Hunters prayer, p.5
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.5

           Lilith Saintcrow
 

  Baby Jewel. Christ. “I’d better have a talk with Diamond Ricky.”

  “He’ll enjoy that.” Carp’s mouth pulled habitually down at the sides, making him look like the fish he was nicknamed for. He had run his hands back through his hair more than once today, I guessed. It stood up in messy spikes. His partner Rosenfeld was talking to one of the forensic techs; Rosie’s short auburn hair caught fire in the afternoon light.

  “You did the prelim, Carp. What’s up?”

  “Jogger came along, his usual route. Found the body, called it in from the pay phone at the corner of Fifteenth and Bride, two blocks up. Vomited right there before he did so, though. No tracks, even though the ground’s fairly soft; there’s some leaf scuff. It’s the damnedest thing …”

  I waited.

  “Rosie looked at it and thought maybe the body had been thrown to land that way. Look at where her arms are, and where her head ended up. I think I agree.”

  You guys are amazing. “I’d carry that motion.” I let out a heavy sigh. “Christ. Do you want to be there when I question Diamond Ricky?”

  “Shit, yeah. Love to be a fly on the wall during that discussion. You gonna beat him up?”

  I’d love to. “Only if he gets fresh with me. Try to keep your excitement under control.” I motioned to Saul, who detached himself from the shadows he had begun to sink into and approached, his step light on the cracked pavement.

  “I hate to ask.” Carp’s tone warned me. “But … Jill, do you have anything? Anything at all?”

  “It’s not a Were.” That much, at least, I was sure of. “Mind if Saul does his thing?”

  “Go ahead.” Carp sounded relieved. I wondered when he’d figure out that I had no idea yet. Just like him.

  And that bothered me. A kill like this was anything but subtle. When things shout this loud, they usually want a hunter to hear them.

  Saul lifted his head and sniffed, rolling the air around in his mouth like champagne, tasting it. He stepped off the pavement, delicately, knowing the forensic techs were watching where he moved. His boots were soundless as he approached the body.

  He paused four feet from the sticky pool of blood under the broken corpse. My gorge rose again; I pushed it down.

  He bent his head, spreading his left hand, tendons standing out on the back, his fingers testing the air. Shuddered, his shoulders coming up.

  He backed up without looking, retracing his steps. Reached the sidewalk, turned on his heel to face me. His dark eyes glittered, and under his dark coloring his face was cheesy-pale. His mouth turned down at both corners. He reached out blindly, his hand closing over my shoulder, fingers digging in.

  I reached up, covering his hand with mine. Stared into his dark, dark eyes. He didn’t speak—he would wait until he had everything clear inside his head before he gave me anything. But for the moment, we stood there, and copper filled my mouth.

  In all the time I’d known him, I had never seen Saul Dustcircle look frightened before.

  7

  Failing sunlight dipped the flesh gallery in gold. The tenements slumped, tired as the women who walked below, go-go boots and hot pants, fake rabbitfur jackets, each on her prescribed piece of sidewalk. The overall impression of this section of Lucado Street has always been motion, hips swinging back and forth, eyes blinking and glittering under screens of makeup, teased hair, candy-glossed lips most often marred by cold sores. The older girls worked the north end, the bargain basement; Diamond Ricky’s turf was further south, prime real estate I could remember pacing years ago when it was Val’s territory.

  I never like thinking about that, though. It was a whole lifetime and a trip to Hell away from me. Thank God.

  Ricky had some of the best merchandise, the youngest and prettiest; teenage girls who each would have sworn that Ricky loved her and was protecting her. And of course, we suspected him of running an escort service that provided underage action for rich businessmen. No proof.

  Yet.

  His number one was a girl a little older than his usual crew; she tossed back her long brown hair, sniffed, and wiped at her nose with the back of her hand as I tilted my head, taking in the apartment: huge entertainment system, white leather couch, trendy-in-the-eighties Nagel print hanging on the wall. Ricky’s tastes ran to chrome, glass, and leather, and every piece in here was bought with the money he took from the young girls outside, peddling their asses scraping together enough to feed his appetite for luxury. Normally he’d be sitting out on the street in his Cadillac with some muscle, overseeing the action, but we’d managed to catch him at home with nobody but his girl.

  Lucky us.

  I took a deep breath. Pulled the chair out from the dining-room table, dragged it across the spotless white carpet. You wouldn’t think to look at this place that it was merely a modest brownstone sandwiched between sloping ramshackle apartment buildings filled with the desperate.

  Slim greasy Ricky lounged on the white leather couch. He wore a black cowboy hat with silver scallops on the band, black silk button-down shirt, and leather pants. Cowboy boots with silver tips were propped on the low glass table in front of him. He gestured at the small square mirror tile laying on the table. Two lines of white powder were prominently on display.

  Christ. Do pimps ever change? I shook my head, set the chair on the carpet at precisely the right angle. Saul leaned against the door next to Carp; Rosie was still at the scene. Carp’s blue eyes were avid, flicking over every surface.

  I settled down on the chair, folding my arms and resting them on the back, knees on either side. Turned my unblinking gaze on Ricky while the number one wiped at her nose again, snuffling, and padded into the kitchen.

  Ricky grinned, his fingers dangling loosely in his lap, an advertisement. He indicated the powder on the spotless mirror again, with a nod of his hat. “Feel free, puta.” His grin widened; we wouldn’t bust him unless it got difficult. “Or you here to make some money? I turn you out after I test the merchandise, see.”

  You son of a bitch. The scar on my wrist throbbed. The smile began down deep, I let it rise to my lips. Waited for the right time to speak, as Ricky shifted. It was that tiny movement, a flinch, that told me I had already unsettled him. He was a man who lived off mindfucking women, and I was just aching to do a little in return. Even it out for the female species, so to speak.

  I waited. Let the smile bloom. He was Puerto Rican, so I let the tiger’s-eye rosary dangle, hunching my shoulders and resting my chin on my crossed forearms. My eyes would do half the work for me. It’s funny how many cultures have weird legends about people born with different-colored eyes.

  Only I was born with brown eyes. The blue one is a gift—or a curse. Whichever, as long as it worked.

  I looked at Ricky’s nose. If you stare right at the bridge of a man’s nose, he thinks you’re looking him in the eyes. The gaze grows piercing, intense, and the man starts to sweat. Especially if he’s done something wrong.

  “What you want, huh?” His eyes flicked past me to the door. Carp was probably grinning. Saul, of course, would be staring unblinkingly at Ricky, daring him to make a move. “What you want, puta?”

  I slid the gun free of its holster, rested my elbow on the chair back and pointed the barrel at the ceiling. The pimp stiffened. “Call me a whore again, Ricky, and I’m going to shoot your balls off.” My smile widened, became sunny. The charms tinkled in my hair as I moved slightly. “Baby Jewel.”

  His eyes widened. “What about her? Hey, man, she swears she’s eighteen, you can’t pick no—”

  I leveled the gun, cutting him off midstride. “Did she get uppity with you, cabron? Stopped handing over her cash? What was it?”

  I’ve never seen a man turn white as curdled milk so fast. There was a gasp from the kitchen, and his number-one girl came around the corner, her eyes as big as dinner plates. I didn’t move—if she needed taking care of, Saul would handle it.

  “Jewel? She …” His eyes flicked over to Carp, widened,
came back to me. “Oh, shit. Listen, I did no—”

  “Shut up, Ricky.” I pulled the hammer back.

  He shut up.

  “Now. Jewel was working for you last night. When did you last see her? When did she drop off her last load of cash?”

  He flinched. “Nine,” he finally squeaked. “She work the early shift, man.”

  Vice had seen her at just past ten or thereabouts; she must have hit the street again, maybe trying to make her rent now that she’d paid Ricky off. Or had she? “How much did she give you, Rick? And keep in mind that I can smell a lie, you greasy little piece of shit.”

  The girl behind me was quivering with terror, exhaling a high hard musky smell dipped in copper. She knew something. Good luck getting her to spill; if she told us anything Ricky would probably demote her, a fate worse than death.

  Still, I might be able to try, if I could catch her alone. A lot would depend on the next few minutes.

  And a lot would depend on if I could keep my temper.

  Ricky reached up, took his hat off. “Four, five hundred,” he said cautiously. “Sent her back out, her pink ass can make four times that if she works. Lazy bitch. They all lazy.”

  And you’re such a self-made man. “She didn’t show up all day today, and you didn’t check on her?”

  “Check on her?” He laughed, snuggling back into the couch, his hips jerking up. It was macho, and I let it pass. Let him get comfy. I’m going to make him pretty damn uncomfy soon enough. “The bitch comes back. She begs for a little Ricky love, bruja. They all do.”

  So we’ve gone from calling me slut to witch. It’s an improvement. I raised an eyebrow. “Just like Sylvie? Did she come back begging too?”

  Despite being lazy, Ricky wasn’t a fool. His eyes returned to Carp. “Oh, shit.” He could barely get the breath to whisper.

  I moved. The chair squealed, glass shattered as I brought it down squarely on the table; the sound was incredible. The girl screamed; Ricky let out a yell, and I was on him.

  My knees sank into the leather of the couch. My left-hand fingers sank into his throat. I smelled quesadilla and cologne, not to mention the thin acrid funk of a coke fiend. I pressed the gun to his temple and smiled into his eyes.

  This was pure terrorization for its own sake. I am not a very nice person, and if there’s one thing I hate with a vengeance that surpasseth all understanding, it’s pimps. I never pass up a chance to make a pimp feel my displeasure.

  “I would as soon blow your head off as look at you, you greasy little cocksucker.” My breath touched his lips. He shook like a rabbit in the snare. “I am going to ask you a few simple questions. Sylvie. Jewel. What did you do to them?”

  I didn’t think for a second that he had much to do with it. Mostly because the girls were worth more to him alive and peddling their wares. And also because Ricky was, like all pimps, a fucking coward.

  He spilled a lot of babbling in Spanglish, enough for me to determine a few things: he hadn’t even known Jewel was dead before we came calling. He also was more than willing to spill about the escort service, and I let him talk about that for a little while. Then he dropped one more piece of news.

  I let go of him, reholstered the gun, and was off the couch in one motion. “You’re sure?” The number-one girl stood by the entrance to the kitchen, her fingers pressed to her mouth and her eyes huge, dark, and full of tears.

  “Course I’m sure, the stupid bitch!” Ricky moaned, turning his face into the couch. There was a ratty little gleam to his eyes I didn’t like. “There’s a doctor on Quincoa—Polish fucker, name’s Kricekwesz, he takes care of that shit, but it ain’t cheap. Stupid bitch. Stupid fucking bitch.”

  “You’re a real prince, Ricky.” I looked over at Carp, who was almost purple with restrained glee. It did him good to see me do something like this, something a regular cop wouldn’t be able to do without worrying about a brutality lawsuit. “You want to take him in?”

  Carp shook his head. He sounded excessively casual. “Not worth our time right now.”

  I silently agreed. Looked at the girl. Tears slicked her cheeks, and the way her eyes jittered away from mine told me there wasn’t much hope of questioning her. There was a fading bruise just visible under the scoop collar of her pink shirt. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, but was already looking old.

  “Do yourself a favor, honey.” My voice was harsh. “Get out of the biz.” Before you end up just as dead as those other two girls.

  Then I stalked for the door. Pregnant. Sylvie was pregnant.

  This puts a little different shine on things, doesn’t it. Two counts of murder for her and her baby; and all her internal organs gone. Why? What is this?

  Outside in the hall, Carp eyed me while Saul curled his hand around my nape and reeled me in. I spent a few moments leaning against Saul’s chest, hearing his heartbeat, the shakes going down slowly. Very slowly.

  I’d never told him about Val, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he guessed. I’d never told Mikhail either, even in the long, sun-filled afternoons we spent in the same bed. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Mikhail had known, too—he had treated me so gently in that one space, the space where we became more than just teacher and student.

  Saul didn’t want to let me go, but after a few moments I slid away, and his hand fell back down to his side. But a little of his warmth remained against my skin, as much as I could hold on my own without his hands on me.

  “Well?” Carp couldn’t restrain himself.

  I checked the hall, set off for the end of it, where stairs would take us down to the door and the street below. “My initial reaction? He’s got nothing to do with it. Could be chance, you know how it is. The escort service, though …”

  “Yeah?” Carp was almost begging for me to give him something, anything.

  “It gives me an idea.” More than an idea, in fact.

  Shit. I’m going to have to go see him early.

  8

  Rosenfeld had short auburn hair, a strong-jawed, too-striking-to-be-pretty face, and wrists that put mine to shame even though mine are hellbreed-strong. She settled into the booth next to Carp and examined me suspiciously. “Don’t suppose you’ve got anything useful.”

  “Not yet.” I blew across my coffee to cool it.

  Carp I could lie to, Monty encouraged me to keep it close to the vest—but Rosie liked it out where she could see it and tried to act like working with me didn’t bother her.

  Rosenfeld had only questioned my judgment once. That was during the Browder case; the next day she’d seen an arkeus up close and personal. I had almost been too late to save her—and she had seen me take my wristcuff off and battle the thing hand-to-hand. After a week in the hospital, she’d actually come down to the warehouse and apologized, something I had no idea a cop could do.

  She was probably still dyeing her hair to cover up the white streak. I had no idea if she was still undergoing therapy, and I didn’t ask.

  Carp snorted. “You shoulda seen it. Diamond Ricky pissed his pants.”

  Rosie’s eyes didn’t sparkle, but it was damn close. “I heard the Vice guys giggling about it. Are you really gonna eat that? My arteries are hardening just looking at it.”

  “I need protein.” I smothered the pancakes in butter and strawberry jam; picked up two slices of bacon at once. “Got to keep my girlish figure.”

  “We should all be so lucky.” She studied my face. “So what do you think?”

  “Sylvie was pregnant. Ricky was going to send her to a doctor on Quincoa. I’ll check him, leave you two to talk to the other hookers. See if they can describe the last trick of the night for either of our girls.”

  “I don’t have to tell you we gotta work fast.” Carp dumped more creamer in his coffee. “There are only so many man-hours they’ll spend on this.”

  I knew. If the dead had been nice middle-class churchgoing girls, the public outcry would be tremendous and we’d have a whole task force paid for by
John Taxpayer. As it was, the only thing drawing attention to this was the shock value of the killings. Who cared what happened to hookers? Certainly not the same John Taxpayer who handed over a twenty for a blowjob or a bendover in one of Lucado’s dark corners.

  Same old story, different day.

  Saul stirred restlessly next to me, tucking into his hash browns. His eyes flicked over the inside of the restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall diner on Holmer. I passed him the salt and the green Tabasco, shuddering at the thought of kissing him afterward.

  I will never understand men and Tabasco sauce. “Two dead women in two days. If this accelerates we’re going to have problems.” I looked down at my cheese and ham omelet. The pancakes were substandard, but the bacon was crisp, at least.

  “Thanks for that lovely thought.” Rosie grimaced into her yogurt and granola, produced from her purse. “Anything you want us to do other than talk to hookers and try to keep the press off our backs?”

  “I’ve got someone to visit who might be able to shed a little light, after I talk to the doctor. At least, he’ll be able to tell me if someone’s moved into town without permission.” And I’ve got to go back to the seminary and question a few kids, not to mention call Andy and … Christ, my dance card’s full. As per usual. “Just be careful, okay? This isn’t looking good.”

  “Be more than careful,” Saul piped up. “Be cautious.”

  I glanced at him. He’d been extremely quiet since this morning, and while I appreciated his restraint—he more than other people understood how I felt about the sex trade—I still felt a little alarmed at how pale he’d been.

  But he probably didn’t want to talk in front of the cops, and I couldn’t say I blamed him.

  “Great.” Rosie waved her spoon. “Be cautious, Tonto says. Care to give any specific pointers, or will you just settle for being cryptic?”

  “Shooting our mouths off before we know precisely what’s going on will get us exactly nowhere,” I pointed out. “Don’t give Saul a hard time. He works for me, not for you.”

 
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