Page 63

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:13

We couldn't find her current purse. Hatfield suggested that not every woman carried a purse, but we couldn't find her wallet, a change purse, any form of identification. We found her husband's wallet with his ID, money, and credit cards all intact on the bedside table, where it looked like he put it every night.

'There are three purses in the closet, but they're dressier, or older. She should have a purse,' Hatfield said.

I knew what she meant. The female victim - I had to do my best to think of her as just that. Where was the woman's purse?

'Zombies don't take purses,' I said.

'What if they're made of leather?' Seamus asked; his voice was as deep as you expected it to be.

'Flesh-eating zombies only eat fresh kill or fresh-ish carrion. Treated leather, even the most expensive, would still be too dead for them to eat it.'

'A ghoul would eat it,' Edward said.

I agreed. 'But if ghouls did this, they'd have eaten the man's belt and a lot of other stuff in the house. They live on carrion and garbage.'

'I thought ghouls wouldn't leave the cemetery where they spawn?' Hatfield said.

'They don't normally,' I said.

'There's no cemetery for miles and miles,' she said.

Edward and I looked at each other. We both remembered a case where ghouls followed a necromancer who had accidentally raised them. 'I don't think it's ghouls,' I said, to that look in his eyes.

'If the zombies didn't take the purse, who did?' Nicky asked.

'Maybe somebody broke in after they were dead and took the purse,' Lisandro said.

'Then why not take the man's wallet? There's over a hundred dollars in it, and a full set of credit cards,' I said.

'If it wasn't robbery, then why take the purse?' Hatfield asked.

'If it was robbery, why not take more stuff?' Lisandro asked.

'So it wasn't robbery,' I said.

'There were vampires with the zombies in the mountains; was this a mixed group, too?' asked Nicky.

'Why would a vampire take some nice old lady's purse?' I asked.

'What was in the purse that wasn't in the wallet?' Edward asked.

Lisandro, Nicky, and I all said, 'Keys.'

'They didn't get in the window or the door. The couple barricaded themselves in, but then for some reason they opened the front door.'

'Vampire mind powers?' Hatfield asked.

'Not if they were already fighting off zombies in the back. The fear and panic would keep almost any vampire from being able to get a hold on their minds unless they'd had previous contact. If they'd been mind-fucked earlier, then maybe,' I said.

'Unlikely, though,' Edward said.

'You have killer zombies at the back. You've barricaded yourself in. What would make you open the front door?' I asked.

'Who would you open it for?' Nicky asked.

'Someone you know,' Hatfield said.

I turned to him. 'What?'

'You'd open the door in an emergency to help. If the house is on fire you'll let the firefighters in; if you're being robbed you'll open for the police.'

I looked at him. 'You're saying a cop.'

'I'm saying either a cop or someone they trusted and thought would protect them. Maybe an officer they knew,' he said.

'We can't accuse another officer of conspiring with vampires and killer zombies on this much guesswork,' Hatfield said.

'We're not going to accuse anyone in particular, Hatfield, but think about it. Every house we've seen has been torn apart in the area of the house that wouldn't be seen by someone just driving by. Zombies, even killer zombies, don't think that well. If they were being controlled by a vampire, then maybe, but if what I saw and felt in the mountains is any indication, then this vampire isn't that cool a customer.'

'Maybe he's getting more disorganized as he keeps killing?' Edward suggested.

'You mean like a serial killer disintegrating as he feeds his compulsion?'

'But someone let the zombies and vampires out, then took the victim's purse and calmly locked the door behind them,' Edward said.

'We're all agreed on that,' I said.

'I'm not sure we're all agreed on that,' Hatfield said.

'Would you agree it's most likely?'

'No,' she said. 'Everything I learned in class and in the field is that this does not happen. Flesh-eating zombies are incredibly rare. They do not run in packs, contrary to every zombie movie out there, right?'

'Vampires do not hang out with zombies, right?' she asked.

'And now you want me to believe that a human, maybe a cop, is helping scout the houses, lead them in from the most unobtrusive way, and helping cover their tracks.'

'If he's covering their tracks, then why leave the table in front of the door?' Lisandro asked.

'Why take the purse? He could have thrown it back through the opening at the edge of the door. There was room to shove a purse back inside,' Nicky said.

That time we did all agree it made no sense.

'What if he doesn't want to cover for them anymore?' Seamus asked.

'What do you mean?' I asked.

'What if something about these victims made him rethink his allegiance?'

'It goes back to him knowing them,' Edward said.

'Yes, or perhaps he looked at the pictures on the walls as I've seen all of you do and it affected him, too.'

'So he's beginning to want to get caught?' I asked.

'Not in the front of his head,' Edward said, 'but maybe in the back of it.'

'You think he'll just keep making more mistakes until he gives himself away?' Hatfield asked.

'Maybe, but that would mean we'd have to see more crime scenes to catch his mistake. I want to catch him before they kill again,' I said.

'Of course,' Hatfield said, 'but how?'

I shook my head. 'I don't know yet.'

'Yeah, yet, it's always yet, Ted, you taught me that.'

He nodded and gave that small, cold smile that I knew so well. It was one of the ones he wore when he killed.

'We don't know yet,' he said.

'But we will,' I said.

'And when you figure it out, then what?' Hatfield asked.

'We kill all of them,' I said.

'Even the human, if it is a human helping them?' she asked.

'He'll get a trial. His lawyer will go for an insanity plea and get a reduced sentence.'

'No lawyer can help anyone connected to this,' I said.

'What do you mean?' she asked.

'She means that the warrant of execution doesn't differentiate between perpetrators.'

Hatfield frowned. 'I don't understand.'

'The language of a warrant of execution allows me to kill anyone who participates in the crime, Hatfield.'

'You mean you can just kill a human just like that, no arrest, no trial, just bang?'

She gave me wide eyes. 'If they're trying to kill me, or someone else, I could pull the trigger, no problem, but you're saying that if they were handcuffed, chained down like a vampire in the morgue, you'd just kill them.'

'No, I'm saying I could legally.'

'Humans don't go dead at dawn. They'd be staring up at you, begging for their lives.'

'Yeah, just like vampires do if they're awake.'

'You really don't see a difference between taking human life and the undead, do you?'

'Did you see a difference once?'

'I believed sincerely that vampires were evil and I was saving the world by killing them, but that was a few years ago. I haven't believed that for a while.'

'If I start seeing vampires as people, I don't think I could keep killing them.'

'Then stay away from Anita's friends,' Edward said. 'You can't keep seeing them as monsters once you see them as people.'

Hatfield shook her head. 'I don't know.'

'Let's have the rest of this discussion outside, where it smells better,' Lisandro said.

'Wererats have one of the most sensitive noses in the animal kingdom,' I explained to Hatfield.

She looked at Lisandro. 'Wererat?' she asked.

'I know I'm too handsome to be a wererat - you were thinking werewolf, or wereleopard - but no, I'm just a great, big, giant rat.'

Hatfield fought her face, and finally lost and showed her disgust. She even shuddered.

'You afraid of rats?' he asked.

She gave a little nod.

He smiled, but it was more a snarl, a curl of lips that didn't match the handsomeness. 'Then you do not want to see me in animal form.'

'No,' she said in a small voice.

I hadn't thought that she might literally be phobic of rats. Snakes, spiders, I might have thought of, but not rats. Funny, how you get used to things and it just stops occurring to you that it might bother someone else.

We all trooped out onto the porch again. The view was refreshing, but there was still that smell of corpses. 'Is the fridge working?' I asked.

'I know what you mean,' Lisandro said. 'The smell shouldn't be this strong, but I checked, and the food is fine.'

'Then why does that little bit of flesh smell this bad?' I asked.

'It's almost as if there are more bodies we haven't found,' he said.

I looked at Edward. He said, 'There's a basement.' He pointed to the side of the deck. I went to look where he pointed, and there were stairs leading down to a door tucked up under the deck.

'I didn't see a door into the basement from the inside of the house,' I said.

'I didn't either,' Hatfield said.

I looked around at everyone. 'Anyone see a way down besides this outside door?'

They all shook their heads.

Edward walked back into the house, and we trailed him. He was standing in the back bedroom looking at the huge dresser. It towered up over the window, but the room was so small that it effectively blocked the entire corner of the room from view. He got one side and Nicky got the other. There was a shorter-than-average door in the wall.

'They weren't blocking the window. Someone else was blocking the door,' I said.

'Were they blocking something in, or out?' Hatfield said.

'Or were they just hiding the door from this end?' Nicky asked.

'Don't know,' I said.

'The smell is worse near the edge of the door,' Edward said.

'You can't usually find zombies just by the smell of the rot,' I said.

He and I looked at each other. 'It's either a hell of a lot of zombies, or more bodies,' I said.

He nodded. 'I have my flamethrower in the truck,' he said.

I smiled. 'Not yet; let's see what's down there first. If it's zombies you can barbecue it all.'

'We need crime scene techs up here to at least take more pictures than just a few with our phones. They need to collect evidence,' Hatfield said.

'Technically I can call it without doing anything else,' I said, 'but we can call in the techs after we find out what's down there.'

'Let's let someone know that we have more zombies, or more dead bodies here, before we confirm,' Edward said.

'You want to call for backup before we know if we need it?' I asked.

'If this turns into another hospital basement, backup might be good.'

I didn't know what to say; in all the years I'd known him I wasn't sure he'd ever said that before, which meant that maybe I owed Dev an apology. If it had bothered Edward, then it had been bad. That it hadn't bothered me more made me wonder about myself. Maybe it would hit me later, or maybe Edward needed more emotional backup than I could supply. I had my sweeties with me to cuddle, and say what you will, that helps.

'Okay, we call it in,' I said, and we did.

Edward made the call. He told them that we suspected there was something preternatural or just bad in the basement, and if anyone wanted more pictures of the crime scene than we'd taken with our phones, then they needed to send techs out now. When they suggested sending more cops to back us up, Edward didn't say no. He was mellowing.

'Do we wait?' I asked.

He shook his head. 'No.'

'If we're going in before backup arrives, then why call it in at all?' Hatfield asked.

'So they'll know where we are, just in case,' Edward said.

'Just in case what?' she asked.

'Just in case whatever is in the basement tries to eat us, or trap us, or in case the basement is all one great big trap,' I said.

'If we think it's a trap, then we should wait,' she said.

Edward turned on the flashlight mounted to his AR.

'But we're not going to wait, are we?' she asked.

'Why aren't we waiting again?' Hatfield asked.

'Because they're Death and the Executioner,' Seamus said.

'I thought they were Death and War,' Hatfield said.

'That, too,' Nicky said.

He seemed to think about it for a minute and then nodded. 'Maybe if we follow you around enough on cases, we'll get nifty nicknames,' he said.

'Like what?' Nicky asked.

'Minions,' Seamus said.

'What?' Lisandro asked.

'We're her minions, all of us are,' Seamus said, as if that made sense.

'War doesn't have minions,' I said.

'Yes, actually he does: strife, panic, anger, discord, to name a few.'

'Are we delaying until backup arrives?' Hatfield asked.

'I am,' Lisandro said. 'The basement smells bad enough from here.'

'Ratty, actually,' Lisandro said.

'Who's Mole then?' Nicky asked.

'Anita's shortest,' Lisandro said.

I was about to remark that they'd just made a Wind in the Willows joke, but Edward had had enough of games.

'Shut up,' Edward said. 'Anita, get the door while I cover it.'

'No,' Nicky and Lisandro said together.

'Anita doesn't go first if we're here to be her bodyguards,' Lisandro said.

'I'm on the job,' I said.

'So are we,' Lisandro said, and eased past me toward the door.

I moved into his way.

'Anita, you can let me help Ted through that door, or we can argue about it until the other cops arrive, your choice.'

I looked at Seamus. 'You'd let me go first.'

'Why?' Nicky asked him.

'Because there can be nothing down there that is scarier than she is.'

'Thanks for the vote of confidence, I think,' I said.

'You have destroyed the greatest vampires to walk the face of the earth, Anita Blake; what could possibly be in this small basement that would compare to the prey you have already eaten?'

Again, I didn't know what to say to that, so I let it go, but I also let Lisandro open the door for Edward. I wasn't as scary as Seamus thought, Lisandro was harder to hurt, and he wasn't letting me go first through the door, so unless we wanted to twiddle our thumbs for an hour ... I let Lisandro put his shoulder up with Edward. I went next with Nicky, then Hatfield, and Seamus bringing up the rear. We had our marching order. We had our guns out and ready and were carefully not pointing them at anyone in our party. Lisandro opened the door, and the smell of rotting meat swept up and over us. Hatfield choked a little behind me. I started breathing shallow through my mouth, though that really didn't help as much as you wished it would. Lisandro tried the light switch, but the mouth of the basement stayed black and untouched.

'Why do the lights never work at times like this,' I said, softly.

The flashlight attached to Edward's rifle flared to life and trailed into the darkness like a shiny coin tossed into endless night. Okay, it wasn't that black, or that bad, was it? I realized that I hadn't liked the dark as well since I killed the Mother of All Darkness. She'd been the night itself made real, alive, and hungry. I'd destroyed her, but for the first time in my life I was afraid of the dark. It seemed like I should have been more afraid when she was still alive, didn't it?

'Stairs,' Edward said, quietly, to the unasked question. He saw stairs, and he went down them; Lisandro followed, making a face at the smell. I followed Lisandro, my own flashlight sweeping ahead of the barrel of my AR. There was nothing to see but bare walls and stairs going down, but the smell made me dread what was to come.