Page 108

Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:25

"They're probably sitting in the car," she said.

"I checked the car, that's how I know her dress is on the backseat and two other garment bags are hanging up."

"And they're not in the car?" she asked.

I took a deep calming breath. "No, Anne, they're not, and they're not in here?"

"No, and"--she looked up at a wall clock--"oh my, they went out to get the dress half an hour ago. You're sure they aren't out there somewhere?"

"I'm sure they're out there somewhere, Anne, because they're not in here, but they aren't in the parking lot." I resisted the urge to ask why she hadn't checked on them. She was a civilian, a soft, fluffy, easily flustered civilian, and it wasn't her job to serve and protect, or even to not be a fucking useless . . . It was my nerves talking. I would have been totally useless at her job here with all the sequined dresses and demanding brides; we all have our strengths. I told myself that as I dialed Connie's cell phone.

I prayed, "Please let them have called a friend, her fiance, anything. Let me have made this trip for nothing, just as long as they're all right."

Connie's phone went to voice mail. I didn't leave a message. I hung up and called Tomas. "Come on, come on, pick up, pick up."

Anne the saleslady had picked up my anxiety by now and was hovering worriedly around me. I walked away farther into the shop for some privacy and because my nerves were enough without hers. The one thing I didn't like about the headset was that ambient noise could make it harder to hear.

I left a message this time. "Tomas, this is Anita Blake. I'm here to see you get to the bus for State. Where are you and Connie?"

I called Connie's phone back. Voice mail again, damn it. "Connie, this is Anita Blake, Manny sent me to get you guys. I'm at the bridal shop, where are you?"

I didn't want to call Manny yet. There could be logical, safe explanations, but part of me knew that if Connie was so worried about her wedding dress that she didn't want it left in the car for a few minutes, she would not have walked off and left it in the car like this. My Spideysense had been tingling since I found the empty car. Sometimes it's not paranoia; it's just the truth.

My phone rang; it was Connie's number. I hit the button on the earpiece. "Connie, where are you guys?"

"I'm sorry, Anita, Consuela can't come to the phone right now." It was a man's voice. It seemed familiar.

"Why can't Connie come to the phone?" I asked.

"She's a little tied up, or should I say duct-taped."

"He's nearby, but I wanted to talk to my sister alone." I could hear that he was in a car, driving. They weren't that far yet. Maybe.

"Sister. Manny and Rosita only have one son."

"That's right, Manny and Rosita only have one son, and two beautiful daughters," he said.

I didn't like the way he emphasized beautiful, but I also knew the phrasing about Manny and Rosita was important to him. I just didn't know why. He hadn't told me not to contact the police. Thanks to being on the headset I could text and he wouldn't hear anything, like the text alert noise, not if I turned off my sounds. I knew how to do that, yay! I texted Zerbrowski while I kept trying to think of ways to keep the familiar voice talking. As long as he was talking he couldn't hurt them, or that's what I told myself.

The text to Zerbrowski was simple: "Manny's daughter & son kidnapped. I'm talking on phone with the kidnapper."

"So how can you be their brother, if they only have three kids?" I asked.

"Half-brother," he said.

Zerbrowski texted back: "where are you?"

I got the address from Anne the saleslady.

He texted that a car was on its way to my location now.

I texted back: "I don't know if lights & sirens will spook him, or help?"

"I'll make it a silent run," he texted.

I trusted his judgment. I went back to talking to the nut job on the phone, and suddenly I knew the voice. Brent had called him a nut job just three days ago during the live feed. My pulse was in my throat, and I had to breathe carefully for it not to show in my voice. "So you're Manny's son from a different mother."

"Yes, did he tell you about me?"

I debated on what to say, and finally chose truth; I didn't always lie well enough. "No, but I know he was wild when he was young, and Rosita never sowed any wild oats."

"She looks so dull and ordinary. How could he have chosen her over the Senora?"

"Senora?" I made it a question.

"The Senora--don't you know who I am, Anita? Don't you know who my mama was?"

I had one of those moments when things click into place. "Oh holy shit, Dominga Salvador doesn't have two nephews, she has a nephew and a son. That's why you called yourself sir, like Senora."

He laughed. "Very good. Yes, I felt like an outsider all my life. My brother, mother, and father all seemed so ordinary. I got straight A's, excelled at track, got a scholarship to college, and my brother just failed over and over. I was never like my family, and then I found out why. My mother wasn't my mother, my father not my father, my brother only my cousin. It was a revelation, Anita, a revelation that changed my life."

"It's always good to figure out where you belong," I said, because I couldn't think of what to say.

A uniformed officer was coming through the door of the bridal shop. I had my badge visible. I texted, "I'm on phone with kidnapper. Trying to keep him talking." and showed it to the officer.

He nodded, and used a notepad that Anne brought him to write, "More units en route."

More cops were coming. I just had to figure out a way to get information out of the kidnapper that would help us locate them. "My mother was dead, but my father wasn't. He had a nice family; they looked happy."

I didn't like him using the past tense. "You came to St. Louis and found Manny, and have been watching him."

"I saw his daughters and son; by rights they should have been my siblings. I could have been their older brother. I could have helped them, and my papa could have taught me how to raise the dead, but instead he taught you. He taught you everything he was supposed to teach me."

"It was a job; I've taught new animators, too."

"No!" He shouted it. "Don't belittle what my father taught you."

"I'm not belittling it, just saying that Manny and I are work friends. He doesn't think of me as another daughter."

"But he taught you, and my mother saw the greatness in you, Anita. I found people who would talk to me about the Senora. They said she wanted you to meet me. Said we'd have powerful babies together."

"Manny told me that, just like Dominga wanted to have a baby with him, because it would be powerful."

"Dominga didn't tell Manny she got pregnant."

"You don't know that."

"I do, because I know Manny; if he'd known he had a son he'd have tried to be in your life in some way."

"I swear to you that Manny would have loved you if he had known." In my head I thought about him describing one of the nephews as just wrong from the beginning, and then I realized the nephew who was "wrong" wasn't the one Dominga had wanted me to breed with; it was the good nephew.

"He rejected his true power when

he left the Senora, and me with it."

"He described you as a polite, good boy, Max."

"Yeah, that the other nephew Artie was a screw-up, but you were great."

"Arturo fails at everything, he has no ambition."

"You have plenty of ambition, don't you, Max?"

"I do, but I go by my full name, Anita. If my father really talked of me, then tell me my real name."

"Maximiliano," I said.

He lau ghed again, but it held a brittle edge to it now, as if the sound could break like glass if you hit it too hard. It was the kind of laugh that would eventually start gibbering in corners. I wanted Connie and Tomas away from him before that happened.

"Yes, yes, I am Maximiliano."

I wanted to ask him what happened with college, and that scholarship? I wanted to know how the good boy, Max, got to be the monster who tortured souls, but I wanted him to keep talking. There were more police now. Anne had pointed out Connie's car. They'd be looking for clues, and someone in a suit had written on the notepad, "Try to find out where he's taking them."

He made some suggestions and I tried. "So where are you, Connie, and Tomas going tonight?"

"Why, so the police can find them in time?"

I did not like his "find them in time" at all. "I can't meet you for that coffee date if I don't know where you are."

He was quiet for a few breaths. I thought I heard someone else make a noise. It was all I could do not to ask if it was Connie, but I didn't want him to know I could hear anything over the phone. I was afraid he'd hang up.

The detective in the suit wrote, "Do not agree to meet with him!"

I turned away from him. If he'd give me a location I could find him and find the kids. Manny's kids. Connie was almost my age, but she was still his kid.

The detective grabbed my arm and waved the note in my face. I jerked free of his hand and waved my badge back at him. "You said it yourself, Maximiliano; the Senora, your mother, wanted you and me to hook up. I've seen your zombies, they're amazing. We could do amazing, scary stuff together."

"I'm not crazy, or stupid, Anita." He sounded angry now.

"No, you don't. You think I'm crazy like my real mama."

"I thought she was evil, more than crazy," I said.

He laughed then. "That was honest."