Guilty pleasures, p.12
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.12
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         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  Mabel's is a cafeteria, but the food is wonderful and reasonably priced. On weekdays the place is filled to the brim with suits and business skirts, thin little briefcases, and manila file folders. On Saturdays it was nearly deserted.

  Beatrice smiled at me from behind the steaming food. She was tall and plump with brown hair and a tired face. Her pink uniform didn't fit well through the shoulders, and the hairnet made her face look too long. But she always smiled, and we always spoke.

  "Hi, Beatrice." And without waiting to be asked, "This is Phillip."

  "Hi, Phillip," she said.

  He gave her a smile every bit as dazzling as he had given the real estate agent. She flushed, averted her eyes, and giggled. I hadn't known Beatrice could do that. Did she notice the scars? Did it matter to her?

  It was too hot for meat loaf, but I ordered it anyway. It was always moist and the catsup sauce just tangy enough. I even got dessert, which I almost never do. I was starving. We managed to pay and find a table without Phillip flirting with anyone else. A major accomplishment.

  "What has happened to Jean-Claude?" he asked.

  "One more minute." I said grace over my food. He was staring at me when I looked up. We ate, and I told him an edited version of last night. Mostly, I told him about Jean-Claude and Nikolaos and the punishment.

  He had stopped eating by the time I finished. He was staring over my head, at nothing that I could see. "Phillip?" I asked.

  He shook his head and looked at me. "She could kill him."

  "I got the impression she was just going to punish him. Do you know what that would be?"

  He nodded, voice soft, saying, "She traps them in coffins and uses crosses to hold them inside. Aubrey disappeared for three months. When I saw him again, he was like he is now. Crazy."

  I shivered. Would Jean-Claude go crazy? I picked up my fork and found myself halfway through a piece of blackberry pie. I hate blackberries. Damn, I treat myself to pie and get the wrong kind. What was the matter with me? The taste was still warm and thick in my mouth. I took a big swig of Coke to wash it down. The Coke didn't help much.

  "What are you going to do?" he asked.

  I pushed the half-eaten pie away and opened one of the folders. The first victim, one Maurice no last name, had lived with a woman named Rebecca Miles. They had cohabited for five years. "Cohabited" sounded better than "shacked up." "I'll talk to friends and lovers of the dead vampires."

  "I might know the names."

  I stared at him, debating. I didn't want to share information with him because I knew good ol' Phillip was the daytime eyes and ears of the undead. Yet, when I had talked to Rebecca Miles in the company of the police, she had told us zip. I didn't have time to wade through crap. I needed information and fast. Nikolaos wanted results. And what Nikolaos wanted, Nikolaos damn well better get.

  "Rebecca Miles," I said.

  "I know her. She was Maurice's--property." He shrugged an apology at the word, but he let it stand. And I wondered what he meant by it. "Where do we go first?" he asked.

  "Nowhere. I don't want a civilian along while I work."

  "I might be able to help."

  "No offense, you look strong and maybe even quick, but that isn't enough. Do you know how to fight? Do you carry a gun?"

  "No gun, but I can handle myself."

  I doubted that. Most people don't react well to violence. It freezes them. There are a handful of seconds where the body hesitates, the mind doesn't understand. Those few seconds can get you killed. The only way to kill the hesitation is practice. Violence has to become a part of your thinking. It makes you cautious, suspicious as hell, and lengthens your life expectancy. Phillip was familiar with violence, but only as the victim. I didn't need a professional victim tagging along. Yet, I needed information from people who wouldn't want to talk to me. They might talk to Phillip.

  I didn't expect to run into a gun battle in broad daylight. Nor did I really expect anyone to jump me, at least not today. I've been wrong before but . . . If Phillip could help me, I saw no harm in it. As long as he didn't flash that smile at the wrong time and get molested by nuns, we would be safe.

  "If someone threatens me, can you stay out of it and let me do my job, or would you charge in and try to save me?" I asked.

  "Oh," he said. He stared down at his drink for a few minutes. "I don't know."

  Brownie point for him. Most people would have lied. "Then I'd rather you didn't come."

  "How are you going to convince Rebecca you work for the master vampire of this city? The Executioner working for vampires?"

  It sounded ridiculous even to me. "I don't know."

  He smiled. "Then it's settled. I'll come along and help calm the waters."

  "I didn't agree to that."

  "You didn't say no, either."

  He had a point. I sipped my Coke and looked at his smug face for perhaps a minute. He said nothing, only stared back. His face was neutral, no challenge to it. There was no contest of egos as with Bert. "Let's go," I said.

  We stood. I left a tip. We went off in search of clues.

  20

  REBECCA MILES LIVED in South City's Dogtown. The streets were all named for states: Texas, Mississippi, Indiana. The building was blind, most of the windows boarded up. The grass was tall as an elephant's eye, but not half so beautiful. A block over were expensive rehabs full of yuppies and politicians. There were no yuppies on Rebecca's block.

  Her apartment was on a long, narrow corridor. There was no air conditioning in the hallway, and the heat was like chest-high fur, thick and warm. One dim light bulb gleamed over the threadbare carpeting. In places the off-green walls were patched with white plaster, but it was clean. The smell of pine-scented Lysol was thick and almost nauseating in the small, dark hallway. You could probably have eaten off the carpeting if you had wanted to, but you would have gotten fuzzies in your mouth. No amount of Lysol would get rid of carpet fuzzies.

  As we had discussed in the car, Phillip knocked on the door. The idea was that he would calm any misgivings she might have about The Executioner coming into her humble abode. It took fifteen minutes of knocking and waiting before we heard someone moving around behind the door.

  The door opened as far as the chain would allow. I couldn't see who answered the door. A woman's voice, thick with sleep, said, "Phillip, what are you doing here?"

  "Can I come in for a few minutes?" he asked. I couldn't see his face, but I would have bet everything I owned that he was flashing her one of his infamous smiles.

  "Sure; sorry, you woke me up." The door closed, and the chain rattled. The door reopened, wide. I still couldn't see around Phillip. So I guess Rebecca didn't see me either.

  Phillip walked in, and I followed behind him before the door could close. The apartment was ovenlike, a gasping, stranded-fish heat. The darkness should have made it cooler, but instead made it claustrophobic. Sweat trickled down my face.

  Rebecca Miles stood holding onto the door. She was thin, with lifeless dark hair falling straight to her shoulders. High cheekbones clung to the skin of her face. She was nearly overwhelmed by the white robe she wore. Delicate was the phrase, fragile. Small, dark eyes blinked at me. It was dim in the apartment, thick drapes cutting out the light. She had only seen me once, shortly after Maurice's death.

  "Did you bring a friend?" she asked. She shut the door, and we were in near darkness.

  "Yes," Phillip said. "This is Anita Blake . . ."

  Her voice came out small and choked. "The Executioner?"

  "Yes, but . . ."

  She opened her small mouth and shrieked. She threw herself at me, hands clawing and slapping. I braced and covered my face with my forearms. She fought like a girl, all open-handed slaps, scratches, and flailing arms. I grabbed her wrist and used her own momentum to pull her past me. She stumbled to her knees with a little help. I had her right arm in a joint lock. It puts pressure on the elbow, it hurts, and a little extra push will snap the arm. Most people don't fi
ght well after you break their arm at the elbow.

  I didn't want to break the woman's arm. I didn't want to hurt her at all. There were two bloody scratches on my arm where she had gotten me. I guess I was lucky she hadn't had a gun.

  She tried to move, and I pressed on the arm. I felt her tremble. Her breath was coming in huge gasps. "You can't kill him! You can't! Please, please don't." She started to cry, thin shoulders shaking inside the too-big robe. I stood there, holding her arm, causing her pain.

  I released her arm, slowly, and stepped back out of reach. I hoped she didn't attack again. I didn't want to hurt her, and I didn't want her to hurt me. The scratches were beginning to sting.

  Rebecca Miles wasn't going to try again. She huddled against the door, thin, starved hands locked around her knees. She sobbed, gasping for air, "You . . . can't . . . kill him. Please!" She started to rock back and forth, hugging herself tight as if she might shatter, like weak glass.

  Jesus, some days I hate my job. "Talk to her, Phillip. Tell her we didn't come here to hurt anyone."

  Phillip knelt beside her. He kept his hands at his sides as he talked to her. I didn't hear what he said. Her shuddering sobs floated after me through a right-hand doorway. It led into the bedroom.

  A coffin sat beside the bed, dark wood, maybe cherry, varnished until it gleamed in the twilit dark. She thought I came to kill her lover. Jesus.

  The bathroom was small and cluttered. I hit the light switch, and the harsh yellow light was not kind. Her makeup was scattered around the cracked sink like casualties. The tub was nearly rotted with rust. I found what I hoped was a clean washrag and ran cold water over it. The water that trickled out was the color of weak coffee. The pipes shuddered and clanked and whined. The water finally ran clear. It felt good on my hands, but I didn't splash any on my neck or face. It would have been cool, but the bathroom was dirty. I couldn't use the water, not if I didn't have to. I looked up as I squeezed the rag out. The mirror was shattered, a spiderweb of cracks. It gave me my face back in broken pieces.

  I didn't look in the mirror again. I walked back past the coffin and hesitated. I had an urge to knock on the smooth wood. Anybody home? I didn't do it. For all I knew, someone might have knocked back.

  Phillip had the woman on the couch. She was leaning against him, boneless, panting, but the crying had almost stopped. She flinched when she saw me. I tried not to look menacing, something I'm good at, and handed the rag to Phillip. "Wipe her face and put it against the back of her neck; it'll help."

  He did what I asked, and she sat there with the damp rag against her neck, staring at me. Her eyes were wide, a lot of white showing. She shivered.

  I found the light switch, and harsh light flooded the room. One look at the room and I wanted to turn the light off again, but I didn't. I thought Rebecca might attack me again if I sat beside her, or maybe she'd have a complete breakdown. Wouldn't that be pretty? The only chair was lopsided and had yellowed stuffing bulging out one side. I decided to stand.

  Phillip looked up at me. His sunglasses were hooked over the front of his tank top. His eyes were wide and careful, as if he didn't want me to know what he was thinking. One tanned arm was wrapped around her shoulders, protective. I felt like a bully.

  "I told her why we are here. I told her you wouldn't hurt Jack."

  "The coffin?" I smiled. I couldn't help it. He was a "jack in the box."

  "Yes," Phillip said. He stared at me as if grinning were not appropriate.

  It wasn't, so I stopped, but it was something of an effort.

  I nodded. If Rebecca wanted to shack up with vampires, that was her business. It certainly wasn't police business.

  "Go on, Rebecca. She's trying to help us," Phillip said.

  "Why?" she asked.

  It was a good question. I had scared her and made her cry. I answered her question. "The master of the city made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

  She stared at me, studying my face, like she was committing me to memory. "I don't believe you," she said.

  I shrugged. That's what you get for telling the truth. Someone calls you a liar. Most people will accept a likely lie to an unlikely truth. In fact, they prefer it.

  "How could any vampire threaten The Executioner?" she asked.

  I sighed. "I'm not the bogeyman, Rebecca. Have you ever met the master of the city?"

  "No."

  "Then you'll have to trust me. I am scared shitless of the master. Anybody in their right mind would be."

  She still looked unconvinced, but she started talking. Her small, tight voice told the same story she'd told the police. Bland and useless as a new-minted penny.

  "Rebecca, I am trying to catch the person, or thing, that killed your boyfriend. Please help me."

  Phillip hugged her. "Tell her what you told me."

  She glanced at him, then back at me. She sucked her lower lip in and scraped it with her upper teeth, thoughtful. She took a deep, shaky breath. "We were at a freak party that night."

  I blinked, then tried to sound reasonably intelligent. "I know a freak is someone who likes vampires. Is a freak party what I think it is?"

  Phillip was the one who nodded. "I go to them a lot." He wouldn't look at me while he said it. "You can have a vampire almost any way you want it. And they can have you." He darted a glance at my face, then down again. Maybe he didn't like what he saw.

  I tried to keep my face blank, but I wasn't having much luck. A freak party, dear God. But it was somewhere to start. "Did anything special happen at the party?" I asked.

  She blinked at me, face blank, as if she didn't understand. I tried again. "Did anything out of the ordinary happen at the freak party?" When in doubt, change your vocabulary.

  She stared down into her lap and shook her head. Long, dark hair trailed over her face like a thin curtain.

  "Did Maurice have any enemies that you know of?"

  Rebecca shook her head without even looking up. I glimpsed her eyes through her hair like a frightened rabbit staring out from behind a bush. Did she have more information, or had I used her up? If I pushed she'd break, shatter, and maybe a clue would come spilling out, then again, maybe not. Her hands were tangled in her lap, white-knuckled. They trembled ever so slightly. How badly did I want to know? Not that badly. I let it go. Anita Blake, humanitarian.

  Phillip tucked Rebecca in bed, while I waited in the living room. I half-expected to hear giggling or some sound that said he was working his charm. There was nothing but the quiet murmur of voices and the cool rustle of sheets. When he came out of the bedroom, his face was serious, solemn. He slipped his glasses back on and hit the light switch. The room was a thick, hot darkness. I heard him move in the ovenlike blackness. A rustle of jeans, a scrape of boot. I fumbled for the doorknob, found it, flung it open.

  Pale light spilled in. Phillip was standing, staring at me, eyes hidden. His body was relaxed, easy, but somehow I could feel his hostility. We were no longer playing friends. I wasn't sure if he was angry with me for some reason, or himself, or fate. When you end up with a life like Rebecca's, there should be someone to blame.

  "That could have been me," he said.

  I looked at him. "But it wasn't."

  He spread his arms wide, flexing. "But it could be."

  I didn't know what to say to that. What could I say? There but for the grace of God go you? I doubted God had much to do with Phillip's world.

  Phillip made sure the door locked behind us, then said, "I know at least two other murdered vampires were regulars on the party circuit."

  My stomach tightened, a little flutter of excitement. "Do you think the rest of the . . . victims could be freak aficionados?"

  He shrugged. "I can find out." His face was still closed to me, blank. Something had turned off his switch. Maybe it was Rebecca Miles's small, starved hands. I know it hadn't done a lot for me.

  Could I trust him to find out? Would he tell me the truth? Would it endanger him? No answers, just more questions, but
at least the questions were getting better. Freak parties. A common thread, a real live clue. Hot dog.

  21

  INSIDE MY CAR I turned the air conditioning on full blast. Sweat chilled on my skin, jelling in place. I turned the air down before I got a headache from the temperature change.

  Phillip sat as far away from me as he could get. His body was half-turned, as much as the seat belt would allow, towards the window. His eyes behind their sunglasses stared out and away. Phillip didn't want to talk about what had just happened. How did I know that? Anita the mind reader. No, just Anita the not so stupid.

  His whole body was hunched in upon itself. If I hadn't known better, I'd have said he was in pain. Come to think of it, maybe he was.

  I had just bullied a very fragile human being. It hadn't felt very good, but it beat the heck out of knocking her senseless. I had not hurt her physically. Why didn't I believe that? Now, I was going to question Phillip because he had given me a clue. The proverbial lead. I couldn't let it go.

  "Phillip?" I asked.

  His shoulders tightened, but he continued to stare out the window.

  "Phillip, I need to know about the freak parties."

  "Drop me at the club."

  "Guilty Pleasures?" I asked. Brilliant repartee, that's me.

  He nodded, still turned away.

  "Don't you need to pick up your car?"

  "I don't drive," he said. "Monica dropped me off at your office."

  "Did she now?" I felt the anger, instantaneous and warm.

  He turned then, stared at me, face blank, eyes hidden. "Why are you so angry at her? She just got you to the club, that's all."

  I shrugged.

  "Why?" His voice was tired, human, normal.

  I wouldn't have answered the teasing flirt, but this person was real. Real people deserve answers. "She's human, and she betrayed other humans to nonhumans," I said.

  "And that's a worse crime than Jean-Claude choosing you to be our champion?"

  "Jean-Claude is a vampire. You expect treachery from vampires."

  "You do. I do not."

  "Rebecca Miles looks like a person who's been betrayed."

  He flinched.

  Great Anita, just great, let's emotionally abuse everyone we meet today. But it was true.

 
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