Guilty pleasures, p.28
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.28
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         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  Great.

  Burchard began to circle me, and I kept the wall at my back. He rushed me, knife flashing. I held my ground, dodging his blade, and slashing at him as he darted in. My knife hit empty air. He was standing out of reach, staring at me. He had had six hundred years of practice, give or take. I couldn't top that. I couldn't even come close.

  He smiled. I gave him a slight nod. He nodded back. A sign of respect between two warriors, maybe. Either that, or he was playing with me. Guess which way I voted?

  His knife was suddenly there, slicing my arm open. I slashed outward and caught him across the stomach. He darted into me, not away. I dodged the knife and stumbled away from the wall. He smiled. Dammit, he'd wanted to get me out in the open. His reach was twice mine.

  The pain in my arm was sharp and immediate. But there was a thin line of crimson on his flat stomach. I smiled at him. His eyes flinched, just a little. Was the mighty warrior uneasy? I hoped so.

  I backed away from him. This was ridiculous. We were going to die, piece by piece, both of us. What the hell. I charged Burchard, slashing. It caught him by surprise, and he backpedaled. I mirrored his crouch, and we began to circle the floor.

  And I said, "I know who the murderer is."

  Burchard's eyebrows raised.

  Nikolaos said, "What did you say?"

  "I know who is killing vampires."

  Burchard was suddenly inside my arm, slicing my shirt. It didn't hurt. He was playing with me.

  "Who?" Nikolaos said. "Tell me, or I will kill this human."

  "Sure," I said.

  Zachary screamed, "No!" He turned to fire at me. The bullet whined overhead. Burchard and I both sank to the floor.

  Edward screamed. I half-rose to run to him. His arm was twisted at a funny angle, but he was alive.

  Zachary's gun went off twice, and Nikolaos took it away from him, tossing it to the floor. She grabbed him and forced him against her body, bending him at the waist, cradling him. Her head darted downward. Zachary shrieked.

  Burchard was on his knees, watching the show. I stabbed my knife into his back. It thunked solid and hilt-deep. His spine stiffened, one hand trying to tear out the blade. I didn't wait to see if he could do it. I drew my other knife and plunged it into the side of his throat. Blood poured down my hand when I took the knife out. I stabbed him again, and he fell slowly forward, face down on the floor.

  Nikolaos let Zachary drop to the floor and turned, face bloodstained, the front of her pink dress crimson. Blood spattered on her white leotards. Zachary's throat was torn out. He lay gasping on the floor but still moving, alive.

  She stared at Burchard's body, then screamed, a wild banshee sound that wailed and echoed. She rushed me, hands outstretched. I threw the knife, and she batted it away. She hit me, the force of her body slamming me into the floor, her scrambling on top of me. She was still screaming, over and over. She held my head to one side. No mind tricks, brute strength.

  I screamed, "Nooo!"

  A gun fired, and Nikolaos jerked, once, twice. She rose off me, and I felt the wind. It was creeping through the room like the beginnings of a storm.

  Edward leaned against the wall, holding Zachary's dropped gun.

  Nikolaos went for him, and he emptied the gun into her frail body. She didn't even hesitate.

  I sat up and watched her stalk towards Edward. He threw the empty gun at her. She was suddenly on him, forcing him back into the floor.

  The sword lay on the floor, nearly as tall as I was. I drew it out of its sheath. Heavy, awkward, drawing my arm down. I raised it over my head, flat of the blade half resting on my shoulder, and ran for Nikolaos.

  She was talking again in a high, sing-song voice. "I will make you mine, mortal. Mine!"

  Edward screamed. I couldn't see why. I raised the sword, and its weight carried it down and across, like it was meant to. It bit into her neck with a great wet thunk. The sword grated on bone, and I drew it out. The tip fell to scrape on the floor.

  Nikolaos turned to me and started to stand. I raised the sword, and it cut outward, swinging my body with it. Bone cracked, and I fell to the floor as Nikolaos tumbled to her knees. Her head still hung by strips of meat and skin. She blinked at me and tried to stand up.

  I screamed and drove the blade upward with everything I had. It took her between the breasts, and I stood running with it, shoving it in. Blood poured. I pinned her against the wall. The blade shoved out her back, scraping along the wall as she slid downward.

  I dropped to my knees beside the body. Yes, the body. She was dead!

  I looked back at Edward. There was blood on his neck. "She bit me," he said.

  I was gasping for air, having trouble breathing, but it was wonderful. I was alive and she wasn't. She fucking wasn't. "Don't worry, Edward, I'll help you. Plenty of Holy Water left." I smiled.

  He stared at me a minute, then laughed, and I laughed with him. We were still laughing when the wererats crept in from the tunnel. Rafael, the Rat King, stared at the carnage with black-button eyes. "She is dead."

  "Ding dong, the witch is dead," I said.

  Edward picked it up, half-singing, "The wicked old witch."

  We collapsed into laughter again, and Lillian the doctor, all covered with fur, tended our hurts, Edward first.

  Zachary was still lying on the ground. The wound at his throat was beginning to close up, skin knitting together. He would live, if that was the right word.

  I picked my knife up off the floor and staggered to him. The rats watched me. No one interfered. I dropped to my knees beside him and ripped the sleeve of his shirt. I laid the gris-gris bare. He still couldn't talk, but his eyes widened.

  "Remember when I tried to touch this with my own blood? You stopped me. You seemed afraid, and I didn't understand why." I sat beside him and watched him heal. "Every gris-gris has a thing you must do for it, vampire blood for this one, and one thing you must never do, or the magic stops. Poof." I held up my arm, dripping blood quite nicely. "Human blood, Zachary; is that bad?"

  He managed a noise like, "Don't."

  Blood dripped down my elbow and hung, thick and trembling over his arm. He sort of shook his head, no, no. The blood dripped down and splatted on his arm, but it didn't touch the gris-gris.

  His whole body relaxed.

  "I've got no patience today, Zachary." I rubbed blood along the woven band.

  His eyes flared, showing white. He made a strangling noise in his throat. His hands scrabbled at the floor. His chest jerked as if he couldn't breathe. A sigh ran out of his body, a long whoosh of breath, and he was quiet.

  I checked for a pulse; nothing. I cut the gris-gris off with my knife, balled it in my hand, and shoved it in my pocket. Evil piece of work.

  Lillian came to bind my arm up. "This is just temporary. You'll need stitches."

  I nodded and got to my feet.

  Edward called, "Where are you going?"

  "To get the rest of our guns." To find Jean-Claude. I didn't say that part out loud. I didn't think Edward would understand.

  Two of the ratmen went with me. That was fine. They could come as long as they didn't interfere. Phillip was still huddled in the corner. I left him there.

  I did get the guns. I strung the machine gun over my shoulders and kept the shotgun in my hands. Loaded for bear. I had killed a one-thousand-year-old vampire. Naw, not me. Surely not.

  The ratmen and I found the punishment room. There were six coffins in it. Each had a blessed cross on its lid and silver chains to hold the lid down. The third coffin held Willie, so deeply asleep that he seemed like he would never wake. I left him like that, to wake with the night. To go on about his business. Willie wasn't a bad person. And for a vampire he was excellent.

  All the other coffins were empty, only the last one still unopened. I undid the chains and laid the cross on the ground. Jean-Claude stared up at me. His eyes were midnight fire, his smile gentle. I flashed on the first dream and the coffin filled with blood, him
reaching for me. I stepped back, and he rose from the coffin.

  The ratmen stepped back, hissing.

  "It's all right," I said. "He's sort of on our side."

  He stepped from the coffin like he'd had a good nap. He smiled and extended a hand. "I knew you would do it, ma petite."

  "You arrogant son of a bitch." I smashed the shotgun butt into his stomach. He doubled over just enough. I hit him in the jaw. He rocked back. "Get out of my mind!"

  He rubbed his face and came away with blood. "The marks are permanent, Anita. I cannot take them back."

  I gripped the shotgun until my hands ached. Blood began to trickle down my arm from the wound. I thought about it. For one moment, I considered blowing his perfect face away. I didn't do it. I would probably regret it later.

  "Can you stay out of my dreams, at least?" I asked.

  "That, I can do. I am sorry, ma petite."

  "Stop calling me that."

  He shrugged. His black hair had nearly crimson highlights in the torchlight. Breathtaking. "Stop playing with my mind, Jean-Claude."

  "Whatever do you mean?" he asked.

  "I know that the otherworldly beauty is a trick. So stop it."

  "I am not doing it," he said.

  "What is that supposed to mean?"

  "When you have the answer, Anita, come back to me, and we will talk."

  I was too tired for riddles. "Who do you think you are? Using people like this."

  "I am the new master of the city," he said. He was suddenly next to me, fingers touching my cheek. "And you put me upon the throne."

  I jerked away from him. "You stay away from me for a while, Jean-Claude, or I swear . . ."

  "You'll kill me?" he said. He was smiling, laughing at me.

  I didn't shoot him. And some people say I have no sense of humor.

  I found a room with a dirt floor and several shallow graves. Phillip let me lead him to the room. It was only when we stood staring down at the fresh-turned earth that he turned to me. "Anita?"

  "Hush," I said.

  "Anita, what's happening?"

  He was beginning to remember. He would become more alive in a few hours, up to a point. It would almost be the real Phillip for a day, or two.

  "Anita?" His voice was high and uncertain. A little boy afraid of the dark. He grabbed my arm, and his hand felt very real. His eyes were still that perfect brown. "What's going on?"

  I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. His skin was warm. "You need to rest, Phillip. You're tired."

  He nodded. "Tired," he said.

  I led him to the soft dirt. He lay down on it, then sat up, eyes wild, grabbing for me. "Aubrey! He . . ."

  "Aubrey's dead. He can't hurt you anymore."

  "Dead?" He stared down the length of his body as if just seeing it. "Aubrey killed me."

  I nodded. "Yes, Phillip."

  "I'm scared."

  I held him, rubbing his back in smooth, useless circles. His arms hugged me like he would never let go.

  "Anita!"

  "Hush, hush. It's all right. It's all right."

  "You're going to put me back, aren't you?" He drew back so he could see my face.

  "Yes," I said.

  "I don't want to die."

  "You're already dead."

  He stared down at his hands, flexing them. "Dead?" he whispered. "Dead?" He lay down on the fresh-turned earth. "Put me back," he said.

  And I did.

  At the end his eyes closed and his face went slack, dead. He sank into the grave and was gone.

  I dropped to my knees beside Phillip's grave, and wept.

  48

  EDWARD HAD A dislocated shoulder and two broken bones in his arm, plus one vampire bite. I had fourteen stitches. We both healed. Phillip's body was moved to a local cemetery. Every time I work in it, I have to go by and say hello. Even though I know Phillip is dead and doesn't care. Graves are for the living, not the dead. It gives us something to concentrate on instead of the fact that our loved one is rotting under the ground. The dead don't care about pretty flowers and carved marble statues.

  Jean-Claude sent me a dozen pure white, long-stemmed roses. The card read, "If you have answered the question truthfully, come dancing with me."

  I wrote "No" on the back of the card and slipped it under the door at Guilty Pleasures, during daylight hours. I had been attracted to Jean-Claude. Maybe I still was. So what? He thought it changed things. It didn't. All I had to do was visit Phillip's grave to know that. Oh, hell, I didn't even have to go that far. I know who and what I am. I am The Executioner, and I don't date vampires. I kill them.

  WHAT I REALLY MEANT TO SAY . . .

  Laurell K. Hamilton

  YOU ARE HOLDING the first hardcover edition of Guilty Pleasures. The book has been in print in paperback for almost ten years. When it first came out in 1993 it was one of hundreds of new novels thrown out to the reading public to sink or swim. Surprisingly, miraculously, Guilty Pleasures swam, and swam pretty well.

  When I first agreed to write a little afterword for the hardcover edition I thought it would be easy, but so often in life, the things you think will be easiest turn out to be the most complicated. I've written and rewritten this little piece. I'm always much quicker when given hundreds of pages to fill than when asked to write just a few. Ask me for a few paragraphs on any topic and I run screaming for the hills. I'm one of those writers who apologizes for a letter being too long, because I didn't have time to edit it.

  My friend and assistant, Darla Cook, asked me what I wanted to say. What can I say here about Guilty Pleasures that you won't have read in a dozen interviews? What isn't already out there about it? What haven't I said in public? Well, I finally thought of something, and here it is.

  Guilty Pleasures was the third or fourth novel I ever wrote. I had sold my first novel, Nightseer, a very different book set in a fantasy world complete with elves, dwarves, and dragons. It is my firm belief that writing truly good elves, dwarves, and dragons is very hard to pull off well--I think because you have so little reality to use as your starting point. My other books are set in the here-and-now, with fantastic elements added to the mix. I can talk about Oreos and Nikes while we're chasing vampires. It helps the illusion along. Nightseer was a success in some ways, and fell short in others, but in the most important way it was a true success: It got published. That really is the biggest hurdle for any beginning writer, that first crack of the door.

  Then I wrote a sequel to the book and the editor didn't want it. The first book hadn't sold well enough, and we'd had a little disagreement about my treatment. I was new and didn't realize that brand new writers are treated like light bulbs; when one burns out, you can always buy more, screw the next one in, and it lights up just as bright. No, I am not being too harsh about how publishing treats new writers. If anything I'm toning it down. Sorry, for all you aspiring authors out there, but truth is truth, it is a hard business. Shine up the armor around your ego, harden your heart, keep your head down, and write.

  I had one novel out, the sequel rejected, my third novel rejected even by my then agent, and no other prospects. (That rejected book was actually a two-hundred-page plot synopsis for what later turned out to be The Lunatic Cafe, book number four of Anita. Different characters but the plot was pretty much cannibalized.) So I looked through my short stories, unpublished, and found a piece about Anita Blake, though I think at that time her last name might have been Black. I'd have to go through my old files to find out for sure. (You do not want me to go into the catacombs and search, because I'd never get this piece finished!) I started a novel, because frankly I didn't know what else to do.

  I was so scared of failing again, of watching my life-long dream of being a writer go up in smoke, that I took the first seventy or so pages to a local Science Fiction convention, Archon. Melinda Snodgrass, who at that time was writing scripts for Star Trek, The Next Generation, was scheduled to do a reading, but for some reason couldn't do it. So they gave me he
r room. I was an almost complete unknown, yet the room filled up, standing room only. It would take me a few months to realize that most of them thought I was Melinda Snodgrass, because they didn't know what she looked like either. A packed room, and I had the first draft of an incomplete book, but I had to know, had to know if it worked, or if I was just wasting my time.

  I started reading, and no one left. That crowd of people who had come to hear someone else entirely, read something else entirely different, stayed. Some of them stood for an hour, while I read. People would open the door from the hall, listen for a moment, and come inside to hear more. At the end of that hour I stopped reading because I'd run out of pages. No one clapped. My heart sank into my shoes. Then into that breathless silence came applause, shouts, laughter, cries of joy, and when will it be published, can we hear more? They couldn't hear more because I'd read them all I had. I had no idea when it would be published because again, I hadn't finished it. But in that moment, I knew I had something, something special, something that other people, besides just me, cared about, and wanted more of.

  I finished the book, sent it off to my agent. She loved it. Then it took two more years for it to sell, because everyone liked it, but no one knew exactly what to do with it. The mystery editors thought it was horror, the horror editors thought it was science fiction or fantasy, the fantasy editors thought it was horror or science fiction, or mystery, well, you get the idea.

  The book was rejected because the market would not bear one single more vampire book. The old monsters were dead, one editor told me. Since the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series is making the New York Times list on a fairly regular basis, that rejection amuses me now. It was not amusing at the time. Horror editors said the book wasn't scary enough because my vamps are out of the closet, or coffin, as it were, and not a secret in Anita's world. Mystery editors couldn't swallow the monsters, no matter how strong the mystery.

  We finally found a home at Ace, an imprint of Penguin Putnam, thanks to Ginjer Buchanan, a far-seeing editor, who has a real eye for new talent. I say that not just because she rescued Anita from the slush pile, but because she's made a habit in her career of spotting first-time authors with potential. Credit where credit is due.

 
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