Page 52

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:08

The front desk clerk of the very nice hotel took one look at the four of us as we walked through the doors at an hour till dawn and assumed that something was wrong at the hotel. I wanted to see Jean-Claude before dawn, so I didn't have any patience left for it.

'We're just going to our room,' I said.

He looked us up and down, and his face said clearly he didn't believe we had a room in his fine establishment. I think the room rate was probably above most cops' salaries.

It was Edward who touched my shoulder and made me realize I'd taken a step toward the desk clerk. He spoke under his breath. 'Ease down.'

I tried to swallow past the pulse that was suddenly trying to jump out of my throat. What was wrong with me? I nodded to let him know I'd understood.

It was Dev who smiled and charmed the man, flashing the room card that he had. He'd actually seen the rooms while I was off in the mountains hunting vamps with Nicky and Ares. Thinking his name caused that tightening of the chest, the reaction in the gut that would happen for a while. At least he hadn't been a lover, and the moment I thought it I felt bad for being relieved that I hadn't been closer to him, but I was relieved all the same.

We had a suite of rooms, and basically Jean-Claude had taken over a floor of the hotel, which was why we'd invited Edward to come stay the night. There'd be a bed somewhere, or so Dev had said. I might not want him as my backup on a warrant of execution, but I trusted him to report the rooms and the sleeping space available. There are a lot of people I trust to coordinate my life who I wouldn't trust to guard my life, just as there were people I trusted at my back in a fight who would have sucked at the organization part of things. We all had our skills.

I watched Dev, his hair still slimed on one side with drying blood, charm the frightened hotel clerk. He wasted that smile on him that was usually reserved for sexual prospects, and either the clerk was into guys or Dev was just that charming. I didn't know which, and if it would get us up to our rooms sooner I didn't much care which.

The three of us went to the elevators, and Edward had me hold the door while he and Nicky loaded in the bags of weapons; normally I would have insisted on helping load, but it would be bad to have the doors close with our bags in there and none of us with them. So I held the door while the men loaded until there was barely going to be room for us to stand. Edward leaned on the open door, holding it, and Nicky and I got in, and when he put his arm around me I didn't protest. I cuddled under his arm, as close as the body armor would let me get. I let him hold me and tried not to feel much, except that it felt good. Dev trotted up to us, and Edward stepped in and let the doors close.

'He offered us help with our bags,' Dev said.

'Is the clerk into guys, or is your ability to charm devoid of sexual promise?' I asked.

He grinned at me. 'Devoid of sexual promise; you must not be as tired as I thought.'

Nicky hugged me a little tighter, and I scowled at him, too.

Dev's grin did not fade; in fact it widened. 'Yeah, the clerk is into guys.'

'You imply that you might see him later?' Edward asked.

'Nothing as strong as that,' Dev said.

'What does that even mean?' I asked, and it sounded grumpy even to me.

'It means he didn't pimp himself out, but he let the clerk think that he liked guys, too,' Nicky said.

I glanced up at him from under his arm, so it felt like being a child and too small and ... I moved out from him.

'What did I do wrong?' he asked.

'How did you know that?'

'Flirting for distraction is the same no matter if it's women or men, Anita.'

'You're saying you've done the same thing.'

'I've been the young, cute distraction on a few jobs back when I was with my first lion pride, so yeah.' His face was neutral as he said it, empty of emotion. It was the way he hid when he was feeling something, because Nicky wasn't a born sociopath; his feelings had gotten tortured and abused out of him. It meant he still had feelings, but they were ... hidden and a little twisted.

'You do more than just flirt on the job?' I asked.

'Don't do this,' Edward said.

I glared at him. 'Do what?'

'Pick at the people you love, because you've finally got a minute that isn't an emergency and all the feelings you've been shoving down inside are trying to find a way out, and if you won't give them a nice clean exit wound, they'll tear their way out of your life and everyone near you.'

We looked at each other. I wanted to ask who he had torn up that had been close to him, because I knew it wasn't Donna and the kids; whoever he was referring to had been before that, before I knew him. If we'd been alone I would have asked, but he wouldn't answer in front of anyone but me, and maybe not even me.

The doors opened and Dev moved first like a good bodyguard. It moved Edward to check the hall and Nicky to move so that his broad body blocked me from view, though knowing that I loved him meant that him taking a bullet for me had taken on a whole new suck.

There was a murmur of male voices, and then I heard more clearly, 'Sorry, man, but it's orders.'

'What's wrong?' I asked, fighting the urge to peer around Nicky's body.

Edward answered from the door that he was holding open. 'Claudia is in charge of the detail and apparently she's upset.'

'Why? What'd we do?' I asked.

'You aren't in trouble,' Dev said. 'We are.'

'Apparently, for letting Anita get hurt.'

'When I'm on the job you guys can't protect me.'

A second male voice said, 'Claudia got put in charge of Jean-Claude and Anita's safety, so she's going to yell at both of you.'

'Lisandro, is that you?' I stepped around Nicky then, and he let me, only sliding his hand into mine so we walked out hand in hand.

'It's me,' he said, and there he was, six feet of tall, Hispanic handsome, his long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He was wearing a black T-shirt under a black suit jacket, over black jeans and boots. The suit jacket didn't hide the gun at his waist as well as it would have if his waist had been less slender and his shoulders a little less broad, but Lisandro did the same workout as the other guards, and unlike Dev he worked hard at it. He was built more slender than Nicky and would never muscle up like that, but what muscle he had looked good on him. He was better in a fight than he looked, but ...

'You aren't supposed to travel out of town on guard work,' I said.

'When Jean-Claude decided to come out here, Rafael wanted the best guarding him, so Claudia is in charge and I'm her second-in-command, because we are the best.' He said it with no trace of attitude, just a statement of fact.

'Hey, that makes me the best, too,' and it was Emmanuel, who was five foot eight with short, pale brown hair and the only blue-gray eyes I'd ever seen on someone who was Hispanic. He tanned in the summer, but never as dark as Lisandro was normally. Emmanuel was also one of our younger guards, under twenty-five, though I wasn't honestly sure just how much under.

'You must have been training behind our backs, because last I checked you couldn't beat me in anything.' Dev said it with a smile that let the other man know he was teasing.

'Well, you didn't do so hot at keeping her safe, did you?'

And that was a little too close to home, because Dev stopped smiling. In fact, for a moment a much more serious person looked out of that handsome face, and the first trickle of otherworldly energy whispered through the hallway, which meant he was really pissed, because the golden tigers prided themselves on ultimate control over their inner beast.

'Hey, I'm sorry,' Emmanuel said. 'That was out of line.' He looked genuinely embarrassed, and he should have.

'We're supposed to turn Anita over to the guards in the main room and then escort the two of you to Claudia. I don't have orders for ... Marshal Ted,' Lisandro said.

'I figured we had room for him, and if it's a fight, him with us is better,' Dev said.

'I can't argue about the fighting part, and you're right, we have the whole floor to ourselves, so there's a bed for him.'

'Thanks,' Edward said in his Ted voice, even smiling.

Lisandro gave him narrow eyes, because he knew exactly who Edward was; the Ted was so he wouldn't forget around the other cops.

'I didn't think Claudia traveled out of town for guard duty either,' I said.

'We didn't have time to get Bobby-Lee back in town to be point on this, and Fredo had a family event, so that left Claudia and me.'

'I'm sorry for that,' I said, and I wondered if he understood what I was apologizing for.

He smiled bright in the dark handsome of his face. 'You almost died, and you're apologizing because we had to travel out of town at the last minute.' He shook his head.

'I want my weapons in the room near me; if we all carry stuff it'll be quicker,' I said.

They didn't argue. We all picked up bags and Lisandro led the way to a door. He gave a knock that sounded like a signal: two short, one loud. The door opened, though I couldn't see who opened it around everyone's taller and broader bodies. I was used to being the smallest person in the room and certainly the smallest person when the guards were with me. They deposited the dangerous bags just inside the door, because though the room was large there was barely space for this many new bags.

I finally got to see the hotel suite. I'm sure it had looked roomy once, but with all the coffins in it there was barely room to thread a path from the window to the bathroom. Jean-Claude could have slept in the bed just fine, but two things. One, a lot of the older vampires preferred to travel with a coffin. Two, a maid opening the drapes, by accident or on purpose, would be very, very bad. A lot of the maids were devoutly religious and from sections of the world where vampires weren't legal and could still be killed on sight, if you could manage it before they killed you. It just wasn't worth the risk. Some of the newer vamps traveled with mummy sleeping bags. They folded up better in your carry-on bag. Coffins were for vampires who had servants and flunkies to tote and fetch. Jean-Claude had those. In fact, some of the coffins were for the flunkies.

I kissed Nicky good luck as Lisandro led him off to get yelled at by Claudia, about something that wasn't his fault, but I understood chain of command enough to know that my interceding for him would just piss her off more. Claudia was six foot six, the tallest woman I'd ever personally met, and had the shoulders and muscle to go with her size, though she still managed to look feminine, dangerous but beautiful. With no makeup to grace the high cheekbones, and her long hair usually pulled back into a tight ponytail just like Lisandro's, she was still one of the most striking women I'd ever met.

Lisandro led them and Edward off to find her and a bed for Edward and his own bags of dangerous toys. Dev poked his head back in at the last minute. 'You still going to help me clean up?'

I smiled at him, I couldn't help it. 'Yeah.'

He grinned at me, and Emmanuel gave him a halfhearted push through the door. 'You are such a horndog.'

'Yes, I am,' Dev said, and the door closed behind them. I turned to see past the bags, mine and the mountain of Jean-Claude's, and the coffins, to find what guards I'd been handed off to, and smiled.

The Wicked Truth had come as Jean-Claude's bodyguards. Wicked and Truth were tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, with shoulder-length hair. Wicked's hair was straight and thick and very blond. Truth's hair was brown with a slight wave to it. They both had gray-blue eyes, which meant that sometimes they looked blue and sometimes not so much. Once Truth had an almost-beard, nicely scruffy, but he'd shaved it and like most vampires he wasn't able to grow it out once he'd shaved it, so now you could see that they both had a deep dimple in the square, manly chins. Without the facial hair the brothers looked even more like twins, though I knew they'd been born a year apart. I also knew that Wicked had dressed them both in designer suits; his was a pale gray with a blue dress shirt that made his eyes look very blue. Truth was in charcoal gray with a shirt almost the same shade of blue so his eyes were as blue as I'd ever seen them, so that when they turned and looked at me it gave a startling mirror image, and then Wicked's arrogant, teasing smile spoiled the illusion. Truth was far too serious for that smile.

Wicked was still smiling as he said, 'It doesn't do any good to send bodyguards with you if you keep insisting on hunting monsters without us.'

'You are a fool, brother,' Truth said, and moved toward me through the coffins. It looked like an undertaker's showroom.

'I had a bodyguard with me,' I said, quietly.

'I am a fool,' Wicked said, 'and I am so sorry about Ares.'

Truth hugged me, and I let him. I let the strength and solidness of him hold me close. I could trace his shoulder rig under the suit jacket, and my hands found his weapons without thinking about it. The suit jackets were tailored to hide the guns and blades. His torso was long enough that he had a short sword down his back in a back sheath modeled after one I used to hold my biggest blade, though I was short enough that mine was just a big knife. His short sword was longer than my body from neck to waist. I knew that somewhere in his luggage was the great sword, his real sword. He'd fixed up a back harness for it, too, but there was no way to actually wear it concealed, just more modern-looking. His battle-axe didn't really fit under modern clothing either, but then axes are like machine guns; concealment isn't really the point, intimidation and blood is the point. He had several smaller axes, too, but only the smaller throwing axes actually fit under modern jackets, and then barely.

I liked that hugging Truth was always an obstacle course in weapons placement. Some of the men in my life probably felt the same way about me, though I wasn't sure about the 'liking' part.

He stroked my hair and just held me close. Truth was a man of few words, which meant he didn't expect much from others. There were moments when that was a very good thing.

Truth and I pulled back from the hug at about the same time. I looked up into his face and those surprisingly blue eyes and found them grayer than when we'd started the hug. I realized his eyes had changed shade because he was sad, or knew I was; blue-gray eyes did that.

Wicked was at our side now. His handsome face was very serious as he said, 'We understand what it is like to be forced to kill a friend and comrade in arms, Anita.'

I realized that they meant it. Centuries ago the head of their bloodline, their sourdre de sang, had gone insane and been possessed by a blood frenzy that had spread through all the vampires he'd created, except for the two brothers standing with me. They had executed the others of their line, a bloodline known for its warriors, before the Vampire Council's executioners could arrive to carry out the death sentences.

I wrapped an arm around Wicked's waist, while still having a loose arm around Truth. They hugged me together, but it was Wicked who bent over for a kiss. He was the bold one in certain areas.

'We were never allowed such liberties with our Dark Mistress,' a man's voice said.

We turned, and it was one of the executioners sent to carry out that death sentence oh so long ago. Mischa was one of the Harlequin; he had been Graziano, one of the early names of the Dottor or Doctor in the Italian Comedy. He'd spent centuries wearing a mask that matched that name. The only people who saw his real face had been those he spied upon or those he killed. His real face had been the last sight on earth for thousands, maybe millions. Some of the Harlequin were more than two thousand years old. You could rack up a pretty impressive kill count in that space of time.

Many of the Harlequin were what real spies looked like: nondescript for their day, or their country. Real spies weren't James Bond; you didn't want to stand out or attract too much attention. If you were well known enough that bartenders all over the world knew you preferred your martini shaken and not stirred like old-school Bond, then you were a stalking horse, not a spy. You were sent in to attract attention so the real spies could be sneaky and find out things, or assassinate from the shadows and then vanish back into those shadows.

Mischa was tall for one of them, almost six feet. He had thick blond hair that was as straight as Wicked's, but his hair was a paler, almost white blond, which meant it must always have been that pale, because sunlight hadn't touched his hair in more than a thousand years. Wicked's hair was an almost golden blond from lack of light to pale it.

Mischa looked at us with blue eyes that should have looked like warm summer skies, but they were cold, no matter how pure the blue of them might be. Wherever he'd been recruited for the Harlequin, it had been somewhere that all that pale hair and those bright blue eyes would have fit in without anyone blinking - somewhere Scandinavian.

'Anita is a kinder mistress than the Mother of All Darkness,' Truth said.

'Jealous?' Wicked said.

'The Mistress of us all isn't supposed to be kind, she's supposed to lead.'

'Anita leads us where we need to go,' Truth said.

'You believe she leads well enough,' Wicked said. 'You are just jealous that we have her favor and you do not.'

'That is not true, and you know it. You say such things only to try to anger me.'

'I was jealous of the other guards who shared her bed until I was added to the list,' Wicked said.

'That is you. I am made of sterner stuff than that,' he said, and walked farther away from what looked to be a large bathroom behind him.

'You have yet to best me at sword practice or outdo my score at the firing range with a handgun,' Wicked said.

Mischa flushed, hands curling into fists at his side; for a really ancient vampire he was surprisingly easy to bait. Most of the really old ones could control their emotions to a degree that was frightening, almost ... inhuman.

'I have bested you both with knife and long gun,' he said, hands in tight fists.

'But neither of us with sword or handgun,' Truth said, 'and you won't even try to practice with me and an axe.' Truth would have stayed out of it, but the other vampire had said both. Truth would seldom start a fight, but he would finish one. Wicked would pick a fight but leave it laughing without caring who won most of the time. Truth cared more once you got him going.

'Even I've bested your score with a handgun,' I said.

'That is at the range, not real combat,' Mischa said.

'I shoot just fine in real combat,' I said.

Mischa looked almost pained as he said, 'I was impressed with the shot you made on the news. I would not have thought you capable of it.'

'I had to make it, so I did.'