Forests of the Night Excerpt

[1]

“One day, Nugoya, you’re going to screw the wrong person.” Nohar Rajasthan raked his claws across the seat of his booth, wishing it was Nugoya’s face. Zero’s was a cheap bar well past its prime and the vinyl on the seat shredded like a lace doily that had been soaking in a bucket of bleach.

Nugoya grabbed the collar of the black jacket that was draped over his left shoulder, shaking his head. He looked human, but only at first glance. A close examination of the greying Japanese would reveal joints large beyond normal human proportion and muscles that snaked like steel cable. The light above the booth glinted off the chrome irises of Nugoya’s artificial Japanese eyes. “I hire you to find my girl. You find me a corpse. A corpse is worthless. I owe you nothing.”

If he had been human, Nohar wouldn’t have had the bad sense to let Nugoya hire him. It was becoming hard to contain his anger. “Expenses, and four days of legwork.”

Nohar shouldn’t have trusted Nugoya. The bastard was a frank. Japan had been one of the few countries to ever defy the U.N. ban on the manipulation of human genetic material. The INS had tight restrictions on letting human frankensteins into the country, and those that got here found that they had few, if any rights. That kind of bitterness tended to turn people into assholes— and Nugoya didn’t need any help on that score.

Even moreaus like Nohar had a constitutional amendment in their favor.

“I owe you nothing. I should ask back the thousand I paid you. You are an arrogant cat. Were we elsewhere, you would have to show some respect, and pay for your failure.” Nugoya held up his mutilated right hand. It was missing two fingers.

Nohar was already scanning the rest of the bar. He picked out Nugoya’s people easily, they were all moreaus— a human would not be caught dead working for a frank.

“Twenty-five hundred, Nugoya. Pay me.”

It was Tuesday, two in the morning, there were only a half-dozen other people. All human, it was downtown after all. The civilians were giving Nugoya’s booth a wide berth. No surprise, since two of Nugoya’s solders were hovering near the table. One was a tiger, like Nohar. The other was a dark-brown, nearly black, ursine that couldn’t quite stand upright even with the relatively high ceiling. Nugoya had a vulpine manning the bar, and a trio of white rabbits sat near the entrance. Nohar knew there was a canine somewhere out of sight, probably the kitchen. Nohar could catch a hint of the dog’s scent.

“You failed. No money.”

Nohar told himself that he should just walk out of there. Shut up, leave, and cut his losses. He didn’t.

“I found the bitch, peddling her ass on the side for the flush youhooked her on. I don’t know if it was cut with angel dust or drain cleaner, but her last trip splatted her all over Morey Hill. It’s yourfault she’s dead.”

Nugoya’s jaw clenched, and Nohar could smell anger rising off of the frank. Nugoya stood up. His jacket slid off his shoulder revealing his artificial left arm and some scarring on his neck. “How dare you, an animal, presume—”

That was enough of this. “And what are you, Nugoya, but a half-pint, half-pink, sleezeball?”

Nugoya sputtered something incomprehensible. Probably Japanese.

Nohar was glad he was the one facing the rest of the bar. He could feel all hell was about to break loose. Why couldn’t he keep his damn mouth shut? One more try at being reasonable. “I just want my money Nugoya. You aren’t going to shake me down like one of your girls.”

Nugoya’s problem was he couldn’t ever be anything but a small-time pimp. He wasn’t human and he wasn’t a moreau, so neither world would let him have more than a few scraps of the power he thought he deserved.

“I will not take any more insolence. Leave or I will have you removed.”

Nugoya motioned with his left arm at the other tiger and the bear. The tiger started moving forward. The bear reached under a table and took a hold of something large and, presumably, deadly. He kept it out of sight of the patrons.

“It’s insolence to think the world owes you respect because some defunct Jap corporation built you like a disposable radio.”

That did it. Nugoya had a killer ego, and could only take a little needling before he jumped. In his prime, a Japanese corporate samurai could take Nohar in a fair fight. Nugoya’s ego would never let him admit that he was well past his prime. Tokyo was nuked by China a long time ago, and Nugoya had been sitting on his butt for longer than that.

The frank ripped the table from the wall and threw it to the side. The advancing tiger almost tripped over it. Nohar stayed seated and Nugoya went for his neck. Nugoya was fast, faster than any normal human, faster than most moreaus.

Nohar was faster.

As the other tiger manhandled the remains of the table out of his way and the bear pulled out a russian-make assault rifle, Nohar’s right hand shot up and clamped on Nugoya’s mechanical wrist. At the same time, Nohar wrapped his left arm around Nugoya’s right arm. The frank’s three-fingered hand ended up clamped under Nohar’s armpit. Nohar had his forearm levered under Nugoya’s upper arm, his hand resting on the shoulder.

Nohar pushed down and heard the bone crack.

Nugoya yelled, washing Nohar’s face with his sour breath, and tried to escape. But Nohar had lifted the frank off the ground by the mechanical arm. Nugoya didn’t have the leverage.

Predictably, one of the civilians screamed.

“That will heal. If I did that to your other arm, who’s around to fix it? Call off the muscle.”

Nugoya showed some reluctance, so Nohar bore down on the broken arm. Nohar could hear the bones grate together. Nugoya shook his head violently and screamed something back at his people in Japanese. The tiger stopped moving, and the bear set the rifle down on the ground.

The tiger slowly drew his gun from a shoulder holster and dropped it.

“You’re dead, Rajasthan.”

“Hundred years we’ll all be dead. I just want my money.”

It was a standoff. Nohar had Nugoya as a shield, but there were six of Nugoya’s people between him and the door. The rabbits weren’t an immediate problem, the press of exiting civilians were pinning them by the door. The bartending fox had pulled out a shotgun, but he had the sense not to point it at his boss. Even so, Nohar couldn’t move away from the wall without exposing himself.

He might be 260 centimeters tall and weigh 300 kilos, he might be able to whip anything but that bear and a few franks in a fair fight, but guns were guns.

Nohar stood up, lifting Nugoya by his mechanical arm. The little pimp barely gave his torso cover. Nohar would have preferred kevlar— he would have preferred not being there in the first place.

Nohar could smell the canine, stronger now. The other tiger’s nose twitched. The bear started turning toward the bar. The civilians were gone.

So were the rabbits.

What?

Nugoya was still yelling. “Dead!”

The tiger turned toward the entrance. Nohar was smelling it now, too. The copper odor of blood. Rabbit blood. It drifted in from the open door to the empty bar with the algae smell from the river. Nugoya stopped yelling.

The fox started turning around, to face the long mirror behind the bar. The canine’s smell was rank in the bar now. Nohar began to realize that the dog might not be one of Nugoya’s people. The fox must have heard something, because he was raising the shotgun toward the mirror.

“Let me down!” There was the hint of panic in Nugoya’s voice and more than a hint of it in his smell.

Someone turned on a glass jackhammer and the mirror for the length of the bar exploded outward in a wave, from left to right. It was some sort of silenced submachinegun. The vulpine got in the way of at least three shots, and large chunks of fox flew out over the bar. The shotgun went off, blowing away a case of Guiness that was sitting behind the bar. The fox fell half over the bar and bled.

The smell of cordite, beer, and melted teflon wafted over. Whoever was shooting was using glazer rounds. If the internal injuries didn’t get you, the blood-poisoning would.

The other tiger was ducking for cover in a booth across from Nohar and Nugoya. There wasn’t cover for the bear. All the ursine could do was reach back for the rifle and hope the guy with the machinegun missed.

The bear was bending over. Nohar had an unobstructed view of the assassin jumping out of the broken mirror and on to the bar. Canine. A dog with a shaggy grey coat that tagged him as an Afghani. The dog wore a long black coat over a black jumpsuit that bulged with the kevlar vest he wore under it. The gun was small, the silencer was twice as long as the weapon itself. The clip was the length of the dog’s forearm.

The bear was intimidating, but size was the bear’s downfall. What was terrifying on the battlefields of Asia, was a deadly handicap in the small confines of the rear of Zero’s. The ursine couldn’t turn around fast enough to shoot the canine.

The canine emptied a burst into the bear’s back and Nohar got a good look and a good smell of the inside of the bear’s chest as the ursine splatted on to the ground.

The tiger had a problem. His gun was on the ground, by the rifle. Nohar could smell the bloodlust rising from the other cat. No, Nohar thought, you don’t jump a guy with a automatic weapon. But the cat was already hyped on adrenalin and Nohar could see the muscles in the tiger’s haunches tense, even under the human clothing.

The dog was waiting for the tiger to pounce. Three bullets hit the cat before it got halfway. Blood sprayed the wall and the tiger slammed into a booth, smashing a table and scattering glassware.

Then the dog turned this attention to Nohar and Nugoya.

Nugoya was thrashing like a fish out of water. “Get me out of this, you have your money, you have three times your money—”

The dog licked his nose. The smell of his musk made Nohar want to sneeze. “Drop the pimp.”

Nohar didn’t argue.

Nugoya hit the ground and collapsed, cradling his arm. He turned toward the dog, “Hassan. . .”

The canine shook his head. “Too late. You were warned last time I was in town.”

“Can’t we deal—”

“No. You knew the rules. Deal with us, deal onlywith us.”

Nugoya staggered to his feet. “I haveto keep my girls supplied. You’re charging too much—”

“Others will be quite glad not to get off as cheaply as you.” The canine fired one shot that hit Nugoya in the face. The pimp’s head jerked back hard enough that Nohar heard the neck crack. Nugoya fell backwards at Nohar’s feet, looking upward with only half a face. Only one chrome iris looked upward. The other eye had become electronic shrapnel buried deep in what was left of Nugoya’s brain.

Nohar looked up from the corpse, and at Hassan. “Me now?”

The dog shook his head and raised his gun. “Not today. This was a lesson. Lessons need witnesses.”

Hassan began backing away, keeping his eyes on Nohar.

When Hassan reached the door, he gave the carnage a brief inspection. Then he looked back up at Nohar, who was still standing by the rear wall. “Advice, tiger. Next time be more careful who you work for.”

No shit.

* * *

It took all of fifteen minutes for the first police to descend on the party side of the flats. In twenty minutes the east side of the Cuyahoga river was illuminated by a wash of dozens of flashing blue and red lights. Even though Nohar was the one who called in the shooting, he had to sit on his tail in the back of a very cramped Chevy Caldera sedan. At least the pink uniforms didn’t cuff him— not that they hadn’t tried, but this far out of Moreytown they didn’t have cuffs that would fit him. They simply deposited him in the back seat and kept their distance.

Nohar squirmed to get his tail in a comfortable position and looked out the windows facing the river. Not much to see, water for a few hundred meters, reflecting the police flashers. The water terminated at the concrete base of the West-Side office complex. The office buildings were so dark at this time of night that they seemed to be trapezoidal holes cut in the night sky, revealing something blacker behind it.

There wasn’t much else to watch out the other window. The forensics people were all in Zero’s. He’d end up talking to Manny later anyway. Not that there was anything to discuss. It wasn’t like he was on a case any more.

Twenty-five hundred dollars. Gone. The first of the month was at the end of the week, and he only had about two hundred in the bank. Serves him right for working for a pimp.

Nohar had his pride. He didn’t want to have to ask Manny about his old room—

He shook his head. Things would work out. They usually did.

A soft rain began to fall. It broke up the reflections on the river.

Nohar heard the scream of abused brakes. He turned around to face the entrance of the parking-lot. A puke-green Dodge Havier that was missing one front fender jumped the curb and skidded to a halt in a handicapped parking spot.

It had to be Harsk.

Indeed, Irwin Harsk’s bald head emerged from the driver’s side door of the unmarked sedan. Harsk stormed out like an avalanche. Many standards of pink beauty escaped Nohar, but some forms of ugly transcended species. Harsk’s black face resembled a cinderblock.

It had been only a matter of time before Harsk got involved. He was the detective in charge of Moreytown— he had jurisdiction over anything involving moreaus, and, by extension, any product of genetic engineering. In the case of the shootout at Zero’s that covered the victims, the suspect, and the witness.

This obviously didn’t please the detective.

Harsk stood a moment in the rain, looking over the scene— the ambulances, the forensics van, Manny’s Medical Examiner’s van, the seven marked and two unmarked police cars. Even over the twenty meters distance between them, Nohar could hear Harsk grunt.

After giving the scene the once-over, Harsk targeted a lone uniform who was standing by the door to Zero’s drinking. Harsk looked like he wanted to unload on someone. The cop by the door was the unlucky one. Nohar supposed Harsk chose the guy because of the cup of coffee the guy was drinking. Harsk walked up to the guy, and even though Nohar wasn’t great at reading human expression, the way the poor cop bit his lip and gave forced nods indicated that Harsk wasn’t having a nice day and was doing his best to share the experience.

Harsk pointed at the Caldera that Nohar was sitting in and yelled something that Nohar couldn’t quite make out. The cop shrugged and tried to say something, and Harsk cut the guy off. Harsk grabbed the guy’s coffee and pointed back into Zero’s.

Nohar wished he could read lips.

The cop went inside and Harsk started walking toward the Caldera. He took a sip from the uniform’s coffee and grimaced. He looked into the cup, shook his head, and dumped it on the asphalt.

Harsk walked up to the door and opened it. “Rajasthan, how did I know you’d be involved in this crap?”

“Deductive reasoning?”

Harsk grunted. “Get the fuck out of that patrol car. The city just bought those and we don’t want you shedding on them.”

Nohar ducked out the door and stretched. The misting rain started to dampen his fur immediately. He wished he had worn his trenchcoat to the meeting. “No apology for treating me like a suspect? I didn’t haveto call this in.”

“Be glad that some downtown cowboy didn’t shoot you. Half these kids are just out of the academy and tend to shit if they see a moreau— This ain’t your neighborhood. What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Nugoya was a client.”

Harsk looked at Nohar. “So when are you going to start selling yourself to the flush peddlers?”

Nohar had his right hand up, claws fully extended, before he knew what he was doing. Harsk’s face cracked into an ugly grin. “Do it you fucking alley-cat. I would love to put you away and get you out of my hair.”

Nohar took a few deep breaths and lowered his arm. “What hair?”

A lithe non-human form left Zero’s. The moreau wore a lab-coat and carried a notebook-sized computer, the display of which he was reading.

Nohar called out, “Manny.”

Manny— his full name was Mandvi Gujerat— looked up form the display, twitched his nose, and started across the parking lot toward Nohar and Harsk. Manny was a small guy with a thin, whiplike body. He had short brown fur, a lean, aerodynamic head, and small black eyes. People who saw Manny usually guessed he was designed from a rat, or a ferret. Both were wrong. Manny was a mongoose.

Manny reached them and Harsk interrupted before Nohar could say anything. “Gujerat, what have you got on the bodies?”

Manny gave Nohar an undulating shrug and looked down at his notebook. “I have a tentative species on six of seven. The three bodies outside were all a Peruvian Lupus strain. From the white fur and the characteristic skull profile I’d say Pajonal ’35 or ’36. They all have unit tattoos, and some heavy scarring. Infantry, and they saw combat.”

Manny tapped the screen and the page changed. “The bartender was defiantly Vulpine. Brit fox, Ulster anti-terrorist. I think second generation, but I can’t be sure. The British ID’s their forces under the tongue and most of the fox’s head is gone.

“The tiger—” Manny looked at Nohar briefly. “Second-generation Rajasthan. Indian Special forces.

“The bear, I would guess Turkmen, Russia, or Kazakhstahn. That’s only on my previous experience in ursoid strains. Her species—”

“Her?” asked Harsk.

“Yes. I think she was a parthenogenic adaption. But as I was saying, herspecies isn’t cataloged. She’s either a unique experiment, or one of the few dozen species that fell through the cracks during the war. From the corpse, for all I know she could be Canadian.”

Nohar snorted.

Manny shrugged again. “I suppose you already have a file on the one engineered human. But his strain checks out against what we have on Sony’s late human-enhancement projects. The one we have here underwent a massive reconstruction after some major trauma. The hardware in his body was worth a few million when there were people who could make and install the stuff.”

Harsk nodded. “Any leads on the suspect?”

“Some hairs from the mirror check out as canine. From that and a description, purebred Afghani, Qandahar ’24. Attack strain, one the Kabul government ‘discontinued’ after the war.”

“Enough. Rajasthan, I’ll get your statement from the uniforms. Get out of here before you attract more trouble. Gujerat, dump the rest into the precinct mainframe.” Harsk started to go toward Zero’s and paused. “The Moreytownprecinct.”

Manny nodded. “Where else?”

Harsk left.

Manny folded up the computer and twitched his nose. “So, stranger, what the hell are you doing at this bloodbath?”

“Bad sense to let Nugoya hire me—”

“Let me guess. Female Vietnamese canine who shot herself so full of flush that she thought she was avian? The one you asked me to ID for you?”

Nohar nodded.

“I know you don’t like my advice—”

“Then don’t give me any.”

“—but, something dangerous is going on. I don’t think you want to be involved, even tangentially, with anything that has to do with the flush industry.”

Nohar leaned against the Caldera. His fur was beginning to itch. “Sounds like you know something you think I don’t.”

“Something’s in the air. The DEA is crawling all over downtown, and the gangs in Moreytown are acting up. Most of the bodies I’m looking at the past few weeks are young, second-generation, street kids.”

“I can handle myself.”

“So I worry. You were once one of those second-generation street kids.”

“I can handle myself,” Nohar said a little more forcefully.

Manny backed off. “Anyway, we do have to stop meeting like this. When are you going to come back and let me cook you some dinner?”

You’ve been trying to get me back there for fifteen years, Nohar thought. “I’ll make it over one of these days.”

“The door’s always open.”

“I know.”

Manny turned and started back to Zero’s, where a gaggle of pink EMTs were trying to manhandle the ursine’s corpse out the door.

Nohar sighed.

“I know,” he whispered to himself.

Nohar uselessly turned the collar up on the irritating pink-designed jacket and headed for his car. There wasn’t anything left for him to do here.