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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:27

"Yeah, because you could touch the zombie and I couldn't, but now I can touch her and you can't. I'm betting I can control her, even if you don't want me to. I'll keep her calm and unafraid while we get a judge to sign off on removing the gris-gris so we can free her soul, because trafficking in human parts, even souls, is a felony. Did you know that?"

"How do you prove I have her soul?"

"I don't have to, someone tried to sell their soul on eBay a few years back and a judge ruled that a soul is the same as any human organ. It's a felony to sell pieces of ourselves."

"Fine, take it, it still won't prove that I did anything to earn an execution, and by the time you get through all the hearings to remove the gris-gris I'll have healed. It will be years in court before you can prove anything. Magic is so hard to explain to a jury, and I'll get to tell them what a bastard my father is, and how he abandoned me. His wife isn't going to like knowing that he had a bastard child with Dominga Salvador."

Max was right about that.

"Juries love videos, Maximiliano. The sex slavery angle will make them hate you. By the time they see it all, they will be thinking there but for the grace of God go I, or my sister, my daughter, my wife, my child. They'll put the needle in your arm themselves by the time we're done with you."

"A good lawyer will make sure those videos never see a jury, Anita. They are too prejudicial, and would bias the jury against me. If convicted it would be magical malfeasance, which means my execution would be swift. They won't take the chance of getting the verdict overthrown after I'm dead--that doesn't look good on a judge's record."

"What was your major in college again, Maximiliano?"

"Of course it was." I smiled at him.

He didn't like the smile.

"But, Max, all I have to do is get a court order to remove all dangerous magical items from you. I can honestly say that I don't know exactly what the gris-gris does. I mean, after all I don't do voodoo, not really. If we cut it off tonight, I think three bullets in the chest will be enough that natural causes will do it for us."

"You'll never get a judge to sign off while I'm this hurt."

I leaned in and spoke low. "You're probably right, but I'm going to try anyway."

He smiled, smug and safe behind magic too complicated to explain to most judges and nothing quite hard enough to be called evidence. He should have been safe as they bundled him up into the ambulance and we got in the Bear Cat and followed him. I didn't want him safe. I didn't want Estrella to be trapped in her ruined body for weeks while we fought this out in court.

I found Manny and his whole family in the waiting room outside surgery. I was still dressed for SWAT, so it took Mercedes a second to recognize me. She looked like a slightly younger version of Connie. She got up and came to me, hugging me. "Thank you for rescuing them!"

Then Rosita was there, all five-ten of her with her wide shoulders and nearly square shape. Her hair was back in a bun at the nape of her neck, so she could still undo her hair and let Manny brush it out at night. It was one of the things they'd done since they married in their teens. She'd probably have been embarrassed that I knew that, but I liked knowing it. It was sweet to know they still loved each other like that, after so many years. Connie hugged me and started to cry, which she hadn't done at the cemetery. Manny hugged me last.

"How's Tomas?" I asked.

He took me off to one side of the room away from the women in his life. "He'll live, but they aren't sure how hurt he is, and after the . . . man shot him he stomped his leg, broke it badly."

I thought about Tomas being fast enough to make State, and good enough to be scouted for high schools in the area, and even some colleges. He could run like the wind, Manny had said. I was sad I hadn't gone to one of the track meets now. "Max needs to die, Manny."

A look as bleak as any I'd ever seen filled his eyes. "Didn't he kill those girls and raise them as zombies? That will earn him a warrant of execution."

"We can't prove he killed them, not easily."

"He will be a danger to my family and to you while he is alive."

"I know, and if he could die we'd have taken care of it tonight."

"What do you mean, if he could die?"

I weighed the rules against sharing ongoing investigations against getting Manny's voodoo expertise, and you know what I decided. He was my friend, and this man had already traumatized Manny's family. I told him what I knew.

"So he has to kill the women and take their souls, and their hair represents that, or is it just their deaths that feed the magic?" Manny asked.

"I don't know, you're better at voodoo than I am, you tell me."

"There is always one thing you must never do, or it breaks the magic of a gris-gris like this," he said.

"I know. The last time I encountered a gris-gris like this, one kind of blood fed it, and another kind of blood broke the spell. There was no blood on this one, only the hair woven around a leather band."

"And he was going to use a knife on Connie, but he never used the blade on Tomas."

"Yeah." I frowned at him, not following his logic, but letting him think it out.

"I wonder if a man's hair would be enough to break the spell?"

"I don't understand."

"Wrap a man's hair around the band, not a woman's, or maybe just something that has a man's DNA on it."

"Maybe, but if we know that would break the spell and potentially kill him, we still can't do it legally. It would be the same as putting a bullet in his head tonight."

"I suppose so, but for later, once it's removed from him, you still have to break the spell to free the last zombie."

"Okay, so boy parts, like boy cooties," I said, smiling.

He didn't smile back. "They don't know if Tomas will ever walk right again, let alone run."

"I'm so sorry, Manny."

He nodded, looking as grim as I'd ever seen him. "You brought my children home alive. Connie will still be getting married and Tomas will be in the wedding even if we have to push him down the aisle in a wheelchair. We are all alive, Anita, thanks to you." He grasped my hand in his and then hugged me again. I hugged him back, and then the surgeon was there to tell them some good news. The bullet had been an abdominal wound, so he'd lost a lot of blood internally, but he was going to make it. The orthopedic surgeon thought he'd be able to set Tomas's leg, and with a lot of physical therapy and rehab he'd be able to walk. He was young and in good shape; there was even hope that he'd run again.

There was a lot of crying and hugging again, and I got to leave them on a good note. I visited Estrella's room then, and she was calm, peaceful, but still trapped aware. Maximiliano so needed to die for what he'd done to her, not to mention everything else.

"I'm not afraid anymore," the zombie told me. "Thank you."

"De nada," I said, and though it's Spanish for "you're welcome," it literally means, "of nothing." This time it was how I felt. I couldn't free her soul. I couldn't make her forget everything. I couldn't put her peacefully in her grave. All I could do was keep her calm and unafraid while we fought in

court to free her from Max's slavery.

Her eyes grew wide, and she reached out. I took her hand without thinking, and I felt her "die." One minute she was in there and the next she was gone. What the hell?

My phone rang, and made me jump. "Blake here," I said.

"Where are you?" It was Hudson.

"In the zombie's room, Estrella's room. She just went . . . dead. She's gone. I don't know what happened."

"I just got a call from the hospital, Maximiliano is dead. He died of his wounds."

"He couldn't die of his wounds," I said.

"Shit, I'll check it out."

"Make sure you have witnesses when you're with the body, Blake. You have a personal connection, don't give them room to blame you for this."

"I haven't done a damn thing."

"Just be cautious, that's all I'm saying."

"Fine, I'll keep a nurse or someone with me."

"Make sure you do." He hung up, and I went in search of our dead bad guy.

There was a nurse and a doctor with me. "One minute he was fine," Nurse O'Reily said. "I stepped out of the room for just a minute and then his monitors sounded and he was dead."

I put on a pair of surgical gloves. "I got a call that he'd died of his wounds, is that true?"

"He took three large-caliber rounds to the chest cavity, so yes, I'd say it's a safe bet that they'll list cause of death as gunshot," Dr. Pendleton said, frowning at me.

"I need to check one thing on him."

"What?" Pendleton asked.

"Magic," I said, and used my gloved hands to slip the sleeve of his hospital gown away from his left upper arm. I expected the gris-gris to be gone, but it was still there. Estrella's thick black hair was still woven tight around his arm. The colored hairs of his other victims were still there, too.

"It looks fine," I said.

"I read the notes, and you thought that was helping him heal the bullet wounds."

"The notes said it wasn't to be removed under any circumstances, and none of us even touched it," Nurse O'Reily said.

"You'd have to cut it off, and it's whole," I said.

"Did it just stop working for him?" she asked.

"I honestly don't know, I'm not an expert on this type of charm."

"I always hate the paperwork when magic gets in my hospital," the doctor said.

"Magic complicates everything," the nurse said.