Read an Excerpt
By Saintcrow, Lilith
Orbit Copyright © 2011 Saintcrow, Lilith
All right reserved.
Decensus ad Infernos
In the shifting wood of suicides that borders the cold rivers of Hell, what is one tree more or less?
They are a mosaic, those trees. Every shade of the rainbow, and hues humans cannot see. Every color except one, but that has changed.
There is one white tree, a slender birchlike shape. Instead of a screaming face hidden in the bark, there is a sleeping woman carved with swift strokes. Eyes closed, mouth relaxed, she is a peaceful pale pillar amid the cold shifting.
For Hell is frozen, a chill that burns. The trees shake their leaves, roaring filling their branches.
Under the spinning-nausea sky holding dry stars of alien geometry, something new may happen, might happen, will happen…
…is happening now.
Pinpricks of light settle into the white tree’s naked branches. She has not been here long enough to grow the dark tumescent leaves every other tree shakes now. The screaming of their distress mounts, for these trees are conscious. Their bloodshot eyes are always open, their distended mouths always moving.
The pinpricks move like fireflies on a summer evening, each one a semaphore gracefully unconnected to the whole. They crown the tree with light, weaving tiny trails of phosphorescence in the gasping-cold fluid that passes for air. They tangle the streamers, and the storm is very close.
Hell has noticed this intrusion. And Hell is not pleased.
The trails of light form a complex net. The other trees thrash. Takemetakemetakeme, they scream, a rising chorus of the damned. Their roots hold fast, sunk deep in metallic ash. The river rises, white streaks of foam clutching its oilsheen surface. Leaves splatter, torn free, and their stinking blood makes great splotches on the dry ground. A cloud of buzzing black rises from each splotch, feeding greedily on the glistening fluid.
The net is almost complete. Almost. Hell’s skies are whipped with fury, the storm breaking over the first edge of the wood as screaming thunder. Maggot-white lightning scorches. The pale net over the white tree draws close, like a woman pulling her hair back.
Long dark curling hair, spangled with silver.
The storm descends, ripping trees apart. The souls of the damned explode with screams that would turn the world to bleeding ice, if the world heard. The ashes of their destruction will sink into the carpet of the woods, each separate particle growing another tree.
For there is always more agony in Hell.
The net collapses, silvery filaments winding themselves in. It shrinks to a point of brilliance, and the shadows this light casts are cleansed. They etch themselves on the ash, and under the wrack of the storm is a sound like a soft sigh.
The light winks out.
A few tiny, crystalline-white feathers fall, but they snuff themselves out before they reach the heaving ground.
The white tree no longer stands. It is gone.
And Hell itself shakes.
Buzzing. In my head. All around me. Creeping in. A rattling roar, filling my skull. Crawling into my teeth, sticky little insect feet all over my face, feelers probing at my lips. They move, hot and pinprick-tiny, and that sound is enough to drag me screaming out of…
Dark. It was dark, and there was no air. Sand filled my mouth, but the little things crawling on me weren’t sand. They were alive, and they were droning loud enough to drown out everything but the sounds I was making. Terrifying sounds. Suffocating, it was in my mouth and my nose too, lungs starved, heart a suddenly pounding drum.
Scrabbling through sand, dirt everywhere, the buzzing turning into a roar as they lifted off me. The insects didn’t sting, just made that horrible sound and flew in disturbed little circles.
I exploded out of the shallow grave, my screams barely piercing the rumbling roar. Little bits of flying things buzzed angrily, flashing lights struck me like hammers and I fell, scrabbling, the wasps still crawling and buzzing and trying to probe through my mouth and nose and ears and eyes and hands and feet and belly.
They were still eating, because flesh had rotted.
I had rotted.
I scrubbed at myself as the train lumbered past. That was the light and the roaring. My back hit something solid and I jolted to a stop. The wasps crawled over me, and when I forced air out through my nose it blew slimy chunks of snot-laced sand away.
I collapsed against the low retaining wall, breath sobbing in and out. My head rang like a gong, I bent over and vomited up a mass of dark, writhing liquid.
The stench was awesome, titanic, a living thing. It crawled on the breeze, pressed against me, and I vomited again. This time it was long strands of gooey white, splatting. Coming from nowhere and passing through me, landing in twisting runnels.
Just like cotton candy! a gleeful, hateful voice crowed inside my head. The eggwhite was all over me, loathsome slime turning the sand into rasping dampness.
I squeezed my knees together, bent over, and whooped in a deep breath. The wasps crawled, and other bits of insect life clung to me. Maggots. Other things. Of course—out in the desert, the bugs get to you. Especially in a shallow grave, when there’s been trauma to the tissues.
I grabbed my head. The sound was immense, filling me to the brim, the roaring swallowing my scream. Gobbets of rotting flesh fell away, the wasps angrily swarming, and the train rumbled away into the distance.
Leaving me alone. In the night.
In the dark.
I tore at the rotting flesh cloaking me. It peeled away in noisome strips, and under it I was whole, slick with slime. I retched again, a huge tearing coming all the way up from my toes, and produced an amazing gout of that slippery eggwhite stuff again.
Ectoplasm? But—The thought floated away as the pain came down on me, laid me open. Skull cracked wide, bones twisting, everything in me creaking and re-forming. My knees refused to give, my short-bitten nails dug through the cloak of rotting and found my own skin underneath.
I scrambled along the retaining wall. The grave yawned, leering, crawling with disturbed insect life. I fell on sand, grubbed up handfuls of it, and scrubbed at myself. I didn’t care if it stripped skin off and left me bleeding, didn’t care if it went down to bone, I just wanted the rot away.
Under the mess of decaying flesh was a torn T-shirt, rags of what had been leather pants. At least I had some clothes. I was barefoot.
I collapsed to my knees on the sand, looked up.
A full moon hung grinning in the sky, bloated cheese-yellow. The hard, clear points of stars glittered, and steam slid free of my skin.
Whole skin. Clear, unblemished, scraped in places. But not rotting.
The pain retreated abruptly. My questing fingers found filthy hair, stiff with sand and God knew what else. The wasps were sluggish—it gets cold out here at night. Everything else was burrowing to escape the chill.
It’s cold in Hell, too. So cold. That thought threatened to tip me over into howling madness, so it vanished. Swept under the rug. Hey presto.
My skull was still there. Hard curves of bone, tender at the back. I let out a sob. Held my hands out, flipped them palm-up. They shook like palsied things.
Branches. Like branches.
But the image fled as soon as it arrived, mercifully. My forearms were pale under the screen of filth. On my right wrist, just above the softest part, something glittered. Hard, like a diamond. It caught the moonlight and sent back a dart of brilliance, straight through my aching skull. The sight filled me with unsteady loathing, and I shut my eyes.
Start with the obvious first. Who am I?
The train’s rumble receded.
Who am I?
I tilted my head back and screamed, a lonely curlew cry.
Because I didn’t know.
I shivered, pushed the door open. My feet left bloody prints on faded blue-speckled linoleum.
The diner was deserted. Long white lunch counter with chrome napkin holders, pies under glass domes, and the smell of industrial coffee fought with the reek around me. The night wind had scrubbed the worst of the stink away, but I still felt it like a cloud breathing from my skin.
Why I was worried about that when I was dripping with sandy, crusted filth, bare- and bloody-footed, and wild-haired in the rags of leather pants and a T-shirt was beyond me. Still…it bothered me. Something about my hair bothered me, too. I felt completely naked, even though all my bits were mostly covered. I was too scrawny for there to be much to look at anyway. Pared down to scarecrow bone, muscle wasted away, my elbows bigger than my biceps, my knees knobs.
The diner sat alone off the highway, its windows glowing gold with warm electric light. Two ancient, spaceship-shaped gas pumps stood outside in a glare of buzzing fluorescents. No car was visible for miles in any direction. In the distance, the glow of a city rose, staining the night. I’d been heading for that glow for a slow, stumbling eternity, reeling drunkenly on the blacktop because the shoulder was full of pebbles and other things. Broken glass. Cigarette butts. Nameless, random trash.
I was just another piece of refuse, blowing along.
The booths marched away, all covered in blue vinyl. The tables were spotless, their chrome edges sharp-bright. The window booths even had sprays of artificial violets in tiny mass-produced white ceramic vases, the kinds with pebbled sides and wide mouths.
For a moment I had a memory, but it slipped away like a catfish in muddy water. I stood there on an industrial-grade rubber mat that used to say welcome in bright white paint. The E and the OM were scuffed into invisibility by God alone knew how many feet.
The place probably did a land-office business during the day. Maybe.
“Justaminnit!” someone yelled from the kitchen. There was a sizzle, and the heavy sound of a commercial freezer slamming shut. “Be right with ya!”
Yeah, great. I don’t even have any money. There was a phone in a booth outside the front door, but who the hell would I call?
I didn’t even know my own name.
“Well, good eveni—gooood gravy Marie!” The man hove into sight, two hundred fifty pounds if he was an ounce, most of it straining to escape his white T-shirt and the stained apron slung loincloth-style below his considerable belly. Despite that, he looked hard, and the lightness of his step told me he could do some damage if he wanted to.
If he had to.
But he simply stopped and stared at me. “Goddamn, girl, what happened to you?”
How the hell did I know? I’d just clawed my way out of a goddamn grave. I opened my mouth, shut it.
The door opened behind me. Instinct spiked under my skin; I jerked to the side. My bare, bleeding feet slapped down, braced for action. I ducked, my hand blurring up in a fist.
But broad, warm fingers closed around my filthy, naked upper arm.
He set me on my feet. Taller than me, stoop-shouldered and wiry, his dishwater hair laying close to the skull, and a shadow of acid-melt scarring over the lower half of his face. I stared, a sound like rushing water filling my head, and his ruined lips twitched. You could see where the scars had been really bad, but they were…were they?
Yes, they were retreating. I knew it because I’d seen him before. The black curtain over whatever had happened to me didn’t part, but I knew him.
“You,” I whispered.
“I’m about to call the Authority.” Apron Man crossed his beefy forearms. “What the fuck is—”
The scarred man looked up. His eyes were bright blue, and that was wrong, too. Something shifted under the skin of his face, and his mouth opened slightly. No sound came out on the slight, soft exhale, but the fat man shut up.
“Well, why’n’tcha say so?” he mumbled. “Nobody ever tells me nothin’. Coffee, comin’ up.”
Blue Eyes looked down at me. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he raised his other hand, indicating the booths. Like he was asking me where I wanted to sit.
Those eyes. They’d been filmed before, gray cataracts hooding them. And the scarring had been much, much worse, in runnels and pleats like the flesh had been reshaped with acid. He’d worn gray coveralls, and the name tag had been a snarl of faded thread.
“I know you.” My voice cracked halfway through. “How do I know you?”
He shrugged a little, and indicated the booths again.
Well, there wasn’t anything else I was doing. I picked a booth along the wall, since the windows made my nape prickle and I needed to see the front door.
Why? Why do I need to see it?
I just did, that was all.
He let me choose my side, slid in across from me. Fine threads of gold glittered in his hair under the lights. There were fluorescents in here, too, but over the door and the window booths were incandescent bulbs. It made the light softer, actually—fluorescents are hell on everyone.
Sand fell off me. The scrim of eggwhite goop in my mouth tasted of ashes. My skin prickled with insect grime. Bloody footprints tracked in from the front door, and now that I was sitting I felt just how filthy and exhausted I was. Every part of me had been pulled apart and put back together by someone who had no fucking idea what they were doing.
I stared at Blue Eyes. He regarded me mildly, his ruined mouth curving up in what could have been a small smile. Strings of dirty hair fell in my face, and it seemed wrong. I tried again to think of what my hair should look like. Got exactly nowhere.
We sat like that for a while, until Apron Man brought two heavy, steaming china cups and plunked them down. He gave me an incurious glance and walked away, his heavy shoes blurring two of my footprints.
What the hell?
Blue Eyes cupped his hands around his mug. Looked at me.
I figured I could ask, at least. “Who am I?”
Blue Eyes shrugged. It was a very expressive shrug. Now that I was sitting down, the shaking started. It began in my feet and worked its way through my bones one at a time, until I was shivering like a junkie. The neon open sign in the window buzzed, and Apron Man began to sing as something sizzled on the grill. An old Johnny Cash tune, “Long Black Veil.”
How could I know that, and not know my own name?
My stomach cramped. “You know me,” I hazarded. “But you can’t talk?”
Another small shrug, this one different than the last.
“You won’t talk.”
This earned me a nod.
Well, great. “How am I…Jesus. You…I…” I looked down at myself. The trembling threatened to rob me of words. “I know you somehow.”
Another nod. Then he made a slow, deliberate movement, reaching under the table like he was digging in a pocket. Faint alarm ran through me, tasting like copper through the ashy sludge in my mouth.
He laid the gun on the tabletop, its barrel carefully pointed away from either of us. I stared, my mouth hanging open as he picked up his coffee mug, deliberately, and drank.
It was a .45, custom-built. A nice piece of hardware, dull black, a real cannon. I knew what it would feel like if I picked it up. I knew the heft and the pull, knew exactly how much pressure to apply on the trigger. I could feel that the butt was reinforced as well for pistol-whipping.
“My gun.” I sounded like all the air had been punched out of me. “That’s mine. I have a gun.” Or I had one. And you’re returning it.
Blue Eyes nodded. He set down his mug with a decisive little click, then edged the butt a little closer to me with one fingertip. A faint breeze touched my face. His mouth opened as if he would say something profound, but then he shut it tightly and shook his head. Sorry, Charlie. No can speak.
“You’re going to have to help me here. Give me a verb, or something.” The shaking started tapering off. Sand slid off my clothes, pattered on the bench and the floor. The thought of a shower filled me with sudden longing. Maybe some food, too. A bed to sleep in, because I was so, so tired.
Nausea cramped under my breastbone again. Blue Eyes was fiddling around under the table once more. This time he came up with something very small. A tiny metallic sound as he laid it on the table, his palm covering it.
A gun, and something else. I looked up.
His face changed. With the cataracts over his eyes peeled away, those eyes spoke for him. Right now, they burned with pure agonizing sadness. The expression drew his mouth down, and I found out the scarring was retreating. It shrank on his face a little, the skin smoothing out. I blinked.
His hand lifted.
It was a ring. A simple circle of silver, and my heart leapt like a landed fish inside my chest. Scruffed up and obviously worn, I knew that if I picked it up I would see the etching on the inside. Tiny scratches of Cyrillic, the only thing I would ever know how to read in that alphabet, because someone had shown me a long time ago.
Do svidaniya, it said. “Go with God.”
The other meaning: “goodbye.”
Bile whipped the back of my throat. I picked up my mug with dream-slow fingers. It was too hot, but I took a searing gulp of the acrid coffee anyway. It tasted like it had been on a burner for a while, but it was better than the eggwhite crap.
Ectoplasm. It was ectoplasm. Something’s happened.
Hot water filled my eyes. A tear rolled down my cheek, and Blue Eyes nodded. He pointed at my right hand, and I knew without asking what he meant. I set my mug down and turned my hand over, looking at the thing embedded in my right wrist. Just in the softest part, above the pulse’s frantic tattoo.
It was fever-hot, a glittering, colorless, diamond-shaped gem set in my skin. Its edges frayed, like it had been surgically implanted and then pulled around a bit. It spasmed and settled like a shivering little animal. That tiny twitching tremble communicated itself up the bones of my arm, settling in my shoulder with a high hard hum.
Fear whipped through me, and a bald edge of anger like smoking insulation.
“What the fuck is this?” I whispered.
His lips moved slightly, and the flesh on his face crawled. Like there were bugs underneath. I pressed back into the booth, my torn heels sending up a shriek as I shoved them into the floor, my right hand darting for the gun with scary, instinctive speed. Fingers curling, my arm tensing, the barrel trained unerringly at his head.
Familiar. Done this before, too.
He pointed again at my right wrist. His lips moved slightly. The words slid into my head, interlocking puzzle pieces of meaning.
When you’re ready.
One moment he was there, solid and real. The next, there was a pop of collapsing air, and the booth was empty. Another breeze feathered against my face, touching the crusted strings of my hair. I flinched, the gun lowering as I scanned the entire place.
Empty. Except for Apron Boy, who came shuffling out from the kitchen. Quick as a wink, I had the gun under the table. My left hand scooped up the ring, and the feel of cool metal sent a zing through me, like tinfoil against metal fillings.
Apron Boy held a steaming plate, which he plopped down in front of me along with silverware wrapped in a paper napkin. “Nice guy,” he said. “Paid for your breakfast, at least. You eat right on up, honey.” He looked expectantly at me, expecting some kind of conversational volley back.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Thanks.”
That seemed to satisfy him. He hove away, moving side to side like a walrus shouldering up onto a rocky beach, but lightly, his feet planted with care. The plate held ham, scrambled eggs, hash browns.
It looked good.
Eat while you can, Jill.
A klieg light went on inside my head. “Jill,” I whispered. “I’m Jill.”
I tucked the gun safely away. The ring fitted securely on my third left finger. Was I married?
A pair of dark eyes, silver-scarred hair, and fluid grace. He half-turned, reaching for something beside the stove, and the clean economy of motion made my heart skip a beat.
As soon as the image came, it vanished. I shook my head. More sand slipped free in a hissing rush, but none of it fell into the food. I was suddenly hungry. Not just hungry.
A gun. A ring. And whatever that thing was on my wrist. And vanishing blue-eyed mutes. Whoever I was, I was certainly interesting.
Well, as long as the food was here, I’d take it. I’d worry about what to do afterward.
I hunkered down, stripped the napkin off the stamped-metal knife and fork and spoon, and started shoveling it in.
By the time I quit, Apron Man had refilled my coffee twice and brought out two more plates. I couldn’t get full, felt like a pig. At first the food just vanished into the huge hole in my gut, but after the second plate I slowed down a bit. I was in the middle of the third before I began to feel halfway satisfied—biscuits and gravy, sausage patties, a mountain of wheat toast dripping with butter, a smaller plate of huevos rancheros with a side of rice. It was enough to put a grown man in the hospital, but it looked good to me. I did my best, but the yawning emptiness in me suddenly filled halfway through the eggs. The plates looked like something feral had been at them, but Apron Boy didn’t say a word, just took them as soon as I pushed them away, then came back with the coffee pot and a slice of coconut cream pie.
I didn’t even know if I liked coconut cream pie. I sat there and looked at the piped decorative cream and the little shaved bits of toasted nutflesh and felt sick. Then I wondered if chocolate cream would’ve been worse. Or cherry. Or…
How could I know about pie and not know who I was?
The gun’s heavy weight rested against my side. Jill. You’re Jill, and you’re armed. Focus on that, the rest will take care of itself.
“Sure be glad to close up early tonight.” Apron Man shuffled back with another cup of coffee. He wedged himself into the other side of the booth with a sigh. “Get off my old dogs. I’m going into town, give you a lift.”
Another one of those silences, and I figured out he was waiting for me to say something. “Really? That’s…nice.” My voice was a papery husk. “Town?”
He shrugged. “Santa Luz. The bad old lady herself. You’d have to walk a fair ways. Told your friend I’d give you a lift, since he was goin’ elsewhere.”
Was he, now. I’ll just bet. I picked up the clean fork, cut off the tip of the pie slice. “Nice of you.” Awkward, like the words were sharp edges and I had to hold them just right.
“Yeah, well. Got to do what we can to he’p each other. You got somewhere in town you’re goin’?”
I don’t even know my name. Just how to hold this gun. And that if I wanted to, I could be across this table with this cheapass fork stuck in your carotid in a hot half second. It played out in vivid Technicolor inside my head—spurting blood, the greenstick crack of a neck breaking, the things I could do. “No. Just the city limits will do.”
He gave me a dubious look, but his attention was snagged by the pie. “Is it gone off? I wouldn’t think so, ol’ Onorious brought it in this morning.”
Onorious? “It’s good.” It was a lie, I hadn’t tasted it yet. But the rest of the food was good. I slid the plate over into the middle of the table. “Want to share?”
His face lit up. “Boy howdy!” And wouldn’t you know it, he had a spoon. He must’ve been waiting for me to ask.
I put my forkful in my mouth, studied his wide walrus face. He looked…kind. But something bothered me. I barely tasted the pie, but it was okay. I could get to like coconut cream. “What are you doing out here?”
He shrugged, chewing vigorously. Swallowed in a rush, took a gulp of coffee. “Landed here a while ago. Get a fair amount of business. People drive, they get hungry. And here I am. Gas pumps still work, but mostly it’s the phone and the cookin’. People come in for the phone, and it smells so good they want to have a bite.”
I nodded. My right hand came up, I offered it across the table. The gleam on the underside of my wrist sent a small rainbow winging across the Formica. “Jill.”
He grinned even wider. It was a nice smile, broad white teeth with not a trace of food clinging to them. The corners of his eyes crinkled up, and for a moment something golden moved in the depths of his eyes.
You could see where he had been handsome, once.
His hairy paw closed over my filthy, smaller hand. “Martin. Martin D. Pores, atcher service. Honor to meetcha. Now, what do you say we finish up this here piece of pie and get movin’? Dawn’s a-going to break afore you step over that limit, miss.”
Dawn? But I was past questioning by then, really. A great wave of exhaustion crashed over me. My stomach was full, I had a gun and the ring, and that was all that was important right now. “I’m tired.” I sounded like a cranky child.
He considered me for a long few seconds, and if I’d been less tired I might’ve been concerned about the things moving deep in his gaze. “I’ll bet you are. You want to visit the ladies’ while I get this all closed up?”
The car was a 1975 Mercury wagon, faded fake-wood paneling and handling like a whale. The engine had a slight knock to it, one I caught myself trying to suss out. For all that, it was comfortable. There’s just something about a piece of American heavy metal when you can stretch your filthy battered feet out and watch the miles slip away like silk under the wheels. The ribbon of white paint running alongside the freeway reeled us along just like a big silent fish on a hook.
Martin kept it five under the speed limit, and he drove like an old granny. It didn’t matter. There was nobody else on the road at this hour. The stars were hard clear points of light, each one a diamond, and the moon was low.
“You like music, Miss Jill?”
I thought about it. Did I? Didn’t everyone? I decided on a good answer. “Yes.”
“Well, that’s good. Music’s a good thing.” He twisted the shiny silver knob and caught what must have been an oldies station, because Johnny Cash was singing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die.
I shivered. It couldn’t have smelled good with me in the car, so I’d rolled my window down. Fresh, cold air poured over me, the roaring of the slipstream almost making words. I propped my filthy hair against the back of the seat and sighed.
Martin kept both his beefy paws on the wheel. He hummed along as Cash turned into the Mamas and the Papas, singing about nobody getting fat but Mama Cass. My eyelids were suddenly heavy.
Stay alert, Jill.
But there was no way. I’d had a hell of a day. Night. Whatever.
The hum of the engine and the song of the wheels were both soothing. With a full stomach and the heater finally blowing warm air into the car, I fell asleep to Martin’s tuneless humming.
Just like a newborn baby.
I drove the knife into the sand next to me. Picked up the gun. Hefted it, and looked at him.
If his grin got any wider, the top of his head would flip open.
I pointed the gun at him, and smiled. The expression sat oddly on my face. He hissed, Helletöng rumbling in the back of his throat.
I almost understood the words, too. A shiver raced down my spine.
“You can’t escape me.” The rock groaned as his voice lashed at it, little glassy bits flaking away. They plopped down on the sand with odd ringing sounds. “The fire won’t last forever, my darling. Then I’ll step over your line in the sand, and you’ll find out what it means to be mine.”
“Think again.” I bent my left arm. Fitted the gun’s barrel inside my mouth. My eyes were dry, my body tensing against the inevitable.
Comprehension hit. Perry snarled and lunged at the banefire. It roared up, a sheet of blue flame. Twisting faces writhed in its smokeless glow, their mouths open as they whisper-screamed.
I glanced down at the slice on my palm. Still bleeding. It was hard to tell if the black traceries were still there. For a moment, I wondered.
Then I brought myself back to the thing I had to do. Stupid body, getting all worked up. What the will demands, the body will do—but it also tries to wriggle, sometimes.
Not this time.
“Kiss!” he howled. “You’re mine! MINE! You cannot escape me!”
I saw Saul’s face, yellow and exhausted, against the white pillow. I smelled him, the musk and fur of a healthy cat Were. I saw Galina’s wide green eyes and marcel waves, Hutch’s shy smile, Gilberto’s fierce glittering-dark gaze. I saw them all, saw my city hunched on the river’s edge, its skyscrapers throwing back dusk’s last light with a vengeance before the dark things crawled out of their holes. I saw Anya perched on Galina’s roof with her green bottle, staring down at the street and wondering if I had the strength to do this. Wondering if she would have to hunt me down, if I failed here.
And I heard Mikhail. There, little snake. Honest silver, on vein to heart. You are apprentice. Now it begins.
I love you, I thought. I love you all.
“You cannot escape!” Perry screamed, throwing himself at the banefire again. It sizzled and roared, and the rocks around me begin to ring like a crystal wineglass stroked just right. If this kept up they might shatter.
Wouldn’t that be a sight.
“Do you hear me, hunter? You cannot escape me!”
Watch me, I thought, and squeezed both eyes shut. The banefire roared as he tried again to get through, actually thrusting a hand through its wall, snatching it back with a shattering howl as the skin blackened and curled. It was now or never.
I squeezed the trig—
—up from the concrete with a southpaw punch, bone shattering as my fist hit. My foot flicked out, heel striking sharply in the second man’s midriff, and I was beginning to wake up. The alley tilted crazily, both sides leaning toward each other like old drinking buddies, and the rotting refuse in choke-deep drifts along its sides smelled about as horrible as I did. Faint grayish light seeped in through the crack of sky showing above. The sky was weeping a little, a diseased eye.
There were two more of them, one with a chain that rattled musically as he shook it. Cold fear and exhilaration spilled through me like wine.
Gutter trash, Jill. Not worth your time.
But my body wasn’t listening. It knew better than I did, and I was suddenly across the distance separating me from Chain Boy, my knee coming up and sinking into his groin with a short meaty sound. He folded down, and I had the gun in my right hand, pointed at the last man. He fetched up like a dog at the end of his tether.
A chain’s only good if you can use it. It’s also only good for a very short distance, shorter than you’d think.
For a moment I wondered how I knew that.
The fourth man was actually a boy. A weedy little boy with greasy lank hair and a lean, sallow face, a leather jacket that creaked like the cow was still mooing and hadn’t missed it yet, and pegged jeans that looked dipped in motor oil. The switchblade made a small clatter as it hit the concrete, dropping from his nerveless hand. My finger tightened on the trigger.
He’s just a kid. Come on.
But that kid would’ve followed his buddies in raping and possibly killing me if I was what they’d thought I was.
Wait. What am I? It said something that even sleeping like the dead, I kept hold of a gun.
I didn’t see the Mercury. Martin D. Pores, nice guy and granny driver, had left me in an alley. Nice of him. Why was I surprised? Of course he would, it was the way things were going.
Pay attention! A sharp phantom slap, my head snapping aside, and my right foot flicked out again, catching sneaky Guy # 2 in the knee. Crack like well-seasoned firewood when the axe split it, and he folded down with a rabbit-scream.
The boy in the motorcycle jacket just stood there and shivered. I don’t know what he saw on my face, but it gave him some trouble. Maybe it was the mismatched eyes, one blue, one brown, that I’d found staring at me in the diner’s restroom mirror. Maybe it was the gunk smeared all over me.
Maybe it was even the gun.
“Go home,” I rasped. My voice didn’t want to work quite right. “Go to school. Get a job and stop hanging out in alleys.”
His head bobbed, lank hair falling forward in strings. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t say just who. Someone with a flat, dark stare, someone I knew because…
…it was gone. Just for a second, I had it. Then it retreated, maddeningly.
He turned tail and ran, his sneakers whispering over concrete and kicking aside random bits of trash.
I spun, slowly, in a complete circle, marking every fallen body. The gun swept like a searchlight, tracking by itself to cover possible hiding places before I even thought of it. An easy instinctive movement, just like breathing. Whoever I was, I’d spent a lot of time doing this.
Training, milaya. A gruff, harsh voice, the words freighted with a foreign accent and cut off short and sharp. It gets into bones. Run all the way deep.
Who was that? My right hand jerked a little, as if the gem set on the inside of my wrist was twitching, pulling me.
He’d trained me well. The guys were down and moaning, except for the first one—the one I’d punched, his cheekbone shattered and bits of white tooth flecking the wet hole of his twisted-open mouth. He lay utterly still, with his head at an odd angle.
Oh, Christ, did I kill someone?
The sudden certainty that it wasn’t the first time poured down my back, ice cubes trickling. Nobody who handled a gun like this could be innocent.
I backed up two steps, bare feet on cold concrete. At least I wasn’t bleeding anymore. Maybe I was toughening up.
You clawed your way up out of a grave. I’d say that’s pretty damn tough. The question is, what do you do now?
I had a full belly. But I needed shelter, and some more clothes wouldn’t be amiss.
A quick search of the two moaning men produced rolls of cash as thick as my forearm. Plus little plastic baggies full of illegal smokable stuff, switchblades, and two guns—a .38 and a 9mm. I tossed them down the alley so the boys didn’t get any ideas, and considered the guy I’d punched. After a second or two of thought, I found another roll of cash as well as more baggies on him. He was still breathing, the air bubbling through the bloody mess of his mouth. I’d broken his cheekbone and quite a few of his teeth. My hand didn’t hurt at all, and how had I blinked across space to take out Chain Boy?
The gem on my right wrist glittered, colorless, a hard dart of light as dawn strengthened and spilled more illumination through the crack serving as the alley’s ceiling.
You don’t know your own strength, girl.
“I guess not,” I muttered. “Jesus.”
I got the hell out of there.
The crackling plastic bags on the tiny room’s colorless bed gave up a black V-neck T-shirt and a pair of jeans that were a little too big, but I hadn’t been able to try them on. It was bad enough waiting in the shadows for the gigantic Walmart a mile away to open. By 9 a.m. when the doors whooshed wide, I was a bundle of exposed, dirty, and vulnerable nerves.
I shouldn’t have worried. Those employees don’t bat an eye. I guess no matter what I looked like, they’d seen worse. After getting an eyeful of the crowd waiting to scramble on in and get their cheap shit even cheaper, I won’t exactly say I was heartened—but I was feeling a little more anonymous.
I remembered my shoe size, at least, but the sneakers felt weird, too light and flexible. The holster for the .45—I’d stuck it in the waistband of my ruined leather pants while shopping, just like a good American—didn’t quite do it, but a little duct tape fixed that right up. The .45 ammunition had been reasonably cheap, and as soon as I put it in my basket I’d felt soothed.
Whoever I was, I didn’t like being unarmed. Or short of ammo. I was hoping the modifications on the gun hadn’t made it unable to fire a basic clip, but there it was.
I found a place on the edge of the barrio. Some clear instinct warned me not to go any further into that tangle of streets, so I just picked a likely-looking hotel and paid for two nights. Cash up front, no ID requested or given. It was the kind of place usually rented by the hour, and after about 2 p.m. it started doing a brisk trade. Footsteps, soft cries, some screams, doors opening and closing. I didn’t listen too close. It was bad enough that my hearing was jacked up into the red, and I could smell every single person who had ever used this tiny room.
Sirens. Jackhammers. Traffic.
At least the shower worked. It was tepid, but there was decent water pressure. The drain almost clogged, sand and gunk sliding off me in sheets. I didn’t bother with the towels. Who knew what vermin they were carrying? Instead I wrung my hair out and air-dried. The wheezing air conditioner didn’t help very much against an egg-on-the-sidewalk sort of day, a glare of heavy sunlight golden against the barred window. It was like being in prison, only with a door that locked on your side.
Which meant it wasn’t very much like prison at all.
Once I was dressed and the gun was checked, cleaned with a just-bought kit, and set on the flimsy bolted-down nightstand, I lay down on top of the cheap chintz bedspread and let out a long sigh. The ruined, filthy clothes were in a plastic bag; I’d dump them elsewhere. Something told me it was best to leave no traces.
My hair was already drying, raveling up into dark curls. I was pale, and the face in the mirror was nothing special except for the mismatched eyes. Long, thin nose, mouth pulled tight and thin, bruise-colored shadows under said eyes almost reaching down to the prominent cheekbones. I looked half starved. I was hungry again.
Who the hell am I?
Evidence: one silver ring with Cyrillic script inside, one gun, one weird gemlike thing implanted in my right wrist. Speed and strength enough to take on four men without breaking a sweat. Of course, there was the little matter of Martin Pores and his vanishing Mercury, but if I had just dug my way up out of a shallow grave maybe I’d hallucinated that bit and just wandered around dreaming of diner food.
Excerpted from Angel Town by Saintcrow, Lilith Copyright © 2011 by Saintcrow, Lilith. Excerpted by permission.
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