt face. The outer edge of the spotlight’s glare caught the hazel of his eyes and the narrow pupils. He was a lonely man, ridden by grief.
“No one dies alone,” Sara said and knew how inadequate it sounded.
“Pah.” Khan straightened from the doorframe, taking a step forward.
Filip pushed Sara behind him.
“And so I am answered.” Khan paused. Filip’s action had revealed the situation, the relationship between him and Sara. “The angel is here to save the djinni. Grandfather would have appreciated the irony, an angel to save a demon.”
“No.” Sara pushed against Filip’s arm and his unmoving back. She gave up and peered around him, catching Khan’s gaze. “I’m here because of you.”
There was a moment’s shocked silence. Jay broke it.
“But he’s the bad guy.”
Filip bestowed a glance of approval on Jay. At last someone here was showing some basic commonsense. Angels didn’t put themselves at risk for bad guys.
“If Khan was truly bad he wouldn’t have written his message in Arabic,” Sara said.
Filip blinked. He’d read the message. He hadn’t considered the language. Arabic, a language a djinni could be counted on knowing, but one Jay wouldn’t. Khan hadn’t mentally tortured her with the thought of poisoning.
“I’m not looking for mercy,” Khan said.
“Good,” Filip said. The fact that Khan hadn’t tortured Jay didn’t excuse kidnapping her in the first place. “Because Vince Ablett won’t give mercy.”
The strike hurt Jay more than Khan. She hunched in her corner. It seemed she knew her father and could feel shame for his behaviour.
As the son of a demon, Filip could sympathise.
“No one’s responsible for anyone else’s behaviour,” Sara said. “What Vince did doesn’t excuse or justify you kidnapping Jay.”
“He put us on an unseaworthy vessel to save money.
Do you know how much he rakes in from drugs? My family died so he could squat on more gold.”
“I’m sorry,” Jay whispered.
Sara crouched beside her. “Your father’s choices are his responsibility. You can feel sad, but not guilty. The sins of fathers are not visited on their children.”
Jay was too deep in misery to recognise the misquotation. “Dad’s good to me. I spend his money. I went to school on it. I buy clothes with it. It’s paying for my uni degree. I’ve lived my whole life on drug money.”
“So walk away,” Khan said.
Sara hugged Jay and glared at Khan. Simple solutions were never simple, not when emotions were involved.
The girl’s shoulders shook. “Mum feels bad too. She says Dad wasn’t so bad at first, not when Grandma was alive. Mum knew him when they were kids. Now she just drinks and drinks. She won’t divorce him even though he has mistresses and—Dad gives her money, like that makes everything right. He gives her drug money and she buys alcohol.”
“Everyone has different methods of going away,” Khan said darkly. “In Afghanistan there is too much heroin. Too many drug users. Too much pain that they want to forget.”
“Revenge is your drug.” Sara looked at him clear eyed. “You wrap it around your grief. You tell Jay to walk away, but you’re the one who’s brought her into this mess. Let her go.”
“Make him.” Jay clutched Sara’s hand. “You’re an angel, make him let me go.”
Filip checked himself, but too late. Khan had seen his instinctive response to Sara getting involved. So much for his inscrutable djinn nature. With Sara, all his emotions came bubbling to the surface.
“Close your eyes,” Filip told Sara and Jay. He brought his hand up and now it held a gun. While he breathed, no one would hurt Sara.
Khan met his gaze. Neither referred to the message on the wall.
Did Jay need an antidote or was it a clever bluff?
“I don’t want him to die.” Jay burst into tears. “I don’t want anyone to die.” She pushed away from Sara. “If you’re not my guardian angel, why are you here? Are you his?” She pointed at Khan. “Why aren’t you saving him then?”
“I’m not a guardian angel.” Sara knelt back, resting on her heels. She watched Jay sadly, wanting to comfort the girl but respecting her anger and confusion. “I’m an archivist. I came to your father’s library to borrow a book. There’s a young boy dying of a bone infection and I believe
, one of your father’s ancient manuscripts, has a cure. It’s something to do with lime.”
Khan’s head jerked, just a fraction, but Filip was observing closely.
Sara continued. “I got tangled in your father’s affairs. When I heard you’d been kidnapped, I wanted to help. I don’t want tragedy to compound tragedy. Khan lost his family not just to greed and shipwreck but to the war that drove them from their home. Pain and violence has to end somewhere.”
“Dad hurts people.” Jay drew a shuddering breath. She tugged down the sleeve of her sweater and wiped her eyes with it. “I want to be a doctor. I’m in my first year at uni. All I want to do is help people.”
Filip’s finger relaxed on the trigger, mirroring the relaxing tension in Khan’s stance.
The man looked broodingly at Jay, then straight at Filip, across the gun.
“There is no poison,” he said. “No need for an antidote.” The silent challenge echoed between them:
So shoot me
“It takes more courage to live than to die,” Sara said.
Khan turned from Filip, his gun and the promise of death, and addressed Sara. “That’s not true. I’ve seen people die in terror and agony. Dying demands courage.”
“If I kill you now,” Filip said. “There is no revenge against Vince. He wins.”
“I think I have seen my revenge.” Khan looked at Jay, who stared miserably from Filip to him. “His only child despises him. From shame and disgust, she’ll learn to hate him.”
“No. He’s my dad.” But Jay’s cry wasn’t disagreement. It was despair.
“Take her and go,” Khan said to Filip.
“Vince is flying to Melbourne.” Filip lowered the gun. “He intends to kill you.” The men both knew it wouldn’t be a clean gunshot. When Vince caught up with Khan, he’d torture him.
“If he catches me…” Khan shrugged. “I knew what I risked with revenge.”
“Dad’s flying here to save me?” Jay struggled with hope. Rescue and heroism made her father one of the good guys.
Filip guessed he and Sara stayed silent out of compassion. Khan was brutal.
“Your father sent the djinni to rescue you. If he’s coming to Melbourne himself, it’s to kill me. Painfully.” He bared his teeth. It wasn’t a smile. “Vince Ablett has a reputation to maintain. I crossed him. He can’t afford to let me live.”
“But you haven’t killed me.” Jay was growing up tonight, growing old. “Your wife and son are dead. You’ve lost more.”
The abrupt slash of Khan’s hand said none of it mattered.
Jay scrambled to her feet. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to fix…if anything can make things right.” She rubbed her arms, shivering. “I don’t think I can stop Dad.”
“I have to take you home.” Filip cut the emotional atmosphere. He vanished the gun and held out his hand.
“I—” Jay surprised them all. She dashed a few steps forward and hugged Khan.
He stood frozen in her embrace, but a soul tremor twisted his face. Whatever he’d expected tonight, it hadn’t been compassion.
Filip relaxed his watchfulness. Jay’s impulsive sympathy had stolen Khan’s cold anger. He was back in the land of the living. It was a painful place to be, but it was where healing began.
Jay stepped back and accepted Filip’s hand. Her teary glance included Sara. “Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Jay. Live with grace.” The angel blessing fell softly.
It turned Filip’s blood cold. “Sara?” He’d thought she’d return with them, with him. At the billabong he’d been her first lover. If she walked away now, he couldn’t chase her. Solomon’s damn curse held him. It was tugging him back to Vince’s property. He had to return Jay that night.
“I can’t leave yet,” Sara said.
He wouldn’t beg. Instead, he glared at Khan. “If you hurt her, I’ll rip your heart out.”
“It seems your heart is the one bleeding, djinni.”
Sara stepped in front of him, stopping his impulsive move to strike Khan. She put a hand on his shoulder, stretched up and kissed his cheek.
He turned his face and snared her lips with his. He tasted her sweetness, the trace of salty tears. He let her taste his hunger and need.
Against his lips, she gave him the reassurance he craved. “Filip.”
Just his name, but it was a claiming and a commitment.
“I’ll wait for you,” he said.
“You’d better,” she threatened shakily.
He nodded and strode out of the room with Jay trailing after him.
Sara wrapped her arms around herself and listened to their fading footsteps. She felt the moment when they dematerialised and knew they were safe at Vince’s outback property. Filip had fulfilled Vince’s second wish.
Somehow she would find a way to be with him despite Solomon’s curse.
Khan swore, strode across the living room and opened a trunk under the window. He pulled out a gun and ammunition.
“No,” she said.
He ignored her. “I grew up fighting. I killed a man when I was fourteen. He would have beaten my sister, raped her probably, and do you know why? Because she knew how to read. A girl who could read and a bastard looking for a victim. Three years ago she died. A civilian victim of an air strike. She’d been teaching her own daughter to read.”
He put the gun down and stared at his hands. “I dug out the rubble, dug out the bodies. I said to my wife, we must leave. My grandfather said I should go to Pakistan where he had friends. No, I said. We should go to the ends of the earth, somewhere safe.” He threw the gun against the wall. “Now I am the bully and my victim pities me.”
“Jay has courage.” The girl had surprised Sara. The terrible night had matured Jay, tested her compassion and found her generosity. In terror, she’d shown strength.
“That boy you were talking about,” Khan said abruptly. “My grandfather had a lime cure he used on amputees and people with bone infections. Most of his scholarship is gone, blown to the four winds, but I remember the cure. It is painful. He dosed the people first with opium.” He recited the cure, staring at the broken gun. “If you can save the boy, that will be something.”
“And you?” The cure had arrived so strangely it felt unreal. She memorised it and put the memory aside. The more immediate problem was the life of the man in front of her. Vince Ablett would make him suffer.
Khan pulled his knife from the sheath at his waist and crouched by the Persian carpet. He sliced the base of his thumb and let three drops of blood fall to stain the carpet.
Sara was better with written than spoken words and it took her a moment to translate the Pashto words.
“Consume the evil that enters.”
If Vince entered with a demon taint in his heart, the magic of the Persian carpet would trap his soul.
Sara closed her mouth on her protest. Who was she to deliver justice? What would be would be, and she discovered small sympathy for Vince, who ruined so many lives. She even felt a moment’s viciousness. Let Vince taste the prison Filip had suffered for centuries. She forced away her anger.
“Where will you go?” she asked Khan.
He glanced at her and his eyes were sharply assessing, memories and vengeance forgotten. “Will you take me there?”
She realised he meant the dematerialisation Filip had used with Jay. Although she had never carried a human, technically it was possible. She nodded. “Where?”
“Afghanistan.” He looked down at his hands. The bleeding had stopped, but there were other scars. “You and Jay remind me that there are children who need saving. My son is lost. But I have memories of my grandfather’s teachings to help others, and I have my hands and my strength.”
Tears stung her eyes. Khan was on the path to healing himself.
She held out her hand. His clasp was callused and careful of her.
“The djinni loves you.”
She glanced at him, surprised not at Filip’s love but that Khan commented.
His smile twisted. “I envy him the courage to love while Solomon’s curse still traps him. I won’t risk my heart again.”
In time you will.
There was too much passion in Khan for him to live without love. His grief would heal, never forgotten but allowing room for new loves.
“At least you won’t look back with regret that you hurt Jay.”
“I hurt your djinni.”
“Yes.” The memory of Filip’s pain burned through her. But it had also torn away their defences, compassion and need opening them to one another. It had hastened their coming together.
Khan met her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
She nodded. Filip’s suffering was private. She changed the subject. “We need to go outside. You can’t travel through walls.”
She led the way out of the house and into the predawn chill of the backyard. With no walls or roofs in the way, she closed her eyes and concentrated on dematerialising and the geography of Afghanistan.
For a moment she felt Khan’s physical body anchor her to the quiet Australian suburbs. Then the ground shook beneath her feet. The vibration travelled along her bones. The suburbs vanished into swirling dust.
They rematerialised on a night-dark mountain near a village. It was a landscape of bare rock and poverty. Above them stars and spy satellites circled. This was a war zone, a place of pride and violence and scrabbled survival.
“Thank you.” Khan breathed deeply. “Thank you for bringing me home.” He strode away and the shadows of the village swallowed him.
Andrew handed her a tissue.
She jumped, dislodging a fistful of stones that rattled down the rocky slope. The other angel had appeared silently, unexpectedly.
“What are you doing here?” She overrode her own question urgently as memory nudged. “I have a cure for young Todd. A cure for his bone infection.”
Todd’s guardian angel leaned on his sword, looking across the valley at a pinprick of lamplight. “Todd died an hour ago.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Sara swore. Too much pain, too much grief. At every turn life demanded courage, tested your hope and faith.
Andrew handed her another tissue.
She blew her nose. “Is that why you’re here, to tell me about Todd?”
“No. I’m Khan’s guardian angel. I’m here to give thanks for his safe return.”
“Tangled lives.” Sara stared at the stars, willing away her tears. She’d failed Todd. “I didn’t know you knew Khan.”
“For good or bad we all affect one another.” Andrew leaned forward and kissed her forehead. It was quite a gesture from a reserved soldier. “Go back to your djinni, Sara. He needs you.”