Page 22

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:57

Three hours later we were back in the hospital and Micah's dad was awake. He raised his one good hand outside the blanket and Micah took it, holding his father's arm against his chest as if clasping him to his heart.

'Mike,' he said in a voice that was still thick with the last of the drugs they'd cleared out of his system so he could talk to his son.

'You know I love you, Mom, Beth, Jerry ... and all the kids.'

A look passed over his dad's face. He blinked the eyes that were so much Micah's except they were brown, the color Micah had started with. 'You know?'

Micah nodded. 'Once I saw Frost, Mom and Ty had to tell me.'

His dad smiled; it was a good one full of love and happiness, even here and now. 'We didn't plan on her looking so much like my side of the family.'

Micah hugged his father's arm tighter to him, nodding a little too rapidly as if he didn't trust his voice. Nathaniel and I stood in the corner of the room holding hands. We'd have waited outside except that Micah wanted us inside. His mom had been incredibly brave and waited in the hallway.

'You aren't upset about your mom and Ty and ...' He swallowed hard, closed his eyes, and let out a shaky breath. 'Everything.'

'Jerry's always mad,' Micah said.

His father smiled and gave a little nod, but a spasm passed over his face. The price of this talk was the painkillers being almost out of his system.

'Let me get the nurse; you're hurting.'

He swallowed hard again and let out another shaky breath. 'The painkillers put me out, and I don't want to miss this.'

'Okay,' Micah said. His voice was a little thick, but he wasn't crying. He would be strong for his dad, because that was who Micah was, what he was. Nathaniel squeezed my hand hard. I glanced up and saw his eyes shining with unshed tears. I would not cry, not here, not now, not in front of Rush Callahan. It might be the only time I met Micah's dad; I would not do it in tears. I wouldn't, damn it.

'Who's this?' he asked, and he was looking at us.

'This is Anita and Nathaniel.'

We moved toward the bed, still hand in hand.

'Marshal Anita Blake,' his dad said.

Those brown eyes so like Micah's moved to look at Nathaniel. He had a small frown between his eyes, as if he was thinking too hard or trying to think of a way to say something.

Micah unwrapped one hand from his father's arm and held it out to us. I took his hand and drew Nathaniel with me. Micah said, 'The three of us have been living together for almost three years.' He smiled, gave a small laugh, and said, 'I thought you and Mom wouldn't approve of me being with Nathaniel.'

His dad laughed, but it ended in another spasm that moved more of his body, as if he were having trouble not writhing with the pain.

He let go of my hand to reach for the call button. 'Let me get the nurse, Dad.'

'No,' and he gripped Micah's hand hard enough to cord muscle along his forearm. He looked up at his son with a fierceness on his face, almost rage. 'No,' he said again.

'Okay, okay,' Micah said. He put his hand back on his father's arm so that he was touching him as much as he could.

'How did you find out I was here?' his father asked.

Rush looked at me, and there was a look; it was a cop look. That look that hides most emotions but weighs you, measures you, and sees more than most people understand. 'She appealed woman to woman,' he said.

He smiled. 'I've read up on you, Marshal. How'd appealing to your feminine side go?'

I smiled. 'I did what she wanted. I got Micah here.'

He smiled a little more. 'You did. Thank you.'

'You are welcome; I just wish it weren't under these circumstances, sir.'

'Me, too, and no need to "sir" me. I'm Rush.'

'Then no need to "Marshal" me,' I said.

He took another breath, and the effort to keep it even was visible. 'Anita, then.'

'And Nathaniel,' he said.

'Yes, sir,' Nathaniel said.

'Rush,' Nathaniel said, and held harder to my hand.

'Mom said that you knew why I had been so horrible to all of you ten years ago.'

Rush moved his eyes back to his son. 'I saw some of the photos of what Chimera had done to other families. I understood then why you'd done it.'

I wanted to ask a question so badly, but this wasn't my Hallmark moment. I must have made some small movement, because Rush looked at me. 'Ask,' he said.

'He slaughtered and tortured his way across the country before his group got to St Louis. The Feds had a file on the crimes; they just didn't know who, or what, was doing it for a long time.' His body shuddered on the bed, and he gripped Micah's hand hard, not out of affection, but the way a woman in labor will hold on.

In a voice that was breathless with pain, Rush said, 'No nurse, not yet.'

'I don't want to use your time talking police work,' I said.

'You want to know why someone from the federal branch showed me the file.' His voice was recovering its strength, but the strain still showed on his face.

He looked up at both of us, and again that cop look crossed his face. He looked at me. The force of personality in his eyes was intense, and I prayed that I'd get a chance to see him whole and well. 'Does the name Van Cleef mean anything to you, Anita?'

I blinked and fought to keep my own cop face in place. Van Cleef was the name of one of the people who had helped train Edward, Marshal Ted Forrester, in covert operations after the regular military had trained him in special ops. Two other men that I knew had been associated with him: Bernardo Spotted-Horse and Otto Jeffries. They were both marshals, too, all of the preternatural branch just like me. I knew that Edward had been a professional assassin for years and that Ted Forrester was his Clark Kent disguise. Otto Jeffries's real name was Olaf, and when he wasn't training our military in dangerous things or being a mercenary in other countries, he had a hobby. He was a serial killer, but he only indulged when he wasn't on an assignment, so the government seemed determined to keep him too busy to play.

I honestly didn't know how much the government knew about Edward and Olaf's reality, but Van Cleef had helped train all three of them and some other men who the four of us had met about four years ago. The other men had died. We hadn't.

I'd been quiet too long, because Rush said, 'I see that it does.'

'What does the name mean to you?' I asked.

Micah was looking from one to the other of us, because he didn't know. I hadn't met him when I'd last played with Van Cleef's people. Edward, Olaf, and Bernardo didn't count. Edward was one of my best friends. Bernardo was a work friend. Olaf had a crush on me, because I'd hunted vampires with him, cut people up, killed with him, and he'd thought it was foreplay. The last time we worked together, Olaf had been attacked by a werelion and tested positive for lycanthropy. He'd vanished after that, and so had a female doctor. We'd assumed he took the woman and indulged his hobby. He'd written me a note and basically said he was going to stay away from me until he was sure I wouldn't make him a pet cat like I had Nicky. They had known each other professionally before I tamed Nicky.

'I've worked with Van Cleef's people,' Rush said.

I blinked, fought to keep my face empty, and tried to process that Micah's dad knew people as dangerous as I did.

'Why did they show you the file, and why did they have a file on Chimera and his people?'

'The military has been interested in trying to harness tame shapeshifters for a long time. Chimera interested them.'

'Did the military know what he was doing?' Micah asked.

'Not at first. They were organizing a hunt for him and his people about the time he, and you, got to St Louis. They were going to try to capture him. His DNA on his victims showed he was a panwere. They wanted to study him.'

'Study him,' Micah said; his voice held disbelief and the beginnings of anger.

'I didn't know until this year.' He closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath. Sweat was beginning to bead on his forehead. 'Anita, you interest them.'

'Because I'm a panwere, sort of,' I said.

He opened his eyes. 'The fact that you don't change shape makes them even more interested in you.'

'Are you warning us?' Micah asked.

'They may come to you and try to blackmail you into helping them.'

'Blackmail me with what?' I asked.

'Chimera and his people arrived in St Louis, we know that, but they never left.'

He was looking very steadily at me. I fought to keep as careful a face as I'd shown anyone in a long time. 'What do you want me to say?' I asked.

'Men like Chimera, groups like his, don't just vanish, Anita. But it was your bloodwork hitting the government grapevine that clinched it.'

'I don't know what you're talking about,' I said.

'You killed him. You did it up close and personal enough for him to put his claws, or teeth, into you. Strains of lycanthropy have DNA just like viruses. They know you're carrying some of his DNA inside you, but you have even more control. You have the military's dream of being faster, stronger, harder to kill, better at killing, and you never lose human shape.'

'That's not due to being a panwere,' I said.

I debated for a moment, and then answered. 'We think it's the vampire marks. Vampires can't become shapeshifters with modern strains of lycanthropy, and I was already tied to Jean-Claude when I got contaminated.'

Rush swallowed hard again, closed his eyes, and just breathed for a while. 'So without the vampire marks ahead of time, it won't work.'

'It may only work for me. I'm not sure it's duplicable at all.'

'If I don't wake up again, tell Gonzales what you told me. He'll be able to get it where it needs to go. Don't admit anything; just tell him that your control is based on your ties to the Master of St Louis. Tell them it's not doable.'

'What's not doable?' Micah asked.

'Making more of her.'

'You're joking,' I said.

'I wouldn't waste my time with Mike lying.' He looked up at his son. 'Do you love her?'

'Do you love Nathaniel?'

'Good, I'm glad. I love your mom, always have, and I love Ty. It works for us.'

'It works for us, too.'

'Did you know Aunt Jody is living with her girlfriend?'

Rush laughed, but it ended in him writhing on the bed, and then making a pain sound. 'Mom and Dad are starting to question what they did wrong, because two of their kids are living in unnatural sin.' He laughed again, but it was a harsh sound. 'Are Bea and Ty here?'

'Just outside,' Micah said.

He looked up at Micah, but his eyes had that fever shine to them, his face glistening with sweat. 'I love you, son.'

'I love you, too, Dad.'

Rush looked at me. 'You take good care of him, Anita.'

'Nathaniel, you love my boy?'

'Good. Take care of one another.'

Rush nodded too rapidly and too often. His hand convulsed around Micah's and then he said, 'Send them in. If I don't talk to you again, know I love you and I know that you are good and strong and I'm so happy you have two people who love you; that's more than most people ever get.'

Micah used one hand to touch his father's hair. 'I love you, Dad.' He turned to us. 'Get my mom and Ty.'

Nathaniel and I turned and went for the door. We left Micah with his father, saying the things you say at the end if you get a chance and you really do love each other.