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Authors: Marjorie M. Liu

the iron hunt

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Iron Hunt

Hunter Kiss – Book 1

By Marjorie M. Liu

 

 

To
my mom, who taught me to play by ear,
and to my dad, who told me not to…

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My
deepest thanks to my editor, Kate Seaver, whose unwavering support, insight,
and kindness made this book possible.

I
would also like to thank my copyeditors, Robert Schwager and his wife, Sara.

Oh
these deceits are strong almost as life.
Last night I dreamt I was in the labyrinth,
And woke far on. I did not know the place.


EDWIN MUIR

PROLOGUE

WHEN
I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw. It was not her
fault. There was a blizzard. Six hours until sunset, lost on a twisting county
road. Bad map. No visibility. Black ice, winds howling down.

I
remembered. Slammed against my seat belt. Station wagon plowing into a drift,
snow riding high as my window. Metal crunching: the edge of the bumper, the
front tire, my door. Beneath us, a terrible reverberating crack.

Lodged.
Busted. Dead on our wheels. More than dead. My mother showed me spikes packed
into the snow and ice. Tiny metal stars, so sharp the points pricked my palm
when I bent to touch one. She pointed out the tires, torn into scrap, ribbons
of rubber. Told me not to worry. Called it a game.

My
mother cleared the road behind us. I watched from the car. Face pressed against
the cold window, fogging glass. She juggled stars and spikes for me, and did
not wince when the sharp points bounced off her tattooed hands. She danced in
the falling snow, eyes shining, cheeks flushed with the blood of roses, and
when I could no longer bear to sit still, I joined her and she held my wrists
and swung me in great circles until we fell down.

I
remembered her laughter. I remembered.

I
remembered that I did not want to go with her. I wanted to stay with the car. I
wanted to stay home with the wreck. Listen to the radio. Play with my dolls. My
mother would not let me. Too dangerous. Too many weirdos. I was too little to
handle the twelve-gauge stashed beneath the passenger seat, or even the pistol
in the glove compartment; and the boys were still asleep. Anything could
happen.

So we
bundled up. Slogged backward in the dull silence of snow and the endless winter
bones of the white forked trees. My mother carried me on her back. I saw:
silver clouds of my breath engulfing the tattoos on her neck; that lazy red
eye, Zee, tracking my face in his dreams. I felt the bulge of knives beneath
her black wool coat, too light and short for a blizzard, for anyone but a woman
who did not feel the cold. I heard the song she sang over the crunching beat of
her boots on the empty road. “Folsom Prison Blues.” Voice like sunshine and the
rumble of a slow train.

A
mile behind us, some local bar. Lonely way station. Out in the middle of
nowhere, just a shed, neon lights shaped like a naked woman flickering on and
off through the dirty tinted glass. Nipples winking. Pickup trucks in the
narrow, shoveled, salted lot. Scents of fried food and burned engine oil in my
nostrils.

My
mother hesitated when she saw the place, just as she had hesitated earlier when
we passed it in the car. Wavered, shoulders hitching. Both of us covered in
snow. I could not see her face, but I felt her tension. Breathed it. Looked
down and saw Zee struggling sleepily against her skin. Tattoos begging to peel.

We
entered the bar. My mother let the door slam shut behind us. I could not see:
too dark, too smoky, loud with laughter and rocky music. Warm as an oven
compared to the blizzard chill. I clung, face pressed to my mother’s neck. She
did not move. She did not speak. She stood with her back to the door, so very
still I could not feel her breathe, and all around us those voices faded dead
within a hush, and the music, the low, rolling wail of electric guitar,
snapped, stopped. Silence descended. Slow, cold, heavy as snow. Pregnant—a word
I would have used. Expectant, full, with something living and turning,
gestating
,
in that dark smoky womb.

“Hunter
Kiss,” said a deep low voice. “Lady Hunter.”

I
peered over my mother’s shoulder, past the loose black curls of her
snow-riddled hair. She squeezed my leg. I did not listen. I could not help
myself. It was still difficult to see. Just one lamp on the bar, casting a
glow, a ring of fire that did not touch the handful of men and women scattered
like fleas in the smoky shadows. Still. Poised. Coiled. Dressed in flannel,
jeans, weighed down with thick overcoats, dull and torn. Hats pulled low. Eyes
like old wells—dark, hollow, with only a glint of reflected light at the very
bottom of their gazes. Auras black as pitch. Anchored and straining. As though
crowns of ghosts rested upon their heads.

Only
one man stood before my mother. He wore a blue suit and a striped tie that
shimmered like the steel in his shadowed eyes. Wavy blond hair. Square jaw.
Handsome, maybe. Handsome devil. Zombie.

All
of them, zombies. Human shells. Living. Breathing. Possessed.

My
mother made me slide to the floor. I clutched the hem of her coat. I tried to
be small. I knew danger. I knew threats. I knew a demon when I saw one.

My
mother raised her hand. Metal sparked between her tattooed fingers. A star from
the road. Bristling with spikes. The zombie smiled. He also raised his hand. In
his palm, a deck of cards.

“All
we want is a look,” he said. “Just one. You know how it is.”

“I
know enough.” Her voice was so cold. She could not be the same woman, not mine,
not my mother. Her hand tightened around the spikes, which dug into her skin
but did not puncture, no matter how hard she squeezed. I watched her hand, the
straining tendons. I heard metal groan.

The
zombie’s smile widened. “One-card draw. Highest wins.”

“If I
refuse?”

“Now
or later. You know the rules.”

“You
pervert them,” said my mother. “You pervert this world.”

“We
are demon,” said the zombie simply, and stepped sideways to the battered bar,
its surface scarred and mauled by years of hard elbows and broken glass.
Ashtrays overflowed. Bottles clustered. Everything, sticky with fingerprints;
even the air, marked, cut with smoke and sweat.

My
mother watched the zombie. She watched them all and shrugged her shoulders. Her
jacket slid off slowly, falling on the floor beside me. She wore little. A
tight white tank top, a harness for her knives. Silver tattoos roped down her
arms, glinting red. Eyes. Open and staring.

No
one moved. Even the zombie in the suit went still. I watched their auras
tighten, pulsing faster, harder. My mother’s mouth curled. She took my hand.
Squeezed once. Led me to the bar where the zombie waited, leaning on a stool.
His smile was gone. He looked at her tattoos. His eyelid twitched.

My
mother tapped the bar. “Last time it was chess.”

“You
were ten,” he replied, tearing his gaze from her arms. “And that was your
mother’s game. You’re not her.”

Her
mouth tightened. “Show me the deck.”

The
zombie placed it between them and stepped back. My mother fanned the cards. Her
gaze roved, flicking once to me.

She
shuffled. So did the zombie. Three times each. The slap of the cards sounded
like gunfire. My mouth dried. My heart thundered. I clutched her leg, and her
fingers buried deep into my hair. She held me close. The zombie tapped the deck
and slid one card to the side. My mother did the same.

“Two
of diamonds,” she said. Voice hard, like she wanted to kill. The zombie remained
silent. He flipped his card and pushed it to her. My mother stared. Her hand
tightened in my hair. Her jaw flexed.

“You
run,” said the zombie softly, “and it will be worse next time. I think you
remember.”

“I
think you ask too much.”

“We
ask for so little, considering. Just one glimpse. Painless.” The zombie leaned
in. “Do
not
be your mother.”

She
shot him a cold look. He slid from the stool, and the rest of the room shifted,
shadows crawling like worms— zombies scuffling from their chairs to cross the
floor. Closing in. Eyes black. Auras writhing. My mother faced them. I did not
see her hand move, but her fingers flexed, and a knife suddenly glinted, held
loosely. No hilt. Just blade. Razor-sharp. In her other hand, that barbed star.

The
zombie loosened his tie. “You can’t kill us all. Not without injuring our
hosts. Innocents, all of them.”

My
mother said nothing. So still. Hardly breathing. Her fingers squeezed the
blade, and she turned, blocking the entire room from my view. She looked down
at me, and her gaze was hollow, impossibly grim. Her eyes, black as a demon’s
tongue, and just as cold.

“Do
not be afraid,” she whispered.

I
tried to hold her to me, but she slipped away, and zombies took her place. So
many. Shoulders broad as mountains. Packed tight. Breath hot. Stinking with
sweat and winter wool. I could not see faces for shadows, but the zombie in the
suit leaned close. Crooked his finger like a hook. I remembered cold shock.
Hammers in my heart. I had thought they wanted my mother, but it was me. They
wanted me.

“Frogs
and snails and puppy-dog tails,” murmured the zombie, his eyes glinting silver.
“Sugar and spice, everything nice.”

He
grabbed my jaw with one hand. Squeezed. Pushed down until I was forced to kneel.
I could not breathe. I felt my thoughts bleed—for sunset and the boys, my
mother. I wanted her to save me. I wanted it so badly, so hard, wished so much
to understand.

I
wanted to understand.

I
could not forget. Consumed and hunted—
I know what it is to be hunted
—feeding
those creatures my fear and pain, dispensed like so much sour candy. Demons in
their stolen human skins staring with darkling eyes, searching for weakness, a
way into my mind. Wanting to make me one of them. Zombie. Infected with a parasite.

I
fought. I must have. I remembered voices in my head. Whispers and howls. Zee
and the boys, raging in their dreams. I remembered my heart. My heart, opening
like a bloody mouth, tasting my terror—

—And
then biting it out of me. My heart, shedding the fear and tossing it away.
Letting something else slip into its place.

Something
from me. Of me. Born in the roots of me. A darkness deep and vast, forever
dead, forever cold—and in my soul a slow, shuffling resurrection, a terrible
yawning hunger, rising through blood and bone as though every cell of my body
had been born empty and frozen and now—
here
—nectar and milk and honey.

Mine
to take. Mine to steal. Mine to kill.

I
never felt so clearheaded as I did then. Never so strong. I could have killed
those zombies. I could have killed them all. Eight years old. Ready to murder.
Starving for it. Skin, pulling. Muscles stretching from my bones. All of me,
reaching with my soul. Grasping at demons.

The
zombie let go of my face. He let go, and I grabbed his hands. I held him to me,
and a gray pallor spread—like stone cracking beneath his skin, cold and
dead—and I stole him. I stole him away and felt the taste of demon in my blood,
rich and sour, like bitter, bilious honey.

And
the darkness grew, and I could see it—I closed my eyes to bear witness—and saw
it was not a mere void, but a body, turning and turning beneath my
skin—glinting like obsidian touched by moonlight, shiny and slick and sharp.

The
zombie’s eyes rolled back. His friends grabbed him, hands appearing under his
arms, across his chest, in his hair—pulling him, hauling hard. My fingers could
not hold his wrists. He slipped free. Everyone stumbled back, and I followed.
Something inside me wanted to follow.

My
mother slipped between them, catching me. Holding tight as I struggled, still
trying to chase the hot stink of those zombies—those scared little
demons—burning me blind and hungry. My mother said my name, my name—
Maxine,
Maxine
—and placed her hands on my face, forcing me to look at her. The boys,
those tattoos sleeping on her palms, kissed my flushed cheeks.

They
swallowed the darkness. Wrapped themselves with treacherous tenderness around
my soul and knitted shut my heart like a door—a door never opened, never seen.
They ate the needle and thread, consumed the key. Murder and hunger and
death—obsidian and moonlight— nothing more than a bad dream.

A bad
dream. Less and more than dream, after all these years. I remembered my mother
in that moment—her breathlessness, the softness of her face—and behind her,
that zombie in his suit, stretched on the ground, his skin gray and his eyes
open and staring. His whisper, the slow, churning hiss of his breath as he
said, “She passed. She’s strong enough to kill the others. She’s strong enough
for
them
.”

My mother
said nothing. She held me closer. I felt her heart pound. The other zombies
backed away, lost in shadow—less flesh than shadow—and only that zombie with
his shining hair and cracked skin tried to stay near, rising slowly to his
feet, lurching one step closer. He watched me, and behind my heart, something
rattled, wanting out. My mother’s arms tightened. She backed away, toward the
door, carrying me. The zombie followed, bent over, holding out his hand. My
mother shook her head. “I played your game. You had your test.”

“This
was not part of the test,” he whispered, pointing at himself. “This was not
part of anything that should
be
.”

My
mother turned, and he grabbed her shoulder. She let him. She stood still as ice
as he pressed his mouth against her ear and whispered words I could not
understand, whispered long and low and hard. I watched my mother’s face change.

The
zombie pulled away. Skin peeled from his face in strips. Fresh blood dotted the
corners of his eyes. He swayed, like he was weak. Dying. “Do it, Hunter. It’s
not worth the risk.
Kill her.
Have another child. You’re still young.”

My
mother’s mouth tightened. She set me down and rubbed my head. Gentle,
reassuring. At odds with the death in her eyes.

A
knife appeared in her hand.

She
moved fast. Opened the door of the bar and shoved me outside, into the snow. I
fell on my knees. The door slammed shut behind me. I tried to go back inside,
but the knob would not turn. Locked. I banged on the wood with my fists,
screaming for her. Screaming and screaming.

Men
screamed back. Women howled. I heard pain in those voices, terror, and now—now
I realize—death. I listened to my mother murder. I stumbled back, breathless.

Silence
was worse. I did not know who would come through that door. And when it opened
and I saw my mother, I still did not know who had come through. Her hair was
wild. Her face spattered red. Eyes dark and burning.

I did
not know what I said. I did not remember. I was sure I stared. That much, I
stared. I tried not to flinch when she knelt and looked into my face. She held
up her hands for me to see. Blood glistened on her fingers. Blood that slowly
disappeared into her tattooed skin. Boys, drinking up. Feeding.

“I
don’t want you to remember this,” she whispered, touching my forehead. “Baby. My
baby.”

She
stole from me. Memories, hidden behind dreams. I did not know how I lost so
much—how she did it—but I blame my youth. I was so young. I forgot it all—even
later, when I saw more. So much more. Even then I did not remember those
zombies, that bar—my mother and the darkness, caged.

So
naïve. I thought I was wise. I thought I knew everything. But thirteen years
after that moment in the snow I watched my mother get shot in the head. And I
finally understood. I remembered. I got it.

I got
it all.

CHAPTER 1

I was
standing beside a former priest in the small second-ary kitchen of a homeless
shelter, trying to convince an old woman that marijuana was not a substitute
for sugar, when a zombie pushed open the stainless-steel doors and announced
that two detectives from the Seattle Police Department had arrived.

I
listened. Heard pans banging, shouts from the other kitchen; the low, rumbling
roar of voices in the dining hall, accompanied by classical music piped in for
the lunch hour. Tchaikovsky’s
Sleeping Beauty
. My choice for the day.
Sounded pleasant with the rain pounding on the tin eaves, or the wind sighing
against the cloudy window glass.

I
heard no sirens. No dull echoes from police radios. No officious voices
grumbling orders and questions. Some comfort. But on my skin, beneath the long
sleeves of my leather jacket and turtleneck, the boys tossed in their sleep, restless
and dreaming. Today, especially restless. Tingling since dawn. Not a good sign.
When Zee and the others slept poorly, it usually meant someone needed to run.
Someone, being me.

“Impossible,”
Grant muttered. “Did they say why they’re here?”

“Not
yet. Someone could have called.”

“Any
idea who?”

“Take
your pick,” Rex said, the demon in his aura fluttering wildly. “You attract
busybodies like gravity and a 34DD.”

The
old woman was still ignoring us, and had begun humming a complicated melody of
show tunes from
South Pacific
. A tiny person, skinny as a scrap of
leather, with a nose that had been broken so many times it looked like a
rock-slide. Pale, wrinkled skin, long hair white as snow. Wiry arms scarred
with old needle tracks and covered in thick plastic bangles.

Mary,
one of the shelter’s permanent residents. A former heroin addict Grant had
found living in a gutter more than a year ago. His special project. An
experiment in progress.

I
watched her lean over a red plastic bowl, filled to the brim with brownie mix
and chocolate chips. Her right hand stirred the batter, a pair of long, wooden
chopsticks sunk ineffectively into the mix, while her other hand held a glass
jar packed with enough finely crushed weed to make an entire city block high
for a week.

She
peered through her eyelashes to see if Grant was looking—which he was, even
though his back was slightly turned—and we both flinched as she dumped in
another lump of the green leaves and started stirring faster.

“You
need to get rid of that stuff,” I said. “Split it between the garbage and the
toilet.”

Grant’s
knuckles turned white around his cane. “It could be a coincidence the police
are here. Some of them stop to chat sometimes.”

“You
willing to take that risk?”

“Flushing
evidence won’t take care of the basement.”

I
looked down at the old leather of my cowboy boots, pretending to see past them
into the cavernous underbelly of the warehouse shelter. Furniture used to be
manufactured in this place. Some of the big sewing machines and leatherworks
still gathered dust in those dim, dark spaces. Lots of places to hide down
there. Rooms undiscovered.

One
in particular, hidden behind some broken stairs. Found by accident, just this
morning. Filled with heat lamps. Packed wall to wall with a jungle of carefully
cultivated, highly illegal plants. A makeshift operation. And one old lady hip
deep in the middle of it, singing to her green babies. Knitting little booties
for real babies.

Crazy,
charming, sweet old Mary. I had no idea how she had managed to pull off an
underground farm. She might have had help. Or been manipulated. Maybe she was
just resourceful, highly motivated. Either way, there was a mess to clean
up—and not just for Grant’s sake, because he owned this shelter.

He
liked Mary. He liked her enough to bend his moral backbone and risk his
reputation—hold her hand and try to make things better. I felt the same. The
old woman needed someone to make things better. No way she would survive jail.
I knew it. He knew it. Not even handcuffs. Not a glint of them. Mary was like a
butterfly wing. Rubbed the wrong way, and it would be scarred from flying.

“Sin
is in the basement,” she warbled sweetly, oblivious. “Turn on the light, Jesus.
Shine, Lord, shine.”

The
zombie laughed. It was an ugly, mocking sound, and I stared at Rex until he
stopped. He tried to hold my gaze, but we had played this game for two months.
Two months, circling each other. Fighting our instincts.

Rex
looked away, leathery hands fidgeting as he adjusted the frayed red knit cap
pulled low over his grizzled head. The high collar of his thick flannel coat
hugged his coarse jaw. His host’s skin was brown from a lifetime spent working
under the sun. Palms callused, covered in fresh nicks and white scars. He wore
his stolen body with ease, but the old ones, the deep possessors, always did.
Wholly demon, in human flesh.

He
was afraid of me. He hid it well, his human mask calm, but I could see it in
the little things. I could taste it. Made the boys even more restless on my
skin, but in a good way. We liked our zombies scared. We liked them better
dead.

Grant
gave the zombie a stern look and swayed close to my elbow, leaning hard on his
carved wooden cane. Tall man, broad, his face too angular to be called pretty.
Brown hair tumbled past the collar of his flannel shirt and thermal. His jeans
were old, his eyes intense, brown as an old forest in the rain. He could be a
wolf, another kind of hunter, but not like me. Grant was nicer than me.

“Maxine,”
he rumbled. “Think you can handle Mary?”

Sunset
was still two hours away, which meant I could handle a nuclear blast, the
bogeyman, and a vanful of clowns—all at once—but I hesitated anyway, studying
the old woman. I grabbed the front of Grant’s shirt, stood on my toes, and
pressed my mouth against his ear. “She likes you better.”

“She
adores me,” he agreed, “but I can deal with the police.”

I
blew out my breath. “What do I do with her?”

His
hand crept up my waist, squeezing gently. “Be kind.”

I
pulled away, just enough to see his mouth soften into a rueful smile, and
muttered, “You trust me too much.”

“I
trust you because I know you,” he whispered in my ear. “And I love you, Maxine
Kiss.”

Grant
Cooperon. My magic bullet.

And
it was going to kill me one day.

“Okay,”
I told him weakly. “Mary and I will be fine.”

He
smiled and kissed my brow. Mary’s singing voice cracked, and when I glanced
around Grant’s broad shoulder, I found the old woman glaring at me. She was not
the only one. The zombie looked like he wanted to puke.

Whatever.
My cheeks were hot. I cleared my throat and glanced at the flute case dangling
over Grant’s shoulder. “You going to use your voodoo-hoodoo?”

“Just
charm,” he said wryly, kissing me again on the cheek before limping from the
small kitchen, his bad leg nearly twisting out from under him with every step.
Rex gave me a quick look, like he wanted to say something, then shook his head
and followed Grant past the swinging doors.

Faithful
zombie, tracking the heels of his Pied Piper. My mother would turn in her grave
if she had one. All my ancestors would. They would kill Grant. No second
thoughts. Cold-blooded murder.

Stamping
him out like any other threat to this world.

I
glanced at Mary. She was licking brownie mix off her chopsticks—watching me
warily. I tried to smile, but I had never been good at holding a smile, not
when it mattered, not even for pictures, and all I managed was a slight twitch
at the corner of my mouth. I gestured at the jar in her hand. “Probably ought
to put that away.”

Mary
continued to stare. Zee stirred against the back of my neck—a clutching
sensation, as though his tiny clawed heels were digging into my spine. It sent
a chill through me; or maybe that was Mary, who suddenly stared with more
clarity in her eyes, more uncertainty. As though she realized we were alone and
that I might be dangerous.

She
had good instincts. It made me wish I was better with words. Or that I knew how
to be alone with one old woman and not feel homesick for something I could not
name, but that made my throat ache as though I had been chewing bitterness so
long, a lump the size of my heart was lodged like a rock behind my tongue.

“Mary,”
I said again gently, and edged closer, wondering how I could get the jar out of
her hand. I did not want to scare her, but I had to hurry. No matter what Grant
said, I did not believe in coincidence. Odds were never that good. Not when it
mattered.

Zee
twitched. I ignored it, but a moment later my stomach started churning, like my
bowels were going loose, and that was odd enough to make me stop in my tracks
and listen to my body. Except for nerves, I never got sick. Not a single day in
my life. Not a cough, not a fever, no vaccinations needed. I had an iron gut,
too. Give me a food stand in Mexico with local water, old meat, some
questionable cheese—and I would still walk away without a burp.

But
this felt like the beginning of something. I rubbed my arms, my stomach. Zee
shifted, tugging on my spine, then the others joined him—all over my body—and
every inch of me suddenly burned like I had been dipped in nettle oil.

I
swayed, leaning hard on the table. Mary flinched. I could not reassure her. I
could not think. I was too stunned. And then I could do nothing at all, because
pain exploded in my eyes, like a razor shaving tissue from my eye sockets. I bent
over, pressing my fingers hard against my face. Digging in. Breathing through
my mouth. My knees buckled.

Then,
nothing. Pain stopped. All over my body, just like that. No warning.

I
huddled, breathless, waiting for it to return. All I felt was an echo, burning
through my skull and skin like a ghost. My heart hammered so hard I wanted to
vomit. I was light-headed, dizzy. My upper lip tasted like blood. My nose was
bleeding.

I
sensed movement. Looked up, vision blurred with tears, and found Mary staring,
chopsticks pointed in my direction like chocolate hallucinogenic magic wands.
Her blue eyes were sharp. My knees trembled. Blood roared in my ears.

“Devil
always comes knocking like a bastard,” she whispered.

I
heard footsteps, the rough click of a cane. I snatched the jar of weed from
Mary’s hand, and ignored her squeak of protest as I hurried to the sink and
dumped its contents down the trash disposal.

I
turned on the faucet, flipped the switch—and while the disposal rattled, I
dashed water on my face. My gloves were still on. I grabbed a paper towel to
swipe the blood from my nose and crumpled it in my fist, turning to face the
swinging doors just as Rex pushed through.

His
aura sang with a dark crown so thick and black it pulsed like a cloud of crude
oil. Amazed me, again, that anyone in this world could be misled by his kind,
that demons could take hosts and move so freely amongst their human prey and
not one person blink an eye. I could not fathom such blindness. The danger of
it.

Or
why I let Grant continue his experiments with them.

He
was just behind Rex. His eyes were wild, fierce, edged in shadow. Something had
happened. When he walked in, his gaze slipped immediately to the crown of my
head, searching. I knew he could tell from my aura that I was hurting. Grant
started to speak, but I heard more footsteps, and he gave me a warning look
just as two men walked in after him.

The
detectives. I recognized them, even if I did not know their names. They were in
their thirties, with close-shaven hair and neat suits. I was familiar with
their faces because they stopped by the Coop every now and then to see Grant.
Checking up on people. Using him as a sounding board. Once a priest, always a
priest. Folks still trusted him to lend an ear.

The
men stood a moment in silence, studying Mary and Rex. Then me. I tried to stay
calm even though I felt like a deer caught in headlights. I disliked most
police. Not on principle. Most did good work. That was the problem. I had
broken too many laws over the years to be comfortable around anyone with a
badge.

I
hoped I looked appropriately docile. I had cleaned up that morning, and my hair
was pulled back. A bit of lipstick, some mascara. Nothing heavy. Not that I was
trying to impress. I thought they had come for Mary. I was almost certain of
it. I was scared for her. And Grant.

But I
got a surprise.

“Maxine
Kiss?” asked the detective on the left, a slender black man who kept his thumbs
hooked lightly over his belt. He looked too by-the-book for such a relaxed
posture, which made me think he wanted his hands near his gun and Mace. “My
name is Detective Suwanai, and this is my partner, McCowan. We have some
questions for you.”

I
stared, still feeling ill, head hurting. This did not help. The detectives should
not have known me—or that I lived here. They might have spent some time at the
shelter, but only a handful of people in Seattle, not including zombies, knew
my real name. I had a fondness for aliases. I thought I made a good Annie.
Reminded me of Sandra Bullock in
Speed
. Cheerful and competent. I was
working on the cheerful part.

“I’m
listening,” I said, fighting for composure. Very worried. Thinking, maybe, I
should have denied being Maxine Kiss. No proof, no reality. But it was too
late. My big mouth.

McCowan
was several inches taller than his partner and about ten pounds heavier. Pale,
cute like a frat boy, with a soft jaw that was going to drop into his neck
within the next several years. His gaze flickered from Grant to me. “What’s
your relationship with Brian Badelt?”

“I
don’t know who that is,” I replied.

“You’ve
never heard of him?”

“Never.”

Detective
Suwanai made a big show of pulling a photograph from his pocket. He flicked it
toward me, and I leaned in. I was not surprised to see a corpse, but I was not
happy about it, either. A headshot, taken on a stainless-steel examining table.
Badelt was an older man, with a lean face and white hair. Straight nose, strong
chin. He looked like a hard-ass even in death, but I might have liked him.
Nothing wrong with being straightforward.

“I
don’t recognize him,” I said.

“What’s
this about?” Grant asked, and there was a melodic quality to his voice that I
recognized. Power. Zee told me once that his voice tickled, but that was a
gentle way of putting it. Anyone who could control a demon, who could change
the very
nature
of a demon, did more than just… tickle.

It
concerned me. I always worried when Grant used his power. There were too few
lines before a push became possession. Such small lines between dark and light.
Grant was still learning that. I suppose we both were.

Suwanai
and McCowan stiffened slightly, an odd light shifting through their eyes: a
trace of emptiness, a deep hollow. It lasted only a moment, but when they
started blinking again, Suwanai said, “Badelt’s body was found in an alley off
University Avenue. He was shot to death.”

Grant
looked down, jaw flexing. I briefly closed my eyes. “Why come to me?”

McCowan
hesitated, but Grant made a low noise in his throat, a soft humming tone, and
the detective shook his head, frowning. He touched his brow. “There was a
newspaper in his pocket. One of the daily Chinatown rags. Your name was written
on it. We’re following up.”

Suwanai
also rubbed his forehead. “Where were you last night, Ms. Kiss? From midnight
on?”

“I
was here,” I said.

“With
me,” Grant added.

“You’re
sure?” Suwanai pressed.

“We
were naked,” I told him. “I remember.”

McCowan
grunted, glancing at Grant with some surprise. Then his gaze returned to me,
flickering up and down my body. Assessing.

I
kept my mouth shut. A man was dead. A man I did not know, but who had written
down my name. And now I was a suspect. None of that made me feel good. Or
particularly sexy.

Grant
gave McCowan a hard look. “Who was Mr. Badelt?”

“You
don’t need to know that,” Suwanai replied.

“You’re
aware I have contacts. I could help.” Grant’s voice was calm, persuasive. I
folded my arms across my chest, hiding the tension in my hands. Mary stood very
still, doing an excellent job of looking like a sane, innocent, elderly woman,
while Rex hung back by the refrigerator, blending with the shadows. Watching.
No doubt hoping I got stuck in the slammer.

McCowan
said, “Badelt was a private investigator.”

Pressure
gathered behind my eyes. I wanted to ask who he had been looking for, but the
name on the newspaper was bad enough. The fact that he was dead, worse.

McCowan
stepped toward the kitchen doors. He looked confused, a bit uneasy. I did not
blame him. Suwanai seemed more together, but maybe he was just a better pretender.
He smoothed down his suit jacket with his dark, elegant hands. “Ms. Kiss, do
you have any idea why a murdered private investigator might have your name in
his pocket?”

“No,”
I said firmly. “I do not.”

Suwanai
hesitated, studying my eyes. I let him. I had not killed anyone in Seattle. Not
yet. Not anyone human, at least.

After
a moment, he inclined his head. “If we have any more questions…”

“Of
course,” Grant said gently, ever the upstanding citizen. The detective nodded,
still frowning, rubbing the bridge of his nose as though the gesture
comforted—or pained— him. He did not look back as he pushed open the kitchen
doors, but McCowan did. Just once, at me. A furrow edged between his eyebrows.
I met his gaze, unblinking, and after a moment he ducked his head and let the
doors swing shut behind him.

I
remained very still, afraid they would come back—but when they did not, I
slowly, carefully, released my breath. Grant limped near, wrapping his arm
around my waist. He drew me back against his chest. I stayed there, grateful.

“This
is all wrong,” I said quietly. “Not just the murder, but the fact a dead man
had my name.”

“And
that the police found you here,” Grant replied.

We
both looked at Rex. He stared back, holding up his tanned, scarred hands. “I
had nothing to do with it.”

“You
must know something.”

“No
way. I’m not in the loop anymore.”

“You’re
all in the loop,” I muttered. “I don’t care how dried up your umbilical cord
is.”

Rex
stared at me like I was viler than a splat of diarrhea. “You just don’t care,
period. You’re still looking for an excuse to kill me, Hunter.”

“I
don’t need an excuse.” I tugged sharply on my gloves. Mary stared, but I no
longer cared if she saw my tattoos.

Rex,
despite his bravado, stepped back. Grant grabbed my arm. “No time, Maxine.”

I did
not relax. “I need to find out what Badelt wanted, why he had my name.” I
hesitated, thinking hard. “He was in that alley for a reason.”

A man
who worked for himself would not waste his time in a part of town that had no
good bars, entertainment, or restaurants only a poor university student could
love. It had rained last night, too—a hard, cold rain that had pounded most of
the garden into a limp green shag of grass and leaves. Not good weather for
walking the street just for the fun of it.

Grant
seemed to read my mind. “A lot of homeless live on University Ave. Someone
might have seen Badelt. Or we could track down his office first, look for
answers there.”

That
was the smart thing to do, but I needed air, some time alone. My skin still
crawled, and not just because of the boys. “I’ll head down to the university.
You make the call. No one’s going to tell you much, though. Confidentiality
issues.” Not unless Grant went in person. His special brand of persuasion did
not work over the phone.

“It
wouldn’t have been one of us,” Rex chimed in, and I knew what he was really
saying. No demon, no zombie, would hire a private investigator to hunt me. It
would be like paying money to find Mount Everest. If Mount Everest had teeth
and claws and could eat people.

Which
meant someone human wanted to find me.

Or
maybe I had already been found.

I
thought about my mother. Her lessons. She had taught me not to keep friends, to
avoid roots. Born a loner, trained to be one. Safer that way, for everyone. No
home but the boys.

But
here I was. Hunter and hunted. With friends. A home and roots. My taste of the
forbidden fruit. And I could never return to what was, what had always been—
what should have been. I knew the difference now. I was too weak to give it up.

I
stood on my toes, kissed Grant hard on the mouth—and glanced over his shoulder
from Rex to Mary, who still watched us, eyes narrowed. Withered mouth creased
into a frown.

“I’m
sorry about your jar,” I said to her, and she hitched up her shoulders, the
crease between her eyes deepening.

“Go
with Gabriel,” she whispered. “Gabriel’s hounds will guide you.”

I had
no idea what that meant, but Grant gave her a sharp look. A chill swept through
me. My stomach felt odd. I had the terrible feeling I had just been thrust upon
the proverbial crossroad, and had stumbled blindly onto a path that fairy tales
warned about, the hard kind that showed the way to an enchanted castle, a
forest of brambles, quicksand, and pits full of hungry dragons. A path that led
to either death or glory. Neither of which interested me.

I had
seen enough death. I had suffered glory.

Now I
just wanted to be left alone.