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Redemption Alley jk-3, Page 2

Lilith Saintcrow

  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.” Or this morning, as the case may be.

  “You’re always in such a fucking hurry.” He had a file in his hands, a thin dog-eared manila number held shut with a rubber band.

  “Hellbreed don’t take vacations.” When they do, I’ll be the first to celebrate. I sniffed smoke, still rising from my clothes and skin. Maybe not with a barbeque, though. “What’s this all about?”

  “Marvin Kutchner.” He held up the file. “Cop. Ate his Glock about two months ago.”

  “Has he come back?” In my line of work, that’s always a possibility. If you run up against the nightside in Santa Luz—or really, anywhere in my territory, which runs from Ridgefield to the southern edges of Santa Luz; Leon Budge in Viejarosas and I split some of the southern suburbs—you’ll see me sooner or later. I will avenge you, if you fall prey to the things that go bump in the night.

  And if you come back, I’ll lay you to rest. Permanently.

  Monty shook his head. “Buried out at Estrada. No sign of him since.”

  Well, that’s a relief. I eyed the folder. “So what’s the deal?”

  “I want you to look into it.”

  “A cop suicide? No offense, Monty, but—”

  “He was my partner, back in the day.” His weak, smoke-colored gaze fixed itself over my shoulder, and his mouth turned down at the corners.

  The bottle of Tums on his desk wasn’t open, and the whiskey bottle was mostly full. He was laying in for a siege.

  I studied him for a long few moments. What aren’t you telling me? “Is there a suspicion of homicide?”

  “Something just don’t smell right, Kismet. I don’t know. I didn’t think Marv was the type, though God knows any cop can be driven to it.” He spread his hands, helplessly, like people do when they try to express the inexpressible. “It just don’t smell right.”

  Scratch any cop hard enough and you’ll find intuition. Most of the time it’s an educated guess so reflexive it seems like a hunch, courtesy of working the edges of human behavior for a long time.

  A hunter, on the other hand, is normally a full-blown psychic. Messing around with sorcery will do that to you. Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe. Doesn’t matter.

  Still… why me, Monty? “Why not just set IA on it?”

  “Them?” He made a dismissive gesture. “Look, Marv was a good cop. Maybe it got to be too much for him, maybe not. He had a wife, she’s getting his pension, and if something…”

  I waited.

  “He was my partner,” Monty finally said, heavily. As if it explained everything.

  Maybe it did. If he was just uneasy, or wanted to know why, he was no different from the people who come to me looking for their loved ones. Everyone who disappears is someone’s kid, someone’s friend, someone’s lover. Even if they’re not, they deserve someone to care about finding them.

  Even if that someone is only me.

  Kutchner had pulled the very last disappearing trick anybody ever does. If it didn’t look kosher to Monty and he wanted to do right by the widow by having someone quietly look at it so the pension wasn’t interrupted, it was reasonable. More reasonable than a burning warehouse and a throat-cut Trader.

  I leaned forward, holding out my right hand. The leather cuff on my wrist slid a little bit under my coatsleeve, over the scar. “I won’t promise anything. It’s not my type of case.”

  Monty’s shoulders sagged as he let me take the file. It could have been relief or a fresh burden. Vacations never last long enough. “Thanks, Kiss. I mean it.”

  I almost winced. Leather creaked as I made it up to my feet, sighing as my back twinged and settled into aching. The scar burned, a reminder I didn’t need, just like the reek of smoke clinging to me. “Don’t call me that, okay?” A few days looking into this, it’s the least I owe him.

  Monty wasn’t just a liaison. He was also a friend.

  Even if he sometimes couldn’t look me in the face.

  I left with the file tucked under my arm, heading out into the rest of my night. The gray of false dawn was coming up, sky bleaching out along its edges, and I kept my windows down as I drove. The cold air was a penance, but at least it didn’t smell like fire.

  Chapter Two

  The phone shrilled. I rolled over, blinking hazily. My bed was rucked out of all recognition, blankets tossed everywhere and my clothes in a stinking pile on the floor next to the mattresses. I’d been too tired to shower when I got home midmorning—just shucking off, putting a knife under the pillow, and passing out in the square of sunlight that travels through the skylight every day.

  If you’re not nocturnal when you start out, being a hunter will make you that way before long. Afternoon is the best, a long slow sleepy time of safe daylight. Dusk will wake you up like gunfire, because darkness is when the nightside comes out to play. Sunlight means safety.

  At least most of the time.

  I was just going to let the machine take it. But the thought that Saul might be calling when he knew I was probably home brought me up out of deep dreamlessness and set me fumbling for the phone. I hit the talk button and managed to get it in the vicinity of my face. “’Lo?” Saul? Is that you?

  There was a moment’s worth of silence, and I knew just from the sound of breathing that it wasn’t my very favorite werecougar. Cold water ran down my spine and I lunged up into full wakefulness a bare second before a low, throaty chuckle echoed in my ear and made the scar on my wrist run with wet heat.

  “My darling Kiss,” he said. “It has been too long.”

  I knew he hadn’t forgotten me.

  It’d be nice if he would, wouldn’t it, Jill? My mouth turned dry and slick as desert glass, and the scar thundered under its leather hood. The buckles on the cuffs Saul made for me regularly snapped off or corroded, and I didn’t help matters by tearing off the cuff when I needed the full extent of helltainted strength.

  I didn’t move to sit up in bed. Perry would hear material moving and know he’d gotten to me. Instead, I froze, lying on my belly, one hand under the pillow around the knifehilt and the other clutching the phone to my numb ear.

  I’d wondered just how much chain he was going to give me before yanking. I’d left town six months ago in the aftermath of the Sorrows incident, and on my way out I’d paid Perry a little visit. I knew he’d been in it up to his eyeballs, thinking he could play both sides of the fence and use the Sorrows to get his wormy little fingers inside my head.

  It hadn’t worked. I’d spent a lot of time between then and now wondering when he was going to make his next move. The scar didn’t twinge much, and it still functioned the same as before, feeding me enough etheric force to make me exponentially more dange

  It’s not every hunter who has a tainted hellbreed mark. It’s saved my life more than once.

  And driven me right to the edge of the abyss.

  “Perry.” I sounded normal. Or about as normal as you can sound, awakened from a deep sleep with a hellbreed on the line. My palms were wet and my nipples, pressed against the mattress since I’d shucked every stitch of smoke-fouled clothing, were hard as chips of rock. I’d tossed most of the pillows off the bed. “Didn’t I tell you not to bother me?”

  I didn’t even have to put any fuck you into my voice. Just weariness, as if I was dealing with a spoiled child.

  Oh be careful. Be very goddamn careful, Jill. My pulse kicked up as if it was dusk. High, hard, and fast, right in my throat, too.

  “Would you like my mark to start spreading, Kiss?” Bland, smooth, and even, as if he was discussing the weather. I could almost see his blue eyes narrowing.

  Most of the damned are beautiful. Perry is just blandly mediocre-looking. It’s why he’s so goddamn scary, and why my left hand started to quiver a little bit.

  The woman always has advantage in situation like this, my teacher Mikhail’s voice whispered from the vaults of memory.

  I hoped he was right. It sure as hell didn’t feel like it, sometimes.

  “Or perhaps,” Perry continued, “you would like it to start rotting and turning black. I believe the proper term is necrosis.”

  I know what necrosis is, hellspawn. “That would put a little wrinkle in our bargain.” I didn’t swallow audibly only out of sheer force of will. “And since you’re already in dutch by cavorting with the Sorrows not so long ago—”

  “Oh, let’s not fight. Come see me, Kiss.” Silky-smooth, his voice could have been an attractive businessman’s baritone except for the rumble behind it. It sounded like freight trains in a deserted switchyard at midnight, rubbing against each other and groaning in pain.

  Helletöng. The language of the damned.

  The mother tongue of Hell.

  “Hold your breath until I show up, Pericles.” I peeled the phone away from my ear and hit the talk button again. It disconnected—but not nearly quickly enough to suit me.

  I rolled over and stared at the skylight. Late-afternoon sunlight filled the Plexiglas rectangle with gold. I was under the messy blankets, except for my bare foot, with the sheet wrapped around my ankle like a manacle. My toes flexed as sunlight scoured my vision, comfortable safety filling the inside of my skull with white noise. I tuned my mind to a blank, meaningless hum, but my hands were shaking, one of them braced with a knifehilt.

  My warehouse resounded with tiny noises. I like to hear every little thing moving in my place, right down to the mice in the walls. Though sorcery is sometimes practically useful—I don’t have mice in my walls. Creaks as sun-heat made the building expand, the low moan of the wind from the desert, a faraway rumble as a train slid along the tracks, since I live in an industrial district. Nowadays I was liking the solitude more and more.

  You knew he wouldn’t forget about you. I was cold even under the blankets. The scar, under its shield of leather, ran with moist warmth. It wasn’t much to look at, a puckered lip-print as if someone had painted lye on the skin and kissed with a wet mouth. It still functioned the way it always had, feeding me etheric force, hiking my physical strength and just generally making me a lot harder to kill.

  I hadn’t been in to the Monde Nuit to give Perry payment for that power since Saul and I returned from the Dakotas.

  I was all right with that. And technically, he had betrayed the bargain we’d made. I was within my rights never to darken the Monde’s doorstep again, never to make another payment no matter how much power I pulled through it.

  It’s too easy. And it was. Perry wasn’t the sort to let a hunter slip through his immaculate fingers. He’d miscalculated badly last time, and I’d outwitted him.

  Hellbreed don’t like that.

  Add to that the fact that he’d done a few things I hadn’t suspected he could—like producing hellfire in the blue spectrum—and you had a very unsettling situation developing.

  Worry about it later, Jill. For right now you need to get up and start poking around after Monty’s dead partner. The sooner you get that looked into, the sooner you can get back to those disappearances on the east side of town. Four women gone, and the whole thing stinks.

  The trouble was, I might have to wait until someone else disappeared before I was sure last night’s player didn’t have anything to do with the situation. But the fire-slinging sonofabitch hadn’t bothered going out to the east, he’d concentrated slightly south of downtown, in the warehouses and freight yards near the river. Lots of places to hide where nobody could hear a woman scream.

  Regan Smith had been the lucky one. Her mother hadn’t been able to look me in the face when she asked me to find her daughter, or when I left her outside the curtain to the ER bay her child was behind. Maybe it was my eyes. Maybe it was my long leather coat or the skintight black T-shirt, or the silver tied in my hair.

  Maybe it was even the guns. Or the bullwhip.

  Or maybe it was her raped, traumatized daughter whimpering even through the sedation. Sometimes people aren’t prepared for their loved ones to be brought back hurt or marred. The disappearance itself throws everything off, screws everything up, and life is never normal again even if their loved one comes back.

  That was Perry on the phone. A galvanic shudder spilled through me, from top to toes. He’s about to start messing with you again, Jill. It figures he would wait until Saul is out of town.

  I wanted to call Saul, but he would immediately be able to tell something was wrong. He didn’t need another burden right now. He already sounded too worried. When he could get me on the phone, that is.

  I repressed another shiver. I could still smell smoke, my clothes on the floor sending out invisible waves of stink like Pig-Pen in the old Peanuts cartoons.

  I should get up, work out, and hit the street.

  For a few minutes I lay there, breathing, my eyes full of light. Trying not to follow the inevitable chain of logic.

  You know what this means. Perry’s thinking about you.

  I wished it didn’t make me feel so unsteady. He’d almost gotten into my head more than once. Almost pushed me over that edge every hunter lives on.

  We commit murder on an almost daily basis. It doesn’t matter if it’s hellbreed, Trader, scurf, Middle Way adepts, what-have-you. It’s still killing sentient beings. The fact that most of these sentient beings are kill-crazy predators doesn’t absolve a hunter of responsibility.

  The Church, after all, does not admit us into Heaven, even if we’re buried in hallowed ground.

  Sometimes I wonder about that. I wonder more and more, the longer I do this sort of work.

  Getting that close to the edge is necessary. You can’t kill a hellbreed if you hesitate or flinch. But no matter how close you get to that edge, no matter how you put your little toesies on it and peer over into the howling abyss that lies beyond, you cannot go over. It’s a razor-thin line, but you cannot, ever, go over it.

  I had been so close.

  Get up, Jill. Work out, and go out and do your job. Let Perry suck eggs in his little hellbreed hole. When he pops back up you’ll deal with him.

  It sounded good.

  I just wished I believed it.

  I rolled up out of bed, taking the knife with me, and got ready to face another night.

  Chapter Three

  I’d just given the Impala a tune-up, so my baby purred as I took her up into the suburbs, the red fuzzy dice Galina had given me dangling from the mirror. Kutchner’s widow lived in the Cruzada district, nice little houses from the seventies, fenced yards, and neighbors as old as Methuselah—on the right streets. On the wrong streets, the neighbors have bad crack problems that make them look like Methuselah.

  Only in the ’burbs do you find this combination. No wonder they need sitcoms to dull the pain.
r />   The wrong streets tend to cluster on higher ground, further away from the artery of the river. Closer to the desert. Mrs. Kutchner lived on the edge, high enough up that security bars on the windows were not just a fashion statement. Still, it was an okay neighborhood, and as the sun slid bloody below the rim of the mountains, I slammed the Impala’s door and eyed the house, a neat little adobe with a trim, if weedy, yard and a chain-link fence. Out here the grass was yellow; people had better things to spend their money on than astronomical water bills.

  I leaned against the car door and examined the place. The right-hand neighbors had kids—someone had to play with the toys scattered around their yard. On the other side, a scraggly greenbelt cut through the neighborhood, edging a ditch that would take runoff in flash-flood season. The fence was higher on that side, and so were the weeds.

  The blinds were all pulled behind blank windows and vertical iron security bars. The red-painted door looked like a tight-pursed mouth, and the high arched windows gave the street a perpetually surprised glance. The brick-colored roof tiles were still fresh, not bleached by a few high-grade summer scorches.

  Now why does this not look right? I pulled my sunglasses off as the sky turned indigo, pink and orange lingering in the west. The mountains glowed, furnace teeth spearing up to catch high thin cumulus clouds. The original seven-veil dance, performed nightly, hold the applause, just throw cash.

  Wind came off the desert, smelling of sand and shimmering heat. Oven-warm, drying the sweat along my forehead and tinkling the charms knotted into my hair with red thread. My silver apprentice-ring rested against my left ring finger. I played with it as I watched the house, hairs rising on my nape.

  My smart eye—the blue one, the one that can see below the surface of the world—watered a bit as I focused. A pall lay over Kutchner’s house, etheric energy turned thick and bruise-clotted.

  There could be a number of reasons for this—grief, or any strong negative emotion over time. A murder or suicide in the recent past—this was listed as Kutchner’s last known address before he ventilated his own skull.