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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:48

"Our tech people will crack this, or trace it, eventually," Manning said, "but I don't understand their part of the investigation enough to help, so I'm here trying an angle that I can understand more. I can look at you, talk to you, ask you questions. I don't speak enough computer to do the same for that part of the investigation."

"I just recently learned how to change the ring tones on my smart phone, so I hear you on the whole mysterious-computer thing," I said.

She gave me a weak smile. "Thank you for that, but there's usually an age line about such things. You're young to be on the wrong side of it."

"Hey, I love my smart phone," Zerbrowski said. "The wife and kids send me pics and texts all day. Helps me keep in touch w

hen the hours are long."

"And you're over the age line, of course." Manning looked from one to the other of us. "The two of you balance each other somehow like good partners do."

We looked at each other, then both shrugged almost in unison and said, "We try."

She narrowed her eyes at us. Brent laughed.

If civilians could have seen us laughing and smiling with that horror still frozen on the computer behind us, they'd have thought we were cold-blooded, or worse. But if you couldn't keep your sense of humor in the midst of the nightmares you went crazy, or changed jobs, or ate your gun. We were all career cops, in it for the long haul, and that meant we whistled in the dark, sang on the way to our execution, joked at the door to hell--pick your metaphor. We did it. We survived. We didn't go too crazy. We did our jobs. We caught the bad guys. I glanced behind at the frozen image on the screen. The zombie, person, whatever she was with her soul trapped in there, was staring out at the screen in a mute plea. We had to find her first, but when we did I'd find a way to free her soul and lay her to final rest. This would stop. We would make it stop. The people who'd raised the zombie and were abusing her hadn't done anything to earn a warrant of execution, not legally, so I couldn't just go in there with guns blazing like normal when I was chasing monsters. They hadn't killed anyone, hell, I wasn't even sure what laws they'd broken, but morally--they needed to suffer. Was that judgmental of me? Hell yes, but sometimes you just gotta go with that part of yourself that says, This is morally wrong and I will stop you. Judge not, lest ye be judged, but in this case I was pretty sure God would be on my side.

I HAD ONE person I trusted who had known Dominga Salvador well, but I couldn't take Zerbrowski or the FBI with me, because my friend had done some really bad things when he'd been part of Dominga's crew. I needed an excuse to ditch the other badges, without seeming like I was ditching them. My text tone went off on my phone and I had the perfect excuse.

Out loud I said, "Crap."

"What's wrong?" Manning asked.

Zerbrowski was watching me a little too closely, as if something about that "crap" hadn't fooled him at all. Maybe I should have said "shit"?

"I have another appointment. Normally I'd ignore it, but do we actually have any leads to follow?"

"What appointment?" Zerbrowski asked, smiling, but his eyes let me know I wasn't fooling him much.

I held the text up so he could read it. "Remember 8:00PM meeting with jeweler. Je t'aime, ma petite." It had a tiny picture of Jean-Claude beside it.

"Jeweler, ooh, ooh, you're trying on rings tonight." He grinned, because he'd said too much out loud, and I was pretty sure why he'd done it. He wanted to see what Manning would do.

The grim-faced agent suddenly smiled at me. It was a good smile that seemed to erase the lines and years that the horrors on the screen had added. She was suddenly attractive, eyes all a-sparkle. Earlier I would have gotten grumpy again, but now I understood why she might have gone all girly about my engagement; she needed something to distract her from the job. As a police officer, or a first responder of any kind, you need things outside work that put the smile back on your face, because if you don't have something you'll either crawl into a bottle, burn out early, or decide to be too up close and friendly with your gun one dark night. Did Manning follow romances in the news? Did she enjoy tabloid relationship gossip? Read romance novels in her spare time? And here I was right in the middle of a public romance that seemed to fall right out of one of those books--how could she resist, and why would she want to?

She didn't say anything, just sat there holding it all in, because I'd been grumpy about it earlier, but now I understood more. I smiled at her. "Just say it, or you're going to hurt yourself holding it in."

She smiled even more brilliantly. It filled her whole face with something close to laughter, and it helped chase away some of the sadness I was feeling after seeing the video, too. Happiness is as contagious as sorrow.

"I thought you had that fabulous engagement ring that was on the news."

"Jean-Claude knows me, and he knew I'd want to help pick out a ring I'm expected to wear for the rest of my life. The ring on the video was a loaner with a possibility to buy."

Brent raised his hand, as if he needed permission to join the conversation. "I saw the ring on the news; what woman wouldn't keep that hunk of ice?"

I grinned, and let myself try to explain, not because I had to, but because I liked the atmosphere in the room better. I didn't want to be the one who brought the mood down again; this was better. "I asked him if he actually wanted me to wear the ring every day, and he said, preferably. I can't wear that hunk of ice to this job, or to raise zombies. The diamond on the top alone would poke holes through any crime scene gloves, if the ring would even fit into most gloves."

Manning's smile had faded a little. "Sad, but true."

I wanted her to smile again, so I said the truth. "Jean-Claude said, 'I would prefer that you wear the symbol of my love every day.'" I left off the "ma petite" that went at the end of almost every sentence he said to me. It was French for "my little one," or literally, "my little."

Manning's smile brightened again.

Zerbrowski said, "Aww, ain't that romantic."

"So we're having rings made that I can wear every day." I didn't add that we were also negotiating on a set of rings that were the bright, shiny, audacious equivalent of the ring he'd given me in the videoed engagement. He wanted us to have rings for dressy occasions that showed off his wealth. Most master vampires come from nobility, or at least centuries when nobility flaunted it if they had it; not to drench yourself in jewels and rich clothes meant you were poor. Jean-Claude had to be the king, and that meant we needed something worthy of a king and his queen. I was incredibly uncomfortable with some of the rings we'd looked at in this category, but he'd finally convinced me that it was a necessary thing. I could never envision wearing a ring like that without being terrified I'd lose a stone, or damage it in some way. I felt like a small dog dressed up in clothes; they walk very stiffly, because they just don't feel like themselves anymore. It may look good, but a dog would still rather be chasing squirrels. You can't do that in little doggie booties and a tutu.

"You are a very lucky woman," she said, and she meant it. It made me wonder if there was a Mr. Manning back home. A lot of cops don't wear wedding bands to work, so the fact that her finger was empty didn't prove anything.

"Thank you. I'm still a little amazed that Jean-Claude is my fiance."

"I'd sort of given up on the idea of marrying anyone, and he's just so gorgeous. On the attractive scale I feel like a three who somehow landed a twenty bazillion." I grinned as I said it, but I meant it.

Manning narrowed her eyes at me. "Every beautiful woman knows just how beautiful she is, and you are not a three."

"Try standing next to Jean-Claude and see how high up the pretty scale you feel."

She laughed then. "Okay, I'll give you that one. He just seems perfect."

I nodded. "He's close, and I so don't feel perfect."

"You're only human, and he's not."

I nodded again. "Well, there is that," I said.

I got to leave with everyone still smiling, though Zerbrowski was watching me a little too closely. He knew I'd told the truth about the jeweler, but he was also pretty certain that I'd thought of something about the case I hadn't shared. He trusted me enough to let me get away with it tonight, but by tomorrow he'd ask. So after the jeweler appointment and the zombie I had to raise later tonight at my other job, I'd need to call Manny Rodriguez, friend and coworker at Animators Inc., and remind him of a time in his life when he'd been one of the bad guys.

THE CIRCUS OF the Damned had revitalized an older warehouse district, because one wildly successful business will attract more new businesses and customers. I sometimes wondered what would have happened to this section of St. Louis if Jean-Claude hadn't o

pened the Circus here. It would probably be like some other sections of the old warehouse district, the kind of place where the police will only come in groups. The huge building towered over the area like a big brother that kept all the bullies away. The three dancing clowns on top were frozen in the fading light. If you looked closely you'd notice the clowns all had fangs, and their multicolored outfits seemed more garish without darkness to soften them, so maybe it was a weird older brother, but it still kept the neighborhood safe and had brought the whole area more upscale.

I had no trouble finding parking right out front because it was hours from opening. An hour before dusk and I'd have had to park in the employees' parking lot out back. I walked past the big carnival posters that covered the front of the building. Posters twenty feet high proclaimed, The Lamia, half snake, half woman!, showing a garish but accurate image of Melanie, her long black hair swept discreetly over her very human breasts. The image didn't do justice to the multicolored scales of her tail, or how dangerous her venom was; I'd have deported her back to Greece, but Jean-Claude knew a moneymaker when he saw it, and he'd been right. Melanie had behaved herself since I'd freed her of the big bad vampire that had been her master. See the Skinless, Formless Monster! was a florid drawing of a Nuckelavee, which wasn't some kind of Lovecraftian horror, but a fairy from the British Isles that wasn't fit for much other work than a sideshow. I mean, if you're a skinless, near formless creature, what job can you possibly have? "Do you want fries with that" shouldn't be followed by uncontrolled screaming from the customers. Zombies Rise from the Grave! I had gotten Jean-Claude to stop the nightly zombie raising in the small makeshift cemetery in the carnival midway, but so many customers had complained that he'd overridden me and started it again. We had agreed to stay out of the business side of each other's life as much as possible. The poster on the left-hand side of the door showed a male figure dressed somewhere between the Phantom of the Opera and a sexy circus ringmaster: Asher, Master Vampire and Ring Master! Then I was at the doors, and other posters marched down the other side of the entrance showing some of the other acts and delights that awaited the customers inside. I debated on whether to knock, in case someone was close enough to open it, or use my key. I had keys to the front door and to the back door, the employee entrance, which is what I usually used. I tried to remember the last time I'd come in the front and couldn't. I usually was here after dark which meant the crowds were so massive I didn't want to deal with it.