The ScoundrelLaurell K. Hamilton
Book 3 of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series
Editor's Note: Typos from original manuscript retained.
There was dried chicken blood imbedded under my fingernails. When you raise the dead for a living, you have to spill a little blood. It clung in flaking patches to my face and hands. I'd tried to clean the worst of it off before coming to this meeting, but some things only a shower would fix. I sipped coffee from a personalized mug that said, "Piss me off, pay the consequences," and stared at the two men sitting across from me.
Mr. Jeremy Ruebens was short, dark, and grumpy. I'd never seen him when he wasn't either frowning, or shouting. His small features were clustered in the middle of his face as if some giant hand had mashed them together before the clay had dried. His hands smoothed over the lapel of his coat, the dark blue tie, tie clip, white shirt collar. His hands folded in his lap for a second, then began their dance again, coat, tie, tie clip, collar, lap. I figured I could stand to watch him fidget maybe five more times before I screamed for mercy and promised him anything he wanted.
The second man was Karl Inger. I'd never met him before, He was a few inches over six feet. Standing, he had towered over Ruebens and me. A wavy mass of short-cut red hair graced a large face. He had honest-to-god muttonchop sideburns that grew into one of the fullest mustaches I'd ever seen. Everything was neatly trimmed except for his unruly hair. Maybe he was having a bad hair day.
Ruebens's hands were making their endless dance for the fourth time. Four was my limit.
I wanted to go around the desk, grab his hands, and yell, "Stop that!" But I figured that was a little rude, even for me. "I don't remember you being this twitchy, Ruebens," I said.
He glanced at me. "Twitchy?"
I motioned at his hands, making their endless circuit. He frowned and placed his hands on top of his thighs. They remained there, motionless. Self-control at its best.
"I am not twitchy, Miss Blake."
"It's Ms. Blake. And why are you so nervous, Mr. Ruebens?" I sipped my coffee.
"I am not accustomed to asking help from people like you."
"People like me?" I made it a question.
He cleared his throat sharply. "You know what I mean."
"No, Mr. Ruebens, I don't."
"Well, a zombie queen . . ." He stopped in mid-sentence. I was getting pissed, and it must have shown on my face. "No offense," he said softly.
"If you came here to call me names, get the hell out of my office. If you have real business, state it, then get the hell out of my office."
Ruebens stood up. "I told you she wouldn't help us."
"Help you do what? You haven't told me a damn thing," I said.
"Perhaps we should just tell her why we have come," Inger said. His voice was a deep, rumbling bass, pleasant.
Ruebens drew a deep breath and let it out through his nose. "Very well." He sat back down in his chair. "The last time we met, I was a member of Humans Against Vampires."
I nodded encouragingly and sipped my coffee.
"I have since started a new group, Humans First. We have the same goals as HAV, but our methods are more direct."
I stared at him. HAV's main goal was to make vampires illegal again, so they could be hunted down like animals. It worked for me. I used to be a vampire slayer, hunter, whatever. Now I was a vampire executioner. I had to have a death warrant to kill a specific vampire, or it was murder. To get a warrant, you had to prove the vampire was a danger to society, which meant you had to wait for the vampire to kill people. The lowest kill was five humans, the highest was twenty-three. That was a lot of dead bodies. In the good ol' days you could just kill a vampire on sight.
"What exactly does 'more direct methods' mean?"
"You know what it means," Ruebens said.
"No," I said, "I don't." I thought I did, but he was going to have to say it out loud.
"HAV has failed to discredit vampires through the media or the political machine. Humans First will settle for destroying them all."
I smiled over my coffee mug. "You mean kill every last vampire in the United States?"
"That is the goal," he said.
"You have slain vampires. Do you really believe it is murder?"
It was my turn to take a deep breath. A few months ago I would have said no. But now, I just didn't know. "I'm not sure anymore, Mr. Ruebens."
"If the new legislation goes through, Ms. Blake, vampires will be able to vote. Doesn't that frighten you?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then help us."
"Quit dancing around, Ruebens; just tell me what you want."
"Very well, then. We want the daytime resting place of the Master Vampire of the City."
I just looked at him for a few seconds. "Are you serious?"
"I am in deadly earnest, Ms. Blake."
I had to smile. "What makes you think I know the Master's daytime retreat?"
It was Inger who answered. "Ms. Blake, come now. If we can admit to advocating murder, then you can admit to knowing the Master." He smiled ever so gently.
"Tell me where you got the information and maybe I'll confirm it, or maybe I won't."
His smile widened just a bit. "Now who's dancing?"
He had a point. "If I say I know the Master, what then?"
"Give us his daytime resting place," Ruebens said. He was leaning forward, an eager, nearly lustful look on his face. I wasn't flattered. It wasn't me getting his rocks off. It was the thought of staking the Master.
"How do you know the Master is a he?"
"There was an article in the Post-Dispatch. It was careful to mention no name, but the creature was clearly male," Ruebens said.
I wondered how Jean-Claude would like being referred as a "creature." Better not to find out. "I give you an address and you go in and what, stake him through the heart?"
Ruebens nodded. Inger smiled.
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"You refuse to help us?" Ruebens asked.
"No, I simply don't know the daytime resting place." I was relieved to be able to tell the truth.
"You are lying to protect him," Ruebens said. His face was growing darker; deep frown wrinkles showed on his forehead.
"I really don't know, Mr. Ruebens, Mr. Inger. If you want a zombie raised, we can talk; otherwise . . ." I let the sentence trail off and gave them my best professional smile. They didn't seem impressed.
"We consented to meeting you at this ungodly hour, and we are paying a handsome fee for the consultation. I would think the least you could do is be polite."
I wanted to say, "You started it," but that would sound childish. "I offered you coffee. You turned it down."
Ruebens's scowl deepened, little anger lines showing around his eyes. "Do you treat all your . . . customers this way?"
"The last time we met, you called me a zombie-loving bitch. I don't owe you anything."
"You took our money."
"My boss did that."
"We met you here at dawn, Ms. Blake. Surely you can meet us halfway."
I hadn't wanted to meet with Ruebens at all, but after Bert took their money, I was sort of stuck with it. I'd set the meeting at dawn, after my night's work, but before I went to bed. This way I could drive home and get eight hours uninterrupted sleep. Let Ruebens's sleep be interrupted.
"Could you find out the location of the Master's retreat?" Inger asked.
"Probably, but if I did, I wouldn't give it to you."
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because she is in league with him," Ruebens said.
Ruebens opened his mouth to protes
t, but Inger said, "Please, Jeremy, for the cause."
Ruebens struggled visibly to swallow his anger, but he choked it down. Control.
"Why not, Ms. Blake?" Inger's eyes were very serious, the pleasant sparkle seeping away like melting ice.
"I've killed master vampires before, none of them with a stake."
I smiled. "No, Mr. Inger, if you want lessons in vampire slaying, you're going to have to go elsewhere. Just by answering your questions, I could be charged as an accessory to murder."
"Would you tell us if we had a better plan?" Inger said.
I thought about that for a minute. Jean-Claude dead, really dead. It would certainly make my life easier, but . . . but.
"I don't know," I said.
"Because I think he'll kill you. I don't give humans over to the monsters, Mr. Inger, not even people who hate me."
"We don't hate you Ms. Blake."
I motioned with the coffee mug towards Ruebens. "Maybe you don't, but he does."
Ruebens just glared at me. At least he didn't try to deny it.
"If we come up with a better plan, can we talk to you again?" Inger asked.
I stared at Ruebens's angry little eyes. "Sure, why not?"
Inger stood and offered me his hand. "Thank you, Ms. Blake. You have been most helpful."
His hand enveloped mine. He was a large man, but he didn't try using his size to make me feel small. I appreciated that.
"The next time we meet, Anita Blake, you will be more cooperative." Ruebens said.
"That sounded like a threat, Jerry."
Ruebens smiled, a most unpleasant smile. "Humans First believes the means justifies the end, Anita."
I opened my royal purple suit jacket. Inside was a shoulder holster complete with a Browning Hi-Power 9mm. The purple skirt's thin black belt was just sturdy enough to be looped through the shoulder holster. Executive terrorist chic.
"When it comes to survival, Jerry, I believe that, too."
"We have not offered you violence," Inger said.
"No, but ol' Jerry here is thinking about it. I just want him and the rest of your little group to believe I'm serious. Mess with me, and people are going to die."
"There are dozens of us," Ruebens said, "and only one of you."
"Yeah, but who's going to be first in line?" I said.
"Enough of this, Jeremy, Ms. Blake. We didn't come here to threaten you. We came for your help. We will come up with a better plan and talk to you again."
"Don't bring him," I said.
"Of course," Inger said. "Come along, Jeremy." He opened the door. The soft clack of computer keys came from the outer office. "Good-bye Ms. Blake."
"Good-bye, Mr. Inger, it's been really unpleasant."
Ruebens stopped in the doorway and hissed at me, "You are an abomination before God."
"Jesus loves you, too," I said, smiling. He slammed the door behind them. Childish.
I sat on the edge of my desk and waited to make sure they had left before going outside. I didn't think they'd try anything in the parking lot, but I really didn't want to start shooting people. Oh, I would if I had to, but it was better to avoid it. I had hoped flashing the gun would make Ruebens back off. It had just seemed to enrage him. I rotated my neck, trying to ease some of the tension away. It didn't work.
I could go home, shower, and get eight hours uninterrupted sleep. Glorious. My beeper went off. I jumped like I'd been stung. Nervous, me?
I hit the button, and the number that flashed made me groan. It was the police. To be exact, it was the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team. The Spook Squad. They were responsible for all preternatural crime in Missouri. I was their civilian expert on monsters. Bert liked the retainer I got, but better yet, the good publicity.
The beeper went off again. Same number. "Shit," I said it softly. "I heard you the first time, Dolph." I thought about pretending that I'd already gone home, turned off the beeper, and was now unavailable, but I didn't. If Detective Sergeant Rudolf Storr called me at half-past dawn, he needed my expertise. Damn.
I called the number and through a series of relays finally got Dolph's voice. He sounded tinny and faraway. His wife had gotten him a car phone for his birthday. We must have been near the limit of its range. It still beat the heck out of talking to him on the police radio. That always sounded like an alien language.
"Hi, Dolph, what's up?"
"What sort of murder?"
"The kind that needs your expertise," he said.
"It's too damn early in the morning to play twenty questions. Just tell me what's happened."
"You got up on the wrong side of bed this morning, didn't you?"
"I haven't been to bed yet."
"I sympathize, but get your butt out here. It looks like we have a vampire victim on our hands."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Shit."
"You could say that."
"Give me the address," I said.
He did. It was over the river and through the woods, way to hell and gone in Arnold. My office was just off Olive Boulevard. I had a forty-five-minute drive ahead of me, one way. Yippee.
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"We'll be waiting," Dolph said, then hung up.
I didn't bother to say good-bye to the dial tone. A vampire victim. I'd never seen a lone kill. They were like potato chips; once the vamp tasted them, he couldn't stop at just one. The trick was, how many people would die before we caught this one?
I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to drive to Arnold. I didn't want to stare at dead bodies before breakfast. I wanted to go home. But somehow I didn't think Dolph would understand. Police have very little sense of humor when they're working on a murder case. Come to think of it, neither did I.
The man's body lay on its back, pale and naked in the weak morning sunlight. Even limp with death his body was good, a lot of weights, maybe jogging. His longish yellow hair mixed with the still-green lawn. The smooth skin of his neck was punctured twice with neat fang marks. The right arm was pierced at the bend of the elbow, where a doctor draws blood. The skin of the left wrist was shredded, like an animal had gnawed it. White bone gleamed in the fragile light.
I had measured the bite marks with my trusty tape measure. They were different sizes. At least three different vamps, but I would have bet everything I owned that it was five different vampires. A master and his pack, or flock, or whatever the hell you call a group of vampires.
The grass was wet from early morning mist. The moisture soaked through the knees of the coveralls I had put on to protect my suit. Black Nikes and surgical gloves completed my crime-scene kit. I used to wear white Nikes, but they showed blood too easily.
I said a silent apology for what I had to do, then spread the corpse's legs apart. The legs moved easily, no rigor. I was betting that he hadn't been dead eight hours, not enough time for rigor mortis to set in. Semen had dried on his shriveled privates. One last joy before dying. The vamps hadn't cleaned him off. On the inside of his thigh, close to the groin, were more fang marks. They weren't as savage as the wrist wound, but they weren't neat either.
There was no blood on the skin around the wounds, not even the wrist wound. Had they cleaned the blood off? Wherever he was killed, there was a lot of blood. They'd never be able to clean it all up. If we could find where he died, we'd have all sorts of clues. But in the neatly clipped lawn in the middle of a very ordinary neighborhood, there were no clues. I was betting on that. They'd dumped the body in a place as sterile and unhelpful as the dark side of the moon.
Mist floated over the small residential neighborhood like waiting ghosts. The mist was so low to the ground that it was like walking through sheets of drizzling rain. Tiny beads of moisture clung to the body where the mist had condensed. Beads collected in my hair like silver pearls.
I stood in the front yard of a small, l
ime-green house with white trim. A chain-link fence peeked around one side encircling a roomy backyard. It was October, and the grass was still green. The top of a sugar maple loomed over the house. Its leaves were that brilliant orangey-yellow that is peculiar to sugar maples, as if their leaves were carved from flame. The mist helped the illusion, and the colors seemed to bleed on the wet air.
All down the street were other small houses with autumn-bright trees and bright green lawns. It was still early enough that most people hadn't gone to work yet, or school, or wherever. There was quite a crowd being held back by the uniform officers. They had hammered stakes into the ground to hold the yellow Do-Not-Cross tape. The crowd pressed as close to the tape as they dared. A boy of about twelve had managed to push his way to the front. He stared at the dead man with huge brown eyes, his mouth open in a little "wow" of excitement. God, where were his parents? Probably gawking at the corpse, too.
The corpse was paper-white. Blood always pools to the lowest point of the body. In this case dark, purplish bruising should have set in at buttocks, arms, legs, the entire back of his body. There were no marks. He hadn't had enough blood in him to cause lividity marks. Whoever had murdered him had drained him completely. Good to the last drop? I fought the urge to smile and lost. If you spend a lot of time staring at corpses, you get a peculiar sense of humor. You have to, or you will go stark raving mad.
"What's so funny?" a voice asked.
I jumped and whirled. "God, Zerbrowski, don't sneak up on me like that."
"Is the heap big vampire slayer jumping at shadows?" He grinned at me. His unruly brown hair stuck up in three separate tufts like he'd forgotten to comb it. His tie was at half-mast over a pale blue shirt that looked suspiciously like a pajama top. The brown suit jacket and pants clashed with the top.
He shrugged. "I've got a pair with little choo-choos on them. Katie thinks they're sexy."
"Your wife got a thing for trains?" I asked.
His grin widened. "If I'm wearing 'em."
I shook my head. "I knew you were perverted, Zerbrowski, but little kids' jammies, that's truly sick."
"Thank you." He glanced down at the body, still smiling. The smile faded. "What do you think of this?" He nodded towards the dead man.