Stained Glass: An Alexi Sokolsky Supernatural Thriller (Alexi Sokolsky: Hound of Eden Book 2), страница 1
Hound of Eden: Book 2
By James Osiris Baldwin
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Books in the Alexi Sokolsky series
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Burn Artist | Book 0
Blood Hound | Book 1
Stained Glass | Book 2
Vengeance, like most fantasies, is better in the imagining than it is in the execution.
Snappy Joe Grassia – Manelli hitman, renowned sadist, and murdering piece of human waste – was hog-tied in my trunk. We were headed north along the Interstate, gunning for a place that a long-dead gangster had nicknamed Bozya Akra, God’s Acre. The Yaroshenko Organizatsiya had been planting bodies there since my grandfather’s day, and if the Feds ever found it, they’d have enough bones to keep the world in human ivory for the next decade.
It had been a long two weeks, and now that we were nearly there, I felt hollow, sour, even bored. This was the last kill I’d make in the USA, maybe for the rest of my life. I’d expected to feel satisfaction, some kind of relief. All I felt was nothing. When I glanced in the mirror at my face, it was stiff and cold, skin tight and grayish. I couldn’t see anything through that shell of self-containment, the autistic armor I’d grown over the course of a short, violent life. There was only a mask: passionless, hard and proud.
The trip to Bozya Akra was nearly the reverse of the one Vassily and I had made earlier in August when we’d driven back from Fishkill Correctional. The wind blowing over us from the windows during that ride had been warm, the scents blue and bittersweet with the dog days of summer. He’d come out of prison thinned and brittle. He hadn’t been strong enough to survive the odds arrayed against him when everything had gone to shit. The icing on the cake had been when he was kidnapped and his sister killed…and now, Snappy Joe and I were fated to share this moment.
The outer fence had rotted to stumps, and the frontage to Bozya Akra was so overgrown that it resembled the rest of the forest. We drove up along that long driveway very slowly, bumping and rumbling over the soft earth, and eventually came to a gentle stop in a clearing not too far from a deep, pre-dug pit. I collected the weapon I’d brought for the job, cut the engine and got out, the pulse in my tongue tap-tapping with the tick of cooling metal. The hissing trees filled the silence as I went around and popped the trunk.
Joe squealed when he saw me, eyes bugging over the top of his gag. He was a burly dog of a man, tough and bony as dry chicken. My hands itched in my gloves as I reached in and hauled him out like so much meat, rolling him to the ground with a wet thud. He was beaten to within an inch of his life, his body a coagulated mess of broken bones and livid bruises, and he swooned in a fresh faint as I – three inches shorter and a hand broader through the shoulders – grasped the top of his head by the hair and dragged him behind me through the mud.
In the dark of my mind, I felt something stir… the awareness of my Neshamah. Kutkha roused with dispassionate interest as I set Joe on his knees by the edge of the pit. There was just enough sun left in the day to us to see by. While he swayed and moaned, clawing his way back to consciousness, I cut his gag free, set a piece of razor-sharp broken window glass taken from Mariya’s house against his twitching throat, and waited.
The sun was wavering red on the horizon by the time he gurked and lurched a little, catching himself before he toppled forward into the hole. The damp earth sighed under his weight. When he finally righted, he drew a sharp, frightened breath.
"Joseph Grassia," I spoke his name slowly, rolling out the 'ra' a little to taste the ‘s’ that followed. "Do you know why we’re here?"
Joe's throat worked a little under the blade as he swallowed, mouth working. We were in a clearing behind a thick stand of hemlock and trembling aspen, the trees shivering in the sweet evening breeze. Far from the New York city limit, fifteen miles from the nearest truck stop, we were utterly alone.
"R..Russian? The Russians?" He croaked. "No way. Come on, man… You-"
"Ukrainian.” The blade was rocking, rocking, and beginning to draw a little red. “Three weeks ago, you raided an apartment to kidnap my sworn brother. You killed his sister and took him-”
“Please man, plEEE-!”
With a small shudder, I yanked the shiv in, and he cried out in a surprisingly high, wavering voice. "Be quiet while I am speaking, Joseph."
With the click of clenching teeth, he fell silent.
“You took him and you doped him up, and now he’s dead, Joseph. Their names were Mariya and Vassily Lovenko.” I smelled urine, and shuffled my feet apart so it wouldn't get on my shoes. “They took me in when I was a kid, when I had nowhere else to go. Do you know what that’s like? The desolation of losing your only family?”
"Oh god. Oh god, stop." Joe rasped now, flesh quivering around the uneven edge of the knife. "Stop. Stop."
“Did you stop? Have you ever stopped to think about anything in your life? Do you think I had the choice to stop, when your Spook forced me to defile Zarya? The Gift Horse?”
"Oh god. You're the Spook. You're the f-fucking Spook." Joe’s voice stayed high and girlish, squeaky. "Don't... please, I didn't fucking do it! I d-d- it was fucking Celso, man! He-"
My eyes narrowed. “Celso Manelli?”
"Yes… YES-S..." he stammered, unable to find his words for several seconds. "It was Celso, Celso called me in. It was you freakin’ Russkies that started the war, I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it, they just wanted me to drive, all I was doin’ was driving, I was just-!"
His voice slowly turned to a dim buzzing drone, and the filthiness of him, the un-reality of his being, suddenly became too much. I am not a telepath, but I didn't need any form of magic to see into Joe's mind. The thing in front of me was a man-shaped hole in place of a human being, a sucking void. A NO-thing, greedy and craven. The NO was an infection in the world that ran so deep and so virulent that there was no hope of a cure. This was what the Gift Horse had taught me. And in the bittering weeks since Vassily’s death, I saw the influence of the NO in everything.
I pulled Joe up higher on his knees with the shard. He screamed, and kept screaming as I spoke against the nothingness I felt.
"’I have done it again. One year in every ten, I manage it. A sort of walking miracle, my skin as bright as a Nazi lampshade, my face a featureless, fine Jew linen.’"
“What the FUCK!?” Joe was nearly screaming now. He sounded like a frightened hen. “The fuck is this? The fuck-!”
Sylvia Plath's words continued to roll off my tongue in soft measured cadence, as natural as any wizard's spell. "Peel off the napkin, O my enemy. Do I terrify?"
“No, no no no, no NO NO-!”
I punched the shard, a remnant of Mariya’s broken bathroom window, through the front of his throat just beside his Adam's Apple. Gristle bent and ground under the force of the improvised blade. Joe’s lamb-like screams turned to garbles as his blood slopped over the back of my glove. I put the hard sole of my shoe against his thin back and pushed him into the pit, face-first, to suffocate his life out on the loose dirt. This was not a kind kill, a mercy stroke through the carotid artery. He would remain conscious until the end.
"Dying, is an art." I looked down at him from overhead, pulling the latex gloves off one at a time and throwing them to the ground. "And lik
Joe had not known Mariya. The way she picked sour cherries out of the jar with us while we did homework after school, her patience with our grandmother as Lenina’s mind dissolved in the grip of Alzheimer’s Disease. He hadn’t known Vassily: his broad shoulders, his long, tattooed hands, the wicked glint in his eyes or the flash of his smile across a room when he turned to face me. Joe would never know the dryness of my mouth when Vassily stripped off his shirt or laughed at my jokes; his effortless intensity when handling a new gadget, a deck of cards, a cigarette. Snappy Joe Grassia was sick, like everything and everyone in the underworld. And so was I.
A month to the day ago, I tasted the Gift Horse’s blood and received a revelation. GOD, the Greater Optimistic Direction – was very real. Through Zarya, I’d felt its heartbeat, saw its capillary action, its respiration. I’d glimpsed the way that its body channeled highways of Phi, the stuff of magic, like lymphatic fluid. It was an organism, a flesh-and-blood living thing with tissues so massive that its cells spanned universes. The Every-Thing, an all-consuming, and all-encompassing entity of which I was one tiny, tiny organelle.
But I knew now that GOD was in pain. When I looked into that massive eye, I hadn’t felt chosen. I’d felt dirty. Twisted up. In my visions, I knew instinctively that I was not part of the cure; I was still part of the disease.
The grave was filled and meticulously camouflaged, every shred of dirty evidence bagged and burned by the time I drove back down the bumpy winding road to the highway. I spent the trip back in a numb fugue: part dissociation, part adrenaline, part realization that no matter how many fingers I broke or how fast I did it, the job would be left unfinished. In perfect accord with Murphy’s Law, Snappy Joe Grassia had named the one man who I could not possibly kill in the short window of time I had left. Celso GOD-damned Manelli.
The Manelli family was the biggest Mafia outfit in New York City and New Jersey. John Manelli, the Don of the family, was a ruthless cut-throat who spurned the traditions of the Cosa Nostra and dealt in drugs – lots of them. Celso was his father’s Consigliere and renowned to be one of the most dangerous non-magical Made Men in the underworld. I didn’t know much about him, and had never seen him in person. Rumor was that he’d killed more than a few Spooks – ‘hitmages’, as Vassily had once called us – and GOD knows how many norms. He was reputed to be smart, cool, and careful. All of the Murder Inc. guys could regularly be found at the club they owned and operated in Manhattan: The Gemini Lounge. It was quite likely that I could find Celso there… along with fifty other allied gangsters, street mages, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Joe could have been pulling my leg. Questioning someone who is about to die is a terrible way to get information, but something about his insistence that Celso had been there made sense. I had memorized the murder scene in a flash. The position of furniture, blood spatters, the signs of struggle and lack of it. Mariya’s body, slumped like a worn doll over the edge of the bathtub. I’d been sucking on the details like a bad tooth, recalling them over and over. There had definitely been more than one person there. That person could indeed have been Celso.
If it was true, there was no way I could leave New York. Nicolai would pay. Sergei would pay. After their performance the month before, the Organizatsiya was dead to me. I’d wring every drop of blood from their bodies for Vassily and Mariya, for Zarya, and for me.
As plans to find Celso began to coagulate, the cold shadow that had cruised with me for the entire day, from Joe’s capture to beating to execution, finally manifested himself. The cottony, dusty smell of feathers wafted through the cabin like smoke, filling the air with the subtle pressure of Phi, the substance of magic. It was Kutkha, my Neshamah: the conduit of my Art, and a sanctimonious pain in my behind.
From time immemorial, mages and mystics of all cultures have spoken of the Neshamah, the soul, as a real, conscious presence. It is the part of ourselves that all humans have, but few ever speak to. The Higher Self, the Holy Guardian Angel – call it what you will. Jung named his Thomas. Mine was Kutkha, named for the trickster deity of ancient Rus. Sort of.
"Alexi, we cannot do this." Kutkha spoke with no single voice. He sounded like the riffling wind, the air thrumming through feathers. "We will not find him in time. Tonight, we must leave."
I fixed ahead on the dark, wet road. "The Gemini Lounge isn’t too far from our route home. There’s time to cruise by before the flight. And if we miss this flight, I’ll book another. We’re not short of money."
"You will not find him. He is already gone. They know Joseph has disappeared."
My throat closed up with a sudden flash of heat so powerful that it flooded my eyes with white and gold. It caused my hands to tic, and I slowed to stop from losing control of the car. "No. You don't know that.”
“I know you don't know shit about the future. You fucking listen to me, you -"
The shadows of the cabin quickened. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the ghostly impression of a raven, blue-black, its substance boiling into filaments of vapor. When he next spoke, it was stronger, something I heard with my ears as well as my mind. “Your father used to say that to you, Alexi.”
“Don’t.” The urge to hit, to bite and grasp and tear at something, anything became overwhelming, but there was no one and nothing left to hurt. I was the only one in the car. "Don’t ever bring Grisha up again, or I swear to GOD..."
“What?” Kutkha’s tone twisted with dark amusement. “Will you drill out my knees, too?”
I exhaled thinly. It was starting to rain now, a light misty haze, and I fixated on the swirling particles to give my eyes something to chew on. "Stop being a smartass. Vassily-"
"Is still dead, my Ruach.”
“Stop.” I pulled over as the rain intensified, staring at the buildup on my screen as it began to blind me. The calm executioner’s confidence drained out of me. The engine rumbled like a cat’s purr while I clutched my head and willed Kutkha to shut up. But he wouldn’t: his thoughts, his agenda were his own, but he was part of me. Or, more accurately, I was part of him. “Just stop.”
Kutkha’s eyes burned in the gloom. “They are gone whether or not Celso Manelli lives or dies. They are gone when we are in Europe, or if we stay here. They are gone."
Gone. Gone gone gone. “Please just let me-”
“No.” The air was opaque now, blue-black and sucking. “I will not ‘just’ let you live the Lie.”
I’ll live a lie if I damn well want to, is what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t voice my petulance with any seriousness. The unspoken words rattled around my otherwise blank, exhausted mind. What I really wanted was to turn around, dig up Joe, reanimate him and kill him again. Instead, I fumbled for the windshield wipers and turned them on, sweeping the rain off the glass.
“You vowed yourself to me, Alexi. You vowed that you would grow for our sake.”
“I know.” But the resistance remained.
“It is not safe to stay near Sergei.” For a moment, Kutkha’s voice was almost soft. “We must go. You are done here.”
I didn’t feel ‘done’, though not for lack of preparation. My luggage was packed with money, clothes, my most important books and magical tools, and I’d left a go-bag out in Sheepshead Bay in case anything went wrong. I’d spent the last two weeks securing a fake passport, a two-way ticket to Spain, and a one-way train ticket to Germany. I had my photos and papers, and a fake ancestral I.D. We were set. But I was going to have to leave knowing that another man had been at that apartment: the man who had blown Mariya’s head back across her shower wall, and that he was alive and she was not.
“Do not make me regret empowering you, my Ruach.” Kutkha swiveled his head, looking across with eyes like the core of a star, smoking white and churning with constant motion. Momentarily, I met his gaze… and their gravity caught and held me. “By all rights, you should be dead… but you wanted to survive. And they would
Vassily and Mariya. My throat thickened. “I’m… I am abandoning them here, Kutkha.”
“They are dead, Alexi. You cannot abandon what is no longer here.”
The cold reminder did nothing to chase away the childish conviction that I was abandoning them to lie in their cold graves, while I fled the Organizatsiya and the life they had died to protect. Vassily had been a Vor v Zakone to his bones, the picture of a free-wheeling, quick-thinking thief-in-law. He had been the kind of man who could spin a million dollars out of five hundred. Once, a long time ago, he debated better than most lawyers. Sergei had picked him for his brilliant mind… brilliance that proved so fragile that five years in prison and the machinations of his comrades had crushed him like a crane fly.
And now? He was dead. Even though I knew it wasn’t my fault, it sure as hell felt like it.
I shifted gears, backed up, and pulled out onto the highway. Kutkha was right, as always. We had to follow the plan. It was a good plan, and if executed smoothly, it would work. Take the cat, leave the lights off, the car in the lot, the door locked and warded. We could get to the airport in the morning, be in England by the evening, and on our way to continental Europe the same day. We would change our money in Spain, convert the lot to Deutschmarks, and head to Bremen. In Germany, I could disappear into the Ukrainian Jewish diaspora without so much as a ripple, just as my parents had done when they’d fled Ukraine for America. But after that? No idea. I lived day to day as part of the New York Bratva, enjoying short periods of peace interspersed with episodes of hectic violence. There were days where I collapsed onto my bed in the mid-morning after working all night, sore and exhausted, patched up, amazed that I was still alive. This was the first time the future had ever existed as a concept.
Earlier in August, I’d faced down demons, DOGs, an insane sorceress, a sixteen-man shootout, and seen the I of GOD itself. My best friend had died in my arms; I’d had a gun shoved in my mouth, been tortured, kidnapped, and nearly car-bombed. I’d eaten from the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and faced death more times in that one week than I had in the last six years. But not a single one of those things were as intimidating as the prospect of freedom. I had most of a double degree in law and psychology that would get me approximately nowhere without grad school. Besides that, my only skills related to wet-work. Shoot a gun, throw a knife, sling a spell… sure thing. But hold a job? Finish grad school? Did they even have grad school in Germany?