Guilty pleasures, p.18
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.18

         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  I SLIPPED ON the damp grass. Hose are not made for running in. I sat there, breathing, trying not to think. I had raised a zombie to save another human being, who wasn't a human being. Now the zombie I had raised was being tortured by vampires. Shit. The night wasn't even half-over. I whispered, "What next?"

  A voice answered, light as music. "Greetings, animator. You seem to be having a full night."

  Nikolaos was standing in the shadows of the trees. Willie McCoy was with her, a little to one side, not quite beside her, like a bodyguard or a servant. I was betting on servant.

  "You seem agitated. What ever is the matter?" Her voice rose in a lilting sing-song. The dangerous little girl had returned.

  "Zachary raised the zombie. You can't use that as an excuse to kill him." I laughed then, and it sounded abrupt and harsh even to me. He was already dead. I didn't think she knew. She couldn't read minds, only force the truth from them. I bet Nikolaos had never thought to ask, "Are you alive, Zachary, or a walking corpse?" I laughed and couldn't seem to stop.

  "Anita, you all right?" Willie's voice was like his voice had always been.

  I nodded, trying to catch my breath. "I'm fine."

  "I do not see the humor in the situation, animator." The child voice was slipping, like a mask sliding down. "You helped Zachary raise the zombie." She made it sound like an accusation.

  "Yes."

  I heard movement over the grass. Willie's footsteps, and nothing else. I glanced up and saw Nikolaos moving towards me, noiseless as a cat. She was smiling, a cute, harmless, model, beautiful child. No. Her face was a little long. The perfect child bride wasn't perfect anymore. The closer she came, the more flaws I could pick out. Was I seeing her the way she really looked? Was I?

  "You are staring at me, animator." She laughed, high and wild, wind chimes in a storm. "As if you'd seen a ghost." She knelt, smoothing her slacks over her knees, as if they were a skirt. "Have you seen a ghost, animator? Have you seen something that frightened you? Or is it something else?" Her face was only an arm's length away.

  I was holding my breath, fingers digging into the ground. Fear washed over me like a cool second skin. The face was so pleasant, smiling, encouraging. She really needed a dimple to go with it all. My voice was hoarse, and I had to cough to clear it. "I raised the zombie. I don't want it hurt."

  "But it is only a zombie, animator. They have no real minds."

  I just stared at that thin, pleasant face, afraid to look away from her, afraid to look at her. My chest was tight with the urge to run. "It was a human being. I don't want it tortured."

  "They won't hurt it much. My little vampires will be disappointed. The dead cannot feed off the dead."

  "Ghouls can. They feed off the dead."

  "But what is a ghoul, animator? Is it truly dead?"

  "Yes."

  "Am I dead?" she asked.

  "Yes."

  "Are you sure?" She had a small scar near her upper lip. She must have gotten it before she died.

  "I'm sure," I said.

  She laughed then, a sound to bring a smile to your face and a song to your heart. My stomach jerked at the noise. I might never enjoy Shirley Temple movies again.

  "I don't think you are sure in the least." She stood, one smooth motion. A thousand years of practice makes perfect.

  "I want the zombie put back, now, tonight," I said.

  "You are not in a position to want anything." The voice was cold, very adult. Children didn't know how to strip skin with their voice.

  "I raised it. I don't want it tortured."

  "Isn't that too bad?"

  What else could I say? "Please."

  She stared down at me. "Why is it so important to you?"

  I didn't think I could explain it to her. "It just is."

  "How important?" she asked.

  "I don't know what you mean."

  "What would you be willing to endure for your zombie?"

  Fear settled into a cold lump in the pit of my gut. "I don't know what you mean."

  "Yes, you do," she said.

  I stood then, not that it would help. I was actually taller than she was. She was tiny, a delicate fairy of a child. Right. "What do you want?"

  "Don't do it, Anita." Willie was standing away from us, as if afraid to come too close. He was smarter dead than he had been alive.

  "Quiet, Willie." Her voice was conversational when she said it, no yelling, no threat. But Willie fell silent instantly, like a well-trained dog.

  Maybe she caught my look. Whatever, she said, "I had Willie punished for failing to hire you that first time."

  "Punished?"

  "Surely, Phillip has told you about our methods?"

  I nodded. "A cross-wrapped coffin."

  She smiled, brilliant, cheery. The shadows leeched it into a leer. "Willie was very afraid that I would leave him in there for months, or even years."

  "Vampires can't starve to death. I understand the principle." I added silently in my head: You bitch. I can only be terrified so long before I get angry. Anger feels better.

  "You smell of fresh blood. Let me taste you, and I will see your zombie safe."

  "Does taste mean bite?" I asked.

  She laughed, sweet, heartrending. Bitch. "Yes, human, it means bite." She was suddenly beside me. I jerked back without thinking. She laughed again. "It seems Phillip has beaten me to it."

  For a minute I couldn't think what she meant; then my hand went to the bite mark on my neck. I felt suddenly uneasy, like she'd caught me naked.

  The laugh floated on the summer air. It was really beginning to get on my nerves.

  "No tasting," I said.

  "Then let me enter your mind again. That's a type of feeding."

  I shook my head, too rapid, too many times. I'd die before I'd let her in my mind again. If I had the choice.

  A scream sounded in the not so far distance. Estelle was finding her voice. I winced like I'd been slapped.

  "Let me taste your blood, animator. No teeth." She flashed fang as she said the last. "You stand and make no move to stop me. I will taste the fresh wound on your neck. I won't feed on you."

  "It's not bleeding anymore. It's clotted."

  She smiled, oh so sweetly. "I'll lick it clean."

  I swallowed hard. I didn't know if I could do it. Another scream sounded, high and lost. God.

  Willie said, "Anita . . ."

  "Silence, or risk my anger." Her voice growled low and dark.

  Willie seemed to shrink in upon himself. His face was a white triangle under his black hair.

  "It's all right, Willie. Don't get hurt on my account," I said.

  He stared at me across the distance, a few yards; it might as well have been miles. Only the lost look on his face helped. Poor Willie. Poor me.

  "What good is it going to do you if you're not feeding off me?" I asked.

  "No good at all." She reached a small, pale hand towards me. "Of course, fear is a kind of substance." Cool fingers slid around my wrist. I flinched but didn't pull back. I was going to let her do this, wasn't I?

  "Call it shadow feeding, human. Blood and fear are always precious, no matter how one obtains them." She stepped up to me. She exhaled against my skin, and I backed away. Only her hand on my wrist kept me close.

  "Wait. I want the zombie freed now, first."

  She just stared at me, then nodded slowly. "Very well." She stared past me, pale eyes seeing things that weren't there or that I couldn't see. I felt a tension through her hand, almost a jerk of electricity. "Theresa will chase them off and have the animator lay the zombie to rest."

  "You did all that, just then?"

  "Theresa is mine to command; didn't you know that?"

  "Yeah, I guessed that." I had not known that any vampire could do telepathy. Of course, before last night I hadn't thought they could fly either. Oh, I was just learning all sorts of new things.

  "How do I know you're not just telling me that?" I asked.
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  "You will just have to trust me."

  Now that was almost funny. If she had a sense of humor, maybe we could work something out. Naw.

  She pulled my wrist closer to her body and me with it. Her hand was like fleshy steel. I couldn't pry her hand off, not with anything short of a blowtorch. And I was all out of blowtorches.

  The top of her head fitted under my chin. She had to rise on tiptoe to breathe on my neck. It should have ruined the menace. It didn't. Soft lips touched my neck. I jerked. She laughed against my skin, face pressed against me. I shivered and couldn't stop.

  "I promise to be gentle." She laughed again, and I fought an urge to shove her away. I would have given almost anything to hit her, just once, hard. But I didn't want to die tonight. Besides, I'd made a deal.

  "Poor darling, you're shaking." She laid a hand on my shoulder to steady herself. She brushed lips along the hollow of my neck. "Are you cold?"

  "Cut the crap. Just do it!"

  She stiffened against me. "Don't you want me to touch you?"

  "No," I said. Was she crazy? Rhetorical question.

  Her voice was very still. "Where is the scar on my face?"

  I answered without thinking. "Near your mouth."

  "And how," she hissed, "did you know that?"

  My heart leaped into my throat. Oops. I had let her know her mind tricks weren't working, and they should have been.

  Her hand dug into my shoulder. I made a small sound, but I didn't cry out. "What have you been doing, animator?"

  I didn't have the faintest idea. Somehow, I doubted she'd believe that.

  "Leave her alone!" Phillip came half-running through the trees. "You promised me you wouldn't hurt her tonight."

  Nikolaos didn't even turn around. "Willie." Just his name, but like all good servants he knew what was wanted.

  He stepped in front of Phillip, one arm straight out from his body. He was going to stiff-arm him. Phillip sidestepped the arm, brushing past.

  Willie never had been much of a fighter. Strength wasn't enough if you had shit for balance.

  Nikolaos touched my chin and turned my face back to hers. "Do not force me to hold your attention, animator. You wouldn't like the methods I would choose."

  I swallowed audibly. She was probably right. "You have my full attention, honest." My voice came out as a hoarse whisper, fear squeezing it down. If I coughed to clear it, I'd cough in her face. Not a good idea.

  I heard the rush of feet swishing through the grass. I fought the urge to look up and away from the vampire.

  Nikolaos spun from me to face the footsteps. I saw her move, but it was still blurring speed. She was just suddenly facing the other way. Phillip was standing in front of her. Willie caught up to him and grabbed an arm, but didn't seem to know what to do with it.

  Would it occur to Willie that he could just crush the man's arm? I doubted it.

  It had occurred to Nikolaos. "Release him. If he wants to keep coming, let him." Her voice promised a great deal of pain.

  Willie stepped back. Phillip just stood there, staring past her at me. "Are you all right, Anita?"

  "Go back inside, Phillip. I appreciate the concern, but I made a bargain. She isn't going to bite me."

  He shook his head. "You promised she wouldn't be harmed. You promised." He was talking to Nikolaos again, carefully not looking directly at her.

  "And so she shall not be harmed. I keep my word, Phillip, most of the time."

  "I'm all right, Phillip. Don't get hurt because of me," I said.

  His face crumbled with confusion. He didn't seem to know what to do. His courage seemed to have spilled out on the grass. But he didn't back off. Big point for him. I would have backed off, maybe. Probably. Oh, hell, Phillip was being brave, and I didn't want to see him die because of it.

  "Just go back, Phillip, please!"

  "No," Nikolaos said. "If the little man is feeling brave, let him try."

  Phillip's hands flexed, as if trying to grab on to something.

  Nikolaos was suddenly beside him. I hadn't seen her move. Phillip still hadn't. He was staring where she had been. She kicked his legs out from under him. He fell to the grass, blinking up at her like she'd just appeared.

  "Don't hurt him!" I said.

  A pale little hand shot out, the barest touch. His whole body jerked backwards. He rolled on one side, blood staining his face.

  "Nikolaos, please!" I said. I had actually taken two steps towards her. Voluntarily. I could always try for my gun. It wouldn't kill her, but it might give Phillip time to run away. If he would run.

  Screams sounded from the direction of the house. A man's voice yelled, "Perverts!"

  "What is it?" I asked.

  Nikolaos answered, "The Church of Eternal Life has sent its congregation." She sounded mildly amused. "I must leave this little get-together." She whirled to me, leaving Phillip dazed on the grass. "How did you see my scar?" she asked.

  "I don't know."

  "Little liar. We will finish this later." And she was gone, running like a pale shadow under the trees. At least she hadn't flown away. I didn't think my wits could handle that tonight.

  I knelt by Phillip. He was bleeding where she had hit him. "Can you hear me?"

  "Yes." He managed to sit up. "We have to get out of here. The churchgoers are always armed."

  I helped him to stand. "Do they invade the freak parties often?"

  "Whenever they can," he said.

  He seemed steady on his feet. Good, I could never have carried him far.

  Willie said, "I know I don't have a right to ask, but I'll help you get to your car." He wiped his hands down his pants. "Can I catch a ride?"

  I couldn't help it. I laughed. "Can't you just disappear like the rest of them?"

  He shrugged. "Don't know how yet."

  "Oh, Willie." I sighed. "Come on, let's get out of here."

  He grinned at me. Being able to look him in the eyes made him seem almost human. Phillip didn't object to the vampire joining us. Why had I thought he would?

  There were screams from the house. "Somebody's gonna call the cops," Willie said.

  He was right. I'd never be able to explain it. I grabbed Phillip's hand and steadied myself while I put the high heels back on. "If I'd known we'd be running from crazed fanatics tonight, I'd have worn lower heels," I said.

  I kept a grip on Phillip's arm to steady myself through the mine-field of acorns. This was not the time to twist an ankle.

  We were almost to the gravel drive when three figures spilled out of the house. One held a club. The others were vampires. They didn't need a weapon. I opened my purse and got my gun out, held down at my side, hidden against my skirt. I gave Phillip the car keys. "Start the car; I'll cover our backs."

  "I don't know how to drive," he said.

  I had forgotten. "Shit!"

  "I'll do it." Willie took the keys, and I let him.

  One of the vampires rushed us, arms wide, hissing. Maybe he meant to scare us; maybe he meant to do us harm. I'd had enough for one night. I clicked off the safety, chambered a round and fired into the ground at his feet.

  He hesitated, almost stumbled. "Bullets can't hurt me, human."

  There was more movement under the trees. I didn't know if it was friend or foe, or if it made a hell of a lot of difference. The vampire kept coming. It was a residential neighborhood. Bullets can travel a great distance before they hit something. I couldn't take the chance.

  I raised my arm, aimed, and fired. The bullet took him in the stomach. He jerked and sort of crumpled over the wound. His face held astonishment.

  "Silver-plated bullets, fang-face."

  Willie went for the car. Phillip hesitated between helping me and going.

  "Go, Phillip, now."

  The second vampire was trying to circle around. "Stop right where you are," I said. The vampire froze. "Anybody makes a threatening gesture, I'm going to put a bullet in their brain."

  "It won't kill us," the sec
ond vampire said.

  "No, but it won't do you a hell of a lot of good, either."

  The human with the club inched forward. "Don't," I told him.

  The car started. I didn't dare glance back at it. I stepped backwards, hoping I wouldn't trip in the damn high heels. If I fell, they'd rush me. If they rushed me, somebody was going to die.

  "Come on, Anita, get in." It was Phillip, leaning out of the passenger side door.

  "Scoot over." He did, and I slid into the seat. The human rushed us. "Drive, now!"

  Willie spun gravel, and I slammed the door shut. I really didn't want to kill anyone tonight. The human was shielding his face from the gravel as we rushed down the driveway.

  The car bounced wildly, nearly colliding with a tree. "Slow down; we're safe," I said.

  Willie eased back on the gas. He grinned at me. "We made it."

  "Yeah." I smiled back at him, but I wasn't so sure.

  Blood was dripping down Phillip's face in a nice steady flow. He voiced my thoughts. "Safe, but for how long?" He sounded as tired as I felt.

  I patted his arm. "Everything will be all right, Phillip."

  He looked at me. His face seemed older than it had, tired. "You don't believe that any more than I do."

  What could I say? He was right.

  30

  I CLICKED ON the safety of my gun and struggled into a seat belt. Phillip slumped down into the seat, long legs spreadeagled on either side of the floorboard hump. His eyes were closed.

  "Where to?" Willie asked.

  Good question. I wanted to go home and go to sleep, but . . . "Phillip's face needs patching up."

  "You wanna take him to a hospital?"

  "I'm all right," Phillip said. His voice was low and strange.

  "You aren't all right," I said.

  He opened his eyes and turned to look at me. The blood had run down his neck, a dark, glistening stream that shone in the flashes of the streetlights. "You were hurt a lot worse last night," he said.

  I looked away from him, out the window. I didn't know what to say. "I'm all right now."

  "I'll be all right, too."

  I looked back at him. He was staring at me. I couldn't read the expression on his face, and wanted to. "What are you thinking, Phillip?"

  He turned his head to stare straight ahead. His face was all silhouette and shadows. "That I stood up to the master. I did it. I did it!" His voice held a fierce warmth with the last. Fierce pride.

  "You were very brave," I said.

  "I was, wasn't I?"

  I smiled and nodded. "Yes."

 
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