I slid into a no-parking zone in front of Guilty Pleasures. Phillip was leaning against the building, arms loose at his sides. He wore black leather pants. The thought of leather in this heat made my knees break out in heat rash. His shirt was black fishnet, which showed off both scars and tan. I don't know if it was the leather or the fishnet, but the word "sleazy" came to mind. He had passed over some invisible line, from flirt to hustler.
I tried to picture him at twelve. It didn't work. Whatever had been done to him, he was what he was, and that was what I had to deal with. I wasn't a psychiatrist who could afford to feel sorry for the poor unfortunate. Pity is an emotion that can get you killed. The only thing more dangerous is blind hate, and maybe love.
Phillip pushed away from the wall and walked towards the car. I unlocked his door, and he slid inside. He smelled of leather, expensive cologne, and faintly of sweat.
I pulled away from the curb. "Aggressive little outfit there, Phillip."
He turned to stare at me, face immobile, eyes hidden behind the same sunglasses he had worn earlier. He lounged in the seat, one leg bent and pressed against the door, the other spread wide, knee tucked up on the seat. "Take Seventy West." His voice was rough, almost hoarse.
There is that moment when you are alone with a man and you both realize it. Alone together, there are always possibilities in that. There is a nearly painful awareness of each other. It can lead to awkwardness, to sex, or to fear, depending on the man and the situation.
Well, we weren't having sex, you could make book on that. I glanced at Phillip, and he was still turned towards me, lips slightly parted. He'd taken off the sunglasses. His eyes were very brown and very close. What the hell was going on?
We were on the highway and up to speed. I concentrated on the cars around me, on driving, and tried to ignore him. But I could feel the weight of his gaze along my skin. It was almost a warmth.
He began to slide along the seat towards me. I was suddenly very aware of the sound of leather rubbing along the upholstery. A warm, animal sound. His arm slid across my shoulders, his chest leaning into me.
"What do you think you're doing, Phillip!"
"What's wrong?" He breathed along my neck. "Isn't this aggressive enough for you?"
I laughed; I couldn't help it. He stiffened beside me. "I didn't mean to insult you, Phillip. I just didn't picture fishnet and leather for tonight."
He stayed too close to me, pressing, warm, his voice still strange and rough. "What do you like then?"
I glanced at him, but he was too close. I was suddenly staring into his eyes from two inches away. His nearness ran through me like an electric shock. I turned back to the road. "Get on your side of the car, Phillip."
"What turns you," he whispered in my ear, "on?"
I'd had enough. "How old were you the first time Valentine attacked you?"
His whole body jerked, and he scooted away from me. "Damn you!" He sounded like he meant it.
"I'll make you a deal, Phillip. You don't have to answer my question, and I won't answer yours."
His voice came out choked and breathy. "When did you see Valentine? Is he going to be here tonight? They promised me he wouldn't be here tonight." His voice held a thick edge of panic. I had never heard such instant terror.
I didn't want to see Phillip afraid. I might start feeling sorry for him, and I couldn't afford that. Anita Blake, hard as nails, sure of herself, unaffected by crying men. Riiight. "I did not talk to Valentine about you, Phillip, I swear."
"Then how ... " He stopped, and I glanced at him. He'd slid the sunglasses back in place. His face looked very tight and still behind his dark glasses. Fragile. Sort of ruined the image.
I couldn't stand it. "How did I find out what he did to you?"
"I paid money to find out about your background. It came up. I needed to know if I could trust you."
"I don't know yet," I said.
He took several deep breaths. The first two trembled, but each breath was a little more solid, until finally he had it under control, for now. I thought of Rebecca Miles and her small, starved looking hands.
"You can trust me, Anita. I won't betray you. I won't." His voice sounded lost, a little boy with all his illusions stripped away.
I couldn't stomp all over that lost child voice. But I knew and he knew that he would do anything the vampires wanted, anything, including betraying me. A bridge was rising over the highway, a tall latticework of grey metal. Trees hugged the road on either side. The summer sky was pale watery blue, washed out by the heat and the bright summer sun. The car bumped up on the bridge, and the Missouri River stretched away on either side. The air seemed open and distant over the rolling water. A pigeon fluttered onto the bridge, settling beside maybe a dozen others, all strutting and burring over the bridge.
I had actually seen seagulls on the river before, but you never saw one near the bridge, just pigeons. Maybe seagulls didn't like cars.
"Where are we going, Phillip?"
I wanted to say, "Question too hard for you?" but I resisted. It would have been like picking on him. "We're across the river. What is our destination?"
"Take the Zumbehl exit and turn right."
I did what he said. Zumbehl veers to the right and spills you automatically to a turn lane. I sat at the light and turned on red when it was clear. There is a small gathering of stores to the left, then an apartment complex, then trees, almost a woods, houses tucked back in them. A nursing home is next and then a rather large cemetery. I always wondered what the people in the nursing home thought of living next door to a cemetery. Was it a ghoulish reminder, no pun intended? A convenience, just in case?
The cemetery had been there a lot longer than the nursing home. Some of the stones went back to the early 1800s. I always thought the developer must have been a closet sadist to put the windows staring out over the rolling tombstoned hills. Old age is enough of a reminder of what comes next. No visual aids are needed.
Zumbehl is lined with other things-video store, kids clothing boutique, a place that sold stained glass, gas stations, and a huge apartment complex proclaiming, "Sun Valley Lake." There actually was a lake large enough to sail on if you were very careful.
A few more blocks and we were in suburbia. Houses with tiny yards stuffed with huge trees lined the road. There was a hill that sloped downward. The speed limit was thirty. It was impossible to keep the car to thirty going down the hill without using brakes. Would there be a policeman at the bottom of the hill?
If he stopped us with Phillip in his little fishnet shirt, all nicely scarred, would he be suspicious? Where are you going miss? I'm sorry, officer, we have this illegal party to go to, and we're running late. I used my brakes going down the hill. Of course, there was no policeman. If I had been speeding, he'd have been there. Murphy's law is the only true dependable in my life most of the time.
"It's the big house on the left. Just pull into the driveway," Phillip said.
The house was dark red brick, two, maybe three stories, lots of windows, at least two porches. Victorian American does still exist. The yard was large with a private forest of tall, ancient trees. The grass was too high, giving the place a deserted look. The drive was gravel and wound through the trees to a modern garage that had been designed to match the house and almost succeeded.
There were only two other cars here. I couldn't see into the garage; maybe there were more inside.
"Don't leave the main room with anyone but me. If you do, I can't help you," he said.
"Help me how?" I asked.
"This is our cover story. You are the reason I have missed so many meetings. I left hints that not only are we lovers, but I've been ... " He spread his hands wide as if searching for a word. ' ... cultivating you, until I felt you were ready for a party."
"Cultivating me?" I turned off the car, and the silence settled between us. He was staring at me. Even behind the glasses I felt the weight of his gaze. The skin between my shoulders crawled.
"You are a reluctant survivor of a real attack, not a freak, or a junkie, but I've talked you into a party. That's the story."
"Have you ever done this for real?" I asked.
"You mean given them someone?"
"Yes," I said.
He gave a rough snort. "You don't think much of me, do you?"
What was I supposed to say, no? "If we're lovers, that means we have to play lovers all evening."
He smiled. This smile was different, anticipatory.
He shrugged and rotated his neck as if his shoulders were tight. "I'm not going to throw you down on the floor and ravish you, if that's what you're worried about."
"I knew you wouldn't be doing that tonight." I was glad he didn't know I had weapons. Maybe I could surprise him tonight.
He frowned at me. "Follow my lead. If anything I do makes you uncomfortable, we'll discuss it." He smiled, dazzling, teeth white and even against his tan.
"No discussion. You'll just stop."
He shrugged. "You might blow our cover and get us killed."
The car was filling with heat. A bead of sweat dripped down his face. I opened my door and got out. The heat was like a second skin. Cicadas droned, a high, buzzing song far up in the trees. Cicadas and heat, ah, summer.
Phillip walked around the car, his boots crunching on the gravel. "You might want to leave the cross in the car," he said.
I had expected it, but I didn't have to like it. I put the crucifix into the glove compartment, crawling over the seat to do so. When I closed the door, my hand went to my neck. I wore the chain so much it only felt odd when I wasn't wearing it.
Phillip held out his hand, and after a moment I took it. The palm of his hand was cupped heat, slightly moist in the center.
The back door was shaded by a white lattice arch. A clematis vine grew thick on one side. Flowers as big as my hand spread purple to the tree-filtered sun. A woman was standing in the shadow of the door, hidden from neighbors and passing cars. She wore sheer black stockings held up by garter belts. A bra and matching panties, both royal purple, left most of her body pale and naked. She was wearing five-inch spikes that forced her legs to look long and slender.
"I'm overdressed," I whispered to Phillip.
"Maybe not for long," he breathed into my hair.
"Don't bet your life on it." I stared up at him as I said it and watched his face crumble into confusion. It didn't last long. The smile came, a soft curl of lips. The serpent must have smiled at Eve like that. I have this nice, shiny apple for you. Want some candy, little girl?
Whatever Phillip thought he was selling, I wasn't buying. He hugged me around the waist, one hand playing along the scars on my arm, fingers digging into the scar tissue just a little. His breath went out in a quick sigh. Jesus, what had I gotten myself into?
The woman was smiling at me, but her large brown eyes were fixed on Phillip's hand where it played with my scar. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips. I saw her chest rise and fall.
"Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."
"What did you say?" Phillip asked.
I shook my head. He probably didn't know the poem anyway. I couldn't remember how it ended. I couldn't remember if the fly got away. My stomach was tight. When Phillip's hand brushed my naked back, I jumped.
The woman laughed, high and maybe a little drunk. I whispered the fly's words as I went up the steps, "Oh, no, no, to ask me is in vain for whoever goes up your winding stairs can ne'er come down again."
Ne'er come down again. It had a bad ring to it.
The woman pressed against the wall, so we could pass, and shut the door behind us. I kept waiting for her to lock it so we couldn't get away, but she didn't. I shoved Phillip's hand off my scars, and he wrapped himself around my waist and led me down a long narrow hall. The house was cool, air conditioning purring against the heat. A square archway opened into a room.
It was a living room with all that implies-a couch, love seat, two chairs, plants hanging in front of a bay window, afternoon shadows snaking across the carpeting. Homey. A man stood in the center of the room, a drink in his hand. He looked like he had just come from Leather 'R' Us. Leather bands crisscrossed his chest and arms, like Hollywood's idea of an oversexed gladiator.
I owed Phillip an apology. He'd dressed downright conservatively. The happy homemaker came up behind us in her royal purple lingerie and laid a hand on Phillip's arm. Her fingernails were painted dark purple, almost black. The nails scratched along his arm, leaving faint reddish tracks behind.
Phillip shivered beside me, his arm tightening around my waist. Was this his idea of fun? I hoped not.
A tall, black woman rose from the couch. Her rather plentiful breasts threatened to squeeze out of a black wire bra. A crimson skirt with more holes than cloth hung from the bra and moved as she walked, giving glimpses of dark flesh. I was betting she was naked under the skirt.
There were pinkish scars on one wrist and her neck. A baby junkie, new, almost fresh. She stalked around us, like we were for sale and she wanted to get a good look. Her hand brushed my back, and I stood away from Phillip, facing the woman.
"That scar on your back; what is it? It isn't vampire bites." Her voice was low for a woman, an alto tenor maybe.
"A sharp piece of wood was slammed into my back by a human servant." I didn't add that the sharp piece of wood had been one of the stakes I brought with me, or that I had killed the human servant later that same night.
"My name's Rochelle," she said.
The happy homemaker stepped up next to me, hand stroking over my arm. I stepped away from her, her fingers sliding over my skin. Her nails left little red lines on my arm. I resisted the urge to rub them. I was a tough-as-nails vampire slayer; scratches didn't bother me. The look in the woman's eyes did. She looked like she wondered what flavor I was and how long I'd last. I had never been looked at that way by another woman. I didn't like it much.
"I'm Madge. That's my husband Harvey," she said, pointing to Mr. Leather, who had moved to stand beside Rochelle. "Welcome to our home. Phillip has told us so much about you, Anita."
Harvey tried to come up behind me, but I stepped back towards the couch, so I could face him. They were trying to circle like sharks. Phillip was staring at me, hard. Right; I was supposed to be enjoying myself, not acting like they all had communicable diseases.
Which was the lesser evil? A sixty-four-thousand-dollar question if ever I heard one. Madge licked her lips, slowly, suggestively. Her eyes said she was thinking naughty things about me, and her. No way. Rochelle swished her skirt, exposing far too much thigh. I had been right. She was naked under the skirt. I'd die first.
That left Harvey. His small, blunt-fingered hands were playing with the leather-and-metal studding of the little kilt he wore. Fingers rubbing over and over the leather. Shit.
I flashed him my best professional smile, not seductive, but it was better than a frown. His eyes widened and he took a step towards me, hand reaching out towards my left arm. I took a deep breath and held it, smile freezing in place.
His fingers barely traced over the bend of my arm, tickling down the skin, until I shivered. Harvey took the shiver for an invitation and moved in closer, bodies almost touching. I put a hand on his chest to keep him from coming any closer. The hair on his chest was coarse and thick, black. I've never been a fan of hairy chests. Give me smooth any day. His arm began to encircle my back. I wasn't sure what to do. If I took a step back I was going to sit down on the couch, not a good idea. If I stepped forward I'd be stepping into him, pressed against all that leather and skin.
He smiled at me. "I've been dying to meet you."
He said "dying" like it was a dirty word, or an inside joke. The others laughed, all except Phillip. He took my arm and pulled me away from Harvey. I leaned into Phillip, even put my arms around his waist. I had never hugged anyone in a fishnet shirt before. It was an interesting sensation.
Phillip said, "Remember what I said."
"Sure, sure," Madge said. "She's yours, all yours, no sharing, no halfsies." She stalked over to him, swaying in her tight lace panties. With the heels on she could look him in the eye. "You can keep her safe from us for now, but when the big boys get here, you'll share. They'll make you share."
He stared at her until she looked away. "I brought her here, and I'll take her home," he said.
Madge raised an eyebrow. "You're going to fight them? Phillip, my boy, she must be a sweet piece of tail, but no bedwarmer is worth pissing off the big guys."
I stepped away from Phillip and put a hand flat against her stomach and pushed, just enough to make her back up. The heels made her balance bad, and she almost fell. "Let's get something straight," I said. "I am not a piece of anything, nor am I a bedwarmer."
Phillip said, "Anita ... "
"My, my, she's got a temper. Wherever did you find her, Phillip?" Madge asked.
If there is anything I hate, it is being found amusing when I'm angry. I stepped up close to her, and she smiled down at me. "Did you know," I said, "that when you smile, you get deep wrinkles on either side of your mouth? You are over forty, aren't you?"
She drew a deep, gasping breath and stepped back from me. "You little bitch."
"Don't ever call me a piece of tail again, Madge, darling."
Rochelle was laughing silently, her considerable bosom shaking like dark brown jello. Harvey stood straight-faced. If he had so much as smiled, I think Madge would have hurt him. His eyes were very shiny, but there was no hint of a smile.
A door opened and closed down the hall, farther into the house. A woman stepped into the room. She was around fifty, or maybe a hard forty. Very blonde hair framed a plump face. Even money the blonde came out of a bottle. Plump little hands glittered with rings, real stones. A long, black negligee swept the floor, complete with an open lace robe. The flat black of the negligee was kind to her figure, but not kind enough. She was overweight and there was no hiding it. She looked like a PTA member, a Girl Scout leader, a cookie baker, someone's mother. And there she stood in the doorway, staring at Phillip.
She let out a little squeal and came running towards him. I got out of the way before I was crushed in the stampede. Phillip had just enough time to brace himself before she flung her considerable weight into his arms. For a minute I thought he was going to fall backwards into the floor with her on top, but his back straightened, his legs tensed, and he righted them both.
Strong Phillip, able to lift overweight nymphomaniacs with both hands.
Harvey said, "This is Crystal."
Crystal was kissing Phillip's chest, chubby, homey little hands trying to pull his shirt out of his pants so she could touch his bare flesh. She was like a cheerful little puppy in heat.
Phillip was trying to discourage her without much success. He gave me a long glance. And I remembered what he had said, that he had stopped coming to these parties. Was this why? Crystal and her like? Madge of the sharp fingernails? I had forced him to bring me, but in doing so, I had forced him to bring himself.
If you thought of it that way, it was my fault Phillip was here. Damn, I owed him.
I patted the woman's cheek, softly. She blinked at me, and I wondered if she was nearsighted. "Crystal," I said. I smiled my best angelic smile. "Crystal, I don't mean to be rude, but you're pawing my date."
Her mouth fell open; her pale eyes bugged out. "Date," she squeaked. "No one has dates at a party."
"Well, I'm new to the parties. I don't know the rules yet. But where I come from, one woman does not grope another woman's date. At least wait until I turn my back, okay?"
Crystal's lower lip trembled. Her eyes began to fill with tears. I had been gentle, kind even, and she was still going to cry. What I was she doing here with these people?
Madge came and put her arm around Crystal and led the woman away. Madge was making soothing noises and patting her black silken arms.
Rochelle said, "Very cold." She walked away from me towards a liquor cabinet that was against one wall.
Harvey had also left, following Madge and Crystal without so much as a backwards glance.
You'd think I'd kicked a puppy. Phillip let out a long breath and set down on the couch. He clasped his hands in front of him, between his knees. I sat down next to him, tucking my skirt down over my legs.
"I don't think I can do this," he whispered.
I touched his arm. He was trembling, a constant shaking that I didn't like at all. I hadn't realized what it would cost him to come tonight, but I was beginning to find out.
"We can go," I said.
He turned very slowly and stared at me. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we can go."
"You'd leave now without finding out anything because I'm having problems?" he asked.
"Let's just say I like you better as the overconfident flirt. You keep acting like a real person, and you'll have me all confused. We can go if you can't handle it."
He took a deep breath and let it out, then shook himself like a dog coming out of water. "I can do it. If I have a choice, I can do it."
It was my turn to stare. "Why didn't you have a choice before?"
He looked away. "I just felt like I had to bring you if you wanted to come."
"No, dammit, that wasn't what you meant at all." I touched his face and forced him to look at me. "Someone gave you orders to come see me the other day, didn't they? It wasn't just to find out about Jean-Claude, was it?"
His eyes were wide, and I could feel his pulse under my fingers. "What are you afraid of, Phillip? Who's giving you orders?"
"Anita, please, I can't."
My hand dropped to my lap. "What are your orders, Phillip?"
He swallowed, and I watched his throat work. "I'm to keep you safe here, that's all." His pulse was jumping under the bruised bite in his neck. He licked his lips, not seductive, nervous. He was lying to me. The trick was, how much of a lie and what about?
I heard Madge's voice coming up the hall, all cheerful seduction. Such a good hostess. She escorted two people into the room. One was a woman with short auburn hair and too much eye makeup, like green chalk smeared above her eyes. The second was Edward, smiling, at his charming best, with his arm around Madge's bare waist. She gave a rich, throaty laugh as he whispered something to her.
I froze, for a second. It was so unexpected that I just froze. If he had pulled out a gun, he could have killed me while I sat with my mouth hanging open. What the hell was he doing here?
Madge led him and the woman towards the bar. He glanced back at me over her shoulder and gave me a delicate smile that left his blue eyes empty as a doll's.
I knew my twenty-four hours were not up. I knew that. Edward had decided to come looking for Nikolaos. Had he followed us? Had he listened to Phillip's message on my machine?
"What's wrong?" Phillip asked.
"What's wrong?" I said. "You are taking orders from somebody, probably a vampire ... " I finished the statement silently in my head: And Death has just waltzed in the door to play freak while he searches for Nikolaos. There was only one reason Edward searched for a particular vampire. He meant to kill her, if he could.
The assassin might finally have met his match. I had thought I wanted to be around when Edward finally lost. I wanted to see what prey was too large for Death to conquer. I had seen this prey, up close and personal. If Edward and Nikolaos met and she even suspected that I had a hand in it ... shit. Shit, shit, shit!
I should turn Edward in. He had threatened me, and he would carry it out. He would torture me to get information. What did I owe him? But I couldn't do it, wouldn't do it. A human being does not turn another human being over to the monsters. Not for any reason.
Monica had broken that rule, and I despised her for it. I think I was the closest thing Edward had to a real friend. A person who knows who and what you are and likes you anyway. I did like him, despite or because of what he was. Even though I knew he'd kill me if it worked out that way? Yes, even though. It didn't make much sense when you looked at it that way. But I couldn't worry about Edward's morality. The only person I had to face in the mirror was me. The only moral dilemma I could solve was my own.
I watched Edward play kissy-face with Madge. He was much better at role-playing than I was. He was also a much better liar.
I would not tell, and Edward had known I would not tell. In his own way, he knew me, too. He had bet his life on my integrity, and that pissed me off. I hate to be used. My virtue had become its own punishment.
But maybe, I didn't know how yet, I could use Edward the way he was using me. Perhaps I could use his lack of honor as he used my honor now.
It had possibilities.
The auburn-haired woman with Edward came over to the couch and slid into Phillip's lap. She giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck with a little kick of her feet. Her hands didn't wander lower, and she didn't try to undress him. The night was looking up. Edward followed behind the woman like a blond shadow. There was a drink in his hand and a suitably harmless smile on his face.
If I hadn't known him, I would never have looked at him and said, there, there is a dangerous man. Edward the Chameleon. He balanced on the couch arm at the woman's back, one hand rubbing her shoulder.
"Anita, this is Darlene," Phillip said.
I nodded. She giggled and kicked her little feet.
"This is Teddy. Isn't he scrumptious?"
Teddy? Scrumptious? I managed a smile, and Edward kissed the side of her neck. She snuggled against his chest, managing to wiggle in Phillip's lap at the same time. Coordination.
"Let me have a taste." Darlene sucked her lower lip under her teeth and drew it out slowly.
Phillip's breath trembled. He whispered, "Yes."
I didn't think I was going to like this.
Darlene cupped his arm in her hands and raised it to her mouth.
She bestowed a delicate kiss over one of his scars, then she slid her legs down between his until she was kneeling at his feet, still holding his arm. The full skirt of her dress was bunched up around her waist, caught on his legs. She was wearing red lace panties and matching garters. Color coordination.
Phillip's face had gone slack. He was staring at her as she brought his arm towards her mouth. A small pink tongue licked his arm, quick, out, wet, gone. She glanced up at Phillip, eyes dark and full. She must have liked what she saw because she began to lick his scars, one by one, delicate, a cat with cream. Her eyes never left his face.
Phillip shuddered; his spine spasmed. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the couch. Her hands went to his stomach. She gripped the fishnet and pulled. It slid out of his pants, and her hands stroked up bare chest.
He jerked, eyes wide, and caught her arms. He shook his head. "No, no." His voice sounded hoarse, too deep.
"You want me to stop?" Darlene asked. Her eyes were nearly closed, breath deep, lips full and waiting.
He was struggling to talk and make sense at the same time. "If we do this ... that leaves Anita alone. Fair game. Her first ply."
Darlene looked at me, maybe for the first time. "With scars like that?"
"Scars are from a real attack. I talked her into the party." He brought her hands out from under his shirt. "I can't desert her." His eyes seemed to be focusing again. "She doesn't know the rules."
Darlene leaned her head on his thigh. "Phillip, please, I've missed you."
"You know what they'd do to her."
"Teddy will keep her safe. He knows the rules."
I asked, "You've been to other parties?"
"Yes," Edward said. He held my gaze for several seconds while I tried to picture him at other parties. So this was where he got his information about the vampire world, through the freaks.
"No," Phillip said. He stood, bringing Darlene to her feet, still holding her forearms. "No," he said and his voice sounded certain, confident. He released her and held out his hand to me. I took it. What else could I do?
His hand was sweating and warm. He strode out of the room, and I was forced to half-run in my heels to catch up with my hand.
He led me down the hall to the bathroom and we went in. He locked the door and leaned against it, sweat beaded on his face, eyes closed. I took back my hand, and he didn't fight me.
I looked around at the available seating and finally chose to sit on the edge of the bathtub. It wasn't comfortable, but it seemed the lesser of two evils. Phillip drew in great gulps of air and finally turned to the sink. He ran water loud and splashing, dipped his hands in, and covered his face again and again until he stood, water dripping down his face. Droplets caught in his eyelashes and hair. He blinked at himself in the mirror over the basin. He looked startled, wide-eyed.
The water was dripping down his neck and chest. I stood and handed him a towel from the rack. He didn't respond. I mopped up his chest with the soft, clean-smelling folds of the towel.
He finally took the towel and finished drying off. His hair was dark and wet around his face. There was no way to dry it out. "I did it," he said.
"Yes," I said, "you did it."
"I almost let her."
"But you didn't, Phillip. That's what counts."
He nodded, rapidly, head bobbing. "I guess so." He still seemed out of breath.
"We better be getting back to the party."
He nodded. But he stayed where he was, breathing too deep, like he couldn't get enough oxygen.
"Phillip, are you all right?" It was a stupid question, but I couldn't think of what else to say.
He nodded. Mr. Conversation.
"Do you want to leave?" I asked.
He looked at me then. "That's the second time you've offered that. Why?"
"Why would you offer to let me out of my promise?"
I shrugged and rubbed my hands over my arms. "Because ... because you seem to be in some kind of pain. Because you're a junkie trying to kick the habit, sort of, and I don't want to screw that up for you."
"That's a very ... decent thing to offer." He said decent like he wasn't used to the word.
"Do you want to leave?"
"Yes," he said, "but we can't."
"You said that before. Why can't we?"
"I can't, Anita, I can't."
"Yes, you can. Who are you taking orders from, Phillip? Tell me. What is going on?" I was standing nearly touching him, spitting each word into his chest, looking up at his face. It is always hard to be tough when you have to look up to see someone's eyes.
But I've been short all my life, and practice makes perfect.
His hand slid around my shoulders. I pushed away from him, and his hands locked behind my back. "Phillip, stop it."
I had my hands flat on his chest to keep our bodies from pressing together. His shirt was wet and cold. His heart was hammering in his chest. I swallowed hard and said, "Your shirt's wet."
He released me so suddenly, I stumbled back from him. He drew the shirt over his head in one fluid motion. Of course, he had a lot of practice in undressing himself. It would have been such a nice chest without the scars.
He took one step towards me. "Stop, right where you are," I said. "What is this sudden change of mood?"
"I like you; isn't that enough?"
I shook my head. "No, it isn't."
He dropped the shirt to the floor. I watched it fall like it was important. Two steps and he was beside me. Bathrooms are so small. I did the only thing I could think of-I stepped into the bathtub. Not very dignified in high heels, but I wasn't pressed up against Phillip's chest. Anything was an improvement.
"Somebody is watching us," he said.
I turned, slowly, like a bad horror movie. Twilight hung against the sheer drapes, and a face peered out of the coming dark. It was Harvey, Mr. Leather. The windows were too high for him to be standing on the ground. Was he standing on a box? Or maybe they had little platforms at all the windows, so you could watch the show.
I let Phillip help me out of the bathtub. I whispered, "Could he hear us?"
Phillip shook his head. His arms slid around my back again. "We are supposed to be lovers. Do you want Harvey to stop believing that?"
"This is blackmail."
He smiled, dazzling, hold it in your hand and stroke it, sexy. My stomach tightened. He bent down, and I didn't stop him. The kiss was everything advertised, full soft lips, a press of skin, a heated weight. His hands tightened across my bare back, fingers kneading the muscles along the spine until I relaxed against him.
He kissed the lobe of my ear, breath warm. Tongue flicked along the edge of my jaw. His mouth found the pulse in my throat, his tongue searching for it, as if he were melting through the skin. Teeth scraped over the beating of my neck. Teeth clamped down, tight, hurting.
I shoved him back, away. "Shit! You bit me."
His eyes were unfocused, dazed. A crimson drop stained his lower lip.
I touched a hand to my neck and came away with blood. "Damn you!"
He licked my blood off his mouth. "I think Harvey believes the performance. Now you're marked. You've got the proof of what you are and why you came." He took a deep, shaking breath. "I won't have to touch you again tonight. I'll see that no one else does either. I swear."
My neck was throbbing; a bite, a freaking bite! "Do you know how many germs are in the human mouth?"
He smiled at me, still a little unfocused. "No," he said.
I shoved him out of the way and dabbed water on the cut. It looked like what it was, human teeth. It wasn't a perfect set of bite marks, but it was close. "Damn you."
"We need to go out so you can hunt for clues." He had picked his shirt up from the floor and stood there, holding it at his side. Bare tanned chest, leather pants, lips full like he'd been sucking on something. Me. "You look like an ad for Rent A Gigolo," I said.
He shrugged. "Ready to go out?"
I was still touching the wound. I tried to be angry and couldn't. I was scared. Scared of Phillip and what he was, or wasn't. I hadn't expected it. Was he right? Would I be safe for the rest of the night? Or had he just wanted to see what I tasted like?
He opened the door and waited for me. I went out. As we walked back to the living room, I realized Phillip had distracted me from my question. Who was he working for? I still didn't know.
It was damn embarrassing that every time he took his shirt off, my brain went out to lunch. But no more; I had had my first and last kiss from Phillip of the many scars. From now on I would remain the tough-as-nails vampire slayer, not to be distracted by rippling muscles or nice eyes.
My fingers touched the bite mark. It hurt. No more Ms. Nice Guy. If Phillip came near me again, I was going to hurt him. Of course, knowing Phillip, he'd probably enjoy it.
Madge stopped us in the hall. Her hand started to go up to my throat. I grabbed her wrist. "Touchy, touchy," she said. "Didn't you like it? Don't tell me you've been with Phillip a month and he hasn't tasted you before?"
She pulled down the silky bra to expose the upper mound of her breast. There was a perfect set of bite marks in the pale flesh. "It's Phillip's trademark, didn't you know?"
"No," I said. I pushed past her and started to turn into the living room. A man I did not know fell at my feet. Crystal was on top of him, pinning him to the floor. He looked young and a little frightened. His eyes looked up past Crystal, to me. I thought he was going to ask for help, but she kissed him, sloppy and deep, like she was drinking him from the mouth down. His hands began to lift the silk folds of her skirt. Her thighs were incredibly white, like beached whales.
I turned abruptly and went for the door. My heels made an important-sounding clack on the hardwood floor. If I hadn't known better, I would have said it sounded like I was running. I was not running. I was just walking very fast.
Phillip caught up with me at the door. His hand pressed flat against it to keep me from opening it. I took a deep, steadying breath. I would not lose my temper, not yet.
"I'm sorry, Anita, but it's better this way. You're safe now, from the humans."
I looked up at him and shook my head. "You just don't get it. I need some air, Phillip. I'm not leaving for the night, if that's what you're afraid of."
"I'll go out with you."
"No. That would defeat the purpose, Phillip. Since you are one of the things I want to get away from."
He stepped back then, hand at his side. His eyes shut down, guarded, hiding. Why had that hurt his feelings? I didn't know, and I didn't want to know.
I opened the door, and the heat fell around me like fur.
"It's dark," he said. "They'll be here soon. I can't help you if I'm not with you."
I stepped close to him and said in a near whisper, "Let's be honest, Phillip. I'm a whole lot better at protecting myself than you are. The first vampire that crooks its finger will have you for lunch."
His face started to crumble, and I didn't want to see it. "Dammit, Phillip, pull yourself together." I walked out onto the trellis-covered porch and resisted an urge to slam the door behind me. That would have been childish. I was feeling a little childish about now, but I'd save it. You never know when some childish rage may come in handy.
The cicadas and crickets filled the night. There was a wind pulling at the tops of the tall trees, but it never touched the ground. The air down here was as stale and close as plastic.
The heat felt good after the air-conditioned house. It was real and somehow cleansing. I touched the bite on my neck. I felt dirty, used, abused, angry, pissed off. I wasn't going to find anything out here. If someone or something was killing off vampires who did the freak circuit, it didn't seem to be such a bad idea.
Of course, whether I sympathized with the murderer was not the point. Nikolaos expected me to solve the crimes, and I damn well better do it.
I took a deep breath of the stiff air and felt the first stirrings of ... power. It oozed through the trees like wind, but the touch of it didn't cool the skin. The hair at the back of my neck was trying to crawl down my spine. Whoever it was, they were powerful. And they were trying to raise the dead.
Despite the heat, we'd had a lot of rain, and my heels sank into the grass immediately. I ended up walking in a sort of tiptoe crouch, trying not to flounder in the soft earth.
The ground was littered with acorns. It was like walking on marbles. I fell against a tree trunk, catching myself painfully against the shoulder Aubrey had bruised so nicely.
A sharp bleating, high and panic-stricken, sounded. It was close. Was it a trick of the still air or was it really a goat bleating? The cry ended in a wet gurgle of sound, thick and bubbling. The trees ended, and the ground was clear and moon-silvered.
I slipped off one shoe and tried the ground. Damp, cool, but not too bad. I slipped off the other shoe, tucked them in one hand, and ran.
The back yard was huge, stretching out into the silvered dark. It spread empty, except for a wall of overgrown hedges, like small trees in the distance. I ran for the hedges. The grave had to be there; there was no other place for it to hide.
The actual ritual for raising the dead is a short one, as rituals go. The power poured out into the night and into the grave. It built in a slow, steady rise, a warm "magic." It tugged at my stomach and brought me to the hedges. They towered up, black in the moonlight, hopelessly overgrown. There was no way I was squeezing through them.
A man cried out. Then a woman: "Where is it? Where is the zombie you promised us?"
"It was too old!" The man's voice was thin with fear.
"You said chickens weren't enough, so we got you a goat to kill. But no zombie. I thought you were good at this."
I found a gate in the opposite side of the hedges. Metal, rusted, and crooked in its frame. It groaned, a metal scream, as I pushed it open. More than a dozen pairs of eyes turned to me. Pale faces, the utter stillness of the undead. Vampires. They stood among the ancient grave markers of the small family cemetery, waiting. Nothing waits as patiently as the dead.
One of the vampires nearest me was the black male from Nikolaos's lair. My pulse quickened, and I did a quick scan of the crowd. She wasn't here, Thank you, God.
The vampire smiled and said, "Did you come to watch ... animator?" Had he almost said, "Executioner"? Was it a secret?
Whatever, he motioned the others back and let me see the show. Zachary lay on the ground. His shirt was damp with blood. You can't slit anything's throat without getting a little messy. Theresa was standing over him, hands on hips. She was dressed in black. The only skin showing was a strip of flesh down the middle, pale and almost luminous in the starlight. Theresa, Mistress of the Dark.
Her eyes flicked to me, a moment, then back to the man. "Well, Zach-a-ri, where is our zombie?"
He swallowed audibly. "It's too old. There isn't enough left."
"Only a hundred years old, animator. Are you so weak?"
He looked down at the ground. His fingers dug into the soft earth. He glanced up at me, then quickly down. I didn't know what he was trying to tell me with that one glance. Fear? For me to run? A plea for help? What?
"What good is an animator who can't raise the dead?" Theresa asked. She dropped to her knees, suddenly beside him, hands touching his shoulders. Zachary flinched but didn't try to get away.
A ripple of almost-movement ran through the other vampires. I could feel the whole circle at my back tense. They were going to kill him. The fact that he couldn't raise the zombie was just an excuse, part of the game.
Theresa ripped his shirt down the back. It fluttered around his lower arms, still tucked into his waist. A collective sigh ran through the vampires.
There was a woven rope band around his right upper arm. Beads were worked into it. It was a gris-gris, a voodoo charm, but it wouldn't help him now. No matter what it was supposed to do, it wouldn't be enough.
Theresa did a stage whisper. "Maybe you're just fresh meat?"
The vampires began to move in, silent as wind in the grass.
I couldn't just watch. He was a fellow animator and a human being. I couldn't just let him die, not like this, not in front of me. "Wait," I said.
No one seemed to hear me. The vampires moved in, and I was losing sight of Zachary. If one bit him, the feeding frenzy would be on. I had seen that happen once. I would never get rid of the nightmares if I saw it again.
I raised my voice and hoped they listened. "Wait! Didn't he belong to Nikolaos? Didn't he call Nikolaos master?"
They hesitated, then parted for Theresa to stride through them until she faced me. "This is not your business." She stared at me, and I didn't avoid her gaze. One less thing to worry about.
"I'm making it my business," I said.
"Do you wish to join him?"
The vampires began to spread out from Zachary to encircle me as well. I let them. There wasn't much I could do about it anyway. Either I'd get us both out alive or I'd die, too, maybe, probably. Oh, well.
"I wish to speak with him, one professional to another," I said.
"Why?" she asked.
I stepped close to her, almost touching. Her anger was nearly palpable. I was making her look bad in front of the others, and I knew it, and she knew I knew it. I whispered, though some of the others would hear me, "Nikolaos gave orders for the man to die, but she wants me alive, Theresa. What would she do to you if I accidentally died here tonight?" I breathed the last words into her face. "Do you want to spend eternity locked in a cross-wrapped coffin?"
She snarled and jerked away from me as if I had scalded her. "Damn you, mortal, damn you to hell!" Her black hair crackled around her face, her hands gripped into claws. "Talk to him, for what good it will do you. He must raise this zombie, this zombie, or he is ours. So says Nikolaos."
"If he raises the zombie, then he goes free, unharmed?" I asked.
"Yes, but he cannot do it; he isn't strong enough."
"Which was what Nikolaos was counting on," I said.
Theresa smiled, a fierce tug of lips exposing fangs. "Yesss." She turned her back on me and strode through the other vampires. They parted for her like frightened pigeons. And I was standing up to her. Sometimes bravery and stupidity are almost interchangeable.
I knelt by Zachary. "Are you hurt?"
He shook his head. "I appreciate the gesture, but they're going to try to kill me tonight." He looked up at me, pale eyes searching my face. "There isn't anything you can do to stop them." He gave a thin smile. "Even you have your limits."
"We can raise this zombie if you'll trust me."
He frowned, then stared at me. I couldn't read his expression: puzzlement and something else. "Why?"
What could I say, that I couldn't just watch him die? He had watched a man be tortured and hadn't lifted a hand. I opted for the short reason. "Because I can't let them have you, if I can stop it."
"I don't understand you, Anita, I don't understand you at all."
"That makes two of us. Can you stand?"
He nodded. "What are you planning?"
"We're going to share our talent."
His eyes widened. "Shit, you can act as a focus?"
"I've done it twice before." Twice before with the same person.
Twice before with someone who had trained me as an animator. Never with a stranger.
His voice dropped to a bare whisper. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Save you?" I asked.
"Share your power," he said.
Theresa strode over to us in a swish of cloth. "Enough of this, animator. He can't do it, so he pays the price. Either leave now, or join us at our ... feast."
"Are you having rare Who-roast-beast?" I asked.
"What are you talking about?"
"It's from Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. You know the part, 'And they'd Feast! Feast! Feast! Feast! They would feast on Who-pudding, and rare Who-roast-beast.' "
"You are crazy."
"So I've been told."
"Do you want to die?" she asked.
I stood up, very slowly, and felt something build in me. A sureness, an absolute certainty that she was not a danger to me. Stupid, but it was there, solid and real. "Someone may kill me before all this is over, Theresa"-I stepped into her, and she gave ground but it won't be you."
I could almost taste her pulse in my mouth. Was she afraid of me? Was I going crazy? I had just stood up to a hundred-year-old vampire, and she had backed down. I felt disoriented, almost dizzy, as if reality had moved and no one had warned me.
Theresa turned her back on me, hands balled into fists. "Raise the dead, animators, or by all the blood ever spilled, I'll kill you both."
I think she meant it. I shook myself like a dog coming out of deep water. I had a baker's dozen worth of vampires to pacify and a one-hundred-year-old corpse to raise. I could only handle a zillion problems at a time. A zillion and one was beyond me.
"Get up, Zachary," I said. "Time to go to work."
He stood. "I've never worked with a focus before. You'll have to tell me what to do."
"No problem," I said.
The goat lay on its side. The bare white of its spine glimmered in the moonlight. Blood still seeped into the ground from the gaping wound. Eyes were rolled and glazed, tongue lolling out of its mouth.
The older the zombie, the bigger the death needed. I knew that, and that was why I avoided older zombies when I could. At a hundred years the corpse was just so much dust. Maybe a few bone fragments if you were lucky. They reformed to rise from the grave. If you had the power to do it.
Problem was, most animators couldn't raise the long-dead, a century and over. I could. I just didn't want to. Bert and I had had long discussions about my preferences. The older the zombie, the more we can charge. This was at least a twenty-thousand-dollar job. I doubted I'd get paid tonight, unless living 'til morning was payment enough. Yeah, I guess it was. Here's to seeing another dawn.
Zachary came to stand beside me. He had torn the remnants of his shirt off. He stood thin and pale beside me. His face was all shadows and white flesh, high cheekbones almost cavernous. "What next?" he asked.
The goat carcass was inside the blood circle he had traced earlier; good. "Bring everything we need into the circle."
He brought a long hunting knife and a pint jar full of pale faintly luminous ointment. I preferred a machete myself, but the knife was huge, with one jagged edge and a gleaming point. The knife was clean and sharp. He took good care of his tools. Brownie point for him.
"We can't kill the goat twice," he said. "What are we going to use?"
"Us," I said.
"What are you talking about?"
"We'll cut ourselves; fresh, live blood, as much as we're willing to give."
"The blood loss would leave you too weak to go on."
I shook my head. "We already have a blood circle, Zachary We're just going to rewalk, not redraw it."
"I don't understand."
"I don't have time to explain metaphysics to you. Every injury is a small death. We'll give the circle a lesser death, and reactivate it."
He shook his head. "I still don't get it."
I took a deep breath, and then realized I couldn't explain it to him. It was like trying to explain the mechanics of breathing. You could break it down into steps, but that didn't tell you what it felt like to breathe. "I'll show you what I mean." If he didn't feel this part of the ritual, understand it without words, the rest wouldn't work anyway.
I held out my hand for the knife. He hesitated, then handed it to me, hilt first. The thing felt top-heavy, but then it wasn't designed for throwing. I took a deep breath and pressed the blade edge against my left arm, just below the cross burn. A quick down stroke, and blood welled up, dark and dripping. It stung, sharp and immediate. I let out the breath I'd been holding and handed the knife to Zachary.
He was staring from me to the knife.
"Do it, right arm, so we'll mirror each other," I said.
He nodded and made a quick slash across his right upper arm. His breath hissed, almost a gasp.
"Kneel with me." I knelt, and he followed me down, mirroring me as I asked. A man who could follow directions; not bad.
I bent my left arm at the elbow and raised it so the fingertips were head-high, elbow shoulder-high. He did the same. "We clasp hands and press the cuts together."
He hesitated, immobile.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
He shook his head, two quick shakes, and his hand wrapped around mine. His arm was longer than mine, but we managed.
His skin felt uncomfortably cool against mine. I glanced up at his face, but I couldn't read it. I had no idea what he was thinking. I took a deep, cleansing breath and began. "We give our blood to the earth. Life for death, death for life. Raise the dead to drink our blood. Let us feed them as they obey us."
His eyes did widen then; he understood. One hurdle down. I stood and drew him with me. I led him along the blood circle. I could feel it, like an electric current up my spine. I stared straight into his eyes. They were almost silver in the moonlight. We walked the circle and ended where we had begun, by the sacrifice.
We sat in the blood-soaked grass. I dabbed my right hand in the still-oozing blood of the goat's wound. I was forced to kneel to reach Zachary's face. I smeared blood over his forehead, down his cheeks. Smooth skin, the rub of new beard. I left a dark handprint over his heart.
The woven band was like a ring of darkness on his arm. I smeared blood along the beads, fingertips finding the soft brush of feathers worked into the string. The gris-gris needed blood, I could feel that, but not goat blood. I shrugged it away. Time to worry about Zachary's personal magic later.
He smeared blood on my face. Fingertips only, as if afraid to touch me. I could feel his hand shake as he traced my cheek. The blood was a cool wetness over my breast. Heart blood.
Zachary unscrewed the jar of homemade ointment. It was a pale off-white color with flecks of greenish light in it. The glowing flecks were graveyard mold.
I rubbed ointment over the blood smears. The skin soaked it up.
He brushed the cream on my face. It felt waxy, thick. I could smell the pine scent of rosemary for memory, cinnamon and cloves for preservation, sage for wisdom, and some sharp herb, maybe thyme, to bind it all together. There was too much cinnamon in it. The night suddenly smelled like apple pie.
We went together to smear ointment and blood on the tombstone. The name was only soft grooves in the marble. I traced them with my fingertips. Estelle Hewitt. Born 18 something, died 1866. There had been more writing below the date and name, but it was gone, beyond reading. Who had she been? I had never raised a zombie that I knew nothing about. It wasn't always a good idea, but then this whole thing wasn't a good idea.
Zachary stood at the foot of the grave. I stayed by the tombstone. It felt like an invisible cord was stretched between Zachary and me. We started the chant together, no questions needed. "Hear us, Estelle Hewitt. We call you from the grave. By blood, magic, and steel, we call you. Arise, Estelle, come to us, come to us."
His eyes met mine, and I felt a tug along the invisible line that bound us. He was powerful. Why hadn't he been able to do it alone?
"Estelle, Estelle, come to us. Waken, Estelle, arise and come to us." We called her name in ever-rising voices.
The earth shuddered. The goat slid to one side as the ground erupted, and a hand clutched for air. A second hand grabbed at nothing, and the earth began to pour the dead woman out.
It was then, only then, that I realized what was wrong, why he hadn't been able to raise her on his own. I now knew where I had seen him before. I had been at his funeral. There were so few animators that if anyone died, you went, period. Professional courtesy. I had glimpsed that angular face, rouged and painted. Somebody had done a bad job of making him up, I remembered thinking that at the time.
The zombie had almost pulled itself from the grave. It sat panting legs still trapped in the ground.
Zachary and I stared at each other over the grave. All I could do was stare at him like an idiot. He was dead, but not a zombie, not anything I'd ever heard of. I would have bet my life he was human, and I may have done just that.
The woven band on his arm. The spell that hadn't been satisfied with goat's blood. What was he doing to stay "alive"?
I had heard rumors of gris-gris that could cheat death. Rumors, legends, fairy tales. But then again, maybe not.
Estelle Hewitt may have been pretty once, but a hundred years in the grave takes a lot out of a person. Her skin was an ugly greyish white, waxy, nearly expressionless, fake-looking. White gloves hid the hands, stained with grave dirt. The dress was white and lace-covered. I was betting on wedding finery. Dear God.
Black hair clung to her head in a bun, wisps of it tracing her nearly skeletal face. All the bones showed, as if the skin were clay molded over a framework. Her eyes were wild, dark, showing too much white. At least they hadn't dried out like shriveled grapes. I hated that.
Estelle sat by her grave and tried to gather her thoughts. It would take a while. Even the recently dead took a few minutes to orient themselves. A hundred years was a damn long time to be dead.
I walked around the grave, careful to stay within the circle. Zachary watched me come without a word. He hadn't been able to raise the corpse because he was a corpse. The recently dead he could still handle, but not long-dead. The dead calling the dead from the grave; there was something really wrong with that.
I stared up at him, watching him grip the knife. I knew his secret. Did Nikolaos? Did anyone? Yes, whoever had made the gris-gris knew, but who else? I squeezed the skin around the cut on my arm. I reached bloody fingers towards the gris-gris.
He caught my wrist, eyes wide. His breathing had quickened. "Not you."
"People who won't be missed."
The zombie we had raised moved in a rustle of petticoats and hoops. It began crawling towards us.
"I should have let them kill you," I said.
He smiled then. "Can you kill the dead?"
I jerked my wrist free. "I do it all the time."
The zombie was scrambling at my legs. It felt like sticks digging at me. "Feed it yourself, you son of a bitch," I said.
He held his wrist down to it. The zombie grabbed for it, clumsy, eager. It sniffed his skin but released him untouched. "I don't think I can feed it, Anita."
Of course not; fresh, live blood was needed to close the ritual. Zachary was dead. He didn't qualify anymore. But I did.
"Damn you, Zachary, damn you."
He just stared at me.
The zombie was making a mewling sound low in her throat. Dear God. I offered her my bleeding left arm. Her stickhands dug into my skin. Her mouth fastened over the wound, sucking. I fought the urge to jerk away. I had made the bargain, had chosen the ritual. I had no choice. I stared at Zachary while the thing fed on my blood. Our zombie, a joint venture. Dammit.
"How many people have you killed to keep yourself alive?" I asked.
"You don't want to know."
"Enough," he said.
I tensed, raising my arm, nearly lifting the zombie to her feet. She cried, a soft sound, like a newborn kitten. She released my arm so suddenly, she fell backwards. Blood dripped down her bony chin. Her teeth were stained with it. I couldn't look at it, any of it.
Zachary said, "The circle is open. The zombie is yours."
For a minute I thought he was talking to me; then I remembered the vampires. They had been huddled in the dark, so still and unmoving I had forgotten them. I was the only live thing in the whole damn place. I had to get out of there.
I picked up my shoes and walked out of the circle. The vampires made way for me. Theresa stopped me, blocking my path. "Why did you let it suck your blood? Zombies don't do that."
I shook my head. Why did I think it would be faster to explain than to fight about it? "The ritual had already gone wrong. We couldn't start over without another sacrifice. So I offered myself as the sacrifice."
She stared. "Yourself?"
"It was the best I could do, Theresa. Now get out of my way." I was tired and sick. I had to get out of there, now. Maybe she heard it in my voice. Maybe she was too eager to get to the zombie to mess with me. I don't know, but she moved aside. She was just gone, like the wind had swept her away. Let them play their mind games. I was going home.
There was a small scream from behind me. A short, strangled sound, as if the voice wasn't used to talking. I kept walking. The zombie screamed, human memories still there, enough for fear. I heard a rich laugh, a faint echo of JeanClaude's. Where are you, Jean-Claude?
I glanced back once. The vampires were closing in. The zombie was stumbling from one side to the other, trying to run. But there was nowhere to go.
I stumbled through the crooked gate. A wind had finally come down out of the trees. Another scream sounded from behind the hedges. I ran, and I didn't look back.
I slipped on the damp grass. Hose are not made for running in. I sat there, breathing, trying not to think. I had raised a zombie to save another human being, who wasn't a human being. Now the zombie I had raised was being tortured by vampires. Shit. The night wasn't even half-over. I whispered, "What next?"
A voice answered, light as music. "Greetings, animator. You seem to be having a full night."
Nikolaos was standing in the shadows of the trees. Willie McCoy was with her, a little to one side, not quite beside her, like a bodyguard or a servant. I was betting on servant.
"You seem agitated. What ever is the matter?" Her voice rose in a lilting sing-song. The dangerous little girl had returned.
"Zachary raised the zombie. You can't use that as an excuse to kill him." I laughed then, and it sounded abrupt and harsh even to me. He was already dead. I didn't think she knew. She couldn't read minds, only force the truth from them. I bet Nikolaos had never thought to ask, "Are you alive, Zachary, or a walking corpse?" I laughed and couldn't seem to stop.
"Anita, you all right?" Willie's voice was like his voice had always been.
I nodded, trying to catch my breath. "I'm fine."
"I do not see the humor in the situation, animator." The child voice was slipping, like a mask sliding down. "You helped Zachary raise the zombie." She made it sound like an accusation.
I heard movement over the grass. Willie's footsteps, and nothing else. I glanced up and saw Nikolaos moving towards me, noiseless as a cat. She was smiling, a cute, harmless, model, beautiful child. No. Her face was a little long. The perfect child bride wasn't perfect anymore. The closer she came, the more flaws
I could pick out. Was I seeing her the way she really looked? Was I?
"You are staring at me, animator." She laughed, high and wild, wind chimes in a storm. "As if you'd seen a ghost." She knelt, smoothing her slacks over her knees, as if they were a skirt. "Have you seen a ghost, animator? Have you seen something that frightened you? Or is it something else?" Her face was only an arm's length away.
I was holding my breath, fingers digging into the ground. Fear washed over me like a cool second skin. The face was so pleasant, smiling, encouraging. She really needed a dimple to go with it all. My voice was hoarse, and I had to cough to clear it. "I raised the zombie. I don't want it hurt."
"But it is only a zombie, animator. They have no real minds."
I just stared at that thin, pleasant face, afraid to look away from her, afraid to look at her. My chest was tight with the urge to run. "It was a human being. I don't want it tortured."
"They won't hurt it much. My little vampires will be disappointed. The dead cannot feed off the dead."
"Ghouls can. They feed off the dead."
"But what is a ghoul, animator? Is it truly dead?"
"Am I dead?" she asked.
"Are you sure?" She had a small scar near her upper lip. She must have gotten it before she died.
"I'm sure," I said.
She laughed then, a sound to bring a smile to your face and a song to your heart. My stomach jerked at the noise. I might never enjoy Shirley Temple movies again.
"I don't think you are sure in the least." She stood, one smooth motion. A thousand years of practice makes perfect.
"I want the zombie put back, now, tonight," I said.
"You are not in a position to want anything." The voice was cold, very adult. Children didn't know how to strip skin with their voice.
"I raised it. I don't want it tortured."
"Isn't that too bad?"
What else could I say? "Please."
She stared down at me. "Why is it so important to you?"
I didn't think I could explain it to her. "It just is."
"How important?" she asked.
"I don't know what you mean."
"What would you be willing to endure for your zombie?"
Fear settled into a cold lump in the pit of my gut. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do," she said.
I stood then, not that it would help. I was actually taller than she was. She was tiny, a delicate fairy of a child. Right. "What do you want?"
"Don't do it, Anita." Willie was standing away from us, as if afraid to come too close. He was smarter dead than he had been alive.
"Quiet, Willie." Her voice was conversational when she said it, no yelling, no threat. But Willie fell silent instantly, like a well trained dog.
Maybe she caught my look. Whatever, she said, "I had Willie punished for failing to hire you that first time."
"Surely, Phillip has told you about our methods?"
I nodded. "A cross-wrapped coffin."
She smiled, brilliant, cheery. The shadows leeched it into a leer. "Willie was very afraid that I would leave him in there for months, or even years."
"Vampires can't starve to death. I understand the principle." I added silently in my head: You bitch. I can only be terrified so long before I get angry. Anger feels better.
"You smell of fresh blood. Let me taste you, and I will see your zombie safe."
"Does taste mean bite?" I asked.
She laughed, sweet, heartrending. Bitch. "Yes, human, it means bite." She was suddenly beside me. I jerked back without thinking. She laughed again. "It seems Phillip has beaten me to it."
For a minute I couldn't think what she meant; then my hand went to the bite mark on my neck. I felt suddenly uneasy, like she'd caught me naked.
The laugh floated on the summer air. It was really beginning to get on my nerves.
"No tasting," I said.
"Then let me enter your mind again. That's a type of feeding."
I shook my head, too rapid, too many times. I'd die before I'd let her in my mind again. If I had the choice.
A scream sounded in the not so far distance. Estelle was finding her voice. I winced like I'd been slapped.
"Let me taste your blood, animator. No teeth." She flashed fang as she said the last. "You stand and make no move to stop me. I will taste the fresh wound on your neck. I won't feed on you."
"It's not bleeding anymore. It's clotted."
She smiled, oh so sweetly. "I'll lick it clean."
I swallowed hard. I didn't know if I could do it. Another scream sounded, high and lost. God.
Willie said, "Anita ... "
"Silence, or risk my anger." Her voice growled low and dark.
Willie seemed to shrink in upon himself. His face was a white triangle under his black hair.
"It's all right, Willie. Don't get hurt on my account," I said.
He stared at me across the distance, a few yards; it might as well have been miles. Only the lost look on his face helped. Poor Willie. Poor me.
"What good is it going to do you if you're not feeding off me?" I asked.
"No good at all." She reached a small, pale hand towards me. "Of course, fear is a kind of substance." Cool fingers slid around my wrist. I flinched but didn't pull back. I was going to let her do this, wasn't I?
"Call it shadow feeding, human. Blood and fear are always precious, no matter how one obtains them." She stepped up to me. She exhaled against my skin, and I backed away. Only her hand on my wrist kept me close.
"Wait. I want the zombie freed now, first."
She just stared at me, then nodded slowly. "Very well." She stared past me, pale eyes seeing things that weren't there or that I couldn't see. I felt a tension through her hand, almost a jerk of electricity. "Theresa will chase them off and have the animator lay the zombie to rest."
"You did all that, just then?"
"Theresa is mine to command; didn't you know that?"
"Yeah, I guessed that." I had not known that any vampire could do telepathy. Of course, before last night I hadn't thought they could fly either. Oh, I was just learning all sorts of new things.
"How do I know you're not just telling me that?" I asked.
"You will just have to trust me."
Now that was almost funny. If she had a sense of humor, maybe we could work something out. Naw.
She pulled my wrist closer to her body and me with it. Her hand was like fleshy steel. I couldn't pry her hand off, not with anything short of a blowtorch. And I was all out of blowtorches.
The top of her head fitted under my chin. She had to rise on tiptoe to breathe on my neck. It should have ruined the menace. It didn't. Soft lips touched my neck. I jerked. She laughed against my skin, face pressed against me. I shivered and couldn't stop.
"I promise to be gentle." She laughed again, and I fought an urge to shove her, away. I would have given almost anything to hit her, just once, hard. But I didn't want to die tonight. Besides, I'd made a deal.
"Poor darling, you're shaking." She laid a hand on my shoulder to steady herself. She brushed lips along the hollow of my neck. "Are you cold?"
"Cut the crap. Just do it!"
She stiffened against me. "Don't you want me to touch you?"
"No," I said. Was she crazy? Rhetorical question.
Her voice was very still. "Where is the scar on my face?"
I answered without thinking. "Near your mouth."
"And how," she hissed, "did you know that?"
My heart leaped into my throat. Oops. I had let her know her mind tricks weren't working, and they should have been.
Her hand dug into my shoulder. I made a small sound, but I didn't cry out. "What have you been doing, animator?"
I didn't have the faintest idea. Somehow, I doubted she'd believe that.
"Leave her alone!" Phillip came half-running through the trees. "You promised me you wouldn't hurt her tonight."
Nikolaos didn't even turn around. "Willie." Just his name, but like all good servants he knew what was wanted.
He stepped in front of Phillip, one arm straight out from his body. He was going to stiff-arm him. Phillip sidestepped the arm brushing past.
Willie never had been much of a fighter. Strength wasn't enough if you had shit for balance.
Nikolaos touched my chin and turned my face back to hers. "Do not force me to hold your attention, animator. You wouldn't like the methods I would choose."
I swallowed audibly. She was probably right. "You have my full attention, honest." My voice came out as a hoarse whisper, fear squeezing it down. If I coughed to clear it, I'd cough in her face. Not a good idea.
I heard the rush of feet swishing through the grass. I fought the urge to look up and away from the vampire.
Nikolaos spun from me to face the footsteps. I saw her move, but it was still blurring speed. She was just suddenly facing the other way. Phillip was standing in front of her. Willie caught up to him and grabbed an arm, but didn't seem to know what to do with it.
Would it occur to Willie that he could just crush the man's arm? I doubted it.
It had occurred to Nikolaos. "Release him. If he wants to keep coming, let him." Her voice promised a great deal of pain.
Willie stepped back. Phillip just stood there, staring past her at me. "Are you all right, Anita?"
"Go back inside, Phillip. I appreciate the concern, but I made a bargain. She isn't going to bite me."
He shook his head. "You promised she wouldn't be harmed.
"You promised." He was talking to Nikolaos again, carefully not looking directly at her.
"And so she shall not be harmed. I keep my word, Phillip, most of the time."
"I'm all right, Phillip. Don't get hurt because of me," I said.
His face crumbled with confusion. He didn't seem to know what to do. His courage seemed to have spilled out on the grass.
But he didn't back off. Big point for him. I would have backed off, maybe. Probably. Oh, hell, Phillip was being brave, and I didn't want to see him die because of it.
"Just go back, Phillip, please!"
"No," Nikolaos said. "If the little man is feeling brave, let him try."
Phillip's hands flexed, as if trying to grab on to something.
Nikolaos was suddenly beside him. I hadn't seen her move. Phillip still hadn't. He was staring where she had been. She kicked his legs out from under him. He fell to the grass, blinking up at her like she'd just appeared.
"Don't hurt him!" I said.
A pale little hand shot out, the barest touch. His whole body jerked backwards. He rolled on one side, blood staining his face.
"Nikolaos, please!" I said. I had actually taken two steps towards her. Voluntarily. I could always try for my gun. It wouldn't kill her, but it might give Phillip time to run away. If he would run.
Screams sounded from the direction of the house. A man's voice yelled, "Perverts!"
"What is it?" I asked.
Nikolaos answered, "The Church of Eternal Life has sent its congregation." She sounded mildly amused. "I must leave this little get-together." She whirled to me, leaving Phillip dazed on the grass. "How did you see my scar?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"Little liar. We will finish this later." And she was gone, running like a pale shadow under the trees. At least she hadn't flown away. I didn't think my wits could handle that tonight.
I knelt by Phillip. He was bleeding where she had hit him. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes." He managed to sit up. "We have to get out of here. The churchgoers are always armed."
I helped him to stand. "Do they invade the freak parties often?"
"Whenever they can," he said.
He seemed steady on his feet. Good, I could never have carried him far.
Willie said, "I know I don't have a right to ask, but I'll help you get to your car." He wiped his hands down his pants. "Can I catch a ride?"
I couldn't help it. I laughed. "Can't you just disappear like the rest of them?"
He shrugged. "Don't know how yet."
"Oh, Willie." I sighed. "Come on, let's get out of here."
He grinned at me. Being able to look him in the eyes made him seem almost human. Phillip didn't object to the vampire joining us. Why had I thought he would?
There were screams from the house. "Somebody's gonna call the cops," Willie said.
He was right. I'd never be able to explain it. I grabbed Phillip's hand and steadied myself while I put the high heels back on. "If I'd known we'd be running from crazed fanatics tonight, I'd have worn lower heels," I said.
I kept a grip on Phillip's arm to steady myself through the minefield of acorns. This was not the time to twist an ankle.
We were almost to the gravel drive when three figures spilled out of the house. One held a club. The others were vampires. They didn't need a weapon. I opened my purse and got my gun out, held down at my side, hidden against my skirt. I gave Phillip the car keys. "Start the car; I'll cover our backs."
"I don't know how to drive," he said.
I had forgotten. "Shit!"
"I'll do it." Willie took the keys, and I let him.
One of the vampires rushed us, arms wide, hissing. Maybe he meant to scare us; maybe he meant to do us harm. I'd had enough for one night. I clicked off the safety, chambered a round and fired into the ground at his feet.
He hesitated, almost stumbled. "Bullets can't hurt me, human."
There was more movement under the trees. I didn't know if it was friend or foe, or if it made a hell of a lot of difference. The vampire kept coming. It was a residential neighborhood. Bullets can travel a great distance before they hit something. I couldn't take the chance.
I raised my arm, aimed, and fired. The bullet took him in the stomach. He jerked and sort of crumpled over the wound. His face held astonishment.
"Silver-plated bullets, fang-face."
Willie went for the car. Phillip hesitated between helping me and going.
"Go, Phillip, now."
The second vampire was trying to circle around. "Stop right where you are," I said. The vampire froze. "Anybody makes a threatening gesture, I'm going to put a bullet in their brain."
"It won't kill us," the second vampire said.
"No, but it won't do you a hell of a lot of good, either."
The human with the club inched forward. "Don't," I told him.
The car started. I didn't dare glance back at it. I stepped backwards, hoping I wouldn't trip in the damn high heels. If I fell, they'd rush me. If they rushed me, somebody was going to die.
"Come on, Anita, get in." It was Phillip, leaning out of the passenger side door.
"Scoot over." He did, and I slid into the seat. The human rushed us. "Drive, now!"
Willie spun gravel, and I slammed the door shut. I really didn't want to kill anyone tonight. The human was shielding his face from the gravel as we rushed down the driveway.
The car bounced wildly, nearly colliding with a tree. "Slow down; we're safe," I said.
Willie eased back on the gas. He grinned at me. "We made it."
"Yeah." I smiled back at him, but I wasn't so sure.
Blood was dripping down Phillip's face in a nice steady flow. He voiced my thoughts. "Safe, but for how long?" He sounded as tired as I felt.
I patted his arm. "Everything will be all right, Phillip."
He looked at me. His face seemed older than it had, tired. "You don't believe that any more than I do."
What could I say? He was right.
I clicked on the safety of my gun and struggled into a seat belt. Phillip slumped down into the seat, long legs spreadeagled on either side of the floorboard hump. His eyes were closed.
"Where to?" Willie asked.
Good question. I wanted to go home and go to sleep, but ... "Phillip's face needs patching up."
"You wanna take him to a hospital?"
"I'm all right," Phillip said. His voice was low and strange.
"You aren't all right," I said.
He opened his eyes and turned to look at me. The blood had run down his neck, a dark, glistening stream that shone in the flashes of the streetlights. "You were hurt a lot worse last night," he said.
I looked away from him, out the window. I didn't know what to say. "I'm all right now."
"I'll be all right, too."
I looked back at him. He was staring at me. I couldn't read-the expression on his face, and wanted to. "What are you thinking, Phillip?"
He turned his head to stare straight ahead. His face was all silhouette and shadows. "That I stood up to the master. I did it. I did it!" His voice held a fierce warmth with the last. Fierce pride.
"You were very brave," I said.
"I was, wasn't I?"
I smiled and nodded. "Yes."
"I hate to interrupt you two, but I need to know where to drive this thing," Willie said.
"Drop me back at Guilty Pleasures," Phillip said.
"You should see a doc."
"They'll take care of me at the club."
He nodded, then winced and turned to me. "You wanted to know who was giving me orders. It was Nikolaos. You were right. That first day. She wanted me to seduce you." He smiled. It didn't look right with the blood. "Guess I wasn't up to the job."
"Phillip ... " I said.
"No, its all right. You were right about me. I'm sick. No wonder you didn't want me."
I glanced over at Willie. He was concentrating on his driving as if his life depended on it. Damn, he was smarter dead than alive.
I took a deep breath and tried to decide what to say. "Phillip ... The kiss before you ... bit me." God, how did I say this? "It was nice."
He glanced at me, quick, then away. "You mean that?"
An awkward silence stretched through the car. No sound but the rush of pavement under the wheels. The night flashes of lights, and the isolating darkness.
"Standing up to Nikolaos tonight was one of the bravest things I've ever seen anybody do. Also one of the stupidest," I said.
He laughed, abrupt and surprised.
"Don't ever do it again. I don't want your death on my hands."
"It was my choice," he said.
"No more heroics, okay?"
He glanced at me. "Would you be sorry if I died?"
"I guess that's something."
What did he want me to say? To confess undying love, or something silly like that? How about undying lust? Either one would be a lie. What did he want from me? I almost asked him, but I didn't. I wasn't that brave.
It was nearly three by the time I walked up the stairs to my apartment. All the bruises were aching. My knees, feet, and lower back were a nearly burning grind of pain from the high heels. I wanted a long, hot shower and bed. Maybe if I were lucky I could actually get eight uninterrupted hours of sleep. Of course, I wouldn't bet on it.
I got my keys in one hand and gun in the other. I held the gun at my side, just in case a neighbor should open his or her door unexpectedly. Nothing to fear, folks, just your friendly neighborhood animator. Right.
For the first time in far too long my door was just the way I left it: locked. Thank you, God. I was not in the mood to play cops and robbers this very early morning.
I kicked off my shoes just inside the door, then stumbled to the bedroom. The message light was blinking on my answering machine. I laid my gun on the bed, hit the play button, and started undressing.
"Hi, Anita, this is Ronnie. I got a meeting set up for tomorrow with the guy from HAV. My office, eleven o'clock. If the time is bad, leave a message on my machine, and I'll get back to you. Be careful."
Click, whirr, and Edward's voice came out of the machine. "The clock is ticking, Anita." Click.
Damn. "You like your little games, don't you, you son of a bitch?" I was getting grumpy, and I didn't know what I was going to do about Edward. Or Nikolaos, or Zachary, or Valentine, or Aubrey. I did know I wanted a shower. I could start there. Maybe I'd have a brilliant idea while I was scrubbing goat blood off my skin.
I locked the door to the bathroom and laid my gun on the top of the toilet. I was beginning to get a little paranoid. Or maybe realistic was a better word.
I turned the water on until it steamed, then stepped into it. I was no closer to solving the vampire murders now than I had been twenty-four hours ago.
Even if I solved the case, I still had problems. Aubrey and Valentine were going to kill me once Nikolaos removed her protection from me. Peachy. I wasn't even sure that Nikolaos herself didn't have ideas in that direction. Now, Zachary, he was killing people to feed his voodoo charm. I had heard of charms that demanded human sacrifice. Charms that gave you a whole lot less than immortality. Wealth, power, sex-the age-old wants. It was very specific blood-children, or virgins, or preadolescent boys, or little old ladies with blue hair and one wooden leg. All right, not that specific, but there had to be a pattern to it. A string of disappearances with similar victims. If Zachary had been simply leaving the bodies to be found, the newspapers would have picked up on it by now. Maybe.
He had to be stopped. If I hadn't interfered tonight, he would have been stopped. No good deed goes unpunished.
I leaned palms against the bathroom tile, letting the water wash down my back in nearly scalding rivulets. Okay, I had to kill Valentine before he killed me. I had a warrant for his death. It had never been revoked. Of course, I had to find him first.
Aubrey was dangerous, but at least he was out of the way until Nikolaos let him out of his trapped coffin.
I could just turn Zachary over to the police. Dolph would listen to me, but I didn't have a shred of proof. Hell, the magic was even something I'd never heard of. If I couldn't understand what Zachary was, how was I going to explain it to the police?
Nikolaos. Would she let me live if I solved the case? Or not? I didn't know.
Edward was coming to get me tomorrow evening. I either gave him Nikolaos or he took a piece of my hide. Knowing Edward, it would be a painful piece to lose. Maybe I could just give him the vampire. Just tell him what he wanted to know. And he fails to kill her, and she comes and gets me. The one thing I wanted to avoid, almost more than anything else, was Nikolaos coming to get me.
I dried off, ran a brush through my hair, and had to get something to eat. I tried to tell myself I was too tired to eat. My stomach didn't believe me.
It was four before I fell into bed. My cross was safely around my neck. The gun in its holster behind the head board. And, just for pure panic's sake, I slipped a knife between the mattress and box springs. I'd never get to it in time to do any good, but ... Well, you never know.
I dreamed about Jean-Claude again. He was sitting at a table eating blackberries.
"Vampires don't eat solid food," I said.
"Exactly." He smiled and pushed the bowl of fruit towards me.
"I hate blackberries," I said.
"They were always my favorite. I hadn't tasted them in centuries." His face looked wistful.
I picked up the bowl. It was cool, almost cold. The blackberries were floating in blood. The bowl fell from my hands, slow, spilling blood on the table, more than it could ever have held. Blood dripped down the tabletop, onto the floor.
Jean-Claude stared at me over the bleeding table. His words came like a warm wind. "Nikolaos will kill us both. We must strike first, ma petite."
"What's this 'we' crap?"
He cupped pale hands in the flowing blood and held them out to me, like a cup. Blood dripped out from between his fingers. "Drink. It will make you strong."
I woke staring up into the darkness. "Damn you, Jean-Claude," I whispered. "What have you done to me?"
There was no answer from the dark, empty room. Thank goodness for small favors. The clock read six-oh-three a.m. I rolled over and snuggled back into the covers. The whir of air conditioning couldn't hide the sounds of one of my neighbors running water. I switched on the radio. Mozart's piano concerto in E flat filled the darkened room. It was really too lively to sleep to, but I wanted noise. My choice of noise.
I don't know if it was Mozart or I was just too tired; whatever, I went back to sleep. If I dreamed, I didn't remember it.
The alarm shrieked through my sleep. It sounded like a car alarm, hideously loud. I smashed my palm on the buttons. Mercifully, it shut off. I blinked at the clock through half-slit eyes. Nine a.m. Damn. I had forgotten to unset the alarm. I had time to get dressed and make church. I did not want to get up. I did not want to go to church. Surely, God would forgive me just this once.
Of course, I did need all the help I could get right now. Maybe I'd even have a revelation, and everything would fall into place. Don't laugh; it had happened before. Divine aid is not something I rely on, but every once in a while I think better at church.
When the world is full of vampires and bad guys, and a blessed cross may be all that stands between you and death, it puts church in a different light. So to speak.
I crawled out of bed, groaning. The phone rang. I sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for the answering machine to pick up. It did. "Anita, this is Sergeant Storr. We got another vampire murder."
I picked up the receiver. "Hi, Dolph."
"Good. Glad I caught you before church."
"Is it another dead vampire?"
"Just like the others?" I asked.
"Seems to be. Need you to come down and take a look."
I nodded, realized he couldn't see it, and said, "Sure, when?"
I sighed. So much for church. They couldn't hold the body until noon, or after, just for little of me. "Give me the location. Wait, let me get a pen that works." I kept a notepad by the bed, but the pen had died without my knowing it. "Okay, shoot."
The location was only about a block from Circus of the Damned. "That's on the fringe of the District. None of the other murders have been that far away from the Riverfront. "
"True," he said.
"What else is different about this one?"
"You'll see it when you get here."
Mr. Information. "Fine, I'll be there in half an hour."
"See you then." The phone went dead.
"Well, good morning to you to, Dolph," I said to the receiver. Maybe he wasn't a morning person either.
My hands were healing. I had taken the Band-Aids off last night because they were covered with goat blood. The scrapes were scabbing nicely, so I didn't bother with more Band-Aids.
One fat bandage covered the knife wound on my arm. I couldn't hurt my left arm anymore. I had run out of room. The bite mark on my neck was beginning to bruise. It looked like the world's worst hicky. If Zerbrowski saw it, I would never live it down. I put a Band-Aid on it. Now it looked like I was covering a vampire bite. Damn. I left it. Let people wonder. None of their business anyway.
I put a red polo shirt on, tucked into jeans. My Nikes, and a shoulder harness for my gun, and I was all set. My shoulder rig has a little pouch for extra ammo. I put fresh clips in it. Twenty-six bullets. Watch out, bad guys. Truth was, most firefights were finished before the first eight shots were gone. But there was always a first time.
I carried a bright yellow windbreaker over my arm. I'd put it on just in case the gun started making people nervous. I would be working with the police. They'd have their guns out in plain sight. Why couldn't I? Besides, I was tired of games. Let the bastards know I was armed and willing.
There are always too many people at a murder scene. Not the gawkers, the people who come to watch; you expect that. There is always something fascinating about someone else's death. But the place always swarms with police, mostly detectives with a sprinkling of uniforms. So many cops for one little murder.
There was even a news van, with a huge satellite antenna sticking out of its back like a giant ray gun from some 1940s science fiction movie. There would be more news vans, I was betting on that. I don't know how the police kept it quiet this long.
Vampire murders, gee whiz, sensationalism at its best. You don't even have to add anything to make it bizarre.
I kept the crowd between myself and the cameraman. A reporter with short blond hair and a stylish business suit was shoving a microphone in Dolph's face. As long as I stayed near the gruesome remains, I was safe. They might get me on film, but they wouldn't be able to show it on television. Good taste and all, you know.
I had a little plastic-enclosed card, complete with picture, that gave me access to police areas. I always felt like a junior G-man when I clipped it to my collar.
I was stopped at the yellow police banner by a vigilant uniform. He stared at my I. D. for several seconds, as if trying to decide whether I was kosher or not. Would he let me through the line, or would he call a detective over first?
I stood, hands at my sides, trying to look harmless. I'm actually very good at that. I can look downright cute. The uniform raised the tape and let me through. I resisted an urge to say, "Atta boy." I did say, "Thank you."
The body lay near a lamp pole. Legs were spreadeagled. One arm twisted under the body, probably broken. The center of the back was missing, as if someone had shoved a hand through the body and just scooped out the center. The heart would be gone, just like all the others.
Detective Clive Perry was standing by the body. He was a tall, slender, black man, and most recent member of the spook squad. He always seemed so soft-spoken and pleasant. I could never imagine Perry doing anything rude enough to piss someone off, but you didn't get assigned to the squad without a reason.
He looked up from his notebook. "Hi, Ms. Blake."
"Hello, Detective Perry."
He smiled. "Sergeant Storr said you'd be coming down."
"Is everyone else finished with the body?"
He nodded. "It's all yours."
A dark brown puddle of blood spread out from under the body. I knelt beside it. The blood had congealed to a tacky, gluelike consistency. Rigor mortis had come and gone, if there had been rigor mortis. Vampires didn't always react to "death" the way a human body did. It made judging the time of death harder. But that was the coroner's job, not mine.
The bright summer sun pressed down over the body. From the shape and the black pants suit, I was betting it was female. It was sort of hard to tell, lying on its stomach, chest caved in, and the head missing. The spine showed white and glistening. Blood had poured out of the neck like a broken bottle of red wine. The skin was torn, twisted. It looked like somebody had ripped the freaking head off.
I swallowed very hard. I hadn't thrown up on a murder victim in months. I stood up and put a little distance between myself and the body.
Could this have been done by a human being? No; maybe. Hell. If it was a human being, then they were trying very hard to make it look otherwise. No matter what a surface look revealed, the coroner always found knife marks on the body. The question was, did the knife marks come before or after death? Was it a human trying to look like a monster, or a monster trying to look like a human?
"Where's the head?" I asked.
"You sure you feel all right?"
I looked up at him. Did I look pale? "I'll be fine." Me, big, tough vampire slayer, no throw up at the sight of decapitated heads. Right.
Perry raised his eyebrows but was too polite to push the issue. He led me about eight feet down the sidewalk. Someone had thrown a plastic cover over the head. A second smaller pool of congealing blood oozed out from under the plastic.
Perry bent over and grasped the plastic. "You ready?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice. He lifted the plastic, like a curtain backdrop to what lay on the sidewalk.
Long, black hair flowed around a pale face. The hair was matted and sticky with blood. The face had been attractive but no more. The features were slack, almost doll-like in their unreality. My eyes saw it, but it took my brain a few seconds to register. "Shit!"
"What is it?"
I stood up, fast, and took two steps out into the street. Perry came to stand beside me. "Are you all right?"
I glanced back at the plastic with its grisly little lump. Was I all right? Good question. I could identify this body.
It was Theresa.
I arrived at Ronnie's office a few minutes before eleven. I paused with my hand on the doorknob. I couldn't shake the image of Theresa's head on the sidewalk. She had been cruel and had probably killed hundreds of humans. Why did I feel pity for her? Stupidity, I suppose. I took a deep breath and pushed the door inward.
Ronnie's office is full of windows. Light glares in from two sides, south and west. Which means in the afternoon the room is like a solar heater. No amount of air conditioning is going to overcome that much sunshine.
You can see the District from Ronnie's sunshiny windows. If you care to look.
Ronnie waved me through the door into the almost blinding glare of her office.
A delicate-looking woman was sitting in a chair across from the desk. She was Asian with shiny, black hair styled carefully back from her face. A royal purple jacket, which matched her tailored skirt, was folded neatly on the chair arm. A shiny, lavender blouse brought attention to the up-tilted eyes and the faint lavender shading on the lids and brow. Her ankles were crossed, hands folded in her lap. She looked cool in her lavender blouse, even in the sweltering sunshine.
It caught me off guard for a minute, seeing her like that, after all these years. Finally, I closed my gaping mouth and walked forward, hand extended. "Beverly, it has been a long time."
She stood neatly and put a cool hand in mine. "Three years." Precise, that was Beverly all over.
"You two know each other?" Ronnie asked.
I turned back to her. "Bev didn't mention that she knew me?"
Ronnie shook her head.
I stared at the new woman. "Why didn't you mention it to Ronnie?"
"I did not think it necessary." Bev had to raise her chin to look me in the eye. Not many people have to do that. It's rare enough that I always find it an odd sensation, as if I should stoop down so we can be at eye level.
"Is someone going to tell me where you two know each other from?" Ronnie asked.
Ronnie moved past us to sit behind her desk. She tilted the chair slightly back on its swivel, crossed hands over stomach, and waited. Her pure grey eyes, soft as kitten fur, stared at me.
"Do you mind if I tell her, Bev?"
Bev had sat down again, smooth and ladylike. She had real dignity and had always impressed me as being a lady, in the best sense of the word. "If you feel it necessary, I do not object," she said.
Not exactly a rousing go-ahead, but it would do. I flopped down in the other chair, very aware of my jeans and jogging shoes. Beside Bev I looked like an ill-dressed child. For just a moment I felt it; then it was gone. Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt said that. It is a quote I try to live by. Most of the time I succeed.
"Bev's family were the victims of a vampire pack. Only Beverly survived. I was one of the people who helped destroy the vampires." Brief, to the point, a hell of a lot left out. Mostly the painful parts.
Bev spoke in that quiet, precise voice of hers. "What Anita has left out is that she saved my life at risk of her own." She glanced down at her hands where they lay in her lap.
I remembered my first glimpse of Beverly Chin. One pale leg thrashing against the floor. The flash of fangs as the vampire reared to strike. A glimpse of pale, screaming face, and dark hair. The pure terror as she screamed. My hand throwing a silver-bladed knife and hitting the vampire's shoulder. Not a killing blow; there had been no time. The creature had sprang to its feet, roaring at me. I stood facing the thing with the last knife I had, gun long since emptied, alone.
And I remembered Beverly Chin beating the vampire's head in with a silver candlestick, while he crouched over me, breath warm on my neck. Her shrieks echoed through my dreams for weeks, as she beat the thing's head to pieces until blood and brain seeped out onto the floor.
All that passed between us without words. We had saved each other's lives; it is a bond that sticks with you. Friendships may fade, but there is always that obligation, that knowledge forged of terror and blood and shared violence, that never really leaves. It was there between us after three long years, straining and touchable.
Ronnie is a smart lady. She caught on to the awkward silence. "Would anybody like a drink?"
"Nonalcoholic," Bev and I said together. We laughed at each other, and the strain faded. We would never be true friends, but perhaps we could stop being ghosts to each other.
Ronnie brought us two diet Cokes. I made a face but took it anyway. I knew that was all she had in the office's little fridge. We had had discussions about diet drinks, but she swore she liked the taste. Liked the taste, garg!
Bev took hers graciously; perhaps that was what she drank at home. Give me something fattening with a little taste to it any day.
"Ronnie mentioned on the phone that there might be a death squad attached to HAV. Is that true?" I said.
Bev stared down at the can, which she held with one hand cupped underneath so it wouldn't stain her skirt. "I do not know positively that it is true, but I believe it to be."
"Tell me what you've heard?" I asked.
"There was talk for a while of forming a squad to hunt the vampires. To kill them as they have killed our ... families. The president of course vetoed the idea. We work within the system. We are not vigilantes." She said it almost as a question, as if trying to convince herself more than us. She was shaken by what might have happened. Her neat little world collapsing again.
"But lately I have heard talk. People in our organization bragging of slaying vampires."
"How were they supposedly killed?" I asked.
She looked at me, hesitated. "I do not know."
She shook her head. "I believe I could find out for you. Is it important?"
"The police have hidden certain details from the general public. Things only the murderer would know."
"I see." She glanced down at the can in her hands, then up at me. "I do not believe it is murder even if my people have done what the papers say. Killing dangerous animals should not be a crime."
In part I agreed with her. Once I had agreed with her wholeheartedly. "Then why tell us?" I asked.
She looked directly at me, dark, nearly black eyes staring into my face. "I owe you."
"You saved my life as well. You owe me nothing."
"There will always be a debt between us, always."
I looked into her face and understood. Bev had begged me not to tell anyone that she had beaten the vampire's head in. I think it horrified her that she was capable of such violence, regardless of motive.
I had told the police that she distracted the vampire so I could kill it. She had been disproportionately grateful for that small white lie. Maybe if no one else knew, she could pretend it had never happened. Maybe.
She stood, smoothing her skirt down in back. She sat her soda can carefully on the edge of the desk. "I will leave a message with Ms. Sims when I find out more."
I nodded. "I appreciate what you're doing." She might be betraying her cause for me.
She laid her purple jacket over her arm, small purse clasped in her hands. "Violence is not the answer. We must work within the system. Humans Against Vampires stands for law and order, not vigilantism." It sounded like a prerecorded speech. But I let it go. Everyone needs something to believe in.
She shook hands with both of us. Her hand was cool and dry. She left, slender shoulders very straight. The door closed firmly but quietly behind her. To look at her you would never know that she had been touched by extreme violence. Maybe that's the way she wanted it. Who was I to argue?
Ronnie said, "Okay, now you fill me in. What have you found out?"
"How do you know I've found out anything?" I asked.
"Because you looked a little green around the gills when you came through the door."
"Great. And I thought I was hiding it."
She patted my arm. "Don't worry. I just know you too well, that's all."
I nodded, taking the explanation for what it was, comforting crap. But I took it anyway. I told her about Theresa's death. I told her everything, except the dreams with Jean-Claude in them. That was private.
She let out a low whistle. "Damn, you have been busy. Do you think a human death squad is doing it?"
"You mean HAV?"
I took a deep breath and let it out. "I don't know. If it's humans, I don't have the faintest idea how they're doing it. It would take superhuman strength to rip a head off."
"A very strong human?" she asked.
The image of Winter's bulging arms flashed into my mind. "Maybe, but that kind of strength ... "
"Under pressure, little old grannies have lifted entire cars."
She had a point. "How would you like to visit the Church of Eternal Life?" I asked.
"Thinking about joining up?"
I frowned at her.
She laughed. "Okay, okay, stop glowering at me. Why are we going?"
"Last night they raided the party with clubs. I'm not saying they meant to kill anyone, but when you start beating on people"-I shrugged-"accidents happen."
"You think the Church is behind it?"
"Don't know, but if they hate the freaks enough to storm their parties, maybe they hate them enough to kill them."
"Most of the Church's members are vampires," she said.
"Exactly. Superhuman strength and the ability to get close to the victims."
Ronnie smiled. "Not bad, Blake, not bad."
I bowed my head modestly. "Now all we got to do is prove it."
Her eyes were still shiny with humor when she said, "Unless of course they didn't do it."
"Oh, shut up. It's a place to start."
She spread her hands wide. "Hey, I'm not complaining. My father always told me, 'Never criticize, unless you can do a better job.' "
"You don't know what's going on either, huh?" I asked.
Her face sobered. "Wish I did."
So did I.
The Church of Eternal Life, main building, is just off Page Avenue, far from the District. The Church doesn't like to be associated with the riffraff. Vampire strip club, Circus of the Damned, tsk-tsk. How shocking. No, they think of themselves as mainstream undead.
The church itself is set in an expanse of naked ground. Small trees struggled to grow into big trees and shade the startling white of the church. It seemed to glow in the hot July sunshine, like a land-bound moon.
I pulled into the parking lot and parked on the shiny new black asphalt. Only the ground looked normal, bare reddish earth churned to mud. The grass had never had a chance.
"Pretty," Ronnie said. She nodded in the building's direction.
I shrugged. "If you say so. Frankly, I never get used to the generic effect."
"Generic effect?" she asked.
"The stained glass is all abstract color. No scenes of Christ, no saints, no holy symbols. Clean and pure as a wedding gown fresh out of plastic."
She got out of the car, sunglasses sliding into place. She stared at the church, arms crossed over her stomach. "It looks like they just unwrapped it and haven't put the trimmings on yet."
"Yeah, a church without God. What is wrong with this picture?"
She didn't laugh. "Will anybody be up this time of day?"
"Oh, yes, they recruit during the day."
"You know, go door to door, like the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses."
She stared at me. "You've got to be kidding?"
"Do I look like I'm kidding?"
She shook her head. "Door-to-door vampires. How"-she wiggled her hands back and forth-"convenient."
"Yep," I said. "Let's go see who's minding the office."
Broad white steps led up to huge double doors. One of the doors was open; the other had a sign that read, "Enter Friend and be at Peace." I fought an urge to tear down the sign and stomp on it.
They were preying on one of the most basic fears of man, death. Everyone fears death. People who don't believe in God have a hard time with death being it. Die and you cease to exist. Poof. But at the Church of Eternal Life, they promise just what the name says. And they can prove it. No leap of faith. No waiting around. No questions left unanswered. How does it feel to be dead? Just ask a fellow church member.
Oh, and you'll never grow old either. No face-lifts, no tummy tucks, just eternal youth. Not a bad deal, as long as you don't believe in the soul.
As long as you don't believe the soul becomes trapped in the vampire's body and can never reach Heaven. Or worse yet, that vampires are inherently evil and you are condemned to Hell. The Catholic Church sees voluntary vampirism as a kind of suicide. I tend to agree. Though the Pope also excommunicated all animators, unless we ceased raising the dead. Fine; I became Episcopalian.
Polished wooden pews ran in two wide rows up towards what would have been an altar. There was a pulpit, but I couldn't call it an altar. It was just a blank blue wall surrounded by more white upsweeping walls.
The windows were red and blue stained glass. The sunlight sparkled through them, making delicate colored patterns on the white floor.
"Peaceful," Ronnie said.
"So are graveyards."
She smiled at me. "I'd thought you'd say that."
I frowned at her. "No teasing; we're here on business."
"What exactly do you want me to do?"
"Just back me up; look menacing if you can manage it. Look for clues."
"Clues?" she asked.
"Yeah, you know, clues, ticket stubs, half-burned notes, leads."
"Quit grinning at me, Ronnie."
She adjusted her sunglasses and did her best "cold" look. She's pretty good at it. Thugs have been known to shrivel at twenty paces. We would see how it worked on church members.
There was a small door to one side of the "altar." It led into a carpeted hallway. The air-conditioned hush enveloped us. There were bathrooms to the left, and an open room to the right. Perhaps this is where they had ... coffee after services. No, probably not coffee. A rousing sermon followed by a little blood, perhaps?
The offices were marked with a little sign that said "Office." How clever. There was an outer office, the proverbial secretarial desk and etc ... A young man sat behind the desk. Slender, short brown hair carefully cut. Wire-frame glasses decorated a pair of really lovely brown eyes. There was a healing bite mark on his throat.
He rose and came around the desk, hand extended, smiling at us. "Greetings, friends, I'm Bruce. How may I help you today?"
The handshake was firm but not too firm, strong but not overbearing, a friendly lingering touch, but not sexual. Really good car salesmen shake hands like that. Real estate brokers, too. I have this nice little soul, hardly used at all. The price is right. Trust me. If his big brown eyes had looked any more sincere, I would have given him a doggie biscuit and patted his head.
"I would like to set up an appointment to speak with Malcolm," I said.
He blinked once. "Have a seat."
I sat. Ronnie leaned against the wall, to one side of the door. Hands folded, looking cool and bodyguardish.
Bruce went back around his desk, after offering us coffee, and sat with folded hands. "Now, Miss ... "
He didn't flinch; he hadn't heard of me. How fleeting fame. "Ms. Blake, why do you wish to meet with the head of our church? We have many competent and understanding counselors that will help you make your decision."
I smiled at him. I'll just bet you do, you little pipsqueak. "I think Malcolm will want to speak with me. I have information about the vampire murders."
His smile slipped. "If you have such information, then go to the police."
"Even if I have proof that certain members of your church are doing the murders?" A small bluff, otherwise known as a lie.
He swallowed, fingers pressing the top of his desk until the fingertips turned white. "I don't understand. I mean ... "
I smiled at him. "Let's just face it, Bruce. You are not equipped to handle murder. It isn't in your training, now is it?"
"Well, no, but ... "
"Then just give me a time to come back tonight and see Malcolm."
"I don't know. I ... "
"Don't worry about it. Malcolm is the head of the church. He'll take care of it."
He was nodding, too rapidly. His eyes flicked to Ronnie, then back to me. He flipped through a leatherbound day planner on his desk. "Nine, tonight." He picked up a pen, poised and ready. "If you'll give me your full name, I'll pencil you in."
I started to point out that he wasn't using a pencil, but decided to let it slide. "Anita Blake."
He still didn't recognize the name. So much for me being the terror of vampireland. "And this is pertaining to?" He was regaining his professionalism.
I stood up. "Murder, it's pertaining to murder."
"Oh, yes, I ... " He scribbled something down. "Nine tonight, Anita Blake, murder." He frowned down at the note as if there were something wrong with it.
I decided to help him out. "Don't frown so. You've got the message right."
He stared up at me. He looked a little pale.
"I'll be back. Make sure he gets the message."
Bruce nodded again, too fast, eyes large behind his glasses.
Ronnie opened the door, and I preceded her out. She brought up the rear like a bad-movie bodyguard. When we were out into the main church again, she laughed. "I think we scared him."
"Bruce scares easy."
She nodded, eyes shining.
The barest mention of violence, murder, and he had fallen apart. When he "grew up," he was going to be a vampire. Sure.
The sunshine was nearly blinding after the dimness of the church. I squinted, putting a hand over my eyes. I caught movement from the corner of my eye.
Ronnie screamed, "Anita!"
Everything slowed down. I had plenty of time to stare at the man and the gun in his hands. Ronnie smashed into me, carrying us both down and back through the church door. Bullets thunked into the door where I'd been.
Ronnie scrambled behind me, near the wall. I had my gun out and lay on my side pressed against the door. My heart was thundering in my ears. Yet I could hear everything. The wrinkle of my windbreaker was like static. I heard the man walk up the steps. The son of a bitch was gonna keep coming.
I inched forward. He walked up the steps. His shadow fell inside the door. He wasn't even trying to hide. Maybe he thought I wasn't armed. He was about to learn different.
Bruce called, "What's going on here?"
Ronnie yelled, "Get back inside."
I kept my eyes on the door. I would not get shot because of Bruce distracted me. Nothing was important but that shadow in the door, the halting footsteps. Nothing.
The man walked right into it. Gun in his hand, eyes searching the church. Amateur.
I could have touched him with the barrel of my gun. "Don't move."
"Freeze" always sounds so melodramatic. Don't move, short, to the point. "Don't move," I said.
He turned just his head, slow, towards me. "You're The Executioner." His voice was soft, hesitant.
Was I supposed to deny it? Maybe. If he had come here to kill The Executioner, definitely. "No," I said.
He started to turn. "Then it must be her." He was turning towards Ronnie. Shit.
He raised his arm and started to point.
"Don't!" Ronnie screamed.
Too late. I fired, point-blank into his chest. Ronnie's shot echoed mine. The impact raised him off his feet and sent him staggering backwards. Blood blossomed on his shirt. He slammed into the half-opened door and fell flat on his back through it. All I could see were his legs.
I hesitated, listening. I couldn't hear any movement. I eased around the door. He wasn't moving, but the gun was still clutched in his hand. I pointed my gun at him and stalked to him. If he had so much as twitched, I would have hit him again.
I kicked the gun out of his hand and checked the pulse in his neck. Nada, zip. Dead.
I use ammunition that can take out vampires, if I get a lucky shot, and if they're not ancient. The bullet had made a small hole on the side it went in, but the other side of his chest was gone. The bullet had done what it was supposed to do; expand, and make a very big exit hole.
His neck lolled to one side. Two bite marks decorated his neck. Dammit! Bite marks or not, he was dead. There wasn't enough left of his heart to thread a needle. A lucky shot. A stupid amateur with a gun.
Ronnie was leaning in the doorway, looking pale. Her gun was pointed at the dead man. Her arms trembled ever so slightly.
She almost smiled. "I don't usually carry a gun during the day, but I knew I'd be with you."
"Is that an insult?" I asked.
"No," she said, "reality."
I couldn't argue with that. I sat down on the cool stone steps; my knees felt weak. The adrenaline was draining out of me, like water from a broken cup.
Bruce was in the doorway, ice pale. "He ... he tried to kill you." His voice cracked with fear.
"Do you recognize him?" I asked.
He shook his head over and over again, rapid jerky movements.
"Are you sure?"
"We ... we do not ... condone violence." He swallowed hard, his voice a cracking whisper. "I don't know him."
The fear seemed genuine. Maybe he didn't know him, but that didn't mean the dead man wasn't a member of the church. "Call the police, Bruce."
He just stood there, staring at the corpse.
"Call the cops, okay?"
He stared at me, eyes glazed. I wasn't sure if he heard me or not, but he went back inside.
Ronnie sat down beside me, staring out at the parking lot. Blood was running down the white steps in tiny rivulets of scarlet.
"Jesus," she whispered.
"Yeah." I still held my gun loose-gripped in my hand. The danger seemed to be over. Guess I could put away the gun. "Thanks for pushing me out of the way," I said.
"You're welcome." She took a deep, shaky breath. "Thanks for shooting him before he shot me."
"Don't mention it. Besides, you got a piece of him, too."
"Don't remind me."
I stared at her. "You all right?"
"No, I'm well and truly scared."
"Yeah." Of course, all Ronnie had to do was stay away from me. I seemed to be the free-fire zone. A walking, talking menace to my friends and coworkers. Ronnie could have died today, and it would have been my fault. She had been a few seconds slower to shoot than I was. Those few seconds could have cost her her life. Of course, if she hadn't been here today, I might have died. One bullet in the chest, and my gun wouldn't have done me a hell of a lot of good.
I heard the distant whoop-whoop of police sirens. They must have been damn close, or maybe it was another killing. Possible. Would the police believe he was just a fanatic trying to kill The Executioner? Maybe. Dolph wouldn't buy it.
The sunshine pressed down around us like bright yellow plastic. Neither of us said a word. Maybe there was nothing left to say. Thank you for saving my life. You're welcome. What else was there?
I felt light and empty, almost peaceful. Numb. I must be getting close to the truth, whatever that was. People were trying to kill me. It was a good sign. Sort of. It meant I knew something important. Important enough to kill for. The trouble was, I didn't know what it was I was supposed to know.
I was back at the church at 8:45 that night. The sky was a rich purple. Pink clouds were stretched across it like cotton candy pulled apart by eager kids and left to melt. True dark was only minutes away. Ghouls would already be out and about. But the vampires had a few heartbeats of waiting left.
I stood on the steps of the church, admiring the sunset. There was no blood left. The white steps were as shiny and new as if this afternoon had never happened. But I remembered. I had decided to sweat in the July heat so I could carry an arsenal. The windbreaker hid not only the shoulder rig and 9mm, plus extra ammo, but a knife on each forearm. The Firestar was snug in the inner pant holster, set for a right-hand cross draw. There was even a knife strapped to my ankle.
Of course, nothing I was carrying would stop Malcolm. He was one of the most powerful master vampires in the city. After seeing Nikolaos and Jean-Claude, I'd say he ranked third. In the company I was judging him against, third wasn't bad. So why confront him? Because I couldn't think of what else to do.
I had left a letter detailing my suspicions about the church and everybody else in a safe deposit box. Doesn't everybody have one? Ronnie knew about it, and there was a letter on the secretary's desk at Animators, Inc. It would go out Monday morning to Dolph, unless I called up to stop it.
One attempt on my life and I was getting all paranoid. Fancy that.
The parking lot was full. People were drifting inside the church in small groups. A few had simply walked up, no cars. I stared hard at them, Vampires, before full dark? But no, just humans.
I zipped the windbreaker partway up. Didn't want to disturb services by flashing a gun.
A young woman, brown hair style-gelled into an artificial wave over one eye, was handing out pamphlets just inside the door. A guide to the service, I supposed. She smiled and said, "Welcome. Is this your first time?"
I smiled back at her, pleasant, as if I wasn't carrying enough weaponry to take out half the congregation. "I have an appointment to see Malcolm."
Her smile didn't change. If anything it deepened, flashing a dimple to one side of her lipsticked mouth. Somehow, I didn't think she knew I'd killed someone today. People don't generally smile at me when they know things like that.
"Just a minute; let me get someone to handle the door." She walked away to tap a young man on the shoulder. She whispered against his cheek and shoved the pamphlets into his hands.
She came back to me, hands smoothing along the burgundy dress she wore. "If you'll follow me?"
She made it a question. What would she do if I said no? Probably look puzzled. The young man was greeting a couple that had just entered the church. The man wore a suit; the woman the proverbial dress, hose, and sandals. They could have been coming to my church, any church. As I followed the woman down the side aisle towards the door, I glanced at a couple dressed in postmodern punk. Or whatever phrase is common now. The girl's hair looked like Frankenstein's Bride done in pink and green. A second glance and I wasn't sure; maybe the pink and green was a guy. If so, his girlfriend's hair was a buzz so close to her head, it looked like stubble.
The Church of Eternal Life attracted a wide following. Diversity, that's the ticket. They appealed to the agnostic, the atheist, the disillusioned mainstreamer, and some who had never decided what they were. The church was nearly full, and it wasn't dark yet. The vampires had yet to show. It had been a long time since I'd seen a church this full, except at Easter, or Christmas. Holiday Christians. A chill tiptoed along my spine.
This was the fullest church I'd been to in years. The vampire church. Maybe the real danger wasn't the murderer. Maybe the real danger was right here in this building.
I shook my head and followed my guide through the door, out of the church, and past the coffee klatch area. There really was coffee percolating on a white-draped table. There was also a bowl of reddish punch that looked a little too viscous to be punch at all.
The woman said, "Would you like some coffee?"
"No, thank you."
She smiled pleasantly and opened the door marked "Office" for me. I went in. No one was there.
"Malcolm will be with you as soon as he wakens. If you like, I can wait with you." She glanced at the door as she said it.
"I wouldn't want you to miss the service. I'll be fine alone."
Her smile flashed into dimple again. "Thank you; I'm sure it will be a short wait." With that she was gone, and I was alone. Alone with the secretary's desk and the leatherbound day planner for the Church of Eternal Life. Life was good.
I opened the planner to the week before the first vampire murder. Bruce, the secretary, had very neat handwriting, each entry very precise. Time, name, and a one-sentence description of the meeting. 10:00, Jason MacDonald, Magazine interview. 9:00, Meeting with Mayor, Zoning problems. Normal stuff for the Billy Graham of Vampirism. Then two days before the first murder there was a notation that was in a different handwriting. Smaller, no less neat. 3:00, Ned. That was all, no last name, no reason for the meeting. And Bruce didn't make the appointment. Methinks we have a clue. Be still, my heart.
Ned was a short form of Edward, just like Teddy. Had Malcolm had a meeting with the hit man of the undead? Maybe. Maybe not. It could be a clandestine meeting with a different Ned. Or maybe Bruce had been away from the desk and someone else had just filled in? I went through the rest of the planner as quickly as I could. Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. Every other entry was in Bruce's large, rolling hand.
Malcolm had met with Edward, if it had been Edward, two days before the first death. If that was true, where did that leave things? With Edward a murderer and Malcolm paying him to do it. There was one problem with that. If Edward had wanted me dead, he'd have done it himself. Maybe Malcolm panicked and sent one of his followers to do it? Could be.
I was sitting in a chair against the wall, leafing through a magazine, when the door opened. Malcolm was tall and almost painfully thin, with large, bony hands that belonged to a more muscular man. His short, curly hair was the shocking yellow of goldfinch feathers. This was what blond hair looked like after nearly three hundred years in the dark.
The last time I had seen Malcolm, he had seemed beautiful, perfect. Now he was almost ordinary, like Nikolaos and her scar. Had Jean-Claude given me the ability to see master vampires' true forms?
Malcolm's presence filled the small room like invisible water, chilling and pricking along my skin, knee-deep and rising. Give him another nine hundred years, and he might rival Nikolaos. Of course, I wouldn't be around to test my little theory.
I stood, and he swept into the room. He was dressed modestly in a dark blue suit, pale blue shirt, and blue silk tie. The pale shirt made his eyes look like robin's eggs. He smiled, angular face, beaming at me. He wasn't trying to cloud my mind. Malcolm was very good at resisting the urge. His entire credibility rested on the fact that he didn't cheat.
"Miss Blake, how good to see you." He didn't offer to shake hands; he knew better. "Bruce left me a very confused message. Something about the vampire murders?" His voice was deep and soothing, like the ocean.
"I told Bruce I have proof that your church is involved with the vampire murders."
"And do you?"
"Yes." I believed it. If he had met with Edward, I had my murderer.
"Hmmm, you are telling the truth. Yet, I know that it is not true." His voice rolled around me, warm and thick, powerful.
I shook my head. "Cheating, Malcolm, using your powers to probe my mind. Tsk, tsk."
He shrugged, hands open at his sides. "I control my church, Miss Blake. They would not do what you have accused them of."
"They raided a freak party last night with clubs. They hurt people." I was guessing on that part.
He frowned. "There is a small faction of our followers who persist in violence. The freak party, as you call it, is an abomination and must be stopped, but through legal channels. I have told my followers this."
"But do you punish them when they disobey you?" I asked.
"I am not a policeman, or a priest, to mete out punishment. "They are not children. They have their own minds."
"I'll bet they do."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" he asked.
"It means, Malcolm, that you are a master vampire. None of them can stand against you. They'll do anything you want them to."
"I do not use mind powers on my congregation."
I shook my head. His power oozed over my arms like a cold wave. He wasn't even trying. It was just spillover. Did he realize what he was doing? Could it actually be an accident?
"You had a meeting two days before the first murder."
He smiled, careful not to show fangs. "I have many meetings."
"I know, you are reeal popular, but you'll remember this meeting. You hired a hit man to kill vampires." I watched his face, but he was too good. There was a flicker in his eyes, unease maybe; then it was gone, replaced by that shining blue-eyed confidence.
"Miss Blake, why are you looking me in the eyes?"
I shrugged. "If you don't try to bespell me, it's safe."
"I have tried to convince you of that on several occasions, but you always played it ... safe. Now you are staring at me; why?" He strode towards me, quick, nearly a blur of motion. My gun was in my hand, no thinking needed. Instinct.
"My," he said.
I just stared at him, quite willing to put a bullet through his chest if he came one step closer.
"You carry at least the first mark, Miss Blake. Some master vampire has touched you. Who?"
I let out my breath in one long sigh. I hadn't even realized I'd been holding it. "It's a long story."
"I believe you." He was suddenly standing near the door again, as if he had never moved. Damn, he was good.
"You hired a man to slay the freak vampires," I said.
"No," he said, "I did not."
It is always unnerving when a person looks so damn blase while I point a gun at them. "You did hire an assassin."
He shrugged. Smiled. "You do not really expect me to do anything but deny that, do you?"
"Guess not." What the heck, might as well ask. "Are you or your church connected in any way to the vampire murders?"
He almost laughed. I didn't blame him. No one in their right mind would just say yes, but sometimes you can learn things from the way a person denies something. The choice of lies can be almost as helpful as the truth.
"No, Miss Blake."
"You did hire an assassin." I made it a statement.
The smile drained from his face, goof. He stared at me, his presence crawling along my skin like insects. "Miss Blake, I believe it is time for you to leave."
"A man tried to kill me today."
"That is hardly my fault."
"He had two vampire bites in his neck."
Again that flicker in the eyes. Unease? Maybe.
"He was waiting for me outside your church. I was forced to kill him on your steps." A small lie, but I didn't want Ronnie further involved.
He was frowning now, a thread of anger like heat oozing through the room. "I am unaware of this, Miss Blake. I will look into it."
I lowered my gun but didn't put it away. You can only hold a person at gunpoint so long. If they aren't afraid, and they aren't going to hurt you, and you aren't going to shoot them, it gets rather silly. "Don't be too hard on Bruce. He doesn't do well around violence."
Malcolm straightened, pulling at his suit jacket. A nervous gesture? Oh, boy. I'd hit a nerve.
"I will look into it, Miss Blake. If he was a member of our church, we owe you an extreme apology."
I stared at him for a minute. What could I say to that? Thank you? It didn't seem appropriate. "I know you hired a hit man, Malcolm. Not exactly good press for your church. I think you are behind the vampire murders. Your hands may not have spilled the blood, but it was done with your approval."
"Please, go now, Miss Blake." He opened the door as he said it.
I walked through, gun still in my hand. "Sure, I'll go, but I won't go away."
He stared down at me, eyes angry. "Do you know what it means to be marked by a master vampire?"
I thought a minute and wasn't sure how to answer it. Truth. "No."
He smiled, and it was cold enough to freeze your heart. "You will learn, Miss Blake. If it becomes too much for you, remember our church is here to help." He closed the door in my face. Softly.
I stared at the door. "And what is that supposed to mean?" I whispered. No one answered me.
I put away my gun and spotted a small door marked "Exit." I took it. The church was softly lit, candles maybe. Voices rose on the night air, singing. I didn't recognize the words. The tune was Bringing in the Sheaves. I caught one phrase: "We will live forever, never more to die."
I hurried to my car and tried not to listen to the song. There was something frightening about all those voices raised skyward, worshipping ... what? Themselves? Eternal youth? Blood? What? Another question that I didn't have an answer to.
Edward was my murderer. The question was, could I turn him over to Nikolaos? Could I turn over a human being to the monsters, even to save myself? Another question that I didn't have an answer for. Two days ago I would have said no. Now I just didn't know.
I didn't want to go back to my apartment. Edward would be coming tonight. Tell him where Nikolaos slept in daylight or he'd force the information from me. Complicated enough. Now, I thought he was my murderer. Very complicated.
The best thing I could think of was to avoid him. That wouldn't work forever, but maybe I'd have a brainstorm and figure it all out. All right, there wasn't much chance of that, but one could always hope.
Maybe Ronnie would have a message for me. Something helpful. God knows I needed all the help I could get. I pulled the car into a service station that had a pay phone out front. I had one of those high-tech answering machines that allowed me to read my messages without having to go home for them. Maybe I could avoid Edward all night, if I slept in a hotel. Sigh. If I'd had any solid proof at all right that minute, I'd have called the police.
I heard the tape whir and click; then, "Anita, it's Willie, they got Phillip. The guy you was with. They're hurtin' him, bad! You gotta come-" The phone went dead, abruptly. Like he'd been cut off.
My stomach tightened. A second message came up. "This is you know who. You've heard Willie's message. Come and get it, animator. I don't really have to threaten your pretty lover, do I?" Nikolaos's laughter filled the phone, scratchy and distant with tape.
There was a loud click and Edward's voice came over the phone. "Anita, tell me where you are. I can help you."
"They'll kill Phillip," I said. "Besides, you aren't on my side, remember."
"I'm the closest thing you've got to an ally."
"God help me, then." I hung up on him, hard. Phillip had tried to defend me last night. Now he was paying for it. I yelled, "Dammit!"
A man pumping gas stared at me.
"What are you looking at?" I nearly yelled that, too. He dropped his eyes and concentrated very hard on filling his tank with gas.
I got behind the wheel of my car and sat there for a few minutes. I was so angry, I was shaking. I could feel the tension in my teeth. Dammit. Dammit! I was too angry to drive. It wouldn't help Phillip if I got in a car accident on the way.
I tried breathing deep gulps of air. It didn't help. I turned the key in the ignition. "No speeding, can't afford to get stopped by the cops. Easy does it, Anita, easy does it." I talk to myself every once in a while. Give myself very good advice. Sometimes I even take it.
I put the car in gear and drove out onto the road-carefully. Anger rode up my back and into my shoulders and neck. I gripped the steering wheel too hard and found that my hands weren't quite healed. Sharp little jabs of pain, but not enough. There wasn't enough pain in the whole world to get rid of the anger.
Phillip was being hurt because of me. Just like Catherine and Ronnie. No more. No freaking more. I was going to get Phillip, save him any way I could; then I was turning the whole blasted thing over to the police. Without proof, yeah, without anything to back it up. I was bailing out before more people got hurt.
The anger was almost enough to hide the fear behind it. If Nikolaos was tormenting Phillip for last night, she might not be too happy with me either. I was going back down those stairs into the master's lair, at night. Didn't seem real bright when you put it that way.
The anger was fading in a wash of cold, skin-shivering fear. "No!" I would not go in there afraid. I held onto my anger with everything I had. This was the closest I'd come to hate in a long time. Hatred; now there's an emotion that'll spread warmth through your body.
Most hatred is based on fear, one way or another. Yeah. I wrapped myself in anger, with a dash of hate, and at the bottom of it all was an icy center of pure terror.
The Circus of the Damned is housed in an old warehouse. Its name is emblazoned across the roof in colored lights. Giant clown figurines dance around the words in frozen pantomime. If you look very closely at the clowns, you notice they have fangs. But only if you look very closely.
The sides of the building are strung with huge plastic cloth signs, like an old-fashioned sideshow. One banner showed a man being hung; "The Death Defying Count Alcourt," it said. Zombies crawled from a graveyard in one picture; "Watch the Dead Rise from the Grave." A very bad drawing showed a man halfway between wolf and man shape; Fabian, the Werewolf. There were other signs. Other attractions. None of them looked very wholesome.
Guilty Pleasures treads a thin line between entertainment and the sadistic. The Circus goes over the edge and down into the abyss.
And here I go inside. Oh, joy in the morning.
Noise hits you at the door. A blast of carnival sound, the push and shove of the crowd, the rustling of hundreds of people. The lights spill and scream in a hundred different colors, all eye-searing, all guaranteed to attract attention, or make you lose your lunch. Of course, maybe that was just my nerves.
The smell is formed of cotton candy, corn dogs, the cinnamon smell of elephant ears, snow cones, sweat, and under it all a neck-ruffling smell. Blood smells like sweet copper pennies, and that smell mingles over everything. Most people don't recognize it. But there is another scent on the air, not just blood, but violence. Of course, violence has no smell. Yet, always here, there is-something. The barest hint of long-closed rooms and rotting cloth.
I had never come here before, except on police business. What I wouldn't have given for a few uniforms right now.
The crowd parted like water in front of a ship. Winter, Mr. Muscles, moved through the people, and instinctively they moved out of his way. I'd have moved out of his way, too, but I didn't think I'd get the chance.
Winter was wearing a proverbial strongman's outfit. It had fake zebra stripes on a white background and left most of his upper body exposed. His legs in the striped leotard rippled and corded, like it was a second skin. His bicep, unflexed, was bigger around than both my arms. He stopped in front of me, towering over me, and knowing it.
"Is your entire family obscenely tall, or is it just you?" I asked.
He frowned, eyes narrowing. I don't think he got it. Oh, well. "Follow me," he said. With that he turned and walked back through the crowd.
I guess I was supposed to follow like a good little girl. Shit. A large blue tent took up one corner of the warehouse. People were lining up, showing tickets. A man was calling out in a booming voice, "Almost show time, folks. Present your tickets and enter. See the hanging man. Count Alcourt will be executed before your very eyes."
I had paused to listen. Winter was not waiting. Luckily, his broad, white back didn't blend with the crowd. I had to trot to catch up with him. I hate having to do that. It makes me feel like a child running after an adult. If a little running was the worst thing I experienced tonight, things would be just hunky-dory.
There was a full-size Ferris wheel, its glowing top nearly brushing the ceiling. A man held a baseball out to me. "Try your luck, little lady."
I ignored him. I hate being called little lady. I glanced at the prizes to be won. It ran long on stuffed animals and ugly dolls. The stuffed toys were mostly predators: soft plush panthers, toddlersize bears, spotted snakes, and giant fuzzytoothed bats.
There was a bald man in white clown makeup selling tickets to the mirror maze. He stared at the children as they went inside his glass house. I could almost feel the weight of his eyes on their backs, like he would memorize every line of their small bodies. Nothing would have gotten me past him into that sparkling river of glass.
The Funhouse was next, more clowns and screams, the shooting whoosh of air. The metal sidewalk leading into its depths buckled and twisted. A little boy nearly fell. His mother dragged him to his feet. Why would any parent bring their child here, to this frightening place?
There was even a haunted house; it was almost funny. Sort of redundant, if you ask me. The whole freaking place was a house of horrors.
Winter had paused before the little door leading into the back areas. He was frowning at me, massive arms almost crossed over equally massive chest. The arms didn't quite fold right, too much muscle for that, but he was trying.
He opened the door. I went inside. The tall, bald man who had been with Nikolaos that first time was standing against the wall, at attention. His handsome, narrow face, the eyes very prominent because there was no hair, nothing much else to stare at, looked at me the way elementary school teachers look at troublemaking children. You must be punished, young lady. But what had I done wrong?
The man's voice was deep, faintly British, cultured, but human. "Search her for weapons before we go down."
Winter nodded. Why talk when gestures will do? His big hands lifted my jacket and took the gun. He shoved one shoulder so that I spun around. He found the second gun, too. Had I really thought they'd let me keep the weapons? Yes, I guess I had. Stupid me.
"Check her arms for knives."
Winter gripped my jacket sleeves like he meant to tear them. "Wait, please. I'll just take the jacket off. You can search it, too, if you like."
Winter took the knives on my arms. The bald-headed man searched the yellow windbreaker for concealed weapons. He didn't find any. Winter patted my legs down, but not well. He missed the knife at my ankle. I had one weapon, and they didn't know it. Bully for me.
Down the long stairs and into the empty throne room. Maybe it showed on my face because the man said, "The master waits for us, with your friend."
The man led the way as he had down the stairs. Winter brought up the rear. Perhaps they thought I would make a break for it. Right. Where would I go?
They stopped at the dungeon. How had I known they would' The bald-headed man knocked on the door twice, not too hard not too soft.
There was silence; then bright, high laughter drifted from inside My skin crawled with the sound. I did not want to see Nikolaos again. I did not want to be in a cell again. I wanted to go home.
The door opened. Valentine made a hand-sweeping motion. "Come in, come in." He was wearing a silver mask this time. A strand of his auburn hair was stuck to the forehead of the mask, sticky with blood.
My heart thudded into my throat. Phillip, are you alive? It was all I could do not to yell out.
Valentine stepped against the door as if waiting for me to pass. I glanced at the nameless bald man. His face was unreadable. He motioned me ahead of him. What could I do? I went.
What I saw stopped me at the top of the steps. I couldn't go farther. I couldn't. Aubrey stood against the far wall, grinning at me. His hair was still golden; his face, bestial. Nikolaos stood in a dress of flowing white that made her skin look like chalk, her hair cotton-white. She was sprinkled with blood, like someone had taken a red ink pen and splattered her.
Her grey-blue eyes stared up at me. She laughed again, rich and pure and wicked. I had no other word for it. Wicked. She caressed a white, blood-spattered hand against Phillip's bare chest. She rolled her fingertip over his nipple, and laughed.
He was chained to the wall at wrist and ankle. His long, brown hair had fallen forward, hiding one eye. His muscular body was covered in bites. Blood rained down his tan skin in thin crimson lines. He stared up at me from that one brown eye, the other hidden in his hair. Despair. He knew he had been brought here to die, like this, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. But there was something I could do. There had to be. God, please let there be!
The man touched my shoulder, and I jumped. The vampires laughed. The man did not. I walked down the steps to stand a few feet in front of Phillip. He wouldn't look at me.
Nikolaos touched his naked thigh and ran her fingers up it. His body tightened, hands clenching into fists.
"Oh, we have been having a fine time with your lover here," Nikolaos said. Her voice was sweet as ever. The child bride incarnate. Bitch.
"He isn't my lover."
She pouted out her lower lip. "Now, Anita, no lying. That's no fun." She stalked towards me, slender hips swaying to some inner dance. She reached for me, and I backed up, bumping into Winter. "Animator, animator," she said. "When will you learn that you cannot fight me?"
I don't think she wanted me to argue, so I didn't.
She reached for me again, with one bloody, dainty hand. "Winter can hold you, if you like."
Stay still, or we hold you down. Great choices. I stayed still. I watched those pale fingers glide towards my face. I ground my fingernails into the palms of my hands. I would not move away from her. I would not move. Her fingers touched my forehead, and I felt the cool wetness of blood. She brushed it down my temple to my cheek and traced her fingers over my lower lip. I think I stopped breathing.
"Lick your lips," she said.
"No," I said.
"Oh, you are a stubborn one. Has Jean-Claude given you this courage?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Her eyes darkened, face clouding over. "Don't be coy, Anita. It does not become you." Her voice was suddenly adult, hot enough to scald. "I know your little secret."
"I don't know what you are talking about," I said, and I meant it. I didn't understand the anger.
"If you like, we can play games for a little while longer." She was suddenly standing beside Phillip, and I hadn't seen her move. "Did that surprise you, Anita? I am still master of this city. I have powers that you and your master have never even dreamed of."
My master? What the hell was she talking about? I didn't have a master.
She rubbed her hands along the side of his chest, over his rib cage. Her hand wiped away the blood to show the skin smooth and untouched. She stood in front of him and didn't come to his collarbone. Phillip had closed his eyes. Her head arched backwards, a glimpse of fangs, lips drawn back in a snarl.
"No." I stepped towards them. Winter's hands descended on my shoulders. He shook his head, slow and careful. I was not to interfere
She drove her fangs into his side. His whole body stiffened, neck arching, arms jerking at the chains.
"Leave him alone!" I drove an elbow into Winter's stomach. He grunted, and his fingers dug into my shoulders until I wanted to scream. His arms enveloped me, tight to his chest, no movement allowed.
She raised her face from Phillip's skin. Blood trickled down her chin. She licked her lips with a tiny pink tongue. "Ironic," she said in a voice years older than the body would ever be. "I sent Phillip to seduce you. Instead, you seduced him."
"We are not lovers." I felt ridiculous with Winter's arms crushing me to his chest.
"Denial will not help either of you," she said.
"What will help us?" I asked.
She motioned, and Winter released me. I stepped away from him, out of reach. It put me closer to Nikolaos, perhaps not an improvement.
"Let us discuss your future, Anita." She began to walk up the steps. "And your lover's future."
I assumed she meant Phillip, and I didn't correct her. The nameless man motioned for me to follow her up the stairs. Aubrey was moving closer to Phillip. They would be alone together. Unacceptable.
Maybe it was the "please." She turned. "Yes," she said.
"May I ask two things?"
She was smiling at me, amused with me. An adult's amusement with a child who had used a new word. I didn't care what she thought of me as long as she did what I wanted. "You may ask," she said.
"That when we go, all the vampires leave this room." She was still staring at me, smiling, so far so good. "And that I be allowed to speak with Phillip privately."
She laughed, high and wild, chimes in a storm wind. "You are bold, mortal. I give you that. I begin to see what JeanClaude sees in you."
I let the comment go because I felt like I was missing part of the meaning. "May I have what I ask, please?"
"Call me master, and you will have it."
I swallowed and it was loud in the sudden stillness. "Please ... master." See, I didn't choke on the word after all.
"Very good, animator, very good indeed." Without her needing to say anything, Valentine and Aubrey went up the steps and out the door. They didn't even argue. That was frightening all on its own.
"I will leave Burchard at the top of the steps. He has human hearing. If you whisper, he won't be able to hear you at all."
"Burchard?" I asked.
"Yes, animator, Burchard, my human servant." She stared at me as if that was significant. My expression didn't seem to please her. She frowned. Then she turned abruptly in a swing of white skirts. Winter followed her like an obedient puppy on steroids.
Burchard, the once nameless man, took up a post in front of the closed door. He stared straight ahead, not at us. Privacy, or as close as we were getting to it.
I went to Phillip and he still wouldn't look at me. His thick, brown hair acted like a kind of curtain between us. "Phillip, what happened?"
His voice was an abused whisper; screaming will do that to you. I had to stand on tiptoe and nearly press my body against his to hear him. "Guilty Pleasures; they took me from there."
"Didn't Robert try to stop them?" For some reason that seemed important. I had only met Robert once, but part of me was angry that he had not protected Phillip. He was in charge of things while Jean-Claude was away. Phillip was one of those things.
"Wasn't strong enough."
I lost my balance and was forced to catch myself, hands flat against his ruined chest. I jerked back, hands held out from me, bloody.
Phillip closed his eyes and leaned back into the wall. His throat worked hard at swallowing. There were two fresh bites on his neck. They were going to bleed him to death if someone didn't get carried away first.
He lowered his head and tried to look at me, but his hair had spilled into both eyes. I wiped the blood on my jeans and went back to stand almost on tiptoe next to him. I brushed the hair back from his eyes, but it spilled forward again. It was beginning to bug me. I combed my fingers through his hair until it stayed out of his face. His hair was softer than it looked, thick and warm with the heat of his body.
He almost smiled. His voice breaking as he whispered, "Few months back, I'd have paid money for this."
I stared at him, then realized he was trying to make a joke. God. My throat felt tight.
Burchard said, "It is time to go."
I stared into Phillip's eyes, perfect brown, torchlight dancing in them like black mirrors. "I won't leave you here, Phillip."
His eyes flickered to the man on the stairs and back to me. Fear turned his face young, helpless. "See you later," he said.
I stepped back from him. "You can count on it."
"It is not wise to keep her waiting," Burchard said.
He was probably right. Phillip and I stared at each other for a handful of moments. The pulse in his throat jumped under his skin like it was trying to escape. My throat ached; my chest was tight. The torchlight flickered in my vision for just a second. I turned away and walked to the steps. We tough-as-nails vampire slayers don't cry. At least, never in public. At least, never when we can help it.
Burchard held the door open for me. I glanced back at Phillip and waved, like an idiot. He watches me go, his eyes too large for his face suddenly, like a child who watches its parent leave the room before all the monsters are gone.
I had to leave him like that-alone, helpless. God help me.
Nikolaos sat in her carved wooden chair, tiny feet swinging off the ground. Charming.
Aubrey leaned against the wall, tongue running over his lips, getting the last bit of blood off them. Valentine stood very still beside him, staring at me.
Winter stood beside me. The prison guard.
Burchard went to stand by Nikolaos, one hand on the back of her chair.
"What, animator, no jokes?" Nikolaos asked. Her voice was still the grown-up version. It was like she had two voices and could change them with a push of a button.
I shook my head. I didn't feel very funny.
"Have we broken your spirit? Taken the fight out of you?"
I stared at her. Anger flared through me like a wave of heat. "What do you want, Nikolaos?"
"Oh, that's much better." Her voice rose and fell, a little-girl giggle at the end of each word. I might never like children again.
"Jean-Claude should be growing weak inside his coffin. Starving, but instead he is strong and well fed. How can this be?"
I didn't have the faintest idea, so I kept quiet. Maybe it was rhetorical?
It wasn't. "Answer me, A-n-i-t-a." She stretched my name out, biting off each syllable.
"I don't know."
"Oh, but you do."
I didn't, but she wasn't going to believe me. "Why are you hurting Phillip?"
"He needed to be taught a lesson, after last night."
"Because he stood up to you?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, "because he stood up to me." She scooted out of the chair and pattered towards me. She did a little turn so the white dress billowed around her. She freaking skipped over to me, smiling. "And because I was angry with you. I torture your lover, and maybe I won't torture you. And perhaps, this demonstration will give you fresh incentive to find the vampire murderer." Her pretty little face was turned up to me, pale eyes gleaming with humor. She was good.
I swallowed hard, and I asked the question I had to ask, "Why were you angry with me?"
She cocked her head to one side. If she hadn't been bloodspattered, it would have been cute. "Could it be that you do not know?" She turned back to Burchard. "What think you, my friend? Is she ignorant?"
He straightened his shoulders and said, "I believe that it is possible."
"Oh, Jean-Claude has been a very naughty boy. Giving the second mark to an unsuspecting mortal."
I stood very still. I was remembering blue, fiery eyes on the stairs, and Jean-Claude's voice in my head. All right, I had suspected it, but I still didn't understand what it meant. "What does the second mark mean?"
She licked her lips, soft like a kitten. "Shall we explain, Burchard? Shall we tell her what we know?"
"If she truly does not know, mistress, we must enlighten her," he said.
"Yes," she said and glided back to the chair. "Burchard, tell her how old you are."
"I am six hundred and three years of age."
I stared at his smooth face and shook my head. "But you're human, not a vampire."
"I have been given the fourth mark and will live as long as my mistress needs me."
"No, Jean-Claude wouldn't do that to me," I said.
Nikolaos made a small shrugging motion with her hands. "I had pressed him very hard. I knew of the first mark to heal you. I suppose he was desperate to save himself."
I remembered the echo of his voice in my head. "I'm sorry. I had no choice." Damn him, there were always choices. "He's been in my dreams every night. What does that mean?"
"He is communicating with you, animator. With the third mark will come more direct mind contact."
I shook my head. "No."
"No what, animator? No third mark, or no you don't believe us?" she asked.
"I don't want to be anyone's servant."
"Have you been eating more than usual?" she asked.
The question was so odd, I just stared for a minute, then I remembered. "Yes. Is that important?"
Nikolaos frowned. "He is siphoning energy from you, Anita. He is feeding through your body. He should be growing weak by now, but you will keep him strong."
"I didn't mean to."
"I believe you," she said. "Last night when I realized what he had done, I was beside myself with anger. So I took your lover."
"Please believe me, he is not my lover."
"Then why did he risk my anger to save you last night? Friendship? Decency? I think not."
All right, let her believe it. Just get us out alive, that was the goal. Nothing else mattered. "What can Phillip and I do to make amends?"
"Oh, so polite, I like that." She put a hand on Burchard's waist, a casual gesture like petting a dog. "Shall we show her what she has to look forward to?"
His whole body tensed as if an electric current had run through it. "If my mistress wishes."
"I do," she said.
Burchard knelt in front of her, face about chest level. Nikolaos looked over his head at me. "This," she said, "is the fourth mark." Her hands went to the small pearl buttons that decorated the front of the white dress. She spread the cloth wide, baring small breasts. They were a child's breasts, small and half-formed. She drew a fingernail beside her left breast. The skin opened like earth behind a plow, spilling blood in a red line down her chest and stomach.
I could not see Burchard's face as he leaned forward. His hands slid around her waist. His face buried between her breasts. She tensed, back arching. Soft, sucking sounds filled the room's stillness.
I looked away, staring at anything but them, as if I had found them having sex but couldn't leave. Valentine was staring at me. I stared back. He tipped an imaginary hat at me and flashed fangs. I ignored him.
Burchard was sitting beside the chair, half-leaning against it. His face was slack and flushed, his chest rising and falling in deep gasps. He wiped blood from his mouth with a shaking hand. Nikolaos sat very still, head back, eyes closed. Perhaps sex wasn't such a bad analogy after all.
Nikolaos spoke with her eyes closed, head thrown back, voice thick. "Your friend, Willie, is back in a coffin. He felt sorry for Phillip. We will have to cure him of such instincts."
She raised her head abruptly, eyes bright, almost glittering, as if they had a light all their own. "Can you see my scar today?"
I shook my head. She was the beautiful child, complete and whole. No imperfections. "You look perfect again, why?"
"Because I am expending energy to make it so. I am having to work at it." Her voice was low and warm, a building heat like thunderstorms in the distance.
The hair at the back of my neck crawled. Something bad was about to happen.
"Jean-Claude has his followers, Anita. If I kill him, they will make him a martyr. But if I prove him weak, powerless, they just fall away and follow me, or follow no one."
She stood, dress buttoned to her neck once more. Her cottonwhite hair seemed to move as if a wind stirred it, but there was no wind. "I will destroy something Jean-Claude has given his protection to."
How fast could I get to the knife on my leg? And what good would it do me?
"I will prove to all that Jean-Claude can protect nothing. I am master of all."
Egocentric bitch. Winter grabbed my arm before I could do anything. Too busy watching the vampires to notice the humans.
"Go," she said. "Kill him."
Aubrey and Valentine stood away from the wall and bowed. Then they were gone, as if they had vanished. I turned to Nikolaos.
She smiled. "Yes, I clouded your mind, and you did not see them go."
"Where are they going?" My stomach was tight. I think I already knew the answer.
"Jean-Claude has given Phillip his protection; thus he must die."
Nikolaos smiled. "Oh, but yes."
A scream ripped through the hallway. A man's scream. Phillip's scream.
"No!" I half-fell to my knees; only Winter's hand kept me from falling to the floor. I pretended to faint, sagging in his grip. He released me. I grabbed the knife from its ankle sheath. Winter and I were close to the hallway, far away from Nikolaos and her human. Maybe far enough.
Winter was staring at her as if waiting for orders. I came up off the ground and drove the knife into his groin. The knife sank in, and blood poured out as I drew the blade free and raced for the hallway.
I was at the door when the first trickle of wind oozed down my back. I didn't look back. I opened the door.
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!"
Aubrey stepped between me and Phillip. He was covered in blood. "I look forward to visiting your lovely friend, Catherine."
I wanted to run at him, screaming. Instead, I leaned against the wall, knife held down at my side, unnoticed. The goal was no longer to get out alive. The goal was to kill Aubrey. "You son of a bitch, you fucking son of a bitch." My voice sounded utterly calm, no emotion whatsoever. I wasn't afraid. I didn't feel anything.
Aubrey's face frowned at me through a mask of Phillip's blood. "Do not say such things to me."
"You ugly, stinking, mother-fucking bastard."
He glided to me, just like I wanted him to. He put a hand on my shoulder. I screamed in his face as loud as I could. He hesitated for just a heartbeat. I shoved the knife blade between his ribs. It was sharp and thin, and I shoved it hilt deep. His body stiffened, leaning into me. Eyes wide and surprised. His mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. He toppled to the floor, fingers grabbing at air.
Valentine was instantly there, kneeling by the body. "What have you done?" He couldn't see the knife. It was shielded by Aubrey's body.
"I killed him, you son of a bitch, just like I'm going to kill you."
Valentine jerked to his feet, started to say something, and all hell broke loose. The cell door crashed inward and smashed to bits against the far wall. A tornado wind blasted into the room.
Valentine dropped to his knees, head touching the floor. He was bowing. I flattened myself against the wall. The wind clawed at my face, tangling my hair in front of my eyes.
The noise grew less, and I squinted up at the door. Nikolaos floated just above the top step. Her hair crackled around her head, like spider silk. Her skin had shrunken against her bones, until she was skeletal. Her eyes glowed, pale blue fire. She started floating down the steps, hands outstretched.
I could see her veins like blue lights under her skin. I ran. Ran for the far wall, and the tunnel the ratmen had used.
The wind threw me against the wall, and I scrambled on hands and feet towards the tunnel. The hole was large, and black, cool air brushed my face, and something grabbed my ankle.
I screamed. The thing that was Nikolaos dragged me back. It slammed me against the wall and pinned my wrists in one clawed hand. The body leaned into my legs, bone under cloth.
The lips had receded, exposing the fangs and teeth. The skeletal head hissed, "You will learn obedience, to me!" It screamed in my face, and I screamed back. Wordlessly, an animal screaming in a trap.
My heart was thudding in my throat. I couldn't breathe. "Nooo!"
The thing shrieked, "Look at me!"
And I did. I fell into the blue fire that was her eyes. The fire burrowed into my brain, pain. Her thoughts cut me up like knives, slicing away parts of me. Her rage scalded and burned until I thought the skin was peeling away from my face. Claws scrapped the inside of my skull, grinding bone into dust.
When I could see again, I was huddled by the wall, and she was standing over me, not touching, not needing to. I was shaking, shaking so badly my teeth chattered. I was cold, so cold.
"Eventually, animator, you will call me master, and you will mean it." She was suddenly kneeling over me. She pressed her slender body over mine, hands pinning my shoulders to the floor. I couldn't move.
The beautiful little girl leaned her face against my cheek and whispered, "I am going to sink fangs into your neck, and there is nothing you can do to stop me."
Her delicate shell of an ear was brushing my lips. I sank teeth into it until I tasted blood. She shrieked and jerked away, blood running down the side of her neck.
Bright razor claws tore through my brain. Her pain, her rage, turning my brain into silly putty. I think I was screaming again, but I couldn't hear it. After a while I couldn't hear anything. Darkness came. It swallowed up Nikolaos and left me alone, floating in the dark.
I woke up, which was a pleasant surprise all on its own. I was blinking up into an electric light set in a ceiling. I was alive, and I wasn't in the dungeon. Good things to know.
Why should it surprise me that I was alive? My fingers caressed the rough, knobby fabric of the couch I was lying on. There was a picture hanging over the couch. A river scene with flatboats, mules, people. Someone came to stand over me, long yellow hair, square-jawed, handsome face. Not as inhumanly beautiful as he had been to me before, but still handsome. I guess you had to be handsome to be a stripper.
My voice came out in a harsh croak. "Robert."
He knelt beside me. "I was afraid you wouldn't wake up before dawn. Are you hurt?"
"Where ... " I cleared my throat and that helped a little. "Where am I?"
"Jean-Claude's office at Guilty Pleasures."
"How did I get here?"
"Nikolaos brought you. She said, 'Here's your master's whore.' " I watched his throat work as he swallowed. It reminded me of something, but I couldn't think what.
"You know what Jean-Claude has done?" I asked.
Robert nodded. "My master has marked you twice. When I speak to you, I am speaking to him."
Did he mean that figuratively or literally? I really didn't want to know.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
There was something in the way he asked it that meant I shouldn't feel all right. My throat hurt. I raised a hand and touched it. Dried blood. On my neck.
I closed my eyes, but that didn't help. A small sound escaped my throat, very like a whimper. Phillip's image was burned on my mind. The blood pouring from his throat, torn pink meat. I shook my head and tried to breathe deep and slow. It was no good. "Bathroom," I said.
Robert showed me where it was. I went inside, knelt on the cool floor, and threw up in the toilet, until I was empty and nothing but bile came up. Then I walked to the sink and splashed cold water in my mouth and on my face. I stared at myself in the mirror above the sink. My eyes looked black, not brown, my skin sickly. I looked like shit and felt worse.
And there on the right side of my neck was the real thing. Not Phillip's healing bite marks, but fang marks. Tiny, diminutive, fang marks. Nikolaos had ... contaminated me. To prove she could harm Jean-Claude's human servant. She had proved how tough she was, oh, yeah. Real tough.
Phillip was dead. Dead. Try the word over in your mind, but could I say it out loud? I decided to try. "Phillip is dead," I told my reflection.
I crumbled the brown paper towel and stuffed it in the metal trash can. It wasn't enough. I screamed, "Ahhh!" I kicked the trash can, over and over until it toppled to the floor, spilling its contents.
Robert came through the door. "Are you all right?"
"Does it look like I'm all right?" I yelled.
He hesitated in the doorway. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"You couldn't even keep them from taking Phillip!"
He winced as if I had hit him. "I did my best."
"Well, it wasn't good enough, was it?" I was still screaming like a mad person. I sank to my knees, and all that rage choked up my throat and spilled out my eyes. "Get out!"
He hesitated. "Are you sure?"
"Get out of here!"
He closed the door behind him. And I sat in the floor and rocked and cried and screamed. When my heart felt as empty as my stomach, I felt leaden, used up.
Nikolaos had killed Phillip and bitten me to prove how powerful she was. I bet she thought I'd be scared absolutely shitless of her. She was right on that. But I spend most of my waking hours confronting and destroying things that I fear. A thousand-year-old master vampire was a tall order, but a girl's got to have a goal.
The club was quiet and dark. There was no one there but me. It must have been after dawn. The club was hushed and full of that waiting silence that all buildings get after the people go home. As if once we leave, the building has a life of its own, if only we would leave it in peace. I shook my head and tried to concentrate. To feel something. All I wanted was to go home and try to sleep. And pray I didn't dream.
There was a yellow Post-it note on the door. It read, "Your weapons are behind the bar. The master brought those, too. Robert."
I put both guns in place and the knives. The one I had used on Winter and Aubrey was missing. Was Winter dead? Maybe. Was Aubrey dead? Hopefully. Usually it took a master vampire to survive a blow to the heart, but I'd never tried it on a fivehundred-year-old walking corpse. If they took the knife out, he might be tough enough to survive it. I had to call Catherine. And tell her what? Get out of town, a vampire is after you. Didn't sound like something she'd buy. Shit.
I walked out into the soft white light of dawn. The street was empty and awash in that gentle morning air. The heat hadn't had time to creep in. It was almost cool. Where was my car? I heard footsteps a second before the voice said, "Don't move. I have a gun pointed at your back."
I clasped my hands atop my head without being asked. "Good morning, Edward," I said.
"Good morning, Anita," he said. "Stand very still, please." He stood just behind me, gun pressing against my spine. He frisked me completely, top to bottom. Nothing haphazard about Edward; that's one of the reasons he's still alive. He stepped back from me, and said, "You may turn around now."
He had my Firestar tucked into his belt, the Browning loose in his left hand. I don't know what he did with the knives.
He smiled, boyish and charming, gun very steadily pointed at my chest. "No more hiding. Where is this Nikolaos?" he asked.
I took a deep breath and let it out. I thought about accusing him of being the vampire murderer, but now didn't seem to be a good time. Maybe later, when he wasn't pointing a gun at me. "May I lower my arms?" I asked.
He gave a slight nod.
I lowered my arms slowly. "I want one thing clear between us, Edward. I'll give you the information, but not because I'm afraid of you. I want her dead. And I want a piece of it."
His smile widened, eyes glittering with pleasure. "What happened last night?"
I glanced down at the sidewalk, then up. I stared into his blue eyes and said, "She had Phillip killed."
He was watching my face very closely. "Go on."
"She bit me. I think she plans on making me a personal servant."
He put his gun back in his shoulder holster and came to stand next to me. He turned my head to one side to see the bite mark better. "You need to clean this bite. It's going to hurt like hell."
"I know. Will you help me?"
"Sure." His smile softened. "Here I was going to cause you pain to get information. Now you ask me to help you pour acid on a wound."
"Holy Water," I said.
"It's going to feel the same," he said.
Unfortunately, he was right.
I sat with my back pressed against the cool porcelain of the bathtub. The front and side of my shirt was clinging to me, water-soaked. Edward knelt beside me, a half-empty bottle of Holy Water in one hand. We were on the third bottle. I had thrown up only once. Bully for me.
We had started with me sitting on the edge of the sink. I had not stayed there long. I had jumped, yelled, and whimpered. I had also called Edward a son of a bitch. He didn't hold it against me.
"How do you feel?" he asked. His face was utterly blank. I couldn't tell if he was enjoying himself or hating it.
I glared up at him. "Like someone's been shoving a red-hot knife against my throat."
"I mean, do you want to stop and rest awhile?"
I took a deep breath. "No. I want it clean, Edward. All the way.'
He shook his head, almost smiled. "It is customary to do this over a matter of days, you know."
"Yes," I said.
"But you want it all in one marathon session?" His gaze was very steady, as if the question were more important than it seemed.
I looked away from the intensity of his eyes. I didn't want to be stared at right now. "I don't have a few days. I need this wound clean before nightfall."
"Because Nikolaos will come visit you again," he said.
"Yes," I said.
"And unless this first wound is purified, she'll have a hold on you."
I took a deep breath and it trembled. "Yes."
"Even if we clean the bite, she may still be able to call you. If she's as powerful as you say she is."
"She's that powerful and more." I rubbed my hands along my jeans. "You think Nikolaos can turn me against you, even if we clean the bite?" I looked up at him then, hoping to be able to read his face.
He stared down at me. "We vampire slayers take our chances."
"That wasn't a no," I said.
He gave a flash of smile. "It wasn't a yes, either."
Oh, goody, Edward didn't know either. "Pour some more on, before I lose my nerve."
He did smile then, eyes gleaming. "You will never lose your nerve. Your life, probably, but never your nerve."
It was a compliment and meant as one. "Thank you."
He put a hand on my shoulder, and I turned my face away. My heart was thudding in my throat until all I could hear was my blood pulsing inside my head. I wanted to run, to lash out, to scream, but I had to sit there and let him hurt me. I hate that. It had always taken at least two people to give me injections when I was a child. One person to man the needle and one to hold me down.
Now I held myself down. If Nikolaos bit me twice, I would probably do anything she wanted me to. Even kill. I had seen it happen before, and that vampire had been child's play compared to the master.
The water trickled down my skin and hit the bite mark like molten gold, scalding through my body. It was eating through my skin and bone. Destroying me. Killing me.
I shrieked. I couldn't hold it. Too much pain. Couldn't run away. Had to scream.
I was lying on the floor, my cheek pressed against the coolness of it, breathing in short, hungry gasps.
"Slow your breathing, Anita. You're hyperventilating. Breathe, slow and easy, or you're going to pass out."
I opened my mouth and took in a deep breath; it wheezed and screamed down my throat. I was choking on air. I coughed and fought to breathe. I was light-headed and a little sick by the time I could take a deep breath, but I hadn't passed out. A zillion brownie points for me.
Edward almost had to lie on the floor to put his face near mine. "Can you hear me?"
I managed, "Yes."
"Good. I want to try to put the cross against the bite. Do you agree or do you think it's too soon?"
If we hadn't cleansed the wound with enough Holy Water, the cross would burn me, and I'd have a fresh scar. I had been brave above and beyond the call of duty. I didn't want to play anymore. I opened my mouth to say, "No," but it wasn't what came out. "Do it," I said. Shit. I was going to be brave.
He brushed my hair away from my neck. I lay on the floor and pressed my hands into fists, trying to prepare myself. There is no real way to prepare yourself for somebody shoving a branding iron into your neck.
The chain rustled and slithered through Edward's hands. "Are you ready?"
No. "Just do it, dammit."
He did. The cross pressed against my skin, cool metal, no burning, no smoke, no seared flesh, no pain. I was pure, or as pure as I started out.
He dangled the crucifix in front of my face. I grabbed it with one hand and squeezed until my hand shook. It didn't take long. Tears seeped from the corners of my eyes. I wasn't crying, not really. I was exhausted.
"Can you sit up?" he asked.
I nodded and forced myself to sit, leaning against the bathtub.
"Can you stand up?" he asked.
I thought about it, and decided no, I didn't think I could. My whole body was weak, shaky, nauseous. "Not without help."
Edward knelt beside me, put an arm behind my shoulders and one under my knees, and lifted me in his arms. He stood in one smooth motion, no strain.
"Put me down," I said.
He looked at me. "What?"
"I am not a child. I don't want to be carried."
He drew a loud breath, then said, "All right." He lowered me to my feet and let go. I staggered against the wall and slid to the floor. The tears were back, dammit. I sat in the floor, crying, too weak to walk from my bathroom to my bed. God!
Edward just stood there, looking down at me, face neutral and unreadable as a cat.
My voice came out almost normal, no hint of crying. "I hate being helpless. I hate it!"
"You are one of the least helpless people I know," Edward said. He knelt beside me again, draped my right arm over his shoulders, grabbed my right wrist with his hand. His other arm encircled my waist. The height difference made it a little awkward, but he managed to give me the illusion that I walked to the bed.
The stuffed penguins sat against the wall. Edward hadn't said anything about them. If he wouldn't mention it, I wouldn't. Who knows, maybe Death slept with a teddy bear? Naw.
The heavy drapes were still closed, leaving the room in permanent twilight. "Rest. I'll stand guard and see that none of the bogeys sneak up on you."
I believed him.
Edward brought the white chair from the living room and sat it against the bedroom wall, near the door. He slipped his shoulder holster back on, gun ready at hand. He had brought a gym bag up from the car with us. He unzipped it and drew out what looked like a miniature machine gun. I didn't know much about machine guns, and all I could think of was an Uzi.
"What kind of gun is that?" I asked.
What do you know? I had been right. He popped the clip and showed me how to load it, where the safety was, all the finer points, like it was a new car. He sat down in the chair with the machine gun on his knees.
My eyes kept fluttering shut, but I said, "Don't shoot any of my neighbors, okay?"
I think he smiled. "I'll try not to."
I nodded. "Are you the vampire murderer?"
He smiled then, bright, charming. "Go to sleep, Anita."
I was on the edge of sleep when his voice called me back, soft and faraway. "Where is Nikolaos's daytime retreat?"
I opened my eyes and tried to focus on him. He was still sitting in the chair, motionless. "I'm tired, Edward, not stupid." His laughter bubbled up around me as I fell asleep.
Jean-Claude sat in the carved throne. He smiled at me and extended one long-fingered hand. "Come," he said.
I was wearing a long, white dress that had lace of its own. I had never dreamed of myself in anything like it. I glanced up at Jean-Claude. It was his choice, not mine. Fear tightened my throat. "It's my dream," I said.
He held out both hands and said, "Come."
And I went to him. The dress whispered and scraped on the stones, a continuous rustling noise. It grated on my nerves. I was suddenly standing in front of him. I raised my hands towards his slowly. I shouldn't do it. Bad idea, but I couldn't seem to stop myself.
His hands wrapped around mine, and I knelt before him. He drew my hands to the lace that spilled down the front of his shirt, forced my fingers to take two handfuls of it.
He cupped his hands over mine, holding them tight; then he ripped his shirt open using my hands.
His chest was smooth and pale with black hair curling in a line down the middle. The hair thickened over the flatness of his stomach, incredibly black against the white of his belly. The burn scar was firm and shiny and out of place against the perfection of his body.
He gripped my chin in one hand, raising my face towards him. His other hand touched his chest, just below his right nipple. He drew blood on his pale skin. It trickled down his chest in a bright, crimson line.
I tried to pull away, but his fingers dug into my jaw like a vise. I shouted, "No!"
I hit at him with my left hand. He caught my wrist and held it. I used my right hand to grip the floor and shoved with my knees. He held me at jaw and wrist like a butterfly on a pin. You can move, but you can't get away. I dropped to a sitting position, forcing him to strangle me or lower me to the ground. He lowered me.
I kicked out with everything I had. Both feet connected with his knee. Vampires can feel pain. He dropped my jaw so suddenly, I fell backwards. He grabbed both my wrists and jerked me to my knees, body pinned on either side by his legs. He sat in the chair, knees controlling my lower body, hands like chains on my wrists.
A high, tinkling laughter filled the room. Nikolaos stood to one side, watching us. Her laughter echoed through the room, growing louder and louder, like music gone mad.
Jean-Claude transferred both my wrists to one hand, and I could not stop him. His free hand stroked my cheek, smoothing down the line of my neck. His fingers tightened at the base of my skull and began to push.
"Jean-Claude, please, don't do this!"
He pressed my face closer and closer to the wound on his chest. I struggled, but his fingers were welded to my skull, a part of me. "NO!"
Nikolaos's laughter changed to words. "Scratch the surface, and we are all much alike, animator."
I screamed, "Jean-Claude!"
His voice came like velvet, warm and dark, sliding through my mind. "Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, two minds with but one body, two souls wedded as one." For one bright, shining moment, I saw it, felt it. Eternity with JeanClaude. His touch ... forever. His lips. His blood.
I blinked and found my lips almost touching the wound in his chest. I could have reached out and licked it. "JeanClaude, no! Jean-Claude!" I screamed it. "God help me!" I screamed that, too.
Darkness and someone gripping my shoulder. I didn't even think about it. Instinct took over. The gun from the headboard was in my hand and turning to point.
A hand trapped my arm under the pillow, pointing the gun at the wall, a body pressing against mine. "Anita, Anita, it's Edward. Look at me!"
I blinked up at Edward, who was pinning my arms. His breathing was coming a little fast.
I stared at the gun in my hand and back at Edward. He was still holding my arms. I guess I didn't blame him.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Say something, Anita."
"I had a nightmare," I said.
He shook his head. "No shit." He released me slowly.
I slid the gun back in its holster.
"Who's Jean-Claude?" he asked.
"You were calling his name."
I brushed a hand over my forehead, and it came away slick with sweat. The clothes I'd slept in and the sheet were drenched with it. These nightmares were beginning to get on my nerves.
"What time is it?" The room looked too dark, as if the sun had gone down. My stomach tightened. If it was near dark, Catherine wouldn't have a chance.
"Don't panic; it's just clouds. You've got about four hours until dusk."
I took a deep breath and staggered into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and neck. I looked ghost-pale in the mirror. Had the dream been Jean-Claude's doing or Nikolaos's? If it had been Nikolaos, did she already control me? No answers. No answers to anything.
Edward was sitting in the white chair when I came back out. He watched me like I was an interesting species of insect that he had never seen before.
I ignored him and called Catherine's office. "Hi, Betty, this is Anita Blake. Is Catherine in?"
"Hello, Ms. Blake. I thought you knew that Ms. Maison is going to be out of town from the thirteenth until the twentieth on a deposition."
Catherine had told me, but I forgot. I finally lucked out. It was about time. "I forgot, Betty. Thanks a lot. Thanks more than you'll ever know."
"Glad to be of help. Ms. Maison has scheduled the first fitting for the bridesmaid dresses on the twenty-third." She said it like it should make me feel better. It didn't.
"I won't forget. Bye."
"Have a nice day."
I hung up and phoned Irving Griswold. He was a reporter for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. He was also a werewolf. Irving the werewolf. It didn't quite work, but then what did? Charles the werewolf, naw. Justin, Oliver, Wilbur, Brent? Nope.
Irving answered on the third ring.
"It's Anita Blake."
"Well, hi, what's up?" He sounded suspicious, as if I never called him unless I wanted something.
"Do you know any wererats?"
He was quiet for almost too long; then, "Why do you want to know?"
"I can't tell you."
"You mean you want my help, but I don't get a story out of it."
I sighed. "That's about it."
"Then why should I help you?"
"Don't give me a hard time, Irving. I've given you plenty of exclusives. My information is what got you your first front page byline. So don't give me grief."
"A little grouchy today, aren't you?"
"Do you know a wererat or don't you?"
"I need to get a message to the Rat King."
He gave a low whistle that was piercing over the phone. "You don't ask for much, do you? I might be able to get you a meeting with the wererat I know, but not their king."
"Give the Rat King this message; got a pencil?"
"Always," he said.
"The vampires didn't get me, and I didn't do what they wanted."
Irving read it back to me. When I confirmed it, he said, "You're involved with vampires and wererats, and I don't get an exclusive."
"No one's going to get this one, Irving. It's going to be too messy for that."
He was silent a moment. "Okay. I'll try to set up a meeting. I should know sometime tonight."
"You be careful, Blake. I'd hate to lose my best source of front page bylines."
"Me, too," I said.
I had no sooner hung up the phone when it rang again. I picked it up without thinking. A phone rings, you pick it up, years of training. I haven't had my answering machine long enough to shake it completely.
"Anita, this is Bert."
"Hi, Bert." I sighed, quietly.
"I know you are working on the vampire case, but I have something you might be interested in."
"Bert, I am way over my head already. Anything else and I may never see daylight." You'd think Bert would ask if I was all right. How I was doing. But no, not my boss.
"Thomas Jensen called today."
My spine straightened. "Jensen called?"
"He's going to let us do it?"
"Not us, you. He specifically asked for you. I tried to get him to take someone else, but he wouldn't do it. And it has to be tonight. He's afraid he'll chicken out."
"Damn," I said softly.
"Do I call him back and cancel, or can you give me a time to have him meet you?"
Why did everything have to come at once? One of life's rhetorical questions. "Have him meet me at full dark tonight."
"That's my girl. I knew you wouldn't let me down."
"I'm not your girl, Bert. How much is he paying you?"
"Thirty thousand dollars. The five-thousand-dollar down payment has already arrived by special messenger."
"You are an evil man, Bert."
"Yes," he said, "and it pays very well, thank you." He hung up without saying good-bye. Mr. Charm.
Edward was staring at me. "Did you just take a job raising the dead, for tonight?"
"Laying the dead to rest actually, but yes."
"Does raising the dead take it out of you?"
"It?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Energy, stamina, strength."
"How about this job? Is it an energy drain?"
I smiled. "Yes."
He shook his head. "You can't afford to be used up, Anita."
"I won't be used up," I said. I took a deep breath and tried to think how to explain things to Edward. "Thomas Jensen lost his daughter twenty years ago. Seven years ago he had her raised as a zombie."
"She committed suicide. No one knew why at the time. It was later learned that Mr. Jensen had sexually abused his daughter and that was why she had killed herself."
"And he raised her from the dead." Edward grimaced. "You don't mean ... "
I waved my hands as if I could erase the sudden vivid image. "No, no, not that. He felt remorseful and raised her to say he was sorry."
"She wouldn't forgive him."
He shook his head. "I don't understand."
"He raised her to make amends, but she had died hating him, fearing him. The zombie wouldn't forgive him, so he wouldn't put her back. As her mind deteriorated and her body, too, he kept her with him as a sort of punishment."
"Yeah," I said. I walked to the closet and got out my gym bag. Edward carried guns in his; I carried my animator paraphernalia in it. Sometimes, I carried my vampire-slaying kit in it. The matchbook Zachary gave me was in the bottom of the bag. I stuffed it in my pants pocket. I don't think Edward saw me. He does catch on if a clue sits up and barks. "Jensen finally agreed to put her in the ground if I'll do it. I can't say no. He's sort of a legend among animators. The closest we come to a ghost story."
"Why tonight? If it's waited seven years, why not a few more nights?"
I kept putting things in the gym bag. "He insisted. He's afraid he'll lose his nerve if he has to wait. Besides, I may not be alive a few nights from now. He might not let anybody else do it."
"That is not your problem. You didn't raise his zombie."
"No, but I am an animator first. Vampire slaying is ... a sideline. I am an animator. It isn't just a job."
He was still staring at me. "I don't understand why, but I understand you have to do it."
He smiled. "Your show. Mind if I come along to make sure no one offs you while you're gone?"
I glanced at him. "Ever see a zombie raising?"
"You're not squeamish, are you?" I smiled when I said it.
He stared at me, blue eyes gone suddenly cold. His whole face became different. There was nothing there, no expression, except that awful coldness. Emptiness. I'd had a leopard look at me like that once, through the cage bars, no emotion I understood, thoughts so alien it might as well have inhabited a different planet. Something that could kill me, skillfully, efficiently, because that was what it was meant to do, if it was hungry, or if I annoyed it.
I didn't faint from fear or run screaming from the room, but it was something of an effort. "You've proved your point, Edward. Can the perfect-killer routine, and let's go."
His eyes didn't revert to normal instantly but had to warm up, like dawn easing through the sky.
I hoped Edward never turned that look on me for real. If he did, one of us would die. Odds are it would be me.
The night was almost perfectly black. Thick clouds hid the sky. A wind rushed along the ground and smelled of rain.
Iris Jensen's grave marker was smooth, white marble. It was a nearly life-size angel, wings outspread, arms open, welcoming. You could still read the lettering by flashlight: "Beloved daughter. Sadly missed." The same man who had had the angel carved, who sadly missed her, had been molesting her. She had killed herself to escape him, and he had brought her back. That was why I was out here in the dark, waiting for the Jensens, not him, but her. Even though I knew her mind was gone by now, I wanted Iris Jensen in the ground and at peace.
I couldn't explain that to Edward, so I hadn't tried. A huge oak stood sentinel over the empty grave. The wind rushed through the leaves and sent them skittering and whispering overhead. It sounded too dry, like autumn leaves instead of summer. The air felt cool and damp, rain almost upon us. It wasn't unbearably hot for once.
I had picked up a pair of chickens. They clucked softly from inside their crate where they sat near the grave. Edward leaned against my car, ankles crossed, arms loose at his sides. The gym bag was open by me on the ground. The machete I used gleamed from inside.
"Where is he?" Edward asked.
I shook my head. "I don't know." It had been almost an hour since full dark. The cemetery grounds were mostly bare; only a few trees dotted the soft roll of hills. We should have been seeing car lights on the gravel road. Where was Jensen? Had he chickened out?
Edward stepped away from the car and walked to stand beside me. "I don't like it, Anita."
I wasn't too thrilled either, but ... "We'll give it another fifteen minutes. If he's not here by then, we'll leave."
Edward glanced around the open ground. "Not much cover around here."
"I don't think we have to worry about snipers."
"You said someone shot at you, right?"
I nodded. He had a point. Goosebumps marched up my arms. The wind blew a hole in the clouds and moonlight streamed down. Off in the distance a small building gleamed silver-grey in the light.
"What's that?" Edward asked.
"The maintenance shed," I said. "You think the grass cuts itself?"
"Never thought about it," he said.
The clouds rolled in again and plunged the cemetery into blackness. Everything became soft shapes; the white marble seemed to glow with its own light.
There was the sound of scrabbling claws on metal. I whirled. A ghoul sat on top of my car. It was naked and looked as if a human being had been stripped and dipped into silver-grey paint, almost metallic. But the teeth and claws on its hands and feet were long and black, curved talons. The eyes glowed crimson.
Edward moved up beside me, gun in his hand.
I had my gun out, too. Practice, practice, and you don't have to think about it.
"What's it doing up there?" he asked.
"Don't know." I waved my free hand at it and said, "Scat!"
It crouched, staring at me. Ghouls are cowards; they don't attack healthy human beings. I took two steps, waving my gun at it. "Go away, shoo!" Any show of force sends them scuttling away. This one just sat there. I backed away.
"Edward," I said, softly.
"I didn't sense any ghouls in this cemetery."
"So? You missed one."
"There's no such thing as just one ghoul. They travel in packs. And you don't miss them. They leave a sort of psychic stench behind. Evil."
"Anita." His voice was soft, normal, but not normal. I glanced where he was looking and saw two more ghouls creeping up behind us.
We stood almost back to back, guns pointing out. "I saw a ghoul attack earlier this week. Healthy man killed, a cemetery where there were no ghouls."
"Sounds familiar," he said.
"Yeah. Bullets won't kill them."
"I know. What are they waiting for?" he asked.
"Courage, I think."
"They're waiting for me," a voice said. Zachary stepped around the trunk of the tree. He was smiling.
I think my mouth dropped to the ground. Maybe that was what he was smiling at. I knew then. He wasn't killing human beings to feed his gris-gris. He was killing vampires. Theresa had tormented him, so she had been the next victim. There were still some questions though, big ones.
Edward glanced at me, then back at Zachary. "Who is this?" he asked.
"The vampire murderer, I presume," I said.
Zachary gave a little bow. A ghoul leaned against his leg, and he stroked its nearly bald head. "When did you guess?"
"Just now. I'm a little slow this year."
He frowned then. "I thought you'd figure it out eventually."
"That's why you destroyed the zombie witness's mind. To save yourself."
"It was fortunate that Nikolaos left me in charge of questioning the man." He smiled when he said it.
"I'll bet," I said. "How did you get the two-biter to shoot me at the church?"
"That was easy. I told him the orders came from Nikolaos."
Of course. "How are you getting the ghouls out of their cemetery? How come they obey your orders?"
"You know the theory that if you bury an animator in a cemetery, you get ghouls."
"When I came out of the grave, they came with me, and they were mine. Mine."
I glanced at the creatures and found that there were more of them. At least twenty, a big pack. "So you're saying that's where ghouls come from." I shook my head. "There aren't enough animators in the world to account for all the ghouls."
"I've been thinking about that," he said. "I think that the more zombies you raise in a cemetery, the greater your chances for ghouls."
"You mean like a cumulative effect?"
"Exactly. I've been wanting to talk this over with another animator, but you see the problem."
"Yes," I said, "I do. Can't talk shop without admitting what you are and what you've done."
Edward fired without warning. The bullet took Zachary in the chest and twisted him around. He lay face down, the ghouls frozen; then Zachary raised himself up on his elbows. He stood with a little help from an anxious ghoul. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but bullets will never hurt me."
"Great, a comedian," I said.
Edward fired again, but Zachary darted behind the tree trunk.
He called, hidden from sight. "Now, now, no hitting the head. I'm not sure what would happen if you put a bullet in my brain."
"Let's find out," Edward said.
"Good-bye, Anita. I won't stay around to watch." He walked away with a troop of ghouls surrounding him. He was crouched in the middle of them, hiding I supposed from a bullet in the brain, but for a minute I couldn't pick him out.
Two more ghouls appeared around the car, crouched low on the gravel drive. One was female with the tatters of a dress still clinging to her.
"Let's give them something to be afraid of," Edward said. I felt him move, and his gun fired twice. A high-pitched squealing filled the night. The ghoul on my car leaped to the ground and hid. But there were more of them moving in from all sides. At least fifteen of them had been left behind for us to play with.
I fired and hit one of them. It fell to its side and rolled in the gravel, making that same high-pitched noise, like a wounded rabbit. Piteous and animal.
"Is there anyplace we can run to?" Edward asked.
"The maintenance shed," I said.
"Is it wood?"
"It won't stop them."
"No," I said, "but it will get us out of the open."
"Okay, any advice before we start to move?"
"Don't run until we are very close to the shed. If you run, they'll chase you. They'll think you're scared."
"Anything else?" he asked.
"You don't smoke, do you?"
"They're afraid of fire."
"Great; we're going to be eaten alive because neither one of us smokes."
I almost laughed. He sounded so thoroughly disgusted, but a ghoul was crouching to leap at me, and I had to shoot it between the eyes. No time for laughter.
"Let's go, slow and easy," I said.
"I wish the machine gun wasn't in the car."
Edward fired three shots, and the night filled with squeals and animal screams. We started walking towards the distant shed. I'd say maybe a quarter of a mile away. It was going to be a long walk.
A ghoul charged us. I dropped it, and it spilled to the grass, but it was like shooting targets, no blood, just empty holes. It hurt, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
I was walking nearly backwards, one hand back feeling Edward's forward movement. There were too many of them. We were not going to make it to the shed. No way. One of the chickens made a soft, questioning cluck. I had an idea.
I shot one of the chickens. It flopped, and the other bird panicked, beating its wings against the wooden crate. The ghouls froze, then one put its face into the air and sniffed.
Fresh blood, boys, come and get it. Fresh meat. Two ghouls were suddenly racing for the chickens. The rest followed, scrambling over each other to crack the wood and get to the juicy morsels inside.
"Keep walking, Edward, don't run, but walk a little faster. The chickens won't hold them long."
We walked a little faster. The sounds of scrambling claws, cracking bone, the splatter of blood, the squabbling howls of the ghouls-it was an unwelcome preview.
Halfway to the shed, a howl went up through the night, long and hostile. No dog ever sounded like that. I glanced back, and the ghouls were rushing over the ground on all fours.
"Run!" I said.
We crashed against the shed door and found the damn thing padlocked. Edward shot the lock off; no time to pick it. The ghouls were close, howling as they came.
We scrambled inside, closing the door, for what good it would do us. There was one small window high up near the ceiling; moonlight suddenly spilled through it. There was a herd of lawnmowers against one wall, some of them hanging from hooks. Gardening shears, hedge trimmers, trowels, a curl of garden hose. The whole shed smelled of gasoline and oily rags.
Edward said, "There's nothing to put against the door, Anita."
He was right. We'd blown the lock off. Where was a heavy object when you needed it? "Roll a lawnmower against it."
"That won't hold them long."
"It's better than nothing," I said. He didn't move, so I rolled a lawnmower against the door.
"I won't die, eaten alive," he said. He put a fresh clip in his gun. "I'll do you first if you want, or you can do it yourself."
I remembered then that I had shoved the matchbook Zachary had given me in my pocket. Matches, we had matches!
"Anita, they're almost here. Do you want to do it yourself?"
I pulled the matchbook out of my pocket. Thank you, God. "Save your bullets, Edward." I lifted a can of gasoline in one hand.
"What are you planning?" he asked.
The howls were crashing around us; they were almost here.
"I'm going to set the shed on fire." I splashed gasoline on the door. The smell was sharp and tugged at the back of my throat.
"With us inside?" he asked.
"I'd rather shoot myself, if it's all the same to you."
"I don't plan to die tonight, Edward."
A claw smashed through the door, talons raking the wood, tearing it apart. I lit a match and threw it on the gasoline-soaked door. It went up with a blue-white whoosh of flame. The ghoul screamed, covered in fire, stumbling back from the ruined door.
The stench of burning flesh mingled with gasoline. Burnt hair. I coughed, putting a hand over my mouth. The fire was eating up the wood of the shed, spreading to the roof. We didn't need more gasoline; the damn thing was a fire trap. With us inside. I hadn't thought it would spread this fast.
Edward was standing near the back wall, hand over his mouth. His voice came muffled. "You did have a plan to get us out, right?"
A hand crashed through the wood, clawing at him. He backed away from it. The ghoul began to tear through the wood, leering at us. Edward shot it between the eyes, and it disappeared from sight.
I grabbed a rake from the far wall. Cinders were beginning to float down on us. If the smoke didn't get us first, the shed was going to collapse on top of us. "Take off your shirt," I said.
He didn't even ask why. Practical to the end. He stripped the shoulder rig off and pulled his shirt over his head, tossed it to me, and slipped the gun over his bare chest.
I wrapped the shirt over the tines of the rake and soaked it with gasoline. I set it on fire from the walls; no need for matches. The front of the shed was raining fire on us. Tiny burning stings like wasps on my skin.
Edward had caught on. He found an axe and started chopping at the hole the ghoul had made. I carried the improvised torch and a can of gasoline in my hands. The thought occurred to me that the heat was going to set the gasoline off. We weren't going to suffocate from smoke; we were going to blow up.
"Hurry!" I said.
Edward squeezed through the opening, and I followed, nearly burning him with the torch. There wasn't a ghoul for a hundred yards. They were smarter than they looked. We ran, and the explosion slammed into my back like a huge wind. I tumbled over into the grass, all the air knocked out of me. Bits of burning wood clattered to the ground on either side of me. I covered my head and prayed. My luck, I'd get caught by a flying nail.
Silence, or no more explosions. I raised my head cautiously. The shed was gone, nothing left. Bits of wood burned in the grass around me. Edward was lying on the ground, nearly touching distance from me. He stared at me. Did my face look as surprised as his did? Probably.
Our improvised torch was slowly setting the grass on fire. He knelt and raised it up.
I found the gasoline can unharmed and got to my feet. Edward followed, carrying the torch. The ghouls seemed to have fled, smart ghouls, but just in case ... We didn't even have to discuss it. Paranoia, we had that in common.
We walked towards the car. The adrenaline was gone, and I was tireder than before. A person only has so much adrenaline; then you start running on numb.
The chicken crate was history; nameless bits and pieces were scattered around the grave. I didn't look any closer. I stopped to pick up my gym bag. It was untouched, just lying there. Edward moved ahead of me and tossed the torch on the gravel driveway. The wind rustled through the trees; then Edward yelled, "Anita!"
I rolled. Edward's gun fired, and something fell squealing on the grass. I stared at the ghoul while Edward pumped bullets into it. When I swallowed my heart back down into my chest, I crawled to the gasoline can and unscrewed it.
The ghoul screamed. Edward was driving the ghoul with the burning torch. I splashed gasoline on the cringing thing, dropped to my knees, and said, "Light it."
Edward shoved the torch home. Fire whooshed over the ghoul, and it started screaming. The night stank of burning meat and hair. And gasoline.
It rolled over and over on the ground trying to put out the fire, but it wouldn't go out.
I whispered, "You're next, Zachary baby. You are next."
The shirt had burned away, and Edward tossed the rake to the ground. "Let's get out of here," he said.
I agreed wholeheartedly. I unlocked the car, tossed my gym bag in the back seat, and started the car. The ghoul was lying on the grass, not moving, burning.
Edward was in the passenger seat with the machine gun in his lap. For the first time since I'd met him, Edward looked shaken. Scared, even.
"You going to sleep with that machine gun?" I asked.
He glanced at me. "You going to sleep with your gun?" he asked.
Point for Edward. I took the narrow gravel turns as quick as I dared. My Nova wasn't built for speed maneuvering. Having a wreck here in the cemetery didn't seem like a real good idea tonight. The headlights bounced over the tombstones, but nothing moved. No ghouls in sight.
I took a deep breath and let it out. This was the second attempt on my life in as many days. Frankly, I'd rather be shot at.
We drove in silence for a long time. It was Edward who finally spoke into the wheel-rushing quiet. "I don't think we should go back to your apartment," he said.
"I'll take you to my hotel. Unless you have someplace else you'd rather go?"
Where could I go? Ronnie's? I didn't want her endangered anymore. Who else could I endanger? No one. No one but Edward, and he could handle it. Maybe better than I could.
My beeper trembled against my waist, sending shock waves all along my rib cage. I hated putting the beeper on silent mode. The damn thing always scared me when it went off.
Edward said, "What the hell happened? You jumped like something bit you."
I hit the button on the beeper, to shut it off and see who had called. The number lit up briefly. "My beeper went off on silent mode. No noise, just vibration."
He glanced at me. "You are not going to call work." He made it sound like a statement or an order.
"Look, Edward, I'm not feeling so hot, so don't argue with me."
I heard his breath ease out, but what could he say? I was driving. Short of drawing his gun and hijacking me, he was along for the ride. I took the next exit and located a pay phone at a convenience store. The store lot was fully lit and made me a wonderful target, but after the ghouls I wanted light.
Edward watched me get out of the car with my billfold gripped in my hand. He did not get out to watch my back. Fine, I had my gun. If he wanted to pout, let him.
I called work. Craig, our night secretary, answered. "Animators, Inc. May I help you?"
"Hi, Craig, this is Anita. What's up?"
"Irving Griswold called, says to call him back ASAP or the meeting's off. He said you'd know what that meant. Do you?"
"Yes. Thanks, Craig."
"You sound awful."
"Good night, Craig." I hung up on him. I felt tired and sluggish, and my throat hurt. I wanted to curl up somewhere dark and quiet for about a week. Instead, I called Irving. "It's me," I said.
"Well, it's about time. Do you know the trouble I've gone through to set this up? You almost missed it."
"If you don't quit talking, I may still miss it. Tell me where and when."
He did. If we hurried, we'd make it. "Why is everyone so hot to do everything tonight?" I said.
"Hey, if you don't want to meet, that's fine."
"Irving, I've had a very, very long night, so stop bitching at me."
"Are you all right?"
What a stupid question. "Not really, but I'll live."
"If you're hurt, I'll try to get the meeting postponed, but I can't promise anything, Anita. It was your message that got him this far."
I leaned my forehead against the metal of the booth. "I'll be there, Irving."
"I won't be." He sounded thoroughly disgusted. "One of the conditions was no reporters and no police."
I had to smile. Poor Irving; he was getting left out of everything. He hadn't been attacked by ghouls and almost blown up, though. Maybe I should save my pity for myself.
"Thanks, Irving, I owe you one."
"You owe me several," he said. "Be careful. I don't know what you're into this time, but it sounds bad."
He was fishing, and I knew it. "Good night, Irving." I hung up before he could ask any more questions.
I called Dolph's home phone number. I don't know why it couldn't wait until morning, but I had almost died tonight. If I did die, I wanted someone to hunt Zachary down.
Dolph answered on the sixth ring. His voice sounded gruff with sleep. "Yes."
"This is Anita Blake, Dolph."
"What's wrong?" His voice sounded almost alert.
"I know who the murderer is."
I told him. He took notes and asked questions. The biggest question came at the end. "Can you prove any of this?"
"I can prove he wears a gris-gris. I can testify that he confessed to me. He tried to kill me; that I witnessed personally."
"It's going to be a tough sell to a jury or a judge."
"I'll see what I can find out."
"We've almost got a solid case on him, Dolph."
"True, but it all hinges on you being alive to testify."
"Yeah, I'll be careful."
"You come down tomorrow and get all this information recorded officially."
"Thanks," I said.
"Good night, Anita."
"Good night, Dolph."
I eased back into the car. "We have a meeting with the wererats in forty-five minutes."
"Why is it so important?" he asked.
"Because I think they can show us a back way into Nikolaos's lair. If we come in the front door, we'll never make it." I started the car and pulled out into the road.
"Who else did you call?" he asked.
So he had been paying attention. "The police."
Edward never likes dealing with the police. Fancy that. "If Zachary manages to kill me, I want someone else to be looking into it."
He was silent for a little while. Then he asked, "Tell me about Nikolaos."
I shrugged. "She's a sadistic monster, and she's over a thousand years old."
"I look forward to meeting her."
"Don't," I said.
"We've killed master vampires before, Anita. She's just one more."
"No. Nikolaos is at least a thousand years old. I don't think I've ever been so frightened of anything in my life."
He was silent, face unreadable.
"What are you thinking?" I asked.
"That I love a challenge." Then he smiled, a beautiful, spreading smile. Shit. Death had seen his ultimate goal. The biggest catch of all. He wasn't afraid of her, and he should have been.
There aren't that many places open at one-thirty A.M., but Denny's is. There was something wrong with meeting wererats in Denny's over coffee and donuts. Shouldn't we have been meeting in some dark alley? I wasn't complaining, mind you. It just struck me as ... funny.
Edward went in first to make sure it wasn't another setup. If he took a table, it was safe. If he came back out, it wasn't safe. Simple. No one knew what he looked like yet. As long as he wasn't with me, he could go anywhere and no one would try to kill him. Amazing. I was beginning to feel like Typhoid Mary.
Edward took a table. Safe. I walked into the bright lights and artificial comfort of the restaurant. The waitress had dark circles under her eyes, cleverly disguised by thick base, which made the circles look sort of pinkish. I looked past her. A man was motioning to me. Hand straight up, finger crooked like he was calling the waitress, or some other subservient.
"I see my party, now. Thanks anyway," I said.
The restaurant was mostly empty in the wee hours of Monday, or rather Tuesday morning. Two men sat at a table in front of the first man. They looked normal enough, but there was a sense of contained energy that seemed to spark in the air around them. Lycanthropes. I would have bet my life on it, and maybe I was.
There was a couple, male and female, sitting catty-corner from the first two. I would have bet money they were lycanthropes, too.
Edward had taken a table near them, but not too near. He had hunted lycanthropes before; he knew what to look for as well.
As I passed the table, one of the men looked up. Pure brown eyes, so dark they were almost black, stared into mine. His face was square, body slender, small build, muscles worked in his arms as he folded his hands under his chin and looked at me. I stared back; then I was past him and to the booth where the Rat King sat.
He was tall, at least six feet, dark brown skin, with thick, shortcut black hair, brown eyes. His face was thin, arrogant, lips almost too soft for the haughty expression he gave me. He was darkly handsome, strongly Mexican, and his suspicion rode the air like lightning.
I eased into the booth. I took a deep, steadying breath and looked across the counter at him.
"I got your message. What do you want?" His voice was soft but deep, without a trace of accent.
"I want you to lead myself and at least one man into the tunnels beneath the Circus of the Damned."
His frown deepened, forming faint wrinkles between his eyes. "Why should I do this for you?"
"Do you want your people free of the master's influence?"
He nodded. Still frowning.
I was really winning him over. "Guide us in through the dungeon entrance, and I'll take care of it"
He clasped his hands together on the table. "How can I trust you?"
"I am not a bounty hunter. I have never harmed a lycanthrope."
"We cannot fight beside you if you go against her. Even I cannot fight her. She calls to me. I don't answer, but I feel it. I can keep the small rats and my people from helping her against you, but that is all."
"Just get us inside. We'll do the rest."
"Are you so confident?"
"I'm willing to bet my life on it," I said.
He steepled his fingers against his lips, elbows on the table. 3 The burn scar in his forearm was still there even in human form, a rough, four-pointed crown. "I'll get you inside," he said.
I smiled. "Thank you."
He stared at me. "When you come back out alive, then you can thank me."
"It's a deal." I held my hand out. After a moment's hesitation, he took it. We shook on it.
"You wish to wait a few days?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I want to go in tomorrow."
He cocked his head to one side. "Are you sure?"
"Why? Is that a problem?"
"You are hurt. I thought you might wish to heal."
I was a little bruised, and my throat hurt, but ... "How did you know?"
"You smell like death has brushed you close tonight"
I stared at him. Irving never does this to me, the supernatural powers bit. I'm not saying he can't, but he works hard at being human. This man did not.
I took a deep breath. "That is my business."
He nodded. "We will call you and give you the place and time."
I stood up. He remained sitting. There didn't seem to be anything else to say, so I left.
About ten minutes later Edward got into the car with me. "What now?" he asked.
"You mentioned your hotel room. I'm going to sleep while I can."
"You take me out and show me how the shotgun works."
"Then?" he asked.
"Then we go after Nikolaos," I said.
He gave a shaky breath, almost a laugh. "Oh, boy."
Oh, boy? "Glad to see someone is enjoying all this."
He grinned at me. "I love my work," he said.
I had to smile. Truth was, I loved my work, too.
During the day I learned how to use a shotgun. That night I went caving with wererats.
The cave was dark. I stood in absolute blackness, gripping my flashlight. I touched my hand to my forehead and couldn't see a damn thing but the funny white images your eyes make when there is no light. I was wearing a hard hat with a light on it, turned off at present. The wererats had insisted on it. All around me were sounds. Cries, moans, the popping of bone, a curious sliding sound like a knife drawing out of flesh. The wererats were changing from human to animal. It sounded like it hurt-a lot. They had made me swear not to turn on a light until they told me to.
I had never wanted to see so badly in my life. It couldn't be so horrible. Could it? But a promise is a promise. I sounded like Horton the Elephant. "A person is a person no matter how small." What the hell was I doing standing in the middle of a cave, in the dark, surrounded by wererats, quoting Dr. Seuss, and trying to kill a one-thousand-year-old vampire?
It had been one of my stranger weeks.
Rafael, the Rat King, said, "You may turn on your lights."
I did, instantly. My eyes seemed to leech on the light, eager to see. The ratmen stood in small groups in the wide, flat-roofed tunnel. There were ten of them. I had counted them in human form. Now the seven males were fur-covered and wearing jean cutoffs. Two wore loose t-shirts. The three women wore loose dresses, like maternity clothes. Their black button eyes glittered in the light. Everybody was furry.
Edward came to stand near me. He was staring at the weres, face distant, unreadable. I touched his arm. I had told Rafael that I was not a bounty hunter, but Edward was, sometimes. I hoped I had not endangered these people.
"Are you ready?" Rafael asked. He was the same sleek black ratman I remembered.
"Yes," I said.
The wererats scattered to either side of us, scrambling over low, weathered flowstone. I said to no one in particular, "I thought caves were damp."
A smaller ratman in a t-shirt said, "Cherokee Caverns is dead cave."
"I don't understand."
"Live cave has water and growing formations. A dry cave where none of the formations are growing is called dead cave."
"Oh," I said.
He drew lips back from huge teeth, a smile, I think. "More than you wanted to know, huh?"
Rafael hissed back, "We are not here to give guided tours, Louie. Now be quiet, both of you."
Louie shrugged and scrambled ahead of me. He was the same human that had been with Rafael in the restaurant, the one with the dark eyes.
One of the females was nearly grey-furred. Her name was Lillian, and she was a doctor. She carried a backpack full of medical supplies. They seemed to be planning on us getting hurt. At least that meant they thought we would come out alive. I was beginning to wonder about that part myself.
Two hours later the ceiling dropped to a point where I couldn't stand upright. And I learned what the hard hats they had given Edward and me were for. I scraped my head on the rock at least a thousand times. I'd have knocked myself unconscious long before we saw Nikolaos.
The rats seemed designed for the tunnel, sliding along, flattening their bodies in a strange, scrambling grace. Edward and I could not match it. Not even close.
He cursed softly behind me. His five inches of extra height were causing him pain. My lower back was an aching burn. He had to be in worse shape. There were pockets where the ceiling opened up and we could stand. I started looking very forward to them, like air pockets to a diver.
The quality of darkness changed. Light-there was light up ahead, not much, but it was there. It flickered at the far end of the tunnel like a mirage.
Rafael crouched beside us. Edward sat flat on the dry rock. I joined him. "There is your dungeon. We will wait here until near dark. If you have not come out, we will leave. After Nikolaos is dead, if we can, we will help you."
I nodded; the light on my hard hat nodded with me. "Thank you for helping us."
He shook his narrow, ratty face. "I have delivered you to the devil's door. Do not thank me for that."
I glanced at Edward. His face was still distant, unreadable. If he was interested in what the ratman had just said, I couldn't tell it. We might as well have been talking about a grocery list.
Edward and I knelt before the opening into the dungeon. Torchlight flickered, incredibly bright after the darkness. Edward was cradling his Uzi that hung on a strap across his chest. I had the shotgun. I was also carrying my two pistols, two knives, and a derringer stuffed in the pocket of my jacket. It was a present from Edward. He had handed it to me with this advice: "It kicks like a sonofabitch, but press it under someone's chin, and it will blow their fucking head off." Nice to know.
It was daylight outside. There shouldn't be a vampire stirring, but Burchard would be there. And if he saw us, Nikolaos would know. Somehow, she'd know. Goosebumps marched up my arms.
We scrambled inside, ready to kill and maim. The room was empty. All that adrenaline sort of sat in my body, making my breathing too quick and my heart pound for no reason. The spot where Phillip had been chained was clean. Someone had scrubbed it down real good.
I fought an urge to touch the wall where he'd been.
Edward called softly, "Anita." He was at the door.
I hurried up to him.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"She killed Phillip in here."
"Keep your mind on business. I don't want to die because you're daydreaming."
I started to get angry and swallowed it. He was right.
Edward tried the door, and it opened. No prisoners, no need to lock it. I took the left side of the door, and he took the right. The corridor was empty.
My hands were sweating on the shotgun. Edward led off down the right hand side of the corridor. I followed him into the dragon's lair. I didn't feel much like a knight. I was fresh out of shiny steeds, or was that shiny armor?
Whatever. We were here. This was it. I could taste my heart in my throat.
The dragon didn't come out and eat us right away. In fact, the place was quiet. As the cliche goes, too quiet.
I stepped close to Edward and whispered, "I don't mean to complain, but where is everybody?"
He leaned his back against the wall and said, "Maybe you killed Winter. That just leaves Burchard. Maybe he's on an errand."
I shook my head. "This is too easy."
"Don't worry. Something will go wrong soon." He continued down the corridor, and I followed. It took me three steps to realize Edward had made a joke.
The corridor opened into a huge room like Nikolaos's throne room, but there was no chair here. There were coffins. Five of them spaced around the room on raised platforms, so they didn't have to sit on the floor in the draft. Tall, iron candelabra burned in the room, one at the foot and head of each coffin.
Most vampires made some effort to hide their coffins, but not Nikolaos.
"Arrogant," Edward whispered.
"Yes," I whispered back. You always whispered around the coffins, at first, as if it were a funeral and they could hear you.
There was a neck-ruffling smell to the room, stale. It caught at the back of my throat and was almost a taste, faintly metallic. It was like the smell of snakes kept in cages. You knew there was nothing warm and furry in this room just by smell. And that really doesn't do it justice. It was the smell of vampires.
The first coffin was dark, well-varnished wood, with golden handles. It was wider at the shoulder area and then narrowed, following the contour of the human body. Older coffins did that sometimes.
"We start here," I said.
Edward didn't argue. He let the machine gun hang by its strap and drew his pistol. "You're covered," he said.
I laid the shotgun on the floor in front of the coffin, gripped the edge of the lid, said a quick prayer, and lifted. Valentine lay in the coffin. His scarred face was bare. He was still dressed as a riverboat gambler but this time in black. His frilly shirt was crimson. The colors didn't look good against his auburn hair. One hand was half-curled over his thigh, a careless sleeper's gesture. A very human gesture.
Edward peered into the coffin, gun pointed ceilingward. "This the one you threw Holy Water on?"
"Did a bang-up job," Edward said.
Valentine never moved. I couldn't even see him breathe. I wiped my sweating palms on my jeans and felt for a pulse in his wrist. Nothing. His skin was cool to the touch. He was dead. It wasn't murder, no matter what the new laws said. You can't kill a corpse.
The wrist pulsed. I jerked back like he'd burned me.
"What's wrong?" Edward asked.
"I got a pulse."
"It happens sometimes."
I nodded. Yeah, it happened sometimes. If you waited long enough, the heart did beat, blood did flow, but so slow that it was painful to watch. Dead. I was beginning to think I didn't know what that meant.
I knew one thing. If night fell with us here, we would die, or wish we had. Valentine had helped kill over twenty people. He had nearly killed me. When Nikolaos withdrew her protection, he'd finish the job if he could. We had come to kill Nikolaos. I think she would withdraw her protection ASAP. As the old saying goes, it was him or me. I preferred him.
I shook off the shoulder straps of the backpack.
"What are you looking for?" Edward asked.
"Stake and hammer," I said without looking up.
"Not going to use the shotgun?"
I glanced up at him. "Oh, right. Why not rent a marching band while we're at it?"
"If you just want to be quiet, there is another way." He had a slight smile on his face.
I had the sharpened stake in my hand, but I was willing to listen. I've staked most of the vampires that I've killed, but it never gets easier. It is hard, messy work, though I don't throw up anymore. I am a professional, after all.
He took a small case out of his own backpack. It held syringes. He drew out an ampule of some greyish liquid. "Silver nitrate," he said.
Silver. Bane of the undead. Scourge of the supernatural. And all nicely modernized. "Does it work?" I asked.
"It works." He filled one syringe and asked, "How old is this one?"
"A little over a hundred," I said.
"Two ought to do it." He shoved the needle into the big vein in Valentine's neck. Before he had filled the syringe a second time, the body shivered. He shoved the second dose into the neck. Valentine's body arched against the walls of the coffin. His mouth opened and closed. He gasped for air as if he were drowning.
Edward filled up another syringe and handed it towards me. I stared at it.
"It isn't going to bite," he said.
I took it gingerly between my thumb and the first two fingers on my right hand.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked.
"I'm not a big fan of needles."
He grinned. "You're afraid of needles?"
I scowled at him. "Not exactly."
Valentine's body shook and bucked, hands thumping against the wooden walls. It made a small, helpless noise. His eyes never opened. He was going to sleep through his own death.
He gave one last shuddering jump, then collapsed against the side of the coffin like a broken rag doll.
"He doesn't look very dead," I said.
"They never do."
"Stake their heart and chop off their heads, and you know they're dead."
"This isn't staking," he said.
I didn't like it. Valentine lay there looking very whole and nearly human. I wanted to see some rotting flesh and bones turning to dust. I wanted to know he was dead.
"No one has ever gotten up out of their coffin after a syringe full of silver nitrate, Anita."
I nodded but remained unconvinced.
"You check the other side. Go on."
I went, but I kept glancing back at Valentine. He had haunted my nightmares for years, nearly killed me. He just didn't look dead enough for me.
I opened the first coffin on my side, one-handed, holding the syringe carefully. An injection of silver nitrate probably wouldn't do me much good either. The coffin was empty. The white imitation silk lining had conformed to the body like a mattress, but the body wasn't there.
I flinched and stared around the room, but there was nothing there. I stared slowly upward, hoping that there was nothing floating above me. There wasn't. Thank you, God.
I remembered to breathe finally. It was probably Theresa's coffin. Yeah, that was it. I left it open and went to the next one. It was a newer model, probably fake wood, but nice and polished. The black male was in it. I had never gotten his name. Now I never would. I knew what it meant, coming in here. Not just defending yourself but taking out the vampires while they lay helpless. As far as I knew, this vampire had never hurt anyone. I laughed then; he was Nikolaos's protege. Did I really think he'd never tasted human blood? No. I pressed the needle against his neck and swallowed hard. I hated needles. No particular reason.
I shoved it in and closed my eyes while I depressed the plunger. I could have pounded a stake through his heart, but sticking a needle in him put cold chills down my spine.
Edward called, "Anita!"
I whirled and found Aubrey sitting up in his coffin. He had Edward by the throat and was slowly lifting him off his feet.
The shotgun was still by Valentine's coffin. Damn! I drew the 9mm and fired at Aubrey's forehead. The bullet tossed his head back, but he just smiled and raised Edward straight-armed, legs dangling.
I ran for the shotgun.
Edward was having to use both hands to keep himself from being strangled by his own weight. He dropped one hand, fumbling for the machine gun.
Aubrey caught his wrist.
I picked up the shotgun, took two steps towards them and fired from three feet away. Aubrey's head exploded; blood and brains spattered over the wall. The hands lowered Edward to the floor but didn't let go. Edward drew a ragged breath. The right hand convulsed around his throat, fingers digging for his windpipe.
I had to step around Edward to fire at the chest. The blast took out the heart and most of the left side of the chest. The left arm sort of hung there by strands of tissue and bone. The corpse flopped back into its coffin.
Edward dropped to his knees, breath wheezing and choking through his throat.
"Nod if you can breathe, Edward," I said. Though if Aubrey had crushed his windpipe I don't know what I could have done. Run back and gotten Lillian the doctor rat, maybe.
Edward nodded. His face was a mottled reddish purple, but he was breathing.
My ears were ringing with the sound of the shotgun inside the stone walls. So much for surprise. So much for silver nitrate. I pumped another round into the gun and went to Valentine's coffin. I blew him apart. Now, he was dead.
Edward staggered to his feet. He croaked, "How old was that thing?"
"Over five hundred," I said.
He swallowed, and it looked like it hurt. "Shit."
"I wouldn't try sticking any needles into Nikolaos."
He managed to glare at me, still half-leaning against Aubrey's coffin.
I turned to the fifth coffin. The one we had saved until last without any talk between us. It was set against the far wall. A dainty white coffin, too small for an adult. Candlelight gleamed on the carvings in the lid.
I was tempted to just blow a hole in the coffin, but I had to see her. I had to see what I was shooting at. My heart started thudding in my throat; my chest was tight. She was a master vampire. Killing them, even in daylight, is a chancy thing. Their gaze can trap you until nightfall. Their minds. Their voices. So much power. And Nikolaos was the most powerful I'd ever seen. I had my blessed cross. I would be all right. I had had too many crosses taken from me to feel completely safe. Oh, well. I tried to raise the lid one-handed, but it was heavy and not balanced for easy opening like modem coffins. "Can you back me on this, Edward? Or are you still relearning how to breathe?"
Edward came to stand beside me. His face looked almost its normal color. He took hold of the lid and I readied the shotgun.
He lifted and the whole lid slid off. It wasn't hinged on.
I said, "Shiiit!"
The coffin was empty.
"Are you looking for me?" A high, musical voice called from the doorway. "Freeze; I believe that is the word. We have the drop on you."
"I wouldn't advise going for your gun," Burchard said.
I glanced at Edward and found his hands close to the machine gun but not close enough. His face was unreadable, calm, normal. Just a Sunday drive. I was so scared I could taste bile at the back of my throat. We looked at each other and raised our hands.
"Turn around slowly," Burchard said.
He was holding a semiautomatic rifle of some kind. I'm not the gun freak Edward is, so I didn't know the make and model, but I knew it'd make a big hole. There was also a sword hilt sticking over his back. A sword, an honest-to-god sword.
Zachary was standing beside him, holding a pistol. He held it two-handed, arms stiff. He didn't seem happy.
Burchard held the rifle like he was born with it. "Drop your weapons, please, and lace your fingers on top of your heads."
We did what he asked. Edward dropped the machine gun, and I lost the shotgun. We had plenty more guns.
Nikolaos stood to one side. Her face was cold, angry. Her voice, when it came, echoed through the room. "I am older then anything you have ever imagined. Did you think daylight holds me prisoner? After a thousand years?" She walked out into the room, careful not to cross in front of Burchard and Zachary. She glanced at the remains in the coffins. "You will pay for this, animator." She smiled then, and I had never seen anything more evil. "Strip them of the rest of their weaponry, Burchard; then we will give the animator a treat."
They stood in front of us but not too close. "Up against the wall, animator," Burchard said. "If the man moves, Zachary, shoot him."
Burchard shoved me into the wall and frisked me very thoroughly. He didn't check my teeth or have me drop my pants, but that was about it. He found everything I was carrying. Even the derringer. He shoved my cross into his pocket. Maybe I could tattoo one on my arm? Probably wouldn't work.
I went out to stand with Zachary, and Edward got his turn. I stared at Zachary. "Does she know?" I asked.
I smiled. "She doesn't, does she?"
Edward came back, and we stood there with our hands on top of our heads, weapons gone. It was not a pretty sight.
Adrenaline was bubbling like champagne, and my pulse was threatening to jump out of my throat. I wasn't afraid of the guns, not really. I was afraid of Nikolaos. What would she do to us? To me? If I had a choice, I'd force them to shoot me. It had to be better than anything Nikolaos had in her evil little mind.
"They are unarmed, Mistress," Burchard said.
"Good," she said. "Do you know what we were doing while you destroyed my people?"
I didn't think she wanted an answer, so I didn't give her one.
"We were preparing a friend of yours, animator."
My stomach jerked. I had a wild image of Catherine, but she was out of town. My god, Ronnie. Did they have Ronnie?
It must have showed on my face because Nikolaos laughed, high and wild, an excited tittering.
"I really hate that laugh," I said.
"Silence," Burchard said.
"Oh, Anita, you are so amusing. I will enjoy making you one of my people." Her voice started high and childlike and ended low enough to crawl down my spine.
She called out in a clear voice, "Enter this room now."
I heard shuffling footsteps; then Phillip walked into the room. The horrible wound at his throat was thick, white scar tissue. He stared around the room as if he didn't really see it.
I whispered, "Dear God."
They had raised him from the dead.
Nikolaos danced around him. The skirt of her pastel pink dress swirled around her. The large, pink bow in her hair bobbed as she twirled, arms outstretched. Her slender legs were covered in white leotards. The shoes were white with pink bows.
She stopped, laughing and breathless. A healthy pink flush on her cheeks, eyes sparkling. How did she do that?
"He looks very alive, doesn't he?" She stalked around him, hand brushing his arm. He drew away from her, eyes following her every move, afraid. He remembered her. God help us. He remembered her.
"Do you want to see him put through his paces?" she asked.
I hoped I didn't understand her. I fought to keep my face blank. I must have succeeded because she stomped over to me, hands on hips.
"Well," she said, "do you want to watch your lover perform?"
I swallowed bile, hard. Maybe I should just throw up on her. That would teach her. "With you?" I asked.
She sidled up to me, hands clasped behind her back. "It could be you. Your choice."
Her face was almost touching mine. Eyes so damned wide and innocent that it seemed sacrilegious. "Neither sounds very appealing," I said.
"Pity." She half-skipped back to Phillip. He was naked, and his tanned body was still handsome. What were a few more scars?
"You didn't know I was going to be here, so why raise Phillip from the dead?" I asked.
She turned on the heels of her little shoes. "We raised him so he could try to kill Aubrey. Murdered zombies can be so much fun, while they try to kill their murderers. We thought we'd give him a chance while Aubrey was asleep. Aubrey can move if you disturb him." She glanced at Edward. "But then you know that."
"You were going to let Aubrey kill him again," I said.
She nodded, head bobbing. "Mmm-uh."
"You bitch," I said.
Burchard shoved the rifle butt into my stomach, and I dropped to my knees. I panted, trying to breathe. It didn't help much.
Edward was staring very fixedly at Zachary, who was holding the pistol square on his chest. You didn't have to be good at that range or even lucky. Just squeeze the trigger and kill someone. Poof.
"I can make you do whatever I please," Nikolaos said.
A fresh spurt of adrenaline rushed through me. It was too much. I threw up in the corner. Nerves and being hit very hard in the stomach with a rifle. Nerves I'd had before; the rifle butt was a new experience.
"Tsk, tsk," Nikolaos said. "Do I frighten you that much?"
I managed to stand up at last. "Yes," I said. Why deny it?
She clapped her hands together. "Oh, goody." Her face shifted gears, instant switch. The little girl was gone, and no amount of pink, frilly dresses would bring her back. Nikolaos's face was thinner, alien. The eyes were great drowning pools. "Hear me, Anita. Feel my power in your veins."
I stood there, staring at the floor, fear like a cold rush on my skin. I waited for something to tug at my soul. Her power to roll me under and away. Nothing happened.
Nikolaos frowned. The little girl was back. "I bit you, animator. You should crawl if I ask it. What did you do?"
I breathed a small, heartfelt prayer, and answered her. "Holy Water."
She snarled. "This time we will keep you with us until after the third bite. You will take Theresa's place. Perhaps then you will be more eager to find out who is murdering vampires."
I fought with everything in me not to glance at Zachary. Not because I didn't want to give him away, I would do that, but I was waiting for the moment when it would help us. It might get Zachary killed, but it wouldn't take out Burchard or Nikolaos. Zachary was the least dangerous person in this whole room.
"I don't think so," I said.
"Oh, but I do, animator."
"I would rather die."
She spread her arms wide. "But I want you to die, Anita, I want you to die."
"That makes us even," I said.
She giggled. The sound made my teeth hurt. If she really wanted to torture me, all she had to do was lock me in a room and laugh at me. Now that would be hell.
"Come on, boys and girls, let's go play in the dungeon." Nikolaos led the way. Burchard motioned for us to follow. We did. Zachary and he brought up the rear, guns in hand. Phillip stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, watching us go.
Nikolaos called back, "Have him follow us, Zachary."
Zachary called, "Come, Phillip, follow me."
He turned and walked after us, his eyes still uncertain and not really focused.
"Go on," Burchard said. He half-raised the rifle, and I went.
Nikolaos called back, "Gazing at your lover; how nice."
It wasn't a long enough walk to the dungeon door. If they tried to chain me to the wall, I'd rush them. I'd force them to kill me. Which meant I'd better rush Zachary. Burchard might wound me or knock me unconscious, and that would be very, very bad.
Nikolaos led us down the steps and out into the floor. What a day for a parade. Phillip followed, but he was looking around now, really seeing things. He froze, staring at the place where Aubrey had killed him. His hand reached out to touch the wall. He flexed his hand, rubbing fingers into his palm as if he was feeling something. A hand went to his neck and found the scar. He screamed. It echoed against the walls.
"Phillip," I said.
Burchard held me back with the rifle. Phillip crouched in the corner, face hidden, arms locked around his knees. He was making a high, keening noise.
"Stop it, stop it!" I walked towards Phillip, and Burchard shoved the gun against my chest. I yelled into his face, "Shoot me, shoot me, dammit! It's got to be better than this."
"Enough," Nikolaos said. She stalked over to me, and I gave ground. She kept walking, forcing me to back up until I bumped against the wall. "I don't want you shot, Anita, but I want you hurt. You killed Winter with your little knife. Let's see how good you really are." She strode away from me. "Burchard, give her back her knives."
He never even hesitated or asked why. He just walked over to me and handed them to me, hilt first. I didn't question it either. I took them.
Nikolaos was suddenly beside Edward. He started to move away. "Kill him if he moves again, Zachary."
Zachary came to stand close, gun out.
"Kneel, mortal," she said.
Edward didn't do it. He glanced at me. Nikolaos kicked him in the bend of the knee hard enough to make him grunt. He dropped to one knee, and she grabbed his right arm and tugged it behind his back. One slender hand grabbed his throat.
"I'll tear out your throat if you move, human. I can feel your pulse like a butterfly beating against my hand." She laughed and filled the room with warm, jostling horror. "Now, Burchard, show her what it means to use a knife."
Burchard went to the far wall, with the door above him at the top of the steps. He laid the rifle on the floor, and unbuckled his sword harness, and laid that beside the rifle. Then he drew a long knife with a nearly triangular blade.
He did some quick stretches to limber his muscles, and I stood staring at him.
I know how to use a knife. I can throw well; I practice that. Most people are afraid of knives. If you show yourself willing to carve someone up, they tend to be afraid of you. Burchard was not most people. He went down into a slight crouch, knife held loose but firm in his right hand.
"Fight Burchard, animator, or this one dies." She pulled his arm, sharp, but he didn't cry out. She could dislocate his shoulder, and Edward wouldn't cry out.
I put the knife back in its right wrist sheath. Fighting with a knife in each hand may look nifty, but I've never really mastered it. A lot of people don't. Hey, Burchard didn't have two knives either. "Is this to the death?" I asked.
"You will not be able to kill Burchard, Anita. So silly. Burchard is only going to cut you. Let you taste the blade, nothing too serious. I don't want you to lose too much blood." There was an undercurrent of laughter in her voice, then it was gone. Her voice crawled through the room like a fire-wind. "I want to see you bleed."
Burchard began to circle me, and I kept the wall at my back. He rushed me, knife flashing. I held my ground, dodging his blade, and slashing at him as he darted in. My knife hit empty air. He was standing out of reach, staring at me. He had had six hundred years of practice, give or take. I couldn't top that. I couldn't even come close.
He smiled. I gave him a slight nod. He nodded back. A sign of respect between two warriors, maybe. Either that, or he was playing with me. Guess which way I voted?
His knife was suddenly there, slicing my arm open. I slashed outward and caught him across the stomach. He darted into me, not away. I dodged the knife and stumbled away from the wall. He smiled. Dammit, he'd wanted to get me out in the open. His reach was twice mine.
The pain in my arm was sharp and immediate. But there was a thin line of crimson on his flat stomach. I smiled at him. His eyes flinched, just a little. Was the mighty warrior uneasy? I hoped so.
I backed away from him. This was ridiculous. We were going to die, piece by piece, both of us. What the hell. I charged Burchard, slashing. It caught him by surprise, and he backpedaled. I mirrored his crouch, and we began to circle the floor.
And I said, "I know who the murderer is."
Burchard's eyebrows raised.
Nikolaos said, "What did you say?"
"I know who is killing vampires."
Burchard was suddenly inside my arm, slicing my shirt. It didn't hurt. He was playing with me.
"Who?" Nikolaos said. "Tell me, or I will kill this human."
"Sure," I said.
Zachary screamed, "No!" He turned to fire at me. The bullet whined overhead. Burchard and I both sank to the floor.
Edward screamed. I half-rose to run to him. His arm was twisted at a funny angle, but he was alive.
Zachary's gun went off twice, and Nikolaos took it away from him, tossing it to the floor. She grabbed him and forced him against her body, bending him at the waist, cradling him. Her head darted downward. Zachary shrieked.
Burchard was on his knees, watching the show. I stabbed my knife into his back. It thunked solid and hilt-deep. His spine stiffened, one hand trying to tear out the blade. I didn't wait to see if he could do it. I drew my other knife and plunged it into the side of his throat. Blood poured down my hand when I took the knife out. I stabbed him again, and he fell slowly forward, face down on the floor.
Nikolaos let Zachary drop to the floor and turned, face bloodstained, the front of her pink dress crimson. Blood spattered on her white leotards. Zachary's throat was torn out. He lay gasping on the floor but still moving, alive.
She stared at Burchard's body, then screamed, a wild banshee sound that wailed and echoed. She rushed me, hands outstretched. I threw the knife, and she batted it away. She hit me, the force of her body slamming me into the floor, her scrambling on top of me. She was still screaming, over and over. She held my head to one side. No mind tricks, brute strength.
I screamed, "Nooo!"
A gun fired, and Nikolaos jerked, once, twice. She rose off me, and I felt the wind. It was creeping through the room like the beginnings of a storm.
Edward leaned against the wall, holding Zachary's dropped gun.
Nikolaos went for him, and he emptied the gun into her frail body. She didn't even hesitate.
I sat up and watched her stalk towards Edward. He threw the empty gun at her. She was suddenly on him, forcing him back into the floor.
The sword lay on the floor, nearly as tall as I was. I drew it out of its sheath. Heavy, awkward, drawing my arm down. I raised it over my head, flat of the blade half resting on my shoulder, and ran for Nikolaos.
She was talking again in a high, sing-song voice. "I will make you mine, mortal. Mine!"
Edward screamed. I couldn't see why. I raised the sword, and its weight carried it down and across, like it was meant to. It bit into her neck with a great wet thunk. The sword grated on bone, and I drew it out. The tip fell to scrape on the floor.
Nikolaos turned to me and started to stand. I raised the sword, and it cut outward, swinging my body with it. Bone cracked, and I fell to the floor as Nikolaos tumbled to her knees. Her head still hung by strips of meat and skin. She blinked at me and tried to stand up.
I screamed and drove the blade upward with everything I had. It took her between the breasts, and I stood running with it, shoving it in. Blood poured. I pinned her against the wall. The blade shoved out her back, scraping along the wall as she slid downward.
I dropped to my knees beside the body. Yes, the body. She was dead!
I looked back at Edward. There was blood on his neck. "She bit me," he said.
I was gasping for air, having trouble breathing, but it was wonderful. I was alive and she wasn't. She fucking wasn't. "Don't worry, Edward, I'll help you. Plenty of Holy Water left." I smiled.
He stared at me a minute, then laughed, and I laughed with him. We were still laughing when the wererats crept in from the tunnel. Rafael, the Rat King, stared at the carnage with black-button eyes. "She is dead."
"Ding dong, the witch is dead," I said.
Edward picked it up, half-singing, "The wicked old witch."
We collapsed into laughter again, and Lillian the doctor, all covered with fur, tended our hurts, Edward first.
Zachary was still lying on the ground. The wound at his throat was beginning to close up, skin knitting together. He would live, if that was the right word.
I picked my knife up off the floor and staggered to him. The rats watched me. No one interfered. I dropped to my knees beside him and ripped the sleeve of his shirt. I laid the gris-gris bare. He still couldn't talk but his eyes widened.
"Remember when I tried to touch this with my own blood? You stopped me. You seemed afraid, and I didn't understand why." I sat beside him and watched him heal. "Every gris-gris has a thing you must do for it, vampire blood for this one, and one thing you must never do, or the magic stops. Poof." I held up my arm, dripping blood quite nicely. "Human blood, Zachary; is that bad?"
He managed a noise like, "Don't."
Blood dripped down my elbow and hung, thick and trembling over his arm. He sort of shook his head, no, no. The blood dripped down and splatted on his arm, but it didn't touch the gris-gris.
His whole body relaxed.
"I've got no patience today, Zachary." I rubbed blood along the woven band.
His eyes flared, showing white. He made a strangling noise in his throat. His hands scrabbled at the floor. His chest jerked as if he couldn't breathe. A sigh ran out of his body, a long whoosh of breath, and he was quiet.
I checked for a pulse; nothing. I cut the gris-gris off with my knife, balled it in my hand, and shoved it in my pocket. Evil piece of work.
Lillian came to bind my arm up. "This is just temporary. You'll, need stitches."
I nodded and got to my feet.
Edward called, "Where are you going?"
"To get the rest of our guns." To find Jean-Claude. I didn't say that part out loud. I didn't think Edward would understand.
Two of the ratmen went with me. That was fine. They could come as long as they didn't interfere. Phillip was still huddled in, the corner. I left him there.
I did get the guns. I strung the machine gun over my shoulders and kept the shotgun in my hands. Loaded for bear. I had killed a one-thousand-year-old vampire. Naw, not me. Surely not.
The ratmen and I found the punishment room. There were six coffins in it. Each had a blessed cross on its lid and silver chains to hold the lid down. The third coffin held Willie, so deeply asleep that he seemed like he would never wake. I left him like that, to wake with the night. To go on about his business. Willie wasn't a bad person. And for a vampire he was excellent.
All the other coffins were empty, only the last one still unopened ... I undid the chains and laid the cross on the ground. Jean-Claude stared up at me. His eyes were midnight fire, his smile gentle. I flashed on the first dream and the coffin filled with blood, him reaching for me. I stepped back, and he rose from the coffin.
The ratmen stepped back, hissing.
"It's all right," I said. "He's sort of on our side."
He stepped from the coffin like he'd had a good nap. He smiled and extended a hand. "I knew you would do it, ma petite."
"You arrogant son of a bitch." I smashed the shotgun butt into his stomach. He doubled over just enough. I hit him in the jaw. He rocked back. "Get out of my mind!"
He rubbed his face and came away with blood. "The marks are permanent, Anita. I cannot take them back."
I gripped the shotgun until my hands ached. Blood began to trickle down my arm from the wound. I thought about it. For one moment, I considered blowing his perfect face away. I didn't do it. I would probably regret it later.
"Can you stay out of my dreams, at least?" I asked.
"That, I can do. I am sorry, ma petite."
"Stop calling me that."
He shrugged. His black hair had nearly crimson highlights in the torchlight. Breathtaking. "Stop playing with my mind, Jean-Claude."
"Whatever do you mean?" he asked.
"I know that the otherworldly beauty is a trick. So stop it."
"I am not doing it," he said.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"When you have the answer, Anita, come back to me, and we will talk."
I was too tired for riddles. "Who do you think you are? Using people like this."
"I am the new master of the city," he said. He was suddenly next to me, fingers touching my cheek. "And you put me upon the throne."
I jerked away from him. "You stay away from me for a while, Jean-Claude, or I swear ... "
"You'll kill me?" he said. He was smiling, laughing at me.
I didn't shoot him. And some people say I have no sense of humor.
I found a room with a dirt floor and several shallow graves. Phillip let me lead him to the room. It was only when we stood staring down at the fresh-turned earth that he turned to me. "Anita?"
"Hush," I said.
"Anita, what's happening?"
He was beginning to remember. He would become more alive in a few hours, up to a point. It would almost be the real Phillip for a day, or two.
"Anita?" His voice was high and uncertain. A little boy afraid of the dark. He grabbed my arm, and his hand felt very real. His eyes were still that perfect brown. "What's going on?"
I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. His skin was warm. "You need to rest, Phillip. You're tired."
He nodded. "Tired," he said.
I led him to the soft dirt. He lay down on it, then sat up, eyes wild, grabbing for me. "Aubrey! He ... "
"Aubrey's dead. He can't hurt you anymore."
"Dead?" He stared down the length of his body as if just seeing it. "Aubrey killed me."
I nodded. "Yes, Phillip."
I held him, rubbing his back in smooth, useless circles. His arms hugged me like he would never let go.
"Hush, hush. It's all right. It's all right."
"You're going to put me back, aren't you?" He drew back so he could see my face.
"Yes," I said.
"I don't want to die."
"You're already dead."
He stared down at his hands, flexing them. "Dead?" he whispered. "Dead?" He lay down on the fresh-turned earth. "Put me back," he said.
And I did.
At the end his eyes closed and his face went slack, dead. He sank into the grave and was gone.
I dropped to my knees beside Phillip's grave, and wept.
Edward had a dislocated shoulder and two broken bones in his arm, plus one vampire bite. I had fourteen stitches. We both healed. Phillip's body was moved to a local cemetery. Every time I work in it, I have to go by and say hello. Even though I know Phillip is dead and doesn't care. Graves are for the living, not the dead. It gives us something to concentrate on instead of the fact that our loved one is rotting under the ground. The dead don't care about pretty flowers and carved marble statues.
Jean-Claude sent me a dozen pure white, long-stemmed roses. The card read, "If you have answered the question truthfully, come dancing with me."
I wrote "No" on the back of the card and slipped it under the door at Guilty Pleasures, during daylight hours. I had been attracted to Jean-Claude. Maybe I still was. So what? He thought it changed things. It didn't. All I had to do was visit Phillip's grave to know that. Oh, hell, I didn't even have to go that far. I know who and what I am. I am The Executioner, and I don't date vampires. I kill them.