Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #1) - Page 16/24

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Chapter 33

I arrived at Ronnie's office a few minutes before eleven. I paused with my hand on the doorknob. I couldn't shake the image of Theresa's head on the sidewalk. She had been cruel and had probably killed hundreds of humans. Why did I feel pity for her? Stupidity, I suppose. I took a deep breath and pushed the door inward.

Ronnie's office is full of windows. Light glares in from two sides, south and west. Which means in the afternoon the room is like a solar heater. No amount of air conditioning is going to overcome that much sunshine.

You can see the District from Ronnie's sunshiny windows. If you care to look.

Ronnie waved me through the door into the almost blinding glare of her office.

A delicate-looking woman was sitting in a chair across from the desk. She was Asian with shiny, black hair styled carefully back from her face. A royal purple jacket, which matched her tailored skirt, was folded neatly on the chair arm. A shiny, lavender blouse brought attention to the up-tilted eyes and the faint lavender shading on the lids and brow. Her ankles were crossed, hands folded in her lap. She looked cool in her lavender blouse, even in the sweltering sunshine.

It caught me off guard for a minute, seeing her like that, after all these years. Finally, I closed my gaping mouth and walked forward, hand extended. "Beverly, it has been a long time."

She stood neatly and put a cool hand in mine. "Three years." Precise, that was Beverly all over.

"You two know each other?" Ronnie asked.

I turned back to her. "Bev didn't mention that she knew me?"

Ronnie shook her head.

I stared at the new woman. "Why didn't you mention it to Ronnie?"

"I did not think it necessary." Bev had to raise her chin to look me in the eye. Not many people have to do that. It's rare enough that I always find it an odd sensation, as if I should stoop down so we can be at eye level.

"Is someone going to tell me where you two know each other from?" Ronnie asked.

Ronnie moved past us to sit behind her desk. She tilted the chair slightly back on its swivel, crossed hands over stomach, and waited. Her pure grey eyes, soft as kitten fur, stared at me.

"Do you mind if I tell her, Bev?"

Bev had sat down again, smooth and ladylike. She had real dignity and had always impressed me as being a lady, in the best sense of the word. "If you feel it necessary, I do not object," she said.

Not exactly a rousing go-ahead, but it would do. I flopped down in the other chair, very aware of my jeans and jogging shoes. Beside Bev I looked like an ill-dressed child. For just a moment I felt it; then it was gone. Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt said that. It is a quote I try to live by. Most of the time I succeed.

"Bev's family were the victims of a vampire pack. Only Beverly survived. I was one of the people who helped destroy the vampires." Brief, to the point, a hell of a lot left out. Mostly the painful parts.

Bev spoke in that quiet, precise voice of hers. "What Anita has left out is that she saved my life at risk of her own." She glanced down at her hands where they lay in her lap.

I remembered my first glimpse of Beverly Chin. One pale leg thrashing against the floor. The flash of fangs as the vampire reared to strike. A glimpse of pale, screaming face, and dark hair. The pure terror as she screamed. My hand throwing a silver-bladed knife and hitting the vampire's shoulder. Not a killing blow; there had been no time. The creature had sprang to its feet, roaring at me. I stood facing the thing with the last knife I had, gun long since emptied, alone.

And I remembered Beverly Chin beating the vampire's head in with a silver candlestick, while he crouched over me, breath warm on my neck. Her shrieks echoed through my dreams for weeks, as she beat the thing's head to pieces until blood and brain seeped out onto the floor.

All that passed between us without words. We had saved each other's lives; it is a bond that sticks with you. Friendships may fade, but there is always that obligation, that knowledge forged of terror and blood and shared violence, that never really leaves. It was there between us after three long years, straining and touchable.

Ronnie is a smart lady. She caught on to the awkward silence. "Would anybody like a drink?"

"Nonalcoholic," Bev and I said together. We laughed at each other, and the strain faded. We would never be true friends, but perhaps we could stop being ghosts to each other.

Ronnie brought us two diet Cokes. I made a face but took it anyway. I knew that was all she had in the office's little fridge. We had had discussions about diet drinks, but she swore she liked the taste. Liked the taste, garg!

Bev took hers graciously; perhaps that was what she drank at home. Give me something fattening with a little taste to it any day.

"Ronnie mentioned on the phone that there might be a death squad attached to HAV. Is that true?" I said.

Bev stared down at the can, which she held with one hand cupped underneath so it wouldn't stain her skirt. "I do not know positively that it is true, but I believe it to be."

"Tell me what you've heard?" I asked.

"There was talk for a while of forming a squad to hunt the vampires. To kill them as they have killed our...families. The president of course vetoed the idea. We work within the system. We are not vigilantes." She said it almost as a question, as if trying to convince herself more than us. She was shaken by what might have happened. Her neat little world collapsing again.

"But lately I have heard talk. People in our organization bragging of slaying vampires."

"How were they supposedly killed?" I asked.

She looked at me, hesitated. "I do not know."

"No hint?"

She shook her head. "I believe I could find out for you. Is it important?"

"The police have hidden certain details from the general public. Things only the murderer would know."

"I see." She glanced down at the can in her hands, then up at me. "I do not believe it is murder even if my people have done what the papers say. Killing dangerous animals should not be a crime."

In part I agreed with her. Once I had agreed with her wholeheartedly. "Then why tell us?" I asked.

She looked directly at me, dark, nearly black eyes staring into my face. "I owe you."

"You saved my life as well. You owe me nothing."

"There will always be a debt between us, always."

I looked into her face and understood. Bev had begged me not to tell anyone that she had beaten the vampire's head in. I think it horrified her that she was capable of such violence, regardless of motive.

I had told the police that she distracted the vampire so I could kill it. She had been disproportionately grateful for that small white lie. Maybe if no one else knew, she could pretend it had never happened. Maybe.

She stood, smoothing her skirt down in back. She sat her soda can carefully on the edge of the desk. "I will leave a message with Ms. Sims when I find out more."

I nodded. "I appreciate what you're doing." She might be betraying her cause for me.

She laid her purple jacket over her arm, small purse clasped in her hands. "Violence is not the answer. We must work within the system. Humans Against Vampires stands for law and order, not vigilantism." It sounded like a prerecorded speech. But I let it go. Everyone needs something to believe in.

She shook hands with both of us. Her hand was cool and dry. She left, slender shoulders very straight. The door closed firmly but quietly behind her. To look at her you would never know that she had been touched by extreme violence. Maybe that's the way she wanted it. Who was I to argue?

Ronnie said, "Okay, now you fill me in. What have you found out?"

"How do you know I've found out anything?" I asked.

"Because you looked a little green around the gills when you came through the door."

"Great. And I thought I was hiding it."

She patted my arm. "Don't worry. I just know you too well, that's all."

I nodded, taking the explanation for what it was, comforting crap. But I took it anyway. I told her about Theresa's death. I told her everything, except the dreams with Jean-Claude in them. That was private.

She let out a low whistle. "Damn, you have been busy. Do you think a human death squad is doing it?"

"You mean HAV?"

She nodded.

I took a deep breath and let it out. "I don't know. If it's humans, I don't have the faintest idea how they're doing it. It would take superhuman strength to rip a head off."

"A very strong human?" she asked.

The image of Winter's bulging arms flashed into my mind. "Maybe, but that kind of strength. . ."

"Under pressure, little old grannies have lifted entire cars."

She had a point. "How would you like to visit the Church of Eternal Life?" I asked.

"Thinking about joining up?"

I frowned at her.

She laughed. "Okay, okay, stop glowering at me. Why are we going?"

"Last night they raided the party with clubs. I'm not saying they meant to kill anyone, but when you start beating on people" - I shrugged - "accidents happen."

"You think the Church is behind it?"

"Don't know, but if they hate the freaks enough to storm their parties, maybe they hate them enough to kill them."

"Most of the Church's members are vampires," she said.

"Exactly. Superhuman strength and the ability to get close to the victims."

Ronnie smiled. "Not bad, Blake, not bad."

I bowed my head modestly. "Now all we got to do is prove it."

Her eyes were still shiny with humor when she said, "Unless of course they didn't do it."

"Oh, shut up. It's a place to start."

She spread her hands wide. "Hey, I'm not complaining. My father always told me, 'Never criticize, unless you can do a better job.' "

"You don't know what's going on either, huh?" I asked.

Her face sobered. "Wish I did."

So did I.

Chapter 34

The Church of Eternal Life, main building, is just off Page Avenue, far from the District. The Church doesn't like to be associated with the riffraff. Vampire strip club, Circus of the Damned, tsk-tsk. How shocking. No, they think of themselves as mainstream undead.

The church itself is set in an expanse of naked ground. Small trees struggled to grow into big trees and shade the startling white of the church. It seemed to glow in the hot July sunshine, like a land-bound moon.

I pulled into the parking lot and parked on the shiny new black asphalt. Only the ground looked normal, bare reddish earth churned to mud. The grass had never had a chance.

"Pretty," Ronnie said. She nodded in the building's direction.

I shrugged. "If you say so. Frankly, I never get used to the generic effect."

"Generic effect?" she asked.

"The stained glass is all abstract color. No scenes of Christ, no saints, no holy symbols. Clean and pure as a wedding gown fresh out of plastic."

She got out of the car, sunglasses sliding into place. She stared at the church, arms crossed over her stomach. "It looks like they just unwrapped it and haven't put the trimmings on yet."

"Yeah, a church without God. What is wrong with this picture?"

She didn't laugh. "Will anybody be up this time of day?"

"Oh, yes, they recruit during the day."

"Recruit?"

"You know, go door to door, like the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses."

She stared at me. "You've got to be kidding?"

"Do I look like I'm kidding?"

She shook her head. "Door-to-door vampires. How" - she wiggled her hands back and forth - "convenient."

"Yep," I said. "Let's go see who's minding the office."

Broad white steps led up to huge double doors. One of the doors was open; the other had a sign that read, "Enter Friend and be at Peace." I fought an urge to tear down the sign and stomp on it.

They were preying on one of the most basic fears of man - death. Everyone fears death. People who don't believe in God have a hard time with death being it. Die and you cease to exist. Poof. But at the Church of Eternal Life, they promise just what the name says. And they can prove it. No leap of faith. No waiting around. No questions left unanswered. How does it feel to be dead? Just ask a fellow church member.

Oh, and you'll never grow old either. No face-lifts, no tummy tucks, just eternal youth. Not a bad deal, as long as you don't believe in the soul.

As long as you don't believe the soul becomes trapped in the vampire's body and can never reach Heaven. Or worse yet, that vampires are inherently evil and you are condemned to Hell. The Catholic Church sees voluntary vampirism as a kind of suicide. I tend to agree. Though the Pope also excommunicated all animators, unless we ceased raising the dead. Fine; I became Episcopalian.

Polished wooden pews ran in two wide rows up towards what would have been an altar. There was a pulpit, but I couldn't call it an altar. It was just a blank blue wall surrounded by more white upsweeping walls.

The windows were red and blue stained glass. The sunlight sparkled through them, making delicate colored patterns on the white floor.

"Peaceful," Ronnie said.

"So are graveyards."

She smiled at me. "I'd thought you'd say that."

I frowned at her. "No teasing; we're here on business."

"What exactly do you want me to do?"

"Just back me up; look menacing if you can manage it. Look for clues."

"Clues?" she asked.

"Yeah, you know, clues, ticket stubs, half-burned notes, leads."

"Oh, those."

"Quit grinning at me, Ronnie."

She adjusted her sunglasses and did her best "cold" look. She's pretty good at it. Thugs have been known to shrivel at twenty paces. We would see how it worked on church members.

There was a small door to one side of the "altar." It led into a carpeted hallway. The air-conditioned hush enveloped us. There were bathrooms to the left, and an open room to the right. Perhaps this is where they had...coffee after services. No, probably not coffee. A rousing sermon followed by a little blood, perhaps?

The offices were marked with a little sign that said "Office." How clever. There was an outer office, the proverbial secretarial desk and etc.... A young man sat behind the desk. Slender, short brown hair carefully cut. Wire-frame glasses decorated a pair of really lovely brown eyes. There was a healing bite mark on his throat.

He rose and came around the desk, hand extended, smiling at us. "Greetings, friends, I'm Bruce. How may I help you today?"

The handshake was firm but not too firm, strong but not overbearing, a friendly lingering touch, but not sexual. Really good car salesmen shake hands like that. Real estate brokers, too. I have this nice little soul, hardly used at all. The price is right. Trust me. If his big brown eyes had looked any more sincere, I would have given him a doggie biscuit and patted his head.

"I would like to set up an appointment to speak with Malcolm," I said.

He blinked once. "Have a seat."

I sat. Ronnie leaned against the wall, to one side of the door. Hands folded, looking cool and bodyguardish.

Bruce went back around his desk, after offering us coffee, and sat with folded hands. "Now, Miss. . ."

"Ms. Blake."

He didn't flinch; he hadn't heard of me. How fleeting fame. "Ms. Blake, why do you wish to meet with the head of our church? We have many competent and understanding counselors that will help you make your decision."

I smiled at him. I'll just bet you do, you little pipsqueak. "I think Malcolm will want to speak with me. I have information about the vampire murders."

His smile slipped. "If you have such information, then go to the police."

"Even if I have proof that certain members of your church are doing the murders?" A small bluff, otherwise known as a lie.

He swallowed, fingers pressing the top of his desk until the fingertips turned white. "I don't understand. I mean . . ."

I smiled at him. "Let's just face it, Bruce. You are not equipped to handle murder. It isn't in your training, now is it?"

"Well, no, but . . ."

"Then just give me a time to come back tonight and see Malcolm."

"I don't know. I . . ."

"Don't worry about it. Malcolm is the head of the church. He'll take care of it."

He was nodding, too rapidly. His eyes flicked to Ronnie, then back to me. He flipped through a leatherbound day planner on his desk. "Nine, tonight." He picked up a pen, poised and ready. "If you'll give me your full name, I'll pencil you in."

I started to point out that he wasn't using a pencil, but decided to let it slide. "Anita Blake."

He still didn't recognize the name. So much for me being the terror of vampireland. "And this is pertaining to?" He was regaining his professionalism.

I stood up. "Murder, it's pertaining to murder."

"Oh, yes, I . . ." He scribbled something down. "Nine tonight, Anita Blake, murder." He frowned down at the note as if there were something wrong with it.

I decided to help him out. "Don't frown so. You've got the message right."

He stared up at me. He looked a little pale.

"I'll be back. Make sure he gets the message."

Bruce nodded again, too fast, eyes large behind his glasses.

Ronnie opened the door, and I preceded her out. She brought up the rear like a bad-movie bodyguard. When we were out into the main church again, she laughed. "I think we scared him."

"Bruce scares easy."

She nodded, eyes shining.

The barest mention of violence, murder, and he had fallen apart. When he "grew up," he was going to be a vampire. Sure.

The sunshine was nearly blinding after the dimness of the church. I squinted, putting a hand over my eyes. I caught movement from the corner of my eye.

Ronnie screamed, "Anita!"

Everything slowed down. I had plenty of time to stare at the man and the gun in his hands. Ronnie smashed into me, carrying us both down and back through the church door. Bullets thunked into the door where I'd been.

Ronnie scrambled behind me, near the wall. I had my gun out and lay on my side pressed against the door. My heart was thundering in my ears. Yet I could hear everything. The wrinkle of my windbreaker was like static. I heard the man walk up the steps. The son of a bitch was gonna keep coming.

I inched forward. He walked up the steps. His shadow fell inside the door. He wasn't even trying to hide. Maybe he thought I wasn't armed. He was about to learn different.

Bruce called, "What's going on here?"

Ronnie yelled, "Get back inside."

I kept my eyes on the door. I would not get shot because of Bruce distracted me. Nothing was important but that shadow in the door, the halting footsteps. Nothing.

The man walked right into it. Gun in his hand, eyes searching the church. Amateur.

I could have touched him with the barrel of my gun. "Don't move." "Freeze" always sounds so melodramatic. Don't move, short, to the point. "Don't move," I said.

He turned just his head, slow, towards me. "You're The Executioner." His voice was soft, hesitant.

Was I supposed to deny it? Maybe. If he had come here to kill The Executioner, definitely. "No," I said.

He started to turn. "Then it must be her." He was turning towards Ronnie. Shit.

He raised his arm and started to point.

"Don't!" Ronnie screamed.

Too late. I fired, point-blank into his chest. Ronnie's shot echoed mine. The impact raised him off his feet and sent him staggering backwards. Blood blossomed on his shirt. He slammed into the half-opened door and fell flat on his back through it. All I could see were his legs.

I hesitated, listening. I couldn't hear any movement. I eased around the door. He wasn't moving, but the gun was still clutched in his hand. I pointed my gun at him and stalked to him. If he had so much as twitched, I would have hit him again.

I kicked the gun out of his hand and checked the pulse in his neck. Nada, zip. Dead.

I use ammunition that can take out vampires, if I get a lucky shot, and if they're not ancient. The bullet had made a small hole on the side it went in, but the other side of his chest was gone. The bullet had done what it was supposed to do; expand, and make a very big exit hole.

His neck lolled to one side. Two bite marks decorated his neck. Dammit! Bite marks or not, he was dead. There wasn't enough left of his heart to thread a needle. A lucky shot. A stupid amateur with a gun.

Ronnie was leaning in the doorway, looking pale. Her gun was pointed at the dead man. Her arms trembled ever so slightly.

She almost smiled. "I don't usually carry a gun during the day, but I knew I'd be with you."

"Is that an insult?" I asked.

"No," she said, "reality."

I couldn't argue with that. I sat down on the cool stone steps; my knees felt weak. The adrenaline was draining out of me, like water from a broken cup.

Bruce was in the doorway, ice pale. "He...he tried to kill you." His voice cracked with fear.

"Do you recognize him?" I asked.

He shook his head over and over again, rapid jerky movements.

"Are you sure?"

"We...we do not...condone violence." He swallowed hard, his voice a cracking whisper. "I don't know him."

The fear seemed genuine. Maybe he didn't know him, but that didn't mean the dead man wasn't a member of the church. "Call the police, Bruce."

He just stood there, staring at the corpse.

"Call the cops, okay?"

He stared at me, eyes glazed. I wasn't sure if he heard me or not, but he went back inside.

Ronnie sat down beside me, staring out at the parking lot. Blood was running down the white steps in tiny rivulets of scarlet.

"Jesus," she whispered.

"Yeah." I still held my gun loose-gripped in my hand. The danger seemed to be over. Guess I could put away the gun. "Thanks for pushing me out of the way," I said.

"You're welcome." She took a deep, shaky breath. "Thanks for shooting him before he shot me."

"Don't mention it. Besides, you got a piece of him, too."

"Don't remind me."

I stared at her. "You all right?"

"No, I'm well and truly scared."

"Yeah." Of course, all Ronnie had to do was stay away from me. I seemed to be the free-fire zone. A walking, talking menace to my friends and coworkers. Ronnie could have died today, and it would have been my fault. She had been a few seconds slower to shoot than I was. Those few seconds could have cost her her life. Of course, if she hadn't been here today, I might have died. One bullet in the chest, and my gun wouldn't have done me a hell of a lot of good.

I heard the distant whoop-whoop of police sirens. They must have been damn close, or maybe it was another killing. Possible. Would the police believe he was just a fanatic trying to kill The Executioner? Maybe. Dolph wouldn't buy it.

The sunshine pressed down around us like bright yellow plastic. Neither of us said a word. Maybe there was nothing left to say. Thank you for saving my life. You're welcome. What else was there?

I felt light and empty, almost peaceful. Numb. I must be getting close to the truth, whatever that was. People were trying to kill me. It was a good sign. Sort of. It meant I knew something important. Important enough to kill for. The trouble was, I didn't know what it was I was supposed to know.