Authors: Rob Thurman
I was born a monster. Although truthfully, I was only half monster. My mother was human; my father was something...else. Half monster or whole, in the end it didn't matter. I had my weaknesses, same as anyone else.
And I was facing one of them now.
After saving the world from his fiendish father's side of the family, Cal Leandros and his stalwart half-brother Niko have settled down with new digs and a new gig-bodyguard and detective work. And in New York City, where preternatural beings stalk the streets just like normal folk, business is good.
Their latest case has them going undercover for the Kin—the werewolf Mafia. A low-level Kin boss thinks a rival is setting him up for a fall, and wants proof. The place to start is the back room of
—a gambling club for non-humans. Cal thinks it's a simple in-and-out job. But Cal is very, very wrong.
Cal and Niko are being set up themselves—and the people behind it have a bite much worse than their bark...
To my kick-ass mom.
She could take on both Cal
Watch out, guys. There's a new sheriff in town.
I would like to thank several people: as always, my wonderful editor, Anne Sowards; my equally wonderful agent, Jennifer Jackson; the unbelievably talented art and design team of Chris McGrath and Ray Lundgren; sharp-eyed copy editor Michele Alpern; Mara, teller of historical tales; Web queen Beth; second mom (also kick-ass) Lynn; meta River and supergeek Shannon; and finally, Bailey and Mishka… elsewhere but never forgotten.
I was born a monster.
No big deal, right? Monsters are everywhere in this world. But I'm not talking your sweaty pedophile or your serial killer with a cold and silent harem buried in his crawl space. No, I'm talking about the real deal. Creatures that scuttled across the surface of this world when the air was sulfuric acid and the nighttime moon all but blocked out the sky. Scales and fangs, blood that doubled as venom, minds and bodies twisted in concert, dark legends come to life. These legends had always been a reality, but they were one that refused to register on modern human eyes. Monsters, they existed all right, and they were legion, so what was one more?
Although truthfully, I was only half-monster. My mother was human; my father something… else. When we were younger my brother and I had called them Grendels; the rest of the supernatural world called them Auphe. You say tomato; I say murderous death incarnate. It's all good fun. Auphe were the seeds of the elf fantasy, believe it or not, but this seed was poisonous, and it would kill anything it touched. There was no blond hair or limpid blue eyes, no silken voices like a temple bell. There was only skin as palely transparent as that of a salamander, eyes the red of lava, and a mind blackened and putrid as a rotting swamp. Okay, they did have the pointed ears; I'll give you that. Sometimes legends do get the facts right, but that's not much comfort when a thousand metal teeth are buried in your throat.
Half monster or whole, in the end it didn't matter. I had my weaknesses, same as anyone else. And I was facing one of them now.
Yeah, that's what I said. Clowns. I hate clowns. Always have. Point one out to me at the age of three and I would run wailing in the other direction as if the Hounds of Hell had been set on my diapered ass. Even now they still gave me a chill, and wasn't that pretty damn ludicrous? I'd fought creatures more monstrous than the mind could grasp. And I was
to things even worse than that, but bottom line, none of it mattered. I just hated clowns. And honestly, what self-respecting person doesn't? Name one, just one person whose flesh didn't crawl at the sight of them. Those puffy, bloated hands. The tiny gleaming eyes buried in pits of black paint. That maniacal grin awash in lurid scarlet, red as blood. Whose blood? you'd wonder uneasily to yourself. Could be yours if you didn't waddle away fast enough on chunky toddler legs. Then there were the people who dressed like cartoon animals, lolling plush tongues, glassy saucer eyes, and thick, unhinged laughs. They were nasty in their own right, but they still had nothing on clowns. Jesus Christ. Don't kids have enough to warp them in this world?
"They're only bodachs, Cal." Niko's voice came with a cool amusement that had me throwing him a black scowl. "You could handle a bodach long before you were potty trained. Granted, that was less than a month ago…"
My brother, his bedside manner was less hand-holding and more a nice brisk thwap to the back of the head. "They're not just bodachs," I gritted. "They're bodachs in clown makeup. And that, Cyrano, makes all the difference in the goddamn world."
The Roman nose made even more generous by Niko's newly shorn hair snorted. "
with the clowns?" Several months ago Niko's dark blond hair, most often in a ponytail or braid, had trailed nearly to the base of his spine. Now it barely touched his ears—or would have if he hadn't ruthlessly skimmed it back. He had cut his hair in mourning, a custom of our Greek ancestors. It was one of the few tales our mother had bothered to share with us. The Gypsy clan she'd grown up in had roamed all of Europe hundreds of years ago. They weren't called Travelers for nothing. Before eventually making their way to the good old USA, they'd settled for a time in Greece, intermarrying with the natives on occasion, although it was frowned upon by both sides. The result was an odd mixture of Rom and Greek traditions that had lost Niko his hair. I gave him hell about it, but not as much as I could have. After all, he'd done it to grieve my death, to mourn me. Smart-ass comments tended to shrivel in my mouth in the face of that.
died, although it had been a temporary thing. First Niko had stabbed me, and then a healer friend had stopped my heart. My death had lasted only seconds, but dead I had been. Not that I held a grudge. It was all done in an effort to stop the creature that had taken control of me—a creature bent on remaking the world. On remaking me. Even a permanent death would've been better than what it had planned.
Yeah, for sheer awe-inspiring terror, that thing had given clowns a run for their money.
"Yes," I snarled. "Still with the clowns."
The carnival was closed for the night, all spiderweb metal and lonely winds rocking the buckets of the rides, especially those of the Ferris wheel. The wheel itself loomed like a petrified skeleton, the slouching beast that had never made Bethlehem. Here its carcass rotted, its bones a darkly encrusted silver hung with the white twinkle of diamonds. The lingering smell of grease and butter had turned rancid, and a cheap and torn stuffed dog, the prize in any number of fixed games, lay at the base of a garbage can. One blank button eye had been torn away, leaving a raveled stuffing socket. Poor bastard, he'd missed his ride to the Island of Misfit Toys. The yellow bulbs strung here and there were either dead or dim as a candle flame. Beneath it all there was the scuttle of rats' claws and the scuttle of something far more lethal. All in all, I could've chosen a better location for our first job. In fact, a mentally challenged plaster garden gnome could've done better.
"I liked working at the bar better." What was that in the shadows? The pale glimmer of greasepaint? "The only clowns in bars are smart-ass drunks who don't tip."
To my right, Niko continued to observe me with brotherly disdain. Dressed in black pants and shirt, he would've blended into the night if not for the lighter gleam of his short hair. He'd recently grown a closely shorn, immaculately maintained goatee—probably to keep the Zen hair ratio happy—which was equally bright against his olive skin. My own hair was indistinguishable from the shadows around us. Normally I pulled it back into a short tail, but tonight I let it fall free to obscure some of the full-moon shade of my skin. Niko could afford to give himself away; he was Bruce Lee with a bleach job. I, on the other hand, didn't mind a little extra help. Don't get me wrong; I could hold my own against most things that go bump in the night. Vampires, werewolves, boggles, ghouls… trolls were a little more problematic. Whatever was out there, I could face it, but this time…
Strong fingers came over and squeezed an imaginary round red nose that must've hung just before mine. "Honk. Honk," Niko said with the utmost gravity. Picture it if you will. One of the most lethal fighters in the tristate area, a man who in the game of kill-or-be-killed was solidly king of the former category, and he was honking.
"You know, since you started getting some, you are really beginning to piss me off." I started into the depths of the carnival, not bothering to check to see if he was following. He was. It wasn't something I had to see or hear to know. Niko watched my back, always. The mountains would fall and the oceans dry to dust before that ever changed.
"One day, little man." A fleeting pat came on my shoulder. "One day."
I didn't respond, only twisted my shoulders slightly and kept moving. That wasn't a subject for discussion, not now and definitely not here. Niko was smart, so damn smart, but when it came to his baby brother he wasn't as calculating or logical as he could've been. Should've been. To me there were things that were clear, so clear, it made me wonder why no one else seemed able to see what I could so effortlessly.
"Cal?" Niko might not see what I saw, but he could see when something wasn't quite right. When you know someone your whole life you can read them quicker than the morning comics, even when they might not want you to.
I ignored the question in the shape of my name and walked on, my eyes searching every inky clot of darkness. "Cal." This time it wasn't a question; it was a demand. And knowing Nik, an undeniable one.
I can honestly say it was the only time in my life I was glad to see a clown. Even one who was doing his level best to disembowel me with seven-inch-long razor-edged nails. It shot out of a mound of trash, the furious motion surrounding it in a shower of stale popcorn, stained napkins… and fluttering hanks of children's hair. The silky strands hung like party streamers from jetty claws—the same claws that were flying at me. The old Scottish legend, as methodically stuffed in my head by Niko, said a bodach would slither down a house's chimney much like a satanic Santa Claus to eat whatever children it could find, flesh, skin, bones, and all. Every scrap… except the hair. It didn't like the hair.
I felt my stomach twist into a sharp-edged tangle until I recognized the silver locks for what they where. The bodach held a dirty-faced doll in one multijointed hand, a doll with matching blond hair. The fall of hair from its other hand was nothing more than a rain of cheap polyester. It didn't change the fact that it all too easily could have been real. Bodachs aren't known for their willpower in the dieting field. It made the clown costume so chillingly perfect… the ideal camouflage to snare the innocent.
Atop the grimy clown suit of blue, green, and curdled cream, under the ridiculous corkscrew wig and white paint, was the face behind the tale. The mummy brown skin was camouflaged by the thick pigment, but the thickly smiling lips did nothing to conceal teeth equally as brown from dried blood. When it grinned you would almost swear its head turned inside out, and it was grinning now like Jack the Ripper on Ladies' Night as it dropped the doll and came for me. I lunged to one side, grabbed the thing's arm with my free hand, and pulled, letting it continue its motion on past me. As the claws and bone white hand cleared my ribs with room to spare, I buried the muzzle of the Glock under a vulpine chin and blew off the top of its curly orange head.
The body fell with limbs twitching in the dance of the electrified. And the smell… on their best day bodachs weren't exactly as fresh as daisies. A dying one put off a reek that would take paint off a car. It certainly took the edge off my appetite. Covering my mouth and nose, I felt the distinctive taste of bile creep into my mouth. "Holy shit. That is
." It was a number of things worse than that, but I couldn't get into them without spewing my supper. One of the quirky little side effects of being not exactly human was an excellent sense of smell. I was no wolf, but I'd give a drug-sniffing dog a run for its money. Right now, however, the only running I wanted to do was out of range of this god-awful, hideous stench. Clamping my lips tight, I swallowed several times and blinked watering eyes. It was that pained moisture that had me doubting the sight before me.
The bodach had stopped quivering. Normally that was good, great even. All hail the conquering heroes. Strike up the band, toss us the key to the city, and slap some green across our palms. Unfortunately, normally wasn't the case here. It stopped quivering because it got up. That's right. With the top of its head split open like a rotten egg, it rose to its feet and grinned jack-o'-lantern wide around the blood pouring from its mouth. That was more than disturbing enough, but when it started talking… it was a whole new repulsive ball game.
"Little… boy… blue," it gurgled, each word fighting to the surface. "Blow your horn." It spit derisively, turning the ground black at its feet, and then pointed a claw at the gun dangling from my hand. "Blow your horn." Then it moved for me, not as fluidly as when it had first attacked, but neither was it coming at a slow stagger.
"You have got to be shitting me," I said in disbelief. As I spoke, the slashing claws came closer. But worse than that, so much worse, was that so did the smell. That, more than the other considerations, had me moving fast. This time I shot it in the kneecaps, assuming it had kneecaps. Whatever peculiar monster parts that allowed its legs to bend, that's what I put a few bullets through. It fell again, yet still it kept coming, dragging itself by jutting knife nails and clown-suit-covered elbows. So I shot those too.
"Blow your horn," it hissed, spraying blood. "Blow your horn." And on it wriggled with the jerky movements of a broken-backed snake.
Looking down at my gun and then back at the bodach, I was giving serious consideration to throwing the useless piece of shit at it when an infinitely patient sigh blew the hair by my ear. Tapping my shoulder lightly with the hilt of his sword, Niko asked calmly, "Are you done playing yet?"
The smug son of a bitch. I waved my gun hand and took a few steps back, hoping for more breathable air. "Yeah, sure. Knock yourself out."
Moving past me with silent grace, he hefted the falchion and then swung it with a speed that was a blur of shimmering silver. Broad and curved, the blade bit through the bodach's neck, decapitating it instantly. The head rolled, bounced off the side of my foot, and promptly tried to bite my ankle. I punted it hard and hissed as the smell clung to my sneaker. "We should've brought a tree shredder," I grunted, rubbing the back of my hand across my nose futilely. All right. Fine. If that was the way this night was going to be, I'd just have to roll with it. Grimly, I toed off my shoes and booted them and the stench far away from me. "Can I borrow a backup since this is next to friggin' useless?" I asked, shoving the gun into my shoulder holster.
I wasn't making an unreasonable assumption to think that Niko would have an extra something sharp on him. What would be far-fetched would be to imagine that his surplus consisted of only one. Niko could set off metal detectors from a hundred feet with all the weapons he carried. His hand disappeared in his long duster, less of a fashion statement and more of a repository of all that was lethal in the world, and reappeared with a small cardboard box. It wasn't quite what I expected and I accepted the box dubiously. "What the hell?"
"Explosive rounds." He continued as I gave a low whistle, "And a Desert Eagle. Amazing what they peddle in some dark alleys."