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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:47

"Nice distraction there, Sergeant," Manning said.

"I don't know what you mean, Agent," he said.

Her lips curled down in a face that said, clearly, she knew that he knew exactly what he'd done. "It's going to take more than that to distract me."

"And that's the truth," Brent said. His partner gave him an unfriendly look and he held his hands out empty, as if to say he didn't mean any harm.

"Why do you think Dominga Salvador is dead?" Manning asked.

"Because I'm alive, and once a person like the Senora wants you dead she doesn't give up."

"How do you think she died?"

I tried to appear nonchalant and was glad that I did better blank cop face than I had years ago when I'd known Dominga Salvador, because I was about to tell a very big lie to the FBI. "I have no idea." I could feel my pulse speed in my throat; if I'd been on a polygraph I'd have failed.

Manning studied my face like she'd memorize the number of eyelashes I had. I stayed blank and slightly smiling, and felt my eyes dead and empty as last year's New Year's resolutions. I wanted to look away from her so badly it almost hurt, but I didn't. I knew exactly how Dominga Salvador had died, because I had killed her.

I DIDN'T FEEL bad about the death, because she'd been trying to force me to murder someone else as a human sacrifice at the time, but it was still technically murder. She'd also been the first person I ever killed with zombies that I'd raised from the grave, which was still an automatic death sentence. It fell under the magical malfeasance laws; any practitioner of psychic or supernatural gifts who used such as a method of murder, or violence outside self-defense parameters, was subject to the strictest enforcement of the laws therein. Strictest enforcement was execution, which is pretty damned strict.

It helped me meet Manning's eyes and control everything but my pulse. I even got a handle on that by thinking about quieting my breathing for shooting accuracy. Calm your breathing, and your heartbeat has to follow, eventually, and with that, your pulse will slow, eventually.

"My grandmother would have said butter wouldn't melt in your mouth, Marshal."

"I've never understood that saying; I mean, I know it implies you think I'm lying, but why would butter not melt in someone's mouth, and what has that got to do with being truthful?"

Manning frowned at me.

"I think it implies you're cold-blooded, or something," Brent said.

We all looked at him.

He had the grace to look embarrassed. "Blake asked, and my gran used to say it, too."

"Just stop talking," Manning said.

He made the little push-away gesture again. "I'm done talking, except we're here to get Blake's help, and accusing her of murder probably isn't the way to get her to share information with us."

"Why are you still talking?"

"Because I'm your partner, and I would do damn near anything to catch these bastards. I thought you felt the same."

Manning looked away first. "Would you really let a murder go?"

"I read up on Dominga Salvador, and she had the idea to turn zombies into sex slaves first. She just didn't live long enough to do it."

"We only have Blake's word for the Senora's plans," Manning said.

"Are you really accusing Marshal Blake of murder after coming to us for help?" Zerbrowski asked, and there was no joking in his tone now.

Manning rubbed her temples and shook her head. "I don't know, yes, no, not really. Do I think that Blake killed her? Probably, but if someone sent a pack of killer zombies into my home to attack me . . . we're allowed to defend ourselves from the monsters."

She looked at me and her eyes weren't just tired; they were haunted. "You haven't seen all the videos. They raise two other women and they let them rot more than this before they put their souls back into their bodies. There's a video of the moment that the second woman sees herself in the mirror. Half her face is rotted away, but she can still scream." She covered her own face with her hands and made a sound that was half exasperated sound, half muffled words.

"Sorry, Agent Manning, didn't quite catch that," Zerbrowski said.

She lowered her hands and looked at him. "I said I've heard a lot of bad screams. An amazing number of these . . . evil bastards make video or audio of their victims. I thought I'd heard the worst screams, but that one was one of the worst things I've ever heard." She turned to me. "If I thought you had done this I'd put the needle in you myself, but I'm just groping in the dark, Blake."

"What do you want from me, Manning?"

"The report you gave when you helped get a warrant to search Salvador's house talked about human sacrifice and mentioned her scheme to use zombies as sex slaves, but I feel like you left out things, because if you overexplain the magic theory too much most judges won't sign off on things. What did you leave out? How are they doing this? One of the last zombies seems to rot, then stop, and then rot worse; why?"

"You think I know all this because I reported Salvador for abuse and malfeasance years ago?"

"That and our new agent Larry Kirkland says that if anyone knows how this is being done, it would be you. He says you're the most powerful animator he's ever met, and that you may know more about the undead than anyone alive today."

"I bet that's not how he said the last part," I said.

She fidgeted in her chair. "I'm trying to keep it friendly after I had my little meltdown, Marshal Blake."

"What did Agent Kirkland actually say?"

"Anita," Zerbrowski said.

"Let it go; Larry complimented your abilities, just let it go."

I didn't want to, because I was betting Larry had said something that implied my expertise came from being way more friendly with the undead than his God-fearing faith would allow him to be. Once Larry and I had been friends, hell, I'd trained him to raise the dead, but we'd stopped being friends when I stopped taking the morgue kills he felt morally bad about. Morgue executions were vampires chained to reinforced metal gurneys, holy objects all around, and the only legally accepted method of execution was a stake through the heart, then decapitation in most states. Have you ever tried to pound a hardened wooden stake through a piece of bone-in ham? Try it sometime; it's not easy. Now imagine the "pig" is still alive and begging for its life. I'd had far too many morgue kills where they pressured me into killing the vamp after dark when it was awake, so that they didn't have to risk it breaking free before dawn and hurting more people. Ah, for the idealism of youth when you believe every piece of crap someone tells you. I'd requested permission to use a shotgun at close range as a more humane method of execution, but had been refused, because silver-coated ammo is expensive and I could damage the very expensive reinforced gurneys that the vampires were chained to. Finally, I'd stopped doing morgue kills altogether when I realized most of the vampires chained to the tables for staking hadn't ever hurt anyone. "Three strikes and you're out" for vampires used to mean if you were convicted of three crimes of any kind, you got executed. Larry and I had been involved in the case that had helped give vampires a chance to go to jail for misdemeanors instead of just being killed. Good outcome, but that case had been a turning point in our friendship. After that he was like a born-again vegan who saw all meat as murder, and I was the carnivore.

"Okay, Zerbrowski, okay."

He smiled and patted my hand. "Thanks."

"What did you thank her for?" Brent asked.

"Listening to me," Zerbrowski said.

"Blake does have a reputation for not listening to people," Manning said.

I gave her a not entirely friendly look. "I've mellowed."

She gave a little smile and shook her head. "Haven't we all."

I nodded. "You either mellow or find a new career."

"Isn't that the truth?"

Three of us nodded; Brent hadn't been on the job long enough to understand. I felt all veteran-y.

"I can tell you how Dominga Salvador said she was doin

g it, but I never saw it done personally. She had two zombies like the ones in your videos; one was almost perfect and could have passed for human, but the other one was like you're describing, more decayed. Both of them looked out of their eyes. They were in there just like this one is."

"Our experts say it's theoretically possible for someone trained in voodoo to capture the soul at death and keep it in a jar or other magical container, but they don't know anyone who's actually done it. It's all 'my great-great-grandfather's uncle's brother did it,' or knew someone who had done it. We've followed up every rumor of a bad-ass voodoo priest or priestess, and they were either fake for the tourists, or law-abiding citizens who were horrified that their religion had been corrupted."