The stairs opened into a square chamber. An electric bulb dangled from the ceiling. I had never thought one dim electric light could be beautiful, but it was. A sign that we were leaving the underground chamber of horrors behind and approaching the real world. I was ready to go home.
There were two doors leading out of the stone room, one straight ahead and one to the right. Music floated through the one in front of us. High, bright circus music. The door opened, and the music boiled around us. There was a glimpse of bright colors and hundreds of people milling about. A sign flashed, "Fun house." A carnival midway, inside a building. I knew where I was. Circus of the Damned.
The city's most powerful vampires slept under the Circus. It was something to remember.
The door started to shut, dimming the music, cutting off the bright signs. I looked into the eyes of a teenage girl, who was straining to see around the doorway. The door clicked shut.
A man leaned against the door. He was tall and slender, dressed like a riverboat gambler. Royal purple coat, lace at the neck and down the front, straight black pants and boots. A straight-brimmed hat shaded his face, and a gold mask covered everything but his mouth and chin. Dark eyes stared at me through the gold mask.
His tongue danced over his lips and teeth: fangs, a vampire. Why didn't that surprise me?
"I was afraid I would miss you, Executioner." His voice had a Southern thickness.
Winter moved to stand between us. The vampire laughed, a rich barking sound. "The muscle man here thinks he can protect you. Shall I tear him to pieces to prove him wrong?"
"That won't be necessary," I said. Zachary moved up to stand beside me.
"Do you recognize my voice?" the vampire asked.
I shook my head.
"It has been two years. I didn't know until this business came up that you were The Executioner. I thought you died."
"Can we cut to the chase here? Who are you and what do you want?"
"So eager, so impatient, so human." He raised gloved hands and took off his hat. Short, auburn hair framed the gold mask.
"Please don't do this," Zachary said. "The master has ordered me to see the woman safely to her car."
"I don't intend to harm a hair on her head - tonight." The gloves lifted the mask away. The left side of the face was scarred, pitted, melted away. Only his brown eye was still whole and alive, rolling in a circle of pinkish-white scar tissue. Acid burns look like that. Except it hadn't been acid. It had been Holy Water.
I remembered his body pinning me to the ground. His teeth tearing at my arm while I tried to keep him off my throat. The clean sharp snap of bone where he bit through. My screams. His hand forcing my head back. Him rearing to strike. Helpless. He missed the neck; I never knew why. Teeth sank around my collarbone, snapped it. He lapped up my blood like a cat with cream. I lay under his weight listening to him lap up my blood. The broken bones didn't hurt yet; shock. I was beginning not to hurt, not to be afraid. I was beginning to die.
My right hand reached out in the grass and touched something smooth - glass. A vial of Holy Water that had been thrown out of my bag, scattered by the half-human servants. The vampire never looked at me. His face was pressed over the wound. His tongue was exploring the hole he'd made. His teeth grated along the naked bone, and I screamed.
He laughed into my shoulder, laughed while he killed me. I flicked the lid open on the vial and splashed his face. Flesh boiled. His skin popped and bubbled. He knelt over me, clutching his face and shrieking.
I thought he had been trapped in the house when it burned down. I had wanted him dead, wished him dead. I had wished that memory away, pushed it back. Now here he stood, my favorite nightmare come to life.
"What, no scream of horror? No gasp of fright? You disappoint me, Executioner. Don't you admire your own handiwork?"
My voice came out strangled, hushed. "I thought you died."
"Now ya know different. And now I know you're alive, too. How cosy."
He smiled, and the muscles on his scarred cheek pulled the smile to one side, making it a grimace. Even vampires can't heal everything. "Eternity, Executioner, eternity like this." He caressed the scars with a gloved hand.
"What do you want?"
"Be brave, little girl, be brave as you want to be. I can feel your fear. I want to see the scars I gave you, see that you remember me, like I remember you."
"I remember you."
"Scars, girl, show me the scars."
"I show you the scars, then what?"
"Then you go home, or wherever you're going. The master has given strict orders you are not be harmed until after you do your job for us."
He smiled, a broad glistening expanse of teeth. "Then, I hunt you down, and I pay you back for this." He touched his face. "Come, girl, don't be shy, I seen it all before. I tasted your blood. Show me the scars, and the muscle man won't have to die proving how strong he is."
I glanced at Winter. Massive fists were crossed over his chest. His spine nearly vibrated with readiness. The vampire was right; Winter would die trying. I pushed the ripped sleeve above the elbow. A mound of scar tissue decorated the bend in my arm; scars dribbled down from it, like liquid, crisscrossing and flowing down the outer edge of my arm. The cross-shaped burn took up the only clear space on the inside of my forearm.
"I didn't think you'd ever use that arm again, after the way I tore into it."
"Physical therapy is a wonderful thing."
"Ain't no physical therapy gonna help me."
"No," I said. The first button was missing on my blouse. One more and I spread my shirt back to expose the collarbone. Scars ridged it, crawled over it. It looked real attractive in a bathing suit.
"Good," the vampire said. "You smell like cold sweat when you think of me, little girl. I was hoping I haunted you the way you haunted me."
"There is a difference, you know."
"And what might that be?"
"You were trying to kill me. I was defending myself."
"And why had you come to our house? To put stakes through our hearts. You came to our house to kill us. We didn't go hunting for you."
"But you did go hunting for twenty-three other people. That's a lot of people. Your group had to be stopped."
"Who appointed you God? Who made you our executioner?"
I took a deep breath. It was steady, didn't tremble. Brownie point for me. "The police."
"Bah." He spit on the floor. Very appealing. "You work real hard, girl. You find the murderer, then we'll finish up."
"May I go now?"
"By all means. You're safe tonight, because the master says so, but that will change."
Zachary said, "Out the side door." He walked nearly backwards watching the vampire as we moved away. Winter stayed behind, guarding our backs. Idiot.
Zachary opened the door. The night was hot and sticky. Summer wind slapped against my face, humid, and close, and beautiful.
The vampire called, "Remember the name Valentine, 'cause you'll be hearing from me."
Zachary and I walked out the door. It clanged shut behind us. There was no handle on the outside, no way to open it. A one way ticket, out. Out sounded just fine.
We started to walk. "You got a gun with silver bullets in it?" he asked.
"I'd start carrying it if I were you."
"Silver bullets won't kill him."
"But it'll slow him down."
"Yeah." We walked for a few minutes in silence. The warm summer night seemed to slide around us, hold us in sticky, curious hands.
"What I need is a shotgun."
He looked at me. "You going to carry a shotgun with you day after day?"
"Sawed off, it would fit under a coat."
"In the middle of a Missouri summer, you'd melt. Why not a machine gun, or a flamethrower, while you're at it?"
"Machine gun has too wide a spread range. You may hit innocent people. Flamethrower's bulky. Messy, too."
He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. "You've used a flamethrower on vampires before?"
"No, but I saw it used."
"My god." He stared off into space for a moment, then asked, "Did it work?"
"Like a charm; messy, though. And it burned the house down around us. I thought it was a little extreme."
"I'll bet." We started walking again. "You must hate vampires."
"I don't hate them."
"Then why do you kill them?"
"Because it's my job, and I'm good at it." We turned a corner, and I could see the parking lot where I had left my car. It seemed like I had parked my car days ago. My watch said hours. It was a little like jet lag, but instead of crossing time zones, you crossed events. So many traumatic events and your time sense screws up. Too much happening in too short a space of time.
"I'm your daytime contact. If you need anything, or want to give a message, here's my number." He shoved a matchbook into my hand.
I glanced at the matchbook. It read "Circus of the Damned" bleeding red onto a shiny black background. I shoved it in my jeans pocket.
My gun was lying there in my trunk. I slipped into the shoulder rig, not caring that I had no jacket to cover it. A gun out in plain sight attracts attention, but most people leave you alone. They often even start running, clearing a path before you. It made chases very convenient.
Zachary waited until I was sitting in my car. He leaned into the open door. "It can't just be a job, Anita. There's got to be a better reason than that."
I glanced down at my lap and started the car. I looked up into his pale eyes. "I'm afraid of them. It is a very natural human trait to destroy that which frightens us."
"Most people spend their lives avoiding things they fear. You run after them. That's crazy."
He had a point. I closed the door and left him standing in the hot dark. I raised the dead and laid the undead to rest. It was what I did. Who I was. If I ever started questioning my motives, I would stop killing vampires. Simple as that.
I wasn't questioning my motives tonight, so I was still a vampire slayer, still the name they had given me. I was The Executioner.
Dawn slid across the sky like a curtain of light. The morning star glittered like a diamond chip against the easy flow of light.
I had seen two sunrises in as many days. I was beginning to feel grumpy. The trick would be to decide whom to be grumpy at, and what to do about it. Right now all I wanted was to sleep. The rest could wait, would have to wait. I had been running on fear, adrenaline, and stubbornness for hours. In the quiet hush of the car I could feel my body. It was not happy.
It hurt to grip the wheel, hurt to turn it. The bloody scrapes on my hands looked a lot worse than they were, I hoped. My whole body felt stiff. Everybody underrates bruises. They hurt. They would hurt a lot more after I slept on them. There is nothing like waking up the morning after a good beating. It's like a hangover that covers your entire body.
The corridor of my apartment building was hushed. The whir of the air conditioner breathed in the silence. I could almost feel all the people asleep behind the doors. I had an urge to press my ear to one of the doors and see if I could hear my neighbors breathing. So quiet. The hour after dawn is the most private of all. It is a time to be alone and enjoy the silence.
The only hour more hushed is three a.m. and I am not a fan of three a.m.
I had my keys in my hand, had almost touched the door, when I realized it was ajar. A tiny crack, almost closed, but not. I moved to the right of the door and pressed my back against the wall. Had they heard the keys jingling? Who was inside? Adrenaline was flowing like fine champagne. I was alert to every shadow, the way the light fell. My body was in emergency mode, and I hoped to God I didn't need it.
I drew my gun and leaned against the wall. Now what? There was no sound from inside the apartment, nothing. It could be more vampires, but it was nearly true dawn. It wouldn't be vampires. Who else would break into my apartment? I took a deep breath and let it out. I didn't know. Didn't have the faintest idea. You'd think I'd get used to not knowing what the hell is going on, but I never do. It just makes me grumpy, and a little scared.
I had several choices. I could leave and call the police, not a bad choice. But what could they do that I couldn't, except walk in and get killed in my place? That was unacceptable. I could wait in the corridor until whoever it was got curious. That could take a while, and the apartment might be empty. I'd feel pretty stupid standing out here for hours, gun trained on an empty apartment. I was tired, and I wanted to go to bed. Dammit!
I could always just go in, gun blazing. Naw. I could push the door open and be lying on the floor and shoot anyone inside. If they had a gun. If there was anyone inside.
The smart thing would be to outwait them, but I was tired. The adrenaline rush was fading under the frustration of too many choices. There comes a point when you just get tired. I didn't think I could stand out here in the air-conditioned silence and stay alert. I wouldn't fall asleep standing up, but it was a thought. And another hour would see my neighbors up and about, maybe caught in the crossfire. Unacceptable. Whatever was going to happen needed to happen now.
Decision made. Good. Nothing like fear to wash your mind clean. I moved as far from the door as I could and crossed over, gun trained on the door. I moved along the left-hand wall towards the hinge side of the door. It opened in. Just give it a push flat against the wall; simple. Right.
I crouched down on one knee, my shoulders hunched as if I could draw my head down like a turtle. I was betting that any gun would hit above me, chest-high. Crouched down, I was a lot shorter than chest-high.
I shoved the door open with my left hand and hugged the doorsill. It worked like a charm. My gun was pointing at the bad guy's chest. Except his hands were already in the air, and he was smiling at me.
"Don't shoot," he said. "It's Edward."
I knelt there staring at him; anger rose like a warm tide. "You bastard. You knew I was out here."
He steepled his fingers. "I heard the keys."
I stood, eyes searching the room. Edward had moved my white overstuffed chair to face the door. Nothing else seemed to be moved.
"I assure you, Anita, I am quite alone."
"That I believe. Why didn't you call out to me?"
"I wanted to see if you were still good. I could have blown you away when you hesitated in front of the door, with your keys jingling so nicely."
I shut the door behind me and locked it, though truthfully with Edward inside I might have been safer locking myself out rather than in. He was not an imposing man, not frightening, if you didn't know him. He was five-eight, slender, blond, blue-eyed, charming. But if I was The Executioner, he was Death itself. He was the person I had seen use a flamethrower.
I had worked with him before, and heaven knows you felt safe with him. He carried more firepower than Rambo, but he was a little too careless of innocent bystanders. He began life as a hit man. That much the police knew. I think humans became too easy so he switched to vampires and lycanthropes. And I knew that if a time came where it was more expedient to kill me than to be my "friend," he would do it. Edward had no conscience. It made him the perfect killer.
"I've been up all bloody night, Edward. I'm not in the mood for your games."
"How hurt are you?"
I shrugged and winced. "The hands are sore, bruises mostly. I'm all right."
"Your night secretary said you were out at a bachelorette party." He grinned at me, eyes sparkling. "It must have been some party-"
"I ran into a vampire you might know."
He raised his yellow eyebrows and made a silent "Oh" with his lips.
"Remember the house you nearly roasted down around us?"
"About two years ago. We killed six vampires, and two human servants."
I walked past him and flopped onto the couch. "We missed one."
"No, we didn't." His voice was very precise. Edward at his most dangerous.
I looked at the carefully cut back of his head. "Trust me on this one, Edward. He damn near killed me tonight." Which was a partial truth, also known as a lie. If the vampires didn't want me to tell the police, they certainly didn't want Death to know. Edward was a whole lot more dangerous to them than the police.
"The one who nearly tore me to pieces. He calls himself Valentine. He's still wearing the acid scars I gave him."
Edward came to sit beside me on the couch. He kept to one end, a careful distance. "Tell me." His eyes were intense on my face.
I looked away. "There isn't much left to tell."
"You're lying, Anita. Why?"
I stared at him, anger coming in a rush. I hate to be caught in a lie. "There have been some vampires murdered down along the river. How long have you been in town, Edward?"
He smiled then, though at what I wasn't sure. "Not long. I heard a rumor that you got to meet the city's head vampire tonight."
I couldn't stop it. My mouth fell open; the surprise was too much to hide. "How the hell do you know that?"
He gave a graceful shrug. "I have my sources."
"No vampire would talk to you, not willingly."
Again that shrug that said everything and nothing at all.
"What have you done tonight, Edward?"
"What have you done tonight, Anita?"
Touch¨¦, Mexican standoff, whatever. "Why have you come to me then? What do you want?"
"I want the location of the master vampire. The daytime resting place."
I had recovered enough so that my face was bland, no surprise here. "How would I know that?"
"Do you know?"
"No." I stood up. "I'm tired, and I want to go to bed. If there's nothing else?"
He stood, too, still smiling, like he knew I had lied. "I'll be in touch. If you do happen to run across the information I need . . ." He let the sentence trail off and started for the door.
He half-turned to me.
"Do you have a sawed-off shotgun?"
His eyebrows went up again. "I could get one for you."
"No, a gift."
"I can't tell you."
"But you do know?"
"Edward . . ."
"How deep are you in, Anita?"
"Eye level and sinking fast."
"I could help you."
"Would helping you allow me to kill more vampires?"
He grinned at me, brilliant, heart-stopping. The grin was his very best harmless good ol' boy smile. I could never decide whether the smile was real or just another mask. Would the real Edward please stand up? Probably not.
"I enjoy hunting vampires. Let me in on it if you can."
He paused with a hand on the doorknob. "I hope I have more luck with my other sources than I did with you."
"What happens if you can't find the location from someone else?"
"Why, I come back."
"And you will tell me what I want to know. Won't you?" He was still grinning at me, charming, boyish. He was also talking about torturing me if he had to.
I swallowed, hard. "Give me a few days, Edward, and I might have your information."
"Good. I'll bring the shotgun later today. If you're not home, I'll leave it on the kitchen table."
I didn't ask how he'd get inside if I wasn't home. He would only have smiled or laughed. Locks weren't much of a deterrent to Edward. "Thank you. For the shotgun, I mean."
"My pleasure, Anita. Until tomorrow." He stepped out the door, and it closed behind him.
Great. Vampires, now Edward. The day was about fifteen minutes old. Not a very promising beginning. I locked the door, for what good it would do me, and went to bed. The Browning Hi-Power was in its second home, a modified holster strapped to the headboard of my bed. The crucifix was cool metal around my neck. I was as safe as I was going to be and almost too tired to care.
I took one more thing to bed with me, a stuffed toy penguin named Sigmund. I don't sleep with him often, just every once in a while after someone tries to kill me. Everyone has their weaknesses. Some people smoke. I collect stuffed penguins. If you won't tell, I won't.