Home > Storm Cursed (Mercy Thompson #11)(13)

Storm Cursed (Mercy Thompson #11)(13)
Author: Patricia Briggs

But Adam had asked it of me, so I went. Sherwood stayed in human form, but he didn’t look any happier about going in than I felt.

He opened the front door and turned on the lights.

“This house is dark,” he told me. “A little light doesn’t hurt anything.”

The front door opened directly into a living room that looked warm and friendly. Light-colored walls set off wooden floors that were covered in expensive-looking carpets that were, in turn, covered with comfortable-looking furniture. Big windows let in a lot of natural light, and two skylights let in more.

There was plenty of natural light. I gave Sherwood a puzzled glance, and then I walked through the door.

It didn’t feel light and friendly. It smelled like death, witchcraft, and black magic. The combination was stomach-turning. Suddenly the extra little bit of brightness from the lights didn’t seem like overkill at all. Anything that might brighten up the spiritual atmosphere, however insignificantly, was welcome.

“I know,” said Sherwood grimly when I sneezed in protest of the smell. “But you get used to it.”

There were no bodies in this room, but I looked around thoroughly anyway. Adam had noticed something that bothered him in this house, bothered him more than Elizaveta’s dead family, and I needed to figure out what it was.

The bodies began in the kitchen, three of them. I am not a medical professional. I’m a predator, yes, and I kill things. But my victims (mice and other small rodents, usually) die quickly from broken necks. I’m not a cat; I don’t play with my food.

Elizaveta’s family members—I recognized each of these, though I didn’t know their names—were missing pieces. Mostly fingers, ears, toes—survivable amputations. The woman was missing her nose.

They all wore pants and the woman had on a loose unbuttoned dress shirt—no shoes, no socks. The clothes were filthy and smelled of blood and other things. Some of that was because of the usual effects of death, but some was older. Elizaveta would never have tolerated slovenliness in her family, so whoever had held them had not allowed them to bathe or change their clothes.

The woman’s body was folded over a bowl that contained beaten egg that had been fresh a couple of hours ago. When I came to that, I took a good look at the room and where the bodies were. There was toast in the toaster and several slices on a large plate next to it. The stove was off, but there was a frying pan on it. On the counter next to the stove was a package of bacon—unopened, which was why I hadn’t smelled it earlier.

These people had been tortured—and some of the wounds were very fresh. All three of them had been in the middle of making breakfast, judging by the condition of the kitchen. Who gets tortured and then decides to make a meal? Witches, evidently. Strange. Even more strange was that they had died very quickly and all at the same time.

I examined each of them, sniffing their bodies. Then I went through the kitchen itself, pantry and all. The next room, a workroom of some sort, had four more bodies.

There was nothing wrong with any of these people, no wounds new or old. It looked as though they had dropped where they stood. I recognized only the teenaged girl. Her name had been Militza. She went to school with my stepdaughter, Jesse, though Militza was a couple of years younger. Jesse sometimes gave her rides home from school, though not recently.

Jesse had privately told me that Militza gave her the creeps. I’d told Jesse to tell Militza to find another ride. I think Jesse had been more polite than that.

“There are fourteen bodies,” Sherwood said dispassionately, as I explored the room. “Adam described them to Elizaveta, and she identified them. No survivors. Stop right there, don’t open that cabinet. There’s a sigil on the door. I don’t know what it will do, but I doubt it is anything nice.”

I stopped. I couldn’t sense anything over and above the magical-crafting residue that impregnated everything in the room. It was strong inside the cabinet I stood in front of, but no stronger than it had been other places. Apparently, Sherwood had a more subtle understanding of magic than I did. I found that very interesting.

Sherwood didn’t speak again until I’d moved on.

He picked up the one-sided conversation as easily as if he’d never stopped. “Whoever did this wiped Elizaveta’s people out. Elizaveta thinks it was probably another coven, trying to take over her territory while she is in Europe. She will be here as soon as she can.”

There were no more bodies on the first floor, though I noted that two chairs were missing from the dining room set. I went upstairs then, to search six bedrooms and three bathrooms. I found a lot of interesting things, but there weren’t any more bodies.

So I was prepared to find the other seven in the basement. Or at least I knew that there would be seven dead people in the basement, most of whom I’d probably met at one time or another. “Prepared” was probably too strong a word. I don’t know how I’d have been prepared for what I saw.

I have seen horrible things, things that haunt me in my dreams. But Elizaveta’s basement was one of the worst.

The basement was one big room, forty feet by twenty-five feet at a rough estimate, with a nine-foot ceiling and two doors that I assumed were bathrooms in opposite corners. Like the floor above it, the basement was well lit—though with daylight bulbs in LED fixtures, rather than windows.

A big utility sink was set up on one end of the room, and next to it was a pressure washer, the kind I use for cleaning cars. All of the rest of the walls were covered with metal racks containing various sizes of cages.

The center of the room looked almost like a doctor’s office, with twin metal examination tables. Near each bathroom was a chair that looked more like a dentist’s chair. All of them had manacles. All of them were occupied by bodies. Two additional bodies were tied to sturdy chairs that matched the ones I’d seen upstairs around the dining table. That meant there was another body down here somewhere.

Reluctantly, I approached the bodies. It had taken a very long time for them to die. Days, I thought, though never having tortured someone to death, I couldn’t be sure. Weeks maybe. The kitchen people had been in better shape than the ones down here. I searched each body carefully with both my nose and eyes.

The floor was cement with a drain. The killers hadn’t bothered to use the pressure washer to clean up after themselves, so I could see that the floor had been poured so that liquids would tend to flow to the drain without urging. Effluent from the bodies had made streams from their source to the drain.

But Elizaveta’s family weren’t the only dead bodies in the basement; the rest just didn’t happen to be human. The cages along the two long walls held dead birds—pigeons, doves, and chickens mostly, but there was an African gray parrot, a golden eagle, and a handful of parakeets. Next to the utility sink were cages of dead reptiles and amphibians.

On the wall opposite the utility sink were cages of dead small mammals. The top shelves were mice and rats. The rest were kittens and puppies.

Kittens and puppies tortured to death. If I’d been in my human body, I would have cried. I was not apologetic that their deaths bothered me more than the deaths of Elizaveta’s family. Those animals had been innocent, and I was not willing to say that of anyone else who had died here.

There were no flies, though the smell of rot was incredible. I had to assume that something kept the insects away, and it was probably not the stench—physical and spiritual—that permeated the room. Some of the smell was putrefaction, but most of it was the reek of black magic. Maybe flies were repelled by the scent of black magic. Or maybe the magic that had killed Elizaveta’s family had also killed all of the insects.

I started to go do my job, to leave the small dead creatures and search the corners for the missing dead body, when a movement caught my eye. I yipped for Sherwood, who was pacing with intent by the sink. I couldn’t smell him over the rest of it, but his skin was covered with sweat. He stopped and came over.

Without a word, he opened the cage I indicated and pulled out the body of one half-grown orange tabby kitten with gentle hands and set it aside.

“We missed this,” he said as he eased a black-and-white body out of the cage. Like the tabby, it was somewhere between kitten and cat.

The kitten twitched and tried to move away from him. “Poor thing,” he murmured. “Shh now, you’re safe.”

He pulled off his shirt and swaddled the cat in it, gently immobilizing it. He set the cat on the floor next to its cagemate.

He did a quick and complete check of the rest of the cages, but the black-and-white kitten was the only survivor. He picked up his shirt with the kitten and examined the animal more thoroughly while it struggled weakly.

Sherwood’s eyes were wholly human and raw with emotion when he met mine. “Missing an eye” was all he said.

You were missing a leg, I thought. Maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t talk in my coyote form.

I licked the face of the kitten gently. It tasted as foul as the whole basement smelled. But the touch of my tongue seemed to reassure it more than the werewolf’s voice.

Cats don’t like werewolves. The only exception I’ve ever seen to that is my own cat, Medea. I guessed that we were about to see if we could get this one to warm up to us.

“Have you seen enough?” he asked.

I started toward what I thought was the nearest bathroom, and he stepped between me and it. “No. You don’t want to go into the freezer. There are some things you don’t need to see. We should go.”

I looked pointedly at the dead bodies, scratching the floor once per body I could see. One on each of the two tables, two in the dentist chairs, two tied up on dining room chairs. I sneezed and looked around.

“I forgot,” he said.

He gave the kitten he held a worried look, but told it, “This should only take a minute.”

He strode briskly to a large storage bin near one of the corner rooms and pulled off the lid. It was a big, sturdy bin, but it shouldn’t have been big enough to store a body.

I peered inside and wished I hadn’t. The body inside was missing legs and arms—which explained the size of the bin. My brain wanted to turn the corpse into a stage prop. His face was almost featureless because his eyes, lips, nose, and ears had been removed long enough ago that the wounds had healed over with scar tissue.

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