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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:46

I missed the heart-covered shorts when he stripped them off, because then I had to concentrate on his body, looking for birthmarks, or tattoos, or anything that made him not generic guy in a mask. I didn't want to look at his body, didn't want to search every inch of it for identifying marks. I wanted to look away, but if the woman in the film had to endure it, because that's what the eyes meant, then I wouldn't look away. I would not flinch and miss some visual that might lead us to these bastards--though part of me knew that if just watching the films would lead anywhere, the FBI would have found it by now. But I watched it anyway, because most cops believe that they will see something that everyone else has missed; it's the hope that keeps us all putting on the badge and gun every morning. When that hope runs out we find different jobs.

A man off camera told her to lie on the bed and she did it instantly, even while her eyes showed just how much she didn't want to do it. The naked man in front of the camera slid her panties down those long legs that were still covered in grave dirt, the one high heel still on. Someone had painted her toenails a soft pink, as if it still mattered with closed-toe shoes and a corpse. I expected more of her clothes to come off, but the naked man just climbed on top of her with no preliminaries, except to move her dress a little out of the way.

Zerbrowski breathed out, "Jesus," behind me.

I didn't look at him, I didn't look at anybody, and none of us looked at each other, because when watching this kind of shit, no one wants eye contact. You don't want the other officers to know you're afraid, or too emotional, and if anything this awful excites you, don't share that either. None of the other cops want to know.

The only plus was that the camera had moved back enough to catch the sex, so we couldn't see her eyes. She just lay there like the corpse she almost was, and that was the only tiny saving grace. He ended by taking his dick out of her body and doing the obligatory porn movie end to show that he'd actually gone.

The film ended there, and I felt my gut loosen a little. I'd watched it all; bully for me. Bully for us all.

"The production value goes up as the films progress," Brent said.

I turned and looked at him. "What do you mean?"

"The almost joke-worthy boxers go away, the camerawork gets better, and they put more personal touches around the bedroom to make it look less like a set and more real," he said.

"Is it always the same guy onstage?" Zerbrowski asked.

"For most of the films, but there's a second, younger-looking guy featured in the last two," Brent said.

"How many films are there?" I asked.

"More than I want to sit through again," Manning said.

I looked at her and saw a terrible tiredness in her eyes, as if just watching the one film had aged her. She shook her head. "Play the next one, Brent; let's just get this over with."

I didn't tell her she didn't have to watch them again; I let her handle her own shit. To do anything else would have been a breach of the "guy code" that all police work revolved around. The sex of the police officer didn't change the code. I only broke it with friends, or when I couldn't help myself, like Manning had when she asked about my engagement. That seemed like a long time ago, and Brent was right; pretty, pretty princess talk was looking a whole lot better.

THE FILMS WERE relentless. They eventually got her out of her burial clothes. We saw the zombie naked, in lingerie inexpertly put on her, so that I was pretty sure there was no woman on their crew. It was the fourth film where the zombie looked more rotted, which is something that happens to zombies eventually, no matter how good they look at the beginning. Zombies rot; it's one of the things that set them apart from ghouls, or vampires. Not all corpses are created equal.

I waited for the rot to spread, but it didn't. It just stayed with one eye filmy white, while the other was still clear and grayish-blue. Her skin had taken on a bluish tinge, and the cheeks had begun to collapse inward; the breasts were only perky because the implants held them up, but her body looked different naked now, more skeletal, but that was it. There were no other changes; the rot just stopped in midprocess, and her eyes were still full of terror. Sometimes they let her talk and she begged them not to make her do this, or that, but she seemed unable to disobey that male voice just off camera. I was betting it was the animator who had raised her from the grave. At first I'd thought the animator had raised her, taken his money, and fled, but now I knew he had to be nearby, because the rot had started and then stopped; for that you needed voodoo of the blackest kind.

"Well," Zerbrowski said, "I'll give the sleazebag props for stamina, but it's a shame that abuse of a corpse isn't a capital crime."

Brent paused the images; I think any excuse at this point to take a breather sounded good to all of us. "We thought they were just changing clothes on her to make it look like time was passing, too, at first," Brent said, "but notice the calendar on the wall."

"It's not just there to make it look more homey?" Zerbrowski asked. He made little air quotes around homey.

"Nobody puts a calendar in their bedroom unless it's the only space they have to live in," I said.

"Exactly," Manning said. "Did you notice?"

I thought for a second. "The month changed."

"Zombies rot, always; that's the rule that Anita taught me. It can't be a month later."

She nodded. "It's not proof that much time actually passed, but we think it may be their way of showing clients that they've done something unique."

"Her soul is back in her eyes, that wasn't unique enough?" I asked, and my voice didn't sound neutral the way I tried to sound this early in an investigation. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to pull off neutral with this case; sometimes you can't.

"You saw it," Manning said.

"We both saw it," Zerbrowski said.

"Would you have said her soul was back in her eyes, Sergeant?"

"I'm not that poetic."

Manning looked at me. "I don't think Marshal Blake was being poetic."

Zerbrowski looked from her to me. "I think I'm missing something."

"Don't feel bad," Brent said. "It took us weeks to figure it out."

"Figure out what?" he asked.

"Were you being poetic, Marshal Blake?" Manning asked.

"Enlighten us," she said, and there was something in the way she said it that I didn't like. It was just an undercurrent, but if I had to bet, I think something I'd said, or done, while we watched the films had made her suspicious of me. I wondered, if it hadn't been a male voice ordering the zombie around,

would they have looked at me as a suspect from the beginning? I hoped not, but a lot of people still saw my psychic ability as evil. Hell, the Catholic Church had excommunicated us all unless we gave up raising the dead, because only Jesus was allowed to do that. Biblical scholars had pointed out that four of his disciples had done it, too, but the Pope, at the time, had found comparing zombie-raising pagans to the disciples of Jesus Christ less than amusing.

"Her soul, her personality, whatever you want to call it, seems to be in the body, except you can't raise a zombie from the grave if the soul is still in residence," I said.

"So how do you explain it?" she asked.

"She was just a walking corpse in the first film. Her eyes were empty, she was an it, but between that and the first sex tape, that changed."

"How?" Manning asked.

"You've got witches and psychics on the payroll at the FBI now. You even have at least one animator. What'd they come up with?"

Brent added, "They all saw what you see, that she was in there somehow, but no one had a clue how it was accomplished."

"Do you know how it was done?" Manning asked.

I nodded. "I've seen it done once."

"Give us a name and we may have our guy," Brent said, all eager for a clue.

"It was a woman, and she's dead." I added, "I believe she's dead."

"Give us a name, we're good at finding people," Manning said.

"Dominga Salvador; she was the most powerful vaudun priestess in the Midwest."

"She went missing just after she challenged you."

I raised eyebrows at Manning. "Challenged me? You mean sent killer zombies into my apartment to kill me? If that's your definition of challenge, then okay."

"Some of the local law enforcement officers thought you'd killed her in self-defense."

"The local LEOs didn't trust me as much before I had a badge."

"I trusted you," Zerbrowski said.

I smiled at him. "You liked me; I don't know if you trusted me."

He grinned and seemed to think about it. "I can't remember for sure, but I know that long before you got your own badge you proved anything you needed to prove to me."

"Aw shucks, Zerbrowski, you're going to make a girl blush."

He grinned wider and offered me his fist. I bumped it gently.