Affliction, p.1Part #22 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
My gun was digging into my back, so I shifted forward in my office chair. That was better; now it was just the comforting pressure of the inner-skirt holster, tucked away underneath my short royal blue suit jacket. I'd stopped wearing my shoulder holster except when I was on an active warrant as a U. S. Marshal. When I was working at Animators Inc. and seeing clients, the behind-the-back holster was less likely to flash and make them nervous. You'd think if someone was asking me to raise the dead for them that they'd have better nerves, but guns seemed to scare them a lot more than talking about zombies. It was different once the zombie was raised and they were looking at the walking dead; then suddenly the guns didn't bother them nearly as much, but until that Halloweenesque moment I tried to keep the weapons out of sight. There was a knock on my office door and Mary, our daytime receptionist, opened it without my saying Come in, which she'd never done in the six years we'd been working together, so I wasn't grumpy about the interruption. I just looked up from double-checking my client meetings to make sure there wouldn't be any overlap issues and knew something was up, and knowing Mary it would be important. She was like that.
She'd finally let her hair go gray, but it was still in the same obviously artificial hairdo that it had always been. She'd let herself get a little plump as she neared sixty and had finally embraced glasses full time. The combination of it all had aged her about ten years, but she seemed happy with it, saying, 'I'm a grandma; I'm okay with looking like one. ' The look on her face was sad and set in sympathetic lines. It was the face she used to deal with grieving families who wanted their loved ones raised from the dead. Having that face aimed at me sped my pulse and tightened my stomach.
I made myself take a deep breath and let it out slow as Mary closed the door behind her and started walking toward my desk. 'What's wrong?' I asked.
'I didn't want to tell you over the phone with all the clients listening,' she said.
'Tell me what?' I asked, and fought the urge not to raise my voice. She was about one more uninformative answer away from getting yelled at.
'There's a woman on line two; she says she's your future mother-in-law. I told her you weren't engaged to my knowledge, and she said that she didn't know what to call herself since you were just living with her son. '
I was actually living with several men, but most of them didn't have families to use words like son. 'Name, Mary, what's her name?' My voice was rising a little.
'Morgan, Beatrice Morgan. '
I frowned at her. 'I'm not living with anyone named Morgan. I've never even dated anyone with that last name. '
'I didn't recognize it from your boyfriends, but she said that the father is hurt, maybe dying, and she thought he'd want to know about his dad before it was too late. The emotion is real, Anita. I'm sorry, maybe she's crazy, but sometimes people don't think clearly when their husband is hurt. I didn't want to just write her off as crazy; I mean, I don't know the last names of everyone you're dating. '
I started to tell her to ignore the call, but looking into Mary's face I couldn't do it. I'd trusted her to screen callers for years. She had a good feel for distraught versus crazy. 'She give a first name for her son?'
I shook my head. 'I've never dated a Mike Morgan. I don't know why she called here, but she's got the wrong Anita Blake. '
Mary nodded, but her expression looked unhappy. 'I'll tell her that you don't know a Mike Morgan. '
'Do that. She's either got the wrong Anita Blake, or she's crazy. '
'She doesn't sound crazy, just upset. '
'You know that crazy doesn't mean the emotion isn't real, Mary. Sometimes the delusion is so real they believe it all. '
Mary nodded again and went out to tell Beatrice Morgan she had the wrong number. I went back to checking the last of my client meetings. I wanted to make sure that no matter how long it took to raise each zombie, I wouldn't be too late for the next cemetery. Clients tended to get spooked if you left them hanging out in graveyards too long by themselves. At least most of the meetings were historical societies and lawyers checking wills, with the families of the deceased either long dead or not allowed near the zombie until after the will was settled in case just seeing the loved ones influenced the zombie to change its mind about the last will and testament. I wasn't sure it was possible to sway a zombie that way, but I approved of the new court ruling that families couldn't see the deceased until after all court matters were cleared up, just in case. Have one billionaire inheritance overturned because of undue influence on a zombie and everybody got all weird about it.
Mary came through the door without knocking. 'Micah. Mike was his nickname as a kid. Morgan is her name from her second marriage. It was Callahan. Micah Callahan's mother is on line two, and his dad is in the hospital. '
'Shit!' I said, picking up the phone and hitting the button to put the call through. 'Mrs Callahan, I mean, Mrs Morgan, this is Anita Blake. '
'Oh, thank God, I'm so sorry. I just forgot about the names. I've been Beatrice Morgan for eighteen years, since Micah was twelve, and he was Mike to us. He didn't like Micah when he was a little boy. He thought Mike was more grown up. ' She was crying softly, I could hear it in her voice, but her words were clear, well enunciated. It made me wonder what she did for a living, but I didn't ask. It could wait; it was just one of the thoughts you have when you're trying not to get caught up in the emotions of a situation. Think, don't feel, just think.
'You told our receptionist that Micah's dad was hurt. '
'Yes, Rush, that's my ex, his father, was attacked by something. His deputy said it was a zombie, but the bite isn't human, and it's like he's infected with something from it. '
'Zombies rarely attack people. '
'I know that!' She yelled it. I heard her taking deep breaths, drawing in her calm. I heard the effort over the phone, could almost feel her gathering herself back. 'I'm sorry. When Mike left us he was so horrible, but Rush said he'd found out that Mike did it to protect all of us and that some of the people had their families hurt by these people. '
'What people?' I asked.
'Rush wouldn't tell me details, said it was a police matter. He was always doing that when we were married, drove me nuts, but he said that he'd found out enough to know that other wereanimals in that group had their families killed, and Mike had to convince them he hated us, or they would have hurt us. Do you know if that's true? Does Mike want to see his father? Does he want to see any of us?' She was crying again, and just stopped trying to talk. She hadn't been married to the man for nearly twenty years, and she was still this upset. Crap.
I was remembering that Micah's dad was a sheriff of some flavor, and now his mom was telling me that somehow the dad had found out more about Micah and his animal group than I thought anyone with a badge, besides me, knew. I'd had to kill people to rescue Micah and his group, and I hadn't had a warrant of execution, so it was murder. I was a little leery that Sheriff Callahan apparently knew more about it all than I'd thought. I knew that Micah hadn't talked to his family in years, so how had his dad found out, and how much did he know?
It was my turn to take a deep breath and make myself stop being so damn paranoid and deal with the crying woman on the other end of the phone. 'Mrs Morgan, Mrs Morgan, how did you know to call here? Who gave you this number?' Maybe if I made her think about something more ordinary she'd calm down.
She sniffled and then said, in a voice that was hiccupy, as she tried to swallow past the emotion, 'We saw Mike in the news as the head of the Coalition. '
'The Coalition for Better Understanding between humans and shapeshifters,' I said.
'Yes' - and the word was calmer - 'yes, and you were mentioned in several stories as living with him. '
I wondered if the stories had talked about Nathaniel, the guy who lived with us, or the fact that I was also 'dating' Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St Louis? I almost never watched the news, so I didn't always know what was being said in the media about any of us.
'Why didn't you call the Coalition number and ask for Micah directly?'
'He said really awful things to me last time we spoke, Ms Blake. I think I'd fall completely apart if he said that again to me with Rush hurt like this. Can you please tell him, and then if Mike wants to see us, to see Rush, before . . . in time . . . I mean . . . Oh, God, I'm usually better than this, but it's so terrible what's happening to Rush, so hard to watch. '
'Happening? What do you mean?'
'He's rotting . . . he's rotting alive and aware and the doctors can't stop it. They have drugs that can slow it, but nothing slows it down much. '
'I'm sorry, I don't understand. You mean that something preternatural attacked Mr Callahan and now he's got some disease?'
'Yes,' she said, almost a breath rather than a word.
'But they've seen it before, this disease?'
'Yes, they say it's the first case outside the East Coast, but they've learned enough to slow it down. There's no cure, though. I overheard a nurse call it the zombie disease, but she got in trouble for saying it. The older nurse said, "Don't give it a name that the media will love. " I heard doctors whispering that it's just a matter of time before it hits the news. '
'Why do they call it the zombie disease?' I asked, partly to just give myself time to think.
'You rot from the outside in, so you're aware the whole time. Apparently it's incredibly quick, and they've only managed to prolong the life of one other person. ' Her breath came out in a shudder.
'Mrs Morgan, there are questions I want to ask, but I'm afraid they'll upset you more. '
'Ask, just ask,' she said.
I took in a deep breath, let it out slow, and finally said, 'You said prolong. For how long?'
'Five days. '
Shit, I thought. Out loud I said, 'Give me an address, phone numbers, and I'll tell Micah. ' I started to promise we'd be there, but I couldn't promise for him. He'd been estranged from his family for about ten years. Just because I'd have gotten on a plane for my semi-estranged family didn't mean he'd do the same. I took down all the information as if I were sure of his answer.
'Thank you, thank you so much. I knew it was the right thing to do to call another woman. We manage the men so much more than they think, don't we?'
'Actually Micah manages me more than the other way around. '
'Oh, is it because you're police like Rush? Is it more about the badge than being a man?'
'I think so,' I said.
'You'll bring Micah?'
I didn't want to lie to her, but I wasn't sure the absolute truth was anything she could handle; she needed something to hang on to, to look forward to while she sat and watched her ex-husband rot while still alive. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, just thinking it was terrible. I couldn't leave her to watch it with no hope, so I lied.
'Of course,' I said.
'See, I'm right, you just say you'll bring him. You manage him more than you think. '
'Maybe so, Mrs Morgan, maybe so. '
She sounded calmer as she said, 'Beatrice, Bea, to my friends. Bring my son home, Anita, please. '
What could I say? 'I will . . . Bea. '
I hung up, hoping I hadn't lied to her.
Under other circumstances I would have softened the news, maybe even had Nathaniel with me to help ease Micah into the family disaster, but there wasn't time to be gentle. I had to tell him like jerking off a bandage, because the one thing I didn't want to have happen was his father dying before Micah could say good-bye because I had delayed. So I had to not think too much about what effect it would have on the man I loved and the life we'd built together. Like so often in my life, I just had to do it.
I used my cell phone instead of going through the business lines. He'd see it was me, and he'd pick up without my going through his front office people. My stomach was in a hard knot, and only years of practice kept my breathing even, and because I controlled my breathing I controlled my pulse, which wanted to speed up. I so didn't want to be the one to tell him this news, and yet I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather have done it. Some things you wish you could delegate, and simultaneously know you wouldn't, even if you could.
'How did you know I was just thinking about you?' he asked, not even a hello, just his voice warm and happy that it was me. I could picture him sitting at his desk, his suit tailored down to his slender, athletic body. He was my height, five foot three, but with wide shoulders leading down to a slender waist. He was built like a swimmer, though running was his exercise of choice. His curly, deep brown hair was just past his shoulders now, because we'd carefully negotiated both of us cutting a few inches off our hair, without breaking our deal, which was if one of us cut our hair, the other one got to cut theirs.
I should have said something romantic back to him, but I was too scared, too full of the bad news that I had to tell him. I had to just do it, no hesitation, no games, no words of comfort, because anything but just saying it was only going to make it worse, like I was lying to him, or putting sugar in the poison. I wrapped the sound of his happy, loving voice around me like a warm, safe blanket, and then I said, 'Your mom just called me. '
The silence on the other end of the phone was loud, because I could hear my blood rushing through my ears. My breathing sped up as Micah's stopped, my pulse thundering while his paused, as if his whole body had taken that breath just before you launch yourself over the cliff.
I couldn't stand the silence. I said, 'Micah, did you hear me?'
'I heard you. ' There was no happy warmth to his voice now. His voice was as empty as he could make it; if there was any emotion it was a cold anger. I'd never heard him like that. It scared me, and that made me angry, because it was stupid to be scared, but it was that emotional scared - when you acknowledge how important someone is to you and your world and yet know that they are a separate person capable of fucking everything up with a few bad decisions. I trusted Micah not to do that, but I also hated being that dependent on anyone emotionally. I allowed myself to love, but part of me was still afraid of it. That part of me tried to make me angry at him in a sort of knee-jerk reaction, a preemptive strike. If I lashed out first it wouldn't hurt so much, or that had been the idea I'd lived with in my subconscious for years. Now I knew better, but the old habit was still in me. I just had to ignore it and be reasonable. But none of me liked the fact that he was this emotional with just the news that his mother had called me; I hadn't even gotten to the part about his dad. It didn't bode well for how he'd take it.
'What did she want?' he asked, still in that strange, cold voice.
I took in a breath and let it out slow, counting to help calm all the neurotic impulses I had around this much relationship emotion, and spoke, calmly, in a voice that came out ordinary and a little cold. I wouldn't be angry as a first strike, but the old habit of preferring anger to being hurt was still a part of me. I was working on it, but something about the whole conversation had hit an issue of mine. I was better than this, damn it. I wasn't the sad, angry girl he'd first met.
'Your father is hurt, maybe dying. Probably dying,' and my voice wasn't angry now, or cold, but more apologetic. Shit, I so sucked at this.
'Anita, what are you talking about?'
I started over and told him everything I knew, which seemed like damned little under the circumstances.
'How bad is he hurt?'
'I've told you what I know. '
'He's dying? My dad is dying?'
'That's what your mom said; she seemed pretty hysterical about it, actually. '
'She was always pretty emotional. It kind of balanced Dad's stoicism out. Anita, I can't think. I feel stuck. '
'You want to see your father, right?'
'If you mean do I want to make peace with him before he dies, then yes. '
'Okay, then we catch the first plane and get you to his bedside. '
'Okay,' he said. He sounded so unsure, so unlike himself.
'You want company?' I asked.
'What do you mean?'
'Do you want me to come with you?'
'Yes,' he said.
'Do you want Nathaniel to come?'
'I'll call him and let him know. I'll call Jean-Claude and see if his private plane is available. '
'Yes, good. Why can't I think?' he asked.
'You've just learned your dad is in the hospital and you're running out of time to make up with him. You're having to make up with your whole family during a crisis of epic proportions. Give yourself a few minutes to process, Micah. '
'Good points,' he said, but he still sounded shell-shocked.
'Do you need me to stay on the phone?'
'You can't call about the plane if you're talking to me,' he said. The words were reasonable; the tone was still stunned.
'True, but you sound like you need me to keep talking to you. '
'I do, but I need you to arrange the trip more. I'll give myself a few minutes to process and then I'll arrange for other people to take the business end here while I'm gone. '
'I'll do the same. '
'I love you,' he said.
'I love you more,' I said.
'I love you most. '
'I love you mostest. '
It was usually something that he, Nathaniel and I said to each other, but sometimes just two of us would do it. Sometimes you just needed it.
Affliction by Laurell K. Hamilton / Fantasy / Horror have rating 3.8 out of 5 / Based on38 votes