It was just another fucked‑up night in the Cauldron. Potion junkies huddled in shadowy corners with their ampoules and pipes and needles. The occasional flick of a lighter’s flame illuminated their dirty, desperate faces, and the air sizzled with the ozone scent of spent magic.
I considered stopping to harass them. Arrest them for loitering and possession of illegal arcane substances. But they’d just be back on the street in a couple of days or be replaced by other dirty, desperate faces looking to escape the Mundane world.
Besides, these hard cases weren’t my real targets. To make a dent, you had to go after the runners and stash boys, the potion cookers—the moneymen. The way I figured, better to hunt the vipers instead of the ’hood rats who craved the bite of their fangs. But for the last couple of weeks, the corner thugs had been laying low, staying off the streets after dark. My instincts were tingling, though, so I kept walking the beat, hoping to find a prize.
Near Canal Street, growls rolled out of a pitch-black alley. I stilled and listened with my hand on my hawthorn-wood nightstick. The sounds were like a feral dog protecting a particularly juicy bone. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and my nostrils twitched from the coppery bite of blood.
Approaching slowly, I removed the flashlight from my belt. The light illuminated about ten feet into the alley’s dark throat. On the nearest wall, a graffitied dragon marked the spot as the Sanguinarian Coven’s turf. But I already knew the east side of town belonged to the Sangs. That’s one of the reasons I’d requested it for patrol. I didn’t dare show my face on the Votary Coven’s west-side territory.
Something moved in the shadows, just outside of the light’s halo. A loud slurping sound. A wet moan.
“Babylon PD!” I called, taking a few cautious steps forward. The stink of blood intensified. “Come out with your hands up!”
The scuttling sound of feet against trash. Another growl, but no response to my order.
Three more steps expanded my field of vision. The light flared on the source of the horrible sounds and the unsettling scents.
A gaunt figure huddled over the prone form of a woman. Wet, stringy hair shielded her face, and every inch of her exposed skin glistened red with blood. My gun was in my hand faster than I could yell, “Freeze!”
Still partially in shadow, the attacker—male, judging from the size—swung around. I had the impression of glinty, yellow eyes and shaggy hair matted with blood.
“Step away with your hands up,” I commanded, my voice projected to make it a demand instead of a suggestion.
“Fuck you, bitch,” the male barked. And then he bolted.
“Shit!” I ran to the woman and felt for a pulse. I shouldn’t have been relieved not to find one, but it meant I was free to pursue the asshole who’d killed her.
My leg muscles burned and my heart raced. Through the radio on my shoulder I called Dispatch.
“Go ahead, Officer Prospero,” the dispatcher’s voice crackled through the radio.
“Be advised I need an ambulance sent to the alley off Canal and Elm. Interrupted a code twenty-seven. Victim had no pulse. I’m pursuing the perp on foot bearing east on Canal.”
“Ambulance is on its way. Backup unit will be there in five minutes. Keep us advised of your twenty.”
“Ten-four.” I took my finger off the comm button. “Shit, he’s fast.” I dug in, my air coming out in puffs of vapor in the cool night air.
He was definitely freaking—a strength or speed potion, probably. But that type of magic wouldn’t explain why he mauled that woman in the alley—or those yellow predator’s eyes. I tucked that away for the moment and focused on keeping up.
The perp loped through the maze of dark alleys and streets as if he knew the Cauldron well. But no one knew it better than I did, and I planned to be right behind him when he finally made a mistake.
As I ran, my lead cuffs clanked heavily against the wood of my nightstick. The rhythm matched the thumping beats of my heart and the air rasping from my lungs. I had a Glock at my side, but when perps are jacked up on potions, they’re almost unstoppable with Mundane weaponry unless you deliver a fatal shot. Killing him wasn’t my goal—I wanted the notch on my arrest stats.
“Stop or I’ll salt you!” I pulled the salt flare from my left side. The best way to incapacitate a hexhead was to use a little of the old sodium chloride.
A loud snarling grunt echoed back over his shoulder. He picked up the pace, but he wasn’t running blind. No, he was headed someplace specific.
“Prospero,” Dispatch called through the walkie. “Backup is on its way.”
“Copy. The vic?”
“Ambulance arrived and confirmed death. ME is on his way to make it official.”
I looked around to get my bearings. He veered right on Mercury Street. “The suspect appears to be headed for the Arteries,” I spoke into the communicator. “I’m pursuing.”
“Copy that, Officer Prospero. Be advised you are required to wait for backup before entering the tunnels.” She told me their coordinates.
I cursed under my breath. They were still five blocks away and on foot.
A block or so ahead I could see one of the boarded‑up gates that led down into the old subway tunnels. The system had been abandoned fifty years earlier, before the project was anywhere close to completion. Now the tunnels served as a rabbit warren for potion addicts wanting to chase the black dragon in the rat-infested, shit-stench darkness.
In front of the gate, a large wooden sign announced the site as the FUTURE HOME OF THE CAULDRON COMMUNITY CENTER. Under those words was the logo for Volos Real Estate Development, which did nothing to improve my mood.
If Speedy made it through that gate, we’d never find him. The tunnels would swallow him in one gulp. My conscience suddenly sounded a lot like Captain Eldritch in my head: Don’t be an idiot, Kate. Wait for backup.
I hadn’t run halfway through the Cauldron only to lose the bastard to the darkness. But I knew better than to enter the tunnels alone. The captain had laid down that policy after a rookie ended up as rat food five years earlier. So I wasn’t going to follow him there, but I could still slow him down a little. Buy some time for backup to arrive.
The salt flare’s thick double barrel was preloaded with two rock-salt shells. A bite from one of those puppies was rarely lethal, but it was enough to dilute the effects of most potions, as well as cause enough pain to convince perps to lie down and play dead. The only catch was, you had to be within twenty feet for the salt to interrupt the magic. The closer, the better if you wanted the bonus of severe skin abrasions.
The runner was maybe fifteen feet from me and a mere ten from the gate that represented his freedom. Time to make the move. I stopped running and took aim.
Exhale. Squeeze. Boom!
Rock salt exploded from the gun in a starburst. Some of the rocks pinged off the gate’s boards and metal fittings. The rest embedded in the perp’s shirtless back like shrapnel. Small red pockmarks covered the dirty bare skin not covered with tufts of dark hair. He stumbled, but he didn’t stay down.
Instead, he leaped up the gate and his hands grasped the top edge. A narrow opening between the gate and the upper concrete stood between him and freedom.
“Shit!” Frustration and indecision made my muscles yearn for action. My only choice was to take him down.
Speedy already had his head and an arm through the opening at the top of the gate. I surged up and grabbed his ankles. Lifted my feet to help gravity do its job. We slammed to the ground and rolled all asses and elbows through the dirt and grass and broken potion vials.
The impact momentarily stunned us both. My arm stung where the glass shards had done their worst, but the pain barely registered through the heady rush of adrenaline.
Speedy exploded off the ground with a growl. I jumped after him, my grip tight on the salt flare. I still had one shell left, not that I expected it to do much good after seeing the first one had barely fazed him. In my other hand, I held a small canister of S&P spray. “BPD! You’re under arrest!”
The beast barely looked human. His hair was long and matted in some patches, which alternated with wide swaths of pink scalp—as if he’d been infected with mange. The lower half of his face was covered in a shaggy beard. The pale skin around his yellow eyes and mouth was red and raw. His teeth were crooked and sharp. Too large for his mouth to corral. Hairy shoulders almost touched his ears like a dog with his hackles up.
If he understood my command he didn’t show it. That intense yellow gaze focused on my right forearm where a large gash oozed blood. His too-red lips curled back into a snarl.
I aimed the canister of salt-and-pepper spray. The burning mixture of saline and capsicum hit him between the eyes. He blinked, sneezed. Wiped a casual hand across his face. No screaming. No red, watery eyes or swollen mucus glands.
His nostrils flared and he lowered his face to sniff the air closer to me. His yellow eyes stayed focused on my wound. An eager red tongue caressed those sharp teeth in anticipation.
For the first time, actual fear crept like ice tendrils up the back of my neck. What kind of fucked‑up potion was this guy on?
I don’t remember removing the Glock from my belt. I don’t remember pointing it at the perp’s snarling face. But I remember shouting, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
One second the world was still except for the pounding of my heart and the cold fear clawing my gut. The next, his wrecking-ball weight punched my body to the ground. My legs flew up and my back crashed into the metal gate. Hot breath escaped my panicked lungs. His body pinned me to the metal bars.
Acrid breath on my face. Body odor and unwashed skin everywhere. An erect penis pressed into my hip. But my attacker wasn’t interested in sex. He was aroused by something else altogether—blood. My blood.
The next instant, his teeth clamped over the bleeding wound. Pain blasted up my arm like lightning. Sickening sucking sounds filled the night air. Fear burst like a blinding light in my brain. “Fuck!”
The perp pulled me toward the ground and pinned me. The impact knocked the weapon from my hand, but it only lay a couple feet away. I reached for it with my left hand. But fingers can stretch only so far no matter how much you yearn and curse and pray.
The pain was like needles stabbing my vein. My vision swam. If I didn’t stop him soon, I’d pass out. If that happened he’d drag me into those tunnels and no one would see me again.
Fortunately, elbows make excellent motivators. Especially when they’re rammed into soft temples. At least they usually are. In this case, my bloodthirsty opponent was too busy feasting on my flesh and blood to react. Finally, in a desperate move, I bucked my hips like a wild thing. He lost contact with my arm just long enough for me to roll a few centimeters closer to my target.
I reared up, grabbed the gun, and pivoted.
The pistol’s mouth kissed his cheek a split second before it removed his face.
Backup arrived thirty seconds too late.