I let it go—all of it. Everything I’d been saving up all my life, building and growing inside me, too much to hold in one half-human body. It pushed and fought to be free with a force that turned me into a bomb with a timer vibrating on zero. I was free.
But so was everything I’d fought so hard not to be....
Brothers Cal and Niko Leandros know trouble when they see it—and then proceed to wipe the floor with it. But now it seems their whole world is falling to pieces. Cal’s nightmarish monster side is growing ever stronger, changing Cal physically as well as mentally. Which is exactly what Grimm—Cal’s savage doppelgänger—wants. And when a covert supernatural organization decides that it’s time to put Cal down before he threatens pretty much everything else in existence, the brothers find themselves in a fight they actually might lose. But the dark temptations Cal has denied all his life may prove to be exactly what can save them.
Even if he must fall forever…
About the Author
Rob Thurman lives in Indiana, land of cows, corn, and ravenous wild turkeys. Rob is the author of the Cal Leandros novels, the Trickster novels, the Korsak Brothers novels, and several stories in various anthologies.
Besides ravenous wild turkeys, Rob has three rescue dogs (if you don’t have a dog, how do you live?)—one of which is a Great Dane–Lab mix that weighs well over one hundred pounds, barks at strangers like Cujo times ten, then runs to hide under the kitchen table and pee on herself. Burglars tend to find this a mixed message. The other two dogs, however, are more invested in keeping their food source alive. All were adopted from the pound (one on his last day on death row). They were all fully grown, already house-trained, and grateful as hell. Think about it the next time you’re looking for a Rover or a Fluffy.
Read an Excerpt
(Rescheduled due to unforeseen circumstances.)
Ten days ago
There’s a sucker born every minute.
Engrave that on every brain cell. Write it on every neuron firing in your . . . Wait.
Was that a sniper on the roof? Across the street from the bar where I was reaching for the door handle, what was that I saw in the deepest of shadows? A sniper with a gun that could destroy a tank? Yes, it was. Ares, God of War, save me from human idiots who’d kill a newly born rabbit with a nuclear warhead to overcompensate for their one-inch dick and the shriveled raisins that made up their testicles. It was beyond annoying.
And the night had only begun. I had drinking ahead of me, along with a gloriously dire internal monologue that I’d been planning for days. One that had it been external rather than internal would make all those about me fall to their knees at the glory and the tragedy of it. I’d taken the precaution of writing some of it down to prevent what would be a catastrophic loss to history if I somehow lost the future opportunity to speak it aloud.
Nonetheless, it seemed there were other things to take care of first. I’d return to the bar and my soliloquy . . . now that I considered it, some would think that sounded somewhat conceited even for me. Soliloquy . . . hmmm. My thoughts, then, for the judgmental, I meant, and they were barely self-centered thoughts at that. No, not egocentric and narcissistic at all. Thus, I merely had to do away with the sniper while keeping the opening line of my fateful and earth-shaking contemplations prepared in my mind. . . .
There’s a sucker born every . . .
Hephaestus’s sweaty pits and fiery forge, did the streetlights deceive me? Was that a rocket launcher propped up beside the roof-dwelling idiot sniper?
I let go of the doorknob and made my way across the street, loved and hidden by the dark as I ever was when I wished to be. Obviously this train of thought would have to be continued later. Although suckers and idiots . . . They weren’t all that different, were they?
I didn’t have to memorize that.
(Goodfellow: the rest of the chapter has been rescheduled due to oblivious Cal’s irritating and unforeseen circumstances and my solution of them—as always.)
Ten days ago
It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
It’ll come up later. Pop quizzes aren’t out of the question.
Not that I was thinking that now. I had other things on my mind. Someone trying to kill me was one of them.
It wasn’t that someone was trying to kill me was anything to get excited about, not really. That had been happening half of my life. Most of the supernatural world didn’t like me—or didn’t like my kind. To them we were one and the same and were treated as such. Attempted murder, mutilation, or a one-Cal massacre, it was part of life. Truthfully, it was hard to scrape up any actual annoyance, much less get pissed off about it anymore. It was the same as complaining about rush-hour traffic: pointless and likely to make things worse when your cabdriver lost his shit and tried to stab you in the eye.
As someone was already doing their best to stab me in the eye or close enough, I didn’t need to add to that particular theoretical scenario. Yeah, it wasn’t the homicidal mayhem aimed at me that had my temper exploding. It was the large shard of mirror thrown at my face that disturbed me—disturbed me enough in fact that while I’d only planned on using the axe I was carrying for a threat or two, I’d now changed my mind. If they wanted to play “Here’s Johnny!” then who the hell was I to deny their scaly little bitch hearts?
If they weren’t Stephen King fans, I’d be damned disappointed.
Here’s a fun fact about me: I wasn’t into mirrors, whether they were bolted to the wall, mounted on an oversexed puck’s ceiling, or broken in a bathroom with a large triangular-shaped piece of it flying toward me like a quicksilver blade.
Mirrors. Not a fan.
Nothing ever good could came of one. For that matter nothing good came in one or out of one.
But this was my luck we were talking about, and it always took a nosedive at the Ninth Circle, a supernatural bar where I worked. The place put the fight in bar fight; that had been a fact from day fucking one. I had things thrown at me and my face in particular all the damn time. Occupational hazard. It was usually beer bottles, chairs, or even other patrons—you never knew. So, normally, having anything, knives included, tossed at me with vicious accuracy wouldn’t faze me.
The fragment of mirror did.
What I thought I saw reflected in it was worse.
One moment I was investigating—otherwise known as hoping to break up a fight and kick ass—in the bathroom, and the next I was dodging impalement. We only had the one bathroom. Paien—monsters—didn’t care about separation of gender when it came to dumping bodily fluids, and as many species had more than two genders anyway, you couldn’t please everyone. One bathroom would have to do.
I walked in with the fire axe, the one used frequently but never for fires, which we kept behind the bar, and ended up in a four-way bitch-fest between two succubae, one lamia—better known as a leech on two legs in my book, and one wildly grinning shirtless puck. I didn’t care he was bare from the waist up. I counted myself lucky he had pants. I’d unwillingly—so very unwillingly—seen more than my fair share of naked pucks in my life. Only half-naked, like this one, that was a gift from above.
I was guessing from the trickster’s grin, the succubae’s bared snake fangs, and the lamia’s pulsating . . . You know what? Here’s an interesting evolutionary fact that most natural creatures and supernatural creatures have evolved from the same blob of cells before taking different forks in Darwin’s path. A swamp leech is distantly related to the paien humanoid leech masquerading as a woman, at least in how they both feed. Wide-open circular mouths ringed all the way around with teeth and a blood-seeking, hungering pulsation behind those teeth that would make you think more than twice about swimming in anything but a perfectly clear pool with an incredibly high saline content . . . and with a spear gun.
Or like me, who’d seen far too many mouths of lamia attached to their victims and sucking them dry, I didn’t swim at all. Trust me, I didn’t miss it.
Back to what I’d been thinking when I first walked in: The succubae wanted payment for services rendered to the puck. The lamia had been taking a bathroom break and simply wanted to eat the puck, as they are uncommon and the uncommon are generally considered a delicacy; and the puck was doing as all pucks do. He was skipping out on his bill, wreaking fucking havoc, and enjoying the hell out of himself.
The two succubae, covered in glittering midnight blue snake scales with storm-cloud black and silver hair, grabbed the lamia and tossed her into the large rectangular mirror on the wall—some paien are vain, but mostly they like to know what’s sneaking up behind them. Hence the mirror. As the lamia was thrown through the air to hit and hit goddamn hard, the mirror shattered explosively. I ducked, the puck—pucks always know the better part of valor is watching their own ass—hid in a stall, and the lamia ended up lying crumpled on the floor. “Ladies,” I drawled. “You know the rules: Charging clients or eating clients”—no one cared which—“is done in the alley outside the bar. Leeches and sex slurpers are no exception.”
The lamia took offense to the leech remark, not that I knew why. Once they fastened those round mouths and latched on, they paralyzed you and then they liquefied and sucked out everything contained in your sack of skin that wasn’t bone. If you don’t like the name, don’t spread the fame. Regardless, they never seemed to see the truth in that, and this one was no exception. Hissing in a lamia’s customary homicidal outrage—which I admit they did damn well—seven on a scale of one to ten in making your eardrums ache, she oozed up to a sitting position and snatched up a large shard of mirror to fling it at my face.
That was when I saw it.
There it was—maybe—in the shimmering surface before it tumbled and I threw myself to one side. I ended up with a painful slice across my forehead and a complete lack of patience. “Fine,” I spat. “You’ve been downgraded from ladies to bitches.” I lifted the axe, often used, well sharpened, and shining as bright as the edge of a brand-new guillotine. The lamia’s anger fled at the silver gleam, leaving her oddly deflated, her black eyes showing wild wariness as she peered up through the long dark hair that covered most of her face to cascade along with her floor-length black dress like a pool of poison on the dirty tile around her.
“You know what a friend once told me the Good Book says?” I grinned with dark cheer. “Thou shall not suffer a bitch to live.”
“That’s not quite how the quote goes,” came a deep, disapproving voice from behind me that I really didn’t want to hear right now. “Trust me, Caliban.” I didn’t. I went with ignoring him instead.
The succubae were running. I didn’t care about them. They started this, but they’d been smart enough not to throw anything at me that might slice off my face . . . or make me feel something more painful. They got a freebie this time. The lamia? No freebies for her and her mirror and what she’d made me see.
Making me see? Making me see that?
It wasn’t that. It wasn’t. Nononono.
Death was too easy for her, but it was all I had.
I had started to heave the axe downward when a large hand caught the wooden handle just below the metal head and yanked me backward. “Let her go,” Ishiah ordered. “I can’t keep docking your pay whenever you maim or kill a patron. You’ve been working for free for three weeks now.”
“Pigeons like you are cheap. What can I say?” I muttered under my breath before turning and letting Ishiah, my boss, an ex-angel or peri as the paien called them, take the axe. “It wasn’t my fault that she’d started a fight with a piece of glass and I was going to end it with a four-foot-long axe. That was purely poor planning on her part.” I waved a hand at my T-shirt. It was black with small red letters you’d have to be way too far into my personal space to make out. They spelled out IF YOU CAN READ THIS . . . YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD. I took my personal space seriously. “I’m responsibly labeled. What more do you want?”
I was trying to distract myself by bitching to Ish, but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t forget what I might have seen in that glass. It could’ve been a trick of the light. It could be nothing. There was time enough for that later. Like maybe never. If I was lucky. Unfortunately I was never lucky. I pushed it all away and moved on to dealing with my boss.
“What I want, but doubt I will ever get, is an employee who is less bloodthirsty than all my patrons put together.” Ishiah had let the weight of the axe carry it to hang inches above the floor. He was swinging it slowly, barely moving it, all in all, but I got the picture.
“Yeah, yeah. Ruin my fun.” I walked over and knocked on the stall door where the puck had fled. “You in there. We already have one puck in town. Robin Goodfellow. I don’t know whether he’d throw you a party to reminisce about the orgy days of yore or kill you for poaching on his territory. Want me to call and ask?”
Pucks didn’t care for other pucks, being identical physical clones of one another. With the enormous ego each and every one of them had, two of them in one city was one too many. They either disliked each other, loathed each other, or hated each other with a homicidal fury. It depended on the pucks and their particular past. Added to that, Goodfellow, he was old. He said he’d been around before dinosaurs, when the stars were the size of your fist, and the daytime sky was purple with the birthing gas of a new world. Or so he said. He could’ve been lying. To a puck, a lie was a work of art. Truth, except on rare occasions, was an insulting lack of effort on your part.
I hadn’t been sure about the dinosaur issue, but I’d finally accepted it was true enough. My kind, half of what lived in my genes, had also apparently hunted dinos for sport. Not for food, for fucking fun. When it came to telling tales, there was one thing and only one that Robin didn’t lie about: the Auphe. When Nik and I were kids and hadn’t known what the monsters were that followed us from town to town, we’d called them Grendels thanks to Niko’s love of Beowulf. When we were a little older, we’d been clued in to what the true name of the bogeyman that did more than follow us; that had hid under our bed, in our closet, and outside every window of every house we’d lived in.
What humans had once hilariously, maybe hysterically painted into mythology as elves. See an Auphe face-to-face and survive it . . . that would make you hysterical, delusional, and more than a little mad. Storybook elves were as to Auphe as goldfish were to great white sharks—sharks with a thousand metal teeth in a hypodermic needle grin. They weren’t pretty, they didn’t ride horses, they didn’t wear golden armor. They didn’t wear clothes at all. The only use for a horse they would have would be to eat it. They had roamed the world, an albino, scarlet-eyed, clawed naked animal that Mother Nature had for some reason gifted with a brain. A twisted, psychopathic brain, but with the talent of cunning and speech and plans for genocide all the same.
Too bad that hadn’t worked out for them. On the other hand, lift a cold one that it had turned out for me. Genocide didn’t look too good on most résumés, but in this case, I didn’t have one goddamn qualm. No one cried a single tear over their extinction.
I most definitely hadn’t. They had been what had birthed the half of me, what had stamped my monster card and let me mix with the paien while bringing my human half along as my plus one. Paien thought humans were boring and often only good for eating, but they absolutely hated the Auphe. It could be because the Auphe had thought the same thing about paien—they were a meal, nothing more and nothing less. No better than a human. No more challenge than week-old roadkill. Although the Auphe, like cats and three-year-olds, did like to play with their food. That explained that while paien might loathe that half of me, they didn’t often fuck with it either.
Thanks to Robin’s history lesson to my brother and me on everything that we didn’t know about the Auphe, which was that selfsame everything, I’d learned several years ago that if I stood up to a monster, most would slink away before I needed to pull a weapon. Goodfellow might lie for fun and profit, but I believed him about my murderous ancestors. If he said he’d once seen an Auphe rip off the head of a velociraptor, turning it into a prehistoric Pez dispenser, then he had.
It meant something that there was someone to go to who knew the truth about the beginnings of my family tree—the first killers to walk this rock. It meant something that a born con man had taken two overgrown wildly suspicious delinquents, picked up on their clueless nature, their panicked need to escape the monsters that followed them, and filled them in on what was really watching them with scarlet eyes. What was watching me.
Who I was.
What I was.
Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is being a defenseless pigeon right as the hawk hits you in a splatter of blood and feather. With the truth, if it was possible to survive, you’d have a chance to try. Damn straight it meant something, meant almost everything that Robin was the only one in our lives that had laid it out for us and told us that ugly truth. Ugly or not, it had saved our lives.
Robin knew all the truths there were, I suspected, making my brother and I damn lucky he’d lived this long.
It meant something entirely different to the puck hiding in the stall and lucky wasn’t it. Robin liked my brother and me, but he didn’t give a rat’s ass about any pucks other than himself. In the paien world the older you were, the more powerful you were . . . and, as a bonus, often the more of a drooling, psychotic whack job you were. Goodfellow, most likely the second puck ever created, and almost as old as the Auphe, wasn’t insane, but that didn’t stop him from keeping the rest of the pucks on their toes, wondering if he would snap any moment, trap them with a thousand and one tricks not a single other trickster had yet to come up with, eat their faces, and then make artistic outdoor decorations with their bones. He had no problem encouraging that train of thought.
I loved that about Robin. He had one helluva sense of humor.
“Hey.” I knocked on the stall door again, asking, “If you had to spend your afterlife as some kind of trinket, what would it be? My nana, for instance”—I didn’t have a nana, but it made for a good story—“collects wind chimes, the kind made of natural materials. Wood, stone—oh, and bone. She says nothing sounds like bones do when they rattle in the wind. Her birthday is in a month. You might not know it, but Goodfellow lately has been heavy into arts and crafts, you know, in between the orgies. I was thinking of asking him if he could make Nana—”
The door slammed open and the puck was out of the bathroom and gone. A flash of brown hair, green eyes, and leather pants and then nothing. It was nothing I was very grateful for. “Don’t let Robin wear leather pants,” I told Ishiah. “I like my eyes. I need them. I don’t want them to go Ark of the Covenanton me and melt down my face.”
“You are not in the minority of that issue, trust me,” Ishiah snorted. “You should’ve seen him back in the day in a toga. No, the kilt was the worse. No, wait. When he dressed up as a handmaiden with Loki when they were trying to pass Thor off as the fertility goddess Freyja. That was . . .” He stared past me with glazed eyes and a look more haunted than any house built over a Native American burial ground in all the best cheesy movies. “I don’t want to talk about this any longer.”
Shaking off the memories, the peri folded up his white-and-gold-feathered wings. They instantly disappeared. They always came out if there might be a fight. He’d once said it was for flight, maneuverability, and another way of knocking weapons from people’s hands. I’d called bullshit and told him he was the feathered version of a blowfish. He was trying to puff himself up to look more badass.
He’d replied that he was an ex-angel of the Lord and his levels of badass couldn’t be measured by mere human means. I threw down the “I’m not human” card, the “the Auphe were on earth long before you were” card, and rounded it off with the “my bad-assery had gotten me the nickname of Unmaker of the World and yours gets you anally perched on Christmas trees every year” card. And when I emphasized that yes, I meant anally, not annually, everything had gone downhill from there.
That no one knew that a resulting knock-down, drag-out fight would spill several bottles of common cleaning solutions that then could conceivably mix into an explosive that caused the temporary loss of part of the roof was a lack of education and not my problem. I never claimed chemistry was my best subject.
That was my first week of docked pay.
“Hey, Robin knows Loki and Thor? Loki and Thor are real?” For Nik and his love of mythology and me and my love of radically incorrect (but screw accuracy—look at those giant Amazonian Wonderbreasts) comic books and superhero movies, the concept was equally cool. “He hung out with the God of Mischief and Chaos and that other surfer dude with the hammer?” Then I homed in on the important part. “He dressed up like a bridesmaid? Goodfellow?” That was a bit of mythology Niko had told me that I’d for once enjoyed, although neither of us knew Robin had been there. “Oh, damn. I am going to give him shit forever.”
“Best not. He might tell Loki and Norse gods care about the Auphe the same as most paiens—not at all. And certain trickster gods such as Loki in particular have a special hatred for them.”
“Are you saying if Goodfellow invited him to New York, I might end up in a bridesmaid dress for the rest of my natural life?”
“He’s not that kind of trickster. He prefers his lessons short and to the point. You’d spend the rest of your life as a puddle of blood, bone fragments, and liquefied spleen,” he said dryly, “in a jar on his mantel with you still conscious and aware despite your souplike consistency until he eventually tired of listening to your splashing and burbling.”
Okay, that I could do without. Stay away from Loki. I got it. I gave in as Ishiah provided me with a light shove toward the bathroom door. “The lamia sliced you fairly deep. Go home. We don’t want you bleeding all over the bar tonight.”
I was mopping at my forehead with a wad of paper towels and gave in with a grumble. He was right. Head wounds, no matter how minor, bled like crazy, and when you worked in a bar that catered to vampires, Wolves, revenants, vodyanoi, lamia, and too many other ghoulies to count, you didn’t want to hang around leaking blood until someone finally snapped and fell off the wagon. It didn’t have to be blood drinkers. Blood could also trigger rage, the smell of prey, and all kinds of other things Ishiah wouldn’t want to put up with.
Normally I would’ve run home. It’s far, but if I did run it, I could skip the ten miles in the morning. But smelling of blood and having difficulty with my usual emergency mode of travel, I took a cab. It had a mirror too, not like the one in the bathroom—the bright sliver that had tumbled through the air showing in brilliant detail things I didn’t want to see. That I probably hadn’t seen, had only imagined. This one now was your typical dark rearview mirror. I would’ve had to lean forward to see anything at all in it.
I wasn’t ready. I wish we could’ve stuck with the Norse god discussion, because I wasn’t prepared to think about this. Not mirrors, reflections, any of it. I wouldn’t be ready at home either, but there I could turn on all the lights. Be in a safe place. If there was anything to see at all, and there probably wasn’t. I have good vision, but I’d only a split second to see my warped reflection in the shard the lamia had thrown at me. That isn’t enough time to see anything more than a trick of the light.
* * *
I checked the locks on the door to our place. No signs of anyone trying to pick it, although they’d have better luck taking a crowbar to it. Niko was serious about his locks after several break-ins of the less than human type, who had no interest at all in stealing our TV. Stealing our lives or livers or both, yes, but our electronics were safe. Looking up at the second-floor window, I could see the metal bars and glass were intact. Good to go.
Opening the four locks on the door of our apartment, I walked in and locked up behind me as automatically as I’d done since I was seven or eight. There were as many human monsters in the world as there were Grendel/Auphe and Niko had taught me how to stay safe early on. I’d learned defensive moves with a kitchen-fucking-Ginsu knife he’d stolen at a flea market almost before I’d learned to tie my shoes. Hey, my life was worth more than laces. That’s what Velcro is for, asshole.
I dumped my jacket on the floor. My double shoulder holster I left on, as well as the knife in each boot, and the holster at the small of my back. Most accidents happen in the home. If a flesh-crazed zombie cockroach was going to come after me—and it wouldn’t be the first time—I wanted to be prepared.
I liked our place, the best by far we’d ever had. It had been converted from a garage and was about the space of four good-sized apartments. Promise, Niko’s one and only, had taken a small amount of money from her five late husbands, which told you how much money they had had to consider this investment small. She had it redone and rented it to us for practically nothing, which was exactly in our price range most of the time: practically nothing. Sometimes we were flush and sometimes we were flushed. It was the nature of the business.
Paying assholes hostage money and making sure to get the hostage back. Paying assholes ransom money, then killing them if the hostage was already dead, and returning the money to the family. Kidnapping children-eating assholes, holding them for ransom, and then dropping them off thirty-story buildings. That was one of my favorites. Exterminating poison-spitting pixies. That was the least of my favorites. Fucking pixies. Clearing a pack of kishi out of a Kin neighborhood as kishi howled at a frequency that made Mafia Wolf ears bleed. Blowing up a mausoleum to get rid of a ghoul. Granted, doesn’t show a lot of respect for the dead, but once ghouls eat enough of the dead, they move on to the living. Nipping that in the bud is in everyone’s best interest. Not to mention explosives. I had a no doubt unhealthy—but who cared?—love of explosives.
It was a dirty business. Even if Niko tried to keep us on the more moral side of it, it was also a business that someone would be paid to do. It might as well be us. We were familiar to the extreme with the paien population—the monsters that humans have no idea exist. A kelpie living in a Central Park pond had killed ten pony lovers who tried to push it out of the water to safety before we put it down. You’d have thought the blood-soaked mane, unnaturally glowing bog green eyes, and three rows of piranha teeth would’ve made a person think twice, but nope.
People . . . too stupid to live, . . . yeah, that’s all. Too stupid to live.
I was dragging my feet with all the crap that had nothing to do with what was lurking in the depths of my murky subconscious, looking for a way . . . any way to hide. No putting it off any longer; that would only make what I’d imagined worse. If I had seen it at all. It could’ve been an illusion caused by the speed of flying glass and my jerking movement to try to avoid it. It could be nothing. It didn’t have to be what I’d automatically assumed. I only had to look and get it over with and then I could laugh at my paranoia. Even if it was from the fetal position under my bed, it was still laughing. That counted.
I walked down the hall and into the bathroom. For all the size of the open area of kitchen, living room, gym, and then add on the two bedrooms, the bathroom seemed small and getting smaller the longer I stood in it staring at the ragged green towel. It was partially rolled to wedge on top of the medicine cabinet with the rest falling over to hide the mirror. I’d put it up one day years ago in a different place, but no matter where we moved, the position of the towel never did. And Niko never commented on it. Hell, Niko, to save me the humiliation, was the one to put it up.
I don’t like mirrors, as I’d thought in the bar. By now that’s not news, right? It certainly wouldn’t be news to anyone who knew me—really knew me, I mean. Three or four people, which wasn’t a long list, but I had no desire to add to it. The more on your list, the more likely you’ll fuck up and let the wrong person in. In my world, you often find out who that wrong person is a second or so after he buries a dagger in your back. I didn’t care for that, and it made an awkward fit when it came to my jacket. They say it’s not paranoia if people are really out to get you. What do they say when there are people . . . creatures whose sole purpose in being born is to get you?
Ah well. Things weren’t likely to change.
Popularity is for pussies anyway.
So, yeah, I had a handful of people who knew my thing about mirrors. The not-liking thing. It wasn’t a phobia. It absolutely was not . . . anymore. Not that it would matter if it were. I was a low-maintenance guy. I shaved by feel and pulled my not-quite-shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail. If my hair grew out too long, my brother cut it for me. He’d started after the first time he caught me trimming it with a KA-BAR serrated combat knife. All in all, it was under control. All hygienic chores would be, and were, done reflection-free. No mirrors required. And if I missed a patch shaving, no one at the place I bartended would mention or notice for that matter. The clientele were a little more than hairy and/or furry themselves. Living without mirrors was a helluva lot more doable than looking into one.
But, let me repeat, not a phobia.
Unfortunately tonight I did need a mirror. Niko wasn’t here to help me out. He was out with his vampire ball-and-chain Promise. Not that he would call her that, nor would he do anything to stop her from dislocating my arm if she heard the not so affectionate nickname. Sadly, it even wasn’t true. They were one of those meant-to-be couples. Romeo and Juliet, minus all the angst and suicide. Paris and Helen of Troy, without the war, mass destruction, and stupidity of a guy who couldn’t keep his dick in his pants . . . under his ancient leather miniskirt—whatever. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but lacking the litter and the ability to be a living tour of Nations of the World ride at Disneyland, Alien and the Predator if . . . nope, that was perfect. Same interests, same hobbies, and one had fangs while the other a deep, deep appreciation of deadly weapons.
A disgustingly perfect couple who didn’t deserve to have their night interrupted over a slight mental malfunction I’d picked up years ago. They should be on Promise’s sofa, drinking wine and surfing Transylvanian Web sites for orphaned vamp babies to adopt. They should have at least that first part of a night together, as the second part never could or would happen.
My brother had always put me first in his life, probably a result of raising me himself. Nik had once let it slip, and only then because it had been the first, last, and only time he’d been too drunk to self-censor, that our mother, Sophia, hadn’t bothered to pick me up out of the birth-blood-streaked bathtub she’d delivered me in. She’d cut the cord with a rusty steak knife and stepped over me to stagger out of the tub. After telling Niko “Here’s that pet you’ve been nagging me for,” she went to her room to fall into bed with a bottle of whiskey. With that stellar maternal reaction, I doubted she’d given me any further thought other than to look at me with an eye calculated as to whether I was small enough to flush down the toilet. But too bad for Sophia. Niko said I’d been born small, about five pounds. Five pounds isn’t much, yet still larger than your average dead goldfish.
With Promise being more understanding about Niko and my Titanic-sized case of codependency than . . . hell . . . any woman, vampire or human, I wasn’t going to crash their alone time. Naughty time. Pervy time. Whatever time they had going on, it didn’t matter. I could handle this myself.
First I’d check the cut to see if it needed stitches. I’d done stitches enough times I wouldn’t see anything in the mirror but the slice to the skin. It had long become pure reflex, done on enough different body parts, my brother’s as well as my own, that I didn’t need to pay attention. When that was done, I could focus on the mirror itself for a second or two to see if anything looked . . . off.
I reached toward the mirror and ripped down the towel as I fumbled for the first aid kit, one of several stashed around, under the sink, spotting the box of syringes while I did so. That was a different situation. I might dread the mirror, but I was pinning a lot of hopes on those syringes and the new bottles in the refrigerator that went with them.
But time for that later.
With gauze and peroxide I wiped the dried and fresh blood from the slice that ran from the far end of my right eyebrow in an almost directly horizontal line to my hairline, keeping my eyes on it and only it. It was a red, seeping mess, but once I had it cleaned, it turned out not to be that deep and only a few inches long. It might not even scar. Wouldn’t that be a shock, considering the scarred mess my hands, chest, and ribs were? I applied several butterfly bandages and it looked good. A little blood would ooze past the antibiotic cream a half Auphe with a hyped-up immune system like me didn’t actually need, but otherwise it could’ve been worse.
The worse, of a different sort, was what I was preparing for now.
I dropped my eyes to study the sink as I pulled the ponytail holder out of my hair. It was a nice sink—no cracks in the glazing, the first one we’d had in the city where the water came out clear instead of rusty orange. I’d much rather look at it than the mirror. “Coward,” I exhaled before stiffening my shoulders and raising my gaze. My hair, now free of the holder, fell thick and black as my mother’s own had been. Dark and depthless as it always was . . . except for one solitary gleam. I felt my stomach burn as I raised slow fingers to tease out that glitter I’d seen in the broken piece of hell’s own reflection at the bar.
One silver-white hair.
It was tucked down in the lower layer and only chance, the flickering light of the bar’s bathroom, a flying sliver of mirror, and my own suspicious pessimism had let me see it. It could be natural. I’d already thought that. Black hair often goes prematurely gray or white. Sophia’s hadn’t. I was twenty-five now. She’d been thirty-eight when the Auphe burned her alive in our decrepit trailer, but she’d died with hair as black as her burned corpse. She could’ve been lucky, if dying a pretty much well-deserved death with your natural hair color could be called lucky. Her mother or father could’ve gone gray younger. I wouldn’t know. I’d never met them, but . . . I had to have hope. Faith was a lying whore who’d kicked me to the curb me long ago, but Promise and Goodfellow had proved charity existed. Why not a little hope to prove the trio wasn’t a mirage?
The hair was between my thumb and forefinger—only the one. I didn’t see any more of them. One premature silver-white strand, it was normal. So fuckingnormal that I should be pissed at getting that worked up. Niko would snort at my idiocy. Goodfellow would buy me the cheapest box of hair dye he could find at the drugstore. They would . . . I dragged my fingers down the bright thread and felt the snag of serrated hooks too small to be seen by the naked eye. It stung, a hundred tiny bites.
Hope had given me my answer. Hope was a bitch, same as her sisters, because the Auphe had white hair. They had silver-white hair that burned and bloodied your skin when you snagged a hand in the fall of it as you jerked back their head to cut their throat. It bit and had a texture slick at first touch and then jagged, altogether strange compared to human hair.
I yanked at it, pulling it free from my scalp. It didn’t come easy like human hair either. It came stubbornly with a root stained with a clot of blood and a pain that didn’t only annoy; it pissed me the hell off. It showed in my eyes. Not from their narrowing in anger, but that the gray of them glittered with small flashes of ember red. They would, wouldn’t they? The Auphe had white hair and the Auphe had eyes as red as the Nile had once run in the First Plague of Egypt.
The beginning of the end. There was no stopping it now.
My life, as I knew it, was over.
As one healer had told me: Auphe genes always win.
He didn’t say it to be cruel, although Rafferty’s bedside manner was fairly crappy; he said it for two reasons. First, it slipped out, I thought, he was that surprised I looked completely human except for paler skin than normal. Second, it was true. The Auphe had been the apex predator of the entire world for millions of years. They didn’t have a recessive gene in them. I might have started out half human, but that hadn’t lasted too long. That had shown in ways that weren’t visible.
When I was young, I hadn’t thought like other kids did. I didn’t understand them or people in general. Rules, expectations, right and wrong. None of that came naturally. Practicality, expediency—that was what I had been born knowing. For Niko’s sake I had memorized the school’s rules, society’s rules, and for him I followed them when it was convenient.
It wasn’t always.
But what did they say? Charged but never convicted? That was good enough for me.
Then I became older. Then I was snatched away for two years to Tumulus Hell, and then I came back . . . then, then, then. I couldn’t remember those two years, but I’d changed. Age and subconscious trauma, a tantalizing good time for all. That’s when the occasional bouts of temper started. As a kid, it had never been personal. If you were in my way and I had to punt your balls to the sky to move you, I didn’t enjoy it . . . much. It just had to be done. After Tumulus and two years of age and raging hormones, I began to appreciate the little things like that. If I had to take down a monster for the good of the neighborhood . . . think of the children, right? Why not have fun while you were doing the “right” thing?
On and on marched the Auphe genes overriding my human ones, and there was no stopping it. After the increase in violence then came the loss of control now and again . . . and perhaps one or two complete losses of sanity. No big deal, you understand, because I could push those away, make myself forget them.
It was a different game now. The Auphe had always played to fucking win, and their DNA did the same. The difference being as a six-year-old taking Dodgeball to a Lord of the Flies level because rules were inexplicable and winning was all that mattered was just a freaking strange-ass kid. Now I was a man, one who ran with the supernatural, the paien, and now everyone would see it. Not only smell it, sense it, observe it in the way I moved. No, the time had come when they would see it. With less than a glimpse, with a fraction of a glance, they would see.
If they could see it, I would be it.
Remember that pop quiz I’d warned about at the bar?
“It’s what’s on the inside that counts?”
There was another half Auphe in the world besides me. Grimm. He’d asked me once what would I do when I finally looked as Auphe on the outside as he knew me to be on the inside. He would find that saying hilarious. I mean, he wasn’t wrong. Is it fucking hilarious or what? People actually say that. It’s what’s on the inside. . . . What would they say if they knew what actually was on my inside, when the hereditary remains of the first murderer to walk the earth finally destroyed the dwindling human genes of its descendant and showed its true face?
What would they say when someday the red sparks grew like a lethal wildfire in my eyes until there was no gray left at all—only blood and flame?
What would they say when the Auphe inside and outside finally matched? Because that was what was happening. I couldn’t change the way I looked and not change the way I was. When the outer monster appeared, it would magnify, explode, and raise all fucking hell with the inner me. There was no escaping that. I wouldn’t be half Auphe any longer. There’d be no more uneasy partnership with what I wished I was, what I actually was, and what I would soon be. I’d be pure Auphe, and the entire paien world including my family and friends knew that would make me a mobile slaughterhouse. Murder walking.
Cal would die and Caliban would be free.
Prisms and splinters of silver and glass rained around my feet. This was about the fifth mirror I’d shattered in my life. What did that add up to? Thirty-five years of bad luck. I laughed, but it wasn’t as dark and bitter a laugh as I’d expected. Then again, why cry over milk that had been spilled before I was born, a biblical flood of it from my very moment of conception? I grinned without humor or maybe only the kind of humor a human couldn’t see or understand. Time was running out, no matter what the mirrors wanted to charge me.
Thirty-five years of bad luck. Yeah, right. I laughed again. I should live so long.
And everyone else?
Everyone else should pray that I didn’t.
Where was I before I was rudely yet inevitably interrupted. Ah . . . yes.
There’s a sucker born every minute.
Engrave that on every brain cell you have, if you don’t already know it. And if you do not know it, then you haven’t got a single brain cell to inscribe. You are brain-dead. Do everyone a favor and find an empty grave to settle into, as that is all you’re good for.
In the utmost seriousness, you will not hear any words more wise or more important in your life. Grip them tightly and do not forget. They may save your life someday.
There’s a sucker born every minute . . . and you might be one.
I hadn’t come up with the saying. That it hadn’t been me, Robin Goodfellow, shames me still, but someone beat me to it. I’d no doubt been buying a pair of leather pants at the time. Ah, those were the days. I had said something similar long before that saying made the rounds. Of course I had.
“Pithekous richnei perittomata san anthropoid richnoun chemata.”
It was Latin, my second favorite language, for “People throw money like monkeys throw feces.” It loses a bit in translation, but it was quite popular, oh, a few thousand years ago. Some of my fellow pucks used it to this day. Most everyone else had forgotten it. How fleeting fame. As quick to come and go as virginity. What can one do . . . but enjoy it while it lasts?
Whatever the reason—I was almost positive it had been leather pants—a human, in fact, had said that, had beat me to it. If there were one thing to admire about humans, aside from their obsession throughout time with all things sexual, it would be their innate grasp of the obvious. They really put it out there, didn’t they? The obvious. The sex I was scheduled to think about in seven more minutes left me time now to concentrate on that: the obvious.
What was uncelebrated instinct to my kind, mortals had been forced to learn and then had embellished and gilded until it was a monument so massive it pierced the heavens themselves. It wasn’t enough to rip off those hobbled by morality; they had to slap a thick coat of sugary icing on it to hide what they’d done. Maybe some sprinkles while you were at it. You had to create an establishment out of it. Stick a franchise on every corner.
The art of the con, when had it become such an acceptable and, worse yet, legal career choice? All of that wrapped around one single concept: the blind, the naïve, the Pollyannas . . . the suckers.
Humans, they could take the fun out of anything—even being a used car salesman.
The time I was taking off from running the car lot might inspire me. It could be time for a new career or new for this millennium. Lawyer perhaps. Shakespeare hadn’t been wrong there. As a matter of fact, I think that I was Shakespeare’s lawyer when he wrote “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” He wasn’t wrong. When I’d finished billing him he didn’t have a pot to piss in. He didn’t even have a coin with which to buy something to drink to create piss.
Those were the days.
I took another swallow of my wine and pulled at my tie with my free hand. I drank beer on the rare occasion—when working a deal with the salt of the earth (of course a forty-five percent interest rate is normal on a car loan. Would I lie to you?) I tried not to choke on my wine on memories of my last sale, at least for a while. Humans. No challenge at all.
I also drank beer with friends, family really, who couldn’t afford what I normally imbibed in great quantities and liked to attempt to bring me down to their level via beer swilling, pizza gorging, and intolerably idiotic television in which even the eye candy couldn’t save your sanity.
That the attempts actually worked on occasion didn’t surprise me. These particular friends had spent lifetimes upon lifetimes returning to wear away at my spectacular taste. I was forced to give credit where credit was due as much as I hated that anyone could manipulate a trickster, much less a supreme trickster such as me. Then again, if I, fully aware, let them do it, was it manipulation at all?
As, despite myself, let them I did.
For a trickster, that was an unfathomable sacrifice. Yet they were my truest and oldest of friends. When you’d lived long enough to forget thousands of years as if they were only a moment and could recall a world long before humans evolved, friends such as those mattered. When they reincarnated time and time again throughout eternity simply to keep me company—or that’s how I chose to think of it as everything is about me—they more than mattered. Of course my company was incomparable. Tagging after me through the endless years was absolutely understandable.
I took another drink, blind to the exquisite color of the grape. Loyalty, sadly, wasn’t everything.
Unfortunately they, unlike me, were the same as all humanity: suckers.
Not in all ways, not even in many ways, but in one very specific way and they never learned. They never learned. Skata.
What I was to do about that, I didn’t know. Yet.
But I would know, as I was brilliant that way. I took another swallow and raised an eyebrow in appreciation. Oh, excellent. A distraction. Even in a “fulfilling monogamous relationship” or whatever the freaks called it, I was still allowed to look, and look I did.
A dryad swept past me in a scent cloud of apple blossoms and honeysuckle. My seven minutes until pornographic thoughts were to be given their due weren’t up yet, but I could push up the timeline and appreciate her lithe lines and exquisite curves. She gave me a coy look that didn’t require the bucket of pheromones splashed liberally in the air around her. I gave her my perfected “I would lift you and five of your sisters to sexual nirvana but, despair to the world, my mighty cock is shackled with the chains of fidelity” apologetic expression. Other species and cultures are often astounded by how much a puck can emote in one lowering of a brow combined with one regretful but minute tightening of our lips. Other species and cultures are so dim and dull that I don’t know how they exist, not dying of boredom with their childlike and clumsy physical manifestations of emotion. They may as well physically vomit their feelings upon everyone around them. But, as the superior race and creature on this earth, I had to ignore that argument or I’d be along . . . except for other pucks. I shuddered at the notion.
The dryad had shaken her fall of jade green hair and sighed in disappointment at the loss of a sexual experience that would’ve ruined her for all other trees. I couldn’t blame her for her depression clear to be seen as she moved to the far side of the bar laughing with a few nymph friends and cuddling up with an enormously large reddish brown Wolf—a ruse to hide her pain, I knew. I felt mildly guilty and sent a drink her way as an apology for my “condition.”
I tucked away the scarlet and silk sliver of arousal as well as the emerald and silver necklace I’d slipped from her neck without her having a clue—you couldn’t be the trickster you should be if you didn’t keep a larcenous and thieving hand in. I returned my focus to the very expensive wine that they kept behind the bar especially for me. Today had absolutely not been a beer day. Forget that it was what I was expected to drink by those who knew my current fake identity:
Rob Fellows, car salesman extraordinaire, shaking hands, slapping backs, tossing down a brewski with the guys. It was part of the job description. However, gods forbid if Bacchus, who’d finally given up AA as a long-lost cause, found out. To drink a wine before its time was a killing offense in his pickled brain. The shock of a Bud Lite might drain the immortality right out of him. If it didn’t, he would boot my unbelievable ass into the next century.
And we didn’t want to disappoint the ladies and fine gentleman, now, did we? My ass was a work of art. Damaging it would be like drawing on Michelangelo’s David with brightly colored markers. A crime against man and any number of pantheons of gods.
If one worshipped a god . . . and that god didn’t happen to be me.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Rob Thurman
“Thurman continues to deliver strong tales of dark urban fantasy.” —SFRevu
“All the great elements I’ve come to expect from this writer.” —#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Charlaine Harris
“A roaring roller coaster of a read…[it’ll] take your breath away.”—Simon R. Green
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Can't wait for the next one.
This book has an unusually high level of angst to it. All of the books in the series have a certain amount of Cal pining over his circumstances and the intensity of his and Niko's dedication to each other but this one took it to a new level - to the point where it became a distraction from the plot. In fact, there were times when it felt like it was just there to fill up pages so the work would qualify as a novel rather than just a novella. It's worth reading, especially if you've been following the series already, but it's definitely not Thurman's best work.
It's not that I don't think the book is good, I do. It just seems like it's thrown together in a way. There's a lot of stream of consciousness writing and repeating the same thing over again. I feel like it was rushed and could have used a little more time and editing. The story itself is good, and I'm still glad that I read it. I will still continue to buy books in this series and recommend it to people. I just feel like this particular book fell a little short of what I expect from Rob Thurman.
I love anything Ms. Thurman writes. It's never boring and you never know or can guess how it will end. She never fails to disappoint and Slashback is a luxury you cannot afford to not read.
If you are a fan of the series then this book will entertain you. It is somewhat repetitive and has far less action than some of other installments. Goodfellows perspective is a welcome addition.
Loved Goodfellow's take on it all!
He keeps me guessing.
I finished this book yesterday, making myself an hour late for a Christmas gathering cuz I was not going to leave them hanging that close to the end. And I'm telling you it was frakkin hard to not jump to the end and peek at the horror once the main premise of what could happen at the end was revealed right at the start. Well, right in the blurb if the truth be truth. But I didn't. I rode the terrible anticipation right to the end, heart pumping all the way through. Which is probably a good thing since I haven't really done any calisthenic exercising for a month or more, lazy creature that I am. So this counts. It does. This wasn't my favorite Cal Leandros book as I'm more into the brothers taking the forefront. Regardless this isn't one to miss with Robin Goodfellow, or rather his manipulations and scheming at center stage, the majority of the manipulations I probably still haven't figured out as I'll have to read this at least 100 more times to even get a nth of them realized, as well as go back through all the previous books to suss them out as well. If that's even possible. Which frankly just makes me want to bow down to the brilliance of Rob Thurman's intelligence and creativity. "I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy." If I had any stalker tendencies at all, she would be at the top of my list, but as I've already established I'm lazy and that just seems like too much work, so instead I'd settle for a sit-down lunch with her where I could drill her a million questions starting with "where do you get your ideas?" "How did you figure this out?" "Did you have all the books planned out before the first one?" "Did you make a deal with the devil?" "What kind of books were you reading growing up?" Not to mention "when's the next one?" "Anymore from the Korsak bros? or the Las Vegas Tricksters?" Okay, maybe a lunch and then into dinner...
I loved most of the series but this one just ambled from one self congratulatory monologue to another
First ever review I 've put on B & N. I have to thank MB for putting the first book in this series in my hand years ago. Awesome says it all without spoilers. I laughed, I cried (damn how I cried) and lapped up every word like the manna it was.