Hunters prayer, p.4
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.4

           Lilith Saintcrow

  His nape was covered by the high black collar. I tore the rest of the material aside, my heart beating thinly.

  Nothing. I even smelled his hair. And checked his testicles.

  “He doesn’t appear to be a Sorrow,” I said finally, and Saul let out a relieved sigh. I, however, was not relieved, not in the slightest. How could an utt’huruk get into a kid in a seminary? “Pick him up; let’s go. Guillermo’s probably having a fit by now.”

  Behind me, the utt’huruk‘s body was caving in, noisome liquid running from its breaking skin in runnels of filth. Being a hunter was exhausting, but at least I wasn’t a janitor.

  Saul hefted the boy’s weight, pale naked skin looking exotic against his more familiar mahogany darkness. “You hungry?”

  My pulse was starting to come back to normal, the copper of adrenaline leaching out of my dry mouth. And despite the smell, my stomach rumbled. “Yeah. Want to go to Micky’s?”

  “Sounds good.” His white teeth flashed in a smile that was like his hand on my back. “Bacon cheeseburger? Pancakes? Omelet?”

  As if anything could match your omelets. “Tease.”


  Father Guillermo knew better than to be unhappy about the state of the chapel. He took the news calmly, all things considered, only almost-fainting; I held him up and made an appointment to come back and interview the kid’s friends. I did search the kid’s room and look over the visitors log, but none of the names seemed familiar or suspect; Oscar himself hadn’t had any visitors and he would probably be in a coma for a good week before he woke up and could give any answers. There was nothing in his room. Nothing abnormal, that is.

  It didn’t matter. I’d find out. Chaldean meant the Sorrows, and if they were looking for fresh meat they would have to look somewhere else. I didn’t allow a Sorrows House in my city.

  That didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to sneak one in. Still, they should know better. Some hunters just keep an eye on the Sorrows and bitch-slap them every now and again to keep them in line.

  I kill them on sight. And each time I do, I earn a little piece of myself back.

  Saul and I hit Micky’s at about midnight. Micky’s is on Mayfair Hill, in the gay section of town; the nightclubs were just hitting their most frantic pace. But Micky’s is a little more quiet, being an all-night restaurant of the quality the locals guard jealously and tourists only hear whispers of. Inside, the walls are covered with posters of film stars from the forties and fifties, and the bar is tucked in the back, smoky and murmuring but always well-mannered. Start trouble in Micky’s, and your ass will be on the street in seconds flat.

  Because along with being a safe place for the gay community to canoodle in the booths and kiss openly at the tables, Micky’s is run by a Were and has Were kitchen staff. Some other nonhumans work there, too. Though a few of the waitstaff are civilian humans, Micky’s is where nightsiders come to eat late at night.

  Nightsiders on the right side of the law, that is.

  I shrugged off my coat and slid into the red vinyl booth, giving Saul the side with his back to the wall. Chas was on duty, and he brought a martini and a Heineken, setting the beer down in front of Saul with a grin. “Heya, dude.”

  “Dude.” Saul’s answering grin lit up his eyes. “How you, Chas?”

  “Can’t complain. Hey, Jill.” Chas looked like Puck on steroids, flirting his eyes at Saul while he put my martini down. Tonight his T-shirt was pink, with Fancy Boy in curlicue script across his broad chest. Jeans just short of indecent wrapped around his lower half. It was a safe bet that he was commando under them.

  “Hey, Chas. What’s the word?”

  “All quiet around here. My sister says hello.”

  I stifled a smile. Marilyn thought she owed me for saving her baby brother’s life. Chas had gotten tangled up with some trouble once, having to do with a circle of Traders running a dope-smuggling outfit from a house on Mayfair itself. Two SWAT teams had already been wasted by the time they called me in; I cleared the house and found Chas naked and shaking like a rabbit, chained in a small filthy room with only a mattress. I could still see the marks on his wrist from the chains if I looked closely. But after rehab and five-odd years of therapy, he was much better.

  And Marilyn was everlastingly grateful.

  I never told her that I’d almost killed Chas, I’d been trigger-happy after taking out five Traders and a little doglike demon that looked disconcertingly like a Lhasa Apso. That had been before Saul, but only by a few months.

  “Tell her I say hello back.” I settled for empty cliche politeness. “How are you, Chas?”

  “Better all the time. The usual?” The frightened-rabbit look had gone out of his eyes, and he’d stopped flinching when I moved too quickly.

  After five years, that was a blessing. “The usual, hot stuff. Don’t forget the strawberry jelly.” I made a face, and was rewarded with Saul’s slow smile. Chas bopped away, switching his cute little weightlifter ass, and Saul handed the file over the table.

  “Dammit, I hate it when you anticipate me,” I lied.

  “You’re just so transparent.” Saul’s smile widened, turned wolfish. “Rookies put you in a bad mood.”

  “I’m always in a bad mood. It’s part of my girlish charm.” I flipped the file open, turning over most of the grisly photos in the same motion. Instead, I studied other shots of the scene. “What do you think, Saul?”

  His eyes met mine. Deep, dark eyes, as veiled as a cat’s gaze, he rubbed his chin. No stubble yet; he doesn’t have the usual Were problem of being hairier than an Armenian wrestler. The red paint was crackling, drying on his cheeks. It meant the day was over.

  Thank God. I could do without days like today.

  “Has it occurred to you,” he said slowly, “that we’ve been really busy lately? You haven’t had a week off since the spring equinox and that serial-rapist guy.”

  I thought about it, staring at the photo of the wet stain left under the body, gravel showing up sharp and slick under the glare of lights, evidence markers bright yellow.

  He was right. It had been one thing after another. I hadn’t even had a pedicure in months. Of course, being a hunter means being outnumbered. Most psychics are women, but most hunters are men; they can quite frankly take more damage.

  We female hunters are a tough bunch, though.

  Still, we have large territories, and even with Were and other alliances it’s still hard work. Plenty hard, plenty dangerous, and unremitting.

  But there should have been a lull or two since spring. We were just past New Year’s, that made it almost a year since my last real break.

  The trouble was, there wasn’t anyone I’d even felt had a chance of surviving training, even if I had time to take on an apprentice or two. Saul was fast and tough, but he was a Were. There were some things a hunter dealt with that would kill him, if only because he didn’t have the breadth of knowledge I did when it came to Possessors or arkeus. Or, say, a Sorrows adept.

  Or, God forbid, a Black Mist infestation. No, Saul was great backup, the most marvelous backup in the world, but I couldn’t train him to be a hunter. Even if he’d wanted to, which wasn’t at all likely. He went with me because we were involved, not because he had any pressing need to even the scales. No mission, unless it was keeping his lover’s skin whole.

  Don’t think I’m not grateful.

  “Doesn’t look like things are calming down much lately either.” I’d call for reinforcements, but who am I going to call? Leon? He can barely keep Viejarojas under control. Anderson up north? His territory’s twice the size of mine. Anja, over the mountains? She’s got all she can handle with the Weres fighting the scurf over there. I tapped my fingers on the glassed-over tabletop.

  “I miss you.” The smile had fled. He picked up his beer, took a long draft, his throat working as he swallowed. Set it down, licked his lips. “I mean, I miss hanging out with you. We haven’t been to a movie in months.”

  We spend every
ever-loving day together. But you’re right, our R&R has been sadly lacking of late. “I miss you too. What’s playing?”

  “Probably nothing much. The point is, you need to take a break, Kiss.”

  I made a face. “Don’t I always. But you’re right, we should spend some quality—”

  “I want you to stop.”

  I actually dropped the file on the table, closing it. I stared at him. “What?”

  It was his turn to make a face, a swift grimace. “Not stop hunting, kitten. I know you too well. I want you to take a vacation with me. A real vacation, to someone else’s territory. Where you’re not always looking over your shoulder.”

  Do you think this is like a nine-to-five job, where if I leave I’ll come back to paperwork and phone calls? I’ll come back to dead bodies and mountains of work to catch up on. Christ, Saul, what are you thinking? “If I could get someone to cover—”

  “Leon and Andy could both help; they’ve both got apprentices, for Christ’s sake. Anja would be more than happy to ask a few Weres to come out on patrol—it’ll be fun for them. Not to mention the Were population here in your own town. I want to get away.” He nodded, sharply, as if he was finished speaking. Then he continued. “I want all your attention, for a change.”

  Were jealousy? Or something more? I glanced down at my right wrist, the scar covered and feeling flushed, full, ripe since I’d drawn on it. “Is this about—”

  “It’s not about that goddamn bastard and his goddamn Monde. I just want you to take a vacation. With me.” He looked down at the tabletop, his long expressive fingers playing with the beer bottle. A ring of condensation marked the table, he moved the bottle slowly, blurring it, drawing it out. “Want to take you to meet my people.”

  Holy shit. My heart gave a leap that felt like zero-gravity had suddenly kicked into effect. “You want me to … meet your people.” Christ, I sound stunned. I feel stunned.

  He shot me a dark look from under his eyebrows, the charms in his hair stirring as he tilted his head. “That’s what I said.”

  Oh, Lord. That was news. Big news, coming from a Were. I picked up my martini, downed half of it. It burned all the way down. “Sure.” I tried to sound casual. “I want to dig a little deeper in this murder. But I’ll call Andy and Leon tomorrow. Okay?”

  His slow smile was a reward in itself. “You sure?”

  As if I didn’t know anything about Weres. I took a deep breath. “I’d be honored to meet your people, baby. Nobody better try to bite me, though.”

  “Aww, come on. I thought you liked that.” The smile widened as he settled back in the seat, vinyl creaking and rubbing against his coat. I slid my boot over, touched his under the table, and had to catch my breath when his eyes half-lidded. Just like a big sleepy cat.

  “Only from you, catkin. Only from you.” I opened the folder again, looked down, and took the rest of my martini in one gulp, hoping Chas would come back soon with the food.

  All of a sudden I couldn’t wait to get home.


  I woke up with Saul’s heavy muscular arm around me so tight I could barely breathe, his face in my hair, and an ungodly racket right next to my ear. Late-afternoon sunlight came thick and golden through the blinds, and the sound echoed. One of the things about sleeping in a warehouse: the acoustics are screwed-up. Which means I can hear every sliding footstep, every insect in the walls … but it also means the phone’s ring turns into something like an air-raid siren. Especially when I’m tired.

  Saul stirred slightly. I pushed his arm away and stretched, yawning, fumbled for the phone. His fingers slid over my ribs, warm and delicate for all their strength. I finally managed to grab the phone and hit the talk button. “Talk.” This had better be good.

  The warehouse on Sarvedo Street was mine, a last gift from Mikhail. I’d been trained as a hunter by one of the best ever to take the field, and he’d left me this space; enough room for a fully equipped gym, a meditation space, a double kitchen for entertaining and cooking up supplies, and a nice big bedroom with plenty of space around the bed so I could be sure of nothing sneaking up on me. And since Saul had moved in, the place looked much better; he had a genius for finding thrift-store gems and bargain luxuries.

  What can I say? Weres are domestic. He even does dishes.

  The phone crackled in my ear. “Jill? It’s Monty. Wake up.”

  Adrenaline slammed through me, cold and total. I curled up to a sitting position, Saul’s hand sliding free and the green cotton sheets rustling. “I’m up. What do you have?”

  “We have another body.”

  “Another …” So far, Monty, this discussion is frighteningly familiar. How many times have we had this little talk?

  “Another dead hooker with all her guts and her eyes gone.”

  My mind clicked into overdrive. “Where? And where’s the body?”

  “Scene’s at Holmer and Fifteenth. Recero Park. They’re holding it for you, but it won’t be long before the press jackals—”

  “Recero? I’ll be there in twenty. Hold the scene. Don’t move even if the press finds it, put a tent over the body, and leave it alone. Okay?”

  “Okay.” But Monty didn’t hang up. “Jill, if you know anything—”

  “Who found it?” Monty, I don’t have anything yet, and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you, dammit. You don’t want to know.

  “Jogger. Being held at the scene. Medics are treating him for shock.”

  “I’m on my way.” I hit the off button and bounced out of bed, heading for the bathroom at a dead run. My feet slapped the hardwood floor.

  “Jill?” Saul’s voice, all sleepiness gone.

  “Another murder,” I tossed back over my shoulder. “Get your coat.”

  I took one look at the body and my gorge rose. It takes a lot to upset my stomach, but this managed to do it. I stood at the edge of the crumbling sidewalk and contemplated the gentle rolling grassy strip, about six feet wide, that was the very edge of Recero Park. The trees started with a vengeance, erupting with scrub brush and thick trunks as if the forest couldn’t wait to spill out; if it hadn’t been the beginning of winter there would have been more shade. My breath hung in foggy ribbons in front of my face.

  This one lay on her back, sprawled in the shade below a large oak tree right off a jogging path. Her ribcage was cracked open, her face savaged and the empty sockets of her almost-denuded skull were already hosting flies even in this chilly weather. There wasn’t even enough hair left to mark her as female. I stood for a few moments, letting it sink in.

  There was nothing left between the broken petals of her ribcage, and nothing left in her belly either. I could see the glaring gouges where something had ripped and gouged through the periosteum covering the lumbar vertebrae. Little shreds of what had to be her diaphragm hung from the broken arches of her ribs; her arms, like the other one’s, were terribly flayed. Her legs weren’t touched much, but they were oddly flattened, as if the bones had been crushed.

  The femur’s an amazing bone; it takes a hell of a lot of stress per square inch with every walking step and even more while running. To crush and splinter a femur so slim slivers of bone poke out through the quads is … well, it takes a lot of strength.

  Saul had gone pale. I didn’t blame him. He hung back at the very periphery of the makeshift tent that had been erected to shield the body from the press, who had just started to show up in droves.

  I shut away the sound of people, slowly closing my awareness until I could hear the wind moving in the trees of Recero Park. Naked branches, most of them; there were evergreens further in the center of the park, but out here along the fringes it was scrub brush and sycamores, a pale beech standing like a sentinel at the corner of Fifteenth up to my left. Again, the body had been dumped less than ten feet from the street, just at the margin of the park. The sidewalk here was cracked and beaten; this was a forlorn little stretch of road. Across the street a dilapidated baseball diamond for Little League stretch
ed behind its rattling chain link fence, its dugout set off to the side, first base right across the street. The parking lot was a field of gravel and weeds behind the dugout and the stands, which looked rickety enough to collapse the first time someone sat on them.

  Not a lot of witnesses, despite it being broad daylight. And nobody to hear her if she screamed. Assuming she was killed here. No, there’s not enough blood.

  The trees rustled.

  Dumped here. Why? Anything that causes this much damage usually eats what it takes; why take the eyes? What is this?

  I closed my dumb eye, the one that only saw the surface of the world. My blue eye stared, focusing through the scene, and I saw the faint fading marks of violence. She hadn’t wanted to stick around, even as a disembodied soul; I didn’t blame her. It was strange; she must have left in a hell of a hurry for the etheric strings tying her to her body to be torn like that. That wasn’t too terribly out-of-the-ordinary for a violent death, but the scale of the damage was a little … odd.

  “Paula Lee,” Carp said, right next to me. I returned to myself, the sound of people swirling around me. “Those boots.”

  She did still have her boots on, distinctive pink leatherette numbers with stiletto heels. The pink was splashed with still-sticky crimson. “The boots are familiar?”

  “I called Pico over in Vice, figured since the last one was a hooker and this one’s wearing fuck-me hooves I might save myself some time. Peek knew the boots. She was also seen last night, early, on Lucado. Another one of Diamond Ricky’s girls.”

  Crap. My stomach flipped, settled. “How old is this one?”

  “Don’t know. Caruso says she’s young, though. Street name is Baby Jewel.” Carp looked a little green, this morning he wore a thick gray sweater and jeans, a pair of battered Nikes. Must have called him out of bed early. Was he sleeping in? It’s almost 4 P.M. His sharp blue eyes rested on the corpse; mine returned unwillingly to the ravaged face.

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