QSFer Rhys Ford has a new MM paranormal/urban fantasy out, book four in the Kai Gracen series: “Silk Dragon Salsa.”
SoCalGov Stalker Kai Gracen always knew Death walked in his shadow. Enough people told him that, including his human mentor, Dempsey. Problem was, the old man never told him what to do when Death eventually caught up.
Where Tanic, his elfin father and the Wild Hunt Master of the Unsidhe Court, brought Kai pain and suffering, Dempsey gave him focus and a will to live… at least until everything unraveled. Now caught in a web of old lies and half-truths, Kai is torn between the human and elfin worlds, unsure of who he is anymore. Left with a hollowness he can’t fill, Kai aches to find solace in the one elfin he trusts—a Sidhe Lord named Ryder—but he has unfinished business with Dempsey’s estranged brother, a man who long ago swore off anything to do with the feral elfin child Dempsey dragged up from the gutter.
Reeling from past betrayals, Kai searches for Dempsey’s brother, hoping to do right by the man who saved him while trying to keep ahead of the death haunting his every step. Kai never thought he’d find love or happiness as a Stalker, but when Death comes knocking at his door, Kai discovers a fierce need to live life to the fullest—even if that means turning his back on the people he calls family.
“THIS HAS got to be one of the stupidest fucking runs you’ve ever dragged me into, boy,” Dempsey spat at me from across the driver’s seat of the old Chevy Nova. “But it sure as shit beats staring at the same bunch of walls. Just hurry it up. I’ve got some stories to watch this afternoon. Swear to all the Gods and Holy Marmots, if I miss that wedding, Kai, I’m going to take it out of your stinking cat-bastard hide.”
I wouldn’t say I loved the man who won me off of a Sidhe guard late one night during an ill-advised poker game, but I owed Dempsey not only my life but my livelihood. When he found me, I was a feral savage run through with iron rods and broken bones, a chimera of the two elfin races, an abomination, a blend of the Sidhe and the Unsidhe—nothing more than an arcane soup conjured up by Tanic cuid Anbhás, Lord Master of the Wild Hunt and more or less my father. At least by blood and bone.
Dempsey gave more to me than Tanic ever did… well, other than pain and misery. Tanic had a fucking lock on that. No, Dempsey fed me, clothed me, and put a knife in my hand. Then the son of a bitch taught me how to use it. It was something we argued about constantly. He liked the clean bleed of a kill over his hands; I liked blowing things away with a sawed-off shotgun and a pair of Glocks. Preferably from a distance. In case I had to reload.
Even among the miscreants and crazies who lived and died as SoCalGov Stalkers, we were an odd pair—a grizzled old Irishman who had injured himself out of a license and the elfin kid he dragged up to adulthood despite the wars and hatred our species threw at each other following the cataclysmic merge of our two worlds.
Dempsey was slowing down, riddled with bad blood and human diseases no healer could pull out. His stringy lank hair was ripe with gray and long enough to touch his collar in a frizzy bush someone who didn’t know what the hell they were doing took a scissors to since the last time I’d seen him. His eyes were somewhat unfocused and watery, faded down to the gray the sky took on at the edge of the desert before a storm rolled in, but they were still honed sharp enough to stab me when he looked at me through the passenger-side window.
He was smaller than he should have been, the strength of his brawny body sucked clean from his marrow, and unlike Thor’s goats, I didn’t see him springing back up every morning once the sun’s rays hit the edge of the sky. His full face now hung down on his bones, jowls speckled with nicotine stains from the cigars he wouldn’t give up and rivers of pink flushes coloring his cheeks and nose. But he was still a powerhouse of a man.
Or at least he was to me.
“You said you wanted to go on a job. This one came up. You take what comes up on the list,” I parroted his words back at him. “Or are you too big for small-change jobs now? You that rich? You think I’m that rich?”
He was silent. The only sound from that side of the truck was the wet smack of his lips against his chewed-on, half-smoked cigar. I hated the things. Or at least the cheap-ass ones Dempsey seemed to prefer. He said the cheaper the better because it hid his smell from predators. I disagreed. The stink of whatever they used to stuff the damned things could make a dead cheetah’s eyes water, and I was pretty damned certain it was an aphrodisiac for ainmhi dubh—the Unsidhe’s black dogs—because the bastards seemed to find us every time we went on a run.
Okay, that last one could also be because my bastard father sends them out to hunt me down, but I blamed the damned cigars.
The wind was kicking up over the black lava fields covering the rolling hillocks near Pendle and its dragon-infested mountains. We were in the highlands, tucked between the craggy peaks scraping at the sky’s steel-gray belly and the softer boulder-strewn crags bristled up against what was left of the 15. SoCalGov had made some effort to restore much of the inland freeway, but the coast-hugging 5 was shot to hell, and with the swarms of dragons swirling overhead with nothing much to do but eat and mate, no one was rushing to rebuild that stretch anytime soon.
No sense building a road where anything and everything would be picked off and munched on. It would be like giving the damned overgrown lizards their own sushi-boat buffet.
What we were doing was less dangerous than a Pendle Run. There really wasn’t a lot of space for the larger wyrms to fit into the crags, and the smaller dragons liked the coast more. But in the nooks and crannies above Sparky’s lay a cornucopia of Earth and Underhill creatures, and we’d picked up a bounty to snag a couple to help the newly restored San Diego Zoo build up its attractions.
They weren’t happy about losing their old space—Balboa Park and its sweeping long stretches of elaborate buildings and gardens—but that now belonged to the Southern Rise Court, and, well, the asshole Sidhe who’d somehow lodged himself into my life—Ryder, Clan Sebac, Third in the House of Devon, High Lord of the Southern Rise Court and my personal pain in the ass. No way Ryder was going to give up his Court for a bunch of animals, and when the zoo came over with their hat in hand to ask him to cough up a pair of the now-feral pandas wandering through Balboa’s expansive forests, he told them they were welcome to catch them, providing they survived a heavily armed Crazy Gertrude, who took her panda protecting duties seriously.
They declined, so Ryder then offered me up as a consolation prize, forking over the money for a few animal bounties to fill their pens. Because that’s the kind of stand-up thoughtful leader Ryder is—promising someone else’s time so some idiots who live in San Diego’s glass towers can spend a couple of bucks to go see beasts who’d sooner munch their heads off than eat the dead flesh tossed at them every night from the safety of a window at the back of their enclosure.
So now there I was, standing in the icy, biting wind cutting across the lava fields, hunting for fire hen chicks for the San Diego Zoo.
As a favor for Ryder, of course.
I was charging him triple of what I normally charged to get rid of a pair of black dogs from a meat-packing plant. Served him right for taking up the zoo’s battle cry of restocking their cages just because he didn’t want to catch any shit from Gertrude and her shambling black-and-white mounds of death.
“Go get the fucking chickens so I can get back to Jonas’s to watch my stories,” Dempsey rasped. “And we’re stopping at the taco place on the way to the damned zoo. If I’ve got to eat one more tofu surprise casserole at that house, I’m going to puke.”
A hint of sulfur curdled the wind as it swept over us, bringing with it the stink of guano from the nesting animals nearby as well as an undernote of rotting carrion. Something screamed deep in the hills behind me, but neither one of us flinched. We were long used to tackling larger things than whatever was complaining about life, the universe, and everything else. The scrub brush fought for space with rivulets of spiky black a‘a lava, giving cover in the tangle of canyons and mesas, the wrinkled land providing cubbyholes and crevices for things that could give a hardened Stalker nightmares.
In a lot of ways, the hills were a lot like me and Dempsey—a screwed-up tumble of human and Underhill where up was sometimes down and even the normal no longer resembled anything sane. There were times I wondered why he took me. And there were also times I wondered why I stayed. But I knew the answer to that. It wasn’t just that I owed him, it was because he’d taken a feral, wild-brained chimera of an elfin and fought to make me something more than a weeping mess of scarred and iron-riddled flesh full of hunger and fear. He was at the end of his journey—a broken-down human full of black blood and spite, aging right before my eyes while I still wasn’t much older than when he found me.
So there I stood, tasting bird shit and spoiled meat on my tongue while Dempsey kept the Nova idling, waiting for me to go into the hills and grab a couple of fiery chicklets so we could pay for a few hundred bags of tacos and elote.
“You going to get those chickens? Or are we going to head back down to Jonas’s?” His cigar flared up, a red dot on the semishadowed interior. “Because gas is wasting here, boy.”
“Then turn the car off.” I swallowed my unsaid words of worry when the red slipped from his face, leaving behind a gray, pasty stain on his flesh. “And pass me the tongs and asbestos bags. Sooner I get this done, the sooner I get some food in me. Just like the good old days when you were trying to get me to stop shitting in your sleeping bag.”
Dempsey turned the car off, but the look on his face went from menacing to almost apologetic. He mumbled something under his breath that I didn’t quite catch, so I leaned against the passenger-side door frame and stuck my head through the open window.
That was a mistake, because I couldn’t hear him any better and I now had a mouthful of cigar smoke. After coughing slightly to clear my nose a bit, I said, “What was that?”
“We kind of don’t have any tongs,” he repeated a little bit louder, narrowing his eyes at me as if challenging me to give him a hard time.
Since I’d given him a hard time for quite a few years, I was about to change my tune. Sucking at my left canine—a habit I knew pissed him off—I asked around my tongue, “Weren’t you in charge of equipment for this run? Where the hell are the tongs?”
“Razor lost them. He had a fight with a salamander down in Calexico. Might have even been Carlsbad.” Dempsey gave me a nonchalant shrug and scratched at the hardscrabble beard scruff creeping down his neck. “Guess it doesn’t matter where, because we don’t have them.”
“How the hell am I supposed to catch these things without asbestos tongs?” Leaning harder on one of the Brents’ many ’77 Novas only dug the window rubber into my forearms, but the slight pain reminded me I shouldn’t kill my mentor. If there was one thing he’d pounded into my head time and time again, it was that you didn’t go on a run without proper equipment. “These things literally shoot fire out of their asses. Last time I looked, I was pretty fucking flammable.”
“Najiri gave me these.” He twisted around and dug out a plastic bag from behind the passenger seat. Once he pulled it free, Dempsey offered it up to me as if it were a pack of smokes and a couple of beers he was giving me for Christmas. “They should work out the same.”
I snatched the plastic bag from his hand and opened it up, then looked inside. I then closed it and couldn’t quite stop the growl crawling up my throat when I strangled my words through my clenched teeth. “These are fucking oven mitts.”
“See?” Dempsey shot back, mashing more spit into his cigar end. “They should work good enough. You might get a little singed, but you’ve had worse.”
Rhys Ford is a firm believer in love and let love, short walks to a coffee shop and having a spare cat or two. Most days she can be found swearing at her laptop and trying to come up with new ways to kill off perfectly good random characters.
Rhys Ford was born and raised in Hawaii then wandered off to see the world. After chewing through a pile of books, a lot of odd food, and a stray boyfriend or two, Rhys eventually landed in San Diego, which is a very nice place but seriously needs more rain.
Rhys admits to sharing the house with three cats of varying degrees of black fur, a black Pomeranian puffball and a ginger cairn terrorist. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, a Toshiba laptop, and a purple Bella coffee maker.