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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:01

Little Henry was nude. I did a quick glance to see if he'd been bitten, but the only mark on him was dried blood all over his groin. His hair fell unbound around his shoulders; his face was traced with the dark edge of beard and mustache. I knew it was called a Vandyke beard, because Requiem, one of our vampires, had told me. Someone shone their flashlight on Little Henry's face and I had the impression that he was handsome and that his brown eyes were empty, as if there was no one home. Was he in shock? If the dried blood at his groin was all his, then he had a reason to be in shock.

The tallest zombie was barely six feet tall, so Henry looked like a movie-handsome island rising above a sea of rotted faces, except for that one part. It looked like they'd started eating there. At least two of the men said, 'Jesus.'

Travers called, 'Henry, Henry, it's me, Hank.'

Henry never even blinked.

Something was wrong, I just wasn't sure what.

The only movement was the crawling zombie parts scattered around the clearing, and then there was another shiver of vampire power, just a breath, not enough to kick the holy objects awake, and then the zombies moved in a blur of speed so that I knew the other police didn't see them. I had enough time to fire into the face of the one coming at me. I heard two other shots echo mine and knew it was Nicky and Ares. We fired and hit three of them, blowing their heads off just like the other zombies. They fell to the ground in three fountains of blood. It was too much blood for a zombie, closer to a person, or a vampire. I remembered that shiver of vampire power.

That left three of them to appear like magic in front of the police. It wasn't mind tricks; vampires are just that fast. One grabbed Becker and she screamed, but she also shot it through the chest. Her shotgun sounded like an explosion that left my left ear ringing, but the vampire fell to the ground with a hole where its heart should have been. Totally worth it.

Guns exploded behind us, and I had to shove Bush to one side to see Ares on the ground with one of the rotting vampires on top of him. Nicky was there grabbing it barehanded, to pry it off Ares. Travers had the last one on top of him. Horton was trying to get a shot as Travers tried to grapple one-handed with it. Nathaniel's leopard slashed at the zombie's face, and it reared back from the man and screamed in pain. Zombies didn't feel pain.

Nathaniel slashed it across the chest and the vampire, because that's what it was, screamed again, flashing fangs, and stumbled over some of the zombie parts on the ground. It was a rotting vampire, which is damn rare in America, but it was still newly dead, or undead. Old vampires don't stumble like that.

Nicky pulled the vampire off Ares with an arm around its neck and one arm pinned behind its back. He was strong enough to brute-force the vampire back from Ares and hold him. Ares picked up his gun and pressed it to the vampire's chest, growling, 'Stop struggling!' I hoped he remembered that at point-blank range even the handgun would go through the vampire and into Nicky.

The vampire that had been on Travers raised a hand that was rotted enough for bone to gleam in the flashlights. It touched its face, and only then did I realize that it was a woman. She turned and held out her hand toward ... me? It was a beseeching gesture, but wasted on me.

Bush said, 'Don't hurt her anymore.'

I looked at him and his face was growing slack, like Henry's. 'So beautiful,' he said staring at the rotting corpse.

I hit him in the face with the stock of my shotgun, and Becker put her shotgun to the back of my head. 'Can't you see how beautiful she is? We have to help her.' Her voice sounded dreamy, like she was half asleep. The gun was nice and solid against the back of my skull. If she pulled the trigger I was dead.

My cross flared into white-hot light, and so did all the other holy objects. The glow blazed so bright I was half-blinded by it, but the gun fell back from my head, and I heard Becker say, 'What the hell?'

I aimed at the rotting vampire, but she was gone. I stepped away from the officers and their holy objects, trying to see where the vampire had gone. I got a glimpse of her racing into the trees back the way we'd come. I started toward her, but Little Henry collapsed and I caught him without thinking about it. He was conscious and muttering, 'Beautiful, she's so beautiful.' Then he passed out, and I was suddenly holding the full body weight of someone who outweighed me by about two hundred pounds. Lucky I was stronger than I looked.

There was a cackling, growling sound that raised the hairs at the back of my neck. I glanced in the direction of the sound. Ares' body was a tangle of limbs and flowing fur, golden and spotted in the flashlights that were shining on him. I assumed he was shapeshifting so his wounds would heal. A spotted hyena the size of a pony stood shakily to its feet and then did that all-over body shake like a dog getting out of water. Then he raced across the clearing toward the trees.

I yelled, 'Ares, no!'

He kept running in a mile-eating lope, a blur of golden fur that vanished around the edge of the building. Then a second shadow streaked after him, and the black panther vanished, too.

'Nathaniel, no! Damn it!' I laid Little Henry in the waiting arms of the cops and started running after them. I pulled out my cuffs and handed them to Al. 'These are strong enough to hold the vampire.'

He took them. 'Can't we kill him?'

'We don't have a warrant of execution. If he dies before we have one, it's the same as any suspect dying in custody.'

Becker said, 'That thing doesn't have rights.'

I pulled the AR from the MOLLE straps and shoved the shotgun back into its place. I said, 'Yes, he does.' I ran toward the trees.

Al yelled, 'Don't go out there, Blake!'

Horton yelled, 'It could be a trap!'

I yelled back, 'I know!' Ares I might have left to his stupidity, but I couldn't leave my panther out there.

Nicky yelled after me, 'Anita, wait for me!'

I yelled, 'Catch up,' without looking back. I was well into the trees before Nicky fell in by my side. I ran full out back through the slapping branches of trees, the uneven ground, and that damn thin air. I heard the hyena give its unnerving call, and the panther shriek just after it. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

I promised myself that if Nathaniel went unhurt all night I would never, ever bring him to a crime scene again. The panther screamed again, and we ran until the world was just black blurs and the punishing slap of tree branches. I dropped my shields enough to sense him up ahead, and thought, What the hell, and dropped more of my shielding so I could reach out and try to sense the vampire. Sometimes I could, sometimes I couldn't, but tonight it was a could. I sensed her like cold fire up ahead near where Nathaniel's heat pulsed in my head, but there was something else. I sensed another vampire near them. There was a second vampire, and neither of the shapeshifters would know it before it was too late.

I found speed I didn't know I had and came up even with Nicky. He glanced at me and without a word sped up. I stumbled, but I stayed with him. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to breathe, let alone fight, when we got there, but by all that was holy I would get there.