First 32 pages Skinwalker Faith Hunter
by Faith Hunter
I travel light
I wheeled my bike down Decatur Street and eased deeper into the French Quarter, the bike’s engine puttering. My shotgun was slung over my back, a Benelli M4 Super 90, loaded for vamp with hand-packed silver-flechette rounds. I carried a selection of silver crosses in my belt, hidden under my leather jacket, and stakes were secured in loops at my jeans-clad thighs. The saddle bags on my bike were filled with my meager travel belongings—clothes in one side, tools of the trade in the other. As a vamp killer for hire, I travel light.
I’d need to put the vamp hunting tools out of sight for my interview. My hostess might be offended. Not a good thing when said hostess held my next paycheck in her hands and possessed a set of fangs of her own.
A guy, a good-looking Joe, standing in a doorway, turned to follow my progress as I motored past. A dark-haired local, he wore leather boots, a jacket, and jeans, like me, though his hair was short and mine was down to my hips when not braided out of the way, tight to my head, for fighting. Without moving, he followed my progress down the street. A Kawasaki motorbike leaned on a stand nearby. I didn’t like his interest, but he wasn’t hunting. He didn’t prick my predatory or territorial instincts. Maybe just a guy looking for a quick lay. In this city, anything was possible.
I maneuvered the bike down St. Louis and then onto Dauphine, weaving between nervous-looking shop workers heading home for the evening and a few early revelers out for fun. I spotted the address in the fading light. Katie’s Ladies was the oldest, continually operating whorehouse in the Quarter, in business since 1845, though at various locations, depending on hurricane, flood, the price of rents, and the agreeable nature of local law and enforcement officers. I parked, set the kickstand and unwound my long legs from the Hogg.
I had found two bikes in a junk yard in Charlotte, North Carolina, bodies rusted, rubber rotted. They were in bad shape. But Jacob, a river rat and restoration expert living along the Catawba River, took my money, fixing one up, using the other for parts, ordering what else he needed over the net. It took six months.
During that time I’d hunted for him—keeping his wife and four kids supplied with venison, rabbit, turkey (whatever I could catch, as maimed as I was)—restocked supplies from the city with my hoarded money, and rehabbed my damaged body back into shape. It was the best I could do for the months it took me to heal. Even someone with my rapid-healing and variable metabolism takes a long while to totally mend from a near beheading.
Now that I’d healed, I needed work. My best bet was a job killing off a rogue vampire that was hunting in the City of Jazz. It was taking down as many as three tourists a night and had left a squad of cops, drained and smiling, dead where it dropped them. The scuttlebutt was that it held all the men in thrall while it feasted. It hadn’t been satisfied with just their blood. It had eaten a parts of their internal organs. All that suggested the rogue was an old, powerful, deadly, whacked-out vamp. The nutty ones were always the worst.
Just last week, Katherine “Katie” Fonteneau, the titular head lady of Katie’s Ladies had emailed me. According to my website, I had successfully taken down an entire blood-family in the mountains near Asheville. And I had. No lies on the website or in the media reports, not bald-faced ones anyway. Truth is, I’d nearly died, but I ’d done the job, made a rep for myself and then taken off a few months to spend and invest my legitimately gotten gains. Or to heal, but spin is everything. A lengthy vacation sounded better than the complete truth.
I took off my helmet and the clip that held my hair, pulling my braids out of my jacket-collar and letting them fall around me, beads clicking. I palmed a few tools of the trade and adjusted the braids, rearranging them to hang smoothly, no lumps and bulges. I used the motion and the time to assure my safety through the upcoming interview. To take in the city. And to try and relax. I was nervous and being nervous around a vamp was just plain dumb.
The sun was setting, casting a red glow on the horizon, limning the ancient buildings, shuttered windows, and wrought iron balconies in fuchsia. It was pretty in a purely human way. I opened my senses and let my beast taste the world. It liked the smells and wanted to prowl. Later I promised it. Soon. Predators usually growl when irritated. As it was, she sent mental claws into my soul, kneading. It was uncomfortable, but the claw pricks kept me alert, which I’d need for the interview. I had never met a civilized vamp, certainly never done business with one. So far as I knew, vamps and skinwalkers had never met. I was about to test that premise. This could get interesting.
Sunglasses went into my collar, lenses hanging out. Cool is good, but most vamps like it dark and I didn’t want to limit my senses. I glanced at the witchy-locks on my saddlebags and, satisfied, I walked to the narrow red door and pushed the buzzer. The man who answered was definitely human, but big enough to be something else. Professional wrestler or troll. Both, maybe. The thought made me smile. He blocked the door, standing with arms loose and ready. “Something funny?” he asked, voice like a horse-hoof rasp on stone.
“Not really. Tell Katie that Jane Yellowrock is here.” Tough always works best on first acquaintance. That my knees were knocking wasn’t a consideration.
“Card?” Troll asked. A man of few words. I liked him already. My new best pal. With two gloved fingers, I unzipped my leather jacket, fished a business card from an inside chest pocket, and extended it to him. It read, “Jane Yellowrock, Have Stakes Will Travel.” Vamp killing is a bloody business. I had discovered that a little humor went a long way to making it all bearable.
Troll took the card and closed the door in my face. I might have to teach my new pal a few manners. But that was nearly axiomatic for all the men of my acquaintance.
I heard a bike two blocks away. It wasn’t a Harley. Maybe a Kawasaki, like the bright red crotch-rocket I had seen earlier. I wasn’t surprised when it came into view and it was the Joe from Decatur Street. He pulled his bike up beside mine, powered down and sat there, eyes hidden behind glasses so much like mine we could have ordered them from the same online site. He had a toothpick in his mouth and it twitched once as he pulled the helmet off.
The Joe was a looker. A little taller than my six-feet-even, he had olive skin, black hair, black brows. Black jacket and jeans. Black boots. Bit of overkill with all the black, but he made it work, with muscular legs wrapped around the red bike.
No silver in sight. No shotgun, but a suspicious bulge beneath his right arm. Made him a leftie. Something glinted in the back of his collar. A knife. Maybe more than one. There were scuffs on his boots—Western, like mine—not Harley butt stompers. But his were Frye’s and mine were ostrich skin Luchesse’s. I pulled in scents, my nostrils widening. His boots smelled of horse manure, fresh. Local boy then, or one who had been in town long enough to find a mount. I smelled horse sweat and hay, a clean blend of scents. And cigar. It was the cigar that made me like him. The taint of steel, gun oil, and silver made me fall in love. Well, sorta. My beast thought he was kinda cute, and maybe tough enough to be worthy of us. There was a faint scent of something deeper on the man, hidden beneath the surface smells, that made me wary.
The silence had lasted longer than I expected, but silence didn’t bother me. Since he had been the one to pull up to me, I just stared, but clearly our silence bothered the Joe. His cheek jumped. I let a half grin curl my lip. He smiled back and eased off his bike. Behind me, I heard footsteps inside Katie’s. I maneuvered so that the Joe and the doorway were both visible. No way could I do it and be unobtrusive, but I lifted a shoulder to show I had no hard feelings. Just playing it smart. Even for a pretty-boy.
Troll opened the door and jerked his head to the side. I took it as the invitation it was, took off my sunglasses and stepped inside, leaving the Joe outside. “You got interesting taste in friends,” Troll said, as the door closed on the sight of the pretty-boy-Joe.
“Never met him. Where you want the weapons?” Always better to offer than to have them removed. Power plays work all kinds of ways.
Troll opened an armoire. I unbuckled the shotgun holster and set it inside, pulling crosses from my belt and thighs and from beneath the coat until there was a nice pile. Silver. Thirteen of them, excessive, but the number was to hide the fact of the my backup weapons. Next came the wooden stakes and silver stakes. Thirteen of each. And the silver vial of holy water. One vial. If I carried thirteen, I’d slosh. Small joke. One I made from time to time when I was trying to be ingratiating. Or cute. I don’t do cute well. It takes effort.
I hung the leather jacket up on the hanger inside the armoire and tucked the glasses in the inside pocket with the cell phone. I closed the armoire door and assumed the position so Troll could search me. He grunted as if surprised but pleased, and did a thorough job. To give him credit, he didn’t seem to be enjoying it overmuch—used only the backs of his hands, no fingers, didn’t linger or stroke where he shouldn’t. Breathing didn’t speed up. Heart rate stayed regular. Things I can sense if it’s quiet enough. After a thorough search inside the tops of my boots, he said, “This way.”
I followed him down a narrow hallway that made two crooked turns toward the back of the house. We walked over old Persian carpets, past oils and watercolors done by famous and not so famous artists. The hallway was well lit with stained-glass Lalique sconces every few feet. They looked real, not like reproductions, but maybe you can fake old; I didn’t know. The walls were newly painted a soft butter color that worked with the light to illuminate the paintings. Classy joint for a whorehouse. The Christian children’s home schoolgirl in me was both appalled and intrigued.
When Troll paused outside the red door at the hallway end, I stumbled, catching my foot on a carpet. He caught me with one hand and I pushed off him with very a little body contact. I managed to look embarrassed when he shook his head. He knocked. I braced myself and palmed the cross he had missed. And the tiny two-shot derringer. Both hidden against my skull on the crown of my head, and covered by my braids, which men never ever searched, as opposed to my Luchesse’s which men always had to stick their fingers in. It was a partial excuse for the faux stumble and having my hands high.
He opened the door and stood aside. The room was neat and Spartan, but each of the pieces within looked Spanish. Old Spanish. Like Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus old. The woman, wearing a teal dress and soft slippers, standing beside the desk, could have passed for twenty until you looked in her eyes. Then she might have passed for said Queen’s older sister. Old, old, old eyes. Peaceful as she stepped toward me. Until she caught my scent.
In a single instant her eyes bled red, pupils went wide and black, and her fangs snapped down. She leaped. I dodged her, sliding under her leap as I pulled the cross and ripped the derringer from my scalp, to the far wall where I held out the weapons. The cross was for the vamp, the gun for the Troll. She hissed at me, fangs fully extended. Her claws were bone white and two inches long. Troll pulled a gun. A big gun. Men and their pissing contests. Crap. Why can’t they ever just let me be the only one with a gun.
“I’m not human,” I said, my voice steady. “That’s what you smell.” I couldn’t do anything about the tripping heart rate, which I knew would drive her further over the edge. But I’m an animal. Biological factors always kick in. So much for trying not to be nervous.
“Predator,” she hissed. Vamp anger pheromones filled the air, bitter as wormwood. The cross in my hand glowed with a cold white light, and Katie, if that was her original name, tucked her head, shielding her eyes.
“Katie?” Troll asked.
“I’m not human,” I repeated. “I’ll really hate shooting your Troll here, to bleed all over your rugs, but I will.”
“Troll?” Katie asked. Her body froze with that inhuman stillness they possess when thinking or resting or whatever else they do when they aren’t hunting, eating or killing. Her shoulders dropped and her fangs clicked back into the roof of her mouth with a sudden spurt of humor. Vampires can’t laugh and go vampy at the same time. It’s two distinctive parts of them, one part still human, one part rabid hunter. Well, that’s likely insulting, but then this was the first so-called civilized vamp I’d ever met. All the others I’d had personal contact with were sick, twisted killers. And then dead. Really dead.
Troll’s eyes narrowed behind the .45 he had aimed my way. I figured he didn’t like being compared to the bad guy in a children’s nursery tale. I was better at fighting, but I’d try negotiation. “Tell him to back off. Let me talk.” I nudged it a bit. “Or I’ll take you down and he’ll never get a shot off.” Unless he noticed that I had set the safety on his gun when I fell against him. Then I’d have to shoot him. And I wasn’t betting on my twenty-twos stopping him unless I got an eye shot. Chest hits wouldn’t even slow him down. In fact they’d likely just make him mad.
When neither attacked, I said, “I’m not here to stake you. I’m who I said I am. I’m here to do a job, to take out a rogue vamp that your own council declared outlaw. But I don’t smell human, so I take precautions. One cross, one stake, one two-shot derringer.” The word stake didn’t elude her. Or him. He’d missed three weapons. No Christmas-time bonus for Troll.
“What are you?” she asked.
“You tell me where you sleep during the day and I’ll tell you what I am. Otherwise, we can agree to do business. Or I can leave.”
Telling the location of a lair—where a vamp sleeps—is information for lovers, dearest friends, or family. Katie chuckled. It was one of the silky laughs that her kind can do, low and erotic, like vocal sex. My beast purred. It liked the sound.
“Are you offering to be my toy for a while, little nonhuman female?” When I didn’t answer, she slid closer, despite the glowing cross and said, “You are interesting. Tall, slender, young.” She leaned in and breathed in my scent. “Or, not so young. What are you?” she pressed, her voice heavy with fascination. Her eyes had gone back to their natural color, a sort of grayish hazel, but blood-blush still marred her cheeks, so I knew she was still primed for violence. That violence being my death.
“Secretive,” she murmured, her voice taking on that tone they use to enthrall, a deep vibration that seems to stroke every gland. “Intriguing scent. Likely tasty. Perhaps your blood would be worth the trade. Would you come to my bed if I offered?”
“No,” I said. No inflection in my voice. No interest, no revulsion, no irritation, nothing. Nothing to tick off the vamp or her servant.
“Pity. Put down the gun, Tom. Get our guest something to drink.”
I didn’t wait for Tommy Troll to lower his weapon; I dropped mine. Beast wasn’t happy, but she understood. I was the intruder in Katie’s territory. While I couldn’t show submission, I could show manners. Tom lowered his gun and his attitude at the same time and holstered the weapon as he moved into the room toward a well-stocked bar.
“Tom?” I said. “Uncheck your safety.” He stopped midstride. “I set it when I fell against you in the hallway.”
“Couldn’t happen,” he said.
“I’m fast. It’s why your employer sent for a job interview.”
He inspected his .45 and nodded at his boss. Though why anyone would want to go around with a holstered .45 with the safety off is beyond me. It smacks of either stupid or quiet desperation, and Katie had lived too long to be stupid. I was guessing that the rogue had made her truly apprehensive. I tucked the cross inside the leather belt holding up my Levis, in a little lead-foil-lined pocket, and eased the small gun in beside it, strapping it down. There was a safety, but on such a small gun, it was easy to knock the safety off with an accidental brush of my arm.
“Is that were you hid the weapons?” Katie asked. When I just looked at her, she shrugged as if my answer were unimportant and said, “Impressive. You are impressive.”
Katie was one of those dark ash blondes with long straight hair so thick it whispered when she moved, falling across the teal silk that fit her like a second skin. She stood five feet and a smidge, but height was no measure of power in her kind. She could move as fast as I could and kill in an eye blink. She had buffed nails that were short when she wasn’t in killing mode, pale skin, and she wore exotic, Egyptian-style makeup around the eyes. Black liner overlaid with some kind of glitter. Not the kind of look I’d ever had the guts to try. I’d rather face down a grizzly than try to achieve a look.
“What’ll it be, Miz Yellowrock?” Tom asked.
“Cola’s fine. No diet.”
He popped the top on a Coke and poured it over ice so cold it crackled and split when the liquid hit it. Placed a wedge of lime on the rim and handed it to me. His employer got a tall fluted glass of something milky that smelled sharp, toxic, and alcoholic. Well, at least it wasn’t blood on ice.
“Thank you for coming such a distance,” Katie said, taking one of two chairs and indicating the other for me. Both chairs were situated with backs to the door, which I didn't like, but I sat as she continued. “We never made proper introductions, and the In-ter-net,” she said, separating the syllables, as if the term was strange to her, “is no substitute for formal and proper introductions. I am Katherine Fonteneau.” She offered the tips of her fingers, and I took them for a moment in my own before dropping them. I had never liked handling cold meat.
“Jane Yellowrock,” I said, feeling the redundancy in it all . She sipped, I sipped. I figured that was enough etiquette. “Do I get the job?” I asked.
Katie waved away my impertinence. “I like to know the people with whom I do business. Tell me about yourself.”
Cripes. The sun was down. I needed to be tooling around town, getting the smell and the feel of the place. I have errands to run, an apartment to rent, rocks to find, meat to buy. “You’ve been to my website, no doubt read my bio. It’s all there in black and white.” Well, in full color graphics, but that was a mouthful.
Katie’s brows raised politely. “Your bio is dull and uninformative. For instance there is no mention that you appeared out of the forest at age twelve, a feral child raised by wolves, without even the rudiments of human behavior. That you were placed in a children’s home, where you spent the next six years. And that you again vanished until you reappeared two years ago and started killing my kind.”
My hackles started to rise, but I forced them down. I’d been baited by a roomful of teenaged girls before I even learned to speak English. After that, nothing was too painful. Instead I grinned and threw a leg over the chair arm. Which took Katie, of the elegant attack, aback. “I wasn’t raised by wolves. At least I don’t think so. I don’t feel an urge to howl at the moon, anyway. I have no memories of my first twelve years of life, so I can’t answer you about them. Yes, after that time, I was raised in a Christian children’s home in the mountains of South Carolina. I left when I was eighteen, traveled around awhile, and took up an apprenticeship with a security firm for two years. Then I hung out my shingle, and eventually drifted into the vamp hunting business.
“What about you? You going to share all your own deep dark secrets, Katie of Katie’s Ladies? Who is known to the world as Katherine Fonteneau, aka Katherine Louisa Dupre, Katherine Pearl Duplantis, and Katherine Vuillemont, among others I uncovered. Who renewed her liquor license in February, is a registered Republican, votes religiously, pardon the term, sits on the local, full, Vampiric Council, has numerous offshore accounts in various names, a half interest in two local hotels, at least three restaurants, and several bars, and has enough money to buy and sell this entire city if you wanted to.”
“We have both done our research, I see.”
I had a feeling Katie found me amusing. Must be hard to live a few centuries and find yourself in a modern world where everyone knows what you are and is either infatuated with you or scared silly of you. I was neither, which she liked, if the small smile was any indication. “So. Do I have the job?” I asked.
Katie opened her mouth and closed it, as if she had been about to speak and changed her mind. She considered me a for a moment, as if weighing my responses and attitude. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve arranged a small house for you, per the requirements on your In-ter-net web-place.”
My brows went up despite myself. She must have been pretty sure she was gonna hire me, then.
“It backs up to the property.” She waved vaguely at the back of the room. “The small L-shaped garden at the side and back is walled in brick, and I had the stones you require delivered two days ago.”
Okay. Now I was impressed. My website says I require close proximity to boulders or a rock garden, and that I won’t take a job if such a place can’t be found. And the woman—vamp—had made sure that nothing on her part would keep me from accepting the job. I wondered what she would have done if I’d said no.
At her glance, Tr—Tom, took up the narrative. “The gardener had a conniption, but he figured out a way to get boulders into the garden, with a crane, and then blend them into his landscaping. Grumbled about it, but it’s done.”
“Would you tell me why you need piles of stone?” Katie asked.
“Meditation.” When she looked blank I said, “I use stone for meditation. It helps prepare me for a hunt.” I knew she had no idea what I was talking about. It sounded pretty lame even to me and I had made up the lie. I’d have to work on that one.
Katie stood and so did I, setting my Coke aside. Katie had drained her foul smelling libation. On her breath it smelled vaguely like licorice. “Tom will give you the contract and a packet of information, the compiled evidence gathered about the rogue by the police and our own investigators. Tonight you may rest or indulge whatever pursuits appeal to you.
“Tomorrow, once you deliver the signed contract, you are invited to join the girls for dinner before business commences. They will be attending a private party, and dinner will be served at seven of the evening. I will not be present, that they may speak freely. Through them you may learn something of import.” It was a strange way to say seven p.m., and an even stranger request to interrogate her employees right off the bat, but I didn’t react. Maybe one of them knew something about the rogue. And maybe Katie knew one of them knew something.
“After dinner, you may initiate your inquiries,” she said. “The council’s offer of a bonus stands. An extra twenty percent if you bring the rogue down inside of ten days, without the media taking a stronger note of us.” The last word had an inflection that let me know the us wasn’t Katie and me. She meant the vamps.
Katie extended a folder to me and I tucked it under my arm. “The police photos of the crime scenes you requested. Three samples of bloodied cloth from the necks of the most recent victims, carefully wiped to gather saliva,” she said.
Vamp saliva, I thought. Full of vamp scent. Tracker needs.
“On a card is my contact at the NOPD. She is expecting a call from you. Let Tom know if you need anything else.” Katie settled cold eyes on me in obvious dismissal. She had already turned her mind to other things. Like dinner? Yep. Her cheeks had paled again and she suddenly looked drawn with hunger. Her eyes slipped to my neck. Time to leave.
“Following your visit with the girls,” she said, “you may initiate your investigation. The offer of a bonus stands. An extra twenty percent if you end the rogue inside of ten days. Do not disappoint me.”
Chapter 2 Okay, I was paranoid
“Where’dju hide the weapons?” Troll asked, his voice conversational.
I smiled as I slid into my jacket, not ignoring the barrel of the .45 pressed into my neck, but not reacting to it either. “You’re human. Sure you want to risk standing so close to me?”
I felt him hesitate and whirled. Set my head to the side of the gun. Knocked his right arm across his body with my raised right fist. Twisting my hand, I took his wrist and lifted. And slammed against his left shoulder with my left hand, forcing him to the floor. It took maybe a half second. Beast spat. This was fun.
“Not bad,” he said, his inflection still composed. I knew I’d been baited. Had known he would want to know if he could have taken me. “What discipline?”
He was asking what form of martial arts I studied. I thought a minute. “Dirty,” I said. He chuckled and he sounded as if my answer pleased him. I pressed down just a bit on his shoulder joint. “Put the weapon down.”
He placed the .45, a well-kept S&W, on the floor and pushed it away. He could still get to it, but not before I hurt him bad. I took my weight off his shoulder and released his wrist, stepping back and setting my feet, balanced for his next move. But he didn’t make one. He stood and tucked his thumbs into his waistband, a surer sign of peace than palms out. Thumbs in meant he couldn’t strike out fast, while the universal gesture of peace was an easy way to mentally disarm an opponent and then kill him when he let down his guard.
“There’s a hopkido black belt, second dan, practices after hours in the back of a jewelry store on St. Louis. I’ll call in an intro if you want.”
“That’d be nice.” I waited, easing down a smidgen. Just enough for him to see it, but not enough to get sucker punched.
“Anything else I can do you for?” he asked, companionable, amused at me.
“Sure. Where can a girl buy a good steak for grilling?” Meaning where can I get good raw meat, but phrasing it in a socially acceptable way.
“Places I stocked your fridge from are the best.”
This time I controlled my reaction. My love of animal protein wasn’t on my website. Not anywhere.
Troll gave me directions to a fresh market and a good butcher just outside of the French Quarter. “They deliver to restaurants and homes,” he said, “seafood, beef, any kind a bird you want, alligator,” my beast perked up at that, “mudbug, veggies, you name it.” I was a meat eater, and having my groceries delivered would be a time saver.
“Mudbug?” I let a small smile cross my face, sure I was being baited again.
“Crawfish. Best when steamed in beer, in my opinion. I’ll give you directions to the best eateries.”
He sighed and dropped his weight to one hip, even more disarming. I smothered my grin. “You’re not going to tell me where you hid the weapons, are you?” he asked.
“Nope. But I promise not to break your knee if you’ll reposition your weight back on both feet.”
He laughed, the happy laugh of a contented man, and adjusted his weight back evenly. Still dangerous, but not sneaky dangerous. “Not bad, Jane Yellowrock.”
“Same back at you Tom.”
“You can call me Troll. I kinda like it.”
I nodded. “Sounds dangerous. Mean.”
“Not me. I’m a pussycat.”
I wanted to contradict him but that might not be PC, considering the fragile truce we seemed to have achieved. There was peaceable and there was stupid. I glanced at the armoire and back at him with a question in my eyes.
“Sorry,” he said and took three steps back.
Without taking my eyes off him again, I reached into the armoire and gathered up my weapons in small batches, inserting them into the proper straps and sheathes, all but one stake which I leaned into the darkest corner. I carried the shotgun. I had to work to get its harness strapped on and I wasn’t taking chances with Tommy Troll. I grinned at the thought and he thought the smile was for him. Which it was, sorta. “Thanks for an interesting evening,” I said.
“Welcome. See you tomorrow night.” He lifted a large mailing envelope off a table at his side and raised his brows in a “Do you want this,” gesture.
I pointed a finger at the floor, and he flipped the envelope toward me. It landed at my feet and I picked it up. I felt several things in side, what I took to be a stack of cash, tri-folded papers, most likely the contract, flat pages and a couple of keys. “Thanks,” I said. I nodded and opened the narrow door, stepping into the night.
I stood with my back to Katie’s, remembering to breathe, forcing down the fear I had controlled, subjugated, strangled till now. I grinned. I did it. I had faced down a civilized vamp, had lived to tell the tale, and had successfully taken away both cash and a job. Beast found my relief amusing. When I could walk without my knees shaking, I went to my bike.
I smelled the Joe before I saw him. The night wasn’t dark, not in Jazz City. The glare of streetlights and neon beer signs fell in odd patterns and cast warped shadows across the landscape—the effect of moisture in the air from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. The bodies of water bracketed New Orleans, giving the city its famous stink and air so wet that rain sometimes fell from a blue sky. Hey—I had done my homework. So I didn’t see him immediately. But I knew where he was. Upwind, relaxed. The smell of gun oil and ammo no stronger than before.
He was sitting on a low brick wall one store front over, a balcony above him, the old building at his back. He had one leg up, the other dangling, and the shadows hid the left side of his body. He could have a weapon hidden there. Okay, I was paranoid. But I had just bested a vamp on her home territory and then made nice-nice with her bodyguard. My glands still pumped adrenaline and my heart was suddenly pounding.
Keeping him to my side, I went around my bike and strapped the shotgun harness on top of my jacket, sliding the weapon into the special sheath made by a leather-smith in the mountains near Asheville. I checked the saddle bags and saw the finger smudges on the polished chrome. Gloved. No prints. But I bet it had hurt like a son of a gun. Making it look like I was getting a closer look, I bent and sniffed. The Joe’s cigar scent was faint, but present. I raised my head and grinned at him. He touched the brim of an imaginary cowboy hat, a faint smile on his face.
I straddled the Hogg and sat. He slid off his glasses, and his eyes were dark, nearly black like The People, but softer, the sign of mixed European and American Indian lineage. “Still hurting?” I asked, letting my voice carry on the damp air.
“A little tingly,” he admitted easily. After all, if he had intended me not to guess it was him, he wouldn’t have stayed around. “Witchy-lock?”
“Expensive. You get the job?” When I raised my brows politely he said, “With Katie. Word on the streets is, the council brought in out of town talent to take down the rogue.”
“I got the job.” But I didn't like the fact that everyone in town knew why I was here. Rogue vamps were good hunters. The best. Beast snarled in disagreement but I ignored her.
He nodded and sighed. “I was hoping she’d can you. I wanted the contract.”
I shrugged. What could I say. I kick-started the bike. Fumes and the roar drove Beast back down. She didn’t like the smell, though she did approve of my method of travel. To her, Hoggs were totally cool. I wheeled and tooled away, keeping an eye on the Joe in the rearview. He never moved.
Switching off the Harley, sitting astride the heated leather seat, I looked over the narrow, two story, old brick, French house. The front door had a glass-stained oval window in the center, and was protected from the elements by a three foot wide, second story veranda with a freshly painted, black, wrought iron railing. A similar door opened on the upper porch, and neither looked particularly secure. There was a narrow garden lane down the right side, locked behind a seven-foot-tall, ornate, wrought iron gate. Lots of wrought iron, half of the spikes topped with little fleur-de-lis, the others with what could have been stakes. Tongue in cheek vamp humor. And totally charming.
House and gate had to be a couple-three hundred years old. I tried the larger and older of the two keys, four inches in length, with a heart shape on one end. The lock clicked and I squeezed the latch, two bars that compressed to unfasten the gate. It opened without a squeak. Boots on cobblestones, I walked the Harley inside. Pushing the bike, I pulled the gate closed behind me. The latch clicked and I relocked it before walking the bike down the two-rut, garden lane beside the house. Or storefront, or boardinghouse. From the smells it had been lots of things at one time or another.
A careful driver could have gotten a car back here. A small car. But the lane, was clearly intended for walkers, or at best, horseback riders. There were all kinds of plants, most with big elephant-ear-sized leaves of various color combinations on long stems. There was also something taller than I, that might be a banana plant. There were gladioli and hostas, snapdragons, night blooming jasmine, climbing roses and other things I recognized, but my knowledge of botany was pretty limited. Several plants were flowering and they smelled heavenly. I caught a hint of catnip. Beast made a hacking sound deep inside me. I wasn’t always sure what that meant, but it was reaction of some sort, used during both positive and negative discoveries. Maybe now it was a sign of recognition.
The house was narrow on the street side, but long, with a deep, second story wooden balcony covering a ground floor porch that overlooked the tiny side lane and the back garden. I could see chairs on the porch, maybe a few tables. More wrought iron trellis and rails served to keep people from falling off. The porch on the lower level was slate-floored with more iron. The house had tall windows closed with French shutters, five windows on each story, and there was one door on each floor with stairs near the back leading between. Four doors total, all flimsy. Not much security.zzz
I could check out the interior of the house later. The back garden first. I pushed the Harley on around. The garden widened into a thirty-by-forty foot space at the bottom of the L-shape, and was exquisite. It was surrounded by ornamental yet entirely functional brick walls fifteen feet high, and was lined with plants of all varieties. A big fountain splashed in a corner, water pouring from a huge marble tulip with a miniature naked woman sitting atop. The sculpture was finely detailed, a master work, and I noted the statue’s resemblance to Katie. Tiny fangs were a dead giveaway. I wondered how many houses she owned on this block. Maybe all of them. You could do some powerful estate planning when you had lived over two hundred years. Maybe three hundred. Maybe more.
Over the city sounds and even with the roar of the Harley still affecting my ears, I could hear the tiny motor powering the pump. Other than that, and the sound of an unfamiliar night bird, the garden was silent.
Across from the fountain, sown with dozens of healthy plants, were three large boulders and half a dozen smaller ones brought in my the crane Troll had mentioned. Katie was right. The gardener had done a good job; the boulders looked like they had been here forever.
I set the kickstand and walked the garden, looking for wires, scuffs on the brick, signs of work other than the gardener. I spotted them fast, a scuff near the left back corner, too high to be from a spade, and a well-concealed electrical line running from the security light down to the brick wall.
I had never put the driving gloves back on, and so just pulled off the straps that secured my shotgun and set it aside. The jacket followed, and, sitting down on a conveniently placed bench, my boots. I gathered three loose cobblestones and dropped them into my tee shirt. They landed against my skin at my waist, held in place by my belt. Then I pulled the bench to the wall, spit on my hands for effect more than necessity, and leapt.
The pattern of the brick wall was irregular with some bricks forming depressions and others sticking out just enough for a rock climber to know what to do with them. I hadn't climbed Everest, but I’d lived in the Appalachians and had taken a few classes. I had taken at least a few classes in lots of things.
I caught a slightly protuberant brick and swung out, catching another with my toes, pushing up for a second handhold, another toehold. I reached the top of the fence and studied it. There was no barbed wire, no broken glass embedded in concrete, no trip wires. Nothing. A half-assed job, security-wise.
I pulled myself to the top and stood, surveying the yard next door. A small dog, more hair than meat, growled at me. Beast spat at it and the little mutt was too stupid to run. I reined her back and, because she understood that the safety of the den was paramount, she let me. I was better at human things, and she didn’t mind me taking over as long as it wasn’t dangerous. Then it got a bit harder to submerge her instincts.
I walked along the wall, taking in the scents of the place, the brick warm beneath my bare feet. Scrutinized the garden with eyes and nose. Considered the walls on the houses adjacent to my freebie-house wall. I came to the back corner where the scuff was and toed a tiny lump, brushing away dirt that had been carefully sprinkled there. I reached down and pulled the miniature video security camera from the duct tape holding it in place. The tape made little snapping sounds and Beast panted. I had pleased her.
The electrical wires powering the camera came free as well, and I turned the camera lens to me, holding it level. I smiled at Katie, or maybe it was Troll. Or maybe a security firm. I grinned, showing my teeth, and shook my head. Placing my free hand in front, I held up my index finger and shook it slowly side to side. Then I raised the camera and brought it down on the wall, lens first, and broke it into pieces. I did the same thing to the other two cameras.
I wasn’t worried about ticking off Katie. My website was firm about my privacy requirement, and I insisted it be part of my contract. What could she say? “Oh, Dearie me, I forgot they were there…?” Yeah, right.
When I was sure I had all the ones within easy reach, I positioned myself and studied the camera mounted on the neighbor’s wall. I didn't want to smash the window next to it. I pulled my tee shirt out and caught the three cobblestones. I hefted them, getting their balance and weight. I had never been as good at throwing as I was at other sports. I threw like a girl. It took all three stones but I smashed the last camera.
Beast gave a hacking cough. Excited. “Not yet,” I murmured. “Soon.”
I dropped from the wall, not bothering with the brick handholds. With the cameras gone I didn’t need them. I gathered up my belongings and, barefoot, unlocked the door with the smaller key on the big ring. I went through the house fast, locating cameras. I busted two hidden behind grills, one in an air return, one in a fanlight in the twelve foot high ceiling, which I hit with a broom handle. Several others. Finding security devices in a house was a lot harder than in a garden. I’d have to go over it later in better detail, but for now, I had a lot to do.
While I worked, I made a quick call. Molly, my best friend, answered, water splashing and children giggling in the background. “Hey witchy woman. I’m here. I got the gig,” I said.
“Good. Here, talk to the dirtiest child in the world. Maybe she’ll let me finish her bath.”
A moment later a delicate, sweet voice said, “Hi Aunt Jane.” My heart started to melt. Beast stopped pushing and sat, panting, in my mind. Kits, she thought at me, happy.
“Hi Angie. Are you giving your mother a hard time in the bath?”
“Yes. I’m being a bad girl,” she giggled again. “I played in the mud. I miss you. When you coming home?”
“Soon. I hope. I’ll bring you a doll. What kind do you want?”
“Long black hair and yellow eyes. Like you.”
Cripes. My melting heart was a pile of goo. “I’ll see if I can find one,” I said past the lump in my throat. Beast panted, her happiness turning fierce, baring fangs. Protect kits. “For now, let your mama get you clean, okay.”
“Okay. Here, Mama. Aunt Jane wants you. And then she’s gonna go play.”
Into the phone Molly said, “Play huh?”
“Yeah. You and Evan checked the wards around your house?”
Molly made a sound, half-pshaw, half-grunt, and I heard water falling into water as she lifted Angelina out of the bath. “Twice tonight. You have fun. Call me.”
“I will.” Feeling twenty pounds lighter, I left my belongings in the middle of the parlor floor and opened the fridge. Cold, fresh meat took up the center shelf. Twenty pounds of it. Beast hissed in anticipation, even though she hated to eat cold. I ripped the butcher paper off a five pound stack, stuck it in the microwave for a bit, just enough to take the chill off, and, while it heated, gathered supplies. When the bell dinged, I carried the meat outside, a roll of paper towels under one arm, my travel pack and a zipper satchel under the other. Already it felt weird walking on two legs, as Beast moved up from the deeps into my thoughts.
I set the stack of raw, bloody steaks on the ground and wiped my hand. Beast wanted to lick it, but I refrained. I had that much control left. I stripped off my clothes, leaving them in a pile. My stomach was rumbling. I was panting, salivating. Beast hungry, she thought at me.
I was a skinwalker, and so far as I knew, the last of my kind anywhere. If I had a quantity of genetic material, I could take the shape of most animals, though it was easier if the species was my own mass, as borrowing mass to fill out the genetic requirements of a larger animal was painful and dangerous, and I hadn’t tried it very often. It was equally difficult to skinwalk in the body of a smaller animal, as I had to release mass, dump it somewhere, and that always meant dumping some of what I was, some of my consciousness, and leaving it behind. The fear that it wouldn’t be there when I returned was enough to keep me my own size most of the time.
Beast, however, was something outside of my skinwalker nature. If I tried to rein her in, if I tried to stop her, she would force her way through anyway. I didn’t have complete control over her.
I pulled the travel pack over my head and positioned the gold nugget I wear around my neck on a double gold chain, usually under my clothes, but now swinging free. Together, they looked like an expensive collar and a tote like a St. Bernard rescue dog might have carried in the Swiss Alps. I bent over and scraped the gold nugget across the uppermost rock, depositing a thin streak of gold. It was like, well, like a homing beacon, among other things.
Yesssss. Hunt, Beast thought at me. Big!
Beast was ready to scope out this new territory, but she had an unfortunate aggressive tendency and had, upon occasion, taken on a pack of dogs, a wild boar, or some other animal it might be smarter to leave alone. And at such aggressive times, she demanded that I take on mass, adding to my natural one-hundred-twenty-plus pounds, drawing on the fetish of the African lion to skinwalk. “Big is dangerous,” I whispered to her. “We’re just looking around tonight. Big later.”
She panted in derision. Big always better. Big now!
But I could tell she wouldn’t push the issue. Beast, while always present in the depths of my consciousness, was talking to me as a separate entity now, as a self-aware creature with desires and needs of her own. And hunting was more important than winning an argument.
Going back to the steaks and the paper towels, I placed the three bloody cloths on the ground and secured them with a small pot full of geraniums. I climbed the boulders to the top and sat, the rock cool on my bare bottom. Mosquitoes stung me. I had forgotten about biting insects. Beast didn’t like them.
I opened the zipper bag and pulled out one of the bizarre necklaces inside. The one I used the most, the one I carried with me, like a totem or fetish, but so much more. The necklace of the mountain panther—mountain lion to the white man. It was made of the claws, teeth, and small bones of the biggest panther I had ever seen. I didn’t, however, have to use the necklace, not for this creature, but having it close gave me sense of security.
The mountain lion was extinct in the eastern US. Or it had been. Some reports said panthers were making a comeback. Wishful thinking, I feared. I held the necklace. Closed my eyes. Relaxed. Listened to the wind, the pull of the moon, still sickle-shaped, hiding below the horizon. I listened to the beat of my own heart.
I slowed the functions of my body, slowed my heart rate, let my blood pressure drop, my muscles relax, as if I were going to sleep. I lay on the bounder, breasts and belly draping the cool stone in the humid air.
Mind slowing, I sank into the bones and teeth of the necklace. Deep inside, my consciousness fell away, all but the purpose of this hunt. That purpose I set into the lining of my skin, into the deepest parts of my brain, so I wouldn’t lose it when I shifted, when I changed. I dropped lower. Deeper. Into the darkness inside me.
It seemed I heard drums, smelled herbed wood smoke. Remembered the feel of the night wind of The People’s land on my flesh. And I sought the inner snake lying inside the bones and teeth of the necklace. The coiled and curled snake, always there, deep in the cells, in the remains of the marrow. The white man had given it a name. RNA. DNA. Genetic sequences, specific to each species, each creature. For my people, for the Cherokee skinwalker, it had always simply been the inner snake.
I slipped into it, into the snake that rests in the depths of all beasts. I dropped within. Like water flowing in a stream. Like snow falling, rolling down a mountainside.
My breathing changed. Heart rate sped up. My bones…slid. Skin rippled. Fur, tawny and gray, brown and tipped with black, sprouted. Pain, like a knife, slid between muscle and bone. My nostrils widened, drawing deep.
She fell away. Night came alive—wonderful, new scents. Salt on air. Humans. Alcohol. Fish. Mold. Human spices. Blood. I—Beast—panted. Gathered limbs beneath, lithe and lissome. Yellow eyes, eyes that claimed she was other than pure blood Cherokee, opened.
Ugly manmade light, shadow stung vision. Yet, clearer, sharper. She never saw like this. Scented like this. I—Beast—stretched front legs and chest. Pulling back legs, spine, belly. Little clicks fell away. Things from her hair rolled off boulders. Delicately, with killing teeth, lifted necklace she dropped. Lithe jump from boulders. Landed, four footed, balanced. Studied garden. No predators. No thieves of meat. Dropped necklace near food. Sniffed. Hack of disgust. Old meat. Dead prey. Long-cooled blood. Tip of tail twitched, wanting chase. Taste hot blood. But stomach rumbled. Always so, after change. Hunger. She left this. An offering.
Beast ate. Long canines tearing into dead meat. Filled stomach. Did not appease need to hunt. Afterward, licked blood from whiskers and face, groomed self with tongue and paw. Pack and collar in way, but… Important. Her things.
Memory she buried under skin began to stir. Ahhh. Hunt. For one of them. Drew in night air. Delicate nostril membranes fluttering, expanding, relaxing. Many new smells, some with value, some without. Unimportant: nearby aroma of flowers, freshly turned earth, mouse cowering in boulders, small snake on brick. Important: fish, pungent, sour. Salt. Old, still water full of tiny living things. Houses, many, ancient wood and brick. Bike she rode.
Strolled to it, muscles long and supple. Foul smells: gasoline, rubber, metal, wax, fainter smell of new paint. Good bike. Dead now, roaring heart silent. Beast approved of it and of her, sitting in wind, smelling world. Fast speed, too swift for hunters to follow. Her territory wherever she wished it to be. She hunted wide.
Stepping with care, though new den was walled and safe from clumsy humans. Prowled garden and lower porch of house. Drank from water running over man-carved stone. A good place. I—Beast—coughed softly, approving.
Hunt, the command came again, from her. Long hairs along shoulders lifted in anticipation. Scented air. Food on breeze. Human food, dead, cooked. Human urine. Dog. Domesticated cat. Hacked in disapproval of being owned. Even she didn’t own Beast.
Smells of den grounds settled in olfactory memory. Went to pot. Sniffed cloth trapped there. Drew in scent.
Blood. Fear. Humans, three. Alive when blood spilled. One female, ovulating, ready to mate. One man, old, wizened. Likely stringy, tough. New smell to skin.
Melanin, she whispered.
Last one was male, no melanin, young, healthy. She whispered, All reek of the chemicals humans exude when terrified. But beneath it all…was scent of rogue. Drew it in over tongue, over roof of mouth. Isolating. Parsing differing parts of scent. Old. Very, very old. Anger. Madness.
Ahhh. Liver-eater. Long years since smelled a liver-eater. Felt her puzzlement. Pushed it and her away. Sucked in scent, opening mouth and pulling air over fluid-filled sacs in roof of mouth. Tongue extending, lips curling back. Tasting. Scenting.
Flehmen behavior, she thought. Jacobson’s organ, necessary for all creatures who use olfactory and pheromonal communication methods.
Flehmen. Silly name, thought at her. Scenting. Sucked in another draught. Memorized individual scent molecules, pheromones and elements of its essence. Pulled lips back, exposing killing teeth. Setting scent signature in memory. In a single bound, leaped to top of boulders. Small mountain. Nothing like Beast’s territory—tall hills, deep crevasses.
Easy hunt here in land of flatness. No challenge. Tail-twitching-disdain for flatness, no tall trees and cunning prey. Gathered self. Jumped to top of wall. Standing. Four feet in line on brick. Crouched, making smaller target. There. Scented rogue. Easy hunt. Only feet away.
No, her voice came.
Drew in night air again. Scent was wrong. This one female. Kill it anyway?
No. Hunt the mad one, human memory under skin whispered.
Dropped to ground, tail twitching. Eager. Liked hunt. Liked challenge. Liked danger.
Moved through shadows of neighbor’s yard to street. No dog scent. Good place to come and go. Sat beneath big leaves of low plant, watching. Learning. Scenting.
Saw him, hidden in shadows, sitting on stoop. Watching house, the new den. The male she liked. Human male with bike. Not hunting. Lazy, giving away position. Breathing smoke, scent like scat, marking territory. Strong enough to defend it? Possible mate? If he could catch her. If he could best her. Not likely. She was strong. Beast made her so, long ago.
Felt her puzzlement. Ignored it. Ignored her. Pondered, breath a soft, thrumming pant of throat tissues. Long past time for her to mate. If he could catch her. Fun.
Moved through shadows, into night.
Hunted, padding though darkness, feral and sleek. Night fully fallen. Humans and pets still about. Stupid little dogs. Barked. Hairy things, smelling of human perfume, dead food, rotten teeth. Scented her. Fell silent. Crouched, tail down. Scuttled away. Humans never saw.
The French Quarter, territory where she wanted to hunt, was small. Streets in squares. Buildings built close, squeezed together. Prey could not escape. Hidden gardens. Exhaust. Alcohol, fresh and sweet, and old and sour. Tar on streets, stinky human world.
Sound of music everywhere, loud, raucous. Horns, drums. Drums, like sound of beating heart, racing in fear, ready to be eaten. Smell of money, drugs. Pong of sex without mating. Lonely sex. Many humans standing on tall spikes. Easy prey. Stores filled with paint and canvass, stone and metal. Much food and smell of sleeping. Restaurants and hotel, she thought at me. Smells of her world.
It stank. But underneath stink, other smells sat. Under reek of sewage and stench of dirty river. Under miasma of spices humans cook into food. Under odors of humans themselves, perfumed and breathing smoke. Scents of vampires. Many.
Vampire stench was part of ground, part of earth. Their ashes wafted along street, carried in air. Their bones, ground to powder, settled into cracks. Vampire territory, for longer than Beast lived, even counting time of hunger when Beast was alpha and she was beta.
Centuries, the thought came from her. They have been here for centuries. A long time by human reckoning. Too long for Beast to understand, or care.
Turned back to hunt. Prowled, hiding often in night, watching, scenting, searching. Finding hiding places. Didn’t know numbers beyond five, and there were many more vampires than five. Marked their territories, setting Beast scent in challenge.
Together, she and I—Beast, walked shadows. Learning territory. No one saw, no human or vampire. Crafty, silent, good hunter.
Long before dawn, scented old blood. Much old blood. Found street where mad one had hunted. Where it took down many humans and ate best parts. An alley. Narrow, confined. Walls, straight up like water gorge, without bold river. Old human place. Ancient smells. Urine, wine, slow death. Overlaying all was reek of blood, blood, blood, much blood. Pong of wasted meat. Of angry, frightened humans morning after. Tell-tale stink of guns.
Hacked softly at remembered smell. She liked guns. She hunted, killed with guns. Beast remembered guns. Long barrels, smell of gunpowder, pain, fear, screams of big cat. Hated. Long ago in hunger times. Here, in alleyway of the French Quarter, scented old mad one. Rogue vampire, trying to drink enough to find health again. It was dying.
They cannot die, she whispered.
Dies, Beast thought back at her. This one sick. Smell of rot.
Placing paws carefully, walked through dark, under yellow ribbons, past dying flowers in tall piles. Along middle of narrow defile. Found place where ovulating female fell. And stringy old one, to her side, cobbles saturated with his need to protect, as if she were his cub. Healthy young male, three paces away. And many-more-than-five others. Mad one had killed, eaten for a long time. Beast measured moon in bones. She said, It ate for two hours. It took its time. Time not measured by moon was a construct she understood.
Strolled back to alley entrance. Crouched low, belly held off dirty street. Humans walked past, singing, reeking of strong drink. Vomit. Humans gone. Searched for mad one’s trail. Found none going in. None going out.
Looked up. Coughed approval. After mad one toyed with humans, after eating its fill, mad one had gone up. Along wall like spider or squirrel. Tasty meat, squirrels. Not enough to fill belly. Mad one climbed wall like squirrel. Faint scratches where claws dug in. Worthy prey. Even Beast-hunter could not climb wall like liver-eater. She asked, Liver eater?
Beast ignored. Hacked excitement. Good hunt. Smells of mad one hot, powerful, captured in blood stench memory. Humans tried to wash away. Could not hide it from Beast.
Heard more humans. Close. Two turned into alley. Dirty, reeking wine, sweat, filth. Humans moved in, trapping. Beast melted slowly into shadows. Soft warning hack. Beast here. Not hunting, but will defend.
They ignored warning. Stupid humans. They crawled into large paper box. Sounds of crackling cardboard, shifting humans. Dirty smells wafted. Their den. Beast had passed it without knowing. Dropped head. Shamed. Foolish as cub. Too intent on old one and smells of hunt, blood, kills. Foolish. Stupid. Kitten mistake.
Two humans bedded down. Sleeping in open. Easy prey if Beast wanted diseased, sinewy meat. They talked. Quieted. One snored.
Crept along alley to opening. Dawn coming.
“Pretty pussy. Come here pussy cat.”
Looked to side and saw human, eyes open, shining. Hand out. “Come here pussy cat. I got a treat for you.”
Hacked, insulted. Not domesticated. Am big. And free.
He held out hand, gesturing. Come. Eat. “Pretty pussy.”
She was amused. Beast sniffed, mouth open. Beef. Hamburger. Dead, cooked. She liked them. Padded slowly to human, shoulders arching, belly low, pads silent. Human unafraid. Drunk. Sniffed offered treat. Stared at him with predator eyes, seeing Beast reflected, golden, in his. Prey should be afraid. Was supposed to be afraid.
“Pretty pussy, I know you’re hungry. Have some.”
Took offered hamburger. Flipped it back, into throat. Meat and mayonnaise. Swallowed. Walked away. She laughed.