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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:06

Captain Jonas was a large African American man who looked like he'd probably played high school ball, maybe college, but the desk job had started to round out his middle to the point where I wondered if he had to pass the same health standards as his patrol officers. He sat behind his desk glaring at us. The 'us' didn't include Rickman. He was on the way to the hospital. The 'us' was U.S. Marshal Susan Hatfield, Edward, and me. Apparently my doing something bad enough to get called on the carpet by Jonas had renewed Hatfield's fighting spirit and she was trying to get me kicked off the case again.

Hatfield was about five foot six, which made her almost as tall as Edward. He gained about two inches from his cowboy boots and she was in the same flat treaded boots as I was, so she seemed shorter, or he seemed taller. Her chestnut-brown hair was back in a small, neat ponytail. She moved her head as she gesticulated angrily, and the overhead lights picked out deep red highlights in her hair. She was about two tones off from going from chestnut to a nice deep auburn. She was thin, but it was a thinness that came from genetics and working out, not starving herself. Her forearms had lean muscle on them as she gestured, and what I could see of her upper arms wasn't bulk. She was all long, lean muscle, almost mannish hips, and small breasts. She was one of those women who managed to look delicate and feminine without having the curves to go with the triangular face. Her chin was a little sharp for my tastes, but then I wasn't shopping to date her, I was just noticing things while she ranted. She was basically accusing me of being too close to the monsters to make good choices. I wasn't really listening, because I'd heard it all before, and I was a little tired of hearing it from anyone. I just stood there and let her words wash over me like white noise.

It was Edward saying, 'Anita, Anita, the captain is talking to you,' that made me blink and pay attention again.

I looked at Edward standing a little behind and to the other side of Hatfield, and then I looked at Jonas behind his desk. 'I'm sorry, sir, but I didn't hear what you said.'

'Are we boring you, Blake?' he asked.

'I've heard the song and dance before, sir.'

Edward stepped forward in his best good-ol'-boy Ted persona. 'There's a beaut of a bruise blossoming out on Anita's face. I think she got her chimes rung pretty good when Rickman hit her.'

'Are you making excuses for her?' Jonas asked.

'No, sir, just pointing out that she just got released from the hospital and she may heal like a son of a bitch, but the healing isn't perfect or instantaneous. I'm just wondering if she's more hurt than she's letting on.'

Jonas narrowed his eyes at Edward and then looked back at me. 'You hurt, Blake?'

'My face hurts,' I said, but my voice was as empty of emotion as Hatfield's had been full of it.

'I can't see the bruise from here. Turn so I can.'

I turned to give him the right side of my face where the throbbing was beginning to spread into the beginnings of a really nice headache. It put me looking at Hatfield, who glared back at me.

I heard Jonas's chair slide back. 'It's swelling a lot for just a bruise.' He'd come around the desk so he could see it better. He pursed his lips, scowling. 'Ricky hit you just on the bone there. You think he cracked the bone?'

'I didn't hear it break,' I said.

'How bad does it hurt?'

'Not bad enough to be broken, I don't think.'

'You had broken bones?' he asked.

'So you know what it feels like,' he said.

He let out a big huff of air. 'You need some ice on it at least before it swells into your eye. Can't send you out looking beat to hell.' He went to his door, opened it, and yelled out at someone. 'Need an ice bag and some towels wrapped around it.' He seemed to expect it would get done, because he closed the door and went back to sit at his desk. He steepled his fingers, elbows resting on his stomach, because he'd gained too much weight to use the chair arms for it. It looked like a habitual gesture from before the stomach came on. He looked at us over his fingers.

'Marshal Hatfield holds the warrant of execution on these vampires, and she wants you and Marshal Forrester to mind your own damn business.'

'That much I heard,' I said.

'Technically, I'm not in charge of the three of you - you're federal - but we're the local PD who will be backing your move. Hatfield here is the local executioner. I know her. Why should I give either of you any consideration?'

'If we just needed to kill the vampires, fine,' I said. 'Wait until dawn and then chain them to a metal gurney with some holy objects and stake their asses, but we want information from them, and for that we need them alive.'

'They aren't alive!' Hatfield said, and there was way too much emotion in that sentence. She was one of those, a vampire hater. It was sort of like giving a Ku Klux Klan member a badge and a license to kill the racial group of his choice, and could get just as nasty.

'Legally, they are,' Edward said in a friendly, almost joking voice.

Hatfield turned on him with an accusing finger and said, 'Of course you'd defend Blake; you're sleeping with her.'

'Hatfield,' Jonas said, and the word was sharp.

She turned to the captain, and underneath the anger was uncertainty plain enough for all of us to see.

'Actually,' Edward said, 'I'm defending the law, not Marshal Blake. Legally the vampires in custody have rights as citizens.'

'The only reason I couldn't kill them tonight was because of the law that she' - and she pointed a finger at me without really looking at me - 'helped create.'

I resisted the urge to grab her finger and break it as it pointed in my face, but her face stayed toward Edward. 'If you kill the two vampires we have, then what, Hatfield?'

She finally deigned to look at me. 'Then we'd have two less vampires walking around.'

'So you're more about killing the vampires than solving cases,' I said.

'Once they're dead, it is solved,' she said.

I looked at Jonas. 'The two vampires in custody only went missing as humans about a month ago, or that's what the locals have told me. I'd come down here tonight to read over the files, but are they about a month missing?'

'So who made them vampires? Who made the rotting vampires that we killed in the woods?'

'The bastard that runs the bloodsuckers in this city made them!' Hatfield said, her voice strident and just this side of yelling.

'They were rotting vampires. That means that your Master of the City couldn't have made them, because he's not a rotter.'

'They're all walking corpses, Blake; they all rot in the end.'

'Everyone rots in the end, Hatfield,' I said.

'Fredrico has disavowed all knowledge of the vampires in the woods,' Jonas said.

'Of course he has,' Hatfield said. 'What else could he say? That he lost control of some of his bloodsuckers and they slaughtered people?'

'Entire families are missing,' I said. 'Vampires don't take out families. It's illegal to make children into vampires.'

'I've killed kid vampires,' she said.

She looked sullen and finally muttered, 'Two.'

'They were older than they looked, though, weren't they?'

'What's that supposed to mean?' she asked.

'I mean they looked like kids, but they weren't,' I said.

'They were kids,' she said, and sounded so certain.

'Did you talk to them at all?' I asked.

'Talk to them? Talk to them? Who talks to the vampires? Oh, wait, you do, and a hell of a lot more than just talk.'

Edward said, 'Have you spoken to any of the vampires before you killed them?'

She wouldn't meet his eyes full on before she said, 'No, they don't do much talking during the day.'

'Have you ever even served an active warrant?' Edward asked.

'Once you serve it, it qualifies as an active warrant,' she said.

'Have you ever been on a vampire hunt?' I asked.

She just stood there glaring at us.

'Have all your vampires been morgue kills?' I asked.

'No, I've tracked the bloodsuckers to their lairs and killed their asses in coffins and fucking sleeping bags. I've been lucky and found them in daylight most of the time, so there wasn't a lot of talking happening; besides, they're not afraid of me. I'm not the Executioner.'

I exchanged a look with Edward. Hatfield wasn't exactly a newbie, but she wasn't us. Maybe it showed on our faces, because she said, 'I am a legal vampire executioner; I do my job, I'm just not the Executioner,' she said. 'The vampires haven't given me some cute pet name yet.'

'They don't hand those out to every marshal,' Edward said.

'Yeah, I know you're Death,' she said.

For a second I thought Hatfield knew about Ted's big secret identity as Edward, because he'd been Death as long as I'd been the Executioner, but the nickname had been his before a badge and falling in love with Donna had tamed him down some. But the vampires had dubbed Edward Death once as an assassin/bounty hunter and once as a bounty hunter/marshal. It was convenient of them to use the same name twice.

I fought to keep my face blank as Edward drawled in his best Ted voice, 'If you know I'm one of the Four Horsemen, then you know that Anita has two earned names among the vampires.'

She looked sullen. 'Yeah, I know she has two pet names.'

'I don't,' Jonas said. 'Enlighten me.'

We both looked at Hatfield. She glared at both of us, then finally back at Jonas. 'Forrester is Death and Blake is War.'

'Who are the other two Horsemen?'

'Otto Jeffries is Pestilence, and Bernardo Spotted-Horse is Hunger.'

'I've met Spotted-Horse and I know Jeffries by reputation; they're both ex-military, and so are you, right, Forrester?'

'Then why is Blake "War"? She's never been military.'

'She has a higher kill count than I do,' Edward said, 'and the vampires see Death as a one-on-one killer, whereas War kills a lot all at one time.'

'You asked the vampires,' Jonas said.

'But why not Jeffries, or Spotted-Horse?'

'You've met Bernardo, right?' I asked.

'I've met him, too,' Hatfield said. 'He didn't seem that scary.'

'He's Hunger,' Edward said.

'I don't get it,' Hatfield said.

'The vampires said Bernardo looks good enough to eat, but no one's ever tasted him, so he leaves them hungry.'

Jonas seemed to think about it, and then he grinned wide and happy. He laughed. 'He's tasty like food, I get it.'

'Dangerous food,' Edward said. 'He has the fifth highest kill count of any marshal.'

'I've met Jeffries once. He had a way of looking at women when he thought no one else was looking, like we were meat, and that was before he caught lycanthropy on the job. Now I guess we really are meat to him.' She shivered, shoulders hunching a little, and then seemed to realize what she'd done and stood up straight, shoulders back.

The fact that she'd noticed made me think better of Hatfield. I knew Otto Jeffries as Olaf. Olaf's hobby was being a serial killer, never in this country, and never on government work, so if you could keep him working he was 'safe.' The military kept him busy, and since he got a badge he was even busier, and being a part of the Preternatural Branch of the Marshals Service meant he could torture and kill vampires and rogue shapeshifters to his heart's content, and as long as he killed them in the end, there were no rules to how he carried out the execution or how long he took to do it. Olaf was one of the scariest people I'd ever met, alive or undead, and that was an impressive list to be near the top of. Hatfield was right; he'd been that scary before he got cut up by a werelion and tested positive for lycanthropy. He'd gone AWOL after he got his test results, but he'd resurfaced a few months later. If he'd done anything unfortunate while he was learning to control his beast, the human authorities hadn't heard about it.

Micah had asked around in the preternatural community, and Olaf seemed to be playing the part of a nomad lion. He had stayed away from any group. Where he'd gone to learn to control himself, no one seemed to know. I actually wondered if he hadn't gone anywhere, if the serial killer part of him was actually so close to an inner beast that he'd understood how to control both?

Since Olaf had considered me his little serial killer girlfriend because we went out and killed people together, I'd avoided him before he learned to turn furry; now he was avoiding me as hard as I avoided him. He'd known Nicky before he became my Bride, and Olaf was afraid of my taming him the same way. Anything that kept Olaf away from me was fine in my book.

'I haven't seen Otto since he caught lycanthropy either.'

'You're a fur-banger; why would him being a wereanimal bother you?' Hatfield asked.

I turned and looked at her. 'What did you call me?'

'So you don't deny that you slept with Jeffries, too.'

'I didn't sleep with him, but I've learned two things. One, it's impossible to prove a negative, to prove I didn't do something. Two, when a woman sleeps with more than one man, she gets accused of sleeping with damn near everybody. But let's get back to you calling me a fur-banger.'

'I'm not familiar with the term,' Jonas said, 'so before I yell at someone for saying it, tell me what it means.'

'It means someone who fucks shapeshifters,' Hatfield said.

'No, it doesn't,' I said. 'It means people who will fuck any shapeshifter just because they are one. It's like badge bunnies are about cops.'

'Hatfield, that sounds pretty insulting to a fellow marshal.'

'I heard you were living with Sheriff Callahan's son, Mike, and another wereleopard from his group; that true?'

'The two blonds you brought in with you tonight. They're shapeshifters just like Rickman said, right?'

'You sleeping with them, too?'

I took a deep breath in and let it out slow. I counted slow, before saying, 'Yes.'

'So four shapeshifters,' she said.

'I never said I didn't date shapeshifters.'

'And Forrester here, too, right?'

I looked at Edward. 'Will it do any good to deny it?' I asked.

'If she wants to believe it, she's going to,' he said, but his voice was losing the Tedness and getting colder and more empty. The real Edward was beginning to seep through.

'And I hear your Master of the City flew to your side, so you're also screwing him.'

'You know, Hatfield, I was going to try to like you, but I don't think I want to work that hard; let's just hate each other and get it over with.'

'You're fur-banging coffin bait and helping Forrester cheat on his fiancee who has two kids; I was never going to like you, Blake.'

'Hatfield,' Jonas said, one word, sharp and unhappy with her.

'If I'm really doing Ted here, then why is Donna, that's his fiancee, okay with me being in the wedding? She's wanting one of my fur-bangees to be in the wedding, too. I know some of the other law enforcement people will be at the wedding; maybe when they see me standing at the altar with Donna and Ted, this stupid rumor will go away.'

Hatfield's mouth opened and then closed; unfortunately it opened again. 'If that's true, I'll apologize after the wedding.'

'Fine, what's the longest-term relationship you've ever had?'

'I don't see how that's any of your business,' she said.

'You call me names and get up in my face about my personal life. You spread rumors about me and Marshal Forrester, and you get insulted because I ask a simple question?'

She went back to looking sullen. There were lines around her mouth that showed she frowned a lot more than she smiled. Smile lines are happy exclamations; frown lines just makes you look old before your time. If Hatfield wasn't careful she was going to do the latter.

'Blake is being polite after everything you've said to her, Susan,' Jonas said.

She frowned harder but said, 'Three years. I was married for three years.'

'Okay. Micah Callahan, Nathaniel, and I have been living together for three years. I've been dating Jean-Claude, my Master of the City, for almost seven. The blonds, as you call them, have both been with me over a year.'

'It's not the same thing as being married,' she said.

'It's not my fault that it's illegal to marry multiple men at the same time; that's like saying that a gay couple isn't as serious as a straight couple because the straight couple is married, at the same time you make it impossible for the gay couple to marry.'

'Are you saying that you would marry all of them?' She made sure I didn't miss the disdain in her voice.

'Not all of them, but a lot of them, yeah.'

'A lot of them?' Again, she made sure the disdain dripped all over her words.

'We're still working out who's going to marry whom,' I said.

'Are you telling me that the engagement to Callahan's son is real?'

'Something like that, yeah.'

'It's not just so the sheriff can die knowing his son is okay, and not gay?'

I laughed; I couldn't help it. She obviously knew nothing about the sheriff's domestic arrangements.

'What's so funny?' she asked.

'Hatfield,' Jonas said, 'you may be our local vampire executioner, but you haven't been here long. You don't know all the local PD all that well yet.'

She looked from him, to me, to Edward, and back to Jonas. She knew she'd stepped in something, but not exactly what. I had no intention of enlightening her. I wasn't sure that Edward even knew about Micah's dad's love life, but no one living did better poker face than Edward, so it seemed like the only one in the room who didn't know that Sheriff Callahan was living with another man, and a woman, was Hatfield.

She decided to go back to something she was certain of and said, 'This is my warrant and I don't need Forrester or Blake looking over my shoulder. It's just two vampires to execute.'

'There were more than two vampires in the woods,' I said.

'You saw them die, Blake. From what I hear you helped blow some of them away with that arsenal you carry.'

I turned to Edward and said, 'Please tell me that someone burned the remains of the rotting vampires that we blew to hell with the guns?'

'Ask Hatfield; she was the marshal in charge by the time I got here.' Ted's cheerful voice was wearing around the edges so that Edward's coldness was leaking out. He didn't like Hatfield either.

'They all either were decapitated or had their chests blown open, and all of them had their spines damaged. That's dead enough,' she said.

'Didn't you follow what happened in Atlanta when the Master of the City went crazy?' I asked.

'Yeah, the police used flamethrowers on the vampire lair and ruined most of the evidence. They still haven't identified all the victims' remains. Local police say you were the one who told them they had to use fire to cleanse it, which is bullshit and overkill.'

'Fire is the only surety with rotting vampires,' I said.

'There are still people waiting for news of their loved ones, thanks to your suggestions in Atlanta,' she said.

'Anita's right,' Edward said, and his voice was cold now. 'Fire is the only way to make sure the rotters don't heal and rise again. Tell us you burned their bodies, Hatfield.'

She was looking from one to the other of us. 'Nothing keeps moving after a decapitation except zombies.'

'Exactly,' I said, 'and rotting vampires are a lot more like zombies than most vampires.'

'The Master of Atlanta may have needed fire, but that's a master vampire. They're all harder to kill. These were all newly risen, right?'

'New makes them easier to kill,' I said, 'but I burn all rotting vampires regardless of age just to be safe, and then sometimes I do the whole scattering of the ashes in different bodies of running water.'

'You are just trying to spook me now,' she said.

'I travel with a flamethrower when I drive,' Edward said, 'and sometimes I can even get it on the plane if I promise there's no fuel in it.'

'I heard you liked fire, Forrester. Were you a bed-wetter and terror to the neighborhood pets?'

Edward ignored the insult. 'Captain, where did the bodies from the woods get transferred?'

'The hospital morgue has a special room for vamp and lycanthrope undead.'

'Is it more heavily armored so they can't get out?' I asked.

'No, it's just separate so that the human dead don't get ... contaminated.' He sounded a little apologetic when he said the last word.

'To my knowledge normal dead just stay dead even if you mix them with a whole bunch of vampire and lycanthrope bodies, but are you telling us that all the dead from the woods are now in the morgue in the basement of the hospital where Micah and Nathaniel are? Where Sheriff Callahan is?' Jean-Claude and the rest of the vampires had gone for the hotel because dawn was only two hours away, and traffic accidents happened, and there was no saving throw between a vampire and sunlight, so he was safe, but he also had some of the most dangerous guards with him, so it was a mixed blessing, damn it!

'Yeah,' Jonas said, 'tell me for real, can these things heal enough to attack people again?'

'Rotting vampires are really rare, but I wouldn't trust anything short of burning them up like zombies,' I said.

'Agreed,' Edward said.

'You did burn up all the zombie parts from the woods, right, Hatfield?' I asked.

'We couldn't burn them in the woods; the fire danger's too high.'

'What did you do with the parts?' I asked.

'Once dawn came, they stopped moving,' she said.

I wanted to grab her and shake her, but I forced myself to be calm and dig my fingernails into my palms as I made fists so I wouldn't do it. 'What-did-you-do-with-the-zombie-parts?'

'They're in the morgue with the vampire bodies.'

'It's been dark for hours, Blake; if anything was wrong we'd have heard by now,' Hatfield said.

'Call the morgue,' I said to Jonas. 'If they say everything is hunky-dory, then Ted and I are wrong. I'm good with that. I'd love to be wrong.'

The captain called, because calling didn't cost him anything. I'd never actually seen a rotting vampire this young in undead terms, so maybe they got their uber-healing powers after a few years. Maybe a few weeks wasn't enough time to be that scary?

The phone rang a long time; I was getting nervous, and Jonas was looking worried.

'See,' Hatfield said, 'you've both been on the job too long; it's made you paranoid.'

'Crap,' Jonas said, and Hatfield and I looked back at the captain. 'No one answered at the morgue,' he said to whoever was on the phone. 'No, I do not want you to send someone down to check. This is Captain Jonas of Boulder PD, and I want all the hospital staff to stay away from the morgue until I have some officers check it out.'

Whoever was on the other end of the line was talking, and he was trying to tell them, no, he didn't want any of the staff to go down to the morgue. They wanted to know why and Jonas didn't want to tell them, because in case it wasn't vampires and killer zombies, but just a bad phone line, he didn't want to scare everyone at the hospital.

We didn't have time for this. I got my cell phone out and dialed Micah. It went to voice mail. I dialed Nathaniel's phone without letting myself think about why Micah hadn't answered. He was in with his dad, had turned off the ringer, that was it, that had to be it. Nathaniel would answer. When he picked up I thought my heart was going to choke me, so I sort of croaked out, 'Nathaniel, everything all right there?'

'Micah's dad is struggling in his sleep like he's having a nightmare. The nurse says he shouldn't be able to move with all the drugs in him.'

'Is he saying anything?'

'No, he's just struggling like a nightmare we can't wake him up from. Micah and his parents are in with him now. Why would you ask if he said anything?'

'Ares was possessed just by being bitten with the rotting disease. I wondered if it would work the same way on regular people.'

'Wouldn't Micah's dad have manifested some sort of weirdness by now if it worked that way on humans?' Nathaniel asked.

'Probably me being paranoid. Do you recognize any of the cops in the hallway? Anyone who I've met since we landed and who didn't hate me on sight?'

'Having more trouble with the local police?' Nathaniel asked.

'A little, but I really need to talk to someone there right now if possible.'

'Anita, what's wrong?'

I had to swallow past a lump in my throat as I said, 'They stored the vampire bodies in the morgue there, along with the zombie parts.'

'They didn't burn them?' he asked. That was my boyfriend; he knew more than Hatfield did.

'Fire hazard in the woods, and later I don't know. Do you recognize anyone in the hallway?'

'Good, can you put him on?'

'I love you, and you'll explain everything later,' he said.

'I love you, too, and yes, I will.'

He didn't argue, he just did what I needed. I loved him, but in that moment I loved him even more. The next thing I heard was his voice, distant, saying, 'It's Anita, she needs to talk to you.'

'Hey, Anita, what's up? Your boyfriend here has a serious face on him.'

I explained about the vampire bodies and zombie bits being in the morgue. Deputy Al said, 'The fire hazard makes burning anything in the forests too dangerous.'

'I accept that, but ... Al, Captain Jonas can't get anyone to answer the morgue extension. He's trying to get someone in the hospital admin to let him send someone to check on it without panicking anyone. I don't care about that, I just want someone I trust to see if the dead vampires stayed dead. I'm not sure if the zombie bits will be moving around, but it's the rotting vampires that I'm most concerned about.'

'We blew them to hell, Anita. Brain, spine, heart, all splattered. That's dead for a vamp, according to most of you marshals.'

'It is for most vampires, but rotting vamps are different, much harder to kill. Fire is the only sure thing, and even then I'd deposit the ashes in different bodies of running water.'

'Really?' he said, and sounded skeptical.

'Look, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but if there is even the faintest chance I'm right, then the vampires have been walking around down there for a while. I have no idea how long it took for them to heal the damage we did to them, but by now, if they can heal it and walk again, they will be.'

'Now you're scaring me.'

'Good, you should be scared,' I said.

'Shit, okay, I'll grab a couple of other men from up here and we'll go check in with hospital security and see if the morgue is full of dead people or not-so-dead people.'

'Thanks, Al, and watch your back.'

'Always,' he said. 'I'll give you back to Nathaniel.'

Then Nathaniel was on the phone again. 'I heard enough. So you think they killed everyone in the morgue.'

'It's a possibility, and I'd rather be paranoid and wrong than reasonable and really wrong. You and Micah be careful. Who's with you for bodyguards?'

There was a knock on the door and a uniform finally came through with an ice bag wrapped in paper towels. I took it, because they'd gone to the trouble, but I'd actually forgotten my face hurt. I had to use my right hand to hold the ice in place since I was using my left for the phone.

'Bram and Socrates. Micah sent everyone else home to get some sleep.'

'What?' Nathaniel said.

'I'd just like you and Micah to have more than two guards with you, that's all.'

Edward held up his car keys and just raised his eyebrows. I nodded, and we headed for the door.

'I'm not done with you, Blake,' Jonas called.

'You can yell at me later, and yell at me more if I'm wrong about the morgue. If I'm right, we don't have time to wait.'

'They're sending hospital security down to check,' Jonas said.

I paused with my hand on the doorknob. 'What's their security armed with?'

He asked the person on the phone. 'They don't know. They say the guns are black. Does that help?'

'Shit, did you have someone who doesn't know guns at all send security down to the morgue? Do they have any idea what they're walking into?'

'They aren't walking into anything,' Hatfield said. 'I did my job.'

'I hope you're right, Hatfield. God knows I hope you're right.'

Edward said, 'Captain, with respect, talk to someone on security personally and warn them, or they'll just be more bodies.'

Jonas hung up and redialed. 'I know an ex-cop on their security; I'll call him.'

I opened the door and said, 'Good.' I wasn't sure Jonas had heard me, and I know I didn't care.

Hatfield yelled after us from the open door. 'There's nothing wrong at the hospital. I did my damn job!'

Edward and I both ignored her. We'd pick up Dev and Nicky from the front of the station and head to the hospital. If I was wrong, we'd get down there and look silly, but if I was right, people would already be dying, or dead. If I was right, Micah and Nathaniel were just a few floors up from half a dozen rogue vampires and a whole bunch of zombie parts that would do their best to tear people to pieces. God, I hoped I was wrong.