The Laughing Corpse (v1.1)
Book 2 of Anita Blake Vampire Hunter
Laurell K. Hamilton, 1994
Harold Gaynor's house sat in the middle of intense green lawn and the graceful sweep of trees. The house gleamed in the hot August sunshine. Bert Vaughn, my boss, parked the car on the crushed gravel of the driveway. The gravel was so white, it looked like handpicked rock salt. Somewhere out of sight the soft whir of sprinklers pattered. The grass was absolutely perfect in the middle of one of the worst droughts Missouri has had in over twenty years. Oh, well. I wasn't here to talk with Mr. Gaynor about water management. I was here to talk about raising the dead.
Not resurrection. I'm not that good. I mean zombies. The shambling dead. Rotting corpses. Night of the living dead. That kind of zombie. Though certainly less dramatic than Hollywood would ever put up on the screen. I am an animator. It's a job, that's all, like selling.
Animating had only been a licensed business for about five years. Before that it had just been an embarrassing curse, a religious experience, or a tourist attraction. It still is in parts of New Orleans, but here in St. Louis it's a business. A profitable one, thanks in large part to my boss. He's a rascal, a scalawag, a rogue, but damn if he doesn't know how to make money. It's a good trait for a business manager.
Bert was six-three, a broad-shouldered, ex-college football player with the beginnings of a beer gut. The dark blue suit he wore was tailored so that the gut didn't show. For eight hundred dollars the suit should have hidden a herd of elephants. His white-blond hair was trimmed in a crew cut, back in style after all these years. A boater's tan made his pale hair and eyes dramatic with contrast.
Bert adjusted his blue and red striped tie, mopping a bead of sweat off his tanned forehead. "I heard on the news there's a movement there to use zombies in pesticide-contaminated fields. It would save lives."
"Zombies rot, Bert, there's no way to prevent that, and they don't stay smart enough long enough to be used as field labor."
"It was just a thought. The dead have no rights under law, Anita."
It was wrong to raise the dead so they could slave for us. It was just wrong, but no one listens to me. The government finally had to get into the act. There was a nationwide committee being formed of animators and other experts. We were supposed to look into the working conditions of local zombies.
Working conditions. They didn't understand. You can't give a corpse nice working conditions. They don't appreciate it anyway. Zombies may walk, even talk, but they are very, very dead.
Bert smiled indulgently at me. I fought an urge to pop him one right in his smug face, "I know you and Charles are working on that committee," Bert said. "Going around to all the businesses and checking up on the zombies. It makes great press for Animators, Inc." .
"I don't do it for good press," I said.
"I know. You believe in your little cause."
"You're a condescending bastard," I said, smiling sweetly up at him.
He grinned at me. "I know."
I just shook my head; with Bert you can't really win an insult match. He doesn't give a damn what I think of him, as long as I work for him.
My navy blue suit jacket was supposed to be summer weight but it was a lie. Sweat trickled down my spine as soon as I stepped out of the car.
Bert turned to me, small eyes narrowing. His eyes lend themselves to suspicious squints. "You're still wearing your gun," he said.
"The jacket hides it, Bert. Mr. Gaynor will never know." Sweat started collecting under the straps of my shoulder holster. I could feel the silk blouse beginning to melt. I try not to wear silk and a shoulder rig at the same time. The silk starts to look indented, wrinkling where the straps cross. The gun was a Browning Hi-Power 9mm, and I liked having it near at hand.
"Come on, Anita. I don't think you'll need a gun in the middle of the afternoon, while visiting a client." Bert's voice held that patronizing tone that people use on children. Now, little girl, you know this is for your own good.
Bert didn't care about my well-being. He just didn't want to spook Gaynor. The man had already given us a check for five thousand dollars. And that was just to drive out and talk to him. The implication was that there was more money if we agreed to take his case. A lot of money. Bert was all excited about that part. I was skeptical. After all, Bert didn't have to raise the corpse. I did.
The trouble was, Bert was probably right. I wouldn't need the gun in broad daylight. Probably. "All right, open the trunk."
Bert opened the trunk of his nearly brand-new Volvo. I was already taking off the jacket. He stood in front of me, hiding me from the house. God forbid that they should see me hiding a gun in the trunk. What would they do, lock the doors and scream for help?
I folded the holster straps around the gun and laid it in the clean trunk. It smelled like new car, plastic and faintly unreal. Bert shut the trunk, and I stared at it as if I could still see the gun.
"Are you coming?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. I didn't like leaving my gun behind, for any reason. Was that a bad sign? Bert motioned for me to come on.
I did, walking carefully over the gravel in my high-heeled black pumps. Women may get to wear lots of pretty colors, but men get the comfortable shoes.
Bert was staring at the door, smile already set on his face. It was his best professional smile, dripping with sincerity. His pale grey eyes sparkled with good cheer. It was a mask. He could put it on and off like a light switch. He'd wear the same smile if you confessed to killing your own mother. As long as you wanted to pay to have her raised from the dead.
The door opened, and I knew Bert had been wrong about me not needing a gun. The man was maybe five-eight, but the orange polo shirt he wore strained over his chest. The black sport jacket seemed too small, as if when he moved the seams would split, like an insect's skin that had been outgrown. Black acid-washed jeans showed off a small waist, so he looked like someone had pinched him in the middle while the clay was still wet. His hair was very blond. He looked at us silently. His eyes were empty, dead as a doll's. I caught a glimpse of shoulder holster under the sport jacket and resisted an urge to kick Bert in the shins.
Either my boss didn't notice the gun or he ignored it. "Hello, I'm Bert Vaughn and this is my associate, Anita Blake. I believe Mr. Gaynor is expecting us." Bert smiled at him charmingly.
The bodyguard-what else could he be-moved away from the door. Bert took that for an invitation and walked inside. I followed, not at all sure I wanted to. Harold Gaynor was a very rich man. Maybe he needed a bodyguard. Maybe people had threatened him. Or maybe he was one of those men who have enough money to keep hired muscle around whether they need it or not.
Or maybe something else was going on. Something that needed guns and muscle, and men with dead, emotionless eyes. Not a cheery thought.
The air-conditioning was on too high and the sweat gelled instantly. We followed the bodyguard down a long central hall that was paneled in dark, expensive-looking wood. The hall runner looked oriental and was probably handmade.
Heavy wooden doors were set in the right-hand wall. The bodyguard opened the doors and again stood to one side while we walked through. The room was a library, but I was betting no one ever read any of the books. The place was ceiling to floor in dark wood bookcases. There was even a second level of books and shelves reached by an elegant sweep of narrow staircase. All the books were hardcover, all the same size, colors muted and collected together like a collage. The furniture was, of course, red leather with brass buttons worked into it.
A man sat near the far wall. He smiled when we came in. He was a large man with a pleasant round face, doublechinned. He was sitting in an electric wheelchair, with a small plaid blanket over his lap, hiding his legs.
"Mr. Vaughn and Ms. Blake, how nice of you to drive out." His voice went with his face, pleasant, damn near amiable.
A slender black man sat in one of the leather chairs. He was over six feet tall, exactly how much over was hard to tell. He was slumped down, long legs stretched out in front of him with the ankles crossed. His legs were taller than I was. His brown eyes watched me as if he were trying to memorize me and would be graded later.
The blond bodyguard went to lean against the bookcases. He couldn't quite cross his arms, jacket too tight, muscles too big. You really shouldn't lean against a wall and try to look tough unless you can cross your arms. Ruins the effect.
Mr. Gaynor said, "You've met Tommy." He motioned towards the sitting bodyguard. "That's Bruno."
"Is that your real name or just a nickname?" I asked, looking straight into Bruno's eyes.
He shifted just a little in his chair. "Real name."
"Why?" he asked.
"I've just never met a bodyguard who was really named Bruno."
"Is that supposed to be funny?" he asked.
I shook my head. Bruno. He never had a chance. It was like naming a girl Venus. All Brunos had to be bodyguards. It was a rule. Maybe a cop? Naw, it was a bad guy's name. I smiled.
Bruno sat up in his chair, one smooth, muscular motion. He wasn't wearing a gun that I could see, but there was a presence to him. Dangerous, it said, watch out.
Guess I shouldn't have smiled.
Bert interrupted, "Anita, please. I do apologize, Mr. Gaynor ... Mr. Bruno. Ms. Blake has a rather peculiar sense of humor."
"Don't apologize for me, Bert. I don't like it." I don't know what he was so sore about anyway. I hadn't said the really insulting stuff out loud.
"Now, now," Mr. Gaynor said. "No hard feelings. Right, Bruno?"
Bruno shook his head and frowned at me, not angry, sort of perplexed.
Bert flashed me an angry look, then turned smiling to the man in the wheelchair. "Now, Mr. Gaynor, I know you must be a busy man. So, exactly how old is the zombie you want raised?"
"A man who gets right down to business. I like that." Gaynor hesitated, staring at the door. A woman entered.
She was tall, leggy, blond, with cornflower-blue eyes. The dress, if it was a dress, was rose-colored and silky. It clung to her body the way it was supposed to, hiding what decency demanded, but leaving very little to the imagination. Long pale legs were stuffed into pink spike heels, no hose. She stalked across the carpet, and every man in the room watched her. And she knew it.
She threw back her head and laughed, but no sound came out. Her face brightened, her lips moved, eyes sparkled, but in absolute silence, like someone had turned the sound off. She leaned one hip against Harold Gaynor, one hand on his shoulder. He encircled her waist, and the movement raised the already short dress another inch.
Could she sit down in the dress without flashing the room? Naw.
"This is Cicely," he said. She smiled brilliantly at Bert, that little soundless laugh making her eyes sparkle. She looked at me and her eyes faltered, the smile slipped. For a second uncertainty filled her eyes. Gaynor patted her hip. The smile flamed back into place. She nodded graciously to both of us.
"I want you to raise a two-hundred-and-eighty-three-year old corpse."
I just stared at him and wondered if he understood what he was asking.
"Well," Bert said, "that is nearly three hundred years old. Very old to raise as a zombie. Most animators couldn't do it at all."
"I am aware of that," Gaynor said. "That is why I asked for Ms. Blake. She can do it."
Bert glanced at me. I had never raised anything that old. "Anita?"
"I could do it," I said.
He smiled back at Gaynor, pleased.
"But I won't do it."
Bert turned slowly back to me, smile gone.
Gaynor was still smiling. The bodyguards were immobile. Cicely looked pleasantly at me, eyes blank of any meaning.
"A million dollars, Ms. Blake," Gaynor said in his soft pleasant voice.
I saw Bert swallow. His hands convulsed on the chair arms. Bert's idea of sex was money. He probably had the biggest hard-on of his life.
"Do you understand what you're asking, Mr. Gaynor?" I asked.
He nodded. "I will supply the white goat." His voice was still pleasant as he said it, still smiling. Only his eyes had gone dark; eager, anticipatory.
I stood up. "Come on, Bert, it's time to leave."
Bert grabbed my arm. "Anita, sit down, please."
I stared at his hand until he let go of me. His charming mask slipped, showing me the anger underneath, then he was all pleasant business again. "Anita. It is a generous payment."
"The white goat is a euphemism, Bert. It means a human sacrifice."
My boss glanced at Gaynor, then back to me. He knew me well enough to believe me, but he didn't want to. "I don't understand," he said.
"The older the zombie the bigger the death needed to raise it. After a few centuries the only death 'big enough' is a human sacrifice," I said.
Gaynor wasn't smiling anymore. He was watching me out of dark eyes. Cicely was still looking pleasant, almost smiling. Was there anyone home behind those so blue eyes? "Do you really want to talk about murder in front of Cicely?" I asked.
Gaynor beamed at me, always a bad sign. "She can't understand a word we say. Cicely's deaf."
I stared at him, and he nodded. She looked at me with pleasant eyes. We were talking of human sacrifice and she didn't even know it. If she could read lips, she was hiding it very well. I guess even the handicapped, um, physically challenged, can fall into bad company, but it seemed wrong.
"I hate a woman who talks constantly," Gaynor said.
I shook my head. "All the money in the world wouldn't be enough to get me to work for you."
"Couldn't you just kill lots of animals, instead of just one?" Bert asked. Bert is a very good business manager. He knows shit about raising the dead.
I stared down at him. "No."
Bert sat very still in his chair. The prospect of losing a million dollars must have been real physical pain for him, but he hid it. Mr. Corporate Negotiator. "There has to be a way to work this out," he said. His voice was calm. A professional smile curled his lips. He was still trying to do business. My boss did not understand what was happening.
"Do you know of another animator that could raise a zombie this old?" Gaynor asked.
Bert glanced up at me, then down at the floor, then at Gaynor. The professional smile had faded. He understood now that it was murder we were talking about. Would that make a difference?
I had always wondered where Bert drew the line. I was about to find out. The fact that I didn't know whether he would refuse the contract told you a lot about my boss. "No," Bert said softly, "no, I guess I can't help you either, Mr. Gaynor."
"If it's the money, Ms. Blake, I can raise the offer."
A tremor ran through Bert's shoulders. Poor Bert, but he hid it well. Brownie point for him.
"I'm not an assassin, Gaynor," I said.
"That ain't what I heard," Tommy of the blond hair said.
I glanced at him. His eyes were still as empty as a doll's. "I don't kill people for money."
"You kill vampires for money," he said.
"Legal execution, and I don't do it for the money," I said.
Tommy shook his head and moved away from the wall. "I hear you like staking vampires. And you aren't too careful about who you have to kill to get to 'em."
"My informants tell me you have killed humans before, Ms. Blake," Gaynor said.
"Only in self-defense, Gaynor. I don't do murder."
Bert was standing now. "I think it is time to leave."
Bruno stood in one fluid movement, big dark hands loose and half-cupped at his sides. I was betting on some kind of martial arts.
Tommy was standing away from the wall. His sport jacket was pushed back to expose his gun, like an old-time gunfighter. It was a .357 Magnum. It would make a very big hole.
I just stood there, staring at them. What else could I do? I might be able to do something with Bruno, but Tommy had a gun. I didn't. It sort of ended the argument.
They were treating me like I was a very dangerous person. At five-three I am not imposing. Raise the dead, kill a few vampires, and people start considering you one of the monsters. Sometimes it hurt. But now ... it had possibilities. "Do you really think I came in here unarmed?" I asked. My voice sounded very matter-of-fact.
Bruno looked at Tommy. He sort of shrugged. "I didn't pat her down."
"She ain't wearing a gun, though," Tommy said.
"Want to bet your life on it?" I said. I smiled when I said it, and slid my hand, very slowly, towards my back. Make them think I had a hip holster at the small of my back. Tommy shifted, flexing his hand near his gun. If he went for it, we were going to die. I was going to come back and haunt Bert.
Gaynor said, "No. No need for anyone to die here today, Ms. Blake."
"No," I said, "no need at all." I swallowed my pulse back into my throat and eased my hand away from my imaginary gun. Tommy eased away from his real one. Goody for us.
Gaynor smiled again, like a pleasant beardless Santa. "You of course understand that telling the police would be useless."
I nodded. "We have no proof. You didn't even tell us who you wanted raised from the dead, or why."
"It would be your word against mine," he said.
"And I'm sure you have friends in high places." I smiled when I said it.
His smile widened, dimpling his fat little cheeks. "Of course."
I turned my back on Tommy and his gun. Bert followed. We walked outside into the blistering summer heat. Bert looked a little shaken. I felt almost friendly towards him. It was nice to know that Bert had limits, something he wouldn't do, even for a million dollars.
"Would they really have shot us?" he asked. His voice sounded matter-of-fact, firmer than the slightly glassy look in his eyes. Tough Bert. He unlocked the trunk without being asked.
"With Harold Gaynor's name in our appointment book and in the computer?" I got my gun out and slipped on the holster rig. "Not knowing who we'd mentioned this trip to?" I shook my head. "Too risky."
"Then why did you pretend to have a gun?" He looked me straight in the eyes as he asked, and for the first time I saw uncertainty in his face. Old money bags needed a comforting word, but I was fresh out.
"Because, Bert, I could have been wrong."
The bridal shop was just off 70 West in St. Peters. It was called The Maiden Voyage. Cute. There was a pizza place on one side of it and a beauty salon on the other. It was called Full Dark Beauty Salon. The windows were blacked out, outlined in bloodred neon. You could get your hair and nails done by a vampire, if you wanted to.
Vampirism had only been legal for two years in the United States of America. We were still the only country in the world where it was legal. Don't ask me; I didn't vote for it. There was even a movement to give the vamps the vote. Taxation without representation and all that.
Two years ago if a vampire bothered someone I just went out and staked the son of a bitch. Now I had to get a court order of execution. Without it, I was up on murder charges, if I was caught. I longed for the good of days.
There was a blond mannequin in the wedding shop window wearing enough white lace to drown in. I am not a big fan of lace, or seed pearls, or sequins. Especially not sequins. I had gone out with Catherine twice to help her look for a wedding gown. It didn't take long to realize I was no help. I didn't like any of them.
Catherine was a very good friend or I wouldn't have been here at all. She told me if I ever got married I'd change my mind. Surely being in love doesn't cause you to lose your sense of good taste. If I ever buy a gown with sequins on it, someone just shoot me.
I also wouldn't have chosen the bridal dresses Catherine picked out, but it was my own fault that I hadn't been around when the vote was taken. I worked too much and I hated to shop. So, I ended up plunking down $120 plus tax on a pink taffeta evening gown. It looked like it had run away from a junior high prom.
I walked into the air-conditioned hush of the bridal shop, high heels sinking into a carpet so pale grey it was nearly white. Mrs. Cassidy, the manager, saw me come in. Her smile faltered for just a moment before she got it under control. She smiled at me, brave Mrs. Cassidy.
I smiled back, not looking forward to the next hour.
Mrs. Cassidy was somewhere between forty and fifty, trim figure, red hair so dark it was almost brown. The hair was tied in a French knot like Grace Kelly used to wear. She pushed her gold wire-framed glasses more securely on her nose and said, "Ms. Blake, here for the final fitting, I see."
"I hope it's the final fitting," I said.
"Well, we have been working on the ... problem. I think we've come up with something." There was a small room in back of the desk. It was filled with racks of plastic-covered dresses. Mrs. Cassidy pulled mine out from between two identical pink dresses.
She led the way to the dressing rooms with the dress draped over her arms. Her spine was very straight. She was gearing for another battle. I didn't have to gear up, I was always ready for battle. But arguing with Mrs. Cassidy about alterations to a formal beat the heck out of arguing with Tommy and Bruno. It could have gone very badly, but it hadn't. Gaynor had called them off, for today, he had said.
What did that mean exactly? It was probably self-explanatory. I had left Bert at the office still shaken from his close encounter. He didn't deal with the messy end of the business. The violent end. No, I did that, or Manny, or Jamison, or Charles. We, the animators of Animators, Inc, we did the dirty work. Bert stayed in his nice safe office and sent clients and trouble our way. Until today.
Mrs. Cassidy hung the dress on a hook inside one of the dressing stalls and went away. Before I could go inside, another stall opened, and Kasey, Catherine's flower girl, stepped out. She was eight, and she was glowering. Her mother followed behind her, still in her business suit. Elizabeth (call me Elsie) Markowitz was tall, slender, blackhaired, olive skinned, and a lawyer. She worked with Catherine and was also in the wedding.
Kasey looked like a smaller, softer version of her mother.
The child spotted me first and said, "Hi, Anita. Isn't this dress dumb-looking?"
"Now, Kasey," Elsie said, "it's a beautiful dress. All those nice pink ruffles."
The dress looked like a petunia on steroids to me. I stripped off my jacket and started moving into my own dressing room before I had to give my opinion out loud.
"Is that a real gun?" Kasey asked.
I had forgotten I was still wearing it. "Yes," I said.
"Are you a policewoman?"
"Kasey Markowitz, you ask too many questions." Her mother herded her past me with a harried smile. "Sorry about that, Anita."
"I don't mind," I said. Sometime later I was standing on a little raised platform in front of a nearly perfect circle of mirrors. With the matching pink high heels the dress was the right length at least. It also had little puff sleeves and was an off-the-shoulder look. The dress showed almost every scar I had.
The newest scar was still pink and healing on my right forearm. But it was just a knife wound. They're neat, clean things compared to my other scars. My collarbone and left arm have both been broken. A vampire bit through them, tore at me like a dog with a piece of meat. There's also the cross-shaped burn mark on my left forearm. Some inventive human vampire slaves thought it was amusing. I didn't.
I looked like Frankenstein's bride goes to the prom. Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad, but Mrs. Cassidy thought it was. She thought the scars would distract people from the dress, the wedding party, the bride. But Catherine, the bride herself, didn't agree. She thought I deserved to be in the wedding, because we were such good friends. I was paying good money to be publicly humiliated. We must be good friends.
Mrs. Cassidy handed me a pair of long pink satin gloves. I pulled them on, wiggling my fingers deep into the tiny holes. I've never liked gloves. They make me feel like I'm touching the world through a curtain. But the bright pink things did hide my arms. Scars all gone. What a good girl. Right.
The woman fluffed out the satiny skirt, glancing into the mirror. "It will do, I think." She stood, tapping one long, painted fingernail against her lipsticked mouth. "I believe I have come up with something to hide that, uh ... well ... " She made vague hand motions towards me.
"My collarbone scar?" I said.
"Yes." She sounded relieved.
It occurred to me for the first time that Mrs. Cassidy had never once said the word "scar." As if it were dirty, or rude. I smiled at myself in the ring of mirrors. Laughter caught at the back of my throat.
Mrs. Cassidy held up something made of pink ribbon and fake orange blossoms. The laughter died. "What is that?" I asked.
"This," she said, stepping towards me, "is the solution to our problem."
"All right, but what is it?"
"Well, it is a collar, a decoration."
"It goes around my neck?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"Ms. Blake, I have tried everything to hide that, that ... mark. Hats, hairdos, simple ribbons, corsages ... " She literally threw up her hands. "I am at my wit's end."
This I could believe. I took a deep breath. "I sympathize with you, Mrs. Cassidy, really I do. I've been a royal pain in the ass."
"I would never say such a thing."
"I know, so I said it for you. But that is the ugliest piece of fru-fru I've ever laid eyes on."
"If you, Ms. Blake, have any better suggestions, then I am all ears." She half crossed her arms over her chest. The offending piece of "decoration" trailed nearly to her waist.
"It's huge," I protested.
"It will hide your"-she set her mouth tight-"scar."
I felt like applauding. She'd said the dirty word. Did I have any better suggestions? No. I did not. I sighed. "Put it on me. The least I can do is look at it."
She smiled. "Please lift your hair."
I did as I was told. She fastened it around my neck. The lace itched, the ribbons tickled, and I didn't even want to look in the mirror. I raised my eyes, slowly, and just stared.
"Thank goodness you have long hair. I'll style it myself the day of the wedding so it helps the camouflage."
The thing around my neck looked like a cross between a dog collar and the world's biggest wrist corsage. My neck had sprouted pink ribbons like mushrooms after a rain. It was hideous, and no amount of hairstyling was going to change that. But it hid the scar completely, perfectly. Ta-da.
I just shook my head. What could I say? Mrs. Cassidy took my silence for assent. She should have known better. The phone rang and saved us both. "I'll be just a minute, Ms. Blake." She stalked off, high-heels silent on the thick carpet.
I just stared at myself in the mirrors. My hair and eyes match, black hair, eyes so dark brown they look black. They are my mother's Latin darkness. But my skin is pale, my father's Germanic blood. Put some makeup on me and I look not unlike a china doll. Put me in a puffy pink dress and I look delicate, dainty, petite. Dammit.
The rest of the women in the wedding party were all five-five or above. Maybe some of them would actually look good in the dress. I doubted it.
Insult to injury, we all had to wear hoop skirts underneath. I looked like a reject from Gone With the Wind.
"There, don't you look lovely." Mrs. Cassidy had returned. She was beaming at me.
"I look like I've been dipped in Pepto-Bismol," I said.
Her smile faded around the edges. She swallowed. "You don't like this last idea." Her voice was very stiff.
Elsie Markowitz came out of the dressing rooms. Kasey was trailing behind, scowling. I knew how she felt. "Oh, Anita," Elsie said, "you look adorable."
Great. Adorable, just what I wanted to hear. "Thanks."
"I especially like the ribbons at your throat. We'll all be wearing them, you know."
"Sorry about that," I said.
She frowned at me. "I think they just set off the dress."
It was my turn to frown. "You're serious, aren't you?"
Elsie looked puzzled. "Well, of course I am. Don't you like the dresses?"
I decided not to answer on the grounds that it might piss someone off. I guess, what can you expect from a woman who has a perfectly good name like Elizabeth, but prefers to be named after a cow?
"Is this the absolutely last thing we can use for camouflage, Mrs. Cassidy?" I asked.
She nodded, once, very firmly.
I sighed, and she smiled. Victory was hers, and she knew it. I knew I was beaten the moment I saw the dress, but if I'm going to lose, I'm going to make someone pay for it. "All right. It's done. This is it. I'll wear it."
Mrs. Cassidy beamed at me. Elsie smiled. Kasey smirked. I hiked the hoop skirt up to my knees and stepped off the platform. The hoop swung like a bell with, me as the clapper.
The phone rang. Mrs. Cassidy went to answer it, a lift in her step, a song in her heart, and me out of her shop. Joy in the afternoon.
I was struggling to get the wide skirt through the narrow little door that led to the changing rooms when she called, "Ms. Blake, it's for you. A Detective Sergeant Storr."
"See, Mommy, I told you she was a policewoman," Kasey said.
I didn't explain because Elsie had asked me not to, weeks ago. She thought Kasey was too young to know about animators and zombies and vampire slayings. Not that any child of eight could not know what a vampire was. They were pretty much the media event of the decade.
I tried to put the phone to my left ear, but the damned flowers got in the way. Pressing the receiver in the bend of my neck and shoulder, I reached back to undo the collar. "Hi, Dolph, what's up?"
"Murder scene." His voice was pleasant, like he should sing tenor.
"What kind of murder scene?"
I finally pulled the collar free and dropped the phone.
"Anita, you there?"
"Yeah, having some wardrobe trouble."
"It's not important. Why do you want me to come down to the scene?"
"Whatever did this wasn't human."
"You're the undead expert. That's why I want you to come take a look."
"Okay, give me the address, and I'll be right there." There was a notepad of pale pink paper with little hearts on it. The pen had a plastic cupid on the end of it. "St. Charles, I'm not more than fifteen minutes from you."
"Good." He hung up.
"Good-bye to you, too, Dolph." I said it to empty air just to feel superior. I went back into the little room to change.
I had been offered a million dollars today, just to kill someone and raise a zombie. Then off to the bridal shop for a final fitting. Now a murder scene. Messy, Dolph had said. It was turning out to be a very busy afternoon.
Messy, Dolph had called it. A master of understatement. Blood was everywhere, splattered over the white walls like someone had taken a can of paint and thrown it. There was an offwhite couch with brown and gold patterned flowers on it. Most of the couch was hidden under a sheet. The sheet was crimson. A bright square of afternoon sunlight came through the clean, sparkling windows. The sunlight made the blood cherry-red, shiny.
Fresh blood is really brighter than you see it on television and the movies. In large quantities. Real blood is screaming fire-engine red, in large quantities, but darker red shows up on the screen better. So much for realism.
Only fresh blood is red, true red. This blood was old and should have faded, but some trick of the summer sunshine kept it shiny and new.
I swallowed very hard and took a deep breath.
"You look a little green, Blake," a voice said almost at my elbow.
I jumped, and Zerbrowski laughed. "Did I scare ya?"
"No," I lied.
Detective Zerbrowski was about five-seven, curly black hair going grey, dark-rimmed glasses framed brown eyes. His brown suit was rumpled; his yellow and maroon tie had a smudge on it, probably from lunch. He was grinning at me. He was always grinning at me.
"I gotcha, Blake, admit it. Is our fierce vampire slayer gonna upchuck on the victims?"
"Putting on a little weight there, aren't you, Zerbrowski?"
"Ooh, I'm hurt," he said. He clutched hands to his chest, swaying a little. "Don't tell me you don't want my body, the way I want yours."
"Lay off, Zerbrowski. Where's Dolph?"
"In the master bedroom." Zerbrowski gazed up at the vaulted ceiling with its skylight. "Wish Katie and I could afford something like this."
"Yeah," I said. "It's nice." I glanced at the sheet-covered couch. The sheet clung to whatever was underneath, like a napkin thrown over spilled juice. There was something wrong with the way it looked. Then it hit me, there weren't enough bumps to make a whole human body. Whatever was under there was missing some parts.
The room sort of swam. I looked away, swallowing convulsely. It had been months since I had actually gotten sick at a murder scene. At least the air-conditioning was on. That was good. Heat always makes the smell worse.
"Hey, Blake, do you really need to step outside?" Zerbrowski took my arm as if to lead me towards the door.
"Thanks, but I'm fine." I looked him straight in his baby browns and lied. He knew I was lying. I wasn't all right, but I'd make it.
He released my arm, stepped back, and gave me a mock salute. "I love a tough broad."
I smiled before I could stop it. "Go away, Zerbrowski."
"End of the hall, last door on the left. You'll find Dolph there." He walked away into the crowd of men. There are always more people than you need at a murder scene, not the gawkers outside but uniforms, plainclothes, technicians, the guy with the video camera. A murder scene was like a bee swarm, full of frenzied movement and damn crowded. I threaded my way through the crowd. My plastic-coated ID badge was clipped to the collar of my navy-blue jacket. It was so the police would know I was on their side and hadn't just snuck in. It also made carrying a gun into a crowd of policemen safer.
I squeezed past a crowd that was gathered like a traffic jam beside a door in the middle of the hall. Voices came, disjointed, "Jesus, look at the blood ... Have they found the body yet? ... You mean what's left of it? ... No."
I pushed between two uniforms. One said, "Hey!" I found a cleared space just in front of the last door on the left-hand side. I don't know how Dolph had done it but he was alone in the room. Maybe they were just finished in here.
He knelt in the middle of the pale brown carpet. His thick hands, encased in surgical gloves, were on his thighs. His black hair was cut so short it left his ears sort of stranded on either side of a large blunt face. He saw me and stood. He was six-eight, built big like a wrestler. The canopied bed behind him suddenly looked small.
Dolph was head of the police's newest task force, the spook squad. Official title was the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, R-P-I-T, pronounced "rip it." It handled all supernatural crime. It was a place to dump the troublemakers. I never wondered what Zerbrowski had done to get on the spook squad. His sense of humor was too strange and absolutely merciless. But Dolph. He was the perfect policeman. I had always sort of figured he had offended someone high up, offended them by being too good at his job. Now that I could believe.
There was another sheet-covered bundle on the carpet beside him.
"Anita." He always talks like that, one word at a time.
"Dolph," I said.
He knelt between the canopy bed and the blood-soaked sheet. "You ready?"
"I know you're the silent type, Dolph, but could you tell me what I'm supposed to be looking for?"
"I want to know what you see, not what I tell you you're supposed to see."
For Dolph it was a speech. "Okay," I said, "let's do it."
He pulled back the sheet. It peeled away from the bloody thing underneath. I stood and I stared and all I could see was a lump of bloody meat. It could have been from anything: a cow, horse, deer. But human? Surely not.
My eyes saw it, but my brain refused what it was being shown. I squatted beside it, tucking my skirt under my thighs. The carpeting squeezed underfoot like rain had gotten to it, but it wasn't rain.
"Do you have a pair of gloves I can borrow? I left my crime scene gear at the office."
"Right jacket pocket." He lifted his hands in the air. There were blood marks on the gloves. "Help yourself. The wife hates me to get blood on the dry cleaning."
I smiled. Amazing. A sense of humor is mandatory at times. I had to reach across the remains. I pulled out two surgical gloves; one size fits all. The gloves always felt like they had powder in them. They didn't feel like gloves at all, more like condoms for your hands.
"Can I touch it without damaging evidence?"
I poked the side of it with two fingers. It was like poking a side of fresh beef. A nice, solid feel to it. My fingers traced the bumps of bone, ribs under the flesh. Ribs. Suddenly I knew what I was looking at. Part of the rib cage of a human being. There was the shoulder, white bone sticking out where the arm had been torn away. That was all. All there was. I stood too quickly and stumbled. The carpet squeeshed underfoot.
The room was suddenly very hot. I turned away from the body and found myself staring at the bureau. Its mirror was splattered so heavily with blood, it looked like someone had covered it in layers of red fingernail polish. Cherry Blossom Red, Carnival Crimson, Candy Apple.
I closed my eyes and counted very slowly to ten. When I opened them the room seemed cooler. I noticed for the first time that a ceiling fan was slowly turning. I was fine. Heap big vampire slayer. Ri-ight.
Dolph didn't comment as I knelt by the body again. He didn't even look at me. Good man. I tried to be objective and see whatever there was to see. But it was hard. I liked the remains better when I couldn't figure out what part of the body they were. Now all I could see was the bloody remains. All I could think of was this used to be a human body. "Used to be" was the operative phrase.
"No signs of a weapon that I can see, but the coroner will be able to tell you that." I reached out to touch it again, then stopped. "Can you help me raise it up so I can see inside the chest cavity? What's left of the chest cavity."
Dolph dropped the sheet and helped me lift the remains. It was lighter than it looked. Raised on its side there was nothing underneath. All the vital organs that the ribs protect were gone. It looked for all the world like a side of beef ribs, except for the bones where the arm should have connected. Part of the collarbone was still attached.
"Okay," I said. My voice sounded breathy. I stood, holding my blood-spattered hands out to my sides. "Cover it, please."
He did, and stood. "Impressions?"
"Violence, extreme violence. More than human strength. The body's been ripped apart by hand."
"Why by hand?"
"No knife marks." I laughed, but it choked me. "Hell, I'd think someone had used a saw on the body like butchering a cow, but the bones ... " I shook my head. "Nothing mechanical was used to do this."
"Yeah, where is the rest of the fucking body?"
"Down the hall, second door on the left."
"The rest of the body?" The room was getting hot again.
"Just go look. Tell me what you see."
"Dammit, Dolph, I know you don't like to influence your experts, but I don't like walking in there blind."
He just stared at me.
"At least answer one question."
"Is it worse than this?"
He seemed to think about that for a moment. "No, and yes."
"You'll understand after you've seen it."
I didn't want to understand. Bert had been thrilled that the police wanted to put me on retainer. He had told me I would gain valuable experience working with the police. All I had gained so far was a wider variety of nightmares.
Dolph walked ahead of me to the next chamber of horrors. didn't really want to find the rest of the body. I wanted to go home. He hesitated in front of the closed door until I stood beside him. There was a cardboard cutout of a rabbit on the door like for Easter. A needlework sign hung just below the bunny. Baby's Room.
"Dolph," my voice sounded very quiet. The noise from the living room was muted.
"Nothing, nothing." I took a deep breath and let it out. I could do this. I could do this. Oh, God, I didn't want to do this. I whispered a prayer under my breath as the door swung inward. There are moments in life when the only way to get through is with a little grace from on high. I was betting this was going to be one of them.
Sunlight streamed through a small window. The curtains were white with little duckies and bunnies stitched around the edges. Animal cutouts danced around the pale blue walls. There was no crib, only one of those beds with handrails halfway down. A big boy bed, wasn't that what they were called?
There wasn't as much blood in here. Thank you, dear God. Who says prayers never get answered? But in a square of bright August sunshine sat a stuffed teddy bear. The teddy bear was candy-coated with blood. One glassy eye stared round and surprised out of the spiky fake fur.
I knelt beside it. The carpet didn't squeeze, no blood soaked in. Why was the damn bear sitting here covered in congealing blood? There was no other blood in the entire room that I could see.
Did someone just set it here? I looked up and found myself staring at a small white chest of drawers with bunnies painted on it. When you have a motif, I guess you stick with it. On the white paint was one small, perfect handprint. I crawled towards it and held up my hand near it comparing size. My hands aren't big, small even for a woman's, but this handprint was tiny. Two, three, maybe four. Blue walls, probably a boy.
"How old was the child?"
"Picture in the living room has Benjamin Reynolds, age three, written on the back."
"Benjamin," I whispered it, and stared at the bloody handprint. "There's no body in this room. No one was killed here."
"Why did you want me to see it?" I looked up at him, still kneeling.
"Your opinion isn't worth anything if you don't see everything."
"That damn bear is going to haunt me."
"Me, too," he said.
I stood, resisting the urge to smooth my skirt down in back. It was amazing how many times I touched my clothing without thinking and smeared blood on myself. But not today.
"Is it the boy's body under the sheet in the living room?" As I said it, I prayed that it wasn't.
"No," he said.
Thank God. "Mother's body?"
"Where is the boy's body?"
"We can't find it." He hesitated, then asked, "Could the thing have eaten the child's body completely?"
"You mean so there wouldn't be anything left to find?"
"Yes," he said. His face looked just the tiniest bit pale. Mine probably did, too.
"Possible, but even the undead have a limit to what they can eat." I took a deep breath. "Did you find any signs of regurgitation."
"Regurgitation." He smiled. "Nice word. No, the creature didn't eat and then vomit. At least we haven't found it."
"Then the boy's probably still around somewhere."
"Could he be alive?" Dolph asked.
I looked up at him. I wanted to say yes, but I knew the answer was probably no. I compromised. "I don't know."
"The living room next?" I asked.
"No." He walked out of the room without another word. I followed. What else could I do? But I didn't hurry. If he wanted to play tough, silent policeman, he could damn well wait for me to catch up.
I followed his broad back around the corner through the living room into the kitchen. A sliding glass door led out onto a deck. Glass was everywhere. Shiny slivers of it sparkled in the light from yet another skylight. The kitchen was spotless, like a magazine ad, done in blue tile and rich light-colored wood. "Nice kitchen," I said.
I could see men moving around the yard. The party had moved outside. The privacy fence hid them from the curious neighbors, as it had hidden the killer last night. There was just one detective standing beside the shiny sink. He was scribbling something in a notebook.
Dolph motioned me to have a closer look. "Okay," I said. "Something crashed through the sliding glass door. It must have made a hell of a lot of noise. This much glass breaking even with the air-conditioning on ... You'd hear it"
"You think so?" he asked.
"Did any of the neighbors hear anything?" I asked.
"No one will admit to it," he said.
I nodded. "Glass breaks, someone comes to check it out, probably the man. Some sexist stereotypes die hard."
"What do you mean?" Dolph asked.
"The brave hunter protecting his family," I said.
"Okay, say it was the man, what next?"
"Man comes in, sees whatever crashed through the window, yells for his wife. Probably tells her to get out. Take the kid and run."
"Why not call the police?" he asked.
"I didn't see a phone in the master bedroom." I nodded towards the phone on the kitchen wall. "This is probably the only phone. You have to get past the bogeyman to reach the phone."
I glanced behind me into the living room. The sheet-covered couch was just visible. "The thing, whatever it was, took out the man. Quick, disabled him, knocked him out, but didn't kill him."
"Why not kill?"
"Don't test me, Dolph. There isn't enough blood in the kitchen. He was eaten in the bedroom. Whatever did it wouldn't have dragged a dead man off to the bedroom. It chased the man into the bedroom and killed him there."
"Not bad, want to take a shot at the living room next?"
Not really, but I didn't say it out loud. There was more left of the woman, Her upper body was almost intact. Paper bags enveloped her hands. We had samples of something under her fingernails. I hoped it helped. Her wide brown eyes stared up at the ceiling. The pajama top clung wetly to where her waist used to be. I swallowed hard and used my index finger and thumb to raise the pajama top.
Her spine glistened in the hard sunshine, wet and white and dangling, like a cord that had been ripped out of its socket.
Okay. "Something tore her apart, just like the ... man in the bedroom."
"How do you know it's a man?"
"Unless they had company, it has to be the man. They didn't have a visitor, did they?"
Dolph shook his head. "Not as far as we know."
"Then it has to be the man. Because she still has all her ribs, and both arms." I tried to swallow the anger in my voice. It wasn't Dolph's fault. "I'm not one of your cops. I wish you'd stop asking me questions that you already have the answers to."
He nodded. "Fair enough. Sometimes I forget you're not one of the boys."
"Thank you for that."
"You know what I mean."
"I do, and I even know you mean it as a compliment, but can we finish discussing this outside, please?"
"Sure." He slipped off his bloody gloves and put them in a garbage sack that was sitting open in the kitchen. I did the same.
The heat fastened round me like melting plastic, but it felt good, clean somehow. I breathed in great lungfuls of hot, sweating air. Ah, summer.
"I was right though, it wasn't human?" he asked.
There were two uniformed police officers keeping the crowd off the lawn and in the street. Children, parents, kids on bikes. It looked like a freaking circus.
"No, it wasn't human. There was no blood on the glass that it came through."
"I noticed. What's the significance?"
"Most dead don't bleed, except for vampires."
"Freshly dead zombies can bleed, but vampires bleed almost like a person."
"You don't think it was a vampire then?"
"If it was, then it ate human flesh. Vampires can't digest solid food."
"Too far from a cemetery, and there'd be more destruction of the house. Ghouls would tear up furniture like wild animals."
I shook my head. "I honestly don't know. There are such things as flesh-eating zombies. They're rare, but it happens."
"You told me that there have been three reported cases. Each time the zombies stay human longer and don't rot."
I smiled. "Good memory. That's right. Flesh-eating zombies don't rot, as long as you feed them. Or at least don't rot as quickly."
"Are they violent?"
"Not so far," I said.
"Are zombies violent?" Dolph asked.
"Only if told to be."
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"You can order a zombie to kill people if you're powerful enough."
"A zombie as a murder weapon?"
I nodded. "Something like that, yes."
"Who could do something like that?"
"I'm not sure that's what happened here," I said.
"I know. But who could do it?"
"Well, hell, I could, but I wouldn't. And nobody I know that could do it would do it."
"Let us decide that," he said. He had gotten his little notebook out.
"You really want me to give you names of friends so you can ask them if they happened to have raised a zombie and sent it to kill these people?"
I sighed. "I don't believe this. All right, me, Manny Rodriguez, Peter Burke, and ... " I stopped words already forming a third name.
"What is it?"
"Nothing. I just remembered that I've got Burke's funeral to go to this week. He's dead so I don't think he's a suspect."
Dolph was looking at me hard, suspicion plain on his face. "You sure this is all the names you want to give me?"
"If I think of anyone else, I'll let you know," I said. I was at my wide-eyed most sincere. See, nothing up my sleeve.
"You do that, Anita."
He smiled and shook his head. "Who are you protecting?"
"Me," I said. He looked puzzled. "Let's just say I don't want to get someone mad at me."
I looked up into the clear August sky. "You think we'll get rain?"
"Dammit, Anita, I need your help."
"I've given you my help," I said.
"Not yet. I'll check it out, and if it looks suspicious, I promise to share it with you."
"Well, isn't that just generous of you?" A flush was creeping up his neck. I had never seen Dolph angry before. I feared I was about to.
"The first death was a homeless man. We thought he'd passed out from liquor and ghouls got him. We found him right next to a cemetery. Open and shut, right?" His voice was rising just a bit with each word.
"Next we find this couple, teenagers caught necking in the boy's car. Dead, still not too far from the cemetery. We called in an exterminator and a priest. Case closed." He lowered his voice, but it was like he had swallowed the yelling. His voice was strained and almost touchable with its anger.
"Now this. It's the same beastie, whatever the hell it is. But we are miles from the nearest frigging cemetery. It isn't a ghoul, and maybe if I had called you in with the first or even the second case, this wouldn't have happened. But I figure I'm getting good at this supernatural crap. I've had some experience now, but it isn't enough. It isn't nearly enough." His big hands were crushing his notebook.
"That's the longest speech I've ever heard you make," I said.
He half laughed. "I need the name, Anita."
"Dominga Salvador. She's the voodoo priest for the entire Midwest. But if you send police down there she won't talk to you. None of them will."
"But they'll talk to you?"
"Yes," I said.
"Okay, but I better hear something from you by tomorrow."
"I don't know if I can set up a meeting that soon."
"Either you do it, or I do it," he said.
"Okay, okay, I'll do it, somehow."
"Thanks, Anita. At least now we have someplace to start."
"It might not be a zombie at all, Dolph. I'm just guessing."
"What else could it be?"
"Well, if there had been blood on the glass, I'd say maybe a lycanthrope."
"Oh, great, just what I need-a rampaging shapeshifter."
"But there was no blood on the glass."
"So probably some kind of undead," he said.
"You talk to this Dominga Salvador and give me a report ASAP."
"Aye, aye, Sergeant."
He made a face at me and walked back inside the house. Better him than me. All I had to do was go home, change clothes, and prepare to raise the dead. At full dark tonight I had three clients lined up or would that be lying down?
Ellen Grisholm's therapist thought it would be therapeutic for Ellen to confront her child-molesting father. The trouble was the father had been dead for several months. So I'm going to raise Mr. Grisholm from the dead and let his daughter tell him what a son of a bitch he was. The therapist said it would be cleansing. I guess if you have a doctorate, you're allowed to say things like that.
The other two raisings were more usual; a contested will, and a prosecution's star witness that had had the bad taste to have a heart attack before testifying in court. They still weren't sure if the testimony of a zombie was admissible in court, but they were desperate enough to try, and to pay for the privilege.
I stood there in the greenish-brown grass. Glad to see the family hadn't been addicted to sprinklers. A waste of water. Maybe they had even recycled their pop cans, newspapers. Maybe they had been decent earth-loving citizens. Maybe not.
One of the uniforms lifted the yellow Do-Not-Cross tape and let me out. I ignored all the staring people and got in my car. It was a late-model Nova. I could have afforded something better but why bother? It ran.
The steering wheel was too hot to touch. I turned on the air-conditioning and let the car cool down. What I had told Dolph about Dominga Salvador had been true. She wouldn't talk to the police, but that hadn't been the reason I tried to keep her name out of it.
If the police came knocking on Señora Dontinga's door, she'd want to know who sent them. And she'd find out. The Señora was the most powerful vaudun priest I had ever met.
Raising a murderous zombie was just one of many things she could do, if she wanted to.
Frankly, there were things worse than zombies that could come crawling through your window some dark night. I knew as little about that side of the business as I could get away with. The Señora had invented most of it.
No, I did not want Dominga Salvador angry with me. So it looked like I was going to have to talk with her tomorrow. It was sort of like getting an appointment to see the godfather of voodoo. Or in this case the godmother. The trouble was this godmother was unhappy with me. Dominga had sent me invitations to her home. To her ceremonies. I had politely declined. I think my being a Christian disappointed her. So I had managed to avoid a face to face, until now.
I was going to ask the most powerful vaudun priest in the United States, maybe in all of North America, if she just happened to raise a zombie. And if that zombie just happened to be going around killing people, on her orders? Was I crazy? Maybe. It looked like tomorrow was going to be another busy day.
The alarm screamed. I rolled over swatting at the buttons on top of the digital clock. Surely to God, I'd hit the snooze button soon. I finally had to prop myself up on one elbow and actually open my eyes. I turned off the alarm and stared at the glowing numbers. 6:00 A.M. Shit. I'd only gotten home at three.
Why had I set the alarm for six? I couldn't remember. I am not at my best after only three hours of sleep. I lay back down in the still warm nest of sheets. My eyes were fluttering shut when I remembered. Dominga Salvador.
She had agreed to meet me at 7:00 A.M. today. Talk about a breakfast meeting. I struggled out of the sheet, and just sat on the side of the bed for a minute. The apartment was absolutely still. The only sound was the hush-hush of the air-conditioning. Quiet as a funeral.
I got up then, thoughts of blood-coated teddy bears dancing in my head.
Fifteen minutes later I was dressed. I always showered after coming in from work no matter how late it was. I couldn't stand the thought of going to bed between nice clean sheets smeared with dried chicken blood. Sometimes it's goat blood, but more often chicken.
I had compromised on the outfit, caught between showing respect and not melting in the heat. It would have been easy if I hadn't planned to carry a gun with me. Call me paranoid, but I don't leave home without it.
The acid washed jeans, jogging socks, and Nikes were easy. An Uncle Mike's inter-pants holster complete with a Firestar 9mm completed the outfit. The Firestar was my backup piece to the Browning Hi-Power. The Browning was far too bulky to put down an inter-pants holster, but the Firestar fit nicely.
Now all I needed was a shirt that would hide the gun, but leave it accessible to grab and shoot. This was harder than it sounded. I finally settled on a short, almost middrift top that just barely fell over my waistband. I turned in front of the mirror.
The gun was invisible as long as I didn't forget and raise my arms too high. The top, unfortunately, was a pale, pale pink. What had possessed me to buy this top, I really didn't remember. Maybe it had been a gift? I hoped so. The thought that I had actually spent money on anything pink was more than I could bear.
I hadn't opened the drapes at all yet. The entire apartment was in twilight. I had special-ordered very heavy drapes. I rarely saw sunlight, and I didn't miss it much. I turned on the light over my fish tank. The angelfish rose towards the top, mouths moving in slow-motion begging.
Fish are my idea of pets. You don't walk them, pick up after them, or have to housebreak them. Clean the tank occasionally, feed them, and they don't give a damn how many hours of overtime you work.
The smell of strong brewed coffee wafted through the apartment from my Mr. Coffee. I sat at my, little two-seater kitchen table sipping hot, black Colombian vintage. Beans fresh from my freezer, ground on the spot. There was no other way to drink coffee. Though in a pinch I'll take it just about any way I can get it.
The doorbell chimed. I jumped, spilling coffee onto the table. Nervous? Me? I left my Firestar on the kitchen table instead of taking it to the door with me. See, I'm not paranoid. Just very, very careful.
I checked the peephole and opened the door. Manny Rodriguez stood in the doorway. He's about two inches taller than I am. His coal-black hair is streaked with grey and white. Thick waves of it frame his thin face and black mustache. He's fifty-two, and with one exception, I would still rather have him backing me in a dangerous situation than anyone else I know.
We shook hands, we always do that. His grip was firm and dry. He grinned at me, flashing very white teeth in his brown face. "I smell coffee."
I grinned back. "You know it's all I have for breakfast." He walked in, and I locked the door behind him, habit.
"Rosita thinks you don't take care of yourself." He dropped into a near-perfect imitation of his wife's scolding voice, a much thicker Mexican accent than his own. "She doesn't eat right, so thin. Poor Anita, no husband, not even a boyfriend." He grinned.
"Rosita sounds like my stepmother. Judith is sick with worry that I'll be an old maid."
"You're what, twenty-four?"
He just shook his head. "Sometimes I do not understand women."
It was my turn to grin. "What am I, chopped liver?"
"Anita, you know I didn't mean ... "
"I know, I'm one of the boys. I understand."
"You are better than any of the boys at work."
"Sit down. Let me pour coffee in your mouth before your foot fits in again."
"You are being difficult. You know what I meant." He stared at me out of his solid brown eyes, face very serious.
I smiled. "Yeah, I know what you meant."
I picked one of the dozen or so mugs from my kitchen cabinet. My favorite mugs dangled from a mug-tree on the countertop.
Manny sat down, sipping coffee, glancing at his cup. It was red with black letters that said, "I'm a coldhearted bitch but I'm good at it." He laughed coffee up his nose.
I sipped my own coffee from a mug decorated with fluffy baby penguins: I'd never admit it, but it is my favorite mug.
"Why don't you bring your penguin mug to work?" he asked.
Bert's latest brainstorm was that we all use personalized coffee cups at work. He thought it would add a homey note to the office. I had brought in a grey on grey cup that said, "It's a dirty job and I get to do it." Bert had made me take it home.
"I enjoy yanking Bert's chain."
"So you're going to keep bringing in unacceptable cups."
I smiled. "Mm-uh."
He just shook his head.
"I really appreciate you coming to see Dominga with me."
He shrugged. "I couldn't let you go see the devil woman alone, could I?"
I frowned at the nickname, or was it an insult? "That's what your wife calls Dominga, not what I call her."
He glanced down at the gun still lying on the tabletop. "But you'll take a gun with you, just in case."
I looked at him over the top of my cup. "Just in case."
"If it comes to shooting our way out, Anita, it will be too late. She has bodyguards all over the place."
"I don't plan to shoot anybody. We are just going to ask a few questions. That's all."
He smirked. "Por favor, Señora Salvador, did you raise a killer zombie recently?"
"Knock it off, Manny. I know it's awkward."
"Awkward?" He shook his head. "Awkward, she says. If you piss off Dominga Salvador, it's a hell of a lot more than just awkward."
"You don't have to come."
"You called me for backup." He smiled that brilliant teeth flashing smile that lit up his entire face. "You didn't call Charles or Jamison. You called me, and, Anita, that is the best compliment you could give an old man."
"You're not an old man." And I meant it.
"That is not what my wife keeps telling me. Rosita has forbidden me to go vampire hunting with you, but she can't curtail my zombie-related activities, not yet anyway."
The surprise must have shone on my face, because he said, "I know she talked to you two years back, when I was in the hospital."
"You almost died," I said.
"And you had how many broken bones?"
"Rosita made a reasonable request, Manny. You have four children to think of."
"And I'm too old to be slaying vampires." His voice held irony, and almost bitterness.
"You'll never be too old," I said.
"A nice thought." He drained his coffee mug. "We better go. Don't want to keep the Señora waiting."
"God forbid," I said.
"Amen," he said.
I stared at him as he rinsed his mug out in the sink. "Do you know something you're not telling me?"
"No," he said.
I rinsed my own cup, still staring at him. I could feel a suspicious frown between my eyes. "Manny?"
"Honest Mexican, I don't know nuthin'."
"Then what's wrong?"
"You know I was vaudun before Rosita converted me to pure Christianity."
"Dominga Salvador was not just my priestess. She was my lover."
I stared at him for a few heartbeats. "You're kidding?"
His face was very serious as he said, "I wouldn't joke about something like that."
I shrugged. People's choices of lovers never failed to amaze me. "That's why you could get me a meeting with her on such short notice."
"Why didn't you tell me before?"
"Because you might have tried to sneak over there without me."
"Would that have been so bad?"
He just stared at me, brown eyes very serious. "Maybe."
I got my gun from the table and fitted it to the inter-pants holster. Eight bullets. The Browning could hold fourteen. But let's get real; if I needed more than eight bullets, I was dead. And so was Manny.
"Shit," I whispered.
"I feel like I'm going to visit the bogeyman."
Manny made a back and forth motion with his head. "Not a bad analogy."
Great, just freaking, bloody great. Why was I doing this? The image of Benjamin Reynolds's blood-coated teddy bear flashed into my mind. All right, I knew why I was doing it. If there was even a remote chance that the boy could still be alive, I'd go into hell itself-if I stood a chance of coming back out. I didn't mention this out loud. I did not want to know if hell was a good analogy, too.
The neighborhood was older houses; fifties, forties. The lawns were dying to brown for lack of water. No sprinklers here. Flowers struggled to survive in beds close to the houses. Mostly petunias, geraniums, a few rosebushes. The streets were clean, neat, and one block over you could get yourself shot for wearing the wrong color of jacket.
Gang activity stopped at Señora Salvador's neighborhood. Even teenagers with automatic pistols fear things you can't stop with bullets no matter how good a shot you are. Silver plated bullets will harm a vampire, but not kill it. It will kill a lycanthrope, but not a zombie. You can hack the damn things to pieces, and the disconnected body parts will crawl after you. I've seen it. It ain't pretty. The gangs leave the Señora's turf alone. No violence. It is a place of permanent truce.
There are stories of one Hispanic gang that thought it had protection against gris-gris. Some people say that the gang's ex-leader is still down in Dominga's basement, obeying an occasional order. He was great show-and-tell to any juvenile delinquents who got out of hand.
Personally, I had never seen her raise a zombie. But then I'd never seen her call the snakes either. I'd just as soon keep it that way.
Señora Salvador's two-story house is on about a half acre of land. A nice roomy yard. Bright red geraniums flamed against the whitewashed walls. Red and white, blood and bone. I was sure the symbolism was not lost on casual passersby. It certainly wasn't lost on me.
Manny parked his car in the driveway behind a cream colored Impala. The two-car garage was painted white to match the house. There was a little girl of about five riding a tricycle furiously up and down the sidewalk. A slightly older pair of boys were sitting on the steps that led up to the porch. They stopped playing and looked at us.
A man stood on the porch behind them. He was wearing a shoulder holster over a sleeveless blue T-shirt. Sort of blatant. All he needed was a flashing neon sign that said "Bad Ass."
There were chalk markings on the sidewalk. Pastel crosses and unreadable diagrams. It looked like a children's game, but it wasn't. Some devoted fans of the Señora had chalked designs of worship in front of her house. Stubs of candles had melted to lumps around the designs. The girl on the tricycle peddled back and forth over the designs. Normal, right?
I followed Manny over the sun-scorched lawn. The little girl on the tricycle was watching us now, small brown face unreadable.
Manny removed his sunglasses and smiled up at the man. "Buenos dias, Antonio. It has been a long time."
"Si, " Antonio said. His voice was low and sullen. His deeply tanned arms were crossed loosely over his chest. It put his right hand right next to his gun butt.
I used Manny's body to shield me from sight and casually put my hands close to my own gun. The Boy Scout motto, "Always be prepared." Or was that the Marines?
"You've become a strong, handsome man," Manny said.
"My grandmother says I must let you in," Antonio said.
"She is a wise woman," Manny said.
Antonio shrugged. "She is the Señora." He peered around Manny at me. "Who is this?"
"Señorita Anita Blake." Manny stepped back so I could move forward. I did, right hand loose on my waist like I had an attitude, but it was the closest I could stay to my gun.
Antonio looked down at me. His dark eyes were angry, but that was all. He didn't have near the gaze of Harold Gaynor's bodyguards. I smiled. "Nice to meet you."
He squinted at me suspiciously for a moment, then nodded. I continued to smile at him, and a slow smile spread over his face. He thought I was flirting with him. I let him think it.
He said something in Spanish. All I could do was smile and shake my head. He spoke softly, and there was a look in his dark eyes, a curve to his mouth. I didn't have to speak the language to know I was being propositioned. Or insulted.
Manny's neck was stiff, his face flushed. He said something from between clenched teeth.
It was Antonio's turn to flush. His hand started to go for his gun. I stepped up two steps, touching his wrist as if I didn't know what was going on. The tension in his arm was like a wire, straining.
I beamed up at him as I held his wrist. His eyes flicked from Manny to me, then the tension eased, but I didn't let go of his wrist until his arm fell to his side. He raised my hand to his lips, kissing it. His mouth lingered on the back of my hand, but his eyes stayed on Manny. Angry, rage-filled.
Antonio carried a gun, but he was an amateur. Amateurs with guns eventually get themselves killed. I wondered if Dominga Salvador knew that? She may have been a whiz at voodoo but I bet she didn't know much about guns, and what it took to use one on a regular basis. Whatever it took, Antonio didn't have it. He'd kill you all right. No sweat. But for the wrong reasons. Amateur's reasons. Of course, you'll be just as dead.
He guided me up on the porch beside him, still holding my hand. It was my left hand. He could hold that all day. "I must check you for weapons, Manuel."
"I understand," Manny said. He stepped up on the porch and Antonio stepped back, keeping room between them in case Manny jumped him. That left me with a clear shot of Antonio's back. Careless; under different circumstances, deadly.
He made Manny lean against the porch railing like a police frisk. Antonio knew what he was doing, but it was an angry search, lots of quick jerky hand movements, as if just touching Manny's body enraged him. A lot of hate in old Tony.
It never occurred to him to pat me down for weapons. Tsk-tsk.
A second man came to the screen door. He was in his late forties, maybe. He was wearing a white undershirt with a plaid shirt unbuttoned over it. The sleeves were folded back as far as they'd go. Sweat stood out on his forehead. I was betting there was a gun at the small of his back. His black hair had a pure white streak just over the forehead. "What is taking so long, Antonio?" His voice was thick and held an accent.
"I searched him for weapons."
The older man nodded. "She is ready to see you both."
Antonio stood to one side, taking up his post on the porch once more. He made a kissing noise as I walked past. I felt Manny stiffen, but we made it into the living room without anyone getting shot. We were on a roll.
The living room was spacious, with a dining-room set taking up the left-hand side. There was a wall piano in the living room. I wondered who played. Antonio? Naw.
We followed the man through a short hallway into a roomy kitchen. Golden oblongs of sunshine lay heavy on a black and white tiled floor. The floor and kitchen were old, but the appliances were new. One of those deluxe refrigerators with an ice maker and water dispenser took up a hunk of the back wall. All the appliances were done in a pale yellow: Harvest Gold, Autumn Bronze.
Sitting at the kitchen table was a woman in her early sixties. Her thin brown face was seamed with a lot of smile lines. Pure white hair was done in a bun at the nape of her neck She sat very straight in her chair, thin-boned hands folded on the tabletop. She looked terribly harmless. A nice old granny. If a quarter of what I'd heard about her was true, it was the greatest camouflage I'd ever seen.
She smiled and held out her hands. Manny stepped forward and took the offering, brushing his lips on her knuckles. "It is good to see you, Manuel." Her voice was rich, a contralto with the velvet brush of an accent.
"And you, Dominga." He released her hands and sat across from her.
Her quick black eyes flicked to me, still standing in the doorway. "So, Anita Blake, you have come to me at last."
It was a strange thing to say. I glanced at Manny. He gave a shrug with his eyes. He didn't know what she meant either. Great. "I didn't know you were eagerly awaiting me, Señora."
"I have heard stories of you, chica. Wondrous stories." There was a hint in those black eyes, that smiling face, that was not harmless.
"Manny?" I asked.
"It wasn't me."
"No, Manuel does not talk to me anymore. His little wife forbids it." That last sentence was angry, bitter.
Oh, God. The most powerful voodoo priestess in the Midwest was acting like a scorned lover. Shit.
She turned those angry black eyes to me. "All who deal in vaudun come to Señora Salvador eventually."
"I do not deal in vaudun."
She laughed at that. All the lines in her face flowed into the laughter. "You raise the dead, the zombie, and you do not deal in vaudun. Oh, chica, that is funny." Her voice sparkled with genuine amusement. So glad I could make her day.
"Dominga, I told you why we wished this meeting. I made it very clear ... " Manny said.
She waved him to silence. "Oh, you were very careful on the phone, Manuel." She leaned towards me. "He made it very clear that you were not here to participate in any of my pagan rituals." The bitterness in her voice was sharp enough to choke on.
"Come here, chica," she said. She held out one hand to me, not both. Was I supposed to kiss it as Manny had done. I didn't think I'd come to see the pope.
I realized then that I didn't want to touch her. She had done nothing wrong. Yet, the muscles in my shoulders were screaming with tension. I was afraid, and I didn't know why.
I stepped forward and took her hand, uncertain what to do with it. Her skin was warm and dry. She sort of lowered me to the chair closest to her, still holding my hand. She said something in her soft, deep voice.
I shook my head. "I'm sorry I don't understand Spanish."
She touched my hair with her free hand. "Black hair like the wing of a crow. It does not come from any pale skin."
"My mother was Mexican."
"Yet you do not speak her tongue."
She was still holding my hand, and I wanted it back. "She died when I was young. I was raised by my father's people."
I pulled my hand free and instantly felt better. She had done nothing to me. Nothing. Why was I so damn jumpy? The man with the streaked hair had taken up a post behind the Señora. I could see him clearly. His hands were in plain sight. I could see the back door and the entrance to the kitchen. No one was sneaking up behind me. But the hair at the base of my skull was standing at attention.
I glanced at Manny, but he was staring at Dominga. His hands were gripped together on the tabletop so tightly that his knuckles were mottled.
I felt like someone at a foreign film festival without subtitles. I could sort of guess what was going on, but I wasn't sure I was right. The creeping skin on my neck told me some hocus-pocus was going on. Manny's reaction said that just maybe the hocus-pocus was meant for him.
Manny's shoulders slumped. His hands relaxed their awful tension. It was a visible release of some kind. Dominga smiled, a brilliant flash of teeth. "You could have been so powerful, mi corazon."
"I did not want the power, Dominga," he said.
I stared from one to the other, not exactly sure what had just happened. I wasn't sure I wanted to know. I was willing to believe that ignorance was bliss. It so often is.
She turned her quick black eyes to me. "And you, chica, do you want power?" The creeping sensation at the base of my skull spread over my body. It felt like insects marching on my skin. Shit.
"No." A nice simple answer. Maybe I should try those more often.
"Perhaps not, but you will."
I didn't like the way she said that. It was ridiculous to be sitting in a sunny kitchen at 7:28 in the morning, and be scared. But there it was. My gut was twitching with it.
She stared at me. Her eyes were just eyes. There was none of that seductive power of a vampire. They were just eyes, and yet ... The hair on my neck tried to crawl down my spine.
Goose bumps broke out on my body, a rush of prickling warmth. I licked my lips and stared at Dominga Salvador.
It was a slap of magic. She was testing me. I'd had it done before. People are so fascinated with what I do. Convinced that I know magic. I don't. I have an affinity with the dead.
It's not the same.
I stared into her nearly black eyes and felt myself sway forward. It was like falling without movement. The world sort of swung for a moment, then steadied. Warmth burst out of my body, like a twisting rope of heat. It went outward to the old woman. It hit her solid, and I felt it like a jolt of electricity.
I stood up, gasping for air. "Shit!"
"Anita, are you all right?" Manny was standing now, too. He touched my arm gently.
"I'm not sure. What the hell did she do to me?"
"It is what you have done to me, chica," Dominga said. She looked a little pale around the edges. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
The man stood away from the wall, his hands loose and ready. "No," Dominga said, "Enzo, I am all right." Her voice was breathy as if she had been running:
I stayed standing. I wanted to go home now, please.
"We did not come here for games, Dominga," Manny said. His voice had deepened with anger and, I think, fear. I agreed with that last emotion.
"It is not a game, Manuel. Have you forgotten everything I taught you. Everything you were?"
"I have forgotten nothing, but I did not bring her here to be harmed."
"Whether she is harmed or not is up to her, mi corazon."
I didn't much like that last part. "You're not going to help us. You're just going to play cat and mouse. Well, this mouse is leaving." I turned to leave, keeping a watchful eye on Enzo. He wasn't an amateur.
"Don't you wish to find the little boy that Manny said was taken? Three years old, very young to be in the hands of the bokor."
It stopped me. She knew it would. Damn her. "What is a bokor?"
She smiled. "You really don't know, do you?"
I shook my head.
The smile widened, all surprised pleasure. "Place your right hand palm up on the table, por favor."
"If you know something about the boy, just tell me. Please."
"Endure my little tests, and I will help you."
"What sort of tests?" I hoped I sounded as suspicious as I felt.
Dominga laughed, an abrupt and cheery sound. It went with all the smile lines in her face. Her eyes were practically sparkling with mirth. Why did I feel like she was laughing at me?
"Come, chica, I will not hurt you," she said.
"If she does anything that may harm you, I will say so."
Dominga gazed up at me, a sort of puzzled wonder on her face. "I have heard that you can raise three zombies in a night, night after night. Yet, you truly are a novice."
"Ignorance is bliss," I said.
"Sit, chica. This will not hurt, I promise."
This will not hurt. It promised more painful things later. I sat. "Any delay could cost the boy his life." Try to appeal to her good side.
She leaned towards me. "Do you really think the child is still alive?" Guess she didn't have a good side.
I leaned back from her. I couldn't help it, and I couldn't lie to her. "No."
"Then we have time, don't we?"
"Time for what?"
"Your hand, chica, por favor, then I will answer your questions."
I took a deep breath and placed my right hand on the table, palm up. She was being mysterious. I hated people who were mysterious.
She brought a small black bag from under the table, as if it had been sitting in her lap the whole time. Like she'd planned this.
Manny was staring at the bag like something noisome was about to crawl out. Close. Dominga Salvador pulled something noisome out of it.
It was a charm, a gris-gris made of black feathers, bits of bone, a mummified bird's foot. I thought at first it was a chicken until I saw the thick black talons. There was a hawk or eagle out there somewhere with a peg leg.
I had visions of her digging the talons into my flesh, and was all tensed to pull away. But she simply placed the gris-gris on my open palm. Feathers, bits of bone, the dried hawk foot. It wasn't slimy. It didn't hurt. In fact, I felt a little silly.
Then I felt it warmth. The thing was warm, sitting there in my hand. It hadn't been warm a second ago. "What are you doing to it?"
Dominga didn't answer. I glanced up at her, but her eyes were staring at my hand, intent. Like a cat about to pounce.
I glanced back down. The talons flexed, then spread, then flexed. It was moving in my hand. "Shiiit!" I wanted to stand up. To fling the vile thing to the floor. But I didn't. I sat there with every hair on my body tingling, my pulse thudding in my throat, and let the thing move in my hand. "All right," my voice sounded breathy, "I've passed your little test. Now get this thing the hell out of my hand."
Dominga lifted the claw gently from my hand. She was careful not to touch my skin. I didn't know why, but it was a noticeable effort.
"Dammit, dammit!" I whispered under my breath. I rubbed my hand against my stomach, touching the gun hidden there. It was comforting to know that if worse came to worst, I could just shoot her. Before she scared me to death. "Can we get down to business now?" My voice sounded almost steady. Bully for me.
Dominga was cradling the claw in her hands. "You made the claw move. You were frightened, but not surprised. Why?"
What could I say? Nothing I wanted her to know. "I have an affinity with the dead. It responds to me like some people can read thoughts."
She smiled. "Do you really believe that your ability to raise the dead is like mind reading? Parlor tricks?"
Dominga had obviously never met a really good telepath. If she had, she wouldn't have been scornful: In their own way, they were just as scary as she was.
"I raise the dead, Señora. It is just a job."
"You do not believe that any more than I do."
"I try real hard," I said.
"You've been tested before by someone." She made it a statement.
"My grandmother on my mother's side tested me, but not with that." I pointed to the still flexing foot. It looked like one of those fake hands that you can buy at Spencer's. Now that I wasn't holding it, I could pretend it just had tiny little batteries in it somewhere. Right.
"She was vaudun?"
"Why did you not study with her?"
"I have an inborn gift for raising the dead. That doesn't dictate my religious preferences."
"You are Christian." She made the word sound like something bad.
"That's it." I stood. "I wish I could say it's been a pleasure, but it hasn't."
"Ask your questions, chica."
"What?" The change of subject was too fast for me.
"Ask whatever you came here to ask," she said.
I glanced at Manny. "If she says she will answer, she will answer." He didn't look completely happy about it.
I sat down, again. The next insult and I'm outta here. But if she could really help ... oh, hell, she was dangling that thin little thread of hope. And after what I'd seen at the Reynolds house, I was grabbing for it.
I had planned to be as polite as possible on the wording of the question, now I didn't give a shit. "Have you raised a zombie in the last few weeks?"
"Some," she said.
Okay. I hesitated over the next question. The feel of that thing moving in my hand flashed back on me. I rubbed my hand against my pants leg as if I could rub the sensation away. What was the worst she could do to me if I offended her? Don't ask. "Have you sent any zombies out on errands ... of revenge?" There, that was polite, amazing.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
She smiled. "I'd remember if I loosed murderers from the grave."
"Killer zombies don't have to be murderers," I said.
"Oh?" Her pale eyebrows raised. "Are you so very familiar with raising 'killer' zombies?"
I fought the urge to squirm like a schoolchild caught at a lie. "Only one."
"No." My voice was very firm. "No, that is a private matter." A private nightmare that I was not going to share with the voodoo lady.
I decided to change the subject just a little. "I've raised murderers before. They weren't more violent than regular undead."
"How many dead have you called from the grave?" she asked.
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"Give me an … " she seemed to be groping for a word "estimation."
"I can't. It must have been hundreds."
"A thousand?" she asked.
"Maybe, I haven't kept count," I said.
"Has your boss at Animators, Incorporated, kept count?"
"I would assume that all my clients are on file, yes," I said.
She smiled. "I would be interested in knowing the exact number."
What could it hurt? "I'll find out if I can."
"Such an obedient girl." She stood. "I did not raise this 'killer' zombie of yours. If that is what is eating citizens." She smiled, almost laughed, as if it were funny. "But I know people that would never speak to you. People that could do this horrible deed. I will question them, and they will answer me. I will have truth from them, and I will pass this truth on to you, Anita."
She said my name like it was meant to be said, Ahneetah. Made it sound exotic.
"Thank you very much, Señora Salvador."
"But there is one favor I will ask in return for this information," she said.
Something unpleasant was about to be said, I'd have bet on it. "What would that favor be, Señora?"
"I want you to pass one more test for me."
I stared at her, waiting for her to go on, but she didn't. "What sort of test?" I asked.
"Come downstairs, and I will show you." Her voice was mild as honey.
"No, Dominga," Manny said. He was standing now. "Anita, nothing the Señora could tell you would be worth what she wants."
"I can talk to people and things that will not talk to you, either of you. Good Christians that you are."
"Come on, Anita, we don't need her help." He had started for the door. I didn't follow him. Manny hadn't seen the slaughtered family. He hadn't dreamed about blood-coated teddy bears last night. I had. I couldn't leave if she could help me. Whether Benjamin Reynolds was dead or not wasn't the point. The thing, whatever it was, would kill again. And I was betting it had something to do with voodoo. It wasn't my area. I needed help, and I needed it fast.
"Anita, come on." He touched my arm, pulling me a little towards the door.
"Tell me about the test."
Dominga smiled triumphantly. She knew she had me. She knew I wasn't leaving until I had her promised help. Damn.
"Let us retire to the basement. I will explain the test there."
Manny's grip on my arm tightened. "Anita, you don't know what you're doing."
He was right, but ... "Just stay with me, Manny, back me up. Don't let me do anything that will really hurt. Okay?"
"Anita, anything she wants you to do down there will hurt. Maybe not physically, but it will hurt."
"I have to do this, Manny." I patted his hand and smiled. "It'll be all right."
"No," he said, "it won't be."
I didn't know what to say to that, except that he was probably right. But it didn't matter. I was going to do it. Whatever she asked, within reason, if it would stop the killings. If it would fix it so that I never had to see another half-eaten body.
Dominga smiled. "Let us go downstairs." '
"May I speak with Anita alone, Señora, por favor," Manny said. His hand was still on my arm. I could feel the tension in his hand.
"You will have the rest of this beautiful day to talk to her, Manuel. But I have only this short time. If she does this test for me now, I promise to aid her in any way I can to catch this killer."
It was a powerful offer. A lot of people would talk to her just out of pure terror. The police can't inspire that. All they can do is arrest you. It wasn't enough of a deterrent. Having the undead crawl through your window ... that was a deterrent.
Four, maybe five people were already dead. It was a bad way to die. "I've already said I'd do it. Let's go."
She walked around the table and took Manny's arm. He jumped like she'd struck him. She pulled him away from me. "No harm will come to her, Manuel. I swear."
"I do not trust you, Dominga."
She laughed. "But it is her choice, Manuel. I have not forced her."
"You have blackmailed her, Dominga. Blackmailed her with the safety of others."
She looked back over her shoulder. "Have I blackmailed you, chica?"
"Yes," I said.
"Oh, she is your student, corazon. She has your honesty. And your bravery."
"She is brave, but she has not seen what lies below."
I wanted to ask what exactly was in the basement, but I didn't. I really didn't want to know. I've had people warn me about supernatural shit before. Don't go in that room; the monster will get you. There usually is a monster, and it usually tries to get me. But up till now I've been faster or luckier than the monsters. Here's to my luck holding.
I wished that I could heed Manny's warning. Going home sounded very good about now, but duty reared its ugly head. Duty and a whisper of nightmares. I didn't want to see another butchered family.
Dominga led Manny from the room. I followed with Enzo bringing up the rear. What a day for a parade.
The basement stairs were steep, wooden slats. You could feel the vibrations in the stairs as we tromped down them. It was not comforting. The bright sunlight from the door spilled into absolute darkness. The sunlight faltered, seemed to fade as if it had no power in this cavelike place. I stopped on the grey edge of daylight, staring down into the nightdark of the room. I couldn't even make out Dominga and Manny. They had to be just in front of me, didn't they?
Enzo the bodyguard waited at my back like some patient mountain. He made no move to hurry me. Was it my decision then? Could I just pack up my toys and go home?
"Manny," I called.
A voice came distantly. Too far away. Maybe it was an acoustic trick of the room. Maybe not. "I'm here, Anita."
I strained to see where the voice was coming from, but there was nothing to see. I took two steps farther down into the inky dark and stopped like I'd hit a wall. There was the damp rock smell of most basements, but under that something stale, sour, sweet. That almost indescribable smell of corpses. It was faint here at the head of the stairs. I was betting it would get worse the farther down I went.
My grandmother had been a priestess of vaudun. Her Humfo had not smelled like corpses. The line between good and evil wasn't as clear cut in voodoo as in Wicca or Christianity and satanism, but it was there. Dominga Salvador was on the wrong side of the line. I had known that when I came. It still bothered me.
Grandmother Flores had told me that I was a necromancer. It was more than being a voodoo priestess, and less. I had a sympathy with the dead, all dead. It was hard to be vaudun and a necromancer and not be evil. Too tempting, Grandma said. She had encouraged my being Christian. Encouraged my father to cut me off from her side of the family. Encouraged it for love of me and fear for my soul.
And here I was going down the steps into the jaws of temptation. What would Grandma Flores say to that? Probably, go home. Which was good advice. The tight feeling in my stomach was saying the same thing.
The lights came on. I blinked on the stairs. The one dim bulb at the foot of the staircase seemed as bright as a star. Dominga and Manny stood just under the bulb, looking up at me.
Light. Why did I feel instantly better? Silly, but true. Enzo let the door swing shut behind us. The shadows were thick, but down a narrow bricked hallway more bare light bulbs dangled.
I was almost at the bottom of the stairs. That sweet, sour smell was stronger. I tried breathing through my mouth, but that only made it clog the back of my throat. The smell of rotting flesh clings to the tongue.
Dominga led the way between the narrow walls. There were regular patches in the walls. Places where it looked like cement had been put over doors. Paint had been smoothed over the cement, but there had been doors, rooms, at regular intervals. Why wall them up? Why cover the doors in cement? What was behind them?
I rubbed fingertips across the rough cement. The surface was bumpy and cool. The paint wasn't very old. It would have flaked in this dampness. It hadn't. What was behind this blocked up door?
The skin just between my shoulder blades started to itch. I fought an urge to glance back at Enzo. I was betting he was behaving himself. I was betting that being shot was the least of my worries.
The air was cool and damp. A very basement of a basement. There were three doors, two to the right, one to the left that were just doors. One door had a shiny new padlock on it. As we walked past it, I heard the door sigh as if something large had leaned against it.
I stopped. "What's in there?"
Enzo had stopped when I stopped. Dominga and Manny had rounded a corner, and we were alone. I touched the door. The wood creaked, rattling against its hinges. Like some giant cat had rubbed against the door. A smell rolled out from under the door. I gagged and backed away. The stench clung to my mouth and throat. I swallowed convulsively and tasted it all the way down.
The thing behind the door made a mewling sound. I couldn't tell if it was human or animal. It was bigger than a person, whatever it was. And it was dead. Very, very dead.
I covered my nose and mouth with my left hand. The right was free just in case. In case that thing should come crashing out. Bullets against the walking dead. I knew better, but the gun was still a comfort. In a pinch I could shoot Enzo. But somehow I knew that if the thing rattling the door got out, Enzo would be in as much danger as I was.
"We must go on, now," he said.
I couldn't tell anything from his face. We might have been walking down the street to the corner store. He seemed impervious, and I hated him for it. If I'm terrified, by God, everyone else should be, too.
I eyed the supposedly unlocked door to my left. I had to know. I yanked it open. The room was maybe eight by four, like a cell. The cement floor and whitewashed walls were clean, empty. It looked like a cell waiting for its next occupant. Enzo slammed the door shut. I didn't fight him. It wasn't worth it. If I was going to go one on one with someone who outweighed me by over a hundred pounds, I was going to be picky about where I drew the line. An empty room wasn't worth it.
Enzo leaned against the door. Sweat glimmered across his face in the harsh light. "Do not try any other doors, señorita. It could be very bad."
I nodded. "Sure, no problem." An empty room and he was sweating. Nice to know something frightened him. But why this room and not the one with the mewling stench behind it? I didn't have a clue.
"We must catch up with the Señora." He made a gracious motion like a maitre d' showing me to a chair. I went where he pointed. Where else was I going to go?
The hallway fed into a large rectangular chamber. It was painted the same startling white as the cell had been. The whitewashed floor was covered in brilliant red and black designs. Verve it was called. Symbols drawn in the voodoo sanctuary to summon the lao, the gods of vaudun.
The symbols acted as walls bordering a path. They led to the altar. If you stepped off the path you messed up all those carefully formed symbols. I didn't know if that would be good or bad. Rule number three hundred sixty-nine when dealing with unfamiliar magic: when in doubt, leave it alone.
I left it alone.
The end of the room gleamed with candles. The warm, rich light flickered and filled the white walls with heat and light. Dominga stood in the midst of that light, that whiteness, and gleamed with evil. There was no other word for it. She wasn't just bad, she was evil. It gleamed around her like darkness made liquid and touchable. The smiling old woman was gone. She was a creature of power.
Manny stood off to one side. He was staring at her. He glanced at me. His eyes were showing a lot of white. The altar was directly behind Dominga's straight back. Dead animals spilled off the top of it to form a pool on the floor. Chickens, dogs, a small pig, two goats. Lumps of fur and dried blood that I couldn't identify. The altar looked like a fountain where dead things flowed out of the center, sluggish and thick.
The sacrifices were fresh. No smell of decay. The glazed eyes of a goat stared at me. I hated killing goats. They always seemed so much more intelligent than chickens. Or maybe I just thought they were cuter.
A tall woman stood to the right of the altar. Her skin gleamed nearly black in the candlelight as if she had been carved of some heavy, gleaming wood. Her hair was short and neat, falling to her shoulders. Wide cheekbones, full lips, expert makeup. She wore a long silky dress, the bright scarlet of fresh blood. It matched her lipstick.
To the right of the altar stood a zombie. It had once been a woman. Long, pale brown hair fell nearly to her waist. Someone had brushed it until it gleamed. It was the only thing about the corpse that looked alive. The skin had turned a greyish color. The flesh had narrowed down around the bones like shrink wrap. Muscles moved under the thin, rotting skin, stringy and shrunken. The nose was almost gone, giving it a half-finished look. A crimson gown hung loose and flapping on the skeletal remains.
There was even an attempt at makeup. Lipstick had been abandoned when the lips shriveled up but a dusting of mauve eye shadow outlined the bulging eyes. I swallowed very hard and turned to stare at the first woman.
She was a zombie. One of the best preserved and most lifelike I had ever seen, but no matter how luscious she looked, she was dead. The woman, the zombie, stared back at me. There was something in her perfect brown eyes that no zombie has for long. The memory of who and what they were fades within a few days, sometimes hours. But this zombie was afraid. The fear was like a shiny, bright pain in her eyes. Zombies didn't have eyes like that.
I turned back to the more decayed zombie and found her staring at me, too. The bulging eyes were staring at me. With most of the flesh holding the eyes in the socket gone, her facial expressions weren't as good, but she managed. It managed to be afraid. Shit.
Dominga nodded, and Enzo motioned me farther into the circle. I didn't want to go.
"What the hell is going on here, Dominga?"
She smiled, almost a laugh. "I am not accustomed to such rudeness."
"Get used to it," I said. Enzo sort of breathed down my back. I did my best to ignore him. My right hand was sort of casually near my gun, without looking like I was reaching for my gun. It wasn't easy. Reaching for a gun usually looks like reaching for a gun. No one seemed to notice though. Goody for our side.
"What have you done to the two zombies?"
"Inspect them yourself, chica. If you are as powerful as the stories say, you will answer your own question."
"And if I can't figure it out?" I asked.
She smiled, but her eyes were as flat and black as a shark's. "Then you are not as powerful as the stories."
"Is this the test?"
I sighed. The voodoo lady wanted to see how tough I really was. Why? Maybe there wasn't a reason. Maybe she was just a sadistic power-hungry bitch. Yeah, I could believe that. Then again, maybe there was a purpose to the theatrics. If so, I still didn't know what it was.
I glanced at Manny. He gave a barely perceivable shrug. He didn't know what was going on either. Great.
I didn't like playing Dominga's games, especially when I didn't know the rules. The zombies were still staring at me. There was something in their eyes. It was fear, and something worse-hope. Shit. Zombies didn't have hope. They didn't have anything. They were dead. These weren't dead. I had to know. Here's hoping that curiosity didn't kill the animator.
I stepped around Dominga carefully, watching her out of the corner of my eye. Enzo stayed behind blocking the path between the verve. He looked big and solid standing there, but I could get past him, if I wanted it bad enough. Bad enough to kill him. I hoped I wouldn't want it that bad.
The decayed zombie stared down at me. She was tall, almost six feet. Skeletal feet peeked out from underneath the red gown. A tall, slender woman, probably beautiful, once. Bulging eyes rolled in the nearly bare sockets. A wet, sucking sound accompanied the movements.
I'd thrown up the first time I heard that sound. The sound of eyeballs rolling in rotting sockets. But that was four years ago, when I was new at this. Decaying flesh didn't make me flinch anymore or throw up. As a general rule.
The eyes were pale brown with a lot of green in them. The smell of some expensive perfume floated around her. Powdery and fine, like talcum powder in your nose, sweet, flowery. Underneath was the stink of rotting flesh. It wrinkled my nose, caught at the back of my throat. The next time I smelled this delicate, expensive perfume, I would think of rotting flesh. Oh, well, it smelled too expensive to buy, anyway.
She was staring at me. She, not it, she. There was the force of personality in her eyes. I call most zombies "it" because it fits. They may come from the grave very alive-looking, but it doesn't last. They rot. Personality and intelligence goes first, then the body. It's always that order. God is not cruel enough to force anyone to be aware while their body decays around them. Something had gone very wrong with this one.
I stepped around Dominga Salvador. For no reason that I could name, I stayed out of reach. She had no weapon, I was almost sure of that. The danger she represented had nothing to do with knives or guns. I simply didn't want her to touch me, not even by accident.
The zombie on the left was perfect. Not a sign of decay. The look in her eyes was alert, alive. God help us. She could have gone anywhere and passed for human. How had I known she wasn't alive? I wasn't even sure. None of the usual signs were there, but I knew dead when I felt it. Yet ... I stared up at the second woman. Her lovely, dark face stared back. Fear screamed out of her eyes.
Whatever power let me raise the dead told me this was a zombie, but my eyes couldn't tell. It was amazing. If Dominga could raise zombies like this, she had me beat hands down.
I have to wait three days before I raise a corpse. It gives the soul time to leave the area. Souls usually hover around for a while. Three days is average. I can't call shit from the grave if the soul's still present. It has been theorized that if an animator could keep the soul intact while raising the body, we'd get resurrection. You know, resurrection, the real thing, like in Jesus and Lazarus. I didn't believe that. Or maybe I just know my limitations.
I stared up at this zombie and knew what was different. The soul was still there. The soul was still inside both bodies. How? How in Jesus' name did she do it?
"The souls. The souls are still in the bodies." My voice held the distaste I felt. Why bother to hide it?
"Very good, chica."
I went to stand to her left, keeping Enzo in sight. "How did you do it?"
"The soul was captured at the moment it took flight from the body."
I shook my head. "That doesn't explain anything."
"Don't you know how to capture souls in a bottle?"
Souls in a bottle? Was she kidding? No, she wasn't. "No, I don't." I tried not to sound superior as I said it.
"I could teach you so much, Anita, so very much."
"No, thanks," I said. "You captured their souls, then you raised the body, and put the soul back in." I was guessing, but it sounded right.
"Very, very good. That is it exactly." She was staring at me so hard that it was uncomfortable. Her empty, black eyes were memorizing me.
"But why is the second zombie rotting? The theory is with the soul intact, the zombie won't decay?"
"It is no longer a theory. I have proved it," she said.
I stared at the rotted corpse, and it stared back. "Then why is that one rotting, and this one isn't?" Just two necromancers talking shop. Tell me, do you raise your zombies only during the dark of the moon?
"The soul may be put into the body, then removed again, as often as I wish."
I stared at Dominga Salvador now. I stared and tried not to let my jaw drop, not to let the dawning horror slip across my face. She would enjoy shocking me. I didn't want her taking pleasure from me, for any reason.
"Let me test my understanding here," I said in my best executive trainee voice. "You put the soul into the body and it didn't rot. Then you took the soul out of the body, making it an ordinary zombie, and it did rot."
"Exactly," she said.
"Then you put the soul back in the rotted corpse, and the zombie was aware and alive again. Did the rotting stop when the soul went back in?"
Shit. "So you could keep the zombie over there rotted just that much forever?"
Double shit. "And this one?" I pointed this time, like I was doing a lecture.
"Many people would pay dearly for her."
"Wait a minute, you mean sell her as a sex slave?"
"But ... " The idea was too horrible. She was a zombie, which meant she didn't need to eat or sleep or anything. You could keep her in a closet and take her out like a toy. A perfectly obedient slave.
"Are they as obedient as normal zombies, or does the soul give them free will?"
"They seem to be very obedient."
"Maybe they're just scared of you," I said.
She smiled. "Perhaps."
"You can't just keep the soul imprisoned forever."
"I can't," she said.
"The soul needs to go on."
"To your Christian heaven or hell?"
"Yes," I said.
"These were wicked women, chica. Their own families gave them to me. Paid me to punish them."
"You took money for this?"
"It is illegal to tamper with dead bodies without permission of the family," she said.
I don't know if she had planned to horrify me. Maybe not. But with that one sentence she let me know that what she was doing was perfectly legal. The dead had no rights. This was the reason we needed some laws to protect zombies. Shit.
"No one deserves to spend eternity locked in a corpse," I said.
"We could do this to criminals on death row, chica. They could be made to serve society after death."
I shook my head. "No, it's wrong."
"I have created a non-rotting zombie, chica. Animators, I believe you call yourselves, have been searching for the secret for years. I have it, and people will pay for it."
"It's wrong. I may not know much about voodoo, but even among your own people, it's wrong. How can you keep the souls prisoner and not allow them to go on and join with the lao?"
She shrugged and sighed. She suddenly looked tired. "I was hoping, chica, that you would help me. With two of us working, we could create more zombies much faster. We could be wealthy beyond our dreams."
"You've asked the wrong girl."
"I see that now. I had hoped that since you were not vaudun, you would not see it as wrong."
"Christian, Buddhist, Moslem, you name it, Dominga, no one's going to think it's all right."
"Perhaps, perhaps not. It does not hurt to ask."
I glanced at the rotted zombie. "At least put your first experiment out of its misery."
Dominga glanced at the zombie. "She makes a powerful demonstration, does she not?"
"You've created a non-rotting zombie, great. Don't be sadistic."
"You think I am being cruel?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Manuel, am I being cruel?"
Manny stared at me while he answered. His eyes were trying to tell me something. I couldn't tell what. "Yes, Señora, you are being cruel."
She glanced over at him then, surprise in the movement of her body, her face. "Do you really think I am cruel, Manuel? Your beloved amante?"
He nodded slowly. "Yes."
"You were not so quick to judge a few years back, Manuel. You slew the white goat for me, more than once."
I turned towards Manny. It was like that moment in a movie where the main character has a revelation about someone. There should be music and camera angles when you learn one of your best friends participated in human sacrifice. More than once she had said. More than once.
"Manny?" My voice was a hoarse whisper. This, for me, was worse than the zombies. The hell with strangers. This was Manny, and it couldn't be true.
"Manny?" I said it again. He wouldn't look at me. Bad sign.
"You didn't know, chica? Didn't your Manny tell you of his past?"
"Shut up," I said.
"He was my most treasured helper. He would have done anything for me."
"Shut up!" I screamed it at her. She stopped, her face thinning with anger. Enzo took two steps into the altar area. "Don't." I wasn't even sure who I was saying it to. "I need to hear from him, not from you."
The anger was still in her face. Enzo loomed like an avalanche about to be unleashed. Dominga gave one sharp nod. "Ask him then, chica."
"Manny, is she telling the truth? Did you perform human sacrifices?" My voice sounded so normal. It shouldn't have. My stomach was so tight, it hurt. I wasn't afraid anymore, or at least not of Dominga. The truth; I was afraid of the truth.
He looked up. His hair fell across his face framing his eyes. A lot of pain in those eyes. Almost flinching.
"It's the truth, isn't it?" My skin felt cold. "Answer me, dammit." My voice still sounded ordinary, calm.
"Yes," he said.
"Yes, you committed human sacrifice?"
He glared at me now, anger helping him meet my eyes. "Yes, Yes!"
It was my turn to look away. "God, Manny, how could you?" My voice was soft now, not ordinary. If I didn't know better, I'd say it sounded like I was on the verge of tears.
"It was nearly twenty years ago, Anita. I was vaudun and a necromancer. I believed. I loved the Señora. Thought I did."
I stared up at him. The look on his face made my throat tight. "Manny, dammit."
He didn't say anything. He just stood there looking miserable. And I couldn't reconcile the two images. Manny Rodriguez and someone who would slaughter the hornless goat in a ritual. He had taught me right from wrong in this business. He had refused to do so many things. Things not half as bad as this. It made no sense.
I shook my head. "I can't deal with this right now." I heard myself say it out loud, and hadn't really meant to. "Fine, you've dropped your little bombshell, Señora Salvador. You said you'd help us, if I passed your test. Did I pass?" When in doubt, concentrate on one disaster at a time.
"I wanted to offer you a chance to help me with my new business venture."
"We both know I'm not going to do that," I said.
"It is a pity, Anita. With training you could rival my powers."
Be just like her when I grew up. No thanks. "Thanks anyway, but I'm happy where I am."
Her eyes flicked to Manny, back to me. "Happy?"
"Manny and I will deal with it, Señora. Now will you help me?"
"If I help you without you helping me in some way, you will owe me a favor."
I didn't want to owe her a favor. "I would rather just trade information."
"What could you possibly know that would be worth all the effort I will expend hunting for your killer zombie?"
I thought about that for a moment. "I know that legislation is being written right now, about zombies. Zombies are going to have rights, and laws protecting them soon." I hoped it was soon. No need to tell her how early in the process the legislation was.
"So, I must sell a few non-rotting zombies soon, before it becomes illegal."
"I wouldn't think illegal would bother you much. Human sacrifice is illegal, too."
She gave a tiny smile. "I do not do such things anymore, Anita. I have given up my wicked ways."
I didn't believe that, and she knew I didn't believe it. Her smile widened. "When Manuel left, I stopped such evil practices. Without his urgings, I became a respectable bokar."
She was lying, but I couldn't prove it. And she knew that, too. "I gave you 'valuable information. Now will you help me?"
She nodded graciously. "I will search among my followers to see if any knows of your killer zombie." I had the sense that she was quietly laughing at me.
"Manny, will she help us?"
"If the Señora says she will do a thing, it will be done. She is good that way."
"I will find your killer if it has anything to do with vaudun," she said.
"Great." I didn't say thank you, because it seemed wrong. I wanted to call her a bitch and shoot her between the eyes, but then I would have had to shoot Enzo, too. And how would I explain that to the police? She was breaking no laws. Dammit.
"I don't suppose appealing to your better nature would make you forget this mad scheme to use your new improved zombies for slaves?"
She smiled. "Chica, chica, I will be rich beyond your wildest dreams. You can refuse to join me, but you cannot stop me."
"Don't bet on it," I said.
"What will you do, go to the police? I am breaking no laws. The only way to stop me is to kill me." She looked directly at me while she said it.
"Don't tempt me."
Manny moved up beside me. "Don't, Anita, don't challenge her."
I was sort of mad at him, too, so what the hell. "I will stop you, Señora Salvador. Whatever it takes."
"You call death magic against me, Anita, and it is you who will die."
I didn't know death magic from frijoles. I shrugged. "I was thinking something more down to earth, like a bullet."
Enzo surged into the altar area, moving to stand between his boss-lady and me. Dominga stopped him. "No, Enzo, she is angry this morning, and shocked." Her eyes were still laughing at me. "She knows nothing of the deeper magics. She cannot harm me, and she is too morally superior to commit cold-blooded murder."
The worst part about it was that she was right. I couldn't just put a bullet between her eyes, not unless she threatened me. I glanced at the waiting zombies, patient as the dead, but underneath that endless patience was fear, and hope, and ... God, the line between life and death was getting thinner all the time.
"At least lay to rest your first experiment. You've proved you can put the soul in and out multiple times. Don't make her watch."
"But, Anita, I already have a buyer for her."
"Oh, Jesus, you don't mean ... Oh, God, a necrophiliac."
"Those that love the dead better than you or I ever will, will pay extraordinary amounts for such as her."
Maybe I could just shoot her. "You are a cold-hearted, amoral bitch."
"And you, chica, need to learn respect for your elders."
"Respect has to be earned," I said.
"I think, Anita Blake, that you need to remember why people fear the dark. I will see that very soon you have a visitor to your window. Some dark night when you are fast asleep in your warm, safe bed. Something evil will creep into your room. I will earn your respect, if that is the way you want it."
I should have been afraid, but I wasn't. I was angry and wanted to go home. "You can force people to be afraid of you, Señora, but you can't force them to respect you."
"We shall see, Anita. Call me after you have gotten my gift. It will be soon."
"Will you still help locate the killer zombie?"
"I said I would, and I will."
"Good," I said. "May we go now?"
She waved Enzo back beside her. "By all means run out into the daylight where you can be brave."
I walked to the pathway. Manny stayed right with me. We were careful not to look at each other. We were too busy watching the Señora and her pets. I stopped just inside the path. Manny touched my arm lightly, as if he knew what I was about to say. I ignored him.
"I may not be willing to kill you in cold blood, but hurt me first, and I'll put a bullet in you some bright, sunshiny day."
"Threats will not save you, chica," she said.
I smiled sweetly. "You either, bitch."
Her face went all thin and angry. I smiled wider.
"She does not mean it, Señora," Manny said. "She will not kill you."
"Is this true, chica?" Her voice was a rich growl of sound, pleasant and frightening at the same time.
I gave Manny a quick dirty look. It was a good threat. I didn't like weakening it with common sense, or truth. "I said, I'd shoot you. I didn't say I'd kill you. Now did I?"
"No, you did not."
Manny grabbed my arm and started pulling me backwards towards the stairs. He was pulling on my left arm, leaving my right free for my gun. Just in case.
Dominga never moved. Her black, angry eyes stared at me until we rounded the corner. Manny pulled me into the hallway with its cement covered doors. I pulled free of him. We stared at each other for a heartbeat.
"What's behind the doors?"
"I don't know."
Doubt must have shown on my face because he said, "God as my witness, Anita, I don't know. It wasn't like this twenty years ago."
I just stared at him as if looking would change things. I wish Dominga Salvador had kept Manny's secret to herself. I had not wanted to know.
"Anita, we have to get out of here, now." The light bulb over our head went out, like someone had snuffed it. We both looked up. There was nothing to see. My arms broke out in goose bumps. The bulb just ahead of us dimmed, then blinked off.
Manny was right. We needed to leave now. I broke into a half jog towards the stairs. Manny stayed with me. The door with its shiny padlock rattled and thumped as if the thing were trying to get out. Another light bulb flashed off. The darkness was snapping at our heels. We were at a full run by the time we hit the stairs. There were two bulbs left.
We were halfway up the stairs when the last light vanished. The world went black. I froze on the stairs unwilling to move without being able to see. Manny's arm brushed mine, but I couldn't see him. The darkness was complete. I could have touched my eyeballs and not seen my finger. We grabbed hands and held on. His hand wasn't much bigger than mine. It was warm and familiar, and damn comforting.
The cracking of wood was loud as a shotgun blast in the dark. The stench of rotting meat filled the stairwell. "Shit!" The word echoed and bounced in the blackness. I wished I hadn't said it. Something large pulled itself into the corridor. It couldn't be as big as it sounded. The wet, slithering sounds moved towards the stairs. Or sounded like they did.
I stumbled up two steps. Manny didn't need any urging. We stumbled through the darkness, and the sounds below hurried. The light under the door was so bright, it almost hurt. Manny flung open the door. The sunlight blazed against my eyes. We were both momentarily blinded.
Something screamed behind us, caught in the edge of daylight. The scream was almost human. I started to turn, to look. Manny slammed the door. He shook his head. "You don't want to see. I don't want to see."
He was right. So why did I have this urge to yank the door open, to stare down into the dark until I saw something pale and shapeless? A screaming nightmare of a sight. I stared at the closed door, and I let it go.
"Do you think it will come out after us?" I asked.
"Into the daylight?" Manny asked.
"Yeah," I said.
"I don't think so. Let's leave without finding out."
I agreed. The August sunlight streamed into the living room. Warm and real. The scream, the darkness, the zombies, all of it seemed wrong for the sunlight. Things that go bump in the morning. It didn't sound quite right.
I opened the screen door calmly, slowly. Panicked, me? But I was listening so hard I could hear blood rush in my ears. Listening for slithery sounds of pursuit. Nothing.
Antonio was still on guard outside. Should we warn him about the possibility of a Lovecraftian horror nipping at our heels?
"Did you fuck the zombie downstairs?" Antonio asked.
So much for warning old Tony.
Manny ignored him.
"Go fuck yourself," I said.
He said, "Heh!"
I kept walking down the porch steps. Manny stayed with me. Antonio didn't draw his gun and shoot us. The day was looking up.
The little girl on the tricycle had stopped by Manny's car. She stared up at me as I got in the passenger side door. I stared back into huge brown eyes. Her face was darkly tanned. She couldn't have been more than five.
Manny got in the driver's side door. He put the car in gear, and we pulled away. The little girl and I stared at each other. Just before we turned the corner she started pedaling up and down the sidewalk again.
The air conditioner blasted cold air into the car. Manny drove through the residential streets. Most of the driveways were empty. People off to work. Small children playing in the yards. A few moms out on the front steps. I didn't see any daddies at home with the kids. Things change, but not that much. The silence stretched out between us. It was not a comfortable silence.
Manny glanced at me furtively out of the corner of his eye.
I slumped in the passenger seat, the seat belt digging across my gun. "So," I said, "you used to perform human sacrifice."
I think he flinched. "Do you want me to lie?"
"No, I want to not know. I want to live in blessed ignorance."
"It doesn't work that way, Anita," he said.
"I guess it doesn't," I said. I adjusted the lap strap so it didn't press over my gun. Ah, comfort. If only everything else were that easy to fix. "What are we going to do about it?"
"About you knowing?" he asked. He glanced at me as he asked. I nodded.
"You aren't going to rant and rave? Tell me what an evil bastard I am?"
"Doesn't seem much point in it," I said.
He looked at me a little longer this time. "Thanks."
"I didn't say it was alright, Manny. I'm just not going to yell at you. Not yet, anyway."
He passed a large white car full of dark-skinned teenagers. Their car stereo was up so loud, my teeth rattled. The driver had one of those high-boned, flat faces, straight off of an Aztec carving. Our eyes met as we moved by them. He made kissing motions with his mouth. The others laughed uproariously.
I resisted the urge to flip them off. Mustn't encourage the little tykes.
They turned right. We went straight. Relief.
Manny stopped two cars back from a light. Just beyond the light was the turnoff 40 West. We'd take 270 up to Olive and then a short jaunt to my apartment. We had forty-five minutes to an hour of travel time. Not a problem normally. Today I wanted away from Manny. I wanted some time to digest. To decide how to feel.
"Talk to me, Anita, please." ,
"Honest to God, Manny, I don't know what to say." Truth, try to stick to the truth between friends. Yeah.
"I've known you for four years, Manny. You are a good man. You love your wife, your kids. You've saved my life. I've saved yours. I thought I knew you."
"I haven't changed."
"Yes," I looked at him as I said it, "you have. Manny Rodriguez would never under any circumstance take part in human sacrifice."
"It's been twenty years."
"There's no statute of limitations on murder."
"You going to the cops?" His voice was very quiet.
The light changed. We waited our turn and merged into the morning traffic. It was as heavy as it ever got in St. Louis. It's not the gridlock of L.A., but stop and jerk is still pretty darn annoying. Especially this morning.
"I don't have any proof. Just Dominga Salvador's word. I wouldn't exactly call her a reliable witness."
"If you had proof?"
"Don't push me on this, Manny." I stared out the window. There was a silver Miada with the top down. The driver was white-haired, male, and wore a jaunty little cap, plus racing gloves. Middle-age crisis.
"Does Rosita know?" I asked.
"She suspects, but she doesn't know for sure."
"Doesn't want to know," I said.
"Probably not." He turned and stared at me then.
A red Ford truck was nearly in front of us. I yelled, "Manny!"
He slammed on the brakes, and only the seat belt kept me from kissing the dashboard.
"Jesus, Manny, watch your driving!"
He concentrated on traffic for a few seconds, then without looking at me this time, "Are you going to tell Rosita?"
I thought about that for about a second. I shook my head, realized he couldn't see it, and said, "I don't think so. Ignorance is bliss on this one, Manny. I don't think your wife could deal with it."
"She'd leave me and take the kids."
I believed she would. Rosita was a very religious person. She took all the commandments very seriously.
"She already thinks I'm risking my eternal soul by raising the dead," Manny said.
"She didn't have a problem until the pope threatened to excommunicate all animators unless they stopped raising the dead."
"The Church is very important to Rosita."
"Me, too, but I'm a happy little Episcopalian now. Switch churches."
"It's not that easy," he said.
It wasn't. I knew that. But, hey, you do what you can, or what you have to. "Can you explain why you would do human sacrifice? I mean, something that will make sense to me?"
"No," he said. He pulled into the far lane. It seemed to be going a little faster. It slowed down as soon as we pulled in. Murphy's law of traffic.
"You won't even try to explain?"
"It's indefensible, Anita. I live with what I did. I can't do anything else."
He had a point. "This has to change the way I think about you, Manny."
"In what way?"
"I don't know yet." Honesty. If we were very careful, we could still be honest with each other. "Is there anything else you think I should know? Anything that Dominga might spill later on?"
He shook his head. "Nothing worse."
"Okay," I said.
"Okay," he said. "That's it, no interrogation?"
"Not now, maybe not ever." I was tired all at once. It was 9:23 in the morning, and I needed a nap. Emotionally drained. "I don't know how to feel about this, Manny. I don't know how it changes our friendship, or our working relationship, or even if it does. I think it does. Oh, hell, I don't know."
"Fair enough," he said. "Let's move on to something we aren't confused about."
"And what would that be?" I asked.
"The Señora will send something bad to your window, just like she said she would."
"I figured that."
"Why did you threaten her?"
"I didn't like her."
"Oh, great, just great," he said. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"I am going to stop her, Manny. I figured she should know."
"Never give the bad guys a head start, Anita. I taught you that."
"You also taught me that human sacrifice is murder."
"That hurt," he said.
"Yes," I said, "it did."
"You need to be prepared, Anita. She will send something after you. Just to scare you, I think, not to really harm."
"Because you made me fess up to not killing her," I said.
"No, because she doesn't really believe you'll kill her. She's intrigued with your powers. I think she'd rather convert you than kill you."
"Have me as part of her zombie-making factory."
"Not in this lifetime."
"The Señora is not used to people saying no, Anita."
"Her problem, not mine."
He glanced at me, then back to the traffic. "She'll make it your problem."
"I'll deal with it"
"You can't be that confident."
"I'm not, but what do you want me to do, break down and cry. I'll deal with it when, and if, something noisome drags itself through my window."
"You can't deal with the Señora, Anita. She is powerful, more powerful than you can ever imagine."
"She scared me, Manny. I am suitably impressed. If she sends something I can't handle, I'll run. Okay?"
"Not okay. You don't know, you just don't know."
"I heard the thing in the hallway. I smelled it. I'm scared, but she's just human, Manny. All the mumbo jumbo won't keep her safe from a bullet."
"A bullet may take her out, but not down."
"What does that mean?"
"If she were shot, say in the head or heart, and seemed dead, I'd treat her like a vampire. Head and heart taken out. Body burned." He glanced at me sort of sideways.
I didn't say anything. We were talking about killing Dominga Salvador. She was capturing souls and putting them into corpses. It was an abomination. She would probably attack me first. Some supernatural goodie come creeping into my home. She was evil and would attack me first. Would it be murder to ambush her? Yeah. Would I do it anyway? I let the thought take shape in my head. Rolled it over like a piece of candy, tasting the idea. Yeah, I could do it.
I should have felt bad that I could plan a murder, for any reason, and not flinch. I didn't feel bad. It was sort of comforting to know if she pushed me, I could push back. Who was I to cast stones at Manny for twenty-year-old crimes? Yeah, who indeed.
It was early afternoon. Manny had dropped me off without a word. He hadn't asked to come up, and I hadn't offered. I still didn't know what to think about him, Dominga Salvador, and non-rotting zombies, complete with souls. I decided not to think. What I needed was good physical activity. As luck would have it, I had judo class this afternoon.
I have a black belt, which sounds a lot more impressive than it really is. In the dojo with referees and rules, I do okay. Out in the real world where most bad guys outweigh me by a hundred pounds, I trust a gun.
I was actually reaching for the doorknob when the bell chimed. I put the overstuffed gym bag by the door and used the little peephole. I always had to stand on tiptoe to see out of it.
The distorted image was blond, fair-eyed, and barely familiar. It was Tommy, Harold Gaynor's muscle-bound bodyguard. This day was just getting better and better.
I don't usually take a gun to judo class. It's in the afternoon. In the summer that means daylight. The really dangerous stuff doesn't come out until after dark. I untucked the red polo shirt I was wearing and clipped my inter-pants holster back in place. The pocket-size 9mm dug in just a little. If I had known I was going to need it, I would have worn looser jeans.
The doorbell rang again. I hadn't called out to let him know I was in here. He didn't seem discouraged. He rang the doorbell a third time, leaning on it.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. I looked up into Tommy's pale blue eyes. They were still empty, dead. A perfect blankness. Were you born with a stare like that, or did you have to practice?
"What do you want?" I asked.
His lips twitched. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
"I don't think so."
He shrugged massive shoulders. I could see the straps of his shoulder holster imprinted on his suit jacket. He needed a better tailor.
A door opened to my left. A woman came out with a toddler in her arms. She locked the door before turning and seeing us. "Oh, hi." She smiled brightly.
"Hello," I said.
The woman turned and walked towards the stairs. She was murmuring something nonsensical and high-pitched to the toddler.
Tommy looked back at me. "You really want to do this in the hallway?"
"What are we doing?"
I looked at his face, and it told me nothing. The only comfort I had was that if Tommy meant to do me harm he probably wouldn't have come to my apartment to do it. Probably.
I stepped back, holding the door very wide. I stayed out of arm's reach as he walked into my apartment. He looked around. "Nice, clean."
"Cleaning service," I said. "Talk to me about business, Tommy. I've got an appointment."
He glanced at the gym bag by the door. "Work or pleasure?" he asked.
"None of your business," I said.
Again that bare twist of lips. I realized it was his version of a smile. "Down in the car I got a case full of money. A million five, half now, half after you raise the zombie."
I shook my head. "I gave Gaynor my answer."
"But that was in front of your boss. This is just you and me. No one'll know if you take it. No one."
"I didn't say no because there were witnesses. I said no because I don't do human sacrifice." I could feel myself smiling. This was ridiculous. I thought about Manny then. Alright, maybe it wasn't ridiculous. But I wasn't doing it.
"Everyone has their price, Anita. Name it. We can meet it."
He had never once mentioned Gaynor's name. Only I had. He was being so bloody careful, too careful. "I don't have a price, Tommy-boy. Go back to Mr. Harold Gaynor and tell him that."
His face clouded up then. A wrinkling between his eyes. "I don't know that name."
"Oh, give me a break. I'm not wearing a wire."
"Name your price. We can meet it," he said.
"There is no price."
"Two million, tax-free," he said.
"What zombie could be worth two million dollars, Tommy?" I stared at his softly frowning face. "What could Gaynor hope to gain that would allow him to make a profit on that kind of expenditure?"
Tommy just stared at me. "You don't need to know that."
"I thought you'd say that. Go away, Tommy. I'm not for sale." I stepped back towards the door, planning to escort him out. He moved forward suddenly, faster than he looked. Muscled arms wide to grab me.
I pulled the Firestar and pointed it at his chest. He froze. Dead eyes, blinking at me. His large hands balled into fists. A nearly purple flush crept up his neck into his face. Rage.
"Don't do it," I said, my voice sounded soft.
"Bitch," he wheezed it at me.
"Now, now, Tommy, don't get nasty. Ease down, and we can all live to see another glorious day."
His pale eyes flicked from the gun to my face, then back to the gun. "You wouldn't be so tough without that piece."
If he wanted me to offer to arm wrestle him, he was in for a disappointment. "Back off, Tommy, or I'll drop you here and now. All the muscle in the world won't help you."
I watched something move behind his dead eyes, then his whole body relaxed. He took a deep breath through his nose. "Okay, you got the drop on me today. But if you keep disappointing my boss, I'm gonna find you without that gun." His lips twitched. "And we'll see how tough you really are."
A little voice in my head said, "Shoot him now." I knew as surely as I knew anything that dear Tommy would be at my back someday. I didn't want him there, but ... I couldn't just kill him because I thought he might come after me someday. It wasn't a good enough reason. And how would I ever have explained it to the police?
"Get out, Tommy." I opened the door without taking either my gaze or the gun off the man. "Get out and tell Gaynor that if he keeps annoying me, I'll start sending his bodyguards home in boxes."
Tommy's nostrils flared just a bit at that, veins straining in his neck. He walked very stiffly past me and out into the hall. I held the gun at my side and watched him, listening to his footsteps retreat down the stairs. When I was as sure as I could be that he was gone, I put my gun back in its holster, grabbed my gym bag, and headed for judo class. Mustn't let these little interruptions spoil my exercise program. Tomorrow I would miss my workout for sure. I had a funeral to attend. Besides, if Tommy really did challenge me to arm wrestling, I was going to need all the help I could get.
I hate funerals. At least this one wasn't for anyone I had particularly liked. Cold, but true. Peter Burke had been an unscrupulous SOB when alive. I didn't see why death should automatically grant him sainthood. Death, especially violent death, will turn the meanest bastard in the world into a nice guy. Why is that?
I stood there in the bright August sunlight in my little black dress and dark sunglasses, watching the mourners. They had set up a canopy over the coffin, flowers, and chairs for the family. Why was I here, you might ask, if I had not been a friend? Because Peter Burke had been an animator. Not a very good one, but we are a small, exclusive club. If one of us dies, we all come. It's a rule. There are no exceptions. Maybe your own death, but then again being that we raise the dead, maybe not.
There are things you can do to a corpse so it won't rise again as a vampire, but a zombie is a different beast. Short of cremation, an animator can bring you back. Fire was about the only thing a zombie respected or feared.
We could have raised Peter and asked him who put a gun to his head. But they had put a 357 Magnum with an expanding point just behind his ear. There wasn't enough left of his head to fill a plastic bag. You could raise him as a zombie, but he couldn't talk. Even the dead need mouths.
Manny stood beside me, uncomfortable in his dark suit. Rosita, his wife, stood spine absolutely straight. Thick brown hands gripping her black patent leather purse. She is what my stepmother used to call large-boned. Her black hair was cut just below the ears and loosely permed. The hair needed to be longer. It emphasized how perfectly round her face was.
Charles Montgomery stood just behind me like a tall dark mountain. Charles looks like he played football somewhere. He has the ability to frown and make people run for cover. He just looks like a hard ass. Truth is, Charles faints at the sight of anything but animal blood. It's lucky for him he looks like such a big black dude. He has almost no tolerance for pain. He cries at Walt Disney movies, like when Bambi's mother dies. It's endearing as hell.
His wife, Caroline, was working. She hadn't been able to switch shifts with anyone. I wondered how hard she had tried. Caroline is okay but she sort of looks down on what we do. Mumbo jumbo she calls it. She's a registered nurse. I guess after dealing with doctors all day, she has to look down on someone.
Up near the front of the crowd was Jamison Clarke. He was tall, thin, and the only red-haired, green-eyed black man I've ever met. He nodded at me across the grave. I nodded back.
We were all here; the animators of Animators, Incorporated. Bert and Mary, our daytime secretary, were holding down the fort. I hoped Bert didn't book us in anything we couldn't handle. Or would refuse to handle. He did that if you didn't watch him.
The sun slapped my back like a hot metal hand. The men kept pulling at their ties and high collars. The smell of chrysanthemums was thick like wax at the back of my throat. No one ever gives you football mums unless you die. Carnations, roses, snapdragons. they all have happier lives, but mums, and glads-they're the funeral flowers. At least the tall spires of gladiolus had no scent.
A woman sat in the front line of chairs under the canopy. She was leaning over her knees like a broken doll. Her sobs were loud enough to drown out the words of the priest. Only his quiet, soothing rhythm reached me as I stood near the back.
Two small children were gripping the hands of an older man. Grampa? The - children were pale, hollow-eyed. Fear vied with tears on their faces. They watched their mother break down completely, useless to them. Her grief was more important than theirs. Her loss greater. Bullshit.
My own mother had died when I was eight. You never really filled in the hole. It was like a piece of you gone missing. An ache that never quite goes away. You deal with it. You go on, but it's there.
A man sat beside her, rubbing her back in endless circles. His hair was nearly black, cut short and neat. Broad shouldered. From the back he looked eerily like Peter Burke. Ghosts in sunlight.
The cemetery was dotted with trees. The shade rustled and flickered pale grey in the sunlight. On the other side of the gravel driveway that twined through the cemetery were two men. They stood quietly, waiting. Grave diggers. Waiting to finish the job.
I looked back at the coffin under its blanket of pink carnations. There was a bulky mound just behind it, covered in bright green fake grass. Underneath was the fresh dug earth waiting to go back in the hole.
Mustn't let the loved ones think about red-clay soil pouring down on the gleaming coffin. Clods of dirt hitting the wood, covering your husband, father. Trapping them forever inside a lead-lined box. A good coffin will keep the water and worms out, but it doesn't stop decay.
I knew what would be happening to Peter Burke's body. Cover it in satin, wrap a tie round its neck, rouge the cheeks, close the eyes; it's still a corpse.
The funeral ended while I wasn't looking. The people rose gratefully in one mass movement. The dark-haired man helped the grieving widow to stand. She nearly fell. Another man rushed forward and supported her other side. She sagged between them, feet dragging on the ground.
She looked back over her shoulder, head almost lolling on her neck. She screamed, loud and ragged, then flung herself on the coffin. The woman collapsed against the flowers, digging at the wood. Fingers scrambling for the locks on the coffin. The ones that held the lid down.
Everyone just froze for a moment, staring. I saw the two children through the crowd still standing, wide-eyed. Shit. "Stop her," I said it too loud. People turned to stare. I didn't care.
I pushed my way through the vanishing crowd and the aisles of chairs. The dark-haired man was holding the widow's hands while she screamed and struggled. She had collapsed to the ground, and her black dress had worked up high on her thighs.
She was wearing a white slip. Her mascara had run like black blood down her face.
I stood in front of the man and the two children. He was staring at the woman like he would never move again. "Sir," I said. He didn't react. "Sir?"
He blinked, staring down at me like I had just appeared in front of him. "Sir, do you really think the children need to see all this?"
"She's my daughter," he said. His voice was deep and thick..
Drugged or just grief?
"I sympathize, sir, but the children should go to the car now."
The widow had begun to wail, loud and wordless, raw pain. The girl was beginning to shake. "You're her father, but you're their grandfather. Act like it. Get them out of here."
Anger flickered in his eyes then. "How dare you?"
He wasn't going to listen to me. I was just an intrusion on their grief. The oldest, a boy of about five, was staring up at me. His brown eyes were huge, his thin face so pale it looked ghostly.
"I think it is you who should go," the grandfather said.
"You're right. You are so right," I said. I walked around them out into the grass and the summer heat. I couldn't help the children. I couldn't help them, just as no one had been there to help me. I had survived. So would they, maybe.
Manny and Rosita were waiting for me. Rosita hugged me. "You must come to Sunday dinner after church."
I smiled. "I don't think I can make it, but thanks for asking."
"My cousin Albert will be there," she said. "He is an engineer. He will be a good provider."
"I don't need a good provider, Rosita."
She sighed. "You make too much money for a woman. It makes you not need a man."
I shrugged. If I ever did marry, which I'd begun to doubt, a it wouldn't be for money. Love. Shit, was I waiting for love? Naw, not me.
"We have to pick up Tomas at kindergarten," Manny said. He was smiling at me apologetically around Rosita's shoulder. She was nearly a foot taller than he. She towered over me, too.
"Sure, tell the little guy hi for me."
"You should come to dinner," Rosita said, "Albert is a very handsome man."
"Thanks for thinking of me, Rosita, but I'll skip it."
"Come on, wife," Manny said. "Our son is waiting for us."
She let him pull her towards the car, but her brown face was set in disapproval. It offended some deep part of Rosita that I was twenty-four and had no prospects of marriage. Her and my stepmother.
Charles was nowhere to be seen. Hurrying back to the office to see clients. I thought Jamison had, too, but he stood in the grass, waiting for me.
He was dressed impeccably, crossed-lapels, narrow red tie with small dark dots on it. His tie clip was onyx and silver. He smiled at me, always a bad sign.
His greenish eyes looked hollow, like someone had erased part of the skin. If you cry enough, the skin goes from puffy red to hollow white. "I'm glad so many of us showed up," he said.
"I know he was a friend of yours, Jamison. I'm sorry."
He nodded and looked down at his hands. He was holding a pair of sunglasses loosely. He looked up at me, eyes staring straight into mine. All serious.
"The police won't tell the family anything," he said. "Peter gets blown away, and they don't have a clue who did it."
I wanted to tell him the police were doing their best, because they were. But there are a hell of a lot of murders in St. Louis over a year. We were giving Washington, D.C. a run for their money as murder capital of the United States. "They're doing their best, Jamison."
"Then why won't they tell us anything?" His hands convulsed. The sound of breaking plastic was a crumbling sharp sound. He didn't seem to notice.
"I don't know," I said.
"Anita, you're in good with the police. Could you ask?" His eyes were naked, full of such real pain. Most of the time I could ignore, or even dislike, Jamison. He was a tease, a flirt, a bleeding-heart liberal who thought that vampires were just people with fangs. But today ... today he was real.
"What do you want me to ask?"
"Are they making any progress? Do they have any suspects? That sort of thing."
They were vague questions, but important ones. "I'll see what I can find out."
He gave a watery smile. "Thanks, Anita, really, thanks." He held out his hand. I took it. We shook. He noticed his broken sunglasses. "Damn, ninety-five dollars down the tubes."
Ninety-five dollars for sunglasses? He had to be kidding. A group of mourners were taking the family away at last. The mother was smothered in well-meaning male relatives. They were literally carrying her away from the grave. The children and Grampa brought up the rear. No one listens to good advice.
A man stepped away from the crowd and walked towards us. He was the one who reminded me of Peter Burke from the back. He was around six feet, dark-complected, a black mustache, and thin almost goatee like beard framing a handsome face. It was handsome, a dark movie-star face, but there was something about the way he moved. Maybe it was the white streak in his black hair just over the forehead. Whatever, you knew that he would always play the villain.
"Is she going to help us?" he asked, no preamble, no hello.
"Yes," Jamison said. "Anna Blake, this is John Burke, Peter's brother."
John Burke, the John Burke, I wanted to ask. New Orleans's greatest animator and vampire slayer? A kindred spirit. We shook hands. His grip was strong, almost painfully so, as if he wanted to see if I would flinch. I didn't. He let go. Maybe he just didn't know his own strength? But I doubted it.
"I am truly sorry about your brother," I said. I meant it. I was glad I meant it.
He nodded. "Thank you for talking to the police about him."
"I'm surprised you couldn't get the New Orleans police to give you some juice with our local police," I said.
He had the grace to look uncomfortable. "The New Orleans police and I have had a disagreement."
"Really?" I said, eyes wide. I had heard the rumors, but I wanted to hear the truth. Truth is always stranger than fiction.
"John was accused of participating in some ritual murders," Jamison said. "Just because he's a practicing vaudun priest."
"Oh," I said. Those were the rumors. "How long have you been in town, John?"
"Almost a week."
"Peter had been missing for two days before they found the ... body." He licked his lips. His dark brown eyes flicked to the scene behind me. Were the grave diggers moving in? I glanced back, but the grave looked just the same to me.
"Anything you could find out would be most appreciated," he said.
"I'll do what I can."
"I have to get back to the house." He shrugged, as if to loosen the shoulder muscles. "My sister-in-law isn't taking it well."
I let it go. I deserved brownie points for that. One thing I didn't let go. "Can you look after your niece and nephew?"
He looked at me, a puzzled frown between his black eyebrows.
"I mean, keep them out of the really dramatic stuff if you can."
He nodded. "It was rough for me to watch her throw herself on the coffin. God, what must the kids be thinking?" Tears glittered in his eyes like silver. He kept them open very wide so the tears wouldn't spill out.
I didn't know what to say. I did not want to see him cry. "I'll talk to the police, find out what I can. I'll tell Jamison when I have anything."
John Burke nodded, carefully. His eyes were like a glass where only the surface tension kept the water from spilling over.
I nodded to Jamison and left. I turned on the air-conditioning in my car and let it run full blast. The two men were still standing in the hot sunshine in the middle of summer brown grass when I put the car in gear and drove away.
I would talk to the police and find out what I could. I also had another name for Dolph. John Burke, biggest animator in New Orleans, voodoo priest. Sounded like a suspect to me.
The phone was ringing as I shoved the key into my apartment door. I yelled at it, "I'm coming, I'm coming!" Why do people do that? Yell at the phone as if the other person can hear you and will wait?
I shoved the door open and scooped up the phone on the fourth ring. "Hello."
"Dolph," I said. My stomach tightened. "What's up?"
"We think we found the boy." His voice was quiet, neutral.
"Think," I said. "What do you mean, think?"
"You know what I mean, Anita," he said. He sounded tired.
"Like his parents?" It wasn't a question.
"God, Dolph, is there much left?"
"Come and see. We're at the Burrell Cemetery. Do you know it?"
"Sure, I've done work there."
"Be here as soon as you can. I want to go home and hug my wife."
"Sure, Dolph, I understand." I was talking to myself. The phone had gone dead. I stared at the receiver for a moment. My skin felt cold. I did not want to go and view the remains of Benjamin Reynolds. I did not want to know. I pulled a lot of air in through my nose and let it out slowly.
I stared down at the dark hose, high heels, dress. It wasn't my usual crime scene attire, but it would take too long to change. I was usually the last expert called in. Once I was through, they could cover the body. And everyone could go home. I grabbed a pair of black Nikes for walking over grass and through blood. Once you got bloodstains on dress shoes, they never come clean.
I had the Browning Hi-Power, complete with holster sort of draped atop my little black clutch purse. The gun had been in my car during the funeral. I couldn't figure out a way to carry a gun of any kind while wearing a dress. I know you see thigh holsters on television, but does the word "chafing" mean anything to you?
I hesitated on getting my backup gun and shoving it in my purse, but didn't. My purse, like all purses, seems to have a traveling black hole in it. I'd never get the gun out in time if I really needed it.
I did have a silver knife in a thigh sheath under the short black skirt. I felt like Kit Carson in drag, but after Tommy's little visit, I didn't want to be unarmed. I had no illusions what would happen if Tommy did catch me with no gun. Knives weren't as good, but they beat the hell out of kicking my little feet and screaming.
I had never yet had to try to fast draw a knife from a thigh sheath. It was probably going to look vaguely obscene, but if it kept me alive ... hey, I can take a little embarrassment.
Burrell Cemetery is at the crest of a hill. Some of the gravestones go back centuries. The soft, weathered limestone is almost unreadable, like hard candy that's been sucked clean. The grass is waist tall, luxuriant with only the headstones standing like tired sentinels.
There is a house on the edge of the cemetery where the caretaker lives, but he doesn't have to take care of much. The graveyard is full and has been for years. The last person buried here could remember the 1904 World's Fair.
There is no road into the graveyard anymore. There is a ghost of one, like a wagon track where the grass doesn't grow quite so high. The caretaker's house was surrounded by police cars and the coroner's van. My Nova seemed underdressed. Maybe I should get some buggy whip antennae, or plaster Zombies "R" Us on the side of the car. Bert would probably get mad.
I got a pair of coveralls from the trunk and slipped into them. They covered me from neck to ankle. Like most coveralls the crotch hit at knee level, I never understood why, but it meant my skirt didn't bunch up. I bought them originally for vampire stakings, but blood is blood. Besides, the weeds would play hell with my panty hose. I got a pair of surgical gloves from the little Kleenex-like box in the trunk. Nikes instead of dress shoes, and I was ready to view the remains.
Remains. Nice word.
Dolph stood like some ancient sentinel, towering over everyone else in the field. I worked my way towards him, trying not to trip over broken bits of headstone. A wind hot enough to scald rustled the grass. I was sweating inside the overalls.
Detective Clive Perry came to meet me, as if I needed an escort. Detective Perry was one of the most polite people I had ever met. He had an old-world courtliness to him. A gentleman in the best sense of the word. I always wanted to ask what he had done to end up on the spook squad.
His slender black face was beaded with sweat. He still wore his suit jacket even though it had to be over a hundred degrees. "Ms. Blake."
"Detective Perry," I said. I glanced up at the crest of the hill. Dolph and a handful of men were standing around like they didn't know what to do. No one was looking at the ground.
"How bad is it, Detective Perry?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Depends on what you compare it to."
"Did you see the tapes and pictures of the Reynolds house?"
"Is it worse than that?" It was my new "worst thing I ever saw" measurement. Before this it had been a vampire gang that had tried to move in from Los Angeles. The respectable vampire community had chopped them up with axes. The parts were still crawling around the room when we found them. Maybe this wasn't worse. Maybe time had just dimmed the memory.
"It isn't bloodier," he said, then he hesitated, "but it was a child. A little boy."
I nodded. He didn't need to explain. It was always worse when it was a child. I never knew exactly why. Maybe it was some primal instinct to protect the young. Some deep hormonal thing. Whatever, kids were always worse. I stared down at a white tombstone. It looked like dull, melted ice. I didn't want to go up the hill. I didn't want to see.
I went up the hill. Detective Perry followed. Brave detective. Brave me.
A sheet rested on the grass like a tent. Dolph stood closest to it. "Dolph," I said.
No one offered to pull back the sheet. "Is this it?"
Dolph seemed to shake himself, or maybe it was a shiver. He reached down and grabbed the edge of the sheet. "Ready?" he asked.
No, I wasn't ready. Don't make me look. Please don't make me look. My mouth was dry. I could taste my pulse in my throat. I nodded.
The sheet flew back, caught by a gust of wind like a white kite. The grass was trampled down. Struggles? Had Benjamin Reynolds been alive when he was pulled down into the long grass? No, surely not. God, I hoped not.
The footed pajamas had tiny cartoon figures on them. The pajamas had been pulled back like the skin of a banana. One small arm was flung up over his head like he was sleeping. Long-lashed eyelids helped the illusion. His skin was pale and flawless, small cupid-bow mouth half open. He should have looked worse, much worse.
There was a dirty brown stain on his pajamas, the cloth covering his lower body. I did not want to see what had killed him. But that was why I was here. I hesitated, fingers hovering over the torn cloth. I took a deep breath, and that was a mistake. Hunkered over the body in the windy August heat the smell was fresh. New death smells like an outhouse, especially if the stomach or bowels have been ripped open. I knew what I'd find when I lifted the bloody cloth. The smell told me.
I knelt with a sleeve over my mouth and nose for a few minutes, breathing shallow and through my mouth, but it didn't really help. Once you caught a whiff of it, your nose remembered. The smell crawled down my throat and wouldn't let go.
Quick or slow? Did I jerk the cloth back or pull it? Quick. I jerked on the cloth, but it stuck, dried blood catching. The cloth peeled back with a wet, sucking sound.
It looked like someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop and gutted him. Stomach, intestines, upper bowels, gone. The sunshine swam around me, and I had to put a hand on the ground to keep from falling.
I glanced up at the face. His hair was pale brown like his mother's. Damp curls traced his cheeks. My gaze was pulled back to the gaping ruin that was his abdomen. There was some dark, heavy fluid leaking out of the end of his small intestine.
I stumbled away from the crime scene, using the tombstones to help me stand. I would have run if I hadn't known I would fall. The sky was spinning to meet the ground. I collapsed in the smothering grass and vomited.
I threw up until I was empty and the world stopped spinning. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and stood up using a crooked headstone for support.
No one said a word as I walked back to them. The sheet was covering the body. The body. Had to think of it that way. Couldn't dwell on the fact that it had been a small child. Couldn't. I'd go mad.
"Well?" Dolph asked.
"He hasn't been dead long. Dammit to hell, Dolph, it was late morning, maybe just before dawn. He was alive, alive when that thing took him!" I stared up at him and felt the hot beginnings of tears. I would not cry. I had already disgraced myself enough for one day. I took a deep careful breath and let it out. I would not cry.
"I gave you twenty-four hours to talk to this Dominga Salvador. Did you find out anything?"
"She says she knows nothing of it. I believe her."
"Because if she wanted to kill people she wouldn't have to do anything this dramatic."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"She could wish them to death," I said.
He widened his eyes. "You believe that?"
I shrugged. "Maybe. Yes. Hell, I don't know. She scares me."
He raised one thick eyebrow. "I'll remember that."
"I have another name to add to your list though," I said.
"John Burke. He's up from New Orleans for his brother's funeral."
He wrote the name in his little notebook. "If he's just visiting, would he have time?"
"I can't think of a motive, but he could do it if he wanted to. Check him out with the New Orleans police. I think he's under suspicion down there for murder."
"What's he doing traveling out of state?"
"I don't think they have any proof," I said. "Dominga Salvador said she'd help me. She's promised to ask around and tell me anything she turns up."
"I've been asking around since you gave me her name. She doesn't help anyone outside her own people. How did you get her to cooperate?"
I shrugged. "My winning personality."
He shook his head.
"It wasn't illegal, Dolph. Beyond that I don't want to talk about it."
He let it go. Smart man. "Tell me as soon as you hear anything, Anita. We've got to stop this thing before it kills again."
"Agreed." I turned and looked out over the rolling grass. "Is this the cemetery near where you found the first three victims?"
"Maybe part of the answer's here then," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"Most vampires have to return to their coffins before dawn. Ghouls stay in underground tunnels, like giant moles. If it was either of those I'd say the creature was out here somewhere waiting for nightfall."
"But," he said.
"But if it's a zombie it isn't harmed by sunlight and it doesn't need to rest in a coffin. It could be anywhere, but I think it originally came from this cemetery. If they used voodoo there will be signs of the ritual."
"A chalk verve, drawn symbols around the grave, dried blood, maybe a fire." I stared off at the rustling grass. "Though I wouldn't want to start an open fire in this place."
"If it wasn't voodoo?" he asked.
"Then it was an animator. Again you look for dried blood, maybe a dead animal. There won't be as many signs and it's easier to clean up."
"Are you sure it's some kind of a zombie?" he asked.
"I don't know what else it could be. I think we should act like that's what it is. It gives us someplace to look, and something to look for."
"If it's not a zombie we don't have a clue," he said.
He smiled, but it wasn't pleasant. "I hope you're right, Anita."
"Me, too," I said.
"If it did come from here, can you find what grave it came from?"
"Maybe?" he said.
"Maybe. Raising the dead isn't a science, Dolph. Sometimes I can feel the dead under the ground. Restlessness. How old without looking at the tombstone. Sometimes I can't." I shrugged.
"We'll give you any help you need."
"I have to wait until full dark. My ... powers are better after dark."
"That's hours away. Can you do anything now?"
I thought about that for a moment. "No. I'm sorry but no."
"Okay, you'll come back tonight then?"
"Yeah," I said.
"What time? I'll send some men out."
"I don't know what time. And I don't know how long it will take. I could be wandering out here for hours and find nothing."
"Or I could find the beastie itself."
"You'll need backup for that, just in case."
I nodded. "Agreed, but guns, even silver bullets, won't hurt it."
"Flamethrowers, napalm like the exterminators use on ghoul tunnels," I said.
"Those aren't standard issue."
"Have an exterminator team standing by," I said.
"Good idea." He made a note.
"I need a favor," I said.
He looked up. "What?"
"Peter Burke was murdered, shot to death. His brother asked me to find out what progress the police are making."
"You know we can't give out information like that."
"I know, but if you can get the facts I can feed just enough to John Burke to keep in touch with him."
"You seem to be getting along well with all our suspects," he said.
"I'll find out what I can from homicide. Do you know what jurisdiction he was found in?"
I shook my head. "I could find out. It would give me an excuse to talk to Burke again."
"You say he's suspected of murder in New Orleans."
"Mm-huh," I said.
"And he may have done this." He motioned at the sheet.
"You watch your back, Anita."
"I always do," I said.
"You call me as early tonight as you can. I don't want all my people sitting around twiddling their thumbs on overtime."
"As soon as I can. I've got to cancel three clients just to make it." Bert was not going to be pleased. The day was looking up.
"Why didn't it eat more of the boy?" Dolph asked.
"I don't know," I said.
He nodded. "Okay, I'll see you tonight then."
"Say hello to Lucille for me. How's she coming with her master's degree?"
"Almost done. She'll have it before our youngest gets his engineering degree."
The sheet flapped in the hot wind. A trickle of sweat trailed down my forehead. I was out of small talk. "See you later," I said, and started down the hill. I stopped and turned back. "Dolph?"
"Yes?" he said.
"I've never heard of a zombie exactly like this one. Maybe it does rise from its grave more like a vampire. If you kept that exterminator team and backup hanging around until after dark, you might catch it rising from the grave and be able to bag it."
"Is that likely?"
"No, but it's possible," I said.
"I don't know how I'll explain the overtime, but I'll do it."
"I'll be here as soon as I can."
"What else could be more important than this?" he asked.
I smiled. "Nothing you'd like to hear about."
"Try me," he said.
I shook my head.
He nodded. "Tonight, early as you can."
"Early as I can," I said.
Detective Perry escorted me back. Maybe politeness, maybe he just wanted to get away from the corpus delicti. I didn't blame him. "How's your wife, Detective?"
"We're expecting our first baby in a month."
I smiled up at him. "I didn't know. Congratulations."
"Thank you." His face clouded over, a frown puckering between his dark eyes. "Do you think we can find this creature before it kills again?"
"I hope so," I said.
"What are our chances?"
Did he want reassurance or the truth. Truth. "I haven't the faintest idea."
"I was hoping you wouldn't say that," he said.
"So was I, Detective. So was I."