Flesh Circus jk-4Lilith Saintcrow
( Jill Kismet - 4 )
They will clean out the demons and the suicides, and move on. As long as they stay within the rules, Jill Kismet can't deny them entry. But she can watch-and if they step out of line, she'll send them packing.
When Cirque performers start dying grotesquely, Kismet has to find out why, or the fragile truce won't hold and her entire city will become a carnival of horror. She also has to play the resident hellbreed power against the Cirque to keep them in line, and find out why ordinary people are needing exorcisms. And then there's the murdered voodoo practitioners, and the zombies.
An ancient vengeance is about to be enacted. The Cirque is about to explode. And Jill Kismet is about to find out some games are played for keeps…
Jill Kismet Series, Book 4
Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem.
Thanks for this book go first and foremost to Mel Sanders, who listened to me talk about it for hours and hours. And next to Maddy, Nicky, and Gates—who listened to me talk about it for hours and hours. Next-to-last, but certainly not least, to Devi and Miriam, who also put up with me when I talked about it… for hours and hours.
And as usual, the biggest thanks to you, the Reader. Step right up, sit on down. And let me tell you a story.
I promise it won’t take long.
Just outside the Santa Luz city limits, the caravan halted. I rolled my shoulders back under heavy leather, my fingers resting on a gun butt. They tapped, once, four times, bitten nails drumming.
Out here in the desert, the two-lane highway was a ribbon reaching to nowhere. The stars glimmered, hard cold points of light. A new moon, already tired, was a nail-paring in the sky, weak compared to the shine of cityglow from the valley. I’d parked on the shoulder, and dust was still settling with little whispering sounds.
They were pulled aside, on a gravel access road, as custom dictated. Or fear demanded.
Their headlights were separate stars, the limousine pointed directly at my city, a long raggletaggle spreading out behind it. Minivans, trucks, trailers, and one old Chevy flatbed still wheezing from the ’60s with bright spatters of glittering tie-dye paint all over its cab. One black limousine, crouched low to the dusty ground. The animals were sprawling or pacing in semi trailers. I could smell them all, dung and sweat and glitter and fried food with the bright sweet corruption of hellbreed laid over the top.
Another pair of headlights pierced the distance. I waited, leaning against a wine-red 1968 Pontiac Bonneville. She wasn’t as sweet as my Impala, or as forgiving on tight corners, but she was a good car.
Cirque de Charnu was painted on everything except the glossy limo, in baroque lettering highlighted with gold. Under the fierce desert sun it would look washed-out and tawdry. At night it glittered, taunted. Seduced.
They’re good at that. I sometimes wonder if they hold classes for it in Hell. It wouldn’t surprise me. Nothing much would surprise me about that place, or about hellbreed.
Saul lit a Charvil, a brief flare of orange light. He studied each and every car, and the taut silence around him was almost as tense as the way he tilted his chin up, slightly, sniffing the air. Testing the wind.
“I don’t like this,” he murmured, and turned his sleek, new-shorn head slightly to watch the headlights arrowing toward us. A few silver charms were knotted into his hair with red thread. He had a small copper bowl of them in the bathroom, all the ones he’d worn before his mother died, tied back in as his hair got longer.
I contented myself with a shrug. The scar on my right wrist pulsed, the bloom of corruption on the caravan plucking at it. I’d stuffed the leather wristcuff in my pocket, wanting my full measure of helltainted strength tonight.
Just in case.
Baked, sage-touched wind off the cooling desert ruffled my hair, made the silver charms tied into long dark curls tinkle sweetly. I had no reason to draw silence over me like a cloak right now. We’d arrived at the meeting spot first, slightly after dusk. They’d shown up as soon as true dark folded over the desert, a long chain of bright, hungry headlights. The caravan still popped and pinged with cooling metal, its engines shut off one by one. Nobody moved, though I could see a few faint flickers when someone lit a cigarette, and a restive stamping sounded from one of the semis. Their lights were a glare, but not directed at me. Instead, the flood of white speared the desert toward my city, etching sharp, hurtful shadows behind every pebble and scrubby bush.
The other headlights, coming up from the city’s well, came closer. My pulse tried to ratchet up, was strictly controlled.
Anticipation. Fear. Which one was I feeling at the prospect of seeing him?
Faint dips in the road made the sword of light from the approaching car waver. Still it came, smooth and silent like a shark. Mostly, you can see a long way in the flat high desert. But he was speeding, smoothly taking the dips and curves. It took less time than you’d think for the other car’s engine—another limo, sleek and freshly waxed—to become audible, purring away.
“I don’t like it either,” I murmured. A hunter spends so much time holding back the tide of Hell, it feels just-damn-wrong to be inviting hellbreed in. Come into my parlor—only it was the fly saying it this time, while the spider just lolled and grinned.
And I would much rather put off seeing Perry again. No visits to the Monde to pay for a share of a hellbreed’s power, thundering through the scar on my wrist. And I’d used the mark more or less freely for months now.
I was in the right, of course, and he’d welshed on the deal first, but… it made me more nervous than I liked to admit. Especially since it seemed stronger now than it ever had while I was visiting the Monde every month. Strong enough that I had trouble controlling it every once in a while.
Strong enough that it worried me.
His limousine coasted over the near rises. The wind dropped off, the desert finishing its long slow exhale that starts just after dusk. I marked the position of every vehicle in the caravan again.
There were a lot of them.
I heard it was always a shock to see how big the Cirque was when set up. How many souls they pulled in for their nightly games. How during daylight it always seemed exponentially smaller but still the shadows held secrets and dangers. And eyes.
It wasn’t comforting information. And some of the pictures and old woodcuts Hutch had dug up for me before he went on vacation were thought-provoking and stomach-churning at once.
The black limo coasted to a stop. Sat in its lane, purring away, the gloss of its paint job powder-bloomed with fine crackling threads of bruised etheric energy.
The engine roused again, and for a mad moment I thought it was going to peel some rubber and speed off into the dark. Of course, if it did, I would be able to refuse entry. The Cirque would go on its way, and I’d breathe a huge sigh of relief.
But no, the shark-gleaming car just executed a perfect three-point turnaround, brought to a controlled stop on the other side of the road.
“Show-off,” Saul muttered, and I was hard-pressed not to grin.
The urge died on my face as the door opened and Perry rose from the back of the limo, immaculate as always. Only this time he didn’t wear his usual pale linen suit. It was almost a shock to see him in a tuxedo, his pale hair slicked back and the blandness of his face turned by a trick of light into a sword-sharp handsomeness before settling into its accustomed contours. His eyes lit gasflame-blue, and he didn’t glance at the dingy collection of cars huddling on the access road.
first he looked at me for a long, tense-ticking ninety seconds, while the limo idled and he rested his bent arm on the door. There was no bodyguard to open it for him, no gorilla-built Trader or slim beautiful hellbreed to stand attentively beside him.
Another oddity, seeing him without a posse.
Why, Perry, what a nice penguin suit you’re wearing. A nasty snigger rose over a deep well of something too hot and acid to be fear, killed just as surely and swiftly as the smile. The contact of cooler night air on my skin turned unbearably sharp, little prickling needles of sensory acuity.
The scar turned hard, drawing across the nerves of my right arm like a violin bow.
I kept thinking the memory of him pressing his lips there would fade. Silly me.
He finally stepped away from the limo. The door swung closed, and I tensed, muscle by muscle. Perry strode loosely across the road, gliding as if on his own personal dancefloor, and the caravan took a deep breath. Another door swung open, I heard feet hitting the dusty ground. Two pairs, both with the sound of hellbreed or Trader—too light on the toes, or too heavy, a distribution of weight no human musculature would be capable of—and if my ears were right, from the limo.
Hellbreed like limousines. I’ve heard politicians do too. Oh, and rock stars. Thought-provoking, isn’t it?
I peeled myself away from the Bonneville’s hood. Saul stayed where he was, but I felt his attention. It was like sunlight against my back as I strode forward, steelshod bootheels cracking down with authority.
If it was a dance, it was one that brought us all together just where the road met the shoulder. I ended up with one foot on the tarmac and the other on dirt. Perry, to my left, stopped a respectable six feet away on the road, and as he came to a halt I saw he was wearing mirror-polished wingtips. The crease in his pants was sharp enough to cut.
To my left, the Ringmaster halted. Thin membranous curls of dust rose from his footprints, settling reluctantly with little flinching sounds.
The Ringmaster. A tall thin hellbreed with a thatch of crow-dark hair over a sweet, innocent face with bladed cheekbones. They’re all beautiful, the damned. It’s the blush of a tubercular apple, that beauty, and it rots in the gaze if you keep looking steadily enough. Little things that don’t add up—bones a millimeter too high, a skin-sheen just a degree or two off, a chin angled in a simulacrum of humanity but with something else under the skin—grab the attention, then the attractiveness reasserts itself. It’s the mask they wear to fool their prey, but a hunter back from Hell can see under it.
We can see the twisting.
This one wore a thin-lipped smile that was far, far too wide. I looked for his cane and didn’t see it. His black suit was a shabby, fraying copy of Perry’s, a worn top hat dangling from loose, expressive strangler’s fingers. When his lips parted, a long ridge of sharp bone with faint shadows that could be tooth demarcations showed. The ridge came down to points where the canines would be, then swept back into the cavern of his mouth.
In very dim light, human eyes might mistake him for one of their own. A hunter never would. Diamond insect feet walked up my back, leaving gooseflesh in their wake. A muscle in the Ringmaster’s elegant cheek twitched, but it was Perry who spoke first.
“Kiss. A delight, as usual.”
Don’t call me that, Perry. I eyed the second one from the Cirque, a small, soft boyish Trader with huge blue eyes and a fine down on his round apple cheeks. My stomach turned over, hard. “Let’s just get this over with.” I sounded bored even to myself. “I have work to do tonight.” Got a childkilling Trader to catch, and you assholes are wasting my time.
“As do we all.” The Ringmaster’s voice was a surprise—as hearty and jolly as he was thin and waspish. And under that, a buzz like chrome flies in chlorinated bottles.
The rumble of a different language. Helletöng.
The speech of the damned.
“Always business.” Perry shrugged, a loose easy movement, and I passed my gaze down the small, doe-innocent Trader. He was thin and birdlike, in a white T-shirt and jeans, and he made me uneasy. Most of the time the bad is right out there where you can see it. If it’s not, you have to keep watching until it shows itself. “Welcome to Santa Luz, Henri.”
The Trader leaned into the Ringmaster’s side, and the ’breed put one stick-thin arm over him. A flick of the loose fingers against the T-shirt’s sleeve, probably meant to be soothing, and the parody of parental posture almost made acid crawl up the back of my throat.
“Thank you, Hyperion. This is Ikaros,” the Ringmaster said. He focused on me. “Do you have the collar?”
I reached into a left-hand pocket, my trench coat rustling slightly. Cool metal resounded under my fingertips, and I had another serious run of thoughts about stepping back, turning on my heel, and heading for the Pontiac.
But you can’t do that when the Cirque comes to town. The compact they live under is unbreakable, a treaty between dark and light. They serve a purpose, and any hunter on their worldwide circuit knows as much.
It just goes against every instinct a decent hunter possesses to let the fuckers keep breathing.
Perry rumbled something in Helletöng, the sound of freight trains painfully rubbing against each other at midnight, in some deserted hopeless trainyard.
I paused. My right hand ached for a gun. “English, Perry.” None of your goddamn rumblespeak here.
“So rude of me. I was merely remarking on your beauty tonight, my dear.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I shouldn’t have dignified it with a response. “The next time one of you hellspawn rumbles in töng, I’m going back to work, the Cirque can go on down the line, and you, Perry, can go suck a few eggs.”
“Charming.” The Ringmaster’s smile had dropped like a bad habit. “Is she always this way?”
“Oh, yes. Always a winsome delight, our Kiss.” Perry’s slight smile hadn’t changed, and the faint blue shine from his irises didn’t waver either. He looked far too amused, and the scar was quiescent against my skin.
Usually he played with it, waves of pain or sick pleasure pouring up my arm. Fiddling with my internal thermostat, trying to make me respond. Tonight, he didn’t.
And that was thought-provoking as well. Only I wasn’t sure what thoughts it was supposed to provoke, which was probably the point.
My fingers curled around the metal and brought it out.
The collar was a serious piece of business, a spiked circle of silver, supple and deadly-looking. Each spike was as long as my thumb from middle knuckle to fingertip, and wicked sharp. Blue light flowed under the surface of the metal, not quite breaking free in response to the contamination of two hellbreed and a Trader so close. My silver apprentice-ring, snug against my left third finger, did crack a single spark, and it was gratifying to see the little Trader shiver slightly.
I shook the collar a little, the hinges moving freely. It trembled like a live thing, hypnotic blue swirling. “Rules.” I had their attention. My right hand wanted to twitch for a knife so bad I almost did it, keeping myself loose with an effort. The charms in my hair rattled against each other, blessed silver reacting. “Actually, just one rule. Don’t fuck with my town. You’re here on sufferance.”
“Next she’ll start in about blood atonement,” Perry offered helpfully.
I held the Ringmaster’s gaze. My smart eye—the left one, the blue one—was dry, but I didn’t blink. He did—first one eye, then the other, slight lizardlike movements.
The Trader slid away from under his hand. Still, their auras swirled together, and I could almost-see the thick spiraled rope of a blood bond between them. Ikaros took two steps toward me and paused, looking up with those big blue eyes.
The flat shine of the dust lying over his irises was the same as every other Trader’s. It was a reminder that this kid, however old he really was, had bargained with Hell. Traded away something essential in return for something else.
His lashes quivered. That was his first mistake.
/> The next was his hands, twisting together as if he was nervous. If the Ringmaster’s hands were flaccid and delicate, the Trader’s were broad farmboy’s paws, at odds with the rest of his delicate beauty.
I wondered what he’d Traded for to end up here.
“We’ll be good.” His voice was a sweet piping, without the candy-sick corruption of a hellbreed’s. He gave me a tremulous smile. There was a shadow of something ancient over his face, a wrongness in the expression.
He was no child.
“Save it.” I jingled the collar again and watched him flinch just a little. The hellbreed had gone still. “And get down on your knees.”
“That isn’t necessary.” The Ringmaster’s tone was a warning.
So was mine. “I’m the hunter here, hellspawn. I decide what’s necessary. Get. Down on. Your knees.”
The Trader sank down gracefully, but not before his fingers clenched for the barest second. Big, broad hands, and if they closed around my neck it might be a job and a half to pry them away.
He might have looked like the sort of tchotchke doll old ladies like to put on their shelves, but he was Trader. If he looked innocent and harmless, it was only the lure used to get someone close enough for those strong fingers. And that tremulous smile would be the last thing a victim ever saw.
I clipped the collar on, tested it. He smelled like sawdust and healthy young male, but the tang of sugared corruption riding it only made the sweetness of false youth less appetizing. Like a hooker turning her face, and the light picking out damage under a screen of makeup. The stubble on his neck rasped and my knuckles brushed a different texture—the band of scar tissue resting just above his collarbone. It was all but invisible in the dimness, and I wondered what he’d look like in daylight.
I don’t want to find out. I’ve had enough of this already, and we’re only ten minutes in.