Guilty Pleasures (v1.1)
Book 1 of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series
Laurell K. Hamilton, 1993
Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead don't change that. He sat across from me, wearing a loud plaid sport jacket. The polyester pants were primary Crayola green. His short, black hair was slicked back from a thin, triangular face. He had always reminded me of a bit player in a gangster movie. The kind that sells information, runs errands, and is expendable.
Of course now that Willie was a vampire, the expendable part didn't count anymore. But he was still selling information and running errands. No, death hadn't changed him much. But just in case I avoided looking directly into his eyes. It was standard policy for dealing with vampires. He was a slime bucket, but now he was an undead slime bucket. It was a new category for me.
We sat in the quiet air-conditioned hush of my office. The powder blue walls, which Bert, my boss, thought would be soothing, made the room feel cold.
"Mind if I smoke?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, "I do."
"Damn, you aren't gonna make this easy, are you?"
I looked directly at him for a moment. His eyes were still brown. He caught me looking, and I looked down at my desk.
Willie laughed, a wheezing snicker of a sound. The laugh hadn't changed. "Geez, I love it. You're afraid of me."
"Not afraid, just cautious."
"You don't have to admit it. I can smell the fear on you, almost like somethin' touching my face, my brain. You're afraid of me, 'cause I'm a vampire."
I shrugged; what could I say? How do you lie to someone who can smell your fear? "Why are you here, Willie?"
"Geez, I wish I had a smoke." The skin began to jump at the corner of his mouth.
"I didn't think vampires had nervous twitches."
His hand went up, almost touched it. He smiled, flashing fangs. "Some things don't change."
I wanted to ask him, what does change? How does it feel to be dead? I knew other vampires, but Willie was the first I had known before and after death. It was a peculiar feeling. "What do you want?"
"Hey, I'm here to give you money. To become a client."
I glanced up at him, avoiding his eyes. His tie tack caught the overhead lights. Real gold. Willie had never had anything like that before. He was doing all right for a dead man. "I raise the dead for a living, no pun intended. Why would a vampire need a zombie raised?"
He shook his head, two quick jerks to either side. "No, no voodoo stuff. I wanna hire you to investigate some murderers."
"I am not a private investigator."
"But you got one of 'em on retainer to your outfit."
I nodded. "You could just hire Ms. Sims directly. You don't have to go through me for that."
Again that jerky head shake. "But she don't know about vampires the way you do."
I sighed. "Can we cut to the chase here, Willie? I have to leave"-I glanced at the wall clock-"in fifteen minutes. I don't like to leave a client waiting alone in a cemetery. They tend to get jumpy."
He laughed. I found the snickery laugh comforting, even with the fangs. Surely vampires should have rich, melodious laughs. "I'll bet they do. I'll just bet they do." His face sobered suddenly, as if a hand had wiped his laughter away.
I felt fear like a jerk in the pit of my stomach. Vampires could change movements like clicking a switch. If he could do that, what else could he do?
"You know about the vampires that are getting wasted over in the District?"
He made it a question, so I answered. "I'm familiar with them." Four vampires had been slaughtered in the new vampire club district. Their hearts had been torn out, their heads cut off.
"You still working with the cops?"
"I am still on retainer with the new task force."
He laughed again. "Yeah, the spook squad. Underbudgeted and undermanned, right."
"You've described most of the police work in this town."
"Maybe, but the cops feel like you do, Anita. What's one more dead vampire? New laws don't change that."
It had only been two years since Addison v. Clark. The court case gave us a revised version of what life was, and what death wasn't. Vampirism was legal in the good of U. S. of A. We were one of the few countries to acknowledge them. The immigration people were having fits trying to keep foreign vampires from immigrating in, well, flocks.
All sorts of questions were being fought out in court. Did heirs have to give back their inheritance? Were you widowed if your spouse became undead? Was it murder to slay a vampire? There was even a movement to give them the vote. Times were a-changing.
I stared at the vampire in front of me and shrugged. Did I really believe what was one more dead vampire? Maybe. "If you believe I feel that way, why come to me at all?"
"Because you're the best at what you do. We need the best."
It was the first time he had said "we."
"Who are you working for, Willie?"
He smiled then, a close secretive smile, like he knew some thing I should know. "Never you mind that. Money's real good. We want somebody who knows the night life to be looking into these murders."
"I've seen the bodies, Willie. I gave my opinions to the police."
"What'd you think?" He leaned forward in the chair, small hands flat on my desk. His fingernails were pale, almost white, bloodless.
"I gave a full report to the police." I stared up at him, almost looking him in the eye.
"Won't even give me that, will ya?"
"I am not at liberty to discuss police business with you."
"I told 'em you wouldn't go for this."
"Go for what? You haven't told me a damn thing."
"We want you to investigate the vampire killings, find out who's, or what's, doing it. We'll pay you three times your normal fee."
I shook my head. That explained why Bert, the greedy son of a gun, had set up this meeting. He knew how I felt about vampires, but my contract forced me to at least meet with any client that had given Bert a retainer. My boss would do anything for money. Problem was he thought I should, too. Bert and I would be having a "talk" very soon.
I stood. "The police are looking into it. I am already giving them all the help I can. In a way I am already working on the case. Save your money."
He sat staring up at me, very still. It was not that lifeless immobility of the long dead, but it was a shadow of it fear ran up in my spine and into my throat. I fought an urge to draw my crucifix out of my shirt and drive him from my office. Somehow throwing a client out using a holy item seemed less than professional. So I just stood there, waiting for him to move.
"Why won't you help us?"
"I have clients to meet, Willie. I'm sorry that I can't help you."
"Won't help, you mean."
I nodded. "Have it your way." I walked around the desk to show him to the door.
He moved with a liquid quickness that Willie had never had, but I saw him move and was one step back from his reaching hand. "I'm not just another pretty face to fall for mind tricks."
"You saw me move."
"I heard you move. You're the new dead, Willie. Vampire or not, you've got a lot to learn."
He was frowning at me, hand still half-extended towards me. "Maybe, but no human could a stepped outta reach like that." He stepped up close to me, plaid jacket nearly brushing against me. Pressed together like that, we were nearly the same height, short. His eyes were on a perfect level with mine. I stared as hard as I could at his shoulder.
It took everything I had not to step back from him. But dammit, undead or not, he was Willie McCoy. I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.
He said, "You ain't human, any more than I am."
I moved to open the door. I hadn't stepped away from him. I had stepped away to open the door. I tried convincing the sweat along my spine that there was a difference. The cold feeling in my stomach wasn't fooled either.
"I really have to be going now. Thank you for thinking of Animators, Inc." I gave him my best professional smile, empty of meaning as a light bulb, but dazzling.
He paused in the open doorway. "Why won't you work for us? I gotta tell 'em something when I go back."
I wasn't sure, but there was something like fear in his voice. Would he get in trouble for failing? I felt sorry for him and knew it was stupid. He was the undead, for heaven's sake, but he stood looking at me, and he was still Willie, with his funny coats and small nervous hands.
"Tell them, whoever they are, that I don't work for vampires."
"A firm rule?" Again he made it sound like a question.
There was a flash of something on his face, the old Willie peeking through. It was almost pity. "I wish you hadn't said that, Anita. These people don't like anybody telling 'em no."
"I think you've overstayed your welcome. I don't like to be threatened."
"It ain't a threat, Anita. It's the truth." He straightened his tie, fondling the new gold tie tack, squared his thin shoulders and walked out.
I closed the door behind him and leaned against it. My knees felt weak. But there wasn't time for me to sit here and shake. Mrs. Grundick was probably already at the cemetery. She would be standing there with her little black purse and her grown sons, waiting for me to raise her husband from the dead. There was a mystery of two very different wills. It was either years of court costs ad arguments, or raise Albert Grundick from the dead and ask.
Everything I needed was in my car, even the chickens. I drew the silver crucifix free of my blouse and let it hang in full view. I have several guns, and I know how to use them. I keep a 9 mm Browning Hi-Power in my desk. The gun weighed a little over two pounds, silver-plated bullets and all. Silver won't kill a vampire, but it can discourage them. It forces them to have to heal the wounds, almost human slow. I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt and went out.
Craig our night secretary, was typing furiously at the computer keyboard. His eyes widened as I walked over the thick carpeting. Maybe it was the cross swinging on its long chain. Maybe it was the shoulder rig tight across my back, and the gun out in plain sight. He didn't mention either. Smart man.
I put my nice little corduroy jacket over it all. The jacket didn't lie flat over the gun, but that was okay. I doubted the Grundicks and their lawyers would notice.
I had gotten to see the sun rise as I drove home that morning. I hate sunrises. They mean I've overscheduled myself and worked all bloody night. St. Louis has more trees edging its highways than any other city I have driven through. I could almost admit the trees looked nice in the first light of dawn, almost. My apartment always looks depressingly white and cheerful in morning sunlight. The walls are the same vanilla ice cream white as every apartment I've ever seen. The carpeting is a nice shade of grey, preferable to that dog poop brown that is more common.
The apartment is a roomy one-bedroom. I am told it has a nice view of the park next door. You couldn't prove it by me. If I had my choice, there would be no windows. I get by with heavy drapes that turn the brightest day to cool twilight.
I switched the radio on low to drown the small noises of my day-living neighbors. Sleep sucked me under to the soft music of Chopin. A minute later the phone rang.
I lay there for a minute, cursing myself for forgetting to turn on the answering machine. Maybe if I ignored it? Five rings later I gave in. "Hello."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Did I wake you?"
It was a woman I didn't know. If it was a salesperson I was going to become violent. "Who is this?" I blinked at the bedside clock. It was eight. I'd had nearly two hours of sleep. Yippee.
"I'm Monica Vespucci." She said it like it should explain everything. It didn't.
"Yes." I tried to sound helpful, encouraging. I think it came out as a growl.
"Oh, my, uh. I'm the Monica that works with Catherine Maison."
I huddled around the receiver and tried to think. I don't think really well on two hours of sleep. Catherine was a good friend, a name I knew. She had probably mentioned this woman to me, but for the life of me, I couldn't place her. "Sure, Monica, yes. What Jo you want?" It sounded rude, even to me. "I'm sorry if I don't sound too good. I got off work at six."
"My god, you mean you've only had two hours of sleep. Do you want to shoot me, or what?"
I didn't answer the question. I'm not that rude. "Did you want something, Monica?"
"Sure, yes. I'm throwing a surprise bachelorette party for Catherine. You know she gets married next month."
I nodded, remembered she couldn't see me, and mumbled, "I'm in the wedding."
"Oh, sure, I knew that. Pretty dresses for the bridesmaids, don't you think?"
Actually, the last thing I wanted to spend a hundred and twenty dollars on was a long pink formal with puffy sleeves, but it was Catherine's wedding. "What about the bachelorette party?"
'Oh. I'm rambling, aren't I? And you just desperate for sleep."
I wondered if screaming at her would make her go away any her. Naw, she'd probably cry. "What do you want, please, Monica?"
"Well, I know it's short notice, but everything just sort of slipped up on me. I meant to call you a week ago, but I just never got around to it."
This I believed "Go on."
"The bachelorette party is tonight. Catherine says you don't drink so I was wondering if you could be designated driver."
I just lay there for a minute, wondering how mad to get, and if it would do me any good. Maybe if I'd been more awake, I wouldn't have said what I was thinking. "Don't you think this is awfully short notice, since you want me to drive?"
"I know. I'm so sorry. I'm just so scattered lately. Catherine told me you usually have either Friday or Saturday night off. Is Friday not your night off this week?"
As a matter of fact it was, but I didn't really want to give up my only night off to this airhead on the other end of the phone. "I do have the night off."
"Great! I'll give you directions, and you can pick us up after work. Is that okay?"
It wasn't, but what else could I say. "That's fine."
"Pencil and paper?"
"You said you worked with Catherine, right?" I was actually beginning to remember Monica.
"I know where Catherine works. I don't need directions."
"Oh, how silly of me, of course. Then we'll see you about five. Dress up, but no heels. We may be dancing tonight."
I hate to dance. "Sure, see you then."
"See you tonight."
The phone went dead in my ear. I turned on the answering machine and cuddled back under the sheets. Monica worked with Catherine, that made her a lawyer. That was a frightening thought. Maybe she was one of those people who was only organized at work. Naw.
It occurred to me then, when it was too late, that I could just have refused the invitation. Damn. I was quick today. Oh, well, how bad could it be? Watching strangers get blitzed out of their minds. If I was lucky, maybe someone would throw up in my car.
I had the strangest dreams once I got back to sleep. All about this woman I didn't know, a coconut cream pie, and Willie McCoy's funeral.
Monica Vespucci was wearing a button that said, "Vampires are People, too." It was not a promising beginning to the evening. Her white blouse was silk with a high, flared collar framing a dark, health-club tan. Her hair was short and expertly cut, her makeup perfect.
The button should have tipped me off to what kind of bachelorette party she'd planned. Some days I'm just slow to catch on.
I was wearing black jeans, knee-high boots, and a crimson blouse. My hair was made to order for the outfit, black curling just over the shoulders of the red blouse. The solid, nearly black-brown of my eyes matches the hair. Only the skin stands out, too pale, Germanic against the Latin darkness. A very exboyfriend once described me as a little china doll. He meant it as a compliment. I didn't take it that way. There are reasons why I don't date much.
The blouse was long-sleeved to hide the knife sheath on my right wrist and the scars on my left arm. I had left my gun locked in the trunk of my car. I didn't think the bachelorette party would get that out of hand.
"I'm so sorry that I put off planning this to the last minute, Catherine. That's why there's only three of us. Everybody else had plans," Monica said.
"Imagine that, people having plans for Friday night," I said.
Monica stared at me as if trying to decide whether I was joking or not.
Catherine gave me a warning glare. I gave them both my best angelic smile. Monica smiled back. Catherine wasn't fooled.
Monica began dancing down the sidewalk, happy as a drunken clam. She had had only two drinks with dinner. It was a bad sign.
"Be nice," Catherine whispered.
"What did I say?"
"Anita." Her voice sounded like my father's used to sound when I'd stayed out too late.
I sighed. "You're just no fun tonight."
"I plan to be a lot of fun tonight." She stretched her arms skyward. She still wore the crumpled remains of her business suit. The wind blew her long, copper-colored hair. I've never been able to decide if Catherine would be prettier if she cut her hair, so you'd notice the face first, or if the hair was what made her pretty.
"If I have to give up one of my few free nights, then I am going to enjoy myself-immensely," she said.
There was a kind of fierceness to the last word. I stared up at her. "You are not planning to get falling-down drunk, are you?"
"Maybe." She looked smug.
Catherine knew I didn't approve of, or rather, didn't understand drinking. I didn't like having my inhibitions lowered. If I was going to cut loose, I wanted to be in control of just how loose I got.
We had left my car in a parking lot two blocks back. The one with the wrought-iron fence around it. There wasn't much parking down by the river. The narrow brick roads and ancient sidewalks had been designed for horses, not automobiles. The streets had been fresh-washed by a summer thunderstorm that had come and gone while we ate dinner. The first stars glittered overhead, like diamonds trapped in velvet.
Monica yelled, "Hurry up, slowpokes."
Catherine looked at me and grinned. The next thing I knew, she was running towards Monica.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," I muttered. Maybe if I'd had drinks with dinner, I'd have run, too, but I doubted it.
"Don't be an old stick in the mud," Catherine called back.
Stick in the mud? I caught up to them walking. Monica was giggling. Somehow I had known she would be. Catherine and she were leaning against each other laughing. I suspected they might be laughing at me.
Monica calmed enough to fake an ominous stage whisper. "Do you know what lies around this corner?"
As a matter of fact, I did. The last vampire killing had been only four blocks from here. We were in what the vampires called "the District." Humans called it the Riverfront, or Blood Square, depending on if they were being rude or not.
"Guilty Pleasures," I said.
"Oh, pooh, you spoiled the surprise."
"What's Guilty Pleasures?" Catherine asked.
Monica giggled. "Oh, goodie, the surprise isn't spoiled after all." She put her arm through Catherine's. "You are going to love this, I promise you."
Maybe Catherine would; I knew I wouldn't, but I followed them around the corner anyway. The sign was a wonderful swirling neon the color of heart blood. The symbolism was not lost on me.
We went up three broad steps, and there was a vampire standing in front of the propped-open door. He had a black crew cut and small, pale eyes. His massive shoulders threatened to rip the tight black t-shirt he wore. Wasn't pumping iron redundant after you died?
Even standing on the threshold I could hear the busy hum of voices, laughter, music. That rich, murmurous sound of many people in a small space, determined to have a good time.
The vampire stood beside the door, very still. There was still a movement to him, an aliveness, for lack of a better term. He couldn't have been dead more than twenty years, if that. In the dark he looked almost human, even to me. He had fed already tonight. His skin was flushed and healthy. He looked damn near rosy-cheeked. A meal of fresh blood will do that to you.
Monica squeezed his arm. "Ooo, feel that muscle."
He grinned, flashing fangs. Catherine gasped. He grinned wider.
"Buzz here is an old friend, aren't you, Buzz?"
Buzz the vampire? Surely not.
But he nodded. "Go on in, Monica. Your table is waiting."
Table? What kind of clout did Monica have? Guilty Pleasures was one of the hottest clubs in the District, and they did not take reservations.
There was a large sign on the door. "No crosses, crucifixes, or other holy items allowed inside." I read the sign and walked past it I had no intention of getting rid of my cross.
A rich, melodious voice floated around us. "Anita, how good of you to come."
The voice belonged to Jean-Claude, club owner and master vampire. He looked like a vampire was supposed to look. Softly curling hair tangled with the high white lace of an antique shirt.
Lace spilled over pale, long-fingered hands. The shirt hung open, giving a glimpse of lean bare chest framed by more frothy lace. Most men couldn't have worn a shirt like that. The vampire made it seem utterly masculine.
"You two know each other?" Monica sounded surprised.
"Oh, yes," Jean-Claude said. "Ms. Blake and I have met before."
"I've been helping the police work cases on the Riverfront."
"She is their vampire expert." He made the last word soft and warm and vaguely obscene.
Monica giggled. Catherine was staring at Jean-Claude, eyes wide and innocent. I touched her arm, and she jerked as if waking from a dream. I didn't bother to whisper because I knew he would have heard me anyway. "Important safety tip-never look a vampire in the eye."
She nodded. The first hint of fear showed in her face.
"I would never harm such a lovely young woman." He took Catherine's hand and raised it to his mouth. A mere brush of lips. Catherine blushed.
He kissed Monica's hand as well. He looked at me and laughed. "Do not worry, my little animator. I will not touch you. That would be cheating."
He moved to stand next to me. I stared fixedly at his chest. There was a burn scar almost hidden in the lace. The burn was in the shape of a cross. How many decades ago had someone shoved a cross into his flesh?
"Just as you having a cross would be an unfair advantage."
What could I say? In a way he was right.
It was a shame that it wasn't merely the shape of a cross that hurt a vampire. Jean-Claude would have been in deep shit. Unfortunately, the cross had to be blessed, and backed up by faith. An atheist waving a cross at a vampire was a truly pitiful sight.
He breathed my name like a whisper against my skin. "Anita, what are you thinking?"
The voice was so damn soothing. I wanted to look up and see what face went with such words. Jean-Claude had been intrigued by my partial immunity to him. That and the cross-shaped burn scar on my arm. He found the scar amusing. Every time we met, he did his best to bespell me, and I did my best to ignore him. I had won up until now.
"You never objected to me carrying a cross before."
"You were on police business then; now you are not."
I stared at his chest and wondered if the lace was as soft as it looked; probably not.
"Are you so insecure in your own powers, little animator? Do you believe that all your resistance to me resides in that piece of silver around your neck?"
I didn't believe that, but I knew it helped. Jean-Claude was a self-admitted two hundred and five years old. A vampire gains a lot of power in two centuries. He was suggesting I was a coward. I was not.
I reached up to unfasten the chain. He stepped away from me and turned his back. The cross spilled silver into my hands. A blonde human woman appeared beside me. She handed me a check stub and took the cross. Nice, a holy item check girl.
I felt suddenly underdressed without my cross. I slept and showered in it.
Jean-Claude stepped close again. "You will not resist the show tonight, Anita. Someone will enthrall you."
"No," I said. But it's hard to be tough when you're staring at someone's chest. You really need eye contact to play tough, but that was a no-no.
He laughed. The sound seemed to rub over my skin; like the brush of fur. Warm and feeling ever so slightly of death.
Monica grabbed my arm. "You're going to love this, I promise you."
"Yes," Jean-Claude said. "It will be a night you will never forget."
"Is that a threat?"
He laughed again, that warm awful sound. "This is a place of pleasure, Anita, not violence."
Monica was pulling at my arm. "Hurry, the entertainment's about to begin."
"Entertainment?" Catherine asked
I had to smile. "Welcome to the world's only vampire strip club, Catherine."
"You are joking."
"Scout's honor. I glanced back at the door; I don't know why. Jean-Claude stood utterly still, no sense of anything, as if he were not there at all. Then he moved, one pale hand raised to his lips. He blew me a kiss across the room. The night's entertainment dad begun.
Our table was nearly bumping up against the stage. The room was full of liquor and laughter, and a few faked screams as the vampire waiters moved around the tables. There was an undercurrent of fear. That peculiar terror that you get on roller coasters and at horror movies. Safe terror.
The lights went out. Screams echoed through the room, high and shrill. Real fear for an instant. Jean-Claude's voice came out of the darkness. "Welcome to Guilty Pleasures. We are here to serve you. To make your most evil thought come true."
His voice was silken whispers in the small hours of night. Damn, he was good.
"Have you ever wondered what it would be like to feel my breath upon your skin? My lips along your neck. The hard brush of teeth. The sweet, sharp pain of fangs. Your heart beating frantically against my chest. Your blood flowing into my veins. Sharing yourself. Giving me life. Knowing that I truly could not live without you, all of you."
Perhaps it was the intimacy of darkness; whatever, I felt as if his voice was speaking just for me, to me. I was his chosen, his special one. No, that wasn't right. Every woman in the club felt the same. We were all his chosen. And perhaps there was more truth in that than in anything else.
"Our first gentleman tonight shares your fantasy. He wanted to know how the sweetest of kisses would feel. He has gone before you to tell you that it is wondrous." He let silence fill the darkness, until my own heartbeat sounded loud. "Phillip is with us tonight."
Monica whispered, "Phillip!" A collective gasp ran through the audience, then a soft chanting began. "Phillip, Phillip ... " The sound rose around us in the dark like a prayer.
The lights began to come up like at the end of a movie. A figure stood in the center of the stage. A white t-shirt hugged his upper body; not a muscleman, but well built. Not too much of a good thing. A black leather jacket, tight jeans and boots completed the outfit. He could have walked off any street. His thick, brown hair was long enough to sweep his shoulders.
Music drifted into the twilit silence. The man swayed to the sounds, hips rotating ever so slightly. He began to slip out of leather jacket, moving almost in slow motion. The soft music seemed to have a pulse. A pulse that his body moved with, swaying jacket slid to the stage. He stared out at the audience for a minute letting us see what there was to see. Scars hugged the bend of each arm, until the skin had formed white mounds of tissue.
I swallowed hard. I wasn't sure what was about to happen, but was betting I wasn't going to like it.
He swept back his long hair from his face with both hands. He swayed and strutted around the edge of the stage. He stood near table, looking down at us. His neck looked like a junkie's.
I had to look away. All those neat little bite marks, neat little scars. I glanced up and found Catherine staring at her lap. Monica leaning forward in her chair, lips half-parted.
He grabbed the t-shirt with strong hands and pulled. It peeled away from his chest, ripping. Screams from the audience. A few of them called his name. He smiled. The smile was dazzling, brilliant melt-in-your-mouth sexy.
There was scar tissue on his smooth, bare chest: white scars, pinkish scars, new scars, old scars. I just sat staring with my mouth open.
Catherine whispered, "Dear God!"
"He's wonderful, isn't he?" Monica asked.
I glanced at her. Her flared collar had slipped, exposing two neat puncture wounds, fairly old, almost scars. Sweet Jesus.
The music burst into a pulsing violence. He danced, swaying, gyrating, throwing the strength of his body into every move. There a white mass of scars over his left collarbone, ragged and viscious. My stomach tightened. A vampire had torn through his collarbone ripped at him like a dog with a piece of meat. I knew, because I had a similar scar. I had a lot of similar scars.
Dollar bills appeared in hands like mushrooms after a rain. Monica was waving her money like a flag. I didn't want Phillip at our table. I had to lean into Monica to be heard over the noise.
"Monica, please, don't bring him over here."
Even as she turned to look at me, I knew it was too late. Phillip of the many scars was standing on the stage, looking down at us. I stared up into his very human eyes.
I could see the pulse in Monica's throat. She licked her lips; her eyes were enormous. She stuffed the money down the front of his pants.
Her hands traced his scars like nervous butterflies. She leaned her face close to his stomach and began kissing his scars, leaving red lipstick prints behind. He knelt as she kissed him, forcing her mouth higher and higher up his chest.
He knelt, and she pressed lips to his face. He brushed his hair back from his neck, as if he knew what she wanted. She licked the newest bite scar, tongue small and pink, like a cat. I heard her breath go out in a trembling sigh. She bit him, mouth locking over the wound. Phillip jerked with pain, or just surprise. Her jaws tightened, her throat worked. She was sucking the wound.
I looked across the table at Catherine. She was staring at them, face blank with astonishment.
The crowd was going wild, screaming and waving money. Phillip pulled away from Monica and moved on to another table. Monica slumped forward, head collapsing into her lap, arms limp at her side.
Had she fainted? I reached out to touch her shoulder and realized I didn't want to touch her. I gripped her shoulder gently. She moved, turning her head to look at me. Her eyes held that lazy fullness that sex gives. Her mouth looked pale with most of the lipstick worn away. She hadn't fainted; she was basking in the afterglow.
I drew back from her, rubbing my hand against my jeans. My palms were sweating.
Phillip was back on the stage. He had stopped dancing. He was just standing there. Monica had left a small round mark on his neck.
I felt the first stirrings of an old mind, flowing over the crowd. Catherine asked, "What's happening?"
"It's all right," Monica said. She was sitting upright in her chair, eyes still half-closed. She licked her lips and stretched, hands over her head.
Catherine turned to me. "Anna, what is it?"
"Vampire." I said.
Fear flashed on her face, but it didn't last. I watched the fear fade under the weight of the vampire's mind. She turned slowly to stare at Phillip as he waited on the stage. Catherine was in no danger. This mass hypnosis was not personal, and not permanent.
The vampire wasn't as old as Jean-Claude., nor as good. I sat there feeling the press and flow of over a hundred years of power, and it wasn't enough. I felt him move up through the tables. He had gone to a lot of trouble to make sure the poor humans wouldn't see him come. He would simply appear in their midst, like magic.
You don't get to surprise vampires often. I turned to watch the vampire walk towards the stage. Every human face I saw was enraptured, turned blindly to the stage, waiting. The vampire was tall with high cheekbones, model-perfect, sculpted. He was too masculine to be beautiful, and too perfect to be real.
He strode through the tables wearing a proverbial vampire outfit, black tux and white gloves. He stopped one table away from me, to stare. He held the audience in the palm of his mind, helpless and waiting. But there I sat staring at him, though not at his eyes.
His body stiffened, surprised. There's nothing like ruining the calm of a hundred-year-old vampire to boost a girl's morale.
I looked past him to see Jean-Claude. He was staring at me. I saluted him with my drink. He acknowledged it with a nod of his head.
The tall vampire was standing beside Phillip. Phillip's eyes were as blank as any human's. The spell or whatever drifted away. With a thought he awoke the audience, and they gasped. Magic.
Jean-Claude's voice filled the sudden silence. "This is Robert. Welcome him to our stage."
The crowd went wild, applauding and screaming. Catherine was applauding along with everyone else. Apparently, she was impressed.
The music changed again, pulsing and throbbing in the air, almost painfully loud. Robert the vampire began to dance. He moved with a careful violence, pumping to the music. He threw his white gloves into the audience. One landed at my feet. I left it there.
Monica said, "Pick it up."
I shook my head.
Another woman leaned over from another table. Her breath smelled like whiskey. "You don't want it?"
I shook my head.
She got up, I suppose to get the glove. Monica beat her to it. The woman sat down, looking unhappy.
The vampire had stripped, showing a smooth expanse of chest. He dropped to the stage and did fingertip push-ups. The audience went wild. I wasn't impressed. I knew he could bench press a car, if he wanted to. What's a few pushups compared to that?
He began to dance around Phillip. Phillip turned to face him, arms outspread, slightly crouched, as if he were ready for an attack. They began circling each other. The music softened until it was only a soft underscoring to the movements on stage.
The vampire began to move closer to Phillip. Phillip moved as if trying to run from the stage. The vampire was suddenly there, blocking his escape.
I hadn't seen him move. The vampire had just appeared in front of the man. I hadn't seen him move. Fear drove all the air from my body in an icy rush. I hadn't felt the mind trick, but it had happened.
Jean-Claude was standing only two tables away. He raised one pale hand in a salute to me. The bastard had been in my mind, and I hadn't known it. The audience gasped, and I looked back to the stage.
They were both kneeling; the vampire had one of Phillip's arms pinned behind his back. One hand gripped Phillip's long hair, pulling his neck back at a painful angle.
Phillip's eyes were wide and terrified. The vampire hadn't put him under. He wasn't under! He was aware and scared. Dear God. He was panting, his chest rising and falling in short gasps.
The vampire looked out at the audience and hissed, fangs flashing in the lights. The hiss turned the beautiful face to something bestial. His hunger rode out over the crowd. His need so intense, it made my stomach cramp.
No, I would not feel this with him. I dug fingernails into the palm of my hand and concentrated. The feeling faded. Pain helped. I opened my shaking fingers and found four half-moons that slowly filled with blood. The hunger beat around me, filling the crowd, but not me, not me.
I pressed a napkin to my hand and tried to look inconspicuous.
The vampire drew back his head.
"No," I whispered.
The vampire struck, teeth sinking into flesh. Phillip shrieked, and it echoed in the club. The music died abruptly. No one moved. You could have dropped a pin.
Soft, moist sucking sounds filled the silence. Phillip began to moan, high in his throat. Over and over again, small helpless sounds.
I looked out at the crowd. They were with the vampire, feeling his hunger, his need, feeling him feed. Maybe sharing Phillip's terror, I didn't know. I was apart from it, and glad.
The vampire stood, letting Phillip fall to the stage, limp, unmoving. I stood without meaning to. The man's scarred back convulsed in a deep, shattering breath, as if he were fighting back from death. And maybe he was.
He was alive. I sat back down. My knees felt weak. Sweat covered my palms and stung the cuts on my hand. He was alive, and he enjoyed it. I wouldn't have believed it if someone had told me. I would have called them a liar.
A vampire junkie. Surely to God, I'd seen everything now.
Jean-Claude whispered, "Who wants a kiss?"
No one moved for a heartbeat; then hands, holding money, raised here and there. Not many, but a few. Most people looked confused, as if they had woken from a bad dream. Monica was holding money up.
Phillip lay where he had been dropped, chest rising and falling.
Robert the vampire came to Monica. She tucked money down his pants. He pressed his bloody, fanged mouth to her lips. The kiss was long and deep, full of probing tongues. They were tasting each other.
The vampire drew away from Monica. Her hands at his neck tried to draw him back, but he pulled away. He turned to me. I shook my head and showed him empty hands. No money here, folks.
He grabbed for me, snake-quick. No time to think. My chair crashed to the floor. I was standing, just out of reach. No ordinary human could have seen him coming. The jig, as they say, was up.
A buzz of voices raised through the audience as they tried to figure out what had happened. Just your friendly neighborhood animator, folks, nothing to get excited about. The vampire was still staring at me.
Jean-Claude was suddenly beside me, and I hadn't seen him come. "Are you all right, Anita?"
His voice held things that the words didn't even hint at. Promises whispered in darkened rooms, under cool sheets. He sucked me under, rolled my mind like a wino after money, and it felt good. Crash-Shrill-Noise thundered through my mind, chased the vampire out, held him at bay.
My beeper had gone off. I blinked and staggered against our table. He reached out to steady me. "Don't touch me," I said.
He smiled. "Of course."
I pushed the button on my beeper to silence it. Thank you God, that I hung the beeper on my waistband instead of stuffing it in a purse. I might never have heard it otherwise. I called from the phone at the bar. The police wanted my expertise at the Hillcrest Cemetery. I had to work on my night off. Yippee, and I meant it.
I offered to take Catherine with me, but she wanted to stay. Whatever else you can say about vampires, they are fascinating. It went with the job description, like drinking blood and working nights. It was her choice.
I promised to come back in time to drive them home. Then I picked up my cross from the holy item check girl and slipped it inside my shirt.
Jean-Claude was standing by the door. He said, "I almost had you, my little animator."
I glanced at his face and quickly down. "Almost doesn't count, you blood-sucking bastard."
Jean-Claude threw back his head and laughed. His laughter followed me out into the night, like velvet rubbing along my spine.
The coffin lay on its side. A white scar of claw marks ran down the dark varnish. The pale blue lining, imitation silk, was sliced and gouged. One bloody handprint showed plainly; it could almost have been human. All that was left of the older corpse was a shredded brown suit, a finger bone gnawed clean and a scrap of scalp. The man had been blond.
A second body lay perhaps five feet away. The man's clothes were shredded. His chest had been ripped open, ribs cracked like eggshells. Most of his internal organs were gone, leaving his body cavity like a hollowed-out log. Only his face was untouched. Pale eyes stared impossibly wide up into the summer stars.
I was glad it was dark. My night vision is good, but darkness steals color. All the blood was black. The man's body was lost in the shadows of the trees. I didn't have to see him, unless I walked up to him. I had done that. I had measured the bite marks with my trusty tape measure. With my little plastic gloves I had searched the corpse over, looking for clues. There weren't any.
I could do anything I wanted to the scene of the crime. It had already been videotaped and snapped from every possible angle. I was always the last "expert" called in. The ambulance was waiting to take the bodies away, once I was finished.
I was about finished. I knew what had killed the man. Ghouls. I had narrowed the search down to a particular kind of undead. Bully for me. The coroner could have told them that.
I was beginning to sweat inside the coverall I had put on to protect my clothes. The coverall was originally for vampire stakings, but I had started using it at crime scenes. There were black stains at the knees and down the legs. There had been so much blood in the grass. Thank you, dear God, that I didn't have to see this in broad daylight.
I don't know why seeing something like this in daylight makes it worse, but I'm more likely to dream about a daylight scene. The blood is always so red and brown and thick.
Night softens it, makes it less real. I appreciated that.
I unzipped the front of my coverall, letting it gape open around my clothes. The wind blew against me, amazingly cool. The air smelled of rain. Another thunderstorm was moving this way.
The yellow police tape was wrapped around tree trunks, strung through bushes. One yellow loop went around the stone feet of an angel. The tape flapped and cracked in the growing wind. Sergeant Rudolf Storr lifted the tape and walked towards me.
He was six-eight and built like a wrestler. He had a brisk, striding walk. His close-cropped black hair left his ears bare. Dolph was the head of the newest task force, the spook squad. Officially, it was the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, R-P-I-T, pronounced rip it. It handled all supernatural-related crime. It wasn't exactly a step up for his career. Willie McCoy had been right; the task force was a half-hearted effort to placate the press and the liberals.
Dolph had pissed somebody off, or he wouldn't have been here. But Dolph, being Dolph, was determined to do the best job he could. He was like a force of nature. He didn't yell, he was just there, and things got done because of it.
"Well," he said.
That's Dolph, a man of many words. "It was a ghoul attack."
I shrugged. "And there are no ghouls in this cemetery."
He stared down at me, face carefully neutral. He was good at that, didn't like to influence his people. "You just said it was a ghoul attack."
"Yes, but they came from somewhere outside the cemetery."
"I have never known of any ghouls to travel this far outside their own cemetery." I stared at him, trying to see if he understood what I was saying.
"Tell me about ghouls, Anita." He had his trusty little notebook out, pen poised and ready.
"This cemetery is still holy ground. Cemeteries that have ghoul infestations are usually very old or have satanic or certain voodoo rites performed in them. The evil sort of uses up the blessing, until the ground becomes unholy. Once that happens, ghouls either move in or rise from the graves. No one's sure exactly which."
"Wait, what do you mean, that no one knows?"
He shook his head, staring at the notes he'd made, frowning. "Explain."
"Vampires are made by other vampires. Zombies are raised from the grave by an animator or voodoo priest. Ghouls, as far as we know, just crawl out of their graves on their own. There are theories that very evil people become ghouls. I don't buy that. There was a theory for a while that people bitten by a supernatural being, wereanimal, vampire, whatever, would become a ghoul. But I've seen whole cemeteries emptied, every corpse a ghoul. No way they were all attacked by supernatural forces while alive."
"All right, we don't know where ghouls come from. What do we know?"
"Ghouls don't rot like zombies. They retain their form more like vampires. They are more than animal intelligent, but not by much. They are cowards and won't attack a person unless she is hurt or unconscious."
"They sure as hell attacked the groundskeeper."
"He could have been knocked unconscious somehow."
"Someone would have had to knock him out."
"Is that likely?"
"No, ghouls don't work with humans, or any other undead. A zombie will obey orders, vampires have their own thoughts. Ghouls are like pack animals, wolves maybe, but a lot more dangerous. They wouldn't be able to understand working with someone. If you're not a ghoul, you're either meat or something to hide from."
"Then what happened here?"
"Dolph, these ghouls traveled quite a distance to reach this cemetery. There isn't another one for miles. Ghouls don't travel like that. So maybe, just maybe, they attacked the caretaker when he came to scare them off. They should have run from him; maybe they didn't."
"Could it be something, or someone, pretending to be ghouls?"
"Maybe, but I doubt it. Whoever it was, they ate that man. A human might do that, but a human couldn't tear the body apart like that. They just don't have the strength."
"Vampires don't eat meat."
"Maybe. There are rare cases where zombies go a little crazy and start attacking people. They seem to crave flesh. If they don't get it, they'll start to decay."
"I thought zombies always decayed."
"Flesh-eating zombies last a lot longer than normal. There's one case of a woman who is still human-looking after three years."
"They let her go around eating people?"
I smiled. "They feed her raw meat. I believe the article said lamb was preferred."
"Every career has its professional journal, Dolph."
"What's it called?"
I shrugged. "The Animator, what else?"
He actually smiled. "Okay. How likely is it that it's zombies?"
"Not very. Zombies don't run in packs unless they're ordered to."
"Even" -he checked his notes- "flesh-eating zombies?"
"There have only been three documented cases. All of them were solitary hunters."
"So, flesh-eating zombies, or a new kind of ghoul. That sum it up?"
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Okay, thanks. Sorry to interrupt your night off." He closed his notebook and looked at me. He was almost grinning. "The secretary said you were at a bachelorette party." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Hoochie coochie."
"Don't give me a hard time; Dolph."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
"Riiight," I said. "If you don't need me anymore, I'll be getting back."
"We're finished, for now. Call me if you think of anything else."
"Will do." I walked back to my car. The bloody plastic gloves were shoved into a garbage sack in the trunk. I debated on the coveralls and finally folded them on top of the garbage sack. I might be able to wear them one more time.
Dolph called out, "You be careful tonight, Anita. Wouldn't want you picking up anything."
I glared back at him. The rest of the men waved at me and called in unison, "We loove you."
"Gimme a break."
One called, "If I'd known you liked to see naked men, we could have worked something out."
"The stuff you got, Zerbrowski, I don't want to see."
Laughter, and someone grabbed him around the neck. "She got you, man ... Give it up, she gets you every time."
I got into my car to the sound of masculine laughter, and one offer to be my "luv" slave. It was probably Zerbrowski.
I arrived back at Guilty Pleasures a little after midnight. Jean Claude was standing at the bottom of the steps. He was leaning against the wall, utterly still. If he was breathing, I couldn't see it. The wind blew the lace on his shirt. A lock of black hair trailed across the smooth paleness of his cheek.
"You smell of other people's blood, ma petite."
I smiled at him, sweetly. "It was no one you knew."
His voice when it came was low and dark, full of a quiet rage. It slithered across my skin, like a cold wind. "Have you been killing vampires, my little animator?"
"No." I whispered it, my voice suddenly hoarse. I had never heard his voice like that.
"They call you The Executioner, did you know that?"
"Yes." He had done nothing to threaten me, yet nothing at that moment would have forced me to pass him. They might as well have barred the door.
"How many kills do you have to your credit?"
I didn't like this conversation. It wasn't going to end anywhere I wanted to be. I knew one master vampire who could smell lies. I didn't understand Jean-Claude's mood, but I wasn't about to lie to him. "Fourteen."
"And you call us murderers."
I just stared at him, not sure what he wanted me to say.
Buzz the vampire came down the steps. He stared from Jean Claude to me, then took up his post by the door, huge arms crossed over his chest.
Jean-Claude asked, "Did you have a nice break?"
"Yes, thank you, master."
The master vampire smiled. "I've told you before, Buzz, don't call me master."
"Yes, M-M ... Jean-Claude."
The vampire gave his wondrous, nearly touchable laugh. "Come, Anita, let us go inside where it is warmer."
It was over eighty degrees on the sidewalk. I didn't know what in the world he was talking about. I didn't know what we'd been talking about for the last few minutes.
Jean-Claude walked up the steps. I watched him disappear inside. I stood staring at the door, not wanting to go inside. Something was wrong, and I didn't know what.
"You going inside?" Buzz asked.
"I don't suppose you'd go inside, and ask Monica and the redhaired woman she's with to come outside?"
He smiled, flashing fang. It's the mark of the new dead that they flash their fangs around. They like the shock effect. "Can't leave my post. I just had a break."
"Thought you'd say something like that."
He grinned at me.
I went into the twilit dark of the club. The holy item check girl was waiting for me at the door. I gave her my cross. She gave me a check stub. It wasn't a fair trade. Jean-Claude was nowhere in sight.
Catherine was on the stage. She was standing motionless, eyes wide. Her face had that open, fragile look that faces get when they sleep, like a child's face. Her long, copper-colored hair glistened in the lights. I knew a deep trance when I saw it.
"Catherine." I breathed her name and ran towards her. Monica was sitting at our table, watching me come. There was an awful, knowing smile on her face.
I was almost to the stage when a vampire appeared behind Catherine. He didn't walk out from behind the curtain, he just bloody appeared behind her. For the first time I understood what humans must see. Magic.
The vampire stared at me. His hair was golden silk, his skin ivory, eyes like drowning pools. I closed my eyes and shook my head. This couldn't be happening. No one was that beautiful.
His voice was almost ordinary after the face, but it was a command. "Call her."
I opened my eyes to find the audience staring at me. I glanced at Catherine's blank face and knew what would happen, but like any ignorant client I had to try. "Catherine, Catherine, can you hear me?"
She never moved; only the faintest of movements showed her breathing. She was alive, but for how long? The vampire had gotten to her, deep trance. That meant he could call her anytime, anywhere, and she would come. From this moment on, her life belonged to him. Whenever he wanted it.
"Catherine, please!" There was nothing I could do, the damage was done. Dammit, I should never have left her here, never!
The vampire touched her shoulder. She blinked and stared around, surprised, scared. She gave a nervous laugh. "What happened?"
The vampire raised her hand to his lips. "You are now under my power, my lovely one."
She laughed again, not understanding that he had told her the absolute truth. He led her to the edge of the stage, and two waiters helped her back to her seat. "I feel fuzzy," she said.
Monica patted her hand. "You were great."
"What did I do?"
"I'll tell you later. The show's not over yet." She stared at me when she said the last.
I already knew I was in trouble. The vampire on the stage was staring at me. It was like weight against my skin. His will, force, personality, whatever it was, beat against me. I could feel it like a pulsing wind. The skin on my arms crawled with it.
"I am Aubrey," the vampire said. "Give me your name."
My mouth was suddenly dry, but my name was not important. He could have that. "Anita."
"Anita. How pretty."
My knees sort of buckled and spilled me into a chair. Monica was staring at me, eyes enormous and eager.
"Come, Anita, join me on the stage." His voice wasn't as good as Jean-Claude's, it just wasn't. There was no texture to it, but the mind behind the voice was like nothing I had ever felt. It was ancient, terribly ancient. The force of his mind made my bones ache.
I kept shaking my head, over and over. It was all I could do. No words, no real thoughts, but I knew I could not get out of this chair. If I came to him now, he would have power over me just as he did Catherine. Sweat soaked through the back of my blouse.
"Come to me, now!"
I was standing, and I didn't remember doing it. Dear God, help me! "No!" I dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand. I tore my own skin and welcomed the pain. I could breathe again.
His mind receded like the ocean pulling back. I felt lightheaded, empty. I slumped against the table. One of the vampire waiters was at my side. "Don't fight him. He gets angry if you fight him."
I pushed him away. "If I don't fight him, he'll own me!"
The waiter looked almost human, one of the new dead. There was a look on his face. It was fear.
I called to the thing on the stage, "I'll come to the stage if you don't force me."
Monica gasped. I ignored her. Nothing mattered but getting through the next few moments.
"Then by all means, come," the vampire said.
I stood away from the table and found I could stand without falling. Point for me. I could even walk. Two points for me. I stared at the hard, polished floor. If I concentrated just on walking I would be all right. The first step of the stage came into view. I glanced up.
Aubrey was standing in the center of the stage. He wasn't trying to call me. He stood perfectly still. It was like he wasn't there at all; he was a terrible nothingness. I could feel his stillness like a pulse in my head. I think he could have stood in plain sight, and unless he wanted me to, I would never have seen him.
"Come." Not a voice, but a sound inside my head. "Come to me. "
I tried to move back and couldn't. My pulse thundered into my throat. I couldn't breathe. I was choking! I stood with the force of his mind twisting against me.
"Don't fight me!" He screamed in my head.
Someone was screaming, wordlessly, and it was me. If I stopped fighting, it would be so easy, like drowning after you stop struggling. A peaceful way to die. No, no. "No." My voice sounded strange, even to me.
"What?" he asked. His voice held surprise.
"No," I said, and I looked up at him. I met his eyes with the weight of all those centuries pulsing down. Whatever it was that made me an animator, that helped me raise the dead, it was there now. I met his eyes and stood still.
He smiled then, a slow spreading of lips. "Then I will come to you."
"Please, please, don't." I could not step back. His mind held me like velvet steel. It was everything I could do not to move forward. Not to run to meet him.
He stopped, with our bodies almost touching. His eyes were a solid, perfect brown, bottomless, endless. I looked away from his face. Sweat trickled down my forehead.
"You smell of fear, Anita."
His cool hand traced the edge of my cheek. I started to shake and couldn't stop. His fingers pulled gently through the waves of my hair. "How can you face me this way?"
He breathed along my face, warm as silk. His breath slid to my neck, warm and close. He drew a deep, shuddering breath. His hunger pulsed against my skin. My stomach cramped with his need. He hissed at the audience, and they squealed in terror. He was going to do it.
Terror came in a blinding rush of adrenaline. I pushed away from him. I fell to the stage and scrambled away on hands and knees.
An arm grabbed me around the waist, lifting. I screamed, striking backwards with my elbow. It thudded home, and I heard him gasp, but the arm tightened. Tightened until it was crushing me.
I tore at my sleeve. Cloth ripped. He threw me onto my back. He was crouched over me, face twisted with hunger. His lips curled back from his teeth, fangs glistening.
Someone moved onto the stage, one of the waiters. The vampire hissed at him, spittle running down his chin. There was nothing human left.
It came for me in a blinding rush of speed and hunger. I pressed the silver knife over his heart. A trickle of blood glistened down his chest. He snarled at me, fangs gnashing like a dog on the end of a chain. I screamed.
Terror had washed his power away. There was nothing left but fear. He lunged for me and drove the point of the knife into his skin. Blood began to drip over my hand and onto my blouse. His blood.
Jean-Claude was suddenly there. "Aubrey, let her go."
The vampire growled deep and low in his throat. It was an animal sound.
My voice was high and thin with fear; I sounded like a little girl. "Get him off me, or I'll kill him!"
The vampire reared back, fangs slashing his own lips. "Get him off me!"
Jean-Claude began to speak softly in French. Even when I couldn't understand the language his voice was like velvet, soothing. Jean-Claude knelt by us, speaking softly. The vampire growled and lashed out, grabbing Jean-Claude's wrist.
He gasped, and it sounded like pain.
Should I kill him? Could I plunge the knife home before he tore out my throat? How fast was he? My mind seemed to be working incredibly fast. There was an illusion that I had all the time in the world to decide and act.
I felt the vampire's weight heavier against my legs. His voice sounded hoarse, but calm. "May I get up now?"
His face was human again, pleasant, handsome, but the illusion didn't work anymore. I had seen him unmasked, and that image would always stay with me. "Get off me, slowly."
He smiled then, a slow confident spread of lips. He moved off me, human-slow. Jean-Claude waved him back until he stood near the curtain.
"Are you all right, ma petite?"
I stared at the bloody silver knife and shook my head. "I don't know."
"I did not mean for this to happen." He helped me sit up, and I let him. The room had fallen silent. The audience knew something had gone wrong. They had seen the truth behind the charming mask. There were a lot of pale, frightened faces out there.
My right sleeve hung torn where I ripped it to get the knife.
"Please, put away the knife," Jean-Claude said.
I stared at him, and for the first time I looked him in the eyes and felt nothing. Nothing but emptiness.
"My word of honor that you will leave this place in safety. Put the knife away."
It took me three tries to slide the knife into its sheath, my hands were trembling so badly. Jean-Claude smiled at me, tight-lipped. "Now, we will get off this stage." He helped me stand. I would have fallen if his arm hadn't caught me. He kept a tight grip on my left hand; the lace on his sleeve brushed my skin. The lace wasn't soft at all.
Jean-Claude held his other hand out to Aubrey. I tried to pull away, and he whispered, "No fear, I will protect you, I swear it."
I believed him, I don't know why, maybe because I had no one else to believe. He led Aubrey and me to the front of the stage. His rich voice caressed the crowd. "We hope you enjoyed our little melodrama. It was very realistic, wasn't it?"
The audience shifted uncomfortably, fear plain in their faces.
He smiled out at them and dropped Aubrey's hand. He unbuttoned my sleeve and pushed it back, exposing the burn scar. The cross was dark against my skin. The audience was silent, still not understanding. Jean-Claude pulled the lace away from his chest, exposing his own cross-shaped burn.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then applause thundered around the room. Screams and shouts, and whistles roared around us.
They thought I was a vampire, and it had all been an act. I stared at Jean-Claude's smiling face and the matching scars: his chest, my arm.
Jean-Claude's hand pulled me down into a bow. As the applause finally began to fade, Jean-Claude whispered, "We need to talk, Anita. Your friend Catherine's life depends on your actions."
I met his eyes and said, "I killed the things that gave me this scar."
He smiled broadly, showing just a hint of fang. "What a lovely coincidence. So did I"
Jean-Claude led us through the curtains at the back of the stage. Another vampire stripper was waiting to go on. He was dressed like a gladiator, complete with metal breastplate and short sword. "Talk about an act that's hard to follow. Shit." He jerked the curtain open and stalked through.
Catherine came through, her face so pale her freckles stood out like brown ink spots. I wondered if I looked as pale? Naw. I didn't have the skin tone for it.
"My God, are you all right?" she asked.
I stepped carefully over a line of cables that snaked across the backstage floor and leaned against the wall. I began to relearn how to breathe. "I'm fine," I lied.
"Anita, what is going on? What was that stuff on stage? You aren't a vampire any more than I am."
Aubrey made a silent hiss behind her back, fangs straining, making his lips bleed. His shoulders shook with silent laughter.
Catherine gripped my arm. "Anita?"
I hugged her, and she hugged me back. I would not let her die like this. I would not let it happen. She pulled away from me and stared into my face. "Talk to me."
"Shall we talk in my office?" Jean-Claude asked.
"Catherine doesn't need to come."
Aubrey strolled closer. He seemed to glimmer in the twilight dark, like a jewel. "I think she should come. It does concern her intimately." He licked his bloody lips, tongue pink and quick as a cat's.
"No, I want her out of this, any way I can get her out of it."
"Out of what? What are you talking about?"
Jean-Claude asked, "Is she likely to go to the police?"
"Go to the police about what?" Catherine asked, her voice getting louder with each question.
"If she did?"
"She would die," Jean-Claude said.
"Wait just a minute," Catherine said. "Are you threatening me?"
Catherine's face was gaining a lot of color. Anger did that to her. "She'll go to the police," I said.
"It is your choice."
"I'm sorry, Catherine, but it would be better for us all if you didn't remember any of this."
"That's it! We are leaving, now." She grabbed my hand, and I didn't stop her.
Aubrey moved up behind her. "Look at me, Catherine."
She stiffened. Her fingers dug into my hand; incredible tension vibrated down her muscles. She was fighting it. God, help her. But she didn't have any magic, or crucifixes. Strength of will was not enough, not against something like Aubrey.
Her hand fell away from my arm, fingers going limp all at once. Breath went out of her in a long, shuddering sigh. She stared at something just a little over my head, something I couldn't see.
I whispered, "Catherine, I'm sorry."
"Aubrey can wipe her memory of this night. She will think she drank too much, but that will not undo the damage."
"I know. The only thing that can break Aubrey's hold on her is his death."
"She will be dust in her grave before that happens."
I stared at him, at the blood stain on his shirt. I smiled a very careful smile.
"This little wound was luck and nothing more. Do not let it make you overconfident," Aubrey said.
Overconfident; now that was funny. I barely managed not to laugh. "I understand the threat, Jean-Claude. Either I do what you want or Aubrey finishes what he started with Catherine."
"You have grasped the situation, ma petite."
"Stop calling me that. What is it exactly that you want from me?"
"I believe Willie McCoy told you what we wanted."
"You want to hire me to check into the vampire murders?"
"This," I motioned to Catherine's blank face, "was hardly necessary. You could have beaten me up, threatened my life, offered me more money. You could have done a lot of things before you did this."
He smiled, lips tight. "All that would have taken time. And let us be truthful. In the end you would still have refused us."
"This way, you have no choice."
He had a point. "Okay, I'm on the case. Satisfied?"
"Very," Jean-Claude said, his voice very soft. "What of your friend?"
"I want her to go home in a cab. And I want some guarantees that old long-fang isn't going to kill her anyway."
Aubrey laughed, a rich sound that ended in a hysterical hissing. He was bent over, shaking with laughter. "Long-fang, I like that."
Jean-Claude glanced at the laughing vampire and said, "I will give you my word that she will not be harmed if you help us."
"No offense, but that's not enough."
"You doubt my word." His voice growled low and warm, angry.
"No, but you don't hold Aubrey's leash. Unless he answers to you you can't guarantee his behavior."
Aubrey's laughter had softened to a few faint giggles. I had never heard a vampire giggle before. It wasn't a pleasant sound. The laughter died completely, and he straightened. "No one holds my leash, girl. I am my own master."
"Oh, get real. If you were over five hundred years old, and a master vampire, you'd have cleaned up the stage with me. As it was"-I flattened my hands palms up-"you didn't, which means you're very old but not your own master."
He growled low in his throat, face darkening with anger. "How dare you?"
"Think, Aubrey, she judged your age within fifty years. You are not a master vampire, and she knew that. We need her."
"She needs to learn some humility." He stalked towards me, body rigid with anger, hands clenching and unclenching in the air.
Jean-Claude stepped between us. "Nikolaos is expecting us to bring her, unharmed."
Aubrey hesitated. He snarled; his jaws snapped on empty air. The smack of his teeth biting together was a dull, angry sound.
They stared at each other. I could feel their wills straining through the air, like a distant wind. It made the skin at the back of my neck crawl. It was Aubrey who looked away, with an angry graceful blink. "I will not anger, my master." He emphasized "my," making it clear that Jean-Claude was not "his" master.
I swallowed hard twice, and it sounded loud. If they wanted me scared, they were doing a hell of a job. "Who is Nikolaos?"
Jean-Claude turned to look at me, his face calm and beautiful. "That question is not ours to answer."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
He smiled, lips curling carefully so no fang showed. "Let us put your friend in a cab, out of harm's way."
"What of Monica"
He grinned then, fangs showing; he looked genuinely amused. "Are you worried for her safety?"
It hit me then-the impromptu bachelorette party, there only being the three of us. "She was the lure to get Catherine and me down here."
He nodded, once down, once up.
I wanted to go back out and smash Monica's face in. The more I thought about the idea, the better it sounded. As if by magic, she parted the curtains and came back. I smiled at her, and it felt good.
She hesitated, glancing from me to Jean-Claude and back. "Is everything going according to plan?"
I walked towards her. Jean-Claude grabbed my arm. "Do not harm her, Anita. She is under our protection."
"I swear to you that I will not lay a finger on her tonight. I just want to tell her something."
He released my arm, slowly, like he wasn't sure it was a good idea. I stepped next to Monica, until our bodies almost touched. I whispered into her face, "If anything happens to Catherine, I will see you dead."
She smirked at me, confident in her protectors. "They will bring me back as one of them."
I felt my head shake, a little to the right, a little to the left, a slow precise movement. "I will cut out your heart." I was still smiling, I couldn't seem to stop. "Then I will burn it and scatter the ashes in the river. Do you understand me?"
She swallowed audibly. Her health-club tan looked a little green. She nodded, staring at me like I was the bogey man.
I think she believed I'd do it. Peachy keen. I hate to waste a really good threat.
I watched Catherine's cab vanish around the corner. She never turned, or waved, or spoke. She would wake tomorrow with vague memories. Just a night out with the girls.
I would like to have thought she was out of it, safe, but I knew better. The air smelled thickly of rain. The street lights glistened off the sidewalk. The air was almost too thick to breathe. St. Louis in the summer. Peachy.
"Shall we go?" Jean-Claude asked.
He stood, white shirt gleaming in the dark. If the humidity bothered him, it didn't show. Aubrey stood in the shadows near the door. The only light on him was the crimson neon of the club sign. He grinned at me, face painted red, body lost in shadows.
"It's a little too contrived, Aubrey," I said.
His grin wavered. "What do you mean?"
"You look like a B-movie Dracula."
He flowed down the steps, with that easy perfection that only the really old ones have. The street light showed his face tight, hands balled into fists.
Jean-Claude stepped in front of him and spoke low, voice a soothing whisper. Aubrey turned away with a jerky shrug and began to glide up the street.
Jean-Claude turned to me. "If you continue to taunt him, there will come a point from which I cannot bring him back. And you will die."
"I thought your job was to keep me alive for this Nikolaos."
He frowned. "It is, but I will not die to defend you. Do you understand that?"
"I do now."
"Good. Shall we go?" He gestured down the sidewalk, in the direction Aubrey had gone.
"We're going to walk?"
"It is not far." He held his hand out to me.
I stared at it and shook my head.
"It is necessary, Anita. I would not ask it otherwise."
"How is it necessary?"
"This night must remain secret from the police, Anita. Hold my hand, play the besotted human with her vampire lover. It will explain the blood on your blouse. It will explain where we are going, and why."
His hand hung there, pale and slender. There was no tremor to the fingers, no movement, as if he could stand there offering me his hand forever. And maybe he could.
I took his hand. His long fingers curved over the back of my hand. We began walking, his hand very still in mine. I could feel the pulse in my hand against his skin. His pulse began to speed up to match mine. I could feel his blood flow like a second heart.
"Have you fed tonight?" my voice sounded soft.
"Can you not tell?"
"I can never tell with you."
I saw him smile out of the corner of my eye. "I am flattered."
"You never answered my question."
"No," he said.
"No, you haven't answered me, or no, you haven't fed?"
He turned his head to me, as we walked. Sweat gleamed on his upper lip. "What do you think, ma petite?" His voice was the softest of whispers.
I jerked my hand, tried to get away, even though I knew it was silly, and wouldn't work. His hand convulsed around mine, squeezed until I gasped. He wasn't even trying hard.
"Do not struggle against me, Anita." His tongue slid across his upper lip. "Struggling is-exciting."
"Why didn't you feed earlier?"
"I was ordered not to."
He didn't answer me. Rain began to patter down. Light and cool.
"Why?" I repeated.
"I don't know." His voice was nearly lost in the soft fall of rain. If it had been anyone else I would have said he was afraid.
The hotel was tall and thin, and made of real brick. The sign out front glowed blue and said, "Vacancy." There was no other sign. Nothing to tell you what the place was called, or even what it was. Just vacancy.
Rain glistened in Jean-Claude's hair, like black diamonds. My top was sticking to my body. The blood had begun to wash away. Cold water was just the thing for a fresh blood stain.
A police car eased around the corner. I tensed. Jean-Claude jerked me against him. I put my palm against his chest to keep our bodies from touching. His heart thudded under my hand.
The police car was going very slowly. A spotlight began to search the shadows. They swept the District regularly. It was bad for tourism if the tourists got wasted by our biggest attractions.
Jean-Claude grabbed my chin and turned me to look at him. I tried to pull away, but his fingers dug into my chin. "Don't fight me!"
"I won't look in your eyes!"
"My word that I will not try to bespell you. For this night you may look into my eyes with safety. I swear it." He glanced at the police car, still moving towards us. "If the police are brought into this, I cannot promise what will happen to your friend."
I forced myself to relax in his arms, letting my body ease against his. My heartbeat sounded loud, as if I had been running. Then I realized it wasn't my heart I was hearing. Jean-Claude's pulse was throbbing through my body. I could hear it, feel it, almost squeeze it in my hand. I stared up at his face. His eyes were the darkest blue I had ever seen, perfect as a midnight sky. They were dark and alive, but there was no sense of drowning, no pull. They were just eyes.
His face leaned towards me. He whispered, "I swear."
He was going to kiss me. I didn't want him to. But I didn't want the police to stop and question us. I didn't want to explain the blood stains, the torn blouse. His lips hesitated over my mouth. His heartbeat was loud in my head, his pulse was racing, and my breathing was ragged with his need.
His lips were silk, his tongue a quick wetness. I tried to pull back and found his hand at the back of my neck, pressing my mouth against his.
The police spotlight swept over us. I relaxed against Jean-Claude, letting him kiss me. Our mouths pressed together. My tongue found the smooth hardness of fangs. I pulled away, and he let me. He pressed my face against his chest, one arm like steel against my back, pressing me against him. He was trembling, and it wasn't from the rain.
His breathing was ragged, his heart jumping under his skin against my cheek. The slick roughness of his burn scar touched my face.
His hunger poured over me in a violent wave, like heat. He had been sheltering me from it, until now. "Jean-Claude!" I didn't try to keep the fear out of my voice.
"Hush." A shudder ran through his body. His breath escaped in a loud sigh. He released me so abruptly. I stumbled.
He walked away from me to lean against a parked car. He raised his face up into the rain. I could still feel his heartbeat. I had never been so aware of my own pulse, the blood flowing through my veins. I hugged myself, shivering in the hot rain.
The police car had vanished into the streetlight darkness. After perhaps five minutes Jean-Claude stood. I could no longer feel his heartbeat. My own pulse was slow and regular. Whatever had happened was over.
He walked past me and called over his shoulder. "Come, Nikolaos awaits us inside."
I followed him through the door. He did not try to take my hand. In fact he stayed out of reach, and I trailed after him through a small square lobby. A human man sat behind the front desk. He glanced up from the magazine he was reading. His eyes flicked to Jean-Claude and back to me. He leered at me.
I glared back. He shrugged and turned back to his magazine. Jean-Claude moved swiftly up the stairs, not waiting for me. He didn't even look back. Maybe he could hear me walking behind him, or maybe he didn't care if I followed.
I guess we weren't pretending to be lovers anymore. Fancy that. I would almost have said the master vampire didn't trust himself around me.
There was a long hallway with doors on either side. Jean-Claude was halfway through one of those doors. I walked towards it. I refused to hurry. They could damn well wait.
The room held a bed, a nightstand with a lamp, and three vampires: Aubrey, Jean-Claude, and a strange female vampire. Aubrey was standing in the far corner, near the window. He was smiling at me. Jean-Claude stood near the door. The female vampire reclined on the bed. She looked like a vampire should. Long, straight, black hair fell around her shoulders. Her dress was full-skirted and black. She wore high black boots with three-inch heels.
"Look into my eyes," she said.
I glanced at her, before I could stop myself, then stared down at the floor.
She laughed, and it had the same quality of touch that Jean-Claude's did. A sound that you could feel with your hands.
"Close the door, Aubrey," she said. Her r's were thick with some accent that I couldn't place.
Aubrey brushed past me as he closed the door. He stayed in back of me, where I couldn't see him. I moved to stand with my back to the only empty wall, so I could see all of them, for what good it would do me.
"Afraid?" Aubrey asked.
"Still bleeding?" I asked.
He crossed his arms over the blood stain on his shirt. "We shall see who is bleeding come dawn."
"Aubrey, do not be childish." The vampire on the bed stood. Her heels clicked against the bare floor. She stalked around me, and I fought an urge to turn and keep her in sight. She laughed again, as if she knew it.
"You wish me to guarantee your friend's safety?" she asked. She had gone back to sink gracefully onto the bed. The bare, dingy room seemed somehow worse with her sitting there in her two-hundred-dollar leather boots.
"No," I said.
"That is what you asked, Anita," Jean-Claude said.
"I said that I wanted guarantees from Aubrey's master."
"You are speaking with my master, girl."
"No, I am not." The room was suddenly very still. I could hear something scrambling inside the wall. I had to look up to make sure the vampires were still in the room. They were all utterly still, like statues, no sense of movement or breathing, or life. They were all so damn old, but none of them were old enough to be Nikolaos.
"I am Nikolaos," the female said, her voice coaxing and breathing through the-room. I wanted to believe her, but I didn't.
"No," I said. "You are not Aubrey's master." I risked a glance into her eyes. They were black and widened in surprise when I looked at them. "You are very old, and very good, but you are not old enough or strong enough to be Aubrey's master."
Jean-Claude said, "I told you she would see through it."
"The game is over, Theresa. She knows."
"Only because you have told her."
"Tell them how you knew, Anita."
I shrugged. "She feels wrong. She just isn't old enough. There is more of a sense of power from Aubrey than from her. That isn't right."
"Do you still insist on speaking with our master?" the woman asked.
"I still want guarantees on my friend's safety." I glanced through the room, at each of them. "And I am getting tired of stupid little games."
Aubrey was suddenly moving towards me. The world slowed. There was no time for fear. I tried to back away, knowing there was nowhere to go.
Jean-Claude rushed him, hands reaching. He wouldn't make it in time.
Aubrey's hand came out of nowhere and caught me in the shoulder. The blow knocked all the air from my body and sent me flying backwards. My back slammed into the wall. My head hit a moment later, hard. The world went grey. I slid down the wall. I couldn't breathe. Tiny white shapes danced over the greyness. The world began to go black. I slid to the floor. It didn't hurt; nothing hurt. I struggled to breathe until my chest burned, and darkness took everything away.
Voices floated through the darkness. Dreams. "We shouldn't have moved her."
"Did you want to disobey Nikolaos?"
"I helped bring her here, did I not?" It was a man's voice.
"Yes," a woman said.
I lay there with my eyes closed. I wasn't dreaming. I remembered Aubrey's hand coming from nowhere. It had been an open backhand slap. If he had closed his fist ... but he hadn't. I was alive.
"Anita, are you awake?"
I opened my eyes. Light speared into my head. I closed my eyes against the light and the pain, but the pain stayed. I turned my head, and that was a mistake. The pain was a nauseating ache. It felt like the bones in my head were trying to slide off. I raised hands to cover my eyes and groaned.
"Anita, are you all right?"
Why do people always ask you that when the answer is obviously no? I spoke in a whisper, not sure how it would feel to talk. It didn't feel too bad. "Just peachy keen."
"What?" This from the woman.
"I think she is being sarcastic," Jean-Claude said. He sounded relieved. "She can't be hurt too badly if she is making jokes."
I wasn't sure about the hurt too badly part. Nausea flowed in waves, from head to stomach, instead of the other way around. I was betting I had a concussion. The question was, how bad?
"Can you move, Anita?"
"No," I whispered.
"Let me rephrase. If I help you, can you sit up?"
I swallowed, trying to breathe through the pain and nausea. "Maybe."
Hands curved under my shoulders. The bones in my head started sliding forward as he lifted. I gasped and swallowed. "I'm going to be sick."
I rolled over on all fours. The movement was too rapid. The pan was a whirl of light and darkness. My stomach heaved. Vomit burned up my throat. My head was exploding.
Jean-Claude held me around the waist, one cool hand on my forehead, holding the bones of my head in place. His voice held me, a soothing sheet against my skin. He was speaking French, very softly. I didn't understand a word of it, and didn't need to. His voice held me, rocked me, took some of the pain.
He cradled me against his chest, and I was too weak to protest. The pain had been screaming through my head; now it was distant, a throbbing ache. It still felt obscene to turn my head, as if my head were sliding apart, but the pain was different, bearable.
He wiped my face and mouth with a damp cloth. "Do you feel better now?" he asked.
"Yes." I didn't understand where the pain had gone.
Theresa said, "Jean-Claude, what have you done?"
"Nikolaos wishes her to be aware and well for this visit. You saw her. She needs a hospital, not more tormenting."
"So you helped her." The vampire's voice sounded amused. "Nikolaos will not be pleased."
I felt him shrug. "I did what was necessary."
I could open my eyes without squinting or increasing the pain. We were in a dungeon; there was no other word for it. Thick stone walls enclosed a square room, perhaps twenty by twenty feet. Steps led up to a barred, wooden door. There were even chains set in the walls. Torches guttered along the walls. The only thing missing was a rack and a black-hooded torturer, one with big, beefy arms, and a tattoo that said "I love Mom." Yeah, that would have made it perfect.
I was feeling better, much better. I shouldn't have been recovering this quickly. I had been hurt before, badly. It didn't just fade, not like this.
"Can you sit unaided?" Jean-Claude asked.
Surprisingly, the answer was yes. I sat with my back to the wall. The pain was still there, but it just didn't hurt as much. Jean-Claude got a bucket from near the stairs and washed it over the floor. There was a very modern drain in the middle of the floor.
Theresa stood staring at me, hands on hips. "You certainly are recovering quickly." Her voice held amusement, and something else I couldn't define.
"The pain, the nausea, it's almost gone. How?"
She smirked, lips curling. "You'll have to ask Jean-Claude that. It's his doing, not mine."
"Because you could not have done it." There was a warm edge of anger to his voice.
Her face paled. "I would not have, regardless."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
Jean-Claude looked at me, beautiful face unreadable. His dark eyes stared into mine. They were still just eyes.
"Go on, master vampire, tell her. See how grateful she is."
Jean-Claude stared at me, watching my face. "You are badly hurt, a concussion. But Nikolaos will not let us take you to a hospital until this ... interview is over with. I feared you would die or be unable to ... function." I had never heard his voice so uncertain. "So I shared my life-force with you."
I started to shake my head. Big mistake. I pressed hands to my forehead. "I don't understand."
He spread his hands wide. "I do not have the words."
"Oh, allow me," Theresa said. "He has taken the first step to making you a human servant."
"No." I was still having trouble thinking clearly, but I knew that wasn't right. "He didn't try to trick me with his mind, or eyes. He didn't bite me."
"I don't mean one of those pathetic half-creatures that have a few bites and do our bidding. I mean a permanent human servant, one that will never be bitten, never be hurt. One that will age almost as slowly as we do."
I still didn't understand. Perhaps it showed in my face because Jean-Claude said, "I took your pain and gave you some of my ... stamina."
"Are you experiencing my pain, then?"
"No, the pain is gone. I have made you a little harder to hurt."
I still wasn't taking it all in, or maybe it was just beyond me. "I don't understand."
"Listen, woman, he has shared with you what we consider a great gift to be given only to people who have proven themselves invaluable."
I stared at Jean-Claude. "Does this mean I am in your power somehow?"
"Just the opposite," Theresa said, "you are now immune to his glance, his voice, his mind. You will serve him out of willingness, nothing more. You see what he has done."
I stared into her black eyes. They were just eyes.
She nodded. "Now you begin to understand. As an animator you had partial immunity to our gaze. Now you have almost complete immunity." She gave an abrupt barking laugh. "Nikolaos is going to destroy you both." With that she stalked up the stairs, the heels of her boots smacking against the stone. She left the door open behind her.
Jean-Claude had come to stand over me. His face was unreadable.
"Why?" I asked.
He just stared down at me. His hair had dried in unruly curls around his face. He was still beautiful, but the hair made him seem more real.
He smiled then, and there were tired lines near his eyes. "If you died, our master would have punished us. Aubrey is already suffering for his ... indiscretion."
He turned and walked up the stairs. He moved up the steps like a cat, all boneless, liquid grace.
He paused at the door and glanced back at me. "Someone will come for you when Nikolaos decides it is time." He closed the door, and I heard it latch and lock. His voice floated through the bars, rich, almost bubbling with laughter, "And perhaps, because I liked you." His laughter was bitter, like broken glass.
I had to check the locked door. Rattle it, poke at the lock, as if I knew how to pick locks. See if any bars were loose, though I could never have squeezed through the small window anyway.
I checked the door because I could not resist it. It was the same urge that made you rattle your trunk after you locked your keys inside.
I have been on the wrong side of a lot of locked doors. Not a one of them had just opened for me, but there was always a first time. Yeah, I should live so long. Scratch that; bad phrase.
A sound brought me back to the cell and its seeping, damp walls. A rat scurried against the far wall. Another peered around the edge of the steps, whiskers twitching. I guess you can't have a dungeon without rats, but I would have been willing to give it a try.
Something else pattered around the edge of the steps; in the torchlight I thought it was a dog. It wasn't. A rat the size of a German shepherd sat up on its sleek black haunches. It stared at me, huge paws tucked close to its furry chest. It cocked one large, black button eye at me. Lips drew back from yellowed teeth. The incisors were five inches long, blunt-edged daggers.
I yelled, "Jean-Claude!"
The air filled with high-pitched squeals, echoing, as if they were running up a tunnel. I stepped to the far edge of the stairs. And I saw it. A tunnel cut into the wall, almost man-high. Rats poured out of the tunnel in a thick, furry wave, squealing and biting. They flowed out and began to cover the floor.
"Jean-Claude!" I beat on the door, jerked at the bars, everything I had done before. It was useless. I wasn't getting out. I kicked the door and screamed, "Dammit!" The sound echoed against the stone walls and almost drowned out the sound of thousands of scrambling claws.
"They will not come for you until we are finished."
I froze, hands still on the door. I turned, slowly. The voice had come from inside the cell. The floor writhed and twisted with furry little bodies. High-pitched squeals, the thick brush of fur, the clatter of thousands of tiny claws filled the room. Thousands of them, thousands.
Four giant rats sat like mountains in the writhing furry tide. One of them stared at me with black button eyes. There was nothing ratlike in the stare. I had never seen wererats before, but I was betting that I was seeing them now.
One figure stood, legs half-bent. It was man-size, with a narrow, ratlike face. A huge naked tail curved around its bent legs like thick fleshy rope. It-no, he, definitely he-extended a clawed hand. "Come down and join us, human." The voice sounded thick, almost furry, with an edge of whine to it. Each word precise and a little wrong. Rats' lips are not made for talking.
I was not coming down the steps. No way. I could taste my heart in my throat. I knew a man who survived a werewolf attack, nearly died, and didn't become a werewolf. I know another man who was barely scratched and became a weretiger. Odds were, if I was so much as scratched, in a month's time I would be playing fur-face, complete with black button eyes and yellowish fangs. Dear God.
"Come down, human. Come down and play."
I swallowed hard. It felt like I was trying to swallow my heart. "I don't think so."
It gave a hissing laugh. "We could come up and fetch you." He strode through the lesser rats, and they parted for him frantically, leaping on top of each other to avoid his touch. He stood at the edge of the steps, looking up at me. His fur was almost a honey-brown color, streaked with blond. "If we force you off the steps, you won't like it much."
I swallowed hard. I believed him. I went for my knife and found the sheath empty. Of course, the vampires had taken it. Dammit.
"Come down, human, come down and play."
"If you want me, you're going to have to come get me."
He curled his tail through his hands, stroking it. One clawed hand ran through the fur of his belly, and stroked lower. I stared very hard at his face, and he laughed at me.
Two of the dog-size rats moved towards the stairs. A small rat squealed and rolled under their feet. It gave a high, piteous shriek, then nothing. It twitched until the other rats covered it. Tiny bones snapped. Nothing would go to waste.
I pressed against the door, as if I could sink through it. The two rats crept up the steps, sleek well-fed animals. But there was no animal in the eyes. Whatever was there was human, intelligent.
The rats hesitated.
The ratman said, "Yes?"
I swallowed audibly. "What do you want?"
"Nikolaos asked that we entertain you while you wait."
"That doesn't answer my question. What do you want me to do? What do you want?"
Lips curled back from yellowed teeth. It looked like a snarl, but I think it was a smile. "Come down to us, human. Touch us, let us touch you. Let us teach you the joys of fur and teeth." He rubbed claws through the fur of his thighs. It drew my attention to him, between his legs. I looked away, and heat rushed up my skin. I was blushing. Dammit!
My voice came out almost steady. "Is that supposed to be impressive?" I asked.
He froze for an instant, then snarled, "Get her down here!"
Great, Anita, antagonize him. Imply that his equipment is a little undersized.
His hissing laugh ran up my skin in cold waves. "We are going to have fun tonight. I can tell."
The giant rats came up the steps, muscles working under fur, whiskers thick as wire, wriggling furiously. I pressed my back against the door and began to slide down the wood. "Please, please don't." My voice sounded high and frightened, and I hated it.
"We've broken you so soon; how very sad," the ratman said.
The two giant rats were almost on me. I braced my back against the door, knees tucked up, heels planted, the rest of the foot slightly raised. A claw touched my leg, I flinched, but I waited. It had to be right. Please, God, don't let them draw blood. Whiskers scraped along my face, the weight of fur on top of me.
I kicked out, both feet hitting solidly in the rat. It raised onto its hind legs and toppled backwards. It tittered, tail lashing. I threw myself forward and smashed it in the chest. The rat tumbled over the edge.
The second rat crouched, making a sound low in its throat. I watched its muscles bunch, and I went down to one knee and braced. If it leaped on me standing, I'd go over the edge. I was only inches from the drop.
It leaped. I dropped flat to the floor and rolled. I shoved feet and one hand into the warmth of its body and helped it along. The rat plummeted over me and out of sight. I heard the frightened shrieks as it fell. The sound was a thick "thumpth." Satisfying. I doubted either of them were dead. But it was the best I could do.
I stood, putting my back to the door again. The ratman wasn't smiling anymore. I smiled at him sweetly, my best angelic smile. He didn't seem impressed.
He made a motion like parting air, smooth. The lesser rats flowed forward with his hand. A creeping brown tide of furry little bodies began to boil up the steps.
I might be able to get a few of them, but not all of them. If he wanted them to, they'd eat me alive, one tiny crimson bite at a time.
Rats flowed around my feet, scrambling and arguing. Tiny bodies bumped against my boots. One stretched itself thin, reaching up to grab the edge of my boot. I kicked it off. It fell squealing over the edge.
The giant rats had dragged one of their injured friends off to one side. The rat wasn't moving. The other I had thrown off was limping.
A rat leaped upward, claws hooked in my blouse. It hung there, claws trapped in the cloth. I could feel its weight over my breast. I grabbed it around its middle. Teeth sank into my hand until they met, grinding skin, missing bone. I screamed, jerking the rat away from me. It dangled from my hand like an obscene earring. Blood ran down its fur. Another rat leaped on my blouse.
The ratman was smiling.
A rat was climbing for my face. I grabbed it by the tail and pulled it away. I yelled, "Are you afraid to come yourself? Are you afraid of me?" My voice was thin with panic, but I said it. "Your friends are injured doing something you're afraid to do. Is that it? Is it?"
The giant rats were staring from me to the ratman. He glanced at them. "I am not afraid of a human."
"Then come up, take me yourself, if you can." The rat on my hand dropped away in a spout of blood. The skin between thumb and forefinger was ripped apart.
The lesser rats hesitated, staring wildly around. One was halfway up my jeans. It dropped to the floor.
"I am not afraid."
"Prove it." My voice sounded a little steadier, maybe about nine years old instead of five.
The giant rats were staring at him, intent, judging, waiting. He made that same cutting-air motion in reverse. The rats squeaked and stood on hind legs staring around, as if they couldn't believe it, but they began to pour down the stairs the way they had come.
I leaned into the door, knees weak, cradling the bitten hand against my chest. The ratman began to creep up the stairs. He moved easily on the balls of his elongated feet, strong clawed toes digging into the stone.
Lycanthropes are stronger and faster than humans. No mind tricks, no sleight of hand, they are just better. I would not be able to surprise the wererat, as I had the first. I doubted he would grow angry enough to be stupid, but one could always hope. I was hurt, unarmed, and outmatched. If I couldn't get him to make a mistake, I was in deep shit.
A long, pink tongue curved over his teeth. "Fresh blood," he said. He drew in a loud breath of air. "You stink of fear, human. Blood and fear, smells like dinner to me." The tongue flicked out and he laughed at me.
I slid my uninjured hand behind my back, as if reaching for something. "Come closer, ratman, and we'll see how you like silver."
The ratman hesitated, frozen, half-crouched on the top step. "You have no silver."
"Want to bet your life on it?"
His clawed hands clutched each other. One of the large rats squeaked something. He snarled down at it. "I am not afraid!"
If they egged him on, my bluff wasn't going to work. "You saw what I did to your friends. That was without a weapon." My voice sounded low and sure of itself. Good for me.
He eyed me out of one large patent-leather eye. His fur glistened in the torchlight as if freshly washed. He gave a small jump and was on the landing, just out of reach.
"I've never seen a blond rat before," I said. Anything to fill the silence, anything to keep him from taking that one last step. Surely Jean-Claude would come back for me soon. I laughed then, abrupt and half-choked.
The ratman froze, staring at me. "Why are you laughing?" His voice held just a hint of unease. Good.
"I was hoping that the vampires would come for me soon and save me. You've got to admit that's funny."
He didn't seem to think it was funny. A lot of people don't get my jokes. If I was less secure, I'd think my jokes weren't funny. Naw.
I moved my hand behind my back, still pretending that there was a knife in it. One of the giant rats squealed, and even to me it sounded derisive. He would never live it down if I bluffed him. I might not live it down if I didn't.
Most people, when confronted with a wererat, freeze or panic. I'd had time to get used to the idea. I wasn't going to fade away if he touched me. There was one possible solution where I could save myself. If I was wrong, he was going to kill me. My stomach turned a sharp flip-flop, and I had to swallow hard. Better dead than furry. If he attacked me, I'd just as soon he killed me. Rats were not my top choice for being a lycanthrope. If your luck was bad, the smallest scratch could infect you.
If I was quick and lucky, I could go to a hospital and be treated. Sort of like rabies. Of course sometimes the inoculations worked, and sometimes they gave you lycanthropy.
He wrapped his long, naked tail through his clawed hands. "You ever been had by a were?"
I wasn't sure if he was talking sex or as a meal. Neither sounded pleasant. He was going to work up to it, get himself brave, then he'd come for me, when he was ready. I wanted him to come when I was ready.
I chose sex and said, "You haven't got what it takes, ratman."
He stiffened, hand sliding down his body, claws combing fur. "We'll see who has what, human."
"Is this the only way you get any sex, forcing yourself on someone? Are you as ugly in human form as you are right now?"
He hissed at me, mouth wide, teeth bared. A sound rose out of his body, deep and high, a whining growl. I'd never heard a sound like it before. It rose up and down and filled the room with violent, hissing echoes. His shoulders crouched.
I held my breath. I had pissed him off. Now we would see if my plan worked, or if he killed me. He leaped forward. I dropped to the floor, but he was ready for it. Incredible speed and he was on me, snarling, claws reaching, screaming in my face.
I bunched my legs against my chest, of he would have been on top of me. He put one claw-hand on my knees and began to push. I tucked arms over my knees, fighting him. It was like fighting steel that moved. He screamed again, high and hissing, spittle raining on me. He went up on his knees to get a better angle at forcing my legs down. I kicked outward, everything I had. He saw it coming and tried to move back, but both feet hit him square between the legs. The impact lifted him off his knees, and he collapsed to the landing, claws scrambling on the stone. He was making a high, whining, breathy sound. He couldn't seem to get enough air.
A second ratman came scrambling through the tunnel, and rats ran everywhere, squeaking and squealing. I just sat there on the landing as far away from the writhing blond ratman as I could get. I stared at the new ratman, feeling tired and angry.
Dammit, it should have worked. The bad guys weren't allowed reinforcements when I was already outnumbered. This one's fur was black, jet absolute black. He wore a pair of jean cutoffs over his slightly bent legs. He motioned, smooth and out from his body.
I swallowed my heart, pulse thudding. My skin crawled with the memory of small bodies sliding over me. My hand throbbed where the rat had bitten me. They'd tear me apart. "Jean-Claude!"
The rats moved, a flowing brownish tide, away from the stairs. The rats ran squeaking and shrilling into the tunnel. All I could do was stare.
The giant rats hissed at him, gesturing with noses and paws at the fallen giant rat. "She was defending herself. What were you doing?" The ratman's voice was low and deep, slurred only around the edges. If I had closed my eyes, I might have said it was human.
I didn't close my eyes. The giant rats left, crouch-dragging their still unconscious friend. He wasn't dead, but he was hurt. One giant rat glanced up at me as the others vanished into the tunnel. Its empty black eye glared at me, promised me painful things if we ever met again.
The blond ratman had stopped writhing and was lying very still, panting, hands cradling himself. The new ratman said, "I told you never to come here."
The first ratman struggled to sit up. The movement seemed to hurt. "The master called and I obeyed."
"I am your king. You obey me." The black-furred rat began to stride up the stairs, tail lashing angrily, almost catlike.
I stood and put the cell door at my back for the umpteenth time that night.
The hurt ratman said, "You are only our king until you die. If you stand against the master, that will be soon. She is powerful, more powerful than you." His voice still sounded weak, thready, but he was recovering. Anger will do that to you.
The rat king leaped, a black blur in motion. He jerked the ratman off his feet, holding him with slightly bent elbows, feet dangling off the ground. He held him close to his face. "I am your king, and you will obey me or I will kill you." Clawed hands dug into the blond ratman's throat, until he scrambled for air. The rat king tossed the ratman down the stairs. He fell tumbling and nearly boneless.
He glared up from the bottom in a painful, gasping heap. The hatred in his eyes would have lit a bonfire.
"Are you all right?" the new ratman asked.
It took me a minute to realize he was speaking to me. I nodded. Apparently I was being rescued, not that I had need of it. Of course not. "Thank you."
"I did not come to save you," he said. "I have forbidden my people to hunt for the vampire. That is why I came."
"Well, I know where I rate, somewhere above a flea. Thank you anyway. Whatever your motives."
He nodded. "You are welcome."
I noticed a burn scar on his left forearm. It was the shape of a crude crown. Someone had branded him. "Wouldn't it be easier just to carry around a crown and scepter?"
He glanced down at his arm, then gave that rat smile, teeth bare. "This leaves my hands free."
I looked up into his eyes to see if he was teasing me, and I couldn't tell. You try reading rat faces.
"What do the vampires want with you?" he asked.
"They want me to work for them."
"Do it. They'll hurt you if you don't."
"Like they'll hurt you if you keep the rats away?"
He shrugged, an awkward motion. "Nikolaos thinks she is queen of the rats because that is her animal to call. We are not merely rats, but men, and we have a choice. I have a choice."
"Do what she wants, and she won't hurt you," I said.
Again that smile. "I give good advice. I do not always take it."
"Me either," I said.
He stared at me out of one black eye, then turned towards the door. "They are coming."
I knew who "they" were. The party was over. The vampires were coming. The rat king sprang down the stairs and scooped up the fallen ratman. He tossed him over his shoulder as if it were no effort, then he was gone, running for the tunnel, fast, fast as a mouse surprised by the kitchen light. A dark blur.
I heard heels clicking down the hallway, and I stepped away from the door. It opened, and Theresa stood on the landing. She stared down at me and the empty room, hands on hips, mouth squeezed tight. "Where are they?"
I held up my wounded hand. "They did their part, then they left."
"They weren't supposed to leave," she said. Theresa made an exasperated sound low in her throat. "It was that rat king of theirs, wasn't it?"
I shrugged. "They left; I don't know why."
"So calm, so unafraid. Didn't the rats frighten you?"
I shrugged again. When something works, stay with it.
"They were not supposed to draw blood." She stared at me. "Are you going to shape shift next full moon?" Her voice held a hint of curiosity. Curiosity killed the vampire. One could always hope.
"No," I said, and I left it at that. No explanation. If she really wanted one, she could just beat me against the wall until I told her what she wanted to hear. She wouldn't even break a sweat. Of course, Aubrey was being punished for hurting me.
Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. "The rats were supposed to frighten you, animator. They don't seem to have done their duty."
"Maybe I don't frighten that easily." I met her eyes without any effort. They were just eyes.
Theresa grinned at me suddenly, flashing fang. "Nikolaos will find something that frightens you, animator. For fear is power." She whispered the last as if afraid to say it too loud.
What did vampires fear? Did visions of sharpened stakes and garlic haunt them, or were there worse things? How do you frighten the dead?
"Walk in front of me, animator. Go meet your master."
"Isn't Nikolaos your master as well, Theresa?"
She stared at me, face blank, as if the laughter had been an illusion. Her eyes were cold and dark. The rats' eyes had held more personality. "Before the night is out, animator, Nikolaos will be everyone's master."
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"Jean-Claude's power has made you foolish."
"No," I said, "it isn't that."
"Then what, mortal?"
"I would rather die than be a vampire's flunky."
Theresa never blinked, only nodded, very slowly. "You may get your wish."
The hair at the back of my neck crawled. I could meet her gaze, but evil has a certain feel to it. A neck-ruffling, throattightening feeling that tightens your gut. I have felt it around humans as well. You don't have to be undead to be evil. But it helps.
I walked in front of her. Theresa's boots clicked sharp echoes from the hallway. Maybe it was only my fear talking, but I felt her staring at me, like an ice cube sliding down my spine.
The room was huge, like a warehouse, but the walls were solid, massive stone. I kept waiting for Bela Lugosi to sweep around the comer in his cape. What was sitting against one wall was almost as good.
She had been about twelve or thirteen when she died. Small, half-formed breasts showed under a long flimsy dress. It was pale blue and looked warm against the total whiteness of her skin. She had been pale when alive; as a vampire she was ghostly. Her hair was that shining white-blonde that some children have before their hair darkens to brown. This hair would never grow dark.
Nikolaos sat in a carved wooden chair. Her feet did not quite touch the floor.
A male vampire moved to lean on the chair arm. His skin was a strange shade of brownish ivory. He leaned over and whispered in Nikolaos's ear.
She laughed, and it was the sound of chimes or bells. A lovely, calculated sound. Theresa went to the girl in the chair, and stood behind it, hands trailing in the long white-blonde hair.
A human male came to stand to the right of her chair. Back against the wall, hands clasped at his side. He stared straight ahead, face blank, spine rigid. He was nearly perfectly bald, face narrow, eyes dark. Most men don't look good without hair. This one did. He was handsome but had the air of a man who didn't care much about that. I wanted to call him a soldier, though I didn't know why.
Another man came to lean against Theresa. His hair was a sandy blond, cut short. His face was strange, not good looking, but not ugly, a face you would remember. A face that might become lovely if you looked at it long enough. His eyes were a pale greenish color.
He wasn't a vampire, but I might have been hasty calling him human.
Jean-Claude came last to stand to the left of the chair. He touched no one, and even standing with them, he was apart from them.
"Well," I said, "all we need is the theme from Dracula, Prince of Darkness, and we'll be all set."
Her voice was like her laugh, high and harmless. Planned innocence. "You think you are funny, don't you?"
I shrugged. "It comes and goes."
She smiled at me. No fang showed. She looked so human, eyes sparkling with humor, face rounded and pleasant. See how harmless I am, just a pretty child. Right.
The black vampire whispered in her ear again. She laughed, so high and clear you could have bottled it.
"Do you practice the laugh, or is it natural talent? Naw, I'm betting you practice."
Jean-Claude's face twisted. I wasn't sure if he was trying not to laugh, or not to frown. Maybe both. I affected some people that way.
The laughter seeped out of her face, very human, until only her eyes sparkled. There was nothing funny about the look in those twinkling eyes. It was the sort of look that cats give small birds.
Her voice lilted at the end of each word, a Shirley Temple affectation. "You are either very brave, or very stupid."
"You really need at least one dimple to go with the voice."
Jean-Claude said softly, "I'm betting on stupid."
I glanced at him and then back at the ghoulie pack. "What I am is tired, hurt, angry, and scared. I would very much like to get the show over with, and get down to business."
"I am beginning to see why Aubrey lost his temper." Her voice was dry, humorless. The lilting sing-song was dripping away like melting ice.
"Do you know how old I am?"
I stared at her and shook my head.
"I thought you said she was good, Jean-Claude." She said his name like she was angry with him.
"She is good."
"Tell me how old I am." Her voice was cold, an angry grownup's voice.
"I can't. I don't know why, but I can't."
"How old is Theresa?"
I stared at the dark-haired vampire, remembering the weight of her in my mind. She was laughing at me. "A hundred, maybe hundred and fifty, no more."
Her face was unreadable, carved marble, as she asked, "Why, no more?"
"That's how old she feels."
"In my head, she feels a certain ... degree of power." I always hated to explain this part aloud. It always sounded mystical. It wasn't. I knew vampires the way some people knew horses, or cars. It was a knack. It was practice. I didn't think Nikolaos would enjoy being compared to a horse, or car, so I kept my mouth shut. See, not stupid after all.
"Look at me, human. Look into my eyes." Her voice was still bland, with none of that commanding power that Jean-Claude had.
Geez, look into my eyes. You'd think the city's master vampire could be more original. But I didn't say it out loud. Her eyes were blue, or grey, or both. Her gaze was like a weight pressing against my skin. If I put my hands up, I almost expected to be able to push something away. I had never felt any vampire's gaze like that.
But I could meet her eyes. Somehow, I knew that wasn't supposed to happen.
The soldier standing to her right was looking at me, as if I'd finally done something interesting.
Nikolaos stood. She moved a little in front of her entourage. She would only come to my collarbone, which made her short. She stood there for a moment, looking ethereal and lovely like a painting. No sense of life but a thing of lovely lines and careful color.
She stood there without moving and opened her mind to me. It felt like she had opened a door that had been locked. Her mind crashed against mine, and I staggered. Thoughts ripped into me like knives, steel-edged dreams. Fleeting bits of her mind danced in my head; where they touched I was numbed, hurt.
I was on my knees, and I didn't remember falling. I was cold, so cold. There was nothing for me. I was an insignificant thing, beside that mind. How could I think to call myself an equal? How could I do anything but crawl to her and beg to be forgiven? My insolence was intolerable.
I began to crawl to her, on hands and knees. It seemed like the right thing to do. I had to beg her forgiveness. I needed to be forgiven. How else did you approach a goddess but on bended knee?
No. Something was wrong. But what? I should ask the goddess to forgive me. I should worship her, do anything she asked. No. No.
"No." I whispered it. "No."
"Come to me, my child." Her voice was like spring after a long winter. It opened me up inside. It made me feel warm and welcome.
She held out pale arms to me. The goddess would let me embrace her. Wondrous. Why was I cowering on the floor? Why didn't I run to her?
"No." I slammed my hands into the stone. It stung, but not enough. "No!" I smashed my fist into the floor. My whole arm tingled and went numb. "NO!" I pounded my fists into the rock over and over until they bled. Pain was sharp, real, mine. I screamed, "Get out of my mind! You bitch!"
I crouched on the floor, panting, cradling my hands against my stomach. My pulse was jumping in my throat. I couldn't breathe past it. Anger washed through me, clean and sharp-edged. It chased the last shadow of Nikolaos's mind away.
I glared up at her. Anger, and behind that terror. Nikolaos had washed over my mind like the ocean in a seashell, filled me up and emptied me out. She might have to drive me crazy to break me, but she could do it if she wanted to. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do to protect myself.
She stared down at me and laughed, that wondrous wind chime of a laugh. "Oh, we have found something the animator fears. Yes, we have." Her voice was lilting and pleasant. A child bride again.
Nikolaos knelt in front of me, sweeping the sky-blue dress under her knees. Ladylike. She bent at the waist so she could look me in the eyes. "How old am I, animator?"
I was starting to shake with reaction, shock. My teeth chattered like I was freezing to death, and maybe I was. My voice squeezed out between my teeth and the tight jerk of my jaw. "A thousand," I said. "Maybe more."
"You were right, Jean-Claude. She is good." She pressed her face nearly into mine. I wanted to push her away, but more than anything, I didn't want her to touch me.
She laughed again, high and wild, heartrendingly pure. If I hadn't been hurting so badly, I might have cried, or spit in her face.
"Good, animator, we understand each other. You do what we want, or I will peel your mind away like the layers of an onion." She breathed against my face, voice dropping to a whisper. A child's whisper with an edge of giggling to it. "You do believe I can do that, don't you?"
I wanted to spit in that smooth, pale face, but I was afraid of what she would do to me. A drop of sweat ran slowly down my face. I wanted to promise her anything, anything, if she would never touch me again. Nikolaos didn't have to bespell me; all she had had to do was terrify me. The fear would control me. It was what she was counting on. I could not let that happen.
"Get ... out ... of ... my ... face," I said.
She laughed. Her breath was warm and smelled like peppermint. Breath mints. But underneath the clean, modern smell, very faint, was the scent of fresh blood. Old death. Recent murder.
I wasn't shivering anymore. I said, "Your breath smells like blood."
She jerked back, a hand going to her lips. It was such a human gesture that I laughed. Her dress brushed my face as she stood. One small, slippered foot kicked me in the chest.
The force tumbled me backwards, sharp pain, no air. For the second time that night, I couldn't breathe. I lay flat on my stomach, gasping, swallowing past the pain. I hadn't heard anything break. Something should have broken.
The voice thudded over me, hot enough to scald. "Get her out of here before I kill her myself."
The pain faded to a sharp ache. Air burned going down. My chest was tight, like I'd swallowed lead.
"Stay where you are, Jean."
Jean-Claude was standing away from the wall, halfway to me. Nikolaos commanded him to stillness with one small, pale hand.
"Can you hear me, animator?"
"Yes." My voice was strangled. I couldn't get enough air to talk.
"Did I break something?" Her voice rose upward like a small bird.
I coughed, trying to clear my throat, but it hurt. I huddled around my chest while the ache faded. "No."
"Pity. But I suppose that would have slowed things down, or made you useless to us." She seemed to think about the last as if that had had possibilities. What would they have done to me if something had been broken? I didn't want to know.
"The police are aware of only four vampire murders. There have been six more."
I breathed in carefully. "Why not tell the police?"
"My dear animator, there are many among us who do not trust the human laws. We know how equal human justice is for the undead." She smiled, and again there should have been a dimple. "Jean-Claude was the fifth most powerful vampire in this city. Now he is the third."
I stared up at her, waiting for her to laugh, to say it was a joke. She continued to smile, the same exact smile, like a piece of wax. Were they playing me for a fool? "Something has killed two master vampires? Stronger than"-I had to swallow before continuing-"Jean-Claude?"
Her smile widened, flashing a distinct glimpse of fang. "You do grasp the situation quickly. I will give you that. And perhaps that will make Jean-Claude's punishment less-severe. He recommended you to us, did you know that?"
I shook my head and glanced at him. He had not moved, not even to breathe. Only his eyes looked at me. Dark blue like midnight skies, almost fever-bright. He hadn't fed yet. Why wouldn't she let him feed?
"Why is he being punished?"
"Are you worried about him?" Her voice held a mockery of surprise. "My, my, my, aren't you angry that he brought you into this?"
I stared at him for a moment. I knew then what I saw in his eyes. It was fear. He was afraid of Nikolaos. And I knew if I had any ally in this room, it was him. Fear will bind you closer than love, or hate, and it works a hell of a lot quicker. "No," I said.
"No, no." She minced the word, crying it up and down, a child's imitation. "Fine." Her voice was suddenly lower, grownup, shimmering with heat, angry. "We will give you a gift, animator. We have a witness to the second murder. He saw Lucas die. He will tell you everything he saw, won't he, Zachary?" She smiled at the sandy-haired man.
Zachary nodded. He stepped from around the chair and swept a low bow towards me. His lips were too thin for his face, his smile crooked. Yet, the ice-green eyes stayed with me. I had seen that face before, but where?
He strode to a small door. I hadn't seen it before. It was hidden in the flickering shadows of the torches, but still I should have noticed. I glanced at Nikolaos, and she nodded at me, a smile curving her lips.
She had hidden the door from me without me knowing it. I tried to stand, pushing myself up with my hands. Mistake. I gasped and stood as quickly as I dared. The hands were already stiff with bruises and scrapes. If I lived until morning, I was going to be one sore puppy.
Zachary opened the door with a flourish, like a magician drawing a curtain. A man stood in the door. He was dressed in the remains of a business suit. A slender figure, a little thick around the middle, too many beers, too little exercise. He was maybe thirty.
"Come," Zachary said.
The man moved out into the room. His eyes were round with fear. A pinkie ring winked in the firelight. He stank of fear and death.
He was still tanned, eyes still full. He could pass for human better than any vampire in the room, but he was more a corpse than any of them. It was just a matter of time. I raised the dead for a living. I knew a zombie when I saw one.
"Do you remember Nikolaos?" Zachary asked.
The zombie's human eyes grew large, and the color drained from his face. Damn, he looked human. "Yes."
"You will answer Nikolaos's questions, do you understand that?"
"I understand." His forehead wrinkled as if he were concentrating on something, something he couldn't quite remember.
"He would not answer our questions before. Would you?" Nikolaos said.
The zombie shook its head, eyes staring at her with a sort of fearful fascination. Birds must look at snakes that way.
"We tortured him, but he was most stubborn. Then before we could continue our work, he hung himself. We really should have taken his belt away." She sounded wistful, pouty. The zombie was staring at her. "I ... hung myself. I don't understand. I ... "
"He doesn't know?" I asked.
Zachary smiled. "No, he doesn't. Isn't it fabulous? You know how hard it is to make one so human, that he forgets he has died."
I knew. It meant somebody had a lot of power. Zachary was staring at the confused undead like he was a work of art. Precious.
"You raised him?" I asked.
Nikolaos said, "Did you not recognize a fellow animator?" She laughed, lightly, a breeze of far-off bells.
I glanced at Zachary's face. He was staring at me, eyes memorizing me. Face blank, with a thread of something making the skin under one eye jump. Anger, fear? Then he smiled at me, brilliant, echoing. Again there was that shock of recognition.
"Ask your question, Nikolaos. He has to answer now."
"Is that true?" she asked me.
I hesitated, surprised that she had turned to me. "Yes."
"Who killed the vampire, Lucas?"
He stared at her, face crumbling. His breathing was shallow and too fast.
"Why doesn't he answer me?"
"The question is too complex," Zachary explained. "He may not remember who Lucas is."
"Then you ask him the questions, and I expect him to answer." Her voice was warm with threat.
Zachary turned with a flourish, spreading arms wide. "Ladies and gentlemen, behold, the undead." He grinned at his own joke. No one else even smiled. I didn't get it either.
"Did you see a vampire murdered?"
The zombie nodded. "Yes."
"How was he murdered?"
"Heart torn out, head cut off." His voice was paper-thin with fear.
"Who tore out his heart?"
The zombie started to shake his head over and over, quick, jerky movements. "Don't know, don't know."
"Ask him what killed the vampire," I said.
Zachary shot me a look. His eyes were green glass. Bones stood out in his face. Rage sculpted him into a skeleton with canvas skin.
"This is my zombie, my business!"
"Zachary," Nikolaos said.
He turned to her, movements stiff.
"It is a good question. A reasonable question." Her voice was low, calm. No one was fooled. Hell must be full of voices like that. Deadly, but oh so reasonable.
"Ask her question, Zachary."
He turned back to the zombie, hands balled into fists. I didn't understand where the anger was coming from. "What killed the vampire?"
"Don't understand." The voice held a knife's edge of panic.
"What sort of creature tore out the heart? Was it a human?"
"Was it another vampire?"
This was why zombies still didn't do well in court. You had to lead them by the hand, so to speak, to get answers. Lawyers accused you of leading the witness. Which was true, but it didn't mean the zombie was lying.
"Then what killed the vampire?"
Again that head shaking, back and forth, back and forth. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He seemed to be choking on the words, as if someone had stuffed paper down his throat. "Can't!"
"What do you mean, can't?" Zachary screamed it at him and slapped him across the face. The zombie threw up its arms to cover its head. "You ... will ... answer ... me." Each word was punctuated with a slap.
The zombie fell to its knees and started to cry. "Can't!"
"Answer me, damn you!" He kicked the zombie, and it collapsed to the ground, rolling into a tight ball.
"Stop it" I walked towards them. "Stop it!"
He kicked the zombie one last time and turned on me. "It's my zombie! I can do what I want with him."
"That used to be a human being. It deserves more respect than this." I knelt by the crying zombie. I felt Zachary looming over me.
Nickolaos said, "Leave her alone, for now."
He stood there like an angry shadow pressing over my back. I touched the zombie's arm. It flinched. "It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you." Not going to hurt you. He had killed himself to escape. But not even the grave was sanctuary enough. Before tonight I would have said no animator would have raised the dead for such a purpose. Sometimes the world is a worse place than I want to know about.
I had to peel the zombie's hands from his face, then turn the face up to stare at me. One look was enough. Dark eyes were incredibly wide, fear, such fear. A thin line of spittle oozed from his mouth.
I shook my head and stood. "You've broken him."
"Damn right. No damn zombie is going to make a fool of me. He'll answer the questions."
I whirled to stare at the man's angry eyes. "Don't you understand? You've broken his mind."
"Zombies don't have minds."
"That's right, they don't. All they have, and for a very short time, is the memory of what they were. If you treat them well, they can retain their personalities for maybe a week, a little more, but this ... " I pointed at the zombie, then spoke to Nikolaos. "The treatment will speed the process. Shock will destroy it."
"What are you saying, animator?"
"This sadist"-I jabbed a thumb at Zachary-"has destroyed the zombie's mind. It won't be answering any more questions. Not for anyone, not ever."
Nikolaos turned like a pale storm. Her eyes were blue glass. Her words filled the room with a soft burning. "You arrogant ... " A tremor ran through her body, from small, slippered feet to long white-blonde hair. I waited for the wooden chair to catch fire and blaze from the fine heat of her anger.
The anger stripped away the child puppet. Bones stood out against white paper skin. Hands grabbed at the air, clawed and straining. One hand dug into the arm of her chair. The wood whined, then cracked. The sound echoed against the stone walls. Her voice burned along our skin. "Get out of here before I kill you. Take the woman and see her safely back to her car. If you fail me again, large or small, I will tear your throat out, and my children will bathe in a shower of your blood."
Nicely graphic; a little melodramatic, but nicely graphic. I didn't say it out loud. Hell, I wasn't even breathing. Any movement might attract her. All she needed was an excuse.
Zachary seemed to sense it as well. He bowed, eyes never leaving her face. Then without a word he turned and began to walk towards the small door. His movements were unhurried, as if death wasn't staring holes in his back. He paused at the open door and made a motion as if to escort me through the door. I glanced at Jean-Claude, still standing where she had left him. I had not asked about Catherine's safety; there had been no opportunity. Things were happening too fast. I opened my mouth; maybe Jean-Claude guessed.
He silenced me with a wave of a slender, pale hand. The hand seemed as white as the lace on his shirt. His eye sockets were filled with blue flame. The long, black hair floated around his suddenly death-pale face. His humanity was folding away. His power flared across my skin, raising the hairs on my arms. I hugged myself, staring at the creature that had been Jean-Claude.
"Run!" He screamed it at me, voice slashing into me. I should have been bleeding from it. I hesitated and caught sight of Nikolaos. She was levitating, ever so slowly, upward. Milkweed hair danced around her skeleton head. She raised a clawed hand. Bones and veins were caught in the amber of her skin.
Jean-Claude whirled, claw-hand slashing out at me. Something slammed me into the wall and half out the door. Zachary caught my arm and pulled me through.
I twisted free of him. The door thudded closed in my face. I whispered, "Sweet Jesus."
Zachary was at the foot of a narrow stairway, leading up. He held his hand out to me. His face was slick with sweat. "Please!" He fluttered his hand at me like a trapped bird.
A smell oozed from under the door. It was the smell of rotting corpses. The smell of bloated bodies, of skin cracked and ripening in the sun, of blood slowed and rotting in quiet veins. I gagged and backed away.
"Oh, God," Zachary whispered. He put one hand over his mouth and nose, the other still held out to me.
I ignored his hand but stood beside him on the stairs. He opened his mouth to say something, but the door creaked. The wood shook and hammered, like a giant wind was beating against it. Wind whooshed from under the door. My hair streamed in a tornado wind. We backed up a few steps while the heavy wooden door fluttered and kicked against a wind that couldn't be there. A storm indoors? The sick smell of rotting flesh bled into the wind. We looked at each other. There was that moment of recognition of us against them, or it. We turned and started running like we were attached by wires.
There couldn't be a storm behind that door. There couldn't be a wind chasing us up the narrow stone stairs. There were no rotting corpses in that room. Or were there? God, I didn't want to know. I did not want to know.
An explosion ripped up the stairs. The wind smashed us down like toys. The door had blown. I scrambled on all fours trying to get away, just get away. Zachary got to his feet, dragging me up by one arm. We ran.
There was a howling from behind us, out of sight. The wind roared up behind us. My hair streamed over my face, blinding me. Zachary's hand grabbed mine and held on. The walls were smooth, the stairs slick stone, there was nothing to hold on to. We flattened ourselves against the stairs and hung onto each other.
"Anita." Jean-Claude's velvet voice whispered. "Anita." I fought to look up into the wind, blinking to see. There was nothing there. "Anita." The wind was calling my name. "Anita." Something glimmered, blue fire. Two points of blue flame, hung on the wind. Eyes-were those Jean-Claude's eyes? Was he dead?
The blue flames began to float downward. The wind didn't touch them. I screamed, "Zachary!" But the sound was swallowed in the roar of the wind. Did he see it, too, or was I going crazy?
The blue flames came lower and lower, and suddenly I didn't want it to touch me, just as suddenly I knew that was what it was going to do. Something told me that that would be a very bad thing.
I tore loose from Zachary. He screamed something at me, but the wind roared and screeched between the narrow walls like a roller coaster gone mad. There was no other sound. I started to crawl up the stairs, wind beating against me, trying to crush me down. There was one other sound, Jean-Claude's voice in my head. "Forgive me."
The blue lights were suddenly in front of my face. I flattened myself against a wall, hitting at the fire. My hands passed through the burning. It wasn't there.
I screamed, "Leave me alone!"
The fire melted through my hands like they weren't there, and into my eyes. The world was blue glass, silent, nothing, blue ice. A whisper: "Run, run." I was sitting on the stairs again, blinking into the wind. Zachary was staring at me.
The wind stopped like someone had turned a switch. The silence was deafening. My breath was coming in short gasps. I had no pulse. I couldn't feel my heartbeat. All I could hear was my breathing, too loud, too shallow. I finally knew what they meant by breathless with fear.
Zachary's voice was hoarse and too loud in the silence. I think he was whispering, but it came out like a shout. "Your eyes, they glowed blue!"
I whispered, "Hush, shhh." I didn't understand why, but someone must not hear what he had just said, must not know what had happened. My life depended on it. There was no more whispering in my head, but the last bit of advice had been good. Run. Running sounded very good.
The silence was dangerous. It meant the fight was over, and the winner could turn its attention to other things. I did not want to be one of those things.
I stood and offered a hand to Zachary. He looked puzzled but took it, standing. I pulled him up the steps and started running. I had to get away, had to, or I would die in this place, tonight, now. I knew that with a surety that left no room for questions, no time for hesitation. I was running for my life. I would die, if Nikolaos saw me now. I would die.
And I would never know why.
Either Zachary felt the panic too, or he thought I knew something he didn't, because he ran with me. When one of us stumbled, the other pulled him, or her, to their feet, and we ran. We ran until acid burned the muscles in my legs, and my chest squeezed into a hard ache for lack of air.
This was why I jogged, so I could run like hell when something was chasing me. Thinner thighs was not incentive enough. But this was, running when you had to, running for your life. The silence was heavy, almost touchable. It seemed to flow up the stairs, as if searching for something. The silence chased us as surely as the wind had.
The trouble with running up stairs, if you've ever had a knee injury, is that you can't do it forever. Give me a flat surface, and I can run for hours. Put me on an incline, and my knees give me fits. It started as an ache, but it didn't take long to become a sharp, grinding pain. Each step began to scream up my leg, until the entire leg pulsed with it.
The knee began to pop as it moved, an audible sound. That was a bad sign. The knee was threatening to go out on me. If it popped out of joint, I'd be crippled here on the stairs with the silence breathing around me. Nikolaos would find me and kill me. Why was I so sure of that? No answer, but I knew it, knew it with every pull of air. I didn't argue with the feeling.
I slowed and rested on the steps, stretching out the muscles in my legs. Refusing to gasp as the muscles on my bad leg twitched. I would stretch it out and feel better. The pain wouldn't go away, I'd abused it too much for that, but I would be able to walk without the knee betraying me.
Zachary collapsed on the stairs, obviously not a jogger. His muscles would tighten up if he didn't keep moving. Maybe he knew that. Maybe he didn't care.
I stretched my arms against the wall until my shoulders stretched out. Just something familiar to do while I waited for the knee to calm down. Something to do, while I listened for-what? Something heavy and sliding, something ancient, long dead.
Sounds from above, higher up the stairs. I froze pressed against the wall, palms flat against the cool stone. What now? What more? Surely, to God, it would be dawn soon.
Zachary stood and turned to face up the stairs. I stood with my back to the wall, so I could see up as well as down. I didn't want something sneaking up on me from below while I was looking upstairs. I wanted my gun. It was locked in my trunk, where it was doing me a hell of a lot of good.
We were standing just below a landing, a turn in the stairs. There have been times when I wished I could see around corners. This was one of them. The scrape of cloth against stone, the rub of shoes.
The man who walked around the corner was human, surprise, surprise. His neck was even unmarked. Cotton-white hair was shaved close to his head. The muscles in his neck bulged. His biceps were bigger around than my waist. My waist is kinda small, but his arms were still, ah, impressive. He was at least six-three, and there wasn't enough fat on him to grease a cake pan.
His eyes were the crystalline paleness of January skies, a distant, icy, blue. He was also the first bodybuilder I'd ever seen who didn't have a tan. All that rippling muscle was done in white, like Moby Dick. A black mesh tank top showed off every inch of his massive chest. Black jogging shorts flared around the swell of his legs. He had had to cut them up the sides to slip them over the rock bulge of his thighs.
I whispered, "Jesus, how much do you bench press?"
He smiled, close-lipped. He spoke with the barest movement of lips, never giving a glimpse of his incisors. "Four hundred."
I gave a low whistle. And said what he wanted me to say: "Impressive."
He smiled, careful not to show teeth. He was trying to play the vampire. Such a careful act being wasted on me. Should I tell him that he screamed human? Naw, he might break me over his thigh like kindling.
"This is Winter," Zachary said. The name was too perfect to be real, like a 1940s movie star.
"What is happening?" he asked.
"Our master and Jean-Claude are fighting," Zachary said.
He drew a deep, sighing breath. His eyes widened just a bit. "Jean-Claude?" He made it sound like a question.
Zachary nodded and smiled. "Yes, he's been holding out."
"Who are you?" he asked.
I hesitated; Zachary shrugged. "Anita Blake."
He smiled then, flashing nice normal teeth at last. "You're The Executioner?"
He laughed. The sound echoed between the stone walls. The silence seemed to tighten around us. The laughter stopped abruptly, a dew of sweat on his lip. Winter felt it and feared it. His voice came low, almost a whisper, as if he was afraid of being overheard. "You aren't big enough to be The Executioner."
I shrugged. "It disappoints me, too, sometimes."
He smiled, almost laughed again, but swallowed it. His eyes were shiny.
"Let's all get out of here," Zachary said.
I was with him.
"I was sent to check on Nikolaos," Winter said.
The silence pulsed with the name. A bead of sweat dripped down his face. Important safety tip: never say the name of an angry master vampire when they are within "hearing" distance.
"She can take care of herself," Zachary whispered, but the sound echoed anyway.
"Nooo," I said.
Zachary glared at me and I shrugged. Sometimes I just can't help myself.
Winter stared at me, face as impersonal as carved marble; only his eyes trembled. Mr. Macho. "Come," he said. He turned without waiting to see if we would follow. We followed.
I would have followed him anywhere as long as he went upstairs. All I knew was that nothing, absolutely nothing, could get me back down those stairs. Not willingly. Of course, there are always other options. I glanced up at Winter's broad back. Yeah, if you don't want to do it willingly, there are always other options.
The stairs opened into a square chamber. An electric bulb dangled from the ceiling. I had never thought one dim electric light could be beautiful, but it was. A sign that we were leaving the underground chamber of horrors behind and approaching the real world. I was ready to go home.
There were two doors leading out of the stone room, one straight ahead and one to the right. Music floated through the one in front of us. High, bright circus music. The door opened, and the music boiled around us. There was a glimpse of bright colors and hundreds of people milling about. A sign flashed, "Fun house." A carnival midway, inside a building. I knew where I was. Circus of the Damned.
The city's most powerful vampires slept under the Circus. It was something to remember.
The door started to shut, dimming the music, cutting off the bright signs. I looked into the eyes of a teenage girl, who was straining to see around the doorway. The door clicked shut.
A man leaned against the door. He was tall and slender, dressed like a riverboat gambler. Royal purple coat, lace at the neck and down the front, straight black pants and boots. A straight-brimmed hat shaded his face, and a gold mask covered everything but his mouth and chin. Dark eyes stared at me through the gold mask.
His tongue danced over his lips and teeth: fangs, a vampire. Why didn't that surprise me?
"I was afraid I would miss you, Executioner." His voice had a Southern thickness.
Winter moved to stand between us. The vampire laughed, a rich barking sound. "The muscle man here thinks he can protect you. Shall I tear him to pieces to prove him wrong?"
"That won't be necessary," I said. Zachary moved up to stand beside me.
"Do you recognize my voice?" the vampire asked.
I shook my head.
"It has been two years. I didn't know until this business came up that you were The Executioner. I thought you died."
"Can we cut to the chase here? Who are you and what do you want?"
"So eager, so impatient, so human." He raised gloved hands and took off his hat. Short, auburn hair framed the gold mask.
"Please don't do this," Zachary said. "The master has ordered me to see the woman safely to her car."
"I don't intend to harm a hair on her head-tonight." The gloves lifted the mask away. The left side of the face was scarred, pitted, melted away. Only his brown eye was still whole and alive, rolling in a circle of pinkish-white scar tissue. Acid burns look like that. Except it hadn't been acid. It had been Holy Water.
I remembered his body pinning me to the ground. His teeth tearing at my arm while I tried to keep him off my throat. The clean sharp snap of bone where he bit through. My screams. His hand forcing my head back. Him rearing to strike. Helpless. He missed the neck; I never knew why. Teeth sank around my collarbone, snapped it. He lapped up my blood like a cat with cream. I lay under his weight listening to him lap up my blood. The broken bones didn't hurt yet; shock. I was beginning not to hurt, not to be afraid. I was beginning to die.
My right hand reached out in the grass and touched something smooth-glass. A vial of Holy Water that had been thrown out of my bag, scattered by the half-human servants. The vampire never looked at me. His face was pressed over the wound. His tongue was exploring the hole he'd made. His teeth grated along the naked bone, and I screamed.
He laughed into my shoulder, laughed while he killed me. I flicked the lid open on the vial and splashed his face. Flesh boiled. His skin popped and bubbled. He knelt over me, clutching his face and shrieking.
I thought he had been trapped in the house when it burned down. I had wanted him dead, wished him dead. I had wished that memory away, pushed it back. Now here he stood, my favorite nightmare come to life.
"What, no scream of horror? No gasp of fright? You disappoint me, Executioner. Don't you admire your own handiwork?"
My voice came out strangled, hushed. "I thought you died."
"Now ya know different. And now I know you're alive, too. How cosy."
He smiled, and the muscles on his scarred cheek pulled the smile to one side, making it a grimace. Even vampires can't heal everything. "Eternity, Executioner, eternity like this." He caressed the scars with a gloved hand.
"What do you want?"
"Be brave, little girl, be brave as you want to be. I can feel your fear. I want to see the scars I gave you, see that you remember me, like I remember you."
"I remember you."
"Scars, girl, show me the scars."
"I show you the scars, then what?"
"Then you go home, or wherever you're going. The master has given strict orders you are not be harmed until after you do your job for us."
He smiled, a broad glistening expanse of teeth. "Then, I hunt you down, and I pay you back for this." He touched his face. "Come, girl, don't be shy, I seen it all before. I tasted your blood. Show me the scars, and the muscle man won't have to die proving how strong he is."
I glanced at Winter. Massive fists were crossed over his chest. His spine nearly vibrated with readiness. The vampire was right; Winter would die trying. I pushed the ripped sleeve above the elbow. A mound of scar tissue decorated the bend in my arm; scars dribbled down from it, like liquid, crisscrossing and flowing down the outer edge of my arm. The cross-shaped burn took up the only clear space on the inside of my forearm.
"I didn't think you'd ever use that arm again, after the way I tore into it."
"Physical therapy is a wonderful thing."
"Ain't no physical therapy gonna help me."
"No," I said. The first button was missing on my blouse. One more and I spread my shirt back to expose the collarbone. Scars ridged it, crawled over it. It looked real attractive in a bathing suit.
"Good," the vampire said. "You smell like cold sweat when you think of me, little girl. I was hoping I haunted you the way you haunted me."
"There is a difference, you know."
"And what might that be?"
"You were trying to kill me. I was defending myself."
"And why had you come to our house? To put stakes through our hearts. You came to our house to kill us. We didn't go hunting for you."
"But you did go hunting for twenty-three other people. That's a lot of people. Your group had to be stopped."
"Who appointed you God? Who made you our executioner?"
I took a deep breath. It was steady, didn't tremble. Brownie point for me. "The police."
"Bah." He spit on the floor. Very appealing. "You work real hard, girl. You find the murderer, then we'll finish up."
"May I go now?"
"By all means. You're safe tonight, because the master says so, but that will change."
Zachary said, "Out the side door." He walked nearly backwards watching the vampire as we moved away. Winter stayed behind, guarding our backs. Idiot.
Zachary opened the door. The night was hot and sticky. Summer wind slapped against my face, humid, and close, and beautiful.
The vampire called, "Remember the name Valentine, 'cause you'll be hearing from me."
Zachary and I walked out the door. It clanged shut behind us. There was no handle on the outside, no way to open it. A one way ticket, out. Out sounded just fine.
We started to walk. "You got a gun with silver bullets in it?" he asked.
"I'd start carrying it if I were you."
"Silver bullets won't kill him."
"But it'll slow him down."
"Yeah." We walked for a few minutes in silence. The warm summer night seemed to slide around us, hold us in sticky, curious hands.
"What I need is a shotgun."
He looked at me. "You going to carry a shotgun with you day after day?"
"Sawed off, it would fit under a coat."
"In the middle of a Missouri summer, you'd melt. Why not a machine gun, or a flamethrower, while you're at it?"
"Machine gun has too wide a spread range. You may hit innocent people. Flamethrower's bulky. Messy, too."
He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. "You've used a flamethrower on vampires before?"
"No, but I saw it used."
"My god." He stared off into space for a moment, then asked, "Did it work?"
"Like a charm; messy, though. And it burned the house down around us. I thought it was a little extreme."
"I'll bet." We started walking again. "You must hate vampires."
"I don't hate them."
"Then why do you kill them?"
"Because it's my job, and I'm good at it." We turned a corner, and I could see the parking lot where I had left my car. It seemed like I had parked my car days ago. My watch said hours. It was a little like jet lag, but instead of crossing time zones, you crossed events. So many traumatic events and your time sense screws up. Too much happening in too short a space of time.
"I'm your daytime contact. If you need anything, or want to give a message, here's my number." He shoved a matchbook into my hand.
I glanced at the matchbook. It read "Circus of the Damned" bleeding red onto a shiny black background. I shoved it in my jeans pocket.
My gun was lying there in my trunk. I slipped into the shoulder rig, not caring that I had no jacket to cover it. A gun out in plain sight attracts attention, but most people leave you alone. They often even start running, clearing a path before you. It made chases very convenient.
Zachary waited until I was sitting in my car. He leaned into the open door. "It can't just be a job, Anita. There's got to be a better reason than that."
I glanced down at my lap and started the car. I looked up into his pale eyes. "I'm afraid of them. It is a very natural human trait to destroy that which frightens us."
"Most people spend their lives avoiding things they fear. You run after them. That's crazy."
He had a point. I closed the door and left him standing in the hot dark. I raised the dead and laid the undead to rest. It was what I did. Who I was. If I ever started questioning my motives, I would stop killing vampires. Simple as that.
I wasn't questioning my motives tonight, so I was still a vampire slayer, still the name they had given me. I was The Executioner.
Dawn slid across the sky like a curtain of light. The morning star glittered like a diamond chip against the easy flow of light.
I had seen two sunrises in as many days. I was beginning to feel grumpy. The trick would be to decide whom to be grumpy at, and what to do about it. Right now all I wanted was to sleep. The rest could wait, would have to wait. I had been running on fear, adrenaline, and stubbornness for hours. In the quiet hush of the car I could feel my body. It was not happy.
It hurt to grip the wheel, hurt to turn it. The bloody scrapes on my hands looked a lot worse than they were, I hoped. My whole body felt stiff. Everybody underrates bruises. They hurt. They would hurt a lot more after I slept on them. There is nothing like waking up the morning after a good beating. It's like a hangover that covers your entire body.
The corridor of my apartment building was hushed. The whir of the air conditioner breathed in the silence. I could almost feel all the people asleep behind the doors. I had an urge to press my ear to one of the doors and see if I could hear my neighbors breathing. So quiet. The hour after dawn is the most private of all. It is a time to be alone and enjoy the silence.
The only hour more hushed is three a.m. and I am not a fan of three a.m.
I had my keys in my hand, had almost touched the door, when I realized it was ajar. A tiny crack, almost closed, but not. I moved to the right of the door and pressed my back against the wall. Had they heard the keys jingling? Who was inside? Adrenaline was flowing like fine champagne. I was alert to every shadow, the way the light fell. My body was in emergency mode, and I hoped to God I didn't need it.
I drew my gun and leaned against the wall. Now what? There was no sound from inside the apartment, nothing. It could be more vampires, but it was nearly true dawn. It wouldn't be vampires. Who else would break into my apartment? I took a deep breath and let it out. I didn't know. Didn't have the faintest idea. You'd think I'd get used to not knowing what the hell is going on, but I never do. It just makes me grumpy, and a little scared.
I had several choices. I could leave and call the police, not a bad choice. But what could they do that I couldn't, except walk in and get killed in my place? That was unacceptable. I could wait in the corridor until whoever it was got curious. That could take a while, and the apartment might be empty. I'd feel pretty stupid standing out here for hours, gun trained on an empty apartment. I was tired, and I wanted to go to bed. Dammit!
I could always just go in, gun blazing. Naw. I could push the door open and be lying on the floor and shoot anyone inside. If they had a gun. If there was anyone inside.
The smart thing would be to outwait them, but I was tired. The adrenaline rush was fading under the frustration of too many choices. There comes a point when you just get tired. I didn't think I could stand out here in the air-conditioned silence and stay alert. I wouldn't fall asleep standing up, but it was a thought. And another hour would see my neighbors up and about, maybe caught in the crossfire. Unacceptable. Whatever was going to happen needed to happen now.
Decision made. Good. Nothing like fear to wash your mind clean. I moved as far from the door as I could and crossed over, gun trained on the door. I moved along the left-hand wall towards the hinge side of the door. It opened in. Just give it a push flat against the wall, simple. Right.
I crouched down on one knee, my shoulders hunched as if I could draw my head down like a turtle. I was betting that any gun would hit above me, chest-high. Crouched down, I was a lot shorter than chest-high.
I shoved the door open with my left hand and hugged the doorsill. It worked like a charm. My gun was pointing at the bad guy's chest. Except his hands were already in the air, and he was smiling at me.
"Don't shoot," he said. "It's Edward."
I knelt there staring at him; anger rose like a warm tide. "You bastard. You knew I was out here."
He steepled his fingers. "I heard the keys."
I stood, eyes searching the room. Edward had moved my white overstuffed chair to face the door. Nothing else seemed to be moved.
"I assure you, Anita, I am quite alone."
"That I believe. Why didn't you call out to me?"
"I wanted to see if you were still good. I could have blown you away when you hesitated in front of the door, with your keys jingling so nicely."
I shut the door behind me and locked it, though truthfully with Edward inside I might have been safer locking myself out rather than in. He was not an imposing man, not frightening, if you didn't know him. He was five-eight, slender, blond, blue-eyed, charming. But if I was The Executioner, he was Death itself. He was the person I had seen use a flamethrower.
I had worked with him before, and heaven knows you felt safe with him. He carried more firepower than Rambo, but he was a little too careless of innocent bystanders. He began life as a hit man. That much the police knew. I think humans became too easy so he switched to vampires and lycanthropes. And I knew that if a time came where it was more expedient to kill me than to be my "friend," he would do it. Edward had no conscience. It made him the perfect killer.
"I've been up all bloody night, Edward. I'm not in the mood for your games."
"How hurt are you?"
I shrugged and winced. "The hands are sore, bruises mostly. I'm all right."
"Your night secretary said you were out at a bachelorette party." He grinned at me, eyes sparkling. "It must have been some party-"
"I ran into a vampire you might know."
He raised his yellow eyebrows and made a silent "Oh" with his lips.
"Remember the house you nearly roasted down around us?"
"About two years ago. We killed six vampires, and two human servants."
I walked past him and flopped onto the couch. "We missed one."
"No, we didn't." His voice was very precise. Edward at his most dangerous.
I looked at the carefully cut back of his head. "Trust me on this one, Edward. He damn near killed me tonight." Which was a partial truth, also known as a lie. If the vampires didn't want me to tell the police, they certainly didn't want Death to know. Edward was a whole lot more dangerous to them than the police.
"The one who nearly tore me to pieces. He calls himself Valentine. He's still wearing the acid scars I gave him."
Edward came to sit beside me on the couch. He kept to one end, a careful distance. "Tell me." His eyes were intense on my face.
I looked away. "There isn't much left to tell."
"You're lying, Anita. Why?"
I stared at him, anger coming in a rush. I hate to be caught in a lie. "There have been some vampires murdered down along the river. How long have you been in town, Edward?"
He smiled then, though at what I wasn't sure. "Not long. I heard a rumor that you got to meet the city's head vampire tonight."
I couldn't stop it. My mouth fell open; the surprise was too much to hide. "How the hell do you know that?"
He gave a graceful shrug. "I have my sources."
"No vampire would talk to you, not willingly."
Again that shrug that said everything and nothing at all.
"What have you done tonight, Edward?"
"What have you done tonight, Anita?"
Touchy, Mexican standoff, whatever. "Why have you come to me then? What do you want?"
"I want the location of the master vampire. The daytime resting place."
I had recovered enough so that my face was bland, no surprise here. "How would I know that?"
"Do you know?"
"No." I stood up. "I'm tired, and I want to go to bed. If there's nothing else?"
He stood, too, still smiling, like he knew I had lied. "I'll be in touch. If you do happen to run across the information I need ... " He let the sentence trail off and started for the door.
He half-turned to me.
"Do you have a sawed-off shotgun?"
His eyebrows went up again. "I could get one for you."
"No, a gift."
"I can't tell you."
"But you do know?"
"Edward ... "
"How deep are you in, Anita?"
"Eye level and sinking fast."
"I could help you."
"Would helping you allow me to kill more vampires?"
He grinned at me, brilliant, heart-stopping. The grin was his very best harmless good of boy smile. I could never decide whether the smile was real or just another mask. Would the real Edward please stand up? Probably not.
"I enjoy hunting vampires. Let me in on it if you can."
He paused with a hand on the doorknob. "I hope I have more luck with my other sources than I did with you."
"What happens if you can't find the location from someone else?"
"Why, I come back."
"And you will tell me what I want to know. Won't you?" He was still grinning at me, charming, boyish. He was also talking about torturing me if he had to.
I swallowed, hard. "Give me a few days, Edward, and I might have your information."
"Good. I'll bring the shotgun later today. If you're not home, I'll leave it on the kitchen table."
I didn't ask how he'd get inside if I wasn't home. He would only have smiled or laughed. Locks weren't much of a deterrent to Edward. "Thank you. For the shotgun, I mean."
"My pleasure, Anita. Until tomorrow." He stepped out the door, and it closed behind him.
Great. Vampires, now Edward. The day was about fifteen minutes old. Not a very promising beginning. I locked the door, for what good it would do me, and went to bed. The Browning HiPower was in its second home, a modified holster strapped to the headboard of my bed. The crucifix was cool metal around my neck. I was as safe as I was going to be and almost too tired to care.
I took one more thing to bed with me, a stuffed toy penguin named Sigmund. I don't sleep with him often, just every once in a while after someone tries to kill me. Everyone has their weaknesses. Some people smoke. I collect stuffed penguins. If you won't tell, I won't.
I stood in the huge stone room where Nikolaos had sat. Only the wooden chair remained, empty, alone. A coffin sat on the floor to one side. Torchlight gleamed off the polished wood. A breeze eased through the room. The torches wavered and threw huge black shadows on the walls. The shadows seemed to move independent of the light. The longer I looked at them, the more I was sure the shadows were too dark, too thick.
I could taste my heart in my throat. My pulse was hammering in my head. I couldn't breathe. Then I realized I was hearing a second heartbeat, like an echo. "Jean-Claude?" The shadows cried, "Jean-Claude," in high whining voices.
I knelt by the coffin and gripped the lid. It was all one piece, and raised on smooth oiled hinges. Blood poured down the sides of the coffin. The blood poured over my legs, splashed on my arms. I screamed and stood, covered in blood. It was still warm. "Jean-Claude!"
A pale hand raised out of the blood, spasmed, and collapsed against the side of the coffin. Jean-Claude's face floated to the top. My hand was reaching out. His heart was fluttering in my head, but he was dead. He was dead! His hand was icy wax. His eyes flew open. The dead hand grabbed my wrist.
"No!" I tried to pull my hand free. I went down on my knees in the cooling blood and screamed, "Let me go!"
He sat up. He was covered in blood. The white shirt dripped with it, like a bloody rag.
He pulled my arm closer to him, and pulled me with it. I braced one hand on the coffin. I would not go to him. I would not go! He bent over my arm, mouth wide, fangs reaching. His heart beat against the shadows like thunder. "Jean-Claude, no!"
He looked up at me, just before he struck. "I had no choice." Blood began to drip down his face from his hair, until his face was a bloody mask. Fangs sank into my arm. I screamed, and woke sitting straight up in bed.
The doorbell was buzzing. I scrambled out of bed, forgetting. I gasped. I had moved too fast for the beating I'd had last night. I ached all over in places I couldn't possibly be bruised. My hands were stiff with dried blood. They felt arthritic.
The doorbell was buzzing continuously as if someone was leaning against it. Whoever it was, was going to get a hug for waking me up. I was sleeping in an oversized shirt. Pulling last night's jeans on was my version of a robe.
I put Sigmund the stuffed penguin back with all the rest. The stuffed toys sat on a small loveseat against the far wall, under the window. Penguins lined the floor around it like a plump fuzzy tide.
It hurt to move. It even felt tight when I breathed. I yelled, "I'm coming." It occurred to me, halfway to the door, that it might be someone unfriendly. I padded back into the bedroom and got my gun. My hand felt stiff and awkward around it. I should have cleaned and bandaged the hands last night. Oh, well.
I knelt behind the chair Edward had moved in front of the door and called, "Who is it?"
"It's Ronnie, Anita. We're supposed to work out this morning."
It was Saturday. I had forgotten. It was always amazing how ordinary life was, even while people were trying to hurt you. I felt like Ronnie should know about last night. Something so extraordinary should touch all my life, but it didn't work that way. When I'd been in the hospital with my arm in traction and tubes running all through me, my stepmother had complained that I wasn't married yet. She's worried that I will be an old maid at the ripe age of twenty-four. Judith is not what you would call a liberated woman.
My family does not cope well with what I do, the chances I take, the injuries. So they ignore it as best they can. Except for my sixteen-year-old stepbrother. Josh thinks I'm cool, neat, whatever word they're using now.
Veronica Sims is different. She's my friend, and she understands. Ronnie is a private detective. We take turns visiting each other in the hospital.
I opened the door and let her in, gun limp at my side. She took it all in and said, "Shit, you look awful."
I smiled. "Well, at least I took like I feel."
She came in and dropped her gym bag in front of the chair. "Can you tell me what happened?" Not a demand, a question. Ronnie understood that not everything could be shared.
"Sorry that I won't be able to work out today."
"Looks like you had all the workout you can handle. Go soak those hands in the sink. I'll make coffee. Okay?"
I nodded and regretted it. Aspirins, aspirins sounded real good right now. I stopped just before I went into the bathroom. "Ronnie?"
"Yes." She stood there in my small kitchen, a measuring cup of fresh coffee beans in one hand. She was five-nine. Sometimes, I forget how tall that is. It amazes people that we can run together. The trick is I set the pace, and I push myself. It's a very good workout.
"I think I have some bagels in the fridge. Could you pop them in the microwave with some cheese?"
She stared at me. "I've known you for three years, and this is the first time I've ever heard you ask for food before ten o'clock."
"Listen, if it's too much trouble, forget it."
"It isn't that, and you know it."
"Sorry. I'm just tired."
"Go doctor yourself, then you can tell me about it. Okay"
"Yeah." Soaking the hands did not make them feel better. It felt like I was peeling the skin off my fingers. I patted them dry and rubbed Neosporin ointment over the scrapes. "A topical antibacterial," the label read. By the time I finished all the Band-Aids, I looked like a pinkish-tan version of the mummy's hand.
My back was a mass of dark bruises. My ribs were decorated in putrid purple. There wasn't much I could do about it, except hope the aspirin kicked in. Well, there was one thing I could do-move. Stretching exercises would limber the body and give me movement without pain, sort of. The stretching itself would feel like torture. I'd do it later. I needed to eat first.
I was starving. Usually, the thought of eating before ten made me nauseous. This morning I wanted food, needed food. Very weird. Maybe it was stress.
The smell of bagels and melting cheese made my stomach ripple. The smell of fresh brewed coffee made me want to chew the couch.
I scarfed down two bagels and three cups of coffee while Ronnie sat across from me, sipping her first cup. I looked up and found her watching me. Her grey eyes were staring at me. I'd seen her look at suspects like that. "What?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Nothing. Can you catch your breath and tell me about last night?"
I nodded, and it didn't hurt as much. Aspirin, nature's gift to modern man. I told her, from Monica's call to my meeting with Valentine. I didn't tell her that it all took place at the Circus of the Damned. That was very dangerous information to have right now. And I left out the blue lights on the stairs, the sound of Jean-Claude's voice in my head. Something told me that was dangerous information, too. I've learned to trust my instincts, so I left it out.
Ronnie's good, she looked at me, and said, "Is that everything?"
"Yes." An easy lie, simple, one word. I don't think Ronnie bought it.
"Okay." She took a sip of coffee. "What do you want me to do?"
"Ask around. You have access to the hate groups. Like Humans Against Vampires, The League of Human Voters, the usual. See if any of them might be involved with the murders. I can't go near them." I smiled. "After all, animators are one of the groups they hate."
"But you do kill vampires."
"Yeah, but I also raise zombies. Too weird for the hardcore bigot."
"All right. I'll check out HAV and the rest. Anything else?"
I thought about it and shook my head, almost no pain at all. "Not that I can think of. Just be very careful. I don't want to endanger you the way I did Catherine."
"That wasn't your fault."
"It isn't your fault, none of this is."
"Tell that to Catherine and her fiancé if things go bad."
"Anita, dammit, these creatures are using you. They want you discouraged and frightened, so they can control you. If you let the guilt mess with your head, you're going to get killed."
"Well, gee, Ronnie, just what I wanted to hear. If this is your version of a pep talk, I'll skip the rally."
"You don't need cheering up. You need a good shaking."
"Thanks, I already had one last night."
"Anita, listen to me." She was staring at me, eyes intense, her face searching mine, trying to see if I was really hearing her. "You've done all you can for Catherine. I want you to concentrate on keeping yourself alive. You're ass deep in enemies. Don't get sidetracked."
She was right. Do what you can and move on. Catherine was out of it, for now. It was the best I could do. "Ass-deep in enemies, but ankle-deep in friends."
She grinned. "Maybe it'll even out."
I cradled the coffee in my bandaged hands. Warmth radiated through the cup. "I'm scared."
"Which proves you aren't as stupid as you look."
"Gee, thanks a lot."
"You're welcome." She raised her coffee cup in a salute. "To Anita Blake, animator, vampire slayer, and good friend. Watch your back."
I clinked my cup against hers. "You watch yours, too. Being my friend right now may not be the healthiest of avocations."
"Since when was that a news bulletin?"
Unfortunately, she had a point.
I had two choices after Ronnie left: I could go back to sleep, not a bad idea; or I could start solving the case that everyone was so eager for me to work on. I could get by on four hours sleep, for a while. I could not last nearly as long if Aubrey tore my throat out. Guess I would go to work.
It is hard to wear a gun in St. Louis in the summertime. Shoulder or hip holster, you have the same problem. If you wear a jacket to cover the gun, you melt in the heat. If you keep the gun in your purse, you get killed, because no woman can find anything in her purse in under twelve minutes. It is a rule.
No one had been shooting at me yet; I was encouraged by that. But I had also been kidnapped and nearly killed. I did not plan on it happening again without a fight. I could bench press a hundred pounds, not bad, not bad at all. But when you only weigh a hundred and six, it puts you at a disadvantage. I would bet on me against any human bad guy my size. Trouble was, there just weren't many bad guys my size. And vampires, well, unless I could bench press trucks, I was outclassed. So a gun.
I finally settled on a less than professional look. The t-shirt was oversize, hitting me at mid-thigh. It billowed around me. The only thing that saved it was the picture on the front, penguins playing beach volleyball, complete with kiddie penguins making sand castles to one side. I like penguins. I had bought the shirt to sleep in and never planned to wear it where people could see me. As long as the fashion police didn't see me, I was safe.
I looped a belt through a pair of black shorts for my inside-the-pant holster. It was an Uncle Mike's Sidekick and I was very fond of it, but it was not for the Browning. I had a second gun for comfort and concealability: a Firestar, a compact little 9mm with a seven-shot magazine.
White jogging socks, with tasteful blue stripes that matched the blue leather piping on my white Nikes, completed the outfit. It made me look and feel about sixteen, an awkward sixteen, but when I turned to the mirror there was no hint of the gun on my belt. The shirt fell out and around it, invisible.
My upper body is slender, petite if you will, muscular and not bad to look at. Unfortunately, my legs are about five inches too short to ever be America's ideal legs. I will never have skinny thighs, nor anything short of muscular calves. The outfit emphasized my legs and hid everything else, but I had my gun and I wouldn't melt in the heat. Compromise is an imperfect art.
My crucifix hung inside my shirt, but I added a small charm bracelet to my left wrist. Three small crosses dangled from the silver chain. My scars also were in plain sight, but in the summer I try to pretend they aren't there. I cannot face the thought of wearing long sleeves in hundred-degree weather with hundred-percent humidity. My arms would fall off. The scars really aren't the first thing you notice with my arms bare. Really.
Animators, Inc., had new offices. We'd been here only three months. There was a psychologist's office across from us, nothing less than a hundred an hour; a plastic surgeon down the hall; two lawyers; one marriage counselor, and a real estate company. Four years ago Animators, Inc., had worked out of a spare room above a garage. Business was good.
Most of that good luck was due to Bert Vaughn, our boss. He was a businessman, a showman, a moneymaker, a scalawag, and a borderline cheat. Nothing illegal, not really, but ... Most people choose to think of themselves as white hats, good guys. A few people wear black hats and enjoy it. Grey was Bert's color. Sometimes I think if you cut him, he'd bleed green, fresh-minted money.
He had turned what was an unusual talent, an embarrassing curse, or a religious experience, raising the dead, into a profitable business. We animators had the talent, but Bert knew how to make it pay. It was hard to argue with that. But I was going to try.
The reception room's wallpaper is pale, pale green with small oriental designs done in greens and browns. The carpet is thick and soft green, too pale to be grass, but it tries. Plants are everywhere.
A Ficus benjium grows to the right of the door, slender as a willow with small leather green leaves. It nearly curls around the chair in front of its pot. A second tree grows in the far corner, tall and straight with the stiff spiky tops of palm trees-Dracaena marginta. Or that's what it says on the tags tied to the spindly trunks. Both trees brush the ceiling. Dozens of smaller plants are pushed and potted in every spare corner of the soft green room.
Bert thinks the pastel green is soothing, and the plants give it that homey touch. I think it looks like an unhappy marriage between a mortuary and a plant shop.
Mary, our day secretary, is over fifty. How much over is her own business. Her hair is short and does not move in the wind. A carton of hair spray sees to that. Mary is not into the natural look. She has two grown sons and four grandchildren. She gave me her best professional smile as I came through the door. "May I help ... Oh, Anita, I didn't think you were due in until five."
"I'm not, but I need to speak to Bert and get some things from my office."
She frowned down at her appointment book, our appointment book. "Well, Jamison is in your office right now with a client." There are only three offices in our little area. One belongs to Bert, and the other two rotate between the rest of us. Most of our work is done in the field, or rather the graveyard, so we never really need our offices all at the same time. It worked like time-sharing a condo.
"How long will the client be?"
Mary glanced down at her notes. "It's a mother whose son is thinking about joining the Church of Eternal Life."
"Is Jamison trying to talk him into it or out of it?"
"Anita!" Mary scolded me, but it was the truth. The Church of Eternal Life was the vampire church. The first church in history that could guarantee you eternal life, and prove it. No waiting around. No mystery. Just eternity on a silver platter. Most people don't believe in their immortal souls anymore. It isn't popular to worry about Heaven and Hell, and whether you are an absolutely good person. So the Church was gaining followers all over the place. If you didn't believe that it destroyed your soul, what did you have to lose? Daylight. Food. Not much to give up.
It was the soul part that bothered me. My immortal soul is not for sale, not even for eternity. You see, I knew vampires could die. I had proved it. No one seemed curious as to what happened to a vampire's soul when it died. Could you be a good vampire and go to Heaven? Somehow that didn't quite work for me.
"Is Bert with a client, too?"
She glanced once more at the appointment book. "No, he's free." She looked up and smiled, as if she was pleased to be able to help me. Maybe she was.
It is true that Bert took the smallest of the three offices. The walls are a soft pastel blue, the carpet two colors darker. Bert thinks it soothes the clients. I think it's like standing inside a blue ice cube.
Bert didn't match the small blue office. There is nothing small about Bert. Six-four, broad shoulders, a college athlete's figure getting a little soft around the middle. His white hair is close-cut over small ears. A boater's tan forces his pale eyes and hair into sharp contrast. His eyes are a nearly colorless grey, like dirty window glass. You have to work very hard to make dirty grey eyes shine, but they were shining now. Bert was practically beaming at me. It was a bad sign.
"Anita, what a pleasant surprise. Have a sit." He waved a business envelope at me. "We got the check today."
"Check?" I asked.
"For looking into the vampire murders."
I had forgotten. I had forgotten that somewhere in all this I had been promised money. It seemed ridiculous, obscene, that Nikolaos would make everything better with money. From the look on Bert's face, a lot of money.
"Ten thousand dollars." He stretched each word out, making it last.
"It isn't enough."
He laughed. "Anna, getting greedy in your old age. I thought that was my job."
"It isn't enough for Catherine's life, or mine."
His grin wilted slightly. His eyes looked wary, as if I was about to tell him there was no Easter Bunny. I could almost hear him wondering if he would have to return the check.
"What are you talking about, Anita?"
I told him, with a few minor revisions. No "Circus of the Damned." No blue fire. No first vampire mark.
When I got to the part about Aubrey smashing me into the wall, he said, "You are kidding."
"Want to see the bruises?"
I finished the story and watched his solemn, square face. His large, blunt-fingered hands were folded on his desk. The check was lying beside him atop his neat pile of manila folders. His face was attentive, concerned. Empathy never worked well on Bert's face. I could always see the wheels moving. The angles calculating.
"Don't worry, Bert, you can cash the check."
"Now, Anita, that wasn't ... "
"Anita, truly I would never purposefully endanger you."
I laughed. "Bull."
"Anita!" He looked shocked, small eyes widening, one hand touching his chest. Mr. Sincerity.
"I'm not buying, so save the bullshit for clients. I know you too well."
He smiled then. It was his only genuine smile. The real Bert Vaughn please stand up. His eyes gleamed but not with warmth, more with pleasure. There is something measuring, obscenely knowledgeable, about Bert's smile. As if he knew the darkest thing you had ever done and would gladly keep silent-for a price.
There was something a little frightening about a man who knew he was not a nice person and didn't give a damn. It went against everything America holds dear. We are taught above all else to be nice, to be liked, to be popular. A person who has set aside all that is a maverick and a potentially dangerous human being.
"What can Animators, Inc., do to help?"
"I've already got Ronnie working on some things. I think the fewer people involved, the fewer people in danger."
"You always were a humanitarian."
"Unlike some people I could mention."
"I had no idea what they wanted."
"No, but you knew how I felt about vampires."
He gave me a smile that said, "I know your secret, I know your darkest dreams." That was Bert. Budding blackmailer.
I smiled back at him, friendly. "If you ever send me a vampire client again without running it by me first, I'll quit."
"And go where?"
"I'll take my client list with me, Bert. Who is the one that does the radio interviews? Who did the articles focus on? You made sure it was me, Bert. You thought I was the most marketable of all of us. The most harmless-looking, the most appealing. Like a puppy at the pound. When people call Animators, Inc., who do they ask for?"
His smile was gone, eyes like winter ice. "You wouldn't make it without me."
"The question is, would you make it without me?"
"I'd make it."
"So would I"
We stared at each other for a long space of moments. Neither of us was willing to look away, to blink first. Bert started to smile, still staring into my eyes. The edges of a smile began to tug at my mouth. We laughed together and that was that.
"All right, Anita, no more vampires."
I stood. "Thank you."
"Would you really quit?" His face was all laughing sincerity, a tasteful, pleasant mask.
"I don't believe in idle threats, Bert. You know that."
"Yes," he said, "I know that. I honestly didn't know this job would endanger your life."
"Would it have made a difference?"
He thought about it for a minute, then laughed. "No, but I would have charged more."
"You keep making money, Bert. That's what you're good at."
I left him so he could fondle the check in privacy. Maybe chuckle over it. It was blood money, no pun intended. Somehow, I didn't think that bothered Bert. It bothered me.
The door to the other office opened. A tall, blonde woman stepped through. She was somewhere between forty and fifty. Tailored golden pants encircled a slender waist. A sleeveless blouse the color of an eggshell exposed tanned arms, a gold Rolex watch, and a wedding band encircled with diamonds. The rock in the engagement ring must have weighed a pound. I bet she hadn't even blinked when Jamison talked price.
The boy that followed her was also slender and blond. He looked about fifteen, but I knew he had to be at least eighteen. Legally, you cannot join the Church of Eternal Life unless you are of age. He couldn't drink legally yet, but he could choose to die and live forever. Funny, how that didn't make much sense to me.
Jamison brought up the rear, smiling, solicitous. He was talking softly to the boy as he walked them towards the door.
I got a business card out of my purse. I held it out towards the woman. She looked at it, then at me. Her gaze slid over me from top to bottom. She didn't seem impressed; maybe it was the shirt. "Yes," she said.
Breeding. It takes real breeding to make a person feel like shit with one word. Of course, it didn't bother me. No, the great golden goddess did not make me feel small and grubby. Right. "The number on this card is for a man who specializes in vampire cults. He's good."
"I do not want my son brainwashed."
I managed a smile. Raymond Fields was my vampire cult expert, and he didn't do brainwashing. He did do truth, no matter how unpleasant. "Mr. Fields will give you the potential down side of vampirism," I said.
"I believe Mr. Clarke has given us all the information we need."
I raised my arm near her face. "I didn't get these scars playing touch football. Please, take the card. Call him, or not. It's up to you."
She was a little pale under her expert makeup. Her eyes were a little wide, staring at my arm. "Vampires did this?" Her voice was small and breathy, almost human.
"Yes," I said.
Jamison took her elbow. "Mrs. Franks, I see you've met our resident vampire slayer."
She looked at him, then back at me. Her careful face was beginning to crumble. She licked her lips and turned back to me. "Really." She was recovering quickly; she sounded superior again.
I shrugged. What could I say? I pressed the card into her manicured hand, and Jamison tactfully took it from her and pocketed it. But she had let him. What could I do? Nothing. I had tried. Period. Over. But I stared at her son. His face was incredibly young.
I remembered when eighteen was grown-up. I had thought I knew everything. I was about twenty-one when I figured out I knew dip-wad. I still knew nothing, but I tried real hard. Sometimes, that is the best you can do. Maybe the best anyone can do. Boy, Miss Cynical in the morning.
Jamison was ushering them towards the door. I caught a few sentences. "She was trying to kill them. They merely defended themselves."
Yeah, that's me, hit person for the undead. Scourge of the graveyard. Right. I left Jamison to his half-truths and went into the office. I still needed the files. Life goes on, at least for me. I couldn't stop seeing the boy's face, the wide eyes. His face had been all golden tan, baby smooth. Shouldn't you at least have to shave before you can kill yourself?
I shook my head as if I could shake the boy's face away. It almost worked. I was kneeling with the folders in my hands when Jamison came in the office. He shut the door behind him. I had thought he might.
His skin was the color of dark honey, his eyes pale green; long, tight curls framed his face. The hair was almost auburn. Jamison was the first green-eyed, red-haired black man I had ever met. He was slender, lean, not the thinness of exercise but of lucky genetics. Jamison's idea of a workout was lifting shot glasses at a good party.
"Don't ever do that again," he said.
"Do what?" I stood with the files clasped to my chest.
He shook his head and almost smiled, but it was an angry smile, a flash of small white teeth. "Don't be a smart ass."
"Sorry," I said.
"Bullshit, you're not sorry."
"About trying to give Fields's card to the woman, no. I'm not sorry. I'd do it again."
"I don't like to be undermined in front of my clients."
"I mean it, Anita. Don't ever do that again."
I wanted to ask him, or what, but I didn't. "You aren't qualified to counsel people about whether or not they become the undead."
"Bert thinks I am."
"Bert would take money for a hit on the Pope if he thought he could get away with it."
Jamison smiled, then frowned at me, then couldn't help himself and smiled again. "You do have a way with words."
"Don't undermine me with clients, okay?"
"I promise never to interfere when you are discussing raising the dead."
"That isn't good enough," he said.
"It's the best you're going to get. You are not qualified to counsel people. It's wrong."
"Little Miss Perfect. You murder people for money. You're nothing but a damned assassin."
I took a deep breath, and let it out. I would not fight with him today. "I execute criminals with the full blessing of the law."
"Yeah, but you enjoy it. You get your jollies by pounding in the stakes. You can't go a fucking week without bathing in someone's blood."
I just stared at him. "Do you really believe that?" I asked.
He wouldn't look at me but finally said, "I don't know."
"Poor little vampires, poor misunderstood creatures. Right? The one who branded me slaughtered twenty-three people before the courts would give me the go-ahead." I yanked my shirt down to expose the collarbone scar. "This vampire had killed ten people. He specialized in little boys, said their meat was most tender. He's not dead, Jamison. He got away. But he found me last night and threatened my life."
"You don't understand them."
"No!" I shoved a finger in his chest. "You don't understand them."
He glared down at me, nostrils flaring, breath coming in warm gasps. I stepped back. I shouldn't have touched him; that was against the rules. You never touch anyone in a fight unless you want violence.
"I'm sorry, Jamison." I don't know if he understood what I was apologizing for. He didn't say anything.
As I walked past him, he asked, "What are the files for?"
I hesitated, but he knew the files as well as I did. He'd know what was missing. "The vampire murders."
We turned towards each other at the same moment. Staring. "You took the money?" he asked.
That stopped me. "You knew about it?"
He nodded. "Bert tried to get them to hire me in your place. They wouldn't go for it."
"And after all the good PR you've given them."
"I told Bert you wouldn't do it. That you wouldn't work for vampires."
His slightly up-tilted eyes were studying my face, searching, trying to squeeze some truth out. I ignored him, my face a pleasant blankness. "Money talks, Jamison, even to me."
"You don't give a damn about money."
"Awful shortsighted of me, isn't it?" I said.
"I always thought so. You didn't do it for money." A statement. "What was it?"
I didn't want Jamison in on this. He thought vampires were fanged people. And they were very careful to keep him on the nice, clean fringes. He never got his hands dirty, so he could afford to pretend or ignore, or even lie to himself. I had gotten dirty once too often. Lying to yourself was a good way to die. "Look, Jamison, we don't agree on vampires, but anything that can kill vampires could make meat pies out of human beings. I want to catch the maniac before he, she, or it, does just that."
It wasn't a bad lie, as lies go. It was even plausible. He blinked at me. Whether he believed me or not would depend on how much he needed to believe me. How much he needed his world to stay safe and clean. He nodded, once, very slowly. "You think you can catch something the master vampires can't catch?"
"They seem to think so." I opened the door and he followed me out. Maybe he would have asked more questions, maybe not, but a voice interrupted.
"Anita, are you ready to go?"
We both turned, and I must have looked as puzzled as Jamison.
I wasn't meeting anyone.
There was a man sitting in one of the lobby chairs, half-lost in the jungle plants. I didn't recognize him at first. Thick brown hair, cut short, stretched back from a very nice face. Black sunglasses hid the eyes. He turned his head and spoiled the illusion of short hair. A thick ponytail curled over his collar. He was wearing a blue denim jacket with the collar up. A blood-red tank top set off his tan. He stood slowly, smiled, and removed his glasses.
It was Phillip of the many scars. I hadn't recognized him with his clothes on. There was a bandage on the side of his neck, mostly hidden by the jacket collar. "We need to talk," he said.
I closed my mouth and tried to look reasonably intelligent. "Phillip, I didn't expect to see you so soon."
Jamison was looking from one to the other of us. He was frowning. Suspicious. Mary was sitting, chin leaning on her hands, enjoying the show.
The silence was damn awkward. Phillip put a hand out to Jamison. I mumbled. "Jamison Clarke, this is Phillip ... a friend." The moment I said it, I wanted to take it back. "Friend" is what people call their lovers. Beats the heck out of significant other.
Jamison smiled broadly. "So, you're Anita's ... friend." He said the last word slowly, rolling it around on his tongue.
Mary made a hubba-hubba motion with one hand. Phillip saw it and flashed her a dazzling melt-your-libido smile. She blushed.
"Well, we have to go now. Come along, Phillip." I grabbed his arm and began pulling him towards the door.
"Nice to meet you, Phillip," Jamison said. "I'll be sure to mention you to all the rest of the guys who work here. I'm sure they'd love to meet you sometime."
Jamison was really enjoying himself. "We're very busy right now, Jamison. Maybe some other time," I said.
"Sure, sure," he said.
Jamison walked us to the door and held it for us. He grinned at us as we walked down the hallway, arm in arm. Fudge buckets. I had to let the smirking little creep think I had a lover. Good grief. And he would tell everyone. Phillip slid his arm around my waist, and I fought an urge to push him away. We were pretending, right, right. I felt him hesitate as his hand brushed the gun on my belt.
We met one of the real estate agents in the hall. She said hello to me but stared at Phillip. He smiled at her. When we passed her and were waiting for the elevator, I glanced back. Sure enough, she was watching his backside as we walked away.
I had to admit it was a nice backside. She caught me looking at her and hurriedly turned away.
"Defending my honor," Phillip asked.
I pushed away from him and punched the elevator button. "What are you doing here?"
"Jean-Claude didn't come back last night. Do you know why?"
"I didn't do away with him, if that's what you're implying."
The doors opened. Phillip leaned against them, holding them open with his body and one arm. The smile he flashed me was full of potential, a little evil, a lot of sex. Did I really want to be alone in an elevator with him? Probably not, but I was armed. He, as far as I could tell, was not.
I walked under his arm without having to duck. The doors hushed behind us. We were alone. He leaned into one comer, arms crossed over his chest, staring at me from behind black lenses.
"Do you always do that?" I asked.
A slight smile. "Do what?"
He stiffened just a little, then relaxed against the wall. "Natural talent."
I shook my head. "Uh-huh." I stared at the flickering floor numbers.
"Is Jean-Claude all right?"
I glanced at him and didn't know what to say. The elevator stopped. We got out. "You didn't answer me," he said softly.
I sighed. It was too long a story. "It's almost noon. I'll tell you what I can over lunch."
He grinned. "Trying to pick me up, Ms. Blake?"
I smiled before I could stop myself. "You wish."
"Maybe," he said.
"Flirtatious little thing, aren't you?"
"Most women like it."
"I would like it better if I didn't think you'd flirt with my ninety-year-old grandmother the same way you're flirting with me now."
He coughed back a laugh. "You don't have a very high opinion of me."
"I am a very judgmental person. It's one of my faults."
He laughed again, a nice sound. "Maybe I can hear about the rest of your faults after you've told me where Jean-Claude is."
"I don't think so."
I stopped just in front of the glass doors that led out into the street. "Because I saw you last night. I know what you are, and I know how you get your kicks."
His hand reached out and brushed my shoulder. "I get my kicks a lot of different ways."
I frowned at his hand, and it moved away. "Save it, Phillip. I'm not buying."
"Maybe by the end of lunch you will be."
I sighed. I had met men like Phillip before, handsome men who are accustomed to women drooling over them. He wasn't trying to seduce me; he just wanted me to admit that I found him attractive. If I didn't admit it, he would keep pestering me. "I give up; you win."
"What do I win?" he asked.
"You're wonderful, you're gorgeous. You are one of the best looking men I have ever seen. From the soles of your boots, the length of your skin-tight jeans, to the flat, rippling plains of your stomach, to the sculpted line of your jaw, you are beautiful. Now can we go to lunch and cut the nonsense?"
He lowered his sunglasses just enough to see over the top of them. He stared at me like that for several minutes, then raised the glasses back in place. "You pick the restaurant." He said it flat, no teasing.
I wondered if I had offended him. I wondered if I cared.
The heat outside the doors was solid, a wall of damp warmth that melded to your skin like plastic wrap. "You're going to melt wearing that jacket," I said.
"Most people object to the scars."
I unfolded my arms from around the folders and extended my left arm. The scar glistened in the sunlight, shinier than the other skin. "I won't tell if you won't."
He slipped off his sunglasses and stared at me. I couldn't read his face. All I knew was that something was going on behind those big brown eyes. His voice was soft. "Is that your only bite scar?"
"No," I said.
His hands convulsed into fists, neck jerking, as if he'd had a jolt of electricity. A tremor ran up his arms into his shoulders, along his spine. He rotated his neck, as if to get rid of it. He slipped the black lenses back on his face, his eyes anonymous. The jacket came off. The scars at the bend of his arms were pale against his tan. The collarbone scar peeked from under the edges of the tank top. He had a nice neck, thick but not muscled, a stretch of smooth, tanned skin. I counted four sets of bites on that flawless skin. That was just the right side. The left was hidden by a bandage.
"I can put the jacket back on," he said.
I had been staring at him. "No, it's just ... "
"It's none of my business."
"Why do you do what you do?"
He smiled, but it was twisted, a wry smile. "That is a very personal question."
"You did say ask anyway." I glanced across the street. "I usually go to Mabel's, but we might be seen."
"Ashamed of me?" His voice held a harsh edge to it, like sandpaper. His eyes were hidden, but his jaw muscles were clenched.
"It isn't that," I said. "You are the one who came into the office, pretending to be my 'friend'. If we go some place I'm known, we'll have to continue the charade."
"There are women who would pay to have me escort them."
"I know, I saw them last night at the club."
"True, but the point is still that you're ashamed to be seen with me. Because of this." His hand touched his neck, tentatively, delicate as a bird.
I got the distinct impression I had hurt his feelings. That didn't bother me, not really. But I knew what it was like to be different. I knew what it was like to be an embarrassment to people who should have known better. I knew better. It wasn't Phillip's feelings but the principle of the thing. "Let's go."
"Thank you," he said. He rewarded me with one of those brilliant smiles. If I had been less professional, it might have melted me into my socks. There was a tinge of evil to it, a lot of sex, but under that was a little boy peeking out, an uncertain little boy. That was it. That was the attraction. Nothing is more appealing than a handsome man who is also uncertain of himself.
It appeals not only to the woman in us all, but the mother. A dangerous combination. Luckily, I was immune. Sure. Besides, I had seen Phillip's idea of sex. He was definitely not my type.
Mabel's is a cafeteria, but the food is wonderful and reasonably priced. On weekdays the place is filled to the brim with suits and business skirts, thin little briefcases, and manila file folders. On Saturdays it was nearly deserted.
Beatrice smiled at me from behind the steaming food. She was tall and plump with brown hair and a tired face. Her pink uniform didn't fit well through the shoulders, and the hairnet made her face look too long. But she always smiled, and we always spoke.
"Hi, Beatrice." And without waiting to be asked, "This is Phillip."
"Hi, Phillip," she said.
He gave her a smile every bit as dazzling as he had given the real estate agent. She flushed, averted her eyes, and giggled. I hadn't known Beatrice could do that. Did she notice the scars? Did it matter to her?
It was too hot for meat loaf, but I ordered it anyway. It was always moist and the catsup sauce just tangy enough. I even got dessert, which I almost never do. I was starving. We managed to pay and find a table without Phillip flirting with anyone else. A major accomplishment.
"What has happened to Jean-Claude?" he asked.
"One more minute." I said grace over my food. He was staring at me when I looked up. We ate, and I told him an edited version of last night. Mostly, I told him about Jean-Claude and Nikolaos and the punishment.
He had stopped eating by the time I finished. He was staring over my head, at nothing that I could see. "Phillip?" I asked.
He shook his head and looked at me. "She could kill him."
"I got the impression she was just going to punish him. Do you know what that would be?"
He nodded, voice soft, saying, "She traps them in coffins and uses crosses to hold them inside. Aubrey disappeared for three months. When I saw him again, he was like he is now. Crazy."
I shivered. Would Jean-Claude go crazy? I picked up my fork and found myself halfway through a piece of blackberry pie. I hate blackberries. Damn, I treat myself to pie and get the wrong kind. What was the matter with me? The taste was still warm and thick in my mouth. I took a big swig of Coke to wash it down. The Coke didn't help much.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
I pushed the half-eaten pie away and opened one of the folders. The first victim, one Maurice-no last name, had lived with a woman named Rebecca Miles. They had cohabited for five years. "Cohabited" sounded better than "shacked up."
"I'll talk to friends and lovers of the dead vampires."
"I might know the names."
I stared at him, debating. I didn't want to share information with him because I knew good of Phillip was the daytime eyes and ears of the undead. Yet, when I had talked to Rebecca Miles in the company of the police, she had told us zip. I didn't have time to wade through crap. I needed information and fast. Nikolaos wanted results. And what Nikolaos wanted, Nikolaos damn well better get.
"Rebecca Miles," I said.
"I know her. She was Maurice's property." He shrugged an apology at the word, but he let it stand. And I wondered what he meant by it. "Where do we go first?" he asked.
"Nowhere. I don't want a civilian along while I work."
"I might be able to help."
"No offense, you look strong and maybe even quick, but that isn't enough. Do you know how to fight? Do you carry a gun?"
"No gun, but I can handle myself."
I doubted that. Most people don't react well to violence. It freezes them. There are a handful of seconds where the body hesitates, the mind doesn't understand. Those few seconds can get you killed. The only way to kill the hesitation is practice. Violence has to become a part of your thinking. It makes you cautious, suspicious as hell, and lengthens your life expectancy. Phillip was familiar with violence, but only as the victim. I didn't need a professional victim tagging along. Yet, I needed information from people who wouldn't want to talk to me. They might talk to Phillip.
I didn't expect to run into a gun battle in broad daylight. Nor did I really expect anyone to jump me, at least not today. I've been wrong before but ... If Phillip could help me, I saw no harm in it. As long as he didn't flash that smile at the wrong time and get molested by nuns, we would be safe.
"If someone threatens me, can you stay out of it and let me do my job, or would you charge in and try to save me?" I asked.
"Oh," he said. He stared down at his drink for a few minutes. "I don't know."
Brownie point for him. Most people would have lied. "Then I'd rather you didn't come."
"How are you going to convince Rebecca you work for the master vampire of this city? The Executioner working for vampires?"
It sounded ridiculous even to me. "I don't know."
He smiled. "Then it's settled. I'll come along and help calm the waters."
"I didn't agree to that."
"You didn't say no, either."
He had a point. I sipped my Coke and looked at his smug face for perhaps a minute. He said nothing, only stared back. His face was neutral, no challenge to it. There was no contest of egos as with Bert. "Let's go," I said.
We stood. I left a tip. We went off in search of clues.
Rebecca Miles lived in South City's Dogtown. The streets were all named for states: Texas, Mississippi, Indiana. The building was blind, most of the windows boarded up. The grass was tall as an elephant's eye, but not half so beautiful. A block over were expensive rehabs full of yuppies and politicians. There were no yuppies on Rebecca's block.
Her apartment was on a long, narrow corridor. There was no air conditioning in the hallway, and the heat was like chest-high fur, thick and warm. One dim light bulb gleamed over the threadbare carpeting. In places the off-green walls were patched with white plaster, but it was clean. The smell of pine-scented Lysol was thick and almost nauseating in the small, dark hallway. You could probably have eaten off the carpeting if you had wanted to, but you would have gotten fuzzies in your mouth. No amount of Lysol would get rid of carpet fuzzies.
As we had discussed in the car, Phillip knocked on the door. The idea was that he would calm any misgivings she might have about The Executioner coming into her humble abode. It took fifteen minutes of knocking and waiting before we heard someone moving around behind the door.
The door opened as far as the chain would allow. I couldn't see who answered the door. A woman's voice, thick with sleep, said, "Phillip, what are you doing here?"
"Can I come in for a few minutes?" he asked. I couldn't see his face, but I would have bet everything I owned that he was flashing her one of his infamous smiles.
"Sure; sorry, you woke me up." The door closed, and the chain rattled. The door reopened, wide. I still couldn't see around Phillip. So I guess Rebecca didn't see me either.
Phillip walked in, and I followed behind him before the door could close. The apartment was ovenlike, a gasping, stranded-fish heat. The darkness should have made it cooler, but instead made it claustrophobic. Sweat trickled down my face.
Rebecca Miles stood holding onto the door. She was thin, with lifeless dark hair falling straight to her shoulders. High cheekbones clung to the skin of her face. She was nearly overwhelmed by the white robe she wore. Delicate was the phrase, fragile. Small, dark eyes blinked at me. It was dim in the apartment, thick drapes cutting out the light. She had only seen me once, shortly after Maurice's death.
"Did you bring a friend?" she asked. She shut the door, and we were in near darkness.
"Yes," Phillip said. "This is Anita Blake ... "
Her voice came out small and choked. "The Executioner?"
"Yes, but ...
She opened her small mouth and shrieked. She threw herself at me, hands clawing and slapping. I braced and covered my face with my forearms. She fought like a girl, all open-handed slaps, scratches, and flailing arms. I grabbed her wrist and used her own momentum to pull her past me. She stumbled to her knees with a little help. I had her right arm in a joint lock. It puts pressure on the elbow, it hurts, and a little extra push will snap the arm. Most people don't fight well after you break their arm at the elbow.
I didn't want to break the woman's arm. I didn't want to hurt her at all. There were two bloody scratches on my arm where she had gotten me. I guess I was lucky she hadn't had a gun.
She tried to move, and I pressed on the arm. I felt her tremble. Her breath was coming in huge gasps. "You can't kill him! You can't! Please, please don't." She started to cry, thin shoulders shaking inside the too-big robe. I stood there, holding her arm, causing her pain.
I released her arm, slowly, and stepped back out of reach. I hoped she didn't attack again. I didn't want to hurt her, and I didn't want her to hurt me. The scratches were beginning to sting.
Rebecca Miles wasn't going to try again. She huddled against the door, thin, starved hands locked around her knees. She sobbed, gasping for air, "You ... can't ... kill him. Please!" She started to rock back and forth, hugging herself tight as if she might shatter, like weak glass.
Jesus, some days I hate my job. "Talk to her, Phillip. Tell her we didn't come here to hurt anyone."
Phillip knelt beside her. He kept his hands at his sides as he talked to her. I didn't hear what he said. Her shuddering sobs floated after me through a right-hand doorway. It led into the bedroom.
A coffin sat beside the bed, dark wood, maybe cherry, varnished until it gleamed in the twilit dark. She thought I came to kill her lover. Jesus.
The bathroom was small and cluttered. I hit the light switch, and the harsh yellow light was not kind. Her makeup was scattered around the cracked sink like casualties. The tub was nearly rotted with rust. I found what I hoped was a clean washrag and ran cold water over it. The water that trickled out was the color of weak coffee. The pipes shuddered and clanked and whined. The water finally ran clear. It felt good on my hands, but I didn't splash any on my neck or face. It would have been cool, but the bathroom was dirty. I couldn't use the water, not if I didn't have to. I looked up as I squeezed the rag out. The mirror was shattered, a spiderweb of cracks. It gave me my face back in broken pieces.
I didn't look in the mirror again. I walked back past the coffin and hesitated. I had an urge to knock on the smooth wood. Anybody home? I didn't do it. For all I knew, someone might have knocked back.
Phillip had the woman on the couch. She was leaning against him, boneless, panting, but the crying had almost stopped. She flinched when she saw me. I tried not to look menacing, something I'm good at, and handed the rag to Phillip. "Wipe her face and put it against the back of her neck; it'll help."
He did what I asked, and she sat there with the damp rag against her neck, staring at me. Her eyes were wide, a lot of white showing. She shivered.
I found the light switch, and harsh light flooded the room. One look at the room and I wanted to turn the light off again, but I didn't. I thought Rebecca might attack me again if I sat beside her, or maybe she'd have a complete breakdown. Wouldn't that be pretty? The only chair was lopsided and had yellowed stuffing bulging out one side. I decided to stand.
Phillip looked up at me. His sunglasses were hooked over the front of his tank top. His eyes were wide and careful, as if he didn't want me to know what he was thinking. One tanned arm was wrapped around her shoulders, protective. I felt like a bully.
"I told her why we are here. I told her you wouldn't hurt Jack."
"The coffin?" I smiled. I couldn't help it. He was a "Jack in The box."
"Yes," Phillip said. He stared at me as if grinning were not appropriate.
It wasn't, so I stopped, but it was something of an effort.
I nodded. If Rebecca wanted to shack up with vampires, that was her business. It certainly wasn't police business.
"Go on, Rebecca. She's trying to help us," Phillip said.
"Why?" she asked.
It was a good question. I had scared her and made her cry. I answered her question. "The master of the city made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
She stared at me, studying my face, like she was committing me to memory. "I don't believe you," she said.
I shrugged. That's what you get for telling the truth. Someone calls you a liar. Most people will accept a likely lie to an unlikely truth. In fact, they prefer it.
"How could any vampire threaten The Executioner?" she asked.
I sighed. "I'm not the bogeyman, Rebecca. Have you ever met The master of the city?"
"Then you'll have to trust me. I am scared shitless of the master. Anybody in their right mind would be."
She still looked unconvinced, but she started talking. Her small, light voice told the same story she'd told the police. Bland and useless as a new-minted penny.
"Rebecca, I am trying to catch the person, or thing, that killed your boyfriend. Please help me."
Phillip hugged her. "Tell her what you told me."
She glanced at him, then back at me. She sucked her lower hp in and scraped it with her upper teeth, thoughtful. She took a deep, shaky breath. "We were at a freak party that night."
I blinked, then tried to sound reasonably intelligent. "I know a freak is someone who likes vampires. Is a freak party what I think it is?"
Phillip was the one who nodded. "I go to them a lot." He wouldn't look at me while he said it. "You can have a vampire most any way you want it. And they can have you." He darted a glance at my face, then down again. Maybe he didn't like what he saw.
I tried to keep my face blank, but I wasn't having much luck. A freak party, dear God. But it was somewhere to start. "Did anything special happen at the party?" I asked.
She blinked at me, face blank, as if she didn't understand. I tried again. "Did anything out of the ordinary happen at the freak party?" When in doubt, change your vocabulary.
She stared down into her lap and shook her head. Long, dark hair trailed over her face like a thin curtain.
"Did Maurice have any enemies that you know of?"
Rebecca shook her head without even looking up. I glimpsed her eyes through her hair like a frightened rabbit staring out from behind a bush. Did she have more information, or had I used her up? If I pushed she'd break, shatter, and maybe a clue would come spilling out, then again, maybe not. Her hands were tangled in her lap, white-knuckled. They trembled ever so slightly. How badly did I want to know? Not that badly. I let it go. Anita Blake, humanitarian.
Phillip tucked Rebecca in bed, while I waited in the living room. I half-expected to hear giggling or some sound that said he was working his charm. There was nothing but the quiet murmur of voices and the cool rustle of sheets. When he came out of the bedroom, his face was serious, solemn. He slipped his glasses back on and hit the light switch. The room was a thick, hot darkness. I heard him move in the ovenlike blackness. A rustle of jeans, a scrape of boot. I fumbled for the doorknob, found it, flung it open.
Pale light spilled in. Phillip was standing, staring at me, eyes hidden. His body was relaxed, easy, but somehow I could feel his hostility. We were no longer playing friends. I wasn't sure if he was angry with me for some reason, or himself, or fate. When you end up with a life like Rebecca's, there should be someone to blame.
"That could have been me," he said.
I looked at him. "But it wasn't."
He spread his arms wide, flexing. "But it could be."
I didn't know what to say to that. What could I say? There but for the grace of God go you? I doubted God had much to do with Phillip's world.
Phillip made sure the door locked behind us, then said, "I know at least two other murdered vampires were regulars on the party circuit."
My stomach tightened, a little flutter of excitement. "Do you think the rest of the ... victims could be freak aficionados?"
He shrugged. "I can find out." His face was still closed to me, blank. Something had turned off his switch. Maybe it was Rebecca Miles's small, starved hands. I know it hadn't done a lot for me.
Could I trust him to find out? Would he tell me the truth? Would it endanger him? No answers, just more questions, but at least the questions were getting better. Freak parties. A common thread, a real live clue. Hot dog.
Inside my car I turned the air conditioning on full blast. Sweat chilled on my skin, jelling in place. I turned the air down before I got a headache from the temperature change.
Phillip sat as far away from me as he could get. His body was half-turned, as much as the seat belt would allow, towards the window. His eyes behind their sunglasses stared out and away. Phillip didn't want to talk about what had just happened. How did I know that? Anita the mind reader. No, just Anita the not so stupid.
His whole body was hunched in upon itself. If I hadn't known better, I'd have said he was in pain. Come to think of it, maybe he was.
I had just bullied a very fragile human being. It hadn't felt very good, but it beat the heck out of knocking her senseless. I had not hurt her physically. Why didn't I believe that? Now, I was going to question Phillip because he had given me a clue. The proverbial lead. I couldn't let it go.
"Phillip?" I asked.
His shoulders tightened, but he continued to stare out the window.
"Phillip, I need to know about the freak parties."
"Drop me at the club."
"Guilty Pleasures?" I asked. Brilliant repartee, that's me.
He nodded, still turned away.
"Don't you need to pick up your car?"
"I don't drive," he said. "Monica dropped me off at your office."
"Did she now?" I felt the anger, instantaneous and warm.
He turned then, stared at me, face blank, eyes hidden. "Why are you so angry at her? She just got you to the club, that's all."
"Why?" His voice was tired, human, normal.
I wouldn't have answered the teasing flirt, but this person was real. Real people deserve answers. "She's human, and she betrayed other humans to nonhumans," I said.
"And that's a worse crime than Jean-Claude choosing you to be our champion?"
"Jean-Claude is a vampire. You expect treachery from vampires."
"You do. I do not."
"Rebecca Miles looks like a person who's been betrayed."
Great Anita, just great, let's emotionally abuse everyone we meet today. But it was true.
He had turned back to the window, and I had to fill the pained silence. "Vampires are not human. Their loyalty, first and foremost, must be to their own kind. I understand that. Monica betrayed her own kind. She also betrayed a friend. That is unforgivable."
He twisted to look at me. I wished I could see his eyes. "So if someone was your friend, you would do anything for them?"
I thought about that as we drove down 70 East. Anything? That was a tall order. Almost anything? Yes. "Almost anything," I said.
"So loyalty and friendship are very important to you?"
"Because you believe Monica betrayed both of those things, it makes it a worse crime than anything the vampires did?"
I shifted in the seat, not happy with the way the conversation was going. I am not a big one for personal analysis. I know who I am and what I do, and that's usually enough. Not always, but most of the time. "Not anything; I don't believe in many absolutes. But, if you want a short version, yes, that's why I'm angry at Monica."
He nodded, as if that were the answer he wanted. "She's afraid of you; did you know that?"
I smiled, and it wasn't a very nice smile. I could feel the edges curl up with a dark sort of satisfaction. "I hope the little bitch is sweating it out, big time."
"She is," he said. His voice was very quiet.
I glanced at him, then quickly back to the road. I had a feeling he didn't approve of my scaring Monica. Of course, that was his problem. I was quite pleased with the results.
We were getting close to the Riverfront turnoff. He had still not answered my question. In fact, he had very nicely avoided it. "Tell me about freak parties, Phillip."
"Did you really threaten to cut out Monica's heart?"
"Yes. Are you going to tell me about the parties or not?"
"Would you really do it? Cut out her heart, I mean?"
"You answer my question, I'll answer yours." I turned the car onto the narrow brick roads of the Riverfront. Two more blocks and we would be at Guilty Pleasures.
"I told you what the parties are like. I've stopped going the last few months."
I glanced at him again. I wanted to ask why. So I did. "Why?"
"Damn, you do ask personal questions, don't you?"
"I didn't mean it to be."
I thought he wasn't going to answer the question, but he did. "I got tired of being passed around. I didn't want to end up like Rebecca, or worse."
I wanted to ask what was worse, but I let it go. I try not to be cruel, just persistent. There are days when the difference is pretty damn slight. "If you find out that all the vampires went to freak parties, call me."
"Then what?" he asked.
"I need to go to a party." I parked in front of Guilty Pleasures. The neon was quiet, a dim ghost of its nighttime self. The place looked closed.
"You don't want to go to a party, Anita."
"I'm trying to solve a crime, Phillip. If I don't, my friend dies. And I have no illusions about what the master will do to me if I fail. A quick death would be the best I could hope for."
He shivered. "Yeah, yeah." He unbuckled the seat belt and rubbed his hands along his arms, as if he were cold. "You never answered my question about Monica," he said.
"You never really told me about the parties."
He looked down, staring at the tops of his thighs. "There's one tonight. If you have to go, I'll take you." He turned to me, arms still hugging his elbows. "The parties are always at a different location. When I find out where, how do I get in touch with you?"
"Leave a message on my answering machine, my home number." I got a business card out of my purse and wrote my home phone number on the back. He got his jean jacket out of the back seat and stuffed the card into a pocket. He opened the door, and the heat washed into the chill, air-conditioned car like the breath of a dragon.
He leaned into the car, one arm on the roof, one on the door. "Now, answer my question. Would you really cut out Monica's heart, so she couldn't come back as a vampire?"
I stared into the blackness of his sunglasses and said, "Yes."
"Remind me never to piss you off." He took a deep breath. "You'll need to wear something that shows off your scars tonight. Buy something if you don't have it." He hesitated, then asked, "Are you as good at being a friend as you are an enemy?"
I took a deep breath and let it out. What could I say? "You don't want me for an enemy, Phillip. I make a much better friend."
"Yeah, I'll bet you do." He closed the door and walked up to the club door. He knocked, and a few moments later the door opened. I got a glimpse of a pale figure opening the door. It couldn't be a vampire, could it? The door closed before I could see much. Vampires could not come out in daylight. That was a rule. But until last night I had known vampires could not fly. So much for what I knew.
Whoever it was had been expecting Phillip. I pulled away from the curb. Why had they sent him at his flirtatious best? Had he been sent to charm me? Or was he the only human they could get at short notice? The only daytime member of their little club. Except for Monica. And I wasn't real fond of her right now. That was just dandy with me.
I didn't think Phillip was lying about the freak parties, but what did I know about Phillip? He stripped at Guilty Pleasures, not exactly a character reference. He was a vampire junkie, better and better. Was all that pain an act? Was he luring me someplace, just as Monica had?
I didn't know. And I needed to know. There was one place I could go that might have the answers. The only place in the District where I was truly welcome. Dead Dave's, a nice bar that served a mean hamburger. The proprietor was an ex-cop who had been kicked off the force for being dead. Picky, picky. Dave liked to help out, but he resented the prejudice of his former comrades. So he talked to me. And I talked to the police. It was a nice little arrangement that let Dave be pissed off at the police and still help them.
It made me nearly invaluable to the police. Since I was on retainer, that pleased Bert to no end.
It being daytime, Dead Dave was tucked in his coffin, but Luther would be there. Luther was the daytime manager and bartender. He was one of the few people in the District who didn't have much to do with vampires, except for the fact that he worked for one. Life is never perfect.
I actually found a parking place not far from Dave's. Daytime parking is a lot more open in the District. When the Riverfront used to be human-owned businesses, there was never any parking on a weekend, day or night. It was one of the few positives of the new vampire laws. That and the tourism.
St. Louis was a real hot spot for vampire watchers. The only place better was New York, but we had a lower crime rate. There was a gang that had gone all vampire in New York. They had spread to Los Angeles and tried to spread here. The police found the first recruits chopped into bite-size pieces.
Our vampire community prides itself on being mainstream. A vampire gang would be bad publicity, so they took care of it. I admired the efficiency of it but wished they had done it differently. I had had nightmares for weeks about walls that bled and dismembered arms that crawled along the floor all by themselves. We never did find the heads.
Dead Dave's is all dark glass and glowing beer signs. At night the front windows look like some sort of modern art, featuring brand names. In the daylight everything is muted. Bars are sort of like vampires; they are at their best after dark. There is something tired and wistful about a daytime bar.
The air conditioning was up full blast, like the inside of a freezer. It was almost a physical jolt after the skin-melting heat outside. I stood just inside the door and waited for my eyes to adjust to the twilight interior. Why are all bars so damn dark, like caves, places to hide? The air smelled of stale cigarettes no matter when you came in, as if years of smoke had settled into the upholstery, like aromatic ghosts.
Two guys in business suits were settled at the farthest booth from the door. They were eating and had manila folders spread across the table top. Working on a Saturday. Just like me, well, maybe not just like me. I was betting that no one had threatened to tear their throats out. Of course, I could be wrong, but I doubted it. I was betting the worst threat they had had this week was lack of job security. Ah, the good old days.
There was a man crouched on a bar stool, nursing a tall drink. His face was already slack, his movements very slow and precise, as if he were afraid he'd spill something. Drunk at one-thirty in the afternoon; not a good sign for him. But it wasn't my business. You can't save everybody. In fact, there are days when I think you can't save anyone. Each person has to save himself first, then you can move in and help. I have found this philosophy does not work during a gun battle, or a knife fight either. Outside of that it works just fine.
Luther was polishing glasses with a very clean white towel. He looked up when I slipped up on the bar stool. He nodded, a cigarette dangling from his thick lips. Luther is large, nay, fat. There is no other word for it, but it is hard fat, rock-solid, almost a kind of muscle. His hands are huge-knuckled and as big as my face. Of course, my face is small. He is a very dark black man, nearly purplish black, like mahogany. The creamy chocolate of his eyes is yellow-edged from too much cigarette smoke. I don't think I have ever seen Luther without a cig clasped between his lips. He is overweight, chain-smokes, and the grey in his hair marks him as over fifty, yet he's never sick. Good genetics, I guess.
"What'll it be, Anita?" His voice matched his body, deep and gravelly.
He poured me a short glass of orange juice. Vitamins. We pretended it was a screwdriver, so my penchant for sobriety wouldn't give the bar a bad name. Who wants to get drunk when there are teetotalers in the crowd? And why in the world would I keep coming to a bar if I didn't drink?
I sipped my fake screwdriver and said, "I need some info."
"Figured that. Whatcha need?"
"I need information on a man named Phillip, dances at Guilty Pleasures."
One thick eyebrow raised. "Vamp?"
I shook my head. "Vampire junkie."
He took a big drag on his cig, making the end glow like a live coal. He blew a huge puff of smoke politely away from me. "Whatcha want to know about him?"
"Is he trustworthy?"
He stared at me for a heartbeat, then he grinned. "Trustworthy? Hell, Anita, he's a junkie. Don't matter what he's strung out on, drugs, liquor, sex, vampires, no diff. No junkie is trustworthy, you know that."
I nodded. I did know that, but what could I do? "I have to trust him, Luther. He's all I got."
"Damn, girl, you are moving in the wrong circles."
I smiled. Luther was the only person I let call me girl. All women were "girl," all men "fella."
"I need to know if you've heard anything really bad about him," I said.
"What are you up to?" he asked.
"I can't say. I'd share it if I could, or if I thought it would do any good."
He studied me for a moment, cig dribbling ash onto the countertop. lie wiped up the ash absentmindedly with his clean white towel. "Okay, Anita, you've earned the right to say no, this once, but next time you better have something to share."
I smiled. "Cross my heart."
He just shook his head and pulled a fresh cigarette out of the pack he always kept behind the bar. He took one last drag of the nearly burned cig, then clasped the fresh one between his lips. He put the glowing orange end of the old cig against the fresh white tip and sucked air. The paper and tobacco caught, flared orange-red, and he stubbed out the old cig in the already full ashtray he carried with him from place to place, like a teddy bear.
"I know they got a dancer down at the club that is a freak. He does the party circuit and is reeeal popular with a certain sort of vamp." Luther shrugged, a massive movement like mountains hiccuping. "Don't have no dirt on him, 'cept he's a junkie, and he does the circuit. Shit, Anita, that's bad enough. Sounds like someone to stay away from."
"I would if I could." It was my turn to shrug. "But you haven't heard anything else about him?"
He thought for a moment, sucking on his new cigarette. "No, not a word. He ain't a big player in the district. He's a professional victim. Most of the talk is about the predators down here, not the sheep." He frowned. "Just a minute. I got something, an idea." He thought very carefully for a few minutes, then smiled broadly. "Yeah, got some news on a predator. Vamp calls himself Valentine, wears a mask. He been bragging that he did of Phillip the first time."
"So," I said.
"Not the first time he was a junkie, girl, the first time period. Valentine claims he jumped the boy when he was small, did him good. Claims of Phillip liked it so much that's why he's a junkie."
"Dear God." I remembered the nightmares, the reality, of Valentine. What would it have been like to have been small when it happened? What would it have done to me?
"You know Valentine?" Luther asked.
I nodded. "Yeah. He ever say how old Phillip was when the attack took place?"
He shook his head. "No, but word is anything over twelve is too old for Valentine, 'less it's revenge. He's a real big one for revenge. Word is if the master didn't keep him in line, he'd be damn dangerous."
"You bet your sweet ass he's dangerous."
"You know him." It wasn't a question.
I looked up at Luther. "I need to know where Valentine stays during the day."
"That's two bits of information for nuthin'. I don't think so."
"He wears a mask because I doused him with Holy Water about two years ago. Until last night I thought he was dead, and he thought the same about me. He's going to kill me, if he can."
"You awful hard to kill, Anita."
"There's a first time, Luther, and that's all it takes."
"I hear that." He started polishing already clean glasses. "I don't know. Word gets out we giving you daytime resting places, it could go bad for us. They could burn this place to the ground with us inside."
"You're right. I don't have a right to ask." But I sat there on the bar stool, staring at him, willing him to give me what I needed. Risk your life for me old buddy of pal, I'd do the same for you. Riiight.
"If you could swear you wouldn't use the info to kill him, I could tell you," Luther said.
"It'd be a lie."
"You got a warrant to kill him?" he asked.
"Not active, but I could get one."
"Would you wait for it?"
"It's illegal to kill a vampire without a court order of execution," I said.
He stared at me. "That ain't the question. Would you jump the gun to make sure of the kill?"
He shook his head. "You gonna be up on charges one of these days, girl. Murder is a serious rap."
I shrugged. "Beats getting your throat torn out."
He blinked. "Well, now." He didn't seem to know what to say, so he polished a sparkling glass over and over in his big hands. "I'll have to ask Dave. If he says it's okay, you can have it."
I finished my orange juice and paid up, a little heavy on the tip to keep things aboveboard. Dave would never admit he helped me because of my tie with the police, so money had to exchange hands, even if it wasn't nearly what the information was worth. "Thanks, Luther."
"Word on the street is that you met the master last night. That true?"
"You know about that before or after the fact?" I asked.
He looked pained. "Anita, we woulda told you if we'd known, gratis."
I nodded. "Sorry, Luther, it's been a rough few nights."
"I'll bet. So the rumor's true?"
What could I say? Deny it? A lot of people seemed to know. I guess you can't even trust the dead to keep a secret. "Maybe." I might as well have said yes, because I didn't say no. Luther understood the game. He nodded. "What did they want with you?"
"Mmm ... uh. Okay, Anita, you be damn careful. You might wanta get some help, if there's anybody you can trust."
Trust? It wasn't lack of trust. "There may be only two ways out of this mess, Luther. Death would be my choice. A quick death would be best, but I doubt I'll get the chance if things go bad. What friend am I supposed to drag into that?"
His round, dark face stared at me. "I don't have no answers, girl. I wish I did."
"So do I."
The phone rang. Luther answered it. He looked at me and carried the phone down on its long cord. "For you," he said.
I cradled the phone against my cheek. "Yes."
"It's Ronnie." Her voice was suppressed excitement, a kid on Christmas morning.
My stomach tightened. "You have something?"
"There is a rumor going around Humans Against Vampires. A death squad designed to wipe the vampires off the face of the earth."
"You have proof, a witness?"
I sighed before I could stop myself.
"Come on, Anita, this is good news."
I cupped my hand over the phone and whispered, "I can't take a rumor about HAV to the master. The vampires would slaughter them. A lot of innocent people would get killed, and we're not even sure that HAV is really behind the murders."
"All right, all right," Ronnie said. "I'll have something more concrete by tomorrow, I promise. Bribe or threat, I'll get the information."
"What are friends for? Besides, Bert's going to have to pay for overtime and bribes. I always love the look of pain when he has to part with money."
I grinned into the phone. "Me, too."
"What are you doing tonight?"
"Going to a party."
I explained as briefly as I could. After a long silence she said, "That is very freaky."
I agreed with her. "You keep working your end, I'll try from this side. Maybe we'll meet in the middle."
"It'd be nice to think so." Her voice sounded warm, almost angry.
"You're going in without backup, aren't you?" she asked.
"You're alone," I said.
"But I'm not surrounded by vampires and freakazoids."
"If you're at HAV headquarters, that last is debatable."
"Don't be cute. You know what I mean."
"Yes, Ronnie, I know what you mean. You are the only friend I have who can handle herself." I shrugged, realized she couldn't see it, and said, "Anybody else would be like Catherine, sheep among wolves, and you know it."
"What about another animator?"
"Who? Jamison thinks vampires are nifty. Bert talks a good game, but he doesn't endanger his lily white ass. Charles is a good enough corpse-raiser, but he's squeamish, and he's got a four-year-old kid. Manny doesn't hunt vampires anymore. He spent four months in the hospital being put back together after his last hunt."
"If I remember correctly, you were in the hospital, too," she said.
"A broken arm and a busted collarbone were my worst injuries, Ronnie. Manny almost died. Besides, he's got a wife and four kids."
Manny had been the animator who trained me. He taught me how to raise the dead, and how to slay vampires. Though admittedly I had expanded on Manny's teachings. He was a traditionalist, a stake-and-garlic man. He had carried a gun, but as backup, not as a primary tool. If modern technology will allow me to take out a vampire from a distance, rather than straddling its waist and pounding a stake through its heart, heh, why not?
Two years ago, Rosita, Manny's wife, had come to me and begged me not to endanger her husband anymore. Fifty-two was too old to hunt vampires, she had said. What would happen to her and the children? Somehow I had gotten all the blame, like a mother whose favorite child had been led astray by the neighborhood ruffians. She had made me swear before God that I would never again ask Manny to join me on a hunt. If she hadn't cried, I would have held out, refused. Crying was damned unfair in a fight. Once a person started to cry, you couldn't talk anymore. You suddenly just wanted them to stop crying, stop hurting, stop making you feel like the biggest scum-bucket in the world. Anything to stop the tears.
Ronnie was quiet on the other end of the phone. "All right, but you be careful."
"Careful as a virgin on her wedding night, I promise."
She laughed. "You are incorrigible."
"Everybody tells me that," I said.
"Watch your back."
"You do the same."
"I will." She hung up. The phone buzzed dead in my hands.
"Good news?" Luther asked.
"Yeah." Humans Against Vampires had a death squad. Maybe. But maybe was better than what I'd had before. Look, folks, nothing up my sleeves, nothing in my pockets, no idea in hell what I was doing. Just blundering around trying to track down a killer that has taken out two master vampires. If I was on the right track, I'd attract attention soon. Which meant someone might try to kill me. Wouldn't that be fun?
I would need clothes that showed off my vampire scars and allowed me to hide weapons. It would not be an easy combination to find.
I would have to spend the afternoon shopping. I hate to shop. I consider it one of life's necessary evils, like Brussels sprouts and high-heeled shoes. Of course, it beat the heck out of having my life threatened by vampires. But wait; we could go shopping now and be threatened by vampires in the evening. A perfect way to spend a Saturday night.
I transferred all the smaller bags into one big bag, to leave one hand free for my gun. You'd be amazed what a nice target you make juggling two armloads of shopping bags. First drop the bags, that is if one of the handles isn't tangled over your wrist-then reach for your gun, pull, aim, fire. By the time you do all that the bad guy has shot you twice and is walking away humming Dixie between his teeth.
I had been downright paranoid all afternoon, aware of everyone near me. Was I being followed? Had that man looked too long at me? Was that woman wearing a scarf around her neck because she had bite marks?
By the time I went for the car, my neck and shoulders were knotted into one painful ache. The most frightening thing I'd seen all afternoon had been the prices on the designer clothing.
The world was still bright blue and heat-soaked when I went for my car. It's easy to forget the passage of time in a mall. It is air conditioned, climate controlled, a private world where nothing real touches you. Disneyland for shopaholics.
I shut my packages in the trunk and watched the sky darken. I knew what fear felt like, a leaden balloon in the pit of your gut. A nice, quiet dread.
I shrugged to loosen my shoulders. Rotated my neck until it popped. Better, but still tight. I needed some aspirin. I had eaten in the mall, something I almost never did. The moment I smelled the food stalls, I had gone for them, starved.
The pizza had tasted like thin cardboard with imitation tomato paste spread over it. The cheese had been rubbery and tasteless. Yum, yum, mall food. Truth is, I love Corn Dog on a Stick and Mrs. Field's Cookies.
I got one piece of pizza with just cheese, the way I like it, but one piece with everything. I hate mushrooms and green peppers.
Sausage belongs on the breakfast table, not on pizza. I didn't know which bothered me more; that I ordered it in the first place, or that I had eaten half of it before I realized what I was doing. I was craving food that I normally hated. Why? One more question without an answer. Why did this one scare me?
My neighbor, Mrs. Pringle, was walking her dog back and forth on the grass in front of our apartment building. I parked and unloaded my one overstuffed bag from the trunk.
Mrs. Pringle is over sixty, nearly six feet tall, stretched too thin with age. Her faded blue eyes are bright and curious behind silver-rimmed glasses. Her dog Custard is a Pomeranian. He looks like a golden dandelion fluff with cat feet.
Mrs. Pringle waved at me, and I was trapped. I smiled and walked over to them. Custard began jumping up on me, like he had springs in his tiny legs. He looked like a wind-up toy. His yapping was frequent and insistent, joyous.
Custard knows I don't like him, and in his twisted doggy mind he is determined to win me over. Or maybe he just knows it irritates me. Whatever.
"Anita, you naughty girl, why didn't you tell me you had a beau?" Mrs. Pringle asked.
I frowned. "A beau?"
"A boyfriend," she said.
I didn't know what in the world she was talking about. "What do you mean?"
"Be coy if you wish, but when a young woman gives her apartment key to a man, it means something."
That lead balloon in my gut floated up a few inches. "Did you see someone going in my apartment today?" I worked very hard at keeping my face and voice casual.
"Yes, your nice young man. Very handsome."
I wanted to ask what he looked like, but if he was my boyfriend with a key to my apartment, I should know. I couldn't ask. Very handsome-could it be Phillip? But why? "When did he stop by?"
"Oh, around two this afternoon. I was just coming out to walk Custard as he was going in."
"Did you see him leave?"
She was staring at me a little too hard. "No. Anita, was he not supposed to be in your home? Did I let a burglar get away?"
"No." I managed a smile and almost a whole laugh. "I just didn't expect him today, that's all. If you see anyone going into my apartment, just let them. I'll have friends going in and out for a few days."
Her eyes had narrowed; her delicate-boned hands were very still. Even Custard was sitting in the grass, panting up at me. "Anita Blake," she said, and I was reminded that she was a retired schoolteacher, it was that kind of voice. "What are you up to?"
"Nothing, really. I've just never given my key to a man before, and I'm a little unsure about it. Jittery." I gave her my best wide-eyed innocent look. I resisted the urge to bat my eyes, but everything else was working.
She crossed her arms over her stomach. I don't think she believed me. "If you are that nervous about this young man, then he is not the right one for you. If he was, you wouldn't be jittery."
I felt light with relief. She believed. "You're probably right. Thank you for the advice. I may even take it." I felt so good, I patted Custard on top of his furry little head.
I heard Mrs. Pringle say as I walked away, "Now, Custard, do your business and let's go upstairs."
For the second time in the same day I might have an intruder in my apartment. I walked down the hushed corridor and drew my gun. A door opened. A man and two children walked out. I slipped my gun and my hand in the shopping bag, pretending to search for something. I listened to their footsteps echo down the stairs.
I couldn't just sit out here with a gun. Someone would call the police. Everybody was home from work, eating dinner, reading the paper, playing with the kids. Suburban America was awake and alert. You could not walk through it with a gun drawn.
I carried the shopping bag in my left hand in front of me, gun and right hand still inside it. If worse came to worse, I'd shoot through the bag. I walked two doors past my apartment and dug my keys out of my purse. I sat the shopping bag against the wall and transferred the gun to my left hand. I could shoot left-handed, not as well, but it would have to do. I held the gun parallel to my thigh and hoped nobody would come the wrong way down the hall and see it. I knelt by the door, keys cupped in my right hand, quiet, not jingling this time. I learn fast.
I held the gun in front of my chest and inserted the keys. The lock clicked. I flinched and waited for gunshots or noise, or something. Nothing. I slipped the keys into my pocket and switched the gun back to my right hand. With just my wrist and part of my arm in front of the door, I turned the knob and pushed hard.
The door swung back and banged against the far wall, nobody there. No gunshots at the door. Silence.
I was crouched by the doorjamb, gun straight out, scanning the room. There was no one to see. The chair, still facing the door, was empty this time. I would almost have been relieved to see Edward.
Footsteps pounded up the stairs at the end of the hall. I had to make a decision. I reached my left hand back and got the shopping bag, never taking eyes or gun from the apartment. I scrambled inside, shoving the bag ahead of me. I shoved the door closed, still crouched by the floor.
The aquarium heater clicked, then whirred, and I jumped. Sweat was oozing down my spine. The brave vampire slayer. If they could only see me now. The apartment felt empty. There was no one here but me, but just in case, I searched in closets, under beds. Playing Dirty Harry as I slammed doors and flattened myself against walls. I felt like a fool, but I would have been a bigger fool to have trusted the apartment was empty and been wrong.
There was a shotgun on the kitchen table, along with two boxes of ammo. A sheet of white typing paper lay under it. In neat, black letters, it said, "Anita, you have twenty-four hours."
I stared at the note, reread it. Edward had been here. I don't think I breathed for a minute. I was picturing my neighbor chatting with Edward. If Mrs. Pringle had hesitated at his lie, showed fear, would he have killed her?
I didn't know. I just didn't know. Dammit! I was like a plague. Everyone around me was in danger, but what could I do?
When in doubt, take a deep breath and keep moving. A philosophy I have lived by for years. I've heard worse, really.
The note meant I had twenty-four hours before Edward came for the location of Nikolaos' daytime retreat. If I didn't give it to him, I would have to kill him. I might not be able to do that.
I told Ronnie we were professionals, but if Edward was a professional, then I was an amateur. And so was Ronnie.
Heavy damn sigh. I had to get dressed for the party. There just wasn't time to worry about Edward. I had other problems tonight.
My answering machine was blinking, and I switched it on. Ronnie's voice first, telling me what she had already told me about HAV. Evidently, she had called here first before contacting me at Dave's bar. Then, "Anita, this is Phillip. I know the location for the party. Pick me up in front of Guilty Pleasures at six-thirty. Bye."
The machine clicked, whirred, and was silent. I had two hours to dress and be there. Plenty of time. My average time for makeup is fifteen minutes. Hair takes less, because all I do is run a brush through it. Presto, I'm presentable.
I don't wear makeup often, so when I do, I always feel like it's too dark, too fake. But I always get compliments on it, like, "Why don't you wear eye shadow more often? It really brings out your eyes," or my favorite, "You look so much better in makeup." All the above implies that without makeup, you look like a candidate for the spinster farm.
One piece of makeup I don't use is base. I can't imagine smearing cake over my whole face. I own one bottle of clear nail polish, but it isn't for my fingers, it's for my panty hose. If I wear a pair of hose once without snagging them, I have had a very good day.
I stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom. The top slipped over my head with one thin strap. There was no back; it tied across the small of my back in a cute little bow. I could have done without the bow, but otherwise it wasn't too bad. The top slipped into the black skirt, complete, dresslike without a break. The tan bandages on my hands clashed with the dress. Oh, well. The skirt was full and swirled when I moved. It had pockets.
Through those pockets were two thigh sheaths complete with silver knives. All I had to do was slip my hands in and come out with a weapon. Neat. Sweat is an interesting thing when you're wearing a thigh sheath. I had not been able to figure out how to hide a gun on me. I don't care how many times you've seen women carry guns on a thigh holster on television, it is damn awkward. You walk like a duck with a wet diaper on.
Hose and high-heeled black satin pumps completed the outfit. I had owned the shoes and the weapons; everything else was new.
One other new item was a cute black purse with a thin strap that would hang across my shoulders, leaving my hands free. I stuffed my smaller gun, the Firestar, into it. I know, I know, by the time I dug the gun from the depths of the purse, the bad guys would be feasting on my flesh, but it was better than not having it at all.
I slipped my cross on, and the silver looked good against the black top. Unfortunately, I doubted the vampires would let me into the party wearing a blessed crucifix. Oh, well. I'd leave it in the car, along with the shotgun and ammo.
Edward had kindly left a box near the table. What I assumed he had brought the gun up in. What had he told Mrs. Pringle, that it was a present for me?
Edward had said twenty-four hours, but twenty-four hours from when? Would he be here at dawn, bright and early, to torture the information out of me? Naw, Edward didn't strike me as a morning person. I was safe until at least afternoon. Probably.