Guilty pleasures, p.22
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.22

         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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The anger was almost enough to hide the fear behind it. If Nikolaos was tormenting Phillip for last night, she might not be too happy with me either. I was going back down those stairs into the master's lair, at night. Didn't seem real bright when you put it that way.

  The anger was fading in a wash of cold, skin-shivering fear. "No!" I would not go in there afraid. I held onto my anger with everything I had. This was the closest I'd come to hate in a long time. Hatred; now there's an emotion that'll spread warmth through your body.

  Most hatred is based on fear, one way or another. Yeah. I wrapped myself in anger, with a dash of hate, and at the bottom of it all was an icy center of pure terror.


  THE CIRCUS OF the Damned is housed in an old warehouse. Its name is emblazoned across the roof in colored lights. Giant clown figurines dance around the words in frozen pantomime. If you look very closely at the clowns, you notice they have fangs. But only if you look very closely.

  The sides of the building are strung with huge plastic cloth signs, like an old-fashioned sideshow. One banner showed a man being hung; "The Death-Defying Count Alcourt," it said. Zombies crawled from a graveyard in one picture; "Watch the Dead Rise from the Grave." A very bad drawing showed a man halfway between wolf and man shape; Fabian, the Werewolf. There were other signs. Other attractions. None of them looked very wholesome.

  Guilty Pleasures treads a thin line between entertainment and the sadistic. The Circus goes over the edge and down into the abyss.

  And here I go inside. Oh, joy in the morning.

  Noise hits you at the door. A blast of carnival sound, the push and shove of the crowd, the rustling of hundreds of people. The lights spill and scream in a hundred different colors, all eye-searing, all guaranteed to attract attention, or make you lose your lunch. Of course, maybe that was just my nerves.

  The smell is formed of cotton candy, corn dogs, the cinnamon smell of elephant ears, snow cones, sweat, and under it all a neck-ruffling smell. Blood smells like sweet copper pennies, and that smell mingles over everything. Most people don't recognize it. But there is another scent on the air, not just blood, but violence. Of course, violence has no smell. Yet, always here, there is--something. The barest hint of long-closed rooms and rotting cloth.

  I had never come here before, except on police business. What I wouldn't have given for a few uniforms right now.

  The crowd parted like water in front of a ship. Winter, Mr. Muscles, moved through the people, and instinctively they moved out of his way. I'd have moved out of his way, too, but I didn't think I'd get the chance.

  Winter was wearing a proverbial strongman's outfit. It had fake zebra stripes on a white background and left most of his upper body exposed. His legs in the striped leotard rippled and corded, like it was a second skin. His bicep, unflexed, was bigger around than both my arms. He stopped in front of me, towering over me, and knowing it.

  "Is your entire family obscenely tall, or is it just you?" I asked.

  He frowned, eyes narrowing. I don't think he got it. Oh, well. "Follow me," he said. With that he turned and walked back through the crowd.

  I guess I was supposed to follow like a good little girl. Shit. A large blue tent took up one corner of the warehouse. People were lining up, showing tickets. A man was calling out in a booming voice, "Almost show time, folks. Present your tickets and enter. See the hanging man. Count Alcourt will be executed before your very eyes."

  I had paused to listen. Winter was not waiting. Luckily, his broad, white back didn't blend with the crowd. I had to trot to catch up with him. I hate having to do that. It makes me feel like a child running after an adult. If a little running was the worst thing I experienced tonight, things would be just hunky-dory.

  There was a full-size Ferris wheel, its glowing top nearly brushing the ceiling. A man held a baseball out to me. "Try your luck, little lady."

  I ignored him. I hate being called little lady. I glanced at the prizes to be won. It ran long on stuffed animals and ugly dolls. The stuffed toys were mostly predators: soft plush panthers, toddler-size bears, spotted snakes, and giant fuzzy-toothed bats.

  There was a bald man in white clown makeup selling tickets to the mirror maze. He stared at the children as they went inside his glass house. I could almost feel the weight of his eyes on their backs, like he would memorize every line of their small bodies. Nothing would have gotten me past him into that sparkling river of glass.

  The Funhouse was next, more clowns and screams, the shooting whoosh of air. The metal sidewalk leading into its depths buckled and twisted. A little boy nearly fell. His mother dragged him to his feet. Why would any parent bring their child here, to this frightening place?

  There was even a haunted house; it was almost funny. Sort of redundant, if you ask me. The whole freaking place was a house of horrors.

  Winter had paused before the little door leading into the back areas. He was frowning at me, massive arms almost crossed over equally massive chest. The arms didn't quite fold right, too much muscle for that, but he was trying.

  He opened the door. I went inside. The tall, bald man who had been with Nikolaos that first time was standing against the wall, at attention. His handsome, narrow face, the eyes very prominent because there was no hair, nothing much else to stare at, looked at me the way elementary school teachers look at troublemaking children. You must be punished, young lady. But what had I done wrong?

  The man's voice was deep, faintly British, cultured, but human. "Search her for weapons before we go down."

  Winter nodded. Why talk when gestures will do? His big hands lifted my jacket and took the gun. He shoved one shoulder so that I spun around. He found the second gun, too. Had I really thought they'd let me keep the weapons? Yes, I guess I had. Stupid me.

  "Check her arms for knives."


  Winter gripped my jacket sleeves like he meant to tear them. "Wait, please. I'll just take the jacket off. You can search it, too, if you like."

  Winter took the knives on my arms. The bald-headed man searched the yellow windbreaker for concealed weapons. He didn't find any. Winter patted my legs down, but not well. He missed the knife at my ankle. I had one weapon, and they didn't know it. Bully for me.

  DOWN the long stairs and into the empty throne room. Maybe it showed on my face because the man said, "The master waits for us, with your friend."

  The man led the way as he had down the stairs. Winter brought up the rear. Perhaps they thought I would make a break for it. Right. Where would I go?

  They stopped at the dungeon. How had I known they would? The bald-headed man knocked on the door twice, not too hard, not too soft.

  There was silence; then bright, high laughter drifted from inside. My skin crawled with the sound. I did not want to see Nikolaos again. I did not want to be in a cell again. I wanted to go home.

  The door opened. Valentine made a hand-sweeping motion. "Come in, come in." He was wearing a silver mask this time. A strand of his auburn hair was stuck to the forehead of the mask, sticky with blood.

  My heart thudded into my throat. Phillip, are you alive? It was all I could do not to yell out.

  Valentine stepped against the door as if waiting for me to pass. I glanced at the nameless bald man. His face was unreadable. He motioned me ahead of him. What could I do? I went.

  What I saw stopped me at the top of the steps. I couldn't go farther. I couldn't. Aubrey stood against the far wall, grinning at me. His hair was still golden; his face, bestial. Nikolaos stood in a dress of flowing white that made her skin look like chalk, her hair cotton-white. She was sprinkled with blood, like someone had taken a red ink pen and splattered her.

  Her grey-blue eyes stared up at me. She laughed again, rich and pure and wicked. I had no other word for it. Wicked. She caressed a white, blood-spattered hand against Phillip's bare chest. She rolled her fingertip over his nipple, and laughed.

  He was chained to the wall at wrist and ankle. His long, brown hair had fallen
forward, hiding one eye. His muscular body was covered in bites. Blood rained down his tan skin in thin crimson lines. He stared up at me from that one brown eye, the other hidden in his hair. Despair. He knew he had been brought here to die, like this, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. But there was something I could do. There had to be. God, please let there be!

  The man touched my shoulder, and I jumped. The vampires laughed. The man did not. I walked down the steps to stand a few feet in front of Phillip. He wouldn't look at me.

  Nikolaos touched his naked thigh and ran her fingers up it. His body tightened, hands clenching into fists.

  "Oh, we have been having a fine time with your lover here," Nikolaos said. Her voice was sweet as ever. The child bride incarnate. Bitch.

  "He isn't my lover."

  She pouted out her lower lip. "Now, Anita, no lying. That's no fun." She stalked towards me, slender hips swaying to some inner dance. She reached for me, and I backed up, bumping into Winter. "Animator, animator," she said. "When will you learn that you cannot fight me?"

  I don't think she wanted me to argue, so I didn't.

  She reached for me again, with one bloody, dainty hand. "Winter can hold you, if you like."

  Stay still, or we hold you down. Great choices. I stayed still. I watched those pale fingers glide towards my face. I ground my fingernails into the palms of my hands. I would not move away from her. I would not move. Her fingers touched my forehead, and I felt the cool wetness of blood. She brushed it down my temple to my cheek and traced her fingers over my lower lip. I think I stopped breathing.

  "Lick your lips," she said.

  "No," I said.

  "Oh, you are a stubborn one. Has Jean-Claude given you this courage?"

  "What the hell are you talking about?"

  Her eyes darkened, face clouding over. "Don't be coy, Anita. It does not become you." Her voice was suddenly adult, hot enough to scald. "I know your little secret."

  "I don't know what you are talking about," I said, and I meant it. I didn't understand the anger.

  "If you like, we can play games for a little while longer." She was suddenly standing beside Phillip, and I hadn't seen her move. "Did that surprise you, Anita? I am still master of this city. I have powers that you and your master have never even dreamed of."

  My master? What the hell was she talking about? I didn't have a master.

  She rubbed her hands along the side of his chest, over his rib cage. Her hand wiped away the blood to show the skin smooth and untouched. She stood in front of him and didn't come to his collarbone. Phillip had closed his eyes. Her head arched backwards, a glimpse of fangs, lips drawn back in a snarl.

  "No." I stepped towards them. Winter's hands descended on my shoulders. He shook his head, slow and careful. I was not to interfere.

  She drove her fangs into his side. His whole body stiffened, neck arching, arms jerking at the chains.

  "Leave him alone!" I drove an elbow into Winter's stomach. He grunted, and his fingers dug into my shoulders until I wanted to scream. His arms enveloped me, tight to his chest, no movement allowed.

  She raised her face from Phillip's skin. Blood trickled down her chin. She licked her lips with a tiny pink tongue. "Ironic," she said in a voice years older than the body would ever be. "I sent Phillip to seduce you. Instead, you seduced him."

  "We are not lovers." I felt ridiculous with Winter's arms crushing me to his chest.

  "Denial will not help either of you," she said.

  "What will help us?" I asked.

  She motioned, and Winter released me. I stepped away from him, out of reach. It put me closer to Nikolaos, perhaps not an improvement.

  "Let us discuss your future, Anita." She began to walk up the steps. "And your lover's future."

  I assumed she meant Phillip, and I didn't correct her. The nameless man motioned for me to follow her up the stairs. Aubrey was moving closer to Phillip. They would be alone together. Unacceptable.

  "Nikolaos, please."

  Maybe it was the "please." She turned. "Yes," she said.

  "May I ask two things?"

  She was smiling at me, amused with me. An adult's amusement with a child who had used a new word. I didn't care what she thought of me as long as she did what I wanted. "You may ask," she said.

  "That when we go, all the vampires leave this room." She was still staring at me, smiling, so far so good. "And that I be allowed to speak with Phillip privately."

  She laughed, high and wild, chimes in a storm wind. "You are bold, mortal. I give you that. I begin to see what Jean-Claude sees in you."

  I let the comment go because I felt like I was missing part of the meaning. "May I have what I ask, please?"

  "Call me master, and you will have it."

  I swallowed and it was loud in the sudden stillness. "Please . . . master." See, I didn't choke on the word after all.

  "Very good, animator, very good indeed." Without her needing to say anything, Valentine and Aubrey went up the steps and out the door. They didn't even argue. That was frightening all on its own.

  "I will leave Burchard at the top of the steps. He has human hearing. If you whisper, he won't be able to hear you at all."

  "Burchard?" I asked.

  "Yes, animator, Burchard, my human servant." She stared at me as if that was significant. My expression didn't seem to please her. She frowned. Then she turned abruptly in a swing of white skirts. Winter followed her like an obedient puppy on steroids.

  Burchard, the once nameless man, took up a post in front of the closed door. He stared straight ahead, not at us. Privacy, or as close as we were getting to it.

  I went to Phillip, and he still wouldn't look at me. His thick, brown hair acted like a kind of curtain between us. "Phillip, what happened?"

  His voice was an abused whisper; screaming will do that to you. I had to stand on tiptoe and nearly press my body against his to hear him. "Guilty Pleasures; they took me from there."

  "Didn't Robert try to stop them?" For some reason that seemed important. I had only met Robert once, but part of me was angry that he had not protected Phillip. He was in charge of things while Jean-Claude was away. Phillip was one of those things.

  "Wasn't strong enough."

  I lost my balance and was forced to catch myself, hands flat against his ruined chest. I jerked back, hands held out from me, bloody.

  Phillip closed his eyes and leaned back into the wall. His throat worked hard at swallowing. There were two fresh bites on his neck. They were going to bleed him to death if someone didn't get carried away first.

  He lowered his head and tried to look at me, but his hair had spilled into both eyes. I wiped the blood on my jeans and went back to stand almost on tiptoe next to him. I brushed the hair back from his eyes, but it spilled forward again. It was beginning to bug me. I combed my fingers through his hair until it stayed out of his face. His hair was softer than it looked, thick and warm with the heat of his body.

  He almost smiled. His voice breaking as he whispered, "Few months back, I'd have paid money for this."

  I stared at him, then realized he was trying to make a joke. God. My throat felt tight.

  Burchard said, "It is time to go."

  I stared into Phillip's eyes, perfect brown, torchlight dancing in them like black mirrors. "I won't leave you here, Phillip."

  His eyes flickered to the man on the stairs and back to me. Fear turned his face young, helpless. "See you later," he said.

  I stepped back from him. "You can count on it."

  "It is not wise to keep her waiting," Burchard said.

  He was probably right. Phillip and I stared at each other for a handful of moments. The pulse in his throat jumped under his skin like it was trying to escape. My throat ached; my chest was tight. The torchlight flickered in my vision for just a second. I turned away and walked to the steps. We tough-as-nails vampire slayers don't cry. At least, never in public. At least, never when we can help it.

nbsp; Burchard held the door open for me. I glanced back at Phillip and waved, like an idiot. He watches me go, his eyes too large for his face suddenly, like a child who watches its parent leave the room before all the monsters are gone.

  I had to leave him like that--alone, helpless. God help me.


  NIKOLAOS SAT IN her carved wooden chair, tiny feet swinging off the ground. Charming.

  Aubrey leaned against the wall, tongue running over his lips, getting the last bit of blood off them. Valentine stood very still beside him, staring at me.

  Winter stood beside me. The prison guard.

  Burchard went to stand by Nikolaos, one hand on the back of her chair.

  "What, animator, no jokes?" Nikolaos asked. Her voice was still the grown-up version. It was like she had two voices and could change them with a push of a button.

  I shook my head. I didn't feel very funny.

  "Have we broken your spirit? Taken the fight out of you?"

  I stared at her. Anger flared through me like a wave of heat. "What do you want, Nikolaos?"

  "Oh, that's much better." Her voice rose and fell, a little-girl giggle at the end of each word. I might never like children again.

  "Jean-Claude should be growing weak inside his coffin. Starving, but instead he is strong and well fed. How can this be?"

  I didn't have the faintest idea, so I kept quiet. Maybe it was rhetorical?

  It wasn't. "Answer me, A-n-i-t-a." She stretched my name out, biting off each syllable.

  "I don't know."

  "Oh, but you do."

  I didn't, but she wasn't going to believe me. "Why are you hurting Phillip?"

  "He needed to be taught a lesson, after last night."

  "Because he stood up to you?" I asked.

  "Yes," she said, "because he stood up to me." She scooted out of the chair and pattered towards me. She did a little turn so the white dress billowed around her. She freaking skipped over to me, smiling. "And because I was angry with you. I torture your lover, and maybe I won't torture you. And perhaps, this demonstration will give you fresh incentive to find the vampire murderer." Her pretty little face was turned up to me, pale eyes gleaming with humor. She was good.

  I swallowed hard, and I asked the question I had to ask, "Why were you angry with me?"

  She cocked her head to one side. If she hadn't been blood-spattered, it would have been cute. "Could it be that you do not know?" She turned back to Burchard. "What think you, my friend? Is she ignorant?"

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