Guilty pleasures, p.10
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.10
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         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  "No!" I tried to pull my hand free. I went down on my knees in the cooling blood and screamed, "Let me go!"

  He sat up. He was covered in blood. The white shirt dripped with it, like a bloody rag.

  "No!"

  He pulled my arm closer to him, and pulled me with it. I braced one hand on the coffin. I would not go to him. I would not go! He bent over my arm, mouth wide, fangs reaching. His heart beat against the shadows like thunder. "Jean-Claude, no!"

  He looked up at me, just before he struck. "I had no choice." Blood began to drip down his face from his hair, until his face was a bloody mask. Fangs sank into my arm. I screamed, and woke sitting straight up in bed.

  The doorbell was buzzing. I scrambled out of bed, forgetting. I gasped. I had moved too fast for the beating I'd had last night. I ached all over in places I couldn't possibly be bruised. My hands were stiff with dried blood. They felt arthritic.

  The doorbell was buzzing continuously as if someone was leaning against it. Whoever it was, was going to get a hug for waking me up. I was sleeping in an oversized shirt. Pulling last night's jeans on was my version of a robe.

  I put Sigmund the stuffed penguin back with all the rest. The stuffed toys sat on a small loveseat against the far wall, under the window. Penguins lined the floor around it like a plump fuzzy tide.

  It hurt to move. It even felt tight when I breathed. I yelled, "I'm coming." It occurred to me, halfway to the door, that it might be someone unfriendly. I padded back into the bedroom and got my gun. My hand felt stiff and awkward around it. I should have cleaned and bandaged the hands last night. Oh, well.

  I knelt behind the chair Edward had moved in front of the door and called, "Who is it?"

  "It's Ronnie, Anita. We're supposed to work out this morning."

  It was Saturday. I had forgotten. It was always amazing how ordinary life was, even while people were trying to hurt you. I felt like Ronnie should know about last night. Something so extraordinary should touch all my life, but it didn't work that way. When I'd been in the hospital with my arm in traction and tubes running all through me, my stepmother had complained that I wasn't married yet. She's worried that I will be an old maid at the ripe age of twenty-four. Judith is not what you would call a liberated woman.

  My family does not cope well with what I do, the chances I take, the injuries. So they ignore it as best they can. Except for my sixteen-year-old stepbrother. Josh thinks I'm cool, neat, whatever word they're using now.

  Veronica Sims is different. She's my friend, and she understands. Ronnie is a private detective. We take turns visiting each other in the hospital.

  I opened the door and let her in, gun limp at my side. She took it all in and said, "Shit, you look awful."

  I smiled. "Well, at least I look like I feel."

  She came in and dropped her gym bag in front of the chair. "Can you tell me what happened?" Not a demand, a question. Ronnie understood that not everything could be shared.

  "Sorry that I won't be able to work out today."

  "Looks like you had all the workout you can handle. Go soak those hands in the sink. I'll make coffee. Okay?"

  I nodded and regretted it. Aspirins, aspirins sounded real good right now. I stopped just before I went into the bathroom. "Ronnie?"

  "Yes." She stood there in my small kitchen, a measuring cup of fresh coffee beans in one hand. She was five-nine. Sometimes, I forget how tall that is. It amazes people that we can run together. The trick is I set the pace, and I push myself. It's a very good workout.

  "I think I have some bagels in the fridge. Could you pop them in the microwave with some cheese?"

  She stared at me. "I've known you for three years, and this is the first time I've ever heard you ask for food before ten o'clock."

  "Listen, if it's too much trouble, forget it."

  "It isn't that, and you know it."

  "Sorry. I'm just tired."

  "Go doctor yourself, then you can tell me about it. Okay?"

  "Yeah." Soaking the hands did not make them feel better. It felt like I was peeling the skin off my fingers. I patted them dry and rubbed Neosporin ointment over the scrapes. "A topical antibacterial," the label read. By the time I finished all the Band-Aids, I looked like a pinkish-tan version of the mummy's hand.

  My back was a mass of dark bruises. My ribs were decorated in putrid purple. There wasn't much I could do about it, except hope the aspirin kicked in. Well, there was one thing I could do--move. Stretching exercises would limber the body and give me movement without pain, sort of. The stretching itself would feel like torture. I'd do it later. I needed to eat first.

  I was starving. Usually, the thought of eating before ten made me nauseous. This morning I wanted food, needed food. Very weird. Maybe it was stress.

  The smell of bagels and melting cheese made my stomach ripple. The smell of fresh brewed coffee made me want to chew the couch.

  I scarfed down two bagels and three cups of coffee while Ronnie sat across from me, sipping her first cup. I looked up and found her watching me. Her grey eyes were staring at me. I'd seen her look at suspects like that. "What?" I asked.

  She shrugged. "Nothing. Can you catch your breath and tell me about last night?"

  I nodded, and it didn't hurt as much. Aspirin, nature's gift to modern man. I told her, from Monica's call to my meeting with Valentine. I didn't tell her that it all took place at the Circus of the Damned. That was very dangerous information to have right now. And I left out the blue lights on the stairs, the sound of Jean-Claude's voice in my head. Something told me that was dangerous information, too. I've learned to trust my instincts, so I left it out.

  Ronnie's good, she looked at me, and said, "Is that everything?"

  "Yes." An easy lie, simple, one word. I don't think Ronnie bought it.

  "Okay." She took a sip of coffee. "What do you want me to do?"

  "Ask around. You have access to the hate groups. Like Humans Against Vampires, The League of Human Voters, the usual. See if any of them might be involved with the murders. I can't go near them." I smiled. "After all, animators are one of the groups they hate."

  "But you do kill vampires."

  "Yeah, but I also raise zombies. Too weird for the hardcore bigot."

  "All right. I'll check out HAV and the rest. Anything else?"

  I thought about it and shook my head, almost no pain at all. "Not that I can think of. Just be very careful. I don't want to endanger you the way I did Catherine."

  "That wasn't your fault."

  "Right."

  "It isn't your fault, none of this is."

  "Tell that to Catherine and her fiance if things go bad."

  "Anita, dammit, these creatures are using you. They want you discouraged and frightened, so they can control you. If you let the guilt mess with your head, you're going to get killed."

  "Well, gee, Ronnie, just what I wanted to hear. If this is your version of a pep talk, I'll skip the rally."

  "You don't need cheering up. You need a good shaking."

  "Thanks, I already had one last night."

  "Anita, listen to me." She was staring at me, eyes intense, her face searching mine, trying to see if I was really hearing her. "You've done all you can for Catherine. I want you to concentrate on keeping yourself alive. You're ass-deep in enemies. Don't get sidetracked."

  She was right. Do what you can and move on. Catherine was out of it, for now. It was the best I could do. "Ass-deep in enemies, but ankle-deep in friends."

  She grinned. "Maybe it'll even out."

  I cradled the coffee in my bandaged hands. Warmth radiated through the cup. "I'm scared."

  "Which proves you aren't as stupid as you look."

  "Gee, thanks a lot."

  "You're welcome." She raised her coffee cup in a salute. "To Anita Blake, animator, vampire slayer, and good friend. Watch your back."

  I clinked my cup against hers. "You watch yours, too. Being my friend right now may not be the healthiest of avocati
ons."

  "Since when was that a news bulletin?"

  Unfortunately, she had a point.

  17

  I HAD TWO choices after Ronnie left: I could go back to sleep, not a bad idea; or I could start solving the case that everyone was so eager for me to work on. I could get by on four hours sleep, for a while. I could not last nearly as long if Aubrey tore my throat out. Guess I would go to work.

  It is hard to wear a gun in St. Louis in the summertime. Shoulder or hip holster, you have the same problem. If you wear a jacket to cover the gun, you melt in the heat. If you keep the gun in your purse, you get killed, because no woman can find anything in her purse in under twelve minutes. It is a rule.

  No one had been shooting at me yet; I was encouraged by that. But I had also been kidnapped and nearly killed. I did not plan on it happening again without a fight. I could bench press a hundred pounds, not bad, not bad at all. But when you only weigh a hundred and six, it puts you at a disadvantage. I would bet on me against any human bad guy my size. Trouble was, there just weren't many bad guys my size. And vampires, well, unless I could bench press trucks, I was outclassed. So a gun.

  I finally settled on a less than professional look. The t-shirt was oversize, hitting me at mid-thigh. It billowed around me. The only thing that saved it was the picture on the front, penguins playing beach volleyball, complete with kiddie penguins making sand castles to one side. I like penguins. I had bought the shirt to sleep in and never planned to wear it where people could see me. As long as the fashion police didn't see me, I was safe.

  I looped a belt through a pair of black shorts for my inside-the-pant holster. It was an Uncle Mike's Sidekick and I was very fond of it, but it was not for the Browning. I had a second gun for comfort and concealability: a Firestar, a compact little 9mm with a seven-shot magazine.

  White jogging socks, with tasteful blue stripes that matched the blue leather piping on my white Nikes, completed the outfit. It made me look and feel about sixteen, an awkward sixteen, but when I turned to the mirror there was no hint of the gun on my belt. The shirt fell out and around it, invisible.

  My upper body is slender, petite if you will, muscular and not bad to look at. Unfortunately, my legs are about five inches too short to ever be America's ideal legs. I will never have skinny thighs, nor anything short of muscular calves. The outfit emphasized my legs and hid everything else, but I had my gun and I wouldn't melt in the heat. Compromise is an imperfect art.

  My crucifix hung inside my shirt, but I added a small charm bracelet to my left wrist. Three small crosses dangled from the silver chain. My scars also were in plain sight, but in the summer I try to pretend they aren't there. I cannot face the thought of wearing long sleeves in hundred-degree weather with hundred-percent humidity. My arms would fall off. The scars really aren't the first thing you notice with my arms bare. Really.

  Animators, Inc., had new offices. We'd been here only three months. There was a psychologist's office across from us, nothing less than a hundred an hour; a plastic surgeon down the hall; two lawyers; one marriage counselor, and a real estate company. Four years ago Animators, Inc., had worked out of a spare room above a garage. Business was good.

  Most of that good luck was due to Bert Vaughn, our boss. He was a businessman, a showman, a moneymaker, a scalawag, and a borderline cheat. Nothing illegal, not really, but . . . Most people choose to think of themselves as white hats, good guys. A few people wear black hats and enjoy it. Grey was Bert's color. Sometimes I think if you cut him, he'd bleed green, fresh-minted money.

  He had turned what was an unusual talent, an embarrassing curse, or a religious experience, raising the dead, into a profitable business. We animators had the talent, but Bert knew how to make it pay. It was hard to argue with that. But I was going to try.

  The reception room's wallpaper is pale, pale green with small oriental designs done in greens and browns. The carpet is thick and soft green, too pale to be grass, but it tries. Plants are everywhere.

  A Ficus benjium grows to the right of the door, slender as a willow with small leather green leaves. It nearly curls around the chair in front of its pot. A second tree grows in the far corner, tall and straight with the stiff spiky tops of palm trees--Dracaena marginta. Or that's what it says on the tags tied to the spindly trunks. Both trees brush the ceiling. Dozens of smaller plants are pushed and potted in every spare corner of the soft green room.

  Bert thinks the pastel green is soothing, and the plants give it that homey touch. I think it looks like an unhappy marriage between a mortuary and a plant shop.

  Mary, our day secretary, is over fifty. How much over is her own business. Her hair is short and does not move in the wind. A carton of hair spray sees to that. Mary is not into the natural look. She has two grown sons and four grandchildren. She gave me her best professional smile as I came through the door. "May I help . . . Oh, Anita, I didn't think you were due in until five."

  "I'm not, but I need to speak to Bert and get some things from my office."

  She frowned down at her appointment book, our appointment book. "Well, Jamison is in your office right now with a client." There are only three offices in our little area. One belongs to Bert, and the other two rotate between the rest of us. Most of our work is done in the field, or rather the graveyard, so we never really need our offices all at the same time. It worked like time-sharing a condo.

  "How long will the client be?"

  Mary glanced down at her notes. "It's a mother whose son is thinking about joining the Church of Eternal Life."

  "Is Jamison trying to talk him into it or out of it?"

  "Anita!" Mary scolded me, but it was the truth. The Church of Eternal Life was the vampire church. The first church in history that could guarantee you eternal life, and prove it. No waiting around. No mystery. Just eternity on a silver platter. Most people don't believe in their immortal souls anymore. It isn't popular to worry about Heaven and Hell, and whether you are an absolutely good person. So the Church was gaining followers all over the place. If you didn't believe that it destroyed your soul, what did you have to lose? Daylight. Food. Not much to give up.

  It was the soul part that bothered me. My immortal soul is not for sale, not even for eternity. You see, I knew vampires could die. I had proved it. No one seemed curious as to what happened to a vampire's soul when it died. Could you be a good vampire and go to Heaven? Somehow that didn't quite work for me.

  "Is Bert with a client, too?"

  She glanced once more at the appointment book. "No, he's free." She looked up and smiled, as if she was pleased to be able to help me. Maybe she was.

  It is true that Bert took the smallest of the three offices. The walls are a soft pastel blue, the carpet two colors darker. Bert thinks it soothes the clients. I think it's like standing inside a blue ice cube.

  Bert didn't match the small blue office. There is nothing small about Bert. Six-four, broad shoulders, a college athlete's figure getting a little soft around the middle. His white hair is close-cut over small ears. A boater's tan forces his pale eyes and hair into sharp contrast. His eyes are a nearly colorless grey, like dirty window glass. You have to work very hard to make dirty grey eyes shine, but they were shining now. Bert was practically beaming at me. It was a bad sign.

  "Anita, what a pleasant surprise. Have a sit." He waved a business envelope at me. "We got the check today."

  "Check?" I asked.

  "For looking into the vampire murders."

  I had forgotten. I had forgotten that somewhere in all this I had been promised money. It seemed ridiculous, obscene, that Nikolaos would make everything better with money. From the look on Bert's face, a lot of money.

  "How much?"

  "Ten thousand dollars." He stretched each word out, making it last.

  "It isn't enough."

  He laughed. "Anita, getting greedy in your old age. I thought that was my job."

  "It isn't enough for Catherine's life, or mine."


  His grin wilted slightly. His eyes looked wary, as if I was about to tell him there was no Easter Bunny. I could almost hear him wondering if he would have to return the check.

  "What are you talking about, Anita?"

  I told him, with a few minor revisions. No "Circus of the Damned." No blue fire. No first vampire mark.

  When I got to the part about Aubrey smashing me into the wall, he said, "You are kidding."

  "Want to see the bruises?"

  I finished the story and watched his solemn, square face. His large, blunt-fingered hands were folded on his desk. The check was lying beside him atop his neat pile of manila folders. His face was attentive, concerned. Empathy never worked well on Bert's face. I could always see the wheels moving. The angles calculating.

  "Don't worry, Bert, you can cash the check."

  "Now, Anita, that wasn't . . ."

  "Save it."

  "Anita, truly I would never purposefully endanger you."

  I laughed. "Bull."

  "Anita!" He looked shocked, small eyes widening, one hand touching his chest. Mr. Sincerity.

  "I'm not buying, so save the bullshit for clients. I know you too well."

  He smiled then. It was his only genuine smile. The real Bert Vaughn please stand up. His eyes gleamed but not with warmth, more with pleasure. There is something measuring, obscenely knowledgeable, about Bert's smile. As if he knew the darkest thing you had ever done and would gladly keep silent--for a price.

  There was something a little frightening about a man who knew he was not a nice person and didn't give a damn. It went against everything America holds dear. We are taught above all else to be nice, to be liked, to be popular. A person who has set aside all that is a maverick and a potentially dangerous human being.

  "What can Animators, Inc., do to help?"

  "I've already got Ronnie working on some things. I think the fewer people involved, the fewer people in danger."

  "You always were a humanitarian."

  "Unlike some people I could mention."

  "I had no idea what they wanted."

  "No, but you knew how I felt about vampires."

  He gave me a smile that said, "I know your secret, I know your darkest dreams." That was Bert. Budding blackmailer.

  I smiled back at him, friendly. "If you ever send me a vampire client again without running it by me first, I'll quit."

 
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