Guilty pleasures, p.3
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.3
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         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton

  I looked past him to see Jean-Claude. He was staring at me. I saluted him with my drink. He acknowledged it with a nod of his head.

  The tall vampire was standing beside Phillip. Phillip's eyes were as blank as any human's. The spell or whatever drifted away. With a thought he awoke the audience, and they gasped. Magic.

  Jean-Claude's voice filled the sudden silence. "This is Robert. Welcome him to our stage."

  The crowd went wild, applauding and screaming. Catherine was applauding along with everyone else. Apparently, she was impressed.

  The music changed again, pulsing and throbbing in the air, almost painfully loud. Robert the vampire began to dance. He moved with a careful violence, pumping to the music. He threw his white gloves into the audience. One landed at my feet. I left it there.

  Monica said, "Pick it up."

  I shook my head.

  Another woman leaned over from another table. Her breath smelled like whiskey. "You don't want it?"

  I shook my head.

  She got up, I suppose to get the glove. Monica beat her to it. The woman sat down, looking unhappy.

  The vampire had stripped, showing a smooth expanse of chest. He dropped to the stage and did fingertip push-ups. The audience went wild. I wasn't impressed. I knew he could bench press a car, if he wanted to. What's a few push-ups compared to that?

  He began to dance around Phillip. Phillip turned to face him, arms outspread, slightly crouched, as if he were ready for an attack. They began circling each other. The music softened until it was only a soft underscoring to the movements on stage.

  The vampire began to move closer to Phillip. Phillip moved as if trying to run from the stage. The vampire was suddenly there, blocking his escape.

  I hadn't seen him move. The vampire had just appeared in front of the man. I hadn't seen him move. Fear drove all the air from my body in an icy rush. I hadn't felt the mind trick, but it had happened.

  Jean-Claude was standing only two tables away. He raised one pale hand in a salute to me. The bastard had been in my mind, and I hadn't known it. The audience gasped, and I looked back to the stage.

  They were both kneeling; the vampire had one of Phillip's arms pinned behind his back. One hand gripped Phillip's long hair, pulling his neck back at a painful angle.

  Phillip's eyes were wide and terrified. The vampire hadn't put him under. He wasn't under! He was aware and scared. Dear God. He was panting, his chest rising and falling in short gasps.

  The vampire looked out at the audience and hissed, fangs flashing in the lights. The hiss turned the beautiful face to something bestial. His hunger rode out over the crowd. His need so intense, it made my stomach cramp.

  No, I would not feel this with him. I dug fingernails into the palm of my hand and concentrated. The feeling faded. Pain helped. I opened my shaking fingers and found four half-moons that slowly filled with blood. The hunger beat around me, filling the crowd, but not me, not me.

  I pressed a napkin to my hand and tried to look inconspicuous.

  The vampire drew back his head.

  "No," I whispered.

  The vampire struck, teeth sinking into flesh. Phillip shrieked, and it echoed in the club. The music died abruptly. No one moved. You could have dropped a pin.

  Soft, moist sucking sounds filled the silence. Phillip began to moan, high in his throat. Over and over again, small helpless sounds.

  I looked out at the crowd. They were with the vampire, feeling his hunger, his need, feeling him feed. Maybe sharing Phillip's terror, I didn't know. I was apart from it, and glad.

  The vampire stood, letting Phillip fall to the stage, limp, unmoving. I stood without meaning to. The man's scarred back convulsed in a deep, shattering breath, as if he were fighting back from death. And maybe he was.

  He was alive. I sat back down. My knees felt weak. Sweat covered my palms and stung the cuts on my hand. He was alive, and he enjoyed it. I wouldn't have believed it if someone had told me. I would have called them a liar.

  A vampire junkie. Surely to God, I'd seen everything now.

  Jean-Claude whispered, "Who wants a kiss?"

  No one moved for a heartbeat; then hands, holding money, raised here and there. Not many, but a few. Most people looked confused, as if they had woken from a bad dream. Monica was holding money up.

  Phillip lay where he had been dropped, chest rising and falling.

  Robert the vampire came to Monica. She tucked money down his pants. He pressed his bloody, fanged mouth to her lips. The kiss was long and deep, full of probing tongues. They were tasting each other.

  The vampire drew away from Monica. Her hands at his neck tried to draw him back, but he pulled away. He turned to me. I shook my head and showed him empty hands. No money here, folks.

  He grabbed for me, snake-quick. No time to think. My chair crashed to the floor. I was standing, just out of reach. No ordinary human could have seen him coming. The jig, as they say, was up.

  A buzz of voices raised through the audience as they tried to figure out what had happened. Just your friendly neighborhood animator, folks, nothing to get excited about. The vampire was still staring at me.

  Jean-Claude was suddenly beside me, and I hadn't seen him come. "Are you all right, Anita?"

  His voice held things that the words didn't even hint at. Promises whispered in darkened rooms, under cool sheets. He sucked me under, rolled my mind like a wino after money, and it felt good. Crash--Shrill--Noise thundered through my mind, chased the vampire out, held him at bay.

  My beeper had gone off. I blinked and staggered against our table. He reached out to steady me. "Don't touch me," I said.

  He smiled. "Of course."

  I pushed the button on my beeper to silence it. Thank you God, that I hung the beeper on my waistband instead of stuffing it in a purse. I might never have heard it otherwise. I called from the phone at the bar. The police wanted my expertise at the Hillcrest Cemetery. I had to work on my night off. Yippee, and I meant it.

  I offered to take Catherine with me, but she wanted to stay. Whatever else you can say about vampires, they are fascinating. It went with the job description, like drinking blood and working nights. It was her choice.

  I promised to come back in time to drive them home. Then I picked up my cross from the holy item check girl and slipped it inside my shirt.

  Jean-Claude was standing by the door. He said, "I almost had you, my little animator."

  I glanced at his face and quickly down. "Almost doesn't count, you blood-sucking bastard."

  Jean-Claude threw back his head and laughed. His laughter followed me out into the night, like velvet rubbing along my spine.

  5

  THE COFFIN LAY on its side. A white scar of claw marks ran down the dark varnish. The pale blue lining, imitation silk, was sliced and gouged. One bloody handprint showed plainly; it could almost have been human. All that was left of the older corpse was a shredded brown suit, a finger bone gnawed clean and a scrap of scalp. The man had been blond.

  A second body lay perhaps five feet away. The man's clothes were shredded. His chest had been ripped open, ribs cracked like eggshells. Most of his internal organs were gone, leaving his body cavity like a hollowed-out log. Only his face was untouched. Pale eyes stared impossibly wide up into the summer stars.

  I was glad it was dark. My night vision is good, but darkness steals color. All the blood was black. The man's body was lost in the shadows of the trees. I didn't have to see him, unless I walked up to him. I had done that. I had measured the bite marks with my trusty tape measure. With my little plastic gloves I had searched the corpse over, looking for clues. There weren't any.

  I could do anything I wanted to the scene of the crime. It had already been videotaped and snapped from every possible angle. I was always the last "expert" called in. The ambulance was waiting to take the bodies away, once I was finished.

  I was about finished. I knew what had killed the man. Ghouls. I had narrowed the search down to
a particular kind of undead. Bully for me. The coroner could have told them that.

  I was beginning to sweat inside the coverall I had put on to protect my clothes. The coverall was originally for vampire stakings, but I had started using it at crime scenes. There were black stains at the knees and down the legs. There had been so much blood in the grass. Thank you, dear God, that I didn't have to see this in broad daylight.

  I don't know why seeing something like this in daylight makes it worse, but I'm more likely to dream about a daylight scene. The blood is always so red and brown and thick.

  Night softens it, makes it less real. I appreciated that.

  I unzipped the front of my coverall, letting it gape open around my clothes. The wind blew against me, amazingly cool. The air smelled of rain. Another thunderstorm was moving this way.

  The yellow police tape was wrapped around tree trunks, strung through bushes. One yellow loop went around the stone feet of an angel. The tape flapped and cracked in the growing wind. Sergeant Rudolf Storr lifted the tape and walked towards me.

  He was six-eight and built like a wrestler. He had a brisk, striding walk. His close-cropped black hair left his ears bare. Dolph was the head of the newest task force, the spook squad. Officially, it was the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, R-P-I-T, pronounced rip it. It handled all supernatural-related crime. It wasn't exactly a step up for his career. Willie McCoy had been right; the task force was a half-hearted effort to placate the press and the liberals.

  Dolph had pissed somebody off, or he wouldn't have been here. But Dolph, being Dolph, was determined to do the best job he could. He was like a force of nature. He didn't yell, he was just there, and things got done because of it.

  "Well," he said.

  That's Dolph, a man of many words. "It was a ghoul attack."

  "And."

  I shrugged. "And there are no ghouls in this cemetery."

  He stared down at me, face carefully neutral. He was good at that, didn't like to influence his people. "You just said it was a ghoul attack."

  "Yes, but they came from somewhere outside the cemetery."

  "So?"

  "I have never known of any ghouls to travel this far outside their own cemetery." I stared at him, trying to see if he understood what I was saying.

  "Tell me about ghouls, Anita." He had his trusty little notebook out, pen poised and ready.

  "This cemetery is still holy ground. Cemeteries that have ghoul infestations are usually very old or have satanic or certain voodoo rites performed in them. The evil sort of uses up the blessing, until the ground becomes unholy. Once that happens, ghouls either move in or rise from the graves. No one's sure exactly which."

  "Wait, what do you mean, that no one knows?"

  "Basically."

  He shook his head, staring at the notes he'd made, frowning. "Explain."

  "Vampires are made by other vampires. Zombies are raised from the grave by an animator or voodoo priest. Ghouls, as far as we know, just crawl out of their graves on their own. There are theories that very evil people become ghouls. I don't buy that. There was a theory for a while that people bitten by a supernatural being, wereanimal, vampire, whatever, would become a ghoul. But I've seen whole cemeteries emptied, every corpse a ghoul. No way they were all attacked by supernatural forces while alive."

  "All right, we don't know where ghouls come from. What do we know?"

  "Ghouls don't rot like zombies. They retain their form more like vampires. They are more than animal intelligent, but not by much. They are cowards and won't attack a person unless she is hurt or unconscious."

  "They sure as hell attacked the groundskeeper."

  "He could have been knocked unconscious somehow."

  "How?"

  "Someone would have had to knock him out."

  "Is that likely?"

  "No, ghouls don't work with humans, or any other undead. A zombie will obey orders, vampires have their own thoughts. Ghouls are like pack animals, wolves maybe, but a lot more dangerous. They wouldn't be able to understand working with someone. If you're not a ghoul, you're either meat or something to hide from."

  "Then what happened here?"

  "Dolph, these ghouls traveled quite a distance to reach this cemetery. There isn't another one for miles. Ghouls don't travel like that. So maybe, just maybe, they attacked the caretaker when he came to scare them off. They should have run from him; maybe they didn't."

  "Could it be something, or someone, pretending to be ghouls?"

  "Maybe, but I doubt it. Whoever it was, they ate that man. A human might do that, but a human couldn't tear the body apart like that. They just don't have the strength."

  "Vampire?"

  "Vampires don't eat meat."

  "Zombies?"

  "Maybe. There are rare cases where zombies go a little crazy and start attacking people. They seem to crave flesh. If they don't get it, they'll start to decay."

  "I thought zombies always decayed."

  "Flesh-eating zombies last a lot longer than normal. There's one case of a woman who is still human-looking after three years."

  "They let her go around eating people?"

  I smiled. "They feed her raw meat. I believe the article said lamb was preferred."

  "Article?"

  "Every career has its professional journal, Dolph."

  "What's it called?"

  I shrugged. "The Animator; what else?"

  He actually smiled. "Okay. How likely is it that it's zombies?"

  "Not very. Zombies don't run in packs unless they're ordered to."

  "Even"--he checked his notes--"flesh-eating zombies?"

  "There have only been three documented cases. All of them were solitary hunters."

  "So, flesh-eating zombies, or a new kind of ghoul. That sum it up?"

  I nodded. "Yeah."

  "Okay, thanks. Sorry to interrupt your night off." He closed his notebook and looked at me. He was almost grinning. "The secretary said you were at a bachelorette party." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Hoochie coochie."

  "Don't give me a hard time, Dolph."

  "Wouldn't dream of it."

  "Riiight," I said. "If you don't need me anymore, I'll be getting back."

  "We're finished, for now. Call me if you think of anything else."

  "Will do." I walked back to my car. The bloody plastic gloves were shoved into a garbage sack in the trunk. I debated on the coveralls and finally folded them on top of the garbage sack. I might be able to wear them one more time.

  Dolph called out, "You be careful tonight, Anita. Wouldn't want you picking up anything."

  I glared back at him. The rest of the men waved at me and called in unison, "We loove you."

  "Gimme a break."

  One called, "If I'd known you liked to see naked men, we could have worked something out."

  "The stuff you got, Zerbrowski, I don't want to see."

  Laughter, and someone grabbed him around the neck. "She got you, man . . . Give it up, she gets you every time."

  I got into my car to the sound of masculine laughter, and one offer to be my "luv" slave. It was probably Zerbrowski.

  6

  I ARRIVED BACK at Guilty Pleasures a little after midnight. Jean-Claude was standing at the bottom of the steps. He was leaning against the wall, utterly still. If he was breathing, I couldn't see it. The wind blew the lace on his shirt. A lock of black hair trailed across the smooth paleness of his cheek.

  "You smell of other people's blood, ma petite."

  I smiled at him, sweetly. "It was no one you knew."

  His voice when it came was low and dark, full of a quiet rage. It slithered across my skin, like a cold wind. "Have you been killing vampires, my little animator?"

  "No." I whispered it, my voice suddenly hoarse. I had never heard his voice like that.

  "They call you The Executioner, did you know that?"

  "Yes." He had done nothing to threaten me, yet nothing at that moment would have forced me
to pass him. They might as well have barred the door.

  "How many kills do you have to your credit?"

  I didn't like this conversation. It wasn't going to end anywhere I wanted to be. I knew one master vampire who could smell lies. I didn't understand Jean-Claude's mood, but I wasn't about to lie to him. "Fourteen."

  "And you call us murderers."

  I just stared at him, not sure what he wanted me to say.

  Buzz the vampire came down the steps. He stared from Jean-Claude to me, then took up his post by the door, huge arms crossed over his chest.

  Jean-Claude asked, "Did you have a nice break?"

  "Yes, thank you, master."

  The master vampire smiled. "I've told you before, Buzz, don't call me master."

  "Yes, M-M . . . Jean-Claude."

  The vampire gave his wondrous, nearly touchable laugh. "Come, Anita, let us go inside where it is warmer."

  It was over eighty degrees on the sidewalk. I didn't know what in the world he was talking about. I didn't know what we'd been talking about for the last few minutes.

  Jean-Claude walked up the steps. I watched him disappear inside. I stood staring at the door, not wanting to go inside. Something was wrong, and I didn't know what.

  "You going inside?" Buzz asked.

  "I don't suppose you'd go inside, and ask Monica and the red-haired woman she's with to come outside?"

  He smiled, flashing fang. It's the mark of the new dead that they flash their fangs around. They like the shock effect. "Can't leave my post. I just had a break."

  "Thought you'd say something like that."

  He grinned at me.

  I went into the twilit dark of the club. The holy item check girl was waiting for me at the door. I gave her my cross. She gave me a check stub. It wasn't a fair trade. Jean-Claude was nowhere in sight.

  Catherine was on the stage. She was standing motionless, eyes wide. Her face had that open, fragile look that faces get when they sleep, like a child's face. Her long, copper-colored hair glistened in the lights. I knew a deep trance when I saw it.

  "Catherine." I breathed her name and ran towards her. Monica was sitting at our table, watching me come. There was an awful, knowing smile on her face.

  I was almost to the stage when a vampire appeared behind Catherine. He didn't walk out from behind the curtain, he just bloody appeared behind her. For the first time. I understood what humans must see. Magic.

 
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