Guilty pleasures, p.23
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.23

         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  He straightened his shoulders and said, "I believe that it is possible."

  "Oh, Jean-Claude has been a very naughty boy. Giving the second mark to an unsuspecting mortal."

  I stood very still. I was remembering blue, fiery eyes on the stairs, and Jean-Claude's voice in my head. All right, I had suspected it, but I still didn't understand what it meant. "What does the second mark mean?"

  She licked her lips, soft like a kitten. "Shall we explain, Burchard? Shall we tell her what we know?"

  "If she truly does not know, mistress, we must enlighten her," he said.

  "Yes," she said and glided back to the chair. "Burchard, tell her how old you are."

  "I am six hundred and three years of age."

  I stared at his smooth face and shook my head. "But you're human, not a vampire."

  "I have been given the fourth mark and will live as long as my mistress needs me."

  "No, Jean-Claude wouldn't do that to me," I said.

  Nikolaos made a small shrugging motion with her hands. "I had pressed him very hard. I knew of the first mark to heal you. I suppose he was desperate to save himself."

  I remembered the echo of his voice in my head. "I'm sorry. I had no choice." Damn him, there were always choices. "He's been in my dreams every night. What does that mean?"

  "He is communicating with you, animator. With the third mark will come more direct mind contact."

  I shook my head. "No."

  "No what, animator? No third mark, or no you don't believe us?" she asked.

  "I don't want to be anyone's servant."

  "Have you been eating more than usual?" she asked.

  The question was so odd, I just stared for a minute, then I remembered. "Yes. Is that important?"

  Nikolaos frowned. "He is siphoning energy from you, Anita. He is feeding through your body. He should be growing weak by now, but you will keep him strong."

  "I didn't mean to."

  "I believe you," she said. "Last night when I realized what he had done, I was beside myself with anger. So I took your lover."

  "Please believe me, he is not my lover."

  "Then why did he risk my anger to save you last night? Friendship? Decency? I think not."

  All right, let her believe it. Just get us out alive, that was the goal. Nothing else mattered. "What can Phillip and I do to make amends?"

  "Oh, so polite, I like that." She put a hand on Burchard's waist, a casual gesture like petting a dog. "Shall we show her what she has to look forward to?"

  His whole body tensed as if an electric current had run through it. "If my mistress wishes."

  "I do," she said.

  Burchard knelt in front of her, face about chest level. Nikolaos looked over his head at me. "This," she said, "is the fourth mark." Her hands went to the small pearl buttons that decorated the front of the white dress. She spread the cloth wide, baring small breasts. They were a child's breasts, small and half-formed. She drew a fingernail beside her left breast. The skin opened like earth behind a plow, spilling blood in a red line down her chest and stomach.

  I could not see Burchard's face as he leaned forward. His hands slid around her waist. His face buried between her breasts. She tensed, back arching. Soft, sucking sounds filled the room's stillness.

  I looked away, staring at anything but them, as if I had found them having sex but couldn't leave. Valentine was staring at me. I stared back. He tipped an imaginary hat at me and flashed fangs. I ignored him.

  Burchard was sitting beside the chair, half-leaning against it. His face was slack and flushed, his chest rising and falling in deep gasps. He wiped blood from his mouth with a shaking hand. Nikolaos sat very still, head back, eyes closed. Perhaps sex wasn't such a bad analogy after all.

  Nikolaos spoke with her eyes closed, head thrown back, voice thick. "Your friend, Willie, is back in a coffin. He felt sorry for Phillip. We will have to cure him of such instincts."

  She raised her head abruptly, eyes bright, almost glittering, as if they had a light all their own. "Can you see my scar today?"

  I shook my head. She was the beautiful child, complete and whole. No imperfections. "You look perfect again, why?"

  "Because I am expending energy to make it so. I am having to work at it." Her voice was low and warm, a building heat like thunderstorms in the distance.

  The hair at the back of my neck crawled. Something bad was about to happen.

  "Jean-Claude has his followers, Anita. If I kill him, they will make him a martyr. But if I prove him weak, powerless, they just fall away and follow me, or follow no one."

  She stood, dress buttoned to her neck once more. Her cotton-white hair seemed to move as if a wind stirred it, but there was no wind. "I will destroy something Jean-Claude has given his protection to."

  How fast could I get to the knife on my leg? And what good would it do me?

  "I will prove to all that Jean-Claude can protect nothing. I am master of all."

  Egocentric bitch. Winter grabbed my arm before I could do anything. Too busy watching the vampires to notice the humans.

  "Go," she said. "Kill him."

  Aubrey and Valentine stood away from the wall and bowed. Then they were gone, as if they had vanished. I turned to Nikolaos.

  She smiled. "Yes, I clouded your mind, and you did not see them go."

  "Where are they going?" My stomach was tight. I think I already knew the answer.

  "Jean-Claude has given Phillip his protection; thus he must die."


  Nikolaos smiled. "Oh, but yes."

  A scream ripped through the hallway. A man's scream. Phillip's scream.

  "No!" I half-fell to my knees; only Winter's hand kept me from falling to the floor. I pretended to faint, sagging in his grip. He released me. I grabbed the knife from its ankle sheath. Winter and I were close to the hallway, far away from Nikolaos and her human. Maybe far enough.

  Winter was staring at her as if waiting for orders. I came up off the ground and drove the knife into his groin. The knife sank in, and blood poured out as I drew the blade free and raced for the hallway.

  I was at the door when the first trickle of wind oozed down my back. I didn't look back. I opened the door.

  Phillip sagged in the chains. Blood poured in a bright red flood down his chest. It splattered onto the floor, like rain. Torchlight glittered on the wet bone of his spine. Someone had ripped his throat out.

  I staggered against the wall as if someone had hit me. I couldn't get enough air. Someone kept whispering, "Oh, God, oh, God," over and over, and it was me. I walked down the steps with my back pressed against the wall. I couldn't take my eyes from him. Couldn't look away. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't cry.

  The torchlight reflected in his eyes, giving the illusion of movement. A scream built in my gut and spilled out my throat. "Phillip!"

  Aubrey stepped between me and Phillip. He was covered in blood. "I look forward to visiting your lovely friend, Catherine."

  I wanted to run at him, screaming. Instead, I leaned against the wall, knife held down at my side, unnoticed. The goal was no longer to get out alive. The goal was to kill Aubrey. "You son of a bitch, you fucking son of a bitch." My voice sounded utterly calm, no emotion whatsoever. I wasn't afraid. I didn't feel anything.

  Aubrey's face frowned at me through a mask of Phillip's blood. "Do not say such things to me."

  "You ugly, stinking, mother-fucking bastard."

  He glided to me, just like I wanted him to. He put a hand on my shoulder. I screamed in his face as loud as I could. He hesitated for just a heartbeat. I shoved the knife blade between his ribs. It was sharp and thin, and I shoved it hilt deep. His body stiffened, leaning into me. Eyes wide and surprised. His mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. He toppled to the floor, fingers grabbing at air.

  Valentine was instantly there, kneeling by the body. "What have you done?" He couldn't see the knife. It was shielded by Aubrey's body.

  "I killed him, you s
on of a bitch, just like I'm going to kill you."

  Valentine jerked to his feet, started to say something, and all hell broke loose. The cell door crashed inward and smashed to bits against the far wall. A tornado wind blasted into the room.

  Valentine dropped to his knees, head touching the floor. He was bowing. I flattened myself against the wall. The wind clawed at my face, tangling my hair in front of my eyes.

  The noise grew less, and I squinted up at the door. Nikolaos floated just above the top step. Her hair crackled around her head, like spider silk. Her skin had shrunken against her bones, until she was skeletal. Her eyes glowed, pale blue fire. She started floating down the steps, hands outstretched.

  I could see her veins like blue lights under her skin. I ran. Ran for the far wall, and the tunnel the ratmen had used.

  The wind threw me against the wall, and I scrambled on hands and feet towards the tunnel. The hole was large, and black, cool air brushed my face, and something grabbed my ankle.

  I screamed. The thing that was Nikolaos dragged me back. It slammed me against the wall and pinned my wrists in one clawed hand. The body leaned into my legs, bone under cloth.

  The lips had receded, exposing the fangs and teeth. The skeletal head hissed, "You will learn obedience, to me!" It screamed in my face, and I screamed back. Wordlessly, an animal screaming in a trap.

  My heart was thudding in my throat. I couldn't breathe. "Nooo!"

  The thing shrieked, "Look at me!"

  And I did. I fell into the blue fire that was her eyes. The fire burrowed into my brain, pain. Her thoughts cut me up like knives, slicing away parts of me. Her rage scalded and burned until I thought the skin was peeling away from my face. Claws scrapped the inside of my skull, grinding bone into dust.

  When I could see again, I was huddled by the wall, and she was standing over me, not touching, not needing to. I was shaking, shaking so badly my teeth chattered. I was cold, so cold.

  "Eventually, animator, you will call me master, and you will mean it." She was suddenly kneeling over me. She pressed her slender body over mine, hands pinning my shoulders to the floor. I couldn't move.

  The beautiful little girl leaned her face against my cheek and whispered, "I am going to sink fangs into your neck, and there is nothing you can do to stop me."

  Her delicate shell of an ear was brushing my lips. I sank teeth into it until I tasted blood. She shrieked and jerked away, blood running down the side of her neck.

  Bright razor claws tore through my brain. Her pain, her rage, turning my brain into silly putty. I think I was screaming again, but I couldn't hear it. After a while I couldn't hear anything. Darkness came. It swallowed up Nikolaos and left me alone, floating in the dark.


  I WOKE UP , which was a pleasant surprise all on its own. I was blinking up into an electric light set in a ceiling. I was alive, and I wasn't in the dungeon. Good things to know.

  Why should it surprise me that I was alive? My fingers caressed the rough, knobby fabric of the couch I was lying on. There was a picture hanging over the couch. A river scene with flatboats, mules, people. Someone came to stand over me, long yellow hair, square-jawed, handsome face. Not as inhumanly beautiful as he had been to me before, but still handsome. I guess you had to be handsome to be a stripper.

  My voice came out in a harsh croak. "Robert."

  He knelt beside me. "I was afraid you wouldn't wake up before dawn. Are you hurt?"

  "Where . . ." I cleared my throat and that helped a little. "Where am I?"

  "Jean-Claude's office at Guilty Pleasures."

  "How did I get here?"

  "Nikolaos brought you. She said, 'Here's your master's whore.' " I watched his throat work as he swallowed. It reminded me of something, but I couldn't think what.

  "You know what Jean-Claude has done?" I asked.

  Robert nodded. "My master has marked you twice. When I speak to you, I am speaking to him."

  Did he mean that figuratively or literally? I really didn't want to know.

  "How do you feel?" he asked.

  There was something in the way he asked it that meant I shouldn't feel all right. My throat hurt. I raised a hand and touched it. Dried blood. On my neck.

  I closed my eyes, but that didn't help. A small sound escaped my throat, very like a whimper. Phillip's image was burned on my mind. The blood pouring from his throat, torn pink meat. I shook my head and tried to breathe deep and slow. It was no good. "Bathroom," I said.

  Robert showed me where it was. I went inside, knelt on the cool floor, and threw up in the toilet, until I was empty and nothing but bile came up. Then I walked to the sink and splashed cold water in my mouth and on my face. I stared at myself in the mirror above the sink. My eyes looked black, not brown, my skin sickly. I looked like shit and felt worse.

  And there on the right side of my neck was the real thing. Not Phillip's healing bite marks, but fang marks. Tiny, diminutive, fang marks. Nikolaos had . . . contaminated me. To prove she could harm Jean-Claude's human servant. She had proved how tough she was, oh, yeah. Real tough.

  Phillip was dead. Dead. Try the word over in your mind, but could I say it out loud? I decided to try. "Phillip is dead," I told my reflection.

  I crumbled the brown paper towel and stuffed it in the metal trash can. It wasn't enough. I screamed, "Ahhh!" I kicked the trash can, over and over until it toppled to the floor, spilling its contents.

  Robert came through the door. "Are you all right?"

  "Does it look like I'm all right?" I yelled.

  He hesitated in the doorway. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

  "You couldn't even keep them from taking Phillip!"

  He winced as if I had hit him. "I did my best."

  "Well, it wasn't good enough, was it?" I was still screaming like a mad person. I sank to my knees, and all that rage choked up my throat and spilled out my eyes. "Get out!"

  He hesitated. "Are you sure?"

  "Get out of here!"

  He closed the door behind him. And I sat in the floor and rocked and cried and screamed. When my heart felt as empty as my stomach, I felt leaden, used up.

  Nikolaos had killed Phillip and bitten me to prove how powerful she was. I bet she thought I'd be scared absolutely shitless of her. She was right on that. But I spend most of my waking hours confronting and destroying things that I fear. A thousand-year-old master vampire was a tall order, but a girl's got to have a goal.


  THE CLUB WAS quiet and dark. There was no one there but me. It must have been after dawn. The club was hushed and full of that waiting silence that all buildings get after the people go home. As if once we leave, the building has a life of its own, if only we would leave it in peace. I shook my head and tried to concentrate. To feel something. All I wanted was to go home and try to sleep. And pray I didn't dream.

  There was a yellow Post-it note on the door. It read, "Your weapons are behind the bar. The master brought those, too. Robert."

  I put both guns in place and the knives. The one I had used on Winter and Aubrey was missing. Was Winter dead? Maybe. Was Aubrey dead? Hopefully. Usually it took a master vampire to survive a blow to the heart, but I'd never tried it on a five-hundred-year-old walking corpse. If they took the knife out, he might be tough enough to survive it. I had to call Catherine. And tell her what? Get out of town, a vampire is after you. Didn't sound like something she'd buy. Shit.

  I walked out into the soft white light of dawn. The street was empty and awash in that gentle morning air. The heat hadn't had time to creep in. It was almost cool. Where was my car? I heard footsteps a second before the voice said, "Don't move. I have a gun pointed at your back."

  I clasped my hands atop my head without being asked. "Good morning, Edward," I said.

  "Good morning, Anita," he said. "Stand very still, please." He stood just behind me, gun pressing against my spine. He frisked me completely, top to bottom. Nothing haphazard about Edward; that's one of the r
easons he's still alive. He stepped back from me, and said, "You may turn around now."

  He had my Firestar tucked into his belt, the Browning loose in his left hand. I don't know what he did with the knives.

  He smiled, boyish and charming, gun very steadily pointed at my chest. "No more hiding. Where is this Nikolaos?" he asked.

  I took a deep breath and let it out. I thought about accusing him of being the vampire murderer, but now didn't seem to be a good time. Maybe later, when he wasn't pointing a gun at me. "May I lower my arms?" I asked.

  He gave a slight nod.

  I lowered my arms slowly. "I want one thing clear between us, Edward. I'll give you the information, but not because I'm afraid of you. I want her dead. And I want a piece of it."

  His smile widened, eyes glittering with pleasure. "What happened last night?"

  I glanced down at the sidewalk, then up. I stared into his blue eyes and said, "She had Phillip killed."

  He was watching my face very closely. "Go on."

  "She bit me. I think she plans on making me a personal servant."

  He put his gun back in his shoulder holster and came to stand next to me. He turned my head to one side to see the bite mark better. "You need to clean this bite. It's going to hurt like hell."

  "I know. Will you help me?"

  "Sure." His smile softened. "Here I was going to cause you pain to get information. Now you ask me to help you pour acid on a wound."

  "Holy Water," I said.

  "It's going to feel the same," he said.

  Unfortunately, he was right.


  I SAT WITH my back pressed against the cool porcelain of the bathtub. The front and side of my shirt was clinging to me, water-soaked. Edward knelt beside me, a half-empty bottle of Holy Water in one hand. We were on the third bottle. I had thrown up only once. Bully for me.

  We had started with me sitting on the edge of the sink. I had not stayed there long. I had jumped, yelled, and whimpered. I had also called Edward a son of a bitch. He didn't hold it against me.

  "How do you feel?" he asked. His face was utterly blank. I couldn't tell if he was enjoying himself or hating it.

  I glared up at him. "Like someone's been shoving a red-hot knife against my throat."

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