Chapter 26

The auburn-haired woman with Edward came over to the couch and slid into Phillip's lap. She giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck with a little kick of her feet. Her hands didn't wander lower, and she didn't try to undress him. The night was looking up. Edward followed behind the woman like a blond shadow. There was a drink in his hand and a suitably harmless smile on his face.

If I hadn't known him, I would never have looked at him and said, there, there is a dangerous man. Edward the Chameleon. He balanced on the couch arm at the woman's back, one hand rubbing her shoulder.

"Anita, this is Darlene," Phillip said.

I nodded. She giggled and kicked her little feet.

"This is Teddy. Isn't he scrumptious?"

Teddy? Scrumptious? I managed a smile, and Edward kissed the side of her neck. She snuggled against his chest, managing to wiggle in Phillip's lap at the same time. Coordination.

"Let me have a taste." Darlene sucked her lower lip under her teeth and drew it out slowly.

Phillip's breath trembled. He whispered, "Yes."

I didn't think I was going to like this.

Darlene cupped his arm in her hands and raised it to her mouth.

She bestowed a delicate kiss over one of his scars, then she slid her legs down between his until she was kneeling at his feet, still holding his arm. The full skirt of her dress was bunched up around her waist, caught on his legs. She was wearing red lace panties and matching garters. Color coordination.

Phillip's face had gone slack. He was staring at her as she brought his arm towards her mouth. A small pink tongue licked his arm, quick, out, wet, gone. She glanced up at Phillip, eyes dark and full. She must have liked what she saw because she began to lick his scars, one by one, delicate, a cat with cream. Her eyes never left his face.

Phillip shuddered; his spine spasmed. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the couch. Her hands went to his stomach. She gripped the fishnet and pulled. It slid out of his pants, and her hands stroked up bare chest.

He jerked, eyes wide, and caught her arms. He shook his head. "No, no." His voice sounded hoarse, too deep.

"You want me to stop?" Darlene asked. Her eyes were nearly closed, breath deep, lips full and waiting.

He was struggling to talk and make sense at the same time. "If we do this...that leaves Anita alone. Fair game. Her first party."

Darlene looked at me, maybe for the first time. "With scars like that?"

"Scars are from a real attack. I talked her into the party." He brought her hands out from under his shirt. "I can't desert her." His eyes seemed to be focusing again. "She doesn't know the rules."

Darlene leaned her head on his thigh. "Phillip, please, I've missed you."

"You know what they'd do to her."

"Teddy will keep her safe. He knows the rules."

I asked, "You've been to other parties?"

"Yes," Edward said. He held my gaze for several seconds while I tried to picture him at other parties. So this was where he got his information about the vampire world, through the freaks.

"No," Phillip said. He stood, bringing Darlene to her feet, still holding her forearms. "No," he said and his voice sounded certain, confident. He released her and held out his hand to me. I took it. What else could I do?

His hand was sweating and warm. He strode out of the room, and I was forced to half-run in my heels to catch up with my hand.

He led me down the hall to the bathroom and we went in. He locked the door and leaned against it, sweat beaded on his face, eyes closed. I took back my hand, and he didn't fight me.

I looked around at the available seating and finally chose to sit on the edge of the bathtub. It wasn't comfortable, but it seemed the lesser of two evils. Phillip drew in great gulps of air and finally turned to the sink. He ran water loud and splashing, dipped his hands in, and covered his face again and again until he stood, water dripping down his face. Droplets caught in his eyelashes and hair. He blinked at himself in the mirror over the basin. He looked startled, wide-eyed.

The water was dripping down his neck and chest. I stood and handed him a towel from the rack. He didn't respond. I mopped up his chest with the soft, clean-smelling folds of the towel.

He finally took the towel and finished drying off. His hair was dark and wet around his face. There was no way to dry it out. "I did it," he said.

"Yes," I said, "you did it."

"I almost let her."

"But you didn't, Phillip. That's what counts."

He nodded, rapidly, head bobbing. "I guess so." He still seemed out of breath.

"We better be getting back to the party."

He nodded. But he stayed where he was, breathing too deep, like he couldn't get enough oxygen.

"Phillip, are you all right?" It was a stupid question, but I couldn't think of what else to say.

He nodded. Mr. Conversation.

"Do you want to leave?" I asked.

He looked at me then. "That's the second time you've offered that. Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would you offer to let me out of my promise?"

I shrugged and rubbed my hands over my arms. "Because... because you seem to be in some kind of pain. Because you're a junkie trying to kick the habit, sort of, and I don't want to screw that up for you."

"That's a very...decent thing to offer." He said decent like he wasn't used to the word.

"Do you want to leave?"

"Yes," he said, "but we can't."

"You said that before. Why can't we?"

"I can't, Anita, I can't."

"Yes, you can. Who are you taking orders from, Phillip? Tell me. What is going on?" I was standing nearly touching him, spitting each word into his chest, looking up at his face. It is always hard to be tough when you have to look up to see someone's eyes. But I've been short all my life, and practice makes perfect.

His hand slid around my shoulders. I pushed away from him, and his hands locked behind my back. "Phillip, stop it."

I had my hands flat on his chest to keep our bodies from pressing together. His shirt was wet and cold. His heart was hammering in his chest. I swallowed hard and said, "Your shirt's wet."

He released me so suddenly, I stumbled back from him. He drew the shirt over his head in one fluid motion. Of course, he had a lot of practice in undressing himself. It would have been such a nice chest without the scars.

He took one step towards me. "Stop, right where you are," I said. "What is this sudden change of mood?"

"I like you; isn't that enough?"

I shook my head. "No, it isn't."

He dropped the shirt to the floor. I watched it fall like it was important. Two steps and he was beside me. Bathrooms are so small. I did the only thing I could think of - I stepped into the bathtub. Not very dignified in high heels, but I wasn't pressed up against Phillip's chest. Anything was an improvement.

"Somebody is watching us," he said.

I turned, slowly, like a bad horror movie. Twilight hung against the sheer drapes, and a face peered out of the coming dark. It was Harvey, Mr. Leather. The windows were too high for him to be standing on the ground. Was he standing on a box? Or maybe they had little platforms at all the windows, so you could watch the show.

I let Phillip help me out of the bathtub. I whispered, "Could he hear us?"

Phillip shook his head. His arms slid around my back again. "We are supposed to be lovers. Do you want Harvey to stop believing that?"

"This is blackmail."

He smiled, dazzling, hold it in your hand and stroke it, sexy. My stomach tightened. He bent down, and I didn't stop him. The kiss was everything advertised, full soft lips, a press of skin, a heated weight. His hands tightened across my bare back, fingers kneading the muscles along the spine until I relaxed against him.

He kissed the lobe of my ear, breath warm. Tongue flicked along the edge of my jaw. His mouth found the pulse in my throat, his tongue searching for it, as if he were melting through the skin. Teeth scraped over the beating of my neck. Teeth clamped down, tight, hurting.

I shoved him back, away. "Shit! You bit me."

His eyes were unfocused, dazed. A crimson drop stained his lower lip.

I touched a hand to my neck and came away with blood. "Damn you!"

He licked my blood off his mouth. "I think Harvey believes the performance. Now you're marked. You've got the proof of what you are and why you came." He took a deep, shaking breath. "I won't have to touch you again tonight. I'll see that no one else does either. I swear."

My neck was throbbing; a bite, a freaking bite! "Do you know how many germs are in the human mouth?"

He smiled at me, still a little unfocused. "No," he said.

I shoved him out of the way and dabbed water on the cut. It looked like what it was, human teeth. It wasn't a perfect set of bite marks, but it was close. "Damn you."

"We need to go out so you can hunt for clues." He had picked his shirt up from the floor and stood there, holding it at his side. Bare tanned chest, leather pants, lips full like he'd been sucking on something. Me. "You look like an ad for Rent A Gigolo," I said.

He shrugged. "Ready to go out?"

I was still touching the wound. I tried to be angry and couldn't. I was scared. Scared of Phillip and what he was, or wasn't. I hadn't expected it. Was he right? Would I be safe for the rest of the night? Or had he just wanted to see what I tasted like?

He opened the door and waited for me. I went out. As we walked back to the living room, I realized Phillip had distracted me from my question. Who was he working for? I still didn't know.

It was damn embarrassing that every time he took his shirt off, my brain went out to lunch. But no more; I had had my first and last kiss from Phillip of the many scars. From now on I would remain the tough-as-nails vampire slayer, not to be distracted by rippling muscles or nice eyes.

My fingers touched the bite mark. It hurt. No more Ms. Nice Guy. If Phillip came near me again, I was going to hurt him. Of course, knowing Phillip, he'd probably enjoy it.

Chapter 27

Madge stopped us in the hall. Her hand started to go up to my throat. I grabbed her wrist. "Touchy, touchy," she said. "Didn't you like it? Don't tell me you've been with Phillip a month and he hasn't tasted you before?"

She pulled down the silky bra to expose the upper mound of her breast. There was a perfect set of bite marks in the pale flesh. "It's Phillip's trademark, didn't you know?"

"No," I said. I pushed past her and started to turn into the living room. A man I did not know fell at my feet. Crystal was on top of him, pinning him to the floor. He looked young and a little frightened. His eyes looked up past Crystal, to me. I thought he was going to ask for help, but she kissed him, sloppy and deep, like she was drinking him from the mouth down. His hands began to lift the silk folds of her skirt. Her thighs were incredibly white, like beached whales.

I turned abruptly and went for the door. My heels made an important-sounding clack on the hardwood floor. If I hadn't known better, I would have said it sounded like I was running. I was not running. I was just walking very fast.

Phillip caught up with me at the door. His hand pressed flat against it to keep me from opening it. I took a deep, steadying breath. I would not lose my temper, not yet.

"I'm sorry, Anita, but it's better this way. You're safe now, from the humans."

I looked up at him and shook my head. "You just don't get it. I need some air, Phillip. I'm not leaving for the night, if that's what you're afraid of."

"I'll go out with you."

"No. That would defeat the purpose, Phillip. Since you are one of the things I want to get away from."

He stepped back then, hand at his side. His eyes shut down, guarded, hiding. Why had that hurt his feelings? I didn't know, and I didn't want to know.

I opened the door, and the heat fell around me like fur.

"It's dark," he said. "They'll be here soon. I can't help you if I'm not with you."

I stepped close to him and said in a near whisper, "Let's be honest, Phillip. I'm a whole lot better at protecting myself than you are. The first vampire that crooks its finger will have you for lunch."

His face started to crumble, and I didn't want to see it. "Dammit, Phillip, pull yourself together." I walked out onto the trellis-covered porch and resisted an urge to slam the door behind me. That would have been childish. I was feeling a little childish about now, but I'd save it. You never know when some childish rage may come in handy.

The cicadas and crickets filled the night. There was a wind pulling at the tops of the tall trees, but it never touched the ground. The air down here was as stale and close as plastic.

The heat felt good after the air-conditioned house. It was real and somehow cleansing. I touched the bite on my neck. I felt dirty, used, abused, angry, pissed off. I wasn't going to find anything out here. If someone or something was killing off vampires who did the freak circuit, it didn't seem to be such a bad idea.

Of course, whether I sympathized with the murderer was not the point. Nikolaos expected me to solve the crimes, and I damn well better do it.

I took a deep breath of the stiff air and felt the first stirrings of...power. It oozed through the trees like wind, but the touch of it didn't cool the skin. The hair at the back of my neck was trying to crawl down my spine. Whoever it was, they were powerful. And they were trying to raise the dead.

Despite the heat, we'd had a lot of rain, and my heels sank into the grass immediately. I ended up walking in a sort of tiptoe crouch, trying not to flounder in the soft earth.

The ground was littered with acorns. It was like walking on marbles. I fell against a tree trunk, catching myself painfully against the shoulder Aubrey had bruised so nicely.

A sharp bleating, high and panic-stricken, sounded. It was close. Was it a trick of the still air or was it really a goat bleating? The cry ended in a wet gurgle of sound, thick and bubbling. The trees ended, and the ground was clear and moon-silvered.

I slipped off one shoe and tried the ground. Damp, cool, but not too bad. I slipped off the other shoe, tucked them in one hand, and ran.

The back yard was huge, stretching out into the silvered dark. It spread empty, except for a wall of overgrown hedges, like small trees in the distance. I ran for the hedges. The grave had to be there; there was no other place for it to hide.

The actual ritual for raising the dead is a short one, as rituals go. The power poured out into the night and into the grave. It built in a slow, steady rise, a warm "magic." It tugged at my stomach and brought me to the hedges. They towered up, black in the moonlight, hopelessly overgrown. There was no way I was squeezing through them.

A man cried out. Then a woman: "Where is it? Where is the zombie you promised us?"

"It was too old!" The man's voice was thin with fear.

"You said chickens weren't enough, so we got you a goat to kill. But no zombie. I thought you were good at this."

I found a gate in the opposite side of the hedges. Metal, rusted, and crooked in its frame. It groaned, a metal scream, as I pushed it open. More than a dozen pairs of eyes turned to me. Pale faces, the utter stillness of the undead. Vampires. They stood among the ancient grave markers of the small family cemetery, waiting. Nothing waits as patiently as the dead.

One of the vampires nearest me was the black male from Nikolaos's lair. My pulse quickened, and I did a quick scan of the crowd. She wasn't here, Thank you, God.

The vampire smiled and said, "Did you come to watch...animator?" Had he almost said, "Executioner"? Was it a secret?

Whatever, he motioned the others back and let me see the show. Zachary lay on the ground. His shirt was damp with blood. You can't slit anything's throat without getting a little messy. Theresa was standing over him, hands on hips. She was dressed in black. The only skin showing was a strip of flesh down the middle, pale and almost luminous in the starlight. Theresa, Mistress of the Dark.

Her eyes flicked to me, a moment, then back to the man. "Well, Zach-a-ri, where is our zombie?"

He swallowed audibly. "It's too old. There isn't enough left."

"Only a hundred years old, animator. Are you so weak?"

He looked down at the ground. His fingers dug into the soft earth. He glanced up at me, then quickly down. I didn't know. what he was trying to tell me with that one glance. Fear? For me to run? A plea for help? What?

"What good is an animator who can't raise the dead?" Theresa asked. She dropped to her knees, suddenly beside him, hands touching his shoulders. Zachary flinched but didn't try to get away.

A ripple of almost-movement ran through the other vampires. I could feel the whole circle at my back tense. They were going to kill him. The fact that he couldn't raise the zombie was just an excuse, part of the game.

Theresa ripped his shirt down the back. It fluttered around his lower arms, still tucked into his waist. A collective sigh ran through the vampires.

There was a woven rope band around his right upper arm. Beads were worked into it. It was a gris-gris, a voodoo charm, but it wouldn't help him now. No matter what it was supposed to do, it wouldn't be enough.

Theresa did a stage whisper. "Maybe you're just fresh meat?"

The vampires began to move in, silent as wind in the grass.

I couldn't just watch. He was a fellow animator and a human being. I couldn't just let him die, not like this, not in front of me. "Wait," I said.

No one seemed to hear me. The vampires moved in, and I was losing sight of Zachary. If one bit him, the feeding frenzy would be on. I had seen that happen once. I would never get rid of the nightmares if I saw it again.

I raised my voice and hoped they listened. "Wait! Didn't he belong to Nikolaos? Didn't he call Nikolaos master?"

They hesitated, then parted for Theresa to stride through them until she faced me. "This is not your business." She stared at me, and I didn't avoid her gaze. One less thing to worry about.

"I'm making it my business," I said.

"Do you wish to join him?"

The vampires began to spread out from Zachary to encircle me as well. I let them. There wasn't much I could do about it anyway. Either I'd get us both out alive or I'd die, too, maybe, probably. Oh, well.

"I wish to speak with him, one professional to another," I said.

"Why?" she asked.

I stepped close to her, almost touching. Her anger was nearly palpable. I was making her look bad in front of the others, and I knew it, and she knew I knew it. I whispered, though some of the others would hear me, "Nikolaos gave orders for the man to die, but she wants me alive, Theresa. What would she do to you if I accidentally died here tonight?" I breathed the last words into her face. "Do you want to spend eternity locked in a cross-wrapped coffin?"

She snarled and jerked away from me as if I had scalded her. "Damn you, mortal, damn you to hell!" Her black hair crackled around her face, her hands gripped into claws. "Talk to him, for what good it will do you. He must raise this zombie, this zombie, or he is ours. So says Nikolaos."

"If he raises the zombie, then he goes free, unharmed?" I asked.

"Yes, but he cannot do it; he isn't strong enough."

"Which was what Nikolaos was counting on," I said.

Theresa smiled, a fierce tug of lips exposing fangs. "Yesss." She turned her back on me and strode through the other vampires. They parted for her like frightened pigeons. And I was standing up to her. Sometimes bravery and stupidity are almost interchangeable.

I knelt by Zachary. "Are you hurt?"

He shook his head. "I appreciate the gesture, but they're going to try to kill me tonight." He looked up at me, pale eyes searching my face. "There isn't anything you can do to stop them." He gave a thin smile. "Even you have your limits."

"We can raise this zombie if you'll trust me."

He frowned, then stared at me. I couldn't read his expression: puzzlement and something else. "Why?"

What could I say, that I couldn't just watch him die? He had watched a man be tortured and hadn't lifted a hand. I opted for the short reason. "Because I can't let them have you, if I can stop it."

"I don't understand you, Anita, I don't understand you at all."

"That makes two of us. Can you stand?"

He nodded. "What are you planning?"

"We're going to share our talent."

His eyes widened. "Shit, you can act as a focus?"

"I've done it twice before." Twice before with the same person. Twice before with someone who had trained me as an animator. Never with a stranger.

His voice dropped to a bare whisper. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Save you?" I asked.

"Share your power," he said.

Theresa strode over to us in a swish of cloth. "Enough of this, animator. He can't do it, so he pays the price. Either leave now, or join us at our...feast."

"Are you having rare Who-roast-beast?" I asked.

"What are you talking about?"

"It's from Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. You know the part, 'And they'd Feast! Feast! Feast! Feast! They would feast on Who-pudding, and rare Who-roast-beast.' "

"You are crazy."

"So I've been told."

"Do you want to die?" she asked.

I stood up, very slowly, and felt something build in me. A sureness, an absolute certainty that she was not a danger to me. Stupid, but it was there, solid and real. "Someone may kill me before all this is over, Theresa" - I stepped into her, and she gave ground - "but it won't be you."

I could almost taste her pulse in my mouth. Was she afraid of me? Was I going crazy? I had just stood up to a hundred-year-old vampire, and she had backed down. I felt disoriented, almost dizzy, as if reality had moved and no one had warned me.

Theresa turned her back on me, hands balled into fists. "Raise the dead, animators, or by all the blood ever spilled, I'll kill you both."

I think she meant it. I shook myself like a dog coming out of deep water. I had a baker's dozen worth of vampires to pacify and a one-hundred-year-old corpse to raise. I could only handle a zillion problems at a time. A zillion and one was beyond me.

"Get up, Zachary," I said. "Time to go to work."

He stood. "I've never worked with a focus before. You'll have to tell me what to do."

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