by Teresa Cain

Part 8



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"You sure about this?" Morte asked as we pulled to a stop. "I mean, this isn't only a funeral home, kiddo. This is a morgue. That means dead bodies before they're made up all pretty and life-like and stuck into nice wooden boxes. Well, not even that, really."

I frowned as I struggled with the fastenings on my helmet. I really should have insisted on taking my car. His bike was getting on my nerves...what there were left of them. "What does that mean?"

"It means we can't afford to bury our dead... we can't take the chance they might get dug up and examined a little too closely, y'know?"

"So... what? There's a rule all non-humans must be cremated or something?"

"Well... eventually." He got his helmet off with practiced ease and ran a hand through flattened curls. "It's an interesting if not slightly disgusting set-up we have here. All in all, I think this will be a little more incentive not to get yourself killed."

"Morte, what aren't you telling me?"

He held out a hand, helping me off the bike, then kept a hold on it while we walked a short distance up to an old brick building that looked as old as New York itself. I swear this place was probably a historic landmark. It didn't really look like a funeral home, but those places come in so many shapes and sizes that I guess you can't judge them by some set standard. Morte rang the doorbell and stepped back, glancing down at me and giving my hand a squeeze. Something was up here that I wasn't getting, and I knew I wasn't going to like this surprise at all.

"What do you know that I don't, Morte?" I hissed, digging my nails into his hand. "I don't need my nerves wrecked any more than they already are."

All I received in answer was an evil little smirk before the door opened.

The door didn't just open, it slo-o-o-o-owly opened, as if the person on the other side knew just what sort of effect that had on people. The damn door even had a creak! What kind of funeral director had a twisted sense of humor like this? Of course, some were supposed to have a pretty weird sense of humor. I guess it's hanging around with dead people for hours on end.

My eyes narrowed as I tried to see past the gloom waiting inside, and then a figure suddenly slumped into view against the doorframe. Tall, lean, bloodlessly pale, dark circles under his eyes, half-bald with the remaining hair shoulder-length, ratty old suit... I couldn't help myself, I promise.

"Shit!" I yelped. "It's Riff Raff from Rocky Horror!"

Morte broke into a hysterical howl of laughter, actually letting go of my hand as he bent over double and walked off the porch. He was still laughing when he fell over in the grass on the front lawn, holding onto his sides as he giggled helplessly and the tears ran down his face. We both watched him blandly as he tried to get a grip on himself and failed horribly, breaking into another gale of laughter.

"Sorry," I said, ignoring the idiot behind me. "It just surprised me."

"Don't worry, love," the pale one said with a sharp grin and an accent that was somewhere between British and New York. "I've heard it before."

I peeked over his shoulder. "Yes, well... at least there's no hump."

"Always that. Can I help you?"

Morte came up behind me, having finally regained his composure. Maybe he'd remembered what we were there for. "Hey, Lucius. This is Carlie. We, ah, need to see one of your clients - if there's anything left, that is."

Lucius raised one brow with a world-weary expression on his graven countenance. "And that would be?"

"Last night, beheaded succubus."

"Oh, yes. My, what a terrible tragedy," he clucked, stepping back and gesturing us in. "To be struck down at a moment like that. Even one such as I can see the grimness in that. They say it was Eli Thorn that did the deed."

"'Fraid so, old boy." Morte laid a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. "He's after Carlie here, but he's indulging himself with a bit of hunting while he's in town."

"Oh?" Lucius looked me up and down. "And just what did you do to catch his attention, dearheart?"

"She's his daughter."

"How about I just don't talk?" I asked brightly, then rammed an elbow into Morte's side and growled, "I can speak for myself, you know."

"Be my guest," he wheezed, grabbing his side and shooting me a dirty look.

"I know Eli's handiwork," I told the mortician. "I know what his victims look like. And I need to take a good long look at what he did to Renaeka and know that it was Eli Thorn that did it."

"And why is that?"

"Because I need something to hold onto when I fight him. I need a good, gruesome image to cover the knowledge that this man is my father. I need to look at what he did to a brand new mother who had just given birth and be convinced that only a lunatic of a monster could have done something like that."

"Ah. Well, you're in luck," he said, turning and starting off down a long hall. Morte and I trailed after him. "We haven't touched her yet. Now, if you'd been another couple of hours, then you probably wouldn't have had much to go by."

"You cremate the bodies that fast?"

"Only after we're done with them. Winter is coming, love. We need to stock the freezer."

Stock the freezer? What did that mean? I glanced at Morte, who gave a sickly little grin. "Morte, what am I missing here?"

"You haven't asked what Lucius is," he muttered low under his breath.

"Okay, what is he? Another kind of dark fae?"

"Hardly. He's Undead."

I paled. "Vampire?"

No, worse. He and his sister are...well, ghouls. Literally."

I stopped abruptly, the blood draining from my face, and grabbed him. "You are not serious. You mean - "

"As I said, eventually cremated. The skeletons are, anyway. After they're picked clean."

Lucius had stopped at the end of the hall and had opened an ordinary-looking door that could have hidden something as ordinary as a broom closet. But in the dim light that emanated, I could see the top of a wooden staircase leading down to something I no longer wanted to see. I stepped back a few paces, one hand pressed to my mouth, my head shaking in adamant denial.

"I can't do it," I said, staring at Morte with panicked eyes. "Just regular dead people I can handle. But dead half-eaten people is a whole other story. This was not something to just spring on me, Morte. I'm going to kill you."

"Could you wait until we get downstairs?" Lucius called. "It will just save me the trouble of having to drag his carcass down there. Plus the bloodstains will upset Eunice. She likes to keep the house clean."

"Are ghouls allowed to have a sense of humor?" I hissed as Morte grabbed my arm and started to drag me towards the door. "Why does that bother me?"

"I don't know. Haven't you watched enough horror movies to know the monsters always have a biting sense of humor?"

"That wasn't funny."

"I see you've never met a ghoul before," Lucius said as we approached. "But you do see the perfection in this partnership, yes? My sister and I feed without having to raid morgues and graveyards, thus exposing the supernatural world should either of us get caught - and everyone else gets a free funeral service that guarantees nothing remains of their dead to expose us, either. Simply marvelous, yes?"

"It used to be the world was so big you could hide a body more easily," Morte sighed, eyeing Lucius with a look of disgust in his eyes. "But it's grown so much smaller now... especially here in New York. His kind are needed more than ever in a city like this. Our only other option would be to get the bodies to another realm, like Faerie, except the longer the bodies are untended to, the more chance there is of getting caught."

"Let's not forget the cannibals," Lucius chided, waving one finger.


"The what?" I asked, glancing between them.

"Dark fae of several races that eat the dead to absorb their knowledge. There's information you really don't want those evil little bastards getting their hands on. Ghouls don't absorb, so it's safe for us to let them have our dead."

"At any rate, we do have a few skeletal remains to cremate this afternoon, so if we could get this impromptu visitation over with?" Lucius stood aside and waved a hand at the stairs, an unsettling smile on his thin, bloodless lips. "Ladies first."

There wasn't much light to go by as we descended those steps into the eerily lit abyss below. What's worse, those stairs were old and rickety, and it felt like my foot was going to go right through every single board. I reached back, grabbing blindly for Morte, and felt him take hold of the hand and give another encouraging squeeze.

As we finally reached the bottom, I realized the reason for the poor illumination was because there was only one light in the basement mortuary. Of course, considering what owned this place, it probably would have been better to think of it as a pantry. No, that made it worse. So did the smell. The whole room reeked of dead and rotting things, the sickly sweet scent permeating my nasal passages.

But the only light down there was a hanging lamp over a wide wooden table, scarred and stained with blood from no telling how many bodies that had lain upon in over the years. And unfortunately, there was another body lying there adding its contribution. And judging from the lack of head, I had a horrible suspicion about its identity.

"Oh God," I murmured weakly, feeling the bile rise.

There was a woman behind the table. I focused on her so I wouldn't have to look at the body, but upon closer examination, I decided the body was probably less disgusting. She looked a lot like Lucius, except female. Black hair hung in lank strings around a thin, rubbery face, and she shared the dark bruise-colored circles under her eyes. Her eyes were almost totally colorless. All that paleness only set off the fact that the lower half of her face was glistening with blood.

We'd caught her with her face lowered in the corpse, tearing out chunks with her teeth. Her hands were gloved in blood as well, and she was holding onto something dark and purplish in the fingertips of her right hand. Even as she stared as us, she chewed once, twice...and swallowed.

"Sorry, big brother," she said, then flicked her tongue over her chin. A horribly sly grin spread across her face. "I got peckish."

I stared in horror at the blood dripping from her chin, then down at the body on the table. There was a great gaping hole in the chest, the edges jagged from various bites. Wings feathered with dark blue hung limply over the table's edge. One hand lay palm up, fingers curled gently. There was red polish on the nails.

I slapped a hand across my mouth as my breakfast exploded up my throat, and ran up the stairs, down the hall and out the front door. I was still heaving into the grass when Morte knelt next to me a few minutes later, rubbing a calming hand up and down my back.

"I'm sorry, I should have warned you," he said, reaching up and stroking my hair. "I guess it was that dark fae really coming out in me. You gonna be o - "

His words were cut off as I whirled around as best I could on my knees, putting every bit of the momentum into the slap. My palm cracked with a very satisfying sound across his cheek, actually knocking him off balance. Of course, the follow through sent me sprawling down beside him as well, but the indignity was worth it.

"Don't you ever, ever do that to me again. I don't give a fuck about your dark blood, Morte. I've got it too, but you don't see me pulling shit like that."

"Of course not, half-breed," he hissed, and I suddenly saw something rise up in those blue eyes that reminded me with a chill what I was dealing with. Dark fae are powerful creatures, capable of deeds beyond most supernatural denizens. And Morte was pedigree, lacking any taint of human blood. There was power lurking inside that pretty shell that had terrified mortals for centuries, making them fear the night and the shadows. Just because he acted tame around me didn't mean he wasn't able to tear me to shreds with barely a conscious effort.

But something inside me was unfolding, and I found myself studying him in ways I hadn't before. For a minute I wondered just what I was looking for, and then my conscious mind caught up with instincts long suppressed.

I was looking for openings. I was staring at his body trying to find a weak spot, looking for vulnerable places I could put a fist or blade, the blade being the better idea. Except I didn't have a blade. My eyes widened in shock as I realized my training was coming back! The rush of joy I felt at the return of those old instincts overwhelmed me, making my breath catch in my throat as I realized I might actually have a chance. The abstract possibility was leaning closer to reality. Now if I could just get past those lingering feelings of familial ties.

Still on my side, completely forgetting I was supposed to be pissed at him, I reached out and grabbed a fistful of shirt, jerking his face close as a pleased grin spread across my face. The darkness seeped out of his eyes, only to be replaced by confusion as he warily asked "What?"

"Morte... darlin'... I need a sword."


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