The door to the other office opened. A tall, blonde woman stepped through. She was somewhere between forty and fifty. Tailored golden pants encircled a slender waist. A sleeveless blouse the color of an eggshell exposed tanned arms, a gold Rolex watch, and a wedding band encircled with diamonds. The rock in the engagement ring must have weighed a pound. I bet she hadn't even blinked when Jamison talked price.
The boy that followed her was also slender and blond. He looked about fifteen, but I knew he had to be at least eighteen. Legally, you cannot join the Church of Eternal Life unless you are of age. He couldn't drink legally yet, but he could choose to die and live forever. Funny, how that didn't make much sense to me.
Jamison brought up the rear, smiling, solicitous. He was talking softly to the boy as he walked them towards the door.
I got a business card out of my purse. I held it out towards the woman. She looked at it, then at me. Her gaze slid over me from top to bottom. She didn't seem impressed; maybe it was the shirt. "Yes," she said.
Breeding. It takes real breeding to make a person feel like shit with one word. Of course, it didn't bother me. No, the great golden goddess did not make me feel small and grubby. Right. "The number on this card is for a man who specializes in vampire cults. He's good."
"I do not want my son brainwashed."
I managed a smile. Raymond Fields was my vampire cult expert, and he didn't do brainwashing. He did do truth, no matter how unpleasant. "Mr. Fields will give you the potential down side of vampirism," I said.
"I believe Mr. Clarke has given us all the information we need."
I raised my arm near her face. "1 didn't get these scars playing touch football. Please, take the card. Call him, or not. It's up to you."
She was a little pale under her expert makeup. Her eyes were a little wide, staring at my arm. "Vampires did this?" Her voice was small and breathy, almost human.
"Yes," I said.
Jamison took her elbow. "Mrs. Franks, I see you've met our resident vampire slayer."
She looked at him, then back at me. Her careful face was beginning to crumble. She licked her lips and turned back to me. "Really." She was recovering quickly; she sounded superior again.
I shrugged. What could I say? I pressed the card into her manicured hand, and Jamison tactfully took it from her and pocketed it. But she had let him. What could I do? Nothing. I had tried. Period. Over. But I stared at her son. His face was incredibly young.
I remembered when eighteen was grown-up. I had thought I knew everything. I was about twenty-one when I figured out I knew dip-wad. I still knew nothing, but I tried real hard. Sometimes, that is the best you can do. Maybe the best anyone can do. Boy, Miss Cynical in the morning.
Jamison was ushering them towards the door. I caught a few sentences. "She was trying to kill them. They merely defended themselves."
Yeah, that's me, hit person for the undead. Scourge of the graveyard. Right. I left Jamison to his half-truths and went into the office. I still needed the files. Life goes on, at least for me. I couldn't stop seeing the boy's face, the wide eyes. His face had been all golden tan, baby smooth. Shouldn't you at least have to shave before you can kill yourself?
I shook my head as if I could shake the boy's face away. It almost worked. I was kneeling with the folders in my hands when Jamison came in the office. He shut the door behind him. I had thought he might.
His skin was the color of dark honey, his eyes pale green; long, tight curls framed his face. The hair was almost auburn. Jamison was the first green-eyed, red-haired black man I had ever met. He was slender, lean, not the thinness of exercise but of lucky genetics. Jamison's idea of a workout was lifting shot glasses at a good party.
"Don't ever do that again," he said.
"Do what?" I stood with the files clasped to my chest.
He shook his head and almost smiled, but it was an angry smile, a flash of small white teeth. "Don't be a smart ass."
"Sorry," I said.
"Bullshit, you're not sorry."
"About trying to give Fields's card to the woman, no. I'm not sorry. I'd do it again."
"I don't like to be undermined in front of my clients."
"I mean it, Anita. Don't ever do that again."
I wanted to ask him, or what, but I didn't. "You aren't qualified to counsel people about whether or not they become the undead."
"Bert thinks I am."
"Bert would take money for a hit on the Pope if he thought he could get away with it."
Jamison smiled, then frowned at me, then couldn't help himself and smiled again. "You do have a way with words."
"Don't undermine me with clients, okay?"
"I promise never to interfere when you are discussing raising the dead."
"That isn't good enough," he said.
"It's the best you're going to get. You are not qualified to counsel people. It's wrong."
"Little Miss Perfect. You murder people for money. You're nothing but a damned assassin."
I took a deep breath, and let it out. I would not fight with him today. "I execute criminals with the full blessing of the law."
"Yeah, but you enjoy it. You get your jollies by pounding in the stakes. You can't go a fucking week without bathing in someone's blood."
I just stared at him. "Do you really believe that?" I asked.
He wouldn't look at me but finally said, "I don't know."
"Poor little vampires, poor misunderstood creatures. Right? The one who branded me slaughtered twenty-three people before the courts would give me the go-ahead." I yanked my shirt down to expose the collarbone scar. "This vampire had killed ten people. He specialized in little boys, said their meat was most tender. He's not dead, Jamison. He got away. But he found me last night and threatened my life."
"You don't understand them."
"No!" I shoved a finger in his chest. "You don't understand them."
He glared down at me, nostrils flaring, breath coming in warm gasps. I stepped back. I shouldn't have touched him; that was against the rules. You never touch anyone in a fight unless you want violence.
"I'm sorry, Jamison." I don't know if he understood what I was apologizing for. He didn't say anything.
As I walked past him, he asked, "What are the files for?"
I hesitated, but he knew the files as well as I did. He'd know what was missing. "The vampire murders."
We turned towards each other at the same moment. Staring. "You took the money?" he asked.
That stopped me. "You knew about it?"
He nodded. "Bert tried to get them to hire me in your place. They wouldn't go for it."
"And after all the good PR you've given them."
"I told Bert you wouldn't do it. That you wouldn't work for vampires."
His slightly up-tilted eyes were studying my face, searching, trying to squeeze some truth out. I ignored him, my face a pleasant blankness. "Money talks, Jamison, even to me."
"You don't give a damn about money."
"Awful shortsighted of me, isn't it?" I said.
"I always thought so. You didn't do it for money." A statement. "What was it?"
I didn't want Jamison in on this. He thought vampires were fanged people. And they were very careful to keep him on the nice, clean fringes. He never got his hands dirty, so he could afford to pretend or ignore, or even lie to himself. I had gotten dirty once too often. Lying to yourself was a good way to die. "Look, Jamison, we don't agree on vampires, but anything that can kill vampires could make meat pies out of human beings. I want to catch the maniac before he, she, or it, does just that."
It wasn't a bad lie, as lies go. It was even plausible. He blinked at me. Whether he believed me or not would depend on how much he needed to believe me. How much he needed his world to stay safe and clean. He nodded, once, very slowly. "You think you can catch something the master vampires can't catch?"
"They seem to think so." I opened the door and he followed me out. Maybe he would have asked more questions, maybe not, but a voice interrupted.
"Anita, are you ready to go?"
We both turned, and I must have looked as puzzled as Jamison.
I wasn't meeting anyone.
There was a man sitting in one of the lobby chairs, half-lost in the jungle plants. I didn't recognize him at first. Thick brown hair, cut short, stretched back from a very nice face. Black sunglasses hid the eyes. He turned his head and spoiled the illusion of short hair. A thick ponytail curled over his collar. He was wearing a blue denim jacket with the collar up. A blood-red tank top set off his tan. He stood slowly, smiled, and removed his glasses.
It was Phillip of the many scars. I hadn't recognized him with his clothes on. There was a bandage on the side of his neck, mostly hidden by the jacket collar. "We need to talk," he said.
I closed my mouth and tried to look reasonably intelligent. "Phillip, I didn't expect to see you so soon."
Jamison was looking from one to the other of us. He was frowning. Suspicious. Mary was sitting, chin leaning on her hands, enjoying the show.
The silence was damn awkward. Phillip put a hand out to Jamison. I mumbled. "Jamison Clarke, this is Phillip...a friend." The moment I said it, I wanted to take it back. "Friend" is what people call their lovers. Beats the heck out of significant other.
Jamison smiled broadly. "So, you're Anita's...friend." He said the last word slowly, rolling it around on his tongue.
Mary made a hubba-hubba motion with one hand. Phillip saw it and flashed her a dazzling melt-your-libido smile. She blushed.
"Well, we have to go now. Come along, Phillip." I grabbed his arm and began pulling him towards the door.
"Nice to meet you, Phillip," Jamison said. "I'll be sure to mention you to all the rest of the guys who work here. I'm sure they'd love to meet you sometime."
Jamison was really enjoying himself. "We're very busy right now, Jamison. Maybe some other time," I said.
"Sure, sure," he said.
Jamison walked us to the door and held it for us. He grinned at us as we walked down the hallway, arm in arm. Fudge buckets. I had to let the smirking little creep think I had a lover. Good grief. And he would tell everyone. Phillip slid his arm around my waist, and I fought an urge to push him away. We were pretending, right, right. I felt him hesitate as his hand brushed the gun on my belt.
We met one of the real estate agents in the hall. She said hello to me but stared at Phillip. He smiled at her. When we passed her and were waiting for the elevator, I glanced back. Sure enough, she was watching his backside as we walked away.
I had to admit it was a nice backside. She caught me looking at her and hurriedly turned away.
"Defending my honor," Phillip asked.
I pushed away from him and punched the elevator button. "What are you doing here?"
"Jean-Claude didn't come back last night. Do you know why?"
"I didn't do away with him, if that's what you're implying."
The doors opened. Phillip leaned against them, holding them open with his body and one arm. The smile he flashed me was full of potential, a little evil, a lot of sex. Did I really want to be alone in an elevator with him? Probably not, but I was armed. He, as far as I could tell, was not.
I walked under his arm without having to duck. The doors hushed behind us. We were alone. He leaned into one comer, arms crossed over his chest, staring at me from behind black lenses.
"Do you always do that?" I asked.
A slight smile. "Do what?"
He stiffened just a little, then relaxed against the wall. "Natural talent."
I shook my head. "Uh-huh." I stared at the flickering floor numbers.
"Is Jean-Claude all right?"
I glanced at him and didn't know what to say. The elevator stopped. We got out. "You didn't answer me," he said softly.
I sighed. It was too long a story. "It's almost noon. I'll tell you what I can over lunch."
He grinned. "Trying to pick me up, Ms. Blake?"
I smiled before I could stop myself. "You wish."
"Maybe," he said.
"Flirtatious little thing, aren't you?"
"Most women like it."
"I would like it better if I didn't think you'd flirt with my ninety-year-old grandmother the same way you're flirting with me now."
He coughed back a laugh. "You don't have a very high opinion of me."
"I am a very judgmental person. It's one of my faults."
He laughed again, a nice sound. "Maybe I can hear about the rest of your faults after you've told me where Jean-Claude is."
"I don't think so."
I stopped just in front of the glass doors that led out into the street. "Because I saw you last night. I know what you are, and I know how you get your kicks."
His hand reached out and brushed my shoulder. "I get my kicks a lot of different ways."
I frowned at his hand, and it moved away. "Save it, Phillip. I'm not buying."
"Maybe by the end of lunch you will be."
I sighed. I had met men like Phillip before, handsome men who are accustomed to women drooling over them. He wasn't trying to seduce me; he just wanted me to admit that I found him attractive. If I didn't admit it, he would keep pestering me. "I give up; you win."
"What do I win?" he asked.
"You're wonderful, you're gorgeous. You are one of the best looking men I have ever seen. From the soles of your boots, the length of your skin-tight jeans, to the flat, rippling plains of your stomach, to the sculpted line of your jaw, you are beautiful. Now can we go to lunch and cut the nonsense?"
He lowered his sunglasses just enough to see over the top of them. He stared at me like that for several minutes, then raised the glasses back in place. "You pick the restaurant." He said it flat, no teasing.
I wondered if I had offended him. I wondered if I cared.
The heat outside the doors was solid, a wall of damp warmth that melded to your skin like plastic wrap. "You're going to melt wearing that jacket," I said.
"Most people object to the scars."
I unfolded my arms from around the folders and extended my left arm. The scar glistened in the sunlight, shinier than the other skin. "I won't tell if you won't."
He slipped off his sunglasses and stared at me. I couldn't read his face. All I knew was that something was going on behind those big brown eyes. His voice was soft. "Is that your only bite scar?"
"No," I said.
His hands convulsed into fists, neck jerking, as if he'd had a jolt of electricity. A tremor ran up his arms into his shoulders, along his spine. He rotated his neck, as if to get rid of it. He slipped the black lenses back on his face, his eyes anonymous. The jacket came off. The scars at the bend of his arms were pale against his tan. The collarbone scar peeked from under the edges of the tank top. He had a nice neck, thick but not muscled, a stretch of smooth, tanned skin. I counted four sets of bites on that flawless skin. That was just the right side. The left was hidden by a bandage.
"I can put the jacket back on," he said.
I had been staring at him. "No, it's just . . ."
"It's none of my business."
"Why do you do what you do?"
He smiled, but it was twisted, a wry smile. "That is a very personal question."
"You did say ask anyway." I glanced across the street. "I usually go to Mabel's, but we might be seen."
"Ashamed of me?" His voice held a harsh edge to it, like sandpaper. His eyes were hidden, but his jaw muscles were clenched.
"It isn't that," I said. "You are the one who came into the office, pretending to be my 'friend'. If we go some place I'm known, we'll have to continue the charade."
"There are women who would pay to have me escort them."
"I know, I saw them last night at the club."
"True, but the point is still that you're ashamed to be seen with me. Because of this." His hand touched his neck, tentatively, delicate as a bird.
I got the distinct impression I had hurt his feelings. That didn't bother me, not really. But I knew what it was like to be different. I knew what it was like to be an embarrassment to people who should have known better. I knew better. It wasn't Phillip's feelings but the principle of the thing. "Let's go."
"Thank you," he said. He rewarded me with one of those brilliant smiles. If I had been less professional, it might have melted me into my socks. There was a tinge of evil to it, a lot of sex, but under that was a little boy peeking out, an uncertain little boy. That was it. That was the attraction. Nothing is more appealing than a handsome man who is also uncertain of himself.
It appeals not only to the woman in us all, but the mother. A dangerous combination. Luckily, I was immune. Sure. Besides, I had seen Phillip's idea of sex. He was definitely not my type.
Mabel's is a cafeteria, but the food is wonderful and reasonably priced. On weekdays the place is filled to the brim with suits and business skirts, thin little briefcases, and manila file folders. On Saturdays it was nearly deserted.
Beatrice smiled at me from behind the steaming food. She was tall and plump with brown hair and a tired face. Her pink uniform didn't fit well through the shoulders, and the hairnet made her face look too long. But she always smiled, and we always spoke.
"Hi, Beatrice." And without waiting to be asked, "This is Phillip."
"Hi, Phillip," she said.
He gave her a smile every bit as dazzling as he had given the real estate agent. She flushed, averted her eyes, and giggled. I hadn't known Beatrice could do that. Did she notice the scars? Did it matter to her?
It was too hot for meat loaf, but I ordered it anyway. It was always moist and the catsup sauce just tangy enough. I even got dessert, which I almost never do. I was starving. We managed to pay and find a table without Phillip flirting with anyone else. A major accomplishment.
"What has happened to Jean-Claude?" he asked.
"One more minute." I said grace over my food. He was staring at me when I looked up. We ate, and I told him an edited version of last night. Mostly, I told him about Jean-Claude and Nikolaos and the punishment.
He had stopped eating by the time I finished. He was staring over my head, at nothing that I could see. "Phillip?" I asked.
He shook his head and looked at me. "She could kill him."
"I got the impression she was just going to punish him. Do you know what that would be?"
He nodded, voice soft, saying, "She traps them in coffins and uses crosses to hold them inside. Aubrey disappeared for three months. When I saw him again, he was like he is now. Crazy."
I shivered. Would Jean-Claude go crazy? I picked up my fork and found myself halfway through a piece of blackberry pie. I hate blackberries. Damn, I treat myself to pie and get the wrong kind. What was the matter with me? The taste was still warm and thick in my mouth. I took a big swig of Coke to wash it down. The Coke didn't help much.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
I pushed the half-eaten pie away and opened one of the folders. The first victim, one Maurice no last name, had lived with a woman named Rebecca Miles. They had cohabited for five years. "Cohabited" sounded better than "shacked up." "I'll talk to friends and lovers of the dead vampires."
"I might know the names."
I stared at him, debating. I didn't want to share information with him because I knew good ol' Phillip was the daytime eyes and ears of the undead. Yet, when I had talked to Rebecca Miles in the company of the police, she had told us zip. I didn't have time to wade through crap. I needed information and fast. Nikolaos wanted results. And what Nikolaos wanted, Nikolaos damn well better get.
"Rebecca Miles," I said.
"I know her. She was Maurice's property." He shrugged an apology at the word, but he let it stand. And I wondered what he meant by it. "Where do we go first?" he asked.
"Nowhere. I don't want a civilian along while I work."
"I might be able to help."
"No offense, you look strong and maybe even quick, but that isn't enough. Do you know how to fight? Do you carry a gun?"
"No gun, but I can handle myself."
I doubted that. Most people don't react well to violence. It freezes them. There are a handful of seconds where the body hesitates, the mind doesn't understand. Those few seconds can get you killed. The only way to kill the hesitation is practice. Violence has to become a part of your thinking. It makes you cautious, suspicious as hell, and lengthens your life expectancy. Phillip was familiar with violence, but only as the victim. I didn't need a professional victim tagging along. Yet, I needed information from people who wouldn't want to talk to me. They might talk to Phillip.
I didn't expect to run into a gun battle in broad daylight. Nor did I really expect anyone to jump me, at least not today. I've been wrong before but...If Phillip could help me, I saw no harm in it. As long as he didn't flash that smile at the wrong time and get molested by nuns, we would be safe.
"If someone threatens me, can you stay out of it and let me do my job, or would you charge in and try to save me?" I asked.
"Oh," he said. He stared down at his drink for a few minutes. "I don't know."
Brownie point for him. Most people would have lied. "Then I'd rather you didn't come."
"How are you going to convince Rebecca you work for the master vampire of this city? The Executioner working for vampires?"
It sounded ridiculous even to me. "I don't know."
He smiled. "Then it's settled. I'll come along and help calm the waters."
"I didn't agree to that."
"You didn't say no, either."
He had a point. I sipped my Coke and looked at his smug face for perhaps a minute. He said nothing, only stared back. His face was neutral, no challenge to it. There was no contest of egos as with Bert. "Let's go," I said.
We stood. I left a tip. We went off in search of clues.