Guilty pleasures, p.4
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.4
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         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
The vampire stared at me. His hair was golden silk, his skin ivory, eyes like drowning pools. I closed my eyes and shook my head. This couldn't be happening. No one was that beautiful.

  His voice was almost ordinary after the face, but it was a command. "Call her."

  I opened my eyes to find the audience staring at me. I glanced at Catherine's blank face and knew what would happen, but like any ignorant client I had to try. "Catherine, Catherine, can you hear me?"

  She never moved; only the faintest of movements showed her breathing. She was alive, but for how long? The vampire had gotten to her, deep trance. That meant he could call her anytime, anywhere, and she would come. From this moment on, her life belonged to him. Whenever he wanted it.

  "Catherine, please!" There was nothing I could do, the damage was done. Dammit, I should never have left her here, never!

  The vampire touched her shoulder. She blinked and stared around, surprised, scared. She gave a nervous laugh. "What happened?"

  The vampire raised her hand to his lips. "You are now under my power, my lovely one."

  She laughed again, not understanding that he had told her the absolute truth. He led her to the edge of the stage, and two waiters helped her back to her seat. "I feel fuzzy," she said.

  Monica patted her hand. "You were great."

  "What did I do?"

  "I'll tell you later. The show's not over yet." She stared at me when she said the last.

  I already knew I was in trouble. The vampire on the stage was staring at me. It was like weight against my skin. His will, force, personality, whatever it was, beat against me. I could feel it like a pulsing wind. The skin on my arms crawled with it.

  "I am Aubrey," the vampire said. "Give me your name."

  My mouth was suddenly dry, but my name was not important. He could have that. "Anita."

  "Anita. How pretty."

  My knees sort of buckled and spilled me into a chair. Monica was staring at me, eyes enormous and eager.

  "Come, Anita, join me on the stage." His voice wasn't as good as Jean-Claude's, it just wasn't. There was no texture to it, but the mind behind the voice was like nothing I had ever felt. It was ancient, terribly ancient. The force of his mind made my bones ache.

  "Come."

  I kept shaking my head, over and over. It was all I could do. No words, no real thoughts, but I knew I could not get out of this chair. If I came to him now, he would have power over me just as he did Catherine. Sweat soaked through the back of my blouse.

  "Come to me, now!"

  I was standing, and I didn't remember doing it. Dear God, help me! "No!" I dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand. I tore my own skin and welcomed the pain. I could breathe again.

  His mind receded like the ocean pulling back. I felt light-headed, empty. I slumped against the table. One of the vampire waiters was at my side. "Don't fight him. He gets angry if you fight him."

  I pushed him away. "If I don't fight him, he'll own me!"

  The waiter looked almost human, one of the new dead. There was a look on his face. It was fear.

  I called to the thing on the stage. "I'll come to the stage if you don't force me."

  Monica gasped. I ignored her. Nothing mattered but getting through the next few moments.

  "Then by all means, come," the vampire said.

  I stood away from the table and found I could stand without falling. Point for me. I could even walk. Two points for me. I stared at the hard, polished floor. If I concentrated just on walking I would be all right. The first step of the stage came into view. I glanced up.

  Aubrey was standing in the center of the stage. He wasn't trying to call me. He stood perfectly still. It was like he wasn't there at all; he was a terrible nothingness. I could feel his stillness like a pulse in my head. I think he could have stood in plain sight, and unless he wanted me to, I would never have seen him.

  "Come." Not a voice, but a sound inside my head. "Come to me."

  I tried to move back and couldn't. My pulse thundered into my throat. I couldn't breathe. I was choking! I stood with the force of his mind twisting against me.

  "Don't fight me!" He screamed in my head.

  Someone was screaming, wordlessly, and it was me. If I stopped fighting, it would be so easy, like drowning after you stop struggling. A peaceful way to die. No, no. "No." My voice sounded strange, even to me.

  "What?" he asked. His voice held surprise.

  "No," I said, and I looked up at him. I met his eyes with the weight of all those centuries pulsing down. Whatever it was that made me an animator, that helped me raise the dead, it was there now. I met his eyes and stood still.

  He smiled then, a slow spreading of lips. "Then I will come to you."

  "Please, please, don't." I could not step back. His mind held me like velvet steel. It was everything I could do not to move forward. Not to run to meet him.

  He stopped, with our bodies almost touching. His eyes were a solid, perfect brown, bottomless, endless. I looked away from his face. Sweat trickled down my forehead.

  "You smell of fear, Anita."

  His cool hand traced the edge of my cheek. I started to shake and couldn't stop. His fingers pulled gently through the waves of my hair. "How can you face me this way?"

  He breathed along my face, warm as silk. His breath slid to my neck, warm and close. He drew a deep, shuddering breath. His hunger pulsed against my skin. My stomach cramped with his need. He hissed at the audience, and they squealed in terror. He was going to do it.

  Terror came in a blinding rush of adrenaline. I pushed away from him. I fell to the stage and scrambled away on hands and knees.

  An arm grabbed me around the waist, lifting. I screamed, striking backwards with my elbow. It thudded home, and I heard him gasp, but the arm tightened. Tightened until it was crushing me.

  I tore at my sleeve. Cloth ripped. He threw me onto my back. He was crouched over me, face twisted with hunger. His lips curled back from his teeth, fangs glistening.

  Someone moved onto the stage, one of the waiters. The vampire hissed at him, spittle running down his chin. There was nothing human left.

  It came for me in a blinding rush of speed and hunger. I pressed the silver knife over his heart. A trickle of blood glistened down his chest. He snarled at me, fangs gnashing like a dog on the end of a chain. I screamed.

  Terror had washed his power away. There was nothing left but fear. He lunged for me and drove the point of the knife into his skin. Blood began to drip over my hand and onto my blouse. His blood.

  Jean-Claude was suddenly there. "Aubrey, let her go."

  The vampire growled deep and low in his throat. It was an animal sound.

  My voice was high and thin with fear; I sounded like a little girl. "Get him off me, or I'll kill him!"

  The vampire reared back, fangs slashing his own lips. "Get him off me!"

  Jean-Claude began to speak softly in French. Even when I couldn't understand the language his voice was like velvet, soothing. Jean-Claude knelt by us, speaking softly. The vampire growled and lashed out, grabbing Jean-Claude's wrist.

  He gasped, and it sounded like pain.

  Should I kill him? Could I plunge the knife home before he tore out my throat? How fast was he? My mind seemed to be working incredibly fast. There was an illusion that I had all the time in the world to decide and act.

  I felt the vampire's weight heavier against my legs. His voice sounded hoarse, but calm. "May I get up now?"

  His face was human again, pleasant, handsome, but the illusion didn't work anymore. I had seen him unmasked, and that image would always stay with me. "Get off me, slowly."

  He smiled then, a slow confident spread of lips. He moved off me, human-slow. Jean-Claude waved him back until he stood near the curtain.

  "Are you all right, ma petite?"

  I stared at the bloody silver knife and shook my head. "I don't know."

  "I did not mean for this to happen." He helped me sit up, and I let him. The room
had fallen silent. The audience knew something had gone wrong. They had seen the truth behind the charming mask. There were a lot of pale, frightened faces out there.

  My right sleeve hung torn where I ripped it to get the knife.

  "Please, put away the knife," Jean-Claude said.

  I stared at him, and for the first time I looked him in the eyes and felt nothing. Nothing but emptiness.

  "My word of honor that you will leave this place in safety. Put the knife away."

  It took me three tries to slide the knife into its sheath, my hands were trembling so badly. Jean-Claude smiled at me, tight-lipped. "Now, we will get off this stage." He helped me stand. I would have fallen if his arm hadn't caught me. He kept a tight grip on my left hand; the lace on his sleeve brushed my skin. The lace wasn't soft at all.

  Jean-Claude held his other hand out to Aubrey. I tried to pull away, and he whispered, "No fear, I will protect you, I swear it."

  I believed him, I don't know why, maybe because I had no one else to believe. He led Aubrey and me to the front of the stage. His rich voice caressed the crowd. "We hope you enjoyed our little melodrama. It was very realistic, wasn't it?"

  The audience shifted uncomfortably, fear plain in their faces.

  He smiled out at them and dropped Aubrey's hand. He unbuttoned my sleeve and pushed it back, exposing the burn scar. The cross was dark against my skin. The audience was silent, still not understanding. Jean-Claude pulled the lace away from his chest, exposing his own cross-shaped burn.

  There was a moment of stunned silence, then applause thundered around the room. Screams and shouts, and whistles roared around us.

  They thought I was a vampire, and it had all been an act. I stared at Jean-Claude's smiling face and the matching scars: his chest, my arm.

  Jean-Claude's hand pulled me down into a bow. As the applause finally began to fade, Jean-Claude whispered, "We need to talk, Anita. Your friend Catherine's life depends on your actions."

  I met his eyes and said, "I killed the things that gave me this scar."

  He smiled broadly, showing just a hint of fang. "What a lovely coincidence. So did I."

  7

  JEAN-CLAUDE LED US through the curtains at the back of the stage. Another vampire stripper was waiting to go on. He was dressed like a gladiator, complete with metal breastplate and short sword. "Talk about an act that's hard to follow. Shit." He jerked the curtain open and stalked through.

  Catherine came through, her face so pale her freckles stood out like brown ink spots. I wondered if I looked as pale? Naw. I didn't have the skin tone for it.

  "My God, are you all right?" she asked.

  I stepped carefully over a line of cables that snaked across the backstage floor and leaned against the wall. I began to relearn how to breathe. "I'm fine," I lied.

  "Anita, what is going on? What was that stuff on stage? You aren't a vampire any more than I am."

  Aubrey made a silent hiss behind her back, fangs straining, making his lips bleed. His shoulders shook with silent laughter.

  Catherine gripped my arm. "Anita?"

  I hugged her, and she hugged me back. I would not let her die like this. I would not let it happen. She pulled away from me and stared into my face. "Talk to me."

  "Shall we talk in my office?" Jean-Claude asked.

  "Catherine doesn't need to come."

  Aubrey strolled closer. He seemed to glimmer in the twilight dark, like a jewel. "I think she should come. It does concern her--intimately." He licked his bloody lips, tongue pink and quick as a cat's.

  "No, I want her out of this, any way I can get her out of it."

  "Out of what? What are you talking about?"

  Jean-Claude asked, "Is she likely to go to the police?"

  "Go to the police about what?" Catherine asked, her voice getting louder with each question.

  "If she did?"

  "She would die," Jean-Claude said.

  "Wait just a minute," Catherine said. "Are you threatening me?"

  Catherine's face was gaining a lot of color. Anger did that to her. "She'll go to the police," I said.

  "It is your choice."

  "I'm sorry, Catherine, but it would be better for us all if you didn't remember any of this."

  "That's it! We are leaving, now." She grabbed my hand, and I didn't stop her.

  Aubrey moved up behind her. "Look at me, Catherine."

  She stiffened. Her fingers dug into my hand; incredible tension vibrated down her muscles. She was fighting it. God, help her. But she didn't have any magic, or crucifixes. Strength of will was not enough, not against something like Aubrey.

  Her hand fell away from my arm, fingers going limp all at once. Breath went out of her in a long, shuddering sigh. She stared at something just a little over my head, something I couldn't see.

  I whispered, "Catherine, I'm sorry."

  "Aubrey can wipe her memory of this night. She will think she drank too much, but that will not undo the damage."

  "I know. The only thing that can break Aubrey's hold on her is his death."

  "She will be dust in her grave before that happens."

  I stared at him, at the blood stain on his shirt. I smiled a very careful smile.

  "This little wound was luck and nothing more. Do not let it make you overconfident," Aubrey said.

  Overconfident; now that was funny. I barely managed not to laugh. "I understand the threat, Jean-Claude. Either I do what you want or Aubrey finishes what he started with Catherine."

  "You have grasped the situation, ma petite."

  "Stop calling me that. What is it exactly that you want from me?"

  "I believe Willie McCoy told you what we wanted."

  "You want to hire me to check into the vampire murders?"

  "Exactly."

  "This," I motioned to Catherine's blank face, "was hardly necessary. You could have beaten me up, threatened my life, offered me more money. You could have done a lot of things before you did this."

  He smiled, lips tight. "All that would have taken time. And let us be truthful. In the end you would still have refused us."

  "Maybe."

  "This way, you have no choice."

  He had a point. "Okay, I'm on the case. Satisfied?"

  "Very," Jean-Claude said, his voice very soft. "What of your friend?"

  "I want her to go home in a cab. And I want some guarantees that old long-fang isn't going to kill her anyway."

  Aubrey laughed, a rich sound that ended in a hysterical hissing. He was bent over, shaking with laughter. "Long-fang, I like that."

  Jean-Claude glanced at the laughing vampire and said, "I will give you my word that she will not be harmed if you help us."

  "No offense, but that's not enough."

  "You doubt my word." His voice growled low and warm, angry.

  "No, but you don't hold Aubrey's leash. Unless he answers to you, you can't guarantee his behavior."

  Aubrey's laughter had softened to a few faint giggles. I had never heard a vampire giggle before. It wasn't a pleasant sound. The laughter died completely, and he straightened. "No one holds my leash, girl. I am my own master."

  "Oh, get real. If you were over five hundred years old, and a master vampire, you'd have cleaned up the stage with me. As it was"--I flattened my hands palms up--"you didn't, which means you're very old but not your own master."

  He growled low in his throat, face darkening with anger. "How dare you?"

  "Think, Aubrey, she judged your age within fifty years. You are not a master vampire, and she knew that. We need her."

  "She needs to learn some humility." He stalked towards me, body rigid with anger, hands clenching and unclenching in the air.

  Jean-Claude stepped between us. "Nikolaos is expecting us to bring her, unharmed."

  Aubrey hesitated. He snarled; his jaws snapped on empty air. The smack of his teeth biting together was a dull, angry sound.

  They stared at each other. I could feel their wills straining thr
ough the air, like a distant wind. It made the skin at the back of my neck crawl. It was Aubrey who looked away, with an angry graceful blink. "I will not anger, my master." He emphasized "my," making it clear that Jean-Claude was not "his" master.

  I swallowed hard twice, and it sounded loud. If they wanted me scared, they were doing a hell of a job. "Who is Nikolaos?"

  Jean-Claude turned to look at me, his face calm and beautiful. "That question is not ours to answer."

  "What is that supposed to mean?"

  He smiled, lips curling carefully so no fang showed. "Let us put your friend in a cab, out of harm's way."

  "What of Monica?"

  He grinned then, fangs showing; he looked genuinely amused. "Are you worried for her safety?"

  It hit me then--the impromptu bachelorette party, there only being the three of us. "She was the lure to get Catherine and me down here."

  He nodded, once down, once up.

  I wanted to go back out and smash Monica's face in. The more I thought about the idea, the better it sounded. As if by magic, she parted the curtains and came back. I smiled at her, and it felt good.

  She hesitated, glancing from me to Jean-Claude and back. "Is everything going according to plan?"

  I walked towards her. Jean-Claude grabbed my arm. "Do not harm her, Anita. She is under our protection."

  "I swear to you that I will not lay a finger on her tonight. I just want to tell her something."

  He released my arm, slowly, like he wasn't sure it was a good idea. I stepped next to Monica, until our bodies almost touched. I whispered into her face, "If anything happens to Catherine, I will see you dead."

  She smirked at me, confident in her protectors. "They will bring me back as one of them."

  I felt my head shake, a little to the right, a little to the left, a slow precise movement. "I will cut out your heart." I was still smiling, I couldn't seem to stop. "Then I will burn it and scatter the ashes in the river. Do you understand me?"

  She swallowed audibly. Her health-club tan looked a little green. She nodded, staring at me like I was the bogey man.

  I think she believed I'd do it. Peachy keen. I hate to waste a really good threat.

  8

  I WATCHED CATHERINE 'S cab vanish around the corner. She never turned, or waved, or spoke. She would wake tomorrow with vague memories. Just a night out with the girls.

  I would like to have thought she was out of it, safe, but I knew better. The air smelled thickly of rain. The street lights glistened off the sidewalk. The air was almost too thick to breathe. St. Louis in the summer. Peachy.

 
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