Madhouse (Cal Leandros, #3)(4)

As with the first one, I used my knife, but this time opened the belly. Whatever spilled free slithered down my hip and leg. Slithered…not fell. That was some serious motivation to get granny off my neck, and to hell with the mouthful of flesh she might take with her. Ripping her and her death grip off of me, I spun her and threw her as far as I could, and then I took a look at what was twining its way around my leg.

Holy shit. I mean, really…holy shit.

The bright pain and blood flowing steadily under the collar of my jacket to stain my T-shirt took a backseat just like that—because what felt like snakes wasn't. Not that that wouldn't have been bad enough, snakes falling out of someone's gut. But I couldn't get that lucky, could I? Nope. What I got was a crawling combination of worms and intestines with a little barracuda tossed in. They undulated slow and sure like the worm, were ropy and dripping intestinal fluids, and had the bear trap mouth of a barracuda. Did I shake my leg like I was having an epileptic seizure? Yes, I did. Did I scream like a B-movie bimbo? No…but it was a close thing. Niko never would've let me live that down.

I stepped back from the seething mass. "Jeeesus."

"Problems?" Niko was already peeling my jacket off one shoulder to examine the wound.

I swiped it with my hand. The pain was subsiding to a sharp ache and I decided the Annis had gotten away with less than the mouthful I'd thought she had. It had been an appetizer at best.

Past Nik I could see one Annis still alive. Her wrists and ankles were handcuffed, and she was writhing, hissing, and biting the ground like a rabid dog.

A monster wearing handcuffs—it was a little reality-jarring at first. We'd started carrying them months ago when we needed to restrain a werewolf, one who really didn't care to be restrained. He normally might've shattered them—I wasn't sure how strong Flay was—but he'd been injured and was barely alive. He'd been incapable of lifting his head, much less ripping apart steel. Still, it was a useful learning experience, and we'd carried them with us ever since.

Niko was still frowning at my neck. "It's more messy than fatal. They have the teeth of an adolescent crocodile."

"Didn't feel like a baby one to me," I grumbled as I felt the punctures and slashes. The blood was slowing and I dug in my pocket for something to hold pressure with. Of course there was nothing but a flyer for a Chinese restaurant.

Exhaling in resignation at my lack of preparation, Niko pulled a package of gauze and a roll of tape from inside his coat. With quick, efficient moves he had the wound covered and taped up in seconds. "It's amazing how hard I work to keep you from bleeding to death on so many occasions, and for so little reward." He finished and stepped over to the tortuous twining of the bile-dripping creatures on the ground. "Do you want a pet? One would fit nicely in a terrarium."

"Yeah, and I'm just one giant nummy num on the other side of the glass. Thanks, but no, thanks." I pulled a repulsed face.

"'All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,'" he quoted.

"Right," I said drily. "God"—making the huge assumption there was one—"did not make those."

"Perhaps you're right." He pulled yet two more things out of his duster—a small container of lighter fluid and a pack of matches. Once the barbecue was started and the air stank of roasted barracuda, Niko made a call and we went, picked up the surviving Annis, and moved on. A vampire met us near the edge of the park. He stood among the trees; could've been one of them as he blended into the darkness. Black hair, black eyes, and an equally dark Armani suit. At least I assumed it was Armani. It was the only expensive brand I knew. To me, all fancy suits were Armani.

We dumped the snarling, spitting Annis at his feet, and I considered but decided not to stick my hand out for the money. I had a feeling I might draw back less than I put out—a few fingers less. Vampires mourn too, apparently even over lamias. Niko had already delivered the bad news over his cell phone. Now all he said was, "She is the only one left. The others are no more."

"And they suffered?" His voice was cool and empty. It didn't bode well for the Annis. At least with rage you would go quickly. It would be messy, but it would be quick. Icy retribution could go on for…shit, it didn't bear thinking about. My appetite for dinner had already been ruined by the smell of cooking intestines; I didn't need to kill it altogether.

"Yeah, they suffered," I confirmed. "And the godawful things in them suffered too." The Annis hadn't really suffered, not the way he meant, but it was going to have to do. A job was a job and torture wasn't on our menu. Not for pay anyway. But there was no point in disappointing him. Cranky vampires are a pain, and I'd had enough ass-kicking for the night.

Despite what I'd said earlier, we did get paid. An envelope thick with cash was passed to Nik. Living off the radar, we didn't exactly have the ID to set up a bank account. We could've gotten the fake stuff and Promise had offered to keep our share of the payments for us, but once again, we fell back on the ways we'd always known. We'd bought a safe and stuffed what we made in there. Unfortunately, it was still pretty damn empty.

As we left, we heard one sharp scream after another. It seemed like torture was on someone's menu. I wondered if it sounded like the screams of the people that the Black Annis had killed over the years, because you know they'd screamed too.

Rob Thurman's Books