Hunters prayer, p.2
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.2

           Lilith Saintcrow
 

  When Elizondo got to the jail Avery would exorcise him, and he’d go back to being a petty little meat-sack; he wouldn’t have any clairvoyance left either. Psychic ability gets ripped out by the roots during a Trader exorcism, partly to deny hellspawn a further foothold inside a human being and partly because of the weird internal logic of exorcism ritual.

  It would be excruciatingly painful.

  Well, that was the price of being a Trader criminal in my town.

  I dropped him, looked up at Perry, the gun still held steady. “Back up.”

  He shrugged, his hands in his pockets. “Your lack of faith wounds me, Kiss. It truly does.”

  Will you quit calling me that? I didn’t say it. Giving Perry that opening would mean no end of trouble. “Back the fuck up.”

  He took one single step back. “You owe me. I expect you here for two hours tomorrow. Midnight.”

  “I’m busy.”

  “With an attitude like that, you’ll never pay your debt.” His voice had turned silken.

  Like I owe you for more than a month at this point. “I’m serious, Perry. This isn’t my only job. I’ll come on Sunday.” I decided it was probably safe, holstered my gun. His eyelids dropped a little, but that was all. I tried not to feel relieved. “Midnight.” You don’t own me. We just struck a deal, that’s all. And it was a good deal, we both get something we want.

  You just don’t get all you want. You won’t, either. Not while I’m breathing.

  He shrugged. “Two full hours, Kiss.”

  “You already said that.” The bullwhip coiled back up as I flicked my wrist, I stowed it at my hip, and just for the hell of it I gave Elizondo another kick. My eyes never left Perry’s. The pretty blond man on the floor vomited, a sudden sharp stink. I bent down, snagged the cuffs, and hauled him to his feet. “Sorry about that.” My tone said clearly I wasn’t sorry at all. “Thanks for the assist. I’ll see you get some credit with the Chamber of Commerce.”

  A ripple ran through the ranks of the damned. Their eyes bored into me, bright little points of light; I heard Riverson mutter something under his breath. Something like bitch.

  Perry’s mouth twitched. If the smell bothered him, he made no sign. His eyes ran down my body, but his hands didn’t leave his pockets. “A round for everyone, on the house,” he said quietly. “Let’s celebrate the end of a successful hunt, for our Kismet.”

  They shuffled, a polite and sarcastic cheer edging up from the crowd. I hauled Elizondo for the door as the movement to the bar started and the music began at low volume, ramping up slowly. They gave me a wide berth, and I heard the usual whispers.

  I didn’t mind. After all, next week I might be hunting any one of them; Trader, hellbreed, or whatever else hung out in the shadows. Once damned, always damned, it was a piece of hunter’s wisdom.

  What does that make me? The scar on my wrist ran with cold prickling, Perry’s attention on me the whole time.

  Elizondo was an almost-dead weight by the time I shoved him out through the front door, past the glowering twin mountains of bouncer. My orange Impala was parked at the curb, in total violation of the fire lane, and Saul Dustcircle leaned against the hood, smoking a Charvil. He was tall and rangy, his skin a sweet burnished caramel; straight shoulder-length red-black hair glittering with sacred charms and small silver amulets tied with red thread. The tiny bottle of holy water on the chain around his neck, next to the small leather bag, glittered a sharp blue like a star. This close to so many Traders and hellbreed, the blessing in the water was reacting to the charge of power in the ether. To OtherSight, the Monde Nuit was a depression full of murky fluid, clearly a place where those allied with Hell came to party down.

  Saul’s dark eyes brightened as he saw me pushing Elizondo along. He shifted inside his hip-length leather coat, and his white teeth showed in a smile I was very glad to see.

  I finally began to feel like I might have survived my latest trip into the Monde.

  2

  Every city has people like me. Every city. Usually the police and the local DA’s office have us on payroll as consultants; when all’s said and done it’s law enforcement we’re doing. Freelancers are rare, mostly because without the support system the regular cops provide we have a tougher time. Besides, even though most of us don’t play well by rules or with others, we are on the side of the good guys. Our methods are a little different, but that’s just because the criminals we catch are a little different.

  Okay, a lot different. We do, after all, go after the things the cops can’t. What ordinary cop can face down a Were or even an ordinary shapechanger, or an Assyrian demon? Not to mention the contagion of scurf or Black Mist bloodsuckers, the adepts of a Sorrows House trying to bring back the Elder Gods, or the Middle Way and their worship of Chaos? What ordinary cop stands a chance against a Trader, even? The very idea will send the more flighty of us into hysterical fits of not-very-nice laughter. We are what we are because we know what’s out there in the darkness. People disappear all the time. It’s a fucking epidemic; some of the disappearances are murder, some are fugitives, some are kidnapped by other human beings. Some of them are even found again.

  But a good proportion of them are taken by the things that go bump in the night. And then it becomes a hunter’s job to bump back.

  Hard.

  Morning isn’t my best time, so I cradled a double vanilla mocha breve, extra whip, while I waited for the room to fill up. Bright, shiny new rookies; each one with a pretty badge and that look every rookie has, eager but trying to contain it, like a dog straining at the leash. Buzzcuts were in for both genders this year, and they came in laughing and joking, sobering when they saw me leaning against the dry-erase board. My back was to the defensible wall; it was why I taught in this room with its gallery of windows looking out onto the Vice squad’s forest of cubicles. Each desk had an empty garbage can sitting next to it, and there were a couple of jokes about that, too.

  I blinked sleepily and sipped at my coffee while they chose their seats, jostling and good-naturedly bantering back and forth.

  On the other end of the dry-erase board, Captain Montaigne shifted his bulk. This was one of his less-favorite parts of the job. I heartily agreed.

  I’d dressed normally, for me. Most hunters are sartorially odd, to say the least. So today it was leather pants, low on the hips; a tight Mark Hunt T-shirt, my long leather coat heavy on my shoulders. A gun rode my right hip, but I’d left the bullwhip at home. Instead, I wore extra knives. My hair was pulled back from my face with two thin braids, the rest of the long mass hanging down my back, silver amulets tied in with red thread. The braids were also woven with red thread and tiny silver charms; I wore the silver ankh earring in my left ear and the long fanged dagger earring on the right. A brown leather bracelet sat on my right wrist over my scar; my short-bitten nails were painted dried-blood red. The combat boots were steel-toed and scuffed; the tiger’s-eye rosary dangled down and touched my belly while the black velvet choker with the medal of St. Christopher moved as I swallowed. Just below the choker, the chunk of carved ruby on its short supple silver chain was warm.

  I also wore enough eyeliner to make me look like a hooker. My eyes stand out even more when I outline them with kohl. One blue, one brown, the mismatched gaze a lot of people find hard to meet.

  I didn’t paint them to accentuate it before. Not until I met Saul.

  The rookies finished dribbling in, and Montaigne cleared his throat. I looked at the slide projector again, allowed a small smile to touch my lips.

  Monty looked at the sheet in his hand, called roll. I let the names slip past me. They were like every other class of rookies, eyeing me nervously, wondering what I was, fiddling with the folders on their desks. Nobody had been brave enough to open one yet.

  “Everyone’s here.” Monty shifted his weight again, a board creaking under his mirror-polished wingtips. He had a nice tie on, probably a gift from his wife. She had far more taste than he ever would. “Now l
isten up, boys and girls. This is Ms. Kismet. She’s going to give you the class you’ve heard whispers about. Listen to her, and don’t give her any shit. If you play nicely with her, she might even show you her tattoo, and believe me, it’s worth it. You will be tested on this material, and it could save your life. So no shit.” He glared at them with his watery gray eyes, and my smile widened. I could have repeated the speech word-for-word. Every class, though, some jerkass decided to get cute with me.

  We’d see who it was this time.

  “They’re all yours. Don’t kill anyone.” Monty ran his eye over them one more time, then stalked away. The door closed behind him with a click.

  I let the silence stretch out, taking a sip of my mocha. Then I set it down on the small teacher’s desk set to one side, and folded my arms. “Good morning, class.” I took perverse pleasure in speaking as if to a bunch of nine-year-olds. “I’m Jill Kismet. Technically, I’m an occult consultant for the Santa Luz metro area; my territory actually runs from Ridgefield to the southern edges of Santa Luz; Leon Budge in Viejarojas and I split some of the southern suburbs. If you really want to get precise and technical, I’m the resident head exorcist and spiritual exterminator, not to mention liaison between the paranormal community and the police. But the most popular term for what I am is a hunter. I hunt the things the cops can’t catch.”

  A ripple went through the room. I waited. Phenomenal self-control, not one of them had made a smartass comment yet.

  “I’m sure you all come from many diverse religious backgrounds, and you will probably think I’m doomed to go to some version of eternal torment after my inevitable demise. It is, I will tell you, too late. Strictly speaking, I’ve been to Hell and come back, and that’s what gives me some of the abilities I possess. Most of you are probably wondering what the fuck I’m talking about, or wondering if this is a practical joke. Lights.”

  The lights flickered and died. Not a one of them glanced at the switch by the door. I snapped my fingers, and the slide projector hummed into life. “I assure you,” I said into the thick silence, “I am not joking. These are crime-scene photos from a case you may recognize if you read the papers a year and a half ago.”

  “Jesus Christ,” someone whispered.

  “No. This is a rogue Were attack. Can anyone tell me what differentiates this from a regular homicide scene?”

  Someone coughed. Choked.

  “I didn’t think so. By the end of this day, you’ll be able to. If you’ll open your file folders—”

  “What the shit is this?” This from a tall, jarheaded rookie who smelled of Butch Wax.

  Here it comes. I wasn’t far wrong. He made the same little movement a lot of civilians do when confronted with the nightside—a jerk of the head as if shaking off oily water, like a dog or a horse. “This some kinda joke? What the fuck?”

  “This isn’t a joke, rookie. It’s deadly serious. Your employment with the police force is contingent upon you passing this day-long course to my satisfaction. Because believe me, I do not want to visit any homicide scene starring any of you yahoos in the victim role. The simple rules I give you will keep you safe. Lights.”

  The lights flicked back on, and my smile wasn’t nice at all. They stared at me, dumbfounded.

  “I will be blunt, rookies. You’ll all be required to memorize the number for my answering service, which will page me. Pray you never have to use that number. Three or four of you will have to. A few of you won’t have time to, but you can rest assured that when you come up against the nightside and get slaughtered, I’ll find your killer and serve justice on him, her, or it. And I will also lay your soul to rest if killing you is just the beginning.”

  Thick silence. Vacant stares. They were too stunned to speak.

  “Saul?”

  He resolved out of the shadows in the far end of the room, stalking between their desks. Several of them jumped. It was a nice bit of theater, even if I do say so myself. He reached the front of the room, a tall mahogany-skinned man with his hair starred and hung with silver, two streaks of bright red paint on his high, beautiful cheekbones and lean muscle rippling under his T-shirt. He was armed, too, and when he turned on his heel and raked the rookies with his dark gaze, not a few of them leaned back in their chairs.

  “Saul here is a Were. You didn’t know he was in the room even when he flipped the light switch, and believe me when I say he could have killed every motherfucking one of you in here and walked out the front door of this precinct without so much as breaking a sweat.” I took two steps away. “Do it.”

  Saul blinked, and complied.

  No matter how often I see it, I always get a little shiver down my spine when he shifts. The mind is trained by the eyes to make a whole hell of a lot of assumptions about things, and seeing a tall man who looks like the romance novel ideal of a Native American melt and re-form, fur crackling out through his skin, eyes becoming amber lamps with slit pupils, can wallop those assumptions out from under you pretty damn quick. It doesn’t help that my blue eye can see what he does, how he pulls on the ambient energy around him to break a few laws of thermodynamics and turn into a big-ass cougar.

  Where Saul had stood, the cougar now sat back on its haunches. It blinked again, deliberately, and muscle rippled under its pelt.

  Someone let out a thin breathy scream. The first vomiting spell began, in the back of the classroom. The blond jarhead’s mouth worked like a fish’s.

  Saul shifted back, spreading his arms and shaking himself. Looked at me again. I nodded, he drifted over to the door, his step completely silent … and he proceeded to disappear from their sight again, the little camouflage trick Weres are so fond of.

  The vomiting began in earnest, and I picked up my coffee, took a long drink and wrinkled my nose. When they were finished and the janitor had taken away all the pukebuckets, we’d get down to work.

  3

  Lunch was pizza, but none of them were in the mood to eat much. I had three pieces, Saul stopped at five; we didn’t bother with dinner. I finally let them go at about six, mostly shell-shocked and bone-tired. The psych staff was on hand to give them each tranquilizers and a good talking-to. I was packing up the slide projector while Saul picked up all the leftover folders, when Montaigne breezed in the door again, this time accompanied by Carper from Homicide.

  “Hey, Kiss.” Carp could barely contain himself. “Another long day of bile?”

  I wasn’t in the mood. “How hard did you throw up when I trained you, Carp? I seem to remember you passing out and moaning near the end of the slide show.”

  Saul straightened. He didn’t like Carp, and the feeling was mutual. His dark eyes fastened, unblinkingly, on the tall, broad-shouldered detective. My scar itched, under the leather cuff, prickling in the presence of antagonism.

  Montaigne sighed. “Mellow out, both of you. How’s it going, Saul?”

  Saul shrugged. He went back to picking up the folders, each movement economical. “Good enough. Dragged one in last night.”

  “I heard; Avery was delighted.” Monty finally dropped it. “There’s something I need you to take a look at, Jill.”

  The script never varies. Something I need you to take a look at, Jill. Each time delivered wearily, as if Montaigne himself doesn’t believe he’s asking a woman just a little over half his age and half his size for help.

  I gave my line. “Sure.” I put the slide wheel back in its box. “Animal, vegetable, mineral?”

  “Homicide. Carp examined the scene.”

  “Male or female?”

  “Hooker.”

  Oh, for God’s sake. “Male or female?”

  “Female. The autopsy says so, at least.”

  “How fresh is the body?”

  “Last seen last night. Out on Lucado.”

  Lucado, the flesh gallery. A cold finger touched my back. “Where was she found?”

  “82nd and Varkell. On the side of the road, just on the margin of Idle Park.” Carp finally spoke up. He m
ight enjoy baiting Saul and giving me a hard time, but he was a good homicide deet and knew what to look for in a scene. If it had triggered his fine-tuned sense of the weird, I should definitely take a look.

  I stretched, my lower back protesting as it often did after one of these things. “All right. Lead the way; send someone to box this up and put it back in the vault. Saul?”

  “I’m with you.” He fell into step behind me, and we left the file folders and the slide projector behind. “From Lucado to 82nd is a fair way.”

  “‘Tis.” I followed Monty’s broad back and Carp’s thinner, younger one. And a body in what kind of shape that they can’t tell male or female without an autopsy? That doesn’t sound good. Saul bumped into me, crowding me just like a Were. He liked physical contact, and herding me around was his way of showing it; it was also meant to make the point that I spent my off-duty time with him.

  Weres get a little territorial like that.

  I pushed him away, the leather cuff on my wrist brushing his arm. He jostled back as we strode down the hall. He was getting a little antsy; it would probably degenerate into a shoving match once we got home. We’d spar for a while, and it would end up very satisfactorily for all concerned.

  He was always a little on edge whenever I had to go into the Monde. So was I.

  We made it to the Homicide department, and a perceptible quiet entered the room when I did. I didn’t pay attention, not anymore. Instead, we made it all the way through to Monty’s office. Saul shut the door, not bothering to do his camouflage trick; he knew how Monty hated it. Instead he loomed behind me. One hand brushed the small of my back, a private caress.

  I tried not to smile as I crossed the room to Monty’s desk. He handed me the file. “Take a look. Want a drink?”

  “Sounds good. Saul?”

  “None for me.” His voice was a pleasant rumble, he looked over my shoulder. I didn’t flinch. I’d long since gotten used to hearing his voice in my ear, his heat brushing my back.

 
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