Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #1) - Page 22/24

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Chapter 44

We drove in silence for a long time. It was Edward who finally spoke into the wheel-rushing quiet. "I don't think we should go back to your apartment," he said.

"Agreed."

"I'll take you to my hotel. Unless you have someplace else you'd rather go?"

Where could I go? Ronnie's? I didn't want her endangered anymore. Who else could I endanger? No one. No one but Edward, and he could handle it. Maybe better than I could.

My beeper trembled against my waist, sending shock waves all along my rib cage. I hated putting the beeper on silent mode. The damn thing always scared me when it went off.

Edward said, "What the hell happened? You jumped like something bit you."

I hit the button on the beeper, to shut it off and see who had called. The number lit up briefly. "My beeper went off on silent mode. No noise, just vibration."

He glanced at me. "You are not going to call work." He made it sound like a statement or an order.

"Look, Edward, I'm not feeling so hot, so don't argue with me."

I heard his breath ease out, but what could he say? I was driving. Short of drawing his gun and hijacking me, he was along for the ride. I took the next exit and located a pay phone at a convenience store. The store lot was fully lit and made me a wonderful target, but after the ghouls I wanted light.

Edward watched me get out of the car with my billfold gripped in my hand. He did not get out to watch my back. Fine, I had my gun. If he wanted to pout, let him.

I called work. Craig, our night secretary, answered. "Animators, Inc. May I help you?"

"Hi, Craig, this is Anita. What's up?"

"Irving Griswold called, says to call him back ASAP or the meeting's off. He said you'd know what that meant. Do you?"

"Yes. Thanks, Craig."

"You sound awful."

"Good night, Craig." I hung up on him. I felt tired and sluggish, and my throat hurt. I wanted to curl up somewhere dark and quiet for about a week. Instead, I called Irving. "It's me," I said.

"Well, it's about time. Do you know the trouble I've gone through to set this up? You almost missed it."

"If you don't quit talking, I may still miss it. Tell me where and when."

He did. If we hurried, we'd make it. "Why is everyone so hot to do everything tonight?" I said.

"Hey, if you don't want to meet, that's fine."

"Irving, I've had a very, very long night, so stop bitching at me."

"Are you all right?"

What a stupid question. "Not really, but I'll live."

"If you're hurt, I'll try to get the meeting postponed, but I can't promise anything, Anita. It was your message that got him this far."

I leaned my forehead against the metal of the booth. "I'll be there, Irving."

"I won't be." He sounded thoroughly disgusted. "One of the conditions was no reporters and no police."

I had to smile. Poor Irving; he was getting left out of everything. He hadn't been attacked by ghouls and almost blown up, though. Maybe I should save my pity for myself.

"Thanks, Irving, I owe you one."

"You owe me several," he said. "Be careful. I don't know what you're into this time, but it sounds bad."

He was fishing, and I knew it. "Good night, Irving." I hung up before he could ask any more questions.

I called Dolph's home phone number. I don't know why it couldn't wait until morning, but I had almost died tonight. If I did die, I wanted someone to hunt Zachary down.

Dolph answered on the sixth ring. His voice sounded gruff with sleep. "Yes."

"This is Anita Blake, Dolph."

"What's wrong?" His voice sounded almost alert.

"I know who the murderer is."

"Tell me."

I told him. He took notes and asked questions. The biggest question came at the end. "Can you prove any of this?"

"I can prove he wears a gris-gris. I can testify that he confessed to me. He tried to kill me; that I witnessed personally."

"It's going to be a tough sell to a jury or a judge."

"I know."

"I'll see what I can find out."

"We've almost got a solid case on him, Dolph."

"True, but it all hinges on you being alive to testify."

"Yeah, I'll be careful."

"You come down tomorrow and get all this information recorded officially."

"I will."

"Good work."

"Thanks," I said.

"Good night, Anita."

"Good night, Dolph."

I eased back into the car. "We have a meeting with the wererats in forty-five minutes."

"Why is it so important?" he asked.

"Because I think they can show us a back way into Nikolaos's lair. If we come in the front door, we'll never make it." I started the car and pulled out into the road.

"Who else did you call?" he asked.

So he had been paying attention. "The police."

"What?"

Edward never likes dealing with the police. Fancy that. "If Zachary manages to kill me, I want someone else to be looking into it."

He was silent for a little while. Then he asked, "Tell me about Nikolaos."

I shrugged. "She's a sadistic monster, and she's over a thousand years old."

"I look forward to meeting her."

"Don't," I said.

"We've killed master vampires before, Anita. She's just one more."

"No. Nikolaos is at least a thousand years old. I don't think I've ever been so frightened of anything in my life."

He was silent, face unreadable.

"What are you thinking?" I asked.

"That I love a challenge." Then he smiled, a beautiful, spreading smile. Shit. Death had seen his ultimate goal. The biggest catch of all. He wasn't afraid of her, and he should have been.

There aren't that many places open at one-thirty A.M., but Denny's is. There was something wrong with meeting wererats in Denny's over coffee and donuts. Shouldn't we have been meeting in some dark alley? I wasn't complaining, mind you. It just struck me as...funny.

Edward went in first to make sure it wasn't another setup. If he took a table, it was safe. If he came back out, it wasn't safe. Simple. No one knew what he looked like yet. As long as he wasn't with me, he could go anywhere and no one would try to kill him. Amazing. I was beginning to feel like Typhoid Mary.

Edward took a table. Safe. I walked into the bright lights and artificial comfort of the restaurant. The waitress had dark circles under her eyes, cleverly disguised by thick base, which made the circles look sort of pinkish. I looked past her. A man was motioning to me. Hand straight up, finger crooked like he was calling the waitress, or some other subservient.

"I see my party, now. Thanks anyway," I said.

The restaurant was mostly empty in the wee hours of Monday, or rather Tuesday morning. Two men sat at a table in front of the first man. They looked normal enough, but there was a sense of contained energy that seemed to spark in the air around them. Lycanthropes. I would have bet my life on it, and maybe I was.

There was a couple, male and female, sitting catty-corner from the first two. I would have bet money they were lycanthropes, too.

Edward had taken a table near them, but not too near. He had hunted lycanthropes before; he knew what to look for as well.

As I passed the table, one of the men looked up. Pure brown eyes, so dark they were almost black, stared into mine. His face was square, body slender, small build, muscles worked in his arms as he folded his hands under his chin and looked at me. I stared back; then I was past him and to the booth where the Rat King sat.

He was tall, at least six feet, dark brown skin, with thick, shortcut black hair, brown eyes. His face was thin, arrogant, lips almost too soft for the haughty expression he gave me. He was darkly handsome, strongly Mexican, and his suspicion rode the air like lightning.

I eased into the booth. I took a deep, steadying breath and looked across the counter at him.

"I got your message. What do you want?" His voice was soft but deep, without a trace of accent.

"I want you to lead myself and at least one man into the tunnels beneath the Circus of the Damned."

His frown deepened, forming faint wrinkles between his eyes. "Why should I do this for you?"

"Do you want your people free of the master's influence?"

He nodded. Still frowning.

I was really winning him over. "Guide us in through the dungeon entrance, and I'll take care of it"

He clasped his hands together on the table. "How can I trust you?"

"I am not a bounty hunter. I have never harmed a lycanthrope."

"We cannot fight beside you if you go against her. Even I cannot fight her. She calls to me. I don't answer, but I feel it. I can keep the small rats and my people from helping her against you, but that is all."

"Just get us inside. We'll do the rest."

"Are you so confident?"

"I'm willing to bet my life on it," I said.

He steepled his fingers against his lips, elbows on the table. The burn scar in his forearm was still there even in human form, a rough, four-pointed crown. "I'll get you inside," he said.

I smiled. "Thank you."

He stared at me. "When you come back out alive, then you can thank me."

"It's a deal." I held my hand out. After a moment's hesitation, he took it. We shook on it.

"You wish to wait a few days?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I want to go in tomorrow."

He cocked his head to one side. "Are you sure?"

"Why? Is that a problem?"

"You are hurt. I thought you might wish to heal."

I was a little bruised, and my throat hurt, but. . . "How did you know?"

"You smell like death has brushed you close tonight"

I stared at him. Irving never does this to me, the supernatural powers bit. I'm not saying he can't, but he works hard at being human. This man did not.

I took a deep breath. "That is my business."

He nodded. "We will call you and give you the place and time."

I stood up. He remained sitting. There didn't seem to be anything else to say, so I left.

About ten minutes later Edward got into the car with me. "What now?" he asked.

"You mentioned your hotel room. I'm going to sleep while I can."

"And tomorrow?"

"You take me out and show me how the shotgun works."

"Then?" he asked.

"Then we go after Nikolaos," I said.

He gave a shaky breath, almost a laugh. "Oh, boy."

Oh, boy? "Glad to see someone is enjoying all this."

He grinned at me. "I love my work," he said.

I had to smile. Truth was, I loved my work, too.