Authors: Caitlin Kittredge
For Sara, the best BFF anyone could ask for
Blues falling down like hail
Blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin' me
There's a hellhound on my trail
“Hellhound on My Trail”
Thanks to Barry Goldblatt, Kelly O'Connor,
Diana Gill, Richard Kadrey, Melissa de la Cruz, Adam Christopher, Kat Richardson,
Chuck Wendig, and Stephen Blackmoore.
And, of course, thanks to my family for putting up with me.
nowing that a person is marked for death is a strange feeling, one that crawls inside you and puts down roots. It's stranger still when you're the one meant to deliver their soul.
My mark's gut strained against the blue fabric of his Breakfast Barn shirt, and sweat beaded on the back of his neck. He checked out a waitress's ass as she walked by the cash register. His name was, by cruel circumstance, Bob Dobkins.
I sipped cold coffee from a chipped mug, feeling the acid swirl around in my stomach. I wondered if Bob Dobkins would do something different if he knew this was the last day of his life. Wake up and try not to be an asshole, at the very least.
I watched Bob Dobkins cash out two teenage girls, leering down the T-Âshirt of the one on the left.
Then again, his day probably would have gone exactly the same.
The girls left, oblivious of the pervert behind the register, and their car left the parking lot empty and mud-Âspattered, aside from my road bike. No other cars made their way past the silver hulk of the Breakfast Barn, and if they did, I doubted anyone else would stop at this small gap in the primeval Oregon forest that closed in on all sides.
“Goin' on break!” Bob hollered at his shift manager and pushed through the double doors to the kitchen. I waited through two more swallows of coffee, put down a five-Âdollar bill on my sticky table, and followed him.
Nobody so much as looked at me as I slipped between line cooks and dishwashers in the back, the scents of grease and steam and rotted food clogging up my nose. ÂPeople had a way of not seeing me. Of not
to see me, more like, that let me stay pretty much off human radar.
Unless that human was Bob Dobkins.
He leaned against the cinder block wall next to the trash bins outside the back door, sucking on a cigarette. The smoke blended with the thin tendrils of mist that clung to the tops of the fir trees, daring the sun to burn it away.
“Those are bad for you, Bob,” I said, and he jumped, the butt falling from his fingers to sizzle out in a puddle.
“Shit,” he grumbled, looking me up and down. “Who the hell are you?”
“You should be asking who I work for.”
It took a minute, but Bob Dobkins figured it out. His eyes got big and shiny, like an animal's, and his pulse rate climbed up into the red zone. I smelled his sweat, even though I wished I couldn't.
“You've made a mistake,” he managed, sounding like somebody was choking him.
I held out my hand for his pack. “May I?”
He held it out, never blinking. I took a cigarette and lit it. The first hit in my lungs stung, and I exhaled toward the trees.
“I don't think I have, Bob.”
“That's not my name,” he said, and he finally took his eyes off me long enough to flick them toward the parking lot.
Shit. He was calculating how fast he'd have to run to get rid of me.
“Oh, I know that here, you're Jerry. Jerry Finch. But back in Chicago, your name is Robert Dobkins, and no matter what your name is, buddy, you owe a demon your soul.”
His heartbeat was a racehorse now, and I watched the thick vein in his neck jump. I smiled and let more smoke trickle from my nostrils. “I don't make mistakes, Bob. Jerry. Whatever. You're the one who made the mistake in this situation.”
The cigarette wasn't doing me any favors. I'd been up for three days, tracking Bob Dobkins from the outskirts of Chicago, where he'd left a crime scene in his suburban garage, through three more dead girls in Minnesota, Wyoming, and Idaho, and finally here.
“Let's stop all the bullshit.” Bob had finally found his voice, and actually managed to surprise me. “You and I both know what's going on, so name your price.” He swallowed. I wondered how that big lump of terror tasted.
I let one eyebrow go up. Normally I find the expressionless Âleg-Âbreaker act is the way to go, but human beings can always surprise you.
“I'm not involved in that side of things.” I waved him off. “I don't make deals.”
“Then get your cute little ass in gear and get hold of the guy I signed off with in the first place,” Bob Dobkins said. He'd stopped shaking, and I took that as a bad sign. A mark who tries to run is normalâÂit's down to that survival instinct all humans have. Not the most fine-Âtuned I've ever seen, or they wouldn't get involved with folks like my boss in the first place, but it's there.
A mark who's not afraid of you, thoughâÂthat's dangerous.
I dragged. Felt the nicotine light up my nerve endings, my tired brain, my poor abused stomach. “Not going to happen, Bob.”
“I don't think you know who you're dealing with,” he snarled. “I command dark magic, bitch, and you don't want to get on my bad side.”
Stinky as his sweat was, his breath was ten times as bad. I took a step back, and Bob Dobkins took that as a sign of weakness. He backed me up against the Dumpster, one hand on either side of my head. He had a good six inches and hundred pounds on me, plus the aforementioned dark magic. Bob Dobkins had gotten mixed up with some heavy juju in Chicago, and when his human sacrifices had drawn the attention of Âpeople who object to that sort of thing, he'd signed on with my boss. Gotten protection, power. Everything he wanted, and I was threatening to take it away.
Probably not the smartest thing I'd ever done.
“Get your boss down here now,” he said. “And maybe I won't peel your skin back inch by inch and see what's underneath.” He lowered his head and snorted a hit off my hair, which was more disgusting than I can say. “Then again, I might. I always did like a pretty girl on my altar.”
I raised the cigarette and blew smoke in his face, so he coughed and blinked. Possibly also not the smartest thing I've ever done.
“Let me ask you something, Bob,” I said. “If you're the bad motherfucker you claim to be, why would my boss send a pretty girl to collect from you? For that matter, what on this earth makes you think that when you sign on with a demon, you can run off to Oregon, get a different name on your shirt, and avoid the debt you owe? Is it just human hubris, Bob, or are you really that damn stupid?”
He didn't hit me or try to sling a spell, and that was something. That lizard brain of his was chewing over my words, trying to figure out how they could hurt or help his chances to walk away from this.
“I'll make a new deal,” he said, but a lot of his sass was gone.
“Not with me,” I said. “I don't bargain. I don't argue. Just collect.” I dragged again, and Bob Dobkins drew back from the hot cherry of my cigarette. “You had the time you were allotted when you signed on,” I said. “And now that my smoke is gone, your time is up.”
I stood up straight, knocking his hands off me, and he stumbled back a step.
I dropped my butt and crushed it under my boot, and Bob Dobkins's heartbeat started up again. The fear was back. Good. Nothing scares the shit out of bottom-Âfeeding predators like finding out they're really the prey.
“Oh, and Bob?” I said as he took another step back, and another.
“Get your boss down here!” he hollered, although his voice broke on the last word. “Make me a new fucking deal!”
“If you run,” I said, feeling my fangs burst through my gums and tasting the old-Âpenny tang of my own blood, “you're going to find out exactly what's underneath my skin.”
Bob Dobkins let out a yelp at the sight of my fangs and ran. I sighed and ran after him.
For a fat guy, he could move. He had a good lead on me across the parking lot and into the ditch on the far side of the state highway. Fine. He could have his lead until I hit the tree line.
I cleared the ditch, my boots sinking into the moss and fir needles, raising the smell of rich loamy earth. Bob Dobkins's blue shirt flashed among the branches, and I heard his lungs making hacksaw sounds.
I poured on more speed, and as the trees became a blur of green and brown and silky blue-Âgray mist, I lifted my feet off the ground in a leap, gathered, and landed on all fours.
My paws got better traction on the forest floor and I saw the hulk of Bob Dobkins ahead of me as I ran, showing up white-Âhot through the gray spectrum of my vision.
He looked back, saw what was behind him, and let out a shriek. Then his foot hit a stump, and he tumbled, ass over heels. Ate some mud on the way down. I can't say that didn't bring me a little satisfaction.
“I told you running was a bad idea,” I said, which just made Bob shriek louder and try to claw his way up the nearest tree like a scared tomcat. Unless you're a demon, some kind of lesser Hellspawn, or a werewolf, my words when I'm walking on all fours just sound like snarls. Hungry snarls, judging by Bob's reaction.
He managed to crawl over the mud and down to the bank of a stream whispering between moss-Âcovered rocks. Old stories about creatures like me not crossing running water, I supposed. Desperate Âpeople will believe anything.
I padded into the water, feeling the shock of cold on the pads of my paws. Bob was only sobbing now, incoherent and reedy, like a broken speaker.
Close as I was, I could see the halo of the dark magic he cloaked himself in, like his soul was covered in soot and oil. He'd done a lot of damage to himself. But that wasn't my problem.
I opened my jaws and bit down, hard. When I did, Bob was silent at last. Now the one making the noise was me. I felt a shudder worm its way down my spine as his soul's energy left his corpse and poured into me. When I didn't have to shift, I used a blade consecrated by a reaper that acted like a magnet for the unique frequency of power put out by human souls.
With assholes like Bob Dobkins, though, it was all tooth and nail. When I finished, my jaws were bloody. The taste of metal and fear rested on my tongue.
I shut my eyes, and when I opened them, the trees were in color again. I just lay for a few minutes, listening to my heart pound. My face felt sticky when I put my hand up, and I splashed water from the stream over my lips and chin.
My skin tingled and my muscles tittered, as if I'd been struck by lightning. The rush of Bob Dobkins's soul settled in my chest like a hot coal.
Getting up was a little bit of slapstick that ended with me up to the wrists in river mud. Shifting didn't take it out of me like it did a lycanthrope, but stripping out a soul with no buffer was akin to biting a power line.
Fucking Bob Dobkins. I hoped that whatever Gary had in mind for him, it was painful and would last at least a century.