Hunters prayer, p.14
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.14

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  “Just a humble hellspawn. Your most respectful servant, Kiss.” He smiled, a thin curve of thinner lips. His tongue flicked once, briefly visible, shocking-wet red. With the cuff off, I could almost see the overlapping scales.

  I am beginning to think you aren’t so humble. You did, after all, produce hellfire in the blue spectrum. Maybe you’re not a hellbreed. Maybe you’re a full-fledged talyn instead of an arkeus? But no. You’re physical. You’re real. I know that. “I know better. You don’t serve, Perry. You like to think you’re the one pulling all the strings. Even mine.”

  “There now.” The smile widened. He took a small sip of his brandy, exhaling with a small, satisfied smile. His eyes hooded, glowed bright blue like gas flames. “I told you, you’re coming along quite nicely.”

  All right, you son of a bitch. “I saw Melisande Belisa today.” I drew in a deep, smooth breath. “She sends her regards.”

  That wasn’t quite true, but if I could distract Perry with the news that the Sorrows were in town I might buy a few minutes without him poking at the inside of my head.

  His eyes flickered, but he didn’t take the bait. “I find it extremely unlikely that she mentioned me. It was only a matter of time before her path would cross yours again.”

  My mouth was dry. I badly wanted to bolt the brandy, restrained myself with an effort of will. Sweat slid down the channel of my spine, a cool tickling finger. “You knew she was in town. That’s why you were following me. Keeping an eye on your investment.”

  An eloquent shrug, giving me nothing. “You’re playing blind.”

  Aren’t I always, when it comes to you. “What do you know about this? Dead teenage hookers and something bullets don’t even dent, something hellfire doesn’t even touch?” Though the hellfire may have touched it; I couldn’t see. I was hardly a disinterested observer at that point.

  “Tonight is not for business.” His tone had cooled. Point one for me.

  He knows something. My pulse abruptly slowed. “That’s part of the bargain, Perry. Your help on the cases I’m working.”

  “And your part of the bargain is time spent with me, in the manner I choose. Which you are violating, by the way.” The silken reminder closed around my throat.

  My temper broke with a brittle snap. “What is it this time, Perry? Am I supposed to whip you until you bleed? Or cut you until you feel like you’re real? Or—oh, here’s a thought. Maybe I should just beat you up. Give you a black eye and mar that unpretty face of yours. We could probably sell tickets. I’m sure all your fucking hellspawn friends downstairs would love to see you taken down a peg or two again.”

  He lifted the snifter. “I could simply send a pair of mercenaries to remove your little pussycat from the land of the living. That would, in fact, please me a great deal.”

  My fingers tightened on the glass. It was suddenly difficult to talk around the lump of dirty ice in my throat. “You leave Saul out of this.”

  He barely raised an eyebrow. “I allow you your regrettable taste for bestiality. You will do me the honor of living up to your part of our bargain.”

  You son of a bitch. “Bestiality would be if I was fucking a hellspawn. You’re not human.”

  “Can you call yourself human, after the things you’ve done? Not to mention the punishment you’ve meted out to one uncomplaining, passive hellspawn who has done nothing but aid you? Or the countless souls you’ve sent screaming back to Hell?”

  I took refuge in sarcasm. “I do love my work.”

  “But you don’t, Kiss. You don’t like causing pain. You don’t like it when you have to kill. You don’t like it when you have to—”

  “I like it just fine,” I interrupted. This is the only part of the goddamn job I hate. This, and looking at dead innocents.

  “They were all pregnant, Kismet.”

  The breath left me in a walloping rush. “What?” I sounded about ten years younger, and breathy as Marilyn Monroe to boot.

  He blinked, both blue eyes suddenly much darker than usual. Almost black, indigo spreading and swelling through the whites. And in the back of each was a glimmer of light, a pinprick of infinity. “There is much more to this than you think. And I am warning you, my dearest little whore of darkness, tread carefully. My protection may only extend so far in this matter.”

  Holy fucking shit. I rocked up to my feet, the glass dropping from my hand and spilling its cargo of liquor onto the pristine carpet. “Are you telling me what I think you’re telling me?”

  “I am telling you it is possible that I can only protect you so far.” He lifted his own glass, carefully. He looked far more immaculate than usual, his cheekbones seemed a little higher, his eyes still indigo, swelling through and staining the whites. Almost … well, if he hadn’t had Exorcist eyes, he might have looked almost handsome. “Though I have made it adequately clear that you are mine, there are … extenuating circumstances.”

  Yours? If you think so, you’ve got another think coming, Pericles. But there was a more important point to be addressed. “Extenuating circumstances? Like what—like you know what’s going on? Like you’re involved?” I was repeating myself. Goddammit. I’d dealt with so many hellbreed. Why did this one give me so much trouble?

  He took another sip, totally unmoved. And yes, friends and neighbors, he was changing shape right before my eyes. Still recognizably Perry, but much handsomer, higher cheekbones and his mouth ripening, his eyebrows subtly remodeling. Was the blandness a front, or was this the lie? “You have an hour and forty minutes left to give me, Kismet. I suggest you rein in your impatience.”

  An hour and forty minutes. My hand curled around—not a butt of a gun. No, it was a knife I went for. Was he trying to make me so angry I attacked him? I can make him bleed, but I can’t make him tell me.

  Not when I’d just gone and given away how interested I was in the whole deal.

  The reek of spilled brandy filled the air, fuming. I eased my hand away from the knife, felt the scar on my wrist go hard and hot, infection pressing against the skin, stretching before the bursting of pus. Perry’s lips thinned even more, turning up into a facsimile of a smile. His eyes turned depthless, with the sparks of infinite darkness dancing far, far back.

  His face finished transforming from bland to sharply handsome, bladed cheekbones and perfect proportions, subtly wrong but still … attractive. In a graceful, hellbreed sort of way; the type of beauty that wormed into the apple and ate it from the inside out. Giving a blush of tubercular crimson to the fruit before the blood started to cough up.

  I dropped down into the chair and stared at him. One hour, forty minutes. God help me. “If you want anything out of me at all, you had better start talking, Pericles.” Even as it left my mouth I knew it was the wrong thing to say.

  “I could speak to you all night. For example, I could begin to extol the virtues of your mouth and move to your eyes, which are charming in their mismatched splendor. Perhaps I could quote from the Bible. I’m told there is some wonderful poetry in there when one overlooks the rape, pillage, plunder, and murder.” The smile touching his lips didn’t resemble anything human at all. “Then again, that might appeal to you, hunter.”

  I crossed my legs and closed my eyes. Deepened my breathing. He waited, but when I didn’t respond I heard cloth shifting, as if he’d moved.

  I breathed deeper, deeper. Relaxed, one muscle at a time. One of the wonderful things about being a hunter: you take your sleep where you can get it, and unless you learn to relax in a dangerous situation you don’t last long.

  Perry didn’t see it as a gift, apparently. “You can’t escape me that easily. I have your time.”

  Fine. But it’s time I’m going to be spending feigning sleep. I settled myself more comfortably, loosened every muscle. Saul. The hickey on my throat burned, a different fire than the scar on my wrist. A cleaner fire.

  Not going anywhere, kitten. Saul’s voice scratched at the inside of my head, the roughness of his hair under my fingers. W
as he right now driving into the barrio, parking my car in some hideous little spot and going into a bar or some little dive to dig for information on the little bit of knotted leather and arrowhead?

  I relaxed. Perry wouldn’t kill me, and even if I couldn’t fall asleep completely I could give a go at faking it. It was a new strategy, I could give it a try.

  Then he touched me.

  The contact slid against my cheek, warm skin; he traced the arc of my cheekbone. Then his fingertips slid over my lips, trailed against my jaw, and brushed down my throat.

  Christ, stop it. Make him stop. Please make him stop. I clamped down on control, heartbeat, respiration, everything. Tension invaded my body. The scar turned liquid, a traitorous outpost on my own flesh.

  He’d never done this before.

  Another, softer touch brushed my lips. There was no stink of rot, but the breath was too hot and humid to be human, and condensation prickled at the corners of my mouth.

  He sipped my breath, and the scar exploded on my wrist, spilling fire through my veins. I heard my own voice, crying out weakly as I spilled off the chair and onto the floor. The riptide of sensation drifted away.

  My hips tilted up. My heels dug into the ground, the scar burned again. No, not again, please not again, please—

  “This does not have to be so difficult,” he whispered against my damp cheek. Was he crouching over me? A brushing, feathery sound filled the air.

  Tears slid down my face. The scar pulsed. Oh, Christ. Christ help me. Still a whore. Once damned, always damned.

  The whisper continued, as the scar pounded another hot acid-burning tide of pleasure through my nerves. “All you must do is give in. I can be forgiving. I can wrap you in silk, I can make your life a series of delights, little one. I can be so kind, if you would simply let me. If you would only bend just the smallest bit and let me turn you, just a fraction. Just a hairsbreadth. Not so much at all. You are already so very, very close.”

  I’ve already turned all I can. I gasped, heard an agonized moan. Like a woman in the throes of love. Or death. As a new strategy, Perry, this one sucks. I was being fucked better than this when I was fifteen years old.

  The moan sent a hot curdled wave of shame through me. My voice. It was my own voice. I braced myself against the welter of sensation spilling from the scar’s puckered little mouth. “Fuck … you,” I gasped. “Hate you.” My voice caught, I gasped again.

  “Oh, Kiss. My poor, poor Kismet.” His breath was against my cheek now, loathsome oily moisture dewing my skin. The scar began to throb harder, the darkness behind my eyelids bursting with fireworks as the ragged leather of my coat rasped against the carpet. “Why do you force me to be so cruel to you?” His hands tensed against the front of my coat. My head fell back, the ruby at my throat hissing a blood-red spark. Perry hissed back in the shapeless grumble of Helletong. “Shall I show you what you’ve been missing?”

  My hand curled around the knifehilt as he lifted me, the silver ring turning hot against my skin. Hard to think past the spill of desire, the flare of heat as the scar was brushed with a random curl of air, it smashed through me again and my hips tilted, body convulsing with poisoned delight. Fingers clamping down, oiled metal leaving the sheath, I slashed with all the strength I could find and felt flesh part like water.

  Fell. My head hit something—a bedpost. He’d thrown me, weightlessness and a jarring crash. The impact rang in my head for a moment until I shook it free and hauled myself to my feet. The crotch of my leather pants was warm, too warm, the sodden material of my panties rasped against delicate tissues and I bit back a curse. Turned on just like the whore I was.

  No. The whore I had been. Now if I fucked someone, I meant it. I wasn’t a working girl anymore.

  Not anymore. Not now.

  Not since I’d killed the man who’d turned me out. Not since I’d descended into Hell and been pulled back by the first man to ever rescue me, the man who had knelt in front of my death-altar with his hand knotted around the ruby, our mixed blood dyeing the gem and dragging me back into the light. The first man and only man who had seen not just tits and ass but my anger, my talent, my strength, my reflexes.

  My ability to become a hunter.

  I gasped, gathering myself. Hoped like hell Mikhail was right and that I had the advantage here.

  It sure as shit didn’t feel like it.

  Perry lifted his bloody fingers to his mouth and delicately licked, his tongue flickering coal-red along thick black fluid. The cut was low on his belly, I’d scored a good hit. “Another sweet nothing, from you.”

  I lifted the knife. Got my balance back. My head rang. “You do that again, you son of a bitch, and I’ll kill you.”

  “Kill me, and your strength is effectively reduced by a few orders of magnitude.” He touched the wound on his stomach again. Thinning black ichor slid down his trouser leg. I’d cut through his suit, ruined another fine shirt. “I’m the devil you know. You should treat me better.”

  “I don’t care if I go back to being a human hunter,” I flung at him, getting my balance and my bearings. “You do that to me again, Pericles, and I will kill you.”

  “I’m only trying to be nice.” His smile widened as he licked his fingers clean of blood. “Wouldn’t you like me to be nice? I can be very, very nice to you.”

  If you only knew how many times I’ve heard a man say something similar. “Sit the fuck down.” I pointed the knife at the chair. “Now.”

  He did, very slowly. I decided it was safer if I got away from the bed. My hands shook, but the knife was steady. Or at least, I hoped it was steady. I took an experimental step. Another. Kept going until I could see his profile, and the glass of brandy spilled on the carpet.

  It was time to get back to business. He wouldn’t be satisfied with just that exchange, but I might get something out of him nonetheless. “They were all three pregnant? How the fuck do you know?”

  He closed both eyes, settled back in the chair. “Ah, now I have your attention. The sum of your regard. The sunshine of your—”

  “Stop fucking with me, Perry. What do you know about this?” I licked my lips, wished I hadn’t. The scar gave a small twinge, another jolt of pleasure sinking through my bones.

  “I know they were all pregnant.” He said it like it meant nothing. He did hear all sorts of things, and I would have to check, but it was a damn good clue.

  If I could follow it. And if he wasn’t lying.

  “And?” How do you know anything about this case at all, Perry? How deep are you in? And what the fuck is that thing that nearly killed me?

  “And nothing more, my dearest whore, unless you pay me.”

  Oh, God. “In what coin?”

  “You know what I want.”

  Rage rose. The knife did shake, perceptibly, as my grip tightened on it. “If you are involved with these murders, Perry, I will—”

  “What? Kill me? You’ve made that threat already. Don’t be boring. If I were involved, would I tell you anything? Besides, there are some things even I will not stoop to profit from. But you should beware. My protection, as I’ve said, may only extend so far.” His voice dropped intimately, like a hand between my legs. “But you could have all my protection, and so much more besides.”

  Some things you won’t stoop to profit from? There’s a short list. I took a deep breath. Christ, Saul. Come back soon. Please come back soon.

  “Sit down,” Pericles said softly. Almost kindly. “No more of this, tonight. Though I do love to hear you whimper.”

  “Go to hell.” It wasn’t very creative, but I was kind of at the end of my leash. This was far worse than any other encounter I’d had with him. He’d been watching me for a while, and hellbreed were masters at finding out what made people tick and taking them apart, piece by piece.

  Seducing them.

  “Oh, no. I like it here ever so much better. Sit down, my dear. In a little while I’ll fetch another drink.”

  My breath turned
harsh in my throat. But he kept his eyes closed, the black blood stopped soaking through his clothes, and the scar didn’t erupt on my wrist. He tilted his head back against the white leather of the recliner. Resting. As if he was satisfied.

  Christ, Perry. What happened to you? You kept trying to make me react by making me hurt you, and now you pull this? The thought that he might have figured out a way to make me react the way he wanted was chilling, to say the least. It meant I would have to find a whole new way to relate to the bargain I’d made, a whole new way to deal with him.

  Like I don’t have enough problems.

  Or maybe he was just moving in on me because I was vulnerable, because this case was bothering me more than I wanted to admit. I lowered myself down in the chair opposite him, the knife’s blade throwing back colored light. Blue from the TV screens, red from the glare in the bulletproof window, gold from the track lighting.

  “One day.” His voice was very quiet, very soft, and almost human. “One day, Kiss, you will have to face just how much like me you can become before you give in.”

  “You can’t turn me, Pericles.” But my throat was dry as sand. I knew better. If he kept getting better at pushing me, things might get sticky.

  I’d have to kill him.

  “I don’t have to. You’ll turn yourself, given enough time. Now be quiet. I want to listen to you breathe.” All semblance of life left him, draining away until he was only an icon painted on the white leather of the chair, a black-splashed icon with his arm clamped against his side. The silver content in my knife must have hurt like a mad bastard even as it healed.

  For the first time we sat there, Perry and I, and he didn’t speak. Neither did I. And when the two hours were up I left. I made it to the iron door at the bottom of the stairs, buckling the leather cuff on, before I started to run. I had promised Saul, yes.

  But I couldn’t stay there a single moment longer.

  16

 
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