Hunters prayer, p.26
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.26

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Demolition boys from the Santa Luz bomb squad brought out some type of explosive, wired the underground complex while the Weres guarded them, and blew it. There was a rumbling sound, a crater, and the slight depression in the ground was buried under tons of refuse.

  Montaigne finished another economy-sized tub of Tums. Juan Rujillo filled in the requisite forms to report a Major Paranormal Incident as well as requisition hazard pay for me from the FBI’s backstairs funding since the mercenaries had come from out of state, sent it off in its courier pouch, and told me to get some fucking rest. Montaigne seconded that emotion, and thanked me with profanity-laced gruffness for sending him two carloads of naked sobbing women who understood very well they were not supposed to talk to the press about their ordeal. The women had been turned over to counselors and social services; in a few years they might be okay. Maybe.

  Two of them had already committed suicide. But not Hope; I asked specifically after her. “Tough cookie,” Montaigne had sighed. “Keeps asking difficult questions about you.”

  “She’ll get over it,” I said, rubbing the new leather cuff Saul had made to go over the scar.

  Montaigne paused, leaning back in his chair. Saul was just outside the door, and the sound of phones ringing and people moving was so comforting I almost closed my eyes right there. Swayed on my feet.

  Monty cleared his throat. “About those pimps.”

  I braced myself. I won’t apologize, Monty. What are you going to do? Fire me? Bring me up on murder charges?

  His mouth twisted up on one side. It was a facsimile of a smile, more like a grimace of pain. “Turf wars. Wish they’d kill each other more often.” Monty dropped his eyes to his paper-strewn desk.

  Bile rose in my throat. Judge, jury, executioner. You took God’s place.

  It was true. But like most truths, it had an edge that would cut—and an edge that didn’t cut me. I found out, with relief, which one was pointed at me. “Monty—”

  “Shut the fuck up, Jill.”

  “I was only going to say thank you.”

  Monty told me to get the hell out of his office, and I complied meekly.

  I missed Carp and Rosie’s visit, being sound asleep for once. They came, Rosie left a bouquet of flowers, Carp left a bottle of Jack Daniels. Nice of them.

  Father Gui called, offered to come by and pray with me. Saul told him in no uncertain terms where to stick it and hung up. I guess he was still upset. At least it saved me the trouble of hanging up on the priest. I wasn’t ready to forgive him yet.

  And I was still weighing whether or not it would be worth it to go down and tear apart that fucking church to find what else he had hidden from me.

  The Weres, of course, said nothing. Except Theron, who came by the warehouse and squatted down by the couch, which was the only place I could stand to sleep. I kept staring at the chair Belisa had sat in. My eyes would close as I heard Saul moving around the warehouse, cleaning up, cooking exquisite little meals I tried to force myself to eat.

  I usually woke up screaming. Nightmares are usual after something like this; better a nightmare than waking up to the real fucking thing. You go long enough with post-traumatic stress from nightside fun and games and you learn that very quickly.

  Theron examined me for a long time, his dark eyes moving over my face. He was here on business, not socially, so he didn’t try any of his usual little games with Saul. Instead, he simply looked at me. Saul had tucked a wool blanket around me, pulled it up to my chin, and spent some time braiding more charms into my hair. My throat felt naked without the ruby, and Mikhail’s ring was probably gone.

  The Sorrows don’t like holy objects. Anything consecrated with love is anathema to them. The ruby, a soul-link between me and my teacher, would be doubly so.

  “You weren’t planning on calling in Were backup,” Theron finally said, his hands dangling loosely as he crouched with peculiar ease. “Right?”

  I blinked. Shrugged under the blanket. “Sorrows.” My voice was husky. “Dangerous.”

  He waved that away with one sharp, economical movement. “You need to take some time off and clear your fucking head out. That was a stupid fucking decision, hunter. We’re allied with your kind for a reason.”

  “I didn’t know what it was.” I sounded exhausted even to myself. And pained.

  “When Saul came ‘round asking questions about wendigo, that was the time we started taking notice. We could have trapped it more effectively if you’d coordinated with us.” He sighed. Eyed me speculatively before getting to the point. “Mikhail would have kicked your ass for this Lone Ranger shit.”

  Mikhail. I’d failed him; his killer had outplayed me and gotten away. Again.

  Theron shifted a little, as if preparing to stand upright. “We put the word on the wind, Jill. Wherever that bitch goes, sooner or later she’s going to run across a Were. She’s under the Hunt.”

  “But—” I started to protest. Sorrows were dangerous, and Weres coming across them often died.

  “But fucking nothing. We’ll deliver her head one of these days, or she’ll come back to fuck with you again and we’ll joint her like a pig. Quit the Lone Ranger shit, Jill. It’s detrimental to the safety of the citizens of Santa Luz.” His smile broadened. “Besides, your ass is a lot cuter than Mikhail’s. I’d hate to have to chat up a whole new hunter.”

  “I heard that,” came Saul’s voice from the kitchen. “Get out of here, Theron. Go chase some chickens.”

  “You’re a fine one to talk, Dustcircle. I’m going.” Theron rose to his feet with the fluid grace of a Were. He leaned down and touched my forehead, smoothing my hair back. His voice dropped. “Peace in your dreaming, hunter. We’ll bring you a head one of these days.”

  Then he was gone, and I shut my eyes, curling into the couch, and cried. Saul left the kitchen and half picked me up, held me, we ended up on the floor under the blanket while I sobbed and he murmured soothing nonsense in my ear, until I fell asleep again and woke up in my own bed with him beside me, trying to calm me down as I screamed from the dream of being chained to the cold glassy stone and feeling the thing from outside try to force its way into me.

  But Saul was there. And his warmth was enough to keep that thing at bay.

  I shrugged into my new leather trenchcoat, my fingers running over the handle of the new bullwhip. Replacing gear gets expensive, but the FBI’s hazard pay was a nice chunk.

  “You sure you want to do this?” Saul’s mouth pulled down bitterly. Afternoon sun slanted through the windows, bars of thick gold. Spring was right around the corner, or at least I hoped so.

  I held up a hand, watched it shake just a little. Concentrated, and it kept steady, my fingers easing. The scar was warm under the new leather cuff. “I’ve got to tell him I’m going on vacation. Five minutes.”

  “You shot him in the head.” Saul folded his arms. His dark eyes rested on me, then slid down to the floor. “He wasn’t happy, kitten. He said some pretty nasty things.”

  “He broke through a Sorrows circle and faced down a Chaldean god to—”

  “Because he thinks he owns you, kitten. Because he’s hellbreed. He’d rather kill you himself than have another demon touch you. Why don’t we just go?” He’d already loaded the suitcases in the Impala, and I wasn’t due to get a new pager for another three weeks.

  Because I have to finish this. I checked the action of each gun before I holstered it; the knives were new too. “I wish we could have found my gear,” I muttered. “Goddammit.”

  Then another fit of trembling hit, and Saul was suddenly there, his arms around me. He hunched down a little so I could bury my face in the hollow of his throat and breathe him in, deep. All the way down to the bottom of my lungs.

  But still, I smelled ambergris. And a breath of foul reek that seemed to stay on my skin no matter how raw I scrubbed myself.

  Andy’s apprentice was staying up above Micky’s, in the apartment kept for visiting hunters. Anja’s apprentice, n
early a hunter himself, was due in on the evening train; Galina would meet him and get him settled. The Weres would come out of the barrio and run regular patrols. But it had been quiet since the demolition of the Sorrows House.

  Thank God.

  Saul stroked my back, slid his hands under the coat, and pulled my T-shirt up. His palms met my skin, he flattened his hands and pulled me closer, closer. I could barely breathe, but that’s the way I wanted it.

  The waves of trembling went down, silver charms shifting and chiming against each other in my hair. Each wave was a little less intense than the last. He murmured soothingly, little nonsense-words, purring in ‘cougar until they stopped. Even then he held me.

  I swallowed the lump in my throat. Breathed him in. Musk, male, leather, the best smell in the world. Safe. I whispered his name, over and over again.

  The fit passed. He rubbed his chin against the top of my head, his heartbeat thundering against mine. “Sorry,” I finally mumbled into his chest. “Sorry, Christ I’m sorry—”

  “Mmmh. What the hell for?” He kissed my hair. “I like holding you.”

  My eyes were squeezed shut, dampness slicking my cheeks. “Saul?”

  “Jill.”

  “I did something wrong. I … I’m not a nice person.” That wasn’t what I wanted to say.

  I didn’t want you to see what I was capable of. I didn’t want you to know. What am I going to do? I can’t stand to lose you. Oh, God, I can’t stand to lose you.

  I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him about the little click inside my head, how I could move outside myself and calmly, coldly, commit murder. How I had slaughtered eleven men who hadn’t had a chance, because they were human and I’m a hunter. And not only that, I’d ruthlessly used the advantage of my bargain with Perry not only to get information but also to … to what? I could have gotten the information and left them alive. Crippled, maybe, but alive.

  I could have. But I didn’t. I evened the score, my score.

  I played God.

  “No,” he agreed. “You’re not.”

  Silence. His hands tightened, pulling me even closer.

  “But.” He nuzzled my hair. “You’re a good person, Jillian. Not nice, but good.”

  “I killed them.” The words were dust in my mouth.

  “Yeah.” Neutral agreement.

  “I killed them because of someone else, what someone else did to me.” Another shudder slammed through my abused body. He steadied me. “Don’t leave me,” I whispered, so softly I wasn’t sure he could hear, even with a Were’s acuity.

  He sighed, a heavy movement that pushed against my own ribs. “Not going anywhere, kitten. Count on it.”

  Relief smashed into my heart, a pain so sharp and sudden I might have been having a cardiac arrest. “Saul—”

  “I want you to meet my people,” he said, slowly and clearly, as if talking to an idiot. “The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can go and get formal. Hitched. Under the Moon. Full ceremony, with a feast afterward. You thinking of backing out?”

  “No. No.” I shook my head, rubbing my chin against his shirt. “Good God, no. I just … I’m not a nice person, Saul. I’m not.”

  “Hell, kitten, I knew that when I met you. It’s part of your charm. You’re a hunter. Being nice would be a weakness. Right?”

  He sounded so sure.

  Is mercy a weakness, Saul? Doesn’t killing like that make me worse than what I hunt?

  “Right?” he prodded, moving slightly to bump my hips with his.

  I wish I was as sure as you sound, catkin. I swallowed the stone in my throat. “Right. You bet.”

  “So let’s get this visit to that goddamn hole out of the way so we can get out of town. Okay?”

  I firmed my jaw, set my shoulders, and gently slid away from him. He let me. I touched the handle of the bullwhip. “Okay.”

  But I sounded more like a scared teenager than a hunter. He didn’t mention it, just picked up the duffel with spare weapons and ammo in it and motioned me toward the door. “Let’s go, then.”

  Oh, Saul. Thank God for you.

  27

  The Monde was just getting ready for the night. Outside, winter sunlight was slanting thinly toward the end of the day, cold breath of wind coming not from the mountains but off the river, filled with a chemical tang.

  There was a new bouncer at the door, daytime muscle, but he just nodded and let me by. Food for thought—or maybe, even as drawn and haggard as I was, I looked like nobody to mess with.

  Riverson, his gray-filmed eyes widening, was at the bar. The charms in my hair shifted and rang as he reached behind him for the vodka bottle. The air turned hot and tense, the few hellbreed having crawled out of their holes before dusk suddenly stilling, several Traders clustered around a table near the dance floor looking up, disturbed by this new feral current.

  I passed the bar for once and headed for the back, for the iron door behind its purple cord. I heard Riverson call my name.

  “Kismet! Kismet!”

  Sounded like he was trying to warn me. Nice of him, really, considering we hated each other.

  I stepped behind the purple velvet and reached for the doorknob. It was unlocked, as usual. I twisted it, pushed it open, and went up the stairs, stopping halfway to lean against the banister and try to calm my racing heart.

  What are you doing, Jill?

  Only what I have to, I replied. Only what I must.

  And Mikhail’s voice, barely a whisper. Head high, guns out, milaya. Meet what chases you.

  I pushed the creaking wooden door at the top open and the room hove into sight: white carpet, pristine, no sign of spilled brandy or blood. The glimmer of glass and chrome that was the bar. The other two doors, neither of which I ever wanted to see what lay behind. The bed, perfectly made, as always.

  The two chairs, facing each other.

  Perry stood straight and slim in front of the bank of television monitors, his hands clasped loosely in front of him. His back was to me, and I could see he’d gotten a haircut. A nice, short, textured cut, the latest thing for boys this season. Nothing but the best.

  He wore, for once, jeans and a pale ash-gray sweater instead of a suit. A pair of dark leather engineer boots. Blue light from the monitors touched his hair, picked out paler highlights in the blond.

  I closed the door behind me. Waited.

  “It is not safe for you to be here,” he said finally, very softly. Static blurred across the monitors, they cleared up. On one satellite feed, Court TV was just getting underway with a serial killer’s trial. On another, explosions ripped through a Jerusalem restaurant in slow motion. There were more explosions on the third, some Eastern European country purging again, riots in the streets.

  I took a deep breath. “Three things.”

  He waited. The trembling started, I leaned against the door. Stop it, Jill. Just stop it. You planned what you were going to say. Do it quick. The scar pulsed under the new cuff, sweating.

  Push him off balance, Jill. “First of all, thank you. For saving my life.”

  He didn’t move. His shoulders were absolutely straight. More static fuzzed across the monitors, moving in an oddly coherent pattern; a cold breeze touched my cheek. Spoiled honey and dusty feathers. The air behind him shimmered like pavement on a hot day; the shimmer swept back and forth, combing the air.

  Double or nothing, Jill. Do a mindfuck of your own. Make your teachers proud. “Second of all … I owe you an apology, Pericles. I should have listened to you about Belisa. I should have let you kill her. It … what I did to you wasn’t right. I’m sorry. For shooting you in the head and for not listening to you. You didn’t deserve that.”

  The static drained away. The silence in the room was now shocked, as if I had walked into a high-class party and started yelling obscenities. A murmur slid through the air, circling; the shimmer behind him died down.

  His shoulders were still straight, but some essential quality of murderous rigidity
had drained away. I waited.

  “Surprising.” His tone was flat. “But not entirely unexpected.”

  Holy fucking shit. It worked. I peeled myself away from the door, cautioning myself not to get too cocky. Next came the trick of the week, if I was good enough to perform it. “What do I owe you?”

  His laugh made the glasses rattle uneasily at the bar, the hanging material over the bed billowed as if caught in a breeze. Glass bottles of liquor groaned, chattering against their shelves. “More than you can comfortably repay, Kiss. More than you can ever repay. I have angered an Elder for your sake, though I was well within my rights. You are mine.”

  I don’t think so, Perry. “The deal was that you would help me in my cases in return for a slice of my time. That hasn’t changed.”

  Another fluid, almost Gallic shrug. “If it pleases you to think so, by all means, continue.”

  Now for the sting. I braced myself and tossed my dice. “There’s just one thing.” My right hand rested on the butt of a gun, a new Glock 9 mm. I wouldn’t need to draw it. At least, I hoped not. I was in no condition to deal with him if he got nasty.

  But I’d certainly give it a go if this went south.

  “What?” This was a snarl, more glass rattling. The windows looking down over the empty dance floor flexed in their frames.

  “How much did she take you for? Belisa, I mean. How deep in their venture did you have your tentacles?”

  Silence.

  A warm bath of satisfaction started at my toes and worked its way up. I guessed right. You fucking hellbreed bastard. God damn you.

  It had become clear to me in a blinding flash while I stood shaking in the shower trying to scrub the smell of the Nameless off my skin yet again. Just before I’d shot him in the head, Perry had spoken that name, the name of my dead self. A name he could have had no fucking way of knowing unless he’d chatted cozily with someone who had taken a peek at Mikhail’s private papers.

  Someone like Melisande Belisa, who had put the information in the Sorrows file for Inez to read too and taunt me with.

 
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