Unclean Spirits bsd-1, page 1part #1 of Black Sun's Daughter Series
( Black Sun's Daughter - 1 )
M. L. N. Hanover
In a world where magic walks and demons ride, you can't always play by the rules.
Jayné Heller thinks of herself as a realist, until she discovers reality isn't quite what she thought it was. When her uncle Eric is murdered, Jayné travels to Denver to settle his estate, only to learn that it's all hers – and vaster than she ever imagined. And along with properties across the world and an inexhaustible fortune, Eric left her a legacy of a different kind: his unfinished business with a cabal of wizards known as the Invisible College.
Led by the ruthless Randolph Coin, the Invisible College harnesses demon spirits for their own ends of power and domination. Jayné finds it difficult to believe magic and demons can even exist, let alone be responsible for the death of her uncle. But Coin sees Eric's heir as a threat to be eliminated by any means – magical or mundane – so Jayné had better start believing in something to save her own life.
Aided in her mission by a group of unlikely companions – Aubrey, Eric's devastatingly attractive assistant; Ex, a former Jesuit with a lethal agenda; Midian, a two-hundred-year-old man who claims to be under a curse from Randolph Coin himself; and Chogyi Jake, a self-styled Buddhist with mystical abilities – Jayné finds that her new reality is not only unexpected, but often unexplainable. And if she hopes to survive, she'll have to learn the new rules fast – or break them completely…
M. L. N. Hanover
The first book in the Black Sun's Daughter series, 2008
To John Constantine
I would like to thank JB Bell, Sam Jones, and Andan Lauber for their help in inventing Jayné Heller and for handing me Guilty Pleasures back during the heyday of the Abbey. I would also like to thank Jayné Franck for lending her name. I owe debts of service and gratitude to the members of the Santa Fe Critical Mass group, including S. M. and Jan Stirling, Emily Mah, Ian Tregillis, Melinda Snodgrass, Terry England, Walter Jon Williams, Sage Walker, Vic Milan, and the auxiliary presences of Carrie Vaughn and Diana Rowland. The book would not exist without the faith and hard work of my agents, Shawna McCarthy and Danny Baror, and my editor, Jennifer Heddle. The strength of the book is very much an honor to them. Any errors are entirely my own.
It was raining in Denver the night Eric Heller died. The clouds had rolled in late in the afternoon, white pillars ascending toward the sun with a darkness at the base that was pure threat. Seven minutes after five o’clock—just in time for the rush-hour traffic—the sky opened, rain pounding down onto the streets and windows. It was still going three and a half hours later. Falling water and flashing lightning hid the sunset, but Eric could feel it. It was a side effect; he could always feel the dark coming on.
“Something’s happening,” the voice from his cell phone said. “Something big.”
“I know, Aubrey. I’m on it.”
“I mean really big.”
“I’m on it.”
Across from Eric in the dim orange light of the bar, a man laughed and the waitress smiled a tight little smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Eric tapped his glass, the tick-tick-tick of his fingernails sounding like the rain against the window.
“Okay,” Aubrey said. “But if there’s something I can do, you’ll tell me. Right?”
“No question,” Eric said. “Take care of yourself, okay? And maybe fly low for a while. This might get a little messy.”
Aubrey was a decent guy, which meant he did a lot of decent-guy things. Eric’s present job didn’t call for that skill set. He needed a hard-ass. And so he was sitting in this bar in one of the worst parts of Five Points, waiting for someone he’d never met while a monsoon beat the shit out of the city. And while Coin and the Invisible College did something in the dangerous almost-reality of the Pleroma. Something big.
“You want another one, Pops?” the waitress said.
“Yes,” Eric said. “Yes, I do.”
He’d finished the other one and moved on to a third when the door swung open. The curl of rain-chilled air moved through the bar like a breath. Then five men walked in. Four of them could have been simple violence-soaked gangbangers. The fifth one, the big sonofabitch in sunglasses, had a rider. Eric couldn’t tell by looking whether it was a loupine or nosferatu or any of the other thousand species of unclean spirit that could crawl into a human body, but he could feel power coming off the man. Eric’s hand twitched toward the gun in his pocket, wanting the reassuringly solid grip under his fingers. But that would be poor form.
The big sonofabitch approached and loomed over Eric, just close enough to be a provocation. The other four split up, two standing by the door, two lounging close to Eric with a fake casual air. Apart from the radio blaring out a hip-hop tune, the bar had gone silent.
“You’re Tusk,” Eric said. “Nice belt buckle you’ve got there. Shiny.”
“Who the fuck are you, old man?” the big sonofabitch asked. His breath smelled like creosote. Loupine, then. A werewolf.
“My name’s Eric Heller. I’m looking for someone to do a job for me.”
“We look unemployed?” the big sonofabitch asked. The two who weren’t by the door smiled mirthlessly. “You think some Anglo motherfucker just come in here and whistle, we gonna jump?”
Eric reached up and plucked the sunglasses off the big sonofabitch. The black eyes met his. Eric pulled his will up from his crotch, up through his belly and his throat, pressing cold qi out through his gaze. The big sonofabitch tilted his head like a dog hearing an unfamiliar sound. The others stirred, hands reaching under jackets and shirts.
“I’m looking for someone to do a job, friend,” Eric said, pressing the glasses into the man’s blacksmith-thick hand. “If it’s not you, it’s not you. No offense meant.”
The big sonofabitch shook his head once, but it wasn’t really a refusal. Eric waited.
“Who are you?” the loupine asked. The humanity had left the voice. Eric was talking straight to the rider now.
“Eric. Alexander. Heller. Ask around,” he said. “I can offer you the Mark of Brute-Loka. Might be useful to someone in your position.”
The black eyes went wider.
“What do you want for it? You want someone killed?”
“I want someone killed,” Eric agreed softly. Everyone was quiet. Quiet as the grave. “You want to talk about it here with all these nice people around? Or should we go someplace private?”
“Chango,” the big sonofabitch said. One of the men by the door stepped forward, lifting his chin. “Get the car.”
Eric swilled down the last of his drink, and the big son-of-abitch stepped back enough to let him stand. Eric dropped two twenties on the table. A very generous tip. It always paid to be kind to the help.
Outside, the rain had slackened to merely driving. A black car pulled up to the curb, Chango at the wheel. The loupine and his three homies clustered around Eric, ignoring the downpour. Two of the three minions got in the back with Eric stuck between them. The loupine had a short conversation with the last guy, then took the front. The last gangbanger spat on the street and went back into the bar as the car pulled away. They drove east toward Park Hill. Eric didn’t speak.
For the first time that night, Eric felt that the plan was coming together. The muscle was the last piece he needed. The trick now was to fix the timing. The whole thing had to come together like clockwork, every element in place just when it needed to be there. Him, and the loupine, and the old-timer.
The driver sneezed. The thug to Eric’s left murmured “Gesundheit,” and Eric’s spine crawled with fear. Since when did Five Points gangba
What the fuck was he sitting next to?
As casually as he could, he brought a hand to his mouth. He crushed the fresh sage and peppermint leaves in the cuff and breathed in the scent. His mind clicked into trance, the aroma acting as trigger. His eyes felt like they’d been washed clean. Everything around him was intensely real, the edges sharp, the textures vibrant. He could hear the individual raindrops striking the car. He felt each fiber of his shirt pressing against his skin. And the glamour fell away from the others. The ink of their markings seemed to well up from inside them like blood from a cut. The driver was entirely bald, labyrinthine tattoos rising from his collar and crawling up over his ears. The two beside Eric were just as marked, their faces covered with symbols and sigils.
It had been a setup from the start. The contact, the facedown at the bar, the creosote breath. There were no gangbangers. No loupine.
One of them glanced at Eric.
“He knows,” the guard said.
The big sonofabitch in the front was still a big sonofabitch. He turned, looking over his shoulder. His lips were black, his eyes set in a tangle of something half Arabic script, half spiderweb.
“Mr. Heller,” he said, as if they were meeting for the first time. His voice was low as tires against asphalt. With his senses scraped raw by the cantrip, Eric could feel the man’s breath on his skin.
“This isn’t what you boys think it is,” Eric said.
“We know what you’ve been doing, Mr. Heller,” the other man said. “It stops tonight. It stops now.”
With a despairing cry, Eric went for his gun.
I flew into Denver on the second of August, three days before my twenty-third birthday. I had an overnight bag packed with three changes of clothes, the leather backpack I used for a purse, the jacket my last boyfriend hadn’t had the guts to come pick up from my apartment (it still smelled like him), my three-year-old laptop wrapped in a blanket, and a phone number for Uncle Eric’s lawyer. The area around the baggage carousel was thick with families and friends hugging one another and saying how long it had been and how much everyone had grown or shrunk or whatever. The wide metal blades weren’t about to offer up anything of mine, so I was just looking through the crowd for my alleged ride and trying not to make eye contact.
It took me a while to find him at the back of the crowd, his head shifting from side to side, looking for me. He had a legal pad in his hand with my name in handwritten letters—“JAYNE HELLER.” He was younger than I’d expected, maybe midthirties, and cuter. I shouldered my way through the happy mass of people, mentally applauding Uncle Eric’s taste.
“You’d be Aubrey?” I said.
“Jayné,” he said, pronouncing it Jane. It’s actually zha-nay, but that was a fight I’d given up. “Good. Great. I’m glad to meet you. Can I help you with your bags?”
“Pretty much covered on that one,” I said. “Thanks, though.”
He looked surprised, then shrugged it off.
“Right. I’m parked over on the first level. Let me at least get that one for you.”
I surrendered my three changes of clothes and followed.
“You’re going to be staying at Eric’s place?” Aubrey asked over his shoulder. “I have the keys. The lawyer said it would be okay to give them to you.”
“Keys to the kingdom,” I said, then, “Yes. I thought I’d save the money on a hotel. Doesn’t make sense not to, right?”
“Right,” Aubrey said with a smile that wanted badly to be comfortable but wasn’t.
I couldn’t blame the guy for being nervous. Christ only knew what Eric had told him about the family. Even the broad stroke of “My brother and sister-in-law don’t talk to me” would have been enough to make the guy tentative. Much less the full-on gay-hating, patriarch-in-the-house, know-your-place episode of Jerry Springer that had been my childhood. Calling Uncle Eric the black sheep of the family was like saying the surface of the sun was warmish. Or that I’d been a little tiny disappointment to them.
Aubrey drove a minivan, which was kind of cute. After he slung my lonely little bag into the back, we climbed in and drove out. The happy crowd of families and friends fell away behind us. I leaned against the window and looked up into the clear night sky. The moon was about halfway down from full. There weren’t many stars.
“So,” Aubrey said. “I’m sorry. About Eric. Were you two close?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Or…maybe. I don’t know. Not close like he called me up to tell me about his day. He’d check in on me, make sure things weren’t too weird at home. He’d just show up sometimes, take me out to lunch or for ice cream or something cheesy like that. We always had to keep under my dad’s radar, so I figure he’d have come by more often if he could.”
Aubrey gunned the minivan, pulling us onto the highway.
“He protected me,” I said, soft enough that I didn’t think Aubrey would hear me, but he did.
“Myself,” I said.
Here’s the story. In the middle of high school, I spent about six months hanging out with the bad kids. On my sixteenth birthday, I got very, very drunk and woke up two days later in a hotel room with half a tattoo on my back and wearing someone else’s clothes. Eric had been there for me. He told my dad that I’d gotten the flu and helped me figure out how to keep anyone from ever seeing the ink.
I realized I’d gone silent. Aubrey was looking over at me.
“Eric was always swooping in just when everything was about to get out of control,” I said. “Putting in the cooling rods.”
“Yeah,” Aubrey said. “That sounds like him.”
Aubrey smiled at the highway. It seemed he wasn’t thinking about it, so the smile looked real. I could see why Eric would have gone for him. Short, curly hair the color of honey. Broad shoulders. What my mother would have called a kind mouth. I hoped that he’d made Eric happy.
“I just want you to know,” I said, “it’s okay with me that he was gay.”
“He was gay?”
“Um,” I said. “He wasn’t?”
“He never told me.”
“Oh,” I said, mentally recalculating. “Maybe he wasn’t. I assumed…I mean, I just thought since my dad wouldn’t talk about him…my dad’s kind of old-school. Where school means testament. He never really got into that love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself part.”
“I know the type,” he said. The smile was actually pointed at me now, and it seemed genuine.
“There was this big falling-out about three years ago,” I said. “Uncle Eric had called the house, which he almost never did. Dad went out around dinnertime and came back looking deeply pissed off. After that…things were weird. I just assumed…”
I didn’t tell Aubrey that Dad had gathered us all in the living room—me, Mom, my older brother Jay, and Curtis the young one—and said that we weren’t to have anything to do with Uncle Eric anymore. Not any of us. Not ever. He was a pervert and an abomination before God.
Mom had gone sheet-white. The boys just nodded and looked grave. I’d wanted to stand up for him, to say that Uncle Eric was family, and that Dad was being totally unfair and hypocritical. I didn’t, though. It wasn’t a fight I could win.
But Aubrey knew him well enough to have a set of spare keys, and he didn’t think Eric was gay. Maybe Dad had meant something else. I tried to think what exactly had made me think it was that, but I couldn’t come up with anything solid.
Aubrey pulled his minivan off the highway, then through a maze of twisty little streets. One-story bungalows with neatly kept yards snuggled up against each other. About half the picture windows had open curtains; it was like driving past museum dioramas of the American Family. Here was one with an old couple sitting under a cut glass chandelier. One with the backs of two sofa-bound heads and a wall-size Bruce Willis looking troubled and heroic. One with two early-teenage boys, twins to look at them, chasing each other
“Thanks,” I said, reaching around in the seat to grab my bag.
“Do you want…I mean, I can show you around a little. If you want.”
“I think I’m just going to grab a shower and order in a pizza or something,” I said. “Decompress. You know.”
“Okay,” he said, fishing in his pocket. He came out with a leather fob with two keys and passed it over to me. I took it. The leather was soft and warm. “If you need anything, you have my number?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for the lift.”
“If there’s anything I can do…”
I popped open the door. The dome light came on.
“I’ll let you know,” I said. “Promise.”
“Your uncle,” Aubrey said. Then, “Your uncle was a very special man.”
“I know,” I said.
He seemed like he wanted to say something else, but instead he just made me promise again that I’d call him if I needed help.
There wasn’t much mail in the box-ads and a water bill. I tucked it under my arm while I struggled with the lock. When I finally got the door open, I stumbled in, my bag bumping behind me.
A dim atrium. A darker living room before me. The kitchen door to my left, ajar. A hall to my right, heading back to bedrooms and bathrooms and closets.
“Hey,” I said to nothing and no one. “I’m home.”
I NEVER would have said it to anyone, but my uncle had been killed at the perfect time. I hated myself for even thinking that, but it was true. If I hadn’t gotten the call from his lawyer, if I hadn’t been able to come here, I would have been reduced to couch surfing with people I knew peripherally from college. I wasn’t welcome at home right now. I hadn’t registered for the next semester at ASU, which technically made me a college dropout.
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