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Heaven's Spite jk-5, Page 2

Lilith Saintcrow

  He dropped the phone down into the cradle. The sound of the connection breaking was like the click of a bullet into the chamber.

  I slammed my receiver down, pulling it at the last moment so I wouldn’t break the rest of the phone. The man on the other side of the glass jumped, and the nurse twisted in her chair to look at me. I didn’t bother to give a glance of apology, just looked at my Were.

  Saul’s eyes met mine, and I didn’t have to explain a single thing. He turned so fast the fringe on his jacket flared, and he headed with long strides for the door that would take us out toward the exit. I was right behind him. The scar twitched under the flayed cuff of my trench coat. Saul’s stride lengthened into a run.

  So did mine.


  Sarvedo Street was dark and deserted this time of night. I didn’t pull into the garage. I bailed out in front of my warehouse, barked a “Stay in the car!” at Saul, and hauled ass for the door. Steel-clad boot heels struck sparks from the concrete, the front door was open a crack, and I barreled through, rolling and coming up to sweep the front hall and wide-open space of the living room. The charms tied in my hair buzzed, a warning.

  Gilberto was on the couch, dark eyes wide and thin sallow face almost bleached. His knees poked through the holes in his jeans and his red T-shirt glared against the couch’s slipcover. He looked cheesy-sick, and I didn’t blame him. Because on the other side of the coffee table, looking down at my apprentice like he was choosing bonbons out of a box, was a bland-faced, pale-haired hellbreed in a white linen suit.

  My apprentice had Jack Karma’s Bowie knife out, the silver loaded along the blade’s flat running with blue light. He held the knife up, a tiny bar between him and the slender shape of the hellbreed, who was leaning forward, weight on his toes. Highly polished wingtips placed just so on the hardwood floor, his expensively cut platinum hair ruffled on a breeze that came from nowhere, Perry smiled a shark’s smile. His chin jerked to the side and he almost moved before I was on him.

  The shock grated through me, my aura fluorescing into the visible. Hard little sparks of blue crackled off sea-urchin spikes, an exorcist’s aura hard and disciplined—and reacting to the soup of baneful intent in the air.

  Gilberto let out a harsh yell, his voice breaking. Perry didn’t speak, but that could have been because I had him on the floor, arm twisted up so far behind his back that whatever he had serving him for bones crackled, the gun pressed to the back of his shiny blond head. One of my boots was on his other wrist, flexing down until something else made a creaking, almost-snapping sound.

  He gave a token heave or two and went still, the scar turning to soft velvet fire, sliding up my arm.

  I would have preferred pain. Either way, the gun didn’t waver. All of a sudden I understood why Mikhail had almost drawn on him the first time he’d shown up at the bar, sniffing around me. A million years ago, back when I was the apprentice and Mikhail was the hunter.

  The longer I live, the more things just seem to repeat themselves.

  Perry chuckled. “Kisssssss.” Subvocal rumbling slid under the surface of the word, trailing away on a long hiss like a freight train’s brakes failing on a long sharp hill. “Darling. So rough.”

  “Shut. Up.” My knee dug into his back. I made sure I was braced, watched him. “Gil?”

  A long, tense-ticking two seconds. My apprentice gulped. “Si, señora?” No trace of sarcasm or machismo. That was either good… or very bad.

  “Go out the front door. Saul’s in the car. You two are going to have some lunch. I’ll catch up with you.” A nice even tone, but I did not relax. Perry didn’t move, his body loose and unjointed against the floor. As if I was kneeling on a sack of loosely threaded bones in a bag of noisome fluid.

  “Si, señora.” He got up, slowly, like an old man. The Bowie knife boiled with blue light, and my finger tensed on the trigger.

  It was time to make it very clear to a certain hellbreed that my apprentice was off-fucking-limits. If you give ’breed an inch, they will take twenty miles. Your only hope is to make it clear the first time.

  And God help me, I liked making things violently clear to this particular ’breed. “Let’s start at the beginning, Perry. You do not threaten my apprentice.”

  He said nothing, just hissed. Which meant I wasn’t getting through.

  So I pistol-whipped him twice, bouncing his head off the floor. He hissed again and surged up, I shoved him back down and snapped a glance at Gilberto, who was stumbling in slow motion, a sleepwalker in a nightmare. But he was heading the right way, toward the front door. Saul would take care of him.

  “Sweet nothings.” The sibilants dragged out over the rumble of Helletöng. “Oh, my darling. I’ve missed you.”

  I stuck with the safest response possible. “You do not threaten my apprentice.” And I was so close to blowing his head all over my living room floor. So, so close.

  Not only because of the scar, rubbing against itself and moaning on my wrist. Not only because of Gilberto’s cheese-sick cheeks or the fact that Perry was here, inside the house I slept in.

  No. Because it would feel good. Too good. I hadn’t seen Perry since the circus came to town, and that wasn’t as long ago as I liked.

  It would never be long enough.

  “Of course not.” Now he sounded irritated. “I came to bring you a gift. He was entertainment. Thoughtfully provided by—”

  I hit him again. One more time, because it felt necessary. And another for luck. Once more because by then, I wanted to so bad I couldn’t stop myself.

  Hunters live on the ragged edge of adrenaline and violence. When all your problems are hellbreed, all your solutions start to look like murder. The trouble isn’t that you’re tempted to do it.

  The trouble is that it feels so goddamn good.

  Perry screamed, an inarticulate howl of rage and pain. I bore down as he tried to heave up, and the scar turned into barbwire instead of velvet, sawing against the nerves in my arm.

  It was a physical effort to stop hitting him. I could have turned his head into hamburger, I had the firepower, but then I would have had to burn him and scatter the parts and ashes as far apart as possible. And what would the scar do if I killed him?

  I just didn’t know. But oh, God, I was getting so close to not caring.

  It almost made me sweat. Threads of black ichor crawled through his hair. I settled the end of the gun barrel against his skull again and he went still.

  Bingo, Jill. Even he isn’t sure what you’ll do.

  It’s nice when a hellbreed considers you unpredictable.

  “Now.” The sudden calm was a warning, just like the thunder of my pulse smoothing out, dropping into the steadiness of action. “Let me hear you say it, Pericles, so I know you understand.”

  “Dearest one.” It must have been hard to talk with his face in the floor, but he managed. He even managed to sound cheerful, if you could call a tone like a razor slipping under cold flesh cheerful. “I was pulling your chain, Kiss. Such a nice chain it is, too. Attached to the wall of that conscience of yours.”

  I said nothing, but my hand tensed again. Such a little squeeze, and a .45 bullet would frag his head all to pieces. And then I’d find out what the scar would do without him behind it.

  “I do not threaten your apprentice.” A singsong, over a deep well of roaring Helletöng. The speech of the damned rattled the walls, made the floor groan.

  “English, motherfucker.” My throat had locked up, so it was a whisper. “You speak English only to me.”

  “Bigot.” A soft, hurtful laugh. He had frozen under me, waiting. “Your maternal instincts are fetching, darling.”

  “Give me a reason, Perry.” A certain amount of threatening theater is necessary to work this job. You stop the threats and the bitches start getting uppity.

  But I meant it. I was begging him for a reason. To give me that opening. I could not just kill him out of hand.

  That would make me just like him.
Just like the things I hunted.

  “Two gifts in one day? Woman, thy nature is greed.” He laughed, the sound bubbling in a pool of black ichor. “Look on the table, Kiss.”

  I didn’t. I looked down at the seeping mess of his head. The urge to slam him down a few more times trembled in my bones. My heel flexed down on his stretched-out wrist, and he made a squirming, uncomfortable movement.

  Like a worm on a hook.

  “Say it again.” This time I sounded almost normal. A huge relief threatened to descend on me. If he mouthed off one more time, it was good enough provocation to shoot him. My conscience wouldn’t raise a peep, that was the important thing.

  “I do not threaten your apprentice.” Level and bland. Like he’d gotten what he wanted.

  Every muscle in my body tensed. I lunged aside, my heel grinding down sharply once more. I skipped back, and he rose in a black-spattered wave, shaking out his hands and turning to face me. His wrists crackled, and he made a queer sideways movement with his head, crunching noises inside his neck as he resettled himself inside his shell of normality.

  Under the streaks and spatters of hellbreed gore, his face was… normal. No scrim of hurtful beauty, no sharp handsomeness. Even a hunter has to look closer than usual to see the twisting on him, the worm in the apple. I’ve given up wondering if the lack of beauty in his disguise makes him more scary, or less. It’s one of those questions that will keep you from sleeping, and I need my sleep more than ever these days.

  My gun was level, my aim settling right between his eyebrows. The scar turned back to velvet. My arm was straight, though. It did not waver. The silver in my hair rattled, and the chain at my throat holding the carved ruby warmed. So did my apprentice-ring, snug against my third left finger. The heat prickled and teased at my skin.

  My peripheral vision snagged on a flicker of silver and white. A plain white paper box, tied with silver ribbon. A pretty, professionally made bow.

  A present from a hellbreed is never a pleasant thing. And the more attractive the package, the less likely you’re going to get something nice out of it.

  My mouth was dry. “Take it away and go crawl back into your hole. I accept no gifts from you.”

  Not when he was looking to get me back into our bad old cycle. The scar and its attendant power for a slice of my time each month, that was the original deal—until he welshed and I got the scar’s power for nothing.

  Because I’d survived. And because I called his bluff. Yet another question that would keep me from sleeping—how deep had his tentacles been inside Inez Germaine’s little operation? How much had he lost, gambling for the chance that he could make me damn myself? Once I did that, once I stepped into the abyss, I had a sneaking suspicion that he would own me.

  He had been gambling for nothing less than my soul. And he was still looking to hook me.

  The warehouse creaked around us, its usual nightly song as the wind came up off the river, whistling through the trainyards and the industrial section. Not all the noise was from the pressure of air outside, though. Some of the groaning and creaking was the strings under the physical world being plucked, both by my will and by flabby-corrupting hellbreed fingers. I met Perry’s blue, blue stare and thought longingly of having him on the floor again and this time pulling the goddamn trigger.

  “This gift you’ll accept. It’s more in the nature of recovered property.” He stepped to the side, easily and slowly, I tracked him with the gun’s snout. My left fingers dropped to my whip, and he grinned. White teeth flashed through the mask of thin viscous black dripping on his face. His suit would be ruined, a dark stain all the way down the front. His tie was steaming as polyester fibers reacted with hellbreed ichor. The rest of the fabric had to be natural—silk and cotton don’t react the same way. They get eaten away, but they don’t steam or smoke.

  Just like a hellbreed to wear a polyester tie. A snorting sarcasm threatened to reach my lips. I killed it.

  His gaze dropped to my left hand. “I’m not about to make trouble, my dear. I just want to see your face when you open my present. The boy’s no challenge. You’ll have your work cut out for you, making him into one of your kind.”

  That’s none of your business, hellspawn. My blue eye was hot and dry, watching for a shiver of baneful intent. When I didn’t respond, he chuckled softly as if I had.

  The ribbon unfolded under his clever fingers. I tensed. It fell aside, and he opened the box with a quick flick, pulling his hand back and inhaling, shaking his long, elegant fingers as if they’d been singed.

  “There.” A sidelong glance at me. “Come and see, Kiss. And tell me what a good little hellspawn I am, bringing you what belongs to you. Scratch behind my ears, who’s a good boy.” A flicker between his lips—a wet, cherry-red tongue, scaled and supple. The flash of color was obscene against his bloodless pallor.

  I ran through everything he could possibly mean with that statement, came up with nothing good. “Step back. Over there.” I indicated a spot on the hardwood floor with my chin. Waited while he minced a bare foot, then two. “Further, Perry.”

  His mouth turned down, but he did mince back a few more steps. “Your mistrust wounds me. It really does. Here I’ve gone to all this trouble—”

  “Shut up.” I glanced down into the box, my whole body expecting him to jump me. The longer this went on, the more I expected something like that from him.

  Hellbreed and Traders aren’t known for impulse control.

  Inside the box were glinting shapes that refused to make sense for a moment. I exhaled, hard, as if I’d been punched.

  Mikhail’s voice, from the secret space inside my head he always occupied. Sekhmet is Eye of Ra, and this is Eye of Sekhmet. Been passed down, milaya, from hunter to hunter in Jack Karma’s lineage. Before the first Karma we know little. But this is Talisman he had, for whatever reason. Is for my little snake when I am gone, no?

  And then I was there in that shitty little hotel room, Mikhail’s life gurgling out through the hole in his throat and Melisande Belisa’s tinkling laugh echoing as she fled. With this Talisman clutched in her spidery little fingers. It had probably bought her up quite a few ranks in the Sorrows’ arcane and crowded hierarchy.

  My shot went wide. Perry rammed into me, we slammed into the wall across the living room. Drywall dust puffed out. His fingers closed around my right wrist, squeezing. Bones ground together and the scar sent a sick wave of hot delight up to my shoulder, his fingertips plucking as if my arm was a string instrument. He pressed against me, his other hand worming at my hip, looking for my whip handle. And there was something hard in his pants, too. Shoved right up against me as if I wasn’t a hunter.

  As if I was what I had been before Mikhail plucked me out of that snowbank.

  A knife handle smacked into my left palm. I jerked it free and cut, the blade going in with little resistance. Silver in my hair and at my throat rattled and crackled, spitting blue sparks showering his marred, ichor-streaked face. He was grinning madly, and I didn’t dare blink while I sheared through whatever served him as stomach muscle, finishing with a twist, and brought my knee up.

  He recoiled, I heaved him away. The gun came down, but he knocked the barrel aside as I squeezed the trigger again. The bullet whined, dug a furrow out of the floor, and buried itself in the wall between living room and my bedroom. The scar shrieked with pain, napalm rubbed burning into skin.

  My leg came up. I kicked, the blow unreeling, boot smashing solidly into his belly. A gush of black ichor pattered free. He folded over, arms wrapped over his stomach, and hissed, baring his teeth. The mask of bland normality slipped for a moment, and troubled air swirled in two points behind him, above his shoulders. The buzz of flies rattled everything in my living room, and the etheric protections laid in the walls tolled once like a bell.

  It was a shame I couldn’t consecrate the warehouse’s grounds and keep him out of here permanently. I’d give up my monthly municipal check for that. But no—I’m a hun
ter, not a priest.

  He fled, and I tracked him with the gun. My aim wasn’t off—I plugged him twice in the back before he nipped smartly down the hall, footsteps too light to be human, hitting the ground oddly.

  It was only after the front door banged closed and the sound of him running—northward, toward the meat-packing district and the Monde Nuit—faded too much even for my hellbreed-jacked hearing that I slumped against the hole in the wall. I tore my gaze away from the hall and stared at the box on the table.

  Hard darts of silver glitter spiked up from the Talisman. My legs were unsteady. I made it, step by uncertain step, across what seemed like acres of floor, my boots gripping through a thin stinking scrim of hellbreed ichor. When I could look into the box fully, my smart eye watering and hot tears slicking that one cheek, I saw that it was, indeed, the Eye.

  The ruby at my throat was a pale imitation of this barbaric red gem in its rough silver-claw setting. It glowed fierce crimson, darts of light shimmering into white glow at the edges. Its chain, large silver links that looked sharp enough to cut, was broken. Spilling out of the box, vibrating in place, the Talisman rattled as I drew closer.

  I halted. But the necklace just vibrated more intensely on my coffee table, next to the stack of Home Beautiful and Cook’s Illustrated Saul was always reading. A thin curl of smoke rose from the paper of the box.

  Is it going to burn me? I was acutely aware of sweat touching the curve of my lower back, blood and hellbreed contamination all over my clothes, the scar humming a soft little chortle of corruption on my right wrist. And who was I kidding? Both my cheeks were wet, because my eyes were brimming with tears.

  My throat clicked as I swallowed drily and blinked away the water, looking for traps. He’d had plenty of time to lay them, but I saw nothing except the burning etheric smear of an angry and awake Talisman. The smell of burning intensified.

  The Talisman hummed, plucking at the strings under the world’s surface. But not like a hellbreed. No, this was music. It was humming along with the song that naturally unmade things. The same music that triggered landslides and catastrophes, a great harmonic resonance instead of the crashing discordance of hellbreed corruption.