CHAPTER ONE

 

IT WASN’T a great day to be me.

The nick below the tip of my right ear itched, and when I scratched at it, the itch fled, traveling down my stomach and into my crotch. I willed it to go away, and after annoying me for a few seconds, it disappeared. I was cold, stinking of blood from the three elfin shadow dogs I’d already killed, and grumpy because there was still a live one out there I had to hunt down.

I smelled the last dog before I saw it. Nothing can mask the stench of an unsidhe cur. They reek like a week-old herring rolled in the juices of a bloated corpse left out in the sun. I checked the thunder gray sky for rain and sniffed for any water. Wet black dog could make a dead man vomit, and the smell would soak through the metal bed of my truck.

“Come to Kai, baby.” I snuck a peek at the thing, peering around the tree I’d hidden behind. “I need some groceries.”

The black dog looked like a mange-infested mastiff that’d fallen into an iguana’s gene pool and was about twice the girth of the others I’d already taken down. It appeared to be male, but gender didn’t matter if a dog got a lot of meat to eat, and this one looked like it ate well. Its long lizard tail doubled as a weed-whacker when it stomped through the brush, taking out huge arcs of grass with each step, and its belly dragged on the ground, a fat, happy lizard-dog bastard out for an afternoon snack.

Even though it was close to me, its forehead and short snout wove in and out of view behind boulders along the hillside’s slope, keeping me from a kill shot. The coarse ebony fur on its body ran to thick, wrinkled gray flesh on its legs, long claws growing out of its reptilian paws. One of its smaller back horns was broken, probably from a mating fight, but from what I could see as it opened its maw to scent the air on its tongue, all its finger-length teeth were intact.

Good thing, because I wouldn’t want to be only half-chewed when the damned thing ate me alive.

I pulled up my shotgun, cracking it open one last time to check its slugs. With the hound coming around the trees, I would have to wait for a clear shot. Dempsey liked a knife or a bow. Stalker should hunt like a man, he grumbled in my head. I liked having a sawed-off shotgun or a pair of Glocks I could reload.

“Fucking Dempsey and his crossbows. I’d have to shoot the damned thing five times with a bow when a damned slug can do it in one or two.” When it came down to it, I’d rather be alive with gunpowder on my skin than have my picture hanging up on the Post’s tribute wall to the manly Stalkers who died taking something down. “Crossbows are shit.”

“God, that thing stinks.” My eyes watered from the smell. Resisting the urge to check my ammo again, I waited as the wind shifted and sent a brief thanks to the slaughtered god when my nose cleared of black dog.

The dog was almost in full view, and the change in wind direction helped me more than the hound as the breeze stole my scent away. Its broad chest vibrated as it laid its head back and howled, the piercing keen of its eerie song echoing across the area as it called for the others in its pack. If I had any luck, it would soon be joining their dead bodies in the back of my truck.

The thing was going to be a bitch to drag down to the road. Bounty laws said I couldn’t leave the body behind, mostly to protect wildlife from eating a black dog’s acidic meat, so I’d have to drag out every pound of its dead body to the truck after I killed it. Carry out what you kill, Dempsey beat into me.

“Or find some stupid elfin kid to do it for you.” I snorted.

The hound didn’t have to worry about dragging me off the mountain. If it got me, it would eat me on the spot, probably spitting out the zipper of my jeans and my earring when it was done. With luck, I’d get the chance to pee myself first, because my bladder began complaining loudly, and the itch returned to my bits.

It turned, and a flicker of a red eye gleamed in the black of its face. Holding its head lower than its massive shoulders, it skulked across the ground, hitting on my scent. I couldn’t hide from its nose. Damned things could track prey over anything.

The dog snagged my trail, growling as it moved its head back and forth to scent. I held my breath, letting the scent-trail draw it closer. It crept quickly over the forest floor, making a slithering sound through the leaves. If it wouldn’t have given the dog the drop on me, I would have laughed. The thing was nearly as large as a tik-tik cab. The only way it could hide was if a lorry dropped down in front of it.

With its sloping body tucked down, the black dog stilled; its wide nostrils sniffed at the air. A curl of its tongue lapped around the brush of teeth, long strands of milky saliva roping down to cover a clutch of weeds. The leaves shriveled and burned when the hound’s spit struck, tiny wisps of smoke rising around the black dog’s head as the acid ate through the greens. The wind shifted again and caught my scent, carrying it to the dog. It turned, found me staring at it, and leaped straight for me.

Singlish is really an ugly language. It has its toes in many lingual puddles, from old Britain to Cantonese with hot dashes of wasabi Japanese, but there were times when only the ugly gutter back street Nippon would do.

This was definitely one of those times.

Kuso!” I brought the shotgun down as the black dog barreled toward my hiding spot. The wind shift carried something of me on it, and the creature found me as easily as if I’d jumped out into the open and waved my arms around.

The hound smelled the death of its pack on me, and it was pissed.

My first blast hit it between the eyes, jerking its head around. I took the recoil, easier for me than a human, but the gun bead shook, and I had to resight. For a long scary moment, I thought the shot went wide. The black dog kept coming, its earflaps laid back and its mouth opened wide enough to pop my head off with a single bite, but a trail of black gore spit up behind its head. It was hit, but not enough to bring it down.

Bringing the shotgun back around, I let loose the second round, aiming for one of its eyes. Its head jerked back again, and its cheek shattered, the eye popping into a wet mess, but the damned thing kept coming. I dropped the gun and grabbed for the Glock lying in the grass as the black dog’s paws dug into the ground in front of me.

It went over me just as my hand closed on the grip. Twisting to get another shot off, I ate dirt when the black dog’s weight shoved me into the ground. It hit hard, and I choked on my wind, coughing to pull enough air into my chest to inflate my lungs. Flipping over, I couldn’t breathe. At nearly five hundred pounds and as fragrant as whale puke, the hound covered my legs and torso, pinning me against a bed of pine needles.

My brain told me the thing was dead, but my mind wasn’t what needed convincing. The dog’s mouth snapped and tore at the air near my head and shoulders as its body twitched frantically. Lines of foam polluted its pink-rimmed lips, acidic ropes of spit that burned my skin, and I placed the barrel against the creature’s flat skull and pulled the trigger.

Bone chips stung my cheek, and I tasted powder before I could get my mouth closed. The blast blossomed out of the dog’s head, and its skull spat out furred chunks and scaly skin. I fought to breathe as its spasms slowed, its legs stiffening out behind its body. Slowly, the glow in its eyes dimmed, turning the vivid red lights to a dull gray. It twitched once more, then went still, as dead as the rocks digging into my back.

“About time you died, damned thing.” Exhaling with relief, I tried squirming out, but the dog’s weight settled hard on my shins, trapping me against the forest floor.

Leaning back into a bed of dried pine needles, I stared up at the sky and sighed. “Ah, fuck me. Oh no, we’re not doing this shit.” Growling at the shattered head, I kicked the thing in its belly. “I am not going to lie here like some fricking bed of cabbage under sashimi. You are getting the hell off me.”

It was a strain to bend forward, but I reached behind my legs to scoop out handfuls of needles from behind my knees, hoping I could give myself enough wiggle room to slide out. The ground sloped up sharply behind my shoulders, and I kept hitting my head against forest debris when I tried to get leverage. A few flailing tries and I cursed the damned thing again. The dog had me pinned, and the not-so-great day went straight to shitty when one of its enormous paws dug straight into my already strained bladder.

“Hey, mister, why’d you shoot that dog?”

It sounded like a kid, and from the silhouette I could make out when I twisted my head to the side, it looked kid-shaped. It moved into the light, and the shadowy thing turned into a dirty-faced child wearing a pair of white briefs and a thin T-shirt. Like most children under knee level, I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a boy, especially since it was wearing what looked like generations-old hand-me-downs.

“Hi. You’re not out here alone, are you?” I smiled, keeping my elfin canines hidden. Sharp incisors do not a warm, welcoming smile make. I hoped the kid hadn’t wandered off from some campsite. The last thing I needed was to have a lost bawler to deal with as I dragged the dog back to my truck—if I figured out a way to get out from under it. “There’s a mommy or daddy around, right? Please tell me you come with someone bigger attached to you.”

“Yeah, we live right there.” S/he pointed behind us, up the ridge. “All of us. Mama, Daddy, and everyone.”

“Is someone home right now? Maybe someone really big who can help get the big dog off me?” Someone once told me to talk to kids like I was excited to see them, told me it was easier to convince them to do things if children heard the things in a happy voice. Every kid I’d ever met had always made me a liar, but I was using as happy a voice as I had. I’d buy the kid anything it wanted, but it looked too young to bribe.

“Daddy’s big!” The runty human studied me. “Bigger than you. Stronger!”

“Good,” I replied. I’d be glad to lose in a size-pissing contest if it would help me get the feeling back in my feet. “Can you go get Daddy?”

“Jaime! Where did you get off to?”

Craning my neck to stare up the slope, I sent a belated thanks to Iesu and Buddha when the short cliff above me suddenly sprouted another person, taller and definitely a woman.

I kept the happy voice up, but by now it was less happy and more badly-needing-to-pee. “Who’s that? Someone you know?”

“That’s Mama!” The child beamed, waving its arms above its head to get the woman’s attention. “Mama! It’s one of those pointy-eared people! Can I keep him? He can sleep next to my turtle!”

 

 

“YOU KNOW what I miss, boy? The blood,” Dempsey said around the cigar stump in his mouth. “I miss the blood the most.”

Up to my elbows in said blood, I spared the human who raised me a look and offered him my knife. Isolated, Dempsey’s place was a good spot to dispose of black dogs’ bodies, and laying down a slab table with runnels to catch the gore into a cistern made the job even easier. “If you want to, I can leave this to you. That leg of yours is bad, but your hands still work.”

“You’re not too big for me to wipe my ass with.” Spitting a chunk of loose tobacco off his tongue, he hitched himself up onto the bed of the truck. “And the moment you say that’s because I have a big ass is the second I break that pretty face of yours with a backhand.”

He’d always been a big man, with coarse features and a grizzle of beard no matter how often he shaved. A run up the coast had brought him to his knees, a swipe of a giant scorpion’s tail blowing out his leg. Despite the fierce limp hobbling his walk, Dempsey hadn’t changed much, even if his days of being a Stalker were done.

I’d give Dempsey this—he might have retired from the Stalker business, but he was as mean as the day he’d taken me as winnings in a card game. I didn’t have any doubt that he could hand me my ass, so I kept silent, having learned from experience how quick the large man could move, even with his gimped leg. I might be stronger and quicker than most humans, but Dempsey was meaner than anything I’d ever met. Keeping my mouth shut was usually the wisest thing to do.

When he was retired out, Dempsey looked for someplace to live and found a few acres in Lakeside that were cheap. A couple of battered storage containers had been easily converted into a large home, and after a few burns from the cutting torch, I’d gotten the hang of making windows while Dempsey welded the metal rectangles into place. A few coats of paint and a deck made the place almost homey, although the gun racks in the kitchen put a serious dent into the suburban image the place struggled to put up. We’d left most of the sage and brush around the perimeter; the brambles were a natural barrier for anything large to plow through.

“Spent a lot of money and time feeding and teaching you, boy,” he’d growled at me across the kitchen table, biting back a snarl as he took a shot of Jim. Too banged up to do the job, he’d had to turn over his license, and his mood roamed from mad to mad drunk. “Time to pay up for that.”

Being a retired Stalker didn’t come with a pension plan, and Dempsey never had been smart with his money. Most of it was spent on whiskey, poker, and women, so when the time came for him to step back from jobs, he looked to me to support him. I gave him a third of my earnings in exchange for a place to burn black dogs’ bodies. Since I lived in the city, it was a cheaper way to dispose of the useless meat. The incinerator at San Diego Central Works was expensive and too often down for maintenance.

I could think of a thousand things I’d rather be doing than dragging around skinned carcasses of black dogs while looking for a place to burn them. Sitting on a fire-ant hill covered in honey came to mind.

“Took down four, then?” He stepped closer, inspecting the large alpha male I’d killed last. “Good job, that. Skulls are ruined, though. Don’t know why you can’t make a kill without shattering the skull. Used to be a Stalker was known by the skulls he’d collected.”

“Because I’d rather be alive than have a trophy? If it makes you feel better, I waited until I could spit on it before I shot.”

Bringing the dog down from the mountain hadn’t made it any smaller. If anything, the thing seemed bigger, nearly impossible to get out of the bed of the truck and onto the cutting slab. The mound of black dog lying out on the concrete was the last one I had to do. The others were already skinned for the bounty, and the carcasses piled up to be burned. I’d already put charcoal into the pit. After a brief discussion with Dempsey, we both agreed the dogs weren’t worth wasting any precious gasoline. They’d have to burn with good old Kingston like the others before them.

“We’ll get a good bounty on these.” He nodded at the furs stretched on the rack, the raw skin sprinkled with salt to soak up the excess gore. The Post didn’t need them tanned, but I disliked carrying decaying skins through the city, and ocean salt worked quickly on dog flesh. I appreciated him doing the salt. My skin was still tender from the acidic blood. Getting salt on the burns would be hellish. “Should get what? Five hundred for the smaller ones? Maybe more?”

“Probably more,” I agreed, gripping the male’s paw and slicing up around its shoulder. “The Post’s offering a hundred for every hand length now. It went up last week. Lots of the dogs in the area. SoCalGov’s getting flak for all the packs roaming in the farmlands. Dead people don’t pay taxes.”

“True. Government would want to avoid that.” Dempsey walked around me, avoiding the line of blood filling the cement channels. His hand came up to scratch his nose. I flinched a little, unable to stop myself from jerking back. Growing up with Dempsey sometimes meant my lessons were given with a hard fist as much as rough words, and my body seemed to instinctively remember that, although I couldn’t remember the last time he hit me.

Working my fingers under the cut skin, I separated the pelt from the black dog’s body, ignoring the burn of its blood on my hands. Being elfin, I’d heal from the poison-ivy-like rash within minutes of pulling my hands from its carcass, but it still stung. Gloves were more of a bother than they were worth. Latex melted and stuck to flesh, and leather ones were too expensive to replace after every dog skinning. Even Dempsey, when he could be bothered to help with a skinning, went barehanded.

With the fur off in one piece, I began the task of taking the carcass apart. A black dog bounty paid per handspan, measured carefully by the clerks down at the Post. Bounty was paid not only for the pelt but also for the kill. Stitching together a pelt that had been cut meant waiting for the money to be released while the Post determined if the fur came from a single animal or had been cobbled together from separate pieces for a bounty. Trying to pass off strangely cut dog pelts brought in short a leg or haunch usually meant a yanked license.

A real Stalker knew all the tricks and never played them. Having a firm reputation for being reliable and honest was nearly as good as being a keen shot. Dempsey might be an asshole, but he never shorted anyone or ran off on a job. He’d left Stalking behind with his head held high, and people still spoke about runs he’d done along the coast. Other than a warm woman at night, it was all he’d wanted. Well, he also told me he wanted to die in his bed at the age of ninety-eight from being shot by a jealous husband, but a warm woman at night would be good enough.

Dempsey took over shoveling chunks of dog meat into the pit with his bare hands. He worked quickly, keeping his contact with the acid down to a minimum. Grinning unevenly, he stopped long enough to ruffle the hair at the back of my head, getting gore and guts on my neck. “You can hose yourself off outside. You stink like the dog-hugger you are, and that black mop of yours is all dusty, like you were rolling in a barn. There’s some of your clothes in the back room. I’ll bring ’em out for you.”

I didn’t argue. I’d spent the night in the truck’s cab, parked under one of the tall trees, after getting to Lakeside at nearly three in the morning. The sun was barely up when Dempsey knocked on the truck window to wake me up with a cup of coffee as pitch black as the dogs I had lying in the truck bed. The tarp I’d spread over the truck’s seat wasn’t very comfortable to lie on, but it kept the fabric clean. I had a crick in my neck and stank from cutting open gullets filled with rotting meat. The coffee in my belly was a distant memory, and I still needed to drive back in to San Diego. A shower would go a long way in shaking me awake.

The outside shower’s water was cold, leaving me with pinpricks on my skin and shivering when the wind hit my bare ass. The dog’s weight left me sore, and I was covered in purple and black bruises. Moving to the side was a bit painful, and I was sure my back had suffered as much as my legs had, perhaps even more, from being rubbed against the rocky hillside. A few spots of dog blood had made it through my jeans, scorching the two hand-size Asiatic dragons tattooed on my hip and back. The blistered skin didn’t look like it had lifted up any ink, but I’d have to wait a few hours to see if it healed smoothly or whether I’d have to make a trip down to the Flying Panther to fix it.

“That last damned dog was a bitch to move. Must have been an escapee from a Wild Hunt. Damned elfin can’t keep track of their own hunting packs, and we always got to go out and wipe up their messes.” Dempsey gave me a once-over as he handed me a worn towel, frowning at the bruising on my thighs. “What the hell did you do? Ride the damned thing to death?”

“If I’d ridden it to death, I wouldn’t have been under the damned thing when it died,” I said, taking the towel and trying to use its sparse pile to soak up the water on my naked belly. The air whistled between the outdoor spigot and the trees around it, catching on every icy drop on my skin. He stood staring at me for a moment too long, and I started to wonder if he’d switched the side of the street he walked on. “What?”

“Haven’t really looked at you in a few years. Grown up a bit. You’re not as skinny as you used to be. Muscled up nice.” He moved his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. “Finally got some meat on that stick body of yours. Hell, I could have waited a few years and pimped you out for money instead of teaching you to Stalk.”

“Nice of you to have a backup plan in case the job gets too hard for me,” I muttered, grabbing at the clothes he held out for me. I looped the wet towel over a branch then slid on my jeans, shaking out the water from my hair as best I could.

“Not like I didn’t have offers for you before. That face of yours and those purple-blue eyes,” he scoffed, leaning on the tree. “Lots of folks thought you were tasty, even with you being elfin, but whoring’s too much work for too little. Stalking’s easier, and you don’t have to worry about someone not paying up. Well, not as often.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Part of being a Stalker meant having to take private jobs when Government Issue was lean. We’d both been burned too many times to count after a run.

“’Sides, not like you wouldn’t have stabbed anyone who pissed you off,” Dempsey said. “You cut enough people with your teeth when I first got you. Savage little cat-bastard.”

Dempsey’s words didn’t bother me. We’d been down this road before. He’d been suckered into taking a mostly wild elfin in a poker game, calling a bluff that resulted in the bluffer passing me over the table as payment. I hadn’t understood a word of Singlish, and up until that point, I’d spent more time bleeding than eating. Over the years, I’d heard him wonder if it wouldn’t have been more profitable just to sell me to whoever would give him a good price. But sponsoring me as a Stalker was one of his better ideas, especially on those mornings when his fondness for drink kept him in bed. I was more motivated by the hunger in my belly, where Dempsey needed only a fifth to survive on for a week.

Considering where I’d come from, Dempsey was a godsend, no matter which god sent him.

“Not that I don’t want to bask in the warmth of your undying love, Dempsey, but I should head in and drop off the furs, then get some sleep. I’ll have the Post drop your share into the fund,” I said, pulling on a faded red T-shirt. “The account’s the same, right? They can do a transfer.”

“Yeah, same account,” he replied. “Stay a bit. I’ll bring out some food. Might as well feed you before you head back into the city. You can always eat. I’ve fed that damned stomach of yours long enough to know that. You probably need some more coffee in you too.”

“Yeah, I could eat.” I was hungry. I was always hungry, but I didn’t expect Dempsey to invite me in. The woman he was with hated elfin with a passion. She refused to be in the house if I stepped into it, calling a priest to bless the place whenever I crossed the threshold. It was easier to eat on the porch with him and afterward toss my paper plate and wooden chopsticks into the fire with the burning dogs.

He gathered breakfast quickly, and we sat eating rice, cold Spam, and wet eggs as the flames burned through the dogs’ bodies. I tossed my plate into the fire when I was done and lit a clove cigarette, filling my lungs with the kretek’s husky sweetness to wash away the stink of burning dog.

Dempsey’s plate joined mine after a few more mouthfuls. Standing next to me, he put his chewed-on cigar stump into his mouth, lit the end, then drew it back to life with a few pulls. Blowing out a stream of smoke to battle the dogs’ reek, he pursed his lips and stared off into the distance.

“You could have just sent me off with some food, you know.” I spotted the sun behind the gloom in the sky, surprised to discover it was only midmorning. Dempsey must have woken me up after only a few hours of sleep.

“Nah, that wouldn’t be right,” he growled. “You know it’s not good to eat on the run, and a Stalker should always have his man’s back. Be a shame if I’d spent all that time beating some sense into you and left that bit out.”