Guilty pleasures, p.24
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.24

         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  "I mean, do you want to stop and rest awhile?"

  I took a deep breath. "No. I want it clean, Edward. All the way."

  He shook his head, almost smiled. "It is customary to do this over a matter of days, you know."

  "Yes," I said.

  "But you want it all in one marathon session?" His gaze was very steady, as if the question were more important than it seemed.

  I looked away from the intensity of his eyes. I didn't want to be stared at right now. "I don't have a few days. I need this wound clean before nightfall."

  "Because Nikolaos will come visit you again," he said.

  "Yes," I said.

  "And unless this first wound is purified, she'll have a hold on you."

  I took a deep breath and it trembled. "Yes."

  "Even if we clean the bite, she may still be able to call you. If she's as powerful as you say she is."

  "She's that powerful and more." I rubbed my hands along my jeans. "You think Nikolaos can turn me against you, even if we clean the bite?" I looked up at him then, hoping to be able to read his face.

  He stared down at me. "We vampire slayers take our chances."

  "That wasn't a no," I said.

  He gave a flash of smile. "It wasn't a yes, either."

  Oh, goody, Edward didn't know either. "Pour some more on, before I lose my nerve."

  He did smile then, eyes gleaming. "You will never lose your nerve. Your life, probably, but never your nerve."

  It was a compliment and meant as one. "Thank you."

  He put a hand on my shoulder, and I turned my face away. My heart was thudding in my throat until all I could hear was my blood pulsing inside my head. I wanted to run, to lash out, to scream, but I had to sit there and let him hurt me. I hate that. It had always taken at least two people to give me injections when I was a child. One person to man the needle and one to hold me down.

  Now I held myself down. If Nikolaos bit me twice, I would probably do anything she wanted me to. Even kill. I had seen it happen before, and that vampire had been child's play compared to the master.

  The water trickled down my skin and hit the bite mark like molten gold, scalding through my body. It was eating through my skin and bone. Destroying me. Killing me.

  I shrieked. I couldn't hold it. Too much pain. Couldn't run away. Had to scream.

  I was lying on the floor, my cheek pressed against the coolness of it, breathing in short, hungry gasps.

  "Slow your breathing, Anita. You're hyperventilating. Breathe, slow and easy, or you're going to pass out."

  I opened my mouth and took in a deep breath; it wheezed and screamed down my throat. I was choking on air. I coughed and fought to breathe. I was light-headed and a little sick by the time I could take a deep breath, but I hadn't passed out. A zillion brownie points for me.

  Edward almost had to lie on the floor to put his face near mine. "Can you hear me?"

  I managed, "Yes."

  "Good. I want to try to put the cross against the bite. Do you agree or do you think it's too soon?"

  If we hadn't cleansed the wound with enough Holy Water, the cross would burn me, and I'd have a fresh scar. I had been brave above and beyond the call of duty. I didn't want to play anymore. I opened my mouth to say, "No," but it wasn't what came out. "Do it," I said. Shit. I was going to be brave.

  He brushed my hair away from my neck. I lay on the floor and pressed my hands into fists, trying to prepare myself. There is no real way to prepare yourself for somebody shoving a branding iron into your neck.

  The chain rustled and slithered through Edward's hands. "Are you ready?"

  No. "Just do it, dammit."

  He did. The cross pressed against my skin, cool metal, no burning, no smoke, no seared flesh, no pain. I was pure, or as pure as I started out.

  He dangled the crucifix in front of my face. I grabbed it with one hand and squeezed until my hand shook. It didn't take long. Tears seeped from the corners of my eyes. I wasn't crying, not really. I was exhausted.

  "Can you sit up?" he asked.

  I nodded and forced myself to sit, leaning against the bathtub.

  "Can you stand up?" he asked.

  I thought about it, and decided no, I didn't think I could. My whole body was weak, shaky, nauseous. "Not without help."

  Edward knelt beside me, put an arm behind my shoulders and one under my knees, and lifted me in his arms. He stood in one smooth motion, no strain.

  "Put me down," I said.

  He looked at me. "What?"

  "I am not a child. I don't want to be carried."

  He drew a loud breath, then said, "All right." He lowered me to my feet and let go. I staggered against the wall and slid to the floor. The tears were back, dammit. I sat in the floor, crying, too weak to walk from my bathroom to my bed. God!

  Edward just stood there, looking down at me, face neutral and unreadable as a cat.

  My voice came out almost normal, no hint of crying. "I hate being helpless. I hate it!"

  "You are one of the least helpless people I know," Edward said. He knelt beside me again, draped my right arm over his shoulders, grabbed my right wrist with his hand. His other arm encircled my waist. The height difference made it a little awkward, but he managed to give me the illusion that I walked to the bed.

  The stuffed penguins sat against the wall. Edward hadn't said anything about them. If he wouldn't mention it, I wouldn't. Who knows, maybe Death slept with a teddy bear? Naw.

  The heavy drapes were still closed, leaving the room in permanent twilight. "Rest. I'll stand guard and see that none of the bogeys sneak up on you."

  I believed him.

  Edward brought the white chair from the living room and sat it against the bedroom wall, near the door. He slipped his shoulder holster back on, gun ready at hand. He had brought a gym bag up from the car with us. He unzipped it and drew out what looked like a miniature machine gun. I didn't know much about machine guns, and all I could think of was an Uzi.

  "What kind of gun is that?" I asked.

  "A Mini-Uzi."

  What do you know? I had been right. He popped the clip and showed me how to load it, where the safety was, all the finer points, like it was a new car. He sat down in the chair with the machine gun on his knees.

  My eyes kept fluttering shut, but I said, "Don't shoot any of my neighbors, okay?"

  I think he smiled. "I'll try not to."

  I nodded. "Are you the vampire murderer?"

  He smiled then, bright, charming. "Go to sleep, Anita."

  I was on the edge of sleep when his voice called me back, soft and faraway. "Where is Nikolaos's daytime retreat?"

  I opened my eyes and tried to focus on him. He was still sitting in the chair, motionless. "I'm tired, Edward, not stupid." His laughter bubbled up around me as I fell asleep.

  42

  JEAN-CLAUDE SAT IN the carved throne. He smiled at me and extended one long-fingered hand. "Come," he said.

  I was wearing a long, white dress that had lace of its own. I had never dreamed of myself in anything like it. I glanced up at Jean-Claude. It was his choice, not mine. Fear tightened my throat. "It's my dream," I said.

  He held out both hands and said, "Come."

  And I went to him. The dress whispered and scraped on the stones, a continuous rustling noise. It grated on my nerves. I was suddenly standing in front of him. I raised my hands towards his slowly. I shouldn't do it. Bad idea, but I couldn't seem to stop myself.

  His hands wrapped around mine, and I knelt before him. He drew my hands to the lace that spilled down the front of his shirt, forced my fingers to take two handfuls of it.

  He cupped his hands over mine, holding them tight; then he ripped his shirt open using my hands.

  His chest was smooth and pale with black hair curling in a line down the middle. The hair thickened over the flatness of his stomach, incredibly black against the white of his belly. The burn scar was firm and shiny and out of place against the perfection o
f his body.

  He gripped my chin in one hand, raising my face towards him. His other hand touched his chest, just below his right nipple. He drew blood on his pale skin. It trickled down his chest in a bright, crimson line.

  I tried to pull away, but his fingers dug into my jaw like a vise. I shouted, "No!"

  I hit at him with my left hand. He caught my wrist and held it. I used my right hand to grip the floor and shoved with my knees. He held me at jaw and wrist like a butterfly on a pin. You can move, but you can't get away. I dropped to a sitting position, forcing him to strangle me or lower me to the ground. He lowered me.

  I kicked out with everything I had. Both feet connected with his knee. Vampires can feel pain. He dropped my jaw so suddenly, I fell backwards. He grabbed both my wrists and jerked me to my knees, body pinned on either side by his legs. He sat in the chair, knees controlling my lower body, hands like chains on my wrists.

  A high, tinkling laughter filled the room. Nikolaos stood to one side, watching us. Her laughter echoed through the room, growing louder and louder, like music gone mad.

  Jean-Claude transferred both my wrists to one hand, and I could not stop him. His free hand stroked my cheek, smoothing down the line of my neck. His fingers tightened at the base of my skull and began to push.

  "Jean-Claude, please, don't do this!"

  He pressed my face closer and closer to the wound on his chest. I struggled, but his fingers were welded to my skull, a part of me. "NO!"

  Nikolaos's laughter changed to words. "Scratch the surface, and we are all much alike, animator."

  I screamed, "Jean-Claude!"

  His voice came like velvet, warm and dark, sliding through my mind. "Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, two minds with but one body, two souls wedded as one." For one bright, shining moment, I saw it, felt it. Eternity with Jean-Claude. His touch . . . forever. His lips. His blood.

  I blinked and found my lips almost touching the wound in his chest. I could have reached out and licked it. "Jean-Claude, no! Jean-Claude!" I screamed it. "God help me!" I screamed that, too.

  Darkness and someone gripping my shoulder. I didn't even think about it. Instinct took over. The gun from the headboard was in my hand and turning to point.

  A hand trapped my arm under the pillow, pointing the gun at the wall, a body pressing against mine. "Anita, Anita, it's Edward. Look at me!"

  I blinked up at Edward, who was pinning my arms. His breathing was coming a little fast.

  I stared at the gun in my hand and back at Edward. He was still holding my arms. I guess I didn't blame him.

  "Are you all right?" he asked.

  I nodded.

  "Say something, Anita."

  "I had a nightmare," I said.

  He shook his head. "No shit." He released me slowly.

  I slid the gun back in its holster.

  "Who's Jean-Claude?" he asked.

  "Why?"

  "You were calling his name."

  I brushed a hand over my forehead, and it came away slick with sweat. The clothes I'd slept in and the sheet were drenched with it. These nightmares were beginning to get on my nerves.

  "What time is it?" The room looked too dark, as if the sun had gone down. My stomach tightened. If it was near dark, Catherine wouldn't have a chance.

  "Don't panic; it's just clouds. You've got about four hours until dusk."

  I took a deep breath and staggered into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and neck. I looked ghost-pale in the mirror. Had the dream been Jean-Claude's doing or Nikolaos's? If it had been Nikolaos, did she already control me? No answers. No answers to anything.

  Edward was sitting in the white chair when I came back out. He watched me like I was an interesting species of insect that he had never seen before.

  I ignored him and called Catherine's office. "Hi, Betty, this is Anita Blake. Is Catherine in?"

  "Hello, Ms. Blake. I thought you knew that Ms. Maison is going to be out of town from the thirteenth until the twentieth on a deposition."

  Catherine had told me, but I forgot. I finally lucked out. It was about time. "I forgot, Betty. Thanks a lot. Thanks more than you'll ever know."

  "Glad to be of help. Ms. Maison has scheduled the first fitting for the bridesmaid dresses on the twenty-third." She said it like it should make me feel better. It didn't.

  "I won't forget. Bye."

  "Have a nice day."

  I hung up and phoned Irving Griswold. He was a reporter for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. He was also a werewolf. Irving the werewolf. It didn't quite work, but then what did? Charles the werewolf, naw. Justin, Oliver, Wilbur, Brent? Nope.

  Irving answered on the third ring.

  "It's Anita Blake."

  "Well, hi, what's up?" He sounded suspicious, as if I never called him unless I wanted something.

  "Do you know any wererats?"

  He was quiet for almost too long; then, "Why do you want to know?"

  "I can't tell you."

  "You mean you want my help, but I don't get a story out of it."

  I sighed. "That's about it."

  "Then why should I help you?"

  "Don't give me a hard time, Irving. I've given you plenty of exclusives. My information is what got you your first front page byline. So don't give me grief."

  "A little grouchy today, aren't you?"

  "Do you know a wererat or don't you?"

  "I do."

  "I need to get a message to the Rat King."

  He gave a low whistle that was piercing over the phone. "You don't ask for much, do you? I might be able to get you a meeting with the wererat I know, but not their king."

  "Give the Rat King this message; got a pencil?"

  "Always," he said.

  "The vampires didn't get me, and I didn't do what they wanted."

  Irving read it back to me. When I confirmed it, he said, "You're involved with vampires and wererats, and I don't get an exclusive."

  "No one's going to get this one, Irving. It's going to be too messy for that."

  He was silent a moment. "Okay. I'll try to set up a meeting. I should know sometime tonight."

  "Thanks, Irving."

  "You be careful, Blake. I'd hate to lose my best source of front page bylines."

  "Me, too," I said.

  I had no sooner hung up the phone when it rang again. I picked it up without thinking. A phone rings, you pick it up, years of training. I haven't had my answering machine long enough to shake it completely.

  "Anita, this is Bert."

  "Hi, Bert." I sighed, quietly.

  "I know you are working on the vampire case, but I have something you might be interested in."

  "Bert, I am way over my head already. Anything else and I may never see daylight." You'd think Bert would ask if I was all right. How I was doing. But no, not my boss.

  "Thomas Jensen called today."

  My spine straightened. "Jensen called?"

  "That's right."

  "He's going to let us do it?"

  "Not us, you. He specifically asked for you. I tried to get him to take someone else, but he wouldn't do it. And it has to be tonight. He's afraid he'll chicken out."

  "Damn," I said softly.

  "Do I call him back and cancel, or can you give me a time to have him meet you?"

  Why did everything have to come at once? One of life's rhetorical questions. "Have him meet me at full dark tonight."

  "That's my girl. I knew you wouldn't let me down."

  "I'm not your girl, Bert. How much is he paying you?"

  "Thirty thousand dollars. The five-thousand-dollar down payment has already arrived by special messenger."

  "You are an evil man, Bert."

  "Yes," he said, "and it pays very well, thank you." He hung up without saying good-bye. Mr. Charm.

  Edward was staring at me. "Did you just take a job raising the dead, for tonight?"

  "Laying the dead to rest actually, but yes."

  "Does raising
the dead take it out of you?"

  "It?" I asked.

  He shrugged. "Energy, stamina, strength."

  "Sometimes."

  "How about this job? Is it an energy drain?"

  I smiled. "Yes."

  He shook his head. "You can't afford to be used up, Anita."

  "I won't be used up," I said. I took a deep breath and tried to think how to explain things to Edward. "Thomas Jensen lost his daughter twenty years ago. Seven years ago he had her raised as a zombie."

  "So?"

  "She committed suicide. No one knew why at the time. It was later learned that Mr. Jensen had sexually abused his daughter and that was why she had killed herself."

  "And he raised her from the dead." Edward grimaced. "You don't mean . . ."

  I waved my hands as if I could erase the sudden vivid image. "No, no, not that. He felt remorseful and raised her to say he was sorry."

  "And?"

  "She wouldn't forgive him."

  He shook his head. "I don't understand."

  "He raised her to make amends, but she had died hating him, fearing him. The zombie wouldn't forgive him, so he wouldn't put her back. As her mind deteriorated and her body, too, he kept her with him as a sort of punishment."

  "Jesus."

  "Yeah," I said. I walked to the closet and got out my gym bag. Edward carried guns in his; I carried my animator paraphernalia in it. Sometimes, I carried my vampire-slaying kit in it. The matchbook Zachary gave me was in the bottom of the bag. I stuffed it in my pants pocket. I don't think Edward saw me. He does catch on if a clue sits up and barks. "Jensen finally agreed to put her in the ground if I'll do it. I can't say no. He's sort of a legend among animators. The closest we come to a ghost story."

  "Why tonight? If it's waited seven years, why not a few more nights?"

  I kept putting things in the gym bag. "He insisted. He's afraid he'll lose his nerve if he has to wait. Besides, I may not be alive a few nights from now. He might not let anybody else do it."

  "That is not your problem. You didn't raise his zombie."

  "No, but I am an animator first. Vampire slaying is . . . a sideline. I am an animator. It isn't just a job."

  He was still staring at me. "I don't understand why, but I understand you have to do it."

  "Thanks."

  He smiled. "Your show. Mind if I come along to make sure no one offs you while you're gone?"

  I glanced at him. "Ever see a zombie raising?"

  "No."

  "You're not squeamish, are you?" I smiled when I said it.

  He stared at me, blue eyes gone suddenly cold. His whole face became different. There was nothing there, no expression, except that awful coldness. Emptiness. I'd had a leopard look at me like that once, through the cage bars, no emotion I understood, thoughts so alien it might as well have inhabited a different planet. Something that could kill me, skillfully, efficiently, because that was what it was meant to do, if it was hungry, or if I annoyed it.

 
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