Hunters prayer, p.20
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.20

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  The street danced; they were like shoals of fish glittering and turning in sync. Clicking of platform heels against concrete, the sound of car wheels, catcalls as the girls stamped their feet and tried to keep warm. Cars pulling in, cars pulling out, doors slamming, windows creaking as they slid down.

  I had stripped the cuff from my wrist, and the scar burned under the cold kiss of wind. The night came alive, colors and sounds curdling under the lash of preternatural attention, my mind open, still, receptive.

  I saw it. The Cadillac.

  It slid like a stiletto through the shoals of tired girls, and some of them cast frightened glances at it afterward. I moved, brief wind in my ears as the world turned over and gravity caught me, plummeting, hitting the ground and rolling to bleed momentum. Cold concrete, pebbles digging into my back, then I was sliding through the shadows, just a flicker of motion in the darkness.

  The scar, the scar, I’m moving like a hellbreed. Like a Trader. A five-story drop off a roof and here I was, running.

  By the time I reached the quiet little brownstone he was already inside, and one of his muscle troop was on the front steps. The muscle, thick and heavy in a long coat with a bulge under his left arm where the gun was, never even saw me. I simply came straight out of the shadows and hit him, the crack of bone breaking in his face a sharp sweet sound.

  Then I was inside, and the other thug was at the end of the hall. I took him too, a short tubby man powerfully built for all his lard, smelling of frijoles and grease; with the heatless scent of a killer on him too. Well, Ricky certainly doesn’t skimp on the help, does he?

  The short one went down easily and quietly, I pulled the strike at the last moment so as not to break his neck.

  I slid up the stairs on cat-soft, cat-quick feet, and burst into the bedroom.

  Diamond Ricky had a girl in there with him, a half-naked child with high brown breasts who was rolling the top of a stocking down her thigh. I saw her from very far away and spared her less than half a thought. There was a low table with a mirrored tile fouled with cocaine holding down a fan of twenties, a white leather couch; the ceiling held mirrors too as well as the closet on the far wall. Electric light was soft and dim from three green and blue lava lamps on a glass shelf; the nightstand held a paper bag (full of something illegal, judging by the smell) and a 9 mm that would do him no good.

  The thick musky-green smell of pot filled the room, both old and new; Ricky had just lit a joint and was reclining on the bed, his hand inside the open fly of his trousers. He saw me and his mouth fell open, the joint falling from his fingers over the side of the bed. I was on the bed in one leap, my left-hand fingers sinking into his throat and the gun in my right hand rising up to lock onto the girl, who hitched in breath to scream. Her face hadn’t lost its babyfat yet, she was barely old enough to be walking to school by herself, let alone be in a room with a pimp.

  “Shut up,” I snarled, cutting through her gasping inhale. “Shut the fuck up.”

  She did, clutching an incongruous bit of feathers to her chest. Some kind of lingerie, probably Ricky’s contribution to the fun and games. Her long dark hair quivered, and the lipstick smeared on her lips made her mouth into a wet dark hole.

  “Pick up the money.” I pointed the gun toward the table, she edged over and looked at Ricky, then jerked the money out from under the tile. The cocaine scattered on the tabletop. Snow on glass plains.

  I made a tiny motion with the gun toward the door. “Go out the back door, or you’ll be shot.” The softness in my voice made it a promise. “Go home, if you have a home. If you don’t, check into a hotel. But if I see you on the street tonight, or if you tell anyone, I will find you.”

  It was an empty threat. I wouldn’t have cared. But she believed it, and her eyes darted toward Ricky. I tightened my fingers in the pimp’s throat, and he moaned, a shapeless sound of terror.

  She scrambled for the door, and I heard her bumbling along as she tried to get dressed on the stairs while running. I listened—yes, she went out the back door.

  Good girl. I turned my attention to Ricky, who was choking as my fingers tensed. “Ricky.” I sounded meditative. The gun swung around, settled against his forehead. “Now you and I are going to have a little chat, cabron. A very cozy little talk. You’re going to tell me about your playmates, and we are going to have a lovely special moment right here on your bed. Bet you like that, don’t you?”

  Ricky was wet with sweat; it rolled in great beads from his brown skin. He had a hard-on, and he smelled of oil and smoke, as well as fried cheese. A thin curl of smoke lifted from the joint on the floor.

  The smile pulled my lips back into a snarl of effort as the scar on my wrist pulsed, every fiber of my body straining to pull the trigger. But instead, I loosened up a little on his throat.

  “Now,” I whispered. “Your meeting. With Jonte and the boys. Who else was there, and what was said? Take it from the top.”

  He did.

  Pimps are predictable creatures. They have their routines and their habits, and the fact that most of them are into petty drug dealing doesn’t change that. If a pimp gets picked up, his girls bail him out, usually with the help of his lieutenant.

  But if a pimp ends up dead, with his second and his muscle crippled, the girls freefall for a while. The drugs come from other dealers, some of whom are weak and move into the power vacuum to become pimps. Or they come from new pimps that rise like maggots from a corpse to take the place of the old one.

  I wish it was harder for them. God, do I wish it was harder.

  Wish in one hand, Kismet. Spit in the other. See which fills up first.

  I followed the chain up, each pimp telling me a little more, and saved Jonte for last. He was a big, broad, soft-in-the-middle black man with a wide genial smile and two front teeth cased in gold that rang sweetly against the floor the second time I backhanded him. Eleven pimps, each of whom had been at the meeting with Rocadero, who was dead probably because the redheaded Sorrow didn’t need him any more. The pimps being alive either meant that they weren’t important or that she still needed them to supply something, whether it be flesh or cash.

  It was from Jonte that I got the most important piece of news.

  It would take a stronger man than a pimp not to give up everything he knows when a hellbreed-strong fist flexes and a testicle pops like a grape. At heart, the men who make their living like that are cowards. It’s why they engage in the mindfucks instead of getting real jobs. What they don’t realize is that the mindfucks eat them alive too.

  Now’s not a time for philosophy, I told myself as the boneless body of the big man slumped to the tiled floor. Jonte had a nice place, for all that I’d busted up a good deal of it. He’d also had some half-decent help. I was bleeding down one side of my face, and there was a fresh bloody hole in the left thigh of my pants, closing rapidly.

  Now is the time for showing these fucks what happens when you mess with my city. Had enough, I have so had enough of this. The scar on my wrist pricked wetly, a thick welter of heat spilling up my arm. Fresh cold wind poured in through the busted French door, glass broken in sharp slivers in the tide of sticky blood that washed across the tiles.

  I let out a long soft breath as Jonte gurgled his last, pieces falling into place. Taken separately, the pimps hadn’t known much. But putting all the pieces together gave me a picture. Just like a jigsaw, even if you don’t have all the pieces you can make a guess if you have enough of them.

  And now I knew, too, where the redheaded Sorrow had her little bolthole. It was a stroke of genius, one I admired coldly while I considered how to break in and kill her.

  The pseudo-adobe house groaned under the lash of wind. I’d taken four men with assault rifles, three with handguns, and another two that apparently had little use other than as hangers-on. They were only human, all of them, and I’d found Jonte gibbering with fear in his kitchen, crouched under the counter and trying to load a .38 revolver—whether for himself or
me I wouldn’t want to guess. And now that the shooting and moaning was over I heard something else.

  I tilted my head. Scratching sounds.

  Mice in the walls, Kiss? The voice, strangely enough, was Perry’s; his jolly happy tone when he’d just discovered something to make me flinch. Little mice fingers scratching at the plaster. Mmmh.

  Glass crunched under my feet. The sound was coming from downstairs, in the basement. Jonte was quite a successful pimp, probably because of his connection to a few of the larger drug dealers in town. He actually had a suburban house, in depressed real estate less than five minutes on the old highway from the strip downtown where his girls paraded. All the comforts of home but close enough to keep a tight leash on his moneymakers. Yes, ol’ Jonte was quite the operator.

  “Was” is the operative word. Now he’s pimping in Hell. The thought brought another one of those frozen smiles to the surface of my face.

  The house was utterly silent except for the scratching and the faint whimpers. If I’d been wearing my cuff, I probably wouldn’t have heard it.

  I had both guns out. Jonte’s taste in furnishings was Mission-style, with a few tribal touches; it was nice for a fatass pimp, I supposed. The kitchen gave onto the living room, I stepped past the body of one of Jonte’s thugs, the one dressed all in night camo. Where do they find these people? Then again, reputable mercs don’t like to work for pimps; they prefer a little higher on the food chain where the money’s better.

  I turned into the entry hall, lifting both guns. There was a door at the end, probably going down to the basement and locked with a shiny brand-new padlock. Behind it was whatever was making those stealthy sounds.

  Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick, by famous Hanover City; the poem rang inside my head with dark glee. Vermin, ‘twas a pity.

  The hammers on both guns clicked back. Focus, Jill. What the fuck is that?

  I caught a muffled sob, and the sound of movement again. More than one.

  What lovely little surprise do we have waiting for Kismet in here?

  I approached the door, cautiously, quietly. More muffled sobs. What the fuck?

  I holstered my right-hand gun, closed my fingers around the padlock. Drew on the scar for a quick hard yank, and metal squealed, snapping. I twisted, tossed the padlock, and drew my gun again.

  It pays to be careful.

  I backed up. “Come out,” I called, ready for submachine gun fire, zombies, scurf, or anything else that might pop out to surprise a hunter who had just had a very bad day.

  Anything except what confronted me. More sobs from behind the door, which was thick heavy old wood. Women’s sobs. But I kept the guns level. There was simply no telling, and I was here without backup. I hope Saul’s having some luck in the barrio.

  The door creaked. They were fiddling with it from the inside.

  “Goddammit!” I yelled. “Come out right fucking now or I will come in there shooting!”

  More soft sounds of distress, and the heavy iron doorknob twisted violently. A slice of darkness widened as the door slid open, and my fingers tightened on the triggers.

  A naked human woman emerged, blinking. She carried a long splinter of wood that looked utterly useless as a weapon, and for one of the longest and most exotic moments of my life (and that’s saying something) we faced each other over the expanse of tiled floor, under the gently tinkling chandelier Jonte must have paid a fortune for.

  She had wide dark eyes and close-cropped dark hair, and she couldn’t have been more than eighteen. She also recovered first, as another girl—this one just as naked, and quite obviously just as young or younger—stepped blinking out into the light.

  “Are you one of them?” the first one demanded. “If you are, goddammit, I’ll kill you.”

  Brave of her, considering how I must have looked. And considering that I was armed, I was smoking with violence, I was spattered with blood, and I was ready to kill whoever I had to.

  What the fuck is this? I stared. “What the fuck?” I couldn’t come up with anything better. Then I recovered, slightly. “I just killed Jonte. What the hell were you doing in the basement?”

  Her shoulders went back and her chin lifted a little. I heard more soft sounds behind her. More women? Naked women? “What, you think we wanted to be locked up down there in the dark?” She lifted the splinter of wood, and I remembered I was holding both guns on her.

  I lowered them, slowly. A horrible idea began forming under the surface of my conscious mind. “Are any of you pregnant?”

  “What?” She stared at me. It was another exotic moment. “Are you fucking high? We’ve been down there for weeks!”

  I decided this would be a good time to holster my guns, did so. “I just killed the pimp who owns this house,” I said. “Let’s call 911 and find you ladies some clothes.”

  The suspicion she eyed me with would have been insulting if I hadn’t suspected that I’d stumbled across the reason why Jonte had been left alive by the redheaded Sorrow. Three days to the invocation of the Nameless, and a clutch of young girls held here in a pimp’s house, fed and trammeled like prized rabbits.

  Oh, God. And what she said next convinced me I was maybe right. She stared at me like I was her own personal nightmare.

  “You’re her,” she whispered. “You’re the one who bought us.”

  “I don’t buy people. Nor do I sell them.” My voice was a little sharper than usual, and the chandelier overhead tinkled restlessly. I must have been wearing my mad face, because the girl gasped and dropped the splinter; it clattered on the tiled floor.

  It was a good thing I had the cuff off, because otherwise I might not have heard it. But I had been functioning with preternatural senses most of the night. Sensitivity is a wonderful thing, once you get used to it.

  Clawed feet brushing the earth like fingers on a drumhead, incredibly fast. Far away, but getting closer.

  Much closer. Someone was coming to dinner. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up, and the charms in my hair tinkled together sweetly. The sound was suddenly loud in my hellbreed-sensitive ears, moving to the forefront. Impossible to ignore.

  I whirled, the tattered edges of my coat flaring out. Stared at the half-open front door, the one I’d busted through. “Holy fuck,” I whispered, forgetting the naked women for a moment. I heard individual heartbeats; there had to be a good twenty of them in there. Defenseless, and from the smell, sanitation hadn’t been as good as one could wish. But they were in good health, so they had probably been fed.

  Just the thing to fuel your evocation of a hungry Elder God with.

  Shit. Goddammit. I turned back to the women. The girl behind the leader had folded her arms over her bare breasts defensively. I saw more spilling out, none of them a day over twenty if I guessed correctly. They clustered behind the dark-haired girl, who was obviously the leader, and I saw a glint in her eyes I recognized from a lifetime ago and miles away.

  She wasn’t ready to die yet, and she was one tough cookie.

  What am I going to do here? “Listen to me. Jonte’s got cars, the keys are hanging in the kitchen. Be careful, there’s broken glass. Get the fuck out of here, all hell’s going to break loose.”

  She took it better than I thought she would. “Where should we go? Shut up!” She yelled the last, over her shoulder, and I heard the sniffles and soft moans behind her quiet down. Wide wet eyes were wiped, the girls holding on to each other, more pushing up from what looked like dark stairs. “Goddammit, I’m going to get us out of this, but you have got to stop whining!”

  I like this girl, I decided. “Get downtown. I think he’s got a fucking Humvee in there, get downtown and get to a police station. Tell them Kismet sent you. Got it? K-I-S-M-E-T. Kismet.”

  “Kismet. Okay. Show me the car, I’ve got my learner’s permit.” Yes, she was definitely the leader. “Amy, Conchita, you two get the girls organized. Let’s go. Come on. Quit crying, Vicky; hold her up.” She sounded like a battlefield general, bu
t I heard the quick thunder of her pulse. She was scared half to death. And so young.

  Holy fucking shit. I can’t just leave them here. “Come on.” The chandelier overhead tinkled again as I spoke. I sounded two short steps away from murder. The scar abruptly cooled on my wrist, turning chill as an ice cube pressed into the flesh. “What’s your name?”

  “Hope,” she replied, moving forward, seemingly utterly unselfconscious of the fact that she was completely unclothed. But I saw the bruises on her thighs and the way she held herself, as if she couldn’t stand to even have the air touch her. “Hope Melendez.” Goosebumps rose on her skin, and I heard the footsteps in the distance stutter, pause … and redouble their effort.

  Shit. Fucking shit.

  “Move it!” I yelled, and several of the girls flinched. “This fucking way, and hurry up. Hurry up!” I had a good guess where the garage was, and Jonte was known for his car collection.

  I’ve got to get them to a car or two. Christ, I hope more of them know how to drive.

  Then I’ve got to hold the wendigo until they can get away.

  22

  Two of the longest minutes of my life later, we were in the garage with the huge door creaking open. “They kept us down there in chickenwire cages. I’ve been working on tearing a hole through the wire in one.” Hope held up her left hand; her fingertips were mashed and bleeding. “We heard the gunshots, figured either we were next or we were going to be left down there in the dark. So I broke open my cage. They told us we’d been bought by a woman, and that she was coming to take us away.” She shivered. “Jesus.”

  Closer. It was getting closer. I didn’t have time to offer any comfort. They were barefoot and naked, and miserable. But I got them all loaded into two cars—a black Humvee and a silver Escalade; Jonte had certainly liked pimp rides. Finding the keys was no problem, there was a neat pegboard with all the keys we could ever want. Seatbelts were a problem, but if it was a choice between seatbelts and getting them out of here I’d pick getting them out. They were packed like sardines, some of them openly sobbing now.

 
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