I had a frat-boy stretched out on the table, a pink slab of drunken meat just itching for ink, when Huck blew back into my life and brought the blood trade with him.
“Dead gods, Woody, this is the shit-hole you crawled into?” The shop was damn small, Huck was damn big, and the perfectly tailored black ass of his suit pants leaned against my desk before I’d even raised the humming needle from frat-boy’s hide.
“I’m busy, Huck. Back off.”
“Busy?” Huck pursed his lips, made a show of studying the stencil I’d taped across the customer’s shoulder blades. “Gettin you some ink, boy? A tribal? Something all spiky and black and awesome to show off to the bitches back home?”
Huck’s deep voice slowly penetrated my customer’s drunken meditations, and his blood shot eyes rolled to blink back my ex-partner’s regard. “Who the hell. . .” The young man’s voice trailed off, the twitchy edge of drunken belligerence fading as he caught sight of Huck’s face.
Huck smiled, and his smile stretched the pink rift of scar tissue that ran up from the corner of his jaw, across the twisted pit of his ruined right eye and onto his broad forehead. Before Nikolai’s betrayal, Huck’s face had been sternly handsome and the blood tatted into his dark skin had shone like lightning. That tat’s magic had made him beautiful and terrifying, like a storm rolling, and with a look he could make all the world his bitch. Now, left with just the scar and the spark of rage that still burned in the depths of his remaining eye, he had to be content with just scaring people shitless.
“Tribals are crap, redneck poser ink. Do yourself a favor and piss off.”
Two minutes after Huck banged in and my only customer that whole damn day was sulking out, a black dot of ink no bigger than a pimple hidden beneath his shirt. “Follow him out, Huck,” I said as the door rattled shut and I trashed the ink that I’d laid out for the job. “We’re done, remember?”
“Woody.” He picked up my sample book, stared at my name splashed across its front in bright red graffiti style. “Dumb ass name. Nikolai helped you pick that, didn’t he? Did that cocksucker give you a wooden pecker to go with it?”
My teeth clenched, locked back the curse I wanted to hurl at him. It’d always been so easy for him to control me, to drop a few words and make me flare up in rage. Or desire. But those days were gone. We were different people now. “Just go. Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it.”
“You don’t want to hear it? Don’t even want to hear it?” Huck’s big hands flipped restlessly through the pages of my sample book, but his eye was roaming the cheap sample-art posters tacked to the lumpy plaster of the walls. “You rent yourself some space in a crappy little parlor on Hollywood so you could draw ugly tats with plain ink onto tourists, and so you don’t need to hear me out? You sure you can afford to say that?”
Threat growled like distant thunder through his smooth voice, but I wasn’t going to let him shake me that way either. “I can afford to stay out of jail.”
“Jail.” The scar shifted around his smile. “What was that to you? Four years learning to ink and picking out girlfriends. Jail must have been nothing for you. Tough guy.”
Four years being the freak in a cage. That wasn’t nothing, no, not at all. I rubbed a hand over the rough bristles on my chin, shook my head, so sick of Huck and all those memories that rode his wake. “They weren’t my type.”
Huck’s hands snapped my book shut, dropped it to my desk where it teetered and fell to the floor in a glossy heap. He pushed himself up straight to tower over me, the bright spot of spite in his eye burning down at me. “Yeah, and you ain’t my type anymore either, are you?” In his face, I could read the disgust, the anger he still had at me for what I’d done, for the truth I’d carved into my flesh. Flesh he once thought he had claim to. “So stop trying to play the big boy. There’s new blood in town, big god’s blood, and I mean to have it. So that means I need me a bloodhound. I need you.”
“I ain’t your dog, Huck.”
His hands were on me, yanking me into him, and suddenly all I could see was his bright, furious eye and its ruined twin. “You are my dog, Woody. You’re my bitch. Always.” He shoved me away and I hit the table behind me, stumbled and landed on my ass.
From the floor I stared up at him, body shaking, anger and fear rattling through me. We’d been lovers for years before it all burned down, before Nikolai destroyed us. Years good, bad and chaotic, especially at the end when I had told him what I really was, told him that his pretty girl never believed she was a girl at all. And that I wanted to change. Through all of that, in all the twisted grotesquerie of what we had called our love, he had never touched me in anger, never dared name and claim me like that. “Get out.”
“No.” He stared down at me, hands twitching, his ill-leashed fury hungry for release, but as I pushed my back slowly to the wall he reined it. “No. This isn’t just some score. It’s the score, the one that wraps this business up for all of us, you, me and Nikolai. This pays it all.”
Nikolai. I close my eyes and let my head rock back to thump my crew-cut into the wall. Of course it was Nikolai. Of course he’d come back to LA, blood in his hands and a smile on his lips. “Oh gods, Huck, just give it up. He hurt me too, hurt me bad. Four years of my life are gone because of him. But I can’t steal those years back, and you can’t hurt him enough to bring back your tat. Cut your damn losses and move on. Going after Nikolai, getting back in the trade, it’s just a slow bullet through your brain.”
“You think I can let this go?” His finger traced over the ruin of his face. “He burned me. He set me up and burned me, burned the blood of Zeus right out of my face. I’m never going to let that go. My balls won’t let me. How about yours?”
A cheap shot and I gathered up my book and stood while I let the pain of its bite fade. “No Huck. No. I don’t want your revenge, and I don’t want your money. Find yourself some other dog. I’m done with the blood trade.”
“I wasn’t offering money.”
The softness of his voice made me look at him, but he was staring away from me now, through the neon and out at the tourists passing in the garish unnight. “What?”
“He has Ungud.”
“Fuck!” The book hit the wall, pages flying, the bright wings of butterflies torn away by a storm. The trap had shut, and I never even saw it coming. “Fuck me,” I whispered, and damn he was smiling at me, sympathy and satisfaction.
“Not anymore, baby-girl. Not anymore.”
I watched them kill a god, once. My mother took me.
She made me wear a dress, and I hated that. I hated the crowd, the heat and perfume stink of the people around me as everyone pressed close to glass so thickly etched with wards that the altar below seemed to float in a fog of incantation. I hated it all, but she made me watch. Mom thought they were saving the world, culling the idols of the infidels. Even then, I wondered if they were just making a profit.
The god looked like a dirty old woman, senile and sick. It felt obscene, watching the priests stagger to the altar under the weight of their icons of protection, dragging her with them. While they made their prayers, she drooled and muttered. I watched, and couldn’t believe it would happen. Couldn’t believe that anything so sad, so contemptible, could be a god. Couldn’t believe they were going to kill that wasted old crone. Then they bent back her head and cut her throat.
One quick flash of a knife, and the blood came. The black blood boiled out of her, writhed and splashed like a thousand snakes and the priests caught as much as they could. Caught it to seal up in sacred vessels and sell for the glory of their particular truth. That black essence of belief, sold by the ounce.
Truth wins, chaos dies. My mother pointed to the sacred circle carved into the altar, stained black. The old beliefs were all going away, and the world would be pure. I listened, silent and horrified at the thought. A world where everything fit, just so. Where no one could be out of place. She pulled me away, content in her sanctimony, but I looked back and watched the priests trying to gather every last dark drop. And I saw them fail.
It escaped them, slipped past them, ran away. Some portion of that tainted tincture of everything that the dead god’s worshippers had once invested in her ran back into the world. Escaped, to pool in graveyard shadows and on the wings of crows, in bottles of dark beer and in the eyes of sick children. No one could contain the blood. That was a truth I could believe in.
So the blood of the dead gods gathered in the dark spaces, the secret places, and of course there were those stupid enough, crazy enough, to seek it out. We found the dreams of a million souls gathered in the curdled essence of a deity and packaged it into little glass spheres, convenient for sale. Of course the dealers were all fucked up. And I had fallen in love with two of them, and my hands had been soaked in the blood of the divine. It didn’t matter that I was a blood hound, one of those dubiously gifted few who could sniff out the blood where it hid, who could resist somewhat the madness it cast in its raw form. It still tainted my life. Trying to turn my back on it had been a stupid dream.
Stretched out in my narrow bed, I stared at the peeling walls of my tiny apartment, tacked over with diagrams, photos, maps of the hills above LA. Five years of impotent rage hadn’t done much for Huck’s temper, but it had honed his cunning, and now my room was a shrine to his dream of revenge. For the past two weeks he had been force-feeding me every detail of Nikolai’s return. Dead gods knew where he’d gotten it all, or how he’d paid for it. But now it was my job to know it. Just like the old days.
The good, crazy days. When Huck planned the scores and I pulled them off, riding his smarts through the job until I hit the point where the information broke down and I would just have to gut it through. Then Nikolai would line up the buyers and bring in the cash. That was when we were one tight little family, completely screwed up and seething but together, functioning somehow. Until it had all blown apart.
I had tried to pretend I could turn my back on Huck and Nikolai and everything we had done to each other. Tried to pretend that we were over and done. A stupid mistake. We would never be over as long as all three of us still breathed. Huck was too furious, Nikolai too careful, and me. . . They both knew me too well to let me go. They knew exactly how to pull me back in. Ungud. The aboriginal god of snakes and rainbows and desire, a god who could be male or female, depending on its want. Who was what it was, what it wanted to be. A god whose blood could make me exactly what I was.
Three days, and maybe this would really would be over, like Huck said, solved under a sky painted red and black by his rage. Three days, and maybe I or Nikolai or Huck might finally get what we wanted. Or maybe again all our dreams would just spill out and be lost to violence, like the blood of that dead god.
A helicopter thundered overhead, hauling water east to the fire lines and that finally shut Huck up.
“I know,” I said, before he could start up again when the noise faded. “I know, and if I don’t know it’s too damn late to worry about it. You’ve done your job, now let me do mine.” I watched his hands tighten on the steering wheel of his Tahoe, remembered how mad this made him. A control freak, placing his carefully crafted creation into the hands of an improviser. Five years of obsession hadn’t changed that.
“The fire is rolling in faster than I wanted it too. They might be thinking of moving.”
“Yeah, maybe. So what? I’ll deal with it.” My hands were slapping a quick beat over my body, checking pockets to make sure every piece of equipment was where I wanted it. “You wanted me, you got me, now let me go. I’ve got work to do.”
“A real tough guy now, ain’t you?”
His eye looked me over, and I could imagine him trying to picture me the way I was when we met, to see again the person I’d been when he’d wanted me. It made me itch, uncomfortable. “Were you really?”
“Yeah. Why do you think you loved me, instead of all the other women you’d screwed?” And then I was out of the car, slamming shut the door and leaving him with that. As good a last line as I was going to get, if this all went to hell and I never saw him again. I started down the street, heading for the bike paths that would take me to the house hidden high in these dry hills where Nikolai and the blood were waiting. As I walked, I wrapped a black bandana across my face to block out the smell of burning. And wondered if things had already gone to hell a long time ago.
The wards were easy, always were. My nature makes me slippery, hard to fix with magic. And I had them marked on a map. The alarms were harder, but Huck knew my weaknesses and had drilled me on how to handle the ones that were still operating, the ones that hadn’t fallen when the fire took out the power and the data lines. The fire or some hired hand of Huck’s, using the fire for cover. Even the cell nets were almost useless, jammed with the panicked calls of property owners.
I pulled myself up onto the bumpy tile roof of the house, giving thanks as I did to the testosterone injections that built the muscle that made it easy. It was a big place, some old money mansion built out in the wilderness before Santa Clarita had blown up in the valley below. It must have cost Nikolai a bundle to rent, and I was betting he wasn’t going to be getting his deposit back. If he really had the blood of ten dead gods down there, it didn’t matter how hard they warded the spheres that encased it. Power would bleed out, and the shadows of this house would crawl with nightmares for years.
That, though, was the least of my ex-partner’s problems. I found the skylight I wanted and peered down into a room, empty and lit only with the ruddy glow of the approaching fire. An empty room, except for the brass bound box that gleamed below me. I frowned down at it. Clear the ward on this skylight, slip down and gather up the loot, then away. Just like Huck had planned.
My fingers danced around the skylight’s edge, pasting in place the twists of iron and hair, spit and paper. Charms to break the ward without letting it know it’s been broken. Then I worked loose the alarm wire, slipped open the lock and tied off my rope. All in the plan. I swung myself in, quiet as a cat, and slid down. Adrenalin danced in my veins, waiting for the moment the plan went to hell.
I could smell the blood, even before I cracked the case. I’d never been very gifted at sniffing the stuff out, had never been a good tracker. My bloodhound abilities lay more in my gift at resisting its gnawing effect on my sanity. But the scent was so strong here I could taste it, and I knew that there must be more blood in the case than I had ever seen before. With care, I lifted away the soft packing meant to prevent the psychic hell storm that would burst forth if one or more of the globes inside broke. And that was when the plan burned.
Eleven spheres nestled carefully in velvet. Big crystal globes, and in the heart of each black liquid rolled and stirred, moving in tides that were steered more by my heartbeat than the moon. Eleven. Huck had said ten. Behind me, the door swung open and my job really began.
“Nikolai.” Five years had barely changed him, but he was vain. Exercise to keep the belly away, dyes to tint the grey that was creeping in, injections and charms to smooth the nascent wrinkles. Still, he looked good. He stepped into the room alone, shut the door behind him. Didn’t matter. The guards would be on the periphery, waiting.
“I like what you’ve done with yourself.” His grey eyes roamed me, flicked across my short hair and goatee, the muscles I’d added, lingered on the bulge in the black fatigues I wore. “You’re packing now.”
“In more ways than one,” I said. But I kept my hands still, didn’t try to pull on him. Nikolai wanted to talk, and I was fine with that.
“You like the merchandise?”
“It’s expensive.” Nikolai walked a little closer, stopped. With the box open, I knew he had to be feeling it, the buzzing edge of distortion that gave normal people the fits and left bloodhounds like me mostly alone. An advantage, since it kept him back from me. A little one.
“South American, mostly. Huitzilopochtli. They mix a tiny drop of that with meth and slam it. Guys do that and they can dodge bullets. For a little while. Tezcatlipoca. Put a trace of it in the ink of a jaguar tattoo, and no one will ever lie to you again. And nine more. The trade’s been good to me, lately.”
“I see.” Good. Eleven full globes, each the size of a damn softball, each one a pure god, each of them worth a fortune. We’d risked our lives for a globe of mixed blood a tenth the size of these in the old days. That case cradled more money and power than I’d ever seen in the trade. Power enough that I could feel it gnawing at my inborn protections.
“I’m glad Huck persuaded you to come. I’ve been wanting to see you. I owe you an apology.”
“You don’t owe me anything.” Friends, lovers, family, they hurt each other and had to apologize. Nikolai had been all of those to me, once, but he wasn’t anymore. Burning out Huck’s tat had been a too clever attempt at assassination, and if I hadn’t gotten spooked and ditched the blood I was carrying down a storm sewer, I wouldn’t have been doing four years for breaking and entering. Transporting even that little bit of unsanctioned blood would have kept me in a cage for life. Nikolai had tried to take both our lives when he decided to stop freelancing and left us to join the east coast family that was muscling in on the LA blood trade. When he betrayed us, he stopped being anything but an enemy. And enemies, they never need to apologize.
Nikolai read the thread of my thought in my body’s tension. He nodded, and I knew he never expected any other answer. “I always thought I was the clever one. But you both were smarter than I thought. But this isn’t really smart at all.” He waved a hand at the spheres. “Who do you think fed Huck all the info that led you here? Who do you think his informants were really working for? And why do you think I made sure that he knew that I had Ungud? I wanted you to come, Woody. So I brought you a gift.”
The spheres gleamed, shining soft in the red fire light. I reached down, slow, and plucked up the odd one out. In its depths, the black blood moved and flashed, brightened. There were colors there, every color, vibrant as a rainbow, and they twisted together into the form of a serpent, into a woman, into a man. Ungud. “A gift. Or a payment?”
“What is he to you, Woody? What did he do when you told him what you really were? When you told him that his girlfriend wasn’t really a girl at all? He would have driven you out, thrown you away. I was the one who understood, who let you be what you are. Who loved you as you really are. Who let you stay. That was me.” He looked at me, blue eyes so sincere, and my hand gripped the sphere so tightly I wondered if it might crack. “Take my gift. Then lead me to him.”
“So you can finally finish with him?” And here it was again, the real sick heart of our little family. It had always been about the struggle between these two, to find out who was really in charge, who was really the alpha dog. And I had always been a marker, part of the score. That’s why he hadn’t just let me take the stuff and followed me back to his ex-partner. He had to know that I was betraying Huck. That he had won, finally. “Fuck you.”
“What other choice do you think you have?” Nikolai always sounded so sad when he had you right where he wanted you. When he thought you were his bitch.
“What choice? Did I ever have a real choice, pinned between you two?” I looked out the broad windows at the distant hills, at the bright flames that stretched up into the darkness. Ungud’s sphere was tight in my hand. “Here’s my choice. Everything breaks, and everybody dies.”
Nikolai was smart, but slow, too damn slow. He didn’t even have time to wipe that sad, smug look from his face before my hand was wrapping around the velvet, yanking it free from the box. In the air the dead god’s blood shone in their clear cages, beautiful. Then they slammed into the floor and shattered. I only heard the start of Nikolai’s screaming as the air broke around us, filled with ten thousand dreams of gods, dead and howling. In my head, I denied them, walled them out and fumbled through their passions for the rope that hung beside me. It was in my hand, the black nylon harsh against my skin, when they broke through and the whole world began to burn.
Around me, the ash fell like snow. Smoke rose, black columns that made the sun a sick pale circle rising slowly in the east. Closing my eyes blotted out that grey light, but the visions that had been burned into the darkness behind my eyelids gave me no comfort. I opened them again and watched the fires crawl across the distant hills until Huck came for me.
“Woody.” He swung himself out of his truck, hand hidden beneath his suit jacket, waiting for an ambush. “What happened?”
“What do you think?” I wiped my bandana across my face, tried to blink away the smoke and visions. In the ruins of his face, colors ran and danced like a broken rainbow, making my eyes burn. “It was a setup. It all went to hell.”
“You didn’t get the blood?”
I opened my hand, let the wan sun shine on the glass orb it still held. “Ungud. Only Ungud. I dumped the rest.”
He grunted. “You dumped them?”
“I broke them all. Broke them and crawled out through the chaos. It was the only way to get past the guards. And Nikolai.” I watched him twitch when I spoke the name. “I smashed them at his feet.”
Huck stared at me, his one eye red and burning. “Then you did good.”
I’d spilt out hell in that house and run away, and the screams of Nikolai and his men had echoed behind me until the fire finally swept over them. I’d bought a new life and Huck’s vengeance with the blood of dead gods and the screams of damned men. My dreams were going to be tainted with both, forever.
“Good. Yeah.” In the globe, the blood trembled, stirred by the tremor in my hand. “I always do my best when your plans fail, and when chaos rules.” Holding the glass sphere tight, I made myself go on. “Huck, I need something.”
“I thought we were done. I thought that was what you wanted. You did your job, and your payment’s in your hand.”
“Huck, I don’t want your money. I want your help. We used to do that, sometimes, remember? Just help each other? When you still loved me?”
He looked away, stared out at smoke and ruins, a big man with a rumpled suit and a scar. “What?”
“I need a tat. With this blood.”
“So you can finally become a real boy?”
I ignored the stupid, useless bitterness in his voice. He could never believe that this had nothing to do with him. “So I can be what I am.”
“A man,” he said. “That much blood, you could be more than that.”
I turned the sphere and watched the colors shine in the dark blood. So much power, so much potential. “Yes. I can be every man. Young and old, big and small. All different, and all the same.”
“A shapeshifter. A changeling.”
The idea pleased me, so much possibility after a lifetime of being trapped. “I like change.”
Huck’s eye came back to me, and the corner of his mouth moved, almost made a smile. “No lie there, baby-girl.” The words made me twitch, his name for me when we had been lovers, what he called me when we were tangled together. “You could even be a woman. Again.”
I looked up and met his eye, and for first time ever he looked away. “It’s not for you, Huck. I’m not going to be your girl again. Ever.”
“No. I guess not.” He pushed himself up straight, walked around the truck and stopped by the door. “This smoke is killing my eye. Let’s get out of here.”
I stood, but didn’t step forward. “The blood?”
Huck frowned at me, his scar darkening. Then he shrugged. “I know a guy. But he’ll want to get paid.”
My turn to shrug, and I did it while walking toward the car. “Shouldn’t be a problem, for us.” His eye narrowed, and I smiled. “We just agreed not to screw each other anymore. Best basis for a partnership we ever had.”
“Shit.” He shook his head, but then slid into the truck, popping the door for me. “Spilling that blood’s made you crazy.”
“No. It made me sane.” In my hand, I clutched the blood tight, and in my head I held just as tight to the image of a serpent spiraling across my skin in every color of the rainbow. A serpent that could weave my flesh into a thousand shapes that made a greater truth. I would bear the blood of a dead god, and become what I’d always wanted to be. Myself.