HOME


Click on any porn comic category below to view & download more related.


TO WATCH ONLINE CLICK ON ANY PICTURE

This is a fanfiction of Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. The book is about Anna Blake, the 15 year old daughter of Anita Blake. Anita is killed by Nikolaos and Anna than kills Nikolaos to avenge her mother. But when Anita is killed the marks are given to Anna making her Jean-Claude’s new human servant. The series goes on from there with a few changes, twist, and secret plots. with an even bigger secret yet to be reveled. Who is Anna’s father?

———- 1

Prologue
“She killed my mother.” I said and stood up. He remained sitting. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say, so I left.

About ten minutes later Edward got into the car with me. “What now?” he asked.

“You mentioned your hotel room. I’m going to sleep while I can.”

“And tomorrow?”

“You take me out and show me how the shotgun works.”

“Then?” he asked.

“Then we go after Nikolaos,” I said.

He gave a shaky breath, almost a laugh. “Oh, boy.”

Oh, boy? “Glad to see someone is enjoying all this.”

He grinned at me. “I love my work,” he said.

I had to smile.
……………………………………………………………………………………..

During the day I learned how to use a shotgun. That night I went caving with wererats.

The cave was dark. I stood in absolute blackness, gripping my flashlight. I touched my hand to my forehead and couldn’t see a damn thing but the funny white images your eyes make when there is no light. I was wearing a hard hat with a light on it, turned off at present. The wererats had insisted on it. All around me were sounds. Cries, moans, the popping of bone, a curious sliding sound like a knife drawing out of flesh. The wererats were changing from human to animal. It sounded like it hurt – a lot. They had made me swear not to turn on a light until they told me to.

Rafael, the Rat King, said, “You may turn on your lights.”

I did, instantly. My eyes seemed to leech on the light. The ratmen stood in small groups in the wide, flat-roofed tunnel. There were ten of them. I had counted them in human form. Now the seven males were fur-covered and wearing jean cutoffs. Two wore loose t-shirts. The three women wore loose dresses, like maternity clothes. Their black button eyes glittered in the light. Everybody was furry.

Edward came to stand near me. He was staring at the weres, face distant, unreadable. I touched his arm. I had told Rafael that I was not a bounty hunter, but Edward was, sometimes. I hoped I had not endangered these people.

“Are you ready?” Rafael asked. He was the same sleek black ratman I remembered.

“Yes,” I said.

Edward nodded.

The wererats scattered to either side of us, scrambling over low, weathered flowstone. I said to no one in particular, “I thought caves were damp.”

A smaller ratman in a t-shirt said, “Cherokee Caverns is dead cave.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Live cave has water and growing formations. A dry cave where none of the formations are growing is called dead cave.”

“Oh,” I said.

He drew lips back from huge teeth, a smile, I think. “More than you wanted to know, huh?”

Rafael hissed back, “We are not here to give guided tours, Louie. Now be quiet, both of you.”

Louie shrugged and scrambled ahead of me. He was the same human that had been with Rafael in the restaurant, the one with the dark eyes.

One of the females was nearly grey-furred. Her name was Lillian, and she was a doctor. She carried a backpack full of medical supplies. They seemed to be planning on us getting hurt. At least that meant they thought we would come out alive. I was beginning to wonder about that part myself.

Two hours later the ceiling dropped to a point where I couldn’t stand upright. And I learned what the hard hats they had given Edward and me were for. I scraped my head on the rock at least a thousand times. I’d have knocked myself unconscious long before we saw Nikolaos.

The rats seemed designed for the tunnel, sliding along, flattening their bodies in a strange, scrambling grace. Edward and I could not match it. Not even close.

He cursed softly behind me. His five inches of extra height were causing him pain. My lower back was an aching burn. He had to be in worse shape. There were pockets where the ceiling opened up and we could stand. I started looking very forward to them, like air pockets to a diver.

The quality of darkness changed. Light – there was light up ahead, not much, but it was there. It flickered at the far end of the tunnel like a mirage.

Rafael crouched beside us. Edward sat flat on the dry rock. I joined him. “There is your dungeon. We will wait here until near dark. If you have not come out, we will leave. After Nikolaos is dead, if we can, we will help you.”

I nodded; the light on my hard hat nodded with me. “Thank you for helping us.”

He shook his narrow, ratty face. “I have delivered you to the devil’s door. Do not thank me for that.”

I glanced at Edward. His face was still distant, unreadable. If he was interested in what the ratman had just said, I couldn’t tell it. We might as well have been talking about a grocery list.

Edward and I knelt before the opening into the dungeon. Torchlight flickered, incredibly bright after the darkness. Edward was cradling his Uzi that hung on a strap across his chest. I had the shotgun. I was also carrying my two dozen throwing stars, and two knives, stuffed in the pocket of my jacket.

It was daylight outside. There shouldn’t be a vampire stirring, but Burchard would be there. And if he saw us, Nikolaos would know. Somehow, she’d know.

We scrambled inside, ready to kill and maim. The room was empty. All that adrenaline sort of sat in my body, making my breathing too quick and my heart pound for no reason. The spot where my mother and Phillip had been chained was clean. Someone had scrubbed it down real good.

I fought an urge to touch the wall where they’d been.

Edward called softly, “Anna.” He was at the door.

I hurried up to him.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“She killed them in here.”

“Keep your mind on business. I don’t want to die because you’re daydreaming.”

I started to get angry and swallowed it. He was right.

Edward tried the door, and it opened. No prisoners, no need to lock it. I took the left side of the door, and he took the right. The corridor was empty.

My hands were sweating on the shotgun. Edward led off down the right hand side of the corridor. I followed him into the dragon’s lair. I didn’t feel much like a knight. I was fresh out of shiny steeds, or was that shiny armor?

Whatever. We were here. This was it. I could taste my heart in my throat.

The dragon didn’t come out and eat us right away. In fact, the place was quiet. As the cliche goes, too quiet.

I stepped close to Edward and whispered, “I don’t mean to complain, but where is everybody?”

He leaned his back against the wall and said, “Maybe you killed Winter. That just leaves Burchard. Maybe he’s on an errand.”

I shook my head. “This is too easy.”

“Don’t worry. Something will go wrong soon.” He continued down the corridor, and I followed. It took me three steps to realize Edward had made a joke.

The corridor opened into a huge room like Nikolaos’s throne room, but there was no chair here. There were coffins. Five of them spaced around the room on raised platforms, so they didn’t have to sit on the floor in the draft. Tall, iron candelabra burned in the room, one at the foot and head of each coffin.

Most vampires made some effort to hide their coffins, but not Nikolaos.

“Arrogant,” Edward whispered.

“Yes,” I whispered back. You always whispered around the coffins, at first, as if it were a funeral and they could hear you.

There was a neck-ruffling smell to the room, stale. It caught at the back of my throat and was almost a taste, faintly metallic. It was like the smell of snakes kept in cages. You knew there was nothing warm and furry in this room just by smell. And that really doesn’t do it justice. It was the smell of vampires.

The first coffin was dark, well-varnished wood, with golden handles. It was wider at the shoulder area and then narrowed, following the contour of the human body. Older coffins did that sometimes.

“We start here,” I said.

Edward didn’t argue. He let the machine gun hang by its strap and drew his pistol. “You’re covered,” he said.

I laid the shotgun on the floor in front of the coffin, gripped the edge of the lid, said a quick prayer, and lifted. Valentine lay in the coffin. His scarred face was bare. He was still dressed as a riverboat gambler but this time in black. His frilly shirt was crimson. The colors didn’t look good against his auburn hair. One hand was half-curled over his thigh, a careless sleeper’s gesture. A very human gesture.

Edward peered into the coffin, gun pointed ceilingward. “This the one your mom threw Holy Water on?”

I nodded.

“Did a bang-up job,” Edward said.

Valentine never moved. I couldn’t even see him breathe. I wiped my sweating palms on my jeans and felt for a pulse in his wrist. Nothing. His skin was cool to the touch. He was dead. It wasn’t murder, no matter what the new laws said. You can’t kill a corpse.

The wrist pulsed. I jerked back like he’d burned me.

“What’s wrong?” Edward asked.

“I got a pulse.”

“It happens sometimes.”

I nodded. Yeah, it happened sometimes. If you waited long enough, the heart did beat, blood did flow, but so slow that it was painful to watch. Dead. I was beginning to think I didn’t know what that meant.

I knew one thing. If night fell with us here, we would die, or wish we had. Valentine had helped kill over twenty people. He had killed my mother and nearly killed me; and he’d try to finish the job if he could. We had come to kill Nikolaos.

I shook off the shoulder straps of the backpack.

“What are you looking for?” Edward asked.

“Stake and hammer,” I said without looking up.

“Not going to use the shotgun?”

I glanced up at him. “Oh, right. Why not rent a marching band while we’re at it?”

“If you just want to be quiet, there is another way.” He had a slight smile on his face.

I had the sharpened stake in my hand, but I was willing to listen. I’ve staked most of the vampires that I’ve killed, but it never gets easier. It is hard, messy work, though I don’t throw up anymore. I am a professional, after all.

He took a small case out of his own backpack. It held syringes. He drew out an ampule of some greyish liquid. “Silver nitrate,” he said.

Silver. Bane of the undead. Scourge of the supernatural. And all nicely modernized. “Does it work?” I asked.

“It works.” He filled one syringe and asked, “How old is this one?”

“A little over a hundred,” I said.

“Two ought to do it.” He shoved the needle into the big vein in Valentine’s neck. Before he had filled the syringe a second time, the body shivered. He shoved the second dose into the neck. Valentine’s body arched against the walls of the coffin. His mouth opened and closed. He gasped for air as if he were drowning.

Edward filled up another syringe and handed it towards me. I stared at it.

“It isn’t going to bite,” he said.

I took it gingerly between my thumb and the first two fingers on my right hand.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked.

“I’m not a big fan of needles.”

He grinned. “You’re afraid of needles?”

I scowled at him. “Not exactly.”

Valentine’s body shook and bucked, hands thumping against the wooden walls. It made a small, helpless noise. His eyes never opened. He was going to sleep through his own death.

He gave one last shuddering jump, then collapsed against the side of the coffin like a broken rag doll.

“He doesn’t look very dead,” I said.

“They never do.”

“Stake their heart and chop off their heads, and you know they’re dead.”

“This isn’t staking,” he said.

I didn’t like it. Valentine lay there looking very whole and nearly human. I wanted to see some rotting flesh and bones turning to dust. I wanted to know he was dead.

“No one has ever gotten up out of their coffin after a syringe full of silver nitrate, Anna.”

I nodded but remained unconvinced.

“You check the other side. Go on.”

I went, but I kept glancing back at Valentine.

I opened the first coffin on my side, one-handed, holding the syringe carefully. An injection of silver nitrate probably wouldn’t do me much good either. The coffin was empty. The white imitation silk lining had conformed to the body like a mattress, but the body wasn’t there.

I flinched and stared around the room, but there was nothing there. I stared slowly upward, hoping that there was nothing floating above me. There wasn’t. Thank you, God.

I remembered to breathe finally. It was probably Theresa’s coffin. Yeah, that was it. I left it open and went to the next one. It was a newer model, probably fake wood, but nice and polished. The black male was in it. I had never gotten his name. Now I never would. I knew what it meant, coming in here. Not just defending yourself but taking out the vampires while they lay helpless. As far as I knew, this vampire had never hurt anyone. I laughed then; he was Nikolaos’s protege. Did I really think he’d never tasted human blood? No. I pressed the needle against his neck and swallowed hard. I hated needles. No particular reason.

I shoved it in and closed my eyes while I depressed the plunger. I could have pounded a stake through his heart, but sticking a needle in him put cold chills down my spine.

Edward called, “Anna!”

I whirled and found Aubrey sitting up in his coffin. He had Edward by the throat and was slowly lifting him off his feet.

The shotgun was still by Valentine’s coffin. Damn! I drew a star and throw it at Aubrey’s forehead. The star tossed his head back, but he just smiled and raised Edward straight-armed, legs dangling.

I ran for the shotgun.

Edward was having to use both hands to keep himself from being strangled by his own weight. He dropped one hand, fumbling for the machine gun.

Aubrey caught his wrist.

I picked up the shotgun, took two steps towards them and fired from three feet away. Aubrey’s head exploded; blood and brains spattered over the wall. The hands lowered Edward to the floor but didn’t let go. Edward drew a ragged breath. The right hand convulsed around his throat, fingers digging for his windpipe.

I had to step around Edward to fire at the chest. The blast took out the heart and most of the left side of the chest. The left arm sort of hung there by strands of tissue and bone. The corpse flopped back into its coffin.

Edward dropped to his knees, breath wheezing and choking through his throat.

“Nod if you can breathe, Edward,” I said. Though if Aubrey had crushed his windpipe I don’t know what I could have done. Run back and gotten Lillian the doctor rat, maybe.

Edward nodded. His face was a mottled reddish purple, but he was breathing.

My ears were ringing with the sound of the shotgun inside the stone walls. So much for surprise. So much for silver nitrate. I pumped another round into the gun and went to Valentine’s coffin. I blew him apart. Now, he was dead.

Edward staggered to his feet. He croaked, “How old was that thing?”

“Over five hundred,” I said.

He swallowed, and it looked like it hurt. “Shit.”

“I wouldn’t try sticking any needles into Nikolaos.”

He managed to glare at me, still half-leaning against Aubrey’s coffin.

I turned to the fifth coffin. The one we had saved until last without any talk between us. It was set against the far wall. A dainty white coffin, too small for an adult. Candlelight gleamed on the carvings in the lid.

I was tempted to just blow a hole in the coffin, but I had to see her. I had to see what I was shooting at. My heart started thudding in my throat; my chest was tight. She was a master vampire. Killing them, even in daylight, is a chancy thing. Their gaze can trap a human until nightfall. Their minds. Their voices. So much power. And Nikolaos was the most powerful I’d ever seen, but I was stronger I had to be. I tried to raise the lid one-handed, but it was heavy and not balanced for easy opening like modem coffins. “Can you back me on this, Edward? Or are you still relearning how to breathe?”

Edward came to stand beside me. His face looked almost its normal color. He took hold of the lid and I readied the shotgun.

He lifted and the whole lid slid off. It wasn’t hinged on.

I said, “Shiiit!”

The coffin was empty.

“Are you looking for me?” A high, musical voice called from the doorway. “Freeze; I believe that is the word. We have the drop on you.”

“I wouldn’t advise going for your gun,” Burchard said.

I glanced at Edward and found his hands close to the machine gun but not close enough. His face was unreadable, calm, normal. Just a Sunday drive.

“Turn around slowly,” Burchard said.

We did.

He was holding a semiautomatic rifle of some kind. I’m not the gun freak Edward is, I prefer knives, so I didn’t know the make and model, but I knew it’d make a big hole. There was also a sword hilt sticking over his back. A sword, an honest-to-god sword.

Zachary was standing beside him, holding a pistol. He held it two-handed, arms stiff. He didn’t seem happy.

Burchard held the rifle like he was born with it. “Drop your weapons, please, and lace your fingers on top of your heads.”

We did what he asked. Edward dropped the machine gun, and I lost the shotgun. I knew Edward had plenty more guns.

Nikolaos stood to one side. Her face was cold, angry. Her voice, when it came, echoed through the room. “I am older then anything you have ever imagined. Did you think daylight holds me prisoner? After a thousand years?” She walked out into the room, careful not to cross in front of Burchard and Zachary. She glanced at the remains in the coffins. “You will pay for this, animator.” She smiled then, and I had never seen anything more evil. “Strip them of the rest of their weaponry, Burchard; then we will give the animator a treat.”

They stood in front of us but not too close. “Up against the wall, animator,” Burchard said. “If the man moves, Zachary, shoot him.”

Burchard shoved me into the wall and frisked me very thoroughly. He didn’t check my teeth or have me drop my pants, but that was about it. He found everything I was carrying.

I went out to stand with Zachary, and Edward got his turn. I stared at Zachary. “Does she know?” I asked.

“Shut up.”

I smiled. “She doesn’t, does she?”

“Shut up!”

Edward came back, and we stood there with our hands on top of our heads, weapons gone. It was not a pretty sight.

Adrenaline was bubbling like champagne, and my pulse was threatening to jump out of my throat. I wasn’t afraid of the guns, not really. I was a little afraid of Nikolaos. What would she do to us? To Edward? He was the only semi-family I had left. I wouldn’t let her take him from me too.

As if she new what I was thinking, Nikolaos laughed, high and wild, an excited tittering.

“I really hate that laugh,” I said.

“Silence,” Burchard said.

“Oh, Anna, you are so amusing. I will enjoy making you one of my people.” Her voice started high and childlike and ended low enough to crawl down my spine.

She called out in a clear voice, “Enter this room now.”

I heard shuffling footsteps; then my mother and Phillip walked into the room. The horrible wound at their throats were thick, white scar tissue. They stared around the room as if they didn’t really see it.

I whispered, “Dear God.”

They had raised them from the dead.

Nikolaos danced around them. The skirt of her pastel pink dress swirled around her. The large, pink bow in her hair bobbed as she twirled, arms outstretched. Her slender legs were covered in white leotards. The shoes were white with pink bows.

She stopped, laughing and breathless. A healthy pink flush on her cheeks, eyes sparkling. How did she do that?

“They look very alive, doesn’t they?” She stalked around them, hand brushing Phillip’s arm. He drew away from her, eyes following her every move, afraid. He remembered her. God help us. He remembered her.

“Do you want to see him put through his paces?” she asked.

I hoped I didn’t understand her. I fought to keep my face blank. I must have succeeded because she stomped over to me, hands on hips.

“Well,” she said, “do you want to watch your lover perform?”

I swallowed bile, hard. Maybe I should just throw up on her. That would teach her. “With you?” I asked.

She sidled up to me, hands clasped behind her back. “It could be you. Your choice.”

Her face was almost touching mine. Eyes so damned wide and innocent that it seemed sacrilegious. “Neither sounds very appealing,” I said.

“Pity.” She half-skipped back to Phillip. He was naked, and his tanned body was still handsome. What were a few more scars?

“You didn’t know I was going to be here, so why raise them from the dead?” I asked.

She turned on the heels of her little shoes. “We raised them so they could try to kill Aubrey. Murdered zombies can be so much fun, while they try to kill their murderers. We thought we’d give him a chance while Aubrey was asleep. Aubrey can move if you disturb him.” She glanced at Edward. “But then you know that.”

“You were going to let Aubrey kill them again,” I said.

She nodded, head bobbing. “Mmm-uh.”

“You bitch,” I said.

“I can make them do whatever I please,” Nikolaos said.

I fought with everything in me not to glance at Zachary. Not because I didn’t want to give him away, I would do that, but I was waiting for the moment when it would help us. It might get Zachary killed, but it wouldn’t take out Burchard or Nikolaos. Zachary was the least dangerous person in this whole room.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I know who the murderer is.”

Burchard’s eyebrows raised.

Nikolaos said, “What did you say?”

“I know who is killing vampires.”.

“Who?” Nikolaos said. “Tell me, or I will kill this human.”

“Sure,” I said.

Zachary screamed, “No!” He turned to fire at me. The bullet whined overhead. Burchard and I both sank to the floor.

Edward screamed. I half-rose to run to him. His arm was twisted at a funny angle, but he was alive.

Zachary’s gun went off twice, and Nikolaos took it away from him, tossing it to the floor. She grabbed him and forced him against her body, bending him at the waist, cradling him. Her head darted downward. Zachary shrieked.

Burchard was on his knees, watching the show. I stabbed my knife into his back. It thunked solid and hilt-deep. His spine stiffened, one hand trying to tear out the blade. I didn’t wait to see if he could do it. I drew my other knife and plunged it into the side of his throat. Blood poured down my hand when I took the knife out. I stabbed him again, and he fell slowly forward, face down on the floor.

Nikolaos let Zachary drop to the floor and turned, face bloodstained, the front of her pink dress crimson. Blood spattered on her white leotards. Zachary’s throat was torn out. He lay gasping on the floor but still moving, alive.

She stared at Burchard’s body, then screamed, a wild banshee sound that wailed and echoed. She rushed me, hands outstretched. I threw the knife, and she batted it away. She hit me, the force of her body slamming me into the floor, her scrambling on top of me. She was still screaming, over and over. She held my head to one side. No mind tricks, brute strength.

I screamed, “Nooo!”

A gun fired, and Nikolaos jerked, once, twice. She rose off me, and I felt the wind. It was creeping through the room like the beginnings of a storm.

Edward leaned against the wall, holding Zachary’s dropped gun.

Nikolaos went for him, and he emptied the gun into her frail body. She didn’t even hesitate.

I sat up and watched her stalk towards Edward. He threw the empty gun at her. She was suddenly on him, forcing him back into the floor.

Burchard’s sword lay on the floor, nearly as tall as I was. I drew it out of its sheath. Heavy, awkward, drawing my arm down. I raised it over my head, flat of the blade half resting on my shoulder, and ran for Nikolaos.

She was talking again in a high, sing-song voice. “I will make you mine, mortal. Mine!”

Edward screamed. I couldn’t see why. I raised the sword, and its weight carried it down and across, like it was meant to. It bit into her neck with a great wet thunk. The sword grated on bone, and I drew it out. The tip fell to scrape on the floor.

Nikolaos turned to me and started to stand. I raised the sword, and it cut outward, swinging my body with it. Bone cracked, and I fell to the floor as Nikolaos tumbled to her knees. Her head still hung by strips of meat and skin. She blinked at me and tried to stand up.

I screamed and drove the blade upward with everything I had. It took her between the breasts, and I stood running with it, shoving it in. Blood poured. I pinned her against the wall. The blade shoved out her back, scraping along the wall as she slid downward.

I dropped to my knees beside the body. Yes, the body. She was dead!

I looked back at Edward. There was blood on his neck. “She bit me,” he said.

I was gasping for air, having trouble breathing, but it was wonderful. I was alive and she wasn’t. She fucking wasn’t. “Don’t worry, Edward, I’ll help you. Plenty of Holy Water left.” I smiled.

He stared at me a minute, then laughed, and I laughed with him. We were still laughing when the wererats crept in from the tunnel. Rafael, the Rat King, stared at the carnage with black-button eyes. “She is dead.”

“Ding dong, the witch is dead,” I said.

Edward picked it up, half-singing, “The wicked old witch.”

We collapsed into laughter again, and Lillian the doctor, all covered with fur, tended our hurts, Edward first.

Zachary was still lying on the ground. The wound at his throat was beginning to close up, skin knitting together. He would live, if that was the right word.

I picked my knife up off the floor and staggered to him. The rats watched me. No one interfered. I dropped to my knees beside him and ripped the sleeve of his shirt. I laid the gris-gris bare. He still couldn’t talk but his eyes widened.

“Remember when I tried to touch this with my own blood? You stopped me. You seemed afraid, and now I understand why.” I sat beside him and watched him heal. “Every gris-gris has a thing you must do for it, vampire blood for this one, and one thing you must never do, or the magic stops. Poof.” I held up my arm, dripping blood quite nicely. “Human blood, Zachary; is that bad?”

He managed a noise like, “Don’t.”

Blood dripped down my elbow and hung, thick and trembling over his arm. He sort of shook his head, no, no. The blood dripped down and splatted on his arm, but it didn’t touch the gris-gris.

His whole body relaxed.

“I’ve got no patience today, Zachary.” I rubbed blood along the woven band.

His eyes flared, showing white. He made a strangling noise in his throat. His hands scrabbled at the floor. His chest jerked as if he couldn’t breathe. A sigh ran out of his body, a long whoosh of breath, and he was quiet.

I checked for a pulse; nothing. I cut the gris-gris off with my knife, balled it in my hand, and shoved it in my pocket. Evil piece of work.

Lillian came to bind my arm up. “This is just temporary. You’ll need stitches.”

I nodded and got to my feet.

Edward called, “Where are you going?”

“To get the rest of your guns.” And to find Jean-Claude. I didn’t say that part out loud. I didn’t think Edward would understand.

Two of the ratmen went with me. That was fine. They could come as long as they didn’t interfere. Momma and Phillip was still huddled in the corner. I left him there.

I did get the guns. I strung the machine gun over my shoulders and kept the shotgun in my hands. Loaded for bear. I had killed a one-thousand-year-old vampire. Naw, not me. Surely not.

The ratmen and I found the punishment room. There were six coffins in it. Each had a blessed cross on its lid and silver chains to hold the lid down. The third coffin held Willie, so deeply asleep that he seemed like he would never wake. I left him like that, to wake with the night. To go on about his business. Willie wasn’t a bad person. And for a vampire he was excellent.

All the other coffins were empty, only the last one still unopened. I undid the chains and laid the cross on the ground. Jean-Claude stared up at me. His eyes were midnight fire, his smile gentle. I flashed on the first dream and the coffin filled with blood, him reaching for me. I stepped back, and he rose from the coffin.

The ratmen stepped back, hissing.

“It’s all right,” I said. “He’s sort of on our side.”

He stepped from the coffin like he’d had a good nap. He smiled and extended a hand. “I knew you would do it, ma petite.”

“You arrogant son of a bitch.” I smashed the shotgun butt into his stomach. He doubled over just enough. I hit him in the jaw. . He rocked back. “She killed MY MOTHER!”

He rubbed his face and came away with blood. “They are gone, Anna. I cannot bring them back.”

I gripped the shotgun until my hands ached. Blood began to trickle down my arm from the wound. I thought about it. For one moment, I considered blowing his perfect face away. I didn’t do it. I would probably regret it later.

“Can you stay out of my dreams, at least?” I asked.

“That, I can do. I am sorry, ma petite.”

“Stop calling me that.”

He shrugged. His black hair had nearly crimson highlights in the torchlight. Breathtaking. “Stop playing with me, Jean-Claude. Who do you think you are? Using people like this.”

“I am the new master of the city,” he said. He was suddenly next to me, fingers touching my cheek. “And you put me upon the throne.”

I jerked away from him. “You stay away from me for a while, Jean-Claude, or I swear. . .”

“You’ll kill me?” he said. He was smiling, laughing at me.

I didn’t shoot him. And some people say I have no sense of humor.

I found a room with a dirt floor and several shallow graves. My mother and Phillip let me lead them to the room. It was only when we stood staring down at the fresh-turned earth that they turned to me. “Anna?”

“Hush,” I said.

“Anna, what’s happening?” Momma asked.

She was beginning to remember. They would become more alive in a few hours, up to a point. It would almost be the real Momma and Phillip for a day, or two.

“Anna?” Phillip’s voice was high and uncertain. A little boy afraid of the dark. He grabbed my arm, and his hand felt very real. His eyes were still that perfect brown. “What’s going on?”

I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. His skin was warm. “You need to rest, Phillip. You’re tired.”

He nodded. “Tired,” he said.

I led him to the soft dirt. He lay down on it, then sat up, eyes wild, grabbing for me. “Aubrey! He. . .”

“Aubrey’s dead. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Dead?” He stared down the length of his body as if just seeing it. “Aubrey killed us.”

I nodded. “Yes, Phillip.”

“I’m scared.”

I held him, rubbing his back in smooth, useless circles. Momma arms came and hugged me like she would never let go.

“Anna!”

“Hush, hush. It’s all right. It’s all right.”

“You’re going to put us back, aren’t you?” She drew back so she could see my face.

“Yes,” I said and she layed down on the fresh-turned earth next to me.

“I don’t want to die,” said Phillip.

“You’re already dead.”

He stared down at his hands, flexing them. “Dead?” he whispered. “Dead?” He lay down on the fresh-turned earth on my other side. “Put me back,” he said.

And I did.

At the end their eyes closed and their faces went slack, dead. They sank into the grave and were gone.

I dropped to my knees beside Momma and Phillip’s grave, and wept.
……………………………………………………………………………………….

Edward had a dislocated shoulder and two broken bones in his arm, plus one vampire bite. He offered to have me come and live with him, because I was still only 16, but I didn’t. I had fourteen stitches. We both healed. Momma and Phillip’s body was moved to a local cemetery. Every time I work in it, I have to go by and say hello. Even though I know they’re dead and doesn’t care. Graves are for the living, not the dead. It gives us something to concentrate on instead of the fact that our loved one is rotting under the ground. The dead don’t care about pretty flowers and carved marble statues.

Jean-Claude sent me a dozen pure white, long-stemmed roses. The card read, “If you could ever forgive me, come dancing with me.”

I wrote “No” on the back of the card and slipped it under the door at Guilty Pleasures, during daylight hours. I had been attracted to Jean-Claude. Maybe I still was. So what? He thought it changed things. It didn’t. All I had to do was visit Momma and Phillip’s graves to know that. Oh, hell, I didn’t even have to go that far. I know who and what I am. I am The Shadow of the Executioner . My mother’s daughter. Anna Blake.

——-

Part 1
WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

-Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

——–

Chapter 1
I had gotten to see the sun rise on the drove home this morning. I hate sunrises. St. Louis has more trees edging its highways than any other city Momma and I have driven through. I could almost admit the trees looked nice in the first light of dawn, almost. Our… My apartment always looks depressingly white and cheerful in morning sunlight. The walls are the same vanilla ice cream white as every apartment I’ve ever seen. The carpeting is a nice shade of grey, preferable to that dog poop brown that is more common.

The apartment is a roomy two-bedroom. I am told it has a nice view of the park next door. You couldn’t prove it by me. If I had my choice, there would be no windows. I get by with heavy drapes that turn the brightest day to cool twilight.

I switched the radio on low to drown the small noises of my day-living neighbors. Sleep sucked me under to the soft music of Chopin. A minute later the phone rang.

I lay there for a minute, then answer “Hello.”

“Rumor has it that there’s a new Master Vampire of the City. I want the story.”The momment he spoke I knew who it was. Irving Griswold.

Irving is five-three. I’d like him for that reason if nothing else. You don’t meet many men exactly my height. Frizzy brown hair framed his bald spot like petals on a flower. His face was round, pink-cheeked. He looked like a bald cherub. He did not look like a werewolf, but he was one. Even lycanthropy can’t cure baldness.

No one on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch knew Irving was a shapeshifter. It is a disease, and it’s illegal to discriminate against lycanthropes, just like people with AIDS, but people do it anyway. Maybe the paper’s management would have been broad-minded, liberal, but I was with Irving. Caution was better.

I just shook my head. “So you’re calling me why?”

“The vamps do talk to you, Anna. Do you know who the new Master is? Can I meet him, or her? Can I do an interview?”

“Jesus, Irving, don’t you have enough troubles without messing with the king vampire?”

“It’s a him then,” he said.

“It’s a figure of speech,” I said.

“You know something. I know you do.”

“What I know is that you don’t want to come to the attention of a master vampire. They’re mean, Irving.”

“The vampires are trying to mainstream themselves. They want positive attention. An interview about what he wants to do with the vampire community. His vision of the future. It would be very up-and-coming. No corpse jokes. No sensationalism. Straight journalism.”

“Yeah, right. On page one a tasteful little headline: THE MASTER VAMPIRE OF ST. LOUIS SPEAKS OUT.”

“Yeah, it’ll be great.”

“You’ve been sniffing newsprint again, Irving.”

“Anna. Help me get an interview with the Master of the City. I’ll give you anything you want.”

“There’s no one who can give me what I want,” I told him.

“No interview with the Master?” he said.

“If you’re lucky, no,” I said.

“Shoot.”

“I still want you to meet me at Dead Dave’s. Maybe a vamp will talk to me with you around.”

“Irving, being seen with a legal executioner of vampires is not going to endear you to the vamps.”

“They still calling you the Executioner and her Shadow or is The Shadow of the Executioner now?”

“The latter, among other things.”

“Well, I’ll meet you at Dead Dave’s at about 7.”

“Make it an 6. I’d like to be out of the District before full dark.”

“Is anybody gunning for you down there? I mean I don’t want to endanger you, Blake. You’ve given me too many lead stories. I wouldn’t want to lose you.”

“Thanks for the concern. No, no one’s after me. Far as I know.”

“You don’t sound real certain.”

I thought about telling him that the new Master of the City had sent me a dozen white roses and an invitation to go dancing. I had turned him down. There had been a message on my machine and an invitation to a black tie affair. I ignored it all. So far the Master was behaving like the courtly gentleman he had been a few centuries back. It couldn’t last. Jean-Claude was not a person who took defeat easily.

I didn’t tell Irving. He didn’t need to know.

“I’ll see you at Dead Dave’s at 6,” I said and hung up.

——-

Chapter 2
Dead Dave’s is in the part of St. Louis that has two names. Polite: the Riverfront. Rude: the Blood Quarter. It is our town’s hottest vampire commercial district. Big tourist attraction. Vampires have really put St. Louis on the vacation maps. You’d think that the Ozark Mountains, some of the best fishing in the country, the symphony, Broadway level musicals, or maybe the Botanical Gardens would be enough, but no. I guess it’s hard to compete with the undead. I know I find it difficult.

Dead Dave’s is all dark glass and beer signs in the windows. The afternoon sunlight was fading into twilight. Vamps wouldn’t be out until full dark. I had a little under two hours. Get in, talk to Irving, get out. Easy. Ri-ight.

I had changed into black shorts, royal-blue t-shirt, black Nikes with a matching blue swish, black and white jogging socks, and a black leather belt. The belt was there so the throwing stars and knives had something to hang on.

But all I didn’t think things were that bad, yet, and let’s face it, if you need more than thirteen knives, it’s over. The really sad part was who the extra ammo was for. Jean-Claude. The Master Vampire of the City. Not that silver-plated knives would kill him. But they would hurt him, make him heal almost human slow.

I wanted out of the District before dark. I did not want to run into Jean-Claude. He wouldn’t attack me. In fact, his intentions were good, if not exactly honorable. He had offered me immortality without the messy part of becoming a vampire. There was some implication that I got him along with eternity. He was tall, pale, and handsome. Sexier than a silk teddy.

He wanted me to be his human servant. I didn’t want to. Not even for eternal life, eternal youth, and a little compromise of the soul. The price I had payed was too steep. Jean-Claude didn’t believe that.

I stepped into the bar and was momentarily blind, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. Like one of those old westerns where the good guy hesitates at the front of the bar and views the crowd. I suspected he wasn’t looking for the bad guy at all. He had just come out of the sun and couldn’t see shit. No one ever shoots you while you’re waiting for your eyes to adjust. I wonder why?

It was after five on a Thursday. Most of the bar stools and all the tables were taken. The place was cheek to jowl with business suits, male and female. A spattering of work boots and tans that ended at the elbow, but mostly upwardly mobile types. Dead Dave’s had become trendy despite efforts to keep it at bay.

It looked like happy hour was in high gear. Shit. All the yuppies were here to catch a nice safe glimpse of a vampire. They would be slightly sloshed when it happened. Increase the thrill I guess.

Irving was sitting at the rounded corner of the bar. He saw me and waved. I waved back and started pushing my way towards him.

I squeezed between two gentlemen in suits. It took some maneuvering, and a very uncool-looking hop to mount the bar stool.

Irving grinned broadly at me. There was a nearly solid hum of conversation in the air. Words translated into pure noise like the ocean. Irving had to lean into me to be heard over the murmuring sound.

“I hope you appreciate how many dragons I had to slay to save that seat for you,” he said. The faint smell of whiskey breathed along my cheek as he spoke.

“Dragons are easy, try vampires sometimes,” I said.

His eyes widened. Before his mouth could form the question, I said, “I’m kidding, Irving.” Sheesh, some people just don’t have a sense of humor. “Besides, dragons were never native to North America,” I said.

“I knew that.”

“Sure,” I said.

He sipped whiskey from a faceted glass. The amber liquid shimmered in the subdued light.

Luther, daytime manager and bartender, was down at the far end of the bar dealing with a group of very happy people. If they had been any happier they’d have been passed out on the floor.

Luther is large, not tall, fat. But it is solid fat, almost a kind of muscle. His skin is so black, it has purple highlights. The cigarette between his lips flared orange as he took a breath. He could talk around a cig better than anyone I’d ever met.

Luther stood in front of me. He pulled a cigarette from the pack he always carried with him. He put the tip of his still burning stub against the fresh cigarette. The end flared red like a live coal. Smoke trickled up his nose and out his mouth. Like a dragon.

He crushed the old cig in the clear glass ashtray he carried with him from place to place like a teddy bear. He chain smokes, is grossly overweight, and his grey hair puts him over fifty. He’s never sick. He should be the national poster child for the Tobacco Institute.

“A refill?” he asked Irving.

“Yeah, thanks.”

Luther took the glass, refilled it from a bottle under the bar, and set it back down on a fresh napkin.

“What can I get for ya, Anna?” he asked.

“The usual, Luther.”

He poured me a glass of orange juice. We pretend it is a screwdriver. I’m a underaged, but why would I come to a bar if I didn’t drink?

He wiped the bar with a spotless white towel. “Gotta message for you from the Master.”

“The Master Vampire of the City?” Irving asked. His voice had that excited lilt to it. He smelled news.

“What?” There was no excited lilt to my voice.

“He wants to see you, bad.”

I glanced at Irving, then back at Luther. I tried to telepathically send the message, not in front of the reporter. It didn’t work.

“The Master’s put the word out. Anybody who sees you gives you the message.”

Irving was looking back and forth between us like an eager puppy. “What does the Master of the City want with you, Anna?”

“Consider it given,” I said.

Luther shook his head. “You ain’t going to talk to him, are you?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” Irving asked.

“None of your business.”

“Off the record,” he said.

“No.”

Luther stared at me. “Listen to me, girl, you talk to the Master. Right now all the vamps and freaks are just supposed to tell you the Master wants a powwow. The next order will be to detain you and take ya to him.”

Detain, it was a nice word for kidnap. “I don’t have anything to say to the Master.”

“Don’t let this get outta hand, Anna,” Luther said. “Just talk to him, no harm.”

That’s what he thought. “Maybe I will.” Luther was right. It was talk to him now or later. Later would probably be a lot less friendly.

“Why does the Master want to talk to you?” Irving asked. He was like some curious, bright-eyed bird that had spied a worm.

I ignored the question, but Irving didn’t take the hint.

“Tell me what you know about the Master.”

“Thanks a lot, Luther.”

“I didn’t mean to sic him on you,” he said. His cig bobbed up and down as he spoke. I never understood how he did that. Lip dexterity. Years of practice.

“Would everybody stop treating me like the bubonic fucking plague,” Irving said. “I’m just trying to do my job.”

I sipped my orange juice and looked at him. “Irving, you’re messing with things you don’t understand. I cannot give you info on the Master. I can’t.”

“Won’t,” he said.

I shrugged. “Won’t, but the reason I won’t is because I can’t.”

“That’s a circular argument,” he said.

“Sue me.” I finished the juice. I didn’t want it anyway. “But just let me get the hell out of the District before the Master hunts me down.”

His face was suddenly solemn. “You’re in trouble, aren’t you?”

“Maybe. Help me out, Irving. Please.”

“Help her out,” Luther said.

Dead Dave came out of the door behind the bar. I glanced at the dark glass windows. It looked the same, but if Dave was up, it was full dark. Shit. It was a walk back to my car surrounded by vampires. At least I had my knives. Comforting that.

Dave is tall, wide, short brown hair that had been balding when he died. He lost no more hair but it didn’t grow back either. He smiled at me wide enough to flash fangs. An excited wiggle ran through the crowd, as if the same nerve had been touched in all of them. The whispers spread like rings in a pool. Vampire. The show was on.

Dave and I shook hands. His hand was warm, firm, and dry. Have you fed tonight, Dave? He looked like he had, all rosy and cheerful. What did you feed on, Dave? And was it willing? Probably. Dave was a good guy for a dead man.

“Luther keeps telling me you stopped by but it’s always in daylight. Nice to see you’re slumming after dark.”

“Truthfully, I planned to be out of the District before full dark.”

He frowned. “You packing?”

I gave him a discreet glimpse of my knives.

He smiled without showing any fang. A trick you learn after a few years. “Luther give you the message?”

“Yeah.”

“You going to be smart or dumb?”

Dave is sorta blunt, but I like him anyway. “Dumb probably,” I said.

“Just because you got a special relationship with the new Master, don’t let it fool you. He’s still a master vampire. They are freaking bad news. Don’t fuck with him.”

“I’m trying to avoid it.”

Dave smiled broad enough to show fang. “Shit, you mean . . . Naw, he wants you for more than good tail.”

It was nice to know he thought I’d be good tail. I guess. “Yeah,” I said.

Irving was practically bouncing in his seat. “What the hell is going on, Anna?”

Very good question. “My business, not yours.”

“Anna. . .”

“Stop pestering me, Irving. I mean it.”

“Pestering? I haven’t heard that word since my grandmother.”

I looked him straight in the eyes and said, carefully, “Leave me the fuck alone. That better?”

He put his hands out in an I-give-up gesture. “Heh, just trying to do my job.”

“Well, do it somewhere else.”

I slid off the bar stool.

“The word’s out to find you, Anna,” Dave said. “Some of the other vampires might get overzealous.”

“You mean try to take me?”

He nodded.

“I’m armed, cross and all. I’ll be okay.”

“You want me to walk you to your car?” Dave asked.

I stared into his brown eyes and smiled. “Thanks, Dave, I’ll remember the offer, but I’m a big girl.” Truth was a lot of the vampires didn’t like Dave feeding information to the enemy. I was the Executioner’s daughter and a vampire hunter in my own right. If a vampire stepped over the line, they sent for me. There was no such thing as a life sentence for a vamp. Death or nothing. No prison can hold a vampire.

California tried, but one master vampire got loose. He killed twenty-five people in a one-night bloodbath. He didn’t feed, he just killed. Guess he was pissed about being locked up. They’d put crosses over the doors and on the guards. Crosses don’t work unless you believe in them. And they certainly don’t work once a master vampire has convinced you to take them off.

I was the vampire’s equivalent of an electric chair. They didn’t like me much. Surprise, surprise.

“I’ll be with her,” Irving said. He put money down on the bar and stood up.

“She’ll probably have to protect you, too,” Dave said.

Irving started to say something, then thought better of it. He could say, but I’m a lycanthrope, except he didn’t want people to know. He worked very, very hard at appearing human.

“You sure you’ll be okay?” he asked. One more chance for a vampire guard to my car.

He was offering to protect me from the Master. Dave hadn’t been dead ten years. He wasn’t good enough. “Nice to know you care, Dave.”

“Go on, get outta here,” he said.

“Watch yourself, girl,” Luther said.

I smiled brightly at both of them, then turned and walked out of the near silent bar. The crowd couldn’t have overheard much, if any, of the conversation, but I could feel them staring at my back. I resisted an urge to whirl around and go “boo.” I bet somebody would have screamed.

————-

Chapter 3
The sweltering darkness closed around me like a hot, sticky fist. A streetlight formed a puddle of brilliance on the sidewalk, as if the light had melted. All the streetlights are reproductions of turn-of-the-century gas lamps. They rise black and graceful, but not quite authentic. Like a Halloween costume. It looks good but is too comfortable to be real.

The night sky was like a dark presence over the tall brick buildings, but the streetlights held the darkness back. Like a black tent held up by sticks of light. You had the sense of darkness without the reality.

I started walking for the parking garage just off First Street. Parking on the Riverfront is damn near impossible. The tourists have only made the problem worse.

The hard soles of Irving’s dress shoes made a loud, echoing noise on the stone of the street. Real cobblestones. Streets meant for horses, not cars. It made parking a bitch, but it was . . . charming.

My Nike Airs made almost no sound on the street. Irving was like a clattery puppy beside me. Most lycanthropes I’ve met have been stealthy. Irving may have been a werewolf but he was more dog. A big, fun-loving dog.

Couples and small groups passed us, laughing, talking, voices too shrill. They had come to see vampires. Real-live vampires, or was that real-dead vampires? Tourists, all of them. Amateurs. Voyeurs. I had seen more undead than any of them. I’d lay money on that. The fascination escaped me.

It was full dark now. What was I going to do with Irving?

A figure detached itself from the darkened buildings. I couldn’t tell if he had been waiting or had simply appeared. Magic. I froze, like a deer caught in headlights, staring.

“What’s wrong, Blake?” Irving asked.

Jean-Claude, Master Vampire of the City, walked towards us. He moved like a dancer, or a cat, a smooth, gliding walk. Energy and grace contained, waiting to explode into violence.

He wasn’t that tall, maybe five-eleven. His shirt was so white, it gleamed. The shirt was loose, long, full sleeves made tight at the wrist by three-buttoned cuffs. The front of the shirt had only a string to close the throat. He’d left it untied, and the white cloth framed the pale smoothness of his chest. The shirt was tucked into tight black jeans, and only that kept it from billowing around him like a cape.

His hair was perfectly black, curling softly around his face. The eyes, if you dared to look into them, were a blue so dark it was almost black. Glittering, dark jewels.

He stopped about six feet in front of us. Close enough to see the dark cross-shaped scar on his chest. It was the only thing that marred the perfection of his body. Or what I’d seen of his body.

His had been some poor sod’s last attempt to stave off death. I wondered if the poor sod had escaped? Would Jean-Claude tell me if I asked? Maybe. But if the answer was no, I didn’t want to hear it.

“Hello, Jean-Claude,” I said.

“Greetings, ma petite,” he said. His voice was like fur, rich, soft, vaguely obscene, as if just talking to him was something dirty. Maybe it was.

“Don’t call me ma petite,” I said.

He smiled slightly, not a hint of fang. “As you like.” He looked at Irving. Irving looked away, careful not to meet Jean-Claude’s eyes. You never looked directly into a vampire’s eyes. Never. So why was I doing it with impunity. Why indeed?

“Who is your friend?” The last word was very soft and somehow threatening.

“This is Irving Griswold. He’s a reporter for the Post-Dispatch.”

“Ah,” he said. He walked around Irving as if he were something for sale, and Jean-Claude wanted to see all of him.

Irving gave nervous little glances so that he could keep the vampire in view. He glanced at me, widening his eyes. “What’s going on?”

“What indeed, Irving?” Jean-Claude said.

“Leave him alone, Jean-Claude.”

“Why have you not come to see me, my little animator?”

Little animator wasn’t much of an improvement over ma petite, but I’d take it. “I’ve been busy.”

The look that crossed his face was almost anger. I didn’t really want him mad at me. “I was going to come see you,” I said.

“When?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“Tonight.” It was not a suggestion.

“I can’t.”

“Yes, ma petite, you can.” His voice was like a warm wind in my head.

“You are so demanding,” I said.

He laughed then. Pleasant and resonating like expensive perfume that lingers in the room after the wearer has gone. His laughter was like that, lingering in the ears like distant music. He had the best voice of any master vampire I’d ever met. Everyone has their talents.

“You are so exasperating,” he said, the edge of laughter still in his voice. “What am I to do with you?”

“Leave me alone,” I said. I was lying, but I wouldn’t let him know that.

His face sobered completely, like someone had flipped a switch. On, happy, off, unreadable. “Too many of my followers know you are my human servant, ma petite. Bringing you under control is part of consolidating my power.” He sounded almost regretful. A lot of help that did me.

“What do you mean, bringing me under control?” My stomach was tight with the beginnings of somthing I couldn’t name, but it wasn’t fear.

“You are my human servant. You must start acting like one.”

“Jean-Claude, leave me alone.”

He was suddenly standing next to me. I hadn’t seen him move. He had clouded my mind without me even blinking. I could taste my pulse at the back of my throat. I tried to step back, but one pale slender hand grabbed my right arm, just above the elbow. I shouldn’t have stepped back. I should have gone for my gun. I hoped I would live through the mistake.

My voice came out flat, normal. At least I’d die brave. “I thought having two of your vampire marks meant you couldn’t control my mind.”

“I cannot bewitch you with my eyes, and it is harder to cloud your mind, but it can be done.” His fingers encircled my arm. Not hurting. I didn’t try to pull away. I knew better. He could crush my arm without breaking a sweat, or tear it from its socket, or bench press a Toyota.

“He’s the new Master of the City, isn’t he?” It was Irving. I think we had forgotten about him. It would have been better for Irving if we had.

Jean-Claude’s grip tightened slightly on my right arm. He turned to look at Irving. “You are the reporter that has been asking to interview me.”

“Yes, I am.” Irving sounded just the tiniest bit nervous, not much, just the hint of tightness in his voice. He looked brave and resolute. Good for Irving.

“Perhaps after I have spoken with this lovely young woman, I will grant you your interview.”

“Really?” Astonishment was plain in his voice. He grinned widely at me. “That would be great. I’ll do it any way you want. It. . .”

“Silence.” The word hissed and floated. Irving fell quiet as if it were a spell.

“Irving, are you alright?” Funny me asking. I was the one cheek to jowl with a vampire, but I asked anyway.

“Yeah,” Irving said. That one word was squeezed small with fear. “I’ve just never felt anything like him.”

I glanced up at Jean-Claude. “He is sort of one of a kind.”

Jean-Claude turned his attention back to me. Oh, goody. “Still making jokes, ma petite.”

I stared up into his beautiful eyes, but they were just eyes. He had given me the power to resist them. “It’s a way to pass the time. What do you want, Jean-Claude?”

“So brave, even now.”

“You aren’t going to do me on the street, in front of witnesses. You may be the new Master, but you’re also a businessman. You’re mainstream vampire. It limits what you can do.”

“Only in public,” he said, so soft that only I heard him.

“Fine, but we both agree you aren’t going to do violence here and now.” I stared up at him. “So cut the theatrics and tell me what you want.”

He smiled then, a bare movement of lips, but he released my arm and stepped back. “Just as you will not shoot me down in the street without provocation.”

I thought about it, and realized he was right but not for the reason he had said. “I don’t want to hurt you, that’s true.”

His smile widened, still not fangs. He did that better than any living vampire I knew. Was living vampire an oxymoron? I wasn’t sure anymore.

“So, we will not harm each other in public,” he said.

“Probably not,” I said. “What do you want? ”

He looked at me, waiting for me to say more. I didn’t. He shrugged and it was graceful. “You are my human servant, Anna.”

He’d used my real name, I knew I was in trouble now. “I know that,” I said.

He gave a long sigh. “You bear two of my marks.”

“Not by choice,” I said.

“She would have died if I had not shared my strength with her.”

“Don’t give me crap about how you saved her life, because you didn’t. You forced two marks on me. You didn’t ask or explain. The first mark may have saved my mother’s life, so I’m okay with that. The second mark saved yours. I didn’t have a choice either time.”

“Two more marks and you will have immortality. You will not age because I do not age. You will remain human, alive, able to wear your crucifix. Able to enter a church. It does not compromise your soul. Why do you fight me?”

“Why do you fight me? You know why. You traded your immortal soul for earthly eternity. Then you traded my mother’s life for your’s, Jean-Claude. How an I supposed to forgive that? How do I move on?How do I be with you? We both know the reason Nikolaos killed her was to break the first mark.”

“I don’t know, ma petite, but by fighting me, you make me appear weak. I cannot afford that, ma petite. One way or another, we must resolve this.”

“Just leave me alone.”

“I cannot. You are my human servant, and you must begin to act like one.”

“Don’t press me on this, Jean-Claude.”

“Or what, will you kill me? Could you kill me?”

I stared at his beautiful face and said, “You know I won’t.”

“I feel your desire for me, ma petite, as I desire you.”

I shrugged. What could I say? “It’s just a little lust, Jean-Claude, nothing special.” That was a lie. I knew it even as I said it.

“No, ma petite, I mean more to you than that.”

We were attracting a crowd, at a safe distance. “Do you really want to discuss this in the street?”

He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “Very true. You make me forget myself, ma petite.”

Great.

“We must finish this discussion, ma petite,” he said.

I nodded. He was right. I’d been trying to ignore it, and him. Master vampires are not easy to ignore. “Tomorrow night.”

“Where?” he asked.

Polite of him not to order me to his lair. I thought about where best to do it. “Do you know The Laughing Corpse?”

He smiled, a glimpse of fang touching his lips. A woman in the small crowd gasped. “Yes.”

“Meet me there at, say, eleven o’clock.”

“My pleasure.” The words caressed my skin like a promise. Shit.

“I will await you in my office, tomorrow night.”

“Wait a minute. What do you mean, your office?” I had a bad feeling about this.

His smile widened into a grin, fangs glistening in the streetlights. “Why, I own The Laughing Corpse. I thought you knew.”

“You knew I didn’t.”

“I will await you.”

I’d picked the place. I’d stand by it. “Come on, Irving.”

“No, let the reporter stay. He has not had his interview.”

“Leave him alone, Jean-Claude, please.”

“I will give him what he desires, nothing more.”

I didn’t like the way he said desires. “What are you up to?”

“Me, ma petite, up to something?” He smiled.

“Anna, I want to stay,” Irving said.

I turned to him. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I’m a reporter. I’m doing my job.”

“Swear to me, swear to me you won’t harm him.”

“You have my word,” Jean-Claude said.

“That you will not harm him in any way.”

“That I will not harm him in any way.” His face was expressionless, as if all the smiles had been illusions. His face had that immobility of the long dead. Lovely to look at, but empty of life as a painting.

I looked into his blank eyes and shivered. “Are you sure you want to stay here?”

Irving nodded. “I want the interview.”

I shook my head. “You’re a fool.”

“I’m a good reporter,” he said.

“You’re still a fool.”

“I can take care of myself, Anna.”

We looked at each other for a space of heartbeats. “Fine, have fun.”

Jean-Claude was watching me with his still eyes. I took a deep breath through my nose and let it out through my mouth. Enough for one night. “See you both tomorrow.” I turned and walked away. There was a group of tourists with cameras. One was sort of tentatively raised in my direction.

“If you snap my picture, I will take the camera away from you and break it.” I smiled while I said it.

The man lowered his camera uncertainly. “Geez, just a little picture.”

“You’ve seen enough,” I said. “Move on, the show’s over.” The tourists drifted away like smoke when the wind blows through it. I walked down the street towards the parking garage. I glanced back and found the tourists had drifted back to surround Jean-Claude and Irving. The tourists were right. The show wasn’t over yet.

Irving was a big boy. He wanted the interview. Who was I to play nursemaid on a grown werewolf? Would Jean-Claude find out Irving’s secret? If he did, would it make a difference? Not my problem. Let Irving take care of his own problems. I had enough of my own.

————–

Chapter 4
I was small in the dream. A child. My father was in front of me. He was using his magic, twisting sheets aof metal into a ballarena. It looked like it was made of shiny paper that had been formed by hand. I reached touched it, tentatively.

My fingers came away smeared with crimson. It was the first blood I’d ever seen. I stared up at my father .As the ballarena was broken in a spiderweb of cracks, and shattaered in my fathers hand.

I stared at the fresh blood on my fingers. In real life the blood had been dry, just a stain. When I dreamed about it, it was always fresh.

“What did I do wrong, Daddy?” I asked him.

“You killed it”

…………………………………………………………….

I woke instantly, staring into the dark. My heart thudding in my throat. I reached for the knife under my pillow.

Through a tiny crack in the drapes moonlight spilled. The meager light outlined a man’s shape. It shuffled forward, dragging its feet through the carpet. It had stumbled into my collection of toy pandas that spilled like a fuzzy tide under my bedroom window. It had knocked some of them over, and it didn’t seem able to pick its feet up and walk over them. The figure was wading through the fluffy pandas, dragging its feet as if wading in water.

I kept the knife pointed one-handed at the thing and reached without looking to turn on my bedside lamp. The light seemed harsh after the darkness. I blinked rapidly willing my pupils to contract, to adjust. When they did, and I could see, it was a zombie.

He had been a big man in life. Shoulders broad as a barn door filled with muscle. His huge hands were very strong looking. One eye had dehydrated and was shriveled like a prune. The remaining eye stared at me. There was nothing in that stare, no anticipation, no excitement, no cruelty, nothing but a blankness. A blankness that Dominga Salvador had filled with purpose. Kill she had said. I would have bet on it.

It was her zombie. I couldn’t turn it. I couldn’t order it to do anything until it fulfilled Dominga’s orders. Once it killed me, it would be docile as a dead puppy. Once it killed me.

I didn’t think I’d wait for that.

The zombie seemed in no hurry. He shuffled through the fallen stuffed toys with that single-minded determination of the dead. Zombies are not inhumanly strong. But they can use every ounce of strength; they don’t save anything. Almost any human being could do a superhuman feat, once. Pop muscles, tear cartilage, snap your spine, but you can lift the car. Only inhibitors in the brain prevent us all from destroying ourselves. Zombies don’t have inhibitors. The corpse could literally tear me apart while it tore itself apart. But if Dominga had really wanted to kill me, she would have sent a less-decayed zombie. This one was so far gone I might have been able to dodge around it, and make the door. Maybe. But then again . . .

I cupped the hilt of the knife in my left hand , the right where it was supposed to be. I throw the knife and the zombie jerked, stumbled. Its right arm flew off in a welter of flesh and bone. No blood, it had been dead too long for that.

The zombie kept coming.

I swallowed, and it was thick. God. I got off the bed on the far side away from the thing. I walked around the bed coming in behind the thing. It knew instantly that I had moved. It tried to turn and come at me.

The arm was almost at my bare feet. There was a brush of cloth, a sense of movement just behind me, in the darkened living room. I was standing with my back to the open door. I turned and knew it was too late.

Arms grabbed me, clutching me to a very solid chest. Fingers dug into my right arm. I turned my head away, using my hair to shield my face and neck. Teeth sank into my shoulder. I screamed.

My face was pressed against the thing’s shoulder. The fingers were digging in. It was going to crush my arm. The power in me swelled, and my hands glowed bright blue. Teeth tore at the flesh of my shoulder, but it wasn’t fangs. It only had human teeth to work with. It hurt like hell, but it would be alright, if I could get away.

I turned my face forward away from the shoulder and grabbed it with my glowing hand. The entire body jerked backwards. The left arm crumbled. I rolled out of its grip. The arm dangled from my forearm, fingers hanging on.

I was standing in the doorway of my bedroom staring at the thing that had almost got me. It had been a white male, about six-one, built like a football player. It was fresh from the farm. Blood spattered where the shoulder had torn away. The fingers on my arm tightened. It couldn’t crush my arm, but I couldn’t make it let go either. I didn’t have the time.

The zombie charged, one arm wide to grab me. I seemed to have all the time in the world to lift my hands, but it was too late. It was too close. As it fell, it took me with it.

We landed on the floor with me on the bottom. I managed to keep my hands up, so that my arms were free. His weight pinned my body, nothing I could do about it. Blood glistened on his lips. I put my hands to it’s, and closing my eyes as I pushed the power into it. Not just because I didn’t want to see, but to save my eyes from bone shards.

When I looked, the head was gone except for a thin line of naked jawbone and a fragment of skull. The remaining hand scrambled for my throat. The hand still attached to my arm was helping its body. I couldn’t get my hand around to the arm. The angle was wrong.

A sound of something heavy sliding behind me. I risked a glance, craning my neck backwards to see the first zombie coming towards me. Its mouth, all that it had left to hurt me with, was open wide.

I screamed and turned back to the one on top of me. The attached hand fluttered at my neck. I pulled it away and gave it its own arm to hold. It grabbed it. With the brain gone, it wasn’t as smart. I felt the fingers on my arm loosen. A shudder ran through the dangling arm. Blood burst out of it like a ripe melon. The fingers spasmed, releasing my arm. The zombie crushed its own arm until it spattered and bones snapped.

The scrambling sounds behind me were closer. “God!”

“Police! Come out with your hands up!” The voice was male and loud from the hallway.

The hell with being cool and self-sufficient. “Help me!”

“Miss, what’s happening in there?”

The scrambling sounds were right next to me. I craned my neck and found myself almost nose to nose with the first zombie. I shoved my hand over its open mouth. Its teeth scrapped my fingers, and I pushed my power again.

A policeman was suddenly in the doorway framed against the darkness. From my angle he was huge. Curly brown hair, going gray, mustache, gun in hand. “Jesus,” he said.

The second zombie dropped its crushed arm and reached for me again. The policeman took a firm grip of the zombie’s belt and pulled him upward with one hand. “Get her out of here,” he said.

His partner moved in, but I didn’t give him time. I scrambled out from under the half-raised body, scuttling on all fours into the living room. You didn’t have to ask me twice. The partner lifted me to my feet by one arm.

A gunshot exploded behind us. I jumped, and the cop did, too. He was about my mom’s age, but right then I felt about a million years old. We turned and found the first cop shooting into the zombie. The thing had struggled free of his hand. It was on its feet, staggered by the bullets but not stopped.

“Get over here, Brady,” the first cop said. The younger cop drew his gun and moved forward. He hesitated, glancing at me.

“Help him,” I said.

He nodded and started firing into the zombie. The sound of gunfire was like thunder. It filled the room until my ears were ringing and the reek of gunpowder was almost overpowering. Bullet holes blossomed in the walls. The zombie kept staggering forward. They were just annoying it.

The first cop said, “Brady, I told you to get her out of here.”

“You needed help,” Brady said.

“Get the civilian the fuck out of here.”

Civilian, me?

Brady didn’t question again. He just backed towards me, gun out but not firing. “Come on, miss, we gotta get out of here.”

“Give me the gun.”

He glanced at me, shook his head.

“I’m with the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team.” Which was true. I was hoping he would assume I was a cop, which wasn’t true.

He was young. He assumed. He handed me the gun. “Thanks.”

I moved up with the older cop. “I’m with the Spook Squad.”

He glanced at me, gun still trained on the advancing corpse. “Then do something.”

Someone had turned on the living-room light. Now that no one was shooting it, the zombie was moving out. It walked like a man striding down the street, except it had no head and only one arm. There was a spring in its step. Maybe it sensed I was close.

The body was in better condition than the first zombie’s had been. I could cripple it but not incapacitate it. I’d settle for crippled. I had more time to aim, and my aim was true.

The leg collapsed under it. It pulled itself forward with the one arm, leg pushing against the rug. He was on his last leg. I started to smile, then to laugh, but it choked in my throat. I walked around the far side of the couch. I didn’t want any accidents after what I’d seen it do to its own body. I didn’t want any crushed limbs.

I came in behind it, and it scrambled quicker than it should have to try to face me. It took two shots for the other leg. I couldn’t remember how many bullets I’d used. Did I have one more left, or two, or none?

I felt like Dirty Harry, except that this punk didn’t give a damn how many bullets I had left. The dead don’t scare easy.

It was still pulling itself and its damaged legs along. That one hand. I fired nearly point-blank, and the hand exploded like a crimson flower on the white carpet. It kept coming, using the wrist stump to push along.

I pulled the trigger, and it clicked empty. Dang it. “I’m out,” I said. I stepped back away from it. It followed me.

The older cop moved in and grabbed it by both ankles. He pulled it backwards. One leg slid slowly out of the pants and twisted free in his hand. “Fuck!” He dropped the leg. It wiggled like a broken-backed snake.

I stared down at the still determined corpse. It was struggling towards me. It wasn’t making much progress. The policeman was holding it one-legged sort of in the air. But the zombie kept trying. It would keep trying until it was incinerated or Dominga Salvador changed her orders.

More uniformed cops came in the door. They fell on the butchered zombie like vultures on a wildebeest. It bucked and struggled. Fought to get away, to finish its mission. To kill me. There were enough cops to subdue it. They would hold it until the lab boys arrived. The lab boys would do what they could on-site. Then the zombie would be incinerated by an exterminator team. They had tried taking zombies down to the morgue and holding them for tests, but little pieces kept escaping and hiding out in the strangest places.

The medical examiner had decreed that all zombies were to be truly dead before shipping. The ambulance crew and lab techs agreed with her. I sympathized but knew that most evidence disappears in a fire. Choices, choices.

I stood to one side of my living room. They had forgotten me in the melee. Fine, I didn’t feel like wrestling any more zombies tonight. I realized for the first time that I was wearing nothing but an oversize T-shirt and panties. The T-shirt clung wetly to my body, thick with blood. I started towards the bedroom. I think I meant to get a pair of pants. The sight on the floor stopped me.

The first zombie was like a legless insect. It couldn’t move, but it was trying. The bloody stump of a body was still trying to carry out its orders. To kill me.

Dominga Salvador had meant to kill me. Two zombies, one almost new. She had meant to kill me. That one thought chased round my head like a piece of song. Her and Momma had some disagreements, but why this level of violence? Why kill me? Momma couldn’t stop her legally, and I stay out of her way. She knew that. So why make such a serious attempt to kill me?

Maybe because she had something to hide? Dominga had given her word to Momma that she hadn’t raised the killer zombie, but maybe her word didn’t mean anything. It was the only answer. She had something to do with the killer zombie. Had she raised it? Or did she know who had? No. She’d raised the beast or why kill me? Dominga Salvador had raised a zombie, and it had gotten away from her. That was it. Evil as she was, she wasn’t psychotic. She wouldn’t just raise a killer zombie and let it loose. The great voodoo queen had screwed up royally. That, more than anything else, more than the deaths, or the possible murder charge, would piss her off. She couldn’t afford her reputation to be trashed like that.

I stared past the bloody, stinking remnants in the bedroom. My stuffed pandas were covered in blood and worse. Could my long suffering dry cleaner get them clean? He did pretty good with my suits.

No one had ever attacked me at home before, not like this. It should have been against the rules. You should be safe in your own bed. I know, I know. Bad guys don’t have rules. It’s one of the reasons they’re bad guys.

I knew who had raised the zombie. All I had to do was prove it. There was blood everywhere. Blood and worse things. I was actually getting used to the smell. God. But it stank. The whole apartment stank. Almost everything in my apartment is white; walls, carpet, couch, chair. It made the stains show up nicely, like fresh wounds. The bullet holes and cracked plaster board set off the blood nicely.

The apartment was trashed. I would prove Dominga had done this, then, if I was lucky, I’d get to return the favor.

“Sweets to the sweet,” I whispered to no one in particular. Tears started to burn at the back of my throat. I didn’t want to cry, but a scream was sort of tickling around in my throat, too. Crying or screaming. Crying seemed better.

The paramedics came. One was a short black woman about my own age. “Come on, honey, we got to take a look at you.” Her voice was gentle, her hands sort of leading me away from the carnage. I didn’t even mind her calling me honey.

I wanted very much to crawl up into someone’s lap about now and be comforted. I needed that badly. I wasn’t going to get it.

“Honey, we need to see how bad you’re bleeding before we take you down to the ambulance.”

I shook my head. My voice sounded far away, detached. “It’s not my blood.”

“What?”

I looked at her, fighting to focus and not drift. Shock was setting in. I’m usually better than this, but hey, we all have our nights.

“It’s not my blood. I’ve got a bite on the shoulder, that’s it.”

She looked like she didn’t believe me. I didn’t blame her. Most people see you covered in blood, they just assume part of it has to be yours. They do not take into account that they are dealing with a tough-as-nails vampire slayer and corpse raiser.

The tears were back, stinging just behind my eyes. There was blood all over my pands. I didn’t give a damn about the walls and carpet. They could be replaced, but I’d collected those damned stuffed toys over years, most had been presents from Momma. I let the paramedic lead me away. Tears trickling down my cheeks. I wasn’t crying, my eyes were running. My eyes were running because there were pieces of zombie all over my toys. Jesus.

————

Chapter 5
Dolph sat across from me in my little kitchen area. The breakfast table with its two straight-backed chairs seemed tiny with him sitting at it. He sort of filled my kitchen. Or maybe I was just feeling small tonight. Or was it morning?

I glanced at my watch. There was a dark, slick smear obscuring the face. Couldn’t read it. Would have to chip the damn thing clean. I tucked my arm back inside the blanket the paramedic had given me. My skin was colder than it should have been. Even thoughts of vengeance couldn’t warm me. Later, later I would be warm. Later I would be pissed. Right now I was glad to be alive.

“Okay, Anna, what happened?”

I glanced at the living room. It was nearly empty. The zombies had been carried away. Incinerated on the street no less. Entertainment for the entire neighborhood. Family fun.

“Could I change clothes before I give a statement, please?”

He looked at me for maybe a second, then nodded.

“Great.” I got up gripping the blanket around me, edges folded carefully. Didn’t want to accidentally trip on the ends. I’d embarrassed myself enough for one night.

“Save the T-shirt for evidence,” Dolph called.

I said, “Sure thing,” without turning around.

They had thrown sheets over the worst of the stains so they didn’t track blood all over the apartment building. Nice. The bedroom stank of rotted corpse, stale blood, old death. God. I’d never be able to sleep in here tonight. Even I had my limits.

What I wanted was a shower, but I didn’t think Dolph would wait that long. I settled for jeans, socks, and a clean T-shirt. I carried all of it into the bathroom. With the door closed, the smell was very faint. It looked like my bathroom. No disasters here.

I dropped the blanket on the floor with the T-shirt. There was a bulky bandage over my shoulder where the zombie had bitten me. I was lucky it hadn’t taken a hunk of flesh. The paramedic warned me to get a tetanus booster. Zombies don’t make more zombies by biting, but the dead have nasty mouths. Infection is more of a danger but a tetanus booster is a precaution.

Blood had dried in flaking patches on my legs and arms. I didn’t bother washing my hands. I’d shower later. Get everything clean at once.

The T-shirt hung almost to my knees. A huge caricature of Arthur Conan Doyle was on the front. He was peering through a huge magnifying glass, one eye comically large. I gazed into the mirror over the sink, looking at the shirt. It is… was Momma”s. It was soft and warm and comforting, like her. Comforting was good right now.

The old T-shirt was ruined. No saving it. But maybe I could save some of the pandas. I ran cold water into the bathtub. If it was a shirt, I’d soak it in cold water. Maybe it worked with toys.

I got a pair of jogging shoes out from under the bed. I didn’t really want to walk over the drying stains in only socks. Shoes were made for such occasions. Alright, so the creator of Nike Airs never foresaw walking over drying zombie blood. It’s hard to prepare for everything.

Two of the pandas were turning brown as the blood dried. I carried them gingerly into the bathroom and laid them in the water. I pushed them under until they soaked up enough water to stay partially submerged, then I turned the water off. My hands were cleaner. The water wasn’t. Blood trailed out of the two soft toys like water squeezed out of a sponge. If these two came clean, I could save them all.

I dried my hands on the blanket. No sense getting blood on anything else.

Pandy, the panda I occasionally slept with, was barely spattered. Just a few specks across his fuzzy white belly. Small blessings. I almost tucked him under my arm to hold while I gave a statement. Dolph probably wouldn’t tell. I put Pandy a little farther from the worst stains, as if that would help. Seeing the stupid toy tucked safely in a corner did make me feel better. Great.

Zerbrowski was peering at the aquarium. He glanced my way. “These are the biggest freaking angelfish I’ve ever seen. You could fry some of ’em up in a pan.”

“Leave the fish alone, Zerbrowski,” I said.

He grinned. “Sure, just a thought.”

Back in the kitchen Dolph sat with his hands folded on the tabletop. His face unreadable. If he was upset that I’d almost cashed it in tonight, he didn’t show it. But then Dolph didn’t show much of anything, ever. The most emotion I’d ever seen him display was about this case. The killer zombie. Butchered civilians.

“You want some coffee?” I asked.

“Sure.”

“Me, too,” Zerbrowski said.

“Only if you say please.”

He leaned against the wall just outside the kitchen. “Please.” I got a bag of coffee out of the freezer.

“You keep the coffee in the freezer?” Zerbrowski said.

“Hasn’t anyone ever fixed real coffee for you?” I asked.

“My idea of gourmet coffee is Taster’s Choice.”

I shook my head. “Barbarian.”

“If you two are finished with clever repartee,” Dolph said, “could we start the statement now?” His voice was softer than his words.

I smiled at him and at Zerbrowski. It was nice to see both of them. They worked with my mom and I, we were they monster experts. I must have been hurt worse than I knew to be happy to see Zerbrowski.

“I was asleep minding my own business when I woke up to find a zombie standing over me.” I measured beans and poured them into the little black coffee grinder that I’d bought because it matched the coffee maker.

“What woke you?” Dolph asked.

I pressed the button on the grinder and the rich smell of fresh ground coffee filled the kitchen. Ah, heaven.

“I smelled corpses,” I said.

“Explain.”

“I was dreaming, and I smelled rotting corpses. It didn’t match the dream. It woke me.”

“Then what?” He had his ever present notebook out. Pen poised.

I concentrated on each small step to making the coffee and told Dolph everything, including my suspicions about Salvador. The coffee was beginning to perk and fill the apartment with the smell that coffee always has by the time I finished.

“So you think Dominga Salvador is our zombie raiser?” Dolph said.

“Yes.”

He stared at me across the small table. His eyes were very serious. “Can you prove it?”

“No.”

He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment. “Great, just great.”

“The coffee smells done,” Zerbrowski said. He was sitting on the floor, back propped against the kitchen doorway.

I got up and poured the coffee. “If you want sugar or cream, help yourself.” I put the cream, real cream, out on the kitchen counter along with the sugar bowl. I didn’t drink coffee but my mother coudln’t live without it. Zerbrowski took a lot of sugar and a dab of cream. Dolph went for black. That was the way Momma took it most of the time.

“If we could get you inside Dominga’s house, could you find proof?” Dolph asked.

“Proof of something, sure, but of raising the killer zombie . . . ” I shook my head. “If she did raise it and it got away, then she won’t want to be tied to it. She’ll have destroyed all the proof, just to save face.”

“I want her for this,” Dolph said.

“Me, too.”

“She might also try and kill you again,” Zerbrowski said from the doorway. He was blowing on his coffee to cool it.

“No joke,” I said.

“You think she’ll try again?” Dolph asked.

“Probably. How the hell did two zombies get inside my apartment?”

“Someone picked the lock,” Dolph said. “Could the zombie . . .”

“No, a zombie would rip a door off its hinges, but it wouldn’t take the time to pick a lock. Even if it had the fine motor skill to do it.”

“So someone with skill opened the door and let them in,” Dolph said.

“Appears so,” I said.

“Any ideas on that?”

“I would bet one of her bodyguards. Her grandson Antonio or maybe Enzo. A big guy in his forties who seems to be her personal protection. I don’t know if either of them have the skill, but they’d do it. Enzo, but not Antonio.”

“Why cross him off?”

“If Tony had let the zombies in, he’d have stayed and watched.”

“You sure?”

I shrugged. “He’s that kind of guy. Enzo would do business and leave. He’d follow orders. The grandson wouldn’t.”

Dolph nodded. “There’s a lot of heat from upstairs to solve this case. I think I can get us a search warrant in forty-eight hours.”

“Two days is a long time, Dolph.”

“Two days without one piece of proof, Anna. Except for your word. I’m going out on a limb for this one.”

“She’s in it, Dolph, somehow. Momma’s been gathering evident against her for years. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what could have caused her to lose control of the zombie, but she’s in it.”

“I’ll get the warrant,” he said.

“One of the brothers in blue said you told him you were a cop,” Zerbrowski said.

“I told him I was with your squad. I never said I was a cop.”

Zerbrowski grinned. “Mmm-huh.”

“Will you be safe here tonight?” Dolph asked.

“I think so. Salvador doesn’t want to get on the bad side of the law. They treat renegade witches sort of like renegade vampires. It’s an automatic death sentence.”

“Because people are too scared of them,” Dolph said.

“Because some witches can slip through the bars.”

“How about voodoo queens?” Zerbrowski said.

I shook my head. “I don’t want to know.”

“We better go, leave you to get some sleep,” Dolph said. He left his empty coffee cup on the table. Zerbrowski hadn’t finished his, but he put it on the counter and followed Dolph out.

I walked them to the door.

“I’ll let you know when we get the warrant,” Dolph said. “But be careful, you’ve already got Dominga Salvador pissed at you, Anna. Isn’t that enough for one week?”

“For one lifetime,” I said.

Dolph nodded, but hesitated in the doorway for a moment. “Watch your back.”

“Always,” I said.

Zerbrowski leaned into me and said, “Nice pandas.” He followed Dolph down the hallway. I knew the next time I saw the rest of the spook squad they’d all know I collected toy pandas. My secret was out. Zerbrowski would spread it far and wide. At least, he was consistent.

It was nice to know something was

———-

Chapter 6
I didn’t want to hear that Jean-Claude was charming or had great plans for the city. He’d be very careful what he told a reporter. It would look good in print. But I knew the truth. Vampires are as much a monster as any zombie, maybe worse. Vamps usually volunteer for the process, zombies don’t.

Just like Irving volunteered to go off with Jean-Claude. Of course, if Irving hadn’t been with me the Master would have left him alone. Probably. So it was my fault, even if it had been his choice. I was achingly tired, but I knew I’d never be able to sleep until I heard Irving’s voice. I could pretend I’d called to tell him I was dropping the file off late.

I wasn’t sure if Irving would be on his way to work or not. I tried home first. He answered on the first ring.

“Hello.”

Something tight in my stomach relaxed. “Hi, Irving, it’s me.”

“Ms. Blake, to what do I owe this early morning pleasure?” His voice sounded so ordinary.

“I had a bit of excitement at my apartment last night.”

“What sort of excitement?” His voice had that “tell me” lilt to it.

“The kind that’s police business and not yours,” I said.

“I thought you’d say that,” he said. “You just getting to bed?”

“Yeah.”

“I guess I can let a hardworking animator sleep in a little.”

“Thanks, Irving.”

“You alright, Anna?”

No, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I ignored the question. “Did Jean-Claude behave himself?”

“He was great!” Irving’s enthusiasm was genuine, all bubbly excitement. “He’s a great interview.” He was quiet for a moment. “Hey, you called to check up on me. To make sure I was okay.”

“Did not,” I said.

“Thanks, Anna, that means a lot. But really, he was very civilized.”

“Great. I’ll let you go then. Have a good day.”

“Oh, I will, my editor is doing cartwheels about the exclusive interview with the Master of the City.”

I had to laugh at the way he rolled the title off his tongue. “Good night, Irving.”

“Get some sleep, Blake. I’ll be calling you in a day or two about those zombie articles.”

“Talk to you then,” I said. We hung up.

Irving was fine. I should worry more about myself and less about everyone else.

………………………………………………………………………………………….

At 10:30 that night I was down in the vampire district. Dark blue shirt, jeans, black windbreaker.

The Laughing Corpse was one of the newest clubs in the District. Vampires are sexy. I’ll admit that. But funny? I don’t think so. Apparently, I was in the minority. A line stretched away from the club, curling round the block.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d need a ticket or reservations or whatever just to get in. But, hey, I knew the boss. I walked along the line of people towards the ticket booth. The people were mostly young. The women in dresses, the men in dressy sports wear, with an occasional suit. They were chatting together in excited voices, a lot of casual hand and arm touching. Dates. I remember dates. It’s just been a while. Maybe if I wasn’t always ass deep in alligators, I’d date more. Maybe.

I cut ahead of a double-date foursome. “Hey,” one man said.

“Sorry,” I said.

The woman in the ticket booth frowned at me. “You can’t just cut in line like that, ma’am.”

Ma’am? “I don’t want a ticket. I don’t want to see the show. I am supposed to meet Jean-Claude here. That’s it.”

“Well, I don’t know. How do I know you’re not some reporter?”

Reporter? I took a deep breath. “Just call Jean-Claude and tell him Anna is here. Okay?”

She was still frowning at me.

“Look, just call Jean-Claude. If I’m a nosy reporter, he’ll deal with me. If I’m who I say I am, he’ll be happy that you called him. You can’t lose.”

“I don’t know.”

I fought an urge to scream at her. It probably wouldn’t help. Probably. “Just call Jean-Claude, pretty please,” I said.

Maybe it was the pretty please. She swiveled on her stool and opened the upper half of a door in the back of the booth. Small booth. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she swiveled back around. “Okay, manager says you can go in.”

“Great, thanks.” I walked up the steps. The entire line of waiting people glared at me. I could feel their hot stares on my back. But I’ve been stared at by experts, so I was careful not to flinch. No one likes a line jumper.

The club was dim inside, as most clubs are. A guy just inside the door said, “Ticket, please?”

I stared up at him. He wore a white T-shirt that said, “The Laughing Corpse, it’s a scream.” A caricature of an openmouthed vampire was drawn very large across his chest. He was large and muscled and had bouncer tattooed across his forehead. “Ticket, please,” he repeated.

First the ticket lady, now the ticket man? “The manager said I could come through to see Jean-Claude,” I said.

“Willie,” the ticket man said, “you send her through?”

I turned around, and there was Willie McCoy. I smiled when I saw him. I was glad to see him. That surprised me. I’m not usually happy to see dead men.

Willie is short, thin, with black hair slicked back from his forehead. I couldn’t tell the exact color of his suit in the dimness, but it looked like a dull tomato-red. White button-up shirt, large shiny green tie. I had to look twice before I was sure, but yes, there was a glow-in-the-dark hula girl on his tie. It was the most tasteful outfit I’d ever seen Willie wear.

He grinned, flashing a lot of fang. “Anna, good to see ya.”

I nodded. “You, too, Willie.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

He grinned even wider. His canines glistened in the dim light. He hadn’t been dead a year yet.

“How long have you been manager here?” I asked.

“‘Bout two weeks.”

“Congratulations.”

He stepped closer to me. I stepped back. Instinctive. Nothing personal, but a vampire is a vampire. Don’t get too close. Willie was new dead, but he was still capable of hypnotizing with his eyes. Okay, maybe no vampire as new as Willie could actually catch me with his eyes, but old habits die hard.

Willie’s face fell. A flicker of something in his eyes–hurt? He dropped his voice but didn’t try to step next to me. He was a faster study dead than he ever had been alive. “Thanks to me helping you last time, I’m in real good with the boss.”

He sounded like an old gangster movie, but that was Willie. “I’m glad Jean-Claude’s doing right by you.”

“Oh, yeah,” Willie said, “this is the best job I ever had. And the boss isn’t . . .” He waggled his hands back and forth. “Ya know, mean.”

I nodded. I did know. I could bitch and complain about Jean-Claude all I wanted, but compared to most Masters of the City, he was a pussycat. A big, dangerous, carnivorous pussycat, but still, it was an improvement.

“The boss’s busy right this minute,” Willie said. “He said if you was to come early, to give ya a table near the stage.”

Great. Aloud I said, “How long will Jean-Claude be?”

Willie shrugged. “Don’t know for sure.”

I nodded. “Okay, I’ll wait, for a little while.”

Willie grinned, fangs flashing. “Ya want me to tell Jean-Claude to hurry it up?”

“Would you?”

He grimaced like he’d swallowed a bug. “Hell no.”

“Don’t sweat it. If I get tired of waiting, I’ll tell him myself.”

Willie looked at me sorta sideways. “You’d do it, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

He just shook his head and started leading me between the small round tables. Every table was thick with people. Laughing, gasping, drinking, holding hands. The sensation of being surrounded by thick, sweaty life was nearly overwhelming.

I glanced at Willie. Did he feel it? Did the warm press of humanity make his stomach knot with hunger? Did he go home at night and dream of ripping into the loud, roaring crowd? I almost asked him, but I liked Willie as much as I could like a vampire. I did not want to know if the answer was yes.

A table just one row back from the stage was empty. There was a big white cardboard foldy thing that said “Reserved.” Willie tried to hold my chair for me, I waved him back. It wasn’t women’s liberation. I simply never understood what I was supposed to do while the guy shoved my chair in under me. Did I sit there and watch him strain to scoot the chair with me in it? Embarrassing. I usually hovered just above the chair and got it shoved into the backs of my knees. Hell with it.

“Would you like a drink while ya wait?” Willie asked.

“Could I have a Coke?”

“Nuthin’ stronger?”

I shook my head. “Underaged”

Willie walked away through the tables and the people. On the stage was a slender man with short, dark hair. He was thin all over, his face almost cadaverous, but he was definitely human. His appearance was more comical than anything, like a long-limbed clown. Beside him, staring blank-faced out at the crowd, was a zombie.

Its pale eyes were still clear, human-looking, but he didn’t blink. That familiar frozen stare gazed out at the audience. They were only half listening to the jokes. Most eyes were on the standing deadman. He was just decayed enough around the edges to look scary, but even one row away there was no hint of odor. Nice trick if you could manage it.

“Ernie here is the best roommate I ever had,” the comedian said. “He doesn’t eat much, doesn’t talk my ear off, doesn’t bring cute chicks home and lock me out while they have a good time.” Nervous laughter from the audience. Eyes glued on ol’ Ernie.

“Though there was that pork chop in the fridge that went bad. Ernie seemed to like that a lot.”

The zombie turned slowly, almost painfully, to stare at the comedian. The man’s eyes flickered to the zombie, then back to the audience, smile in place. The zombie kept staring at him. The man didn’t seem to like it much. I didn’t blame him. Even the dead don’t like to be the butt of jokes.

The jokes weren’t that funny anyway. It was a novelty act. The zombie was the act. Pretty inventive, and pretty sick.

Willie came back with my Coke. The manager waiting on my table, la-de-da. Of course, the reserved table was pretty good, too. Willie set the drink down on one of those useless paper lace dollies. “Enjoy,” he said. He turned to leave, but I touched his arm. I wish I hadn’t.

The arm was solid enough, real enough. But it was like touching wood. It was dead. I don’t know what else to call it. There was no feeling of movement. Nothing.

I dropped his arm, slowly, and looked up at him. Meeting his eyes, thanks to Jean-Claude’s marks. Those brown eyes held something like sorrow.

I could suddenly hear my heartbeat in my ears, and I had to swallow to calm my own pulse. I wanted Willie to go away now. I turned away from him and looked very hard at my drink. He left. Maybe it was just the sound of all the laughing, but I couldn’t hear Willie walk away.

Willie McCoy was the only vampire I had ever known before he died. I remembered him alive. He had been a small-time hood. An errand boy for bigger fish. Maybe Willie thought being a vampire would make him a big fish. He’d been wrong there. He was just a little undead fish now. Jean-Claude or someone like him would run Willie’s “life” for eternity. Poor Willie.

I rubbed the hand that had touched him on my leg. I wanted to forget the feel of his body under the new tomato-red suit, but I couldn’t. Jean-Claude’s body didn’t feel that way. Of course, Jean-Claude could nearly pass for human. Some of the old ones could do that. Willie would learn. God help him.

“Zombies are better than dogs. They’ll fetch your slippers and don’t need to be walked Ernie’ll even sit at my feet and beg if I tell him to.”

The audience laughed. I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t that genuine ha-ha laughter. It was that outrageous shocked sound.

The I-can’t-believe-he-said-that laughter.

The zombie was moving toward the comedian in a sort of slow-motion jerk. Crumbling hands reached outward and my stomach squeezed tight. It was a flashback to last night. Zombies almost always attack by just reaching out. Just like in the movies.

The comedian didn’t realize that Ernie had decided he’d had enough. If a zombie is simply raised without any particular orders, he usually reverts to what is normal for him. A good person is a good person until his brain decays, stripping him of personality. Most zombies won’t kill without orders, but every once in a while you get lucky and raise one that has homicidal tendencies. The comedian was about to get lucky.

The zombie walked towards him like a bad Frankenstein monster. The comedian finally realized something was wrong. He stopped in mid-joke, turning eyes wide. “Ernie,” he said. It was as far as he got. The decaying hands wrapped around his throat and started to squeeze.

For one pleasant second I almost let the zombie do him in. Exploiting the dead is one thing I feel strongly about, but . . . stupidity isn’t punishable by death. If it was, there would be a hell of a population drop.

I stood up, glancing around the club to see if they had planned for this eventuality. Willie came running to the stage. He wrapped his arms around the zombie’s waist and pulled, lifted the much taller body off its feet, but the hands kept squeezing.

The comedian slipped to his knees, making little argh sounds. His face was going from red to purple. The audience was laughing. They thought it was part of the show. It was a heck of a lot funnier than the act.

I stepped up to the stage and said softly to Willie, “Need some help?”

He stared at me, still clinging to the zombie’s waist. With his extraordinary strength Willie could have ripped a finger at a time off the man’s neck and probably saved him. But super-vampire strength doesn’t help you if you don’t think how to use it. Willie never thought. Of course, the zombie might crush the man’s windpipe before even a vampire could peel its fingers away. Maybe. Best not to find out.

I thought the comedian was a putz. But I couldn’t stand there and watch him die. Really, I couldn’t.

“Stop,” I said. Low and for the zombie’s ears. He stopped squeezing, but his hands were still tight. The comedian was going limp. “Release him.”

The zombie let go. The man fell in a near faint on the stage. Willie straightened up from his frantic tugging at the deadman. He smoothed his tomato-red suit back into place. His hair was still perfectly slick. Too much hair goop for a mere zombie wrestling to displace his hairdo.

“Thanks,” he whispered. Then he stood to his full five feet four and said, “The Amazing Albert and his pet zombie, ladies and gentlemen.” The audience had been a bit uncertain, but the applause began. When the Amazing Albert staggered to his feet, the applause exploded. He croaked into the microphone. “Ernie thinks it’s time to go home now. You’ve been a great audience.” The applause was loud and genuine.

The comedian left the stage. The zombie stayed and stared at me. Waiting, waiting for another order. I don’t know why everyone can’t speak and have zombies obey them. It doesn’t even feel like magic to me. There is no tingle of the skin, no breath of power. I speak and the zombies listen. Me and E. F. Hutton.

“Follow Albert and obey his orders until I tell you otherwise.” The zombie looked down at me for a second, then turned slowly and shuffled after the man. The zombie wouldn’t kill him now. I wouldn’t tell the comedian that, though. Let him think his life was in danger. Let him think he had to let me lay the zombie to rest. It was what I wanted. It was probably what the zombie wanted.

Ernie certainly didn’t seem to like being the straight man in a comedy routine. Hecklers are one thing. Choking the comic to death is a little extreme.

Willie escorted me back to my table. I sat down and sipped my Coke. He sat down across from me. He looked shaken. His small hands trembled as he sat across from me. He was a vampire, but he was still Willie McCoy. I wondered how many years it would take for the last remnants of his personality to disappear. Ten years, twenty, a century? How long before the monster ate the man?

If it took that long. It wouldn’t be my problem. I wouldn’t be there to see it. To tell the truth, I didn’t want to see it.

“I never liked zombies,” Willie said.

I stared at him. “Are you afraid of zombies?”

His eyes flickered to me, then down to the table. “No.”

I grinned at him. “You’re afraid of zombies. You’re phobic.”

He leaned across the table. “Don’t tell. Please don’t tell.” There was real fear in his eyes.

“Who would I tell?”

“You know.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Willie.”

“The MASTER.” You could hear “master” was in all caps.

“Why would I tell Jean-Claude?”

He was whispering now. A new comedian had come up on stage, there was laughter and noise, and still he whispered. “You’re his human servant, whether you like it or not. When we speak to you, he tells us we’re speaking to him.”

We were leaning almost face-to-face now. The gentle brush of his breath smelled like breath mints. Almost all vampires smell like breath mints. I don’t know what they did before mints were invented. Had stinky breath, I guess.

“Just because I’m his human servant,”I said.” doesn’t mean I mindlessly obey him.”

“But he wants you to be.”

“Just because Jean-Claude wants something doesn’t mean he gets it,”

“You don’t know what he’s like.”

“I think I do. . .”

He touched my arm. I didn’t jerk back this time. I was too intent on what he was saying. “He’s been different since the old master died. He’s a lot more powerful than even you know.”

This much I had suspected. “So why shouldn’t I tell him you’re afraid of zombies?”

“He’ll use it to punish me.”

I stared at him, our eyes inches apart. “You mean he’s torturing people to control them.”

He nodded. “You won’t tell?”

“I won’t tell. Promise,” I said.

He looked so relieved, I patted his hand. The hand felt like a hand. His body didn’t feel wood hard anymore. Why? I didn’t know, and if I asked Willie, he probably wouldn’t know either. One of the mysteries of . . . death.

“Thanks.”

“I thought you said that Jean-Claude was the kindest master you’ve ever had.”

“He is,” Willie said.

Now that was a frightening truth. If being tormented by your darkest fear was the kindest, how much worse had Nikolaos been. Heck, I knew the answer to that one. She’d been psychotic. Jean-Claude wasn’t cruel just for the sake of watching people squirm. There was reason to his cruelty. It was a step up.

“I gotta go. Thanks for helping with the zombie.” He stood.

“You were brave, you know,” I said.

He flashed a grin my way, fangs glinting in the dim light. The smile vanished from his face like someone had turned a switch. “I can’t afford to be anything else.”

Vampires are a lot like wolf packs. The weak are either dominated or destroyed. Banishment is not an option. Willie was moving up in the ranks. A sign of weakness could stop that rise or worse. I’d often wondered what vampires feared. One of them feared zombies. It would have been funny if I hadn’t seen the fear in his eyes.

The comic on stage was a vampire. He was the new dead. Skin chalk-white, eyes like burned holes in paper. His gums were bloodless and receding from canines that would have been the envy of any German shepherd. I had never seen a vampire look so monstrous. They all usually made an effort to appear human. This one wasn’t.

I had missed the audience’s reaction to his first appearance, but now they were laughing. If I had thought the zombie jokes were bad, these were worse. A woman at the next table laughed so hard, tears spilled down her cheeks.

“I went to New York, tough city. A gang jumped me, but I put the bite on them.” People were holding their ribs as if in pain.

I didn’t get it. It was genuinely not funny. I gazed around the crowd and found every eye fixed on the stage. They peered up at him with the helpless devotion of the bespelled.

He was using mind tricks. I’d seen vampires seduce, threaten, terrify, all by concentrating. But I had never seen them cause laughter. He was forcing them to laugh.

It wasn’t the worst abuse of vampiric powers I’d ever seen. He wasn’t trying to hurt them. And this mass hypnosis was harmless, temporary. But it was wrong. Mass mind control was one of the top scary things that most people don’t know vampires can do.

I knew, and I didn’t like it. He was the fresh dead and even before Jean-Claude’s marks, the comic couldn’t have touched me. Being an animator gave you partial immunity to vampires. It was one of the reasons that animators are so often vampire slayers. We’ve got a leg up, so to speak.

I glanced at my watch. It was almost midnight. Jean-Claude had kept me waiting an hour. I looked behind me and caught Willie’s gaze. He came towards me immediately. I would try to use this power only for good.

He bent close, but not too close.

“What ya want?” Willie said.

“Is Jean-Claude ready to see me or not?”

“Yeah, I was just coming to get ya.”

I stood and spoke softly. “Lets go.”

———–

Chapter 7
Willie led me through a door and a short hallway. As soon as the door closed behind us, the noise was muted, distant as a dream. The lights were bright after the dimness of the club. I blinked against it. Willie looked rosy-cheeked in the bright light, not quite alive, but healthy for a deadman. He’d fed tonight on something, or someone. Maybe a willing human, maybe animal. Maybe.

The first door on the left said “Manager’s Office.” Willie’s office? Naw.

Willie opened the door and ushered me in. He didn’t come in the office. His eyes flicked towards the desk, then he backed out, shutting the door behind him.

The carpeting was pale beige; the walls eggshell-white. A large black-lacquered desk sat against the far wall. A shiny black lamp seemed to grow out of the desk. There was a blotter perfectly placed in the center of the desk. There were no papers, no paper clips, just Jean-Claude sitting behind the desk.

His long pale hands were folded on the blotter. Soft curling black hair, midnight-blue eyes, white shirt with its strange button-down cuffs. He was perfect sitting there, perfectly still like a painting. Beautiful as a wet dream, but not real. He only looked perfect. I knew better.

There were two brown metal filing cabinets against the left wall. A black leather couch took up the rest of the wall. There was a large oil painting above the couch. It was a scene of St. Louis in the 1700s. Settlers coming downriver in flatboats. The sunlight was autumn thick. Children ran and played. It didn’t match anything in the room.

“The picture yours?” I asked.

He gave a slight nod.

“Did you know the painter?”

He smiled then, no hint of fangs, just the beautiful spread of lips. If there had been a vampire GQ, Jean-Claude would have been their cover boy.

“The desk and couch don’t match the rest of the decor,” I said.

“I am in the midst of remodeling,” he said.

He just sat there looking at me. “You asked for this meeting, Jean-Claude. Let’s get on with it.”

“Are you in a hurry?” His voice had dropped lower, the brush of fur on naked skin.

“Yes, I am. So cut to the chase. What do you want?”

The smile widened, slightly. He actually lowered his eyes for a moment. It was almost coy. “You are my human servant, Anna.”

He used my name. Bad sign that.

“I know that,” I said.

“You bear two marks, only two more remain.” His face still looked pleasant, lovely. The expression didn’t match what he was saying.

“So what?”

He sighed. “Anna. . .” He stopped in midsentence and stood. He came around the desk. “Do you know what it means to be Master of the City?” He leaned on the desk, half sitting. His shirt gaped open showing an expanse of pale chest. One nipple showed small and pale and hard. The cross-shaped scar was an insult to such pale perfection.

I had been staring at his bare chest. How embarrassing. I met his gaze and managed not to blush. Bully for me.

“There are other benefits to being my human servant, ma petite.” His eyes were all pupil, black and drowning deep.

I shook my head. “No.”

“No lies, ma petite, I can feel your desire.” His tongue flicked across his lips. “I can taste it.”

Great, just great. How do you argue with someone who can feel what you’re feeling? Answer: don’t argue, agree. “Alright, I lust after you. Does that make you happy?”

He smiled. “Yes.” One word, but it flowed through my mind, whispering things that he had not said. Whispers in the dark.

“I lust after a lot of men, but that doesn’t mean I have to sleep with them.”

His face was almost slack, eyes like drowning pools. “Casual lust is easily defeated,” he said. He stood in one smooth motion. “What we have is not casual, ma petite. Not lust, but desire.” He moved towards me, one pale hand outstretched.

My heart was thudding in my throat. It wasn’t fear. I didn’t think it was a mind trick. It felt real. Desire, he called it, maybe it was. “Don’t,” my voice was hoarse, a whisper.

He, of course, did not stop. His fingers traced the edge of my cheek, barely touching. The brush of skin on skin. I stepped away from him, forced to draw a deep shaking breath. I could be as uncool as I wanted, he could feel my discomfort. No sense pretending.

I could feel where he had touched me, a lingering sensation. I looked at the ground while I spoke. “I appreciate the possible fringe benefits, Jean-Claude, really, But I won’t.” I met his eyes. “Not after what you did.” His face was a terrible blankness. Nothing. It was the same face of a moment ago, but some spark of humanity, of life, was gone.

My pulse started thudding again. It had nothing to do with sex. Fear. It had a lot to do with fear.

“As you like, my little animator. Whether we are lovers or not, it does not change what you are to me. You are my human servant.”

“So,” I said.

“You are mine, Anna. Willing or not, you are mine.”

“See, Jean-Claude, here’s where you lose me. First you try seducing me, which has its pleasant side. When that doesn’t work, you resort to threats.”

“It is not a threat, ma petite. It is the truth.”

“No, it isn’t. And stop calling me ma petite.”

He smiled at that.

I didn’t want him amused by me. Anger replaced lust in a quick warm rush. I liked anger. It made me brave, and stupid. “I hate you.”

Jean-Claude sighed. “We need to talk, ma petite. Lovers or not, servant or not, we need to talk.”

“Then talk. I haven’t got all night.”

He sighed again. “You don’t make this easy.”

“If it was easy you wanted, you should have picked on someone else.”

He nodded. “Very true. Please, be seated.” He went back to lean on the desk, arms crossed over his chest.

“I don’t have that kind of time,” I said.

He frowned slightly. “I thought we agreed to talk this out, ma petite.”

“We agreed to meet at eleven. You’re the one who wasted an hour, not me.”

His smile was almost bitter. “Very well. I will give you a . . . condensed version.”

I nodded. “Fine with me.”

“I am the new Master of the City. But to survive with Nikolaos alive, I had to hide my powers. I did it too well. There are those who think I am not powerful enough to be the Master of all. They are challenging me. One of the things they are using against me is you.”

“How?”

“Your disobedience. I cannot even control my own human servant. How can I possibly control all the vampires in the city and surrounding areas?”

“What do you want from me?”

He smiled then, wide and genuine, flashing fangs. “I want you to be my human servant.”

“I tought I already was, Jean-Claude.”

“Let me give you the third mark, Anna.” There was no threat as he said it. It was just a fact.

“No.” Master vampires can smell the truth. He would know I meant it.

“Why?”

I opened my mouth to try to explain, but didn’t. He would not understand. We stood two feet apart but it might have been miles. Miles across some dark chasm. We could not bridge that gap. He was a walking corpse. Whatever he had been as a living man, it was gone. He was the Master of the City, and that was nothing even close to human.

“If you force this issue, I will hurt you,” I said.

“You mean that.” There was surprise in his voice. It isn’t often a girl gets to surprise a centuries-old vampire.

“Yes.”

“I do not understand you, ma petite.”

“I know,” I said.

“Could you pretend to be my servant?”

It was an odd question. “What does pretending mean?”

“You come to a few meetings. You stand at my side with your knives and your reputation.”

“You want The Shadow of the Executioner at your back.” I stared at him for a space of heartbeats. The true horror of what he’d just said floated slowly through my mind. “I thought the two marks were accident. That you panicked. You meant all along to mark me, didn’t you?”

He just smiled.

“Answer me.”

“If the chance arose, I was not averse to it.”

“Not averse to it!” I was almost yelling. “You cold-bloodedly chose me to be your human servant! Why?”

“Your mother was the Executioner but you were the power behind her threat .”

“What does that mean?”

“It is impressive to be the vampire who finally caught you.”

“You haven’t caught me.”

“If you would behave yourself, the others would think so. Only you and I need know that it is pretense.”

I shook my head. “I won’t let you use me, Jean-Claude.”

“But will you not help me?”

I didn’t answer.

“I offer you immortality. Without the compromise of vampirism. I offer you myself. There have been women over the years who would have done anything I asked just for that.”

“Sex is sex, Jean-Claude. No one’s that good.”

He smiled slightly. “Vampires are different, ma petite. If you were not so stubborn, you might find out how different.”

I had to look away from his eyes. The look was too intimate. Too full of possibilities.

“There’s only one thing I want from you,” I said.

“And what is that, ma petite?”

“The one thing you can’t give me, to wipe these marks away. Make it so this never happened. Give them back to me.” I was crying now.

“I cannot, even if I wanted to,”he wispered.

“Which you don’t,” I said.

“Which I don’t.”

” Then stay away from me, Jean-Claude. Just stay away from me.”

I stared at him, trying to see if he understood any of what I said. “Say something.”

“I have heard your words. I know you mean them.” He was suddenly standing in front of me. I hadn’t seen him move, hadn’t felt him in my head. He was just suddenly inches in front of me. I think I gasped.

“Do you truly hate me?” His voice was like silk on a wound, gentle with an edge of pain. Like sex. It was like velvet rubbing inside my skull. It felt good. He could still have me. Still take me down. No way.

I looked up into his so-blue eyes and said, “No.”

I meant it. He blinked once, gracefully, and stepped back. “You are the most amazing woman I have ever met,” he said. There was no play in his voice this time. It was a flat statement.

“That’s the nicest compliment you’ve ever paid me.”

He stood in front of me, hands at his sides. He stood very still. Snakes or birds can stand utterly still but even a snake has a sense of aliveness, of action waiting to resume. Jean-Claude stood there with no sense of anything, as if despite what my eyes told me, he had vanished. He was not there at all. The dead make no noise.

“What happened to your face?”

I touched the swollen cheek before I could stop myself. “Nothing,” I lied.

“Who hit you?”

“Why, so you can go beat him up?”

“One of the fringe benefits of being my servant is my protection.”

“I don’t need your protection, Jean-Claude.” I said then had an idea.

“Would you care to accompany me to the Tenderloin?”

———–

Chapter 8
“Would you care to accompany me to the Tenderloin?”

He blinked, surprise covering his face just like a real person. “To what purpose?”

“I need to question a prostitute about a case I’m working on. I need backup.”

“Backup?” he asked.

“I need backup that looks more threatening than I do. You fit the bill.”

He smiled beatifically. “I would be your bodyguard.”

“You’ve given me enough grief, do something nice for a change.”

The smile vanished. “Why this sudden change of heart, ma petite?”

“Because I need you.”

“And if I do not go?”

“I’ll go alone,” I said.

“Into the Tenderloin?”

“Yep.”

He was suddenly standing by the desk, walking towards me. I hadn’t seen him rise.

“I wish you’d stop doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Clouding my mind so I can’t see you move.”

“I do it as often as I can, ma petite, just to prove I still can.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I gave up much of my power over you when I gave you the marks. I practice what little games are left me.” He was standing almost in front of me. “Lest you forget who and what I am.”

I stared up into his blue, blue eyes. “I never forget that you are the walking dead, Jean-Claude.”

An expression I could not read passed over his face. It might have been pain. “No, I see the knowledge in your eyes of what I am.” His voice dropped low, almost a whisper, but it wasn’t seductive. It was human. “Your eyes are the clearest mirror I have ever seen, ma petite. Whenever I begin to pretend to myself. Whenever I have delusions of life. I have only to look into your face and see the truth.”

What did he expect me to say? Sorry, I’ll try to ignore the fact that you’re a vampire. “That why keep me around?” I asked.

“Perhaps if Nikolaos had had such a mirror, she would not have been such a monster.”

I stared at him. He might be right. It made his choice of me as human servant almost noble. Almost. Oh, heck no. I would not start feeling sorry for the freaking Master of the City. Not after what he did, Not now. Not ever.

We would go down to the Tenderloin. Pimps beware. I was bringing the Master as backup. It was like carrying a thermonuclear device to kill ants. Overkill has always been a specialty of mine.

…………………………………………………………………………………

The Tenderloin was originally the red light district on the Riverfront in the 1800s. But the Tenderloin, like so much of St. Louis, moved uptown. Go down Washington past the Fox Theater, where you can see Broadway traveling companies sing bright musical. Keep driving down Washington to the west edge of downtown St. Louis and you will come to the resurrected carcass of the Tenderloin.

The night streets are neon-coated, sparkling, flashing, pulsing-colors. It looks like some sort of pornographic carnival. All it needs is a Ferris wheel in one of the empty lots. They could sell cotton candy shaped like naked people. The kiddies could play while Daddy went to get his jollies. Mom would never have to know.

Jean-Claude sat beside me in the car. He had been utterly silent on the drive over. I had had to glance at him a time or two just to make sure he was still there. People make noise. I don’t mean talking or belching or anything overt. But people, as a rule, can’t just sit without making noise. They fidget, the sound of cloth rubbing against the seats; they breathe, the soft intake of air; they wet their lips, wet, quiet, but noise. Jean-Claude didn’t do any of these things as we drove. I couldn’t even swear he blinked. The living dead, yippee.

I can take silence as good as the next guy, better than most women and a lot of men. Now, I needed to fill the silence. Talk just for the noise. A waste of energy, but I needed it.

“Are you in there, Jean-Claude?”

His neck turned, bringing his head with it. His eyes glittered, reflecting the neon signs like dark glass. Shit.

“You can play human, Jean-Claude, better than almost any vampire I’ve ever met. What’s all this supernatural junk?”

“junk?” he said, voice soft.

“Yeah, why are you going all spooky on me?”

“Spooky?” he asked, and the sound filled the car. As if the word meant something else entirely.

“Stop that,” I said.

“Stop what?”

“Answering every question with a question.”

He blinked once. “So sorry, ma petite, but I can feel the street.”

“Feel the street? What does that mean?”

He settled back against the upholstery, leaning his head and neck into the seat. His hand clasped over his stomach. “There is a great deal of life here.”

“Life?” He had me doing it now.

“Yes,” he said, “I can feel them running back and forth. Little creatures, desperately seeking love, pain, acceptance, greed. A lot of greed here, too, but mostly pain and love.”

“You don’t come to a prostitute for love. You come for sex.”

He rolled his head so his dark eyes stared at me. “Many people confuse the two.”

I stared at the road. The hairs at the back of my neck were standing at attention. “You haven’t fed yet tonight, have you?”

“You are the vampire expert. Can you not tell?” His voice had dropped to almost a whisper. Hoarse and thick.

“You know I can never tell with you.”

“A compliment to my powers, I’m sure.”

“I did not bring you down here to hunt,” I said. My voice sounded firm, a tad loud. My heart was loud inside my head.

“Would you forbid me to hunt tonight?” he asked.

I thought about that one for a minute or two. We were going to have to turn around and make another pass to find a parking space. Would I forbid him to hunt tonight? Yes. He knew the answer. This was a trick question. Trouble was I couldn’t see the trick.

“I would ask that you not hunt here tonight,” I said.

“Give me a reason, Anna.”

He had called me Anna without me prompting him. He was definitely after something. “Because I brought you down here. You wouldn’t have hunted here, if it hadn’t been for me.”

“You feel guilt for whomever I might feed on tonight?”

“It is illegal to take unwilling human victims,” I said.

“So it is.”

“The penalty for doing so is death,” I said.

“By your hand.”

“If you do it in this state, yes.”

“They are just whores, pimps, cheating men. What do they matter to you, Anna?”

I don’t think he had ever called me Anna twice in a row. It was a bad sign. A car pulled away not a block from The Grey Cat Club. What luck. I slid my Nova into the slot. Parallel parking is not my best thing, but luckily the car that pulled away was twice the size of my car. There was plenty of room to maneuver, back and forth from the curb.

When the car was lurched nearly onto the curb but safely out of traffic, I cut the engine. Jean-Claude lay back in his seat, staring at me. “I asked you a question, ma petite, what do these people mean to you?”

I undid my seat belt and turned to look at him. Some trick of light and shadow had put most of his body in darkness. A band of nearly gold light lay across his face. His high cheekbones were very prominent against his pale skin. The tips of his fangs showed between his lips. His eyes gleamed like blue neon. I looked away and stared at the steering wheel while I talked.

“I have no personal stake in these people, Jean-Claude, but they are people. Good, bad, or indifferent, they are alive, and no one has the right to just arbitrarily snuff them out.”

“So it is the sanctity of life you cling to?”

I nodded. “That and the fact that every human being is special. Every death is a loss of something precious and irreplaceable.” I looked at him as I finished the last.

“You have killed before, Anna. You have destroyed that which is irreplaceable.”

“I’m irreplaceable, too,” I said. “No one has the right to kill me, either.”

He sat up in one liquid motion, and reality seemed to collect around him. I could almost feel the movement of time in the car, like a sonic boom for the inside of my head, instead of my ear.

Jean-Claude sat there looking entirely human. His pale skin had a certain flush to it. His curling black hair, carefully combed and styled, was rich and touchable. His eyes were just midnight-blue, nothing exceptional but the color. He was human again, in the blink of an eye.

“Jesus,” I whispered.

“What is wrong, ma petite?”

I shook my head. If I asked how he did it, he’d just smile.

“Why all the questions, Jean-Claude? Why the worry about my view of life?”

“You are my human servant.” He raised a hand to stop the automatic objection. “I have begun the process of making you my human servant, and I would like to understand you better.”

“Can’t you just . . . scent my emotions like you can the people on the street?”

“No, ma petite. I can feel your desire but little else. I gave that up when I made you my marked servant.”

“You can’t read me?”

“No.”

That was really nice to know. Jean-Claude didn’t have to tell me. So why did he? He never gave anything away for free. There were strings attached that I couldn’t even see. I shook my head. “You are just to back me up tonight. Don’t do anything to anybody unless I say so, okay?”

“Do anything?”

“Don’t hurt anyone unless they try to hurt us.”

He nodded, face very solemn. Why did I suspect that he was laughing at me in some dark corner of his mind? Giving orders to the Master of the City. I guess it was funny.

The noise level on the sidewalk was intense. Music blared out of every other building. Never the same song, but always loud. The flashing signs proclaimed, “Girls, Girls, Girls. Topless.” A pink-edged sign read, “Talk to the Naked Woman of Your Dreams.” Eeek.

A tall, thin black woman came up to us. She was wearing purple shorts so short that they looked like a thong bikini. Black fishnet panty hose covered her legs and buttocks. Provocative.

She stopped somewhere between the two of us. Her eyes flicked from one to the other. “Which one of ya does it, and which one of ya watches?”

Jean-Claude and I exchanged glances. He was smiling ever so slightly. “Sorry, we were looking for Wanda,” I said.

“A lot of names down here,” she said. “I can do anything this Wanda can do, and do it better.” She stepped very close to Jean-Claude, almost touching. He took her hand in his and lifted it gently to his lips. His eyes watched me as he did it.

“You’re the doer,” she said. Her voice had gone throaty, sexy. Or maybe that was just the effect Jean-Claude had on women. Maybe.

The woman cuddled in, against him. Her skin looked very dark against the white lace of his shirt. Her fingernails were painted a bright pink, like Easter basket grass.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but we don’t have all night.”

“This is not the one you seek then,” he said.

“No,” I said.

He gripped her arms just above the elbows and pushed her away. She struggled just a bit to reach him again. Her hands grabbed at his arms, trying to pull herself closer to him. He held her straight-armed, effortlessly. He could have held a semitruck effortlessly.

“I’ll do you for free,” she said.

“What did you do to her?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

I didn’t believe him. “Nothing, and she offers to do you for free?” Sarcasm is one of my natural talents. I made sure that Jean-Claude heard it.

“Be still,” he said.

“Don’t tell me to shut up.”

The woman was standing perfectly still. Her hands dropped to her sides, limp. He hadn’t been talking to me at all.

Jean-Claude took his hands away from her. She never moved. He stepped around her like she was a crack in the pavement. He took my arm, and I let him. I watched the prostitute, waiting for her to move.

Her straight, nearly naked back shuddered. Her shoulders slumped. She threw back her head and drew a deep trembling breath.

Jean-Claude pulled me gently down the street, his hand on my elbow. The prostitute turned around, saw us. Her eyes never even hesitated. She didn’t know us.

I swallowed hard enough for it to hurt. I pulled free of Jean-Claude’s hand. He didn’t fight me. Good for him.

I backed up against a storefront window. Jean-Claude stood in front of me, looking down. “What did you do to her?”

“I told you, ma petite, nothing.”

“Don’t call me that. I saw her, Jean-Claude. Don’t lie to me.”

A pair of men stopped beside us to look in the window. They were holding hands. I glanced in the window and felt color creep up my cheeks. There were whips, leather masks, padded handcuffs, and things I didn’t even have a name for. One of the men leaned into the other and whispered. The other man laughed. One of them caught me looking. Our eyes met, and I looked away, fast. Eye contact down here was a dangerous thing.

I was blushing and hating it. The two men walked away, hand in hand.

Jean-Claude was staring in the window like he was out for a Saturday afternoon of window-shopping. Casual.

“What did you do to that woman?”

He stared in the storefront. I couldn’t tell exactly what had caught his attention. “It was careless of me, ma . . . Anna. My fault entirely.”

“What was your fault?”

“My . . . powers are greater when my human servant is with me.” He stared at me then. His gaze solid on my face. “With you beside me, my powers are enhanced.”

“Wait, you mean like a witch’s familiar?”

He cocked his head to one side, a slight smile on his face. “Yes, very close to that. I did not know you knew anything about witchcraft.”

“I had an odd childhood,” I said. I was not going to be diverted from the important topic. “So your ability to bespell people with your eyes is stronger when I’m with you. Strong enough that without trying, you bespelled that prostitute.”

He nodded.

I shook my head. “No, I don’t believe you.”

He shrugged, a graceful gesture on him. “Believe what you like, ma petite. It is the truth.”

I didn’t want to believe it. Because if it were true, then I was in fact his human servant. Not in my actions but by my very presence. With sweat trickling down my spine from the heat, I was cold. “Dang it,” I said.

“You could say that,” he said.

“No, I don’t want deal with this right now. I won’t.” I stared up at him. “You keep whatever powers we have between us in check, okay?”

“I will try,” he said.

“Don’t try, Jean-Claude, do it.”

He smiled wide enough to flash the tips of his fangs. “Of course, ma petite.”

Panic was starting in the pit of my stomach. I gripped my hands into fists at my sides. “If you call me that one more time, I’m going to hit you.”

His eyes widened just a bit, his lips flexed. I realized he was trying not to laugh. I hate it when people find my threats amusing.

He was an invasive son of a bitch; and I wanted to hurt him. To hurt him because he scared me. I understand the urge, I’ve had it before with other people. It’s an urge that can lead to violence. I stared up at his softly amused face. He was a condescending bastard, but if it ever came to real violence between us, one of us would die. Chances were good it would be me.

The humor leaked out of his face, leaving it smooth and lovely, and arrogant. “What is it, Anna?” His voice was soft and intimate. Even in the heat and movement of this place, his voice could roll me up and under. It was a gift.

“Don’t push me into a corner, Jean-Claude. You don’t want to take away all my options.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.

“If it comes down to you or me, I’m going to pick me. You remember that.”

He looked at me for a space of heartbeats. Then he blinked and nodded. “I believe you would. But remember, ma . . . Anna, if you hurt me, it hurts you. I could survive the strain of your death. The question, amante de moi, is could you survive mine?”

Amante de moi? My lover? I decided not to ask. “I’m not your lover, Jean-Claude.”

He looked suprized. “You know French ma petite?”

“My father taught me multiple languages, Jean-Claude.”

He laughed then. The sound was like silk brushed across the nape of the neck. It felt smooth and good, but it made you shudder.

I walked away from him. I just left him there in front of the obscene window display. I walked into the crowd of whores, hustlers, customers. There was nobody on this street as dangerous as Jean-Claude. I had brought him down here to protect me. That was laughable. Ridiculous. Obscene.

A young man who couldn’t have been more than fifteen stopped me. He was wearing a vest with no shirt and a pair of torn jeans. “You interested?”

He was taller than me by a little. His eyes were blue. Two other boys just behind him were staring at us.

“We don’t get many women down here,” he said.

“I believe you.” He looked incredibly young. “Where can I find Wheelchair Wanda?”

One of the boys behind him said, “A crip lover, Jesus.”

I agreed with him. “Where?” I held up a twenty. It was too much to pay for the information, but maybe if I gave it to him, he could go home sooner. Maybe if he had twenty dollars, he could turn down one of the cars cruising the street. Twenty dollars, it would change his life. Like sticking your finger in a nuclear meltdown.

“She’s just outside of The Grey Cat. At the end of the block.”

“Thanks.” I gave him the twenty. His fingernails had grime embedded in them.

“You sure you don’t want some action?” His voice was small and uncertain, like his eyes. Out of the comer of my eye I saw Jean-Claude moving through the crowd. He was coming for me. To protect me. I turned back to the boy. “I’ve got more action than I know what to do with,” I said.

He frowned, looking puzzled. That was all right. I was puzzled, too. What do you do with a master vampire that won’t leave you alone? Good question. Unfortunately, what I needed was a good answer.

———

Chapter 9
Wheelchair Wanda was a small woman sitting in one of those sport wheelchairs that are used for racing. She wore workout gloves, and the muscles in her arms moved under her tanned skin as she pushed herself along. Long brown hair fell in gentle waves around a very pretty face. The makeup was tasteful. She wore a shiny metallic blue shirt and no bra. An ankle-length skirt with at least two layers of multicolored crinoline and a pair of stylish black boots hid her legs.

She was moving towards us at a goodly pace. Most of the prostitutes, male and female, looked ordinary. They weren’t dressed outrageously, shorts, middrifts. In this heat who could blame them? I guess if you wear fishnet jumpsuits, the police just naturally get suspicious.

Jean-Claude stood beside me. He glanced up at the sign that proclaimed “The Grey Cat” in a near blinding shade of fuchsia neon. Tasteful.

How does one approach a prostitute, even just to talk? I didn’t know. Learn something new every day. I stood in her path and waited for her to come to me. She glanced up and caught me watching her. When I didn’t look away, she got eye contact and smiled.

Jean-Claude moved up beside me. Wanda’s smile broadened or deepened. It was a definite “come along smile.”

Jean-Claude whispered, “Is that a prostitute?”

“Yes,” I said.

“In a wheelchair?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“My,” was all he said. I think Jean-Claude was shocked. Nice to know he could be.

She stopped her chair with an expert movement of hands.

She smiled, craning to look up at us. The angle looked painful.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I said.

She continued to smile. I continued to stare. Why did I suddenly feel awkward? “A friend told me about you,” I said.

Wanda nodded.

“You are the one they refer to as Wheelchair Wanda?”

She grinned suddenly, and her face looked real. Behind all those lovely but fake smiles was a real person. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“Could we talk?”

“Sure,” she said. “You got a room?”

Did I have a room? Wasn’t she supposed to do that? “No.”

She waited.

Oh, hell. “We just want to talk to you for an hour, or two. We’ll pay whatever the going rate is.”

She told me the going rate.

“Jesus, that’s a little steep,” I said.

She smiled beatifically at me. “Supply and demand,” she said. “You can’t get a taste of what I have anywhere else.” She smoothed her hands down her legs as she said it. My eyes followed her hands like they were supposed to. This was too weird.

I nodded. “Okay, you got a deal.” It was a business expense. Computer paper, ink pens medium point, one prostitute, manila file folders. See, it fit right in.

Bert was going to love this one.

We took Wanda back to my apartment. There are no elevators in my building. Two flights of stairs are not exactly wheelchair accessible. Jean-Claude carried her. His stride was even and fluid as he walked ahead of me. Wanda didn’t even slow him down. I followed with the wheelchair. It did slow me down.

The only consolation I had was I got to watch Jean-Claude climb the stairs. So sue me. He had a very nice backside for a vampire.

He was waiting for me in the upper hallway, standing with Wanda cuddled in his arms. They both looked at me with a pleasant sort of blankness.

I wheeled the collapsed wheelchair over the carpeting. Jean-Claude followed me. The crinoline in Wanda’s skirts crinkled and whispered as he moved.

I leaned the wheelchair against my leg and unlocked the door. I pushed the door all the way back to the wall to give Jean-Claude room. The wheelchair folded inwards like a cloth baby stroller. I struggled to make the metal bars catch, so the chair would be solid again. As I suspected, it was easier to break it than to fix it.

I glanced up from my struggles and found Jean-Claude still standing outside my door. Wanda was staring at him, frowning.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I have never been to your apartment.”

“So?”

“The great vampire expert . . . come, Anna.”

Oh. “You have my permission to enter my home.”

He gave a sort of bow from the neck. “I am honored,” he said.

The wheelchair snapped into shape again. Jean-Claude set Wanda in her chair. I closed the door. Wanda smoothed her long skirts over her legs.

Jean-Claude stood in the middle of my living room and gazed about. He gazed at the panda calendar on the wall by the kitchenette. He rifled the pages to see future months, gazing at pictures of chunky bears until he’d seen every picture.

I wanted to tell him to stop, but it was harmless. I didn’t write appointments on the calendar. Why did it bother me that he was so interested in it?

I turned back to the prostitute in my living room. The night was entirely too weird. “Would you like something to drink?” I asked. When in doubt, be polite.

“Red wine if you have it,” Wanda said.

“Sorry, nothing alcoholic in the house. Coffee, soft drinks with real sugar in them, and water, that’s about it.”

“Soft drink,” she said.

I got her a can of Coke out of the fridge. “You want a glass?”

She shook her head.

Jean-Claude was leaning against the wall, staring at me as I moved about the kitchen. “I don’t need a glass either,” he said softly.

“Don’t get cute,” I said.

“Too late,” he said.

I had to smile.

The smile seemed to please him. Which made me frown. Life was hard around Jean-Claude. He sort of wandered off towards the fish tank. He was giving himself a tour of my apartment. Of course, he would. But at least it would give Wanda and I some privacy.

“Shit, he’s a vampire,” Wanda said. She sounded surprised. Which surprised me. I could always tell. Dead was dead to me, no matter how pretty the corpse.

“You didn’t know?” I asked.

“No, I’m not coffin-bait,” she said. There was a tightness to her face. The flick of her eyes as she followed Jean-Claude’s casual movements around the room was new. She was scared.

“What’s coffin-bait?” I handed her the soft drink.

“A whore that does vampires.”

Coffin-bait, how quaint. “He won’t touch you.”

She turned brown eyes to me then. Her gaze was very thorough, as if she were trying to read the inside of my head. Was I telling the truth?

How terrifying to go away with strangers to rooms and not know if they will hurt you or not. Desperation, or a death wish.

“So you and I are going to do it?” she asked. Her gaze never left my face.

I blinked at her. It took me a moment to realize what she meant. “No.” I shook my head. “No, I said I just wanted to talk. I meant it.” I think I was blushing.

Maybe the blush did it. She popped the top on the soda can and took a drink. “You want me to talk about doing it with other people, while you do it with him?” She motioned her head towards the wandering vampire.

Jean-Claude was standing in front of the only picture I had in the room. It was modern and matched the decor. Grey, white, black, and palest pink. It was one of those designs that the longer you stared at it, the more shapes you could pick out.

“Look, Wanda, we are just going to talk. That’s it. Nobody is going to do anything to anybody. Okay?”

She shrugged. “It’s your money. We can do what you want.”

That one statement made my stomach hurt. She meant it. I’d paid the money. She would do anything I wanted. Anything? It was too awful. That any human being would say “anything” and mean it. Of course, she drew the line at vampires. Even whores have standards.

Wanda was smiling up at me. The change was extraordinary. Her face glowed. She was instantly lovely. Even her eyes glowed. It reminded me of Cicely’s soundless laughing face.

Back to business. “I heard you were Harold Gaynor’s mistress a while back.” No preliminaries, no sweet talk. Off with the clothes.

Wanda’s smile faded. The glow of humor died in her eyes, replaced by wariness. “I don’t know the name.”

“Yeah, you do,” I said. I was still standing, forcing her to look up at me in that near painful angle.

She sipped her drink and shook her head without looking up at me.

“Come on, Wanda, I know you were Gaynor’s sweetie. Admit you know him, and we’ll work from there.”

She glanced up at me, then down. “No. I’ll do you. I’ll let the vamp watch. I’ll talk dirty to you both. But I don’t know anybody named Gaynor.”

I leaned down, putting my hands on the arms of her chair. Our faces were very close. “I’m not a reporter. Gaynor will never know you talked to me unless you tell him.”

Her eyes had gotten bigger. I glanced where she was staring. The Windbreaker had fallen forward. My gun was showing, which seemed to upset her. Good.

“Talk to me, Wanda.” My voice was soft. Mild. The mildest of voices is often the worst threat.

“Who the hell are you? You’re not cops. You’re not a reporter. Social workers don’t carry knives. Who are you?” That last question had the lilt of fear in it.

Jean-Claude strolled into the room. He’d been in my bedroom. Great, just great. “Trouble, ma petite?”

I didn’t correct him on the nickname. Wanda didn’t need to know there was dissent in the ranks. “She’s being stubborn,” I said.

I stepped back from her chair. I wasn’t intimidating.

Jean-Claude walked up behind her. His slender hands touched her shoulders. She jumped like it had hurt. I knew it hadn’t hurt. Might be better if it did.

“He’ll kill me,” Wanda said.

A lot of people seemed to say that about Mr. Gaynor. “He’ll never know,” I said.

Jean-Claude rubbed his cheek against her hair. His fingers kneading her shoulders, gently. “And, my sweet coquette, he is not here with you tonight.” He spoke with his lips against her ear. “We are.” He said something else so soft I could not hear. Only his lips moved, soundlessly for me.

Wanda heard him. Her eyes widened, and she started to tremble. Her entire body seemed in the grip of some kind of fit. Tears glittered in her eyes and fell down her cheeks in one graceful curve.

Jesus.

“Please, don’t. Please don’t let him.” Her voice was squeezed small and thin with fear.

I hated Jean-Claude in that moment. And I hated me, but I wasn’t willing to give it up, not even if it worked. Wanda would talk or she wouldn’t. No torture. “Back off, Jean-Claude,” I said.

He gazed up at me. “I can taste her terror like strong wine.” His eyes were solid, drowning blue. He looked blind. His face was still lovely as he opened his mouth wide and fangs glistened.

Wanda was still crying and staring at me. If she could have seen the look on Jean-Claude’s face, she would have been screaming.

“I thought your control was better than this, Jean-Claude?”

“My control is excellent, but it is not endless.” He stood away from her and began to pace the room on the other side of the couch. Like a leopard pacing its cage. Contained violence, waiting for release. I could not see his face. Had the spook act been for Wanda’s benefit? Or real?

I shook my head. No way to ask in front of Wanda. Maybe later. Maybe.

I knelt in front of Wanda. She was gripping the soda can so hard, she was denting it. I didn’t touch her, just knelt close by. “I won’t let him hurt you. Honest. Harold Gaynor is threatening me. That’s why I need information.”

Wanda was looking at me, but her attention was on the vampire in back of her. There was a watchful tension in her shoulders. She would never relax while Jean-Claude was in the room. The lady had taste.

“Jean-Claude, Jean-Claude.”

His face looked as ordinary as it ever did when he turned to face me. A smile crooked his full lips. It was an act. Pretense. Damn him. Was there something in becoming a vampire that made you sadistic?

“Go into the bedroom for a while. Wanda and I need to talk in private.”

“Your bedroom.” His smile widened. “My pleasure, ma petite.”

I scowled at him. He was undaunted. As always. But he left the room as I’d asked.

Wanda’s shoulders slumped. She drew a shaky breath. “You really aren’t going to let him hurt me, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

She started to cry then, soft, shaky tears. I didn’t know what to do. I’ve never known what to do when someone cries. Did I hug her? Pat her hand comfortingly. What?

I finally sat back on the ground in front of her, leaning back on my heels, and did nothing. It took a few moments, but finally the crying stopped. She blinked up at me. The makeup around her eyes had faded, just vanished. It made her look vulnerable, more rather than less attractive. I had the urge to take her in my arms and rock her like a child. Whisper lies, about how everything would be alright.

When she left here tonight, she was still going to be a whore. A crippled whore. How could that be alright? I shook my head more at me than at her.

“You want some Kleenex?”

She nodded.

I got her the box from the kitchen counter. She wiped at her face and blew her nose softly, very ladylike.

“Can we talk now?”

She blinked at me and nodded. She took a shaky sip of pop.

“You know Harold Gaynor, right?”

She just stared at me, dully. Had we broken her? “If he finds out, he will kill me. Maybe I don’t want to be coffin-bait, but I sure as hell don’t want to die either.”

“No one does. Talk to me, Wanda, please.”

She let out a shaky sigh. “Okay, I know Harold.”

Harold? “Tell me about him.”

Wanda stared at me. Her eyes narrowed. There were fine lines around her eyes. It made her older than I had thought. “Has he sent Bruno or Tommy after you yet?”

“Niether, he threatened my mother”

“What happened?”

“She drew a gun on him.”

“A gun?” she asked in a small voice.

“Yes.”

“What did she do to make Harold mad?”

Truth or lie? Neither. “She refused to do something for him.”

“What?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

“It can’t have been sex. She aren’t crippled, right?” She asked, and when I shook my head she continued. “He doesn’t touch anyone who’s whole.” The bitterness in her voice was thick enough to taste.

“How did you meet him?” I asked.

“I was in college at Wash U. Gaynor was donating money for something.”

“And he asked you out?”

“Yeah.” Her voice was so soft, I had to lean forward to hear it.

“What happened?”

“We were both in wheelchairs. He was rich. It was great.” She rolled her lips under, like she was smoothing lipstick, then out, and swallowed.

“When did it stop being great?” I asked.

“I moved in with him. Dropped out of college. It was . . . easier than college. Easier than anything. He couldn’t get enough of me.” She stared down at her lap again. “He started wanting variety in the bedroom. See, his legs are crippled, but he can feel. I can’t feel.” Wanda’s voice had dropped almost to a whisper. I had to lean against her knees to hear. “He liked to do things to my legs, but I couldn’t feel it. So at first I thought that was okay, but . . . but he got really sick.” She looked at me suddenly, her face only inches from mine. Her eyes were huge, swimming with unshed tears. “He cut me up. I couldn’t feel it, but that’s not the point, is it?”

“No,” I said.

The first tear trailed down her face. I touched her hand. Her fingers wrapped around mine and held on.

“It’s alright,” I said, “it’s alright.”

She cried. I held her hand and lied. “It’s alright now, Wanda. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Everyone hurts you,” she said. “You were going to hurt me.” There was accusation in her eyes.

It was a little late to explain good cop, bad cop to her. She wouldn’t have believed it anyway.

“Tell me about Gaynor.”

“He replaced me with a deaf girl.”

“Cicely,” I said.

She looked up, surprised. “You’ve met her?”

“My mother did.”

Wanda shook her head. “Cicely is one sick chickie. She likes torturing people. It gets her off.” Wanda looked at me as if trying to gauge my reaction. Was I shocked? No.

“Harold slept with both of us at the same time, sometimes. At the end it was always a threesome. It got real rough.” Her voice dropped lower and lower, a hoarse whisper. “Cicely likes knives. She’s real good at skinning things.” She rolled her lips under again in that lipstick-smoothing gesture. “Gaynor would kill me just for telling you his bedroom secrets.”

“Do you know any business secrets?”

She shook her head. “No, I swear. He was always very careful to keep me out of that. I thought at first it was so if the police came, I wouldn’t be arrested.” She looked down at her lap. “Later, I realized it was because he knew I would be replaced. He didn’t want me to know anything that could hurt him when he threw me away.”

There was no bitterness now, no anger, only a hollow sadness. I wanted her to rant and rave. This quiet despair was aching. A hurt that would never heal. Gaynor had done worse than kill her. He’d left her alive. Alive and as crippled inside as out.

“I can’t tell you anything but bedroom talk. It won’t help you hurt him.”

“Is there any bedroom talk that isn’t about sex?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Personal secrets, but not sex. You. were his sweetie for nearly two years. He must have talked about something other than sex.”

She frowned, thinking. “I . . . I guess he talked about his family.”

“What about his family?”

“He was illegitimate. He was obsessed with his real father’s family.”

“He knew who they were?”

Wanda nodded. “They were rich, old money. His mother was a hooker turned mistress: When she got pregnant, they threw her out.”

Like Gaynor did to his women, I thought. Out loud I said, “What family?”

“He never said. I think he thought I’d blackmail them or go to them with his dirty little secrets. He desperately wants them to regret not welcoming him into the family. I think he only made his money so he could be as rich as they were.”

“If he never gave you a name, how do you know he wasn’t lying?”

“You wouldn’t ask if you could hear him. His voice was so intense. He hates them. And he wants his birthright. Their money is his birthright.”

“How does he plan to get their money?” I asked.

“Just before I left him, Harold had found where some of his ancestors were buried. He talked about treasure. Buried treasure, can you believe it?”

“In the graves?”

“No, his father’s people got their first fortune from being river pirates. They sailed the Mississippi and robbed people. Gaynor was proud of that and angry about it. He said that the whole bunch of them were descended from thieves and whores. Where did they get off being so high and mighty to him?” She was watching my face as she spoke the last. Maybe she saw the beginnings of an idea.

“How would knowing the graves of his ancestors help him get their treasure?”

“He said he’d find some voodoo priest to raise them. He’d force them to give him their treasure that had been lost for centuries.”

“Ah,” I said.

“What? Did that help?”

I nodded. Momma’s role in Gaynor’s little scheme had become clear. Painfully clear. The only question left was why me? Why didn’t he go to someone thoroughly disreputable like Dominga Salvador, after Momma died? Someone who would take his money and kill his hornless goat and not lose any sleep over it. Why me?

“Did he ever mention any names of voodoo priests?”

Wanda shook her head. “No, no names. He was always careful about names. There’s a look on your face. How could what I have told you just now help you?”

“I think the less you know about that, the better, don’t you?”

She stared at me for a long time but finally nodded. “I guess so.”

“Is there any place . . .” I let it trail off. I was going to offer her a plane ticket or a bus ticket to anywhere. Anywhere where she wouldn’t have to sell herself. Anywhere where she could heal.

Maybe she read it in my face or my silence. She laughed, and it was a rich sound. Shouldn’t whores have cynical cackles?

“You are a social worker type after all. You want to save me, don’t you?”

“Is it terribly naive to offer you a ticket home or somewhere?”

She nodded. “Terribly. And why should you want to help me? You’re not a man. You don’t like women. Why should you offer to send me home?”

“Stupidity,” I said and stood.

“It’s not stupid.” She took my hand and squeezed it. “But it wouldn’t do any good. I’m a whore. Here at least I know the town, the people. I have regulars.” She released my hand and shrugged. “I get by.”

“With a little help from your friends,” I said.

She smiled, and it wasn’t happy. “Whores don’t have friends.”

“You don’t have to be a whore. Gaynor made you a whore, but you don’t have to stay one.”

There were tears trembling in her eyes for the third time that night. Hell, she wasn’t tough enough for the streets. No one was.

“Just call a taxi, okay. I don’t want to talk anymore.”

What could I do? I called a taxi. I told the driver the fare was in a wheelchair like Wanda told me to. She let Jean-Claude carry her back downstairs because I couldn’t do it. But she was very tight and still in his arms. We left her in her chair on the curb.

I watched until the taxi came and took her away. Jean-Claude stood beside me in the golden circle of light just in front of my apartment building. The warm light seemed to leech color from his skin.

“I must leave you now, ma petite. It has been very educational, but time grows short.”

“You’re going to go feed, aren’t you?”

“Does it show?”

“A little.”

He nodded.

I felt bad. Itchy, grumpy, restless. I was mad at Harold Gaynor for victimizing Wanda. Mad of Wanda for allowing it. Angry with myself for not being able to do anything about it. I was pissed at the whole world tonight. I’d learned what Gaynor wanted me to do. And it didn’t help a damn bit.

“There will always be victims, Anna. Predators and prey, it is the way of the world.”

I glared up at him. “I thought you couldn’t read me anymore.”

“I cannot read your mind or your thoughts, only your face and what I know of you.”

I didn’t want to know that Jean-Claude knew me that well. That intimately.”I’m going to hurt him, Jean-Claude” I stated.

“Because of the girl, ma petite?” he asked. I turned to face him and he was inches from my face.”That, and he went after my mother, Jean-Claude. No one hurts her without getting hurt back”

“And how will you hurt me, ma petite?” His hand rose to my cheek. His lips hesitated over my mouth. His heartbeat was loud in my head, his pulse was racing, and my breathing was ragged with his need.

His lips were silk, his tongue a quick wetness. I tried to pull back and found his hand at the back of my neck, pressing my mouth against his.

I relaxed against Jean-Claude, letting him kiss me. Our mouths pressed together. My tongue found the smooth hardness of fangs. I pulled away, and he let me. He pressed my face against his chest, one arm like steel against my back, pressing me against him. He was trembling, and it wasn’t from the kiss.

His breathing was ragged, his heart jumping under his skin against my cheek. The slick roughness of his burn scar touched my face.

His hunger poured over me in a violent wave, like heat. He had been sheltering me from it, until now. “Jean-Claude!” I didn’t try to keep the fear out of my voice.

“Hush.” A shudder ran through his body. His breath escaped in a loud sigh. He released me so abruptly, I stumbled.

“Go away, Jean-Claude, just go away.”

“As you like, ma petite.” And just like that he was gone. A rush of wind, then nothing.

“Show-off,” I murmured. I was left standing in the dark, tasting the first edge of tears, that I knew were useless.

Jean-Claude was right. There would always be prey and predator. And I had worked very hard to be one of the predators. I was The Shadow of the Executioner. So why were my sympathies always with the victims? And why did the despair in Wanda’s eyes make me hate Gaynor more than anything he’d ever done to me?

Why indeed?

—————-

Chapter 10
Riverridge was a modern housing development. Which meant that there were three models to choose from. You could end up with four identical houses in a row, like cookies on a baking sheet. There was also no river within sight. No ridge either.

The house that was the center of the police search area was identical to its neighbor, except for color. The murder house, which is what the news was calling it, was grey with white shutters. The house that had been passed safely by was blue with white shutters. Neither’s shutters worked. They were just for show. Modern architecture is full of perks that are just for show; balcony railings without a balcony, peaked roofs that make it look like you have an extra room that you don’t have, porches so narrow that only Santa’s elves could sit on them. It makes me nostalgic for Victorian architecture. It might have been overdone, but everything worked.

The entire housing project had been evacuated. Dolph had been forced to give a statement to the press. More’s the pity. But you can’t evacuate a housing development the size of a small town and keep it quiet. The cat was out of the bag. They were calling them the zombie massacres. Geez.

The sun was going down in a sea of scarlet and orange. It looked like someone had melted two giant crayons and smeared them across the sky. There wasn’t a shed, garage, basement, tree house, playhouse, or anything else we could think of that had been left unsearched. Still, we had found nothing.

The newshounds were prowling restlessly at the edge of the search area. If we had evacuated hundreds of people and searched their premises without a warrant and found no zombie . . . we were going to be in deep fucking shit.

But it was here. I knew it was here.

John Burke was standing next to one of those giant trash cans. Dolph had surprised me by allowing John to come on the zombie hunt. As Dolph said, we needed all the help we could get.

“Where is it, Anna?” Dolph asked.

I wanted to say something brilliant. My God, Holmes, how did you know the zombie was hiding in the flower pot? But I couldn’t lie. “I don’t know, Dolph. I just don’t know.”

“If we don’t find this thing . . .” He let the thought trail off, but I knew what he meant.

My job was secure if this fell apart. Dolph’s was not. Shit. How could I help him? What were we missing? What?

I stared at the quiet street. It was eerily quiet. The windows were all dark. Only the streetlights pushed back the coming dark. Soft halos of light.

Every house had a mailbox on a post near the sidewalk that edged the curb. Some of the mailboxes were unbelievably cute. One had been shaped like a sitting cat. Its paw went up if there was mail in its tummy. The family name was Catt. It was too precious.

Every house had at least one large super duper trash can in front of it. Some of them were bigger than I was. Surely, Sunday couldn’t be trash day. Or had today been trash day, and the police line had stopped it?

“Trash cans,” I said aloud.

“What?” Dolph asked.

“Trash cans.” I grabbed his arm, feeling almost lightheaded. “We’ve stared at those trash cans all day. That’s it.”

John Burke stood quietly beside me, frowning.

“Are you feeling okay, Blake?” Zerbrowski came up behind us, smoking. The end of his cigarette looked like a bloated firefly.

“The cans are big enough for a large person to hide in.”

“Wouldn’t your arms and legs fall asleep?” Zerbrowski asked.

“Zombies don’t have circulation, not like we do.”

Dolph yelled, “Everybody check the trash cans. The zombie is in one of them. Move it!”

Everyone scattered like an anthill stirred with a stick, but we had a purpose now. I ended up with two uniformed officers. Their nameplates said “Ki” and “Roberts.” Ki was Asian and male. Roberts was blond and female. A nicely mixed team.

We fell into a rhythm without discussing it. I would move up and dump the trash can. Officers Ki and Roberts would cover me with guns. We were all set to yell like hell if a zombie came tumbling out. It would probably be the right zombie. Life is seldom that cruel.

We’d yell and an exterminator team would come running. At least, they’d better come running. This zombie was entirely too fast, too destructive. It might be more resistant to gunfire. Better not to find out. Just french-fry the sucker and be done with it.

We were the only team working on the street. There was no sound but our footsteps, the rubber crunch of trash cans overturning, the rattle of cans and bottles as the trash spilled. Didn’t anybody tie their bags up anymore?

Darkness had fallen in a solid blackness. I knew there were stars and a moon up there somewhere, but you couldn’t prove it from where we stood. Clouds as thick and dark as velvet had come in from the west. Only the streetlights made it bearable.

Every time I put my hands to the can and pushed, They was ready. Ready to fire, ready to save him before the zombie leapt up and ripped his throat out. A trickle of sweat dripped down his high-cheekboned face. Even in the dim light it glimmered.

Trouble was, I didn’t know how good a shot Ki was, or Roberts either for that matter. I knew I was a good shot. I knew I could slow the thing down until help arrived.

Screams. To the left. The three of us froze. I whirled towards the screaming. There was nothing to see, nothing but dark houses and pools of streetlight. Nothing moved. But the screams continued high and horrified.

I started running towards the screams. Ki and Roberts were at my back.The screams sort of faded. Someone was dying up ahead.

There was a sense of movement everywhere in the darkness. Cops running. All of us running but it was too late. We were all too late. The screaming had stopped. No gunshots. Why not? Why hadn’t someone gotten off a shot?

We ran down the side yards of four houses when we hit a metal fence. Had to holster the guns. Couldn’t climb it with one hand. Dammit. I did my best to vault the fence using my hands for leverage.

I stumbled to my knees in the soft dirt of a flower bed. I was trampling some tall summer flowers. On my knees I was considerably shorter than the flowers. Ki landed beside me. Only Roberts landed on her feet.

Ki stood up without drawing his gun.

I had a sense of rushing movement but not clear sight. The flowers obscured my vision. Roberts was suddenly tumbling backwards, screaming.

Ki was drawing his gun, but something hit him, knocked him on top of me. I rolled but was still half under him. He lay still on top of me.

“Ki, move it, dammit!”

He sat up and crawled towards his partner, his gun silhouetted against the streetlight. He was staring down at Roberts. She wasn’t moving.

I searched the darkness trying to see something, anything. It had moved more than human fast. Fast as a ghoul. No zombie moved like that. Had I been wrong all along? Was it something else? Something worse? How many lives would my mistake cost tonight? Was Roberts dead?

“Ki, is she alive?” I searched the darkness, fighting the urge to look only at the lighted areas. There was shouting, but it was confusion, “Where is it? Where did it go?” The sounds were getting farther away.

I screamed, “Here, here!” The voices hesitated, then started our way. They were making so much noise, like a heard of arthritic elephants.

“How bad is she hurt?”

“Bad.” He’d put his gun down. He was pressing his hands over her neck. Something black and liquid was spreading over his hands. God.

I knelt on the other side of Roberts, gun ready, searching the darkness. Everything was taking forever, yet it was only seconds.

I checked her pulse, one-handed. It was thready, but there. My hand came away covered in blood. I wiped it on my pants. The thing had damn near slit her throat.

Where was it?

Ki’s eyes were huge, all pupil. His skin looked leprous in the streetlight. His partner’s blood was dripping out between his fingers.

Something moved, too low to the ground to be a man, but about that size. It was just a shape creeping along the back of the house in front of us. Whatever it was had found the deepest shadow and was trying to creep away.

That showed more intelligence than a zombie had. I was wrong. I was wrong. I was fucking wrong. And Roberts was dying because of it.

“Stay with her. Keep her alive.”

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“After it.” I climbed the fence one-handed. The adrenaline must have been pumping because I made it.

I gained the yard and it was gone. A streaking shape fast as a mouse caught in the kitchen light. A blur of speed, but big, big as a man.

It rounded the corner of the house and I lost sight of it. Dammit. I ran as far from the wall as I could, my stomach tight with anticipation of fingers ripping my throat out. I came round the house. Nothing. I scanned the darkness, the pools of light. Nothing.

Shouts behind me. The cops had arrived. God, let Roberts live.

There, movement, creeping across the streetlight around the edge of another house. Someone shouted, “Anna!”

I was already running towards the movement. I shouted as I ran, “Bring an exterminator team!” But I didn’t stop. I didn’t dare stop. I was the only one in sight of it. If I lost it, it was gone.

I ran into the darkness, alone, after something that might not be a zombie at all. Not the brightest thing I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t going to get away. It wasn’t.

Not if I could stop it. Now. Tonight.

I ran through a pool of light and it made the darkness heavier, blinding me temporarily. I froze in the dark, willing my eyes to adjust faster.

“Perssisstent woman,” a voice hissed. It was to my right, so close the hair on my arms stood up.

I froze, straining my peripheral vision. There, a darker shape rising out of the evergreen shrubs that hugged the edge of the house. It rose to its full height, but didn’t attack. If it wanted me, it could have me before I could turn. I’d seen it move. I knew I was dead.

“You arrre not like the resst.” The voice was sibilant, as if parts of the mouth were missing, so it put great effort into forming each word. A gentleman’s voice decayed by the grave.

I turned towards it, slowly, slowly.

“Put me back.”

I had turned my head enough to be able to see some of it. My night vision is better than most. And the streetlights made it lighter than it should have been.

The skin was pale, yellowish-white. The skin clung to the bones of his face like wax that had half-melted. But the eyes, they weren’t decayed. They burned out at me with a glitter that was more than just eyes.

“Put you back where?” I asked.

“My grave,” he said. His lips didn’t work quite right, there wasn’t enough flesh left on them.

Light blazed into my eyes. The zombie screamed, covering his face. I couldn’t see shit. It crashed into me. I throw the knife blind. I thought I heard a grunt as the knife hit home. Trying to protect myself as I fell half-blind.

When I blinked up into the electric-shot darkness, I was alone. I was unhurt. Why? Put me back, it had said. In my grave. How had it known what I was? Most humans couldn’t tell. Witches could tell sometimes, and other animators always spotted me. Other animators. Shit.

Dolph was suddenly there, pulling me to my feet. “God, Blake, are you hurt?”

I shook my head. “What the hell was that light?”

“A halogen flashlight.”

“You damn near blinded me.”

“We couldn’t see to shoot,” he said.

Police had run past us in the darkness. There were shouts of, “There it is!” Dolph and I and the offending flashlight, bright as day, were left behind as the chase ran merrily on.

“It spoke to me, Dolph,” I said. .

“What do you mean, it spoke to you?”

“It asked me to put it back in its grave.” I stared up at him as I said it. I wondered if my face looked like Ki’s had, pale, eyes wide and black. Why wasn’t I scared?

“It’s old, a century at least. It was a voodoo something in life. That’s what went wrong. That’s why Peter Burke couldn’t control it.”

“How do you know all this? Did it tell you?”

I shook my head. “The way it looked, I could judge the age. It recognized me as someone who could lay it to rest. Only a witch or another animator could have recognized me for what I am. My money’s on an animator.”

“Does that change our plan?” he asked.

I stared up at him. “It’s killed how many people?” I didn’t wait for him to answer. “We kill it. Period.”

“You think like a cop, Anna.” It was a great compliment from Dolph, and I took it as one.

It didn’t matter what it had been in life. So it had been an animator, or rather a voodoo practioner. So what? It was a killing machine. It hadn’t killed me. Hadn’t hurt me. I couldn’t afford to return the favor.

Shots echoed far way. Some trick of the summer air made them echo. Dolph and I looked at each other.

“Let’s do it.”

He nodded.

We started running, but he outdistanced me quickly. His legs were as tall as I was. I couldn’t match his pace. I might be able to run him into the ground, but I’d never match his speed.

He hesitated, glancing at me.

“Go on, run,” I said.

He put on an extra burst of speed and was gone into the darkness. He didn’t even look back. If you said you were fine in the dark with a killer zombie on the loose, Dolph would believe you. Or at least he believed me.

It was a compliment but it left me running alone in the dark for the second time tonight. Shouts were coming from two opposite directions. They had lost it. Damn.

I slowed. I had no desire to run into the thing blind. It hadn’t hurt me the first time, but I’d put at least one knife into it. Even a zombie gets pissed about things like that.

I was under the cool darkness of a tree shadow. I was on the edge of the development. A barbed-wire fence cut across the entire back of the subdivision. Farmland stretched as far as I could see. At least the field was planted in beans. The zombie’d have to be lying flat to hide in there. I caught glimpses of policemen with flashlights, searching the darkness, but they were all about fifty yards to either side of me.

They were searching the ground, the shadows, because I’d told them zombies didn’t like to climb. But this wasn’t any ordinary zombie. The tree rustled over my head. The hair on my neck crawled down my spine. I whirled, looking upwards, gun pointing.

It snarled at me and leapt.

I throw two more knives before its weight hit me and knocked us both to the ground. Two knives in the chest, and it wasn’t even hurt.

I throw a third, but I might as well have been hitting a wall.

It snarled in my face, broken teeth with dark stains, breath foul as a new opened grave. I screamed back, wordless.

Those glittering eyes stared down at me. There was someone home, like Dominga’s soul-locked zombies. There was someone looking out of those eyes. We froze in one of those illusionary seconds that last years. He was straddling my waist, hands at my throat, but not pressing, not hurting, not yet. I had a knife under his chin. None of the other knives had hurt him; why would this one?

“Didn’t mean to kill,” it said softly, “didn’t understand at firsst. Didn’t remember what I wass.”

The police were there on either side, hesitating. Dolph screamed, “Hold your fire, hold your fire, dammit!”

“I needed meat, needed it to remember who I wass. Tried not to kill. Tried to walk past all the houssess, but I could not. Too many houssess,” he whispered. His hands tensed, stained nails digging in. I shoved the knife into his chin. His body jerked backwards, but the hands squeezed my neck.

Pressure, pressure, tighter, tighter. I was beginning to see white star bursts on my vision. The night was fading from black to grey. I pressed my hand just above the bridge of his nose and pushed my power into him again, and again.

My vision faded, but I could still feel my hands, the power. Darkness flowed over my eyes and swallowed the world. I couldn’t feel my hands anymore.
……………………………………………………………………..

I woke to screams, horrible screams. The stink of burning flesh and hair was thick and choking on my tongue.

I took a deep shaking breath and it hurt. I coughed and tried to sit up. Dolph was there supporting me. He had my knife in his hand. I drew one ragged breath after another and coughed hard enough to make my throat raw. Or maybe the zombie had done that.

Something the size of a man was rolling over the summer grass. It burned. It flamed with a clean orange light that sent the darkness shattering in fire shadows like the sun on water.

Two exterminators in their fire suits stood by it, covering it in napalm, as if it were a ghoul. The thing screamed high in its throat, over and over, one loud ragged shriek after another.

“Jesus, why won’t it die?” Zerbrowski was standing nearby. His face was orange in the firelight.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to say it out loud. The zombie wouldn’t die because it had been an animator when alive. That much I knew about animator zombies. What I hadn’t known was that they came out of the grave craving flesh. That they remembered only when they ate flesh.

That I hadn’t known. Didn’t want to know.

John Burke stumbled into the firelight. He was cradling one arm to his chest. Blood stained his clothing. Had the zombie whispered to John? Did he know why the thing wouldn’t die?

The zombie whirled, the fire roaring around it. The body was like the wick of a candle. It took one shaking step towards us. Its flaming hand reached out to me. To me.

Then it fell forward, slowly, into the grass. It fell like a tree in slow motion, fighting for life. If that was the word. The exterminators stayed ready, taking no chances. I didn’t blame them.

It had been a necromancer once upon a time. Momma’s will said cremation because I didn’t want someone raising me just for kicks, but you couldn’t be raised more than once.

I watched the flesh blacken, curl, peel away. Muscles and bone popped in miniature explosions, tiny pops of sparks.

I watched the zombie die and made a promise to myself. I’d see Dominga Salvador burned in hell for what she’d done. There are fires that last for all eternity. Fires that make napalm look like a temporary inconvenience. She’d burn for all eternity, and it wouldn’t be half long enough.

————

Chapter 11
I was lying on my back in the emergency room. A white curtain hid me from view. The noises on the other side of the curtain were loud and unfriendly. I liked my curtain. The pillow was flat, the examining table was hard. It felt white and clean and wonderful. It hurt to swallow. It even hurt a little bit just to breathe. But breathing was important. It was nice to be able to do it.

I lay there very quietly. Doing what I was told for once. I listened to my breathing, the beating of my own heart. After nearly dying, I am always very interested in my body. I notice all sorts of things that go unnoticed during most of life. I could feel blood coursing through the veins in my arms. I could taste my calm, orderly pulse in my mouth like a piece of candy.

I was alive. The zombie was dead. Dominga Salvador was in jail. Life was good.

Dolph pushed the curtain back. He closed the curtain like you’d close a door to a room. We both pretended we had privacy even though we could see people’s feet passing under the hem of the curtain.

I smiled up at him. He smiled back. “Nice to see you up and around.”

“I don’t know about the up part,” I said. My voice had a husky edge to it. I coughed, tried to clear it, but it didn’t really help.

“What’d the doc say about your voice?” Dolph asked.

“I’m a temporary tenor.” At the look on his face, I added, “It’ll pass.”

“Good.”

“How’s Burke?” I asked.

“Stitches, no permanent damage.”

I had figured as much after seeing him last night, but it was good to know.

“And Roberts?”

“She’ll live.”

“But will she be alright?” I had to swallow hard. It hurt to talk.

“She’ll be alright. Ki was cut up, too, on the arm. Did you know?”

I shook my head and stopped in mid-motion. That hurt, too. “Didn’t see it.”

“Just a few stitches. He’ll be fine.” Dolph plunged his hands in his pants pockets. “We lost three officers. One hurt worse than Roberts, but he’ll make it.”

I stared up at him. “My fault.”

He frowned. “How do you figure that?”

“I should have guessed,” I had to swallow, “it wasn’t an ordinary zombie.”

“It was a zombie, Anna. You were right. You were the one who figured out it was hiding in one of those damn trash cans.” He grinned down at me. “And you nearly died killing it. I think you’ve done your part.”

“Didn’t kill it. Exterminators killed it.” Big words seemed to hurt more than little words.

“Do you remember what happened as you were passing out?”

“No.”

“You… did something to its face. Blew its damn brains out the back of its head. You went limp. I thought you were dead. God”–he shook his head–“don’t ever do that to me again.”

I smiled. “I’ll try not to.”

“When its brains started leaking out the back of its head, it stood up. You took all the fight out of it.”

Zerbrowski pushed into the small space, leaving the curtain gaping behind him. I could see a small boy with a bloody hand crying into a woman’s shoulder. Dolph swept the curtain closed. I bet Zerbrowski was one of those people who never shut a drawer.

“You are such a bad ass, Blake.”

“Somebody has to be with you around, Zerbrow. . .” I couldn’t finish his name. It hurt. It figures.

“Are you in pain?” Dolph asked.

I nodded, carefully. “The doc’s getting me painkiller. Already got tetanus booster.”

“You’ve got a necklace of bruises blossoming on that pale neck of yours,” Zerbrowski said.

“Poetic,” I said.

He shrugged.

“I’ll check in on the rest of the injured one more time, then I’ll have a uniform drive you back to your place,” Dolph said.

“Thanks.”

“I don’t think you’re in any condition to drive.”

Maybe he was right. I felt like shit, but it was happy shit. We’d done it. We’d solved the crime, and people were going to jail for it. Yippee.

The doctor came back in with the painkillers. He glanced at the two policemen. “Right.” He handed me a bottle with three pills in it. “This should see you through the night and into the next day. I’d call in sick if I were you.” He glanced at Dolph as he said it. “You hear that, boss?”

Dolph sort of frowned. “I’m not her boss.”

“You’re the man in charge, right?” the doctor asked.

Dolph nodded.

“Then…”

“I’m on loan,” I said.

“Loan?”

“You might say we borrowed her from another department,” Zerbrowski said.

The doctor nodded. “Then tell her superior to let her off tomorrow. She may not look as hurt as the others, but she’s had a nasty shock. She’s very lucky there was no permanent damage.”

“She doesn’t have a superior,” Zerbrowski said, “but we’ll tell her boss.” He grinned at the doctor.

I frowned at Zerbrowski.

“Well, then, you’re free to go. Watch those scratches for infection. And that bite on your shoulder.” He shook his head. “You cops earn your money.” With that parting wisdom, he left.

Zerbrowski laughed. “Wouldn’t do for the doc to know we’d let a civie get messed up.”

“She’s had a nasty shock,” Dolph said.

“Very nasty,” Zerbrowski said.

They started laughing.

I sat up carefully, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. “If you two are through yukking it up, I need a ride home.”

They were both laughing so hard that tears were creeping out of their eyes. It hadn’t been that funny, but I understood. For tension release laughter beats the hell out of tears. I didn’t join them because I suspected strongly that laughing would hurt.

“I’ll drive you home,” Zerbrowski gasped between giggles.

I had to smile. Seeing Dolph and Zerbrowski giggling was enough to make anyone smile.

“No, no,” Dolph said. “You two in a car alone. Only one of you would come out alive.”

“And it’d be me,” I said.

Zerbrowski nodded. “Ain’t it the truth.”

Nice to know there was one subject we agreed on.

…………………………………………………………………….

It took me two tries to put the key in the door lock. I staggered into my apartment, leaning my forehead against the door to close it. I turned the lock and was safe. I was home. I was alive. The killer zombie was destroyed. I had the urge to giggle, but that was the pain medication. I never giggle on my own.

I stood there leaning the top of my head against the door. I was staring at the toes of my Nikes. They seemed very far away, as if distances had grown since last I looked at my feet. The doc had given me some weird shit. I would not take it tomorrow. It was too reality-altering for my taste.

The toes of black boots stepped up beside my Nikes. Why were there boots in my apartment? I started to turn around. I started to go for my knife. Too late, too slow, too fucking bad.

Strong brown arms laced across my chest, pinning my arms. Pinning me against the door. I tried to struggle now that it was too late. But he had me. I craned my neck backwards trying to fight off the damn medication. I should have been terrified. Adrenaline pumping, but some drugs don’t give a shit if you need your body. You belong to the drug until it wears off, period. I was going to hurt the doctor. If I lived through this.

It was Bruno pinning me to the door.

Tommy came up on the right. He had a needle in his hands.

“NO!”

Bruno cupped his hand over my mouth. I tried to bite him, and he slapped me. The slap helped a little but the world was still cotton-coated, distant. Bruno’s hand smelled like after-shave. A choking sweetness.

“This is almost too easy,” Tommy said.

“Just do it,” Bruno said.

I stared at the needle as it came closer to my arm. I would have told them that I was drugged already, if Bruno’s hand hadn’t been clasped over my mouth. I would have asked what was in the syringe, and whether it would react badly with what I had already taken. I never got the chance.

The needle plunged in. My body stiffened, struggling, but Bruno held me tight. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t get away. Dammit! Dammit! The adrenaline was finally chasing the cobwebs away, but it was too late. Tommy took the needle out of my arm and said, “Sorry, we don’t have any alcohol to swab it off with.” He grinned at me.

I hated him. I hated them both. And if the shot didn’t kill me, I was going to kill them both. For scaring me. For making me feel helpless. For catching me unaware, drugged, and stupid. If I lived through this mistake, I wouldn’t make it again. Please, dear God, let me live through this mistake.

Bruno held me motionless and mute until I could feel the injection taking hold. I was sleepy. With a bad guy holding me against my will, I was sleepy. I tried to fight it, but it didn’t work. My eyelids fluttered. I struggled to keep them open. I stopped trying to get away from Bruno and put everything I had into not closing my eyes.

I stared at my door and tried to stay awake. The door swam in dizzying ripples as if I were seeing it through water. My eyelids went down, jerked up, down. I couldn’t open my eyes. A small part of me fell screaming into the dark, but the rest of me felt loose and sleepy and strangely safe

………………………………………………………………………………………………

I was in that faint edge of wakefulness. Where you know you’re not quite asleep, but don’t really want to wake up either. My body felt heavy. My head throbbed. And my throat was sore.

The last thought made me open my eyes. I was staring at a white ceiling. Brown water marks traced the paint like spilled coffee. I wasn’t home. Where was I?

I remembered Bruno holding me down. The needle. I sat up then. The world swam in clear waves of color. I fell back onto the bed, covering my eyes with my hands. That helped a little. What had they given me?

I had an image in my mind that I wasn’t alone. Somewhere in that dizzying swirl of color had been a person. Hadn’t there? I opened my eyes slower this time. I was content to stare up at the water-ruined ceiling. I was on a large bed. Two pillows, sheets, a blanket. I turned my head carefully and found myself staring into Harold Gaynor’s face. He was sitting beside the bed. It wasn’t what I wanted to wake up to.

Behind him, leaning against a battered chest of drawers was Bruno. His shoulder holster cut black lines across his blue short-sleeved dress shirt. There was a matching and equally scarred vanity table near the foot of the bed. The vanity sat between two high windows. They were boarded with new, sweet-smelling lumber. The scent of pine rode the hot, still air.

I started to sweat as soon as I realized that there was no air-conditioning.

“How are you feeling, Ms. Blake?” Gaynor asked. His voice was still that jolly Santa voice with an edge of sibilance. As if he were a very happy snake.

“I’ve felt better,” I said.

“I’m sure you have. You have been asleep for over twenty-four hours. Did you know that?”

Was he lying? Why would he lie about how long I’d been asleep? What would it gain him? Nothing. Truth then, probably.

“What the hell did you give me?”

Bruno eased himself away from the wall. He looked almost embarrassed. “We didn’t realize you’d already taken a sedative.”

“Painkiller,” I said.

He shrugged. “Same difference when you mix it with Thorazine.”

“You shot me up with animal tranquilizers?”

“Now, now, Ms. Blake, they use it in mental institutions, as well. Not just animals,” Gaynor said.

“Gee,” I said, “that makes me feel a lot better.”

He smiled broadly. “If you feel good enough to trade witty repartee, then you’re well enough to get up.”

Witty repartee? But he was probably right. Truthfully, I was surprised I wasn’t tied up. Glad of it, but surprised.

I sat up much slower than last time. The room only tilted the tiniest bit, before settling into an upright position. I took a deep breath, and it hurt. I put a hand to my throat. It hurt to touch the skin.

“Who gave you those awful bruises?” Gaynor asked.

Lie or truth? Partial lie. “I was helping the police catch a bad guy. He got a little out of hand.”

“What happened to this bad guy?” Bruno asked.

“He’s dead now,” I said.

Something flickered across Bruno’s face. Too quick to read. Respect maybe. Naw.

“You know why I’ve had you brought here, don’t you?”

“To raise a zombie for you,” I said.

“To raise a very old zombie for me, yes.”

“My mother refused your offer twice. What makes you think I’ll be any different?”

He smiled, such a jolly old elf. “Why, Ms. Blake, I’ll have Bruno and Tommy persuade you of the error of your ways. I was planning on giving your mother a million dollars to raise this zombie. The price hasn’t changed.”

“I thought you where going to give her a million five,” I said.

“That was if you came voluntarily. We can’t pay full price when you force us to take such chances.”

“Like a federal prison term for kidnapping,” I said.

“Exactly. Your stubbornness has cost you five hundred thousand dollars. Was it really worth that?”

“I won’t kill another human being just so you can go looking for lost treasure.”

“Little Wanda has been bearing tales.”

“I was just guessing, Gaynor. I read a file on you and it mentioned your obsession with your father’s family.” It was an outright lie. Only Wanda had known that.

“I’m afraid it’s too late. I know Wanda talked to you. She’s confessed everything.”

Confessed? I stared at him, trying to read his blankly good humored face. “What do you mean, confessed?”

“I mean I gave her to Tommy for questioning. He’s not the artist that Cicely is, but he does leave more behind. I didn’t want to kill my little Wanda.”

“Where is she now?”

“Do you care what happens to a whore?” His eyes were bright and birdlike as he stared at me. He was judging me, my reactions.

“She doesn’t mean anything to me,” I said. I hoped my face was as bland as my words. Right now they weren’t going to kill her. If they thought they could use her to hurt me, they might.

“Are you sure?”

“Listen, I haven’t been sleeping with her. She’s just a chippie with a very bent angle.”

He smiled at that. “What can we do to convince you to raise this zombie for me?”

“I will not commit murder for you, Gaynor. I don’t like you that much,” I said.

He sighed. His apple-cheeked face looked like a sad Kewpie doll. “You are going to make this difficult, aren’t you, Ms. Blake?”

“I don’t know how to make it easy,” I said. I put my back to the cracked wooden headboard of the bed. I was comfortable enough, but I still felt a little fuzzy around the edges. But it was as good as it was going to get for a while. It beat the hell out of being unconscious.

“We have not really hurt you yet,” Gaynor said. “The reaction of the Thorazine with whatever other medication you had in you was accidental. We did not harm you on purpose.”

I could argue with that, but I decided not to. “So where do we go from here?”

“We have all your knifes,” Gaynor said. “Without a weapon you are a small woman in the care of big, strong men.”

I smiled then. “I’m used to being the smallest kid on the block, Harry.”

He looked pained. “Harold or Gaynor, never Harry.”

I shrugged. “Fine.”

“You are not in the least intimidated that we have you completely at our mercy?”

“I could argue that point.”

He glanced up at Bruno. “Such confidence, where does she get it?”

Bruno didn’t say anything. He just stared at me with those empty doll eyes. Bodyguard eyes, watchful, suspicious, and blank all at the same time.

Dominga Salvador stepped through the door. “Buenas noches, chica. ”

“How did you get out of jail?” Better to deal with more mundane problems first. The mind-melting ones could wait for later.

“I made my bail,” she said.

“This quickly on a murder involving witchcraft?”

“Voodoo is not witchcraft,” she said.

“The law sees it as the same thing when it comes to murder.”

She shrugged, then smiled beatifically. She was the Mexican grandmother of my nightmares.

“You’ve got a judge in your pocket,” I said.

“Many people fear me, chica. You should be one of them.”

“You helped Peter Burke raise the zombie for Gaynor.”

She just smiled.

“Why didn’t you just raise it yourself?” I asked.

“I didn’t want someone as unscrupulous as Gaynor to witness me murdering someone. He might use it for blackmail.”

“And he didn’t realize that you had to kill someone for Peter’s gris-gris?”

“Correct,” she said.

“You hid all your horrors here?”

“Not all. You forced me to destroy much of my work, but this I saved. You can see why.” She caressed a hand down the slimy hide.

I shuddered. Just the thought of touching that monstrosity was enough to make my skin cold. And yet . . .

“How did you make it?” I had to know.

“Surely, you can animate bits and pieces of the dead,” Dominga said.

I could, but no one else I had ever met could do it. “Yes,” I said.

“I found I could take these odds and ends and meld them together.”

I stared at the shambling thing. “Meld them?” The thought was too horrible.

“I can create new creatures that have never existed before.”

“You make monsters,” I said.

“Believe what you will, chica, but I am here to persuade you to raise the dead for Gaynor.”

“Why don’t you do it?”

Gaynor’s voice came from just behind us. I whirled, putting the wall at my back so I could watch everybody. What good that would do me, I wasn’t sure. “Dominga’s power went wrong once. This is my last chance. The last known grave. I won’t risk it on her.”

Dominga’s eyes narrowed, her age-thinned hands forming fists. She didn’t like being dismissed out of hand. Couldn’t say I blamed her.

“She could do it, Gaynor, easier than I could.”

“If I truly believed that, I would kill you because I wouldn’t need you anymore.”

Hmm, good point.

“I told you ordinary methods of persuasion will not work on her,” Dominga said.

I stared past her at the slathering monster. She called this ordinary?

“What do you propose?” Gaynor asked.

“A spell of compulsion. She will do as I bid, but it takes time to do such a spell for one as powerful as she. If she knew any voodoo to speak of, it would not work at all. But for all her art, she is but a baby in voodoo.”

“How long will you need?”

“Two hours, no more.”

“This had better work,” Gaynor said.

“Do not threaten me,” Dominga said.

Oh, goody, maybe the bad guys would fight and kill each other.

“I am paying you enough money to set up your own small country. I should get results for that.”

Dominga nodded her head. “You pay well, that is true. I will not fail you. If I can compel Anna to kill another person, then I can compel her to help me in my zombie business. She will help me rebuild what she forced me to destroy. It has a certain irony, no?”

Gaynor smiled like a demented elf. “I like it.”

“Well, I don’t,” I said.

He frowned at me. “You will do as you are told. You have been very naughty.”

Naughty? Me?

Bruno had worked himself close to us. He was leaning heavily on the wall, but his gun was very steadily pointed at the center of my chest. “I’d like to kill you now,” he said. His voice sounded raw with pain.

………………………………………………………………………………..

Dominga had told me to raise the dead, and I would do just that.

But what he didn’t know was that I didn’t need to kill to do it. I called my power. It felt like my skin was going to crawl off on its own. I shoved the power flowing through me into the ground. But not just into the grave in the circle. I had too much power for just one grave. Too much power for just a handful of graves. I felt the power spreading outward like ripples in a pool. Out and out, until the power was spread thick and clean over the ground. Every grave that I had walked for Dolph. Every grave but the ones with ghosts. Because that was a type of soul magic.

I felt each grave, each corpse. I felt them coalesce from dust and bone fragments to things that were barely dead at all.

“Arise from your graves all dead within sound of my call. Arise and serve me!” Without naming them all I shouldn’t have been able to call a single one from the grave, but I was more that an animator.

They rose upward like swimmers through water. The ground rippled underfoot like a horse’s skin.

“What are you doing?” Dominga asked.

“Raising the dead,” I said. Maybe it showed in my voice. Maybe she felt it. Whatever, she started running towards the circle, but it was too late.

Hands tore through the earth at Dominga’s feet. Dead hands grabbed her ankles and sent her sprawling into the long grass. I lost sight of her but I didn’t lose control of the zombies. I told them, “Kill her, kill her.”

The grass shuddered and surged like water. The sound of muscles pulling away from bone in wet thick pieces filled the night. Bones broke with sharp cracks. Over the sounds of tearing flesh, Dominga shrieked.

There was one last wet sound, thick and full. Dominga’s screams broke off abruptly. I felt the dead hands tearing out her throat. Her blood splattered the grass like a black sprinkler.

The power had me. I was riding it like a bird on a current of air. It held me, lifted me. It felt solid and insubstantial as air.

The dry sunken earth cracked open over Gaynor’s ancestor’s grave. A pale hand shot skyward. A second hand came through the crack. The zombie tore the dry earth. I heard other old graves breaking in the still, summer night. It broke its way out of his grave, just like Gaynor had wanted.

Gaynor sat in his wheelchair on the crest of the hill. He was surrounded by the dead. Dozens of zombies in various stages of decay crowded close to him. But I hadn’t given the order yet. They wouldn’t hurt him unless I told them to.

“Ask him where the treasure is,” Gaynor shouted.

I stared at him and every zombie turned with my eyes and stared at him, too. He didn’t understand. Gaynor was like a lot of people with money. They mistake money for power. It isn’t the same thing at all.

“Kill the man Harold Gaynor.” I said it loud enough to carry on the still air.

“I’ll give you a million dollars for having raised him. Whether I find the treasure or not,” Gaynor said.

“I don’t want your money, Gaynor,” I said.

The zombies were moving in on every side, slow, hands extended, like every horror movie you’ve ever seen. Sometimes Hollywood is accurate, whatta ya know.

“Two million, three million!” His voice was breaking with fear. He’d had a better seat for Dominga’s death than I had. He knew what was coming. “Four million!”

“Not enough,” I said.

“How much?” he shouted. “Name your price!” I couldn’t see him now. The zombies hid him from view.

“No money, Gaynor, just you dead, that’s enough.”

He started screaming, wordlessly. I felt the hands begin to rip at him. Teeth to tear.

Wanda grabbed my legs. “Don’t, don’t hurt him. Please!”

I just stared at her. I was remembering Benjamin Reynolds’s blood-coated teddy bear, the tiny hand with that stupid plastic ring on it, the blood-soaked bedroom, the baby blanket. “He deserves to die,” I said. My voice sounded separate from me, distant and echoing. It didn’t sound like me at all.

“You can’t just murder him,” Wanda said.

“Watch me,” I said.

She tried to climb my body, but her legs betrayed her and she fell in a heap at my feet, sobbing.

I didn’t understand how Wanda could beg for his life after what he had done to her. Love, I suppose. In the end she really did love him. And that, perhaps, was the saddest thing of all.

When Gaynor died, I knew it. When pieces of him stained almost every hand and mouth of the dead, they stopped. They turned to me, waiting for new orders. The power was still buoying me up. I wasn’t tired. Was there enough to lay them all to rest? I hoped so.

“Go back, all of you, go back to your graves. Rest in the quiet earth. Go back, go back.”

They stirred like a wind had blown through them, then one by one they went back to their graves. They lay down on the hard dry earth and the graves just swallowed them whole. It was like magic quicksand. The earth shuddered underfoot like a sleeper moving to a more comfortable position.

The first light of dawn passed like milk on the eastern sky. The wind died with the light. Wanda knelt in the bloody grass, crying. I knelt beside her.

She jerked back at my touch. I guess I couldn’t blame her, but it bothered me anyway.

“We have to get out of here. You need a doctor,” I said.

She stared up at me. “What are you?”

I wouldn’t answer that question. Human didn’t seem to cover it, and my past was to difficult to explain. “I’m an animator,” I said finally.

She just kept staring at me. I wouldn’t have believed me either. But she let me help her up. I guess that was something.

But she kept looking at me out of the edge of her eyes. Wanda considered me one of the monsters. She may have been right.

Wanda gasped, eyes wide.

I turned, too slowly. Was it the monster?

Jean-Claude stepped out of the shadows.

I didn’t breathe for a moment. It was so unexpected.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Your power called to me, ma petite. No dead in the city could fail to feel your power tonight. And I am the city, so I came to investigate.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I saw you kill the men. I saw you raise the graveyard.”

“Did it ever occur to you to help me?”

“You did not need any help.” He smiled, barely visible in the moonlight. “Besides, would it not have been tempting to rend me to pieces, as well?”

“You can’t possibly be afraid of me,” I said.

He spread his hands wide.

“You’re afraid of your human servant? Little ol’ moi?”

“Not afraid, ma petite, but cautious.”

He was afraid of me. I didn’t know why but that hurt me deeply.

I carried Wanda down the hill. She wouldn’t let Jean-Claude touch her. A choice of monsters.

……………………………………………………………………………………….

Dominga Salvador missed her court date. Fancy that. Dolph had searched for me that night, after he discovered that Dominga had made bail. He had found my apartment empty. My answers about where I had gone didn’t satisfy him, but he let it go. What else could he do?

They found Gaynor’s wheelchair, but no trace of him. It’s one of those mysteries to tell around campfires. The empty, blood-coated wheelchair in the middle of the cemetery. They did find body parts in the caretaker’s house: animal and human. Only Dominga’s power had held the thing together. When she died, it died. Thank goodness. Theory was that the monster got Gaynor. Where the monster came from no one seemed to know. I was called in to explain the body parts, that’s how the police knew they’d once been attached.

Irving wanted to know what I really knew about Gaynor’s vanishing act. I just smiled and played inscrutable. Irving didn’t believe me, but all he had were suspicions. Suspicions aren’t a news story.

Wanda is waiting tables downtown. Jean-Claude offered her a job at The Laughing Corpse. She declined, not politely. She’d saved quite a bit of money from her “business.” I don’t know if she’ll make it or not, but with Gaynor gone, she seems free to try. She was a junkie whose drug of choice was dead. It was better than rehab.

Jean-Claude sent me a dozen white roses in the hospital. The card read, “Come to the ballet with me. Not as my servant, but as my guest.”

I did go to the ballet, but not as a date. As much as I hate to admit it I might actual like Jean-Claude, the Master of the City.

———–

Part 2
If your going to be bad,

be bad with purpose,

otherwise your just not worth forgiving.

-The Vampire Diaries on the CW, Season 4 episode 12

Damon Salvatore

———-

Chapter 12
A vampire victim. I’d never seen a lone kill. They were like potato chips; once the vamp tasted them, he couldn’t stop at just one. The trick was, how many people would die before we caught this one?

I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to drive to Arnold. I didn’t want to stare at dead bodies before breakfast. I wanted to go home. But somehow I didn’t think Dolph would understand. Police have very little sense of humor when they’re working on a murder case. Come to think of it, neither did I

………………………………………………………………………………………

“There are only supposed to be two master vampires in St. Louis right now. Malcolm, the undead Billy Graham, and the Master of the City. There’s always the possibility we’ve got someone new in town, but the Master of the City should be able to police that.”

“We’ll take the head of the Church of Eternal Life,” Dolph said.

“I’ll take the Master,” I said.

“Take one of us with you for backup.”

I shook my head. “Can’t; if he knew I let the cops know who he was, he’d kill us both.”

“How dangerous is it for you to do this?” Dolph asked.

What was I supposed to say? Very? Or did I tell them the Master had the hots for me, so I’d probably be okay? Neither. “I’ll be all right.”

He stared at me, eyes very serious.

“Besides, what choice do we have?” I motioned at the corpse. “We’ll get one of these a night until we find the vampires responsible. One of us has to talk to the Master. He won’t talk to police, but he will talk to me.”

Dolph took a deep breath and let it out. He nodded. He knew I was right. “When can you do it?”

“Tomorrow night, if I can talk Bert into giving my zombie appointments to someone else.”

“You’re that sure the Master will talk to you?”

“Yeah.” The problem with Jean-Claude was not getting to see him, it was avoiding him. But Dolph didn’t know that, and if he did, he might have insisted on going with me. And gotten us both killed.

“Do it,” he said. “Let me know what you find out.”

“Will do,” I said. I stood up, facing him over the bloodless corpse.

“Watch your back,” he said.

“Always.”
…………………………………………………………………………………..

I pulled into my apartment complex at nearly one in the afternoon. All I wanted was a quick shower and seven hours of sleep. I had given up on eight hours; it was too late in the day for that. I had to see Jean-Claude tonight. Joy. But he was the Master Vampire of the City. If there was another master vampire around, he’d know it. I think they can smell each other. Of course, if Jean-Claude had committed the murder, he wasn’t likely to confess. But I didn’t really believe he’d done it. He was much too good a business vampire to get messy. He was the only master vampire I’d ever met who wasn’t crazy in some way: psychotic, or sociopath, take your pick.

All right, all right, Malcolm wasn’t crazy, but I didn’t approve of his methods. He headed up the fastest-growing church in America today. The Church of Eternal Life offered exactly that. No leap of faith, no uncertainty, just a guarantee. You could become a vampire and live forever, unless someone like me killed you, or you got caught in a fire, or hit by a bus. I wasn’t sure about the bus part, but I’d always wondered. Surely there must be something massive enough to damage even a vampire was beyond healing. I hoped someday to test the theory.

I climbed the stairs slowly. My body felt heavy. My eyes burned with the need to sleep. It was three days before Halloween, and the month couldn’t end too soon for me. Business would start dropping off before Thanksgiving. The decline would continue until after New Year’s, then it’d start picking up. I prayed for a freak snowstorm. Business drops off if the snow is bad. People seem to think we can’t raise the dead in deep snow. We can, but don’t tell anyone. I need the break.

I dialed the number for Guilty Pleasures. It was a vampire strip joint. Chippendale’s with fangs. Jean-Claude owned and managed it. Jean-Claude’s voice came over the line, soft as silk, caressing down my spine even though I knew it was a recording. “You have reached Guilty Pleasures. I would love to make your darkest fantasy come true. Leave a message, and I will get back to you.”

I waited for the beep. “Jean-Claude, this is Anna. I need to see you tonight. It’s important. Call me back with a time and place.” I gave him my home number, then hesitated, listening to the tape scratch. “Thanks.” I hung up, and that was that.

He’d either call back or he wouldn’t. He probably would. The question was, did I want him to? No. No, I didn’t, but for the police, for all those poor people who would die, I had to try. But for me personally, going to the Master was not a good idea.

Jean-Claude had marked me twice already. Two more marks and I would be his human servant. Did I mention that neither mark was voluntary? His servant for eternity. Didn’t sound like a good idea to me. He seemed to lust after my body, too, but that was secondary. I could have handled it if all he wanted was physical, but he had made a choice that had cost me people I loved.

I had managed to avoid him for the last two months. Now I was willingly putting myself within reach again. Stupid. But I remembered the nameless man’s hair, soft and mingling with the still-green lawn. The fang marks, the paper-white skin, the fragility of his nude body covered with dew. There would be more bodies to look at, unless we were quick. And quick meant Jean-Claude.

Visions of vampire victims danced in my head. And every one of them was partially my fault, because I was too chickenshit to go see the Master. If I could stop the killings now, with just one dead, I’d risk my soul daily. Guilt is a wonderful motivator.

………………………………………………………………………………………

I formed the metal in my hands with strong smooth strokes. The moon hung huge and shining and there was a black fringe of trees. I placed the newly formed metal on the ground. It was of a figue of a man and a woman dancing. “What do I do now, Daddy?” I asked.

“Bring it to life.”

………………………………………………………………………………………

I woke instantly, gasping for breath. Eyes searching the darkness for… what? My long lost father?

The phone shrilled, and I had to swallow a scream. I wasn’t usually this nervous. It was just a nightmare. Just a dream.

I fumbled for the receiver and managed, “Yeah.”

“Anna?” The voice sounded hesitant, as if its owner might hang up.

“Who is this?”

“It’s Willie, Willie McCoy.” Even as he said the name, the rhythm of the voice sounded familiar. The phone made it distant and charged with an electric hiss, but I recognized it.

“Willie, how are you?” The minute I said it, I wished I hadn’t. Willie was a vampire now; how okay could a dead man be?

“I’m doing real well.” His voice had a happy lilt to it. He was pleased that I asked.

I sighed. Truth was, I liked Willie. I wasn’t supposed to like vampires. Any vampire, not even if I’d known him when he was alive.

“How ya doing yourself?”

“Okay, what’s up?”

“Jean-Claude got your message. He says ta meet him at the Circus of the Damned at eight o’clock tonight.”

“The Circus? What’s he doing over there?”

“He owns it now. Ya didn’t know?”

I shook my head, realized he couldn’t see it, and said, “No, I didn’t.”

“He says to meet ‘im in a show that starts at eight.”

“Which show?”

“He said you’d know which one.”

“Well, isn’t that cryptic,” I said.

“Hey, Anna, I just do what I’m told. Ya know how it is?”

I did know. Jean-Claude owned Willie lock, stock, and soul. “It’s okay, Willie, it’s not your fault.”

“Thanks, Anna.” His voice sounded cheerful, like a puppy who expected a kick and got patted instead.

Why had I comforted him? Why did I care whether a vampire got its feelings hurt, or not? Answer: I didn’t think of him as a dead man. He was still Willie McCoy with his penchant for loud primary-colored suits, clashing ties, and small, nervous hands. Being dead hadn’t changed him that much. I wished it had.

“Tell Jean-Claude I’ll be there.”

“I will.” He was quiet for a minute, his breath soft over the phone. “Watch your back tonight, Anna.”

“Do you know something I should know?”

“No, but… I don’t know.”

“What’s up, Willie?”

“Nuthin’, nuthin’.” His voice was high and frightened.

“Am I walking into a trap, Willie?”

“No, no, nuthin’ like that.” I could almost see his small hands waving in the air. “I swear, Anna, nobody’s gunnin’ for you.”

I let that go. Nobody he knew of was all he could swear to. “Then what are you afraid of, Willie?”

“It’s just that there’s more vampires around here than usual. Some of em ain’t too careful who they hurt. That’s all.”

“Why are there more vampires, Willie? Where did they come from?”

“I don’t know and I don’t want to know, ya know? I got ta go, Anna.” He hung up before I could ask anything else. There had been real fear in his voice. Fear for me, or for himself? Maybe both.

I glanced at the radio clock on my bedstand: 6:35. I had to hurry if I was going to make the appointment. The covers were toasty warm over my legs. All I really wanted to do was cuddle back under the blankets, maybe with a certain stuffed toy panda I knew. Yeah, hiding sounded good.

I threw back the covers and walked into the bathroom. I hit the light switch, and glowing white light filled the small room. My hair stuck up in all directions, a mass of tight black curls. That’d teach me not to sleep on it wet. I ran a brush through the curls and they loosened slightly, turning into a frothing mass of waves. The curls went all over the place and there wasn’t a thing I could do with it except wash it and start over. There wasn’t time for that.

The black hair made my pale skin look deathly, or maybe it was the overhead lighting. My eyes were a light green, they looked like jade.

What do you wear to meet the Master of the City? I chose black jeans, a black sweater, black Nikes with blue swooshes, and a blue-and-black sport bag clipped around my waist. Color coordination at its best.

I put extra knives in the sport bag along with credit cards, driver’s license, money, and a small hairbrush. I slipped on the short leather jacket I’d bought last year. It was the first one I’d ever tried on that didn’t make me took like a gorilla. Most leather jackets were so long-sleeved, I could never wear them. The jacket was black, so Bert wouldn’t let me wear it to work.

I only zipped the jacket halfway up, leaving room so I could go for my knives if I needed to. The silver cross swung on its long chain, a warm, solid weight between my breasts. The cross would be more help against vampires than the knives, even with silver-coated bullets.

I hesitated at the door. I hadn’t seen Jean-Claude in months. I didn’t want to see him now, did I?

I flicked off the apartment lights and closed the door behind me. I rattled it to make sure it was locked, and I had nothing left to do but drive to the Circus of the Damned. No more excuses. No more delays. My stomach was so tight it hurt. So I was afraid; so what? I had to go, and the sooner I left, the sooner I could come home. If only I believed that Jean-Claude would make things that simple. Nothing was ever simple where he was concerned. If I learned anything about the murders tonight, I’d pay for it, but not in money. Jean-Claude seemed to have plenty of that. No, his coin was more painful, more intimate, more bloody.

And I had volunteered to go see him. Stupid, Anna, very stupid.

…………………………………………………………………………..

There was a bouquet of spotlights on the top of the Circus of the Damned. The lights slashed the black night like swords. The multicolored lights that spelled the name seemed dimmer with the huge white lights whirling overhead. Demonic clowns danced around the sign in frozen pantomime. The last time I’d been here, I had wacthed my mother die, again.

I walked past the huge cloth signs that covered the walls. One picture showed a man that had no skin; See the Skinless Man. A movie version of a voodoo ceremony covered another banner. Zombies writhed from open graves. The zombie banner had changed since last I’d visited the Circus. I didn’t know if that was good or bad; probably neither. I didn’t give a damn what they did here, except… Except it wasn’t right to raise the dead just for entertainment.

Who did they have raising zombies for them? I knew it had to be someone new because I had helped kill their last animator. He had been a serial killer and had nearly killed me twice, the second time by ghoul attack, which was a messy way to die. Of course, the way he died had been messy, too, but I wasn’t the one who ripped him open. A vampire had done that. You might say I eased him on his way. A mercy killing. Ri-ight.

It was too cold to be standing outside with my jacket half-unzipped. But if I zipped it all the way, I’d never get to my knife out in time. Freeze my butt off, or be able to defend myself. The clowns on the roof had fangs. I decided it wasn’t that cold after all.

Heat and noise poured out to meet me at the door. Hundreds of bodies pressed together in an enclosed space. The noise of the crowd was like the ocean, murmurous and large, sound without meaning. A crowd is an elemental thing. A word, a glance, and a crowd becomes a mob. A different being entirely from a group.

There were a lot of families. Mom, Dad, the kiddies. The children had balloons tied to their wrists and cotton candy smeared on their faces and hands. It smelled like a traveling carnival: corn dogs, the cinnamon smell of funnel cakes, snow cones, sweat. The only thing missing was the dust. There was always dust in the air at a summer fair. Dry, choking dust kicked into the air by hundreds of feet. Cars driving over the grass until it is grey-coated with dust.

There was no smell of dirt in the air, but there was something else just as singular. The smell of blood. So faint you’d almost think you dreamed it, but it was there. The sweet copper scent of blood mingled with the smells of cooking food and the sharp smell of a snow cone being made. Who needed dust?

I was hungry, and the corn dogs smelled good. Should I eat first or accuse the Master of the City of murder? Choices, choices.

I didn’t get to decide. A man stepped out of the crowd. He was only a little taller than me, with curly blond hair that fell past his shoulders. He was wearing a cornflower-blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing firm, muscular forearms. Jeans no tighter than the skin on a grape showed slender hips. He wore black cowboy boots with blue designs tooled into them. His true-blue eyes matched his shirt.

He smiled, flashing small white teeth. “You’re Anna Blake, right?”

I didn’t know what to say. It isn’t always a good idea to admit who you are.

“Jean-Claude told me to wait for you.” His voice was soft, hesitant. There was something about him, an almost childlike appeal. Besides I’m a sucker for a pair of pretty eyes.

“What’s your name?” I asked. Always like to know who I’m dealing with.

His smile widened. “Stephen; my name is Stephen.” He put out his hand, and I took it. His hand was soft but firm, no manual labor but some weightlifting. Not too much. Enough to firm, not explode. Men my size should not do serious weightlifting. It may look okay in a bathing suit, but in regular clothes you took like a deformed dwarf.

“Follow me, please.” He sounded like a waiter, but when he walked into the crowd, I followed him.

He led the way towards a huge blue tent. It was like an old-fashioned circus tent. I’d only seen one in pictures or the movies.

There was a man in a striped coat yelling, “Almost showtime, folks! Present your tickets and come inside! See the world’s largest cobra! Watch the fearsome serpent be taken through amazing feats by the beautiful snake charmer Shahar. We guarantee it will be a show you will never forget.”

There was a line of people giving their tickets to a young woman. She tore them in half and handed back the stubs.

Stephen walked confidently along the line without waiting. We got some dirty looks, but the girl nodded to us. And in we went.

Tiers of bleachers ran up to the top of the tent. It was huge. Nearly all the seats were full. A sold-out show. Wowee.

There was a blue rail that formed a circle in the middle. A one-ring circus.

Stephen scooted past the knees of about a dozen people to a set of steps. Since we were at the bottom, up was the only way to go. I followed Stephen up the concrete stairs. The tent may have looked like a circus tent, but the bleachers and stairs were permanent. A mini-coliseum.

I have bad knees, which means that I can run on a flat surface but put me on a hill, or stairs. and it hurts. So I didn’t try to keep up with Stephen’s smooth, running glide.

I unzipped the leather jacket but didn’t take it off. My knives would show. Sweat glided down my spine. I was going to melt.

Stephen glanced over his shoulder to see if I was following, or maybe for encouragement. He flashed a smile that was just lips curling back from teeth, almost a snarl.

I stopped in the middle of the steps, watching his lithe form glide upward. There was an energy to Stephen as if the air boiled invisibly around him. A shapeshifter. Some lycanthropes are better than others at hiding what they are. Stephen wasn’t that good. Or maybe he just didn’t care if I knew. Possible.

Lycanthropy was a disease, like AIDS. It was prejudice to mistrust someone for an accident. Most people survived attacks to become shapeshifters. It wasn’t a choice.

He waited at the top of the stairs, still pretty as a picture, but the air of energy contained in too small a space, like his motor was on high idle, shimmered around him. What was Jean-Claude doing with a shapeshifter on his payroll? Maybe I could ask him.

I stepped up beside Stephen. There must have been something in my face, because he said, “What’s wrong?”

I shook my head. “Nothing.”

I don’t think he believed me. But he smiled and led me towards a booth that was mostly glass with heavy curtains on the inside hiding whatever lay behind. It looked for all the world like a miniature broadcast booth.

Stephen went to the curtained door and opened it. He held it for me, motioning me to go first.

“No, you first,” I said.

“I’m being a gentleman here,” he said.

“I don’t need or want doors opened for me. I’m quite capable, thank you.”

“A feminist, my, my.”

Truthfully, I just didn’t want ol’ Stephen at my back. But if he wanted to think I was a hard-core feminist, let him. It was closer to the truth than a lot of things.

He walked through the door. I glanced back to the ring. It looked smaller from up here. Muscular men dressed in glittering loincloths pulled a cart in on their bare shoulders. There were two things in the cart: a huge woven basket and a dark-skinned woman. She was dressed in Hollywood’s version of a dancing girl’s outfit. Her thick black hair fell like a cloak, sweeping to her ankles. Slender arms, small, dark hands swept the air in graceful curves. She danced in front of the cart. The costume was fake, but she wasn’t. She knew how to dance, not for seduction, though it was that, but for power. Dancing was originally an invocation to some god or other; most people forget that.

Goosebumps prickled up the back of my neck, creeping into my hair. I shivered while I stood there and sweated in the heat. What was in the basket? The barker outside had said a giant cobra, but there was no snake in the world that needed a basket that big. Not even the anaconda, the world’s heaviest snake, needed a container over ten feet tall and twenty feet wide.

Something touched my shoulder. I jumped and spun. Stephen was standing nearly touching me, smiling.

I swallowed my pulse back into my throat and glared at him. I make a big deal about not wanting him at my back, then let him sneak up behind me. Real swift, Anna, real swift. Because he’d scared me, I was mad at him. Illogical, but it was better to be mad than scared.

“Jean-Claude’s just inside,” he said. He smiled, but there was a very human glint of laughter in his blue eyes.

I scowled at him, knowing I was being childish, and not caring. “After you, fur-face.”

The laughter slipped away. He was very serious as he stared at me. “How did you know?” His voice was uncertain, fragile. A lot of lycanthropes pride themselves on being able to pass for human.

“It was easy,” I said.

His face suddenly looked very young. His eyes filled with uncertainty and pain.

Dang it.

“Look, I’ve spent a lot of time around shapeshifters. I just know what to look for, okay?” Why did I want to reassure him? Because I knew what it was like to be the outsider. Raising the dead makes a lot of people class me with the monsters. There are even days when I agree with them.

He was still staring at me, with his hurt feelings like an open wound in his eyes. If he started to cry, I was leaving.

He turned without another word and walked through the open door. I stared at the door for a minute. There were gasps, screams from the crowd. I whirled and saw it. It was a snake, but it wasn’t just the world’s biggest cobra, it was the biggest freaking snake I’d ever seen. Its body was banded in dull greyish black and off-white. The scales gleamed under the lights. The head was at least a foot and a half wide. No snake was that big. It flared its hood, and it was the size of a satellite dish. The snake hissed, flicking out a tongue that was like a black whip.

If the snake had been a mere eight feet or less, I would have called it a banded Egyptian cobra. I couldn’t remember the scientific name to save myself.

The woman dropped to the ground in front of the snake, forehead to the ground. A mark of obedience from her to the snake. To her god. Sweet Jesus.

The woman stood and began to dance, and the cobra watched her. She’d made herself a living flute for the nearsighted creature to follow. I didn’t want to see what would happen if she messed up. The poison wouldn’t have time to kill her. The fangs were so damn big they’d spear her like swords. She’d die of shock and blood loss long before the poison kicked in.

Something was growing in the middle of that ring. Magic crawled up my spine. Was it magic that kept the snake safe, or magic that called it up, or was it the snake itself? Did it have power all its own? I didn’t even know what to call it. It looked like a cobra, perhaps the world’s biggest, yet I didn’t even have a word for it. God with a little “g” would do, but it wasn’t accurate.

I shook my head and turned away. I didn’t want to see the show. I didn’t want to stand there with its magic flowing soft and cold over my skin. If the snake wasn’t safe, Jean-Claude would have had it caged, right? Right.

I turned away from the snake charmer and the world’s biggest cobra. I wanted to talk to Jean-Claude and get the hell out of here.

The open door was filled with darkness. Vampires didn’t need lights. Niether did lycanthropes. My jacket was unzipped all the way, the better for a fast draw. Though truthfully, if I needed a fast draw tonight, I was in deep shit.

I took a deep breath and let it out. No sense putting it off. I walked through the door into the waiting darkness without looking back. I didn’t want to see what was happening in the ring. Truth was, I didn’t want to see what was behind the darkness. Was there another choice? Probably not.

———

Chapter 13
The room was like a closet with drapes all the way around. There was no one in the curtained darkness but me. Where had Stephen gone? If he had been a vampire, I would have believed the vanishing act, but lycanthropes don’t just turn into thin air. So, there had to be a second door.

If I had built this room, where would I put an inner door? Answer: opposite the first door. I swept the drapes aside. The door was there. Elementary, my dear Watson.

The door was heavy wood with some flowering vine carved into it. The doorknob was white with tiny pink flowers in the center of it. It was an awfully feminine door. Of course, no rules against men liking flowers. None at all. It was a sexist comment. Forget I thought it.

I did not draw my knife. See, I’m not completely paranoid.

I turned the doorknob and swung the door inward. I kept pushing until it was flush against the wall. No one was hiding behind it. Good.

The wallpaper was off-white with thin silver, gold, and copper designs running through it. The effect was vaguely oriental. The carpeting was black. I didn’t even know carpet came in that color. A canopy bed took up most of one side of the room. Black, gauzy curtains covered it. Made the bed indistinct, misty, like a dream. There was someone asleep in a nest of black covers and crimson sheets. A line of bare chest showed it was a man, but a wave of brown hair covered his face like a shroud. It all looked faintly unreal, as if he was waiting for movie cameras to roll.

A black couch was against the far wall, with blood-red pillows thrown along it. A matching love seat was against the last wall. Stephen was curled up on the love seat. Jean-Claude sat on one corner of the couch. He wore black jeans tucked into knee-high leather boots, dyed a deep, almost velvet black. His shirt had a high lace collar pinned at the neck by a thumb-size ruby pendant. His black hair was just long enough to curl around the lace.

The sleeves were loose and billowing, tight at the wrists with lace spilling over his hands until only his fingertips showed.

“Where do you get your shirts?” I asked.

He smiled. “Don’t you like it?” His hands caressed down his chest, fingertips hesitating over his nipples. It was an invitation. I could touch that smooth white cloth and see if the lace was as soft as it looked.

I shook my head. Mustn’t get distracted. I glanced at Jean-Claude. He was staring at me with those midnight blue eyes. His eyelashes were like black lace.

“She wants you, Master,” Stephen said. There was laughter in his voice, derision. “I can smell her desire.”

Jean-Claude turned just his head, staring at Stephen. “As can I.” The words were innocent, but the feeling behind them wasn’t. His voice slithered around the room, low and full of a terrible promise.

“I meant no harm, Master, no harm.” Stephen looked scared. I didn’t blame him.

Jean-Claude turned back to me as if nothing had happened. His face was still pleasantly handsome, interested, amused.

“I don’t need your protection.”

“Oh, I think you do.”

I whirled and found another vampire standing at my back. I had heard the door open.

She smiled at me, without flashing fang. A trick that the older vampires learn. She was tall and slender with dark skin and long ebony hair that swung around her waist. She wore crimson Lycra bike pants that clung so tight, you knew she wasn’t wearing underwear. Her top was red silk, loose and blousy, with thin spaghetti straps holding it in place. It looked like the top to slinky pajamas. Red high-heeled sandals and a thin gold chain set with a single diamond completed the outfit. The word that came to mind was “exotic.” She glided towards me, smiling.

“Is that a threat?” I asked.

She stopped in front of me. “Not yet.” There was a hint of some other language in her voice. Something darker with rolling, sibilant sounds.

“That is enough,” Jean-Claude said.

The dark lady twirled around, black hair like a veil behind her. “I don’t think so.”

“Yasmeen.” The one word was low and dark with warning.

Yasmeen laughed, a harsh sound like breaking glass. She stopped directly in front of me, blocking my view of Jean-Claude. Her hand stretched towards me, and I stepped back, out of reach.

She smiled wide enough to show fangs and reached for me again. I stepped back, and she was suddenly on me, faster than I could blink, but not faster than I could move. My knife was at her throat as her hand gripped my hair, bending my neck backwards. Her fingertips brushed my skull. Her other hand held my chin, fingers digging in like fleshy metal. My face was immobile between her hands.

“You bite me, and I’ll slit your throat.” I warned her

I can feel how old a vampire is inside my head. It’s part natural ability, and part practice. Yasmeen was old, older than Jean-Claude. I was betting she was over five hundred, but over five hundred and a master vampire, it might not kill her. Or then again, it might.

Something flickered over her face; surprise, and maybe just a touch of fear. Her body was statue-still. If she was breathing, I couldn’t tell.

My voice sounded strained from the angle she held my neck, but the words were clear. “Very slowly, take your hands away from my face. Put both hands on top of your head and lace your fingers together.”

“Jean-Claude, call off your human.”

“I’d do what she says, Yasmeen.” His voice was pleased. “How many vampires have you killed now, Anna?”

“Eighteen.”

Yasmeen’s eyes widened just a bit. “I don’t believe you.”

“Believe this: I’ll put this knife in your skull and you can kiss your brain good-bye.”

“Knives cannot harm me.”

“Silver-plated can. Move off me, now!”

Yasmeen’s hand slid away from my hair and jaw.

“Slowly,” I said.

She did what I asked. She stood in front of me with her long-fingered hands clasped across her head. I stepped away from her.

“Now what?” Yasmeen asked. A smile still curled her lips. Her dark eyes were amused. I didn’t like being laughed at, but when tangling with master vampires you let some things slide.

“You can put your hands down,” I said.

Yasmeen did, but she continued to stare at me as if I’d sprouted a second head. “Where did you find her, Jean-Claude? The kitten has teeth.”

“Tell Yasmeen what the vampires call you, Anna.”

It sounded too much like an order, but this didn’t seem the time to bitch at him. “The Shadow of the Executioner.”

Yasmeen’s eyes widened; then she smiled, flashing a lot of fang. “I thought you’d be taller.”

“It disappoints me, too, sometimes,” I said.

Yasmeen threw back her head and laughed, wild and brittle, with an edge of hysteria. “I like her, Jean-Claude. She’s dangerous, like sleeping with a lion.”

She glided towards me. I had the knife up and pointed at her. It didn’t even slow her down.

“Jean-Claude, tell her I will hurt her if she doesn’t back off.”

“I promise not to hurt you, Anna. I will be oh so gentle.” She swayed over to me, and I wasn’t sure what to do. She was playing with me, sadistic but probably not deadly. Could I hurt her for being a pain in the ass? I didn’t think so.

“I can taste the heat of your blood, the warmth of your skin on the air like perfume.” Her gliding, hip-swinging walk brought her right in front of me. I pointed the knife at her, and she laughed. She pressed her chest against the tip of my blade.

“So soft, wet, but strong.” I wasn’t sure who she was talking about, her or me. Neither option sounded pleasant. She rubbed her small breasts against the knife, her nipples caressing the gun barrel. “Dainty, but dangerous.” The last word was a whispered hiss that flowed over my skin like ice water. She was the first master I’d ever met who had some of Jean-Claude’s voice tricks.

I could see her nipples hardening through the thin material of her shirt. Yikes. I pointed the knife at the floor and stepped away from her. “Jesus, are all vampires over two hundred perverts?”

“I am over two hundred,” Jean-Claude said.

“I rest my case.”

Yasmeen let a warm trickle of laughter spill out of her mouth. The sound caressed my skin like a warm wind. She stalked towards me. I backed up until I hit the wall. She put a hand on either side of the wall near my shoulders and began to lean in like she was doing a pushup. “I’d like to taste her myself.”

I shoved the gun into her ribs, too low for her to rub herself against it. “Nobody lays a fang on me,” I said.

“Tough girl.” She leaned her face over me, lips brushing my forehead. “I like tough girls.”

“Jean-Claude, do something with her before one of us gets killed.”

Yasmeen pushed away from me, elbows locked, as far away as she could get without moving her hands. Her tongue flicked over her lips, a hint of fang, but mostly wet lips. She leaned back into me, lips half-parted, but she wasn’t going for my neck. She was definitely going for my mouth. She didn’t want to taste me, she wanted to taste me. I couldn’t shoot her, not if she just wanted to kiss me. If she’d been a man, I wouldn’t have shot her.

Her hair fell forward over my hands, soft like thick silk. Her face was all I could see. Her eyes were a perfect blackness. Her lips hovered just above my mouth. Her breath was warm, and smelled of breath mints, but under the modern smell was something older: the sweet foulness of blood.

“Your breath smells like old blood,” I whispered into her mouth.

She whispered back, lips barely caressing my mouth, “I know.” Her lips pressed into mine, a gentle kiss. She smiled with our lips still touching.

The door opened, nearly pinning us to the wall. Yasmeen stood up, but kept her hands around my shoulders. We both looked at the door. A woman with nearly white blond hair looked wildly around the room. Her blue eyes widened as she saw us. She screamed, high and wordless, rage-filled.

“Get off of her!”

I frowned up at Yasmeen. “Is she talking to me?”

“Yes.” Yasmeen looked amused.

The woman did not. She ran towards us, hands outstretched, fingers curled into claws. Yasmeen caught her in a blurring moment of pure speed. The woman thrashed and struggled, her hands still reaching for me.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked.

“Marguerite is Yasmeen’s human servant,” Jean-Claude said. “She thinks you may steal Yasmeen away from her.”

“I don’t want Yasmeen.”

Yasmeen shot me a look of pure anger. Had I hurt her feelings? I hoped so.

“Marguerite, look; she’s yours, all right?”

The woman screamed at me, wordless and guttural. What might have been a pretty face was screwed up into something bestial. I’d never seen such instant rage. It was frightening even with a loaded gun in my hand.

Yasmeen had to lift the woman off her feet, holding her struggling in mid-air. “I’m afraid, Jean-Claude, that Marguerite is not going to be satisfied unless she answers the challenge.”

“What challenge?” I asked.

“You challenged her claim to me.”

“Did not,” I said.

Yasmeen smiled. The serpent must have smiled at Eve that way: pleasant, amused, dangerous.

“Jean-Claude, I didn’t come here for whatever the hell is going on. I don’t want any vampire, let alone a female one,” I said.

“If you were my human servant, ma petite, there would be no challenge, because once one is bound to a master vampire, it is an unbreakable bond.”

“Then what is Marguerite worried about?”

“That Yasmeen may take you as a lover. She does that from time to time to drive Marguerite into jealous rages. For some reason I do not understand, Yasmeen enjoys it.”

“Oh, yes, I do enjoy it.” Yasmeen turned towards me with the woman still clasped in her arms. She was holding the struggling woman easily, no strain. Of course, vampires can bench press Toyotas. What was one medium-size human to that?

“So what exactly does this mean to me personally?”

Jean-Claude smiled, but there was an edge of tiredness to it. Was he bored? Or angry? Or just tired? “You must fight Marguerite. If you win, then Yasmeen is yours. If you lose, Yasmeen is Marguerite’s.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What sort of fight, pistols at dawn?”

“No weapons,” Yasmeen said. “My Marguerite is not skilled in weapons. I don’t want her hurt.”

“Then stop tormenting her,” I said.

Yasmeen smiled. “It is part of the fun.”

“Sadistic,” I said.

“Yes, I am.”

Jesus, some people you couldn’t even insult. “So you want us to fight bare-handed over Yasmeen?” I couldn’t believe I was even asking this question.

“Yes, ma petite.”

I took a deep breath, looked at my knife, looked back at the screaming woman, then holstered my gun. “Is there any way out of this, besides fighting her?”

“If you admit you are my human servant, then there will be no fight. There will be no need for one.” Jean-Claude was watching me, studying my face. His eyes were very still.

“You mean this was a setup,” I said. The first warm rumblings of anger chased up my gut.

“A setup, ma petite? I had no idea Yasmeen would find you so enticing.”

“Liar!”

“Admit you are my human servant and all ends here.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you fight Marguerite.”

“Fine,” I said. ” I, Anna Kathirena Blake, am the human servant of Jean-Claude, Master of the City of St.Louis. Happy on?”

Jean-Claude smiled like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. “You have no idea how happy, ma petite.”

———–

Chapter 14
The door swung open, banging against the wall and bouncing back. A man stood in the doorway, eyes wide, sweat running down his face. “Jean-Claude… the snake.” He seemed to be having trouble breathing, as if he had run all the way up the stairs.

“What about the snake?” Jean-Claude asked.

The man swallowed, his breathing slowing. “It’s gone crazy.”

“What happened?”

The man shook his head. “I don’t know. It attacked Shahar, its trainer. She’s dead.”

“Is it in the crowd?”

“Not yet.”

“We will have to finish this discussion later, ma petite.” He moved for the door, and the rest of the vampires followed at his heels. Stephen went with them. Well trained.

The slender black woman slipped a loose dress, black with red flowers on it, over her head. A pair of red high heels and she was out the door.

The man was out of the bed, naked. There was no time to be embarrassed. He was struggling into a pair of sweats.

This wasn’t my problem, but what if the cobra got into the crowd? Not my problem.

I was out the door and into the bright open space of the tent before the nameless man had slipped on his sweat pants. The vampires and shapeshifters were at the edge of the ring, fanning out into a circle around the snake. It filled the small ring with black-and-white coils. The bottom half of a man in a glittering loincloth was disappearing down the cobra’s throat. That’s what had kept it out of the crowd. It was taking time to feed.

Sweet Jesus.

The man’s legs twitched, kicking convulsively. He couldn’t be alive. He couldn’t be. But the legs twitched as they slid out of sight. Please, God, let it just be a reflex. Don’t let him still be alive. The thought was worse than any nightmare I could remember. And I have a lot of material for nightmares.

The monster in the ring wasn’t my problem. I didn’t have to be the bloody hero this time. People were screaming, running, arms full of children. Popcorn bags and cotton candy were getting crushed underfoot. I waded into the crowd and began pushing my way down. A woman carrying a toddler fell at my feet. A man climbed over them. I dragged the woman to her feet, taking the baby in one arm. People shoved past us. We shuddered just trying to stand still. I felt like a rock in the middle of a raging river.

The woman stared at me, eyes too large for her face. I pushed the toddler into her arms and wedged her between the seats. I grabbed the arms of the nearest large male, sexist that I am, and shouted, “Help them!”

The man’s face was startled, as if I had spoken in tongues, but some of the panic faded from his face. He took the woman’s arm and began to push his way towards the exit.

I couldn’t let the snake get into the crowd. Not if I could stop it. Dang it. I was going to play hero. I started fighting against the tide, to go down when everybody else was coming up and over. An elbow caught me in the mouth and I tasted blood. By the time I fought my way through this mess, it would all be over. God, I hoped so.

I stepped out of the crowd like I was flinging aside a curtain. My skin tingled with the memory of shoving bodies, but I stood alone on the last step. The screaming crowd was still up above me, struggling for the exits. But here, just above the ring, there was nothing. The silence lay in thick folds against my face and hands. It was hard to breathe through the thick air. Magic. But whether vampire or cobra, I didn’t know.

Stephen stood closest to me, shirtless, slim and somehow elegant. Yasmeen had on his blue shirt, hiding her naked upper body. She had tied the shirt up to expose a tanned expanse of tummy. Marguerite stood beside her. The black woman stood on Stephen’s right. She had kicked off her high heels and stood flat-footed in the ring.

Jean-Claude stood on the far side of the circle with two new blond vampires on either side. He turned and stared at me across the distance. I felt his touch inside me where no hand was ever meant to go. My throat tightened; sweat broke on my body. Nothing at that moment would have made me go closer to him. He was trying to tell me something. Something private and too intimate for words.

A hoarse scream brought my attention to the center of the ring. Two men lay broken and bleeding to one side. The cobra reared over them. It was like a moving tower of muscle and scale. It hissed at us. The sound was loud, echoing.

The men lay on the ground at its… feet? tail? One of them twitched. Was he alive? My hands squeezed the guardrail until my fingers ached. My skin was cold with it. You ever have those dreams where snakes are everywhere, so thick on the ground you can’t walk unless you step on them? It’s almost claustrophobic. The dream always ends with me standing in the middle of the trees with snakes dripping down on me, and all I can do is scream.

Jean-Claude held out one slender hand towards me. The lace covered everything but the tips of his fingers. Everyone else was staring at the snake. Jean-Claude was staring at me.

One of the wounded men moved. A soft moan escaped his lips and seemed to echo in the huge tent. Was it illusion or had the sound really echoed? It didn’t matter. He was alive, and we had to keep him that way.

We? What was this “we” stuff? I stared into Jean-Claude’s deep blue eyes. His face was utterly blank, wiped clean of any emotion I understood. He couldn’t trick me with his eyes. His own marks had seen to that, but mind tricks–if he worked at it–were still possible. He was working at it.

It wasn’t words, but a compulsion. I wanted to go to him. To run to him. To feel the smooth, solid grip of his hand. The softness of lace against my skin. I leaned against the railing, dizzy. I gripped it to keep from falling. What the heck were these mind games now? We had other problems, didn’t we? Or didn’t he care about the snake? Maybe it had all been a trick. Maybe he had told the cobra to run amuck. But why?

Every hair on my body raised, as if some invisible finger had just brushed it. I shivered and couldn’t stop.

I was staring down at a pair of very nice black boots, high and soft. I looked up and met Jean-Claude’s eyes. He had left his place around the cobra to come to me. It beat the hell out of me going to him.

“Join with me, Anna, and we have enough power to stop the creature.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He brushed his fingertips down my arm. Even through the leather jacket I could feel his touch like a line of ice, or was it fire?

“How can you be hot and cold at the same time?” I asked.

He smiled, a bare movement of lips. “Ma petite, stop fighting me, and we can tame the creature. We can save the men.”

“Once I let you inside my head that far, it’ll be easier for you to come in next time. My soul is not up for grabs for anybody’s life.”

He sighed. “Very well, it is your choice.” He started to turn away from me. I grabbed his arm, and it was warm and firm and very, very real.

He turned to me, eyes large and drowning deep, like the bottom of the ocean, and just as deadly. His own power kept me from falling in; alone I would have been lost.

“Will silver knives hurt it?”

He seemed to think about that for a second. “I do not know.”

I took a deep breath. “If you stop trying to hijack my mind, I’ll help you.”

“You’ll face it with a blade, rather than with me?” His voice sounded amused.

“You got it.”

He stepped away from me and motioned me towards the ring.

I vaulted the rail and landed beside him. I ignored him as much as I was able and started walking towards the creature. I pulled the knives out, three in each hand. They were nice and solid in my hand. A comforting weight.

“The ancient Egyptians worshipped it as a god, ma petite. She was Edjo, the royal serpent. Cared for, sacrificed to, adored.”

“It isn’t a god, Jean-Claude.”

“Are you so sure?”

“I’ve seen gods. It’s just another supernatural creepycrawlie to me.”

“As you like, ma petite.”

I turned back to him. “How the heck did you get it past quarantine?”

He shook his head. “Does it matter?”

I glanced back at the thing in the middle of the ring. The snake charmer lay in a bloody heap to one side of the snake. It hadn’t eaten her. Was that a sign of respect, affection, dumb luck?

The cobra pushed towards us, belly scales clenching and unclenching. It made a dry, whispering sound against the ring’s floor.

He was right; it didn’t matter how the thing had gotten into the country. It was here now. “How are we going to stop it?”

He smiled wide enough to flash fangs. Maybe it was the “we.” “If you could disable its mouth, I think we could deal with it.”

The snake’s body was thicker than a telephone pole. I shook my head. “If you say so.”

“Can you injure the mouth?”

I nodded. “If silver knives work on it, yeah.”

“My little marksman,” he said.

“Can the sarcasm,” I said.

He nodded. “If you are going to try to hit it, I would hurry, ma petite. Once it wades into my people, it will be too late.” His face was unreadable. I couldn’t tell if he wanted me to do it, or not.

I turned and started walking across the ring. The cobra stopped moving forward. It waited, like a swaying tower. It stood there, if something without legs could stand, and waited for me, whiplike tongue flicking out, tasting the air. Tasting me.

Jean-Claude was suddenly beside me. I had heard him come, had felt him come. Just another mind trick. I had other things to worry about right now.

He spoke, low and urgent; I think only I heard. “I will do my best to protect you, ma petite.”

“You were doing a great job up in your office.”

He stopped walking. I didn’t.

“I know you are afraid of it, Anna. Your fear crawls through my belly,” he called, soft and faint as wind.

I whispered back, not sure he would even be able to hear me. “Stay the out of my mind.”

The cobra watched me. I held the knives pointed at the thing’s head. I thought I was out of striking distance, but I wasn’t sure. How far away is safe distance from a snake that’s bigger than a Mack truck? Two states away, three? I was close enough to see the snake’s flat black eyes, empty as a doll’s.

Jean-Claude’s words blew through my mind like flower petals. I could even have sworn I smelled flowers. His voice had never held the scent of perfume before. “Force it to follow you, and give us its back before you throw.”

The pulse in my neck was beating so hard, it hurt to breathe. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow right. I began to move, ever so slowly, away from the vampires and shapeshifters. The snake’s head followed me, as it had followed the snake charmer. If it started to strike, I’d hit it, but if it would just keep moving with me, I’d give Jean-Claude a chance at its back.

Of course, silver knives might not hurt it. I felt like I was trapped in one of those monster movies where the giant slime monster keeps coming no matter how much you hit it. I hoped that was just a Hollywood invention.

If the knives didn’t hurt it, I was going to have to us my power in front of all the vampires.

The tongue flicked out and I gasped. God, Anna, control yourself. It’s just a snake. A giant man-eating cobra snake, but still only a snake. Yeah, right.

Every hair on my body stood at attention. The power that I’d felt the snake charmer calling up was still here. It wasn’t enough that the thing was poisonous and had teeth big enough to spear me with. It had to be magic, too. Great, just great.

The smell of flowers was thicker, closer. It hadn’t been Jean-Claude at all. The cobra was filling the air with perfume. Snakes don’t smell like flowers. They smell musty, and once you know what they smell like, you never forget it. Nothing with fur ever smelled like that. A vampire’s coffin smells a bit like snakes.

The cobra turned its giant head with me. “Come on, just a little farther,” I was speaking to the snake. Which is pretty stupid, since they’re deaf. The smell of flowers was thick and sweet. I shuffled around the ring, and the snake shadowed me. Maybe it was habit. I was small and had long, dark hair, nearly as long as the dead snake charmer. Maybe the beastie wanted someone to follow?

“Come on, pretty girl, come to mama,” I whispered so low my lips barely moved. Just me and the snake and my voice. I didn’t dare look across the ring at Jean-Claude. Nothing mattered but my feet shuffling over the ground, the snake’s movements, the knives in my hands. It was like some kind of dance.

The cobra parted its mouth, tongue flicking, giving me a glimpse of scythelike fangs. Cobras have fixed fangs, not retractable like a rattlesnake’s. Nice to know I remembered some of herpetology.

I had a horrible impulse to giggle. Instead, I sighted down my arm at the thing’s mouth. The scent of flowers was strong enough to touch. I throw the knife.

The snake’s head jerked backwards, blood splattering the floor. I throw again and again. The jaws exploded into bits of flesh and bone. The cobra opened its ruined jaws, hissing. I think it was screaming.

Its telephone-pole body slashed the ground, whipping back and forth. Could I kill it? Could just knives kill it? I throw three more knives into the head. The body turned on itself in a huge wondrous knot. The black and white scales boiled over each other, frenzied, bloodspattered.

A loop of body rolled out and punched my legs out from under me. I came up on knees and one hand, a knife in the other hand ready to throw. Another coil smashed into me. It was like being hit by a whale. I lay half-stunned under several hundred pounds of snake. One striped coil pinned me to the ground. The beast reared over me, blood and pale drops of poison running down its shattered jaws. If the poison hit my skin, it would kill me. There was too much of it not to.

I lay flat on my back with the snake writhing across me and stabbed at it. I just kept stabbing it as the head rushed down on me.

Something hit the snake. Something covered in fur dug teeth and claws into the snake’s neck. It was a werewolf with furry, man-shaped arms. The cobra reared, pressing me under its weight. The smooth belly scales pushed at my nearly naked upper body like a giant hand, squeezing. It wasn’t going to eat me, it was going to crush me to death.

I screamed and stabbed into the snake’s body. The knife got stuck. Frick!

Jean-Claude appeared over me. His pale, lace-covered hands lifted the coil off me as if it wasn’t a thousand pounds of muscle. I scooted backwards on hands and feet. I crab-walked until I hit the edge of the ring, then I got the extra throwing stars out of my sport bag. I didn’t remember using all thirteen knives, but I must have. I a star between each finger, and I was ready to rock and roll.

Jean-Claude was elbow deep in snake. He pulled a piece of glistening spine out of the meat, splitting the snake apart.

Yasmeen was tearing at the giant snake like a kid with taffy. Her face and upper body were bathed in blood. She pulled a long piece of snake intestine out and laughed.

I had never really seen vampires use every bit of their inhuman strength. I sat on the edge of the ring and just watched.

The black shapeshifter was still in human form. She had gotten a knife from somewhere and was happily carving the snake up.

The cobra whipped its head into the ground, sending the werewolf rolling. The snake reared and came smashing down. Its ruined jaws plunged into the black woman’s shoulder. She screamed. One fang came out the back of her dress. Poison squirted from the fang, splashing onto the ground. Poison and blood soaked into the back of her dress.

I moved forward, but I hesitated. The cobra was flinging its head from side to side, trying to shake the woman off. The fang was too deeply imbedded and the mouth too damaged. The cobra was trapped, and so was the woman.

I wasn’t sure I could hit the snake’s head without hitting her. The woman was screaming, shrieking. Her hands clawed helplessly at the snake. She’d dropped her knife somewhere.

A blond vampire grabbed the black woman. The snake reared back, lifting the woman in his jaws, worrying her like a dog with a toy. She shrieked.

The werewolf jumped on the snake’s neck, riding it like a wild horse. There was no way to throw without hitting someone now. Dang it. I had to just stand there, watching.

The man from the bed was running across the ring. Had it taken him that long to slip into the grey sweat pants and zippered jacket? The jacket was unzipped and flapped as he ran, exposing most of his tanned chest. He was unarmed as far as I could tell. What the heck did he think he could do?

He knelt beside the two men who had been alive when all the shit started. He dragged one of them away from the fight. It was good thinking.

Jean-Claude grabbed the woman. He gripped the fang that speared her shoulder and snapped it off. The crack was loud as a rifle shot. The woman’s shoulder stretched away from her body, bones and ligaments snapping. She gave one last shriek and went limp. He carried her towards me, laying her on the ground. Her right arm was hanging by strands of muscle. He had freed her from the snake, and damn near pulled her arm off.

“Help her, ma petite.” He left her at my feet, bleeding and unconscious. I knew some first aid, but Jesus. There was no way to put a tourniquet on the wound. I couldn’t splint the arm. It wasn’t just broken, it was ripped apart.

A breath of wind oozed through the tent. Something tugged at my gut. I gasped and looked up away from the dying girl. Jean-Claude stood beside the snake. All the vampires were tearing at the body, and still it lived. A wind ruffled the lace on his collar, the black waves of his hair. The wind whispered against my face, pulling my heart up into my throat. The only sound I could hear was the thunder of my own blood beating against my ears.

Jean-Claude moved forward almost gently. And I felt something inside me move with him. It was almost like he held an invisible line to my heart. pulse, blood. My pulse was so fast, I couldn’t breathe. What was happening?

He was on the snake, hands digging in the flesh just below the mouth. I felt my hands dig into the writhing flesh. My hands digging at bone, snapping it. My hands shoving in almost to the elbow. It was slick, wet, but not warm. Our hands pushed, then pulled, until our shoulders strained with the effort.

The head tore away to land across the ring. The head flopped, mouth snapping at empty air. The body still struggled, but it was dying now.

I had fallen to the ground beside the wounded woman. The stars was still in my hand, but it wouldn’t have helped me. I could hear again, feel again. My hands weren’t covered in blood and gore. They had been Jean-Claude’s hands, not mine. Dear God, what was happening to me?

I could still feel the blood on my hands. It was an incredibly powerful sensory memory. God!

Something touched my shoulder. I whirled, star nearly shoved into the man’s face. It was the man in the grey sweats. He was kneeling beside me, hands in the air, his eyes staring at the stars in my hands.

“I’m on your side,” he said.

My pulse was still thumping in my throat. I didn’t trust myself to speak, so I just nodded and stopped pointing the stars at him.

He took off his sweat jacket. “Maybe we can stop some of the blood with this.” He wadded the jacket up and shoved it against the wound.

“She’s probably in shock,” I said. My voice sounded strange, hollow.

“You don’t look so good yourself.”

I didn’t feel so good either. Jean-Claude had entered my mind, my body. It had been like we were one person. I started to shiver and couldn’t stop. Maybe it was shock.

“I called the police and an ambulance,” he said.

I stared at him. His face was very strong, high cheekbones, square jaw, but his lips were softer, making it a very sympathetic face. His wavy brown hair fell forward like a curtain around his face. I remembered another man with long brown hair. A human tied to the vampires. He had died badly, and I hadn’t been able to save him. Phillip.

I caught sight of Marguerite on the far side of the ring, watching. Her eyes were wide, her lips half-parted. She was enjoying herself. God.

The werewolf pulled back from the snake. The shapeshifter looked like a very classy version of every wolfman that had ever stalked the streets of London, except it was naked and had genitalia between its legs. Movie wolfmen were always smooth, sexless as a Barbie doll.

The werewolf’s fur was a dark honey color. A blond werewolf? Was it Stephen? If it wasn’t, then he had disappeared, and I didn’t think Jean-Claude would allow that.

A voice yelled, “Everybody freeze”‘ Across the ring were two patrol cops with their guns out. One of them said, “Jesus Christ!”

I put my throwing stars away while they were staring at the dead snake. The body was still twitching, but it was dead. It just takes longer for a reptile’s body to know it’s dead than most mammals.

I felt light and empty as air. Everything had a faintly unreal quality. It wasn’t the snake. It was whatever Jean-Claude had done to me. I shook my head, trying to clear it, to think. The cops were here. I had things I needed to do.

I fished the little plastic ID card out of my sport bag and clipped it to the collar of my jacket. It identified me as a member of the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team. It was almost as good as a badge.

“Let’s go talk to the cops before they start shooting.”

“The snake’s dead,” he said.

The wolfman was tearing at the dead thing with a long pointed muzzle, ripping off chunks of meat. I swallowed hard and looked away. “They may not think the snake is the only monster in the ring.”

“Oh.” He said it very softly, as if the thought had never occurred to him before.

I walked towards the police, smiling. Jean-Claude stood there in the middle of the ring, his white shirt so bloody it clung to him like water, outlining the point of one nipple hard against the cloth. Blood was smeared down one side of his face. His arms were crimson to the elbows. The youngest vampire, a woman, had buried her face in the snake’s blood. She was scooping the bloody meat into her mouth and sucking on it. The sounds were wet and seemed louder than they should have been.

“My name’s Anna Blake. I work with the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team. I’ve got ID.”

“Who’s that with you?” The uniform nodded his head in the man’s direction. His gun was still pointed vaguely towards the ring.

I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, “What is your name?”

“Richard Zeeman,” he said softly.

Out loud I said, “Richard Zeeman, just an innocent bystander.” That last was a lie.

But the uniform nodded. “What about the rest of them?”

I glanced where he was staring. It didn’t look any better. “The manager and some of his people. They waded into the thing to keep it out of the crowd.”

“But they ain’t human, right?” he said.

“No,” I said, “they aren’t human.”

“Jesus H. Christ, the guys back at the station aren’t going to believe this one,” his partner said.

He was probably right. I had been here, and I almost didn’t believe it. A giant man-eating cobra. Jesus H. Christ indeed.

———–

Chapter 15
Richard Zeeman and Stephen were sitting across from me. Richard’s hands were clasped loosely around one knee. He was wearing white Nikes with a blue swoosh, and no socks. Even his ankles were tan. His thick hair brushed the tops of his naked shoulders. His eyes were closed. I could gaze at his muscular upper body as long as I wanted to. His stomach was flat with a triangle of dark hair peeking above the sweat pants. His upper chest was smooth, perfect, no hair at all. I approved.

Stephen was cuddled on the floor, asleep. Bruises blossomed up the left side of his face, black-purple and that raw red color a really bad bruise gets. His left arm was in a sling, but he’d refused to go to the hospital. He was wrapped in a grey blanket that the paramedics had given him. As far as I could tell, it was all he was wearing. He’d lost his clothes when he shapeshifted. The wolfman had been bigger than he was, and the legs had been a very different shape. So the skin-tight jeans and the beautiful cowboy boots were history. Maybe that was why the black shapeshifter had been naked. That had been why Richard Zeeman was naked as well, he a shapeshifter.

He hid it better than anybody I’d ever been around, but I still feel his power. He wasn’t just a shapeshifter like Stephen, Richard Zeeman was an alpha, an extremly powerful lycanthrope. So why didn’t he join the fight against the cobra? He’d done a sensible job, if he was an unarmed human being; he’d stayed out of the way.

Stephen, who had started out the night looking scrumptious, looked like shit. The long, blond curls clung to his face, wet with sweat. There were dark smudges under his closed eyes. His breathing was rapid and shallow. His eyes were struggling underneath his closed lids. Dream? Nightmare?

Richard still looked scrumptious, but then a giant cobra hadn’t been slamming him into a concrete floor. He opened his eyes, as if he had felt me staring at him. He stared back, brown eyes neutral. We stared at each other without saying anything.

His face was all angles, high-sculpted cheekbones, and firm jaw. A dimple softened the lines of his face and made him a little too perfect for my taste. I’ve never been comfortable around men that are beautiful. Low self-esteem, maybe. Or maybe Jean-Claude’s lovely face had made me appreciate the very human quality of imperfection.

“Is he all right?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Stephen.”

He glanced down at the sleeping man. Stephen made a small noise in his sleep, helpless, frightened. Definitely a nightmare.

He glanced up the silent hallway. “Yeah, it’s normal.” He settled back against the wall, bare back searching for a more comfortable piece of wall. He frowned; so much for a comfortable wall.

“I know that a shapeshifter usually stays in animal form for eight to ten hours, then collapses and changes back to human form. It takes a lot of energy to shapeshift early.”

I glanced down at the dreaming shapeshifter. ” I meant the nightmares?”

Stephen moved in his sleep, flinging his good arm outward. The blanket slid off his shoulder, exposing his stomach and part of a thigh.

Richard drew the blanket back over the sleeping man, covering him, like tucking in a child. ” He’ll be fine. Stephen and I have been friends a long time.”

“You are being tactful, ma petite. I would not have thought it of you.” Jean-Claude was in the hallway. I hadn heard him walk up.

“What’s wrong, Jean-Claude?” I asked.

“Wrong? What could possibly be wrong?” Anger and some bitter amusement flowed through his voice.

“Cut it out, Jean-Claude.”

“Whatever could be the matter, ma petite?”

“You’re angry; why?”

“My human servant does not know my every mood. Shameful.” He knelt beside me. The blood on his white shirt had dried to a brownish stain that took up most of the shirt front. The lace at his sleeves looked like crumpled brown flowers. “Do you lust after Richard because he’s handsome, or because he’s human?” His voice was almost a whisper, intimate as if he’d said something entirely different. Jean-Claude whispered better than anyone else I knew.

“He’s not human,”I said and Jean-Claude raised an eyebrow at me.

“Are you sure of that, ma petite?”

I rolled my eyes at him. ” Yes, I’m sure and I don’t lust after him.”

“Come, come, ma petite. No lies.” He leaned towards me, long-fingered hand reaching for my cheek. There was dried blood on his hand.

“You’ve got blood under your fingernails,” I said.

He flinched, his hand squeezing into a fist. Point for my side. “You reject me at every turn. Why do I put up with it?”

“I don’t reject you,” I said, truthfully. “I just can’t forgive you.”

“I am hoping to have you with me forever, ma petite. I would not make the offer if I thought I would be unable to win you back.”

“You never had me to start with,” I said.

His eyes widened a bit. I think it was real surprise. “You are trying to taunt me.”

I shrugged. “Yes, but it’s still the truth. I’m attracted to you, but I don’t love you. We have stimulating conversations, but I don’t go through my day saying ‘I must remember to share that joke with Jean-Claude, or tell him about what happened at work tonight.’ I ignore you when you let me. The only things we have in common are violence and the dead. I don’t think that’s much to base a relationship on.”

“My, aren’t we the philosopher tonight.” His midnight blue eyes were only inches from mine. The eyelashes looked like black lace.

“Just being honest.”

“We wouldn’t want you to be less than honest,” he said. “I know how you despise lies.” He glanced at Richard. “How you despise monsters.”

“I don’t despise monsters. I depise what they do.”

“And what do they do, ma petite, that you yourself have not done?”

“I know what I am, Jean-Claude,” I told him. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re angry with Richard, why”

“Perhaps, Anna, I am realizing that the one thing you want is the one thing I cannot give you.”

“And what do I want?”

“Me to be human,” he said softly.

I shook my head. ” You’re wrong.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Then what do you want, ma petite?” He sounded genuinely surprised.

“You want me, but you took the people I loved away from me, Jean-Claude.” I was starting to cry. “How can I forgive that?”

“You are my human servant, ma petite. It makes our lives complicated.”

“I know.”

“I have marked you, Anna Blake. You are my human servant, and we will be together forever. You will forgive me in time”

“No,” I said. It was a very firm no, but my stomach was tight with the thought that he was right, and I would forgive him.

He stared at me. His eyes were as normal as they ever got, dark, blue, lovely. “If you had not been my human servant, I could not have defeated the snake god so easily.”

“You mind-raped me, Jean-Claude. I don’t care why you did it.”

A look of distaste spread across his face. “If you choose the word rape, then you know that I am not guilty of that particular crime. Nikolaos forced herself on your mother. She tore at her mind, ma petite. If you had not carried two of my marks, she would have destroyed you both.”

Anger was bubbling up from my gut, spreading up my back and into my arms. I had this horrible urge to hit him. “Don’t talk about her! She died because of the mark YOU gave her!”

“My need was great tonight, Anna. Many people would have died if the creature had not been stopped. I drew power where I could find it.”

“From me.”

“Yes, you are my human servant. Just by being near me, you increase my power. You know that.”

I had known that, but I hadn’t known he could channel power through me like an amplifier. “I know I’m some sort of witch’s familiar for you.”

“If you would allow the last two marks, it would be more than that. It would be a marriage of flesh, blood, and spirit.”

“You got her killed,” I said.

He made an exasperated sound low in his throat. “You are insufferable.” He sounded genuinely angry. Goody.

“Don’t you ever force your way into my mind again.”

“Or what?” The words were a challenge, angry, confused.

I was on my knees beside him nearly spitting into his face. I had to stop and take a few deep breaths to keep from screaming at him. I spoke very calmly, low and angry. “If you ever touch me like that again, I will hurt you.”

“You will try.” His face was nearly pressed against mine. As if when he inhaled, he would bring me to him. Our lips would touch. I remembered how soft his lips were. How it felt to be pressed against his chest. The roughness of his cross-shaped burn under my fingers. I jerked back, and felt almost dizzy.

It had only been one kiss, but the memory of it burned along my body like every bad romance novel you’d ever read. “Leave me alone!” I hissed it in his face, hands balled into fists. “I hate you! I hate you!”

The office door opened, and a uniformed officer stuck his head out. “There a problem out here?”

We turned and stared at him. I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what was wrong, but Jean-Claude spoke first. “No problem, officer.”

It was a lie, but what was the truth? That I had two vampire marks on me and blamed Jean-Claude for the death of my mother and my first love.

The officer was looking at us, waiting. I shook my head. “Nothing’s wrong, officer. It’s just late. Could you ask Sergeant Storr if I can go home now?”

“What’s the name?”

“Anna Blake.”

“Storr’s pet animator?”

I sighed. “Yeah, that Anna Blake.”

“I’ll ask.” The uniform stared at the three of us for a minute. “You got anything to add to this?” He was speaking to Richard.

“No.”

The uniform nodded. “Okay, but keep whatever isn’t happening to a dull roar.”

“Of course. Always glad to cooperate with the police,” Jean-Claude said.

He nodded his thanks and went back into the office. We were left kneeling in the hallway. The shapeshifter was still asleep on the floor. His breathing made a quiet noise that didn’t so much fill the silence as emphasize it. Richard was motionless, dark eyes staring at Jean-Claude. I was suddenly very aware that Jean-Claude and I were only inches apart. I could feel the line of his body like warmth against my skin. His eyes flicked from my face down my body.

Goosebumps rolled up my arms and down my chest. My nipples hardened as if he had touched them. My stomach clenched with a need that had nothing to do with blood.

“Stop it!”

“I am doing nothing, ma petite. It is your own desire that rolls over your skin, not mine.”

I swallowed and had to look away from him. Okay, I lusted after him. Great, fine, it didn’t mean a thing. Ri-ight. I scooted away from him, putting my back to the wall, not looking at him as I spoke. “I came here tonight for information, not to play footsie with the Master of the City.”

Richard was just sitting there, meeting my eyes. There was no embarrassment, just interest, as if he didn’t know quite what I was. It wasn’t an unfriendly look.

“Footsie,” Jean-Claude said. I didn’t need to see his face to hear the smile in his voice.

“You know what I mean.”

“I’ve never heard it called ‘footsie’ before.”

“Stop doing that.”

“What?”

I glared at him, but his eyes were sparkling with laughter. A slow smile touched his lips. He looked very human just then.

“What did you want to discuss, ma petite? It must be something very important to make you come near me voluntarily.”

I searched his face for mockery, or anger, or anything, but his face was as smooth and pleasant as carved marble. The smile, the sparkling humor in his eyes, was like a mask. I had no way of telling what lay underneath. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to know.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly through my mouth. “Alright. Where were you last night?” I looked at his face, trying to catch any change of expression.

“Here,” he said.

“All night?”

He smiled. “Yes.”

“Can you prove it?”

The smile widened. “Do I need to?”

“Maybe,” I said.

He shook his head. “Coyness, from you, ma petite. It does not become you.”

So much for being slick and trying to pull information from the Master. “Are you sure you want this discussed in public?”

“You mean Richard?”

“Yes.”

“Richard and I have no secrets from one another, ma petite. He is my human hands and eyes, since you refuse to be.”

“He’s not human,” I said. “And this isn’t a game, Jean-Claude. People died tonight.”

“Believe me, ma petite, whether you take the last marks and become my servant in more than name is no game to me.”

“There was a murder last night,” I said. Maybe if I concentrated just on the crime, on my job, I could avoid the verbal pitfalls.

“And?” he prompted.

“It was a vampire victim.”

“Ah,” he said, “my part in this becomes clear.”

“I’m glad you find it funny,” I said.

“Dying from vampire bites is only temporarily fatal, ma petite. Wait until the third night when the victim rises, then question him.” The humor died from his eyes. “What is it that you are not telling me?”

“The police found at least five different bite radiuses on the victim.”

Something flickered behind his eyes. I wasn’t sure what, but it was real emotion. Surprise, fear, guilt? Something.

“So you are looking for a rogue master vampire.”

“Yep. Know any?”

He laughed. His whole face lit up from the inside, as if someone had lit a candle behind his skin. In one wild moment he was so beautiful, it made my chest ache. But it wasn’t a beauty that made me want to touch it. I remembered a Bengal tiger that I’d seen once in a zoo. It was big enough to ride on like a pony. Its fur was orange, black, cream, oyster-shell white. Its eyes were gold. The heavy paws wider than my outspread hand paced, paced, back and forth, back and forth, until it had worn a path in the dirt. Some genius had put one barred wall so close to the fence that held back the crowd, I could have reached through and touched the tiger easily. I had to ball my hands into fists and shove them in my pockets to keep from reaching through those bars and petting that tiger. It was so close, so beautiful, so wild, so… tempting.

I hugged my knees to my chest, hands clasped tight together. The tiger would have taken my hand off, and yet there was that small part of me that regretted not reaching through the bars. I watched Jean-Claude’s face, felt his laughter like velvet running down my spine. Would part of me always wonder what it would have been like if I had just said yes? Probably. But I could live with it.

He was staring at me, the laughter dying from his eyes like the last bit of light seeping from the sky. “What are you thinking, ma petite?”

“Can’t you read my mind?” I asked.

“You know I cannot.”

“I don’t know anything about you, Jean-Claude, not a thing.”

“You know more about me than anyone else in the city.”

“Yasmeen included?”

He lowered his eyes, almost embarrassed. “We are very old friends.”

“How old?”

He met my eyes, but his face was empty, blank. “Old enough.”

“That’s not an answer,” I said.

“No,” he said, “it is an evasion.”

So he wasn’t going to answer my question; what else was new? “Are there any other master vampires in town besides you, Malcolm, and Yasmeen?”

He shook his head. “Not to my knowledge.”

I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“You’re the Master of the City. You’re supposed to know.”

“Things are a little unsettled, ma petite.”

“Explain that.”

He shrugged, and even in the bloodstained shirt it looked graceful. “Normally, as Master of the City, all other lesser master vampires would need my permission to stay in the city, but”–he shrugged again–“there are those who think I am not strong enough to hold the city.”

“You’ve been challenged?”

“Let us just say I am expecting to be challenged.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The other masters were afraid of Nikolaos,” he said.

“And they’re not afraid of you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Unfortunately, no.”

“Why not?”

“They are not as easily impressed as you are, ma petite.”

I started to say I wasn’t impressed, but it wasn’t true. Jean-Claude could smell it when I lied, so why bother?

“So there could be another master in the city without your knowledge.”

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t you sort of sense each other?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not.”

“Thanks for clearing that up.”

He rubbed fingertips across his forehead as if he had a headache. Did vampires get headaches? “I cannot tell you what I do not know.”

“Would the…” I groped for a word, and couldn’t find one–“more mundane vampires be able to kill someone without your permission?”

“Mundane?”

“Just answer the question.”

“Yes, they could.”

“Would five vampires hunt in a pack without a master vampire to referee?”

He nodded. “Very nice choice of word, ma petite, and the answer is no. We are solitary hunters, given a choice.”

I nodded. “So either you, Malcolm, Yasmeen, or some mysterious master is behind it.”

“Not Yasmeen. She is not strong enough.”

“Okay, then you, Malcolm, or a mysterious master.”

“Do you really think I have gone rogue?” He was smiling at me, but his eyes held something more serious. Did it matter to him what I thought of him? I hoped not.

“I don’t know.”

“You would confront me, thinking I might be insane? How indiscreet of you.”

“If you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t have asked the question,” I said.

“Very true.”

The office door opened. Dolph came out, notebook in hand. “You can go home, Anna. I’ll check the statements with you tomorrow.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

“Heh, I know where you live.” He smiled.

I smiled back. “Thanks, Dolph.” I stood up.

Jean-Claude stood in one smooth motion like he was a puppet pulled up by invisible strings. Richard stood slower, using the wall to stand, as if he were stiff. Standing, Richard was taller than Jean-Claude by at least three inches. Which made Richard six-one. Almost too tall for my taste, but no one was asking me.

“And could we talk to you some more, Jean-Claude?” Dolph said.

Jean-Claude said, “Of course, detective.” He walked down the hall. There was a stiffness in the way he moved. Did vampires bruise? Had he been hurt in the fight? Did it matter? No, no, it didn’t. In a way Jean-Claude was right; if he had been human, even an egotistical son of a bitch, there might have been possibilities. I’m not prejudiced, but God help me, the man has to at least be alive. Walking corpses, no matter how pretty, are just not my cup of tea. Dolph held the door for Jean-Claude.

Dolph looked back at us. “You’re free to go, too, Mr. Zeeman.”

“What about my friend Stephen?”

Dolph glanced at the sleeping shapeshifter. “Take him home. Let him sleep it off. I’ll talk to him tomorrow.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Make that later today.”

“I’ll tell Stephen when he wakes up.”

Dolph nodded and closed the door. We were alone in the buzzing silence of the hallway. Of course, maybe it was just my own ears buzzing.

“Now what?” Richard said.

“Go home,” I said.

“Rashida drove.”

I frowned. “Who?”

“The other shapeshifter, the woman whose arm was torn up.”

I nodded. “Take Stephen’s car.”

“Rashida drove us both.”

I shook my head. “So you’re stranded.”

“Looks that way.”

“You could call a cab,” I said.

“No money.” He almost smiled.

“Fine; I’ll drive you home.”

“And Stephen?”

“And Stephen,” I said. I was smiling and I didn’t know why, but it was better than crying.

“You don’t even know where I live. It could be Kansas City.”

“If it’s a ten-hour drive, you’re on your own,” I said. “But if it’s reasonable, I’ll drive you.”

“Is Meramec Heights reasonable?”

“Sure.”

“Let me get the rest of my clothes,” he asked.

“You look fully dressed to me,” I said.

“I’ve got a coat around here somewhere.”

“I’ll wait here,” I said.

“You’ll watch Stephen?” Something like fear crossed his face, filled his eyes.

“What are you afraid of?” I asked.

“Airplanes, guns, large predators, and master vampires.”

“I agree with two out of four,” I said.

“I’ll go get my coat.”

I slid down to sit beside the sleeping werewolf. “We’ll be waiting.”

“Then I’ll hurry.” He smiled when he said it. He had a very nice smile.

Richard came back wearing a long black coat. It looked like real leather. It flapped like a cape around his bare chest. I liked the way the leather framed his chest. He buttoned the coat and tied the leather belt tight. The black leather went with the long hair and handsome face; the grey sweats and Nikes did not. He knelt and picked Stephen up in his arms, then stood. The leather creaked as his upper arms strained. Stephen was my height and probably didn’t weigh twenty pounds more than I did. Petite. Richard carried him like he wasn’t heavy.

“My, my, grandmother, what strong arms you have.”

“Is my line, ‘The better to hold you with, my dear’?” He was looking at me very steadily.

I felt heat creeping up my face. I hadn’t meant to flirt, not on purpose. “You want a ride, or not?” My voice was rough, angry with embarrassment.

“I want a ride,” he said quietly.

“Then can the sarcasm.”

“I wasn’t being sarcastic.”

I stared up at him. His eyes were perfectly brown like chocolate. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. A tactic I should probably use more often.

I turned and walked away, fishing my car keys out as I moved. Richard followed behind. Stephen snuffled against his chest, pulling the blanket close in his sleep.

“Is your car very far?”

“A few blocks; why?”

“Stephen isn’t dressed for the cold.”

I frowned at him. “What, you want me to drive the car around and pick you up?”

“That would be very nice,” he said.

I opened my mouth to say no, then closed it. The thin blanket wasn’t much protection, and some of Stephen’s injuries were from saving my life. I could drive the car around.

I satisfied myself with grumbling under my breath, “I can’t believe I’m a door-to-door taxi for werewolves.”

Richard either didn’t hear me, or chose to ignore it. Smart, handsome,, what more could I ask for? Give me a minute and I’d think of something.

———–

Chapter 16
The car rode in its own tunnel of darkness. The headlights were a moving circle of light. The October night closed behind the car like a door.

Stephen was asleep in the back seat of my Nova. Richard sat in the passenger seat, half-turned in his seat belt to look at me. It was just polite to look at someone when you talk to them. But I felt at a disadvantage because I had to watch the road. All he had to do was stare at me.

“So…. What do you do for a living?” I aksed.

He said, “I teach science at a local junior high.”

I just stared at him. “You’re a junior high science teacher?”

“Yes.” He was smiling. “You looked shocked.”

Maybe because your teaching kids only a few years younger than me? I shook my head. “What’s a school teacher doing with werewolves?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

I had to smile. “That doesn’t explain how you got lycanthropes.”

“It wasn’t supose to,” He said.

Okay touchie subject.

“What do you do in your spare time?” Richard asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t have spare time.”

“Hobbies?”

“I don’t think I have any of those, either.”

“You must do something besides kill large snakes,” he said.

I smiled and glanced at him. He leaned towards me as much as the seat belt would allow. He was smiling, too, but there was something in his eyes, or his posture, that said he was serious. Interested in what I would say.

“I’m an animator,” I said.

He clasped his hands together, left elbow propped on the back of the seat. “Okay, when you’re not raising the dead, what do you do?”

“Work on preternatural crimes with the police, mostly murders.”

“And?” he said.

“And I execute rogue vampires.”

“And?”

“And nothing,” I said. I glanced at him again. In the dark I couldn’t see his eyes, their color was too dark for that, but I could feel his gaze. Probably imagination. Yeah. I’d been hanging around Jean-Claude too long. The smell of Richard’s leather coat mingled with a faint whiff of his cologne. Something expensive and sweet. It went very nicely with the smell of leather.

“I used to do art. Painting, drawing, sculpting, anything I could do with my hands.I don’t do that much anymore.” I shrugged. “What do you do when you’re not teaching?”

“Scuba diving, caving, bird watching, gardening, astronomy.” His smile was a dim whiteness in the near dark.

“You must have a lot more free time than I do.”

“Actually, the teacher always has more homework than the students,” he said.

“Sorry to hear that.”

He shrugged, the leather creaked and slithered over his skin. Good leather always moved like it was still alive.

“Do you watch TV?” he asked.

“My television broke two years ago, and I never replaced it.”

“You must do something for fun.”

I thought about it. “I collect toy pandas.” The minute I said it, I wished I hadn’t.

He grinned at me. “Now we’re getting somewhere. The Shadow of the Executioner collects stuffed toys. I like it.”

“Glad to hear it.” My voice sounded grumpy even to me.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“I’m not very good at small talk,” I said.

“You were doing fine.”

No, I wasn’t, but I wasn’t sure how to explain it to him. I didn’t like talking about myself to strangers. Especially strangers with ties to Jean-Claude.

“What do you want from me?” I said.

“I’m just passing the time.”

“No, you weren’t.” His shoulder-length hair had fallen around his face. He was taller, thicker, but the outline was familiar. He looked like Phillip in the shadowed dark. Phillip was the only human being I’d ever seen with the monsters.

Phillip sagged in the chains. Blood poured in a bright red flood down his chest. It splattered onto the floor, like rain. Torchlight glittered on the wet bone of his spine. Someone had ripped his throat out.

I staggered against the wall as if someone had hit me. I couldn’t get enough air. Someone kept whispering, “Oh, God, oh, God,” over and over, and it was me. I walked down the steps with my back pressed against the wall. I couldn’t take my eyes from him. Couldn’t look away. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t cry.

The torchlight reflected in his eyes, giving the illusion of movement. A scream built in my gut and spilled out my throat. “Phillip!”

Something cold slithered up my spine. I was sitting in my car with the ghost of guilty conscience. It hadn’t been my fault that Phillip died. I certainly didn’t kill him, but… but I still felt guilty. Someone should have saved him, and he had died for me, for loving me. Just like Momma had.

“What do you want from me, Richard?” I asked.

“I don’t want anything,” he said.

“Lies are ugly things, Richard.”

“What makes you think I’m lying?”

“Finely honed instinct,” I said.

“Has it really been that long since a man tried to make polite small talk with you?”

I started to look at him, and decided not to. It had been that long. “The last person who flirted with me was murdered. It makes a girl a little cautious.”

He was quiet for a minute. “Fair enough, but I still want to know more about you.”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

He had me there. “How do I know Jean-Claude didn’t tell you to make friends?”

“Why would he do that?”

I shrugged.

“Okay, let’s start over. Pretend we met at the health club.”

“Health club?” I said.

He smiled. “Health club. I thought you looked great in your swimsuit.”

“Sweats,” I said.

He nodded. “You looked cute in your sweats.”

I shook my head and turned back to the road. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“We made pleasant small talk,”he continued. “And I asked you out.”

“Richard stop,” I sighed. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“So,” He said. “I could learn.”

I sighed again. I would have to tell him, why this was really wasn’t a good idea. “Richard, I’m sixteen.”

He just stared at me. Not saying a word.

I knew it was hard to believe, I looked very grown up for my age. My fake I.D. said I was 18, so that I could live on my own after Momma died. I was tall for my age and almost fully develeped. Alot of men hit on me because of that, and not many people, men or women, knew my real age. Edward an old fiend of my mother’s was one of the few. When my mother had died Edward had offered to let me live with him, and when I refused he got me a fake I.D.

We didn’t talk for the rest of the drive.

“Turn right here,” he said, pointing to a side street. “Third house on the right.”

I pulled into a short, blacktopped driveway. The house was half brick and some pale color. It was hard to tell in the dark. There were no streetlights to help you see. You forget how dark the night can be without electricity.

Richard unbuckled his seat belt and opened the door. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Do you need help getting him inside?” My hand was on the key as I asked.

“No, I got it. Thanks.”His tone was clipped, so he was either still in shock or angry at me.

“Don’t mention it.”

He stared at me as he unlocked the back door behind him, and got out of the car. He leaned in and scooped Stephen up, holding the blanket close so it didn’t slide off. He lifted with his legs more than his back; weightlifting will teach you that. A human body is a lot harder to lift than even free weights. A body just isn’t balanced as well as a barbell.

Richard shut the car door with his back. The back door clicked shut, and I unbuckled my seat belt so I could lock the doors. Through the still-open passenger side door Richard was watching me.

I closed the door and scooted back behind the steering wheel. I buckled my seat belt and put the car in gear. The headlights sparkled over Richard, Stephen’s hair like a yellow splash in his arms. Richard was still staring at me. I left him in the dark in front of his house with the singing of autumn crickets the only sound.

————

Chapter 17
I pulled up in front of my apartment building at a little after 2:00 A.M. I’d planned to be in bed a long time before this. It made my whole chest hurt. My ribs and stomach were sore, stiff. I turned on the dome light in the car and unzipped the leather jacket. In the yellow light bruises were blossoming across my skin. For a minute I couldn’t think how I’d gotten hurt; then I remembered the crushing weight of the snake crawling over me. Jesus. I was lucky it was bruises and not broken ribs.

I clicked off the light and zipped the jacket back up.

The light that usually burned over the stairs was out. Not the first time. I’d have to call the office once it opened for the day and report it, though. If you didn’t report it, it didn’t get fixed.

I was three steps up before I saw the man. He was sitting at the head of the stairs waiting for me. Short blond hair, pale in the darkness. His hands sat on the top of his knees, palms up to show that he didn’t have a weapon. Well, that he didn’t have a weapon in his hands. Edward always had a weapon unless someone had taken it away from him.

Come to think of it, so did I.

“Long time no see, Edward.”

“Three months,” he said. “Long enough for my broken arm to heal completely.”

I nodded. “I got my stitches out about two months ago.”

He just sat on the steps looking down at me.

“What do you want, Edward?”

“Couldn’t it be a social call?” He was laughing at me, quietly.

“It’s two o’clock in the freaking morning; it better not be a social call.”

“Would you rather it was business?” His voice was soft, but it carried.

I shook my head. “No, no.” I never wanted to be business for Edward. He specialized in killing lycanthropes, vampires, anything that used to be human and wasn’t anymore. He’d gotten bored with killing people. Too easy.

“Is it business?” My voice was steady, no tremble. Good for me. I could draw the my knives, but if we ever drew down on each other for real, he’d kill me. Being friends with Edward was like being friends with a tame leopard. You could pet it and it seemed to like you, but you knew deep down that if it ever got hungry enough, or angry enough, it would kill you. Kill you and eat the flesh from your bones.

“Just information tonight, Anna, no problems.”

“What sort of information?” I asked.

He smiled again. Friendly ol’ Edward. Ri-ight.

“Can we go inside and talk about it? It’s freezing out here,” he said.

“The last time you were in town you didn’t seem to need an invitation to break into our…my apartment.”

“You’ve got a new lock.”

I grinned. “You couldn’t pick it, could you?” I was genuinely pleased.

He shrugged; maybe it was the darkness, but if it hadn’t been Edward, I’d have said he was embarrassed.

“The locksmith told me it was burglarproof,” I said.

“I didn’t bring my battering ram with me,” he said.

“Come on up. I’ll fix coffee.” I stepped around him. He stood and followed me. I turned my back on him without worrying. Edward might shoot me someday, but he wouldn’t do it in the back after telling me he was just here to talk. Edward wasn’t a good guy, but he had rules. If he planned to kill me, he’d have announced it. Told me how much people were paying him to off me. Watched the fear slide through my eyes.

Yeah, Edward had rules. He just had fewer of them than most people did. But he never broke a rule, never betrayed his own skewed sense of honor. If he said I was safe for tonight, he meant it. It would have been nice if Jean-Claude had had rules.

The hallway was middle-of-the-night, middle-of-the-week, had-to-get-up-in-the-morning quiet. My day living neighbors were all asnooze in their beds without care. I unlocked the new locks on my door and ushered Edward inside.

“You’ve been playing with vampires again,” he said.

“Yep” I said.

“What happen?” he asked.

I ground the beans in the little electric spice mill Momma’d bought. Just the smell of freshly ground coffee reminded me of her. I put a filter in the Mr. Coffee, poured the coffee in, poured the water in, and pushed the button. This was about as fancy as my cooking skills got.

Edward was sitting on my couch, legs out in front of him crossed at the ankle. He’d sunk down until the top of his shoulders rested on the couch’s arm.

“Make yourself at home,” I said.

He just smiled. “Are you going to tell me about the vampires?”

“Yes, but I’m having trouble deciding exactly how much to tell you.”

The smile widened. “Naturally.”

I set out a mug, sugar, and real cream from the refrigerator. The coffee dripped into the little glass pot.

“How do you like your coffee?”

“Fix it the way Anita fixed her’s.”

I flinched at the sound of my mother’s name. I could tell Edward saw by the way he shook his head, still resting against the couch arm.

“Okay.” I poured the coffee into the mug, added three sugars and a lot of cream to each, stirred, and sat it on the two-seater breakfast table.

“You’re not going to bring it to me?”

“You don’t drink coffee on a white couch,” I said.

“Ah.” He got up in one smooth motion, all grace and energy. He’d have been very impressive if I hadn’t spent most of the night with vampires.

We sat across from each other. His eyes were the color of spring skies, that warm pale blue that still manages to look cold. His face was pleasant, his eyes neutral and watching everything I did.

I told him about Yasmeen and Marguerite. I left out Jean-Claude, the vampire murder, the giant cobra, Stephen, and Rick Zeeman. Which meant it was a very short story.

When I finished Edward sat there, sipping his coffee and staring at me.

I stared back.

“But you left out a lot.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because I was following you.”

I stared at him, “You were what?”

“Following you,” he said. His eyes were still neutral, smile still pleasant.

“Why?”

“I’ve been hired to kill the Master of the City.”

“You were hired for that three months ago.”

“Nikolaos is dead; the new master isn’t.”

“You didn’t kill Nikolaos,” I said. “I did.”

“True; you want half the money?”

I shook my head.

“Then what’s your complaint? I got my arm broken helping you kill her.”

“And I got fourteen stitches, and we both got vampire bit,” I said.

“And cleansed ourselves with holy water,” Edward said.

“Which burns likes acid,” I said.

Edward nodded, sipped his coffee. Something moved behind his eyes, something liquid and dangerous. His expression hadn’t changed, I’d swear to it, but it was suddenly all I could do to meet his eyes.

“Why were you following me, Edward?”

“I was told you would be meeting with the new Master tonight.”

“Who told you that?”

He shook his head, that inscrutable smile curling his lips. “I was inside the Circus tonight, Anna. I saw who you were with. You played with the vampires, then you went home, so one of them has to be the Master.”

I fought to keep my face blank, too blank, so the effort showed, but the panic didn’t. Edward had been following me, and I hadn’t known it. He knew all the vampires I had seen tonight. It wasn’t that big a list. He’d figure it out.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You let me go up against that snake without helping me?”

“I came in after the crowd ran out. It was almost over by the time I peeked into the tent.”

I tried to think of a way to make this better. He had a contract to kill the Master, and I had led him right to him. I had betrayed Jean-Claude. Why did that bother me?

Edward was watching my face as if he would memorize it. He was waiting for my face to betray me. I worked hard at being blank and inscrutable. He smiled that close, canary-eating grin of his. He was enjoying himself. I was not.

“You only saw four vampires tonight: Jean-Claude, the dark exotic one who must be Yasmeen, and the two blonds. You got names for the blonds?”

I shook my head.

His smile widened. “Would you tell me if you had?”

“Maybe.”

“The blonds aren’t important,” he said. “Neither of them were master vamps.”

I stared at him, forcing my face to be neutral, pleasant, attentive, blank. Blank is not one of my better expressions, but maybe if I practiced enough…

“That leaves Jean-Claude and Yasmeen. Yasmeen’s new in town; that just leaves Jean-Claude.”

“Do you really think that the Master of the freaking City would show himself like that?” I put all the scorn I could find into my voice. I wasn’t the best actor in the world, but maybe I could learn.

Edward stared at me. “It’s Jean-Claude, isn’t it?”

“Jean-Claude isn’t powerful enough to hold the city. You know that. He’s, what, a little over two hundred? Not old enough.”

He frowned at me. Good. “It’s not Yasmeen.”

“True.”

“You didn’t talk to any other vampires tonight?”

“You may have followed me into the Circus, Edward, but you didn’t listen at the door when I met the Master. You couldn’t have. The vamps or the shapeshifters would have heard you.”

He acknowledged it with a nod.

“I saw the Master tonight, but it wasn’t anyone who came down to fight the snake.”

“The Master let his people risk their lives and didn’t help?” His smile was back.

“The Master of the City doesn’t have to be physically present to lend his power, you know that.”

“No,” he said, “I don’t.”

I shrugged. “Believe it or not.” I prayed, please let him believe.

He was frowning. “You’re not usually this good a liar.”

“I’m not lying.” My voice sounded calm, normal, truthful. Honesty-R-Us.

“If Jean-Claude really isn’t the Master, then you know who is?”

The question was a trap. I couldn’t answer yes to both questions, but hell, I’d been lying; why stop now? “Yes, I know who it is.”

“Tell me,” he said.

I shook my head. “The Master would kill me if he knew I talked to you.”

“We can kill him together like we did the last one.” His voice was terribly reasonable.

I thought about it for a minute. I thought about telling him the truth. Humans First might not be up to tangling with the Master, but Edward was. We could kill him together, a team. My life would be a lot simpler. I shook my head and sighed.

“I won’t, Edward.”

“Won’t?” he asked.

I nodded. “Won’t.”

“If I believe you, Anna, it means I need the name of the Master. It means you are the only human who knows that name.” The friendly banter seeped out of his face like melting ice. His eyes were as empty and pitiless as a winter sky. There was no one home that I could talk to.

“You don’t want to be the only human who knows the name, Anna.”

He was right. I didn’t, but what could I say? “Take it or leave it, Edward.”

“Save yourself a lot of pain, Anna; tell me the name.”

He believed. Hot damn. I lowered my eyes to look down into my coffee so he wouldn’t see the flash of triumph in my eyes. When I looked back up, I had my face under control. Me and Meryl Streep.

“I don’t give in to threats, you know that.”

He nodded. He finished his coffee and sat the mug in the middle of the table. “I will do whatever is necessary to finish this job.”

“I never doubted that,” I said. He was talking about torturing me for information. He sounded almost regretful, but that wouldn’t stop him. One of Edward’s primary rules was “Always finish a job.”

He wouldn’t let a little thing like friendship ruin his perfect record.

“You saved my life, and I saved yours,” he said. “It doesn’t buy you anything now. You understand that?”

I nodded. “I understand.”

“Good.” He stood up. I stood up. We looked at each other. He shook his head. “I’ll find you tonight, and I’ll ask again.”

“I won’t be bullied, Edward.” I was finally getting a little mad. He had come in here asking for information; now he was threatening me. I let the anger show. No acting needed.

“You’re tough, Anna, but not that tough.” His eyes were neutral, but wary, like those of a wolf I’d seen once in California. I’d just walked around a tree and there it had been, standing. I froze. I had never really understood what neutral meant until then. The wolf didn’t give a damn if it hurt me or not. My choice. Threaten it, and the shit hit the fan. Give it room to run, and it would run. But the wolf didn’t care; it was prepared either way. I was the one with my pulse in my throat, so startled that I’d stopped breathing. I held my breath and wondered what the wolf would decide. It finally loped off through the trees.

I’d relearned how to breathe and gone back down to the campsite. I had been scared, but I could still close my eyes and see the wolf’s pale grey eyes. The wonder of staring at a large predator without any cage bars between us. It had been wonderful.

I stared up at Edward now and knew that this, too, was wonderful in its way. Whether I had known the information or not, I wouldn’t have told him. No one bullied me. No one. That was one of my rules.

“I don’t want to have to kill you, Edward.”

He smiled then. “You kill me?” He was laughing at me.

“You bet,” I said.

The laughter seeped out of his eyes, his lips, his face, until he stared at me with his neutral, predator eyes.

I swallowed and remembered to take slow, even breaths. He could kill me. Maybe. Maybe not.

“Is the Master worth one of us dying?” I asked.

“It’s a matter of principle,” he said.

I nodded. “Me, too.”

“We know where we stand, then,” he said.

“Yeah.”

He walked towards the door. I followed, and unlocked the door for him. He paused in the doorway. “You’ve got until full dark tonight.”

“The answer will be the same.”

“I know,” he said. He walked out without even glancing back. I watched him until he disappeared down the stairs. Then I shut the door and locked it. I stood leaning my back against the door and tried to think of a way out.

If I told Jean-Claude, he might be able to kill Edward, but I didn’t want Edward dead. Not for any reason. I could tell Edward about Jean-Claude. He might even be able to kill the Master. I could even help him.

I tried picturing Jean-Claude’s perfect body riddled with bullets, covered in blood. His face blown away by a shotgun. I shook my head. I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t know why exactly, but I wouldn’t hand Jean-Claude over to Edward.

I couldn’t betray either of them. Which left me ass-deep in alligators. So what else was new?

…………………………………………………………………………………………………..

I stood on the shore under a black fringe of trees. The black lake lapped and rolled away into the dark. The moon hung huge and silver in the sky. The moonlight made glittering patterns on the water. Jean-Claude rose from the water. Water was streaming in silver lines from his hair and shirt. His short black hair was in tight curls from being wet. The white shirt clung to his body, making his nipples clear and hard against the cloth. He held out his hand to me.

I was wearing a long, dark dress. It was light and hung around me, weightless.

Jean-Claude said, “Come to me.”

I stepped off the shore and sank into the water. It was warm as bath water, warm as blood. I raised my hand to the moonlight, and the liquid that streamed down it was thick and dark and had never been water.

I stood in the shallows in a dress that I had never imagined, by a shore I did not know, and stared at the beautiful monster as he moved towards me, graceful and covered in blood.

I woke gasping for air, hands clutching at the sheets like a lifeline. “You promised to stay out of my dreams,” I whispered.

The radio clock beside the bed read 2:00 P.M. I’d been asleep for ten hours. I should have felt better, but I didn’t. It was as if I’d been running from nightmare to nightmare, and hadn’t really gotten to rest. The only dream I remembered was the last one. If they had all been that bad, I didn’t want to remember the rest.

Why was Jean-Claude haunting my dreams? He’d given his word, but maybe his word wasn’t worth anything. Maybe.

————-

Chapter 18
I opened my brand-new burglarproof lock and stepped into the darkness of my apartment. I hit the lights and flooded the white walls, carpet, couch, and chair with bright light. No matter how good your night vision is, everyone likes light. We’re creatures of the daylight, no matter what we do for a living.

I threw my jacket on the kitchen counter. It was too dirty to toss on the white couch. I had mud and bits of weed plastered all over me. But very little blood; the night had turned out all right.

I was slipping out of the shoulder holster when I felt it. The air currents had moved, as if something had moved through them. Just like that I knew I wasn’t alone.

My hand was on the hilt of a knife when Edward’s voice came out of the darkness of my bedroom. “Don’t, Anna.”

I hesitated, fingers touching the knife. “And if I do?”

“I’ll shoot you. You know I’ll do it.” His voice was that soft, sure predatory sound. I’d seen him use flamethrowers when his voice sounded like that. Smooth and calm as the road to Hell.

I eased away from my knife. Edward would shoot me if I forced him to. Better not to force it, not yet. Not yet.

I clasped my hands on top of my head without waiting for him to tell me. Maybe I’d get brownie points for being a cooperative prisoner. Naw.

Edward stepped out of the darkness like a blond ghost. He was dressed all in black except for his short hair and pale face. His black-gloved hands held a Beretta 9mm pointed very steadily at my chest.

“New gun?” I asked.

The ghost of a smile curled his lips. “Yes, like it?”

“Beretta’s a nice gun, but you know me.”

“A fan of blades,” he said.

I smiled at him. Just two ol’ buddies talking shop.

He pressed the gun barrel against my body while he took the knife from me. “Lean and spread it.”

I leaned on the back of the couch while he patted me down. There was nothing to find, but Edward didn’t know that. He was never careless. That was one of the reasons he was still alive. That, and the fact that he was very, very good.

“You said you couldn’t pick my lock,” I said.

“I brought better tools,” he said.

“So it’s not burglarproof.”

“It would be to most people.”

“But not to you.”

He stared at me, his eyes as empty and dead as winter’s sky. “I am not most people.”

I had to smile. “You can say that again.”

He frowned at me. “Give me the master’s name, and we don’t have to do this.” The gun never wavered. My knife stuck out of the front of his belt.

I opened my mouth, closed it, and just looked at him. I couldn’t give Jean-Claude over to Edward. I was The Shadow of the Executioner, but the vampires called Edward Death. He’d earned the name.

“I thought you’d be following me tonight.”

“I went home after watching you raise the zombie.”

“I’m not going to tell you a thing. You know that.”

“Everyone breaks, Anna, everyone.”

“Even you?”

That ghost of a smile was back again. “Even me.”

“Someone got the better of Death? Tell, tell.”

The smile widened. “Some other time.”

“Nice to know there’ll be another time,” I said.

“I’m not here to kill you.”

“Just to frighten or torture me into revealing the master’s name, right?”

“Right,” he said, voice soft and low.

“I was hoping you’d say wrong.”

He almost shrugged. “Give me the Master of the City, Anna, and I’ll go away.”

“You know I won’t do that.”

“I know you have to, or it’s going to be a very long night.”

“Then it’s going to be a long night, because I’m not going to giving in.”

“You won’t be bullied,” he said.

“Nope.”

He shook his head. “Turn around, lean your waist up against the couch, and put your hands behind your back.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

“So you can tie my hands?”

“Do it, now.”

“I don’t think so.”

The frown was back. “Do you want me to shoot you?”

“No, but I’m not going to just stand here while you tie me up, either.”

“The tying up doesn’t hurt.”

“It’s what comes after that I’m worried about.”

“You knew what I’d do if you didn’t help me.”

“Then do it,” I said.

“You’re not cooperating.”

“So sorry.”

“Anna.”

“I just don’t believe in helping people who are going to torture me. Though I don’t see any bamboo slivers. How can you possibly torture someone without bamboo slivers?”

“Stop it.” He sounded angry.

“Stop what?” I widened my eyes and tried to look innocent and harmless, me and Kermit the Frog.

Edward laughed, a soft chuckle that rolled and expanded until he squatted on the floor, gun loose in his hands, staring up at me. His eyes were shiny.

“How can I torture you when you keep making me laugh?”

“You can’t; that was the plan.”

He shook his head. “No, it wasn’t. You were just being a smartass. You’re always a smartass.”

“Nice of you to notice.”

He held up his hand. “No more, please.”

“I’ll make you laugh until you beg for mercy.”

“Just tell me the damn name. Please, Anna. Help me.” The laughter drained from his eyes like the sun slipping out of the sky. I watched the humor, the humanity, slip away, until his eyes were as cold and empty as a doll’s. “Don’t make me hurt you,” he said.

I think my momma had been Edward’s only friend, but that wouldn’t stop him from hurting me. Edward had one rule: do whatever it takes to get the job done. If I forced him to torture me, he would, but he didn’t want to.

“Now that you’ve asked nicely,” I said.

His eyes narrowed, then he said, “Who is The Master?”

I told him all about the master vampires who was killing people. The vampire who felt so old inside my head, it made my bones ache. I added one tiny lie, lost in all that truth. I told him that they was Master of the City. One of my better ideas, heh?

“You really don’t know where his daytime resting place is, do you?”

I shook my head. “I’d give it to you if I had it.”

“Why this change of heart?”

“He tried to kill me tonight. All bets are off.”

“I don’t believe that.”

It was too good a lie to waste, so I tried salvaging it. “He’s also gone rogue. It’s him and his flunkies that have been killing innocent citizens.”

Edward smirked at the innocent, but he let it go. “An altruistic motive, that I believe. If you weren’t such a damn bleeding heart, you’d be dangerous.”

“I kill my share, Edward.”

His empty, blue eyes stared at me; then he nodded, slowly. “True.”

He handed me back my knife, hilt first. A tight, clenched ball in my stomach unrolled. I could breathe deep, long sighs of relief.

“If I find out where this vampire stays, you want in on it?”

I thought about that for a minute. Did I want to go after five rogue vampires, two of them over five hundred years old? I did not. Did I want to send even Edward after them alone? No, I did not. Which meant…

“Yeah, I want a piece of them.”

Edward smiled, broad and shining. “I love my work.”

I smiled back. “I know.”

————-

Chapter 19
The phone rang twice before I answered; then a voice said, “Anna, 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, Richard 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.

“No comment.”

“That’s my line.”

He laughed. “Can you come to the Circus of the Damned? Jean-Claude has some information on the master vampire thats killing people.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can, but it’s going to be close to dawn before I can get to the Riverfront.”

“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 Nikolaos had called rats, and wererats.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

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 I 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 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.

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.

“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 knife out and ready. No thought necessary, just lots and lots of practice.

“You won’t need that,” Irving said.

“Says you.”

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, Anna. 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.”

“Thanks.”

I shook my head. “Let’s do it.”

“You can put the knife away,” he said.

I stared at the knife. I liked having it out. For security it beat the hell out of a teddy bear. I put the knife 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?

…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

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. 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.

He 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, and 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 thats been attacking people. 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 hesitated there. How many time had I told a half truth to get what I wanted? Wasn’t it only last night that I lied to Edward to protect Jean-Claude? “I guess your right.”

He acknowledged that with a nod. “Shall we sit against the far wall?”

“Sure.”

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 the vampire?”

He told me the vampires name was Alejandro and that he was the servant of an even stronger vampire named Oliver, who were both in the city. He told me how Oliver’s animal were snakes, and that he had made the snake go crazy in the Circus as a threat to Jean-Claude. But he saved the worst news ffor last.

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?”

“I need to touch you, ma petite.”

“Why?”

“Beacaues I believe Alejandro wants something from you.”

“What does he want?”

He shook his head. “Something impossible.”

“No riddles, Jean-Claude.”

“I believe he wants to marked you.”

I stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“Marked you, Anna 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.

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 since you have not meet, but I must be sure.”

“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 interruptions.”

“Good.” He knelt in front of me. His fingertip traced my right cheek, leaving a line of wetness down my skin. 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. “Dang it.”

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.

“Jean-Claude?”

“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… desire.

The feel of his body against me, under my hands, his lips touching me–some 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 hasn’t given you the first mark, ma petite, you are still 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.”

“No.”

“You would rather serve Alejandro?”

“No!” I said.

“You cannot be neutral, Anna.”

“Why not?”

He stood up and paced a tight circle. “Don’t you understand? The killings are a challenge to my authority, and if he marks you that is another challenge. He will take you from me if he can.”

“I don’t want to 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. ” I knew that. I’ve wished hard enough for you to leave me alone.”

“You would miss me if I were not here.”

“If I’d never meet you my mother would still be alive.”

“And do not lie to yourself, ma petite. If you hadn’t meet me Nikolaos would have sent someone worst, and Anita and your Phillip would still be dead.”

“You don’t know that,” I told him.

Jean-Claude sighed “I would give you a partnership, ma petite. He will give you slavery.”

“If you really believed this was partnership, 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.”

“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.”

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 it was better than whispers in the night. Blinded by the light or blinded by darkness?

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 knife 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.

“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.

“Irving?”

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.

“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.

“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.”

“Why?”

“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 hit Yasmeen first.

I kicked her in the face as hard as I could, but Yasmeen started forward and I throw the knife at heir chest. Jean-Claude hit my arm, and the knife went wide.

“I need her alive, Anna.”

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 heck are you going to fight Alejandro?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Is that what you wanted to hear? I do not know.”

Irving was still huddled by our feet.

“Can you get up?”

He looked up at me, eyes shiny with unshed tears.

———–

Chapter 20
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 a knife out 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 heck are you?”

A tall black man came out of the bedroom. He had a neat mustache, and dark sunglasses hid his eyes.

A lamia stepped out beside him. She was in human form, in a red dress. She wore scarlet high heels. I had never seen a lamia in person, they were suppose to be extinct. I could guess why it was here, lamias are part water snake, and who can control snakes? Hmm let me guess?

“We’ve been waiting for you, Ms. Blake.”

“Who are are you?”

“I work for Mr. Oliver, I assume your master has told you about us?”

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Mr. Oliver wants to see you. He sent us to fetch you.We are to take you to him. We’ve got a car waiting outside.”

“What if I don’t want to go?”

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, knife still out but not pointed at anyone. They hadn’t offered to hurt me. So why didn’t I want to put the knife away?

“Why does Oliver need to see me?”

“I don’t know. 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 knife out, so I put it away. Nobody was threatening me. A novel approach.

I knew I couldn’t get away but if I could meet this Oliver and escape him then I could tell Jean-Claude where Oliver was hiding.

“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 Anna?”

“Anna’s fine.”

“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, Anna, 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.

She nodded.

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.

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.

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.

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 lived in a cave? Somehow it didn’t fit my picture of him in my mind.

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.

“Where’s Oliver?”

“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?

“Where’s Oliver?”

“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 knife 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, knife 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 knives. We were about to find out if silver would hurt a lamia.

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 knife to gut or lower chest level and launged 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 knives cannot hurt me,” he said. His voice was soft and close. He hadn’t taken my knife 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 want to give me the first mark.”

“Tonight I will,” 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, Anna. Your loss will damage the Master. It will lose him followers, confidence. Oh, yes, Anna, 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 knife at his throat. If I could sever his spine, a thousand years and more old or not, he might die. Might. Please, God.

I struck. The knife took him in the throat. He jerked backwards but didn’t let go of my arms. Two more knives 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 throw 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 the knives 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 launged. 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 knife. I throw two 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 knife 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 leaned into the wall, cradling my arm, waiting for the feeling to return.

A light bobbed towards me down the tunnel. Blondie was coming; risking himself. 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 more 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.

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.

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 knives had killed her men with their fangs, Ronald with his snake eyes. I hadn’t tried them on her yet. What did I have to lose?

I kept the light on her pale chest and raised the knife.

“I am immortal. Your little knives 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 knife hit her just above the left breast. She staggered and smiled.

I raised a knife , just a little, and hit just above the bridge of her perfect nose. Again she staggered, but wouldn’t stop.

I 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.

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?

“Anna.”

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 marks.

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. “Anna, 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 a knife and throw into his mouth. He jerked back, shrieking, but no blood, no dying. Dang it.

There was a scream from farther away, echoing towards us. “Raju!” The lamia was screaming for her mate, or warning him.

“Anna, 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.

Flashlight in one hand, knife in the other, I waited. If they got here in time to call him off, fine, 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.

“Raju, no!”

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 rest of the marks 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.

I turned.

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.

“Home.”

“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.

————-

Chapter 21
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.

“Thanks.”

“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.”

“Me, too.”

“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.

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.

“Who is that?”He asked

“I don’t know, I wasn’t exspecting company”

He stood up. “You’re all fixed up. I’ll go get the door.”

“Edward, be care.”

“I think I can manage that.” Edward walked out of the bathroom.

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. 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.

What was he doing here? How did Richard even know where I lived?

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 my mother.”

“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 the two of them. Edward knew I prefered tea.

“Let’s sit at the table,” I said. “You 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. He was Jean-Claude’s creature, and 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, Anna,” 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 tried out caving.”

“What do you mean?”

“I ended up going through a water-filled tunnel to escape the bad guys.”

“How water-filled?”

“All the way to the top.”

“You could have drowned.” He touched my hand with his fingertips.

I 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. I can take care of myself. I don’t need a babysitter, Richard.”

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 like it’s ordinary.”

“For me, it is, Richard.” 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.”

“We’re not lovebirds” I said.

He just smirked. “Whatever you say, Anna.”

“Edward,” I said.

“I’m going.”

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 a werewolf. He’d seen things get messy, and it hadn’t fazed him, much. Could he handle it? Could I? Why was I even worring about this? Richard wouldn’t date someone he thought of as a child anyway.

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. “Anna, lamias have been extinct for two hundred years. No one’s going to have any antivenom.”

I stared at him. “I guess I’m not going to find out what you came here for.”

“No dammit, I won’t sit here and watch you die. Lycanthropes can’t be poisoned.”

“You mean you want to 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.

————-

Chapter 22
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?”

“Heck, no.”

He gave a slight smile. “You always did have a way with words, ma petite. ”

“Stop calling me that.”

“As you like, Anna.” 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, Anna. You want to know what my skin feels like next to your naked body.”

I scrambled off the bed.

“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. 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.

“Stop it.”

“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.

“NO!”

“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.

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.

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.”

“Explain that.”

“You know.”

I shook my head. “Say it.”

“The third mark.”

“I don’t have any bite marks.”

“But your wrist is cut and bandaged.”

“You used me.”

“I saved your life.”

“You drank my blood while I was unconscious.”

He gave the slightest nod.

“You used me.”

The door opened again, and it was Richard. “You bastard, how could you give me to him?”

“She doesn’t seem very grateful to you, 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, and it’s only the third mark, Anna. 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. “Richard, you should have know better, you knew how I felt about Jean-Claude. You don’t have any excuses.”

“Perhaps I could not stand to watch you die,” Jean-Claude said. “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.”

“Anna, you’ve almost died twice today. How can you…”

“Can it, Richard. You choose him over me and I won’t forgive you either ”

“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. He meant to make me his servant, whether I liked it or not. I could scream and protest, and he’d ignore it.

He stared at me, face calm, unreadable, lovely. Then he turned his back on us both and said, “Take her home, Richard.”

I wanted to spit at him, but that wouldn’t have been enough. I couldn’t kill him, a part of me just couldn’t, 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.

I knew then that a part of me loved Jean-Claude, because if anyone esle had done all that he had done to me, I would’ve killed them.

…………………………………………………………………………………

“You’re alive,” Richard 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.”

And that’s what truly hurt me the most that Jean-Claude didn’t care about me. That all I was to him was power.

“I’m the one with my wrist slit open where the Master of the City fed.” I told him. “He drank my blood, Richard.”

“I know.”

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?”

Richard concentrated on the road suddenly, not looking at me. “He could have raped you.”

I stared at him. “You’re serious?”

He nodded.

I had thought Jean-Claude capable of a lot of things, but not rape. Whenever I had refused his seductions he would always stop. 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.

“What?”

He shook his head.

“Tell me, Richard.”

“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, Anna. It was scary as hell. He really believes you’ll come around. That you’ll… love him.”

“I do,” I wispered.

Richard glared at me. “You do… what?”

“Love him.”

————

Chapter 23
It was full dark on All Hallows Eve, and I was dressed in up in a costume that was a mix of a wicth high pirecesst and a goddess. The dress as long and white with sliver accesscires. On my head was a silver circlet mad of oak leaves, and silver sandles finished the look. I had made two appointments. A nice normal night. Untill my phone rang.

“Ma petite?”

“Jean-Claude?” I asked, like anyone else called me that. “How did you get my number?”

“Thank God.”

“What?”I asked.

“Just listen, ma petite. Oliver and Alejandro are on their way to the Circus. He knows my name and resting place. 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.”

“Why should I help you?” I said.

“To keep the humans safe.”

He had me there. I hung up after agreeing to meet him at the Cirus and fished Edward’s card out of my bag.

I dialed the number. “Please, be there. Please, be there.”

He answered on the seventh ring.

“Edward, it’s Anna.”

“What’s happened?”

“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.”

“Okay.” I sighed “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 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.

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?”

“Rashida.”

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.

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 knives. 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.

I stayed where I was. I wasn’t going anywhere until somebody explained things. 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. “Anna.”

I turned, but Edward was staring at the ring. “Did you say something?”

He shook his head.

“Anna?”

I glanced at Edward agian, 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, Anna, 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.”

I took off the sweatshirt and laid it across the railing. There were gasps from the people near enough to see my knives.

“The fight’s going to take place out in the ring.”

“In front of the audience?” Edward said.

“Yep.”

I climbed over the railing and dropped to the ring. Edward followed me with a swish of black cape.

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.

Edward bowed.

“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. 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.

“You look beautiful, ma petite, though 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.

He whispered, “Showtime, Anna.”

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. It was something in his voice, but I could protect myself from it

“What is the audience feeling?” I asked Jean-Claude.

“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.

“How?”

“We have not planned the rest of the evening, Anna. 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, knives 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.”

“I know.”

We stared at each other for a moment. “I love you,” I said, and I ran down the steps to join the fight. If he answered, I didn’t hear it and I didn’t want to. But I wouldn’t let one of us die without him knowing how I felt.

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 throw 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 knife nor Richard’s shots 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.

————-

Chapter 24
The thing rushed towards me. I 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 stabbed it 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. 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 a knife, but he ducked behind Oliver’s dais. I went towards Marguerite. Alejandro stepped between us.

“Do you want to help her?”

“Yes.”

“Let me lay the last three 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.”

“Anna, 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 knife at him. Of course, the knife hadn’t done a whole lot of good before. I backed up until I bumped the steps.

I started throwing. The knives went in. He even bled, but he didn’t stop. 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. Dang it. 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. A woman and a little boy.

“Now that your friends are busy, we will finish our business.”

“NO!”

The knife just nicked the surface, sharp, painful, but such a little cut. He leaned over me. “It won’t hurt, I promise.”

I screamed.

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.

“NO!”

I drew a 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.

“Anna!” 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.

“Anna?” It was Edward. I turned towards the sound, slowly.

“Edward.”

“What did he do to you?”

I tried to think how to explain it, but my mind wouldn’t bring up the words.

The crowd screamed.

Jean-Claude was on his knees, blood pouring down his side. When I became Alejandro’s servant, Jean-Claude had been weakened. Oliver had him.

That had been the plan all along.

Alejandro whispered against my cheek, “You are a Raiser, Anna. You have power over life and death. 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 Raiser. 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.”

“Never!” I yelled “I’ll never help you!” I struggled in his grip. “I KILL YOU!”

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.

“No,” 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, but Karl held him down. He shared Oliver’s strength.

Oliver picked up a white, polished stake and a padded hammer. He held them out towards me. “It’s time. Come, Anna; destroy your old master.” Oliver was holding the hammer and stake out towards me.

I shook my head and reached for Edward, but it was too late. Edward couldn’t help. No one could help me. There was only one way to take back the fourth mark and save Jean-Claude. That I could stop this. And I would.

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. 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.

“Why not?”

“She is a Raiser. 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.

“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?”

I nodded.

“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. Can he feel my power? Did he know what I was about to do?

I took the stake from Oliver.

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.

“Do it, now!” Oliver said.

I turned to Oliver, reaching my left hand out for the hammer. As he handed it to me, and 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, Anna. 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 vampire 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.

————25

Chapter 25
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.

…………………………………………………………………

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. So I was still love to Jean-Claude, and loving the monsters always ends badly for the human. It was a good thing then that I wasn’t human.

I got out of the hospital, and went to see Jean-Claude.

…………………………………………………………………………..

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 tried to stay out of her way, seeing as she still wanted me dead for killing her mates, and all.

Jean-Claude and I also had a first date. Even thought I loved him, I wanted things to go slowly. A part of me douted if he loved me back. We had never really talked about my saying that I loved him.

———25

Chapter 25
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.

…………………………………………………………………

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. So I was still love to Jean-Claude, and loving the monsters always ends badly for the human. It was a good thing then that I wasn’t human.

I got out of the hospital, and went to see Jean-Claude.

…………………………………………………………………………..

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 tried to stay out of her way, seeing as she still wanted me dead for killing her mates, and all.

Jean-Claude and I also had a first date. Even thought I loved him, I wanted things to go slowly. A part of me douted if he loved me back. We had never really talked about my saying that I loved him.

——-PART 3

Part 3
It was the best of times, It was the worst of times,

It was the age of wisdom, It was the age of foolishness,

It was the epoch of belief, It was epoch of incredulity’

It was the season of Light, It was the season of Darkness,

It was the spring of hope, It was the winter of despair,

We hade everything before us, We had nothing before us,

We were all going direct to Heaven, We were all going direct the other way.

-Charles Dickens, the Tale of Two Cities.

——— 26

Chapter 26
Jean-Claude was dressed in a shiny black tux, complete with tails. A white vest with minute black dots bordered the gleaming whiteness of his shirt. The collar was high and stiff, with a cravat of soft black cloth tied around it and tucked into the vest as if ties had never been invented. The stickpin in his vest was made of silver-and-black onyx. His shoes had spats on them, like the ones Fred Astaire used to wear, though I suspected the entire outfit was of a much older style.

His hair was fashionably long, the nearly black curls edging the white collar. His eyes were midnight blue, the color of a really good sapphire, but never look a vampire in the eyes, unless your more powerful than they are. It’s a rule.

With the master vampire of the city standing there, waiting, I realized how empty the theater was. We’d waited out the crowd, all right. We were alone in the echoing silence. The distant murmur of the departing crowd was like white noise. It meant nothing to us. I stared at the shiny mother-of-pearl buttons on Jean-Claude’s vest. It was hard to be tough when you couldn’t meet someone’s eyes. But I’d manage.

“God, Jean-Claude, don’t you ever wear anything but black and white?”

“Don’t you like it, ma petite?” He gave a little spin so I could get the whole effect. The outfit suited him beautifully. Of course, everything he wore seemed made to order, perfect, lovely, just like him.

I was at the Circus of the Damned, it seemed I was spending more and more time here lately, but that was to be expected when you’re dating the master of the city. Still, I never imagened I would spend this much time at the site of my mother’s murder. Oh, Jean-Claude had redecerated, almost to the point where I didn’t recognize it anymore, but ever on and then, I’d find something that reminded me of that night.

“Hello, Anna,” a voice said from behind Jean-Claude. A voice I knew.

Richard Zeeman. A super powerful werewolf who worked for Jean-Claude.

We had meet before Jean-Claude and I had started dating, and Richard had flirted with me, untill he found out how old I was. I’m sixteen, but I could easily pass for older. In fact, my fake I.D. said I was eighteen, and a lot of people assume I am 18 if not a little older. Richard was one of those people, but when I told him my real age he’d avoided me like I was the plauge. I still liked Richard, but when I started dating Jean-Claude, he had gotten very jugdemental about the age difference thing.

“Hey, Richard. What are you doing here?” I asked,but before he could answer Jean-Claude said, “Monsieur Zeeman, was just leaving, ma petite.”

His voice had gotten very hard, and his whold body was tense.

“I don’t belong to you, Jean-Claude,” Richard said, his voice equaly as hard. “I’m second in line to lead the pack. I come and go where I please. The alpha rescinded his orders about obeying you, after you nearly got me killed.”

“Your pack leader was most upset that you survived,” Jean-Claude said sweetly.

“Why would the pack leader want Richard dead?” I asked.

Jean-Claude looked at me . “There is a battle of succession going on with in the pack, ma petite. ”

“I will not fight Marcus,” Richard stated.

“Then you will die.” Jean-Claude made it sound very simple.

I glanced at Richard. Anger glittered in his eyes. His hands were balled into fists. I was standing close enough to feel the tension coming off him like waves.

“What’s going on, Richard?”

He gave a quick shake of his head. “My business, not yours.”

“How much do you know about this?” I asked Jean-Claude.

“We leaders of the preternatural community must deal with each other.” He said. “For everyone’s safety.”

“That’s not an answer, Jean-Claude” I aruged.

Richard tried to stared me down. “No, you aren’t one of us. This doesn’t involve you.”

I stared back. “I’m Jean-Claude’s human servant, doesn’t that make me a leader of the preternatural community?”

“Not anymore” he growled.

“Why are you so pissed tonight, Richard?” I asked.

“I’m not.”

“Liar.”

“He’s jealous of you and I, ma petite,” Jean-Claude said.

“I am not jealous.”

“You’re always telling us how much you disaproved of my relationship with ma petite, Richard, but I can smell your desire for her. You want her so badly you can taste it.”

“Stop talking like I’m not here,” I said.

I was shocked. I thought Richard wanted nothing to do with me anymore, and simple put up with me because I was dating Jean-Claude, and Richard worked for him. Did Richard actully like me? And enough to pick fights with Jean-Claude over me? No no no, save those questions for later, there’s more important stuff happening.

“Jean-Claude’s hinting your leader wants you dead. Is that true?” I asked.

“Marcus won’t kill me,” Richard said.

Jean-Claude laughed. The sound had a bitter undertaste to it, as if it hadn’t been laughter at all. “You are a fool, Richard.”

” Look, I don’t have time to get the full story right this second, that’s why I came, I have to work tonight” I told Jean-Claude.

“I will move our date to another night, ma petite,” he said.

“And you are going to tell me every last bit of what’s going on, right?”I asked, and Jean-Claude smiled.

“Of course, ma petite.”

“Great.” I headed for the door as fast as I without it looking like I was running.

………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The cold wrapped around me from outside. I hunched my shoulders, tucking my chin inside my collar. A laughing foursome walked a few yards ahead of me. They hung on each other, huddling against the cold. The women’s high heels made a sharp theatrical clatter. Their laughter was too high, too shrill. A first double date that had gone well, so far. Or maybe they were all deeply in love and I was feeling bitchy. Maybe.

The foursome parted like water around a stone, revealing a woman. The couples came back together on the other side of her, laughing as if they hadn’t seen her. Which they probably hadn’t.

I felt it, a faint stirring in the cold air. A sensation that had nothing to do with the wind. She was pretending to be unseen. Until the couples had noticed her, by not noticing her. Which meant she was good. Very, very good.

She stood under the last streetlight. Her hair was butter yellow and thick with waves. Close to mine, nearly to her waist. The coat she wore, buttoned all the way up, was black. The color was too harsh for her. It bleached the color from her skin even with makeup.

She stood in the center of the sidewalk, arrogant. She was about my size, not physically imposing. So why did she stand there as if nothing in the world could hurt her? Only three things give you that kind of confidence: a machine gun, stupidity, or being a vampire. I didn’t see a machine gun, and she didn’t look stupid. She did feel like a vampire, but she didn’t look like one. The makeup was good. It made her look more alive, or less dead.

She caught me staring at her. She stared back, trying to catch my eyes with her own, but I was an old hand at this little dance. Staring at someone’s face while not staring at their eyes is a trick that gets easier with practice. She frowned at me. Didn’t like the eyes not working.

I stood about two yards from her. Feet apart, as balanced as I was going to get in high heels. My hands were already out in the cold, ready to go for my knife if I had to.

Her power crept over my skin like fingers touching here and there, trying to find a weakness. She was very good, but she was also only a little over a hundred. A hundred years wasn’t nearly old enough to cloud my mind.

Her pretty face was blank with concentration like a china doll’s. She flung a hand outward as if throwing something at me. Her power caught me like an invisible wave, trying to slamming into my body. It went around me, but that power was stronger than a century old vampire.

I pulled my knife. She didn’t try and jump me. She tried to concentrate me out of it. She was at least two hundred years old. I’d underestimated her age by a century. I didn’t make mistakes like that often. Her power beat along my skin like tiny clubs, but it never came close to touching my mind. She looked surprised when I pointed the knife at her. It had been too easy.

“Hey,” came a voice from behind us. “Put the knife down, now!” A policeman, just when I needed one, I pointed the knife at the sidewalk.

“Put the knife on the sidewalk, right now,” his voice growled out, and without turning around I knew his gun was out. Cops take weapons very seriously. I layed the knife gently on the sidewalk.

“I do not need this interruption,” the vampire said. I glanced up at her as I stood, slowly, putting my hands atop my head, fingers laced. Maybe I’d get points for knowing the drill. She was staring past me at the approaching cop. It wasn’t a friendly look.

“Don’t hurt him,” I said.

Her eyes flicked back to me. “We are not allowed to attack the police.” Her voice was thick with scorn. “I know the rules.”

I wanted to say, “What rules?” but didn’t. It was a good rule. The policeman could live with a rule like that. Of course, I wasn’t a cop, and I was betting the rules didn’t apply to me.

The cop came into view out of the comer of my eye. His gun was pointing at me. He kicked my knife out of reach. I saw it hit the building. A hand shoved into my back, getting my attention. “You don’t need to know where the knife went.”

He was right, for now. He frisked me one-handed. It wasn’t very thorough, and I wondered where his partner was.

“Enough,” the vampire said.

I felt the cop step back from me. “What’s going on here?”

Her power slithered past me, like a great beast had brushed me in the dark. I heard the policeman gasp.

“Nothing is happening here,” the vampire said. There was a flavoring of accent in her voice. German, maybe.

I heard his voice say, “Nothing is happening here.”

“Now go back to directing traffic,” she said.

I turned, slowly, hands still on my head. The cop was standing there, face empty, eyes wide. His gun was pointed at the ground, as if he’d forgotten he was holding it.

“Go away,” she said.

He stood there frozen. He was wearing his cross tie tack. He was wearing his blessed cross, just like he was supposed to, and it wasn’t doing much good.

I backed away from both of them. If she stopped paying attention to the cop, I wanted to be armed. I lowered my arms slowly, watching the cop. If she took her control off suddenly, and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, he might shoot me. Probably not, but maybe. If he saw me with the knife in my hand a second time, almost certainly.

“I don’t suppose you would remove his cross so I could order him about?”

My eyes flicked to the vampire. She was looking at me. The cop stirred, struggling like a dreamer in the grip of a nightmare. She turned her eyes back to him, and the struggles ceased.

“I don’t think so,” I said. I knelt, trying to keep my attention on both of them. I touched the knife, and wrapped cold fingers around it. My hands were stiff from being exposed to the cold for so long. I wasn’t sure how fast I could throw right at that moment. Maybe I should look into some gloves. Maybe ones with the fingertips cut out.

I shoved the knife in my coat pocket, hand still gripping it.

“Without the cross I could make him go away. Why can’t I control you like that?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

Her eyes flicked to me. Again, he stirred. She had to stare at him while she talked to me. It was interesting to see how much concentration it took. She was powerful but it had its limits.

“You are The Shadow of the Executioner ,” she said.

“What of it?”

“I didn’t believe the stories. Now I believe some of the stories.”

“Good for you. Now, what do you want?”

A slight smile curled her lipsticked mouth. “I want you to leave Jean-Claude alone.”

I blinked, not sure I’d heard right. “What do you mean, leave him alone?”

“Don’t date him. Don’t flirt with him. Don’t talk to him. Leave him alone.”

“No,” I said.

She turned to me, startled. You don’t get to surprise a two-hundred-year-old vamp often. Her face looked very human with its wide eyes and little oof surprise.

The cop gave a snort and looked around wildly. “What the hell?” He looked at both of us. We looked like two petite women out for the evening. He glanced down at his gun and seemed embarrassed. He didn’t remember why it was out. He put the gun away, muttering apologies and backing away from us. The vampire let him go.

“You won’t Jean-Claude leave alone?” she asked.

“Why should I?”

“Stay away from him, or I’ll kill you,” she said.

“You got a name?”

“I am Gretchen.”

“Well, Gretchen,” I said to her. “Don’t threaten me.”

“He’s mine, Anna Blake. Come against me at your peril.”

I shake my head. I was not a jealous type of girl, and I didn’t understand girls that were. If I liked someone, I could understand why someone else would like them too. I didn’t go around threatening a person’s girlfriend, just because I liked them.

“Gretchen, what are you and Anna talking about?” Jean-Claude stalked towards us. He was wearing, I kid you not, a black cape. It was a Victorian style with a collar. A top hat with a white silk band completed the look. So cute.

Gretchen gazed at him. It was the only word for it. The naked adoration in her face was sickening, and very human. “I wanted to meet my rival.”

“I told you to wait outside so you would not meet her. You knew that.” The last three words were spat out, thrown at her like rocks.

She flinched. “I meant no harm this night.”

That was almost a lie, but I didn’t say anything. I could have told him that she’d threatened me, but somehow it seemed like tattling. She’d gone to a lot of trouble to get me alone. To warn me off. Her love for him was so naked, it boarded obsession.It was kind of sad. I could not enlist his help against her. Foolish, but true.

She fell to her knees, hands held upward, not to avoid a blow, but beseeching, reaching for him. “Please, I only wanted to meet her. To see the mortal that would steal you from me.”

I did not want to see this, but it was like a car crash. I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave.

“She steals nothing. I have never loved you.”

The pain was raw on her face, and even under the makeup she looked less human. Her face was thinning out, bones growing more apparent, as if her skin were shrinking.

He grabbed her arm and pulled her roughly to her feet. His white-gloved fingers dug into her arm. If she’d been human, there would have been bruises. “Get hold of yourself, woman. You are losing control.”

Her thinning lips drew back from fangs. She hissed at him, jerking free of his hand. She covered her face with hands that were almost claws. I’d seen vampires show their true form, but never by accident, never in the open, where anyone might see. “I love you.” The words came out muffled and twisted, but the feeling in those three words was very real. Very… human.

“Get out of sight before you disgrace us all,” Jean-Claude said.

She raised a face to the light that was no longer human. The pale skin glowed with an inner light. The makeup sat on that glowing surface. The blush, eye shadow, lipstick seemed to float above the light, as if her skin would no longer absorb them. When she turned her head, I could see the bones in her jaws like shadows inside her skin. “This is not over between us, Anna Blake.” The words fell out from between fangs and teeth.

“Leave us!” Jean-Claude’s words were an echoing hiss.

She launched herself skyward, not a leap, not levitation, just upward. She vanished into the darkness with a backwash of wind.

“Sweet Jesus,” I whispered it.

“I am sorry, ma petite. I sent her out here so this would not happen.” He walked towards me in his elegant cape. A gust of icy wind whistled around the corner, and he had to make a grab for the top hat. It was nice to know that at least his clothing didn’t obey his every whim.

“I’ve got to go, Jean-Claude. The police are waiting for me.”

“I did not mean for this to happen tonight.”

“I know, but I’ve got to go.” I turned and walked towards my car.

“I am sorry, ma petite.” I whirled to tell him that I wasn’t angry. He wasn’t there. The streetlight glowed down on empty sidewalk.

———– 27

Chapter 27
There is a glimpse of stately old homes to the right just before you turn onto Highway 44. The houses hide behind a wrought-iron fence and a security gate. When the homes were built, they were the height of elegance and so was the neighborhood. Now the town houses are an island in a rising flood of project housing and dead-eyed children who shoot each other over a scuffed sneaker. But the old money stayed, determined to be elegant, even if it kills them.

In Fenton the Chrysler plant is still the largest employer. A side road runs past fast-food restaurants and local businesses. But the highway bypasses them all. A straight line going onward and not looking back. The Maritz building spans the highway with a covered crosswalk that looks big enough to hold offices. It gets your attention like an overly aggressive date, but I know the name of the business, and I can’t say that about many other buildings along 44. Sometimes aggressive works.

The Ozark Mountains rise on either side of the road. They are soft and rounded. Gentle mountains. On a sunny autumn day, with the trees blazing color, the mountains are startling in their beauty. On a cold December night with only my own headlights for company, the mountains sat like sleeping giants pressing close to the road. There was just enough snow to gleam white through the naked trees. The black shapes of evergreens were permanent shadows in the moonlight. A limestone cliff shone white where the mountains had been cracked open for a gravel pit.

Houses huddled at the base of the mountains. Neat farmhouses with front porches just made for sitting on. Not-so-neat houses made of unpainted wood with rusty tin roofs. Corrals sat in empty fields without a farmhouse near. A single horse stood in the icy cold, head down searching the tops of the winter-killed grass. A lot of people kept horses out past Eureka–people who couldn’t afford to live in Ladue or Chesterfield, where houses cost over half a mil a piece, but you did get barns, exercising pens, and a corral in your backyard. Here all you got was a shed, a corral, and miles to drive to visit your horse, but at least you had one. A lot of trouble to go to for a horse.

The white head of a road sign flashed in the headlights. I slowed down. A car had run into the pole and crumbled it like a broken flower stem. The sign was hard to read from a sixty-degree angle. Which was probably why Dolph had told me to look for the smashed sign rather than the street name.

I pulled onto the narrow road. In St. Louis we’d gotten about a three-inch snowfall. Here it looked more like six. The road hadn’t been plowed. It angled sharply upward, climbing into the hills. Tire tracks like wagon wheels made two lines through the snow. The police cars had gotten up the hill. So could my Jeep. In my old Nova I might have been wading fresh snow in high heels. Though I did have a pair of Nikes in the trunk. Still, jogging shoes weren’t a big improvement. Maybe I should buy a pair of boots.

It just didn’t snow that much in St. Louis. This was one of the deepest snowfalls I’d seen in four years. Boots seemed sort of unnecessary.

The trees curled over the road, naked branches bouncing in the headlights. Wet, icy trunks bent towards the road. In summertime the road would be a leafy tunnel, now it was just black bones erupting from the white snow.

At the crest of the hill there was a heavy stone wall. It had to be ten feet tall, and effectively hid anything on the left-hand side of the road. It had to be the monastery.

About a hundred yards further there was a plaque set in the wall next to a spiked gate. St. Ambrose Monastery was done in raised letters, metal on metal. A driveway curved up and out of sight around a curve of hill. And just across from the entrance was a smaller gravel road. The car tracks climbed into the darkness ahead of me and vanished over the next hill. If the gate hadn’t been there for a landmark, I might have missed it. It was only when I turned the Jeep to an angle that my lights caught the tire tracks leading off to the right.

I wondered what all the heavy traffic was up ahead. Not my problem. I eased onto the smaller road. Branches scraped at the Jeep, scratching down the gleaming paint job like fingernails on a chalkboard. Great, just great.

I’d never had a brand-new car before. That first ding, where I’d run over a snow-covered tombstone, had been the hardest. After the first damage the rest was easy to take. Riiight.

The land opened up to either side of the narrow road. A large meadow with winter-killed weeds waist high, weighted down with snow. Lightning flashes of red and blue strobed over the snow, chasing back the darkness. The meadow stopped abruptly in a perfect straight line where the mower had cut it. A white farmhouse, complete with screened-in porch, sat at the end of the road. Cars were everywhere, like a child’s spilled toys. I hoped the road formed a turn around under the snow. If not, the cars were parked all over the grass. My grandmother Blake had hated it when people parked on the grass.

A lot of the cars had their motors running, including the ambulance. There were people sitting in the cars, waiting. But for what? By the time I got to a crime scene, all the work was usually done. Something was up.

I pulled in next to a St. Gerard County Sheriff car. One policeman was standing in the driver’s side door, leaning on the roof. He’d been staring at the knot of men near the farmhouse, but he turned to stare at me. He didn’t look happy with what he saw. His Smokey Bear hat shielded his face but left his ears and the back of his head open to the cold. He was pale and freckled and at least six foot two. His shoulders were very broad in his dark winter jacket. He looked like a large man who had always been large, and thought that made him tough. His hair was some pale shade that absorbed the colors of flashing lights, so his hair looked alternately blue and red. As did his face, and the snow, and everything else.

I got out of the car very carefully, and kept a death grip on the car door. The last thing I wanted to do was fall on my ass in front of the St. Gerard County Sheriff Department. The deputy sheriff was walking very purposefully towards me.

He stopped within reach of me. I didn’t let strange men get that close to me normally but to back up I’d have to let go of the car door. Besides he was the police, I wasn’t supposed to be afraid of the police. Right?

“This is police business, ma’am, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“I’m Anna Blake. I work with Sergeant Rudolf Storr.”

“You’re not a cop.” He seemed very certain of that. I sort of resented his tone.

“No, I’m not.”

“Then you’re going to have to leave.”

“Can you tell Sergeant Storr that I’m here… please.” Never hurts to be polite.

“I’ve asked you real nice twice now to leave. Don’t make me ask a third time.”

All he had to do was reach out and grab my arm, shove me into the Jeep, and away we went. I certainly wasn’t going to draw my knife on a cop with a lot of other cops within shouting distance. I didn’t want to get shot tonight.

What could I do? I shut the car door very carefully and leaned against it. If I was careful and didn’t move around too much, I might not fall down. If I did, maybe I could claim police brutality.

“Now, why did you do that?”

“I drove forty-five minutes and left a date to get here.” Try to appeal to his better nature. “Let me talk to Sergeant Storr and if he says I need to leave, I’ll leave.”

“I don’t care if you flew in from outta state. I say you leave. Right now.”

He didn’t have a better nature.

He reached for me. I stepped back, out of reach. My left foot found a patch of ice and I ended up on my ass in the snow.

The deputy looked sort of startled. He offered me a hand up without thinking about it. I climbed to my feet using the Jeep’s bumper, moving farther away from Deputy Sullen at the same time. He figured this out. The frown lines on his forehead deepened.

Snow clung in wet clumps to my coat and glided in melting runnels down my legs. I was getting pissed off.

He strode around the Jeep.

I backpedaled using my hands on the car as traction. “We can play ring-around-the-Rosie if you want to, Deputy, but I’m not leaving until I’ve talked to Dolph.”

“Your sergeant isn’t in charge here.” He stepped a little closer.

I backed away. “Then find someone who is.”

“You don’t need to talk to anyone but me,” he said. He took three rapid steps towards me. I backed up faster. If we kept this up we’d be running around the car like a Marx brothers movie, or would that be the Keystone Kops?

“You’re running from me.”

I was almost around the back of the Jeep, we’d be back where we started soon. Over the crackle of police radios you could hear angry voices. One of them sounded like Dolph. I wasn’t the only one having trouble with the local cops. Though I seemed to be the only one being chased around a car.

“Stop, right where you are,” he said.

“If I don’t?”

He unclicked the flap on his holster. His hand rested on the butt of his gun. No words necessary.

This guy was crazy.

I might be able to get to my knife before he could draw his gun, but he was a cop. And trying to explain to other cops why you hurt a cop. They get testy as hell about stuff like that.

I couldn’t draw my knife. I couldn’t outrun him. Arm wrestling seemed to be out. I did the only thing I could think of. I yelled “Dolph, Zerbrowski! Get your butts over here.”

The shouting stopped as if someone had clicked a switch. Silence and the crackle of radios were the only sounds. I glanced towards the men. Dolph was glancing my way. At six foot eight inches, Dolph towered over everyone else. I waved a hand at him. Not frantically, but I wanted to be sure he saw me.

The deputy drew his gun. It took everything I had not to go for my knife. But this bugnut was looking for an excuse. I wasn’t going to give it to him. If he shot me anyway, I was going to be pissed.

His gun was a .357 Magnum, great for whale hunting. It was overkill for almost anything on two legs. That was human. I felt very human staring down that gun barrel. My eyes flicked up to his face. He wasn’t frowning anymore. He looked very determined, and very sure of himself, as if he could pull the trigger and not get caught.

I wanted to yell for Dolph again, but didn’t. The fool might pull the trigger. At this distance with that caliber of weapon I was dead meat. All I could do was stand there in the snow, my feet going slowly numb, hands gripping the car. At least he hadn’t asked me to put my hands up. Guess he didn’t want me to fall down again until he splattered my brains all over the new paint job.

It was Detective Clive Perry who walked towards us. His dark face reflected the lights like ebony. He was tall, though not as tall as the deputy from hell. His slender frame was enclosed in a pale camel’s-hair coat. A hat that matched it perfectly sat atop his head. It was a nice hat and couldn’t be pulled low enough to cover his ears. Most nice hats couldn’t be. You had to get a toboggan hat, something knit that would ruin your hair to keep your ears warm. Not stylish. Of course, I wasn’t wearing a hat at all. Didn’t want to muss my hair.

Dolph had gone back to yelling at someone. I couldn’t tell exactly what color uniform he was yelling at, there were at least two flavors to choose from. I caught a glimpse of a wildly gesturing arm, the rest of the man lost behind the small crowd. I’d never seen anybody wave their fists in Dolph’s face. When you’re six foot eight and built like a wrestler, most people are a little afraid of you. Probably wise.

“Ms. Blake, we’re not quite ready for you,” Perry said.

He always called everyone by title and last name. He was one of the most polite people I’d ever met. Soft-spoken, hardworking, courteous, so what had he done to end up on the Spook Squad?

The squad’s full title was the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team. They handled all preternatural-related crime in the area. A sort of permanent floating special task force. I don’t think anyone planned on the squad actually solving cases. Their success rate was high enough that Dolph had been invited to lecture at Quantico. Lecturing to the FBI’s preternatural research branch was not shabby.

I kept staring at the deputy and his gun. I wasn’t going to glance away a second time. I didn’t really believe he’d shoot me, but I wasn’t sure. There was something in his face that said he’d do it, that maybe he wanted to do it. You give some people a gun and they turn into bullies. Legally armed bullies.

“Hello, Detective Perry. The deputy here and I seem to have a problem.”

“Deputy Aikensen, do you have your gun out?” Perry’s voice was soft, calm, a voice to talk jumpers off of ledges, or madmen out of hostages.

Aikensen turned his head, glancing back at Perry. “No civilians allowed at a murder scene, sheriff’s orders.”

“I don’t think Sheriff Titus meant for you to shoot the civilians, Deputy.”

He glanced back at Perry. “You making fun of me?”

There was enough time. I could have pulled my knife. I wanted to shove it in his ribs. I wanted him disarmed, but I behaved myself. It took more willpower than was pretty, but I didn’t draw my knife. I wasn’t ready to kill him. If you draw weapons, there is always the chance someone will end up dead. Unless you want someone dead, you don’t draw, simple as that. But it hurt something deep down inside when the deputy turned back to me with his gun still out. So far my ego was taking a lot of bruising, but I could live with that, and so could Deputy Aikensen.

“Sheriff said I wasn’t to let anybody but police into the perimeter.”

“Perimeter” was a pretty fancy word for someone this stupid. Of course, it was a military term. He’d probably been dying to use it in conversation for years.

“Deputy Aikensen, this is our preternatural expert, Anna Blake.”

He shook his head. “No civvies, unless the sheriff okays it.”

Perry glanced back towards Dolph, and what I now assumed was the sheriff.

“He’s not even allowing us near the body, Deputy. What do you think the chances are of Sheriff Titus saying a civilian can see the body?”

Aikensen grinned then, most unpleasant. “Slim and none.” He still held the gun very steady on the middle of my body. He was enjoying himself.

“Put the gun away and Ms. Blake will leave,” Perry said.

I opened my mouth to say, The heck I will, but Perry gave a small shake of his head. I kept quiet. He had a plan, better than what I had.

“I don’t take orders from no nigger detective.”

“Jealous,” I said.

“What?”

“That he’s a big city detective and you’re not.”

“I don’t have to take crap from you, either, bitch.”

“Ms. Blake, please, let me handle this.”

“You can’t handle shit,” Aikensen said.

“You’ve been totally uncooperative and rude, you and your sheriff. You can call me all the names you like, if that makes you feel better, but I can’t let you point a gun at one of our people.”

A look passed over Aikensen’s face. I could see the thought flicker into life. Perry was a cop, too. He probably had a gun, and Aikensen had his back to him. The deputy whirled, bringing the gun up as he moved. His hand flexed.

I went for my knife.

Perry’s empty hands were held out from his body, showing he was unarmed.

Aikensen was breathing hard. He raised the gun to head level, two-handed, steady, no hurry.

Someone noticed us and yelled, “What the fuck?” Indeed.

I had the knife to the deputy’s throat before anyone could blink. “Freeze, Aikensen, or I will slit your throat.”

He froze.

People were running towards us, shouting. But they wouldn’t get here in time. It was just the three of us in the psychedelic snow, waiting.

“Put the gun down, Aikensen, now.”

“No.”

“Put it down or I’ll kill you.”

“Anna, you don’t need to this. He’s not going to hurt me,” Perry said. It was the only time he’d ever used my first name.

“I don’t need no nigger protecting me.”‘ His shoulders tensed. I couldn’t see his hands well enough to be sure, but I thought he was pulling the trigger. I started to put pressure into the blade.

A bellowing voice yelled, “Aikensen, put that damn gun down!”

Aikensen pointed the gun skyward, just like that. He hadn’t been pulling the trigger at all. He was just jumpy. I felt a giggle at the back of my throat. I’d almost killed him for being twitchy. I swallowed the laugh and eased off his neck a little. Did Deputy Numb-nuts know how close he’d come?

“Aikensen, I said put the damn gun up. Before you get somebody killed.” The man that went with the voice was about five foot six and must have weighed over two hundred pounds. He looked perfectly round like a sausage with arms and legs. His winter jacket strained over his round little tummy. A clear, grey stubble decorated his double chins. His eyes were small, nearly lost in the doughiness of his face. His badge glittered on his jacket front. He hadn’t left it inside on his shirt. He’d pinned it outside, where the big city detectives couldn’t miss it. Sort of like unzipping your fly so company could see you were well-endowed.

“This nigger…”

“We don’t hold with talk like that, Deputy, you know that.”

From the look on Aikensen’s face you’d have thought the sheriff had told him there was no Santa Claus. I was betting the sheriff was a good ol’ boy in the worst sense of the word. But there was intelligence in those beady little eyes, more than you could say for Aikensen.

“Put it away, boy, that’s an order.” His southern accent was getting thicker, either for show, or because he was getting teed off at Aikensen. A lot of people’s accents got stronger under stress. It wasn’t a Missouri accent. Something further south.

Aikensen finally, reluctantly, put up the gun. He didn’t snap the holster closed, though. He was cruising for a bruising. I was just glad I hadn’t been the one to give it to him. Of course if I’d cut his thraot before Aikensen had raised his gun skyward, I’d never have known he wasn’t pulling his trigger.

Sheriff Titus put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and looked at me. “Now, miss, you can put your knife away, too. Aikensen here isn’t going to shoot nobody.”

I just stared at him. I had been ready to put the knife away until he told me to do it. I’m not big on being told anything. I just stared at him.

His face still looked friendly, but his eyes lost their shine. Angry. He didn’t like being defied. Great. Make my night.

Three other deputies gathered at Titus’s back. They all looked sullen and ready to do anything their sheriff asked them to do.

“Anna, put the knife away.” Dolph’s usual pleasant tenor was harsh with anger. Like what he wanted to say was cut the son of a bitch, but it would be hard to explain to his superiors.

Though not officially my boss, I listened to Dolph. He’d earned it.

I took the knife from Aikensen’s throat, and put it away.

Dolph was made up of blunt angles. His black hair was cut very short, leaving his ears naked to the cold. His hands were plunged into the pockets of a long black trench coat. The coat looked too thin for the weather, but maybe it was lined. Though he was a little too bulky to leave room for him and a lining in the same coat.

He beckoned Perry and me to one side, and said softly, “Tell me what happened.”

We did.

“You really think he was going to shoot you?”

Perry stared down at the trampled snow for a moment, then looked up. “I’m not sure, Sergeant.”

“Anna?”

“I thought he was, Dolph.”

“You don’t sound sure now.”

“The only thing I’m sure of is that I was going to kill him. Dolph, what the hell is going on? If I end up killing a cop tonight, I’d like to know why.”

“I didn’t think anybody was stupid enough to pull a weapon,” Dolph said. His shoulders hunched, the cloth of his coat straining to hold the movement.

“Well, don’t look now,” I said, “but Deputy Aikensen has still got his hand right over his weapon. He’s just aching to draw it again.”

Dolph drew a large breath in through his nose and let it out in a white whoosh of breath from his mouth. “Let’s go talk to Sheriff Titus.”

“We’ve been talking to the sheriff for over an hour,” Perry said. “He isn’t listening.”

“I know, Detective, I know.” Dolph kept walking towards the waiting sheriff and his deputies. Perry and I followed. What else could we do? Besides, I wanted to know why an entire crime-scene unit was standing around twiddling their thumbs.

Perry and I took a post to either side of Dolph, like sentries. Without thinking about it we were both a step back from him. He was, after all, our leader. But the automatic staging irked me. Made me want to step forward, be an equal, but I didn’t.

Aikensen’s hand was gripping the butt of his gun tight. Would he actually draw down on all of us? Surely, even he wasn’t that stupid. He was glaring at me, nothing but anger showed in his eyes. Maybe he was that stupid.

“Titus, tell your man there to get his hand away from his gun,” Dolph said.

Titus glanced at Aikensen. He sighed. “Aikensen, get your damned hand away from your damn gun.”

“She’s a civilian. She attacked a policeman.”

“You’re lucky she didn’t kill your ass,” Titus said. “Now, fasten the holster and tone it down a notch, or I’m going to make you go home.”

Aikensen’s face looked even more sullen. But he fastened his holster and plunged his hands into the pockets of his coat. Unless he had a derringer in his pocket, we were safe. Of course, he was just the sort of yahoo that would carry a backup weapon. Truthfully, sometimes so did I, but only when the alligator factor was high. Neck deep.

Footsteps crunched through the snow behind us. I turned halfway so I could keep an eye on Aikensen and see the new arrivals.

Three people in navy blue uniforms came to stand on the other side of us. The tall man in front had a badge on his hat that said police chief. One of his deputies was tall, so thin he looked gaunt, and too young to shave. The second deputy was a woman. Surprise, surprise. I’m usually the only female at a crime scene. She was small, only a little taller than I, thin, with close-cropped hair hidden under her Smokey Bear hat. The only thing I could tell in the flashing lights was that everything on her was pale, from her eyes to her hair. She was pretty in a pixielike way, cute. She stood with her feet apart, hands on her Sam Brown belt. She was carrying a gun that was a little too big for her hands. I was betting she wouldn’t like being called cute.

She was either going to be another pain in the ass, like Aikensen, or a kindred spirit.

The police chief was at least twenty years older than either deputy. He was tall, not as tall as Dolph, but then who was? He had a salt-and-pepper mustache, pale eyes, and was ruggedly handsome. One of those men who might not have been very attractive as a young man, but age had given his face character, depth. Like Sean Connery who was better looking at sixty than he had been at twenty.

“Titus, why don’t you let these good people get on with their work? We’re all cold and tired and want to go home.”

Titus’s small eyes flared to life. A lot of anger there. “This is county business, Garroway, not city business. You and your people are out of your jurisdiction.”

“Holmes and Lind were on their way into work when the call came over the radio that somebody had found a body. Your man Aikensen here said he was tied up and couldn’t get to the body for at least an hour. Holmes offered to sit with the body and make sure the crime scene stayed pure. My deputies didn’t touch anything or do anything. They were just baby-sitting the crime scene for your people. What is wrong with that?” Garroway said.

“Garroway, the murder was found on our turf. It was our body to take care of. We didn’t need any help. And you had no right to call in the Spook Squad without clearing it with me first,” Titus said.

Police Chief Garroway spread his hands in a push-away gesture. “Holmes saw the body. She made the call. She thought the man hadn’t been killed by anything human. Protocol is we call in the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team anytime we suspect supernatural activity.”

“Well, Aikensen and Troy here don’t think it was anything supernatural. A hunter gets eaten up by a bear and your little lady there jumps the gun.”

Holmes opened her mouth but the chief held up a hand. “It’s all right, Holmes.” She settled back down, but she didn’t like it.

“Why don’t we ask Sergeant Storr here what he thinks killed the man?” Garroway said.

I was close enough to hear Dolph sigh.

“She had no right to let people near the body without us there to supervise,” Titus said.

Dolph said, “Gentlemen, we have a dead body in the woods. The crime scene is not getting any younger. Valuable evidence is being lost, while we stand here and argue.”

“A bear attack is not a crime scene, Sergeant,” Titus said.

“Ms. Blake is our preternatural expert. If she says it was a bear attack, we’ll all go home. If she says it was preternatural, you let us do our job, and treat it as a crime scene. Agreed?”

“Ms. Blake, Ms. Anna Blake?”

Dolph nodded.

Titus squinted at me, as if trying to bring me into focus. “You’re The Shadow of the Executioner ?”

“Some people call me that, yeah.”

“This little bit of a girl has over a dozen vampire kills under her belt?” There was laughter in his voice, disbelief.

I shrugged. It was actually higher than that now, but a lot of them were unsanctioned kills. Not something I wanted the police to know about. Vampires have rights, and killing them without a warrant is murder. “I’m the legal vampire executioner for the area. You got a problem with that?”

“Anna,” Dolph said.

I glanced at him, then back at the sheriff. I wasn’t going to say anything more, honest, but he did.

“I just don’t believe a little thing like yourself coulda done all the things I’ve heard.”

“Look, it’s cold, it’s late, let me see the body and we can all go home.”

“I don’t need a civilian woman to tell me my job.”

“That’s it,” I said.

“Anna?” Dolph said. That one word told me not to say it, not to do it, whatever it was.

“We have licked enough jurisdictional butt for one night, Dolph.”

A man appeared, offering us steaming mugs on a tray. The smell of coffee mingled with the scent of snow. The man was tall. There was a lot of that going around tonight. A lock of white-blond hair obscured one eye. He wore round metal-framed glasses that made his face look even younger than it was. A dark toboggan hat was pulled low over his ears. Thick gloves, a multicolored parka, jeans, and hiking boots completed his outfit. He didn’t look fashionable but he was dressed for the weather. My feet had gone numb in the snow.

I took a mug of coffee gratefully. I normally didn’t drink coffee, but if we were going to stand out here and argue, hot anything sounded like a great idea. “Thanks.”

The man smiled. “You’re welcome.” Everybody was taking a mug but not everybody was saying thank you. Where were their manners?

“I’ve been sheriff of this county since before you were born, Ms. Blake. It’s my county. I don’t need any help from the likes of you.” He sipped his coffee. He had said thank you.

“The likes of me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Let it go, Anna.”

I looked up at Dolph. I didn’t want to let it go. I sipped at the coffee. Hmm, I still liked tea better. I stared into Titus’s little piggy eyes and smiled.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to say, you, but the coffee man interrupted. “I’m Samuel Williams. I’m the caretaker here. I live in the little house behind the nature center. I found the body.” He held his now-empty tray down at his side.

“I’m Sergeant Storr, Mr. Williams. These are my associates, Detective Perry, and Ms. Blake.”

Williams dunked his head in acknowledgment.

“You know all of us, Samuel,” Titus said.

“Yes, I do,” Williams said. He didn’t seem too excited about knowing them all.

He nodded at Chief Garroway and his deputies. “I told Deputy Holmes that I didn’t think it was a natural animal. I still don’t, but if it is a bear, it slaughtered that man. Any animal that’ll do that once will do it again.” He looked down at the snow, then up, like a man rising from deep water. “It ate parts of that man. It stalked him and treated him like a prey animal. If it really is a bear, it needs to be caught before it kills somebody else.”

“Samuel here has a degree in biology,” Titus said.

“So did my mother,” I said. Of course, her degree was in preternatural biology, but hey, biology is biology, right?

“I’m working on my doctorate,” Williams said.

“Yeah, studying owl shit,” Aikensen said.

It was hard to tell, but I think Williams blushed. “I’m studying the feeding habits of the barred owl.”

My mother had a degree in biology, so I knew what that meant. He was collecting owl shit and regurgitated pellets to dissect. So Aikensen was right. Sort of.

“Will your doctorate be in ornithology or strigiology?” I asked. I was proud of myself for remembering the Latin name for owls.

Williams looked at me with a sense of kinship in his eyes. “Ornithology.”

Titus looked like he’d swallowed a worm. “I don’t need no college degree to know a bear attack when I see it.”

“The last reported bear sighting in St. Gerard County was in 1941,” Williams said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a bear attack reported.” The implication just sat there. How did Titus know a bear attack from beans if he’d never seen one?

Titus threw his coffee out on the snow. “Listen here, college boy–”

“Maybe it is a bear,” Dolph said.

We all looked at him. Titus nodded. “That’s what I’ve been saying.”

“Then you better order up a helicopter and get some dogs out here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“An animal that’d slice up a man and eat him might break into houses. No telling how many people the bear might kill.” Dolph’s face was unreadable, just as serious as if he believed what he was saying.

“Now, I don’t want to get dogs down here. Start a panic if people thought there was a mad bear loose. Remember how crazy everyone got when that pet cougar got loose about five years ago. People were shooting at shadows.”

Dolph just looked at him. We all looked at him. If it was a bear, he needed to treat it like a bear. If it wasn’t…

Titus shifted uncomfortably in his heavy boots in the snow. “Maybe Ms. Blake ought to have a look.” He rubbed the cold tip of his nose. “Wouldn’t want to start a panic for the wrong reasons.”

He didn’t want people to think there was a rampaging bear on the loose. But he didn’t mind people thinking there was a monster on the loose. Or maybe Sheriff Titus didn’t believe in monsters. I wonder what he’d but if he knew he was talking to one.

Whatever, we were on our way to the murder scene. Possible murder scene. I made everyone wait while I put on my Nikes and the coveralls that I kept for crime scenes and vampire stakings. Hated getting blood on my clothes.

Titus made Aikensen stay with the cars. Hoped he didn’t shoot anybody while we were gone

——— 28

Chapter 28
All I saw was the snow. It had pooled into a deep drift in one of those hollows that you find in the woods. In spring the holes fill with rain and mud. In fall they pile deep with leaves. In winter they hold the deepest snow. The moonlight carved each footprint, every scuff mark into high relief. Every print filled like a cup with blue shadows.

I stood at the edge of the clearing staring down at the mishmash of tracks. Somewhere in all this were the murderer’s tracks, or a bear’s tracks, but unless it was an animal I didn’t know how anyone was going to figure out which tracks were significant. Maybe all crime scenes were tracked up this much, the snow just made it obvious. Or maybe this scene had been screwed over. Yeah.

If the creature had come up behind the man, there should have been some mark in the snow. Maybe not a whole print but something. Every print I found wore shoes. Whatever had done this hadn’t worn shoes. Even with a herd of squabbling cops trampling through there should have been some imprint of claws and animal tracks. I couldn’t find any. Maybe the crime techs would have better luck. I hoped so.

If there were no prints, could it have flown in? A gargoyle, maybe? It was the only large winged predator that attacked man. Except for dragons, but they weren’t native to this country, and it would have been a hell of a lot messier. Or maybe a lot neater. A dragon would simply have swallowed the man whole.

Gargoyles will attack and kill a man, but it’s rare. Besides the nearest pack was in Kelly, Kentucky. The Kelly gargoyles were a small subspecies that had attacked people but never killed. They were mostly carrion eaters. In France there were three species of gargoyles that were man-sized or better. They’d eat you. But there’d never been anything that large in America.

What else could it be? There were a few lesser eastern trolls in the Ozarks, but not this close to St. Louis. Besides I’d seen pictures of troll kills, and this wasn’t it. The claws were too curved, too long. Trolls looked frightfully human, but then they were primates.

A lesser troll wouldn’t attack a human if it had a choice. A greater mountain troll might have, but they had been extinct for more than twenty years. Also they had a tendency to snap off trees and whap people to death, then eat them.

I didn’t think it was anything as exotic as trolls or gargoyles. If there’d been tracks leading up to the body, I’d have been sure it was a lycanthrope kill. Trolls had been known to wear castoff clothing. So a troll could have tramped through the snow, or a gargoyle could have flown up, but a lycanthrope… they had to walk on naked feet that wouldn’t fit any human shoe. So how?

I would have slapped my forehead, but didn’t. If you do that at murder scenes, you got blood in your hair. I looked up. Humans almost never look up. Millions of years of evolution had conditioned us to ignore the sky. Nothing was big enough to take us from above. But that didn’t mean something couldn’t jump on us.

A tree branch snaked out over the hollow. The penlight picked out fresh white scars against the black limb. A shapeshifter had crouched on the bark, waiting for the man to walk underneath. Ambush, premeditation, murder.

“What do you think it was, Ms. Expert?” Sheriff Titus asked.

“Shapeshifter.”

Even in the darkness I could feel the weight of his eyes. He blew a ghostly cloud of smoke moonward. “You think so.”

“I know so,” I said.

He gave a sharp hmphsound. “Awful sure of yourself, ain’t ya?”

“You want to come down here, Sheriff. I’ll show you what I’ve found.”

He hesitated, then shrugged. “Why not?” He came down the slope like a bulldozer, heavy boots forming snowy wakes. “Okay, Ms. Expert, dazzle me.”

“You are a pain in the ass, Titus.”

Dolph sighed a white cloud of breath.

Titus thought that was real funny, laughed, doubled over, slapping his leg. “You are just a laugh a minute, Ms. Blake. Now, tell me what you got.”

“All lycanthropes are shapeshifters by definition, but not all shapeshifters are lycanthropes. Lycanthropy is a disease that you catch from surviving an attack or getting a bad batch of lycanthropy vaccine.”

He looked at me. “You can get it from the vaccine?”

“It happens.”

“How can you be a shapeshifter and not a lycanthrope?”

“Most often an inherited condition. The family guardian dog, beast, giant cat. Mostly European. One person a generation has the genes and changes.”

“Is that tied to the moon like normal lycanthropy?”

“No. A family guardian comes out when the family needs it. War, or some kind of physical danger. There are swanmanes. They are tied to the moon, but it’s still an inherited condition.”

“That it?”

“You can be cursed, but that’s really rare.”

“Why?”

I shrugged. “You’ve got to find a witch or something with magic powerful enough to curse somebody with shapeshifting. I’ve read spells for personal shapeshifting. The potions are so full of narcotics that you might believe you were an animal. You might also believe you were the Chrysler building, or you might just die. Real spells for it are a lot more complex and usually require a human sacrifice. A curse is a step up from a spell. It’s not really a spell at all.”

I tried to think how to explain it. “A curse is like the ultimate act of will. You just gather all your power, magic, whatever, and focus it on one person. You will them to be cursed. You always do it in person, so they know it’s been done. Some theories think it takes the victim’s belief to make a curse work. I’m not sure I buy that.”

“Are witches the only people that can curse people?”

“Occasionally somebody will run afoul of a fairy. One of the old Daoine sidhe, but you’d have to be in Europe for that. England, Ireland, parts of Scotland. In this country it’d be a witch.”

“So a shapeshifter, but we don’t know what kind or even how they got to be a shapeshifter.”

“Not from a few marks and tracks, no.”

“If you saw the shifter face-to-face could you tell what kind they were?”

“What animal?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Nope.”

“Could you tell if they’d been cursed or if it was a disease?”

“Nope.”

He just looked at me. “I thought you were an expert.”

“I’m better with the dead. Give me a vamp or a zombie and I’ll tell you their Social Security number. Some of that is natural talent, but a lot of it is practice. I haven’t had as much experience with shapeshifters.”

“What questions can you answer?”

“Ask and find out,” I said.

“You think this is a brand-new shapeshifter?” Sheriff Titus asked.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“The first time you change on the night of the full moon. It’s too early for a brand-new shifter. But it could be a second, or third month, but…”

“But what?”

“If this is still a lycanthrope that can’t control itself, that kills indiscriminately, it should still be here. Hunting us.”

Dolph glanced out into the darkness. He held his notebook and pen in one hand, right hand free for his gun. The movement was automatic.

“Don’t sweat it, Dolph. If it was going to eat more people, it would have taken Williams or the deputies.”

His gaze searched the darkness, then came back to the sheriff and I.

“So the shapeshifter could control itself?” Sheriff Titus asked.

“Yep.”

“Then why kill the man?”

I shrugged. “Why does anyone kill? Lust, greed, rage.”

“The animal form used as a murder weapon then,” Dolph said.

“Yeah.”

“Is it still in animal form?” Titus asked.

“This was done by a half-and-half form, sort of a wolfman.”

“A werewolf.”

I shook my head. “I can’t tell what sort of animal it is. The wolfman was just an example. It could be any sort of mammal.”

“Just a mammal?”

“These wounds, yeah. I know there are avian weres, but they don’t do this sort of damage.”

“So werebirds?”

“Yeah, but that’s not what did this.”

“Any guesses?”

He took a long drag on his cig. The end flared bright in the darkness. “Guess it wasn’t a bear, after all.”

He wasn’t going to argue. Bliss. “No, it wasn’t.”

“Cougar?” he said, sort of hopefully.

I stood carefully. “You know it wasn’t.”

“Shapeshifter,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“There hasn’t been a rogue shapeshifter in this county for ten years.”

“How many did it kill?” I asked.

He took in a lungful of smoke and blew it out slowly. “Five.”

I nodded. “I missed that case. It was before my time.”

“Yeah.”

He threw his cigarette in the snow and ground it out with his boot. “I wanted it to be a bear. ”

“Me, too,” I said.

Titus asked me to stick around in case they found someone in the area. I was their best bet for figuring out if the person was a lycanthrope or some innocent schmuck. Beat the heck out of cutting off a hand to see if there was fur on the inside of the body. If you were wrong, what did you do, apologize?

There had been some lycanthrope tracks leading up to the murder scene. Plaster casts had been made, and at my suggestion, copies were being sent to the biology department at Washington University. I had almost addressed it to Dr. Louis Fane. He taught biology at Wash U A. A nice guy and wererat. A deep, dark secret that might be jeopardized if I started addressing lycanthrope paw prints to him. Addressing it to the entire department pretty much guaranteed Louie would see it.

That had been my greatest contribution of the night. They were still searching when I drove off.

——– 29

Chapter 29
When I shut my car door, there was an echo. A second car door slammed shut. I was tired, but it was automatic to search the small parking lot for that second car. Irving Griswold stood four cars down, bundled in a Day-Glo orange parka with a striped muffler trailing around his neck. His brown hair formed a frizzy halo to his bald spot. Tiny round glasses perched on a button nose. He looked jolly and harmless, and was a werewolf, too. Seemed to be my night for it.

Irving was a reporter on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.Any story about me and Animators, Inc., usually had his byline on it. He smiled as he walked towards me. Just your friendly neighborhood reporter. Yeah, right.

“What do you want, Irving?”

“Is that any way to greet someone who has spent the last three hours in his car waiting for you?”

“What do you want, Irving?” Maybe if I just kept repeating the question over and over, I’d wear him down.

The smile faded from his round little face. He looked solemn and worried. “We’ve got to talk, Anna.”

“Will this be a long story?”

He seemed to think about that for a moment, then nodded. “Could be.”

“Then come upstairs. I’ll fix you both some real coffee.”

“Real coffee as opposed to fake coffee?” he asked.

I started for the stairs. “I’ll fix you a cup of java that’ll put hair on your chest.”

He laughed.

I realized I’d made a pun and hadn’t meant to. I know Irving is a shapeshifter. I’ve even seen his wolf form. But I forget. He’s a friend and doesn’t seem the least preternatural in human form.

We sat at the small kitchenette table,and he sipping vanilla nut creme coffee. “I thought you were on a date tonight, Blake.”

“I had to work.”

Irving blew on his cup, sipping it delicately. His eyes had flicked from side to side, taking in everything. Days from now he’d be able to describe the room completely, down to the Nike Airs and jogging socks in front of the couch.

“What’s up, Irving?”

“Great coffee.” He wouldn’t meet my eyes. It was a bad sign.

“What’s wrong?”

“Has Jean-Claude told you anything about Marcus?”

“Your pack leader, right?”

Irving looked surprised. “He told you?”

“I found out tonight that your alpha is named Marcus. There’s a battle of succession going on. Marcus wants Richard dead. Richard says he won’t fight him.”

“Oh, he fought him, all right,” Irving said.

It was my turn to be surprised. “Then why isn’t Richard pack leader?”

“Richard got squeamish. He had him, Blake, claws at Marcus’s throat.” Irving shook his head. “He thought when Marcus recovered they could talk, compromise.” He made a rude sound. “He’s an idealist.”

Idealist. It was almost the same thing as fool. Jean-Claude and Irving agreed. They didn’t agree on much.

“Explain.”

“You can move up in the pack hierarchy by fighting. You win, you go up a notch. You lose, you stay where you are.” He took a long sip of coffee, eyes closed as if drinking in the warmth. “Until you fight for pack leader.”

“Let me guess. It’s a fight to the death.”

“No killie, no new leader,” he said.

I shook my head, coffee sitting untouched in front of me. “Why are you telling me all this, Irving? Why now?”

“Marcus wants to meet you.”

“Why?”

Irving shrugged. “Richard won’t give Marcus a freaking inch. If Marcus said black, Richard would say white.”

“But why does Marcus want to see me?”

“I don’t know,” Irving said.

“Yeah, right.”

“Honest, Blake, I don’t know what’s going on. Something big is up, and no one’s talking to me.”

“Why not? You’re a shapeshifter.”

“I’m also a reporter. I made the mistake years back of printing an article. The lycanthrope I talked to lied, said he never gave me permission to quote him. He lost his job. Some of the others wanted to out me, too, let me lose my job.” He huddled around his coffee mug. Eyes distant with remembering. “Marcus said no, said I was more valuable to them as a reporter. No one’s really trusted me since.”

“Not a forgiving bunch,” I said.

“They never forgive and they never forget,” Irving said.

Sounds like a bad character trait. “So Marcus sent you out here to talk to me. About what?”

“He wants to meet you. To talk some kind of business.”

“Let him make an appointment to come to my office.”

Irving shook his head. “Marcus is some hotshot surgeon. You know what would happen if even a hint of what he is got out?”

I could understand that. You might get away with being a shapeshifter on some jobs. Doctor was not one of them. There was still the dentist in Texas that was being sued by a patient. Said she contracted lycanthropy from him. Nonsense. You didn’t get it from having human hands in your mouth. But the case hadn’t been thrown out. People didn’t have a lot of sympathy for fur balls treating their kid’s sparkling teeth.

“Okay, send someone else to the office. Surely, Marcus must trust someone.”

“Richard has forbidden anyone to contact you.”

I just looked at him. “Forbidden?”

Irving nodded. “Anyone lower in the pack order contacts you at their peril.”

I started to smile and stopped. He was serious. “Why would Richard do that?”

He rolled his eyes. “Come on, Blake .”

“What?”

He shock his head. “Richard likes you, Anna. He doesn’t want you to get hurt.”

I still hadn’t gotten my head around that one yet. Evil vampires need killing? Yeah. Sure, no big deal. Richard likes me? WHAT!

“When does Marcus want to meet?” I asked.

“Tonight.” Irving had the grace to look embarrassed.

I shook my head. “No way. I’m going to bed. I’ll meet with Marcus tomorrow, but not tonight.”

He looked down into his coffee, fingertips touching the mug. “He wants it to be tonight.” He looked up at me. “Why do you think I’ve been camped out in my car?”

“I am not at the beck and call of every monster in town. I don’t even know what Fur Face wants to meet about.” I leaned back in the chair and crossed my arms. “No way am I going out tonight to play with shapeshifters.”

Irving squirmed in his chair, rotating the coffee cup slowly on the table. He wouldn’t meet my eyes again.

“What’s wrong?”

“Marcus told me to set up a meeting with you. If I refused, he’d have me… punished. If I come here, Richard gets pissed. I’m trapped between two alpha males, and I ain’t up to it. So will you, please, meet with Marcus tonight?”

“If I say no, do you get in trouble?”

He stared into his coffee. “Would you believe no?”

“Nope.”

He looked at me, brown eyes very serious. “He’ll get mad, but I’ll live.”

“But he’ll make you hurt.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah.” That one word so soft, so tentative. It wasn’t like Irving.

“I’ll see him on one condition. That you’re present at the meeting.”

His face bloomed into a grin that spread from pole to pole. “You are a true friend, Blake.” All the sadness was gone, washed away in the rosy glow of finding out what the hell was going on. Even ass deep in alligators, Irving was a reporter. It was who and what he was, more than the lycanthropy.

The smile alone was worth a meeting. Besides, I wanted to know if Richard was really in danger. Meeting the man who was threatening him was the only real way to find out. Also, I didn’t really care for someone threatening one of my friends. Silver-plated knives only slowed down a vampire, unless you can take out the head and heart. Silver knives will kill a werewolf, no second chances, no healing, just dead.

Marcus might remember that. If he pushed it, I might even remind him.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Irving had called Marcus from my apartment. Again Irving didn’t know why, all he did know was Marcus said to call before we came. I went into the bedroom. Hung up my dryclean-only suit, and changed clothes. Black jeans, red T-shirt, black Nikes, and socks.

Irving was waiting for me. Sitting on the couch like a good little boy. He looked like a schoolboy whom the teacher had made stand in the corner.

“What’s wrong?”

“Marcus wanted me to just give you directions. He doesn’t want me at the meeting. I said, you wouldn’t come without me. That you didn’t trust him.” He looked up at me. “He’s pretty pissed.”

“But you stood your ground,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Why don’t you sound happier about that?”

He shrugged. “Marcus in a bad mood is not a pleasant experience, Blake.”

“I’ll drive, you give directions.”

“Marcus said we both should drive. He said that I’d need to stay after the meeting, for a little talk.”

“Come on, Irving, I’m driving, you’re giving directions, and when I leave, you leave.”

“I appreciate the offer, Blake, but you don’t want Marcus mad at you.”

“I’ll protecting you from Marcus.”

He shook his head. “No, you follow my car.” He held up a hand. “No more arguing, Blake. I am a werewolf. I have to live in the community. I can’t afford to make a stand against Marcus, not over one little talk.”

I wanted to argue some more, but I didn’t. Irving knew his problems better than I did. If fighting Marcus over this would make things worse, then I’d let it go. But I didn’t like it.

The Lunatic Cafe was located in University City. Its sign was a glowing crescent moon with the restaurant name done in soft blue neon. Except for the name, and the nifty sign, the place didn’t look much different from all the other shops and restaurants in the college district.

It was Friday night and there was no parking. I was beginning to think Marcus would have to come out to my car, when a wine dark Impala pulled out of the two spaces it had been hogging. My Jeep slipped in with room for a second car on one side.

Irving waited in front of the restaurant. His hands were shoved deep into his pockets. The ridiculous muffler trailed nearly to the ground. He looked distracted and not a bit happy.

I walked towards him with a trench coat flapping around me like a cape. Even like this, most people wouldn’t see the knives. They’d see a small woman. People see what they expect to see most of the time. The people that I was wearing the knives for would notice, and know I was armed.

Irving pushed the door in without a word. Irving, quiet? I didn’t like seeing him subdued, almost beaten, like a kicked dog. It made me not like Marcus, and I hadn’t even met him.

Noise poured around us just inside the door. A murmur of voices so thick it was like ocean noise. Silverware clinked, someone laughed high and bright like a hand rising from the noise, to be swallowed back again and lost. There was a bar along one wall, polished dark wood, old and lovingly cared for. The rest of the room held small, round tables that could comfortably seat about four. Every seat was full, and then some. Three doorways opened up; one beside the bar, one to the right, one in the middle. More tables were shoved into the smaller rooms.

The cafe had started life as someone’s home. We were standing in the living room. Through the doorways leading to the other rooms were open archways, as if someone had knocked down a few walls. Even with that, the place was claustrophobic. People were three deep at the bar waiting for a table. The place was jammed to bursting with happy, smiling people.

One of the women behind the bar came around, wiping her hands on a towel tucked into the tie of her apron. She gave a wide, welcoming smile. She had a pair of menus in her one hand.

I started to say, but we don’t need… when Irving gripped my arm. Tension vibrated through his hand. He’d grabbed my right arm. I turned to tell him not to do that, but the look on his face stopped me. He was staring at the smiling woman as if she had sprouted a second head. I turned back to the woman, and looked at her. Really looked at her.

She was tall, slender, with long, straight hair. It was a rich, reddish auburn that gleamed under the lights. Her face was a soft triangle, chin maybe a little too pointed, but overall she was lovely. Her eyes were a strange amber-brown that matched her hair perfectly.

Her smile widened, just a lift of lips. I knew what I was looking at. Lycanthrope. One that could pass for human. Like Richard.

I looked out over the room, and realized why it felt so tight. It wasn’t just the crowd. A majority of the happy, smiling people were shapeshifters. Their energy burned in the air like the weight of a thunderstorm. I had thought the crowd was boisterous, too loud, but it was the shapeshifters. Their energy boiled and filled the room, masquerading as the energy of any crowd. As I stood there at the door, a face lifted here and there. Human eyes looked at me, but the glance wasn’t human.

The glance was considering, testing. How tough was I? How good would I taste? I felt like a chicken at a coyote convention. I was suddenly glad of the knives.

“Welcome to the Lunatic Cafe, Ms. Blake,” the woman said. “I’m Raina Wallis, proprietor. If you’ll follow me. Your party is waiting for you.” She said it all with a smile and a warm glow in her eyes. Irving’s grip on my arm was nearly painful.

Raina leaned closer. Irving flinched. “I won’t bite, Irving, not yet.” She gave a low laugh that was rich and bubbling. The kind of laugh that was meant for bedrooms and private jokes. The laugh gave her eyes and body a different look. She suddenly seemed more voluptuous, more sensual than just a second ago. Nicely weird.

“Mustn’t keep Marcus waiting.” She turned and began threading her way through the tables.

I glanced at Irving. “Something you want to tell me?”

“Raina’s our alpha female. If the punishment’s going to be really bad, she does it. She’s a lot more creative than Marcus.”

Raina was motioning to us by the archway near the bar. Her lovely face was frowning, looking a little less lovely, and a lot more bitchy.

I patted his shoulder. “I won’t let her hurt you.”

“You can’t stop it.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

He nodded, but not as if he believed me. He started between the tables. I followed. A woman touched his hand as he walked past. Gave him a smile. She was about my size, and dainty, with straight black hair cut short that framed her face like black lace. Irving squeezed her fingers and kept walking. Her large, dark eyes met mine. The eyes told me nothing. They had smiled at Irving; for me they were neutral. Like the eyes of a wolf I’d seen once in California. I’d walked around a tree and there it had stood. I had never really understood what neutral meant until that moment. Those pale eyes stared at me, waiting. If I threatened it, it would attack. If I left it alone, it would run. My choice. The wolf hadn’t given a damn which way it turned out.

I kept walking, but the space between my shoulder blades was itching. I knew if I turned around that nearly every eye would be on me, on us. The weight of their gaze was physical.

I had an urge to whirl and say boo, but fought it off. I had a feeling they were all staring at me with neutral inhuman eyes, and I didn’t want to see it.

Raina led us to a closed door at the back of the dining room. She pushed it open and motioned us through with a theatrical wave of her arm. Irving just walked through. I walked through but kept my eyes on her. I was nearly close enough for her to have hugged me.

Lycanthropes are just faster than a normal human. It isn’t mind tricks like with vampires. They are just flat out better. I wasn’t sure how much better in human form, though. Staring up into Raina’s smiling face, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.

We stood in a narrow hallway. There was a door at either end, one showing the cold night through its glass window, the other closed, a question mark.

Raina closed the door behind us, leaning on it. She seemed to collapse against it, head hanging down, hair spilling forward.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She took a deep, shuddering breath and looked up at me.

I gasped. I couldn’t help myself.

She was gorgeous. Her cheekbones were high and sculpted. Her eyes wider and more centered in her face. She looked like what might have been her sister, a family resemblance but not the same person.

“What did you just do?”

She gave that rich, bedroom laugh again. “I am alpha, Ms. Blake. I can do a great many things that most shifters cannot.”

I was willing to bet that. “You moved your bones around, on purpose, like do-it-yourself cosmetic surgery.”

“Very good, Ms. Blake, very good.” Her amber-brown eyes flashed to Irving. The smile left her face. “Do you still insist on this one being at the meeting?”

“Yes, I do.”

Her lips pursed, as though she’d tasted something sour. “Marcus said to ask, then to bring you.” She shrugged, and stood away from the door. She was taller by about three inches. I wished I’d paid more attention to her hands. Had they changed, too?

“Why the body sculpting?” I asked.

“The other form is my day form. This is real.”

“Why the disguise?”

“In case I have to do something nefarious,” she said.

Nefarious?

She stalked down the hall towards the other closed door. Her walk was a gliding, athletic movement like a big cat’s. Or would that be big wolf’s?

She knocked on the door. I heard noise, and she opened the door. She stood there, arms crossed over her stomach, cradling her breasts, smiling at us. I was beginning not to like Raina’s smiles.

The room was a banquet hall with cloth-covered tables grouped in a horseshoe. A raised platform with four chairs and a lectern closed the mouth of the horseshoe. Two men stood on the platform. One was at least six feet tall, slender but muscled like a basketball player. His hair was black, cut short with a matching finger-thin mustache and goatee beard. He stood with one hand gripping his opposite wrist. A jock pose. A bodyguard pose.

He wore a skintight pair of black jeans, and a sweater with a black-on-black design clung to wide shoulders. There was a fringe of dark chest hair just above the scooped neckline. Black tooled cowboy boots and a large blocky watch completed the badass look.

The other man was no more than five foot seven. His hair was that funny shade of blond that has brown highlights in it, but still manages to be blond. The hair was short but styled and blow-dried, and would have been lovely to look at if it had been a little longer. His face was clean-shaven, square jawed, with a dimple in his chin. The dimple should have made the face look fun, but it didn’t. It was a face for rules. Those thin lips were built for saying, my way or else.

He wore a pale blue linen suit jacket over black pants. A pale blue turtleneck that matched the jacket to perfection completed the outfit. His shoes were black and polished to a shine.

It had to be Marcus. “Alfred.” One word, but it was an order. The bigger man stepped-leaped off the platform. It was a graceful, bounding movement. He moved in a cloud of his own vitality. It rolled and boiled around him almost like heat rising off pavement. Humans couldn’t see it with the naked eye, but you could sure as heck feel it.

Alfred came at me as though he had a purpose. I put my back to the wall, keeping Raina in sight, along with everybody else. Irving moved back with me. He stood a little away from all of us, but closer to me than anyone.

I put the trench coat back so the knives showed plainly. “Your intentions better be friendly, Alfred.”

“Alfred,” the other man said. One word, even the tone sounded the same, but this time Alfie stopped in his tracks. He stood, staring at me. His eyes weren’t neutral, they were hostile. People don’t usually dislike me on sight. But hey, I wasn’t too thrilled with him, either.

“We have not offered you violence, Ms. Blake,” Marcus said.

“Yeah, right. Alfie there is contained violence in motion. I want to know what his intentions are before he comes closer.”

Marcus looked at me as if I’d done something interesting. “A very apt description, Ms. Blake. You can see our auras, then?”

“If that’s what you want to call it,” I said.

“Alfred’s intentions are not hostile. He will merely search you for weapons. It is standard procedure for nonshifters. It is nothing personal, I assure you.”

The very fact that they didn’t want me armed made me want to keep my weapons. Stubbornness, or a strong survival instinct.

“Maybe I’d agree to being searched if you explained why I’m here first.” Stall, until I could decide what to do.

“We don’t discuss business in front of the press, Ms. Blake.”

“Well, I’m not talking to you without him.”

“I will not jeopardize all of us to satisfy idle curiosity.” He was still standing on the platform like a general surveying his troops.

“The only reason I’m here at all is because Irving is a friend. Insulting him isn’t going to endear you to me.”

“I do not wish to endear myself to you, Ms. Blake. I wish your aid.”

“You want my help?” I didn’t try to keep the surprise out of my voice.

He gave a brief nod.

“What kind of help?”

“He must leave.”

“No,” I said.

Raina pushed away from the wall and stalked around us, just out of reach, but circling like a shark. “Irving’s punishment could begin now.” Her voice was low and puffing around the edges.

“I didn’t know wolves purred,” I said.

She laughed. “Wolves do a lot of things, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, come now, woman to woman.” She leaned one shoulder against the wall, arms crossed, face friendly. I was betting she could bite my finger off and smile just like that the entire time.

She bent close as if we were sharing secrets. “Richard is as good as he looks, isn’t he?”

I stared into her amused eyes. “I wouldn’t know.”

Marcus had moved forward to the edge of the stage. He didn’t look happy.

Raina gave him a lazy smile. She was baiting him more than me, and enjoying it very much.

“Irving must leave, and Alfred must search you for weapons. There is no negotiating those two points.”

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “Irving leaves now, but he goes home. No punishment.”

Marcus shook his head. “I have decreed he will be punished. My word is law.”

“Who died and made you king?”

“Simon,” Raina said.

I blinked at her.

“He fought and killed Simon. That’s who died and made him pack leader.”

Ask a silly question… “You want my help, Irving goes free and untouched. No punishment.”

“Don’t do this, Anna,” Irving said. “You’ll just make things worse.”

Raina stayed leaning beside me. Just a little girl talk. “He’s right, you know. Right now he’s mine to play with, but if you make Marcus really angry he’ll give him to Alfred. I’ll torture his mind and body. Alfred will break him.”

“Irving goes free, no punishment. I stay and let Alfred search me for weapons. Otherwise we walk.”

“Not we, Ms. Blake. You are free to go, but Irving is mine. He will stay, and with or without you he will be taught his lesson.”

“What did he do wrong?” I asked.

“That is our business, not yours.”

“I’m not going to help you.” I decided.

“Then go,” he leaped gracefully off the stage, walking towards us as he spoke, “but Irving stays. You are only among us for this one night. He must live with us, Ms. Blake. He cannot afford your bravado.”

The last sentence brought him just a little behind Alfred. Close up there were fine lines around his eyes and mouth, a slackness to the skin of his neck and jaws. I added ten years to his age. Fifties.

“And leave Irving here, knowing what you’ll do to him?” I asked, but I wasn’t expecting an answer. I got one.

“Oh, you have no idea what we’ll do to him,” Raina said. “We heal so well.” She pushed away from the wall and walked to Irving. She paced round him in a tight circle, shoulder, hip, brushing against him, here and there as she moved. “Even the weakest of us can take so very much damage.”

“What do you want to guarantee Irving’s safety?” I asked.

Marcus looked at me, face careful, neutral. “You promise to aid us, and let Alfred frisk you. He is my bodyguard. You must let him do his job.”

“I can’t promise to help you without knowing what it is.”

“Then we have no bargain.”

“Anna, I can take it, whatever they dish out. I can take it. I’ve done it before.”

“Do you want me to leave?” I asked, and he wouldn’t look at me. “I’ll only leave if you say you want me to.”

Irving finally looked me in the eyes. “I want you to leave.”

“Okay.” I headed for the door, but was stopped.

A woman came through the door. Short blond hair styled and held in place with gel. Her business skirt suit was red with pinkish undertones, like a rose petal. Her white blouse had one of those blousy ties that made the suit seem feminine, and a little silly.

“Christine, it’s good of you to come,” Marcus said.

The woman nodded, and took the seat at the end of the horseshoe of tables, nearest the stage. “What choice did I have? What choice did you give any of us?” she asked.

“We must have a united front on this, Christine.”

“As long as you’re in charge, right?”

Marcus started to say more but the crowd was growing. People drifted through the door in ones, twos, threes. He let the argument go. They could argue later, and I was betting they would. The woman’s complaint sounded like an old one.

I recognized one person. Rafael the Rat King. He was tall, dark, and handsome with short-cut black hair, strong Mexican features, and an arrogant expression. He would have looked as stern as Marcus except for his lips. They were soft and sensuous, and ruined some of the effect.

Rafael nodded at me. I nodded back. He had two wererats with him, in human form. I didn’t recognize either of them.

There were about a dozen people sitting along the tables when Marcus stood and walked to the podium. “My friends, I have asked you here tonight to meet Anna Blake. The vampires call her The Shadow of the Executioner. I believed she can help us, but now it seems she wants to leave.”

“So let her go. What can a vampire hunter do for us?” This from a tall man who sat alone, chairs on either side acting as walls. He had short white hair, cut in a strange Mia Farrow sixties cut, but gentler. He wore a white dress shirt, pale pink tie, white sport jacket, and cream-colored pants. He looked like the Good Humor man with money. But he had a point.

“I agree, we don’t need a human to help us.” This from a man who sat with one other. He had hair cut just above his collar, so curly it looked like fur, or maybe… Naw. He had thick eyebrows over dark eyes, with heavy, sensual features. The Rat King’s lips may have seemed kissable, but this man seemed made for nefarious deeds done in dark places.

His clothing matched his face. The boots that he had propped on the table were of soft, velvety leather. His pants were of shiny black leather. The shirt he was almost wearing was a muscle tank top that left most of his upper body bare. His right arm was covered from elbow to fingers in leather straps. The knuckles had spikes coming out of them. The hair on his chest was as curly and dark as the hair on his head. A black duster coat was thrown across the table beside him.

The woman on his right rubbed her cheek along his shoulder as if it were a cat scent marking. Long, dark hair formed waves around her shoulders. What I could see of her outfit looked tight, black, and mostly of leather.

“We are human here, Gabriel,” Marcus said.

Gabriel made a rude noise. “You believe what you want to, Marcus. But we know what we are, and what she isn’t.” He pointed at me with his gauntleted fist. It didn’t seem a particularly friendly gesture.

Rafael stood. The gesture stopped the argument. There was something about the way he stood there in his ordinary street clothes that made you stare at him as if he were wearing a crown. His presence was more commanding than that of a ton of black leather. Marcus made the lowest of growls. Too many kings in this room.

“Does Marcus speak for Anna Blake as he speaks for the wolves?”

“Yes,” Marcus said. “I speak for Ms. Blake.”

I turned to him. “Like hell ,I don’t know what’s going on, but I can speak for myself.”

Marcus turned like a small blond storm. “I am pack leader. I am law.”

Alfred moved to face me, big hands flexing.

“Chill out, fur face. You’re not my leader, and I’m not a pack member.”

Alfred stalked forward. He leaped off the stage, a high bounding as if he’d had a trampoline to jump from. I dropped to the ground and rolled. I felt the air of his passage, went for a knife, and he was on me. Faster than a speeding bullet, faster than most things I’d ever seen, but not all.

His hand tried to gripped my throat but he never made it.

I had grabbed his arm, and used it to slam his back into the wall. The knife was at his throat before he had even recovered from the impact.

“Release Alfred, Ms. Blake.”Marcus said.

“Make me,” I said back. I knew I was being childish, but he had really pissed me off, and if killing his wolf will make him see that I won’t be messed with, then so be it.

Alfred’s eyes flicked to Marcus, then back to me. His eyes held fear, good, he should be afraid, I dugging the blade into his neck and blood began to flow.

“Let him go, Anna.” At the sound of my name, I looked up. Rafael was looking at me. I let him go.

He dropped, and I walk to the stage, my bloody knife still out. If Alfred to attack me again, I was going to kill him, and I’d enjoy it.

I scooted along the stage so I could keep an eye on Marcus. He seemed really mad that I’d listened to Rafael and not him. Goody.

Then, Alfred took a step forward.

I took a slow, steadying breath. I had a peripheral sense of everyone else, but I was looking only at Alfred. At a spot in the center of his chest. I felt him tense, knew he was going to do it. He was confident that he could move faster than I could throw the knife. He was wrong.

He leaped in that wide, arching roll that he’d used earlier. I dropped to one knee, aiming as I moved. The knife hit him in midair. He jerked and crumbled to the floor.

I got to my feet, with a new knife pointed at him. I eased forward. He never moved. If he was breathing, I couldn’t see it. I knelt until the knife was shoved into the back of his spine. No movement. I felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing. I turned and pointed the knife at everyone else.

Marcus stepped off the stage. “Don’t,” I said. He froze, staring at me. He looked shocked, as if he hadn’t thought I’d do it.

Rafael came up through the tables. “May I look at him?”

“Sure.” I backed away. Theoretically out of reach.

Rafael turned him over. Blood had pooled on the floor from the hole in his chest. Bright crimson rivulets trailed down his lips to mingle with his beard.

Marcus looked at me over the body. I had expected to see anger, but all I saw was pain. He mourned Alfred’s passing.

“You didn’t have to kill him,” he said, softly.

“He gave me no choice,” I said.

He glanced down at Alfred’s body, then back to me. “No, I suppose he didn’t.”

“For future reference, so there will never be another misunderstanding between us, Marcus. I don’t like threats.”

——- 30

Chapter 30
Christine had moved up beside Rafael and I. She stood there in her rose-petal suit with her sensible black pumps, staring down at the body. A line of blood trickled towards her shoes. She had to see it, snaking its way towards her. She didn’t move out of the way. The blood seeped around the toe of her shoe and kept going.

Raina came up behind Marcus. She put her arms around his shoulders, leaning her face against his neck, close enough to whisper in his ear. Those lips did not move, but it had been her one needling comment that had pushed things over the edge. One little remark.

Marcus rubbed his hand along her arm, lowering his face to kiss her wrist.

I looked around at them. Rafael was still kneeling by the body. A line of blood was making for the knee of his slacks. He stood up quickly, fingertips brushing the bloody floor. He raised the fingers to his mouth. He stuck the fingers in his mouth and sucked them clean.

His dark eyes flicked to me. He lowered his hand as if he were embarrassed, as if I’d caught him in an intimate bodily function. Maybe I had.

The two leather-clad shapeshifters drifted up behind the tables, as if they’d circle me. I still had the knives naked in my hands. The one with the spiked glove looked at me, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth. His eyes were a strange liquid grey. His curly black hair had fallen in a tangle over his eyes. They bore a startling luminosity peering from behind that black hair. He made no move to push his hair from his eyes. It would have driven me nuts. But then maybe I wasn’t accustomed to staring out through fur.

He stepped closer to the body, which was closer to me. I raised the knives. This close you didn’t really have to aim.

His smile widened, the tip of his tongue traced his full lips. His gaze had heat in it. Nothing magical, just the heat that any man could put into his eyes. That look that said they were wondering what you looked like naked, and if you’d give a good blow job. Crude, but accurate. That look was not wanting to make love to anyone. The look was pure fucking. Even sex was too mild a term.

I fought the urge to turn away. I didn’t dare take my eyes off of him. But I wanted to. My skin crawled under his gaze. I felt heat creeping up my face. I couldn’t meet his eyes and not blush. My Daddy’d raised me better than that.

He took a step forward, a small movement, but it put him almost in arm’s reach. With Alfred’s body still warm, he was playing with me. “Let’s not do this again,” I said.

“Gabriel, leave her alone,” Christine said.

He glanced back at her. ” ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/ In the forests of the night/ What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’ ”

“Stop it, Gabriel,” she said. She was blushing. One stanza of Blake and she was embarrassed.

He turned back to me. I watched something slide behind his eyes. Some streak of perversity that made him want to take that next step.

“Try me tonight, and you’re going to join your friend on the floor.”

He laughed, mouth wide, exposing pointed canines, top and bottom like a cat. Not fangs, but not human, either.

“Ms. Blake is under my protection,” Marcus said. “You will not harm her.”

“You were going let Alfred throttle me, then I stopped him. I don’t think much of your protection, Marcus. I think I do just fine on my own.”

“Without those little knives you wouldn’t be so tough.” This from the brunette biker chick. Brave words, but she was standing on the other side of the little crowd. She was aslo wrong I was more dangorus without the knives.

“You refuse my protection?” Marcus asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You are a fool,” Raina said.

“Maybe, but I’m still the one with the knives.”

Gabriel laughed again. “She doesn’t believe you can protect her, Marcus, and she’s right.”

“You question my dominance?”

Gabriel turned, giving me his back, staring at Marcus. “Always.”

Marcus moved forward, but Raina tightened her grip on him. “We’ve aired enough dirty laundry in front of Ms. Blake for one night. Don’t you think?”

He hesitated. Gabriel just stared at him. Finally Marcus nodded.

Gabriel gave a purring laugh and knelt down by the body. He smeared his fingers through the blood. “It cools so fast.” He wiped his hand on Alfred’s sweater and touched the open chest wound. He ran his hand around the edge as though he were scooping icing from a bowl. His hand came out crimson. He raised it to his mouth, blood dripping down his arm. His tongue licked along his bloody fingers.

“Stop it,” Marcus said.

The woman knelt on the other side of the body. She knelt, lowering her torso, butt in the air, like lions drinking at watering holes. She lapped up the blood from the floor with quick, sure movements of her tongue.

“Wow,” I whispered. I new blood magic was powerful. It’s what kept vampires alive. I didn’t know that wereanimal fell pery to it’s call as well.

There was movement in the room like a wind over a field of wheat. They were all out of their seats. They were all moving towards the body.

I stepped back, put the wall at my back, and began working my way towards the door. If there was going to be a feeding frenzy, I didn’t want to be the only non-shapeshifter in the room. Didn’t seem healthy.

“No!” Marcus’s voice roared through the room. He stalked to the body, pushing everyone back without a gesture. Even Gabriel rolled back onto his left side, propped up, sitting in the blood. The woman crawled back, out of reach. Gabriel stayed within touching distance of the master werewolf. He gazed up at Marcus, but there was no fear on his face.

“We are not animals to feed on our dead.”

“We are animals,” Gabriel said. He raised his bloody hand towards Marcus. “Smell the blood, and tell me you don’t want it.”

Marcus jerked his head away, swallowing hard enough for me to hear it. Gabriel rose to his knees, pressing the blood close to Marcus’s face.

He slapped the hand away, but stepped away from the body, too. “I smell the blood.” His voice was very harsh when he said it, every word squeezed out through a low growl. “But I am a human being. That means I do not have to give in to my urges.” He turned his back on the body, pushed his way through the crowd, having to step up on the stage to find a clear place to stand. His breathing was hard and fast, as if he’d been running as fast as he could.

I was about halfway behind the podium. I could see his face. Beads of sweat touched his skin. I had to get out of here.

The white-haired man who had spoken first, wondering what good a vampire executioner would be to them, was standing apart from the others. He was leaning against a table, arms crossed. He was watching me. From across the room, he could watch all he wanted to. I had the knives out and pointed at everybody. There wasn’t anyone in this room that I wanted to be around unarmed.

I was almost at the door. I needed a free hand for the door. I was nearly the length of the room away from them. It was as far away as I could get without opening the door. I sheath one knife, and slid my left hand behind me along the wall, until I touched the doorknob. I turned the knob and opened the door a crack. I was far enough away from all of them, that I gave the room my back and opened the door wide. And stopped.

The hallway was four deep with lycanthropes. They were all staring at me with wide, haunted eyes. I pressed the knife into the chest of the nearest one. “Back up.”

He just stared at me as if he didn’t understand what I’d said. His eyes were brown and perfectly human, but it reminded me of the look a dog gets when it’s trying to understand English. It wants to understand, but just doesn’t quite get it.

There was movement behind me. I slammed my back against the door, pressing it flat to the wall, knife scanning the room. If the shapeshifters in the hallway surged forward, I would have to use my power, and then I’d have to kill them all. They couldn’t know what I was.

It was the man who’d been leaning against the table. He put his hands up to show himself unarmed, but that didn’t really help. What helped was there was no sweat on his face. He didn’t look glassy eyed, like the ones in the hall. He looked very… human.

“My name is Kaspar Gunderson. Do you need a little help?”

I glanced at the waiting horde and back to him. “Sure.”

Kaspar smiled. “You’ll take my help, but not Marcus’s?” He seemed amused.

“Marcus doesn’t offer help. He gives orders.”

“Too true.”

Rafael moved up beside him. “None of us takes orders from Marcus. Though he would like us to.”

A sound somewhere between a moan and a howl broke from the crowd in the hall. I scooted a little farther down the wall, pointing the knife at the crowd. There were too many possible dangers, I had to pick someone to trust. Rafael and the other man seemed a better choice than the crowd.

A high ragged scream broke from inside the room. I shoved my back into the wall, and turned back to the room. What now?

I caught a glimpse of thrashing limbs through the huddled lycanthropes. The dark-haired woman threw back her head and shrieked.

“She’s fighting it,” the pale man said.

“Yes, but she will not win unless a dominant steps in to help her,” Rafael said.

“Gabriel won’t help.”

“No,” Rafael said, “he enjoys the show.”

“She has to feed” I said, and they both looked superzied.

“Yes, the scent of blood started it. Gabriel fed it. He and Elizabeth. Now, unless Marcus can control them, they may all turn and feed,” Rafael said.

“And this is a bad thing, why?” I asked.

Rafael just looked at me. His hands gripped his forearms so tightly the skin paled. His short-clipped fingernails bit into the skin, and tiny little half circles of blood formed under his hands. He took a deep, cleansing breath and nodded. He removed his fingers from his arms. The cuts filled with blood but only a few trickled. Minor cuts, minor pain. Pain sometimes helped keep a vamp from controlling your mind.

His voice came out strained, but clear, each word pronounced with great care, as if it took great effort just to speak. “One of the old wives’ tales that is true is that a lycanthrope has to feed after shapeshifting.” His eyes stared at me, drowning deep. The black had eaten all the white. His eyes sparkled like jet buttons.

“Are you about to go all furry on me?”

He shook his head. “The beast does not control me. I control myself.”

The other man stood there, calmly.

“Why aren’t you having problems?”

“I’m not a predator. Blood doesn’t bother me.”

A whimper came in from the hallway. A young man who couldn’t have been more than twenty was crawling on hands and knees into the room. A low whimper was rising from his throat like a mantra.

He raised his head, sniffing the air. His head turned with a jerk, eyes staring at me. He crawled towards me. His eyes were the color of spring skies, innocent as an April morning. The look in them was not. He looked at me as if he were wondering what I tasted like. In a human I’d have thought he was thinking of sex, now… maybe he was just thinking of food.

He touched my leg. I didn’t hurt him. He hadn’t offered to hurt me. I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, but I wouldn’t hurt him for touching me, not yet anyway. His hands gripped my jeans, pulling him to his knees. His head was a little above my waist, blue eyes staring up at my face. His arms wrapped around my waist. He buried his face in my stomach, sort of nuzzling.

I tapped his head with the tip of the knife. “I don’t know you well enough for you to nuzzle me, fella. Get up.”

His head buried under my sweater. His mouth bit gently into my side. He stiffened, arms rigid. His breathing was suddenly ragged.

And I was suddenly got it. he was looking for meat, soft tissue. “Get him off of me before I hurt him.”

Rafael yelled, voice roaring over the mounting chaos, “Marcus!” That one word rang out and silence fell. Faces turned to him. Faces smeared with blood. Elizabeth, the dark-haired woman, was nowhere in sight. Only Marcus remained clean. He stood on the stage rigid, but there was a vibration to him like a struck tuning fork. His face was gaunt with some great effort. He looked at us with the eyes of a drowning man, who was determined not to scream on the last trip down.

“Jason is having some difficulty controlling himself,” Rafael said. “He is your wolf. Call him off.”

Gabriel stood up, his face coated in blood. He bared his flashing teeth with a laugh. “I’m surprised Ms. Blake hasn’t killed him yet.”

Raina stood from the kill, a patch of blood on her chin. “Ms. Blake refused Marcus’s protection. She is dominant. Let her discover what it means to refuse our help.”

Jason was still rigid against me. His arms locked tight, face pressed against my stomach. I could feel his breath through my shirt, hot and too heavy for what was happening.

“You asked me here for my help, Marcus. Your hospitality sucks.”

He glared at me. But even from across the room I could see a nervous tic jumping in his face. A twitching, as though something alive were trying to come out.

“It is too late for business tonight, Ms. Blake. Things are out of hand.”

“No joke. Get him off of me, Marcus. One dead tonight is enough.”

Raina went to him, holding up a bloody hand to him. “Let her acknowledge your dominance over her. Acknowledge that she needs your help.”

Marcus stared at me. “Acknowledge my dominance, and I will call Jason off.”

“If he starts to shapeshift, I’ll kill him. You know I’ll do it, Marcus. Call him off.”

“If I am to give you my protection, you must acknowledge me.”

“No, Marcus. I’m not asking you to save me. I’m asking you to save him. Or don’t you care about your pack members?”

“Rafael is a king,” Raina said, “let him save you.”

A shudder ran through the man. His grip tightened painfully. He stood, arms still locked behind my back. If he’d held me any closer, I’d have come out the other side. He was about my height, which put our faces very close. His eyes were full of a great hunger, a need. He bent his head as if to kiss me, but another shudder ran through him. He buried his face in my hair, lips touching my neck.

If he tried to take a bite out of me, he was dead. But where Alfred had been a bully, this one, Jason, seemed unable to help himself, like a compulsion. If I waited too long I’d be just as dead. But until he hurt me it made me not want to hurt him.

His teeth brushed along my neck, drawing an edge of skin into his mouth. He had just about reached the end of my patience even if he didn’t turn furry.

A low, rumbling growl vibrated along my skin. My pulse thudded into my throat. I drew the knife up, so the tip touched the back of his neck. I wouldn’t wait for him to bite my throat out.

I heard Kaspar say, “Rafael, no!”

Jason’s head jerked up, eyes wild. Rafael stood beside us, holding his arm in front of Jason’s face. Blood ran down it from deep scratches.

“Fresh blood, my wolf,” Rafael said.

Jason jerked away from me so fast, he threw me into the wall. My head smacked the wall after my shoulders made impact, which was the only thing that saved me from passing out. I ended up with my butt on the floor, knife in my hand only by instinct. I had let him nuzzle my neck, as if he were human. He could have torn me apart with his human hands. I might have killed him first, but I’d have been just as dead.

Jason crouched in front of Rafael. A ripple ran through his back like a wave of water driven by wind. Jason fell into a little ball, his back pulsing under his shirt.

Rafael stood over him, blood dripping onto the floor. “I hope you understand what I have done for you,” he said.

I had enough air back to speak. “You want me to stop him?”

A strange look came over his face, leaving his black button eyes dead. “You offer your protection.”

“Protection, smetection. You helped me. I’ll help you.”

“Thank you, but I have started it, and I must finish it, but I think you must go before you run out of silver knives.”

Kaspar offered me a hand up; I took it. His skin was unusually warm, but that was all. He didn’t seem to have the urge to touch me or eat me. A nice change.

The crowd was coming in the door, in twos and threes and tens. Some moved like sleepwalkers towards the body at the far side of the room. That was dandy. Some went for Rafael and the writhing Jason. He’d said he could handle himself. But about six of them turned to me and Kaspar.

They stared at us with hungry eyes. One, a girl, dropped to her knees and began to crawl towards me. “Can you do anything about this?” I asked.

“I’m a swan, they consider me food.”

I stared at the crawling lycanthrope, and said, “A swan, great. You got any suggestions?”

“Wound one of them. They respect pain.”

The girl was reaching out for me. I stared at her slender arm, but didn’t hurt her. I pointed over her head at the large male behind her. I hit him. He fell screaming to the floor, blood pouring between his fingers. The girl turned on him, burying her face in his stomach.

He slapped her away. The others surged forward.

“Let’s get out while we can,” Kaspar said. He motioned for the door.

Didn’t have to ask me twice. Marcus was suddenly there. I hadn’t seen him come, too busy concentrating on the immediate threat. He pulled two men off the wounded one, tossing them like toys. He drew a manila file folder from under his blue linen jacket and handed it to me. In a voice that was more growl than anything, he said, “Kaspar can answer your questions.”

He turned with a snarl, tearing into the lycanthropes, protecting the one I’d wounded. Kaspar pushed me out the door, and I let him.

I had one last glimpse of Jason. He was a mass of flowing fur and naked dripping bones. Rafael was once again the slick, black ratman I’d met months ago. The crown-shaped burn in his forearm, the mark of kingship for the rats, showed clean. He was no longer bleeding. The change had healed him.

The door slammed shut. I wasn’t sure who had done it. Kaspar and I stood in the hallway, alone. There were no sounds from behind the door. The silence was so heavy, it thrummed in my head.

“I can’t hear them?”

“Soundproof room,” he said.

Logical. I stared down at the file folder. There was a bloody handprint on it. I held it gingerly at the edge, waiting for the blood to dry.

“Are we supposed to sit down and have a business meeting?”

“Knowing Marcus, the information will be complete. He’s a very good bureaucrat.”

“But not a very good pack leader.”

He glanced at the door. “I’d say that somewhere else if I were you.”

He had a point. I stared up at him. His baby-fine hair was nearly white, almost feathery. I shook my head. It couldn’t be.

He grinned at me. “Go ahead. Touch it.”

I did. I brushed fingers through his hair, and it was soft and downy like the under feathers on a bird. Heat rose from his scalp like fever. “Cool.”

Something heavy smacked into the door. I felt the vibrations through the floor. I backed away.

Kaspar opened the door to the dining rooms. There were still people eating. Humans out for a night on the town. Carving their steaks, eating their veggies, oblivious to the potential destruction just two doors away.

I had a horrible urge to yell, Flee, flee for your lives. But they wouldn’t have understood. Besides the Lunatic Cafe had been here for years. I’d never heard of an incident here. Of course, I’d killed one man, werewolf, whatever. I didn’t think there was going to be enough evidence to turn over to the cops. Maybe a few well-gnawed bones.

Who knew what disasters had been covered up here?

Kaspar handed me a business card. It was white and shiny with Gothic script that said, KASPAR GUNDERSON, ANTIQUES AND COLLECTIBLES.

“If you have any questions, I will try to answer them.”

“Even if the questions are about what the hell you are?”

“Even that,” he said.

We were walking as we talked. He offered me his hand beside the bar in the outer dining room. The outside door was in sight, fun almost over for the night. Thank God.

My smile froze on my face. I knew one of the men at the bar. Edward was sitting there sipping a tall, cold drink. He never glanced at me, but I knew he saw me. Kaspar cocked his head to one side. “Is anything wrong?”

“No,” I said, “no.” My words were too fast, even I didn’t believe myself. I tried my best professional smile. “It’s just been a long night.”

He didn’t believe me, and I didn’t care. I wasn’t good at spur-of-the-moment lying. Kaspar let it go, but his eyes scanned the crowd as he walked out, looking for whatever or whoever had bothered me.

Edward looked like a nice, ordinary man. He was five foot eight, of slender build, with short blond hair. He had on a nondescript black winter jacket, jeans, and soft-soled shoes. He looked a little like Marcus, and in his own way, was just as dangerous.

He was ignoring me, effortlessly, which meant he might not want to be noticed. I walked past him, wanting to ask what the hell he was doing here, but not wanting to blow his cover. Edward was an assassin who specialized in vampires, lycanthropes, and other preternatural humanoids. He’d started out killing humans, but it had been too easy. Edward did love a challenge.

I stood in the cold dark wondering what to do. I had the bloody file folder in one hand. The other was gripping a new knife,eventhough all the shapeshifters were busy eating each other.

Edward didn’t come out. I had half expected him to. He was hunting someone, but who? After what I’d seen tonight, I wasn’t sure hunting them was such a bad idea.

Of course, Richard was one of them. I didn’t want anyone hunting him. I would have to ask Edward what he was doing, but not tonight. Richard wasn’t inside. The rest of them could take their chances. I had a momentary thought about Rafael, but let it go. He knew what Edward looked like, if not exactly what he did for a living.

I stopped halfway down the sidewalk. Should I warn Edward that Rafael might recognize him and tell the others? My head hurt. For this one night let Death take care of himself. The vampires called me the Shadow of the Executioner, but they called Edward Death. After all, I’d never used a flamethrower on them.

I kept walking. Edward was a big, scary boy. He could take care of himself. And everyone else in the back room certainly didn’t need my help.

Even if they did, I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it to them. Which brought me back to the file folder. What could they need my help for? What could I do that they couldn’t? I almost didn’t want to know. But I didn’t throw the folder in the nearest trash can. Truth was, if I didn’t read it, it would bug me. Curiosity killed the cat. Here was hoping it didn’t do the same for me.

——— 31

Chapter 31
At 5:35 that morning I was tucked in bed with the file folder. My favorite stuffed toy panda, Pandy, was sitting next to me. It used to be that I used Pandy only when people were trying to kill me. Lately, I’d been sleeping with him most of the time. It’d been a rough year.

The folder consisted of a half dozen sheets of paper. All neatly typed, double spaced. The first was a list of eight names with an animal designation beside them. The last two pages were an explanation of the names. Eight lycanthropes had gone missing. Vanished. No bodies, no signs of violence. Nothing. Their families knew nothing. None of the lycanthropes knew anything.

I went back over the names. Margaret Smitz was number seven. Designation wolf. Wife of George Smitz. Peggy was a nickname for Margaret. Don’t ask me how you get Peggy from Margaret, but you do.

The last few pages were suggestions about who Marcus thought I should talk to. Controlling little bastard. He did offer an explanation for why he asked me for help. He thought that the other shapeshifters would talk more freely to me than to him or any of his wolves. No joke. I was sort of a compromise. They didn’t trust the police. And who else do the lunarly disadvantaged go to for help? Why, your friendly neighborhood animator.

I wasn’t sure what I could do for them. I was not a detective. I’d never handled a missing-person case in my life. George’s wife missing was one thing, but eight lycanthropes missing was a pattern. They needed to go to the police. But they didn’t trust human law. As late as the 1960s, lycanthropes were still being mobbed and burned at the stake. Couldn’t blame them for being leery.

I put the folder in the drawer of the nightstand. I got a plain white business card out of the drawer. The only thing on it was a phone number. Edward had given me the card only two months ago. It was the first time I’d ever been able to contact him. Before he’d just shown up. Usually when I didn’t want him to.

The number was a twenty-four-hour phone message service. A mechanized voice said, “At the tone leave your message.” A long, low beep sounded. “This is Anna. What the heck are you doing in town? Call me soon.” I wasn’t usually that blunt on a phone message, but hey, it was Edward. He knew me. Besides, he didn’t appreciate social niceties.

I set the alarm, turned off the light, and cuddled into the blankets, my faithful panda at my side. The phone rang before I’d gotten warm. I waited for the machine to pick up; after the eighth ring I gave up. I’d forgotten to turn on the machine. Great.

“This better be important,” I said.

“You said to call soon.” It was Edward.

I pulled the receiver under the blankets with me. “Hi, Edward.”

“Hi.”

“Why are you in town? And why were you at the Lunatic Cafe?”

“Why were you?”

“It is nearly six in the freaking morning, I haven’t been to sleep yet. I don’t have time for games.”

“What was in the folder you had? There was fresh blood on it. Whose blood was it?”

I sighed. I wasn’t sure what to tell him. He might be a great deal of help, or he could kill people that I was supposed to be helping. Choices, choices.

“I won’t tell you until I know if I’m endangering people.”

“I never hunt people, you know that.”

“So you are on a hunt.”

“Yes.”

“What this time?”

“Shapeshifters.”

Figures. “Who?”

“I don’t have any names yet.”

“Then how do you know who to kill?”

“I’ve got film.”

“Film?”

“Come to my hotel room tomorrow and I’ll show you the film. I’ll tell you everything I know.”

“You’re not usually this obliging. What’s the catch?”

“No catch. You might be able to identify them, that’s all.”

“I don’t know a lot of shapeshifters,” I said.

“Fine, just come, see what I have.”

He sounded so sure of himself, but then he always did. “Okay, where are you staying?”

“Adams Mark. Do you need directions?”

“No, I can get there. When?”

“Do you work tomorrow?”

“Yeah.”

“Then at your convenience, of course.”

He was being too damn polite. “How long will your little presentation take?”

“Two hours, maybe less.”

I shook my head, realized he couldn’t see it, and said, “It’ll have to be after my last zombie appointment. I’m booked until then.”

“Name the time.”

“I can be there between twelve-thirty and one.” Even saying it made me tired. I wasn’t going to get any sleep again.

“I’ll be waiting.”

“Wait. What name are you registered under?”

“Room 212, just knock.”

“You do have a last name, don’t you?”

“Of course. Good night, Anna.” The phone line went dead, buzzing in my hand like an unquiet spirit. I fumbled the receiver into its cradle and switched on the answering machine. I turned the sound down as low as it would go and snuggled back under the covers.

Edward never shared information unless forced to. He was being too helpful. Something was up. Knowing Edward, it was something unpleasant. Lycanthropes disappearing without a trace. It sounded like a game that Edward would enjoy. But somehow I didn’t think it was him. He liked taking credit for his kills as long as the police couldn’t tie him to them directly.

But somebody was doing it. There were bounty hunters who specialized in rogue lycanthropes. Edward might know who they were and if they’d condone murder. Because if all eight were dead, then it was murder. None of them was wanted, as far as I knew. The police would know, but I wasn’t going to involve the police. Dolph should know if lycanthropes were disappearing in his territory.

With that last thought I was asleep.

………………………………………………………………………………

I went for Bert’s door.

“He’s with a client right now,” Mary said.

“Peachy,” I said. I knocked on the door and opened it without waiting for permission.

Bert’s desk took up most of the pale blue office. It was the smallest of the three offices, but it was permanently his. The rest of us had to rotate. He’d played football in college and it still showed. Broad shoulders, strong hands, six feet four inches tall and aware of every inch. His boater’s tan had washed away with the winter weather. His white crew cut seemed a little less dramatic against the paler skin.

His eyes are the color of dirty window glass, sort of grey. Those eyes glared at me now. “I’m with a client, Anna.”

I spared a glance for the man sitting across from him. It was Kaspar Gunderson. He was dressed all in white today, and it emphasized everything. How I could have ever looked at him and thought him human was beyond me. He smiled. “Ms. Blake, I presume.” He put out a hand.

I shook it. “If you could wait outside for just a few moments, Mr…”

“Gunderson,” he said.

“Mr. Gunderson, I need to speak with Mr. Vaughn.”

“I think it can wait, Anna,” Bert said.

“No,” I said, “it can’t.”

“Yes,” he said, “it can.”

“Do you want to have this particular talk in front of a client, Bert?”

He stared at me, his small grey eyes looking even smaller as he squinted at me. It was his mean look. It had never worked on me. He gave a tight smile. “Are you insisting?”

“You got it.”

He took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly, as if he were counting to ten. His flashed his best professional smile on Kaspar. “If you will excuse us for a few minutes, Mr. Gunderson. This won’t take long.”

Kaspar stood, nodded at me, and left. I closed the door behind him.

I stared at Bert. “What is he doing here?”

His smiled, setting his little eyes sparkling. “Mr. Gunderson has offered us a lot of money for your services. Twice the normal fee.”

“That’s a lot of money. What does he want me to do?”

“Raise an ancestor from the dead. He’s under a family curse. A witch told him if he could talk to the ancestor that the curse originated with, she might be able to lift it.”

“Why double the fee?”

“The curse started with one of two brothers. He doesn’t know which one.”

“So I have to raise them both.”

“If we’re lucky, only one.”

“But you keep the second fee anyway,” I said.

Bert nodded vigorously, happy as a greedy clam. “It’s even your job description, and besides, even you wouldn’t let a fellow go through his life with feathers on his head if you could help him, now would you?”

“You smug jerk,” I said, but my voice sounded tired even to me.

Bert just smiled. He knew he’d won.

“You’ll clear clients with me that aren’t zombie raisings or vampire slayings?” I said.

“If you have the time to read up on every client I see, then I certainly have time to write up a report.”

“I don’t need to read about every client, just the ones you’re sending my way.”

“But, Anna, you know it’s just luck of the draw which of you is on duty on any given day.”

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

I opened the door. “Mr. Gunderson, I can see you now.”

He stood, laying the magazine he’d been leafing through on the small table beside the Ficus benjium. He didn’t move with that dancelike grace that the other shapeshifters had. But then swans weren’t particularly graceful on land.

“Have a seat, Mr. Gunderson.”

“Please, Kaspar.”

I leaned on the edge of the desk, staring down at him. “What are you doing here, Kaspar?”

He smiled. “Marcus wants to apologize for last night.”

“Then he should have come in person.”

His smiled widened. “He thought that offering a sizable monetary reward might make up for our lack of hospitality last night.”

“He was wrong.”

“You aren’t going to give an inch, are you?”

“Nope.”

“Are you not going to help us?”

I sighed. “I’m working on it. But I’m not sure what I can do. What or who could take out eight shapeshifters without a struggle?”

“I have no idea. None of us do. That is why we have come to you.”

Great. I knew more than they did. Comforting. “Marcus gave me a list of people to question.” I handed it to him. “Any thoughts, or additions?”

He frowned, eyebrows arching together. The white eyebrows were not hair. I blinked, trying to concentrate. The fact that he was feathery seemed to interest me a lot more than it should have.

“These are all rivals for Marcus’s power. You met most of them at the cafe.”

“Do you really think he suspects them, or is he just making trouble for his rivals?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Marcus said you could answer my questions. Do you actually know anything that I don’t?”

“I would say that I know a great deal more about the shapeshifting community than you do,” he said. He sounded a trifle offended.

“Sorry, I think it’s just wishful thinking on Marcus’s part that his rivals are the bad guys. Not your fault he’s playing games.”

“Marcus often tries to manage things. You saw that last night.”

“His management skills haven’t impressed me so far.”

“He believes that if there were one ruler for all shapeshifters, we would be a force to rival the vampires.”

He might be right on that. “He wants to be that ruler,” I said.

“Of course.”

The intercom buzzed. “Excuse me a minute.” I hit the button. “What is it, Mary?”

“Richard Zeeman on line two. He says he’s returning your message.”

I hesitated, then said, “I’ll take it.” I picked up the phone, very aware that Kaspar was sitting there listening. But I wanted to hear what Richard had to say.

“Hi, Richard.”

“Hello, Anna,” he said. His voice was very careful, as if he were balancing a glass of water filled to the very brim.

“I think we need to talk,” I said.

“I agree.”

My, weren’t we being cautious this afternoon. “I’m supposed to be the one that’s mad. Why does your voice sound so funny?”

“I heard about last night.”

I waited for him to say more, but the silence just stretched to infinity. I filled it. “Look, I have a client with me right now. You want to meet and talk?”

“Very much.” He said it as though he weren’t really looking forward to it.

“Okay,” I said. “Well, what did you have in mind?”

“My place.”

“I only get an hour, Richard, I don’t have time to drive that far.”

“Your place, then.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Just no.”

“What we need to say to each other isn’t going to go over well in public. You know that.”

I did. Dang it. “All right, we’ll meet at my place a little after six.”

“Okay, bye, Anna.”

“Bye.” We hung up. My stomach was one hard knot of dread. I didn’t want to have a fight at my apartment, but Richard was right. We didn’t want to be screaming about lycanthropes and killing people in a public restaurant. Still, it was not going to be a good time.

“Is Richard angry about last night?” Kaspar asked.

“Yeah.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I need the complete stories about the disappearances: struggles, who last saw them, that sort of thing.”

“Marcus said all questions directly about the disappearances should be answered only by him.”

“You always do what he says?”

“Not always, but he’s quite adamant about this, Anna. I am not a predator. I cannot defend myself against Marcus at his worst.”

“Would he really kill you for going against his wishes?”

“Perhaps not kill me, but I would be hurting for a very, very long time.”

I shook my head. “He doesn’t sound any better than most master vampires I know.”

“I don’t personally know any master vampires. I am forced to take your word for that.”

I had to smile. I knew more monsters than the monsters did. “Would Richard know?”

“Perhaps, and if not, he could help you find out.”

I wanted to ask him if Richard was as bad as Marcus. I wanted to know if he was really a beast at heart. I didn’t ask. If I wanted to know about Richard, I should ask Richard.

“Unless you have more information, Kaspar, I have work to do.” It sounded grumpy even to me. I smiled to try to soften it but didn’t take it back. I wanted this whole mess to go away, and he was a reminder of it.

He stood. “If you need any assistance, please call.”

“You’ll only be able to give me the assistance Marcus okays, right?”

A slight flush colored his pale skin, a pink glow like colored sugar. “I am afraid so.”

“I don’t think I’ll be calling,” I said.

“You don’t trust Marcus?”

I laughed, amused. “Do you?”

He smiled, and gave a slight nod of his head. “I suppose not.” He moved for the door.

I had my hand on the doorknob when I turned and asked, “Is it really a family curse?”

“My affliction?”

“Yeah.”

“Not a family one, but a curse, yes.”

“Like in the fairy tale?” I said.

“Fairy tale sounds like such a gentle thing. The original stories are often quite gruesome.”

“I’ve read some of them.”

“Have you read The Swan Princess in its original Norse?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“It’s even worse in the original language.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said.

“So am I.” He stepped closer to the door, and I had to open it to let him go. I dearly wanted to hear the story from his own lips, but there was a pain in his eyes that was raw enough to cut skin. I couldn’t press against that much pain.

He stepped past me. I let him go. I was really going to have to find my mother’s textbook on fairy tales as truth from her comparative literature class. I wanted to read The Swan Princess.

———-32

Chapter 32
It was more like six-thirty by the time I walked down the hallway to my apartment. I had half expected to see Richard sitting in the hall, but it was empty. The tightness in my stomach eased just a bit. A reprieve, even of a few minutes, was still a reprieve.

Untill, Richard appeared in the doorway. His hair fell around his face in a mass of rich brown waves. He was wearing a sweater. It was solid forest green and looked squishy soft to the touch.

I held the door open for Richard and he slipped through the door.

I closed and locked the door out of habit and turned to face the music.

Richard had draped his leather coat across the back of the couch. I put my coat on the back of the couch by his and slipped off the high heels. I lost about two inches of height and felt much better.

“Nice jacket,” he said. His voice was still neutral.

“Thanks.” I had been going to take the jacket off, but he liked it, so I kept it on. Silly, but true. We were both being so careful. The tension in the room was choking.

I got a cold Coke from the fridge for me and poured a glass of water for Richard. He didn’t like carbonated beverages. My throat felt tight as I set the drinks on the table.

His chocolate brown eyes stared at me. I was the one who looked away first. I didn’t want to do this. “Why didn’t you tell me about Marcus?”

“I didn’t want to involve you.”

“Why not?”

“Jean-Claude involved you with Nikolaos. I know how much that cost you. I didn’t want you to get hurt. ”

“It’s not the same,” I said.

“How? I won’t use you like Jean-Claude did. I won’t do it.”

“If I volunteer, you’re not using me.”

“What are you going to do? Kill him?” There was a bitterness in his voice, anger.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You might as well take your jacket off. I saw the knives.”

I opened my mouth to protest and closed it. Explaining in the middle of a fight that I wanted to look good for him sounded silly. I stood up and took the jacket off. I draped it carefully over the back of the chair, taking a lot of time with it. “There. Happy?”

“Are those knives your answer to everything?”

“Why do you have a problem with me carrying knives?”

“Alfred was my friend.”

That stopped me. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Richard might like Alfred. “I didn’t know he was your friend.”

“Would it have made a difference?”

I thought about that. “Maybe.”

“You didn’t have to kill him.”

“You weren’t there,” I said. “You don’t know what I had to do.”

“I heard all about it. The pack’s buzzing with it. How you wouldn’t back down. You rejected Marcus’s protection. You kill another one of us.” He shook his head. “Oh, everyone’s real impressed.”

“I didn’t do it to impress them.”

He took a deep breath. “I know, that’s what scares me.”

“You’re scared of me?”

“For you,” he said. The anger was seeping out of his eyes, what was replacing it was fear.

“I can handle myself, Richard.”

“You don’t understand what you did last night.”

“I am sorry if Alfred was your friend. Frankly, he didn’t strike me as someone you’d hang out with.”

“I know he was a bully, and Marcus’s dog to call, but he was mine to protect.”

“Marcus wasn’t doing a lot of protecting last night, Richard. He was more interested in his little power struggle than in keeping Alfred safe.”

“I stopped by Irving’s place this morning.” He let the statement hang there in the air between us.

It was my turn to get angry. “Did you hurt him?”

“If I did, it was my right as beta male.”

I stood up, hands pressed on the tabletop. “If you hurt him, we are going to have more than just words.”

“Are you going to kill me, too?”

I looked at him, with his wonderful hair, looking scrumptious in his sweater, and nodded. “If I had to.”

“You could kill me, just like that.”

“No, not just like that. I would hurt me to kill you”

“But to keep Irving safe, you’d kill me.” He was leaning back in the chair, arms crossed on his chest. His expression was amazed and angry.

“Irving is my friend. I protect what’s mine.”

“He’s not something to own.”Richard growled.

“You said that Alfred was your to protect,” I reminded him. “So Irving is mine. Did you hurt him?”

He stared at me for a long time, then finally said, “No, I didn’t hurt him.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding and eased back into my chair.

“You’d really pit yourself against me to protect him. You really would.”

“Don’t sound so amazed. Irving was caught in the middle of the two of you. Marcus would have hurt him if he didn’t contact me, and you said you’d hurt him if he did. Didn’t seem very fair.”

“A lot of things in the pack aren’t fair, Anna.”

“So is life, Richard. What of it?”

“When Irving told me that he was under your protection, I didn’t hurt him, but I didn’t really believe you’d hurt me.”

“I’ve known Irving a lot longer than I’ve known you.”

He leaned forward, hands on the tabletop. “Are you dating him?”

At first I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock, “I’m dating Jean-Claude.”

“Right,” he hissed. “Dating the vampire that killed your mother.”

“Jean-Claude didn’t kill my mother, Nikolaos did and I killed her for it.”

“Yeah, and killing seems to be your answer for everthing.”

“Life is kill or be killed, Richard” I told him.”You’re in a life-or-death struggle, what do you think is going to happen?”

“Marcus won’t kill me,” he said.

I just stared at him. He seemed sincere. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

I wanted to call him a fool, but I closed my mouth and tried to think of something else to say. Nothing came to mind. “I’ve met Marcus. I’ve met Raina.” I shook my head. “If you really believe that Marcus doesn’t want you dead, you’re wrong.”

“One night and you’re an expert,” he said.

“Yeah, on this I am.”

“That’s why I didn’t tell you. You’d kill him, wouldn’t you? You’d just kill him.”

“If he was trying to kill me, yeah.”

“I have to handle this myself, Anna.”

“Then handle it, Richard. Kill him.”

“Or you’ll do it for me.”

I sat back in my chair. “Richard, what do you want from me?”

“I want to know if you think I’m a monster.”

The conversation was moving too fast for me. “You’re accusing me of being a murderer. Shouldn’t that be my question?”

“I knew what you were when we first met. Do you think I’m still human?”

I stared at him. He looked so uncertain. In my head I knew he wasn’t human. But I’d still never seen him do any of the otherworldly stuff. Looking at him here in my kitchen, brown eyes brimming with sincerity, he just didn’t seem very dangerous. He believed that Marcus wouldn’t kill him. It was too naive for words. I wanted to protect him. To keep him safe somehow.

“You’re not a monster, Richard.”

“Then why haven’t you ever touched me?” he wispered.

I again shocked by the change in coversation, but I knew I had to tell Richard the truth. “I thought you didn’t want me.”

His head snapped up.”What?”

“I thought after you found out about my age, that you did want to be with me anymore.”

Richard just stared at me for a moment, then he leaned over me, bending down to kiss my lips. The first kiss was gentle, chaste. He kissed my forehead, hands combing through my long hair. He kissed my eyebrows, the tip of my nose, each cheek, and finally my lips again. I sighed, the breath pouring into his mouth, and He pressed his lips against mine like he’d eat me from the mouth down.

His arms wrapped around my back, hands hesitating at my waist, fingers slightly lower. His hands jumped to my thighs, skipping all those questionable areas. I put one leg on either side of his knees, and found the short skirt did have its uses. I straddled his lap, didn’t have to raise the skirt an inch. Richard made a small sound of surprise. He stared at me, and his eyes were drowning deep.

I raised his sweater off his stomach, running hands against his bare flesh. “Off,” I said.

He raised the sweater over his head in one movement, dropping it to the floor. I sat in his lap, staring at his bare chest. I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t want to.

I pressed my face in the bend of his neck, breathing in the smell of his skin, his hair covering my face like a veil. I ran just the tip of my tongue in a thin line of wetness down his neck, across his collarbone.

His hands kneaded the small of my back, sliding downward. His fingers danced over my buttocks, then up to my back. Point for him. He hadn’t groped me.

His lips were soft, full. I licked the edges of his mouth. The kiss was quick and messy. I wanted to run my mouth over other things. Down his chest. I’d never gone this far, before. Not even with Jean-Claude. Oh. My. God. Jean-Claude.

He pulled my blouse out of the skirt, running hands over my bare back. The feel of his naked skin on places he’d never touched before made me shudder.

“We have to stop now.” I whispered it into his neck, so it wasn’t completely convincing.

“What?”

“Stop.” I pushed a little back from him, enough to see his face. Enough to breathe just a little. I dropped my hands. Made myself stop. He was so warm. I raised my hands to my face, and could smell him on my skin. I did not want to stop. From the look on his face, the feel of his body, neither did he. “We should stop now.”

“Why?” His voice was almost a whisper.

“Because if we don’t stop now, we might not stop at all.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?”

Staring into his lovely eyes from inches away, I almost said, no. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“Jean-Claude.”

“You could leave him,” he said.

“Richard” I said as I got off of him and tried to find my shirt. “I love him”

“Then why were you just kissing me?” he snapped.

“I don’t know,” I wispered.

“Yes, you do,” he gradded my shoulders and made me face him. “You know you don’t belong with him, Anna.”

I shook my head “That’s not true. I love him.”

“Fine,maybe you love him, but he doesn’t love you” he told me. “Jean-Claude is using you, Anna. He just wants you to be his human servant again.”

That pissed me off. “I think you should go Richard,” I said as I moved away from him.

“Anna, please…”

“Get out!” I yelled.

I heared Richard sigh. “Only if, you promise not to kill Marcus.”

I stared across at him. How could anybody be a master werewolf and be so goody-two-shoes? It was both charming and liable to get him killed. “I can’t promise that.”

“Anna…”

I held up a hand. “I can promise not to kill him unless he attacks me, or you, or anyone I care for.”

It was Richard’s turn to stare at me. “You could kill him, just like that?”

“Just like that.”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand that.”

“How can you be a lycanthrope and never have killed anybody?”

“I’m careful.”

“And I’m not?”

“You’re almost casual about it. You killed Alfred last night, and you don’t seem sorry.”

“Should I be?”

“I would be.”

I shrugged. Truth was, it didn’t bother me, not even a little. There might have been a way out without Alfred ending up in a body bag. Or in the stomachs of his friends. But I’d killed him. There it was. No going back. No changing it. No apologizing.

“It’s the way I am, Richard. Live with it or get out. I’m not going to change.”

“One of the reasons I wanted to date you to begin with was I thought you could take care of yourself. You’ve seen them now. I think I can get out of it alive, but a regular person–an ordinary human being–what chance would they have?”

I just looked at him. I flashed on him with his throat torn out. Dead. But he hadn’t been dead. He’d healed. He’d lived. There’d been another man. Another human being that hadn’t healed. I never wanted to love anyone and lose them again. Ever.

“So you got what was advertised. What’s the problem?”

“I still want you. I still want to hold you. Touch you.”

“Richard,” I turned from him.” I can’t”

“I know, Anna,” he said, and I could hear him leaving. “He dosen’t desever you.”

Was the last thing I heard before the door closed.

——– 33

Chapter 33
I was late to my first zombie appointment. Surprise, surprise. Being late to the first meeting made me late to the other two. It was 2:03 by the time I got to Edward’s room.

I knocked. He opened the door and stepped to one side. “You’re late.”

“Yeah,” I said. The room was nice but standard. A single king-sized bed, nightstand, two lamps, a desk against the far wall. The drapes were closed over the nearly wall-to-wall windows. The bathroom light was on, door open. The closet door was half-open, showing that he’d hung up his clothes. He planned to stay for a while.

The television was on, sound turned off. I was surprised. Edward didn’t watch television. A VCR sat on top of the TV. That was not standard hotel issue.

“You want something from room service before we get started?”

“A Coke would be great.”

He smiled. “You always did have champagne tastes, Anna.” He went to the phone and ordered. He asked for a steak, rare, with a bottle of burgundy.

I took off my coat and laid it on the desk chair. “I can’t drink,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “You want to freshen up while we wait for the food?”

I glanced up and caught a distant look at myself in the bathroom mirror. Chicken blood had dried to a sticky, brick color on my face. “I see your point.”

I shut the bathroom door and looked at myself in the mirror. The lighting was that harsh, glaring white that so many hotel bathrooms seem to have. It’s so unflattering that even Ms. America wouldn’t look good in it.

The blood stood out like reddish chalk against my pale skin. I was wearing a white Christmas sweatshirt that had Maxine from the Shoebox Hallmark commercials on it. She was drinking coffee with a candy cane in hand, saying, “This is as jolly as I get.” Bert had asked us to wear Christmasy-type things for the month. Maybe the sweatshirt wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, but hey, it was better than some of the ones I had at home. There was blood on the white cloth. Figures.

I took the sweatshirt off, draping it on the bathtub. There was blood smeared over my heart. I’d even gotten a little on my silver cross. I’d put the blood there along with the stuff on my face and hands. I’d killed three chickens tonight. Raising zombies was a messy job.

I got one of the white washrags from the little towel rack. I wondered how Edward would explain the bloodstains to the maid. Not my problem, but sort of amusing anyway.

I ran water into the sink and started scrubbing. I caught a glimpse of myself with blood running down my face in watery rivulets. I stood up and stared. My face looked fresh scrubbed and sort of surprised.

I looked down and realized I was dripping bloody water on the linoleum. I knelt and wiped it up. I was scrubbed as clean as I was going to get until I showered at home. If I’d brought clean clothes, I might have done it here, but I hadn’t thought of it.

Edward knocked on the door. “Food’s here.”

I got dressed, put the rag in the sink, and ran cold water over it. I made sure the cloth wasn’t blocking the drain and opened the door. The smell of steak hit me. It smelled wonderful. I hadn’t eaten for more than eight hours, and truthfully I hadn’t eaten all that much then. Richard had distracted me.

“Do you think room service would shoot us if we asked for another order?”

He made a small hand motion at the room-service cart. There were two orders on the cart.

“How did you know I’d be hungry?”

“You always forget to eat,” he said.

“My, aren’t we being mother of the year.”

“The least I can do is feed you.”

I looked at him. Sometimes I forget that Momma was Edward’s friend before he was mine. Edward never seemed very broken up over her death, but now and then I wonder how close Momma and Edward really were.

“What’s up, Edward? You’re being awfully considerate.”

“I know you well enough to know you won’t like this. Call the meal a peace offering.”

“Won’t like what?”

“Let’s eat, watch the movie, and all will be revealed.”

He was being cagey. It wasn’t like him. He’d shoot you, but he wouldn’t be cute about it. “What are you up to, Edward?”

“No questions until after the movie.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll have better questions.” With that inscrutable answer he sat down on the edge of the bed and poured a glass of red wine. He cut his meat, which was raw enough to bleed in the center.

“Please tell me my steak isn’t bloody.”

“It isn’t bloody. You like your meat well dead.”

“Ha, ha.” But I sat down. It seemed odd sharing a meal in Edward’s hotel room, like we were two business people traveling together, just a working dinner. The steak was well done. Thick house fries suitably spiced took up almost as much room as the steak. There was a side order of broccoli, which could be slid to one side and ignored.

The Coke came in a chilled wineglass, which seemed a little excessive, but it looked nice.

“The movie’s going to start near the end. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble picking up the plot.” He hit the remote control, and the TV screen flickered, jumping from a game show to a bedroom.

A woman with long brown hair lay on her back in a round bed. She was nude, or at least what I could see of her was nude. Below the waist she was hidden behind the furiously pumping buttocks of a dark-haired man.

“This is pornography.” I didn’t even try to keep the disbelief from my voice.

“It certainly is.”

I glanced at Edward. He was cutting his steak with neat, precise hand movements. He chewed a bite of steak, sipped his wine, and watched the screen.

I glanced back at the “movie.” A second man had joined the couple on the bed. He was taller than the first man, with shorter hair, but beyond that it was a little hard to tell, mainly because I was trying not to look.

I sat on the edge of Edward’s bed with our nice steak dinners, and for the first time felt awkward around Edward. There had never been any sexual tension between us. We might kill each other someday, but we’d never kiss. But I was still in a man’s hotel room watching a porno movie, and good girls just didn’t do that.

“Edward, what the heck is going on?”

He hit the remote control. “Here, a face shot.”

I turned back to the screen. The frozen image stared out at me. It was the second man. It was Alfred.

“Oh, my, God,” I said.

“You know him?” Edward asked.

“Yeah.” No sense denying it. Alfred was dead. Edward couldn’t hurt him anymore.

“Name?”

“Alfred. I don’t know the last name.”

He hit fast forward. The images on the screen moved at a furious pace, doing intimate things that would have been obscene at any speed. At fast forward it seemed sadder. Ridiculous as well as degrading.

He hit the pause again. The woman was full face to the camera, mouth open, eyes heavy lidded with sexual languor. Her hair was spread artfully over the silken pillow. It should have been provocative. It managed not to be.

“Do you know her?”

I shook my head. “No.”

He hit the button again. “We’re near the end.”

“What about the other man?”

“He wears a face mask throughout.”

The masked man had mounted the woman from behind. His hips cupped her butt, the line of his thigh matching hers. He leaned his upper body over her nude torso, hands massaging the flesh of her upper arms. He seemed to be draping himself on top of her more than anything else. There seemed to be very little sex going on.

She was supporting his full weight on her hands and knees. Her breath came in pants. A low growl trickled through the room. The camera did a close-up of the man’s back. The skin was rippled, as if a hand had rubbed the under surface of his skin, then vanished. More ripples, as if something small were trying to punch its way out.

A wider-angle shot showed him still draped over the woman. The ripples on his back were growing. You could see things pushing against his skin, movements large enough you could have seen them even if he’d been dressed. Like those I had seen on Jason last night.

I had to admit this part was fascinating. I’d seen people shapeshift, but never like this. Not in minute detail, not with the loving eye of a camera on it.

The skin split along his back, and he reared upward, hands hugging her waist, screaming. Clear liquid flowed down his back in a wash that soaked the bed and the woman underneath him.

The woman gave a little encouragement, moving her buttocks against him, thrusting against him, head bowed to the bed.

Black fur flowed outward from his back. His hands shot to his sides, spasming. He leaned over her again, hands digging into the bed. The hands were just hands, then those human fingers sliced into the bed, ripping white stuffing from great clawed furrows.

The man seemed to shrink. The fur flowed faster and faster, almost liquid in its speed. The mask dropped away. The face was the wrong shape for it now. The camera did a close shot of the fallen mask. A bit of art in all this… oh, hell. I didn’t have a word for it.

The man was gone. A black leopard mounted the woman and seemed very happy with the arrangement. The leopard bent over the woman, lips spread to reveal glistening teeth. The leopard nipped her back, drawing a small amount of blood. She gave a low moan, a shudder sweeping her body.

Alfred came back into view. He was still in human form. He crawled up to the bed and kissed the woman. It was a long, complete kiss, full of probing tongues. He rose on his knees, still kissing her, rocking his body with the movements. He seemed very excited to see her.

His back rippled, and he tore away from her, hands clutching the sheets. The change seemed to go a lot faster for him. The camera did a close-up of one of his hands. Bones slid out of the skin with wet, sucking noises. Muscles and ligaments crawled and rearranged. The skin tore and that same clear liquid poured out. The hand changed into a naked claw before the dark fur flowed over it.

He stood on bent legs, half wolf, half man, but all male. He threw back his head and howled. The sound had a deep, resonating quality that filled the room.

The woman looked up at him, eyes wide. The leopard jumped off her, rolling on the bed, for all the world like a big kitten. It rolled itself in the silken sheet, until only its black-furred face peeked out.

The woman lay on her back, legs spread-eagled. She held out her hands to the wolfman, tongue flicking out along her lips as if she were really enjoying herself. Maybe she was.

The werewolf thrust into her, and it wasn’t gentle. She gave a gasping moan, as if it were the best thing she’d ever felt.

The woman was making noises. Either she was a very good actor or she was coming close to climax. I wasn’t sure which I preferred. Good acting, I think.

She came with a sound between a scream and a shout of joy. She lay back gasping on the bed, body liquid. The werewolf gave one last shuddering thrust and drew claws down the length of her naked body.

She screamed then, no acting required. Blood poured down her body in scarlet rivulets. The leopard gave a startled scream and jumped off the bed. The woman put her hands up in front of her face, and the claws smashed her arms to one side. Blood poured, and there was a glimpse of bone in one arm where the claws had torn all the flesh away.

Her screams were high and continuous, one loud ragged shriek after another, as fast as she could draw air. The werewolf’s pointed muzzle lowered towards her face. I had an image of the murder victim’s crushed jaw. But he went for her throat. He bit her throat out, spraying a great gout of blood.

Her eyes stared sightless at the camera, wide and shiny, dull with death. The blood had somehow left her face untouched. The werewolf reared back, blood dripping from its jaws. A gob of blood fell on her staring face, running between her eyes.

The leopard leaped back onto the bed. It licked her face clean with long, sure strokes of its tongue. The werewolf licked its way down her body, stopping over her stomach. It hesitated, one yellow eye staring at the camera. It began to feed. The leopard joined the feast.

I closed my eyes, but the sounds were enough. Heavy, wet, tearing sounds filled the room. I heard myself say, “Turn it off.” The sounds stopped, and I assumed that Edward had turned the tape off, but I didn’t look up to see. I didn’t look up until I heard the whir of the tape rewinding.

Edward cut a bite of steak.

“If you eat that right now, I will throw up on you.”

He smiled, but he put down his silverware. He looked at me. His expression was neutral, as it was most of the time. I couldn’t tell if he’d enjoyed the film or been disgusted by it. “Now you can ask me questions,” he said. His voice was like it always was, pleasant, unaffected by external stimuli.

“Jesus, where did you get that thing?”

“A client.”

“Why give it to you?”

“The woman was his daughter.”

“Oh, God, please, tell me he didn’t watch this.”

“You know he saw it. You know he watched it to the end or why hire me? Most men don’t hire people to kill their daughter’s lovers.”

“He hired you to kill the two men?”

Edward nodded.

“Why did you show this to me?”

“Because I knew you’d help me.”

“I’m not an assassin, Edward.”

“Just help me identify them. I’ll do the rest. Is it all right if I drink some wine?”

I nodded.

He sipped his wine. The dark liquid rolled around the glass, looking a lot redder than it had before the movie. I swallowed hard and looked away. I would not throw up. I would not throw up.

“Where can I find Alfred?”

“Nowhere,” I said.

He set his wineglass carefully on the tray. “Anna, you disappoint me. I thought you’d help me after seeing what they did to the girl.”

“I’m not being uncooperative. That film is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a heck of a lot. You’re too late to find Alfred.”

“How too late?”

“I killed him last night.”

A smile spread across his face, beautiful to behold. “You always make my job easier.”

“Not on purpose.”

He shrugged. “Do you want half the fee? You did do half the work.”

I shook my head. “I didn’t do it for money.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

I looked at him. “Because you hunt lycanthropes and I don’t want to give someone to you by accident.”

“The wereleopard deserves to die, Anna.”

“I’m not arguing that. Though, technically, he didn’t kill the girl.”

“The father wants them both. Do you blame him?”

“No, I guess I don’t.”

“Then you’ll help me identify the other man?”

“Maybe.” I stood up. “I need to call someone. I need for someone else to see this film. He might be able to help you more than I could.”

“Who?”

I shook my head. “Let me see if he’ll come first.”

Edward gave a long nod, almost a bow with just his neck. “As you like.”

I dialed Richard’s number by heart. I got his machine. “This is Anna, pick up if you’re there. Richard, pick up. This is important.” No one picked up the phone.

“Damn,” I said.

“Not home?” Edward asked.

“Do you have the number for the Lunatic Cafe?”

“Yes.”

“Give it to me.”

He repeated the number slowly, and I dialed it. A woman picked up the phone. It wasn’t Raina. I was thankful for that. “Lunatic Cafe, Polly here, how may I help you.”

“I need to speak with Richard.”

“I’m sorry we don’t have any waiters by that name.”

“Look, I was a guest of Marcus’s last night. I need to speak with Richard. It’s an emergency.”

“I don’t know. I mean, like, they’re all busy in the back room.”

“Look, get Richard on the phone now.”

“Marcus doesn’t like to be disturbed.”

“Polly, is it? I have been on my feet for over thirteen hours. If you do not put Richard on the phone right now, I am going to come down there personally and bust your ass. Am I making myself clear?”

“Who is this?” She sounded a little miffed, and not in the least afraid.

“Anna Blake.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’ll get Richard for you, right away, Anna, right away.” There was an edge of panic to her voice that hadn’t been there before. She put me on hold. Someone with a sick sense of humor had compiled the Muzak. “Moonlight and Roses,” “Blue Moon,” “Moonlight Sonata.” Every song was a moon theme. We were halfway through “Moon over Miami” when the phone clicked back to life.

“Anna, it’s me. What’s wrong?”

“I’m all right, but I’ve got something you need to see.”

“Can you tell me what it is?”

“I know this sounds corny, but not over the phone.”

“You sure you’re not just looking for an excuse to see me again?” There was a note of teasing in his voice.

It had been too long a night. “Can you meet me?”

“Of course. What’s wrong? Your voice sounds awful.”

“I need to erase the last hour of my life.”

“Are you home?”

“No.” I glanced at Edward, putting my hand over the mouthpiece. “Can I give him the hotel room?”

He nodded.

I gave Richard the hotel room, and directions. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He hesitated, then said, “What did you say to Polly? She’s nearly hysterical.”

“She wouldn’t put you on the phone.”

“You threatened her,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Was it an idle threat?”

“Pretty much.”

“Dominant pack members don’t make idle threats to subordinates.”

“I’m not a pack member.”

“After last night you’re a dominant. They’re treating you like a rogue dominant lycanthrope.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means when you say you’re going to bust someone’s ass, they believe you.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me, apologize to Polly. I’ll be there before you get her calmed down.”

“Don’t put her on, Richard.”

“That’s what you get for being trigger happy. People get scared of you.”

“Richard…” A sobbing female voice came on the line. I spent the next fifteen minutes convincing a crying werewolf that I wasn’t going to hurt her. My life was getting too strange, even for me.

——– 34

Chapter 34
Richard was wrong. He didn’t knock on the door while I was on the phone calming Polly down. She was so grateful that I had forgiven her for her rudeness, that it was embarrassing. Waves of submissiveness poured out of the phone. I hung up.

Edward was grinning at me. He had moved to one of the soft chairs. “Did you just spend nearly twenty minutes convincing a werewolf that you weren’t going hurt her?”

“Yes.”

He laughed, a wide, abrupt sound. The smile vanished, leaving a sort of shimmering glow to his face. His eyes glittered with something darker than humor. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but it wasn’t pleasant.

He slid down in the chair, base of his skull resting on the back, hands clasped over his stomach, ankles crossed. He looked utterly comfortable. “How did you come to be the terror of good little werewolves everywhere?”

“I don’t think they’re used to people killing them. At least not on first acquaintance.”

His eyes simmered with some dark joke. “You went in there and killed someone your first night? Hell, Anna, I’ve been down three times and haven’t killed anyone yet.”

“How long have you been in town?”

He looked at me for a long moment. “Is that an idle question or do you need to know?”

It had occurred to me that Edward could take out eight lycanthropes and leave no trace. If any human could do it, it was him.

“I need to know,” I said.

“A week, tomorrow.” His eyes had gone empty. They were as cool and distant as any of the shapeshifters’ last night. There’s more than one way to become a predator. “Of course, you’ll have to take my word for it. You can check with registration, but I could have changed hotels.”

“Why would you lie to me?”

“Because I enjoy it,” he said.

“It’s not the lie you enjoy.”

“What do I enjoy?”

“Knowing something I don’t.”

He gave a small shrug, not easy for him, slid down in the chair as he was. He made it look graceful. “Egotistical of you.”

“It’s not just from me. You like keeping secrets for the pure heck of it.”

He smiled then, a slow, lazy smile. “You do know me well.”

I started to say, we’re friends, but the look in his eyes stopped me. His stare was a little too intense. He seemed to be studying me as if he’d never really seen me before.

“What are you thinking, Edward?”

“That you might be able to give me a run for my money.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know how I like a challenge.”

I stared at him. “You’re talking about coming against me, seeing who’s better?” I made it a question. He didn’t give me the answer I wanted.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I won’t do it. You know me–no money, no killing–but it would be… interesting.”

“Don’t go all spooky on me, Edward.”

“It’s just for the very first time I’m wondering if you would win?”

He was scaring me. I was armed, and he didn’t seem to be, but Edward was always armed. “Don’t do this, Edward.”

He sat up in one liquid movement. My hand jumped to my knives. A knife was halfway out when I realized he hadn’t done anything but sit up. I let out a shaky breath and eased the knife back. “Don’t play with me, Edward. One of us will get hurt if you do.”

He spread his hands wide. “No more games. I would like to know which of us was best, Anna, but not enough to kill you.”

I let my hand relax. If Edward said he would kill me tonight, he meant it. If we ever did do this for real, he’d tell me first. Edward liked to be sporting about these things. Surprising your victim made things too easy.

There was a knock on the door. I jumped. Nervous–who, me? Edward sat there as though he hadn’t heard, still staring at me with his spooky eyes. I went to the door. It was Richard. He tried to put his arms around me, and I won’t let him. I just pulled him into the room. He looked questioningly at me. I shook my head. “You remember Edward?”

“Anna, you didn’t tell me you were dating Richard.” Edward’s voice was pleasant, normal, as if he hadn’t been wondering what it would be like to kill me. His face was open, friendly. He walked across the room with his hand outstretched. He was a superb actor.

“I’m not.” I said.

Richard shook his hand, looking a little puzzled. He glanced at me. “What’s happening, Anna?”

“Can you set up the movie?”

“If you’ll let me eat during it. My steak is getting ice cold,” Edward said.

I swallowed hard. “You’ve seen the movie before, and you still ordered steaks. Why?”

“Maybe to see if you could eat after watching it.”

“You competitive jerk.”

He just smiled.

“What movie?” Richard asked.

“Eat your steak, Edward. We’ll watch after you’re done.”

“It bothered you that much?”

“Shut up and eat.”

He sat down on the edge of the bed and started cutting meat. The meat was red. Blood oozed out of it. I walked towards the bathroom. I wasn’t going to be sick, but if I watched him eat that piece of meat I would be.

“I’m going to hide in the bathroom. You want an explanation, come join me,” I said.

Richard glanced at Edward, then back to me. “What is going on?”

I pulled him into the bathroom and shut the door behind us. I ran cold water in the sink and splashed it on my face.

He gripped my shoulders, massaging. “Are you all right?”

“Don’t touch me,” I muttered as I shook my head, water dripping down my face. I fumbled a towel and pressed it to my face, holding it there a minute. Edward hadn’t warned me because he liked to shock people. And a warning would have lessened the impact. How much impact did I want Richard to endure?

I turned to him, towel still clutched in my hands. He looked worried, all tender concern. I didn’t want him to look like that. Had I really kissed him, just eight hours ago? It seemed less and less real.

“The movie is a porno flick,” I said.

He looked startled. Good. “Porno? Are you serious?”

“Deadly,” I said.

“Why do I need to see it?” A thought seemed to occur to him. “Why did you watch it with him?” There was the tiniest bit of anger in his voice.

I laughed then. I laughed until tears ran down my face, and I was too breathless to speak.

“What’s so funny?” He sounded a little indignant.

When I could speak without gasping, I said, “Be afraid of Edward, but never be jealous of him.”

The laughter had helped. I felt better, less dirty, less embarrassed, even a little less horrified. I stared up at him. He was still wearing the green sweater that had ended up on my kitchen floor earlier. He looked wonderful. I realized I didn’t. In my oversize sweatshirt, complete with bloodstain, jeans, and sneakers, I had lost several notches in the cuteness game. I shook my head. Did it matter? No, I was delaying. I didn’t want to go back out there. I didn’t want to watch the movie again. I certainly didn’t want to sit in the same room with the man I might marry and watch him watch a porno film. Should I spoil the ending?

Would it excite him before it went wrong? I looked at his very human face, and wondered.

“It’s lycanthropes and a human in the film.”

“They’re already for sale?” he said.

It was my turn to look surprised. “You know about the film? You said ‘they.’ There are more of them?”

“Unfortunately,” he said. He leaned against the door, sliding down to sit Indian fashion on the floor. If he’d stretched his legs out, there wouldn’t have been room for both of us.

“Explain this, Richard.”

“It was Raina’s idea,” he said. “She convinced Marcus to order some of us to participate.”

“Did you…” I couldn’t even say it.

He shook his head. Something tight in my chest eased. “Raina tried to get me in front of the cameras. For those that need to hide their identity they use masks. I wouldn’t do it.”

“Did Marcus order you to?”

“Yes. These damn films are one of the main reasons I started rising in the pack. Everyone higher in the structure could order me around. If Marcus okays it, they can order you to do almost anything, as long as it’s not illegal.”

“Wait. The films aren’t illegal?”

“Bestiality is against the law in some states, but we sort of slip through the cracks on the law.”

“Nothing else illegal goes on in these films?” I asked.

He stared up at me. “What’s on that film that makes you look so scared?”

“It’s a snuff film.”

He just stared at me, no change of expression, as if waiting for me to say more. When I didn’t, he said, “You cannot be serious.”

“I wish I wasn’t.”

He shook his head. “Even Raina wouldn’t do that.”

“Raina wasn’t in the film as far as I saw.”

“But Marcus wouldn’t approve of that, not that.” He stood up, using only his legs and the wall. He paced to the edge of the bathtub and back. He brushed past me, slamming his hand into the wall. It gave a resounding thunk.

He turned, and I’d never seen him so angry. “There are other packs around the country. It doesn’t have to be us.”

“Alfred was in it.”

He leaned his back against the far wall, and slammed his palms into the wall again. “I can’t believe it.”

Edward knocked on the door. “The film’s ready.”

Richard yanked the door open and poured into the other room like a crackling storm. For the first time I felt some of that otherworldly energy radiating from him.

Edward’s eyes widened. “You gave him a preview?”

I nodded.

The room was in darkness except for the television. “I’ll give you two love birds the bed. I’ll sit over here.” He sat down in the chair again, upright, watching us. “Don’t mind me if the mood strikes you.”

“Shut up and start the movie,” I said.

Richard had sat down on the edge of the bed. The room-service cart was gone, along with its offending meat. Great, one less reason to upchuck. Richard seemed to have calmed down. He seemed normal enough sitting there. That wash of energy was gone so cleanly that I wondered if I’d imagined it. I glanced at Edward’s face. He was watching Richard as if he had done something interesting. I hadn’t imagined it.

I thought about turning on the lights but didn’t. Darkness seemed better for this.

“Edward.”

“Showtime,” he said. He hit the button, and it began again.

Richard stiffened at the first image. Did he recognize the other man? I didn’t ask, not yet. Let him see it, then questions.

I didn’t want to sit on the bed with him while this filth played. Maybe I hadn’t really thought about what sex might mean to Richard. Did it mean shapeshifting? Bestiality? I hoped not, and wasn’t sure how to find out without asking, and I didn’t want to ask.

I finally walked across the screen and sat down in the other chair, beside Edward. I didn’t want to see the film again. Apparently neither did Edward. We both watched Richard watch the film. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see, or even what I wanted to see. Edward’s face gave nothing away. His eyes closed about halfway through. He’d slid down in the chair again. He looked asleep, but I knew better. He was aware of everything in the room. I wasn’t sure Edward ever really slept.

Richard watched alone. He sat on the very edge of the bed, hands clasped together, shoulders hunched. His eyes were bright, reflecting the light of the television set. I could almost watch the action playing over his face. Sweat glistened on his upper lip. He wiped it away, catching me looking at him. He looked embarrassed, then angry.

“Don’t watch me, Anna.” His voice was choked tight with something more than emotion, or less.

I couldn’t pretend sleep like Edward. What the hell was I supposed to do? I got up and walked towards the bathroom. I studiously did not look at the screen, but I had to cross in front of it. I felt Richard track me as I moved. His eyes on my back made my skin itch. I wiped suddenly sweating palms on my jeans. I turned, slowly, to look at him.

He was looking at me, not the movie. There was rage on his face–anger was too mild a word–and hatred. I didn’t think it was me he was angry with. That left who? Raina, Marcus… himself?

The woman’s scream jerked his head around to the film. I watched his face while his friend killed her. The rage blossomed on his face, spilling out his mouth in an inarticulate cry. He slid off the bed to his knees, covering his face with his hands.

Edward was standing. I caught the movement on the edge of my vision and found him holding a gun that had magically appeared. I was holding a knife. We stared at each other over Richard’s kneeling body.

Richard had rolled into an almost fetal position, rocking slowly back and forth on his knees. The sounds of tearing flesh came from the screen. He raised a shocked face, caught one glimpse of the screen, and scrambled towards me. I stepped out of the way and he let me. He was going for the bathroom.

The door slammed shut, and a few seconds later the sound of his retching came through the door.

Edward and I stood out in the room, looking at each other. We still had our weapons out. “You go for your knives as quickly as I do my gun. That wasn’t true two years ago.”

“It’s been a rough year,” I said.

He smiled. “Most people wouldn’t have seen me move in the dark.”

“My night vision is excellent,” I said.

“I’ll remember that.”

“Let’s call a truce tonight, Edward. I’m too tired for with it tonight.”

He gave one nod, and tucked the gun at the small of his back. “That wasn’t where the gun started out,” I said.

“No,” he said, “it wasn’t.”

I knocked on the bathroom door. Admittedly, I didn’t turn completely around. I just wasn’t easy with Edward at my back right that moment.

“Richard, are you all right?”

“No.” His voice sounded deeper, hoarse.

“Can I come in?”

There was a long pause, then, “Maybe you better.”

I pushed the door open carefully, didn’t want to smack him with it. He was still kneeling over the toilet, head down, long hair hiding his face. He had a bunch of toilet paper crumbled in one hand. The sharp, sweet smell of vomit hung in the air.

I closed the door and leaned against it. “Can I help?”

He shook his head.

I smoothed his hair back on one side. He jerked away from me as if I’d burned him. He ended up huddled in the corner, trapped between the wall and the bathtub. The look on his face was wild, panicked.

I knelt in front of him.

“Don’t touch me, please!”

“Okay, I won’t touch you. Now what’s wrong?”

He wouldn’t look at me. His eyes wandered the room, not settling on anything, but definitely avoiding me.

“Talk to me, Richard.”

“I can’t believe Marcus knows. He can’t know. He wouldn’t allow it.”

“Could Raina do it without his knowing?”

He nodded. “She’s a real bitch.”

“I noticed.”

“I have to tell Marcus. He won’t believe it. He might need to see the film.” His words were almost normal, but his voice was still breathy, thin, panicked. If he kept this up, he was going to hyperventilate.

“Take a slow, deep breath, Richard. It’s all right.”

He shook his head. “But it isn’t. I thought you’d seen us at our worst.” He gave a loud, spitting laugh. “Oh, God, now you really have.”

I reached for him, to comfort, to do something. “Don’t touch me!” He screamed it at me. I backed up and ended sitting with my back pressed against the far wall. It was as far away as I could get without leaving the room.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I want you, right now, here, after seeing that.”

“It excited you?” I made it a question.

“God help me,” he said.

“Is that what sex means to you, not the killing but before?”

“It can, but it isn’t safe. In animal form we’re contagious. You know that.”

“But it’s a temptation,” I said.

“Yes.” He crawled towards me, and I let him. He sat back on his knees and just looked at me. “I am not just a man, Anna. I am what I am. I don’t ask you to literally embrace the other half, but you have to look at it. You have to know what it is or it’s never going to work between us.” He studied my face. “Or do you still want him?”

I didn’t know what to say. His eyes didn’t look wild anymore. They had gone dark and deep. There was a heat to his gaze, to his face, that had nothing to do with horror. He rose on all fours, the movement was enough to bring him close to me. I stared at his face from inches away. He gave a long, shuddering sigh, and energy prickled along my skin. I was left gasping. His otherness beat against my skin like a crashing wave. The wash of it pressed me against the wall like an invisible hand.

He leaned into me, lips almost touching, then moved past. His breath was hot against the side of my face. “Think how it could be. Making love like this, feeling the power crawl over your skin while I was inside you.”

I wanted to touch him, and I didn’t want to touch him. He drew back enough to look me in the face, close enough to kiss. “It would be so good.” His lips brushed mine. He whispered the next words into my mouth like a secret. “And all this lust comes from me seeing blood and death and imagining her fear.”

He was standing, as if someone had pulled him upright with strings. It was magically quick. It made Alfred last night look slow. “This is what I am, Anna. I can pretend to be human. I’m better at it than Marcus, but it’s just a game.”

“No.” But my voice was just a whisper.

He swallowed hard enough for me to hear it. “I’ve got to go.” He offered me his hand. I realized he couldn’t open the door with me sitting there, not without banging me with it.

I knew if I refused his hand that that would be it. He would stop trying to date me, and I would never have another chance. I took his hand. He let out a long breath. His skin was hot to the touch, almost burning hot. His skin sent little shock waves through my arm. Touching him with all his power loose in the room was too amazing for words.

He raised my hand to his mouth. He didn’t so much kiss my hand as nuzzle it, rub it along his cheek, trace his tongue over my wrist. He dropped it so abruptly, I stumbled back. “I have to get out of here, now.” There was sweat on his face again.

He stepped out into the room. The lights were on this time. Edward was sitting in the chair, hands loose in his lap. No weapon in sight. I stood in the bathroom door, feeling Richard’s power swirl out and fill the outer room like water too long imprisoned. Edward showed great restraint, not going for a gun.

Richard stalked to the door and you could almost feel the waves of his passing in the air. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll tell Marcus if I can get him alone. If Raina interferes, we’ll have to think of something else.” He gave one last glance at me, then he was gone. I almost expected him to run down the hallway, but he didn’t. Self-restraint at its best.

Edward and I stood in the doorway and watched him vanish around the corner. He turned to me. “You’re dating that.”

“Yes”

The question was, How would Jean-Claude react? Answer: I hadn’t the foggiest.

———– 35

Chapter 35
I slept Sunday morning and missed church. I hadn’t gotten home until nearly seven o’clock in the morning. There was no way to make a ten o’clock service. Surely God understood the need for sleep, even if he didn’t have to do it himself.

Late afternoon found me at Washington University. I was in the office of Dr. Louis Fane, Louie to his friends. The early-winter evening was filling the sky with soft purple clouds. Strips of sky like a lighted backdrop for the clouds showed through his single office window. He rated a window. Most doctorates didn’t. Doctorates are cheap on a college campus.

Louie sat with his back to the window. He had turned on the desk lamp. It made a pool of golden warmth against the coming night. We sat in that last pool of light, and it seemed more private than it should have. A last stand against the dark. God, I was melancholy today.

Louie’s office was suitably cluttered. One wall was ceiling-to-floor bookshelves, filled with biology textbooks, nature essays, and a complete set of James Herriot books. The skeleton of a Little Brown Bat was laid behind glass and hung on his wall by his diploma. There was a bat identification poster on his door like the ones you buy for bird feeders. You know, “Common Birds of Eastern Missouri.” Louie’s doctoral thesis had been on the adaptation of the Little Brown Bat to human habitation.

His shelves were lined with souvenirs; seashells, a piece of petrified wood, pinecones, bark with dried lichen on it. All the bits and pieces that biology majors are always picking up.

Louie was about five foot six, with eyes as black as my own. His hair was straight and fine, growing a little below his shoulders. It wasn’t a fashion statement as it was with Richard. It sort of looked as though Louie had just not gotten around to cutting his hair in a while. He had a square face, a slender build, and looked sort of inoffensive. But muscles worked in his forearms as he tented his fingers and looked at me. Even if he hadn’t been a wererat, I might not have offered to arm-wrestle him.

He had come in specially to talk to me on a Sunday. It was my day off, too.

I felt like a fool this morning. I’d almost cheated on Jean-Claude. I knew what Richard had shown me, his outward face, but inside was a whole new world that I had just begun to visit.

“What did you and the rest of the professors think of the footprints the police sent over?”

“We think it’s a wolf.”

“A wolf? Why?”

“It’s certainly a big canine. It isn’t a dog, and other than wolves that’s about it.”

“Even allowing for the fact that the canine foot is mixed with human?”

“Even allowing.”

“Could it be Peggy Smitz?”

“Peggy could control herself really well. Why would she kill someone?”

“I don’t know. Why wouldn’t she kill someone?”

He leaned back in his chair. It squeaked under his weight. “Fair question. Peggy was as much a pacifist as the pack would let her be.”

“She didn’t fight?”

“Not unless forced into it.”

“Was she high in the pack structure?”

“Shouldn’t you be asking Richard these questions? He is next in line to the throne, so to speak.”

I just looked at him. I wouldn’t look away as if I were guilty of something.

“I smell trouble in paradise,” he said.

I ignored the hint. Business, we had business to discuss.

“A lot of us survive in relationships by pretending as hard as we can that we aren’t what we are.” Louie said. “I bet Peggy didn’t talk pack business with her husband.”

“How hard is it to pretend?”

“The better you control, the easier it is to pretend.”

“So it can be done.”

“Would you want to go through your life pretending you didn’t raise zombies? Never talking about it? Never sharing it? Having your husband embarrassed by it, or sickened by it?”

I felt my face burn. I wanted to deny it. I wasn’t embarrassed by Richard, or sickened, or Jean-Claude for that matter. I knew who hard it was to keep serects from the people you care about. “It doesn’t sound like a very good way to live,” I said.

“It isn’t.”

There was a very heavy silence in the room. If he thought I was going to spill the beans, he was wrong. When all else goes to hell, concentrate on business. “The police were all over the area where the body was found today. Sergeant Storr said they didn’t find anything but a few more footprints, a little blood.” Truth was, they had found some fresh rifle slugs in the trees near the kill area, but I wasn’t sure I was free to share that with the lycanthrope community. It was police business. I was lying to both sides. It didn’t seem like a good way to run a murder investigation, or a missing-person case.

“If the police and the pack would share information, we might be able to solve this case.”

He shrugged. “It’s not my call, Anna. I’m just an Indian, not a chief.”

“Richard’s a chief,” I said.

“Not as long as Marcus and Raina are alive.”

“I didn’t think Richard had to fight her for pack dominance. I thought it was Marcus’s fight.”

Louie laughed. “If you think Raina would let Marcus lose without helping him, you haven’t met the woman.”

“I have met her. I just thought her helping Marcus was against pack law.”

He shrugged again. “I don’t know about pack law, but I know Raina. If Richard would play footsie with her, she might even help him defeat Marcus, but he’s made it very clear that he doesn’t like her.”

“Richard said she had this idea about lycanthrope porno movies?”

Louie’s eyes widened. “Richard told you about that?”

I nodded.

“I’m surprised. He was embarrassed about the whole idea. Raina was hot and heavy to have him be her costar. I think she was trying to seduce him, but she misjudged her boy. Richard is too private to ever have sex for a camera.”

“Raina’s starred in some of the movies?”

“So I’m told.”

“Have any of the wererats appeared in the flicks?”

He shook his head. “Rafael forbid it. We’re one of the few groups that refused it flat.”

“Rafael’s a good man.”

“And a good rat,” Louie said.

I smiled. “Yeah.”

“What’s up with you and Richard?”

“What do you mean?”

“He left a message on my answering machine. Said he had news concerning you. When I saw him in person, he said it was nothing. What happened?”

I didn’t know what to say. Not a new event lately. “I think it has to be Richard’s news.”

“He said something about it being your choice and he couldn’t talk about it. You say it’s his business and you can’t talk about it. I wish one of you would talk to me.”

I opened my mouth, closed it, and sighed. I had questions that I needed answers to, but Louie was Richard’s friend before he was mine. Loyalty and all that. But who the hell else could I ask? Irving? He was in enough trouble with Richard.

“I’ve heard Richard and Rafael talk about controlling their beasts. Does that mean the change?”

He nodded. “Yes.” He looked at me, eyes narrowing. “If you’ve heard Richard talk about his beast, you must have seen him close to changing. What happened last night?”

“If Richard didn’t tell you, Louie, I don’t think I can.”

“The grapevine says you killed Alfred. Is that true?”

“Yes.”

He looked at me as if waiting for more, then shrugged. “Raina won’t like that.”

“Marcus didn’t seem too pleased, either.”

“But he won’t jump you in a dark alley. She will.”

“Why didn’t Richard tell me that?”

“Richard is one of the best friends I have. He’s loyal, honest, caring, sort of the world’s furriest boy scout. If he has a flaw, it’s that he expects other people to be loyal, honest, and caring.”

“Surely after what he’s seen from Marcus and Raina, he doesn’t still think they’re nice people?”

“He knows they aren’t nice, but he has trouble seeing them as evil. When all is said and done, Anna, Marcus is his alpha male. Richard respects authority. He’s been trying to work out some sort of compromise with Marcus for months. He doesn’t want to kill him. Marcus doesn’t have the same qualms about Richard.”

“Irving told me Richard defeated Marcus, could have killed him, and didn’t. Is that true?”

” ‘Fraid so.”

“Dang it.”

“Yeah, I told Richard he should have done it, but he’s never killed anyone. He believes all life is precious.”

“All life is precious,” I said.

“Did Richard change for you last night?”

“God, you are relentless.”

“You said it was one of my better qualities.”

“It is normally.”

“Did he change for you?”

“Sort of,” I said.

“And you couldn’t handle it.” It was a flat statement.

“It’s not that, Louie. I’m just not sure about this.”

“Not sure about what?”

“This.” I said. “This thing with Richard while I’m dating Jean-Claude.”

“It’s better to find out now,” he said.

“I guess so.”

“Do you love him?”he asked, and all I could think was, which him?

“That’s none of your business.” I said.

“I love Richard like a brother. If you’re going to slice his heart up and serve it on a platter, I’d like to know now. If you leave, I’ll be the one helping him pick up the pieces.”

“I don’t want to hurt Richard,” I said.

“I believe you.” He just looked at me. There was a great peacefulness to his expression, as if he could wait all night for me to answer the question. Louie had more patience than I would ever have.

“Yes, I love him. Happy?”

“Do you love him enough to leave Jean-Claude?” His eyes were staring at me as if they’d burn a hole through my heart.

“I don’t know. I love him too.”

He stood and offered me his hand. His grip was firm but not too strong, just right. I wondered how fast he really was, and how easy it would be for him to crush my hand into pulp. It must have shown on my face, because he said, “You might want to stop dating Jean-Claude. Until you get this sorted out.”

I nodded. “Yeah, maybe.”

We stood there in silence for a moment. There didn’t seem to be anything left to say, so I left. I was all out of clever repartee, or even a good joke. It was barely dark, and I was tired. Tired enough to go home and crawl into bed and hide. Instead, I was on my way to the Lunatic Cafe. I was going to try and convince Marcus to let me talk to the police. Eight missing, one dead human. It didn’t have to be connected. But if it was a werewolf, then Marcus would know who did the killing, or Raina would know. Would they tell me? Maybe, maybe not, but I had to ask. They’d come closer to telling me the truth than they would to the police. Funny how all the monsters talked to me and not to the police. You had to begin to wonder why the monsters were so damn comfortable around me.

Maybe because I was one too.

———- 36

Chapter 36
I walked along the campus sidewalk towards my car. I walked from one pool of light to the next. My breath fogged in the glow of the streetlights. It was my night off so I was dressed all in black. Bert wouldn’t let me wear black to work. Said it gave the wrong impression–too harsh–associated with evil magic. If he’d done any research, he’d have found that red, white, and a host of other colors are used in evil rituals. It depends on the religion. It was very Anglo-Saxon of him to outlaw only black.

Black jeans, black Nike Airs with a blue swoosh, a black sweater, and a black trench coat. I was wearing silver, but it was hidden under the sweater; a cross, and a knife on each forearm. I was headed for the Lunatic Cafe. I was going to try to persuade Marcus to let me share information with the police. The missing lycanthropes, even the ones like Peggy Smitz who didn’t want their secret known, were safe from bad publicity now. They were dead. They had to be. There is no way to hold eight shapeshifters against their will for this long. Not alive.

It couldn’t hurt them to tell the cops, and it might save any other shapeshifters from going missing. I had to talk to the people who had last seen the missing ones. Why had none of them put up a fight? That had to be a clue. Ronnie was better at this sort of thing than I was. Maybe we could go out detecting tomorrow.

Would Richard be there? If so, what was I supposed to say to him? It made me stop walking. I stood in the cold dark, trapped between streetlights. I wasn’t ready to see Richard again. But we had a dead body, maybe more. I couldn’t chicken out just because I didn’t want to see Richard. It would be pure cowardice.

Truth was, I would rather have faced down a herd of vampires than him right now.

The wind whistled at my back as if a blizzard were moving up behind me. My hair streamed around my face. The trees were icy still, no wind. I whirled,knife in my hand. Something slammed into my back, sending me smashing into the sidewalk. Light exploded inside my head. My vision went dark, and when I could see again, I caught Gretchen’s face rearing above me.

She had a handful of my hair, pulled painfully to one side. My sweater was ripped away from my shoulder. Gretchen’s mouth was stretched wide, fangs shimmering in the dark.

There was a high scream, and it wasn’t me. A woman was standing at the end of the sidewalk screaming. Gretchen raised her head and hissed at them. The man with her grabbed her shoulders and pushed her off the path. They ran. Wise.

I plunged the knife into her throat. It wasn’t a killing blow and I knew it, but I thought she’d rear. She didn’t. I shoved the knife in to its hilt; blood poured down my hand, splattered my face. She darted downward, going for my throat. The knife had done as much damage as it could. There was no time to go for the second blade. I had forever to watch her mouth coming for me, to know I that if I didn’t ues my power I was going to die.

Something dark smashed into her, rolling her off me with the impact. I was left gasping on the sidewalk, blinking. I had a knife in my hand. I didn’t remember getting it out. Practice, practice, practice.

There was a wererat on top of Gretchen. The dark muzzle darted downward, teeth glimmering. Gretchen grabbed his muzzle, holding those snapping teeth from her throat. A furred claw slashed her pale face. Blood flowed. She screamed, punching one hand into his stomach. It raised him in the air, just enough for her to get her legs under him. She lifted with her legs and shoved him into the air. The wererat went tumbling like a thrown ball.

Gretchen was on her feet like magic. She was gone into the bushes, after the wererat.

Snarls and snapping branches came from the darkness. It had to be Louie. I didn’t know that many wererats that would come to my rescue.

I stood up and ran to the edge of the trees when they rolled out of the darkness and over me. I lay on the pavement for the second time, but there was no time to get my wind back. I rolled onto my right side, sighting down my arm towards the noise.

Gretchen had sunk fangs into Louie’s neck. He gave a high, wild squeal. All I could see from here was the rat’s body, her arms and legs riding him, but the only spot I had that might kill her was a line of her blond head. I didn’t dare try it. I might kill Louie, too. Even clear-headed, it would have been an iffy spot.

I got to my knees. Some trick of a distant streetlight flashed on the blood pouring from his throat. If she’d had the teeth Louie had, he’d be dead.

One blue eye looked at me while she fed off of him. She was going to kill him while I watched.

“Kill her,” it was Louie’s voice twisted around furry jaws, but his voice. His eyes glazed and closed, while I watched. Last words.

I took a deep, steadying breath and aimed two-handed, I’d hit Louie. I was out of options.

Or maybe not. “Richard and I are dating. You can smell a lie. I’m dating someone else . We don’t have to do this.”

She hesitated. I stared into her eye. My vision was clear. Arm steady, I’d kill her. She released his throat, sliding her head into his neck fur, hiding. Her voice came muffled but clear enough: “Put down your little knife, and I will let him go.”

I took a breath. “Let him go.”

“The knife first,” she said.

I didn’t want to give up my knife. That seemed like a really bad idea. But what choice did I have? If I were Gretchen, I wouldn’t want me armed. I did still have the second knife. Even if I could throw well enough to put it through her heart, it would have to be a very solid blow. She was too old for a glancing blow to do much good. I’d shoved a knife hilt-deep into her throat and it hadn’t slowed her down. It had impressed me.

I laid the knife on the sidewalk and raised my hands to show myself unarmed. Gretchen rose slowly from behind Louie’s limp body. Without her propping him up, his body rolled onto its back. There was a looseness to the movement that unnerved me. Was it too late? Could a vampire’s bite kill like silver?

The vampire and I stared at each other. My knife was sticking out of her throat like an exclamation mark. She hadn’t even bothered to take it out. Jesus. I must have missed the voice box or she wouldn’t have been able to talk. Even vampirism has its limits. I was meeting her eyes. Nothing was happening. It was like looking into anyone’s eyes. That shouldn’t have been.

“Is he still alive?”

“Come closer and see for yourself.”

“No, thanks.” If Louie was dead, my being dead wouldn’t help that.

She smiled. “Tell me again, this news of yours.”

“Richard and I are dating.”

“You love this Richard?”

“Yes.” This was no time for hesitation. She accepted it with a nod. I guess it was true, surprise, surprise.

“Tell Jean-Claude and I will be content.”

“I plan on telling him.”

“Tonight.”

“Fine, tonight.”

“Lie. When I leave you will tend your wounds, and his, and not tell Jean-Claude.”

I couldn’t even get away with a little white lie, dang. “What do you want?”

“He is at Guilty Pleasures tonight. Go there and tell him. I will be waiting for you.”

“I have to tend to his wounds before I do anything,” I said.

“Tend his wounds, but come to Guilty Pleasures before dawn, or our truce is over.”

“Why not tell Jean-Claude yourself?”

“He would not believe me.”

“He could tell you were telling the truth,” I said.

“Just because I believed it was truth would not make it so. But he will smell the truth on you. If I am not there, wait for me. I want to be there when you tell him you love another. I want to see his face fall.”

“Fine, I’ll be there before dawn.”

She stepped over Louie’s body.

Blood dripped down the knife hilt in her throat. The blood fell in a heavy, wet splat. She smiled as my eyes widened. I knew it didn’t kill them, but I’d thought it hurt. Maybe they only took the blades out from habit. It certainly didn’t seem to bother Gretchen.

“You can have this back after you tell him,” she said.

“You’re hoping he kills me,” I said.

“I would shed no tears.”

Great. Gretchen took a step backwards, then another. She stopped at the edge of the trees, a pale form in the dark. “I await you, Anna Blake. Do not disappoint me this night.”

“I’ll be there,” I said.

She smiled, flashing bloody teeth, stepped back again, and was gone. I thought it was a mind trick, but there was a backwash of air. The trees shook as if a storm were passing. I looked up and caught a glimpse of something. Not wings, not a bat, but… something. Something my eyes couldn’t or wouldn’t make sense of.

The wind died, and the winter dark was as still and quiet as a tomb. Sirens wailed in the distance. I guess the coeds had called the cops. Couldn’t say I blamed them.

………………………………………………………………………………….

I stood, carefully and walked to Louie. His rat-man form lay very still and dark on the grass. I knelt, and put my hand on his fur-covered chest. I let out a sigh when his chest rose and fell under my palm. Alive, breathing. Fantastic.

If he’d been in human form, I’d have checked his neck wound. I was pretty sure that just touching his blood in animal form wouldn’t give me lycanthropy, but I wasn’t one hundred percent. I had enough problems without turning furry once a month. Besides, if I had to pick an animal, a rat wouldn’t be it.

The sirens were getting closer. I wasn’t sure what to do. He was badly hurt, but I’d seen Richard worse off and he had healed. But had he needed some medical attention to get healed? I didn’t know. I could hide Louie in the bushes, but would I be leaving him to die? If the cops saw him like this, his secret was out. His life would be in a shambles around him, just because he’d helped me. It didn’t seem fair.

A long sigh rose from his pointed muzzle. A shudder ran through his body. The fur began to recede like the tide pulling back. The awkward, ratlike limbs began to straighten. His bent legs straightened. I watched his human form rise from the fur like a shape caught in ice.

Louie lay there on the dark grass, pale and naked and very human. I’d never seen the process in reverse before. It was just as spectacular as the change to animal form.

The wound on his neck was more like an animal bite than a vampire, skin torn, but two of the marks were deeper, fangs. There was no blood on the wound now. As I watched, blood started to flow. I couldn’t tell for sure in the dark, but it looked like the wound was already beginning to heal. I checked his pulse. It was steady, strong, but what did I know? I wasn’t a doctor.

The siren was silent, but lights strobed the darkness just over the trees like colored lightning. The cops were coming, and I had to decide what to do. I could carry him in a fireman’s carry; not too fast and not too far, but I could do it. The bite marks were shrinking. Hell, he’d be healed by morning. I couldn’t let the cops see him, and I couldn’t leave him here. I didn’t know if lycanthropes could freeze to death, but I didn’t feel lucky tonight.

I covered him with my coat, wrapping it around him as I lifted. Wouldn’t do for him to get frostbite on certain delicate places. You lose a toe and there you are.

I took a deep breath and stood with him across my shoulders. My knees didn’t like lifting him. But I got to my feet, and my vision wavered. I stood there, bracing against a suddenly moving world. I fell to my knees. The extra weight made it hurt.

The police were coming. If I didn’t get out of here right now, I might as well give it up. Giving up wasn’t one of my better things. I got to one knee and gave that last push. My knees screamed at me, but I was standing.

I stayed on the sidewalk. I didn’t trust myself in the snow. Besides, even city cops could follow prints in the snow. A planting of trees hid me from the direction of the flashing lights. The sidewalk led around a building. Once around that I could backtrack to my car. The thought of driving while my vision kept sweeping in and out was a bad idea, but if I didn’t get some distance between me and the cops, all this effort would be wasted. I had to get to the car. I had to get Louie out of sight.

I didn’t look back to see if there were flashlights sweeping the area. Looking back wouldn’t help, and with Louie on my shoulders it was a lot of effort to turn. I put one foot in front of the other, and the edge of the building curved around us. We were out of sight, even if they cleared the trees. Progress. Great.

The side of the building stretched like some dark monolith to my left. The distance around the building seemed to be growing. I put one foot in front of the other. If I just concentrated on walking, I could do this. Louie seemed to be getting lighter. That wasn’t right. Was I about to pass out and just didn’t know it yet?

I looked up and found the edge of the building right beside me.I peered around the corner, concentrating on not whacking Louie’s legs into the building.

The police lights strobed the darkness. The car was parked on the edge of the lot with one door open. The radio filled the night with garbled squawking. The car looked empty. Squinting at something that far away brought a wave of blackness across my eyes. How the hell was I going to drive? One problem at a time. Right now, just get Louie to the Jeep, out of sight.

I stepped away from the sheltering building. It was my last refuge. If the cops came now with me walking across the parking lot, it was over.

On a Sunday night there weren’t a lot of cars in the visitors’ parking lot. My Jeep sat under one of the streetlights. I always parked under a light if I could. Safety rule number one for women traveling alone after dark. The Jeep looked like it was in a spotlight. The light was probably not that bright. It just looked that way because I was trying to be sneaky.

Somewhere about halfway to the Jeep, I realized that the head injury wasn’t the only problem. Sure I could lift this much weight, even walk with it, but not forever. My knees were trembling. Every step was getting slower and took more effort. If I fell down again, I wasn’t going to be able to pick Louie back up. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to get me back up.

One foot in front of the other, just one foot in front of the other. I concentrated on my feet until the Jeep’s tires came into view. There, that wasn’t so hard.

The car keys were, of course, in the coat pocket. I hit the button on the key chain that unlocked the doors. The high-pitched beeping noise that signaled them open only sounded loud enough to wake the dead. I opened the middle doors, balancing Louie one handed. I let him fall into the backseat. The coat fell open, revealing a naked line of body. I must have been feeling better than I thought because I took the time to fling the coat over his groin and lower chest. It left one arm flung outward, limp and awkward, but that was all right. My sense of propriety could live with a naked arm.

I closed the door and caught a glimpse of myself in the sideview mirror. One side of my face was a bloody mask, the clean parts had bloody scrapes. I slid into the Jeep, and got a box of aloe and lanolin baby wipes from the floorboard. I’d started carrying the wipes to help with the blood from zombie raisings. It worked better than the plain soap and water that I had been carrying. I wiped enough blood off that I wouldn’t get stopped by the first cop that drove by, then slid behind the wheel.

I glanced in the rearview mirror. The police car still stood there alone, like a dog waiting for its master. The motor kicked. I put the car in gear and hit the gas. The Jeep weaved towards a streetlight as if it were a magnet. I slammed the brakes on and was glad I’d worn my seat belt.

I eased the Jeep forward. If I drove very slowly, the car wouldn’t want to kiss the streetlight. Great. I inched out of the parking lot, expecting to hear shouts behind me. Nothing. The street was dark and lined with cars on either side. I crawled down the street at about ten miles per hour, afraid to go faster. It looked like I was driving through cars on one side. Illusion but unnerving as hell.

A bigger street and headlights stabbed at my eyes. I put my hand up to shield my eyes and nearly ran into a parked car. Shit. I had to pull over before I hit something. Four more blocks before I found a gas station with pay phones outside. I wasn’t sure how rough I looked. I didn’t want some overzealous clerk to call the police after I’d gone to all the trouble of getting away undetected.

I eased the Jeep into the parking lot. If I overcorrected and took out the gas pumps, they might call the cops anyway. I pulled the Jeep in front of the phone bank. I put it in park and was very relieved to be standing still.

I fumbled a quarter out of the ashtray. It had never held anything but change. When I left the car, for the first time I was aware of how cold it was without my coat. There was a line of cold going down my back where the sweater had been ripped away. I dialed Richard’s number without thinking about it. Who else could I call?

The answering machine kicked in. “Dang it, be home, Richard, be home.”

The beep sounded. “Richard, this is Anna. Louie’s hurt. Pick up if you’re there. Richard, Richard, dang it, Richard, pick up.” I leaned my forehead against the cool metal of the phone booth. “Pick up, pick up, pick up. Richard. Dang it.”

He picked up, sounding out of breath. “Anna, it’s me. What’s wrong?”

“Louie got hurt. His wound’s healing. How do you explain that to a hospital emergency room?”

“You don’t,” he said. “We have doctors that can tend him. I’ll give you an address to go to.”

“I can’t drive.”

“Are you hurt?”

“Yeah.”

“How bad?”

“Bad enough that I don’t want to drive.”

“What happened to the two of you?”

I gave him a very abbreviated version of the night’s events. Just a vampire attack, no specific motive. I wasn’t ready to tell him I had to tell Jean-Claude about us.

“Give me the address.” I did. “I know the gas station you’re talking about. I stop there when I visit Louie sometimes.”

“Great. When can you be here?”

“Are you going to be all right until I can get there?”

“Sure.”

“Because if you’re not, call the police. Don’t risk your life just to keep Louie’s secret. He wouldn’t want that.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Don’t get macho on me, Anna. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

I smiled with my forehead pressed against the phone. “Macho’s the only way I got this far. Just get here, Richard. I’ll be waiting.” I hung up before he could get mushy on me. I was feeling too pitiful to withstand much sympathy.

I got back into the Jeep. It was cold inside the car. I’d forgotten to turn on the heater. I turned the heater on full blast. I knelt on the seat and checked on Louie. He hadn’t moved. I touched the skin of his wrist, checking for the pulse. It was strong and steady. For the heck of it, I lifted his hand and let it flop back. No reaction. I hadn’t really expected one.

Usually, a lycanthrope stayed in animal form for eight or ten hours. Changing back early took a lot of energy. Even if he hadn’t been hurt, Louie would be asleep for the rest of the night. Though sleep was too mild a word for it. You couldn’t wake them from it. It wasn’t a great survival method. Just like sleeping during the day didn’t help vampires much. Evolution’s way of helping us puny humans out.

I slid down in my seat. I wasn’t sure how long it would take for Richard to get here. I glanced at the station building. The man behind the counter was reading a magazine. He wasn’t taking any notice of us at the moment. If he’d been watching, I would have moved out of the lights. Didn’t want him wondering why I was sitting here, but if he wasn’t paying attention, we’d just sit here.

I leaned back, putting my head against the headrest. I wanted to close my eyes, but didn’t. Going to sleep wasn’t a good idea.

This was the first time I’d been badly hurt since I lost Jean-Claude’s marks. They had made me harder to hurt, faster to heal. Not a bad side effect. One of the other effects had been an ability to meet a vampire’s eyes without them being able to bespell me. Like I had met Gretchen’s eyes.

How had I met her eyes with impunity? Had Jean-Claude lied to me? Was there some lingering mark? Another question to ask him when I saw him. Of course, after I told him the news bulletin, all hell would break loose and there would be no more questions. Well, maybe one question. Would Jean-Claude try to kill Richard? Probably.

I sighed, closing my eyes. I was suddenly tired, so tired I didn’t want to open my eyes. Sleep sucked at me. I opened my eyes and slid up in the seat. Maybe it was just tension, adrenaline draining away, or maybe it was a concussion. I clicked on the overhead light and checked on Louie again. Breathing and pulse were steady. His head was to one side, neck stretched in a long line that showed the wound. The bite marks were healing. I couldn’t see it happening, but every time I looked it was better. Like trying to watch a flower bloom. You see the effect, but you never actually see it happening.

Louie was going to be all right. Would Richard be all right?

I’d given into Jean-Claude, and there was nothing but death, nothing but violence. Sexy, attractive, but death all the same. With Richard I had a chance at life. Something better.

I stayed kneeling in the seat, staring down at Louie. I was afraid to turn around and get comfortable, afraid I’d fall asleep and not wake up. I wasn’t really afraid, but I was worried. A trip to the hospital might not be a bad idea, but first I had to tell Jean-Claude about Richard. And keep him from killing him.

I laid my face on my arms, and a deep, throbbing pain started behind my forehead. Good. My head should hurt after the beating it had taken. The fact that it hadn’t been hurting had worried me. A good headache I could live with.

How was I going to keep Richard alive? I smiled. Richard was an alpha wolf. What made me think he couldn’t take care of himself? I’d seen what Jean-Claude could do. I’d seen him when he wasn’t human at all. Maybe after I saw Richard change I’d feel differently about him. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so protective. Maybe hell would freeze over.

I did love Richard. I really did, but I loved Jean-Claude too.

Someone knocked on the window. I jumped and whirled. My vision swam in black streamers. When I could see again, Richard’s face was outside the window.

I unlocked the doors, and Richard opened one. He started to reach for me and stopped. The hesitation on his face was painful. He wasn’t sure I’d let him touch me. I turned away from the hurt on his face. I loved him, but love isn’t enough. All the fairy tales, the romance novels, the soap operas; they’re all lies. Love does not conquer all.

He was very careful not to touch me. His voice was neutral. “Anna, are you all right? You look awful.”

“Nice to know I look like I feel,” I said.

He touched my cheek, fingers sliding just over the skin, a ghost of a touch that made me shiver. He traced the edge of the scrape. It hurt and I jerked away. A spot of blood decorated his fingertips, gleaming in the dome light. I watched his eyes stare at the blood. I saw the thought trail behind his true brown eyes. He almost licked his fingers clean, as Rafael had done. He wiped his fingers on his coat, but I’d seen the hesitation. He knew I’d seen it. What he didn’t know was what my blood would do to him if he drank it.

“Anna…”

The back door opened, and I whirled, going for the last knife I had on me. The world swam in waves of blackness and nausea. The movement had been too abrupt. Stephen the Werewolf stood in the half-open door staring at me. He was sort of frozen there, blue eyes wide. He was looking at the silver knife in my hand. The fact that I’d been blind and too sick to use it seemed to have escaped him. It might have been that I was kneeling, moving towards him. I’d been willing to strike blind as a bat, not considering that whoever it was had a right to be there.

“You didn’t tell me you brought someone with you,” I said.

“I should have mentioned that,” Richard said.

I relaxed, easing back to kneel in the seat. “Yeah, you should have mentioned that.” The knife gleamed in the dome light. It looked razor sharp and well tended. It was.

“I was just going to check on Louie,” Stephen said. He sounded a little shaky. He had a black leather jacket with silver studding snapped tight around his throat. His long, curling blond hair fell forward over the jacket. He looked like an effeminate biker.

“Fine,” I said.

Stephen looked past me to Richard. I felt more than saw Richard nod. “It’s okay, Stephen.” There was something in his voice that made me turn slowly to look at him.

He had a strange look on his face. “Maybe you are as dangerous as you pretend to be.”

“I don’t pretend, Richard.”

He nodded. “Maybe you don’t.”

“Is that a problem?”

“As long as you don’t kill me, or my pack members, I guess not.”

“I can’t promise about your pack.”

“They’re mine to protect,” he said.

“Then make sure they leave me alone.”

“Would you fight me over that?” he asked.

“Would you fight me?”

He smiled, but it wasn’t happy. “I couldn’t fight you, Anna. I could never hurt you.”

“That’s where we’re different, Richard.”

He leaned in as if to kiss me. Something on my face stopped him. “I believe you.”

“Good,” I said. I slipped the knife back in its sheath. I stared at his face while I did it. I didn’t need to look to put the knife away. “Never underestimate me, Richard, and what I’m willing to do to stay alive. To keep others alive. I never want us to fight, not like that, but if you don’t control your pack, then I will.”

He moved away from me. His face looked almost angry. “Is that a threat?”

“It’s out of control, and you know it. I can’t promise not to hurt them unless you can guarantee that they’ll behave. And you can’t do that.”

“No, I can’t guarantee that.” He didn’t like saying it.

“Then don’t ask me to promise not to hurt them.”

“Can you at least try not to kill them, as a first option?”

I thought about that. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You can’t just say, ‘Yes, Richard, I won’t kill your friends’?”

“It would be a lie.”

He nodded. “I suppose so.”

I heard the rustle of leather from the backseat as Stephen moved around. “Louie’s out of it, but he’ll be okay.”

“How did you get him into the Jeep?” Richard asked.

I just stared at him.

He had the grace to look embarrassed. “You carried him. I knew that.” He touched the cut on my forehead, gently. It still hurt. “Even with this, you carried him.”

“It was either that or let the cops have him. What would have happened if they’d piled him into an ambulance and he’d started healing like that?”

“They’d have known what he was,” Richard said.

Stephen was leaning on the back of the seat, chin resting on his forearms. He seemed to have forgotten that I’d nearly stabbed him, or maybe he was used to being threatened. Maybe. Up close his eyes were the startled blue of cornflowers. With his blond hair spitting around his face he looked like one of those china dolls that you buy in exclusive shops, that you never let children play with.

“I can take Louie to my place,” he said.

“No,” I said.

They both looked at me, surprised. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I knew that Richard could not come with me to Guilty Pleasures. If I had any hope of keeping us all alive, Richard could not be on the spot when I broke the news.

“I thought I’d drive you home,” Richard said, “or to the nearest hospital, whichever you need.”

It would have been my preference to, but not tonight. “Louie’s your best friend. I thought you might want to take care of him.”

He was staring at me, lovely brown eyes narrowed into suspicious squints. “You’re trying to get rid of me. Why?”

My head hurt. I couldn’t think of a good lie. I didn’t think he’d buy a bad one. “How much do you trust Stephen?”

The question seemed to throw him off balance. “I trust him.”

His first reaction was to say yes, I trust him, but he hadn’t thought about it first. “No, Richard, I mean do you trust him not to talk to Jean-Claude or Marcus ?”

“I wouldn’t tell Marcus anything you didn’t want me to,” Stephen said.

“And Jean-Claude?” I asked.

Stephen looked uncomfortable, but said, “If he asked a direct question, I’d have to give a direct answer.”

“How can you owe more allegiance to the Master of the City than to your own pack leader?”

“I follow Richard, not Marcus.”

I glanced at Richard. “A little palace revolt?”

“Raina wanted him in the movies. I stepped in and stopped it.”

“Marcus must really hate you,” I said.

“He fears me,” Richard said.

“Even worse,” I said.

Richard didn’t say anything. He knew the situation better than I did, even if he wasn’t willing to do the ultimate deeds.

“Fine, I’d planned to tell Jean-Claude that we’re dating.”

“You’re dating?” Stephen asked. His voice held a lilt of surprise.

Richard nodded.

A took of delight swept over Stephen’s face. “Way to go,” His face fell into sadness. It was like watching wind over a grassy field, everything visible on the surface. “Jean-Claude is going to go ape-shit.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“Then why tell him tonight?” Richard asked. “Why not wait? Why tell him at all? we have some time.”

I sighed. I told him why it had to be tonight. “You can’t go with me.”

“I won’t let you go alone,” he said.

“Richard, if you are Johnny-on-the-spot when he finds out, he’ll try to kill you, and I’ll try to kill him to protect you.” I shook my head. “If this goes wrong, it could end up like Hamlet.”

“How like Hamlet?” Stephen asked.

“Everybody dead,” I said.

“Oh,” he said.

“You’d kill Jean-Claude to protect me, even after what you saw last night?”

I stared at him. I tried to read behind his eyeballs to know if there was anybody home I could really talk to. He was still Richard. With his love of the outdoors, any activity that would get you messy, and a smile that warmed me to my toes.

“I don’t know.”

“How can I let you face him alone?” He asked

“I’ve been doing just fine without you.”

He touched my forehead, and I winced. “You don’t look fine.”

“Jean-Claude won’t hurt me.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” he said.

He had a point there. “You can’t protect me, Richard. Your being there will get us both killed.”

“I can’t let you go alone.”

“Don’t go all manly on me, Richard. It’s a luxury that we can’t afford. I don’t need your protection, Richard. I don’t even want it.”

He leaned his head against the headrest and closed his eyes. “If I play the white knight, you’ll leave me.”

“If you think you need to play the white knight, then you don’t know me at all.”

He opened his eyes and turned his head to look at me. “Maybe I want to be your white knight.”

“That’s your problem.”

He smiled. “I guess so.”

“If you can drive the Jeep back to my apartment, I’ll take a cab.”

“Stephen can drive you,” he said. He volunteered him without even wondering what Stephen would say about it. It was arrogant.

“No, I’ll take a cab.”

“I don’t mind,” Stephen said. “I’m due back at Guilty Pleasures tonight anyway.”

I glanced at him. “What do you do for a living, Stephen?”

He laid his cheek on his forearm and smiled at me. He managed to look winsome and sexy at the same time. “I’m a stripper,” he said.

Of course he was. I wanted to point out that he’d refused to be in a pornographic movie, but he still stripped. But taking your clothes off down to tasteful undies was not the same thing as having sex on screen. Not even close.

———- 37

Chapter 37
Lillian was a small woman in her mid-fifties. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cut short and neat in a no-nonsense style. Her fingers were as quick and sure as the rest of her. The last time she’d treated my wounds, she’d had claws and greying fur.

I was sitting on an examining table in the basement of an apartment building. A building that housed lycanthropes and was owned by a shapeshifter. The basement was the makeshift clinic for the lycanthropes in the area. I was the first human they’d ever allowed to see the place. At least they thought I was human. I should have been flattered, but managed not to be.

“Well, according to X rays you don’t have a skull fracture.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said.

“You may have a mild concussion, but a mild one won’t show up on tests, at least nothing we have the equipment for here.”

“So I can go?” I started to hop down.

She stopped me with a hand on my arm. “I didn’t say that.”

I eased back on the table. “I’m listening.”

“Grudgingly,” she said, smiling.

“If you want grace under pressure, Lillian, I’m not your girl.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said. “I’ve cleaned the scrapes and taped up your forehead. You were very lucky not to need stitches.”

I didn’t like stitches, so I agreed with her.

“I want you to wake up every hour for twenty-four hours.” I must not have looked happy, because she said, “I know it’s awkward, and probably unnecessary, but humor me. If you go to sleep and are injured more severely than I think you are, you might not wake up. So humor an old rat lady. Set the alarm or have someone wake you every hour for twenty-four hours.”

“Twenty-four hours from the injury?” I asked hopefully.

She laughed. “Normally I’d say from now, but you can do it from the time of the injury. We’re just being cautious.”

“I like being cautious.” Richard pushed away from the wall. He came to stand with us under the lights. “I volunteer to wake you every hour.”

“You can’t go with me,” I said.

“I’ll wait for you at your apartment.”

“Oh, no driving for the night,” Lillian said. “Just as a precaution.”

Richard’s fingertips touched the back of my hand. He didn’t try to hold my hand, just that touch. Comforting. I didn’t know what to do. If I was going to say no, eventually, it didn’t seem fair to flirt. Just the weight of his fingers was a line of warmth all the way up my arm. Lust, just lust. Don’t I wish.

“I’ll drive your Jeep to your apartment, if you agree. Stephen can drive you to Guilty Pleasures.”

“I can take a cab.”

“I’d feel better if Stephen took you. Please,” he said.

The “please” made me smile. “All right, Stephen can drive me.”

“Thank you,” Richard said.

“You’re welcome.”

“I would recommend you go straight home and rest,” Lillian said.

“I can’t,” I said.

She frowned at me. “Very well, but rest as soon as you can. If this is a mild concussion and you abuse yourself, it could worsen. And even if it isn’t a concussion, rest will do you more good than gallivanting around.”

I smiled. “Yes, Doctor.”

She made a small umph sound. “I know how much attention you’re going to pay to my orders. But go along with you, both of you. If you won’t listen to good sense, then be gone.”

I slid off the table, and Richard did not offer to help me. A moment of dizziness and I was fine.

Lillian didn’t look happy. “You promise me that this dizziness is less than it was.”

“Scout’s honor.”

She nodded. “I’ll take your word for it.” She didn’t look really pleased about it, but she patted my shoulder and walked out. She had made no notes. There was no chart to check. Nothing to prove I’d ever been here, except for some bloody cotton swabs. It was a nice setup.

I had gotten to lie back and relax in the car on the way here. Just not having to tote around naked men or drive helped a lot. I really was feeling better, which was great since I had to see Jean-Claude tonight regardless of how I felt. I wondered whether Gretchen would have given me a night of grace if she had put me in the hospital. Probably not.

I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to go. “I’ve got to go, Richard.”

He put his hands on my shoulders. I didn’t pull away. He turned me to look at him, and I let him. His face was very solemn. “I wish I could go with you.”

“We’ve been over this,” I said.

He looked away from my eyes. “I know.”

I touched his chin and raised his eyes to mine. “No heroics, Richard, promise me.”

His eyes were too innocent. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Liar. You can’t be waiting outside. You have to stay here. Promise me that.”

He dropped his arms and stalked away from me. He leaned against the other examining table, palms flat, all his weight on his arms. “I hate you doing this alone.”

“Promise me you will wait here, or wait at my apartment. Those are the only choices, Richard.”

He wouldn’t look at me. I walked over to him, and touched his arm. Tension sang through it. There was none of that otherworldly energy, yet, but it was there below the surface, waiting.

“Richard, look at me.”

He stayed with his head bent, hair falling like a curtain between us. I ran my hand through that wavy hair, grabbing a handful close to the warmth of his skull. I used the hair like a handle and turned his face to me. His eyes were dark with more than just their color. Something was home in his eyes that I’d seen only last night. The beast was rising through his eyes like a sea monster swimming upward through dark water.

I tightened my grip on his hair, not to hurt, but to get his attention. A small sound escaped his throat. “If you mess this up through some misguided male ego thing, you’re going to get me killed.” I drew his face towards me, hand tangled in his hair. When his face was only inches from mine, almost close enough to kiss, I said, “If you interfere, you will get me killed. Do you understand?”

The darkness in his eyes wanted to say no. I watched the struggle on his face. Finally he said, “I understand.”

“You’ll be waiting for me at home?”

He nodded, pulling his hair against my grip. I wanted to pull his face to me. To kiss him. We stood there frozen, hesitating. He moved to me. Our lips touched. It was a soft, gentle brush of lips. We stared at each other from an inch away. His eyes were drowning deep, and I could suddenly feel his body like an electric shock through my gut.

I jerked away from him. “No, not yet. I don’t know how I feel this.”

“Your body knows,” he said.

“If lust was everything, I’d have sleep with Jean-Claude already.”

His face crumbled as if I’d slapped him. “If you aren’t going to date me anymore, then don’t tell Jean-Claude. It’s not worth it.”

He looked so hurt. That was one thing I’d never meant to do. I laid my hand on his arm. The skin was smooth, warm, real. “If I can get out of telling him, I will, but I don’t think Gretchen will make that one of my choices. Besides, Jean-Claude can smell a lie.”

“Tell him you changed your mind, Anna.” He pulled away from my hand. “Jean-Claude will just eat that up.” His voice was bitter, angry. The bitterness was strong enough to walk on. I’d never heard him like that.

I couldn’t stand it. I came up behind him and wrapped my arms around his waist. I buried my face in the line of his spine. Cheek cradled between the swell of his shoulders. He started to turn, but I held tighter. He stood very still in my arms. His hands touched my arms tentatively at first, then he hugged them to him. A shudder ran through his back. His breath came in a long gasp.

I turned him around to face me. Tears glistened on his cheeks. Jesus. I’d never been good around tears. My first instinct was to promise them anything if they would only stop crying.

“Don’t,” I said. I touched a fingertip to one tear. It clung to my skin, trembling. “Don’t let this tear you up, Richard. Please.”

“I can’t be human again, Anna.” His voice sounded very normal. If I hadn’t seen the tears, I wouldn’t have known he was crying. “I’d be human for you if I could.”

“Human isn’t what I want, Richard. I can handle you being furry.” . He was gorgeous. I loved him. He wanted me. He taught junior high science. He loved hiking, camping, caving. He collected sound tracks of musicals, for God’s sake. And he was next in line to rule the pack. An alpha werewolf.

“I need time, Richard. I love you both, I am so sorry, but I do.” I sounded like a chump. I’d never sounded so indecisive in my life.

He nodded, but didn’t look convinced. “You may end up turning me down but you’re going to risk your life confronting Jean-Claude. It doesn’t make sense.”

I had to agree. “I have to talk to him tonight, Richard. I don’t want another run-in with Gretchen. Not if I can avoid it.”

Richard wiped the palms of his hands over his face. He ran his hands through his hair. “Don’t get yourself killed.”

“I won’t,” I said.

“Promise,” he said.

I wanted to say, “Promise,” but I didn’t. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”

“Couldn’t you be comforting and lie to me?”

I shook my head. “No.”

He sighed. “Talk about painful honesty.”

“I’ve got to go.” I walked away before he could distract me again. I was beginning to think he was doing it on purpose to delay me. Of course, I was letting him do it.

“Anna.” I was almost to the door. I turned back. He stood there under the harsh lights, hands at his sides, looking… helpless.

“We’ve kissed good-bye. You’ve told me to be careful. I’ve warned you not to play hero. That’s it, Richard. There is no more.”

He said, “I love you.”

Okay, so there was more. “I love you, too.” It was the truth, but how would Jean-Claude take the news? As the old saying goes, only one way to find out.

……………………………………………………………………………………

Guilty Pleasures is in the heart of the vampire district. Its glowing neon sign bled into the night sky, giving the blackness a crimson tint like a distant house fire. I hadn’t come to the district unarmed after dark for a very long time.

Stephen was beside me. A werewolf wasn’t a bad bodyguard, but somehow Stephen didn’t look scary enough. He was only an inch or two taller than me, slender as a willow with just enough shoulder definition to make him look masculine. To say his pants were tight wasn’t enough. They were leather and looked painted on like a second skin. It was hard not to notice that his derriere was tight and firm. The leather jacket cut him off at the waist, so the view was unobstructed.

I was wearing my black trench coat again. It had a little bit of blood on it, but if I cleaned it, it would be wet. Wet would not keep me warm. My sweater, one of my favorite sweaters, was torn off one shoulder down to the line of my bra. Too cold without a coat. Gretchen owed me a sweater.

Three broad steps led up to closed doors. Buzz the Vampire was guarding them. It was the worst vampire name I’d ever heard. It wasn’t great if you were human, but Buzz seemed all wrong for a vampire. It was a great name for a bouncer. He was tall and muscle-bound with a black crew cut. He seemed to be wearing the same black T-shirt he’d worn in July.

I knew vampires couldn’t freeze to death, but I hadn’t known they didn’t get cold. Most vampires tried to play human. They wore coats in the winter. Maybe they didn’t need them the same way Gretchen hadn’t needed to take the knife from her throat. Maybe it was all pretend.

He smiled, flashing fangs. My reaction seemed to disappoint him. “You missed a set, Stephen. The boss is pissed.”

Stephen sort of shrank in on himself. Buzz seemed to get larger, pleased with himself. “Stephen was helping me. I don’t think Jean-Claude will mind.”

Buzz squinted at me, really seeing my face for the first time. “Shit, what happened to you?”

“If Jean-Claude wants you to know, he’ll tell you,” I said. I walked past him. There was a large sign on the door: No Crosses, Crucifixes, or Other Holy Items Allowed Inside. I pushed the doors open and kept walking, my cross securely around my neck. They could pry it from my cold dead hands if they wanted it tonight.

Stephen stayed at my heels, almost as if he were afraid of Buzz. Buzz wasn’t that old a vampire, less than twenty years. He still had a sense of “aliveness” to him. That utter stillness that the old ones have hadn’t touched the bouncer yet. So why was a werewolf afraid of a new vampire? Good question.

It was Sunday night and the place was packed. Didn’t anyone have work tomorrow? The noise washed over us like a wave of nearly solid sound. That rich murmurous sound of many people in a small space determined to have a good time. The lights were as bright as they ever got. The small stage empty. We were between shows.

A blond woman greeted us at the door. “Do you have any holy items to declare?” She smiled when she said it. The holy-item check girl.

I smiled when I said, “Nope.”

She didn’t question me, just smiled and walked away.

“Anna, how good of you to grace us with your presence.” Gretchen was practically purring with anticipation. “Come, Anna, Jean-Claude is waiting for us.”

She stalked away, long pale coat swinging out behind her. Stephen and I exchanged glances. He shrugged. I followed her and he trailed behind as if he were afraid of losing me.

Jean-Claude’s office was like being inside a domino. Stark white walls, white carpet, black lacquer desk, black office chair, black leather couch against one wall, and two straight-backed chairs sat in front of the desk. The desk and chairs were Oriental, set with enamel pictures of cranes and Oriental women in flowing robes. I’d always liked the desk, not that I would admit it out loud.

There was a black lacquer screen in one corner. I’d never seen it before. It was large, hiding one entire corner. A dragon curled across the screen in oranges and reds, with huge bulbous eyes. It was a nice addition to the room. It was not a comfortable room, but it was stylish. Like Jean-Claude.

He sat on the leather couch dressed all in black. The shirt had a high, stiff collar that framed his face. It was hard to tell where his hair left off and the shirt began. The collar was pinned at his throat, with a thumb-size ruby pendant. The shirt was open down to his belt, leaving a triangle of pale, pale skin showing. Only the pendant kept the shirt from opening completely.

The cuffs were as wide and stiff as the collar, nearly hiding his hands. He raised one hand and I could see the cuffs were open on one side so he could still use his hands. Black jeans and velvet black boots completed the outfit.

I’d seen the pendant before, but the shirt was certainly new. “Spiffy,” I said.

He smiled. “Do you like it?” He straightened the cuffs, as if they needed it.

“It’s a nice change from white,” I said.

“Stephen, we were expecting you earlier.” His voice was mild enough, but there was an undertaste of something dark and unpleasant.

“Stephen took me to the doctor.”

His midnight blue eyes turned back to me. “Is your latest police investigation getting rough?”

“No,” I said. I glanced at Gretchen. She was looking at Jean-Claude.

“Tell him,” she said.

I didn’t think she was referring to my accusing her of trying to kill me. It was time for a little honesty, or at least a little drama. I was sure Jean-Claude wouldn’t disappoint us.

“Stephen needs to leave now,” I said. I didn’t want him getting killed trying to protect me. He wasn’t up to being anything but cannon fodder. Not against Jean-Claude.

“Why?” he asked. He sounded suspicious.

“Get on with it,” Gretchen said.

I shook my head. “Stephen doesn’t need to be here.”

“Get out, Stephen,” Jean-Claude said. “I am not angry with you for missing your set. Anna is more important to me than your being on time to your job.”

That was nice to know.

Stephen gave a sort of bob, almost a bow to Jean-Claude, flashed a look at me, and hesitated. “Go on, Stephen. I’ll be all right.”

I didn’t have to reassure him twice. He fled.

“What have you been up to, ma petite?”

I glanced at Gretchen. She had eyes only for him. Her face looked hungry, as if she’d waited for this a long time. I stared into his dark blue eyes. “Richard and I are dating.”

Jean-Claude just sat there. He didn’t move at all. The heater clicked on, and I jumped. The vent was above the couch. The air played along his hair, the cloth of his shirt, but it was like watching a mannequin. The hair and clothes worked but the rest was stone.

The silence stretched and filled the room. The heater died, and the quiet was so profound I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. It was like the stillness before creation. You knew something big was coming. You just didn’t know quite what. I let the silence flow around me. I wouldn’t be the one to break it, because I was afraid of what came next. This utter calmness was more unnerving than anger would have been. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I did nothing. A course of action I seldom regret.

It was Gretchen who broke first. “Did you hear her, Jean-Claude? She wants to be with another. She loves another.”

He blinked once, a long, graceful sweep of lashes. “Ask her now if she loves me, Gretchen.”

Gretchen stepped in front of me, blocking Jean-Claude from view. “What does it matter? She’s going to be with someone else.”

“Ask her.” It was a command.

Gretchen whirled to face me. The bones in her face stood out under the skin, lips thin with rage. “You don’t love him.”

It wasn’t exactly a question, so I didn’t answer it. Jean-Claude’s voice came lazy and full of some dark meaning that I didn’t understand. “Do you love me, ma petite?”

I stared into Gretchen’s rage-filled face and said, “Yes, I love you.”

He smiled. “How can you be with him if you love me?”

“I love him, too, Jean-Claude.”

“In the same way?”

“No,” I said.

“How do you love us differently?”

The questions were getting trickier. “How am I supposed to explain something to you that I don’t even understand myself?”

“Try.”

“You’re like great Shakespearean tragedy. If Romeo and Juliet hadn’t committed suicide, they’d have hated each other in a year. Passion is a form of love, but it isn’t real. It doesn’t last.”

“And how do you feel about Richard?” His voice was full of some strong emotion. It should have been anger, but it felt different from that. Almost as if it were an emotion I didn’t have a word for.

“I don’t just love Richard, I like him. I enjoy his company. I…” I hated explaining myself. “Oh, hell, Jean-Claude, I can’t put it into words. I can see spending my life with Richard, and I can’t see it with you.”

“She loves another,” Gretchen said. “Does it matter if she doubts him? She doubts you. She rejects you, Jean-Claude. Isn’t that enough?”

“Did you do all that to her face?”

She stalked a tight circle like a tiger in a cage. “She does not love you as I do.” She knelt in front of him, hands touching his legs, face staring up into his. “Please, I love you. I’ve always loved you. Kill her or let her be with this man. She doesn’t deserve your adoration.”

He ignored her. “Are you all right, ma petite?”

“I’m fine.”

Gretchen dug fingers into his jeans, grabbing at him. “Please, please!”

I didn’t like her, but the pain, the hopeless pain in her voice was horrible to hear. She’d tried to kill me and I still felt sorry for her.

“Leave us, Gretchen.”

“No!” She clutched at him.

“I forbade you to harm her. You disobeyed me. I should kill you.”

She just stayed kneeling, gazing up at him. I couldn’t see her expression and was glad of it. I wasn’t big on adoration. “Jean-Claude, please, please, I only did it for you. She doesn’t love you.”

His hand was suddenly around her neck. I hadn’t seen him move. It was magic. Whatever was letting me look him in the eyes, it didn’t stop him playing with my mind. Or maybe he was just that fast. Naw.

She tried to talk. His fingers closed, and the words came out as small, choked sounds. He stood, drawing her to her feet. Her hands wrapped around his wrist, trying to keep him from hanging her. He kept lifting until her feet dangled in the air. I knew she could fight him. I’d felt the strength in those delicate-seeming hands. Except for her hand on his wrist she didn’t even struggle. Would she let him kill her? Would he do it? Could I stand here and just watch?

He stood there in his wonderful black shirt, looking elegant and scrumptious, and holding Gretchen with one arm, straight up. He walked towards his desk still holding her. He kept his balance effortlessly. Even a lycanthrope couldn’t have done it, not like that. I watched his slender body walk across the carpet and knew he could pretend all he wanted to, but it wasn’t human. He wasn’t human.

He set her feet on the carpet on the far side of the desk. He relaxed his grip on her throat but didn’t let her go.

“Jean-Claude, please.”

He kept his hand resting on her throat, not squeezing now. He pushed the screen back with his free hand. It folded back to reveal a coffin. It sat up off the ground on a cloth-draped pedestal. The wood was nearly black and polished to a mirrorlike shine.

Gretchen’s eyes widened. “Jean-Claude, Jean-Claude, I’m sorry. I didn’t kill her. I could have. Ask her. I could have killed her, but I didn’t. Ask her. Ask her!” Her voice was pure panic.

“Anna.” That one word slithered across my skin, thick and full of forboding. I was very glad that that voice was not angry with me.

“She could have killed me with the first rush,” I said.

“Why do you think she did not do it?”

“I think she got distracted trying to draw it out. To enjoy it more.”

“No, no, I was just threatening her. Trying to frighten her away. I knew you wouldn’t want me to kill her. I knew that, or she’d be dead.”

“You were always a bad liar, Gretel.”

Gretel?

He raised the lid on the coffin with one hand, drawing her nearer to it.

She jerked away from him. His fingernails drew bloody furrows on her throat. She stood behind the office chair, putting it between her and him, as if it would help. Blood trickled down her throat.

“Do not make me force you, Gretel.”

“My name is Gretchen and has been for over a hundred years.” It was the first real spirit I’d seen in her against Jean-Claude anyway. I fought the urge to applaud. It wasn’t hard.

“You were Gretel when I found you, and you are Gretel still. Do not force me to remind you of what you are, Gretel.”

“I will not go into that cursed box willingly. I won’t do it.”

“Do you really want Anna to see you at your worst?”

I thought I already had.

“I will not go.” Her voice was firm, not confident, but stubborn. She meant it.

Jean-Claude stood very still. He raised one hand in a languid gesture. There was no other word for it. The movement was almost dancelike.

Gretchen staggered, grabbing at the chair for support. Her face seemed to have shrunk. It wasn’t the drawing down of power that I had seen on her earlier. Not the ethereal corpse that would tear your throat out and dance in the blood. The flesh squeezed down, wrapping tight on the bones. She was withering. Not aging, dying.

She opened her mouth and screamed.

“My God, what’s happening to her?”

Gretchen stood clutching bird-thin hands on the chair back. She looked like a mummified corpse. Her bright lipstick was a gruesome slash across her face. Even her yellow hair had thinned, dry and brittle as straw.

Jean-Claude walked towards her, still graceful, still lovely, still monstrous. “I gave you eternal life and I can take it back, never forget that.”

She made a low mewling sound in her throat. She held out one feeble hand to him, beseeching.

“Into the box,” he said. His voice made that last word dark and terrible, as if he’d said “hell” and meant it.

He had beaten the fight out of her, or maybe stolen was the word. I’d never seen anything like this. A new vampire power that I’d never even heard whispered in folklore. Shit.

Gretchen took a trembling step towards the coffin. Two painful, dragging steps and she lost her grip on the chair. She fell, bone-thin arms catching her full weight, the way you’re not supposed to. A good way to get your arm broken. Gretchen didn’t seem to be worried about broken bones. Couldn’t blame her.

She knelt on the floor, head hanging as if she didn’t have the strength to rise. Jean-Claude just stood there, staring at her. He made no move to help her. If it had been anyone but Gretchen, I might have helped her myself.

I must have made some movement towards her because Jean-Claude made a back-away gesture to me. “If she fed on a human at this moment, all her strength would return. She is very frightened. I would not tempt her right now, ma petite.”

I stayed where I was. I hadn’t planned on helping her, but I didn’t like watching it.

“Crawl,” he said.

She started to crawl.

I’d had enough. “You’ve made your point, Jean-Claude. If you want her in the coffin, just pick her up and put her there.”

He looked at me. There was something almost amused in his face. “You feel pity for her, ma petite. She meant to kill you. You know that.”

“I’d have no problem killing her, but this…” I didn’t have a word for it. He wasn’t just humiliating her. He was stripping her of herself. I shook my head. “You’re tormenting her. If it’s for my benefit, I’ve seen enough. If it’s for your benefit, then stop it.”

“It is for her benefit, ma petite. She has forgotten who her master is. A month or two in a coffin will remind her of that.”

Gretchen had reached the foot of the pedestal. She had grabbed handfuls of the cloth but couldn’t drag herself to her feet.

“I think she’s been reminded enough.”

“You are so harsh, ma petite, so pragmatic, yet suddenly something will move you to pity. And your pity is as strong as your hate.”

“But not nearly as fun,” I said.

He smiled and lifted the lid of the coffin. The inside was white silk, of course. He knelt and lifted Gretchen. Her limbs lay awkwardly in his arms as if they didn’t quite work. As he lifted her over the lip of the coffin, her long coat dragged against the wood. Something in her pocket clunked, solid and heavy.

I almost hated to ask–almost. “If that’s my knife in her pocket, I want it back.”

He laid her almost gently in the silk lining, then rifled her pockets. He held the knife in one hand and began to lower the lid. Her skeletal hands raised, trying to stop its descent.

Watching those thin hands beat at the air, I almost let it go.

He widened his eyes at me, but nodded. He held the knife out to me. I walked forward and took it. I was standing close enough to see her eyes. They were pale and cloudy, like the eyes of the very old, but there was enough expression left for terror.

Her eyes rolled wildly, staring at me. There was a mute appeal in that look. Desperation was too mild a word for it. She looked at me, not Jean-Claude, as if she knew that I was the only person in the room that gave a damn. If it bothered Jean-Claude, you couldn’t tell it by his face.

He closed the lid, and she made horrible sounds, as though she were trying to scream and had no voice to do it with. Her thin hands beat against the lid.

Jean-Claude snapped the locks in place and leaned over the closed coffin. He whispered, “Sleep.” Almost immediately the sounds slowed. He repeated the word once more, and the sounds ceased.

“How did you do that?”

“Quiet her?”

I shook my head. “All of it.”

“I am her master.”

“No, Nikolaos was your master, but she couldn’t do that. She’d have done it to you if she could have.”

“Perceptive of you, and very true. I made Gretchen. Nikolaos did not make me. Being the master vampire that brings someone over gives you certain powers over them. As you saw.”

“Nikolaos had made most of the vampires in her little entourage, right?”

He nodded.

“If she could have done what you just did, I’d have seen it. She’d have shown it off.”

He gave a small smile. “Again perceptive. There are a variety of powers that a master vampire can possess. Calling an animal, levitation, resistance to silver.”

“Is that why my knife didn’t seem to hurt Gretchen?”

“Yes.”

“But each master has a different arsenal of gifts.”

“Arsenal, it is an appropriate word. Now, where were we, ma petite? Ah, yes, I could kill Richard.”

Here we go.

———- 38

Chapter 38
“Did you hear me, ma petite? I could kill your Richard.” He pulled the screen back into place. The coffin and its terrible contents gone just like that.

“You don’t want to do that.”

“Oh, but I do, ma petite. I would love to tear out his heart and watch him die.” He walked past me. The black shirt fanned around him, exposing his stomach as he moved.

“I told you, I’m not sure I’m going to be dating him. Isn’t that enough?”

“No, ma petite. You love him. I can smell his scent on your skin. You have kissed him tonight. With all your doubts, you have held him close.”

“I kiss you,” I told him. ” Why shouldn’t I do with him what I’ve done with you?”

He didn’t answer.

“Give me time, Jean-Claude. Please. I need time to figue out how I feel about you both.”

He sighed “Very well, ma petite, but in that time you must date us both,” he said. ” I will not idilly wacth another take you from me.”

“I can’t date both of you indefinitely.” I said.

“Only for a few months then, what ever happens, I will respect your choose.”

“And if I choose Richard? You won’t hurt him?”

He nodded.

“You give me your word?”

“My word of honor.”

And I took it.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

There was a knock on the door. It opened without Jean-Claude’s giving permission. Somebody was pushy. Raina stalked in through the door. Pushy was one word for it.

She was wearing a rust-collared trench coat with the belt tied very tight at her waist. The buckle flopped loosely as she glided into the room. She undid a multicolored scarf and shook her auburn hair. It shimmered in the light.

Gabriel followed at her back in a black trench coat. His-and-her outfits. His hair and strange grey eyes looked as good with his coat as Raina’s did with hers. Earrings glittered from the earlobe to the curl at the top of his ear. Every piece of metal was silver.

Kaspar Gunderson followed at their heels. He was wearing a pale tweed coat and one of those hats with a little feather in the band. He looked like an elegant version of everybody’s 1950s dream dad. He didn’t look happy to be here.

Robert stood sort of hovering in the doorway. “I told them you were busy, Jean-Claude. I told them you didn’t want to be disturbed.” He was practically wringing his hands with anxiety. After what I’d seen done to Gretchen I didn’t blame him for being afraid.

“Come in, Robert, and close the door behind you,” Jean-Claude said.

“I really need to oversee the next act. I…”

“Come in and close the door, Robert.”

The century-old vampire did as he was told. He closed the door and leaned against it, one hand on the doorknob as if that would keep him safe. The right sleeve of his white shirt was sliced up, and blood trickled out of fresh claw marks. His throat showed more blood, as if a clawed hand had lifted him by the throat. Like Jean-Claude had done to Gretchen, but with talons.

“I told you what would happen if you failed me again, Robert. In anything, large or small.” Jean-Claude’s voice was a whisper that filled the room like wind.

Robert dropped to his knees on the white carpet. “Please, master, please.” He extended his hands towards Jean-Claude. A thick drop of blood plopped from his arm to the carpet. The blood seemed very red against the white, white carpet.

Raina smiled. I was betting I knew whose claw marks Robert was sporting. Kaspar went to sit on the couch, distancing himself from the show. Gabriel was looking at me. “Nice coat,” he said.

We were both wearing black trench coats. Great. “Thanks,” I said.

He grinned flashing, pointy teeth.

I wanted to ask him if the silver earrings hurt but Robert made a low whimpering noise, and I turned back to the main show.

“Come to me, Robert.” Jean-Claude’s voice had heat to it, enough to scald.

Robert went nearly prone on the carpet, abasing himself. “Please, master. Please don’t.”

Jean-Claude stalked towards him, fast enough to have his black shirt sweeping behind him like a miniature cape. His pale skin flashed against the black cloth. He stopped beside the cowering vampire. Jean-Claude’s shirt swirled around the suddenly quiet body. Jean-Claude stood utterly still. The cloth had more life to it than he did.

Jesus. “He tried, Jean-Claude,” I said. “Leave him alone.”

Jean-Claude stared at me, his eyes a bottomless blue. I looked away from those eyes. Maybe I could meet his gaze with impunity, but then again… He was always full of surprises.

“I was under the impression, ma petite, that you did not like Robert.”

“I don’t, but I’ve seen enough punishment for one night. They bloodied him just because he wouldn’t let them in your office a few minutes early. Why aren’t you mad about that?”

Raina walked over to Jean-Claude. The spiked heels of her metallic copper pumps made indents in the carpet. A trail of stab wounds.

Jean-Claude watched her come. His face was neutral but there was something about the way he held himself. Was he afraid of her? Maybe. But there was a wariness to his body as she moved closer. He wasn’t happy. More and more curious.

“We had an appointment with Jean-Claude. It would have hurt my feelings to be turned away at the door.” She stepped over Robert, flashing a lot of leg. I wasn’t sure she was wearing anything under the trench coat. Robert did not try to sneak a peek. He froze, flinching as her coat brushed his back.

Raina stood with her shapely calves, nearly touching Robert. He didn’t move away from her. He seemed to just freeze as if he could pretend he wasn’t there and everyone would forget about him. He wished.

She was standing so close to Jean-Claude that the length of their bodies touched. She was sort of wedged between the two vampires. I expected Jean-Claude to step back, give her a little room. He didn’t.

She ran her fingers under his shirt, laying her hands on either side of his naked waist. Her lipsticked mouth parted and she leaned into him. She kissed him, and he stood like a statue under her hands. But he didn’t tell her to go to hell.

What the heck was going on?

Raina raised her face enough to speak. “Jean-Claude doesn’t wish to offend Marcus. He needs the pack’s backing to hold the city. Don’t you, love?”

He put his hands on her slender waist and stepped back. Her hands trailed along his skin until he was completely out of reach. She watched him the way snakes watch small birds. Hungry. You didn’t have to be a vampire to feel her lust. Obvious was putting it kindly.

“Marcus and I have an arrangement,” Jean-Claude said.

“What sort of arrangement?” I asked.

“Why do you care, ma petite? You are going to be seeing Monsieur Zeeman. Am I not allowed to see other people? I have offered you monogamy and you have turned me down.”

I hadn’t thought about it. It didn’t bother me. “It’s not the sharing that bothers me, Jean-Claude.”

Raina walked up behind him, long painted nails tracing his skin. Hands curling up his chest until her chin rested on his shoulder. Jean-Claude relaxed in her arms this time. He leaned his back against her, pale hands caressing her arms. He stared at me while he did it.

“What does bother you, ma petite?”

“Your choice of playmates.”

“Jealous?” Raina asked.

“No.”

She looked shocked, she could tell I was telling the truth.

What was I supposed to say? That it bothered me to see her hanging all over him? It did. But that was simply because I didn’t like her, I wasn’t jealous.

I shook my head. “Just how far are you willing to go to secure the pack’s favor?”

“Oh, all the way,” Raina said. She moved around to stand in front of him. She was taller than he was in her heels. “You are going to come play with me.” She kissed him, one quick movement. She dropped to her knees in front of him, gazing upward.

Jean-Claude stroked her hair. His pale graceful hands raising her face upward. He bent towards her as if to kiss her, but he stared at me while he did it.

Was he waiting for me to say, no, don’t? He’d seemed almost afraid of her at first. Now he was utterly comfortable. I knew he was taunting me. Trying to make me jealous. It wasn’t working. In fact, I was starting to feel less sorry about mt relationship with Richard.

He kissed her long and lingering. He looked up from it with her lipstick smeared on his lips. “What are you thinking, ma petite?”

He couldn’t read my mind anymore, one point for not having vampire marks. “That I’d think less of you for having sex with Raina.”

Gabriel gave a warm, rolling laugh. “Oh, he hasn’t had sex with her, not yet.” He walked towards me in a long, gliding stride.

“Let’s not get crazed.”

He undid the trench coat’s belt, and raised his hands in surrender. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had a silver ring through his left nipple, and the edge of his belly button.

It made me wince just to see it. “I thought silver hurt a lycanthrope, like an allergy.”

“It burns,” he said. His voice had a soft huskiness to it.

“And this is a good thing?” I asked.

Gabriel put his hands down slowly and shrugged the coat off his shoulders. He turned slowly as the cloth fell like a striptease. I didn’t see any other silver rings. He whirled as it came off his arms, and at the apex of the turn he flung it on me. I batted at the coat, knocking it away from me. That was the mistake.

He was on me, body flattening me to the floor. My arms ended up pinned to my chest, trapped under his coat. I was staring up into Gabriel’s face from three inches away.

He wriggled his hips, grinding one of my knives into both of us. It had to hurt him more than it hurt me.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked. My voice was surprisingly calm.

“I like pain,” he said. He put the tip of his tongue on my chin and licked across my mouth. He laughed. “Struggle harder. Push those little hands.”

“You like pain?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re gonna love this.” I shoved a knife into his upper stomach. He gave a small sound between a grunt and a sigh. A shudder ran the length of his body. He reared up over me, still pinning me from the waist down, like he was doing girl’s push-ups.

I raised myself up with him, shoving the knife in deeper, drawing the blade upward through the meat of his body.

Gabriel ripped the coat into pieces but didn’t try to grab the knife. He braced an arm on either side of me, staring downward at the knife and my bloody hands.

He rested his face in my hair, slumping just a little. I thought he’d pass out. He whispered, “Deeper.”

“Oh, Jesus.” The blade was almost at the bottom of his sternum. When I got to it one upward thrust would give me his heart.

I lay back on the floor to get a better angle for the killing blow.

“Don’t kill him,” Raina said. “We need him.”

We? The knife was on its way to his heart when he rolled off me in a blinding blur of speed. He ended up lying on his back not too far away. He was breathing very fast, his chest rising and falling. Blood poured down his naked skin. His eyes were closed, lips curled in a half smile.

If he’d been human he might have died later tonight. Instead he lay on the carpet smiling. He rolled his head to one side and opened his eyes. His strange grey eyes looked at me. “That was wonderful.”

“Sicko,” I said. I got to my feet using the couch for support. I was covered in Gabriel’s blood. The knife was thick with it.

Kaspar was sitting on the corner of the couch staring at me. He huddled in his coat, eyes wide. I didn’t blame him.

I wiped my hands and blade on the black couch. “Thanks for the help, Jean-Claude.”

“I was told that you are a dominant now, ma petite. Struggles of internal dominance are not to be interfered with.” He smiled. “Besides, you did not need my help.”

Raina knelt beside Gabriel. She lowered her face to his bleeding stomach and began to lick it. Long, slow movements of her tongue. Her throat convulsed as she swallowed.

I looked at Kaspar. “What are you doing with these two?”

Raina raised a blood coated face. “Kaspar is our sample.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He can shapeshift back and forth as often as he wants to. He doesn’t pass out. We use him to test potential stars of our movie productions. To see how they react to somebody changing shape in the middle of things.”

I was going to be sick. “You’re telling me, you make him change in the middle of sex as a sort of screen test?”

Raina cocked her head to one side. Her tongue rolled around her mouth, licking the blood clean. “You know about our little films?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m surprised Richard told you. He doesn’t approve of our fun.”

“Are you in the movies?”

“Kaspar won’t play on film,” Raina said. She stood up and walked towards the couch. “Marcus won’t force anybody to be on film. But Kaspar helps us audition people. Don’t you, Kaspar?”

He nodded. He was staring at the carpet, working very hard at not looking at her.

“Why are you all here tonight?” I asked.

“Jean-Claude promised us some vampires for our next movie.”

“That true?” I asked.

Jean-Claude’s face was blank, lovely but unreadable. “Robert needs to be punished.”

I frowned at the change of subject. “The coffin’s full.”

“There are always more coffins, Anna.”

Robert crawled forward. “I’m sorry, master. I’m sorry.” He didn’t touch Jean-Claude, but he crept close to him. “I can’t bear the box again, master. Please.”

“You’re afraid of Raina, Jean-Claude. What do you expect Robert to do with her?”

“I am not afraid of Raina.”

“Fine, but Robert was overmatched. You know he was.”

“Perhaps you are right, ma petite.”

Robert looked up. A moment of hope flashed across his handsome face. “Thank you, master.” He looked at me. “Thank you, Anna.”

I shrugged.

“You can have Robert for your next film,” Jean-Claude said.

Robert grabbed his leg. “Master, I…”

“Oh, come on, Jean-Claude, don’t give him to her.”

Raina plopped down on the couch between Kaspar and me. I stood up. She put an arm over Kaspar’s shoulders. He flinched.

“He’s handsome enough. Any vampire can take a great deal of punishment. Most acceptable,” she said.

“You saw them here tonight,” I said. “Do you really want to do that to one of your own people?”

“Let Robert decide,” Jean-Claude said. “The box, or Raina?”

Robert looked up at the lycanthrope. She smiled at him with her bloody mouth.

Robert lowered his head so he could see her, then nodded. “Not the box. Anything is better than that.”

“I’m out of here,” I said. I’d had all the interpreternatural politics that I could stand for one night.

“Don’t you want to see the show?” Raina said.

“I thought I’d seen the show,” I said.

She tossed Kaspar’s hat across the room. “Strip,” she said.

Kaspar sat there on the couch. There was a pink flush to his white skin. His eyes glittered. Angry, embarrassed. “I was a prince before your ancestors discovered this country.”

Raina propped her chin on his shoulder, still hugging his shoulders. “We know how blue your pedigree is. You were a prince and you were such a big, bad hunter, such a wicked boy that a witch cursed you. She turned you into something beautiful and harmless. She hoped you’d learn how to be gentle and kind.” She licked his ear, running her hands through his feathery hair. “But you aren’t gentle or kind. Your heart is just as cold and your pride just as impervious as it was centuries ago. Now, take off your clothes and turn into a swan for us.”

“You don’t need me to do it for the vampire,” he said.

“No, do it for me. Do it so Anna can see. Do it so Gabriel and I don’t hurt you.” Her voice was going lower. Each word more measured.

“You can’t kill me, not even with silver,” he said.

“But we can make you wish you could die, Kaspar.”

He screamed, a low, ragged cry of frustration. He stood up abruptly and pulled on his coat. The buttons snapped and fell to the carpet. He flung the coat into Raina’s face.

She laughed.

I started for the door.

“Oh, don’t leave yet, Anna. Kaspar may be a pain in the ass, but he’s really quite beautiful.”

I glanced back.

Kaspar’s sport jacket and tie lay on the carpet. He unbuttoned his white dress shirt with quick, angry movements. There was a line of white feathers down the middle of his chest. Soft and downy as an Easter duck.

I shook my head and kept going for the door.

———– 39

Chapter 39
I took a taxi home. Stephen stayed behind to strip or just to lick Jean-Claude’s boots, I wasn’t sure which and I wasn’t sure I cared. I’d made sure Stephen wasn’t in trouble. It was the best I could do. He was Jean-Claude’s creature.

Killing Gretchen was one thing, tormenting her was another. I kept flashing on the sound of her frantically beating hands. I’d like to believe that Jean-Claude would keep her asleep, but I knew better. He was a master vampire. They ruled, in part, through fear. Gretchen seemed like a real good threat. Displease me and I’ll do that to you. Worked for me.

I was standing outside my apartment when I realized I didn’t have a key to it. I’d given Richard my car keys, which had my house keys on the ring.

It felt silly standing out in the hallway about to knock on my own front door. The door opened without me touching it. Richard stood in the doorway. He smiled. “Hi,” he said.

I found myself smiling back. “Hi, yourself.”

He stepped back to one side, giving me room. He hadn’t tried to kiss me in the door like Ozzie meeting Harriet after work. I was glad. It was too intimate a ritual.

He closed the door behind me, and I half expected him to take my coat. Wisely, he did not.

I took off my own coat and laid it across the couch, where all good coats go. The warm smell of cooking food filled the apartment. “You cook?,” I asked.

“I thought you might be hungry. Besides, all I had to do was wait. I cooked. It filled the time.”

I could understand that. Though cooking would never have occurred to me unless forced.

The only lights were in the kitchen. It looked like a lighted cave from the darkened living room. If I wasn’t mistaken, there were candles on the table.

“Are those candles?”

He laughed. It had an embarrassed edge to it. “Too hokey?”

“It’s a two-seater breakfast table. You can’t possibly serve a fancy dinner on it.”

“I thought we’d use the divider as a buffet and just have plates on the table. There’s room if we’re careful where we put our elbows.” He walked past me into the light. He started puttering with a saucepan, sloshing something around in it.

I stood there staring at my kitchen, I couldn’t draw a complete breath. I wanted to go right back out the door. This was more intimate than a kiss at the door. He’d moved in, made himself at home.

I didn’t leave. It was the bravest thing I’d done all night. I checked the lock on the door automatically. He’d left it unlocked. Careless.

I didn’t know what to do next. My apartment was my refuge. I could come here and just kick back. I could be alone. I liked being alone. I needed some time to unwind, regroup, think how to tell him about the ageement Jean-Claude and I had .

“Will dinner be spoiled if I clean up first?”

“I can reheat everything when you’re ready. I planned the meal so it wouldn’t ruin no matter how late you were.”

Great. “I’m going to go clean up then.”

He turned to me, framed by the light. He’d tied his hair back, but it was coming loose in long, curling strands. His sweater was a burnt orange that made his skin look golden highlighted. He was wearing an apron that said, Mrs. Lovett’s Meatpies on it. I didn’t own an apron, and I certainly wouldn’t have chosen one with a logo from Sweeney Todd. A musical about cannibalism seemed inappropriate for an apron. Delightfully so, but still…

“I’m going to go clean up.”

“You said that.”

I turned on my heel and walked to the bedroom. I did not run, though the temptation was great. I closed the door to my bedroom and leaned against it. My bedroom was untouched. No signs of invasion.

There was a love seat under the room’s only window. Stuffed toy pandas sit on the love seat and spill down onto the floor. The collection was threatening to take over half the floor like a creeping tide. I grabbed the nearest one and sat on the corner of the bed. I hugged it tight, burying the upper half of my face in its fuzzy head.

If I’d been alone, I wouldn’t have eaten at all. I’d have taken a shower, thrown on an oversize T-shirt, and gone to bed surrounded by a few select pandas.

Now I had a fancy dinner to eat, by candlelight nonetheless. If I said I wasn’t hungry, would he be insulted? Would he pout? Would he yell about all the work going to waste and tell me about starving kids in Southeast Asia?

“Dang it,” I said softly and with feeling. Well, heck, if we ever were going to cohabitate, he’d have to know the truth. I was unsociable, and food was something you ate so you wouldn’t die.

I decided to do what I’d have done if he hadn’t been here, sort of. I really disliked feeling uncomfortable in my own home.

I turned the shower on as hot as it would go and stayed under it until my fingers started to prune. I was scrubbed clean and had delayed as long as I could.

I wiped the steam from the mirror with a towel. The top layer of skin was gone from my right cheek. It would heal just fine, but a scrape looks like hell until it heals. There was a small scrape on my chin and the side of my nose. A knot was blossoming into brilliant color on my forehead. I looked as though I’d been hit by a train. It was amazing that anyone wanted to kiss me.

I peeked out the door into the bedroom. No one was waiting for me. The room was empty and full of the whir of the heater. It was quiet, peaceful, and I couldn’t hear any noises from the kitchen. I let out a long sigh. Alone, for a little while.

I was vain enough that I didn’t want Richard to see me in my usual nighttime attire. I had had a nice black robe that matched a tiny black teddy. An overly optimistic date had given it to me. He never got to see me wear it. Fancy that. The robe had died a sad death covered in blood and other bodily fluids.

Wearing the teddy seemed cruel since I didn’t plan on having sex with him. I stood in front of my closet and didn’t have a thing to wear. Since I consider clothes something you wear so you won’t be naked, that was pretty sad.

I put on an oversize T-shirt with a caricature of Mary Shelley on it, a pair of grey sweatpants–not the fancy ones, either, the kind with a drawstring in them. The way God intended sweatpants to be. A pair of white jogging socks, the closest thing I owned to slippers, and I was ready to go.

I looked at myself in the mirror and wasn’t happy. I was comfortable, but it wasn’t very flattering. But it was honest. I’ve never understood those women who wear makeup, do their hair, and dress wonderfully until after they’re married. Suddenly, they forget what makeup is and lose all their thin clothes. I shrugged and walked out.

He’d combed his hair out. It foamed around his face, soft and inviting. The candles were gone. So was the apron. He stood in the entryway between kitchen and living room. His arms were crossed over his chest, shoulder leaning against the doorjamb. He smiled. He looked so scrumptious, I wanted to go back in and change, but I didn’t.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“What about?”

“I’m not completely sure, but I think for presuming I could take over your kitchen.”

“I think it’s the first meal that’s been cooked in it, since my mother died.”

His smile thinned, and he pushed away from the door. He walked towards me. He moved in the circle of his own energy. Not that otherworldly power, but just Richard. Or was it? Maybe a lot of his drive was from his beast.

He stood staring down at me, close enough to touch but not doing it. “I was going crazy waiting for you. I got this idea to cook a fancy meal. It was stupid. You don’t have to eat it, but it kept me from running down to Guilty Pleasures and defending your honor.”

It made me smile. “I can’t even pout around you. You always jolly me out of it.”

“And this is a bad thing?”

I laughed. “Yes. I enjoy my bad moods, thank you very much.”

He traced fingers down my shoulders, kneading the muscles in my upper arms. I pulled away from him. “Please, don’t.” Just like that, the cozy domestic scene was ruined. All my fault.

His hands dropped to his sides. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t think he meant the meal. He took a deep breath and nodded. “You don’t have to eat a bite.” I guess we were going to pretend he had meant the meal. Fine with me.

“If I said I wasn’t hungry at all, you wouldn’t be mad at me?”

“I fixed the meal to make me feel better. If it bothers you, don’t eat it.”

“I’ll drink a cup of tea and watch you eat.”

He smiled. “It’s a deal.”

He stayed standing, looking down at me. He looked sad. Lost. If you love someone, you shouldn’t make them miserable. It’s a rule somewhere, or should be.

“You combed your hair out.”

“Do you like it loose?”

“Yes,” I said.

I could have the lightness back. We could have a nice relaxing evening. It was up to me.

I looked up into his big brown eyes and wanted it. But I couldn’t lie to him. That would be worse than cruel. “This is awkward.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing. It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”

He shook his head. “You can’t help how you feel.”

“My first instinct is to cut and run, Richard. Stop seeing you. No more long conversations. No touching. Nothing.”

“If that’s what you want.” His voice sounded sort of strangled, as if it cost him dearly to say those words.

“What I want is you. I just don’t know if I can handle it.”

“If you have someone else you can call to wait with you tonight, I’ll go. You said you needed time and I practically move in. I’m pushing.”

“Yeah, you are.”

“I’m scared that I’m might lose you,” he said.

“Pushing won’t help,” I said.

“I guess not.”

I stood there staring at him, then moved closer to him. “Hold me, Richard. Just hold me.”

His arms enfolded me. I wrapped my arms around his waist, pressing my face against his chest. I could hear his heartbeat, fast and strong. I held him, listening to the beat of his heart, breathing his warmth. For just an instant I felt safe. It was the way I’d felt before my mother died. That childish belief that nothing can hurt you while Mommy and Daddy hold you tight. That utter faith that they can make everything all right. In Richard’s arms, for brief moments, I had that again. Even though I knew it was a lie. Heck, it had been a lie the first time. My mother’s death had proven that.

I pulled away first. He didn’t try and hold on. He didn’t say anything. If he’d said anything remotely sympathetic I might have cried. Couldn’t have that. Down to business. “You haven’t asked how it went with Jean-Claude.”

“You were almost mad at me when you came through the door. I thought if I started questioning you right off the bat, you might yell at me.”

“I wasn’t mad at you.” I poured tea into my baby penguin mug. It is my favorite mug.

“Yes, you were,” he said.

“You want some coffee?”

“I don’t like it.”

“Me either.” I said.

He started dishing out his meal. “Sure you don’t want some?”

“No, thanks.” It was some small brown meat in a brown sauce. Looking at it made me nauseous. I’d eaten later than this with Edward, but tonight, food just didn’t sound good. Maybe getting my head bashed into concrete had something to do with that.

I sat down in one of the chairs, one knee drawn up to my chest.

Richard sat down opposite me. He bowed his head and said grace over his meal.

“Tell me what happened with Jean-Claude, please,” he asked.

I sipped my tea and tried to think of a short version. Okay, a short version Richard wouldn’t mind hearing. Okay, maybe just the truth.

“He took the news better than I thought he would, actually.”

Richard looked up from his meal, silverware poised. “He took it well?”

“I didn’t say that. He didn’t burst through a wall and try to kill you immediately. He took it better than I expected.”

Richard nodded. He took a sip of water and said, “Did he threaten to kill me?”

“Oh, yeah. But it was almost like he saw this coming. He didn’t like it, but it didn’t catch him by complete surprise.”

“Is he going to try and kill me?” He asked it very calmly, eating his meat and brown sauce.

“No, he isn’t.”

“Why not?”

It was a good question. I wondered what he’d think of the answer. “He says I can date you both.”

Richard stopped eating. He just looked at me. When he could speak, he said, “He what?”

“I think he believes that if I let him use all his charms on me, I’ll reconsider.”

“Will you?” His voice was very quiet when he asked.

” I don’t know.” It wasn’t a rousing endorsement.

“I know you say you love him, Anna, but do you really love him?”

The conversation was becoming deja-vuish. “Not the way I love you.”

“How is it different?”

“Look, I just had this conversation with Jean-Claude. I love you. Can you see me setting up house with the Master of the City?”

“Can you see setting up house with an alpha werewolf?”

I leaned across the table and held my hand out to him. After a moment he took it. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t lose me.”

“You are a heck of a lot more tolerant than I would be.”

He didn’t smile. “I know I am.”

I would have liked to argue, but truth is truth. “I’d be bigger about this if I could.”

Richard sighed “I know.”

——–40

Chapter 40
The phone rang. I groped for it and found nothing. I raised my head and found the nightstand empty. The phone was gone. It had even stopped ringing. The radio clock was still there, glowing red. It read 1:03. I stayed propped on my elbow blinking at the empty space. Was I dreaming? Why would I dream that someone had stolen my phone?

The bedroom door opened. Richard stood framed in the light beyond. Ah. Now I remembered. He’d taken the phone into the living room so it wouldn’t wake me. Since he was having to wake me every hour, I’d let him do it. When you’re only sleeping an hour, even a short phone call can screw things up.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Sergeant Rudolf Storr. I asked him to wait until I had to wake you, but he was pretty insistent.”

I could imagine. “It’s all right.”

“Would fifteen minutes have killed him?” Richard asked.

I swung my legs out from under the covers. “Dolph’s in the middle of a murder investigation, Richard. Patience isn’t his strong suit.”

Richard crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the doorjamb. The light from the living room made strong shadows on his face. The shadows cut huge square shapes on his orange sweater. He radiated displeasure. It made me smile. I patted his arm as I went past. I seemed to have inherited a watchwolf.

The phone was sitting just inside the front door, where the other phone jack was. I sat down on the floor, putting my back to the wall, and picked up the phone. “Dolph, it’s me. What’s up?”

“Who’s this Richard Zeeman that’s answering your phone in the middle of the night?”

I closed my eyes. My head hurt. My face hurt. I hadn’t had a heck of a lot of sleep. “You’re not my father, Dolph. What’s up?”

A moment of silence. “Defensive, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, want to make something of it?”

“No,” he said.

“You call just to catch up on my personal life or is there a reason you woke me up?” I knew it wasn’t another murder. He was being too cheerful for that, which made me wonder if it couldn’t have waited a few hours.

“We found something.”

“What exactly?”

“I’d rather you just come and see it for yourself.”

“Don’t do this to me, Dolph. Just tell me what it is.”

Another silence. If he was waiting for me to apologize, he was in for a long wait. Finally. “We found a skin.”

“What kind of skin?”

“If we knew what the hell it was, would I be calling you at one o’clock in the freaking morning?” He sounded angry. I guess I couldn’t blame him.

“I’m sorry, Dolph. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

“Fine.”

He hadn’t exactly accepted my apology. Fine. “Is it connected to the murder?”

I don’t think so, but I’m not some hotshot preternatural expert.” He still sounded pissed. Maybe he wasn’t getting much sleep, either. Of course, I bet no one had smashed his head into a sidewalk.

“Where are you?”

He gave me the address. It was down in Jefferson County, far away from the murder scene.

“When can you be here?”

“I can’t drive,” I said.

“What?”

“Doctor’s orders, I’m not to get behind the wheel of a car tonight.”

“How bad are you hurt?”

“Not too bad, but the doctor wanted me woken up every hour, and no driving.”

“That’s why Mr. Zeeman is there.”

“Yeah.”

“If you’re too hurt to come tonight, it can wait.”

“Is the skin where it was found? Nothing disturbed?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll come. Who knows? There might be a clue.”

He let that go. “How are you going to get here?”

I glanced at Richard. He could drive me, but somehow I didn’t think it was a good idea. He was a civvie, for one thing. He was a lycanthrope, for another. He answered to Marcus, and to a degree to Jean-Claude. Not a good person to bring into a preternatural murder investigation. Besides, if he’d been human, the answer would have been the same. No deal.

“Unless you can send a squad car, I guess I’ll take a taxi.”

“Zerbrowski didn’t answer his first page. He lives in St. Peters. He’ll have to come right by you. He can pick you up.”

“Is that okay with him?”

“It will be,” Dolph said.

Great. Trapped in a car with Zerbrowski. “Fine, I’ll be dressed and waiting.”

“Dressed?”

“Don’t even start, Dolph.”

“Touchy, very touchy.”

“Stop it.”

He laughed. It was good to hear him laugh. It meant not many people had died this time. Dolph didn’t laugh much during serial-killer cases.

He hung up. So did I.

“You have to go out?” Richard asked.

“Yeah.”

“Do you feel well enough to go?”

“Yes.”

“Anna…”

I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes. “Don’t, Richard. I’m going.”

“No debate allowed?”

“No debate,” I said. I opened my eyes and looked at him.

He was staring down at me, arms crossed.

“What?” I said.

He shook his head. “If I told you that I was going to do something, no debate, you’d be mad.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Anna.” He said my name the way my father use to say it.

“I wouldn’t, not if your reasons were valid.” I stood. I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone. I walked past him towards the bedroom. “I’ve got to get dressed.”

He followed me. “I know that helping the police is very important to you.”

I turned on him. “I don’t just help the police, Richard. The spook squad is just over two years old. The cops on it didn’t know about preternatural creatures. It was a garbage detail. Do something to piss off your superiors and you get transferred.”

“The newspapers and TV said it was an independent task force like the major task force. That’s an honor.”

“Oh, yeah, right. The squad gets almost no extra funding. No special training in preternatural creatures or events. Dolph, Sergeant Storr, saw my mother in the paper and contacted Bert. There was no training in preternatural crime for law officers in this country. Dolph thought she and I could be an advisers.”

“You’re a heck of a lot more than an adviser.”

“Yes, I am.” I could have told him that earlier in the summer Dolph had tried not calling my mother and I in right away. It had seemed like a clear-cut case of ghouls in a cemetery getting a little ambitious and attacking a necking couple. Ghouls were cowards and didn’t attack able-bodied people, but exceptions to the rule and all that. By the time Dolph called us in, six people were dead. It hadn’t been ghouls. So lately Dolph had started calling me at the beginning before things got too messy. Sometimes I could diagnose a problem before it got out of hand.

But I couldn’t tell Richard that. There might have been a lower kill count if I’d been called in this summer, but that was no one’s business but Dolph’s and mine. We’d spoken of it only once, and that was enough. Richard was a civvie, werewolf or not. It wasn’t any of his business.

“Look, I don’t know if I can explain this so you’ll understand, but I have to go. It may head off a larger problem. It may keep me from having to go to a murder scene later on. Can you understand that?”

He looked perplexed, but what came out of his mouth wasn’t. “Not really, but maybe I don’t have to. Maybe seeing it’s important to you is enough.”

I let out a deep breath. “Great. Now I’ve got to get ready. Zerbrowski will be here any time. He’s the detective giving me a ride.”

Richard just nodded. Wise of him.

I went into the bedroom and closed the door. Gratefully.

Another pair of black jeans, a red sweater with a cowl neck, so soft and fuzzy that it made me feel better just to wear it. The red sweater also brought out the raw-meat color of the scrapes on my face. I might have changed it, but the doorbell rang.

Zerbrowski. Richard was answering the door while I stared at myself in the mirror. That thought alone was enough. I went for the door.

Zerbrowski was standing just inside the door, hands in the pockets of his overcoat. His curly black hair with its touches of grey was freshly cut. There was even hair-goop in it. Zerbrowski was usually lucky if he remembered to comb his hair. The suit that showed from his open coat was black and formal. His tie was tasteful and neatly knotted. I glanced down, and yes indeed, his shoes were shined. I’d never seen him when he didn’t have food stains on him somewhere.

“Where were you all dressed up?” I asked.

“Where were you all undressed?” he asked. He smiled when he said it.

I felt heat rush up my face and hated it a lot. I hadn’t done anything worth blushing for. “Fine, let’s go.” I grabbed my trench coat from the back of the couch and touched dried blood. Shit.

“I’ve got to get a clean coat. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll just talk to Mr. Zeeman here,” Zerbrowski said.

I was afraid of that, but I went for my leather jacket anyway. Since we were dating, Richard would have to meet Zerbrowski sooner or later. Later would have been my preference.

“What do you do for a living, Mr. Zeeman?”

“I’m a schoolteacher.”

“Oh, really.”

I lost the conversation then. I grabbed the jacket from the closet and walked back out. They were chatting along like old buddies.

“Yes, Anna is our preternatural expert. Wouldn’t know what to do without her.”

“I’m ready. Let’s go.” I walked past them and opened the door. I held the door for Zerbrowski.

He smiled at me. “How long have you two been dating?”

Richard looked at me. He was pretty good at picking up when I wasn’t comfortable. He was going to let me answer the question. Good of him. Too good. If he would only be completely unreasonable and give me an excuse to say no. This isn’t worth it.

“About a week,” I said and tried to get Zerbrowski through the door. He was grinning. He had no intention of being hurried. My only hope was for Dolph to page him again. That’d light a fire under his butt.

Dolph didn’t call. Zerbrowski grinned at me. Richard looked at me. His big brown eyes were deep and wounded. I wanted to take his face in my hands and wipe that hurt from his eyes.

“I’ve got to go.”

“I know,” he said.

I glanced at Zerbrowski. He was grinning at us, enjoying the show.

I grabbed the front of his sweater and pulled him down to me. He looked surprised. “You don’t have to do this for show,” he whispered.

“Shut up and kiss me.”

That earned me a smile. Every kiss was still a pleasant shock. No one’s lips were this soft. No one else tasted this good.

His hair fell forward and I grabbed a handful of it, pressing his face to mine. His hands slid around my back, underneath the leather jacket, hands kneading the sweater.

I pushed away from him, breathless. I didn’t want to go now. With him staying overnight maybe it was a good thing I had to leave for a while.

The look in Richard’s eyes was drowning deep and worth anything in the world. I tried to hide a rather sappy smile but knew it was too late. I knew I would pay for this in the car with Zerbrowski. I would never hear the end of it. Staring up into Richard’s face, I didn’t care. We’d work something out, eventually.

“Wait ’til I tell Dolph we were late because you were smooching with some guy.”

I didn’t rise to bait. “I may not be home for hours. You might want to go home instead of waiting here.”

“I drove your Jeep here, remember? I don’t have a ride home.”

Oh. “Fine, I’ll be back when I can.”

He nodded. “I’ll be here.”

I walked out into the hallway, not smiling anymore. I wasn’t sure how I felt about coming home to Richard. How was I ever going to come to a real decision if he kept hanging around, making my hormones run amok?

Zerbrowski chuckled. “Blake, I have seen everything now. The heap-big vampire slayer in luuv.”

I shook my head. “I don’t suppose it would help to ask you to keep this to yourself?”

He grinned. “Makes the teasing more fun. Loverboy seemed sort of tense, so I didn’t say anything before, but now that we’re alone, what the hell happened to you? You look like someone took a meat cleaver to your face.”

Actually, I didn’t. I’d seen that done once and it was a lot messier. “Long story. You know my secret. Where were you tonight all dressed up?”

“Married ten years tonight,” he said.

“You’re kidding?”

He shook his head.

“Big congrats,” I said. We clattered down the stairs.

“Thanks. We hired a baby-sitter and everything. She made me leave my beeper home.”

The cold bit into the sores on my face and made my head ache worse.

“Door’s not locked,” Zerbrowski said.

“You’re a cop. How can you leave your car unlocked?” I opened the door and stopped. The passenger seat and floorboard were full. McDonald’s take-out sacks and newspapers filled the seat and flowed onto the floorboards. A piece of petrified pizza and a herd of pop cans filled the rest of the floorboard.

“Jesus, Zerbrowski, does the EPA know you’re driving a toxic waste dump through populated areas?”

“See why I leave it unlocked. Who would steal it?” He knelt in the seat and began shoveling armfuls of garbage into the backseat. It looked like this wasn’t the first time he’d cleaned out the front seat by shoveling things in back.

I brushed crumbs from the empty seat onto the empty floorboard. When it was as clean as I could get it, I sat down.

Zerbrowski slid into his seat belt and started the car. It coughed to life. I put on my seat belt, and he pulled out of the parking lot.

“How does Katie feel about your job?” I asked.

Zerbrowski glanced at me. “She’s okay with it.”

“Were you a cop when she met you?”

“Yeah, she knew what to expect. Loverboy didn’t want you to come out tonight?”

“He thought I was too hurt to go out.”

“You do look like shit.”

“Thanks.”

“They love us, they want us to be careful. He’s a junior high school teacher, for God’s sake. What does he know about violence?”

“More than he’d like to.”

“I know, I know. The schools are a dangerous place nowadays. But it isn’t the same, Anna. We carry guns. Hell, you kill vampires and raise the dead, Blake. Can’t get much messier than that.”

“I know that.” But I didn’t know that.

“No, I don’t think you do, Blake. Loving someone who lives by violence is a hard way to go. That anybody’ll have us is a miracle. Don’t get cold feet.”

“Did I say I was getting cold feet?”

“Not out loud.”

“Let’s drop it, Zerbrowski.”

“Anything you say. Dolph is going to be so excited that you’ve decided to tie the noose… ah, knot.”

I sank down into the seat as far as the belt would let me. “I am not getting married.”

“Maybe not yet, but I know that look, Blake. You are a drowning woman, and the only way out is down the aisle.”

I would have liked to argue, but I was too confused. Part of me believed Zerbrowski. Part of me wanted to stop dating Richard and be safe again. Okay, okay, I wasn’t exactly safe before, what with Jean-Claude hanging around.

“He crowding you?” Zerbrowski aksed.

“Yeah.”

“He want marriage, kids, the whole nine yards?”

Kids. No one had mentioned children. Did Richard have this domestic vision of a little house, him in the kitchen, me working, and kids? We were going to have to sit down and have a serious talk. Did Richard want children? I certainly did.

Where would we live? My apartment was too small. His house? I wasn’t sure I liked that idea. It was his house. Shouldn’t we have our house? Kids, me? Pregnant, me?

——– 41

Chapter 41
The river swirled black and cold. Rocks stuck up like the teeth of giants. The bank behind me was steep, thick with trees. The snow between the trees was trampled and slicked away to show the leaves underneath. The opposite bank was a bluff that jutted out over the river. No way down from there unless you were willing to jump. The water was less than five feet deep in the center of the river. Jumping from thirty feet wasn’t a good idea.

I stood carefully on the crumbling bank. The black water rushed just inches from my feet. Tree roots stuck out of the bank, tearing at the earth. The combination of snow, leaves, and nearly vertical bank seemed destined to send me into the water, but I’d fight it as long as I could.

The rocks formed a low, broken wall into the river. Some of the stones were barely above the swirling water, but one near the center of the river stuck up about waist high. Draped over that rock was the skin. Dolph was still the master of understatement. Shouldn’t a skin be smaller than a breadbox, not bigger than a Toyota? The head hung on the large rock, draped perfectly as if placed. That was one of the reasons the thing was still in the middle of the river. Dolph had wanted me to see it in case there was some ritual significance to the placement.

There was a dive team waiting on the shore in dry suits, which are bulkier than wet suits and better at keeping you warm in cold water. A tall diver with a hood already pulled up over his hair stood by Dolph. He’d been introduced as MacAdam. “Can we go in after the skin now?”

“Anna?” Dolph asked.

“Better them in the water than me,” I said.

“Is it safe?” Dolph asked.

That was a different question. Truth. “I’m not sure.”

MacAdam looked at me. “What could be out there? It’s just a skin, right?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure what kind of skin it is.”

“So?” he asked.

“So, remember the Mad Magician back in the seventies?”

“I’d think you wouldn’t remember it,” MacAdam said.

“My old partner studied it. Magical Terrorism, senior year. The Magician specialized in leaving magical booby traps in out-of-the-way places. One of his favorite traps was an animal skin that would attach itself to whomever touched it first. Took a witch to remove it.”

“Was it dangerous?” MacAdam asked.

“One man suffocated when it attached itself to his face.”

“How the hell did his face touch it first?”

“Hard to ask a dead man. Animating wasn’t a profession in the seventies.”

MacAdam stared off across the water. “Okay, how do you find out if it’s dangerous?”

“Has anyone been in the water yet?”

He jerked a thumb at Dolph. “He wouldn’t let us, and Sheriff Titus said to leave everything for some hotshot monster expert.” He looked me up and down. “That you?”

“That’s me.”

“Well, make like an expert so my people and I can get in there.”

“You want the spotlight now?” Dolph asked. They’d had the place lit up like an opening night at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I’d made them turn off the lights after I’d gotten the first glance. There were some things that you needed light to see, other things only showed themselves in the dark.

“No light yet. Let me see it in the dark first.”

“Why no light?” Dolph asked.

“Some things hide from light, Dolph, and they might still take a chunk out of one of the divers.”

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?” MacAdam asked.

“Yeah, aren’t you glad?”

He looked at me for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. How are you going to get a closer look? I know the weather just got cold the last few days, so the water should be about forty degrees, but that’s still cold without a suit.”

“I’ll stay on the rocks. I might dip a hand in to see if anything rises to bait, but I’ll stay as dry as I can.”

“You take the monsters serious,” he said, “I take the water serious. You’ll get hypothermia in about five minutes in water this cold. Try not to fall in.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“You’re going to get wet,” Aikensen said. He stood just above me, leaning against a tree. His Smokey Bear hat was pulled low over his head, thick woolly collar pulled up near his chin. His ears and most of his face were still bare to the cold. I hoped he got frostbite.

He put his flashlight under his chin like a Halloween gag. He was smiling. “Didn’t move a thing, Miss Blake. Left it just where we found it.”

I didn’t correct him on the “miss.” He’d done it just to irritate me. Ignoring it irritated him. Great.

The Halloween smile faded, leaving him frowning in the light.

“What’s the matter, Aikensen? Didn’t want to get your delicate toes wet?”

He pushed away from the tree. The movement was too abrupt. He slid down the bank, arms windmilling, trying to slow his fall. He fell to his butt and kept scooting. He was coming straight for me.

I took a step to one side and the bank crumbled underfoot. I gave a hop and ended up on the nearest stone in the river. I huddled on it, nearly on all fours to keep from falling into the water. The stone was wet, slick, and bone-deep cold.

Aikensen landed in the river with a yell. He sat on his butt, freezing water swirling to nearly the middle of his chest. He beat at the water with his gloved hands, as if punishing it. All he was doing was getting wetter.

The skin didn’t slide off the rock and cover him. Nothing grabbed him. I couldn’t feel any magic on the air. Nothing but the cold and the sound of water.

“Guess nothing’s going to eat him,” MacAdam said.

“Guess not,” I said. I tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice.

“God’s sake, Aikensen, get out of the water,” Titus’s voice boomed from the top of the hill. The sheriff, along with most of the other policemen, were at the top of the bank, along the gravel road that led back to the place. Two ambulances were sitting up there, too. Since Gaia’s law went into effect three years ago, an ambulance had to be on the scene if there was any chance the remains were humanoid. There were ambulances being called to take away coyote carcasses, as if they were dead werewolves. The law had gone into effect, but no extra money had been put into the emergency systems across the country. Washington did like to complicate things.

We were in the backyard of someone’s summer house. Some of the houses had landings or even small boathouses, if they had deep enough water at the base of their land. The only boat you were taking off through this rocky channel was a canoe, so no landing, no boathouse, just the cold black water and a very wet deputy.

“Aikensen, get your butt up on one of those rocks. Help Ms. Blake out, since you’re already wet.”

“I don’t need his help,” I called back to Titus.

“Well, now, Ms. Blake, this is our county. Wouldn’t want you getting eaten by some beastie while we stayed nice and safe on shore.”

Aikensen stood, nearly falling again when his boots slid on the sandy bottom. He turned to glare at me as if it were all my fault, but he scrambled up on the rock on the side opposite the skin. He’d lost his flashlight. He was dripping wet in the dark, except for his Smokey Bear hat which he’d managed to keep above water. He looked as sullen as a wet hen.

“Notice you’re not offering to climb out on this particular limb,” I said.

Titus started down the bank. He seemed to be a lot better at it than I had been. I’d staggered like a drunk from tree to tree. Titus kept his hands out ready to catch himself, but he pretty much walked down. He stopped beside Dolph.

“Delegation, Ms. Blake. What made the country great.”

“What do you think of that, Aikensen?” I said more softly.

He glared at me. “He’s the boss.” He didn’t sound like he was happy with it, but he believed it.

“Get on with it, Anna,” Dolph said.

Translation, stop yanking everybody’s chain. Everybody wanted out of the cold. Couldn’t blame them. Me, too.

I stood ever so carefully on the slick rock. My flashlight reflected off the choppy water like a black mirror, opaque and solid.

I shone the flashlight on the first stone. It was pale and shining with water, and probably ice. I stepped onto it carefully. The next stone, still okay. Who knew Nike Airs were good for icy rocks?

MacAdam’s warning about hypothermia ran through my head. Just what I’d need, to be hospitalized from exposure. Didn’t I have enough problems without having to fight the elements?

There was a gap between the next two stones. It was a tempting distance. Almost stepping distance but just an inch out of comfort range. The stone I was on was flat, low to the water, but solid underfoot. The next one was sort of curved on one side with a point.

“Afraid you’re going to get your feet wet?” Aikensen flashed a smile that was more a baring of white teeth in the dark.

“Jealous that you’re wet and I’m not?”

“I could get you wet,” he said.

“Only in my nightmares,” I said. I had to leap for it and hope some miracle of balance kept me safe. I glanced back at the bank. I thought about asking the divers if they had an extra dry suit for me, but it seemed cowardly with Aikensen shivering on the rocks. Besides, I could probably make the jump. Probably.

I backed to the edge of the rock I was standing on, and jumped. There was a second of being airborne, then my foot hit the rock. My foot slid off to one side. I collapsed onto the rock hugging it with both hands and one leg. The other leg ended up thigh deep in ice cold water. The shock of it left me cursing.

I struggled back up on the rock, water streaming from the jean’s pants leg. My foot hadn’t touched bottom. The water on either side of the rocks would come up to my waist, if Aikensen’s little wading show was a good indication. I’d found a sinkhole deep enough to have doused every inch of me. Lucky it was just my leg.

Aikensen was laughing at me. If it had been anyone else, we might have laughed together at how ridiculous all this was, but it was him, and he laughed at me.

“At least I didn’t drop my flashlight,” I said. It sounded childish even to me, but he stopped laughing. Sometimes childish will get you what you want.

I was beside the skin now. Up close, it was even more impressive. I’d known it was reptilian from the bank. Standing next to it, I could see it was definitely a snake. The largest scales were the size of my palm. The empty eye sockets were the size of golf balls. I reached out to touch it. Something swirled against my arm as I reached for it. I screamed before I realized it was the undulating snakeskin spreading out in the water. When I could breathe again, I touched the skin. I expected it to be light, a sloughed skin. It was heavy, meaty.

I turned the edge of it to the light. It wasn’t a sloughed skin. The snake had been skinned. Whether it had been alive when the skinning started was a moot point. It was dead now. Very few creatures can survive being skinned alive.

There was something about the scales and shape of the head that reminded me of a cobra, but the scales, even in the light of a flashlight, gleamed with opalescence. The snake wasn’t any one color. It was like a rainbow or an oil slick. The color changed depending on the angle of the light.

“You going to play with it, or can the divers come and get it?” Aikensen asked.

I ignored him for the moment. There was something on the snake’s forehead, almost between the eyes. Something smooth and round and white. I ran my fingers over it. It was a pearl. A pearl the size of a golf ball. What the hell was a giant pearl doing embedded in the head of a snake? And why hadn’t whoever skinned the creature taken the pearl with him?

Aikensen leaned forward running a hand over the skin. “Yuck. What the hell is it?”

“Giant snake,” I said.

He jerked back with a yell. He started scraping at his arms as if he could wipe off the feel of it.

“Afraid of snakes, Aikensen?”

He glared at me. “No.”

It was a lie, and we both knew it.

“The two of you enjoy being out on those rocks?” Titus asked. “Get a move on.”

“You see anything significant about the placement of the skin, Anna?” Dolph asked.

“Not really. The thing might have just gotten hooked on the rocks. I don’t think it was purposefully placed here.”

“We can move it then?”

I nodded. “Yeah, the divers can come in. Aikensen’s already tested the water for predators.”

Aikensen looked at me. “What the hell does that mean?”

“It means there might have been creepy-crawlies in the water, but nothing tried to eat you, so it’s safe.”

“You used me for bait.”

“You fell in.”

“Ms. Blake say we can move the thing?” Titus asked.

“Yes,” Dolph said.

“Go to it, boys.”

The divers all looked at each other. “Can we have the spotlight now?” MacAdam asked.

“Sure,” I said.

The light smashed into me. I put a hand up to shield my eyes and nearly slipped off the rock. Jesus it was bright. The water was still opaque, black, and choppy, but the rocks glistened and Aikensen and I were suddenly center stage. The bright light washed all the color from the snakeskin.

MacAdam slipped his face mask on, regulator secure in his mouth. Only one other diver followed his lead. Guess they didn’t need four to go in after the skin.

“Why’re they putting on tanks just to wade out here?” Aikensen asked.

“Insurance in case the current gets them, or they find a sinkhole.”

“Current’s not that bad.”

“Bad enough that if it catches the skin, the skin’s gone. With tanks you can follow something in the water all the way down, wherever it goes.”

“You sound like you’ve done it.”

“I’m certified.”

“Well, aren’t you multitalented,” he said.

The divers were almost out to us. Their tanks looked like the backs of whales sticking out of the water. MacAdam raised his face mask out of the water, and put a gloved hand on the rocks. He took the regulator out of his mouth, hugging the rock and paddling with his legs to keep free of the current. The other diver moved over by Aikensen.

“There a problem if we tear the skin?” MacAdam asked.

“I’ll unhook it from this side of the rock.”

“You’ll get your arm wet.”

“I’ll live, right?”

I couldn’t see his face well enough under all the equipment, but I’d bet he was frowning at me.

“Yeah, you’ll live.”

I moved my hand down the front of the skin until I hit water. The cold made me hesitate, but only for a heartbeat. I reached down, soaking myself to the shoulder to untangle it. My hand touched something slick and solid that wasn’t skin. I gave a small yip and jerked back, nearly falling. I got my balance and went for my gun.

I had time to say, “Something’s down there.” It surfaced.

A round face, with a screaming lipless mouth, shot upward, hands reaching for MacAdam. I had a glimpse of dark eyes before it fell back into the water.

The divers got the hell out of there, swimming with strong sure strokes for shore.

Aikensen had stumbled back, falling into the water. He came up sputtering, gun in hand.

“Don’t shoot it,” I said. The thing surfaced again. I slid in beside it. It shrieked, its human-shaped hand groping for me. It grabbed a handful of jacket and pulled itself to me.

Aikensen was aiming at it. Shouts from the shore. The other cops coming, but there was no time. There was just Aikensen and me in the river.

The creature clung to me, not screaming now, just clinging as if I were the last thing in the world. It buried its earless face into my chest. I pointed my knife at Aikensen’s chest.

That seemed to get his attention. He blinked, focusing on me. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Point it somewhere else, Aikensen.”

‘I’m tired of looking down at that knife of yours, bitch.”

Voices shouting, movement on the bank, people coming, almost there. Only seconds left until someone came. Someone saved us. Seconds too late.

A shot exploded next to Aikensen. Close enough to spray him with water. He jumped, and his gun fired. The creature went wild, but I was already moving, diving for the rocks. It clung to me as if attached. We floated by the big rock, swirling in snakeskin. If Aikensen had turned towards us, I’d have killed him.

“Goddamn it, Aikensen, put that damn gun away!” The splashing was heavy, and it was probably Titus wading into the water, but I couldn’t look away from Aikensen.

Aikensen was looking away from me towards the splashing. Dolph got there first. He loomed over Aikensen like the vengeance of God.

Aikensen’s gun started to swing towards him, as if he sensed his danger.

“You point that gun at me and I will feed it to you,” Dolph said. His voice was low and reverberated even through the ringing in my ears.

“If he points it at you,” I said, “I’ll kill him.”

“Nobody’s killing him but me.” Titus waded up. He was shorter than everyone but me, so he was struggling in the water. He grabbed Aikensen by the belt and pulled him off his feet, tearing the gun from his hand as he fell into the water.

Aikensen surfaced choking and mad. “What the hell did you do that for?”

“Ask Ms. Blake why I did it. Ask her, ask her!” He was short and wet, and still managed to browbeat Aikensen.

“Why?” Aikensen said.

“Trouble with carrying a big gun, Aikensen, is that it goes through a heck of a lot of flesh.”

“What?”

Titus pushed him, making him stumble. Aikensen struggled to stay on his feet. “If you’d pulled that trigger, boy, with the creature pressed right up against her, you’d have killed her, too.”

“I thought she was just protecting it. She said not to shoot it. Look at it!”

Everyone turned to me then. I used the rocks to leverage to my feet. The creature was dead weight, as if he’d passed out with his hands locked in my jacket. I had more trouble putting the gun away than I had getting it out. Cold, adrenaline, and the man’s hand stuck on my jacket, covering the holster.

Because that’s what I was holding. A man, a man who had been skinned alive, but somehow wasn’t dead. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a man.

“It’s a man, Aikensen,” Titus said. “It’s a hurt man. If you weren’t so damn busy pulling your gun and shooting at things, you might see what’s in front of ya.”

“It’s a naga,” I said.

Titus didn’t seem to hear me. Dolph asked, “What did you say?”

“He’s a naga.”

“Who is?” Titus asked.

“The man,” I said.

“What the hell is a naga?”

“Everybody out of the water now,” a voice from shore yelled. It was a paramedic with an armload of blankets. “Come on folks, let’s not have to run everybody into the hospital tonight.” I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard the paramedic mutter under his breath, “Damn fools.”

“What the hell is a naga?” Titus asked again.

“I’ll explain if you can help me get him to shore. I’m freezing my ass off out here.”

“You’re freezing more than your ass off,” the paramedic said. “Everybody to shore, now. Move it people.”

“Help her,” Titus said. Two uniformed deputies were in the water. They splashed up. They lifted the man, but his fists had locked into my jacket. It was a death grip. I checked the pulse in his throat. It was there, faint but steady.

The medic was folding blankets around everybody as they hit shore. His partner, a slender woman with pale hair was staring at the naga, glistening like an open wound in the spotlight.

“What the hell happened to him?” one of the deputies asked.

“He’s been skinned,” I said.

“Jesus Christ,” the deputy said.

“Right thought, wrong religion,” I said.

“What?”

“Nothing. Can you pry his hands loose?” They couldn’t, not easily. They ended up carrying him cradled between them. I sort of stumbled to the shore with his fingers still locked in my clothes. None of us fell. A second miracle. The first was that Aikensen was still alive. Staring at the raw bluish skin of the man, maybe the miracle count was higher than just two.

The medic with the pale hair knelt by the naga. She let out her breath in a great whoosh of air. The other medic threw blankets around me and the two deputies.

“When you get him pried off of you, you get your butt up to the ambulances. Get out of those wet clothes, ASAP.”

I opened my mouth and he pointed a finger at me. “Clothes off and sit in a warm ambulance, or a trip to the hospital. Your choice.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” I said.

“And don’t you forget it,” he said. He moved off to spread blankets and orders to the rest of the cops.

“What about the skin?” Titus asked. He had a blanket wrapped around him.

“Bring it to shore,” I said.

MacAdam said, “You sure this is the only surprise out there in that sinkhole?”

“I think this is our only naga for the night.”

He nodded and slipped back into the water with his partner. It was nice not to be argued with. Maybe it was the naked ripped body of the naga.

The paramedics had to pry the naga’s hands from my jacket a finger at a time. His fingers didn’t want to uncurl. They stayed bent like the fingers of the dead after rigor had set in.

“Do you know what he is?” the paramedic with pale hair asked.

“A naga.”

She exchanged glances with her partner. He shook his head. “What the hell is a naga?”

“A creature out of Hindu legend. They’re mostly pictured in serpent form.”

“Great,” he said. “Will he react like a reptile or a mammal?”

“I don’t know.”

The medics from the other ambulance were setting up a pulley system and directing everybody up to the warmth of the ambulances. We needed more medics.

The paramedics spread a warm saline solution on a soft cotton sheet and wrapped the naga in it. His whole body was an open wound with all that that implied. Infection was the big threat. Could immortal beings get infections? Who knew? I knew about preternatural creatures, but first aid for the immortal? That wasn’t my area.

They bundled him in layers of blankets. I looked at the drill sergeant paramedic. “Even if he’s reptilian blankets can’t hurt.”

He had a point.

“His pulse is weak but steady,” the woman said. “Should we risk trying an IV or…”

“I don’t know,” her partner answered. “He shouldn’t be alive at all. Let’s just move him. We’ll keep him alive and get him to the hospital.”

The distant whoop of more ambulances sounded. Reinforcements were on the way. The medics put the naga on a long spine-board and fit it in a Stokes basket, attached to the ropes the other paramedics had set up at top of the hill.

“You got any other information that’ll help us treat him?” the paramedic asked. His eyes were very direct.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then get your butt up to an ambulance, now.”

I didn’t argue. I was cold, and my clothes were beginning to freeze to my body even under the blanket.

I ended up in a warm ambulance wearing nothing but a blanket while more paramedics and EMTs forced heated oxygen on me. Dolph and Zerbrowski ended up in the ambulance with me. Better them than Aikensen and Titus.

While we waited for the medics to tell us we would all live, Dolph got back to business.

“Tell me about nagas,” Dolph said.

“Like I said, they’re creatures from Hindu legend. They’re mostly pictured as snakes, particularly cobras. They can take human form. Or appear as snakes with human heads. They’re the guardians of raindrops and pearls.”

“Say the last again?” Zerbrowski asked. His neatly combed hair had dried in messy curls. He’d jumped in the river to save little ol’ me, even though he couldn’t swim.

I repeated it. “There’s a pearl embedded in the head of the skin. I think the skin was the naga’s. Someone skinned him, but he didn’t die. I don’t know how the skin ended up in the river, or how he did.”

Dolph said, “You mean he was a snake and they skinned him, but it didn’t kill him.”

“Apparently not.”

“How is he in man form now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why isn’t he dead?” Dolph asked.

“Nagas are immortal.”

“Shouldn’t you tell the paramedics that?” Zerbrowski said.

“He’s been completely skinned and is still alive. I think they’re going to figure it out on their own,” I said.

“Good point.”

“Which of you fired the shot at Aikensen?”

“Titus did it,” Dolph said.

“He cussed him out, and took his gun away,” Zerbrowski said.

“Hope he doesn’t give it back. If anyone shouldn’t be armed, it’s Aikensen.”

“You got an extra change of clothes with you, Blake?” Zerbrowski asked.

“Nope.”

“I’ve got two pairs of sweats in the trunk of my car. I want to get back to what’s left of my anniversary.”

The thought of wearing a used pair of sweats that had been sitting in Zerbrowski’s car was too much for me. “I don’t think so, Zerbrowski.”

He grinned at me. “They’re clean. Katie and I were going to exercise today but never got around to it.”

“Never made it to the gym, huh,” I said.

“No.” Color crept up his neck. It must have been something really good, or really embarrassing to get to Zerbrowski that quickly.

“What kind of exercise were you two doing?” I asked.

“A man needs exercise,” Dolph said solemnly.

Zerbrowski looked at me, eyebrows going up. “And how much of a workout is your sweetie giving you?” He turned to Dolph. “Did I tell you that Blake’s got herself a boyfriend? He’s sleeping over.”

“Mr. Zeeman answered the phone,” Dolph said.

“Isn’t your phone right beside your bed, Blake?” Zerbrowski asked. He was giving me his best wide innocent brown eyes.

“Get the sweats and get me out of here,” I said.

Zerbrowski laughed, and Dolph joined him.

“These are Katie’s sweats so don’t get anything on them. If you really want to work out, do it nude.”

I flashed him a one-fingered salute.

“Oh, do that again,” Zerbrowski said, “your blanket gaped.”

I was just amusing the heck out of everyone.

———- 42

Chapter 42
I stood in front of my apartment for the second time in six hours and had no key. I leaned my head against the door for just a second and felt sorry for myself. I didn’t want to see Richard again tonight. We had a lot to talk about that had nothing to do with his shapeshifting. I wished I hadn’t thought of children. I didn’t want to discuss the little tykes tonight. I didn’t want to discuss anything. I wanted to drag off to bed and be alone.

I took a deep breath and stood straight. No need to look as woebegone as I felt. I rang my own doorbell and vowed to get an extra set of keys made. No, one of them wasn’t for Richard. They were both for me.

Richard opened the door. His hair was sleep tousled, falling in a heavy, wavy mass around his face. He was shirtless and barefoot. The top button of his jeans was undone. I was suddenly glad to see him. Lust is a wonderful thing.

I grabbed the top edge of his jeans and drew him to me. He jumped when my wet clothes touched his bare chest, but he didn’t pull away. His body was almost fever warm from sleep. I warmed my hands along his spine and he twitched, writhing against the cold but never pulling away. I dropped the wet clothes on the floor.

We kissed. His lips were gentle. My hands traced the edge of his waistband, fingers dangerously low. He spoke low and soft next to my ear. I expected sweet nothings or dirty promises. What I got was, “We have company.”

I sort of froze. “Dang it,” I said softly and with feeling.

“Home at last, ma petite.” .

I stared up at Richard with my mouth hanging open. “What’s going on?”

“He came in while I was asleep. I woke up when the door opened.”

I was suddenly cold again, down to my sodden toes. “Are you all right?”

“Do you really want to discuss this in the hall, ma petite?” Jean-Claude’s voice was oh so reasonable.

I wanted to stand in the hall just because he’d said not to, but that was childish. Besides, it was my apartment.

I stepped through the door, Richard a warm presence at my side. I kicked my wet clothes through the door, keeping my hands free.

Richard closed the door and leaned against it, hands behind his back. His face was nearly hidden by a spill of hair. The muscles in his stomach bunched and just seemed to invite caressing, which was what we’d probably have been doing if there hadn’t been a vampire in my living room.

Jean-Claude sat on my couch. The black shirt was spread around his naked torso. His arms were straight out along the back of the couch, raising the shirt, revealing nipples that were only two shades darker than his white skin. A slight smile curled his lips. He was dramatic and perfect on the white couch. He matched the decor. I was going to have to buy new furniture, something not white, not black.

“What are you doing here, Jean-Claude?”

“Is that any way to greet your suitor?”

“Please, I’m too tired and too sore to mess with it. Tell me why you’re here and what you want.”

He rose to his feet as if pulled by strings, all boneless ease. At least the shirt closed on most of the pale perfection of his body. That was something.

“I am here to see you and Richard.”

“Why?”

He laughed, and the sound rolled over me like a wave of fur, soft and slick, tickling, and dead. I took a deep breath. He wasn’t here to hurt. He was here to flirt. I walked past both of them and felt their eyes follow me as I moved. It was both flattering and uncomfortable as hell.

I glanced back at them. Richard was still by the door, looking unclothed and inviting. Jean-Claude stood by the couch utterly still, like a three-dimensional picture of a wet dream. The sexual potential in the room was astronomical. The fact that nothing was going to happen was almost sad.

“Why did you want to see Richard and me?” I poured tea into my freshly washed panda mug. Richard was good at being domestic.

“I was told that Monsieur Zeeman planned to spend the night.”

“If he did, what of it?”

“Who told you?” Richard asked. He’d pushed away from the door. He’d even buttoned the top button of his pants. Pity.

“Stephen told me.”

“He wouldn’t have volunteered the information,” Richard said. He was standing very close to Jean-Claude. Physically, he was looming above him, just a bit. Half-dressed. He should have looked uncertain, hesitant. He looked completely at home. The first time I’d met Richard, he’d been naked in a bed. He hadn’t been embarrassed then, either.

“Stephen did not volunteer it,” Jean-Claude said.

“He is under my protection,” Richard said.

“You are not pack leader yet, Richard. You can protect Stephen within the pack, but Marcus still rules. He has given Stephen to me, as he gave you to me.”

Richard was just standing there. He hadn’t moved, yet suddenly, the air around him swam. If you blinked, you’d have missed it. A creeping edge of power fanned out, prickling along my skin.

“I belong to no one.”

Jean-Claude turned to him. Face pleasant, open, voice conversational. “You do not acknowledge Marcus’s leadership?” It was a trick question, and we all knew it.

“What happens if he says no?” I asked.

Jean-Claude turned back to me. His face was carefully blank. “He says no.”

“And you tell Marcus, and then what?”

He smiled then, a slow curve of lips that left his perfect blue eyes glittering. “Marcus would see it as a direct challenge to his authority.”

I set down the cup of tea and came around the island. Standing nearly between them, Richard’s energy crawled over my skin like insects on the march. From Jean-Claude there was nothing. The undead make no noise. “If you get Richard killed, even indirectly, the deal is off.”

“I don’t need you to protect me,” Richard said.

“If you get yourself killed fighting Marcus, that’s one thing, but if you get killed because Jean-Claude is jealous of you, that’s my fault.”

Richard touched my shoulder. His power was like a rush of electricity down my body. I shivered, and he dropped his hand. “I could just give in to Marcus, just acknowledge his leadership, then I’d be safe.”

I shook my head. “I’ve seen what Marcus considers acceptable. It’s not even close to being safe.”

“Marcus didn’t know they filmed two endings,” Richard said.

“So you have talked to him about it?”

“Are you referring to the delightful little films that Raina masterminded?” Jean-Claude asked.

We both looked at him. A brush of power lashed out, growing stronger. It was hard to breathe standing next to him, like trying to swallow a thunderstorm.

I shook my head. One problem at a time. “What do you know about the films?” I asked.

Jean-Claude looked at us, one and then the other. He ended staring into my eyes. “Your voice makes it sound more important than it should be. What has Raina done now?”

“How do you know about the films?” Richard asked. He moved a step closer. His chest touched my back, and I gasped. The skin up and down my back tingled as if someone had touched a live wire to the skin, but it didn’t hurt. It was just an almost overwhelming sensation. Pleasurable, but you knew if it didn’t stop soon, it would begin to hurt.

I stepped away from him, standing between both of them, giving my back to neither. They both looked at me. Almost identical expressions on their faces. Alien, as if they were thinking thoughts that I’d never dreamed of, listening to music that I could not dance to. But I could see things, that they could only dream of.

“Jean-Claude, just tell me what you know about Raina’s movies. No games, okay.”

He stared at me for a heartbeat, then gave a graceful shrug. “Very well. Your alpha female invited me to join her in a dirty movie. I was offered a starring role.”

I knew he’d turned her down. He was an exhibitionist, but he liked a certain decorum to his sideshow. Dirty movies would have been beyond the pale for him.

“Did you enjoy having sex with her on screen?” Richard asked. His voice was low, and that energy flooded into the room.

Jean-Claude turned to him, anger dancing in his eyes. “She brags about you, my furry friend. Says you were magnificent.”

“Cheap shot, Jean-Claude,” I said.

“You don’t believe me. You are that sure of him?”

“That he wouldn’t have sex with Raina, yeah.”

A strange look crossed Richard’s face.

I stared at him. “You didn’t?”

Jean-Claude laughed.

“I was nineteen. She was my alpha female. I didn’t think I had a choice.”

“Yeah, right.”

“She has her pick of the new males. It’s one of the things I want to stop.”

“You’re still sleeping with her?” I asked.

“No, not once I had a choice,” Richard answered.

“Raina speaks so fondly of you, Richard. In such loving detail. It can’t have been that long ago.”

“It’s been seven years.”

“Really?” That one word held a universe of doubt.

“I don’t lie to you, Anna,” said Richard.

Richard took a step forward. Jean-Claude moved towards him. The testosterone was rising higher than the supernatural powers. We were going to drown in both.

I stepped between them, bodily, putting a hand on each chest. The minute my hand touched Richard’s bare skin, the power poured down my arm, like some cool electric liquid. My hand touched Jean-Claude a second later. Some trick of cloth, or vampire, put my hand on his bare skin, too. The skin was cool and soft, and I felt Richard’s power cross my body and smash into that perfect skin.

The moment it touched, an answering roll of power spilled out of the vampire. The two energies did not fight each other, they mingled inside me, spilling back on each of them. Jean-Claude’s power was a cool, rushing wind. Richard was all warmth and electricity. Each one fed the other like wood and flame. And under it all I could feel myself, that thing inside me that allowed me to call the dead. Magic for lack of a better word. The three powers melded into one skin-curling, heart-pumping, stomach-clenching rush.

My knees buckled, and I was left gasping on the floor on all fours. My skin felt as if it were trying to pull away from my body. I could taste my heart in my throat and couldn’t breathe past it. Everything was sort of golden around the edges, and spots of light danced before my eyes. I was in danger of passing out.

“What the hell was that?” It was Richard. His voice seemed to come from farther away than it should have. I’d never heard him cuss before.

Jean-Claude knelt beside me. He didn’t try to touch me. I looked into his eyes from inches away. The pupils were gone, nothing but that lovely midnight blue remained. It was the way his eyes looked when he was getting all vampiric on me. I didn’t think he’d done it on purpose this time.

Richard knelt on the other side. He started to reach out to touch me. When his hand was an inch away, a little jump of power ran between us, like static electricity. He jerked his hand back. “What is that?” He sounded a little scared. Me, too.

“Ma petite, can you speak?”

I nodded. Everything was in hyperfocus, the way the world gets on an adrenaline high. The shadows on Jean-Claude’s chest where his shirt spilled around him were solid and touchable. The cloth looked almost metallic black, like the back of a beetle.

“Say something, ma petite.”

“Anna, are you all right?”

I turned in almost slow motion to Richard. His hair had fallen over one eye. Each strand was thick and perfect like a line drawn apart. I could see every eyelash around his brown eye in startling contrast.

“I’m all right.” But was I?

“What happened?” Richard asked. I wasn’t sure who he was asking. I hoped it wasn’t me because I didn’t want to lie.

Jean-Claude sat beside me on the floor, back against the island. He closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. When he let it out, his eyes opened. They were still that drowning deep color as if he were about to feed on something. His voice came out normal, or as normal as it ever got. “I have never tasted such a rush of power without spilling blood first.”

“Trust you to think of the perfect thing to say,” I said.

Richard sort of hovered over me as if he’d like to help but was afraid to touch me. He glared at Jean-Claude. “What did you do to us?”

“I?” Jean-Claude’s beautiful face was nearly slack, eyes half-closed, lips parted. “I did nothing.”

“That’s a lie,” Richard said. He sat Indian fashion a little ways from me, far enough away to make sure we didn’t accidentally touch but close enough that that lingering power crawled between us. I inched away and found that closer to Jean-Claude wasn’t much better. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a one-time deal. The potential was still there in the air, under our skins.

I looked at Richard. “He didn’t do it”

“I didn’t do it. You didn’t do it. It had to be him.”

But I had done it, or atless my magic had. I had felt something close to what had just happened many times before. But that was only with one preson, my father.

Jean-Claude laughed. The sound trailed down my spine like the brush of fur, soft, slick, startling. It was too soon after the rushing power we’d shared. I shuddered, and he laughed harder. It hurt and you knew you shouldn’t be doing it, but it felt too good to stop. His laughter was always dangerously delicious, like poisoned candy.

“I swear by whatever oath you would trust that I did nothing on purpose.”

“What did you do by accident?” I asked.

“Ask yourself the same question, ma petite. I am not the only master of the supernatural in this room.”

Well, he had me there.

“I do not know who did it, nor do I know what it is. But Monsieur Zeeman is correct, it was magic. Raw power to raise the hackles on any wolf.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Richard asked.

“If you could harness such power, my wolf, even Marcus might bow to it.”

Richard pulled his knees up, hugging them to his chest. His eyes looked distant, thoughtful. The thought intrigued him.

“Am I the only person in this room not trying to consolidate my kingdom?”

Richard looked at me. He looked almost apologetic. “I don’t want to kill Marcus. If I could make a great enough show of power, he might back down.”

Jean-Claude smiled at me. It was a very satisfied smile. “You admit he is not human, and now he wants power, so he can be leader of the pack.” His smile widened just this short of a laugh.

“I didn’t know you were a fan of sixties music,” I said.

“There are many things you do not know about me, ma petite.”

I just stared at him. This was why I stayed hidden all my life. The power I had would always make me a target, even for the ones I loved.

…………………………………………………………………………………

A hot bath. Once more in the oversize T-shirt, sweatpants, and socks. I was going to be the worst-dressed person in the room. I was planning to replace that black robe at the first opportunity.

They were sitting on the couch, each as far away from the other as they could get. Jean-Claude was sitting like a mannequin, one arm on the back of the couch, the other on the arm of the couch. One foot rested atop his knee showing his soft boots to perfection. Richard was curled on his side of the couch, one knee clutched to his naked chest, the other knee curled on the couch.

Richard looked comfortable. Jean-Claude looked as if he were waiting for a roving photographer to come by. The two men in my life. I could barely stand it.

“I’ve got to get some sleep, so everybody who isn’t staying, out.”

“If you are referring to me, ma petite, I have no intention of leaving. Unless Richard goes with me.”

“Stephen told you why I’m here,” Richard said. “She’s hurt and doesn’t need to be alone.”

“Look at her, Richard. Does she look hurt?” He held up a graceful hand. “I admit she has sustained some damage. But she does not need your help. Perhaps she doesn’t even need mine.”

“I invited Richard to stay over. I did not invite you.”

“But you did invite me, ma petite.”

“,When did I invite you?”

“‘The last time I was here. In August I believe.”

I’d forgotten. It was beyond careless. I’d endangered Richard. Things were working out, but I hadn’t known that when I left him here alone, alone in a place where Jean-Claude could come and go at will.

“If a dramatic gesture will please you, then be my guest.” he said “But Richard must not spend the night.”

“Why not?”

“I think you are one of those women that where you give your body, there, too, is your heart. If you sleep with our Monsieur Zeeman, I think it might be the point of no return.”

“Sex isn’t a commitment,” I said.

“For most people, no, but for you, I think it is.”

The fact that he knew me that well brought heat in a rush up my face. “I don’t plan on sleeping with him.”

“I believe you, ma petite, but I see the way your eyes follow him. He sits there looking luscious and warm and very alive. If I had not been here when you came home, would you have resisted?”

“Yes.”

He shrugged. “Perhaps. Your strength of will is frightening, but I cannot take that chance.”

“You don’t trust me not to molest him?”

Again that shrug that could have meant anything. His smile was inviting and condescending.

“Why? You got the hots for him yourself?”

The question caught him off guard. The surprise on his face was worth the outraged look on Richard’s face. Jean-Claude looked at Richard. He gave him his full attention. He stared at Richard, eyes roaming his body in a slow, intimate dance. His gaze ended not on his groin or his chest, but on his neck. “It is true that the blood of shapeshifters can be sweeter than human blood. It is a wild ride if you can manage it without getting torn apart.”

“You sound like a rapist,” I said.

His smile blossomed in a surprised flash of fangs. “It is not a bad comparison.”

“That was an insult, you know,” I said.

“I know it was meant as such.”

“I thought we had an agreement,” Richard said.

“We do.”

“You can sit there and talk about taking me for food, and we’ve still got an agreement.”

“It would be enjoyable to take you for many reasons, but we have an agreement. I won’t go back on it.”

“What agreement?” I asked.

“We are exploring our mutual powers,” Jean-Claude said. Oh no, no, no, no, please, no.

“What does that mean exactly?” I asked hoping they couldn’t hear the near panic in my voice.

“We’re not sure,” Richard said. “We haven’t worked out the details yet.”

“We’ve just agreed not to kill each other, ma petite. Give us a little time to plan beyond that.”

“Fine. Then both of you get out.”

Richard sat up straighter on the couch. “Anna, you heard Lillian. You need to be woken every hour just in case.”

“I’ll set an alarm. Look, Richard, I’m fine. Get dressed and go.”

He looked puzzled and a little hurt. “Anna.”

Jean-Claude didn’t look hurt or puzzled. He looked smug.

“Richard’s not spending the night. Happy?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not spending the night, either.”

“I had not planned to.” He stood, turning to face me. “I will leave as soon as I’ve had my good-night kiss.”

He came around the couch to stand in front of me. “I will admit I had envisioned you wearing something a little more”–he tugged on my sleeve–“salacious, but one takes what one can get.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Richard said. He was on his knees on the couch, hands gripping the back.

I shook my head. We were standing so close, Jean-Claude didn’t have to make a full step to press the line of his body against mine. I put my hands up and they slid over the bare skin of his stomach.

“Leave her alone,” Richard said. He was standing beside the couch, hands in loose fists. Power prickled along my skin. His power creeping outward like a slow-moving wind. His hair had spilled over one side of his face. He looked out through a curtain of hair. His face had fallen into shadows. Light gleamed along his naked skin, painting it in shades of grey, gold, and black. He stood there looking suddenly primal. A low, spine-brushing grow trickled through the room.

“Stop it, Richard.”

“He is using his powers on you.” His voice was unrecognizable. A low, bass growl that was sliding away from human. I was glad for the shadows. Glad I couldn’t see what was happening to his face.

I’d been so worried about Jean-Claude starting a fight, it hadn’t occurred to me that Richard might pick one. “He isn’t using powers on me. I touched his bare skin. That’s all.”

He stepped forward into the light, and his face was normal. What was happening inside that smooth throat, behind those kissable lips, to make his voice sound monstrous?

“Get dressed and get out.”

“What?” His lips moved but that growling voice rolled out. It was like watching a badly dubbed movie.

“If Jean-Claude isn’t allowed to attack you, then you sure as heck aren’t allowed to attack him. Get out.”

“What of my kiss, ma petite?”

“You have both pushed it about as far as it’s going to go tonight,” I said. “Everybody out.”

Jean-Claude’s laugh filled the shadowed dark. “As you like, Anna Blake. I am suddenly not so worried about you and Monsieur Zeeman.”

“Before you start congratulating yourself, Jean-Claude–I revoke my invitation.”

There was a sound like a low sonic pop. A great roaring filled the room. The door smashed open, banging against the wall. A wind rushed in like an invisible river, tugging at our clothes, flinging our hair across our eyes.

“You don’t have to do this,” Jean-Claude said.

“Yes,” I said, “I do.”

It was as if an invisible hand shoved him through the door. Slamming the door shut behind him.

“I’m sorry,” Richard said. The growl was slipping away. His voice was almost normal. “It is too close to the full moon to get this angry.”

“I don’t want to hear it,” I said. “Just go.”

“Anna, I am sorry. I don’t usually lose control like this. Even this close to the full moon.”

“I love him.” I said.

“I know.” He growled.

“I love you, too.”

“I know that, but I’ve never been in love before. It seems to break my concentration.”

“Jealousy will do that to you,” I said.

“Tell me I don’t have reason to be jealous, Anna. Make me believe it.”

I sighed. “Go away, Richard.”

He smiled and shook his head. He walked around the couch and bent over, retrieving his sweater from the floor, where it lay neatly folded.

He pulled the sweater over his head. He pulled a ponytail holder from his jeans pocket, and tied his hair back. I could see the muscles in his arms work even through the sweater. He slipped his shoes on, bending over to tie them.

His coat was long, falling to his ankles. In the half light it looked like a cape.

“I don’t suppose I get a kiss, either.”

“Good night, Richard,” I said.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Good night, Anna.”

He left. I locked the door and went to bed. After the show that Richard and Jean-Claude had put on, my knives were about the only thing I wanted in bed with me tonight. All right, the knives and one stuffed panda.

———- 43

Chapter 43
The phone was ringing. It seemed to have been ringing a long time. I lay in bed listening to it ring, wondering when the hell the machine would pick up. I rolled over, reaching for the phone. It was missing. The ringing was coming from the other room. Shit. I’d forgotten to bring it back in last night.

I crawled out of the warm covers and staggered into the living room. The phone must have rung fifteen times before I got to it. I sank to the floor with the receiver clutched to my ear. “Who is it?”

“Anna, it’s Richard.”

“Sorry, Richard, what’s up?”

“You sound awful.”

“You don’t. You didn’t get much more sleep than I did. How come you sound so much better? Please tell me you aren’t a morning person.”

He laughed. “Sorry, guilty as charged.”

Furry I could forgive; a morning person, I’d have to think about that. “Richard, don’t take this wrong, but what do you want?”

“Jason’s missing.”

“Who’s Jason?”

“Young male, blond, crawled all over you at the Lunatic Cafe.”

“Ah, I remember him. He’s missing?”

“Yes. Jason is one of our newest pack members. Tonight is the full moon. He wouldn’t risk going out alone today of all days. His sponsor went over to his house, and he was gone.”

“Sponsor like in AA?”

“Something like that.”

“Any signs of a struggle?”

“No.”

I stood up dragging the phone in one hand. I tried to think past the leaden tiredness. How dare Richard sound so cheerful.

“With Jason missing we don’t have time to pussy-foot around. Can you supply me with a shapeshifter or two to help threaten Smitz? Maybe with a little muscle power we can get to the truth faster.”

“I have to teach school today, and I can’t afford for him to know what I am.”

“I didn’t ask for you to come. Just for some of you to come. Make sure they look intimidating, though. Irving may be a werewolf, but he isn’t very scary.”

“I’ll send someone. To your apartment?”

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“Soon as you can. And, Richard.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t tell anybody what we suspect about George Smitz. I don’t want to find him clawed up when we get there.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

‘You wouldn’t, but Marcus might, and I know Raina would.”

“I’ll tell them you have a suspect and want some backup. I won’t tell them who.”

“Great, thanks.”

“If you find Jason before they kill him, I’ll owe you one.”

“I’ll take the payment in carnal favors,” I said. The minute I said it, I wished I hadn’t. It was sort of true, but after last night, not down to my toes.

He laughed. “Done. I’ve got to go to work. I love you.”

I hesitated just a second. “I love you, too. Teach the kiddies well today.”

He was quiet for a space of heartbeats. He’d heard the hesitation. “I will. Bye.”

“Bye.” When I’d hung up, I stood there for a minute. If someone was just walking up and shooting shifters, then Jason was dead. The best I’d be able to do would be to locate the body. It was better than nothing, but not much.

………………………………………………………………………………………….

We pulled up in front of George Smitz’s house at a little after nine that morning. I was driving. Gabriel and Raina were in the backseat. If asked, I would have chosen different people for backup. I also wouldn’t have chosen my boyfriend’s old lover for backup. What had Richard been thinking? Or maybe Raina hadn’t given him a choice. Her coming today, not the sex. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about that. All right. I knew how I felt. I was pissed. In any case, Richard had given me exactly what I’d asked for: scary, intimidating shapeshifters. I wasn’t used to getting exactly what I asked for. Next time I’d be more specific.

Gabriel was dressed in black leather again. It could almost have been the same outfit I’d first seen him in, down to the metal-studded gauntlet on his right hand. Maybe his whole closet was one great big leather fest. The earrings were gone. The holes even in the harder cartilage of the ears had healed.

Raina was dressed normally enough. Sort of. She was wearing an ankle-length fur coat. Fox. Cannibalism is one thing, but wearing the skin of your dead? It seemed a little cold blooded even for the psycho bitch from hell. All right, she was a wolf, not a fox, but heck, I didn’t wear fur on moral grounds. She flaunted it.

She leaned over the back of the seat. “What are we doing in front of Peggy’s house?”

It was time to spill the beans. Why didn’t I want to do it? I undid the seat belt and turned to face her. She was looking at me, face pleasant enough. On her lycanthrope bone structure she had all high cheekbones and a luscious mouth. Maybe she planned on doing something nefarious today.

Gabriel had draped himself over the backseat. The gauntleted hand trailed down my arm. “Touch me again, and I am going to feed you that hand.”

“Hands are very bony. I prefer a more tender cut of meat. Breast or thigh is my preference,” Gabriel said. His grey eyes were startling even in sunlight, maybe more so. They had a quality of light to the grey that was almost luminous. I’d seen eyes like that before, but I still couldn’t place it.

“Gabriel, I know you are a pain in the ass. I know you’re enjoying the heck out of teasing , but if you don’t stop it we’re going to see just how good your recuperative powers are.”

He slid across the seat, closer to me. Not necessarily an improvement. “I’m yours anytime you want me.”

“Is coming that close to dying really your idea of sex?”

“As long as it hurts,” Gabriel said.

“Why are we here?” Raina asked again. She wasn’t going to be distracted by Mr. Leather. Good for her. Bad for me. Her gaze was intense, as if my face were the most important thing in the world. Was this what Marcus saw in her? A lot of men are very flattered by undivided attention. Then aren’t we all?

“Let me do the talking. The two of you are here to intimidate him if we need it.”

“If there is any chance he has Jason, we don’t have time to be subtle,” Raina said.

I agreed with her, but not out loud. “I talk, you stay in the background and look menacing. Unless I ask. Okay?”

“I’m here because Richard asked me,” Raina said. “He’s an alpha male. I obey his orders.”

“Somehow I don’t picture you obeying anybody’s orders,” I said.

She flashed me a very nasty smile. “I obey the orders I want to obey.”

That I believed. I jerked a thumb at Gabriel. “Who called in him?”

“I chose him. Gabriel is very good at intimidation.”

He was big, leather clad, metal studded, and had sharp, pointy teeth. Yeah, I’d say that was intimidating.

“Your word that you’ll stay in the background unless we need you.”

“Richard said we are to obey you as we would obey him,” Raina said.

“Great. Since you obey Richard only when it suits you, what does that mean?”

Raina laughed. It had a hard, brittle edge to it. The kind of laughter that made you think of mad scientists and people locked too long in solitary. “I will let you handle it, Anna Blake, as long as you are doing a good job. Jason is my pack member. I will not let your squeamishness endanger him.”

I was liking this less and less. “I’m not squeamish.”

She smiled. “That is true. My apologies.”

“You’re not a wolf,” I said. “What are you getting out of this?”

Gabriel smiled, flashing sharp, pointy teeth. He was still flipping through the pictures. “Marcus and Richard will owe me a favor. The whole damn pack will owe me one.”

I nodded. It was a motive I believed.

His strange eyes stared at me. I suddenly remembered where I’d seen those eyes. Behind a mask in a film that I’d rather not have seen. Gabriel was the other man in the snuff film. I hadn’t had enough sleep to hide the shock. I felt my face crumble with it and couldn’t stop it.

Gabriel turned his head to one side, like a dog. “Why are you looking at me like I just sprouted a second head?”

What could I say? “Your eyes. I just figured out where I’ve seen them.”

“Yes.” He moved closer, putting his chin on the back of the seat, letting me have a good look at those luminous eyes. “Where?”

“The zoo. You’re a leopard.” Liar, liar, pants on fire, but I couldn’t think of a better one, not this quick.

He blinked, staring at me. “Meow, but that wasn’t what you were thinking.” He sounded very sure of himself.

“Believe it or not, I don’t give a damn. It’s the best answer you’re getting.”

He stayed there, chin indenting the upholstery. You couldn’t see his shoulders, so his head looked disembodied, like a head on a pike. Accurate, if Edward found out who he was. And Edward would find out. I’d tell him, gladly, if it would stop any more of those films from being made. Of course, I wasn’t sure it would stop them. They were Raina’s brainchild. Supposedly, she didn’t know about the alternate ending. Yeah, right, and I moonlighted as the Easter Bunny.

Ronnie was staring at me. She knew me too well. I hadn’t told her about the snuff film. Now I’d introduced her to two of the stars. I got out of the car into the bright, chilly winter sunlight. I walked up the sidewalk with a shapeshifter following at my back that I had seen murder a woman on screen and feed from her still-twitching body. God help George Smitz if he was guilty. God help us all if he wasn’t. Jason was missing. One of the newest pack members, Richard had said. If George Smitz didn’t have him, who did?

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Raina grabbed my hand before it could touch the doorbell. Her grip had been very fast. I hadn’t had time to react at all. Her nails were long and perfectly manicured with nail polish the color of burnt pumpkins. Those orange-brown nails dug into my wrist just enough to indent the skin. She let me feel the strength in that delicate hand. She didn’t hurt me, but the smile on her face said she could. I smiled back. She was strong, but she wasn’t a vampire. I was betting I could kill her before she could finish crushing my wrist.

She didn’t crush my wrist. She let go. “Perhaps Gabriel and I should go in the back way. You did say you wanted us to stay in the background.” She was smiling and looking oh, so reasonable. The nail marks in my skin hadn’t filled out yet.

“I mean, look at us, Ms. Blake. Even if we say nothing, he can’t ignore us.”

She had a point. “How will the two of you get in the back door if it’s locked?”

Raina gave me a look worthy of Edward, as if I’d asked a very stupid question. Was I the only one who didn’t know how to pick a lock? Not that I need to learn. “Fine, go to it.”

Raina smiled and walked off through the snow. Her auburn hair gleamed against the fox fur coat. Her high-heeled brown boots left sharp little prints in the melting snow. Gabriel trailed after her. The chains on his leather jacket jingled as he walked.

I rang the bell and stood on the little front porch listening to the eaves drip, We were having one of those strange winter thaws that Missouri is famous for. The snow was all soft and fading like a snowman in the sunshine. But it wouldn’t last. Getting this much snow at all in December was unusual here. We usually didn’t get real snow until January or February.

It was taking a long time for Mr. Smitz to come to the door. Finally I heard movement. Something heavy enough to be a person moving toward the door. George Smitz opened the door in a bloodstained apron over jeans and a pale blue T-shirt.

There was a bloodstain on one shoulder, as if he’d lifted a side of beef and it had bled on him. He wiped his hands on his apron, palms flat, skin stretching along the fabric as if he couldn’t get them clean. Maybe he just wasn’t used to being covered in blood. Or maybe his palms were sweating.

I smiled and offered him my hand. He took it. His palm was sweaty. Nervous. Great. “How are you, Mr. Smitz?”

He ushered me inside. We were standing in a little entryway. There was a closet to one side, a mirror on the opposite wall with a low table. A vase full of yellow silk flowers sat on the table. The walls were pale yellow and matched the flowers.

“May I take your coat?”

If he was a murderer, he was the most polite one I’d ever met. “No, thanks, I’ll keep mine on.”

“Peggy always got on to me if I didn’t ask for people’s coats. ‘George, you weren’t raised in a barn, ask them if you can take their coats.’ ” The imitation sounded accurate.

We stepped out into the living room. It was wallpapered in pale yellow with brown flowers done very small. The couch, the love seat, the recliner were all a pale, pale yellow, almost white. There were more silk flowers on the pale wood end table. Yellow.

The pictures on the wall, the knickknacks on the shelves, even the carpet underfoot was yellow. It was like being inside a lemon drop.

Either it showed on my face or George was used to it. “Yellow was Peggy’s favorite color.”

“Was?”

“I mean is. Oh, God.” He collapsed on the pale lemon couch, face hidden in his big hands. He was the only thing in the room that didn’t match the yellow lace curtains. “It’s been so awful, wondering.” He looked up at me. Tears glistened in his eyes. It was Academy Award caliber.

“Have you found her? Is she all right?” His eyes were so sincere it hurt to look into them. I still couldn’t tell he was lying. If I hadn’t seen the pictures of him with another woman, I wouldn’t have believed it. Of course, adultery wasn’t murder. He could be guilty of one and not the other. Sure.

If I ever managed to get married and my husband cheated on me, it wouldn’t be me to go missing.

“Please sit down, Ms. Blake. I’m sorry, I’m not being a very good host.”

I perched on the edge of the yellow recliner. “I thought you worked construction, Mr. Smitz. What’s with the apron?”

“Peggy’s dad can’t run the store by himself. He deeded it to her years ago. I may have to quit working construction. But you know, he’s family. I can’t leave him in the lurch. Peggy did most of the work. Dad’s almost ninety-two. He just can’t do it all.”

“Do you inherit the butcher shop?” I asked.

He blinked at me. “Well, yes. I suppose so.”

He didn’t ask if she was all right this time. He just looked at me with his soulful eyes.

“You love your wife?”

“Yes, of course. What kind of question is that?” He looked less sad and more angry now.

I took the pictures out and gave them to him. The front picture showed him embracing the dark-haired woman. Peggy Smitz had been a blond.

Color crept up his face. Not so much red as purplish. He slammed the pictures down on the coffee table without looking at the rest. They slid across the table, images of him and the woman in various states of undress. Kissing, groping, nearly doing it standing up.

His face went from red to purplish. His eyes bulged. He stood up, his breath coming in fast, harsh gasps. “What the hell are these?”

“I think the pictures are self-explanatory,” I said.

“I hired you to find my wife, not to spy on me.” His big hands balled into even bigger fists. The muscles in his arms bulged, veins standing out like worms.

“Where’s Peggy, George? Where’d you hide the body?”

He whirled on me. I just sat there and looked at him. He’d have to come over or around the coffee table to get to me. I was pretty sure I could be out of reach. Or have a knife. Or put him through a window. That last was sounding better and better.

“Get out of my house.”

He stood there like a purple-faced mountain, swaying between me.

“Get out of my house.”

“Can’t do that, George. We know you killed her.” Maybe knowwas too strong a word, but “we’re pretty sure you killed her” didn’t have the right ring. “Unless you really plan to start swinging, I’d sit down, Georgie-boy.”

“Yes, by all means sit down, George.” I didn’t look behind me to see where Raina was. I didn’t think George would really hurt me, but better to be cautious. Taking my eyes off a guy who weighed over two hundred pounds sounded like a bad idea.

He stared at Raina. He looked confused. “What the hell is this?”

Something was going on behind my back, but what? I stood, eyes all for George, but he wasn’t looking at me anymore. I stepped away from him just to be safe. When I had enough distance to be safe. I could see the doorway.

Raina was wearing a brown silk teddy, high heeled boots and nothing else. The fur coat was held open, the bloodred lining outlining her body dramatically.

“I thought you were going to stay in the background unless I called for you.”

She dropped the fur into a fuzzy puddle on the floor. She stalked into the room, swaying everything that would move. Raina bent over the silk flowers on the coffee table, giving George Smitz a long, thorough view of her slim backside.

The color was draining from his face. His hands were slowly unclenching. He looked confused. Join the club.

Raina smiled up at him. She stood up very slowly, giving George a good view of her high, tight breasts. His eyes were glued to her decolletage. She stood up, running her hands down the teddy, ending with a pass over her groin. George seemed to be having a little trouble swallowing.

Raina walked up to him until she was just a finger’s pull away from him. She looked up at him and whispered out of full, sensuous lips, “Where’s Jason?”

He frowned. “Who’s Jason?”

She caressed his cheek with her painted nails. The nails slid out of her skin long and longer, until they were great hooking claws. The tips were still the color of burnt pumpkins.

She hooked those claws under his chin, putting them just enough in not to break the skin. “The tiniest bit of pressure and you’ll have a howling good time once a month.”

It was a lie. She was still in human form. She wasn’t contagious. All the color had drained from his face. His skin was the color of unbleached paper.

“Where’s your wife’s body, Mr. Smitz?” I asked. It was a good threat worth more than one question.

“I don’t… don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t lie to me, George, I don’t like it.” She raised her other hand in front of his face, and the claws slid out like unsheathed knives.

He whimpered.

“Where’s Peggy, George?” She whispered it. The voice was still seductive. She might have been whispering, I love you, instead of a threat.

She kept her claws under his jaw and lowered the other hand slowly. His eyes followed that hand. He tried to move his head down, but the claws stopped him. He gasped.

Raina sliced through the bloody apron. Two quick, hard slices. The clothes underneath were untouched. Talent.

“I… killed her. I killed Peggy. Oh, God. I shot her.”

“Where’s the body?” I asked that. Raina seemed to be enjoying her game too much to pay attention to all the details.

“Shed out back. It’s got a dirt floor.”

“Where’s Jason?” Raina asked. She touched claw tips to his jeans, over his groin.

“Oh, God, I don’t know who Jason is. Please, I don’t know. I don’t know.” His voice was coming in breathy gasps.

Gabriel walked into the room. He’d lost the jacket somewhere and wore a tight black T-shirt with his leather pants and boots. “He doesn’t have the guts to have taken Jason or the others.”

“Is that right, George? You don’t have the guts?” Raina pressed her breasts against his chest, claws still at his jawline and groin. The lower claws pressed into the jean fabric, not quite tearing.

“Please, please don’t hurt me.”

Raina put her face very close to his. Claws forcing him to stand on tiptoes or have his chin spitted. “You are pathetic.” She shoved the claws into his jeans, tearing into the fabric.

George fainted. Raina had to pull her hands away to keep from slicing him up. She kept a near perfect circle of jeans. His white briefs showed through the hole in his pants.

Gabriel knelt by the body, balancing on the balls of his feet. “This human did not take Jason.”

“Pity,” Raina said.

It was a pity. Somebody had taken eight, no seven shapeshifters. The eighth had been Peggy Smitz. We had her murderer on the carpet with his fly torn out. Who had taken them, and why? Why would anybody want seven lycanthropes?

I glanced up and caught sight of a car driving by on the street. It was a Mazda, green. I knew that car.

“I may have a ride.” I opened the door and walked down the sidewalk, waving. The car slowed, then double-parked beside Raina’s car.

The window whirred down at the press of a button. Edward sat behind the wheel, a pair of dark glasses covering his eyes. “I’ve been following Raina for days. How’d you spot me?”

“Dumb luck.”

He grinned. “Not so dumb.”

“I need a ride.”

“What about Raina and her little leather friend?”

It occurred to me to tell him that Gabriel was the other lycanthrope in the snuff film, but if I did that now, he’d go in and kill him.

Edward drove around the block to wait for me. Raina and Gabriel drove off. They didn’t want to talk to the police. Fancy that. George Smitz came to, and Raina convinced him to confess to the police when they arrived. I walked down the block to meet Edward.

——–44

Chapter 44
Richard was sitting outside my apartment door. I hadn’t expected to see him, night of the full moon and all.I put my key in the lock. “We haven’t found Jason.”

I opened the door. He followed me in and closed the door.I walked into the bedroom as if I’d been alone. Richard followed me. I felt light and distant and faintly unreal.

The phone rang. I picked it up without thinking.

A man’s voice said, “Anna Blake?”

“Yes.”

“This is Williams, the naturalist at the Audubon Center. I played back some of my owl tapes that I’d recorded at night. One of them has what I’d swear was hyenas on it. I told the police, but they didn’t seem to understand the significance. Do you understand what it might mean to have hyena sounds out here?”

“A werehyena,” I said.

“Yes, I thought so, too.”

No one had told him the killer was probably a werewolf. But one of the missing shifters was a hyena.

“Did you say you told the police?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Who’d you tell?”

“I called Sheriff Titus’s office.”

“Who’d you speak to?”

“Aikensen.”

“Do you know if he told Titus?”

“No, but why wouldn’t he?”

Why indeed.

“Someone’s at the door. Can you hold on a minute?”

“I don’t think…”

“I’ll be right back.”

“Williams, Williams, don’t answer the door.” But I was talking to empty air. I heard him walk across the floor. The door opened. He made a surprised sound. Heavier footsteps came back across the floor.

Someone picked up the phone. I could hear them breathing. They didn’t say anything.

“Talk to me, you son of a bitch.”

The breathing got heavy.

“If you hurt him, Aikensen, I will feed you your dick on knife point.”

He laughed and hung up. And I’d never be able to testify in court who was on the other end of that phone.

“Dang it, dang it, damn it.”

“What’s wrong?”

I called information to get the number for the Willoton Police Department. I pressed the button that dialed it automatically for a small fee.

“Anna, what is it?”

I held up a hand, telling him to wait. A woman answered. “Is this Deputy Holmes?”

It wasn’t. I got Chief Garroway after impressing on the dispatcher that this was a matter of life and death. I did not scream at her. I deserved mucho brownie points for that.

I gave Garroway the Reader’s Digestversion. “I can’t believe even Aikensen would be involved in something like this, but I’ll send a car.”

“Thanks.”

“Why didn’t you just call 911?” Richard asked.

“They’d call the county police. Aikensen might even be assigned the call.”

I was struggling out of my jacket. Richard eased it off my left shoulder or I might never have gotten it off. When it was off, I realized I was out of coats. I’d ruined two in as many days. I grabbed the only coat I had left. It was crimson, long and full. I’d worn it twice. The last time was Christmas. The red coat would show up even at night. If I needed to sneak up on anybody, I could take it off.

Richard had to help me get my left arm in the sleeve. It still hurt.

“Let’s go get Jason,” he said.

I looked at him. “You’re not going anywhere but wherever lycanthropes go when there’s a full moon.”

“You can’t even put your own coat on. How are you going to drive?”

He had a point.

“This may put you in danger.”

“I’m a full-grown werewolf and tonight is the full moon. I think I can handle it.” He had a faraway look in his eyes as if he were hearing voices I would never know.

“All right. Let’s go, but we’re going to save Williams. I think the weres are close to his place, but I don’t know exactly where.”

He was standing there with his long duster coat on. He was wearing a white T-shirt, a pair of jeans with one knee gone, and a pair of less than reputable shoes.

“Why the scuffy clothes?”

“If I shift in my clothes, they’re always torn apart. Precaution. You ready?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go,” he said. There was something about him that was different. A waiting tension like water just before it spills over the edge. When I looked into his brown eyes, something slid behind them. Some furred shape was inside there, waiting to get out.

I realized what I was sensing from him. Eagerness. Richard’s beast was looking out of his true brown eyes, and it was eager to be about its business.

What could I say? We went.

……………………………………………………………………………

Edward was leaning against my Jeep, arms crossed, breath fogging in the air. The temperature had dropped by twenty degrees with the dark. The freeze was back on. All the meltwater had turned to ice. The snow crunched underfoot.

“What are you doing here, Edward?”

“I was about to come up to your apartment when I saw you coming down.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to play,” he said.

I stared at him. “Just like that. You don’t know what I’m involved in, but you want a piece of it.”

“Following you around lets me kill a lot of people.”

Sad, but true. “I don’t have time to argue. Get in.”

He slid in the backseat. “Who exactly are we going to kill tonight?”

Richard started the engine. I buckled up. “Let’s see. There’s a renegade policeman, and whoever’s kidnapped seven shapeshifters.”

“You think I’ll get to kill any lycanthropes tonight?” He was teasing Richard, I think.

Richard wasn’t offended. “I’ve been thinking about who could have taken them all without a struggle. It had to be someone they trusted.”

“Who would they trust?” I asked.

“One of us,” he said.

“Oh, boy,” Edward said, “lycanthrope on the menu for tonight.”

Richard didn’t correct him. If it was all right with him, it was all right with me.

……………………………………………………………………………………………

Williams lay crumpled on his side. He’d been shot at close range through the heart. Two shots. So much for the doctorate.

One hand was wrapped around a .357 Magnum. I was even betting that there would be powder on his skin, as though he’d really fired the gun.

Deputy Holmes and her partner, whose name I couldn’t remember, were lying in the snow dead. The Magnum had taken most of her chest. Her pixielike features were slack and not half so pretty. With her eyes staring straight up she didn’t look asleep. She just looked dead.

Her partner was missing most of his face. He was collapsed in the snow, blood and brains melting through the frozen snow. His gun was still gripped in his hand.

Holmes had gotten her gun out, too. For what good it did her. I doubted either one of them had shot Williams, but I’d have bet a month’s pay that one of their guns had.

I knelt in the snow and said, “no.”

Richard stood by Williams. He was staring at him as if he’d memorize him. “Samuel didn’t own a gun. He didn’t even believe in hunting.”

“You knew him?”

“I’m in Audubon, remember.”

I nodded. None of it seemed real. It looked staged. Would he get away with it? No. “He’s dead,” I said, softly.

Edward came to stand beside me. “Who’s dead?”

“Aikensen. He’s still walking and talking but he’s dead. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

“Where do we find him?” Edward asked.

Good question. I didn’t have a good answer. My beeper went off, and I screamed. One of those little yip screams that are always so embarrassing. I checked the number with my heart thundering in my chest.

I didn’t recognize the number. Who could it be, and could it possibly be important enough to call back tonight? I’d left my beeper number with the hospital. I didn’t know their number, either. I had to answer it. Hell, I needed to call Chief Garroway and tell him his people had walked into an ambush. I could make both calls from Williams’s house.

I trudged towards the house. Edward followed. We were on the porch before I realized that Richard wasn’t with us. I turned back. He had knelt down beside Williams. I thought at first he was praying, then realized he was touching the bloody snow. Did I really want to know? Yeah.

I walked back over. Edward stayed on the porch without being asked. Point for him. “Richard, are you all right?” It was a stupid question with a man he knew dead at his feet. But what else was I supposed to ask?

His hand closed over the bloody snow, crushing it. He shook his head. I thought he was just angry, or grief stricken, until I saw the sweat on his face.

He turned his face upward, eyes closed. The moon rode full and bright, heavy and silver white. The light was almost daylight bright this far away from the city. Wisps of cloud rode the sky, made luminous with moonshine.

“Richard?”

“I knew him, Anna. We’ve gone birding together. We talked about his doctorate thesis. I knew him, and now all I can think of is the smell of blood and how warm he still is.”

He opened his eyes and looked at me. There was sorrow in his eyes, but mostly there was darkness. His beast was looking out through his eyes.

I met his gaze. “I’ve got to make this phone call. Don’t eat any of the evidence.” I walked away across the snow. It had been too long a night.

I called from the phone in Williams’s kitchen. I called Garroway first, told him what we’d found. Once he could breathe, he cursed a bit and said he’d come himself. Probably wondering if things would have turned out differently if he’d come in the first place. Command decisions are always hard.

I hung up and dialed the number on my beeper. “Hello.”

“This is Anna Blake. This number was left on my beeper.”

“Anna, this is Kaspar Gunderson.”

The swan man. “Yes, Kaspar, what is it?”

“You sound awful. Has something happened?”

“Lots, but why did you beep me?”

“I found Jason.”

I stood a little straighter. “You’re kidding.”

“No, I found him. I’ve got him at my house now. I’ve been trying to contact Richard. Do you know where he is?”

“With me.”

“Perfect,” he said. “Can he come take charge of Jason before he changes?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so, why?”

“I’m just a bird, Anna. I’m not a predator. I can’t control an inexperienced werewolf.”

“Okay, I’ll tell him. Where’s your house?”

“Richard knows where it is. I’ve got to get back to Jason, keep him calm. If he loses it before Richard arrives, I’m running for cover. So if I don’t answer the doorbell, you’ll know what happened.”

“Are you in danger from him?”

“Just hurry.” He hung up.

Richard had come inside. He was standing in the doorway looking bemused, as if listening to music only he could hear.

“Richard?”

His head moved slowly towards the sound of my voice like a video running on slow speed. His eyes were pale golden yellow, the color of amber.

“Wow,” I said.

He didn’t look away. He blinked his new eyes at me. “What is it?”

“Kaspar called. He found Jason. He’s been trying to get you. Says he can’t control him once he changes.”

“Jason’s all right,” he said. He gave it that questioning lilt.

“Yes, are you all right?”

“No, I have to change soon or the moon will pick the time for me.”

I didn’t exactly understand that statement, but he could explain in the car. “Edward can drive, in case the moon picks going down Highway Forty-four as the perfect time.”

“Good idea, but Kaspar’s house is just up the mountain.”

“What do you mean?”

“Kaspar lives just up the road.”

“Great, let’s go.”

“You’ll have to leave Jason and me up there,” he said.

“Why?”

“I can make sure he doesn’t hurt anybody, but he has to hunt. I’ll take him out here. There are deer in the woods.”

I stared at him. He was still Richard. His eyes may be the color of pale amber, startling in his dark face, but He was Richard.

“You’re not going to change in the car, are you?” I asked.

“No. I would never endanger you. I have complete control over my beast. It’s what being an alpha wolf means.”

“I wasn’t worried about being eaten,” I said. “I just didn’t want you to get that clear junk all over my new seats.”

He flashed a smile.

———– 45

Chapter 45
Kaspar Gunderson’s house was made of stone, or at least sided with it. Pale chunks of granite formed the walls. The trim was white, the roof shingles pale grey. The door was white as well. It was clean, neat, and still managed to be rustic. It sat in a clearing at the top of the mountain. The road stopped at his house. There was a turnaround but the road didn’t go past.

Richard rang the bell. Kaspar opened it. He looked very relieved to see us. “Richard, thank God. He’s managed to hold on to human form so far, but I don’t think he can last much longer.” He held the door for us.

We walked in and found two strange men sitting in his living room. The man to the left was short, dark, and had wire-framed glasses on. The other man was taller, blond, with a reddish beard. They were the only things that didn’t match the decor. The entire living room was white–carpet, couch, two chairs, walls. It was like standing in the middle of a vanilla ice-cream cone. He had the same couch that I did. I needed new furniture.

“Who are they?” Richard asked. “They aren’t one of us.”

“You could say that.” It was Titus. He stood in the doorway leading to the kitchen, a gun in his hand. “Don’t anybody move,” he said. His southern accent was thick as corn pone.

Aikensen stepped out of the door leading to the rest of the house. He had another big Magnum in his hand.

“You buy those by the caseload?” I asked.

“I liked your threat on the phone. It got me hot.”

I took a step forward, hadn’t meant to. “Please,” Aikensen said. He was pointing the big gun at my chest. Titus was pointing at Richard. The two men in the chairs had guns out now, too. One big happy party.

Edward was very still at my back. I could almost feel him weighing the odds. A bolt action on a rifle shot back behind us. We all jumped, even Edward. Another man was behind us in the door. His solid grey hair was balding. The grey man had a rifle in his hands, pointed at Edward’s head. There wouldn’t be enough left to pick up in a baggie.

“Hands up, y’all.”

We put our hands up. What else could we do?

“Lace your fingers atop your head,” Titus said.

Edward and I did it like we’d done it before. Richard was slower.

“Now, wolfman, or I will drop you where you stand, and your little girlfriend might get all shot up in the bargain.”

Richard laced his fingers. “Kaspar, what’s going on?”

Kaspar was sitting on the couch, no, reclining was the word. He looked comfortable, happy as a well-fed cat… er, swan.

“These gentlemen here have paid a small fortune to hunt lycanthropes. I supply them prey and a place to hunt.”

“Titus and Aikensen make sure that no one finds out, right?”

“I told you I did a little hunting, Ms. Blake,” Titus said.

“The dead man one of your hunters?”

His eyes flicked, not exactly looking away but flinching. “Yes, Ms. Blake, he was.”

I looked at the two men with their guns out. I didn’t turn around to see Grey Hair at the door. “You three think that hurting shapeshifters is worth dying over?”

The dark-haired one looked at me from behind his round glasses. His eyes were distant, calm. If it bothered him to be pointing a gun at fellow human beings, it didn’t show.

The bearded man’s eyes flicked around the room, never settling on anything. He wasn’t having a good time.

“Why didn’t you and Aikensen clean up the mess before Holmes and her partner saw the body?”

“We were out hunting werewolf,” Aikensen said.

“Kaspar, we’re your people,” Richard said.

“No,” Kaspar said. He stood. “You aren’t. I am not a lycanthrope. I’m not even an inherited condition. I was cursed by a witch so long ago that I don’t care to remember how long.”

“Is that supposed to make us feel sorry for you?” I asked.

“No. In fact, I don’t suppose I have to explain myself. You have both been decent to me. I suppose I feel guilty about that.” He shrugged. “This will be our last hunt. One big gala event.”

“If you had slaughtered Raina and Gabriel, I could almost understand it,” I said. “But what did the lycanthropes you helped murder ever do to you?”

“When the witch told me what she had done, I remember thinking that being a great ravening beast would be a fine thing. I could still hunt. I could even slay my enemies. Instead she made…” He spread his hands wide.

“You kill them because they are what you want to be,” I said.

He gave a small smile. “Jealousy, Anna, envy. They are very bitter emotions.”

I thought about calling him a bastard, but it wouldn’t help. Seven people had died because this son of a bitch didn’t like being a bird. “The witch should have killed you, slowly.”

“She wanted me to learn my lesson and repent.”

“I’m not real big on repentance,” I said. “I like revenge better.”

“If I wasn’t confident you would die tonight, that might worry me.”

“Worry,” I said.

“Where’s Jason?” Richard asked.

“We’ll take you to him, won’t we, boys,” Titus said.

Edward hadn’t said a word. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but I hoped he didn’t go for a gun. If he did, most of the people in this room were dead. Three of them would be us.

“Pat ’em down, Aikensen.”

Aikensen grinned. He holstered his big gun. That left one revolver, two automatics, and a high-powered rifle. It was enough. Dream team that we are, Edward and I had our limits.

He patted Richard down, a quick search. He was having a good time until he got up to where he could see Richard’s eyes. He paled just a little looking into those wolf eyes. Nervous was good.

He kicked my legs farther apart. I glared at him. His hands hovered over my breasts, not where you start a search. “If he does anything but search me for weapons, I am going to draw a knife and take my chances.”

“Aikensen, you treat Ms. Blake here like a lady. No hanky-panky.”

Aikensen dropped to his knees in front of me. He ran just the palm of his hand over my breast, lightly just over the nipples. I smashed my right elbow into his nose. Blood sprayed outward. He rolled around on the ground, hands to his busted nose.

The dark-haired man was standing. He was pointing his gun very steadily at me. His glasses reflected the light hiding his eyes.

“Everybody calm down, now,” Titus said. “Aikensen deserved that, I guess.”

Aikensen came up off the floor, blood covering the lower half of his face. He fumbled for his gun.

“If that gun clears your holster, I will shoot you myself,” Titus said.

Aikensen was breathing fast and heavy through his mouth. Little bubbles of blood showed at his nose when he tried to breathe through it. It was definitely broken. It wasn’t as good as eviscerating him, but it was a start. He kept his hands on his gun, but he didn’t pull it. He stayed on his knees for a long time. You could see the struggle in his eyes. He wanted to shoot me almost enough to try for it. Great. The feeling was mutual.

“Aikensen,” Titus said softly. His voice was very serious, as if he were just realizing that Aikensen might go for it. “I mean what I say, boy. Don’t you be toying with me.”

He got to his feet, spitting blood, trying to get it away from his mouth. “You’re going to die tonight.”

“Maybe, but it won’t be you.”

“Ms. Blake, if you could refrain from teasing Aikensen long enough for me to get him away from you, I’d appreciate it.”

“Always glad to cooperate with the police,” I said.

Titus laughed. The bastard. “Well, now the criminals pay better, Ms. Blake.”

He tucked his own gun into his side holster. “Now, I’m not going to do a thing but search you for weapons. Any more of this nonsense and we’re going to have to shoot one of you to prove we’re serious. You don’t want to lose your sweetheart here. Or your friend here.” He smiled. Just good ol’ Sheriff Titus. Friendly. Jesus.

He found both sets of knives, then patted me down a second time.

He chuckled. “You have guts, girl, I’ll give you that.”

“And you’re a fucking coward.”

The smile vanished. “Always needing to have the last word is a bad trait, Ms. Blake. Pisses people off.”

“That’s the idea.”

He moved to Edward. I’d give Titus one thing, he was thorough. He took two automatics, a derringer, and a knife big enough to pass for a short sword from Edward. I had no idea where he’d been hiding the knife.

“Who do the two of you think you are? The freaking cavalry?”

Edward didn’t say a thing. If he could be quiet, so could I. There were too many guns to make one of them angry and try to jump the rest. We were outnumbered and outgunned. It was not a good way to start the week.

“Now we are all going to go downstairs,” Titus said. “We want you all to join us in the hunt. You will be let out into the woods. If you can get away from us, then you are free. You can run to the nearest police and turn us in. You try anything funny before we let you go, and we will just kill you. You all understand that?”

We just looked at him.

“I can’t hear you.”

“I heard what you said,” I said.

“How ’bout you, blondie?”

“I heard you, too,” Edward said.

“Wolfman, you hear me?”

“Don’t call me that,” Richard said. He didn’t sound particularly scared, either. Good.

If you’re going to die, at least die brave. It pisses your enemies off.

“Can we put our hands down now?” I asked.

“No,” Titus said.

Aikensen went first. Richard next with the dark-haired man and his calm eyes at his back. The bearded man. Then me. Titus. Edward. Grey Hair and his rifle next. Kaspar brought up the rear. It was a parade.

The stairs led into a natural cavern below the house. It was about sixty by thirty feet, with a ceiling that wasn’t higher than twelve feet. A tunnel led out the far wall. Electric lights gave a harsh yellow glow to everything. Two cages were set into the granite walls. In the far cage Jason was huddled into a fetal ball. He didn’t move as we all trooped in.

“What have you done to him?” Richard said.

“Tried to get him to change for us,” Titus said. “Birdie here said he’d be an easy mark.”

Kaspar looked uncomfortable. Whether it was the Birdie remark or Jason’s stubbornness, it was hard to tell. “He will change for us.”

“So you say,” Grey Hair said.

Kaspar frowned at him.

Aikensen opened the empty cage. His nose was still bleeding. He had a wad of Kleenex held to it, but it wasn’t helping much. The Kleenexes were crimson.

“In ya go, Wolfie,” Titus said.

Richard hesitated.

“Mr. Carmichael, the boy, if you please.”

Dark Hair put up his 9mm, and got out a .22 from his waistband. He pointed it at Jason’s huddled form.

“We’d been discussing putting a bullet in him anyway. See if it would help persuade him to change for us. Now get in the cage.”

Richard stood there.

Carmichael pointed the gun through the bars, sighting down his arm.

“Don’t,” Richard said. “I’ll do it.” He walked into the cage.

“Now you, Blondie.”

Edward didn’t argue. He just walked in. He was taking this a lot better than I thought he would.

Aikensen shut the door. He locked the door, then walked across to the second cage. He didn’t unlock it. He waited with the soggy Kleenex pressed to his nose. A drop of blood fell to the floor.

“You get to share accommodations with our young friend.”

Richard gripped the bars of his cage. “You can’t put her in there. When he changes, he’ll need to feed.”

“Two things help the change happen,” Kaspar said, “sex and blood. I saw how much Jason likes your lady friend.”

“Don’t do this, Kaspar.”

“Too late,” he said.

If I went in the cage, I might end up eaten alive. That was actually one of my top five ways not to die. I wasn’t going in the cage. I’d make them shoot me first.

“Aikensen is going to open the cage, then you step inside, Ms. Blake.”

“No,” I said.

Titus looked at me. “Ms. Blake, Mr. Fienstien here will shoot you, won’t you Mr. Fienstien?”

The bearded man, uncertain eyes and all, pointed a 9mm Beretta at me. A nice gun, if you didn’t insist on buying American. The barrel looked very big, and solid from the wrong end.

“Fine, shoot me.”

“Ms. Blake, we are not joking.”

“Neither am I. My choices are being eaten alive or being shot. So shoot me.”

“Mr. Carmichael, if you will point your .22 over here.” Carmichael did. “We can wound you, Ms. Blake. Put a bullet in your leg and then shove you in that cage.”

I looked into his beady little eyes and knew he would do it. I didn’t want to go into the cage, but I really didn’t want to go in wounded.

“I’m going to count to five, Ms. Blake, then Carmichael here is going to wound you and we will drag you into that cage. One… two… three… four…”

“All right, all right, Unlock the door.”

Aikensen did. I walked in. The door clanged shut behind me. I stood there near the door. Jason was shivering as if he had a fever, but he never moved otherwise.

The men outside seemed disappointed. “We paid good money to hunt a werewolf,” Grey Hair said. “We are not getting our money’s worth.”

“We’ve got all night, gentlemen. He won’t resist this luscious tidbit forever,” Kaspar said.

I didn’t like being called a tidbit. Luscious or otherwise. “I called Garroway before we drove up here. I told him about his deputies getting ambushed. I told him it was Aikensen.”

“Liar.”

I looked straight at Titus. “You think I’m lying.”

“Maybe we’ll just shoot all of you now, and flee, Ms. Blake.”

“You going to give these gentlemen their money back?”

“We want a hunt, Titus.” The three armed men didn’t look like leaving before the fun was an option. “The police don’t know about the birdman’s involvement,” Carmichael of the .22 said. “He can stay upstairs. If they come asking questions, he can answer them.”

Titus wiped his palms against his pants. Sweating palms, nerves? I hoped so.

“She didn’t call. She’s just bluffing,” Aikensen said.

“Make him change,” Carmichael said.

“He’s not paying any attention to her,” Grey Hair said.

“Give it time, gentlemen.”

“You said we don’t have time.”

“You’re the expert, Kaspar. Thinka something.”

Kaspar smiled, staring at something behind me. “I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer.”

I turned around slowly, looking behind me. Jason was still huddled on the ground but his face was turned to me. He rolled onto all fours in one easy motion.

His eyes flicked to me, then stared at the men on the outside of the cage. “I won’t do it. I won’t change for you.” His voice was strained but normal. Human sounding.

“You’ve held out a long time, Jason,” Kaspar said, “but the moon is rising. Smell her fear, Jason. Smell her body. You know you want her.”

“No!” He bowed his head to the ground, hands and arms flat to the floor, knees drawn up. He shook his head, face pressed into the rock. “No.” He raised his face up. “I won’t do it like some sideshow freak.”

“Do you think giving Jason and Ms. Blake here a little privacy would help matters along?” Titus asked.

“It might,” Kaspar said. “He doesn’t seem to like an audience.”

“We’ll just give you a little breathin’ space, Ms. Blake. If you aren’t alive when we get back, well, it’s been nice meetin’ ya.”

“I can’t say the same, Titus,” I said.

“Well, now that is the God’s honest truth. Good-bye, Ms. Blake.”

“Rot in hell, bitch,” was Aikensen’s parting shot.

“You’ll remember me every time you look in a mirror, Aikensen.”

His hand went to his nose. Even that touch hurt. He scowled at me, but it’s hard to look tough with Kleenex sticking out of your nose. “I hope you die slow.”

“Same to you,” I said.

“Kaspar, please,” Richard said. “Don’t do this. I’ll change for you. I’ll let you hunt me. Just get Anna out of there.”

The men stopped and looked at him.

“Don’t help me, Richard.”

“I’ll give you the best hunt you’ve ever had.” He was pressed against the bars, hands wrapped around them. “You know I can do it, Kaspar. Tell them.”

Kaspar looked at him for a long moment. He shook his head. “I think you’d kill them all.”

“I’d promise not to.”

“Richard, what are you saying?”

He ignored me. “Please, Kaspar.”

“You must love her a great deal.”

Richard just stared at him.

“No matter what you do, Richard, they’re not going to let me go.”

He wasn’t listening to me.

“Richard!”

“I’m sorry,” Kaspar said. “I trust you, Richard, but your beast… I think your beast isn’t so trustworthy.”

“Come on, we’re wasting time. Garroway doesn’t know where to look but he might come up here. Let’s give ’em some privacy,” Titus said.

They all trooped out after the chubby sheriff. Kaspar was last up the stairs. “I wish it were Gabriel and Raina in the cages. I am sorry about that.” The swan man disappeared into the rock tunnel.

“Kaspar, don’t leave us like this. Kaspar!” Richard’s yells echoed in the cavern. But nothing answered the echoes. We were alone. Scuffling sounds made me whirl. Jason was on his knees again. Something moved behind his pale blue eyes, something monstrous and not friendly at all. I wasn’t half as alone as I wanted to be.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Jason took one crawling step towards me and stopped. “No, no, no.” Each word was a low moan. His head fell forward. His yellow hair swept forward not long enough to touch the ground, but thick. He was wearing an oversize blue dress shirt and jeans. Clothes you wouldn’t mind ruining if you happened to shapeshift in them.

“Anna,” Richard said.

I moved so I could see the other cage, without losing sight of Jason.

Richard was reaching through the bars. One hand stretching out towards me as if he could bridge the space and somehow drag me to him.

Edward crawled to the door and began running hands over the lock. He couldn’t really see the lock from inside the cage. He pressed his cheek to the bars and closed his eyes. When you can’t use your eyes they become a distraction.

He leaned back and drew a slender leather case from his pocket. He unzipped it to reveal tiny tools. From this distance I couldn’t really see them clearly but I knew what they were. Edward was going to pick the lock. We could be out in the woods before they knew we were missing. The night was looking up.

Edward settled back against the bars, one arm on either side of the lock, a pick in each hand. His eyes were closed, his face blank, all concentration to his hands.

Jason made a small sound low in his chest. He crawled towards me, two slow, dragging steps. His head flung upward. His eyes were still the innocent blue of spring skies but there was nobody home now. He looked at me as though he could see inside my body, watch my heart thudding in my chest, smell the blood in my veins. It was not a human look.

“Jason,” Richard said, “hold on. We’ll be free in a few minutes. Just hold on.”

Jason didn’t react. I don’t think he heard.

I thought the few minutes was being overly optimistic, but hey, I was willing to believe it if Jason would.

Jason crawled towards me. I plastered my back against the cage bars. “Edward, how are you coming with that lock?”

“These are not the tools I would have chosen for this particular lock, but I’ll get it.”

There was something in the way Jason crawled towards me, as if he had muscles in places that he shouldn’t have. “Make it soon, Edward.”

He didn’t answer me. I didn’t have to look to know that he was working at the lock. I had every faith that he’d unlock the door. I backed down the bars, trying to keep an even distance between me and the werewolf. Edward would get the door open, but would it be in time? That was the ,$1,000,000 question.

A sound at the entrance caused me to glance back. Carmichael stepped into the cavern. He had the 9mm in his hand. He smiled. It was the happiest I’d seen him.

Edward ignored him, working at the lock as if an armed man hadn’t stepped into the room.

Carmichael raised the gun and pointed it at Edward. “Get away from the lock, now.” He cocked the hammer back, not necessary, but always dramatic. “We don’t need you alive. Stop… working… on… the… lock.” He stepped closer with each word.

Edward looked up at him. His face was still blank, as if his concentration were still in his hands, not quite focused on the gun being pointed at him.

“Throw the tools away from you. Right now.”

Edward stared at him. His expression never changed but he tossed the two small tools away.

“Take the complete kit out of your pocket and toss it out of the cage. Don’t even try to say you don’t have one. If you’ve got those two pieces, you’ve got the rest.”

I wondered what Carmichael did in the real world. Something not nice. Something where he knew what tools would be in a professional lock-picking kit.

“I won’t warn you again,” Carmichael said. “Throw it out or I pull the trigger. I am tired of screwing with this mess.”

Edward threw out the slim leather pouch. It made a small slapping sound on the rock. Carmichael made no move to pick up the lock picks. They were out of our reach. That was what counted. He walked backwards, keeping us all in sight. He directed some of his attention to Jason and me. Oh, joy.

“Our little werewolf’s awake. I was hoping he would be.”

A low, ragged growl crawled up Jason’s throat.

Carmichael gave a delighted bark of laughter. “I wanted to see him change. Good thing I checked back in.”

“I’m thrilled that you’re here,” I said.

He came to stand just out of reach of our cage bars. He was staring at Jason. “I’ve never seen one of them change.”

“Let me out and we’ll watch him together.”

“Now, why would I do that? I paid to see the whole show.”

His eyes were sparkling with anticipation. Bright and shiny as a kid on Christmas morning. Shit.

A growl brought my attention completely back to Jason. He was crouched on the rock floor, hands and legs bunched under him. Watching that growl trickle from between his human lips raised the hair on the back of my neck.

He wasn’t looking at me. “I think he’s growling at you, Carmichael.”

“But I’m not in the cage,” he said. He had a point.

“Jason, don’t get angry at him,” Richard said. “Anger will feed the beast. You can’t afford to get angry.” Richard’s voice was amazingly calm, even soothing. He was trying to talk Jason down, or out, or in, or whatever word you used for keeping a werewolf from shifting.

“No,” Carmichael said, “get angry, wolf. I’m going to cut your head off and mount it on my wall.”

“He’ll revert back to human form after he’s dead,” I said.

“I know,” Carmichael said.

Jesus. “Police find you with a human head in your possession, they may get a little suspicious.”

“I’ve got a lot of trophies that I wouldn’t want the police to find,” he said.

“What do you do in the real world?”

“This is as real as it gets.”

I shook my head. It was hard to argue with him, but I wanted to.

Jason crawled towards the bars, in a sort of monkey crouch. It wasn’t as graceful but it had an energy to it, as if he were about to launch himself into the air. As if when he jumped he could fly.

“Calm, Jason, easy,” Richard said.

“Come on, boy, try it. Rush the bars and I’ll pull the trigger.”

I watched him bunch every muscle and launch himself at the bars. He clung to the bars, hands clawing between them. Arms stretched as far as they would go. He wedged a shoulder between the bars as if he’d slip through. For one moment Carmichael looked uncertain, then he laughed.

“Shoot me,” Jason said. His voice was more growl than words. “Shoot me.”

“I don’t think so,” Carmichael said.

Jason gripped the bars with his hands and slid down to his knees, forehead pressed to the bars. His breathing was fast, panting, as if he’d run a mile in a minute flat. If he’d been human he’d have hyperventilated and passed out. His head turned slowly towards me, painfully slow, as if he didn’t want to do it. He’d tried to force Carmichael to shoot him. Risked being killed to keep from turning on me. He didn’t know me well enough to risk his life. It got him a lot of points in my book.

He looked at me, and his face was naked, raw with need. Not sex, not hunger, both, neither, I didn’t understand the look in his eyes, and didn’t want to.

He scrambled towards me. I backed away, almost running backwards.

“Don’t run,” Richard called. “It excites him.”

Staring into Jason’s alien expression, it took everything I had to stand still. My hands gripped the bars behind me hard enough to hurt, but I stopped running. Running was bad.

Jason stopped when I did. He crouched just out of reach. He put one hand on the ground and crawled towards me. It was slow, as if he didn’t want to, but he kept coming.

“Any more bright ideas?” I asked.

“Don’t run. Don’t struggle. It’s exciting. Try to be calm. Try not to be afraid. Fear is very exciting.”

“Speaking from personal experience?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

I wanted to turn, see his face, but I couldn’t. I had eyes only for the werewolf that was crawling towards me. The werewolf in the other cage could take care of himself.

Jason knelt on all fours by my legs, like a dog awaiting a command. He raised his head and looked at me. A spot of pale green color spilled into his eyes. The blue of his irises drowned in a swirl of new color. When it was done his eyes were the color of new spring grass, pale, pale green, and not human at all.

He moved closer, sniffing the air around me. His fingertips brushed my leg, and he let out a long sigh, rubbing his cheek against my leg. He’d done more than this at the Lunatic Cafe, but his eyes had still been mostly human. And I had been armed. I’d have given nearly anything for a knife right now.

Jason grabbed the hem of my coat, balling his hands into fists, tugging at the cloth. He was going to pull me to the ground. No way. I shrugged the coat off my shoulders. Jason pulled it off me. I stepped out of the circle of cloth. He bundled the coat to his face with both arms. He rolled on the ground with it pressed to his body like a dog with a piece of carrion. Wallowing in the scent.

He came to his knees. He stalked towards me, moving with a liquid grace that was unnerving as heck. Human beings did not crawl gracefully.

I didn’t want him to touch me again. He moved faster, each movement precise. Pale green eyes locked on me as if I were all that existed in the world.

I started backing up faster. He moved with me.

“Don’t run, Anna, please,” Richard said.

My back thunked into the corner of the cage. I gave a little yelp.

Jason covered the distance between us in two smooth movements. His hands touched my legs. I swallowed a scream. My pulse was threatening to choke me.

“Anna, control your fear. Calm, think calm.”

“You think fucking calm.” My voice sounded strident, panicked.

Jason had his fingertips hooked in my belt. He pressed his body into my legs, pinning me to the bars. I made a small gasp and hated it. If this was going to be it, then dammit, I wasn’t going to go out whimpering.

I listened to my heart pounding in my ears, and took slow, even breaths. I stared into those spring green eyes and relearned how to breathe.

Jason pressed his cheek against my hip, hands sliding around my waist. My heart gave a little pitty-pat and I swallowed it. I concentrated on my own heart until my pulse slowed. It was the kind of concentration that let you do that new throw in judo. The concentration that fed a zombie raising.

When Jason lifted his head and looked at me again, I gave him calm eyes. I felt my face blank, neutral, calm. I wasn’t sure how long it would last but it was the best I could do.

His fingers slid under my sweater, up my back. I swallowed and my heartbeat sped up. I tried to slow it down, tried to concentrate, but his hands slid around my waist over my skin. His fingers traced my ribs moving upward. I grabbed his wrists, stopping his hands short of my breasts.

As he rose, my hands stayed on his arms. Standing with his hands still under my sweater raised the cloth, baring my stomach. Jason seemed to like the sight of bare skin. He knelt again, letting me keep hold of his arms. I felt his breath almost burning warm on my bare stomach. His tongue flicked out, a quick touch to one side of my belly button. His lips brushed my skin, soft, caressing.

I felt him take a deep, shaking breath. He pressed his face into the soft flesh of my belly. His tongue lapped my stomach, mouth pressing hard. His teeth grazed my waist. It made me squirm, and not with pain. His hands balled into fists under my sweater, hands convulsing. I didn’t really want to let go of his wrists but I wanted him away from me.

“Is he going to eat me or…”

“Fuck you,” Carmichael added. I’d almost forgotten him. Careless forgetting the man with the gun. Maybe it was the realization that he wasn’t a danger to me. The danger was kneeling at my feet.

“Jason’s only been one of us for a few months. If he can channel the energy into sex instead of violence I’d take it. I’d try to keep him away from killing zones.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Keep him away from your throat and your stomach.”

I stared down at Jason. He looked up at me, rolling his eyes. There was a darkness in those pale eyes, a darkness deep enough to drown in.

I drew Jason’s hands out from under my sweater. He slid his hands into mine, fingers interlocking. He nuzzled my stomach, trying to bury his face where the sweater had slid over my skin. I raised him up with our hands still locked together.

He raised our hands upward, pressing my arms backwards against the bars. I fought the urge to struggle, to jerk away. Struggling was exciting, and that was a bad thing.

We were almost the same height. His eyes were too startling from an inch away. His lips parted and I caught a glimpse of fangs.

He rubbed his cheek along mine. His lips moved down my jawline. I turned my head, trying to keep him away from the big pulse in my neck. He came up for air, and brushed his mouth against mine. He pressed his body against mine hard enough that I knew he was glad to be there. Or at least his body was. He buried his face in my hair and stood there pressed against me, our hands on the bars of the cage.

I could feel the pulse in his neck thudding against the bone of my jaw. His breathing was too fast, his chest rising and falling as if he were doing a lot more than foreplay. Was I about to move from foreplay to appetizer?

Power prickled along my skin but it wasn’t Jason. I’d tasted this particular power before. Was the show exciting Richard? Would watching me die like this be a thrill like the woman on the film?

“She’s mine, Jason.” It was Richard’s voice but with a bass undertone. The change was coming.

Jason whimpered. It was the only word for it.

Richard’s power rode the air like distant thunder, drawing close. “Get off her, Jason. Now!” That last word lunged out in something close to a scream. But it was the kind of scream that cougars gave; no fear, but warning.

I felt Jason shake his head against my hair. His hands convulsed against mine. The strength of it made me gasp. It was the wrong thing to do.

He let go of my hands so suddenly I would have stumbled, but the line of his body kept me upright. He jerked away from me and I did stumble. He grabbed me around the thighs and lifted me into the air, too fast for me to stop even if I could have. He smacked me back against the bars. I took most of the blow on my back. Bruised, but alive.

He supported me with one arm and shoved my sweater upward with the other. I shoved the sweater back down. He made a sound low in his throat and slammed me into the floor. Hitting the rock took all the fight out of me for just a minute. He ripped the sweater as if it were paper, spreading it away from my stomach. He threw his head skyward and screamed, but the mouth he opened wasn’t human anymore.

If I’d had enough air I’d have screamed.

“Jason, no!” The voice wasn’t human anymore. Richard’s power flooded the cage, thick enough to choke on. Jason struggled almost as if the power were thicker than air. He swiped at nothing that I could see with hands that had claws for fingers.

“Back off,” the words were a snarl, barely recognizable.

Jason snarled back, teeth snapping the air, but not at me. He rolled off me, crawling along the rock, growling.

I just lay there on my back, afraid to move. Afraid that any movement would tip the balance and make him finish what he’d started.

“Shit,” Carmichael said. “I’ll be right back, folks, and the birdman better think of something to make one of you change.” He marched off, leaving us to a silence that was replaced with a low, steady growl. I realized that it wasn’t Jason anymore.

I rose up slowly on my elbows. Jason didn’t try to eat me. Richard was still standing by the bars of his cage, but his face had lengthened. He had a muzzle. His thick brown hair was longer. The hair seemed to have flowed down his back, as if attached to the spine. He was holding onto his humanity with a string. A weak, shiny string.

Edward was standing very still near the door. He hadn’t tried to run when Richard went all spooky. Edward always did have nerves of steel.

———— 46

Chapter 46
Titus was the first one through the door. “I am mighty disappointed in you all. Carmichael here tells me you almost had it, and this one interfered.”

Kaspar stared at Richard as if he’d never seen him before. Maybe he’d never seen half-human, half-wolf before, but something about the way he was staring said that wasn’t it. “Marcus couldn’t have done what you did.”

“Jason didn’t want to hurt her,” Richard said. “He wanted to do the right thing.”

“Well, Birdman,” Carmichael said, “what next?”

I stayed sitting on the rock floor. Jason was huddled against the far wall on his hands and knees, rocking back and forth, back and forth. A low, moaning sound crawled out of his throat.

“He’s near the edge,” Kaspar said. “Blood will push him over. Not even an alpha can hold him in the presence of fresh blood.”

I did not like the sound of that.

“Ms. Blake, could you come over to the bars, please.”

I moved so I could keep an eye on the moaning werewolf and the armed camp outside. “Why?”

“Either do it or Carmichael will shoot you. Don’t make me start counting again, Ms. Blake.”

“I don’t think I want to come over to the bars.”

Titus took out his .45 and walked over to the other cage. Edward was sitting down. He looked at me across the room, and I knew that if we ever got out, they were all dead. Richard was still standing at the bars, hands wrapped around them.

Titus stared up at Richard’s animalistic face and gave a low whistle. “Good lord.” He pointed the gun at Richard’s chest. “These are silver bullets, Ms. Blake. If you called Garroway, we don’t have time for two hunts anyway. Garroway doesn’t know you’re here, so we have a little time, but we don’t have all night. Besides, I think the wolfman here might be too dangerous. So if you keep pissing me off, I’ll kill him.”

I met Richard’s new eyes. “They’re going to kill us anyway. Don’t do it,” he said. His voice was still a growl that was such a deep bass that it crawled down my spine.

They were going to kill us all. But I couldn’t stand there and watch, not if I could prolong the inevitable. I walked to the bars nearest them. “Now what?”

Titus stayed with the gun pointed at Richard. “Put your arms through the bars, please.”

I wanted to say no, but we’d already established that I wasn’t willing to watch Richard die just yet. It made saying no sort of hollow. I slipped my arms through the bars, which put my back to the werewolf. Not good.

“Grab her wrists, gentlemen.”

I balled my hands into fists but didn’t pull back. I was going to do this, right.

Carmichael grabbed my left wrist. The bearded Fienstien took my right. Fienstien wasn’t holding on very hard. I could have pulled away, but Carmichael’s hand was like warm steel. I stared into his eyes, and found no pity there. Fienstien was getting squeamish. Grey Hair, with his rifle, was in the middle of the room, distancing himself from it. Carmichael was here for the whole ride.

Titus came over and started unwrapping the bandage on my arm. I fought the urge to ask what he was doing. I had an idea. I hoped I was wrong.

He let the bandages fall to the ground. He got out my own knife and held it up where it would catch the light. Nothing like a little showmanship.

I pressed my forehead to the cage bars and took a deep breath.

“I’m going to make a wound.”

“I figured that out,” I said.

“No struggles?”

“Get on with it.”

Aikensen came over. “Let me do it. I owe her a little blood.”

Titus looked at me, almost as if asking permission. I gave him my best blank look. He handed the knife to Aikensen.

Aikensen held the point just over my wrist. I felt my eyes widen. I didn’t know what to do. Looking seemed a bad idea. Not looking seemed worse. Begging them not to do it seemed futile and humiliating. Some nights there are no good choices.

He cut.

“We need blood,” Carmichael said.

I looked back in time to see Aikensen put the point of the knife against the wound. That was going to hurt. I caught a glimpse of Edward in his cage. He was standing now. Looking at me. He was trying to tell me something. His eyes slid right.

Grey Hair had walked away from the show. He was standing close to the other cage. Evidently, he could shoot you, but he didn’t like torture.

Edward looked at me. I thought I knew what he wanted. I hoped so.

The knife bit into my skin. I gasped. The pain was sharp and immediate, like all shallow wounds, but this one was going to last a long time. Blood flowed in a heavy line down my skin. Aikensen pulled the point down a fraction of an inch. I pulled suddenly on my arms. Fienstien lost his grip. He grabbed for my flaying arm. Carmichael tightened his grip. I couldn’t get free but I could drop to the floor and make my arm move too much to use a knife on it.

I started to scream and fight in earnest. If Edward needed a diversion, I could give him one.

“One woman in a cage and the three of you can’t handle her.” Titus waddled up. He grabbed my left arm while Carmichael had my wrist. My right hand was back in the cage with me.

Fienstien was sort of hovering near the cage, not sure what to do. If you were going to pay money to hunt monsters, you should be better at violence than this. His holster was close to the bars.

I screamed over and over, jerking at my left arm. Titus held my arm under his, pinned next to his body. Carmichael’s grip on my wrist was bruising. They had me at last. Aikensen put the knife to the wound and started to cut.

Fienstien bent down as if to help. I screamed and leaned into the bars. I didn’t draw his gun. I grabbed the trigger and pushed it into his body. The shot took him in the stomach. He fell backwards.

A second shot echoed in the cavern. Carmichael’s head exploded all over Titus. His Smokey Bear hat was covered in blood and brains.

Edward was standing with the rifle to his shoulder. Grey Hair was slumped against the cage bars. His neck was at an odd angle. Richard knelt by the body. Had he killed him?

There was a sound behind me. A low guttural cry. Titus had his gun out. He still had my arm pinned. Fienstien was rolling around on the ground. His gun was out of reach.

There was a low growl coming from behind me. I heard movement. Jason was coming back to play. Great.

Titus jerked my arm forward, nearly wrenching it out of the socket. He shoved his .45 against my cheek. The barrel was cold.

“Put down the rifle or I pull this trigger.”

My face was pressed into the bars and the gun. I couldn’t look behind me, but I could hear something crawling closer.

“Is he changing?”

“Not yet,” Richard said.

Edward still had the rifle up, sighted on Titus. Aikensen seemed frozen, standing there with the bloody knife.

“Put it down, blondie, right now, or she’s dead.”

“Edward.”

“Anna,” he said. His voice sounded like it always did. We both knew he could drop Titus, but if the man’s finger twitched while he died, I died, too. Choices.

“Do it,” I said.

He pulled the trigger. Titus jerked back against the bars. Blood splattered over my face. A glob of something thicker than blood slid down my cheek. I breathed in shallow gasps. Titus slumped along the bars, gun still gripped in his hands.

“Open her cage,” Edward said.

Something touched my leg. I jerked and whirled. Jason grabbed my bleeding arm. The strength was incredible. He could have crushed my wrist. He lowered his face to the wound and lapped at the blood like a cat with cream.

“Open her door now, or you’re dead, too.”

Aikensen just stood there.

Jason licked my arm. His tongue caressed the wound. It hurt, but I swallowed the gasp. No sounds. No struggles. He’d done good not to jump me while I fought the men outside. But a werewolf’s patience isn’t endless. Not after he tasted my blood.

“Now!” Edward said.

Aikensen jumped, then went for the door. He dropped my knife by the door and fumbled at the lock.

Jason bit into my arm, just a little. I did gasp. I couldn’t help it. Richard screamed, wordless and thundering.

Jason jerked away from me. “Run,” he said. He buried his face in a puddle of blood on the floor, lapping at it. His voice was strangled, more growl than word. “Run.”

Aikensen opened the door. I crab-walked backwards.

Jason threw his head skyward and shrieked, “Run!”

I got to my feet and ran. Aikensen slammed the door shut behind me. Jason was writhing on the floor. He fell to the ground in convulsions. Foam ran from his mouth. His hands spasmed, reaching for nothing that I could see. I’d seen people shift before but never this violently. It looked like a bad grand malseizure or someone dying of strychnine.

The wolf burst out of his skin in a nearly finished product, like a cicada pulling out of its old skin. The wolfman raced for the bars. Claws grabbed for us. We both backed up. Foam fell from the wolf jaws. Teeth snapped the air. And I knew that he’d kill me and eat me afterwards. It was what he did, what he was.

Aikensen was staring at the werewolf. I knelt and picked up the dropped knife. “Aikensen?”

He turned to me, still startled and pale.

“Did you enjoy shooting Deputy Holmes in the chest?”

He frowned at me. “I let you go. I did what he asked.”

I stepped up close to him. “Remember what I told you would happen if you hurt Williams?”

He looked at me. “I remember.”

“Good.” I drove the knife upward into his groin. I shoved it hilt deep. Blood poured over my hand. He stared at me, eyes going glassy.

“A promise is a promise,” I said.

He fell and I let his own weight pull the knife up through his abdomen. His eyes closed and I pulled the knife out.

I wiped the knife on his jacket and took the keys from his limp hand. Edward had the rifle slung over his shoulder by the strap. Richard was watching me as if he’d never seen me before. Even with his odd-shaped face and amber eyes I could tell he disapproved.

I unlocked their door. Edward walked out. Richard followed but he was staring at me. “You didn’t have to kill him,” he said. The words were Richard’s even if the voice wasn’t.

Edward and I stood there looking at the alpha werewolf. “Yes, I did.”

“We kill because we have to, not for pleasure and not for pride,” Richard said.

“Maybe you do,” I said. “But the rest of the pack, the rest of the shifters, aren’t so particular.”

“The police may be on their way,” Edward said. “You don’t want to be here.”

Richard glanced at the ravening beast in the other cage. “Give me the keys. I’ll take Jason out through the tunnel. I can smell the outside.”

I handed him the keys. His fingertips brushed my hand. His hand convulsed around the keys. “I can’t last much longer. Go.”

I looked into those strange amber eyes. Edward touched my arm. “We’ve got to go. I heard sirens. They must have heard the gunshots.”

“Be careful,” I said.

“I will be.” I let Edward pull me up the stairs. Richard fell to the ground, face hidden in his hands. His face came up, and the bones were longer. They flowed out of his face as if it were clay.

I tripped on the stairs. Only Edward’s hand kept me from falling. I turned around and we ran up the stairs. When I glanced back, Richard wasn’t in sight.

Edward dropped the rifle on the stairs. The door burst open, and the police came through the door. It was only then that I realized Kaspar was gone.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

Neither Edward nor I had to go to jail, even though the cops found the people we killed. Everyone pretty much thought it was a miracle that we had gotten away with our lives. People were impressed. Edward surprised me by showing ID for a Ted Forrester, bounty hunter. Slaughter of a bunch of illegal lycanthrope hunters enhanced the reputation of all bounty hunters, Ted Forrester’s in particular. I got a lot of good press out of it, too. Bert was pleased.

I asked Edward if Forrester was his real last name. He just smiled.

The Naga, who’s nams is Sebastian, made a full recovery, and even ended up dating Melanie, the lamia who’s mates I’d killed. She didn’t hate me anymore, I guess because I found her a new mate to replace her old one, we were even.

I made one last visit to the Lunatic Cafe. Marcus told me that Alfred had killed the girl all on his own. Gabriel hadn’t known it was going to happen, but once she was dead, waste not, want not. Lycanthropes are nothing if not practical. Raina had distributed the film for the same reason. I didn’t really believe them. Awful damn convenient to blame a dead man. But I didn’t tell Edward. I did tell Gabriel and Raina that if any other snuff films surfaced, they could kiss their furry asses good-bye. I’d sic Edward on them. Though I didn’t tell them that.

I got Richard a gold cross and made him promise to wear it. He got me a stuffed toy panda that played “Winter Wonderland,” and a bag of black-and-white gummy pandas.

Jean-Claude got me a glass sculpture of pandas. It’s beautiful and expensive.

What do you get the Master of the City for Christmas? A pint of blood? I settled for an antique cameo. It’d look great at the neck of one of his lacy shirts.

Sometime in February a box arrived from Edward. It was a swan skin. The note read, “I found a witch to lift his curse.” I lifted the feathered skin from the box, and a second note fluttered to the ground. This one said, “Marcus paid me.” I should have known he’d find a way to make a profit from a kill he’d have made for free.

Richard doesn’t understand why I killed Aikensen. I’ve tried to explain, but saying I killed a man because I said I’d do it does sound like pride. But it wasn’t pride. It was for Williams, who would never finish his doctorate or see his owls again. For Holmes, who never got to be the first female chief of police. For all the people he killed who never got a second chance. If they couldn’t have one, neither could he. I haven’t lost any sleep over killing Aikensen. Maybe that should bother me more than the killing–the fact that it doesn’t bother me at all. Naw.

I had the swan skin mounted in a tasteful frame, behind glass. I hung it in the living room. It matched the couch. Richard doesn’t like it. I like it just fine.

——– 47

Chapter 47
The most beautiful corpse I’d ever seen was sitting behind my desk. Jean-Claude’s white shirt gleamed in the light from the desk lamp. A froth of lace spilled down the front, peeking from inside his black velvet jacket. I stood behind him, my back to the wall, arms crossed over my stomach, which put my right hand comfortably close to several of my knives. I wasn’t about to draw on Jean-Claude. It was the other vampire I was worried about.

The desk lamp was the only light in the room. The vampire had requested the overheads be turned out. His name was Sabin, and he stood against the far wall, huddling in the dark. He was covered head to foot in a black, hooded cape. He looked like something out of an old Vincent Price movie. I’d never seen a real vampire dress like that.

The last member of our happy little group was Dominic Dumare. He sat in one of the client chairs. He was tall, thin, but not weak. His hands were large and strong, big enough to palm my face. He was dressed in a three-piece black suit, like a chauffeur except for the diamond stickpin in his tie. A beard and thin mustache lined the strong bones of his face.

When he’d entered my office, I’d felt him like a psychic wind tripping down my spine. I’d only encountered two other people who had that taste to them. One had been the most powerful voodoo priestess I’d ever met. The second had been the second most powerful voodoo priest I’d ever met. The woman was dead. The man worked for Animators, Inc., just like I did. But Dominic Dumare wasn’t here to apply for a job.

“Ms. Blake, please be seated,” Dumare said. “Sabin finds it most offensive to sit when a lady is standing.”

I glanced behind him at Sabin. “I’ll sit down if he sits down,” I said.

Dumare looked at Jean-Claude. He gave a gentle, condescending smile. “Do you have such poor control over your human servant?”

I didn’t have to see Jean-Claude’s smile to know it was there. “Oh, you are on your own with ma petite. She is my human servant, so declared before the council, but she answers to no one.”

“You seem proud of that,” Sabin said. His voice was British and very upper crust.

“She is the Shadow of the Executioner and has more vampire kills than any other human. She is my human servant without a mark to hold her to me. She dates me without the aid of vampire glamor. Why should I not be pleased?”

Listening to him talk you’d have thought it was all his own idea. Fact was, he’d tried his best to mark me, and I’d managed to escape. We were dating because loved him. But I didn’t know if he loved me. Jean-Claude had managed to make it all work to his advantage. Why was I not surprised?

“Until her death you cannot mark any other human,” Sabin said. “You have cut yourself off from a great deal of power.”

“I am aware of what I have done,” Jean-Claude said.

Sabin laughed, and it was chokingly bitter. “We all do strange things for love.”

I would have given a lot to see Jean-Claude’s face at that moment. All I could see was his long black hair spilling over his jacket, black on black. His shoulders stiffened, hands sliding across the blotter on my desk. Then he went very still. That awful waiting stillness that only the old vampires have, as if, if they held still long enough, they would simply disappear.

“Is that what has brought you here, Sabin? Love?” Jean-Claude’s voice was neutral, empty.

Sabin’s laughter rode the air like broken glass. It felt like the very sound of it hurt something deep inside me. I didn’t like it.

“Enough games,” I said, “let’s get it done.”

“Is she always this impatient?” Dumare asked.

“Yes,” Jean-Claude said.

Dumare smiled, bright and empty as a lightbulb. “Did Jean-Claude tell you why we wished to see you?”

“He said Sabin caught some sort of disease from trying to go cold turkey.”

The vampire across the room laughed again, flinging it like a weapon across the room. “Cold turkey, very good, Ms. Blake, very good.”

The laughter ate over me like small cutting blades. I’d experienced few things like that from just a voice. In a fight, it would have been distracting. Heck, it was distracting now. I felt liquid slide down my forehead. I raised my left hand to it. My fingers came away smeared with blood. I drew a knife and stepped away from the wall. I aimed it at the black figure across the room. “He does that again, and I’ll kill him.”

Jean-Claude rose slowly from the chair. His power flowed over me like a cool wind, raising goose bumps on my arms. He raised one pale hand, gone nearly translucent with power. Blood flowed down that gleaming skin.

Dumare stayed in his chair, but he, too, was bleeding from a cut nearly identical to mine. Dumare wiped the blood away, still smiling. “The knife will not be necessary,” he said.

“You have abused my hospitality,” Jean-Claude said. His voice filled the room with hissing echoes.

“There is nothing I can say to apologize,” Sabin said. “But I did not mean to do it. I am using so much of my power just to maintain myself that I do not have the control I once did.”

I moved slowly away from the wall, knife still pointed. I wanted to see Jean-Claude’s face. I needed to see how badly he was hurt. I eased around the desk until I could see him from the corner of my eye. His face was untouched, flawless and gleaming like mother of pearl.

He raised his hand, one thin line of blood still trailing down. “This is no accident.”

“Come into the light, my friend,” Dumare said. “You must let them see, or they will not understand.”

“I do not want to be seen.”

“You are very close to using up all my good will,” Jean-Claude said.

“Mine, too,” I added. I was hoping I could either kill Sabin or put the knife down soon.

Sabin glided towards the desk. The black cloak spilled around his feet like a pool of darkness. All vampires were graceful, but this was ridiculous. I realized he wasn’t walking at all. He was levitating inside that dark cloak.

His power flowed over my skin like icy water. My hands were suddenly steady once more. Nothing like having several hundred years worth of vampire coming at you to sharpen your nerves.

Sabin stopped on the far side of the desk. He was expending power just to move, just to be here, as if like a shark, if he stopped moving he’d die.

Jean-Claude glided around me. His power danced over my body, raising the hair at the back of my neck, making my skin tight. He stopped almost within reach of the other vampire. “What has happened to you, Sabin?”

Sabin stood on the edge of the light. The lamp should have cast some light into the hood of his cloak, but it didn’t. The inside of the hood was as smooth and black and empty as a cave. His voice came out of that nothingness. It made me jump.

“Love, Jean-Claude, love happened to me. My beloved grew a conscience. She said it was wrong to feed upon people. We were once people, after all. For love of her, I tried to drink cold blood. I tried animal blood. But it was not enough to sustain me.”

I stared into that darkness. I kept pointing the gun, but I was beginning to feel silly. Sabin didn’t seem at all afraid of it, which was unnerving. Maybe he didn’t care. That was also unnerving. “She talked you into going vegetarian. Great,” I said. “You seem powerful enough.”

He laughed, and with the laughter, the shadows in his hood faded slowly, like a curtain lifting. He threw it back in one quick flourish.

I didn’t scream, or gasped and took a step back. I meet his eyes. No flinching.

His hair was thick and straight and golden, falling like a shining curtain to his shoulders. But his skin . . . his skin had rotted away on half his face. It was like late-stage leprosy, but worse. The flesh was puss-filled, gangrenous, and should have stunk to high heaven. The other half of his face was still beautiful. The kind of face that medieval painters had borrowed for cherubim, a golden perfection. One crystalline blue eye rolled in its rotting socket as if in danger of spilling out onto his cheek. The other eye was secure and watched my face.

“You can put up the knife, ma petite. It was an accident, after all,” Jean-Claude said.

I lowered the knife, but didn’t put it up. It took more effort than was pretty to say calmly, “This happened because you stopped feeding off of humans?”

“We believe so,” Dumare said.

I tore my gaze away from Sabin’s ravaged face and looked back at Dominic. “You think I can help cure him of this?” I couldn’t keep the disbelief out of my voice.

“I heard of your reputation in Europe.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“No modesty, Ms. Blake. Among those of us who notice such things, you are gaining a certain notoriety.”

Notoriety, not fame. Hmmm.

“Put the knife away, ma petite. Sabin has done all the–what is your word–grandstanding he will do tonight. Haven’t you Sabin?”

“I fear so, it all seems to go so badly now.”

I put the knife with the others and shook my head. “I honestly don’t have the faintest idea how to help you.”

“If you knew how, would you help me?” Sabin asked.

I looked at him and nodded. “Yes.”

“Even though I am a vampire and you are a vampire executioner.”

“Have you done anything in this country that you need killing for?”

Sabin laughed. The rotting skin stretched, and a ligament popped with a wet snap. “Not yet, Ms. Blake, not yet.” His face sobered quickly; the humor abruptly faded. “You school your face to show nothing, Jean-Claude, but I read the horror in your eyes.”

Jean-Claude’s skin had gone back to its usual milky perfection. His face was still lovely, perfect, but at least he’d stopped glowing. His midnight blue eyes were just eyes now. He was still beautiful, but it was a nearly human beauty. “Is it not worth a little horror?” he asked.

Sabin smiled, and I wished he hadn’t. The muscles on the rotted side didn’t work, and his mouth hung crooked. If he could be trapped inside that face, I could look at it.

“Then you will help me?”

“I would aid you if I could, but it is Anna you have come to ask. She must give her own answer.”

“Well, Ms. Blake?”

“I don’t know how to help you,” I repeated.

“Do you understand how dire my circumstances are, Ms. Blake? The true horror of it, do you grasp it?”

“The rot probably won’t kill you, but it’s progressive, I take it?”

“Oh, yes, it’s progressive, virulently so.”

“I would help you if I could, Sabin, but what can I do that Dumare can’t? He’s a necromancer. Why do you need me?”

“I realize, Ms. Blake, that you don’t have something specifically for Sabin’s problem,” Dumare said. “As far as I can discover, he is the only vampire to ever suffer such a fate, but I thought if we came to another necromancer as powerful as myself–” he smiled modestly “–or nearly as powerful as myself, perhaps together we could work up a spell to help him.”

“A spell?” I glanced at Jean-Claude.

He gave that wonderful Gallic shrug that meant everything and nothing. “I know little of necromancy, ma petite. You would know if such a spell were possible more than I.”

“It is not only your ability as a necromancer that has brought us to you,” Dumare said. “You have also acted as a focus for at least two different animators, I believe that is the American word for what you do.”

I nodded. “The word’s right, but where did you hear I could act as a focus?”

“Come, Ms. Blake, the ability to combine another animator’s powers with your own and thus magnify both powers is a rare talent.”

“Can you act as a focus?” I asked.

He tried to look humble but actually looked pleased with himself. “I must confess, yes, I can act as a focus. Think of what the two of us could accomplish together.”

“We could raise a hell of a lot of zombies, but that won’t cure Sabin.”

“True enough.” Dumare leaned forward in his chair. His lean, handsome face flushed, eager, a true convert looking for disciples.

I wasn’t much of a follower.

“I would offer to teach you true necromancy, not this voodoo dabbling that you’ve been doing.”

Jean-Claude made a soft sound halfway between a laugh and a cough.

I glared at Jean-Claude’s amused face but said, “I’m doing just fine with this voodoo dabbling.”

“I meant no insult, Ms. Blake. You will need a teacher of some sort soon. If not me, then you must find someone else.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I lied.

“Control, Ms. Blake. Raw power, no matter how impressive, is not the same as power used with great care and great control.”

I shook my head. “I’ll help you if I can, Mr. Dumare. I’ll even participate in a spell if I check it out with a local witch I know first.”

“Afraid that I will try and steal your power?”

I smiled. “No, short of killing me, the best you or anyone else can do is borrow.”

“You are wise beyond your years, Ms. Blake.”

“You have no idea” I said. Something crossed over his face, the faintest flicker, and I knew.

“You’re his human servant, aren’t you?”

Dominic smiled, spreading his hands. “Oui.”

I sighed. “I thought you said you weren’t trying to hide anything from me.”

“A human servant’s job is to be the daytime eyes and ears of his master. I am of no use to my master if vampire hunters can spot me for what I am.”

“I spotted you.”

“But in another situation, without Sabin at my side, would you have?”

I thought about that for a moment. “Maybe.” I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

“Thank you for your honesty, Ms. Blake.”

Sabin said, “I am sure our time is up. Jean-Claude said you had a pressing engagement, Ms. Blake. Much more important than my little problem.” There was a little bite to that last.

“Ma petite has a date with her other beau.”

Sabin stared at Jean-Claude. “So you are truly allowing her to date another. I thought that at least must be rumor.”

“Very little of what you hear about ma petite is rumor. Believe all you hear.”

Sabin chuckled, coughing, as if struggling to keep the laughter from spilling out his ruined mouth. “If I believed everything I heard, I would have come with an army.”

“You came with one servant because I allowed you only one servant,” Jean-Claude said.

Sabin smiled. “Too true. Come Dominic, we must not take more of Ms. Blake’s so valuable time.”

Dominic stood obediently, towering over us both. Sabin was around my height. Of course, I wasn’t sure if his legs were still there. He might have been taller once.

“I don’t like you, Sabin, but I would never willingly leave another being in the shape you’re in. My plans tonight are important, but if I thought we could cure you immediately, I’d change them.”

The vampire looked at me. His blue, blue eyes were like staring down into clear ocean water. There was no pull to them. Either he was behaving himself or, like most vampires, he couldn’t roll me with his eyes anymore.

“Thank you, Ms. Blake. I believe you are sincere.” He extended a gloved hand from the voluminous cloak.

I hesitated, then took it. His hand squished ever so slightly, and it took a lot not to jerk back. I forced myself to shake his hand, to smile, to let go, and not to rub my hand on my skirt.

Dominic shook my hand as well. His was cool and dry. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Blake. I will contact you tomorrow and we will discuss things.”

“I’ll be expecting your call, Mr. Dumare.”

“Call me, Dominic, please.”

I nodded. “Dominic. We can discuss it, but I hate to take your money when I’m not sure that I can help you.”

“May I call you Anna?” he asked.

I hesitated, name held power, then shrugged. “Sure.”

“Don’t worry about money,” Sabin said, “I have plenty of that for all the good it has done me.”

“How is the woman you love taking the change in your appearance?” Jean-Claude asked.

Sabin looked at him. It was not a friendly look. “She finds it repulsive, as do I. She feels immense guilt. She has not left me, nor is she with me.”

“You’d lived for close to seven hundred years,” I said. “Why screw things up for a woman?”

Sabin turned to me, a line of ooze creeping down his face like a black tear. “Are you asking me if it was worth it, Ms. Blake?”

I swallowed and shook my head. “It’s none of my business. I’m sorry I asked.”

He drew the hood over his face. He turned back to me, black, a cup of shadows where his face should have been. “She was going to leave me, Ms. Blake. I thought that I would sacrifice anything to keep her by my side, in my bed. I was wrong.” He turned that blackness to Jean-Claude. “We will see you tomorrow night, Jean-Claude.”

“I look forward to it.”

Neither vampire offered to shake hands. Sabin glided for the door, the robe trailing behind him, empty. I wondered how much of his lower body was left and decided I didn’t want to know.

Dominic shook my hand again. “Thank you, Anna. You have given us hope.” He held my hand and stared into my face as if he could read something there. “And do think about my offer to teach you. There are very few of us who are true necromancers.”

I took back my hand. “I already had a teacher”

He smiled, held the door for Sabin, and out they went. Jean-Claude and I stood a moment in silence. I broke it first. “Can you trust them?”

Jean-Claude sat on the edge of my desk, smiling. “Of course not.”

“Then why did you agree to let them come?”

“The council has declared that no master vampires in the United States may quarrel until that nasty law that is floating around Washington is dead. One undead war, and the anti-vampire lobby would push through the law and make us illegal again.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think Brewster’s Law has a snowball’s chance. Vampires are legal in the United States. Whether I agree with it or not, I don’t think that’s going to change.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“It’s sort of hard to say a group of beings is alive and has rights, then change your mind and say killing them on sight is okay again. The ACLU would have a field day.”

He smiled. “Perhaps. Regardless, the council has forced a truce on all of us until the law is decided one way or another.”

“So you can let Sabin in your territory, because if he misbehaves, the council will hunt him down and kill him.”

Jean-Claude nodded.

“But you’d still be dead,” I said.

He spread his hands, graceful, empty. “Nothing’s perfect.”

I laughed. “I guess not.”

“Now, aren’t you going to be late for your date with Monsieur Zeeman?”

“You’re being awfully civilized about this,” I said.

“Tomorrow night you will be with me, ma petite. I would be a poor . . . sport to begrudge Richard his night.”

“You’re usually a poor sport.”

“Now, ma petite,that is hardly fair. Richard is not dead, is he?”

“Only because you know that if you kill him, I’ll hate you.”

“So, Richard lives, you date us both, and I am being patient. More patient than I have ever been with anyone.”

I studied his face. He was one of those men who was beautiful rather than handsome, but the face was masculine; you wouldn’t mistake him for female, even with the long hair. In fact, there was something terribly masculine about Jean-Claude, no matter how much lace he wore.

He could be mine: lock, stock, and fangs. I just wasn’t sure I wanted him. “I’ve got to go,” I said.

He pushed away from my desk. He was suddenly standing close enough to touch. “Then go, ma petite.”

I could feel his body inches from mine like a shimmering energy. I had to swallow before I could speak. “It’s my office. You have to leave.”

He touched my arms lightly, a brush of fingertips. “Enjoy your evening, ma petite.” His fingers wrapped around my arms, just below the shoulders. He didn’t lean over me or draw me that last inch closer. He simply held my arms, and stared down at me.

I met his dark, dark blue eyes. There had been a time not so long ago that I couldn’t have met his gaze without falling into it and being lost. Now I could meet his eyes, but in some ways, I was just as lost. I raised up on tiptoe, putting my face close to his.

“I should have killed you a long time ago.”

“You have had your chances, ma petite. You keep saving me.”

“My mistake,” I said.

He laughed, and the sound slid down my body like fur against naked skin. I shuddered in his arms.

“Stop that,” I said.

He kissed me lightly, a brush of lips, so I couldn’t feel the fangs. “You would miss me if I were gone, ma petite. Admit it.”

I drew away from him. His hands slid down my arms, over my hands, until I drew my fingertips across his hands. “I love you.”

“So you said.”

“Get out. Jean-Claude, no more games.”

His face sobered instantly as if a hand had wiped it clean. “No more games, ma petite. Go to your other lover.” It was his turn to raise a hand and say, “I know you are not truly lovers. I know you are resisting both of us. Brave, ma petite.” A flash of something, maybe anger, crossed his face and was gone like a ripple lost in dark water.

“Tomorrow night you will be with me and it will be Richard’s turn to sit at home and wonder.” He shook his head. “Even for you I would not have done what Sabin has done. Even for your love, there are things I would not do.” He stared at me suddenly fierce, anger flaring through his eyes, his face. “But what I do is enough.”

“Don’t go all self-righteous on me,” I said. “If you would tell me you loved me, and I knew you met it, I wouldn’t be with Richard ”

“And what? You would move into the Circus of the Damned and be my human servant again. I think you lie to yourself more than to me, Anna.”

It was always a bad sign when he used my real name. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, ma petite, that you are as in love with me as I am with you.” With that, he glided to the door and left. He closed the door quietly but firmly behind him.

I knew he was right because if I loved Jean-Claude as much as I said I did I would tell him what I really was.

———- 48

Chapter 48
Richard Zeeman entered the room. I didn’t actually see him enter. I felt it. I turned and watched him walk towards us. He was six foot one, nearly a foot taller than me. Another inch and we couldn’t have kissed without a chair. But it would have been worth the effort. He wove between the other guests, saying a word here and there. His smile flashed white and perfect in his permanently tanned skin as he talked to these new friends that he’d managed to charm at dinner. Not with sex appeal or power but with sheer good will. He was the world’s biggest boy scout, the original hail fellow, well met. He liked people and was a wonderful listener, two qualities that are highly underrated.

His suit was dark brown, his shirt a deep orangey gold. The tie was a brighter orange with a line of small figures down the middle of it. You had to be standing right next to him to realize the figures were Warner Brothers cartoons.

He’d tied his shoulder-length hair back from his face in a version of a french braid, so the illusion was that his brown hair was very short. It left his face clean and very visible. His cheekbones were perfect, sculpted high and graceful. His face was masculine, handsome, with a dimple to soften it. It was the kind of face that would have made me shy in high school.

He noticed me watching him and smiled. His brown eyes sparkled with the smile, filling with heat that had nothing to do with room temperature. I watched him walk the last few feet, and felt heat rise up my neck into my face. I wanted to undress him, to touch his bare skin, to see what was under that suit. I wanted that very badly. I wouldn’t, because I wasn’t sleeping with Richard, either. I wasn’t sleeping with the vampire or the werewolf. Richard was the werewolf. It was his only fault. Okay, maybe one other: he’d never killed anybody. That last fault might get him killed someday.

I slid my left arm around his waist, under the unbuttoned jacket. The solid warmth of him beat like a pulse against my body. If we didn’t have sex soon, I was simply going to explode. What price morals?

Then my phone rang.I picked up the phone and said. “Hello?”

“It’s Edward.”

” Edward. What’s up?”

“I was just offered a contract on your life, for enough money to make it worth my while.”

I got really quiet. “Did you take it?”

“Would I be calling you if I had?”

“Maybe,” I said.

He laughed. “True, but I’m not going to take it.”

“Why not?”

“Friendship.”

“Try again,” I said.

“I figure I’ll get to kill more people guarding you. If I take the contract, I only get to kill you.”

“Comforting. Did you say guard?”

“I’ll be in town tomorrow.”

“You’re that sure someone else will take the contract?”

“I don’t even open my door for less than a hundred grand, Anna. Someone will take the hit, and it’ll be someone good. Not as good as me, but good.”

“Any advice until you get into town?”

“I haven’t given them my answer yet. That’ll delay them. Once I say no, it’ll take a little time to contact another hitter. You should be safe tonight. Enjoy your weekend off.”

“How did you know I had the weekend off?”

“Craig is a very talkative secretary. Very helpful.”

“I’ll have to speak to him about that,” I said.

“You do that.”

“You’re sure that there won’t be a hitter in town tonight?”

“Nothing in life is sure, Anna, but I wouldn’t like it if a client tried to hire me and then gave the job to someone else.”

“You lose many clients at your own hands?” I asked.

“No comment,” he said.

“So one last night of safety,” I said.

“Probably, but be careful anyway.”

“Who put the hit out on me?”

“I don’t know,” Edward said.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You have to know so you can get paid.”

“I go through intermediaries most of the time. Keeps down the chance that the next client is a cop.”

“How do you find wayward clients if they piss you off?”

“I can find them, but it takes time. Anna, if you’ve got a really good hitter on your tail, time is something you won’t have.”

“Oh, that was comforting.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be comforting,” he said, “Can you think of anyone who hates you so badly and has this kind of money?”

I thought about that for a minute. “No. Most of the people that would fit the bill are dead.”

“The only good enemy is a dead enemy,” Edward said.

“Yeah.”

“I heard a rumor that you’re dating the master of the city. Is that true?”

I hesitated. I realized I was embarrassed to admit the truth to Edward. “Yeah, it’s true.”

“I had to hear you say it.” I could almost hear him shake his head over the phone. “Damn, Anna, you know better than that.”

“I know,” I said.

“Did you dump Richard?”

“No.”

“Which monster are you with tonight, bloodsucker or flesh-eater?”

“None of your business,” I said.

“Fine. Pick the monster of your choice tonight, Anna, have a good time. Tomorrow we start trying to keep you alive.” He hung up. If it had been anybody else, I’d have said he was angry about me dating a vampire. Or maybe disappointed would be a better word.

I hung up the phone and sat there for a few minutes, letting it all sink in. Someone was trying to kill me. Nothing new there, but this someone was hiring expert help. That was new. I’d never had an assassin after me before. I waited to feel fear wash over me, but it didn’t. Oh, in a vague sort of way, I was afraid, but not like I should have been. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it could happen. I did believe. It was more that so much else had happened in the last year that I couldn’t get too excited yet. If the assassin jumped out and started shooting, I’d deal with it. Maybe later I’d even have an attack of nerves. But I didn’t get many attacks of nerves anymore. Part of me was numbing out like a combat veteran. There was just too much to take in, so you stop taking it in. I almost wished I had been scared. Fear will keep you alive; indifference won’t.

Somewhere out there, by tomorrow, someone would have my name on a to-do list. Pick up dry cleaning, buy groceries, kill Anna Blake.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

“What’s wrong?” Richard asked.

“Nothing,” I said. I know, I know, I had to tell him, but how do you tell your boyfriend that people are trying to kill you? Not in a room full of people. Maybe in the car.

“Yes, there is. You’ve got that tension between your eyebrows that means you’re trying not to frown.”

“No, I’m not.”

He smoothed his finger between my eyes. “Yes, you are.”

I glared at him. “Am not.”

He smiled. “Now you are frowning.” His face sobered. “What’s wrong”

I sighed. I stepped closer to him, not for romance but for privacy. Vampires had incredibly good hearing, and I didn’t want Robert to know. He’d tattle to Jean-Claude. If I wanted Jean-Claude to know, I’d tell him myself.

“It was Edward on the phone.”

“What does he want?” Richard was frowning now, too.

“Someone tried to hire him to kill me.”

A look of total astonishment blossomed on his face, and I was glad his back was to the room. He closed his mouth, opened it, and finally said, “I would say you’re kidding, but I know you’re not. Why would anyone want to kill you?”

“There are plenty of people who would like to see me dead, Richard. But none of them have the kind of money that’s being put out for the hit.”

“How can you be so calm about this?”

“Would it solve anything if I had hysterics?”

He shook his head. “It’s not that.” He seemed to think for a second. “It’s that you’re not outraged that someone’s trying to kill you. You just accept it, almost like it’s normal. It isn’t normal.”

“Assassins aren’t normal, even for me, Richard,” I said.

“Just vampires, zombies, and werewolves,” he said.

I smiled. “Yeah.”

He hugged me tightly and whispered, “Loving you can be very scary sometimes.”

I wrapped my arms around his waist, leaning my face against his chest. I closed my eyes, and for just a moment I breathed in the smell of him. It was more than his aftershave; it was the smell of his skin, his warmth. Him. For just a moment, I sank against him and let it all go. I let his arms be my shelter. I knew that a well-placed bullet would destroy it all, but for a few seconds, I felt safe. Illusion is sometimes all that keeps us sane.

I pushed away from him with a sigh. “Let’s get out of here.”

He touched my cheek gently, looking into my eyes. “We can stay if you want.”

I nestled my cheek against his hand and shook my head. “If things go bad tomorrow, I don’t want to spend tonight at a party. I’d rather go back to my apartment and cuddle.”

He flashed me that smile that warmed me down to my toes. “Sounds like a plan to me.”

Leaving early to jump Richard’s bones beat the heck out of the truth. Monica watched us leave. I knew that she and Robert would report back to Jean-Claude. Fine. He knew I was dating Richard. I hadn’t lied to anybody.

The walk to the car was nerve-racking. Every shadow was suddenly a potential hiding place. Every noise a footstep. I didn’t draw my knives, but my hand ached to do it. “Dang it,” I said, softly. The numbness was wearing off. I wasn’t sure it was an improvement.

“What is it?” Richard asked. He was suddenly scanning the darkness, not looking at me while he talked. His nostrils flared just a little, and I realized he was scenting the wind.

“Just jumpy. I don’t see anyone out here, but I’m suddenly looking too hard.”

“I don’t smell anyone close to us, but they could be downwind.”

I smiled and shook my head. “You are so blasted normal, sometimes I forget you turn furry once a month.”

“Knowing how good you are at spotting lycanthropes, that’s quite a compliment.” He smiled. “Do you think assassins would fall from the trees if I held your hand right now?”

I smiled. “I think we’re safe for the moment.”

He curved his fingers around my hand, and a tingle went up my arm like he’d touched a nerve. He rubbed his thumb in small circles on the back of my hand and took a deep breath. “It’s almost nice to know that this assassin business has unnerved you, too. I don’t want you afraid, but sometimes it’s hard to be your guy when I think you may be braver than I am. That sounds like macho crap, doesn’t it?”

I stared up at him. “There’s a lot of macho crap out there, Richard. At least you know it’s crap.”

“Can this male chauvinist wolf kiss you?”

“Always.”

He leaned his face downward, and I rose on tiptoe to meet his mouth with mine, my free hand against his chest for balance. We could kiss without me going on tiptoe, but Richard tended to get a crick in his neck.

It was a quicker kiss than normal because I had this itching in the middle of my back, right between the shoulder blades. I knew it was my imagination, but I felt too exposed out in the open.

Richard sensed it and pulled away. He went around to the driver’s side of his car and opened his door, leaning across to unlock mine. He didn’t open the door for me. He knew better than that. I could open my own bloody door.

Richard’s car was an old Mustang, sixty something, a Mach One. I knew all this because he had told me. It was orange with a black racing stripe. The bucket seats were black leather, but the front seat was small enough that we could hold hands when he wasn’t using the gear shift.

Richard pulled out onto 270 South. Friday night traffic spilled around us in a bright sparkle of lights. Everybody out trying to enjoy the weekend. I wondered how many of them had assassins after them. I was betting I was one of the few.

“You’re quiet,” Richard said.

“Yeah.”

“I won’t ask what you’re thinking about. I can guess.”

I looked at him. The darkness of the car wrapped around us. Cars at night are like your own private world, hushed and dark, intimate. The lights of oncoming traffic swept over his face, highlighting it, then leaving us in darkness.

“How do you know I’m not thinking about what you’d look like without your clothes on?”

He flashed me a grin. “Tease.”

I smiled. “Sorry. No sexual innuendo unless I’m willing to jump your bones.”

“That’s your rule, not mine,” Richard said. “I’m a big boy. Give me all the sexual innuendo you want, I can take it.”

“If I’m not going to sleep with you, it doesn’t seem fair.”

“Let me worry about that,” he said.

“Why, Mr. Zeeman, are you inviting me to make sexual overtures to you?”

His smile widened, a whiteness in the dark. “Oh, please.”

I leaned toward him as far as the seat belt would allow, putting a hand on the back of his seat, putting my face inches from the smooth expanse of his neck. I took a deep breath in and let it out, slowly, so close to his skin that my own breath came back to me like a warm cloud. I kissed the bend of his neck, running my lips lightly up and down the skin.

Richard made a small, contented sound.

I curled my knees into my seat, straining against the seat belt so I could kiss the big pulse in his neck, the curve of his jaw. He turned his face into me. We kissed, but my nerves weren’t that good. I turned his face away. “You watch the road.”

He shifted gears, his upper arm brushing against my breasts. I sighed against him, putting my hand over his, holding it on the gear shift, keeping his arm pressed against me.

We stayed frozen for a second, then he moved against me, rubbing. I scooted out from under his arm, settling back into my seat. I couldn’t breathe past the pulse in my throat. I shivered, hugging myself. The feel of his body against mine made places all over my body tighten.

“What’s wrong?” he said, his voice low and soft.

I shook my head. “We can’t keep doing this.”

“If you stopped because of me, I was enjoying myself.”

“So was I. That’s the problem,” I said.

Richard took in a deep breath and let it out, sighing. “It’s only a problem because you make it one, Anna.”

“Yeah, right.”

Richard said. “I want us to cuddling on the couch, watching Singing in the Rain. Eat Chinese and know to get that extra order of crab Rangoon. I can order for both of us at most of the restaurants in town.”

“Are you saying I’m predictable?”

“Don’t do that. Don’t belittle it,” he said.

I sighed. “I’m sorry, Richard. I didn’t mean to. I just . . .”

I didn’t know what to say because he was right. My day was more complete for having been shared with Richard. I bought him a mug that I just happened to see in a store. It had wolves on it, and said, “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world–the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” It was a quote from John Muir. No special occasion, just saw it, knew Richard would like it, bought it. A dozen times a day I’d hear something on the radio or in conversation, and I’d think, I must remember and tell Richard. It was Richard who took me on my first bird-watching trip since my father left.

I’d enjoyed the bird-watching, partly because he was with me, partly because I’d enjoyed it years ago. It was like I’d forgotten that there was life outside of hiding, cleaning knives, and a grave side. I’d been neck deep in blood and death so long; then Richard came along. Richard who was also neck deep in strange stuff, but who managed to have a life.

I liked waking up beside him, reaching for his body first thing in the morning, knowing I’d be coming home to him. Listening to his collection of Rodgers and Hammerstein, watching his face while he watched Gene Kelly musicals.

I loved Richard; I could admit that to myself, but it wasn’t enough. There was an assassin after me. How could I involve a mild-mannered junior high teacher in that kind of life? He was one of the monsters, but he didn’t accept it. He was in a battle for leadership of the local werewolf pack. He’d beaten the current pack leader, Marcus, twice, and twice refused the kill. If you didn’t kill, you didn’t get to be leader. Richard clung to his morals. Clung to values that only worked when people weren’t trying to kill you. If I married him, his chance at any kind of normal life was gone. I lived in a sort of free-fire zone. Richard deserved better.

Jean-Claude lived in the same world that I did. He had no illusions about the kindness of strangers, or anyone else for that matter. The vampire wouldn’t he shocked at the news of an assassin. He’d simply help me plan what to do about it. It wouldn’t throw him, or not much. There were nights when I thought that Jean-Claude and I deserved each other.

Richard turned off onto Olive. We were soon going to be at my apartment, and the silence was getting a little thick. Silences don’t usually bother me, but this one did. “I’m sorry, Richard. I am so sorry.”

“If I didn’t know you loved me, this would be easier,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that damned vampire, you’d be with me.”

“That vampire introduced us,” I said.

“And he’s regretting it, don’t think he isn’t,” Richard said.

I looked at him. “How do you know that?”

He shook his head. “All you have to do is see his face when we’re together. I may not like Jean-Claude, and I hate the thought of you with him, but we aren’t the only two hurting here. It’s a threesome, don’t think it’s not.”

I huddled in my seat, suddenly miserable. I’d have almost welcomed a hit man appearing out of the darkness. Killing I understood. Relationships confused me. Admittedly, this relationship was more confusing than most.

Richard turned into the parking lot of my apartment building. He parked the car and turned off the engine. We sat there in the dark, the only illumination the distant glow of a street light.

“I don’t know what to say, Richard.” I stared out through the windshield, concentrating on the side of the building, too cowardly to look at him while I talked. “I wouldn’t blame you for just saying to heck with it. I wouldn’t put up with this kind of indecision from you, and I wouldn’t share you with another woman.” I finally looked at him. He was staring straight ahead, not looking at me.

My heart sped up. If I was truly as brave as I thought I was, I’d have let him go. But I loved him, and I wasn’t that brave. The best I could do was not sleep with him. Not take the relationship that next step forward. That was hard enough. Even my self-control wasn’t limitless. With an end in sight, my self-control would have appeared endless, but there was no end in sight. Chastity works better if you don’t keep testing it quite so often.

I unbuckled the seat belt, unlocked and opened the door. Richard touched my shoulder before I could get out. “Aren’t you going to invite me up?”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and turned back to him. “Do you want to be invited up?”

He nodded.

“I don’t know why you put up with me,” I said.

He smiled. He leaned into me, a light brush of lips. “Sometimes I’m not sure, myself.”

We got out. Richard held his hand out to me, and I took it.

A car pulled in behind us, beside my own Jeep. It was my neighbor, Mrs. Pringle. She had a huge television box tied into her trunk.

We walked to the sidewalk and waited for her to get out. She was a tall woman, stretched almost painfully thin with age. Her snow white hair was done in a bun at the back of her head. Custard, her Pomeranian, jumped out of the car and stood yapping at us. He looked like a golden powder puff with little cat feet. He bounced forward on stiff legs. He sniffed Richard’s foot and looked up at him with a small growl.

Mrs. Pringle tugged on his leash. “Custard, behave yourself.”

The dog quieted, but I think it was more Richard’s steady glare than Mrs. Pringle’s admonishments. She smiled at us. She had the same light in her eyes that Catherine had had. She liked Richard and made no bones about it.

“Well, now, this is advantageous. I need some strong young arms to carry that monstrous television up the stairs for me.”

Richard smiled at her. “Happy to oblige.” He walked around to the trunk and started trying to undo the knots.

“What’d you do with Custard while you shopped?” I asked.

“I carried him with me. I’ve spent a great deal of money at that store before. The salesmen fairly salivate when I come through the doors, so they indulge me.”

I had to smile. There was a sharp twang as the ropes broke. “I’ll help Richard.” I walked back to the trunk. The rope was an inch thick and flopped, broken, onto the pavement. I raised eyebrows at him and whispered, “My, my, Grandma, what strong hands you have.”

“I could carry the television up alone, but it might arouse suspicions.”

It was a thirty-inch wide screen. “You could really carry it up the stairs by yourself?”

“Easily,” he said.

I shook my head. “But you’re not going to because you are a mild-mannered science teacher, not an alpha werewolf.”

“Which is why you get to help me,” he said.

“Are you having trouble undoing the rope?” Mrs. Pringle asked. She’d walked back to us with Custard in tow.

“No,” I said, giving Richard a look. “We’ve got the rope.” If people found out Richard was a lycanthrope, he’d lose his job. It was illegal to discriminate, but it happened all the time. Richard taught children. He’d be branded a monster, and most people didn’t let monsters near their children.

Mrs. Pringle and Custard led the way. I went up backwards, sort of steadying the box, but Richard took all the weight. He walked up the stairs like the box weighed nothing, pushing with his legs, waiting for me to go up another step. He made a face at me, soundlessly humming under his breath as if he was bored. Lycanthropes are stronger than your run-of-the-mill human being. I knew that, but it was still a little unsettling to be reminded.

We made it to the hallway, and he let me have some of the weight. The thing was heavy, but I held on, and we kept moving towards Mrs. Pringle’s apartment, which was right across the hall from mine.

“I’ve got the door opened,” she called.

We were at the door, starting to maneuver through, when Custard darted between us, underneath the box, trailing his leash. Mrs. Pringle was trapped behind the television. “Custard, come back here.”

Richard lifted with his forearms, taking the weight. “Get him. I can get inside.”

I let him pretend to struggle inside the apartment and went for the dog. I expected to have to chase him down the hall, but he was sniffing at my door, whining. I knelt and grabbed the end of his leash, pulling him back towards me.

Mrs. Pringle was at her door, smiling. “I see you caught the little rascal.”

I handed her the leash. “I’ve got to get something out of my apartment. I’m sure Richard can help you set up the TV.”

“Thanks a lot,” he called from inside the apartment.

Mrs. Pringle laughed. “I’ll give you both some iced tea, unless you have better things to do.” There was a knowing look in her blue eyes that made me blush. She winked at me, I kid you not. When the door was safely closed with her and Richard on the other side, I walked toward my apartment. Three doors down, I crossed the hallway. I took a knife out and eased back towards my door. Maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe Custard hadn’t smelled anybody in my apartment. But he’d never whined at my door like that before. Maybe Edward’s phone call was making me jumpy. But better jumpy than dead. Paranoid it was.

I knelt by the door and took a breath, letting it out slowly. I took my keys out of my jacket pocket left-handed. I scrunched down as low as I could get and still have a decent throwing stance. If there was a bad guy in there, he’d probably shoot at chest level. On my knees I was a lot shorter than chest level. I pushed the key in the lock. Nothing happened. The apartment was probably empty, except for my fish wondering what the heck I was doing. I turned the knob, pushed the door inward, and a hole exploded out through the door, thundering over my head like a cannon shot. There was no sound for a second. The door swung closed with the force of the shot, and through the hole in the door I saw a man with a shotgun raised to his shoulder. I throw through the hole. The door bounced open, still reverberating from the shotgun blast. I threw myself onto one side, gun pointed through the open door.

The shotgun fired again, showering the hallway with bits of wood. I throw two more knives, hitting the man in the chest both times. He staggered, blood blossoming on his coat, and fell straight back. The shotgun fell to the carpet near his feet.

I got to my knees, back pressed to the wall near my kitchenette. All I could hear was a roaring in my ears, then dimly my own blood rushing through my head.

Richard was suddenly there in the doorway, like a target. “Get down! He may not be alone!” I wasn’t sure how loud I was yelling. My ears were still ringing.

Richard crouched beside me. I think he said my name, but I didn’t have time for it. I pushed upward, my back to the wall, knife in hand. He started to stand. I said, “Stay down.” He did. Point for him.

I could see that there was no one in front of my apartment. Unless there was somebody hiding in the bedroom, the hit man had been alone. I approached him, slowly, knife pointed at him. If he’d twitched, I’d kill him, but he didn’t move. The shotgun was by his feet. I’d never seen anybody use a gun with their feet, so I left it where it was.

He lay on his back, one arm thrown up over his head, one down at his side. His face was slack with death, his eyes wide and unseeing. I didn’t really need to check for a pulse, but I did it anyway. Nothing. There were three knives in his chest. I’d hit him with the first throw, but it hadn’t been a killing blow. That had nearly cost me my life.

Richard came up behind me. “There’s no one else in the apartment, Anna.”

I didn’t argue with him. I didn’t ask if he knew this by smell or by hearing. I didn’t bloody care. I checked the bedroom and bathroom just to be thorough and came back out to find Richard staring down at the dead man.

“Who is he?” Richard asked.

It occurred to me that I could hear again. Bully for me. I still had a faint ringing in my ears, but it would pass. “I don’t know.”

Richard looked at me. “Was he the . . . hitter?”