I had finished a pot of coffee and managed to get dressed when the phone rang again. One of those mornings.
"Yeah," I said.
"Ms. Blake?" the voice sounded very uncertain.
"This is Karl Inger."
"Sorry if I sounded abrupt. What's up, Mr. Inger?"
"You said you'd speak to me again if we had a better plan. I have a better plan," he said.
"For killing the Master of the City?" I made it a question.
I took a deep breath and let it out slow, away from the phone. Didn't want him to think I was heavy breathing at him. "Mr. Inger . . ."
"Please, hear me out. We saved your life last night. That must be worth something."
He had me there. "What's your plan, Mr. Inger?"
"I'd rather tell you in person."
"I'm not going to my office for some hours yet."
"Could I come to your home?"
"No." It was automatic.
"You don't bring business home?"
"Not when I can help it," I said.
"Suspicious of you."
"Always," I said.
"Can we meet somewhere else? There's someone I want you to meet."
"Who, and why?"
"The name won't mean anything to you."
"I don't know it."
"Okay, then why should I meet him?"
"He has a good plan for killing the Master of the City."
"No, I think it will be better if Mr. Oliver explains it in person. He's much more persuasive than I am."
"You're doing okay," I said.
"Then you'll meet me?"
"Sure, why not?"
"That's wonderful. Do you know where Arnold is?"
"There's a pay fishing lake just outside of Arnold on Tesson Ferry Road. Do you know it?"
I had an impression that I had driven by it on the way to two murders. All roads led to Arnold. "I can find it."
"How soon can you meet me there?" he asked.
"Great; I'll be waiting."
"Is this Mr. Oliver going to be at the lake?"
"No, I'll drive you from there."
"Why all the secrecy?"
"Not secrecy," he said, his voice dropped, embarrassed. "I'm just not very good at giving directions. It'll be easier if I just take you."
"I can follow you in my car."
"Why, Ms. Blake, I don't think you entirely trust me."
"I don't entirely trust anybody, Mr. Inger, nothing personal."
"Not even people who save your life?"
He let that drop, probably for the best, and said, "I'll meet you at the lake in an hour."
"Thank you for coming, Ms. Blake."
"I owe you. You've made sure I'm aware of that."
"You sound defensive, Ms. Blake. I did not mean to offend you."
I sighed. "I'm not offended, Mr. Inger. I just don't like owing people."
"Visiting Mr. Oliver today will clear the slate between us. I promise that."
"I'll hold you to that, Inger."
"I'll meet you in an hour," he said.
"I'll be there," I said. We hung up. "Damn." I'd forgotten I hadn't gotten to eat yet today. If I'd remembered, I'd have said two hours. Now I'd have to literally grab something on the way. I hated eating in the car. But, heh, what's a little mess between friends? Or even between people who've saved your life? Why did it bother me so much that I owed Inger?
Because he was a right-wing fruitcake. A zealot. I didn't like doing business with zealots. And I certainly didn't like owing my life to one.
Ah, well; I'd meet him, then we'd be square. He had said so. Why didn't I believe it?
Chip-Away Lake was about half an acre of man-made water and thin, raised man-made bank. There was a little shed that sold bait and food. It was surrounded by a flat gravel parking lot. A late-model car sat near the road with a sign that read, "For Sale." A pay fishing lake and a used car lot combined; how clever.
An expanse of grass spread out to the right of the parking lot. A small, ramshackle shed and what looked like the remains of some large industrial barbecue. A fringe of woods edged the grass, rising higher into a wooded hill. The Meramec River edged the left side of the lake. It seemed funny to have free-flowing water so close to the man-made lake.
There were only three cars in the parking lot this cool autumn afternoon. Beside a shiny burgundy Chrysler Le Baron stood Inger. A handful of fishermen had bundled up and put poles in the water. Fishing must be good to get people out in the cold.
I parked beside Inger's car. He strode towards me smiling, hand out like a real estate salesman who was happy I'd come to see the property. Whatever he was selling, I didn't want. I was almost sure of that.
"Ms. Blake, so glad you came." He clasped my hand with both of his, hearty, good-natured, insincere.
"What do you want, Mr. Inger?"
His smile faded around the edges. "I don't know what you mean, Ms. Blake."
"Yes, you do."
"No, I really don't."
I stared into his puzzled face. Maybe I spent too much time with slimeballs. After a while you forget that not everyone in the world is a slimeball. It just saves so much time to assume the worst.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Inger. I . . . I've been spending too much time looking for criminals. It makes you cynical."
He still looked puzzled.
"Never mind, Mr. Inger; just take me to see this Oliver."
"Mr. Oliver," he said.
"Shall we take my car?" He motioned towards his car.
"I'll follow you in mine."
"You don't trust me." He looked hurt. I guess most people aren't used to being suspected of wrongdoing before they've done anything wrong. The law says innocent until proven guilty, but the truth is, if you see enough pain and death, it's guilty until proven innocent.
"All right, you drive."
He looked very pleased. Heartwarming.
Besides I was carrying two knives, three crosses, and a gun. Innocent or guilty, I was prepared. I didn't expect to need the weaponry with Mr. Oliver, but later, I might need it later. It was time to go armed to the teeth, ready for bear, or dragon, or vampire.
Inger drove down Old Highway 21 to East Rock Creek. Rock Creek was a narrow, winding road barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Inger drove slow enough for the curves, but fast enough so you didn't get bored.
There were farmhouses that had stood for years and new houses in subdivisions where the earth was raw and red as a wound. Inger turned into one of those new subdivisions. It was full of large, expensive-looking houses, very modern. Thin, spindly trees were tied to stakes along the gravel road.
The pitiful trees trembled in the autumn wind, a few surprised leaves still clinging to the spider-thin limbs. This area had been a forest before they bulldozed it. Why do developers destroy all the mature trees, then plant new trees that won't look good for decades?
We pulled up in front of a fake log cabin that was bigger than any real cabin had ever been. Too much glass, the yard naked dirt the color of rust. The white gravel that made up the driveway had to have been brought in from miles away. All the native gravel was as red as the dirt.
Inger started to go around the car, to open my door I think. I opened my own door. Inger seemed a little lost, but he'd get over it. I'd never seen the sense in perfectly healthy people not opening their own doors. Especially car doors where the man had to walk all the way around the car, and the woman just waited like a . . . a lump.
Inger led the way up the porch steps. It was a nice porch, wide enough to sit on come summer evenings. Right now it was all bare wood and a huge picture window with closed drapes in a barn-red design with wagon wheels drawn all over it. Very rustic.
He knocked on the carved wooden door. A pane of leaded glass decorated the center of the door, high up and sparkling, more for decoration than for seeing through. He didn't wait for the door to be opened, but used a key and walked in. He didn't seem to expect an answer, so why knock?
The house was in a thick twilight of really nice drapes, all closed against the syrup-heavy sunlight. The polished wood floors were utterly bare. The mantel of the heavy fireplace was naked, the fireplace cold. The place smelled new and unused, like new toys on Christmas. Inger never hesitated. I followed his broad back into the wooden hallway. He didn't look behind to see if I was keeping up. Apparently when I'd decided not to let him open my door for me, he seemed to have decided that no further courtesy was necessary.
Fine with me.
There were doors at widely spaced intervals along the hallway. Inger knocked at the third door on the left. A voice said, "Enter."
Inger opened the door and went inside. He held the door for me, standing very straight by the door. It wasn't courtesy. He stood like a soldier at attention. Who was in the room to make Inger toe the line? One way to find out.
I went into the room.
There was a bank of windows to the north with heavy drapes pulled across them. A thin line of sunlight cut across the room, bisecting a large, clean desk. A man sat in a large chair behind the desk.
He was a small man, almost a midget or a dwarf. I wanted to say dwarf, but he didn't have the jaw or the shortened arms. He looked well formed under his tailored suit. He had almost no chin and a sloping forehead, which drew attention to the wide nose and the prominent eyebrow ridge. There was something familiar about his face, as if I'd seen it somewhere else before. Yet I knew I'd never met a person who looked just like him. It was a very singular face.
I was staring at him. I was embarrassed and didn't like it. I met his eyes; they were perfectly brown and smiling. His dark hair was cut one hair at a time, expensive and blow-dried. He sat in his chair behind the clean polished desk and smiled at me.
"Mr. Oliver, this is Anita Blake," Inger said, still standing stiffly by the door.
He got out of his chair and came around the desk to offer me his small well-formed hand. He was four feet tall, not an inch more. His handshake was firm and much stronger than he looked. A brief squeeze, and I could feel the strength in his small frame. He didn't look musclebound, but that easy strength was there, in his face, hand, stance.
He was small, but he didn't think it was a defect. I liked that. I felt the same way.
He gave a close-lipped smile and sat back down in his big chair. Inger brought a chair from the corner and put it facing the desk. I took the chair. Inger remained standing by the now-closed door. He was definitely at attention. He respected the man in the chair. I was willing to like him. That was a first for me. I'm more likely to instantly mistrust than like someone.
I realized that I was smiling. I felt warm and comfortable facing him, like he was a favorite and trusted uncle. I frowned at him; what the hell was happening to me?
"What's going on?" I said.
He smiled, his eyes sparkling warmly at me. "Whatever do you mean, Ms. Blake?"
His voice was soft, low, rich, like cream in coffee. You could almost taste it. A comforting warmth to your ears. I only knew one other voice that could do similar things.
I stared at the thin band of sunlight only inches from Oliver's arm. It was broad daylight. He couldn't be. Could he?
I stared at his very alive face. There was no trace of that otherness that vampires gave off. And yet, his voice, this warm cosy feeling, none of it was natural. I'd never liked and trusted anyone instantly. I wasn't about to start now.
"You're good," I said. "Very good."
"Whatever do you mean, Ms. Blake?" You could have cuddled into the warm fuzziness of his voice like a favorite blanket.
He looked quizzically at me, as if confused. The act was perfect, and I realized why; it wasn't an act. I'd been around ancient vampires, but never one that had been able to pass for human, not like this. You could have taken him anywhere and no one would have known. Well, almost no one.
"Believe me, Ms. Blake, I'm not trying to do anything."
I swallowed hard. Was that true? Was he so damn powerful that the mind tricks and the voice were automatic? No; if Jean-Claude could control it, this thing could, too.
"Cut the mind tricks, and curb the voice, okay? If you want to talk business, talk, but cut the games."
His smile widened, still not enough to show fangs. After a few hundred years, you must get really good at smiling like that.
He laughed then; it was wonderful, like warm water falling from a great height. You could have jumped into it and bathed, and felt good.
"Stop it, stop it!"
Fangs flashed as he finished chuckling at me. "It isn't the vampire marks that allowed you to see through my, as you call them, games. It is natural talent, isn't it?"
I nodded. "Most animators have it."
"But not to the degree you do, Ms. Blake. You have power, too. It crawls along my skin. You are a necromancer."
I started to deny it, but stopped. Lying to something like this was useless. He was older than anything I'd ever dreamed of, older than any nightmare I'd ever had. But he didn't make my bones ache; he felt good, better than Jean-Claude, better than anything.
"I could be a necromancer. I choose not to be."
"No, Ms. Blake, the dead respond to you, all the dead. Even I feel the pull."
"You mean I have a sort of power over vampires, too?"
"If you could learn to harness your talents, Ms. Blake, yes, you have a certain power over all the dead, in their many guises."
I wanted to ask how to do that, but stopped myself. A master vampire wasn't likely to help me gain power over his followers. "You're taunting me."
"I assure you, Ms. Blake, that I am very serious. It is your potential power that has drawn the Master of the City to you. He wants to control that emerging power, for fear it will be turned against him."
"How do you know that?"
"I can taste him through the marks he has laid upon you."
I just stared at him. He could taste Jean-Claude. Shit.
"What do you want from me?"
"Very direct; I like that. Human lives are too short to waste in trivialities."
Was that a threat? Staring into his smiling face, I couldn't tell. His eyes were still sparkling, and I was still feeling very warm and fuzzy towards him. Eye contact. I knew better than that. I stared at the top of his desk and felt better, or worse. I could be scared now.
"Inger said you had a plan for taking out the Master of the City. What is it?" I spoke staring at his desk. My skin crawled with the desire to look up. To meet his eyes, to let the warmth and comfort wash over me. Make all the decisions easy.
I shook my head. "Stay out of my mind or this interview is over."
He laughed again, warm and real. It raised goose bumps on my arms. "You really are good. I haven't met a human in centuries that rivaled you. A necromancer; do you realize how rare that talent is?"
Really I didn't, but I said, "Yes."
"Lies, Ms. Blake, to me, please don't bother."
"We're not here to talk about me. Either state your plan or I'm leaving."
"I am the plan, Ms. Blake. You can feel my powers, the ebb and flow of more centuries than your little master has ever dreamed of. I am older than time itself."
That I didn't believe, but I let it go. He was old enough; I wasn't going to argue with him, not if I could help it.
"Give me your master and I will free you of his marks."
I glanced up, then quickly down. He was still smiling at me, but the smile didn't look real anymore. It was an act like everything else. It was just a very good act.
"If you can taste my master in the marks, can't you just find him yourself?"
"I can taste his power, judge how worthy a foe he would be, but not his name and not where he lies; that is hidden." His voice was very serious now, not trying to trick me. Or at least I didn't think it was; maybe that was a trick, too.
"What do you want from me?"
"His name and his daytime resting place."
"I don't know the daytime resting place." I was glad it was the truth, because he would smell a lie.
"Then his name, give me his name."
"Why should I?"
"Because I wish to be Master of the City, Ms. Blake."
"So many questions. Is it not enough that I would free you from his power?"
I shook my head. "No."
"Why should you care about what happens to the other vampires?"
"I don't, but before I hand you the power to control every vampire in the immediate area, I'd like to know what you intend to do with all that power."
He laughed again. This time it was just a laugh. He was trying.
"You are the most stubborn human I have met in a very long time. I like stubborn people; they get things done."
"Answer my question."
"I think it is wrong to have vampires as legal citizens. I wish to put things back as they were."
"Why should you want vampires to be hunted again?"
"They are too powerful to be allowed to spread unchecked. They will take over the human race much quicker through legislation and voting rights than they ever could through violence."
I remembered the Church of Eternal Life, the fastest-growing denomination in the country. "Say you're right; how would you stop it?"
"By forbidding the vampires to vote, or take part in any legislation."
"There are other master vampires in town."
"You mean Malcolm, the head of the Church of Eternal Life."
"I have observed him. He will not be able to continue his one-man crusade to make vampires legitimate. I shall forbid it and dismantle his church. Surely you see the church as the larger danger, as I do."
I did, but I hated agreeing with an ancient master vampire. It seemed wrong somehow.
"St. Louis is a hotbed of political activity and entrepreneurial vampires. They must be stopped. We are predators, Ms. Blake; nothing we do can change that. We must go back to being hunted or the human race is doomed. Surely you see that."
I did see that. I believed that. "Why would you care if the human race is doomed? You're not part of it anymore."
"As the oldest living vampire, it is my duty to keep us in check, Ms. Blake. These new rights are getting out of hand and must be stopped. We are too powerful to be allowed such freedom. Humans have their right to be human. In the olden days only the strongest, smartest, or luckiest vampires survived. The human vampire hunters weeded out the stupid, the careless, the violent. Without that check-and-balance system, I fear what will happen in a few decades."
I agreed, wholeheartedly; it was sorta scary. I agreed with the oldest living thing I'd ever met. He was right. Could I give him Jean-Claude? Should I give him Jean-Claude?
"I agree with you, Mr. Oliver, but I can't just give him up, just like that. I don't know why really, but I can't."
"Loyalty; I admire that. Think upon it, Ms. Blake, but do not take too long. I need to put my plan into action as soon as possible."
I nodded. "I understand. I . . . I'll give you an answer within a couple of days. How do I reach you?"
"Inger will give you a card with a number on it. You may safely speak to him as to me."
I turned and looked at Inger, still standing at attention beside the door. "You're his human servant, aren't you?"
"I have that honor."
I shook my head. "I need to leave now."
"Do not feel badly that you could not recognize Inger as my human servant. It is not a mark which shows; otherwise how could they be our human ears and eyes and hands, if everyone knew they were ours?"
He had a point. He had a lot of points. I stood up. He stood up, too. He offered me his hand.
"I'm sorry, but I know that touching makes the mind games easier."
The hand dropped back to his side. "I do not need to touch you to play mind games, Ms. Blake." The voice was wonderful, shining and bright as Christmas morning. My throat was tight, and the warmth of tears filled my eyes. Shit, shit, shit, shit.
I backed for the door, and Inger opened it for me. They were just going to let me leave. He wasn't going to mind-rape me and get the name. He was really going to let me walk away. That did more to prove him a good guy than anything else. Because he could have squeezed my mind dry. But he let me go.
Inger closed the door behind us, slowly, reverently.
"How old is he?" I asked.
"You couldn't tell?"
I shook my head. "How old?"
Inger smiled. "I am over seven hundred years old. Mr. Oliver was ancient when I met him."
"He's older than a thousand years."
"Why do you say that?"
"I've met a vampire that was a little over a thousand. She was scary, but she didn't have that kind of power."
He smiled. "If you wish to know his true age, then you must ask him yourself."
I stared up at Inger's smiling face for a minute. I remembered where I'd seen a face like Oliver's. I'd had one anthropology class in college. There'd been a drawing that looked just like Oliver. It had been a reconstruction of a Homo erectus skull. Which made Oliver about a million years old.
"My God," I said.
"What's wrong, Ms. Blake?"
I shook my head. "He can't be that old."
"How old is that?"
I didn't want to say it out loud, as if that would make it real. A million years. How powerful would a vampire grow in a million years?
A woman walked up the hallway towards us, coming from deeper in the house. She swayed on bare feet, toenails painted a bright scarlet that matched her fingernails. The belted dress she wore matched the nail polish. Her legs were long and pale, but it was that kind of paleness that promised to tan if it ever got enough sunlight. Her hair fell past her waist, thick and absolute black. Her makeup was perfect, her lips scarlet. She smiled at me; fangs showed below her lips.
But she wasn't a vampire. I didn't know what the hell she was, but I knew what she wasn't. I glanced at Inger. He didn't look happy.
"Shouldn't we be going?" I said.
"Yes," he said. He backed towards the front door and I backed behind him. Neither of us took our eyes off the fanged beauty slinking down the hall towards us.
She moved in a liquid run that was almost too fast to follow. Lycanthropes could move like that, but that wasn't what she was, either.
She was around Inger and coming for me. I gave up being cool and sort of ran backwards towards the front door. But she was too fast for me, too fast for any human.
She grabbed my right forearm. She looked puzzled. She could feel the knife sheath on my arm. She didn't seem to know what it was. Bully for me.
"What are you?" My voice was steady. Not afraid. Heap big vampire slayer. Yeah, right.
She opened her mouth wider, tongue caressing the fangs. The fangs were longer than a vampire's; she'd never be able to close her mouth around them.
"Where do the fangs go when you close your mouth?" I said.
She blinked at me, the smile slipping away from her face. She ran her tongue over them, then they folded back into the roof of her mouth.
"Retractable fangs. Cool," I said.
Her face was very solemn. "I'm glad you enjoyed the show, but there's so much more to see." The fangs unfolded again. She widened her jaws, almost a yawn, flashing the fangs nicely in the dim beams of sunlight that got around the drapes.
"Mr. Oliver will not like you threatening her," Inger said.
"He grows weak, sentimental." Her fingers dug into my arm stronger than she should have been.
She was holding my right arm, so I couldn't go for the gun. The knives were out for similar reasons. Maybe I should wear more guns.
She hissed at me, a violent explosion of air that no human throat ever made. The tongue that flicked out was forked.
"Sweet Jesus, what are you?"
She laughed, but it didn't sound right now; maybe the split tongue. Her pupils had narrowed to slits, her irises turned a golden yellow while I watched.
I tugged on my arm but her fingers were like steel. I dropped to the floor. She lowered my arm but didn't let go.
I leaned back on my left side, drew my legs up under me, and kicked her right kneecap with everything I had. The leg crumpled. She screamed and fell to the floor, but she let my arm go.
Something was happening to her legs. They seemed to be growing together, the skin spreading. I'd never seen anything like it, and I didn't want to now.
"Melanie, what are you doing?" The voice was behind us. Oliver stood in the hallway just short of the brighter light of the living room. His voice was the sound of rocks falling, trees breaking. A storm that was just words but seemed to cut and slash.
The thing on the floor cringed from the voice. Her lower body was becoming serpentine. A snake of some kind. Jesus.
"She's a lamia," I said softly. I backed away, putting the outside door to my back, hand on the door knob. "I thought they were extinct."
"She is the last one," Oliver said. "I keep her with me because I fear what she would do if left to her own desires."
"Your creature that you can call, what is it?" I asked.
He sighed, and I felt the years of sadness in that one sound. A regret too deep for words. "Snakes, I can call snakes."
I nodded my head. "Sure." I opened the door and backed out onto the sunny porch. No one tried to stop me.
The door shut behind me and after a few minutes Inger came out. He was stiff with anger. "We most humbly apologize for her. She is an animal."
"Oliver needs to keep her on a tighter leash."
I nodded. I knew about trying. Doing your best, but anything that could control a lamia could play mind games with me all day, and I might never know it. How much of my trust and good wishes was real and how much of it was manufactured by Oliver?
"I'll drive you back."
And away we went. I'd met my first lamia and perhaps the oldest living creature in the world. A red-fucking-letter day.
The phone was ringing as I unlocked the apartment door. I shoved the door open with my shoulder and ran for the phone. I got it on the fifth ring and nearly yelled, "Hello."
"Anita?" Ronnie made it a question.
"Yeah, it's me."
"You sound out of breath."
"I had to run for the phone. What's up?"
"I remembered where I knew Cal Rupert from."
It took me a minute to remember who she was talking about. The first vampire victim. I'd forgotten, just for a moment, that there was a murder investigation going on. I was a little ashamed of that. "Talk to me, Ronnie."
"I was doing some work for a local law firm last year. One of the lawyers specialized in drawing up dying wills."
"I know that Rupert had a dying will. That's how I could stake him without waiting for an order of execution."
"But did you also know that Reba Baker had a dying will with the same lawyer?"
"Who's Reba Baker?"
"It may be the female victim."
My stomach tightened. A clue, a real live clue. "What makes you think so?"
"Reba Baker was young, blond, and missed an appointment. She doesn't answer her phone. They called her at work, and she hasn't been in for two days."
"The length of time she'd have been dead," I said.
"Call Sergeant Rudolf Storr. Tell him what you just told me. Use my name to get to him."
"You don't want to check it out ourselves?"
"Not on your life. This is police business. They're good at it. Let 'em earn their paychecks."
"Shucks, you're no fun."
"Ronnie, call Dolph. Give it to the police. I've met the vampires that are killing these people. We don't want to make ourselves targets."
I sighed. I'd forgotten that Ronnie didn't know. I told her the shortest version that would make any sense. "I'll fill you in on everything Saturday morning when we work out."
"You going to be all right?"
"So far, so good."
"Watch your back, okay?"
"Always; you too."
"I never seem to have as many people after my back as you do."
"Be thankful," I said.
"I am." She hung up.
We had a clue. Maybe a pattern, except for the attack on me. I didn't fit any pattern. They'd come after me to get Jean-Claude. Everybody wanted Jean-Claude's job. The trouble was, you couldn't abdicate; you could only die. I liked what Oliver had had to say. I agreed with him, but could I sacrifice Jean-Claude on the altar of good sense? Dammit.
I just didn't know.
Bert's office was small and painted pale blue. He thought it was soothing to the clients. I thought it was cold, but that fit Bert, too. He was six feet tall with the broad shoulders and build of an ex-college football player. His stomach was moving a little south with too much food and not enough exercise, but he carried it well in his seven-hundred-dollar suits. For that kind of money, the suits should have carried the Taj Mahal.
He was tanned, grey-eyed, with a buzz haircut that was nearly white. Not age, his natural hair color.
I was sitting across from his desk in work clothes. A red skirt, matching jacket, and a blouse that was so close to scarlet I'd had to put on a little makeup so that my face didn't seem ghostly. The jacket was tailored so that my shoulder holster didn't show.
Larry sat in the chair beside me in a blue suit, white shirt, and blue-on-blue tie. The skin around his stitches had blossomed into a multicolored bruise across his forehead. His short red hair couldn't hide it. It looked like someone had hit him in the head with a baseball bat.
"You could have gotten him killed, Bert," I said.
"He wasn't in any danger until you showed up. The vampires wanted you, not him."
He was right, and I didn't like it. "He tried to raise a third zombie."
Bert's cold little eyes lit up. "You can do three in a night?"
Larry had the grace to look embarrassed. "Almost."
Bert frowned. "What's 'almost' mean?"
"It means he raised it, but lost control of it. If I hadn't been there to fix things, we'd have had a rampaging zombie on our hands."
He leaned forward, hands folded on his desk, small eyes very serious. "Is this true, Larry?"
"I'm afraid so, Mr. Vaughn."
"That could have been very serious, Larry. You understand that?"
"Serious?" I said. "It would have been a bloody disaster. The zombie could have eaten one of our clients!"
"Now, Anita, no reason to frighten the boy."
I stood up. "Yes, there is."
Bert frowned at me. "If you hadn't been late, he wouldn't have tried to raise the last zombie."
"No, Bert. You are not making this all my fault. You sent him out on his first night alone. Alone, Bert."
"And he handled himself well," Bert said.
I fought the urge to scream, because it wouldn't help. "Bert, he's a twenty-year-old college student. This is a freaking seminar for him. If you get him killed, it's gonna look sorta bad."
"May I say something?" Larry asked.
I said, "No."
Bert said, "Certainly."
"I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself."
I wanted to argue that, but looking into his true-blue eyes I couldn't say it. He was twenty. I remembered twenty. I'd known everything at twenty. It took me another year to realize I knew nothing. I was still hoping to learn something before I hit thirty, but I wasn't holding my breath.
"How old were you when you started working for me?" Bert said.
"How old were you?"
"Twenty-one; I'd just graduated college."
"When will you turn twenty-one, Larry?" Bert asked.
"See, Anita, he's just a few months younger. He's the same age you were."
"That was different."
"Why?" Bert said.
I couldn't put it into words. Larry still had all his grandparents. He'd never seen death and violence up close and personal. I had. He was an innocent, and I hadn't been innocent for years. But how to explain that to Bert without hurting Larry's feelings? No twenty-year-old man likes to hear that a woman knows more about the world than he does. Some cultural fables die hard.
"You sent me out with Manny, not alone."
"He was supposed to go out with you, but you had police business to handle."
"That's not fair, Bert, and you know it."
He shrugged. "If you'd been doing your job, he wouldn't have been alone."
"There've been two murders. What am I supposed to do? Say sorry, folks, I've got to babysit a new animator. Sorry about the murders."
"Nobody has to babysit me," Larry said.
We both ignored him.
"You have a full time job here with Animators, Inc."
"We've had this argument before, Bert."
"Too many times," he said.
"You're my boss, Bert. Do what you think best."
"Don't tempt me."
"Hey, guys," Larry said, "I'm getting the feeling that you're using me for an excuse to fight. Don't get carried away, okay?"
We both glared at him. He didn't back down, just stared at us. Point for him.
"If you don't like the way I do my job, Bert, fire me, but stop yanking my chain."
Bert stood up, slowly, like a leviathan rising from the waves. "Anita . . ."
The phone rang. We all stared at it for a minute. Bert finally picked it up and growled, "Yeah, what is it?"
He listened for a minute, then glared at me. "It's for you." His voice was incredibly mild as he said it. "Detective Sergeant Storr, police business."
Bert's face was smiling, butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth.
I held out my hand for the phone without another word. He handed me the receiver. He was still smiling, his tiny grey eyes warm and sparkling. It was a bad sign.
"Hi, Dolph, what's up?"
"We're at the lawyer's office that your friend Veronica Sims gave us. Nice that she called you first and not us."
"She called you second, didn't she?"
"What have you found out?" I didn't bother to keep my voice down. If you're careful, one side of a conversation isn't very enlightening.
"Reba Baker is the dead woman. They identified her from morgue photos."
"Pleasant way to end the work week," I said.
Dolph ignored that. "Both victims were clients with dying wills. If they died by vampire bite, they wanted to be staked, then cremated."
"Sounds like a pattern to me," I said.
"But how did the vampires find out that they had dying wills?"
"Is this a trick question, Dolph? Someone told them."
"I know that," he said. He sounded disgusted.
I was missing something. "What do you want from me, Dolph?"
"I've questioned everyone, and I'd swear they were all telling the truth. Could someone have been giving the information and not remember?"
"You mean could the vampire have played mind games, so that the traitor wouldn't know afterwards?"
"Yeah," he said.
"Sure," I said.
"Could you tell which one the vampire got to if you were here?"
I glanced at my boss's face. If I missed another night during our busiest season, he might fire me. There were days when I didn't think I'd care. This wasn't one of them. "Look for memory losses; hours, or even entire nights."
"If someone has been feeding info to the vampires, they may not remember it, but a good hypnotist will be able to raise the memory."
"The lawyer is screaming about rights and warrants. We've only got a warrant for the files, not for their minds."
"Ask him if he wants to be responsible for tonight's murder victim, one of his own clients?"
"She; the lawyer's a woman," he said.
How embarrassing and how sexist of me. "Ask her if she's willing to explain to her client's family why she obstructed your investigation."
"The clients won't know unless we let it out," he said.
"That's true," I said.
"Why, that would be blackmail, Ms. Blake."
"Isn't it, though?" I said.
"You had to be a cop in a past life," he said. "You're too devious not to be."
"Thanks for the compliment."
"Any hypnotists you'd recommend?"
"Alvin Thormund. Wait a sec and I'll get his number for you." I got out my thin business card holder. I tried to only keep cards I wanted to refer to from time to time. We'd used Alvin for several cases of vampire victims with amnesia. I gave Dolph the number.
"Let me know what you find out. I might be able to identify the vampire involved."
"You want to be there when we put them under?"
I glanced at Bert. His face was still relaxed, pleasant. Bert at his most dangerous.
"I don't think so. Just make a recording of the session. If I need to, I'll listen to it later."
"Later may mean another body," he said. "Your boss giving you trouble again?"
"Yeah," I said.
"You want me to talk to him?" Dolph asked.
"I don't think so."
"He being a real bastard about it?"
"Okay, I'll call this Thormund and record the sessions. I'll let you know if we find out anything."
"You got it." He hung up. I didn't bother to say good-bye. Dolph never did.
I handed the phone back to Bert. He hung it up still staring at me with his pleasant, threatening eyes. "You have to go out for the police tonight?"
"How did we merit this honor?"
"Cut the sarcasm, Bert." I turned to Larry. "You ready to go, kid?"
"How old are you?" he asked.
"What difference does it make?" I asked.
"Just answer the question, okay?"
I shrugged. "Twenty-four."
"You're only four years older than me. Don't call me kid."
I had to smile. "Deal, but we better be going. We have dead to raise, money to make." I glanced at Bert.
He was leaning back in his chair, blunt-fingered hands clasped over his belly. He was grinning.
I wanted to wipe the grin off his face with a fist. I resisted the urge. Who says I have no self-control?
It was an hour before dawn. When all the Whos down in Whoville were asnooze in their beds without care. Sorry, wrong book. If I get to stay awake until dawn, I get just a tad slaphappy. I'd been up all night teaching Larry how to be a good, law-abiding animator. I wasn't sure Bert would appreciate the last, but I knew I would.
The cemetery was small. A family plot with pretensions. A narrow two-lane road rounded a hill, and suddenly there it was, a swathe of gravel beside the road. You had seconds to decide to turn in, that this was it. Tombstones climbed up the hill. The angle was so steep, it looked like the coffins should have slid downhill.
We stood in the dark with a canopy of trees whispering overhead. The woods were thick on either side of the road. The little plot was just a narrow space beside the road, but it was well cared for. There were still-living family members to see to the upkeep. I didn't even want to imagine how they mowed the hillside. Maybe a rope-and-pulley system to make sure the mower didn't roll over and add another corpse.
Our last clients of the night had just driven away back to civilization. I'd raised five zombies. Larry had raised one. Yeah, he could have raised two, but we just ran out of darkness. It doesn't take that long to raise a zombie, at least for me, but there's travel time included. In four years I'd only had two zombies in the same cemetery on the same night. Most of the time you were driving like a maniac to make all the appointments.
My poor car had been towed to a service station, but the insurance people hadn't seen it yet. It would take days or weeks for them to tell me it was totaled. There hadn't been time to rent a car for the night, so Larry was driving. He'd have been with me even if I'd had the car. I was the one bitching about not having enough help, so I got to train him. It was only fair, I guessed.
The wind rushed through the trees. Dry leaves scurried across the road. The night was full of small, hurried noises. Rushing, rushing, towards . . . what? All Hallows Eve. You could feel Halloween on the air.
"I love nights like this," Larry said.
I glanced over at him. We were both standing with our hands in our pockets staring out into the darkness. Enjoying the evening. We were also both covered in dried chicken blood. Just a nice, normal night.
My beeper went off. The high-pitched beep sounded very wrong in the quiet, windswept night. I hit the button. Mercifully, the noise stopped. The little light flashed a phone number at me. I didn't recognize the number. I hoped it wasn't Dolph, because an unfamiliar number this late at night, or early in the morning, meant another murder. Another body.
"Come on, we gotta get to a phone."
"Who is it?"
"I'm not sure." I started down the hill.
He followed me and asked, "Who do you think it is?"
"Maybe the police."
"The murders you're working on?"
I glanced back at him and rammed my knee into a tombstone. I stood there for a few seconds, holding my breath while the pain ran through me. "Shiiit!" I said softly and with feeling.
"Are you all right?" Larry touched my arm.
I drew away from his hand, and he let his hand drop. I wasn't much into casual touching. "I'm fine." Truth was, it still hurt, but what the hell? I needed to get to a phone, and the pain would get better the more I walked on it. Honest.
I stared carefully ahead to avoid other hard objects. "What do you know about the murders?"
"Just that you're helping the police on a preternatural crime, and that it's taking you away from your animating jobs."
"Bert told you that."
"Mr. Vaughn, yes."
We were at the car. "Look, Larry, if you're going to work for Animators, Inc., you've got to drop all this Mr. and Ms. stuff. We aren't your professors. We're coworkers."
He smiled, a flash of white in the dark. "All right, Ms . . . Anita."
"That's better. Now let's go find a phone."
We drove into Chesterfield on the theory that, as the closest town, it would have the closest phone. We ended up at a bank of pay phones in the parking lot of a closed service station. The station glowed softly in the dark, but a halogen streetlight beamed over the pay phones, turning night into day. Insects and moths danced around the light. The swift, flitting shapes of bats swam in and out of the light, eating the insects.
I dialed the number while Larry waited in the car. Give him a point for discretion. The phone rang twice; then a voice said, "Anita, is that you?"
It was Irving Griswold, reporter and friend. "Irving, what in blazes are you doing paging me at this hour?"
"Jean-Claude wants to see you tonight, now." His voice sounded rushed and uncertain.
"Why are you delivering the message?" I was afraid I wasn't going to like the answer.
"I'm a werewolf," he said.
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"You didn't know." He sounded surprised.
"Know what?" I was getting angry. I hate twenty questions.
"Jean-Claude's animal is a wolf."
That explained Stephen the Werewolf and the black woman. "Why weren't you there the other night, Irving? Did he let you off your leash?"
"That's not fair."
He was right. It wasn't. "I'm sorry, Irving. I'm just feeling guilty because I introduced the two of you."
"I wanted to interview the Master of the City. I got my interview."
"Was it worth the price?" I said.
"That's my line."
He laughed. "Can you come to the Circus of the Damned? Jean-Claude has some information on the master vampire that jumped you."
"That's the one."
"We'll be there as soon as we can, but it's going to be damn close to dawn before we can get to the Riverfront."
"A new animator I'm breaking in. He's driving." I hesitated. "Tell Jean-Claude no rough stuff tonight."
"Tell him yourself."
"Yes, ma'am. See you as soon as you can get here. Bye."
"Bye, Irving." I held the buzzing receiver for a few seconds, then hung up. Irving was Jean-Claude's creature. Jean-Claude could call wolves the way Mr. Oliver called snakes. The way Nikolaos had called rats, and wererats. They were all monsters. It was just a choice of flavors.
I slid back into the car. "You wanted more experience with vampires, right?" I buckled the seat belt.
"Of course," Larry said.
"Well, you're going to get it tonight."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll explain while you drive. We don't have much time before dawn." Larry threw the car in gear and peeled out of the parking lot. He looked eager in the dim glow of the dashboard. Eager and very, very young.
The Circus of the Damned had closed down for the night, or would that be morning? It was still dark, but there was a wash of lightness to the east as we parked in front of the warehouse. An hour earlier, and there wouldn't have been a parking place even close to the Circus. But the tourists leave as the vampires fold down for the night.
I glanced at Larry. His face was smeared with dried blood. So was mine. It hadn't occurred to me until just now to find some place to clean up first. I glanced up at the eastern sky and shook my head. There was no time. Dawn was coming.
The toothed clowns still glowed and twirled atop the marquee, but it was a tired dance. Or maybe I was the one who was tired.
"Follow my lead in here, Larry. Never forget that they are monsters; no matter how human they look, they aren't. Don't take off your cross, don't let them touch you, and don't stare directly into their eyes."
"I know that from class. I had two semesters of Vampire Studies."
I shook my head. "Class is nothing, Larry. This is the real thing. Reading about it doesn't prepare you for it."
"We had guest speakers. Some of them were vampires."
I sighed and let it go. He'd have to learn on his own. Like everybody else did. Like I had.
The big doors were locked. I knocked. The door opened a moment later. Irving stood there. He wasn't smiling. He looked like a chubby cherub with soft, curling hair in a fringe over his ears, and a big bald spot in the middle. Round, wire-framed glasses perched on a round little nose. His eyes widened a little as we stepped inside. The blood looked like what it was in the light.
"What have you been doing tonight?" he asked.
"Raising the dead," I said.
"This the new animator?"
"Larry Kirkland, Irving Griswold. He's a reporter, so everything you say can be used against you."
"Hey, Blake, I've never quoted you when you said not to. Give me that."
I nodded. "Given."
"He's waiting for you downstairs," Irving said.
"Downstairs?" I said.
"It is almost dawn. He needs to be underground."
Ah. "Sure," I said, but my stomach clenched tight. The last time I'd gone downstairs at the Circus, it had been to kill Nikolaos. There had been a lot of killing that morning. A lot of blood. Some of it mine.
Irving led the way through the silent midway. Someone had hit the switch, and the lights were dull. The fronts of the games had been shut and locked down, covers thrown over the stuffed animals. The scent of corn dogs and cotton candy hung on the air like aromatic ghosts, but the smells were dim and tired.
We passed the haunted house with its life-size witch on top, standing silent and staring with bulging eyes. She was green and had a wart on her nose. I'd never met a witch that looked anything but normal. They certainly weren't green, and warts could always be surgically removed.
The glass house was next. The darkened Ferris wheel towered over everything. "I feel like one, / Who treads alone / Some banquet hall deserted, / Whose lights are fled, / Whose garlands dead, / And all but he departed," I said.
Irving glanced back to me. "Thomas Moore, Oft in the Stilly Night."
I smiled. "I couldn't remember the title to save myself. I'll just have to agree with you."
"Double major, journalism and English literature."
"I bet that last comes in handy as a reporter," I said.
"Hey, I slip a little culture in when I can." He sounded offended, but I knew he was pretending. It made me feel better to have Irving joking with me. It was nice and normal. I needed all the nice I could get tonight.
It was an hour until dawn. What harm could Jean-Claude do in an hour? Better not to ask.
The door in the wall was heavy and wooden with a sign reading, "Authorized Personnel Only Beyond This Point." For once I wished I wasn't authorized.
The little room beyond was just a small storage room with a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. A second door led down the stairs. The stairs were almost wide enough for the three of us to walk abreast, but not quite. Irving walked ahead of us, as if we still needed leading. There was nowhere to go but down. Prophetic, that.
There was a sharp bend to the stairs. There was a brush of cloth, the sensation of movement. I had my gun out and ready. No thought necessary, just lots and lots of practice.
"You won't need that," Irving said.
"I thought the Master was a friend of yours," Larry said.
"Vampires don't have friends."
"How about junior high science teachers?" Richard Zeeman walked around the corner. He was wearing a forest-green sweater with a lighter green and brown forest woven into it. The sweater hung down nearly to his knees. On me it would have been a dress. The sleeves were pushed back over his forearms. Jeans and the same pair of white Nikes completed the outfit. "Jean-Claude sent me up to wait for you."
"Why?" I asked.
He shrugged. "He seems nervous. I didn't ask questions."
"Smart man," I said.
"Let's keep moving," Irving said.
"You sound nervous, too, Irving."
"He calls and I obey, Anita. I'm his animal."
I reached out to touch Irving's arm, but he moved away. "I thought I could play human, but he's shown me that I'm an animal. Just an animal."
"Don't let him do that to you," I said.
He stared at me, his eyes filled with tears. "I can't stop him."
"We better get moving. It's almost dawn," Richard said.
I glared at him for saying it.
He shrugged. "It'll be better if we don't keep the master waiting. You know that."
I did know that. I nodded. "You're right. I don't have any right to get mad at you."
I shook my head. "Let's do it."
"You can put the gun up," he said.
I stared at the Browning. I liked having it out. For security it beat the hell out of a teddy bear. I put the gun away. I could always get it out again later.
At the end of the stairs there was one last door—smaller, rounded with a heavy iron lock. Irving took out a huge black key and slipped it into the door. The lock gave a well-oiled click, and he pushed it forward. Irving was trusted with the key to below the stairs. How deep was he in, and could I get him out?
"Wait a minute," I said.
Everyone turned to me. I was the center of attention. Great. "I don't want Larry to meet the Master, or even know who he is."
"Anita . . ." Larry started.
"No, Larry, I've been attacked twice for the information. It is definitely on a need-to-know basis. You don't need to know."
"I don't need you to protect me," he said.
"Listen to her," Irving said. "She told me to stay away from the Master. I said I could handle myself. I was wrong, real wrong."
Larry crossed his arms over his chest, a stubborn set to his bloodstained cheeks. "I can take care of myself."
"Irving, Richard, I want a promise on this. The less he knows, the safer he'll be."
They both nodded.
"Doesn't anyone care what I think?" Larry asked.
"No," I said.
"Dammit, I'm not a child."
"You two can fight later," Irving said. "The Master's waiting."
Larry started to say something; I raised my hand. "Lesson number one; never keep a nervous master vampire waiting."
Larry opened his mouth to argue, then stopped. "Okay, we'll argue later."
I wasn't looking forward to later, but arguing with Larry over whether I was being overprotective beat the hell out of what lay beyond the door. I knew that. Larry didn't, but he was about to learn, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do to stop it.
The ceiling stretched upward into the darkness. Huge drapes of silky material fell in white and black, forming cloth walls. Minimalist chairs in black and silver formed a small conversation group. A glass and dark wood coffee table took up the center of the room. A black vase with a bouquet of white lilies was the only decoration. The room looked half-finished, as if it needed paintings hung on the walls. But how do you hang paintings on cloth walls? I was sure Jean-Claude would figure it out eventually.
I knew the rest of the room was a huge cavernous warehouse made of stone, but the only thing left of that was the high ceiling. There was even black carpeting on the floor, soft and cushioned.
Jean-Claude sat in one of the black chairs. He was slumped in the chair, ankles crossed, hands clasped across his stomach. His white shirt was plain, just a simple dress shirt except for the fact that the front sides were sheer. The line of buttons, cuffs, and collar was solid, but the chest was laid bare through a film of gauze. His cross-shaped burn was brown and clear against the pale skin.
Marguerite sat at his feet, head laid on his knee like an obedient dog. Her blond hair and pale pink pants suit seemed out of place in the black-and-white room.
"You've redecorated," I said.
"A few comforts," Jean-Claude said.
"I'm ready to meet the Master of the City," I said.
His eyes widened, a question forming on his face.
"I don't want my new coworker to meet the Master. It seems to be dangerous information right now."
Jean-Claude never moved. He just stared at me, one hand absently rubbing Marguerite's hair. Where was Yasmeen? In a coffin somewhere, tucked safely away from the coming dawn.
"I will take you alone to meet . . . the Master," he said at last. His voice was neutral, but I could detect a hint of laughter underneath the words. It wasn't the first time Jean-Claude had found me funny, and it probably wouldn't be the last.
He stood in one graceful movement, leaving Marguerite kneeling beside the empty chair. She looked displeased. I smiled at her, and she glared at me. Baiting Marguerite was childish, but it made me feel better. Everyone needs a hobby.
Jean-Claude swept the curtains aside to show darkness. I realized then that there was discreet electric light in the room, indirect lighting set in the walls themselves. There was nothing but the flicker of torches beyond the curtains. It was like that one piece of cloth held back the modern world with all its comforts. Beyond lay stone and fire and secrets best whispered in the dark.
"Anita?" Larry called after me. He looked uncertain, maybe even scared. But I was taking the most dangerous thing in the room with me. He'd be safe with Irving and Richard. I didn't think Marguerite was a danger without Yasmeen to hold her leash.
"Stay here, Larry, please. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Be careful," he said.
I smiled. "Always."
He grinned. "Yeah, sure."
Jean-Claude motioned me through and I went, following the sweep of his pale hand. The curtain fell behind us, cutting off the light. Darkness closed around us like a fist. Torches sparked against the far wall but couldn't touch the swelling dark.
Jean-Claude led the way into the dark. "We wouldn't want your coworker to overhear us." His voice whispered in the dark, growing like a wind to beat against the curtains.
My heart hammered against my rib cage. How the hell did he do that? "Save the dramatics for someone you can impress."
"Brave words, ma petite, but I taste your heartbeat in my mouth." The last word breathed over my skin as if his lips had passed just over the nape of my neck. Goosebumps marched down my arms.
"If you want to play games until after dawn, that's fine with me, but Irving told me that you had information on the master vampire that attacked me. Do you, or was it a lie?"
"I have never lied to you, ma petite."
"Oh, come on."
"Partial truths are not the same thing as lies."
"I guess that depends on where you're sitting," I said.
He acknowledged that with a nod. "Shall we sit against the far wall, out of hearing range?"
He knelt in the thin circle of a torch's light. The light was for my benefit and I appreciated it. But no sense telling him that.
I sat across from him, back to the wall. "So, what do you know about Alejandro?"
He was staring at me, a peculiar look on his face.
"What?" I asked.
"Tell me everything that happened last night, ma petite, everything about Alejandro."
It was too much like an order for my tastes, but there was something in his eyes, his face; uneasiness, almost fear. Which was silly. What did Jean-Claude have to fear from Alejandro? What indeed? I told him everything I remembered.
His face went carefully blank, beautiful and unreal like a painting. The colors were still there, but the life, the movement, had fled. He put one finger between his lips and slowly slid it out of sight. The finger came glistening back to the light. He extended that wet finger towards me. I scooted away from him.
"What are you trying to do?"
"Wash the blood off of your cheek. Nothing more."
"I don't think so."
He sighed, the barest of sounds, but it slithered over my skin like air. "You make everything so difficult."
"Glad you noticed."
"I need to touch you, ma petite. I believe Alejandro has done something to you."
He shook his head. "Something impossible."
"No riddles, Jean-Claude."
"I believe he has marked you."
I stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"Marked you, Anita Blake, marked you with the first mark, just as I have."
I shook my head. "That's not possible. Two vampires can't have the same human servant."
"Exactly," he said. He moved towards me. "Let me test the theory, ma petite, please."
"What does testing the theory mean?"
He said something soft and harsh in French. I'd never heard him curse before. "It is after dawn and I am tired. Your questions will make something simple last all bloody day." There was real anger in his voice, but under that was tiredness and that thread of fear. The fear scared me. He was supposed to be some untouchable monster. Monsters weren't afraid of other monsters.
I sighed. Was it better to just get it over with, like a shot? Maybe. "All right, in the interest of time. But give me some idea of what to expect. You know I don't like surprises."
"I must touch you to search first for my marks, then for his. You should not have fallen so easily into his eyes. That should not have happened."
"Get it over with," I said.
"Is my touch so repulsive that you must prepare yourself as for pain?"
Since that was almost exactly what I was doing, I wasn't sure what to say. "Just do it, Jean-Claude, before I change my mind."
He slid his finger between his lips again.
"Do you have to do it that way?"
"Ma petite, please."
I squirmed against the cool stone wall. "All right, no more interruptions."
"Good." He knelt in front of me. His fingertip traced my right cheek, leaving a line of wetness down my skin. The dried blood was gritty under his touch. He leaned into me, as if he was going to kiss me. I put my hands on his chest to keep him from touching me. His skin was hard and smooth under the gauze of his shirt.
I jerked away and hit my head against the wall. "Dammit."
He smiled. His eyes glinted blue in the torchlight. "Trust me." He moved in, lips hovering over my mouth. "I won't hurt you." The words whispered into my mouth, a soft push of air.
"Yeah, right," I said, but the words came out soft and uncertain.
His lips brushed mine, then pressed gently against my mouth. The kiss moved from my lips to my cheek. His lips were soft as silk, gentle as marigold petals, hot as the noonday sun. They worked down my skin until his mouth hovered over the pulse in my neck.
"Alejandro was alive when the Aztec empire was just a dream." He whispered it against my skin. "He was there to greet the Spaniards and watch the Aztecs fall. He has survived when others have died or gone mad." His tongue flicked out, hot and wet.
"Stop it." I pushed against him. His heart beat against my hands. I pushed my hands upward to his throat. The big pulse in his throat fluttered against my skin. I placed a thumb over the smoothness of one of his eyelids. "Move it or lose it," I said. My voice was breathy with panic, and something worse . . . desire.
The feel of his body against me, under my hands, his lips touching me—some hidden part of me wanted it. Wanted him. So I lusted after the Master; so what? Nothing new. His eyeball trembled under my thumb, and I wondered if I could do it. Could I blank out one of those midnight-blue orbs? Could I blind him?
His lips moved against my skin. Teeth brushed my skin, the hard brush of fangs rubbed against my throat. And the answer was, suddenly, yes. I tensed to press inward, and he was gone like a dream, or a nightmare.
He stood in front of me, looking down, his eyes all dark, no white showing. His lips had drawn back from his teeth to expose glistening fangs. His skin was marble-white and seemed to glow from inside, and still he was beautiful.
"Alejandro has given you the first mark, ma petite. We share you. I do not know how, but we do. Two more marks and you are mine. Three more and you are his. Would it not be better to be mine?"
He knelt in front of me again, but was careful not to touch me. "You desire me as a woman desires a man. Is that not better than some stranger taking you by force?"
"You didn't ask my permission for the first two marks. They weren't by choice."
"I am asking permission now. Let me share with you the third mark."
"You would rather serve Alejandro?"
"I'm not going to serve anyone," I said.
"This is a war, Anita. You cannot be neutral."
He stood up and paced a tight circle. "Don't you understand? The killings are a challenge to my authority, and his marking you is another challenge. He will take you from me if he can."
"I don't belong to you, or to him."
"What I have tried to get you to believe, to accept, he will shove down your throat."
"So I'm in the middle of an undead turf war because of your marks."
He blinked, opened his mouth, then closed it. Finally, "Yes."
I stood up. "Thanks a lot." I walked past him. "If you have any more info on Alejandro, send me a letter."
"This will not go away just because you wish it to."
I stopped in front of the curtain. "Hell, I knew that. I've wished hard enough for you to leave me alone."
"You would miss me if I were not here."
"Don't flatter yourself."
"And do not lie to yourself, ma petite. I would give you a partnership. He will give you slavery."
"If you really believed this partnership crap, you wouldn't have forced the first two marks on me. You would have asked. For all I know, the third mark can't be given without my cooperation." I stared at him. "That's it, isn't it? You need my help or something for the third mark. It's different from the first two. You son of a bitch."
"The third mark without your . . . help would be like rape to making love. You would hate me for all eternity if I took you by force."
I turned my back on him and grabbed the curtain. "You got that right."
"Alejandro will not care if you hate him. He wants only to hurt me. He will not ask your permission. He will simply take you."
"I can take care of myself."
"Like you took care last night?"
Alejandro had rolled me under and over and I hadn't even known it. What protection did I have against something like that? I shook my head and jerked back the curtain. The light was so bright, I was blind. I stood in the glare waiting for my eyes to adjust. The cool darkness blew against my back. The light was hot and intrusive after the darkness, but anything was better than whispers in the night. Blinded by the light or blinded by darkness; I'd take light every time.
Larry was lying on the floor, head cradled in Yasmeen's lap. She held his wrists. Marguerite had pinned his body under her own. She was licking the blood off his face with long, lingering strokes of her tongue. Richard lay in a crumpled heap, blood running down his face. There was something on the floor. It writhed and moved. Grey fur flowed over it like water. A hand reached skyward, then shrank like a dying flower, bones glistening, shoving upward through the flesh. The fingers shrank, flesh rolling over the nubs of raw flesh. All that raw meat and no blood. The bones slid in and out with wet, sucking noises. Drops of clear fluid spattered the black rug. But no blood.
I drew the Browning and moved so I could point it somewhere between Yasmeen and the thing on the floor. I had my back to the curtain but moved away from it. Too easy for something to reach through.
"Let him go, now."
"We haven't hurt him," Yasmeen said.
Marguerite leaned into Larry's body; one hand cupped his groin, massaging.
"Anita!" His eyes were wide, skin pale; freckles stood out like ink spots.
I fired a shot inches from Yasmeen's head. The sound was sharp and echoed. Yasmeen snarled at me. "I can rip his throat out before you squeeze that trigger again."
I aimed for Marguerite's head, right over one blue eye. "You kill him, I kill Marguerite. You willing to make the trade?"
"Yasmeen, what are you doing?" Jean-Claude came in at my back. My eyes flicked to him, then back to Marguerite. Jean-Claude wasn't the danger, not now.
The thing on the floor rose on four shaky legs and shook itself like a dog after a bath. It was a huge wolf. Thick grey-brown fur covered the animal, fluffy and dry as if the wolf had been freshly washed and blow dried. Liquid formed a thick puddle on the carpet. Bits of clothing were scattered around. The wolf had emerged from the mess newly formed, reborn.
A pair of round wire-framed glasses sat on the glass and black coffee table, neatly folded.
The wolf gave a small half-growl, half-bark. Was that a yes?
I had always known that Irving was a werewolf, but seeing it was something else entirely. Until just that moment I hadn't really believed, not really. Staring into the wolf's pale brown eyes, I believed.
Marguerite lay on the ground behind Larry now. Her arms wrapped around his chest, legs wrapping his waist. Most of her was hidden behind him, shielded.
I had spent too much time gazing at Irving. I couldn't shoot Marguerite without risking Larry. Yasmeen was kneeling beside them, one hand gripping a handful of Larry's hair. "I will snap his neck."
"You will not harm him, Yasmeen," Jean-Claude said. He stood beside the coffee table. The wolf moved up beside him, growling softly. His fingers brushed the top of the wolf's head.
"Call off your dogs, Jean-Claude, or this one dies." She stretched Larry's throat into one straining pale line to emphasize her point. The Band-Aid that had been hiding his vampire bite had been removed. Marguerite's tongue flicked out, touching the straining flesh.
I was betting that I could shoot Marguerite in the forehead while she licked Larry's neck, but Yasmeen could, and might, break his neck. I couldn't take the chance.
"Do something, Jean-Claude," I said. "You're the Master of the City. She's supposed to take your orders."
"Yes, Jean-Claude, order me."
"What's going on here, Jean-Claude?" I asked.
"She is testing me."
"Yasmeen wants to be Master of the City. But she isn't strong enough."
"I was strong enough to keep you and your servant from hearing this one's screams. Richard called your name, and you heard nothing because I kept you from it."
Richard stood just behind Jean-Claude. Blood was smeared from the corner of his mouth. There was a small cut on his right cheek that trickled blood down his face. "I tried to stop her."
"You did not try hard enough," Jean-Claude said.
"Argue amongst yourselves later," I said. "Right now, we have a problem."
Yasmeen laughed. The sound wriggled down my spine like someone had spilled a can of worms. I shuddered, and decided then and there that I'd shoot Yasmeen first. We'd find out if a master vampire was really faster than a speeding bullet.
She released Larry with a laugh and stood. Marguerite still clung to him. He got to his hands and knees with the woman riding him like a horse, arms and legs still clamped around him. She was laughing, kissing his neck.
I kicked her in the face as hard as I could. She slid off Larry and lay dazed on the floor. Yasmeen started forward and I fired at heir chest. Jean-Claude hit my arm, and the shot went wide.
"I need her alive, Anita."
I jerked away from him. "She's crazy."
"But he needs my assistance to combat the other masters," Yasmeen said.
"She'll betray you if she can," I said.
"But I still need her."
"If you can't control Yasmeen, then how in the hell are you going to fight Alejandro?"
"I don't know," he said. "Is that what you wanted to hear? I do not know."
Larry was still huddled by our feet.
"Can you get up?"
He looked up at me, eyes shiny with unshed tears. He used one of the chairs to brace himself and almost fell. I grabbed his arm, gun still in my right hand. "Come on, Larry, we're getting out of here."
"Sounds great to me." His voice was incredibly breathless, straining not to cry.
We worked our way towards the door, me helping Larry walk, gun still out pointed vaguely at everything in the room.
"Go with them, Richard. See them safely to their car. And do not fail me again like you did today."
Richard ignored the threat and walked around us to hold the door open. We walked through without turning our backs on the vampires or the werewolf. When the door closed, I let out a breath I hadn't even known I was holding.
"I can walk now," Larry said.
I let go of his arm. He put a hand against the wall but otherwise seemed okay. The first slow tear trailed down his cheek. "Get me out of here."
I put my gun up. It wouldn't help now. Richard and I both pretended not to notice Larry's tears. They were very quiet. If you hadn't been looking directly at him, you wouldn't have known he was crying.
I tried to think of something to say, anything. But what could I say? He had seen the monsters, and they had scared the shit out of him. They scared the shit out of me. They scared the shit out of everybody. Now Larry knew that. Maybe it was worth the pain. Maybe not.
Early-morning light lay heavy and golden on the street outside. The air was cool and misty. You couldn't see the river from here, but you could feel it; that sense of water on the air that made every breath fresher, cleaner.
Larry got out his car keys.
"You okay to drive?" I asked.
He nodded. The tears had dried in thin tracks down his face. He hadn't bothered to wipe them away. He wasn't crying anymore. He was as grim-faced as you could be and still look like an overgrown Howdy Doody. He opened his door and got in, sliding across to unlock the passenger side.
Richard stood there. The cool wind blew his hair across his face. He ran fingers through it to keep it from his face. The gesture was achingly familiar. Phillip had always been doing that. Richard smiled at me, and it wasn't Phillip's smile. It was bright and open, and there was nothing hidden in his brown eyes.
Blood had started to dry at the corner of his mouth, and on his cheek.
"Get out while you still can, Richard."
"Out from what?"
"There's going to be an undead war. You don't want to be caught in the middle."
"I don't think Jean-Claude would let me walk away," he said. He wasn't smiling when he said it. I couldn't decide whether he was handsomer smiling or solemn.
"Humans don't do too well in the middle of the monsters, Richard. Get out if you can."
I shrugged. "Some people would argue that."
"Not me." He reached out to touch me. I stood my ground and didn't move away. His fingertips brushed the side of my face, warm and very alive.
"See you at three o'clock this afternoon, unless you're going to be too tired."
I shook my head, and his hand dropped away from my face. "Wouldn't miss it," I said.
He smiled again. His hair blew in a tangle across his face. I kept the front of my own hair cut short enough so that it stayed out of my eyes, most of the time. Layering was a wonderful thing.
I opened the passenger side door. "I'll see you this afternoon."
"I'll bring your costume with me."
"What am I going to be dressed as?"
"A Civil War bride," he said.
"Does that mean a hoop skirt?"
I frowned. "And what are you going to be?"
"A Confederate officer."
"You get to wear pants," I said.
"I don't think the dress would fit me."
I sighed. "It's not that I'm not grateful, Richard, but . . ."
"Hoop skirts aren't your style?"
"My offer was grubbies and all the mud we could crawl in. The party was your idea."
"I'd get out of it if I could."
"It might be worth all the trouble just to see you dressed up. I get the feeling it's a rarity."
Larry leaned across the seat, and said, "Can we get a move on? I need a cigarette and some sleep."
"I'll be right there." I turned back to Richard but suddenly didn't know what to say. "See you later."
He nodded. "Later."
I got in the car, and Larry pulled away before I got my seat belt fastened. "What's the rush?"
"I want to get as far away from this place as I can."
I looked at him. He still looked pale.
"You all right?"
"No, I'm not all right." He looked at me, blue eyes bright with anger. "How can you be so casual after what just happened?"
"You were calm after last night. You got bitten last night."
"But that was different," he said. "That woman sucked on the bite. She . . ." His hands clenched the steering wheel so tightly his hands shook.
"You were hurt worse last night; what makes this tougher?"
"Last night was violent, but it wasn't . . . perverted. The vampires last night wanted something. The name of the Master. The ones tonight didn't want anything, they were just being . . ."
"Cruel," I offered.
"They're vampires, Larry. They aren't human. They don't have the same rules."
"She would have killed me tonight on a whim."
"Yes, she would have," I said.
"How can you bear to be around them?"
I shrugged. "It's my job."
"And my job, too."
"It doesn't have to be, Larry. Just refuse to work on vampire cases. Most of the rest of the animators do."
He shook his head. "No, I won't give up."
"Why not?" I asked.
He didn't say anything for a minute. He pulled onto 270 headed south. "How could you talk about a date this afternoon after what just happened?"
"You have to have a life, Larry. If you let this business eat you alive, you'll never make it." I studied his face. "And you never answered my question."
"Why won't you give up the idea of being a vampire executioner?"
Larry hesitated, concentrating on driving. He suddenly seemed very interested in passing cars. We drove under a railroad bridge, warehouses on either side. Many of the windows were broken or missing. Rust dripped down the bridge overpass.
"Nice section of town," he said.
"You're avoiding the question. Why?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I asked about your family; you said they were all alive. What about friends? You lose a friend to the vamps?"
He glanced at me. "Why ask that?"
"I know the signs, Larry. You're determined to kill the monsters because you've got a grudge, don't you?"
He hunched his shoulders and stared straight ahead. The muscles in his jaws clenched and unclenched.
"Talk to me, Larry," I said.
"The town I come from is small, fifteen hundred people. While I was away at college my freshman year, twelve people were murdered by a pack of vampires. I didn't know them, any of them, really. I knew them to say hi to, but that was it."
He glanced at me. "I went to the funerals over Christmas break. All those coffins, all those families. My dad was a doctor, but he couldn't help them. Nobody could help them."
"I remember the case," I said. "Elbert, Wisconsin, three years ago, right?"
"Yes, how did you know?"
"Twelve people is a lot for a single vampire kill. It made the papers. Brett Colby was the vampire hunter they got for the job."
"I never met him, but my parents told me about him. They made him sound like a cowboy riding into town to take down the bad guys. He found and killed five vampires. He helped the town when nobody else could."
"If you just want to help people, Larry, be a social worker, or a doctor."
"I'm an animator; I've got a built-in resistance to vampires. I think God meant for me to hunt them."
"Geez Louise, Larry, don't go on a holy crusade, you'll end up dead."
"You can teach me."
I shook my head. "Larry, this isn't personal. It can't be personal. If you let your emotions get in the way, you'll either get killed or go stark raving mad."
"I'll learn, Anita."
I stared at his profile. He looked so stubborn. "Larry . . ." I stopped. What could I say? What brought any of us into this business? Maybe his reasons were as good as my own, maybe better. It wasn't just love of killing, like with Edward. And heaven knew I needed help. There were getting to be too many vampires for just little ol' me.
"All right, I'll teach you, but you do what I say, when I say it. No arguments."
"Anything you say, boss." He grinned at me briefly, then turned back to the road. He looked determined and relieved, and young.
But we were all young once. It passes, like innocence and a sense of fair play. The only thing left in the end is a good instinct for survival. Could I teach Larry that? Could I teach him how to survive? Please, God, let me teach him, and don't let him die on me.
Larry, dropped me off in front of my apartment building at 9:05. It was way past my bedtime. I got my gym bag out of the back seat. Didn't want to leave my animating equipment behind. I locked and shut the door, then leaned in the passenger side door. "I'll see you tonight at five o'clock back here, Larry. You're designated driver until I get a new car."
"If I'm late getting home, don't let Bert send you out alone, okay?"
He looked at me then. His face was full of some deep thought that I couldn't read. "You think I can't handle myself?"
I knew he couldn't handle himself, but I didn't say that out loud. "It's only your second night on the job. Give yourself and me a break. I'll teach you how to hunt vampires, but our primary job is raising the dead. Try to remember that."
"Larry, if you have bad dreams, don't worry. I have them too sometimes."
"Sure," he said. He put the car in gear, and I had to close the door. Guess he didn't want to talk anymore. Nothing we'd seen yet would give me nightmares, but I wanted Larry to be prepared, if mere words could prepare anyone for what we do.
A family was loading up a grey van with coolers and a picnic hamper. The man smiled. "I don't think we'll get many more days like this."
"I think you're right." It was that pleasant small talk that you use with people whose names you don't know but whose faces you keep seeing. We were neighbors, so we said hello and good-bye to each other, but nothing else. That was the way I liked it. When I came home, I didn't want someone coming over to borrow a cup of sugar.
The only exception I made was Mrs. Pringle, and she understood my need for privacy.
The apartment was warm and quiet inside. I locked the door and leaned against it. Home, ah. I tossed the leather jacket on the back of the couch and smelled perfume. It was flowery and delicate with a powdery undertaste that only the really expensive ones have. It wasn't my brand.
I pulled the Browning and put my back to the door. A man stepped around the corner from the dining room area. He was tall, thin, with black hair cut short in front, long in back, the latest style. He just stood there, leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, smiling at me.
A second man came up from behind the couch, shorter, more muscular, blond, smiling. He sat on the couch, hands where I could see them. Nobody had any weapons, or none that I could see.
"Who the hell are you?"
A tall black man came out of the bedroom. He had a neat mustache, and dark sunglasses hid his eyes.
The lamia stepped out beside him. She was in human form, in the same red dress as yesterday. She wore scarlet high heels today, but nothing else had changed.
"We've been waiting for you, Ms. Blake."
"Who are the men?"
"I don't understand."
"They belong to me." She trailed red nails down the black man's hand hard enough to leave a thin line of blood. He just smiled.
"What do you want?"
"Mr. Oliver wants to see you. He sent us to fetch you."
"I know where the house is. I can drive there on my own."
"Oh, no, we've had to move," she said, swaying into the room. "Some nasty bounty hunter tried to kill Oliver yesterday."
"What bounty hunter?" Had it been Edward?
She waved a hand. "We were never formally introduced. Oliver wouldn't let me kill him, so he escaped, and we had to move."
It sounded reasonable, but . . . "Where is he now?"
"We'll take you to him. We've got a car waiting outside."
"Why didn't Inger come for me?"
She shrugged. "Oliver gives orders and I follow them." A look passed over her lovely face—hatred.
"How long has he been your master?"
"Too long," she said.
I stared at them all, gun still out but not pointed at anyone. They hadn't offered to hurt me. So why didn't I want to put the gun up? Because I'd seen what the lamia changed into, and it had scared me.
"Why does Oliver need to see me so soon?"
"He wants your answer."
"I haven't decided yet whether to give him the Master of the City."
"All I know is that I was told to bring you. If I don't, he'll be angry. I don't want to be punished, Ms. Blake; please come with us."
How do you punish a lamia? Only one way to find out. "How does he punish you?"
The lamia stared at me. "That is a very personal question."
"I didn't mean it to be."
"Forget it." She swayed towards me. "Shall we go?" She had stopped just in front of me, close enough to touch.
I was beginning to feel silly with the gun out, so I put it up. Nobody was threatening me. A novel approach.
Normally, I still would have offered to follow them in my car, but my car was dead. So . . . if I wanted to meet Oliver, I had to go with them.
I wanted to meet Oliver. I wasn't willing to give him Jean-Claude, but I was willing to give him Alejandro. Or at least enlist his aid against Alejandro. I also wanted to know if it was Edward who had tried to kill him. There weren't that many of us in the business. Who else could it be?
"All right, let's go," I said. I got my leather jacket from the couch and opened the door. I motioned them all out the door. The men went without a word, the lamia last.
I locked the door behind us. They waited politely out in the hall for me. The lamia took the tall black man's arm. She smiled. "Boys, one of you offer the lady your arm."
Blondie and black-hair turned to look at me. Black-hair smiled. I hadn't been with this many smiling people since I bought my last used car.
They both offered me their arms, like in some late movie. "Sorry, guys, I don't need an escort."
"I've trained them to be gentlemen, Ms. Blake; take advantage of it. There are precious few gentlemen around these days."
I couldn't argue with that, but I also didn't need help down the stairs. "I appreciate it, but I'm fine."
"As you like, Ms. Blake." She turned to the two men. "You two are to take special care of Ms. Blake." She turned back to me. "A woman should always have more than one man."
I fought the urge to shrug. "Anything you say."
She gave a brilliant smile and strutted down the hall on her man's arm. The two men sort of fell in beside me. The lamia spoke back over her shoulder, "Ronald here is my special beau. I don't share him; sorry."
I had to smile. "That's fine, I'm not greedy."
She laughed, a high-pitched delighted sound with an edge of giggle to it. "Not greedy; oh, that's very good, Ms. Blake, or may I call you Anita?"
"Then you must call me Melanie."
"Sure," I said. I followed her and Ronald down the hall. Blondie and Smiley hovered on either side of me, lest I trip and stub my toe. We'd never get down the stairs without one of us falling.
I turned to Blondie. "I believe I will take your arm." I smiled back at Smiley. "Could we have a little room here?"
He frowned, but he stepped back. I slipped my left hand through Blondie's waiting arm. His forearm swelled under my hand. I couldn't tell if he was flexing or was just that musclebound. But we all made it down the stairs safely with lonely Smiley bringing up the rear.
The lamia and Ronald were waiting by a large black Lincoln Continental. Ronald held the door for the lamia, then slid into the driver's seat.
Smiley rushed forward to open the door for me. How had I known he would? Usually I complain about things like that, but the whole thing was too strange. If the worst thing that happened to me today was having overzealous men open doors for me, I'd be doing fine.
Blondie slid into the seat next to me, sliding me to the middle of the seat. The other one had run around and was getting in the other side. I was going to end up sandwiched between them. No big surprise.
The lamia named Melanie turned around in her seat, propping her chin on her arm. "Feel free to make out on the way. They're both very good."
I stared into her cheerful eyes. She seemed to be serious. Smiley put his arm across the back of the seat, brushing my shoulders. Blondie tried to take my hand, but I eluded him. He settled for touching my knee. Not an improvement.
"I'm really not into public sex," I said. I moved Blondie's hand back to his own lap.
Smiley's hand slid around my shoulder. I moved up in the seat away from both of them. "Call them off," I said.
"Boys, she's not interested."
The men scooted back from me, as close to their sides of the car as they could get. Their legs still gently touched mine, but at least nothing else was touching.
"Thank you," I said.
"If you change your mind during the drive, just tell them. They love taking orders, don't you, boys?"
The two men nodded, smiling. My, weren't we a happy little bunch? "I don't think I'll change my mind."
The lamia shrugged. "As you like, Anita, but the boys will be sorely disappointed if you don't at least give them a good-bye kiss."
This was getting weird; cancel that, weirder. "I never kiss on the first date."
She laughed. "Oh, I like it. Don't we, boys?" All three men made appreciative sounds. I had the feeling they'd have sat up and begged if she'd told them to. Arf, arf. Gag me with a spoon.
We drove south on 270. Steep, grassy ditches and small trees lined the road. Identical houses sat up on the hills, fences separating the small yards from the next small yard. Tall trees took up many yards. Two-seventy was the major highway that ran through St. Louis, but there was almost always a feeling of green nature, open spaces; the gentle roll of the land was never completely lost.
We took 70 West heading towards St. Charles. The land opened up on either side to long, flat fields. Corn stretched tall and golden, ready to be harvested. Behind the field was a modern glass building that advertised pianos and an indoor golf range. An abandoned SAM's Wholesale and a used-car lot led up to the Blanchette bridge.
The left side of the road was crisscrossed by water-filled dikes to keep the land from flooding. Industry had moved in with tall glass buildings. An Omni Hotel complete with fountain was nearest the road.
A stand of woods that still flooded too often to be torn down and turned into buildings bordered the left-hand side of the road until the trees met the Missouri River. Trees continued on the other bank as we entered St. Charles.
St. Charles didn't flood, so there were apartment buildings, strip malls, a deluxe pet supermarket, a movie theater, Drug Emporium, Old Country Buffet, and Appleby's. The land vanished behind billboards and Red Roof Inns. It was hard to remember that the Missouri River was just behind you. and this had once been forest. Hard to see the land for the buildings.
Sitting in the warm car with only the sound of wheels on pavement and the murmur of voices from the front seat, I realized how tired I was. Even stuck between the two men, I was ready for a nap. I yawned.
"How much farther?" I asked.
The lamia turned in her seat. "Bored?"
"I haven't been to sleep yet. I just want to know how much longer the ride is going to take."
"So sorry to inconvenience you," she said. "It isn't much farther, is it, Ronald?"
He shook his head. He hadn't said a word since I'd met him. Could he talk?
"Exactly where are we going?" They didn't seem to want to answer the question, but maybe if I phrased it differently.
"About forty-five minutes outside of St. Peters."
"Near Wentzville?" I asked.
An hour to get there and nearly two hours back. Which would make it around 1:00 when I got home. Two hours of sleep. Great.
We left St. Charles behind, and the land reappeared—fields on either side behind well-tended barbed-wire fences. Cattle grazed on the low, rolling hills. The only sign of civilization was a gas station close to the highway. There was a large house set far back from the road with a perfect expanse of grass stretching to the road. Horses moved gracefully over the grass. I kept waiting for us to pull into one of the gracious estates, but we passed them all by.
We finally turned onto a narrow road with a street sign that was so rusted and bent, that I couldn't read it. The road was narrow and instant rustic. Ditches crowded in on either side. Grass, weeds, the year's last goldenrod, grew head-high and gave the road a wild look. A field of beans gone dry and yellow waited to be harvested. Narrow gravel driveways appeared out of the weeds with rusted mailboxes that showed that there were houses. But most of the houses were just glimpses through the trees. Barn swallows dipped and dived over the road. The pavement ended abruptly, spilling the car onto gravel.
Gravel pinged and clattered under the car. Wooded hills crowded the gravel road. There was still an occasional house, but they were getting few and far between. Where were we going?
The gravel ended, and the road was only bare reddish dirt with large reddish rocks studded in it. Deep ruts swallowed the car's tires. The car bounced and fought its way down the dirt. It was their car. If they wanted to ruin it driving over wagon tracks, that was their business.
Finally, even the dirt road ended in a rough circle of rock. Some of the rocks were nearly as big as the car. The car stopped. I was relieved that there were some things even Ronald wouldn't drive a car over.
The lamia turned around to face me. She was smiling, positively beaming. She was too damn cheerful. Something was wrong. Nobody was this cheery unless they wanted something. Something big. What did the lamia want? What did Oliver want?
She got out of the car. The men followed her like well-trained dogs. I hesitated, but I'd come this far; might as well see what Oliver wanted. I could always say no.
The lamia took Ronald's arm again. In high heels on the rocky ground, it was a sensible precaution. I in my little Nikes didn't need help. Blondie and Smiley offered an arm apiece; I ignored them. Enough of this play-acting. I was tired and didn't like being dragged to the edge of the world. Even Jean-Claude had never dragged me to some forsaken backwoods area. He was a city boy. Of course, Oliver had struck me as a city boy, too. Shows that you can't judge a vampire by one meeting.
The rocky ground led up to a hillside. More boulders had crashed down the side of the hill to lie in crumbled, broken heaps. Ronald actually picked Melanie up and carried her over the worst of the ground.
I stopped the men before they could offer. "I can make it myself; thanks anyway."
They looked disappointed. The blond said, "Melanie has told us to look after you. If you trip and fall in the rocks, she'll be unhappy with us."
The brunette nodded.
"I'll be fine, boys, really." I went ahead of them, not waiting to see what they'd do. The ground was treacherous with small rocks. I scrambled over a rock bigger than I was. The men were right behind me, hands extended ready to catch me if I fell. I'd never even had a date who was this paranoid.
Someone cursed, and I turned to see the brunette sprawled on the ground. I had to smile. I didn't wait for them to catch up. I'd had enough nursemaiding, and the thought of getting no sleep today had put me in a bad mood. Our biggest night of the year, and I was going to be wasted. Oliver better have something important to say.
Around a tall pile of rubble was a slash of black opening, a cave. Ronald carried the lamia inside without waiting for me. A cave? Oliver had moved to a cave? Somehow it didn't fit my picture of him in his modern, sunlit study.
Light hovered at the entrance to the cave, but a few feet in the darkness was thick. I waited at the edge of the light, unsure what to do. My two caretakers came in behind me. They pulled small penlights out of their pockets. The beams seemed pitifully small against the darkness.
Blondie took the lead; Smiley brought up the rear. I walked in the middle of their thin strings of light. A faint pool followed my feet and kept me from tripping over stray bits of rock, but most of the tunnel was smooth and perfect. A thin trickle of water took up the center of the floor, working its patient way through the stone. I stared up at the ceiling lost in darkness. All this had been done by water. Impressive.
The air was cool and moist against my face. I was glad I had the leather jacket on. It'd never get warm here, but it'd never get really cold either. That's why our ancestors lived in caves. Year-round temperature control.
A wide passage branched to the left. The deep sound of water gurgled and bumped in the darkness. A lot of water. Blondie ran his light over a stream that filled most of the left passage. It was black, and looked deep and cold.
"I didn't bring my wading boots," I said.
"We follow the main passage," Smiley said. "Don't tease her. The mistress will not like it." His face looked very serious in the half-light.
The blond shrugged, then moved his light straight ahead. The trickle of water spread in a thin fan pattern on the rock but there was still plenty of dry rock on either side. I wasn't going to have to get my feet wet, yet.
We took the left-hand side of the wall. I touched it to keep my balance and jerked away. The walls were slimy with water and melting minerals.
Smiley laughed at me. I guess laughing was allowed.
I glanced back at him, frowning, then put my hand back on the wall. It wasn't that icky. It had just surprised me. I'd touched worse.
The sound of water thundering from a great height filled the darkness. There was a waterfall up ahead; I didn't need my eyes to tell me that.
"How tall do you think the waterfall is?" Blondie asked.
The thundering filled the darkness. Surrounded us. I shrugged. "Ten, twenty feet, maybe more."
He shone his light on a trickle of water that fell about five inches. The tiny waterfall was what fed the thin stream. "The cave magnifies the sound and makes it sound like thunder," he said.
"Neat trick," I said.
A wide shelf of rock led in a series of tiny waterfalls up to a wide base of stone. The lamia sat on the edge of the shelf, high-heeled feet dangling over the edge. Maybe a rise of eight feet, but the ceiling soared overhead into blackness. That was what made the water echo.
Ronald stood at her back, like a good bodyguard, hands clasped in front of him. There was a wide opening near them that led farther into the cave towards the source of the little stream.
Blondie climbed up and offered me a hand.
"Just ahead," the lamia said. There was an edge of laughter to her voice, as if there was some joke I wasn't getting. It was probably going to be at my expense.
I ignored Blondie's hand and made it up to the shelf by myself. My hands were covered with a thin coat of pale brown mud and water, a perfect recipe for slime. I fought the urge to wipe them on my jeans and knelt by the small pool of water that fed the waterfalls. The water was ice-cold, but I washed my hands in it and felt better. I dried them on my jeans.
The lamia sat with her men grouped around her as if they were posing for a family photo. They were waiting on someone. Oliver. Where was he?
"I'm afraid he won't be coming." The voice came from ahead of me farther into the cave. I stepped back but couldn't go far without stepping off the edge.
The two flashlights turned on the opening like tiny spotlights. Alejandro stepped into the thin beam of lights. "You won't be meeting Oliver tonight, Ms. Blake."
I went for my gun before anything else could happen. The lights went out, and I was left in the absolute dark with a master vampire, a lamia, and three hostile men. Not one of my better days.
I dropped to my knees, gun ready, close to my body. The darkness was thick as velvet. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate on hearing. There; the scrape of shoes on stone. The movement of air as someone moved closer to me. I had thirteen silver bullets. We were about to find out if silver would hurt a lamia. Alejandro had already taken a silver bullet in the chest and didn't look much the worse for it.
I was in very deep shit.
The footsteps were almost on top of me. I could feel the body close to me. I opened my eyes. It was like looking inside a ball of ebonite, utterly black. But I could feel someone standing over me. I raised the gun to gut or lower chest level and fired still on my knees.
The flashes were like lightning in the darkness, blue-flame lightning. Smiley fell backwards in the flash of light. I heard him fall over the edge, then nothing. Nothing but darkness.
Hands grabbed my forearms, and I hadn't heard a thing. It was Alejandro. I screamed as he dragged me to my feet.
"Your little gun cannot hurt me," he said. His voice was soft and close. He hadn't taken my gun away. He wasn't afraid of it. He should have been.
"I have offered Melanie her freedom once Oliver and the city's Master are dead. I offer you eternal life, eternal youth, and you may live."
"You did give me the first mark."
"Tonight I will give you the second," he said. His voice was soft and ordinary compared to Jean-Claude's, but the intimacy of the dark and his hands on me made the words more than they should have been.
"And if I don't want to be your human servant?"
"Then I will take you anyway, Anita. Your loss will damage the Master. It will lose him followers, confidence. Oh, yes, Anita, I will have you. Join with me willingly, and it will be pleasure. Fight me, and it will be agony."
I used his voice to aim the gun at his throat. If I could sever his spine, a thousand years and more old or not, he might die. Might. Please, God.
I fired. The bullet took him in the throat. He jerked backwards but didn't let go of my arms. Two more bullets into his throat, one into his jaw, and he threw me away from him, shrieking.
I ended on my back in the ice-cold water.
A flashlight cut through the dark. Blondie stood there, a perfect target. I fired at it and the light went out, but there was no scream. I'd rushed the shot and missed. Damn.
I couldn't climb down the rock in the dark. I'd fall and break a leg. So the only way left was deeper into the cave, if I could get there.
Alejandro was still screaming, wordless, rage-filled. The screams echoed and bounced on the rock walls until I was deaf as well as blind.
I scrambled through the water, putting a wall at my back. If I couldn't hear them, maybe they couldn't hear me.
"Get that gun away from her," the lamia said. She had moved and seemed to be beside the wounded vampire.
I waited in the dark for some clue that they were coming for me. There was a rush of cool air against my face. It wasn't them moving. Was I that close to the opening that led deeper into the cave? Could I just slip away? In the dark, not knowing if there were pits, or water deep enough to drown in? Didn't sound like a good idea. Maybe I could just kill them all here. Fat chance.
Through the echoes of Alejandro's shrieks was another sound, a highpitched hissing, like that of a giant snake. The lamia was shapechanging. I had to get away before she finished. Water splashed almost on top of me. I looked up, and there was nothing to see, just the solid blackness.
I couldn't feel anything, but the water splashed again. I pointed up and fired. The flash of light revealed Ronald's face. The dark glasses were gone. His eyes were yellow with slitted pupils. I saw all that in the lightning flash of the gun. I fired twice more into that slit-eyed face. He screamed, and fangs showed below his teeth. God. What was he?
Whatever Ronald was, he fell backwards. I heard him hit the water in a splash that was much too loud for the shallow pool. I didn't hear him move after he fell. Was he dead?
Alejandro's screams had stopped. Was he dead, too? Was he creeping closer? Was he even now almost on top of me? I held the gun out in front of me and tried to feel something, anything, in the darkness.
Something heavy dragged across the rock. My stomach clenched tight. The lamia. Shit.
That was it. I eased my shoulder around the corner into the opening. I crept along on knees and one hand. I didn't want to run if I didn't have to. I'd brain myself on a stalactite or drop into some bottomless pit. Alright, maybe not bottomless, but if I fell thirty feet or so, it wouldn't have to be bottomless. Dead is dead.
Icy water soaked through my jeans and shoes. The rock was slick under my hand. I crawled as fast as I could, hand searching for some drop-off, some danger that my eyes couldn't see.
The heavy, sliding sound filled the blackness. It was the lamia. She'd already changed. Would her scales be quicker over the slick rocks, or would I be quicker? I wanted to get up and run. Run as far and as fast as I could. My shoulders tightened with the need to get away.
A loud splash announced she'd entered the water. She could move faster than I could crawl; I was betting on that. And if I ran . . . and fell or knocked myself silly? Well, better to have tried than to be caught crawling in the cold like a mouse.
I scrambled to my feet and started to run. I kept my left hand out in front of me to protect my face, but the rest I left to chance. I couldn't see shit. I was running full out, blind as a bat, my stomach tight with anticipation of some pit opening up under my feet.
The sounds of sliding scales was getting farther away. I was outrunning her. Great.
A piece of rock slammed into my right shoulder. The impact spun me into the other wall. My arm was numb from shoulder to fingertips. I'd dropped the gun. Three bullets left, but that had been better than nothing. I leaned into the wall, cradling my arm, waiting for the feeling to return, wondering if I could find my gun in the dark, wondering if I had time.
A light bobbed towards me down the tunnel. Blondie was coming; risking himself, if I'd had my gun. But I didn't have my gun. I could have broken my arm ramming into that ledge. The feeling was coming back in a painful wash of prickles and a throbbing ache where the rock had hit me. I needed a flashlight. What if I hid and got Blondie's light? I had two knives. As far as I knew, Blondie wasn't armed. It had possibilities.
The light was going slowly, sweeping from side to side. I had time, maybe. I got to my feet and felt for the rock that had nearly taken my arm off. It was a shelf with an opening behind it. Cool air blew against my face. It was a small tunnel. It was shoulder level to me, which made it about face level for Blondie. Perfect.
I placed my hands palm down and pushed up. My right arm protested, but it was doable. I crawled into the tunnel, hands out in front searching for stalactites or more rock shelves. Nothing but small, empty space. If I'd been much bigger, I wouldn't have fit at all. Hurray for being petite.
I got out the knife for my left hand. The right was still trembling. I was better right-handed, like most right-handed people, but I practiced left-handed, too—ever since a vampire broke my right arm and using my left had been the only thing that saved me. Nothing like near death to get you to practice.
I crouched on my knees in the tunnel, knife gripped, using my right hand for balance. I would only get one chance at this. I had no illusions about my chances against an athletic man who outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds. If the first rush didn't work, he'd beat me to a pulp or give me to the lamia. I'd rather be beaten.
I waited in the dark with my knife and prepared to slit someone's throat. Not pretty when you think of it that way. But necessary, wasn't it?
He was almost here. The thin penlight looked bright after the darkness. If he shone the light in the direction of my hiding place before he got beside it, I was sunk. Or if he passed close to the left-hand side of the tunnel, and not under me . . . Stop it. The light was almost underneath me. I heard his feet wade through the water, coming closer. He was hugging the right-hand side of the wall, just like I wanted him to.
His pale hair came into sight nearly even with my knees. I moved forward and he turned. His mouth made a little "O" of surprise; then the blade plunged into the side of his neck. Fangs flicked from behind his teeth. The blade snicked on his spine. I grabbed his long hair in my right hand, bowing his neck, and tore the knife out the front of his throat. Blood splashed outward in a surprised shower. The knife and my left hand were slick with it.
He fell to the tunnel floor with a loud splash. I scrambled off the ledge and landed beside his body. The light had rolled into the water, still glowing. I fished it out. Lying almost under Blondie's hand was the Browning. It was wet, but that didn't matter. You could shoot most modern guns underwater and they worked fine. That was one of the things that made terrorism so easy.
Blood turned the stream dark. I shone the light back down the tunnel. The lamia was framed in the small light. Her long black hair spilled over her pale upper body. Her breasts were high and prominent with deep, nearly reddish nipples. From the waist down she was ivory-white with zigzags of pale gold. The long belly scales were white speckled with black. She reared on that long, hard tail and flicked her forked tongue at me.
Alejandro stood up behind her, covered in blood but walking, moving. I wanted to shout, "Why don't you die" but it wouldn't help; maybe nothing would help.
The lamia pushed onward down the tunnel. The gun had killed her men with their fangs, Ronald with his snake eyes. I hadn't tried it on her yet. What did I have to lose?
I kept the light on her pale chest and raised the gun.
"I am immortal. Your little bullets will not harm me."
"Come a little closer and let's test the theory," I said.
She slid towards me, arms moving as if in time with legs. Her whole body moved with the muscular thrusts of the tail. It looked curiously natural.
Alejandro stayed leaning against the wall. He was hurt. Yippee.
I let her get within ten feet; close enough to hit her, far enough away to run like hell if it didn't work.
The first bullet took her just above the left breast. She staggered. It hit her, but the hole closed like water, smooth and unblemished. She smiled.
I raised the gun, just a little, and fired just above the bridge of her perfect nose. Again she staggered, but the hole didn't even bleed. It just healed. Normal bullets had about as much effect on vampires.
I put the gun in the shoulder holster, turned, and ran.
A wide crack led off from the main tunnel. I'd have to take off my jacket to squeeze through. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck with the lamia able to work her way through to me. I stayed with the main tunnel.
The tunnel was smooth and straight as far as I could see. Shelves projected out at angles, some with water trickling out of them, but crawling on my belly with a snake after me wasn't my idea of a good time.
I could run faster than she could move. Snakes, even giant snakes, just weren't that fast. As long as I didn't hit a dead end, I'd be fine. God, I wished I believed that.
The stream was ankle-deep now. The water was so cold, I had trouble feeling my feet. Running helped. Concentrating on my body, moving, running, trying not to fall, trying not to think about what was behind me. The real trick would be, was there another way out? If I couldn't kill them and couldn't get past them and there was only one way out, I was going to lose.
I kept running. I did four miles three times a week, plus a little extra. I could keep running. Besides, what choice did I have?
The water was filling the passageway and growing deeper. I was knee-deep in water. It was slowing me down. Could she move faster in water than I could? I didn't know. I just didn't know.
A rush of air blew against my back. I turned, and there was nothing there. The air was warm and smelled faintly of flowers. Was it the lamia? Did she have other ways of catching me besides just chasing? No; lamias could perform illusions only on men. That was their power. I wasn't male, so I was safe.
The wind touched my face, gently, warm and fragrant with a rich, green smell like freshly dug roots. What was happening?
I whirled, but there was no one there. The circle of light showed only tunnel and water. There was no sound but the lapping of water. Yet . . . the warm wind blew against my cheek, and the smell of flowers was growing stronger.
Suddenly, I knew what it was. I remembered being chased up the stairs by a wind that couldn't have been there, the glow of blue fire like free-floating eyes. The second mark.
It had been different, no smell of flowers, but I knew that was it. Alejandro didn't have to touch me to give me the mark, no more than Jean-Claude had.
I slipped on the slick stones and fell neck-deep in water. I scrambled to my feet, thigh-deep in water. My jeans were soaked and heavy. I sloshed forward, trying to run, but the water was too deep for running. It'd be quicker to swim.
I dove into the water, flashlight grasped in one hand. The leather jacket dragged at me, slowed me down. I stood up and stripped it off and let it float with the current. I hated to lose the jacket, but if I survived, I could buy more.
I was glad I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and not a sweater. It was too damn cold to strip down anymore. It was faster swimming. The warm wind tickled down my face, hot after the chill of the water.
I don't know what made me look behind me, just a feeling. Two pinpoints of blackness were floating towards me in the air. If blackness could burn, then that's what it was: black flame coming for me on the warm, flower-scented breeze.
A rock wall loomed ahead. The stream ran under it. I held onto the wall and found there was maybe an inch of air space between the water and the roof of the tunnel. It looked like a good way to drown.
I treaded water and shone the flashlight around the passage. There; a narrow shelf of rock to climb out on, and blessed be, another tunnel. A dry one.
I pulled myself up on the shelf, but the wind hit me like a warm hand. It felt good and safe, and it was a lie.
I turned, and the black flames hovered over me like demonic fireflies. "Anita, accept it."
"Go to hell!" I pressed my back to the wall, surrounded by the warm tropical wind. "Please, don't do this," but it was a whisper.
The flames descended slowly. I hit at them. The flames passed through my hands like ghosts. The smell of flowers was almost chokingly sweet. The flames passed into my eyes, and for an instant I could see the world through bits of colored flame and a blackness that was a kind of light.
Then nothing. My vision was my own. The warm breeze died slowly away. The scent of flowers clung to me like some expensive perfume.
There was the sound of something large moving in the dark. I brought the flashlight up slowly into the dark-skinned face of a nightmare.
Straight, black hair was cut short and smooth around a thin face. Golden eyes with pupils like slits stared at me unblinking, immobile. His slender upper body dragged his useless lower body closer to me.
From the waist down he was all translucent skin. You could still see his legs and genitals, but they were all blending together to form a rough snakelike shape. Where do little lamias come from when there are no male lamias? I stared at what had once been a human being and screamed.
He opened his mouth, and fangs flicked into sight. He hissed, and spit dribbled down his chin. There was nothing human left in those slitted eyes. The lamia was more human than he was, but if I was changing into a snake maybe I'd be crazy, too. Maybe crazy was a blessing.
I drew the Browning and fired point-blank into his mouth. He jerked back, shrieking, but no blood, no dying. Dammit.
There was a scream from farther away, echoing towards us. "Raju!" The lamia was screaming for her mate, or warning him.
"Anita, don't hurt him." This from Alejandro. At least he had to yell. He couldn't whisper in my mind anymore.
The thing pulled itself towards me, mouth gaping, fangs straining.
"Tell him not to hurt me!" I yelled back.
The Browning was safely in its holster, and I was out of bullets anyway.
Flashlight in one hand, knife in the other, I waited. If they got here in time to call him off, fine. I didn't have much faith in silver knives if silver bullets didn't harm him, but I wasn't going down without a fight.
His hands were bloody from dragging his body over the rocks. I never thought I'd see anything that was worse than being changed into a vampire, but there it was, crawling towards me.
It was between me and the dry tunnel, but it was moving agonizingly slowly. I pressed my back to the wall and got to my feet. He—it—moved faster, definitely after me. I ran past it, but a hand closed on my ankle, yanked me to the ground.
The creature grabbed my legs and started to pull me towards it. I sat up and plunged the knife into its shoulder. It screamed, blood spilling down its arm. The knife stuck in the bone, and the monster jerked it out of my hand.
Then it reared back and struck my calf, fangs sinking in. I screamed and drew the second knife.
It raised its face, blood trickling down its mouth, heavy yellow drops clinging to its fangs.
I plunged the blade into one golden eye. The creature shrieked, drowning us in echoes. It rolled onto its back, lower body thrashing, hands clawing. I rolled with it and pushed the knife in with everything I had.
I felt the tip of the knife scrape on its skull. The monster continued to thrash and fight, but it was as hurt as I could make it. I left the knife in its eye but jerked the one free of its shoulder.
I flashed the light on the lamia. Her pale upper body gleamed wet in the light. Alejandro was beside her. He looked nearly healed. I'd never seen a vampire that could heal that fast.
"I will kill you for their deaths," the lamia said.
"No, the girl is mine."
"She has killed my mate. She must die!"
"I will give her the third mark tonight. She will be my servant. That is revenge enough."
"No!" she screamed.
I was waiting for the poison to start working, but so far the bite just hurt, no burning, no nothing. I stared at the dry tunnel, but they'd just follow me and I couldn't kill them, not like this, not today. But there'd be other days.
I slipped back into the stream. There was still only an inch of air space. Risk drowning, or stay, and either be killed by a lamia or enslaved by a vampire. Choices, choices.
I slipped into the tunnel, mouth pressed near the wet roof. I could breathe. I might survive the day. Miracles do happen.
Small waves began to slosh through the tunnel. A wave washed over my face, and I swallowed water. I treaded water as gently as I could. It was my movements that were making the waves. I was going to drown myself.
I stayed very still until the water calmed, then took a deep breath, hyperventilating to expand the lungs and take in as much air as I could. I dunked under the water and kicked. It was too narrow for anything but a scissor kick. My chest was tight, throat aching with the need to breathe. I surfaced and kissed rock. There wasn't even an inch of air. Water splashed into my nose and I coughed, swallowing more water. I pressed as close to the ceiling as I could, taking small shallow breaths, then under again, kicking, kicking for all I was worth. If the tunnel filled completely before I was through it, I was going to die.
What if the tunnel didn't end? What if it was all water? I panicked, kicking furiously, flashlight bouncing crazily off the walls, hovering in the water like a prayer.
Please, God, please, don't let me die here like this.
My chest burned, throat bursting with the need to breathe. The light was dimming, and I realized it was my eyes that were losing the light. I was going to pass out and drown. I pushed for the surface and my hands touched empty air.
I took a gasping breath that hurt all the way down. There was a rocky shore and one bright line of sunlight. There was a hole up in the wall. The sunlight formed a misty haze in the air. I crawled onto the rock, coughing and relearning how to breathe.
I still had the flashlight and knife in my hands. I didn't remember holding onto them. The rock was covered in a thin sheet of grey mud. I crawled through it towards the rockslide that had opened the hole in the wall.
If I could make it through the tunnel, maybe they could, too. I didn't wait to feel better. I put the knife back in its sheath, slid the flashlight in my pocket, and started crawling.
I was covered in mud, hands scraped raw, but I was at the opening. It was a thin crack, but through it I could see trees and a hill. God, it looked good.
Something surfaced behind me.
Alejandro rose from the water into the sunlight. His skin burst into flame, and he shrieked, diving into the water away from the burning sun.
"Burn, you son of bitch, burn."
The lamia surfaced.
I slipped into the crack and stuck. I pulled with my hands and pushed with my feet, but the mud slid and I couldn't get through.
"I will kill you."
I wrenched my back and put everything I had into wriggling free of that damn hole. The rock scraped along my back and I knew I was bleeding. I fell out onto the hill and rolled until a tree stopped me.
The lamia came to the crack. Sunlight didn't hurt her. She struggled to get through, tearing at the rock, but her ample chest wasn't going to fit. Her snake body might be narrowable, but the human part wasn't.
But just in case, I got to my feet and started down the hill. It was steep enough that I had to walk from tree to tree, trying not to fall down the hill. The whoosh of cars was just ahead. A road; a busy one by the sound of it.
I started to run, letting the momentum of the hill take me faster and faster towards the sounds of cars. I could glimpse the road through the trees.
I stumbled out onto the edge of the road, covered in grey mud, slimy, wet to the bone, shivering in the autumn air. I'd never felt better. Two cars wheezed by, ignoring my waving arms. Maybe it was the gun in the shoulder holster.
A green Mazda pulled up and stopped. The driver leaned across and opened the passenger side door. "Hop in."
It was Edward.
I stared into his blue eyes, and his face was as blank and unreadable as a cat's, and just as self-satisfied. I didn't give a damn. I slid into the seat and locked the door behind me.
"Where to?" he asked.
"You don't need a hospital?"
I shook my head. "You were following me again."
He smiled. "I lost you in the woods."
"City boy," I said.
His smile widened. "No name-calling. You look like you flunked your Girl Scout exam."
I started to say something, then stopped. He was right, and I was too tired to argue.
I was sitting on the edge of my bathtub in nothing but a large beach towel. I had showered and shampooed and washed the mud and blood down the drain. Except for the blood that was still seeping out of the deep scrape on my back. Edward held a smaller towel to the cut, putting pressure on it.
"When the bleeding stops, I'll bandage it up for you," he said.
"I seem to always be patching you up."
I glanced over my shoulder at him and winced. "I've returned the favor."
He smiled. "True."
The cuts on my hands had already been bandaged. I looked like a tan version of the mummy's hand.
He touched the fang marks on my calf gently. "This worries me."
"There's no discoloration." He looked up at me. "No pain?"
"None. It wasn't a full lamia, maybe it wasn't that poisonous. Besides, you think anywhere in St. Louis is going to have lamia antivenom? They've been listed extinct for over two hundred years."
Edward palpated the wound. "I can't feel any swelling."
"It's been over an hour, Edward. If poison was going to kick in, it would have by now."
"Yeah." He stared at the bite. "Just keep an eye on it."
"I didn't know you cared," I said.
His face was blank, empty. "It would be a lot less interesting world without you in it." The voice was flat, unemotional. It was like he wasn't there at all. Yet it was a compliment. From Edward, it was a huge compliment.
"Gee whiz, Edward, contain your excitement."
He gave a small smile that left his eyes blue and distant as winter skies.
We were friends of a sort, good friends, but I would never really understand him. There was too much of Edward that you couldn't touch, or even see.
I used to believe that if it came to it, he'd kill me, if it were necessary. Now, I wasn't sure. How could you be friends with someone who you suspected might kill you? Another mystery of life.
"The bleeding's stopped," he said. He smeared antiseptic on the wound, then started taping bandages in place. The doorbell rang.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"What is it?"
"I have a date coming over."
"You? Have a date?"
I frowned at him. "It's not that big a deal."
Edward was grinning like the proverbial cat. He stood up. "You're all fixed up. I'll go let him in."
"Edward, be nice."
"All right, just don't shoot him."
"I think I can manage that." Edward walked out of the bathroom to let Richard in.
What would Richard think being met at the door by another man? Edward certainly wasn't going to help matters. He'd probably offer him a seat without explaining who he was. I wasn't even sure I could explain that.
"This is my friend the assassin." Nope. A fellow vampire slayer, maybe.
The bedroom door was closed so I could get dressed in privacy. I tried to put on a bra and found that my back hurt a lot. No bra. That limited what I could wear, unless I wanted to give Richard more of a look-see than I had planned on. I also wanted to keep an eye on the bite wound. So pants were out.
Most of the time I slept in oversize t-shirts, and slipping on a pair of jeans was my idea of a robe. But I did own one real robe. It was comfortable, a nice solid black, silky to the touch and absolutely not see-through.
A black silk teddy went with it, but I decided that was a little friendlier than I wanted to be; besides, the teddy wasn't comfortable. Lingerie seldom is.
I pulled the robe out of the back of my closet and slipped it on. It was smooth and wonderful next to my skin. I crossed the front so the bordered edge was high up on my chest and tied the black belt tight in place. Didn't want any slippage.
I listened at the door for a second and heard nothing. No talking, no moving around, nothing. I opened the door and walked out.
Richard was sitting on the couch with an armful of costumes hung over the back. Edward was making coffee in the kitchen like he owned the place.
Richard turned at my entrance. His eyes widened just a little. The hair still damp from the shower, and the slinky robe—what was he thinking?
"Nice robe," Edward said.
"It was a present from an overly optimistic date."
"I like it," Richard said.
"No smart remarks or you can just leave."
His eyes flicked to Edward. "Did I interrupt something?"
"He's a coworker, nothing more." I frowned at Edward, daring him to say anything. He smiled and poured coffee for all three of us.
"Let's sit at the table," I said. "I don't drink coffee on a white couch."
Edward sat the mugs on the small table. He leaned against the cabinets, leaving the two chairs for us.
Richard left his coat on the couch and sat down across from me. He was wearing a bluish-green sweater with darker blue designs worked across the chest. The color brought out the perfect brown of his eyes. His cheekbones seemed higher. A small Band-Aid marred his right cheek. His hair had gentle auburn highlights. Wondrous what the right color can do for a person.
The fact that I looked great in black had not escaped my notice. From the look on Richard's face, he was noticing, but his eyes kept slipping back to Edward.
"Edward and I were out hunting down the vampires that have been doing the killings."
His eyes widened. "Did you find out anything?"
I looked at Edward.
He shrugged. It was my call.
Richard hung around with Jean-Claude. Was he Jean-Claude's creature? I didn't think so, but then again . . . Caution is always better. If I was wrong, I'd apologize later. If I was right, I'd be disappointed in Richard but glad I hadn't told.
"Let's just say we lost today."
"You're alive," Edward said.
He had a point.
"Did you almost die today?" Richard's voice was outraged.
What could I say? "It's been a rough day."
He glanced at Edward, then back to me. "How bad was it?"
I motioned my bandaged hands at him. "Scrapes and cuts; nothing much."
Edward hid a smile in his coffee mug.
"Tell me the truth, Anita," Richard said.
"I don't owe you any explanations." My voice sounded just a tad defensive.
Richard stared down at his hands, then looked up at me. There was a look in his eyes that made my throat tight. "You're right. You don't owe me anything."
I found an explanation slipping out of my mouth. "You might say I went caving without you."
"What do you mean?"
"I ended up going through a water-filled tunnel to escape the bad guys."
"All the way to the top."
"You could have drowned." He touched my hand with his fingertips.
I sipped coffee and moved my hand away from his, but I could feel where he had touched me like a lingering smell. "But I didn't drown."
"That's not the point," he said.
"Yes," I said, "it is. If you're going to date me, you have to get used to the way I work."
He nodded. "You're right, you're right." His voice was soft. "It just caught me off guard. You nearly died today and you're sitting there drinking coffee like it's ordinary."
"For me, it is, Richard. If you can't deal with that, maybe we shouldn't even try." I caught Edward's expression. "What are you grinning at?"
"Your suave and debonair way with men."
"If you're not going to be helpful, then leave."
He put his mug down on the counter. "I'll leave you two lovebirds alone."
"Edward," I said.
I walked him to the door. "Thanks again for being there, even if you were following me."
He pulled out a plain white business card with a phone number done in black on it. That was all, no name, no logo; but what would have been appropriate, a bloody dagger, or maybe a smoking gun? "If you need me, call this number."
Edward had never given me a number before. He was like the phantom—there when he wanted to be, or not there, as he chose. A number could be traced. He was trusting me a lot with the number. Maybe he wouldn't kill me.
"Thank you, Edward."
"One bit of advice. People in our line of work don't make good significant others."
"I know that."
"What's he do for a living?"
"He's a junior high science teacher," I said.
Edward just shook his head. "Good luck." With that parting shot, he left.
I slipped the business card into the robe pocket and went back to Richard. He was a science teacher, but he also hung out with the monsters. He'd seen it get messy, and it hadn't fazed him, much. Could he handle it? Could I? One date and I was already borrowing trouble that might never come up. We might dislike each other after only one evening together. I'd had it happen before.
I stared at the back of Richard's head and wondered if the curls could be as soft as they looked. Instant lust; embarrassing, but not that uncommon. All right, it was uncommon for me.
A sharp pain ran up my leg. The leg that the lamia-thing had bitten. Please, no. I leaned against the counter divider. Richard was watching me, puzzled.
I swept the robe aside. The leg was swelling and turning purplish. How had I not noticed it? "Did I mention I got bitten by a lamia today?"
"You're joking," he said.
I shook my head. "I think you're going to have to take me to the hospital."
He stood up and saw my leg. "God! Sit down."
I was starting to sweat. It wasn't hot in the apartment.
Richard helped me to the couch. "Anita, lamias have been extinct for two hundred years. No one's going to have any antivenom."
I stared at him. "I guess we're not going to get that date."
"No dammit, I won't sit here and watch you die. Lycanthropes can't be poisoned."
"You mean you want to rush me to Stephen and let him bite me?"
"Something like that."
"I'd rather die."
Something flickered through his eyes, something I couldn't read; pain, maybe. "You mean that?"
"Yes." A rush of nausea flowed over me like a wave. "I'm going to be sick." I tried to get up and go for the bathroom but collapsed on the white carpet and vomited blood. Red and bright and fresh. I was bleeding to death inside.
Richard's hand was cool on my forehead, his arm around my waist. I vomited until I was empty and exhausted. Richard lifted me to the couch. There was a narrow tunnel of light edged by darkness. The darkness was eating the light, and I couldn't stop it. I could feel myself begin to float away. It didn't hurt. I wasn't even scared.
The last thing I heard was Richard's voice. "I won't let you die." It was a nice thought.
The dream began. I was sitting in the middle of a huge canopied bed. The drapes were heavy blue velvet, the color of midnight skies. The velvet bedspread was soft under my hands. I was wearing a long white gown with lace at the collar and sleeves. I'd never owned anything like it. No one had in this century.
The walls were blue and gold wallpaper. A huge fireplace blazed, sending shadows dancing around the room. Jean-Claude stood in the corner of the room, bathed in orange and black shadows. He was wearing the same shirt I'd last seen him in, the one with the peekaboo front.
He walked towards me, fire-shadows shining in his hair, on his face, glittering in his eyes.
"Why don't you ever dress me in anything normal in these dreams?"
He hesitated. "You don't like the gown?"
He gave a slight smile. "You always did have a way with words, ma petite. "
"Stop calling me that, dammit."
"As you like, Anita." There was something in the way he said my name that I didn't like at all.
"What are you up to, Jean-Claude?"
He stood beside the bed and unbuttoned the first button of his shirt.
"What are you doing?"
Another button, and another, then he was pulling the shirt out of his pants and letting it slide to the floor. His bare chest was only a little less white than my gown. His nipples were pale and hard. The strand of dark hair that started low on his belly and disappeared into his pants fascinated me.
He crawled up on the bed.
I backed away, clutching the white gown to me like some heroine in a bad Victorian novel. "I don't seduce this easy."
"I can taste your lust on the back of my tongue, Anita. You want to know what my skin feels like next to your naked body."
I scrambled off the bed. "Leave me the fuck alone. I mean it."
"It's just a dream. Can't you even let yourself lust in a dream?"
"It's never just a dream with you."
He was suddenly standing in front of me. I hadn't seen him move. His arms locked behind my back, and we were on the floor in front of the fire. Fire-shadows danced on the naked skin of his shoulders. His skin was fragile, smooth, and unblemished—so soft I wanted to touch it forever. He was on top of me, his weight pressing against me, pushing me into the floor. I could feel the line of his body molded against mine.
"One kiss and I'll let you up."
I stared into his midnight-blue eyes from inches away. I couldn't talk. I turned my face away so I wouldn't have to look into the perfection of his face. "One kiss?"
"My word," he whispered.
I turned back to him. "Your word isn't worth shit."
His face leaned over mine, lips almost touching. "One kiss."
His lips were soft, gentle. He kissed my cheek, lips brushing down the line of my cheek, touching my neck. His hair brushed my face. I thought that all curly hair was coarse, but his was baby fine, silken soft. "One kiss," he whispered against the skin of my throat, tongue tasting the pulse in my neck.
"You want it."
"Stop it, now!"
He grabbed a handful of hair, forcing my neck backwards. His lips had thinned back, exposing fangs. His eyes were drowning blue without any white at all.
"I will have you, ma petite, even if it is to save your life." His head came downward, striking like a snake. I woke up staring at a ceiling I didn't recognize.
Black and white drapes were suspended from the ceiling in a soft fan. The bed was black satin with too many pillows thrown all over the place. The pillows were all black or white. I was wearing a black gown with spaghetti straps. It felt like a real silk and fit me perfectly.
The floor was ankle-deep white carpet. A black lacquer vanity and chest of drawers were placed at far corners of the room. I sat up and could see myself in the mirror. My neck was smooth, no bite marks. Just a dream, just a dream, but I knew better. The bedroom had the unmistakable touch of Jean-Claude.
I had been dying of poison. How had I gotten here? Was I underneath the Circus of the Damned, or somewhere else altogether? My right wrist hurt.
There was a white swathe of bandages around my wrist. I didn't remember hurting it in the cave.
I stared at myself in the vanity mirror. In the black negligee my skin was white, my hair long and black as the gown. I laughed. I matched the decor. I matched the damn decor.
A door opened behind a white curtain. I got a glimpse of stone walls behind the drapes. He was wearing nothing but the silky bottoms of men's pajamas. He padded towards me on bare feet. His bare chest looked like it had in my dream, except for the cross-shaped scar; it hadn't been there in the dream. It marred the marble perfection of him, made him seem more real somehow.
"Hell," I said. "Definitely Hell."
'What, ma petite?"
"I was wondering where I was. If you're here, it has to be Hell."
He smiled. He looked entirely too satisfied, like a snake that had been well-fed.
"How did I get here?"
"Richard brought you."
"So I really was poisoned. That wasn't part of the dream?"
He sat on the far edge of the bed, as far away from me as he could get and still sit down. There were no other places to sit. "I'm afraid the poison was very real."
"Not that I'm complaining, but why aren't I dead?"
He hugged his knees to his chest, a strangely vulnerable gesture. "I saved you."
I shook my head. "Say it."
"The third mark."
"I don't have any bite marks."
"But your wrist is cut and bandaged."
"I saved your life."
"You drank my blood while I was unconscious."
He gave the slightest nod.
"You son of a bitch."
The door opened again, and it was Richard. "You bastard, how could you give me to him?"
"She doesn't seem very grateful to us, Richard."
"You said you'd rather die than be a lycanthrope."
"I'd rather die than be a vampire."
"He didn't bite you. You're not going to be a vampire."
"I'll be his slave for eternity; great choice."
"It's only the third mark, Anita. You aren't his servant yet."
"That's not the point." I stared at him. "Don't you understand? I'd rather you let me die than have done this."
"It is hardly a fate worse than death," Jean-Claude said.
"You were bleeding from your nose and eyes. You were bleeding to death in my arms." Richard took a few steps towards the bed, then stopped. "I couldn't just let you die." His hands reached outward in a helpless gesture.
I stood up in the silky gown and stared at them both. "Maybe Richard didn't know any better, but you knew how I felt, Jean-Claude. You don't have any excuses."
"Perhaps I could not stand to watch you die, either. Have you thought of that?"
I shook my head. "What does the third mark mean? What extra powers does it give you over me?"
"I can whisper in your mind outside of dreams now. And you have gained power as well, ma petite. You are very hard to kill now. Poison won't work at all."
I kept shaking my head. "I don't want to hear it. I won't forgive you for this, Jean-Claude."
"I did not think you would," he said. He seemed wistful.
"I need clothes and a ride home. I've got to work tonight."
"Anita, you've almost died twice today. How can you . . ."
"Can it, Richard. I need to go to work tonight. I need something that's mine and not his. You invasive bastard."
"Find her some clothes and take her home, Richard. She needs time to adjust to this new change."
I stared at Jean-Claude still huddled on the corner of the bed. He looked adorable, and if I'd had a gun, I'd have shot him on the spot. Fear was a hard, cold lump in my gut. He meant to make me his servant, whether I liked it or not. I could scream and protest, and he'd ignore it.
"Come near me again, Jean-Claude, for any reason, and I'll kill you."
"Three marks bind us now. It would harm you, too."
I laughed, and it was bitter. "Do you really think I give a damn?"
He stared at me, face calm, unreadable, lovely. "No." He turned his back on us both and said, "Take her home, Richard. Though I do not envy you the ride there." He glanced back with a smile. "She can be quite vocal when she's angry."
I wanted to spit at him, but that wouldn't have been enough. I couldn't kill him, not right then and there, so I let it go. Grace under pressure. I followed Richard out the door and didn't look back. I didn't want to see his perfect profile in the vanity mirror.
Vampires weren't supposed to have reflections, or souls. He had one. Did he have the other? Did it matter? No, I decided, it didn't matter at all. I was going to give Jean-Claude to Oliver. I was going to give the city to Mr. Oliver. I was going to set the Master of the City up for assassination. One more mark and I'd be his forever. No way. I'd see him dead first, even if it meant I died with him. No one forced me into anything, not even eternity.
I ended up wearing one of those dresses with the waist that hit you about at the hips. The fact that the dress was about three sizes too big didn't help matters. The shoes fit even if they were high heels. It was better than going barefoot. Richard turned up the heat in the car because I'd refused his coat.
We were fighting, and we hadn't even had one date. That was a record even for me.
"You're alive," he said for the seventieth time.
"But at what price?"
"I believe that all life is precious. Don't you?"
"Don't go all philosophical on me, Richard. You handed me over to the monsters, and they used me. Don't you understand that Jean-Claude has been looking for an excuse to do this to me?"
"He saved your life."
That seemed to be the extent of his argument. "But he didn't do it to save my life. He did it because he wants me as his slave."
"A human servant isn't a slave. It's almost the opposite. He'll have almost no power over you."
"But he'll be able to talk inside my head, invade my dreams." I shook my head. "Don't let him sucker you."
"You're being unreasonable," he said.
That was it. "I'm the one with my wrist slit open where the Master of the City fed. He drank my blood, Richard."
There was something about the way he said it. "You watched, you sick son of a bitch."
"No, it wasn't like that."
"How was it?" I sat with my arms crossed over my stomach, glaring at him. So that was the hold Jean-Claude had on him. Richard was a voyeur.
"I wanted to make sure he only did enough to save your life."
"What else could he have done? He drank my blood, dammit."
Richard concentrated on the road suddenly, not looking at me. "He could have raped you."
"I was bleeding from my eyes and nose, you said. Doesn't sound very romantic to me."
"All the blood, it seemed to excite him."
I stared at him. "You're serious?"
I sat there feeling cold down to my toes. "What made you think he was going to rape me?"
"You woke up on a black bedspread. The first one was white. He laid you on it and started to strip down. He took your robe off. There was blood everywhere. He smeared his face in it, tasted it. Another vampire handed him a small gold knife."
"There were more vamps there?"
"It was like a ritual. The audience seemed to be important. He slit your wrist and drank at it, but his hands . . . he was touching your breasts. I told him that I had brought you so you could live, not so he could rape you."
"That must have gone over real big."
Richard was very quiet all of a sudden.
He shook his head.
"Tell me, Richard. I mean it."
"Jean-Claude looked up with blood all over his face and said, 'I have not waited this long to take what I want her to give freely. It is a temptation.' Then he looked down at you, and there was something in his face, Anita. It was scary as hell. He really believes you'll come around. That you'll . . . love him."
"Vampires don't love."
"Are you sure?"
I glanced at him, then away. I stared at the window at the daylight that was just now beginning to fade. "Vampires don't love. They can't."
"How do you know that?"
"Jean-Claude does not love me."
"Maybe he does, as much as he can."
I shook my head. "He bathed in my blood. He slit my wrist. That isn't my idea of love."
"Maybe it's his."
"Then it's too damn weird for me."
"Fine, but admit that he may love you, as much as he's able."
"It scares you to think that he loves you, doesn't it?"
I stared out the window as hard as I could. I didn't want to be talking about this. I wanted to undo this whole damn day.
"Or is it something else that you're afraid of?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do." He sounded so sure of himself. He didn't know me well enough to be that certain.
"Say it out loud, Anita. Say it just once and it won't seem so scary."
"I don't have anything to say."
"You're telling me that no part of you wants him. Not a piece of you might love him back."
"I don't love him; that much I'm sure of."
"You are persistent," I said.
"Yes," he said.
"All right, I'm attracted to him. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"That's none of your damn business."
"Jean-Claude warned me to stay away from you. I just want to know if I'm really interfering. If you're attracted to him, maybe I should stay out of it."
"He's a monster, Richard. You've seen him. I can't love a monster."
"If he was human?"
"He's an egotistical, controlling bastard."
"But if he was human?"
I sighed. "If he was human, we might work something out, but even alive, Jean-Claude can be such an SOB. I don't think it would work."
"But you're not even going to try because he's a monster."
"He's dead, Richard, a walking corpse. It doesn't matter how pretty he is, or how compelling, he's still dead. I don't date corpses. A girl's got to have some standards."
"So no corpses," he said.
"What about lycanthropes?"
"Why? You thinking of fixing me up with your friend?"
"Just curious about where you draw the line."
"Lycanthropy is a disease. The person's already survived a vicious attack. It'd be like blaming the rape victim."
"You ever date a shapeshifter?"
"It's never come up."
"What else wouldn't you date?"
"Things that were never human to begin with, I guess. I really haven't thought about it. Why the interest?"
He shook his head. "Just curious."
"Why aren't I still pissed at you?"
"Maybe because you're glad to be alive, no matter what the cost."
He pulled into the parking lot of my apartment building. Larry's car was idling in my parking space. "Maybe I am glad to be alive, but I'll let you know about the cost when I find out what it really is."
"You don't believe Jean-Claude?"
"I wouldn't believe Jean-Claude if he told me moonlight was silver."
Richard smiled. "Sorry about the date."
"Maybe we can try again sometime."
"I'd like that," he said.
I opened the door and stood shivering in the cool air. "Whatever happens, Richard, thanks for watching out for me." I hesitated, then said, "And whatever hold Jean-Claude's got on you, break it. Get away from him. He'll get you killed."
He just nodded. "Good advice."
"Which you're not going to take," I said.
"I would if I could, Anita. Please believe that."
"What does he have on you, Richard?"
He shook his head. "He ordered me not to tell you."
"He ordered you not to date me, too."
He shrugged. "You better get going. You're going to be late for work."
I smiled. "Besides, I'm freezing my butt off."
He smiled. "You do have a way with words."
"I spend too much time hanging around with cops."
He put the car in gear. "Have a safe night at work."
"I'll do my best."
He nodded. I closed the door. Richard didn't seem to want to talk about what Jean-Claude had on him. Well, no rule said we had to play honesty on the first date. Besides, he was right. I was going to be late for work.
I tapped on Larry's window. "I've got to change, then I'll be right back down."
"Who was that dropping you off?"
"A date." I left it at that. It was a much easier explanation than the truth. Besides, it was almost true.
This is the only night of the year that Bert allows us to wear black to work. He thinks the color is too harsh for normal business hours. I had black jeans and a Halloween sweater with huge grinning jack o' lanterns in a stomach-high line. I topped it off with a black zipper sweatshirt and black Nikes. Even my shoulder holster and the Browning matched. I had my backup gun in an inner pants holster. I also had two extra clips in my sport bag. I had replaced the knife I'd had to leave in the cave. There was a derringer in my jacket pocket and two extra knives, one down the spine, the other in an ankle holster. Don't laugh. I left the shotgun home.
If Jean-Claude found out I'd betrayed him, he'd kill me. Would I know when he died? Would I feel it? Something told me that I would.
I took the card that Karl Inger had given me and called the number. If it had to be done, it best be done quickly.
"Is this Karl Inger?"
"Yes, it is. Who is this?"
"It's Anita Blake. I need to speak with Oliver."
"Have you decided to give us the Master of the City?"
"If you'll hold for a moment, I'll fetch Mr. Oliver." He laid the receiver down. I heard him walking away until there was nothing but silence on the phone. Better than Muzak.
Footsteps coming back, then: "Hello, Ms. Blake, so good of you to call."
I swallowed, and it hurt. "The Master of the City is Jean-Claude."
"I had discounted him. He isn't very powerful."
"He hides his powers. Trust me, he's a lot more than he seems."
"Why the change of heart, Ms. Blake?"
"He gave me the third mark. I want free of him."
"Ms. Blake, to be bound thrice to a vampire, and then have that vampire die, can be quite a shock to the system. It could kill you."
"I want free of him, Mr. Oliver."
"Even if you die?" he said.
"Even if I die."
"I would have liked to have met you under different circumstances, Anita Blake. You are a remarkable person."
"No, I've just seen too much. I won't let him have me."
"I will not fail you, Ms. Blake. I will see him dead."
"If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have told you."
"I appreciate your confidence."
"One other thing you should know. The lamia tried to betray you today. She's in league with another master named Alejandro."
"Really?" His voice sounded amused. "What did he offer her?"
"Yes, that would tempt Melanie. I keep her on such a short rein."
"She's been trying to breed. Did you know that?"
"What do you mean?" I told him about the men, especially the last one that had been nearly changed. He was quiet for a moment. "I have been most inattentive. I will deal with Melanie and Alejandro."
"Fine. I'd appreciate a call tomorrow to let me know how things went."
"To be sure he's dead," Oliver said.
"Yes," I said.
"You'll get a call from Karl or myself. But first, where can we find Jean-Claude?"
"The Circus of the Damned."
"That's all I can tell you."
"Thank you, Ms. Blake, and Happy Halloween."
I had to laugh. "It's going to be a hell of a night."
He chuckled softly. "Indeed. Good-bye, Ms. Blake."
The phone went dead in my hand. I stared at the phone. I'd had to do it. Had to. So why did my stomach feel tight? Why did I have the urge to call Jean-Claude and warn him? Was it the marks, or was Richard right? Did I love Jean-Claude in some strange, twisted way? God help me, I hoped not.
It was full dark on All Hallows Eve. Larry and I had made two appointments. He'd raised one, and I'd raised the other. He had one more to go, and I had three. A nice normal night.
What Larry was wearing was not normal. Bert had encouraged us to wear something fitting for the holiday. I'd chosen the sweater. Larry had chosen a costume. He was wearing blue denim overalls, a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a straw hat, and work boots. When asked, he'd said, "I'm Huck Finn. Don't I fit the part?"
With his red hair and freckles, he did fit the part. There was blood on the shirt now, but it was Halloween. There were a lot of people out with fake blood on them. We fit right in tonight.
My beeper went off. I checked the number, and it was Dolph. Damn.
"Who is it?" Larry asked.
"The police. We've got to find a phone."
He glanced at the dashboard clock. "We're ahead of schedule. How about the McDonald's just off the highway?"
"Great." I prayed that it wasn't another murder. I needed a nice normal night. At the back of my head like a bit of remembered song, two sentences kept playing: "Jean-Claude is going to die tonight. You set him up."
It seemed wrong to kill him from a safe distance. To not look him in the eyes and pull the trigger myself, to not give him a chance to kill me first. Fair play and all that. Fuck fair play; it was him or me. Wasn't it?
Larry parked in the McDonald's lot. "I'm gonna get a Coke while you call in. You want something?"
I shook my head.
"You all right?"
"Sure. I'm just hoping it's not another murder."
"Jesus, I hadn't thought of that."
We got out of the car. Larry went into the dining room. I stayed in the little entrance area with the pay phone.
Dolph picked up on the third ring. "Sergeant Storr."
"It's Anita. What's up?"
"We finally broke the paralegal that was feeding information to the vampires."
"Great; I thought it might be another murder."
"Not tonight; the vamp's got more important business."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"He's planning on getting every vampire in the city to slaughter humans for Halloween."
"He can't. Only the Master of the City could do that, and then only if he was incredibly powerful."
"That's what I thought. Could be the vampire's crazy."
I had a thought, an awful thought. "You got a description of the vampire?"
"Vampires," he said.
"Read it to me."
I heard paper rustling, then: "Short, dark, very polite. Saw one other vampire twice with the boss vamp. He was medium height, Indian or Mexican, longish black hair."
I clutched the phone so tight my hand trembled. "Did the vampire say why he was going to slaughter humans?"
"Wanted to discredit legalized vampirism. Now isn't that a weird motive for a vampire?"
"Yeah," I said. "Dolph, this could happen."
"What are you saying?"
"If this master vampire could kill the Master of the City and take over before dawn, he might pull it off."
"What can we do?"
I hesitated, almost telling him to protect Jean-Claude, but it wasn't a matter for the police. They had to worry about laws and police brutality. There was no way to take something like Oliver alive. Whatever was going to happen tonight had to be permanent.
"Talk to me, Anita."
"I've gotta go, Dolph."
"You know something; tell me."
I hung up. I also turned off my beeper. I dialed Circus of the Damned. A pleasant-voiced woman answered, "Circus of the Damned, where all your nightmares come true."
"I need to speak to Jean-Claude. It's an emergency."
"He's busy right now. May I take a message?"
I swallowed hard, tried not to yell. "This is Anita Blake, Jean-Claude's human servant. Tell him to get his ass to the phone now."
"I . . ."
"People are going to die if I don't talk to him."
"Okay, okay." She put me on hold with a butchered version of "High Flying" by Tom Petty.
Larry came out with his Coke. "What's up?"
I shook my head. I fought the urge to jump up and down, but that wouldn't get Jean-Claude to the phone any sooner. I stood very still, hugging one arm across my stomach. What had I done? Please don't let it be too late.
"What has happened?"
"Just listen. There's a master vampire on his way to the Circus. I gave him your name and your resting place. His name is Mr. Oliver and he's older than anything. He's older than Alejandro. In fact, I think he's Alejandro's master. It's all been a plan to get me to betray the city to him, and I fell for it."
He was quiet so long that I asked, "Did you hear me?"
"You really meant to kill me."
"I told you I would."
"But now you warn me. Why?"
"Oliver wants control of the city so he can send all the vampires out to slaughter humans. He wants it back to the old days when vampires were hunted. He said legalized vampirism was spreading too fast. I agree, but I didn't know what he meant to do."
"So to save your precious humans you will betray Oliver now."
"It isn't like that. Dammit, Jean-Claude, concentrate on the important thing here. They're on their way. They may be there already. You've got to protect yourself."
"To keep the humans safe."
"To keep your vampires safe, too. Do you really want them under Oliver's control?"
"No. I will take steps, ma petite. We will at least give him a fight." He hung up.
Larry was staring at me with wide eyes. "What the hell is happening, Anita?"
"Not now, Larry." I fished Edward's card out of my bag. I didn't have another quarter. "Do you have a quarter?"
"Sure." He handed it to me without any more questions. Good man.
I dialed the number. "Please, be there. Please, be there."
He answered on the seventh ring.
"Edward, it's Anita."
"How would you like to take on two master vampires older than Nikolaos?"
I heard him swallow. "I always have so much fun when you're around. Where should we meet?"
"The Circus of the Damned. You got an extra shotgun?"
"Not with me."
"Shit. Meet me out front ASAP. The shit's going to really hit the fan tonight, Edward."
"Sounds like a great way to spend Halloween."
"See you there."
"Bye, and thanks for inviting me." He meant it. Edward had started out as a normal assassin, but humans had been too easy, so he went for vamps and shapeshifters. He hadn't met anything he couldn't kill, and what was life without a little challenge?
I looked at Larry. "I need to borrow your car."
"You're not going anywhere without me. I've heard just your side of the conversations, and I'm not getting left out."
I started to argue, but there wasn't time. "Okay, let's do it."
He grinned. He was pleased. He didn't know what was going to happen tonight, what we were up against. I did. And I wasn't happy at all.
I stood just inside the door of the Circus, staring at the wave of costumes and glittering humanity. I'd never seen the place so crowded. Edward stood beside me in a long black cloak with a death's-head mask. Death dressed up as death; funny, huh? He also had a flamethrower strapped to his back, an Uzi pistol, and heaven knew how many other weapons secreted about his person. Larry looked pale but determined. He had my derringer in his pocket. He knew nothing about guns. The derringer was an emergency measure only, but he wouldn't stay in the car. Next week, if we were still alive, I'd take him out to the shooting range.
A woman in a bird costume passed us in a scent of feathers and perfume. I had to look twice to make sure that it was just a costume. Tonight was the night when all shapeshifters could be out and people would just say, "Neat costume."
It was Halloween night at the Circus of the Damned. Anything was possible.
A slender black woman stepped up to us wearing nothing but a bikini and an elaborate mask. She had to step close to me to be heard over the murmur of the crowd. "Jean-Claude sent me to bring you."
"Who are you?"
I shook my head. "Rashida had her arm torn off two days ago." I stared at the perfect flesh of her arm. "You can't be her."
She raised her mask so I could see her face, then smiled. "We heal fast."
I had known lycanthropes healed fast, but not that fast, not that much damage. Live and learn.
We followed her swaying hips into the crowd. I grabbed hold of Larry's hand with my left hand. "Stay right with me tonight."
He nodded. I threaded through the crowd holding his hand like a child or a lover. I couldn't stand the thought of him getting hurt. No, that wasn't true. I couldn't stand the thought of him getting killed. Death was the big boogeyman tonight.
Edward followed at our heels. Silent as his namesake, trusting that he'd get to kill something soon.
Rashida led us towards the big, striped circus tent. Back to Jean-Claude's office, I supposed. A man in a straw hat and striped coat said, "Sorry, the show's sold out."
"It's me, Perry. These are the ones the Master's been waiting for." She hiked her thumb in our direction.
The man drew aside the tent flap and motioned us through. There was a line of sweat on his upper lip. It was warm, but I had the feeling it wasn't that kind of sweat. What was happening inside the tent? It couldn't be too bad if they were letting the crowd in to watch. Could it?
The lights were bright and hot. I started to sweat under the sweatshirt, but if I took it off, people would stare at my gun. I hated that.
Circular curtains had been rigged to the ceiling, creating two curtained-off areas in the large circus ring. Spotlights surrounded the two hidden areas. The curtains were like prisms. With every step we took, the colors changed and flowed over the cloth. I wasn't sure if it was the cloth or some trick of the lights. Whatever, it was a nifty effect.
Rashida stopped just short of the rail that kept the crowd back. "Jean-Claude wanted everybody to be in costume, but we're out of time." She pulled at my sweater. "Lose the jacket and it'll have to do."
I pulled my sweater out of her hand. "What are you talking about, costumes?"
"You're holding up the show. Drop the jacket and come on." She did a long, lazy leap over the railing and strode barefoot and beautiful across the white floor. She looked back at us, motioning for us to follow.
I stayed where I was. I wasn't going anywhere until somebody explained things. Larry and Edward waited with me. The audience near us was staring intently, waiting for us to do something interesting.
We stood there.
Rashida disappeared into one of the curtained circles. "Anita."
I turned, but Larry was staring at the ring. "Did you say something?"
He shook his head.
I glanced at Edward, but it hadn't been his voice. I whispered, "Jean-Claude?"
"Yes, ma petite, it is I."
"Where are you?"
"Behind the curtain where Rashida went."
I shook my head. His voice had resonance, a slight echo, but otherwise it was as normal as his voice ever got. I could probably talk to him without moving my lips, but if so, I didn't want to know. I whispered, "What's going on?"
"Mr. Oliver and I have a gentleman's agreement."
"I don't understand."
"Who are you talking to?" Edward asked.
I shook my head. "I'll explain later."
"Come into my circle, Anita, and I will explain everything to you at the same time I explain it to our audience."
"What have you done?"
"I have done the best I could to spare lives, ma petite, but some will die tonight. But it will be in the circle with only the soldiers called to task. No innocents will die tonight, whoever wins. We have given our words."
"You're going to fight it out in the ring like a show?"
"It was the best I could do on such short notice. If you had warned me days ago, perhaps something else could have been arranged."
I ignored that. Besides, I was feeling guilty.
I took off the sweatshirt and laid it across the railing. There were gasps from the people near enough to see my gun.
"The fight's going to take place out in the ring."
"In front of the audience?" Edward said.
"I don't get it," Larry said.
"I want you to stay here, Larry."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Larry, you don't have any weapons. You don't know how to use a gun. You're just cannon fodder until you get some training. Stay here."
He shook his head.
I touched his arm. "Please, Larry."
Maybe it was the please, or the look in my eyes—whatever, he nodded. I could breathe a little easier. Whatever happened tonight, Larry wouldn't die because I'd brought him into it. It wouldn't be my fault.
I climbed over the railing and dropped to the ring. Edward followed me with a swish of black cape. I glanced back once. Larry stood gripping the rail. There was something forlorn about him standing there alone, but he was safe; that was what counted.
I touched the shimmering curtain, and it was the lights. The cloth was white up close. I lifted it to one side, and entered, Edward at my back.
There was a multilayered dais complete with throne in the center of the circle. Rashida stood with Stephen near the foot of the dais. I recognized Richard's hair and his naked chest before he lifted the mask off his face. It was a white mask with a blue star on one cheek. He was wearing glittering blue harem pants with a matching vest and shoes. Everyone was in costume but me.
"I was hoping you wouldn't make it in time," Richard said.
"What, and miss the Halloween blowout of all time?"
"Who's that with you?" Stephen asked.
"Death," I said.
"Trust you to bring death to the ball, ma petite."
I looked up the dais, to the very top. Jean-Claude stood in front of the throne. He was finally wearing what his shirts hinted at, but this was the real thing. The real French courtier. I didn't know what to call half of the costume. The coat was black with tasteful silver here and there. A short half-cloak was worn over one shoulder only. The pants were billowy and tucked into calf-high boots. Lace edged the foldover tops of the boots. A wide white collar lay at his throat. Lace spilled out of the coat sleeves. It was topped off by a wide, almost floppy hat with a curving arch of black and white feathers.
The costumed throng moved to either side, clearing the stairs up to the throne for me. I somehow didn't want to go. There were sounds outside the curtains. Heavy things being moved around. More scenery and props being moved up.
I glanced at Edward. He was staring at the crowd, eyes taking in everything. Hunting for victims, or for familiar faces?
Everyone was in costume, but very few people were actually wearing masks. Yasmeen and Marguerite stood about halfway up the stairs. Yasmeen was in a scarlet sari, all veils and sequins. Her dark face looked very natural in the red silk. Marguerite was in a long dress with puffed sleeves and a wide lace collar. The dress was of some dark blue cloth. It was simple, unadorned. Her blond hair was in complicated curls with one large mass over each ear and a small bun atop her head. Hers, like Jean-Claude's, looked less like a costume and more like antique clothing.
I walked up the stairs towards them. Yasmeen dropped her veils enough to expose the cross-shaped scar I'd given her. "Someone will pay you back for this tonight."
"Not you personally?" I asked.
"You don't care who wins, do you?"
She smiled. "I am loyal to Jean-Claude, of course."
"As loyal as you were, ma petite." She drew out each syllable, biting each sound off.
I left her to laugh at my back. I guess I wasn't the one to complain about loyalties.
There were a pair of wolves sitting at Jean-Claude's feet. They stared at me with strange pale eyes. There was nothing human in the gaze. Real wolves. Where had he gotten real wolves?
I stood two steps down from him and his pet wolves. His face was unreadable, empty and perfect.
"You look like something out of The Three Musketeers," I said.
"Accurate, ma petite."
"Is it your original century?"
He smiled a smile that could have meant anything, or nothing.
"What's going to happen tonight, Jean-Claude?"
"Come, stand beside me, where my human servant belongs." He extended a pale hand.
I ignored the hand and stepped up. He'd talked inside my head. It was getting silly to argue. Arguing didn't make it not true.
One of the wolves growled low in its chest. I hesitated.
"They will not harm you. They are my creatures."
Like me, I thought.
Jean-Claude put his hand down towards the wolf. It cringed and licked his hand. I stepped carefully around the wolf. But it ignored me, all its attention on Jean-Claude. It was sorry it had growled at me. It would do anything to make up for it. It groveled like a dog.
I stood at his right side, a little behind the wolf.
"I had picked out a lovely costume for you."
"If it was anything that would have matched yours, I wouldn't have worn it."
He laughed, soft and low. The sound tugged at something low in my gut. "Stay here by the throne with the wolves while I make my speech."
"We really are going to fight in front of the crowd."
He stood. "Of course. This is the Circus of the Damned, and tonight is Halloween. We will show them a spectacle the likes of which they have never seen."
"This is crazy."
"Probably, but it keeps Oliver from bringing the building down around us."
"Could he do that?"
"That and much more, ma petite, if we had not agreed to limit our use of such powers."
"Could you bring the building down?"
He smiled, and for once gave me a straight answer. "No, but Oliver does not know that."
I had to smile.
He draped himself over the throne, one leg thrown over a chair arm. He tucked his hat low until all I could see was his mouth. "I still cannot believe that you betrayed me, Anita."
"You gave me no choice."
"You would really see me dead rather than have the fourth mark."
He whispered, "Showtime, Anita."
The lights suddenly went off. There were screams from the audience as it sat in the sudden dark. The curtain pulled back on either side. I was suddenly on the edge of the spotlight. The light shone like a star in the dark. Jean-Claude and his wolves were bathed in a soft light. I had to agree that my pumpkin sweater didn't exactly fit the motif.
Jean-Claude stood in one boneless movement. He swept his hat off and gave a low, sweeping bow. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you will witness a great battle." He began to move slowly down the steps. The spotlight moved with him. He kept the hat off, using it for emphasis in his hand. "The battle for the soul of this city."
He stopped, and the light spread wider to include two blond vampires. The two women were dressed as 1920s flappers, one in blue, the other in red. The women flashed fangs, and there were gasps from the audience. "Tonight you will see vampires, werewolves, gods, devils." He filled each word with something. When he said "vampires," there was a ruffling at your neck. "Werewolves" slashed from the dark, and there were screams. "Gods" breathed along the skin. "Devils" were a hot wind that scalded your face.
Gasps and stifled screams filled the dark.
"Some of what you see tonight will be real, some illusion; which is which will be for you to decide." "Illusion" echoed in the mind like a vision through glass, repeating over and over. The last sound died away with a whisper that sounded like a different word altogether. "Real," the voice whispered.
"The monsters of this city fight for control of it this Halloween. If we win, then all goes peaceful as before. If our enemies win . . ." A second spotlight picked out the top of a second dais. There was no throne. Oliver stood at the top with the lamia in full serpent glory. Oliver was dressed in a baggy white jump suit with large polka dots on it. His face was white with a sad smile drawn on it. One heavily lined eye dropped a sparkling tear. A tiny pointed hat with a bright blue pom-pom topped his head.
A clown? He had chosen to be a clown? It wasn't what I had pictured him in. But the lamia was impressive with her striped coils curled around him, her naked breasts caressed by his gloved hand.
"If our enemies win, then tomorrow night will see a bloodbath such as no city in the world has ever seen. They will feed upon the flesh and blood of this city until it is drained dry and lifeless." He had stopped about halfway down. Now he began to come back up the stairs. "We fight for your lives, your very souls. Pray that we win, dear humans; pray very, very hard."
He sat in the throne. One of the wolves put a paw on his leg. He stroked its head absently.
"Death comes to all humans," Oliver said.
The spotlight died on Jean-Claude, leaving Oliver as the only light in the darkness. Symbolism at its best.
"You will all die someday. In some small accident, or long disease. Pain and agony await you." The audience rustled uneasily in their seats.
"Are you protecting me from his voice?" I asked.
"The marks are," Jean-Claude said.
"What is the audience feeling?"
"A sharp pain over the heart. Age slowing their bodies. The quick horror of some remembered accident."
Gasps, screams, cries filled the dark as Oliver's words sought out each person and made them feel their mortality.
It was obscene. Something that had seen a million years was reminding mere humans how very fragile life was.
"If you must die, would it not be better to die in our glorious embrace?" The lamia crawled around the dais to show herself to all the audience. "She could take you, oh, so sweetly, soft, gentle into that dark night. We make death a celebration, a joyful passing. No lingering doubts. You will want her hands upon you in the end. She will show you joys that few mortals ever dream of. Is death such a high price to pay, when you will die anyway? Wouldn't it be better to die with our lips upon your skin than by time's slowly ticking clock?"
There were a few cries of "Yes . . . Please . . ."
"Stop him," I said.
"This is his moment, ma petite. I cannot stop him."
"I offer you all your darkest dreams come true in our arms, my friends. Come to us now."
The darkness rustled with movement. The lights came up, and there were people coming out of the seats. People climbing over the railing. People coming to embrace death.
They all froze in the light. They stared around like sleepers waking from a dream. Some looked embarrassed, but one man close to the rail looked near tears, as if some bright vision had been ripped away. He collapsed to his knees, shoulders shaking. He was sobbing. What had he seen in Oliver's words? What had he felt in the air? God, save us from it.
With the lights I could see what they had moved in while we waited behind the curtains. It looked like a marble altar with steps leading up to it. It sat between the two daises, waiting. For what? I turned to ask Jean-Claude, but something was happening.
Rashida walked away from the dais, putting herself close to the railing, and the people. Stephen, wearing what looked like a thong bathing suit, stalked to the other side of the ring. His nearly naked body was just as smooth and flawless as Rashida's "We heal fast," she'd said.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we will give you a few moments to recover yourselves from the first magic of the evening. Then we will show you some of our secrets."
The crowd settled back into their seats. An usher helped the crying man back to his seat. A hush fell over the people. I had never heard so large a crowd be so silent. You could have dropped a pin.
"Vampires are able to call animals to their aid. My animal is the wolf." He walked around the top of the dais displaying the wolves. I stood there in the spotlight and wasn't sure what to do. I wasn't on display. I was just visible.
"But I can also call the wolf's human cousin. The werewolf." He made a wide, sweeping gesture with his arm. Music began. Soft and low at first, then rising in a shimmering crescendo.
Stephen fell to his knees. I turned, and Rashida was on the ground as well. They were going to change right here in front of the crowd. I'd never seen a shapeshifter shift before. I had to admit a certain . . . curiosity.
Stephen was on all fours. His bare back was bowed with pain. His long yellow hair trailed on the ground. The skin on his back rippled like water, his spine standing like a ridge in the middle. He stretched out his hands as if he were bowing, face pressed to the ground. Bones broke through his hands. He groaned. Things moved under his skin like crawling animals. His spine bowed upward as if rising like a tent all on its own. Fur started to flow out of the skin on his back, spreading impossibly fast like a timelapse photo. Bones and some heavy, clear liquid poured out of his skin. Shapes strained and ripped through his skin. Muscles writhed like snakes. Heavy, wet sounds came as bone shifted in and out of flesh. It was as if the wolf's shape was punching its way out of the man's body. Fur flowed fast and faster, the color of dark honey. The fur hid some of the changes, and I was glad.
Something between a howl and a scream tore from his throat. Finally, there was that same manwolf form as the night we fought the giant cobra. The wolfman threw his muzzle skyward and howled. The sound raised the hairs on my body.
A second howl echoed from the other side. I whirled, and there was a second wolfman form, but this one was as black as pitch. Rashida?
The audience applauded wildly, stamping and shouting.
The werewolves crept back to the dais. They crouched at the bottom, one on each side.
"I have nothing so showy to offer you." The lights were back on Oliver. "The snake is my creature." The lamia twined around him, hissing loud enough to carry to the audience. She flicked a forked tongue to lick his white-coated ear.
He motioned to the foot of the dais. Two black-cloaked figures stood on either side, hoods hiding their faces. "These are my creatures, but let us keep them for a surprise." He looked across at us. "Let it begin."
The lights went out again. I fought the urge to reach for Jean-Claude in the thick dark. "What's happening?"
"The battle begins," he said.
"We have not planned the rest of the evening, Anita. It will be like every battle, chaotic, violent, bloody."
The lights came up gradually until the tent was bathed in a dim glow, like dusk or twilight. "It begins," Jean-Claude whispered.
The lamia flowed down the steps, and each side ran for the other. It wasn't a battle. It was a free-for-all, more like a bar brawl than a war.
The cloaked things ran forward. I had a glimpse of something vaguely snakelike but not. A spatter of machine-gun fire and the thing staggered back. Edward.
I started down the steps, gun in hand. Jean-Claude never moved. "Aren't you coming down?"
"The real battle will happen up here, ma petite. Do what you can, but in the end it will come down to Oliver's power and mine."
"He's a million years old. You can't beat him."
We stared at each other for a moment. "I'm sorry," I said.
"So am I, ma petite, Anita, so am I."
I ran down the steps to join the fight. The snake-thing had collapsed, bisected by the machine-gun fire. Edward was standing back to back with Richard, who had a revolver in his hands. He was shooting it into one of the cloaked things and wasn't even slowing it down. I sighted down my arm and fired at the cloaked head. The thing stumbled and turned towards me. The hood fell backwards, revealing a cobra's head the size of a horse's. From the neck down it was a woman, but from the neck up . . . Neither my shot nor Richard's had made a dent. The thing came up the steps towards me. I didn't know what it was, or how to stop it. Happy Halloween.
The thing rushed towards me. I dropped the Browning and had one of the knives halfway out when it hit me. I was on the steps with the thing on top of me. It reared back to strike. I got the knife free. It plunged its fangs into my shoulder. I screamed and shoved the knife into its body. The knife went in, but no blood, no pain. It gnawed on my shoulder, pumping poison in, and the knife did nothing.
I screamed again. Jean-Claude's voice sounded in my head, "Poison cannot harm you now."
It hurt like hell, but I wasn't going to die from it. I plunged the knife into its throat, screaming, not knowing what else to do. It gagged. Blood ran down my hand. I hit it again, and it reared back, blood on its fangs. It gave a frantic hiss and pushed itself off me. But I understood now. The weak spot was where the snake part met human flesh.
I groped for the Browning left-handed; my right shoulder was torn up. I squeezed and watched blood spurt from the thing's neck. It turned and ran, and I let it go.
I lay on the steps holding my right arm against my body. I didn't think anything was broken, but it hurt like hell. It wasn't even bleeding as badly as it should have been. I glanced up at Jean-Claude. He was standing motionless, but something moved, like a shimmer of heat. Oliver was just as motionless on his dais. That was the real battle; the dying down here didn't mean much except to the people who were going to die.
I cradled my arm against my stomach and walked down the steps towards Edward and Richard. By the time I was at the bottom of the steps, the arm felt better. Good enough to change the gun to my right hand. I stared at the bite wound, and damned if it wasn't healing. The third mark. I was healing like a shapeshifter.
"Are you all right?" Richard asked.
"I seem to be."
Edward was staring at me. "You should be dying."
"Explanations later," I said.
The cobra thing lay at the foot of the dais, its head bisected by machine-gun fire. Edward caught on quick.
There was a scream, high and piercing. Alejandro had Yasmeen twisted around in his arms, one arm behind her back, his other arm pinning her shoulders to his chest. It was Marguerite who had screamed. She was struggling in Karl Inger's arms. She was outmatched. Apparently, so was Yasmeen.
Alejandro tore into her throat. She screamed. He snapped her spine with his teeth, blood splattering his face. She sagged in his arms. Movement, and his hand came out through the other side of her chest, the heart crushed to a bloody pulp.
Marguerite shrieked over and over again. Karl let her go, but she didn't seem to notice. She scratched fingernails down her cheeks until blood ran. She collapsed to her knees, still clawing at her face.
"Jesus," I said, "stop her."
Karl stared across at me. I raised the Browning, but he ducked behind Oliver's dais. I went towards Marguerite. Alejandro stepped between us.
"Do you want to help her?"
"Let me lay the last two marks upon you, and I will get out of your way."
I shook my head. "The city for one crazy human servant? I don't think so."
"Anita, down!" I dropped flat to the floor, and Edward shot a jet of flame over my head. I could feel the wash of heat bubbling overhead.
Alejandro shrieked. I raised my eyes only enough to see him burning. He motioned outward with one burning hand, and I felt something wash over me back towards . . . Edward.
I rolled over, and Edward was on his back, struggling to his feet. The nozzle of the flamethrower was pointed this way again. I dropped without being told.
Alejandro motioned, and the flame peeled backwards, flowing towards Edward.
He rolled frantically to put out the flames on his cloak. He threw the burning death's-head mask onto the ground. The flamethrower's tank was on fire. Richard helped him struggle out of it, and they ran. I hugged the ground, hands over my head. The explosion shook the ground. When I looked up, tiny burning pieces were raining down, but that was all. Richard and Edward were peering around the other side of the dais.
Alejandro stood there with his clothes charred, his skin blistered. He began walking towards me.
I scrambled to my feet, pointing my gun at him. Of course, the gun hadn't done a whole lot of good before. I backed up until I bumped the steps.
I started shooting. The bullets went in. He even bled, but he didn't stop. The gun clicked on empty. I turned and ran.
Something hit me in the back, slamming me to the ground. Alejandro was suddenly on my back, one hand in my hair, bending my neck backwards.
"Put down the machine gun or I'll break her neck."
"Shoot him!" I screamed.
But Edward threw the machine gun on the floor. Dammit. He got out a pistol and took careful aim. Alejandro's body jerked, then he laughed. "You can't kill me with silver bullets."
He put a knee in my back to hold me down; then a knife flashed in his hand.
"No," Richard said, "he won't kill her."
"I'll slit her throat if you interfere, but if you leave us alone, I won't harm her."
"Edward, kill him!"
A vampire jumped Edward, riding him to the ground. Richard tried to pull her off him, but a tiny vampire leaped on his back. It was the woman and the little boy from that first night.
"Now that your friends are busy, we will finish our business."
The knife just nicked the surface, sharp, painful, but such a little cut. He leaned over me. "It won't hurt, I promise."
His lips touched the cut, locked on it, sucking. He was wrong. It did hurt. Then the smell of flowers surrounded me. I was drowning in perfume. I couldn't see. The world was warm and sweet-scented.
When I could see again, think again, I was lying on my back, staring up at the tent roof. Arms drew me upward, cradled me. Alejandro held me close. He'd cut a line of blood on his chest, just above the nipple. "Drink."
I put my hands flat against him, fighting him. His hand squeezed the back of my neck, forcing me closer to the wound.
I drew the other knife and plunged it into his chest, searching for the heart. He grunted and grabbed my hand, squeezed until I dropped the knife. "Silver is not the way. I am past silver."
He pushed my face towards the wound, and I couldn't fight him. I just wasn't strong enough. He could have crushed my skull in one hand, but all he did was press my face to the cut on his chest.
I struggled, but he kept my mouth pressed to the wound. The blood was salty sweet, vaguely metallic. It was only blood.
"Anita!" Jean-Claude screamed my name. I wasn't sure if it was aloud or in my head.
"Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, the two shall be as one. One flesh, one blood, one soul." Somewhere deep inside me, something broke. I could feel it. A wave of liquid warmth rushed up and over me. My skin danced with it. My fingertips tingled. My spine spasmed, and I jerked upright. Strong arms caught me, held me, rocked me.
A hand smoothed my hair from my face. I opened my eyes to see Alejandro. I wasn't afraid of him anymore. I was calm and floating.
"Anita?" It was Edward. I turned towards the sound, slowly.
"What did he do to you?"
I tried to think how to explain it, but my mind wouldn't bring up the words. I sat up, pushing gently away from Alejandro.
There was a pile of dead vampires around Edward's feet. Maybe silver didn't hurt Alejandro, but it had hurt his people.
"We will make more," Alejandro said. "Can you not read this in my mind?"
And I could, now that I thought about it, but it wasn't like telepathy. Not words. I—knew he was thinking about the power I'd just given him. He felt no regret about the vampires that had died.
The crowd screamed.
Alejandro looked up. I followed his gaze. Jean-Claude was on his knees, blood pouring down his side. Alejandro envied Oliver the ability to draw blood from a distance. When I became Alejandro's servant, Jean-Claude had been weakened. Oliver had him.
That had been the plan all along.
Alejandro held me close, and I didn't try to stop him. He whispered against my cheek, "You are a necromancer, Anita. You have power over the dead. That is why Jean-Claude wanted you as his servant. Oliver thinks to control you through controlling me, but I know that you are a necromancer. Even as a servant, you have free will. You do not have to obey as the others do. As a human servant, you are yourself a weapon. You can strike one of us and draw blood."
"What are you saying?"
"They have arranged that the loser be stretched over the altar and staked by you."
"What . . ."
"Jean-Claude, as affirmation of his power. Oliver, as a gesture to show how well he controlled what once belonged to Jean-Claude."
There was a gasp from the crowd. Oliver was levitating ever so slowly. He floated to the ground. Then he raised his arms, and Jean-Claude floated upward.
"Shit," I said.
Jean-Claude hung nearly unconscious in empty, shining air. Oliver laid him gently on the ground, and fresh blood splattered the white floor.
Karl Inger came into sight. He picked Jean-Claude up under the arms.
Where was everybody? I looked around for some help. The black werewolf was torn apart, parts still twitching. I didn't think even a lycanthrope could heal the mess. The blond werewolf wasn't much better, but Stephen was dragging himself towards the altar. With one leg completely ripped away, he was trying.
Karl laid Jean-Claude on the marble altar. Blood began to seep down the side. He held him lightly at the shoulder. Jean-Claude could bench press a car. How could Karl hold him down?
"He shares Oliver's strength."
"Quit doing that," I said.
"Answering questions I haven't asked yet."
He smiled. "It saves so much time."
Oliver picked up a white, polished stake and a padded hammer. He held them out towards me. "It's time."
Alejandro tried to help me stand, but I pushed him away. Fourth mark or no fourth mark, I could stand on my own.
Richard screamed, "No!" He ran past us towards the altar. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. He jumped at Oliver, and the little man grabbed him by the throat and tore his windpipe out.
"Richard!" I was running, but it was too late. He lay bleeding on the ground, still trying to breathe when he didn't have anything to breathe with.
I knelt by him, tried to stop the flow of blood. His eyes were wide and panic-filled. Edward was with me. "There's nothing you can do. Nothing any of us can do."
"Anita." He pulled me away from Richard. "It's too late."
I was crying and hadn't known it.
"Come, Anita; destroy your old master, as you wanted me to." Oliver was holding the hammer and stake out towards me.
I shook my head.
Alejandro helped me stand. I reached for Edward, but it was too late. Edward couldn't help. No one could help me. There was no way to take back the fourth mark, or heal Richard, or save Jean-Claude. But at least I wouldn't put the stake through Jean-Claude. That I could stop. That I would not do.
Alejandro was leading me towards the altar.
Marguerite had crawled to one side of the dais. She was kneeling, rocking gently back and fourth. Her face was a bloody mask. She'd clawed her eyes out.
Oliver held the stake and mallet out to me with his white-gloved hands, still wet with Richard's blood. I shook my head.
"You will take it. You will do as I say." His little clown face was frowning at me.
"Fuck you," I said.
"Alejandro, you control her now."
"She is my servant, master, yes."
Oliver held the stake out towards me. "Then have her finish him."
"I cannot force her, master." Alejandro smiled as he said it.
"She is a necromancer. I told you she would have free will."
"I will not have my grand gesture spoiled by one stubborn woman."
He tried to roll my mind. I felt him rush over me like a wind inside my head, but it rolled off and away. I was a full human servant; vampire tricks didn't work on me, not even Oliver's.
I laughed, and he slapped me. I tasted fresh blood in my mouth. He stood beside me, and I could feel him tremble. He was so angry. I was ruining his moment.
Alejandro was pleased. I could feel his pleasure like a warm hand in my stomach.
"Finish him, or I promise you I'll beat you to a bloody pulp. You don't die easily now. I can hurt you worse than you can imagine, and you'll heal. But it will still hurt just as badly. Do you understand me?"
I stared down at Jean-Claude. He was staring at me. His dark blue eyes were as lovely as ever.
"I won't do it," I said.
"You still care about him? After all he has done to you?"
"Do him, now, or I will kill him slowly. I will pick pieces of flesh from his bones but never kill him. As long as his heart and head are intact, he won't die, no matter what I do to him."
I looked at Jean-Claude. I couldn't stand by and let Oliver torture him, not if I could help it. Wasn't a clean death better? Wasn't it?
I took the stake from Oliver. "I'll do it."
Oliver smiled. "You've made a wise decision. Jean-Claude would thank you if he could."
I stared down at Jean-Claude, stake in one hand. I touched his chest just over the burn scar. My hand came away smeared with blood.
"Do it, now!" Oliver said.
I turned to Oliver, reaching my left hand out for the hammer. As he handed it to me, I shoved the ash stake through his chest.
Karl screamed. Blood poured out of Oliver's mouth. He seemed frozen, as if he couldn't move with the stake in his heart, but he wasn't dead, not yet. My fingers tore into the meat of his throat and pulled, pulled great gobbets of flesh, until I saw spine, glistening and wet. I wrapped my hand around his spine and jerked it free. His head lolled to one side, held by a few strips of meat. I jerked his head clear and tossed it across the ring.
Karl Inger was lying beside the altar. I knelt by him and tried to find a pulse, but there wasn't one. Oliver's death had killed him too.
Alejandro came to stand by me. "You've done it, Anita. I knew you could kill him. I knew you could."
I stared up at him. "Now you kill Jean-Claude, and we rule the city together."
I shoved upward before I could think about it, before he could read my mind. I shoved my hands into his chest. Ribs cracked and scraped my skin. I grabbed his beating heart and crushed it.
I couldn't breathe. My chest was tight, and it hurt. I pulled his heart out of the hole. He fell, eyes wide and surprised. I fell with him.
I was gasping for air. Couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe. I lay on top of my master and felt my heart beating for both of us. He wouldn't die. I laid my fingers against his throat and started to dig. I put my hands around his throat and squeezed. I felt my hands dig into flesh, but the pain was overwhelming. I was choking on blood, our blood.
My hands went numb. I couldn't tell if I was still squeezing or not. I couldn't feel anything except the pain. Then even that slipped away, and I was falling, falling into a darkness that had never known light, and never would.
I woke up staring into an off-white ceiling. I blinked at the ceiling for a minute. Sunlight lay in warm squares across the blanket. There were metal rails on the bed. An IV dripped to my arm.
A hospital—then I wasn't dead. Surprise, surprise.
There were flowers and a bunch of shiny balloons on a small bedside table. I lay there a moment, enjoying the fact that I wasn't dead.
The door opened, and all I could see was a huge bunch of flowers. Then the flowers lowered, and it was Richard.
I think I stopped breathing. I could feel all the blood rushing through my skin. There was a soft roaring in my head. No. I wasn't going to faint. I never fainted. I finally managed to say, "You're dead."
His smile faded. "I'm not dead."
"I saw Oliver tear out your throat." I could see it in front of me like an overlay in my mind. I saw him gasping, dying. I found I could sit up. I braced myself, and the IV needle moved under my skin, the tape pulling. It was real. Nothing else seemed real.
He raised a hand towards his throat, then stopped himself. He swallowed hard enough for me to hear it. "You saw Oliver tear out my throat, but it didn't kill me."
I stared at him. There was no bandage on his cheek. The circle cut had healed. "No human being could survive that," I said softly.
"I know." He looked incredibly sad as he said it.
Panic filled my throat until I could barely breathe. "What are you?"
"I'm a lycanthrope."
I shook my head. "I know what a lycanthrope feels like, moves like. You aren't one."
"Yes, I am."
I kept shaking my head. "No."
He came to stand beside the bed. He held the flowers awkwardly, as if he didn't know what to do with them. "I'm next in line to be pack leader. I can pass for human, Anita. I'm good at it."
"You lied to me."
He shook his head. "I didn't want to."
"Then why did you?"
"Jean-Claude ordered me not to tell you."
He shrugged. "I think because he knew you'd hate it. You don't forgive deceit. He knows that."
Would Jean-Claude deliberately try to ruin a potential relationship between Richard and me? Yep.
"You asked what hold Jean-Claude had on me. That was it. My pack leader loaned me to Jean-Claude on the condition that no one find out what I was."
"Why are you a special case?"
"They won't let lycanthropes teach kids, or anybody else for that matter."
"You're a werewolf."
"Isn't that better than being dead?"
I stared up at him. His eyes were still the same perfect brown. His hair fell forward around his face. I wanted to ask him to sit down, to let me run my fingers through his hair, to keep it from that wonderful face.
"Yeah, it's better than being dead."
He let out a breath, as if he'd been holding it. He smiled and held the flowers out to me.
I took them because I didn't know what else to do. They were red carnations with enough baby's breath to form a white mist over the red. The carnations smelled like sweet cloves. Richard was a werewolf. Next in line for pack leader. He could pass for human. I stared up at him. I held out my hand to him. He took it, and his hand was warm and solid, and alive.
"Now that we've established why you're not dead, why aren't I dead?"
"Edward did CPR on you until the ambulances came. The doctors don't know what caused your heart to stop, but there's no permanent damage."
"What did you tell the police about all the bodies?"
"Come off it, Richard."
"By the time the ambulance got there, there were no extra bodies."
"The audience saw it all."
"But what was real and what was illusion? The police got a hundred different versions from the audience. They're suspicious, but they can't prove anything. The Circus has been shut down until the authorities can be sure it's safe."
"Safe?" I laughed.
He shrugged. "As safe as it ever was."
I slipped my hand out of Richard's grasp, using both hands to smell the flowers again. "Is Jean-Claude . . . alive?"
A great sense of relief washed over me. I didn't want him dead. I didn't want Jean-Claude dead. Shit. "He's still Master of the City, then. And I'm still bound to him."
"No," Richard said, "Jean-Claude told me to tell you. You're free. Alejandro's marks sort of canceled his out. You can't serve two masters, he said."
Free? I was free? I stared at Richard. "It can't be that easy."
Richard laughed. "You call this easy?"
I looked up. I had to smile. "All right, it wasn't easy, but I didn't think anything short of death would get Jean-Claude off my back."
"Are you happy the marks are gone?"
I started to say, "Of course," then stopped myself. There was something very serious in Richard's face. He knew what it was to be offered power. To be one with the monsters. It could be horrible, and wonderful.
Finally I said "Yes."
"You don't seem too enthused," he said.
"I know I should be jumping for joy, or something, but I just feel empty."
"You've been through a lot the last few days. You're entitled to be a little numb."
Why wasn't I happier to be rid of Jean-Claude? Why wasn't I relieved to be no one's human servant? Because I'd miss him? Stupid. Ridiculous. True.
When something gets too hard to think about, think about something else. "So now everyone knows you're a werewolf."
"You were hospitalized, and you've already healed. I think they'll guess."
"Jean-Claude had me hidden away until I healed. This is my first day up and around."
"How long have I been out?"
"You were in a coma for three days. The doctors still don't know what made you start breathing on your own."
I had come that close to the great beyond. I couldn't remember any tunnel of light, or soothing voices. I felt cheated. "I don't remember."
"You were unconscious; you're not supposed to remember."
"Sit down, before I get a crick looking up at you."
He pulled up a chair and sat down by the bed, smiling at me. It was a nice smile.
"So you're a werewolf."
"How did it happen?"
He stared down at the floor, then up. His face looked so solemn, I was sorry I'd asked. I was expecting some great tale of a savage attack survived. "I got a bad batch of lycanthropy serum."
"You heard me." He seemed embarrassed.
"You got a bad shot?"
My smile got wider and wider.
"It's not funny," he said.
I shook my head. "Not at all." I knew my eyes were shiny, and it was all I could do not to laugh out loud. "You've got to admit it's nicely ironic."
He sighed. "You're going to hurt yourself. Go ahead and laugh."
I did. I laughed until it hurt, and Richard joined in. Laughter is contagious, too.
A dozen white roses came later that day with a note from Jean-Claude. The note read, "You are free of me, if you choose. But I hope you want to see me as much as I want to see you. It is your choice. Jean-Claude."
I stared at the flowers for a long time. I finally had a nurse give them to someone else, or throw them away, or whatever the hell she wanted to do with them. I just wanted them out of my sight. So I was still attracted to Jean-Claude. I might even, in some dark corner, love him a little. It didn't matter. Loving the monsters always ends badly for the human. It's a rule.
That brought me to Richard. He was one of the monsters, but he was alive. That was an improvement over Jean-Claude. And was he any less human than I was: zombie queen, vampire slayer, necromancer? Who was I to complain?
I don't know where they put all the body parts, but no police ever came asking. Whether I'd saved the city or not, it was still murder. Legally, Oliver had done nothing to deserve death.
I got out of the hospital and went back to work. Larry stayed on. He's learning how to hunt vampires, God save him.
The lamia was truly immortal. Which I guess means lamias can't have been extinct. They just must always have been rare. Jean-Claude got the lamia a green card and gave her a job at the Circus of the Damned. I don't know if he's letting her breed, or not. I haven't been near the Circus since I got out of the hospital.
Richard and I finally had that first date. We went for something fairly traditional: dinner and a movie. We're going caving next week. He promised no underwater tunnels. His lips are the softest I've ever kissed. So he gets furry once a month. No one's perfect.
Jean-Claude hasn't given up. He keeps sending me gifts. I keep refusing them. I have to keep saying no until he gives up, or until hell freezes over, whichever comes first.
Most women complain that there are no single, straight men left. I'd just like to meet one who's human.