Thanks to Faith Hunter for this excerpt!
Been There, Shot the Place Up
I threw my leg over Bitsa and slammed my weight down on the kick start. The engine fired up with the rumble only a Harley can boast. It should have made me feel better, that lovely roar, but it didn’t. I was too ticked off. Or something. I wasn’t big on introspection or self-analysis; I just knew I wasn’t happy and hadn’t been in weeks. It had started back at Christmas and New Year’s, which I’d spent alone. Well, as alone as a girl can be living with two men.
Previously, my new roommates—the Younger brothers—and I had spent days training, learning how to work together, wisecracking, and picking on one another. More recently, they had proven themselves good about giving me space and letting me hide in my room. My black mood had started when the Kid, the younger Younger, demanded a Christmas tree and gift giving. I have no idea why. But I’d been impossible to live with for weeks and I knew it.
Stretching back, I locked the gate blocking the narrow drive of my freebie house in New Orleans and took off into the dawn. It was chilly and damp, gray and miserable. Winter, Deep South style, suited my mood. I’d never been the emotional type—no weepy Wilma, not whiny, teary-eyed, depressed . . .
My inner self stilled, the wind buffeting me as I leaned over Bitsa and gunned the engine, heading out of the French Quarter. Smelling the now-familiar scents of Cajun food and water-water-everywhere. Thinking about that word—depressed.
Crap. I’d never been depressed before, but I was now. Classic case of it. Lack of interest in much of anything, sleeping too much or unable to sleep at all. Not eating enough or binging on protein. Staying in my room with the door closed, lying on the bed, staring at the overhead fan. Not shifting into my Beast-form to hunt in months had to be contributing to it. Not dealing with Beast’s little problem.
I’m a skinwalker, a shape-changer, sharing my physical form—and physical forms—with the soul of a mountain lion I’d accidently pulled into myself when I was five years old and fighting for my life. And Beast’s current little problem was a good reason not to shift, though it left her feeling ticked off, and a ticked-off big-cat isn’t a pretty thing.
The only thing I had been doing was riding my bike through bayou country all alone, sightseeing, trying to see how far away from New Orleans I could get before that Beastly problem made distance difficult. Or impossible. And I’d been working out, lifting weights. A lot of weights. I had put on twenty pounds of pure muscle. When I finally shifted into Beast again, she was going to have to accommodate the extra poundage. Somehow.
“I’m depressed,” I murmured into the wind, trying the words on for size. Yeah. Depressed. I felt a shadow lift off me just admitting it to myself.
I knew why I was depressed. I’d screwed up so bad, so often, in the past year that I’d lost friends, lovers, and, well, that was enough. Wasn’t it? Now that I knew what was wrong, I could do something about it. If I could figure out what to do. This moodiness was uncharted territory.
Letting that thought simmer on the back burner of my mind, I wended my way through the city, heading uptown, which meant upriver, as everything in New Orleans was about the Mississippi River—uptown was upstream; downtown was downstream (something new I’d learned about the city that was my temporary home). I needed to cross the river, and though I could have taken the newer Crescent City Connection, part of I-90, I took the older, narrow, dangerous, two-lane hell of the Huey P. Long Bridge. I liked the old bridge, maybe because it was so dangerous; it had character, like an old noir film, a bridge leading out of the Land of Shangri-La.
On the other side of the Mississippi, I headed through Westwego and then vaguely west, like the town’s name suggested. Unsurprisingly, I found myself headed to Aggie One Feather’s place, adjacent to the John Lafitte Preserve, a wilderness area where the Cherokee elder who was my personal shaman—and probably my personal counselor too, now that I knew my emotional state—lived. But I could tell that she was still out of town. No car in the drive, shades pulled, no smell on the still air of coffee or bacon cooking, and the sweathouse out back had no smoke seeping from the chimney.
I slowed to a stop and set my boot soles on the shell-based asphalt, thinking about going into the sweathouse by myself, but I’d had some difficult experiences going it alone in there and wasn’t ready to try that again, even with the depression to motivate me. Even though I had some really heavy stuff to deal with. And so did my Beast.
I thought about the mountain lion soul who lived inside me, but she was still asleep, curled into a tight ball, her nose under her long, thick tail. She had been sleeping a lot lately, angry because I wasn’t letting her out to hunt—because I was afraid she’d do something stupid, like track down the vampire Master of the City, roll over and show him her belly, and then lick his feet. My fear was caused by a silver chain that no one but Beast and I could see. It was in the place in my mind that Aggie One Feather called my soul home, and the chain was some kind of binding that curled from Beast’s leg across the floor to a shadow in the corner of my mind, a shadow that was Leo Pellissier, the Master of the City of New Orleans and the entire Southeast USA, with the exception of Florida. Leo was the biggest, baddest fanghead I’d ever met. He was also my boss, for now, because I couldn’t actually get away, or not for long, and Leo knew nothing about the magical binding that kept me in New Orleans, because it had been accidental. I was not about to let the MOC discover how deeply I was tied to him. The vamp was like the left hand of the devil and would use and abuse the binding to get his way in everything. Ev-ery-thing. Like me in his bed and as his dinner, and I’d stake him before I let that happen—and suffer the consequences. Heck, I’d stake myself before I let that happen. Yeah. I had lots to be depressed about. Beast’s little problem was at the top of my list.
My cell jangled out a reggae dance number and buzzed in my pocket, and I jerked my attention out of my own mind and back into reality. I unzipped my leather jacket to pull out the phone. It was snugged right next to my shoulder-holstered Walther PK380, loaded with standard rounds. The .380 had less stopping power than a nine millimeter, but it was perfect when collateral damage—hitting humans—was possible. That one single-action semiautomatic and the short-bladed knife strapped to my thigh were my only weapons, which was really stupid. I was a target to some of the blood-servants and blood-slaves in the area, and while vamps needed nighttime to roam free, their minions could attack me anywhere, anytime. Or maybe being depressed made you unknowingly lax about self-preservation. Yeah. That.
I flipped open the cell to see Reach’s new icon—Darth Vader with a fanged happy face in place of his mask. I slid the cell up under the helmet to my ear. “You’re up early,” I said. “I’m not paying for this call.”
“No. A vamp is. I have a gig for you, for a vamp with deep pockets. Remember the name Hieronymus? A Master of the City who was attacked by de Allyon?”
I grunted, “Vaguely.” Lucas Vazquez de Allyon had been the Master of the City of Atlanta and greater Georgia until he developed delusions of grandeur and decided to take over Leo Pellissier’s territory. It had been a pretty good plan until I sawed off his head. “What’s Big H want and where is he?” I asked as I maneuvered the bike off the road near a ditch and cut the engine.
“He managed to hang on to the MOC status of Natchez, Mississippi.” Reach would know. He was the best researcher in the United States, and if Reach didn’t know something, it couldn’t be found out.
“Natchez? Been there; shot the place up. Why should I go back?” The comment and question were rhetorical and maybe just a bit to yank Reach’s chain. Anywhere outside of New Orleans suddenly suited me just fine, and Natchez was just inside of the outer limits of my Leo-binding. Perfect. The black cloud that crouched inside me grew a little lighter at the thought of leaving.
“Two reasons. One: because he needs your help. De Allyon left Naturaleza running around loose, and they’re kidnapping and draining the populace. Local law enforcement can’t get a handle on it, over a hundred people are missing in Adams County and across the state line in Vidalia, and yet very few bodies have turned up drained, which, if you ever listened to the news, you would know. Two: Hieronymus pays better than most. Even better than Leo.” My ears perked up at that one. Or they would have if they hadn’t been smashed under the phone and helmet. “He also pays me a finder’s fee if you take the job.”
“Of course he does. I’m guessing that since you’re now working to hire me away from Leo, the Master of the City can’t listen in on this call?”
“I always did love a smart woman.”
“You love info and money and would sell your mother into sexual slavery if the opportunity presented itself to make few thousand bucks.”
“True, though Mom does make the best pies I’ve ever tasted, so it would have to be high six figures to give that up.”
A smiled ghosted on my lips. It felt odd there and I had a feeling that I hadn’t smiled recently. Another sign of depression. “Details.”
Reach filled me in. “According to the Natchez Police Department, the vamps are faster than anything they’ve ever seen, and they’re disappearing street people, anyone caught out alone after dusk, and two entire street gangs. The loss of gangs has its benefits,” he admitted, “but, frankly, cops versus Naturaleza are no contest. Cops lose. They have skills but no experience. Hieronymus knows he has to take care of it himself. Pronto. Which is where we come in for mucho dinero.”
I focused in the most important part of his intel. “A hundred people?”
“Over the past four months.”
I shut off the bike, put the cell on speaker, and took notes on the little spiral notepad I now carried with me. The pad wasn’t high-tech, but it did allow me some privacy that electronic devices didn’t. The Master of the City kept tabs on me through all the fancy gear he paid for.
“Talk to me.”
“It started out with a decrease in street people. Shelters and churches who feed the homeless saw a sudden drop. Then the gangbangers started disappearing.”
“How many Naturaleza are we talking about for them to have killed more than a hundred humans?”
“At least twenty.” That was a lot of fangheads to take on, but since I wasn’t working alone now, and since we were smart enough to split them up and not take them all on at once, it was doable.
I said, “Negotiation: tell Big H that I’ll take the job if he pays for housing. I liked that place we stayed last time. Toss that in and he’s got a deal.”
“You left that place rather the worse for wear. You won’t stay anywhere else?”
Rather the worse for wear didn’t half cover it. We had been attacked by blood-servants and had shot the old, pre–Civil War mansion to heck and gone, but I liked the place and I knew for certain that the house, garage, and grounds had been repaired because I’d seen the work order at vamp HQ. I’d also learned that saying yes to a job offer without negotiation meant that my employers would never value me highly enough. “Nope,” I said.
I heard keys clacking in the background and pulled off my helmet. Cold air bit my sweat-damp scalp. “There’s the Hampton Inn and Suites in downtown,” he said. “Natchez Inn and Suites looks nice.”
I let my half smile grow as he worked, trying to talk me out of the house I wanted. This was negotiation for real, which meant that Reach had already checked on the house we’d damaged and knew it was out of the picture. “Nah. That house,” I said.
“There’s a Days Inn and several other three star B and Bs. And there’s the Natchez Grand. I can book you a room that overlooks the Mississippi.”
“Nope.” I said, letting my amusement sound in my voice. I had missed this kind of verbal sparring. I’d been hiding in my room too much.
Reach sighed. “I’ll get back to you. But if you can get the house, you’ll take the job?”
“Housing and all costs above and beyond my fee, including the price of hiring a team, to be paid by Big H.”
“You already have a team living with you,” he growled.
“And I gotta pay the boys. Yes or no?”
“I’ll have an answer for you by ten a.m. Oh, and by the way, the Naturaleza and some of Hieronymus’ people have the vamp plague.” The connection ended, and I stared at the cell. I hated it when convos ended up with the other guy having the last word. I helmeted up for the trip back across the river. That had been fun. Which was a clear indication that my life had been terribly boring for a long time.
I hadn’t accomplished a dang thing on my ride, but I was feeling a whole lot better when I pulled into the side gate and parked my bike. I patted Bitsa fondly and left the helmet perched on the seat. Inside my house, Eli and the Kid were just sitting down to breakfast. My plate was in my usual place, and Eli slid six eggs and a rasher of bacon onto it as I entered. I dropped the leather jacket—which was a little tight across the shoulders now—and poured hot tea, smelling a good gunpowder green. This was the best part of having hired the boys. My meals were always cooked the way I liked them—high in protein, and no one griped about my needing grains, fruit, and veggies. I sat down and dug in. Eli, former Army Ranger and now my weapons specialist, was a great short-order cook.
Two eggs later, I realized that no one else was eating, and looked up. “What?”
“You’re smiling,” Eli said.
“You’ve been a bitch for a month,” the Kid said.
Eli slapped him up the back of the head, not hard and not as a sign of disagreement, but for the B word. Not allowed in my house. I stuffed a crisp piece of bacon in on top of my chuckle. It was maple bacon with lots of black pepper, just the way I liked it. “We may have a gig,” I said through the food. “In Natchez, bringing in some Naturaleza vamps left over from de Allyon’s brief visit.” There were two kinds of vamps: Fame Vexatum vamps, or Mithrans, the kind who made the news, looking sleek and refined and beautiful, and the Naturaleza, the kind who treated humans like food to be hunted and killed. Lucas Vazquez de Allyon, also known as Death’s Rival, was the latter kind. Naturaleza were faster and meaner and harder to kill, hence more money per head.
Eli’s expression didn’t change—the former military man’s expression didn’t change much at any time—but his scent smelled relieved. And the Kid blew out a satisfied breath. Their relief let me know how bad I’d been. I set down my fork, poured more tea, added sugar, and sipped. Eli leaned back in his chair, his T-shirt molded to the body of a soldier who believed in keeping fit—very, very fit—and exposed part of the newish scar that trailed down from jaw to chest. The scar was a lumpy mass over Eli’s collarbone and his almond-mocha skin still pulled on it in odd ways when he moved.
Eli looked relaxed, but he watched me with an intensity that Beast wouldn’t have liked, had she been awake. The Kid—my electronics specialist—with his shaggy, ungroomed hair and his body in the middle of a gangly growth spurt, looked back and forth between us with an eagerness I didn’t understand.
“I’m sorry,” I said into the silence. “I have been grouchy. I let . . . stuff”—I shrugged at the vague word, because they didn’t know about the binding and I wasn’t going to tell them—“get me down. I just realized that today. And while I still have to deal with that stuff, I’m better. A change of scenery will do me good.”
Getting away from Leo Pellissier’s binding would do me even better. Maybe when I got back from Natchez, my Beast and I could find a way to free Beast from the clutches of the MOC. Or maybe I’d just behead the fanghead and be done with it.
I chuckled softly at the thought and waved away the curiosity on the faces of the two guys. “Never mind. We should hear something this morning, but go ahead and pick up anything you need for your arsenal,” I said to Eli, my tone wry. Eli believed that one never had enough guns. To the Kid, I added, “Generate a list of electronic gear we might need. Start with throwaway phones and some com units that can’t be listened in on. Unlike most of the Deep South, Natchez has some underground areas, and since we’ll likely be tracking down vamp lairs and taking them down by daylight, we’ll need equipment that will either penetrate belowground or allow us a work-around.”
The two guys shared a look while I chewed on another piece of bacon. It was one of those guy looks that seems to suggest the little lady needs protecting or maybe is on the stupid side. “What?” I said, irritated.
“Natchez might be a problem,” Eli said. “It’s out of state.”
I stopped chewing. “Well, crap.” I hadn’t thought about that. The Kid was a convicted felon, on probation, and though we had gotten permission once to take him across state lines, the resulting shoot-outs had not gone unnoticed. Things would likely be harder now. Before the Younger brothers came to work for me, Alex had hacked into the Pentagon, looking for his brother’s war records, hunting for clues about the origin of the scar and the reason for Eli’s early military retirement. And had gotten caught. Now Big Brother wanted to keep an eye on him. “Even if it’s for legitimate work?” I asked.
“I know a judge,” Eli said, grudgingly. “I’ll see if I can get some help with the parole board in allowing him over the state line into Mississippi.”
“Yeah. Okay.” I sopped up the grease on my plate with a piece of bread and realized the guys were still looking at me. “What else?”
“Nothing,” the Kid said, applying himself to his eggs.
“It’s just good to have you back,” Eli said blandly.
And then I got it. I swallowed, drank some tea, poured some more, and said carefully, “You guys were planning on leaving.” I felt Beast wake up and listen in, ear tabs twitching.
The Kid blushed and concentrated on his plate. “We talked about it,” Eli said easily. “We need a job. We figured we could pick up something farther north, but still in state. I have a few contacts.”
I stuffed in another bite of egg and pushed in a triangle-shaped piece of toast after it, but watched them as I chewed. When I finished my plate of food I set my fork to the side and blotted my lips on the paper napkin. I was still wearing the shoulder holster, the Walther, and the vamp-killer. Unstrapping the blade, I lay it on the table, removed the Walther’s rig, set it beside the knife, and leaned back in my chair, mimicking Eli’s posture.
I took a slow breath and let a hint of Beast into my gaze. I said, “Were you thinking about leaving because I’ve been difficult and moody or were you thinking about taking my business away?” I’d made it an either-or half question, half accusation, but there were more things to consider. “Or maybe you have a thing against skinwalkers.”
The Kid’s eyes went wide because I hadn’t spoken aloud about my most recent revelation when I shifted in front of nearly every person I knew in New Orleans, giving away my secret in a very public way. I had, in fact, refused to speak about that incident at all, and Eli and the Kid were still curious about it. Insanely curious.
“Or maybe,” I went on, before either could respond, “Rick LaFleur offered you a gig that he would ordinarily have offered to me, but he’s ticked off with me—okay, for good reasons—and is looking for ways to shut me out of his life. So he offered it to you instead.”
Eli’s eyes shifted away just a hair and back. The Kid’s mouth dropped open and stayed there. Bingo. Dang it. “Rick,” I said. There was a complete lack of emotion in my voice, but I might as well have cursed from the way the Kid flinched. Rick worked for PsyLED now, Homeland Security’s Psychometry Law Enforcement Division, investigating supernatural crimes. He was my ex and I wasn’t happy about the way we’d ended things—with me accusing him of attempted murder. Of me. Relationships aren’t my strong suit.
I kept the pain off my face by some small miracle and pushed away from the table, standing, towering over them. I felt more than saw Eli tense and ready himself for movement, violent, physical movement. Alex watched us both, eyes darting back and forth. Neither brother moved overtly. Neither said anything. But Eli’s pheromones changed, smelling and tasting bitter and full of adrenaline, a taste like pine tar and burned bread.
My index finger started tapping on the edge of my plate with a steady tink. Eli’s lips came together in a slight purse and his stink lessened. He crossed his arms over his chest, as if he were holding in something. I wondered if he knew how much he was giving away. And I wondered how much I was giving away. I curled my fingers under, and the silence that settled between us was charged and prickly. I realized that I didn’t want them to leave—I actually liked having them here, in my house, in my life, which was a huge, unexpected shock—but no way was I going to say any of that. Not if they were going to leave.
I sighed and gathered my gear. “You want to work for him, fine.” I left the kitchen for my bedroom, my boots clomping on the hardwood floors.
“Yellowrock,” Eli called. I stopped in the foyer, waited without answering, knowing he knew I could hear. “You get the gig, we’ll find a way to take it. You don’t get the gig, we’ll find something else the three of us can do together.”
I was glad my back was turned, because a smile busted out all over my face, showing me how much I had come to depend on the guys being in my life. They were like . . . Crap. They were like family or something. Which was freaking stupid.
“And we don’t give a rat’s ass that you’re a skinwalker,” the Kid added. I heard the slap on the back of his head, and my smile went even wider. He’d braved a head slap to reassure me in that gutsy, bigmouthed way teenaged boys have. “As long as you don’t shift and get hungry enough to think about us as dinner. ’Cause, like, that would, like, totally suck.”
I laughed silently and said over my shoulder, “I promise not to have you or your brother for dinner or a snack. That good enough?”
“Yeah. Cool.” I started for my room, and he added, “But I want to see you shift into the mountain lion.” And I heard another head slap, as though the Kid had just crossed an additional line by asking, perhaps one his brother had ordered him not to cross.
The Kid seeing me shift would mean my being mostly naked in front of him. Not gonna happen. I said, “No,” and closed my door. I had packing to do. My phone reggae’d again and I pulled it from my jacket pocket. “That was fast,” I said to Reach as I pulled my vamp-fighting gear out of the closet.
“Your new boss agrees, but there’s two more things you should know before you take the job. Hieronymus and Leo haven’t kissed and made up. Leo Pellissier will not be happy if you go to work for a scion he’s unhappy with.”
“Icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned. Ticking off the MOC has become one of my favorite personal pastimes.”
“Just make sure he doesn’t get so pissed that he kills you for it.”
“Awww. I’d think that was sweet concern for me if I didn’t know you better. You’d miss out on the finder’s fee if I were dead.”
“Like I said. Smart women are hot.”
“What’s the second thing I need to know?”
“You have an appointment with a reporter-turned–book writer in Natchez at four this afternoon. She’s writing a book about vamps.”
I chuckled sourly and picked up my combat boots and a pair of green snakeskin Lucchese boots. I tossed them onto the bed. “No, I don’t.”
“Stop being contrary. You know this chick. You were good friends. BFFs. Her name is Camilla Hopkins. You were raised with her in that high-class joint the state stuck you in.”
I hesitated, thinking through all the names of all the girls I’d roomed with in my years in the Christian children’s home. There were a lot of them. Most of the girls were there only a short time before going home to distant family or entering the foster-care system. Or jail. Juvie was where the troublemakers went. I’d almost ended up there myself a time or two. But I didn’t remember a Camilla.
As if reading my mind, Reach said, “Camilla is her professional on-air name at Torch News. In the home, she went by Misha.”
The name clicked and my lips turned down in distaste. “She was never my pal. More like a neutral observer.” Misha had never directly attacked me at school, but she never did anything to stop what the other girls did, either. Until I learned to fight, my life had been fairly awful, and no one had helped to make it better—not Misha, not anyone.
“A little verbal and physical abuse is good for the soul,” Reach said.
“I’m not talking to the press. No matter who it is.”
“She said to tell you she was bringing Bobby.”
I went still. Bobby. I hadn’t thought about him years. Bobby Bates had been a special kid a couple years younger than me, with an IQ of 74—too smart to qualify for federal help. Like me, he’d fallen between the cracks and only the charity of Christians had given him a place to live. Bobby had been picked on at school, and I had protected him when I lived there. I had gone back a few times in the years until he turned eighteen, making sure he was left alone by the kids who might otherwise have made his life miserable. Then he’d gone to live with an aunt or his grandma or something and I never saw him again.
“Why does she have Bobby with her?”
“She didn’t say. If you want to know, regular rates apply.”
I shook my head and checked the time. “No, thanks. How did she know I’d be in Natchez?”
“She didn’t. She called me for an intro to the Louisiana and Mississippi vamps for her research, and your name came up.”
That made sense. Anyone doing research into vamps would contact Reach. And that same anyone would hear about me sooner or later.
“She could have e-mailed me for an intro to them,” I said.
“She tried. No reply. Which is a sloppy way of doing business,” he said.
His statement stung, but he had a point. I couldn’t remember the last time I checked my business e-mail. Weeks probably.
“Camilla Hopkins is already in Natchez,” he said, “staying at the Grand. I told her you’d be taking a gig there and she wants to renew old acquaintances.”
I had no doubt Misha had paid him to arrange a meeting. Besides having compiled the largest vamp database, Reach was also a master planner and manipulator, merging multiple job opportunities and always managing to make money. “Where do I meet her?”
“I’ll text you all the details. Oh, and check your frigging e-mail.” The connection ended. In disgust, I tossed the phone on the mattress and started packing in earnest. If I was going vamp hunting, I’d need all my toys.
Hope you enjoyed.
Blood Trade is out on Ap 2, 2013.
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