2007. január 27., szombat

I. Book 3 of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series

Circus of the Damned
By Laurell K. Hamilton
Book 3 of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series

There was dried chicken blood imbedded under my fingernails. When you raise the dead for a living, you have to spill a little blood. It clung in flaking patches to my face and hands. I'd tried to clean the worst of it off before coming to this meeting, but some things only a shower would fix. I sipped coffee from a personalized mug that said, "Piss me off, pay the consequences," and stared at the two men sitting across from me.
Mr. Jeremy Ruebens was short, dark, and grumpy. I'd never seen him when he wasn't either frowning, or shouting. His small features were clustered in the middle of his face as if some giant hand had mashed them together before the clay had dried. His hands smoothed over the lapel of his coat, the dark blue tie, tie clip, white shirt collar. His hands folded in his lap for a second, then began their dance again, coat, tie, tie clip, collar, lap. I figured I could stand to watch him fidget maybe five more times before I screamed for mercy and promised him anything he wanted.
The second man was Karl Inger. I'd never met him before, He was a few inches over six feet. Standing, he had towered over Ruebens and me. A wavy mass of short-cut red hair graced a large face. He had honest-to-god muttonchop sideburns that grew into one of the fullest mustaches I'd ever seen. Everything was neatly trimmed except for his unruly hair. Maybe he was having a bad hair day.
Ruebens's hands were making their endless dance for the fourth time. Four was my limit.
I wanted to go around the desk, grab his hands, and yell, "Stop that!" But I figured that was a little rude, even for me. "I don't remember you being this twitchy, Ruebens," I said.
He glanced at me. "Twitchy?"
I motioned at his hands, making their endless circuit. He frowned and placed his hands on top of his thighs. They remained there, motionless. Self-control at its best.
"I am not twitchy, Miss Blake."
"It's Ms. Blake. And why are you so nervous, Mr. Ruebens?" I sipped my coffee.
"I am not accustomed to asking help from people like you."
"People like me?" I made it a question.
He cleared his throat sharply. "You know what I mean."
"No, Mr. Ruebens, I don't."
"Well, a zombie queen . . ." He stopped in mid-sentence. I was getting pissed, and it must have shown on my face. "No offense," he said softly.
"If you came here to call me names, get the hell out of my office. If you have real business, state it, then get the hell out of my office."
Ruebens stood up. "I told you she wouldn't help us."
"Help you do what? You haven't told me a damn thing," I said.
"Perhaps we should just tell her why we have come," Inger said. His voice was a deep, rumbling bass, pleasant.
Ruebens drew a deep breath and let it out through his nose. "Very well." He sat back down in his chair. "The last time we met, I was a member of Humans Against Vampires."
I nodded encouragingly and sipped my coffee.
"I have since started a new group, Humans First. We have the same goals as HAV, but our methods are more direct."
I stared at him. HAV's main goal was to make vampires illegal again, so they could be hunted down like animals. It worked for me. I used to be a vampire slayer, hunter, whatever. Now I was a vampire executioner. I had to have a death warrant to kill a specific vampire, or it was murder. To get a warrant, you had to prove the vampire was a danger to society, which meant you had to wait for the vampire to kill people. The lowest kill was five humans, the highest was twenty-three. That was a lot of dead bodies. In the good ol' days you could just kill a vampire on sight.
"What exactly does 'more direct methods' mean?"
"You know what it means," Ruebens said.
"No," I said, "I don't." I thought I did, but he was going to have to say it out loud.
"HAV has failed to discredit vampires through the media or the political machine. Humans First will settle for destroying them all."
I smiled over my coffee mug. "You mean kill every last vampire in the United States?"
"That is the goal," he said.
"It's murder."
"You have slain vampires. Do you really believe it is murder?"
It was my turn to take a deep breath. A few months ago I would have said no. But now, I just didn't know. "I'm not sure anymore, Mr. Ruebens."
"If the new legislation goes through, Ms. Blake, vampires will be able to vote. Doesn't that frighten you?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then help us."
"Quit dancing around, Ruebens; just tell me what you want."
"Very well, then. We want the daytime resting place of the Master Vampire of the City."
I just looked at him for a few seconds. "Are you serious?"
"I am in deadly earnest, Ms. Blake."
I had to smile. "What makes you think I know the Master's daytime retreat?"
It was Inger who answered. "Ms. Blake, come now. If we can admit to advocating murder, then you can admit to knowing the Master." He smiled ever so gently.
"Tell me where you got the information and maybe I'll confirm it, or maybe I won't."
His smile widened just a bit. "Now who's dancing?"
He had a point. "If I say I know the Master, what then?"
"Give us his daytime resting place," Ruebens said. He was leaning forward, an eager, nearly lustful look on his face. I wasn't flattered. It wasn't me getting his rocks off. It was the thought of staking the Master.
"How do you know the Master is a he?"
"There was an article in the Post-Dispatch. It was careful to mention no name, but the creature was clearly male," Ruebens said.
I wondered how Jean-Claude would like being referred as a "creature." Better not to find out. "I give you an address and you go in and what, stake him through the heart?"
Ruebens nodded. Inger smiled.
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"You refuse to help us?" Ruebens asked.
"No, I simply don't know the daytime resting place." I was relieved to be able to tell the truth.
"You are lying to protect him," Ruebens said. His face was growing darker; deep frown wrinkles showed on his forehead.
"I really don't know, Mr. Ruebens, Mr. Inger. If you want a zombie raised, we can talk; otherwise . . ." I let the sentence trail off and gave them my best professional smile. They didn't seem impressed.
"We consented to meeting you at this ungodly hour, and we are paying a handsome fee for the consultation. I would think the least you could do is be polite."
I wanted to say, "You started it," but that would sound childish. "I offered you coffee. You turned it down."
Ruebens's scowl deepened, little anger lines showing around his eyes. "Do you treat all your . . . customers this way?"
"The last time we met, you called me a zombie-loving bitch. I don't owe you anything."
"You took our money."
"My boss did that."
"We met you here at dawn, Ms. Blake. Surely you can meet us halfway."
I hadn't wanted to meet with Ruebens at all, but after Bert took their money, I was sort of stuck with it. I'd set the meeting at dawn, after my night's work, but before I went to bed. This way I could drive home and get eight hours uninterrupted sleep. Let Ruebens's sleep be interrupted.
"Could you find out the location of the Master's retreat?" Inger asked.
"Probably, but if I did, I wouldn't give it to you."
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because she is in league with him," Ruebens said.
"Hush, Jeremy."
Ruebens opened his mouth to protest, but Inger said, "Please, Jeremy, for the cause."
Ruebens struggled visibly to swallow his anger, but he choked it down. Control.
"Why not, Ms. Blake?" Inger's eyes were very serious, the pleasant sparkle seeping away like melting ice.
"I've killed master vampires before, none of them with a stake."
"How then?"
I smiled. "No, Mr. Inger, if you want lessons in vampire slaying, you're going to have to go elsewhere. Just by answering your questions, I could be charged as an accessory to murder."
"Would you tell us if we had a better plan?" Inger said.
I thought about that for a minute. Jean-Claude dead, really dead. It would certainly make my life easier, but . . . but.
"I don't know," I said.
"Why not?"
"Because I think he'll kill you. I don't give humans over to the monsters, Mr. Inger, not even people who hate me."
"We don't hate you Ms. Blake."
I motioned with the coffee mug towards Ruebens. "Maybe you don't, but he does."
Ruebens just glared at me. At least he didn't try to deny it.
"If we come up with a better plan, can we talk to you again?" Inger asked.
I stared at Ruebens's angry little eyes. "Sure, why not?"
Inger stood and offered me his hand. "Thank you, Ms. Blake. You have been most helpful."
His hand enveloped mine. He was a large man, but he didn't try using his size to make me feel small. I appreciated that.
"The next time we meet, Anita Blake, you will be more cooperative." Ruebens said.
"That sounded like a threat, Jerry."
Ruebens smiled, a most unpleasant smile. "Humans First believes the means justifies the end, Anita."
I opened my royal purple suit jacket. Inside was a shoulder holster complete with a Browning Hi-Power 9mm. The purple skirt's thin black belt was just sturdy enough to be looped through the shoulder holster. Executive terrorist chic.
"When it comes to survival, Jerry, I believe that, too."
"We have not offered you violence," Inger said.
"No, but ol' Jerry here is thinking about it. I just want him and the rest of your little group to believe I'm serious. Mess with me, and people are going to die."
"There are dozens of us," Ruebens said, "and only one of you."
"Yeah, but who's going to be first in line?" I said.
"Enough of this, Jeremy, Ms. Blake. We didn't come here to threaten you. We came for your help. We will come up with a better plan and talk to you again."
"Don't bring him," I said.
"Of course," Inger said. "Come along, Jeremy." He opened the door. The soft clack of computer keys came from the outer office. "Good-bye Ms. Blake."
"Good-bye, Mr. Inger, it's been really unpleasant."
Ruebens stopped in the doorway and hissed at me, "You are an abomination before God."
"Jesus loves you, too," I said, smiling. He slammed the door behind them. Childish.
I sat on the edge of my desk and waited to make sure they had left before going outside. I didn't think they'd try anything in the parking lot, but I really didn't want to start shooting people. Oh, I would if I had to, but it was better to avoid it. I had hoped flashing the gun would make Ruebens back off. It had just seemed to enrage him. I rotated my neck, trying to ease some of the tension away. It didn't work.
I could go home, shower, and get eight hours uninterrupted sleep. Glorious. My beeper went off. I jumped like I'd been stung. Nervous, me?
I hit the button, and the number that flashed made me groan. It was the police. To be exact, it was the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team. The Spook Squad. They were responsible for all preternatural crime in Missouri. I was their civilian expert on monsters. Bert liked the retainer I got, but better yet, the good publicity.
The beeper went off again. Same number. "Shit," I said it softly. "I heard you the first time, Dolph." I thought about pretending that I'd already gone home, turned off the beeper, and was now unavailable, but I didn't. If Detective Sergeant Rudolf Storr called me at half-past dawn, he needed my expertise. Damn.
I called the number and through a series of relays finally got Dolph's voice. He sounded tinny and faraway. His wife had gotten him a car phone for his birthday. We must have been near the limit of its range. It still beat the heck out of talking to him on the police radio. That always sounded like an alien language.
"Hi, Dolph, what's up?"
"What sort of murder?"
"The kind that needs your expertise," he said.
"It's too damn early in the morning to play twenty questions. Just tell me what's happened."
"You got up on the wrong side of bed this morning, didn't you?"
"I haven't been to bed yet."
"I sympathize, but get your butt out here. It looks like we have a vampire victim on our hands."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Shit."
"You could say that."
"Give me the address," I said.
He did. It was over the river and through the woods, way to hell and gone in Arnold. My office was just off Olive Boulevard. I had a forty-five-minute drive ahead of me, one way. Yippee.
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"We'll be waiting," Dolph said, then hung up.
I didn't bother to say good-bye to the dial tone. A vampire victim. I'd never seen a lone kill. They were like potato chips; once the vamp tasted them, he couldn't stop at just one. The trick was, how many people would die before we caught this one?
I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to drive to Arnold. I didn't want to stare at dead bodies before breakfast. I wanted to go home. But somehow I didn't think Dolph would understand. Police have very little sense of humor when they're working on a murder case. Come to think of it, neither did I.

The man's body lay on its back, pale and naked in the weak morning sunlight. Even limp with death his body was good, a lot of weights, maybe jogging. His longish yellow hair mixed with the still-green lawn. The smooth skin of his neck was punctured twice with neat fang marks. The right arm was pierced at the bend of the elbow, where a doctor draws blood. The skin of the left wrist was shredded, like an animal had gnawed it. White bone gleamed in the fragile light.
I had measured the bite marks with my trusty tape measure. They were different sizes. At least three different vamps, but I would have bet everything I owned that it was five different vampires. A master and his pack, or flock, or whatever the hell you call a group of vampires.
The grass was wet from early morning mist. The moisture soaked through the knees of the coveralls I had put on to protect my suit. Black Nikes and surgical gloves completed my crime-scene kit. I used to wear white Nikes, but they showed blood too easily.
I said a silent apology for what I had to do, then spread the corpse's legs apart. The legs moved easily, no rigor. I was betting that he hadn't been dead eight hours, not enough time for rigor mortis to set in. Semen had dried on his shriveled privates. One last joy before dying. The vamps hadn't cleaned him off. On the inside of his thigh, close to the groin, were more fang marks. They weren't as savage as the wrist wound, but they weren't neat either.
There was no blood on the skin around the wounds, not even the wrist wound. Had they cleaned the blood off? Wherever he was killed, there was a lot of blood. They'd never be able to clean it all up. If we could find where he died, we'd have all sorts of clues. But in the neatly clipped lawn in the middle of a very ordinary neighborhood, there were no clues. I was betting on that. They'd dumped the body in a place as sterile and unhelpful as the dark side of the moon.
Mist floated over the small residential neighborhood like waiting ghosts. The mist was so low to the ground that it was like walking through sheets of drizzling rain. Tiny beads of moisture clung to the body where the mist had condensed. Beads collected in my hair like silver pearls.
I stood in the front yard of a small, lime-green house with white trim. A chain-link fence peeked around one side encircling a roomy backyard. It was October, and the grass was still green. The top of a sugar maple loomed over the house. Its leaves were that brilliant orangey-yellow that is peculiar to sugar maples, as if their leaves were carved from flame. The mist helped the illusion, and the colors seemed to bleed on the wet air.
All down the street were other small houses with autumn-bright trees and bright green lawns. It was still early enough that most people hadn't gone to work yet, or school, or wherever. There was quite a crowd being held back by the uniform officers. They had hammered stakes into the ground to hold the yellow Do-Not-Cross tape. The crowd pressed as close to the tape as they dared. A boy of about twelve had managed to push his way to the front. He stared at the dead man with huge brown eyes, his mouth open in a little "wow" of excitement. God, where were his parents? Probably gawking at the corpse, too.
The corpse was paper-white. Blood always pools to the lowest point of the body. In this case dark, purplish bruising should have set in at buttocks, arms, legs, the entire back of his body. There were no marks. He hadn't had enough blood in him to cause lividity marks. Whoever had murdered him had drained him completely. Good to the last drop? I fought the urge to smile and lost. If you spend a lot of time staring at corpses, you get a peculiar sense of humor. You have to, or you will go stark raving mad.
"What's so funny?" a voice asked.
I jumped and whirled. "God, Zerbrowski, don't sneak up on me like that."
"Is the heap big vampire slayer jumping at shadows?" He grinned at me. His unruly brown hair stuck up in three separate tufts like he'd forgotten to comb it. His tie was at half-mast over a pale blue shirt that looked suspiciously like a pajama top. The brown suit jacket and pants clashed with the top.
"Nice pajamas."
He shrugged. "I've got a pair with little choo-choos on them. Katie thinks they're sexy."
"Your wife got a thing for trains?" I asked.
His grin widened. "If I'm wearing 'em."
I shook my head. "I knew you were perverted, Zerbrowski, but little kids' jammies, that's truly sick."
"Thank you." He glanced down at the body, still smiling. The smile faded. "What do you think of this?" He nodded towards the dead man.
"Where's Dolph?"
"In the house with the lady who found the body." He plunged his hands into the pockets of his pants and rocked on his heels. "She's taking it pretty hard. Probably the first corpse she's seen outside of a funeral."
"That's the way most normal folks see dead people, Zerbrowski."
He rocked forward hard on the balls of his feet, coming to a standstill. "Wouldn't it be nice to be normal?"
"Sometimes," I said.
He grinned. "Yeah, I know what you mean." He got a notebook out of his jacket pocket that looked as if someone had crumbled it in their fist.
"Geez, Zerbrowski."
"Hey, it's still paper." He tried smoothing the notebook flat, but finally gave up. He posed, pen over the wrinkled paper. "Enlighten me, oh preternatural expert."
"Am I going to have to repeat this to Dolph? I'd like to just do this once and go home to bed."
"Hey, me too. Why do you think I'm wearing my jammies?"
"I just thought it was a daring fashion statement." He looked at me. "Mm-huh."
Dolph walked out of the house. The door looked too small to hold him. He's six-nine and built bulky like a wrestler. His black hair was buzzed close to his head, leaving his ears stranded on either side of his face. But Dolph didn't care much for fashion. His tie was tight against the collar of his white dress shirt. He had to have been pulled out of bed just like Zerbrowski, but he looked neat and tidy and businesslike. It never mattered what hour you called Dolph, he was always ready to do his job. A professional cop down to his socks.
So why was Dolph heading up the most unpopular special task force in St. Louis? Punishment for something, that much I was sure of, but I'd never asked what. I probably never would. It was his business. If he wanted me to know, he'd tell me.
The squad had originally been a pacifier for the liberals. See, we're doing something about supernatural crime. But Dolph had taken his job and his men seriously. They had solved more supernatural crime in the last two years than any other group of policemen in the country. He had been invited to give talks to other police forces. They had even been loaned out to neighboring states twice.
"Well, Anita, let's have it."
That's Dolph; no preliminaries. "Gee, Dolph, it's nice to see you too."
He just looked at me.
"Okay, okay." I knelt on the far side of the body so I could point as I talked. Nothing like a visual aid to get your point across. "Just measuring shows that at least three different vampires fed on the man."
"But?" Dolph said.
He's quick. "But I think that every wound is a different vampire."
"Vampires don't hunt in packs."
"Usually they are solitary hunters, but not always."
"What causes them to hunt in packs?" he asked.
"Only two reasons that I've ever come across: first, one is the new dead and an older vampire is teaching the ropes, but that's just two pairs of fangs, not five; second, a master vampire is controlling them, and he's gone rogue."
"A master vampire has nearly absolute control over his or her flock. Some masters use a group kill to solidify the pack, but they wouldn't dump the body here. They'd hide it where the police would never find it."
"But the body's here," Zerbrowski said, "out in plain sight."
"Exactly; only a master that's gone crazy would dump a body like this. Most masters even before vampires were legally alive wouldn't flaunt a kill like this. It attracts attention, usually attention with a stake in one hand and a cross in the other. Even now, if we could trace the kill to the vampires that did it, we could get a warrant and kill them." I shook my head. "Slaughter like this is bad for business, and whatever else vampires are, they're practical. You don't stay alive and hidden for centuries unless you're discreet and ruthless."
"Why ruthless?" Dolph said.
I stared up at him. "It's utterly practical. Someone discovers your secret, you kill them, or make them one of your . . . children. Good business practices, Dolph, nothing more."
"Like the mob," Zerbrowski said.
"What if they panicked?" Zerbrowski asked. "It was almost dawn."
"When did the woman find the body?"
Dolph checked his notebook. "Five-thirty."
"It's still hours until dawn. They didn't panic."
"If we've got a crazy master vampire, what exactly does that mean?"
"It means they'll kill more people faster. They may need blood every night to support five vampires."
"A fresh body every night?" Zerbrowski made it a question.
I just nodded.
"Jesus," he said.
Dolph was silent, staring down at the dead man. "What can we do?"
"I should be able to raise the corpse as a zombie."
"I thought you couldn't raise a vampire victim as a zombie," Dolph said.
"If the corpse is going to rise as a vampire, you can't." I shrugged. "The whatever that makes a vampire interferes with a raising. I can't raise a body that is already set to rise as a vamp."
"But this one won't rise," Dolph said, "so you can raise it."
I nodded.
"Why won't this vampire victim rise?"
"He was killed by more than one vampire, in a mass feeding. For a corpse to rise as a vampire, you have to have just one vampire feeding over a space of several days. Three bites ending with death, and you get a vampire. If every vampire victim could come back, we'd be up to our butts in bloodsuckers."
"But this victim can come back as a zombie?" Dolph said.
I nodded.
"When can you do the animating?"
"Three nights from tonight, or really two. Tonight counts as one night."
"What time?"
"I'll have to check my schedule at work. I'll call you with a time."
"Just raise the murder victim and ask who killed him. I like it," Zerbrowski said.
"It's not that easy," I said. "You know how confused witnesses to violent crimes are. Have three people see the same crime and you get three different heights, different hair colors."
"Yeah, yeah, witness testimony is a bitch," Zerbrowski said.
"Go on, Anita," Dolph said. It was his way of saying, "Zerbrowski, shut up." Zerbrowski shut up.
"A person who died as the victim of a violent crime is more confused. Scared shitless, so that sometimes they don't remember very clearly."
"But they were there," Zerbrowski said. He looked outraged.
"Zerbrowski, let her finish."
Zerbrowski pantomimed locking his lips with a key and throwing the key away. Dolph frowned. I coughed into my hand to hide the smile. Mustn't encourage Zerbrowski.
"What I'm saying is that I can raise the victim from the dead, but we may not get as much information as you'd expect. The memories we do get will be confused, painful, but it might narrow the field down as to which master vampire led the group."
"Explain," Dolph said.
"There are only supposed to be two master vampires in St. Louis right now. Malcolm, the undead Billy Graham, and the Master of the City. There's always the possibility we've got someone new in town, but the Master of the City should be able to police that."
"We'll take the head of the Church of Eternal Life," Dolph said.
"I'll take the Master," I said.
"Take one of us with you for backup."
I shook my head. "Can't; if he knew I let the cops know who he was, he'd kill us both."
"How dangerous is it for you to do this?" Dolph asked.
What was I supposed to say? Very? Or did I tell them the Master had the hots for me, so I'd probably be okay? Neither. "I'll be all right."
He stared at me, eyes very serious.
"Besides, what choice do we have?" I motioned at the corpse. "We'll get one of these a night until we find the vampires responsible. One of us has to talk to the Master. He won't talk to police, but he will talk to me."
Dolph took a deep breath and let it out. He nodded. He knew I was right. "When can you do it?"
"Tomorrow night, if I can talk Bert into giving my zombie appointments to someone else."
"You're that sure the Master will talk to you?"
"Yeah." The problem with Jean-Claude was not getting to see him, it was avoiding him. But Dolph didn't know that, and if he did, he might have insisted on going with me. And gotten us both killed.
"Do it," he said. "Let me know what you find out."
"Will do," I said. I stood up, facing him over the bloodless corpse.
"Watch your back," he said.
"If the Master eats you, can I have your nifty coveralls?" Zerbrowski asked.
"Buy your own, you cheap bastard."
"I'd rather have the ones that have enveloped your luscious body."
"Give it a rest, Zerbrowski. I'm not into little choo-choos."
"What the hell do trains have to do with anything?" Dolph asked.
Zerbrowski and I looked at each other. We started giggling and couldn't stop. I could claim sleep deprivation. I'd been on my feet for fourteen straight hours, raising the dead and talking to right-wing fruitcakes. The vampire victim was a perfect end to a perfect night. I had a right to be hysterical with laughter. I don't know what Zerbrowski's excuse was.

There are a handful of days in October that are nearly perfect. The sky stretches overhead in a clear blue, so deep and perfect that it makes everything else prettier. The trees along the highway are crimson, gold, rust, burgundy, orange. Every color is neon-bright, pulsing in the heavy golden sunlight. The air is cool but not cold; by noon you can wear just a light jacket. It was weather for taking long walks in the woods with someone you wanted to hold hands with. Since I didn't have anyone like that, I was just hoping for a free weekend to go away by myself. The chances of that were slim and none.
October is a big month for raising the dead. Everyone thinks that Halloween is the perfect season for raising zombies. It isn't. Darkness is the only requirement. But everyone wants an appointment for midnight on Halloween. They think spending All Hallows Eve in a cemetery killing chickens and watching zombies crawl out of the ground is great entertainment. I could probably sell tickets.
I was averaging five zombies a night. It was one more zombie than anyone else was doing in one night. I should never have told Bert that four zombies didn't wipe me out. My own fault for being too damn truthful. Of course, truth was, five didn't wipe me out either, but I was damned if I'd tell Bert.
Speaking of my boss, I had to call him when I got home. He was going to love me asking for the night off. It made me smile just thinking about it. Any day I could yank Bert's chain was a good day.
I pulled into my apartment complex at nearly one in the afternoon. All I wanted was a quick shower and seven hours of sleep. I had given up on eight hours; it was too late in the day for that. I had to see Jean-Claude tonight. Joy. But he was the Master Vampire of the City. If there was another master vampire around, he'd know it. I think they can smell each other. Of course, if Jean-Claude had committed the murder, he wasn't likely to confess. But I didn't really believe he'd done it. He was much too good a business vampire to get messy. He was the only master vampire I'd ever met who wasn't crazy in some way: psychotic, or sociopath, take your pick.
All right, all right, Malcolm wasn't crazy, but I didn't approve of his methods. He headed up the fastest-growing church in America today. The Church of Eternal Life offered exactly that. No leap of faith, no uncertainty, just a guarantee. You could become a vampire and live forever, unless someone like me killed you, or you got caught in a fire, or hit by a bus. I wasn't sure about the bus part, but I'd always wondered. Surely there must be something massive enough to damage even a vampire beyond healing. I hoped someday to test the theory.
I climbed the stairs slowly. My body felt heavy. My eyes burned with the need to sleep. It was three days before Halloween, and the month couldn't end too soon for me. Business would start dropping off before Thanksgiving. The decline would continue until after New Year's, then it'd start picking up. I prayed for a freak snowstorm. Business drops off if the snow is bad. People seem to think we can't raise the dead in deep snow. We can, but don't tell anyone. I need the break.
The hallway was full of the quiet noises of my day-living neighbors. I was fishing my keys out of my coat pocket when the door opposite mine opened. Mrs. Pringle stepped out. She was tall, slender, thinning with age, white hair done in a small bun at the back of her head. The hair was perfectly white. Mrs. Pringle didn't bother with dyes or makeup. She was over sixty-five and didn't care who knew it.
Custard, her Pomeranian, pranced at the end of his leash. He was a round ball of golden fur with little fox ears. Most cats outweighed him, but he's one of those little dogs with a big-dog attitude. In a past life he was a Great Dane.
"Hello, Anita." Mrs. Pringle smiled as she said it. "You're not just getting in from work, are you?" Her pale eyes were disapproving.
I smiled. "Yeah, I had an . . . emergency come up."
She raised an eyebrow, probably wondering what an animator would have for an emergency, but she was too polite to ask. "You don't take good enough care of yourself, Anita. If you keep burning the candle at both ends, you'll be worn out by the time you're my age."
"Probably," I said.
Custard yapped at me. I did not smile at him. I don't believe in encouraging small, pushy dogs. With that peculiar doggy sense, he knew I didn't like him, and he was determined to win me over.
"I saw the painters were in your apartment last week. Is it all repaired?"
I nodded. "Yeah, all the bullet holes have been patched up and painted over."
"I'm really sorry I wasn't home to offer you my apartment. Mr. Giovoni says you had to go to a hotel."
"I don't understand why one of the other neighbors didn't offer you a couch for the night."
I smiled. I understood. Two months ago I had slaughtered two killer zombies in my apartment and had a police shootout. The walls and one window had been damaged. Some of the bullets had gone through the walls into other apartments. No one else had been hurt, but none of the neighbors wanted anything to do with me now. I suspected strongly that when my two-year lease was up, I would be asked to leave. I guess I couldn't blame them.
"I heard you were wounded."
I nodded. "Just barely." I didn't bother telling her that the bullet wound hadn't been from the shootout. The mistress of a very bad man had shot me in the right arm. It was healed to a smooth, shiny scar, still a little pink.
"How did your visit with your daughter go?" I asked.
Mrs. Pringle's face went all shiny with a smile. "Oh, wonderful. My last and newest grandchild is perfect. I'll show you pictures later, after you've had some sleep." That disapproving look was back in her eyes. Her teacher face. The one that could make you squirm from ten paces, even if you were innocent. And I hadn't been innocent for years.
I held up my hands. "I give up. I'll go to bed. I promise."
"You see you do," she said. "Come along, Custard, we have to go out for our afternoon stroll." The tiny dog danced at the end of his leash, straining forward like a miniature sled dog.
Mrs. Pringle let three pounds of fluffy fur drag her down the hall. I shook my head. Letting a fuzzball boss you around was not my idea of dog ownership. If I ever had another dog, I'd be boss, or one of us wouldn't survive. It was the principle of the thing.
I opened the door and stepped inside the hush of my apartment. The heater whirred, hot air hissing out of the vents. The aquarium clicked on. The sounds of emptiness. It was wonderful.
The new paint was the same off-white as the old. The carpet was grey; couch and matching chair, white. The kitchenette was pale wood with white and gold linoleum. The two-seater breakfast table in the kitchen was a little darker than the cabinets. A modern print was the only color on the white walls.
The space where most people would have put a full-size kitchen set had the thirty-gallon aquarium against the wall, a stereo catty-corner from it.
Heavy white drapes hid the windows and turned the golden sunlight to a pale twilight. When you sleep during the day, you have to have good curtains.
I flung my coat on the couch, kicked my dress shoes off, and just enjoyed the feeling of my bare feet on the carpet. The panty hose came off next, to lie wrinkled and forlorn by the shoes. Barefoot, I padded over to the fish tank.
The angelfish rose to the surface begging for food. The fish are all wider than my outspread hand. They are the biggest angels I've ever seen outside of the pet store I bought them from. The store had breeding angelfish that were nearly a foot long.
I stripped off the shoulder holster and put the Browning in its second home, a specially made holster in the headboard. If any bad guys snuck up on me, I could pull it and shoot them. That was the idea, anyway. So far it had worked.
When the dry-clean-only suit and blouse were hung neatly in the closet, I flopped down on the bed in my bra and undies, still wearing the silver cross that I wore even in the shower. Never know when a pesky vampire is going to try to take a bite out of you. Always prepared, that was my motto, or was that the Boy Scouts? I shrugged and dialed work. Mary, our daytime secretary, answered on the second ring. "Animators, Incorporated. How may we serve you?"
"Hi, Mary, it's Anita."
"Hi, what's up?"
"I need to talk with Bert."
"He's with a prospective client right now. May I ask what this is pertaining to?"
"Him rescheduling my appointments for tonight."
"Ooh, boy. I'll let you tell him. If he yells at someone, it should be you." She was only half-kidding.
"Fine," I said.
She lowered her voice and whispered, "Client is on her way to the front door. He'll be with you in a jiffy."
"Thanks, Mary."
She put me on hold before I could tell her not to. Muzak seeped out of the phone. It was a butchered version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow." I'd have rather listened to static. Mercifully, Bert came on the line and saved me.
"Anita, what time can you come in today?"
"I can't."
"Can't what?"
"Can't come in today."
"At all?" His voice had risen an octave.
"You got it."
"Why the hell not?" Cursing at me already, a bad sign.
"I got beeped by the police after my morning meeting. I haven't even been to bed yet."
"You can sleep in, don't worry about meeting new clients in the afternoon. Just come in for your appointments tonight."
He was being generous, understanding. Something was wrong.
"I can't make the appointments tonight, either."
"Anita, we're overbooked here. You have five clients tonight. Five!"
"Divide them up among the other animators," I said.
"Everybody is already maxed."
"Listen, Bert, you're the one who said yes to the police. You're the one who put me on retainer to them. You thought it would be great publicity."
"It has been great publicity," he said.
"Yeah, but it's like working two full-time jobs sometimes. I can't do both."
"Then drop the retainer. I had no idea it'd take up this much of your time."
"It's a murder investigation, Bert. I can't drop it."
"Let the police do their own dirty work," he said.
He was a fine one to talk about that. Him with his squeaky-clean fingernails and nice safe office. "They need my expertise and my contacts. Most of the monsters won't talk to the police."
He was quiet on the other end of the phone. His breathing came harsh and angry. "You can't do this to me. We've taken money, signed contracts."
"I asked you to hire extra help months ago."
"I hired John Burke. He's been handling some of your vampire slayings, as well as raising the dead."
"Yeah, John's a big help, but we need more. In fact, I bet he could take at least one of my zombies tonight."
"Raise five in one night?"
"I'm doing it," I said.
"Yes, but John isn't you."
That was almost a compliment. "You have two choices, Bert; either reschedule or delegate them to someone else."
"I am your boss. I could just say come in tonight or you're fired." His voice was firm and matter-of-fact.
I was tired and cold sitting on the bed in my bra and undies, I didn't have time for this. "Fire me."
"You don't mean that," he said.
"Look, Bert, I've been on my feet for over twenty hours. If I don't get some sleep soon, I'm not going to be able to work for anybody."
He was silent for a long time, his breathing soft and regular in my ear. Finally, he said, "All right, you're free for tonight. But you damn well better be back on the job tomorrow."
"I can't promise that, Bert."
"Dammit, Anita, do you want to be fired?"
"This is the best year we've ever had, Bert. Part of that's due to the articles on me in the Post-Dispatch."
"They were about zombie rights and that government study you're on. You didn't do them to help promote our business."
"But it worked, didn't it? How many people call up and ask specifically for me? How many people say they've seen me in the paper? How many heard me on the radio? I may be promoting zombie rights, but it's damn good for business. So cut me some slack."
"You don't think I'd do it, do you?" His voice snarled through the phone. He was pissed.
"No, I don't," I said.
His breath was short and harsh. "You damn well better show up tomorrow night, or I'm going to call your bluff." He slammed the receiver in my ear. Childish.
I hung up the phone and stared at it. The Resurrection Company in California had made me a handsome offer a few months back. But I really didn't want to move to the west coast, or the east coast for that matter. I liked St. Louis. But Bert was going to have to break down and hire more help. I couldn't keep this schedule up. Sure, it'd get better after October, but I just seemed to be going from one emergency to another for this entire year.
I had been stabbed, beaten, shot, strangled, and vampire-bit in the space of four months. There comes a point where you just have too many things happening too close together. I had battle fatigue.
I left a message on my judo instructor's machine. I went twice a week at four o'clock, but I wasn't going to make it today. Three hours of sleep just wouldn't have been enough.
I dialed the number for Guilty Pleasures. It was a vampire strip joint. Chippendale's with fangs. Jean-Claude owned and managed it. Jean-Claude's voice came over the line, soft as silk, caressing down my spine even though I knew it was a recording. "You have reached Guilty Pleasures. I would love to make your darkest fantasy come true. Leave a message, and I will get back to you."
I waited for the beep. "Jean-Claude, this is Anita Blake. I need to see you tonight. It's important. Call me back with a time and place." I gave him my home number, then hesitated, listening to the tape scratch. "Thanks." I hung up, and that was that.
He'd either call back or he wouldn't. He probably would. The question was, did I want him to? No. No, I didn't, but for the police, for all those poor people who would die, I had to try. But for me personally, going to the Master was not a good idea.
Jean-Claude had marked me twice already. Two more marks and I would be his human servant. Did I mention that neither mark was voluntary? His servant for eternity. Didn't sound like a good idea to me. He seemed to lust after my body, too, but that was secondary. I could have handled it if all he wanted was physical, but he was after my soul. That he could not have.
I had managed to avoid him for the last two months. Now I was willingly putting myself within reach again. Stupid. But I remembered the nameless man's hair, soft and mingling with the still-green lawn. The fang marks, the paper-white skin, the fragility of his nude body covered with dew. There would be more bodies to look at, unless we were quick. And quick meant Jean-Claude.
Visions of vampire victims danced in my head. And every one of them was partially my fault, because I was too chickenshit to go see the Master. If I could stop the killings now, with just one dead, I'd risk my soul daily. Guilt is a wonderful motivator.

I was swimming in black water, strong smooth strokes. The moon hung huge and shining, making a silver pathway on the lake. There was a black fringe of trees. I was almost to shore. The water was so warm, warm as blood. In that moment I knew why the waters were black. It was blood. I was swimming in a lake of fresh, warm blood.
I woke instantly, gasping for breath. Eyes searching the darkness for . . . what? Something that had caressed my leg just before I woke. Something that lived in blood and darkness.
The phone shrilled, and I had to swallow a scream. I wasn't usually this nervous. It was just a nightmare, dammit. Just a dream.
I fumbled for the receiver and managed, "Yeah."
"Anita?" The voice sounded hesitant, as if its owner might hang up.
"Who is this?"
"It's Willie, Willie McCoy." Even as he said the name, the rhythm of the voice sounded familiar. The phone made it distant and charged with an electric hiss, but I recognized it.
"Willie, how are you?" The minute I said it, I wished I hadn't. Willie was a vampire now; how okay could a dead man be?
"I'm doing real well." His voice had a happy lilt to it. He was pleased that I asked.
I sighed. Truth was, I liked Willie. I wasn't supposed to like vampires. Any vampire, not even if I'd known him when he was alive.
"How ya doing yourself?"
"Okay, what's up?"
"Jean-Claude got your message. He says ta meet him at the Circus of the Damned at eight o'clock tonight."
"The Circus? What's he doing over there?"
"He owns it now. Ya didn't know?"
I shook my head, realized he couldn't see it, and said, "No, I didn't."
"He says to meet 'im in a show that starts at eight."
"Which show?"
"He said you'd know which one."
"Well, isn't that cryptic," I said.
"Hey, Anita, I just do what I'm told. Ya know how it is?"
I did know. Jean-Claude owned Willie lock, stock, and soul. "It's okay, Willie, it's not your fault."
"Thanks, Anita." His voice sounded cheerful, like a puppy who expected a kick and got patted instead.
Why had I comforted him? Why did I care whether a vampire got its feelings hurt, or not? Answer: I didn't think of him as a dead man. He was still Willie McCoy with his penchant for loud primary-colored suits, clashing ties, and small, nervous hands. Being dead hadn't changed him that much. I wished it had.
"Tell Jean-Claude I'll be there."
"I will." He was quiet for a minute, his breath soft over the phone. "Watch your back tonight, Anita."
"Do you know something I should know?"
"No, but . . . I don't know."
"What's up, Willie?"
"Nuthin', nuthin'." His voice was high and frightened.
"Am I walking into a trap, Willie?"
"No, no, nuthin' like that." I could almost see his small hands waving in the air. "I swear, Anita, nobody's gunnin' for you."
I let that go. Nobody he knew of was all he could swear to. "Then what are you afraid of, Willie?"
"It's just that there's more vampires around here than usual. Some of em ain't too careful who they hurt. That's all."
"Why are there more vampires, Willie? Where did they come from?"
"I don't know and I don't want to know, ya know? I got ta go, Anita." He hung up before I could ask anything else. There had been real fear in his voice. Fear for me, or for himself? Maybe both.
I glanced at the radio clock on my bedstand: 6:35. I had to hurry if I was going to make the appointment. The covers were toasty warm over my legs. All I really wanted to do was cuddle back under the blankets, maybe with a certain stuffed toy penguin I knew. Yeah, hiding sounded good.
I threw back the covers and walked into the bathroom. I hit the light switch, and glowing white light filled the small room. My hair stuck up in all directions, a mass of tight black curls. That'd teach me not to sleep on it wet. I ran a brush through the curls and they loosened slightly, turning into a frothing mass of waves. The curls went all over the place and there wasn't a damn thing I could do with it except wash it and start over. There wasn't time for that.
The black hair made my pale skin look deathly, or maybe it was the overhead lighting. My eyes were so dark brown they looked black. Two glittering holes in the pastiness of my face. I looked like I felt; great.
What do you wear to meet the Master of the City? I chose black jeans, a black sweater with bright geometric designs, black Nikes with blue swooshes, and a blue-and-black sport bag clipped around my waist. Color coordination at its best.
The Browning went into its shoulder holster. I put an extra ammo clip in the sport bag along with credit cards, driver's license, money, and a small hairbrush. I slipped on the short leather jacket I'd bought last year. It was the first one I'd ever tried on that didn't make me took like a gorilla. Most leather jackets were so long-sleeved, I could never wear them. The jacket was black, so Bert wouldn't let me wear it to work.
I only zipped the jacket halfway up, leaving room so I could go for my gun if I needed to. The silver cross swung on its long chain, a warm, solid weight between my breasts. The cross would be more help against vampires than the gun, even with silver-coated bullets.
I hesitated at the door. I hadn't seen Jean-Claude in months. I didn't want to see him now. My dream came back to me. Something that lived in blood and darkness. Why the nightmare? Was it Jean-Claude interfering in my dreams again? He had promised to stay out of my dreams. But was his word worth anything? No answer to that.
I flicked off the apartment lights and closed the door behind me. I rattled it to make sure it was locked, and I had nothing left to do but drive to the Circus of the Damned. No more excuses. No more delays. My stomach was so tight it hurt. So I was afraid; so what? I had to go, and the sooner I left, the sooner I could come home. If only I believed that Jean-Claude would make things that simple. Nothing was ever simple where he was concerned. If I learned anything about the murders tonight, I'd pay for it, but not in money. Jean-Claude seemed to have plenty of that. No, his coin was more painful, more intimate, more bloody.
And I had volunteered to go see him. Stupid, Anita, very stupid.

There was a bouquet of spotlights on the top of the Circus of the Damned. The lights slashed the black night like swords. The multicolored lights that spelled the name seemed dimmer with the huge white lights whirling overhead. Demonic clowns danced around the sign in frozen pantomime.
I walked past the huge cloth signs that covered the walls. One picture showed a man that had no skin; See the Skinless Man. A movie version of a voodoo ceremony covered another banner. Zombies writhed from open graves. The zombie banner had changed since last I'd visited the Circus. I didn't know if that was good or bad; probably neither. I didn't give a damn what they did here, except . . . Except it wasn't right to raise the dead just for entertainment.
Who did they have raising zombies for them? I knew it had to be someone new because I had helped kill their last animator. He had been a serial killer and had nearly killed me twice, the second time by ghoul attack, which was a messy way to die. Of course, the way he died had been messy, too, but I wasn't the one who ripped him open. A vampire had done that. You might say I eased him on his way. A mercy killing. Ri-ight.
It was too cold to be standing outside with my jacket half-unzipped. But if I zipped it all the way, I'd never get to my gun in time. Freeze my butt off, or be able to defend myself. The clowns on the roof had fangs. I decided it wasn't that cold after all.
Heat and noise poured out to meet me at the door. Hundreds of bodies pressed together in an enclosed space. The noise of the crowd was like the ocean, murmurous and large, sound without meaning. A crowd is an elemental thing. A word, a glance, and a crowd becomes a mob. A different being entirely from a group.
There were a lot of families. Mom, Dad, the kiddies. The children had balloons tied to their wrists and cotton candy smeared on their faces and hands. It smelled like a traveling carnival: corn dogs, the cinnamon smell of funnel cakes, snow cones, sweat. The only thing missing was the dust. There was always dust in the air at a summer fair. Dry, choking dust kicked into the air by hundreds of feet. Cars driving over the grass until it is grey-coated with dust.
There was no smell of dirt in the air, but there was something else just as singular. The smell of blood. So faint you'd almost think you dreamed it, but it was there. The sweet copper scent of blood mingled with the smells of cooking food and the sharp smell of a snow cone being made. Who needed dust?
I was hungry, and the corn dogs smelled good. Should I eat first or accuse the Master of the City of murder? Choices, choices.
I didn't get to decide. A man stepped out of the crowd. He was only a little taller than me, with curly blond hair that fell past his shoulders. He was wearing a cornflower-blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing firm, muscular forearms. Jeans no tighter than the skin on a grape showed slender hips. He wore black cowboy boots with blue designs tooled into them. His true-blue eyes matched his shirt.
He smiled, flashing small white teeth. "You're Anita Blake, right?"
I didn't know what to say. It isn't always a good idea to admit who you are.
"Jean-Claude told me to wait for you." His voice was soft, hesitant. There was something about him, an almost childlike appeal. Besides I'm a sucker for a pair of pretty eyes.
"What's your name?" I asked. Always like to know who I'm dealing with.
His smile widened. "Stephen; my name is Stephen." He put out his hand, and I took it. His hand was soft but firm, no manual labor but some weightlifting. Not too much. Enough to firm, not explode. Men my size should not do serious weightlifting. It may look okay in a bathing suit, but in regular clothes you took like a deformed dwarf.
"Follow me, please." He sounded like a waiter, but when he walked into the crowd, I followed him.
He led the way towards a huge blue tent. It was like an old-fashioned circus tent. I'd only seen one in pictures or the movies.
There was a man in a striped coat yelling, "Almost showtime, folks! Present your tickets and come inside! See the world's largest cobra! Watch the fearsome serpent be taken through amazing feats by the beautiful snake charmer Shahar. We guarantee it will be a show you will never forget."
There was a line of people giving their tickets to a young woman. She tore them in half and handed back the stubs.
Stephen walked confidently along the line without waiting. We got some dirty looks, but the girl nodded to us. And in we went.
Tiers of bleachers ran up to the top of the tent. It was huge. Nearly all the seats were full. A sold-out show. Wowee.
There was a blue rail that formed a circle in the middle. A one-ring circus.
Stephen scooted past the knees of about a dozen people to a set of steps. Since we were at the bottom, up was the only way to go. I followed Stephen up the concrete stairs. The tent may have looked like a circus tent, but the bleachers and stairs were permanent. A mini-coliseum.
I have bad knees, which means that I can run on a flat surface but put me on a hill, or stairs. and it hurts. So I didn't try to keep up with Stephen's smooth, running glide. I did watch the way his jeans fit his snug little behind, though. Looking for clues.
I unzipped the leather jacket but didn't take it off. My gun would show. Sweat glided down my spine. I was going to melt.
Stephen glanced over his shoulder to see if I was following, or maybe for encouragement. He flashed a smile that was just lips curling back from teeth, almost a snarl.
I stopped in the middle of the steps, watching his lithe form glide upward. There was an energy to Stephen as if the air boiled invisibly around him. A shapeshifter. Some lycanthropes are better than others at hiding what they are. Stephen wasn't that good. Or maybe he just didn't care if I knew. Possible.
Lycanthropy was a disease, like AIDS. It was prejudice to mistrust someone for an accident. Most people survived attacks to become shapeshifters. It wasn't a choice. So why didn't I like Stephen as well, now that I knew? Prejudiced, moi?
He waited at the top of the stairs, still pretty as a picture, but the air of energy contained in too small a space, like his motor was on high idle, shimmered around him. What was Jean-Claude doing with a shapeshifter on his payroll? Maybe I could ask him.
I stepped up beside Stephen. There must have been something in my face, because he said, "What's wrong?"
I shook my head. "Nothing."
I don't think he believed me. But he smiled and led me towards a booth that was mostly glass with heavy curtains on the inside hiding whatever lay behind. It looked for all the world like a miniature broadcast booth.
Stephen went to the curtained door and opened it. He held it for me, motioning me to go first.
"No, you first," I said.
"I'm being a gentleman here," he said.
"I don't need or want doors opened for me. I'm quite capable, thank you."
"A feminist, my, my."
Truthfully, I just didn't want ol' Stephen at my back. But if he wanted to think I was a hard-core feminist, let him. It was closer to the truth than a lot of things.
He walked through the door. I glanced back to the ring. It looked smaller from up here. Muscular men dressed in glittering loincloths pulled a cart in on their bare shoulders. There were two things in the cart: a huge woven basket and a dark-skinned woman. She was dressed in Hollywood's version of a dancing girl's outfit. Her thick black hair fell like a cloak, sweeping to her ankles. Slender arms, small, dark hands swept the air in graceful curves. She danced in front of the cart. The costume was fake, but she wasn't. She knew how to dance, not for seduction, though it was that, but for power. Dancing was originally an invocation to some god or other; most people forget that.
Goosebumps prickled up the back of my neck, creeping into my hair. I shivered while I stood there and sweated in the heat. What was in the basket? The barker outside had said a giant cobra, but there was no snake in the world that needed a basket that big. Not even the anaconda, the world's heaviest snake, needed a container over ten feet tall and twenty feet wide.
Something touched my shoulder. I jumped and spun. Stephen was standing nearly touching me, smiling.
I swallowed my pulse back into my throat and glared at him. I make a big deal about not wanting him at my back, then let him sneak up behind me. Real swift, Anita, real swift. Because he'd scared me, I was mad at him. Illogical, but it was better to be mad than scared.
"Jean-Claude's just inside," he said. He smiled, but there was a very human glint of laughter in his blue eyes.
I scowled at him, knowing I was being childish, and not caring. "After you, fur-face."
The laughter slipped away. He was very serious as he stared at me. "How did you know?" His voice was uncertain, fragile. A lot of lycanthropes pride themselves on being able to pass for human.
"It was easy," I said. Which wasn't entirely true, but I wanted to hurt him. Childish, unattractive, honest.
His face suddenly looked very young. His eyes filled with uncertainty and pain.
"Look, I've spent a lot of time around shapeshifters. I just know what to look for, okay?" Why did I want to reassure him? Because I knew what it was like to be the outsider. Raising the dead makes a lot of people class me with the monsters. There are even days when I agree with them.
He was still staring at me, with his hurt feelings like an open wound in his eyes. If he started to cry, I was leaving.
He turned without another word and walked through the open door. I stared at the door for a minute. There were gasps, screams from the crowd. I whirled and saw it. It was a snake, but it wasn't just the world's biggest cobra, it was the biggest freaking snake I'd ever seen. Its body was banded in dull greyish black and off-white. The scales gleamed under the lights. The head was at least a foot and a half wide. No snake was that big. It flared its hood, and it was the size of a satellite dish. The snake hissed, flicking out a tongue that was like a black whip.
I'd had a semester of herpetology in college. If the snake had been a mere eight feet or less, I would have called it a banded Egyptian cobra. I couldn't remember the scientific name to save myself.
The woman dropped to the ground in front of the snake, forehead to the ground. A mark of obedience from her to the snake. To her god. Sweet Jesus.
The woman stood and began to dance, and the cobra watched her. She'd made herself a living flute for the nearsighted creature to follow. I didn't want to see what would happen if she messed up. The poison wouldn't have time to kill her. The fangs were so damn big they'd spear her like swords. She'd die of shock and blood loss long before the poison kicked in.
Something was growing in the middle of that ring. Magic crawled up my spine. Was it magic that kept the snake safe, or magic that called it up, or was it the snake itself? Did it have power all its own? I didn't even know what to call it. It looked like a cobra, perhaps the world's biggest, yet I didn't even have a word for it. God with a little "g" would do, but it wasn't accurate.
I shook my head and turned away. I didn't want to see the show. I didn't want to stand there with its magic flowing soft and cold over my skin. If the snake wasn't safe, Jean-Claude would have had it caged, right? Right.
I turned away from the snake charmer and the world's biggest cobra. I wanted to talk to Jean-Claude and get the hell out of here.
The open door was filled with darkness. Vampires didn't need lights. Did lycanthropes? I didn't know. Gee, so much to learn. My jacket was unzipped all the way, the better for a fast draw. Though truthfully, if I needed a fast draw tonight, I was in deep shit.
I took a deep breath and let it out. No sense putting it off. I walked through the door into the waiting darkness without looking back. I didn't want to see what was happening in the ring. Truth was, I didn't want to see what was behind the darkness. Was there another choice? Probably not.

The room was like a closet with drapes all the way around. There was no one in the curtained darkness but me. Where had Stephen gone? If he had been a vampire, I would have believed the vanishing act, but lycanthropes don't just turn into thin air. So, there had to be a second door.
If I had built this room, where would I put an inner door? Answer: opposite the first door. I swept the drapes aside. The door was there. Elementary, my dear Watson.
The door was heavy wood with some flowering vine carved into it. The doorknob was white with tiny pink flowers in the center of it. It was an awfully feminine door. Of course, no rules against men liking flowers. None at all. It was a sexist comment. Forget I thought it.
I did not draw my gun. See, I'm not completely paranoid.
I turned the doorknob and swung the door inward. I kept pushing until it was flush against the wall. No one was hiding behind it. Good.
The wallpaper was off-white with thin silver, gold, and copper designs running through it. The effect was vaguely oriental. The carpeting was black. I didn't even know carpet came in that color. A canopy bed took up most of one side of the room. Black, gauzy curtains covered it. Made the bed indistinct, misty, like a dream. There was someone asleep in a nest of black covers and crimson sheets. A line of bare chest showed it was a man, but a wave of brown hair covered his face like a shroud. It all looked faintly unreal, as if he was waiting for movie cameras to roll.
A black couch was against the far wall, with blood-red pillows thrown along it. A matching love seat was against the last wall. Stephen was curled up on the love seat. Jean-Claude sat on one corner of the couch. He wore black jeans tucked into knee-high leather boots, dyed a deep, almost velvet black. His shirt had a high lace collar pinned at the neck by a thumb-size ruby pendant. His black hair was just long enough to curl around the lace.
The sleeves were loose and billowing, tight at the wrists with lace spilling over his hands until only his fingertips showed.
"Where do you get your shirts?" I asked.
He smiled. "Don't you like it?" His hands caressed down his chest, fingertips hesitating over his nipples. It was an invitation. I could touch that smooth white cloth and see if the lace was as soft as it looked.
I shook my head. Mustn't get distracted. I glanced at Jean-Claude. He was staring at me with those midnight blue eyes. His eyelashes were like black lace.
"She wants you, Master," Stephen said. There was laughter in his voice, derision. "I can smell her desire."
Jean-Claude turned just his head, staring at Stephen. "As can I." The words were innocent, but the feeling behind them wasn't. His voice slithered around the room, low and full of a terrible promise.
"I meant no harm, Master, no harm." Stephen looked scared. I didn't blame him.
Jean-Claude turned back to me as if nothing had happened. His face was still pleasantly handsome, interested, amused.
"I don't need your protection."
"Oh, I think you do."
I whirled and found another vampire standing at my back. I hadn't heard the door open.
She smiled at me, without flashing fang. A trick that the older vampires learn. She was tall and slender with dark skin and long ebony hair that swung around her waist. She wore crimson Lycra bike pants that clung so tight, you knew she wasn't wearing underwear. Her top was red silk, loose and blousy, with thin spaghetti straps holding it in place. It looked like the top to slinky pajamas. Red high-heeled sandals and a thin gold chain set with a single diamond completed the outfit. The word that came to mind was "exotic." She glided towards me, smiling.
"Is that a threat?" I asked.
She stopped in front of me. "Not yet." There was a hint of some other language in her voice. Something darker with rolling, sibilant sounds.
"That is enough," Jean-Claude said.
The dark lady twirled around, black hair like a veil behind her. "I don't think so."
"Yasmeen." The one word was low and dark with warning.
Yasmeen laughed, a harsh sound like breaking glass. She stopped directly in front of me, blocking my view of Jean-Claude. Her hand stretched towards me, and I stepped back, out of reach.
She smiled wide enough to show fangs and reached for me again. I stepped back, and she was suddenly on me, faster than I could blink, faster than I could breathe. Her hand gripped my hair, bending my neck backwards. Her fingertips brushed my skull. Her other hand held my chin, fingers digging in like fleshy metal. My face was immobile between her hands, trapped.
Short of taking my gun out and shooting her, there was nothing I could do. And if her movement was any clue, I'd never get the gun out in time.
"I see why you like her. So pretty, so delicate." She half-turned towards Jean-Claude, nearly giving me her back, but still holding my head immobile.
"I never thought you'd take in a human." She made it sound like I was a stray puppy.
Yasmeen turned back to me. I pressed my 9mm into her chest. No matter how fast she was, she would be hurt if I wanted it. I can feel how old a vampire is inside my head. It's part natural ability, and part practice. Yasmeen was old, older than Jean-Claude. I was betting she was over five hundred. If she had been the new dead, high-tech ammo at point-blank range would have shredded her heart, killed her. But over five hundred and a master vampire, it might not kill her. Or then again, it might.
Something flickered over her face; surprise, and maybe just a touch of fear. Her body was statue-still. If she was breathing, I couldn't tell.
My voice sounded strained from the angle she held my neck, but the words were clear. "Very slowly, take your hands away from my face. Put both hands on top of your head and lace your fingers together."
"Jean-Claude, call off your human."
"I'd do what she says, Yasmeen." His voice was pleased. "How many vampires have you killed now, Anita?"
Yasmeen's eyes widened just a bit. "I don't believe you."
"Believe this, bitch: I'll pull this trigger and you can kiss your heart good-bye."
"Bullets cannot harm me."
"Silver-plated can. Move off me, now!"
Yasmeen's hand slid away from my hair and jaw.
"Slowly," I said.
She did what I asked. She stood in front of me with her long-fingered hands clasped across her head. I stepped away from her, gun still pointed at her chest.
"Now what?" Yasmeen asked. A smile still curled her lips. Her dark eyes were amused. I didn't like being laughed at, but when tangling with master vampires you let some things slide.
"You can put your hands down," I said.
Yasmeen did, but she continued to stare at me as if I'd sprouted a second head. "Where did you find her, Jean-Claude? The kitten has teeth."
"Tell Yasmeen what the vampires call you, Anita."
It sounded too much like an order, but this didn't seem the time to bitch at him. "The Executioner."
Yasmeen's eyes widened; then she smiled, flashing a lot of fang. "I thought you'd be taller."
"It disappoints me, too, sometimes," I said.
Yasmeen threw back her head and laughed, wild and brittle, with an edge of hysteria. "I like her, Jean-Claude. She's dangerous, like sleeping with a lion."
She glided towards me. I had the gun up and pointed at her. It didn't even slow her down.
"Jean-Claude, tell her I will shoot her if she doesn't back off."
"I promise not to hurt you, Anita. I will be oh so gentle." She swayed over to me, and I wasn't sure what to do. She was playing with me, sadistic but probably not deadly. Could I shoot her for being a pain in the ass? I didn't think so.
"I can taste the heat of your blood, the warmth of your skin on the air like perfume." Her gliding, hip-swinging walk brought her right in front of me. I pointed the gun at her, and she laughed. She pressed her chest against the tip of my gun.
"So soft, wet, but strong." I wasn't sure who she was talking about, her or me. Neither option sounded pleasant. She rubbed her small breasts against the gun, her nipples caressing the gun barrel. "Dainty, but dangerous." The last word was a whispered hiss that flowed over my skin like ice water. She was the first master I'd ever met who had some of Jean-Claude's voice tricks.
I could see her nipples hardening through the thin material of her shirt. Yikes. I pointed the gun at the floor and stepped away from her. "Jesus, are all vampires over two hundred perverts?"
"I am over two hundred," Jean-Claude said.
"I rest my case."
Yasmeen let a warm trickle of laughter spill out of her mouth. The sound caressed my skin like a warm wind. She stalked towards me. I backed up until I hit the wall. She put a hand on either side of the wall near my shoulders and began to lean in like she was doing a pushup. "I'd like to taste her myself."
I shoved the gun into her ribs, too low for her to rub herself against it. "Nobody lays a fang on me," I said.
"Tough girl." She leaned her face over me, lips brushing my forehead. "I like tough girls."
"Jean-Claude, do something with her before one of us gets killed."
Yasmeen pushed away from me, elbows locked, as far away as she could get without moving her hands. Her tongue flicked over her lips, a hint of fang, but mostly wet lips. She leaned back into me, lips half-parted, but she wasn't going for my neck. She was definitely going for my mouth. She didn't want to taste me, she wanted to taste me. I couldn't shoot her, not if she just wanted to kiss me. If she'd been a man, I wouldn't have shot her.
Her hair fell forward over my hands, soft like thick silk. Her face was all I could see. Her eyes were a perfect blackness. Her lips hovered just above my mouth. Her breath was warm, and smelled of breath mints, but under the modern smell was something older: the sweet foulness of blood.
"Your breath smells like old blood," I whispered into her mouth.
She whispered back, lips barely caressing my mouth, "I know." Her lips pressed into mine, a gentle kiss. She smiled with our lips still touching.
The door opened, nearly pinning us to the wall. Yasmeen stood up, but kept her hands around my shoulders. We both looked at the door. A woman with nearly white blond hair looked wildly around the room. Her blue eyes widened as she saw us. She screamed, high and wordless, rage-filled.
"Get off of her!"
I frowned up at Yasmeen. "Is she talking to me?"
"Yes." Yasmeen looked amused.
The woman did not. She ran towards us, hands outstretched, fingers curled into claws. Yasmeen caught her in a blurring moment of pure speed. The woman thrashed and struggled, her hands still reaching for me.
"What the hell is going on?" I asked.
"Marguerite is Yasmeen's human servant," Jean-Claude said. "She thinks you may steal Yasmeen away from her."
"I don't want Yasmeen."
Yasmeen shot me a took of pure anger. Had I hurt her feelings? I hoped so.
"Marguerite, look; she's yours, all right?"
The woman screamed at me, wordless and guttural. What might have been a pretty face was screwed up into something bestial. I'd never seen such instant rage. It was frightening even with a loaded gun in my hand.
Yasmeen had to lift the woman off her feet, holding her struggling in mid-air. "I'm afraid, Jean-Claude, that Marguerite is not going to be satisfied unless she answers the challenge."
"What challenge?" I asked.
"You challenged her claim to me."
"Did not," I said.
Yasmeen smiled. The serpent must have smiled at Eve that way: pleasant, amused, dangerous.
"Jean-Claude, I didn't come here for whatever the hell is going on. I don't want any vampire, let alone a female one," I said.
"If you were my human servant, ma petite, there would be no challenge, because once one is bound to a master vampire, it is an unbreakable bond."
"Then what is Marguerite worried about?"
"That Yasmeen may take you as a lover. She does that from time to time to drive Marguerite into jealous rages. For some reason I do not understand, Yasmeen enjoys it."
"Oh, yes, I do enjoy it." Yasmeen turned towards me with the woman still clasped in her arms. She was holding the struggling woman easily, no strain. Of course, vampires can bench press Toyotas. What was one medium-size human to that?
"So what exactly does this mean to me personally?"
Jean-Claude smiled, but there was an edge of tiredness to it. Was he bored? Or angry? Or just tired? "You must fight Marguerite. If you win, then Yasmeen is yours. If you lose, Yasmeen is Marguerite's."
"Wait a minute," I said. "What sort of fight, pistols at dawn?"
"No weapons," Yasmeen said. "My Marguerite is not skilled in weapons. I don't want her hurt."
"Then stop tormenting her," I said.
Yasmeen smiled. "It is part of the fun."
"Sadistic bitch," I said.
"Yes, I am."
Jesus, some people you couldn't even insult. "So you want us to fight bare-handed over Yasmeen?" I couldn't believe I was even asking this question.
"Yes, ma petite."
I took a deep breath, looked at my gun, looked back at the screaming woman, then holstered my gun. "Is there any way out of this, besides fighting her?"
"If you admit you are my human servant, then there will be no fight. There will be no need for one." Jean-Claude was watching me, studying my face. His eyes were very still.
"You mean this was a setup," I said. The first warm rumblings of anger chased up my gut.
"A setup, ma petite? I had no idea Yasmeen would find you so enticing."
"Admit you are my human servant and all ends here."
"And if I don't?"
"Then you fight Marguerite."
"Fine," I said. "Let's do it."
"What would it cost you to admit what is true, Anita?" Jean-Claude asked.
"I am not your human servant. I will never be your human servant. I wish you'd just accept that and leave me the fuck alone."
He frowned. "Ma petite, such language."
"Fuck off."
He smiled then. "As you like, ma petite." He sat up on the edge of the couch, maybe so he could see better. "Yasmeen, any time you are ready."
"Wait," I said. I took off my jacket and wasn't sure where to lay it.
The man who had been sleeping on the black-canopied bed reached a hand through the black gauze. "I'll hold it for you," he said.
I stared at him for a minute. He was naked from the waist up. His arms, stomach, chest showed signs of weightlifting, just enough, not too much. He either had a perfect tan or was naturally dark complected. Hair fell in a wavy mass around his shoulders. His eyes were brown and very human. That was nice to see.
I handed him my jacket. He smiled, a quick flash of teeth that chased the last signs of sleep from his face. He sat up with the jacket in one hand, arms encircling his knees that were still hidden under the black and red covers. He laid his cheek on his knees and managed to look winsome.
"Are you quite done, ma petite?" Jean-Claude's voice was amused, with an edge of laughter that wasn't humor at all. It was mockery. But whether he was mocking me or himself, I couldn't tell.
"I'm ready, I guess," I said.
"Put her down, Yasmeen. Let us see what happens."
I heard Stephen say, "Twenty on Marguerite."
Yasmeen said, "No fair. I can't bet against my own human servant."
"I'll spot you both twenty that Ms. Blake wins." That came from the man in the bed. I had a second to glance at him, to see him smile at me; then Marguerite was coming.
She slapped at my face, and I blocked it with my forearm. She fought like a girl, all open-handed slaps and fingernails. But she was fast, faster than a human. Maybe she got that from being a human servant, I don't know. Her fingernails raked down my face in a sharp, painful line. That was it: no more Ms. Nice Guy.
I held her off with one hand. She dug her teeth into that hand. I hit her with my right fist as hard as I could, turning my body into it. It was a nice solid hit to the solar plexus.
Marguerite stopped biting my hand and bent over, hands covering her stomach. She was gasping for breath. Good.
My left hand had a bloody imprint of her teeth in it. I touched my left cheek and came away with more blood. Damn, that hurt.
Marguerite knelt on the floor, relearning how to breathe. But she was staring up at me. The look in her blue eyes said the fight wasn't over. As soon as she got her breath back, she would start again.
"Stay down, Marguerite, or I'll hurt you."
She shook her head.
"She can't give up, ma petite, or you win Yasmeen's body, if not her heart."
"I don't want her body. I don't want anyone's body."
"Now, that is simply not true, ma petite," Jean-Claude said.
"Stop calling me ma petite."
"You bear two of my marks, Anita. You are halfway to being my human servant. Admit that, and no one else need suffer tonight."
"Yeah, right," I said.
Marguerite was getting to her feet. I didn't want her on her feet. I moved in before she could stand, and foot-swept her legs out from under her. I forced her shoulders backwards at the same time, and I rode her down. I got her right arm in a joint lock. She tried to get up. I increased the pressure, and she lay back down.
"Give up the fight."
"No." It was only the second coherent thing I'd heard her utter.
"I will break your arm."
"Break it, break it! I don't care." Her face was wild, enraged. God. There was no way to reason with her. Great.
Using the joint lock as a lever, I turned her over on her stomach, increasing the pressure to almost breaking, but not quite. Breaking her arm might not stop the fight. I wanted it over with.
I used my leg and one arm to keep the joint lock on but knelt over her upper body, until my weight would keep her pinned. I took a handful of yellow hair and pulled her neck back. I released her arm and brought my right arm across her neck, with my elbow in front of her Adam's apple and the arm squeezing the arteries on both sides of her neck. I put my right hand on my left wrist and squeezed.
She scratched at my face, but I buried my eyes in her back and she couldn't reach me. She was making small, helpless sounds because she didn't have enough air to make big ones.
Her hands scratched at my right arm, but the sweater was thick. She pushed the sleeve up, exposing my bare arm, and began to shred the skin with her nails. I buried my face deeper into her back and squeezed until my arms shook and I was gritting my teeth. Everything I had was in that one arm, pressing into her slender throat.
Her hands stopped scratching me. They beat against my arm like dying butterflies.
It takes a long time to choke someone into unconsciousness. The movies make it look easy, quick, clean. It isn't easy, it isn't quick, and it sure as hell isn't clean. You can feel the pulse on either side of the neck pounding against your arm while you squeeze the life out of it. The person struggles a lot more than in the movies. And as far as choking someone to death, you better hold on for a long time after they stop moving.
Marguerite went slowly limp, a body part at a time. When she was just dead weight in my arms, I let her go, slowly. She lay on the floor unmoving. I couldn't even see her breathe. Had I squeezed too long?
I touched her neck and found the carotid pulse strong and even. Just out of it, not dead. Good.
I stood and walked back towards the bed.
Yasmeen went to her knees beside Marguerite's still form. "My love, my only one, has she hurt you?"
"She's just unconscious," I said. "She'll come to in a few minutes."
"If you had killed her, I would have torn your throat out."
I shook my head. "Let's not start this shit again. I've had about all the grandstanding I can take for one night."
The man in bed said, "You're bleeding."
Blood was dripping down my right forearm. Marguerite may not have been able to do any real damage, but the scratches were deep enough that some of them might leave scars. Great; I already had a long, thin scar on the underside of my right arm from a knife. Even with the scratches, my right arm had fewer scars than my left. Work-related injuries.
Blood was dripping down my arm rather steadily. The blood didn't show on the black carpeting. A good color if you planned to bleed much in a room.
Yasmeen was helping Marguerite to her feet. The woman had recovered very quickly. Why? Because she was a human servant, of course. Sure.
Yasmeen walked towards the bed, towards me. Her lovely face had thinned until the bones showed through. Her eyes were bright, almost feverish. "Fresh blood, and I haven't fed tonight."
"Control yourself, Yasmeen."
"You have not taught your servant good manners, Jean-Claude," Yasmeen said. She was looking very unkindly at me.
"Leave her alone, Yasmeen." Jean-Claude was standing now.
"Every servant must be tamed, Jean-Claude. You have let it go far too long."
I looked over Yasmeen's shoulder at him. "Tamed?"
"It is an unfortunate stage in the process," he said. His voice was neutral, as if he were talking about taming a horse.
"Damn you." I pulled my gun. I held it two-handed in a teacup grip. Nobody was taming me tonight.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone stand up on the other side of the bed. The man was still under the covers. It was a slender woman, her skin the color of coffee with cream. Her black hair was cut very close to her head. She was naked. Where the hell had she come from?
Yasmeen was about a yard from me, tongue playing over her lips, fangs glistening in the overhead light.
"I'll kill you, do you understand that, I'll kill you," I said.
"You'll try."
"Fun and games aren't worth dying for," I said.
"After a few hundred years, that's all that is worth dying for."
"Jean-Claude, unless you want to lose her, call her off!" My voice was higher than I wanted it to be, afraid.
At this range the bullet should take out her entire chest. If it worked, there would be no resurrecting her as the undead; her heart would be gone. Of course, she was over five hundred years old. One shot might not do it. Lucky I had more than one bullet.
I caught movement from the corner of my eye. I was half-turned towards it when something flattened me to the ground. The black woman was on top of me. I brought the gun around to fire, not giving a damn if she was human or not. But her hand grabbed my wrists, squeezing. She was going to crush my wrists.
She snarled in my face, all teeth and a low growl. The sound should have had fur around it and pointy teeth. Human faces weren't supposed to look that way.
The woman jerked the Browning out of my hands like taking candy from a baby. She held it wrong, like she didn't know which end of the gun went where.
An arm came around her waist and pulled her backwards off me. It was the man on the bed. The woman turned on him, snarling.
Yasmeen leapt for me. I scooted backwards, putting the wall at my back. She smiled. "Not so tough without your weapon, are you?"
She was suddenly kneeling in front of me. I hadn't seen her come, not even a blur of motion. She appeared beside me like magic.
She had her body up against my knees, pinning me to the wall. Yasmeen dug her fingers into my upper arms and jerked me towards her. Her strength was incredible. She made the black shapeshifter seem fragile.
"Yasmeen, no!" It was Jean-Claude coming to my aid at last. But he was going to be too late. Yasmeen bared her teeth, raised her neck back for the strike, and I couldn't do a damn thing.
She pulled me in tight against her, arms locked behind my back. If I'd been pressed any tighter I'd have come out on the other side.
I screamed, "Jean-Claude!"
Heat; something was burning inside my sweater, over my heart. Yasmeen hesitated. I felt her whole body shudder. What the hell was happening?
A tongue of blue-white flame curled up between us. I screamed and Yasmeen echoed it. We screamed together as we burned.
She fell away from me. Blue-white flame crawled over her shirt. Flames licked around a hole in my sweater. I shrugged out of the shoulder holster and pulled the burning sweater off.
My cross still burned with an intense blue-white flame. I jerked the chain and it snapped. I dropped the cross to the carpet, where the flames smoldered, then died.
There was a perfect cross-shaped burn on my chest, just above my breast, over the beat of my heart. The burn was covered in blisters already. A second-degree burn.
Yasmeen had ripped her own blouse off. She had an identical burn, but lower down between her breasts because she was taller than I was.
I knelt on the floor in just my bra and jeans. Tears were trailing down my face. I had a bigger cross-shaped burn scar on my left forearm. A vampire's human followers had branded me, thinking it was funny. They'd laughed right up to the minute I killed them.
A burn is a bitch. Inch for inch, a burn hurts worse than any other injury.
Jean-Claude stood in front of me. The cross glowed a white-hot light, no flames, but then he wasn't touching it. I looked up to find him shielding his eyes with his arm.
"Put it away, ma petite. No one else will harm you tonight, I promise you that."
"Why don't you just back off and let me decide what I'm going to do?"
He sighed. "I was childish to let it get so far out of hand, Anita. Forgive me for my foolishness." It was hard to take the apology seriously while he cowered behind his arm, not daring to look at my glowing cross. But it was an apology. From Jean-Claude, that was a lot.
I picked the cross up by its chain. I had broken the clasp getting it off. I'd need a new chain before it could go around my neck again. I picked my sweater up in my other hand. There was a melted hole bigger than my fist in it. Right over the chest area. The sweater was ruined. No help there. Where do you hide a glowing cross when you aren't wearing a shirt?
The man in the bed handed my leather jacket to me. I met his eyes and saw in them concern, a little fear. His brown eyes were very close to me, and very human. It was comforting, and I wasn't even sure why.
The shoulder holster was flopping down around my waist like suspenders. I shrugged back into the straps. They felt strange next to my bare skin.
The man handed me my gun, butt first. The black shapeshifter stood on the other side of the bed, still naked, glaring at us. I didn't care how he'd gotten my gun from her. I was just glad to have it back.
With the Browning in its holster, I felt safer, though I'd never tried wearing a shoulder holster over bare skin. I suspected it was going to chafe. Oh, well, nothing's perfect.
The man held out a handful of Kleenex to me. The red sheets had slid down, exposing a long nude line of his body to about mid-thigh. The sheet was perilously close to failing off him all together. "Your arm," he said.
I stared down at my right arm. It was still bleeding a little. It hurt so much less than the burn, I had forgotten about it.
I took the Kleenex and wondered what he was doing here. Had he been having sex with the naked woman, the shapeshifter? I hadn't seen her in the bed. Had she been hiding under it?
I cleaned up my arm as best I could; didn't want to bleed too heavily on the leather jacket. I slipped the jacket on, and put the stillglowing cross in my left pocket. Once it was hidden, the glow would stop. The only reason Yasmeen and I had gotten in trouble was that the sweater had a loose weave and her top had left a lot of bare flesh. Vampire flesh touching a blessed cross was always volatile.
Jean-Claude stared down at me, now that the cross was safely hidden. "I am sorry, ma petite. I did not mean to frighten you tonight." He held one hand down towards me. The skin was paler than the white lace that covered it.
I ignored his outstretched hand and used the bed to help me stand.
He lowered his hand slowly. His dark blue eyes were very still, looking at me. "It never works as I want it to with you, Anita Blake. Why is that?"
"Maybe you should take the hint, and leave me alone."
He smiled, a bare movement of lips. "I'm afraid it is too late for that."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
The door swung open, banging against the wall and bouncing back. A man stood in the doorway, eyes wide, sweat running down his face. "Jean-Claude . . . the snake." He seemed to be having trouble breathing, as if he had run all the way up the stairs.
"What about the snake?" Jean-Claude asked.
The man swallowed, his breathing slowing. "It's gone crazy."
"What happened?"
The man shook his head. "I don't know. It attacked Shahar, its trainer. She's dead."
"Is it in the crowd?"
"Not yet."
"We will have to finish this discussion later, ma petite." He moved for the door, and the rest of the vampires followed at his heels. Stephen went with them. Well trained.
The slender black woman slipped a loose dress, black with red flowers on it, over her head. A pair of red high heels and she was out the door.
The man was out of the bed, naked. There was no time to be embarrassed. He was struggling into a pair of sweats.
This wasn't my problem, but what if the cobra got into the crowd? Not my problem. I zipped the jacket up enough to hide the fact I was shirtless but not so high up I couldn't draw my gun.
I was out the door and into the bright open space of the tent before the nameless man had slipped on his sweat pants. The vampires and shapeshifters were at the edge of the ring, fanning out into a circle around the snake. It filled the small ring with black-and-white coils. The bottom half of a man in a glittering loincloth was disappearing down the cobra's throat. That's what had kept it out of the crowd. It was taking time to feed.
Sweet Jesus.
The man's legs twitched, kicking convulsively. He couldn't be alive. He couldn't be. But the legs twitched as they slid out of sight. Please, God, let it just be a reflex. Don't let him still be alive. The thought was worse than any nightmare I could remember. And I have a lot of material for nightmares.
The monster in the ring wasn't my problem. I didn't have to be the bloody hero this time. People were screaming, running, arms full of children. Popcorn bags and cotton candy were getting crushed underfoot. I waded into the crowd and began pushing my way down. A woman carrying a toddler fell at my feet. A man climbed over them. I dragged the woman to her feet, taking the baby in one arm. People shoved past us. We shuddered just trying to stand still. I felt like a rock in the middle of a raging river.
The woman stared at me, eyes too large for her face. I pushed the toddler into her arms and wedged her between the seats. I grabbed the arms of the nearest large male, sexist that I am, and shouted, "Help them!"
The man's face was startled, as if I had spoken in tongues, but some of the panic faded from his face. He took the woman's arm and began to push his way towards the exit.
I couldn't let the snake get into the crowd. Not if I could stop it. Shit. I was going to play hero, dammit. I started fighting against the tide, to go down when everybody else was coming up and over. An elbow caught me in the mouth and I tasted blood. By the time I fought my way through this mess, it would all be over. God, I hoped so.

I stepped out of the crowd like I was flinging aside a curtain. My skin tingled with the memory of shoving bodies, but I stood alone on the last step. The screaming crowd was still up above me, struggling for the exits. But here, just above the ring, there was nothing. The silence lay in thick folds against my face and hands. It was hard to breathe through the thick air. Magic. But whether vampire or cobra, I didn't know.
Stephen stood closest to me, shirtless, slim and somehow elegant. Yasmeen had on his blue shirt, hiding her naked upper body. She had tied the shirt up to expose a tanned expanse of tummy. Marguerite stood beside her. The black woman stood on Stephen's right. She had kicked off her high heels and stood flat-footed in the ring.
Jean-Claude stood on the far side of the circle with two new blond vampires on either side. He turned and stared at me across the distance. I felt his touch inside me where no hand was ever meant to go. My throat tightened; sweat broke on my body. Nothing at that moment would have made me go closer to him. He was trying to tell me something. Something private and too intimate for words.
A hoarse scream brought my attention to the center of the ring. Two men lay broken and bleeding to one side. The cobra reared over them. It was like a moving tower of muscle and scale. It hissed at us. The sound was loud, echoing.
The men lay on the ground at its . . . feet? tail? One of them twitched. Was he alive? My hands squeezed the guardrail until my fingers ached. I was so scared I could taste bile at the back of my throat. My skin was cold with it. You ever have those dreams where snakes are everywhere, so thick on the ground you can't walk unless you step on them? It's almost claustrophobic. The dream always ends with me standing in the middle of the trees with snakes dripping down on me, and all I can do is scream.
Jean-Claude held out one slender hand towards me. The lace covered everything but the tips of his fingers. Everyone else was staring at the snake. Jean-Claude was staring at me.
One of the wounded men moved. A soft moan escaped his lips and seemed to echo in the huge tent. Was it illusion or had the sound really echoed? It didn't matter. He was alive, and we had to keep him that way.
We? What was this "we" stuff? I stared into Jean-Claude's deep blue eyes. His face was utterly blank, wiped clean of any emotion I understood. He couldn't trick me with his eyes. His own marks had seen to that, but mind tricks—if he worked at it—were still possible. He was working at it.
It wasn't words, but a compulsion. I wanted to go to him. To run to him. To feel the smooth, solid grip of his hand. The softness of lace against my skin. I leaned against the railing, dizzy. I gripped it to keep from falling. What the hell were these mind games now? We had other problems, didn't we? Or didn't he care about the snake? Maybe it had all been a trick. Maybe he had told the cobra to run amuck. But why?
Every hair on my body raised, as if some invisible finger had just brushed it. I shivered and couldn't stop.
I was staring down at a pair of very nice black boots, high and soft. I looked up and met Jean-Claude's eyes. He had left his place around the cobra to come to me. It beat the hell out of me going to him.
"Join with me, Anita, and we have enough power to stop the creature."
I shook my head. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He brushed his fingertips down my arm. Even through the leather jacket I could feel his touch like a line of ice, or was it fire?
"How can you be hot and cold at the same time?" I asked.
He smiled, a bare movement of lips. "Ma petite, stop fighting me, and we can tame the creature. We can save the men."
He had me there. A moment of personal weakness against the lives of two people. What a choice.
"Once I let you inside my head that far, it'll be easier for you to come in next time. My soul is not up for grabs for anybody's life."
He sighed. "Very well, it is your choice." He started to turn away from me. I grabbed his arm, and it was warm and firm and very, very real.
He turned to me, eyes large and drowning deep, like the bottom of the ocean, and just as deadly. His own power kept me from falling in; alone I would have been lost.
I swallowed hard enough for it to hurt, and pulled my hand away from him. I had the urge to wipe my hand against my pants, as if I had touched something bad. Maybe I had.
"Will silver bullets hurt it?"
He seemed to think about that for a second. "I do not know."
I took a deep breath. "If you stop trying to hijack my mind, I'll help you."
"You'll face it with a gun, rather than with me?" His voice sounded amused.
"You got it."
He stepped away from me and motioned me towards the ring.
I vaulted the rail and landed beside him. I ignored him as much as I was able and started walking towards the creature. I pulled the Browning out. It was nice and solid in my hand. A comforting weight.
"The ancient Egyptians worshipped it as a god, ma petite. She was Edjo, the royal serpent. Cared for, sacrificed to, adored."
"It isn't a god, Jean-Claude."
"Are you so sure?"
"I'm a monotheist, remember. It's just another supernatural creepycrawlie to me."
"As you like, ma petite."
I turned back to him. "How the hell did you get it past quarantine?"
He shook his head. "Does it matter?"
I glanced back at the thing in the middle of the ring. The snake charmer lay in a bloody heap to one side of the snake. It hadn't eaten her. Was that a sign of respect, affection, dumb luck?
The cobra pushed towards us, belly scales clenching and unclenching. It made a dry, whispering sound against the ring's floor.
He was right; it didn't matter how the thing had gotten into the country. It was here now. "How are we going to stop it?"
He smiled wide enough to flash fangs. Maybe it was the "we." "If you could disable its mouth, I think we could deal with it."
The snake's body was thicker than a telephone pole. I shook my head. "If you say so."
"Can you injure the mouth?"
I nodded. "If silver bullets work on it, yeah."
"My little marksman," he said.
"Can the sarcasm," I said.
He nodded. "If you are going to try to shoot it, I would hurry, ma petite. Once it wades into my people, it will be too late." His face was unreadable. I couldn't tell if he wanted me to do it, or not.
I turned and started walking across the ring. The cobra stopped moving forward. It waited, like a swaying tower. It stood there, if something without legs could stand, and waited for me, whiplike tongue flicking out, tasting the air. Tasting me.
Jean-Claude was suddenly beside me. I hadn't heard him come, hadn't felt him come. Just another mind trick. I had other things to worry about right now.
He spoke, low and urgent; I think only I heard. "I will do my best to protect you, ma petite."
"You were doing a great job up in your office."
He stopped walking. I didn't.
"I know you are afraid of it, Anita. Your fear crawls through my belly," he called, soft and faint as wind.
I whispered back, not sure he would even be able to hear me. "Stay the fuck out of my mind."
The cobra watched me. I held the Browning in a two-handed grip, pointed at the thing's head. I thought I was out of striking distance, but I wasn't sure. How far away is safe distance from a snake that's bigger than a Mack truck? Two states away, three? I was close enough to see the snake's flat black eyes, empty as a doll's.
Jean-Claude's words blew through my mind like flower petals. I could even have sworn I smelled flowers. His voice had never held the scent of perfume before. "Force it to follow you, and give us its back before you shoot."
The pulse in my neck was beating so hard, it hurt to breathe. My mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow right. I began to move, ever so slowly, away from the vampires and shapeshifters. The snake's head followed me, as it had followed the snake charmer. If it started to strike, I'd shoot it, but if it would just keep moving with me, I'd give Jean-Claude a chance at its back.
Of course, silver bullets might not hurt it. In fact, the thing was so damn big, the ammo I had in the Browning might not do more than irritate it. I felt like I was trapped in one of those monster movies where the giant slime monster keeps coming no matter how much you shoot it. I hoped that was just a Hollywood invention.
If the bullets didn't hurt it, I was going to die. I flashed on the image of the man's legs kicking as they went down. The lump was still visible in the snake's body, like it had fed on a really big rat.
The tongue flicked out and I gasped, swallowing a scream. God, Anita, control yourself. It's just a snake. A giant man-eating cobra snake, but still only a snake. Yeah, right.
Every hair on my body stood at attention. The power that I'd felt the snake charmer calling up was still here. It wasn't enough that the thing was poisonous and had teeth big enough to spear me with. It had to be magic, too. Great, just great.
The smell of flowers was thicker, closer. It hadn't been Jean-Claude at all. The cobra was filling the air with perfume. Snakes don't smell like flowers. They smell musty, and once you know what they smell like, you never forget it. Nothing with fur ever smelled like that. A vampire's coffin smells a bit like snakes.
The cobra turned its giant head with me. "Come on, just a little farther," I was speaking to the snake. Which is pretty stupid, since they're deaf. The smell of flowers was thick and sweet. I shuffled around the ring, and the snake shadowed me. Maybe it was habit. I was small and had long, dark hair, though not nearly as long as the dead snake charmer. Maybe the beastie wanted someone to follow?
"Come on, pretty girl, come to mama," I whispered so low my lips barely moved. Just me and the snake and my voice. I didn't dare look across the ring at Jean-Claude. Nothing mattered but my feet shuffling over the ground, the snake's movements, the gun in my hands. It was like some kind of dance.
The cobra parted its mouth, tongue flicking, giving me a glimpse of scythelike fangs. Cobras have fixed fangs, not retractable like a rattlesnake's. Nice to know I remembered some of my herpetology. Though I bet Dr. Greenburg had never seen anything like this.
I had a horrible impulse to giggle. Instead, I sighted down my arm at the thing's mouth. The scent of flowers was strong enough to touch. I squeezed the trigger.
The snake's head jerked backwards, blood splattering the floor. I fired again and again. The jaws exploded into bits of flesh and bone. The cobra opened its ruined jaws, hissing. I think it was screaming.
Its telephone-pole body slashed the ground, whipping back and forth. Could I kill it? Could just bullets kill it? I fired three more shots into the head. The body turned on itself in a huge wondrous knot. The black and white scales boiled over each other, frenzied, bloodspattered.
A loop of body rolled out and punched my legs out from under me. I came up on knees and one hand, gun in the other hand ready to point. Another coil smashed into me. It was like being hit by a whale. I lay half-stunned under several hundred pounds of snake. One striped coil pinned me to the ground. The beast reared over me, blood and pale drops of poison running down its shattered jaws. If the poison hit my skin, it would kill me. There was too much of it not to.
I lay flat on my back with the snake writhing across me and fired at it. I just kept squeezing the trigger as the head rushed down on me.
Something hit the snake. Something covered in fur dug teeth and claws into the snake's neck. It was a werewolf with furry, man-shaped arms. The cobra reared, pressing me under its weight. The smooth belly scales pushed at my nearly naked upper body like a giant hand, squeezing. It wasn't going to eat me, it was going to crush me to death.
I screamed and fired into the snake's body. The gun clicked empty. Shit!
Jean-Claude appeared over me. His pale, lace-covered hands lifted the coil off me as if it wasn't a thousand pounds of muscle. I scooted backwards on hands and feet. I crab-walked until I hit the edge of the ring, then I popped the empty clip and got the extra out of my sport bag. I didn't remember firing all thirteen rounds, but I must have. I jacked a round into the chamber, and I was ready to rock and roll.
Jean-Claude was elbow deep in snake. He pulled a piece of glistening spine out of the meat, splitting the snake apart.
Yasmeen was tearing at the giant snake like a kid with taffy. Her face and upper body were bathed in blood. She pulled a long piece of snake intestine out and laughed.
I had never really seen vampires use every bit of their inhuman strength. I sat on the edge of the ring with my loaded gun and just watched.
The black shapeshifter was still in human form. She had gotten a knife from somewhere and was happily carving the snake up.
The cobra whipped its head into the ground, sending the werewolf rolling. The snake reared and came smashing down. Its ruined jaws plunged into the black woman's shoulder. She screamed. One fang came out the back of her dress. Poison squirted from the fang, splashing onto the ground. Poison and blood soaked into the back of her dress.
I moved forward, gun ready, but I hesitated. The cobra was flinging its head from side to side, trying to shake the woman off. The fang was too deeply imbedded and the mouth too damaged. The cobra was trapped, and so was the woman.
I wasn't sure I could hit the snake's head without hitting her. The woman was screaming, shrieking. Her hands clawed helplessly at the snake. She'd dropped her knife somewhere.
A blond vampire grabbed the black woman. The snake reared back, lifting the woman in his jaws, worrying her like a dog with a toy. She shrieked.
The werewolf jumped on the snake's neck, riding it like a wild horse. There was no way to shoot without hitting someone now. Dammit. I had to just stand there, watching.
The man from the bed was running across the ring. Had it taken him that long to slip into the grey sweat pants and zippered jacket? The jacket was unzipped and flapped as he ran, exposing most of his tanned chest. He was unarmed as far as I could tell. What the hell did he think he could do? Dammit.
He knelt beside the two men who had been alive when all the shit started. He dragged one of them away from the fight. It was good thinking.
Jean-Claude grabbed the woman. He gripped the fang that speared her shoulder and snapped it off. The crack was loud as a rifle shot. The woman's shoulder stretched away from her body, bones and ligaments snapping. She gave one last shriek and went limp. He carried her towards me, laying her on the ground. Her right arm was hanging by strands of muscle. He had freed her from the snake, and damn near pulled her arm off.
"Help her, ma petite." He left her at my feet, bleeding and unconscious. I knew some first aid, but Jesus. There was no way to put a tourniquet on the wound. I couldn't splint the arm. It wasn't just broken, it was ripped apart.
A breath of wind oozed through the tent. Something tugged at my gut. I gasped and looked up away from the dying girl. Jean-Claude stood beside the snake. All the vampires were tearing at the body, and still it lived. A wind ruffled the lace on his collar, the black waves of his hair. The wind whispered against my face, pulling my heart up into my throat. The only sound I could hear was the thunder of my own blood beating against my ears.
Jean-Claude moved forward almost gently. And I felt something inside me move with him. It was almost like he held an invisible line to my heart. pulse, blood. My pulse was so fast, I couldn't breathe. What was happening?
He was on the snake, hands digging in the flesh just below the mouth. I felt my hands dig into the writhing flesh. My hands digging at bone, snapping it. My hands shoving in almost to the elbow. It was slick, wet, but not warm. Our hands pushed, then pulled, until our shoulders strained with the effort.
The head tore away to land across the ring. The head flopped, mouth snapping at empty air. The body still struggled, but it was dying now.
I had fallen to the ground beside the wounded woman. The Browning was still in my hand, but it wouldn't have helped me. I could hear again, feel again. My hands weren't covered in blood and gore. They had been Jean-Claude's hands, not mine. Dear God, what was happening to me?
I could still feel the blood on my hands. It was an incredibly powerful sensory memory. God!
Something touched my shoulder. I whirled, gun nearly shoved into the man's face. It was the man in the grey sweats. He was kneeling beside me, hands in the air, his eyes staring at the gun in my hands.
"I'm on your side," he said.
My pulse was still thumping in my throat. I didn't trust myself to speak, so I just nodded and stopped pointing the gun at him.
He took off his sweat jacket. "Maybe we can stop some of the blood with this." He wadded the jacket up and shoved it against the wound.
"She's probably in shock," I said. My voice sounded strange, hollow.
"You don't look so good yourself."
I didn't feel so good either. Jean-Claude had entered my mind, my body. It had been like we were one person. I started to shiver and couldn't stop. Maybe it was shock.
"I called the police and an ambulance," he said.
I stared at him. His face was very strong, high cheekbones, square jaw, but his lips were softer, making it a very sympathetic face. His wavy brown hair fell forward like a curtain around his face. I remembered another man with long brown hair. Another human tied to the vampires. He had died badly, and I hadn't been able to save him.
I caught sight of Marguerite on the far side of the ring, watching. Her eyes were wide, her lips half-parted. She was enjoying herself. God.
The werewolf pulled back from the snake. The shapeshifter looked like a very classy version of every wolfman that had ever stalked the streets of London, except it was naked and had genitalia between its legs. Movie wolfmen were always smooth, sexless as a Barbie doll.
The werewolf's fur was a dark honey color. A blond werewolf? Was it Stephen? If it wasn't, then he had disappeared, and I didn't think Jean-Claude would allow that.
A voice yelled, "Everybody freeze"' Across the ring were two patrol cops with their guns out. One of them said, "Jesus Christ!"
I put my gun away while they were staring at the dead snake. The body was still twitching, but it was dead. It just takes longer for a reptile's body to know it's dead than most mammals.
I felt light and empty as air. Everything had a faintly unreal quality. It wasn't the snake. It was whatever Jean-Claude had done to me. I shook my head, trying to clear it, to think. The cops were here. I had things I needed to do.
I fished the little plastic ID card out of my sport bag and clipped it to the collar of my jacket. It identified me as a member of the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team. It was almost as good as a badge.
"Let's go talk to the cops before they start shooting."
"The snake's dead," he said.
The wolfman was tearing at the dead thing with a long pointed muzzle, ripping off chunks of meat. I swallowed hard and looked away. "They may not think the snake is the only monster in the ring."
"Oh." He said it very softly, as if the thought had never occurred to him before. What the hell was he doing with the monsters?
I walked towards the police, smiling. Jean-Claude stood there in the middle of the ring, his white shirt so bloody it clung to him like water, outlining the point of one nipple hard against the cloth. Blood was smeared down one side of his face. His arms were crimson to the elbows. The youngest vampire, a woman, had buried her face in the snake's blood. She was scooping the bloody meat into her mouth and sucking on it. The sounds were wet and seemed louder than they should have been.
"My name's Anita Blake. I work with the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team. I've got ID."
"Who's that with you?" The uniform nodded his head in the man's direction. His gun was still pointed vaguely towards the ring.
I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, "What is your name?"
"Richard Zeeman," he said softly.
Out loud I said, "Richard Zeeman, just an innocent bystander." That last was probably a lie. How innocent could a man be who woke up in a bed surrounded by vampires and shapeshifters?
But the uniform nodded. "What about the rest of them?"
I glanced where he was staring. It didn't look any better. "The manager and some of his people. They waded into the thing to keep it out of the crowd."
"But they ain't human, right?" he said.
"No," I said, "they aren't human."
"Jesus H. Christ, the guys back at the station aren't going to believe this one," his partner said.
He was probably right. I had been here, and I almost didn't believe it. A giant man-eating cobra. Jesus H. Christ indeed.

I was sitting in a small hallway that served as the performers' entrance to the big tent. The lighting was permanently dim, as if some of the things rolling through wouldn't like a lot of light. Big surprise there. There were no chairs, and I was getting a little tired of sitting on the floor. I'd given a statement first to a uniform, then to a detective. Then RPIT had arrived and the questioning started all over again. Dolph nodded to me, and Zerbrowski shot at me with his thumb and forefinger. That had been an hour and fifteen minutes ago. I was getting a wee bit tired of being ignored.
Richard Zeeman and Stephen the Werewolf were sitting across from me. Richard's hands were clasped loosely around one knee. He was wearing white Nikes with a blue swoosh, and no socks. Even his ankles were tan. His thick hair brushed the tops of his naked shoulders. His eyes were closed. I could gaze at his muscular upper body as long as I wanted to. His stomach was flat with a triangle of dark hair peeking above the sweat pants. His upper chest was smooth, perfect, no hair at all. I approved.
Stephen was cuddled on the floor, asleep. Bruises blossomed up the left side of his face, black-purple and that raw red color a really bad bruise gets. His left arm was in a sling, but he'd refused to go to the hospital. He was wrapped in a grey blanket that the paramedics had given him. As far as I could tell, it was all he was wearing. I guess he'd lost his clothes when he shapeshifted. The wolfman had been bigger than he was, and the legs had been a very different shape. So the skin-tight jeans and the beautiful cowboy boots were history. Maybe that was why the black shapeshifter had been naked. Had that been why Richard Zeeman was naked, as well? Was he a shapeshifter?
I didn't think so. If he was, he hid it better than anybody I'd ever been around. Besides, if he had been a shapeshifter, why didn't he join the fight against the cobra? He'd done a sensible thing for an unarmed human being; he'd stayed out of the way.
Stephen, who had started out the night looking scrumptious, looked like shit. The long, blond curls clung to his face, wet with sweat. There were dark smudges under his closed eyes. His breathing was rapid and shallow. His eyes were struggling underneath his closed lids. Dream? Nightmare? Do werewolves dream of shapeshifted sheep?
Richard still looked scrumptious, but then a giant cobra hadn't been slamming him into a concrete floor. He opened his eyes, as if he had felt me staring at him. He stared back, brown eyes neutral. We stared at each other without saying anything.
His face was all angles, high-sculpted cheekbones, and firm jaw. A dimple softened the lines of his face and made him a little too perfect for my taste. I've never been comfortable around men that are beautiful. Low self-esteem, maybe. Or maybe Jean-Claude's lovely face had made me appreciate the very human quality of imperfection.
"Is he all right?" I asked.
He glanced down at the sleeping man. Stephen made a small noise in his sleep, helpless, frightened. Definitely a nightmare.
"Should you wake him?"
"You mean from the dream?" he asked.
I nodded.
He smiled. "Nice thought, but he won't wake up for hours. We could burn the place down around him and he wouldn't move."
"Why not?"
"You really want to know?"
"Sure, I've got nothing better to do right now."
He glanced up the silent hallway. "Good point." He settled back against the wall, bare back searching for a more comfortable piece of wall. He frowned; so much for a comfortable wall.
"Stephen changed back from wolfman to human in less than a two-hour time span." He said it like it explained everything. It didn't.
"So?" I asked.
"Usually a shapeshifter stays in animal form for eight to ten hours, then collapses and changes back to human form. It takes a lot of energy to shapeshift early."
I glanced down at the dreaming shapeshifter. "So this collapse is normal?"
Richard nodded. "He'll be out for the rest of the night."
"Not a great survival method," I said.
"A lot of werewolves bite the dust after collapsing. The human hunters come upon them after they've passed out."
"How do you know so much about lycanthropes?"
"It's my job," he said, "I teach science at a local junior high."
I just stared at him. "You're a junior high science teacher?"
"Yes." He was smiling. "You looked shocked."
I shook my head. "What's a school teacher doing messed up with vampires and werewolves?"
"Just lucky, I guess."
I had to smile. "That doesn't explain how you know about lycanthropes."
"I had a class in college."
I shook my head. "So did I, but I didn't know about shapeshifters collapsing."
"You've got a degree in preternatural biology?" he asked.
"Me, too."
"So how do you know more about lycanthropes than I do?" I said.
Stephen moved in his sleep, flinging his good arm outward. The blanket slid off his shoulder, exposing his stomach and part of a thigh.
Richard drew the blanket back over the sleeping man, covering him, like tucking in a child. "Stephen and I have been friends a long time. I bet you know things about zombies that I never learned in college."
"Probably," I said.
"Stephen's not a teacher, is he?"
"No." He smiled, but it wasn't pleasant. "School boards frown on lycanthropes being teachers."
"Legally, they can't stop you."
"Yeah, right," he said. "They fire-bombed the last teacher who dared to teach their precious children. Lycanthropy isn't contagious while in human form."
"I know that," I said.
He shook his head. "Sorry, it's just a sore topic with me."
My pet project was rights for zombies; why shouldn't Richard have a pet project? Fair hiring practices for the furry. It worked for me.
"You are being tactful, ma petite. I would not have thought it of you." Jean-Claude was in the hallway. I hadn't heard him walk up. But I'd been distracted, talking with Richard. Yeah, that was it.
"Could you stamp your feet next time? I'm getting sick of you sneaking up on me."
"I wasn't sneaking, ma petite. You were distracted talking to our handsome Mr. Zeeman." His voice was pleasant, mild as honey, and yet there was a threat to it. You could feel it like a cold wind down your spine.
"What's wrong, Jean-Claude?" I asked.
"Wrong? What could possibly be wrong?" Anger and some bitter amusement flowed through his voice.
"Cut it out, Jean-Claude."
"Whatever could be the matter, ma petite?"
"You're angry; why?"
"My human servant does not know my every mood. Shameful." He knelt beside me. The blood on his white shirt had dried to a brownish stain that took up most of the shirt front. The lace at his sleeves looked like crumpled brown flowers. "Do you lust after Richard because he's handsome, or because he's human?" His voice was almost a whisper, intimate as if he'd said something entirely different. Jean-Claude whispered better than anyone else I knew.
"I don't lust after him."
"Come, come, ma petite. No lies." He leaned towards me, long-fingered hand reaching for my cheek. There was dried blood on his hand.
"You've got blood under your fingernails," I said.
He flinched, his hand squeezing into a fist. Point for my side. "You reject me at every turn. Why do I put up with it?"
"I don't know," I said, truthfully. "I keep hoping you'll get tired of me."
"I am hoping to have you with me forever, ma petite. I would not make the offer if I thought I would grow bored."
"I think I would get tired of you," I said.
His eyes widened a bit. I think it was real surprise. "You are trying to taunt me."
I shrugged. "Yes, but it's still the truth. I'm attracted to you, but I don't love you. We don't have stimulating conversations. I don't go through my day saying 'I must remember to share that joke with Jean-Claude, or tell him about what happened at work tonight.' I ignore you when you let me. The only things we have in common are violence and the dead. I don't think that's much to base a relationship on."
"My, aren't we the philosopher tonight." His midnight blue eyes were only inches from mine. The eyelashes looked like black lace.
"Just being honest."
"We wouldn't want you to be less than honest," he said. "I know how you despise lies." He glanced at Richard. "How you despise monsters."
"Why are you angry with Richard?"
"Am I?" he said.
"You know damn well you are."
"Perhaps, Anita, I am realizing that the one thing you want is the one thing I cannot give you."
"And what do I want?"
"Me to be human," he said softly.
I shook my head. "If you think your only shortcoming is being a vampire, you're wrong."
"Yeah. You're an egotistical, overbearing bully."
"A bully?" He sounded genuinely surprised.
"You want me, so you can't believe that I don't want you. Your needs, your desires are more important than anyone else's."
"You are my human servant, ma petite. It makes our lives complicated."
"I am not your human servant."
"I have marked you, Anita Blake. You are my human servant."
"No," I said. It was a very firm no, but my stomach was tight with the thought that he was right, and I would never be free of him.
He stared at me. His eyes were as normal as they ever got, dark, blue, lovely. "If you had not been my human servant, I could not have defeated the snake god so easily."
"You mind-raped me, Jean-Claude. I don't care why you did it."
A look of distaste spread across his face. "If you choose the word rape, then you know that I am not guilty of that particular crime. Nikolaos forced herself on you. She tore at your mind, ma petite. If you had not carried two of my marks, she would have destroyed you."
Anger was bubbling up from my gut, spreading up my back and into my arms. I had this horrible urge to hit him. "And because of the marks you can enter my mind, take me over. You told me it made mind games harder on me, not easier. Did you lie about that, too?"
"My need was great tonight, Anita. Many people would have died if the creature had not been stopped. I drew power where I could find it."
"From me."
"Yes, you are my human servant. Just by being near me you increase my power. You know that."
I had known that, but I hadn't known he could channel power through me like an amplifier. "I know I'm some sort of witch's familiar for you."
"If you would allow the last two marks, it would be more than that. It would be a marriage of flesh, blood, and spirit."
"I notice you didn't say soul," I said.
He made an exasperated sound low in his throat. "You are insufferable." He sounded genuinely angry. Goody.
"Don't you ever force your way into my mind again."
"Or what?" The words were a challenge, angry, confused.
I was on my knees beside him nearly spitting into his face. I had to stop and take a few deep breaths to keep from screaming at him. I spoke very calmly, low and angry. "If you ever touch me like that again, I will kill you."
"You will try." His face was nearly pressed against mine. As if when he inhaled, he would bring me to him. Our lips would touch. I remembered how soft his lips were. How it felt to be pressed against his chest. The roughness of his cross-shaped burn under my fingers. I jerked back, and felt almost dizzy.
It had only been one kiss, but the memory of it burned along my body like every bad romance novel you'd ever read. "Leave me alone!" I hissed it in his face, hands balled into fists. "Damn you! Damn you!"
The office door opened, and a uniformed officer stuck his head out. "There a problem out here?"
We turned and stared at him. I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what was wrong, but Jean-Claude spoke first. "No problem, officer."
It was a lie, but what was the truth? That I had two vampire marks on me and was losing my soul a piece at a time. Not something I really wanted to be common knowledge. The police sort of frown on people who have close ties with the monsters.
The officer was looking at us, waiting. I shook my head. "Nothing's wrong, officer. It's just late. Could you ask Sergeant Storr if I can go home now?"
"What's the name?"
"Anita Blake."
"Storr's pet animator?"
I sighed. "Yeah, that Anita Blake."
"I'll ask." The uniform stared at the three of us for a minute. "You got anything to add to this?" He was speaking to Richard.
The uniform nodded. "Okay, but keep whatever isn't happening to a dull roar."
"Of course. Always glad to cooperate with the police," Jean-Claude said.
He nodded his thanks and went back into the office. We were left kneeling in the hallway. The shapeshifter was still asleep on the floor. His breathing made a quiet noise that didn't so much fill the silence as emphasize it. Richard was motionless, dark eyes staring at Jean-Claude. I was suddenly very aware that Jean-Claude and I were only inches apart. I could feel the line of his body like warmth against my skin. His eyes flicked from my face down my body. I was still wearing only a bra underneath the unzipped jacket.
Goosebumps rolled up my arms and down my chest. My nipples hardened as if he had touched them. My stomach clenched with a need that had nothing to do with blood.
"Stop it!"
"I am doing nothing, ma petite. It is your own desire that rolls over your skin, not mine."
I swallowed and had to look away from him. Okay, I lusted after him. Great, fine, it didn't mean a thing. Ri-ight. I scooted away from him, putting my back to the wall, not looking at him as I spoke. "I came here tonight for information, not to play footsie with the Master of the City."
Richard was just sitting there, meeting my eyes. There was no embarrassment, just interest, as if he didn't know quite what I was. It wasn't an unfriendly look.
"Footsie," Jean-Claude said. I didn't need to see his face to hear the smile in his voice.
"You know what I mean."
"I've never heard it called 'footsie' before."
"Stop doing that."
I glared at him, but his eyes were sparkling with laughter. A slow smile touched his lips. He looked very human just then.
"What did you want to discuss, ma petite? It must be something very important to make you come near me voluntarily."
I searched his face for mockery, or anger, or anything, but his face was as smooth and pleasant as carved marble. The smile, the sparkling humor in his eyes, was like a mask. I had no way of telling what lay underneath. I wasn't even sure I wanted to know.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly through my mouth. "Alright. Where were you last night?" I looked at his face, trying to catch any change of expression.
"Here," he said.
"All night?"
He smiled. "Yes."
"Can you prove it?"
The smile widened. "Do I need to?"
"Maybe," I said.
He shook his head. "Coyness, from you, ma petite. It does not become you."
So much for being slick and trying to pull information from the Master. "Are you sure you want this discussed in public?"
"You mean Richard?"
"Richard and I have no secrets from one another, ma petite. He is my human hands and eyes, since you refuse to be."
"What's that mean? I thought you could only have one human servant at a time."
"So you admit it." His voice held a slow curl of triumph.
"This isn't a game, Jean-Claude. People died tonight."
"Believe me, ma petite, whether you take the last marks and become my servant in more than name is no game to me."
"There was a murder last night," I said. Maybe if I concentrated just on the crime, on my job, I could avoid the verbal pitfalls.
"And?" he prompted.
"It was a vampire victim."
"Ah," he said, "my part in this becomes clear."
"I'm glad you find it funny," I said.
"Dying from vampire bites is only temporarily fatal, ma petite. Wait until the third night when the victim rises, then question him." The humor died from his eyes. "What is it that you are not telling me?"
"I found at least five different bite radiuses on the victim."
Something flickered behind his eyes. I wasn't sure what, but it was real emotion. Surprise, fear, guilt? Something.
"So you are looking for a rogue master vampire."
"Yep. Know any?"
He laughed. His whole face lit up from the inside, as if someone had lit a candle behind his skin. In one wild moment he was so beautiful, it made my chest ache. But it wasn't a beauty that made me want to touch it. I remembered a Bengal tiger that I'd seen once in a zoo. It was big enough to ride on like a pony. Its fur was orange, black, cream, oyster-shell white. Its eyes were gold. The heavy paws wider than my outspread hand paced, paced, back and forth, back and forth, until it had worn a path in the dirt. Some genius had put one barred wall so close to the fence that held back the crowd, I could have reached through and touched the tiger easily. I had to ball my hands into fists and shove them in my pockets to keep from reaching through those bars and petting that tiger. It was so close, so beautiful, so wild, so . . . tempting.
I hugged my knees to my chest, hands clasped tight together. The tiger would have taken my hand off, and yet there was that small part of me that regretted not reaching through the bars. I watched Jean-Claude's face, felt his laughter like velvet running down my spine. Would part of me always wonder what it would have been like if I had just said yes? Probably. But I could live with it.
He was staring at me, the laughter dying from his eyes like the last bit of light seeping from the sky. "What are you thinking, ma petite?"
"Can't you read my mind?" I asked.
"You know I cannot."
"I don't know anything about you, Jean-Claude, not a bloody thing."
"You know more about me than anyone else in the city."
"Yasmeen included?"
He lowered his eyes, almost embarrassed. "We are very old friends."
"How old?"
He met my eyes, but his face was empty, blank. "Old enough."
"That's not an answer," I said.
"No," he said, "it is an evasion."
So he wasn't going to answer my question; what else was new? "Are there any other master vampires in town besides you, Malcolm, and Yasmeen?"
He shook his head. "Not to my knowledge."
I frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what I said."
"You're the Master of the City. Aren't you supposed to know?"
"Things are a little unsettled, ma petite."
"Explain that."
He shrugged, and even in the bloodstained shirt it looked graceful. "Normally, as Master of the City, all other lesser master vampires would need my permission to stay in the city, but"—he shrugged again—"there are those who think I am not strong enough to hold the city."
"You've been challenged?"
"Let us just say I am expecting to be challenged."
"Why?" I asked.
"The other masters were afraid of Nikolaos," he said.
"And they're not afraid of you." It wasn't a question.
"Unfortunately, no."
"Why not?"
"They are not as easily impressed as you are, ma petite."
I started to say I wasn't impressed, but it wasn't true. Jean-Claude could smell it when I lied, so why bother?
"So there could be another master in the city without your knowledge."
"Wouldn't you sort of sense each other?"
"Perhaps, perhaps not."
"Thanks for clearing that up."
He rubbed fingertips across his forehead as if he had a headache. Did vampires get headaches? "I cannot tell you what I do not know."
"Would the . . ." I groped for a word, and couldn't find one—"more mundane vampires be able to kill someone without your permission?"
"Just answer the damn question."
"Yes, they could."
"Would five vampires hunt in a pack without a master vampire to referee?"
He nodded. "Very nice choice of word, ma petite, and the answer is no. We are solitary hunters, given a choice."
I nodded. "So either you, Malcolm, Yasmeen, or some mysterious master is behind it."
"Not Yasmeen. She is not strong enough."
"Okay, then you, Malcolm, or a mysterious master."
"Do you really think I have gone rogue?" He was smiling at me, but his eyes held something more serious. Did it matter to him what I thought of him? I hoped not.
"I don't know."
"You would confront me, thinking I might be insane? How indiscreet of you."
"If you don't like the answer, you shouldn't have asked the question," I said.
"Very true."
The office door opened. Dolph came out, notebook in hand. "You can go home, Anita. I'll check the statements with you tomorrow."
I nodded. "Thanks."
"Heh, I know where you live." He smiled.
I smiled back. "Thanks, Dolph." I stood up.
Jean-Claude stood in one smooth motion like he was a puppet pulled up by invisible strings. Richard stood slower, using the wall to stand, as if he were stiff. Standing, Richard was taller than Jean-Claude by at least three inches. Which made Richard six-one. Almost too tall for my taste, but no one was asking me.
"And could we talk to you some more, Jean-Claude?" Dolph said.
Jean-Claude said, "Of course, detective." He walked down the hall. There was a stiffness in the way he moved. Did vampires bruise? Had he been hurt in the fight? Did it matter? No, no, it didn't. In a way Jean-Claude was right; if he had been human, even an egotistical son of a bitch, there might have been possibilities. I'm not prejudiced, but God help me, the man has to at least be alive. Walking corpses, no matter how pretty, are just not my cup of tea. Dolph held the door for Jean-Claude.
Dolph looked back at us. "You're free to go, too, Mr. Zeeman."
"What about my friend Stephen?"
Dolph glanced at the sleeping shapeshifter. "Take him home. Let him sleep it off. I'll talk to him tomorrow." He glanced at his wristwatch. "Make that later today."
"I'll tell Stephen when he wakes up."
Dolph nodded and closed the door. We were alone in the buzzing silence of the hallway. Of course, maybe it was just my own ears buzzing.
"Now what?" Richard said.
"We go home," I said.
"Rashida drove."
I frowned. "Who?"
"The other shapeshifter, the woman whose arm was torn up."
I nodded. "Take Stephen's car."
"Rashida drove us both."
I shook my head. "So you're stranded."
"Looks that way."
"You could call a cab," I said.
"No money." He almost smiled.
"Fine; I'll drive you home."
"And Stephen?"
"And Stephen," I said. I was smiling and I didn't know why, but it was better than crying.
"You don't even know where I live. It could be Kansas City."
"If it's a ten-hour drive, you're on your own," I said. "But if it's reasonable, I'll drive you."
"Is Meramec Heights reasonable?"
"Let me get the rest of my clothes," he asked.
"You look fully dressed to me," I said.
"I've got a coat around here somewhere."
"I'll wait here," I said.
"You'll watch Stephen?" Something like fear crossed his face, filled his eyes.
"What are you afraid of?" I asked.
"Airplanes, guns, large predators, and master vampires."
"I agree with two out of four," I said.
"I'll go get my coat."
I slid down to sit beside the sleeping werewolf. "We'll be waiting."
"Then I'll hurry." He smiled when he said it. He had a very nice smile.
Richard came back wearing a long black coat. It looked like real leather. It flapped like a cape around his bare chest. I liked the way the leather framed his chest. He buttoned the coat and tied the leather belt tight. The black leather went with the long hair and handsome face; the grey sweats and Nikes did not. He knelt and picked Stephen up in his arms, then stood. The leather creaked as his upper arms strained. Stephen was my height and probably didn't weigh twenty pounds more than I did. Petite. Richard carried him like he wasn't heavy.
"My, my, grandmother, what strong arms you have."
"Is my line, 'The better to hold you with'?" He was looking at me very steadily.
I felt heat creeping up my face. I hadn't meant to flirt, not on purpose. "You want a ride, or not?" My voice was rough, angry with embarrassment.
"I want a ride," he said quietly.
"Then can the sarcasm."
"I wasn't being sarcastic."
I stared up at him. His eyes were perfectly brown like chocolate. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. A tactic I should probably use more often.
I turned and walked away, fishing my car keys out as I moved. Richard followed behind. Stephen snuffled against his chest, pulling the blanket close in his sleep.
"Is your car very far?"
"A few blocks; why?"
"Stephen isn't dressed for the cold."
I frowned at him. "What, you want me to drive the car around and pick you up?"
"That would be very nice," he said.
I opened my mouth to say no, then closed it. The thin blanket wasn't much protection, and some of Stephen's injuries were from saving my life. I could drive the car around.
I satisfied myself with grumbling under my breath, "I can't believe I'm a door-to-door taxi for a werewolf."
Richard either didn't hear me, or chose to ignore it. Smart, handsome, junior high science teacher, degree in preternatural biology, what more could I ask for? Give me a minute and I'd think of something.

The car rode in its own tunnel of darkness. The headlights were a moving circle of light. The October night closed behind the car like a door.
Stephen was asleep in the back seat of my Nova. Richard sat in the passenger seat, half-turned in his seat belt to look at me. It was just polite to look at someone when you talk to them. But I felt at a disadvantage because I had to watch the road. All he had to do was stare at me.
"What do you do in your spare time?" Richard asked.
I shook my head. "I don't have spare time."
"I don't think I have any of those, either."
"You must do something besides shoot large snakes in the head," he said.
I smiled and glanced at him. He leaned towards me as much as the seat belt would allow. He was smiling, too, but there was something in his eyes, or his posture, that said he was serious. Interested in what I would say.
"I'm an animator," I said.
He clasped his hands together, left elbow propped on the back of the seat. "Okay, when you're not raising the dead, what do you do?"
"Work on preternatural crimes with the police, mostly murders."
"And?" he said.
"And I execute rogue vampires."
"And nothing," I said. I glanced at him again. In the dark I couldn't see his eyes, their color was too dark for that, but I could feel his gaze. Probably imagination. Yeah. I'd been hanging around Jean-Claude too long. The smell of Richard's leather coat mingled with a faint whiff of his cologne. Something expensive and sweet. It went very nicely with the smell of leather.
"I work. I exercise. I go out with friends." I shrugged. "What do you do when you're not teaching?"
"Scuba diving, caving, bird watching, gardening, astronomy." His smile was a dim whiteness in the near dark.
"You must have a lot more free time than I do."
"Actually, the teacher always has more homework than the students," he said.
"Sorry to hear that."
He shrugged, the leather creaked and slithered over his skin. Good leather always moved like it was still alive.
"Do you watch TV?" he asked.
"My television broke two years ago, and I never replaced it."
"You must do something for fun."
I thought about it. "I collect toy penguins." The minute I said it, I wished I hadn't.
He grinned at me. "Now we're getting somewhere. The Executioner collects stuffed toys. I like it."
"Glad to hear it." My voice sounded grumpy even to me.
"What's wrong?" he said.
"I'm not very good at small talk," I said.
"You were doing fine."
No, I wasn't, but I wasn't sure how to explain it to him. I didn't like talking about myself to strangers. Especially strangers with ties to Jean-Claude.
"What do you want from me?" I said.
"I'm just passing the time."
"No, you weren't." His shoulder-length hair had fallen around his face. He was taller, thicker, but the outline was familiar. He looked like Phillip in the shadowed dark. Phillip was the only other human being I'd ever seen with the monsters.
Phillip sagged in the chains. Blood poured in a bright red flood down his chest. It splattered onto the floor, like rain. Torchlight glittered on the wet bone of his spine. Someone had ripped his throat out.
I staggered against the wall as if someone had hit me. I couldn't get enough air. Someone kept whispering, "Oh, God, oh, God," over and over, and it was me. I walked down the steps with my back pressed against the wall. I couldn't take my eyes from him. Couldn't look away. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't cry.
The torchlight reflected in his eyes, giving the illusion of movement. A scream built in my gut and spilled out my throat. "Phillip!"
Something cold slithered up my spine. I was sitting in my car with the ghost of guilty conscience. It hadn't been my fault that Phillip died. I certainly didn't kill him, but . . . but I still felt guilty. Someone should have saved him, and since I was the last one with a chance to do it, it should have been me. Guilt is a many splendored thing.
"What do you want from me, Richard?" I asked.
"I don't want anything," he said.
"Lies are ugly things, Richard."
"What makes you think I'm lying?"
"Finely honed instinct," I said.
"Has it really been that long since a man tried to make polite small talk with you?"
I started to look at him, and decided not to. It had been that long. "The last person who flirted with me was murdered. It makes a girl a little cautious."
He was quiet for a minute. "Fair enough, but I still want to know more about you."
"Why not?"
He had me there. "How do I know Jean-Claude didn't tell you to make friends?"
"Why would he do that?"
I shrugged.
"Okay, let's start over. Pretend we met at the health club."
"Health club?" I said.
He smiled. "Health club. I thought you looked great in your swimsuit."
"Sweats," I said.
He nodded. "You looked cute in your sweats."
"I liked looking great better."
"If I get to imagine you in a swimsuit, you can look great; sweats only get cute."
"Fair enough."
"We made pleasant small talk and I asked you out."
I had to look at him. "Are you asking me out?"
"Yes, I am."
I shook my head and turned back to the road. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Why not?" he asked.
"I told you."
"Just because one person got killed on you doesn't mean everyone will."
I gripped the steering wheel tight enough to make my hands hurt. "I was eight when my mother died. My father remarried when I was ten." I shook my head. "People go away and they don't come back."
"Sounds scary." His voice was soft and low.
I didn't know what had made me say that. I didn't usually talk about my mother to strangers, or anybody else for that matter. "Scary," I said softly. "You could say that."
"If you never let anyone get close to you, you don't get hurt, is that it?"
"There are also a lot of very jerky men in the twenty-one-to-thirty age group," I said.
He grinned. "I'll give you that. Nice-looking, intelligent, independent women are not exactly plentiful either."
"Stop with the compliments, or you'll have me blushing."
"You don't strike me as someone who blushes easily."
A picture flashed in my mind. Richard Zeeman naked beside the bed, struggling into his sweat pants. It hadn't embarrassed me at the time. It was only now, with him so warm and close in the car, that I thought about it. A warm flush crept up my face. I blushed in the dark, glad he couldn't see. I didn't want him to know I was thinking about what he looked like without his clothes on. I don't usually do that. Of course, I don't usually see a man buck naked before I've even gone out on a date. Come to think of it, I didn't see men naked on dates either.
"We're in the health club, sipping fruit juice, and I ask you out."
I stared very hard at the road. I kept flashing on the smooth line of his thigh and lower things. It was embarrassing, but the harder I tried not to think about it, the clearer the picture seemed to get.
"Movies and dinner?" I said.
"No," he said. "Something unique. Caving."
"You mean crawling around in a cave on a first date?"
"Have you ever been caving?"
"Did you enjoy it?"
"We were sneaking up on bad guys at the time. I didn't think much about enjoying it."
"Then you have to give it another chance. I go caving at least twice a month. You get to wear your oldest clothes and get really dirty, and no one tells you not to play in the mud."
"Mud?" I said.
"Too messy for you?"
"I was a bio-lab assistant in college; nothing's too messy for me."
"At least you can say you get to use your degree in your work."
I laughed. "True."
"I use my degree, too, but I went in for educating the munchkins."
"Do you like teaching?"
"Very much." Those two words held a warmth and excitement that you didn't hear much when people talked about their work.
"I like my job, too."
"Even when it forces you to play with vampires and zombies?"
I nodded. "Yeah."
"We're sitting in the juice bar, and I've just asked you out. What do you say?"
"I should say no."
"I don't know."
"You sound suspicious."
"Always," I said.
"Never taking a chance is the worst failure of all, Anita."
"Not dating is a choice, not a failure." I was feeling a wee bit defensive.
"Say you'll go caving this weekend." The leather coat crinkled and moved as he tried to move closer to me than the seat belt would allow. He could have reached out and touched me. Part of me wanted him to, which was sort of embarrassing all on its own.
I started to say no, then realized I wanted to say yes. Which was silly. But I was enjoying sitting in the dark with the smell of leather and cologne. Call it chemistry, instant lust, whatever. I liked Richard. He flipped my switch. It had been a long time since I had liked anybody.
Jean-Claude didn't count. I wasn't sure why, but he didn't. Being dead might have something to do with that.
"Alright, I'll go caving. When and where?"
"Great. Meet in front of my house at, say, ten o'clock on Saturday."
"Ten in the morning?" I said.
"Not a morning person?" he asked.
"Not particularly."
"We have to start early, or we won't get to the end of the cave in one day. "
"What do I wear?"
"Your oldest clothes. I'll be dressed in coveralls over jeans."
"I've got coveralls." I didn't mention that I used my coveralls to keep blood off my clothes. Mud sounded a lot more friendly.
"Great. I'll bring the rest of the equipment you need."
"How much more equipment do I need?"
"A hard hat, a light, maybe knee pads."
"Sounds like a boffo first date," I said.
"It will be," he said. His voice was soft, low, and somehow more private than just sitting in my car. It wasn't Jean-Claude's magical voice, but then what was?
"Turn right here," he said, pointing to a side street. "Third house on the right."
I pulled into a short, blacktopped driveway. The house was half brick and some pale color. It was hard to tell in the dark. There were no streetlights to help you see. You forget how dark the night can be without electricity.
Richard unbuckled his seat belt and opened the door. "Thanks for the ride."
"Do you need help getting him inside?" My hand was on the key as I asked.
"No, I got it. Thanks, though."
"Don't mention it."
He stared at me. "Did I do something wrong?"
"Not yet," I said.
He smiled, a quick flash in the darkness. "Good." He unlocked the back door behind him, and got out of the car. He leaned in and scooped Stephen up, holding the blanket close so it didn't slide off. He lifted with his legs more than his back; weightlifting will teach you that. A human body is a lot harder to lift than even free weights. A body just isn't balanced as well as a barbell.
Richard shut the car door with his back. The back door clicked shut, and I unbuckled my seat belt so I could lock the doors. Through the still-open passenger side door Richard was watching me . Over the idling of the car's engine his voice carried, "Locking out the boogeymen?"
"You never know," I said.
He nodded. "Yeah." There was something in that one word that was sad, wistful, innocence lost. It was nice to talk with another person who understood. Dolph and Zerbrowski understood the violence and the nearness of death, but they didn't understand the monsters.
I closed the door and scooted back behind the steering wheel. I buckled my seat belt and put the car in gear. The headlights sparkled over Richard, Stephen's hair like a yellow splash in his arms. Richard was still staring at me. I left him in the dark in front of his house with the singing of autumn crickets the only sound.

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