Guilty pleasures, p.7
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       Guilty Pleasures, p.7

         Part #1 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
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  "No," I said, and I left it at that. No explanation. If she really wanted one, she could just beat me against the wall until I told her what she wanted to hear. She wouldn't even break a sweat. Of course, Aubrey was being punished for hurting me.

  Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. "The rats were supposed to frighten you, animator. They don't seem to have done their job."

  "Maybe I don't frighten that easily." I met her eyes without any effort. They were just eyes.

  Theresa grinned at me suddenly, flashing fang. "Nikolaos will find something that frightens you, animator. For fear is power." She whispered the last as if afraid to say it too loud.

  What did vampires fear? Did visions of sharpened stakes and garlic haunt them, or were there worse things? How do you frighten the dead?

  "Walk in front of me, animator. Go meet your master."

  "Isn't Nikolaos your master as well, Theresa?"

  She stared at me, face blank, as if the laughter had been an illusion. Her eyes were cold and dark. The rats' eyes had held more personality. "Before the night is out, animator, Nikolaos will be everyone's master."

  I shook my head. "I don't think so."

  "Jean-Claude's power has made you foolish."

  "No," I said, "it isn't that."

  "Then what, mortal?"

  "I would rather die than be a vampire's flunky."

  Theresa never blinked, only nodded, very slowly. "You may get your wish."

  The hair at the back of my neck crawled. I could meet her gaze, but evil has a certain feel to it. A neck-ruffling, throat-tightening feeling that tightens your gut. I have felt it around humans as well. You don't have to be undead to be evil. But it helps.

  I walked in front of her. Theresa's boots clicked sharp echoes from the hallway. Maybe it was only my fear talking, but I felt her staring at me, like an ice cube sliding down my spine.

  11

  THE ROOM WAS huge, like a warehouse, but the walls were solid, massive stone. I kept waiting for Bela Lugosi to sweep around the corner in his cape. What was sitting against one wall was almost as good.

  She had been about twelve or thirteen when she died. Small, half-formed breasts showed under a long flimsy dress. It was pale blue and looked warm against the total whiteness of her skin. She had been pale when alive; as a vampire she was ghostly. Her hair was that shining white-blonde that some children have before their hair darkens to brown. This hair would never grow dark.

  Nikolaos sat in a carved wooden chair. Her feet did not quite touch the floor.

  A male vampire moved to lean on the chair arm. His skin was a strange shade of brownish ivory. He leaned over and whispered in Nikolaos's ear.

  She laughed, and it was the sound of chimes or bells. A lovely, calculated sound. Theresa went to the girl in the chair, and stood behind it, hands trailing in the long white-blonde hair.

  A human male came to stand to the right of her chair. Back against the wall, hands clasped at his side. He stared straight ahead, face blank, spine rigid. He was nearly perfectly bald, face narrow, eyes dark. Most men don't look good without hair. This one did. He was handsome but had the air of a man who didn't care much about that. I wanted to call him a soldier, though I didn't know why.

  Another man came to lean against Theresa. His hair was a sandy blond, cut short. His face was strange, not good-looking, but not ugly, a face you would remember. A face that might become lovely if you looked at it long enough. His eyes were a pale greenish color.

  He wasn't a vampire, but I might have been hasty calling him human.

  Jean-Claude came last to stand to the left of the chair. He touched no one, and even standing with them, he was apart from them.

  "Well," I said, "all we need is the theme from Dracula, Prince of Darkness, and we'll be all set."

  Her voice was like her laugh, high and harmless. Planned innocence. "You think you are funny, don't you?"

  I shrugged. "It comes and goes."

  She smiled at me. No fang showed. She looked so human, eyes sparkling with humor, face rounded and pleasant. See how harmless I am, just a pretty child. Right.

  The black vampire whispered in her ear again. She laughed, so high and clear you could have bottled it.

  "Do you practice the laugh, or is it natural talent? Naw, I'm betting you practice."

  Jean-Claude's face twisted. I wasn't sure if he was trying not to laugh, or not to frown. Maybe both. I affected some people that way.

  The laughter seeped out of her face, very human, until only her eyes sparkled. There was nothing funny about the look in those twinkling eyes. It was the sort of look that cats give small birds.

  Her voice lilted at the end of each word, a Shirley Temple affectation. "You are either very brave, or very stupid."

  "You really need at least one dimple to go with the voice."

  Jean-Claude said softly, "I'm betting on stupid."

  I glanced at him and then back at the ghoulie pack. "What I am is tired, hurt, angry, and scared. I would very much like to get the show over with, and get down to business."

  "I am beginning to see why Aubrey lost his temper." Her voice was dry, humorless. The lilting sing-song was dripping away like melting ice.

  "Do you know how old I am?"

  I stared at her and shook my head.

  "I thought you said she was good, Jean-Claude." She said his name like she was angry with him.

  "She is good."

  "Tell me how old I am." Her voice was cold, an angry grownup's voice.

  "I can't. I don't know why, but I can't."

  "How old is Theresa?"

  I stared at the dark-haired vampire, remembering the weight of her in my mind. She was laughing at me. "A hundred, maybe hundred and fifty, no more."

  Her face was unreadable, carved marble, as she asked, "Why, no more?"

  "That's how old she feels."

  "Feels?"

  "In my head, she feels a certain . . . degree of power." I always hated to explain this part aloud. It always sounded mystical. It wasn't. I knew vampires the way some people knew horses, or cars. It was a knack. It was practice. I didn't think Nikolaos would enjoy being compared to a horse, or car, so I kept my mouth shut. See, not stupid after all.

  "Look at me, human. Look into my eyes." Her voice was still bland, with none of that commanding power that Jean-Claude had.

  Geez, look into my eyes. You'd think the city's master vampire could be more original. But I didn't say it out loud. Her eyes were blue, or grey, or both. Her gaze was like a weight pressing against my skin. If I put my hands up, I almost expected to be able to push something away. I had never felt any vampire's gaze like that.

  But I could meet her eyes. Somehow, I knew that wasn't supposed to happen.

  The soldier standing to her right was looking at me, as if I'd finally done something interesting.

  Nikolaos stood. She moved a little in front of her entourage. She would only come to my collarbone, which made her short. She stood there for a moment, looking ethereal and lovely like a painting. No sense of life but a thing of lovely lines and careful color.

  She stood there without moving and opened her mind to me. It felt like she had opened a door that had been locked. Her mind crashed against mine, and I staggered. Thoughts ripped into me like knives, steel-edged dreams. Fleeting bits of her mind danced in my head; where they touched I was numbed, hurt.

  I was on my knees, and I didn't remember falling. I was cold, so cold. There was nothing for me. I was an insignificant thing, beside that mind. How could I think to call myself an equal? How could I do anything but crawl to her and beg to be forgiven? My insolence was intolerable.

  I began to crawl to her, on hands and knees. It seemed like the right thing to do. I had to beg her forgiveness. I needed to be forgiven. How else did you approach a goddess but on bended knee?

  No. Something was wrong. But what? I should ask the goddess to forgive me. I should worship her, do anything she asked. No. No.

  "No." I w
hispered it. "No."

  "Come to me, my child." Her voice was like spring after a long winter. It opened me up inside. It made me feel warm and welcome.

  She held out pale arms to me. The goddess would let me embrace her. Wondrous. Why was I cowering on the floor? Why didn't I run to her?

  "No." I slammed my hands into the stone. It stung, but not enough. "No!" I smashed my fist into the floor. My whole arm tingled and went numb. "NO!" I pounded my fists into the rock over and over until they bled. Pain was sharp, real, mine. I screamed, "Get out of my mind! You bitch!"

  I crouched on the floor, panting, cradling my hands against my stomach. My pulse was jumping in my throat. I couldn't breathe past it. Anger washed through me, clean and sharp-edged. It chased the last shadow of Nikolaos's mind away.

  I glared up at her. Anger, and behind that terror. Nikolaos had washed over my mind like the ocean in a seashell, filled me up and emptied me out. She might have to drive me crazy to break me, but she could do it if she wanted to. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do to protect myself.

  She stared down at me and laughed, that wondrous wind chime of a laugh. "Oh, we have found something the animator fears. Yes, we have." Her voice was lilting and pleasant. A child bride again.

  Nikolaos knelt in front of me, sweeping the sky-blue dress under her knees. Ladylike. She bent at the waist so she could look me in the eyes. "How old am I, animator?"

  I was starting to shake with reaction, shock. My teeth chattered like I was freezing to death, and maybe I was. My voice squeezed out between my teeth and the tight jerk of my jaw. "A thousand," I said. "Maybe more."

  "You were right, Jean-Claude. She is good." She pressed her face nearly into mine. I wanted to push her away, but more than anything, I didn't want her to touch me.

  She laughed again, high and wild, heartrendingly pure. If I hadn't been hurting so badly, I might have cried, or spit in her face.

  "Good, animator, we understand each other. You do what we want, or I will peel your mind away like the layers of an onion." She breathed against my face, voice dropping to a whisper. A child's whisper with an edge of giggling to it. "You do believe I can do that, don't you?"

  I believed.

  12

  I WANTED TO spit in that smooth, pale face, but I was afraid of what she would do to me. A drop of sweat ran slowly down my face. I wanted to promise her anything, anything, if she would never touch me again. Nikolaos didn't have to bespell me; all she had had to do was terrify me. The fear would control me. It was what she was counting on. I could not let that happen.

  "Get . . . out . . . of . . . my . . . face," Isaid.

  She laughed. Her breath was warm and smelled like peppermint. Breath mints. But underneath the clean, modern smell, very faint, was the scent of fresh blood. Old death. Recent murder.

  I wasn't shivering anymore. I said, "Your breath smells like blood."

  She jerked back, a hand going to her lips. It was such a human gesture that I laughed. Her dress brushed my face as she stood. One small, slippered foot kicked me in the chest.

  The force tumbled me backwards, sharp pain, no air. For the second time that night, I couldn't breathe. I lay flat on my stomach, gasping, swallowing past the pain. I hadn't heard anything break. Something should have broken.

  The voice thudded over me, hot enough to scald. "Get her out of here before I kill her myself."

  The pain faded to a sharp ache. Air burned going down. My chest was tight, like I'd swallowed lead.

  "Stay where you are, Jean."

  Jean-Claude was standing away from the wall, halfway to me. Nikolaos commanded him to stillness with one small, pale hand.

  "Can you hear me, animator?"

  "Yes." My voice was strangled. I couldn't get enough air to talk.

  "Did I break something?" Her voice rose upward like a small bird.

  I coughed, trying to clear my throat, but it hurt. I huddled around my chest while the ache faded. "No."

  "Pity. But I suppose that would have slowed things down, or made you useless to us." She seemed to think about the last as if that had had possibilities. What would they have done to me if something had been broken? I didn't want to know.

  "The police are aware of only four vampire murders. There have been six more."

  I breathed in carefully. "Why not tell the police?"

  "My dear animator, there are many among us who do not trust the human laws. We know how equal human justice is for the undead." She smiled, and again there should have been a dimple. "Jean-Claude was the fifth most powerful vampire in this city. Now he is the third."

  I stared up at her, waiting for her to laugh, to say it was a joke. She continued to smile, the same exact smile, like a piece of wax. Were they playing me for a fool? "Something has killed two master vampires? Stronger than"--I had to swallow before continuing--"Jean-Claude?"

  Her smile widened, flashing a distinct glimpse of fang. "You do grasp the situation quickly. I will give you that. And perhaps that will make Jean-Claude's punishment less--severe. He recommended you to us, did you know that?"

  I shook my head and glanced at him. He had not moved, not even to breathe. Only his eyes looked at me. Dark blue like midnight skies, almost fever-bright. He hadn't fed yet. Why wouldn't she let him feed?

  "Why is he being punished?"

  "Are you worried about him?" Her voice held a mockery of surprise. "My, my, my, aren't you angry that he brought you into this?"

  I stared at him for a moment. I knew then what I saw in his eyes. It was fear. He was afraid of Nikolaos. And I knew if I had any ally in this room, it was him. Fear will bind you closer than love, or hate, and it works a hell of a lot quicker. "No," I said.

  "No, no." She minced the word, crying it up and down, a child's imitation. "Fine." Her voice was suddenly lower, grownup, shimmering with heat, angry. "We will give you a gift, animator. We have a witness to the second murder. He saw Lucas die. He will tell you everything he saw, won't he, Zachary?" She smiled at the sandy-haired man.

  Zachary nodded. He stepped from around the chair and swept a low bow towards me. His lips were too thin for his face, his smile crooked. Yet, the ice-green eyes stayed with me. I had seen that face before, but where?

  He strode to a small door. I hadn't seen it before. It was hidden in the flickering shadows of the torches, but still I should have noticed. I glanced at Nikolaos, and she nodded at me, a smile curving her lips.

  She had hidden the door from me without me knowing it. I tried to stand, pushing myself up with my hands. Mistake. I gasped and stood as quickly as I dared. The hands were already stiff with bruises and scrapes. If I lived until morning, I was going to be one sore puppy.

  Zachary opened the door with a flourish, like a magician drawing a curtain. A man stood in the door. He was dressed in the remains of a business suit. A slender figure, a little thick around the middle, too many beers, too little exercise. He was maybe thirty.

  "Come," Zachary said.

  The man moved out into the room. His eyes were round with fear. A pinkie ring winked in the firelight. He stank of fear and death.

  He was still tanned, eyes still full. He could pass for human better than any vampire in the room, but he was more a corpse than any of them. It was just a matter of time. I raised the dead for a living. I knew a zombie when I saw one.

  "Do you remember Nikolaos?" Zachary asked.

  The zombie's human eyes grew large, and the color drained from his face. Damn, he looked human. "Yes."

  "You will answer Nikolaos's questions, do you understand that?"

  "I understand." His forehead wrinkled as if he were concentrating on something, something he couldn't quite remember.

  "He would not answer our questions before. Would you?" Nikolaos said.

  The zombie shook its head, eyes staring at her with a sort of fearful fascination. Birds must look at snakes that way.

  "We tortured him, but he was most stubborn. Then before we could continue our work, he hu
ng himself. We really should have taken his belt away." She sounded wistful, pouty.

  The zombie was staring at her. "I . . . hung myself. I don't understand. I . . . "

  "He doesn't know?" I asked.

  Zachary smiled. "No, he doesn't. Isn't it fabulous? You know how hard it is to make one so human, that he forgets he has died."

  I knew. It meant somebody had a lot of power. Zachary was staring at the confused undead like he was a work of art. Precious. "You raised him?" I asked.

  Nikolaos said, "Did you not recognize a fellow animator?" She laughed, lightly, a breeze of far-off bells.

  I glanced at Zachary's face. He was staring at me, eyes memorizing me. Face blank, with a thread of something making the skin under one eye jump. Anger, fear? Then he smiled at me, brilliant, echoing. Again there was that shock of recognition.

  "Ask your question, Nikolaos. He has to answer now."

  "Is that true?" she asked me.

  I hesitated, surprised that she had turned to me. "Yes."

  "Who killed the vampire, Lucas?"

  He stared at her, face crumbling. His breathing was shallow and too fast.

  "Why doesn't he answer me?"

  "The question is too complex," Zachary explained. "He may not remember who Lucas is."

  "Then you ask him the questions, and I expect him to answer." Her voice was warm with threat.

  Zachary turned with a flourish, spreading arms wide. "Ladies and gentlemen, behold, the undead." He grinned at his own joke. No one else even smiled. I didn't get it either.

  "Did you see a vampire murdered?"

  The zombie nodded. "Yes."

  "How was he murdered?"

  "Heart torn out, head cut off." His voice was paper-thin with fear.

  "Who tore out his heart?"

  The zombie started to shake his head over and over, quick, jerky movements. "Don't know, don't know."

  "Ask him what killed the vampire," I said.

  Zachary shot me a look. His eyes were green glass. Bones stood out in his face. Rage sculpted him into a skeleton with canvas skin.

  "This is my zombie, my business!"

  "Zachary," Nikolaos said.

  He turned to her, movements stiff.

  "It is a good question. A reasonable question." Her voice was low, calm. No one was fooled. Hell must be full of voices like that. Deadly, but oh so reasonable.

  "Ask her question, Zachary."

  He turned back to the zombie, hands balled into fists. I didn't understand where the anger was coming from. "What killed the vampire?"

 
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