Hunters prayer, p.7
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.7

           Lilith Saintcrow
 

  Wait a second. He isn’t even an Acolyte. What’s he doing out of a House? “Ungag him.”

  Saul hesitated.

  “Christ, Saul, ungag him.”

  The boy jerked. Leather slipped free. But Saul was tense, and I saw his right hand relax from a fist into a loose claw, nails sliding free and lengthening, turning razor-sharp. If the Sorrow made a move, my Were would open his throat.

  “What are you out here for, Neophym? Who’s holding your leash?”

  He had apparently decided to talk. “Sister,” he choked, gurgling. “My … sister … please …”

  I bit my lip, weighing it. On the one hand, the Sorrows were trained to lie to outsiders.

  And on the other, no Sorrow would ever use the word sister. The only word permitted for female within the House was mistress. Or occasionally, bitch.

  Just like the only word for man was slave.

  I considered this, staring into the Sorrow’s eyes. “What’s a Sorrow doing in my town, huh? You’ve been warned.”

  “Fleeing … chutsharak.” His breath rattled in his throat.

  Chutsharak? I’ve never heard of that. “The what?”

  It was too late. He crunched down hard with his teeth, bone cracking in his jaw; I whipped my head back and Saul did the same, scrambling away from the body in a flurry of Were-fast motion. I found myself between the body and the priests, watching as bones creaked, the neurotoxin forcing muscles to contract until only the crown of the head and the back of the heels touched the floor. A fine mist of blood burst out of the capillaries of his right eye.

  Poison tooth. He’d committed suicide, cracking the false tooth embedded in his jaw.

  Just as his heels slammed back, smashing into the back of his head, his sphincters released. Then the body slumped over on its side.

  “Dammit.” I rubbed at the cuff over my right wrist, reflectively. “Damn it.”

  “What’s a chutsharak?” Saul’s voice was hushed. Behind us, Father Rourke took in a deep endless breath.

  I shook my head, the charms in my hair shifting and tinkling uneasily. “I don’t know.” My throat was full. “Gods above. Why are they sending children? I hate the Sorrows.”

  “It’s probably mutual.” Saul approached the body carefully, then began to mutter under his breath, the Were’s prayer in the face of needless death. I left it alone. The poison was virulent, but it lost its potency on contact with a roomful of oxygen. He was in no danger.

  “Jillian?” Father Guillermo sounded pale. He was pale, when I checked him. Two bright spots of color stood out on his cheeks. “What do we do next?”

  “Any other transfers in the last year? Priest, worker, student, anyone?”

  “N-no.” He shook his head. “J-just K-Kit. Him.” His eyes flickered past me to the body on the floor. The stink was incredible.

  Father Rourke kept crossing himself. He was praying too. His rubbery lips moved slightly, wet with saliva. Probably an Our Father.

  Sometimes I wished I was still wholly Catholic. The guilt sucks, but the comfort of rote prayer is nothing to sneeze at. There’s nothing like prepackaged answers to make a human psyche feel nice and secure. “I’ll need to go over the transfer records. Why would a Sorrow want to infiltrate a seminary? Are you holding anything?”

  His face drained of color like wine spilling out of a cup.

  “Gui? You’re not holding anything I should know about, are you?” I watched him, he said nothing. “Guillermo?” My tone sharpened.

  He flinched, almost guiltily. “It is … Jillian, I …”

  “Oh, for God’s sake. I can’t protect you if you don’t tell me what I need to know!”

  “Sister Jillian—”

  “What are you holding?”

  “Jillian—”

  I snapped. I grabbed the priest by the front of his cassock, lifted him up, and shook him before his shoulders hit the wall. “Guillermo.” My mouth was dry, fine tremors of rage sliding through my hands. The scar on my wrist turned to molten lead. Behind me there was a whisper of cloth, and Rourke let out a blasphemy I never thought to hear from a priest.

  “Take one more step and I hit you,” Saul said, quietly, but with an edge.

  “I could have died.” I said each word clearly, enunciating each consonant. “Saul could have died. If I’d known you were holding something I could have questioned him far more effectively. You cannot keep information from me and expect me to protect you!”

  “He’s a Jesuit. He can’t tell you anything.” Rourke spat the words as if they’d personally offended him. “He took a vow.”

  I dropped Guillermo. Fuck. I’m about to beat up a priest. Man, this is getting ridiculous. “If you don’t start talking in fifteen seconds, Gui, I’m going to start searching. I’m going to tear this place apart from altar to graveyard until I find whatever you’re holding. You might as well tell me now. What is it? What are the Sorrows looking for?”

  “It’s nothing of any use to them.” Gui rubbed at his throat. He was still pale, and the smell swirling in the air was beginning to be thick and choking. I was used to smelling death, but he wasn’t. “Merely an artifact—”

  “What. Are. You. Holding?” The scar pulsed in time to each word, and I was close to doing something unforgivable, like hauling off and slugging a priest. Dammit. This disturbed me more than I wanted to admit.

  “The Spear of—” Rourke almost yelled.

  ”No!” Gui all but screamed.

  “—Saint Anthony!” Rourke bellowed, his face turning crimson. Gui sagged.

  I turned on my heel, eyed Rourke. Come on, I used to be Catholic. Don’t pull this shit on me. “Saint Anthony didn’t have a spear. He gave his staff to Saint Macarius.”

  “It is the spear he blessed with his blood when the citizens of a small town were overwhelmed with the hordes of Hell. He didn’t use it; Marcus Silvacus used it.” Father Rourke’s flabby cheeks quivered, and he was pale too. I couldn’t tell if I was smelling the stink of a lie on him, or the reek of fear.

  I am going to have to check that out. As far as I knew, Marcus Silvacus never met Saint Anthony, and Saint Anthony didn’t have a fucking spear. I could feel my teeth grind together. I tipped my head back, my jaw working.

  “I’m sorry, Guillermo. But you took a vow.” For once, Rourke’s tone wasn’t blustering.

  “An artifact here, and it somehow slipped your mind to tell me? This isn’t looking good, Gui. Years and years I’ve trusted you, and I’ve done the Church’s dirty work peeling demons out of people before I was even fully trained. This is how you repay me?”

  “The Sorrow said he was fleeing,” Saul’s voice cut across mine. “It might be unrelated.”

  I wasn’t mollified, but he did have a point. “Still, that’s something I needed to know.”

  “Agreed.” His hand curled around my shoulder. “It stinks of death in here. And we have work to do.”

  Damn the man. He was right again.

  I shook out my right hand, my fingers popping as tendons loosened. “All right.” I sounded strange even to myself. “Fine. But I won’t forget this, Guillermo.” I will not ever forget this.

  “I would have told you everything, Jillian. When I was released from my vow.” Gui slumped against the wall, rubbing his throat, though I hadn’t held him by anything than his cassock. “I swear it, I would have. I didn’t think the two were connected, and I can’t speak of it.”

  I waved it away. The charms tinkled in my hair, uneasily. “Get that cleaned up. And give him a decent burial; he was only a kid.”

  “Not in consecra—” Rourke stopped when my eyes rested on him. I felt my face harden. My blue eye began to burn, and I knew it was glowing, a single pinprick of red in the center of my pupil.

  “Give him his last rites,” I said, very softly and distinctly. “If indulgence is required, Father, I’ll pay. But for God’s sake bury him kindly.”

  I left it at that. And for once, so did he.

  Saul drov
e. I wasn’t in the mood. We didn’t speak on the way home. As soon as I swept the warehouse and determined it was safe I headed for the phone. Which began to ring as soon as I got within three feet of it.

  I hooked it up. “This better be good news.”

  “Hello to you too.” Avery sounded serious, as usual. “Jill, there’s a problem.”

  Oh, Christ. Not another one. “The Trader I just brought in?”

  A short, unamused laugh drifted through the phone line. Avery was a professional exorcist, not a hunter like me. It was his job to exorcise the Traders I brought in, just like it was Eva, Benito, and Wallace’s job to handle other straight exorcisms in my city and refer the extraordinary ones to me. “No, he was an easy rip-and-stuff. Screamed like a damned soul, though. He’s on meds. No, the problem’s different. I wanted to talk to you about it.”

  I considered this. “Micky’s? At—” I glanced at the clock, juggled his probable freedom from work. “Eleven?”

  He agreed immediately. “Sounds good, I’ll buy you a beer. Um …”

  “Um, what?” I glanced over my shoulder as Saul began rummaging in the kitchen. He was probably hungry; I was too. The light shone mellow off his long red-black hair, silver glinting against the strands; his cheeks looked a little pale without the paint. He glanced up, probably feeling my eyes, and gave me a half-smile that made my legs feel decidedly mushy.

  “Will Saul be there?”

  What? “Of course he will. He’s my partner.” And a damn fine one, too.

  “I just … well, yeah. Bring him. Sorry. Look, eleven o’clock. See you then.”

  I hung up feeling even more unsettled, and that was rare. Avery didn’t have anything against Weres.

  Not that I knew of, anyway. Nothing out of the ordinary.

  I dialed Andy’s number from memory and got his answering machine, left a message. The heavenly odor of sauteed onions tiptoed to my nose, and that meant steak. Bless Weres and their domesticity.

  I stared at the phone after laying it back in the charger, my eyebrows drawing together. Then I picked it up again, and dialed another number from memory.

  “Hutchinson’s Books, Used and Rare.” This was a slightly nasal, wheezing voice; I had to bite back a laugh.

  “Hutch, it’s Jill.”

  He actually spluttered. “Oh good Christ, what now?”

  “Relax, baby. I just need to use the back room. Want to do some research for me?”

  “I’d rather gouge my own eyes out.” He was serious. Wise man.

  “That makes you much more intelligent than a number of people I know. Listen, scour for everything you can find about the Sorrows. Brush up your ceremonial Chaldean and find me every mention of something called a chutsharak.”

  “Zuphtarak?” He mangled the word. I could almost hear his teeth chattering. Cute, nervous Hutch was not cut out for hunter’s work, but he was hell on wheels when it came to digging through dusty old tomes; which Hutchinson’s Books held as a hunter’s library in return for a number of very nice tax breaks that kept it afloat.

  Hey, hunters believe in supporting local indie bookstores.

  “Chutsharak.” I spelled it for him. “But the ch is sometimes j, and sometimes—”

  “—those goddamn seventeenth-century translations, I know. All right. Fine. You still have your key?”

  “Of course I still have my key.” I am exceedingly unlikely to lose it, Hutch. And anyway, I built those fucking locks. They’ll open for me anytime I want. “I won’t come by while you’re in. Leave your notes in the usual place.”

  “Thank fucking God.”

  I snorted. “I thought you liked me, Hutch.”

  He gave an unsteady little laugh. I could almost see his hazel eyes behind his glasses and his thin biceps. “You’re hot, yeah. But you’re scary. I’ll work on it. Chutsharak. Chaldean. Got it.”

  “One more thing.”

  “Oh, Christ.”

  “Can you look up Saint Anthony’s spear?”

  “Saint Anthony didn’t have a—”

  “I didn’t think so either. But check it. And check to see if there’s any connection between Anthony and Marcus Silvacus. Just to be sure.” I rubbed at the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache beginning. Just my luck. But why would Rourke lie to me? Of course, I wasn’t Catholic anymore, I wasn’t a priest, and I was female; he would probably just confess and be forgiven and not lose any damn sleep over lying to me. And if Gui really was under orders not to say anything about an artifact hidden at the seminary, an artifact the Sorrows wanted for some unholy reason, things were getting stickier by the moment.

  “Fine.” Hutch said it like I had him by the balls—and not in a good way.

  “Thanks, Hutch. I’ll bring you a present.”

  “Keep me out of this.”

  I laughed, and he hung up. I laid the phone back in its cradle and stared at it, daring it to ring again.

  It remained obstinately mute.

  “Red-sauce penne with steak, and fresh asparagus.” Saul made his happy sound, a low hum like a purr. “Want some wine?”

  “Please.” I rubbed at the back of my neck under my heavy hair. “You’re a good partner, Saul.”

  His eyes met mine, he peered under the hanging cabinets. The copper-bottom pans glowed behind him. “Yeah?”

  I folded my arms. “Yeah. Avery wants to meet us at Micky’s. And then I’ve got some research to do.”

  “Research?”

  I know, I know. I don’t like it either. “Then we’ll come back, and I’m all yours.”

  “I like the sound of that. Make yourself useful and open the wine, kitten.”

  10

  A very slumped in the booth, tapping his long fingers on the glass-topped table. Directly over him, Humphrey Bogart stared somberly out of a framed print. Curly brown hair fell in Ave’s face, over sad brown eyes; he looked like a handsome little mournful beagle. Despite that, he was quick and ruthless during exorcisms, seeming to come alive only when a particular Possessor or arkeus was giving him trouble, or the victim started to thrash. Of all the exorcists I knew, he was the one who came closest to being a hunter, if only because of the sheer nail-biting joy he took in skating the edge of danger.

  We are all adrenaline junkies, really. You have to be. Hunting is 95 percent boredom-laced waiting punctuated with the occasional bursts of sheer and total terror. No middle ground.

  Ave’s badge hung on a chain around his neck; he had shrugged out of his motorcycle jacket and was staring at his fingertips like he had bad news.

  I was really getting a rotten feeling about this.

  I slid into the booth, Saul right next to me. “Hey, baby.” I gave a smile, but Ave didn’t grin back. Not even a glimmer of his usual sleepy good humor. “Wow, looks grim.”

  Vixen swished her hips up to the table, her sleek brown hair clinging to her head like an otter’s. “Hey.” She plunked down three Fat Tires, her lip lifting as she glared at me, then smiled at Saul. He, as usual, looked supremely unconcerned.

  She sighed, turned on her heel, and her tartan skirt ticked back and forth as she switched away with a Were’s grace.

  “In heat again, I see,” Saul murmured, and I choked on my first sip of beer, the laugh bubbling up.

  Avery didn’t even crack a slight smile. I sighed. “So what’s up, Ave?”

  He finally shifted, picking up his beer and tipping a sarcastic salute to Saul. “Hey, furboy.”

  “Hey, skinman.” Saul’s tone was even, chill.

  “I heard something.” Avery addressed this to me.

  “Yeah?” I waited, rolling my next sip of beer around in my mouth. Stifled a small pleasant burp; it tasted of grilled onions. At least I had the memory of dinner to get me through this. Whatever this was.

  “One of my stoolies; he’s a drunk. But he picks stuff up—it’s amazing. He manages to get around. Anyway, he knows someone who saw something.” Avery produced a white square of paper, held between his fingers like a card
trick. “And the worst thing is, I believe him.”

  “What did he see?” And what the fuck does this have to do with anything? I shifted uneasily, the leather of my pants rubbing uncomfortably against the vinyl seat.

  “Guy’s called Robbie the Juicer. He saw them dumping Baby Jewel last night. Black van, no license plate. Said there were four of them, one looked to be a woman, and two men. The last one was … he said it was big, and it stank, and it threw the body like it weighed nothing.”

  Huh. I absorbed this. “Big. And stinky.”

  “Yeah. He said it looked like an ape. Like it was furry.” He darted a look at Saul. “Could it be a rogue Were? No offense, understand, I just thought I should ask.”

  It was a good question, considering what he’d been told. “A rogue Were would hide the bodies,” I said, slowly. The memory of the last rogue to hit Santa Luz was far enough away that I could consider the notion without a gut-clenching burst of slick-palmed fear. “Wouldn’t work with anyone else, that’s why they’re rogue. And wouldn’t eat the organs unless it was starving; they like muscle-meat first. Who is this witness, and where was he?”

  “My stoolie said something about a baseball diamond; the witness is homeless and sometimes sleeps in the dugout. He heard the van’s engine and looked out; the van sat there for a while and he decided to go take a look.” He offered the square of white paper. “Here’s his name and vitals, and a list of the places he usually hangs out. He’s scared to death.”

  “He should be. This is nothing to mess with.” I took the paper; it was thin and innocent against my fingers. “Thanks, Avery.” Christ, I bet I’m not going to sleep for a while. Behind my eyes, the vision of the edge of the park and the baseball diamond flashed, and I cautiously decided it was possible. The dugout was at an angle and it was extremely possible someone hidden in there could have seen something. It was just slightly possible someone hidden in there could have been unremarked, which was the truly incredible part. Whoever this Robbie Juicer was, he’d probably used up his entire life’s worth of luck.

 
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