Hunters prayer, p.18
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.18

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Don’t fall for that, sweetheart. It’s just another dirty little facade. If Saul wasn’t here we’d see a different Perry indeed.

  “Wendigo.” I crunched on another bit of bacon. “A flesh-eating spirit, with its lips and nose frozen off. Come on, Saul.”

  “Jillian, if you don’t cut the crap, I’m going to take your breakfast back and drag you into the sparring room. And make you wash the goddamn blood off the goddamn sheets, too. Look at your coat. This is no fucking laughing matter.” Even, chill, cold. Saul had never spoken to me like this before. “A wendigo is something else. It’s a spirit made mad by neglect and violence, a spirit that has done what is taboo—tasted human flesh, developed a craving for it.”

  A craving for human flesh and black-market organs. Why is this fitting together far too neatly for my comfort? And the unearthly, deadly icy chill of the thing rose briefly in memory. I shivered again. “A Were spirit? That thing wasn’t a Were. I know Weres.”

  “It’s not Were, it’s a spirit we know about. Totally different kettle of fish.” Saul folded his arms. “Some of the legends say they’re maybe Weres dying without burial rites, or a Were who was taboo in life. I don’t know. The legends are confused. It’s not like hunting scurf. Weres know scurf. These things … humans might get confused about them, but whatever they are, they’re not Were.”

  “Jesus.” I was having a little trouble with this. The last thing we needed was it getting out that the Were had anything to do with something like this. This thing was as unlike Weres as… . My brain failed, trying to come up with the simile. But a non-hunter, even one with some nightside experience, wouldn’t understand that. Hell, plenty of nightsiders with grudges against the furkind wouldn’t understand it either.

  Perry finally weighed in, as if he couldn’t help himself. “Really, dear Kiss, you should listen to furball here. He knows more than you think. After all, he didn’t go into the barrio to seek facts. He went to confirm.”

  My fork paused halfway to my mouth, and I looked up at Saul. His mouth had drawn down bitterly, and he pushed his hair back with one hand. But his other hand was on the counter, and his knuckles were white.

  What, did Saul think a transparent little ploy like that would work on me? How far inside my head did he think Pericles had wormed his little hellbreed way?

  However far Saul thinks he has, he’s probably gotten in further. Last night proved that, didn’t it? “You suspected it?” I felt like an idiot with my fork in the air, I set it down gently, carefully, on the cobalt-blue counter. “Saul?”

  “I didn’t know.” He picked up his juice again, took a sip, his eyes not leaving mine. But I got the idea that if he could have, he would have darted a venomous look at Perry. “Until I knew for sure, I didn’t want to open my mouth and muddy the trail.”

  I nodded. Looked down at my plate. “Well, that’s why you’re my partner.” Nice try, Perry. But no dice. “So you’re absolutely satisfied that this thing is a wendigo?”

  He nodded. The silver in his hair tinkled, and his dark eyes lost their hardness and for a moment were lambent orange, a Were’s hunting glow. “I’d bet my life on it.”

  “It’s not your life we’ll be betting, it’s mine.” I stared down at my plate, forced my fingers to curl around the fork again. “Whatever it is, I’m taking it down. What kills a wendigo?”

  Saul sighed, heavily. “I don’t know yet. The legends are … confused. The werespider was part of a team that tracked one of those things for fifteen weeks, through a few snowstorms, and finally killed it by driving off the edge of a crevasse and dynamiting a mountainside down on it. The creature and the dynamiting combined to knock out most of her team.”

  “How many?” Werespiders aren’t known for being pack animals; like werecats they tend to be independent, loosely affiliated in tribes rather than in pack-groups. Except werelions, of course. Always excepting werelions. Some bird Weres were highly social, and most of the canine Weres except the occasional albino shaman. Then there were the khprum and the scorpiani, who some sources said weren’t Weres at all, not to mention the kentauri and the wererats, who are highly social and stratified to a fault. The wererats, incidentally, are the closest in physiology and outlook to humans.

  Nobody but me usually sees the humor in that.

  “Fourteen in the team. The spider and a wereleopard made it back. The wereleopard died of matesickness two months after; his mate was lost in the dynamiting. If they hadn’t been out in the middle of nowhere the casualties might’ve been higher. Humans and such.”

  Crap. I mulled this over, tapping my fingertips on the countertop. In an urban setting, this didn’t bode well. “An evocation in four days. Bodies being dumped, clean of organs… . Saul, where are the autopsy files? I wonder how much other body mass was lost. Muscle, specifically.”

  “Belly muscle was gone on the ones we saw. Some bites on the thighs and the arms, too.” He edged down the counter to a stack of file folders. “But Rocadero wasn’t found with his organs gone.”

  I snorted. “Given his proclivities, I’m not sure his own side didn’t murder him.” I was chewing on more egg when a terrible idea hit me. “One of the traditional evocations of the Nameless is done with perfect-tallow candles. Victims’ omentums would be perfect for that. All you’d need is a place to render it down.” My gorge rose; I swallowed it and took a gulp of coffee. “Ugh. This is going to be a messy one. How about Rocadero gets sliced because he’s no longer useful?”

  “How so?” He slid the folders down to me. Perry had subsided, but I get the feeling he was only biding his time. Some essential quality of scariness had drained away from him in my sunny kitchen, Saul’s territory in the middle of my house, and I was grateful for that.

  But not grateful enough to relax. Or to think he was finished yet. “Let me pass this theory by you. A Sorrow escapes, she decides for whatever reason that she’s feeling a little apocalyptic. She starts laying her plans and moves into Santa Luz, finds a Mob man, and starts supplying him with black-market organs, taking a healthy cut to fund her dreams of world domination. She gets the organs out with the help of a trained doctor—our friend Kricekwesz. Then she throws whatever bits she doesn’t need to the wendigo, who sits in the van and snacks until she needs to get rid of an inconvenient hunter.” I buttered my English muffin, very pleased with myself. “Only why does she start dumping pregnant hookers?”

  “Once-pregnant hookers,” Perry corrected, pedantically.

  “They were still pregnant when they were killed.” I looked at him, hunching on the stool, and had a moment of dangerous pity. He looked miserable.

  But even a miserable rattlesnake can kill.

  “We don’t know that. They were visiting an abortionist.” He pronounced the word with no audible weight, just a slight emphasis on the last syllable that made it sound vaguely French.

  Where do you come from, Perry? “Thanks for putting my house back together,” I said suddenly. “Why did you follow me?”

  “The cat wasn’t at the Monde to pick you up. I thought you might be in a state to harm yourself.”

  Well, isn’t that decent of you.

  Saul pushed the folders closer, hitting my elbow. Subtle of him, but I was glad of it anyway. “Fetal tissue?” he hazarded. “Valuable stuff, to the right buyer.”

  I swallowed another wave of nausea. Goddammit. I needed the nutrition if I was going to stay on my feet and bounce back after using the staff. “Oh, yuck. That’s a wonderful thought to have with breakfast.” Not to mention one I’ve been kicking around for a bit.

  “Troubled by a delicate stomach, my Kismet?” Perry was suddenly all solicitude. The oil in his voice reminded me of the terrible devouring spill of pleasure through my nerves, the mark on my wrist suddenly swollen-hot with his attention.

  I closed my eyes, chewing the English muffin. Swallowed. “Our first stop is this Kricekwesz. If he’s not in his office I want to tear the goddamn place apart until we find something, anything
. I want to get Carp and Rosie to start leaning on the organ trade in town. And I want to find Melisande Belisa. She knows something, and once we get our hands on her I want to make her squeal.” My eyes opened, met Perry’s. “You ever menaced a Sorrow before?”

  Did I imagine it, or did a flicker of a snarl cross his face? “They don’t like hellbreed. With good reason.” He set his coffee cup on the counter. “If you will agree to stay in my sight until this matter is finished, I will agree to find this Sorrow and make her fit her name.”

  “I thought your protection only extended so far.”

  “That was before you were attacked in your own home, Kiss.” He slid off the stool, and I tensed. What was it about daylight that made him seem so bloody human? “All bets, as they say, are now off. I want to repair some of the holes in the walls. Call me if anything interesting happens.”

  He glided away, and I sighed. I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.

  Saul muttered something unprintable. I silently agreed. “I don’t like this,” I said quietly. “So he shows up just in time, both times. I dragged Elizondo in on a slave-ring charge and he was in the Monde after we scorched that hole on North Lucado. And now this organ thing, and a wendigo. Saul, you’re sure? Absolutely sure?”

  “Hundred percent.” He hunched his shoulders, his eyes on me. “The truly bad news is I don’t know if we can kill it. It’s a spirit, kitten. Hunger incarnate, hunger distilled. It’s taboo. Not a real physicality at all, now. Just … appetite. And ice.”

  I took a long gulp of coffee that had cooled just enough to be reasonable. “It cut me.” The finality in my voice surprised me. “If it can cut, it can be cut. There’s nothing out there so bad it can’t be killed. Except for maybe a god, and we’re not facing one of those. Not for four days, at least. What can you tell me about wendigo? How they’re created, what can kill ‘em, that sort of thing?”

  “Not much.” Saul straightened, looking relieved. “But I can get in touch with someone who knows more.”

  “Good.” I turned my attention back to my plate. “This is good, Saul. You do a mean pancake.”

  I didn’t look up, but I could feel his smile. “Glad you like it, kitten.”

  Monty was going batshit.

  “What the fuck are you telling me, Jill? Black-fucking-market organs? What the hell?” He stalked through his office as if expecting the perp to be hiding behind a stack of paper. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  If I’d known, Montaigne, I would have. Don’t get pissy. “I had no idea organ heisting was part of it. I was looking for a supernatural explanation. It was the scalpel marks that clued me in.”

  “Sullivan and the Badger have been tracking a string of black-market organ harvestings that end up leaving the donors dead with a .22 hole in their skull.” Monty’s tie was loose and his collar crumpled, he was working round the clock. It wasn’t good for him.

  Then again, police work isn’t, strictly speaking, good for anyone. Eating your Glock, ulcers, cynicism, depression—the list goes on and on. I took a deep breath. Hunting wasn’t good either, but at least a hunter could take the edge off with sex or some hard sparring. “Huh. Maybe they’re related?”

  Monty’s office seemed too small to contain his rage. Not at me, thank God. He stalked behind his desk and dropped into his chair, almost disappearing behind the flood of paper files and assorted other crap. “Go talk to them, look over their files. We’ll pick up this doctor, Kricky—”

  “Kricekwesz. Polish, I think.” Like it matters.

  Monty rubbed at his eyes. “Whatever the fuck his name is. We’ll pick him up. Though if whoever this is decides to take out some more scumbags like Rocadero I might throw a fucking parade.”

  “For cleaning the streets of pregnant hookers too?” My tone was harder than it needed to be. But goddammit, everyone was forgetting the victims here, the girls that walked the streets, the girls who had been abandoned too many times already.

  Don’t get up on your high horse, Kismet. You did it too. They’re less than human because they’re still in the life. On the street. Swallowing God-knows-what and doing what nobody wants to talk about, and turning over a cut of their pay to the professional pimp or the dealer or the man who “loves” them. Christ. Even I look down on them.

  And I should know better.

  Monty’s silence warned me. I dropped my eyes to the tough short russet carpet of his office. Outside the door, Saul waited. Perry was in a limousine circling the block. I was alone in here with Montaigne, who was a good cop—and even more important, a friend. He’d never let me down.

  “I’m sorry, Jill,” he said finally. “You know it ain’t that way.”

  Carp and Rosie cared about every body they came across; even the pimps and the hookers and the drug lords. There is something so unutterably final about death, some robbing of human dignity from every corpse, even the ones that die naturally. And Montaigne cared too. Even the impossible cases, where the perp was never found, he and his detectives circled like a tongue circles a sore tooth, unable to forget.

  “I know it isn’t. I’m just fucking frustrated.” This is getting to me far more than it should. I blew out a long breath between my teeth. “I’m sorry, Monty. Really.”

  “You’re gettin’ punchy.” Bitchy was the word he wanted to use, I guessed, and I was grateful he hadn’t. “When this is over, you wanna take some time off? I guess we can keep everything under control for a little while. Mebbe.”

  Oh, Monty. The fact that he had brushed the nightside once and knew a little bit about it made the offer that much braver. “I’m planning on it.” I stretched, my bones still aching and tender from the demands the staff had made on my body, demands engineered to keep me alive. “I’m sorry, Monty. I’m sorry as shit. I should have thought of the organ thing sooner.”

  He waved one limp, sweating hand. Rubbed at his eyes. “Don’t worry about it. Just go out there and stop this shit, will you? I got to go home to Margie one of these days. Okay?”

  “Okay.” I squared my shoulders. “I’ll get this done ASAP, Monty.” Because if I don’t and a rogue Sorrow brings the Nameless through with an evocation, all hell’s going to break loose. And that’s not even half of it. “Do you want to know any more?”

  “Christ, no. What you just told me is going to give me fuckin’ nightmares. Get out of my office; get to work. Give Carp and Rosie something new to do, and Sullivan and Badger too. I’ll keep the press distracted as long as I can. Just make this shit stop.”

  “Okay, Monty.” I paused. “You’re good to work for, you know that?”

  Another languid wave of the hand. He reached down into a half-open drawer and set a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of Tums on his desk. “Get the fuck out of here, Jill.”

  “See ya.”

  I left, closing the door softly. Saul, leaning against a cubicle wall directly across from the door, examined me. I met his dark eyes for a long moment.

  “This is getting too big,” he finally said, quietly, under the clamor of ringing phones and the shuffling sounds of the homicide division. “We need help. Not just human cops.”

  What he didn’t say, we both thought. And a hellbreed neither of us trusts. My tattered coat rustled as I stepped away from Monty’s door. “What are we supposed to do? Call in a bunch of Weres to waste themselves on a suicide attack? No. We figure out how to take the wendigo out on our own. There’s got to be a way.”

  “What about this Sorrow?” It was a good question. He fell into step beside me, shortening his stride to mine, and I was so abruptly grateful for his presence that my eyes prickled, both my dumb eye and the smart one.

  “If Belisa’s telling the truth, she probably knows how to short-circuit whatever evocation this bitch is trying to perform—and if the wendigo’s involved. I just have to get a message to her that I’m willing to talk.”

  “How are you going to do that?”

  “Simple. Just drop a word in the right ear, and it
ll get to her.”

  “Which ear?”

  “Relax, Saul. It’s taken care of, Perry put the word out this morning.” I slid my arm through his. “We’re going to set Rosie and Carp to digging with the Badger and Sullivan, and then we’re going to go have a little chat with this doctor. And after that, we’re going to visit Hutch’s bookstore and see what we can dig up on wendigos.”

  The Badger was a short round motherly woman with a streak of white over her left temple, and Sullivan a thin, tall red-haired Irish with a penchant for cowboy hats. They were sometimes called Jack Sprat & Wife by the braver practitioners of cop humor, and put up with it estimably. They had reams of information on the organ trade in Santa Luz, too much for me to absorb. The Badger, bless her forward-thinking little heart, had photocopies of the more interesting cases as well as a few fact sheets.

  I read in the car while Saul drove and Perry’s limo cut a narrow black swath behind us. I wasn’t sure I liked that albatross following us around, especially during the day, but the tightness of Saul’s jaw warned me not to say anything about it. I wondered what deal he’d made with Perry. Swallowed the question.

  We made it to Quincoa against light traffic, and Saul parked in the same alley as before. Perry’s limo, in magnificent defiance of its own incongruity, idled, gleaming and black, across the street. I checked the sky—sunlight, still. He didn’t seem as scary in sunlight, but the limo had smoky tinted windows. He made no appearance, and I wondered once again what he was.

  Vulnerable to sunlight? Or just not showing himself? Playing a game?

  This time we didn’t lie in wait and examine the building.

  No, this time Saul kicked the hermetically sealed door in on the second try, the deadbolt tearing free of softer metal. I had my gun out, swept the inside of the hall, and recoiled as the stench boiled out.

  “Jesus God!” The reek drove me back a full three paces, to the edge of the steps. Death, and a loud zoolike odor. Saul wrinkled his nose, glanced at me. He had drawn his Sig Sauer, he covered the door. I swallowed bile. “What the fuck?”

 
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