Madhouse can-3, page 1part #3 of Cal and Niko Series
( Cal and Niko - 3 )
My brother had spent a lifetime—mine, at least—telling me that I was normal, that I wasn't a monster. With his help, I'd finally realized that as long as I could remain who I was, I could survive what I was. It was only bad genes....
Half-human Cal Leandros and his brother, Niko, aren't exactly prospering with their preternatural detective agency. Who could have guessed that business would dry up in New York City, where vampires, trolls, and other creepy crawlies are all over the place?
But now there's a new arrival in the Big Apple. A malevolent evil with ancient powers, dead set on making history with an orgy of blood and murder, is picking off humans like sheep. And for Cal and Niko, this is one paycheck they're going to have to earn...if they live long enough to collect it.
(The third book in the Cal and Niko Leandros series)
As always, for my mom
I would like to thank, as always, my wonderful editor, Anne Sowards; thanks also to Tina, Erica, and Cam— Penguin's Charlie's Angels of kicking publishing ass; Dr. Linda James for her assistance in the medical areas; Jeff Thurman of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his weapons advice; the unequaled art and design team of Chris McGrath and Ray Lundgren; my agent, Jennifer Jackson; Shannon and River—forever the twins; Jordana, friend and inspiration for the Nature Channel reference; Shawn and Beth, for keeping my Web site up and running; and fellow writer Mara.
I have taken great liberties with the tunnel system at Columbia University, as well as with the interior of Buell Hall. It was all in the interest of the plot, I promise you, but as a result, reality has suffered. My apologies to reality. Then again, what has reality ever done for me?
I hated kidnapping cases. Hated them with an unholy passion.
And trust me, unholy was something I knew about—hell, I wore it like a faded old T-shirt. One I'd had since birth. There were those who said I couldn't let go of that, and that it was long past time I did. But hey, if you can't bitch about your monster half, what can you bitch about?
As for kidnappings, no surprise there on how I felt about them. Several months before, someone I knew had been kidnapped—two someones, actually. Although the second taking had lasted less than an hour, the first had lasted two weeks. Despite the difference in time, they had both left their mark, physically and mentally. My shirt and jacket hid the first. I wasn't sure anything hid the second, but I gave it my best shot with caustic sarcasm, brittle bravado, and good old-fashioned denial. That was a triple threat that had done well by me for a long damn time, and I had no plans to give it up now.
I was briskly swatted on the back of my head. "I'm curious, Cal. Do you plan on paying attention any time soon or would you like to have the kidnappers reschedule? I'm sure they'll be amenable. Kidnappers so often are."
Niko Leandros. He had been one of those who had disappeared on me, even if only temporarily. As brothers went, he was a good one, despite a horrifying obsession with health food, meditation, and things generally not revolving around pizza and beer. But we all have our crosses to bear…Mine was to be smacked when I wasn't with the program, and his was to be overeducated, as self-aware as the Dalai Lama, and to keep my ass alive. Poor bastard.
"I'm paying attention," I lied instantly, rubbing the back of my head and giving him a wounded glare.
He snorted, but didn't call me on it as sharply as I deserved. Apparently the swat was punishment enough. "Then let's move on before you pay so much attention that you fall asleep where you stand."
Like I said, a good brother, and good brothers, besides keeping your ass alive, also don't let it get away with much. But there was no denying he was letting me slide a little. Why? Because he knew me, and he knew a case like this wasn't going to trigger any good memories. Grunting in reply, I moved along at his side. "So they kidnapped the mistress of a vampire," I grumbled. "She's a lamia. I've seen lamias and I don't know why the hell anyone would want one back." Like vampires, lamias fed on blood. These days most vampires had found a better way, but lamias weren't looking to improve themselves. And although they fed on blood, there the similarity to vampires ended. A lamia's bite, usually on the chest—or if they were really into you, other, more sensitive parts—had a chemical in its saliva that paralyzed its victim. Like a leech they would stay fastened to you and drain your blood…very, very slowly. It could take days—days in which you couldn't move, couldn't scream, couldn't beg for a faster death.
Sure, that's my dream girl. Bring her on.
But obviously a vamp felt different and here we were.
"I think it matters less about his taste in bed partners and more about us getting paid." I didn't see his dark blond head move, but I knew Niko was scanning the area unceasingly.
"I keep telling you, if you'd go with the whole trophy boyfriend thing, life would be a lot easier," I pointed out helpfully.
From the narrow-eyed look shot my way, apparently I wasn't as helpful as I'd thought. Niko was tight with a vampire of his own, Promise. Promise was, to say the least, loaded. Five excessively rich, as well as excessively elderly, husbands in the past ten years had her set up for … well, not life—after all, she was a vampire. But it would keep her comfortable for a long, long time. And Niko absolutely refused to take advantage of it, not that he had some sort of macho hang-up. He simply would make his own way as we had all of our lives. Right now, making our way revolved around an agency we'd set up with Promise. Kidnappings, bodyguard work, cleaning some killer clowns out of a carnival … we were up for all of it. The fact that it didn't quite cover our expenses yet had us working second jobs. Niko was a teacher's assistant at NYU (pity the kid who walked late into one of his classes—decapitation is a big deterrent for tardiness). As for me? I tended to move around a lot. Mainly bars. It wasn't good to get attached. I'd learned that from a lifetime of running from my relatives…the ones with claws and hundreds of teeth. And although the running had stopped, habits were hard to break. Which, I guess, is why we'd made monster hunting a career instead of an occasional necessity.
And Central Park was full of them.
They liked the park. It was big, and it was full of snacks. No one notices if a mugger, murderer, or rapist goes missing. It was a good place to hit the human buffet and not be noticed. We'd once had an informant here of the very same opinion. He was gone now, dead by Niko's sword. Somewhere to the north lay a mud pit empty of a boggle with the worst New Yawk accent I'd ever heard. I kind of missed him sometimes. If nothing else, he'd been entertaining. Bloodthirsty and homicidal, but amusing—up to a point. Trying to kill Niko had been that point.
"Are we there yet?" I checked my watch. We had about five minutes until the meet.
"Did you look at the map that was sent with the instructions?" Niko looked down his long nose to ask in a forbidding tone that said he already knew the answer.
"That's what I have you for." I grinned. "I'm just here to carry the heavy stuff. The union says thinking rolls me into overtime."
Niko pulled his katana from beneath his gray duster, looked at the moonlight glimmer of it, and then looked at me with an eyebrow raised.
"Yeah, right," I dismissed, unfazed.
"You're assuming I wouldn't paddle you with it like the child you are."
Okay, that threat I bought. He could do it all right, and he actually might during one of our sparrings just for his own personal amusement.
"And yes," he added, "we are almost there." He took another three steps. "And now we are."
I looked around, but didn't see anything even in the bright moonlight. Shoving my hands in the pockets of my bl
"Aquatic," Niko murmured. "That narrows it down to a few hundred in the nonhuman pantheon. Very helpful."
"Hey, I tried." Getting accustomed to the smell, I shifted impatiently on the grass and checked my watch again. "Crooks, monster or human, they're all the same. No damn consideration."
I suppose that's how my gun found its way into my hand as the first figure appeared out of the trees. "Bishop-fish," Niko murmured. "Nothing extraordinary. Easy to kill."
If I was a little disappointed at that, I kept it to myself. As creatures went, it wasn't that impressive. I'd seen someone more grimly unnerving in a mirror. Sometimes I wasn't sure who I meant by that. It could've been the creature known as Darkling, who a year ago had crawled out of a mirror to put my body on like a snazzy suit and take it cruising on the road to hell, or it could've been my own mundane reflection. Either way, there was no denying the both of us had our moments and either of us could eat fish boy for lunch. Although dead Darkling, every molecule the monster to my half, might've enjoyed it a little more.
Dappled here and there with the ghost of scales over nearly transparent pale skin, the bishop-fish had the form of a human. Sort of. The shape of his head was a little off. Hairless and only lightly scaled, it was oddly flattened and the mouth had thick, rubbery lips and tiny triangular teeth. No kelp eater, this one. He wasn't wearing a stitch—not a damn thing, which told me he didn't rub shoulders with the local New Yorkers much. I looked down. Even they would give that a glance. Yeah, that.
Now I knew where fish sticks came from.
I decided keeping my gaze on his eyes was the lesser of two evils despite their unblinking bulge. Guess you can't blink if you don't have eyelids. Round pupils took us in and the mouth opened to gurgle, "These are the demands. First—"
That's when I shot him.
My patience with kidnappers was long gone before I had even taken a step into the park. I put a bullet in his chest, which exploded like an overripe tomato and splattered fluid in a wide arc. With his impossibly wide mouth gaping, he teetered and began to fall. I stepped forward and slipped the paper from the fleshy claw as Mr. Fish Stick crumpled to the ground with a disturbingly wet slapping sound. "I can read, asshole," I muttered.
Niko said from behind me, "Really? When did you learn?" Raising his voice, he asked mildly, "Is there anyone here we could negotiate with that my brother would find less annoying?" Like me, he knew there was someone else in the trees. I smelled them and he heard them. Rustle one leaf, step on one frost-brittle piece of grass, and he would hear it. He was all human, Niko, like our mother, Sophia Leandros, but when he did things like that you had to wonder.
The smell I was picking up from a distance wasn't as bad as that of the fish. It was the scent of old things and attic must and hundreds of abandoned spiderwebs. In other words, it smelled like Niko's library of books. Knowing Niko would be watching its approach, I squinted at the paper in my hand, ignoring the damp slime on it. If the moon hadn't been so bright and plump in the sky, I wouldn't have been able to see anything. I might have monster smelling—whoopee…what a superpower—but I had human vision. As it was, I could make out only a few words. Money wasn't mentioned. I wasn't that surprised. Very few monsters were into the material world. Vampires, pucks, and werewolves liked to live high on the hog, but most of the nonhuman world was more interested in eating. Lots and lots of eating.
The ransom mentioned people. Nice, plump people. Nice, juicy children. The kids. Why was it always the kids?
Some kidnappers don't want to earn their money, and some don't want to catch their own dinner. Trade one lamia for a truckload of humans—what a deal. In the end they were all lazy psychotics and the one that finally came to Niko's call was no different. You could all but see the waves of craziness coming from her, shimmering like heat off a summer road.
"Black Annis." Niko sounded almost pleased. "I thought she was a myth."
She scuttled with the back and forth motion of a poisonous centipede. Part of the time she was on two feet, the rest on all fours. She looked like an old woman, but not a sad wraith in a nursing home or cheerful crocheting grandma—unless it was one who'd have no problem picking her teeth with a sliver of Hansel's gnawed leg bone.
Now, this was a little more disturbing than the fish. And it became more disturbing when six more of her appeared to race across the grass.
"You thought she was a myth. She. Singular. Is that what you were saying?" I dropped the paper to the ground. I still had my gun in my right hand and I drew my knife with the left from the double holster under my jacket. Ugly and serrated, the blade had been a constant and faithful companion for a while now. Niko did give damn fine Christmas presents.
"Apparently the myth is incorrect. It only makes things more interesting," he said blandly. "Surely a few old women don't concern you?"
Old women, my ass. The seven of them were covering the ground with freakish speed. Long, thick fingernails scored the ground, sending dirt and grass flying, and their teeth…let's just say they weren't the kind that got put in a glass on the bedside table. The Annises, Anni, Black Annies…whatever—they weren't identical, but they were so similar they may as well have been. They all wore the same ragged black shifts too. Torn to streamers in places, the cloth fluttered and tangled as they ran. I saw flesh through the holes, flesh I suspected was cyanotic blue although it appeared gray in the glow of the moon. Whatever color it was, I didn't want to see it.
"Fine. You play shuffleboard with the grannies and I'll cheer you on from the sidelines," I retorted. Not that I would have, but one of them made sure I didn't have the option. She went from scuttling to leaping. From nearly thirty feet away, she launched off the ground and propelled herself onto my chest with a force I didn't expect from her spidery frame. I hit the ground hard. Unable to get the gun between us, I buried the knife in her back. I was hoping to sever the spine or at least put a serious dent in it, but the blade practically bounced off the bony structure. "Goddamn it," I gritted, and went for another target instead. With her teeth snapping at my throat, I plunged the knife in the side of hers.
"Leave one alive, Cal, to lead us to the lamia."
Thick and bitter fluid flooded out of the Annis's throat and across my face. Trying not to retch as it worked its way into my mouth, I spat with revulsion and shot back, "I'll try and show some self-control." Then I stopped tasting the blood and caught the scent of it … or rather what was in it. "Oh, hell. We are so not getting paid."
I tossed the thing off me, its teeth still feebly gnashing, and saw Niko, who had moved a distance away to get a little elbow room. He was surrounded by four of them. "Forget the restraint," I called. "They ate her." I smelled it in the one twitching beside me … in the blood, on her last breath…hell, leaking out of her damn pores.
Niko shook his head. "Annoying." He swung at the nearest Annis to decapitate it, only to have his sword repelled by that unbreakable spine. I heard the grating clash of metal and impervious bone. He frowned. "Even more annoying." Stepping back with a deceptive speed of his own, he sheathed about nine inches of his sword through the Annis's single eye. Niko turned to present his side to her and lashed out with a foot to propel her off the blade and into another Annis.
He had things, as always, under control, and I decided to take care of my own business. Two more of them were circling me, wary of the knife. What they weren't concerned with was the gun I had hidden behind my leg. One snarled, I swear, just like the cranky old woman we'd lived next to in one of the trailer parks where our mother had set up her fortune-telling scam. That old biddy had si
"Shouldn't you be baking cookies or playing bingo, Granny?" I gave her a black grin, tapping the muzzle of my gun on the back of my thigh. She crabbed closer, her hands bent into claws in front of her.
"You are no little boy." Her grin was so broad I could see the black gums gleaming slickly. "Your flesh will not be soft." It was gloating, the words rolling around her tongue as though she were already savoring the meat in her mouth. "We will eat it anyway."
I'd heard it all before.
I shot the mouthy one. I nailed her in mid maniacal, choking laugh. She saw the gun as I whipped it from behind me, and she'd already started to move. It didn't do her a damn bit of good. Despite the one second it took, the other one was already on me. Like I said…quick.
It hit me from the side. I'd already been turning to prevent it from getting behind me. This time the teeth did reach me, fastening on the junction of neck and shoulder. Like the ragged edge of a saw, they ground in and locked. And there went the chunk I'd been so sure that I wouldn't lose tonight.
As with the first one, I used my knife, but this time opened the belly. Whatever spilled free slithered down my hip and leg. Slithered…not fell. That was some serious motivation to get granny off my neck, and to hell with the mouthful of flesh she might take with her. Ripping her and her death grip off of me, I spun her and threw her as far as I could, and then I took a look at what was twining its way around my leg.
Holy shit. I mean, really…holy shit.
The bright pain and blood flowing steadily under the collar of my jacket to stain my T-shirt took a backseat just like that—because what felt like snakes wasn't. Not that that wouldn't have been bad enough, snakes falling out of someone's gut. But I couldn't get that lucky, could I? Nope. What I got was a crawling combination of worms and intestines with a little barracuda tossed in. They undulated slow and sure like the worm, were ropy and dripping intestinal fluids, and had the bear trap mouth of a barracuda. Did I shake my leg like I was having an epileptic seizure? Yes, I did. Did I scream like a B-movie bimbo? No…but it was a close thing. Niko never would've let me live that down.
Other author's books:
- DownfallMilk and CookiesDoubletakeSilver and SaltMadhouseNightlifeRoadkill
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