Madhouse, p.11

Madhouse, page 11

 

Madhouse
 


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  “The sirrush,” he announced after a short stretch of silence as we walked.

  “Yeah.” The building had the typical flavor of artist tenants…old, decrepit, and smelling of pot. There was one lonely light overhead and it flickered uncertainly. “So who’s after you? Who’d want to kill you?” I waited a beat and added, “Besides me, I mean.”

  “You must be joking,” he said incredulously. “I couldn’t begin to guess. Ex-lovers, ex–business partners, ex-marks…there isn’t a PDA in the world big enough to compile that list.”

  The light gave up the ghost entirely as we reached the stairwell. There was still illumination from the street coming through a distant, dirt-filmed window, but it was gray and wispy—a ghost among us. It reminded me. “It can’t be Abbagor. He’s dead.” Abbagor had been one of Robin’s acquaintance/informants. A troll the size of a Lincoln, he’d lived and died under the Brooklyn Bridge. And Niko and I had nearly died with him. He’d been one malevolent, flat-out evil son of a bitch and every time I passed the bridge I flipped it off in his memory.

  “Even if he were alive, it wouldn’t have been him. Abby did his own dirty work. He enjoyed it far too much to farm it out.” He started down the stairs.

  “The Auphe.” I hadn’t wanted to say it, because I didn’t want it to be true, but burying your head in the sand was only going to leave your ass up and chewed the hell off.

  “No,” Robin denied. “They’re not above subcontracting, but they would be more subtle than a sirrush. Auphe are insidious, cunning, all the things a poor, simple sirrush is not.” He sighed as he moved downward. “Thinking about my own horrific end, what a way to ruin a good orgy.”

  “Sorry about that.” I followed him. His hands were empty, but mine were not…one of them at least. I held the Glock against my denim-covered outer thigh. “I assumed you’d want to know you’ve been marked for death. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

  “When it comes to murder and assassination, it is the thought that counts. I appreciate the effort.” The words were sober, the expression anything but…until he moved on. “It’s hardly the first time. Or the hundredth for that matter,” he said absently as he looked back at me. “You’re well? Before she left, Delilah said you were recovered. Do you have full strength in your arm?”

  “Normally I’d flex, but after what I saw upstairs, I’m keeping the sexiness to a minimum.” The stairs were concrete and slick from years and years of pounding feet. “And, yeah, I’m fine.”

  “Good—that’s good, because your chest looked…” He grimaced. “Never mind.” Hitting the landing, he paused to say slyly, “I think she was attracted to you, our wolf girl. The situation was too dire for the customary ass-sniffing and leg-humping that is so prized on the wolf social scene, but there was definitely a look in her eye.”

  “Do you want more than one person trying to kill you?” I drawled. “I don’t really have the time, but the inclination is no problem whatsoever.”

  He didn’t have time to take me up on the offer. Someone…something else spoke in his place.

  “Give me drink.”

  Goodfellow had been about to move down another step. He stopped, set his mouth tensely, and held up a hand before I could open my mouth. I turned my head and looked up past the spiraling box pattern of stairs, then down past the same. There was nothing to see or hear other than a faint dripping sound and the flicker and buzz of elderly lightbulbs.

  The words were raspy as sandpaper against rock and utterly devoid of humanity. And then there was a clicking sound…nails against concrete. A slow, patient tapping, silence, then the clicking again.

  A rustling started…scales or feathers, I couldn’t tell.

  “Give me drink.”

  “Go.” Robin grabbed a handful of my jacket and hurled us both toward the landing door. I didn’t stop to protest or ask who was so damn thirsty. If Goodfellow said go, then going was a damn good idea. I slammed into the door and flung it open.

  It was waiting for us.

  It was a bird. Gray as ash, round black eyes, and the size of a half-grown German shepherd. It used jet claws to score the dirty tile, sending chunks of it tumbling aside. The black beak, sharp as a sword, gaped to show an inner maw the plague yellow of jaundiced flesh. “Give me—”

  “Drink,” grated the one behind us.

  Identical to the other, it came up the stairs toward the door propped open by Robin. It didn’t waddle like you would expect from a bird. It stalked with the smooth gait of a creature used to running its prey into the ground. The flattened head cocked to one side. There was red on this one’s beak and staining the feathers of its chest black. Now I knew what it had a hankering for, and it wasn’t lemonade. I turned. The one in the hall had snaked closer, one clawed foot held in the air like the weapon it was. The talons were four inches long and, if they were capable of punching through the floor, they were capable of punching through flesh.

  “Bad?” I said over my shoulder.

  “Bad,” Robin affirmed tightly.

  That was all I needed. I raised my gun and fired at the one in the hall. The gray head exploded, feathers filling the air. Some, coated with black blood, stuck to the wall and floor and me. The body poised motionless for a second, then fell sideways, talons still extended in either a last-gasp pursuit of prey or from postmortem pissiness. Take your pick.

  I heard the scrape of metal against scabbard as Goodfellow pulled his sword. Following that was a gurgle of someone not getting the drink they so desperately wanted. I turned just in time to see the feathered head bounce down the stairs. “Bad,” I commented, “but not that bad.”

  “Wrong.” He started down the stairs at a run. I was starting to follow when I saw something stirring in the pool of blood that had spread from the neck of the bird I’d killed. No, it wasn’t something in the blood; it was the blood itself. Thick and viscous, it crept along the floor, curled up into a ball, and began shifting from red to gray. Began to sprout feathers…began to grow and grow damn fast.

  “Give…me…drink.”

  The faintest of whispers, a garbled croak from incomplete vocal cords, but I didn’t wait around to hear it improve. I vaulted the other dead one on the landing and clattered down the stairs after the puck.

  “What the fuck?” I yelled as he sprinted ahead, hit the next landing, then disappeared around the turn. Robin was one helluva fighter, but when it came to running for your life, he had absolutely no equal. I sped up, trying not to tumble my way into a broken neck. I did manage to shorten the distance between us…slightly. “What are those things?”

  “Hameh. The story goes they arise from the blood of a murdered man and take revenge by drinking the blood of the killer. Blah, blah. Idiotic tale.” The bastard wasn’t even breathing hard as he bolted, taking three and four stairs at a time. “They actually arise from their own blood and attack whoever their master chooses. And as staying dead isn’t a particular hobby of theirs, they’re very difficult to escape.”

  “Give me drink,” echoed from above us, full-voiced and implacable.

  “We should’ve stayed at the orgy,” Robin groaned as he hit yet another landing. “Bacchus would never get himself in this situation. He’d still be face-deep in topographical mounds and I don’t mean the Seven Hills of Rome either.”

  Above us the cry came again and it didn’t come alone. A weight hit me hard, taking me down. I hit the stairs and rolled but caught myself before I went down farther than three steps. I ignored the pain of banged elbows and ribs and raised the gun, but the Hameh was gone. It didn’t want me. I’d just been in its way. I twisted my head to see it dive-bomb Goodfellow. Talons were spread and a razor beak was aimed at Robin’s throat. Where better to drink? Where better to start the flow of blood?

  I opened my mouth to warn him, but he didn’t need it. He whirled at the sound of air rushing through feathers and speared the Hameh through the chest. It didn’t squawk; didn’t screech. It screamed—a human scream. A child’s
scream. That’s what it sounded like, as if a child had been run through with Robin’s blade. It was disconcerting as hell and I unconsciously tightened my grip on the Glock. And it didn’t stop. The screaming went on and on as the Hameh thrashed, sending blood splattering.

  “Christ, make it stop,” I hissed. We could scream our guts out all day long and no one would poke their head into the stairwell, but a kid screaming? Someone was going to show up, and that someone might get a beak jammed through their eye. Not much of a reward for being a Good Samaritan.

  “Stop? But I’m enjoying it so much,” Robin snarled as he whipped another blade from his brown leather duster and slashed the throat of the bird. The blow was forceful enough that the head was almost completely severed. The good news was that it stopped the screaming. The bad news was that it didn’t do a damn thing about the other Hameh stooping on us like a falcon on a mouse. I shot, missed, and shot again. This time I nailed it. It veered, hit a wall, and plummeted onto the stairs above us. In the seconds that took, the blood of the first was already twisting in on itself and changing colors.

  “This is annoying as hell.” This time I took the lead, moving past him as he took the time to extract his sword. “I’ve seen Hitchcock movies. I don’t want to live in one.”

  “Did you know he wore women’s—”

  “I don’t want to know!” I growled, cutting him off. I kept going until I reached the door to the first floor and threw it open. Only it wasn’t the first floor and it wasn’t the lobby. It was the basement. We’d overshot by one when racing downward and ended up in precisely the sort of box I avoided in elevators. It wasn’t an empty box either.

  “Give me drink. “Give me drink. Give me drink. Give me drinkgivemedrinkgivemegivemedrinkgivemedrinkgivemedrinkgivemedrink.”

  It was utterly black except for the soft reddish blue glow of eyes…ten, no, twenty eyes. I didn’t hesitate. I emptied the rest of my clip blindly into the room, slammed the door, and headed back up, meeting Goodfellow on his way down. “You don’t want to go this way. There’s some seriously thirsty pigeons down there.”

  “Give me drink,” from above answered the question to what lay in that direction as well. And in case I missed the point, let’s hit it one more time—“Give me drink.”

  “Shut up, you flying shit-heads,” I spat as I slapped another clip home. “Just shut the hell up.”

  “Yes, I’m sure that will clear the matter right up. In the diplomacy of predator and prey, you dominate the field. You are without peer. A veritable Kissinger of the circle of life.”

  “You know what? Take the flying part out and it applies to you too, Loman.” I shot the next Hameh that came spiraling through the air. It somersaulted past me and, in a mass of blood, ruined flesh, and feathers, landed on Robin. Mortally wounded, it stabbed repeatedly at Goodfellow’s neck with its black beak. I grabbed it from behind before it did anything worse than superficial damage and threw it to our feet, where it was impaled by Robin’s bloody sword.

  “Okay,” I panted. “There has to be a way to kill these things for good. What is it?”

  “Bathe them”—he was finally beginning to get a little short of breath himself—“in the blood of a virgin. Care to open a vein?”

  I snarled soundlessly, wiped handfuls of gore-covered feathers from my palms onto his shirt, and then bolted for the first floor. The pounding at the basement door was beginning to warp the metal, and I wasn’t waiting around to play games with the group of parched blood drinkers that were seconds away from coming through. “I can’t believe I hauled my ass over here to warn you, and all you do is give me shit.” Still pounding up the stairs, I looked back over my shoulder at him with narrowed, dubious eyes. “You are giving me shit, right?”

  “Trust me, if it were true, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to get you laid. I’d be selling you by the ounce instead,” he retorted.

  We both hit the door simultaneously and burst out of the stairwell. The building didn’t have a lobby; it wasn’t that sort of building. What it had was a lounging area for artwork and those who made it—an informal art gallery. There were people sitting on the floor drinking weird teas and paint-thinner-strength coffee. Canvases were piled against the walls, funky twisted bits of metal and chunky pottery were grouped here and there, and there were naked, painted people posing like living statues. I guessed that’s what they did before they went upstairs to orgy central, because your paint was bound to get smeared all to hell up there.

  I vaulted one guy who was lying flat, stargazing at the cracked and yellowed ceiling. I wove in and out of a few more and then I was outside. Behind me, I heard the mild wonder of: “Cool. That’s one motherfucking big parakeet.”

  It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, to say the least. Another thing I didn’t want to hear was the thrum of massive wings, but I heard it nonetheless. It was raining as I hit the sidewalk. There were sheets of heavy, gray water and black clouds that brought twilight several hours early. Into that twilight flew Hameh after Hameh. I looked up as they circled. They were the color of the rain almost exactly, lost against the sky. As for hearing them…you could make out their voices over the hiss of the falling water and the blaring horns of cabs, but only if you listened hard. No one in New York listened hard.

  Beside me, Robin looked up, the inhuman perfection of his profile washed clean. “Baal of the Winter Rain,” he said softly. “The fortune that is finally due us.”

  “Yeah, it’s great for the crops and all, but what the hell is it going to do for us?”

  “Watch,” he ordered with vengeful anticipation.

  The Hameh soared, circled, and one by one they began to explode. It wasn’t loud. Muffled by flesh and feathers, the whump was barely audible. From the inside out, they ruptured, and pieces of them fell along with the rain.

  “Blood is the only thing they can drink, the only liquid they can even touch.” Teeth flashed in the pelting water as he stepped back under a dingy awning and out from under a very different kind of rain.

  There was the scent of burnt feathers and scorched flesh in the wet air as I followed him. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, in the ordinary sense, but at that moment I didn’t mind it at all. It was apple pie and fresh coffee to my nose. Sweet and fragrant roses all the way. I continued to watch the fireworks show above. Boom. There went another one.

  And the rain continued to fall.

  10

  “I’m not sure which disturbs me more—that you could have been killed or that you could have been killed at an orgy. What precisely would you have me put on the tombstone? Here lies Caligula Leandros?”

  “Oh, Jesus, that reminds me. You should’ve seen the size of Goodfellow’s…” From the annoyed twist of Niko’s eyebrows, I decided it was a subject for another time. “Anyway…bottom line is Robin’s in trouble.” I finished loading the Glock and holstered it. “Someone is pissed as hell at him and apparently has a zoo in their backyard to pull from.”

  “That in itself is curious.” Nik had just made his fifth blade disappear under his coat and now had numbers six and seven in his hand. “The Hameh and the sirrush are from the same general geographical area. Sirrush are Babylonian and the Hameh are mentioned in Arabic mythology, but they are more like animals, not intelligent entities. It’s as if someone sicced a guard dog on him. We should ask who in that part of the world Goodfellow has managed to so thoroughly annoy.”

  “That could narrow it down to a few thousand.” I leaned against our kitchen table. “If we’re lucky.”

  “When have we ever been especially showered with luck?” Niko asked dryly as he disposed of knives number six and seven and considered number eight before flipping it high in the air. It didn’t come down again as far as I saw. His hand flashed and it was gone.

  I snorted. “No comment.” Actually I had plenty of comments about the rather bitchy Lady Luck, but we had things to do and Scottish assholes to kill.

  Robin had declined an invitation to our hunting trip, but Prom
ise had come along. The three of us spent the night combing the parks, the piers, and any condemned and abandoned buildings we could locate. The parks were good hunting grounds and any large empty structure could function as a substitute for a cave. It was a reasonable plan…if this wasn’t New York City. A city this size? We were whistling in the wind and we knew it. But we kept it up. It was better than doing nothing and we hadn’t heard back from Ham yet.

  Yeah, it was the best we could do right now, but that didn’t change the fact we came up empty—that night and the two nights following that. We didn’t run across a single Redcap or revenant, which was unusual. Revenants were plentiful in the city. A few of them worked for the Kin doing jobs that the wolves considered beneath them. The others worked for themselves, eating what they could catch. They weren’t bright, but they were fairly quick. They didn’t go hungry too often, and it was unusual to go through the park at night and not spot at least three or four. We didn’t see a single one…anywhere.

  But at one park we did run into several sylphs cocooning a lowlife for later consumption. They were smaller creatures, the size of a seven-year-old child, with pale gold skin and hair and the amazing wings of giant butterflies. Purples, blues, greens, red, orange, yellow…any color you could think of. Their eyes were huge and the same gold as the skin. Beautiful, like the fairy tales in books…not the fairy-tale reality that stalked our streets. When you saw a sylph, it was enough to make you believe in Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, and a place built solely on magic.

  And you’d keep believing it right up until they ate you.

  It was at that same point you’d probably notice they had eight multijointed golden legs and were more spider than butterfly. And like the spider, they didn’t drink blood or eat flesh, not separately. After cocooning their prey, they injected a chemical that dissolved the internal organs to soup. Eventually there would be nothing but a dried husk hanging in a tree that would disintegrate in the first brisk breeze.

 
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