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

We were at the third house on our list. If someone had come down the two-wheel track by accident and driven past, the house would have looked ordinary from the front. You had to get out and walk around to the back of the house to see the broken windows, the shattered door, its pieces scattered around a small deck that had a view off the side of the mountain that people would pay millions for in other towns farther north. They'd tear down the little house and put up something more elegant and a lot more expensive, but the view wouldn't be one bit better off a bigger, fancier deck than it was from the little one.

The mountains marched off and off until the front range rose in white, snow-capped peaks, stark and so beautiful that it looked like a calendar shot instead of someone's back porch view. I took in deep, even breaths of the crisp, clean air, but took too deep a breath because I caught the whiff of what lay inside. The elderly couple had been eaten by zombies. Had they been bled by vampires first? There was no way to tell from the scattered bones and what little flesh was left on them. It was amazing how bad just a little bit of meat smelled after a few days. If the bodies had been dragged outside, the scavengers would have cleared up the mess by now, but the wrecked furniture had partially blocked the door and even the windows. The windows I thought the couple had tried to board up with the tall dresser, but the door ... why and how had the kitchen table gotten in the wrecked doorway? If the couple put it there, then why were they ripped apart and eaten? We'd had to move the table to get inside ourselves.

Nicky came to stand beside me. 'You saw worse than this last night,' he said.

'Why is this bothering you so much, then?'

It was a fair question. I thought about it. 'Did you see their pictures?'

'They have all their pictures up. You can watch their family grow from babies to grandkids. They loved each other. You can see it in every damn picture, and after forty years of marriage they died in terror and ... it just seems like I've spent too many years seeing the bad end of a lot of happy.'

'Pictures don't tell the truth, Anita. Anyone can lie long enough to have a picture taken.'

I looked at him and realized he was looking out at the view. I knew he'd grown up on a big cattle ranch somewhere, but I'd never asked where. Had there been mountains like this where he grew up?

'You think they lied in all those pictures and they actually hated each other?' I asked.

He smiled, still looking out at the view. 'No, you're probably right that they were great people. They raised their family and were the kind of parents that Hallmark commercials tell you everyone has, and yet the abusive bitch who cut my eye out is still alive, she's in jail, but she's alive. The kids in those pictures ... I thought childhoods like that were fiction. I thought everybody was abused like me, that it was this big secret that nobody said out loud, but it happened to everybody, and then one day I realized that it wasn't everybody. It was just my shitty family.'

I wrapped my arms around him as much as our both being in body armor and packing more weapons than most people would have thought necessary would allow. It was a lot cozier out of work stuff, but in that moment touching was better than not touching.

'When I see pictures like that, it pisses me off. It makes me feel cheated. Stupid, huh?'

'No,' I said, 'not stupid at all.'

He looked down at me. 'I can feel that you mean that. I think if I couldn't feel what you're really feeling, I wouldn't believe in it.'

'In us, in love. If I didn't have to feel your emotions, I could have kept convincing myself that none of it was real, and everybody was lying, at least a little. That nothing could be as good as those pictures in there, but you won't let me believe that. I feel how sad you are, how much you want to make me feel better, and because it's my job to make you feel better, I have to feel happier, because you want me to feel happier so much.'

'When you love someone, their happiness is important to you,' I said.

He nodded. 'I'm beginning to understand that.'

Edward came out to join us. Hatfield trailed after him. Lisandro and Seamus came last. Seamus was tall, dark, and handsome, and very African, which made his name jarring. Someone who looked like he should have been hunting lions with a spear shouldn't have been named the Irish equivalent of James. He blinked rich, brown eyes at me. If hyenas hadn't had slit pupils, more like you think a reptile would have, you could have mistaken the eyes for human, but the pupils were wrong and the color was odd. It wasn't coppery red like the werebear Goran, but it wasn't human brown either. I wasn't sure I could explain the difference, but I was beginning to know it when I saw it.

I'd been informed that the vampire, Jane, that he called master had made him his animal to call hundreds of years ago and had forced him into animal form at one point until his eyes had never changed back. They, like Micah's, were stuck. It just seemed worse that Seamus's master had done it. I'd helped Micah escape from Chimera by killing him. There was no escape for Seamus, because if his master died, very likely he'd die, too. He wouldn't have been my choice for rounding out our little party of crime busters. It wasn't his fighting skills I questioned, because I'd seen him in the practice ring. He was eerily graceful for such a tall, long-limbed man. Fredo had described him as 'dark water,' because of how liquidly he moved. The nickname had stuck and some of the guards called him Water. He didn't seem to mind. He didn't seem to mind anything. He was a big, dark, graceful killing machine who seemed to have fewer emotions than all the other sociopaths.

Hatfield watched him out of the corner of her eye, her hand moving toward her duty weapon without her really thinking about it. He was just so big, so self-contained, and so neutral that it was actually unnerving. It was nice to see that I wasn't the only one who thought it was unsettling.

If there had been more strangers with us, Nicky and I wouldn't have kept hugging each other, but Hatfield was going to have to either get used to it or tag along with someone else. I needed the cuddles.

'What the hell happened here?' she asked.

'The nice older couple got eaten alive by zombies,' I said.

She gave a small shudder. 'I know that, but why is the table in front of the door and the broken window covered? I mean ... shouldn't that have kept the zombies out?'

The fact that she had figured out the puzzling part made me like her even more. 'Yes, it should have.'

'Even if there was a reason for them to put the table and dresser back in place, that would have trapped them in the house, and they weren't trapped in the house. They ate the victims and then they left,' Edward said.

'So how did they get out?' I asked.

'Did you see the corkboard with all the keys in a row?' Lisandro asked.

We all nodded or said, 'Yes.'

'Want to see if the house key is there?'

'They'll have a spare,' I said. 'They're just that kind of people.'

'Okay, then let's check and see if their keys are here. Personal keys have stuff on them, they aren't just bare keys,' he said.

'Did anyone see the lady's purse?' I asked.

'Let's find her purse,' Edward said.

I didn't want to go back in the house with the smell and the happy parade of pictures. Nicky didn't want to go back in either. For once even Edward looked a little worn around the edges. The only one who seemed unmoved by it all was Seamus. I would have asked Nicky if he found the other man's lack of emotional affect bothersome, but he'd have said no.

The other two houses that we'd seen had held the remains of dead bodies; they'd been broken into, but they hadn't been barricaded. As attacks by killer zombies went, the other two houses had been normal. The only puzzle was this one, so we went back inside to figure it out, because that was what we did when we weren't shooting things or setting them on fire.