Madhouse, p.2

Madhouse, page 2

 

Madhouse
 



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  “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 sicced her yappy, ankle-biting dog on us more times than I could count. The Annis didn’t need a dog, yappy or otherwise.

  “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 Is aid…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.

  I stepped back from the seething mass. “Jeeesus.”

  “Problems?” Niko was already peeling my jacket off one shoulder to examine the wound.

  I swiped it with my hand. The pain was subsiding to a sharp ache and I decided the Annis had gotten away with less than the mouthful I’d thought she had. It had been an appetizer at best.

  Past Nik I could see one Annis still alive. Her wrists and ankles were handcuffed, and she was writhing, hissing, and biting the ground like a rabid dog.

  A monster wearing handcuffs—it was a little reality-jarring at first. We’d started carrying them months ago when we needed to restrain a werewolf, one who really didn’t care to be restrained. He normally might’ve shattered them—I wasn’t sure how strong Flay was—but he’d been injured and was barely alive. He’d been incapable of lifting his head, much less ripping apart steel. Still, it was a useful learning experience, and we’d carried them with us ever since.

  Niko was still frowning at my neck. “It’s more messy than fatal. They have the teeth of an adolescent crocodile.”

  “Didn’t feel like a baby one to me,” I grumbled as I felt the punctures and slashes. The blood was slowing and I dug in my pocket for something to hold pressure with. Of course there was nothing but a flyer for a Chinese restaurant.

  Exhaling in resignation at my lack of preparation, Niko pulled a package of gauze and a roll of tape from inside his coat. With quick, efficient moves he had the wound covered and taped up in seconds. “It’s amazing how hard I work to keep you from bleeding to death on so many occasions, and for so little reward.” He finished and stepped over to the tortuous twining of the bile-dripping creatures on the ground. “Do you want a pet? One would fit nicely in a terrarium.”

  “Yeah, and I’m just one giant nummy num on the other side of the glass. Thanks, but no, thanks.” I pulled a repulsed face.

  “‘All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,”’ he quoted.

  “Right,” I said drily. “God”—making the huge assumption there was one—“did not make those.”

  “Perhaps you’re right.” He pulled yet two more things out of his duster—a small container of lighter fluid and a pack of matches. Once the barbecue was started and the air stank of roasted barracuda, Niko made a call and we went, picked up the surviving Annis, and moved on. A vampire met us near the edge of the park. He stood among the trees; could’ve been one of them as he blended into the darkness. Black hair, black eyes, and an equally dark Armani suit. At least I assumed it was Armani. It was the only expensive brand I knew. To me, all fancy suits were Armani.

  We dumped the snarling, spitting Annis at his feet, and I considered but decided not to stick my hand out for the money. I had a feeling I might draw back less than I put out—a few fingers less. Vampires mourn too, apparently even over lamias. Niko had already delivered the bad news over his cell phone. Now all he said was, “She is the only one left. The others are no more.”

  “And they suffered?” His voice was cool and empty. It didn’t bode well for the Annis. At least with rage you would go quickly. It would be messy, but it would be quick. Icy retribution could go on for…shit, it didn’t bear thinking about. My appetite for dinner had already been ruined by the smell of cooking intestines; I didn’t need to kill it altogether.

  “Yeah, they suffered,” I confirmed. “And the god-awful things in them suffered too.” The Annis hadn’t really suffered, not the way he meant, but it was going to have to do. A job was a job and torture wasn’t on our menu. Not for
pay anyway. But there was no point in disappointing him. Cranky vampires are a pain, and I’d had enough ass-kicking for the night.

  Despite what I’d said earlier, we did get paid. An envelope thick with cash was passed to Nik. Living off the radar, we didn’t exactly have the ID to set up a bank account. We could’ve gotten the fake stuff and Promise had offered to keep our share of the payments for us, but once again, we fell back on the ways we’d always known. We’d bought a safe and stuffed what we made in there. Unfortunately, it was still pretty damn empty.

  As we left, we heard one sharp scream after another. It seemed like torture was on someone’s menu. I wondered if it sounded like the screams of the people that the Black Annis had killed over the years, because you know they’d screamed too.

  Karma, she is a bitch. But in this particular incident, not my karma, not my problem.

  We moved on. We were nearly to the edge of the park and for a few moments the night was perfect. Cool and crisp with the rustle of falling leaves. Perfect. Right up until we saw what was hanging in the last line of trees. Heavy and ripe like fruit, the color of a nectarine…pale salmon blooming with red. Lots and lots of red.

  In the trees.

  Bodies.

  2

  We’d pulled off the job. Maybe not with complete success, but with enough to get paid. We’d heroically fought the powers of darkness. So stalwart and brave that virgins tossed rose petals in our path and strong men wept at our courage. Did life get any better than that? Minus the dead people in the trees of course. Yeah, definitely minus that.

  “You’re scaring the customers again.”

  It was later that night and I was leaning my elbows on the bar of my current place of employment, also known as the Ninth Circle. It catered to the strictly supernatural crowd. That’s not to say a human wouldn’t wander in on occasion, but one good look at the crowd who was giving no kind of good look back had them running for the door. Everyone in the bar could pass for human—they had to walk the streets after all—but they exuded enough bad attitude and ass-kicking vibes to get rid of stray humans without even trying.

  With my chin propped in my hand, I rolled my eyes in the direction of the stern voice. With his pale blond hair to the shoulders, straight slash of dark brows, gray-blue eyes, and white wings barred with gold, the only thing that kept him from being a figure straight out of a stained-glass window was his weapon-calloused hands and a long scar along his jaw from chin to ear. Ishiah, who owned the bar, was one kick-ass angel if ever there was one. You could all but see the flaming sword, not to mention the nonflaming boot he’d be happy to put up your ass. Of course he wasn’t really an angel. As far as I knew, those didn’t exist. Ishiah was a peri, and no one quite knew what they were. They were rumored to be the offspring of angels and demons, but how could that be? The first didn’t exist. As for demons…open your eyes. Demons are everywhere. They’re us.

  “And how am I doing that?” I snorted. I’d decided against bringing up what Niko and I had found in the park. He might be my boss, but I didn’t really know Ishiah, and I definitely didn’t trust Ishiah. Not yet. Not that I had any reason not to trust him. Trust simply wasn’t an emotion I was very good at. “By slinging drinks and making change because the cheap-ass bastards don’t tip? Yeah, that’s scary shit right there.”

  The wings flexed, shimmered with light, then disappeared. It was a neat trick. I didn’t ask how he did it or how any of the peri did it, for that matter. We all have our secrets. Everyone in this bar had their secrets because there wasn’t a human among them. Ishiah, now looking like just a man, albeit an unusual one, said in a lower tone for the two of us only, “You’re being Auphe.”

  Auphe. The other half of my gene pool—my inheritance from good old Dad. The Auphe were what mythological elves would be if they were born in the ninth circle of hell and passed through the other eight on their way out. Because hell couldn’t hold them—nothing could. Most had pale, nearly transparent skin, pointed ears, molten red eyes, white filaments masquerading as the flow of hair, and what seemed like a thousand needle-fine metal teeth. So fine that when they smiled, never a good occasion, you could see your hazy reflection.

  Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the most malevolent of us all?

  “And how,” I asked, annoyed, “am I doing that?”

  The twilight eyes studied me. “Let us say you don’t precisely look happy. And when you don’t look happy…” He raised eyebrows in the direction of the clientele, some who knew through the grapevine and some who could smell the Auphe in me, who were either clustered on the far side of the room or at closer range silently snarling. “That happens. It’s not good for business.”

  “Happy? I’m happy.” I bared my teeth in a fixed grin. “See? Happy.”

  “Gods save us. I haven’t seen an expression like that since Medusa went through menopause.” Robin Goodfellow dropped on a stool and shook his head.

  “Quick. Brandy before you destroy my will to live with your catastrophically bad temper.”

  Ishiah immediately drifted off. He and Robin had some sort of problem with each other. I had no idea what it was, as both were silent on the subject. But with Robin’s mouth, if one of them didn’t leave, there’d be little left of the bar for me to terrorize with my inner Auphe. They would pull the place down around our ears.

  “Catastrophic temper?” I reached for the good stuff I kept under the bar just for Robin. A hundred years old, it was still barely fetal in age to his point of view. Yet another mystery: why Ish would stock it for him. “Come on.”

  “Kid, everything about you is catastrophic. Your temper, your fighting skills, your attitude, and let’s not even discuss your look. Simply put on the eyeliner and join the rest of the Children of the Night knockoffs at the local Goth bar.”

  And that was Robin. Otherwise known as Rob Fellows—car salesman without peer, Robin Goodfellow—trickster extraordinaire, and, oh yeah, our favorite puck. Considering I’d killed the only other one we’d met, it wasn’t much of a contest.

  “I don’t need the eyeliner.” I gave him a glass and the squat bottle.

  “Yes, yes. Child of the Night is on your birth certificate. Six-six-six is tattooed on your infant ass. I believe I’ve heard it before.” He poured a drink as I gave a quirk of my lips, but it was more genuine than the grin I’d flashed a few moments ago. Robin did have a way of pulling me out of a mood. It was hard to moan and groan about my bogeyman heritage when he treated me less like a monster and more like Bo Peep with a gun. I appreciated it, because there had been times he had seen what I could be. And it didn’t come out of any nursery rhyme.

  “So, did the case not go well?” He held the pregnant glass—all curves—sniffed the liquid, clicked his tongue, and shook his head, but took a swallow anyway.

  “Eh.” I shrugged. “We got paid. The lamia got eaten. Really a win-win in my book.”

  “And the fact that it was a kidnapping case, that doesn’t even bear discussing?”

  I ducked my head, letting my longish hair swing forward—black to my brother’s dark blond. My skin fair to his olive. All we had that showed our common mother was our gray eyes. And I knew mine, peering through the dark strands, were now opaque. “It was months ago. Let it go, okay?” I warned.

  He took another swallow. “Months. Millennia. A veritable eon. Whatever was I thinking?”

  “You weren’t,” I said stiffly.

  A werewolf came slinking up to the bar, ears flat and nose wrinkled in disgust at the Auphe tinge to my scent. It was hard to ask for a brewski with his half-human face contorted around a mouthful of teeth straight out of The Call of the Wild, but he pointed just fine. He was obviously not a fine-bred, but part of the wolf population breeding for recessive wolf genes, not that I had any prejudices about that. How could I? I gave him his beer and kept my chew toy jokes to myself. Ishiah was right. It really wasn’t good for business, and he’d given me a break with this job.

  I didn’t know
if it was as an unspoken favor to Robin or to piss him off. I had asked Goodfellow once which it was, and he had declared smoothly that if I didn’t want the job, I’d make a great junior car salesman and he had a place for me waiting at his lot. Hell, no. I didn’t know if I had a soul or not, but if I did, I wasn’t giving it away that easily. If there were a surer path to damnation than being a car salesman, I didn’t know what it would be.

  “I always think. You might not want to hear what I say, Caliban, but that’s your problem.” He poured another glassful. “Thinking and talking are what I do best.”

  “I’ll give you the last one all right,” I grunted.

  He smoothed his wavy brown hair, straightened his suit jacket, rich brown over a deep green shirt. Just the fabric of one of them probably cost more than a week of my pay. Picking up the bottle in preparation to leaving, he said soberly, “You should try talking to her.”

  Her being Georgina—George. She was the one who’d been kidnapped. We’d gotten her back. She’d survived. Although it had been a very close thing—for all of us. George was the local psychic, but she was the real thing…and this girl, this special girl, had thought we could be together. I had known better. And although she’d proved to be as stubborn and hardheaded as me in her own way, I still knew it.

  “I talk,” I countered defensively.

  He stood, the amber liquid in his bottle not sloshing even a millimeter. When you’d been alive as long as he had, you tended to be pretty damn graceful and controlled in your movements. “I mean really talk to her as opposed to flapping that useless mouth once in a blue moon and saying absolutely nothing. But I wash my hands. Please, ruin any chance of a love life that you have while I go expand mine.” He winked rapaciously. “Do you want to guess? Male or female? Other? One or three? I’m willing to gift my knowledge to the less fortunate.”

 
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