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The Complete Series
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Not everyone tries.
But Jill Kismet is not just anyone.
She’s a Hunter, trained by the best — — and in over her head.
Welcome to the night shift. . .
The omnibus edition of Jill Kismet contains: Night Shift, Hunter’s Prayer, Redemption Alley, Flesh Circus, Heaven’s Spite and Angel Town.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Iron Wyrm Affair
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For Nicholas Deangelo,
who never asked why.
The most terrible thing to face is one's own soul.
A wooden chair in the middle of a flat expanse of hardwood floor, lonely under cold fluorescent light.
I lowered myself gingerly, curled my fingers over the ends of the armrests, and commended my soul to God.
Well, maybe not actually commended. Maybe I was just praying really, really hard.
He circled the chair, every step just heavy enough to make a noise against bare floorboards. My weapons and my coat were piled by the door, and even the single knife I'd kept, safe in its sheath strapped to my thigh, was no insurance. I was locked in a room with a hungry tiger who stepped, stepped, turning just a little each time.
I didn't shift my weight.
Instead, I stared across the room, letting my eyes unfocus. Not enough to wall myself up inside my head—that was a death sentence. A hunter is always alert, Mikhail says. Always. Any inattention is an invitation to Death.
And Death loves invitations.
The hellbreed became a shadow each time he passed in front of me, counterclockwise, and I was beginning to wonder if he was going to back out of the bargain or welsh on the deal. Which was, of course, what he wanted me to wonder.
Careful, Jill. Don't let him throw you. I swallowed, wished I hadn't; the briefest pause in his even tread gave me the idea that he'd seen the betraying little movement in my throat.
I do not like the idea of hellbreed staring at my neck.
Silver charms tied in my hair clinked as blessed metal reacted to the sludge of hellbreed filling the ether. This one was bland, not beautiful like the other damned. He was unassuming, slim and weak-looking.
But he scared my teacher. Terrified him, in fact.
Only an idiot isn't scared of hellbreed. There's no shame in it. You've got to get over being ashamed of being scared, because it will slow you down. You can't afford that.
I almost jumped when his breath caressed my ear. Hot, meaty breath, far too humid to be human. He was breathing on me, and my flesh crawled in concentric waves of revulsion. Gooseflesh rose up hard and pebbled, scales of fear spreading over my skin.
"Here's the deal." The words pressed obscenely warm against my naked skin. Something brushed my hair, delicately, and silver crackled with blue sparks. A hiss touched my ear, the skin suddenly far too damp.
I wasn't sweating. It was his breath condensing on me.
Oh, God. I almost choked on bile. Swallowed it and held still, every muscle in my body screaming at me to move, to get away.
"I'm going to mark you, my dear. While you carry that mark, you'll have a gateway embedded in your flesh. Through that conduit, you're going to draw sorcerous energy, and lots of it. It will make you strong, and fast—stronger and faster than any of your fellow hunters. You'll have an edge in raw power when it comes to sorcery, even that weak-kneed trash you monkeys flatter yourself by calling magic."
The hellbreed paused. Cold air hit my wet ear. A single drop of condensation trickled down the outer shell of cartilage, grew fat, and tickled unbearably as it traced a dead flabby finger down to the hollow where ear meets neck, a tender, vulnerable spot.
"I'll also go so far as to help you keep this city free of those who might interfere with the general peace. Peace is good for profit, you know."
A soft, rumbling chuckle brushed against my cheek, with its cargo of sponge-rotten breath.
I kept my fucking mouth shut. "Stay silent until he offers all he's going to offer, milaya." Mikhail's advice, good advice. I was trained, wasn't I? At least, mostly trained. A hunter in my own right, and this was my chance to become… what?
Even better. It was a golden opportunity, and if he thought I should take it, I would. And I wouldn't screw it up.
I would not let my teacher down.
So stay quiet, Jill. Stay calm.
I kept breathing softly through my mouth; the air reeked of hellbreed and corruption. Tasting that scent was bad, as bad as breathing it through my nose.
I just couldn't figure out which was worse.
Something hard, rasping like a cat's tongue, flicked forward and touched the hollow behind my ear, pressing past a few stray strands of hair. If I hadn't been so fucking determined to stay still, muscles locked up tighter than Val's old cashbox, I might have flinched.
Then I probably would have died.
But the touch retreated so quickly I wasn't sure I'd felt it. Except that little drop of condensation was gone, wasn't it?
Shit. I was now sweating too bad to tell.
The hellbreed laughed again. "Very good, little hunter. The bargain goes thus: you bear my mark and use the power it provides as you see fit. Once a month you'll come visit, and you'll spend time with me. That's all—a little bit of time each month. For superlative use of the power I grant you, you might have to spend a little more time. Say, five or six hours?"
Now it was negotiation time. I wet my lips with my tongue, wished I hadn't because I suddenly knew his eyes had fastened on my mouth. "Half an hour. Maximum."
Bargaining on streetcorners taught me that much, at least—you never take the john's first offer, and you never, ever, ever start out with more than half of what you're willing to give.
Sometimes you can pick who buys you, and for how much.
That's what power really is.
"You wound me." The hellbreed didn't sound wounded. He sounded delighted, his bland tenor probing at my ear. "Three hours. See how generous I am, for you?"
This is too easy. Be careful. "An hour a month, maximum of two, and your help on my cases. Final offer, hellbreed, or I walk. I didn't come here to be jacked around."
Why had I come here? Because Mikhail said I should.
I wondered if it was another test I'd failed, or passed. I wondered if I'd just overstepped and was looking at a nasty death. Bargaining with hellbreed is tricky; hunters usually just kill them. But this wasn't so simple. This was either a really good idea or a really bad way to die.
A long thunderous moment of quiet, and the room trembled like a soap bubble. Something like masses of gigantic flies on a mound of corpses buzzed, rattling.
Helletöng. The language of the damned. It lay under the skin of the visible like fat under skin, dimpling the surface tension of what we try to call the real world.
"Done, little hunter. We have a bargain. If you agree."
My throat was like the Sahara, dry and scratchy. A cough caught out in the open turned into a painful, ratcheting laugh. "What do you get out of this, Perry?"
That scaly, dry, probing thing flicked along my skin again, rasped for the briefest second against the side of my throat, just a fraction of an inch away from where the pulse beat frantically. I sucked at keeping my heartrate down, Mikhail warned and warned me about it—
"Sometimes we like being on the side of the angels." The hellbreed's voice dropped to a whisper that would have been intimate if the rumbling of Hell hadn't been scraping along underneath. "It makes the ending sweeter. Besides, peace is good for profit. Do we have a deal, little hunter?"
Christ. Mikhail, I hope you're right. I didn't agree to it because of the hellbreed or even because the thought of that much power was tempting.
I agreed because Mikhail told me I should, even though it was my decision. It wasn't really a Trader's bargain if I was doing it for my teacher, was it?
"We have a deal." Four little words. They came out naturally, smoothly, without a hitch.
Hot iron-hard fingers clamped over my right wrist. "Oh, good." A slight wet smacking sound, like a hungry toddler at the breakfast table, and he wrenched my hand off the arm of the chair, the pale tender underside of my wrist turned up to face cold fluorescent light. My heart jackhammered away, adrenaline soaking copper into the dry roof of my mouth, and I bit back a cry.
It was too late. Four tiny words, and I'd just signed a contract.
Now we'd see if Mikhail was right, and I still had my soul.
Every city has a pulse. It's just a matter of knowing where to rest your finger to find it, throbbing away as the sun bleeds out of the sky and night rises to cloak every sin.
I crouched on the edge of a rooftop, the counterweight of my heavy leather coat hanging behind me. Settled into absolute stillness, waiting. The baking wind off the cooling desert mouthed the edges of my body. The scar on my right wrist was hot and hard under a wide hinged copper bracelet molded to my skin.
The copper was corroding, blooming green and wearing thin.
I was going to have to find a different way to cover the scar up soon. Trouble is, I suck at making jewelry, and Galina was out of blessed copper cuffs until her next shipment from Nepal.
Below me the alley wandered, thick and rank. Here at the edge of the barrio there were plenty of hiding places for the dark things that crawl once dusk falls. The Weres don't patrol out this far, having plenty to keep them occupied inside their own crazy-quilt of streets and alleys around the Plaza Centro and its spreading tenements. Here on the fringes, between a new hunter's territory and the streets the Weres kept from boiling over, a few hellbreed thought they could break the rules.
Not in my town, buckos. If you think Kismet's a pushover because she's only been on her own for six months, you've got another think coming.
My right leg cramped, a sudden vicious swipe of pain. I ignored it. My electrolyte balance was all messed up from going for three days without rest, from one deadly night-battle to the next with the fun of exorcisms in between. I wondered if Mikhail had ever felt this exhaustion, this ache so deep even bones felt tired.
It hurt to think of Mikhail. My hand tightened on the bullwhip's handle, leather creaking under my fingers. The scar tingled again, a knot of corruption on the inside of my wrist.
Easy, milaya. No use in making noise, eh? It is soft and quiet that catches mouse. As if he was right next to me, barely mouthing the words, his gray eyes glittering winter-sharp under a shock of white hair. Hunters don't live to get too old, but Mikhail Ilych Tolstoi had been an exception in so many ways. I could almost see his ghost crouching silent next to me, peering at the alley over the bridge of his patrician nose.
Of course he wasn't there. He'd been cremated, just like he wanted. I'd held the torch myself, and the Weres had let me touch it to the wood before singing their own fire into being. A warrior's spirit rose in smoke, and wherever my teacher was, it wasn't here.
Which I found more comforting than you'd think, since if he'd come back I'd have to kill him. Just part of the job.
My fingers eased. I waited.
The smell of hellbreed and the brackish contamination of an arkeus lay over this alley. Some nasty things had been sidling out of this section of the city lately, nasty enough to give even a Hell-tainted hunter a run for her money. We have firepower and sorcery, we who police the nightside, but Traders and hellbreed are spooky-quick and capable of taking a hell of a lot of damage.
Get it? A Hell of a lot of damage? Arf arf.
Not to mention the scurf with their contagion, the adepts of the Middle Way with their goddamn Chaos, and the Sorrows worshipping the Elder Gods.
The thought of the Sorrows made rage rise under my breastbone, fresh and wine-dark. I inhaled smoothly, dispelling it. Clear, calm, and cold was the way to go about this.
Movement below. Quick and scuttling, like a rat skittering from one pile of garbage to the next. I didn't move, I didn't blink, I barely even breathed.
The arkeus took shape, rising like a fume from dry-scorched pavement, trash riffling as the wind of its coalescing touched ragged edges and putrid rotting things. Tall, hooded, translucent where moonlight struck it and smoky-solid elsewhere, one of Hell's roaming corruptors stretched its long clawed arms and slid fully into the world. It drew in a deep satisfied sigh, and I heard something else.
Someone was coming to keep an appointment.
Isn't that a coincidence. So am I.
My heartbeat didn't quicken; it stayed soft, even, as almost-nonexistent as my breathing. It had taken me a long time to get my pulse mostly under control.
The next few moments were critical. You can't jump too soon on something like this. Arkeus aren't your garden-variety hellbreed. You have to wait until they solidify enough to talk to their victims—otherwise you'll be fighting empty air with sorcery, and that's no fun—and you have to know what a Trader is bargaining for before you go barging in to distribute justice or whup-ass. Usually both, liberally.
The carved chunk of ruby on its silver chain warmed, my tiger's-eye rosary warming too, the blessing on both items reacting with contamination rising from the arkeus and its lair.
A man edged down the alley, clutching something to his chest. The arkeus made a thin greedy sound, and my smart left eye—the blue one, the one that can look below the surface of the world—saw a sudden tensing of the strings of contamination following it. It was a hunched, thin figure that would have been taller than me except for the hump on its back; its spectral robes brushing dirt and refuse, taking strength from filth.
Bingo. The arkeus was now solid enough to hit.
The man halted. I couldn't see much beyond the fact that he was obviously human, his aura slightly tainted from his traffic with an escaped denizen of Hell.
It was official. The man was a Trader, bargaining with Hell. Whatever he was bargaining for, it wasn't going to do him any good.
Not with me around.
The arkeus spoke. "You have brought it?" A lipless cold voice, eager and thin, like a dying cricket. A razorblade pressed against the wrist, a thin line of red on pale skin, the frozen-blue face of a suicide.
I moved. Boots soundless against the parapet, the carved chunk of ruby resting against the hollow of my throat, even my coat silent. The silver charms braided into my long dark hair didn't tinkle. The first thing a hunter's apprentice learns is to move quietly, to draw silence in tight like a cloak.
That is, if the apprentice wants to survive.
"I b-brought it." The man's speech was the slow slur of a dreamer who senses a cold-current nightmare. He was in deep, having already given the arkeus a foothold by making some agreement or another with it. "You'd better not—"
"Peace." The arkeus's hiss froze me in place for a moment as the hump on its back twitched. "You will have your desire, never fear. Give it to me."
The man's arms relaxed, and a small sound lifted from the bundle he carried. My heart slammed into overtime against my ribs.
Every human being knows the sound of a baby's cry.
Bile filled my throat. My boots ground against the edge of the parapet as I launched out into space, the arkeus flinching and hissing as my aura suddenly flamed, tearing through the ether like a star. The silver in my hair shot sparks, and the ruby at my throat turned hot. The scar on my right wrist turned to lava, burrowing in toward the bone, my whip uncoiled and struck forward, its metal flechettes snapping at the speed of sound, cracking as I pulled on etheric force to add a psychic strike to the physical.
My boots hit slick refuse-grimed concrete and I pitched forward, the whip striking again across the arkeus's face. The hell-thing howled, and my other hand was full of the Glock, the sharp stink of cordite blooming as silver-coated bullets chewed through the thing's physical shell. Hollowpoints do a lot of damage once a hellbreed's initial shell is breached.
It's a pity 'breed heal so quickly.
We don't know why silver works—something to do with the Moon, and how she controls the tides of sorcery and water. No hunter cares, either. It's enough that it levels the playing field a little.
The arkeus moved, scuttling to the side as the man screamed, a high whitenoise-burst of fear. The whip coiled, my hip moving first as usual—the hip leads with whip-work as well as stave fighting. My whip-work had suffered until Mikhail made me take bellydancing classes.
Don't think, Jill. Move. I flung out my arm, etheric force spilling through my fingers, and the whip slashed again, each flechette tearing through already-lacerated flesh. It howled again, and the copper bracelet broke, tinkled sweetly on the concrete as I pivoted, firing down into the hell-thing's face. It twitched, and I heard my own voice chanting in gutter Latin, a version of Saint Anthony's prayer Mikhail had made me learn.
Protect me from the hordes of Hell, O Lord, for I am pure of heart and trust Your mercy—and the bullets don't hurt, either.
The arkeus screamed, writhing, and cold air hit the scar. I was too drenched with adrenaline to feel the usual curl of fire low in my belly, but the sudden sensitivity of my skin and hearing slammed into me. I dropped the whip and fired again with the gun in my left, then fell to my knees, driving down with psychic and physical force.
My fist met the hell-thing's lean malformed face, which exploded. It shredded, runnels of foulness bursting through its skin, and the sudden cloying reek would have torn my dinner loose from my stomach moorings if I'd eaten anything.
Christ, I wish it didn't stink so bad. But stink means dead, and if this thing's dead it's one less fucking problem for me to deal with.
No time. I gained my feet, shaking my right fist. Gobbets of preternatural flesh whipped loose, splatting dully against the brick walls. I uncoiled, leaping for the front of the alley.
The Trader was only human, and he hadn't made his big deal yet. He was tainted by the arkeus's will, but he wasn't given superstrength or near-invulnerability yet.
The only enhanced human being left in the alley was me. Thank God.
I dug my fingers into his shoulder and set my feet, yanking him back. The baby howled, emptying its tiny lungs, and I caught it on its way down, my arm tightening maybe a little too much to yank it against my chest. I tried to avoid smacking it with a knife-hilt.
I backhanded the man with my hellbreed-strong right fist. Goddamn it. What am I going to do now?
The baby was too small, wrapped in a bulky blue blanket that smelled of cigarette smoke and grease. I held it awkwardly in one arm while I contemplated the sobbing heap of sorry manflesh crumpled against a pile of garbage.
I've cuffed plenty of Traders one-handed, but never while holding a squirming, bellowing bundle of little human that smelled not-too-fresh. Still, it was a cleaner reek than the arkeus's rot. I tested the cuffs, yanked the man over, and checked his eyes. Yep. The flat shine of the dust glittered in his irises. He was a thin, dark-haired man with the ghost of childhood acne still hanging on his cheeks, saliva glittering wetly on his chin.
I found his ID in his wallet, awkwardly holding the tiny yelling thing in the crook of my arm. Jesus. Mikhail never trained me for this. "Andy Hughes. You are under arrest. You have the right to be exorcised. Anything you say will, of course, be ignored, since you've forfeited your rights to a trial of your peers by trafficking with Hell." I took a deep breath. "And you should thank your lucky stars I'm not in a mood to kill anyone else tonight. Who does the baby belong to?"
He was still gibbering with fear, and the baby howled. I could get nothing coherent out of either of them.
Then, to complete the deal, the pager went off against my hip, vibrating silently in its padded pocket.
Cities need people like us, those who go after things the cops can't catch and keep the streets from boiling over. We handle nonstandard exorcisms, Traders, hellbreed, rogue Weres, scurf, Sorrows, Middle Way adepts… all the fun the nightside can come up with. Normally a hunter's job is just to act as a liaison between the paranormal community and the regular police, make sure everything stays under control.
Or, if not under control, then at least reasonably orderly. Which, as a definition, allows for anything between "no bodies in the street" to "just short of actual chaos."
Hey, you've got to be flexible.
Sometimes—often enough—it's our job to find people that have been taken by the things that go bump in the night. When I say "find" I mean their bodies, because humans don't live too long on the nightside unless they're hunters. More often than not our mission is vengeance, to restore the unsteady balance between the denizens of the dark and regular oblivious people. To make a statement and keep the things creeping in the dark just there—creeping, instead of swaggering.
And also more often than not, we lay someone's soul to rest if killing them is just the beginning.
We work pretty closely with the regular police, mostly because freelance hunters don't last long enough to have a career. Even the FBI has its Martindale Squad, hunters and Weres working on nightside fun and games at the national and cross-state level. It's whispered that the CIA and NSA have their own divisions of hunters too, but I don't know about that.
For a hunter like me, the support given by the regular cops and DA's office is critical. It is, after all, law enforcement we're doing. Even if it is a little unconventional.
Okay. A lot unconventional.
The baby I unloaded at Sisters of Mercy downtown, the granite Jesus on the roof still glaring at the financial district. The hospital would find out who it belonged to, if at all possible. Avery came down to take possession of the prisoner, who was sweat-drenched, moaning with fear, and had pissed his already-none-too-clean pants.
I must have been wearing my mad face.
"Jesus Christ. Don't you ever sleep?" Avery's handsome, mournful look under its mop of dark curly hair was sleepy and uninterested until he peered through the porthole in the door. He brightened a little, his breath making a brief circle of mist spring up on the reinforced glass.
"I try not to sleep. It disturbs the circles I'm growing under my eyes. This naughty little boy just brushed with an arkeus, didn't get much." I leaned against the wall in the institutional hallway, listening to the sound of the man's hoarse weeping on the other side of the steel observation door. Sisters of Mercy is an old Catholic hospital, and like most old Catholic hospitals it has a room even the most terrifying nun won't enter.
A hunter's room. Or more precisely, a room for the holding of people needing an exorcism until a hunter or a regular exorcist can get to them.
A lot of hunters have trouble with exorcisms. They're perfectly simple; the trouble comes from the psychological cost of ripping things out of people. Some hunters who won't blanch at murdering a half-dozen Traders at once quaver at the prospect of a simple tear-the-thing-out-and-dispel-it. Maybe it's the screaming or the bleeding, though God knows there's enough of that in our regular work.
Mikhail hadn't been a quavery one, and I guess neither am I. Exorcisms are straight simple work and usually end up with the victim alive. I call that an easy job.
"A standard half-rip, then. Not even worth getting out of bed for." Avery stuffed his hands in his pockets, rocking up on his toes again to peer in the thick-barred window. I'd kept the Trader cuffed and dumped him in the middle of a consecrated circle scored into the crumbling concrete floor. Etheric energy running through the deep carved lines sparked, responding to the taint of hellbreed on the man's aura.
"He was about to hand a baby over to a hellbreed. Don't be too gentle." I peeled myself upright, the silver charms tinkling in my hair. "I've got to get over to the precinct house, Montaigne just buzzed me. Maybe I'll bring in another one for you tonight."
Avery made a face, still peering in at the Trader. "Jesus. A baby? And shouldn't you be going home? This is the fourth one you've brought in this week."
Who's keeping track? Traders had been cropping up with alarming regularity, though. I snorted, my fingers checking each knife-hilt. "Home? What's that? Duty calls."
"You gonna come out for a beer with me on Saturday?"
"You bet." I'd rescheduled twice with him so far, each time because of a Trader. People were making bargains with hellbreed left and right these days. "If I'm not hanging out on a rooftop waiting for a fucking arkeus to show up, I'll be there."
He came back down onto his heels, twitching his corduroy jacket a little to get it to hang straight over the bulge of his police-issue sidearm. "You should really slack off a bit, Kiss. You're beginning to look a little…"
Yeah. Slack off. Sure. "Be careful." I turned on my heel. "See you Saturday."
"I mean it, Kismet. You should get some rest."
If I took a piña colada by the pool, God knows what would boil up on the streets. "When the hellbreed slow down, so will I. Happy trails, Ave."
He mumbled a goodbye, bending to dig in the little black bag sitting obediently by his feet. He was the official police exorcist, handling most of the Traders I brought in unless there was something really unusual about them. He only really seemed to come alive during a difficult exorcism, the rest of the time moving sleepily through the world with a slow smile that got him a great deal of female attention. Despite that, not a lot of women stayed.
Probably because he worked the night shift tearing the bargains out of Traders or Possessors out of morbidly religious victims. Women don't like it when their man spends his nights somewhere else, even if it is with screaming Hell-tainted sickos instead of other women.
I hit the door at the end of the hall, allowing myself a single nosewrinkle at the stinging scent of disinfectant and human pain in the air. The scar burned, my ears cringing from the slightest noise and the fluorescent lights hurting my eyes. I needed to find a better way to cover it up, and quick.
Praise for the Jill Kismet series:
"This mind-blowing series remains a must-read for all urban fantasy lovers." - bittenbybooks.com
- "Jill Kismet is, above all else, a survivor, and it is her story that will haunt readers long after the blood, gore and demons have faded into memory." - RT Book Reviews
- "...Loaded with action and starring a kick butt heroine who from the opening scene until the final climax is donkey kicking seemingly every character in sight."—Harriet Klausner
- On Sale
- Jan 22, 2013
- Page Count
- 1392 pages