Page 60

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:12

They found a map, and the cluster of pins - red for known victims, green for missing people, yellow for missing people found dead of presumed natural causes - did form a pattern, but not the one I was hoping for. There was a cluster at the beginning in a remote spot in the mountains, but then the next cluster was miles away and less isolated, and the next one closer to one of the small towns in the mountains, and then bypassing it and heading toward Boulder.

The big surprise was that Travers joined us for the planning/briefing session. I'd known that Truth had sucked out the rot, but I'd assumed he'd been more hurt than just the vampire bite. He was bandaged up enough for the dressing to show at the collar of his shirt, and he moved carefully as he leaned against one of the pillars in the room, wincing as he settled his six-feet-plus frame. Everyone had said how glad they were to see him and hadn't expected him. I'd said hi and good to see him. He'd given me a tiny nod, his face guarded. Last I'd seen, me and my people had saved his ass twice. Something told me he was going to be weird about it. Sigh.

'How did we not see this?' Detective Foster asked. He was an older detective who was down to that fringe of hair, and in his glasses he looked more like a high school math teacher than a cop, until you noticed the width of his shoulders and the small muscles that played in his forearms.

'We didn't see it, because there's nothing to see,' Travers said, in his big, deep voice, all gruff like when he'd been trash-talking me in the mountains. 'That is every hiker and tourist gone missing for three months. It is not vampire victims.'

'You guys usually lose that many hikers in a three-month period?' I asked.

There was a moment of silence, and then Foster said, 'No, and that's what I mean about how did we miss it? Even if it wasn't vampires or some other preternatural, it's still too many people to lose. Someone should have red-flagged it.'

'It's the same problem we run into all the time as marshals. Different law enforcement agencies covering different areas mean that you don't share information unless there's a reason for it. Different jurisdictions, hell, different ranger stations cover at least two of these areas. Some of them could still just be runaways; an elderly man who wandered off and was found dead by a presumed fall and exposure may be just that. People die by accident all the damn time, especially in wilderness areas if they don't have experience and they don't understand how fast the temperature can drop or the weather can change.'

'How do you know so much about mountains? You're from St Louis - that's what, a few hundred feet above sea level?' Travers called out.

'I've executed warrants all over the country. I had one in the mountains where a snowstorm came up so fast we were lucky to find shelter, so I did more research on weather patterns and survival for this kind of terrain, because you're right, I'm a flatlander, and it damn near got me killed once. I've worked to make sure it doesn't happen a second time.'

'Aren't you just the little Boy Scout,' he said.

'What is your problem with Blake?' Hatfield asked.

He looked surprised. 'Since when did you become her biggest fan? I heard you called her a fur-banger and coffin bait.'

Hatfield looked embarrassed. 'I didn't know Marshal Blake then, and when I did I jumped on her bandwagon, Officer Travers. Since five people died last night, because I didn't have her expertise with the undead.'

'The vampires looked dead; they were dead. No one could have known the vampires weren't dead enough,' Travers said.

'Blake knew. Forrester knew.'

'Travers, what the hell is your problem? Everyone else who came off that mountain with her has nothing but good to say about her. I hear one of her vampires saved your life,' Captain Jonas said.

'Yeah, one of her vampire lovers fixed me all up.' He sounded bitter.

'Travers, shut the fuck up. If Blake has to keep defending her honor against all our people, I'm going to run out of people to send into the field,' Jonas said.

'I heard about Rickman. He's good in a fight; she got a lucky shot,' Travers said.

Travers glared at him. 'You got a problem, Forrester?'

'Anita didn't get in a lucky shot.'

'I say she did,' Travers said, and pushed away from the pillar and winced, but he straightened so all six foot five of him towered over the room, and by implication Edward.

'Anita didn't need luck to win the fight,' Edward said.

'You were there, right?'

'Then how the hell do you know what happened? You ever even meet Rickman?'

'I don't have to meet him,' Edward said.

'What does that mean?'

'Anita doesn't win because she's lucky. She wins because she's just that good.'

'Well, I guess you'd know how good she is,' Travers said.

Edward pushed off the desk where he'd been half-sitting.

Travers started moving toward him slowly, stiffly, but moving. He was smiling. I knew that kind of smile. It meant he wanted a fight, but he wasn't picking on me; he wanted a piece of my 'boyfriend.'

Jonas said, 'That's it, Travers; go home.'

'You need every man you can get,' he said.

'I need every man and woman who wants to work as a team and do their damn jobs. I know Rickman is like one of your best buds, but now that Blake beat his sorry ass, you don't need to take his place as her bully.'

'I got no beef with Blake.'

'Then stop trying to pick a fight with her and Forrester. Make one more out-of-line remark and I will send you home and write your ass up officially.'

'Write me up for what?'

'Sexual harassment, for starters,' Jonas said.

'I didn't sexually harass anybody.'

'Maybe my memory is better than yours, Travers, so I'll quote you back to yourself: "Well, I guess you'd know how good she is." That was a sexual remark aimed at both our visiting marshals.'

'I wasn't talking to Blake, so how is that harassing her?'

'Did you sleep through the last sexual harassment seminar? Comments made in the presence of a female officer can also constitute harassment.'

Weirdly it sort of hurt my feelings that Travers seemed angrier with me now than before I'd saved his ass in the mountains, and then I wondered if he hadn't liked being saved by a woman and a bunch of preternaturals? If that was it, it pissed me off even more.

Hatfield stood up for me. 'If one of her vampires hadn't sucked out that rotting disease, you'd be dying like the sheriff.'

'I didn't ask for the help,' he said.

'Ungrateful bastard,' I said.

He turned those angry eyes to me. 'You want a piece of me, Blake?'

'If you mean sexually, no thanks.'

He flushed, his face coloring.

'If you mean a fight, I'll wait until you're healed. It wouldn't be fair while you're wounded.'

His face darkened even more, and he started walking toward me, which meant toward Edward, too, since we were beside each other.

'Don't finish walking over here, Travers,' Edward said, 'because I don't care if you're wounded.'

'You think you can take me?'

'I know I can,' and he smiled as he said it, which was the guy equivalent of saying he didn't want the fight at the same time he was encouraging it.

Travers kept coming. Captain Jonas intercepted him. He looked small beside the other man, but there was nothing small about his attitude. 'Go home, Travers. I'll be recommending you get some counseling, because you're obviously traumatized by recent events.'

'I'm not hurt that bad; I can help find this bastard.'

'I didn't say you were hurt, I said you were traumatized. Now go home while I can still give you the benefit of the doubt. If you touch either Forrester or Blake, I will suspend you without pay, now - go home right now!'

He turned to go but had to throw a comment over his shoulder. 'I don't owe your vampire anything, Blake.'

'Truth didn't save you so you'd owe him something. He saved you because it was the right thing to do and he respects fellow warriors.'

'He is not a fellow warrior. He's just a damn bloodsucker!'

'Would you rather be rotting away in the hospital like Sheriff Callahan?' I didn't yell it, but my voice was getting louder.

'Why didn't your vampire save him?'

'Because the disease has spread through his body, and there's no one place to suck the poison out.' I felt the bite of tears behind my eyes. I would not cry in front of this bastard. 'It's too late to save Micah's dad, but we were able to save you, you fucking ungrateful, misogynistic, prejudiced, racist, undeserving bastard.'

Travers's face sort of froze, and then it was like he looked lost - that was the only word I had for it. That one expression was enough; something about the fight in the mountains, being wounded, being saved by Truth, had affected him deeply, and not in a good way. He just turned without another word and walked out.

'What the hell was that about?' Jonas asked, to no one in particular.

Since the question hadn't been directed at anyone in particular, no one answered it. In fact, the silence was a little thick.

It was Deputy Al from the back of the room. 'Sorry I'm late, but damn, Anita, you cuss real pretty.'

It made people laugh, at least a little. I smiled as Al walked farther into the room. He smiled at me, and the look on his face let me know he'd heard enough of what had just happened to want to make it better. Travers might be an ungrateful bastard, but for every one of those there was an Al, and a Hatfield, and a Jonas. I had more friends than enemies in most cities. It was just that I didn't understand why some people kept resenting me; I just didn't get it, and I never would. I wasn't much for hating people for things they couldn't change, like the way they looked, or psychic gifts, or whatever. I was grumpy and killed people almost everywhere I went, but I didn't hate them. That probably wasn't much of a comfort to the people I executed, but hey, sometimes you take what you can get.