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Guilty Pleasures, Page 2

Laurell K. Hamilton

  "Why, yes."

  "I know where Catherine works. I don't need directions."

  "Oh, how silly of me, of course. Then we'll see you about five. Dress up, but no heels. We may be dancing tonight."

  I hate to dance. "Sure, see you then."

  "See you tonight."

  The phone went dead in my ear. I turned on the answering machine and cuddled back under the sheets. Monica worked with Catherine, that made her a lawyer. That was a frightening thought. Maybe she was one of those people who was only organized at work. Naw.

  It occurred to me then, when it was too late, that I could just have refused the invitation. Damn. I was quick today. Oh, well, how bad could it be? Watching strangers get blitzed out of their minds. If I was lucky, maybe someone would throw up in my car.

  I had the strangest dreams once I got back to sleep. All about this woman I didn't know, a coconut cream pie, and Willie McCoy's funeral.


  MONICA VESPUCCI WAS wearing a button that said, "Vampires are People, too." It was not a promising beginning to the evening. Her white blouse was silk with a high, flared collar framing a dark, health-club tan. Her hair was short and expertly cut; her makeup, perfect.

  The button should have tipped me off to what kind of bachelorette party she'd planned. Some days I'm just slow to catch on.

  I was wearing black jeans, knee-high boots, and a crimson blouse. My hair was made to order for the outfit, black curling just over the shoulders of the red blouse. The solid, nearly black-brown of my eyes matches the hair. Only the skin stands out, too pale, Germanic against the Latin darkness. A very ex-boyfriend once described me as a little china doll. He meant it as a compliment. I didn't take it that way. There are reasons why I don't date much.

  The blouse was long-sleeved to hide the knife sheath on my right wrist and the scars on my left arm. I had left my gun locked in the trunk of my car. I didn't think the bachelorette party would get that out of hand.

  "I'm so sorry that I put off planning this to the last minute, Catherine. That's why there's only three of us. Everybody else had plans," Monica said.

  "Imagine that, people having plans for Friday night," I said.

  Monica stared at me as if trying to decide whether I was joking or not.

  Catherine gave me a warning glare. I gave them both my best angelic smile. Monica smiled back. Catherine wasn't fooled.

  Monica began dancing down the sidewalk, happy as a drunken clam. She had had only two drinks with dinner. It was a bad sign.

  "Be nice," Catherine whispered.

  "What did I say?"

  "Anita." Her voice sounded like my father's used to sound when I'd stayed out too late.

  I sighed. "You're just no fun tonight."

  "I plan to be a lot of fun tonight." She stretched her arms skyward. She still wore the crumpled remains of her business suit. The wind blew her long, copper-colored hair. I've never been able to decide if Catherine would be prettier if she cut her hair, so you'd notice the face first, or if the hair was what made her pretty.

  "If I have to give up one of my few free nights, then I am going to enjoy myself--immensely," she said.

  There was a kind of fierceness to the last word. I stared up at her. "You are not planning to get falling-down drunk, are you?"

  "Maybe." She looked smug.

  Catherine knew I didn't approve of, or rather, didn't understand drinking. I didn't like having my inhibitions lowered. If I was going to cut loose, I wanted to be in control of just how loose I got.

  We had left my car in a parking lot two blocks back. The one with the wrought-iron fence around it. There wasn't much parking down by the river. The narrow brick roads and ancient sidewalks had been designed for horses, not automobiles. The streets had been fresh-washed by a summer thunderstorm that had come and gone while we ate dinner. The first stars glittered overhead, like diamonds trapped in velvet.

  Monica yelled, "Hurry up, slowpokes."

  Catherine looked at me and grinned. The next thing I knew, she was running towards Monica.

  "Oh, for heaven's sake," I muttered. Maybe if I'd had drinks with dinner, I'd have run, too, but I doubted it.

  "Don't be an old stick in the mud," Catherine called back.

  Stick in the mud? I caught up to them walking. Monica was giggling. Somehow I had known she would be. Catherine and she were leaning against each other laughing. I suspected they might be laughing at me.

  Monica calmed enough to fake an ominous stage whisper. "Do you know what lies around this corner?"

  As a matter of fact, I did. The last vampire killing had been only four blocks from here. We were in what the vampires called "the District." Humans called it the Riverfront, or Blood Square, depending on if they were being rude or not.

  "Guilty Pleasures," I said.

  "Oh, pooh, you spoiled the surprise."

  "What's Guilty Pleasures?" Catherine asked.

  Monica giggled. "Oh, goodie, the surprise isn't spoiled after all." She put her arm through Catherine's. "You are going to love this, I promise you."

  Maybe Catherine would; I knew I wouldn't, but I followed them around the corner anyway. The sign was a wonderful swirling neon the color of heart blood. The symbolism was not lost on me.

  We went up three broad steps, and there was a vampire standing in front of the propped-open door. He had a black crew cut and small, pale eyes. His massive shoulders threatened to rip the tight black t-shirt he wore. Wasn't pumping iron redundant after you died?

  Even standing on the threshold I could hear the busy hum of voices, laughter, music. That rich, murmurous sound of many people in a small space, determined to have a good time.

  The vampire stood beside the door, very still. There was still a movement to him, an aliveness, for lack of a better term. He couldn't have been dead more than twenty years, if that. In the dark he looked almost human, even to me. He had fed already tonight. His skin was flushed and healthy. He looked damn near rosy-cheeked. A meal of fresh blood will do that to you.

  Monica squeezed his arm. "Ooo, feel that muscle."

  He grinned, flashing fangs. Catherine gasped. He grinned wider.

  "Buzz here is an old friend, aren't you, Buzz?"

  Buzz the vampire? Surely not.

  But he nodded. "Go on in, Monica. Your table is waiting."

  Table? What kind of clout did Monica have? Guilty Pleasures was one of the hottest clubs in the District, and they did not take reservations.

  There was a large sign on the door. "No crosses, crucifixes, or other holy items allowed inside." I read the sign and walked past it. I had no intention of getting rid of my cross.

  A rich, melodious voice floated around us. "Anita, how good of you to come."

  The voice belonged to Jean-Claude, club owner and master vampire. He looked like a vampire was supposed to look. Softly curling hair tangled with the high white lace of an antique shirt. Lace spilled over pale, long-fingered hands. The shirt hung open, giving a glimpse of lean bare chest framed by more frothy lace. Most men couldn't have worn a shirt like that. The vampire made it seem utterly masculine.

  "You two know each other?" Monica sounded surprised.

  "Oh, yes," Jean-Claude said. "Ms. Blake and I have met before."

  "I've been helping the police work cases on the Riverfront."

  "She is their vampire expert." He made the last word soft and warm and vaguely obscene.

  Monica giggled. Catherine was staring at Jean-Claude, eyes wide and innocent. I touched her arm, and she jerked as if waking from a dream. I didn't bother to whisper because I knew he would have heard me anyway. "Important safety tip--never look a vampire in the eye."

  She nodded. The first hint of fear showed in her face.

  "I would never harm such a lovely young woman." He took Catherine's hand and raised it to his mouth. A mere brush of lips. Catherine blushed.

  He kissed Monica's hand as well. He looked at me and laughed. "Do not worry, my little animator. I will not t
ouch you. That would be cheating."

  He moved to stand next to me. I stared fixedly at his chest. There was a burn scar almost hidden in the lace. The burn was in the shape of a cross. How many decades ago had someone shoved a cross into his flesh?

  "Just as you having a cross would be an unfair advantage."

  What could I say? In a way he was right.

  It was a shame that it wasn't merely the shape of a cross that hurt a vampire. Jean-Claude would have been in deep shit. Unfortunately, the cross had to be blessed, and backed up by faith. An atheist waving a cross at a vampire was a truly pitiful sight.

  He breathed my name like a whisper against my skin. "Anita, what are you thinking?"

  The voice was so damn soothing. I wanted to look up and see what face went with such words. Jean-Claude had been intrigued by my partial immunity to him. That and the cross-shaped burn scar on my arm. He found the scar amusing. Every time we met, he did his best to bespell me, and I did my best to ignore him. I had won up until now.

  "You never objected to me carrying a cross before."

  "You were on police business then; now you are not."

  I stared at his chest and wondered if the lace was as soft as it looked; probably not.

  "Are you so insecure in your own powers, little animator? Do you believe that all your resistance to me resides in that piece of silver around your neck?"

  I didn't believe that, but I knew it helped. Jean-Claude was a self-admitted two hundred and five years old. A vampire gains a lot of power in two centuries. He was suggesting I was a coward. I was not.

  I reached up to unfasten the chain. He stepped away from me and turned his back. The cross spilled silver into my hands. A blonde human woman appeared beside me. She handed me a check stub and took the cross. Nice, a holy item check girl.

  I felt suddenly underdressed without my cross. I slept and showered in it.

  Jean-Claude stepped close again. "You will not resist the show tonight, Anita. Someone will enthrall you."

  "No," I said. But it's hard to be tough when you're staring at someone's chest. You really need eye contact to play tough, but that was a no-no.

  He laughed. The sound seemed to rub over my skin, like the brush of fur. Warm and feeling ever so slightly of death.

  Monica grabbed my arm. "You're going to love this, I promise you."

  "Yes," Jean-Claude said. "It will be a night you will never forget."

  "Is that a threat?"

  He laughed again, that warm awful sound. "This is a place of pleasure, Anita, not violence."

  Monica was pulling at my arm. "Hurry, the entertainment's about to begin."

  "Entertainment?" Catherine asked.

  I had to smile. "Welcome to the world's only vampire strip club, Catherine."

  "You are joking."

  "Scout's honor." I glanced back at the door; I don't know why. Jean-Claude stood utterly still, no sense of anything, as if he were not there at all. Then he moved, one pale hand raised to his lips. He blew me a kiss across the room. The night's entertainment had begun.


  OUR TABLE WAS nearly bumping up against the stage. The room was full of liquor and laughter, and a few faked screams as the vampire waiters moved around the tables. There was an undercurrent of fear. That peculiar terror that you get on roller coasters and at horror movies. Safe terror.

  The lights went out. Screams echoed through the room, high and shrill. Real fear for an instant. Jean-Claude's voice came out of the darkness. "Welcome to Guilty Pleasures. We are here to serve you. To make your most evil thought come true."

  His voice was silken whispers in the small hours of night. Damn, he was good.

  "Have you ever wondered what it would be like to feel my breath upon your skin? My lips along your neck. The hard brush of teeth. The sweet, sharp pain of fangs. Your heart beating frantically against my chest. Your blood flowing into my veins. Sharing yourself. Giving me life. Knowing that I truly could not live without you, all of you."

  Perhaps it was the intimacy of darkness; whatever, I felt as if his voice was speaking just for me, to me. I was his chosen, his special one. No, that wasn't right. Every woman in the club felt the same. We were all his chosen. And perhaps there was more truth in that than in anything else.

  "Our first gentleman tonight shares your fantasy. He wanted to know how the sweetest of kisses would feel. He has gone before you to tell you that it is wondrous." He let silence fill the darkness, until my own heartbeat sounded loud. "Phillip is with us tonight."

  Monica whispered, "Phillip!" A collective gasp ran through the audience, then a soft chanting began. "Phillip, Phillip . . ." The sound rose around us in the dark like a prayer.

  The lights began to come up like at the end of a movie. A figure stood in the center of the stage. A white t-shirt hugged his upper body; not a muscleman, but well built. Not too much of a good thing. A black leather jacket, tight jeans and boots completed the outfit. He could have walked off any street. His thick, brown hair was long enough to sweep his shoulders.

  Music drifted into the twilit silence. The man swayed to the sounds, hips rotating ever so slightly. He began to slip out of the leather jacket, moving almost in slow motion. The soft music began to have a pulse. A pulse that his body moved with, swaying. The jacket slid to the stage. He stared out at the audience for a minute, letting us see what there was to see. Scars hugged the bend of each arm, until the skin had formed white mounds of scar tissue.

  I swallowed hard. I wasn't sure what was about to happen, but I was betting I wasn't going to like it.

  He swept back his long hair from his face with both hands. He swayed and strutted around the edge of the stage. He stood near our table, looking down at us. His neck looked like a junkie's arm.

  I had to look away. All those neat little bite marks, neat little scars. I glanced up and found Catherine staring at her lap. Monica was leaning forward in her chair, lips half-parted.

  He grabbed the t-shirt with strong hands and pulled. It peeled away from his chest, ripping. Screams from the audience. A few of them called his name. He smiled. The smile was dazzling, brilliant, melt-in-your-mouth sexy.

  There was scar tissue on his smooth, bare chest: white scars, pinkish scars, new scars, old scars. I just sat staring with my mouth open.

  Catherine whispered, "Dear God!"

  "He's wonderful, isn't he?" Monica asked.

  I glanced at her. Her flared collar had slipped, exposing two neat puncture wounds, fairly old, almost scars. Sweet Jesus.

  The music burst into a pulsing violence. He danced, swaying, gyrating, throwing the strength of his body into every move. There was a white mass of scars over his left collarbone, ragged and vicious. My stomach tightened. A vampire had torn through his collarbone, ripped at him like a dog with a piece of meat. I knew, because I had a similar scar. I had a lot of similar scars.

  Dollar bills appeared in hands like mushrooms after a rain. Monica was waving her money like a flag. I didn't want Phillip at our table. I had to lean into Monica to be heard over the noise. "Monica, please, don't bring him over here."

  Even as she turned to look at me, I knew it was too late. Phillip of the many scars was standing on the stage, looking down at us. I stared up into his very human eyes.

  I could see the pulse in Monica's throat. She licked her lips; her eyes were enormous. She stuffed the money down the front of his pants.

  Her hands traced his scars like nervous butterflies. She leaned her face close to his stomach and began kissing his scars, leaving red lipstick prints behind. He knelt as she kissed him, forcing her mouth higher and higher up his chest.

  He knelt, and she pressed lips to his face. He brushed his hair back from his neck, as if he knew what she wanted. She licked the newest bite scar, tongue small and pink, like a cat. I heard her breath go out in a trembling sigh. She bit him, mouth locking over the wound. Phillip jerked with pain, or just surprise. Her jaws tightened, her throat worked. She was sucking the wou

  I looked across the table at Catherine. She was staring at them, face blank with astonishment.

  The crowd was going wild, screaming and waving money. Phillip pulled away from Monica and moved on to another table. Monica slumped forward, head collapsing into her lap, arms limp at her side.

  Had she fainted? I reached out to touch her shoulder and realized I didn't want to touch her. I gripped her shoulder gently. She moved, turning her head to look at me. Her eyes held that lazy fullness that sex gives. Her mouth looked pale with most of the lipstick worn away. She hadn't fainted; she was basking in the afterglow.

  I drew back from her, rubbing my hand against my jeans. My palms were sweating.

  Phillip was back on the stage. He had stopped dancing. He was just standing there. Monica had left a small round mark on his neck.

  I felt the first stirrings of an old mind, flowing over the crowd. Catherine asked, "What's happening?"

  "It's all right," Monica said. She was sitting upright in her chair, eyes still half-closed. She licked her lips and stretched, hands over her head.

  Catherine turned to me. "Anita, what is it?"

  "Vampire," I said.

  Fear flashed on her face, but it didn't last. I watched the fear fade under the weight of the vampire's mind. She turned slowly to stare at Phillip as he waited on the stage. Catherine was in no danger. This mass hypnosis was not personal, and not permanent.

  The vampire wasn't as old as Jean-Claude, nor as good. I sat there feeling the press and flow of over a hundred years of power, and it wasn't enough. I felt him move up through the tables. He had gone to a lot of trouble to make sure the poor humans wouldn't see him come. He would simply appear in their midst, like magic.

  You don't get to surprise vampires often. I turned to watch the vampire walk towards the stage. Every human face I saw was enraptured, turned blindly to the stage, waiting. The vampire was tall with high cheekbones, model-perfect, sculpted. He was too masculine to be beautiful, and too perfect to be real.

  He strode through the tables wearing a proverbial vampire outfit, black tux and white gloves. He stopped one table away from me, to stare. He held the audience in the palm of his mind, helpless and waiting. But there I sat staring at him, though not at his eyes.

  His body stiffened, surprised. There's nothing like ruining the calm of a hundred-year-old vampire to boost a girl's morale.