Killing rites, p.21
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       Killing Rites, p.21

         Part #4 of The Black Suns Daughter series by M. L. N. Hanover
Page 21


  “If you had a fever and it made you hallucinate, believing your visions were real wouldn’t help you. It’d be letting the fever win. The riders trick people. It’s what they do. And I won’t let the rider win. Not with you. ”

  He was so certain that he was being my strength when I was weak, my protection when I was vulnerable. He couldn’t hear me, and I couldn’t reach him. He couldn’t even see the betrayal.

  “Don’t turn off the light,” I said. “Don’t leave me in the dark. ”

  “I never will,” Ex said even before Chapin nodded. I closed my eyes, listening to the soft footsteps. At least one of them was limping. That was all I’d managed.

  The cellar doors creaked when they closed, and the voices of the crows grew fainter. I was alone and numb. I felt myself start to shiver like it was happening to somebody else. I didn’t feel anything, not hope, not despair, not even betrayal. My heel had started bleeding again. I was thirsty.

  In the harsh light and black shadows, I took inventory of myself. Feet all messed up. Bruises on my arms and hands. Cracked rib. Filthy hair. Smelled of puke.

  I rose to my knees; the chains wouldn’t let me stand all the way up. The light from the cellar doors was gone. Night fallen or just decent weatherstripping. No way to know from here.

  I thought about shouting until someone came, telling them that whatever it was had come after Dolores too, but I already knew what Ex and Chapin would say. The thing inside me had latched onto something the girl said, exploited it, used it to fool me. And I didn’t have any way to prove otherwise. No one would believe me.

  I was trapped with one rider in my body, and another one no one believed in stalking me like a fox walking around a henhouse. I was in chains, and the only one of my friends who knew where I was had helped put me there. My family didn’t know me anymore. The uncle I’d idolized was an evil bastard. My lover was back together with his wife. My feet were cut bloody and my ribs hurt.

  Something shifted in my chest. Not the rider, but an emotional tidal wave rising up from the deepest part of myself. I expected weeping and rage and sorrow as deep as an ocean.

  And so the laughter surprised me.

  It was a deep sound, rich and warm and rolling, and it didn’t belong to anyone but me. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. When I spoke, my voice sounded hoarse but surprisingly strong.

  “Well. Hel-lo, bottom. ”

  Slowly, I sat up. My mind felt weirdly clear, like I’d just woken up from a long sleep or come back from a good vacation. My body might be trembling-tired, but I could think.

  I wasn’t going to be able to get Chapin and his crows to believe me. I wasn’t going to be able to get out of the chains here in the basement and make a run for it. But if I didn’t do something, the sewer-stench thing was going to slip back through whatever chink it had found in Chapin’s defenses, and sneak into my body as the Black Sun’s daughter was ripped out of it. I couldn’t call for help. The cavalry wasn?t coming.

  I took one deep breath, and then another, gathering my qi the way Chogyi Jake had taught me. Chogyi Jake, whom I had gone out of my way to exclude from this. Who would have believed me and taken my side if he’d been there. I pushed the thought aside. I didn’t have time for guilt or regret. Might-have-beens later. Right now, I had to focus.

  Put on your big-girl panties, Midian said half in my memory, half in my imagination, and tell me what’re you gonna do. Because if you’re getting out of this one, you’re doing it on your own.

  Chapter 13

  “Hey,” I said. “Are you there?”

  By now, it would be dark outside. Starlight on snow. In my little oubliette, the lightbulb was the closest thing to a heater. My nose was running, and no matter how I curled up, I couldn’t get warm. I’d been there for what might have been an hour. Long enough that the cut on my heel had clotted again. I waited. Nothing happened.

  “Hey,” I said again. “So, listen. Here’s the thing. We both know there was another rider. And I think we’re both in trouble. I don’t like having something inside me that’s not me, but since it looks like that’s kind of nonoptional, I’ve got a proposal. ”

  The rider didn’t do anything. I imagined it listening, aware but unable to act. Buried inside of me.

  “The way I figure it, we don’t have much to work with except each other. So how about a truce? Just between us. We work together, you and me, until we can get our necks out of this noose. And then I promise I’ll try to find a way to get you out of me that doesn’t … that doesn’t kill you. But I’m the one who makes the decisions. No more running out into the middle of the night without me. That’s the deal. We work this together. I’m the boss, and I’ll make sure you don’t get hurt. Sound good?”

  It didn’t sound good. It sounded weak. I’d come here of my own free will. I’d sought out Chapin so that he could do exactly what he was doing now. If I were the rider, I wouldn’t have trusted me. But on the other hand, I didn’t see what options it had either.

  “Okay,” I said. “That wasn’t a no. ”

  I squeezed my hands into fists, working the blood into them until the numbness went away. I pulled back the little Ace bandage on my arm. The hard metal of the medallion felt sharp against my fingertips. I hesitated. If Ex and Chapin were right, if the second rider was a trick, I was falling for it. But at least it was my mistake to make. I plucked the Mark of St. Francis of the Desert out. As much as it had hurt, I thought there would at least be a rashy spot, but my skin was unmarked. I let a couple of layers of bandage fall back in place and slipped the metal in over it. It looked more or less the same. If Ex or Chapin glanced at it, they probably wouldn’t see a difference. But the Mark wasn’t touching my skin.

  “All right,” I said. “I’m just going to put my arm down here at my side. I’m not going to move it. See what you can do. ”

  I wited. Nothing happened. I tried to relax my arm, willing the muscles to be soft and calm. I breathed deeply three times. Four. Five. Six.

  Sometimes, right on the edge of sleep, I would twitch. It was just once, and it always meant I was almost down. When my arm moved, it was almost the same. I didn’t do anything, and then the movement just happened, sudden and sharp, sending the arc of steel chain undulating like a snake, and then gone again. I let out my breath.

  “Good,” I said. “That was good. Just hang on, little tomato. Things will be all right. ”

  After that, I waited. There was nothing else I could do. Screaming wouldn’t help. I didn’t want to cry. Mostly I wanted to get warm, get my own clothes on. Maybe find a hot tub somewhere with my name on it. Sweet dreams. Instead, I sang through all the songs on Hey Eugene! and a couple from Splendor in the Grass, slapping the concrete and rattling my chains as musical accompaniment. Then I segued over to some of Pink Martini’s Christmas music, slapping out the percussion and doing my best China Forbes imitation for “Little Drummer Boy” and “Santa Baby. ” Singing, I could see my breath.

  It was only a couple of more weeks until Christmas. With the strange tangle of spirits and darkness, demons and angst, that my life had become, the idea of normal holidays seemed to belong to a different world. I wondered what I would have been doing if not for the money and trouble that Eric had left for me when he died. I imagined myself working in a supermarket in Tucson. Arguing about who had to work the holiday shift and going back to a little apartment I’d probably have to share with someone just to make rent. Compared to what I was really doing, the grubby little kitchenette in my imagination seemed impossibly romantic.

  It was weird to think that back home, Mom and Dad and my little brother, Curtis, would be putting up the tree, hauling the same ceramic nativity scene out of the attic and putting it on the lawn, going to the extra prayer meetings on Wednesday nights to beg that the Jews see the error of their ways, and I was here, doing this. I had the powerful memory of the smell of the mulled wine we kids weren
’t allowed to drink. If I’d stayed home, been the girl they wanted, I’d probably have been able to have a cup by now.

  If I’d been who they wanted, I’d probably be married to someone from the church singles group. And pregnant, so maybe no wine after all. Probably all the girls I’d gone to high school with had families of their own now. It didn’t seem right somehow that they still existed. They belonged to a different world, in some past life. And God help me, right now it seemed like a better one.

  The truth was, I’d never really had a plan for my life. My whole childhood had been programmed and controlled by my father and the church, and my adult demon-hunting career had followed along the tracks that my deceased uncle Eric had laid down right up until it all went wrong. The only accomplishment that hadn’t been in the shadow of one older male relative or another was making it through two semesters of a secular college before I dropped out. It wasn’t much. But my life was mine, and I wanted it.

  The cellar door creaked open. I stopped singing and shifted to sit cross-legged beside the concrete-set ring. Father Chapin, Ex, and Carsey came down, one after the other. They looked deathly solemn.

  “Hey,” I said. “I don’t guess you guys brought a space heater or anything?”

  “Who am I speaking to? In the name of Christ, I demand you answer with the truth, deceiver!”

  I felt a pulse of something pass through me. Will, magic, qi. Whatever I wanted to call it. It didn’t have the raw, screaming power of a rider’s magic. It could have been just the focused power of a really well-practiced human being. I wondered if the other thing might be hiding inside Chapin and pulling its punches to keep anyone from noticing. It was one of them. If not Chapin, then one of his cabal.

  Right now, though, it didn’t matter. Wherever the invader was hiding out, my job was the same. Put everyone at ease, let them relax the security protocol a little, and then get out of Dodge. The first part, at least, wasn’t something a rider could do for me.
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