Guilty pleasures, p.26
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.26
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         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  "Hi, Craig, this is Anita. What's up?"

  "Irving Griswold called, says to call him back ASAP or the meeting's off. He said you'd know what that meant. Do you?"

  "Yes. Thanks, Craig."

  "You sound awful."

  "Good night, Craig." I hung up on him. I felt tired and sluggish, and my throat hurt. I wanted to curl up somewhere dark and quiet for about a week. Instead, I called Irving. "It's me," I said.

  "Well, it's about time. Do you know the trouble I've gone through to set this up? You almost missed it."

  "If you don't quit talking, I may still miss it. Tell me where and when."

  He did. If we hurried, we'd make it. "Why is everyone so hot to do everything tonight?" I said.

  "Hey, if you don't want to meet, that's fine."

  "Irving, I've had a very, very long night, so stop bitching at me."

  "Are you all right?"

  What a stupid question. "Not really, but I'll live."

  "If you're hurt, I'll try to get the meeting postponed, but I can't promise anything, Anita. It was your message that got him this far."

  I leaned my forehead against the metal of the booth. "I'll be there, Irving."

  "I won't be." He sounded thoroughly disgusted. "One of the conditions was no reporters and no police."

  I had to smile. Poor Irving; he was getting left out of everything. He hadn't been attacked by ghouls and almost blown up, though. Maybe I should save my pity for myself.

  "Thanks, Irving, I owe you one."

  "You owe me several," he said. "Be careful. I don't know what you're into this time, but it sounds bad."

  He was fishing, and I knew it. "Good night, Irving." I hung up before he could ask any more questions.

  I called Dolph's home phone number. I don't know why it couldn't wait until morning, but I had almost died tonight. If I did die, I wanted someone to hunt Zachary down.

  Dolph answered on the sixth ring. His voice sounded gruff with sleep. "Yes."

  "This is Anita Blake, Dolph."

  "What's wrong?" His voice sounded almost alert.

  "I know who the murderer is."

  "Tell me."

  I told him. He took notes and asked questions. The biggest question came at the end. "Can you prove any of this?"

  "I can prove he wears a gris-gris. I can testify that he confessed to me. He tried to kill me; that I witnessed personally."

  "It's going to be a tough sell to a jury or a judge."

  "I know."

  "I'll see what I can find out."

  "We've almost got a solid case on him, Dolph."

  "True, but it all hinges on you being alive to testify."

  "Yeah, I'll be careful."

  "You come down tomorrow and get all this information recorded officially."

  "I will."

  "Good work."

  "Thanks," I said.

  "Good night, Anita."

  "Good night, Dolph."

  I eased back into the car. "We have a meeting with the wererats in forty-five minutes."

  "Why is it so important?" he asked.

  "Because I think they can show us a back way into Nikolaos's lair. If we come in the front door, we'll never make it." I started the car and pulled out into the road.

  "Who else did you call?" he asked.

  So he had been paying attention. "The police."

  "What?"

  Edward never likes dealing with the police. Fancy that. "If Zachary manages to kill me, I want someone else to be looking into it."

  He was silent for a little while. Then he asked, "Tell me about Nikolaos."

  I shrugged. "She's a sadistic monster, and she's over a thousand years old."

  "I look forward to meeting her."

  "Don't," I said.

  "We've killed master vampires before, Anita. She's just one more."

  "No. Nikolaos is at least a thousand years old. I don't think I've ever been so frightened of anything in my life."

  He was silent, face unreadable.

  "What are you thinking?" I asked.

  "That I love a challenge." Then he smiled, a beautiful, spreading smile. Shit. Death had seen his ultimate goal. The biggest catch of all. He wasn't afraid of her, and he should have been.

  THERE aren't that many places open at one-thirty A.M., but Denny's is. There was something wrong with meeting wererats in Denny's over coffee and donuts. Shouldn't we have been meeting in some dark alley? I wasn't complaining, mind you. It just struck me as . . . funny.

  Edward had gotten a spare shirt out of his bag o' weapons, so he was legal for Denny's. He went in first to make sure it wasn't another setup. If he took a table, it was safe. If he came back out, it wasn't safe. Simple. No one knew what he looked like yet. As long as he wasn't with me, he could go anywhere and no one would try to kill him. Amazing. I was beginning to feel like Typhoid Mary.

  Edward took a table. Safe. I walked into the bright lights and artificial comfort of the restaurant. The waitress had dark circles under her eyes, cleverly disguised by thick base, which made the circles look sort of pinkish. I looked past her. A man was motioning to me. Hand straight up, finger crooked like he was calling the waitress, or some other subservient.

  "I see my party, now. Thanks anyway," I said.

  The restaurant was mostly empty in the wee hours of Monday, or rather Tuesday morning. Two men sat at a table in front of the first man. They looked normal enough, but there was a sense of contained energy that seemed to spark in the air around them. Lycanthropes. I would have bet my life on it, and maybe I was.

  There was a couple, male and female, sitting catty-corner from the first two. I would have bet money they were lycanthropes, too.

  Edward had taken a table near them, but not too near. He had hunted lycanthropes before; he knew what to look for as well.

  As I passed the table, one of the men looked up. Pure brown eyes, so dark they were almost black, stared into mine. His face was square, body slender, small build, muscles worked in his arms as he folded his hands under his chin and looked at me. I stared back; then I was past him and to the booth where the Rat King sat.

  He was tall, at least six feet, dark brown skin, with thick, shortcut black hair, brown eyes. His face was thin, arrogant, lips almost too soft for the haughty expression he gave me. He was darkly handsome, strongly Mexican, and his suspicion rode the air like lightning.

  I eased into the booth. I took a deep, steadying breath and looked across the counter at him.

  "I got your message. What do you want?" His voice was soft but deep, without a trace of accent.

  "I want you to lead myself and at least one man into the tunnels beneath the Circus of the Damned."

  His frown deepened, forming faint wrinkles between his eyes. "Why should I do this for you?"

  "Do you want your people free of the master's influence?"

  He nodded. Still frowning.

  I was really winning him over. "Guide us in through the dungeon entrance, and I'll take care of it."

  He clasped his hands together on the table. "How can I trust you?"

  "I am not a bounty hunter. I have never harmed a lycanthrope."

  "We cannot fight beside you if you go against her. Even I cannot fight her. She calls to me. I don't answer, but I feel it. I can keep the small rats and my people from helping her against you, but that is all."

  "Just get us inside. We'll do the rest."

  "Are you so confident?"

  "I'm willing to bet my life on it," I said.

  He steepled his fingers against his lips, elbows on the table. The burn scar in his forearm was still there even in human form, a rough, four-pointed crown. "I'll get you inside," he said.

  I smiled. "Thank you."

  He stared at me. "When you come back out alive, then you can thank me."

  "It's a deal." I held my hand out. After a moment's hesitation, he took it. We shook on it.

  "You wish to wait a few days?" he asked.

  "No," I said. "I w
ant to go in tomorrow."

  He cocked his head to one side. "Are you sure?"

  "Why? Is that a problem?"

  "You are hurt. I thought you might wish to heal."

  I was a little bruised, and my throat hurt, but . . . "How did you know?"

  "You smell like death has brushed you close tonight."

  I stared at him. Irving never does this to me, the supernatural powers bit. I'm not saying he can't, but he works hard at being human. This man did not.

  I took a deep breath. "That is my business."

  He nodded. "We will call you and give you the place and time."

  I stood up. He remained sitting. There didn't seem to be anything else to say, so I left.

  About ten minutes later Edward got into the car with me. "What now?" he asked.

  "You mentioned your hotel room. I'm going to sleep while I can."

  "And tomorrow?"

  "You take me out and show me how the shotgun works."

  "Then?" he asked.

  "Then we go after Nikolaos," I said.

  He gave a shaky breath, almost a laugh. "Oh, boy."

  Oh, boy? "Glad to see someone is enjoying all this."

  He grinned at me. "I love my work," he said.

  I had to smile. Truth was, I loved my work, too.

  45

  DURING THE DAY I learned how to use a shotgun. That night I went caving with wererats.

  The cave was dark. I stood in absolute blackness, gripping my flashlight. I touched my hand to my forehead and couldn't see a damn thing but the funny white images your eyes make when there is no light. I was wearing a hard hat with a light on it, turned off at present. The wererats had insisted on it. All around me were sounds. Cries, moans, the popping of bone, a curious sliding sound like a knife drawing out of flesh. The wererats were changing from human to animal. It sounded like it hurt--a lot. They had made me swear not to turn on a light until they told me to.

  I had never wanted to see so badly in my life. It couldn't be so horrible. Could it? But a promise is a promise. I sounded like Horton the Elephant. "A person is a person no matter how small." What the hell was I doing standing in the middle of a cave, in the dark, surrounded by wererats, quoting Dr. Seuss, and trying to kill a one-thousand-year-old vampire?

  It had been one of my stranger weeks.

  Rafael, the Rat King, said, "You may turn on your lights."

  I did, instantly. My eyes seemed to leech on the light, eager to see. The ratmen stood in small groups in the wide, flat-roofed tunnel. There were ten of them. I had counted them in human form. Now the seven males were fur-covered and wearing jean cutoffs. Two wore loose t-shirts. The three women wore loose dresses, like maternity clothes. Their black button eyes glittered in the light. Everybody was furry.

  Edward came to stand near me. He was staring at the weres, face distant, unreadable. I touched his arm. I had told Rafael that I was not a bounty hunter, but Edward was, sometimes. I hoped I had not endangered these people.

  "Are you ready?" Rafael asked. He was the same sleek black ratman I remembered.

  "Yes," I said.

  Edward nodded.

  The wererats scattered to either side of us, scrambling over low, weathered flowstone. I said to no one in particular, "I thought caves were damp."

  A smaller ratman in a t-shirt said, "Cherokee Caverns is dead cave."

  "I don't understand."

  "Live cave has water and growing formations. A dry cave where none of the formations are growing is called dead cave."

  "Oh," I said.

  He drew lips back from huge teeth, a smile, I think. "More than you wanted to know, huh?"

  Rafael hissed back, "We are not here to give guided tours, Louie. Now be quiet, both of you."

  Louie shrugged and scrambled ahead of me. He was the same human that had been with Rafael in the restaurant, the one with the dark eyes.

  One of the females was nearly grey-furred. Her name was Lillian, and she was a doctor. She carried a backpack full of medical supplies. They seemed to be planning on us getting hurt. At least that meant they thought we would come out alive. I was beginning to wonder about that part myself.

  Two hours later the ceiling dropped to a point where I couldn't stand upright. And I learned what the hard hats they had given Edward and me were for. I scraped my head on the rock at least a thousand times. I'd have knocked myself unconscious long before we saw Nikolaos.

  The rats seemed designed for the tunnel, sliding along, flattening their bodies in a strange, scrambling grace. Edward and I could not match it. Not even close.

  He cursed softly behind me. His five inches of extra height were causing him pain. My lower back was an aching burn. He had to be in worse shape. There were pockets where the ceiling opened up and we could stand. I started looking very forward to them, like air pockets to a diver.

  The quality of darkness changed. Light--there was light up ahead, not much, but it was there. It flickered at the far end of the tunnel like a mirage.

  Rafael crouched beside us. Edward sat flat on the dry rock. I joined him. "There is your dungeon. We will wait here until near dark. If you have not come out, we will leave. After Nikolaos is dead, if we can, we will help you."

  I nodded; the light on my hard hat nodded with me. "Thank you for helping us."

  He shook his narrow, ratty face. "I have delivered you to the devil's door. Do not thank me for that."

  I glanced at Edward. His face was still distant, unreadable. If he was interested in what the ratman had just said, I couldn't tell it. We might as well have been talking about a grocery list.

  Edward and I knelt before the opening into the dungeon. Torchlight flickered, incredibly bright after the darkness. Edward was cradling his Uzi that hung on a strap across his chest. I had the shotgun. I was also carrying my two pistols, two knives, and a derringer stuffed in the pocket of my jacket. It was a present from Edward. He had handed it to me with this advice: "It kicks like a sonofabitch, but press it under someone's chin, and it will blow their fucking head off." Nice to know.

  It was daylight outside. There shouldn't be a vampire stirring, but Burchard would be there. And if he saw us, Nikolaos would know. Somehow, she'd know. Goosebumps marched up my arms.

  We scrambled inside, ready to kill and maim. The room was empty. All that adrenaline sort of sat in my body, making my breathing too quick and my heart pound for no reason. The spot where Phillip had been chained was clean. Someone had scrubbed it down real good.

  I fought an urge to touch the wall where he'd been.

  Edward called softly, "Anita." He was at the door.

  I hurried up to him.

  "What's wrong?" he asked.

  "She killed Phillip in here."

  "Keep your mind on business. I don't want to die because you're daydreaming."

  I started to get angry and swallowed it. He was right.

  Edward tried the door, and it opened. No prisoners, no need to lock it. I took the left side of the door, and he took the right. The corridor was empty.

  My hands were sweating on the shotgun. Edward led off down the right hand side of the corridor. I followed him into the dragon's lair. I didn't feel much like a knight. I was fresh out of shiny steeds, or was that shiny armor?

  Whatever. We were here. This was it. I could taste my heart in my throat.

  46

  THE DRAGON DIDN'T come out and eat us right away. In fact, the place was quiet. As the cliche goes, too quiet.

  I stepped close to Edward and whispered, "I don't mean to complain, but where is everybody?"

  He leaned his back against the wall and said, "Maybe you killed Winter. That just leaves Burchard. Maybe he's on an errand."

  I shook my head. "This is too easy."

  "Don't worry. Something will go wrong soon." He continued down the corridor, and I followed. It took me three steps to realize Edward had made a joke.

  The corridor opened into a huge room like Nikolaos's throne room, but there was no
chair here. There were coffins. Five of them spaced around the room on raised platforms, so they didn't have to sit on the floor in the draft. Tall, iron candelabra burned in the room, one at the foot and head of each coffin.

  Most vampires made some effort to hide their coffins, but not Nikolaos.

  "Arrogant," Edward whispered.

  "Yes," I whispered back. You always whispered around the coffins, at first, as if it were a funeral and they could hear you.

  There was a neck-ruffling smell to the room, stale. It caught at the back of my throat and was almost a taste, faintly metallic. It was like the smell of snakes kept in cages. You knew there was nothing warm and furry in this room just by smell. And that really doesn't do it justice. It was the smell of vampires.

  The first coffin was dark, well-varnished wood, with golden handles. It was wider at the shoulder area and then narrowed, following the contour of the human body. Older coffins did that sometimes.

  "We start here," I said.

  Edward didn't argue. He let the machine gun hang by its strap and drew his pistol. "You're covered," he said.

  I laid the shotgun on the floor in front of the coffin, gripped the edge of the lid, said a quick prayer, and lifted. Valentine lay in the coffin. His scarred face was bare. He was still dressed as a riverboat gambler but this time in black. His frilly shirt was crimson. The colors didn't look good against his auburn hair. One hand was half-curled over his thigh, a careless sleeper's gesture. A very human gesture.

  Edward peered into the coffin, gun pointed ceilingward. "This the one you threw Holy Water on?"

  I nodded.

  "Did a bang-up job," Edward said.

  Valentine never moved. I couldn't even see him breathe. I wiped my sweating palms on my jeans and felt for a pulse in his wrist. Nothing. His skin was cool to the touch. He was dead. It wasn't murder, no matter what the new laws said. You can't kill a corpse.

  The wrist pulsed. I jerked back like he'd burned me.

  "What's wrong?" Edward asked.

  "I got a pulse."

  "It happens sometimes."

  I nodded. Yeah, it happened sometimes. If you waited long enough, the heart did beat, blood did flow, but so slow that it was painful to watch. Dead. I was beginning to think I didn't know what that meant.

  I knew one thing. If night fell with us here, we would die, or wish we had. Valentine had helped kill over twenty people. He had nearly killed me. When Nikolaos withdrew her protection, he'd finish the job if he could. We had come to kill Nikolaos. I think she would withdraw her protection ASAP. As the old saying goes, it was him or me. I preferred him.

 
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