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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:26

"Talk to us, Sutton," I whispered.

"Tall figure standing near middle of room; second figure lying down on stone structure in center of room, seems to be struggling, maybe tied down; third figure slumped in far right corner, no movement."

My gut tightened again at that slumped third hostage with no movement. Was it Tomas? Were we going to be too late for Manny's son? I pushed the thought away, because it didn't help anything right now. Tomas and Connie and even Max's fiancee needed me thinking, planning, helping to get them out. I held on to the thought that they needed me to do my job. They needed me to help SWAT do theirs. It was true, and I'd keep on doing all that, until we either saved them . . . until we saved them.

"Do you have a shot at the standing figure?" I asked. Was I a hundred percent sure that one was our bad guy? No, but it was my best guess, and sometimes that's all you got.

"Shit," I said, softly. I prayed that they would be okay. I prayed that this would work and no one else would get hurt, not because prayer was the only thing I could do, but because prayer never hurts, and if you can get God to help, why not?

I saw the other team members moving up through the graves on the side of the crypt. It was good to be hunting a human for once, because he wouldn't be better than the men with me. If you had to go into danger with just humans, these were good men. Maximiliano was not a good man, not in any way. Was that judgmental of me? Yes, and I was okay with that.

I felt magic on the air, a rush against my skin. "He's casting," I said.

"Casting what?" Sutton asked.

"Talk to me, Blake," Hudson whispered.

I heard screaming, muffled through a gag, but it carried on the soft night air surprisingly well. The woman in the doorway started screaming, too, and struggling harder, so that she spun her body around, and I could see her face for the first time.

"It's not Connie," I said.

"What?" Sutton asked.

"It's not Connie Rodriguez."

"I think it's the zombie from some of the films."

"Doesn't look like a zombie," Sutton said, eye still snugged to his eyepiece.

I used his extra eyepiece to look closer at the struggling woman in the doorway. "It's the zombie. I saw her on film."

The magic tightened around me, so that it was hard to breathe past it, as if the air were getting heavier. "The spell, whatever it is, is almost complete, and when he finishes he will kill her."

Connie and the zombie were both screaming, because one was alive and wanted to stay that way, and the other one didn't know she was already dead.

"Knife, he's got a knife," Sutton said into his mic.

The other men were still doing the plan, working their way carefully up through the graves, because if the bad guy knew they were coming he could shoot them all before our team made entry.

"He's going to kill the hostage," I said.

Hudson said, "Sutton, do you have a shot?"

"Shoot through the zombie. Greenlight his ass," I said.

"I can't shoot through a hostage."

"Zombies aren't hostages."

"Sutton, Blake--give me eyes," Hudson said.

"Hostage," Sutton said.

The women were screaming. The magic was squeezing the world down; something big was coming. I didn't know if it was the loa coming to ride Max, or something else, and I didn't care; as long as I shot him before he finished, it didn't matter.

I moved to the other side of the tombstone from Sutton and used the stone to steady my rifle. I hit my throat mic and said, "I have the shot. Repeat, I have the shot."

"He's going to kill her," Sutton said. He still had a shot, because he could still see past the zombie's struggles to what the perp was doing.

"Greenlight, repeat, greenlight," Hudson said.

I used the skills that Ares had taught me, the ones that had let me shoot him from the doors of a still-moving helicopter and do the last thing he ever asked of me, to kill him before he hurt someone. I knew the woman hanging there was a zombie; she was just like Thomas Warrington. It only looked alive. I prayed with the breath I drew in to steady myself, "Let me be right," and I squeezed the trigger from that well of silence where I went when I shot, where there was nothing but the gun, my hands, my body, the target. It became not a person, but just the place you needed your bullet to go. Especially from these distances you don't think you're going to kill them, or shoot them; you think only be still, don't breathe, control your pulse. Even your heart slows, as you pull the trigger, and let it happen. The hardest things to overcome are, don't flinch, don't pull, don't anticipate that a small explosion is going to go off in your hands, because that's what it is really; just be in that moment when the world narrows down to the dot of your laser sight going on the woman's dress, but the target is behind her with its arm upraised and what you think is a knife coming down . . . and . . . the recoil of the rifle rocked against the snug of my shoulder, the firmness of my hands.

The body in the doorway moved, the target on the other side fell out of sight, the magic paused, like a giant had taken a breath. "Target down," Sutton said.

I saw the other team members enter the building. They didn't use flashbangs as planned, because they didn't need to; the target was down, no need to stun the hostages. Sutton and I put our rifles to our shoulders and moved at that jog-trot that was still strangely smooth. I fell in beside him and just to one side, so that we stacked, even though it was just the two of us, and we went to join our team.

Gunfire ahead of us; there was still something to shoot in the crypt, or to shoot back. We ran like we'd been taught, not as fast as we could have run, but as fast as training had taught us we could keep our rifles to our shoulders, ready to aim, and keep moving.

THEY WERE DRAGGING Max out in cuffs. He was leaving a trail of blood. The moment they put him on the grass it started to pool underneath him. I knew one hole was mine, but he was bleeding in places I hadn't shot him. The hostage from the doorway was on the grass with Saville, but there was no blood pooling under her. Max looked like so much bloody meat; she looked like an anatomy illustration, clean and bloodless. The dead don't bleed like the living.

I heard Connie screaming, "Tomas! Tomas!"

My stomach tightened and fell into my feet. Please, God. Sutton was stopped at the door to the crypt, too big to get through the other men, but I was smaller, and fuck protocol, I had to see why Connie was screaming her brother's name.

I yelled, "Make a hole!" and pushed between the men without waiting. They didn't so much make a hole, as I could fit through where the bigger guys couldn't. Sometimes small isn't a bad thing.

Connie was kneeling over Tomas's body in the corner, where it had been motionless through the scope. They were trying to pull her off him, so they could do what they could until the ambulance got here. I could hear sirens coming closer. Tomas was pale, eyes closed, face slack. His face looked more like the pictures I'd seen of Manny from high school than the last time I'd seen the kid. His upper body fell boneless against the stone floor as they pulled Connie off him.

I heard Hudson say, "Let us help him, Ms. Rodriguez."

I yelled, "Connie, Connie, it's Anita!" I took off the helmet and pulled the balaclava off so she could see my face.

She turned and looked up at me. "Anita! Oh God, Anita!" She got to her feet then and did what the men hadn't been able to force her to do, gave them room to do their best for Tomas.

Hudson motioned, and I did what he wanted, taking her outside so there'd be more room to work, and so if he died she wouldn't have to see it happen. Please, God, let me have saved them in time.

Of course, outside had other problems. The zombie I'd shot was shrieking. She seemed upset at the huge gaping hole in her side. There wasn't much blood, so her shattered ribs were very white in the dark, and her lungs wer

e still moving in her exposed chest.

Connie yelled, "Estrella!"

I turned her away from the two team guys trying to figure out what to do for a wound that big that really wasn't bleeding much, and a victim with a hole in her that should have been fatal, or at least made struggling and screaming not possible. They'd hunted enough vampires with me that they knew she wasn't human now, but she still seemed like an attractive young woman who just wasn't quite human. If she'd been a vampire they'd have done first aid, so they were trying.

Turning Connie away from the zombie meant she could see Max where he lay bleeding out on the grass with Hill and Montague standing over him. Connie ran at him, yelling profanities that I was betting Rosita didn't know she knew. I couldn't blame Connie, but I caught her arm anyway and tried to turn her away. She fought me the way she'd fought the men in the crypt, and for someone without training she was pretty good. Maybe I'd give her some self-defense pointers after we all survived the night. I finally picked her up around the waist, having to bow my back a little, because she was inches taller than me.