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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:03

Dr Cross unhooked the IV and let me use the bathroom but wouldn't let me get dressed. 'Not until after the X-ray comes back clean. I get the feeling if I let you get dressed you'll just make a break for it.' He laughed.

Edward said, 'He does know you.'

I scowled at him, but I took what I could get and went into the bathroom. The door shut and I got the first look at myself in the mirror. My curls had gone every which way. My skin was pasty pale. What makeup I'd been wearing had vanished long ago. My eyes had the beginnings of dark circles under them, which I almost never got. I looked rough. The fact that Micah and Dr Cross had reacted to me the way they had could only be chalked up to vampire mind games, or otherwise I was seeing something totally different in the mirror than they did. I guess we are our own harshest critics.

'Did you say something, Marshal Blake?' Dr Cross asked, which meant he might seem ordinary, but he had more-than-human hearing.

'I'm fine, just looking at my hair.'

'You look fine,' he said through the door.

I ignored him. I was able to finger-comb my hair into some semblance of order, but what I really needed was a shower and a fresh start. Food, of all kinds, would help with the rest. I brushed my teeth, among other things, and gave Micah extra credit points for kissing me passionately before I'd tidied up. If things had been reversed I'd have kissed him silly, too. Love means the niceties matter less, especially when you're glad the love of your life is still alive. Yeah, that makes everything better.

I took the lap blanket that the doc offered because I knew the gown got chilly as they pushed you through the hospital. I'd been hurt often enough to know that for a fact. Once settled in the chair, I asked, 'Where's my stuff?'

'You have a bag of clothes by the couch,' Dr Cross said.

'She doesn't mean clothes,' Edward said. He lifted a small backpack from beside the chair he'd been sitting in. 'I got your stuff from the locals when I arrived.'

'My body armor wouldn't fit in there; please tell me they didn't cut it off me in the ambulance.'

He smiled. 'Your armor is safe. I gave some of your things to your guards.'

'What's in the bag?' I asked.

'Enough so you won't feel unarmed.'

'I really don't think you'll need to be armed just to go a few floors to X-ray, Marshal Blake.'

Edward was already unzipping the backpack. 'You can argue with us, but you're going to lose.'

'So I should just give up gracefully, is that it?'

Edward nodded. 'That's it.' Edward handed me the Browning BDM.

I checked it automatically, popping out the clip to make sure it was loaded, though he was the person I trusted most on the planet to give me back my gun. I put it under the thin lap blanket. The weight of it was comforting, my hand on it under the blanket even more so.

'You want any of the blades?' he asked.

I shook my head. 'No, I'll just have to take them off again when we get to X-ray.' I reached out for the whole bag.

'I'm promise not to walk off with your stuff if you let me carry it.'

I thought about it, I really did, but in the end I smiled and nodded.

'Thanks,' he said, and I knew he was thanking me for trusting him with my stuff when it could all sit in the chair. It didn't matter that he'd been in charge of it for hours while I recovered; some things aren't about logic, they're about comfort. I liked having my weapons at hand at any time, but the whole being-shot thing made me really not want to be unarmed right now.

When Edward opened the door and let Dr Cross push me outside, I was even gladder I had the lap blanket, because there was a damn crowd in the hallway.

There are always police in the hospital when another one is hurt, especially in the line of duty. I don't always have that big a crowd because I'm not usually local and I tend to rub people the wrong way, but I would never complain about the brotherhood in Colorado, because the hallway was packed with Boulder PD, state troopers, and uniforms I didn't recognize. There were plainclothes, too, with their badges at their waists or on lanyards like Edward's.

In among all the handshaking and nods of 'Blake ... Marshal ... ma'am,' I caught a glimpse of Dev and Nicky against the far wall. They were just there, strangely unobtrusive for two such big guys. I wasted a smile on them and got some back. They didn't try to push their way through the police to me, just let me know they were there. I was probably as safe as I'd ever be in the ring of police. Bodyguards seemed redundant, but I was still glad to see them. Not so much for the potential protection, but in case the ardeur fought its way through the puzzle that Edward had given me. Right now the local PD liked me, thought I was one of them, but one vampire-power-induced orgy involving them and me would so not be on their Christmas lists.

Dr Cross fielded the questions and kept us moving down the hallway. Edward, in full good-ol'-boy Ted Forrester mode, helped the doctor keep us moving. Nicky and Dev trailed behind us. I couldn't see them, but I could feel them like a warm anchor through all the busy, well-meaning human energy like a blowtorch in a field of matches. It all burns, but some people burn brighter. I could feel that brightness.

My stomach cramped so hard that I bent over. Dr Cross bent over me. 'Are you all right, Marshal?'

I let out my breath in a slow, steady flow and said, 'Rapid healing takes energy. I think I need food.'

'Of course, I should have thought of it.' We stopped long enough at the nurses' station for him to order the food.

We had fewer people in our parade as they split off and went to check on Sheriff Callahan and just go do their jobs. Some of the uniforms were probably from small departments like Al's, so they couldn't afford to have all their manpower here.

The door at the end of the hallway opened and Officer Bush walked through. His short brown hair was still hat-flattened, as if he'd been in his patrol car for a while and was still fresh enough from the academy to wear it behind the wheel.

'Marshal Blake, good to see you awake.'

'Good to be awake, Officer Bush,' I said, and smiled.

'I just wanted to come and tell you personally that the vampires that started all this will be dead before dawn.'

'What are you talking about?' I asked.

'The vampires that created the flesh-eating zombies are going to be executed tonight.'

'They aren't the vampire that caused all this.'

He frowned. 'We were there. We saw them do it.'

'You heard what she said, Bush. She was possessed by a much bigger, badder vampire than she is.'

'Everyone lies when they get caught, Blake, you know that.'

'Yeah, but in this case she didn't lie. I felt the other vampire's energy. I felt him on her and knew when he left. His energy was so strong that I kept expecting to see him standing there, but he didn't need to be standing there to control her. He's behind the rotting infection that Sheriff Callahan has, and he's what drove Ares insane and made him attack people. The two vampires we took into custody are our only witnesses to the real vampire behind all this; if they die, then our best leads go with them. Kill them if you want, but the master vampire behind all this will just make more little vampires and keep spreading the infection. Killing the two in custody only helps the bad guys, because then I can't question them.'

'But they're not talking to us, they're not telling us anything,' Bush said.

'I know the questions to ask, Bush. If they're dead before I get there, I can't ask anything. I can't find out who did this to them.'

'Did this to them? What do you mean?'

'Both those vampires are newly dead. They aren't a month old as undead, which means they're some of your missing people. Did you check their fingerprints against the missing people?'

'They're vampires with an order of execution on them; we don't have to do anything but execute them.'

'I know that, but I'm telling you that if they die you've just made it harder to find this bastard.'

'Who's carrying out the warrant?' Edward asked.

'It's considered courtesy to offer the execution to the marshal who was injured or lost people hunting the vampire,' Edward said.

'We thought Marshal Blake would be in the hospital a few days, at least.'

'I'm a medical miracle. I need those vampires alive to be questioned.'

'I'll call, and I'll get on site to do what I can,' Edward said. He put the backpack with all my dangerous toys in the wheelchair to one side so I could still have a clean draw to the Browning under my lap blanket. Edward never forgot.

'I'll go with you, and I'll radio in,' Bush said.

'Then radio it in,' I said.

He hit his shoulder mic as he and Edward went for the far door. Bush was talking to someone before they hit the door. I trusted Edward to do as much as he could to keep the two vampires alive in custody. I was going to be so pissed if Hatfield executed the only two people who I was sure had actually seen the big bad vampire face to face. Without them, we were back to square one.

A tall officer with short dark hair and brown eyes so dark they were almost black said, 'So the Executioner is saying, Don't execute the vampires.'

I looked up at him in his civilian clothes, but there was something about how tall, how terribly in shape he was, muscled, and just a level of energy to him that made me guess he was SWAT or something like it. Special forces military branch tastes the same sometimes.

'I'm flattered that SWAT came down to keep me company,' I said.

The faintest surprise went through those very dark eyes. 'What gave me away?'

I waved sort of vaguely at him. 'This.'

He frowned. 'You just motioned at all of me.'

One of the other officers patted his belly where it was pushing over his equipment belt. 'Yeah, Yancey, you don't have all the equipment that the rest of us have.'

He laughed. 'If I had all the equipment you have, Carmichael, I'd get kicked off SWAT.' He patted his own very flat stomach. I was betting he had washboard abs, just a thought, no harm in it. The next thought had harm in it; I wanted to lift his shirt out of his pants and see if I was right.

I called out, 'Nicky, can you take the bag?'

The police had to make room for him to come to my side. Most of them gave him little eye flicks. Officer Yancey of local SWAT looked at him in that way that very fit, very tough men do when they're not used to seeing men who make them wonder, Could I take him? Would I lose? Yancey was taller than Nicky, though not taller than Dev, but Nicky's shoulder spread always impressed big men who thought they had nice shoulders until they had to stand next to Nicky.

I smiled, I couldn't help it, and the amusement helped push back the impulse to touch strangers.

'Some of the local PD are really not happy with you surrounding yourself with shapeshifters after what happened,' Yancey said.

'My man was turned against us by vampire mind games just like the officers, including Bush, were mind-fucked earlier by the same vampires.'

Yancey held up his hands as if to show he was unarmed. 'SWAT is delivering more and more warrants as backup for the executioners. We train for what to do if one of us is vamped and turned against the rest of us. You did one of the things that we all pray we never have to do, Marshal Blake. I'm here because SWAT wanted you to know that we respect what you did and we're sorry you had to do it. Hermes of St Louis SWAT speaks highly of you.'

'Thank you,' I said, because what else could I say.

'Boulder won't allow psychics on SWAT yet. The report that vetoed it said they found that most psychics couldn't use their special abilities and do their duty as officers at the same time.'

'Which means most psychics can't shoot straight and use their powers at the same time,' I said.

He smiled. 'Something like that.' Then he looked at me, very seriously, as if he were weighing and measuring me. 'But you can, can't you?'

I nodded. 'Yes, I can.'

'That was a hell of a shot to make under the circumstances, Marshal.'

'It was Ares who taught me how to make that shot,' I said. I took a deep, even breath, because my chest was tight, my eyes suddenly hot. God, I was going to cry.

Nicky put his hand on my shoulder.

'What do you mean?' Yancey asked.

'The man I killed, Ares, was a scout sniper before an enemy attack left him with lycanthropy and they forced a medical discharge on him. Handguns and up-close fighting I'm great at, but long guns, shooting distances, wasn't my thing. He taught me.' I raised my hand and put it over Nicky's where he touched me. His fingers wrapped around mine and it helped me gather myself. I gripped my gun under the blanket, digging the butt of it hard into my hand. The solidness of it helped, too. Funny, that holding a gun made it easier to deal with the sorrow of using a different one.

'I heard he was a scout sniper and that he tracked the vampires for you. I didn't hear that he taught you to shoot.'

'He taught me to shoot far away. I learned to shoot close in a long time ago.'

'I'm sorry, Marshal, I didn't mean to bring up anything ... hard.'

I nodded and looked down at my lap. I didn't trust myself to look up. I wasn't sure what would upset me more - seeing too much sympathy in Yancey's face, or too little. Better not to know.

'I really need to get Marshal Blake into X-ray,' Dr Cross said.

'Yes, of course,' Yancey said, and backed up.

Dr Cross pushed me toward the elevators. Nicky stayed at my side, hand still in mine. Dev trailed us. The other officers stayed back, and I was grateful. When the elevator doors closed and the only stranger with us was Cross, the first hard, hot tear cut down my cheek. Nicky started rubbing his thumb across my fingers as we held hands. Dev came to the other side of me and touched my hair. 'It's okay, Anita,' he said.

I shook my head, and the tears fell faster. I finally managed to say, 'It's not okay,' and then I gave myself over to the grief and the horror and the unfairness of it all, and I wept.