I slid into a no-parking zone in front of Guilty Pleasures. Phillip was leaning against the building, arms loose at his sides. He wore black leather pants. The thought of leather in this heat made my knees break out in heat rash. His shirt was black fishnet, which showed off both scars and tan. I don't know if it was the leather or the fishnet, but the word "sleazy" came to mind. He had passed over some invisible line, from flirt to hustler.
I tried to picture him at twelve. It didn't work. Whatever had been done to him, he was what he was, and that was what I had to deal with. I wasn't a psychiatrist who could afford to feel sorry for the poor unfortunate. Pity is an emotion that can get you killed. The only thing more dangerous is blind hate, and maybe love.
Phillip pushed away from the wall and walked towards the car. I unlocked his door, and he slid inside. He smelled of leather, expensive cologne, and faintly of sweat.
I pulled away from the curb. "Aggressive little outfit there, Phillip."
He turned to stare at me, face immobile, eyes hidden behind the same sunglasses he had worn earlier. He lounged in the seat, one leg bent and pressed against the door, the other spread wide, knee tucked up on the seat. "Take Seventy West." His voice was rough, almost hoarse.
There is that moment when you are alone with a man and you both realize it. Alone together, there are always possibilities in that. There is a nearly painful awareness of each other. It can lead to awkwardness, to sex, or to fear, depending on the man and the situation.
Well, we weren't having sex, you could make book on that. I glanced at Phillip, and he was still turned towards me, lips slightly parted. He'd taken off the sunglasses. His eyes were very brown and very close. What the hell was going on?
We were on the highway and up to speed. I concentrated on the cars around me, on driving, and tried to ignore him. But I could feel the weight of his gaze along my skin. It was almost a warmth.
He began to slide along the seat towards me. I was suddenly very aware of the sound of leather rubbing along the upholstery. A warm, animal sound. His arm slid across my shoulders, his chest leaning into me.
"What do you think you're doing, Phillip!"
"What's wrong?" He breathed along my neck. "Isn't this aggressive enough for you?"
I laughed; I couldn't help it. He stiffened beside me. "I didn't mean to insult you, Phillip. I just didn't picture fishnet and leather for tonight."
He stayed too close to me, pressing, warm, his voice still strange and rough. "What do you like then?"
I glanced at him, but he was too close. I was suddenly staring into his eyes from two inches away. His nearness ran through me like an electric shock. I turned back to the road. "Get on your side of the car, Phillip."
"What turns you," he whispered in my ear, "on?"
I'd had enough. "How old were you the first time Valentine attacked you?"
His whole body jerked, and he scooted away from me. "Damn you!" He sounded like he meant it.
"I'll make you a deal, Phillip. You don't have to answer my question, and I won't answer yours."
His voice came out choked and breathy. "When did you see Valentine? Is he going to be here tonight? They promised me he wouldn't be here tonight." His voice held a thick edge of panic. I had never heard such instant terror.
I didn't want to see Phillip afraid. I might start feeling sorry for him, and I couldn't afford that. Anita Blake, hard as nails, sure of herself, unaffected by crying men. Riiight. "I did not talk to Valentine about you, Phillip, I swear."
"Then how. . ." He stopped, and I glanced at him. He'd slid the sunglasses back in place. His face looked very tight and still behind his dark glasses. Fragile. Sort of ruined the image.
1 couldn't stand it. "How did I find out what he did to you?"
"I paid money to find out about your background. It came up. I needed to know if I could trust you."
"I don't know yet," I said.
He took several deep breaths. The first two trembled, but each breath was a little more solid, until finally he had it under control, for now. I thought of Rebecca Miles and her small, starved-looking hands.
"You can trust me, Anita. I won't betray you. I won't." His voice sounded lost, a little boy with all his illusions stripped away.
I couldn't stomp all over that lost child voice. But I knew and he knew that he would do anything the vampires wanted, anything, including betraying me. A bridge was rising over the highway, a tall latticework of grey metal. Trees hugged the road on either side. The summer sky was pale watery blue, washed out by the heat and the bright summer sun. The car bumped up on the bridge, and the Missouri River stretched away on either side. The air seemed open and distant over the rolling water. A pigeon fluttered onto the bridge, settling beside maybe a dozen others, all strutting and burring over the bridge.
I had actually seen seagulls on the river before, but you never saw one near the bridge, just pigeons. Maybe seagulls didn't like cars.
"Where are we going, Phillip?"
I wanted to say, "Question too hard for you?" but I resisted. It would have been like picking on him. "We're across the river. What is our destination?"
"Take the Zumbehl exit and turn right."
I did what he said. Zumbehl veers to the right and spills you automatically to a turn lane. I sat at the light and turned on red when it was clear. There is a small gathering of stores to the left, then an apartment complex, then trees, almost a woods, houses tucked back in them. A nursing home is next and then a rather large cemetery. I always wondered what the people in the nursing home thought of living next door to a cemetery. Was it a ghoulish reminder, no pun intended? A convenience, just in case?
The cemetery had been there a lot longer than the nursing home. Some of the stones went back to the early 1800s. I always thought the developer must have been a closet sadist to put the windows staring out over the rolling tombstoned hills. Old age is enough of a reminder of what comes next. No visual aids are needed.
Zumbehl is lined with other things - video store, kids clothing boutique, a place that sold stained glass, gas stations, and a huge apartment complex proclaiming, "Sun Valley Lake." There actually was a lake large enough to sail on if you were very careful.
A few more blocks and we were in suburbia. Houses with tiny yards stuffed with huge trees lined the road. There was a hill that sloped downward. The speed limit was thirty. It was impossible to keep the car to thirty going down the hill without using brakes. Would there be a policeman at the bottom of the hill?
If he stopped us with Phillip in his little fishnet shirt, all nicely scarred, would he be suspicious? Where are you going miss? I'm sorry, officer, we have this illegal party to go to, and we're running late. I used my brakes going down the hill. Of course, there was no policeman. If I had been speeding, he'd have been there. Murphy's law is the only true dependable in my life most of the time.
"It's the big house on the left. Just pull into the driveway," Phillip said.
The house was dark red brick, two, maybe three stories, lots of windows, at least two porches. Victorian American does still exist. The yard was large with a private forest of tall, ancient trees. The grass was too high, giving the place a deserted look. The drive was gravel and wound through the trees to a modern garage that had been designed to match the house and almost succeeded.
There were only two other cars here. I couldn't see into the garage; maybe there were more inside.
"Don't leave the main room with anyone but me. If you do, I can't help you," he said.
"Help me how?" I asked.
"This is our cover story. You are the reason I have missed so many meetings. I left hints that not only are we lovers, but I've been . . ." He spread his hands wide as if searching for a word. "...cultivating you, until I felt you were ready for a party."
"Cultivating me?" I turned off the car, and the silence settled between us. He was staring at me. Even behind the glasses I felt the weight of his gaze. The skin between my shoulders crawled.
"You are a reluctant survivor of a real attack, not a freak, or a junkie, but I've talked you into a party. That's the story."
"Have you ever done this for real?" I asked.
"You mean given them someone?"
"Yes," I said.
He gave a rough snort. "You don't think much of me, do you?"
What was I supposed to say, no? "If we're lovers, that means we have to play lovers all evening."
He smiled. This smile was different, anticipatory.
He shrugged and rotated his neck as if his shoulders were tight. "I'm not going to throw you down on the floor and ravish you, if that's what you're worried about."
"I knew you wouldn't be doing that tonight." I was glad he didn't know I had weapons. Maybe I could surprise him tonight.
He frowned at me. "Follow my lead. If anything I do makes you uncomfortable, we'll discuss it." He smiled, dazzling, teeth white and even against his tan.
"No discussion. You'll just stop."
He shrugged. "You might blow our cover and get us killed."
The car was filling with heat. A bead of sweat dripped down his face. I opened my door and got out. The heat was like a second skin. Cicadas droned, a high, buzzing song far up in the trees. Cicadas and heat, ah, summer.
Phillip walked around the car, his boots crunching on the gravel. "You might want to leave the cross in the car," he said.
I had expected it, but I didn't have to like it. I put the crucifix into the glove compartment, crawling over the seat to do so. When I closed the door, my hand went to my neck. I wore the chain so much it only felt odd when I wasn't wearing it.
Phillip held out his hand, and after a moment I took it. The palm of his hand was cupped heat, slightly moist in the center.
The back door was shaded by a white lattice arch. A clematis vine grew thick on one side. Flowers as big as my hand spread purple to the tree-filtered sun. A woman was standing in the shadow of the door, hidden from neighbors and passing cars. She wore sheer black stockings held up by garter belts. A bra and matching panties, both royal purple, left most of her body pale and naked. She was wearing five-inch spikes that forced her legs to look long and slender.
"I'm overdressed," I whispered to Phillip.
"Maybe not for long," he breathed into my hair.
"Don't bet your life on it." I stared up at him as I said it and watched his face crumble into confusion. It didn't last long. The smile came, a soft curl of lips. The serpent must have smiled at Eve like that. I have this nice, shiny apple for you. Want some candy, little girl?
Whatever Phillip thought he was selling, I wasn't buying. He hugged me around the waist, one hand playing along the scars on my arm, fingers digging into the scar tissue just a little. His breath went out in a quick sigh. Jesus, what had I gotten myself into?
The woman was smiling at me, but her large brown eyes were fixed on Phillip's hand where it played with my scar. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips. I saw her chest rise and fall.
"Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."
"What did you say?" Phillip asked.
I shook my head. He probably didn't know the poem anyway. I couldn't remember how it ended. I couldn't remember if the fly got away. My stomach was tight. When Phillip's hand brushed my naked back, I jumped.
The woman laughed, high and maybe a little drunk. I whispered the fly's words as I went up the steps, "Oh, no, no, to ask me is in vain for whoever goes up your winding stairs can ne'er come down again."
Ne'er come down again. It had a bad ring to it.
The woman pressed against the wall, so we could pass, and shut the door behind us. I kept waiting for her to lock it so we couldn't get away, but she didn't. I shoved Phillip's hand off my scars, and he wrapped himself around my waist and led me down a long narrow hall. The house was cool, air conditioning purring against the heat. A square archway opened into a room.
It was a living room with all that implies - a couch, love seat, two chairs, plants hanging in front of a bay window, afternoon shadows snaking across the carpeting. Homey. A man stood in the center of the room, a drink in his hand. He looked like he had just come from Leather 'R' Us. Leather bands crisscrossed his chest and arms, like Hollywood's idea of an oversexed gladiator.
I owed Phillip an apology. He'd dressed downright conservatively. The happy homemaker came up behind us in her royal purple lingerie and laid a hand on Phillip's arm. Her fingernails were painted dark purple, almost black. The nails scratched along his arm, leaving faint reddish tracks behind.
Phillip shivered beside me, his arm tightening around my waist. Was this his idea of fun? I hoped not.
A tall, black woman rose from the couch. Her rather plentiful breasts threatened to squeeze out of a black wire bra. A crimson skirt with more holes than cloth hung from the bra and moved as she walked, giving glimpses of dark flesh. I was betting she was naked under the skirt.
There were pinkish scars on one wrist and her neck. A baby junkie, new, almost fresh. She stalked around us, like we were for sale and she wanted to get a good look. Her hand brushed my back, and I stood away from Phillip, facing the woman.
"That scar on your back; what is it? It isn't vampire bites." Her voice was low for a woman, an alto tenor maybe.
"A sharp piece of wood was slammed into my back by a human servant." I didn't add that the sharp piece of wood had been one of the stakes I brought with me, or that I had killed the human servant later that same night.
"My name's Rochelle," she said.
The happy homemaker stepped up next to me, hand stroking over my arm. I stepped away from her, her fingers sliding over my skin. Her nails left little red lines on my arm. I resisted the urge to rub them. I was a tough-as-nails vampire slayer; scratches didn't bother me. The look in the woman's eyes did. She looked like she wondered what flavor I was and how long I'd last. I had never been looked at that way by another woman. I didn't like it much.
"I'm Madge. That's my husband Harvey," she said, pointing to Mr. Leather, who had moved to stand beside Rochelle. "Welcome to our home. Phillip has told us so much about you, Anita."
Harvey tried to come up behind me, but I stepped back towards the couch, so I could face him. They were trying to circle like sharks. Phillip was staring at me, hard. Right; I was supposed to be enjoying myself, not acting like they all had communicable diseases.
Which was the lesser evil? A sixty-four-thousand-dollar question if ever I heard one. Madge licked her lips, slowly, suggestively. Her eyes said she was thinking naughty things about me, and her. No way. Rochelle swished her skirt, exposing far too much thigh. I had been right. She was naked under the skirt. I'd die first.
That left Harvey. His small, blunt-fingered hands were playing with the leather-and-metal studding of the little kilt he wore. Fingers rubbing over and over the leather. Shit.
I flashed him my best professional smile, not seductive, but it was better than a frown. His eyes widened and he took a step towards me, hand reaching out towards my left arm. I took a deep breath and held it, smile freezing in place.
His fingers barely traced over the bend of my arm, tickling down the skin, until I shivered. Harvey took the shiver for an invitation and moved in closer, bodies almost touching. I put a hand on his chest to keep him from coming any closer. The hair on his chest was coarse and thick, black. I've never been a fan of hairy chests. Give me smooth any day. His arm began to encircle my back. I wasn't sure what to do. If I took a step back I was going to sit down on the couch, not a good idea. If I stepped forward I'd be stepping into him, pressed against all that leather and skin.
He smiled at me. "I've been dying to meet you."
He said "dying" like it was a dirty word, or an inside joke. The others laughed, all except Phillip. He took my arm and pulled me away from Harvey. I leaned into Phillip, even put my arms around his waist. I had never hugged anyone in a fishnet shirt before. It was an interesting sensation.
Phillip said, "Remember what I said."
"Sure, sure," Madge said. "She's yours, all yours, no sharing, no halfsies." She stalked over to him, swaying in her tight lace panties. With the heels on she could look him in the eye. "You can keep her safe from us for now, but when the big boys get here, you'll share. They'll make you share."
He stared at her until she looked away. "I brought her here, and I'll take her home," he said.
Madge raised an eyebrow. "You're going to fight them? Phillip, my boy, she must be a sweet piece of tail, but no bedwarmer is worth pissing off the big guys."
I stepped away from Phillip and put a hand flat against her stomach and pushed, just enough to make her back up. The heels made her balance bad, and she almost fell. "Let's get something straight," I said. "I am not a piece of anything, nor am I a bedwarmer."
Phillip said, "Anita. . ."
"My, my, she's got a temper. Wherever did you find her, Phillip?" Madge asked.
If there is anything I hate, it is being found amusing when I'm angry. I stepped up close to her, and she smiled down at me. "Did you know," I said, "that when you smile, you get deep wrinkles on either side of your mouth? You are over forty, aren't you?"
She drew a deep, gasping breath and stepped back from me. "You little bitch."
"Don't ever call me a piece of tail again, Madge, darling."
Rochelle was laughing silently, her considerable bosom shaking like dark brown jello. Harvey stood straight-faced. If he had so much as smiled, I think Madge would have hurt him. His eyes were very shiny, but there was no hint of a smile.
A door opened and closed down the hall, farther into the house. A woman stepped into the room. She was around fifty, or maybe a hard forty. Very blonde hair framed a plump face. Even money the blonde came out of a bottle. Plump little hands glittered with rings, real stones. A long, black negligee swept the floor, complete with an open lace robe. The flat black of the negligee was kind to her figure, but not kind enough. She was overweight and there was no hiding it. She looked like a PTA member, a Girl Scout leader, a cookie baker, someone's mother. And there she stood in the doorway, staring at Phillip.
She let out a little squeal and came running towards him. I got out of the way before I was crushed in the stampede. Phillip had just enough time to brace himself before she flung her considerable weight into his arms. For a minute I thought he was going to fall backwards into the floor with her on top, but his back straightened, his legs tensed, and he righted them both.
Strong Phillip, able to lift overweight nymphomaniacs with both hands.
Harvey said, "This is Crystal."
Crystal was kissing Phillip's chest, chubby, homey little hands trying to pull his shirt out of his pants so she could touch his bare flesh. She was like a cheerful little puppy in heat.
Phillip was trying to discourage her without much success. He gave me a long glance. And I remembered what he had said, that he had stopped coming to these parties. Was this why? Crystal and her like? Madge of the sharp fingernails? I had forced him to bring me, but in doing so, I had forced him to bring himself.
If you thought of it that way, it was my fault Phillip was here. Damn, I owed him.
I patted the woman's cheek, softly. She blinked at me, and I wondered if she was nearsighted. "Crystal," I said. I smiled my best angelic smile. "Crystal, I don't mean to be rude, but you're pawing my date."
Her mouth fell open; her pale eyes bugged out. "Date," she squeaked. "No one has dates at a party."
"Well, I'm new to the parties. I don't know the rules yet. But where I come from, one woman does not grope another woman's date. At least wait until I turn my back, okay?"
Crystal's lower lip trembled. Her eyes began to fill with tears. I had been gentle, kind even, and she was still going to cry. What was she doing here with these people?
Madge came and put her arm around Crystal and led the woman away. Madge was making soothing noises and patting her black silken arms.
Rochelle said, "Very cold." She walked away from me towards a liquor cabinet that was against one wall.
Harvey had also left, following Madge and Crystal without so much as a backwards glance.
You'd think I'd kicked a puppy. Phillip let out a long breath and set down on the couch. He clasped his hands in front of him, between his knees. I sat down next to him, tucking my skirt down over my legs.
"I don't think I can do this," he whispered.
I touched his arm. He was trembling, a constant shaking that I didn't like at all. I hadn't realized what it would cost him to come tonight, but I was beginning to find out.
"We can go," I said.
He turned very slowly and stared at me. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we can go."
"You'd leave now without finding out anything because I'm having problems?" he asked.
"Let's just say I like you better as the overconfident flirt. You keep acting like a real person, and you'll have me all confused. We can go if you can't handle it."
He took a deep breath and let it out, then shook himself like a dog coming out of water. "I can do it. If I have a choice, I can do it."
It was my turn to stare. "Why didn't you have a choice before?"
He looked away. "I just felt like I had to bring you if you wanted to come."
"No, dammit, that wasn't what you meant at all." I touched his face and forced him to look at me. "Someone gave you orders to come see me the other day, didn't they? It wasn't just to find out about Jean-Claude, was it?"
His eyes were wide, and I could feel his pulse under my fingers. "What are you afraid of, Phillip? Who's giving you orders?"
"Anita, please, I can't."
My hand dropped to my lap. "What are your orders, Phillip?"
He swallowed, and I watched his throat work. "I'm to keep you safe here, that's all." His pulse was jumping under the bruised bite in his neck. He licked his lips, not seductive, nervous. He was lying to me. The trick was, how much of a lie and what about?
I heard Madge's voice coming up the hall, all cheerful seduction. Such a good hostess. She escorted two people into the room. One was a woman with short auburn hair and too much eye makeup, like green chalk smeared above her eyes. The second was Edward, smiling, at his charming best, with his arm around Madge's bare waist. She gave a rich, throaty laugh as he whispered something to her.
I froze, for a second. It was so unexpected that I just froze. If he had pulled out a gun, he could have killed me while I sat with my mouth hanging open. What the hell was he doing here?
Madge led him and the woman towards the bar. He glanced back at me over her shoulder and gave me a delicate smile that left his blue eyes empty as a doll's.
I knew my twenty-four hours were not up. I knew that. Edward had decided to come looking for Nikolaos. Had he followed us? Had he listened to Phillip's message on my machine?
"What's wrong?" Phillip asked.
"What's wrong?" I said. "You are taking orders from somebody, probably a vampire. . ." I finished the statement silently in my head: And Death has just waltzed in the door to play freak while he searches for Nikolaos. There was only one reason Edward searched for a particular vampire. He meant to kill her, if he could.
The assassin might finally have met his match. I had thought I wanted to be around when Edward finally lost. I wanted to see what prey was too large for Death to conquer. I had seen this prey, up close and personal. If Edward and Nikolaos met and she even suspected that I had a hand in it...shit. Shit, shit, shit!
I should turn Edward in. He had threatened me, and he would carry it out. He would torture me to get information. What did I owe him? But I couldn't do it, wouldn't do it. A human being does not turn another human being over to the monsters. Not for any reason.
Monica had broken that rule, and I despised her for it. I think I was the closest thing Edward had to a real friend. A person who knows who and what you are and likes you anyway. I did like him, despite or because of what he was. Even though I knew he'd kill me if it worked out that way? Yes, even though. It didn't make much sense when you looked at it that way. But I couldn't worry about Edward's morality. The only person I had to face in the mirror was me. The only moral dilemma I could solve was my own.
I watched Edward play kissy-face with Madge. He was much better at role-playing than I was. He was also a much better liar.
I would not tell, and Edward had known I would not tell. In his own way, he knew me, too. He had bet his life on my integrity, and that pissed me off. I hate to be used. My virtue had become its own punishment.
But maybe, I didn't know how yet, I could use Edward the way he was using me. Perhaps I could use his lack of honor as he used my honor now.
It had possibilities.