I pulled up in front of my apartment building at a little after 2:00 A.M. I'd planned to be in bed a long time before this. The new cross-shaped burn was a burning, acid-eating ache. It made my whole chest hurt. My ribs and stomach were sore, stiff. I turned on the dome light in the car and unzipped the leather jacket. In the yellow light bruises were blossoming across my skin. For a minute I couldn't think how I'd gotten hurt; then I remembered the crushing weight of the snake crawling over me. Jesus. I was lucky it was bruises and not broken ribs.
I clicked off the light and zipped the jacket back up. The shoulder straps were chafing on my bare skin, but the burn hurt so much more that the bruises and the chafing seemed pretty darn minor. A good burn will take your mind off everything else.
The light that usually burned over the stairs was out. Not the first time. I'd have to call the office once it opened for the day and report it, though. If you didn't report it, it didn't get fixed.
I was three steps up before I saw the man. He was sitting at the head of the stairs waiting for me. Short blond hair, pale in the darkness. His hands sat on the top of his knees, palms up to show that he didn't have a weapon. Well, that he didn't have a weapon in his hands. Edward always had a weapon unless someone had taken it away from him.
Come to think of it, so did I.
"Long time no see, Edward."
"Three months," he said. "Long enough for my broken arm to heal completely."
I nodded. "I got my stitches out about two months ago."
He just sat on the steps looking down at me.
"What do you want, Edward?"
"Couldn't it be a social call?" He was laughing at me, quietly.
"It's two o'clock in the freaking morning; it better not be a social call."
"Would you rather it was business?" His voice was soft, but it carried.
I shook my head. "No, no." I never wanted to be business for Edward. He specialized in killing lycanthropes, vampires, anything that used to be human and wasn't anymore. He'd gotten bored with killing people. Too easy.
"Is it business?" My voice was steady, no tremble. Good for me. I could draw the Browning, but if we ever drew down on each other for real, he'd kill me. Being friends with Edward was like being friends with a tame leopard. You could pet it and it seemed to like you, but you knew deep down that if it ever got hungry enough, or angry enough, it would kill you. Kill you and eat the flesh from your bones.
"Just information tonight, Anita, no problems."
"What sort of information?" I asked.
He smiled again. Friendly ol' Edward. Ri-ight.
"Can we go inside and talk about it? It's freezing out here," he said.
"The last time you were in town you didn't seem to need an invitation to break into my apartment."
"You've got a new lock."
I grinned. "You couldn't pick it, could you?" I was genuinely pleased.
He shrugged; maybe it was the darkness, but if it hadn't been Edward, I'd have said he was embarrassed.
"The locksmith told me it was burglarproof," I said.
"I didn't bring my battering ram with me," he said.
"Come on up. I'll fix coffee." I stepped around him. He stood and followed me. I turned my back on him without worrying. Edward might shoot me someday, but he wouldn't do it in the back after telling me he was just here to talk. Edward wasn't honorable, but he had rules. If he planned to kill me, he'd have announced it. Told me how much people were paying him to off me. Watched the fear slide through my eyes.
Yeah, Edward had rules. He just had fewer of them than most people did. But he never broke a rule, never betrayed his own skewed sense of honor. If he said I was safe for tonight, he meant it. It would have been nice if Jean-Claude had had rules.
The hallway was middle-of-the-night, middle-of-the-week, had-to-get-up-in-the-morning quiet. My day living neighbors were all asnooze in their beds without care. I unlocked the new locks on my door and ushered Edward inside.
"That's a new look for you, isn't it?" he asked.
"What happened to your shirt?"
"Oh." Suave comebacks, that's me. I didn't know what to say, or rather, how much to say.
"You've been playing with vampires again," he said.
"What makes you think so?" I asked.
"The cross-shaped burn on your, ah, chest."
Oh, that. Fine. I unzipped the jacket and folded it over the back of the couch. I stood there in my bra and shoulder holster and met his eyes without blushing. Brownie point for me. I undid the belt and slipped out of the shoulder holster, then took it into the kitchen with me. I laid the gun still in its holster on the countertop and got coffee beans out of the freezer, wearing just my bra and jeans. In front of any other male, alive or dead, I would have been embarrassed, but not Edward. There had never been sexual tension between us. We might shoot each other one fine day, but we'd never sleep together. He was more interested in the fresh burn than my breasts.
"How'd it happen?" he asked.
I ground the beans in the little electric spice mill I'd bought for the occasion. Just the smell of freshly ground coffee made me feel better. I put a filter in my Mr. Coffee, poured the coffee in, poured the water in, and pushed the button. This was about as fancy as my cooking skills got.
"I'm going to get a shirt to throw on," I said.
"The burn won't like anything touching it," Edward said.
"I won't button it, then."
"Are you going to tell me how you got burned?"
"Yes." I took my gun and walked into the bedroom. In the back of my closet I had a long-sleeved shirt that had once been purple but had faded to a soft lilac. It was a man's dress shirt and hung down nearly to my knees, but it was comfortable. I rolled the sleeves up to my elbows and buttoned it halfway up. I left it gapping over the burn. I glanced in the mirror and found that most of my cleavage was covered. Perfect.
I hesitated but finally put the Browning Hi-Power in its holster behind the headboard. Edward and I weren't fighting tonight, and anything that came through the door, with its new locks, would have to go through Edward first. I felt pretty safe.
He was sitting on my couch, legs out in front of him crossed at the ankle. He'd sunk down until the top of his shoulders rested on the couch's arm.
"Make yourself at home," I said.
He just smiled. "Are you going to tell me about the vampires?"
"Yes, but I'm having trouble deciding exactly how much to tell you."
The smile widened. "Naturally."
I set out two mugs, sugar, and real cream from the refrigerator. The coffee dripped into the little glass pot. The smell was rich, warm, and thick enough to wrap your arms around.
"How do you like your coffee?"
"Fix it the way you'd fix it for yourself."
I glanced back at him. "No preference?"
He shook his head, still resting against the couch arm.
"Okay." I poured the coffee into the mugs, added three sugars and a lot of cream to each, stirred, and sat them on the two-seater breakfast table.
"You're not going to bring it to me?"
"You don't drink coffee on a white couch," I said.
"Ah." He got up in one smooth motion, all grace and energy. He'd have been very impressive if I hadn't spent most of the night with vampires.
We sat across from each other. His eyes were the color of spring skies, that warm pale blue that still manages to look cold. His face was pleasant, his eyes neutral and watching everything I did.
I told him about Yasmeen and Marguerite. I left out Jean-Claude, the vampire murder, the giant cobra, Stephen the Werewolf, and Rick Zeeman. Which meant it was a very short story.
When I finished Edward sat there, sipping his coffee and staring at me.
I sipped coffee and stared back.
"That does explain the burn," he said.
"Great," I said.
"But you left out a lot."
"How do you know?"
"Because I was following you."
I stared at him, choking on my coffee. When I could talk without coughing, I said, "You were what?"
"Following you," he said. His eyes were still neutral, smile still pleasant.
"I've been hired to kill the Master of the City."
"You were hired for that three months ago."
"Nikolaos is dead; the new master isn't."
"You didn't kill Nikolaos," I said. "I did."
"True; you want half the money?"
I shook my head.
"Then what's your complaint? I got my arm broken helping you kill her."
"And I got fourteen stitches, and we both got vampire bit," I said.
"And cleansed ourselves with holy water," Edward said.
"Which burns likes acid," I said.
Edward nodded, sipped his coffee. Something moved behind his eyes, something liquid and dangerous. His expression hadn't changed, I'd swear to it, but it was suddenly all I could do to meet his eyes.
"Why were you following me, Edward?"
"I was told you would be meeting with the new Master tonight."
"Who told you that?"
He shook his head, that inscrutable smile curling his lips. "I was inside the Circus tonight, Anita. I saw who you were with. You played with the vampires, then you went home, so one of them has to be the Master."
I fought to keep my face blank, too blank, so the effort showed, but the panic didn't show. Edward had been following me, and I hadn't known it. He knew all the vampires I had seen tonight. It wasn't that big a list. He'd figure it out.
"Wait a minute," I said. "You let me go up against that snake without helping me?"
"I came in after the crowd ran out. It was almost over by the time I peeked into the tent."
I drank coffee and tried to think of a way to make this better. He had a contract to kill the Master, and I had led him right to him. I had betrayed Jean-Claude. Why did that bother me?
Edward was watching my face as if he would memorize it. He was waiting for my face to betray me. I worked hard at being blank and inscrutable. He smiled that close, canary-eating grin of his. He was enjoying himself. I was not.
"You only saw four vampires tonight: Jean-Claude, the dark exotic one who must be Yasmeen, and the two blonds. You got names for the blonds?"
I shook my head.
His smile widened. "Would you tell me if you had?"
"The blonds aren't important," he said. "Neither of them were master vamps."
I stared at him, forcing my face to be neutral, pleasant, attentive, blank. Blank is not one of my better expressions, but maybe if I practiced enough . . .
"That leaves Jean-Claude and Yasmeen. Yasmeen's new in town; that just leaves Jean-Claude."
"Do you really think that the Master of the freaking City would show himself like that?" I put all the scorn I could find into my voice. I wasn't the best actor in the world, but maybe I could learn.
Edward stared at me. "It's Jean-Claude, isn't it?"
"Jean-Claude isn't powerful enough to hold the city. You know that. He's, what, a little over two hundred? Not old enough."
He frowned at me. Good. "It's not Yasmeen."
"You didn't talk to any other vampires tonight?"
"You may have followed me into the Circus, Edward, but you didn't listen at the door when I met the Master. You couldn't have. The vamps or the shapeshifters would have heard you."
He acknowledged it with a nod.
"I saw the Master tonight, but it wasn't anyone who came down to fight the snake."
"The Master let his people risk their lives and didn't help?" His smile was back.
"The Master of the City doesn't have to be physically present to lend his power, you know that."
"No," he said, "I don't."
I shrugged. "Believe it or not." I prayed, please let him believe.
He was frowning. "You're not usually this good a liar."
"I'm not lying." My voice sounded calm, normal, truthful. Honesty-R-Us.
"If Jean-Claude really isn't the Master, then you know who is?"
The question was a trap. I couldn't answer yes to both questions, but hell, I'd been lying; why stop now? "Yes, I know who it is."
"Tell me," he said.
I shook my head. "The Master would kill me if he knew I talked to you."
"We can kill him together like we did the last one." His voice was terribly reasonable.
I thought about it for a minute. I thought about telling him the truth. Humans First might not be up to tangling with the Master, but Edward was. We could kill him together, a team. My life would be a lot simpler. I shook my head and sighed. Shit.
"I can't, Edward."
"Won't," he said.
I nodded. "Won't."
"If I believe you, Anita, it means I need the name of the Master. It means you are the only human who knows that name." The friendly banter seeped out of his face like melting ice. His eyes were as empty and pitiless as a winter sky. There was no one home that I could talk to.
"You don't want to be the only human who knows the name, Anita."
He was right. I didn't, but what could I say? "Take it or leave it, Edward."
"Save yourself a lot of pain, Anita; tell me the name."
He believed. Hot damn. I lowered my eyes to look down into my coffee so he wouldn't see the flash of triumph in my eyes. When I looked back up, I had my face under control. Me and Meryl Streep.
"I don't give in to threats, you know that."
He nodded. He finished his coffee and sat the mug in the middle of the table. "I will do whatever is necessary to finish this job."
"I never doubted that," I said. He was talking about torturing me for information. He sounded almost regretful, but that wouldn't stop him. One of Edward's primary rules was "Always finish a job."
He wouldn't let a little thing like friendship ruin his perfect record.
"You saved my life, and I saved yours," he said. "It doesn't buy you anything now. You understand that?"
I nodded. "I understand."
"Good." He stood up. I stood up. We looked at each other. He shook his head. "I'll find you tonight, and I'll ask again."
"I won't be bullied, Edward." I was finally getting a little mad. He had come in here asking for information; now he was threatening me. I let the anger show. No acting needed.
"You're tough, Anita, but not that tough." His eyes were neutral, but wary, like those of a wolf I'd seen once in California. I'd just walked around a tree and there it had been, standing. I froze. I had never really understood what neutral meant until then. The wolf didn't give a damn if it hurt me or not. My choice. Threaten it, and the shit hit the fan. Give it room to run, and it would run. But the wolf didn't care; it was prepared either way. I was the one with my pulse in my throat, so startled that I'd stopped breathing. I held my breath and wondered what the wolf would decide. It finally loped off through the trees.
I'd relearned how to breathe and gone back down to the campsite. I had been scared, but I could still close my eyes and see the wolf's pale grey eyes. The wonder of staring at a large predator without any cage bars between us. It had been wonderful.
I stared up at Edward now and knew that this, too, was wonderful in its way. Whether I had known the information or not, I wouldn't have told him. No one bullied me. No one. That was one of my rules.
"I don't want to have to kill you, Edward."
He smiled then. "You kill me?" He was laughing at me.
"You bet," I said.
The laughter seeped out of his eyes, his lips, his face, until he stared at me with his neutral, predator eyes.
I swallowed and remembered to take slow, even breaths. He would kill me. Maybe. Maybe not.
"Is the Master worth one of us dying?" I asked.
"It's a matter of principle," he said.
I nodded. "Me, too."
"We know where we stand, then," he said.
He walked towards the door. I followed, and unlocked the door for him. He paused in the doorway. "You've got until full dark tonight."
"The answer will be the same."
"I know," he said. He walked out without even glancing back. I watched him until he disappeared down the stairs. Then I shut the door and locked it. I stood leaning my back against the door and tried to think of a way out.
If I told Jean-Claude, he might be able to kill Edward, but I didn't give humans to the monsters. Not for any reason. I could tell Edward about Jean-Claude. He might even be able to kill the Master. I could even help him.
I tried picturing Jean-Claude's perfect body riddled with bullets, covered in blood. His face blown away by a shotgun. I shook my head. I couldn't do it. I didn't know why exactly, but I couldn't hand Jean-Claude over to Edward.
I couldn't betray either of them. Which left me ass-deep in alligators. So what else was new?
I stood on the shore under a black fringe of trees. The black lake lapped and rolled away into the dark. The moon hung huge and silver in the sky. The moonlight made glittering patterns on the water. Jean-Claude rose from the water. Water was streaming in silver lines from his hair and shirt. His short black hair was in tight curls from being wet. The white shirt clung to his body, making his nipples clear and hard against the cloth. He held out his hand to me.
I was wearing a long, dark dress. It was heavy and hung around me like a weight. Something inside the skirt made it stick out to either side like a tiny malformed hoop. A heavy cloak was pushed back over my shoulders. It was autumn, and the moon was harvest-full.
Jean-Claude said, "Come to me."
I stepped off the shore and sank into the water. It filled the skirt, soaking into the cloak. I tore the cloak off, letting it sink out of sight. The water was warm as bath water, warm as blood. I raised my hand to the moonlight, and the liquid that streamed down it was thick and dark and had never been water.
I stood in the shallows in a dress that I had never imagined, by a shore I did not know, and stared at the beautiful monster as he moved towards me, graceful and covered in blood.
I woke gasping for air, hands clutching at the sheets like a lifeline. "You promised to stay out of my dreams, you son of a bitch," I whispered.
The radio clock beside the bed read 2:00 P.M. I'd been asleep for ten hours. I should have felt better, but I didn't. It was as if I'd been running from nightmare to nightmare, and hadn't really gotten to rest. The only dream I remembered was the last one. If they had all been that bad, I didn't want to remember the rest.
Why was Jean-Claude haunting my dreams again? He'd given his word, but maybe his word wasn't worth anything. Maybe.
I stripped in front of the bathroom mirror. My ribs and stomach were covered in deep, nearly purple bruises. My chest was tight when I breathed, but nothing was broken. The burn on my chest was raw, the skin blackened where it wasn't covered in blisters. A burn hurts all the way down, as if the pain burrows from the skin down to the bone. A burn is the only injury where I am convinced I have nerve endings below skin level. How could it hurt so damn bad, otherwise?
I was meeting Ronnie at the health club at three. Ronnie was short for Veronica. She said it helped her get more work as a private detective if people assumed she was male. Sad but true. We would lift weights and jog. I slipped a black sports bra very carefully over the burn. The elastic pressed in on the bruises, but everything else was okay. I rubbed the burn with antiseptic cream and taped a piece of gauze over it. A man's red t-shirt with the sleeves and neck cut out went over everything else. Black biker pants, jogging socks with a thin red stripe, and black Nike Airs completed the outfit.
The t-shirt showed the gauze, but it hid the bruises. Most of the regulars at the health club were accustomed to my coming in bruised or worse. They didn't ask a lot of questions anymore. Ronnie says I was grumpy at them. Fine with me. I like to be left alone.
I had my coat on, gym bag in hand, when the phone rang. I debated but finally picked it up. "Talk to me," I said.
My stomach tightened. Was it another murder? "What's up, Dolph?"
"We got an ID on the John Doe you looked at."
"The vampire victim?"
I let out the breath I'd been holding. No more murders, and we were making progress; what could be better?
"Calvin Barnabas Rupert, friends called him Cal. Twenty-six years old, married to Denise Smythe Rupert for four years. No children. He was an insurance broker. We haven't been able to turn up any ties with the vampire community."
"Maybe Mr. Rupert was just in the right place at the wrong time."
"Random violence?" He made it a question.
"If it was random, we got no pattern, nothing to look at."
"So you're wondering if I can find out if Cal Rupert had any ties to the monsters?"
"Yes," he said.
I sighed. "I'll try. Is that it? I'm late for an appointment."
"That's it. Call me if you find out anything." His voice sounded positively grim.
"You'd tell me if you found another body, wouldn't you?"
He gave a snort of laughter. "Make you come down and measure the damn bites, yeah. Why?"
"Your voice sounds grim."
The laughter dribbled out of his voice. "You're the one who said there'd be more bodies. You changed your mind on that?"
I wanted to say, yes, I've changed my mind, but I didn't. "If there is a pack of rogue vampires, we'll be seeing more bodies."
"Can you think of anything else it could be besides vampires?" he asked.
I thought about it for a minute, and shook my head. "Not a damn thing."
"Fine, talk to you later." The phone buzzed dead in my hand before I could say anything. Dolph wasn't much on hello and good-bye.
I had my back-up gun, a Firestar 9mm, in the pocket of my jacket. There was just no way to wear a holster in exercise clothes. The Firestar only held eight bullets to the Browning's thirteen, but the Browning tended to stick out of my pocket and make people stare. Besides, if I couldn't get the bad guys with eight bullets, another five probably wouldn't help. Of course, there was an extra clip in the zipper pocket of my gym bag. A girl couldn't be too cautious in these crime-ridden times.
Ronnie and I were doing power circuits at Vic Tanny's. There were two full sets of machines and no waiting at 3:14 on a Thursday afternoon. I was doing the Hip Abduction/Hip Adduction machine. You pulled a lever on the side and the machine went to different positions. The Hip Adduction position looked vaguely obscene, like a gynecological torture device. It was one of the reasons I never wore shorts when we lifted weights. Ronnie either.
I was concentrating on pressing my thighs together without making the weights clink. Weights clinking means you're not controlling the exercise, or it means you're working with too much weight. I was using sixty pounds. It wasn't too heavy.
Ronnie lay on her stomach using the Leg Curl, flexing her calves over her back, heels nearly touching her butt. The muscles under her calves bunched and coiled under her skin. Neither of us is bulky, but we're solid. Think Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.
Ronnie finished before I did and paced around the machines waiting for me. I let the weights ease back with only the slightest clink. It's okay to clink the weights when you're finished.
We eased out from the machines and started running on the oval track. The track was bordered by a glass wall that showed the blue pool. A lone man was doing laps in goggles and a black bathing cap. The other side was bordered by the free weight room and the aerobics studio. The ends of the track were mirrored so you could always see yourself running face on. On bad days I could have done without watching myself; on good days it was kind of fun. A way to make sure your stride was even, arms pumping.
I told Ronnie about the vampire victim as we ran. Which meant we weren't running fast enough. I increased my pace and could still talk. When you routinely do four miles outside in the St. Louis heat, the padded track at Vic Tanny is just not that big a challenge. We did two laps and went back to the machines.
"What did you say the victim's name was again?" She sounded normal, no strain. I increased our pace to a flat-out run. All talking ceased.
Arm machines this time. Regular Pull-over for me, Overhead Press for Ronnie, then two laps of the track, then trade machines.
When I could talk, I answered her question. "Calvin Rupert," I said. I did twelve pullovers with 100 pounds. Of all the machines, this one is easiest for me. Weird, huh?
"Cal Rupert?" she asked.
"That's what his friends called him," I said, "Why?"
She shook her head. "I know a Cal Rupert."
I watched her and let my body do the exercise without me. I was holding my breath, which is bad. I remembered to breathe and said, "Tell me."
"When I was asking questions around Humans Against Vampires during that rash of vampire deaths. Cal Rupert belonged to HAV."
"Describe him for me."
"Blond, blue or grey eyes, not too tall, well built, attractive."
There might be more than one Cal Rupert in St. Louis, but what were the odds that they'd look that much alike? "I'll have Dolph check it out, but if he was a member of HAV, it might mean the vampire kill was an execution."
"What do you mean?"
"Some of HAV thinks the only good vampire is a dead vampire." I was thinking of Humans First, Mr. Jeremy Ruebens's little group. Had they killed a vampire already? Was this retaliation?
"I need to know if Cal was still a member of HAV or if he'd joined a new, more radical group called Humans First."
"Catchy," Ronnie said.
"Can you find out for me? If I go down there asking questions, they'll burn me at the stake."
"Always glad to help my best friend and the police at the same time. A private detective never knows when having the police owe you one may come in handy."
"True," I said.
I got to wait for Ronnie this time. On leg machines she was faster. Upper body was my area. "I'll call Dolph as soon as we're finished here. Maybe it's a pattern? A hell of a coincidence if it's not."
We started around the track and Ronnie said, "So, have you decided what you're wearing to Catherine's Halloween party?"
I glanced at her, nearly stumbling. "Shit," I said.
"I take that to mean you forgot about the party. You were bitching about it only two days ago."
"I've been a little busy, okay?" I said. But it wasn't all right. Catherine Maison-Gillett was one of my best friends. I'd worn a pink prom dress with puff sleeves in her wedding. It had been humiliating. We'd all told the great lie of all bridesmaids. We could cut the dress short and wear it in normal life. No way. Or I could wear it at the next formal occasion I was invited to. How many formals are you invited to once you graduate college? None. At least none where I'd willingly wear a pink, puff-sleeved, hoop-skirted, reject from Gone With the Wind.
Catherine was throwing her very first party since the wedding. The Halloween festivities started long before dark so that I could make an appearance. When someone goes to that much trouble, you have to show up. Dammit.
"I made a date for Saturday," I said.
Ronnie stopped running and stared at me in the mirror. I kept running; if she wanted to ask questions she'd have to catch me first. She caught me.
"Did you say date?"
I nodded, saving my breath for running.
"Talk, Anita." Her voice was vaguely threatening.
I grinned at her and told her an edited version of my meeting with Richard Zeeman. I didn't leave out much, though.
"He was naked in a bed the first time you saw him?" She was cheerfully outraged.
"You do meet men in the most interesting places," she said.
We were jogging on the track again. "When's the last time I met a man?"
"What about John Burke?"
"Other than him," Jerks did not count.
She thought about that for a minute. She shook her head. "Too long."
"Yep," I said.
We were on our last machine, the last two laps, then stretching, showers, and done. I didn't really enjoy exercising. Neither did Ronnie. But we both needed to be in good shape so we could run away from the bad guys, or run them down. Though I hadn't chased after many villains lately. I seemed to do a lot more running away.
We moved over to the open area near the racquetball courts and the tanning rooms. It was the only place with enough room to stretch out. I always stretched before and after exercising. I'd had too many injuries not to be careful.
I started rotating the neck slowly; Ronnie followed me. "I guess I'll have to cancel the date."
"Don't you dare," Ronnie said. "Invite him to the party."
I looked at her. "You've got to be kidding. A first date surrounded by people he doesn't know."
"Who do you know besides Catherine?" she asked.
She had a point there. "I've met her new husband."
"You were in the wedding," Ronnie said.
Ronnie frowned at me. "Be serious, ask him to the party, make plans for the caving next week."
"Two dates with the same man?" I shook my head. "What if we don't like each other?"
"No excuses," Ronnie said. "This is the closest you've been to a date in months. Don't blow it."
"I don't date because I don't have time to date."
"You don't have time to sleep, either, but you manage it," she said.
"I'll do it, but he may say no to the party. I would rather not go myself."
I gave her a long look. She looked innocent enough. "I'm an animator, a zombie-queen. Having me at a Halloween party is redundant."
"You don't have to tell people what you do for a living."
"I'm not ashamed of it."
"I didn't say you were," Ronnie said.
I shook my head. "Just forget it. I'll make the counteroffer to Richard, then we'll go from there."
"You'll want a sexy outfit for the party now," she said.
"Do not," I said.
She laughed. "Do too."
"All right, all right, a sexy outfit if I can find one in my size three days before Halloween."
"I'll help you. We'll find something."
She'd help me. We'd find something. It sounded sort of ominous. Pre-date jitters. Who, me?
At 5:15 that afternoon I was on the phone to Richard Zeeman. "Hi, Richard, this is Anita Blake."
"Nice to hear your voice." His voice was smiling over the phone; I could almost feel it.
"I forgot that I've got a Halloween party to go to Saturday afternoon. They started the party during daylight so I could make an appearance. I can't not show up."
"I understand," he said. His voice was very carefully neutral—neutral cheerful.
"Would you like to be my date for the party? I have to work Halloween night, of course, but the day could be ours."
"And the caving?"
"A rain check," I said.
"Two dates; this could be serious."
"You're laughing at me," I said.
"Shit, do you want to go or not?"
"If you promise to go caving a week from Saturday."
"My solemn word," I said.
"It's a deal." He was quiet on the phone for a minute. "I don't have to wear a costume for this party, do I?"
"Unfortunately, yes," I said.
"No, but you owe me two dates for humiliating myself in front of strangers."
I grinned and was glad he couldn't see it, I was entirely too pleased. "Deal."
"What costume are you wearing?" he asked.
"I haven't got one yet. I told you I forgot the party; I meant it."
"Hmm," he said. "I think picking out costumes should tell a lot about a person, don't you?"
"This close to Halloween we'll be lucky to find anything in our size."
He laughed. "I might have an ace up my sleeve."
He laughed again. "Don't sound so damn suspicious. I've got a friend who's a Civil War buff. He and his wife do re-creations."
"You mean like dress up?"
"Will they have the right sizes?"
"What size dress do you wear?"
That was a personal question for someone who'd never even kissed me. "Seven," I said.
"I would have guessed smaller."
"I'm too chesty for a six, and they don't make six and a halfs."
"Chesty, woo, woo."
"Sorry, couldn't resist," he said.
My beeper went off. "Damn."
"What's that sound?"
"My beeper," I said. I pressed the button and it flashed the number—the police. "I have to take it. Can I call you back in a few minutes, Richard?"
"I'll wait with bated breath."
"I'm frowning at the phone, I hope you know that."
"Thanks for sharing that. I'll wait here by the phone. Call me when you're done with (sob) work."
"Cut it out, Richard."
"What'd I do?"
"Bye, Richard, talk to you soon."
"I'll be waiting," he said.
"Bye, Richard." I hung up before he could make any more "pitiful me" jokes. The really sad part was I thought it was cute. Gag me with a spoon.
I called Dolph's number. "Anita?"
"We got another vampire victim. Looks the same as the first one, except it's a woman."
"Damn," I said softly.
"Yeah, we're over here at DeSoto."
"That's farther south than Arnold," I said.
"So?" he said.
"Nothing, just give me the directions."
"It'll take me at least an hour to get there," I said.
"The stiff's not going anywhere, and neither are we." He sounded discouraged.
"Cheer up, Dolph, I may have found a clue."
"Veronica Sims recognized the name Cal Rupert. Description matches."
"What are you doing talking to a private detective?" He sounded suspicious.
"She's my workout partner, and since she just gave us our first clue, I'd sound a little more grateful, if I were you."
"Yeah, yeah. Hurrah for the private sector. Now talk."
"A Cal Rupert was a member of HAV about two months ago. The description matches."
"Revenge killings?" he asked.
"Half of me hopes it's a pattern. At least we'd have some place to start looking." He made a sound between a laugh and a snort. "I'll tell Zerbrowski you found a clue. He'll like that."
"All us Dick Tracy Crimebusters speak police lingo," I said.
"Police lingo?" I could feel the grin over the phone. "You find any more clues, you let us know."
"Aye, aye, Sergeant."
"Can the sarcasm," he said.
"Please, I always use fresh sarcasm, never canned."
He groaned. "Just get your butt out here so we can all go home." The phone went dead. I hung up.
Richard Zeeman answered on the second ring. "Hello."
"The message was from the police. They need my expertise."
"A preternatural crime?" he asked.
"Is it dangerous?"
"To the person who was killed, yeah."
"You know that's not what I meant," he said.
"It's my job, Richard. If you can't deal with it, maybe we shouldn't date at all."
"Hey, don't get defensive. I just wanted to know if you would be in any personal danger." His voice was indignant.
"Fine. I've got to go."
"What about the costumes? Do you want me to call my friend?"
"Will you trust me to pick your costume?" he asked.
I thought about that for a few heartbeats. Did I trust him to get me a costume? No. Did I have time to hunt up a costume on my own? Probably not. "Why not?" I said. "Beggars can't be choosers."
"We'll survive the party and then next week we'll go crawl in the mud."
"I can't wait," I said.
He laughed. "Neither can I."
"I've got to go, Richard."
"I'll have the costumes at your apartment for inspection. I'll need directions."
I gave him directions.
"I hope you like your costume."
"Me too. Talk to you later." I hung the receiver on the pay phone's cradle and stared at it. That had been too easy. Too smooth. He'd probably pick out a terrible costume for me. We'd both have a miserable time and be trapped into a second date with each other. Eek!
Ronnie handed me a can of fruit juice and took a sip of her own. She had cranberry and I had ruby red grapefruit. I couldn't stand cranberry.
"What'd cutesie pie say?"
"Please don't call him that," I said.
She shrugged. "Sorry, it just sort of slipped out." She had the grace to look embarrassed.
"I forgive you, this once."
She grinned, and I knew she wasn't repentant. But I'd ribbed her often enough about her dates. Turnabout is fair play. Payback is a bitch.
The sun was sinking in a slash of crimson like a fresh, bleeding wound. Purple clouds were piling up to the west. The wind was strong and smelled like rain.
Ruffo Lane was a narrow gravel road. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. The reddish gravel crunched underfoot. Wind rustled the tall, dry weeds in the ditch. The road disappeared over the rise of a hill. Police cars, marked and plain, were lined up along one side of the road as far as I could see. The road disappeared over the rise of a hill. There were a lot of hills in Jefferson County.
I was already dressed in a clean pair of overalls, black Nikes, and surgical gloves when my beeper went off. I had to scramble at the zipper and drag the damn thing out into the dying light. I didn't have to see the number. I knew it was Bert. It was only a half hour until full dark, if that. My boss was wondering where I was, and why I wasn't at work. I wondered if Bert would really fire me. I stared down at the corpse and wasn't sure I cared.
The woman was curled on her side, arms shielding her naked breasts, as if even in death she was modest. Violent death is the ultimate invasion. She would be photographed, videotaped, measured, cut open, sewn back up. No part of her, inside or out, would be left untouched. It was wrong. We should have been able to toss a blanket over her and leave her in peace, but that wouldn't help us prevent the next killing. And there would be a next one; the second body was proof of that.
I glanced around at the police and the ambulance team, waiting to take the body away. Except for the body, I was the only woman. I usually was, but tonight, for some reason, it bothered me. Her waist-length hair spilled out into the weeds in a pale flood. Another blonde. Was that coincidence? Or not? Two was a pretty small sample. If the next victim was blond, then we'd have a trend.
If all the victims were caucasian, blond, and members of Humans Against Vampires, we'd have our pattern. Patterns helped solve the crime. I was hoping for a pattern.
I held a penlight in my mouth and measured the bite marks. There were no bite marks on the wrists this time. There were rope burns instead. They'd tied her up, maybe hung her from the ceiling like a side of beef. There is no such thing as a good vampire who feeds off humans. Never believe that a vampire will only take a little. That it won't hurt. That's like believing your date will pull out in time. Just trust him. Yeah, right.
There was a neat puncture wound on either side of the neck. There was a bit of flesh missing from her left breast, as if something had taken a bite out of her just above the heart. The bend of her right arm was torn apart. The ball joint was naked in the thin beam of light. Pinkish ligaments strained to hold the arm together.
The last serial murderer that I'd worked on had torn the victims into pieces. I had walked on carpet so drenched with blood that it squelched underfoot. I had held pieces of intestine in my hand, looking for clues. It was the new worst-thing-I'd-ever-seen.
I stared down at the dead woman and was glad she hadn't been torn apart. And it wasn't because I figured it had been an easier death, though I hoped it had. And it wasn't because there were more clues, because there weren't. It was just that I didn't want to see any more slaughtered people. I'd had my quota for the year.
There is an art to holding a penlight in your mouth and measuring wounds without drooling on yourself. I managed. The secret was sucking on the end of the flashlight from time to time.
The thin beam of the flashlight shone on her thighs. I wanted to see if she had a groin wound like the man. I wanted to be sure this was the work of the same killers. It would be a hell of a coincidence if there were two vampire packs hunting separately, but it was possible. I needed to be as sure as I could that we had just one rogue pack. One was plenty, two was a screaming nightmare. Surely, God would not be that unkind, but just in case . . . I wanted to see if she had a groin wound. The man's hands had shown no rope marks. Either the vampires were getting more organized, or it was a different group.
Her arms had been glued over her chest, tied in place by rigor mortis. Nothing short of an axe was going to move her legs, not until final rigor went away, which would be forty-eight hours or so. I couldn't wait two days, but I didn't want to chop the body into pieces either.
I got down on all fours in front of the corpse. I apologized for what I was about to do, but couldn't think of anything better.
The flashlight's thin beam trembled over her thighs, like a tiny spotlight. I touched the line that separated her legs and pushed my fingers in that line, trying to feel by fingertip if there was a wound there.
It must have looked like I was groping the corpse, but I couldn't think of a more dignified way to do it. I glanced up, trying not to feel the solid rubberiness of her skin. The sun was just a splash of crimson in the west like dying coals. True darkness slipped over the sky like a flood of ink. And the woman's legs moved under my hands.
I jumped. Nearly swallowing the flashlight. Nervous, me? The woman's flesh was soft. It hadn't been a moment ago. The woman's lips were halfparted. Hadn't they been closed before?
This was crazy. Even if she had been a vampire, she wouldn't rise until the third night after death. And she'd died from multiple vampire bites in one massive blood feast. She was dead, just dead.
Her skin shimmered white in the darkness. The sky was black; if the moon was up in those black-purple clouds, I couldn't see it. Yet her skin shimmered as if touched by moonlight. She wasn't exactly glowing, but it was close. Her hair glimmered like spider silk spread over the grass. She'd just been dead a minute ago; now she was . . . beautiful.
Dolph loomed over me. At six-nine he loomed even when I was standing up; with me kneeling he was gigantic. I stood up, peeled off one surgical glove, and took the penlight out of my mouth. Never touch anything you're likely to put in your mouth after touching the open wounds of a stranger. AIDS, you know. I shoved the penlight into the breast pocket of the coveralls. I took off the other glove and crumpled them both into a side pocket.
"Well?" Dolph said.
"Does she look different to you?" I asked.
He frowned. "What?"
"The corpse; does it look different to you?"
He stared down at the pale body. "Now that you mention it. It looks like she's asleep." He shook his head. "We're going to have to call an ambulance and have a doctor pronounce her dead."
"She's not breathing."
"Would you want the fact that you weren't breathing to be the only criterion?"
I thought about that for a minute. "No, I guess not."
Dolph leafed through his notebook. "You said a person who dies of multiple vampire bites can't rise from the dead as a vampire." He was reading my own words back at me. I was hoist on my petard.
"That's true in most cases."
He stared down at the woman. "But not in this one."
"Unfortunately no," I said.
"Explain this, Anita." He didn't sound happy. I didn't blame him.
"Sometimes even one bite can make a corpse rise as a vampire. I've only read a couple of articles about it. A very powerful master vamp can sometimes contaminate every corpse it touches."
"Where'd you read the articles?"
"The Vampire Quarterly."
"Never heard of it," he said.
I shrugged. "I have a degree in preternatural biology; I must be on someone's list for stuff like that." A thought came to me that wasn't pleasant at all. "Dolph."
"The man, the first corpse, this is its third night."
"It didn't glow in the dark," Dolph said.
"The woman's corpse didn't look bad until full dark."
"You think the man's going to rise?" he asked.
"Shit," he said.
"Exactly," I said.
He shook his head. "Wait a minute. He can still tell us who killed him."
"He won't come back as a normal vamp," I said. "He died of multiple wounds, Dolph; he'll come back as more animal than human."
"If they took the body to St. Louis City Hospital, then it's safe behind reinforced steel, but if they listened to me, then it's at the regular morgue. Call the morgue and tell them to evacuate the building."
"You're serious," he said.
He didn't even argue with me. I was his preternatural expert, and what I said was pretty much gospel until proven otherwise. Dolph didn't ask for your opinion unless he was prepared to act upon it. He was a good boss.
He slipped into his car, nearest to the murder scene of course, and called the morgue.
He leaned out the open car door. "The body was sent to St. Louis City Hospital, routine for all vampire victims. Even ones our preternatural expert tells us are safe." He smiled at me when he said it.
"Call St. Louis City and make sure they've got the body in the vault room."
"Why would they transport the body to the vampire morgue and not put the body in the vault room?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I don't know. But I'll feel better after you call them."
He took a deep breath and let it go. "Okay." He got back on the phone and dialed the number from memory. Shows what kind of year Dolph's been having.
I stood at the open car door and listened. There wasn't much to hear. No one answered.
Dolph sat there listening to the distant ring of the phone. He stared up at me. His eyes asked the question.
"Somebody should be there," I said.
"Yeah," he said.
"The man will rise like a beast," I said. "It'll slaughter everything in its path unless the master that made it comes back to pick it up, or until it's really dead. They're called animalistic vampires. There's no colloquial term for them. They're too rare for that."
Dolph hung up the phone and surged out of the car, yelling, "Zerbrowski!"
"Here, Sarge." Zerbrowski came at a trot. When Dolph yelled, you came running, or else. "How's it going, Blake?"
What was I supposed to say, terrible? I shrugged and said, "Fine."
My beeper went off again. "Dammit, Bert!"
"Talk to your boss," Dolph said. "Tell him to leave you the fuck alone."
Sounded good to me.
Dolph went off yelling orders. The men scrambled to obey. I slid into Dolph's car and called Bert.
He answered on the first ring; not a good sign. "This better be you, Anita."
"And if it's not?" I said.
"Where the hell are you?"
"Murder scene with a fresh body," I said.
That stopped him for a second. "You're missing your first appointment."
"But I'm not going to yell."
"You're being reasonable," I said. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing except that the newest member of Animators, Inc., is taking your first two appointments. His name is Lawrence Kirkland. Just meet him at the third appointment, and you can take the last three appointments and show him the ropes."
"You hired someone? How'd you find someone so fast? Animators are pretty rare. Especially one who could do two zombies in one night."
"It's my job to find talent."
Dolph slid into the car, and I slid into the passenger seat.
"Tell your boss you've got to go."
"I've got to go, Bert."
"Wait, you have an emergency vampire staking at St. Louis City Hospital."
My stomach clenched up. "What name?"
He paused, reading the name, "Calvin Rupert."
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"When did the call come in?"
"Around three this afternoon, why?"
"Shit, shit, shit."
"What's wrong, Anita?" Bert asked.
"Why was it marked urgent?" Zerbrowski slipped into the back of the unmarked car. Dolph put the car in gear and hit the sirens and lights. A marked car fell into line behind us, lights strobing into the dark. Lights and sirens, wowee.
"Rupert had one of those dying wills," Bert said. "If he even had one vampire bite, he wanted to be staked."
That was consistent with someone who was a member of HAV. Hell, I had it in my will. "Do we have a court order of execution?"
"You only need that after the guy rises as a vampire. We've got permission from the next of kin; just go stake him."
I grabbed the dashboard as we bounced over the narrow road. Gravel pinged against the underside of the car. I cradled the phone receiver between shoulder and chin and slipped into a seat belt.
"I'm on my way to the morgue now," I said.
"I sent John ahead when I couldn't get you," Bert said.
"How long ago?"
"I called him after you didn't answer your beeper."
"Call him back, tell him not to go."
There must have been something in my voice, because he said, "What's wrong, Anita?"
"We can't get any answer at the morgue, Bert."
"The vampire may have already risen and killed everybody, and John's walking right into it."
"I'll call him," Bert said. The connection broke, and I shoved the receiver down as we spilled out onto New Highway 21.
"We can kill the vampire when we get there," I said.
"That's murder," Dolph said.
I shook my head. "Not if Calvin Rupert had a dying will."
Zerbrowski slammed his fist into the back of the seat. "Then we'll pop the son of a bitch."
"Yeah," I said.
Dolph just nodded.
Zerbrowski was grinning. He had a shotgun in his hands.
"Does that thing have silver shot in it?" I asked.
Zerbrowski glanced at the gun. "No."
"Please, tell me I'm not the only one in this car with silver bullets."
Zerbrowski grinned. Dolph said, "Silver's more expensive than gold. City doesn't have that kind of money."
I knew that, but I was hoping I was wrong. "What do you do when you're up against vampires and lycanthropes?"
Zerbrowski leaned over the back seat. "Same thing we do when we're up against a gang with Uzi pistols."
"Which is?" I said.
"Be outgunned," he said. He didn't look happy about it. I wasn't too happy about it, either. I was hoping that the morgue attendants had just run, gotten out, but I wasn't counting on it.
My vampire kit included a sawed-off shotgun with silver shot, stakes, mallet, and enough crosses and holy water to drown a vampire. Unfortunately, my vampire kit was sitting in my bedroom closet. I used to carry it in the trunk, minus the sawed-off shotgun, which has always been illegal. If I was caught carrying the vampire kit without a court order of execution on me, it was an automatic jail term. The new law had kicked in only weeks before. It was to keep certain overzealous executioners from killing someone and saying, "Gee, sorry." I, by the way, am not one of the overzealous. Honest.
Dolph had cut the sirens about a mile from the hospital. We cruised into the parking lot dark and quiet. The marked car behind us had followed our lead. There was already one marked car waiting for us. The two officers were crouched beside the car, guns in hand.
We all spilled out of the dark cars, guns out. I felt like I'd been shanghaied into a Clint Eastwood movie. I couldn't see John Burke's car. Which meant John checked his beeper more than I did. If the vampire was safely behind metal walls, I promised to answer all beeper messages immediately. Please, just don't let me have cost lives. Amen.
One of the uniforms who had been waiting for us duck-walked to Dolph and said, "Nothing's moved since we got here, Sergeant."
Dolph nodded. "Good. Special forces will be here when they can get to it. We're on the list."
"What do you mean, we're on the list?" I asked.
Dolph looked at me. "Special forces has the silver bullets, and they'll get here as soon as they can."
"We're going to wait for them?" I said.
"Sergeant, we are supposed to wait for special forces when going into a preternatural situation," the uniform said.
"Not if you're the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team," he said.
"You should have silver bullets," I said.
"I've got a requisition in," Dolph said.
"A requisition, that's real helpful."
"You're a civvie. You get to wait outside. So don't bitch," he said.
"I'm also the legal vampire executioner for the State of Missouri. If I'd answered my beeper instead of ignoring it to irritate Bert, the vampire would be staked already, and we wouldn't be doing this. You can't leave me out of it. It's more my job than it is yours."
Dolph stared at me for a minute or two, then nodded very slowly.
"You should have kept your mouth shut," Zerbrowski said. "And you'd get to wait in the car."
"I don't want to wait in the car."
He just looked at me. "I do."
Dolph started walking towards the doors. Zerbrowski followed. I brought up the rear. I was the police's preternatural expert. If things went badly tonight, I'd earn my retainer.
All vampire victims were brought to the basement of the old St. Louis City Hospital, even those who die in a different county. There just aren't that many morgues equipped to handle freshly risen vampires. They've got a special vault room with a steel reinforced everything and crosses laid on the outside of the door. There's even a feeding tank to take the edge off that first blood lust. Rats, rabbits, guinea pigs. Just a snack to calm the newly risen.
Under normal circumstances the man's body would have been in the vampire room, and there would have been no problem, but I had promised them that he was safe. I was their expert, the one they called to stake the dead. If I said a body was safe, they believed me. And I'd been wrong. God help me, I'd been wrong.
St. Louis City Hospital sat like a stubby brick giant in the middle of a combat zone. Walk a few blocks south and you could see Tony Award-winning musicals straight from Broadway. But here we could have been on the dark side of the moon. If the moon had slums.
Broken windows decorated the ground like shattered teeth.
The hospital, like a lot of inner-city hospitals, had lost money, so they had closed it down. But the morgue stayed open because they couldn't afford to move the vampire room.
The room had been designed in the early 1900s when people still thought they could find a cure for vampirism. Lock a vampire in the vault, watch it rise and try to "cure" it. A lot of vamps cooperated because they wanted to be cured. Dr. Henry Mulligan had pioneered the search for a cure. The program was discontinued when one of the patients ate Dr. Mulligan's face.
So much for helping the poor misunderstood vampire.
But the vault room was still used for most vampire victims. Mostly as a precaution, because these days when a vamp rose there was a vampire counsellor waiting to guide the newly risen to civilized vampirehood.
I had forgotten about the vampire counsellor. It was a pioneer program that'd only been in effect a little over a month. Would an older vampire be able to control an animalistic vampire, or would it take a master vampire to control it? I didn't know. I just didn't know.
Dolph had his gun out and ready. Without silver-plated bullets, it was better than spitting at the monster, but barely. Zerbrowski held the shotgun like he knew how to use it. There were four uniformed officers at my back. All with guns, all ready to blast undead ass. So why wasn't I comforted? Because nobody else had any freaking silver bullets, except me.
The double glass doors swooshed open automatically. Seven guns were trained on the door as it moved. My fingers were all cramped up trying not to shoot the damn door.
One of the uniforms swallowed a laugh. Nervous, who us?
"All right," Dolph said, "there are civilians in here. Don't shoot any of them."
One of the uniforms was blond. His partner was black and much older. The other two uniforms were in their twenties: one skinny and tall with a prominent Adam's apple, the other short with pale skin and eyes nearly glassy with fear.
Each policeman had a cross-shaped tie tack. They were the latest style and standard issue for the St. Louis police. The crosses would help, maybe even keep them alive.
I hadn't had time to get my crucifix's chain replaced. I was wearing a charm bracelet that dangled with tiny crosses. I was also wearing an anklet chain, not just because it matched the bracelet, but if anything unusual happened tonight, I wanted to have a backup.
It's sort of a tossup which I'd least like to live without, cross or gun. Better to have both.
"You got any suggestions about how we should do this, Anita?" Dolph asked.
It wasn't too long ago that the police wouldn't have been called in at all. The good ol' days when vampires were left to a handful of dedicated experts. Back when you could just stake a vamp and be done with it. I had been one of the few, the proud, the brave, the Executioner.
"We could form a circle, guns pointing out. It would up our chances of not getting snuck up on."
The blond cop said, "Won't we hear it coming?"
"The undead make no noise," I said.
His eyes widened.
"I'm kidding, officer," I said.
"Hey," he said softly. He sounded offended. I guess I didn't blame him.
"Sorry," I said.
Dolph frowned at me.
"I said I was sorry."
"Don't tease the rookies," Zerbrowski said. "I bet this is his first vampire."
The black cop made a sound between a laugh and a snort. "His first day, period."
"Jesus," I said. "Can he wait out in the car?"
"I can handle myself," the blond said.
"It's not that," I said, "but isn't there some kind of union rule against vampires on the first day?"
"I can take it," he said.
I shook my head. His first fucking day. He should have been out directing traffic somewhere, not playing tag with the walking dead.
"I'll take point," Dolph said. "Anita to my right." He pointed two fingers at the black cop and the blond. "You two on my left." He pointed at the last two uniforms. "Behind Ms. Blake. Zerbrowski, take the back."
"Gee, thanks, Sarge," he muttered.
I almost let it go, but I couldn't. "I'm the only one with silver ammo. I should have point," I said.
"You're a civvie, Anita," Dolph said.
"I haven't been a civvie for years and you know it."
He looked at me for a long second, then nodded. "Take point, but if you get killed, my ass is grass."
I smiled. "I'll try to remember that."
I stepped out in front, a little ahead of the others. They formed a rough circle behind me. Zerbrowski gave me a thumbs-up sign. It made me smile. Dolph gave the barest of nods. It was time to go inside. Time to stalk the monster.
The walls were two-tone green. Dark khaki on the bottom, puke green on top. Institutional green, as charming as a sore tooth. Huge steam pipes, higher than my head, covered the walls. The pipes were painted green, too. They narrowed the hallway to a thin passageway.
Electrical conduit pipes were a thinner silver shadow to the steam pipes. Hard to put electricity in a building never designed for it.
The walls were lumpy where they'd been painted over without being scraped first. If you dug at the walls, layer after layer of different color would come up, like the strata in an archaeological dig. Each color had its own history, its own memories of pain.
It was like being in the belly of a great ship. Except instead of the roar of engines, you had the beat of nearly perfect silence. There are some places where silence hangs in heavy folds. St. Louis City Hospital was one of those places.
If I'd been superstitious, which I am not, I would have said the hospital was the perfect place for ghosts. There are different kinds of ghosts. The regular kind are spirits of the dead left behind when they should have gone to Heaven or Hell. Theologians had been arguing over what the existence of ghosts meant for God and the church for centuries. I don't think God is particularly bothered by it, but the church is.
Enough people had died in this place to make it thick with real ghosts, but I'd never seen any personally. Until a ghost wraps its cold arms around me, I'd just as soon not believe in it.
But there is another kind of ghost. Psychic impressions, strong emotions, soak into the walls and floors of a building. It's like an emotional tape recorder. Sometimes with video images, sometimes just sound, sometimes just a shiver down your spine when you walk over a certain spot.
The old hospital was thick with shivery places. I personally had never seen or heard anything, but walking down the hallway you knew somewhere, near at hand, there was something. Something waiting just out of sight, just out of hearing, just out of reach. Tonight it was probably a vampire.
The only sounds were the scrape of feet, the brush of cloth, us moving. There was no other sound. When it's really quiet you start hearing things even if it's just the buzz of your own blood pounding in your ears.
The first corner loomed before me. I was point. I'd volunteered to be point. I had to go around the corner first. Whatever lay around the bend, it was mine. I hate it when I play hero.
I went down on one knee, gun held in both hands, pointing up. It didn't do any good to stick my gun around the corner first. I couldn't shoot what I couldn't see. There are a variety of ways to go around blind corners, none of them foolproof. It mostly matters whether you're more afraid of getting shot or getting grabbed. Since this was a vampire I was more worried about being grabbed and having my throat ripped out.
I pressed my right shoulder against the wall, took a deep breath, and threw myself forward. I didn't do a neat shoulder roll into the hallway. I just sort of fell on my left side with the gun held two-handed out in front of me. Trust me, this is the fastest way to be able to aim around a corner. I wouldn't necessarily advise it if the monsters were shooting back.
I lay in the hallway, heart pounding in my ears. The good news was there was no vampire. The bad news was that there was a body.
I came up to one knee, still searching the shadowed hallway for hints of movement. Sometimes with a vampire you don't see anything, you don't even hear it, you feel it in your shoulders and back, the fine hairs on the back of your neck. Your body responds to rhythms older than thought. In fact, thinking instead of doing can get you dead.
"It's clear," I said. I was still kneeling in the middle of the hallway, gun out, ready for bear.
"You through rolling around on the floor?" Dolph asked.
I glanced at him, then back to the hallway. There was nothing there. It was all right. Really.
The body was wearing a pale blue uniform. A gold and black patch on the sleeve said "Security." The man's hair was white. Heavy jowls, a thick nose, his eyelashes like grey lace against his pale cheeks. His throat was just so much raw meat. The spine glistened wetly in the overhead lights. Blood splashed the green walls like a macabre Christmas card.
There was a gun in the man's right hand. I put my back to the left-hand wall and watched the corridor to either side until the corners cut my view. Let the police investigate the body. My job tonight was to keep us alive.
Dolph crouched beside the body. He leaned forward, doing a sort of push-up to bring his face close to the gun. "It's been fired."
"I don't smell any powder near the body," I said. I didn't look at Dolph when I said it. I was too busy watching the corridor for movement.
"The gun's been fired," he said. His voice sounded rough, clogged.
I glanced down at him. His shoulders were stiff, his body rigid with some kind of pain.
"You know him, don't you?" I said.
Dolph nodded. "Jimmy Dugan. He was my partner for a few months when I was younger than you are. He retired and couldn't make it on the pension, so he got a job here." Dolph shook his head. "Shit."
What could I say? "I'm sorry" didn't cut it. "I'm sorry as hell" was a little better but it still wasn't enough. Nothing I could think of to say was adequate. Nothing I could do would make it better. So I stood there in the blood-spattered hall and did nothing, said nothing.
Zerbrowski knelt beside Dolph. He put a hand on his arm. Dolph looked up. There was a flash of some strong emotion in his eyes; anger, pain, sadness. All the above, none of the above. I stared down at the dead man, gun still clasped tight in his hand, and thought of something useful to say.
"Do they give the guards here silver bullets?"
Dolph glanced up at me. No guessing this time; it was anger. "Why?"
"The guards should have silver bullets. One of you take it, and we'll have two guns with silver bullets."
Dolph just stared at the gun. "Zerbrowski."
Zerbrowski took the gun gently, as if afraid of waking the man. But this vampire victim wasn't going to rise. His head lolled to one side, muscles and tendons snapped. It looked like somebody had scooped out the meat and skin around his spine with a big spoon.
Zerbrowski checked the cylinder. "Silver." He rolled the cylinder into the revolver and stood up, gun in his right hand. The shotgun he held loosely in his left hand.
"Extra ammo?" I asked.
Zerbrowski started to kneel back down, but Dolph shook his head. He searched the dead man. His hands were candy-coated in blood when he was done. He tried to wipe the drying blood onto a white handkerchief but the blood stained the lines in his hands, gathered around his fingernails. Only soap and scrubbing would get it off.
He said, softly, "Sorry, Jimmy." He still didn't cry. I would have cried. But then, women have more chemicals in their tear ducts. It makes us tear up easier than men. Honest.
"No extra ammo. Guess Jimmy thought five'd be enough for some dumb-ass security job." His voice was warm with anger. Anger was better than crying. If you can manage it.
I kept checking the corridor, but my eyes kept going to the dead man. He was dead because I hadn't done my job. If I hadn't told the ambulance drivers that the body was safe, they'd have put him in the vault, and Jimmy Dugan wouldn't have died.
I hate it when things are my fault.
"Go," Dolph said.
I took the lead. There was another corner. I did my little kneel-and-roll routine again. I lay half on my side, gun pointed two-handed down the hallway. Nothing moved in the long, green hallway. There was something lying in the floor. I saw the lower part of the guard first. Legs in pale blue, blood drenched pants. A head with a long brown ponytail lay to one side of the body like a forgotten lump of meat.
I got to my feet, gun still hovering, looking for something to aim at. Nothing moved except the blood that was still dripping down the walls. The blood dripped slowly like rain at the end of the day, thickening, congealing as it moved.
"'Jesus!" I wasn't sure which uniform said it, but I agreed.
The upper body had been ripped apart as if the vampire had plunged both hands into her chest and pulled. Her spine had shattered like Tinkertoys. Gobbets of flesh, blood, and bone sprinkled the hallway like gruesome flower petals.
I could taste bile at the back of my throat. I breathed through my mouth in deep, even breaths. Mistake. The air tasted like blood—thick, warm, faintly salty. There was an underlying sourness where the upper intestine and stomach had been broken open. Fresh death smells like a cross between a slaughterhouse and an outhouse. Shit and blood is what death smells like.
Zerbrowski was scanning the hallway, borrowed gun in hand. He had four bullets. I had thirteen, plus an extra clip in my sport bag. Where was the second guard's gun?
"Where's her gun?" I asked.
Zerbrowski's eyes flicked to me, then to the corpse, then back to scanning the hallway. "I don't see it."
I'd never met a vampire that used a gun, but there was always a first time. "Dolph, where's the guard's gun?"
Dolph knelt in the blood and tried to search the body. He moved the bloody flesh and pieces of cloth around, like you'd stir it with a spoon. Once the sight would have made me lose my lunch, but it didn't anymore. Was it a bad sign that I didn't throw up on the corpses anymore? Maybe.
"Spread out, look for the gun," Dolph said.
The four uniforms spread out and searched. The blond was pasty and swallowed convulsively, but he was making it. Good for him. It was the tall one with the prominent Adam's apple that broke first. He slid on a piece of meat that set him down hard on his butt in a pool of congealed blood. He scrambled to his knees and vomited against the wall.
I was breathing quick, shallow breaths. The blood and carnage hadn't been enough, but the sound of someone else throwing up just might be.
I pressed my shoulders into the wall and moved towards the next corner. I will not throw up. I will not throw up. Oh, God, please don't let me throw up. Have you ever tried to aim a gun while throwing your guts up? It's damn near impossible. You're helpless until you're finished. After seeing the guards, I didn't want to be helpless.
The blond cop was leaning against the wall. His face was shiny with a sick sweat. He looked at me and I could read it in his eyes. "Don't," I whispered, "please don't."
The rookie fell to his knees and that was it. I lost everything I'd eaten that day. At least I didn't throw up on the corpse. I'd done that once, and Zerbrowski had never let me live it down. On that particular case, the complaint was that I'd tampered with evidence.
If I'd been the vampire, I would have come then while half of us were vomiting our guts out. But nothing slithered around the corner. Nothing came screaming out of the darkness. Lucky us.
"If you're all done," Dolph said, "we need to find her gun and what did this."
I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my coveralls. I was sweating, but there hadn't been time to take them off. My black Nikes stuck to the floor with little squeech sounds. There was blood on the bottom of my shoes. Maybe the coverall wasn't such a bad idea.
What I wanted was a cool cloth. What I got was to continue down the green hallway, making little bloody footprints behind me. I scanned the floor and there it was, footprints going away from the body, back down the hall towards the first guard.
"I see them," he said.
The faint footprints walked through the carnage and down the corner, away from us. Away sounded good, but I knew better. We were here to get up close and personal. Dammit.
Dolph knelt by the largest piece of the body. "Anita."
I walked over to him, avoiding the bloody footprints. Never step on clues. The police don't like it.
Dolph pointed at a blackened piece of cloth. I knelt carefully, glad that I was still in my overalls. I could kneel in all the blood I wanted without messing my clothes. Always prepared, like a good Boy Scout.
The woman's shirt was charred and blackened. Dolph touched the material with the tip of his pencil. The cloth flaked in heavy layers, cracking like stale bread. Dolph poked a hole through one of the layers. It crumbled. A burst of ash and a sharp acrid smell came up from the body.
"What the hell happened to her?" Dolph asked.
I swallowed, still tasting vomit at the back of my throat. This wasn't helping. "It's not cloth."
"What is it, then?"
Dolph just looked at me. He held the pencil like it might break. "You're serious."
"Third-degree burn," I said.
"What caused this?"
"Can I borrow your pencil?" I asked.
He handed it to me without a word.
I dug at what was left of her chest. The flesh was so badly fried that her shirt melted into it. I pushed the layers aside, digging downward with the pencil. The body felt horribly light, and crisp like the burned skin of a chicken. When I'd plunged half the length of the pencil into the burn, I touched something solid. I used the pencil to pry it upward. When it was almost at the surface I put fingers inside the hole and pulled a lump of twisted metal from the burned flesh.
"What is it?" Dolph asked.
"It's what's left of her cross."
"No," he said.
The lump of melted silver glinted through the black ash. "This was her cross, Dolph. It melted into her chest, caught her clothing on fire. What I don't understand is why the vampire kept contact with the burning metal. The vampire should be nearly as burned as she is, but it's not here."
"Explain that," he said.
"Animalistic vampires are like PCP addicts. They don't feel pain. I think the vampire crushed her to his chest, the cross touched him, burst into flames. and the vampire stayed against her, tearing her apart while they burned. Against any normal vampire, she would have been safe."
"So crosses can't stop this one," he said.
I stared at the lump of metal. "Apparently not."
The four uniforms were looking at the dim hallway, a little frantically. They hadn't bargained on the crosses not working. Neither had I. The bit about not feeling pain had been a small footnote to one article. No one had theorized that that would mean crosses didn't protect you. If I survived, I'd have to work up a little article for the Vampire Quarterly. Crosses melting into flesh, wowee.
Dolph stood up. "Keep together, people."
"The crosses don't work," one uniform said. "We gotta go back and wait for special teams."
Dolph just looked at him. "You can go back if you want to." He glanced down at the dead guard. "It's volunteer only. The rest of you go back outside and wait for special teams."
The tall one nodded and touched his partner's arm. His partner swallowed hard, his eyes flicking to Dolph, then to the guard's crispy-crittered body. He let his partner drag him away down the hall. Back to safety and sanity. Wouldn't it have been nice if we all could have gone? But we couldn't let something like this escape. Even if I hadn't had an order of execution. we would have had to kill it, rather than take the risk of letting it get outside.
"What about you and the rookie?" Dolph asked the black cop.
"I've never run from the monsters. He's free to go back with the others."
The blond shook his head, gun in hand, fingers mottled with tension. "I'm staying."
The black cop gave him a smile that meant more than words. He'd made a man's choice. Or would that be a mature person's choice? Whatever, he was staying.
"One more corner and the vault should be in sight," I said.
Dolph glanced at the last corner. His eyes met mine and I shrugged. I didn't know what was going to be around the corner. This vampire was doing things that I would have said were impossible. The rules had been changed, and not in our favor.
I hesitated on the wall farthest from the corner. I pushed my back into the wall and slid slowly into sight, around the corner. I was staring down a short, straight hallway. There was a gun lying in the middle of the floor. The second guard's gun? Maybe. On the left-hand wall there should have been a big steel door with crosses hanging on it. The steel had exploded outward in a twisted silver mess. They'd put the body in the vault after all. I hadn't gotten the guards killed. They should have been safe. Nothing moved. There was no light in the vault. It was just a blasted darkness. If there was a vampire waiting in the room, I couldn't see it. Of course, I wasn't all that close, either. Close did not seem to be a good idea.
"Clear, as far as I can see," I said.
"You don't sound sure," Dolph said.
"I'm not," I said. "Peek around the corner at what's left of the vault."
He didn't peek, but he looked. He let out a soft whistle. Zerbrowski said, "Je-sus."
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Is it in there?" Dolph asked.
"I think so."
"You're our expert. Why don't you sound sure?" Dolph asked.
"If you would have asked me if a vampire could plow through five feet of silver-steel with crosses hung all over the damn place, I'd have said no way." I stared into the black hole. "But there it is."
"Does this mean you're as confused as we are?" Zerbrowski asked.
"Then we're in deep shit," he said.
Unfortunately, I agreed.
The vault loomed up before us. Pitch black with a crazy vampire waiting inside; just my cup of tea. Ri-ight.
"I'll take point now," Dolph said. He had the second guard's gun in his hands. His own gun was tucked out of sight. He had silver bullets now; he'd go first. Dolph was good about that. He'd never order one of his men to do something he wouldn't do himself. Wish Bert was like that. Bert was more likely to promise your first-born child, then ask if it was all right with you.
Dolph hesitated at the open mouth of the vault. The darkness was thick enough to cut. It was the absolute darkness of a cave. The kind where you can touch your eyeballs with your fingers and not blink.
He motioned us forward with the gun, but he went past the darkness, farther down the hallway. The bloody footprints entered the darkness and came back out. Bloody footprints going down the hall, around the corner. I was getting tired of corners.
Zerbrowski and I moved up to stand on either side of Dolph. The tension slid along my neck, shoulders. I took a deep breath and let it out, slowly. Better. Look, my hand's not even shaking.
Dolph didn't roll around on the floor to clear the corner. He just went around back to the wall, two-handed aim, ready for bear.
A voice said, "Don't shoot, I'm not dead."
I knew the voice.
"It's John Burke. He's with me."
Dolph glanced back at me. "I remember him."
I shrugged; better safe then sorry. I trusted Dolph not to shoot John by accident, but there were two cops here I'd never met. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to firearms. Words to survive by.
John was tall, slender, dark complected. His short hair was perfectly black with a broad white streak in front. It was a startling combination. He'd always been handsome, but now that he'd shaved off his beard, he looked less like a Hollywood villain and more like a leading man. Tall, dark, and handsome, and knew how to kill vampires. What more could you ask for? Plenty, but that's another story.
John came around the corner smiling. He had a gun out, and better yet, he had his vampire kit in one hand. "I came ahead to make sure the vampire didn't get loose while you were en route."
"Thanks, John," I said.
He shrugged. "Just protecting the public welfare."
It was my turn to shrug. "Anything you say."
"Where's the vampire?" Dolph asked.
"I was tracking it," John said.
"How?" I asked.
"Bloody bare footprints."
Bare footprints. Sweet Jesus. The corpse didn't have shoes, but John did. I turned towards the vault. Too late, too slow, too damn bad.
The vampire came out of the darkness, moving too fast to see. It was just a blur that smashed into the rookie, driving him into the wall. He screamed, gun pressed to the vampire's chest. The gun was loud in the hallway, echoing in the pipes. The bullets came out the back of the vampire like they'd hit mist. Magic.
I moved forward, trying to aim without hitting the rookie. He was screaming, one continuous sound. Blood sprayed in a warm rain. I shot at the thing's head but it moved, incredibly fast, tossing the man against the other wall, tearing at him. There was a lot of yelling and movement, but it all seemed far away, slowed down. It would all be over in a matter of moments. I was the only one close enough with silver bullets. I stepped in, body brushing the vampire, and put the barrel to the back of its skull. A normal vampire wouldn't have let me do it. I pulled the trigger, but the vampire whirled, lifting the man off his feet, throwing him into me. The bullet went wide and we crashed to the floor. The air was knocked out of me for a second with the weight of two adult males on my chest. The rookie was on top of me, screaming, bleeding, dying.
I wedged the gun against the back of the vamp's skull and fired. The back of the head exploded outward in a fine spray of blood, bone, and heavier, wetter things. The vampire kept digging at the man's throat. It should have been dead, but it wasn't.
The vampire reared back, blood-clotted teeth straining. It had paused like a man breathing between swallows. I shoved the barrel in its mouth. The teeth grated on the metal. The face exploded from the upper lip to the top of the head. The lower teeth mouthed the air but couldn't get a bite. The headless body raised up on its hands, as if trying to get up. I touched the gun to its chest and pulled the trigger. At this distance I might be able to take out its heart. I'd never actually tried to take out a vampire using just a pistol. I wondered if it would work. I wondered what would happen to me if it didn't.
A shudder ran through the thing's body. It breathed outward in a long, wordless sigh.
Dolph and Zerbrowski were there dragging the thing backwards. I think it was dead already, but just in case, the help was appreciated. John splashed the vampire with holy water. The liquid bubbled and fizzed on the dying vampire. It was dying. It really was.
The rookie wasn't moving. His partner dragged him off me, cradling him against his chest like a child. Blood plastered the blond hair to his face. The pale eyes were wide open, staring at nothing. The dead are always blind, one way or another.
He'd been brave, a good kid, though he wasn't that much younger than me. But I felt about a million years old staring into his pale, dead face. He was dead, just like that. Being brave doesn't save you from the monsters. It just ups your chances.
Dolph and Zerbrowski had taken the vampire to the floor. John was actually straddling the body with a stake and mallet in hand. I hadn't used a stake in years. Shotgun was my choice. But then, I was a progressive vampire slayer.
The vampire was dead. It didn't need to be staked, but I just sat against the wall and watched. Better safe than sorry. The stake went in easier than normal because I'd made a hole for it. My gun was still in my hand. No need to put it up yet. The vault was still an empty blackness; where there was one vampire there were often more. I'd keep the gun out.
Dolph and Zerbrowski went to the ruined vault, guns out. I should have gotten up and gone with them, but it seemed very important right now just to breathe. I could feel the blood pumping through my veins; every pulse in my body was loud. It was good to be alive; too bad I hadn't been able to save the kid. Yeah, too bad.
John knelt beside me. "You all right?"
I nodded. "Sure."
He looked at me like he didn't believe it, but he let it go. Smart man.
The light flashed on in the vault. Rich, yellow light, warm as a summer's day. "Jesus," Zerbrowski said.
I stood up, and nearly fell; my legs were shaky. John caught my arm, and I stared at him until he let go. He gave a half-smile. "Still a hard case."
"Always," I said.
There had been two dates between us. Mistake. It made working together more awkward, and he couldn't cope with me being a female version of him. He had this old southern idea of what a lady should be. A lady should not carry a gun and spend most of her time covered in blood and corpses. I had two words for that attitude. Yeah, those are the words.
There was a large fish tank smashed against one wall. It had held guinea pigs, or rats, or rabbits. All it held now were bright splashes of blood and bits of fur. Vampires don't eat meat, but if you put small animals in a glass container, then throw it against the wall, you get diced small animals. There wasn't enough left to scoop up with a spoon.
There was a head near the glass mess, probably male, judging from the short hair and style. I didn't go any closer to check. I didn't want to see the face. I'd been brave tonight. I had nothing left to prove.
The body was in one piece, barely. It looked like the vampire had shoved both hands into the chest, grabbed a handful of ribs and pulled. The chest was nearly torn in two, but a band of pink muscle tissue and intestine held it together.
"The head's got fangs," Zerbrowski said.
"It's the vampire counsellor," I said.
I shrugged. "At a guess, the counsellor was leaning over the vamp when it rose. It killed him, quick and messy."
"Why'd it kill the vampire counsellor?" Dolph asked.
I shrugged. "It was more animal than human, Dolph. It woke up in a strange place with a strange vampire leaning over it. It reacted like any trapped animal and protected itself."
"Why couldn't the counsellor control it? That's what he was here for."
"The only person who can control an animalistic vampire is the master who made it. The counsellor wasn't powerful enough to control it."
"Now what?" John asked. He'd put up his gun. I still hadn't. I felt better with it out for some reason.
"Now I go make my third animation appointment of the evening."
"Just like that?"
I looked up at him, ready to be angry at somebody. "What do you want me to do, John? Fall into a screaming fit? That wouldn't bring back the dead, and it would annoy the hell out of me."
He sighed. "If you only matched your packaging."
I put my gun back in the shoulder holster, smiled at him, and said, "Fuck you."
Yeah, those are the words.
I had washed most of the blood off my face and hands in the bathroom at the morgue. The bloodstained coveralls were in my trunk. I was clean and presentable, or as presentable as I was going to get tonight. Bert had said to meet the new guy at my third appointment for the night. Oakglen Cemetery, ten o'clock. The theory was that the new man already raised two zombies and would just watch me raise the third one. Fine with me.
It was 10:35 before I pulled into Oakglen Cemetery. Late. Dammit. It'd make a great impression on the new animator, not to mention my client. Mrs. Doughal was a recent widow. Like five days recent. Her dearly departed husband had left no will. He'd always meant to get around to it, but you know how it is, just kept putting it off. I was to raise Mr. Doughal in front of two lawyers, two witnesses, the Doughals' three grown children, and a partridge in a pear tree. They'd made a ruling just last month that the newly dead, a week or less, could be raised and verbally order a will. It would save the Doughals half their inheritance. Minus lawyer fees, of course.
There was a line of cars pulled over to the side of the narrow gravel road. The tires were playing hell with the grass, but if you didn't park off to one side, nobody could use the road. Of course, how many people needed to use a cemetery road at 10:30 at night? Animators, voodoo priests, pot-smoking teenagers, necrophiliacs, satanists. You had to be a member of a legitimate religion and have a permit to worship in a cemetery after dark. Or be an animator. We didn't need a permit. Mainly because we didn't have a reputation for human sacrifice. A few bad apples have really given voodooists a bad name. Being Christian, I sort of frown on satanism. I mean, they are, after all, the bad guys. Right?
As soon as my foot hit the road, I felt it. Magic. Someone was trying to raise the dead, and they were very near at hand.
The new guy had already raised two zombies. Could he do a third?
Charles and Jamison could only do two a night. Where had Bert found someone this powerful on such short notice?
I walked past five cars, not counting my own. There were nearly a dozen people pressed around the grave. The women were in skirt-suits; the men all wore ties. It was amazing how many people dressed up to come to the graveyard. The only reason most people come to the graveyard is for a funeral. A lot of clients dress for one, semiformal, basic black.
It was a man's voice leading the mourners in rising calls of, "Andrew Doughal, arise. Come to us, Andrew Doughal, come to us."
The magic built on the air until it pressed against me like a weight. It was hard to get a full breath. His magic rode the air, and it was strong, but uncertain. I could feel his hesitation like a touch of cold air. He would be powerful, but he was young. His magic tasted untried, undisciplined. If he wasn't under twenty-one, I'd eat my hat.
That's how Bert had found him. He was a baby, a powerful baby. And he was raising his third zombie of the night. Hot damn.
I stayed in the shadows under the tall trees. He was short, maybe an inch or two taller than me, which made him five-four at best. He wore a white dress shirt and dark slacks. Blood had dried on the shirt in nearly black stains. I'd have to teach him how to dress, as Manny had taught me. Animating is still on an informal apprenticeship. There are no college courses to teach you how to raise the dead.
He was very earnest as he stood there calling Andrew Doughal from the grave. The crowd of lawyers and relatives huddled at the foot of the grave. There was no family member inside the blood circle with the new animator. Normally, you put a family member behind the tombstone so he or she could control the zombie. This way, only the animator could control it. But it wasn't an oversight, it was the law. The dead could be raised to request and dictate a will but only if the animator, or some neutral party, had control of it.
The mound of flowers shuddered and a pale hand shot upward, grabbing at the air. Two hands, the top of a head. The zombie spilled from the grave like it was being pulled by strings.
The new animator stumbled. He fell to his knees in the soft dirt and dying flowers. The magic stuttered, wavering. He'd bitten off one zombie more than he could finish. The dead man was still struggling from the grave. Still trying to get its legs free, but there was no one controlling it. Lawrence Kirkland had raised the zombie, but he couldn't control it. The zombie would be on its own with no one to make it mind. Uncontrolled zombies give animators a bad name.
One of the lawyers was saying, "Are you all right?"
Lawrence Kirkland nodded his head, but he was too exhausted to speak. Did he even now realize what he'd done? I didn't think so. He wasn't scared enough.
I walked up to the huddled group. "Ms. Blake, we missed you," the lawyer said. "Your . . . associate seems to be ill."
I gave them my best professional smile. See nothing wrong. A zombie isn't about to go amuck. Trust me.
I walked to the edge of the blood circle. I could feel it like a wind pushing me back. The circle was shut, and I was on the outside. I couldn't get in unless Lawrence asked me in.
He was on all fours, hands lost in the flowers of the grave. His head hung down, as if he was too tired to raise it. He probably was.
"Lawrence," I said softly, "Lawrence Kirkland."
He turned his head in slow motion. Even in the dark I could see the exhaustion in his pale eyes. His arms were trembling. God, help us.
I leaned in close so the audience couldn't hear what I said. We'd try to keep the illusion that this was just business as usual, as long as I could. If we were lucky, the zombie would just wander away. If we weren't lucky, it would hurt someone. The dead are usually pretty forgiving of the living, but not always. If Andrew Doughal hated one of his relatives, it would be a long night.
"Lawrence, you have to break the circle and let me in," I said.
He just stared at me, eyes dull, no glimmer of understanding. Shit.
"Break the circle, Lawrence, now."
The zombie was free to its knees. Its white dress shirt gleamed against the darkness of the burial suit. Uncomfortable for all eternity. Doughal looked pretty good for the walking dead. He was pale with thick grey hair. The skin was wavy, pale, but there were no signs of rot. The kid had done a good job for the third zombie of the night. Now if only I could control it, we were home free.
"Lawrence, break the circle, please!"
He said something, too low for me to hear. I leaned as close as the blood would let me get and said, "What?"
"Larry, name's Larry."
I smiled, it was too ridiculous. He was worried about me calling him Lawrence instead of Larry with a rogue zombie climbing out of the dirt. Maybe he'd snapped under the pressure. Naw.
"Open the circle, Larry," I said.
He crawled forward, nearly falling face first into the flowers. He scraped his hand across the line of blood. The magic snapped. The circle of power was gone, just like that. Now it was just me.
"Where's your knife?"
He tried to look back over his shoulder but couldn't manage it. I saw the blade gleam in the moonlight on the other side of the grave.
"Just rest," I said. "I'll take care of it."
He collapsed into a little ball, hugging his arms around himself, as if he was cold. I let him go, for now. The first order of business had to be the zombie.
The knife was lying beside the gutted chicken he'd used to call the zombie. I grabbed the knife and faced the zombie over the grave. Andrew Doughal was leaning against his own tombstone, trying to orient himself.
It's hard on a person, being dead; it takes a few minutes to wake up the dead brain cells. The mind doesn't quite believe that it should work. But it will, eventually.
I pushed back the sleeve of my leather jacket and took a deep breath. It was the only way, but I didn't have to like it. I drew the blade across my wrist. A thin, dark line appeared. The skin split and blood trickled out, nearly black in the moonlight. The pain was sharp, stinging. Small wounds always felt worse than big ones . . . at first.
The wound was small and wouldn't leave a scar. Short of slitting my wrist, or someone else's, I couldn't remake the blood circle. It was too late in the ceremony to get another chicken and start over. I had to salvage this ceremony, or the zombie would be free with no boss. Zombies without bosses tended to eat people.
The zombie was still sitting on its tombstone. It stared at nothing with empty eyes. If Larry had been strong enough, Andrew Doughal might have been able to talk, to reason on his own. Now he was just a corpse waiting for orders, or a stray thought.
I climbed onto the mound of gladioluses, chrysanthemums, carnations. The perfume of flowers mixed with the stale smell of the corpse. I stood knee-deep in dying flowers and waved my bleeding wrist in front of the zombie's face.
The pale eyes followed my hand, flat and dead as day-old fish. Andrew Doughal was not home, but something was, something that smelled blood and knew its worth.
I know that zombies don't have souls. In fact, I can only raise the dead after three days. It takes that long for the soul to leave. Incidentally, the same amount of time it takes for vampires to rise. Fancy that.
But if it isn't the soul reanimating the corpse, then what is it? Magic, my magic, or Larry's. Maybe. But there was something in the corpse. If the soul was gone, something filled the void. In an animation that worked, magic filled it. Now? Now I didn't know. I wasn't even sure I wanted to know. What did it matter as long as I pulled the fat out of the fire? Yeah. Maybe if I kept repeating that, I'd even believe it.
I offered the corpse my bleeding wrist. The thing hesitated for a second. If it refused, I was out of options.
The zombie stared at me. I dropped the knife and squeezed the skin around the wound. Blood welled out, thick and viscous. The zombie snatched at my hand. Its pale hands were cold and strong. Its head bowed over the wound, mouth sucking. It fed at my wrist, jaws working convulsively, swallowing as hard and as fast as it could. I was going to have the world's worst hickey. But at least it hurt.
I tried to draw my hand away, but the zombie just sucked harder. It didn't want to let go. Great.
"Larry, can you stand?" I asked softly. We were still trying to pretend that nothing had gone wrong. The zombie had accepted blood. I controlled it now, if I could get it to let go.
Larry looked up at me in slow motion. "Sure," he said. He got to his feet using the burial mound for support. When he was standing, he asked, "What now?"
Good question. "Help me get it loose." I tried to pull my wrist free, but the thing hung on for dear life.
Larry wrapped his arms around the corpse and pulled. It didn't help.
"Try the head," I said.
He tried pulling back on the corpse's hair, but zombies don't feel pain. Larry pried a finger along the corpse's mouth, breaking the suction with a little pop. Larry looked like he was going to be sick. Poor him; it was my arm.
He wiped his finger on his dress slacks, as if he had touched something slimy. I wasn't sympathetic.
The knife wound was already red. It would be a hell of a bruise tomorrow.
The zombie stood on top of its grave, staring at me. There was life in the eyes; someone was home. The trick was, was it the right someone?
"Are you Andrew Doughal?" I asked.
He licked his lips and said, "I am." It was a rough voice. A voice for ordering people about. I wasn't impressed. It was my blood that gave him the voice. The dead really are mute, really do forget who and what they are, until they taste fresh blood. Homer was right; makes you wonder what else was true in the Iliad.
I put pressure on the knife wound with my other hand and stepped back, off the grave. "He'll answer your questions now," I said. "But keep them simple. He's been mostly dead all day."
The lawyers didn't smile. I guess I didn't blame them. I waved them forward. They hung back. Squeamish lawyers? Surely not.
Mrs. Doughal poked her lawyer in the arm. "Get on with it. This is costing a fortune."
I started to say we don't charge by the minute, but for all I knew Bert had arranged for the longer the corpse was up, the more expensive it was. That actually was a good idea. Andrew Doughal was fine tonight. He answered questions in his cultured, articulate voice. If you ignored the way his skin glistened in the moonlight, he looked alive. But give it a few days, or weeks. He'd rot; they all rotted. If Bert had figured out a way to make clients put the dead back in their graves before pieces started to fall off, so much the better.
There were few things as sad as the family bringing dear old mom back to the cemetery with expensive perfume covering up the smell of decay. The worst was the client who had bathed her husband before bringing him back. She had to bring most of his flesh in a plastic garbage sack. The meat had just slid off the bone in the warm water.
Larry moved back, stumbling over a flowerpot. I caught him, and he fell against me, still unsteady.
He smiled. "Thanks . . . for everything." He stared at me, our faces inches apart. A trickle of sweat oozed down his face in the cold October night.
"You got a coat?"
"In my car."
"Get it and put it on. You'll catch your death sweating in this cold."
His smile flashed into a grin. "Anything you say, boss."' His eyes were bigger than they should have been, a lot of white showing. "You pulled me back from the edge. I won't forget."
"Gratitude is great, kid, but go get your coat. You can't work if you're home sick with the flu."
Larry nodded and started slowly towards the cars. He was still unsteady, but he was moving. The flow of blood had almost stopped on my wrist. I wondered if I had a Band-Aid in my car big enough to cover it. I shrugged and started to follow Larry towards the cars. The lawyers' deep, courtroom voices filled the October dark. Words echoing against the trees. Who the hell were they trying to impress? The corpse didn't care.
Larry and I sat on the cool autumn grass watching the lawyers draw up the will. "They're so serious," he said.
"It's their job to be serious," I said.
"Being a lawyer means you can't have a sense of humor?"
"Absolutely," I said.
He grinned. His short, curly hair was a red so bright, it was nearly orange. His eyes were blue and soft as a spring sky. I'd seen both hair and eyes in the dome light from our cars. Back in the dark he looked grey-eyed and brown-haired. I'd hate to have to give a witness description of someone I only saw in the dark.
Larry Kirkland had that milk-pale complexion of some redheads. A thick sprinkling of golden freckles completed the look. He looked like an overgrown Howdy Doody puppet. I mean that in a cute way. Being short, really short for a man, I was sure he wouldn't like being called cute. It was one of my least favorite endearments. I think if all short people could vote, the word "cute" would be stricken from the English language. I know it would get my vote.
"How long have you been an animator?" I asked.
He glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. "About eight hours."
I stared at him. "This is your first job, anywhere?"
He nodded. "Didn't Mr. Vaughn tell you about me?"
"Bert just said he'd hired another animator named Lawrence Kirkland."
"I'm in my senior year at Washington University, and this is my semester of job co-op."
"How old are you?"
"You're not even legal," I said.
"So I can't drink or go in porno theaters. No big loss, unless the job takes us to places like that." He looked at me and leaned in. "Does the job take us to porno theaters?" His face was neutrally pleasant, and I couldn't tell if he was teasing or not. I gambled that he was kidding.
"Twenty is fine." I shook my head.
"You don't look like twenty's fine," he said.
"It's not your age that bothers me," I said.
"But something bothers you."
I wasn't sure how to put it into words, but there was something pleasant and humorous in his face. It was a face that laughed more often than it cried. He looked bright and clean as a new penny, and I didn't want that to change. I didn't want to be the one who forced him to get down in the dirt and roll.
"Have you ever lost someone close to you? Family, I mean?"
The humor slipped away from his face. He looked like a solemn little boy. "You're serious."
"Deadly," I said.
He shook his head. "I don't understand."
"Just answer the question. Have you ever lost someone close to you?"
He shook his head. "I've even got all my grandparents."
"Have you ever seen violence up close and personal?"
"I got into fights in high school."
He grinned. "They thought short meant weak."
I had to smile. "And you showed them different."
"Hell, no; they beat the crap out of me for four years." He smiled.
"You ever win a fight?"
"Sometimes," he said.
"But the winning's not the important part," I said.
He looked very steadily at me, eyes serious. "No, it's not."
There was a moment of nearly perfect understanding between us. A shared history of being the smallest kid in class. Years of being the last picked for sports. Being the automatic victim for bullies. Being short can make you mean. I was sure that we understood each other but, being female, I had to verbalize it. Men do a lot of this mind-reading shit, but sometimes you're wrong. I needed to know.
"The important part is taking the beating and not giving up," I said.
He nodded. "Takes a beating and keeps on ticking."
Now that I'd spoiled our first moment of perfect understanding by making us both verbalize, I was happy. "Other than school fights, you've never seen violence?"
"I go to rock concerts."
I shook my head. "Not the same."
"You got a point to make?" he asked.
"You should never have tried to raise a third zombie."
"I did it, didn't I?" He sounded defensive, but I pressed on. When I have a point to make, I may not be graceful, but I'm relentless.
"You raised and lost control of it. If I hadn't come along, the zombie would have broken free and hurt someone."
"It's just a zombie. They don't attack people."
I stared at him, trying to see if he was kidding. He wasn't. Shit. "You really don't know, do you?"
I covered my face with my hands and counted to ten, slowly. It wasn't Larry I was mad at, it was Bert, but Larry was so convenient for yelling. I'd have to wait until tomorrow to yell at Bert, but Larry was right here. How lucky.
"The zombie had broken free of your control, Larry. If I hadn't come along and fed it blood, it would have found blood on its own. Do you understand?"
"I don't think so."
I sighed. "The zombie would have attacked someone. Taken a bite out of someone."
"Zombies attacking humans is just superstition, ghost stories."
"Is that what they're teaching in college now?" I asked.
"I'll loan you some back copies of The Animator. Trust me, Larry, zombies do attack people. I've seen people killed by them."
"You're just trying to scare me," he said.
"Scared would be better than stupid."
"I raised it. What do you want from me?" He looked completely baffled.
"I want you to understand what nearly happened here tonight. I want you to understand that what we do isn't a game. It's not parlor tricks. It's real, and it can be dangerous."
"All right," he said. He'd given in too easily. He didn't really believe. He was humoring me. But there are some things you can't tell someone. He, or she, has to learn some things in person. I wished I could wrap Larry up in cellophane and keep him on a shelf, all safe and secure and untouched, but life didn't work that way. If he stayed in this business long enough, the new would wear off. But you can't tell someone who's reached twenty and never been touched by death. They don't believe in the boogeyman.
At twenty I'd believed in everything. I suddenly felt old.
Larry pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket.
"Please tell me you don't smoke," I said.
He looked up at me, eyes sort of wide and startled. "You don't smoke?"
"You don't like people to smoke around you?" He made it a question.
"No," I said.
"Look, I feel pretty awful right now. I need the cigarette, okay?"
"Yeah, need it." He had one slender white cigarette between two fingers of his right hand. The pack had disappeared back into his pocket. A disposable lighter had appeared. He looked at me very steadily. His hands were shaking just a bit.
Shit. He'd raised three zombies on his first night out, and I was going to be talking to Bert about the wisdom of sending Larry out on his own.
Besides, we were outside. "Go ahead."
He lit the cigarette and drew a deep breath of nicotine and tar. Smoke curled out of his mouth and nose, like pale ghosts. "Feel better already," he said.
I shrugged. "Just so you don't smoke in the car with me."
"No problem," he said. The tip of his cigarette pulsed orange in the dark as he sucked on it. He looked past me, letting smoke curl from his lips as he said, "We're being paged."
I turned and, sure enough, the lawyers were waving at us. I felt like a janitor being called in to clean up the messy necessities. I stood up, and Larry followed me.
"You sure you feel well enough for this?" I asked.
"I couldn't raise a dead ant, but I think I'm up to watching you do it."
There were bruises under his eyes and the skin was too tight around his mouth, but if he wanted to play macho man who was I to stop him? "Great; let's do it."
I got salt out of my trunk. It was perfectly legal to carry zombie-raising supplies. I suppose the machete that I used for beheading chickens could be used as a weapon, but the rest of the stuff was considered harmless. Shows you what the legal system knows about zombies.
Andrew Doughal had recovered himself. He still looked a little waxy, but his face was serious, concerned, alive. He smoothed a hand down the stylish lapel of his suit coat. He looked down at me, not just because he was taller but because he was good at looking down. Some people have a real talent for being condescending.
"Do you know what's happening, Mr. Doughal?" I asked the zombie.
He looked down his narrow patrician nose. "I am going home with my wife."
I sighed. I hated it when zombies didn't realize they were dead. They acted so . . . human.
"Mr. Doughal, do you know why you're in a cemetery?"
"What's happening?" one of the lawyers asked.
"He's forgotten that he's dead," I said softly.
The zombie stared at me, perfectly arrogant. He must have been a real pain in the ass when he was alive, but even assholes are piteous once in a while.
"I don't know what you are babbling about," the zombie said. "You obviously are suffering from some delusion."
"Can you explain why you are here in a cemetery?" I asked.
"I don't have to explain anything to you."
"Do you remember how you got to the cemetery?"
"We . . . we drove, of course." The first hint of unease wavered through his voice.
"You're guessing, Mr. Doughal. You don't really remember driving to the cemetery, do you?"
"I . . . I . . ." He looked at his wife, his grown children, but they were walking to their cars. No one even looked back. He was dead, no getting around that, but most families didn't just walk away. They might be horrified, or saddened, or even sickened, but they were never neutral. The Doughals had gotten the will signed, and they were leaving. They had their inheritance. Let good ol' dad crawl back into his grave.
He called, "Emily?"
She hesitated, stiffening, but one of her sons grabbed her arm and hurried her toward the cars. Was he embarrassed, or scared?
"I want to go home," he yelled after them. The arrogance had leaked away, and all that was left was that sickening fear, the desperate need not to believe. He felt so alive. How could he possibly be dead?
His wife half-turned. "Andrew, I'm sorry." Her grown children hustled her into the nearest car. You would have thought they were the getaway drivers for a bank robbery, they peeled out so fast.
The lawyers and secretaries left as fast as was decent. Everybody had what they'd come for. They were done with the corpse. The trouble was that the "corpse" was staring after them like a child who was left in the dark.
Why couldn't he have stayed an arrogant SOB?
"Why are they leaving me?" he asked.
"You died, Mr. Doughal, nearly a week ago."
"No, it's not true."
Larry moved up beside me. "You really are dead, Mr. Doughal. I raised you from the dead myself."
He stared from one to the other of us. He was beginning to run out of excuses. "I don't feel dead."
"Trust us, Mr. Doughal, you are dead," I said.
"Will it hurt?"
A lot of zombies asked that; will it hurt to go back into the grave? "No, Mr. Doughal, it doesn't hurt. I promise."
He took a deep, shaking breath and nodded. "I'm dead, really dead?"
"Then put me back, please." He had rallied and found his dignity. It was nightmarish when the zombie refused to believe. You could still lay them to rest, but the clients had to hold them down on the grave while they screamed. I'd only had that happen twice, but I remembered each time as if it had happened last night. Some things don't dim with time.
I threw salt against his chest. It sounded like sleet hitting a roof. "With salt I bind you to your grave."
I had the still-bloody knife in my hand. I wiped the gelling blood across his lips. He didn't jerk away. He believed. "With blood and steel I bind you to your grave, Andrew Doughal. Be at peace, and walk no more."
The zombie laid full length on the mound of flowers. The flowers seemed to flow over him like quicksand, and just like that he was swallowed back into the grave.
We stood there a minute in the empty graveyard. The only sounds were the wind sighing high up in the trees and the melancholy song of the year's last crickets. In Charlotte's Web, the crickets sang, "Summer is over and gone. Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying." The first hard frost, and the crickets would be dying. They were like Chicken Little, who told everyone the sky was falling; except in this case, the crickets were right.
The crickets stopped suddenly like someone had turned a switch. I held my breath, straining to hear. There was nothing but the wind, and yet . . . My shoulders were so tight they hurt. "Larry?"
He turned innocent eyes to me. "What?"
There, three trees to our left, a man's figure was silhouetted against the moonlight. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, on the right side. More than one. The darkness felt alive with eyes. More than two.
I used Larry's body to shield me from the eyes, drawing my gun, holding it along my leg so it wouldn't be obvious.
Larry's eyes widened. "Jesus, what's wrong?" His voice was a hoarse whisper. He didn't give us away. Good for him. I started herding him towards the cars, slowly, just your friendly neighborhood animators finished with their night's work and going home to a well-deserved rest.
"There are people out here."
"After me, more likely," I said.
I shook my head. "No time for explanations. When I say run, run like hell for the cars."
"How do you know they mean to hurt us?" His eyes were flashing a lot of white. He saw them now, too. Shadows moving closer, people out in the dark.
"How do you know they don't mean to hurt us?" I asked.
"Good point," he said. His breathing was fast and shallow. We were maybe twenty feet from the cars.
"Run," I said.
"What?" his voice sounded startled.
I grabbed his arm and dragged him into a run for the cars. I pointed the gun at the ground, still hoping whoever it was wouldn't be prepared for a gun.
Larry was running on his own, puffing a little from fear, smoking, and maybe he didn't run four miles every other day.
A man stepped in front of the cars. He brought up a large revolver. The Browning was already moving. It fired before my aim was steady. The muzzle flashed brilliant in the dark. The man jumped, not used to being shot at. His shot whined into the darkness to our left. He froze for the seconds it took me to aim and fire again. Then he crumpled to the ground and didn't get up again.
"Shit." Larry breathed it like a sigh.
A voice yelled, "She's got a gun."
"She shot him."
I guess Martin was the one with the gun. He still wasn't moving. I didn't know if I killed him or not. I wasn't sure I cared, as long as he didn't get up and shoot at us again.
My car was closer. I shoved car keys into Larry's hands. "Open the door, open the passenger side door, then start the car. Do you understand me?"
He nodded, freckles standing out in the pale circle of his face. I had to trust that he wouldn't panic and take off without me. He wouldn't do it out of malice, just fear.
Figures were converging from all directions. There had to be a dozen or more. The sound of running feet whispering on grass came over the wind.
Larry stepped over the body. I kicked a .45 away from the limp hand. The gun slid out of sight under the car. If I hadn't been pressed for time, I'd have checked his pulse. I always like to know if I've killed someone. Makes the police report go so much smoother.
Larry had the car door open and was leaning over to unlock the passenger side door. I aimed at one of the running figures and pulled the trigger. The figure stumbled, fell, and started screaming. The others hesitated. They weren't used to being shot at. Poor babies.
I slid into the car and yelled, "Drive, drive, drive!"
Larry peeled out in a spray of gravel. The car fishtailed, headlights swaying crazily. "Don't wrap us around a tree, Larry."
His eyes flicked to me. "Sorry." The car slowed from stomach-turning speed to grab-the-door-handle-and-hold-on speed. We were staying between the trees; that was something.
The headlights bounced off trees; tombstones flashed white. The car skidded around a curve, gravel spitting. A man stood framed in the middle of the road. Jeremy Ruebens of Humans First stood pale and shining in the lights. He stood in the middle of a flat stretch of road. If we could make the turn beyond him, we'd be out on the highway and safe.
The car was slowing down.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I can't just hit him," Larry said.
"The hell you can't."
"I can't!" His voice wasn't outraged, it was scared.
"He's just playing chicken with us, Larry. He'll move."
"Are you sure?" A little boy's voice asking if there really was a monster in the closet.
"I'm sure; now floor it and get us out of here."
He pressed down on the accelerator. The car jumped forward, rushing toward the small, straight figure of Jeremy Ruebens.
"He's not moving," Larry said.
"He'll move," I said.
"Are you sure?"
His eyes flicked to me, then back to the road. "You better be right," he whispered.
I believed Ruebens would move. Honest. But even if he wasn't bluffing, the only way out was either past him or through him. It was Ruebens's choice.
The headlights bathed him in glaring white light. His small, dark features glared at us. He wasn't moving.
"He isn't moving," Larry said.
"He'll move," I said.
"Shit," Larry said. I couldn't have agreed more.
The headlights roared up onto Jeremy Ruebens, and he threw himself to one side. There was the sound of brushing cloth as his coat slid along the car's side. Close, damn close.
Larry picked up speed and swung us around the last corner and into the last straight stretch. We spilled out onto the highway in a shower of gravel and spinning tires. But we were out of the cemetery. We'd made it. Thank you, God.
Larry's hands were white on the steering wheel. "You can ease down now," I said. "We're safe."
He swallowed hard enough for me to hear it, then nodded. The car started gradually approaching the speed limit. His face was beaded with sweat that had nothing to do with the cool October evening.
"You all right?"
"I don't know." His voice sounded sort of hollow. Shock.
"You did good back there."
"I thought I was going to run over him. I thought I was going to kill him with the car."
"He thought so, too, or he wouldn't have moved," I said.
He looked at me. "What if he hadn't moved?"
"He did move."
"But what if he hadn't?"
"Then we would have gone over him, and we'd still be on the highway, safe."
"You would have let me run him down, wouldn't you?"
"Survival is the name of the game, Larry. If you can't deal with that, find another business to be in."
"Animators don't get shot at."
"Those were members of Humans First, a right-wing fanatic group that hates anything to do with the supernatural." So I was leaving out about the personal visit from Jeremy Ruebens. What the kid didn't know might not hurt him.
I stared at his pale face. He looked hollow-eyed. He'd met the dragon, a little dragon as dragons go, but once you've seen violence, you're never the same again. The first time you have to decide, live or die, us or them, it changes you forever. No going back. I stared at Larry's shocked face and wished it could have been different. I wished I could have kept him shining, new, and hopeful. But as my Grandmother Blake used to say, "If wishes were horses, we'd all ride."
Larry had had his first taste of my world. The only question was, would he want a second dose, or would he run? Run or go, stay or fight, age-old questions. I wasn't sure which way I wanted Larry to choose. He might live longer if he got the hell away from me, but then again maybe he wouldn't. Heads they win, tails you lose.
"What about my car?" Larry asked.
I shrugged. "You've got insurance, right?"
"Yes, but . . ."
"Since they couldn't trash us, they may decide to trash your car."
He looked at me as if he wasn't sure whether I was kidding. I wasn't.
There was a bicycle in front of us suddenly, out of the dark. A child's pale face flashed in the headlights. "Watch out!"
Larry's eyes flicked back to the road in time to see the kid's wide, startled eyes. The brakes squealed, and the child vanished from the narrow arch of lights. There was a crunch and a bump before the car skidded to a stop. Larry was breathing heavy; I wasn't breathing at all.
The cemetery was just on our right. We were too close to stop, but . . . but, shit, it was a kid.
I stared out the back window. The bicycle was a crumpled mess. The child lay in a very still heap. God, please don't let him be dead.
I didn't think Humans First had enough imagination to have a child in reserve as bait. If it was a trap, it was a good one, because I couldn't leave the tiny figure crumpled by the road.
Larry was gripping the steering wheel so hard his arms shook. If I thought he'd been pale before, I'd been wrong. He looked like a sick ghost.
"Is he . . . hurt?" His voice squeezed out deep and rough with something like tears. It wasn't hurt he'd wanted to say. He just couldn't bring himself to use the big "D" word. Not yet, not if he could help it.
"Stay in the car," I said.
Larry didn't answer. He just sat there staring at his hands. He wouldn't look at me. But, dammit, this wasn't my fault. The fact that he'd lost his cherry tonight was not my fault. So why did it feel like it was?
I got out of the car, Browning ready in case the crazies decided to chase us onto the road. They could have gotten the .45 and be coming to shoot us.
The child hadn't moved. I was just too far away to see the chest rise and fall. Yeah, that was it. I was maybe a yard away.
Please be alive.
The child lay sprawled on its stomach, one arm trapped underneath, probably broken. I scanned the dark cemetery as I knelt by the child. No right-wing crazies came swarming out of the darkness. The child was dressed in the proverbial little boy's outfit of striped shirt, shorts, and tiny running shoes. Who had sent him out dressed for summer on this cold night? His mother. Had some woman dressed him, loved him, sent him out to die?
His curly brown hair was silken, baby-fine. The skin of his neck was cool to the touch. Shock? It was too soon to be cold from death. I waited for the big pulse in his neck, but nothing happened. Dead. Please, God, please.
His head raised up, and a soft sound came out of his mouth. Alive. Thank you, God.
He tried to roll over but fell back against the road. He cried out.
Larry was out of the car, coming towards us. "Is he all right?"
"He's alive," I said.
The boy was determined to roll over, so I grabbed his shoulders and helped. I tried to keep his right arm in against his body. I had a glimpse of huge brown eyes, round baby face, and in his right hand was a knife bigger than he was. He whispered, "Tell him to come help move me." Tiny little fangs showed between baby lips. The knife pressed against my stomach over the sport bag. The point slid underneath the leather jacket to touch the shirt underneath. I had one of those frozen moments when time stretches out in slow-mo nightmare. I had all the time in the world to decide whether to betray Larry, or die. Never give anyone to the monsters; it's a rule. I opened my mouth and screamed, "Run!"
The vampire didn't stab me. He just froze. He wanted me alive; that's why the knife and not fangs. I stood up, and the vampire just stared up at me. He didn't have a backup plan. Great.
The car stood, open doors spilling light out into the darkness. The headlights made a wide theatrical swash. Larry was just standing there, frozen, undecided. I yelled, "Get in the car!"
He moved towards the open car door. A woman was standing in the glare of the headlights. She was dressed in a long white coat open over the cream and tan of a very nice pants suit. She opened her mouth and snarled into the light, fangs glistening.
I was running, screaming, "Behind you!"
Larry stared at me; his gaze went past me. His eyes widened. I could hear the patter of little feet behind me. Terror spread across Larry's face. Was this the first vampire he'd ever seen?
I drew my gun, but was still running. You can't hit shit when you're running. I had a vampire in front and behind. Coin toss.
The female vampire bounded onto the hood of the car and propelled herself in a long, graceful leap that carried her into Larry and sent them tumbling across the road.
I couldn't shoot her without risking Larry. I whirled at the last second and put the gun point-blank into the child-vampire's face.
His eyes widened. I squeezed the trigger. Something hit me from behind. The shot went wild and I was on the road, flat on my stomach with something bigger than a bread box on top of me.
The air was knocked out of me. But I turned, trying to point the gun back at the thing on my back. If I didn't do something now, I might never have to worry about breathing again.
The boy came up on me, knife flashing downward. The gun was turning, but too slowly. I would have screamed if I'd had air. The knife buried into the sleeve of my jacket. I felt the blade bite into the road underneath. My arm was pinned. I squeezed the trigger and the shot went harmlessly off into the dark.
I twisted my neck to try to see who, or what, was straddling me. It was a what. In the red glow of the rear car lights his face was all flat, high cheekbones with narrow, almost slanted eyes and long, straight hair. If he'd been any more ethnic, he'd have been carved in stone, surrounded by snakes and Aztec gods.
He reached over me and encircled my right hand, the one that was pinned, the one that was still holding the gun. He pressed the bones of my hand into the metal. His voice was deep and soft. "Drop the gun or I'll crush your hand." He squeezed until I gasped.
Larry screamed, high and mournful.
Screaming was for when you didn't have anything better to do. I scraped my left sleeve against the road, baring my watch and the charm bracelet. The three tiny crosses glinted in the moonlight. The vampire hissed but didn't let go of my gun hand. I dragged the bracelet across his hand. A sharp smell of burning flesh; then he used his free hand to drag at my left sleeve. Holding onto just the sleeve, he held my left hand back, so I couldn't touch him with the crosses.
If he'd been the new dead, just the sight of the crosses would have sent him screaming; but he wasn't just old dead, he was ancient. It was going to take more than blessed crosses to get him off my back.
Larry screamed again.
I screamed, too, because I couldn't do anything else, except hold onto the gun and make him crush my hand. Not productive. They didn't want me dead, but hurt, hurt was okay. He could crush my hand into bloody pulp. I gave up my gun, screaming, tugging at the knife that held my arm pinned, trying to jerk my left sleeve free of his hand so I could plunge the crosses into his flesh.
A shot exploded above our heads. We all froze and stared back at the cemetery. Jeremy Ruebens and company had recovered their gun and were shooting at us. Did they think we were in cahoots with the monsters? Did they care who they shot?
A woman screamed, "Alejandro, help me!" The scream was from behind us. The vampire on my back was suddenly gone. I didn't know why, and I didn't care. I was left with the child-monster looming over me, staring at me with large dark eyes.
"Doesn't it hurt?" he asked.
It was such an unexpected question that I answered it. "No."
He looked disappointed. He squatted down beside me, hands on his small thighs. "I meant to cut you so I could lick the blood." His voice was still a little boy's voice, would always be a little boy's voice, but the knowledge in his eyes beat down on my skin like heat. He was older than Jean-Claude, much older.
A bullet smashed into the rear light of my car, just above the boy's head. He turned towards the fanatics with a very unchildlike snarl. I tried to pull the knife out of the road, but it was imbedded. I couldn't budge it.
The boy crawled into the darkness, vanishing with a backwash of wind. He was going for the fanatics. God help them.
I looked back over my shoulder. Larry was on the ground with a woman with long, waving brown hair on top of him. The man who'd been on top of me, Alejandro, and another woman were struggling with the vampire on Larry. She wanted to kill him, and they were trying to stop her. It seemed like a good plan to me.
Another bullet whined towards us. It didn't come close. A half-strangled scream, and then no more gunshots. Had the boy gotten him? Was Larry hurt? And what the hell could I do to help him, and me?
The vampires seemed to have their hands full. Whatever I was going to do, now was the time. I tried unzipping the leather jacket left-handed, but it stuck halfway down. Great. I bit the side of the jacket, using my teeth in place of the trapped hand. Unzipped; now what?
I pulled the sleeve off my left hand with my teeth, then put the sleeve under my hip and wiggled out of it. Slipping my right hand free of the pinned sleeve was the easy part.
Alejandro picked up the brown-haired woman and threw her over the car. She sailed into the darkness, but I didn't hear her hit the ground. Maybe she could fly. If she could, I didn't want to know.
Larry was nearly lost to sight behind a curtain of pale hair. The second female was bending over him like a prince about to bestow the magic kiss. Alejandro got a handful of that long, long hair and jerked her to her feet. He flung her into the side of the car. She staggered but didn't go down, snapping at him like a dog on a leash.
I went wide around them, holding the crosses out in front like every old movie you've ever seen. Except I'd never seen a vampire hunter with a charm bracelet.
Larry was on his hands and knees, swaying ever so slightly. His voice was high, nearly hysterical. He just kept repeating, "I'm bleeding, I'm bleeding."
I touched his arm, and he jumped like I'd bit him. His eyes flashed white.
Blood was welling down his neck, black in the moonlight. She'd bit him, Jesus help us, she'd bit him.
The pale female was still fighting to get to Larry. "Can't you smell the blood?" It was a plea.
"Control yourself, or I'll do it for you." Alejandro's voice was a low scream. The anger in his voice cut and sliced. The pale woman went very still.
"I'm all right now." Her voice held fear. I'd never heard one vampire be scared to . . . death of another. Let them fight it out. I had better things to do. Like figuring out how to get us past the remaining vampires and into the car.
Alejandro had the female shoved against the car with one hand. My gun was in his left hand. I unsnapped the anklet with its matching crosses. You can't sneak up on a vampire. Even the new dead are jumpier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Since I had no chance of sneaking up on him, I tried the direct approach.
"She bit him, you son of a bitch. She bit him!" I pulled the back of his shirt as if to get his attention. I dropped the crosses down his back.
I brushed the bracelet crosses across his hand. He dropped the gun. I caught it. A tongue of blue flame licked up his back. He clawed and scrambled, but he couldn't reach the crosses. Burn, baby, burn.
He whirled, shrieking. His open hand caught me on the side of the head. I was airborne. I slammed back-first into the road. I tried to take as much of the impact as I could with my arms, but my head rocked back, slamming into the road.
The world swam with black spots. When my vision cleared, I was staring up into a pale face; long, yellow-white hair the color of corn silk traced over my cheek as the vampire knelt to feed.
I still had the Browning in my right hand. I pulled the trigger. Her body jerked backwards like someone had shoved her. She fell back onto the road, blood pouring out of a hole in her stomach that was nothing compared to the wound in her back. I hoped I'd shattered her spine.
I staggered to my feet.
The male vampire, Alejandro, tore off his shirt. The crosses fell to the road in a little pool of molten blue fire. His back was burned black, with blisters here and there to add color. He whirled on me, and I shot him once in the chest. The shot was rushed, and he didn't go down.
Larry grabbed the vampire's ankle. Still Alejandro kept coming, dragging Larry across the blacktop like a child. He grabbed Larry's arm, jerking him to his feet. Larry threw a chain over the vampire's head. The heavy silver cross burst into flame. Alejandro screamed.
I yelled, "Get in the car, now!"
Larry slid into the driver's seat and kept sliding until he was in the passenger seat. He slammed the passenger side door shut and locked it, for what good it would do. The vampire tore the chain and threw the cross end over end into the roadside trees. The cross winked out of sight like a falling star.
I slid into the car, slamming the door and locking it. I clicked the safety on the Browning and shoved it between my legs.
The vampire, Alejandro, was huddled around his pain, too hurt to give chase right that second. Goodie.
I shoved the car in gear and gunned it. The car fishtailed. I slowed to the speed of light, and the car straightened out on the road. We poured down the dark tunnel in a circle of flickering light and tree shadows. And down at the end of our tunnel was a figure in white with long, brown hair spilling in the wind. It was the vampire that had jumped Larry. She was just standing there in the middle of the road. Just standing there. We were about to find out if vampires played chicken. I was about to take my own advice. I put the gas pedal to the floorboards. The car lurched forward. The vampire just stood there while we barreled down at her.
At the last second I realized she wasn't going to move, and I didn't have time to. We were about to test my theory about cars and vampiric flesh. Where's a silver car when you need one?
The headlights flashed on the vampire like a spotlight. I had an image of pale face, brown hair, fangs stretched wide. We hit her going sixty. The car shuddered. She rolled in painful slow motion up over the hood, and yet it was happening too fast for me to do anything. She hit the windshield with a sharp, crackling sound. Metal screamed.
The windshield crumbled into a mass of spiderweb cracks. I was suddenly trying to see through the wrong end of a smashed prism. The safety glass had done its job. It hadn't shattered and cut us to ribbons. It had just cracked all to hell, and I couldn't see to drive. I stamped down on the brakes. An arm shot through the glass, raining glittering shards down on Larry.
He screamed. The hand closed on his shirt, pulling him into the broken teeth of the windshield.
I turned the wheel to the left as hard as I could. The car spun out and all I could do was let off the gas, not touch the brake, and ride.
Larry had a death grip on the door arm and the headrest. He was screaming, fighting not to be pulled through the jagged glass. I said a quick prayer and let go of the wheel. The car spun helplessly. I shoved a cross against the hand. It smoked and bubbled. The hand let go of Larry and vanished through the hole in the crumbled glass.
I grabbed at the steering wheel, but it was too little too late. The car careened off the road into the ditch. Metal screamed as something under the car broke, something large. I was slammed into the driver's side door. Larry was suddenly on top of me; then we were both tumbling to the other side. Then it was over. The silence was startling. It was as if I'd gone deaf. There was a great roaring whiteness in my ears.
Someone said, "Thank God," and it was me.
The passenger side door peeled open like the shell of a nut. I scrambled back away from the opening. Larry was left stranded and staring. He was jerked out of the car. I slid into the front floorboard, aiming where Larry had vanished.
I was staring up at Larry's body with a dark hand clamped so tight on his throat, I didn't know if he could breathe. I stared down the barrel of my gun at the dark face of the vampire, Alejandro. His face was unreadable as he said, "I will tear his throat out."
"I'll blow your head off," I said. A hand came fishing through the broken windshield. "Back off or you lose that pretty face."
"He will die first," the vampire said. But the hand vanished back through the hole. There was the sound of some other language in the vampire's English. Emotion gave him an accent.
Larry's eyes were too wide, showing too much white. He was breathing. shallow and too fast. He'd hyperventilate, if he lived that long.
"Decide," the vampire said. His voice was flat, empty of everything. Larry's terror-filled eyes were eloquent enough for both of them.
I hit the safety on the gun and handed it butt-first to his outstretched hand. It was a mistake, I knew that, but I also knew I couldn't sit here and watch Larry's throat be ripped out. There are some things that are more important than physical survival. You gotta be able to look at yourself in the mirror. I gave up my gun for the same reason I'd stopped for the child. There was no choice. I was one of the good guys. Good guys were self-sacrificing. It was a rule somewhere.
Larry's face was a bloody mask. No single cut seemed to be serious, but nothing bleeds like a shallow scalp wound. Safety glass was not designed to be vampire-proof. Maybe I could write in and suggest it.
Blood trickled over Alejandro's hand, still gripping Larry's throat. The vampire had stuffed my gun in the back of his pants. He handled the gun like he knew how to use one. Pity. Some vampires were technophobes. It gave you an edge, sometimes.
Larry's blood flowed over the vampire's hand. Sticky and warm like barely solid Jell-O. The vampire didn't react to the blood. Iron self-control. I stared into his nearly black eyes and felt the pull of centuries like monstrous wings unfolding in his eyes. The world swam. The inside of my head was sinking, expanding. I reached out to touch something, anything to keep from falling. A hand gripped mine. The skin was cool and smooth. I jerked back, falling against the car.
"Don't touch me! Don't ever touch me!"
The vampire stood uncertainly, Larry's throat gripped in one blood-streaked hand, holding his other hand out towards me. It was a very human gesture. Larry's eyes were bugging out.
"You're choking him," I said.
"Sorry," the vampire said. He released him.
Larry fell to his knees, gasping. His first breath was a hissing scream for air.
I wanted to ask Larry how he was, but I didn't. My job was to get us out of here alive, if possible. Besides, I had an idea how Larry felt. Hurt. No need to ask stupid questions.
Well, maybe one stupid question. "What do you want?" I asked.
Alejandro looked at me, and I fought the urge to look at his face while I talked to him. It was hard. I ended up staring at the hole my bullet had made in the side of his chest. It was a very small hole, and had already stopped bleeding. Was he healing that fast? Shit. I stared at the wound as hard as I could. To fight the urge for eye contact. It's hard to be tough when you're staring at someone's chest. But I'd had years of practice before Jean-Claude decided to share his "gift" with me. Practice makes . . . well, you know.
The vampire hadn't answered me, so I asked again, voice steady and low. I didn't sound like someone who was afraid. Bully for me. "What do you want?"
I felt the vampire look at me, almost as if he'd run a finger down my body. I shivered and couldn't stop. Larry crawled to me, head hanging, dripping blood as he moved.
I knelt beside him. And before I could stop myself, the stupid question popped out. "Are you all right?"
His eyes raised to me through a mask of blood. He finally said, "Nothing a few stitches wouldn't cure." He was trying to make a joke. I wanted to hug him and promise the worst was over. Never make promises you can't keep.
The vampire didn't exactly move, but something brought my attention back to him. He stood knee-deep in autumn weeds. My eyes were on a level with his belt buckle, which made him about my height. Short for a man. A white, Anglo-Saxon, twentieth-century man. The belt buckle glinted gold and was carved into a blocky, stylized human figure. The carving, like the vampire's face, was straight out of an Aztec calendar.
The urge to look upward and meet his eyes crawled over my skin. My chin had actually risen an inch or so before I realized what I was doing. Shit. The vamp was messing with my mind, and I couldn't feel it. Even now, knowing he had to be doing something to me, I couldn't sense it. I was blind and deaf just like every other tourist.
Well, maybe not every tourist. I hadn't been munched on yet, which probably meant they wanted something more than just blood. I'd be dead otherwise, and so would Larry. Of course, I was still wearing blessed crosses. What could this creature do once I was stripped of crosses? I did not want to find out.
We were alive. It meant they wanted something that we couldn't give them dead. But what?
"What in the hell do you want?"
His hand came into view. He was offering his hand to help me stand. I stood without help, putting myself a little in front of Larry.
"Tell me who your master is, girl, and I won't hurt you."
"Who else will, then?" I asked.
"Clever, but I swear you will leave here in safety if you give me the name."
"First of all, I don't have a master. I'm not even sure I have an equal." I fought the urge to glance at his face, see if he got the joke. Jean-Claude would have gotten it.
"You stand before me, making jokes?" His voice sounded surprised, nearly outraged. Good, I think.
"I don't have a master," I said. Master vampires can smell truth or lies.
"If you truly believe that, you are deluding yourself. You bear two master signs. Give me the name and I will destroy him for you. I will free you of this . . . problem."
I hesitated. He was older than Jean-Claude. A lot older. He might be able to kill the Master of the City. Of course, that would leave this master vampire in control of the city. He and his three helpers. Four vampires, one less than were killing people, but I was willing to bet there was a fifth vamp around here somewhere. You couldn't have that many rogue master vampires running around one medium-size city.
Any master that was slaughtering civilians would be a bad thing to have in charge of all the vampires in the area. Just call it a feeling.
I shook my head. "I can't."
"You want free of him, do you not?"
"Let me free you, Ms. Blake. Let me help you."
"Like you helped the man and woman you murdered?"
"I did not murder them," he said. His voice sounded very reasonable. His eyes were powerful enough to drown in but the voice wasn't as good. There was no magic to the voice. Jean-Claude's was better. Or Yasmeen's, for that matter. Nice to know that not every talent came equally with time. Ancient wasn't everything.
"So you didn't strike the fatal blow. So what? Your flunkies do your will, not their own."
"You'd be surprised how much free will we have."
"Stop it," I said.
"Sounding so damn reasonable."
There was laughter in his voice. "You would rather I rant and rave?"
Yes, actually, but I didn't say it out loud. "I won't give you the name. Now what?"
There was a rush of wind at my back. I tried to turn, to face the wind. The woman in white rushed at me. Fangs straining, hands clawing, spattered with other people's blood, the vampire smashed into me. We fell backwards into the weeds with her on top. She darted towards my neck like a snake. I shoved my left wrist into her face. One cross brushed her lips. A flash of light, the stench of burning flesh, and the vampire was gone, screaming into the darkness. I had never seen any vampire move that fast. Had it been mind-magic? Had she tricked me that badly even with a blessed cross? How many over-five-hundred-year-old vamps can you have in one pack? Two, I hoped. Any more than that and they'd have us outnumbered.
I scrambled to my feet. The master vampire was on his hands and knees beside the remains of my car. Larry was nowhere in sight. A flutter of panic clawed at my chest; then I realized Larry had crawled underneath the car so the vampire couldn't make him a hostage again. When all else fails, hide. It works for rabbits.
The vampire's blistered back was bent at a painful angle as he tried to pull Larry out from under the car. "I will pull this arm out of its socket, if you do not come here!"
"You sound like you've got a kitten under the bed," I said.
Alejandro whirled around. He flinched, like it hurt. Great.
I felt something move behind me. I didn't argue with the sensation. Say it was nerves; I turned, crosses ready. Two vampires behind me. One was the pale-haired female. I guess the shot had missed her spine; pity. The other vampire could have been her male twin. They both hissed and cowered from the crosses. Nice to see someone was bothered.
The master came at me from the back, but I heard him. Either the burn was making him clumsy, or the crosses were helping me. I stood halfway between the three vampires, crosses sort of pointed at both groups. The blonds peered over their arms, but the crosses had them well and truly scared. The master never hesitated. He came in a rushing burst of speed. I backpedaled, tried to keep the crosses between us, but he grabbed my left forearm. With the crosses dangling inches from his flesh, he held on.
I pulled, getting as much distance from him as I could, then hit him in the solar plexus with everything I had. He made an "umph" sound, then flicked his hand at my face. I rocked back and tasted blood. He'd barely touched me, but he'd proven his point. If I wanted to exchange blows, he'd beat the crap out of me.
I hit him in the throat. He gagged and looked surprised. Beaten to snot was still a hell of a lot better than being bitten. I'd rather be dead than have pointy teeth.
His fist closed over my right fist, squeezing just enough to let me feel his strength. He was still trying to warn me off rather than hurt me. Bully for him.
He raised both his arms, drawing me closer into his body. I didn't want closer, but there didn't seem to be a hell of a lot I could do about it. Unless, of course, vampires had testicles. The throat shot had hurt. I glanced at his face, almost close enough to kiss. I leaned into him, getting as much room as I could. He just kept drawing me closer. His own momentum helped.
My knee hit him hard, and I ground it up and into him. It was not a glancing blow. He crumpled forward but didn't let go of my hands. I wasn't loose, but it was a start, and I'd answered an age-old question. Vampires did have balls.
He jerked my hands behind my back, pinning me between his arms and his body. His body felt wooden, stiff, and unyielding as stone. It had been warm and soft and hurtable only a second before. What had happened?
"Take the things off her wrist," he said. He wasn't talking to me.
I tried to crane my head around to see what was coming up behind me. I couldn't see anything. The two pale vampires were still huddled in the face of the naked crosses.
Something touched my wrist. I jerked, but he held me still. "If you struggle, he will cut you."
I turned my head as far back as I could, and was staring into the round eyes of the boy vampire. He'd recovered his knife and was using it to poke at the bracelet.
The master vampire's hands squeezed my arms until I thought they'd pop from the pressure like shaken soda pop. I must have made some sound, because he said, "I did not mean to hurt you tonight." His mouth was pressed against my ear, lost in my hair. "This was your choice."
The bracelet broke with a small snap. I felt it fall away into the weeds. The master vampire drew a deep breath, as if it were easier to breathe now. He was only an inch or two taller than I was, but he held both my wrists in one small hand, fingers squeezing to make the grip tight. It hurt, and I fought not to make small, helpless noises.
He stroked his free hand through my hair, then grabbed a handful and pulled my head backwards so he could see my eyes. His eyes were solid, absolute black; the whites had drowned. "I will have his name, Anita, one way or another."
I spit in his face.
He screamed, tightening his grip on my wrists until I cried out. "I could have made this pleasant, but now I think I want you to hurt. Look into my eyes, mortal, and despair. Taste of my eyes, and there will be no secrets between us." His voice dropped to the barest of whispers. "Perhaps I will drink your mind like others drink blood, and leave nothing behind but your mindless husk."
I stared into the darkness that was his eyes and felt myself fall, forward, impossibly forward, and down, down into a blackness that was pure and total, and had never known light.
I was staring up into a face I didn't know. The face was holding a bloody handkerchief to its forehead. Short hair, pale eyes, freckles. "Hi, Larry," I said. My voice sounded distant and strange. I couldn't remember why.
It was still dark. Larry's face had been cleaned up a little, but the wound was still bleeding. I couldn't have been out that long. Out? Where had I been out to? All I could remember was eyes, black eyes. I sat up too fast. Larry caught my arm or I would have fallen.
"Where are the . . ."
"Vampires," he finished for me.
I leaned into his arm and whispered, "Yeah."
There were people all around us in the dark, huddled in little whispering groups. The lights of a police car strobed the darkness. Two uniforms were standing quietly next to the car, talking with a man whose name wouldn't come to me.
"Karl," I said.
"What?" Larry asked.
"Karl Inger, the tall man talking to the police."
Larry nodded. "That's right."
A small, dark man knelt beside us. Jeremy Ruebens of Humans First, who last I knew had been shooting at us. What the hell was going on?
Jeremy smiled at me. It looked genuine.
"What makes you my friend all of a sudden?"
His smile broadened. "We saved you."
I pushed away from Larry to sit on my own. A moment of dizziness and I was fine. Yeah, right. "Talk to me, Larry."
He glanced at Jeremy Ruebens, then back to me. "They saved us."
"They threw holy water on the one who bit me." He touched his throat with his free hand, an unconscious gesture, but he noticed me watching. "Is she going to have control over me?"
"Did she enter your mind at the same time as she bit you?"
"I don't know," he said. "How can you tell?"
I opened my mouth to explain, then closed it. How to explain the unexplainable? "If Alejandro, the master vampire, had bitten me at the same time he rolled my mind, I'd be under his power now."
"That's what the other vampires called the master."
I shook my head, but the world swam in black waves and I had to swallow hard not to vomit. What had he done to me? I'd had mind games played on me before, but I'd never had a reaction like this.
"There's an ambulance coming," Larry said.
"I don't need one."
"You've been unconscious for over an hour, Ms. Blake," Ruebens said. "We had the police call an ambulance when we couldn't wake you."
Ruebens was close enough for me to reach out and touch him. He looked friendly, positively radiant, like a bride on her big day. Why was I suddenly his favorite person? "So they threw holy water on the vamp that bit you; what then?" I asked Larry.
"They drove the rest of them off with crosses and charms."
Ruebens pulled out a chain with two miniature metal-faced books hanging on it. Both books would have fit in the palm of my hand with room to spare. "They aren't charms, Larry. They're tiny Jewish Holy Books."
"I thought a Star of David."
"The star doesn't work, because it's a racial symbol, not really a religious symbol."
"So it's like miniature Bibles?"
I raised my eyebrows. "The Torah contains the Old Testament, so yeah, it's like miniature Bibles."
"Would the Bible work for us Christians?"
"I don't know. Probably, I've just never been attacked by vampires while carrying a Bible." That was probably my fault. In fact, when was the last time I'd read the Bible? Was I becoming a Sunday Christian? I'd worry about my soul later, after my body felt a little better.
"Cancel the ambulance; I'm fine."
"You are not fine," Ruebens said. He reached out as if to touch me. I looked at him. He stopped in mid-motion. "Let us help you, Ms. Blake. We share common enemies."
The police were walking towards us over the dark grass. Karl Inger was coming, too, talking softly to the police as they moved.
"Do the police know you were shooting at us first?"
Something passed over Ruebens's face.
"They don't know, do they?"
"We saved you, Ms. Blake, from a fate worse than death. I was wrong to try and hurt you. You raise the dead, but if you are truly enemies with the vampires, then we are allies."
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend, huh?"
The police were almost here, almost within earshot. "All right, but you ever point a gun at me again and I'll forget you saved me."
"It will never happen again, Ms. Blake; you have my word."
I wanted to say something disparaging, but the police were there. They'd hear. I wasn't going to tell on Ruebens and Humans First, so I had to save my smart alec comebacks for later use. Knowing Ruebens, I'd get another chance.
I lied to the police about what Humans First had done, and I lied about what Alejandro had wanted from me. It was just another of those mindless attacks that had happened twice already. Later, to Dolph and Zerbrowski, I'd tell the truth, but right now I just didn't feel like explaining the entire mess to strangers. I wasn't even sure Dolph would get the whole story. Like the fact that I was almost assuredly Jean-Claude's human servant.
Nope, no need to mention that.
Larry's car was a late-model Mazda. The vampires had kept Humans First so busy they hadn't had time to trash the car. Lucky for us, since my car was totaled. Oh, I'd have to go through the insurance company and let them tell me the car was totaled, but there was something large broken underneath the car; fluids darker than blood were leaking out. The front end looked like we'd hit an elephant. I knew totaled when I saw it.
We'd spent the last several hours at the emergency room. The ambulance attendants insisted I see a doctor, and Larry needed three small stitches in his forehead. His orangey hair fell forward and hid the wound. His first scar. The first of many if he stayed in this business and hung around me.
"You've been on the job, what, fourteen hours? What do you think so far?" I asked.
He glanced at me sideways, then back to the road. He smiled, but it didn't look funny. "I don't know."
"Do you want to be an animator when you graduate?"
"I thought I did," he said.
Honesty; a rare talent. "Not sure now?"
I let it rest there. My instinct was to talk him out of it. To tell him to go into some sane, normal business. But I knew that raising the dead wasn't just a job choice. If your "talent" was strong enough, you had to raise the dead or risk the power coming out at odd moments. Does the term roadkill mean anything to you? It meant something to my stepmother Judith. Of course, she wasn't pleased with my job. She thought it was gruesome. What could I say? She was right.
"There are other job choices for a preternatural biology degree."
"What? A zoo, exterminator?"
"Teacher," I said, "park ranger, naturalist, field biologist, researcher."
"And which of those jobs can make you this kind of money?" he asked.
"Is money the only reason you want to be an animator?" I was disappointed.
"I want to do something to help people. What better than using my specialized skills to rid the world of dangerous undead?"
I stared at him. All I could see was his profile in the darkened car, face underlit from the dashboard. "You want to be a vampire executioner, not an animator." I didn't try to keep the surprise out of my voice.
"My ultimate goal, yes."
"Why do you do it?"
I shook my head. "Answer the question, Larry."
"I want to help people."
"Then be a policeman; they need people on the force who know preternatural creatures."
"I thought I did pretty good tonight."
"Then what's wrong?"
I tried to think how to phrase it in fifty convincing words or less. "What happened tonight was awful, but it gets worse."
"Olive's coming up; which way do I turn?"
The car took the exit and slid into the turning lane. We sat at the light with the turn signal blinking in the dark.
"You don't know what you're getting into," I said.
"Then tell me," he said.
"I'll do better than that. I'll show you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Turn right at the third light."
We rolled into the parking lot. "First building on the right."
Larry slid into the only open space he could find. My parking space. My poor little Nova wouldn't be coming back to it.
I took off my jacket in the darkness of the car. "Hit the overhead light," I said.
He did as he was told. He was better at following orders than I was. Which, since he'd be following my orders, was fine.
I showed him the scars on my arms. "The cross-shaped burn is from human servants who thought it was funny. The mound of scar tissue at the bend of my arm is where a vampire tore my arm to pieces. Physical therapist says it's a miracle that I got full use of my arm back. Fourteen stitches from a human servant, and that's just my arms."
"There's more?" His face looked pale and strange in the dome light.
"A vampire shoved the broken end of a stake in my back."
"And my collarbone was broken at the same time my arm got chewed up."
"You're trying to scare me."
"You bet," I said.
"I won't be scared off."
Tonight should have scared him off without my showing him my scars. But it hadn't. Dammit, he'd stick, if he didn't get killed first. "All right, you're staying for the rest of the semester, great, but promise me you won't go hunting vampires without me."
"But Mr. Burke . . ."
"He helps execute vampires, but he doesn't hunt them alone."
"What's the difference between an execution and a hunt?"
"An execution just means a body that needs staking, or a vampire that's all nice and chained up waiting for the final stroke."
"Then what's a hunt?" he asked.
"When I go back out after the vampires that nearly killed us tonight, that's a hunt."
"And you don't trust Mr. Burke to teach me to hunt?"
"I don't trust Mr. Burke to keep you alive."
Larry's eyes widened.
"I don't mean he'd deliberately hurt you. I mean I don't trust anybody but me with your life."
"You think it'll come down to that?"
"It damn near did."
He was quiet for a handful of minutes. He stared down at his hands that were smoothing back and forth over the steering wheel. "I promise not to go vampire hunting with anybody but you." He stared at me, blue, blue eyes studying my face. "Not even Mr. Rodriguez? Mr. Vaughn said he taught you."
"Manny did teach me, but he doesn't hunt vampires anymore."
I met his true-blue eyes and said, "His wife's too afraid, and he's got four kids."
"You and Mr. Burke aren't married and don't have kids."
"Neither do I," he said.
I had to smile. Had I ever been this eager? Naw. "No one likes a smart alec, Larry."
He grinned, and it made him look about thirteen. Jesus, why wasn't he running for cover after tonight? Why wasn't I? No answers, at least none that made sense. Why did I do it? Because I was good at it, came the answer. Maybe Larry could be good at it, too. Maybe, or maybe he'd just get dead.
I got out of the car and leaned back in the open door. "Go straight home, and if you don't have an extra cross, buy one tomorrow."
"Okay," he said.
I shut the door on his solemn, earnest face. I walked up the stairs and didn't look back. I didn't watch him drive away, still alive, still eager after his first brush with the monsters. I was only four years older than he was. Four years. It felt like centuries. I had never been that green. My mother's death when I was eight saw to that. It takes the edge off the shiny brightness to lose a parent early.
I was still going to try to talk Larry out of being a vampire executioner, but if all else failed, I'd work with him. There are only two kinds of vampire hunters: good ones and dead ones. Maybe I could make Larry one of the good ones. It beat the hell out of the alternative.
It was 3:34, Friday morning. It had been a long week. Of course, when hadn't it been a long week this year? I had told Bert to hire more help. He hired Larry. Why didn't that make me happy? Because Larry was just another victim waiting for the right monster. Please keep him safe, God, please. I'd had about as many innocents die on me as I thought I could handle.
The hallway had that middle-of-the-night feel to it. The only sounds were the hush of the heating vents, the muffled sound of my Nike Airs on the carpeting. It was too late for my day-living neighbors to stay up, and too early for them to get up. Two hours before dawn, you get privacy.
I opened my brand-new burglarproof lock and stepped into the darkness of my apartment. I hit the lights and flooded the white walls, carpet, couch, and chair with bright light. No matter how good your night vision is, everyone likes light. We're creatures of the daylight, no matter what we do for a living.
I threw my jacket on the kitchen counter. It was too dirty to toss on the white couch. I had mud and bits of weed plastered all over me. But very little blood; the night had turned out all right.
I was slipping out of the shoulder holster when I felt it. The air currents had moved, as if something had moved through them. Just like that I knew I wasn't alone.
My hand was on the gun butt when Edward's voice came out of the darkness of my bedroom. "Don't, Anita."
I hesitated, fingers touching the gun. "And if I do?"
"I'll shoot you. You know I'll do it." His voice was that soft, sure predatory sound. I'd seen him use flamethrowers when his voice sounded like that. Smooth and calm as the road to Hell.
I eased away from my gun. Edward would shoot me if I forced him to. Better not to force it, not yet. Not yet.
I clasped my hands on top of my head without waiting for him to tell me. Maybe I'd get brownie points for being a cooperative prisoner. Naw.
Edward stepped out of the darkness like a blond ghost. He was dressed all in black except for his short hair and pale face. His black-gloved hands held a Beretta 9mm pointed very steadily at my chest.
"New gun?" I asked.
The ghost of a smile curled his lips. "Yes, like it?"
"Beretta's a nice gun, but you know me."
"A Browning fan," he said.
I smiled at him. Just two ol' buddies talking shop.
He pressed the gun barrel against my body while he took the Browning from me. "Lean and spread it."
I leaned on the back of the couch while he patted me down. There was nothing to find, but Edward didn't know that. He was never careless. That was one of the reasons he was still alive. That, and the fact that he was very, very good.
"You said you couldn't pick my lock," I said.
"I brought better tools," he said.
"So it's not burglarproof."
"It would be to most people."
"But not to you."
He stared at me, his eyes as empty and dead as winter's sky. "I am not most people."
I had to smile. "You can say that again."
He frowned at me. "Give me the master's name, and we don't have to do this." The gun never wavered. My Browning stuck out of the front of his belt. I hoped he'd remembered the safety. Or maybe I didn't.
I opened my mouth, closed it, and just looked at him. I couldn't give Jean-Claude over to Edward. I was the Executioner, but the vampires called Edward Death. He'd earned the name.
"I thought you'd be following me tonight."
"I went home after watching you raise the zombie. Guess I should have stayed around. Who bloodied your mouth?"
"I'm not going to tell you a bloody thing. You know that."
"Everyone breaks, Anita, everyone."
That ghost of a smile was back again. "Even me."
"Someone got the better of Death? Tell, tell."
The smile widened. "Some other time."
"Nice to know there'll be another time," I said.
"I'm not here to kill you."
"Just to frighten or torture me into revealing the master's name, right?"
"Right," he said, voice soft and low.
"I was hoping you'd say wrong."
He almost shrugged. "Give me the Master of the City, Anita, and I'll go away."
"You know I can't do that."
"I know you have to, or it's going to be a very long night."
"Then it's going to be a long night, because I'm not going to give you shit."
"You won't be bullied," he said.
He shook his head. "Turn around, lean your waist up against the couch, and put your hands behind your back."
"Just do it."
"So you can tie my hands?"
"Do it, now."
"I don't think so."
The frown was back. "Do you want me to shoot you?"
"No, but I'm not going to just stand here while you tie me up, either."
"The tying up doesn't hurt."
"It's what comes after that I'm worried about."
"You knew what I'd do if you didn't help me."
"Then do it," I said.
"You're not cooperating."
"I just don't believe in helping people who are going to torture me. Though I don't see any bamboo slivers. How can you possibly torture someone without bamboo slivers?"
"Stop it." He sounded angry.
"Stop what?" I widened my eyes and tried to look innocent and harmless, me and Kermit the Frog.
Edward laughed, a soft chuckle that rolled and expanded until he squatted on the floor, gun loose in his hands, staring up at me. His eyes were shiny.
"How can I torture you when you keep making me laugh?"
"You can't; that was the plan."
He shook his head. "No, it wasn't. You were just being a smartass. You're always a smartass."
"Nice of you to notice."
He held up his hand. "No more, please."
"I'll make you laugh until you beg for mercy."
"Just tell me the damn name. Please, Anita. Help me." The laughter drained from his eyes like the sun slipping out of the sky. I watched the humor, the humanity, slip away, until his eyes were as cold and empty as a doll's. "Don't make me hurt you," he said.
I think I was Edward's only friend, but that wouldn't stop him from hurting me. Edward had one rule: do whatever it takes to get the job done. If I forced him to torture me, he would, but he didn't want to.
"Now that you've asked nicely, try the first question again," I said.
His eyes narrowed, then he said, "Who hit you in the mouth?"
"A master vampire," I said softly.
"Tell me what happened." It was too much like an order for my taste, but he did have both the guns.
I told him everything that had happened. All about Alejandro. Alejandro who felt so old inside my head, it made my bones ache. I added one tiny lie, lost in all that truth. I told him Alejandro was Master of the City. One of my better ideas, heh?
"You really don't know where his daytime resting place is, do you?"
I shook my head. "I'd give it to you if I had it."
"Why this change of heart?"
"He tried to kill me tonight. All bets are off."
"I don't believe that."
It was too good a lie to waste, so I tried salvaging it. "He's also gone rogue. It's him and his flunkies that have been killing innocent citizens.''
Edward smirked at the innocent, but he let it go. "An altruistic motive, that I believe. If you weren't such a damn bleeding heart, you'd be dangerous."
"I kill my share, Edward."
His empty, blue eyes stared at me; then he nodded, slowly. "True."
He handed me back my gun, butt first. A tight, clenched ball in my stomach unrolled. I could breathe deep, long sighs of relief.
"If I find out where this Alejandro stays, you want in on it?"
I thought about that for a minute. Did I want to go after five rogue vampires, two of them over five hundred years old? I did not. Did I want to send even Edward after them alone? No, I did not. Which meant . . .
"Yeah, I want a piece of them."
Edward smiled, broad and shining. "I love my work."
I smiled back. "Me, too."
Jean-Claude lay in the middle of a white canopied bed. His skin was only slightly less white than the sheets. He was dressed in a nightshirt. Lace fell down the low collar, forming a lace window around his chest. Lace flowed from the sleeves, nearly hiding his hands. It should have looked feminine, but Jean-Claude made it utterly masculine. How could any man wear a white lace gown and not look silly? Of course, he wasn't a man. That must be it. His black hair curled in the lace collar. Touchable. I shook my head. Not even in my dreams. I was dressed in something long and silky. It was a shade of blue almost as dark as his eyes. My arms looked very white against it. Jean-Claude got to his knees and reached his hand out to me. An invitation.
I shook my head.
"It is only a dream, ma petite. Will you not come to me even here?"
"It's never just a dream with you. It always means more."
His hand fell to the sheets, fingertips caressing the cloth.
"What are you trying to do to me, Jean-Claude?"
He looked very steadily at me. "Seduce you, of course."
Of course. Silly me.
The phone beside the bed rang. It was one of those white princess phones with lots of gold on it. There hadn't been a telephone a second before. It rang again, and the dream fell to shreds. I came awake grabbing for the phone.
"Hey, did I wake you?" Irving Griswold asked.
I blinked at the phone. "Yeah, what time is it?"
"It's ten o'clock. I know better than to call early."
"What do you want, Irving?"
"I got in late. Can we skip the sarcasm?"
"I, your true-blue reporter friend, will forgive you that grumpy hello, if you answer a few questions."
"Questions?" I sat up, hugging the phone to me. "What are you talking about?"
"Is it true that Humans First saved you last night, as they're claiming?"
"Claiming? Can you talk in complete sentences, Irving?"
"The morning news had Jeremy Ruebens on it. Channel five. He claimed that he and Humans First saved your life last night. Saved you from the Master Vampire of the City."
"Oh, he did not."
"May I quote you?"
I thought about that for a minute. "No."
"I need a quote for the paper. I'm trying to give a chance for a rebuttal."
"Hey, I was an English major."
"That explains so much."
"Can you give me your side of the story, or not?"
I thought about that for a minute. Irving was a friend and a good reporter. If Ruebens was already on the morning news with the story, I needed to get my side out. "Can you give me fifteen minutes to make coffee and get dressed?"
"For an exclusive, you bet."
"Talk to you then." I hung up and went straight for the coffeemaker. I was wearing jogging socks, jeans, and the oversized t-shirt I'd slept in when Irving called back. I had a steaming cup of coffee on the bedside table beside the phone. Cinnamon hazelnut coffee from V. J.'s Tea and Spice Shop over on Olive. Mornings didn't get much better than this.
"Okay, spill it," he said.
"Gee, Irving, no foreplay?"
"Get to it, Blake, I've got a deadline."
I told him everything. I had to admit that Humans First had saved my cookies. Darn. "I can't confirm that the vampire they ran off was the Master of the City."
"Hey, I know Jean-Claude is the master. I interviewed him, remember?"
"I know this Indian guy was not Jean-Claude."
"But Humans First doesn't know that."
"A double exclusive, wowee."
"No, don't say that Alejandro isn't the master."
"I'd clear it with Jean-Claude first, if I were you."
He cleared his throat. "Yeah, not a bad idea." He sounded nervous.
"Is Jean-Claude giving you trouble?"
"No, why do you ask?"
"For a reporter you lie badly."
"Jean-Claude and I got business just between us. It doesn't concern The Executioner."
"Fine; just watch your back, okay?"
"I'm flattered that you're worried about me, Anita, but trust me, I can handle it."
I didn't argue with that. I must have been in a good mood. "Anything you say, Irving."
He let it go, so I did, too. No one could handle Jean-Claude, but it wasn't my business. Irving had been the one hot for the interview. So there were strings attached; not a big surprise, and not my business. Really.
"This'll be on the front page of the morning paper. I'll check with Jean-Claude about whether to mention this new vamp isn't the master."
"I'd really appreciate it if you could hold off on that."
"Why?" He sounded suspicious.
"Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea for Humans First to believe Alejandro is the master."
"So they don't kill Jean-Claude," I said.
"Oh," he said.
"Yeah," I said.
"I'll bear that in mind," he said.
"You do that."
"Gotta go; deadline calls."
"Okay, Irving, talk to you later."
"Bye, Anita, thanks." He hung up.
I sipped the still-steaming coffee, slowly. The first cup of the day should never be rushed. If I could get Humans First to believe the same lie Edward bought, then no one would be hunting Jean-Claude. They'd be hunting Alejandro. The master that was slaughtering humans. Put the police on the case, and we had the rogue vamps outnumbered. Yeah, I liked it.
The trick was, would everyone buy it? Never know until you try.