Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #1) - Page 21/24

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Chapter 43

The night was almost perfectly black. Thick clouds hid the sky. A wind rushed along the ground and smelled of rain.

Iris Jensen's grave marker was smooth, white marble. It was a nearly life-size angel, wings outspread, arms open, welcoming. You could still read the lettering by flashlight: "Beloved daughter. Sadly missed." The same man who had had the angel carved, who sadly missed her, had been molesting her. She had killed herself to escape him, and he had brought her back. That was why I was out here in the dark, waiting for the Jensens, not him, but her. Even though I knew her mind was gone by now, I wanted Iris Jensen in the ground and at peace.

I couldn't explain that to Edward, so I hadn't tried. A huge oak stood sentinel over the empty grave. The wind rushed through the leaves and sent them skittering and whispering overhead. It sounded too dry, like autumn leaves instead of summer. The air felt cool and damp, rain almost upon us. It wasn't unbearably hot for once.

I had picked up a pair of chickens. They clucked softly from inside their crate where they sat near the grave. Edward leaned against my car, ankles crossed, arms loose at his sides. The gym bag was open by me on the ground. The machete I used gleamed from inside.

"Where is he?" Edward asked.

I shook my head. "I don't know." It had been almost an hour since full dark. The cemetery grounds were mostly bare; only a few trees dotted the soft roll of hills. We should have been seeing car lights on the gravel road. Where was Jensen? Had he chickened out?

Edward stepped away from the car and walked to stand beside me. "I don't like it, Anita."

I wasn't too thrilled either, but. . . "We'll give it another fifteen minutes. If he's not here by then, we'll leave."

Edward glanced around the open ground. "Not much cover around here."

"I don't think we have to worry about snipers."

"You said someone shot at you, right?"

I nodded. He had a point. Goosebumps marched up my arms. The wind blew a hole in the clouds and moonlight streamed down. Off in the distance a small building gleamed silver-grey in the light.

"What's that?" Edward asked.

"The maintenance shed," I said. "You think the grass cuts itself?"

"Never thought about it," he said.

The clouds rolled in again and plunged the cemetery into blackness. Everything became soft shapes; the white marble seemed to glow with its own light.

There was the sound of scrabbling claws on metal. I whirled. A ghoul sat on top of my car. It was naked and looked as if a human being had been stripped and dipped into silver-grey paint, almost metallic. But the teeth and claws on its hands and feet were long and black, curved talons. The eyes glowed crimson.

Edward moved up beside me, gun in his hand.

I had my gun out, too. Practice, practice, and you don't have to think about it.

"What's it doing up there?" he asked.

"Don't know." I waved my free hand at it and said, "Scat!"

It crouched, staring at me. Ghouls are cowards; they don't attack healthy human beings. I took two steps, waving my gun at it. "Go away, shoo!" Any show of force sends them scuttling away. This one just sat there. I backed away.

"Edward," I said, softly.

"Yes."

'I didn't sense any ghouls in this cemetery."

"So? You missed one."

"There's no such thing as just one ghoul. They travel in packs. And you don't miss them. They leave a sort of psychic stench behind. Evil."

"Anita." His voice was soft, normal, but not normal. I glanced where he was looking and saw two more ghouls creeping up behind us.

We stood almost back to back, guns pointing out. "I saw a ghoul attack earlier this week. Healthy man killed, a cemetery where there were no ghouls."

"Sounds familiar," he said.

"Yeah. Bullets won't kill them."

"I know. What are they waiting for?" he asked.

"Courage, I think."

"They're waiting for me," a voice said. Zachary stepped around the trunk of the tree. He was smiling.

I think my mouth dropped to the ground. Maybe that was what he was smiling at. I knew then. He wasn't killing human beings to feed his gris-gris. He was killing vampires. Theresa had tormented him, so she had been the next victim. There were still some questions though, big ones.

Edward glanced at me, then back at Zachary. "Who is this?" he asked.

"The vampire murderer, I presume," I said.

Zachary gave a little bow. A ghoul leaned against his leg, and he stroked its nearly bald head. "When did you guess?"

"Just now. I'm a little slow this year."

He frowned then. "I thought you'd figure it out eventually."

"That's why you destroyed the zombie witness's mind. To save yourself."

"It was fortunate that Nikolaos left me in charge of questioning the man." He smiled when he said it.

"I'll bet," I said. "How did you get the two-biter to shoot me at the church?"

"That was easy. I told him the orders came from Nikolaos."

Of course. "How are you getting the ghouls out of their cemetery? How come they obey your orders?"

"You know the theory that if you bury an animator in a cemetery, you get ghouls."

"Yeah."

"When I came out of the grave, they came with me, and they were mine. Mine."

I glanced at the creatures and found that there were more of them. At least twenty, a big pack. "So you're saying that's where ghouls come from." I shook my head. "There aren't enough animators in the world to account for all the ghouls."

"I've been thinking about that," he said. "I think that the more zombies you raise in a cemetery, the greater your chances for ghouls."

"You mean like a cumulative effect?"

"Exactly. I've been wanting to talk this over with another animator, but you see the problem."

"Yes," I said, "I do. Can't talk shop without admitting what you are and what you've done."

Edward fired without warning. The bullet took Zachary in the chest and twisted him around. He lay face down, the ghouls frozen; then Zachary raised himself up on his elbows. He stood with a little help from an anxious ghoul. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but bullets will never hurt me."

"Great, a comedian," I said.

Edward fired again, but Zachary darted behind the tree trunk.

He called, hidden from sight. "Now, now, no hitting the head. I'm not sure what would happen if you put a bullet in my brain."

"Let's find out," Edward said.

"Good-bye, Anita. I won't stay around to watch." He walked away with a troop of ghouls surrounding him. He was crouched in the middle of them, hiding I supposed from a bullet in the brain, but for a minute I couldn't pick him out.

Two more ghouls appeared around the car, crouched low on the gravel drive. One was female with the tatters of a dress still clinging to her.

"Let's give them something to be afraid of," Edward said. I felt him move, and his gun fired twice. A high-pitched squealing filled the night. The ghoul on my car leaped to the ground and hid. But there were more of them moving in from all sides. At least fifteen of them had been left behind for us to play with.

I fired and hit one of them. It fell to its side and rolled in the gravel, making that same high-pitched noise, like a wounded rabbit. Piteous and animal.

"Is there anyplace we can run to?" Edward asked.

"The maintenance shed," I said.

"Is it wood?"

"Yes."

"It won't stop them."

"No," I said, "but it will get us out of the open."

"Okay, any advice before we start to move?"

"Don't run until we are very close to the shed. If you run, they'll chase you. They'll think you're scared."

"Anything else?" he asked.

"You don't smoke, do you?"

"No, why?"

"They're afraid of fire."

"Great; we're going to be eaten alive because neither one of us smokes."

I almost laughed. He sounded so thoroughly disgusted, but a ghoul was crouching to leap at me, and I had to shoot it between the eyes. No time for laughter.

"Let's go, slow and easy," I said.

"I wish the machine gun wasn't in the car."

"Me, too."

Edward fired three shots, and the night filled with squeals and animal screams. We started walking towards the distant shed. I'd say maybe a quarter of a mile away. It was going to be a long walk.

A ghoul charged us. I dropped it, and it spilled to the grass, but it was like shooting targets, no blood, just empty holes. It hurt, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

I was walking nearly backwards, one hand back feeling Edward's forward movement. There were too many of them. We were not going to make it to the shed. No way. One of the chickens made a soft, questioning cluck. I had an idea.

I shot one of the chickens. It flopped, and the other bird panicked, beating its wings against the wooden crate. The ghouls froze, then one put its face into the air and sniffed.

Fresh blood, boys, come and get it. Fresh meat. Two ghouls were suddenly racing for the chickens. The rest followed, scrambling over each other to crack the wood and get to the juicy morsels inside.

"Keep walking, Edward, don't run, but walk a little faster. The chickens won't hold them long."

We walked a little faster. The sounds of scrambling claws, cracking bone, the splatter of blood, the squabbling howls of the ghouls - it was an unwelcome preview.

Halfway to the shed, a howl went up through the night, long and hostile. No dog ever sounded like that. I glanced back, and the ghouls were rushing over the ground on all fours.

"Run!" I said.

We ran.

We crashed against the shed door and found the damn thing padlocked. Edward shot the lock off; no time to pick it. The ghouls were close, howling as they came.

We scrambled inside, closing the door, for what good it would do us. There was one small window high up near the ceiling; moonlight suddenly spilled through it. There was a herd of lawnmowers against one wall, some of them hanging from hooks. Gardening shears, hedge trimmers, trowels, a curl of garden hose. The whole shed smelled of gasoline and oily rags.

Edward said, "There's nothing to put against the door, Anita."

He was right. We'd blown the lock off. Where was a heavy object when you needed it? "Roll a lawnmower against it."

"That won't hold them long."

"It's better than nothing," I said. He didn't move, so I rolled a lawnmower against the door.

"I won't die, eaten alive," he said. He put a fresh clip in his gun. "I'll do you first if you want, or you can do it yourself."

I remembered then that I had shoved the matchbook Zachary had given me in my pocket. Matches, we had matches!

"Anita, they're almost here. Do you want to do it yourself?"

I pulled the matchbook out of my pocket. Thank you, God. "Save your bullets, Edward." I lifted a can of gasoline in one hand.

"What are you planning?" he asked.

The howls were crashing around us; they were almost here.

"I'm going to set the shed on fire." I splashed gasoline on the door. The smell was sharp and tugged at the back of my throat.

"With us inside?" he asked.

"Yes."

"I'd rather shoot myself, if it's all the same to you."

"I don't plan to die tonight, Edward."

A claw smashed through the door, talons raking the wood, tearing it apart. I lit a match and threw it on the gasoline-soaked door. It went up with a blue-white whoosh of flame. The ghoul screamed, covered in fire, stumbling back from the ruined door.

The stench of burning flesh mingled with gasoline. Burnt hair. I coughed, putting a hand over my mouth. The fire was eating up the wood of the shed, spreading to the roof. We didn't need more gasoline; the damn thing was a fire trap. With us inside. I hadn't thought it would spread this fast.

Edward was standing near the back wall, hand over his mouth. His voice came muffled. "You did have a plan to get us out, right?"

A hand crashed through the wood, clawing at him. He backed away from it. The ghoul began to tear through the wood, leering at us. Edward shot it between the eyes, and it disappeared from sight.

I grabbed a rake from the far wall. Cinders were beginning to float down on us. If the smoke didn't get us first, the shed was going to collapse on top of us. "Take off your shirt," I said.

He didn't even ask why. Practical to the end. He stripped the shoulder rig off and pulled his shirt over his head, tossed it to me, and slipped the gun over his bare chest.

I wrapped the shirt over the tines of the rake and soaked it with gasoline. I set it on fire from the walls; no need for matches. The front of the shed was raining fire on us. Tiny burning stings like wasps on my skin.

Edward had caught on. He found an axe and started chopping at the hole the ghoul had made. I carried the improvised torch and a can of gasoline in my hands. The thought occurred to me that the heat was going to set the gasoline off. We weren't going to suffocate from smoke; we were going to blow up.

"Hurry!" I said.

Edward squeezed through the opening, and I followed, nearly burning him with the torch. There wasn't a ghoul for a hundred yards. They were smarter than they looked. We ran, and the explosion slammed into my back like a huge wind. I tumbled over into the grass, all the air knocked out of me. Bits of burning wood clattered to the ground on either side of me. I covered my head and prayed. My luck, I'd get caught by a flying nail.

Silence, or no more explosions. I raised my head cautiously. The shed was gone, nothing left. Bits of wood burned in the grass around me. Edward was lying on the ground, nearly touching distance from me. He stared at me. Did my face look as surprised as his did? Probably.

Our improvised torch was slowly setting the grass on fire. He knelt and raised it up.

I found the gasoline can unharmed and got to my feet. Edward followed, carrying the torch. The ghouls seemed to have fled, smart ghouls, but just in case...We didn't even have to discuss it. Paranoia, we had that in common.

We walked towards the car. The adrenaline was gone, and I was tireder than before. A person only has so much adrenaline; then you start running on numb.

The chicken crate was history; nameless bits and pieces were scattered around the grave. I didn't look any closer. I stopped to pick up my gym bag. It was untouched, just lying there. Edward moved ahead of me and tossed the torch on the gravel driveway. The wind rustled through the trees; then Edward yelled, "Anita!"

I rolled. Edward's gun fired, and something fell squealing on the grass. I stared at the ghoul while Edward pumped bullets into it. When I swallowed my heart back down into my chest, I crawled to the gasoline can and unscrewed it.

The ghoul screamed. Edward was driving the ghoul with the burning torch. I splashed gasoline on the cringing thing, dropped to my knees, and said, "Light it."

Edward shoved the torch home. Fire whooshed over the ghoul, and it started screaming. The night stank of burning meat and hair. And gasoline.

It rolled over and over on the ground trying to put out the fire, but it wouldn't go out.

I whispered, "You're next, Zachary baby. You are next."

The shirt had burned away, and Edward tossed the rake to the ground. "Let's get out of here," he said.

I agreed wholeheartedly. I unlocked the car, tossed my gym bag in the back seat, and started the car. The ghoul was lying on the grass, not moving, burning.

Edward was in the passenger seat with the machine gun in his lap. For the first time since I'd met him, Edward looked shaken. Scared, even.

"You going to sleep with that machine gun?" I asked.

He glanced at me. "You going to sleep with your gun?" he asked.

Point for Edward. I took the narrow gravel turns as quick as I dared. My Nova wasn't built for speed maneuvering. Having a wreck here in the cemetery didn't seem like a real good idea tonight. The headlights bounced over the tombstones, but nothing moved. No ghouls in sight.

I took a deep breath and let it out. This was the second attempt on my life in as many days. Frankly, I'd rather be shot at.