Hunters prayer, p.10
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.10

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  “Susan Zamora? The anchorwoman?” Zamora had a sleek, leonine bob dyed a fashionable chocolate-cherry color. She was a barracuda in human form.

  There’s no love lost between me and the press. I like to keep things quiet, because let’s face it, normal people don’t want to know about the nightside. Reporters have just enough orneriness to think they want to know, that’s all. Which equals a huge pain in the ass for a hunter and the cops.

  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Fourth Estate like any red-blooded American. But Jesus wept, they make my job harder. Fortunately, they get stonewalled by everyone except UFO nutjobs and fake psychics.

  Anyone who knows about the nightside knows not to talk about it.

  “Yeah, her. That way. She’s moving around, there’s nobody else out there. And I’ve got a bad, bad feeling about this, because the furry smelly thing is snuffling, and I got this feeling like I’m going to throw up. Anyway, the woman barks something, and the furry thing leaps up into the back of the van and I can see the entire thing rock a little bit. Then it brings out something real pale, and I can see it’s not right. The only thing that big is a body, but it handles it like it’s nothing. The furry thing kind of shuffles to the edge of the sidewalk, and it throws the thing, and I see it is a body but something’s wrong with it. It hits with a kind of thud and the furry thing is back in the van, and the woman gets in. Then the engine gets to purring again, and they’re gone.” He shivered, despite the close muggy warmth of Micky’s. His eyes came up to meet mine, and they were dark enough that I reached up and pushed my beer across the table.

  “Take it. It’ll do you good.”

  He did, setting down his coffee, and took down about half the cold bottle in one long throat-working swallow. He wiped his mouth with the back of his dirty hand. “I bet it did smell me,” he said miserably. “I bet it did.”

  “Don’t worry about that right now. Was there anything else? Did she talk, laugh, move around the van at all?”

  “Moved around looking up. That’s all.” He finished the rest of the beer. “What the fuck was that thing? It warn’t human. I warn’t drunk, ma’am. It warn’t human ‘tall.”

  The more worked-up he got, the more hillbilly he sounded. “Maybe, maybe not,” I soothed. I’ll take him to Galina’s and leave him there; that’s the safest place for him right now. And she won’t stand for any street bullshit. “But what’s important for right now is to keep you out of sight. I’ve got someone you can stay with, if you don’t mind a bit of work. It’s either that or hit the streets where these people—whoever they are—are looking for you. Think back, and tell me everyone you told about this. Everyone.”

  He did, and the list was depressingly long and imprecise, finishing with: “That kid who hangs around Plaskeny Square, with the blue hair and the rings in his nose. Tall kid. I mentioned it to him. That’s all.”

  That’s all? Oh, man, this just keeps getting better and better.

  “Tell her what you told me,” Saul said suddenly. “About what the woman said.”

  “Oh, yeah. Almost forgot.” His mournful face brightened. “It sounded like French.”

  Huh? “French?”

  “I took four years of French in high school. I think that’s what she was speakin’. Somethin’ about … well, shit, I’m rusty. But I’d swear it was French.”

  “French.” I nodded, my head resting on Saul’s shoulder. Suddenly I was incredibly, bone-crunchingly weary. It’s the reaction of coming very, very close to certain death: after the adrenaline and the urge for sex wear off, the only thing left was terrible exhaustion, as if every appendage is dipped in lead. “Okay.”

  Wonderful. A French-speaking broad with fancy hair, multiple murders and more on the way, and something so tough even Perry’s frightened of it. Not to mention the fact that I think Perry knows more than he’s telling. For a moment I closed my eyes, listening to the clink of glass from the bar, the clatter of silverware and murmur of voices from out in the restaurant, the sound of water and frying from the kitchen, a waitress’s voice lifted in a snatch of song along with Bonnie Raitt on the restaurant’s speaker system, giving “them” something to talk about, a little mystery to figure out.

  Coincidence. Getting a little help again.

  Saul was warm and solid beside me, his arm tightening, and he didn’t let go until I opened my eyes and leaned away.

  This just kept getting better. But for right now, all I wanted to do was go home and sleep.

  13

  Saul collapsed, his lax weight resting on me for a brief moment, his hipbones digging into the soft insides of my thighs. The tattoo high up on my right thigh writhed, its winged tingle running under my skin. I kissed along the edge of his jaw, found his mouth again. He tasted of night, of cold wind and wildness and the Scotch I’d taken down four mouthfuls of before he’d slid his arm around my waist and half-dragged me to the bed.

  My hair was still wet, the charms tinkling slightly as the spillfire of orgasm tore through me again, my hips slamming up. The third was always the nicest; I gasped into his mouth and heard the low rumble of his contentment begin, a purr that shook through every cell, every bone, and chased away all remaining fear. Sweat mixed with the water from the shower, his smell of Ivory soap and animal musk making a pleasant heady brew.

  “Shhh,” he whispered against my mouth. “Kitten, shhh. It’s all right.”

  I quieted, more air gasped in, flavored with his breath. He kissed my cheek, my temple, my mouth again, bracing himself on his elbows.

  As usual, he didn’t want to let go, nuzzling along the line of my jaw and down to the hollow of my throat, teeth scraping delicately as aftershocks rippled through me. It had taken months of patient trying before I could let him touch me anywhere covered by a bikini, and even longer before I could rest there under his weight, utterly vulnerable. We were branching out, experimenting, and I finally felt like I’d trampled some of the demons of my adolescence.

  But coming so close to death raised demons of its own. I went limp, closed my eyes, let him nibble at my throat. It was a highly erogenous zone for Weres, especially Weres of the cat persuasion. A sign of trust, and a sign of territorial marking. A hickey on the neck of a Were’s mate means seriousness, means don’t touch this, it’s mine.

  He was Were. He wasn’t a human man, and sometimes I wondered if that was why I could let him touch me. With Mikhail it had been different—he had been my teacher, trusted absolutely even in the confines of the bed, always in control.

  Until Mikhail had no longer wanted me.

  My hands relaxed, slid down Saul’s arms. The leather of the cuff touched his shoulder. He nuzzled deeper in my throat, the sharp edges of his teeth brushing the skin just over my pulse. A strand of his hair, freighted with a silver charm, lay across my chin.

  “Saul,” I whispered. He sucked at my throat, a spot of almost-pain, gauging it perfectly. I could feel the blood rising to the surface, blossoming on the skin, the bruise would be flawless. A dark mark, almost like a brand.

  One last gentle kiss against my carotid artery and he moved, sliding out of me with exquisite slowness. Off to the side, the bed creaking as it accepted his weight, and the usual slow movement ended up with my head on his shoulder and his arm around me, my body slumped against his side. He was warm, flush with heat, and purring contentedly.

  I thought he would fall asleep, as usual. But instead he pulled the covers up with his free hand, tucking us both in. “Better?” The rumble didn’t fade when he spoke. Nobody could ever figure out where a cat Were’s purr came from. If they know, they’re not telling.

  “Much.” I kissed his shoulder. My neck pulsed with a sweet pain. “Good therapy.”

  “Happy to provide.” He paused. “You looked pretty bloody.”

  It was the closest he would get to an accusation.

  “It beat the shit out of me,” I admitted. “I didn’t hit it.”

  He was still. The rumble kept going. “A trap.”

/>   “Yep.” I dropped the bombshell, even though he would have smelled it on me. “Perry showed up.”

  His purr stopped.

  “Hellfire didn’t even damage the thing, but he blew up a car and it ran off. Then he patched me up.”

  “Patched you up?”

  “Says I’m an investment.” I kissed his shoulder again. Come on, Saul. Please.

  His silence was eloquent.

  “Saul?”

  He moved, a little, restlessly. A movement like a cat settling itself for the night, curling into a warm bed.

  “Please, Saul. Please.” There was nobody else I would use this tone on. Pleading, cajoling, trying to convince. Almost—dare I say it—begging.

  “I don’t like it,” he said, finally. He had gone tense, muscle standing out under his skin, the utter stillness of a hunting beast crouched low in the grass.

  Oh, for God’s sake. “You think I do? You think I like it?”

  “Why keep going back?” As soon as he said it he made a restless movement, then stilled again.

  “He’s fucking useful. And if it hadn’t been for the goddamn bargain I would have died.”

  “I can take care of you.” Stubborn. “If it wasn’t for the goddamn bargain I wouldn’t have left you there.”

  “And they might have killed us both and our witness as well. I’m a hunter, Saul. Perry’s a tool. That’s all. One day I’ll kill him.”

  “Not soon enough.”

  Not soon enough for me either. “Amen to that.” I rubbed my chin against his shoulder. My voice dropped to a whisper, I swallowed and felt the hickey on my throat pulse again. It was better than the scar on my wrist, a cleaner pain. “I love you, dammit.”

  “I know, kitten. I love you.” But anger boiled under the words.

  “It’s just a tool,” I repeated. The thought made me shudder with frantic loathing, remembering bargaining for the mark, remembering the press of that scaled tongue against my flesh. A hundred other unpleasant and downright horrific memories crowded behind that one, threatening like piled black clouds announcing a cataclysmic storm.

  “I know.” Saul’s brushed my wet hair back from my face, I tilted my head against his fingers, savoring the touch that pushed bad dreams away. “I know. I just … I’m gonna breathe a sigh of relief when I see that hellspawn motherfucker draw his last breath. I wish I could tear out his throat myself.”

  You’re not the only one. “I love you,” I repeated, desperately. Under that desperation the deeper plea—don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.

  Not like he would. Weres settle down with their mates, and that’s that. They do it much more easily and cleanly than humans manage to.

  But I wasn’t Were. I was an aberration.

  The tension left him, bit by bit, and the rumbling purr returned. “Loved you the first minute I saw you, kitten. Covered in muck and swearing at the top of your lungs. God, you were a sight.”

  The memory made me smile, drowning the press of other memories not even half as pleasant. I could smile, now that I was almost two years away from that hunt. “Why do they always hide in storm drains? I hate that.”

  “Hm.” He was sleepy now, going as boneless and languid as a cat in a patch of sunlight. The danger was past, thank God. “Go to sleep.”

  “I will,” I whispered. “Stay with me.”

  Because if you leave me, I don’t know what I’ll do. As usual, the thought sent panic through me, plucking at my hard-won control over my pulse, tightening every muscle against postcoital lassitude.

  “Not going anywhere, kitten.” He held me tighter, even as he slid over the edge into sleep, the purr growing fitful but still comforting.

  Thank God for you, Saul.

  I listened to him breathing. It was the sound of safety, of good things, of comfort and pleasure and trust. After imagining what it might be like sometimes in the deep watches of the night, I now knew—and I had no desire to ever go back to being lonely.

  My wrist prickled. The scar always felt like it was burrowing deeper, trying to reach bone. I’d given up wondering if it was phantom pain; it wasn’t any more deeply scarred than it had ever been. It was just part of the deal.

  If it came down to a choice, I was going to have to welsh on a deal with a hellbreed and take my chances. Damned if I did, possibly damned if I didn’t … there was no winning here. The best I could hope for was as long with Saul as I could get.

  Is that enough?

  It didn’t matter. It was all I was going to get. The bruise on my neck settled into a dimple of pleasant heat as I slid over the border into sleep’s country. For once, I had no dreams.

  The next day brought bad news, another body—and the first break. My pager was destroyed from last night’s fun, and it would take me a day or so to get a new one; but they called me at home and I made the scene in less than half an hour.

  “We don’t know her name yet,” Carp said. His hair was back to standing up in messy sandy-blond spikes. “Christ.”

  The abandoned parking lot was deserted under thin winter-afternoon sunshine, weeds forcing up through cracked old concrete. The body—if there was enough left of it to qualify as a body—lay slumped in the middle, blood lying sticky-wet on sharp thistle leaves and dead dandelion plants. The ribs were twisted aside, viscera and other organs gone, the eyes had been plucked from the skull and long strands of blood-matted hair stirred gently under the wind’s stroking fingers.

  Off in the ambulance, the kid who had found the body as he cut through the parking lot on his way to school made a low hurt sound. He was crying messily, and his mother was on her way to pick him up. No more shortcuts for him.

  “God.” I folded my arms. I’d gotten the blood off my coat, but it hung in tatters, clearly showing where the thing had clawed me. The right sleeve had needed patching before I could even put it on, and I wore my second-best pair of boots. “All I have is more questions.”

  “A black van with no license plate. A redhead who speaks French, and something that smells like—what was it?” Carp sounded grimly amused.

  “A wet dog puking its guts out in a whorehouse,” I quoted. I thought he’d enjoy that. Carp’s laugh was sharp and jagged as a broken window.

  Saul picked his way around the body, watching where he stepped. The sun touched the red-black of his hair and the silver of the charms tied in it, ran lovingly down his coat and brought out the glow in his dark skin. A fine-looking man. A very fine-looking man.

  Saul stopped. He lowered himself slowly, staring intently at the ground. Then he reached down, his fingers delicate, and picked something up.

  I held my breath.

  He continued on his circuit, examining the cracked concrete and frost-dead weeds.

  “Looks like Tonto’s found something.” Rosie arrived at my side. “How you feeling, Jill? Heard you caused some damage last night.”

  “Wasn’t my fault. The Feebs treating you right?”

  She shrugged, her eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. Today she wore a hooded Santa Luz Wheelwrights sweatshirt jacket and a black leather coat, jeans and black Nikes. She looked like a fresh-scrubbed college kid, especially with the shades. “Rujillo. He’s okay. Not like that bastard Astin.”

  I winced. Astin had been a good agent, but a rigid one; he believed the local cops were all incompetent or mismanaged. Having him reassigned had been a distinct relief. “Yeah, he’s different. Little more flexible.”

  “You all right?” Her tone was excessively casual.

  So you heard I was covered in blood. Rosie, I didn’t know you cared. The thought was snide, unworthy of me. She did care. A cop who didn’t care wouldn’t have limped down to the warehouse in her bandages and apologized to me. “I got beat up a bit, but I’m okay.”

  “You know what’s going on yet?” This from Carp.

  “Not yet, Carp. Can’t rush these things.” I’m beginning to feel distinctly out of temper. Thin winter sunlight caressed my shoulders, the wind had veered
and was coming from the faroff mountains; we would have deep frost. Living in semi-desert meant that winters were miserable cold times, especially with the war between the river wind and the mountains breathing on us.

  “Wish you could. Press is crawling on our backs. All sorts of wackos coming out of the woodwork.”

  I knew. I’d seen the papers. Serial Murderer Haunts Ladies of the Night! was the kindest headline. Even the respectable rags were trotting out the Jack the Ripper comparisons. And the nightly TV news was in a frenzy. “Any incredibly weird, or just the usual weird?”

  “Just the usual. Crystal-crawlin’ psychics. Copycats. Nutcases.” Carp sighed. “This is starting to piss me off.”

  “Me too.” My tone was a little sharper than usual. I didn’t like being in the dark, and I was failing them. “I’m working as hard as I can.”

  “We know,” Rosie soothed. “We know, Jill.” And they did. I’d worked with them for long enough that they did know, and I was grateful for that.

  Saul approached. He held up his hand, and something dangled: three thin leather thongs, braided, interwoven with feathers and bits of fur. There were complex knots in a pattern that looked vaguely familiar. A single dart of darkness was braided into the end of it.

  An obsidian arrowhead, carefully flaked and probably genuine. Saul’s fingers flicked, and the arrowhead dangled. “Found something.” His face was grim. “Smells awful. Probably related.”

  I plunged a hand in my pocket, already hunting for a drawstring bag. Found one, fished it out, and opened it. “Finally,” I breathed. “Come to Mama.”

  He dropped it in, and wiped his fingers against his leather pants. The thing was oddly heavy, and coldly malignant. And he was right, it did smell. I caught a faint whiff of a familiar reek.

  “I don’t like this.” Saul drew himself up, still scrubbing his fingers against his pants. “That thing is evil, Jill.”

  “They usually are.” I was too relieved to finally have a piece of usable evidence to mind much. “Do you recognize it?”

 
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