Hunters prayer, p.15
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.15

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  I hit the door still running as the cab pulled away. Tossed my torn and battered coat over the habitual chair at the end of the hall and pounded into the practice space, barely hearing the creaks and echoes as the warehouse registered my presence.

  The reinforced heavy bag hung, its scuffed red sides repaired with tape several times. Before I reached it, both my fists were balled up so tight I felt my bones creak.

  I began.

  Leather and vinyl popped. The charms in my hair jingled. Left hook, uppercut, right hook, combinations Mikhail had taught me, my second-best boots scuffing the mats on the floor, the heavy bag shuddering as sweat began to drip down my spine, my arms, my legs.

  My teacher’s voice, with its harsh song of gutter Russian under the language we shared. Use it, use it use it! Zat is best friend right there. Should be able to do this in sleep, milaya, use it! Hurt it! Kill it! Do it!

  How had he seen the potential in me, the scared, skinny, beaten girl in the snow? He’d never told me.

  Of course, I’d never asked, too grateful for his care. For the attention he paid me, attention I was starved for. We are supposed to love our teachers, otherwise it’s unbearable. You have to trust your teacher with your heart and soul, with the other end of the thin silver-elastic cord that is your only way of escaping Hell once you descend. And Mikhail and I had been lovers, of course—it was inevitable, so much adrenaline and prolonged contact, two people closer than siblings or spouses or even twins.

  But we are also supposed to hate our teachers, because they must teach us how to fight. A teacher cannot afford to be an apprentice hunter’s friend. Soft in the training room means unprepared out in the dark depths of the nightside, and that’s something no teacher wants. Losing a fellow hunter is bad.

  Losing an apprentice is a thousand times worse.

  So to hear Mikhail’s ghostly voice was a double-edged comfort. I was making a sound, too. A low, hurt sound, as if I’d been stabbed. The skin on my knuckles broke and bled, leaving wet prints on the thick red vinyl. The blood would grime the ring he’d given me when he accepted me as an apprentice, the ring that was singing a thin distressed tone as my furious pain communicated itself to the metal. The carved ruby spat spark after spark, each a guncrack of frustration.

  Sweat fell in my eyes, stinging, and I pounded on the heavy bag. The doorbell rang, but I ignored it. Anyone knocking at my door would either come in and get shot or go away.

  Throw elbow, solid, tighten up, hit so zey know zey been hit! Not like that, want to lose fucking hand? Tighten up! Vurk it, vurk it, vurk it— Mikhail’s voice, barking through the painful hole in my memory, the years of training peeling away until I was the girl standing on the streetcorner again, cold wind against the backs of my bare legs as the cars crept by, each with its cargo of hungry-eyed men.

  The mousy little brown-eyed, skinny-legged smartass girl. Not me. Not Jill Kismet, kickass bitch.

  Not me. Not anymore.

  The horrible moaning sound stopped. My hands throbbed. Punches slowed, stuttered, I gave one last blow—solid contact, a right cross, the scar on my wrist running with heat—and stood, head down, shuddering, sweat soaking through my clothes as the broken skin on my knuckles melded together, painfully, twitching as it healed.

  “God.” My voice cracked, fell to the floor. “God. Jesus. God.”

  I heard a sound. The east door opening; the front door, the only door that gave onto the street, unlocked because I’d been going so fast. Stealthy movement in the hall, probably human.

  I whirled, gun coming up, the sound of it clearing the leather holster loud in the deafening cavernous draft of the warehouse. The heavy bag creaked as it swayed.

  Standing at the end of the hall, the front door open behind her, was a thin brown-haired girl with a terrific bruise spreading up the side of her face. I had to look under the split lip, the bruise, and the painful, hitching little sounds she made when she breathed before I recognized her.

  It was Diamond Ricky’s number one girl.

  “Jesus fuck,” I yelled, my voice slamming through unprotected space, “what are you doing here?”

  She jumped. She had her hands up, a battered backpack hanging off her thin shoulder. Her legs were bruised and battered too. A short pink skirt and a green sweater with holes in it completed the picture of a woman at the end of her goddamn rope.

  And I knew what that felt like, didn’t I? I’d once looked like that, standing in the burning snow with my life in flames, a stray cat with no place left to go.

  It was official. Perry had gotten to me, and the past was about to swallow me whole. I jerked myself back into the present with an effort that made fresh sweat spring up in the hollows of my armpits and the curve of my lower back.

  She would never know how close she came to eating a bullet, this girl.

  Holy Christ. Echoes faded, bouncing off walls and ceilings. I took a deep breath. Sweat dripped in my eyes, stinging. “Jesus.” I finally managed to get some control of my voice. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

  Her face crumpled a little. Her big brown eyes were the size of dinner plates, and they welled with silent brimming tears.

  I put the gun away, sliding it back into the holster with a creak of leather.

  “My n-name is C-Cecilia,” she whispered. Then she said the magic words. “I … uh, I … can you h-help m-me?”

  I checked her for needle marks, for the nasal deterioration that would mean coke, for the smell of burnt metal that means meth. She looked pretty clean other than the familiar tang of weed and beer. She was also so painfully thin I wasn’t surprised as she stuffed herself with leftover penne and steak. “Go easy on that.” I poured myself a double jigger of Scotch. Drinking too goddamn much. “Don’t get all bulimic.”

  She gave me a pitiful, owlish look, and I immediately felt like the biggest bitch in the universe. I poured her a glass of orange juice, and looked at the clock.

  Three-thirty in the morning. How long had she been sitting outside waiting for me? One shoddy human, and I hadn’t noticed. Was I slipping? Then again, I was tuned to notice things like arkeus and Traders trying to ambush me. Not one skanked-out little girl.

  “You’re Ricky’s number one, aren’t you? His head girl?” The one that keeps all the others in line?

  She nodded, stuffing another mouthful of penne in. I didn’t blame her, Saul makes a kickass red sauce. She wiped her mouth with a paper napkin and sniffed loudly. “I … I met him when I was in high school. I—”

  Jesus. Don’t. I shook my head. “Honey, it’s all the same story, getting into that life. Don’t need to hear it. Now, what’s going on?”

  She stared down at her plate, seeming to lose her appetite. I tried again, pitching my voice low. It cost me to be gentle.

  “Did Ricky bust you up?”

  She nodded. Tears welled up, brimmed out of her sad brown eyes. My frustration mounted another notch. It was like pulling teeth. I settled myself down on the stool at the kitchen counter next to her. “Because?”

  “I … I know some things.”

  No shit. But what are you doing at my door, woman? “Like what? What do you know?”

  She gulped in air. “I knew Baby Jewel. And Sweet Sylvie. There’s … you know, an awful lot of the girls have gone missing lately. It’s hard to keep track of people, they move in and out, some of them go north on the circuit, some go back east—it’s just really hard.”

  I nodded. Sweat had dried on my forehead, my shirt stuck to me. I smelled like a hard workout and spilled brandy.

  And hellbreed. Let’s not forget the hellbreed. Goddamn you, Perry. He had wormed his way into my head with startling ease, and with a suddenness that left me breathless. Had he just been waiting for the right moment and pretending to misunderstand me all along? “I know what that’s like.”

  She shoveled another spoonful of penne in. Chewed and gulped it down. “They’ve been going missing for a while. There were whispers, before. But it’s bee
n really bad since … oh, since spring. When the rain moved in that one week and we had flash floods.”

  I remembered, there had been people caught in the floods. Idiots, mostly, but that rain had made the hunt for a Trader serial rapist miserable. You haven’t had a week off since spring, Saul’s voice whispered in my head. He’d be going back to the Monde to look for me. Dammit.

  “How bad?”

  “Bad enough that girls are starting to get desperate. They …” She gave me an uncertain look, as if gauging my comfort level with details about the night trade. It made me want to laugh. Did she think I was a john or a nine-to-fiver?

  To hell with dead whores, my own voice rose up to haunt me. “It’s okay,” I said, as gently as I could. “Believe me, kid, nothing you could say could shock me.” I’ve probably done it all twice if it’s human, or killed it at least once if it’s nightside.

  She probably didn’t believe me, but she continued anyway. “They won’t get into cars with a trick they don’t know. Everyone’s trying to buddy up, to get a good look at the last trick anyone else goes with. But it’s hard. And there’s been … well, Bethie Stride disappeared, and Mercy. And Lucy Long, and Star and Hope and Alexis—and these are all girls who wouldn’t leave the city. But the worst is, if a girl gets pregnant she vanishes.”

  Pregnant. Even with condoms and spermicide it happened. Not a lot of working girls could afford the pill, or could remember to take it every morning. And then there were pimps, and tricks who paid more for skin jobs. An occupational hazard, in the sex trade. “How many pregnant girls are there on the strip now?”

  “Not a lot. They all keep disappearing.” She tore off a bite of wheat bread; I’d buttered two slices for her.

  Pregnant hookers. Pregnant women, with all their organs gone. And their eyes. I frowned at my glass, seeing the amber liquid inside swirl gently as my attention touched it. And those marks, too clean and sharp to be claw-marks. Scalpel cuts.

  The scar on my wrist throbbed under the leather cuff. My back ran with gooseflesh.

  Profit incentive. “There are some things even I will not stoop to profit from.” What if one of those things is the sale of bodily organs and stem cells? “Holy fuck,” I breathed. “Holy mother of fuck.”

  “She is attempting an evocation, hunter. She is fueling it with death and acquiring funding from the sale of bodily—”

  And I’d fired on Belisa, who may have been trying to mindfuck me with the truth.

  Oh yeah. This just keeps getting better.

  “Yeah.” She pushed her stool back and dug in her backpack as I watched. “Look.” And she came up with a thick wad of crumpled, dirty bills. “I’ve got two grand in cash.” She laid it on the counter between us. “Most of it’s mine, but five hundred’s from Ricky’s stash. If I go back he won’t just beat me up, he’ll mark my face. Maybe kill me. He’s done it before.” Her eyes met mine. “Can I … I mean, they said you could help people. Can you help … me?”

  Those little words. Those little magic words. Can you help me? You’re my only hope. Help me. Please, for the love of God, help me. Of all the words a hunter hears, those are the most common. And those were the words that drag us in, again and again.

  Well, we sure as hell weren’t in it for the money, were we.

  “You want out of the life?” I said it as flatly as I could. “You get one fucking chance, doll. One. You fuck up with any help I give you and you’re on your own. I don’t care how you got on the street; if you’re determined you’ll get the help you need to stay off. But don’t fuck with me.”

  “You think I don’t know that?” She yanked her stool back up to the bar and hunched over her plate, beginning to eat again in great starving bites. I saw the deep ugly freshness of the bruise on her face and winced inwardly. “There’s stories about you,” she said between mouthfuls. “All sorts of stories. Ricky calls you a witch.”

  “Not a witch. Exorcist, sorceress, and tainted with hellbreed, but not witch.” I didn’t have to work for a dry tone. “Don’t let that concern you, though. You’re better off not knowing.” Believe me, are you better off not knowing.

  She shivered. I didn’t try to console her. I was having enough trouble consoling myself.

  Fuck Perry. You’ve got a job that needs doing here, Kismet. You just forget about him for a little while, you’re paid up until next month when it comes to His Royal Hellbreedness. One problem at a goddamn time.

  I decided. “Okay. I’m going to clean up a little and then we’re going to have a nice long chat. Then I’ll call a friend of mine who might be able to give you a safe place to stay until this is all over. But I warn you, you’d better not fuck with anyone I call for you. No drugs, no tricks, no nothing. Strictly legit. You got it?”

  Her eyes couldn’t get any bigger. I squashed the little voice inside my head telling me I was being a bitch for no good reason.

  She nodded. “I got it.” She sounded about five years old.

  “Cecilia. You got a last name?”

  She started as if pinched. “Markham.”

  “Well, Miss Markham, you’re officially under my protection as a witness. I’m gonna go get cleaned up. There’s more juice in the fridge.” I paused, looking down at the grubby pile of bills. “And put that cash away. You’ll need it to start a new life.”

  The way her pinched, bruised, split little face lit up was enough to make me feel like an even bigger bitch than before.

  I am not hellbreed, I told myself as I headed for the bathroom. I’m a hunter, goddammit. And whoever’s harvesting hookers in my city is going to get a little taste of Judgment Day real soon now.

  I couldn’t help feeling better.

  17

  I didn’t call Galina; I had already dumped one witness on her. Instead, I called Avery and wished Saul had a cell phone. Then again, if he was down in the barrio, he didn’t need any distraction. He’d catch up with me soon enough.

  Ave promised to drop by and pick up the girl as soon as he could, which meant three hours since he was on his Sunday overnight shift. One of those hours I spent questioning her. She was bright and relatively observant, and living on the street had fine-tuned her instinct for what was bullshit and what was truth left unsaid.

  What Cecilia could tell me was almost as interesting as what she couldn’t. The doctor on Quincoa—Kricekwesz—had been taking care of street girls as a profitable side gig for a long time now. Recently, though, whispers had started. The flesh gallery was alive with rumors, because girls that told their running mates or coworkers (if such a word could be used for girls that worked for the same pimp or walked the same bit of street) that they had a little “trouble” started disappearing. And the girls that visited the doctor came back with appointments to see him again—but never got there.

  “It’s not just girls,” Cecilia told me. “Some of the street kids, the young ones, get taken too. And some of the older rummies on the street have started to talk about weird things. Seeing weird things.” When pressed, she shook her head. “I dunno. I’ve heard everything from UFOs to Sasquatch. Real crazy shit.”

  If other people had seen what Robbie the Juicer had seen, no wonder the street scene was boiling with rumor.

  The most interesting piece of news was the pimps all getting together after I’d put the squeeze on Ricky. A meet was something that only happened in dire circumstances, thanks to the egos of the petty thugs involved. There was always fresh meat, but one or two of the flash boys had been grumbling about something cutting into their profit by picking off the girls. Ricky had thrown a fit, but he was small fry even though his girls had some prime real estate.

  Another pimp, a heavyset black man with gold-capped front teeth who went by the name of Jonte, had told everyone to shut up, because they would be getting paid plenty. He’d told Ricky in no uncertain terms that the little shit hadn’t been let in on the action because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, Ricky had gotten fresh and got bitch-smacked for his pains. Which explai
ned why the smacking had devolved onto Cecilia, incidentally.

  And then there was the bombshell. The meeting had also been attended by a representative from the local Mob, Jimmy Rocadero, with two bodyguards. Beyond supporting Jonte’s claim that the pimps would be paid plenty for going along with the program, Rocadero hadn’t said much, but his mere presence had scared some of the smaller fish in the pond. Every pimp in Santa Luz paid a percentage to the Mob. It was just how business is done.

  “Do you know if the strip clubs are having similar turnover?” I asked.

  Cecilia, the worst of her scrapes Bactined and a few Band-Aids applied, as well as arnica to take down some of the worst swelling, no longer even looked eighteen. Instead, she looked twelve. A very frightened twelve. She curled up on my couch with a battered teddy bear she’d fished out of her backpack and jumped at the slightest noise. I hoped her ribs weren’t busted up; she sounded horrible when she breathed. She had nothing but short skirts and hot pants in her backpack, so I’d rustled up a pair of paint-splattered sweats for her. She shook her head. “I dunno. I never did the strips. By the time I was old enough I was already turned out for Ricky.”

  I sat on the floor, cross-legged in leather pants and a Prospero’s Housewives T-shirt, thinking about this. The need for action boiled away under my breastbone, but there was nothing I could do right at the moment except get every scrap of information I could from this girl.

  I had brought out a package of Oreos, and she was putting them away at a steady rate. I hope she doesn’t make herself sick. I had a sudden vision of holding her long brown hair back while she retched.

  It wasn’t pleasant.

  I took a closer look at her. She’d been pretty, and bright enough to escape getting hooked on something deadly. I pegged her as smart but terribly needy, probably a cheerleader in high school with a bad home life that she thought running away would save her from.

  Like looking into a fucking mirror, eh, Jill?

  I pushed that voice away. It was time for the most inconsequential but revealing question.

 
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