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

Now, the street out front was completely empty except for me. I knew that someone inside had seen me from the very top floor, because the guards kept watch over all entrances. There was even a sniper lookout, though we were short a sniper lately, because we'd lost one of our own. Ares had been a good guy, and for a werehyena he'd been excellent. We still had a few people who could use a sniper rifle, but no one as good as Ares. I wished I hadn't had to kill him.

If the building had been less massive they could have had someone at the front doors to let me in by now, but I didn't have to wait forever and a day for someone to open the door anymore. I put my key in the lock and felt that satisfying click. I liked having a key. I stepped through and made sure the door locked behind me, though honestly a lot of our potential bad guys wouldn't have much trouble breaking the door down, or tearing a new one in the wall somewhere. We'd hear them, and we had enough guards with enough muscle and firepower to kill them dead before they got very far, but locked doors were more for the casual passerby who was curious to see the Circus during the daylight when all the vampires were in their coffins. If they only knew how many vampires could walk around inside here without waiting for sundown, they'd either be thrilled or never sleep well again. It depended on which side of the preternatural citizen movement they were on. Whether vampires should have been declared "alive" and full citizens of the United States of America was one of the big debates ranking right up there with gun rights and abortion. In a way all of them are about life and death--defining what life is, and what it isn't, and how far we'll go to protect, or take, it.

I stood there in the huge, echoing dimness of the empty Circus and just enjoyed the quiet of the place. The first time I'd come here during this time of day when everything was closed had been when Nikolaos was still Master of the City and Jean-Claude had just been one of her flunkies. I'd come to kill her and all the bad little vampires and henchmen who had threatened me and my friends. I'd done a good job of it, too. Now I stood there listening, almost feeling the silence of the closed carnival midway that stretched the length of the building. The booths where you could win giant toy bats, or vampire and werewolf dolls and other themed toys, were all shuttered or draped with canvas. It really was a midway complete with rides, but there was no smell of dust and heat. It was cleaner, neater than any real traveling carnival could ever be, but that was very Jean-Claude. He liked to take things that were messy and make them prettier, run smoother, the illusion of perfection so close to perfect that most people couldn't tell the difference. Only his romantic relationships were big, messy, brawling things, because he only fell in love with difficult people, and yes, I was so counting myself on that list of difficult lovers. Truth was truth.

I walked between the closed food stalls, where the faint smell of corn dogs, popcorn, funnel cakes, and cotton candy seemed to linger like aromatic ghosts. There was one tent in the middle of the midway--once it would have been called the freak show, but now it was the hallway of oddities, though even that some had complained about. They wanted to see the half-man, half-whatever, but they wanted it to be politically correct, because if you were all PC about it then looking didn't make you a bad person. Lately, people seemed to think that morality was the same thing as being politically correct, and it wasn't. Some of the most deeply moral people I knew were least politically correct, because they actually worried about good and evil, not just what they were told was good or bad.

Some well-meaning citizens had gotten freak shows closed down, but all the people who had protested and felt morally superior about it had other jobs. They could go out in the world and be "normal"; the "freaks" that they'd put out of work didn't always have that option. Sometimes the freak show is your only option, and sometimes it's the only place where you feel safe and okay. I really wish the "normal" people would leave us freaks alone and stop trying to save us. We get by, we take care of each other, and the people who cost the freaks their jobs didn't give them employment, or a place to stay, or a family to be a part of; they just destroyed their world and felt morally superior for doing it.

I'd seen my first ghost at age ten; by age fourteen I'd accidentally raised dead animals, including my childhood dog, Jenny. My dad had contacted my grandmother Flores and she'd trained me just enough not to have roadkill follow me home, or my dead pet crawl into bed with me. She'd worried I would grow up to become not just an animator, as in to give life, but a necromancer, which usually meant you'd gone evil. Vampires used to kill necromancers when they found them, because we have the potential to have power over all the dead, including them. I'd slipped through the cracks because I was Jean-Claude's human servant and because there hadn't been a full-fledged necromancer in a thousand years. I was one of the freaks; I just hadn't embraced it the first time I walked into the Circus of the Damned.

I turned to the left and the biggest tent, which took up nearly a quarter of this part of the warehouse interior. The tent was white-and-red striped and gave the illusion that it had just been put up that day by some roustabouts, but it was permanent, only coming down when the tent material needed to be made fresh and bright again. The ticket booth at the entrance was empty like everything else, but even if it hadn't been I'd have gotten in for free. I was engaged to the owner.

The tent flap was down over the doorway so I couldn't see inside, but I saw the canvas twitch a second before it started moving up. I drew my gun in an automatic motion; it was held two-handed and pointed at the ground before I had time to talk myself out of it. I had it pointed at the ground because I couldn't see on the other side of the canvas. You don't point at anything unless you know what or who you're pointing at, because once you point, then you aim, and then you shoot. Shooting means killing it. For all I knew it could be Jean-Claude on the other side--unlikely, but still, everyone in here was either a lover, a friend, or at least that guy I don't hate.

The hand that moved the canvas was a lot darker than Jean-Claude's, and I wasn't surprised when Socrates looked through the opening. He was tall, but not too broad; he didn't like doing the serious weight lifting some of the guards did. He'd recently cut his hair so short that my own would have had no curl left, which meant almost shaved, but his hair still had curl to it. He glanced down at the gun in my hands and smiled. "I like that you're that cautious."

I relaxed my shoulders a little and gave him the ultimate praise; I took my eyes off him while I moved my suit jacket out of the way and holstered my gun. "Some people call it paranoid."

"They've never been a cop," he said.

"How's your bid to be reinstated as a detective?" I asked.

"The two officers who got to keep their badges after catching lycanthropy on the job are both part of the U.S. Marshals Preternatural Branch. I was just an ordinary plainclothes detective on the gang and drugs squad."

"You might have more luck joining the Marshals Service and playing on my team," I said.

He grinned, teeth a bright flash in his dark face. "I was a regular cop; we save people, or at least keep the peace, or something like that. Nothing personal, but your duty description is mostly hunting down and killing people. It's closer to a soldier than a cop."

"I just want to be a detective again, Anita. I loved my job, and I was good at it. I've got testimonials from most of the people I worked with back in Los Angeles. I think they still feel guilty that I got cut up by the werehyenas saving some of their asses."

"Guilt can be a great motivator," I said, as I walked in beside him, and he let the canvas fall back into place. The tent opening was part of the illusion that this was a very solid, very permanent structure. The inside was a onering circus in a tradition old enough that I didn't actually remember it except from pictures, but the bleachers that rose up on every side were very solid and cemented in, as solid as a modern sports arena. We were able to walk side by side between the first row of steps and the rail that kept the crowd from walking out on the now-empty sand.

ah, it can," he said, and he looked sad, as he ran one hand over his nearly shaved head.

I didn't want sad today for some reason, so I changed the topic. "I can't believe your hair is still curly with it cut that short. Even my curls are gone when it's that close to my head."

He half-laughed. "Mexican and German genetics aren't going to be enough; you have to go all the way to Africa somewhere in your family tree to get curls like mine."

I laughed with him. "Fine, genetically you've got a curl advantage."

He turned up the main stairs, which were wider and led not just to higher seats, but to the draped glass booth at the very top. It looked like a media booth where someone would do a play-by-play, but it was actually the office for the manager of the Circus of the Damned, whoever that happened to be, and there was a small apartment behind it.

Socrates didn't shorten his stride for me, but I managed to keep pace. The first time I'd walked the stairs my knees had hurt, and that was before I hit twenty-five. Now at thirty-one my knees didn't bother me on the stairs. I moved up them easily, just below and a little to one side of Socrates' longer stride. Yes, I was hitting the gym more now, but I didn't think that was all of it. I'd gotten cut up by shapeshifters on my job, too, but one of the first ones that contaminated me had been the one and only panwere I'd ever seen. He'd had several different forms, and apparently I'd inherited that first, so every wereanimal that bled me after that had shared their beast with me. It was supposed to be medically impossible, and the fact that I didn't change shape into any animal form was even more impossible. We all thought that was because I'd been Jean-Claude's human servant before I caught lycanthropy, and his vampire marks somehow prevented me from shapeshifting. But we were so far out into theoretical metaphysics that we honestly didn't know. I'd learned a few months ago that some of the less public parts of the military were interested in seeing if they could create soldiers that had my combination of the best of being a shapeshifter without turning into an animal form. I'd let people know that it was the vampire marks that prevented the shifting, and they couldn't duplicate that part in a lab. So far no one had come knocking on my door about it and I was good with that.