This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of Blood Hound, which is on sale for 99c on Amazon between the 29th – 31st, just in time for Halloween!

Outside, Yuri loomed down over me like a coffin on its heel. The old wolf was actually older than Nic, which meant he was cresting his early 60s. He was enormous, the kind of hoary man that could pound the shit out of thirty-year-old prizefighters in the ring without breaking a sweat. Now, his heavy shoulders were hunched in towards his chest, his hands buried in his pockets. His skin was clammy and pale.

“Yuri. You look… dreadful.” I was, for a moment, bereft of words. “Where have you been?”

“Long time explaining.” His voice caught and clicked weirdly, like he was talking through a mouthful of soggy bread and thumbtacks. There were awkward, painful pauses between his words. “Can I sit… down?”

Details filed into my awareness in seconds. The bruises under his eyes. The dried spittle at the corner of his lips. The coat he was wearing was too heavy for the summer heat. My nape prickled. “Perhaps. Tell me where you’ve been.”

“Came back to talk about Vincent.” He finally looked down at me then, and I recoiled slightly from the door. Yuri’s eyes were normally dark, the whites a little yellow from hard years of prison hooch and nicotine. Now, they were black—a blackness that sucked in light and didn’t return it. No reflection, no life, no anything. For a moment, they held me captive with the siren promise of knowledge. I knew somehow that Yuri, or the thing that had once been Yuri, now held more knowledge than my own curious mind could withstand.

Letting him in felt like a bad idea, but the mystery was irresistible. I licked my lips, throat suddenly dry, and opened the door to let him pass. “Shoes on the rack, please.”

Yuri crossed the threshold. He didn’t take off his shoes, and my brief captivation disappeared. Honestly. I really hated it when people didn’t take their shoes off.

The huge man lumbered to the kitchen, turning his head one way, then the other. He stopped, neck craned, and stared at the icebox section of the refrigerator. The icebox. The seal was still in the tin chalice, in the icebox. My heart rate leapt.

“I’ve been underground.” Yuri didn’t look at me as he took his seat, shuffling heavily into a chair at the kitchen table. The table was a small, square thing, no bigger than a card table, and barely sat Vassily and me. Yuri, sitting side-on with his elbow braced down, dwarfed it. “Underground. I figured you might be interested in some new work.”

“That depends on the nature of the work.” I stayed standing. “I assume you don’t want coffee?”

“No.” Yuri swiveled his face towards me just as I was about to step in through the door. The look in the other man’s eyes stopped me. “We have the kind of work you want. The kind you really want. None of this underpaid Girl Friday bullshit.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” In the closeness of the kitchen, Yuri smelled like alcohol. Not liquor, like vodka or whiskey, but pure alcohol. The cold, nose-stinging smell of preservative. Surreptitiously, I rubbed my fingers together and then pitched my own thigh. No, I wasn’t still dreaming. “The Manellis?”

“Manelli.” Yuri ground the word out like a woodchipper. It could have been agreement or just echolalia. “Hell no. I was sent t-to make you an offer. The kind that suits a true magus.”

Now there was an expression you didn’t hear every day. I stared at Yuri intently, trying to pick up anything I could. He wasn’t right, but he wasn’t… anything. I was beginning to mistrust things with a lack of aura, and I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake letting him into my house. “That seems reasonable. You have three minutes to make your pitch.”

The big man looked up lazily with his void-black eyes and laid one of his hands on the table. “Power. Instruction. A position of leadership. And an out from the Organizatsiya, and the geas that Sergei has on the whole damn thing.”

A creeping sensation ran up through my spine. I remembered the dream, though I could not recall the face of the pale-skinned, white-haired woman in the circle. I did remember the last stark image before rising: my mouth stuffed full of my own entrails. “You’re not Yuri. Yuri knows nothing about these things.”

“I do now,” Yuri said. The words seemed to carry a weight to them, wielded like a fist through the thickness of his tongue. “And I’ll tell you this, Lexi. You’re so powerful that you could become a god.”

I was rendered speechless. It was partly the awful cliché, but it was also because the thought had never genuinely occurred to me. I wanted to be better at my Art. Who wouldn’t? Godhood was never on the agenda. “Why on earth would I want to be a god?”

“Men like you are either masters or slaves. Most of ’em are slaves. That’s why the Vigiles take kids with the gift, Lexi. It’s why operations have spooks, and don’t let them out of their sight. You don’t want to stay here.” In that moment, Yuri sounded more like his old self, halting voice and all. “Living and d-dying… under someone like Sergei? Lev? They all think you belong to them.”

The words hooked in my sense of pride. I tried reaching back inside, towards Kutkha, but I felt nothing there. It was as if I were walled off from him, left with nothing other than the distant sense of beating wings. “I have on good authority that gods don’t exist.”

“They do. Men become gods. Jehovah? He was a war leader and a spook. Alexander the Great? Jason and the fleece? Heroes and mages, the lot of ’em.” Yuri’s black eyes bored into me. “Just like Carmine.”

My eyes narrowed. “How do you know Carmine?”

“Maybe he got the same offer. Maybe he said ‘yes.’ He was tired of being somebody’s bitch. What about you?”

“I’m no one’s ‘bitch’,” I replied, crisply.

“Psh. You’re Sergei’s bitch. I watched you grow up right into his design, kid. Grisha’s skinny little weirdo, accidentally sorted out onto the conveyor belt for fighting cocks before he got thrown into the grinder with the rest of the chicks.”

“Sergei is coming back to Brighton Beach,” I said. “He will likely name Vassily Avtoritet, and I will be his second.”

Yuri leaned in. The prickling was worsening, ringing cold bells through my nerves. There was something wrong about Yuri’s skin. It was distended and tight, and when I looked down, I noticed his tattooed hands were bloated and puffy. “Kid, they haven’t even made you a captain. They think you don’t have the experience. Killing people doesn’t put you in line for anything except a bullet between the eyes when the big cats vote you’re too out of control. That’s just cold hard reality. Did you ever wonder what Sergei sees in you?”

Of course I did. Numerous men had been born in or on the periphery of the Organization, and of all of them, Sergei had selected me and Vassily. I have one clear memory of him from my childhood: a memory of being hoisted up in tattooed hands the size of Christmas hams, looking down into his broad, beaming face and bushy beard. Sergei was as much a Slav as Vassily and I were, but he had red hair: red hair and violet eyes. I remember looking down into those twinkling purple-blue irises, understanding even then that they were full of cold humor and equally cold assessment. When he was here, he’d been a shadow over my shoulders, always watching. Every school report, every play, every equestrian competition. He watched everything with indulgent, predatory patience, rewarding the good and being outwardly disappointed by the bad. The same way you trained a dog.

“No. And how would you know?” I asked.

“Son, I was the first guy to bring heroin here from the ’Stans. Me and Nic. We took a convoy of poppy over the border all the way to a ship in Karachi.” Yuri exhaled, and his throat buzzed with phlegm. “I knew Sergei before you were a gleam in your daddy’s eye. Man is a Class-A shitbag. A real circus master. He’d fuck you with a razor blade for your jacket if he wanted it.”

I glared at him in sullen, offended silence.

“I know what Sergei sees in you. Same thing he sees in all t-the rest of us poor motherfuckers.” Yuri grinned. “Machine parts.”

The undeniable truth of Yuri’s words made me pause. I rubbed my hands on my thighs, leaning away. My fingers were stinging with salt, rubbed raw within the illusory security of their casings.

“Tiny, fragile, cheap… machine parts.” Yuri’s voice dropped to a brittle hiss. “Itty bitty. And there’s lots of you. Lots of Alexis. Lots of Yuris. You’re already a slave. Just like your mother.”

“You don’t know anything about my mother.” That remark snapped the growing hypnotic fugue short. I reached back and pulled the gun free from my waistband. “Shut up.”

“I know more than you do.” Yuri’s soulless eyes burned under the fluorescent lights of the kitchen. “You think your dad was her only man before she capped herself?”

“SHUT UP!” I barked.

A weird, choked sound bubbled up from Yuri’s throat. It took me a moment to realize he was laughing. “She hated him. Hated you. She hated us. The Organization.”

Shaking, I raised the pistol in a teacup grip. My arms, back, and stomach were taut with rage.

“Yeah. Get angry.” Yuri sat back but didn’t otherwise move. He didn’t give two shits about the gun. “Think about it. You get t-to choose what Sergei did with you? Choose what you were born into? How you turned out?”

My nostrils trembled as I drew a deep, furious breath.

“Had your school paid up, car paid up, all sponsored… so you could do this. Pull a gun on the guy tellin’ you how things work. You’re a slave, kid. You joined the system, and they got you good.”

It was true. It was all true. Sergei had put Vassily and me through The Knox School together, bought our cars. After my mother’s funeral, Sergei had bought my first horse. They weren’t gifts—they were investments. We’d both known it and worked hard out of gratitude and obligation and maybe more than a little fear. Our patron had checked us into college and assigned us our subjects. Finance. Business. He wanted white-collar leaders with a taste for comfortable living and big money. I had done everything he wanted—except one thing.

“So you tell me, Alexi. Where’d it get you? Your loyalty?”

I lifted my chin. My instincts screamed at me to disengage, but pride wouldn’t let me. I’d taken so much shit from the other muzhiki in this place. “I’ve got everything I need.”

“You work like a dog, live in a shitty apartment, and half the Organization thinks you should be put down. There ain’t no respect for spooks in this place, kid. I know the guys at work, what they say about you.” Yuri didn’t blink. “Rumor is you’re a faggot.”

“Say that again.” Every muscle in my body trembled. It couldn’t be true. My finger tightened on the trigger. In the ensuing silence, the small click seemed very, very loud.

“Faggot.” He sounded it out long and slow, like I hadn’t heard the first time. “You don’t believe me? Ask Nic. Everyone thinks you make out like you’re a big tough guy after killing your dad to hide it. But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Yuri replied. “You want your soul to walk beside you like it was real, like Carmine? You can do that. Want to learn how to walk on water? It’s possible. Create gold? Skullfuck people from across the room? You can. I can sense it, Lexi. You woke up. You’re one of the big boys now.”

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