What was more important than bagging the critter that had eviscerated an entire family? Nothing, absolutely nothing. But it was a while until full dark, and I had other problems. Would Tommy go back to Gaynor and tell him what I said? Yes. Would Gaynor let it go? Probably not. I needed information. I needed to know how far he would go. A reporter, I needed a reporter. Irving Griswold to the rescue.
Irving had one of those pastel cubicles that passes for an office. No roof, no door, but you got walls. Irving is five-three. I'd like him for that reason if nothing else. You don't meet many men exactly my height. Frizzy brown hair framed his bald spot like petals on a flower. He wore a white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, tie at half-mast. His face was round, pink-cheeked. He looked like a bald cherub. He did not look like a werewolf, but he was one. Even lycanthropy can't cure baldness.
No one on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch knew Irving was a shapeshifter. It is a disease, and it's illegal to discriminate against lycanthropes, just like people with AIDS, but people do it anyway. Maybe the paper's management would have been broad-minded, liberal, but I was with Irving. Caution was better.
Irving sat in his desk chair. I leaned in the doorway of his cubicle. "How's tricks?" Irving said.
"Do you really think you're funny, or is this just an annoying habit?" I asked.
He grinned. "I'm hilarious. Ask my girlfriend."
"I'll bet," I said.
"What's up, Blake? And please tell me whatever it is is on the record, not off."
"How would you like to do an article on the new zombie legislation that's being cooked up?"
"Maybe," he said. His eyes narrowed, suspicion gleamed forth. "What do you want in return?"
"This part is off the record, Irving, for now."
"It figures." He frowned at me. "Go on."
"I need all the information you have on Harold Gaynor."
"Name doesn't ring any bells," he said. "Should it?" His eyes had gone from cheerful to steady. His concentration was nearly perfect when he smelled a story.
"Not necessarily," I said. Cautious. "Can you get the information for me?"
"In exchange for the zombie story?"
"I'll take you to all the businesses that use zombies. You can bring a photographer and snap pictures of corpses."
His eyes lit up. "A series of articles with lots of semi-gruesome pictures. You center stage in a suit. Beauty and the Beast. My editor would probably go for it."
"I thought he might, but I don't know about the center stage stuff."
"Hey, your boss will love it. Publicity means more business."
"And sells more papers," I said.
"Sure," Irving said. He looked at me for maybe a minute. The room was almost silent. Most had gone home. Irving's little pool of light was one of just a few. He'd been waiting on me. So much for the press never sleeps. The quiet breath of the air conditioner filled the early evening stillness.
"I'll see if Harold Gaynor's in the computer," Irving said at last.
I smiled at him. "Remembered the name after me mentioning it just once, pretty good."
"I am, after all, a trained reporter," he said. He swiveled his chair back to his computer keyboard with exaggerated movements. He pulled imaginary gloves on and adjusted the long tails of a tux.
"Oh, get on with it." I smiled a little wider.
"Do not rush the maestro." He typed a few words and the screen came to life. "He's on file," Irving said. "A big file. It'd take forever to print it all up." He swiveled the chair back to look at me. It was a bad sign.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll get the file together, complete with pictures if we have any. I'll deliver it to your sweet hands."
"What's the catch?"
He put his fingers to his chest. "Moi, no catch. The goodness of my heart."
"All right, bring it by my apartment."
"Why don't we meet at Dead Dave's, instead?" he said.
"Dead Dave's is down in the vampire district. What are you doing hanging around out there?"
His sweet cherubic face was watching me very steadily. "Rumor has it that there's a new Master Vampire of the City. I want the story."
I just shook my head. "So you're hanging around Dead Dave's to get information?"
"The vamps won't talk to you. You look human."
"Thanks for the compliment," he said. "The vamps do talk to you, Anita. Do you know who the new Master is? Can I meet him, or her? Can I do an interview?"
"Jesus, Irving, don't you have enough troubles without messing with the king vampire?"
"It's a him then," he said.
"It's a figure of speech," I said.
"You know something. I know you do."
"What I know is that you don't want to come to the attention of a master vampire. They're mean, Irving."
"The vampires are trying to mainstream themselves. They want positive attention. An interview about what he wants to do with the vampire community. His vision of the future. It would be very up-and-coming. No corpse jokes. No sensationalism. Straight journalism."
"Yeah, right. On page one a tasteful little headline: THE MASTER VAMPIRE OF ST. LOUIS SPEAKS OUT."
"Yeah, it'll be great."
"You've been sniffing newsprint again, Irving."
"I'll give you everything we have on Gaynor. Pictures."
"How do you know you have pictures?" I said.
He stared up at me, his round, pleasant face cheerfully blank.
"You recognized the name, you little son of ... "
"Tsk, tsk, Anita. Help me get an interview with the Master of the City. I'll give you anything you want."
"I'll give you a series of articles about zombies. Full-color pictures of rotting corpses, Irving. It'll sell papers."
"No interview with the Master?" he said.
"If you're lucky, no," I said.
"Can I have the file on Gaynor?"
He nodded. "I'll get it together." He looked up at me. "I still want you to meet me at Dead Dave's. Maybe a vamp will talk to me with you around."
"Irving, being seen with a legal executioner of vampires is not going to endear you to the vamps."
"They still call you the Executioner?"
"Among other things."
"Okay, the Gaynor file for going along on your next vampire execution?"
"No," I said.
"Ah, Anita ... "
He spread his hands wide. "Okay, just an idea. It'd be a great article."
"I don't need the publicity, Irving, not that kind anyway."
He nodded. "Yeah, yeah. I'll meet you at Dead Dave's in about two hours."
"Make it an hour. I'd like to be out of the District before full dark."
"Is anybody gunning for you down there? I mean I don't want to endanger you, Blake." He grinned. "You've given me too many lead stories. I wouldn't want to lose you."
"Thanks for the concern. No, no one's after me. Far as I know."
"You don't sound real certain."
I stared at him. I thought about telling him that the new Master of the City had sent me a dozen white roses and an invitation to go dancing. I had turned him down. There had been a message on my machine and an invitation to a black tie affair. I ignored it all. So far the Master was behaving like the courtly gentleman he had been a few centuries back. It couldn't last. Jean-Claude was not a person who took defeat easily.
I didn't tell Irving. He didn't need to know. "I'll see you at Dead Dave's in an hour. I'm gonna run home and change."
"Now that you mention it, I've never seen you in a dress before."
"I had a funeral today."
"Business or personal?"
"Personal," I said.
"Then I'm sorry."
I shrugged. "I've got to go if I'm going to have time to change and then meet you. Thanks, Irving."
"It's not a favor, Blake. I'll make you pay for those zombie articles."
I sighed. I had images of him making me embrace the poor corpse. But the new legislation needed attention. The more people who understood the horror of it, the better chance it had to pass. In truth, Irving was still doing me a favor. No need to let him know that, though.
I walked away into the dimness of the darkened office. I waved over my shoulder without looking back. I wanted to get out of this dress and into something I could hide a gun on. If I was going into Blood Square, I might need it.
Dead Dave's is in the part of St. Louis that has two names. Polite: the Riverfront. Rude: the Blood Quarter. It is our town's hottest vampire commercial district. Big tourist attraction. Vampires have really put St. Louis on the vacation maps. You'd think that the Ozark Mountains, some of the best fishing in the country, the symphony, Broadway level musicals, or maybe the Botanical Gardens would be enough, but no. I guess it's hard to compete with the undead. I know I find it difficult.
Dead Dave's is all dark glass and beer signs in the windows. The afternoon sunlight was fading into twilight. Vamps wouldn't be out until full dark. I had a little under two hours. Get in, look over the file, get out. Easy. Ri-ight.
I had changed into black shorts, royal-blue polo shirt, black Nikes with a matching blue swish, black and white jogging socks, and a black leather belt. The belt was there so the shoulder holster had something to hang on. My Browning Hi-Power was secure under my left arm. I had thrown on a short-sleeved dress shirt to hide the gun. The dress shirt was in a modest black and royal-blue print. The outfit looked great. Sweat trickled down my spine. Too hot for the shirt, but the Browning gave me thirteen bullets. Fourteen if you're animal enough to shove the magazine full and carry one in the chamber.
I didn't think things were that bad, yet. I did have an extra magazine shoved into the pocket of my shorts. I know it picks up pocket lint, but where else was I going to carry it? One of these days I promise to get a deluxe holster with spaces for extra magazines. But all the models I'd seen had to be cut down to my size and made me feel like the Frito Bandito.
I almost never carry an extra clip when I've got the Browning. Let's face it, if you need more than thirteen bullets, it's over. The really sad part was the extra ammo wasn't for Tommy, or Gaynor. It was for Jean-Claude. The Master Vampire of the City. Not that silver-plated bullets would kill him. But they would hurt him, make him heal almost human slow.
I wanted out of the District before dark. I did not want to run into Jean-Claude. He wouldn't attack me. In fact, his intentions were good, if not exactly honorable. He had offered me immortality without the messy part of becoming a vampire. There was some implication that I got him along with eternity. He was tall, pale, and handsome. Sexier than a silk teddy.
He wanted me to be his human servant. I wasn't anyone's servant. Not even for eternal life, eternal youth, and a little compromise of the soul. The price was too steep. Jean-Claude didn't believe that. The Browning was in case I had to make him believe it.
I stepped into the bar and was momentarily blind, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. Like one of those old westerns where the good guy hesitates at the front of the bar and views the crowd. I suspected he wasn't looking for the bad guy at all. He had just come out of the sun and couldn't see shit. No one ever shoots you while you're waiting for your eyes to adjust. I wonder why?
It was after five on a Thursday. Most of the bar stools and all the tables were taken. The place was cheek to jowl with business suits, male and female. A spattering of work boots and tans that ended at the elbow, but mostly upwardly mobile types. Dead Dave's had become trendy despite efforts to keep it at bay.
It looked like happy hour was in high gear. Shit. All the yuppies were here to catch a nice safe glimpse of a vampire. They would be slightly sloshed when it happened. Increase the thrill I guess.
Irving was sitting at the rounded corner of the bar. He saw me and waved. I waved back and started pushing my way towards him.
I squeezed between two gentlemen in suits. It took some maneuvering, and a very uncool-looking hop to mount the bar stool.
Irving grinned broadly at me. There was a nearly solid hum of conversation in the air. Words translated into pure noise like the ocean. Irving had to lean into me to be heard over the murmuring sound.
"I hope you appreciate how many dragons I had to slay to save that seat for you," he said. The faint smell of whiskey breathed along my cheek as he spoke.
"Dragons are easy, try vampires sometimes," I said.
His eyes widened. Before his mouth could form the question, I said, "I'm kidding, Irving." Sheesh, some people just don't have a sense of humor. "Besides, dragons were never native to North America," I said.
"I knew that."
"Sure," I said.
He sipped whiskey from a faceted glass. The amber liquid shimmered in the subdued light.
Luther, daytime manager and bartender, was down at the far end of the bar dealing with a group of very happy people. If they had been any happier they'd have been passed out on the floor.
Luther is large, not tall, fat. But it is solid fat, almost a kind of muscle. His skin is so black, it has purple highlights. The cigarette between his lips flared orange as he took a breath. He could talk around a cig better than anyone I'd ever met.
Irving picked up a scuffed leather briefcase from off the floor near his feet. He fished out a file over three inches thick. A large rubber band wrapped it together.
"Jesus, Irving. Can I take it home with me?"
He shook his head. "A sister reporter is doing a feature on local upstanding businessmen who are not what they seem. I had to promise her dibs on my firstborn to borrow it for the night."
I looked at the stack of papers. I sighed. The man on my right nearly rammed an elbow in my face. He turned. "Sorry, little lady, sorry. No harm done." Little came out liddle, and sorry slushed around the edges.
"No harm," I said.
He smiled and turned back to his friend. Another business type who laughed uproariously at something. Get drunk enough and everything is funny.
"I can't possibly read the file here," I said.
He grinned. "I'll follow you anywhere."
Luther stood in front of me. He pulled a cigarette from the pack he always carried with him. He put the tip of his still burning stub against the fresh cigarette. The end flared red like a live coal. Smoke trickled up his nose and out his mouth. Like a dragon.
He crushed the old cig in the clear glass ashtray he carried with him from place to place like a teddy bear. He chain smokes, is grossly overweight, and his grey hair puts him over fifty. He's never sick. He should be the national poster child for the Tobacco Institute.
"A refill?" he asked Irving.
Luther took the glass, refilled it from a bottle under the- bar, and set it back down on a fresh napkin.
"What can I get for ya, Anita?" he asked.
"The usual, Luther."
He poured me a glass of orange juice. We pretend it is a screwdriver. I'm a teetotaler, but why would I come to a bar if I didn't drink?
He wiped the bar with a spotless white towel. "Gotta message for you from the Master."
"The Master Vampire of the City?" Irving asked. His voice had that excited lilt to it. He smelled news.
"What?" There was no excited lilt to my voice.
"He wants to see you, bad."
I glanced at Irving, then back at Luther. I tried to telepathically send the message, not in front of the reporter. It didn't work.
"The Master's put the word out. Anybody who sees you gives you the message."
Irving was looking back and forth between us like an eager puppy. "What does the Master of the City want with you, Anita?"
"Consider it given," I said.
Luther shook his head. "You ain't going to talk to him, are you?"
"No," I said.
"Why not?" Irving asked.
"None of your business."
"Off the record," he said.
Luther stared at me. "Listen to me, girl, you talk to the Master. Right now all the vamps and freaks are just supposed to tell you the Master wants a powwow. The next order will be to detain you and take ya to him."
Detain, it was a nice word for kidnap. "I don't have anything to say to the Master."
"Don't let this get outta hand, Anita," Luther said. "Just talk to him, no harm."
That's what he thought. "Maybe I will." Luther was right. It was talk to him now or later. Later would probably be a lot less friendly.
"Why does the Master want to talk to you?" Irving asked. He was like some curious, bright-eyed bird that had spied a worm.
I ignored the question, and thought up a new one. "Did your sister reporter give you any highlights from this file? I don't really have time to read War and Peace before morning."
"Tell me what you know about the Master, and I'll give you the highlights."
"Thanks a lot, Luther."
"I didn't mean to sic him on you," he said. His cig bobbed up and down as he spoke. I never understood how he did that. Lip dexterity. Years of practice.
"Would everybody stop treating me like the bubonic fucking plague," Irving said. "I'm just trying to do my job."
I sipped my orange juice and looked at him. "Irving, you're messing with things you don't understand. I cannot give you info on the Master. I can't."
"Won't," he said.
I shrugged. "Won't, but the reason I won't is because I can't."
"That's a circular argument," he said.
"Sue me." I finished the juice. I didn't want it anyway. "Listen, Irving, we had a deal. The file info for the zombie articles. If you're going to break your word, deal's off. But tell me it's off. I don't have time to sit here and play twenty damn questions."
"I won't go back on the deal. My word is my bond," he said in as stagy a voice as he could manage in the murmurous noise of the bar.
"Then give me the highlights and let me get the hell out of the District before the Master hunts me up."
His face was suddenly solemn. "You're in trouble, aren't you?"
"Maybe. Help me out, Irving. Please."
"Help her out," Luther said.
Maybe it was the please. Maybe it was Luther's looming presence. Whatever, Irving nodded. "According to my sister reporter, he's crippled in a wheelchair."
I nodded. Nondirective, that's me.
"He likes his women crippled."
"What do you mean?" I remembered Cicely of the empty eyes.
"Blind, wheelchair, amputee, whatever, old Harry'll go for it."
"Deaf," I said.
"Up his alley."
"Why?" I asked. Clever questions are us.
Irving shrugged. "Maybe it makes him feel better since he's trapped in a chair himself. My fellow reporter didn't know why he was a deviant, just that he was."
"What else did she tell you?"
"He's never even been charged with a crime, but the rumors are real ugly. Suspected mob connections, but no proof. Just rumors."
"Tell me," I said.
"An old girlfriend tried to sue him for palimony. She disappeared."
"Disappeared as in probably dead," I said.
I believed it. So he'd used Tommy and Bruno to kill before. Meant it would be easier to give the order a second time. Or maybe Gaynor's given the order lots of times, and just never gotten caught.
"What does he do for the mob that earns him his two bodyguards?"
"Oh, so you've met his security specialist."
"My fellow reporter would love to talk to you."
"You didn't tell her about me, did you?"
"Do I look like a stoolie?" He grinned at me.
I let that go. "What's he do for the mob?"
"Helps them clean money, or that's what we suspect."
"No evidence?" I said. ,
"None." He didn't look happy about it.
Luther shook his head, tapping his cig into the ashtray. Some ash spilled onto the bar. He wiped it with his spotless towel. "He sounds like bad news, Anita. Free advice, leave him the hell alone."
Good advice. Unfortunately. "I don't think he'll leave me alone."
"I won't ask, I don't want to know." Someone else was frantically signaling for a refill. Luther drifted over to them. I could watch the entire bar in the full-length mirror that took up the wall behind the bar. I could even see the door without turning around. It was convenient and comforting.
"I will ask," Irving said, "I do want to know."
I just shook my head.
"I know something you don't know," he said.
"And I want to know it?"
He nodded vigorously enough to make his frizzy hair bob.
I sighed. "Tell me."
I had about enough. "I have shared all I am going to tonight, Irving. I've got the file. I'll look through it. You're just saving me a little time. Right now, a little time could be very important to me."
"Oh, shucks, you take all the fun out of being a hard-core reporter." He looked like he was going to pout.
"Just tell me, Irving, or I'm going to do something violent."
He half laughed. I don't think he believed me. He should have. "Alright, alright." He brought out a picture from behind his back with a flourish like a magician.
It was a black and white photo of a woman. She was in her twenties, long brown hair down in a modern style, just enough mousse to make it look spiky. She was pretty. I didn't recognize her. The photo was obviously not posed. It was too casual and there was a look to the face of someone who didn't know she was being photographed.
"Who is she?"
"She was his girlfriend until about five months ago," Irving said.
"So she's ... handicapped?" I stared down at the pretty, candid face. You couldn't tell by the picture.
I stared at him. I could feel my eyes going wide. "You can't be serious."
He grinned. "Wheelchair Wanda cruises the streets in her chair. She's very popular with a certain crowd."
A prostitute in a wheelchair. Naw, it was too weird. I shook my head. "Okay, where do I find her?"
"I and my sister reporter want in on this."
"That's why you kept her picture out of the file."
He didn't even have the grace to look embarrassed. "Wanda won't talk to you alone, Anita."
"Has she talked to your reporter friend?"
He frowned, the light of conquest dimming in his eyes. I knew what that meant. "She won't talk to reporters will she, Irving?"
"She's afraid of Gaynor."
"She should be," I said.
"Why would she talk to you and not us?"
"My winning personality," I said.
"Come on, Blake."
"Where does she hang out, Irving?"
"Oh, hell." He finished his dwindling drink in one angry swallow. "She stays near a club called The Grey Cat."
The Grey Cat, like that old joke, all cats are grey in the dark. Cute. "Where's the club?"
Luther answered. I hadn't seen him come back. "On the main drag in the Tenderloin, corner of Twentieth and Grand. But I wouldn't go down there alone, Anita."
"I can take care of myself."
"Yeah, but you don't look like you can. You don't want to have to shoot some dumb shmuck just because he copped a feel, or worse. Take someone who looks mean, save yourself the aggravation."
Irving shrugged. "I wouldn't go down there alone."
I hated to admit it, but they were right. I may be heap big vampire slayer but it doesn't show much on the outside. "Okay, I'll get Charles. He looks tough enough to take on the Green Bay Packers, but his heart is oh so gentle."
Luther laughed, puffing smoke. "Don't let of Charlie see too much. He might faint."
Faint once in public and people never let you forget.
"I'll keep Charles safe." I put more money down on the bar than was needed. Luther hadn't really given me much information this time, but usually he did. Good information. I never paid full price for it. I got a discount because I was connected with the police. Dead Dave had been a cop before they kicked him off the force for being undead. Shortsighted of them. He was still pissed about that, but he liked to help. So he fed me information, and I fed the police selected bits of it.
Dead Dave came out of the door behind the bar. I glanced at the dark glass windows. It looked the same, but if Dave was up, it was full dark. Shit. It was a walk back to my car surrounded by vampires. At least I had my gun. Comforting that.
Dave is tall, wide, short brown hair that had been balding when he died. He lost no more hair but it didn't grow back either. He smiled at me wide enough to flash fangs. An excited wiggle ran through the crowd, as if the same nerve had been touched in all of them. The whispers spread like rings in a pool. Vampire. The show was on.
Dave and I shook hands. His hand was warm, firm, and dry. Have you fed tonight, Dave? He looked like he had, all rosy and cheerful. What did you feed on, Dave? And was it willing? Probably. Dave was a good guy for a dead man.
"Luther keeps telling me you stopped by but it's always in daylight. Nice to see you're slumming after dark."
"Truthfully, I planned to be out of the District before full dark."
He frowned. "You packing?"
I gave him a discreet glimpse of my gun.
Irving's eyes widened. "You're carrying a gun." It only sounded like he shouted it.
The noise level had died down to a waiting murmur. Quiet enough for people to overbear. But then, that's why they had come, to listen to the vampire. To tell their troubles to the dead. I lowered my voice and said, "Announce it to the world, Irving."
He shrugged. "Sorry."
"How do you know newsboy over here?" Dave asked.
"He helps me sometimes with research."
"Research, well la-de-da." He smiled without showing any fang. A trick you learn after a few years. "Luther give you the message?"
"You going to be smart or dumb?"
Dave is soma blunt, but I like him anyway. "Dumb probably," I said.
"Just because you got a special relationship with the new Master, don't let it fool you. He's still a master vampire. They are freaking bad news. Don't fuck with him."
"I'm trying to avoid it."
Dave smiled broad enough to show fang. "Shit, you mean ... Naw, he wants you for more than good tail."
It was nice to know he thought I'd be good tail. I guess. "Yeah," I said.
Irving was practically bouncing in his seat. "What the hell is going on, Anita?"
Very good question. "My business, not yours."
"Anita ... "
"Stop pestering me, Irving. I mean it."
"Pestering? I haven't heard that word since my grandmother."
I looked him straight in the eyes and said, carefully, "Leave me the fuck alone. That better?"
He put his hands out in an I-give-up gesture. "Heh, just trying to do my job."
"Well, do it somewhere else."
I slid off the bar stool.
"The word's out to find you, Anita," Dave said. "Some of the other vampires might get overzealous."
"You mean try to take me?"
"I'm armed, cross and all. I'll be okay."
"You want me to walk you to your car?" Dave asked.
I stared into his brown eyes and smiled. "Thanks, Dave, I'll remember the offer, but I'm a big girl." Truth was a lot of the vampires didn't like Dave feeding information to the enemy. I was the Executioner. If a vampire stepped over the line, they sent for me. There was no such thing as a life sentence for a vamp. Death or nothing. No prison can hold a vampire.
California tried, but one master vampire got loose. He killed twenty-five people in a one-night bloodbath. He didn't feed, he just killed. Guess he was pissed about being locked up. They'd put crosses over the doors and on the guards. Crosses don't work unless you believe in them. And they certainly don't work once a master vampire has convinced you to take them off.
I was the vampire's equivalent of an electric chair. They didn't like me much. Surprise, surprise.
"I'll be with her," Irving said. He put money down on the bar and stood up. I had the bulky file under my arm. I guess he wasn't going to let it out of his sight. Great.
"She'll probably have to protect you, too," Dave said.
Irving started to say something, then thought better of it. He could say, but I'm a lycanthrope, except he didn't want people to know. He worked very, very hard at appearing human.
"You sure you'll be okay?" he asked. One more chance for a vampire guard to my car.
He was offering to protect me from the Master. Dave hadn't . been dead ten years. He wasn't good enough. "Nice to know you care, Dave."
"Go on, get outta here," he said.
"Watch yourself, girl," Luther said.
I smiled brightly at both of them, then turned and walked out of the near silent bar. The crowd couldn't have overheard much, if any, of the conversation, but I could feel them staring at my back. I resisted an urge to whirl around and go "boo." I bet somebody would have screamed.
It's the cross-shaped scar on my arm. Only vampires have them, right? A cross shoved into unclean flesh. Mine had been a branding iron specially made. A now dead master vampire had ordered it. Thought it would be funny. Hardyhar.
Or maybe it was just Dave. Maybe they hadn't noticed the scar. Maybe I was overly sensitive. Make friendly with a nice law-abiding vampire, and people get suspicious. Have a few funny scars and people wonder if you're human. But that's okay. Suspicion is healthy. It'll keep you alive.
The sweltering darkness closed around me like a hot, sticky fist. A streetlight formed a puddle of brilliance on the sidewalk, as if the light had melted. All the streetlights are reproductions of turn-of-the-century gas lamps. They rise black and graceful, but not quite authentic. Like a Halloween costume. It looks good but is too comfortable to be real.
The night sky was like a dark presence over the tall brick buildings, but the streetlights held the darkness back. Like a black tent held up by sticks of light. You had the sense of darkness without the reality.
I started walking for the parking garage just off First Street. Parking on the Riverfront is damn near impossible. The tourists have only made the problem worse.
The hard soles of Irving's dress shoes made a loud, echoing noise on the stone of the street. Real cobblestones. Streets meant for horses, not cars. It made parking a bitch, but it was ... charming.
My Nike Airs made almost no sound on the street. Irving was like a clattery puppy beside me. Most lycanthropes I've met have been stealthy. Irving may have been a werewolf but he was more dog. A big, fun-loving dog.
Couples and small groups passed us, laughing, talking, voices too shrill. They had come to see vampires. Real live vampires, or was that real-dead vampires? Tourists, all of them. Amateurs. Voyeurs. I had seen more undead than any of them. I'd lay money on that. The fascination escaped me.
It was full dark now. Dolph and the gang would be awaiting me at Burrell Cemetery. I needed to get over there. What about the file on Gaynor? And what was I going to do with Irving? Sometimes my life is too full.
A figure detached itself from the darkened buildings. I couldn't tell if he had been waiting or had simply appeared. Magic. I froze, like a rabbit caught in headlights, staring.
"What's wrong, Blake?" Irving asked.
I handed him the file and he took it, looking puzzled. I wanted my hands free in case I had to go for my gun. It probably wouldn't come to that. Probably.
Jean-Claude, Master Vampire of the City, walked towards us. He moved like a dancer, or a cat, a smooth, gliding walk. Energy and grace contained, waiting to explode into violence.
He wasn't that tall, maybe five-eleven. His shirt was so white, it gleamed. The shirt was loose, long, full sleeves made tight at the wrist by three-buttoned cuffs. The front of the shirt had only a string to close the throat. He'd left it untied, and the white cloth framed the pale smoothness of his chest. The shirt was tucked into tight black jeans, and only that kept it from billowing around him like a cape.
His hair was perfectly black, curling softly around his face. The eyes, if you dared to look into them, were a blue so dark it was almost black. Glittering, dark jewels.
He stopped about six feet in front of us. Close enough to see the dark cross-shaped scar on his chest. It was the only thing that marred the perfection of his body. Or what I'd seen of his body.
My scar had been a bad joke. His had been some poor sod's last attempt to stave off death. I wondered if the poor sod had escaped? Would Jean-Claude tell me if I asked? Maybe. But if the answer was no, I didn't want to hear it.
"Hello, Jean-Claude," I said.
"Greetings, ma petite," he said. His voice was like fur, rich, soft, vaguely obscene, as if just talking to him was something dirty. Maybe it was.
"Don't call me ma petite," I said.
He smiled slightly, not a hint of fang. "As you like." He looked at Irving. Irving looked away, careful not to meet Jean-Claude's eyes. You never looked directly into a vampire's eyes. Never. So why was I doing it with impunity. Why indeed?
"Who is your friend?" The last word was very soft and somehow threatening.
"This is Irving Griswold. He's a reporter for the Post Dispatch. He's helping me with a little research."
"Ah," he said. He walked around Irving as if he were something for sale, and Jean-Claude wanted to see all of him.
Irving gave nervous little glances so that he could keep the vampire in view. He glanced at me, widening his eyes. "What's going on?"
"What indeed, Irving?" Jean-Claude said.
"Leave him alone, Jean-Claude."
"Why have you not come to see me, my little animator?"
Little animator wasn't much of an improvement over ma petite, but I'd take it. "I've been busy."
The look that crossed his face was almost anger. I didn't really want him mad at me. "I was going to come see you," I said.
"Tonight." It was not a suggestion.
"Yes, ma petite, you can." His voice was like a warm wind in my head.
"You are so damn demanding," I said.
He laughed then. Pleasant and resonating like expensive perfume that lingers in the room after the wearer has gone. His laughter was like that, lingering in the ears like distant music. He had the best voice of any master vampire I'd ever met. Everyone has their talents.
"You are so exasperating," he said, the edge of laughter still in his voice. "What am I to do with you?"
"Leave me alone," I said. I was utterly serious. It was one of my biggest wishes.
His face sobered completely, like someone had flipped a switch. On, happy, off, unreadable. "Too many of my followers know you are my human servant, ma petite. Bringing you under control is part of consolidating my power." He sounded almost regretful. A lot of help that did me.
"What do you mean, bringing me under control?" My stomach was tight with the beginnings of fear. If Jean-Claude didn't scare me to death, he was going to give me an ulcer.
"You are my human servant. You must start acting like one."
"I am not your servant."
"Yes, ma petite, you are."
"Dammit, Jean-Claude, leave me alone."
He was suddenly standing next to me. I hadn't seen him move. He had clouded my mind without me even blinking. I could taste my pulse at the back of my throat. I tried to step back, but one pale slender hand grabbed my right arm, just above the elbow. I shouldn't have stepped back. I should have gone for my gun. I hoped I would live through the mistake.
My voice came out fiat, normal. At least I'd die brave. "I thought having two of your vampire marks meant you couldn't control my mind."
"I cannot bewitch you with my eyes, and it is harder to cloud your mind, but it can be done." His fingers encircled my arm. Not hurting. I didn't try to pull away. I knew better. He could crush my arm without breaking a sweat, or tear it from its socket, or bench press a Toyota. If I couldn't arm wrestle Tommy, I sure as hell couldn't match Jean-Claude.
"He's the new Master of the City, isn't he?" It was Irving. I think we had forgotten about him. It would have been better for Irving if we had.
Jean-Claude's grip tightened slightly on my right arm. He turned to look at Irving. "You are the reporter that has been asking to interview me."
"Yes, I am." Irving sounded just the tiniest bit nervous, not much, just the hint of tightness in his voice. He looked brave and resolute. Good for Irving.
"Perhaps after I have spoken with this lovely young woman, I will grant you your interview."
"Really?" Astonishment was plain in his voice. He grinned widely at me. "That would be great. I'll do it any way you want. It ... "
"Silence." The word hissed and floated. Irving fell quiet as if it were a spell.
"Irving, are you alright?" Funny me asking. I was the one cheek to jowl with a vampire, but I asked anyway.
"Yeah," Irving said. That one word was squeezed small with fear. "I've just never felt anything like him."
I glanced up at Jean-Claude. "He is sort of one of a kind."
Jean-Claude turned his attention back to me. Oh, goody. "Still making jokes, ma petite."
I stared up into his beautiful eyes, but they were just eyes. He had given me the power to resist them. "It's a way to pass the time. What do you want, Jean-Claude?"
"So brave, even now."
"You aren't going to do me on the street, in front of witnesses. You may be the new Master, but you're also a businessman. You're mainstream vampire. It limits what you can do."
"Only in public," he said, so soft that only I heard him.
"Fine, but we both agree you aren't going to do violence here and now." I stared up at him. "So cut the theatrics and tell me what the bloody hell you want."
He smiled then, a bare movement of lips, but he released my arm and stepped back. "Just as you will not shoot me down in the street without provocation."
I thought I had provocation, but nothing I could explain to the police. "I don't want to be up on murder charges, that's true."
His smile widened, still not fangs. He did that better than any living vampire I knew. Was living vampire an oxymoron? I wasn't sure anymore.
"So, we will not harm each other in public," he said.
"Probably not," I said. "What do you want? I'm late for an appointment."
"Are you raising zombies or slaying vampires tonight?"
"Neither," I said.
He looked at me, waiting for me to say more. I didn't. He shrugged and it was graceful. "You are my human servant, Anita."
He'd used my real name, I knew I was in trouble now. "Am not," I said.
He gave a long sigh. "You bear two of my marks."
"Not by choice," I said.
"You would have died if I had not shared my strength with you."
"Don't give me crap about how you saved my life. You forced two marks on me. You didn't ask or explain. The first mark may have saved my life, great. The second mark saved yours. I didn't have a choice either time."
"Two more marks and you will have immortality. You will not age because I do not age. You will remain human, alive, able to wear your crucifix. Able to enter a church. It does not compromise your soul. Why do you fight me?"
"How do you know what compromises my soul? You don't have one anymore. You traded your immortal soul for earthly eternity. But I know that vampires can die, Jean-Claude. What happens when you die? Where do you go? Do you just go poof? No, you go to hell where you belong."
"And you think by being my human servant you will go with me?"
"I don't know, and I don't want to find out."
"By fighting me, you make me appear weak. I cannot afford that, ma petite. One way or another, we must resolve this."
"Just leave me alone."
"I cannot. You are my human servant, and you must begin to act like one."
"Don't press me on this, Jean-Claude."
"Or what, will you kill me? Could you kill me?"
I stared at his beautiful face and said, "Yes."
"I feel your desire for me, ma petite, as I desire you."
I shrugged. What could I say? "It's just a little lust, Jean-Claude, nothing special." That was a lie. I knew it even as I said it.
"No, ma petite, I mean more to you than that."
We were attracting a crowd, at a safe distance. "Do you really want to discuss this in the street?"
He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "Very true. You make me forget myself, ma petite."
Great. "I really am late, Jean-Claude. The police are waiting for me."
"We must finish this discussion, ma petite," he said.
I nodded. He was right. I'd been trying to ignore it, and him. Master vampires are not easy to ignore. "Tomorrow night."
"Where?" he asked.
Polite of him not to order me to his lair. I thought about where best to do it. I wanted Charles to go down to the Tenderloin with me. Charles was going to be checking the zombie working conditions at a new comedy club. Good a place as any. "Do you know The Laughing Corpse?"
He smiled, a glimpse of fang touching his lips. A woman in the small crowd gasped. "Yes."
"Meet me there at, say, eleven o'clock."
"My pleasure." The words caressed my skin like a promise. Shit.
"I will await you in my office, tomorrow night."
"Wait a minute. What do you mean, your office?" I had a bad feeling about this.
His smile widened into a grin, fangs glistening in the streetlights. "Why, I own The Laughing Corpse. I thought you knew."
"The hell you did."
"I will await you."
I'd picked the place. I'd stand by it. Dammit. "Come on, Irving."
"No, let the reporter stay. He has not had his interview."
"Leave him alone, Jean-Claude, please."
"I will give him what he desires, nothing more."
I didn't like the way he said desires. "What are you up to?"
"Me, ma petite, up to something?" He smiled.
"Anita, I want to stay," Irving said.
I turned to him. "You don't know what you're saying."
"I'm a reporter. I'm doing my job."
"Swear to me, swear to me you won't harm him."
"You have my word," Jean-Claude said.
"That you will not harm him in any way."
"That I will not harm him in any way." His face was expressionless, as if all the smiles had been illusions. His face had that immobility of the long dead. Lovely to look at, but empty of life as a painting.
I looked into his blank eyes and shivered. Shit. "Are you sure you want to stay here?"
Irving nodded. "I want the interview."
I shook my head. "You're a fool."
"I'm a good reporter," he said.
"You're still a fool."
"I can take care of myself, Anita."
We looked at each other for a space of heartbeats. "Fine, have fun. May I have the file?"
He looked down at his arms as if he had forgotten he was holding it. "Drop it by tomorrow morning or Madeline is going to have a fit."
"Sure. No problem." I tucked the bulky file under my left arm as loosely as I could manage it. It hampered my being able to draw my gun, but life's imperfect.
I had information on Gaynor. I had the name of a recent ex-girlfriend. A woman scorned. Maybe she'd talk to me. Maybe she'd help me find clues. Maybe she'd tell me to go to hell. Wouldn't be the first time.
Jean-Claude was watching me with his still eyes. I took a deep breath through my nose and let it out through my mouth. Enough for one night. "See you both tomorrow." I turned and walked away. There was a group of tourists with cameras. One was sort of tentatively raised in my direction.
"If you snap my picture, I will take the camera away from you and break it." I smiled while I said it.
The man lowered his camera uncertainly. "Geez, just a little picture."
"You've seen enough," I said. "Move on, the show's over." The tourists drifted away like smoke when the wind blows through it. I walked down the street towards the parking garage. I glanced back and found the tourists had drifted back to surround Jean-Claude and Irving. The tourists were right. The show wasn't over yet.
Irving was a big boy. He wanted the interview. Who was I to play nursemaid on a grown werewolf? Would Jean-Claude find out Irving's secret? If he did, would it make a difference? Not my problem. My problem was Harold Gaynor, Dominga Salvador, and a monster that was eating the good citizens of St. Louis, Missouri. Let Irving take care of his own problems. I had enough of my own.
The night sky was a curving bowl of liquid black. Stars like pinprick diamonds gave a cold, hard fight. The moon was a glowing patchwork of greys and goldish-silver. The city makes you forget how dark the night, how bright the moon, how very many stars.
Burrell Cemetery didn't have any streetlights. There was nothing but the distant yellow gleam of a house's windows. I stood at the top of the hill in my coveralls and Nikes, sweating.
The boy's body was gone. It was in the morgue waiting for the coroner's attentions. I was finished with it. Never had to look at it again. Except in my dreams.
Dolph stood beside me. He didn't say a word, just looked out over the grass and broken tombstones, waiting. Waiting for me to do my magic. To pull the rabbit out of the hat. The best that could happen was the rabbit to be in and to destroy it. Next best thing was finding the hole it had come from. That could tell us something. And something was better than what we had right now.
The exterminators followed a few paces behind. The man was short, beefy, grey hair cut in a butch. He looked like a retired football coach, but he handled the flamethrower strapped to his back like it was something alive. Thick hands caressing it.
The woman was young, no more than twenty. Thin blond hair tied back in a ponytail. She was a little taller than me, small. Wisps of hair trailed across her face. Her eyes were wide and searched the tall grass, side to side. Like a gunner on point.
I hoped she didn't have an itchy trigger finger. I didn't want to be eaten by a killer zombie, but I didn't want to be plastered with napalm either. Burned alive or eaten alive? Is there anything else on the menu?
The grass rustled and whispered like dry autumn leaves. If we did use the flamethrowers in here, it'd be a grass fire. We'd be lucky to outrun it. But fire was the only thing that could stop a zombie. If it was a zombie and not something else altogether.
I shook my head and started walking. Doubts would get us nowhere. Act like you know what you're doing; it was a rule I lived by.
I am sure that Señora Salvador would have had a specific rite or sacrifice to find a zombie's grave. Her way of doing all this had more rules than my way. Of course her way enabled her to trap souls in rotting corpses. I had never hated anyone enough to do that to them. Kill them, yes, but entrap their soul and make it sit and wait and feel its body rotting. No, that was worse than wicked. It was evil. She needed to be stopped, and only death would do that. I sighed. Another problem for another night.
It bothered me to hear Dolph's footsteps echoing mine. I glanced back at the two exterminators. They killed everything from termites to ghouls, but ghouls are cowards, scavengers mostly. Whatever we were after wasn't a scavenger.
I could feel the three of them at my back. Their footsteps seemed louder than mine. I tried to clear my mind and start the search, but all I could hear was their footsteps. All I could sense was the woman's fear. They were messing up my concentration.
I stopped. "Dolph, I need more room."
"What does that mean?"
"Hang back a little. You're ruining my concentration."
"We might be too far away to help."
"If the zombie rises out of the ground and leeches on me ... " I shrugged. "What are you going to do, shoot it with napalm and crispy-critter me, too?"
"You said fire was the only weapon," he said.
"It is, but if the zombie actually grapples with anyone, tell the exterminators not to fry the victim."
"If the zombie grabs one of us, we can't use the napalm?" he said.
"You could have said this sooner."
"I just thought of it."
"Great," he said.
I shrugged. "I'll take point. My oversight. Just hang back and let me do my job." I stepped in close to him to whisper, "And watch the woman. She looks scared enough to start shooting shadows."
"They're exterminators, Anita, not police or vampire slayers."
"For tonight, our lives could depend on them, so keep an eye on her, okay?"
He nodded and glanced back at the two exterminators. The man smiled and nodded. The girl just stared. I could almost smell her fear.
She was entitled to it. Why did it bother me so much? Because she and I were the only women here, and we had to be better than the men. Braver, quicker, whatever. It was a rule for playing with the big boys.
I walked out into the grass alone. I waited until the only thing I could hear was the grass; soft, dry, whispering. Like it was trying to tell me something in a scratchy, frantic voice. Frantic, fearful. The grass sounded afraid. That was stupid. Grass didn't feel shit. But I did, and there was sweat on every inch of my body. Was it here? Was the thing that had reduced a man to so much raw meat, here in the grass, hiding, waiting?
No. Zombies weren't smart enough for that, but of course, it had been smart enough to hide from the police. That was smart for a corpse. Too smart. Maybe it wasn't a zombie at all. I had finally found something that scared me more than vampires. Death didn't bother me much. Strong Christian and all that. Method of death did. Being eaten alive. One of my top three ways not to go out.
Who would ever have thought I'd be afraid of a zombie, any kind of zombie? Nicely ironic that. I'd laugh later when my mouth wasn't so damn dry.
There was that quiet waiting that all cemeteries have. As if the dead held their collective breath, waiting, but for what? The resurrection? Maybe. But I've dealt with the dead too long to believe in just one answer. The dead are like the living. They do different things.
Most people die and go to heaven or hell, and that's that. But a few, for whatever reason, don't work that way. Ghosts, restless spirits, violence, evil, or simple confusion; all of these can trap a spirit on earth. I'm not saying that it traps the soul. I don't believe that, but some memory of the soul, the essence, lingers.
Was I expecting some specter to rise from the grass and rush screaming towards me? No. I had never seen a ghost yet that could cause actual physical harm. If it causes physical damage, it isn't a ghost; demon maybe, or the spirit of some sorcerer, black magic, but ghosts don't hurt.
That was almost a comforting thought.
The ground sloped out from under my feet. I stumbled and caught myself on one of the leaning headstones. Sunken earth, a grave without a marker. A tingling shock ran up my leg, a whisper of ghostly electricity. I jerked back and sat down hard on the ground.
"Anita, you all right?" Dolph yelled.
I glanced back at him and found the grass completely hid me from view. "I'm fine," I yelled. I got to my feet careful to avoid stepping on the old grave. Whatever person lay under the earth, he, or she, was not a happy camper. It was a hot spot, not a ghost, or even a haunt, but something. It had probably been a full-blown ghost once, but time had worn it away. Ghosts wear out like old clothes and go on to wherever old ghosts go.
The sunken grave would fade away, probably in my lifetime. If I could avoid killer zombies for a few years. And vampires. And gun-toting humans. Oh, hell, the hot spot would probably outlast me.
I looked back to find Dolph and the exterminators maybe twenty yards back. Twenty yards, wasn't that awfully far? I had told them to hang back, but I hadn't meant for them to leave me hanging in the wind. I was just never satisfied.
If I called them to come closer, you think they'd get mad? Probably. I started walking again, trying not to step on any more graves. But it was hard with most of the stones hidden in the long grass. So many unmarked graves, so much neglect.
I could wander aimlessly all bloody night. Had I really thought that I could just accidentally walk over the right grave?
Yes. Hope springs eternal, especially when the alternative isn't very human.
Vampires were once ordinary human beings; zombies, too. Most lycanthropes start out human, though there are a few rare inherited curses. All the monsters start out normal except me. Raising the dead wasn't a career choice. I didn't sit down in the guidance counselor's office one day and say, "I'd like to raise the dead for a living." No, it wasn't that neat or clean.
I have always had an affinity for the dead. Always. Not the newly dead. No, I don't mess with souls, but once the soul departs, I know it. I can feel it. Laugh all you want. It's the truth.
I had a dog when I was little. Just like most kids. And like most kids' dogs, she died. I was thirteen. We buried Jenny in the backyard. I woke up a week after Jenny died and found her curled up beside me. Thick black fur coated with grave dirt. Dead brown eyes following my every move, just like when she was alive.
I thought for one wild moment she was alive. It had been a mistake, but I know dead when I see it. Feel it. Call it from the grave. I wonder what Dominga Salvador would think about that story. Calling an animal zombie. How shocking. Raising the dead by accident. How frightening. How sick.
My stepmother, Judith, never quite recovered from the shock. She rarely tells people what I do for a living. Dad? Well, Dad ignores it, too. I tried ignoring it, but couldn't. I won't go into details, but does the term "road kill" have any significance for you? It did for Judith. I looked like a nightmare version of the Pied Piper.
My father finally took me to meet my maternal grandmother. She's not as scary as Dominga Salvador, but she's ... interesting. Grandma Flores agreed with Dad. I should not be trained in voodoo, only in enough control to stop the ... problems. "Just teach her to control it," Dad said.
She did. I did. Dad took me back home. It was never mentioned again. At least not in front of me. I always wondered what dear stepmother said behind closed doors. For that matter Dad wasn't pleased either. Hell, I wasn't pleased.
Bert recruited me straight out of college. I never knew how he heard about me. I refused him at first, but he waved money at me. Maybe I was rebelling against parental expectations? Or maybe I had finally realized that there is damn little employment opportunity for a B.S. in biology with an emphasis on the supernatural. I minored in creatures of legend. That was real helpful on my resume.
It was like having a degree in ancient Greek or the Romantic Poets, interesting, enjoyable, but then what the hell can you do with it? I had planned to go on to grad school and teach college. But Bert came along and showed me a way to turn my natural talent into a job. At least I can say I use my degree every day.
I never puzzled about how I came to do what I do. There was no mystery. It was in the blood.
I stood in the graveyard and took a deep breath. A bead of sweat trickled down my face. I wiped it with the back of my hand. I was sweating like a pig, and I still felt cold. Fear, but not of the bogeyman, of what I was about to do.
If it were a muscle, I would move it. If it were a thought, I would think it. If it were a magic word, I could say it. It is nothing like that. It is like my skin becomes cool even under cloth. I can feel all my nerve endings naked to the wind. And even in this hot, sweating August night, my skin felt cool. It is almost like a tiny, cool wind emanates from my skin. But it isn't wind, no one else can feel it. It doesn't blow through a room like a Hollywood horror movie. It isn't flashy. It's quiet. Private. Mine.
The cool fingers of "wind" searched outward. Within a ten-to-fifteen-foot circle I would be able to search the graves. As I moved, the circle would move with me, searching.
How does it feel to search through the hard-packed earth for dead bodies? Like nothing human. The closest I can come to describing it is like phantom fingers rifling through the dirt, searching for the dead. But, of course, that isn't quite what it feels like either. Close but no cigar.
The coffin nearest me had been water-ruined years ago. Bits of warped wood, shreds of bone, nothing whole. Bone and old wood, dirt, clean and dead. The hot spot flared almost like a burning sensation. I couldn't read its coffin. The hot spot could keep its secrets. It wasn't worth forcing the issue. It was a life force of sorts, trapped to a dead grave until it faded. That is bound to make you grumpy.
I walked slowly forward. The circle moved with me. I touched bones, intact coffins, bits of cloth in newer graves. This was an old cemetery. There were no decaying corpses. Death had progressed to the nice neat stage.
Something grabbed my ankle. I jumped and walked forward without looking down. Never look down. It's a rule. I got a brief glimpse just behind my eyes of something pale and mist-like with wide screaming eyes.
A ghost, a real-live ghost. I had walked over its grave and it had let me know it didn't like it. A ghost had grabbed me round the ankles. Big deal. If you ignored them, the spectral hands would fade. If you noticed them, you gave them substance, and you could be in deep shit.
Important safety tip with most of the spiritual world: if you ignore it, it has less power. This does not work with demons or other demi-beings. Other exceptions to the rule are vampires, zombies, ghouls, lycanthropes, witches ... Oh, hell, ignoring only works for ghosts. But it does work.
Phantom hands tugged at my pants leg. I could feel skeletal fingers pulling upwards, as if it would use me to pull itself from the grave. Shit! I was eating my pulse between my teeth. Just keep walking. Ignore it. It will go away. Dammit to hell.
The fingers slipped away, reluctantly. Some types of ghost seem to bear a grudge against the living. A sort of jealousy. They cannot harm you, but they scare the bejesus out of you and laugh while they're doing it.
I found an empty grave. Bits of wood decaying into the earth, but no trace of bone. No body. Empty. The earth above it was thick with grass and weeds. The earth was hard-packed and dry from the drought. The grass and weeds had been disturbed. Bare roots were showing, almost as if someone had tried to pull the grass up. Or something had come up underneath the grass and left a trail.
I knelt on all fours above the dying grass. My hands stayed on top of the hard, reddish dirt, but I could feel the inside of the grave like rolling your tongue around your teeth. You can't see it, but you can feel it.
The corpse was gone. The coffin was undisturbed. A zombie had come from here. Was it the zombie we were looking for? No guarantees. But it was the only zombie raising I could sense.
I stared out away from the grave. It was hard using just my eyes to search the grass. I could almost see what lay under the dirt. But the grave showed behind my eyes in my head somewhere where there were no optic nerves. The graveyard that I could see with my eyes ended at a fence maybe five yards away. Had I walked it all? Was this the only grave that was empty?
I stood and looked out over the graves. Dolph and the two exterminators were still with me about thirty yards back. Thirty yards? Some backup.
I had walked it all. There was the grabby ghost. The hot spot was there. The newest grave over there. It was mine now. I knew this cemetery. And everything that was restless. Everything that wasn't quite dead was dancing above its grave. White misty phantoms. Sparkling angry lights. Agitated. There was more than one way to wake the dead.
But they would quiet down and sleep, if that was the word. No permanent damage. I glanced back down at the empty grave. No permanent damage.
I waved Dolph and the others over. I got a Ziploc bag out of the coverall pocket and scooped some grave dirt into it.
The moonlight suddenly seemed dimmer. Dolph was standing over me. He did sort of loom.
"Well?" he asked.
"A zombie came out of this grave," I said.
"Is it the killer zombie?"
"I don't know for sure."
"You don't know?"
"When will you know?"
"I'll take it to Evans and let him do his touchie-feelie routine on it."
"Evans, the clairvoyant," Dolph said.
"He's a flake."
"True, but he's good."
"The department doesn't use him anymore."
"Bully for the department," I said. "He's still on retainer at Animators, Inc."
Dolph shook his head. "I don't trust Evans."
"I don't trust anybody," I said. "So what's the problem?"
Dolph smiled. "Point taken."
I had rolled some of the grass and weeds, roots carefully intact, inside a second bag. I crawled to the head of the grave and spread the weeds. There was no marker. Dammit! The pale limestone had been chipped away at the base. Shattered. Carried away. Shit.
"Why would they destroy the headstone?" Dolph asked.
"The name and date could have given us some clue to why the zombie was raised and to what went wrong."
"You might raise a zombie to kill one or two people but not wholesale slaughter. Nobody would do that."
"Unless they're crazy," he said.
I stared up at him. "That's not funny."
"No, it isn't."
A madman that could raise the dead. A murderous zombie corpse controlled by a psychotic. Great. And if he, or she, could do it once ...
"Dolph, if we have a crazy man running around, there could be more than one zombie."
"And if it is crazy, then there won't be a pattern," he said.
No pattern meant no motive. No motive meant we might not be able to figure this out. "No, I don't believe that."
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because if I do believe it, it leaves us no place to go." I took out a pocketknife that I brought for the occasion and started to chip at the remains of the tombstone.
"Defacing a gravemarker is against the law," Dolph said.
"Isn't it though." I scrapped a few smaller pieces into a third bag, and finally got a sizable chunk of marble, big as my thumb.
I stuffed all the bags into the pockets of my coveralls, along with the pocketknife.
"You really think Evans will be able to read anything from those bits and pieces?"
"I don't know." I stood and looked down at the grave. The two exterminators were standing just a short distance away. Giving us privacy. How very polite. "You know, Dolph, they may have destroyed the tombstone, but the grave is still here."
"But the corpse is gone," he said.
"True, but the coffin might be able to tell us something. Anything might help."
He nodded. "Alright, I'll get an exhumation order."
"Can't we just dig it up now, tonight?"
"No," he said. "I have to play by the rules." He stared at me very hard. "And I don't want to come back out here and find the grave dug up. The evidence won't mean shit if you tamper with it."
"Evidence? You really think this case will go to court?"
"Dolph, we just need to destroy the zombie."
"I want the bastards that raised it, Anita. I want them up on murder charges."
I nodded. I agreed with him, but I thought it unlikely. Dolph was a policeman, he had to worry about the law. I worried about simpler things, like survival.
"I'll let you know if Evans has anything useful to say," I said. '
"You do that."
"Wherever the beastie is, Dolph, it isn't here."
"It's out there, isn't it?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Killing someone else while we sit here and chase our tails."
I wanted to touch him. To let him know it was all right, but it wasn't all right. I knew how he felt. We were chasing our tails. Even if this was the grave of the killer zombie, it didn't get us any closer to finding the zombie. And we had to find it. Find it, trap it, and destroy it. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question was, could we do all that before it needed to feed again? I didn't have an answer. That was a lie. I had an answer. I just didn't like it. Out there somewhere, the zombie was feeding again.
The trailer park where Evans lives is in St. Charles just off Highway 94. Acres of mobile homes toll out in every direction. Of course, there's nothing mobile about them. When I was a kid, trailers could be hooked to the back of a car and moved. Simple. It was one of their appeals. Some of these mobile homes had three and four bedrooms, multiple baths. The only thing moving these puppies was a semitruck, or a tornado.
Evans 's trailer is an older model. I think, if he had to, he could chain it to the back of a pickup and move. Easier than hiring a moving van, I guess. But I doubt Evans will ever move. Hell, he hasn't left the trailer in nearly a year.
The windows were golden with light. There was a little makeshift porch complete with an awning, guarding the door. I knew he would be up. Evans was always up. Insomnia sounded so harmless. Evans had made it a disease.
I was back in my black shorts outfit. The three bags of goodies were stuffed in a fanny pack. If I went in there waving them around, Evans would freak. I needed to work up to it, be subtle. Just thought I'd drop by to see my old buddy. No ulterior motives here. Right.
I opened the screen door and knocked. Silence. No movement. Nothing. I raised my hand to knock again, then hesitated. Had Evans finally gotten to sleep? His first decent night's sleep since I'd known him. Drat. I was still standing there with my hand half-raised when I felt him staring at me.
I looked up at the little window in the door. A slice of pale face was staring out from between the curtains. Evans's blue eye blinked at me.
His face disappeared. The door unlocked, then opened. There was no sight of Evans, just the open door. I walked in. Evans was standing behind the door, hiding.
He closed the door by leaning against it. His breathing was fast and shallow as if he'd been running. Stringy yellow hair trailed over a dark blue bathrobe. His face was covered in bristly reddish beard.
"How are you doing, Evans?"
He leaned against the door, eyes too wide. His breathing was still too fast. Was he on something?
"Evans, you all right?" When in doubt, reverse your word order.
He nodded. "What do you want?" His voice was breathy.
I didn't think he was going to believe I had just stopped by. Call it an instinct. "I need your help."
He shook his head. "No."
"You don't even know what I want."
He shook his head. "Doesn't matter."
"May I sit down?" I asked. If directness wouldn't work, maybe politeness would.
He nodded. "Sure."
I glanced around the small living-room area. I was sure there was a couch under the newspapers, paper plates, half-full cups, old clothes. There was a box of petrified pizza on the coffee table. The room smelled stale.
Would he freak if I moved stuff? Could I sit on the pile that I thought was the couch without everything collapsing? I decided to try. I'd sit in the freaking moldy pizza box if Evans would agree to help me.
I perched on a pile of papers. There was definitely something large and solid under the newspapers. Maybe the couch. "May I have a cup of coffee?"
He shook his head. "No clean cups."
This I could believe. He was still pressed against the door as if afraid to come any closer. His hands were plunged into the pockets of his bathrobe.
"Can we just talk?" I asked.
He shook his head. I shook my head with him. He frowned at that. Maybe somebody was home.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I told you, your help."
"I don't do that anymore."
"What?" I asked.
"You know," he said.
"No, Evans, I don't know. Tell me."
"I don't touch things anymore."
I blinked. It was an odd way to phrase it. I stared around at the piles of dirty dishes, the clothes. It did look untouched. "Evans, let me see your hands."
He shook his head. I didn't imitate him this time. "Evans, show me your hands."
"No," it was loud, clear.
I stood up and started walking towards him. It didn't take long. He backed away into the corner by the door and the doorway into the bedroom. "Show me your hands."
Tears welled in his eyes. He blinked, and the tears slid down his cheeks. "Leave me alone," he said.
My chest was tight. What had he done? God, what had he done? "Evans, either you show me your hands voluntarily, or I make you do it." I fought an urge to touch his arm, but that was not allowed.
He was crying harder now, small hiccupy sobs. He pulled his left hand out of the robe pocket. It was pale, bony, whole. I took a deep breath. Thank you, dear God.
"What did you think I'd done?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Don't ask."
He was looking at me now, really looking at me. I did have his attention. "I'm not that crazy," he said.
I started to say, "I never thought you were," but obviously I had. I had thought he had cut his hands off so he wouldn't have to touch anymore. God, that was crazy. Seriously crazy. And I was here to ask him to help me with a murder. Which of us was crazier? Don't answer that.
He shook his head. "What are you doing here, Anita?" The tears weren't even dry on his face, but his voice was calm, ordinary.
"I need your help with a murder."
"I don't do that anymore. I told you."
"You told me once that you couldn't not have visions. Your clairvoyance isn't something you can just turn off."
"That's why I stay in here. If I don't go out, I don't see anybody. I don't have visions anymore."
"I don't believe you," I said.
He took a clean white handkerchief out of his pocket and wrapped it around the doorknob. "Get out."
"I saw a three-year-old boy today. He'd been eaten alive."
He leaned his forehead into the door. "Don't do this to me, please."
"I know other psychics, Evans, but no one with your success rate. I need the best. I need you."
He rubbed his forehead against the door. "Please don't."
I should have gone then, left, done what he said, but I didn't. I stood behind him and waited. Come on, old buddy, old pal, risk your sanity for me. I was the ruthless zombie raiser. I didn't feel guilt. Results were all that mattered. Ri-ight.
But in a way, results were all that mattered. "Other people are going to die unless we can stop it," I said.
"I don't care," he said.
"I don't believe you."
He stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket and whirled around. "The little boy, you're not lying about that, are you?"
"I wouldn't lie to you."
He nodded. "Yeah, yeah." He licked his lips. "Give me what ya got."
I got the bags out of my purse and opened the one with the gravestone fragments in it. Had to start somewhere.
He didn't ask what it was, that would be cheating. I wouldn't even have mentioned the boy except I needed the leverage. Guilt is a wonderful tool.
His hand shook as I dropped the largest rock fragment into his palm. I was very careful that my fingers did not brush his hand. I didn't want Evans inside my secrets. It might scare him off.
His hand clenched around the stone. A shock ran up his spine. He jerked, eyes closed. And he was gone.
"Graveyard, grave." His head jerked to the side like he was listening to something. "Tall grass. Hot. Blood, he's wiping blood on the tombstone." He looked around the room with his closed eyes. Would he have seen the room if his eyes had been open?
"Where does the blood come from?" he asked that. Was I supposed to answer? "No, no!" He stumbled backwards, back smacking into the door. "Woman screaming, screaming, no, no!"
His eyes flew open wide. He threw the rock fragment across the room. "They killed her, they killed her!" He pressed his fists into his eyes. "Oh, God, they slit her throat."
"Who is they?"
He shook his head, fists still shoved against his face. "I don't know."
"Evans, what did you see?"
"Blood." He stared at me between his arms, shielding his face. "Blood everywhere. They slit her throat. They smeared the blood on the tombstone."
I had two more items for him. Dare I ask? Asking didn't hurt. Did it? "I have two more items for you to touch."
"No fucking way," he said. He backed away from me towards the short hall that led to the bedroom. "Get out, get out, get the fuck out of my house. Now!"
"Evans, what else did you see?"
"Describe one thing about the woman. Help me, Evans!"
He leaned in the doorway and slid to sit on the floor. "A bracelet. She wore a bracelet on her left wrist. Little dangling charms, hearts, bow and arrow, music." He shook his head and buried his head against his eyes. "Go away now."
I started to say thank you, but that didn't cut it. I picked my way over the floor searching for the rock fragment. I found it in a coffee cup. There was something green and growing in the bottom of it. I picked up the stone and wiped it on a pair of jeans on the floor. I put it back in the bag and shoved all of it inside the purse.
I stared around at the filth and didn't want to leave him here. Maybe I was just feeling guilty for having abused him. Maybe. "Evans, thanks."
He didn't look up.
"If I had a cleaning person drop by, would you let her in to clean?"
"I don't want anybody in here."
"Animators, Inc., could pick up the tab. We owe you for this one."
He looked up then. Anger, pure anger was all that was in his face. "Evans, get some help. You're tearing yourself apart."
"Get-the-fuck-out-of-my-house." Each word was hot enough to scald. I had never seen Evans angry. Scared, yes, but not like this. What could I say? It was his house.
I got out. I stood on the shaky porch until I heard the door lock behind me. I had what I wanted, information. So why did I feel so bad? Because I had bullied a seriously disturbed man. Okay, that was it. Guilt, guilt, guilt.
An image flashed into my head, the blood-soaked sheet on the brown patterned couch. Mrs. Reynolds's spine dangling wet and glistening in the sunlight.
I walked to my car and got in. If abusing Evans could save one family, then it was worth it. If it would keep me from having to see another three-year-old boy with his intestines ripped out, I'd beat Evans with a padded club. Or let him beat me.
Come to think of it, wasn't that what we'd just done?
I was small in the dream. A child. The car was crushed in front where it had been broadsided by another car. It looked like it was made of shiny paper that had been crushed by hand. The door was open. I crawled inside on the familiar upholstery, so pale it was almost white. There was a dark liquid stain on the seat. It wasn't all that large. I touched it, tentatively.
My fingers came away smeared with crimson. It was the first blood I'd ever seen. I stared up at the windshield. It was broken in a spiderweb of cracks, bowed outward where my mother's face had smashed into it. She had been thrown out the door to die in a field beside the road. That's why there wasn't a lot of blood on the seat.
I stared at the fresh blood on my fingers. In real life the blood had been dry, just a stain. When I dreamed about it, it was always fresh.
There was a smell this time. The smell of rotten flesh. That wasn't right. I stared up in the dream and realized it was a dream. And the smell wasn't part of it. It was real.
I woke instantly, staring into the dark. My heart thudding in my throat. My hand went for the Browning in its second home, a sheath attached to the headboard of my bed. It was firm and solid, and comforting. I stayed on the bed, back pressed against the headboard, gun held in a teacup grip.
Through a tiny crack in the drapes moonlight spilled. The meager light outlined a man's shape. The shape didn't react to the gun or my movement. It shuffled forward, dragging its feet through the carpet. It had stumbled into my collection of toy penguins that spilled like a fuzzy tide under my bedroom window. It had knocked some of them over, and it didn't seem able to pick its feet up and walk over them. The figure was wading through the fluffy penguins, dragging its feet as if wading in water.
I kept the gun pointed one-handed at the thing and reached without looking to turn on my bedside lamp. The light seemed harsh after the darkness. I blinked rapidly willing my pupils to contract, to adjust. When they did, and I could see, it was a zombie.
He had been a big man in life. Shoulders broad as a barn door filled with muscle. His huge hands were very strong looking. One eye had dehydrated and was shriveled like a prune. The remaining eye stared at me. There was nothing in that stare, no anticipation, no excitement, no cruelty, nothing but a blankness. A blankness that Dominga Salvador had filled with purpose. Kill she had said. I would have bet on it.
It was her zombie. I couldn't turn it. I couldn't order it to do anything until it fulfilled Dominga's orders. Once it killed me, it would be docile as a dead puppy. Once it killed me.
I didn't think I'd wait for that.
The Browning was loaded with Glazer Safety Rounds, silver-coated. Glazer Safety Rounds will kill a man if you hit him anywhere near the center of the body. The hole will be too big for salvage. A hole in its chest wouldn't bother the zombie. It would keep coming, heart or no heart. If you hit a person in the arm or leg with Safety Rounds, it will take off that arm or leg. Instant amputee. If you hit it right.
The zombie seemed in no hurry. He shuffled through the fallen stuffed toys with that single-minded determination of the dead. Zombies are not inhumanly strong. But they can use every ounce of strength; they don't save anything. Almost any human being could do a superhuman feat, once. Pop muscles, tear cartilage, snap your spine, but you can lift the car. Only inhibitors in the brain prevent us all from destroying ourselves. Zombies don't have inhibitors. The corpse could literally tear me apart while it tore itself apart. But if Dominga had really wanted to kill me, she would have sent a less-decayed zombie. This one was so far gone I might have been able to dodge around it, and make the door. Maybe. But then again ...
I cupped the butt of the gun in my left, the right where it was supposed to be, my finger on the trigger. I pulled the trigger and the explosion was incredibly loud in the small room. The zombie jerked, stumbled. Its right arm flew off in a welter of flesh and bone. No blood, it had been dead too long for that.
The zombie kept coming.
I sighted on the other arm. Hold your breath, squee-eeze. I was aiming for the elbow. I hit it. The two arms lay on the carpet and began to worm their way towards the bed. I could chop the thing to pieces, and all the pieces would keep trying to kill me.
The right leg at the knee. The leg didn't come loose completely, but the zombie toppled to one side, listing. It fell on its side, then rolled onto its stomach and began pushing with its remaining leg. Some dark liquid was leaking out of the shattered leg. The smell was worse.
I swallowed, and it was thick. God. I got off the bed on the far side away from the thing. I walked around the bed coming in behind the thing. It knew instantly that I had moved. It tried to turn and come at me, pushing with that last leg. The crawling arms turned faster, fingers scrambling on the carpet. I stood over it and blasted the other leg from less than two feet away. Bits and pieces of it splattered onto my penguins. Damn.
The arms were almost at my bare feet. I fired two quick shots and the hand shattered, exploding on the white carpet. The handless arms flopped and struggled. They were still trying to reach me.
There was a brush of cloth, a sense of movement just behind me, in the darkened living room. I was standing with my back to the open door. I turned and knew it was too late.
Arms grabbed me, clutching me to a very solid chest. Fingers dug into my right arm, pinning the gun against my body. I turned my head away, using my hair to shield my face and neck. Teeth sank into my shoulder. I screamed.
My face was pressed against the thing's shoulder. The fingers were digging in. It was going to crush my arm. The gun barrel was pressed against its shoulder. Teeth tore at the flesh of my shoulder, but it wasn't fangs. It only had human teeth to work with. It hurt like hell, but it would be alright, if I could get away.
I turned my face forward away from the shoulder and pulled the trigger. The entire body jerked backwards. The left arm crumbled. I rolled out of its grip. The arm dangled from my forearm, fingers hanging on.
I was standing in the doorway of my bedroom staring at the thing that had almost got me. It had been a white male, about six-one, built like a football player. It was fresh from the farm. Blood spattered where the shoulder had torn away. The fingers on my arm tightened. It couldn't crush my arm, but I couldn't make it let go either. I didn't have the time.
The zombie charged, one arm wide to grab me. I seemed to have all the time in the world to lift the gun, two-handed. The arm struggled and fought me as if it were still connected to the zombie's brain. I got off two quick shots. The zombie stumbled, its left leg collapsing, but it was too late. It was too close. As it fell, it took me with it.
We landed on the floor with me on the bottom. I managed to keep the Browning up, so that my arms were free and so was the gun. His weight pinned my body, nothing I could do about it. Blood glistened on his lips. I fired point-blank, closing my eyes as I pulled the trigger. Not just because I didn't want to see, but to save my eyes from bone shards.
When I looked, the head was gone except for a thin line of naked jawbone and a fragment of skull. The remaining hand scrambled for my throat. The hand still attached to my arm was helping its body. I couldn't get the gun around to shoot the arm. The angle was wrong.
A sound of something heavy sliding behind me. I risked a glance, craning my neck backwards to see the first zombie coming towards me. Its mouth, all that it had left to hurt me with, was open wide.
I screamed and turned back to the one on top of me. The attached hand fluttered at my neck. I pulled it away and gave it its own arm to hold. It grabbed it. With the brain gone, it wasn't as smart. I felt the fingers on my arm loosen. A shudder ran through the dangling arm. Blood burst out of it like a ripe melon. The fingers spasmed, releasing my arm. The zombie crushed its own arm until it spattered and bones snapped.
The scrambling sounds behind me were closer. "God!"
"Police! Come out with your hands up!" The voice was male and loud from the hallway.
The hell with being cool and self-sufficient. "Help me!"
"Miss, what's happening in there?"
The scrambling sounds were right next to me. I craned my neck and found myself almost nose to nose with the first zombie. I shoved the Browning in its open mouth. Its teeth scrapped on the barrel, and I pulled the trigger.
A policeman was suddenly in the doorway framed against the darkness. From my angle he was huge. Curly brown hair, going gray, mustache, gun in hand. "Jesus," he said.
The second zombie dropped its crushed arm and reached for me again. The policeman took a firm grip of the zombie's belt and pulled him upward with one hand. "Get her out of here," he said.
His partner moved in, but I didn't give him time. I scrambled out from under the half-raised body, scuttling on all fours into the living room. You didn't have to ask me twice. The partner lifted me to my feet by one arm. It was my right and the Browning came up with it.
Normally, a cop will make you drop your gun before anything else. There, is usually no way to tell who the bad guy is. If you have a gun, you are a bad guy unless proven otherwise. Innocent until proven guilty does not work in the field.
He scooped the gun from my hand. I let him. I knew the drill.
A gunshot exploded behind us. I jumped, and the cop did, too. He was about my age, but right then I felt about a million years old. We turned and found the first cop shooting into the zombie. The thing had struggled free of his hand. It was on its feet, staggered by the bullets but not stopped.
"Get over here, Brady," the first cop said. The younger cop drew his gun and moved forward. He hesitated, glancing at me.
"Help him," I said.
He nodded and started firing into the zombie. The sound of gunfire was like thunder. It filled the room until my ears were ringing and the reek of gunpowder was almost overpowering. Bullet holes blossomed in the walls. The zombie kept staggering forward. They were just annoying it.
The problem for police is that they can't load up with Glazer Safety Rounds. Most cops don't run into the supernatural as much as I do. Most of the time they're chasing human crooks. The powers that be frown on taking off the leg of John Q. Public just 'cause he fired at you. You're not really supposed to kill people just because they're trying to kill you. Right?
So they had normal rounds, maybe a little silver coating to make the medicine go down, but nothing that could stop a zombie. They were being backed up. One reloaded while the other fired. The thing staggered forward. Its remaining arm sweeping in front of it, searching. For me. Shit.
"My gun's loaded with Glazer Safety Rounds," I said. "Use it.
The first cop said, "Brady, I told you to get her out of here."
"You needed help," Brady said.
"Get the civilian the fuck out of here."
Brady didn't question again. He just backed towards me, gun out but not firing. "Come on, miss, we gotta get out of here."
"Give me my gun."
He glanced at me, shook his head.
"I'm with the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team." Which was true. I was hoping he would assume I was a cop, which wasn't true.
He was young. He assumed. He handed me back the Browning. "Thanks."
I moved up with the older cop. "I'm with the Spook Squad."
He glanced at me, gun still trained on the advancing corpse. "Then do something."
Someone had turned on the living-room light. Now that no one was shooting it, the zombie was moving out. It walked like a man striding down the street, except it had no head and only one arm. There was a spring in its step. Maybe it sensed I was close.
The body was in better condition than the first zombie's had been. I could cripple it but not incapacitate it. I'd settle for crippled. I fired a third round into the left leg that I had wounded earlier. I had more time to aim, and my aim was true.
The leg collapsed under it. It pulled itself forward with the one arm, leg pushing against the rug. He was on his last leg. I started to smile, then to laugh, but it choked in my throat. I walked around the far side of the couch. I didn't want any accidents after what I'd seen it do to its own body. I didn't want any crushed limbs.
I came in behind it, and it scrambled quicker than it should have to try to face me. It took two shots for the other leg. I couldn't remember how many bullets I'd used. Did I have one more left, or two, or none?
I felt like Dirty Harry, except that this punk didn't give a damn how many bullets I had left. The dead don't scare easy.
It was still pulling itself and it's damaged legs along. That one hand. I fired nearly point-blank, and the hand exploded like a crimson flower on the white carpet. It kept coming, using the wrist stump to push along.
I pulled the trigger, and it clicked empty. Shit. "I'm out," I said. I stepped back away from it. It followed me.
The older cop moved in and grabbed it by both ankles. He pulled it backwards. One leg slid slowly out of the pants and twisted free in his hand. "Fuck!" He dropped the leg. It wiggled like a broken-backed snake.
I stared down at the still determined corpse. It was struggling towards me. It wasn't making much progress. The policeman was holding it one-legged sort of in the air. But the zombie kept trying. It would keep trying until it was incinerated or Dominga Salvador changed her orders.
More uniformed cops came in the door. They fell on the butchered zombie like vultures on a wildebeest. It bucked and struggled. Fought to get away, to finish its mission. To kill me. There were enough cops to subdue it. They would hold it until the lab boys arrived. The lab boys would do what they could on-site. Then the zombie would be incinerated by an exterminator team. They had tried taking zombies down to the morgue and holding them for tests, but little pieces kept escaping and hiding out in the strangest places.
The medical examiner had decreed that all zombies were to be truly dead before shipping. The ambulance crew and lab techs agreed with her. I sympathized but knew that most evidence disappears in a fire. Choices, choices.
I stood to one side of my living room. They had forgotten me in the melee. Fine, I didn't feel like wrestling any more zombies tonight. I realized for the first time that I was wearing nothing but an oversize T-shirt and panties. The T-shirt clung wetly to my body, thick with blood. I started towards the bedroom. I think I meant to get a pair of pants. The sight on the floor stopped me.
The first zombie was like a legless insect. It couldn't move, but it was trying. The bloody stump of a body was still trying to carry out its orders. To kill me.
Dominga Salvador had meant to kill me. Two zombies, one almost new. She had meant to kill me. That one thought chased round my head like a piece of song. We had threatened each other, but why this level of violence? Why kill me? I couldn't stop her legally. She knew that. So why make such a damned serious attempt to kill me?
Maybe because she had something to hide? Dominga had given her word that she hadn't raised the killer zombie, but maybe her word didn't mean anything. It was the only answer. She had something to do with the killer zombie. Had she raised it? Or did she know who had? No. She'd raised the beast or why kill me the night after I talked to her? It was too big a coincidence. Dominga Salvador had raised a zombie, and it had gotten away from her. That was it. Evil as she was, she wasn't psychotic. She wouldn't just raise a killer zombie and let it loose. The great voodoo queen had screwed up royally. That, more than anything else, more than the deaths, or the possible murder charge, would piss her off. She couldn't afford her reputation to be trashed like that.
I stared past the bloody, stinking remnants in the bedroom. My stuffed penguins were covered in blood and worse. Could my long suffering dry cleaner get them clean? He did pretty good with my suits.
Glazer Safety Rounds didn't go through walls. It was another reason I liked them. My neighbors didn't get shot up. The police bullets had pierced the bedroom walls. Neat round holes were everywhere.
No one had ever attacked me at home before, not like this. It should have been against the rules. You should be safe in your own bed. I know, I know. Bad guys don't have rules. It's one of the reasons they're bad guys.
I knew who had raised the zombie. All I had to do was prove it. There was blood everywhere. Blood and worse things. I was actually getting used to the smell. God. But it stank. The whole apartment stank. Almost everything in my apartment is white; walls, carpet, couch, chair. It made the stains show up nicely, like fresh wounds. The bullet holes and cracked plaster board set off the blood nicely.
The apartment was trashed. I would prove Dominga had done this, then, if I was lucky, I'd get to return the favor.
"Sweets to the sweet," I whispered to no one in particular. Tears started to burn at the back of my throat. I didn't want to cry, but a scream was sort of tickling around in my throat, too. Crying or screaming. Crying seemed better.
The paramedics came. One was a short black woman about my own age. "Come on, honey, we got to take a look at you." Her voice was gentle, her hands sort of leading me away from the carnage. I didn't even mind her calling me honey.
I wanted very much to crawl up into someone's lap about now and be comforted. I needed that badly. I wasn't going to get it.
"Honey, we need to see how bad you're bleeding before we take you down to the ambulance."
I shook my head. My voice sounded far away, detached. "It's not my blood."
I looked at her, fighting to focus and not drift. Shock was setting in. I'm usually better than this, but hey, we all have our nights.
"It's not my blood. I've got a bite on the shoulder, that's it."
She looked like she didn't believe me. I didn't blame her. Most people see you covered in blood, they just assume part of it has to be yours. They do not take into account that they are dealing with a tough-as-nails vampire slayer and corpse raiser.
The tears were back, stinging just behind my eyes. There was blood all over my penguins. I didn't give a damn about the walls and carpet. They could be replaced, but I'd collected those damned stuffed toys over years. I let the paramedic lead me away. Tears trickling down my cheeks. I wasn't crying, my eyes were running. My eyes were running because there were pieces of zombie all over my toys. Jesus.
I'd seen enough crime scenes to know what to expect. It was like a play I'd seen too many times. I could tell you all the entrances, the exits, most of the lines. But this was different. This was my place.
It was silly to be offended that Dominga Salvador had attacked me in my own home. It was stupid, but there it was. She had broken a rule. One I hadn't even known I had. Thou shalt not attack the good guy in his, or her, own home. Shit.
I was going to nail her hide to a tree for it. Yeah, me and what army? Maybe, me and the police.
The living-room curtains billowed in the hot breeze. The glass had been shattered in the firefight. I was glad I had just signed a two-year lease. At least they couldn't kick me out.
Dolph sat across from me in my little kitchen area. The breakfast table with its two straight-backed chairs seemed tiny with him sitting at it. He sort of filled my kitchen. Or maybe I was just feeling small tonight. Or was it morning?
I glanced at my watch. There was a dark, slick smear obscuring the face. Couldn't read it. Would have to chip the damn thing clean. I tucked my arm back inside the blanket the paramedic had given me. My skin was colder than it should have been. Even thoughts of vengeance couldn't warm me. Later, later I would be warm. Later I would be pissed. Right now I was glad to be alive.
"Okay, Anita, what happened?"
I glanced at the living room. It was nearly empty. The zombies had been carried away. Incinerated on the street no less. Entertainment for the entire neighborhood. Family fun.
"Could I change clothes before I give a statement, please?"
He looked at me for maybe a second, then nodded.
"Great." I got up gripping the blanket around me, edges folded carefully. Didn't want to accidentally trip on the ends. I'd embarrassed myself enough for one night.
"Save the T-shirt for evidence," Dolph called.
I said, "Sure thing," without turning around.
They had thrown sheets over the worst of the stains so they didn't track blood all over the apartment building. Nice. The bedroom stank of rotted corpse, stale blood, old death. God. I'd never be able to sleep in here tonight. Even I had my limits.
What I wanted was a shower, but I didn't think Dolph would wait that long. I settled for jeans, socks, and a clean T-shirt. I carried all of it into the bathroom. With the door closed, the smell was very faint. It looked like my bathroom. No disasters here.
I dropped the blanket on the floor with the T-shirt. There was a bulky bandage over my shoulder where the zombie had bitten me. I was lucky it hadn't taken a hunk of flesh. The paramedic warned me to get a tetanus booster. Zombies don't make more zombies by biting, but the dead have nasty mouths. Infection is more of a danger but a tetanus booster is a precaution.
Blood had dried in flaking patches on my legs and arms. I didn't bother washing my hands. I'd shower later. Get everything clean at once.
The T-shirt hung almost to my knees. A huge caricature of Arthur Conan Doyle was on the front. He was peering through a huge magnifying glass, one eye comically large. I gazed into the mirror over the sink, looking at the shirt. It was soft and warm and comforting. Comforting was good right now.
The old T-shirt was ruined. No saving it. But maybe I could save some of the penguins. I ran cold water into the bathtub. If it was a shirt, I'd soak it in cold water. Maybe it worked with toys.
I got a pair of jogging shoes out from under the bed. I didn't really want to walk over the drying stains in only socks. Shoes were made for such occasions. Alright, so the creator of Nike Airs never foresaw walking over drying zombie blood. It's hard to prepare for everything.
Two of the penguins were turning brown as the blood dried. I carried them gingerly into the bathroom and laid them in the water. I pushed them under until they soaked up enough water to stay partially submerged, then I turned the water off. My hands were cleaner. The water wasn't. Blood trailed out of the two soft toys like water squeezed out of a sponge. If these two came clean, I could save them all.
I dried my hands on the blanket. No sense getting blood on anything else.
Sigmund, the penguin I occasionally slept with, was barely spattered. Just a few specks across his fuzzy white belly. Small blessings. I almost tucked him under my arm to hold while I gave a statement. Dolph probably wouldn't tell. I put Sigmund a little farther from the worst stains, as if that would help. Seeing the stupid toy tucked safely in a corner did make me feel better. Great.
Zerbrowski was peering at the aquarium. He glanced my way. "These are the biggest freaking angelfish I've ever seen. You could fry some of 'em up in a pan."
"Leave the fish alone, Zerbrowski," I said.
He grinned. "Sure, just a thought."
Back in the kitchen Dolph sat with his hands folded on the tabletop. His face unreadable. If he was upset that I'd almost cashed it in tonight, he didn't show it. But then Dolph didn't show much of anything, ever. The most emotion I'd ever seen him display was about this case. The killer zombie. Butchered civilians.
"You want some coffee?" I asked.
"Me, too," Zerbrowski said.
"Only if you say please."
He leaned against the wall just outside the kitchen. "Please." I got a bag of coffee out of the freezer.
"You keep the coffee in the freezer?" Zerbrowski said.
"Hasn't anyone ever fixed real coffee for you?" I asked.
"My idea of gourmet coffee is Taster's Choice."
I shook my head. "Barbarian."
"If you two are finished with clever repartee," Dolph said, "could we start the statement now?" His voice was softer than his words.
I smiled at him and at Zerbrowski. Damned if it wasn't nice to see both of them. I must have been hurt worse than I knew to be happy to see Zerbrowski.
"I was asleep minding my own business when I woke up to find a zombie standing over me." I measured beans and poured them into the little black coffee grinder that I'd bought because it matched the coffee maker.
"What woke you?" Dolph asked.
I pressed the button on the grinder and the rich smell of fresh ground coffee filled the kitchen. Ah, heaven.
"I smelled corpses," I said.
"I was dreaming, and I smelled rotting corpses. It didn't match the dream. It woke me."
"Then what?" He had his ever present notebook out. Pen poised.
I concentrated on each small step to making the coffee and told Dolph everything, including my suspicions about Señora Salvador. The coffee was beginning to perk and fill the apartment with that wonderful smell that coffee always has by the time I finished.
"So you think Dominga Salvador is our zombie raiser?" Dolph said.
He stared at me across the small table. His eyes were very serious. "Can you prove it?"
He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment. "Great, just great."
"The coffee smells done," Zerbrowski said. He was sitting on the floor, back propped against the kitchen doorway.
I got up and poured the coffee. "If you want sugar or cream, help yourself." I put the cream, real cream, out on the kitchen counter along with the sugar bowl. Zerbrowski took a lot of sugar and a dab of cream. Dolph went for black. It was the way I took it most of the time. Tonight I added cream and sweetened it. Real cream in real coffee. Yum, yum.
"If we could get you inside Dominga's house, could you find proof?" Dolph asked.
"Proof of something, sure, but of raising the killer zombie ... " I shook my head. "If she did raise it and it got away, then she won't want to be tied to it. She'll have destroyed all the proof, just to save face."
"I want her for this," Dolph said.
"She might also try and kill you again," Zerbrowski said from the doorway. He was blowing on his coffee to cool it.
"No joke," I said.
"You think she'll try again?" Dolph asked.
"Probably. How the hell did two zombies get inside my apartment?"
"Someone picked the lock," Dolph said. "Could the zombie ... "
"No, a zombie would rip a door off its hinges, but it wouldn't take the time to pick a lock. Even if it had the fine motor skill to do it."
"So someone with skill opened the door and let them in," Dolph said.
"Appears so," I said.
"Any ideas on that?"
"I would bet one of her bodyguards. Her grandson Antonio or maybe Enzo. A big guy in his forties who seems to be her personal protection. I don't know if either of them have the skill, but they'd do it. Enzo, but not Antonio."
"Why cross him off?"
"If Tony had let the zombies in, he'd have stayed and watched."
I shrugged. "He's that kind of guy. Enzo would do business and leave. He'd follow orders. The grandson wouldn't."
Dolph nodded. "There's a lot of heat from upstairs to solve this case. I think I can get us a search warrant in forty-eight hours."
"Two days is a long time, Dolph."
"Two days without one piece of proof, Anita. Except for your word. I'm going out on a limb for this one."
"She's in it, Dolph, somehow. I don't know why, and I don't know what could have caused her to lose control of the zombie, but she's in it."
"I'll get the warrant," he said.
"One of the brothers in blue said you told him you were a cop," Zerbrowski said.
"I told him I was with your squad. I never said I was a cop."
Zerbrowski grinned. "Mmm-huh."
"Will you be safe here tonight?" Dolph asked.
"I think so. The Señora doesn't want to get on the bad side of the law. They treat renegade witches sort of like renegade vampires. It's an automatic death sentence."
"Because people are too scared of them," Dolph said.
"Because some witches can slip through the fucking bars."
"How about voodoo queens?" Zerbrowski said.
I shook my head. "I don't want to know."
"We better go, leave you to get some sleep," Dolph said. He left his empty coffee cup on the table. Zerbrowski hadn't finished his, but he put it on the counter and followed Dolph out.
I walked them to the door.
"I'll let you know when we get the warrant," Dolph said.
"Could you arrange for me to see Peter Burke's personal effects?"
"There are only two ways to lose control of a zombie this badly. One, you are strong enough to raise it, but not to control it. Dominga can control anything she can raise. Second, someone of near equal power interferes, sort of a challenge." I stared up at Dolph. "John Burke might just be strong enough to have done it. Maybe if I'm helpful enough to take John down to go over his brother's effects-you know, does any of this look out of place, that type of thing maybe this Burke will let something slip."
"You've already got Dominga Salvador pissed at you, Anita. Isn't that enough for one week?"
"For one lifetime," I said. "But it's something we can do while we wait for the warrant."
Dolph nodded. "Yeah. I'll arrange it. Call Mr. Burke tomorrow morning and set up a time. Then call me."
Dolph hesitated in the doorway for a moment. "Watch your back."
"Always," I said.
Zerbrowski leaned into me and said, "Nice penguins." He followed Dolph down the hallway. I knew the next time I saw the rest of the spook squad they'd all know I collected toy penguins. My secret was out. Zerbrowski would spread it far and wide. At least, he was consistent.
It was nice to know something was.
Stuffed animals are not meant to be submerged in water. The two in the bathtub were ruined. Maybe spot remover? The smell was thick and seemed permanent. I put an emergency message on my cleaning service's answering machine. I didn't give a lot of details. Didn't want to frighten them off.
I packed an overnight bag. Two changes of clothes and one penguin with his tummy freshly scrubbed, Harold Gaynor's file, and I was set. I also packed both guns: the Firestar in its inner pants holster; the Browning under my arm. A windbreaker hid the Browning from view. I had extra ammo in the jacket pockets. Between both guns I had twenty-two bullets. Twenty-two bullets. Why didn't I feel safe?
Unlike most walking dead, zombies can bear the touch of sunlight. They don't like it, but they can exist with it. Dominga could order a zombie to kill me in daylight just as easily as moonlight. She wouldn't be able to raise the dead during daylight, but if she planned it right, she could raise the dead the night before and send it out to get me the next day. A voodoo priestess with executive planning skills. It would be just my luck.
I didn't really believe that Dominga had backup zombies waiting to jump me. But somehow I was feeling paranoid this morning. Paranoia is just another word for longevity.
I stepped out into the quiet hallway, glancing both ways as if it were a street. Nothing. No walking corpses hiding in the shadows. No one but us fraidy-cats. The only sound was the hush of the air-conditioning. The hallway had that feel to it. I came home often enough at dawn to know the quality of silence. I thought about that for a minute. I knew it was almost dawn. Not by clock or window, but on some level deeper than that. Some instinct that an ancestor had found while hiding in a dark cave, praying for light.
Most people fear the dark in a vague way. They fear what might be out there. I raise the dead. I've slain over a dozen vampires. I know what's out there in the dark. And I am terrified of it. People are supposed to fear the unknown, but ignorance is bliss when knowledge is so damn frightening.
I knew what would have happened to me if I had failed last night. If I had been slower or a worse shot. Two years ago there had been three murders. Nothing connected them except the method of death. They had been torn apart by zombies. They had not been eaten. Normal zombies don't eat anything. They may bite a time or two, but that's the worst of it. There had been the man whose throat was crushed, but that had been accidental. The zombie just bit down on the nearest body part. It happened to be a killing blow. Blind luck.
A zombie will normally just wrestle you to pieces. Like a small boy tearing pieces off of a fly.
Raising a zombie for the purposes of being a murder weapon is an automatic death sentence. The court system has gotten rather quick on the draw the last few years. A death sentence meant what it said these days. Especially if your crime was supernatural in some way. You didn't burn witches anymore. You electrocuted them.
If we could get proof, the state would kill Dominga Salvador for me. John Burke, too, if we could prove he had knowingly caused the zombie to go ape-shit. The trouble with supernatural crimes is proving them in court. Most juries aren't up on the latest spells and incantations. Heck, neither am I. But I've tried explaining zombies and vampires in court before. I've learned to keep it simple and to add any gory details the defense will allow me. A jury appreciates a little vicarious adventure. Most testimony is terribly boring or heartbreaking. I try to be interesting. It's a change of pace.
The parking area was dark. Stars still glimmered overhead. But they were fading like candles in a steady wind. I could taste dawn on the air. Roll it around on my tongue. Maybe it's all the vampire hunting I do, but I was more attuned to the passage of light and dark than I had been four years ago. I hadn't been able to taste the dawn.
Of course my nightmares were a lot less interesting four years ago. You gain something, you lose something else. It's the way life works.
It was after 5:00 A.M. when I got in my car and headed out for the nearest hotel. I wouldn't be able to stand my apartment until the cleaning crew got the smell out. If they could get the smell out. My landlord was not going to be pleased if they couldn't.
He was going to be even less pleased with the bullet holes and shattered window. Replace the window. Replaster the walls, maybe? I really didn't know what you did to repair bullet holes? Here I was hoping my lease couldn't be challenged in court.
The first hint of dawn was slipping over the eastern sky. A pure white light that spread like ice over the darkness. Most people think dawn is as colorful as sunset but the first color of dawn is white, a pure not-color, that is almost an absence of night.
There was a motel, but all its rooms were on one or two stories, some of them awfully isolated. I wanted a crowd. I settled on The Stouffer Concourse which wasn't terribly cheap but it would force zombies to ride up in elevators. People tended to notice the smell in an elevator. The Stouffer Concourse also had room service at this ungodly hour of dawn. I needed room service. Coffee, give me coffee.
The clerk gave me that wide-eyed-I'm-too-polite-to-say-it-out-loud look. The elevators were mirrored, and I had nothing to do for several floors but look at my reflection. Blood had dried in a stiff darkness in my hair. A stain went down the right side of my face just below the hairline and trailed down my neck. I hadn't noticed it in the mirror at home. Shock will make you forget things.
It wasn't the bloodstains that had made the clerk look askance. Unless you knew what to look for, you wouldn't know it was blood. No, the problem was that my skin was deathly pale, like clean paper. My eyes that are perfectly brown looked black. They were huge and dark and ... strange. Startled, I looked startled. Surprised to be alive. Maybe. I was still fighting off the edge of shock. No matter how together I felt, my face told a different story. When the shock wore off, I'd be able to sleep. Until then, I'd read Gaynor's file.
The room had two double beds. More room than I needed, but what the heck. I got out clean clothes, put the Firestar in the drawer of the nightstand, and took the Browning into the bathroom with me. If I was careful and didn't turn the shower on full blast, I could fasten the shoulder holster to the towel rack in the back of the stall. It wouldn't even get wet. Though truthfully with most modern guns, wet doesn't hurt them. As long as you clean them afterwards. Most guns will shoot underwater.
I called room service wearing nothing but a towel. I'd almost forgotten. I ordered a pot of coffee, sugar, and cream. They asked if I wanted decaf. I said no thank you. Pushy. Like waiters asking if I wanted a diet Coke when I didn't ask for it. They never ask men, even portly men, if they want diet Cokes.
I could drink a pot of caffeine and sleep like a baby. It doesn't keep me awake or make me jumpy. It just tastes better.
Yes, they would leave the cart outside the door. No, they wouldn't knock. They would add the coffee to my bill. That was fine, I said. They had a credit card number. When they have plastic, people are always eager to add on to your bill. As long as the limit holds.
I propped the straight-backed chair under the doorknob to the hallway. If someone forced the door, I'd hear it. Maybe. I locked the bathroom door and had a gun in the shower with me. I was as secure as I was going to get.
There is something about being naked that makes me feel vulnerable. I would much rather face bad guys with my clothes on than off. I guess everyone's like that.
The bite on my shoulder with its thick bandage was a problem when I wanted to wash my hair. I had to get the blood out, bandage or no bandage.
I used their little bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They smelled like flowers are supposed to smell but never do. Blood had dried in patches on my body. I looked spotted. The water that washed down the drain was pinkish.
It took the entire bottle of shampoo before my hair was squeaky clean. The last rinse water soaked through the bandage on my right shoulder. The pain was sharp and persistent. I'd have to remember to get that tetanus booster.
I scrubbed my body with a washcloth and the munchkin bar of soap. When I had washed and soaked every inch of myself, and was as clean as I was going to get, I stood under the hot needling spray. I let the water pour over my back, down my body. The bandage had soaked through long ago.
What if we couldn't tie Dominga to the zombies? What if we couldn't find proof? She'd try again. Her pride was at stake now. She had set two zombies on me, and I had wasted them both. With a little help from the police. Dominga Salvador would see it as a personal challenge.
She had raised a zombie and it had escaped her control completely. She would rather have innocent people slaughtered than to admit her mistake. And she would rather kill me than have me prove it. Vindictive bitch.
Señora Salvador had to be stopped. If the warrant didn't help, then I'd have to be more practical. She'd made it clear that it was her or me. I preferred it to be her. And if necessary, I'd make sure of it.
I opened my eyes and turned off the water. I didn't want to think about it anymore. I was talking about murder. I saw it as self-defense, but I doubted a jury would. It'd be damn hard to prove. I wanted several things. Dominga out of the picture, dead or in jail. To stay alive. Not to be in jail on a murder charge. To catch the killer zombie before it killed again. Fat chance that. To figure out how John Burke fit into this mess.
Oh, and to keep Harold Gaynor from forcing me to perform human sacrifice. Yeah, I almost forgot that one.
It had been a busy week.
The coffee was outside the door on a little tray. I set it inside on the floor, locked the door, and put the chair against the doorknob again. Only then did I set the coffee tray on a small table by the curtained windows. The Browning was already sitting on the table, naked. The shoulder holster was on the bed.
I opened the drapes. Normally, I would have kept the drapes closed, but today I wanted to see the light. Morning had spread like a soft haze of light. The heat hadn't had time to creep up and strangle that first gentle touch of morning.
The coffee wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. Of course, the worst coffee I've ever had was still wonderful. Well, maybe not the coffee at police headquarters. But even that was better than nothing. Coffee was my comfort drink. Better than alcohol, I guess.
I spread Gaynor's file on the table and started to read. By eight that morning, earlier than I usually get up, I had read every scribbled note, gazed at every blurry picture. I knew more about Mr. Harold Gaynor than I wanted to, none of it particularly helpful.
Gaynor was mob-connected, but it couldn't be proven. He was a self-made multimillionaire. Bully for him. He could afford the million five that Tommy had offered me. Nice to know a man can pay his bills.
His only family had been a mother who died ten years ago. His father was supposed to have died before he was born. There was no record of the father's death. In fact, the father didn't seem to exist.
An illegitimate birth, carefully disguised? Maybe. So Gaynor was a bastard in the original definition of the word. So what? I'd already known he was one in spirit.
I propped Wheelchair Wanda's picture against the coffeepot. She was smiling, almost like she'd known the picture was being taken. Maybe she was just photogenic. There were two pictures with her and Gaynor together. In one they were smiling, holding hands as Tommy pushed Gaynor's wheelchair and Bruno pushed Wanda. She was gazing at Gaynor with a look I had seen in other women. Adoration, love. I'd even experienced it myself for a brief time in college. You get over it.
The second picture was almost identical to the first. Bruno and Tommy pushing them. But they weren't holding hands. Gaynor was smiling. Wanda wasn't. She looked angry. Cicely of the blond hair and empty eyes was walking on the other side of Gaynor. They were holding hands. Ah-ha.
So Gaynor had kept both of them around for a while. Why had Wanda left? Jealousy? Had Cicely arranged it? Had Gaynor tired of her? The only way to know was to ask.
I stared at the picture with Cicely in it. I put it beside the laughing close-up of Wanda's face. An unhappy young woman, a scorned lover. If she hated Gaynor more than she feared him, Wanda would talk to me. She would be a fool to talk to the papers, but I didn't want to publish her secrets.
I wanted Gaynor's secrets, so I could keep him from hurting me. Barring that, I wanted something to take to the police.
Mr. Gaynor would have other things to worry about if I could get him in jail. He might forget all about one reluctant animator. Unless, of course, he found out I'd had something to do with him being arrested. That would be bad. Gaynor struck me as vengeful. I had Dominga Salvador mad at me. I didn't need anyone else.
I closed the drapes and left a wake-up call for noon. Irving would just have to wait for his file. I had unintentionally given him the interview with the new Master of the City. Surely that cut me a little slack. If not, to hell with it. I was going to bed.
The last thing I did before going to bed was call Peter Burke's house. I figured that John would be staying there. It rang five times before the machine kicked on. "This is Anita Blake, I may have some information for John Burke on a matter we discussed Thursday." The message was a little vague, but I didn't want to leave a message saying, "Call me about your brother's murder." It would have seemed melodramatic and cruel.
I left the hotel's number as well as my own. Just in case. They probably had the ringers turned off. I would. The story had been front page because Peter was, had been, an animator. Animators don't get murdered much in the run-of-the-mill muggings. It's usually something more unusual.
I would drop off Gaynor's file on the way home. I wanted to drop it off at the receptionist desk. I didn't feel like talking to Irving about his big interview. I didn't want to hear that Jean-Claude was charming or had great plans for the city. He'd be very careful what he told a reporter. It would look good in print. But I knew the truth. Vampires are as much a monster as any zombie, maybe worse. Vamps usually volunteer for the process, zombies don't.
Just like Irving volunteered to go off with Jean-Claude. Of course, if Irving hadn't been with me the Master would have left him alone. Probably. So it was my fault, even if it had been his choice. I was achingly tired, but I knew I'd never be able to sleep until I heard Irving's voice. I could pretend I'd called to tell him I was dropping the file off late.
I wasn't sure if Irving would be on his way to work or not. I tried home first. He answered on the first ring.
Something tight in my stomach relaxed. "Hi, Irving, it's me."
"Ms. Blake, to what do I owe this early morning pleasure?" His voice sounded so ordinary.
"I had a bit of excitement at my apartment last night. I was hoping I could drop the file off later in the day."
"What sort of excitement?" His voice had that "tell me" lilt to it.
"The kind that's police business and not yours," I said.
"I thought you'd say that," he said. "You just getting to bed?"
"I guess I can let a hardworking animator sleep in a little. My sister reporter may even understand."
"You alright, Anita?"
No, I wanted to say, but I didn't. I ignored the question. "Did Jean-Claude behave himself?"
"He was great!" Irving's enthusiasm was genuine, all bubbly excitement. "He's a great interview." He was quiet for a moment. "Hey, you called to check up on me. To make sure I was okay."
"Did not," I said.
"Thanks, Anita, that means a lot. But really, he was very civilized."
"Great. I'll let you go then. Have a good day."
"Oh, I will, my editor is doing cartwheels about the exclusive interview with the Master of the City."
I had to laugh at the way he rolled the title off his tongue. "Good night, Irving."
"Get some sleep, Blake. I'll be calling you in a day or two about those zombie articles."
"Talk to you then," I said. We hung up.
Irving was fine. I should worry more about myself and less about everyone else.
I turned off the lights and cuddled under the sheets. My penguin was cradled in my arms. The Browning Hi-Power was under my pillow. It wasn't as easy to get to as the bed holster at home, but it was better than nothing.
I wasn't sure which was more comforting, the penguin or the gun. I guess both were equally comforting, for very different reasons.
I said my prayers like a good little girl. I asked very sincerely that I not dream.
The cleaning crew had a cancellation and moved my emergency into the slot. By afternoon my apartment was clean and smelled like spring cleaning. Apartment maintenance had replaced the shattered window. The bullet holes had been smeared with white paint. The holes looked like little dimples in the wall. All in all, the place looked great.
John Burke had not returned my call. Maybe I'd been too clever. I'd try a more blunt message later. But right at this moment I had more pleasant things to worry about.
I was dressed for jogging. Dark blue shorts with white piping, white Nikes with pale blue swishes, cute little jogging socks, and tank top. The shorts were the kind with one of those inside pockets that shut with Velcro. Inside the pocket was a derringer. An American derringer to be exact; 6.5 ounces, .38 Special, 4.82 total length. At 6.5 ounces, it felt like a lumpy feather.
A Velcro pocket was not conducive to a fast draw. Two shots and spitting would be more accurate at a distance, but then Gaynor's men didn't want to kill me. Hurt me, but not kill me. They have to get in close to hurt me. Close enough to use the derringer. Of course, that was just two shots. After that, I was in trouble.
I had tried to figure out a way to carry one of my 9mms, but there was no way. I could not jog and tote around that much firepower. Choices, choices.
Veronica Sims was standing in my living room. Ronnie is five-nine, blond hair, grey eyes. She is a private investigator on retainer to Animators, Inc. We also work out together at least twice a week unless one of us is out of town, injured, or up to our necks in vampires. Those last two happen more often than I would like.
She was wearing French-cut purple shorts, and a T-shirt that said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." There are reasons why Ronnie and I are friends.
"I missed you Thursday at the health club," she said. "Was the funeral awful?"
She didn't ask me to elaborate. She knows funerals are not my best thing. Most people hate funerals because of the dead. I hate all the emotional shit.
She was stretching long legs parallel to her body, low on the floor. In a sort of stretching crouch. We always warm up in the apartment. Most leg stretches were never meant to be done while wearing short shorts.
I mirrored her movement. The muscles in my upper thighs moved and protested. The derringer was an uncomfortable but endurable lump.
"Just out of curiosity," Ronnie said, "why do you feel it necessary to take a gun with you?"
"I always carry a gun," I said.
She just looked at me, disgust plain in her eyes. "If you don't want to tell me, then don't, but don't bullshit me."
"Alright, alright," I said. "Strangely enough, no one's told me not to tell anyone."
"What, no, threats about not going to the police?" she asked.
"My, how terribly friendly."
"Not friendly," I said, sitting flat on the floor, legs out at angles. Ronnie mirrored me. It looked like we were going to roll a ball across the floor. "Not friendly at all." I leaned my upper body over my left leg until my cheek touched my thigh.
"Tell me about it," she said.
I did. When I was done, we were limbered and ready to run.
"Shit, Anita. Zombies in your apartment and a mad millionaire after you to perform human sacrifices." Her grey eyes searched my face. "You're the only person I know who has weirder problems than I do."
"Thanks a lot," I said. I locked my door behind us and put my keys in the pocket along with the derringer. I know it would scratch hell out of it, but what was I supposed to do, run with the keys in my hand?
"Harold Gaynor. I could do some checking on him for you."
"Aren't you on a case?" We clattered down the stairs.
"I'm doing about three different insurance scams. Mostly surveillance and photography. If I have to eat one more fast food dinner, I'm going to start singing jingles."
I smiled. "Shower and change at my place. We'll go out for a real dinner."
"Sounds great, but you don't want to keep Jean-Claude waiting."
"Cut it out, Ronnie," I said.
She shrugged. "You should stay as far away from that ... creature as you can, Anita."
"I know it." It was my turn to shrug. "Agreeing to meet him seemed the lesser of evils."
"What were your choices?"
"Meeting him voluntarily or being kidnapped and taken to him."
I opened the double doors that led outside. The heat smacked me in the face. It was staggeringly hot, like stepping into an oven. And we were going to jog in this?
I looked up at Ronnie. She is five inches taller than I am, and most of that is leg. We can run together, but I have to set the pace and I have to push myself. It is a very good workout. "It has to be over a hundred today," I said.
"No pain, no gain," Ronnie said. She was carrying a sport water bottle in her left hand. We were as prepared as we were going to get.
"Four miles in hell," I said. "Let's do it." We set off at a slow pace, but it was steady. We usually finished the run in a half hour or less. The air was solid with heat. It felt like we were running through semisolid walls of scalding air. The humidity in St. Louis is almost always around a hundred percent. Combine the humidity with hundred-plus temperatures and you get a small, damp slice of hell. St. Louis in the summertime, yippee.
I do not enjoy exercise. Slim hips and muscular calves are not incentive enough for this kind of abuse. Being able to outrun the bad guys is incentive. Sometimes it all comes down to who is faster, stronger, quicker. I am in the wrong business. Oh, I'm not complaining. But 106 pounds is not a lot of muscle to throw around.
Of course, when it comes to vampires, I could be two-hundred-plus of pure human muscles and it wouldn't do me a damn bit of good. Even the newly dead can bench press cars with one hand. So I'm outclassed. I've gotten used to it.
The first mile was behind us. It always hurts the worst. My body takes about two miles to be convinced it can't talk me out of this insanity.
We were moving through an older neighborhood. Lots of small fenced yards and houses dating to the fifties, or even the 1800s. There was the smooth brick wall of a warehouse that dated to pre-Civil War. It was our halfway point. Two miles. I was feeling loose and muscled, like I could run forever, if I didn't have to do it very fast. I was concentrating on moving my body through the heat, keeping the rhythm. It was Ronnie who spotted the man.
"I don't mean to be an alarmist," she said, "but why is that man just standing there?"
I squinted ahead of us. Maybe fifteen feet ahead of us the brick wall ended and there was a tall elm tree. A man was standing near the trunk of the tree. He wasn't trying to conceal himself. But he was wearing a jean jacket. It was much too hot for that, unless you had a gun under it.
"How long's he been there?"
"Just stepped out from around the tree," she said.
Paranoia reigns supreme. "Let's turn back. It's two miles either way."
We pivoted and started jogging back the other way. The man behind us did not cry out or say stop. Paranoia, it was a vicious disease.
A second man stepped out from the far corner of the brick wall. We jogged towards him a few more steps. I glanced back. Mr. Jean Jacket was casually walking towards us. The jacket was unbuttoned, and his hand was reaching under his arm. So much for paranoia.
"Run," I said.
The second man pulled a gun from his jacket pocket.
We stopped running. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
"Un-uh," the man said, "I don't feel like chasing anyone in this heat. All ya gotta be is alive, chickie, anything else is gravy." The gun was a .22 caliber automatic. Not much stopping power, but it was perfect for wounding. They'd thought this out. That was scary.
Ronnie was standing very stiff beside me. I fought the urge to grab her hand and squeeze it, but that wouldn't be very tough-as-nails vampire slayer, would it? "What do you want?"
"That's better," he said. A pale blue T-shirt gapped where his beer gut spilled over his belt. But his arms had a beefy look to them. He may have been overweight, but I bet it hurt when he hit you. I hoped I didn't have to test the theory.
I backed up so the brick wall was to my back. Ronnie moved with me. Mr. Jean Jacket was almost with us now. He had a Beretta 9mm loose in his right hand. It was not meant for wounding.
I glanced at Ronnie, then at Fatty who was nearly right beside her. I glanced at Mr. Jean Jacket, who was nearly beside me. I glanced back at Ronnie. Her eyes widened just a bit. She licked her lips once, then turned back to stare at Fatty. The guy with the Beretta was mine. Ronnie got the .22. Delegation at its best.
"What do you want?" I said again. I hate repeating myself.
"You to come take a little ride with us, that's all." Fatty smiled as he said it.
I smiled back, then turned to Jean Jacket, and his tame Beretta. "Don't you talk?"
"I talk," he said. He took two steps closer to me, but his gun was very steadily pointed at my chest. "I talk real good." He touched my hair, lightly, with his fingertips. The Beretta was damn near pressed against me. If he pulled the trigger now, it was all over. The dull black barrel of the gun was getting bigger. Illusion, but the longer you stare at a gun, the more important it gets to be. When you're on the wrong end of it.
"None of that, Seymour," Fatty said. "No pussy and we can't kill her, those are the rules."
Pete, alias Fatty, said, "You can have the blonde. No one said we couldn't have fun with her."
I did not look at Ronnie. I stared at Seymour. I had to be ready if I got that one second chance. Glancing at my friend to see how she was taking the news of her impending rape was not going to help. Really.
"Phallic power, Ronnie. It always goes to the gonads," I said.
Seymour frowned. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means, Seymour, that I think you're stupid and what brains you have are in your balls." I smiled pleasantly while I said it.
He hit me with the flat of his hand, hard. I staggered but didn't go down. The gun was still steady, unwavering. Shit. He made a sound deep in his throat and hit me, closed fist. I went down. For a moment I lay on the gritty sidewalk, listening to the blood pound in my ears. The slap had stung. The closed fist hurt.
Someone kicked me in the ribs. "Leave her alone!" Ronnie screamed.
I lay on my stomach and pretended to be hurt. It wasn't hard. I groped for the Velcro pocket. Seymour was waving the Beretta in Ronnie's face. She was screaming at him. Pete had grabbed Ronnie's arms and was trying to hold her. Things were getting out of hand. Goody.
I stared up at Seymour's legs and struggled to my knees. I shoved the derringer into his groin. He froze and stared down at me.
"Don't move, or I'll serve up your balls on a plate," I said.
Ronnie drove her elbow back into Fatty's solar plexus. He bent over a little, hands going to his stomach. She twisted away and kneed him hard in the face. Blood spurted from his nose. He staggered back. She smashed him in the side of the face, getting all her shoulder and upper body into it. He fell down. She had the .22 in her hand.
I fought an urge to yell "Yea Ronnie," but it didn't sound tough enough. We'd do high-fives later. "Tell your friend not to move, Seymour, or I'll pull this trigger."
He swallowed loud enough for me to hear it. "Don't move, Pete, okay?"
Pete just stared at us.
"Ronnie, please get Seymour's gun from him. Thank you."
I was still kneeling in the gravel with the derringer pressed into the man's groin. He let Ronnie take his gun without a fight. Fancy that.
"I've got this one covered, Anita," Ronnie said. I didn't glance at her. She would do her job. I would do mine.
"Seymour, this is a .38 Special, two shots. It can hold a variety of ammunition, .22, .44, or .357 Magnum." This was a lie, the new lightweight version couldn't hold anything higher than .38s, but I was betting Seymour couldn't tell the difference. "Forty-four or .357 and you can kiss the family jewels good-bye. Twenty-two, maybe you'll just be very, very sore. To quote a role model of mine, 'Do you feel lucky today?' "
"What do you want, man, what do you want?" His voice was high and squeaky with fear.
"Who hired you to come after us?"
He shook his head. "No, man, he'll kill us."
"Three-fifty-seven Magnum makes a fucking big hole, Seymour."
"Don't tell her shit," Pete said.
"If he says anything else, Ronnie, shoot his kneecap off," I said.
"My pleasure," Ronnie said. I wondered if she would really do it. I wondered if I'd tell her to do it. Better not to find out.
"Talk to me, Seymour, now, or I pull the trigger." I shoved the gun a little deeper. That must have hurt all on its own. He sort of tried to tippy-toe.
"God, please don't."
"Who hired you?"
"You asshole, Seymour," Pete said. "He'll kill us."
"Ronnie, please shoot him," I said.
"You said the kneecap, right?"
"How about an elbow instead?" she asked.
"Your choice," I said.
"You're crazy," Seymour said.
"Yeah," I said, "you remember that. What exactly did Bruno tell you?"
"He said to take you to a building off Grand, on Washington. He said to bring you both, but we could hurt the blonde to get you to come along."
"Give me the address," I said.
Seymour did. I think he would have told me the secret ingredient in the magic sauce if I had asked.
"If you go down there, Bruno will know we told ya," Pete said.
"Ronnie," I said.
"Shoot me now, chickie, it don't matter. You go down there or send the police down there, we are dead."
I glanced at Pete. He seemed very sincere. They were bad guys but ... "Okay, we won't bust in on him."
"We aren't going to the police," Ronnie asked.
"No, if we did that, we might as well kill them now. But we don't have to do that, do we, Seymour?"
"No, man, no."
"How much of Bruno pay you?"
"Four hundred apiece."
"It wasn't enough," I said.
"You're telling me."
"I'm going to get up now, Seymour, and leave your balls where they are. Don't come near me or Ronnie again, or I'll tell Bruno you sold him out."
"He'd kill us, man. He'd kill us slow."
"That's right, Seymour. We'll just all pretend this never happened, right?" He was nodding vigorously.
"That okay with you, Pete?" I asked.
"I ain't stupid. Bruno'd rip out our hearts and feed them to us. We won't talk." He sounded disgusted.
I got up and stepped carefully away from Seymour. Ronnie covered Pete nice and steady with the Beretta. The .22 was tucked into the waistband of her jogging shorts. "Get out of here," I said.
Seymour's skin was pasty, and a sick sweat beaded his face. "Can I have my gun?" He wasn't very bright.
"Don't get cute," I said.
Pete stood. The blood under his nose had started to dry. "Come on, Seymour. We gotta go now."
They moved on down the street side by side. Seymour looked hunched in upon himself as if he were fighting an urge to clutch his equipment.
Ronnie let out a great whoosh of air and leaned back against the wall. The gun was still clutched in her right hand. "My God," she said.
"Yeah," I said.
She touched my face where Seymour had hit me. It hurt. I winced. "Are you all right?" Ronnie asked.
"Sure," I said. Actually, it felt like the side of my face was one great big ache, but it wouldn't make it hurt any less to say it out loud.
"Are we going down to the building where they were to drop us?"
"I know who Bruno is and who gives him orders. I know why they tried to kidnap me. What could I possibly learn that would be worth two lives?"
Ronnie thought about that for a moment. "You're right, I guess. But you aren't going to report the attack to the police?"
"Why should I? I'm okay, you're okay. Seymour and Pete won't be back."
She shrugged. "You didn't really want me to shoot his kneecap off, did you? I mean we were playing good cop, bad cop, right?" She looked at me very steadily as she asked, her solid grey eyes earnest and true.
I looked away. "Let's walk back home. I don't feel much like jogging."
We set off walking down the street. Ronnie untucked her T-shirt and stuck the Beretta in the waistband. The .22 she sort of cupped in her hand. It wasn't very noticeable that way.
"We were pretending, right? Being tough, right?"
Truth. "I don't know."
"I don't know, that's the truth."
"I couldn't have shot him to pieces just to keep him from talking."
"Good thing you didn't have to then," I said.
"Would you really have pulled the trigger on that man?"
There was a cardinal singing somewhere off in the distance. The song filled the stale heat and made it seem cooler.
"Answer me, Anita. Would you really have pulled the trigger?"
"Yes?" There was a lilt of surprise in her voice.
"Shit." We walked on in silence for a minute or two, then she asked, "What ammo is in the gun today?"
"It would have killed him."
"Probably," I said.
I saw her look at me sideways as we walked back. There was a look I'd seen before. A mixture of horror and admiration. I'd just never seen it on a friend's face before. That part hurt. But we went out to dinner that night at The Miller's Daughter in Old St. Charles. The atmosphere was pleasant. The food wonderful. As always.
We talked and laughed and had a very good time. Neither of us mentioned what had happened this afternoon. Pretend hard enough and maybe it will go away.
At 10:30 that night I was down in the vampire district. Dark blue polo shirt, jeans, red windbreaker. The windbreaker hid the shoulder holster and the Browning Hi-Power. Sweat was pooling in the bends of my arms but it beat the hell out of not having it.
The afternoon fun and games had turned out all right, but that was partly luck. And Seymour losing his temper. And me being able to take a beating and keep on ticking. Ice had kept the swelling down, but the left side of my face was puffy and red, as if some sort of fruit was about to burst out of it. No bruise-yet.
The Laughing Corpse was one of the newest clubs in the District. Vampires are sexy. I'll admit that. But funny? I don't think so. Apparently, I was in the minority. A line stretched away from the club, curling round the block.
It hadn't occurred to me that I'd need a ticket or reservations or whatever just to get in. But, hey, I knew the boss. I walked along the line of people towards the ticket booth. The people were mostly young. The women in dresses, the men in dressy sports wear, with an occasional suit. They were chatting together in excited voices, a lot of casual hand and arm touching. Dates. I remember dates. It's just been a while. Maybe if I wasn't always ass deep in alligators, I'd date more. Maybe.
I cut ahead of a double-date foursome. "Hey," one man said.
"Sorry," I said.
The woman in the ticket booth frowned at me. "You can't just cut in line like that, ma'am."
Ma'am? "I don't want a ticket. I don't want to see the show. I am supposed to meet Jean-Claude here. That's it."
"Well, I don't know. How do I know you're not some reporter?"
Reporter? I took a deep breath. "Just call Jean-Claude and tell him Anita is here. Okay?"
She was still frowning at me.
"Look, just call Jean-Claude. If I'm a nosy reporter, he'll deal with me. If I'm who I say I am, he'll be happy that you called him. You can't lose."
"I don't know."
I fought an urge to scream at her. It probably wouldn't help. Probably. "Just call Jean-Claude, pretty please," I said.
Maybe it was the pretty please. She swiveled on her stool and opened the upper half of a door in the back of the booth. Small booth. I couldn't hear what she said, but she swiveled back around. "Okay, manager says you can go in."
"Great, thanks." I walked up the steps. The entire line of waiting people glared at me. I could feel their hot stares on my back. But I've been stared at by experts, so I was careful not to flinch. No one likes a line jumper.
The club was dim inside, as most clubs are. A guy just inside the door said, "Ticket, please?"
I stared up at him. He wore a white T-shirt that said, "The Laughing Corpse, it's a scream." A caricature of an openmouthed vampire was drawn very large across his chest. He was large and muscled and had bouncer tattooed across his forehead. "Ticket, please," he repeated.
First the ticket lady, now the ticket man? "The manager said I could come through to see Jean-Claude," I said.
"Willie," the ticket man said, "you send her through?"
I turned around, and there was Willie McCoy. I smiled when I saw him. I was glad to see him. That surprised me. I'm not usually happy to see dead men.
Willie is short, thin, with black hair slicked back from his forehead. I couldn't tell the exact color of his suit in the dimness, but it looked like a dull tomato-red. White button-up shirt, large shiny green tie. I had to look twice before I was sure, but yes, there was a glow-in-the-dark hula girl on his tie. It was the most tasteful outfit I'd ever seen Willie wear.
He grinned, flashing a lot of fang. "Anita, good to see ya."
I nodded. "You, too, Willie."
He grinned even wider. His canines glistened in the dim light. He hadn't been dead a year yet.
"How long have you been manager here?" I asked.
"'Bout two weeks."
He stepped closer to me. I stepped back. Instinctive. Nothing personal, but a vampire is a vampire. Don't get too close. Willie was new dead, but he was still capable of hypnotizing with his eyes. Okay, maybe no vampire as new as Willie could actually catch me with his eyes, but old habits die hard.
Willie's face fell. A flicker of something in his eyes-hurt? He dropped his voice but didn't try to step next to me. He was a faster study dead than he ever had been alive. "Thanks to me helping you last time, I'm in real good with the boss."
He sounded like an old gangster movie, but that was Willie. "I'm glad Jean-Claude's doing right by you."
"Oh, yeah," Willie said, "this is the best job I ever had. And the boss isn't ... " He waggled his hands back and forth. "Ya know, mean."
I nodded. I did know. I could bitch and complain about Jean-Claude all I wanted, but compared to most Masters of the City, he was a pussycat. A big, dangerous, carnivorous pussycat, but still, it was an improvement.
"The boss's busy right this minute," Willie said. "He said if you was to come early, to give ya a table near the stage."
Great. Aloud I said, "How long will Jean-Claude be?"
Willie shrugged. "Don't know for sure."
I nodded. "Okay, I'll wait, for a little while."
Willie grinned, fangs flashing. "Ya want me to tell Jean-Claude to hurry it up?"
He grimaced like he'd swallowed a bug. "Hell no."
"Don't sweat it. If I get tired of waiting, I'll tell him myself."
Willie looked at me sorta sideways. "You'd do it, wouldn't you?"
He just shook his head and started leading me between the small round tables. Every table was thick with people.
Laughing, gasping, drinking, holding hands. The sensation of being surrounded by thick, sweaty life was nearly overwhelming.
I glanced at Willie. Did he feel it? Did the warm press of humanity make his stomach knot with hunger? Did he go home at night and dream of ripping into the loud, roaring crowd? I almost asked him, but I liked Willie as much as I could like a vampire. I did not want to know if the answer was yes.
A table just one row back from the stage was empty. There was a big white cardboard foldy thing that said "Reserved." Willie tried to hold my chair for me, I waved him back. It wasn't women's liberation. I simply never understood what I was supposed to do while the guy shoved my chair in under me. Did I sit there and watch him strain to scoot the chair with me in it? Embarrassing. I usually hovered just above the chair and got it shoved into the backs of my knees. Hell with it.
"Would you like a drink while ya wait?" Willie asked.
"Could I have a Coke?"
I shook my head.
Willie walked away through the tables and the people. On the stage was a slender man with short, dark hair. He was thin all over, his face almost cadaverous, but he was definitely human. His appearance was more comical than anything, like a long-limbed clown. Beside him, staring blank-faced out at the crowd, was a zombie.
Its pale eyes were still clear, human-looking, but he didn't blink. That familiar frozen stare gazed out at the audience. They were only half listening to the jokes. Most eyes were on the standing deadman. He was just decayed enough around the edges to look scary, but even one row away there was no hint of odor. Nice trick if you could manage it.
"Ernie here is the best roommate I ever had," the comedian said. "He doesn't eat much, doesn't talk my ear off, doesn't bring cute chicks home and lock me out while they have a good time." Nervous laughter from the audience. Eyes glued on of Ernie.
"Though there was that pork chop in the fridge that went bad. Ernie seemed to like that a lot."
The zombie turned slowly, almost painfully, to stare at the comedian. The man's eyes flickered to the zombie, then back to the audience, smile in place. The zombie kept staring at him. The man didn't seem to like it much. I didn't blame him. Even the dead don't like to be the butt of jokes.
The jokes weren't that funny anyway. It was a novelty act. The zombie was the act. Pretty inventive, and pretty sick.
Willie came back with my Coke. The manager waiting on my table, la-de-da. Of course, the reserved table was pretty good, too. Willie set the drink down on one of those useless paper lace dollies. "Enjoy," he said. 'He turned to leave, but I touched his arm. I wish I hadn't.
The arm was solid enough, real enough. But it was like touching wood. It was dead. I don't know what else to call it. There was no feeling of movement. Nothing.
I dropped his arm, slowly, and looked up at him. Meeting his eyes, thanks to Jean-Claude's marks. Those brown eyes held something like sorrow.
I could suddenly hear my heartbeat in my ears, and I had to swallow to calm my own pulse. Shit. I wanted Willie to go away now. I turned away from him and looked very hard at my drink. He left. Maybe it was just the sound of all the laughing, but I couldn't hear Willie walk away.
Willie McCoy was the only vampire I had ever known before he died. I remembered him alive. He had been a small-time hood: An errand boy for bigger fish. Maybe Willie thought being a vampire would make him a big fish. He'd been wrong there. He was just a little undead fish now. Jean-Claude or someone like him would run Willie's "life" for eternity. Poor Willie.
I rubbed the hand that had touched him on my leg. I wanted to forget the feel of his body under the new tomato-red suit, but I couldn't. Jean-Claude's body didn't feel that way. Of course, Jean-Claude could damn near pass for human. Some of the old ones could do that. Willie would learn. God help him.
"Zombies are better than dogs. They'll fetch your slippers and don't need to be walked Erne'll even sit at my feet and beg if I tell him to."
The audience laughed. I wasn't sure why. It wasn't that genuine ha-ha laughter. It was that outrageous shocked sound.
The I-can't-believe-he-said-that laughter.
The zombie was moving toward the comedian in a sort of slow-motion jerk. Crumbling hands reached outward and my stomach squeezed tight. It was a flashback to last night. Zombies almost always attack by just reaching out. Just like in the movies.
The comedian didn't realize that Ernie had decided he'd had enough. If a zombie is simply raised without any particular orders, he usually reverts to what is normal for him. A good person is a good person until his brain decays, stripping him of personality. Most zombies won't kill without orders, but every once in a while you get lucky and raise one that has homicidal tendencies. The comedian was about to get lucky.
The zombie walked towards him like a bad Frankenstein monster. The comedian finally realized something was wrong. He stopped in mid-joke, turning eyes wide. "Ernie," he said. It was as far as he got. The decaying hands wrapped around his throat and started to squeeze.
For one pleasant second I almost let the zombie do him in. Exploiting the dead is one thing I feel strongly about, but ... stupidity isn't punishable by death. If it was, there would be a hell of a population drop.
I stood up, glancing around the club to see if they had planned for this eventuality. Willie came running to the stage. He wrapped his arms around the zombie's waist and pulled, lifted the much taller body off its feet, but the hands kept squeezing.
The comedian slipped to his knees, making little argh sounds. His face was going from red to purple. The audience was laughing. They thought it was part of the show. It was a heck of a lot funnier than the act.
I stepped up to the stage and said softly to Willie, "Need some help?"
He stared at me, still clinging to the zombie's waist. With his extraordinary strength Willie could have ripped a finger at a time off the man's neck and probably saved him. But super-vampire strength doesn't help you if you don't think how to use it. Willie never thought. Of course, the zombie might crush the man's windpipe before even a vampire could peel its fingers away. Maybe. Best not to find out.
I thought the comedian was a putz. But I couldn't stand there and watch him die. Really, I couldn't.
"Stop," I said. Low and for the zombie's ears. He stopped squeezing, but his hands were still tight. The comedian was going limp. "Release him."
The zombie let go. The man fell in a near faint on the stage. Willie straightened up from his frantic tugging at the deadman. He smoothed his tomato-red suit back into place. His hair was still perfectly slick. Too much hair-goop for a mere zombie wrestling to displace his hairdo.
"Thanks," he whispered. Then he stood to his full five feet four and said, "The Amazing Albert and his pet zombie, ladies and gentlemen." The audience had been a bit uncertain, but the applause began. When the Amazing Albert staggered to his feet, the applause exploded. He croaked into the microphone. "Ernie thinks it's time to go home now. You've been a great audience." The applause was loud and genuine.
The comedian left the stage. The zombie stayed and stared at me. Waiting, waiting for another order. I don't know why everyone can't speak and have zombies obey them. It doesn't even feel like magic to me. There is no tingle of the skin, no breath of power. I speak and the zombies listen. Me and E. F. Hutton.
"Follow Albert and obey his orders until I tell you otherwise." The zombie looked down at me for a second, then turned slowly and shuffled after the man. The zombie wouldn't kill him now. I wouldn't tell the comedian that, though. Let him think his life was in danger. Let him think he had to let me lay the zombie to rest. It was what I wanted. It was probably what the zombie wanted.
Ernie certainly didn't seem to like being the straight man in a comedy routine. Hecklers are one thing. Choking the comic to death is a little extreme.
Willie escorted me back to my table. I sat down and sipped my Coke. He sat down across from me. He looked shaken. His small hands trembled as he sat across from me. He was a vampire, but he was still Willie McCoy. I wondered how many years it would take for the last remnants of his personality to disappear. Ten years, twenty, a century? How long before the monster ate the man?
If it took that long. It wouldn't be my problem. I wouldn't be there to see it. To tell the truth, I didn't want to see it.
"I never liked zombies," Willie said.
I stared at him. "Are you afraid of zombies?"
His eyes flickered to me, then down to the table. "No."
I grinned at him. "You're afraid of zombies. You're phobic."
He leaned across the table. "Don't tell. Please don't tell." There was real fear in his eyes.
"Who would I tell?"
I shook my head. "I don't know what you're talking about, Willie."
"The MASTER." You could hear "master" was in all caps.
"Why would I tell Jean-Claude?"
He was whispering now. A new comedian had come up on stage, there was laughter and noise, and still he whispered. "You're his human servant, whether you like it or not. When we speak to you, he tells us we're speaking to him."
We were leaning almost face-to-face now. The gentle brush of his breath smelled like breath mints. Almost all vampires smell like breath mints. I don't know what they did before mints were invented. Had stinky breath, I guess.
"You know I'm not his human servant."
"But he wants you to be."
"Just because Jean-Claude wants something doesn't mean he gets it," I said.
"You don't know what he's like."
"I think I do ... "
He touched my arm. I didn't jerk back this time. I was too intent on what he was saying. "He's been different since the old master died. He's a lot more powerful than even you know."
This much I had suspected. "So why shouldn't I tell him you're afraid of zombies?"
"He'll use it to punish me."
I stared at him, our eyes inches apart. "You mean he's torturing people to control them."
"You won't tell?"
"I won't tell. Promise," I said.
He looked so relieved, I patted his hand. The hand felt like a hand. His body didn't feel wood hard anymore. Why? I didn't know, and if I asked Willie, he probably wouldn't know either. One of the mysteries of ... death.
"I thought you said that Jean-Claude was the kindest master you've ever had."
"He is," Willie said.
Now that was a frightening truth. If being tormented by your darkest fear was the kindest, how much worse had Nikolaos been. Hell, I knew the answer to that one. She'd been psychotic. Jean-Claude wasn't cruel just for the sake of watching people squirm. There was reason to his cruelty. It was a step up.
"I gotta go. Thanks for helping with the zombie." He stood.
"You were brave, you know," I said.
He flashed a grin my way, fangs glinting in the dim light. The smile vanished from his face like someone had turned a switch. "I can't afford to be anything else."
Vampires are a lot like wolf packs. The weak are either dominated or destroyed. Banishment is not an option. Willie was moving up in the ranks. A sign of weakness could stop that rise or worse. I'd often wondered what vampires feared. One of them feared zombies. It would have been funny if I hadn't seen the fear in his eyes.
The comic on stage was a vampire. He was the new dead. Skin chalk-white, eyes like burned holes in paper. His gums were bloodless and receding from canines that would have been the envy of any German shepherd. I had never seen a vampire look so monstrous. They all usually made an effort to appear human. This one wasn't.
I had missed the audience's reaction to his first appearance, but now they were laughing. If I had thought the zombie jokes were bad, these were worse. A woman at the next table laughed so hard, tears spilled down her cheeks.
"I went to New York, tough city. A gang jumped me, but I put the bite on them." People were holding their ribs as if in pain.
I didn't get it. It was genuinely not funny. I gazed around the crowd and found every eye fixed on the stage. They peered up at him with the helpless devotion of the bespelled.
He was using mind tricks. I'd seen vampires seduce, threaten, terrify, all by concentrating. But I had never seen them cause laughter. He was forcing them to laugh.
It wasn't the worst abuse of vampiric powers I'd ever seen. He wasn't trying to hurt them. And this mass hypnosis was harmless, temporary. But it was wrong. Mass mind control was one of the top scary things that most people don't know vampires can do.
I knew, and I didn't like it. He was the fresh dead and even before Jean-Claude's marks, the comic couldn't have touched me. Being an animator gave you partial immunity to vampires. It was one of the reasons that animators are so often vampire slayers. We've got a leg up, so to speak.
I had called Charles earlier, but I still didn't see him. He is not easy to miss in a crowd, sort of like Godzilla going through Tokyo. Where was he? And when would Jean-Claude be ready to see me? It was now after eleven. Trust him to browbeat me into a meeting and then make me wait. He was such an arrogant son of a bitch.
Charles came through the swinging doors that led to the kitchen area. He strode through the tables, heading for the door. He was shaking his head and murmuring to a small Asian man who was having to quick-run to keep up.
I waved, and Charles changed direction towards me. I could hear the smaller man arguing, "I run a very good, clean kitchen."
Charles murmured something that I couldn't hear. The bespelled audience was oblivious. We could have shot off a twenty-one-gun salute, and they wouldn't have flinched. Until the vampire comic was finished, they would hear nothing else.
"What are you, the damn health department?" the smaller man asked. He was dressed in a traditional chef's outfit. He had the big floppy hat wadded up in his hands. His dark uptilted eyes were sparkling with anger.
Charles is only six-one, but he seems bigger. His body is one wide piece from broad shoulders to feet. He seems to have no waist. He is like a moving mountain. Huge. His perfectly brown eyes are the same color as his skin. Wonderfully dark. His hand is big enough to cover my face.
The Asian chef looked like an angry puppy beside Charles. He grabbed Charles's arm. I don't know what he thought he was going to do, but Charles stopped moving. He stared down at the offending hand and said very carefully, voice almost painfully deep, "Do not touch me."
The chef dropped his arm like he'd been burned. He took a step back. Charles was only giving him part of the "look." The full treatment had been known to send would-be muggers screaming for help. Part of the look was enough for one irate chef.
His voice was calm, reasonable when he spoke again, "I run a clean kitchen."
Charles shook his head. "You can't have zombies near the food preparation. It's illegal. The health codes forbid corpses near food."
"My assistant is a vampire. He's dead."
Charles rolled his eyes at me. I sympathized. I'd had the same discussion with a chef or two. "Vampires are not considered legally dead anymore, Mr. Kim. Zombies are."
"I don't understand why."
"Zombies rot and carry disease just like any dead body. Just because they move around doesn't mean they aren't a depository for disease."
"I don't ... "
"Either keep the zombies away from the kitchen or we will close you down. Do you understand that?"
"And you'd have to explain to the owner why his business was not making money," I said, smiling up at both of them.
The chef looked a bit pale. Fancy that. "I ... I understand. It will be taken care of."
"Good," Charles said.
The chef darted one frightened look at me, then began to thread his way back to the kitchen. It was funny how Jean-Claude was beginning to scare so many people. He'd been one of the more civilized vampires before he became head bloodsucker. Power corrupts.
Charles sat down across from me. He seemed too big for the table. "I got your message. What's going on?"
"I need an escort to the Tenderloin."
It's hard to tell when Charles blushes, but he squirmed in his chair. "Why in the world do you want to go down there?"
"I need to find someone who works down there."
"A prostitute," I said.
He squirmed again. It was like watching an uncomfortable mountain. "Caroline is not going to like this."
"Don't tell her," I said.
"You know Caroline and I don't lie to each other, about anything."
I fought to keep my face neutral. If Charles had to explain his every move to his wife, that was his choice. He didn't have to let Caroline control him. He chose to do it. But it grated on me like having your teeth cleaned.
"Just tell her that you had extra animator business. She won't ask details." Caroline thought that our job was gross. Beheading chickens, raising zombies, how uncouth.
"Why do you need to find this prostitute?"
I ignored the question and answered another one. The less Charles knew about Harold Gaynor, the safer he'd be. "I just need someone to look menacing. I don't want to have to shoot some poor slob because he made a pass at me. Okay?"
Charles nodded. "I'll come. I'm flattered you asked."
I smiled encouragingly at him. Truth was that Manny was more dangerous and much better backup. But Manny was like me. He didn't look dangerous. Charles did. I needed a good bluff tonight, not firepower.
I glanced at my watch. It was almost midnight. Jean-Claude had kept me waiting an hour. I looked behind me and caught Willie's gaze. He came towards me immediately. I would try to use this power only for good.
He bent close, but not too close. He glanced at Charles, acknowledging him with a nod. Charles nodded back. Mr. Stoic.
"What ya want?" Willie said.
"Is Jean-Claude ready to see me or not?"
"Yeah, I was just coming to get ya. I didn't know you was expecting company tonight." He looked at Charles.
"He's a coworker."
"A zombie raiser?" Willie asked.
Charles said, "Yes." His dark face was impassive. His look was quietly menacing.
Willie seemed impressed. He nodded. "Sure, ya got zombie work after you see Jean-Claude?"
"Yeah," I said. I stood and spoke softly to Charles, though chances were that Willie would hear it. Even the newly dead hear better than most dogs.
"I'll be as quick as I can."
"Alright," he said, "but I need to get home soon."
I understood. He was on a short leash. His own fault, but it seemed to bother me more than it bothered Charles. Maybe it was one of the reasons I'm not married. I'm not big on compromise.
Willie led me through a door and a short hallway. As soon as the door closed behind us, the noise was muted, distant as a dream. The lights were bright after the dimness of the club. I blinked against it. Willie looked rosy cheeked in the bright light, not quite alive, but healthy for a deadman. He'd fed tonight on something, or someone. Maybe a willing human, maybe animal. Maybe.
The first door on the left said "Manager's Office." Willie's office? Naw.
Willie opened the door and ushered me in. He didn't come in the office. His eyes flicked towards the desk, then he backed out, shutting the door behind him.
The carpeting was pale beige; the walls eggshell-white. A large black-lacquered desk sat against the far wall. A shiny black lamp seemed to grow out of the desk. There was a blotter perfectly placed in the center of the desk. There were no papers, no paper clips, just Jean-Claude sitting behind the desk.
His long pale hands were folded on the blotter. Soft curling black hair, midnight-blue eyes, white shirt with its strange button-down cuffs. He was perfect sitting there, perfectly still like a painting. Beautiful as a wet dream, but not real. He only looked perfect. I knew better.
There were two brown metal filing cabinets against the left wall. A black leather couch took up the rest of the wall. There was a large oil painting above the couch. It was a scene of St. Louis in the 1700s. Settlers coming downriver in flatboats. The sunlight was autumn thick. Children ran and played. It didn't match anything in the room.
"The picture yours?" I asked.
He gave a slight nod.
"Did you know the painter?"
He smiled then, no hint of fangs, just the beautiful spread of lips. If there had been a vampire GQ, Jean-Claude would have been their cover boy.
"The desk and couch don't match the rest of the decor," I said.
"I am in the midst of remodeling," he said.
He just sat there looking at me. "You asked for this meeting, Jean-Claude. Let's get on with it."
"Are you in a hurry?" His voice had dropped lower, the brush of fur on naked skin.
"Yes, I am. So cut to the chase. What do you want?"
The smile widened, slightly. He actually lowered his eyes for a moment. It was almost coy. "You are my human servant, Anita."
He used my name. Bad sign that. "No," I said, "I'm not."
"You bear two marks, only two more remain." His face still looked pleasant, lovely. The expression didn't match what he was saying. '
He sighed. "Anita ... " He stopped in midsentence and stood. He came around the desk. "Do you know what it means to be Master of the City?" He leaned on the desk, half sitting. His shirt gaped open showing an expanse of pale chest. One nipple showed small and pale and hard. The cross-shaped scar was an insult to such pale perfection.
I had been staring at his bare chest. How embarrassing. I met his gaze and managed not to blush. Bully for me.
"There are other benefits to being my human servant, ma petite." His eyes were all pupil, black and drowning deep.
I shook my head. "No."
"No lies, ma petite, I can feel your desire." His tongue flicked across his lips. "I can taste it."
Great, just great. How do you argue with someone who can feel what you're feeling? Answer: don't argue, agree. "Alright, I lust after you. Does that make you happy?"
He smiled. "Yes." One word, but it flowed through my mind, whispering things that he had not said. Whispers in the dark.
"I lust after a lot of men, but that doesn't mean I have to sleep with them."
His face was almost slack, eyes like drowning pools. "Casual lust is easily defeated," he said. He stood in one smooth motion. "What we have is not casual, ma petite. Not lust, but desire." He moved towards me, one pale hand outstretched.
My heart was thudding in my throat. It wasn't fear. I didn't think it was a mind trick. It felt real. Desire, he called it, maybe it was. "Don't," my voice was hoarse, a whisper.
He, of course, did not stop. His fingers traced the edge of my cheek, barely touching. The brush of skin on skin. I stepped away from him, forced to draw a deep shaking breath. I could be as uncool as I wanted, he could feel my discomfort. No sense pretending.
I could feel where he had touched me, a lingering sensation. I looked at the ground while I spoke. "I appreciate the possible fringe benefits, Jean-Claude, really. But I can't. I won't." I met his eyes. His face was a terrible blankness. Nothing. It was the same face of a moment ago, but some spark of humanity, of life, was gone.
My pulse started thudding again. It had nothing to do with sex. Fear. It had a lot to do with fear.
"As you like, my little animator. Whether we are lovers or not, it does not change what you are to me. You are my human servant."
"No," I said.
"You are mine, Anita. Willing or not, you are mine."
"See, Jean-Claude, here's where you lose me. First you try seducing me, which has its pleasant side. When that doesn't work, you resort to threats."
"It is not a threat, ma petite. It is the truth."
"No, it isn't. And stop calling me ma fucking petite."
He smiled at that.
I didn't want him amused by me. Anger replaced fear in a quick warm rush. I liked anger. It made me brave, and stupid. "Fuck you."
"I have already offered that." His voice made something low jerk in my stomach.
I felt the rush of heat as I blushed. "Damn you, Jean-Claude, damn you."
"We need to talk, ma petite. Lovers or not, servant or not, we need to talk."
"Then talk. I haven't got all night."
He sighed. "You don't make this easy."
"If it was easy you wanted, you should have picked on someone else."
He nodded. "Very true. Please, be seated." He went back to lean on the desk, arms crossed over his chest.
"I don't have that kind of time," I said.
He frowned slightly. "I thought we agreed to talk this out, ma petite."
"We agreed to meet at eleven. You're the one who wasted an hour, not me."
His smile was almost bitter. "Very well. I will give you a ... condensed version."
I nodded. "Fine with me."
"I am the new Master of the City. But to survive with Nikolaos alive, I had to hide my powers. I did it too well. There are those who think I am not powerful enough to be the Master of all. They are challenging me. One of the things they are using against me is you."
"Your disobedience. I cannot even control my own human servant. How can I possibly control all the vampires in the city and surrounding areas?"
"What do you want from me?"
He smiled then, wide and genuine, flashing fangs. "I want you to be my human servant."
"Not in this lifetime, Jean-Claude."
"I can force the third mark on you, Anita." There was no threat as he said it. It was just a fact.
"I would rather die than be your human servant." Master vampires can smell the truth. He would know I meant it.
I opened my mouth to try to explain, but didn't. He would not understand. We stood two feet apart but it might have been miles. Miles across some dark chasm. We could not bridge that gap. He was a walking corpse. Whatever he had been as a living man, it was gone. He was the Master of the City, and that was nothing even close to human.
"If you force this issue, I will kill you," I said.
"You mean that." There was surprise in his voice. It isn't often a girl gets to surprise a centuries-old vampire.
"I do not understand you, ma petite."
"I know," I said.
"Could you pretend to be my servant?"
It was an odd question. "What does pretending mean?"
"You come to a few meetings. You stand at my side with your guns and your reputation."
"You want the Executioner at your back." I stared at him for a space of heartbeats. The true horror of what he'd just said floated slowly through my mind. "I thought the two marks were accident. That you panicked. You meant all along to mark me, didn't you?"
He just smiled.
"Answer me, you son of a bitch."
"If the chance arose, I was not averse to it."
"Not averse to it!" I was almost yelling. "You cold-bloodedly chose me to be your human servant! Why?"
"You are the Executioner."
"Damn you, what does that mean?"
"It is impressive to be the vampire who finally caught you."
"You haven't caught me."
"If you would behave yourself, the others would think so. Only you and I need know that it is pretense."
I shook my head. "I won't play your game, Jean-Claude."
"You will not help me?"
"You got it."
"I offer you immortality. Without the compromise of vampirism. I offer you myself. There have been women over the years who would have done anything I asked just for that."
"Sex is sex, Jean-Claude. No one's that good."
He smiled slightly. "Vampires are different, ma petite. If you were not so stubborn, you might find out how different."
I had to look away from his eyes. The look was too intimate. Too full of possibilities.
"There's only one thing I want from you," I said.
"And what is that, ma petite?"
"All right, two things. First, stop calling me ma petite; second, let me go. Wipe these damn marks away."
"You may have the first request, Anita."
"And the second?"
"I cannot, even if I wanted to."
"Which you don't," I said.
"Which I don't."
"Stay away from me, Jean-Claude. Stay the fuck away from me, or I'll kill you."
"Many people have tried through the years."
"How many of them had eighteen kills?"
His eyes widened just a bit. "None. There was this man in Hungary who swore he killed five."
"What happened to him?"
"I tore his throat out."
"You understand this, Jean-Claude. I would rather have my throat torn out. I would rather die trying to kill you than submit to you." I stared at him, trying to see if he understood any of what I said. "Say something."
"I have heard your words. I know you mean them." He was suddenly standing in front of me. I hadn't seen him move, hadn't felt him in my head. He was just suddenly inches in front of me. I think I gasped.
"Could you truly kill me?" His voice was like silk on a wound, gentle with an edge of pain. Like sex. It was like velvet rubbing inside my skull. It felt good, even with fear tearing through my body. Shit. He could still have me. Still take me down. No way.
I looked up into his so-blue eyes and said, "Yes."
I meant it. He blinked once, gracefully, and stepped back. "You are the most stubborn woman I have ever met," he said. There was no play in his voice this time. It was a flat statement.
"That's the nicest compliment you've ever paid me."
He stood in front of me, hands at his sides. He stood very still. Snakes or birds can stand utterly still but even a snake has a sense of aliveness, of action waiting to resume. Jean-Claude stood there with no sense of anything, as if despite what my eyes told me, he had vanished. He was not there at all. The dead make no noise.
"What happened to your face?"
I touched the swollen cheek before I could stop myself. "Nothing," I lied.
"Who hit you?"
"Why, so you can go beat him up?"
"One of the fringe benefits of being my servant is my protection."
"I don't need your protection, Jean-Claude."
"He hurt you."
"And I shoved a gun into his groin and made him tell me everything he knew," I said.
Jean-Claude smiled. "You did what?"
"I shoved a gun into his balls, alright?"
His eyes started to sparkle. Laughter spread across his face and burst out between his lips. He laughed full-throated.
The laugh was like candy: sweet, and infectious. If you could bottle Jean-Claude's laugh, I know it would be fattening. Or orgasmic.
"Ma petite, ma petite, you are absolutely marvelous."
I stared at him, letting that wonderful, touchable laugh roll around me. It was time to go. It is very hard to be dignified when someone is laughing uproariously at you. But I managed.
My parting shot made him laugh harder. "Stop calling me ma petite."
I stepped back out into the noise of the club. Charles was standing beside the table, not sitting. He looked uncomfortable from a distance. What had gone wrong now?
His big hands were twisted together. Dark face scrunched up into near pain. A kind God had made Charles look big and bad, because inside he was all marshmallow. If I'd had Charles's natural size and strength, I'd have been a guaranteed bad ass. It was sort of sad and unfair.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I called Caroline," he said.
"The baby-sitter's sick. And Caroline's been called in to the hospital. Someone has to stay with Sam while she goes to work."
"Mm-huh," I said.
He didn't look the least bit tough when he said, "Can going down to the Tenderloin wait until tomorrow?"
I shook my head.
"You're not going to go down there alone," Charles said. "Are you?"
I stared up at the great mountain of a man, and sighed. "I can't wait, Charles."
"But the Tenderloin." He lowered his voice as if just saying the word too loud would bring a cloud of pimps and prostitutes to descend upon us. "You can't go down there alone at night."
"I've gone worse places, Charles. I'll be all right."
"No, I won't let you go alone. Caroline can just get a new sitter or tell the hospital no." He smiled when he said it. Always happy to help a friend. Caroline would give him hell for it. Worst of all, now I didn't want to take Charles with me. You had to do more than look tough.
What if Gaynor got wind of me questioning Wanda? What if he found Charles and thought he was involved? No. It had been selfish to risk Charles. He had a four-year-old son. And a wife.
Harold Gaynor would eat Charles raw for dinner. I couldn't involve him. He was a big, friendly, eager-to-please bear. A lovable, cuddly bear. I didn't need a teddy bear for backup.
I needed someone who would be able to take any heat that Gaynor might send our way.
I had an idea.
"Go home, Charles. I won't go alone. I promise."
He looked uncertain. Like maybe he didn't trust me. Fancy that. "Anita, are you sure? I won't leave you hanging like this."
"Go on, Charles. I'll take backup."
"Who can you get at this hour?"
"No questions. Go home to your son."
He looked uncertain, but relieved. He hadn't really wanted to go to the Tenderloin. Maybe. Caroline's short leash was what Charles wanted, needed. An excuse for all the things he really didn't want to do. What a basis for a marriage.
But, hey, if it works, don't fix it.
Charles left with many apologies. But I knew he was glad to go. I would remember that he had been glad to go.
I knocked on the office door. There was a silence, then,
"Come in, Anita."
How had he known it was me? I wouldn't ask. I didn't want to know.
Jean-Claude seemed to be checking figures in a large ledger.
It looked antique with yellowed pages and fading ink. The ' ledger looked like something Bob Crachit should have been scribbling in on a cold Christmas Eve.
"What have I done to merit two visits in one night?" he said.
Looking at him now, I felt silly. I spent all this time avoiding him. Now I was going to invite him to accompany me on a bit of sleuthing? But it would kill two bats with one stone. It would please Jean-Claude, and I really didn't want him angry with me, if I could avoid it. And if Gaynor did try to go up against Jean-Claude, I was betting on Jean-Claude.
It was what Jean-Claude had done to me a few weeks ago. He had chosen me as the vampire's champion. Put me up against a monster that had slain three master vampires. And he had bet that I would come out on top against Nikolaos. I had, but just barely.
What was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander. I smiled sweetly at him. Pleased to be able to return the favor so quickly.
"Would you care to accompany me to the Tenderloin?"
He blinked, surprise covering his face just like a real person. "To what purpose?"
"I need to question a prostitute about a case I'm working on. I need backup."
"Backup?" he asked.
"I need backup that looks more threatening than I do. You fit the bill."
He smiled beatifically. "I would be your bodyguard."
"You've given me enough grief, do something nice for a change."
The smile vanished. "Why this sudden change of heart, ma petite?"
"My backup had to go home and baby-sit his kid."
"And if I do not go?"
"I'll go alone," I said.
"Into the Tenderloin?"
He was suddenly standing by the desk, walking towards me. I hadn't seen him rise.
"I wish you'd stop doing that."
"Clouding my mind so I can't see you move."
"I do it as often as I can, ma petite, just to prove I still can."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I gave up much of my power over you when I gave you the marks. I practice what little games are left me." He was standing almost in front of me. "Lest you forget who and what I am."
I stared up into his blue, blue eyes. "I never forget that you are the walking dead, Jean-Claude."
An expression I could not read passed over his face. It might have been pain. "No, I see the knowledge in your eyes of what I am." His voice dropped low, almost a whisper, but it wasn't seductive. It was human. "Your eyes are the clearest mirror I have ever seen, ma petite. Whenever I begin to pretend to myself. Whenever I have delusions of life. I have only to look into your face and see the truth."
What did he expect me to say? Sorry, I'll try to ignore the fact that you're a vampire. "So why keep me around?" I asked.
"Perhaps if Nikolaos had had such a mirror, she would not have been such a monster."
I stared at him. He might be right. It made his choice of me as human servant almost noble. Almost. Oh, hell. I would not start feeling sorry for the freaking Master of the City. Not now. Not ever.
We would go down to the Tenderloin. Pimps beware. I was bringing the Master as backup. It was like carrying a thermonuclear device to kill ants. Overkill has always been a specialty of mine.