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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:15

'Claudia, I'm not sure any of the weretigers can. They're great in practice and as regular bodyguards, but none of them have seen combat or the kind of slaughter we walked into last night.'

'I need Lisandro to help me with the Harlequin, and that's that, Anita. You don't want Dev, and Pride and Nicky don't work well together. Emmanuel is good, but he's not seen the hard stuff either. Domino wasn't trained to be some white knight super-warrior like the gold tigers; he was trained as a mob bodyguard and enforcer who can be pretty brutal.'

'But it's not the same kind of brutal as what we faced last night and today.'

'Look, I don't have time or energy to debate this; Domino is your guy for now.' She stood there hands on hips, all six foot six of her, in the conference room where we'd eaten. Her long black hair was in a tight ponytail; no makeup distracted from the high cheekbones and strong features of her face. She was what the Mexicans would call guapa, handsome rather than pretty; there was just too much of her, from the broad, muscled shoulders to the long, muscular legs and all the parts in between to be pretty, or even beautiful, though she was that.

'How much trouble are you having integrating the Harlequin with our guards?' I asked.

'Look, I want to keep all the guards I can around Jean-Claude. The Harlequin are fearsomely good when they aren't being whiny bitches. Jean-Claude coming here on the spur of the moment is a security nightmare, and now you tell me the rogue master vampire is a necromancer that can raise zombies and inhabit their bodies in daylight. This just gets better and fucking better,' she said.

I wasn't sure I'd ever heard Claudia curse before, which meant she was even more upset than she was letting me see.

'I'm all better; Jean-Claude can fly home.'

She gave me a look of such scorn that I had to fight not to squirm. 'He'll never leave now, not until you're out of danger.'

'Danger is sort of my job description,' I said.

'And don't think that doesn't piss me off, too.'

'Okay,' I said, 'is this just about security issues, or are you pissed about something else?'

'I don't know what you're talking about; just go and catch this bastard, so we can all go home.'

'That's the plan,' I said. I left the conference room with Nicky in tow. We were going to pick up Domino from his room at the end of the hallway.

'What's got her panties in a twist?' I asked.

'I don't know, but she's been on edge for about two weeks,' Nicky said.

'This much on edge?' I asked, looking up at him.

He shook his head. 'No, not this bad.'

'Good, because I was about to feel stupid for not noticing that one of our head guards was having some kind of personal issue.'

'Claudia won't let it interfere with the job, whatever it is,' he said.

I nodded, and knew he meant it, but I also knew that even with the best of intentions personal stuff bled onto everything sometimes. But since she didn't want to talk about it, I would let it go; unless it interfered with her job it really wasn't any of my business.

Nicky knocked on the room door at the end of the hallway, just by the door marked EXIT. The door opened and it was Domino. He looked slender beside Nicky and Dev. Domino was five foot ten but he was more slender in his build, which made him look taller than he was, because when you looked at him your eye didn't stop at the shoulders or the chest like it did on the other two weretigers. His two most striking features were his hair and his eyes. The hair was mounded on top in a soft mass of black and white curls; he'd recently started shaving the bottom layer of hair close to his head, so that it was almost a skater cut. The multicolored curls were natural, though he got a lot of club kids and Goths asking him where he'd gotten the great dye job. His hair showed his mixed tiger heritage, half white clan and half black. He was one of only a handful of black weretigers that had lived through the near-extermination of that clan. He'd been found in an orphanage by the white tiger clan; no one knew who his parents had been, only what they had been. He had two tiger forms, one white, one black, and he could also do tigerman form in both. His mixed heritage had made the white tiger clan treat him as not good enough to mate with, for fear of bearing an impure child. The clans mated with each other to keep the genetics healthier, but most babies looked like one side or the other and went to be raised with the clan that they most resembled. Domino was one of only two that I'd met who couldn't hide his mixed heritage.

His eyes were pure black tiger, like orange flame. They were startling enough that people thought they were contacts, like they thought the hair was dyed. In his black tiger form, those orange tiger eyes were Halloween beautiful. In white tiger form, they marked him as impure, because in every form his tiger eyes stayed the same, like all the clan tigers they were born with the eyes. Though there were clan tigers that had human eyes, they were considered weak by the other tigers and usually only had the form of a giant tiger as their beast.

His smile filled those jack-o'-lantern-colored eyes with such happiness. It made me feel guilty that I hadn't gone out of my way to greet him when he got to town and that I hadn't wanted him to bodyguard me today.

'Hey, Domino,' I said, and went to him.

He wrapped me in his arms, and I hugged him around the waist. He didn't have all his weapons on yet, which made it easier to hug, but meant it would take him longer to get ready to go; like so much about dating my bodyguards, it was a mixed blessing.

I went up on tiptoe still wrapped in the hug, so that he didn't have to bend very far for us to kiss hello. His lips were soft and the kiss softer. It might have grown into something more, but my phone rang and the ring tone was the Hawaii Five-O theme, which was what I used for most police that I worked with occasionally.

Domino knew the ring tone and let me go without a question. He moved back into the room to get his weapons. We followed and shut the door behind us as I answered the phone. It was Hatfield.

'Blake, everyone here is congratulating us on killing the rogue vampire, but before I celebrate I wanted to ask you and Forrester. Is it dead?'

I liked Hatfield a lot in that moment. 'No, I'm like ninety-five percent sure it's not.'

'I thought you'd say that.' She didn't sound happy about being right, but it was honest emotion.

Domino had his gear laid out on the neatly made bed as if he planned to pack it all neatly away. He was casual about a lot of stuff, but not about his job. He'd been trained as a mob bodyguard and enforcer, because the master of the city of Vegas was a mob boss who dated back to the days of Bugsy Siegel. Domino had been playing catch-up in some areas of the guards' training, because we had more ex-military and ex-police and mercenaries, running our crew, but for sheer brutality he'd probably seen his share. I'd met Max, the Master of Vegas. His first job in the mob had been as a leg-breaker himself, which meant in his day he hadn't been squeamish about getting his own hands dirty, and expected the same willingness from his people. Domino slipped his vest on and began tightening the straps.

'I wish I believed the big bad vampire died in the fire and explosion, but this thing can jump bodies. To truly kill it we have to keep it in one place long enough to die.'

'How do we do that?' Hatfield asked.

'If we can find the original body and destroy it, then chances are that'll do the job.'

Domino started putting his weapons in place. He got to carry more weapons when he came out with me as a sort of junior marshal, because he didn't have to hide that he was armed. Hiding weapons in everyday clothes could be a challenge.

'How do we find the body?' Hatfield asked.

'I'm going to question Little Henry at the hospital and Deputy Gutterman about the sheriff's attack and see if I can get a clue to a location.'

'Can't you just ask the vampires in custody tonight?'

'Yeah, but once night falls this rogue is going to be even stronger and harder to find and kill than he was earlier today, so I'd really like to find the original body and take care of things before the sun goes down.'

Nicky picked up a pocket-sized .308 pistol from the bed. He made some soft remark, but I knew that it was some remark on size and implying penis size comparison in some way. It was a guy thing. I knew that Domino had nothing to be ashamed of in that area. He got his Beretta .45 out of the holster at his side and made some soft remark back, probably belittling Nicky's size since he carried a nine-millimeter as his main gun.

Hatfield had been quiet while I watched the men. She finally said, 'Okay, agreed. What can I do to help?'

'Ted is on his way to you guys to see what we learned from all the new crime scenes we found.'

'I'll call him and be waiting. What do I tell the brass who want to declare the danger over?'

'Tell them to wait until after tonight. From the time the sun goes down until it rises again will be the test. If nothing happens, then maybe we got him, but I think it will be worse tonight.'

'What do serial killers do when they're cornered?' I asked.

'Suicide, or kill more people faster, usually.'

'Oh,' she said. 'Damn, that is not a good thought.'

'If you want unicorns and rainbows, you're in the wrong line of work,' I said.

She gave a small, not entirely happy laugh. 'Well, that's the God's honest truth.'

Domino had his weapons in place. He slipped his lined leather jacket over it all. It didn't close enough to hide the vest, or his own nine-millimeter Glock in a MOLLE-rigged strap on the front of the vest, but as long as he was with me he could flaunt the guns and still not be charged with brandishing a weapon in public. What constituted brandishing differed depending on which police officer charged you with it and basically meant that they thought you were scaring the civilians by carrying openly. They bitched at civilians if they carried concealed, and they bitched if they carried openly; sometimes I thought the gun laws were designed to be confusing. But my badge, my warrant of execution, and the way the law was currently written covered them, and suddenly they didn't have to play by civilian rules.

'I'll call Forrester,' Hatfield said.

'We're headed to the hospital,' I said.

'Give my best to Sheriff Callahan and your fiance.'

'Will do, and thanks.'

'Callahan is a good man and a better sheriff. He was one of those old-fashioned ones who would go out and visit with the people in his township. You know, he has to be voted in for sheriff every time.'

'No, I didn't know that, actually.'

'He really cares about his people, and he makes sure they know it. He's been sheriff up there at least ten years now.'

It sounded like Micah and the Coalition. 'I didn't know that either,' I said.

Nicky held the door; Domino went first, doing the bodyguard look-see, and then nodded. I went through, Nicky closed the door behind us, and we headed for the elevators.

'We're about to get in the elevator, so I may lose you,' I said.

'Bye then, and I hope we find the body before sundown,' she said.

We hung up. The elevator doors opened. We got in and went out to hunt vampires. Sometimes you do it with a gun, sometimes by talking to the people they leave behind. We call them survivors, but once the vampires get you, the person you were dies, like any traumatized part of you never leaves that room, that car, that moment, and you walk forward a ghost of your former self. You rebuild yourself over the years, but the person you were isn't the person you become. The great bad thing happens, and you become a ghost in your own life, and then you become flesh and blood and remake your life, but the ghosts of what happened don't go away completely. They wait for you in low moments, and then they wail at you, shaking their chains in your face and trying to strangle you with them.

I'd see Micah first and try to help him untangle the chains of guilt and love he felt for his father. Then I'd talk to Henry. He was a combat vet, special forces; he knew trauma before the vampires took him, but this trauma had killed his father. Did anything that came before prepare him for that? Somehow I doubted that even special forces training could really prepare you for losing someone like this, and the survivor guilt, which had probably been part of the ghost he brought back from combat, had gained a brand-new shiny link to its rattling chain.

Real ghosts are so much easier to deal with than the kind we carry around in our heads. Most people haunt themselves more effectively than any spirit.