Read below for a preview of Marjorie M. Liu’s The Iron Hunt. (Buy: UK)
I was standing beside a former priest in the small secondary 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?’
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.