Guilty pleasures, p.27
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.27

         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  I shook off the shoulder straps of the backpack.

  "What are you looking for?" Edward asked.

  "Stake and hammer," I said without looking up.

  "Not going to use the shotgun?"

  I glanced up at him. "Oh, right. Why not rent a marching band while we're at it?"

  "If you just want to be quiet, there is another way." He had a slight smile on his face.

  I had the sharpened stake in my hand, but I was willing to listen. I've staked most of the vampires that I've killed, but it never gets easier. It is hard, messy work, though I don't throw up anymore. I am a professional, after all.

  He took a small case out of his own backpack. It held syringes. He drew out an ampule of some greyish liquid. "Silver nitrate," he said.

  Silver. Bane of the undead. Scourge of the supernatural. And all nicely modernized. "Does it work?" I asked.

  "It works." He filled one syringe and asked, "How old is this one?"

  "A little over a hundred," I said.

  "Two ought to do it." He shoved the needle into the big vein in Valentine's neck. Before he had filled the syringe a second time, the body shivered. He shoved the second dose into the neck. Valentine's body arched against the walls of the coffin. His mouth opened and closed. He gasped for air as if he were drowning.

  Edward filled up another syringe and handed it towards me. I stared at it.

  "It isn't going to bite," he said.

  I took it gingerly between my thumb and the first two fingers on my right hand.

  "What's the matter with you?" he asked.

  "I'm not a big fan of needles."

  He grinned. "You're afraid of needles?"

  I scowled at him. "Not exactly."

  Valentine's body shook and bucked, hands thumping against the wooden walls. It made a small, helpless noise. His eyes never opened. He was going to sleep through his own death.

  He gave one last shuddering jump, then collapsed against the side of the coffin like a broken rag doll.

  "He doesn't look very dead," I said.

  "They never do."

  "Stake their heart and chop off their heads, and you know they're dead."

  "This isn't staking," he said.

  I didn't like it. Valentine lay there looking very whole and nearly human. I wanted to see some rotting flesh and bones turning to dust. I wanted to know he was dead.

  "No one has ever gotten up out of their coffin after a syringe full of silver nitrate, Anita."

  I nodded but remained unconvinced.

  "You check the other side. Go on."

  I went, but I kept glancing back at Valentine. He had haunted my nightmares for years, nearly killed me. He just didn't look dead enough for me.

  I opened the first coffin on my side, one-handed, holding the syringe carefully. An injection of silver nitrate probably wouldn't do me much good either. The coffin was empty. The white imitation-silk lining had conformed to the body like a mattress, but the body wasn't there.

  I flinched and stared around the room, but there was nothing there. I stared slowly upward, hoping that there was nothing floating above me. There wasn't. Thank you, God.

  I remembered to breathe finally. It was probably Theresa's coffin. Yeah, that was it. I left it open and went to the next one. It was a newer model, probably fake wood, but nice and polished. The black male was in it. I had never gotten his name. Now I never would. I knew what it meant, coming in here. Not just defending yourself but taking out the vampires while they lay helpless. As far as I knew, this vampire had never hurt anyone. I laughed then; he was Nikolaos's protege. Did I really think he'd never tasted human blood? No. I pressed the needle against his neck and swallowed hard. I hated needles. No particular reason.

  I shoved it in and closed my eyes while I depressed the plunger. I could have pounded a stake through his heart, but sticking a needle in him put cold chills down my spine.

  Edward called, "Anita!"

  I whirled and found Aubrey sitting up in his coffin. He had Edward by the throat and was slowly lifting him off his feet.

  The shotgun was still by Valentine's coffin. Damn! I drew the 9mm and fired at Aubrey's forehead. The bullet tossed his head back, but he just smiled and raised Edward straight-armed, legs dangling.

  I ran for the shotgun.

  Edward was having to use both hands to keep himself from being strangled by his own weight. He dropped one hand, fumbling for the machine gun.

  Aubrey caught his wrist.

  I picked up the shotgun, took two steps towards them and fired from three feet away. Aubrey's head exploded; blood and brains spattered over the wall. The hands lowered Edward to the floor but didn't let go. Edward drew a ragged breath. The right hand convulsed around his throat, fingers digging for his windpipe.

  I had to step around Edward to fire at the chest. The blast took out the heart and most of the left side of the chest. The left arm sort of hung there by strands of tissue and bone. The corpse flopped back into its coffin.

  Edward dropped to his knees, breath wheezing and choking through his throat.

  "Nod if you can breathe, Edward," I said. Though if Aubrey had crushed his windpipe I don't know what I could have done. Run back and gotten Lillian the doctor rat, maybe.

  Edward nodded. His face was a mottled reddish purple, but he was breathing.

  My ears were ringing with the sound of the shotgun inside the stone walls. So much for surprise. So much for silver nitrate. I pumped another round into the gun and went to Valentine's coffin. I blew him apart. Now, he was dead.

  Edward staggered to his feet. He croaked, "How old was that thing?"

  "Over five hundred," I said.

  He swallowed, and it looked like it hurt. "Shit."

  "I wouldn't try sticking any needles into Nikolaos."

  He managed to glare at me, still half-leaning against Aubrey's coffin.

  I turned to the fifth coffin. The one we had saved until last without any talk between us. It was set against the far wall. A dainty white coffin, too small for an adult. Candlelight gleamed on the carvings in the lid.

  I was tempted to just blow a hole in the coffin, but I had to see her. I had to see what I was shooting at. My heart started thudding in my throat; my chest was tight. She was a master vampire. Killing them, even in daylight, is a chancy thing. Their gaze can trap you until nightfall. Their minds. Their voices. So much power. And Nikolaos was the most powerful I'd ever seen. I had my blessed cross. I would be all right. I had had too many crosses taken from me to feel completely safe. Oh, well. I tried to raise the lid one-handed, but it was heavy and not balanced for easy opening like modern coffins. "Can you back me on this, Edward? Or are you still relearning how to breathe?"

  Edward came to stand beside me. His face looked almost its normal color. He took hold of the lid and I readied the shotgun. He lifted and the whole lid slid off. It wasn't hinged on.

  I said, "Shiiit!"

  The coffin was empty.

  "Are you looking for me?" A high, musical voice called from the doorway. "Freeze; I believe that is the word. We have the drop on you."

  "I wouldn't advise going for your gun," Burchard said.

  I glanced at Edward and found his hands close to the machine gun but not close enough. His face was unreadable, calm, normal. Just a Sunday drive. I was so scared I could taste bile at the back of my throat. We looked at each other and raised our hands.

  "Turn around slowly," Burchard said.

  We did.

  He was holding a semiautomatic rifle of some kind. I'm not the gun freak Edward is, so I didn't know the make and model, but I knew it'd make a big hole. There was also a sword hilt sticking over his back. A sword, an honest-to-god sword.

  Zachary was standing beside him, holding a pistol. He held it two-handed, arms stiff. He didn't seem happy.

  Burchard held the rifle like he was born with it. "Drop your weapons, please, and lace your fingers on top of your heads."

  We did what he asked. Edward
dropped the machine gun, and I lost the shotgun. We had plenty more guns.

  Nikolaos stood to one side. Her face was cold, angry. Her voice, when it came, echoed through the room. "I am older then anything you have ever imagined. Did you think daylight holds me prisoner? After a thousand years?" She walked out into the room, careful not to cross in front of Burchard and Zachary. She glanced at the remains in the coffins. "You will pay for this, animator." She smiled then, and I had never seen anything more evil. "Strip them of the rest of their weaponry, Burchard; then we will give the animator a treat."

  They stood in front of us but not too close. "Up against the wall, animator," Burchard said. "If the man moves, Zachary, shoot him."

  Burchard shoved me into the wall and frisked me very thoroughly. He didn't check my teeth or have me drop my pants, but that was about it. He found everything I was carrying. Even the derringer. He shoved my cross into his pocket. Maybe I could tattoo one on my arm? Probably wouldn't work.

  I went out to stand with Zachary, and Edward got his turn. I stared at Zachary. "Does she know?" I asked.

  "Shut up."

  I smiled. "She doesn't, does she?"

  "Shut up!"

  Edward came back, and we stood there with our hands on top of our heads, weapons gone. It was not a pretty sight.

  Adrenaline was bubbling like champagne, and my pulse was threatening to jump out of my throat. I wasn't afraid of the guns, not really. I was afraid of Nikolaos. What would she do to us? To me? If I had a choice, I'd force them to shoot me. It had to be better than anything Nikolaos had in her evil little mind.

  "They are unarmed, Mistress," Burchard said.

  "Good," she said. "Do you know what we were doing while you destroyed my people?"

  I didn't think she wanted an answer, so I didn't give her one.

  "We were preparing a friend of yours, animator."

  My stomach jerked. I had a wild image of Catherine, but she was out of town. My god, Ronnie. Did they have Ronnie?

  It must have showed on my face because Nikolaos laughed, high and wild, an excited tittering.

  "I really hate that laugh," I said.

  "Silence," Burchard said.

  "Oh, Anita, you are so amusing. I will enjoy making you one of my people." Her voice started high and childlike and ended low enough to crawl down my spine.

  She called out in a clear voice, "Enter this room now."

  I heard shuffling footsteps; then Phillip walked into the room. The horrible wound at his throat was thick, white scar tissue. He stared around the room as if he didn't really see it.

  I whispered, "Dear God."

  They had raised him from the dead.


  NIKOLAOS DANCED AROUND him. The skirt of her pastel pink dress swirled around her. The large, pink bow in her hair bobbed as she twirled, arms outstretched. Her slender legs were covered in white leotards. The shoes were white with pink bows.

  She stopped, laughing and breathless. A healthy pink flush on her cheeks, eyes sparkling. How did she do that?

  "He looks very alive, doesn't he?" She stalked around him, hand brushing his arm. He drew away from her, eyes following her every move, afraid. He remembered her. God help us. He remembered her.

  "Do you want to see him put through his paces?" she asked.

  I hoped I didn't understand her. I fought to keep my face blank. I must have succeeded because she stomped over to me, hands on hips.

  "Well," she said, "do you want to watch your lover perform?"

  I swallowed bile, hard. Maybe I should just throw up on her. That would teach her. "With you?" I asked.

  She sidled up to me, hands clasped behind her back. "It could be you. Your choice."

  Her face was almost touching mine. Eyes so damned wide and innocent that it seemed sacrilegious. "Neither sounds very appealing," I said.

  "Pity." She half-skipped back to Phillip. He was naked, and his tanned body was still handsome. What were a few more scars?

  "You didn't know I was going to be here, so why raise Phillip from the dead?" I asked.

  She turned on the heels of her little shoes. "We raised him so he could try to kill Aubrey. Murdered zombies can be so much fun, while they try to kill their murderers. We thought we'd give him a chance while Aubrey was asleep. Aubrey can move if you disturb him." She glanced at Edward. "But then you know that."

  "You were going to let Aubrey kill him again," I said.

  She nodded, head bobbing. "Mmm-uh."

  "You bitch," I said.

  Burchard shoved the rifle butt into my stomach, and I dropped to my knees. I panted, trying to breathe. It didn't help much.

  Edward was staring very fixedly at Zachary, who was holding the pistol square on his chest. You didn't have to be good at that range or even lucky. Just squeeze the trigger and kill someone. Poof.

  "I can make you do whatever I please," Nikolaos said.

  A fresh spurt of adrenaline rushed through me. It was too much. I threw up in the corner. Nerves and being hit very hard in the stomach with a rifle. Nerves I'd had before; the rifle butt was a new experience.

  "Tsk, tsk," Nikolaos said. "Do I frighten you that much?"

  I managed to stand up at last. "Yes," I said. Why deny it?

  She clapped her hands together. "Oh, goody." Her face shifted gears, instant switch. The little girl was gone, and no amount of pink, frilly dresses would bring her back. Nikolaos's face was thinner, alien. The eyes were great drowning pools. "Hear me, Anita. Feel my power in your veins."

  I stood there, staring at the floor, fear like a cold rush on my skin. I waited for something to tug at my soul. Her power to roll me under and away. Nothing happened.

  Nikolaos frowned. The little girl was back. "I bit you, animator. You should crawl if I ask it. What did you do?"

  I breathed a small, heartfelt prayer, and answered her. "Holy Water."

  She snarled. "This time we will keep you with us until after the third bite. You will take Theresa's place. Perhaps then you will be more eager to find out who is murdering vampires."

  I fought with everything in me not to glance at Zachary. Not because I didn't want to give him away, I would do that, but I was waiting for the moment when it would help us. It might get Zachary killed, but it wouldn't take out Burchard or Nikolaos. Zachary was the least dangerous person in this whole room.

  "I don't think so," I said.

  "Oh, but I do, animator."

  "I would rather die."

  She spread her arms wide. "But I want you to die, Anita, I want you to die."

  "That makes us even," I said.

  She giggled. The sound made my teeth hurt. If she really wanted to torture me, all she had to do was lock me in a room and laugh at me. Now that would be hell.

  "Come on, boys and girls, let's go play in the dungeon." Nikolaos led the way. Burchard motioned for us to follow. We did. Zachary and he brought up the rear, guns in hand. Phillip stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, watching us go.

  Nikolaos called back, "Have him follow us, Zachary."

  Zachary called, "Come, Phillip, follow me."

  He turned and walked after us, his eyes still uncertain and not really focused.

  "Go on," Burchard said. He half-raised the rifle, and I went.

  Nikolaos called back, "Gazing at your lover; how nice."

  It wasn't a long enough walk to the dungeon door. If they tried to chain me to the wall, I'd rush them. I'd force them to kill me. Which meant I'd better rush Zachary. Burchard might wound me or knock me unconscious, and that would be very, very bad.

  Nikolaos led us down the steps and out into the floor. What a day for a parade. Phillip followed, but he was looking around now, really seeing things. He froze, staring at the place where Aubrey had killed him. His hand reached out to touch the wall. He flexed his hand, rubbing fingers into his palm as if he was feeling something. A hand went to his neck and found the scar. He screamed. It echoed against the walls.

  "Phillip," I sai

  Burchard held me back with the rifle. Phillip crouched in the corner, face hidden, arms locked around his knees. He was making a high, keening noise.

  Nikolaos laughed.

  "Stop it, stop it!" I walked towards Phillip, and Burchard shoved the gun against my chest. I yelled into his face, "Shoot me, shoot me, dammit! It's got to be better than this."

  "Enough," Nikolaos said. She stalked over to me, and I gave ground. She kept walking, forcing me to back up until I bumped against the wall. "I don't want you shot, Anita, but I want you hurt. You killed Winter with your little knife. Let's see how good you really are." She strode away from me. "Burchard, give her back her knives."

  He never even hesitated or asked why. He just walked over to me and handed them to me, hilt first. I didn't question it either. I took them.

  Nikolaos was suddenly beside Edward. He started to move away. "Kill him if he moves again, Zachary."

  Zachary came to stand close, gun out.

  "Kneel, mortal," she said.

  Edward didn't do it. He glanced at me. Nikolaos kicked him in the bend of the knee hard enough to make him grunt. He dropped to one knee, and she grabbed his right arm and tugged it behind his back. One slender hand grabbed his throat.

  "I'll tear out your throat if you move, human. I can feel your pulse like a butterfly beating against my hand." She laughed and filled the room with warm, jostling horror. "Now, Burchard, show her what it means to use a knife."

  Burchard went to the far wall, with the door above him at the top of the steps. He laid the rifle on the floor, and unbuckled his sword harness, and laid that beside the rifle. Then he drew a long knife with a nearly triangular blade.

  He did some quick stretches to limber his muscles, and I stood staring at him.

  I know how to use a knife. I can throw well; I practice that. Most people are afraid of knives. If you show yourself willing to carve someone up, they tend to be afraid of you. Burchard was not most people. He went down into a slight crouch, knife held loose but firm in his right hand.

  "Fight Burchard, animator, or this one dies." She pulled his arm, sharp, but he didn't cry out. She could dislocate his shoulder, and Edward wouldn't cry out.

  I put the knife back in its right wrist sheath. Fighting with a knife in each hand may look nifty, but I've never really mastered it. A lot of people don't. Hey, Burchard didn't have two knives either. "Is this to the death?" I asked.

  "You will not be able to kill Burchard, Anita. So silly. Burchard is only going to cut you. Let you taste the blade, nothing too serious. I don't want you to lose too much blood." There was an undercurrent of laughter in her voice, then it was gone. Her voice crawled through the room like a fire-wind. "I want to see you bleed."

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