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The Underworld, the Territory of Sutekh
Alastor Krayl lifted one impeccably shod foot, tipped up the toes of his Italian loafers and stopped the severed head as it rolled past him across the sandstone floor. Like trapping a soccer ball. Except the head wasn't quite round, what with the stump of the neck hanging off one side.
The free edge of the neck was messy and jagged, as though someone had twisted the head off like a screw cap. There was little blood, and what was there was dry, some of it flaking off, which meant the decapitation was not particularly recent. A day. Perhaps two.
From this angle, Alastor saw only a ring of closely cropped steel gray hair and the naked skin of the crown. He toed the thing over, stared down at the features —the broad forehead, the hawk-like nose — and masked his surprise as recognition dawned. Bloody hell.
His older brother, Dagan, spat the name, "Gahiji," at the same time as his younger brother, Malthus, leaned in and observed, "He's dead."
"You think?" Despite the situation, Alastor almost laughed.
Gahiji had died once before, some two thousand years ago. Then he had been offered—and accepted—a second life as a soul reaper.
There would be no such reprieve this time.
This time, dead was dead.
"Which one of you killed him?" Alastor asked, reaching down to thread his fingers through Gahiji's hair and heft the head like a handbag.
He wished with all he was that he had been the one to exact revenge and twist Gahiji's head clean off. But he'd have done that only after he extracted information about his dead brother.
They needed to find Lokan's remains. They needed to find his Ka: his soul. And they needed to unite the two and reanimate him before he partook of the food of the dead and was lost to them forever, trapped in whatever limbo he'd been sent to.
Lokan's Ka was gone, not to any part of the Underworld they knew of, but somewhere else. Bloody hell, none of them even knew where to look. They'd waited for some sort of contact. The brothers had always had the ability to sense each other's pain, to know when one of them was in need. But no contact had come. Wherever Lokan was, he was lost to them, beyond their reach.
"Wish I could claim the kill," Dagan replied, his expression flat, his gray eyes cold as asphalt in winter.
Alastor didn't doubt it.
His brother spread his hands and offered a casual shrug and a shake of his head.
Process of elimination had Alastor looking to the far side of the long, narrow room, to the fourth in their little private party: Sutekh, the most powerful of the Underworld deities. He went by many names: Seth, Set, Seteh, Lord of the Desert, Mighty One of Two-fold Strength. Lord of Chaos. Lord of Evil.
The Krayl boys called him Dad. At least, Alastor did. His brothers preferred to shun any verbal claim of kinship, as though by avoiding the moniker they could avoid the relationship.
Their family dynamic was what pop psychology called dysfunctional.
Expression impassive, Sutekh regarded them with an unwavering gaze. He could choose any appearance that caught his fancy, and today it was the human face and form of Egyptian royalty. His skin was olive toned, his eyes large and dark, outlined in kohl. A narrow beard extended from his chin. The pleated folds of his headdress framed his face, and the cloth of his royal apron was wrapped counterclockwise around his body. All of which meant they weren't here for shits and giggles. Sutekh meant business.
"Interesting locale," Mal murmured with a lazy glance at their surroundings. "Is there a reason we couldn't meet in your greeting room?"
"Gahiji was a traitor," Sutekh replied.
The bastard had been there when Lokan was tattooed with an inverted version of the mark of Aset, Sutekh's enemy. He'd watched while Lokan was skinned, butchered, his body hacked to bits, the parts scattered. Maybe Gahiji had even wielded a knife, a participant rather than an observer. Maybe he was the one who'd stretched Lokan's skin and set it in a black plastic frame, then sent it to Sutekh as proof of the deed.
Rage congealed in Alastor's gut. "If Gahiji could turn traitor, there are undoubtedly others among your minions."
Alastor glanced at the walls of solid sandstone block; the floor was more of the same. There was a single low, narrow doorway, closed off by a thick wooden door. No windows. No place for anyone to hide and listen.
"So this is your equivalent of the cone of silence," Mal said, drawing out the word cone.
Sutekh completely missed the tongue-in-cheek humor.
"Nowhere is safe," he said, his voice flat, his gaze sliding to each of his three living sons in turn, perhaps lingering on Dagan a millisecond longer than the others. "No one is trustworthy."
"Something you want to say?" Dagan asked softly.
Alastor stepped between his father and his older brother, heading off that discussion before it could begin. No sense hashing out the fact that Sutekh did not exactly approve of Dagan's mate, Roxy Tam. Alastor did. And though he wouldn't admit it aloud, a part of him even envied Dagan that he had found love. Romantic love. Chivalrous love—like Dagan could ever, by any stretch, be labeled chivalrous. In contrast, Alastor had been spoon-fed the art of chivalry since birth. But that had been when he'd lived in the world of man as a human, before he'd learned what he truly was. A soul reaper. Son of Sutekh.
He'd stopped thinking about courtliness and gallantry and love long ago.
Still, he was glad for his brother that he'd found it.
"Gahiji was your man for nearly two thousand years, and he betrayed us all," Alastor pointed out. If blame was to be cast, might as well set it squarely where it belonged.
Sutekh's face remained expressionless, but the damp chill that suddenly seeped through the walls and floor reflected his mood.
"We are your sons." Alastor continued, letting the last word carry the weight of his message. The beings in this chamber were not the enemy. He cast a speaking glance toward Dagan. "All of us are your sons, loyal to you, whether you agree with our choices or not."
Yes, they were loyal. But everyone else in Sutekh's ranks or any other territory was suspect.
"So what now?" Mal asked with a nod toward Ga-hiji's severed head.
"We do exactly what we have been doing since Lokan was killed," Dagan said.
Alastor tamped down the surge of pain and rage that came at him as he thought of Lokan and what had been done to him. He wanted—needed—to find the rest of the sodding bastards who'd killed him. And he needed to return the favor. He owed all his brothers his life, but Lokan most of all, for all the times he'd scraped Alastor off the floor when things had been at their darkest.
"We bloody well need to step it up," he said, his tone hard. "Every whisper of information, no matter how far-fetched, gets assiduous attention."
"Assiduous?" Dagan and Mal chorused, then Dagan asked, "Word of the day?"
Alastor narrowed his eyes. "Sod off."
He lifted his head and found Sutekh staring at them. He gave nothing away, but Alastor sensed his bemusement.
"You bicker," Sutekh observed.
"Often and well."
"Yet you smile."
"That's the point."
It was unusual for them to come to Sutekh's realm en masse, so he rarely had the opportunity to view his offspring's group interactions. Alastor suspected he preferred it that way, that their human tendencies confused him. If he was even capable of confusion. Hard to tell.
"Would you like this back?" Alastor asked as he hefted Gahiji's head and tossed it. His father's hand whipped up so fast it was no more than a blur, and he caught the head as it spun through the air. "What did you find out before you killed him?"
That had to be the reason for this summons: urgent information that Sutekh had obtained before he tore Gahiji's head from his body.
"I did not kill him." Sutekh's clipped words echoed off the walls.
Alastor felt his brothers' attention sharpen, as did his own. If they hadn't killed the bugger, and Sutekh hadn't killed him—
"Gahiji's head was delivered anonymously," Sutekh continued. "I had no part in his demise, and no opportunity to question him. He was dead, his darksoul taken, and this—" with a flourish, he held the head aloft so the filmy eyes stared out at them "—delivered without even a note."
"No gift wrap?" Mal quipped, but his tone was hard, devoid of levity.
"Who delivered it?" Alastor asked. That was the only important question.
"That, I do not know."
Taken aback, all three brothers fell silent. Sutekh knew everything that went on in his realm. It was impossible for someone to sneak in undetected. Which meant that an anonymous delivery was impossible.
Yet more proof that Gahiji hadn't been the only traitor in their midst.
Gahiji had revealed his duplicity when he'd attempted to kill Dagan's mate. They'd quickly learned that he had betrayed them, that he'd been part of the plot to kill Lokan.
But they hadn't known if he'd acted as leader or peon.
The delivery of his severed head answered that question, but raised another. Someone with enough power to kill a soul reaper had robbed both Lokan—and now Gahiji—of life.
Which meant Gahiji wasn't the mastermind.
So who was?
Burlington City, New Jersey
Naphré Kurata shoved open the door of the Playhouse Lounge and almost hit some guy in the face.
And what a face.
His features were all angles and edges and hard, honed elegance. Clean-shaven. Honey-blond hair. Dark suit, perfectly tailored. Polished loafers. She noticed the details. In her business, it could mean the difference between life and a bullet in the head.
In this particular case she noticed for another reason. Something about him drew her gaze, demanded she look, made her feel like she never wanted to look away.
Great. She needed to remember to pick up batteries for her vibrator.
He didn't give her more than a cursory glance, just shifted a bit to the side and held the door as she passed. Interesting. This wasn't the sort of place where a guy held the door for a girl. But then, the action seemed almost automatic for him.
Tucking her chin, she walked on. She didn't want him to get a good look at her, just in case. Another trick in this biz. Notice the details, but don't let anyone notice a damned thing about you.
There was another man behind him, this one dark-haired with platinum hoops in his ears. She had the fleeting thought that guys who looked like them didn't need to come to places like this. Then she had to bite back a laugh. All sorts of guys came to strip clubs, for all sorts of reasons.
All sorts of girls did, too…maybe even one who needed to pick up the locale and front money for her next hit.
She cast a quick glance over her shoulder. The first guy held the door for the second, let him go through ahead. Again, interesting. Such neat and tidy manners.
The second guy was as good-looking as the first, but for some reason, as she reached the car and yanked open the door, her gaze slid back to the blond.
And caught him looking at her. For a millisecond, she held his gaze, and had the oddest sensation of recognition. Like she'd seen him before. But she knew with one hundred percent certainty that she hadn't. She'd remember that face if she had.
The sensation was more than a little unnerving.
She dropped her chin and tipped her head a bit to the side, hoping to rob him of a clear view of her features. Like he hadn't already gotten an eyeful.
When she looked up, all she saw was his back, disappearing through the door.
The crowd at the Playhouse Lounge was usually a mix of human and supernatural. For a second, she wondered if he was human. Then she shrugged. Not her business. But she was guessing he was because she hadn't sensed a supernatural vibe, and usually she was good at that.
Climbing into the passenger seat, she glanced at her companion.
"Making new friends, Naph?" Butcher asked.
"You know me better than that."
"Sure do." He offered a wheezing laugh.
She pulled the plain brown envelope Mick had given her from inside her jacket and tossed it on the seat between them. It was stuffed fat with bills.
"You count it?"
"What's with you and the bizarre questions tonight?" She dragged the shoulder strap over and buckled her seat belt.
Again, Butcher laughed. "Where're we going?"
"Ashton Memorial Park. Whitby. Tomorrow night. Mick said there'll be two open graves to choose from. Maybe more, if someone else dies before then."
"Hnn," Butcher grunted, and started the car. He stared straight ahead. "What else did Mick say?"
"That you owe him a bottle of scotch when this one's done. And that the client says you already have all the information about the mark that you need."
"That I do, Naph." Butcher put the car in drive, his expression thoughtful. "That I do."
"You plan on sharing anytime soon?" Not that she really needed to know. This was Butcher's hit. She was just along as backup. But she liked to know details before she made a hit. Her scruples were a tad more discerning than his.
As though he read her thoughts, Butcher said, "I know your rules, Naph. The mark's a killer."
"That's fine then." But of course, fine was a relative term.
Funny how no matter how hard you ran from destiny, it always caught up and bit you in the ass.