Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #1) - Page 11/24

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Chapter 22

Dead Dave's is all dark glass and glowing beer signs. At night the front windows look like some sort of modern art, featuring brand names. In the daylight everything is muted. Bars are sort of like vampires; they are at their best after dark. There is something tired and wistful about a daytime bar.

The air conditioning was up full blast, like the inside of a freezer. It was almost a physical jolt after the skin-melting heat outside. I stood just inside the door and waited for my eyes to adjust to the twilight interior. Why are all bars so damn dark, like caves, places to hide? The air smelled of stale cigarettes no matter when you came in, as if years of smoke had settled into the upholstery, like aromatic ghosts.

Two guys in business suits were settled at the farthest booth from the door. They were eating and had manila folders spread across the table top. Working on a Saturday. Just like me, well, maybe not just like me. I was betting that no one had threatened to tear their throats out. Of course, I could be wrong, but I doubted it. I was betting the worst threat they had had this week was lack of job security. Ah, the good old days.

There was a man crouched on a bar stool, nursing a tall drink. His face was already slack, his movements very slow and precise, as if he were afraid he'd spill something. Drunk at one-thirty in the afternoon; not a good sign for him. But it wasn't my business. You can't save everybody. In fact, there are days when I think you can't save anyone. Each person has to save himself first, then you can move in and help. I have found this philosophy does not work during a gun battle, or a knife fight either. Outside of that it works just fine.

Luther was polishing glasses with a very clean white towel. He looked up when I slipped up on the bar stool. He nodded, a cigarette dangling from his thick lips. Luther is large, nay, fat. There is no other word for it, but it is hard fat, rock-solid, almost a kind of muscle. His hands are huge-knuckled and as big as my face. Of course, my face is small. He is a very dark black man, nearly purplish black, like mahogany. The creamy chocolate of his eyes is yellow-edged from too much cigarette smoke. I don't think I have ever seen Luther without a cig clasped between his lips. He is overweight, chain-smokes, and the grey in his hair marks him as over fifty, yet he's never sick. Good genetics, I guess.

"What'll it be, Anita?" His voice matched his body, deep and gravelly.

"The usual."

He poured me a short glass of orange juice. Vitamins. We pretended it was a screwdriver, so my penchant for sobriety wouldn't give the bar a bad name. Who wants to get drunk when there are teetotalers in the crowd? And why in the world would I keep coming to a bar if I didn't drink?

I sipped my fake screwdriver and said, "I need some info."

"Figured that. Whatcha need?"

"I need information on a man named Phillip, dances at Guilty Pleasures."

One thick eyebrow raised. "Vamp?"

I shook my head. "Vampire junkie."

He took a big drag on his cig, making the end glow like a live coal. He blew a huge puff of smoke politely away from me. "Whatcha want to know about him?"

"Is he trustworthy?"

He stared at me for a heartbeat, then he grinned. "Trustworthy? Hell, Anita, he's a junkie. Don't matter what he's strung out on, drugs, liquor, sex, vampires, no diff. No junkie is trustworthy, you know that."

I nodded. I did know that, but what could I do? "I have to trust him, Luther. He's all I got."

"Damn, girl, you are moving in the wrong circles."

I smiled. Luther was the only person I let call me girl. All women were "girl," all men "fella." "I need to know if you've heard anything really bad about him," I said.

"What are you up to?" he asked.

"I can't say. I'd share it if I could, or if I thought it would do any good."

He studied me for a moment, cig dribbling ash onto the countertop. He wiped up the ash absentmindedly with his clean white towel. "Okay, Anita, you've earned the right to say no, this once, but next time you better have something to share."

I smiled. "Cross my heart."

He just shook his head and pulled a fresh cigarette out of the pack he always kept behind the bar. He took one last drag of the nearly burned cig, then clasped the fresh one between his lips. He put the glowing orange end of the old cig against the fresh white tip and sucked air. The paper and tobacco caught, flared orange-red, and he stubbed out the old cig in the already full ashtray he carried with him from place to place, like a teddy bear.

"I know they got a dancer down at the club that is a freak. He does the party circuit and is reeeal popular with a certain sort of vamp." Luther shrugged, a massive movement like mountains hiccuping. "Don't have no dirt on him, 'cept he's a junkie, and he does the circuit. Shit, Anita, that's bad enough. Sounds like someone to stay away from."

"I would if I could." It was my turn to shrug. "But you haven't heard anything else about him?"

He thought for a moment, sucking on his new cigarette. "No, not a word. He ain't a big player in the district. He's a professional victim. Most of the talk is about the predators down here, not the sheep." He frowned. "Just a minute. I got something, an idea." He thought very carefully for a few minutes, then smiled broadly. "Yeah, got some news on a predator. Vamp calls himself Valentine, wears a mask. He been bragging that he did ol' Phillip the first time."

"So," I said.

"Not the first time he was a junkie, girl, the first time period. Valentine claims he jumped the boy when he was small, did him good. Claims ol' Phillip liked it so much that's why he's a junkie."

"Dear God." I remembered the nightmares, the reality, of Valentine. What would it have been like to have been small when it happened? What would it have done to me?

"You know Valentine?" Luther asked.

I nodded. "Yeah. He ever say how old Phillip was when the attack took place?"

He shook his head. "No, but word is anything over twelve is too old for Valentine, 'less it's revenge. He's a real big one for revenge. Word is if the master didn't keep him in line, he'd be damn dangerous."

"You bet your sweet ass he's dangerous."

"You know him." It wasn't a question.

I looked up at Luther. "I need to know where Valentine stays during the day."

"That's two bits of information for nuthin'. I don't think so."

"He wears a mask because I doused him with Holy Water about two years ago. Until last night I thought he was dead, and he thought the same about me. He's going to kill me, if he can."

"You awful hard to kill, Anita."

"There's a first time, Luther, and that's all it takes."

"I hear that." He started polishing already clean glasses. "I don't know. Word gets out we giving you daytime resting places, it could go bad for us. They could burn this place to the ground with us inside."

"You're right. I don't have a right to ask." But I sat there on the bar stool, staring at him, willing him to give me what I needed. Risk your life for me old buddy ol' pal, I'd do the same for you. Riiight.

"If you could swear you wouldn't use the info to kill him, I could tell you," Luther said.

"It'd be a lie."

"You got a warrant to kill him?" he asked.

"Not active, but I could get one."

"Would you wait for it?"

"It's illegal to kill a vampire without a court order of execution," I said.

He stared at me. "That ain't the question. Would you jump the gun to make sure of the kill?"

"Might."

He shook his head. "You gonna be up on charges one of these days, girl. Murder is a serious rap."

I shrugged. "Beats getting your throat torn out."

He blinked. "Well, now." He didn't seem to know what to say, so he polished a sparkling glass over and over in his big hands. "I'll have to ask Dave. If he says it's okay, you can have it."

I finished my orange juice and paid up, a little heavy on the tip to keep things aboveboard. Dave would never admit he helped me because of my tie with the police, so money had to exchange hands, even if it wasn't nearly what the information was worth. "Thanks, Luther."

"Word on the street is that you met the master last night. That true?"

"You know about that before or after the fact?" I asked.

He looked pained. "Anita, we woulda told you if we'd known, gratis."

I nodded. "Sorry, Luther, it's been a rough few nights."

"I'll bet. So the rumor's true?"

What could I say? Deny it? A lot of people seemed to know. I guess you can't even trust the dead to keep a secret. "Maybe." I might as well have said yes, because I didn't say no. Luther understood the game. He nodded. "What did they want with you?"

"Can't say."

"Mmm...uh. Okay, Anita, you be damn careful. You might wanta get some help, if there's anybody you can trust."

Trust? It wasn't lack of trust. "There may be only two ways out of this mess, Luther. Death would be my choice. A quick death would be best, but I doubt I'll get the chance if things go bad. What friend am I supposed to drag into that?"

His round, dark face stared at me. "I don't have no answers, girl. I wish I did."

"So do I."

The phone rang. Luther answered it. He looked at me and carried the phone down on its long cord. "For you," he said.

I cradled the phone against my cheek. "Yes."

"It's Ronnie." Her voice was suppressed excitement, a kid on Christmas morning.

My stomach tightened. "You have something?"

"There is a rumor going around Humans Against Vampires. A death squad designed to wipe the vampires off the face of the earth."

"You have proof, a witness?"

"Not yet."

I sighed before I could stop myself.

"Come on, Anita, this is good news."

I cupped my hand over the phone and whispered, "I can't take a rumor about HAV to the master. The vampires would slaughter them. A lot of innocent people would get killed, and we're not even sure that HAV is really behind the murders."

"All right, all right," Ronnie said. "I'll have something more concrete by tomorrow, I promise. Bribe or threat, I'll get the information."

"Thanks, Ronnie."

"What are friends for? Besides, Bert's going to have to pay for overtime and bribes. I always love the look of pain when he has to part with money."

I grinned into the phone. "Me, too."

"What are you doing tonight?"

"Going to a party."

"What?"

I explained as briefly as I could. After a long silence she said, "That is very freaky."

I agreed with her. "You keep working your end, I'll try from this side. Maybe we'll meet in the middle."

"It'd be nice to think so." Her voice sounded warm, almost angry.

"What's wrong?"

"You're going in without backup, aren't you?" she asked.

"You're alone," I said.

"But I'm not surrounded by vampires and freakazoids."

"If you're at HAV headquarters, that last is debatable."

"Don't be cute. You know what I mean."

"Yes, Ronnie, I know what you mean. You are the only friend I have who can handle herself." I shrugged, realized she couldn't see it, and said, "Anybody else would be like Catherine, sheep among wolves, and you know it."

"What about another animator?"

"Who? Jamison thinks vampires are nifty. Bert talks a good game, but he doesn't endanger his lily white ass. Charles is a good enough corpse-raiser, but he's squeamish, and he's got a four-year-old kid. Manny doesn't hunt vampires anymore. He spent four months in the hospital being put back together after his last hunt."

"If I remember correctly, you were in the hospital, too," she said.

"A broken arm and a busted collarbone were my worst injuries, Ronnie. Manny almost died. Besides, he's got a wife and four kids."

Manny had been the animator who trained me. He taught me how to raise the dead, and how to slay vampires. Though admittedly I had expanded on Manny's teachings. He was a traditionalist, a stake-and-garlic man. He had carried a gun, but as backup, not as a primary tool. If modern technology will allow me to take out a vampire from a distance, rather than straddling its waist and pounding a stake through its heart, heh, why not?

Two years ago, Rosita, Manny's wife, had come to me and begged me not to endanger her husband anymore. Fifty-two was too old to hunt vampires, she had said. What would happen to her and the children? Somehow I had gotten all the blame, like a mother whose favorite child had been led astray by the neighborhood ruffians. She had made me swear before God that I would never again ask Manny to join me on a hunt. If she hadn't cried, I would have held out, refused. Crying was damned unfair in a fight. Once a person started to cry, you couldn't talk anymore. You suddenly just wanted them to stop crying, stop hurting, stop making you feel like the biggest scum-bucket in the world. Anything to stop the tears.

Ronnie was quiet on the other end of the phone. "All right, but you be careful."

"Careful as a virgin on her wedding night, I promise."

She laughed. "You are incorrigible."

"Everybody tells me that," I said.

"Watch your back."

"You do the same."

"I will." She hung up. The phone buzzed dead in my hands.

"Good news?" Luther asked.

"Yeah." Humans Against Vampires had a death squad. Maybe. But maybe was better than what I'd had before. Look, folks, nothing up my sleeves, nothing in my pockets, no idea in hell what I was doing. Just blundering around trying to track down a killer that has taken out two master vampires. If I was on the right track, I'd attract attention soon. Which meant someone might try to kill me. Wouldn't that be fun?

I would need clothes that showed off my vampire scars and allowed me to hide weapons. It would not be an easy combination to find.

I would have to spend the afternoon shopping. I hate to shop. I consider it one of life's necessary evils, like brussels sprouts and high-heeled shoes. Of course, it beat the heck out of having my life threatened by vampires. But wait; we could go shopping now and be threatened by vampires in the evening. A perfect way to spend a Saturday night.

Chapter 23

I transferred all the smaller bags into one big bag, to leave one hand free for my gun. You'd be amazed what a nice target you make juggling two armloads of shopping bags. First drop the bags - that is if one of the handles isn't tangled over your wrist - then reach for your gun, pull, aim, fire. By the time you do all that the bad guy has shot you twice and is walking away humming Dixie between his teeth.

I had been downright paranoid all afternoon, aware of everyone near me. Was I being followed? Had that man looked too long at me? Was that woman wearing a scarf around her neck because she had bite marks?

By the time I went for the car, my neck and shoulders were knotted into one painful ache. The most frightening thing I'd seen all afternoon had been the prices on the designer clothing.

The world was still bright blue and heat-soaked when I went for my car. It's easy to forget the passage of time in a mall. It is air conditioned, climate controlled, a private world where nothing real touches you. Disneyland for shopaholics.

I shut my packages in the trunk and watched the sky darken. I knew what fear felt like, a leaden balloon in the pit of your gut. A nice, quiet dread.

I shrugged to loosen my shoulders. Rotated my neck until it popped. Better, but still tight. I needed some aspirin. I had eaten in the mall, something I almost never did. The moment I smelled the food stalls, I had gone for them, starved.

The pizza had tasted like thin cardboard with imitation tomato paste spread over it. The cheese had been rubbery and tasteless. Yum, yum, mall food. Truth is, I love Corn Dog on a Stick and Mrs. Field's Cookies.

I got one piece of pizza with just cheese, the way I like it, but one piece with everything. I hate mushrooms and green peppers.

Sausage belongs on the breakfast table, not on pizza. I didn't know which bothered me more; that I ordered it in the first place, or that I had eaten half of it before I realized what I was doing. I was craving food that I normally hated. Why? One more question without an answer. Why did this one scare me?

My neighbor, Mrs. Pringle, was walking her dog back and forth on the grass in front of our apartment building. I parked and unloaded my one overstuffed bag from the trunk.

Mrs. Pringle is over sixty, nearly six feet tall, stretched too thin with age. Her faded blue eyes are bright and curious behind silver-rimmed glasses. Her dog Custard is a Pomeranian. He looks like a golden dandelion fluff with cat feet.

Mrs. Pringle waved at me, and I was trapped. I smiled and walked over to them. Custard began jumping up on me, like he had springs in his tiny legs. He looked like a wind-up toy. His yapping was frequent and insistent, joyous.

Custard knows I don't like him, and in his twisted doggy mind he is determined to win me over. Or maybe he just knows it irritates me. Whatever.

"Anita, you naughty girl, why didn't you tell me you had a beau?" Mrs. Pringle asked.

I frowned. "A beau?"

"A boyfriend," she said.

I didn't know what in the world she was talking about. "What do you mean?"

"Be coy if you wish, but when a young woman gives her apartment key to a man, it means something."

That lead balloon in my gut floated up a few inches. "Did you see someone going in my apartment today?" I worked very hard at keeping my face and voice casual.

"Yes, your nice young man. Very handsome."

I wanted to ask what he looked like, but if he was my boyfriend with a key to my apartment, I should know. I couldn't ask. Very handsome - could it be Phillip? But why? "When did he stop by?"

"Oh, around two this afternoon. I was just coming out to walk Custard as he was going in."

"Did you see him leave?"

She was staring at me a little too hard. "No. Anita, was he not supposed to be in your home? Did I let a burglar get away?"

"No." I managed a smile and almost a whole laugh. "I just didn't expect him today, that's all. If you see anyone going into my apartment, just let them. I'll have friends going in and out for a few days."

Her eyes had narrowed; her delicate-boned hands were very still. Even Custard was sitting in the grass, panting up at me. "Anita Blake," she said, and I was reminded that she was a retired schoolteacher, it was that kind of voice. "What are you up to?"

"Nothing, really. I've just never given my key to a man before, and I'm a little unsure about it. Jittery." I gave her my best wide-eyed innocent look. I resisted the urge to bat my eyes, but everything else was working.

She crossed her arms over her stomach. I don't think she believed me. "If you are that nervous about this young man, then he is not the right one for you. If he was, you wouldn't be jittery."

I felt light with relief. She believed. "You're probably right. Thank you for the advice. I may even take it." I felt so good, I patted Custard on top of his furry little head.

I heard Mrs. Pringle say as I walked away, "Now, Custard, do your business and let's go upstairs."

For the second time in the same day I might have an intruder in my apartment. I walked down the hushed corridor and drew my gun. A door opened. A man and two children walked out. I slipped my gun and my hand in the shopping bag, pretending to search for something. I listened to their footsteps echo down the stairs.

I couldn't just sit out here with a gun. Someone would call the police. Everybody was home from work, eating dinner, reading the paper, playing with the kids. Suburban America was awake and alert. You could not walk through it with a gun drawn.

I carried the shopping bag in my left hand in front of me, gun and right hand still inside it. If worse came to worse, I'd shoot through the bag. I walked two doors past my apartment and dug my keys out of my purse. I sat the shopping bag against the wall and transferred the gun to my left hand. I could shoot left-handed, not as well, but it would have to do. I held the gun parallel to my thigh and hoped nobody would come the wrong way down the hall and see it. I knelt by the door, keys cupped in my right hand, quiet, not jingling this time. I learn fast.

I held the gun in front of my chest and inserted the keys. The lock clicked. I flinched and waited for gunshots or noise, or something. Nothing. I slipped the keys into my pocket and switched the gun back to my right hand. With just my wrist and part of my arm in front of the door, I turned the knob and pushed hard.

The door swung back and banged against the far wall, nobody there. No gunshots at the door. Silence.

I was crouched by the doorjamb, gun straight out, scanning the room. There was no one to see. The chair, still facing the door, was empty this time. I would almost have been relieved to see Edward.

Footsteps pounded up the stairs at the end of the hall. I had to make a decision. I reached my left hand back and got the shopping bag, never taking eyes or gun from the apartment. I scrambled inside, shoving the bag ahead of me. I shoved the door closed, still crouched by the floor.

The aquarium heater clicked, then whirred, and I jumped. Sweat was oozing down my spine. The brave vampire slayer. If they could only see me now. The apartment felt empty. There was no one here but me, but just in case, I searched in closets, under beds. Playing Dirty Harry as I slammed doors and flattened myself against walls. I felt like a fool, but I would have been a bigger fool to have trusted the apartment was empty and been wrong.

There was a shotgun on the kitchen table, along with two boxes of ammo. A sheet of white typing paper lay under it. In neat, black letters, it said, "Anita, you have twenty-four hours."

I stared at the note, reread it. Edward had been here. I don't think I breathed for a minute. I was picturing my neighbor chatting with Edward. If Mrs. Pringle had hesitated at his lie, showed fear, would he have killed her?

I didn't know. I just didn't know. Dammit! I was like a plague. Everyone around me was in danger, but what could I do?

When in doubt, take a deep breath and keep moving. A philosophy I have lived by for years. I've heard worse, really.

The note meant I had twenty-four hours before Edward came for the location of Nikolaos' daytime retreat. If I didn't give it to him, I would have to kill him. I might not be able to do that.

I told Ronnie we were professionals, but if Edward was a professional, then I was an amateur. And so was Ronnie.

Heavy damn sigh. I had to get dressed for the party. There just wasn't time to worry about Edward. I had other problems tonight.

My answering machine was blinking, and I switched it on. Ronnie's voice first, telling me what she had already told me about HAV. Evidently, she had called here first before contacting me at Dave's bar. Then, "Anita, this is Phillip. I know the location for the party. Pick me up in front of Guilty Pleasures at six-thirty. Bye."

The machine clicked, whirred, and was silent. I had two hours to dress and be there. Plenty of time. My average time for makeup is fifteen minutes. Hair takes less, because all I do is run a brush through it. Presto, I'm presentable.

I don't wear makeup often, so when I do, I always feel like it's too dark, too fake. But I always get compliments on it, like, "Why don't you wear eye shadow more often? It really brings out your eyes," or my favorite, "You look so much better in makeup." All the above implies that without makeup, you look like a candidate for the spinster farm.

One piece of makeup I don't use is base. I can't imagine smearing cake over my whole face. I own one bottle of clear nail polish, but it isn't for my fingers, it's for my panty hose. If I wear a pair of hose once without snagging them, I have had a very good day.

I stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom. The top slipped over my head with one thin strap. There was no back; it tied across the small of my back in a cute little bow. I could have done without the bow, but otherwise it wasn't too bad. The top slipped into the black skirt, complete, dresslike without a break. The tan bandages on my hands clashed with the dress. Oh, well. The skirt was full and swirled when I moved. It had pockets.

Through those pockets were two thigh sheaths complete with silver knives. All I had to do was slip my hands in and come out with a weapon. Neat. Sweat is an interesting thing when you're wearing a thigh sheath. I had not been able to figure out how to hide a gun on me. I don't care how many times you've seen women carry guns on a thigh holster on television, it is damn awkward. You walk like a duck with a wet diaper on.

Hose and high-heeled black satin pumps completed the outfit. I had owned the shoes and the weapons; everything else was new.

One other new item was a cute black purse with a thin strap that would hang across my shoulders, leaving my hands free. I stuffed my smaller gun, the Firestar, into it. I know, I know, by the time I dug the gun from the depths of the purse, the bad guys would be feasting on my flesh, but it was better than not having it at all.

I slipped my cross on, and the silver looked good against the black top. Unfortunately, I doubted the vampires would let me into the party wearing a blessed crucifix. Oh, well. I'd leave it in the car, along with the shotgun and ammo.

Edward had kindly left a box near the table. What I assumed he had brought the gun up in. What had he told Mrs. Pringle, that it was a present for me?

Edward had said twenty-four hours, but twenty-four hours from when? Would he be here at dawn, bright and early, to torture the information out of me? Naw, Edward didn't strike me as a morning person. I was safe until at least afternoon. Probably.