A Cal Leandros Novel
Family . . . it is a fucking bitch.
Just like he was a bitch. I had seen himwallowing amongst the game, but never tasting of the herd. More perverse, he lived with prey, had been raised by prey, had been taught the ways of the world by prey when I’d had to teach myself. Clawing myself along, I had chewed my way through knowledge as grimly as I’d once chewed discarded putrid meat and bone. Everything I’d earned, I’d earned with blood, mine or someone else’s. I had done what no one else could do.
The castoff failure, but look at me now. Damn right, look at me. Look hard and look goodright before I gut you.
Then there was him, the golden boy, yet look at what he had done.
Naughty and bad, bad and naughty. But much worse: disobedient. Not what they’d expected of their one true success at all.
I laughed at the irony of it.
I laughed, but I hated him, hated him, hated him, hated him, hated him.
Not for what he’d done, but that he’d been the one instead of me to do it.
That was all right, though. That was fine and fucking dandy, as someone I used to know once said. Fine and fucking dandy, because I hated everyone anyway. The only difference was, I was related to this one . . . and that made the hate sweeter. Hate was all I’d known. All I had ever been given and all I had ever had. I was created from it, molded by it, lived by it. Hate was like air, necessary to life. I wore my hate as a second skin and let it warm me when nothing else did.
I saw him through binoculars where I lay atop a roof far enough away that he wouldn’t know I was there. It was night, but I saw him clearly. Light was for the fearful herd; the night was for me. Not that it was ever truly dark in this immense mound of misbegotten roadkill waiting to happen.
Yes, I saw him. He had black hair, pale skin, lightcolored eyes. Nothing like I was at all. That I didn’t hate. That I likedI was better, purer, closer to the truth.
It was all about the truth.
The new truth.
And he was part of that, whether he wanted to be or not.
Family was a hateful bitch; it was. I had the hot poker scars of that burned into my flesh to prove it, but, scars or not, sometimes family was all you had worth playing with. Maybe he would see that. Maybe he would want to play too. I played rough. I played to win.
I’d bet he did if given the chance, not that this boring scuffle I was watching was anything to go by. It wasn’t a fraction of the challenge I’d give him.
The Unmaker of the World, they had called him.
Unimpressed, I waggled black gloved fingers in a mocking wave. We’d see. Sooner or later, we’d see exactly what family and blood meant to him. He might look like one of the cattle, but he would never be one.
Besides, if he could unmake the world, how much more fun would it be for me to remake it instead?
Family . . . it is a bitch.
The thought came out of nowhere.
Or maybe not, considering my current situation. There was no denying that it was true. Everyone thought it sooner or later, didn’t they? If there’s only you, you’re goodlonely maybe, but good. You can’t fight with yourself. If there’re two of you, it can still be good. Your options are limited. You make do and appreciate what you have, unless it’s the stereotypical eviltwin scenario. Then you aim for the goatee and blow his ass back to the alternate dimension he popped out of.
A kishibetter known as my paycheck in the form of a supernatural hyenahit my back with staggering force. I flipped it over my shoulder and put a bullet between its eyes.
Yeah, normally two was a doable number for family. It was when you hit three and higher that things started to go bad. That was when the bitching and moaning started, the pitting of one against another, the slights that no one forgot. No one could tell me that Noah didn’t pitch a few of his relatives kicking and screaming off the Ark long before the floodwaters receded. It was no familial Love Boat, and I believed that to my core.
Which brought up the question: Did that wrathful Old Testament God kill the sharks? I don’t think he did. You can’t drown a shark. I think they were snacking on biblical inlaws right and left. Noah, Noah, Noah . . .
I swung around and kicked the next kishi in the stomach as I slammed another clip home before putting three in its gaping, lethally fanged mouth as it jumped again. It sounded easy, but considering the one I also had attached to my other leg . . . it was a pain in the ass.
Familywise, I had no pain in the asses. I was lucky. I had one brother and he was a damn good one. Once we were on our own, I’d escaped the curse of screaming Thanksgiving dinners. . . . I had a turkey pizza; Niko had a vegan one. No bitter arguments around a Christmas tree . . . Niko gave me a new gun; I gave him a new sword. Absent was the awkward discovery of first cousins shacking up at the summer vacation gettogethers at the lake. I didn’t have to wait for summer. I saw my brother every day when he winged my sopping towel off the bathroom floor at my head or I askedafter the factif I could use his priceless seventeenthcentury copy of some boring book no one but him and the author had read to prop up a wobbling coffee table.
Summer vacations . . . if you thought about it, what kind of people actually gathered together at a lake with cabins and all that crap anyway? Hadn’t they ever watched Friday the 13th? Jason? Hockey masks? Machetes? A good time for me, yeahoh hell, yeahbut not as much for the members of your average Priusdriving middle class.
Stupidity is everywhere.
But for me, right now, things were good. My brother and I kicked supernatural ass for fun and profit. I had a shirt that said that with our phone number. Humans wouldn’t take it seriously. Humans didn’t know what the world really hosted. But the kind that hired usnonhumanthey knew a walking billboard when they saw it. Running your own business is a bitch. You have to advertise. Promo. Market. Niko did that. I couldn’t be bothered with that crapunless it resulted in my offensive Tshirt slogan. He and I had been doing this for four years now. Before that we’d done the same, but it had been a hobby, not a career.
Okay, I say hobby, but it was selfdefense, pure and simple. When you’re half human and half of the worst monster to walk the eartha creature that ate the supernatural for appetizers without putting hardly any effort into ityou weren’t popular with the other monster types. And there were thousands of different kinds. Some immediately attacked me, sensing the half human in me and assuming it would make me weakerthey were wrong. Some ranthey were smart. And some didn’t care either waywe hung out and had a beer.
Good family. Interesting and wellpaying career. Half monster . . . well, everything couldn’t be perfect, but otherwise right now things were good. I was hoping they stayed that way. Except for Niko. I didn’t have to hope when it came to family.
The rest of my life might be challenging in some other areas, like at the moment as an adolescent kishi was either trying to eat my leg or hump it to the bare bone, but family? I knew I had that under control. I watched my brother’s back; he watched mine. We were a Hallmark card dipped in blood and made of unbreakable steel. I’d never had a doubt about my family and I never wouldno matter what the kishi, who had brought the topic to mind to begin with, were doing to annoy me on the general subject.
No, it was all smooth sailing, rather like this current job, until my cell phone rang. “Niko,” I said, shooting another adult kishi with jaws stretched wide enough to swallow my entire head. It had leaped downward at me from a fire escape of a condemned tenement apartment building long crumbled in on itselfno demolition crew needed. Gravity worked for free. “Can you get this one off of my leg before I need sexual assault counseling?”
Niko said to not kill the babies, although at one hundred and fifty pounds “baby” was pushing the definition, but I was doing my best, more or less, to be a good boy. Although it would’ve been much easier to be a bad boy.
So very bad. So very fun.
For my brother, however, I reined in that part of methat nonhuman half of me, chokechaining it with a practiced grip. It was the price I paid to keep my brother satisfied. Bearing in mind that if it weren’t for him I’d be dead or sanitychallenged ten times over, I owed the man. I was also fond enough of his bossy, analretentive ass to die for him.
More important, to kill for him.
And to have chosen the darkest of roads to make that happen.
All that made ignoring a giant baby with an equally giant bite easy enough. As I fished for my cell, Niko was less than awed at my babysitting skills and said so: “If you can’t do a minimum of three tasks at once, I have failed you with all my training and instruction. I’d blame myself, but clearly it’s entirely your fault, your laziness, your total ineptitude.”
Not that we shared the fraternal fondness out loud. How manly would that be?
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t heard that all before. If adults heard lullabies when they slept, that would be mine. I shook my leg again, shot another kishi bounding down the side of the next building, equally as dilapidated as the first, putting three bullets between its blazing silver eyes. They shone brighter than any streetlights in this part of town . . . until their life seeped away and left only the dull gray of death. I felt bad for themalmostbut they had turned a block that had once hosted scavenging homeless, thriving drug dealers, and sullen hookers into a desolate wasteland. In my opinion, I didn’t have a preference for one over the other, kishi or human. The mayor wanted the city cleaned up. The kishi clan was doing the job one block at a time . . . even if it meant eating quite a few people.
Were those people good people? If I knew anything, I knew that these days, starting four months ago, I wasn’t in the position to make the call on whether certain people were worth saving or leaving to the predators. That I left up to Nik. I simply stepped over their bodies and went on with the job.
Regardless of whether they were good or evil, those people belonged, whether they knew it or not, to the Kin. The Kin, the werewolf Mafia of NYC, weren’t pleased to be sharing their money or their snacks with Johnnycomelately supernatural hyenas from the depths of . . . um . . . I should’ve paid attention to where those depths were during the premission rundownmaybe Africa, but Niko knew. That was enough. I didn’t think it mattered much. They were encroaching on Kin territory, and the Wolves didn’t like that.
Unfortunately for the Kin, the kishi, as a race, howled at a decibel level that would have any Kin Wolf’s ears bleeding ten blocks away. Curled up in homicidal furry balls, moaning for their mommies, they hadn’t had much success in taking down the kishi. Luckily for Niko, me, and our bank account, human ears couldn’t hear notes that high.
And although I wasn’t entirely human, my hearing was. That made us the goto guys for this job. It had seemed easy from the hiring and the half our fee slapped into my palmif it hadn’t been for Niko’s research, finding out the kishi were highly intelligent preternatural hyenas, if extremely malevolent. That meant the adults were fair game, but the younger kishi we had to pat on the head and find a goddamn supernatural foster and rescue organization for murderous fur babies to raise them right, socialize their asses, put rhinestone collars on them, and take them off our hands.
How many of those do you think were in the phone book? Nada? Good fucking call.
But the bottom line was, it was all about family, which had to be where that thought had originated. The adult kishi taking down prey for their young, which luckily was only one at this point, feeding him or her, setting up a nest, claiming this place for their own. They were doing what evolution had bred in them to do. Evolution worked the same for nonhumans as for humans. Kishi were predators to their bones. They would slaughter anything they thought they had a chance of bringing down, but to give them credit, they looked after their family.
That’s where family became a bitch in yet another way. You eat people for your family, you piss off the Kin for your family, you die for your family.
As a random bully had once said to me when I was a kid in the fourth grade as he demanded my sneakers and backpack, life isn’t fair. I agreed with him by punching his annoying teeth down his equally annoying throat. If that’s the way the world wanted to be, I’d go along. I didn’t make the rules. I only played by them.
This wasn’t a schizophrenic voice; at least, I hoped not. This was just my subconscious, my new subconscious. Since I’d let a small piece of me wither and die months ago to save my family, the swamp in my mind that made up the subliminal me was considerably more shadowed. It was more prone to the bad thoughts people think, normal people too, that they shouldn’t, don’t like to admit to, and don’t act on. But as I wasn’t normal and wasn’t exactly the Webster’s dictionary definition of a person, my bad thoughts were much badder than most and I wanted to act on them. Sometimes or often or frequently or very frequently, depending on my mood . . . no judgment needed or wanted. If I thought it, I absolutely wanted to do it.
But I didn’t.
The voices/thoughts were almost as much a bitch as family could be, the squabbling, but I’d learned to mostly tune them out. Many psychotherapists would be proud of my progressthe ones who hadn’t met me and, if they had any sense, wouldn’t care to.
I wasn’t good or bad. I was only me, and I was neither.
They’d have to invent a new bizarrely long German psychological description for what I was. How did the German say, ’To see him is to piss your pants in fear’? Freud would’ve known.
I shook my leg futilely one more time and exhaled in irritation at the molten mercury eyes, the dark red coat dappled with silver spots, the milk teethas large as a German shepherd’s adult teeththat continued to gnaw at my thigh. “Three seconds and he’s a rug under the coffee table. Your move, Cyrano.”
Did Niko have a proud, hawklike nose? Yes, he did. Did I give him hell over it? What do you think?
I answered my still ringing cell phone as I shot the last kishi that leaped through a boardedup window. Wood split, glass shattered, and bone splintered. The combination made for one dead kishi whose stomach was rounded and full with its last meal, which, I was guessing, had been the last occupant of this street. From the hypodermic the parahyena coughed up in its dying throes, that meal had most likely been a tweaker.
They say drugs kill, but does anyone ever listen?
“Yeah, Leandros,” I said into the phone. “Death and destruction by the dollar. The meter’s ticking. Go.”
I hadn’t had a chance to check the incoming number, not with Kishi Junior both seducing and making a meal of my leg. But it didn’t surprise me to hear a familiar voice. Five people total had my personal number. Our business number was an untraceable phone with voice mail lying on the floor of an otherwise empty storage locker. Niko and I’d been sorry beforewe went with safe now. “Kid, thank Bacchus.” I heard the relieved exhalation. “I need you and Niko at my place now.”
The three seconds was up, and I had the muzzle of my Desert Eagle planted between toddler kishi’s moon eyes as it gnawed harder at my lower thigh. I had a high pain toleranceyou learned to in this businessbut to balance it out, my tolerance for nearly everything else remotely irritable in the universe was low. Damn low. Contaminating part of your soul will do that . . . if you believed in souls. I hadn’t made up my mind, but either way it was too bad for baby. It was nightnight time. I might as well stop the pattern now. The same as its parents, it would grow up to be a killer anyway.
Like you did?
As if I didn’t know that.
But I was a done deal; the kishi wasn’t, not quite yet. “Goodfellow? You in trouble?” I started to put pressure on the trigger and tried to overlook the shadow of guilt. It was a kid. A killer kid, but a kid. Couldn’t I relate? On every single level? Then again, did I care if I could relate? Was I Dr. Phil? Hell, no. I was, however, Niko’s brother. That had me yanking harder at my internal leash while frowning crossly at Niko as I gave him a few extra seconds to move over and slide his katana blade between my leg and the kishi to pry it off with one efficient move.
“You owe me,” I grumbled at him.
While it squealed, barked, yowled, and laughed hyenacrazy through a toothy muzzle, Niko threw the last kishi down and hogtied its preteen fuzzy ass. My brotherhe wasn’t a bleeding heart. There were more dead monsters and people in whatever version of hell you wanted to believe in who’d testify to that. He did like to give a break when he thought one was due, thoughor when he thought their birthright shouldn’t automatically condemn them.
He’d learned that raising me and adjusting to my birthrighta lifetime of habits, right or wrong, was hard to break.
Robin’s voice was in my ear, catching my attention again. “Am I in trouble? Ah. Hmmm. It’s more like everyone else is in trouble with the exception of myself,” he hedged. “I’d rather explain it in person and give you the keys to the bar. Ishiah left them for you.”
Ishiah was my boss at my day job/night job/afternoon job, whenever I wasn’t out doing what pulled in the real rent moneydisposing of monster ass. He owned a nonhuman barnot that humans knew the supernatural existedcalled the Ninth Circle, was a peri, which was a winged humanish type creature that had spawned angel legends, and was generally neutral on whether he should kill me or crown me employee of the month for making it a week without icing a customer while serving up their liquor of choice.
Why would he want to kill me? We had a lot of unpaid tabs because I hadn’t once made that said employee of the month. But hand held to the empty, godless space that filled the sky, if I killed you, you usually had it coming. Or you just weren’t that quick. In my world, the two were practically the same.
“The keys? Why did he . . . Ah, hell with it. We’ll get the story when we get there.” I looked down at Niko crouching on the street, rhythmically rubbing the kishi’s stomach. It crooned mournfully, my blood on its teeth, the silver of its eyes surrounded by the white of fear. “Fuck me.” I sighed. Before I let Goodfellow off the phone, I added, “By the way, do you know anywhere we could drop off a baby kishi to be raised up all good with God? Religious, righteous, and true? Oh, and nonpeopleeating?”
“Your imitation of a Southern drawl is pathetic, and yes, drop him off here.” He rattled off an address. “They take in strays all the time. But you’d better do it in the next hour or they’ll be gone.”
“Gone where?” I asked.
“Who knows? It doesn’t matter. They’ll all be gone. Everyone. Now hurry the hell up. I’m paying your bill this time. I’m a puck, a trickster, and a usedcar salesman. Don’t think I won’t squeeze every penny out of Niko’s wellshaped ass if you don’t perform this job to perfection.” His phone disconnected in my ear.
“Who was that?”
I grinned down at my brother. “Robin is hiring us for a job, and I’m thinking seriously about taking a dive in the fifth, because it’s your ass on the line if we screw up.”
“Goodfellow will be a good client. He wouldn’t cheat us.” He’d cheat anyone elseman, woman, or child, but not us. Niko finished the knot on the rope and slitted his eyes at me. “And let us leave my ass out of it. Why I claim you as my blood, I will never know.”
It wasn’t true. I didn’t know why he put up with me, but I took it on faith that Niko knew something that made me worth keeping around. Niko inherently knew extraordinary things that most others didn’t know and wouldn’t ever know. He was like that. Then again, very rarely, Niko screwed the hell up, wasn’t the infallible older brotherbecause no one was infallible. No one. I hadn’t kept count before, the times he was wrong, but if I’d known what was headed our way, I might’ve starting adding them up now.
Number one was a little over sixty minutes away and headed for us like a freight train.
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