Redemption Alley-Jill Kismet 3Lilith Saintcrow
Redemption Alley Lilith Saintcrow
Right before dawn a hush falls over Santa Luz. The things that live and prey in the night are either searching for a burrow to spend the day in, or looking for one last little snack. The closer to dawn, the harder the fight, hunters say. Predators get desperate as the sun, that great enemy of all darkness, walks closer to the rim of dawn.
Which explains why I was flat on my back, again, with hellbreed-strong fingers cutting off my air and my head ringing like someone had set off dynamite inside it. Sparks spat from silver charms tied in my hair, blessed moon-metal reacting to something inimical. The Trader hissed as he squeezed, fingers sinking into my throat and the flat shine of the dusted lying over his eyes as they narrowed, a forked tongue flickering past the broken yellowed stubs of his teeth.
Apparently dental work wasn’t part of the contract he’d made with whatever hellbreed had given him supernatural strength and the ability to set shit on fire at a thousand paces. I brought my knee up, hard.
The hellbreed this particular Trader had bargained with hadn’t given him an athletic cup, either. The bony part of my knee sank into his crotch, meeting precious little resistance, so hard something popped. It didn’t sound like much fun.
The Trader’s eyes rolled up and he immediately let go of my trachea. I promptly added injury to insult by clocking him on the side of the head with a knifehilt. I didn’t slip the knife between his ribs because I wanted to bring him in for questioning.
What can I say? Maybe I was in a good mood.
Besides, I had other worries. For one, the burning warehouse.
Smoke roiled thick in the choking air, and the rushing crackle of flames almost drowned out the screams coming from the girl handcuffed to a support post. She was wasting both good energy and usable air by screaming, probably almost out of her mind with fear. Bits of burning building plummeted to the concrete floor. I gained my feet with a convulsive lurch, eyes streaming, and clapped the silver-plated cuffs on the Trader’s skinny wrists. He was on the scrawny end of junkie-thin, moaning and writhing as I wrenched his hands away from his genitals and behind his back.
I would have told him he was under arrest, but I didn’t have the breath. I scooped up the handle of my bullwhip and vaulted a stack of wooden boxes, their sides beginning to steam and smoke under the lash of heat. My steel-reinforced bootheels clattered and I skidded to a stop, giving her a once-over while my fingers stowed the whip.
Mousy brown hair, check. Big blue eyes, check. Mole high up on her right cheek, check. We have a confirmed sighting. Thank God. Now get her out of here.
“Regan Smith.” I coughed, getting a good lungful of smoke. My back burned with pain and something flaming hit the floor less than a yard away. “Your mom sent me to find you.”
She didn’t hear me. She was too busy screaming.
I grabbed at the handcuffs as she tried to scramble away, fetching up hard against the post. She even tried to kick me. Good girl. Bet you gave that asshole a run for his money. I curled my fingers around the cuffs on either side and gave a quick short yank.
The scar on my right wrist ran with prickling heat, pumping strength into my hand. The cuffs burst, and the girl immediately tried to bolt. She was hysterical and wiry-strong, choking, screaming whenever she could get enough air in. The roar of the fire drowned out any reassurance I might have given her, and my long leather trenchcoat was beginning to smoke. I was carrying plenty of ammo to make things interesting in here if it got hot enough.
Not to mention the fact that the girl was only human. She would roast alive before I got really uncomfortable.
Move it, Jill. I’d promised her mother I’d bring her back, if it was at all possible. Promises like that are hell on hunters.
I snapped a glance over my shoulder at the Trader lying cuffed on the floor. He appeared to be passed out, but they’re tricky fuckers. You don’t negotiate a successful bargain with a hellbreed without being slippery. Of course, since I’d caught him, you could argue that his bargain hadn’t been that successful. More burning crap fell down, splashing on the concrete and scattering. A lick of flame ran along an oily runnel in the floor, and the girl made things interesting by almost twisting free. Dammit. I’m trying to help you! But she was almost insane with fear, fighting as if I was the enemy. It probably messes your world up when you see a woman in a long black leather coat beat the shit out of a Trader, using a bullwhip, three clips of ammo, and the inhuman speed of the damned. Silver charms tied in my long dark hair spat and crackled with blue sparks, hot blood slicked several parts of me, and I’m sure I was wearing my mad face.
I hefted the girl over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes and spent a few precious seconds glancing again at the motionless Trader. Burning bits of wood landed on him, his clothes smoking, but I thought I saw a glimmer of eyes.
She beat at my back with her fists. I sprinted down the long central aisle of the warehouse, hell-lit with garish flame. Fire twisted and roared, stealing air and replacing it with toxic smoke. Something exploded, a hurricane edge of heat mouthing my back as I got a good head of speed going, aiming for a gap in the burning wall.
This might get a little tricky.
Rush of flame, a crackling liquid sound, covering up her breathless barking—she had nothing left in her to scream with, poor girl, especially not with my shoulder in her stomach—and my own rising cry, a sound of female effort that flattened the streaming flames away with its force. The scar—my souvenir from Santa Luz’s biggest hellbreed—ran with sick wet delight as I pulled force through it, my aura flaming into the visible, a star of spiky plasma light.
Feet slapping the floor, bootheels striking sparks, back burning—I’d wrenched something when I’d brought my knee up. Probably still feel better than he does. Hurry up, she can’t take much more of—
I hit the hole in the wall going almost full speed, my cry ratcheting up into a breathless squeal because I’d run out of air too, darkness flowering over my vision and starved muscles crying out for oxygen. Smoke billowed and I hoped I’d applied enough kinetic energy to throw us both clear of the fire. Physics is a bitch.
The application of force made the landing much harder. I don’t wear leather pants because they make my ass look cute. It’s because when I land hard, something snapping in my right leg and the rest of my right side taking the brunt of the blow, trying to shield the girl from impact, most of my skin would get erased if I wasn’t wearing thick dead cow.
As it was, I only broke a few bones as we slid, muscles straining against the instinct to roll over on her to shed momentum. I managed just to skid on my right side. Spikes of rusty pain drove through each break, right leg cramping, ribs howling.
Concrete. Cold. The hissing roar of the fire as it devoured all the oxygen it could reach. The girl was still feebly trying to struggle free.
It was a clear, cold night, the kind you only get out in the desert. The stars would be bonfires of brilliant ice if not for the glare of Santa Luz’s streetlamps and the other, lesser light of the burning warehouse. I lay for a few moments, coughing, eyes streaming, while my leg crunched with pain and the scar hummed with sick delight, a chill touching my spine as the bone set itself with swift jerks. My eyes rolled up in my head and I dimly heard the girl sobbing as she stopped trying to get away. She’d be lucky to get out of this needing a few years of therapy and some smoke-inhalation treatment.
Sirens pierced the night, far away but drawing closer. Here comes the cavalry. Thank God. Unfortunately, thanking God wouldn’t do much good. I was the responsible one here. If that Trader was still alive and the scene started swarming with vulnerable, only-human emergency personnel�
Get up, Jill. Get up now.
My weary body obeyed. I made it to my feet, wincing as my right tibia and my humerus both crackled, the bones swiftly restructuring themselves and all the pain of healing compressed into a few seconds rather than weeks. My hand flicked, I had both guns unholstered and ready before the warehouse belched a torrent of red-hot air and the Trader barreled through the hole in the wall, flesh cracking-black and his eyes shining flatly, the sick-sweet smell of seared human pork adding to the perfume of hellbreed contamination. Traders are scary-quick, not as fast as hellbreed but fast enough. I tracked him, bullets spattering the sidewalk as my right arm jolted under the strain of recoil going all the way up to my shoulders, broken bone pulling my aim off.
My teacher Mikhail insisted I be able to shoot left-handed, too. I caught the Trader with four rounds in the chest and dropped the guns as he reached the top arc of his leap, his scream fueled with the rage of the damned.
I’m sure the fact that half his meat was cooked didn’t help his mood.
My hands closed around knifehilts. Knife fighting is my forte, it’s close and dirty, which isn’t fun when it comes to hellbreed or Traders. You don’t want to get too close. But I’ve always had an edge in pure speed, being female and little. And nasty, once Mikhail trained the flinching out of me. The scar helps too. The hard knot of corruption on the soft inside of my wrist ran with heavy prickling iron as I moved faster than a human being had any right to, meeting the Trader with a bonesnapping crunch. The idiot wasn’t thinking. If he had been, he might have done something other than a stupid kamikaze stunt, throwing himself at a hunter who was armed and ready. As smart and slippery as Traders are, they never think they’re going to be held to account.
The knife went in with little resistance, silver laid along the flat part of the blade hissing as it parted flesh tainted by a hellbreed’s touch.
The Trader screamed, a high gurgling note of panic. My wrist turned, twisting the blade as the force of his hit threw us both, my right leg threatening to buckle under the momentum. I stamped my left heel, the transfer of force striking sparks between metal-reinforced bootheel and aggregate stones in the concrete. My other hand came up full of knife, blurred forward like a striking snake as the blade buried itself in his chest, and I pushed him down, pinning him as the shine flared in his eyes and roasted stink-sweet filled my mouth and nose.
I wrenched the first knife free and cut his throat. Blood steamed, arterial spray bubbling and frothing as the flat light drained from his eyes. I didn’t want to kill him. I wanted to question him and find out what hellbreed he’d made a bargain with.
But you can’t have everything. Besides, I could still hear the girl sobbing, the supsucking sound of a child in a nightmare that doesn’t go away when she opens her eyes. The thought of what he must have done to her—
and what he’d probably planned on doing, based on his other victims—drove my hand just as surely as the instinct of combat.
The body began to stink, sphincters loosened by death. I’d almost decapitated him. Better safe than sorry. I let out a long shuddering breath, my smoke-roughened lungs protesting with a series of deep hacking coughs. Helltaint drifted up from the corpse, the body contorting in odd ways as contagion spilled through its dying tissues, sucking the life from it. It was an eerie St. Vitus’s dance, limbs twisting and jerking as they withered.
If Traders could see what happens after one of them bites it, maybe they’d think twice about making deals with hellbreed.
Or maybe not. Details, details, Jill. Get moving.
I turned on my steelshod heel. The knives slipped into their sheaths, and I found my guns, reloaded and holstered them, barely noticing the habitual movements. The warehouse was burning merrily and the girl lay crumpled on the pavement, barely getting in enough breath to sob. She looked pretty bad, and would be terrifically bruised.
But she was alive. The broken bracelets of handcuffs jingled as she tried to scrabble away from my approach. I squatted, ignoring the flare of pain in my right calf, the bone finishing up its healing now that I’d stopped putting so much load on it. My coat, torn, ragged, and now scorched, whispered along the concrete, dragging behind me like a dinosaur’s tail.
“Regan.” I pitched my voice nice and low, soothing. “Your mom sent me to get you. It’s okay.”
She cowered, gibbering. I didn’t blame her, if I was a civilian I’d probably do the same. So I just stayed where I was, in an easy crouch, listening to the burning as the sirens drew closer. Goddamn. I think I can count this one a win.
The precinct house on Alameda was still hopping. The graveyard shift hadn’t gone home yet and the late drunks were being wheeled in for processing. Montaigne was waiting for me in his office, looking a lot better than usual—no bags under his eyes and a few inches slimmer. Vacation did him some good. His tie was even still on straight. That meant a relaxing day, for him. Of course, it was still early, and he’d been yanked out of bed to come in and tie off the Regan Smith disappearance/reappearance, and sign the forms for what little remained of the Trader to be cremated. You don’t bury them—you never know when a hellbreed will have a need for a nice fresh-rotting zombie skeleton. Why give them one?
“Harvey Steiner,” Monty said, leaning back in his chair. A fresh bottle of Tums sat unopened on his desktop, next to his overflowing inbox. “Mild-mannered accountant by day, wacked-out serial killer by night.”
“All he needed was a cape and Spandex.” I reeked of smoke and foulness, my back ached, and under the buckled leather cuff on my right wrist the scar tingled and prickled like a wire whisk vibrating against the skin. “And all it cost us was one lousy warehouse.”
“Plus four insurance claims that need to be filed for the cars you jumped on while chasing him. You’re a menace to property, Kismet.” Streaks of thinning, graying hair combed across his shining head, Monty raised tired gray eyes to meet mine. “How’s the kid?”
I shrugged, leather creaking. Monty’s one of the few who don’t have much trouble meeting my mismatched gaze. One brown eye, one blue, somehow it just seems to disturb people on a very deep level when I stare them down.
My fingers were at my throat, touching the carved chunk of ruby on its silver chain. I dropped my hand with an effort. “She’ll need therapy. But she’s alive. Her mom’s on the way down to pick her up.” After they finish with the rape kit and the sedation. Poor kid. At least she’s still breathing. Quit second-guessing yourself and count it a win, Kismet.
I did. But I didn’t think Regan or her mom would appreciate the news that she’d gotten off lightly, all things considered.
The half-open door to Monty’s office creaked a little as someone went past. A burst of laughter sounded through the shuffling paperwork, ringing phones, and general murmur of cops doing their work. Homicide was up early, as usual.
Murder doesn’t sleep.
Most of the time a hunter interacts with the Homicide division, closely followed by Vice. Murder, sex, and drugs, that’s the list of symptoms of hellbreed in your town. Not like humanity ever needs much help to start killing, getting high, and looting.
No, indeedy. But hellbreed do like to help out.
Monty let it rest for a few beats. “How’s Saul?”
I don’t know, I’m not home enough to answer the phone. It was a pinch in a numb place. “I talked to him a couple days ago. His mom’s doing better.”
It was half a lie. Once Weres get a particular lymphoma they tend to go downhill quick, bodies burning up from the inside. They call it “the Wasting.”
“Good.” Monty nodded. His chair squeaked as he shifted, uneasily.
My back still hurt, a lead bar of pain buried in my lumbar muscles. I wanted to go home and scrub the smoke and fear off my skin. I wanted to check the messages and see if Saul had called again. I wanted to hear his voice.
Too bad, Jill. There were other things to do before dawn.
Like whatever Monty was sitting on.
“Spit it out, Montaigne.” I folded my arms, leaning against the file cabinet. My bullwhip tapped the metal, a soft thumping sound. I had to pick up more ammo soon, drop by Galina’s and get a whole run of supplies.
He gave me a look that could have peeled paint and his eyes flicked toward the open door. Subtle, Monty. I hauled myself upright, padded across thin cheap industrial carpet, and swept the door closed, without even a sarcastic flourish. “That better?”
“I need your help. On a case.” He looked down at the drift of paper covering his desk, and I began to feel uneasy.
Normally, he says There’s something I need you to take a look at, Jill. Like he can’t believe he’s asking a woman half his size for help.
What the hell. I had nothing else I was doing tonight, other than visiting Galina and patrolling the streets for stray arkeus and other hellbreed. There weren’t any leads to chase for tonight’s Trader—the ’breed who had given him the ability to fling fire was still out there, free as a bird. It didn’t matter. I’d catch up with him, her, or it soon enough. You don’t get away with things like that. Not when Jill Kismet’s on the job.
I dragged the only unburied chair over to his desk, pushing a stack of files out of the way with my boot. I settled down, resting against the straight wooden back, and fixed my eyes on the piles of paper. “Talk to me.”
He opened up a drawer and set a bottle of Jack Daniels down. Amber alcohol glowed under the fluorescents. Uh-oh. I leaned forward, closed my fingers around the bottle, and twisted the cap off. “A case? One of mine?” If it is, why haven’t you said something before now? It’s the rules, Monty. You’ve done this before.
“I don’t know.” He reached down, digging in another drawer as I took a swig. The alcohol burned, and I was reminded that I hadn’t eaten yet today.
Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember eating yesterday either. Once you get going it’s hard to slow down. And Saul was gone.
“Will you just tell me, Monty? The cloak-and-dagger routine gets old.”
“You’d think you’d enjoy that.” He didn’t quite raise an eyebrow, but it was close. I sighed, exaggeratedly rolling my eyes. A very teenage movement, which he acknowledged with a sour smile. Neither of us had seen our teens for a decade or two, or three. I doubt Monty even remembered his teen years, and I had no urge to recall mine ever again. “Just get on with it. I have other shit to do tonight.”