The Tenderloin was originally the red light district on the Riverfront in the 1800s. But the Tenderloin, like so much of St. Louis, moved uptown. Go down Washington past the Fox Theater, where you can see Broadway traveling companies sing bright musical. Keep driving down Washington to the west edge of downtown St. Louis and you will come to the resurrected carcass of the Tenderloin.
The night streets are neon-coated, sparkling, flashing, pulsing-colors. It looks like some sort of pornographic carnival. All it needs is a Ferris wheel in one of the empty lots. They could sell cotton candy shaped like naked people. The kiddies could play while Daddy went to get his jollies. Mom would never have to know.
Jean-Claude sat beside me in the car. He had been utterly silent on the drive over. I had had to glance at him a time or two just to make sure he was still there. People make noise. I don't mean talking or belching or anything overt. But people, as a rule, can't just sit without making noise. They fidget, the sound of cloth rubbing against the seats; they breathe, the soft intake of air; they wet their lips, wet, quiet, but noise. Jean-Claude didn't do any of these things as we drove. I couldn't even swear he blinked. The living dead, yippee.
I can take silence as good as the next guy, better than most women and a lot of men. Now, I needed to fill the silence. Talk just for the noise. A waste of energy, but I needed it.
"Are you in there, Jean-Claude?"
His neck turned, bringing his head with it. His eyes glittered, reflecting the neon signs like dark glass. Shit.
"You can play human, Jean-Claude, better than almost any vampire I've ever met. What's all this supernatural crap?"
"Crap?" he said, voice soft.
"Yeah, why are you going all spooky on me?"
"Spooky?" he asked, and the sound filled the car. As if the word meant something else entirely.
"Stop that," I said.
"Answering every question with a question."
He blinked once. "So sorry, ma petite, but I can feel the street."
"Feel the street? What does that mean?"
He settled back against the upholstery, leaning his head and neck into the seat. His hand clasped over his stomach. "There is a great deal of life here."
"Life?" He had me doing it now.
"Yes," he said, "I can feel them running back and forth. Little creatures, desperately seeking love, pain, acceptance, greed. A lot of greed here, too, but mostly pain and love."
"You don't come to a prostitute for love. You come for sex."
He rolled his head so his dark eyes stared at me. "Many people confuse the two."
I stared at the road. The hairs at the back of my neck were standing at attention. "You haven't fed yet tonight, have you?"
"You are the vampire expert. Can you not tell?" His voice had dropped to almost a whisper. Hoarse and thick.
"You know I can never tell with you."
"A compliment to my powers, I'm sure."
"I did not bring you down here to hunt," I said. My voice sounded firm, a tad loud. My heart was loud inside my head.
"Would you forbid me to hunt tonight?" he asked.
I thought about that one for a minute or two. We were going to have to turn around and make another pass to find a parking space. Would I forbid him to hunt tonight? Yes. He knew the answer. This was a trick question. Trouble was I couldn't see the trick.
"I would ask that you not hunt here tonight," I said.
"Give me a reason, Anita."
He had called me Anita without me prompting him. He was definitely after something. "Because I brought you down here. You wouldn't have hunted here, if it hadn't been for me."
"You feel guilt for whomever I might feed on tonight?"
"It is illegal to take unwilling human victims," I said.
"So it is."
"The penalty for doing so is death," I said.
"By your hand."
"If you do it in this state, yes."
"They are just whores, pimps, cheating men. What do they matter to you, Anita?"
I don't think he had ever called me Anita twice in a row. It was a bad sign. A car pulled away not a block from The Grey Cat Club. What luck. I slid my Nova into the slot. Parallel parking is not my best thing, but luckily the car that pulled away was twice the size of my car. There was plenty of room to maneuver, back and forth from the curb.
When the car was lurched nearly onto the curb but safely out of traffic, I cut the engine. Jean-Claude lay back in his seat, staring at me. "I asked you a question, ma petite, what do these people mean to you?"
I undid my seat belt and turned to look at him. Some trick of light and shadow had put most of his body in darkness. A band of nearly gold light lay across his face. His high cheekbones were very prominent against his pale skin. The tips of his fangs showed between his' lips. His eyes gleamed like blue neon. I looked away and stared at the steering wheel while I talked.
"I have no personal stake in these people, Jean-Claude, but they are people. Good, bad, or indifferent, they are alive, and no one has the right to just arbitrarily snuff them out."
"So it is the sanctity of life you cling to?"
I nodded. "That and the fact that every human being is special. Every death is a loss of something precious and irreplaceable." I looked at him as I finished the last.
"You have killed before, Anita. You have destroyed that which is irreplaceable."
"I'm irreplaceable, too," I said. "No one has the right to kill me, either."
He sat up in one liquid motion, and reality seemed to collect around him. I could almost feel the movement of time in the car, like a sonic boom for the inside of my head, instead of my ear.
Jean-Claude sat there looking entirely human. His pale skin had a certain flush to it. His curling black hair, carefully combed and styled, was rich and touchable. His eyes were just midnight-blue, nothing exceptional but the color. He was human again, in the blink of an eye.
"Jesus," I whispered.
"What is wrong, ma petite?"
I shook my head. If I asked how he did it, he'd just smile.
"Why all the questions, Jean-Claude? Why the worry about s my view of life?"
"You are my human servant." He raised a hand to stop the automatic objection. "I have begun the process of making you my human servant, and I would like to understand you better."
"Can't you just ... scent my emotions like you can the people on the street?"
"No, ma petite. I can feel your desire but little else. I gave that up when I made you my marked servant."
"You can't read me?"
That was really nice to know. Jean-Claude didn't have to tell me. So why did he? He never gave anything away for free. There were strings attached that I couldn't even see. I s shook my head. "You are just to back me up tonight. Don't s do anything to anybody unless I say so, okay?"
"Don't hurt anyone unless they try to hurt us."
He nodded, face very solemn. Why did I suspect that he was laughing at me in some dark corner of his mind? Giving orders to the Master of the City. I guess it was funny.
The noise level on the sidewalk was intense. Music blared out of every other building. Never the same song, but always loud. The flashing signs proclaimed, "Girls, Girls, Girls. Topless." A pink-edged sign read, "Talk to the Naked Woman of Your Dreams." Eeek.
A tall, thin black woman came up to us. She was wearing purple shorts so short that they looked like a thong bikini. Black fishnet panty hose covered her legs and buttocks. Provocative.
She stopped somewhere between the two of us. Her eyes flicked from one to the other. "Which one of ya does it, and which one of ya watches?"
Jean-Claude and I exchanged glances. He was smiling ever so slightly. "Sorry, we were looking for Wanda," I said.
"A lot of names down here," she said. "I can do anything this Wanda can do, and do it better." She stepped very close to Jean-Claude, almost touching. He took her hand in his and lifted it gently to his lips. His eyes watched me as he did it.
"You're the doer," she said. Her voice had gone throaty, sexy. Or maybe that was just the effect Jean-Claude had on women. Maybe.
The woman cuddled in, against him. Her skin looked very dark against the white lace of his shirt. Her fingernails were painted a bright pink, like Easter basket grass.
"Sorry to interrupt," I said, "but we don't have all night."
"This is not the one you seek then," he said.
"No," I said.
He gripped her arms just above the elbows and pushed her away. She struggled just a bit to reach him again. Her hands grabbed at his arms, trying to pull herself closer to him. He held her straight-armed, effortlessly. He could have held a semitruck effortlessly.
"I'll do you for free," she said.
"What did you do to her?" I asked.
I didn't believe him. "Nothing, and she offers to do you for free?" Sarcasm is one of my natural talents. I made sure that Jean-Claude heard it.
"Be still," he said.
"Don't tell me to shut up."
The woman was standing perfectly still. Her hands dropped to her sides, limp. He hadn't been talking to me at all.
Jean-Claude took his hands away from her. She never moved. He stepped around her like she was a crack in the pavement. He took my arm, and I let him. I watched the prostitute, waiting for her to move.
Her straight, nearly naked back shuddered. Her shoulders slumped. She threw back her head and drew a deep trembling breath.
Jean-Claude pulled me gently down the street, his hand on my elbow. The prostitute turned around, saw us. Her eyes never even hesitated. She didn't know us.
I swallowed hard enough for it to hurt. I pulled free of Jean-Claude's hand. He didn't fight me. Good for him.
I backed up against a storefront window. Jean-Claude stood in front of me, looking down. "What did you do to her?"
"I told you, ma petite, nothing."
"Don't call me that. I saw her, Jean-Claude. Don't lie to me."
A pair of men stopped beside us to look in the window. They were holding hands. I glanced in the window and felt color creep up my cheeks. There were whips, leather masks, padded handcuffs, and things I didn't even have a name for. One of the men leaned into the other and whispered. The other man laughed. One of them caught me looking. Our eyes met, and I looked away, fast. Eye contact down here was a dangerous thing.
I was blushing and hating it. The two men walked away, hand in hand.
Jean-Claude was staring in the window like he was out for a Saturday afternoon of window-shopping. Casual.
"What did you do to that woman?"
He stared in the storefront. I couldn't tell exactly what had caught his attention. "It was careless of me, ma ... Anita. My fault entirely."
"What was your fault?"
"My ... powers are greater when my human servant is with me." He stared at me then. His gaze solid on my face. "With you beside me, my powers are enhanced."
"Wait, you mean like a witch's familiar?"
He cocked his head to one side, a slight smile on his face. "Yes, very close to that. I did not know you knew anything about witchcraft."
"A deprived childhood," I said. I was not going to be diverted from the important topic. "So your ability to bespell people with your eyes is stronger when I'm with you. Strong enough that without trying, you bespelled that prostitute."
I shook my head. "No, I don't believe you."
He shrugged, a graceful gesture on him. "Believe what you like, ma petite. It is the truth."
I didn't want to believe it. Because if it were true, then I was in fact his human servant. Not in my actions but by my very presence. With sweat trickling down my spine from the heat, I was cold. "Shit," I said.
"You could say that," he said.
"No, I can't deal with this right now. I can't." I stared up at him. "You keep whatever powers we have between us in check, okay?"
"I will try," he said.
"Don't try, dammit, do it."
He smiled wide enough to flash the tips of his fangs. "Of course, ma petite."
Panic was starting in the pit of my stomach. I gripped my hands into fists at my sides. "If you call me that one more time, I'm going to hit you."
His eyes widened just a bit, his lips flexed. I realized he was trying not to laugh. I hate it when people find my threats amusing.
He was an invasive son of a bitch; and I wanted to hurt him. To hurt him because he scared me. I understand the urge, I've had it before with other people. It's an urge that can lead to violence. I stared up at his softly amused face. He was a condescending bastard, but if it ever came to real violence between us, one of us would die. Chances were good it would be me.
The humor leaked out of his face, leaving it smooth and lovely, and arrogant. "What is it, Anita?" His voice was soft and intimate. Even in the heat and movement of this place, his voice could roll me up and under. It was a gift.
"Don't push me into a corner, Jean-Claude. You don't want to take away all my options."
"I don't know what you mean," he said.
"If it comes down to you or me, I'm going to pick me. You remember that."
He looked at me for a space of heartbeats. Then he blinked and nodded. "I believe you would. But remember, ma ... Anita, if you hurt me, it hurts you. I could survive the strain of your death. The question, amante de moi, is could you survive mine?"
Amante de moi? What the hell did that mean? I decided not to ask. "Damn you, Jean-Claude, damn you."
"That, dear Anita, was done long before you met me."
"What does that mean?"
His eyes were as innocent as they ever were. "Why, Anita, your own Catholic Church has declared all vampires as suicides. We are automatically damned."
I shook my head. "I'm Episcopalian, now, but that isn't what you meant."
He laughed then. The sound was like silk brushed across the nape of the neck. It felt smooth and good, but it made you shudder.
I walked away from him. I just left him there in front of the obscene window display. I walked into the crowd of whores, hustlers, customers. There was nobody on this street as dangerous as Jean-Claude. I had brought him down here to protect me. That was laughable. Ridiculous. Obscene.
A young man who couldn't have been more than fifteen stopped me. He was wearing a vest with no shirt and a pair of torn jeans. "You interested?"
He was taller than me by a little. His eyes were blue. Two other boys just behind him were staring at us.
"We don't get many women down here," he said.
"I believe you." He looked incredibly young. "Where can I find Wheelchair Wanda?"
One of the boys behind him said, "A crip lover, Jesus."
I agreed with him. "Where?" I held up a twenty. It was too much to pay for the information, but maybe if I gave it to him, he could go home sooner. Maybe if he had twenty dollars, he could turn down one of the cars cruising the street. Twenty dollars, it would change his life. Like sticking your finger in a nuclear meltdown.
"She's just outside of The Grey Cat. At the end of the block."
"Thanks." I gave him the twenty. His fingernails had grime embedded in them.
"You sure you don't want some action?" His voice was small and uncertain, like his eyes. Out of the comer of my eye I saw Jean-Claude moving through the crowd. He was coming for me. To protect me. I turned back to the boy. "I've got more action than I know what to do with," I said.
He frowned, looking puzzled. That was all right. I was puzzled, too. What do you do with a master vampire that won't leave you alone? Good question. Unfortunately, what I needed was a good answer.
Wheelchair Wanda was a small woman sitting in one of those sport wheelchairs that are used for railing. She wore workout gloves, and the muscles in her arms moved under her tanned skin as she pushed herself along. Long brown hair fell in gentle waves around a very pretty face. The makeup was tasteful. She wore a shiny metallic blue shirt and no bra. An ankle-length skirt with at least two layers of multicolored crinoline and a pair of stylish black boots hid her legs.
She was moving towards us at a goodly pace. Most of the prostitutes, male and female, looked ordinary. They weren't dressed outrageously, shorts, middrifts. In this heat who could blame them? I guess if you wear fishnet jumpsuits, the police just naturally get suspicious.
Jean-Claude stood beside me. He glanced up at the sign that proclaimed "The Grey Cat" in a near blinding shade of fuchsia neon. Tasteful.
How does one approach a prostitute, even just to talk? I didn't know. Learn something new every day. I stood in her path and waited for her to come to me. She glanced up and caught me watching her. When I didn't look away, she got eye contact and smiled.
Jean-Claude moved up beside me. Wanda's smile broadened or deepened. It was a definite "come along smile" as my Grandmother Blake used to say.
Jean-Claude whispered, "Is that a prostitute?"
"Yes," I said.
"In a wheelchair?" he asked.
"My," was all he said. I think Jean-Claude was shocked. Nice to know he could be.
She stopped her chair with an expert movement of hands.
She smiled, craning to look up at us. The angle looked painful.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," I said.
She continued to smile. I continued to stare. Why did I suddenly feel awkward? "A friend told me about you," I said.
"You are the one they refer to as Wheelchair Wanda?"
She grinned suddenly, and her face looked real. Behind all those lovely but fake smiles was a real person. "Yeah, that's me."
"Could we talk?"
"Sure," she said. "You got a room?"
Did I have a room? Wasn't she supposed to do that? "No."
Oh, hell. "We just want to talk to you for an hour, or two. We'll pay whatever the going rate is."
She told me the going rate.
"Jesus, that's a little steep," I said.
She smiled beatifically at me. "Supply and demand," she said. "You can't get a taste of what I have anywhere else." She smoothed her hands down her legs as she said it. My eyes followed her hands like they were supposed to. This was too weird.
I nodded. "Okay, you got a deal." It was a business expense. Computer paper, ink pens medium point, one prostitute, manila file folders. See, it fit right in.
Bert was going to love this one.
We took Wanda back to my apartment. There are no elevators in my building. Two flights of stairs are not exactly wheelchair accessible. Jean-Claude carried her. His stride was even and fluid as he walked ahead of me. Wanda didn't even slow him down. I followed with the wheelchair. It did slow me down.
The only consolation I had was I got to watch Jean-Claude climb the stairs. So sue me. He had a very nice backside for a vampire.
He was waiting for me in the upper hallway, standing with Wanda cuddled in his arms. They both looked at me with a pleasant sort of blankness.
I wheeled the collapsed wheelchair over the carpeting. Jean-Claude followed me. The crinoline in Wanda's skirts crinkled and whispered as he moved.
I leaned the wheelchair against my leg and unlocked the door. I pushed the door all the way back to the wall to give Jean-Claude room. The wheelchair folded inwards like a cloth baby stroller. I struggled to make the metal bars catch, so the chair would be solid again. As I suspected, it was easier to break it than to fix it.
I glanced up from my struggles and found Jean-Claude still standing outside my door. Wanda was staring at him, frowning.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I have never been to your apartment."
"The great vampire expert ... come, Anita."
Oh. "You have my permission to enter my home."
He gave a sort of bow from the neck. "I am honored," he said.
The wheelchair snapped into shape again. Jean-Claude set Wanda in her chair. I closed the door. Wanda smoothed her long skirts over her legs.
Jean-Claude stood in the middle of my living room and gazed about. He gazed at the penguin calendar on the wall by the kitchenette. He rifled the pages to see future months, gazing at pictures of chunky flightless birds until he'd seen every picture.
I wanted to tell him to stop, but it was harmless. I didn't write appointments on the calendar. Why did it bother me that he was so damned interested in it?
I turned back to the prostitute in my living room. The night was entirely too weird. "Would you like something to drink?" I asked. When in doubt, be polite.
"Red wine if you have it," Wanda said.
"Sorry, nothing alcoholic in the house. Coffee, soft drinks with real sugar in them, and water, that's about it."
"Soft drink," she said.
I got her a can of Coke out of the fridge. "You want a glass?"
She shook her head.
Jean-Claude was leaning against the wall, staring at me as I moved about the kitchen. "I don't need a glass either," he said softly.
"Don't get cute," I said.
"Too late," he said.
I had to smile.
The smile seemed to please him. Which made me frown. Life was hard around Jean-Claude. He sort of wandered off towards the fish tank. He was giving himself a tour of my apartment. Of course, he would. But at least it would give Wanda and I some privacy.
"Shit, he's a vampire," Wanda said. She sounded surprised. Which surprised me. I could always tell. Dead was dead to me, no matter how pretty the corpse.
"You didn't know?" I asked.
"No, I'm not coffin-bait," she said. There was a tightness to her face. The flick of her eyes as she followed Jean-Claude's casual movements around the room was new. She was scared.
"What's coffin-bait?" I handed her the soft drink.
"A whore that does vampires."
Coffin-bait, how quaint. "He won't touch you."
She turned brown eyes to me then. Her gaze was very thorough, as if she were trying to read the inside of my head. Was I telling the truth?
How terrifying to go away with strangers to rooms and not know if they will hurt you or not. Desperation, or a death wish.
"So you and I are going to do it?" she asked. Her gaze never left my face.
I blinked at her. It took me a moment to realize what she meant. "No." I shook my head. "No, I said I just wanted to talk. I meant it." I think I was blushing.
Maybe the blush did it. She popped the top on the soda can and took a drink. "You want me to talk about doing it with other people, while you do it with him?" She motioned her head towards the wandering vampire.
Jean-Claude was standing in front of the only picture I had in the room. It was modern and matched the decor. Grey, white, black, and palest pink. It was one of those designs that the longer you stared at it, the more shapes you could pick out.
"Look, Wanda, we are just going to talk. That's it. Nobody is going to do anything to anybody. Okay?"
She shrugged. "It's your money. We can do what you want."
That one statement made my stomach hurt. She meant it. I'd paid the money. She would do anything I wanted. Anything? It was too awful. That any human being would say "anything" and mean it. Of course, she drew the line at vampires. Even whores have standards.
Wanda was smiling up at me. The change was extraordinary. Her face glowed. She was instantly lovely. Even her eyes glowed. It reminded me of Cicely's soundless laughing face.
Back to business. "I heard you were Harold Gaynor's mistress a while back." No preliminaries, no sweet talk. Off with the clothes.
Wanda's smile faded. The glow of humor died in her eyes, replaced by wariness. "I don't know the name."
"Yeah, you do," I said. I was still standing, forcing her to look up at me in that near painful angle.
She sipped her drink and shook her head without looking up at me.
"Come on, Wanda, I know you were Gaynor's sweetie. Admit you know him, and we'll work from there."
She glanced up at me, then down. "No. I'll do you. I'll let the vamp watch. I'll talk dirty to you both. But I don't know anybody named Gaynor."
I leaned down, putting my hands on the arms of her chair. Our faces were very close. "I'm not a reporter. Gaynor will never know you talked to me unless you tell him."
Her eyes had gotten bigger. I glanced where she was staring. The Windbreaker had fallen forward. My gun was showing, which seemed to upset her. Good.
"Talk to me, Wanda." My voice was soft. Mild. The mildest of voices is often the worst threat.
"Who the hell are you? You're not cops. You're not a reporter. Social workers don't carry guns. Who are you?" That last question had the lilt of fear in it.
Jean-Claude strolled into the room. He'd been in my bedroom. Great, just great. "Trouble, ma petite?"
I didn't correct him on the nickname. Wanda didn't need to know there was dissent in the ranks. "She's being stubborn," I said.
I stepped back from her chair. I took off the Windbreaker and laid it over the kitchen counter. Wanda stared at the gun like I knew she would.
I may not be intimidating, but the Browning is.
Jean-Claude walked up behind her. His slender hands touched her shoulders. She jumped like it had hurt. I knew it hadn't hurt. Might be better if it did.
"He'll kill me," Wanda said.
A lot of people seemed to say that about Mr. Gaynor. "He'll never know," I said.
Jean-Claude rubbed his cheek against her hair. His fingers kneading her shoulders, gently. "And, my sweet coquette, he is not here with you tonight." He spoke with his lips against her ear. "We are." He said something else so soft I could not hear. Only his lips moved, soundlessly for me.
Wanda heard him. Her eyes widened, and she started to tremble. Her entire body seemed in the grip of some kind of fit. Tears glittered in her eyes and fell down her cheeks in one graceful curve.
"Please, don't. Please don't let him." Her voice was squeezed small and thin with fear.
I hated Jean-Claude in that moment. And I hated me. I was one of the good guys. It was one of my last illusions. I wasn't willing to give it up, not even if it worked. Wanda would talk or she wouldn't. No torture. "Back off, Jean-Claude," I said.
He gazed up at me. "I can taste her terror like strong wine." His eyes were solid, drowning blue. He looked blind. His face was still lovely as he opened his mouth wide and fangs glistened.
Wanda was still crying and staring at me. If she could have seen the look on Jean-Claude's face, she would have, been screaming.
"I thought your control was better than this, Jean-Claude?"
"My control is excellent, but it is not endless." He stood away from her and began to pace the room on the other side of the couch. Like a leopard pacing its cage. Contained violence, waiting for release. I could not see his face. Had the spook act been for Wanda's benefit? Or real?
I shook my head. No way to ask in front of Wanda. Maybe later. Maybe.
I knelt in front of Wanda. She was gripping the soda can so hard, she was denting it. I didn't touch her, just knelt close by. "I won't let him hurt you. Honest. Harold Gaynor is threatening me. That's why I need information."
Wanda was looking at me, but her attention was on the vampire in back of her. There was a watchful tension in her shoulders. She would never relax while Jean-Claude was in the room. The lady had taste.
His face looked as ordinary as it ever did when he turned to face me. A smile crooked his full lips. It was an act. Pretense. Damn him. Was there something in becoming a vampire that made you sadistic?
"Go into the bedroom for a while. Wanda and I need to talk in private."
"Your bedroom." His smile widened. "My pleasure, ma petite."
I scowled at him. He was undaunted. As always. But he left the room as I'd asked.
Wanda's shoulders slumped. She drew a shaky breath. "You really aren't going to let him hurt me, are you?"
"No, I'm not."
She started to cry then, soft, shaky tears. I didn't know what to do. I've never known what to do when someone cries. Did I hug her? Pat her hand comfortingly. What?
I finally sat back on the ground in front of her, leaning back on my heels, and did nothing. It took a few moments, but finally the crying stopped. She blinked up at me. The makeup around her eyes had faded, just vanished. It made her look vulnerable, more rather than less attractive. I had the urge to take her in my arms and rock her like a child. Whisper lies, about how everything would be alright.
When she left here tonight, she was still going to be a whore. A crippled whore. How could that be alright? I shook my head more at me than at her.
"You want some Kleenex?"
I got her the box from the kitchen counter. She wiped at her face and blew her nose softly, very ladylike.
"Can we talk now?"
She blinked at me and nodded. She took a shaky sip of pop.
"You know Harold Gaynor, right?"
She just stared at me, dully. Had we broken her? "If he finds out, he will kill me. Maybe I don't want to be coffin-bait, but I sure as hell don't want to die either."
"No one does. Talk to me, Wanda, please."
She let out a shaky sigh. "Okay, I know Harold."
Harold? "Tell me about him."
Wanda stared at me. Her eyes narrowed. There were fine lines around her eyes. It made her older than I had thought. "Has he sent Bruno or Tommy after you yet?"
"Tommy came for a personal meeting."
"I drew a gun on him."
"That gun?" she asked in a small voice.
"What did you do to make Harold mad?"
Truth or lie? Neither. "I refused to do something for him."
I shook my head. "It doesn't matter."
"It can't have been sex. You aren't crippled." She said the last word like it was hard. "He doesn't touch anyone who's whole." The bitterness in her voice was thick enough to taste.
"How did you meet him?" I asked.
"I was in college at Wash U. Gaynor was donating money for something."
"And he asked you out?"
"Yeah." Her voice was so soft, I had to lean forward to hear it.
"We were both in wheelchairs. He was rich. It was great." She rolled her lips under, like she was smoothing lipstick, then out, and swallowed.
"When did it stop being great?" I asked.
"I moved in with him. Dropped out of college. It was ... easier than college. Easier than anything. He couldn't get enough of me." She stared down at her lap again. "He started wanting variety in the bedroom. See, his legs are crippled, but he can feel. I can't feel." Wanda's voice had dropped almost to a whisper. I had to lean against her knees to hear. "He liked to do things to my legs, but I couldn't feel it. So at first I thought that was okay, but ... but he got really sick." She looked at me suddenly, her face only inches from mine. Her eyes were huge, swimming with unshed tears. "He cut me up. I couldn't feel it, but that's not the point, is it?"
"No," I said.
The first tear trailed down her face. I touched her hand. Her fingers wrapped around mine and held on.
"It's alright," I said, "it's alright."
She cried. I held her hand and lied. "It's alright now, Wanda. He can't hurt you anymore."
"Everyone hurts you," she said. "You were going to hurt me." There was accusation in her eyes.
It was a little late to explain good cop, bad cop to her. She wouldn't have believed it anyway.
"Tell me about Gaynor."
"He replaced me with a deaf girl."
"Cicely," I said. '
She looked up, surprised. "You've met her?"
Wanda shook her head. "Cicely is one sick chickie. She likes torturing people. It gets her off." Wanda looked at me as if trying to gauge my reaction. Was I shocked? No.
"Harold slept with both of us at the same time, sometimes. At the end it was always a threesome. It got real rough." Her voice dropped lower and lower, a hoarse whisper. "Cicely likes knives. She's real good at skinning things." She rolled her lips under again in that lipstick-smoothing gesture. "Gaynor would kill me just for telling you his bedroom secrets."
"Do you know any business secrets?"
She shook her head. "No, I swear. He was always very careful to keep me out of that. I thought at first it was so if the police came, I wouldn't be arrested." She looked down at her lap. "Later, I realized it was because he knew I would be replaced. He didn't want me to know anything that could hurt him when he threw me away."
There was no bitterness now, no anger, only a hollow sadness. I wanted her to rant and rave. This quiet despair was aching. A hurt that would never heal. Gaynor had done worse than kill her. He'd left her alive. Alive and as crippled inside as out.
"I can't tell you anything but bedroom talk. It won't help you hurt him."
"Is there any bedroom talk that isn't about sex?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Personal secrets, but not sex. You were his sweetie for nearly two years. He must have talked about something other than sex."
She frowned, thinking. "I ... I guess he talked about his family."
"What about his family?"
"He was illegitimate. He was obsessed with his real father's family."
"He knew who they were?"
Wanda nodded. "They were rich, old money. His mother was a hooker turned mistress: When she got pregnant, they threw her out."
Like Gaynor did to his women, I thought. Freud is so often at work in our lives. Out loud I said, "What family?"
"He never said. I think he thought I'd blackmail them or go to them with his dirty little secrets. He desperately wants them to regret not welcoming him into the family. I think he only made his money so he could be as rich as they were."
"If he never gave you a name, how do you know he wasn't lying?"
"You wouldn't ask if you could hear him. His voice was so intense. He hates them. And he wants his birthright. Their money is his birthright."
"How does he plan to get their money?" I asked.
"Just before I left him, Harold had found where some of his ancestors were buried. He talked about treasure. Buried treasure, can you believe it?"
"In the graves?"
"No, his father's people got their first fortune from being river pirates. They sailed the Mississippi and robbed people. Gaynor was proud of that and angry about it. He said that the whole bunch of them were descended from thieves and whores. Where did they get off being so high and mighty to him?" She was watching my face as she spoke the last. Maybe she saw the beginnings of an idea.
"How would knowing the graves of his ancestors help him get their treasure?"
"He said he'd find some voodoo priest to raise them. He'd force them to give him their treasure that had been lost for centuries."
"Ah," I said.
"What? Did that help?"
I nodded. My role in Gaynor's little scheme had become clear. Painfully clear. The only question left was why me? Why didn't he go to someone thoroughly disreputable like Dominga Salvador? Someone who would take his money and kill his hornless goat and not lose any sleep over it. Why me, with my reputation for morality?
"Did he ever mention any names of voodoo priests?"
Wanda shook her head. "No, no names. He was always careful about names. There's a look on your face. How could what I have told you just now help you?"
"I think the less you know about that, the better, don't you?"
She stared at me for a long time but finally nodded. "I guess so."
"Is there any place ... " I let it trail off. I was going to offer her a plane ticket or a bus ticket to anywhere. Anywhere where she wouldn't have to sell herself. Anywhere where she could heal.
Maybe she read it in my face or my silence. She laughed, and it was a rich sound. Shouldn't whores have cynical cackles?
"You are a social worker type after all. You want to save me, don't you?"
"Is it terribly naive to offer you a ticket home or somewhere?"
She nodded. "Terribly. And why should you want to help me? You're not a man. You don't like women. Why should you offer to send me home?"
"Stupidity," I said and stood.
"It's not stupid." She took my hand and squeezed it. "But it wouldn't do any good. I'm a whore. Here at least I know the town, the people. I have regulars." She released my hand and shrugged. "I get by."
"With a little help from your friends," I said.
She smiled, and it wasn't happy. "Whores don't have friends."
"You don't have to be a whore. Gaynor made you a whore, but you don't have to stay one."
There were tears trembling in her eyes for the third time that night. Hell, she wasn't tough enough for the streets. No one was.
"Just call a taxi, okay. I don't want to talk anymore."
What could I do? I called a taxi. I told the driver the fare was in a wheelchair like Wanda told me to. She let Jean-Claude carry her back downstairs because I couldn't do it. But she was very tight and still in his arms. We left her in her chair on the curb.
I watched until the taxi came and took her away. Jean-Claude stood beside me in the golden circle of light just in front of my apartment building. The warm light seemed to leech color from his skin.
"I must leave you now, ma petite. It has been very educational, but time grows short."
"You're going to go feed, aren't you?"
"Does it show?"
"I should call you ma verité, Anita. You always tell me the truth about myself."
"Is that what verité means? Truth?" I asked.
I felt bad. Itchy, grumpy, restless. I was mad at Harold Gaynor for victimizing Wanda. Mad of Wanda for allowing it. Angry with myself for not being able to do anything about it. I was pissed at the whole world tonight. I'd learned what Gaynor wanted me to do. And it didn't help a damn bit.
"There will always be victims, Anita. Predators and prey, it is the way of the world."
I glared up at him. "I thought you couldn't read me anymore."
"I cannot read your mind or your thoughts, only your face and what I know of you."
I didn't want to know that Jean-Claude knew me that well. That intimately. "Go away, Jean-Claude, just go away."
"As you like, ma petite." And just like that he was gone. A rush of wind, then nothing.
"Show-off," I murmured. I was left standing in the dark, tasting the first edge of tears. Why did I want to cry over a whore whom I'd just met? Over the unfairness of the world in general?
Jean-Claude was right. There would always be prey and predator. And I had worked very hard to be one of the predators. I was the Executioner. So why were my sympathies always with the victims? And why did the despair in Wanda's eyes make me hate Gaynor more than anything he'd ever done to me?
The phone rang. I moved nothing but my eyes to glance at the bedside clock: 6:45 A.M. Shit. I lay there waiting, half drifted to sleep again when the answering machine picked up.
"It's Dolph. We found another one. Call my pager ... "
I scrambled for the phone, dropping the receiver in the process. "H'lo, Dolph. I'm here."
"Yeah, what's up?"
"Our friend has decided that single family homes are easy pickings." His voice sounded rough with lack of sleep.
"God, not another family."
"Fraid so. Can you come out?"
It was a stupid question, but I didn't point that out. My stomach had dropped into my knees. I didn't want a repeat of the Reynolds house. I didn't think my imagination could stand it.
"Give me the address. I'll be there."
He gave me the address.
"St. Peters," I said. "It's close to St. Charles, but still ... "
"It's a long way to walk for a single family home. There are lots of houses that fit the bill in St. Charles. Why did it travel so far to feed?"
"You're asking me?" he said. There was something almost like laughter in his voice. "Come on out, Ms. Voodoo Expert. See what there is to see."
"Dolph, is it as bad as the Reynolds house?"
"Bad, worse, worst of all," he said. The laughter was still there, but it held an edge of something hard and self deprecating.
"This isn't your fault," I said.
"Tell that to the top brass. They're screaming for someone's ass."
"Did you get the warrant?"
"It'll come in this afternoon late."
"No one gets warrants on a weekend," I said.
"Special panic-mode dispensation," Dolph said. "Get your ass out here, Anita. Everyone needs to go home." He hung up.
I didn't bother saying bye.
Another murder. Shit, shit, shit. Double shit. It was not the way I wanted to spend Saturday morning. But we were getting our warrant. Yippee. The trouble was I didn't know what to look for. I wasn't really a voodoo expert. I was a preternatural crimes expert. It wasn't the same thing. Maybe I should ask Manny to come along. No, no, I didn't want him near Dominga Salvador in case she decided to cut a deal and give him to the police. There is no statute of limitations on human sacrifice. Manny could still go down for it. It'd be Dominga's style to trade my friend for her life. Making it, in a roundabout way, my fault. Yeah, she'd love that.
The message light on my answering machine was blinking. Why hadn't I noticed it last night? I shrugged. One of life's mysteries. I pressed the playback button.
"Anita Blake, this is John Burke. I got your message. Call me anytime here. I'm eager to hear what you have." He gave the phone number, and that was it.
Great, a murder scene, a trip to the morgue, and a visit to voodoo land, all in one day. It was going to be a busy and unpleasant day. It matched last night perfectly, and the night before. Shit, I was on a roll.
There was a patrol cop throwing up his guts into one of those giant, elephant-sized trash cans in front of the house. Bad sign. There was a television news van parked across the street. Worse sign. I didn't know how Dolph had kept zombie massacres out of the news so long. Current events must have been really hopping for the newshounds to ignore such easy headlines. ZOMBIES MASSACRE FAMILY. ZOMBIE SERIAL MURDERER ON LOOSE. Jesus, it was going to be a mess.
The camera crew, complete with microphone-bearing suit, watched me as I walked towards the yellow police tape. When I clipped the official plastic card on my collar, the news crew moved like one animal. The uniform at the police tape held it for me, his eyes on the descending press. I didn't look back. Never look back when the press are gaining on you. They catch you if you do.
The blond in the suit yelled out, "Ms. Blake, Ms. Blake, can you give us a statement?"
Always nice to be recognized, I guess. But I pretended not to hear. I kept walking, head determinedly down.
A crime scene is a crime scene is a crime scene. Except for the unique nightmarish qualities of each one. I was standing in a bedroom of a very nice one-story ranch. There was a white ceiling fan that turned slowly. It made a faint whirring creak, as if it wasn't screwed in tight on one side.
Better to concentrate on the small things. The way the east light fell through the slanting blinds, painting the room in zebra-stripe shadows. Better not to look at what was left on the bed. Didn't want to look. Didn't want to see.
Had to see. Had to look. Might find a clue. Sure, and pigs could fucking fly. But still, maybe, maybe there would be a clue. Maybe. Hope is a lying bitch.
There are roughly two gallons of blood in the human body. As much blood as they put on television and the movies, it's never enough. Try dumping out two full gallons of milk on your bedroom floor. See what a mess it makes, now multiply that by ... something. There was too much blood for just one person. The carpet squeeched underfoot, and blood came up in little splatters like mud after a rain. My white Nikes were spotted with scarlet before I was halfway to the bed.
Lesson learned: wear black Nikes to murder, scenes.
The smell was thick in the room. I 'was glad for the ceiling fan. The room smelled like a mixture of slaughterhouse and outhouse. Shit and blood. The smell of fresh death, more often than not.
Sheets covered not just the bed, but a lot of the floor around the bed. It looked like giant paper towels thrown over the world's biggest Kool-Aid spill. There had to be pieces all over, under the sheets. The lumps were so small, too small to be a body. There wasn't a single scarlet-soaked bump that was big enough for a human body.
"Please don't make me look," I whispered to the empty room.
"Did you say something?"
I jumped and found Dolph standing just behind me. "Jesus, Dolph, you scared me."
"Wait until you see what's under the sheets. Then you can be scared."
I didn't want to see what was under the army of bloodsoaked sheets. Surely, I'd seen enough for one week. My quota of gore had to have been exceeded, night before last. Yeah, I was over my quota.
Dolph stood in the doorway waiting. There were tiny pinched lines by his eyes that I had never noticed. He was pale and needed a shave.
We all needed something. But first I had to look under the sheets. If Dolph could do it, I could do it. Ri-ight.
Dolph stuck his head out in the hallway. "We need some help in here lifting the sheets. After Blake sees the remains we can go home." I think he added that last because no one had moved to help. He wasn't going to get any volunteers. "Zerbrowski, Perry, Merlioni, get your butts in here."
The bags under Zerbrowski's eyes looked like bruises. "Hiya, Blake."
"Hi, Zerbrowski, you look like shit."
He laughed. "And you still look fresh and lovely as a spring morning." He grinned at me.
"Yeah, right," I said.
Detective Perry said, "Ms. Blake, good to see you again."
I had to smile. Perry was the only cop I knew who would be gracious even over the bloody remains. "Nice to see you, too, Detective Perry."
"Can we get on with this," Merlioni said, "or are the two of you planning to elope?" Merlioni was tall, though not as tall as Dolph. But then who was? He had grey curling hair cut short and buzzed on the sides and over his ears. He wore a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a tie at half-mast. His gun stuck out on his left hip like a lumpy wallet.
"You take the first sheet then, Merlioni, if you're in such a damn hurry," Dolph said.
Merlioni sighed. "Yeah, yeah." He stepped to the sheet on the floor. He knelt. "You ready for this, girlie?"
"Better girlie than dago," I said.
"Showtime," Merlioni said. He raised the sheet and it stuck in a wet swatch that pulled up one wet inch at a time.
"Zerbrowski, help him raise the damn thing," Dolph said.
Zerbrowski didn't argue. He must have been tired. The two men lifted the sheet in one wet motion. The morning sunlight streamed through the red sheet and painted the rug even redder than it was, or maybe it didn't make any difference. Blood dripped from the edges of the sheet where the men held it. Wet, heavy drops, like a sink that needed fixing. I'd never seen a sheet saturated with blood before. A morning of firsts.
I stared at the rug and couldn't make sense of it. It was just a pile of lumps, small lumps. I knelt beside them. Blood soaked through the knee of my jeans, it was cold. Better than warm, I guess.
The biggest lump was wet and smooth, about five inches long. It was pink and healthy-looking. It was a scrap of upper intestine. A smaller lump lay just beside it. I stared at the lump but the longer I stared the less it looked like anything. It could have been a hunk of meat from any animal. Hell, the intestine didn't have to be human. But it was, or I wouldn't be here.
I poked the smaller glob with one gloved finger. I had remembered my surgical gloves this time. Goody for me. The glob was wet and heavy and solid. I swallowed hard, but I was no closer to knowing what it was. The two scraps were like morsels dropped from a cat's mouth. Crumbs from the table. Jesus.
I stood. "Next." My voice sounded steady, ordinary. Amazing.
It took all four men lifting from different corners to peel the sheet back from the bed. Merlioni cursed and dropped his corner, "Dammit!"
Blood had run down his arm onto the white shirt. "Did um's get his shirt messy?" Zerbrowski asked.
"Fuck yes. This place is a mess."
"I guess the lady of the house didn't have time to clean up before you came, Merlioni," I said. My eyes flicked down to the bed and the remains of the lady of the house. But I looked back up at Merlioni instead. "Or can't the dago cop take it?"
"I can take anything you can dish out, little lady," he said.
I frowned and shook my head. "Betcha can't."
"I'll take some of that action," Zerbrowski said.
Dolph didn't stop us, tell us this was a crime scene, not a betting parlor. He knew we needed it to stay sane. I could not stare down at the remains and not make jokes. I couldn't. I'd go crazy. Cops have the weirdest sense of humor, because they have to.
"How much you bet?" Merlioni said.
"A dinner for two at Tony's," I said.
Zerbrowski whistled. "Steep, very steep."
"I can afford to foot the bill. Is it a deal?"
Merlioni nodded. "My wife and I haven't been out in ages." He offered his blood-soaked hand. I took it. The cool blood clung to the outside of my surgical gloves. It felt wet, like it had soaked through to the skin, but it hadn't. It was a sensory illusion. I knew that when I took off the gloves my hands would be powder dry. It was still unnerving.
"How we prove who's toughest?" Merlioni asked.
"This scene, here and now," I said.
I turned my attention back to the carnage with renewed determination. I would win the bet. I wouldn't let Merlioni have the satisfaction. It gave me something to concentrate on rather than the mess on the bed.
The left half of a rib cage lay on the bed. A naked breast was still attached to it. The lady of the house? Everything was brilliant scarlet red, like someone had poured buckets of red paint on the bed. It was hard to pick out the pieces. There a left arm, small, female.
I picked up the fingers and they were limp, no rigor mortis. There was a wedding band set on the third finger. I moved the fingers back and forth. "No rigor mortis. What do you think, Merlioni?"
He squinted down at the arm. He couldn't let me outdo him so he fiddled with the hand, turning it at the wrist. "Could be rigor came and went. You know the first rigor doesn't last."
"You really think nearly two days have passed?" I shook my head. "The blood's too fresh for that. Rigor hasn't set in. The crime isn't eight hours old yet."
He nodded. "Not bad, Blake. But what do you make of this?" He poked the rib cage enough to make the breast jiggle.
I swallowed hard. I would win this bet. "I don't know. Let's see. Help me roll it over." I stared into his face while I asked. Did he pale just a bit? Maybe.
The three others were standing at the side of the room, watching the show. Let them. It was a lot more diverting than thinking of this as work.
Merlioni and I moved the rib cage over on its side. I made sure to give him the fleshy parts, so he ended up groping the dead body. Was breast tissue breast tissue? Did it matter that it was bloody and cold? Merlioni looked just a little green. I guess it mattered.
The insides of the rib cage were snatched clean like Mr. Reynolds's rib cage. Clean and bloody smooth. We let the rib cage fall back on the bed. It splattered blood in a faint spray onto us. His white shirt showed it worse than my blue polo shirt did. Point for me.
He grimaced and brushed at the blood specks. He smeared blood from his gloves down the shirt. Merlioni closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"Are you alright, Merlioni?" I asked. "I wouldn't want you to continue if it's upsetting you."
He glared at me, then smiled. A most unpleasant smile. "You ain't seen it all, girlie. I have."
"But have you touched it all?"
A trickle of sweat slid down his face. "You won't want to touch it all."
I shrugged. "We'll see." There was a leg on the bed, from the hair and the one remaining tennis shoe it looked male. The round, wet mound of the ball socket gleamed out at us. The zombie had just torn the leg off, tearing flesh without tearing bone.
"That must have hurt like a son of a bitch," I said.
"You think he was alive when the leg was pulled off?"
I nodded. "Yeah." I wasn't a hundred percent sure. There was too much blood to tell who had died when, but Merlioni looked a little paler.
The rest of the pieces were just bloody entrails, globs of flesh, bits of bone. Merlioni picked up a handful of entrails. "Catch."
"Jesus, Merlioni, that isn't funny." My stomach was one tight knot.
"No, but the look on your face is," he said.
I glared at him and said, "Throw it or don't, Merlioni, no teasing."
He blinked at me for a minute, then nodded. He tossed the string of entrails. They were awkward to throw but I managed to catch them. They were wet, heavy, flaccid, squeeshy, and altogether disgusting, like touching raw calf's liver but more so.
Dolph made an exasperated sound. "While you two are playing gross out, can you tell me something useful?"
I dropped the flesh back on the bed. "Sure. The zombie came in through the sliding glass door like last time. It chased the man or woman back in here and got them both." I stopped talking. I just froze.
Merlioni was holding up a baby blanket. Some trick had left a corner of it clean. It was edged in satiny pink with tiny balloons and clowns all over it. Blood dripped heavily from the other end of it.
I stared at the tiny balloons and clowns while they danced in useless circles. "You bastard," I whispered.
"Are you referring to me?" Merlioni asked.
I shook my head. I didn't want to touch the blanket. But I reached out for it. Merlioni made sure that the bloody edge slapped my bare arm. "Dago bastard," I said.
"You referring to me, bitch?"
I nodded and tried to smile but didn't really manage it. We had to keep pretending that this was alright. That this was doable. It was obscene. If the bet hadn't held me I'd have run screaming from the room.
I stared at the blanket. "How old?"
"Family portrait out front, I'd guess three, four months."
I was finally on the other side of the bed. There was another sheet-draped spot. It was just as bloody, just as small. There was nothing whole under the sheet. I wanted to call the bet off. If they wouldn't make me look I'd take them all to Tony's. Just don't make me lift that last sheet. Please, please.
But I had to look, bet or no bet, I had to see what there was to see. Might as well see it and win, as run and lose.
I handed the blanket back to Merlioni. He took it and laid it back on the bed, up high so the clean corner would stay clean.
I knelt on one side of the sheet. He knelt on the other. Our eyes met. It was a challenge then, to the gruesome end. We peeled back the sheet.
There were only two things under the sheet. Only two. My stomach contracted so hard I had to swallow vomit. I coughed and almost lost it there, but I held on. I held on.
I'd thought the blood-soaked form was the baby, but it wasn't. It was a doll. So blood-soaked I couldn't tell what color its hair had been, but it was just a doll. A doll too old for a four-month-old baby.
A tiny hand lay on the carpet, covered in gore like everything else, but it was a hand. A tiny hand. The hand of a child, not a baby. I spread my hand just above it to size it. Three, maybe four. About the same age as Benjamin Reynolds. Was that coincidence? Had to be. Zombies weren't that choosy.
"I'm breast-feeding the baby, maybe, when I hear a loud noise. Husband goes to check. Noise wakes the little girl, she comes out of her room to see what's the matter. Husband sees the monster, grabs the child, runs for the bedroom. The zombie takes them here. Kills them all, here." My voice sounded distant, clinical. Bully for me.
I tried to wipe some of the blood off the tiny hand. She was wearing a ring like Mommy. One of those plastic rings you get out of bubble gum machines.
"Did you see the ring, Merlioni?" I asked. I lifted the hand from the carpet and said, "Catch."
"Jesus!" He was on his feet and moving before I could do anything else. Merlioni walked very fast out the door. I wouldn't really have thrown the hand. I wouldn't.
I cradled the tiny hand in my hands. It felt heavy, as if the fingers should curl round my hand. Should ask me to take it for a walk. I dropped the hand on the carpet. It landed with a wet splat.
The room was very hot and spinning ever so slightly. I blinked and stared at Zerbrowski. "Did I win the bet?"
He nodded. "Anita Blake, tough chick. One night of delectable feasting at Tony's on Merlioni's tab. I hear they make great spaghetti."
The mention of food was too much. "Bathroom, where?"
"Down the hall, third door on the left," Dolph said.
I ran for the bathroom. Merlioni was just coming out. I didn't have time to savor my victory. I was too busy tossing my cookies.
I knelt with my forehead against the cool linoleum of the bathtub. I was feeling better. Lucky I hadn't taken time to eat breakfast.
There was a tap on the door.
"What?" I said.
"It's Dolph. Can I come in?"
I thought about that for a minute. "Sure."
Dolph came in with a washcloth in his hand. Linen closet, I guessed. He stared at me for a minute or two and shook his head. He rinsed the washrag in the sink and handed it to me. "You know what to do with it."
I did. The rag was cold and felt wonderful on my face and neck. "Did you give Merlioni one, too?" I asked.
"Yeah, he's in the kitchen. You're both assholes, but it was entertaining."
I managed a weak smile.
"Now that you're through grandstanding, any useful observations?" He sat on the closed lid of the stool.
I stayed on the floor. "Did anybody hear anything, this time?"
"Neighbor heard something around dawn, but he went on to work. Said, he didn't want to get involved in a domestic dispute."
I stared up at Dolph. "Had he heard fighting from this house before?"
Dolph shook his head.
"God, if he had just called the police," I said.
"You think it would have made a difference?" Dolph asked.
I thought about that for a minute. "Maybe not to this family, but we might have trapped the zombie."
"Spilled milk," Dolph said.
"Maybe not. The scene is still very fresh. The zombie killed them, then took the time to eat four people. That isn't quick. At dawn the thing was still killing them."
"Seal the area."
"The zombie has to be nearby, within walking distance. It's hiding, waiting for nightfall."
"I thought zombies could go out in daylight," Dolph said.
"They can, but they don't like it. A zombie won't go out in the day unless ordered to."
"So the nearest cemetery," he said.
"Not necessarily. Zombies aren't like vamps or ghouls. It doesn't need to be coffins or even graves. The zombie will just want to get out of the light."
"So where do we look?"
"Sheds, garages, any place that will shield it."
"So he could be in some kid's tree house," Dolph said.
I smiled. Nice to know I still could. "I doubt the zombie would climb if given a choice. Notice that all the houses are one-stories."
"Basements," he said.
"But no one runs down to the basement," I said.
"Would it have helped?"
I shrugged. "Zombies aren't great at climbing, as a rule. This one is faster and more alert but ... At best the basement might have delayed it. If there were windows, they might have gotten the children out." I rubbed the cloth on the back of my, neck. "The zombie picks one-story houses with sliding glass doors. It might rest near one."
"The medical examiner says the corpse is tall, six feet, six-two. Male, white. Immensely strong."
"We knew the last, and the rest doesn't really help."
"You got a better idea?"
"As a matter of fact," I said, "have all the officers about the right height walk the neighborhood for an hour. Then block off that much of the area."
"And search all the sheds and garages," Dolph said.
"And basements, crawl spaces, old refrigerators," I said.
"If we find it?"
"Fry it. Get an exterminator team out here."
"Will the zombie attack during the day?" Dolph asked.
"If disturbed enough, yes. This one's awfully aggressive."
"No joke," he said. "We'd need a dozen exterminator teams or more. The city'll never go for that. Besides, we could walk a pretty damn wide circle. We might search and miss it completely."
"It'll move at dark. If you're ready, you'll find it then."
"Okay. You sound like you're not going to help search."
"I'll be back to help, but John Burke returned my call."
"You taking him to the morgue?"
"Yeah, in time to try to use him against Dominga Salvador. What timing," I said.
"Good. You need anything from me?"
"Just access to the morgue for both of us," I said.
"Sure thing. You think you'll really learn anything from Burke?"
"Don't know till I try," I said.
He smiled. "Give it the old college try, eh?"
"Win one for the Gipper," I said.
"You go visit the morgue and deal with voodoo John. We'll turn this fucking neighborhood upside down."
"Nice to know we've both got our days planned," I said.
"Don't forget this afternoon we check out Salvador's house."
I nodded. "Yeah, and tonight we hunt zombies."
"We're going to end this shit tonight," he said.
"I hope so."
He looked at me, eyes narrowed. "You got a problem with our plans?"
"Just that no plan is perfect."
He was quiet a moment, then stood. "Wish this one was."
The St. Louis County morgue was a large building. It needs to be. Every death not attended by a physician comes to the morgue. Not to mention every murder. In St. Louis that made for some very heavy traffic.
I use to come to the morgue fairly regularly. To stake suspected vampire victims so they wouldn't rise and feast on the morgue attendants. With the new vamp laws, that's murder. You have to wait for the puppies to rise, unless they've left a will strictly forbidding coming back as a vampire. My will says to put me out of my misery if they think I'm coming back with fangs. Hell, my will asks for cremation. I don't want to come back as a zombie either, thank you very much.
John Burke was as I remembered him. Tall, dark, handsome, vaguely villainous. It was the little goatee that did it. No one wears goatees outside of horror movies. You know, the ones with strange cults that worship horned images.
He looked a little faded around the eyes and mouth. Grief will do that to you even if your skin tone is dark. His lips were set in a thin line as we walked into the morgue. He held his shoulders as if something hurt.
"How's it going at your sister-in-law's?" I asked.
"Bleak, very bleak."
I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't. So I let it go. If he didn't want to talk about it, that was his privilege.
We were walking down a wide empty corridor. Wide enough for three gurneys to wheel abreast. The guard station looked like a WWII bunker, complete with machine guns, In case the dead should rise all at once and make for freedom. It had never happened here in St. Louis, but it had happened as close as Kansas City.
A machine gun will take the starch out of any walking dead. You're only in trouble if there are a lot of them. If there is a crowd, you're pretty much cooked.
I flashed my ID at the guard. "Hi, Fred, long time no see."
"I wish they let you come down here like before. We've had three get up this week and go home. Can you believe that?"
"What else? There's going to be more of them than of us someday."
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. He was probably right. "We're here to see the personal effects of Peter Burke. Sergeant Rudolph Storr was supposed to clear it."
Fred checked his little book. "Yeah, you're authorized. Take the right corridor, third door on the left. Dr. Saville is waiting for you."
I raised an eyebrow at that. It wasn't often that the chief medical examiner did errands for the police or anybody else. I just nodded as if I had expected royal treatment.
"Thanks, Fred, see you on the way out."
"More and more people do," he said. He didn't sound happy about it.
My Nikes made no sound in the perpetual quiet. John Burke wasn't making any noise either. I hadn't pegged him as a tennis shoe man. I glanced down, and I was right. Soft-soled brown tie-ups, not tennis shoes. But he still moved beside me like a quiet shadow.
The rest of his outfit sort of matched the shoes. A dressy brown sport jacket so dark brown it was almost black, over a pale yellow shirt, brown dress slacks. He only needed a tie, and he could have gone to corporate America. Did he always dress up, or was this just what he had brought for his brother's funeral? No, the suit at the funeral had been perfectly black.
The morgue was always quiet, but on a Saturday morning it was deathly still. Did the ambulances circle like planes until a decent hour on the weekend? I knew the murder count went up on the weekend, yet Saturday and Sunday morning were always quiet. Go figure.
I counted doors on the left-hand side. Knocked on the third door. A faint "Come in," and I opened the door.
Dr. Marian Saville is a small woman with short dark hair bobbed just below her ears, an olive complexion, deeply brown eyes, and fine high cheekbones. She is French and Greek and looks it. Exotic without being intimidating. It always surprised me that Dr. Saville wasn't married. It wasn't for lack of being pretty.
Her only fault was that she smoked, and the smell clung to her like nasty perfume.
She came forward with a smile and an offered hand. "Anita, good to see you again."
I shook her hand, and smiled. "You, too, Dr. Saville."
I shrugged. "Malian, are those the personal effects?"
We were in a small examining room. On a lovely stainless steel table were several plastic bags.
I stared at her, wondering what she wanted. The chief medical examiner didn't do errands. Something else was up, but what? I didn't know her well enough to be blunt, and I didn't want to be barred from the morgue, so I couldn't be rude. Problems, problems.
"This is John Burke, the deceased's brother," I said.
Dr. Saville's eyebrows raised at that. "My condolences, Mr. Burke."
"Thank you." John shook the hand she offered him, but his eyes were all for the plastic bags. There was no room today for attractive doctors or pleasantries. He was going to see his brother's last effects. He was looking for clues to help the police catch his brother's killer. He had taken the notion very seriously.
If he wasn't involved with Dominga Salvador, I would owe him a big apology. But how was I to get him to talk with Dr. Marian hovering around? How was I supposed to ask for privacy? It was her morgue, sort of.
"I have to be here to make sure no evidence is tampered with," she said. "We've had a few very determined reporters lately."
"But I'm not a reporter."
She shrugged. "You're not an official person, Anita. New rules from on high that no nonofficial person is to be allowed to look at murder evidence without someone to watch over them."
"I appreciate it being you, Marian."
She smiled. "I was here anyway. I figured you'd resent my looking over your shoulder less than anyone else."
She was right. What did they think I was going to do, steal a body? If I wanted to, I could empty the damn place and get every corpse to play follow the leader.
Perhaps that was why I needed watching. Perhaps.
"I don't mean to be rude," John said, "but could we get on with this?"
I glanced up at his handsome face. The skin was tight around the mouth and eyes as if it had thinned. Guilt speared me in the side. "Sure, John, we're being thoughtless."
"Your forgiveness, Mr. Burke," Marian said. She handed us both little plastic gloves. She and I slipped into them like pros, but John wasn't used to putting on examining gloves. There is a trick to it, practice. By the time I finished helping him on with his gloves, he was grinning. His whole face changed when he smiled. Brilliant and handsome and not the least villainous.
Dr. Saville popped the seal on the first bag. It was clothing.
"No," John said, "I don't know his clothing. It may be his, and I wouldn't know. Peter and I had ... hadn't seen each other in two years." The guilt in those last words made me wince.
"Fine, we'll go on to the smaller items," Marian said, and smiled as she said it. Nice and cheery, practicing her bedside manner. She so seldom got to practice.
She opened a much smaller bag and spilled the contents gently on the shiny silver surface. A comb, a dime, two pennies, a movie ticket stub, and a voodoo charm. A gris-gris.
It was woven of black and red thread with human teeth worked into the beading. More bones dangled all the way around it. "Are those human finger bones?" I asked.
"Yes," John said, his voice very still. He looked strange as he stood there, as if some new horror were dawning behind his eyes.
It was an evil piece of work, but I didn't understand the strength of his reaction to it.
I leaned over it, poking it with one finger. There was some dried skin woven in the center of it all. And it wasn't just black thread, it was black hair.
"Human hair, teeth, bones, skin," I said softly.
"Yes," John repeated.
"You're more into voodoo than I am," I said. "What does it mean?"
"Someone died to make this charm."
"Are you sure?"
He glared down at me with withering contempt. "Don't you think if it could be anything else I wouldn't say it? Do you think I enjoy learning my brother took part in human sacrifice?"
"Did Peter have to be there? He couldn't have just bought it afterwards?"
"NO!" It was almost a yell. He turned away from us, pacing to the wall. His breathing was loud and ragged.
I gave him a few moments to collect himself, then asked what had to be asked. "What does the gris-gris do?"
He turned a calm enough face to us, but the strain showed around his eyes. "It enables a less powerful necromancer to raise older dead, to borrow the power of some much greater necromancer."
He shrugged. "That charm holds some of the power of the most powerful among us. Peter paid dearly for it; so he could raise more and older dead. Peter, God, how could you?"
"How powerful would you need to be to share your power like this?"
"Very powerful," he said.
"Is there any way to trace it back to the person who made it?"
"You don't understand, Anita. That thing is a piece of someone's power. It is one substance to what soul they have left. It must have been a great need or great greed to do it. Peter could never have afforded it. Never."
"Can it be traced back?"
"Yes, just get it in the room with the person who truly owns it. The thing will crawl back to him. It's a piece of his soul gone missing."
"Would that be proof in court?"
"If you could make the jury understand it, yes, I guess so." He stepped towards me. "You know who did this?"
"Who, tell me who?"
"I'll do better than that. I'll arrange for you to come on a search of their house."
A grim smile touched his lips. "I'm beginning to like you a great deal, Anita Blake."
"What's this mean?" Marian asked. She had turned the charm completely over. There, shining among the hair and bone, was a small charm, like from a charm bracelet. It was in the shape of a musical symbol-a treble clef.
What had Evans said when he touched the grave fragments; they slit her throat, she had a charm bracelet with a musical note on it and little hearts. I stared at the charm and felt the world shift. Everything fell together in one motion. Dominga Salvador hadn't raised the killer zombie. She had helped Peter Burke raise it. But I had to be sure. We only had a few hours until we'd be back at Dominga's door trying to prove a case.
"Are there any women that came in around the same time as Peter Burke?"
"I'm sure there are," Marian said with a smile.
"Women with their throats slit," I said.
She stared at me for a heartbeat. "I'll check the computer."
"Can we take the charm with us?"
"Because if I'm right, she had a charm bracelet with a bow and arrow and little hearts on it, and this came from the bracelet." I held the gold charm up to the light. It sparkled merrily as if it didn't know its owner was dead.
Death turns you grey before any other color. Oh, a body that loses a lot of blood will look white or bluish. But once a body starts to decay, not rot, not yet, it looks greyish.
The woman looked grey. Her neck wound had been cleaned and searched. The wound looked puckered like a second giant mouth below her chin.
Dr. Saville pulled her head back casually. "The cut was very deep. It severed the muscles in the neck and the carotid artery. Death was fairly quick."
"Professionally done," I said.
"Well, yes, whoever cut her throat knew what they were doing. There are a dozen different ways to injure the neck that won't kill or won't kill quickly."
John Burke said, "Are you saying that my brother had practice?"
"I don't know," I said. "Do you have her personal effects?"
"Right here." Marian unfastened a much smaller bag and spilled it out on an empty table. The golden charm bracelet sparkled under the fluorescent lights.
I picked the bracelet up in my still gloved hand. A tiny strung bow complete with arrow, a different musical note, two entwined hearts. Everything Evans had said.
"How did you know about the charm and the dead woman?" John Burke asked.
"I took some evidence to a clairvoyant. He saw the woman's death and the bracelet."
"What's that got to do with Peter?"
"I believe a voodoo priestess had Peter raise a zombie. It got away from him. It's been killing people. To hide what she's done, she killed Peter."
"Who did it?"
"I have no proof unless the gris-gris will be proof enough."
"A vision and a gris-gris." John shook his head. "Hard sell to a jury."
"I know. That's why we need more proof."
Dr. Saville just watched us talk, like an eager spectator.
"A name, Anita, give me a name."
"Only if you swear not to go after her until the law has its chance. Only if the law fails, promise me."
"I give you my word."
I studied his face for a minute. The dark eyes stared back, clear and certain. Bet he could lie with a clear conscience. "I don't trust just anybody's word." I stared at him a moment longer. He never flinched. I guess my hard-as-nails look has faded a little. Or maybe he meant to keep his word. It happens sometimes.
"Alright, I'll take your word. Don't make me regret it."
"I won't," he said. "Now give me the name."
I turned to Dr. Saville. "Excuse us, Marian. The less you know about all this, the greater your chances of never waking to a zombie crawling through your window." An exaggeration, sort of, but it made my point.
She looked like she wanted to protest but finally nodded. "Very well, but I would dearly love to hear the complete story someday, if it's safe."
"If I can tell it, it's yours," I said.
She nodded again, shut the drawer the Jane Doe lay on, and left. "Yell when you're finished. I've got work to do," she said and the door closed behind her.
She left us with the evidence still clutched in our hands. Guess she trusted me. Or us?
"Dominga Salvador," I said.
He drew a sharp breath. "I know that name. She is a frightening force if all the stories are true."
"They're true," I said.
"You've met her?"
"I've had the misfortune."
There was a look on his face that I didn't much like. "You swore no revenge."
"The police will not get her. She is too crafty for that," he said.
"We can get her legally. I believe that."
"You aren't sure " he said
What could I say? He was right. "I'm almost sure."
"Almost is not good enough for killing my brother."
"That zombie has killed a lot more people than just your brother. I want her, too. But we're going to get her legally, through the court system."
"There are other ways to get her," he said.
"If the law fails us, feel free to use voodoo. Just don't tell me about it."
He looked amused, puzzled. "No outrage about me using black magic?"
"The woman tried to kill me once. I don't think she'll give up."
"You survived an attack by the Señora?" he asked. He looked amazed.
I didn't like him looking amazed. "I can take care of myself, Mr. Burke."
"I don't doubt that, Ms. Blake." He smiled. "I've bruised your ego. You don't like me being so surprised, do you?"
"Keep your observations to yourself, okay?"
"If you have survived a head-on confrontation with what Dominga Salvador would send to you, then I should have believed some of the stories I heard of you. The Executioner, the animator who can raise anything no matter how old."
"I don't know about that last, but I'm just trying to stay alive, that's all."
"If Dominga Salvador wants you dead that won't be easy."
"Damn near impossible," I said.
"So let us get her first," he said.
"Legally," I said.
"Anita, you are being naive."
"The offer to come on a raid of her house still stands."
"You're sure you can arrange that?"
"I think so."
His eyes had a sort of dark light to them, a sparkling blackness. He smiled, tight-upped, and very unpleasant, as if he were contemplating tortures for one Dominga Salvador. The private vision seemed to fill him with pleasure.
The skin between my shoulders crept with that look. I hoped John never turned those dark eyes on me. Something told me he would make a bad enemy. Almost as bad as Dominga Salvador. Almost as bad, but not quite.
Dominga Salvador sat in her living room smiling. The little girl who had been riding her tricycle on my last trip here was sitting in her grandma's lap. The child was as relaxed and languorous as a kitten. Two older boys sat at Dominga's feet. She was the picture of maternal bliss. I wanted to throw up.
Of course, just because she was the most dangerous voodoo priestess I'd ever met didn't mean she wasn't a grandma, too. People are seldom just one thing. Hitler liked dogs.
"You are more than welcome to search, Sergeant. My house is your house," she said in a candy-coated voice that had already offered us lemonade, or perhaps iced tea.
John Burke and I were standing to one side, letting the police do their job. Dominga was making them feel silly for their suspicions. Just a nice old lady. Right.
Antonio and Enzo were also standing to one side. They didn't quite fit this picture of grandmotherly bliss, but evidently she wanted witnesses. Or maybe a shootout wasn't out of the question.
"Mrs. Salvador, do you understand the possible implications of this search?" Dolph said.
"There are no implications because I have nothing to hide." She smiled sweetly. Damn her.
"Anita, Mr. Burke," Dolph said.
We came forward like props in a magic show. Which wasn't far off. A tall police officer had the video camera ready to go.
"I believe you know Ms. Blake," Dolph said.
"I have had the pleasure," Dominga said.
Butter wouldn't have melted in her lying mouth.
"This is John Burke."
Her eyes widened just a little. The first slip in her perfect camouflage. Had she heard of John Burke? Did the name worry her? I hoped so.
"So glad to meet you at last, Mr. John Burke," she said finally.
"Always good to meet another practitioner of the art," he said.
She bowed her head slightly in acknowledgment. At least she wasn't trying to pretend complete innocence. She admitted to being a voodoo priestess. Progress.
It was obscene for the godmother of voodoo to be playing the innocent.
"Do it, Anita," Dolph said. No preliminaries, no sense of theater, just do it. That was Dolph for you.
I took a plastic bag out of my pocket. Dominga looked puzzled. I pulled out the gris-gris. Her face became very still, like a mask. A funny little smile curled her lips. "What is that?"
"Come now, Señora," John said, "do not play the fool. You know very well what it is."
"I know that it is a charm of some kind, of course. But do the police now threaten old women with voodoo?"
"Whatever works," I said.
"Anita," Dolph said.
"Sorry." I glanced at John, and he nodded. I sat the gris-gris on the carpet about six feet from Dominga Salvador. I had had to take John's word on a lot of this. I had checked some of it over the phone with Manny. If this worked and if we could get it admitted into court, and if we could explain it to the jury, then we might have a case. How many ifs was that?
The gris-gris just sat there for a moment, then the finger bones rippled as if an invisible finger had ruffled them.
Dominga lifted her granddaughter from her lap and shooed the boys over to Enzo. She sat alone on the couch and waited. The strange little smile was still on her face, but it looked sickly now.
The charm began to ooze towards her like a slug, pushing and struggling with muscles it did not have. The hairs on my arms stood to attention.
"You recording this, Bobby?" Dolph asked.
The cop with the video camera said, "I'm getting it. I don't fucking believe it, but I'm getting it."
"Please, do not use such words in front of the children," Dominga said.
The cop said, "Sorry, ma'am."
"You are forgiven." She was still trying to play the perfect hostess while that thing crawled towards her feet. She had nerve. I'd give her that.
Antonio didn't. He broke. He strode forward as if he meant to pluck the thing from the rug.
"Don't touch it," Dolph said.
"You are frightening my grandmother with your tricks," he said.
"Don't touch it," Dolph said again. This time he stood. His bulk seemed to fill the room. Antonio looked suddenly small and frail beside him.
"Please, you are frightening her." But it was his face that was pale and covered with a sheen of sweat. What was of Tony in such a fret about? It wasn't his ass going to jail.
"Stand over there," Dolph said, "now, or do we have to cuff you?"
Antonio shook his head. "No, I ... I will go back." He did, but he glanced at Dominga as he moved. A quick, fearful glance. When she met his eyes, there was nothing but rage in them. Her black eyes glittered with rage. Her face was suddenly contorted with it. What had happened to strip the act away? What was going on?
The gris-gris made its painful way to her. It fawned at her feet like a dog, rolling on the toes of her shoes in abandon like a cat who wants its belly rubbed.
She tried to ignore it, to pretend.
"Would you refuse your returned power?" John asked.
"I don't know what you mean." Her face was under control again. She looked puzzled. Gosh, she was good. "You are a powerful voodoo priest. You are doing this to trap me."
"If you don't want the charm, I will take it," he said. "I will add your magic to mine. I will be the most powerful practitioner in the States." For the first time, John's power flowed across my skin. It was a breath of magic that was frightening. I had begun to think of John as ordinary, or as ordinary as any of us get. My mistake.
She just shook her head.
John strode forward and knelt, reaching for the writhing gris-gris. His power moved with him like an invisible hand.
"No!" She grabbed it, cradling it in her hands.
John smiled up at her. "Do you acknowledge that you made this charm? If not, I can take it and use it as I see fit. It was found in my brother's effects. It's legally mine, correct, Sergeant Storr?"
"Correct," Dolph said.
"No, you cannot."
"I can and I will, unless you look into that camera and admit making it."
She snarled at him. "You will regret this."
"You will regret having killed my brother."
She stared at the video camera. "Very well, I made this charm, but I admit nothing else. I made the charm for your brother, but that is all."
"You performed human sacrifice to make this charm," John said.
She shook her head. "The charm is mine. I made it for your brother, that is all. You have the charm but nothing else."
"Señora, forgive me," Antonio said. He looked pale and shaken and very, very scared.
"Calenta," she said, "shut up!"
"Zerbrowski, take our friend here into the kitchen and take his statement," Dolph said.
Dominga stood at that. "You fool, you miserable fool. Tell them anything more, and I will rot the tongue out of your mouth."
"Get him out of here, Zerbrowski."
Zerbrowski led a nearly weeping Antonio from the room. I had a feeling that of Tony had been responsible for getting the charm back. He failed, and he was going to pay the consequences. The police were the least of his problems. If I were him, I'd make damn sure grandma was locked up tonight. I wouldn't want her near her voodoo paraphernalia. Ever.
"We're going to search now, Mrs. Salvador."
"Help yourself, Sergeant. You will find nothing else to help you."
She was very calm when she said it. "Even the stuff behind the doors?" I asked.
"They are gone, Anita. You will find nothing that is not legal and ... wholesome." She made that last sound like a bad word.
Dolph glanced my way. I shrugged. She seemed awfully sure.
"Okay, boys, take the place apart." Uniforms and detectives moved like they had a purpose. I started to follow Dolph out. He stopped me.
"No, Anita, you and Burke stay up here."
A civilian, me? "Was I a civilian when I walked the cemetery for you?"
"If one of my people could have done it, I wouldn't have let you do that either."
He frowned. "You know what I mean."
"No, I don't think I do."
"You may be a bad ass, you may even be as good as you think you are, but you aren't police. This is a job for cops. You stay in the living room with the civies just this once. When it's all clear, you can come down and identify the bogeymen for us."
"Don't do me any favors, Dolph."
"I didn't peg you for a pouter, Blake."
"I am not pouting," I said.
"Whining?" he said.
"Cut it out. You've made your point. I'll stay behind, but I don't have to like it."
"Most of the time you're ass deep in alligators. Enjoy being out of the line of fire for once, Anita." With that he led the way towards the basement.
I hadn't really wanted to go down into the darkness again. I certainly didn't want to seethe creature that had chased Manny and I up the stairs. And yet ... I felt left out. Dolph was right. I was pouting. Great.
John Burke and I sat on the couch. Dominga sat in the recliner where she had been since we hit the door. The children had been shooed out to play, with Enzo to watch them.
He looked relieved. I almost volunteered to go with them. Anything was better than just sitting here straining to hear the first screams.
If the monster, and that was the only word that matched the noises, was down there, there would be screaming. The police were great with bad guys, but monsters were new to them. It had been simpler, in a way, when all this shit was taken care of by a few experts. A few lone people fighting the good fight. Staking vampires. Turning zombies. Burning witches. Though there is some debate whether I might have ended up on the receiving end of some fire a few years back. Say, the 1950s.
What I did was undeniably magic. Before we got all the bogeymen out in the open, supernatural was supernatural. Destroy it before it destroys you. Simpler times. But now the police were expected to deal with zombies, vampires, the occasional demon. Police were really bad with demons. But then who isn't?
Dominga sat in her chair and stared at me. The two uniforms left in the living room stood like all police stand, blank faced, bored, but let anyone move and the cops saw it. The boredom was just a mask. Cops always saw everything. Occupational hazard.
Dominga wasn't looking at the police. She wasn't even paying attention to John Burke, who was much closer to her equal. She was staring at little old me.
I met her black gaze and said, "You got a problem?"
The cop's eyes flicked to us. John shifted on the couch. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"She's staring at me."
"I will do a great deal more than stare at you, chica." Her voice crawled low. The hairs at the nape of my neck tried to crawl down my shirt.
"A threat." I smiled. "I don't think you're going to be hurting anybody anymore."
"You mean this." She held out the charm. It writhed in her hand as if thrilled that she had noticed it. She crushed it in her hand. It made futile movements as if pushing against her. Her hand covered it completely. She stared straight at me, as she brought her hand slowly to her chest.
The air was suddenly heavy, hard to breathe. Every hair on my body was creeping down my skin.
"Stop her!" John said. He stood.
The policeman nearest her hesitated for only an instant, but it was enough. When he pried her fingers open, they were empty.
"Sleight of hand, Dominga. I thought better of you than that."
John was pale. "It isn't a trick." His voice was shaky. He sat down heavily on the couch beside me. His dark face looked pale. His power seemed to have shriveled up. He looked tired.
"What is it? What did she do?" I asked.
"You have to bring back the charm, ma'am," the uniform said.
"I cannot," she said.
"John, what the hell did she do?"
"Something she shouldn't have been able to do."
I was beginning to know how Dolph must feel having to depend on me for information. It was like pulling fucking teeth. "What did she do?"
"She absorbed her power back into herself," he said.
"What does that mean?"
"She absorbed the gris-gris into her body. Didn't you feel it?"
I had felt something. The air was clearer now, but it was still heavy. My skin was tingling with the nearness of something. "I felt something, but I still don't understand."
"Without ceremony, without help from the loa, she absorbed it back into her soul. We won't find a trace of it. No evidence."
"So all we have is the tape?"
"If you knew she could do this, why didn't you speak up earlier? We wouldn't have let her hold the thing."
"I didn't know. It's impossible without ceremonial magic."
"But she did it."
"I know, Anita, I know." He sounded scared for the first time. Fear didn't sit well on his darkly handsome face. After the power I'd felt from him, the fear seemed even more out of place. But it was real nonetheless.
I shivered, like someone had walked on my grave. Dominga was staring at me. "What are you staring at?"
"A dead woman," she said softly
I shook my head. "Talk is cheap, Señora. Threats don't mean squat."
John touched my arm. "Do not taunt her, Anita. If she can do that instantly, there's no telling what else she can do."
The cop had had enough. "She's not doing anything. If you so much as twitch wrong, lady, I'm going to shoot you."
"But I am just an old woman. Would you threaten me?"
"Don't talk either."
The other uniform said, "I knew a witch once who could bespell you with her voice."
Both uniforms had their hands near their guns. Funny how magic changes how people perceive you. They were fine when they thought she needed human sacrifice and ceremony. Let her do one instant trick, and she was suddenly very dangerous. I'd always known she was dangerous.
Dominga sat silently under the watchful eyes of the cops. I had been distracted by her little performance. There were still no screams from downstairs. Nothing. Silence.
Had it gotten them all? That quickly, without a shot fired. Naw. But still, my stomach was tight, sweat trickled down my spine. Are you alright, Dolph? I thought.
"Did you say something?" John asked.
I shook my head. "Just thinking really hard."
He nodded as if that made sense to him.
Dolph came into the living room. I couldn't tell anything by his face. Mr. Stoic.
"Well, what was it?" l asked.
"Nothing," he said.
"What do you mean, nothing?"
"She's cleaned the place out completely. We found the rooms you told me about. One door had been busted from inside, but the room's been scrubbed down and painted." He held up one big hand. It was stained white. "Hell, the paint's still wet."
"It can't all be gone. What about the cement-covered doors?"
"Looks like someone took a jackhammer to them. They're just freshly painted rooms, Anita. The place stinks of pine scented bleach and wet paint. No corpses, no zombies. Nothing."
I just stared at him. "You've got to be kidding."
He shook his head. "I'm not laughing."
I stood in front of Dominga. "Who warned you?"
She just stared up at me, smiling. I had a great urge to slap that smile off her face. Just to hit her once would feel good. I knew it would.
"Anita," Dolph said, "back off."
Maybe the anger showed on my face, or maybe it was the fact that my hands were balled into fists and I seemed to be shaking. Shaking with anger and the beginnings of something else. If she didn't go to jail, that meant she was free to try to kill me again tonight. And every night after that.
She smiled as if she could read my mind. "You have nothing, chica. You have gambled all on a hand with nothing in it."
She was right. "Stay away from me, Dominga."
"I will not come near you, chica, I will not need to."
"Your last little surprise didn't work out so well. I'm still here."
"I have done nothing. But I am sure there are worse things that could come to your door, chica."
I turned to Dolph. "Dammit, isn't there anything we can do?"
"We got the charm, but that's it."
Something must have showed on my face because he touched my arm. "What is it?"
"She did something to the charm. It's gone."
He took a deep breath and stalked away, then back. "Dammit to hell, how?"
I shrugged. "Let John explain. I still don't understand it." I hate admitting that I don't know something. It's always bothered me to admit ignorance. But hey, a girl can't be an expert on everything. I had worked hard to stay away from voodoo. Work hard and where does it get you? Staring into the black eyes of a voodoo priestess who's plotting your death. A most unpleasant death by the looks of it.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I went back to her. I stood and stared into her dark face and smiled. Her own smile faltered, which made my smile bigger.
"Someone tipped you off and you've been cleaning up this cesspit for two days." I leaned over her, putting my hands on the arms of the chair. It brought our faces close together.
"You had to break down your walls. You had to let out or destroy all your creations. Your inner sanctum, your hougun, is cleaned and whitewashed. All the verve gone. All the animal sacrifices gone. All that slow building of power, line by line, drop by bloody drop, you're going to have to start over, you bitch. You're going to have to rebuild it all."
The look in those black eyes made me shiver, and I didn't care. "You're getting old to rebuild that much. Did you have to destroy many of your toys? Dig up any graves?"
"Have your joke now, chica, but I will send what I have saved to you some dark night."
"Why wait? Do it now, in daylight. Face me or are you afraid?"
She laughed then, and it was a warm, friendly sound. It startled me so much I stood up straight, almost jumped back.
"Do you think I am foolish enough to attack you with the police all around? You must think me a fool."
"It was worth a try," I said.
"You should have joined with me in my zombie enterprises. We could have been rich together."
"The only thing we're likely to do together is kill each other," I said.
"So be it. Let it be war between us."
"It always was," I said.
She nodded and smiled some more.
Zerbrowski came out of the kitchen. He was grinning from ear to ear. Something good was up.
"The grandson just spilled the beans."
Everyone in the room stared at him. Dolph said, "Spilled what?"
"Human sacrifice. How he was supposed to get the gris-gris back from Peter Burke after he killed him, on his grandmother's orders, but some joggers came by and he panicked. He's so afraid of her"-he motioned to Dominga-"he wants her behind bars. He's terrified of what she'll do to him for forgetting the charm."
The charm that we didn't have anymore. But we had the video and now we had Antonio's confession. The day was looking up.
I turned back to Dominga Salvador. She looked tall and proud and terrifying. Her black eyes blazed with some inner light. Standing this close to her, the power crawled over my skin, but a good bonfire would take care of that. They'd fry her in the electric chair, then burn the body and scatter the ashes at a crossroad.
I said softly, "Gotcha."
She spit at me. It landed on my hand and burned like acid. "Shit!"
"Do that again and we'll shoot you, and save the taxpayers some money," Dolph said. He had his gun out.
I went in search of the bathroom to wash her spit off my hand. A blister had formed where it had hit. Second fucking degree burns from her spit. Dear God.
I was glad Antonio had broken. I was glad she was going to be locked away. I was glad she was going to die. Better her than me.
Riverridge was a modern housing development. Which meant that there were three models to choose from. You could end up with four identical houses in a row, like cookies on a baking sheet. There was also no river within sight. No ridge either.
The house that was the center of the police search area was identical to its neighbor, except for color. The murder house, which is what the news was calling it, was grey with white shutters. The house that had been passed safely by was blue with white shutters. Neither's shutters worked. They were just for show. Modern architecture is full of perks that are just for show; balcony railings without a balcony, peaked roofs that make it look like you have an extra room that you don't have, porches so narrow that only Santa's elves could sit on them. It makes me nostalgic for Victorian architecture. It might have been overdone, but everything worked.
The entire housing project had been evacuated. Dolph had been forced to give a statement to the press. More's the pity. But you can't evacuate a housing development the size of a small town and keep it quiet. The cat was out of the bag. They were calling them the zombie massacres. Geez.
The sun was going down in a sea of scarlet and orange. It looked like someone had melted two giant crayons and smeared them across the sky. There wasn't a shed, garage, basement, tree house, playhouse, or anything else we could think of that had been left unsearched. Still, we had found nothing.
The newshounds were prowling restlessly at the edge of the search area. If we had evacuated hundreds of people and searched their premises without a warrant and found no zombie ... we were going to be in deep fucking shit.
But it was here. I knew it was here. Alright, I was almost sure it was here.
John Burke was standing next to one of those giant trash cans. Dolph had surprised me by allowing John to come on the zombie hunt. As Dolph said, we needed all the help we could get.
"Where is it, Anita?" Dolph asked.
I wanted to say something brilliant. My God, Holmes, how did you know the zombie was hiding in the flower pot? But I couldn't lie. "I don't know, Dolph. I just don't know."
"If we don't find this thing ... " He let the thought trail off, but I knew what he meant.
My job was secure if this fell apart. Dolph's was not. Shit. How could I help him? What were we missing? What?
I stared at the quiet street. It was eerily quiet. The windows were all dark. Only the streetlights pushed back the coming dark. Soft halos of light.
Every house had a mailbox on a post near the sidewalk that edged the curb. Some of the mailboxes were unbelievably cute. One had been shaped like a sitting cat. Its paw went up if there was mail in its tummy. The family name was Catt. It was too precious.
Every house had at least one large super duper trash can in front of it. Some of them were bigger than I was. Surely, Sunday couldn't be trash day. Or had today been trash day, and the police line had stopped it?
"Trash cans," I said aloud.
"What?" Dolph asked.
"Trash cans." I grabbed his arm, feeling almost lightheaded. "We've stared at those fucking trash cans all day. That's it."
John Burke stood quietly beside me, frowning.
"Are you feeling okay, Blake?" Zerbrowski came up behind us, smoking. The end of his cigarette looked like a bloated firefly.
"The cans are big enough for a large person to hide in."
"Wouldn't your arms and legs fall asleep?" Zerbrowski asked.
"Zombies don't have circulation, not like we do."
Dolph yelled, "Everybody check the trash cans. The zombie is in one of them. Move it!"
Everyone scattered like an anthill stirred with a stick, but we had a purpose now. I ended up with two uniformed officers. Their nameplates said "Ki" and "Roberts." Ki was Asian and male. Roberts was blond and female. A nicely mixed team.
We fell into a rhythm without discussing it. Officer Ki would move up and dump the trash can. Roberts and I would cover him with guns. We were all set to yell like hell if a zombie came tumbling out. It would probably be the right zombie. Life is seldom that cruel.
We'd yell and an exterminator team would come running. At least, they'd better come running. This zombie was entirely too fast, too destructive. It might be more resistant to gunfire. Better not to find out. Just french-fry the sucker and be done with it.
We were the only team working on the street. There was no sound but our footsteps, the rubber crunch of trash cans overturning, the rattle of cans and bottles as the trash spilled. Didn't anybody tie their bags up anymore?
Darkness had fallen in a solid blackness. I knew there were stars and a moon up there somewhere, but you couldn't prove it from where we stood. Clouds as thick and dark as velvet had come in from the west. Only the streetlights made it bearable.
I didn't know how Roberts was doing, but the muscles in my shoulders and neck were screaming. Every time Ki put his hands to the can and pushed, I was ready. Ready to fire, ready to save him before the zombie leapt up and ripped his throat out. A trickle of sweat dripped down his high-cheekboned face. Even in the dim light it glimmered.
Glad to know I wasn't the only one feeling the effort. Of course, I wasn't the one putting my face over the possible hiding place of a berserk zombie. Trouble was, I didn't know how good a shot Ki was, or Roberts either for that matter. I knew I was a good shot. I knew I could slow the thing down until help arrived. I had to stay on shooting detail. It was the best division of labor. Honest.
Screams. To the left. The three of us froze. I whirled towards the screaming. There was nothing to see, nothing but dark houses and pools of streetlight. Nothing moved. But the screams continued high and horrified.
I started running towards the screams. Ki and Roberts were at my back. I ran with the Browning in a two-handed grip pointed up. Easier to run that way. Didn't dare holster the gun. Visions of blood-coated teddy bears, and the screams. The screams sort of faded. Someone was dying up ahead.
There was a sense of movement everywhere in the darkness. Cops running. All of us running but it was too late. We were all too late. The screaming had stopped. No gunshots. Why not? Why hadn't someone gotten off a shot?
We ran down the side yards of four houses when we hit a metal fence. Had to holster the guns. Couldn't climb it with one hand. Dammit. I did my best to vault the fence using my hands for leverage.
I stumbled to my knees in the soft dirt of a flower bed. I was trampling some tall summer flowers. On my knees I was considerably shorter than the flowers. Ki landed beside me. Only Roberts landed on her feet.
Ki stood up without drawing his gun. I drew the Browning while I crouched in the flowers. I could stand up after I was armed.
I had a sense of rushing movement but not clear sight. The flowers obscured my vision. Roberts was suddenly tumbling backwards, screaming.
Ki was drawing his gun, but something hit him, knocked him on top of me. I rolled but was still half under him. He lay still on top of me.
"Ki, move it, dammit!"
He sat up and crawled towards his partner, his gun silhouetted against the streetlight. He was staring down at Roberts. She wasn't moving.
I searched the darkness trying to see something, anything. It had moved more than human fast. Fast as a ghoul. No zombie moved like that. Had I been wrong all along? Was it something else? Something worse? How many lives would my mistake cost tonight? Was Roberts dead?
"Ki, is she alive?" I searched the darkness, fighting the urge to look only at the lighted areas. There was shouting, but it was confusion, "Where is it? Where did it go?" The sounds were getting farther away.
I screamed, "Here, here!" The voices hesitated, then started our way. They were making so much noise, like a heard of arthritic elephants.
"How bad is she hurt?"
"Bad." He'd put his gun down. He was pressing his hands over her neck. Something black and liquid was spreading over his hands. God.
I knelt on the other side of Roberts, gun ready, searching the darkness. Everything was taking forever, yet it was only seconds.
I checked her pulse, one-handed. It was thready, but there. My hand came away covered in blood. I wiped it on my pants. The thing had damn near slit her throat.
Where was it?
Ki's eyes were huge, all pupil. His skin looked leprous in the streetlight. His partner's blood was dripping out between his fingers.
Something moved, too low to the ground to be a man, but about that size. It was just a shape creeping along the back of the house in front of us. Whatever it was had found the deepest shadow and was trying to creep away.
That showed more intelligence than a zombie had. I was wrong. I was wrong. I was fucking wrong. And Roberts was dying because of it.
"Stay with her. Keep her alive."
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"After it." I climbed the fence one-handed. The adrenaline must have been pumping because I made it.
I gained the yard and it was gone. A streaking shape fast as a mouse caught in the kitchen light. A blur of speed, but big, big as a man.
It rounded the corner of the house and I lost sight of it. Dammit. I ran as far from the wall as I could, my stomach tight with anticipation of fingers ripping my throat out. I came round the house gun pointed, two-handed, ready. Nothing. I scanned the darkness, the pools of light. Nothing.
Shouts behind me. The cops had arrived. God, let Roberts live.
There, movement, creeping across the streetlight around the edge of another house. Someone shouted, "Anita!"
I was already running towards the movement. I shouted as I ran, "Bring an exterminator team!" But I didn't stop. I didn't dare stop. I was the only one in sight of it. If I lost it, it was gone.
I ran into the darkness, alone, after something that might not be a zombie at all. Not the brightest thing I've ever done, but it wasn't going to get away. It wasn't.
It was never going to hurt another family. Not if I could stop it. Now. Tonight.
I ran through a pool of light and it made the darkness heavier, blinding me temporarily. I froze in the dark, willing my eyes to adjust faster.
"Perssisstent woman," a voice hissed. It was to my right, so close the hair on my arms stood up.
I froze, straining my peripheral vision. There, a darker shape rising out of the evergreen shrubs that hugged the edge of the house. It rose to its full height, but didn't attack. If it wanted me, it could have me before I could turn and fire. I'd seen it move. I knew I was dead.
"You arrre not like the resst." The voice was sibilant, as if parts of the mouth were missing, so it put great effort into forming each word. A gentleman's voice decayed by the grave.
I turned towards it, slowly, slowly.
"Put me back."
I had turned my head enough to be able to see some of it. My night vision is better than most. And the streetlights made it lighter than it should have been.
The skin was pale, yellowish-white. The skin clung to the bones of his face like wax that had half-melted. But the eyes, they weren't decayed. They burned out at me with a glitter that was more than just eyes.
"Put you back where?" I asked.
"My grave," he said. His lips didn't work quite right, there wasn't enough flesh left on them.
Light blazed into my eyes. The zombie screamed, covering his face. I couldn't see shit. It crashed into me. I pulled the trigger blind. I thought I heard a grunt as the bullet hit home. I fired the gun again one-handed, throwing an arm across my neck. Trying to protect myself as I fell half-blind.
When I blinked up into the electric-shot darkness, I was alone. I was unhurt. Why? Put me back, it had said. In my grave. How had it known what I was? Most humans couldn't tell. Witches could tell sometimes, and other animators always spotted me. Other animators. Shit.
Dolph was suddenly there, pulling me to my feet. "God, Blake, are you hurt?"
I shook my head. "What the hell was that light?"
"A halogen flashlight."
"You damn near blinded me."
"We couldn't see to shoot," he said.
Police had run past us in the darkness. There were shouts of, "There it is!" Dolph and I and the offending flashlight, bright as day, were left behind as the chase ran merrily on.
"It spoke to me, Dolph," I said.
"What do you mean, it spoke to you?"
"It asked me to put it back in its grave." I stared up at him as I said it. I wondered if my face looked like Ki's had, pale, eyes wide and black. Why wasn't I scared?
"It's old, a century at least. It was a voodoo something in life. That's what went wrong. That's why Peter Burke couldn't control it."
"How do you know all this? Did it tell you?"
I shook my head. "The way it looked, I could judge the age. It recognized me as someone who could lay it to rest. Only a witch or another animator could have recognized me for what I am. My money's on an animator."
"Does that change our plan?" he asked.
I stared up at him. "It's killed how many people?" I didn't wait for him to answer. "We kill it. Period."
"You think like a cop, Anita." It was a great compliment from Dolph, and I took it as one.
It didn't matter what it had been in life. So it had been an animator, or rather a voodoo practioner. So what? It was a killing machine. It hadn't killed me. Hadn't hurt me. I couldn't afford to return the favor.
Shots echoed far way. Some trick of the summer air made them echo. Dolph and I looked at each other.
I still had the Browning in my hand. "Let's do it."
We started running, but he outdistanced me quickly. His legs were as tall as I was. I couldn't match his pace. I might be able to run him into the ground, but I'd never match his speed.
He hesitated, glancing at me.
"Go on, run," I said.
He put on an extra burst of speed and was gone into the darkness. He didn't even look back. If you said you were fine in the dark with a killer zombie on the loose, Dolph would believe you. Or at least he believed me.
It was a compliment but it left me running alone in the dark for the second time tonight. Shouts were coming from two opposite directions. They had lost it. Damn.
I slowed. I had no desire to run into the thing blind. It hadn't hurt me the first time, but I'd put at least one bullet into it. Even a zombie gets pissed about things like that.
I was under the cool darkness of a tree shadow. I was on the edge of the development. A barbed-wire fence cut across the entire back of the subdivision. Farmland stretched as far as I could see. At least the field was planted in beans. The zombie'd have to be lying flat to hide in there. I caught glimpses of policemen with flashlights, searching the darkness, but they were all about fifty yards to either side of me.
They were searching the ground, the shadows, because I'd told them zombies didn't like to climb. But this wasn't any ordinary zombie. The tree rustled over my head. The hair on my neck crawled down my spine. I whirled, looking upwards, gun pointing.
It snarled at me and leapt.
I fired twice before its weight hit me and knocked us both to the ground. Two bullets in the chest, and it wasn't even hurt.
I fired a third time, but I might as well have been hitting a wall.
It snarled in my face, broken teeth with dark stains, breath foul as a new opened grave. I screamed back, wordless, and pulled the trigger again. The bullet hit it in the throat. It paused, trying to swallow. To swallow the bullet?
Those glittering eyes stared down at me. There was someone home, like Dominga's soul-locked zombies. There was someone looking out of those eyes. We froze in one of those illusionary seconds that last years. He was straddling my waist, hands at my throat, but not pressing, not hurting, not yet. I had the gun under his chin. None of the other bullets had hurt him; why would this one?
"Didn't mean to kill," it said softly, "didn't understand at firsst. Didn't remember what I wass."
The police were there on either side, hesitating. Dolph screamed, "Hold your fire, hold your fire, dammit!"
"I needed meat, needed it to remember who I wass. Tried not to kill. Tried to walk past all the houssess, but I could not. Too many houssess," he whispered. His hands tensed, stained nails digging in. I fired into his chin. His body jerked backwards, but the hands squeezed my neck.
Pressure, pressure, tighter, tighter. I was beginning to see white star bursts on my vision. The night was fading from black to grey. I pressed the gun just above the bridge of his nose and pulled the trigger again, and again.
My vision faded, but I could still feel my hands, pulling the trigger. Darkness flowed over my eyes and swallowed the world. I couldn't feel my hands anymore.
I woke to screams, horrible screams. The stink of burning flesh and hair was thick and choking on my tongue.
I took a deep shaking breath and it hurt. I coughed and tried to sit up. Dolph was there supporting me. He had my gun in his hand. I drew one ragged breath after another and coughed hard enough to make my throat raw. Or maybe the zombie had done that.
Something the size of a man was rolling over the summer grass. It burned. It flamed with a clean orange light that sent the darkness shattering in fire shadows like the sun on water.
Two exterminators in their fire suits stood by it, covering it in napalm, as if it were a ghoul. The thing screamed high in its throat, over and over, one loud ragged shriek after another.
"Jesus, why won't it die?" Zerbrowski was standing nearby. His face was orange in the firelight.
I didn't say anything. I didn't want to say it out loud. The zombie wouldn't die because it had been an animator when alive. That much I knew about animator zombies. What I hadn't known was that they came out of the grave craving flesh. That they remembered only when they ate flesh.
That I hadn't known. Didn't want to know.
John Burke stumbled into the firelight. He was cradling one arm to his chest. Blood stained his clothing. Had the zombie whispered to John? Did he know why the thing wouldn't die?
The zombie whirled, the fire roaring around it. The body was like the wick of a candle. It took one shaking step towards us. Its flaming hand reached out to me. To me.
Then it fell forward, slowly, into the grass. It fell like a tree in slow motion, fighting for life. If that was the word. The exterminators stayed ready, taking no chances. I didn't blame them.
It had been a necromancer once upon a time. That burning hulk, slowly catching the grass on fire, had been what I was. Would I be a monster if raised from the grave? Would I? Better not to find out. My will said cremation because I didn't want someone raising me just for kicks. Now I had another reason to do it. One had been enough.
I watched the flesh blacken, curl, peel away. Muscles and bone popped in miniature explosions, tiny pops of sparks.
I watched the zombie die and made a promise to myself. I'd see Dominga Salvador burned in hell for what she'd done. There are fires that last for all eternity. Fires that make napalm look like a temporary inconvenience. She'd burn for all eternity, and it wouldn't be half long enough.
I was lying on my back in the emergency room. A white curtain hid me from view. The noises on the other side of the curtain were loud and unfriendly. I liked my curtain. The pillow was flat, the examining table was hard. It felt white and clean and wonderful. It hurt to swallow. It even hurt a little bit just to breathe. But breathing was important. It was nice to be able to do it.
I lay there very quietly. Doing what I was told for once. I listened to my breathing, the beating of my own heart. After nearly dying, I am always very interested in my body. I notice all sorts of things that go unnoticed during most of life. I could feel blood coursing through the veins in my arms. I could taste my calm, orderly pulse in my mouth like a piece of candy.
I was alive. The zombie was dead. Dominga Salvador was in jail. Life was good.
Dolph pushed the curtain back. He closed the curtain like you'd close a door to a room. We both pretended we had privacy even though we could see people's feet passing under the hem of the curtain.
I smiled up at him. He smiled back. "Nice to see you up and around."
"I don't know about the up part," I said. My voice had a husky edge to it. I coughed, tried to clear it, but it didn't really help.
"What'd the doc say about your voice?" Dolph asked.
"I'm a temporary tenor." At the look on his face, I added, "It'll pass."
"How's Burke?" I asked.
"Stitches, no permanent damage."
I had figured as much after seeing him last night, but it was good to know.
"But will she be alright?" I had to swallow hard. It hurt to talk.
"She'll be alright. Ki was cut up, too, on the arm. Did you know?"
I shook my head and stopped in mid-motion. That hurt, too. "Didn't see it."
"Just a few stitches. He'll be fine." Dolph plunged his hands in his pants pockets. "We lost three officers. One hurt worse than Roberts, but he'll make it."
I stared up at him. "My fault."
He frowned. "How do you figure that?"
"I should have guessed," I had to swallow, "it wasn't an ordinary zombie."
"It was a zombie, Anita. You were right. You were the one who figured out it was hiding in one of those damn trash cans." He grinned down at me. "And you nearly died killing it. I think you've done your part."
"Didn't kill it. Exterminators killed it." Big words seemed to hurt more than little words.
"Do you remember what happened as you were passing out?"
"You emptied your clip into its face. Blew its damn brains out the back of its head. You went limp. I thought you were dead. God"-he shook his head-"don't ever do that to me again."
I smiled. "I'll try not to."
"When its brains started leaking out the back of its head, it stood up. You took all the fight out of it."
Zerbrowski pushed into the small space, leaving the curtain gaping behind him. I could see a small boy with a bloody hand crying into a woman's shoulder. Dolph swept the curtain closed. I bet Zerbrowski was one of those people who never shut a drawer.
"They're still digging bullets out of the corpse. And every bullet's yours, Blake."
I just looked at him.
"You are such a bad ass, Blake."
"Somebody has to be with you around, Zerbrow ... " I couldn't finish his name. It hurt. It figures.
"Are you in pain?" Dolph asked.
I nodded, carefully. "The doc's getting me painkiller. Already got tetanus booster."
"You've got a necklace of bruises blossoming on that pale neck of yours," Zerbrowski said.
"Poetic," I said.
"I'll check in on the rest of the injured one more time, then I'll have a uniform drive you back to your place," Dolph said.
"I don't think you're in any condition to drive."
Maybe he was right. I felt like shit, but it was happy shit. We'd done it. We'd solved the crime, and people were going to jail for it. Yippee.
The doctor came back in with the painkillers. He glanced at the two policemen. "Right." He handed me a bottle with three pills in it. "This should see you through the night and into the next day. I'd call in sick if I were you." He glanced at Dolph as he said it. "You hear that, boss?"
Dolph sort of frowned. "I'm not her boss."
"You're the man in charge, right?" the doctor asked.
"Then ... "
"I'm on loan," I said.
"You might say we borrowed her from another department," Zerbrowski said.
The doctor nodded. "Then tell her superior to let her off tomorrow. She may not look as hurt as the others, but she's had a nasty shock. She's very lucky there was no permanent damage."
"She doesn't have a superior," Zerbrowski said, "but we'll tell her boss." He grinned at the doctor.
I frowned at Zerbrowski.
"Well, then, you're free to go. Watch those scratches for infection. And that bite on your shoulder." He shook his head. "You cops earn your money." With that parting wisdom, he left.
Zerbrowski laughed. "Wouldn't do for the doc to know we'd let a civie get messed up."
"She's had a nasty shock," Dolph said.
"Very nasty," Zerbrowski said.
They started laughing.
I sat up carefully, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. "If you two are through yukking it up, I need a ride home."
They were both laughing so hard that tears were creeping out of their eyes. It hadn't been that funny, but I understood. For tension release laughter beats the hell out of tears. I didn't join them because I suspected strongly that laughing would hurt.
"I'll drive you home," Zerbrowski gasped between giggles.
I had to smile. Seeing Dolph and Zerbrowski giggling was enough to make anyone smile.
"No, no," Dolph said. "You two in a car alone. Only one of you would come out alive."
"And it'd be me," I said.
Zerbrowski nodded. "Ain't it the truth."
Nice to know there was one subject we agreed on.
I was half asleep in the back of the squad car when they pulled up in front of my apartment building. The throbbing pain in my throat had slid away on a smooth tide of pain medication. I felt nearly boneless. What had the doctor given me? It felt great, but it was like the world was some sort of movie that had little to do with me. Distant and harmless as a dream.
I'd given Dolph my car keys. He promised to have someone park the car in front of my apartment building before morning. He also said he'd call Bert and tell him I wouldn't be in to work today. -I wondered how Bert would take the news. I wondered if I cared. Nope.
One of the uniformed police officers leaned back over the seat and said, "You going to be alright, Miss Blake?"
"Ms.," I corrected automatically.
He gave me a half smile as he held the door for me. No door handles on the inside of a squad car. He had to hold the door for me, but he did it with relish, and said, "You going to be alright, Ms. Blake?"
"Yes, Officer"-I had to blink to read his name tag-" Osborn. Thank you for bringing me home. To your partner, too."
His partner was standing on the other side of the car, leaning his arms on the roof of the car. "It's a kick to finally meet the spook squad's Executioner." He grinned as he said it.
I blinked at him and tried to pull all the pieces together enough to talk and think at the same time. "I was the Executioner long before the spook squad came along."
He spread his hands, still grinning. "No offense."
I was too tired and too drugged to worry about it. I just shook my head. "Thanks again."
I was a touch unsteady going up the stairs. I clutched the railing like it was a lifeline. I'd sleep tonight. I might wake up in the middle of the hallway, but I'd sleep.
It took me two tries to put the key in the door lock. I staggered into my apartment, leaning my forehead against the door to close it. I turned the lock and was safe. I was home. I was alive. The killer zombie was destroyed. I had the urge to giggle, but that was the pain medication. I never giggle on my own.
I stood there leaning the top of my head against the door. I was staring at the toes of my Nikes. They seemed very far away, as if distances had grown since last I looked at my feet. The doc had given me some weird shit. I would not take it tomorrow. It was too reality-altering for my taste.
The toes of black boots stepped up beside my Nikes. Why were there boots in my apartment? I started to turn around. I started to go for my gun. Too late, too slow, too fucking bad.
Strong brown arms laced across my chest, pinning my arms. Pinning me against the door. I tried to struggle now that it was too late. But he had me. I craned my neck backwards trying to fight off the damn medication. I should have been terrified. Adrenaline pumping, but some drugs don't give a shit if you need your body. You belong to the drug until it wears off, period. I was going to hurt the doctor. If I lived through this.
It was Bruno pinning me to the door.
Tommy came up on the right. He had a needle in his hands.
Bruno cupped his hand over my mouth. I tried to bite him, and he slapped me. The slap helped a little but the world was still cotton-coated, distant. Bruno's hand smelled like after-shave. A choking sweetness.
"This is almost too easy," Tommy said.
"Just do it," Bruno said.
I stared at the needle as it came closer to my arm. I would have told them that I was drugged already, if Bruno's hand hadn't been clasped over my mouth. I would have asked what was in the syringe, and whether it would react badly with what I had already taken. I never got the chance.
The needle plunged in. My body stiffened, struggling, but Bruno held me tight. Couldn't move. Couldn't get away. Dammit! Dammit! The adrenaline was finally chasing the cobwebs away, but it was too late. Tommy took the needle out of my arm and said, "Sorry, we don't have any alcohol to swab it off with." He grinned at me.
I hated him. I hated them both. And if the shot didn't kill me, I was going to kill them both. For scaring me. For making me feel helpless. For catching me unaware, drugged, and stupid. If I lived through this mistake, I wouldn't make it again. Please, dear God, let me live through this mistake.
Bruno held me motionless and mute until I could feel the injection taking hold. I was sleepy. With a bad guy holding me against my will, I was sleepy. I tried to fight it, but it didn't work. My eyelids fluttered. I struggled to keep them open. I stopped trying to get away from Bruno and put everything I had into not closing my eyes.
I stared at my door and tried to stay awake. The door swam in dizzying ripples as if I were seeing it through water. My eyelids went down, jerked up, down. I couldn't open my eyes. A small part of me fell screaming into the dark, but the rest of me felt loose and sleepy and strangely safe.
I was in that faint edge of wakefulness. Where you know you're not quite asleep, but don't really want to wake up either. My body felt heavy. My head throbbed. And my throat was sore.
The last thought made me open my eyes. I was staring at a white ceiling. Brown water marks traced the paint like spilled coffee. I wasn't home. Where was I?
I remembered Bruno holding me down. The needle. I sat up then. The world swam in clear waves of color. I fell back onto the bed, covering my eyes with my hands. That helped a little. What had they given me?
I had an image in my mind that I wasn't alone. Somewhere in that dizzying swirl of color had been a person. Hadn't there? I opened my eyes slower this time. I was content to stare up at the water-ruined ceiling. I was on a large bed. Two pillows, sheets, a blanket. I turned my head carefully and found myself staring into Harold Gaynor's face. He was sitting beside the bed. It wasn't what I wanted to wake up to.
Behind him, leaning against a battered chest of drawers was Bruno. His shoulder holster cut black lines across his blue short-sleeved dress shirt. There was a matching and equally scarred vanity table near the foot of the bed. The vanity sat between two high windows. They were boarded with new, sweet-smelling lumber. The scent of pine rode the hot, still air.
I started to sweat as soon as I realized that there was no air-conditioning.
"How are you feeling, Ms. Blake?" Gaynor asked. His voice was still that jolly Santa voice with an edge of sibilance. As if he were a very happy snake.
"I've felt better," I said.
"I'm sure you have. You have been asleep for over twenty-four hours. Did you know that?"
Was he lying? Why would he lie about how long I'd been asleep? What would it gain him? Nothing. Truth then, probably.
"What the hell did you give me?"
Bruno eased himself away from the wall. He looked almost embarrassed. "We didn't realize you'd already taken a sedative."
"Painkiller," I said.
He shrugged. "Same difference when you mix it with Thorazine."
"You shot me up with animal tranquilizers?"
"Now, now, Ms. Blake, they use it in mental institutions, as well. Not just animals," Gaynor said.
"Gee," I said, "that makes me feel a lot better."
He smiled broadly. "If you feel good enough to trade witty repartee, then you're well enough to get up."
Witty repartee? But he was probably right. Truthfully, I was surprised I wasn't tied up. Glad of it, but surprised.
I sat up much slower than last time. The room only tilted the tiniest bit, before settling into an upright position. I took a deep breath, and it hurt. I put a hand to my throat. It hurt to touch the skin.
"Who gave you those awful bruises?" Gaynor asked.
Lie or truth? Partial lie. "I was helping the police catch a bad guy. He got a little out of hand."
"What happened to this bad guy?" Bruno asked.
"He's dead now," I said.
Something flickered across Bruno's face. Too quick to read. Respect maybe. Naw.
"You know why I've had you brought here, don't you?"
"To raise a zombie for you," I said.
"To raise a very old zombie for me, yes."
"I've refused your offer twice. What makes you think I'll change my mind?"
He smiled, such a jolly old elf. "Why, Ms. Blake, I'll have Bruno and Tommy persuade you of the error of your ways. I still plan on giving you a million dollars to raise this zombie. The price hasn't changed."
"Tommy offered me a million five last time," I said.
"That was if you came voluntarily. We can't pay full price when you force us to take such chances."
"Like a federal prison term for kidnapping," I said.
"Exactly. Your stubbornness has cost you five hundred thousand dollars. Was it really worth that?"
"I won't kill another human being just so you can go looking for lost treasure."
"Little Wanda has been bearing tales."
"I was just guessing, Gaynor. I read a file on you and it mentioned your obsession with your father's family." It was an outright lie. Only Wanda had known that.
"I'm afraid it's too late. I know Wanda talked to you. She's confessed everything."
Confessed? I stared at him, trying to read his blankly good humored face. "What do you mean, confessed?"
"I mean I gave her to Tommy for questioning. He's not the artist that Cicely is, but he does leave more behind. I didn't want to kill my little Wanda."
"Where is she now?"
"Do you care what happens to a whore?" His eyes were bright and birdlike as he stared at me. He was judging me, my reactions.
"She doesn't mean anything to me," I said. I hoped my face was as bland as my words. Right now they weren't going to kill her. If they thought they could use her to hurt me, they might.
"Are you sure?"
"Listen, I haven't been sleeping with her. She's just a chippie with a very bent angle."
He smiled at that. "What can we do to convince you to raise this zombie for me?"
"I will not commit murder for you, Gaynor. I don't like you that much," I said.
He sighed. His apple-cheeked face looked like a sad Kewpie doll. "You are going to make this difficult, aren't you, Ms. Blake?"
"I don't know how to make it easy," I said. I put my back to the cracked wooden headboard of the bed. I was comfortable enough, but I still felt a little fuzzy around the edges. But it was as good as it was going to get for a while. It beat the hell out of being unconscious.
"We have not really hurt you yet," Gaynor said. "The reaction of the Thorazine with whatever other medication you had in you was accidental. We did not harm you on purpose."
I could argue with that, but I decided not to. "So where do we go from here?"
"We have both your guns," Gaynor said. "Without a weapon you are a small woman in the care of big, strong men."
I smiled then. "I'm used to being the smallest kid on the block, Harry."
He looked pained. "Harold or Gaynor, never Harry."
I shrugged. "Fine."
"You are not in the least intimidated that we have you completely at our mercy?"
"I could argue that point."
He glanced up at Bruno. "Such confidence, where does she get it?"
Bruno didn't say anything. He just stared at me with those empty doll eyes. Bodyguard eyes, watchful, suspicious, and blank all at the same time.
"Show her we mean business, Bruno."
Bruno smiled, a slow spreading of lips that left his eyes dead as a shark's. He loosened his shoulders, and did a few stretching exercises against the wall. His eyes never left me.
"I take it, I'm going to be the punching bag?" I asked.
"How well you put it," Gaynor said.
Bruno stood away from the wall, limber and eager. Oh, well. I slid off the bed on the opposite side. I had no desire for Gaynor to grab me. Bruno's reach was over twice mine. His legs went on forever. He had to outweigh me by nearly a hundred pounds, and it was all muscle. I was about to get badly hurt. But as long as they didn't tie me up, I'd go down swinging. If I could cause him any serious damage, I'd be satisfied.
I came out from behind the bed, hands loose at my side. I was already in that partial crouch that I used on the judo mat. I doubted seriously if Bruno's fighting skill of choice was judo. I was betting karate or tae kwon do.
Bruno stood in an awkward-looking stance, halfway between an x and a t. It looked like someone had taken his long legs and crumbled them at the knees. But as I moved forward he scooted backwards like a crab, fast and out of reach.
"Jujitsu?" I made it half question.
He raised an eyebrow. "Most people don't recognize it."
"I've seen it," I said.
He smiled. "Then I am going to hurt you."
"Even if I knew jujitsu, you'd hurt me," I said.
"It'd be a fair fight."
"If two people are equal in skill, size matters. A good big person will always beat a good small person." I shrugged. "I don't have to like it, but it's the truth."
"You're being awful calm about this," Bruno said.
"Would being hysterical help?"
He shook his head. "Nope."
"Then I'd just as soon take my medicine like, if you'll excuse the expression, a man."
He frowned at that. Bruno was accustomed to people being scared of him. I wasn't scared of him. I'd decided to take the beating. With the decision came a certain amount of calm. I was going to get beat up, not pleasant, but I had made my mind up to take the beating. I could do it. I'd done it before. If my choices were a) getting beat up or b) performing human sacrifice, I'd take the beating.
"Ready or not," Bruno said.
"Here you come," I finished for him. I was getting tired of the bravado. "Either hit me or stand up straight. You look silly crouched down like that."
His fist was a dark blur. I blocked it with my arm. The impact made the arm go numb. His long leg kicked out and connected solidly with my stomach. I doubled over like I was supposed to, all the air gone in one movement. His other foot came up and caught me on the side of the face. It was the same cheek of Seymour had smashed. I fell to the floor not sure what part of my body to comfort first.
His foot came for me again. I caught it with both hands. I came up in a rush, hoping to trap his knee between my arms and pop the joint. But he twisted away from me, totally airborne for a moment.
I dropped to the ground and felt the air pass overhead as his legs kicked out where my head had been. I was on the ground again, but by choice. He stood over me, impossibly tall from this angle. I lay on my side, knees drawn up.
He came for me, evidently planning to drag me to my feet. I kicked out with both feet at an angle to his kneecap. Hit it just right above or below and you dislocate it.
The leg buckled, and he screamed. It had worked. Hot damn. I didn't try to wrestle him. I didn't try to grab his gun. I ran for the door.
Gaynor grabbed for me, but I flung open the door and was out in a long hallway before he could maneuver his fancy chair. The hallway was smooth with-a handful of doors and two blind corners. And Tommy.
Tommy looked surprised to see me. His hand went for his shoulder holster. I pushed on his shoulder and foot-swept his leg. He fell backwards and grabbed me as he fell. I rode him down, making sure my knee ground into his groin. His grip loosened enough for me to slip out of reach. There were sounds behind me from the room. I didn't look back. If they were going to shoot me, I didn't want to see it.
The hallway took a sharp turn. I was almost to it when the smell slowed me from a run to a walk. The smell of corpses was just around the corner. What had they been doing while I slept?
I glanced back at the men. Tommy was still lying on the floor, cradling himself. Bruno leaned against the wall, gun in hand, but he wasn't pointing it at me. Gaynor was sitting in his chair, smiling.
Something was very wrong.
Around the blind corner came that something that was wrong, very, very wrong. It was no taller than a tall man, maybe six feet. But it was nearly four feet wide. It had two legs, or maybe three, it was hard to tell. The thing was leprously pale like all zombies, but this one had a dozen eyes. A man's face was centered where the neck would have been. Its eyes dark and seeing, and empty of everything sane. A dog's head was growing out of the shoulder. The dog's decaying mouth snapped at me. A woman's leg grew out of the center of the mess, complete with black high-heeled shoe.
The thing shambled towards me. Pulling with three of a dozen arms, dragging itself forward. It left a trail behind it like a snail.
Dominga Salvador stepped around the corner. "Buenas noches, chica. "
The monster scared me, but the sight of Dominga grinning at me scared me just a little bit more.
The thing had stopped moving forward. It squatted in the hallway, kneeling on its inadequate legs. Its dozens of mouths panted as if it couldn't get enough air.
Or maybe the thing didn't like the way it smelled. I certainly didn't. Covering my mouth and nose with my arm didn't block out much of the smell. The hallway suddenly smelled like bad meat.
Gaynor and his wounded bodyguards had stayed at the end of the hall. Maybe they didn't like being near Dominga's little pet. I know it didn't do much for me. Whatever the reason we were isolated. It was just her and me and the monster.
"How did you get out of jail?" Better to deal with more mundane problems first. The mind-melting ones could wait for later.
"I made my bail," she said.
"This quickly on a murder involving witchcraft?"
"Voodoo is not witchcraft," she said.
"The law sees it as the same thing when it comes to murder."
She shrugged, then smiled beatifically. She was the Mexican grandmother of my nightmares.
"You've got a judge in your pocket," I said.
"Many people fear me, chica. You should be one of them."
"You helped Peter Burke raise the zombie for Gaynor."
She just smiled.
"Why didn't you just raise it yourself?" I asked.
"I didn't want someone as unscrupulous as Gaynor to witness me murdering someone. He might use it for blackmail."
"And he didn't realize that you had to kill someone for Peter's gris-gris?"
"Correct," she said.
"You hid all your horrors here?"
"Not all. You forced me to destroy much of my work, but this I saved. You can see why." She caressed a hand down the slimy hide.
I shuddered. Just the thought of touching that monstrosity was enough to make my skin cold. And yet ...
"How did you make it?" I had to know. It was so obviously a creation of our shared art that I had to know.
"Surely, you can animate bits and pieces of the dead," Dominga said.
I could, but no one else I had ever met could do it. "Yes," I said.
"I found I could take these odds and ends and meld them together."
I stared at the shambling thing. "Meld them?" The thought was too horrible.
"I can create new creatures that have never existed before."
"You make monsters," I said.
"Believe what you will, chica, but I am here to persuade you to raise the dead for Gaynor."
"Why don't you do it?"
Gaynor's voice came from just behind us. I whirled, putting the wall at my back so I could watch everybody. What good that would do me, I wasn't sure. "Dominga's power went wrong once. This is my last chance. The last known grave. I won't risk it on her."
Dominga's eyes narrowed, her age-thinned hands forming fists. She didn't like being dismissed out of hand. Couldn't say I blamed her.
"She could do it, Gaynor, easier than I could."
"If I truly believed that, I would kill you because I wouldn't need you anymore."
Hmm, good point. "You've had Bruno rough me up. Now what?"
Gaynor shook his head. "Such a little girl to have taken both my bodyguards down."
"I told you ordinary methods of persuasion will not work on her," Dominga said.
I stared past her at the slathering monster. She called this ordinary?
"What do you propose?" Gaynor asked.
"A spell of compulsion. She will do as I bid, but it takes time to do such a spell for one as powerful as she. If she knew any voodoo to speak of, it would not work at all. But for all her art, she is but a baby in voodoo."
"How long will you need?"
"Two hours, no more."
"This had better work," Gaynor said.
"Do not threaten me," Dominga said.
Oh, goody, maybe the bad guys would fight and kill each other.
"I am paying you enough money to set up your own small country. I should get results for that."
Dominga nodded her head. "You pay well, that is true. I will not fail you. If I can compel Anita to kill another person, then I can compel her to help me in my zombie business. She will help me rebuild what she forced me to destroy. It has a certain irony, no?"
Gaynor smiled like a demented elf. "I like it."
"Well, I don't," I said.
He frowned at me. "You will do as you are told. You have been very naughty."
Bruno had worked himself close to us. He was leaning heavily on the wall, but his gun was very steadily pointed at the center of my chest. "I'd like to kill you now," he said. His voice sounded raw with pain.
"A dislocated knee hurts like hell, doesn't it?" I smiled when I said it. Better dead than a willing servant of the voodoo queen.
I think he ground his teeth. The gun wavered just a little, but I think that was rage, not pain. "I will enjoy killing you."
"You didn't do so good last time. I think the judges would have given the match to me."
"There are no fucking judges here. I am going to kill you."
"Bruno," Gaynor said, "we need her alive and whole."
"After she raises the zombie?" Bruno asked.
"If she is a willing servant of the Señora, then you are not to hurt her. If the compulsion doesn't work, then you may kill her."
Bruno gave a fierce flash of teeth. It was more snarl than smile. "I hope the spell fails."
Gaynor glanced at his bodyguard. "Don't let personal feelings interfere with business, Bruno."
Bruno swallowed hard. "Yes, sir." It didn't sound like a title that came easily to him.
Enzo came around the corner behind Dominga. He stayed near the wall as far from her "creation" as he could get.
Antonio had finally lost his job as bodyguard. It was just as well. He was much better suited to stool pigeon.
Tommy came limping down the hall, still sort of scrunched over himself. The big Magnum was in his hands. His face was nearly purple with rage, or maybe pain. "I'm gonna kill you," he hissed.
"Take a number," I said.
"Enzo, you help Bruno and Tommy tie this little girl to a chair in the room. She's a lot more dangerous than she seems," Gaynor said.
Enzo grabbed my arm. I didn't fight him. I figured I was safer in his hands than either of the other two. Tommy and Bruno both looked as if they were looking forward to me trying something. I think they wanted to hurt me.
As Enzo led me past them, I said, "Is it because I'm a woman or are you always this bad at losing?"
"I'm gonna shoot her," Tommy grunted.
"Later," Gaynor said, "later."
I wondered if he really meant that. If Dominga's spell worked, I'd be like a living zombie, obeying her will. If the spell didn't work, then Tommy and Bruno would kill me, a piece at a time. I hoped there was a third choice.
The third choice was being tied to a chair in the room where I woke up. It was the best of the three choices, but that wasn't saying much. I don't like being tied up. It means your options have gone from few to none. Dominga had clipped some of my hair and the tips of my fingernails. Hair and nails for her compulsion spell. Shit.
The chair was old and straight-backed. My wrists were tied to the slats that made up the back of the chair. Ankles tied separately to a leg of the chair. The ropes were tight. I tugged at the ropes, hoping for some slack. There wasn't any.
I had been tied up before, and I always have this Houdini fantasy that this time I'll have enough slack to wiggle free. It never works that way. Once you're tied up, you stay tied up until someone lets you go.
The trouble was when they let me go, they were going to try a nasty little spell on me. I had to get away before then. Somehow, I had to get away. Dear God, please let me get away.
The door opened as if on cue, but it wasn't help.
Bruno entered, carrying Wanda in his arms. Blood had dried down the right side of her face from a cut above the eye. Her left cheek was ripe with a huge bruise. The lower lip had burst in a still bleeding cut. Her eyes were shut. I wasn't even sure she was conscious.
I had an aching line on the left side of my face where Bruno had kicked me, but it was nothing to Wanda's injuries.
"Now what?" I asked Bruno.
"Some company for you. When she wakes up, ask her what else Tommy did to her. See if that will persuade you to raise the zombie."
"I thought Dominga was going to bespell me into helping you."
He shrugged. "Gaynor doesn't put much faith in her since she screwed up so badly."
"He doesn't give second chances, I guess," I said.
"No, he doesn't." He laid Wanda on the floor near me. "You best take his offer, girl. One dead whore and you get a million dollars. Take it."
"You're going to use Wanda for the sacrifice," I said. My voice sounded tired even to me.
"Gaynor don't give second chances."
I nodded. "How's your knee?"
He grimaced. "I put it back in place."
"That must have hurt like hell," I said.
"It did. If you don't help Gaynor, you're going to find out exactly how much it hurt."
"An eye for an eye," I said.
He nodded and stood. He favored his right leg. He caught me looking at the leg.
"Talk to Wanda. Decide what you want to end up as. Gaynor's talking about making you a cripple, then keeping you around as his toy. You don't want that."
"How can you work for him?"
He shrugged. "Pays real well."
"Money isn't everything."
"Spoken by somebody who's never gone hungry."
He had me there. I just looked at him. We stared at each other for a few minutes. There was something human in his eyes at last. I couldn't read it though. Whatever emotion it was, it was nothing I understood.
He turned and left the room.
I stared down at Wanda. She lay on her side without moving. She was wearing another long multicolored skirt. A white blouse with a wide lace collar was half-ripped from one shoulder. The bra she wore was the color of plums. I bet there had been panties to match before Tommy got hold of her.
"Wanda," I said it softly. "Wanda, can you hear me?"
Her head moved slowly, painfully. One eye opened wide and panic-stricken. The other eye was glued shut with dried blood. Wanda pawed at the eye, frantic for a moment. When she could open both eyes, she blinked at me. Her eyes took a moment to focus and really see who it was. What had she expected to see in those first few panicked moments? I didn't want to know.
"Wanda, can you speak?"
"Yes." The voice was soft, but clear.
I wanted to ask if she was alright, but I knew the answer to that. "If you can get over here and free me, I'll get us out of here."
She looked at me like I'd lost my mind. "We can't get out. Harold's gonna kill us." She made that last sound like a statement of pure fact.
"I don't believe in giving up, Wanda. Untie me and I'll think of something."
"He'll hurt me if I help you," she said.
"He's planning on you being the human sacrifice to raise his ancestor. How much more hurt can you get?"
She blinked at me, but her eyes were clearing. It was almost as if panic were a drug, and Wanda was fighting off the influence. Or maybe it was Harold Gaynor who was the drug. Yeah, that made sense. She was a junkie. A Harold Gaynor junkie. Every junkie is willing to die for one more fix. But I wasn't.
"Untie me, Wanda, please. I can get us out of this."
"And if you can't?"
"Then we're no worse off," I said.
She seemed to think about that for a minute. I strained for sounds from the hallway. If Bruno came back while we were in the middle of escaping, it would be very bad.
Wanda propped herself up on her arms. Her legs trailed out behind her under the skirt, dead, no movement at all. She began dragging herself towards me. I thought it would be slow work, but she moved quickly. The muscles in her arms bunched and pushed, working well. She was by the chair in a matter of minutes.
I smiled. "You're very strong."
"My arms are all I have. They have to be strong," Wanda said.
She started picking at the ropes that bound my right wrist. "It's too tight."
"You can do it, Wanda."
She picked at the knot with her fingers, until after what seemed hours, but was probably about five minutes, I felt the rope give. Slack, I had slack. Yea!
"You've almost got it, Wanda." I felt like a cheerleader.
The sound of footsteps clattered down the hall towards us. Wanda's battered face stared up at me, terror in her eyes. "There's not time," she whispered.
"Go back where you were. Do it: We'll finish later," I said.
Wanda hand-walked back to where Bruno had laid her. She had just arranged herself into nearly the same position when the door opened. Wanda was pretending to be unconscious, not a bad idea.
Tommy stood in the doorway. He'd taken off his jacket and the black webbing of the shoulder rig stood out on his white polo shirt. Black jeans emphasized his pinched-in waist. He looked top-heavy from lifting so many weights.
He'd added one new thing to the outfit. A knife. He twirled it in his hand like a baton. It was almost a perfect sheen of light. Manual dexterity. Wowee.
"I didn't know you used a knife, Tommy." My voice sounded calm, normal, amazing.
He grinned. "I have a lot of talents. Gaynor wants to know if you've changed your mind about the zombie raising."
It wasn't exactly a question, but I answered it. "I won't do it."
His grin widened. "I was hoping you'd say that."
"Why?" I was afraid I knew the answer.
"Because he sent me in here to persuade you."
I stared at the glittering knife, I couldn't help myself. "With a knife?"
"With something else long and hard, but not so cold," he said.
"Rape?" I asked. The word sort of hung there in the hot, still air.
He nodded, grinning like a damn Cheshire cat. I wished I could make him disappear except for his smile. I wasn't afraid of his smile. It was the other end I was worried about.
I jerked at the ropes helplessly. The right wrist gave a little more. Had Wanda loosened the rope enough? Had she? Please God, let it be.
Tommy stood over me. I stared up the length of his body and what I saw in his eyes was nothing human. There were all sorts of ways to become a monster. Tommy had found one. There was nothing but an animal hunger in his gaze. Nothing, human left.
He put a leg on either side of the chair, straddling me without sitting down. His flat stomach was pressed against my face. His shirt smelled of expensive after-shave. I jerked my head back, trying not to touch him.
He laughed and ran fingers through the tight waves of my hair. I tried to jerk my head out of his reach, but he grabbed a handful of hair and forced my head back.
"I'm going to enjoy this," he said.
I didn't dare jerk at the ropes. If my wrist came free he'd see it. I had to wait, wait until he was distracted enough not to notice. The thought of what I might have to do to distract him, allow him to do to me, made my stomach hurt. But staying alive was the goal. Everything else was gravy. I didn't really believe that, but I tried.
He sat down on me, his weight settling on my legs. His chest was pressed against my face, and there was nothing I could do about it.
He rubbed the flat of the knife across my cheek. "You can stop this anytime. Just say yes, and I'll tell Gaynor." His voice was already growing thick. I could feel him growing hard where he was pressed against my belly.
The thought of Tommy using me like that was almost enough to make me say yes. Almost. I jerked on the ropes and the right one gave a little more. One more hard tug and I could get free. But I'd have just one hand to Tommy's two, and he had a gun and a knife. Not good odds, but it was the best I was going to get tonight.
He kissed me, forcing his tongue in my mouth. I didn't respond, because he wouldn't have believed that. I didn't bite his tongue either because I wanted him close. With only one hand free, I needed him close. I needed to do major damage with one hand. What? What could I do?
He nuzzled my neck, face buried in my hair on the left side. Now or never. I pulled with everything I had and the right wrist popped free. I froze. Surely he'd felt it, but he was too busy sucking on my neck to notice. His free hand massaged my breast.
He had his eyes closed as he kissed to the right side of my neck. His eyes were closed. The knife was loose in his other hand. Nothing I could do about the knife. Had to take the chance. Had to do it.
I caressed the side of his face, and he nuzzled my hand. Then his eyes opened. It had occurred to him that I was supposed to be tied. I plunged my thumb into his open eye. I dug it in, feeling the wet pop as his eye exploded.
He shrieked, rearing back, hand to his eye. I grabbed the wrist with the knife and held on. The screams were going to bring reinforcements. Dammit.
Strong arms wrapped around Tommy's waist and pulled him backwards. I grabbed the knife as he slid to the floor. Wanda was struggling to hold him. The pain was so severe, it hadn't occurred to him to go for his gun. Putting out an eye hurts and panics a lot more than a kick to the groin.
I cut my other hand free and knicked my arm doing it. If I hurried too much, I'd end up slitting my own wrist. I forced myself to be more careful slicing my ankles free.
Tommy had managed to get free of Wanda. He staggered to his feet, one hand still over the eye. Blood and clear liquid trailed down his face. "I'll kill you!" He reached for his gun.
I reversed my grip on the knife and threw it. It thunked into his arm. I'd been aiming for his chest. He screamed again. I picked up the chair and smashed it into his face. Wanda grabbed his ankles, and Tommy went down.
I pounded at his face with the chair until the chair broke apart in my hands. Then I beat him with a chair leg until his face was nothing but a bloody mess.
"He's dead," Wanda said. She was tugging at my pants leg. "He's dead. Let's get out of here."
I dropped the blood-coated chair leg and collapsed to my knees. I couldn't swallow. I couldn't breathe. I was splattered with blood. I'd never beaten someone to death before. It had felt good. I shook my head. Later, I'd worry about it later.
Wanda put an arm over my shoulders. I grabbed her around the waist, and we stood. She weighed a lot less than she should have. I didn't want to see what was under the pretty skirt. It wasn't a full set of legs, but for once that was good. She was easier to move.
I had Tommy's gun in my right hand. "I need this hand free, so hold on tight."
Wanda nodded. Her face was very pale. I could feel her heart pounding against her ribs. "We're going to get out of this," I said.
"Sure," but her voice was shaky. I don't think she believed me. I wasn't sure I believed me.
Wanda opened the door, and out we went.
The hallway was just like I remembered it. A long stretch with no cover, then a blind corner at each end.
"Right or left?" I whispered to Wanda.
"I don't know. This house is like a maze. Right I think."
We went right, because at least it was a decision. The worst thing we could do was just stand there waiting for Gaynor to come back.
I heard footsteps behind us. I started to turn, but with Wanda in my arms, I was slow. The gunshot echoed in the hallway. Something hit my left arm, around Wanda's waist. The impact spun me around and sent us both crashing to the floor.
I ended up on my back with my left arm trapped under Wanda's weight. The left arm was totally numb.
Cicely stood at the end of the hallway. She held a small caliber handgun two-handed. Her long, long legs were far apart. She looked like she knew what she was doing.
I raised the .357 and aimed at her, still lying flat on my back on the floor. It was an explosion of sound that left my ears ringing. The recoil thrust my hand skyward, backwards. It was everything I could do not to drop the gun. If I'd needed a second shot I'd have never gotten it off in time. But I didn't need a second shot.
Cicely lay crumpled in the middle of the hallway. Blood was spreading on the front of her blouse. She didn't move, but that didn't mean anything. Her gun was still gripped in one hand. She could be pretending, then when I walked up, she'd shoot me. But I had to know.
"Can you get off my arm, please?" I asked.
Wanda didn't say anything, but she lifted herself to a sitting position, and I could finally see my arm. It was still attached. Goody. Blood was seeping down my arm in a crimson line. A point of icy burning had started to chase away the numbness. I liked the numbness better.
I did my best to ignore the arm as I stood up and walked towards Cicely. I had the Magnum pointed at her. If she so much as twitched, I'd hit her again. Her miniskirt had hiked up her thighs, displaying black garters and matching underwear. How undignified.
I stood over her, staring down. Cicely wasn't going to twitch, not voluntarily. Her silk blouse was soaked with blood. A hole big enough for me to put my fist through took up most of her chest. Dead, very dead.
I kicked the .22 out of her hand, just in case. You can never tell with someone who plays voodoo. I've had people get up before with worse injuries. Cicely just lay there, bleeding.
I was lucky she'd had a ladylike caliber pistol. Anything bigger and I might have lost the arm. I stuck her pistol in the front of my pants, because I couldn't figure out where else to put it. I did click the safety on first.
I'd never been shot before. Bitten, stabbed, beaten, burned, but never shot. It scared me because I wasn't sure how badly I was hurt. I walked back to Wanda. Her face was pale, her brown eyes like islands in her face. "Is she dead?"
"You're bleeding," she said. She tore a strip from her long skirt. "Here, let me wrap it."
I knelt and let her tie the multicolored strip just above the wound. She wiped the blood away with another piece of skirt. It didn't look that bad. It looked almost like a raw, bloody scrap.
"I think the bullet just grazed me," I said. A flesh wound, nothing but a flesh wound. It burned and was almost cold at the same time. Maybe the cold was shock. One little bullet graze, and I was going into shock? Surely not.
"Come on, we've got to get out of here. The shots will bring Bruno." It was good that I had pain in the arm. It meant I could feel and I could move the arm. The arm did not want to be wrapped around Wanda's waist again, but it was the only way to move her and keep my right hand free.
"Let's go left. Maybe Cicely came in this way," Wanda said. There was a certain logic to that. We turned and walked past Cicely's body.
She lay there, blue eyes staring impossibly wide. There is never a look of horror on the face of the newly dead, more surprise than anything. As if death had caught them while they weren't looking.
Wanda stared down at the body as we passed it. She whispered, "I never thought she'd die first."
We rounded the corner and came face-to-face with Dominga's monster.
The monster stood in the middle of a narrow little hall that seemed to take up most of the back of the house. Many-paned windows lined the wall. And in the middle of those windows was a door. Through the windows I could see black night sky. The door led outside. The only thing standing between us and freedom was the monster.
The only thing, sheesh.
The shambling mound of body parts struggled towards us. Wanda screamed, and I didn't blame her. I raised the Magnum and sighted on the human face in the middle. The shot echoed like captive thunder.
The face exploded in a welter of blood and flesh and bone. The smell was worse. Like rotten fur on the back of my throat. The mouths screamed, an animal howling at its wound. The thing kept coming, but it was hurt. It seemed confused as to what to do now. Had I taken out the dominant brain? Was there a dominant brain? No way to be sure.
I fired three more times, exploding three more heads. The hallway was full of brains and blood and worse. The monster kept coming.
The gun clicked on empty. I threw the gun at it. One clawed hand batted it away. I didn't bother trying the .22. If the Magnum couldn't stop it, the .22 sure as hell couldn't.
We started backing down the hallway. What else could we do? The monster pulled its twisted bulk after us. It was that same sliding sound that had chased Manny and I out of Dominga's basement. I was looking at her caged horror.
The flesh between the different textures of skin, fur, and bone was seamless. No Frankenstein stitches. It was like the different pieces had melted together like wax.
I tripped over Cicely's body, too busy watching the monster to see where my feet were. We sprawled across her body. Wanda screamed.
The monster scrambled forward. Misshapen hands grabbed at my ankles. I kicked at it, struggling to climb over Cicely's body, away from it. A claw snagged in my jeans and pulled me towards it. It was my turn to scream. What had once been a man's hand and arm wrapped around my ankle.
I grabbed onto Cicely's body. Her flesh was still warm. The monster pulled us both easily. The extra weight didn't slow it down. My hands scrambled at the bare wood floor. Nothing to hold on to.
I stared back at the thing. Eager rotting mouths yawned at me. Broken, discolored teeth, tongues working like putrid snakes in the openings. God!
Wanda grabbed my arm, trying to hold me, but without legs to brace she just succeeded in being pulled closer to the thing. "Let go!" I screamed it at her.
She did, screaming, "Anita!"
I was screaming myself, "No! Stop it! Stop it!" I put everything I had into that yell, not volume, but power. It was just another zombie, that was all. If it wasn't under specific orders, it would listen to me. It was just another zombie. I had to believe that, or die.
"Stop, right now!" My voice broke with the edge of hysteria. I wanted nothing more than just to start screaming and never stop.
The monster froze with my foot halfway to one of its lower mouths. The mismatched eyes stared at me, expectantly.
I swallowed and tried to sound calm, though the zombie wouldn't care. "Release me."
My heart was threatening to come out my mouth. I lay back on the floor for a second, relearning how to breathe. When I looked up, the monster was still sitting there, waiting. Waiting for orders like a good little zombie.
"Stay here, do not move from this spot," I said.
The eyes just stared at me, obedient as only the dead can be. It would sit there in the hallway until it got specific orders contradicting mine. Thank you, dear God, that a zombie is a zombie is a zombie.
"What's happening?" Wanda asked. Her voice was broken into sobs. She was near hysterics.
I crawled to her. "It's alright. I'll explain later. We have a little time, but we can't waste it. We've got to get out of here."
She nodded, tears sliding down her bruised face.
I helped her up one last time. We limped towards the monster. Wanda shied away from it, pulling on my sore arm.
"It's alright. It won't hurt us, if we hurry." I had no idea how close Dominga was. I didn't want her changing the orders while we were right next to it. We stayed near the wall and squeezed past the thing. Eyes on the back of the body, if it had a back and a front, followed our progress. The smell from the running wounds was nearly overwhelming. But what was a little gagging between friends?
Wanda opened the door to the outside world. Hot summer wind blew our hair into spider silk strands across our faces. It felt wonderful.
Why hadn't Gaynor and the rest come to the rescue? They had to have heard the gunshots and the screaming. The gunshots at least would have brought somebody.
We stumbled down three stone steps to the gravel of a turn around. I stared off into the darkness at hills covered in tall, waving grass and decaying tombstones. The house was the caretaker's house at Burrell Cemetery. I wondered what Gaynor had done to the caretaker.
I started to lead Wanda away from the cemetery towards the distant highway, then stopped. I knew why no one had come now.
The sky was thick and black and so heavy with stars if I'd had a net I could have caught some. There was a high, hot wind blowing against the stars. I couldn't see the moon. Too much starlight. On the hot seeking fingers of the wind I felt it. The pull. Dominga Salvador had completed her spell. I stared off into the rows of headstones and knew I had to go to her. Just as the zombie had had to obey me, I had to obey her. There was no saving throw, no salvaging it. As easy as that I was caught.
I stood very still on the gravel. Wanda moved in my arms, turning to look at me. Her face by starlight was incredibly pale. Was mine as pale? Was the shock spread over my face like moonlight? I tried to take a step forward. To carry Wanda to safety. I could not take a step forward. I struggled until my legs were shaking with the effort. I couldn't leave.
"What's the matter? We have to get out of here before Gaynor comes back," Wanda said.
"I know," I said.
"Then what are you doing?"
I swallowed something cold and hard in my throat. My pulse was thudding in my chest. "I can't leave."
"What are you talking about?" There was an edge of hysteria to Wanda's voice.
Hysterics sounded perfect. I promised myself a complete nervous breakdown if we got out of here alive. If I could ever leave. I fought against something that I couldn't see, or touch, but it held me solid. I had to stop or my legs were going to collapse. We had enough problems in that direction already. If I couldn't go forward, maybe, backwards.
I backed up a step, two steps. Yeah, that worked.
"Where are you going?" Wanda asked.
"Into the cemetery," I said.
Good question, but I wasn't sure I could explain it so that Wanda would understand. I didn't understand it myself. How could I explain it to anyone else? I couldn't leave, but did I have to take Wanda back with me? Would the spell allow me to leave her here?
I decided to try. I laid her down on the gravel. Easy, some of my choices were still open.
"Why are you leaving me?" She clutched at me, terrified.
"Make it to the road if you can," I said.
"On my hands?" she asked.
She had a point, but what could I do? "Do you know how to use a gun?"
Should I leave her the gun, or should I take it with me, and maybe get a chance to kill Dominga? If this worked like ordering a zombie, then I could kill her if she didn't specifically forbid me to do it. Because I still had free will, of a sort. They'd bring me, then send someone back for Wanda. She was to be the sacrifice.
I handed her the .22. I clicked off the safety. "It's loaded and it's ready to fire," I said. "Since you don't know anything about guns, keep it hidden until Enzo or Bruno is right on top of you, then fire point-blank. You can't miss at pointblank range."
"Why are you leaving me?"
"A spell, I think," I said.
Her eyes widened. "What kind of spell?"
"One that allows them to order me to come to them. One that forbids me to leave."
"Oh, God," she said.
"Yeah," I said. I smiled down at her. A reassuring smile that was all lie. "I'll try to come back for you."
She just stared at me, like a kid whose parents left her in the dark before all the monsters were gone.
She clutched the gun in her hands and watched me walk off into the darkness.
The long dry grass hissed against my jeans. The wind blew the grass in pale waves. Tombstones loomed out of the weeds like the backs of small walls, or the humps of sea monsters. I didn't have to think where I was going, my feet seemed to know the way.
Was this how a zombie felt when ordered to come? No, you had to be within hearing distance of a zombie. You couldn't do it from this far away.
Dominga Salvador stood at the crown of a hill. She was highlighted against the moon. It was sinking towards dawn. It was still night, but the end of night. Everything was still velvet, silver, deep pockets of night shadows, but there was the faintest hint of dawn on the hot wind.
If I could delay until dawn, I couldn't raise the zombie. Maybe the compulsion would fade, too. If I was luckier than I deserved.
Dominga was standing inside a dark circle. There was a dead chicken at her feet. She had already made a circle of power. All I had to do was step into it and slaughter a human being. Over my dead body, if necessary.
Harold Gaynor sat in his electric wheelchair. on the opposite side of the circle. He was outside of it, safe. Enzo and Bruno stood by him, safe. Only Dominga had risked the circle.
She said, "Where is Wanda?"
I tried to lie, to say she was safe, but truth spilled out of my mouth, "She's down by the house on the gravel."
"Why didn't you bring her?"
"You can only give me one order at a time. You ordered me to come. I came."
"Stubborn, even now, how curious," she said. "Enzo, go fetch the girl. We need her."
Enzo walked away over the dry, rustling grass without a word. I hoped Wanda killed him. I hoped she emptied the gun into him. No, save a few bullets for Bruno.
Dominga had a machete in her right hand. Its edge was black with blood. "Enter the circle, Anita," she said.
I tried to fight it, tried not to do it. I stood there on the verge of the circle, almost swaying. I stepped across. The circle tingled up my spine, but it wasn't closed. I don't know what she'd done to it, but it wasn't closed. The circle looked solid enough but it was still open. Still waiting for the sacrifice.
Shots echoed in the darkness. Dominga jumped. I smiled.
"What was that?"
"I think it was your bodyguard biting the big one," I said.
"What did you do?"
"I gave Wanda a gun."
She slapped me with her empty hand. It wouldn't really have hurt, but she slapped the same cheek Bruno and what's-his-name had hit. I'd been smacked three times in the same place. The bruise was going to be a beauty.
Dominga looked at something behind me and smiled. I knew what it would be before I turned and saw it.
Enzo was carrying Wanda up the hill. Dammit. I'd heard more than one shot. Had she panicked and shot too soon, wasted her ammunition? Damn.
Wanda was screaming and beating her small fists against Enzo's broad back. If we were alive come morning, I would teach Wanda better things to do with her fists. She was crippled, not helpless.
Enzo carried her over the circle. Until it closed everyone could pass over it without breaking the magic. He dropped Wanda to the ground, holding her arms out behind her at a painful angle. She still struggled and screamed. I didn't blame her.
"Get Bruno to hold her still. The death needs to be one blow," I said.
Dominga nodded. "Yes, it does." She motioned for Bruno to enter the circle. He hesitated, but Gaynor told him, "Do what she says."
Bruno didn't hesitate after that. Gaynor was his greenback god. Bruno grabbed one of Wanda's arms. With a man on each arm, and her legs useless, she was still moving too much.
"Kneel and hold her head still," I said.
Enzo dropped first, putting a big hand on the back of Wanda's head. He held her steady. She started to cry. Bruno knelt, putting his free hand on her shoulders to help steady her. It was important for the death to be a single blow.
Dominga was smiling now. She handed me a small brown jar of ointment. It was white and smelled heavily of cloves. I used more rosemary in mine, but cloves were fine.
"How did you know what I needed?"
"I asked Manny to tell me what you used."
"He wouldn't tell you shit."
"He would if I threatened his family." Dominga laughed. "Oh, don't look so sad. He didn't betray you, chica. Manuel thought I was merely curious about your powers. I am, you know."
"You'll see soon enough, won't you," I said.
She gave a sort of bow from the neck. "Place the ointment on yourself in the appointed places."
I rubbed ointment on my face. It was cool and waxy. The cloves made it smell like candy. I smeared it on over my heart, under my shirt, both hands. Last the tombstone.
Now all we needed was the sacrifice.
Dominga told me, "Do not move."
I stayed where I was, frozen as if by magic. Was her monster still frozen in the hallway, like I was now?
Dominga laid the machete on the grass near the edge of the circle, then she stepped out of the circle. "Raise the dead, Anita," she said.
"Ask Gaynor one question first, please." That please hurt, but it worked.
She looked at me curiously. "What question?"
"Is this ancestor also a voodoo priest?" I asked.
"What difference does it make?" Gaynor asked.
"You fool," Dominga said. She whirled on him, hands in fists. "That is what went wrong the first time. You made me think it was my powers!"
"What are you babbling about?" he asked.
"When you raise a voodoo priest or an animator, sometimes the magic goes wrong," I said.
"Why?" he asked.
"Your ancestor's magic interfered with my magic," Dominga said. "Are you sure this ancestor had no voodoo?"
"Not to my knowledge," he said.
"Did you know about the first one?" I asked.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Dominga said. Her power blazed around her like a dark nimbus. Would she kill him, or did she want the money more?
"I didn't think it was important."
I think Dominga was grinding her teeth. I didn't blame her. He'd cost her her reputation and a dozen lives. He saw nothing wrong with it. But Dominga didn't strike him dead. Greed wins out.
"Get on with it," Gaynor said. "Or don't you want your money?"
"Do not threaten me!" Dominga said.
Peachy keen, the bad guys were going to fight among themselves.
"I am not threatening you, Señora. I merely will not pay unless this zombie is raised."
Dominga took a deep breath. She literally squared her shoulders and turned back to me. "Do as I ordered, raise the dead."
I opened my mouth to think of some other excuse to delay. Dawn was coming. It had to come.
"No more delays. Raise the dead, Anita, now!" That last word had the tone of a command.
I swallowed hard and walked towards the edge of the circle. I wanted to get out, to leave, but I couldn't. I stood there, leaning against that invisible barrier. It was like beating against a wall that I couldn't feel. I stayed there straining until my entire body trembled. I took a deep shaking breath.
I picked up the machete.
Wanda said, "No, Anita, please, please don't!" She struggled, but she couldn't move. She would be an easy kill. Easier than beheading a chicken with one hand. And I did that almost every night.
I knelt in front of Wanda. Enzo's hand on the back of her head kept her from moving. But she whimpered, a desperate sound low in her throat.
God, help me.
I placed the machete under her neck and told Enzo, "Raise her head up so I can make sure of the kill."
He grabbed a handful of hair and bowed her neck at a painful angle. Her eyes were showing a lot of white. Even by moonlight I could see the pulse in her throat.
I placed the machete back against her neck. Her skin was solid and real under the blade. I raised it just above her flesh, not touching for an instant. I drove the machete straight up into Enzo's throat. The point speared his throat. Blood gushed out in a black wave.
Everyone froze for an instant, but me. I jerked the machete out of Enzo and plunged it into Bruno's gut. His hand with the gun half-drawn fell away. I leaned on the machete and drew it up towards his throat. His insides spilled out, in a warm rush.
The smell of fresh death filled the circle. Blood sprayed all over my face, chest, hands, coating me. It was the last step, and the circle closed.
I'd felt a thousand circles close, but nothing like this. The shock of it left me gasping. I couldn't breathe over the rush of power. It was like an electric current was running over my body. My skin ached with it.
Wanda was covered in other people's blood. She was having hysterics in the grass. "Please, please, don't kill me. Don't kill me! Please!"
I didn't have to kill Wanda. Dominga had told me to raise the dead, and I would do just that.
Killing animals never gave me this kind of rush. It felt like my skin was going to crawl off on its own. I shoved the power flowing through me into the ground. But not just into the grave in the circle. I had too much power for just one grave. Too much power for just a handful of graves. I felt the power spreading outward like ripples in a pool. Out and out, until the power was spread thick and clean over the ground. Every grave that I had walked for Dolph. Every grave but the ones with ghosts. Because that was a type of soul magic, and necromancy didn't work around souls.
I felt each grave, each corpse. I felt them coalesce from dust and bone fragments to things that were barely dead at all.
"Arise from your graves all dead within sound of my call. Arise and serve me!" Without naming them all I shouldn't have been able to call a single one from the grave, but the power of two human deaths was too much for the dead to resist.
They rose upward like swimmers through water. The ground rippled underfoot like a horse's skin.
"What are you doing?" Dominga asked.
"Raising the dead," I said. Maybe it showed in my voice. Maybe she felt it. Whatever, she started running towards the circle, but it was too late.
Hands tore through the earth at Dominga's feet. Dead hands grabbed her ankles and sent her sprawling into the long grass. I lost sight of her but I didn't lose control of the zombies. I told them, "Kill her, kill her."
The grass shuddered and surged like water. The sound of muscles pulling away from bone in wet thick pieces filled the night. Bones broke with sharp cracks. Over the sounds of tearing flesh, Dominga shrieked.
There was one last wet sound, thick and full. Dominga's screams broke off abruptly. I felt the dead hands tearing out her throat. Her blood splattered the grass like a black sprinkler.
Her spell shredded on the wind, but I didn't need her urging now. The power had me. I was riding it like a bird on a current of air. It held me, lifted me. It felt solid and insubstantial as air.
The dry sunken earth cracked open over Gaynor's ancestor's grave. A pale hand shot skyward. A second hand came through the crack. The zombie tore the dry earth. I heard other old graves breaking in the still, summer night. It broke its way out of his grave, just like Gaynor had wanted.
Gaynor sat in his wheelchair on the crest of the hill. He was surrounded by the dead. Dozens of zombies in various stages of decay crowded close to him. But I hadn't given the order yet. They wouldn't hurt him unless I told them to.
"Ask him where the treasure is," Gaynor shouted.
I stared at him and every zombie turned with my eyes and stared at him, too. He didn't understand. Gaynor was like a lot of people with money. They mistake money for power. It isn't the same thing at all.
"Kill the man Harold Gaynor." I said it loud enough to carry on the still air.
"I'll give you a million dollars for having raised him. Whether I find the treasure or not," Gaynor said.
"I don't want your money, Gaynor," I said.
The zombies were moving in on every side, slow, hands extended, like every horror movie you've ever seen. Sometimes Hollywood is accurate, whatta ya know.
"Two million, three million!" His voice was breaking with fear. He'd had a better seat for Dominga's death than I had. He knew what was coming. "Four million!"
"Not enough," I said.
"How much?" he shouted. "Name your price!" I couldn't see him now. The zombies hid him from view.
"No money, Gaynor, just you dead, that's enough."
He started screaming, wordlessly. I felt the hands begin to rip at him. Teeth to tear.
Wanda grabbed my legs. "Don't, don't hurt him. Please!"
I just stared at her. I was remembering Benjamin Reynolds's blood-coated teddy bear, the tiny hand with that stupid plastic ring on it, the blood-soaked bedroom, the baby blanket. "He deserves to die," I said. My voice sounded separate from me, distant and echoing. It didn't sound like me at all.
"You can't just murder him," Wanda said.
"Watch me," I said.
She tried to climb my body, but her legs betrayed her and she fell in a heap at my feet, sobbing.
I didn't understand how Wanda could beg for his life after what he had done to her. Love, I suppose. In the end she really did love him. And that, perhaps, was the saddest thing of all.
When Gaynor died, I knew it. When pieces of him stained almost every hand and mouth of the dead, they stopped. They turned to me, waiting for new orders. The power was still buoying me up. I wasn't tired. Was there enough to lay them all to rest? I hoped so.
"Go back, all of you, go back to your graves. Rest in the quiet earth. Go back, go back."
They stirred like a wind had blown through them, then one by one they went back to their graves. They lay down on the hard dry earth and the graves just swallowed them whole. It was like magic quicksand. The earth shuddered underfoot like a sleeper moving to a more comfortable position.
Some of the corpses had been as old as Gaynor's ancestor, which meant that I didn't need a human death to raise one three-hundred-year-old corpse. Bert was going to be pleased. Human deaths seemed to be cumulative. Two human deaths and I had emptied a cemetery. It wasn't possible. But I'd done it anyway. Whatta ya know?
The first light of dawn passed like milk on the eastern sky. The wind died with the light. Wanda knelt in the bloody grass, crying. I knelt beside her.
She jerked back at my touch. I guess I couldn't blame her, but it bothered me anyway.
"We have to get out of here. You need a doctor," I said.
She stared up at me. "What are you?"
Today for the first time I didn't know how to answer that question. Human didn't seem to cover it. "I'm an animator," I said finally.
She just kept staring at me. I wouldn't have believed me either. But she let me help her up. I guess that was something.
But she kept looking at me out of the edge of her eyes. Wanda considered me one of the monsters. She may have been right.
Wanda gasped, eyes wide.
I turned, too slowly. Was it the monster?
Jean-Claude stepped out of the shadows.
I didn't breathe for a moment. It was so unexpected.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Your power called to me, ma petite. No dead in the city could fail to feel your power tonight. And I am the city, so I came to investigate."
"How long have you been here?"
"I saw you kill the men. I saw you raise the graveyard."
"Did it ever occur to you to help me?"
"You did not need any help." He smiled, barely visible in the moonlight. "Besides, would it not have been tempting to rend me to pieces, as well?"
"You can't possibly be afraid of me," I said.
He spread his hands wide.
"You're afraid of your human servant? Little of moi?"
"Not afraid, ma petite, but cautious."
He was afraid of me. It almost made some of this shit worthwhile.
I carried Wanda down the hill. She wouldn't let Jean-Claude touch her. A choice of monsters.
Dominga Salvador missed her court date. Fancy that. Dolph had searched for me that night, after he discovered that Dominga had made bail. He had found my apartment empty. My answers about where I had gone didn't satisfy him, but he let it go. What else could he do?
They found Gaynor's wheelchair, but no trace of him. It's one of those mysteries to tell around campfires. The empty, blood-coated wheelchair in the middle of the cemetery. They did find body parts in the caretaker's house: animal and human. Only Dominga's power had held the thing together. When she died, it died. Thank goodness. Theory was that the monster got Gaynor. Where the monster came from no one seemed to know. I was called in to explain the body parts, that's how the police knew they'd once been attached.
Irving wanted to know what I really knew about Gaynor's vanishing act. I just smiled and played inscrutable. Irving didn't believe me, but all he had were suspicions. Suspicions aren't a news story.
Wanda is waiting tables downtown. Jean-Claude offered her a job at The Laughing Corpse. She declined, not politely. She'd saved quite a bit of money from her "business." I don't know if she'll make it or not, but with Gaynor gone, she seems free to try. She was a junkie whose drug of choice was dead. It was better than rehab.
By Catherine's wedding the bullet wound was just a bandage on my arm. The bruises on my face and neck had turned that sickly shade of greenish-yellow. It clashed with the pink dress. I gave Catherine the option of me not being in the wedding. The wedding coordinator was all for that, but Catherine wouldn't hear of it. The wedding coordinator applied makeup to the bruises and saved the day.
I have a picture of me standing in that awful dress with Catherine's arm around me. We're both smiling. Friendship is strange stuff.
Jean-Claude sent me a dozen white roses in the hospital. The card read, "Come to the ballet with me. Not as my servant, but as my guest."
I didn't go to the ballet. I had enough problems without dating the Master of the City.
I had performed human sacrifice, and it had felt good. The rush of power was like the memory of painful sex. Part of you wanted to do it again. Maybe Dominga Salvador was right. Maybe power talks to everyone, even me.
I am an animator. I am the Executioner. But now I know I'm something else. The one thing my Grandmother Flores feared most. I am a necromancer. The dead are my specialty.