Hunters prayer, p.3
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.3

           Lilith Saintcrow

  Monty handed me the bottle; I took a slug as I opened the file. The liquor burned all the way down, and I choked, slamming the bottle down on the desk. I nearly followed it with a fine mist of Jack Daniels, the picture snapping into coherent shapes behind my eyes. “Fuck.” I backed away from both Monty’s desk and Saul’s heat, stalking over to the window. “Holy fuck.”

  “All the internal organs are gone,” Monty said quietly. “Took her eyes too. Everything’s gone, there are chunks taken out of the upper arms and legs that look like … bites. The only reason the ME could make determination of sex was because of a lucky fingerprint. Her legs were still mostly there, but everything between them and her neck is gone.”

  The picture was brutal, taken under the glaring high-intensity lights of autopsy. No wonder they’d had to get her on the table to find out he or she. The body was almost unrecognizable as human. No hair. No clothes. Was she dumped naked? Are those claw marks? Teeth? What is this? “She was seen on Lucado, and then found near Idle Park? How iron-clad is the sighting?”

  “She was seen by Vice cops at ten-thirty. At two in the morning the body was found. Her right middle finger was left intact, they printed and ran it just on the off chance, got lucky. Sylvie Mondale, teen hooker and heroin addict.” Monty’s tone wasn’t dismissive or harsh. Just blunt, to cover the aching sadness of it. I checked the vitals sheet.

  She was fifteen. I’d been fifteen on Lucado once.

  Jesus. They get younger all the time. Or is it that I’m getting older? The picture glared at me, something about it still subtly wrong. No breasts. And the viscera’s gone. Where did it go? “Parents?”

  “Father’s in Hunger Central, doing life for murder. Real winner. Domestic violence, petty theft, assault, grand theft auto, rape, breaking and entering. That’s not counting the attempteds. Mom was a heroin addict, dead two years ago. Kid ran away from Blackman Hall and hit the streets, been in on prostitution charges every once in a while. Part of Diamond Ricky’s gang.”

  “Grew up fast, this kid.” Saul said it so I didn’t have to. I turned the photo over, laid the file down on the desk, and began to look in earnest.

  The pictures taken at the scene were also merciless. Someone had dumped her just at the edge of the park, right on a fringe of gravel bordering the road. Varkell Street slid away from 82nd at an angle, and she was left just at the dividing edge. Each photo was a different angle, with marks for triangulation. The body lay on its side, arms and legs flayed and crumpled together, blood soaking into the gravel. I looked, but didn’t see any sign of entrails.

  If they killed her somewhere else it’s bound to be messy. Lots of trace evidence. But Carp’s right. This is … this is something strange.

  A chill finger caressed the back of my neck just as my pager jolted into life against my hip with a blurring buzz. The small sound made the sudden quiet in the room more noticeable.

  I unclipped the pager, held it up, glanced at the number.

  Christ. Never rains but it pours.

  “This is one of mine.” I gathered up the file with quick swipes. “Is this my copy?”

  “Take it. I thought you’d want it.” Carp had gone pale. “What’s it look like, Kiss?”

  I don’t know, and that’s a little disturbing. “We’ll see. I’ll be in touch. If another one like this shows up, call and page me. All right?”

  “You got it.”

  I handed Saul the file and nodded to Montaigne, who was looking decidedly green. Of course, Monty hated it when I clammed up. Almost as much as he hated it when I opened my mouth and told him about the nightside. He’d run up against a Trader once, a guy who had bargained for near-invisibility and superstrength; Monty’d had the crap beat out of him and some good sense scared in by the time I showed up and dusted the Trader with four clips of ammo and a trick I picked up working the Santeria beat in Viejarojas under Leon’s teacher Amadeus one summer.

  It took Monty three months in the hospital to recover. He hasn’t wanted to know shit about the nightside since.

  Wise man.

  “See ya round, Monty.”

  “See ya, Jill. Good luck.”

  It was the closest he ever came to thanking me. Or telling me goodbye.


  Father Guillermo kept in shape by playing basketball, and his curly mop of black hair framed a face as pale, serene, and weary as a Byzantine angel’s. “Daughter Jillian. Thank the gracious Lord.”

  I grimaced, but if anyone could get away with calling me that, he could. “Morning, Father. You rang?” Darkness pressed close behind me as I stepped over the threshold, from night chill into seminary quiet. Saul followed, his step silent, baring his teeth in a greeting to the priest, who was used to it by now and didn’t flinch. Weres don’t like the Church, and I can’t say I blame them. There’s only so much of being hunted an innocent species can take.

  Of course, the fact that some Weres weren’t so innocent didn’t help. But still, they didn’t deserve the Inquisition.

  Nobody deserved the Inquisition, at least in my humble opinion. And the other half of Saul’s heritage had suffered at the hands of Christianity too.

  They remember, out on the Rez.

  “I’m glad you’ve come.” Guillermo, at least, was always happy to see me. Of all the priests I’d worked with, he was by far my favorite. “We have … another one.”

  Of course you do, otherwise you wouldn’t call. I took a firm grip on my temper. Teaching a class of rookies always puts me in a bad mood. “Age, sex, details, Father. You know the drill.”

  He closed the high narrow door, locked it with shaking hands. I smelled incense, candles, the smell of men living together, and the peculiar fustiness that screams Catholic. My heartbeat kicked up a notch, and Saul bumped into me again, his hand this time smoothing down my hip through the tough leather of my coat. The brief touch was soothing, but I still moved away, following the priest’s long black cassock. Sour fear roiled in the air behind Guillermo, despite the placidity of his face and the habitually clasped rosary. As a matter of fact, as soon as he was finished locking the door he clutched his rosary again, twisting it through his capable brown fingers.

  “Twenty-four, male. The … it’s odd.”

  Male? That was a little odd; women are statistically higher at risk for possession; it works out to about seventy-thirty. The Catholics blame it on Original Sin. I blame it on being taught to be a victim from birth, plus a higher incidence of psychic gifts—and less training for those very gifts, in our rational culture. We would just have to agree to disagree, the Catholics and me. “Odd how?” You’ve had every conceivable type of person in here suffering from possession, Father. What makes this one different?

  Although I would have to admit there were patterns in possession, just like in everything else. Most victims are morbidly religious innocents, since Traders have the benefit of an agreement, no matter how shoddily phrased, to protect them from being taken over; also, the arkeus who comes through to sign the agreement usually loses out when the Trader’s hauled in and exorcised. It’s in their interest to make a good deal. Also, most victims are middle-to-upper-class; the poor seem to be ignored by the Possessors. For once, there was a predator who didn’t feed on the lowest end of the economic pool.

  The priest’s footsteps echoed, mine brushed quietly along behind him, and Saul’s were silent. “It’s different,” Guillermo insisted. “This time it’s … different.”

  I’m really starting to hate that phrase. I took a firmer grip on my temper. But then we reached the end of the hall, and instead of making the sharp right that would lead to the basement, the priest turned to the left and led us toward a smaller private chapel. I could see that the chapel door was barred, a four-by-four with a rosary hanging on it, swaying gently as whatever electric current was behind the door strained and swirled.

  Uh-oh. Bad news. Why don’t they have the victim downstairs in the exorcism chamber? “Gui? You want to give me a vowel or something here? Wh
y aren’t we heading to the chamber?”

  “The victim is … a student, Jillian. It’s Oscar.”

  My heartrate kicked up another notch. I didn’t know Oscar, and the dreamy shocked tone in Father Guillermo’s voice was beginning to worry me. “A seminary student? Victim to possession?”

  “He was missing from evening prayers; Father Rosas found him in here.”

  Big fat Rosas, the jolly one. I eyed the chapel’s high pointed doors. The four-by-four rested in iron brackets that hadn’t been used since the great demonic outbreak of 1929. Now that had been a bad year for hunters all over. “Where’s Father Rosas?”

  “Father Ignacio took him to the hospital. He’s suffered a heart attack. I entered the chapel and saw Oscar. He … he was floating. And gabbling in a strange tongue. I pronounced the name of Our Lord and he screamed in pain. Then I came out, barred the door, and called you. The rest of the students are in their dormitory; Father Rourke is standing watch there with the crossbow.”

  I heard the hiss-flare of a match, light briefly dappling the high narrow hall with its black-and-white tiles. Saul had lit a Charvil.

  Oh, for Christ’s sake. But I let it go. He had more than one reason to hate the Church. Guillermo didn’t mention it, just pointed at the chapel doors. “He’s in there. Please, be merciful. If … if he …”

  I nodded, reached out. Touched the back of the good Father’s hand. His fingers curled so tightly in the rosary it was a wonder his knuckles weren’t creaking. “There.” I pointed with my other hand, to a spot in the hall on the opposite wall, where a bench would provide him with a place to sit that was out of the way should the door get busted down, and out of the sight-line should it be busted down by whatever was in the chapel instead of by me. “Sit over there. Keep your rosary out, and repeat your Hail Mary. Okay?” That would keep him occupied and provide him with some protection—calling on a goddess is one of the oldest remedies against evil. Gui had once admitted to me that he loved God, certainly—but Mary was intercession, and a Jesuit is predisposed to Marianism anyway.

  It was part of why I liked Gui. That, and his taste in microbrew beers.

  I would have reassured him, but what priest would want reassurance from me? I’m a hunter, and condemned to Hell—or Purgatory at least—even as the Church quietly funds training for not a few of us.

  Guillermo nodded. “Be … be merciful, Jillian.”

  “You know me, Father. I’m a regular angel of mercy.” I regretted it as soon as it left my mouth. His face crumpled slightly, took back its serene mask. I saw just how badly shaken he was and regretted it even more. “Go sit down, Gui. I promise I’ll take care of him.”

  A few moments later, with the priest out of the way and mumbling his prayer, Saul glanced at me. “Ready?” The cigarette fumed in his hand, resting casually on the four-by-four. His fingers brushed the dangling rosary. The wooden beads were charred.

  Holy shit. What the hell’s going on here?

  I didn’t reach for the whip. Instead, my left-hand fingers crept to my right wrist.

  Saul’s eyes widened a little. He dropped the cigarette to the tiles, stepped on it, ground it out. He said nothing.

  The scar burned and buzzed under the cuff. I could feel my left eye—the blue one, the smart one—starting to get dry. I eyed the rosary as it swayed, the cross tapping the door with tiny little sounds. The closer I got to it, the more violently the cross swung.

  Tap. Tap. Tap.

  I took a deep breath. Saul’s hand came up, the bone-hilted Bowie knife lying flat against his forearm. Be careful, his eyes said, though his mouth wouldn’t shape the words. It would be an insult, implying I couldn’t take care of myself. Weres are touchy about that sort of thing.

  It briefly warmed me, that he would consider my pride. High praise, from a Were.

  I unbuckled the cuff, and the shock of chill air meeting the scar made me inhale.

  Did Perry, across town in the Monde—maybe sitting in his office, maybe in his apartment up over the dancefloor, staring at the walls or an empty chair—feel it when I did this? I’d never asked.

  I didn’t want to know.

  Colors became sharper, the sting of cold air hitting the back of my throat, my skin suddenly sensitive to the faintest brush of air. My vision deepened, darkness taking on color and weight, new strength flooding my limbs.

  As usual, the thing that scared me most was how good it felt. My hair lifted on a slight warm breeze that came from nowhere, and I lifted my eyes to find Saul smiling, a private little smile that reminded me of all sorts of delicious things.

  The scar twinged. Open for business, working overtime.

  “Ready,” I whispered, and focused through the door.

  Saul flipped the four-by-four out of its bracket as the charms tied in my hair made a low, sweet tinkling. The wood clattered on the floor, the rosary splitting, its beads kissing the tiles gently before shattering into fine ash. He kicked the door open, force splintering the wood in long vertical strokes as they flew wide. My boots brushed the floor lightly as I leapt through, right hand up and fingers spread, heatless black flame twisting at my fingertips. Skidded as it darted for me, my hand twisting through a motion that sketched flame on the air.

  I collided with a levinbolt, hit hard, the voice like brass bells stroked with a wire brush. It was muttering in Chaldean, and it had just thrown a concentrated bolt of energy at me.

  Oh, for fuck’s sake. Just what I need. The scar on my wrist flushed with heat, shunting the levinbolt aside and leaving me only breathless instead of knocked senseless on the floor.

  Saul was suddenly there, appearing out of thin air, spinning into a crouch with the fingers of his free hand tented on the floor. The young boy in the long black seminary-student almost-frock (because they believed in old-fashioned clothing here at Grace) tumbled over him, the twisting ripping sound of Old Chaldean spoiling the air. I spun, the flame on my fingertips arcing, and caught him, boots skidding across the floor as kinetic energy transferred, mass times velocity equaling an elbow to my mouth.

  That’s why I don’t get my nose pierced like I want to. I get clocked in the face too goddamn much.

  Tasted blood; locked the kid’s wrist and wrestled him to the ground. A few moments of heavy breathing and twisting, my coat rucking up, and I finally had him down on the floor. “Saul!” For fuck’s sake, where are you?

  He appeared, locking the boy’s arms over his head. Pressed down with a Were’s strength, his dark eyes meeting mine for just a moment and the paint streaked on his cheeks suddenly glaring in the darkness.

  The chapel was narrow, pews on either side; the altar would have been beautiful if the utt’huruk hadn’t leached all the life from the flowers, torn the cloth and the dead plant matter to shreds. It hadn’t been able to breach the shell of belief and sanctity over the windows and walls, though; that was something to be grateful for.

  Oscar was a tall blond corn-fed boy. I got my knee into his gut and held him down, his legs scrabbling uselessly against the tiled floor. Don’t crack his skull, Gui wants his deposit back on this mother.

  “Show thyself,” I hissed in ceremonial Chaldean, the syllables harsh and curdled against my tongue. “Show thyself, unclean one, carrion one. Show thyself! In the name of Vul I command thee!”

  It howled, and the smell of spoiled milk and dry dusty grave-wrappings coated the back of my throat. More important than the words of any exorcism is the psychic force put behind them, the undeniability of command. You have to be a little bossy with the bitches, or they start laughing at you.

  Then you really have to kick some ass.

  So I bore down, not physically but mentally, a long harsh breath of effort hissing out between my teeth. Struggling, my will locked against the utt’huruk, pressing, pressing.

  A subliminal pop! and the world exploded. I passed out for a fraction of a second, the outward pressure I was expending slamming me out of my body and back in as the elastic defenses built aro
und my mind snapped the thing away from me and deflected most of its blow. I came to with scaly, horny hands around my throat, digging in, and Saul’s chilling cough-roar. The pews we’d landed on had shattered, wood-dust swirling crazily as the utt’huruk‘s bulbous red compound eyes stared into mine, its beak click-snapping shut twice.

  I’d pulled it out of the kid.

  Good fucking deal.

  I balled up my right fist, my left fingers scrabbling uselessly at its claws around my throat. The scar on my wrist ran with flame, burrowing in toward the bone, burning. The thing was wiry but tremendously strong, it hissed a curse in Old Chaldean that would have turned a civilian’s hair white.

  My right hand throbbed, the scar turning white hot as if Perry had pressed his lips on the underside of my arm again. A bolt of agonized desire lanced through me, I punched the bird-headed demon right square between its ugly eyes, where the seam of almost-flesh made an imperceptible weakness. Utt’huruk Anatomy 101: if you’ve got a hellbreed-strong fist, use it on the thing’s skull.

  Its head exploded in gobbets of stinking meat, its predator’s beak curling like plastic in an oven. The smell was incredible. Choking, I scrabbled at the horn-tipped hands digging into my throat, worked them free. My breath came harshly. Little charms knotted into my hair dug into the back of my head, my shoulders.

  “Fuck.” I coughed, rackingly. The utt’huruk‘s body slid bonelessly to the side, hitting the floor with a thump. “Man, I hate it when they do that.”

  “You okay?” Saul, his voice low. But he didn’t move from his position, holding down the kid.

  God, it was good working with him. “Peachy keen.” I rolled aside, made it up to my feet. My coat rustled as I strode back to him. One boot on either side of the boy’s hips; I squatted down and ran my right hand down the front of his cassock. Buttons parted, I pushed material aside, looked at his narrow pale chest.

  No mark. The chest was the most traditional place, but …

  I checked the inside of his wrists, his ankles, his knees. I even checked the inside of his thighs; Saul helped me turn him over and I checked his buttocks, the base of his spine, the backs of his knees.

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