Hunters prayer, p.11
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.11

           Lilith Saintcrow
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He shook his head, his jaw setting grimly. I stuffed the bag in another pocket, and studied the body. Now that Saul had circled it I approached, cautiously; he had point-blank refused to let me get near it until he had a chance to look. He stayed back as I edged closer, but I felt his eyes on me.

  No, Saul wasn’t happy either. But whether it was the case or Perry, I wasn’t going to guess.

  Now that I’d seen the creature, I could see marks that matched its claws. There were ragged slices in the flesh, chunks taken out of the thighs and the breasts gone, just divots with glaring-white splinters of rib poking through sodden meat.

  I peered into the cavity left by the taking of the viscera, and my eyes narrowed. Wait a second. Wait just a goddamn second.

  I looked through the rest of the scene, too, found exactly zilch. But my heart was beating quickly as I nodded at the forensic team and went back to Saul. “There’s something else,” I said.

  Rosie and Carp both went still, attentive. Like bloodhounds straining at the leash. I took a deep breath, a chill finger sliding up my spine; it was the feeling of the first piece of a pattern falling into place. “There’s claw marks and other marks. The thing I saw last night had claws shaped like this.” My hands sketched briefly in the air. “The other marks, inside the abdominal cavity and around her eyes—those are too clean, and they’re almost covered by the claw marks. The ones covered up are made by something sharp. Like a scalpel.”

  “A scalp—” Rosie trailed off. Her mouth pulled down, meditatively.

  “Scalpel.” Carp scratched at his chin. “Well. Okay. So?”

  “I assumed the creature was eating what it took. It may be. But it might also be getting a little help. Or eating leftovers.” I folded my arms against the chill in the air, the butt of a gun digging into my left hip.

  Carp kept scratching at his chin. “Or it’s covering something up.”

  “Either way.” The smile pulled up my lips, baring my teeth in a feral grimace. “Cheer up, boys and girls. This constitutes our first bit of good luck.”

  “How so?” Rosie didn’t sound convinced.

  “Well, it’s more than we had before. And if that little thing Saul found is from it, we can track it. Tracking it’s the first step to finding it, which is the first step to taking its sorry ass apart. And that will make me very, very happy.”

  Saul stirred next to me, and I didn’t have to read his mind. He was thinking that I’d run up against this thing once before and nearly died, so why should tracking it make me happy?

  But I did. I felt irrationally happy. If it would make a mistake like dropping something, it could make other mistakes. Unless this was a challenge, a fuck you, Kismet. We nearly got you last night; we’ll get you eventually.

  “Do we know the time of death?”

  “Hard to tell with the body so torn up. But it ain’t frozen. And if it ain’t frozen with this kind of cold, and on pavement, it’s still pretty fresh.” Carp sounded as unhappy as it was possible to sound without sarcasm.

  “The blood’s still a little tacky-wet too.” I cast around. Good luck getting tire tracks on this concrete, and how did they get the van here? If they did get the van here. “The question is …” I sorted through all of the questions in my head, still far too many for my taste. I picked the most useful one. “The question is, why get rid of the bodies like this? What purpose does it serve?”

  “Make our lives miserable,” Carp muttered.

  “Not as miserable as hers.” Rosie jerked her chin toward the body, now being swarmed with forensic techs.

  “I’m going to go do some research.” I rocked back on my heels as Saul bumped into me, crowding me again. His heat was a comfort in the early morning chill. They were right, the body hadn’t frozen yet. Whoever she was, she was freshly killed. “Buzz me if anyone else dies.”

  Black humor, maybe. Bleak gallows humor. But you spend enough time looking at dead bodies and hanging out with cops, and that kind of humor becomes necessary. It’s a shield held up against the dark things we see, against the horrific things that can happen to anyone.

  I’m lucky. I see inhuman things and how they prey on humanity. I see the aberrations, those who bargain away their souls for power, those who trade everything for the sweet seduction, the canker in the rose, the dominion of the earth. The cops have it so much worse.

  They have to see the things human beings do to each other without any help from Hell.

  Saul’s chest brushed my back. He had stepped behind me, looming just like a Were. The fresh hickey on my neck throbbed.

  “Yeah, we’ll call you. Why don’t you get a goddamn cell phone?” It was an old complaint. Carp hunched his shoulders, fishing a pair of latex gloves out of his jacket pocket.

  “Can’t afford to replace ‘em, as many times as I get beat up and dumped in water. Not to mention electrocuted, stabbed, shot—”

  “Okay, okay. I got it.” Carp rolled his eyes. “Get this one corralled quick, Kiss. Rosie’s getting pissy with the long hours.”

  Rosie wasn’t amused. “Fuck you. Glad you’re okay, Kiss.”

  I leaned back into Saul before moving away, feeling his hand brush mine. “Me too, Rosie. Thanks.”

  Saul followed me to the Impala, sitting tucked out of sight on Edgerton Street. He was sticking so close he might have been glued to me, and after dropping into the driver’s seat I waited for him to come around and get in. He did, and I looked at the red fuzzy dice. They swung gently when I reached up and touched them, a gift from Galina.

  I should go see her and have a cup of tea, it always helps me think clearer. But we had a witness stashed at her house, and it wouldn’t do to go visiting her again and perhaps bring trouble to her door.

  Saul didn’t buckle his seat belt. Waited, staring out through the windshield. His profile was beautiful. I looked at his mouth—he had such a lovely mouth, his upper lip chiseled and his lower slightly full, a little bruised from kissing. One of these days, I’m going to leave a hickey on him. He’ll like that.

  “This is a break,” I told him. “A good one.”

  He shrugged. “I don’t like it. Broadway’s only four blocks away.”

  Meaning they’re playing with me. They dumped the body less than four blocks away from where they tried to kill me. Or did it come straight from dumping the body to mangle me? Either way, it’s not good. “I know. But this is still a break.”

  “You’re visiting Perry tonight.”

  Thanks for reminding me. The skin on my back roughened. I buckled myself in. He reached for his own seatbelt.

  I twisted the key. The Impala’s engine purred into life. Sixty-seven was the best year in American car history. My hands gripped the wheel. I decided silence was my best option.

  What he said next destroyed that theory. “I want you to stay there.”

  “What the fuck?” I twisted my head to look at him so quickly a silver charm flew and smacked the window on my side, my hair ruffling out. It almost hit me in the eye, but thankfully the red thread held and it was snatched back as my head turned.

  “I want to go do some research. I want you to stay at the Monde until I get back. It might take me a little while.”

  “Why? Where are you going?” I heard my voice hit the pitch just under “shriek.”

  “Just out to the barrio. I got a few things on my mind.” He stared out the windshield.

  “Like what?”

  “Just a few things.”

  Fuck that. “I’ll go with you.”

  “No, kitten. There are some places down there you shouldn’t go.”

  It didn’t help that he was right. The barrio was a good place for someone of my racial persuasion to end up dead; the Weres ran herd out there and only called me in if something boiled over. “People are dying, Saul. I’ll go anywhere I need to.” I settled back into the seat, listening to the engine’s steady comforting purr.

  “Please, kitten. If you’re at the Monde, I know you’re at least alive. I don’t want t
o take you into the barrio.” His eyes dropped, he looked at the dash.

  “You’d rather leave me with Perry.” Was that accusation in my voice? Wonders never cease.

  “He’s got a vested interest in keeping you alive, you keep reminding me of that. And he chased that thing off last night.”

  “I don’t think he chased it off.”

  “It left when he showed up. Good enough for me. Come on, Kiss. Please.”

  This is something I never thought I’d hear from you, Saul. I looked at my knuckles, white against the steering wheel. Then I reached down, shifted into first to pull out onto Edgerton. “Jesus Christ, Saul. What the hell’s going on?”

  “I wish I knew, kitten. I really do.” He did, too. I could hear it. Whatever he suspected, it had to be really bad if he was going into the barrio; doubly bad if he wanted me to spend any more time with Perry than was absolutely necessary. “I just want to ask some questions.”

  “Like what questions?”

  “Like some Were questions. Watch your driving.”

  “Shut up about my driving.” I took a right on Seventh, turning up toward downtown. “Talk to me, Saul. Come on.”

  “I just want to ask about that braid and knot pattern, that’s all. It looks familiar, but I can’t quite place it.”

  “Is the arrowhead genuine?”

  “You’re a sharp girl. I think it is.” He shifted in his bucket seat, leather moving against the red fur of the seat covers; he fished a Charvil out of the box in his breast pocket. Rolled the window down a little, lit it with his wolf’s-head Zippo. I reached down and yanked out the ashtray.

  “The hair?”

  “Human.” His voice was shaded with distaste.

  “Christ.” I shifted into fourth, the tires chirped a little when I stamped on the gas. “Give me a vowel here, Saul.”

  “Wish I had one to give. It just looks familiar but I can’t place it. Makes my hackles go up.”

  Yours too? “Instinct.”

  “Trust it.”

  “I do.” I have a healthy respect for a Were’s instinct. “All right.”

  He obviously hadn’t expected me to give in so easily. “You’ll stay there?”

  “I will, Saul. If you want me to, I’ll put up with Pericles. Just do what you have to and don’t leave me there long, for God’s sake. I suppose you want my car.”

  “I’ll clean out the ashtray.” He inhaled, blew out a long stream of cherry-scented smoke. His unhappiness mixed with mine, a steady tension between us. “And I won’t grind the gears. We going to the hospital?”

  “I want to check in on Father Rosas. Something about a Chaldean in a seminary after a Catholic artifact doesn’t sit right with me. And an artifact I’ve never heard of—and that Hutch hasn’t, either?” I paused, hit the left-hand blinker and turned left on Pelizada Avenue. Then we’re going to visit that doctor on Quincoa.

  He inhaled a deep lungful of cherry-scented smoke, blew it out the window. “Catholic rites do offer protection against Chaldean sorcery and possession. That bird-thing couldn’t get out of the chapel.”

  You’ve been studying, you naughty boy. My wrists weren’t steady enough, a tremor running all the way up to my elbows I ignored. “Catholic immunity only started in the sixteenth century with the creation of the Jesuits and their Shadow Order. Loyola created the Society in 1534 and the Shadow Order in 1536 by secret charter; the Sorrows started to feel the pinch in 1588 when their House in Seville was cleared and torched. That was Juan de Alatriste.” I knew I was babbling, couldn’t help myself. “And then Alatriste went against the scurf in Granada and—”

  “Breathe, Jill.”

  I took a deep breath. My knuckles almost creaked, my fingers were clenched so tightly. “The only thing worse than going there is anticipating it.”

  “He counts on that.”

  “And you want me to stay there after he’s finished with me.” You hate him. The very first thing you learned about me was that I smelled like hellbreed. You hated me, as much as a Were can hate, I guess.

  His silence answered me. He inhaled again. Dry cold air bloomed through his slightly open window.

  My heart twisted. I still didn’t know why Saul had changed his mind about me. I didn’t know what he got out of staying with me. All my life I’ve stayed alive by knowing the motivations of everyone around me, especially everyone who could hurt me. Anyone who made me vulnerable.

  I could understand, I guess, why Saul wanted me somewhere he knew I’d be protected if that thing—whatever it was—came after me again. What I didn’t understand was why he was with me at all. He was Were, and human rules didn’t apply. I mostly thought that was a good thing.

  Now I wondered.

  I’d trusted him this far, with my body and whatever was left of my heart. I’d trusted him with everything Mikhail had left me. And I’d trusted him to watch my back more times than I could count.

  It would have to be good enough.

  “Okay.” I downshifted as the light on Pelizada and Twelfth changed. “Okay. You got it. Okay.”


  Sisters of Mercy rose above downtown like a giant brooding concrete bird. The old hospital was lost in a welter of pavement, but the great granite Jesus tacked on the roof still glowered in the direction of the financial district. We went in through the side entrance and suffered the immediate attack of linoleum, disinfectant, floor wax, and the smell of suffering.

  Saul reached down and took my hand as soon as we walked in. I’ve grown to hate hospitals. Don’t get me wrong—they’re mostly wonderful places, staffed by some of the best and most dedicated around. But like schools, they just raise my hackles. So much suffering and free energy floating around, whether from illness and dying or from kids squeezed into little boxes and told to behave; so much pain. It’s a charged atmosphere, which is good for a hunter—we kind of amp up to meet that charge—and bad for a hunter as well. There’s only so long you can stay with your hackles up before going a little wack.

  Of course, the case could be made that we’re all permanently wack anyway.

  We took the stairs up to the fifth floor, post-cardiac. My footsteps echoed in the hall, and I began to feel a little uneasy. My fingers tightened, and Saul gave me a single inquiring look.

  I spotted Father Guillermo down the hall, and felt my face harden. It still rankled. The Church funded training for quite a few hunters, but it was an article of faith and doctrine that we were going to Hell for our traffic with and contamination by the nightside. Still, I’d thought I could trust Gui, that he wouldn’t … well, hold out on me.

  Treat me like just another layman.

  God knew I’d handled enough exorcisms for him. I deserved a little bit of warning if his seminary was holding a relic or artifact—even if it was very likely that the Sorrows had no interest in the fucking thing.

  Why were they there, then? What the hell’s going on with that?

  The scar tightened, sending a flush of heat up my arm. I stopped dead. My nostrils flared. Saul went still and dangerous beside me.

  “You smell that?” I asked, as he let go of my hand and reached for the hilt of his Bowie.

  “Incense,” he replied. “And blood. A blue smell.”

  Not just a blue smell, but a smell I remembered. A smell that made my hackles not just rise, but stiffen into steel spikes and pulse with bloodlust.

  God, how I hate them. Hate them.

  “A Sorrows adept.” I shook my hair back. The hallway was cluttered along the sides with little stations for doing paperwork, bits of medical paraphernalia, doctors in doors talking quietly or striding away purposefully—and Father Gui, his stare blank as he leaned against the wall three feet away from a door that was slightly ajar.

  Probably Father Rosas’s room.

  I went for my guns, they cleared leather in a heartbeat. Kept them low, glanced up at Saul. His cheeks were pale under his darker coloring.

  “Keep track of Gui,” I whispered. “If he starts
to act possessed, just back off and keep him in sight. Okay?”

  “‘Kay.” He knew the drill. “Gonna kill a Sorrow, baby?”

  As many of them as I can in this lifetime. “You better believe it.” I started down the hall.

  They don’t tell you in training how the world slows down with each footstep as you approach a fight. Each breath takes forever. The palms get sweaty, the heart beats thick and fast, the hair on the back of the neck tries to stand straight up.

  All in all, great fun.

  Father Gui stared straight ahead. He made no move, and I didn’t sense anything demonic in him. His tumbled black curls rested sleekly against his head, and his eyes were glazed, half-closed. The smoky oddness of a hypno-spell wove in the air around him, and I cursed inwardly. Finding out if the Sorrow had planted any triggers in him would be uncomfortable at best.

  I pushed the hospital door in with my foot, every nerve aware of Gui leaning against the wall. If he moved with the eerie speed of the possessed, this could get really ugly really quick.

  I saw a slice of the hospital room, a pale blue curtain drawn around the bed, the door to a small bathroom standing ajar. Christ. Take your pick. Do you think a Sorrow’s going to be hiding in the can, or behind the curtain? Standing next to Father Rosas with a knife to his carotid, maybe? It’d be just like a Sorrow to take a hostage and kill ‘em anyway.

  I paused. The beeps of a heart monitor sounded, brightly ticking off cardiac squeezes. The sound came from behind the blue curtain, and the room was full of the blue, incense-laden smell of a Chaldean whore.

  “You can come in,” a familiar voice said. “I’m at the window. And I’m alone.”

  A woman’s voice. My entire body went cold, then flushed with the heat of rage. I knew that voice. Of all the adepts of any Sorrows House, it was the last one I would think stupid enough to put herself in a room with me.

  It was the bitch herself, Melisande Belisa.

  The woman who had killed my teacher.

  She was in the window, but I checked the bathroom and ripped aside the curtain. Jolly fat Father Rosas, his cheeks ashen, slumbered the sleep of a tranquilized and tired old man. The red blossoms on his nose and upper cheeks were testament to his love for the bottle, and his graying black hair was lank and greasy, beginning to go bald on top. But he was whole, and still alive—and he had a visitor.

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