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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:56

'The dead,' I said. I left the statement there for him to make what he would of it: the dead in this room, zombies, vamps, the victims - what dead?

'Why does eating flesh make them faster?' Rickman said, and I realized he was repeating himself.

'I don't know, but I do know that fresh blood allows zombies to speak and helps them be more "alive."'

'What do you mean, fresh blood?' he asked.

'Have any of you ever seen a zombie raised from the grave?'

They all shook their heads. I thought about explaining the whole ritual to them, but it was more information than they needed, and if they didn't have a background in some sort of ritual-based religion it would be way too much. 'We usually kill a chicken at the grave, or some animators cut their own body to get the blood, but either way you need fresh blood to do the ritual.'

'What else do you need?' Al asked.

'Is that all you need to raise the dead?' Rickman asked.

'You need the psychic ability to do it, which is damn rare. You need a buried body that is at least three days dead and you need to know the name of the body you're trying to call from the grave.'

'Why three days dead?' Al asked.

'That's minimum time for the soul to leave the body,' I said.

I got owl blinks from most of them, like I'd startled them or overcomplicated their little heads. It's not a look you get from veteran cops very often. It didn't make me proud; more crap, how did I explain this?

'You believe in the soul?' Rickman asked.

'Do you believe in God?'

'Then how can you ...' Al asked it.

I frowned at him. 'Finish your sentence.'

He shifted a little as if maybe my look and my request didn't match up, but he finished. 'Then how can you use black magic to raise the dead?'

'Oh, for pity's sake, don't you guys read the federal bulletins on religious differences between legal religious practices and illegal ones?'

Al flushed a little, and I didn't want to embarrass him. He was an ally and I would probably need them. Crap. 'Sorry, we're just a little podunk town sheriff department. We don't get all the federal updates.'

'Sorry, Al, I'm just a little tired of being accused of black magic and devil worshipping after Micah's aunt and uncle.'

'Geez, I'm sorry, Anita, really; they were horrible to you. I should have remembered that.'

'You mean Bertie and Jamie?' Gonzales asked.

'Talk to me later and I'll give you some stories that'll make her leave you alone.'

'That'd be great,' I said.

'Okay, I apologize again,' Al said, 'but if raising the dead isn't black magic, what is it?'

'Most people consider it vaudun, or voodoo, but since I'm still a card-carrying Episcopalian, it's not a religious ritual for me, it's just a ritual that helps me focus a natural ability with the dead.'

'Is that what it is to other zombie raisers?' Rickman asked.

I gave him a look. 'If I were a practitioner I'd accept voodoo priestess, but since I'm not, the term is animator, from the Latin "to bring life." I know the Boulder PD gets seminars on what's insulting and what's okay to say to various special groups, and animators are about as elite a group as we can get.'

'Elite, in what way?' Rickman asked.

'As in a specialized skill. There probably aren't two hundred people in the world who can raise the dead, at all. Of those, most can only raise the typical kind of zombies, slow, rotting corpses that can barely move like people; most can't even speak. Those of us who can raise the dead so they are able to answer questions with prompting are maybe fifty. If you want a zombie that is coherent enough to answer a lawyer's questions or say the last good-bye to loved ones, well, that narrows it down to maybe twenty-five, thirty. The only flesh-eating zombies I'm aware of have been raised by only the most powerful of us, maybe the top one percent of that. Someone who could raise multiple flesh-eating zombies like this is really rare. There are none in this state that I'm aware of.'

'So it would have to be someone from one of the major animating firms?' Rickman asked.

'I can't imagine anyone from the firms doing this kind of shit,' I said.

'Who else?' Rickman asked.

'There are good vaudun practitioners and not-so-bad ones. A really powerful one who had chosen to do dark magic could do it, but the only one left that I'm aware of is in New Orleans, and Papa Jim is eighty and a good guy from all accounts. There are powerful priests and priestesses, but that doesn't automatically mean they can raise the dead, no matter what the legends say about voodoo.'

'I thought all voodoo priests could make zombies if they were powerful enough,' Al said.

I shook my head. 'No, you can't just pray your way into the ability to raise the dead. It's a gift, like running a mile in under four minutes; practice makes you faster, but some stuff has to be genetic, inherent to you.'

'So you're saying that you couldn't do a spell evil enough to be given the ability to control the dead?' he asked.

I thought about that for a long minute. 'Honestly, I can't answer that. I don't do black magic or mess with the kind of stuff that bargains power for sacrifice or evil deeds.'

'Why does anyone do it?' Burke asked.

'Because they're too weak, or scared, or powerless on their own, and they want to be stronger, scary themselves, and feel powerful.'

'And you don't need any of that?' Rickman asked.

'Nope, do you?' I asked.

He looked surprised. 'No, but I'm just a detective. There's nothing the demonic could offer me.'

I laughed. 'Oh, Detective, there's a certain kind of evil that specializes in finding what a person wants most and pretending to offer it to them at a price.'

'Why do you say pretend?' Al asked.

'Because the demonic can only give you what God has created, or what someone else has; they can't help you create something new and fresh, because that's beyond them. They are a part of the creator's design, not part of the creating of it. They imitate, they bargain, they may know your darkest secret, or worst fear, but they can't create your fear, only exploit the one that's already there, and they can't make you do a damn thing, only know what you've already done and try to use it against you.'

'How do you know all this?' Rickman asked.

'One, I was raised a good little Catholic girl. Two, I've come up against the demonic a time or two.'

'You've fought demons?' Al said.

'Not the way you probably mean, but yeah.'

'And you won?' Rickman said, and he sounded skeptical.

'I'm here, and their victims survived, so yeah, I won.'

'Did you do an exorcism?' Burke asked.

'No, I've assisted a priest on one once; really don't want to do a traditional exorcism again.'

I just looked at him. 'If you have to ask, you don't want to know.'

'So you help priests fight demons?' Rickman managed to be even more disdainful.

'No, I worked with one priest on one exorcism, but the Catholic Church has excommunicated all of us animators, so I can't help now.'

'Excommunication must make demons harder to fight,' Rickman jibed.

'If your faith is pure, you're safe enough,' I said.

'Pure? Your faith is pure?' Rickman laughed.

'Don't be a dick, Ricky,' Dr Shelley warned him.

'She's sleeping with enough men to field a football team, how is that pure?'

Gonzales and Burke both called him on it, but I raised a hand and said, 'It's okay, I've heard it before, but I have a question for the detective.'

Burke looked skeptical, Gonzales looked worried, Al more curious, Shelley angry, and Rogers like he was ready to be elsewhere, but they all let me ask my question.

'If I were a man sleeping with that many women, would it bother you as much?'

He seemed to think about it and then finally shook his head. 'No, I guess it wouldn't. I wouldn't want the guy dating my sister, but ... no, it wouldn't bother me as much.'

'Why not, what?' he asked.

'Why wouldn't it bother you as much, if I were a man?'

He frowned, thought, and finally said, 'You're a woman, you're not supposed to sleep around. You're a beautiful woman. You don't have to be a slut.'

Dr Shelley said, 'Jesus, Ricky.'

Burke said, 'You aren't in my chain of command, but I will be speaking to your superiors about this.'

Gonzales was shaking his head. 'All I can do is apologize for him, Anita.'

I laughed, not the I-think-this-is-funny laugh, but the abrupt I-can't-believe-what-I'm-hearing laugh. 'I've heard all of it before, unfortunately, but this is the first time I've ever heard anyone's reasoning being that only ugly women sleep around. That's a new one.'

'Beautiful women don't have to; men chase them,' Rickman said, as if he truly didn't understand what he was doing wrong. Maybe he didn't?

'So ugly women sleep around because sex is the only way they can get men?' I asked.

'Please, shut up now, Ricky,' Gonzales said. 'You are embarrassing yourself and the Boulder PD.'

He looked from one to the other of the others, and his expression was plainly confused.

It was Dr Rogers, who had been so quiet through all of it, who said, 'He doesn't understand, does he?'

'Jesus, Ricky,' Dr Shelley said, 'I thought you just hated women in authority and were offensive, but you honestly don't understand that you're wrong.'

'Regardless, I will be reporting this incident to your superiors,' Commander Burke said.

'What?' Rickman said.

'You called Marshal Blake a slut,' Al said.

Gonzales sighed and smoothed his hand over his face. 'So that's why when the other women came forward and said you'd called them names, you were so surprised.' He looked at me. 'It's why none of the complaints stuck; he seemed so damned innocent.'

'Because he thought he was,' I said.

'It's like social dyslexia,' I said. 'He can't see it.'

Gonzales nodded again.

Burke said, 'Regardless, it's unacceptable behavior in an officer.' I was betting he hadn't realized he was sounding more military than cop, but once military enough, it's hard to shake all of it.

'Conduct unbecoming,' I said.

Burke nodded. 'Very much so. I apologize for all the discourtesy you have experienced since you arrived here. I thought the religious zealots upstairs would be the main problem, but apparently not.' He gave Rickman a hard, cold look.

Rickman might not understand why he was in trouble for talking to me, but he understood the look. He tried to give a hard look in return, but his face was uncertain. I think because he knew that not everyone in the room could be wrong, which made him wrong. Maybe, just maybe, he was rethinking all those accusations from other women and wondering if they had been right? One could hope that even men like Rickman could be taught.

Dr Rogers had to go back to his living patients. We were all stripping off the gowns, masks, and protective gear as I asked him, 'Is Micah going to be able to actually talk to his dad?'

'He's basically in a medically induced coma. Normally, I'd bring him out of it pretty quickly, but the last patient to die seemed to go into shock when the drugs left her system, so I'm going to wean the sheriff off more slowly and hope his body adjusts better.'

'You mean, one of the victims died just from coming out of the drugs?' I asked.

'Shit,' I said, softly.

'I am sorry, Marshal. I will do everything I can to give your fiance a chance to say good-bye to his dad.'

'I appreciate that, Doctor.'

He nodded, his face a little grim. It's never good when doctors make faces like that. I turned to the only thing I could do to help: police work. I got promises to have access to everyone's witness statements. Al went one better. 'Deputy Gutterman was with Rush when he was attacked. You can hear his statement firsthand.'

'We can do that next,' I said.

He shook his head. 'Gutter is out on another call. With the sheriff and me out of rotation, there's not enough people on our force to keep Gutter at the hospital, too.'

Burke said, 'I could send a couple of cars on extra patrols through your town if you need it, Al.'

'I really appreciate that, Commander. I may take you up on it, just depends on how ... things go.'

I was pretty sure that if I hadn't been Micah's fiance, he'd have said something different, because once Rush Callahan died, his small police force wouldn't feel compelled to keep manpower at the hospital. I could have told Al that I didn't have to be babied, but if Micah was with me, then we'd need it; better to get in the habit now.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as all the policemen knew exactly why Deputy Al had hesitated, and everyone wondered whether to say something or let the silence spread.

'It's okay, Al, I know that it's a matter of time for Micah's dad, unless we get a miracle.'

'Do you believe in miracles, Anita?' Al asked.

I nodded. 'Yeah, I do.'

Rickman snorted. 'Miracles are for Sunday school and Christmas specials. I've been a cop too long to believe shit like that.'

I started to say something, but Dr Shelley beat me to it. 'Be cynical on your own time, Ricky. I want Rush to have his miracle and get to see his son married to Marshal Blake.'

'Not going to happen,' Rickman said.

'Ricky,' Gonzales said in a low, angry voice, 'you are not going to kill Rush before he's dead.'

Rickman looked shocked, and again he didn't know what he'd said wrong. I was wondering if there was maybe something socially wrong with the detective, beyond just being rude. 'I didn't mean anything, Ray, I ... I want Rush to make it, too, but facts are facts.'

'Fuck facts!' Gonzales said, and he loomed over the detective. Ricky was six feet, the same height as Gonzales, but somehow the sergeant dwarfed the detective. Gonzales did what some people could do, he just seemed bigger. I was told I could do it, too, but I didn't have Gonzales's size, so it couldn't be as impressive.

Burke didn't step between them, but he moved up sort of halfway between where each of them was standing. 'Detective Rickman, go somewhere else away from Sergeant Gonzales for a while.'

'I'm sorry, Ray, I ...' Rickman shrugged, shook his head, and finally just walked away, but I was betting he was clueless on why the other man was rigid with anger.

Gonzales's voice crawled out of his chest, thick and dark with rage. 'I won't give up on Rush. I do believe in miracles, because I have to.'

I reached out to touch his arm and then stopped myself. Sometimes, when you're angry enough, any physical contact escalates the rage. I didn't want to do that, so I let my hand drop back to my side.

'I believe in miracles,' I said.

He rotated his neck as if the muscles hurt to move, so tight with the tension in his shoulders, and that movement alone let me know how close he'd come to hitting Rickman or how much he'd wanted to do it. 'It's all Rush has got.' It was a growl.

'Let's you and me get some coffee in the cafeteria,' Al said. He gave a small nod to let me know to leave him with his friend. Since I had no clue what to do for Gonzales and I was supposed to be here as moral support for Micah, I let Al take care of it. If I was hand-holding anyone emotionally it had to be my 'fiance.'

Burke walked me out through the last doors and the hallway beyond. Ares and Bram pushed away from the wall, going from at ease to at attention. Neither of them had been out of the military that long. They'd come back to the hospital just in time to trail me with the police. Micah had told me to take them because the police would be more comfortable with two ex-military guards than with Dev and Nicky's more civilian-muscle attitude. He'd been right, but the fact that he'd thought of it in the middle of the family chaos made me hug him tight and feel bad that he was having to think about anything but his dad. I looked at the two tall, slender, muscled men, one about as dark as he could get, and the other all honey and golden blond, even his tanned skin. I saw them so often together that I'd started thinking of them as a unit, the way you think of some couples, never alone, but always two. They'd traded military backgrounds with the police, and it had helped put the other men at ease. None of the guards were going to make Micah's family comfortable with their son, brother, cousin, and nephew needing bodyguards because of threats. But seeing Commander Burke nod and smile at them and exchange handshakes was a help here.