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," I said.
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 hung 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?"
"Don't understand." The voice held a knife's edge of panic.
"What sort of creature tore out the heart? Was it a human?"
"Was it another vampire?"
This was why zombies still didn't do well in court. You had to lead them by the hand, so to speak, to get answers. Lawyers accused you of leading the witness. Which was true, but it didn't mean the zombie was lying.
"Then what killed the vampire?"
Again that head shaking, back and forth, back and forth. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He seemed to be choking on the words, as if someone had stuffed paper down his throat. "Can't!"
"What do you mean, can't?" Zachary screamed it at him and slapped him across the face. The zombie threw up its arms to cover its head. "You...will...answer...me." Each word was punctuated with a slap.
The zombie fell to its knees and started to cry. "Can't!"
"Answer me, damn you!" He kicked the zombie, and it collapsed to the ground, rolling into a tight ball.
"Stop it." I walked towards them. "Stop it!"
He kicked the zombie one last time and turned on me. "It's my zombie! I can do what I want with him."
"That used to be a human being. It deserves more respect than this." I knelt by the crying zombie. I felt Zachary looming over me.
Nikolaos said, "Leave her alone, for now."
He stood there like an angry shadow pressing over my back. I touched the zombie's arm. It flinched. "It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you." Not going to hurt you. He had killed himself to escape. But not even the grave was sanctuary enough. Before tonight I would have said no animator would have raised the dead for such a purpose. Sometimes the world is a worse place than I want to know about.
I had to peel the zombie's hands from his face, then turn the face up to stare at me. One look was enough. Dark eyes were incredibly wide, fear, such fear. A thin line of spittle oozed from his mouth.
I shook my head and stood. "You've broken him."
"Damn right. No damn zombie is going to make a fool of me. He'll answer the questions."
I whirled to stare at the man's angry eyes. "Don't you understand? You've broken his mind."
"Zombies don't have minds."
"That's right, they don't. All they have, and for a very short time, is the memory of what they were. If you treat them well, they can retain their personalities for maybe a week, a little more, but this . . ." I pointed at the zombie, then spoke to Nikolaos. "Ill treatment will speed the process. Shock will destroy it."
"What are you saying, animator?"
"This sadist" - I jabbed a thumb at Zachary - "has destroyed the zombie's mind. It won't be answering any more questions. Not for anyone, not ever."
Nikolaos turned like a pale storm. Her eyes were blue glass. Her words filled the room with a soft burning. "You arrogant.. ." A tremor ran through her body, from small, slippered feet to long white-blonde hair. I waited for the wooden chair to catch fire and blaze from the fine heat of her anger.
The anger stripped away the child puppet. Bones stood out against white paper skin. Hands grabbed at the air, clawed and straining. One hand dug into the arm of her chair. The wood whined, then cracked. The sound echoed against the stone walls. Her voice burned along our skin. "Get out of here before I kill you. Take the woman and see her safely back to her car. If you fail me again, large or small, I will tear your throat out, and my children will bathe in a shower of your blood."
Nicely graphic; a little melodramatic, but nicely graphic. I didn't say it out loud. Hell, I wasn't even breathing. Any movement might attract her. All she needed was an excuse.
Zachary seemed to sense it as well. He bowed, eyes never leaving her face. Then without a word he turned and began to walk towards the small door. His movements were unhurried, as if death wasn't staring holes in his back. He paused at the open door and made a motion as if to escort me through the door. I glanced at Jean-Claude, still standing where she had left him. I had not asked about Catherine's safety; there had been no opportunity. Things were happening too fast. I opened my mouth; maybe Jean-Claude guessed.
He silenced me with a wave of a slender, pale hand. The hand seemed as white as the lace on his shirt. His eye sockets were filled with blue flame. The long, black hair floated around his suddenly death-pale face. His humanity was folding away. His power flared across my skin, raising the hairs on my arms. I hugged myself, staring at the creature that had been Jean-Claude.
"Run!" He screamed it at me, voice slashing into me. I should have been bleeding from it. I hesitated and caught sight of Nikolaos. She was levitating, ever so slowly, upward. Milkweed hair danced around her skeleton head. She raised a clawed hand. Bones and veins were caught in the amber of her skin.
Jean-Claude whirled, claw-hand slashing out at me. Something slammed me into the wall and half out the door. Zachary caught my arm and pulled me through.
I twisted free of him. The door thudded closed in my face. I whispered, "Sweet Jesus."
Zachary was at the foot of a narrow stairway, leading up. He held his hand out to me. His face was slick with sweat. "Please!" He fluttered his hand at me like a trapped bird.
A smell oozed from under the door. It was the smell of rotting corpses. The smell of bloated bodies, of skin cracked and ripening in the sun, of blood slowed and rotting in quiet veins. I gagged and backed away.
"Oh, God," Zachary whispered. He put one hand over his mouth and nose, the other still held out to me.
I ignored his hand but stood beside him on the stairs. He opened his mouth to say something, but the door creaked. The wood shook and hammered, like a giant wind was beating against it. Wind whooshed from under the door. My hair streamed in a tornado wind. We backed up a few steps while the heavy wooden door fluttered and kicked against a wind that couldn't be there. A storm indoors? The sick smell of rotting flesh bled into the wind. We looked at each other. There was that moment of recognition of us against them, or it. We turned and started running like we were attached by wires.
There couldn't be a storm behind that door. There couldn't be a wind chasing us up the narrow stone stairs. There were no rotting corpses in that room. Or were there? God, I didn't want to know. I did not want to know.
An explosion ripped up the stairs. The wind smashed us down like toys. The door had blown. I scrambled on all fours trying to get away, just get away. Zachary got to his feet, dragging me up by one arm. We ran.
There was a howling from behind us, out of sight. The wind roared up behind us. My hair streamed over my face, blinding me. Zachary's hand grabbed mine and held on. The walls were smooth, the stairs slick stone, there was nothing to hold on to. We flattened ourselves against the stairs and hung onto each other.
"Anita." Jean-Claude's velvet voice whispered. "Anita." I fought to look up into the wind, blinking to see. There was nothing there. "Anita." The wind was calling my name. "Anita." Something glimmered, blue fire. Two points of blue flame, hung on the wind. Eyes - were those Jean-Claude's eyes? Was he dead?
The blue flames began to float downward. The wind didn't touch them. I screamed, "Zachary!" But the sound was swallowed in the roar of the wind. Did he see it, too, or was I going crazy?
The blue flames came lower and lower, and suddenly I didn't want it to touch me, just as suddenly I knew that was what it was going to do. Something told me that that would be a very bad thing.
I tore loose from Zachary. He screamed something at me, but the wind roared and screeched between the narrow walls like a roller coaster gone mad. There was no other sound. I started to crawl up the stairs, wind beating against me, trying to crush me down. There was one other sound, Jean-Claude's voice in my head. "Forgive me."
The blue lights were suddenly in front of my face. I flattened myself against a wall, hitting at the fire. My hands passed through the burning. It wasn't there.
I screamed, "Leave me alone!"
The fire melted through my hands like they weren't there, and into my eyes. The world was blue glass, silent, nothing, blue ice. A whisper: "Run, run." I was sitting on the stairs again, blinking into the wind. Zachary was staring at me.
The wind stopped like someone had turned a switch. The silence was deafening. My breath was coming in short gasps. I had no pulse. I couldn't feel my heartbeat. All I could hear was my breathing, too loud, too shallow. I finally knew what they meant by breathless with fear.
Zachary's voice was hoarse and too loud in the silence. I think he was whispering, but it came out like a shout. "Your eyes, they glowed blue!"
I whispered, "Hush, shhh." I didn't understand why, but someone must not hear what he had just said, must not know what had happened. My life depended on it. There was no more whispering in my head, but the last bit of advice had been good. Run. Running sounded very good.
The silence was dangerous. It meant the fight was over, and the winner could turn its attention to other things. I did not want to be one of those things.
I stood and offered a hand to Zachary. He looked puzzled but took it, standing. I pulled him up the steps and started running. I had to get away, had to, or I would die in this place, tonight, now. I knew that with a surety that left no room for questions, no time for hesitation. I was running for my life. I would die, if Nikolaos saw me now. I would die.
And I would never know why.
Either Zachary felt the panic too, or he thought I knew something he didn't, because he ran with me. When one of us stumbled, the other pulled him, or her, to their feet, and we ran. We ran until acid burned the muscles in my legs, and my chest squeezed into a hard ache for lack of air.
This was why I jogged, so I could run like hell when something was chasing me. Thinner thighs was not incentive enough. But this was, running when you had to, running for your life. The silence was heavy, almost touchable. It seemed to flow up the stairs, as if searching for something. The silence chased us as surely as the wind had.
The trouble with running up stairs, if you've ever had a knee injury, is that you can't do it forever. Give me a flat surface, and I can run for hours. Put me on an incline, and my knees give me fits. It started as an ache, but it didn't take long to become a sharp, grinding pain. Each step began to scream up my leg, until the entire leg pulsed with it.
The knee began to pop as it moved, an audible sound. That was a bad sign. The knee was threatening to go out on me. If it popped out of joint, I'd be crippled here on the stairs with the silence breathing around me. Nikolaos would find me and kill me. Why was I so sure of that? No answer, but I knew it, knew it with every pull of air. I didn't argue with the feeling.
I slowed and rested on the steps, stretching out the muscles in my legs. Refusing to gasp as the muscles on my bad leg twitched. I would stretch it out and feel better. The pain wouldn't go away, I'd abused it too much for that, but I would be able to walk without the knee betraying me.
Zachary collapsed on the stairs, obviously not a jogger. His muscles would tighten up if he didn't keep moving. Maybe he knew that. Maybe he didn't care.
I stretched my arms against the wall until my shoulders stretched out. Just something familiar to do while I waited for the knee to calm down. Something to do, while I listened for - what? Something heavy and sliding, something ancient, long dead.
Sounds from above, higher up the stairs. I froze pressed against the wall, palms flat against the cool stone. What now? What more? Surely, to God, it would be dawn soon.
Zachary stood and turned to face up the stairs. I stood with my back to the wall, so I could see up as well as down. I didn't want something sneaking up on me from below while I was looking upstairs. I wanted my gun. It was locked in my trunk, where it was doing me a hell of a lot of good.
We were standing just below a landing, a turn in the stairs. There have been times when I wished I could see around corners. This was one of them. The scrape of cloth against stone, the rub of shoes.
The man who walked around the corner was human, surprise, surprise. His neck was even unmarked. Cotton-white hair was shaved close to his head. The muscles in his neck bulged. His biceps were bigger around than my waist. My waist is kinda small, but his arms were still, ah, impressive. He was at least six-three, and there wasn't enough fat on him to grease a cake pan.
His eyes were the crystalline paleness of January skies, a distant, icy, blue. He was also the first bodybuilder I'd ever seen who didn't have a tan. All that rippling muscle was done in white, like Moby Dick. A black mesh tank top showed off every inch of his massive chest. Black jogging shorts flared around the swell of his legs. He had had to cut them up the sides to slip them over the rock bulge of his thighs.
I whispered, "Jesus, how much do you bench press?"
He smiled, close-lipped. He spoke with the barest movement of lips, never giving a glimpse of his incisors. "Four hundred."
I gave a low whistle. And said what he wanted me to say: "Impressive."
He smiled, careful not to show teeth. He was trying to play the vampire. Such a careful act being wasted on me. Should I tell him that he screamed human? Naw, he might break me over his thigh like kindling.
"This is Winter," Zachary said. The name was too perfect to be real, like a 1940s movie star.
"What is happening?" he asked.
"Our master and Jean-Claude are fighting," Zachary said.
He drew a deep, sighing breath. His eyes widened just a bit. "Jean-Claude?" He made it sound like a question.
Zachary nodded and smiled. "Yes, he's been holding out."
"Who are you?" he asked.
I hesitated; Zachary shrugged. "Anita Blake."
He smiled then, flashing nice normal teeth at last. "You're The Executioner?"
He laughed. The sound echoed between the stone walls. The silence seemed to tighten around us. The laughter stopped abruptly, a dew of sweat on his lip. Winter felt it and feared it. His voice came low, almost a whisper, as if he was afraid of being overheard. "You aren't big enough to be The Executioner."
I shrugged. "It disappoints me, too, sometimes."
He smiled, almost laughed again, but swallowed it. His eyes were shiny.
"Let's all get out of here," Zachary said.
I was with him.
"I was sent to check on Nikolaos," Winter said.
The silence pulsed with the name. A bead of sweat dripped down his face. Important safety tip: never say the name of an angry master vampire when they are within "hearing" distance.
"She can take care of herself," Zachary whispered, but the sound echoed anyway.
"Nooo," I said.
Zachary glared at me and I shrugged. Sometimes I just can't help myself.
Winter stared at me, face as impersonal as carved marble; only his eyes trembled. Mr. Macho. "Come," he said. He turned without waiting to see if we would follow. We followed.
I would have followed him anywhere as long as he went upstairs. All I knew was that nothing, absolutely nothing, could get me back down those stairs. Not willingly. Of course, there are always other options. I glanced up at Winter's broad back. Yeah, if you don't want to do it willingly, there are always other options.