Stories of the Cosa Nostradamus
? 2010 Laura Anne Gilman
published by Book View Press
Other titles available in digital format by Laura Anne Gilman
CURSE THE DARK
BRING IT ON
BLOOD FROM STONE
PACK OF LIES (February 2011)
FLESH AND FIRE: BOOK I OF THE VINEART WAR
WEIGHT OF STONE: BOOK II OF THE VINEART WAR (October 2010)
Visit Laura Anne Gilman's bookshelf at
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“Inferno” was written expressly for BookView Café, as part of the backstory for BLOOD FROMSTONE, and has not appeared anywhere else. This story takes place several months before theevents of STAYING DEAD.
"Breathe. Breathe, damn you!"
The pile of fur on the wooden table lay still, inanimate.
"Damn." A world of frustration in that one word, frustration, and anger directed both outward,and in. The temptation was too great for the third figure in the room.
"This would be a bad time to say I told you so?"
"I shall refrain, then."
There might have been a faint smile on his face. Or perhaps not. "You are a pestilence and aplague."
"As you say, master."
The man shook his head, reaching down and drawing a sheet over the motionless form.
"We'll try again tomorrow. Ensure that the blood is fresh, this time."
The other speaker looked down at the dark splatters on the leather apron wrapped around hissquat body. "Yes, master."
P.B. had woken that afternoon in a foul mood, the sheet tangled around his legs and his thickwhite fur damp with sweat. Restless dreams he didn’t want to remember mixed with the sound ofjackhammers hard at work on the sidewalk outside his one-room basement apartment. The whites ofhis eyes were scratchy from exhaustion, and his claws ached from a lack of calcium in his diet.Only the fact that he had two jobs pending and no payment due on either one until he was donegot him to consider moving at all. Life in the big city cost big bucks, even living in a divelike this one. Time to get up and at ‘em.
The demon dragged himself out of bed and went to rummage in the pantry for something stilledible. Nothing appealed. A note tacked to the empty, non-working fridge reminded him that hehad a third job that evening.
“And the excitement just never ends, does it?” His voice was harsh, raspy, and self-disgusted.
He poured a cup of cold coffee out of the coffee maker, and washed it down with a pumpernickelbagel, tearing chunks out of it with determined bites. A little dry, but not bad. He reallyneeded to go food shopping at some point. Or stop by Valere’s and mooch off her. But for now,the work. Or what he would be able to accomplish, seeing as how one client had been avoidinghim, and the other didn’t seem to know his elbow from his teakettle when it came to bindingcontracts...
Grabbing his grey trench coat and snappy-brimmed hat from the coat tree by the door, P.B.slipped his sunglasses out of the pocket, adjusted the arms so that they would stay up on hisdecidedly not-designed-for-sunglasses nose, and went out the door into the afternoon sunlightto see a man about a package.
Despite his lack of optimism, the afternoon had been surprisingly productive, closing out aweek of frustration on a much better note. Having a check for the remainder of one job in thepocket of his trench helped, too. P.B. supposed that was what was making him souncharacteristically mellow when he arrived to take on his third and last job of the day.
"Tell us a story!"
The demon settled himself more comfortably against the tree he was leaning against, overcoatfolded underneath him to make a rough sort of padded seat, and snorted, his flat black noseperfectly designed to make that noise. "Why should I?"
"Because if you don't, we won't settle down and go to bed. And mom'll be pissed if we're stillawake when she gets back." The speaker had a squeaky, self-confident voice, too confident forsomething that weighed about as much as one of his toes.
"Jailhouse lawyer." P.B. grumbled with no discernable affection, and the speaker giggled,despite not knowing exactly what the term meant. He shifted a little further, allowing theseven piskie pups he was minding to rearrange themselves comfortably around him, their tinywings catching in his fur and tugging free, more durable than they looked. "All right. "What doyou little monsters want to hear this time?"
The eldest, who had been acting as speaker for her siblings, rested her fuzzy red head againsthis arm. "Tell us about the first demons. Tell us about your people."
There were low lights around the lab, illuminating glass beakers and tubing, strange metalobjects. Ivory-white long bones hung from wooden beams. Acid-washed lumps of cartilage andstoppered jars of gray marrow rested on shelves along the wall.
A figure moved out of the shadows and stood by the table. Its length matched the height of hisshoulder, the wood dark and polished by years of use. Years of blood and flesh soaked into itsgrain. "I'm sorry, little brother. I told him it was a bad idea, but he's not one for listeningon a good day."
"Hurts.” A whisper, vocal chords relearning their use in this new, uncomfortable form.
"I know." One hand reached down to touch the prone form, black, hooked claws fully extended,like a dog’s. "It will all be over soon." One way or another. They either lived, and went offwhere master sent them... or they found release in death.
"Didn't want this." Its claws were sheathed under thick skinned pads, attached to over-muscledarms now resting limply on the table, held down by wide leather straps and buckles. Like, andunalike, the method of birth was still the same.
"Nobody ever asks us, little brother.” Irony, there. He had many brothers. And no brotherhoodat all. “We don’t have a choice."
Unlike the pups, momma piskie had no charms, winsome or otherwise. Wraith-thin, famine-thin,with pointed ears and a mane of dry red hair running down to her tissue-leather wings, hertriangle-shaped face reminded P.B. of a documentary he'd seen once on cobras, and the lidlessstare of her sky-blue eyes merely reinforced that. But what she lacked in physical appeal shemore than made up for in sheer stubborn doggedness—one of the reasons why piskies had not onlysurvived in the big bad city, but thrived enough to qualify as one of the major communitiesliving in the greenspace of Central Park.
“After four stories, a pint of ice cream–you owe me seven-forty–and at least one threat ofdemonic violence on their still-tender bodies, yeah. Sleeping like the innocents theyaren’t.”
Einnie laughed, the sound like wind on cold water, and settled on the park bench next to him.“Thank you again for taking them on such short notice. Nobody else will watch them, anymore.”
“I can’t imagine why.” His tenor growl was dry. Of all the members of the cosa nostradamus,
the supernatural world, piskies were the worst: annoying, unaesthetic pranksters with no senseof personal boundaries and no concept of loyalty to anything other than their pups, and eventhen only until they were out of the nest. That said, they could take a prank as well as playone. That covered a multitude of sins, in his personal ledger. And they seemed to like him,with the same sort of casual affection he could give them. It was a fair balance.
“They’re handfuls, all right,” Einnie said in acknowledgement. Understatement of the year.“But they adore you. Gods only know why.”
“You don’t think I’m adorable?”
Einnie gave him a thorough up-and-down, the morning sunlight making them both squint. Piskieswere nocturnal by nature, P.B. a night owl by choice and circumstance. “I think you need totake yourself home and give yourself a thorough brushing-out.” She reached over and snaggedthree tiny pine cones from a rough matting of hair. “You look like hell, P.B.”
“Always the charmer. Go sleep with your offspring, you miserable creature, you.”
Einnie dug her thin claws into the matting, holding him in place when he would have moved away,and combed it out with surprising gentleness.
“You’re a good friend. Thank you.”
"What are we?"
"We are nothing.” His own voice, flat and factual. “Always remember that."
Two days later, the memory of her words still puzzled him. He could count on his four-fingeredpaw the number of times someone had called him friend, much less a good friend. It wasn’tdeserved–if there was one thing he had perfected over the years, it was a merciless self-evaluation–but he supposed that her standards weren’t all that high to begin with, being apiskie.
“Hey, short stuff, move it!”
He barely had time to sidestep before the cyclist was past him, blithely ignoring the bike laneset aside for him in order to put his Lycra-clad body in the way of innocent pedestrians andbaby-carriage-pushing nannies. It was only April, but the winter had been a long one, and justthe hint of warmth in the sunlight caused humans to flock to the greenspace, spreading blanketsand baring occasionally unfortunate amounts of skin.
P.B. took one look at the sea of bodies and skirted around them, not wanting to deal with anymore people today than he had to in order to finish off the job. He knew some humans on asocial basis, but they were Talents, magic-users. They could see beyond white fur, black claws,eyes that were cat-slitted and the color of dried blood. He had no such faith in these humanNulls to do other than scream and point. Or point weapons. Idiot humans.
Not that the Talents were any better, overall. Humans were all annoying creatures.
“Morning, master fatae.”
P.B. barely had time to nod in response to the greeting before the teenager was past him,dodging around him and speeding down the track on bright yellow rollerblades, the magic-energyhumans called current snapping around him with the energy only the very young have. In hiswake, people smiled and raised their faces again to the sunlight, infected with his joyouscelebration
All right, he admitted, letting the Talent’s energy reach him as well, he was beingparticularly cranky this morning. Babysitting the piskie pups while Einnie was out hunting hadleft him uneasy, somehow, in a way he’d not been able to shake. No reason for it–but being ademon meant that you learned to listen to your instincts. It was how you survived.
So why this unease? Don’t be a moron, old man. Think it through. When did the unease begin?Not just this morning–you just finally had enough food in your stomach to think about ittoday, is all. When did the need for babysitting begin?
The short, plush fur on his face wrinkled like a shar-pei’s as he thought. Six, no ten monthsago. He had just finished a job for Valere, the one where her partner almost spit blood on thecop and that storefront window got shattered, but before he did the courier gig from Chicago toMiami for the Council.
Why? And why him? All right, that was easy enough to answer–the piskies wanted someone not apiskie, someone who would be enough of a sucker to put up with their impossible offspring. In a
word, him. Not that he had any objection to doing a favor now and again–favors were asvaluable as currency, in the Cosa Nostradamus—but that fact itself weighed against so many
favors being given out. Imbalance bothered him. Owing bothered him. Being owed bothered himmore.
And why did they need to go outside their own community? Would another piskie even be willingto watch the pups? Piskie males were flighty things, even with their own offspring. Piskiemommas needed to hunt for their own broods. Unmated piskies... P.B. realized that he didn’tknow any unmated piskies. Had never thought of it before.
So why were the mommas so worried about their nests being unprotected at night while theyhunted? What had happened ten months ago, to cause that worry? While someone with a grudge overa prank might go after an adult, pups were considered off-limits in just about every case.There weren’t enough fatae that they could afford to let their children become pawns in anykind of fatal arguments.
The only thing that would really be a danger to a pup would be a feral dog, or some other four-legged predator, and even a newling piskie pup could outwit an animal. No need to bring himinto it.
P.B. shrugged the question–and his unease–off. Not his problem. Reaching into his overcoatpocket to make sure the cash was still there–his kind of job didn’t take personal checks orcredit cards–he calculated how much time he had to finish this gig and still get to the bank.He had meant to make the deposit yesterday, but then things got busy, and he preferred to usethe ATM when nobody else was around. It wasn’t the risk of being seen–he walked through TimesSquare on Wednesday matinee afternoons and nobody even blinked–but too many of the damnmachines were above his head, so he had to climb up on the machine in order to use it.Humiliating.
In the meanwhile, there was a handoff to be made. And he’d earned a treat, for jobs well-done.
“Double scoop of pistachio, please,” he said to the clerk behind the ice cream cart.
The human blinked at him, but whether it was from the sight of a four-foot tall figure wearinga trench coat and slouch hat, or the fact of someone asking for ice cream this early in themorning, or if it was the white-furred paw that handed him the money, P.B. didn’t know.
He used to be self-conscious about going out among humans. That wore off long ago.
”No problem, man. Enjoy.”
He was, to paraphrase Lord of the Rings, no man. But the ice cream still tasted good. So did
the fact that he had been able to move the envelope from his other hand into the side panel ofthe ice cream cart without the human noticing.
Moving away with a casual slow walk, a shadow caught the corner of his gaze and he made asthough to adjust his hat, keeping his gaze carefully averted. He did not want to know who wasmaking the pickup. That wasn’t his concern: he was just the courier.
Maybe his unease had nothing at all to do with the piskies themselves, and more to do with thestories they asked for. He had no shortage of stories: the Cosa Nostradamus had more than its
share of characters, from the snoots-in-the-air angels to the sea creatures no land-dwellingpiskie would ever encounter except second-hand. If nothing else, he could tell the wee bitsabout humans, the non-fatae strangers they saw only as shadowy figures passing beyond theirnest. But for some reason the eldest had become fascinated by him, by his kind. He was the onlydemon in Manhattan right now; as far as he knew, perhaps the only one on the East Coast. Theywere few and far between, and not prone to socializing with each other. Too many memories, andnone of them good.
Taking his ice cream, he followed his whim and wandered off the main path, weaving his wayaround the youngsters playing some sort of game with chalk and sticks.
Of all the things in the world he never understood, it was the concept of play. No matter howoften someone tried to explain it to him, they might as well have been speaking in a foreigntongue. But others seemed to enjoy it; need it, even.
Fun, he understood that. He could and did have fun. But sheer physical release for no purposeother than to laugh...
Valere tried to explain it once. Lots of chemistry and biology and brain stem stimulation.He’d nodded, and listened, and kept his thoughts to himself.
He wasn’t human. He wasn’t truly fatae. He was demon.
And none of his earlier thoughts explained why he had woken up every morning this past monthwith nightmares echoing in his head.
“Good morning, demon.”
P.B. looked up and grinned without humor, showing an array of sharp-edged teeth. He had molarsbetter suited for grinding and crunching, but they were set back, away from the tearing andrending tools. An intentional design, for fearsome first impressions. The small, gray-tailedcreature sitting on the tree limb above him didn’t seem at all fazed by it.
“Good morning, you mindless little meatball.”
The creature merely grinned back at him, nonplussed by the insult. Even if P.B. had been in themood to chase up a tree for such a small mouthful, it would outrun him faster than thought.Easier to order a pizza. Safer, too. You tried not to eat a fellow Cosa member. Terribly bad
“You’ve not been to a Gather recently,” it accused him.
“Been busy.” Pizza cost money, unless you were willing to mug the delivery guy. P.B. was law-abiding, within reason. So if he wanted to eat, he had to work. He was, as he had just sodeftly proved, a damn good courier–objects or information, carried safely from one place toanother. A lot of demon did that, the ones who didn’t go in for bodyguard stints. He wasn’tmuch for violence, so that career path was out, but he was no slouch, either. He also hadexcellent vision and a better memory, so the person who robbed him did so at their peril.
His memory was his real asset, though, even more than claws or muscle. Couriering paid well,but not so well as his secondary career–gossip. He made a habit to learn who and how and whereand why, for as wide a range of questions possible. It might not seem important at the time,but you never knew what someone might be interested in. So the past few weeks he’d beenspending with his ear to the ground in and around some of the less reputable places wheregossip hung out, hearing what there was to hear. But, from the way the creature was stillgrinning down at him, he might have missed a bigger story. Something someone might be willingto pay real greenbacks for.
“All right, pleasantries out of the way. Spill.”
Innocent eyelash fluttering worked better when you didn’t look like the misbegotten offspringof a squirrel and a squid. And had actual eyelashes to flutter.
“Okay, if you don’t have anything of interest, I’ll be on my way, then.”
The fatae leapt from one branch to another with annoying grace, keeping pace with the demon ashe walked along the shaded path. It took all of seven paces–P.B. was counting–before it letout a heavy sigh.
“You’re no fun any more. Spending too much time with humans.”
“They’re where the money is. Spill.”
“Have I ever not?”
“Anchovies, this time. I like anchovies.”
P.B. kept from shuddering, merely nodding gravely and making a complicated gesture with theclaws of his left hand. “With anchovies, just for you.”
“There’s something hunting piskies.”
P.B. stumbled on a non-existent tree root, catching himself awkwardly before he fell. His form,which a human had once not-unkindly described as an ape crossed with a polar bear, was not madefor graceful.
“Einnie didn’t say anything to me about it.” Like the thought had never occurred to him,like he’d not been judiciously contemplating exactly that possibility. Like he hadn’t thoughtabout breaking protocol and asking Einnie, flat-out, if something–someone–was bothering her.He would never have done it... but he had thought about it.
The creature shrugged, tossing an acorn in the air and catching it in its impossible wide-opening mouth with a loud crunch. “Maybes they don’t know? Maybes they know and don’t telldemon.”
That was possible. Being known as a seller of information meant that you had to ferret it out;people didn’t just hand stuff over if they didn’t want it on the market. Although P.B. wouldthink that having something hunting you would be something you’d want known, so others couldkeep an eye out…
“Why are you telling me, then?” If the piskies didn’t want to share, who was he to insist?Protocol was there for a reason. Nobody wanted another species up in their business, Cosa or
The creature pointed one tiny clawed finger at him. “Piskies are being foolish. Clannish. Whathunts them, it may not stop there. You walk all worlds. You talk, listen, hear. Are listenedto, on occasion. If this is more than piskie-hunting, you will know.”
“And do what?”
“Yeah, right. Look, I don’t –“
P.B. stopped mid-scoff. The branch above him was empty.
There was a way to gather gossip, and a way to do research. They might look the same, to casualobservers, but one was much harder than the other. Gossip, everyone wanted to share.Information? Not so much. It took P.B. three days–three days he should have been scouting outreal work, paying work–to discover that there wasn’t anything to discover.
He wasn’t even sure why he was bothering. Cosa was Cosa, sure. In theory, all fatae were
united. Practical application had always been a lot shakier. And there wasn’t anything in thisfor him, far as he could see.
“You sure you don’t know anything?”
The angel gave him the most supercilious eyeballing imaginable, one delicate brow climbing allthe way back into its slicked-back blonde hair. Wasn’t an angeli existing that didn’t thinkits sweat didn’t stink...and that all that stink had washed down into demonkind. “I know manythings. None of which I would share with you.”
Right. Like that was a surprise.
A real detective, now, would slip a reluctant snitch a twenty, or do something to ensure futureinfo would be sweet. He wasn’t a real detective. He wasn’t even a faux one. And he knew nomatter how many twenties he folded into anyone’s palm, that was all they were going to givehim: nothing.
It was time to go back to basics.
“A piskie? I should care about them, why?” Andolf made a rude noise, particularly splutterythrough his sucker-like mouth, and P.B. thought about just stomping the shizida–a narrow,snake-like creature from the deserts of the Middle East–flat under his foot. It wouldn’t eventake much effort, because the thing was as dry and fragile-looking as the ecosystem it camefrom.
And the thought was as good as the deed, his clawed foot lashing out and knocking the foot-longfatae onto its back, three black claws almost but not quite puncturing the unpleasantly oilyskin of its stomach.
“Hey, ow!” The shizida was a new immigrant to the city; P.B. didn’t think much of itssurvival chances if it caved this quick under a little physical coercion. “Why me? Do I havesign, stomp on me like worm?”
“Only because you look like one.” P.B. could produce the elocution of an Oxford don when hechose to, but the inflection of a Brooklyn slugger always seemed to produce better results.“Come on, Andolf, ya wuss. I’d say show a little backbone, but you don’t got one, do you? IfI step a little harder on you, you’ll just go squoosh, won’t you?”
“Bite me, demon.”
P.B. hated that, the way other fatae made his breed into some kind of title, and not one ofrespect, either. He’d been hearing too much of it lately. Time to make it pay for him.Widening his eyes and opening his mouth slightly, the demon allowed the streetlamp overhead tocatch the glint of his sharpened teeth and blood-red eyes. “You wouldn’t even make me anafter dinner mint.”
“Ow! Look, demon. If I knew anything I’d tell you. Just get offa my neck!”
Stretched out on its back, Andolf's seven tiny arms waved madly, the seventh, in the middle ofits thorax, pausing long enough to make a rude gesture, while the seven legs kicked helplessly.The main defense of the shizida was a noxious fume that was reputed to strip the gloss offchrome. P.B.’s leathery black nose wrinkled in anticipation, but the assault didn’t come.
Interesting. It didn’t want to piss him off. Which meant ...something. Or nothing. Damn it, hecouriered information, he didn’t interpret it. All he knew was that the fatae was lying tohim. About something.
But one thing the demon did know was that when everyone was singing the same song–don’t knowa thing, can’t tell you a thing–the lie usually hid a truth, somewhere. P.B. didn’t believein conspiracies. Too few people, fatae or otherwise, were capable of holding a secret thatlong.
“Talk to me,” he suggested, trying for a more reasonable tone, letting his lips cover histeeth again. “Or I might–oops, y’know, do that squoosh. Just ‘cause I don’t know my ownweight.” He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to put any more weight on the thing’s belly.Pretty sure. Not positive. And if he didn’t know, himself...
“Come on, you little fishhook bait. Talk to me.”
“Don’t. Know. Nuthin’.” But Andolf’s voice shook in fear far in excess of maybe gettinghis innards rearranged, and something an occasional employer had said to P.B. once resurfacedin his memory: it’s not when they’re telling you something dire that you should be nervous.It’s when they won’t tell you anything.
The Park at night was a scary place, even for a demon. Cop cars made random patrols, theirheadlights cutting through underbrush, sweeping the tree line, but never penetrating very far.Not even drug dealers came this far into the park, not this late at night. They weren’tscared; merely cautious. Things happened to people who wandered alone in this part of CentralPark. Things that never made the evening news.
P.B. pivoted and snarled at the goblin, who turned an interesting shade of puce and fled backinto the underbrush.
“Yep, I still got it,” he said in satisfaction, mock-polishing his claws against his fur andwalking deeper into the brush. His white fur glimmered even in the moonless dark, faintlyluminescent at the tips of each strand. The overcoat had been left at home tonight, as had thehat.
Overhead, he could hear the faint chitter of the occasional squad of bats, or a solitarypiskie, hunting in their wake. Underfoot, the soft whisper of grass, or the crunchier snap oftwigs. And that was it. Contrary to popular belief, most of the fatae were daytime-dwellers,going about their 9-5, shoving for a seat on the subway, and standing in line at the coffeeplace, bitching about whoever was mayor at that particular moment. Every law-abiding fatae, andmost of the ones that weren’t, were in whatever passed for their bed right now.
Or, if they were sanitation workers, getting up and going on their rounds. He’d been told oncethat their union was almost 60% fatae, but nobody had ever paid him to verify it.
Why he wasn’t in bed as well was something he’d given up trying to understand.
“Screw this for a rotten lark,” he said, finally, after an hour of patrolling the underbrushhad netted him nothing beyond a lot of twigs in his fur. P.B. could see quite well in thedarkness, but he had been up and working for almost 24 hours now, and supernatural creature orno, his feet were beginning to get tired. So were his knees, his shoulders, his back, his...
“Right. Fine.” He spotted a rock set into a small hillock that could double as a seat for alarge child–or a demon of average height. And it glimmered like dirty marble, so he wouldblend into it, to the casual observer.
As good a place as any to watch the area from, he figured. And try to figure out why he wasdoing this in the first damned place.
“Why?” They all asked that. Once. Maybe twice. Never a third time.
“Because he is curious. Because he can.” The only answer there was to give.
“You call him master.” Accusing. Hurt. Disbelieving.
“He made us. We owe him our breath.”
“We owe him nothing!”
“Hrmmm?” P.B. opened his eyes even as he was questioning what had woken him, coming toawareness the way his kind always woke; quickly, silently, and assuming the worst.
It was almost dawn, the faintest grey-pink touching the sky overhead. Something moved, off tohis left. And behind, no, over him, on top of the rock he had fallen asleep on. His musclestensed, but other than a faint flexing of his paw-claws, he didn’t move.
A piskie, finishing up her night’s hunting. And pleased about it. That was in the coming-closer distance. Overhead...
“You take the left quarter, Dobson’s on rear. Set?”
“Yeah. No worries, this winged bitch won’t get past us.”
P.B.’s nose twitched, taking in the flavor of the air wafting downwind from them. Humans. NotCosa–they didn’t have that extra tang, like buttermilk, that marked a magic-user from a Null.
“Stinking animals. Disgusting things.”
“We’ll take care of them. First this one, then its nest. A good night’s work.”
Nulls, talking like they knew about piskies. Were planning to harm piskies. Was this what hadbeen hunting them? Humans? Nulls?