/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Skin Trade

Laurell Hamilton

A proven series with a hot new look. The #1 bestselling author returns with her most anticipated novel yet. When a vampire serial killer sends Anita Blake a grisly souvenir from Las Vegas, she has to warn Sin City 's local authorities what they're dealing with. Only it's worse than she thought. Ten officers and one executioner have been slain – paranormal style. Anita heads to Vegas, where's she's joined by three other federal marshals, including the ruthless Edward. It's a good thing he always has her back, because when she gets close to the bodies, Anita senses 'tiger' too strongly to ignore it. The weretigers are very powerful in Las Vegas, which means the odds of her rubbing someone important the wrong way just got a lot higher.

Laurell K. Hamilton

Skin Trade

Book # 17 in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series

To Jonathon,

who understands that I’m a moody bastard, but loves me anyway.

Some days he loves me because of it. Of course, it takes one to know one.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

To everyone who keeps hanging in there: Darla, Sherry, Mary, and Teresa. Merrilee, my agent, for never giving up. Susan, my editor, who often surprises me with her insights. Everyone at Marvel who works on the Anita Blake comic series. A team, at last. Shawn, who answered nearly endless questions about police work, and when he didn’t know the answers, admitted it and helped me find other experts to talk to. Thanks for having our backs in Vegas. Robin, who helped calm me down. Blessed be. Thanks to Kathy, who helped us out at the last Wolf Howl. Charles, we’ll miss seeing you at all the events, but life moves on, and new goals need pursuing. Good luck on getting your degree. Daven and Wendi, thanks for the hospitality and the hugs. Sharon Shinn, because no one else understands the panic. To all the rest of the Alternate Historians: Deborah Millitello, Tom Drennan, Mark Sumner, and Marella Sands-good friends, good writers, what more could one ask? To Las Vegas Metro SWAT, thanks to all of you, because I was told that it’s about the team, not the individuals, and who am I to argue with a team that works this well. Thanks to Bill, Alane, Nicole, and REM, who showed us around the Clark County Coroner’s office. It was great meeting everyone in Vegas; you all made us feel very welcome. Thank you. Any mistakes in the book are mine and mine alone, because there wasn’t time for everyone to read over the manuscript, but the help I received in Vegas helped keep the mistakes to a minimum. Thanks, everyone.

Sudden and swift and light as that

The ties gave,

And he learned of finalities

Besides the grave.

– From “The Impulse” by Robert Frost (The Hill Wife, 1922)

1

I’D WORKED MY share of serial killer cases, but none of the killers had ever mailed me a human head. That was new. I looked down at the head, ghostly, through the plastic bag it was wrapped in. It sat on my desk, on top of the desk blotter, like hundreds of other packages that had been delivered to Animators Inc., where our motto was Where the Living Raise the Dead for a Killing. The head had been packed in ice, for all the world like some employee of the postal service had done it. Maybe they had; vampires can be very persuasive, and it was a vampire who had sent the package. A vampire named Vittorio. He’d included a letter with my name written on the envelope in lovely calligraphy: Anita Blake. He wanted me to know who to thank for my little surprise. He and his people had slaughtered over ten people in St. Louis alone before he fled to parts unknown. Well, not unknown now, maybe. There was a return address on the package. It had been mailed from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Either Vittorio was still there, or it would be another of his disappearing acts. Was he in Las Vegas, or had he mailed it from there and would be somewhere else by the time I gave the information to the police there?

No way to know. I could still hear our daytime secretary, Mary, being hysterical in the other room. Luckily we had no clients in the office. I was about thirty minutes away from my first client of the day, and my appointment had been the first of the day for Animators Inc.; lucky. Mary could have her breakdown while our business manager, Bert, tried to calm her. Maybe I should have helped, but I was a U.S. Marshal, and business had to come first. I had to call Vegas and tell them they might have a serial killer in town. Happy fucking Monday.

I sat down at my desk, the phone in my hand, but didn’t dial it. I stared at the pictures of other people’s families on my desk. Once the shared desk had been empty, just files mingling in the drawers, but first Manny Rodriguez brought in his family portrait. It was the one that every family seems to have, where people are too serious, and only one or two manage a good smile. Manny looked stiff and uncomfortable in his suit and tie. Left to his own devices he always forgot the tie, but Rosita, his wife, who was inches taller than he, and more inches wider than his slender form, would have insisted on the tie. She usually got her way on stuff like that. Manny wasn’t exactly henpecked, but he wasn’t exactly the voice of authority in his house either.

Their two girls, Mercedes and Consuela (Connie), were very grown-up, standing tall and straight with their father’s delicate build, and their faces so pretty, they shone in the shadow of Rosita’s older, heavier face. His daughters made me see what he might have seen all those years ago when Rosita, “little rose,” must have matched her name. Their son, Tomas, was still a child, still in elementary school. Was he in third grade now, or fourth? I couldn’t remember.

The other picture was a pair of photos in one of those hinged frames. One picture was of Larry Kirkland and his wife, Detective Tammy Reynolds, on their wedding day. They were looking at each other like they saw something wonderful, all shiny and full of promise. The other photo was of them with their daughter, Angelica, who had quickly become simply Angel. The baby had her father’s curls, like an auburn halo around her head. He kept his orange-red hair cut so short there were no curls, but Tammy’s brown hair had darkened Angel’s, so that it was auburn. It was a little more brown, a little less red, than Nathaniel’s auburn hair.

Should I bring a picture of Nathaniel and Micah and me in, to put on the desk? I knew that the other animators at Animators Inc. had pictures of their families on their desks, too.

But, of course, would I need more pictures? If I brought a picture of me with the two men, then did I need to bring a picture of me with my other sweeties? When you’re sort of living with, at last count, four men, and dating another five or six, who goes in the pictures?

I felt nothing about the package on my desk. I wasn’t scared or disgusted. I felt nothing but a huge, vast emptiness inside me, almost like the silence that my head went to when I pulled the trigger on someone. Was I handling this really well, or was I in shock? Hmm, I couldn’t tell, which meant it was probably some version of shock. Great.

I stood up and looked at the head in its plastic wrap and thought, No pictures of my boyfriends, not at work. I’d had a handful of clients who had turned out to be bad guys, and girls. I didn’t want them seeing pictures of people I loved. Never give the bad guys ideas; they find enough awful things to do without giving them clues.

No, no personal photos at work. Bad idea.

I dialed Information, because I’d never talked to the Las Vegas police force before. It was a chance to make new friends, or piss off a whole new set of people; with me, it could go either way. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I did have a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Part of it was being a woman in a predominantly male field; part of it was simply my winning personality.

I sat back down, so I couldn’t see inside the box. I’d already called my local police. I wanted forensics to do the box, find some clues, help us catch this bastard. Whose head was it, and why did I get the prize? Why send it to me? Was it a sign that he held a grudge about me killing so many of his vampires when they were slaughtering people in our town, or did it mean something else, something that would never, ever, occur to me to think?

There are a lot of good profilers working on serials, but I think they miss one thing. You can’t really think like these people. You just can’t. You can try. You can crawl into their heads so far that you feel like you’ll never be clean again, but in the end, unless you are one, you can’t really understand what motivates them. And they are selfish creatures, caring only about their own pleasure, their own pathology. Serial killers don’t help you catch other serial killers unless it helps their agenda. Of course, there were people who said that I was a serial killer. I still had the highest kill count of all the legal vampire executioners in the United States. I’d topped a hundred this year. Did it really matter that I didn’t enjoy my kills? Did it really change anything that I took no sexual pleasure from it? Did it matter that in the beginning I’d thrown up? Did the fact that I’d had an order of execution for most of my kills make them better, less brutal? There were serial killers who had used only poison, which caused almost no pain; they’d been less brutal than me. Lately, I’d begun to wonder exactly what set me apart from people like Vittorio. I’d begun to question if to my oh-so-legal victims it mattered what my motives were.

A woman answered the phone in Las Vegas, and I began the process of getting passed up the line to the person who might be able to tell me whose head I had in the box.

2

UNDERSHERIFF RUPERT SHAW had a rough voice; either he’d been yelling a lot, or he’d smoked way too much, for way too many years. “Who did you say this was?” he asked.

I sighed, and repeated for the umpteenth time, “I am U.S. Marshal Anita Blake. I need to talk to someone in charge, and I guess that would be you, Sheriff Shaw.”

“I will kick the ass of whoever gave your name to the media.”

“What are you talking about, Sheriff?”

“You didn’t hear about the message from the media?”

“If you mean television or radio, I haven’t had either on. Is there something I should know?”

“How did you know to call us, Marshal?”

I sat back in my chair, totally puzzled. “I get the feeling that if I hadn’t called you, you’d be calling me, Sheriff Shaw.”

“How did you know to call us?” he said again, each word a little more defined, an edge of stress, maybe even anger in his voice.

“I called you because I’ve got a package sitting on my desk that was mailed from Las Vegas.”

“What kind of package?” he asked.

Was it time to tell the whole story? I hadn’t earlier because once you tell someone certain things-say, you got mailed a human head in a box-they tend to think you’re crazy. I was in the media enough for someone to pretend to be me, so I’d wanted them to take me seriously before they discounted me as some crackpot psychotic.

“Someone mailed me a human head. The return address is your city.”

He was quiet for almost a minute. I could hear his raspy breathing. I was betting on the smoking. About the time I was going to prompt him, he said, “Can you describe the head?”

He could have said a lot of things, but that wasn’t on my list. Too calm, even for a cop, and too practical. The moment he asked me to describe it, I knew he had someone in mind, someone who was missing a head. Shit.

“The head is in plastic, packed in ice. The hair looks dark, but that could be partially from the way it was packed. The hair looks straight, but again, I can’t be sure that it’s not some leakage making the hair appear straight. Caucasian, I’m sure of, and the eyes look pale. Gray, maybe pale blue, though death can steal color from the eyes. I have no way of telling time of death, so I don’t know how much discoloration could have taken place.”

“Have you searched the box for anything else?”

“Is your man missing more than just a head?” I asked.

“A badge, and a finger. The finger should have a wedding band on it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that last part.”

“Why?”

“Telling the wife, I don’t envy you that.”

“You have to do that yourself much?”

“I’ve seen the grieving families of the vampire vics often enough. It always sucks.”

“Yeah, it always sucks,” he said.

“I’m waiting for forensics to look at it before I touch anything. If there are any clues, I don’t want to fuck them up because I got impatient.”

“Let me know what they find.”

“Will do.” I waited for him to add something, but he didn’t. All I had was his breathing, too rough, too labored. I wondered when was the last time he’d had a physical.

I finally said, “What happened in Vegas, Sheriff Shaw? Why do I have a piece of one of your officers on my desk?”

“We aren’t sure that’s who it is.”

“No, but it would be an awfully big coincidence if you’ve got an officer who’s missing a head, and I’ve got a head in a box sent from your town that superficially matches your downed officer. I just don’t buy a coincidence that big, Sheriff.”

He sighed, then coughed; it was a thick cough. Maybe he was just getting over something. “Me either, Blake, me either. I’ll go you one better. We’re holding back the fact that we’ve got a missing head and badge. We’re also holding back from the media that there’s a message on the wall where my men were slaughtered. It’s written in their blood, and it’s addressed to you.”

“To me,” I said, and my voice sounded a little less certain of itself than I wanted it to sound. It was my turn to clear my throat.

“Yeah, it reads, Tell Anita Blake I’ll be waiting for her.”

“Well, that’s just… creepy,” I said, finally. I couldn’t think of what else to say, but there was that electric jolt that got through the shock for a second. I knew that jolt; it was fear.

“ ‘Creepy,’ that’s the best you can do? This vampire sent you a human head. Will it mean more to you if I tell you it’s the head of our local vampire executioner?”

I thought about that for a few breaths, felt that jolt again-somewhere between an electric shock and the sensation of champagne in your veins. “What word would make you happy, Shaw? Did he take any souvenirs from any of the other officers?”

“You mean, did he decapitate anyone else?”

“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”

“No. He and his monsters killed three operators, but the bodies were not used for souvenir hunting.”

“Operators… so the vamp executioner was with your SWAT?”

“All warrants of execution are considered high risk, so SWAT helps deliver the message.”

“Yeah, they’re talking about that in St. Louis, too.” I was still unsure how I felt about them forcing me to take SWAT on vampire hunts. Part of me was happy for the backup, and another part was totally against it. The last time SWAT had backed me, some of them died. I didn’t like being responsible for more people. Also, it was always a chore to convince them I was worthy to put my shoulder beside theirs and hit that door.

“If our men killed any of the monsters, we don’t have any evidence to prove it. It looks like our people dropped where they stood.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I ignored it. “How long ago did all this happen?”

“Yesterday, no, night before last, yeah. I’ve been up for a while; it starts to make you lose track.”

“I know,” I said.

“What the hell did you do to this vampire to make him like you this much?”

“I have no idea. Maybe let him get away and not chase him. Oh, hell, Shaw, you know there’s no logic to these nut-bunnies.”

“Nut-bunnies,” he said.

“Fine, serial killers. Dead or alive they operate on a logic all their own. It doesn’t make sense to the rest of us because we’re not nut-bunnies.”

He made a sound that I think was a laugh. “No, we’re not nut-bunnies, yet. The papers and television say you killed a bunch of his people.”

“I had help. Our SWAT was with me. They lost men.”

“I’ve looked up the articles, but frankly, I thought you’d take credit and not mention the police.”

“They went in with me. They risked their lives. Some of them died. It was bad. I don’t think I’d forget that.”

“Rumor has it that you’re a publicity sl-hound,” he said, changing the word he was going to use to something less offensive.

I actually laughed, which was a good sign. I wasn’t completely in shock, yea! “I’m not a publicity hound, or a publicity slut, Sheriff Shaw. Trust me, I get way more media attention than I want.”

“For someone who doesn’t want the attention, you get a hell of a lot of it.”

I shrugged, realized he couldn’t see it, and said, “I’m involved with some pretty gruesome cases, Sheriff; it attracts the media.”

“You’re also a beautiful young woman and are dating the master of your city.”

“Do I thank you for the beautiful comment before or after I tell you that my personal life is none of your concern?”

“It is if it interferes with your job.”

“Check the record, Sheriff Shaw. I’ve killed more vampires since I’ve been dating Jean-Claude than I did before.”

“I heard you’ve refused to do stakings in the morgue.”

“I’ve lost my taste for putting a stake through the heart of someone chained and helpless on a gurney.”

“They’re asleep, or whatever, right?”

“Not always, and trust me, the first time you have to look someone in the face while they beg for their life… Let’s just say that even with practice, putting a stake through someone’s heart is a slow way to die. They beg and explain themselves right up to the last.”

“But they’ve done something to deserve death,” he said.

“Not always; sometimes they fall into that three-strikes law for vampires. It’s written so that no matter what the crime is, even a misdemeanor, three times and you get a warrant of execution on your ass. I don’t like killing people for stealing when there’s no violence involved.”

“But stealing big items, right?”

“No, Sheriff, one woman got executed for stealing less than a thousand dollars of shit. She was a diagnosed kleptomaniac before becoming a vampire; dying didn’t cure her like she thought it would.”

“Someone put a stake through her heart for petty theft?”

“They did,” I said.

“The law doesn’t give the preternatural branch of the marshal program a right to refuse jobs.”

“Technically, no, but I just don’t do the stakedowns. I had stopped doing them before the vampire executioners got grandfathered into the U.S. Marshal program.”

“And they let you.”

“Let’s say I have an understanding with my superiors.” The understanding had been that I wouldn’t testify on behalf of the family of the woman executed for shoplifting if they simply wouldn’t make me kill anyone who hadn’t taken lives. A life for a life made some sense. A life for some costume jewelry made no sense to me. A lot of us had turned down the woman. In the end they’d had to send to Washington, DC, for Gerald Mallory, who was one of the first vampire hunters ever who was still alive. He still thought all vampires were evil monsters, so he’d staked her without a qualm. Mallory sort of scared me. There was something in his eyes when he looked at any vampire that wasn’t quite sane.

“Marshal, are you still there?”

“I’m sorry, Sheriff, you got me thinking too hard about the shoplifter.”

“It’s in the news that the family is suing for wrongful death.”

“They are.”

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

“I say what needs saying.”

“You’re damn quiet for a woman.”

“You don’t need me to talk. I assume you need me to come to Vegas and do my job.”

“It’s a trap, Blake. A trap just for you.”

“Probably, and sending me the head of your executioner is about as direct as a threat gets.”

“And you’re still going to come?”

I stood up and looked down at the box and the head staring up at me. It looked somewhere between surprised and sleepy. “He mailed me the head of your vampire executioner. He mailed it to my office. He wrote a message to me in the blood on the wall where he slaughtered three of your operators. Hell, yes, I’m coming to Vegas.”

“You sound angry.”

In my head I thought, Better angry than scared. If I could stay outraged, maybe I could keep the fear from growing. Because it was there in the pit of my stomach, in the back of my mind like a black, niggling thought that would grow bigger if I let it. “Wouldn’t you be pissed?”

“I’d be scared.”

That stopped me, because cops almost never admit that they’re scared. “You broke the rule, Shaw, you never admit you’re scared.”

“I just want you to know, Blake, really know, what you’re walking into, that’s all.”

“It must have been bad.”

“I’ve seen more men dead at one time. Hell, I’ve lost more men under my command.”

“You must be ex-military,” I said.

“I am,” he said.

I waited for him to say what service; most would, but he didn’t.

“Where were you stationed?” I asked.

“Classified, most of it.”

“Ex-special teams?” I made it part question, part statement.

“Yes.”

“Do I ask what flavor, or just let it drop, before you have to threaten me with the old if-I-tell-you-then-I-have-to-kill-you routine?” I tried for a joke, but Shaw didn’t take it that way.

“You’re making a joke. If you can do that, then you don’t get what’s happening.”

“You’ve got three operators dead, one vamp executioner dead and cut up; that is bad, but you didn’t send just three operators in with the marshal, so most of your team got away, Sheriff.”

“They didn’t get away,” he said, and something in his voice made that tight, black pit of fear rise a little higher in my gut.

“But they’re not dead,” I said, “or you’d say so.”

“No, not dead, not exactly.”

“Are they badly hurt?”

“Not exactly,” he said.

“Stop beating the bush to death and just tell me, Shaw.”

“Seven of our men are in the hospital. There’s not a mark on them. They just dropped.”

“If there are no marks on them, why did they drop, and why are they in the hospital?”

“They’re asleep.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You mean comas?”

“The doctors say no. They’re asleep; we just can’t wake them up.”

“Do the docs have any clues?”

“The only thing close to this is those patients in the twenties who all went to sleep and never woke up.”

“Didn’t they make a movie years back about them waking up?”

“Yes, but it didn’t last, and they still don’t know why that form of sleeping sickness is different from the norm,” he said.

“Your whole team didn’t just catch this sleeping thing in the middle of a firefight.”

“You asked what the doctors said.”

“Now, I’m asking what you say.”

“One of our practitioners says it was magic.”

“Practitioners?” I made it a question.

“We’ve got psychics attached to our teams, but can’t call them our pet wizards.”

“So operators and practitioners,” I said.

“Yes.”

“So someone did a spell?”

“I don’t know, but apparently it all reeks of psychic shit, and when you run out of explanations that make sense, you go with what you got.”

“When you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” I said.

“Did you just quote Sherlock Holmes at me?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you still don’t get it, Blake. You just don’t.”

“Okay, let me be blunt here. Something about my reaction wasn’t what you expected, so you’re convinced that I don’t get the seriousness of the situation. You’re ex-special teams, which means to you, women are not going to measure up. You’ve called me a beautiful woman, and that, too, makes most cops and military underestimate women. But special teams, hell, you don’t think most other military men are up to your level, or most cops. So I’m a girl; get over it. I’m petite and I clean up well; get over that, too. I’m dating a vampire, the master of my city; so what? It has nothing to do with my job or why Vittorio invited me to come hunt him in Vegas.”

“Why did he run in St. Louis? Why didn’t he run here when he knew we were coming? Why did he ambush our men and not yours?”

“Maybe he couldn’t afford to lose that many of his vampires again, or maybe he’s just decided to make his last stand in your city.”

“Lucky fucking us.”

“Yeah.”

“I called around, talked to some of the other cops you’ve worked with, and some of the other vampire executioners, about you. You want to know why some of them thought this vampire ran in St. Louis?”

“I’m all ears.”

“You, they thought he ran from you. Our Master of the City told me that the vampires call you the Executioner-that they’ve called you that for years.”

“Yeah, that’s their pet name for me.”

“Why you? Why you, and not Gerald Mallory? He’s been around longer.”

“He’s been around years longer than me, but I’ve got the higher body count. Think about it.”

“How can you have the higher body count if he’s been doing this for at least ten years longer than you?”

“One, he’s a stake-and-hammer man. He refuses to go to silver ammo and guns. That means he has to totally incapacitate the vampires before he can kill them. Totally incapacitating a vampire is really hard to do. I can wound one, bring it down from a distance. Two, I think his hatred of vampires makes him less effective when hunting them. It makes him miss clues and not think things through.”

“So you just kill them better than anyone else.”

“Apparently.”

“I’ll be honest, Blake, I’d feel better if you were a guy. I’d feel even better if you had some military background. I’ve checked you out; other than a few hunting trips with your dad, you’d never handled a gun before you started killing monsters. You’d never owned a handgun at all.”

“We were all newbies once, Shaw. But trust me, the new is all worn off of me.”

“Our Master of the City is cooperating fully with us.”

“I’ll just bet he is.”

“He says bring you to Vegas, and you’ll sort it out.”

That stopped me. Maximillian, Max, had met me only once, when he came to town with some of his weretigers after an unfortunate metaphysical accident. The unfortunate accident had ended with me pretty much possessing one of his weretigers, Crispin. He’d taken Crispin back to Vegas with him, but it wasn’t because the tiger wanted to leave me. He was disturbingly devoted to me. It wasn’t my fault, honest, but the damage was still done. Lately, some of the powers I’d gained as Jean-Claude’s human servant seemed to translate into attracting metaphysical men. Vampires, wereanimals, so far just that, but it was enough. Some days it was too much. I didn’t remember doing anything that impressive when Max was visiting.

I’d spent most of his visit trying to be a good little human servant for Jean-Claude, and whatever became mine, like a weretiger, became my master’s, too. We’d done some fairly disturbing metaphysics, my master and I, for our guest’s benefit. We’d left him kind of creeped, unless he was way more bisexual than he’d ever admit.

“Blake, you still there?”

“I’m here, Shaw, just thinking about your Master of the City. I’m flattered that he thinks I can sort it out.”

“You should be. He’s old-time mob. Don’t take this wrong, but if you think my opinion of women is low, then old-time mobsters think worse.”

“Yeah, yeah, you just think women can’t cut it on the job. Mobsters think we’re just for making babies or fucking.”

He made another laugh sound. “You are one blunt son of a bitch.”

I took it for the compliment it was; he hadn’t called me a daughter of a bitch. If I could get him to treat me like one of the guys, I could do my job.

“I am probably one of the most blunt people you will ever meet, Shaw.”

“I’m beginning to believe that.”

“Believe it, warn the other guys. It’ll save time.”

“Warn them about what, that you’re blunt?”

“All of it-blunt, a girl, pretty, dates vampires, whatever. Get it out of their system before I hit the ground in Vegas. I don’t want to have to wade through macho bullshit to do my job.”

“Nothing I can do about that, Blake. You’ll have to prove yourself to them, just like any… officer.”

“Woman, you were going to say woman. I know how it works, Shaw. Because I’m a girl, I gotta be better than the guys to get the same level of respect. But with three men dead in Vegas and seven more in some sort of a spell, ten dead here in St. Louis, five in New Orleans, two in Pittsburgh, I’d like to think your officers will be more interested in catching this bastard than giving me a hard time.”

“They’re motivated, Blake, but you’re still a beautiful woman and they’re still cops.”

I ignored the compliment because I never knew what to do with it. “And they’re scared,” I said.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to; you’re special teams and you admitted it. If it’s spooked you, then it’s sure as hell spooked the rest. They’re going to be jumpy and looking for someone to blame.”

“We blame the vampires that killed our people.”

“Yeah, but I’m still going to be the whipping boy for some of them.”

“What makes you say that?”

“The message on the wall was for me. The head came to me. You already asked me what I did to piss Vittorio off. Some of your people are going to say that I pissed him off enough to make him do all this, or maybe even that he did it all to impress me in that sweet serial killer sort of way.”

Shaw was quiet, only his thick breathing on the phone. I didn’t prompt him, just waited, and finally he said, “You’re a bigger cynic than I am, Blake.”

“Do you think I’m wrong?”

He was quiet for a breath or two more. “No, Blake, I don’t think you’re wrong. I think you’re exactly right. My men are spooked, and they’ll want someone to blame. This vampire has made sure that the police here in Vegas will have mixed feelings about you.”

“What you need to ask yourself, Shaw, is did he do it on purpose, to make my job harder, or did he not give a damn about the effect it had on you and your men?”

“You know him better than I do, Blake. Which is it-on purpose, or didn’t give a damn?”

“I don’t know this vampire, Shaw. I know his victims, and the vampires he left behind for killing. I thought he’d resurface because most of these guys can’t stop once they get to a certain level of violence. It’s like a drug, and they are addicted. But I never dreamed he’d send me presents or special messages. I honestly didn’t think I’d made that big an impression on him.”

“We’ll show you the crime scene when you land. Trust me, Blake, you made an impression on him.”

“Not the impression I wanted to make,” I said.

“And what was that?”

“A hole in his head, and a hole in his heart big enough to see daylight through.”

“I’ll help you do it.”

“I didn’t think undersheriffs did fieldwork.”

“For this one, I’ll make an exception. When can you get here?”

“I’ll have to check the airline schedule, and I’ll have to check the regulations for my vampire kit. Seems like the rules change every time I have to fly.”

“Our marshal didn’t carry anything special on him that you couldn’t get on a plane with if you’ve passed the air marshal test.”

I thought to myself, Maybe that’s why he’s dead. Out loud, I said, “I’m bringing phosphorus grenades if I can get them on the plane.”

“Phosphorus grenades, no shit.”

“No shit.”

“They work on vampires?”

“They work on everything, Shaw, and water makes them burn hotter.”

“You ever seen a man dive into water, thinking it will put it out, but it just flares?” Shaw asked.

I had a sudden picture in my head of a ghoul that had run through a stream trying to get away. He, or one of his pack, had killed a homeless man who’d fallen asleep in the cemetery where the ghouls had come out of the graves. They’d never have attacked him awake, but they still ate him, and that still earned them an extermination. I’d just been backup for a flamethrower team of exterminators. But ghouls that are brave enough to attack and kill the living rather than just scavenge the dead can turn deadly. Which means you don’t send civilians in without badges to back them. It’d been the first time I’d used the grenades. They worked better than anything I’d ever used on ghouls. When they go bad, they are as strong as a vampire, faster and stronger than a zombie, immune to silver bullets, and almost impossible to kill with anything but fire. “I saw some run through a stream. The phosphorus flared up around them like a hot, white aura everywhere the water splashed. So bright, the water sparked in the light.”

“And the men screamed for a long time,” Shaw said.

“Yeah, ghouls, but yeah, they did.” I heard my voice utterly cold. I couldn’t afford to feel anything yet.

“I thought modern phosphorus didn’t do all that,” he said.

“Everything old is new again,” I said.

“I’m beginning to see why the vampires think you’re scary, Blake.”

“The grenades aren’t what make me scary, Shaw.”

“What does?” he asked.

“That I’m willing to use them.”

“It’s not being willing to use them, Blake. It’s being willing to use them again.”

I thought about that, and finally said, “Yeah.”

“Call me when you have your flight arranged.” His voice was unhappy with me, as if I’d said something else that wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

“I’ll let you know as soon as I know. Give me your direct number, if you’re my go-to guy.”

He sighed loud enough for me to hear it. “Yeah, I’m your go-to guy.” He gave me his extension and his cell phone number. “We’re not going to wait for you, Blake. If we can catch these bastards, we will.”

“The warrant of execution died with your vampire executioner, Shaw. If you guys kill them without me or another executioner with you, then you’ll be looking at charges.”

“If we find them, and we hesitate, they’ll kill us.”

“I know that.”

“So what are you telling me to do?”

“I’m reminding you of the law.”

“What if I said I don’t need a fucking executioner to remind me of the law?”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. I have a friend with a private plane. That’s probably the fastest way to get to you.”

“Your friend, or your master?”

“What did I say to piss you off, Shaw?”

“I’m not sure; maybe you just reminded me of something I didn’t want to remember. Maybe you just made sure I know what may have to happen in my town before this is over.”

“If you want pretty lies, you have the wrong marshal.”

“I heard that about you, that and that you’ll fuck anything that moves.”

Yeah, I’d pissed him off. “Don’t worry, Shaw, your virtue is safe.”

“Why, not pretty enough for you?”

“Probably not, but I don’t do cops.”

“What do you do?”

“Monsters.” I hung up. I shouldn’t have. I should have explained the rumors, and how it wasn’t true, and how I had never let sex interfere in a case, much. But there comes a point when you just get tired of explaining yourself. And, let’s face it, you can’t prove a negative. I couldn’t prove I didn’t sleep around. I could only do my job to the best of my ability and try to stay alive, oh, and try to keep everyone else alive. And kill the bad vampires. Yeah, mustn’t forget that part.

I had other phone calls to make before I could leave town. Cell phones are wonderful things. First call was to Larry Kirkland, fellow U.S. Marshal and vampire executioner. He answered his own cell phone on the second ring. “Hey, Anita, what’s up?” He still sounds young and fresh, but in the four years we’d known each other, he’d acquired his first scars, along with a wife and baby, and was still the main person for the morgue stakings. He had also refused to kill the shoplifter. In fact, he’d been the one who called me from the morgue to ask what the hell to do about it. He’s about my height, with bright red hair that would curl if he didn’t cut it so short, freckles, the works. He looks like he should be going out with Tom Sawyer to play tricks on little Becky, but he’s stood shoulder to shoulder with me in some bad places. If he had one fault, other than that I wasn’t entirely a fan of his wife, it was that he wasn’t a shooter. He still thought more like a cop than an assassin, and sometimes that wasn’t good in our line of work. Oh, and what did I have against his wife, Detective Tammy Reynolds? She didn’t approve of my choices in boyfriends, and she kept wanting to convert me to her sect of Christianity, which was a little too Gnostic for me. In fact, it was one of the last Gnostic-based forms of Christianity to have survived the early days of the church. It allowed for witches, read psychics in this case. Tammy thought I’d be a fine Sister of the Faith. Larry was now a Brother of the Faith, since he, like me, could raise zombies from the grave. It’s not evil if you’re doing it for the church.

“I’ve got to fly to Vegas on a warrant.”

“You need me to cover while you’re gone?” he made it a question.

“Yep.”

“Then you’re covered,” he said.

I thought about giving him more details, but I was afraid he’d want to come with me. Endangering myself was one thing, endangering Larry was another. Part of it was that he was married and had a baby; the other part was that I just felt protective of him. He was only a few years younger than me, but there was something still soft about him. I valued that, and feared it. Soft either goes away in our business or gets you killed.

“Thanks, Larry. I’ll see you when I get back.”

“Be careful,” he said.

“Aren’t I always?”

He laughed. “No.”

We hung up. He’d be pissed when he learned the details about Vegas. Pissed that I hadn’t confided in him, and pissed that I was still protecting him. But pissed I could live with; dead, I wasn’t sure about.

I also called New Orleans. Their local vampire hunter, Denis-Luc St. John, had made me promise that if Vittorio ever resurfaced I’d give him a chance to get a piece of the hunt. St. John had almost been one of Vittorio’s victims. Months in the hospital and rehab after had made him pretty adamant about helping kill the vampire that put him through all that.

It was a woman’s voice on the other end of the phone, which surprised me. To my knowledge, St. John didn’t have a wife. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I have the right number. I’m looking for Denis-Luc St. John.”

“Who is this?” the woman asked.

“U.S. Marshal Anita Blake.”

“The vampire executioner,” and she made it sound like a bad thing.

“Yes.”

“I’m Denis-Luc’s sister.” She said Denis-Luc with an accent I couldn’t match.

“Hi, could I speak to your brother?”

“He’s out, but I’ll give him a message.”

“Okay.” I told her about Vittorio.

“You mean the vampire that nearly killed him?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Why would you even call him?” Her voice was definitely hostile now.

“Because he made me promise that if this vampire resurfaced I would call him and given him another crack at it.”

“That sounds like my brother.” Again, she didn’t sound happy about it.

“Will you give him the message?”

“Sure.” Then she hung up on me.

I wasn’t sure I believed that the sister would give him the message, but it was the only number I had for St. John. I could have called the local police and probably gotten a message to him, but what if I did, and this time Vittorio killed him? What would I say to his sister then? I left it in her hands. If she gave him the message, fine; if she didn’t, then not my bad. Either way, I’d kept my promise and wouldn’t be getting him killed. It seemed like a win-win to me.

3

IN THE MOVIES, you always see the hero just getting on a plane and going off to fight the bad guys; in reality, you’ve got to pack first. Clothes I could probably have bought in Vegas, but the weapons… those I needed.

Home, for the moment, was underneath the Circus of the Damned. Sort of like the old idea of a store owner living above his shop, except when you’re shacking up with a vampire, windows are bad; cavernous underground, good. Besides, it was also one of the most defensible places in all of St. Louis. When your vampie sweetie is also the Master of the City, you have to worry about defense. Not humans anymore, but other vampires wanting to take a bite of your action. Okay, once it had been a group of rogue shapeshifters, but the problem was the same. Monsters outside the law were as dangerous as humans outside it, but with more skills.

Which was why I knew there were guards watching me as I parked and went to the back door. I always had to resist the urge to wave. It was supposed to be a secret that they were watching, so waving was out.

My cell phone rang as I was digging out my keys for the back door. The music had changed again; now it was “Wild Boys” by Duran Duran. Nathaniel found it amusing that I couldn’t figure out how to program my own ring tone, so he changed it periodically without warning. Apparently, this was my default ring tone now. Boys.

“Blake here.”

The voice on the other end of the phone stopped me dead in the parking lot. “Anita, it’s Edward.”

Edward was an assassin who specialized in killing monsters because humans had become too easy. As Ted Forrester he was a U.S. Marshal and fellow vampire executioner. By any name he was one of the most efficient killers I’d ever met. “What’s wrong, Edward?”

“Nothing on my end, but I hear you’re having a hell of an interesting time.”

I stood there in the summer’s heat, keys dangling from my hand, and was scared. “What are you talking about, Edward?”

“Tell me you were going to call and have me meet you in Vegas. Tell me you weren’t going to hunt this one without inviting me to come play.”

“How the hell did you know about it?” Once upon a time, not that long ago, if anyone died, especially spectacularly, Edward was a good bet for it. I had a moment to wonder if he knew more about Vegas than I did.

“I’m a U.S. Marshal, too, remember?”

“Yeah, but I only found out less than an hour ago. How did you rate a call, and from whom?”

“They killed one of our own, Anita. Cops take that hard.” In one sentence he’d said our own and then talked about the police like he wasn’t one. Edward was like me; we had a badge, but sometimes we didn’t quite fit.

“How did you find out about it, Edward?”

“You sound suspicious.”

“Don’t fuck with me, just talk to me.”

He took in a deep breath, let it out. “Fair enough. I live in New Mexico, remember? It isn’t that far from Nevada. They’ll probably call up all the western-state executioners.”

“How did you know to call me?” I asked.

“They’re only holding the message back from the media, not from other marshals.”

“So, you know about the writing on the wall; that’s why you called me.” The question was, did he know about the head? How good were his sources these days? Once he’d been like a mysterious guru to me. All-knowing, all-seeing, and better at everything than I was.

“You telling me that you aren’t going to fly to Vegas to hunt this bastard?”

“No, I’m definitely going.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” he said.

I leaned against the side of the building and said, “You know about the head?”

“That the vampires took the head of Las Vegas ’s executioner, yeah. I’ve been wondering why they took his head. They’re vampires, not ghouls or a rogue zombie. They don’t eat flesh.”

“Even ghouls that cache food almost never take the head. They prefer meatier bits.”

“You’ve seen ghoul food caches?” he asked.

“Once,” I said.

He gave a small laugh. “Sometimes I forget that about you.”

“What?”

“That you are one of the only people who run into weirder shit than I do sometimes.”

“I don’t know whether to be insulted, flattered, or scared,” I said.

“Flattered,” he said, and I knew he meant it.

“They didn’t take the head for eating,” I said.

“You know what happened to it?”

“Yep.”

“What, I need to ask?”

I sighed. “No,” and I told him about the little present I’d gotten at work this morning.

He was quiet for so long that I continued talking. “We’re just lucky it came in on the only morning that I do client meetings all day. God knows what Bert, my business manager, would have done with it if I hadn’t been there to make him wait for forensics.”

“You really think it was coincidence that the package got there on the only morning that you’d be in?” Edward said.

I leaned a little harder against the wall, clutching the cell phone with one hand and my keys with the other. I suddenly felt exposed out there in the parking lot, because I understood exactly what Edward meant.

“You think Vittorio’s been monitoring me. That he knows my schedule.” I looked out into the daylit parking lot. There was no place to hide. Daylight meant there weren’t that many cars. I had this sudden desire to be inside, out of sight.

I put my key in the door and used my shoulder to hold the phone while I opened the door.

“Yes,” he said. That was Edward: high on truth, low on comfort.

I spilled in through the door and got it closed behind me before the two guards inside could do much more than push themselves off the wall. They were both in black T-shirts and jeans, only the guns and holsters ruining the casual look. They tried to talk to me, and I waved at them that I was on the phone. They went back to holding up their section of wall, and I went for the far door. The door was one of only two ways into the underground area where Jean-Claude and his vampires slept. It was why we had two guards in the storage room at all times. Boring duty, which meant they were two of the newer hires; I remembered that one of them was Brian, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember the other one’s name.

“Anita, you still there?” Edward asked.

“Give me a minute to find some privacy.”

I opened the door leading down and closed it behind me. I was standing at the head of stone steps that led down and down. I kept one hand on the wall as I started down. High heels were not meant for these steps. Hell, they seemed carved for something that didn’t walk quite like a human being at all. Something bigger than a person, with different legs maybe.

“Vittorio wouldn’t have come back to St. Louis,” I said.

“Probably not, but you know better than most vampire hunters that the vampires have other resources.”

“Yeah, I’m Jean-Claude’s human servant, so Vittorio could have one, too.”

“Hell, Anita, he could have humans with just a couple of bites. You know that once a vampire uses its gaze on someone and does the whole bite thing, they’ll do anything for their master.”

“I wouldn’t sense a human with a few bites on them. They hit the radar as just human.”

“So, yeah, I think you’ve been spied on. I’d tell you not to come, Anita, but I know you won’t listen.”

I stumbled on the steps and had to catch my balance before I said, “You honestly would tell me to stay home on this one? You, who are always inviting me out to hunt bigger and badder monsters?”

“This one’s made it personal, Anita. He wants your head.”

“Thanks for that imagery, after my little present this morning.”

“I said it on purpose, Anita. You’re like me now; you’ve got people you love, and you don’t want to leave them. I’m just reminding you, like you remind me, that you really do have a choice. You can sit this one out.”

“You mean stay safe in St. Louis while the rest of you guys hunt this bastard?”

“Yes.”

“And you can tell me, honestly, that you wouldn’t think less of me for playing it that safe?”

He didn’t answer for so long that I was almost at the blind corner turn at the halfway point of the stairs. I didn’t prompt him. I just listened to him breathe and concentrated on my heels on the uneven stones.

“I wouldn’t blame you for staying home.”

“But you would think less of me,” I said.

He was quiet. “I’d try not to.”

“Yeah, and the rest of the cops who already think I’m a girl, and that I’m sleeping with vampires, and that I’m sleeping around with other cops, they wouldn’t think less of me?”

“Don’t get yourself killed because of pride, Anita. That’s a guy reason to die. You’re a girl; think like a girl for once.”

“Edward, if they’ve been watching me in St. Louis, I may not be safe here, either.”

“Maybe, or maybe he’s luring you out, Anita. Maybe he would have come back to St. Louis for you, but with all the people Jean-Claude has around him he couldn’t get to you.”

I walked around the corner, thinking about that. “Shit, I hope you’re wrong about that.”

“You knew it was a trap, Anita.”

“Yeah, but knowing Vittorio is throwing down the gauntlet in Vegas is one thing. Believing that he’s picked somewhere far away so I’ll be away from Jean-Claude and his guards is… frightening.”

“Good, I want you scared on this one, because you should be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means Vittorio has been watching you, or having someone else do it. He sent the head on a day you’d be there. He sent it early in the morning before your vampire lover will be awake, so no one can tell you to take guards, or not to go. In St. Louis, if Jean-Claude is still down for the day, you’re in charge.”

“We’ve been working really hard at making me more human servant and Jean-Claude more master.”

“Yeah, so hard that you’ve moved into the Circus with him. The other marshals don’t think much of you shacking up with the master of your city.”

“Prejudiced bastards.” I was at the big cell-like door that led into the underground proper.

“I also heard that Jean-Claude and your boyfriends have come out of the closet. I take it that the idea that Jean-Claude is fucking you and your boyfriends was to explain why he was letting you fuck other men.”

“We told the vampire community that, not the marshals. How do they know all this?”

“You aren’t the only one who’s a little close with their local vampires, Anita.”

“I’ve met your local vampires, and I know that you are not talking to Obsidian Butterfly. She’s so scary that the worldwide vampire community has made Albuquerque, New Mexico, off limits.”

“I live in Santa Fe.”

“Yeah, and it’s still too close to Obsidian Butterfly and her group. It’s why you have to travel out of state to hunt vampires; your local master is too scary to share.”

“She thinks she’s an Aztec goddess, Anita. Gods don’t share.”

“She’s a vampire, Edward, but she may actually be what the Aztecs worshipped under her name.”

“She’s still a vampire, Anita.”

“I don’t like the tone in your voice, Edward. Promise me if you ever get a warrant of execution against her or any of her vampires that you’ll let me come help.”

“You’d have flown to Vegas without me.”

“Maybe, or maybe getting a human head in a box was weird even for me. Maybe I am afraid of Vittorio, and I don’t like running into a trap like some rabbit. Maybe I just hadn’t had time to think to call you.”

“That’s a lot of maybes, Anita.”

“I may lose the phone signal if I go any farther underground, Edward, but I have to pack, so…”

“It’s a shorter flight for me to Vegas, so I’ll see you on the ground.”

“Edward,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Do you really think Vittorio planned me to have to fly to Vegas before Jean-Claude could be awake to argue with me, or make me take guards?”

“I don’t know, but if he did plan it this way, then he’s afraid of your guards. He’s afraid of you with Jean-Claude. He’s afraid of you with all your shapeshifter friends. But he’s not as afraid of you on your own.”

“I won’t be on my own,” I said.

“No, you won’t be,” he said.

“I don’t mean just you, Edward. Vittorio killed police officers. I don’t think he understands how serious that can be.”

“We’ll explain it to him,” Edward said, voice gone empty of accent, empty of almost anything. It was the voice that he used when he was at his most deadly.

“Yes,” I said, “we will.”

Edward hung up.

I hung up and went through the door into Jean-Claude’s living room.

4

TWO OF MY lovers were dead in the bed that we all shared. They’d be alive again later in the day, or earlier in the night, but for now, Jean-Claude and Asher truly were dead. I’d touched enough dead bodies to know that sleep does not mimic death. There is a looseness, an emptiness, to the dead that not even coma can imitate.

I stared down at them. They lay in a tangle of white silk sheets. Jean-Claude all black curls and that beautiful face; a line less or more, and he’d have been too beautiful, too feminine, but you never looked into his face and thought girl. No, he was all male no matter how pretty he looked. It helped that he was naked on top of the sheets. Nude, there was no mistaking him for anything but oh so male.

Asher’s golden waves spilled across his face, hiding one of the most perfect profiles that had ever existed. I had some memories from the vampire who had made him: Belle Morte, Beautiful Death. She was over two thousand years old, and she still thought that his left profile was the most perfect she’d ever seen in a man. His right profile was marred, in her eyes, by the acidlike scars of the holy water that the Church had used to try to burn the devil out of him. The scars didn’t take up that much of his face, just from midcheek to chin on one side. His mouth was still as kissable, his face still had that heartrending beauty, but to Belle, the scars had covered everything.

His neck was untouched, but from chest to groin to part of the thigh, the right side of his body was covered in the holy water scars. It looked as if the flesh had melted and partially reformed, like wax. The skin was textured differently from the unscarred half of him, but it wasn’t ruined. He could still feel my touch, still be licked and caressed, and bitten. It was just different. It was Asher, and I loved him.

It wasn’t the same way I loved Jean-Claude, but I’d learned that love could mean many things, and no matter how similar it looked from the outside, inside it could feel very different. Good still, but different.

I was packed, though I was going to get some of the bodyguards to help carry the equipment bags of weapons up the stairs for me. I needed to get to the airport and the jet that was fueled and waiting for me. I wanted to be on the ground in Vegas while it was still daylight. If Vittorio had intended to get me out of St. Louis before Jean-Claude could wake and maybe insist on guards going with me, then fine, I’d get to Vegas while Vittorio was still dead to the world, too. It was the great leveler, that vampires were helpless during the day. I would take every advantage of it that I could. Of course, Vittorio knew that about me, if he’d been spying on me. The thought that he probably had daylight eyes and ears waiting for me in Vegas wasn’t comforting.

I stared down at the two vampires and wished that I could have said good-bye.

The bathroom door opened and Jason came out, wearing a robe that he hadn’t bothered to tie shut, but he’d been completely nude between the two vampires when I’d first entered the room. Besides, it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen it all before. He was Jean-Claude’s pomme de sang, his apple of blood, sort of part kept woman and part morning snack. Most people didn’t actually fuck their pommes de sang, and Jean-Claude didn’t either, but Jason’s reputation had fallen to the need to make our shared master look more powerful in the eyes of the larger vampire community. He was also going to have the fun job of telling Jean-Claude where I was and what I was doing when the vampire woke.

Jason was my height, maybe an inch more, short for a man and I guess short for a woman. His blond hair was to his shoulders now. He’d started letting it grow back out, though truthfully he was one of the few men I thought actually looked better with the short executive haircut. But I was just his good friend and lover, not his girlfriend, so his hair length was his own business.

He smiled at me, his spring-blue eyes shining with some joke that only he knew. Then the look changed, from joking to serious to… I was just suddenly aware that he was naked, and the robe was covering precious little, and…

“Stop it, Jason,” I said, softly. I don’t know why you always whisper around sleeping vampires, as if they were truly asleep, but you do; unless you stop yourself, you treat the ones you know like they can hear you and you don’t want to disturb them.

“Stop what?” he asked, in a voice that was a little lower than it needed to be. I couldn’t have told you what he was doing differently with his walk, but he suddenly made me aware that his day job was as a stripper.

“What’s with the serious flirting, Jason? You know I don’t have time for it.”

He came to the end of the bed, and I had to either back up or stand my ground while he flirted. Backing up seemed cowardly, and once I could have withstood Jason’s attentions, but since I’d accidentally made him my werewolf to call, he seemed to have more pull on my libido. He didn’t usually take advantage of it, so why was he upping the heat now?

I stood my ground, but was almost painfully aware of how close he was to me. “You know Jean-Claude is going to go apeshit when he wakes up,” he said.

“Jean-Claude never goes apeshit.”

“Vittorio has set a trap for you, Anita. You’re walking into it.” He was behind me now, so close that the edges of his robe brushed against the back of my body.

“Jason, please, I have to go,” and this time I didn’t whisper so as not to wake the vampires. I whispered because it was the best I could do. One of the real downsides to moving into the Circus and living with all the men who were tied to me metaphysically was that all of them seemed to be gaining power-power over me. Jean-Claude I could understand; he was the Master of the City. Asher even, because he was a master vampire. But Jason was a werewolf, a blood donor, and my wolf to call. I should have been master here, and I wasn’t.

He moved around me, so close, so very close, so that not having our bodies touch took more effort than just closing that small distance. I kept one hand on the bedpost like it was my anchor to reality. He stood in front of me, his eyes a little below mine because I was still in the heels.

“Then go,” he whispered.

I swallowed hard but didn’t move away. I had a moment to wonder if I could move away, and the thought was enough. I closed my eyes and stepped back. I could do this. It was Jason, not Jean-Claude; I could do this.

Jason caught my arms. “Don’t go.”

“I have to go.” But having to keep my eyes closed took a lot of the punch out of the statement.

He pulled my hands in toward his body, so that I touched the muscled smoothness of his stomach. He put one hand to his groin, and he was already happier to be near me than last I’d looked. He filled my hand, and he was thick and perfect again. Two months ago, some very bad men had captured the both of us. They’d tortured him with cigarettes, fire, the only thing a lycanthrope can’t heal. They’d marked up a very nice body and damn near killed him.

My hands slid over him, under the robe, so I held him close, feeling how very naked he was, in my arms. I held him, and he held me back. I held him and remembered holding him while he bled. Holding him while I thought he was dying.

His voice was normal, not seductive, when he said, “Anita, I’m sorry.”

I drew back enough to see his face. “Sorry you tried to use your new powers over me to get me to stay home?”

He grinned. “Yeah, but I do like you admiring the newly healed me.”

“I’m just glad that Doc Lillian figured out that if they cut away the burned bits you’d heal on your own.”

“I’m just glad they found anesthesia that worked on our faster metabolism. I would not have wanted that much of me cut away without being put under.”

“Agreed.”

“You know, they’re talking about trying to cut away some of Asher’s scars and see if he heals on his own.”

“He’s a vampire, not a shapeshifter, Jason. Vampire flesh doesn’t heal quite the same.”

“You can heal fresh wounds on all sorts of dead flesh, including vampires.”

“That’s fresh wounds, Jason, and never a burn.”

“Maybe if the doctor cuts away the scars, it’ll count as a fresh wound, then you could heal him.”

“And what if it doesn’t work? What if Doc Lillian cuts away part of Asher and I can’t heal it, and it doesn’t heal on its own? He just goes around with a big hole in his side, or wherever?”

“You know, we have to try.”

I shook my head. “All I know for sure is I’ve got a plane to catch, and I need to call some guards down to help me carry up the weapons.”

“You know, the guards are scared of you now.”

“Yeah, they think I’m a succubus and I’ll eat their souls.”

“You feed off sex, Anita, and if you don’t feed often enough, you die. That’s pretty much the definition of succubus, isn’t it?”

I frowned at him. “Thanks, Jason, that makes me feel so much better.”

He grinned and shrugged. “Who are you going to feed on in Vegas?”

“There’s Crispin,” I said.

“You can’t feed on one little weretiger for long.”

“I can feed on anger now, remember?” I’d discovered that ability only recently. Jean-Claude couldn’t do it, and neither could anyone in his bloodline, which meant if I were only gaining powers through him, I shouldn’t have been able to do it either, but I could.

“You know, you haven’t got that down to a science yet,” he said.

“No, but it works.”

“And whose anger are you going to feed on in Vegas?”

“I’ll be hanging around with cops and suspects; please, we’re an angry bunch.”

“If you feed off them without their permission, it’s illegal. I think it’s even a felony.”

“If I fed blood, yes, but the law hasn’t caught up to the vamps who can feed through other things. If I fed on sex involuntarily, then it would be covered under the date-rape psychic and magic ability law, but if I feed on anger, it’s a gray area.”

“What if they find out? The cops already think you’re one of us.”

I thought about it, then shrugged. “Honestly, the way most warrants are worded, I’m sort of encouraged to use any metaphysical abilities in pursuit of the bad guys.”

“I don’t think feeding off them is what the warrant means,” he said.

“No”-I smiled-“but it’s the way it’s written. The law is all about how it’s written and how you can interpret it.”

“What happened to the girl I met a few years back who believed in truth, justice, and the American way?”

“She grew up,” I said.

His face softened. “Why do I feel like I should apologize on behalf of all the men in your life for that?”

“Don’t flatter yourselves; the police helped toughen me up, too.”

“You’ve only fed on anger a few times, and it’s not usually as good a feeding as the ardeur.”

“Jean-Claude can divide my ardeur up among all of you while I’m gone. He’s done it before when I’ve worked with the police.”

“Yeah, but that’s only a temporary measure, and it works better if you’ve had a really good feeding before he tries it.”

“You offering?” I asked.

He gave me a wide grin. “And if I say yes, what then?”

“This is a trick to delay me until Jean-Claude wakes up, because you think with him awake I won’t be able to just fly away.”

“I think you have a hard enough time saying no to just little old me; if our master wakes and says, ‘Don’t go,’ could you defy him?”

I was suddenly afraid. Because Jason was right; whatever was happening with me and the men, Jean-Claude was the hardest to resist. It was almost as if it hadn’t been my necromancy that kept me safe from him controlling me but my lack of proximity. It was almost as if simply being too close to him too much of the time was wearing my resistance and my independence away.

“Thanks, Jason,” I said.

He frowned. “For what?”

“Now I am going, because I don’t know if I could go if he woke up and told me to stay. That’s not cool. I’m a U.S. Marshal and a vampire executioner. I have to be able to do my job, or what am I?”

“You’re Anita Blake, Jean-Claude’s human servant, and the first true necromancer in a thousand years.”

“Yeah, his pet necromancer.” I went for the door to tell the guards to send more guards to help tote and fetch.

Jason called after me, “You’re one of my best friends, and I’m afraid for you in Vegas.”

I nodded, but didn’t turn around just in case seeing one of my best friends nude made me change my mind. “I’m afraid, too, Jason-of Vegas, and Vittorio, but I’m beginning to be afraid to stay here.” I wrapped my hand around the door handle and said, “When he’s awake, when he looks at me, I’m having more and more trouble saying no. I’m losing myself, Jason.”

“I’m your animal to call, Anita; touch me and you gain strength to resist other vampires.”

“Problem is, Jason, that you’re one of the people I’m losing myself to. It’s not just Jean-Claude, it’s all of you. I can fight one or two of you, but I can’t fight six of you. I’m outnumbered.”

I opened the door and told the black-shirted guards that I needed bellmen. I didn’t go back into the bedroom. I didn’t want to talk to Jason anymore, and I didn’t want to gaze down at the bed with the two beautiful vampires in it. If I hadn’t been convinced that Vittorio wanted to kill me and mail my head somewhere, I’d have looked forward to the trip to Vegas. I needed some distance between me and the men in my life.

5

THE PLANE LANDED in Vegas without me having hysterics. Brownie point for me. The really sad thing was that I flew better now if I had someone next to me, so while I was happy for some privacy, I also missed a boyfriend’s hand to hold. I couldn’t want to run away from them all and miss them, could I? I mean, that made no sense even to me.

St. Louis is hot, but Vegas is hotter. They can say it’s a dry heat, but so is an oven. It was so hot that it took my breath away for a second. It was like my body just went, You’re joking, right? No, unfortunately, we were not only serious, but we’d be hunting vampires in this heat. Great.

I slipped on sunglasses, as if that would make any difference to the heat, but it did help with the brightness.

The pilot was helping me unload my luggage when I spotted a big man in uniform coming our way. He had a few other uniforms at his back. They kept a respectful distance, and I didn’t need to see the nameplate that said Undersheriff to make me guess it was Sheriff Shaw.

Shaw was a big guy, with a hand that swallowed mine when we shook. His eyes were lost to me behind mirrored sunglasses, but then my eyes were lost to him, too. Sunglasses may look cool, but they hide one of the best ways to decipher another person. People can lie with a lot of themselves, but eyes can give a lot away-sometimes not by what they show you but when they go their most hidden. You can judge a lot by what a person wants to hide. Of course, we were all standing in the middle of a desert, so maybe the glasses weren’t for hiding anything, just for comfort.

“Fry and Reddick will get your bags,” Shaw said. “You can drive ahead with me.”

“Sorry, Sheriff, but once a warrant of execution is in effect and the hunt begins, I’m legally bound to keep my kit in sight, or secured by me, or with me watching, in an area out of sight of the general public.”

“When did that change?” he asked.

It was Grimes who answered, “About a month ago.”

I nodded at the lieutenant. “I’m impressed you know that.”

He actually smiled. “We’ve been going in with our local executioner for a year. It’s our job to know if the law has changed.”

I nodded again. I didn’t say out loud that a lot of police still treated the preternatural branch of the marshal service as a lesser unit, or maybe an embarrassment. I couldn’t really blame the attitude; some of us were little better than assassins with badges, but the rest of us did our best.

“What caused the change?” Shaw asked.

I liked that he asked. Most wouldn’t. I answered this time. “A vampire hunter in Colorado left his bag of tricks on the backseat of his car, where some teenage joyriders stole it. They probably had no idea what was in it, but they did sell the guns, and one of them was used in a holdup where there was a death.”

Shaw looked at the heavy equipment bags. “You can’t carry all that on a hunt. Some of those bags must weigh more than you do.”

“I’ll store them, then take what I need for the hunt. I’ll get it down to a backpack and some weapons.”

Grimes said, “We can store them at our place. We’ll be with you when you serve the warrant, so you can come back and load up with us.”

I nodded. “Sounds good.”

Grimes gave me that smile again; I still wasn’t sure if it was a real smile or his version of cop face. Some give a blank face, some give smiles, but all police have a face you cannot read. I might not even learn which it was on this visit, because the lieutenant would not be going in to help serve the warrant. He’d be back at the command center, commanding.

“Sonny will drive us back, then you can stow your gear.” I wasn’t sure who Sonny was, but I’d figure it out when someone got behind the wheel.

“I’ll need to be taking Marshal Blake for debriefing,” Shaw said.

“You want to ride with us, Sheriff?” Grimes asked.

Shaw seemed to think about it for a second or two. He took his hat off and wiped some of the sweat, showing that his haircut was shorter than the SWAT. He had what the marines call a high and tight, nearly shaved on the sides, and not much longer on top, as if he’d never left the service, or at least not its barbers.

“I’ll follow you; let’s just get out of the heat.”

They all nodded, and I just waited for someone to move toward the car we’d be taking. I’d expected more speed when I hit the ground. Everyone was being way too calm, but then, so was I. Whatever we were feeling inside, outside it was all business. There’d be time for emotion later, maybe. Sometimes you keep putting off an emotional reaction until it just becomes moot. It becomes just one more thing that you couldn’t afford to let yourself feel.

I picked up one of the big equipment bags and started to reach for another, but Rocco got there first. I let him get it. Hooper reached for the last bag, and I was okay with that, too. It was when Grimes started to reach for the bag I was carrying that we had problems.

“I’ve got it, Lieutenant, thanks.”

We had a moment where he hesitated, and we looked at each other. I finally said, “You can get the luggage if you want.”

He gave a little nod and went for the luggage. I learned that Hooper was Sonny, because he was the one who opened the back of an SUV. The back was full of his own equipment. His assault vest was visible, as well as two different helmets. There was a lot of stuff, but no guns were visible.

He answered as if I’d asked, “Gun safe.” He moved the pile enough for me to see it.

“Aftermarket add-on?” I asked.

He nodded.

“I’ll have to look into that. It would satisfy the new law, as written, and be a heck of a lot more convienient.”

“We have to be ready to roll at any time.”

“Me, too.”

There was enough of his equipment already in there that adding my bags stuffed it full. Grimes joined us with my single suitcase in tow. “The pilot said this is all the luggage.”

“It is,” I said.

“Three bags, longer than you are tall, full of weapons, but only one suitcase for clothes,” Rocco said.

“Yep,” I said.

They all sort of nodded as they worked to find room for the suitcase in the back. I’d learned a long time ago that if you packed like a girl, you lost brownie points with the police. The idea was to try to be one of the guys; that meant you did not bring your entire wardrobe on a job. Besides, it was the continental United States; there’d be a mall somewhere if I ran out of clean clothes.

Hooper aka Sonny got in the driver’s seat. Grimes rode shotgun. Highest rank usually rode in front, or in back. Depended on the officer. Sergeant Rocco got in beside me. The mound of weapons and bags seemed to sort of press in from behind, as if the potential for destruction could leak out of the bags, or maybe it was nerves? I knew I had grenades in the bags. Yes, Mr. Grenade is your friend until you press, pull, or otherwise activate it, but still, boomy and fiery things were fairly new for me to carry. Part of me didn’t exactly trust it; no logic, just nervous. I didn’t like explosives.

We pulled out, and Shaw was still standing there in his ring of uniformed officers. He’d been the one to suggest we get out of the heat, but he was still standing in it, watching me from behind his mirrored shades. I realized I’d never seen his eyes, not once. I guess, to be fair, he’d never seen mine.

“He does know we can still see him, right?” I said as we drove past.

“Yes,” Grimes said, “why?”

“Because suddenly he looks unhappy.”

“We lost men,” Grimes said.

I looked at him and found that the pleasant face had slipped a little. Some of the pain that had to be in there showed around the edges. Pain, and that thin edge of anger that we all carry around with us.

“Nothing I can do will bring them back, but I will do everything I can to kill the vampire that did it.”

“We’re about saving lives, Marshal, not taking them,” Grimes said.

I opened my mouth, closed it, and tried to say something that wouldn’t upset him more. “I don’t save lives, Lieutenant, I take them.”

Rocco said, “Don’t you believe that killing the vampires saves their future victims?”

I thought about it, then shook my head. “I used to, and it may even be true, but it just feels like I kill people.”

“People,” he said, “not monsters.”

“Once I believed they were monsters.”

“And now?” Rocco asked.

I shrugged and looked away. I was seeing a lot of empty land and the beginnings of strip malls. It might have been Vegas, but the landscape was more Anywhere, USA.

“Don’t tell me the infamous Anita Blake is going soft?” This from Hooper.

Grimes said, “Hooper,” in a voice that clearly meant he was in trouble with the boss.

Hooper didn’t apologize. “You’ve told me my team is her go. I need to know, Lieutenant. We all need to know.”

Rocco didn’t so much as move or even wince; he went very still, as if he wasn’t sure what was about to happen. Just that reaction from him let me know that they didn’t question their looie much, if ever. That Hooper did it now showed just how upset they all were about the men they’d lost and the men in the hospital. That moment was Hooper’s way of grieving.

I sat beside Rocco and let the weighted silence stretch in the truck. I was going to follow the sergeant’s lead.

Grimes finally said, “You don’t learn if you can trust someone from asking questions, Sonny.”

“I know that, Lieutenant, but it’s all we have time for.”

I felt tension slide out of Rocco as he sat beside me. I took that as a good sign, and waited.

Grimes looked at me. “We can’t ask if you’ve gone soft, Marshal. That would be rude, and I think you’d answer it the way any of us would: no.”

I smiled and shook my head. “I’ll kill your vampire for you, Grimes. I’ll kill anyone who helps him. I’ll kill everyone the warrant lets me kill. I’ll get revenge for your men.”

“We aren’t about vengeance,” Grimes said.

“I am,” I said.

Grimes looked down at his one big hand where it lay on the seat. He raised brown eyes up to me then, face solemn. “We can’t be about vengeance, Marshal Blake. We’re the police. We’re the good guys. Only the criminals get to do revenge. We uphold the law. Vengeance takes the law away.”

I looked at him and saw that he meant it, down to the bottom of his eyes. “That is a brave and wonderful sentiment, Lieutenant, but I’ve held people I cared about while they died at the hands of these things. I’ve seen families destroyed.” I shook my head. “Vittorio is evil, not because he’s a vampire but because he’s a serial killer. He takes pleasure in the death and pain of others. He will keep killing until we stop him. The law gives me the legal right to do the stopping. If you don’t want it to be about revenge for your men, then that’s your concern. He’ll be dead no matter whose death I’m avenging.”

“And whose death will you be avenging?” Hooper asked.

No one told him to stop this time.

I thought about it, and I had my answer. “Melbourne and Baldwin.”

“The two SWAT you lost in St. Louis,” Grimes said.

I nodded.

“Were you close to them?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Met them once.”

“Why vengeance for two men you met once?” Rocco asked it, and there was the first trickle of energy from him. He’d lowered his psychic shields just a little. Was he an empath, wanting to read how I really felt?

The truck was pulling in, and Hooper was parking. I looked into Rocco’s dark eyes, darker than the lieutenant’s. Rocco’s were so dark, they almost crossed that line from brown to black. It made his pupils hard to find, like the eyes of a vampire when its power begins to fill its eyes, all color of the iris and no pupil.

“What flavor are you?”

“Flavor of what?” he asked.

“You’re too tall to play coy, Sergeant.”

He smiled. “I’m an empath.”

I gave him narrow eyes, studying his face. His pulse had sped, just that tiny bit, some parting of the lips. I licked my bottom lip and said, “You taste like a lie.”

“I am an empath.” He stated it, very firm.

“And?” I said.

“And what?” he asked.

“An empath and…” I said.

We stared at each other in the backseat, the air growing thicker, heavier, as we peeled our shields down.

“Can we move this inside?” Grimes asked.

“Yes, sir,” Rocco said.

“Sure,” I said.

“Are you willing to have him read you?”

“Grimes said it, questions won’t tell you if I’m for real, but something tells me that the part of Rocco here that’s not empath will tell you a hell of a lot more.”

“We want to know about the last time you hunted this vampire, Marshal. Are you ready to relive that?”

I didn’t even look at Grimes; I just held that dark, steady gaze from my fellow psychic, because I knew something that the lieutenant probably didn’t know about his sergeant. Rocco was eager to try me. It was part that male instinct to see who’s the bigger dog, but it was more than that. His power was eager, as if it had an edge of hunger to it. I couldn’t think of a polite way to ask if his psychic ability fed on the memories he collected. If it did, if he could, then I wasn’t the only living vampire in Vegas.

6

ROCCO AND I slipped our shields back up the way others would have shrugged their jackets on. We were both professionals; nice.

Grimes told Hooper, “Take us in through the garage. The briefing room should be ready for the meeting.”

Hooper pulled out of the parking spot and maneuvered around to a really big garage door. We drove the whole SUV inside, and suddenly I could see why the door was big.

I would say the garage was full of trucks, but the word didn’t do them justice. I’d seen the equipment that St. Louis SWAT had, and I was suddenly filled with serious equipment envy.

We all got out. I noticed sort of peripherally that there was a carpeted exercise area to the left, but I mostly looked at the vehicles. I recognized the Lenco B.E.A.R., because St. Louis had one, but the rest were new to me. There were two smaller trucks that looked like the little brothers of the B.E.A.R., and probably were, but the rest of them, I had no idea. I mean, I could guess what they did, but I didn’t know the names. They had one of the biggest RVs I’d ever seen. The vehicles alone were intimidating and strangely masculine. I know that most men talk about their favorite cars as if they were beautiful women, but there was nothing feminine about anything sitting in that garage.

“Marshal Blake,” Grimes said, with some force to it.

I turned and looked at them, clustered and looking back at me. “Sorry, Lieutenant, but I just had a minute of equipment envy.”

He smiled. “If there’s time before you leave, we’d be happy to give you a tour.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

The garage door lowered. “Your weapons are secure in the back of Sonny’s truck.”

“Agreed,” I said.

He motioned. “Briefing room then.”

I nodded, and followed them around the edge of the exercise area. I noticed the beige storage lockers with locks against the wall. I was guessing weapons lockers, and eventually we’d lock up my stuff, but frankly, if the bad guys got in here, I was betting on us. The back of Sonny’s truck was dandy.

The briefing room was a largish room with long tables and chairs in rows. There was a whiteboard at the front of the room. It was all very classroom. The six men waiting in the room for us didn’t look like students, though. No one had called from the truck, so either Rocco was even more psychic than I thought, or they had planned on introducing me to their practitioners from the beginning. I couldn’t decide if I felt ambushed or would have done the same thing in their place. Would I have trusted me?

They all had the same short haircuts as the rest, as if they went to the same barber, but I had Shaw’s high and tight to compare them to, which meant they all had plenty of hair, it was just short. They were all tall, the shortest maybe five-ten, most six feet or above. They were all broad of shoulder, and the uniform couldn’t hide that everyone worked out. But they were SWAT; either they stayed in shape or they lost their spot. The main difference between them all was the color of hair, eyes, and skin tone. Even just standing there, doing nothing, they were very much together, a unit, a team. Did I feel left out? Naw. Did I feel like I was the exhibit for show-and-tell day? A little.

Sergeant Rocco stepped into the room and introduced me. The lieutenant and Hooper stayed by the door, which was now closed. “This is Davis, Davey.”

Davey was yellow-blond, with clear blue eyes and a cleft in his chin that helped frame a nice mouth. Should I have not noticed Davey’s mouth? Probably.

I offered my hand; he took it and shook it nice and solid. Since his hand was at least twice the size of mine, it was nice that he didn’t hesitate on the shake. Some big men have trouble with my small hands, as if they’re afraid to break me. Davey seemed confident he wouldn’t hurt me. Good.

“This is Mercer, Mercy.”

Mercy had medium-brown hair and large, pale eyes that couldn’t decide if they were blue or gray. Looking right at me as he shook my hand, they were blue, but it was an uncertain color, as if the light would change it. He had a good handshake, too. Maybe they all practiced.

The next man’s hair was almost the same color, but it had more curl that even the short haircut couldn’t hide completely. His eyes were a pure, solid milk-chocolate brown. There’d be no color change here.

When he was introduced as Rusterman, I’d have expected his nickname to be Rusty, but it wasn’t. “Spider.”

I fought the urge to ask, Why Spider, and let Rocco move me down the line. Next up was Sanchez, who matched the name, but still managed to look so much like all the other men that it was like looking at Army Man, now in new Hispanic. It wasn’t just that they were all tall and athletic, but there was a sameness to them, as if whoever hired for the unit had a type he liked and stuck to it.

Sanchez’s name was Arrio, and I wasn’t sure if it was his real first name or another nickname. I didn’t ask because, frankly, it didn’t matter. They were giving me their names, and I took them.

Sanchez’s hand in mine gave a little spark, like a small jolt of electricity as we touched. We both fought not to jump, but the others noticed, or maybe they felt it. I was standing in a room full of trained psychics.

“You spiked her, Arrio; bad practitioner, no cookie,” Spider said. The other men gave that masculine chuckle that women, even butch women, can never quite imitate.

“Sorry, Marshal,” Sanchez said.

“No harm, no foul,” I said.

He smiled and nodded, but he was embarrassed. I realized that the handshake had been a test not just for me but for all of us. Just as the men would test their bodies in weight training, the gun range, drills, this was a test, too. Could you hide what you were, hand to hand with another psychic? I’d met a lot who couldn’t have done it.

“You need to work at your contact shielding, Arrio,” Rocco said.

“Sorry, Sarge, I will.”

Rocco nodded and moved to the next man. He was Theodoros, very Greek sounding and looking, but he was Santa, though Santa never looked like that when I was a little girl. His hair was straight and as black as Sanchez’s and my own. He was the proverbial tall, dark, and handsome, if you were into jocks. I wondered how in hell he’d earned the nickname “Santa.” It was Spanish for saint, but somehow I didn’t think that’s what they were going for.

Santa didn’t have any trouble shaking my hand and not letting me feel anything but a firm handshake. It would be a point of pride for him and the last man. Sanchez had blown it; they’d work harder because of it.

The last man was also ethnic, but I wasn’t entirely sure what flavor. His short hair was curly enough to be African American, but the skin tone and facial features were not quite that. He, too, was tall, dark, and handsome, but in a different way. His eyes couldn’t decide if they were dark brown or black. They were somewhere in between my dark brown and Rocco’s almost black. But either color, they were framed by strangely short but very, very thick lashes, so that his eyes looked bigger and more delicate than they were, like something edged in black lace.

“Moonus, Moon,” Rocco said.

We smiled; we shook. Rocco motioned me to follow him to the front of the room. We stood in front of the whiteboard. “I’m Cannibal.” Like Spider, Cannibal made me wonder why that name.

“If we’re doing first names and nicknames, then I’m Anita.”

“We heard you had a nickname,” Cannibal said.

I just looked at him, waited for him to say it.

“The Executioner.”

I nodded. “The vampires call me that, yeah.”

Davey called out, “You look a little short to be the Executioner.”

“Everyone looks short to you, Davis,” I said. “What are you, six-four?”

“Six-five,” he said.

“Jesus, most of the human population must look short to you, unless you’re at work.”

They laughed at him, and with me, which was good. The sergeant quieted the laughter with a gesture and said, “We do use nicknames, Marshal; do you want us to use yours?”

I looked at him. “You mean have you guys call me the Executioner, instead of Anita or Blake?”

He nodded.

“No, hell no. First, it’s too long for a call sign. Second, it’s not a name that I’ve ever heard spoken in a happy way.”

“Are you embarrassed by the name?” he asked.

“No, but it’s like Ivan the Terrible. I doubt seriously that anyone ever called him that to his face.”

“The vampires call you that to your face,” and Cannibal said it like he knew for sure. Maybe he did.

I nodded. “Sometimes they do, but it’s mostly Executioner when they’re talking to me. They just leave off the the.”

“We can call you Executioner,” he said.

I sighed. “I’d rather you didn’t, Sergeant. I’ve had too many bad guys call me that while they tried to kill me. They look at the package and call me Executioner to make fun of me. How small, how delicate, how not deadly looking.”

“And after they make fun of you?” he asked, voice serious, eyes studying my face.

I met his gaze. “Then they die, Sergeant, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“I promise never to call you short again,” Davey said.

That broke the serious mood, and I was happy to laugh with everyone else.

“Anita, then, if you go out with us.”

“Whether you let me go with your team depends on how this little test goes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Lieutenant Grimes spoke from the door, and everyone swiveled to give him attention. It was automatic for them. “There are a lot of psychics in the world, Marshal Blake, but there aren’t many that are powerful enough to be useful and controlled enough to take into a firefight with you. We need to know how good your control is, and exactly what type of psychic you are. Some types of abilities clash, and if you clash with one of the men in this room, we’ll make certain you aren’t put on the same team.”

“I appreciate all the thought you’ve put into this, Lieutenant, but I also know that Cannibal here is testing your men at the same time he tests me. He wants to know if they can stay in the room while he tastes my power and not be affected. Yeah, you want to know if my powers clash with your men’s, but it’s also another test for your own practitioners.”

“We lost one of them, Marshal. One of our best. We have precious little time to get you up to speed, and for you to get us up to speed. You hunted this vampire before, and we need to know what you know.”

“It’s in the reports,” I said.

He shook his head. “Cannibal’s abilities will tell us whether your reports were accurate.”

“You mean, if I lied.”

He smiled and shook his head. “Left out things, not lied. You’re dating the master of your city, Marshal, living with him; we need to know if that has compromised your loyalties.”

“Thanks for the politeness, Lieutenant; the last Vegas cop who asked me accused me of fucking everything that moved.”

Grimes made a face of distaste. “None of my men would ever have said that to you, but I apologize to you for the abuse of our city’s hospitality.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant, I appreciate that.”

“Wizard was Cannibal’s second-in-command for this squad.”

“Wizard was the man you lost,” I said.

He nodded. “We need to see how you fit in here, and we have maybe an hour to do it, before we have to deliver you back to Shaw.” Not Sheriff Shaw, I noticed; I wondered if he’d figured out who’d insulted me.

Cannibal spoke, turning me back to look at him. “If you were like our own executioner and just used weapons, we’d try to find time to put you on the range, but it’s your psychic abilities that will mess us up the most. We can always take your weapons away, but we can’t take the rest.”

“If I don’t pass your test, what then?”

“I won’t endanger my men,” Grimes said, “if you are the danger, Marshal Blake.”

“If I do pass?” I asked.

“Then we’ll help you serve your warrant,” Grimes said.

“If you don’t pass, there are other vampire hunters in town,” Cannibal said, “ones that aren’t psychic enough to be a problem.”

“They also won’t be psychic enough to be a help, either,” I said.

“We can help ourselves,” Cannibal said.

“Can any of you sense the living dead?” I asked.

“None of us has a talent with vampires in particular, no.”

I stared into Cannibal’s dark eyes as I said, “The dead come in lots of flavors, not just vampires, Cannibal.” I took that small step closer to him, not quite invading his personal space. I spoke low. “Just as vampires come in different flavors, too.”

Cannibal smiled, and again I got that flash of anticipation from him. “Let’s do this, then.”

“Let’s.”

Louder, for the room-his lieutenant and his men-he said, “Are you ready, Anita?”

“How ready do you want me to be?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you want me to try to keep you out, or do you want me to cooperate with your little mind-reading act?”

“I’d love to try to breach your shields sometime, but we don’t have time, and the last psychic who played that game with me had to be taken out in an ambulance.”

“Are you that good, or that bad?” I asked.

One of the men made a noise, like ooh. We ignored him. “I’m good,” Cannibal said, “unless you fight me; then it’s bad for you.”

“If we had time I’d make you prove that, but we don’t, so I’ll drop my shields enough to let you in, but I won’t drop them completely. Please, don’t try to force them all the way down.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because not only can I sense the dead, but sometimes they can sense me. If you breach all my shields, I’ll shine like a beacon, and all the vampires in the area will know something supernatural is in town. I’d rather not advertise quite that loudly yet.”

“I don’t think you’re lying about that, which means you’re not exaggerating.”

“I try not to exaggerate, Sergeant; the truth is strange enough without that.”

“I’ll be careful of your shields, Anita.”

“Okay, how do we do this?”

“Sitting down,” he said.

“In case one of us falls down,” I said.

“Something like that.”

“You really do believe you’re the strongest psychic in this room, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I shrugged. “Fine, let’s get chairs.”

The men handed us up a chair apiece. We sat down facing each other. I lowered my shields a little, like partially opening a door. Not only could I feel Cannibal’s energy humming along my skin now, but there were buzzes and flashes and heat from some of the other men. I fought not to concentrate on them, just to ignore it the way I did ghosts. Ignore it and it will go away.

“It works better if I can touch you,” he said.

I gave him a look.

He smiled. “So young to be so cynical.”

I held out my hands, still frowning. “Fine.”

He took my hands in his, and only then did he lower his own shields, only then did he reach out to me with that humming energy of his. Only then did I realize that touch makes all vampire powers worse, more, even if the vampire in question wears a uniform and has a heartbeat.

7

HIS POWER FLOWED through the hole in my shields like something warm and alive. Shapeshifter energy was warm, but it held an edge of electricity, like your skin couldn’t decide if it felt good or hurt. Shapeshifters rode that edge of pain and pleasure, but this power was just warm, almost comforting. What the hell?

His hands felt warmer in mine than they had been a moment ago, as if his temperature were rising. Again, I kept trying to equate it to a lycanthrope, because it was so not the cool touch of the grave.

I realized I was staring at our hands. I was treating him like a real vampire. You don’t look one of them in the eye, but that was years ago for me. I hadn’t met a vampire that could roll me with its gaze in a long time. One very alive, psychic vampire wasn’t going to be able to do it, was he? So why didn’t I want to meet his eyes? I realized I was nervous, almost afraid, and I couldn’t have told you why. Short of someone trying to kill me, or my love life, my nerves were rock steady. So why the case of nerves?

I made myself look away from his hands on mine and meet his eyes. They were just the same almost black, the pupils lost to the color, but they weren’t vampire eyes. They hadn’t bled their color into shining fire across the whole of his eyes. They were human eyes, and he was only human. I could do this, damn it.

His voice seemed lower, soothing, the way you see people talk when they’re trying to hypnotize someone. “Are you ready, Anita?”

I frowned at him. “Get on with it, Sergeant; the foreplay’s getting tedious.”

He smiled.

One of the other psychics in the room, I didn’t know their voices well enough to pick who, said, “Let him be gentle, Marshal; you don’t want to see what he can do.”

I met Cannibal’s dark, dark eyes and said the truth: “Yeah, I do want to see what he can do.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, voice still low, soft, like he was trying not to wake someone.

I spoke low, too. “As much as you want to see what I can do.”

“You going to fight back?”

“You hurt me, and I will.”

He gave that smile that was more fierce than happy. “Okay.” He leaned in, drawing down all that extra height from his much longer waist to bring our faces close, and he whispered, “Show me Baldwin, show me the operator you lost. Show me Baldwin, Anita.”

It shouldn’t have been that easy, but it was as if the words were magic. The memories came to the front of my head, and I couldn’t stop them, as if he’d started a movie in my head.

The only light was the sweep of flashlights ahead and behind. Because I didn’t have a light, it ruined my night vision but didn’t really help me. Derry jumped over something, and I glanced down to find that there were bodies in the hallway. The glance down made me stumble over the third body. I only had time to register that one was our guy, and the rest weren’t. There was too much blood, too much damage. I couldn’t tell who one of them was. He was pinned to the wall by a sword. He looked like a shelled turtle, all that careful body armor ripped away, showing the red ruin of his upper body. The big metal shield was crushed just past the body. Was that Baldwin back there? There were legs sticking out of one of the doors. Derry went past it, trusting that the officers ahead of him hadn’t left anything dangerous or alive behind them. It was a level of trust that I had trouble with, but I kept going. I stayed with Derry and Mendez, like I’d been told.

I was left gasping in the chair, staring at Cannibal, his hands tight on mine. My voice was strained as I said, “That wasn’t just a memory. You put me back in that hallway, in that moment.”

“I needed to feel what you felt, Anita. Show me the worst of that night.”

“No,” I said, but again, I was back in the room beyond the hallway. The one vampire that was still alive cringed. She pressed her bloody face against the corner behind the bed, her small hands held out as if to ward it off. At first it looked like she was wearing red gloves, then the light shone on the blood, and you knew it wasn’t opera-length gloves-it was blood all the way to her elbows. Even knowing that, even having Melbourne motionless on the floor in front of her, still Mendez didn’t shoot her. Jung was leaning against the wall, like he’d fall down if he didn’t concentrate. His neck was torn up, but the blood wasn’t gushing out. She’d missed the jugular. Let’s hear it for inexperience.

I said, “Shoot her.”

The vampire made mewling sounds, like a frightened child. Her voice came high and piteous, “Please, please, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me. He made me. He made me.”

“Shoot her, Mendez,” I said into the mic.

“She’s begging for her life,” he said, and his voice didn’t sound good.

I peeled shotgun shells out of the stock holder and fed them into the gun as I walked toward Mendez and the vampire. She was still crying, still begging, “They made us do it, they made us do it.”

Jung was trying to hold pressure on his own neck wound. Melbourne’s body lay on its side, one hand outstretched toward the cringing vampire. Melbourne wasn’t moving, but the vampire still was. That seemed wrong to me. But I knew just how to fix it.

I had the shotgun reloaded, but I let it swing down at my side. At this range the sawed-off was quicker; no wasted ammo.

Mendez had glanced away from the vamp to me, then farther back to his sergeant. “I can’t shoot someone who’s begging for her life.”

“It’s okay, Mendez, I can.”

“No,” he said, and looked at me; his eyes showed too much white. “No.”

“Step back, Mendez,” Hudson said.

“Sir…”

“Step back and let Marshal Blake do her job.”

“Sir… it’s not right.”

“Are you refusing a direct order, Mendez?”

“No, sir, but-”

“Then step back and let the marshal do her job.”

Mendez still hesitated.

“Now, Mendez!”

He moved back, but I didn’t trust him at my back. He wasn’t bespelled; she hadn’t tricked him with her eyes. It was much simpler than that. Police are trained to save lives, not take them. If she’d attacked him, Mendez would have fired. If she’d attacked someone else, he’d have fired. If she’d looked like a raving monster, he’d have fired. But she didn’t look like a monster as she cringed in the corner, hands as small as my own held up, trying to stop what was coming. Her body pressed into the corner, like a child’s last refuge before the beating begins, when you run out of places to hide and you are literally cornered, and there’s nothing you can do. No word, no action, no thing that will stop it.

“Go stand by your sergeant,” I said.

He stared at me, and his breathing was way too fast.

“Mendez,” Hudson said, “I want you here.”

Mendez obeyed that voice, as he’d been trained to, but he kept glancing back at me and the vampire in the corner.

She glanced past her arm, and because I didn’t have a holy item in sight, she was able to give me her eyes. They were pale in the uncertain light, pale and frightened. “Please,” she said, “please don’t hurt me. He made us do such terrible things. I didn’t want to, but the blood, I had to have it.” She raised her delicate oval face to me. “I had to have it.” The lower half of her face was a crimson mask.

I nodded and braced the shotgun in my arms, using my hip and my arm instead of my shoulder for the brace point. “I know,” I said.

“Don’t,” she said, and held out her hands.

I fired into her face from less than two feet away. Her face vanished in a spray of blood and thicker things. Her body sat up very straight for long enough that I pulled the trigger into the middle of her chest. She was tiny, not much meat on her; I got daylight with just one shot.

“How could you look her in the eyes and do that?”

I turned and found Mendez by me. He’d taken off his mask and helmet, though I was betting that was against the rules until we left the building. I covered my mic with my hand, because no one should learn about someone’s death by accident. “She tore Melbourne’s throat out.”

“She said the other vampire made her do it; is that true?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Then how could you just shoot her?”

“Because she was guilty.”

“And who died and made you judge, jury, and ex-” He stopped in midsentence.

“Executioner,” I finished for him. “The federal and state government.”

“I thought we were the good guys,” he said.

“We are.”

He shook his head. “You aren’t.”

And through all of it, I could feel Cannibal’s energy like a song that you can’t get out of your head, but I could feel that this song was feeding on the pain, the terror, even the confusion.

I pushed at the power, shoved it away, but it was like trying to grab a spiderweb when you run through it. You feel it on your skin, but the more you pull off, the more you find, until you realize that the spider is still on you somewhere making silk faster than you can get it off you. You have to fight the urge to panic, to simply start screaming, because you know that it’s on you, crawling, ready to bite. But the memory receded like turning down a radio, still there, but I could think again. I could feel Cannibal’s hands in mine, and I could open my eyes, look at him, see the now. Through gritted teeth, I said, “Stop this.”

“Not yet.” His power pushed at me again; it was like drowning, when you think you’ve made it to the surface, only to have another wave hit you full in the face. But the trick to not drowning is not to panic. I would not give him my fear. The memory couldn’t hurt me; I’d already lived through it.

I tried to stop the memory, but I couldn’t. I pulled on my hands, still in his, and got a flicker of image, like flipping channels on a televison. The briefest image of him, his memory.

I pulled on my hands and got more, a woman under his hands, him holding her down. She was laughing, fighting not for real, and I knew it was his wife. Her hair was as dark as his, and curled like mine. It flung across the pillow, and her tan looked wonderful in the red silk. Sunlight spilled across the bed as he leaned down for a kiss.

I was suddenly back in that other bedroom, in the dark with the dead. I turned my hands in Cannibal’s, caressed a finger across his wrist, just where the skin is thinnest and the blood flows close. We were back in the sunlit memory, and red silk on cotton sheets, and a woman who looked at him as if he were her world.

I felt her body underneath him, felt how much he wanted her, how much he loved her. The emotion was so strong, and just like that, I fed. I drew in the emotion of the moment.

But Cannibal didn’t give up; he pushed back, and I was in my bedroom at home. Micah’s face was above me, his green-gold eyes inches from mine, his body buried deep inside mine, my hands traced down his bare back until I found the curve of his ass, so I could feel his muscles working, pumping him in and out of me.

I shoved the power back at Cannibal, chased him out of my memory, and found us back in his sunlit bedroom. There were fewer clothes now, and I got a confused glimpse of his body inside hers, and then he threw me out. He jerked his hands out of mine, and the moment he stopped touching me, it was over, done. I was back in my own head, with my own memories, and he was back with his.

He got up too fast and knocked his chair to the floor with a loud clang. I sat where I was, hugging myself, huddling around the feeling of his power inside me, rifling through my head, though that didn’t cover how it felt. It felt intimate, and it wasn’t about the sex; it was about having his power force its way into me.

Cannibal went to the far side of the room, facing the wall and not looking at me.

“Sergeant Rocco,” Lieutenant Grimes said.

I heard Cannibal’s voice but wasn’t ready to look at him yet, either. “The reports are accurate. She felt the loss of the operators. She’s tired of killing.”

“Shut up,” I said, and got to my feet, but didn’t knock my chair over. Point for me. “That was private. That last memory had nothing to do with the deaths of the two men.”

He turned around, lowering his arms, as if he’d been hugging himself, too. He looked at me, but I saw the effort of that on his face. “You killed the vampire that killed Melbourne, you killed her while she begged for her life, and you hated doing it, but you killed her for him. I felt it; you took her life because she took his.”

“I took her life because I am duty bound by the fucking law to take it.”

“I know why you did it, Anita. I know what you were feeling when you did it.”

“And I know what you were feeling in that other room, Sergeant. Do you want me to share that?”

“That was personal, not the job,” he said.

I strode over to him, past the lieutenant. The men were on their feet, as if they felt that something was about to happen. I got close enough to hiss into Rocco’s face, a harsh whisper, “You overstepped the bounds and you know it. You fed off my memories, off my emotion.”

“You fed off mine,” he said. He kept his voice as low as mine. Technically what we’d done hadn’t been illegal, because the law just hadn’t caught up to the fact that you could be a vampire and not be dead. By legal definition, neither of us could be a vampire.

“You started it,” I said.

“You took my ability and used it against me,” he said. He was talking low, but not whispering now. I understood; we needed to talk about some of what had happened.

“If a vampire uses an ability against me, sometimes, I can borrow it,” I said.

“Explain, Cannibal,” Grimes said.

We both looked at him, then back at each other. I always hated trying to explain psychic ability to people who didn’t have it. It never translated quite right.

Cannibal started, “All I can sense, most of the time, is violent memories, fear, pain. When Anita tried to stop me, she drew a memory from me, and it wasn’t about violence. How did you do that?”

Grimes asked, “If it wasn’t violence, what was the memory?”

Cannibal and I exchanged another look. I shrugged. “It was personal, about my family.” He looked from the lieutenant to me and asked again, “How did you do that?”

“In real life I do violence, but for psychic stuff I do other things better.” There, that was cryptic enough; one thing I did not want the police to know was that I was a succubus. The only thing that would keep Cannibal from spilling the beans was that he didn’t want me to tattle on him. We’d keep each other’s secrets, if we were smart.

A look passed over his face, as if he were trying to decide what expression to show me. “She showed me love, tenderness, like the girl version of what I can do.” Again, he’d told the truth, but not too much of it.

“You learned fast enough, Cannibal. The last memory you got from me wasn’t about violence, either.”

He nodded. “So you peeked at mine and I peeked at yours.”

“Yes.”

“Peeked at what?” Grimes asked.

“The people we love,” Cannibal answered.

Grimes frowned from one to the other of us.

“The man in your memory wasn’t a vampire,” Cannibal said. “I thought you were living with the Master of the City.”

“I am.”

Then who is he, the man? I saw his eyes; they weren’t human.”

“He’s a wereleopard,” I said.

“Don’t you have any human men in your life?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

I thought of a lot of answers, but settled for, “Did you plan on falling in love with your wife?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it, and said, “No, she was supposed to be a one-night stand.” He frowned, and the look was enough; he hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “If you were a man, I don’t know what I would do right now.”

“What, you’d hit me?”

“Maybe.”

“You drag me through one of the worst kills of my recent past, and you stand there and bitch because I made you remember something wonderful. I think I’m ahead on karmic brownie points here. Don’t you ever mind-fuck me like that again.”

“Or what?” he asked.

“I can’t shoot you, but if you ever touch me and do that again, I will figure out something very unpleasant to do to you that will be just as legal as what you just did to me.”

We glared at each other. Grimes came beside us. “Okay, what went wrong, Cannibal?”

“She caught my power and turned it on me. I got it back, but I had to fight for it.”

Grimes’s eyes widened, then he looked at me. He looked at me the way he might look at a new weapon, or another shiny new truck to put in his garage from testosterone hell. “How good is she?”

“Good,” Cannibal said, “and controlled. We could have seriously hurt each other, but we were both careful. Honestly, Lieutenant, if I’d known she was this powerful I’d have been gentler. If she had been less in control of her abilities, you might be carting both of us off to the hospital for the day.”

Grimes continued to look at me, as if he’d only just seen me, but he talked to Cannibal like I wasn’t there. “You saw her range scores when she qualified for the badge.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is she as good psychically as she is with a gun?”

“Better,” Cannibal said.

Grimes looked pleased. “Better, really.”

“You know, Grimes, it’s a little unnerving to have you looking right at me but talking like I’m not here.”

“I’m sorry, really, that was inexcusable, but I’ve just never seen anyone take Cannibal on like that. He is the best practitioner of his kind we have.”

“Yeah, I bet he’s hell on wheels at an interrogation.”

“He gathers information that helps us save lives, Marshal Blake.”

“Yeah, I’ve felt how he gathers his information, Grimes, and I don’t like it.”

“I told you if you fought me, you might get hurt,” Cannibal said.

“No, you said if I fought to keep my shields up so you couldn’t get through, it might hurt me. I let you in, and frankly, I consider what you just did the equivalent of having an invited guest steal the silver.”

“Am I missing something?” Grimes asked.

“No, sir.”

“You’re missing the fact that you aren’t psychic and you’re trying to be in charage of men who are. Nothing personal, Lieutenant, but if you don’t have abilities, then you are going to miss things.”

“I’m not a doctor either, Marshal, which is why each team has one, plus a med tech that goes out on every run. Since we added practitioners to our teams, we’ve saved more lives with no injuries to anyone involved than any unit in the country. I may not understand everything that just happened between you and Cannibal, but I do know that if you’re as good as he is, then you can help us save lives.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. He was so sincere. He might even be right, but that didn’t change the fact that Cannibal had mind-fucked me and enjoyed feeding on my pain. Of course, I’d fed on the energy of his memory of sex with his wife, and we’d both fed on the memory of me with Micah. Had I found another way to feed the ardeur, or without Cannibal’s abilities would I never be able to repeat it again? Didn’t know, wasn’t sure I cared.

She’s tired of killing, Cannibal had said. That was the worst insult of all because he was right. I had six years of blood on my hands, and I was tired. I could still see the vampire with her bloody hands, begging me not to kill her. I’d dreamed about her for days afterward, waking up to Micah and Nathaniel, having them pet me back to sleep or take turns getting up with me and drinking endless cups of coffee and waiting for dawn, or waiting until it was time to get ready to go to work so I could raise the dead or get a new warrant and maybe kill someone else.

I’d pushed it all back in that part of myself where all the other ugliness gets shoved, but whatever Cannibal had done had raked it up like having a scar start to bleed again. I thought I’d dealt with it, but I hadn’t. I’d just tried to ignore it.

“We have to take you to Sheriff Shaw now, Marshal,” Grimes said, “but we want to take you to the hospital, let you see our men. All our practitioners, and all our doctors, have come up empty on what’s wrong with them. I trust Cannibal, and he’s impressed. He’s not easily impressed.”

“I’d be happy to go to the hospital and look at them. If I can help, I’ll do it.”

He gave me the full weight of his sincere brown eyes, but there was a weight to them. It wasn’t psychic power, but it was power. The power of belief, and a sort of purity of purpose. This unit of SWAT was Grimes’s calling, his religion, and he was a true believer. One of those frightening ones whose faith can be contagious, so you find yourself believing in his dreams, his goals, as if they were your own. The last person I’d met who had that kind of energy to him had been a vampire. I’d thought Malcolm, the head of the Church of Eternal Life, had been dangerous because he was a master vampire, but I realized as I met Grimes’s true-brown eyes that maybe it hadn’t all been vampire powers in Malcolm either. Maybe it was simply faith.

Grimes believed in what he did, with no doubts. Though he was older than me by over a decade, I suddenly felt old. Some things mark your soul, not in years but in blood and pain and selling off parts of yourself to get the bad guys, until you finally look in the mirror and aren’t sure which side you’re on anymore. There comes a point when having a badge doesn’t make you the good guy, it just makes you one of the guys. I needed to be one of the good guys, or what the hell was I doing?

8

I’D BEEN RIGHT about the beige cabinets against the one wall, and now I was kneeling in front of the open weapons lockers, going through the three bags to decide what to keep with me. I was back to just Grimes, Hooper, and Rocco. The other practitioners had been dismissed, but they hadn’t gone far. Most of them had simply moved to the weight-lifting area and started working out. I dug through the bags to the clink of weights and the small noises that people make when they do the work. The large open space seemed to swallow the noise more than most gyms, so it was very subdued.

Hooper spoke over my shoulder. “Wait, what is that?”

I looked down into the open bag and said, “What are you looking at, and I’ll tell you.”

He squatted beside me and pointed. “That.”

“Phosphorus grenade.”

“Not like any one I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s based on the older models.”

Now I had their attention. They all squatted or knelt by the bag. “How old is that thing?” Hooper asked.

“It’s not old; it’s actually newly manufactured. It comes from a specialty weapons house.”

“What kind of specialty weapons house?” Grimes asked; he looked positively suspicious.

“One that understands that the older idea of phosphorus works better for the undead.”

“How is it better?” Hooper asked.

“I don’t want them to be able to run into water and put it out; I want the bastards to burn.”

“Has it got the same radius as the real old ones?” Rocco asked, and he studied me with those too-dark eyes.

I fought to keep that gaze but wanted to look away. I didn’t like him much right at that moment. “Actually, no. You don’t have to try to be fifty feet away so you don’t get fried with your target. It’s a ten-foot danger zone, easier to set it and get the fuck away.” I reached in and drew out an even smaller one. “This is only five feet.”

“Phosphorus were never grenades, they were markers,” Hooper said.

“Yeah, a marker that if you were fifty feet or closer, you would be vaporized, or wished you were. Let’s call a spade a spade, gentlemen. This is a weapon.”

Grimes said, “It was decommissioned. You shouldn’t be able to get new tech with that material in it.”

“The government has made an exception for the undead and shapeshifters.”

“I didn’t hear about that.” Grimes sounded like he would have, if it were true.

“Gerald Mallory, Washington, DC, head vampire hunter, got a special weapons bill pushed through for us. We had a couple of preternatural marshals get killed when the newer grenades got doused by water.”

“I did hear about that,” Grimes said. “The vampires burned them alive and filmed it.”

“Yep,” I said. “They put it on YouTube before it got yanked. It was used to get the warrant for them and to get us some new toys.”

“Did you watch the film?” Rocco asked, and again there was too much weight to his gaze. I met it, but it made me fight not to wiggle. You’d think I was uncomfortable around him now. Nay, not me.

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

I expected Grimes to tell him to stop, but no one came to my rescue. I was pretty sure they were still kicking my tires. Something about what I’d done in the other room with their head psychic had made them more serious about me.

I switched my gaze to Grimes to answer. “Been there, done that, didn’t want the T-shirt.”

“Explain,” Grimes said.

“I’ve seen people burned alive before, Lieutenant; I didn’t feel like seeing it again. Besides, once you’ve seen and smelled it in person, film really can’t compare.” I knew my gaze had gone a little angry, maybe even hostile. I didn’t care. I wasn’t interviewing here; I was here to do my job.

I went back to sorting through my bag.

“They are not going to let you walk into homicide with explosives,” Grimes said.

I spoke without looking up, “Not even a small one?”

“I doubt it,” he said.

“I’ll leave them here then,” I said, and started getting out things I thought they might allow me to carry.

I ended up with the guns lying in a line on the floor. The Mossberg 590A1 Bantam shotgun; a sawed-off that I’d had made, cut down from an Ithaca 37; Heckler amp; Koch’s MP5, my favorite submachine gun; and Smith amp; Wesson’s MP9c. I was still wearing the Browning BDM, which had replaced my Browning Hi-Power for concealed carry. The BDM had fewer knobbly bits to catch on clothing. Though honestly, the S amp;W was the best of the three for concealed carry, but then that was one of the niches it was built to fill.

I laid the blades out next. The machete that was my favorite for beheading, mostly chickens, but I’d used it on vampires a time or two. The two smaller blades that fitted into wrist sheaths. They had higher silver content than a normal knife. They were also balanced for my hands. They sat on the floor in their custom sheaths, fitted for my muscular but small forearms. I had one extra knife that was an in-between size that I’d started carrying since they made me wear the vest. It fitted into the Velcro straps of the MOLLE system on the vest.

Ammunition next, laying out extra magazines for each gun. I liked to have at least two per gun. Three was better, but it was a matter of space. For the shotgun I had a stock mag attached to the butt of the Mossberg that held extra shells. I had a box of shells per shotgun, too.

The last thing was two wooden stakes and a small mallet. That was all that would fit on me and in the backpack.

“That’s not a lot of wooden stakes,” Hooper said.

“I don’t use the stakes unless it’s a morgue execution; then legally that’s one of the approved methods for carrying out the warrant. But honestly, you just have to take the heart and the head, even in the morgue. Most executioners use blades or metal spikes; they go through meat and bone easier than wood.”

“You don’t use the stakes for hunts?” Grimes asked.

“Almost never,” I said.

The three men exchanged a look.

“I take it from that look that your local executioner was a stake-and-hammer man.”

“We were told that most of them are,” Grimes said.

I smiled and shook my head. “That’s the official line, Lieutenant, but trust me, most of us are silver-bullet-and-blade men.”

“Tony didn’t believe that any vampire was really dead until he staked them,” Rocco said.

I picked up the Mossberg. “All you have to do is take the heart and head. Trust me, every gun sitting here will do the job.”

“Even the Smith and Wesson?” Rocco asked.

“I’d have to reload, but eventually, yeah.”

“How many times would you have to reload?” Grimes asked.

I looked down at the Smith amp; Wesson. “The Browning has to be reloaded twice, and it holds about twice as much as the Smith and Wesson, so probably I’d have to reload four times, but I could do it. Waste a hell of a lot of ammo, though.” I lifted the Mossberg. “The shotguns and the MP5 are my choice for an actual execution, but I can do it with almost everything in my kit.” I looked down at everything. “I wouldn’t actually want to try to decapitate someone with either of the wrist sheath knives, but they’ll reach most vampires’ hearts.”

I put the shotgun down and opened another bag. I got my vest and helmet out. I really hated the helmet, even more than the vest. I was up against things that could tear my head off my body, so the helmet seemed a little silly to me, but it was part of the new SOP for us. I couldn’t wait to see what they’d make us wear, or carry, next.

“So you just have the stakes because they insist on you carrying some of them,” Grimes said.

“I follow the rules, Lieutenant, even if I don’t agree with them.”

“I don’t see any metal spikes,” Hooper said.

“I don’t do morgue stakings if I can help it, and outside that, I trust the guns.” I took off my suit jacket and started taking off my shoulder rig. It wouldn’t fit under the vest, or rather I couldn’t get to the weapons on the rig once the vest went over everything.

“Wait,” Grimes said.

I turned and looked at him.

“Move your hair off your back, please.”

I moved the nearly waist-length hair so they could see my back. I knew what he’d seen.

“That knife is almost as long as you are from shoulder to waist,” he said, “and you’ve been wearing it the whole time.”

“Yep.” I let my hair fall back, and like magic, the blade was nearly invisible. Add a suit jacket or a heavy shirt, and it was.

“You have any more surprises on you, Marshal Blake?” he asked.

“No.”

“How easy is it to draw?”

“Easy enough that I’ve had this sheath design redone for me three times, so I could keep carrying it this way.”

“Why do you need to have it redone?” Rocco asked.

“Emergency room trips. They always cut everything off if you aren’t able-bodied enough to stop them.”

“That where you got the arm scars?” Hooper asked.

I looked down at my arms, as if I’d just noticed the old injuries. I touched the mound of scar tissue at my left elbow. “Vampire.” I touched the thin scars that started just below it. “Shapeshifted witch.” The cross-shaped burn scar was criss-crossed by the scars, so the cross was a little crooked on one side. “Human servants of a vampire. They branded me. Thought it was funny.” I turned to my right arm. “Knife fight with a master vampire’s human servant.” I undid my belt so that I could slip the shoulder rig off, then I held the rig with the gun and knife still on it and used my other hand to lower my shirt from one shoulder. “Same vampire that did my elbow bit through my collarbone, broke it.” I pushed the shoulder of my shirt up to show the small shiny scar on it. “Bad guy’s girlfriend shot me.” Then I smiled, because what else could I do. “We’ll have to be better friends for you to see the other scars.”

Grimes and Hooper looked a little uncomfortable, but Rocco didn’t. We’d passed the point where a little hint could embarrass us. We’d already seen too far inside each other’s private lives for that to faze either of us. It was a strange, instant kind of intimacy, what we’d done. I didn’t like it much. I couldn’t tell how Rocco felt about it. He hadn’t liked me peeking at him and his wife, that was all I knew for sure.

I started to put on the vest.

“Are you about to suit up?” Grimes asked.

I looked at him over the collar of the vest; I hadn’t fastened the Velcro yet. “I was, why?”

“Unless the vampire you’re hunting is inside with Sheriff Shaw, you’ll just have to take it off to talk to him.”

“They won’t let me wear full gear in the police station?” I made it a question.

“Carrying all that, they’ll stop you at the front. You’ll never get into an interrogation room dressed for battle,” Rocco said.

I sighed and slipped the vest back over my head. “Fine, I hate the vest and helmet, anyway. I’ll carry them in a bag.”

“The vest and helmet will save your life,” Grimes said.

“If I weren’t hunting things that could peel the vest like an onion and crush the helmet, with my head in it, like an eggshell, maybe. I love having a badge and being part of the Marshals Service, but whoever is making the rules keeps making us rig up like we’re hunting human beings. Trust me, what we’ll hunt here in Vegas isn’t human.”

“What would you wear if you had your choice?” Grimes asked.

“Maybe something that was better at stopping slashing. Nothing works good enough against a stabbing attack yet. But honestly, I’d carry the weapons and leave the protective gear at home if I were going in with just me. I move faster without the vest, and speed will usually save my life more than the vest.”

“Do you have trouble moving in full gear?” Grimes asked.

“The damn thing weighs around fifty pounds.”

“Which is what, half your body weight?” he asked.

I nodded. “About that, I weigh one-ten.”

“That would be like putting a hundred-pound vest on most of us. We wouldn’t be able to move, either.”

Hooper was the one to ask it. “How badly do you move in the vest?”

“I can’t tell what’s going on with you guys. I keep expecting you to rush me to the hospital to see your men, or to Shaw to get this started, but you’re checking me out.”

“We’re about to trust you with our lives on a hunt that’s already killed three of our operators. Speed won’t bring them back. Rushing things won’t wake up the men in the hospital. All speed will do is get more of my team killed, and that is not acceptable. You’re a strong and controlled practitioner, but if you can barely move when you’re in full gear, you’re going to be an obstacle to overcome, not a help.”

I looked into Grimes’s very serious face. He had a point. The vest was very new, and when I wasn’t working with SWAT, I did my best not to wear it, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t move in it.

I sighed again, laid the vest with my other gear, and walked toward the weight area. The men were using the weights, but they were watching us, too. I went to the weight bench where tall, dark, and handsome Santa was bench-pressing. Mercy of the straight brown hair was spotting him, which meant the weight was heavy for the big man. Both Santa and Mercy had to weigh well over two hundred pounds, most of it muscle.

I watched Santa’s arms bulge with the effort to push the bar up and back into its cradle. Mercy’s hands hovered nearby, and at the end he had to guide the bar. That meant it was close to the other man’s limit on this exercise.

“Can I jump in for a minute? The lieutenant wants to see if I’m going to slow you guys down.”

The two men exchanged a look, and then Santa sat up, smiling. “Tell us what weight you want, and we’ll put it on.”

“What’s on it now?”

“Two-sixty; I was doing reps.” He had to add that last so I wouldn’t think it was the max weight he could bench. It was a guy thing; I got it.

I stared at the weights, thinking. I was about to do something that the guys would both like, a lot, and hate. I knew I could bench-press the weight; I’d done it at home. Thanks to vampire marks and several different kinds of lycanthropy floating around in my body, I could do things that were amazing even to me. I hadn’t been this strong long enough for it to lose its novelty. But I’d never showed it off to human cops before. I debated, but it was the quickest way I could think of to make my point.

The other men had started gathering around. Mercy reached for the weights. “What weight do you want, Blake?”

I waved him away. “This will do.”

They exchanged a look, all of them. Some of them smiled. Santa stood and waved at the bench as if to say, It’s all yours.

I went to the back of the bench. Mercy moved out of my way. The others moved back and gave me room. I knew I could bench-press it, and that would impress them, but I knew something that would impress them more, and I was tired of having my credentials checked. I wanted to be done with the tests and be out hunting vampires before it got dark. What I needed was something fairly spectacular.

I put my hands on the bar and braced my legs wide enough to get a good stance. I knew I was strong enough to lift it, but my mass wasn’t enough to counterbalance it, so I had to rely on other muscles to keep me steady and upright while my arms did the other work.

I got my grip on the bar, worked my stance.

Santa said, “That’s two hundred and sixty pounds, Blake.”

“I heard you the first time, Santa.” I lifted the bar, tensing my stomach and leg muscles to hold me while I curled it. Making it a controlled, pretty curl was the hard part, but I did it. I curled it, then set it back down with a tiny clink.

My breath was coming a little hard, and my whole body felt pumped and full of blood; there was even a little roar in my ears, which meant I shouldn’t try to curl that much weight again. So I wouldn’t, but… There was absolute silence from the men, as if they’d forgotten to breathe.

I put my hands on my waist and fought to control my breathing; it would all be for nothing if I looked dizzy or unsteady now.

Someone said, “Oh my God.”

I looked at the lieutenant and the sergeants where they stood off the edge of the mat. “I can carry my own weight, Lieutenant.”

“Hell, you can carry me,” Mercy said.

Santa said, “How did you do that? There’s not enough of you to lift that much weight.”

“Could you do it again?” Grimes asked.

“You mean reps?” I asked.

He nodded.

I grinned. “Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to try.”

He gave an expression that was almost a smile, then shook his head. “Answer Santa’s question, Anita.”

“You’ve heard the rumors. Hell, you checked up on me before I stepped off the plane.”

“You’re right, I did. So you really are the human servant of your local Master of the City.”

“That won’t make you this strong,” I said.

“I saw your medical records,” he said.

“And,” I said.

“You’re a medical miracle.”

“So they tell me.”

“What?” Santa asked, looking from one to the other of us.

“So, you really are carrying five different kinds of lycanthropy, but you don’t shift.”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Wait,” Santa said, “that’s not possible.”

“Actually,” Grimes said, “there have been three documented cases in the United States alone; you would be the fourth. Worldwide there have been thirty. People like you are what gave them the idea for the lycanthropy vaccines.”

Someone must have made a movement because Grimes said, “Yes, Arrio.”

“Is her lycanthropy contagious?”

“Anita,” he said.

“Shapeshifters are only contagious in animal form, and I don’t have an animal form, so, no.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Not a hundred percent, no. I wouldn’t drink my blood, and if you have a cut, you might not want me to bleed on you.”

“But you’ve got five different kinds in your blood, right?” Santa asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then if you bled on me, I wouldn’t get just one, I’d get them all, or nothing, right?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Would it make me be able to do what you just did?”

“You can do what I just did.”

He shook his head, frowning. “Able to curl over twice my body weight, so, six-ninety, seven hundred pounds.”

“I’ve seen a shapeshifter about your size that could do it, but I’m not as strong as a real shapeshifter. If I were, I could do reps easy, and I can’t.”

“So a shapeshifter your size would be even stronger?” Davey, the tall blond with the nice mouth, asked.

“Absolutely.” I looked back at the lieutenant. “That’s what I mean about the vest and helmet. It just won’t protect you from that level of strength.”

“It will protect you if you get hit in the chest or head.”

“Some.”

“You’ll wear the full gear when you go out with us, Anita.”

“You’re the boss.”

He smiled. “Reports say you aren’t much for following orders.”

“I’m not.”

“But I’m the boss.”

“For these men, this unit, you are, and if I want to work with you, that makes you the boss.”

“You have a federal badge. You could try to be the boss.”

I laughed. “I’ve seen the way the men react to you. I could have a dozen federal badges, and that wouldn’t make any of these guys see me as their boss.”

“It will let you take all your weapons into the main station if you want to rub their faces in it.”

“I’m trying to make friends here, not enemies.”

“Then you’ll be the most polite fed we’ve met in a while.”

I shrugged. “I just want to start hunting these vampires before dark. Tell me what I have to do to make that happen, and I’ll do it.”

“Collect your gear. We’ll take you to Shaw.”

“Do I wear my gear or just carry it?”

“You asking my opinion?”

“Yes.”

“Carrying it is less aggressive, but they may also see it as a weakness.”

“If I asked you to just take me to the crime scene, would you?”

“No.”

I sighed. “Fine, take me to Shaw. Let him check under my hood, too.”

“Why does that sound dirty?” Santa asked.

“Because everything sounds dirty to you,” Mercy said.

Santa grinned. “Not everything.”

“Why are you called Santa?” I asked.

He aimed that grin at me. “Because I know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.”

I gave him a look.

He did a Boy Scout salute. “Honest.”

“He’s not lying,” Spider of the curly brown hair said.

I waved my hands, as if clearing the air. “Fine, whatever that means. Let’s go.” I started walking toward Grimes, Rocco, Hooper, and my gear.

Mercy called out, loud enough so it would carry, “Tell us, Santa, is Blake naughty or nice?”

I felt something prickle along my back. It made me whirl around and glare at Santa. “I let Cannibal inside my shields; you don’t get in.”

Santa had a look on his face, as if he were hearing things I couldn’t hear. He blinked and looked at me, his eyes a little unfocused, as if he were having to draw himself back from far away. “I can’t get past her shields.”

“Come on, Blake,” Mercy said, “don’t you want to know if you’re naughty or nice?”

“I’m naughty, Mercer, I’ve killed too many people to be nice.” I didn’t wait to see their reaction. I just turned and went for my gear. I’d pack up, and they’d pass me to Sheriff Shaw. Maybe he’d just take Lieutenant Grimes’s word that I was okay, but remembering the look on Shaw’s face as we drove off, I doubted it. I appreciated everyone’s professional caution, but if this kept up, it would be dark before I got to do my job, and I did not want to hunt Vittorio in the dark. He’d mailed me the head of the last vampire hunter who’d tried to kill him; I was betting he’d be happy to cut me up and mail me to someone, too.

9

AN HOUR LATER I still hadn’t seen the crime scene. Why? Because I was sitting at a small table in an interrogation room. You can watch all the CSI you want, but the Vegas interrogation room was just like all the others I’d seen. The glass and open space on television was so cameras could work and it would look nifty. In real life, it was like everyone else’s room: small, dingy, painted a pale but always slightly odd color, as if somewhere there were a list of colors suitable for interrogation rooms but for nowhere else.

There are no weapons allowed in interrogation rooms, so I’d had to put everything in lockers. The fact that being completely unarmed made me nervous, regardless of the situation, said sad things about my state of mind. It wasn’t that I thought Shaw or the rest would hurt me; I just liked being armed, especially in a city where I knew a vampire was gunning for me. Shaw had asked me to answer a few questions about the last time I’d hunted Vittorio. I hadn’t really understood that he meant to treat me like a suspect. I’d thought I’d be talking to other cops and telling them what little I knew of Vittorio. Instead I was being interviewed, and not in a good, happy way.

Shaw leaned against the door, big arms crossed over his chest. He’d thrown his hat on the table a while back. He was giving me his hard look, and it was a good look, but I knew he wouldn’t try to kill me. Lately, unless death or heartbreak was involved, you could look at me as hard as you wanted and I wouldn’t fucking care.

“Tell me about the last time you dealt with this bloodsucker,” he said.

“I’ve told you, twice.”

“Naw, that’s what’s in the reports. I want to know what you left out.”

“I had our SWAT with us, Shaw, cross-check their reports with mine.”

“I’ve done that, but I don’t mean the assault on the condo at the end. I want to know what you and your vampire boyfriend kept secret.”

I thought about it for a few moments, and fought the urge to rub my neck. “The only thing that probably didn’t make it into a report was the fact that Vittorio could hide from other Masters of the City.”

“Can’t all the powerful ones do that?”

“No, Masters of the City, especially, have the ability to pick up the energy of other powerful vamps that cross their territory. For someone as powerful as Vittorio was, to be able to hide from every vampire in St. Louis, including the Master of the City, is really unusual.”

“And I thought old Max was lying.”

“Your Master of the City didn’t sense him either?”

“Says he didn’t.” Again the doubt was clear in his voice.

“He’s not lying,” I said.

“Or you’re lying for him,” Shaw said.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means what I said.”

“I came here to help you.”

“You came here because a vampire serial killer painted your name on a wall with our men’s blood. You’re here because the bastard mailed you the head of our executioner. I need to know what you did to this guy to make him like you this much.”

“I hunted him, Shaw, and he got away. That’s all.”

“Initially the police in St. Louis said they got him, but you said you missed him. How did you know he wasn’t one of the dead vampires if you’d never seen him before?”

“Because nothing we killed in the condo was powerful enough to do everything he’d done. If Vittorio had been in that condo, more of us would have died.”

“You lost three men, too.”

“Trust me, if Vittorio had been there, it would have been a lot worse.”

“Bad enough to kill three of our men and put the rest in the hospital?” he asked.

“I put in my report that I thought he would resurface again. He’s a serial killer, and being a vampire doesn’t make that big a difference to the pathology. Most serial killers have to keep killing; they can’t, or won’t, stop until they die or are caught.”

“The BTK killer stopped for years,” Shaw said.

“Yeah. Bind, torture, kill-I always hated that moniker. The fact that he was able to channel that murderous impulse into raising kids and being the local monitor for how tall the grass is, is playing hell with a lot of the profilers. Everyone thought he was dead or in jail on some other charge when he stopped. We’re taught that serials can’t stop for twenty years. They can stop for a while, or until the pressure builds up again, but not decades. The fact that he could stop means that others could stop, if they wanted to, or it means that for him it was about control. It only looks like a sexual killing to us, but for him it was about control, and once he had enough control in other parts of his life, he could stop.”

“You sound like you’ve thought about it,” he said.

“Haven’t you? Hasn’t every cop? I mean, the BTK killer has thrown a lot of our traditional theories on these guys into the crapper. It’s like because of this one guy, we know less than we did before about these fruitcakes.”

“You talk like a cop,” he said.

“You sound surprised,” I said.

“I guess I am. Let’s just say I’ve heard some interesting opinions about you.”

“I just bet you have.”

“You don’t sound surprised.”

“I told you on the phone, I’m a girl and I clean up well. That gets the gossip going all on its own. But I’m dating a vampire, and though legally no one can bitch at me, it doesn’t stop the other cops from hating me for it.”

“It’s not dating the vampire, Blake.”

“What is it?”

“It’s moving in with him, or are you going to deny that you moved in with your Master of the City?”

“Why would I deny it?”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “You’re not ashamed of it, are you?”

“You should never be ashamed of loving someone, Shaw.”

“You love him, a vampire?”

“They’re legal citizens now, Shaw. They have the right to be loved just like everyone else.”

A look of distaste crossed his face, so strong that it was unpleasant to look at. That look was enough. Vampires were legal, but that didn’t make them good enough to date, or love, in everyone’s book. The sad thing was that a few years ago I’d have agreed with Shaw.

We’d moved me into the Circus to help Jean-Claude’s reputation among the other vampires, but what we hadn’t anticipated was what it would do to my reputation among the cops. I shouldn’t have been surprised, and it shouldn’t have hurt my feelings, but I was and it did.

The door opened, and the good cop to Shaw’s grumpy cop entered, smiling. He had coffee for me, and that made me feel better. Just the smell of it helped brighten my mood.

He’d introduced himself earlier as Detective Morgan, though I suspected he was a little higher rank than a straight-vanilla detective. He had that feel to him of someone in a suit trying to mingle with the common folk, but used to giving orders to everyone else.

Morgan put the coffee in front of me and sat down in the chair that Shaw had vacated. He crossed strong, tanned fingers on the scarred tabletop. His hair was a deep, rich brown, cut short but still too close to his eyes, as if he were overdue for a haircut. I’d put him at about my age, but after an hour of looking at the small lines at his eyes and around his mouth, I’d put him closer to forty than thirty. It was a strong, well-kept forty, but he wasn’t the young, friendly guy he was trying to be. But I bet the act had worked on a lot of interviewees over the years, and probably women outside the job.

He waited for me to lift the cup. I inhaled the scent, and it was bitter enough that I knew it had been on the burner too long, but it was coffee, and I’d take it.

“Now, Anita”-he’d established first names a while back; fine with me-“we just want to know why this guy is after you. You can understand that.”

I looked into his true-brown eyes and that damn near boyish grin, and wondered if they’d put him in here because I was a woman with a reputation for men. Had they thought he could charm it out of me? Boy, were they barking up the wrong girl.

“I’ve told you everything I know, Ed”-yeah, Ed Morgan was his name. We were Ed and Anita, and he seemed to think that would win him points. He could have called himself Tip O’Neill and I wouldn’t have cared.

The door opened and Lieutenant Thurgood came back in; great. She was a woman, but she was one of those women who seem to hate other women. She was tall and moved with a muscular ease that said she kept in shape. She was older than me by at least ten years, which was how she’d gotten to be a lieutenant. Her hair was short and curled carelessly but attractively around a thin face with great cheekbones-the kind of cheekbones that people pay surgeons for, but hers were natural, because anyone who would pay for cheekbones would have worn a better skirt suit. Hers fit her like it had been borrowed, or like she’d lost a lot of weight and never bothered to replenish her wardrobe.

“Get out, both of you. I think we need some girl talk.” She said it like it was something bad.

Morgan gave Shaw a look, like Should we go? I was betting they had practiced this little routine before. Shaw nodded, all stoic, and the men left me alone with Thurgood. Perfect.

She leaned over the table, using her height to intimidate. She was tall for a woman, though I knew taller, but height never impressed me. I was used to everyone being taller than me.

“Did you fuck this Vittorio, too? Did you fuck him, then dump him for your Master of the City? Is that why he sent you the head? A little present about old times?” She moved around the table so the last words were hissed into my face.

Most people would have leaned away from her, but I wasn’t most people. I leaned into her, carefully, just my upper body. We were suddenly close enough to kiss, and she jumped back as if I’d bitten her.

She put the table between us, which pleased me; so much reaction to such a little movement from me. She was afraid of me, genuinely afraid of me. What the hell was going on?

“I didn’t think you liked girls, Blake.”

I stood up.

She moved back to the door.

Interesting, but not interesting enough to put up with it. “Have your little lesbian fantasies on your own time, Thurgood. My crime scene is getting cold while you guys dick me around. Worse yet, we’re wasting daylight, and I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to be hunting these vampires in the dark if I can help it.”

“If we want you here all day, then you’ll sit here all day,” she said.

That was a mistake. “Are you charging me with something?”

“What do you think we should charge you with?” she asked.

I walked toward her, and she backed away. What the hell? The door opened and Morgan stepped inside, between us. Shaw followed at his heels. They were both pretty good-sized men, and without really threatening me, they backed me up just by walking toward me. I’d done a version of the same thing to Thurgood, so I couldn’t really bitch.

Morgan smiled his charming smile and said, “Anita, why don’t we sit down and have some more coffee.”

“No, thanks, Morgan.”

“Ed, call me Ed.”

“Look, I’ve had all the good cop/bad cop I can stand. Either charge me or let me go.”

They exchanged looks. “Now, Anita.”

“You know, I’ve changed my mind, Morgan; call me Blake or Marshal Blake. No more first names.”

“If you’ll just talk to us.”

“I’m done talking. I’ve got a federal badge, and I have every right to this crime scene. So, one more time, charge me or let me go.”

Morgan’s brown eyes lost some of that friendly shine. “And exactly what would we charge you with, Marshal?”

I smiled back at him, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “There, that’s better; I knew you didn’t like me, either.”

“You said I wasn’t pretty enough for you,” Shaw said from the door, “so I thought we’d add Morgan. Or is he not pretty enough for you, either?”

I looked Morgan up and down, slow, the way some men will do to a woman. I made sure to hit his face last, so he’d have time to be pissed. But he wasn’t pissed; he was challenging, defiant, but not really angry. “Well?” he said.

I started to say something disparaging, but though not really my cup of tea, he was attractive enough. I sighed, tired of the games already.

“I was going to say something cutting, but you’re cute enough. I just didn’t know that the Vegas PD put seduction on their list of interrogation techniques.”

He looked surprised. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Why put you in here with me? Why make a point of you being all cute? What was it supposed to prove, or do?” I waved my hand at him, as if clearing the air. “Never mind, I don’t care.”

I looked past him to Shaw. “Are you going to charge me?”

“We don’t have anything to charge you with-yet.” He had to add the yet.

“Fine, then get out of my way.” I was almost touching him before he deigned to move. He opened the door and held it for me. I just kept walking.

10

SHAW ESCORTED ME back to my weapons. They couldn’t keep me from doing my job. They couldn’t keep me from having more weapons than God, but they didn’t have to like it. Fine with me. I’d gone in with fewer weapons showing to try not to rub their faces in my federal badge. Grimes had said they might see it as a weakness. Next time I’d wear the full gear, and the local cops could deal. I tried to be nice, since I’d had my share of being on the receiving end of federal attitude before they grandfathered us into a federal badge. Today I was beginning to understand what might make the Feds so grumpy. Be arrogant; they don’t pick on you as much.

The backpack was new, since I’d gotten more lethal toys than I could carry easily. I’d had to have the straps tailored down to fit snug at my back, and I had to keep it tight so it didn’t queer the draw from my shoulder holster with the Browning BDM. When I had to wear the vest, I carried the Browning on a thigh holster. The Smith amp; Wesson went in straps on the front of the vest. Without the vest, the S amp;W went at the small of my back. I’d given up on interpants holsters when women’s jeans started having so many damn styles and waistlines. I kept holy water, extra crosses, and holy wafers in little slots that had originally been for ammo, but there were enough pockets for extra magazines and other useful things. The backpack was actually pretty useful but awkward once the vest went on, which was another reason I didn’t care for the vest. I had to put the guns I was wearing on me before the backpack went on. I’d carry the vest and helmet back out in the big pack like they’d come in.

It was the big knife at the back, with its sheath connected to the shoulder holster, that made Shaw widen his eyes. I did my best to ignore him. There was room for an extra magazine on the other side of the holster for the Browning, which put me at fourteen rounds in the Browning and another fourteen in the extra magazine, plus the two extra magazines in the backpack. I put the Smith amp; Wesson at my waist, canted forward so it wouldn’t get caught in the other straps. I had a thigh holster that I’d modified to hold extra magazines for the Browning and the MP5, which would go on a tactical sling across my body once everything else was in place. In the backpack there was a Bantam shotgun with extra shells strapped to its butt, and more shells in the backpack. When it was time to hunt vampires, I’d carry the shotgun and leave the MP5 for backup, but not everything would fit in the backpack, so the MP5 just stayed out in the sling.

“If I’d seen you pack your gear, there wouldn’t have been an interrogation.”

I glanced at Shaw, then went back to ignoring him while I made sure everything was where I wanted it. You did not want things to slide around, because you needed to know where things were when you went to grab them. Seconds counted.

“You going to give me the silent treatment?”

“You treated me like a perp, Shaw. What do you want me to say, that I’m happy you like the way I pack for work?”

“You pack like a soldier.”

“She had a good teacher,” a voice from the door said.

I stood up, tugging the straps into place, and smiled at Edward. “You can’t take all the credit for me.”

He wasn’t very tall, five foot eight, so that Shaw had him by inches. He was muscular, but not muscled. He’d never have the shoulders that the bigger man had, but I knew that every ounce of him was more dangerous than any human being I’d ever known.

“You were still wet behind the ears when I met you,” he said, and he grinned. It was a real smile that went all the way up to his eyes. I was one of the few people on the planet who got Edward’s real smile. He had lots of fake ones. He made Detective Morgan look like an amateur at pretend. If Edward hadn’t been so terribly blond and blue-eyed, he could have fit in anywhere, but he was just too damned WASP-looking to hide anywhere too ethnic.

“Where the hell have you been… Ted? I thought you said the plane ride from New Mexico was shorter than the one from St. Louis.”

The smile vanished, and his eyes had that cold winter look to them. One minute happy, the next the real Edward looking out. He wasn’t exactly a sociopath, but he had his moments.

“I was being entertained by the Vegas PD.”

“They interrogated you, too?”

He nodded.

“You weren’t in on the hunt for Vittorio. What could you tell them?”

“They didn’t ask me about him.” He looked at Shaw when he said the last. It was not a friendly look, and Edward did a better not-friendly look than anyone I knew.

Shaw didn’t blanch under the gaze, but he didn’t look comfortable either. “We’re doing our job, Forrester.”

“No, you’re trying to scapegoat Anita.”

“What did they ask you about me?” I asked.

“They wanted to know how long we’d been fucking.”

I gave wide eyes to that. “What!”

He kept looking at Shaw. “Yeah, according to the rumor mill, you’re sleeping with me, Otto Jeffries, and a cop in New Mexico, oh, and a few others. Apparently, you’ve been a very busy U.S. Marshal.”

“How’re Donna and the kids?” I asked. One, I did want to know; two, I didn’t want to talk about the rumors any more in front of Shaw.

“Donna sends her love, and so do Becca and Peter.”

“When does Peter take his black belt test?”

“Two weeks.”

“He’ll get it,” I said.

“I know.”

“How’d Becca’s dance recital go?”

He gave that real smile again. “She’s really good. Her teacher says she has real talent.”

“Are you trying to shame me by doing the whole domestic thing?” Shaw asked.

“No,” I said, “we’re ignoring you.”

“I guess I deserved that. But look at it from our side…”

I held up a hand. “I’m tired of being treated like one of the bad guys by you, just because I’m better at my job than the rest of the men.”

Edward cleared his throat sharply.

“Present company excepted,” I said.

He nodded.

“But that’s part of the problem. I am better than the rest of the executioners. I’ve got more kills, and I’m a girl. They can’t stand it, Shaw. They can’t believe that I’m just that good at my job. It has to be because I’m fucking my way to the top. Or that I’m some sort of freak myself.”

“You can’t be that good,” he said.

“Why, because I’m a girl?”

He had the grace to look embarrassed. “You have to have training to be that good.”

“She is that good,” Edward said, in that empty voice he could do-the one that made the hairs at the back of your neck stand up if you knew what you were listening to.

“You’re ex-special forces. She doesn’t have that kind of training.”

“I didn’t say she was a good soldier.”

“What then, a good cop?”

“No.”

Shaw frowned at him. “What then? What is she that good at? And if you say fucking, I’m going to be pissed.”

“Killing,” Edward said.

“What?” Shaw said.

“You asked what she’s good at. I answered the question.”

Shaw looked at me up and down, not in a sexual way but like he was trying to see what Edward was talking about. “You really that good at killing?”

“I try to be a good cop. I try to be a good little soldier and follow orders up to a point. But in the end I’m not really a cop, or a soldier. I am a legally sanctioned murderer. I am the Executioner.”

“I’ve never heard another marshal admit that they were a murderer.”

“Technically, it’s legal, but I hunt citizens of these United States with the intent of killing them. I have decapitated and torn the hearts out of more people than most serial killers. You want to pretty it up, give me a warrant, great, but I know what I do for a living, Sheriff. I know what I am, and I’m really, really good at it.”

“Anyone better?” he asked.

I glanced at Edward. “Only one.”

Shaw glanced at Edward and back to me. “I guess I’m lucky to have you both, then,” though his voice made sure he was thick on the sarcasm.

“You are lucky to have us,” I said, and I went for the door. Edward trailed me and held keys out. “I got us a car, so we’ll have some privacy.”

“Good,” I said.

“Oh, and I didn’t mention Olaf just for kicks.”

I stopped in the hallway and looked at him. “You don’t mean…”

“Marshal Otto Jeffries is one of the western state marshals. He was on the ground when I got here.”

Olaf was a real serial killer. But he, like the BTK killer, could control his urges to a point. He’d never done his worst in this country, to my or Edward’s knowledge. We couldn’t prove anything, but I knew what he was, and he knew I knew it, and he liked that I knew it.

It was hunting vampires with me that had given Olaf the idea that he could become a marshal and do his little serial killer routine legally. There’s no set way to take the heart and head of a vampire. You’re just supposed to do it. Once the killing starts, there are no rules to protect the vampire. None. They are at the mercy of their executioner. One of my goals in life was never, ever, to be at Olaf’s mercy.

11

EDWARD HAD MANAGED to get us a big SUV. It was black and looked vaguely menacing. I knew he hadn’t asked for the color, but it was perfectly appropriate. I approved of the car, because if we had to go out into the desert or even off road, it would still do.

“When did you have time to rent a car?” I asked.

“I was the first one they interrogated. I knew it would take them a while to interrogate three other U.S. Marshals. I knew I had time.”

I stopped in midstep. “Did you say three other U.S. Marshals?”

He turned and nodded at me. “I did.” He almost smiled, which meant he was hiding something from me. Edward loved being mysterious. My having seen his family and knowing most of his secret identity hadn’t cured him of the habit. It just made it harder for him to find opportunities to surprise me.

“Who’s number four?” I asked.

He raised his hand. It was a gesture I’d seen him use in the field when he was dealing with people with enough training to know the hand signals. It was the come-ahead gesture.

There was a small cluster of police near the back of the pinkish-tan building. I’d noticed them, in that cursory way you begin to notice everything in our business: people, palm trees, heat, sunshine. Olaf stood up, and he was just suddenly there. He was half a head taller than all but one of them. Had he been slumping? But it was more than that; he was also wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans tucked into black boots. He had a black leather jacket thrown over one arm, revealing bare muscular arms. He had more color to his skin than the last time I’d seen him, as if he’d been out in the sun more, but Olaf, like me, just didn’t tan. Most people with a lot of German in their background have trouble tanning.

His head was still completely shaved, so that his black eyebrows stood out on his face in stark contrast. He had a shadow of a beard along his jawline, because he was one of those men who needed to shave twice a day to be truly clean shaven. Made me wonder if he shaved his head or was bald. It had never occurred to me before.

The head, the clothes, the height; it all made him stand out in the group of cops like a wolf among sheep, or a Goth among uniforms. But I’d missed him completely.

Edward could do that, too. That invisible-in-plain-sight shit. I watched Olaf walk toward us, and admitted that for such a large man he moved gracefully, but it was the grace of muscle and violence contained.

The violence was helped along with the shoulder holster, with its H amp;K P2000 and extra magazines on the other side of the straps. Last time he’d carried his backup gun at the small of his back; I’d check later. There was a knife bigger than my forearm at his side, tied down to his thigh. Most vampire hunters carried blades.

He walked toward me all dark and menacing, then he smiled. It wasn’t a friend smile. It was a boyfriend smile. No, more than that. It was the smile a man gives to a woman he’s had sex with, good sex, and he’s hoping to have it again. Olaf had not earned that smile.

“Anita,” he said, and again there was too much emotion when he said my name.

I had to pause and say his fake name: “Otto.”

He kept coming until he loomed over both Edward and me. Of course, Olaf was enough over six feet that seven was his next stop, so he loomed over damn near anyone.

He offered me his hand. In the two times I’d met him, had he ever offered to shake hands with me? I had to think, but no, he didn’t shake hands with women. But there he was offering his hand, with that too-familiar smile fading a little around the edges, but still there.

The smile made me not want to touch him. But Olaf’s pathological hatred toward women made the offer of a handshake a big deal. It meant he thought I was worth it. Besides, we were going to have to work together where police could see us. I did not want to start the hunt with him mad at me.

I took his hand.

He wrapped his big hand around mine, then put his other hand higher up my arm. Some men do that, I’ve never been sure why, but this time I knew why.

I pulled to move away. I couldn’t help it. He tightened his grip, let me know he had me, or that it would be a fight to get away. Just an instant of it, a moment, but it was enough to remind me of the last time we’d met.

Olaf and I had been the ones to take the hearts out of the vampires last time we hunted. They were old and powerful, so you don’t just stake the heart. You cut it out of the chest cavity and destroy it with fire later.

I’d gotten the heart tangled somehow on some bit of viscera in the body. He’d offered to help, and I’d accepted. I’d forgotten what he was.

He slid his hand inside the hole I’d made, so that his arm slid up alongside mine in the chest cavity. It wasn’t until his hand cupped mine, pressing both our hands into the still-warm heart, that I looked at him. We were both leaning over the body, our faces inches apart, with our arms up the much longer torso of the male. He looked at me over the body, our hands around the heart, blood everywhere. He looked at me as if it were a candlelit dinner and I was wearing nice lingerie.

He’d kept his free hand on my arm, controlling how slowly we eased out of the chest cavity. He made it last, and he stared at my face while we did it. For the last few inches of arm he looked down at the wound and not at my face. He watched our arms emerge from the bloody hole just under the sternum. He kept his hand on my arm and forced our hands upward, so that for a moment we held the heart together, and he looked at me over the bleeding muscle.

He’d stolen a kiss like that, our first and, if I could help it, our last.

“Let go of me,” I said, softly, each word very clear.

His lips parted, and his breath came out in a long sigh. It was worse than the smile. I realized in that moment that I had become a trophy of that kill. A trophy for a serial killer is something they take from the victim or the murder scene, so that when they see it, or touch it, or hear it, or smell it, or taste it, it brings back the memory of the slaughter.

I did my best not to show fear, but I probably failed. Edward actually stepped up beside us and said, “You heard her.”

He turned his eyes behind the sunglasses toward Edward. The last time we’d all been together, Edward had done what he could to protect me, but protecting me from Olaf now wasn’t just a matter of guns and violence. Edward had taken my arm that last time, as if I were a girl and needed to be led. It was the first time, ever, that Edward had touched me as if I were a girl, because I was never just a girl to him. He’d put the idea into Olaf’s head that he, Edward, thought of me as a girl, maybe his girl. Maybe a girl he’d be willing to protect. I wouldn’t have let anyone else endanger themselves for a lie, but if anyone I knew could handle Olaf, it was Edward. Besides, he was Edward’s friend before he was mine, so it was sort of Edward’s fault that Olaf had a crush on me.

Now, Edward did it again. He put his arm around my shoulders. It was a first. It also wouldn’t help my reputation with the other cops, but I wasn’t worried about the cops. All I was worried about in that moment was the man with his hands on my arm and hand. It was such an innocent touch, but the effect it had on him, and on me, was about as far from innocent as you could get.

Edward put his arm across my shoulders, less than a hug but very much about marking territory. It’s something that high school athletes are fond of doing with their cheerleading girlfriends. Again, a fairly innocent gesture, but it was a sign of possession. This is mine, not yours.

I was so not Edward’s, but in that moment I might have volunteered to be anyone’s if it would just get Olaf off me. I was fighting off the memory of our last kill together, and it was making my skin run cold even in the Vegas heat.

Olaf gave Edward the full weight of that sunglass-covered gaze, and then, slowly, he let go of me. He stepped back from us.

Edward kept his arm across my shoulders and looked up at the bigger man. I just stood there and fought the urge to shiver, and finally lost. In a heat so hot it made it hard to breathe, I shivered.

It made Olaf smile again, and for just a moment I had the very clear thought that someday I would kill him. Maybe not this day, or even this time, but eventually he’d cross a line and I would kill him. The thought helped steady me. Helped me feel more myself. It helped me smile back at him, but it wasn’t the same smile. His was damn near sexual; mine was the smile, most unpleasant, that has frightened bad guys across the country.

Olaf frowned at me. Which made me smile wider.

Edward squeezed my shoulders in a one-armed hug, then stepped back.

I caught the glances of some of the cops who were outside the station. They’d watched the show. I doubted they understood everything they’d seen. But they’d seen enough to pick up the tension between Olaf and Edward and me. They’d draw the same conclusion that Olaf did, that Edward and I were a couple and it was hands-off.

They were already convinced that I was fucking all of them, so why did it hurt my feelings to do something that confirmed the rumor?

I looked at the police looking at us, and found two of the cops who weren’t looking at us. The moment I saw them, I knew who the fourth marshal was.

Bernardo Spotted Horse was standing very close to a female deputy. She had shoulder-length hair tied back in a ponytail. Her small triangular face was turned up to him, all smiles and almost laughing. Even the uniform couldn’t hide that she was petite and curvy.

Bernardo was tall, dark, and handsome, even by the standards that I was used to. His hair was actually blacker than mine, that black that has blue highlights in the sun. He’d tied it back in a braid that trailed nearly to his waist. He said something to the deputy that made her laugh, then walked toward us.

He was still broad-shouldered and slim of waist, and he’d been hitting the gym regularly. It all showed. He was also American Indian, with the perfect cheekbones genetics can give you. It was a pretty package, and the deputy watched him walk away from her. The look on her face said plainly that if he called her later, there would be a date. But then Bernardo knew that. Lack of confidence with women was not one of his problems.

He smiled as he came toward us, sliding sunglasses over his eyes, so that he looked model perfect by the time he got to us.

“That was quite a show you just put on,” he said. “They’re more convinced than ever that the big guy here is dating you, or wants to, and that Ted here already is. I’ve done my best to persuade Deputy Lorenzo that I am not in the running for your affections.”

I had to smile, shaking my head. “Glad to hear it.”

He got a funny look on his face. “I know you mean that, and let me say that it’s an ego blow.”

“I think you’ll recover, and the deputy there looks like she’ll be happy to help ease your pain.”

He glanced behind and flashed her that world-class smile. She smiled back and actually looked flustered. This was from a smile yards away.

“This is like Old Home Week,” I said.

“It’s been what, almost three years?” Bernardo said.

“About that,” I said.

Olaf was watching us, not like he was happy about it. “The girl liked you.”

“Yes, she did,” Bernarado said. His white T-shirt looked good against the tan of his skin. It was the only thing that ruined what I’d started calling casual assassin chic: black jeans, black T-shirt, boots, leather jacket, weapons, sunglasses. His leather was on his arm like Olaf’s, because it was too damn hot to be wearing leather. I’d left my leather in St. Louis.

Bernardo offered his hand, and I took it, then he raised my hand and kissed it. He did it because I’d let him know I didn’t think he was scrumptious, and part of him hated that. I shouldn’t have let him do it, but short of arm-wrestling him, there was no graceful way to stop the gesture once it started. He shouldn’t have done it because of the deputy. I shouldn’t have let him because of the other cops and Olaf.

Olaf looked not at me but at Edward, as if waiting for him to do something about it.

Edward actually said, “Bernardo flirts with everyone; it’s not personal.”

“I did not kiss her hand,” Olaf said.

“You know exactly what you did,” Edward said.

Bernardo looked at Olaf, then at me; he actually lowered his sunglasses so he could give me the full weight of his baby browns. “There something you need to tell me about you and the big guy here?”

“Don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“He just reacted like guys react around me and the women they like. Otto’s never cared before.”

“I do not care,” Olaf said.

“Enough,” Edward said. “Our escort is ready to go, so everyone in the car.” He sounded disgusted, which was rare for him. Letting us hear that much emotion in his voice, I mean.

“I call shotgun,” Bernardo said.

“Anita gets shotgun,” Edward said, and went around to the driver’s side.

“You like her better than you like me,” Bernardo said.

“Yep,” Edward said, and slid in behind the wheel.

I got in the passenger side. Olaf slid across the seat so he was sitting catty-corner from me. I’d have put Bernardo in that corner, but couldn’t decide whether it would bother me more for Olaf to stare at me where I could see him, or to know he was staring at the back of my head where I couldn’t see him.

The patrol car in front hit lights and sirens. Apparently, we wouldn’t be wasting any more time. I looked up at the sun in a sky so bright the blue was washed out-like jeans run through way too many washes. It was afternoon, maybe five hours until full dark. Another car followed behind us with lights and sirens. I was willing to bet that I wasn’t the only one who thought delaying all the vampire hunters had been a bad idea.

12

THE CRIME SCENE was a huge warehouse. It was mostly empty, echoing space. Or it would have been if there weren’t cops of every flavor, emergency personnel, and forensics all over the place. It was less full than it had been a few hours ago, but still damn busy for a crime scene from the night before last. But, of course, the dead were their own people. Everyone would want a piece of it. Everyone would want to help, or feel like they were helping. People hate to feel useless; cops get that squared. Nothing drives the police more nuts than not being able to fix something, like the ultimate guy attitude. I don’t mean guy in a sexist way, either; it’s a cop thing. People would linger looking for clues, or trying to make sense of it.

There might be clues, but there wouldn’t be any sense to it. Vittorio was a serial killer who had enough vampire powers to make his less powerful vamps help him get his kicks. A serial killer who could share his pathology with others, not by persuasion but just by metaphysical force. Anyone who he turned into a vampire could be forced to join his hobby and share in his perversion.

I stared at all the markers where bodies had lain. Shaw had said they’d lost three, but that was just a number, a word. Standing there looking at the markers where the bodies had lain, where the blood had spilled, brought it home more. There were a lot of other markers, marking where things had fallen. I wondered what things. Weapons, spent shells, clothing-anything and everything would be marked, photographed, videotaped.

The floor looked like a minefield-so many things marked that there was almost no way to walk through it all. What the hell had happened here?

“Firefight,” Edward said, voice low.

I looked at him. “What?”

“Firefight, spent shells, weapons emptied and thrown down. A hell of a fight.”

“If those markers are spent shells, then why aren’t there dead vampires? You don’t empty this much brass into a space this open and not hit something, esepcially not with the training these guys had.”

“Even the vampire hunter was ex-military,” Bernardo said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

He smiled. “Deputy Lorenzo likes to talk.”

I gave him an approving look. “You weren’t just flirting, you were gathering intelligence. And here I just thought you were hound-dogging it.”

“I like to think of it as multitasking,” he said. “I got information and she was cute.”

Olaf began to walk out through all the little markers and signs that forensics had left behind. He moved gracefully, almost daintily through it all. He looked somehow unreal, moving that large body through the evidence markers. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without moving things out of place, but Olaf seemed to glide. I spent most of my time around shapeshifters and vampires, both of which could define the term graceful, but it was still impressive, and unsettling, to watch the big man move through the evidence.

I’d have rather seen the actual evidence and the actual bodies, but I understood not being able to leave the bodies in the heat. I also understood not being able to leave weapons lying around, and you had to take the ammo and casings for evidence in case there was a trial.

“They always gather the evidence as if there’s going to be a trial,” Edward said, as if he’d read my mind.

“Yeah,” I said, “but vampires don’t get trials.”

“No,” Edward said, “they get us.” He was gazing out over the crime scene as if he could visualize what had been taken away. I couldn’t yet. The pictures and video would help me more than this empty space. Then I’d be able to see it, but here was just things removed, and the smell of death getting stronger in the Vegas heat.

They’d taken the bodies away but not yet cleaned up the blood and other fluids, so the smell of death was still there.

I’d been ignoring it as best I could, but once the front of my head thought about it, I couldn’t ignore it. One of the real downsides to having as much lycanthropy running through my veins as I do is that my sense of smell can suddenly go into overdrive. You don’t want that happening at a murder scene.

The smell of dried blood, decaying blood, was thick on my tongue. Once I smelled it, I had to see it. The blood had to have been there the whole time, but it was as if some filter had been stripped from my eyes. The floor of the warehouse was dark with blood. Pools of it everywhere. No matter how much blood you see in a movie or on television, it’s never enough. There is so much blood in the human body, and the floor was so thick with it, it looked like some sort of black lake frozen there on the concrete floor.

They’d given us little booties to put over our shoes, and I knew now that it wasn’t just the standard reason. Without them, we’d have been tracking the blood of Vegas’s finest all over.

“They didn’t feed on them,” Bernardo said.

“No,” I said, “they just bled them out.”

“Maybe some of the blood belongs to vampires. They could have taken their dead,” Edward said.

“In St. Louis he left his people behind as bait, and a trap. He left them to live, or die, and didn’t seem to give a damn which. I don’t think he’s the kind of man to take his dead, if he doesn’t protect his living.”

“What if these dead would have given something away?” Edward said.

“What do you mean?”

“If he wouldn’t take his dead because it was the decent thing to do, maybe he would take them if it was the smart thing to do.”

I thought about that, then shrugged. “What could dead vampires tell us that we don’t already know?”

“I don’t know,” Edward said, “it’s just a thought.”

“How did they ambush a SWAT team?” Bernardo asked.

“Did the dead vampire hunter have ability with the dead?” I asked.

“You mean, was he an animator like you?” Bernardo asked.

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“No, he was ex-military, but he didn’t raise the dead.”

“That means they went in without anyone who could sense vampires,” I said. Then I had to add, “I know they had a practitioner with them, who was among the dead, but being psychic doesn’t mean you do well with the dead.”

“There aren’t that many of us who have a talent for the dead like you do, Anita,” Edward said.

I studied his face, but he was looking out over the crime scene, or maybe he was watching Olaf kneeling so carefully among the carnage.

“I always wonder how you guys stay alive if you can’t sense the vamps.”

He smiled at me. “I’m good.”

“You have to be better than me, if you don’t have my abilities and you stay alive.”

“Does that make me better than you, too?” Bernardo asked.

“No,” I said, and made it sound final.

“Why is Ted better than you, but I’m not?”

“Because he’s proven himself to me, and you’re still just a pretty face.”

“I got damn near killed the last time we played together.”

“Didn’t we all,” I said.

Bernardo frowned at me. The look was enough to let me know that it really did bug him that I didn’t think he was as good as Edward.

“How about Otto? Is he better than you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is he better than Ted?”

“I hope not,” I said, softly.

“Why say it that way, you hope not?”

I don’t know what made me say the truth to Bernardo; Edward, yes, but the other man hadn’t earned that kind of honesty from me yet. “Because if I’m not good enough to kill Otto, it’ll be up to Edward to finish it.”

Bernardo moved closer to me, studied my face hard. He spoke low. “Are you planning on killing him?”

“When he comes for me, yes.”

“Why is he going to come for you?”

“Because someday I’ll disappoint him. Someday I won’t be able to keep being his little serial killer pinup, and when he thinks I’m less fun alive than I would be dead, he’ll try for me.”

“You don’t know that,” Bernardo said.

I looked out at the lake of dried blood and the big, graceful man moving through it. “Yeah, I do know that.”

“She’s right,” Edward said, softly.

“So, the two of you are planning to kill him, but you’ll work with him until he crosses the line.” He spoke very low, almost a whisper.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Yes,” Edward said.

Bernardo looked from one to the other of us. He shook his head. “You know, sometimes the big guy doesn’t scare me as much as the two of you.”

“Only because you’re not a petite brunette woman. Trust me, Bernardo, if you fit his vic profile, you’d have a whole new level of creep about the big guy.”

He opened his mouth, as if to argue, then closed it. He finally nodded. “All right, I’ll give you that. But unless you’re going to kill him today, let’s get to work.” He walked away from us, but not toward Olaf. He wouldn’t help us contemplate killing Olaf, but he wouldn’t exactly stop us, either.

I wasn’t sure where Bernardo fell on the good guy/bad guy scale. Sometimes I wasn’t sure Bernardo knew, either.

13

TWO HOURS LATER we’d learned all the warehouse could tell us. There were crates that had been used as coffins. They’d been shot to hell by the M4s that the team had carried. If the vampires had been in the crates at the time it would have been a kill, but there was no blood on the inside of any of the crates.

Olaf had padded back to us, soundless, somehow, in his black boots. “I thought it was an explosion, but it wasn’t. It’s almost as if there was something here that could bleed and incapacitate, but not kill right away. But whatever did this left no trace on the ground. There are no footprints at the center of the blood pool except for the boot tracks of the police.”

“How can you tell that it was designed to bleed and incapacitate, but not kill?” I asked.

He’d given me that arrogant look out of his deep, caveman eyes. It was the old Olaf peering out, the one who’d thought that no woman could be good at this kind of work. Hell, women to him weren’t good at anything.

“That look makes me not want to admit this, but I want to solve this more than I want to be cool.”

“What look?” he asked.

“The look that says I’m a woman, and that makes me stupid.”

He looked away, then said, “I do not think you are stupid.”

I felt my eyebrows go up. Edward and I exchanged a look. “Thanks, Otto,” I said, “but pretend I can’t look at a concrete floor and track the events of a crime on it, and just explain… Please.” I added the please, because we were both trying to be nicer to each other. I could play nice.

“The blood pattern, the markers on the floor. The pictures and video will confirm it, but this was a trap, not with a bomb or human soldiers but with something that could”-he made a waffling motion with one hand-“hover, but still attack. I saw something similar to this once before.”

He had everyone’s attention now. “Tell us,” Edward said.

“I was on a job in the Sandbox.”

“Sandbox?” I made it a question.

“Middle East,” Edward answered.

“Yes, it was a group of terrorists. They had a sorcerer,” Olaf said, then looked way too thoughtful for comfort.

“Don’t say the T-word,” Bernardo said, “or they’ll bring in Homeland or the Feds, and it will get out of our hands.”

“When I do my report, I will have to say what I have seen,” Olaf said. The flirting was gone; he was all business. He was colder, more self-contained this way, and once I’d thought scary. Now that I had his version of flirting to compare it to, the business side of him was by far my favorite.

“When you say sorcerer, are you using it the way we do in the States?” I asked.

“I do not know.”

Sorcerer means someone who gets their magic from dealing with demons and evils here,” Edward said.

He shook his head. “No, a sorcerer is just someone who uses their powers to harm and never to do good. We did not have a practitioner, as they say here, with us. So I cannot speak knowledgeably about the magic, other than the damage it caused.”

“How similar to this was it?” I asked.

“I need to see the bodies before I can be sure, but the blood pattern doesn’t look the same. The bodies in”-he stopped as if he wasn’t allowed to say the place name-“where I was were substantially different. The bodies there were torn apart, as if by some unseen force that left no tracks and no physical evidence other than its victims.”

“I’ve never heard of Middle Eastern terrorists being willing to work with magic. They tend to kill any witches they find,” Bernardo said.

“They were not Islamic,” Olaf said. “They wanted to send their country back to a much older time. They thought of themselves first and foremost as Persian. They felt that Islam had weakened them as a people, so they used older powers that the Muslims with us thought unclean and evil.”

“Wait,” Bernardo said, “you were working with the locals?”

“You do a lot of that,” Edward said.

I glanced at him and couldn’t read past the blank face, but he’d admitted he had worked in the Middle East. That was news to me, though not a surprise.

“The men working with us would have gladly killed us a week before, but we were all in danger.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Bernardo said.

We all nodded.

“So this may be some kind of Persian bogey beast, not a demon but something similar.”

“As I said, we had no practitioners with us, so I can only say the damage seems similar, but not the same.”

“Okay, we’ll see if we can find anyone in town who knows more than I do about pre-Islamic Persian magic.” I looked at Edward. “Unless you know more than I do, which is nothing.”

He shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Don’t look at me,” Bernardo said.

I bit back the first reply, which was, We weren’t. It would have been mean and not entirely true. He’d found out information from the deputy for us. “Okay, we’ll see if there’s anyone in town who knows more than we do, or even at some university. There’s an expert out there somewhere.”

“Academics aren’t always good with real-world information,” Edward said.

“Right now, we have zero to go on, which means any info is better than where we are.” I shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

The homicide detectives called Marshal Ted Forrester over to talk. Edward went, turning to the more open face of his alter ego. I knew that his “Ted” face actually hid more. It was interesting that none of the rest of us was invited to talk to the detectives.

I turned back to Olaf and Bernardo. “Okay, we’ll check into the Persian angle later, but right now I have another question. Why would they kill them in such a way as to destroy the chance to feed on their blood?”

“Maybe their master didn’t like the taste of men,” Olaf said.

“What?” I asked.

“Their master’s victim of preference is strippers, mostly female, correct?” Olaf said.

“Yeah.”

He leaned in and whispered so that only I and Bernardo could hear. “I have simply killed men, cleanly, so that I could take my time with the women. Maybe it is the same for this master vampire. He takes no pleasure from feeding on men.”

“He killed a male stripper in St. Louis,” I said.

“But was he like these men, trained, a soldier?”

I pictured the body in my mind, and because it had been the only male victim, I could see him fairly clearly. “He was tall, but thin, not that muscular, more… effeminate, I guess.”

“He likes his victims to be soft; the men killed here were not soft.”

“Okay,” Bernardo said, “didn’t it just creep you out that he talked about killing men so he could take his time with the women? Am I the only one who found that disturbing?”

I looked at Olaf, and we had a moment of a look between us, then we both looked at Bernardo. I said, “I know what Otto is and what he does. Frankly, comments like he just made are one of the few reasons I’m glad he’s here. I mean, you have to admit he’s got a unique insight into the whole serial killer mentality.”

“And you’re calm about it?” Bernardo asked.

I shrugged and looked back at Olaf, who looked at me, so calm he looked bored. “We’re doing our jobs.”

Bernardo shook his head. “You are both weird as hell, you do know that, right?”

“You know, you might want to keep your voice down, Bernardo,” Edward said. He was back from talking to the detectives and Sheriff Shaw, who had finally joined us. They were still ignoring the rest of us. Somehow I wasn’t hurt that Shaw didn’t want to talk to me.

“Sorry,” Bernardo said.

“They’re going to give us access to the forensics: pictures, video, the stuff they bagged and labeled.”

“I might learn more from the photos and film,” Olaf said.

“They’re hoping we all will,” Edward said.

“Just let me see the pictures and video,” I said.

“I just want something to shoot,” Bernardo said.

“You know, life must be simpler for you,” I said.

Bernardo gave me a dirty look. “You’re just cranky because we’ve been here for hours and we don’t know anything that will help us find this bastard.”

“We know it is similar to the Persian sorcerer I met in the Sandbox,” Olaf said.

“I know it would be weird, and too coincidental for real life, but could it be the same sorcerer with a slightly different spell, or whatever?” I asked.

“Not possible,” Olaf said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“The sorcerer was not bulletproof.”

“So he’s dead,” I said.

Olaf nodded.

“Well, if we can trace someone in this country who plays with Persian magic, then we need to find someone who went missing from his life.”

“What do you mean?” Bernardo asked.

“Someone who knows this type of magic and has suddenly vanished. Someone from work, a wife or family member, whatever, someone who’s been reported missing. Then we might be looking for someone who was recently made into a vampire,” I asked.

“Why?” Olaf asked.

“Because if they’d had this kind of magic in St. Louis or New Orleans or Pittsburgh, they would have used it. This is a complete change in how they kill. If they didn’t have missing strippers who fit the original MO, which is what got the warrant of execution revived, then I would say it was someone signing Vittorio’s name to the note on the wall and the note that came to my office, but not him.”

“It could still be two different crimes,” Edward said.

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe Vittorio is killing strippers in Vegas, but that doesn’t mean that our sorcerer and the people who killed these operators are actually Vittorio’s vampires. They went in standard op for vampire hunts, during the day.”

“I know that with SWAT technology they usually go in at night for human bad guys, but vampires are daylight hunts if possible,” I said.

“They went in during the day, Anita. The hovering magic, or whatever, killed three of them, and either that sorcerer or something else put the rest in some sort of sleep.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” I said.

“No one has,” he said.

“But if it was daylight,” Bernardo said, “who wrote the note in their blood? Who took the head and mailed it to you? It was daylight and there are windows in here that aren’t covered. The only reason the cops are saying vampires is because Vittorio’s name is signed, and this was an old lair of the vampires.”

“Are you saying someone has framed Vittorio and his vamps for this?” I asked.

Bernardo shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Fuck, I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or hope you’re wrong. If you’re right, then we have Vittorio to find before he kills another stripper, and some crazy sorcerer who’s trying to blame vampires for this crime. Were there fang marks on the dead?”

“No one’s said,” Edward said.

“Don’t tell me,” Bernardo said. “We get to go to the morgue and look at the bodies?”

“Are you afraid?” Olaf asked.

Bernardo gave him an unfriendly look that didn’t even faze the other man. “No, I’d just rather not go.”

“You are afraid,” Olaf said.

“Stop it,” Edward said, “both of you. We’ll go look at the bodies. Though, Otto, you could start calling around about the Persian angle. You are the only one of us who’s seen something similar.”

“No, I will go to the morgue with”-he looked at me-“Anita. But I will call the local university from the truck and see if they have the expert we need.”

“We’re all going to the coroner’s,” Edward said.

“Otto just wants to watch me poke around in the bodies,” I said.

“No,” Olaf said, “I want to help you do it.”

In that instant I wanted to say that I’d just sit this one out. I’d just look at the pictures and the video and that would be good enough. I did not want to go to the morgue and look at the recently dead, especially with this much blood on the ground. It was going to be pretty gruesome, but more than that I did not want to have Olaf help me with the bodies. He’d enjoy it. But the bodies were part of the crime scene. They were full of clues. I had to see if I could find anything to help us catch whoever had done this. Whether it was Vittorio with a new sorcerer friend, or someone else, they needed to be stopped. How far was I willing to go to stop them? All the way to the morgue with our very own pet serial killer. Sometimes the things I do for my job worry me.

14

OLAF USED HIS new uber-cell phone to search online for the nearest university or college that might have what we needed. University of Texas at Austin was the winner, with both Persian and Iranian studies and a minor available in Near Eastern mythology. Other universities and colleges had the first two but not the third. He left a message with the Near East Studies Department as we pulled into the parking lot of the Las Vegas/Clark County Coroner’s Office.

The building was nondescript, set in the middle of an industrial area, but there was a discreet sign that let us know we were in the right place. There was also a little herd of white cars and trucks against the far side of the lot that had Clark County Coroner on the side of them. We got out, and Edward led us to a small door beside a larger garage door. He pushed a button to ring the bell.

“I take it you’ve been here before,” I said.

“Yes.”

I spoke low. “Was it Edward or Ted who came to town?”

He gave me that smile that said he knew things I didn’t. “Both,” he said.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you saying you’ve come as a marshal and an assa…”

The door opened, and questions had to wait. Bernardo leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “He never answers questions for anyone but you.”

I threw back over my shoulder, as we followed Edward into a double-doored entryway, “Jealous?”

Bernardo scowled at me. No, I shouldn’t have taunted him, but I was nervous, and baiting him was more fun than what we were about to do.

On television there are drawers. In real life there aren’t, or not at any morgue I frequent. I’m sure that somewhere there must be drawers, but have you ever noticed on some television shows that the drawers are so high up, you’d have to get a ladder to reach the bodies? What’s up with that?

Olaf and I were in the little backward gowns, with two layers of gloves on his and the pathologist’s hands: one pair latex, and one pair of the blue nitrile. The double layer had become standard at most morgues, to protect against blood-borne pathogens. Thanks to Jean-Claude’s vampire marks, I probably couldn’t catch anything, even bare-handed, so I’d opted for a single layer of the nitrile. One, you sweated less; two, if I had to touch, or pick up anything, I was less clumsy in a single layer. I’d never been comfortable in gloves. I chose nitrile over latex because they were more puncture resistant.

Morgues are almost never dark and gloomy, like they show on television. Clark County was no exception; it was bright and strangely cheerful. It smelled clean, with that undertone of disinfectant and something else. I was never sure what the something else was, but it never made me want to breathe deeper. I suspected that the “smell” was actually imaginary, and not there at all. Morgues actually don’t smell of much of anything. Clark County had a second cooler for bodies that would have made the morgue smell of something else. I really appreciated that.

Olaf and I were in the first autopsy suite, which was all red countertops, shiny silver sinks, and walls that were tan and red tile. The color scheme looked like someone’s cheerful kitchen. Except that most kitchens don’t have bodies in plastic wrap on a gurney near the sink and countertops. I couldn’t get the kitchen analogy out of my head, so the body didn’t look ghostly behind the layers of plastic wrap but oddly like something you’d take out of the refrigerator.

Once the bodies had bothered me, but that was a while ago. What bothers me about morgues now is thinking of the handful of vampires that were awake while I had to stake them. Awake and chained down to a gurney. The ones who just spit at me or tried to bite me to the bitter end don’t bother me. It’s the ones who cried. The ones who begged for their lives. Those haunt.

Morgues make me think of tears now, and not my own. Clark County had a small room off to the side of the garage that was just for vampire stakings. It was next door to the room that they reserved for organ harvesting. They were nearly identical rooms, just that one helped people live, and the other helped them die. Oh, there were chains and holy items in the vampire room, that was different. But, thankfully, I wasn’t having to use that room today.

Dr. T. Memphis-honest, that was on his name tag-stood over the first body. Memphis was five foot six and a little round around the middle, so that his white coat wasn’t happily buttoned, but he’d buttoned it all the way up. He wore his white coat, tie, and collar tight. It must have been hell in the desert heat, but then he spent most of his time in cooler places. His curly hair was beginning to give up the fight to cover all of his head, and gray was winning out over the brown he’d started with. Small, round glasses completed the look.

He looked harmless, and professional, until you looked in his eyes. His eyes were cool and gray and pissed. Angry did not cover it; he was pissed, and didn’t care that we saw it.

Of course, I didn’t have to get to his eyes to know that he was not happy with us. Everything he did was jerky with anger. He snapped his gloves on. He banged the side of the gurney. He jerked the plastic off the corpse’s face, but only the face. He made sure the rest stayed covered.

Olaf watched everything impassively, as if the man meant nothing to him. Maybe that was the truth. Maybe Olaf spent his life waiting for someone to interest him, and until then, people just didn’t. Was it peaceful inside Olaf’s head or lonely? Or, maybe just silent.

Edward and Bernardo were looking at the only body they hadn’t had time to finish processing. It was in a different room, so it was just Olaf and me with Dr. Memphis. They’d gotten a female doctor, whose name I hadn’t caught. I trusted Edward to find out anything I needed to know, and Bernardo to know everything about the attractive woman from just a few minutes’ acquaintance. Either way, we were covered.

I had not chosen to start with the processed bodies; Edward had done the division of labor. He’d tried to separate Olaf and himself into one team, and Bernardo and me into another, but Olaf had put his oversized foot down. The best Edward could do was to give me the bodies he thought would be less interesting to the big guy.

Eventually, we’d have to see the other bodies, but we could delay the part that Edward and I both thought would get Olaf’s rocks off the most. Sometimes the best you can do is delay the worst part, for just a little bit.

The man nestled in the plastic had short brunet hair. His complexion was gray with the edges dark, like someone who had a tan but had been bled pale. Just from seeing his face and neck, I knew he’d bled to death, or bled out, before he died. The official cause of death might read something else, but he’d been alive long enough to lose all or most of his blood.

“Is the official cause of death exsanguination?” I asked.

Dr. Memphis looked at me; it was a little less hostile. “This one was; why do you ask?”

“I’m a vampire hunter; I see a lot of bloodless corpses.”

“You said this one was. Are there other causes of death on the other men?” Olaf said.

He looked up at the bigger man, and again it wasn’t as friendly. Maybe he just didn’t like men who were over a foot taller than himself. Short person’s disease: attitude.

“See for yourself,” Memphis said, and he peeled back the plastic farther to expose the man to his waist.

I knew how he’d bled out-cuts. So many cuts. I knew blade work when I saw it. But so many wounds, like angry mouths everywhere, lipless but gaping wide to show the pale meat underneath.

“It was a blade of some kind.”

Olaf nodded and reached out toward the wounds with his gloved hands. I stopped him, just short of touching the body, with my own gloved hand on his arm. Olaf glared at me, his deep-set eyes going back to that first blush of hostility he’d had before he started “liking” me.

“Ask first,” I said, “we’re in the doctor’s house, not ours.”

He continued to scowl at me, and then his face changed-not softened, just changed. He put his other hand over mine, so that he pressed my hand to his arm. It was my turn not to freak. But it sped my pulse, and not from the usual reason a man’s touch will speed your heart rate. Fear put my pulse in my throat as if I were choking on candy. I fought not to show my fear in any other way. Not for Olaf’s benefit, but so the doc didn’t figure out something was weird.

My voice was even as I asked the doctor, “Is it okay if we touch the body?”

“I’ve gathered all the evidence I can from this… body, so yes.”

He’d hesitated on the word body, not something that most pathologists have problems saying. Then I realized I’d been slow. He knew the men, or at least some of them. The odds were that he’d had to work on people he knew over the last few hours. Hard.

I tried to lift my hand from Olaf’s arm, but he kept his pressed over mine, holding me in place. For a second I thought it would be a fight, but then he moved his hand away.

I fought not to step away from him. I fought with almost everything I had not to run screaming. Seeing the corpse cut up like this was romantic to Olaf. Motherfucking shit.

He whispered, “You look pale, Anita.”

I licked my dry lips and said the only thing I could think of. “Don’t touch me again.”

“You touched me first.”

“You’re right, my mistake. It won’t happen again.”

He whispered again, leaning over me, “I hope it does.”

That was it; I stepped away. He made me flinch first; not many people can say that, but I just couldn’t stand there beside the cut-up corpse of this man, this police officer, and know that Olaf thought my touching him over the dead body was foreplay. Oh my God, I could not work with this man. I just couldn’t, could I?

“Is there a problem?” Dr. Memphis asked, looking curiously from one to the other of us. He wasn’t angry anymore, he was interested. I wasn’t sure that was an improvement.

“No problem,” I said.

“No problem,” Olaf said.

We went back to looking at the corpse, and the fact that I was less bothered staring at the butchered man than at Olaf’s living eyes said volumes about both Olaf and me. I wasn’t sure what it said, but something. Something frightening.

15

I’D EXPECTED OLAF to be heavy-handed with the corpse, now that he had a green light, but he wasn’t. He explored the wounds with his fingertips, delicately, as if he were afraid of waking the man or hurting him. At first I thought he had some respect for the dead. Maybe it was the whole military/police thing. You respect your dead. Then I realized that wasn’t it at all.

It was when he was on his third wound, and did the exact same pattern again, that I got a clue. He started by tracing the very edge of the wound with his fingertips; then the next time around the wound, he plunged his fingers a little deeper but was still strangely gentle. The next time around he shoved two fingers into the meat of the wound. It wasn’t as smooth a motion, as if he were finding bits that stopped the smoothness of his progress, but he circled the wound again.

He finally plunged those two fingers far enough into the wound that it made a little squelchy sound. When he did that, he closed his eyes as if to listen, as if that sound could tell him something. But I was pretty certain that wasn’t it. He wanted to savor the sound. The way you close your eyes for a favorite piece of music. Close your eyes so that your sight doesn’t steal away some of your hearing.

When he reached for a fourth wound, I started to say something, but Memphis beat me to it. “Is there a purpose to what you’re doing, Marshal Jeffries?” His tone said plainly that he doubted it.

“Each wound that I have explored was made by a different blade. Two of the wounds were made with something that had a pronounced curve to it. The first wound was a more standard blade shape.”

Memphis and I both looked at Olaf, as if he’d spoken in tongues. I think neither of us had expected anything useful from the corpse fondling. Damn.

“That is exactly right,” Memphis said. The doctor stared up at the big man and finally shook his head. “You were able to tell all that with just your fingers along the wounds?”

“Yes,” Olaf said.

“I would have said that was impossible, to tell all that from what you just did, but you are right. Maybe you can help us catch this… bastard.” I wondered what he’d planned on saying before he picked bastard, or was he just one of those people who didn’t cuss much and needed practice? I’d be happy to help him practice.

“I know blade work,” Olaf said, in his usual empty voice, though when your voice is that deep, empty has a growl to it.

“Do you need to see the whole show?” Memphis asked.

“The whole show?” Olaf made it a question.

I said, “He means, do we need to see the rest of the body uncovered?”

Olaf just nodded, wordlessly, face impassive.

I wasn’t sure we needed to see the damage below the waist, but I couldn’t refuse. What if I went all wussy on them and didn’t look, but there was some vital clue on the body? Some metaphysical thing that Olaf wouldn’t see, or the doc, but I’d know what it was? Olaf knew blade work, more intimately than I ever would, hopefully. But I knew the metaphysics better. In a way, Edward, who did metaphysics pretty well for someone with no talent for it, and Bernardo, who was strictly a see-and-shoot-it guy, were a good team to look at the bodies, and oddly, so were Olaf and I. We each had skills the other lacked, and we could learn more together than apart; as disturbing as that was to admit in my head, it was true.

The cuts continued down the body. I don’t know why damage to the sex organs is always so disturbing, but it is. There was nothing special about the damage there, just a cut that happened to cross his groin. It wasn’t mutilation for the sake of mutilating; it was just another cut. It still made me want to look away. Maybe it was all those taboos on nudity that I grew up with, but it seemed wrong to just stare. You’d think I’d get over that part, but I hadn’t yet. Sexual mutilation, even accidental, bothered me.

Olaf reached toward the body, and for one awful moment I thought he was reaching there, but he went to a wound in the thigh. He didn’t lovingly explore it, like he had the others; he just shoved his fingers in, as if looking for something.

He actually knelt beside the gurney, peering into the wound. He had plunged his fingers as far in as he could and was fighting to go farther. He’d actually managed to find new blood.

“What are you looking for?” Memphis asked.

“This one is deeper, and torn. Did you find the tip of one of the weapons broken off in the wound?”

“Yes,” and Memphis sounded completely impressed now.

I was impressed, too, but I also knew where Olaf had gotten his expertise. “You knew the weapon had broken off in that wound, particularly, just by looking at it?” I said.

He looked up at me, his fingers still deep in the wound, the tearing he’d made bringing out what little blood was left. His face was finally turned away from the doctor, so he let me see what he was thinking. His face softened and filled with heat, anticipation; romantic things. Fuck.

“Your fingers are smaller than mine; you might be able to reach farther in,” he said, and stood, taking his finger out, letting it make another sound. He closed his eyes and let his face show the shudder he’d been hiding from the doctor because only I could see. It wasn’t a shudder of fear or revulsion.

I looked away from his face and back at the body. “I’m sure the doctor has gotten everything out of that wound that he can find, right, doc?”

“Yes, but he’s right. I found the tip of a blade. We’ll analyze it and hopefully learn something.”

“Are all the bodies like this?” I asked. Olaf was still turned away from the doctor. I’d moved so I couldn’t see his face. I didn’t want to know what he was thinking, and I sure as hell didn’t want to see the thoughts cross his face.

“Are you done with this body?” he asked.

“I am; I don’t know about Jeffries here.”

Olaf spoke without turning around. “Answer Anita’s question before I answer yours.”

“The bodies that I’ve processed are like this, yes; some worse, one not as bad, but mostly worse.”

“Then, yes,” Olaf said, “we are done with this body.” His voice was under control, and he turned around, with his face once again its impassive angry normal.

The doctor covered the body back up. Then we got to see number two. Olaf got to take off his gloves and get fresh ones. I hadn’t touched the body, so I got to keep mine.

The next body was almost identical, except the man was a little shorter, more muscled, with paler hair and skin. His body had been nearly shredded. It wasn’t just cuts; it was as if some machine had tried to eat him, or… With the body cleaned and laid out, you could see the damage, and it was still hard for my mind to take it all in.

“What the hell happened to him?” I asked it out loud before I was sure I wanted to.

“The few wounds I’ve been able to isolate so far seem to have some of the same edges as the earlier wounds. It’s the same kind of weapon, maybe the same weapons; I’ll need more tests to be sure.”

“But this is different”-I gestured at the body-“this is… He’s been butchered.”

“No, not butchered; there was no intent to take meat for eating,” Olaf said.

I looked up at him. “Meat?” I said.

“You said he was butchered, but that was not accurate; the meat is ruined this way.”

“It’s a figure of speech, Otto,” I said, and again didn’t know how to interact with him.

He was looking at the body, and this time he couldn’t hide everything from the doctor. He was enjoying seeing this corpse.

I looked at Memphis and tried to think about something other than Olaf. “This looks almost mechanical,” I said. “There’s too much for one human being, isn’t there?”

“No,” Olaf answered. “A human could do all this damage if some of it were postmortem. I’ve seen people cut at corpses, but this is”-he leaned over the body, closer to the wounds-“different from that.”

“Different how?” I asked; maybe if I just kept asking questions, he’d answer and not be as creepy.

He traced his finger across some of the wounds on the chest. Anyone else around a body would have motioned above the skin, but he touched the body. Of course he did.

“The first body, the wounds are deliberate, spaced. This is frenzy. The wounds crisscross each other. The first one looks almost like a knife fight; most of the wounds are not killing wounds, as if the killer was playing with him, making him last. These wounds are deep from the beginning, as if the killer meant to finish it quickly.” He looked at Memphis. “Did anyone interrupt the scene? Any civilians found among the dead?”

“You think the killer heard something and stopped playing, to just kill?” Memphis asked.

“A thought,” Olaf said.

“No, no civilians, just the police and our local vampire hunter.”

“Is the last body cut up like this one?” Olaf asked.

I’d have thought of it eventually, but I was having trouble being a good investigator around Olaf. My creep factor was getting in the way of my thinking.

“One other member of SWAT is cut up like this. Only the body you’ve already seen and the vampire hunter are cut, as you put it, like they were played with, or offered a knife fight.”

“Do they have wounds on their hands and arms, like they were armed with a knife and fought back?” I asked.

Olaf asked, “How do you know about wounds like that?”

“When you fight with knives, you still use your arms like shields; it’s like defensive wounds, but it looks different. It’s hard to explain, but you know it after a while.”

“Because you’ve had the same kind of wounds?” he asked. His voice had the faintest edge of eagerness to it. I almost hated to answer the question, but… “Yes.”

“Did you see wounds like that on the arms of the other men?” Olaf asked.

I thought back, pictured them. “No.”

“Because they were not there.”

“So no knife fight,” I said.

“Or whatever they were fighting was so much faster than they were, they were not able to use their skills to help themselves.”

I looked up at Olaf. “It was daylight, and there were uncovered windows in the warehouse. It couldn’t have been vampires.”

He gave me a look. “You of all people know that there are more than just vampires that are faster than humans.”

“Oh, okay, you mean wereanimals.”

“Yes,” he said.

I looked at Memphis. “Were any of the more frenzied attacks made with things other than blades? I mean, did you find evidence of claws or teeth?”

“Yes,” he said, “and the fact that you figured that out makes me glad you got invited here. These are our men, do you understand?”

“You wanted to solve it without help from a bunch of strangers,” I said.

“Yes, we owed them.”

“I understand,” Olaf said. He was ex-military, so he probably did.

“But you know the monsters better than regular police. I thought that the Marshal Service having a preternatural branch was just some politically expedient way to give a bunch of killers a badge. But you guys really do know the monsters.”

I glanced at Olaf, but he was still looking at the body. I answered the doc, “We know monsters, doc, it’s what we do.”

“I stopped processing the last body when I found what I thought was lycanthrope damage. I wanted to wait for the preternatural experts, which I guess is you.”

“So they tell us,” I said.

The door to the autopsy suite swung open, and three new gowned and gloved people entered the room, wheeling another gurney and a new plastic-wrapped figure. This plastic was looser, as if it had been hastily thrown back over the body. Memphis stripped off his gloves and started to put on new ones. New body, new gloves; clean up, move down. I threw my gloves after the doctor’s. Olaf followed at my heels, like a game of follow the leader. Olaf loomed behind me, a little too close. I hurried to catch up with Memphis and the new arrivals. Three strangers and a corpse, and I was eager to meet them. Anyone was a step up from Olaf at this point.

16

I EXPECTED EDWARD and Bernardo to trail after the body, but they didn’t. I wondered if Edward had gotten the call about the warrants. The three strangers were already suited up and ready to go. Memphis introduced one as Dale and the other as Patricia. Dale had glasses behind his faceplate and short, brown hair. Apparently, he wanted to be extra careful. Patricia wore just the protective glasses. She was taller than me and had her hair in tight, dark pigtails. You didn’t see many grown women who wore pigtails. She was a little tall for Olaf’s preference, but the hair was right. I’d have rather had all men, or at least a blonde. But I couldn’t figure out how to ask without giving away the fact that we had a serial killer in our midst and it wasn’t the bad guy we were chasing. Of course, maybe I should stop worrying about other women and just watch my own ass for a change. No, because I knew what Olaf was, and if he hurt someone, I would feel responsible. Stupid, or just true?

The last man in the room had a camera in his gloved hands.

Memphis said, “This is Rose.”

“Rose?” Olaf made it a question.

“It’s short for something worse,” Rose said, and that was all he said. I wondered what could be worse, for a guy, than Rose? But I didn’t ask; something about the way he’d said the last comment left no room for questions. He just got ready to photograph Dale and Patricia once they started undressing the corpse. The doctor had explained to us that we were not to touch the body until he said so, because we could screw up his evidence. Fine with me; I was never in a hurry to touch the messily dead. And the body on the gurney was messy.

The first thing my eyes saw was darkness. The body was dressed in the same dark green SWAT gear that Grimes and his men had been wearing. The blood had soaked into the cloth and turned most of it black, so the body was a dark shape on the tan plastic gurney. His face was a pale blur where they’d removed his helmet, but his hair was as dark as the uniform. His eyebrows were thick and dark, too. But below the eyebrows, the face was destroyed, gone, in a red ruin that my eyes didn’t want to make sense of.

I knew why Memphis had thought shapeshifter. I couldn’t tell from across the room for sure, but it looked like something had bitten off most of the man’s lower face.

Memphis spoke into a small digital recorder. “The examination recommenced at two thirty p.m. Marshals Anita Blake and Otto Jeffries observing.” He looked at me from where he stood near the body. “Are you going to do your observation from across the room, Marshals?”

“No,” I said, and walked forward. I took a deep breath behind my thin mask and went to stand by the doc and the others.

Olaf came behind me like a scary, plastic-wrapped shadow. I knew he wasn’t spooked by the body, so apparently he was going to use the entire thing as an excuse to stay as close to me as possible. Great.

Up close, the ruin of the face was more obvious. I’d seen worse, but sometimes it’s not about worse. Sometimes it’s about enough. Lately, I’d begun to feel like I’d had enough. If I’d been on any normal police force, they’d have transferred me off violent crimes after two to four years. I was at six years and counting, and no one was going to offer. There weren’t enough marshals in the preternatural branch to trade us around, and I wasn’t trained to be a normal marshal.

I stared down at the body, careful to think body and not man. Everyone copes differently; for me it’s very important to think body, thing. The thing on the gurney was not a person anymore, and for me to do my job, I had to keep believing that. One of the reasons I didn’t do the morgue stakings anymore is that I stopped being able to think of vampires as things. Once a thing becomes a person, it’s harder to kill.

“Once you got the plastic off, you stopped because it looked like some really big jaws crunched down on his lower face,” I said.

“Exactly what I thought,” Memphis said.

There were pale bits of bone showing, but the lower jaw was just ripped away, gone. “Did you find the lower jaw?”

“We did not.”

Olaf leaned over me, spooning his much taller body over mine, so that he leaned along me. He was leaning over to look at the wound, but his body was as close to mine as he could get through his protective gown and my clothes. When I put the gown on, I didn’t think I’d have to worry about protecting my back. Of course, a second gown wasn’t really the kind of protection I wanted from Olaf; guns came to mind.

My pulse was in my throat, and it wasn’t the corpse that was bothering me. “Back up, Otto,” I said, through gritted teeth.

“I think it could be a tool and not jaws,” he said, leaning even closer, pressing himself against me. I was suddenly aware that he was happy to be pressed up against me.

My skin ran hot, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be sick or pass out. I shoved him backward hard and stepped away from him and the body. I must have moved faster than I thought, because Dale and Patricia moved out of my way, and I had the end of the table to myself.

Olaf stared at me, and his eyes were not neutral. Was he thinking of the last time when he’d forced me to help him cut up vampires, and he’d ended the night by masturbating with blood on his hands in front of me? I’d thrown up then, too.

“You fucking bastard,” but my voice didn’t sound tough. It sounded weak and panicked. Shit!

“There are tools that could crush a man’s face like this, Anita.” He talked business, but his face wasn’t businesslike. A slight smile curled his lips, and his eyes held the kind of heat that didn’t match being in an autopsy room.

I wanted to run out of that room and away from him, but I couldn’t let him win. I couldn’t fail like that in front of strangers. I couldn’t give the big bastard the satisfaction. Could I?

I took a few deep breaths through the little mask and got my body under control. Concentrate, ease the breathing, ease the pulse, control. It was the same way I had learned to keep the beasts from rising. You had to have that spurt of adrenaline; if you could calm it or keep it from happening, then the rest could not follow.

I finally gave him calm eyes. “You stay on your side of the table, Otto. Do not invade my personal space again, or I will have you up on sexual harassment charges.”

“I did nothing wrong,” he said.

Memphis cleared his throat, “Marshal Jeffries, if you aren’t dating this young lady, then I suggest you do what she says. I’ve seen men do similar things ‘teaching,’ ”-he made little quotation marks with his fingers- “women baseball, golf, shooting even, but I’ve never seen anyone try it in autopsy.”

“You are a sick motherfucker,” Rose said cheerfully.

Olaf turned a look on him that wiped the smile off his face. In fact, Rose went a little pale behind his faceplate. “You do not know me well enough to say such things.”

“Hey, man, just agreeing with the doc and Marshal Blake.”

“What tool could do this kind of damage?” Memphis asked, trying to get us all back to work.

“There are crushing tools, used in the meat industry. Some to dehorn cattle, others for castration, and some to cut through the neck in a single movement.”

“Why would someone carry that kind of stuff with them?” I asked.

Olaf shrugged. “I do not know, but I am saying that there are alternatives to lycanthropes for the injuries.”

“Point taken,” Memphis said. He looked at me, and his eyes were kinder. “Marshal Blake, are you ready to see the rest of the body, or do you need a minute?”

“If he stays on his side of the table, I’ll be fine.”

“Duly noted,” Memphis said, and he gave a less friendly look to Olaf.

I moved around the gurney, putting it between Olaf and myself. It was the best I could do and stay in the room. But after we finished with this body, I was finding Edward and we were trading dance partners. I could not work with Olaf in the morgue. He saw the whole thing as foreplay, and I just couldn’t deal. No, not couldn’t, wouldn’t.

Bernardo would flirt, but he wouldn’t flirt around the bodies. He didn’t think freshly slaughtered bodies were sexy; it would be downright refreshing after working with serial killer boy, no matter how outrageous the flirting got.

The doctor started to unfasten the bulletproof vest, then stopped. “Take a few close-ups, Rose.” The doc pointed with gloved fingers at places on the vest. Olaf had already leaned in, so if I was to see what had excited the doctor, I had to lean in, too. Shit. Was I so bothered by Olaf that I could not do my job?

I finally leaned closer and saw slash marks in the vest. They could have been from blades or really big claws. It was hard to tell through the cloth. Bare skin would tell me more.

An autopsy for a murder victim is very intimate. It’s not just the cutting of the body but the undressing. You don’t want to cut or further damage the clothes, in case you mess up clues, so you have to pick the body up, hold it, undress it like some huge doll or sleeping child. At least rigor had come and gone. A body in full rigor is like trying to undress a statue, except it feels unlike any statue you could ever touch.

I’ve never envied the morgue technicians their job.

Dale and Patricia moved in to raise the body and ease the vest off. I never liked being in the room for this part. I’m not sure why it bothered me to see the corpse undressed, but it did. Maybe it’s because it’s a part of the process I don’t usually get to see. For me, the dead are either fully dressed or naked. Watching them go from one state to the other just seemed like an invasion of their privacy. Did that sound silly? The dead shell on that table didn’t give a shit. He was way past embarrassment, but I wasn’t. It’s always the living that fuck up death; the dead are fine with it.

Olaf was beside me again, but not close enough for me to bitch-yet. “Why does it bother you to see them undress it?”

My shoulders hunched, and I crossed my arms over the green gown, flexing my hands in the gloves. “How do you know I’m bothered?”

“I can see it,” he said.

He could only see half my face, and my body was hidden behind the overgown. I knew I’d been controlling how I stood and moved, so how had he noticed? I finally looked at him and let my eyes show that I’d had a horrible thought.

“What did I do now?” he asked, and it was almost that tone that all men use-no, not all men, all boyfriends. Shit.

“Is he bothering you again, Marshal Blake?” Memphis came to stand near us.

I shook my head.

“You say no, but you’ve gone pale again.” Memphis gave Olaf a very unfriendly look.

“I just had a thought, that’s all. Let it go, doc; just let me know when we can come back in and look at the body.”

He looked from one to the other of us, but finally went back to join the others. They almost had him naked from the waist up. Even from here, I was almost certain the chest had been clawed up, not cut up.

“I have upset you again, Anita.”

“Let it go, Otto,” I said.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked, and again it was the boyfriend question.

“Nothing; you didn’t do anything creepy or disgusting. You just acted like a guy for a minute.”

“I am a guy,” he said.

I wanted to say, But you aren’t. You’re a serial killer who thinks dead bodies are a turn-on. You’re damn near a bad guy, and I’m pretty sure that someday you’ll force me to kill you to save my own life. You’re male, but you can never be a guy to me. But I couldn’t say any of that out loud.

He was looking at me with those hooded eyes, except there was the faintest glimmer of that look. You know the one. That look that a guy will give you when he likes you and is trying pretty hard to figure out how to please you, and he’s not succeeding. That look that says, What do I do now? How do I win?

What had my scary thought been? That Olaf was sincere. In some crazy, pathological way, he like-liked me. As in boyfriend-liked me. Not just for fucking or slaughter, but maybe, just maybe, he actually wanted to date me like one human being to another. He seemed to have no clue how to interact with a woman in a way that wasn’t terrifying, but he was trying. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he was trying.

17

THE BARE CHEST was sliced and diced, but it wasn’t like the others. No one would convince me that this had been done by blades. I knew claw work when I saw it.

“This was no blade or tool,” I said. “It’s claws.”

Olaf leaned on his side of the body, maybe a little closer to both the body and me than he needed, but nothing too noticeable. Maybe I was just being overly sensitive? Naw.

“I know it is not a blade or a tool that I am familiar with,” Olaf said.

I looked across the body and found that, yeah, he was looking at me, not at the body. I stood up and moved a step back. Fuck it, he unnerved me and he knew it.

“But what killed him?” Memphis asked.

I looked at the doctor, then back at the body. He was right; none of the wounds so far were fatal. “The jaw bite is terrible, but unless he died of shock, then…” I looked at the lower part of the body, which was still covered.

“Yes,” Memphis said, “we need to keep looking for the cause of death.”

“I’m not a pathologist,” I said. “I don’t need to know the cause of death, doc. I’m just here to see if it’s something supernatural or not. That’s it, all my job.”

“Then leave, Marshal Blake, but first can you confirm that it was a lycanthrope attack?”

I had to go back to the body and spread my hands above the wounds. I curled my fingers in the closest imitation I could of the marks. I traced the air above the wounds but was careful not to touch the body. “It was claws and a lycanthrope, and they were in half-human, half-animal form when the attack took place.”

“How can you be sure of that?” Memphis asked.

I held my hand up. “Watch my hand trace over the wounds. The marks were made by a hand, not a paw.”

The woman, Patricia, said, “Your hand is too small to make marks like that, even with claws.”

“The hands get bigger when the person shapeshifts.” I sighed and looked across the table. “May I borrow your hands for a moment, Otto?”

“You may,” he said, and held those big hands out.

“Can you place your hands above the wounds like I was doing, and trace the wound track?”

“Show me again,” he said.

I traced my right hand over the wounds, and he put his much larger hand over mine, so that we traced the wounds together. I tried to pull away, and he pressed our hands to the wounds, trapping me against the body, our fingers spread. He pushed his fingers into the wound tracks, and the spread of his fingers was big enough to fit the wounds. He pinned my hand to the body, while his gloved fingers dug into the meat of the wounds.

Rose kept taking pictures.

“Stop it, Otto,” I said through gritted teeth. I had multiple weapons on me, but nothing he had done here made it okay to shoot him in front of witnesses.

“I am doing what you asked,” he said.

I tried to pull my hand out from under, but he pressed harder, pressing our hands into the dead flesh and the fresh wounds. His fingers made wet sounds in the wounds, while he pressed my hand tight under his.

“You’re messing up the wound marks, Marshal Jeffries,” Memphis said.

Otto didn’t seem to hear him. I had choices. I could faint-no. I could throw up on him, but the body was in the way. I could go for a gun left-handed and shoot him. That was appealing, but not practical. Too many witnesses. I thought of one other choice.

I leaned in and spoke low. “If you ever want to date me for real, let me go.” I’d rather date an untamed cougar, but I was figuring that he was crazy enough not to understand that.

He looked at me, and there was surprise in his eyes. He raised his hand enough for me to pull away. I cradled my hand against the green gown as if it hurt.

“Are you hurt, Marshal Blake?” Memphis asked.

I shook my head. “I need some air, though. I’m sorry, doctor.” I’d never left an autopsy room early. I’d never bailed on anything before, but it wasn’t the body that I bailed on. It was Olaf, standing there, looking at me. The look wasn’t serial killer sex now, it was puzzlement. It was that guy look again, as if he truly was trying to figure out what would please me. That was the look I had to get away from. That was the image that made me turn for the door and fight not to run.

18

I STRIPPED OFF the gloves and the gown and threw them away. I was calm until I hit the outer door and the hallway, then I walked away from that room as fast as I could without running. I would not run, but God, I wanted to.

I was more upset than I knew, because I damn near ran into Edward and Bernardo as they came out of another room. Edward grabbed me, or I might have fallen.

“Anita, are you all right?”

I shook my head.

“The bodies are bad,” Bernardo said.

I shook my head again. “It wasn’t the bodies. The bodies are fine.”

Edward’s grip on my upper arms tightened. “What did Otto do now?”

I just kept shaking my head and felt the first hard tear begin to trail down my face. Fuck, why was I crying?

“What did he do?” When I didn’t answer, he shook me. “Anita! What did he do to you?”

I finally calmed enough to look up at him. I shook my head. “Nothing.”

His fingers tightened, almost hurting on my arms. “This doesn’t look like nothing.” But his voice, his eyes, everything, made me afraid of what he might do if he really thought Olaf had hurt me.

“Honest, Edward, he just did his usual creepy stuff.” I calmed enough to be less tense in his arms. When I relaxed, so did he, but his fingers stayed on my arms. He studied my face.

“First, it’s Ted, Anita,” but his voice still held that anger, and his eyes were Edward at his most dangerous.

I nodded. “I’m sorry, Ted, sorry. Just…” I just shook my head. What was I supposed to say, that Olaf had spooked me so badly that I’d forgotten everything else? That would not help calm Edward, or me.

“Second, you don’t spook this easy. What did he do?” That last sentence was low and deliberate, and full of carefully contained rage. I understood in that moment that Edward blamed himself for Olaf’s interest in me. I guess he had put us together, but I realized that he would blame himself if the worst happened, and neither God nor the devil himself would be able to keep Olaf safe from him. Of course, that would make me dead, and badly, horribly dead, too. I guess I wouldn’t really care. Shit.

“We looked at one body that had claw marks on it. Shapeshifters of some kind. The doctor made noises that there might be more bodies like that, but most of it’s blades.”

Edward and Bernardo looked behind us. I didn’t look, because I was pretty sure what I’d see.

“Before he gets to us, I need to know what he did to upset you, Anita,” Edward said.

“I don’t know if I can explain it, Edward. The pathologists didn’t buy that human hands had made the wounds because my hands were too small, so I borrowed Olaf’s hands to show the size.”

Edward let me go and started for the big man. I grabbed his arm. “No, Edward, Olaf learned things from the wounds on the other bodies. He really did. His expertise with a blade and torture was valuable. Even Dr. Memphis was impressed.”

Edward wasn’t looking at me but down the hall.

I talked faster. “We didn’t learn as much from this body, from him, because it was claws, and that’s my area. I let him boss me around, Edward, more than I should have, because he had been smart about the other body. I let him manipulate me until I just broke. It wasn’t his fault. He was just being him, and I forgot for a second, Edward.”

Edward looked at me then and wrapped his arm around me. It was so unexpected that I tensed. He looked at me, and it was not the least romantic. The look was intense, angry, and down deep in his eyes, a flash of fear. He was afraid for me. Edward was never afraid, almost never.

“Don’t ever forget what he is, Anita,” he whispered, as he leaned in. “When you forget that they’re monsters, they kill you.” He kissed me on the cheek. I know he did it for Olaf’s benefit. I know he didn’t kiss me on the mouth for his and my benefit. It would have been too weird.

I gave startled eyes to Olaf as he came closer to us, pulling off his gown. The gloves had already gone in the trash. He looked from me to Edward, but finally just at Edward. “What has she told you?”

“That it wasn’t your fault. That she let you manipulate her because you had been smart with the other bodies. That your expertise with blades and torture had been helpful.”

Olaf looked surprised, and his voice matched. “She did not lie.”

“Did you think I’d come out here and lie, say you’d been a big, bad man, and ask for help?”

He put those deep-set eyes on me and nodded. “Women lie, and they use men against each other. It’s what they do.”

I shook my head and pushed away, gently, from Edward. “I don’t do shit like that. I let you manipulate me, and that won’t happen again, but I knew better. I let you… get in my head. And I knew better.” I slapped my chest with my hand, hard enough to hurt. “I knew better. I don’t ask anyone to protect me from my own stupidity.”

“It took you longer than I thought it would to realize that you know more about shapeshifters than I do. You could have just refused me entry to the room.”

I nodded. “Yeah, stupid fucking me.” I walked away then, shaking my head. I had to get away from Olaf and Edward and Bernardo’s interested eyes. I’d had enough testosterone for the day.

Dr. Memphis called from down the hallway. “Marshal Blake, may I speak to you for a moment?”

I looked past the other men to the doctor. He was still in his gown, no gloves, like Olaf. Shit. I’d let Olaf spook me; I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I walked past them all and pointed a finger at the big guy. “You stay here. The two of you keep an eye on him, so I don’t have to.” Then I walked past all of them and went for the doctor. I’d put another gown on, another mask, more gloves. I’d look at the damn bodies on my own because Olaf was right-I knew lycanthropes better than any of the rest of them. I would look at these bodies on my own, and God willing, I’d learn something that could help us figure out what the fuck was going on.

“Is Marshal Jeffries coming back in?” Memphis asked.

“No,” I said, and walked back through the doors.

19

THEY HAD FINISHED undressing the body when Memphis walked me back inside the room. It lay bare and very unalive. It looked like a body now, without the clothes, and the wounds like bright tears on the skin.

From across the room I could see that the groin was bloody. I couldn’t tell how bad the damage was from here. I didn’t really want to know how bad it was, but as usual I had to see it all. Crap.

Rose either had taken all the pictures he needed or was too shocked to take them. He stood there, with his camera forgotten in his hands. The other two techs were no better. Dale had busied himself with something at the cabinets. Patricia went to stand by Rose and turned her back.

“Anyone who needs to leave can do so,” Memphis said.

Dale went for the door without a word. “They were friends,” Rose said, and that was enough.

“Patricia,” Memphis said, “do you need to go?”

“No, doctor, no, I’ll stay. I didn’t know him as well as Dale did, and there are some of the… I did know some of them better. I don’t want to work on them, so I’ll stay.” She turned around, pale, lips thin, but a determined look on her face. She’d do.

“Rose?” Memphis asked.

“I’m okay, doctor. It’s not that I knew him. I’m being all wimpy about the wound. Sorry.” He nodded. “Sorry, I’ll do better.” He raised the camera back up and started snapping.

I walked around the body so I could see the wound closer. Not that I wanted to see it, but it was an odd wound. Of course, once I was on the other side, I could see the inside of the right thigh clearly. Someone had sliced it open from groin to almost knee. The femoral artery would have been toast. You bleed out from that in fifteen, twenty minutes tops. You can save yourself if the wound is low enough for a tourniquet and medical help is coming. But whoever sliced him up didn’t want him saving himself with first aid.

Whatever he might have been once as a man, now he was just bloody, but… the genitalia were intact, or looked it. The only way to be certain was to touch them and see, and I didn’t want to know that badly. I had to peer a lot closer than I wanted to, but I was right, the wounds didn’t actually go across the genitalia, more around them. “When are you going to wash the blood away?”

“Yes,” Memphis said, “we’ll be able to see those wounds more clearly when we’ve finished cleaning the body, but we wanted you to see it first.”

I looked up at him. “Why?”

“You’re our shapeshifter expert,” he said.

“You have shapeshifters in Vegas,” I said.

“We do, but they wouldn’t be allowed near a lycanthrope kill.”

“Yeah, same at home, so you have to make do with me.”

“If half your reputation is real, Marshal Blake, we aren’t making do.”

I looked away from his too-intense eyes. He wanted me to solve this. He wanted me to help them catch the thing that had killed their people. I wanted to help, but I hated that feeling of pressure. The sensation that if I missed the clue there was no backup. I thought about calling Edward in, but wasn’t sure I could call in part of my backup without getting the rest of it back. I was done with Olaf for the day if I could manage it.

I peered as close to the wounds as I could. “It looks like the claws were driven in around the groin, deep, but straight in and out, no tearing.” I stood up and gestured at the thigh wound. “Not like that.”

“Was it more than one shapeshifter?” Rose asked.

It was a good question. “Could be, but I don’t think so. This up close and personal, there just isn’t room for two to fight. I’m not discounting it, but all these wounds are so debilitating that once it happened, there wouldn’t be any need for two shapeshifters to fight this man.”

“His name was Randall Sherman, Randy,” Memphis said.

I shook my head. “No names in the morgue. I function because it’s a body. I’m sorry that he was your friend, but I can’t think of him that way and do my job.”

“I thought you had to have a name to raise the dead,” Patricia said.

“Yes, but none of these bodies will be able to be raised.”

“Why not?” Patricia asked.

“Murder victims tend to go after their murderers, first and foremost. They maim or kill anything that gets in their way, including innocent civilians.”

“Oh,” she said.

I stared down at what was left of Officer Randall Sherman and cursed Memphis for giving me a name. I don’t know why it can make such a difference, but suddenly I looked at him, not at a body. I noticed that he was tall and athletic, and had spent a lot of time staying in shape. He was probably on the other side of thirty, but it had been a good early thirty. All that work, to be strong, to be fast, to be the best, and some monster comes by and is stronger, faster, and better, just because of a disease in its blood. No amount of weight lifting or jogging would ever make a human being the equal of a shapeshifter. So unfair, so true.

“What kind of hair did you find on the body and clothes?”

“We found human hair, but no animal hair,” Memphis said.

I looked at him.

“Yes,” he said, “you can look surprised. I’ve seen two other shapeshifter kills, and we found a lot of animal hair at both. You can’t get this close to someone and not shed on them, but this shifter cleaned the body of hair so we wouldn’t know what it was.”

I shook my head. “Not necessarily, doc. You can police your brass, but not the little bits and pieces of your body. I saw the crime scene. It was a hell of a fight, and there was no time to clean up like that.”

“Then what did the creature do? Did he wear a suit?” He touched his own suit.

“I doubt it,” I said, “but a really powerful shapeshifter can do a partial shift.”

“I know a manwolf or mancat form,” Memphis said.

“No, I mean the really powerful ones can shapeshift just the hands into claws, and the feet. I saw a werewolf climb the side of a building like that.”

“That was one of your cases?”

“I don’t know what you mean by that, but I saw the bastard do it.”

“He used claws to shove into the building?” Patricia asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Wow, shades of Spider-Man,” Rose said.

“More Wolverine,” I said, “but the principle’s the same.”

“He got away,” Memphis said.

“Temporarily,” I said.

“How did they catch him?” Patricia asked.

“I got them to approve werewolves to track the rogue werewolf, then I killed him.”

“What do you mean you killed him?” she asked.

“I mean, I walked up to him and put a bullet between his baby blues.”

Her mouth made a little soundless O. Rose said, “Just one bullet?”

“No,” I said.

“Back to the case; you can listen to war stories from the marshal after we’ve caught our man.”

“Sorry, doctor,” Patricia said.

“Sorry, doc.”

“So you think we have a very powerful shapeshifter that did this.”

“I’m pretty sure, and that means that it’s a very small pool of suspects. There aren’t that many shifters in any city that can do it. Maybe five in a large animal group. Maybe one in a small.”

“Do you think the shapeshifter cut up the other men?”

“No, it’s almost like whatever did it had multiple arms. An arm for every blade.”

“Do you know any preternatural creature that has multiple arms, Marshal?”

I thought about it. “There are a lot of mythologies with many-armed creatures, but none native to this country. And frankly, Dr. Memphis, none that I’m sure are real and in existence today.”

“So hard to tell fact from fiction when we live in a world where myth is real,” he said.

“Some of it’s extinct,” I said.

“Whatever killed Randy Sherman wasn’t extinct,” he said.

I felt that unpleasant smile curl my lips and was glad it was hidden behind the half mask. I wouldn’t want to scare the civvies. “We’ll work on making it extinct.”

“You’ll need a warrant of execution,” Memphis said.

“Four dead police officers. One obviously dead by wereanimal attack. Getting the warrant won’t be the problem.”

“I suppose so,” Memphis said, not like he was entirely happy about it.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“It’s just that I signed the petition that they took to Washington to try to get the Domestic Preternatural Endangerment Act repealed. I believe that the warrants for your job are too broad and violate human rights.”

“You’re not alone.”

“Now, all I want is for you to get the bastards that did this; I don’t care that the warrant is based on bad law. So that makes me a hypocrite, Marshal Blake, and I’m not used to thinking of myself that way.”

“You’ve seen vampire and shapeshifter victims before,” I said.

He nodded. “Not here, though. Vegas has one of the lowest rates of murder by preternatural means of any city in the United States.”

I widened my eyes. “I didn’t know that.” In my head I thought, Max and Bibiana run a very tight ship. Out loud I said, “Is this the first person you knew who died like this?”

“No, first friend, though. I guess if I really believed my convictions, that wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Emotion always makes a difference,” I said.

“Even for you?” He looked at me when he asked it.

I nodded.

“I’ve heard the screams when the executioner has to stake the vampire during the day. They beg for their lives.”

“Everyone on death row is innocent, doctor; you know that.”

“It doesn’t bother you then?”

I had to look away from that searching gaze. The moment I had to look down, I forced myself to meet his eyes and said the truth. “Sometimes it does.”

“Then why do it?”

Was it mean to say the next? I couldn’t tell anymore; maybe it was just true. “I’m sorry for your loss, doctor, I truly am, but this moment is a perfect example of why I do my job. Look at what they did to your friend. Do you want that to happen to someone else’s friend, husband, brother?”

His face hardened, and it was back to the original hostile look. “No.”

“Then you need me to do my job, doctor, because once a shapeshifter crosses the line this badly, they almost never go back. They get a taste for letting the beast out. It feels good to them, and they will do it again unless someone stops them.”

“You mean kills them,” he said.

“Yes, kills them. I want to kill the shapeshifter that killed your friend, before it kills someone else.”

It was his turn to look away. “You’ve made your point, Marshal. If you need it, I’ll sign off that a shapeshifter did this, because it’s true.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

He nodded. “But the way DPEA is written, you don’t need me to sign anything, do you? You just need to call Washington, and they’ll fax you the warrant.”

“Contrary to popular media, we do have to assure them it’s preternatural in origin.”

“Assure them, but not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

“Shadows of doubt are for courts, doctor.”

“This shapeshifter is never going to see the inside of a courtroom, is it?”

“Probably not.”

He shook his head. “They offered to let someone else work on Randy, but it’s the last thing I can do for him.”

“No, it’s not, Dr. Memphis. You can help me gather enough evidence to get a warrant and hunt his killer down.”

“And see, there you go, Marshal, right back at my moral dilemma.”

I didn’t know what to say to that; I had my own moral dilemma to work on, and I didn’t know Memphis well enough to tell him I was beginning to have doubts about my job, too. I did the only thing I could think of; I went back to work.

“I am sorry for your loss, but can you let me see the personal effects I missed?” In my head, I added, when I let Olaf run me out of the room, but I kept that part to myself. It was humiliating enough without sharing. I was thinking better without him in the room. I hadn’t realized just how much he was throwing me off my game until he was gone. Division of labor would not leave me alone with him again, I promised myself that.

In a plastic baggie was a silver pentagram. “Was he Wiccan?”

“Yes,” Memphis said, “does that matter?”

“It may be why the shifter ate his face off first.”

“Explain,” Memphis said.

“If I’m right, then Sherman was saying a spell, and the shifter stopped him.”

“There’s no spell against lycanthropes, is there?” Rose asked.

“No,” I said, “but there are spells that impact other preternatural entities. Spells are almost exclusively for noncorporeal beings.”

“Like ghosts,” Patricia asked. She’d been so quiet in her corner of the autopsy suite that I’d almost forgotten her.

I shook my head. “No, not ghosts. You just ignore them. But spirits, entities, demons, and other things like it.”

“You mean like the devil,” Patricia said.

“No, my bad, I shouldn’t have said demon. What I mean is something that is more energy than physical, sort of.”

“Whatever wielded the knives was very physical,” Memphis said.

“The knives were very physical, but if Sherman thought a spell could help against them, then maybe whatever was using them wasn’t.”

“I don’t understand,” Rose said.

“Nor do I,” Memphis said.

I hated trying to explain metaphysics. It always came out wrong, or at best confusing. “I’ll need to talk to Sherman’s coven, or at least his high priestess, but if he was any good at the magic side of his faith, then he wouldn’t have wasted breath on something that wouldn’t help save them.”

“Randy was very devout, and very serious about his faith,” Memphis said.

I nodded. “Okay, I’ll still want to talk to his priestess, but for right now, I need to see if I can figure out what animal flavor did this.”

“There are no nonhuman hairs, Marshal,” Memphis said.

I nodded. “I heard.”

“It will take time to analyze the claw marks.”

“That may not help you that much anyway, not in this modified form. We know we’re looking for a smaller person.”

“What do you mean, Marshal?”

“When a shapeshifter makes the claws come out, the hand gets bigger than human-normal. Marshal Jeffries was able to palm the marks on the chest. He’s a big guy, but his hands aren’t as big as a shapeshifter’s when it’s in half-man form. That means we’re looking for someone who isn’t that tall, or has smaller hands.”

“But you just said that the hands get bigger,” Patricia said.

“Yes, but there’s a limit to how much bigger. If you take two people who are both the same animal, but one is six feet with large hands, and the other is five feet with small hands, when they both shift, the animal form will be larger than their human form, but the smaller man will still be a smaller shapeshifter than the larger man. It’s a mass ratio thing.”

“I’ve read widely on shapeshifters, Marshal, and I’ve never read where anyone has written that up.”

I shrugged. “I know shapeshifters, doctor.”

“All right, then we’re looking for a smaller man.”

“Or woman,” I said.

“You really think a woman did this?” he asked.

“I’ve seen shapeshifters of both sexes do some pretty amazing things, so yeah, this damage doesn’t rule out female.”

“You said you’re going to try and figure out what animal did this. We’ve got swabs for DNA, and we may get lucky, but if the lycanthrope was in human form except for the claws and teeth, as you maintain, then the DNA may come back human.”

“There should be some of the virus in the DNA,” I said.

“Yes, and in a few days we’ll have it back.”

I shook my head. “We don’t have a few days.”

“I’m open to suggestions, Marshal.”

“I told you, I’m carrying lycanthropy; that means that sometimes I can smell things people can’t.”

“You’re going to try to smell what kind of animal it was.”

I nodded.

“But,” Patricia said, “if the shapeshifter was in human form, then won’t it just smell human?”

“No,” I said, “once you know what you’re smelling, there’s an under-taste.” I shook my head. “I can’t explain this, but I want to try.”

“I would be eager to see you try,” Memphis said.

“I’ll have to take the mask down.”

“That’s against protocols.”

“I may get my breath, saliva on things, but I can’t catch anything from the… Sherman.”

“If it will catch this creature days early, then do it.”

I looked at the objects and tried to decide what would be the piece of clothing or equipment that the lycanthrope had gotten the closest to. I looked at it all in the baggies, and finally settled on the throat/ear microphone getup. It had actually been damaged by the teeth.

“I need one of you to unbag and make sure that the chain of evidence doesn’t get fucked up.”

“Your smelling something won’t be admissible in court, not even with this many officers dead,” Memphis said.

“No,” I said, “but I’m not looking for court proof. I’m looking for a clue as to where to go to find people to question. That’s all we can hope to get from this.”

“If you smell a certain animal, then you’ll go talk to that local group,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

He came over and carefully unbagged the evidence. I took the mask down and leaned forward. I closed my eyes and called on that part of me that wasn’t quite human anymore. I could visualize the beasts inside me: wolf, leopard, lioness, white and yellow tiger. They were all lying in the dark shadows of ancient trees that had been the visualization for my inner place since a certain very ancient vampire had messed with me. Marmee Noir, the Queen of All Vampires, had given me the tigers in a bid to control me. So far, I was still ahead; so far.

I called, gently, to the beasts, and felt them stir. I could keep them from trying to physically manifest now. I could call them as energy. I tried that now. I needed to scent something. I called on wolf. She came trotting to my call, white with her black markings. I’d done some research and knew that her markings meant the strain of lycanthropy was probably from the far north, someplace cold. You had more white wolves where you got more snow.

My skin ran in goose bumps, and I lowered my face toward the piece of technology. The first smell was death. The wolf growled, and it trickled out my lips.

Memphis said, “Are you all right, Marshal?”

“I’m all right; please don’t talk to me while I do this.”

The smell of plastic was sharp, almost bitter. The wolf didn’t like it. Underneath that was sweat, fear, and she did like that. Fear and sweat meant food. I pushed the thought back and concentrated. I needed more. I smelled Sherman, the scent of a man, and that he still smelled of the soap and shampoo he’d used that day. It was like peeling the layers off an onion. I think if I’d been a wolf I could have smelled all of it, and interpreted it, but my human brain was slow.

I felt my nose touch the felt piece, and thought, What animal did this? I smelled saliva, and it wasn’t the same scent as Sherman. Though my mind couldn’t interpret how it was different, it just was. I needed the scent of the animal, not the person. I gave myself over to the wolf, to the feel of fur and pads, and… there. The faintest whiff of something not human.

I followed that faint scent the way you’d follow a path that you found in the woods. A path that was barely there, lost in weeds and small trees. I pushed my way through that narrow opening, and suddenly the world was full of… tiger.

The tigers inside me rushed up, roaring. I stumbled back from the evidence, the scent, Memphis. I fell on my ass on the floor, with the wolf running for cover and the tigers snarling inside my head. Once this would have meant the tigers trying to take over my body, tearing me apart from the inside out, but now I could keep it lower key.

Someone grabbed my arm, and I looked up. What was this plastic man? I looked past the faceplate and found him human, and soft, and knew that all that education, all that determination, was nothing before claw and fang. I had to try twice to speak, “Room, give me room.”

He let me go, but just knelt back. I looked at him and the other two. Patricia was afraid, and that made the tigers roil inside me, happy kitties. Fear means food.

I pushed to my feet and stumbled for the door. I had to get away from them. I should never have tried this without Edward here to make sure… make sure it didn’t get out of hand.

“I need air, that’s all. Don’t touch me.” I made the door and stumbled outside. I ended up on my knees on the floor, leaning against the wall, trying to shove the tigers back into the safety zone. They didn’t want to go. They’d smelled another tiger, and it excited them.

Edward spoke from a little distance. “Anita, you all right?”

I shook my head, but held a hand palm out, to say Stay away. He did. “Talk to me,” he said.

My voice came breathy, but it came. “I called on a little furry energy to try and get a clue.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know what killed the others, but we’re looking for a weretiger that’s probably under six feet in human form, or has abnormally small hands. This one is powerful enough to be able to do claws and teeth only, with no fur and no other outward change.”

I felt Olaf and Bernardo close, before I looked up and saw them. Edward kept them back, which was probably just as well.

“Only the most powerful can do that,” Edward said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You learned all that from smelling?” Bernardo said.

I looked up, and was pretty sure it wasn’t a friendly look by his reaction. “No, I learned most of that from the body, but tiger was smell.” I looked past him to Olaf now in his black assassin gear, stripped of the hazmat suit. I pointed a finger at him. “I couldn’t think with you in there with me. I didn’t know how useless you make me until you weren’t there.”

“I did not mean to make you work less efficiently.”

“You know, I believe that. But from now on you work with someone besides me. No more alone time on the case.”

“Why is being alone with me so distracting?” he asked, and his face was neutral enough.

“Because you scare me,” I said.

He smiled then, a little curl of lips, but his caveman eyes gleamed with satisfaction.

I stood up then, and Edward was smart enough not to help me. “You know, big guy, most men who really want to date a woman don’t want her afraid of them.”

His smile faltered a little, but not much. He looked puzzled for a moment, then the smile returned larger and more satisfied. “I am not most men.”

I gave a sound that might have been a laugh, if it hadn’t been so harsh. “Well, that is the fucking truth.” I started stripping off the protective gear.

“Where to?” Edward said.

“We visit the weretigers.”

“Aren’t they the animal to call of the Master Vampire of Vegas?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“So we go visit the Master of the City and his wife.”

I nodded. “Yep, Max and his wife, the queen tiger of Las Vegas. Though the actual title is Chang and her name. Chang-Bibiana, in this case.”

“Wait,” Bernardo said. “Are we walking in there and accusing one of their tigers of killing a police officer and helping massacre three more?”

I looked at Edward; he looked at me. “Something like that,” I said.

Bernardo looked unhappy. “Can you please not get me killed until after I’ve had a date with Deputy Lorenzo?”

I smiled at him. “I will do my best.”

“To get us all killed,” he said.

“Not true,” I said. “I always do my best to keep us alive.”

“After you endanger us all,” he muttered.

“You whine like a baby,” Olaf said.

“I’ll whine any way I damn well please.”

Memphis came out and asked, “Marshal, are you well?”

I nodded. “I’m fine.”

“What animal did you sense?”

Did I lie, or tell the truth? “Tiger.”

“Our Master of the City will not like that.”

“No, but truth is truth.”

“You will need a warrant to enter their home.”

“We had this talk already, Memphis. We’ll call up and have one faxed to us, but I think I’ll try just asking for a visit first.”

“You think he’ll just let you waltz in and accuse his people of murder?”

“I think Max told Sheriff Shaw to invite me to come play and that I’d sort things out.”

Memphis’s eyes went wide. “Did he now?”

“So I’m told.”

“It doesn’t sound like our master.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I said, “but if he invited me, why wouldn’t he want to help me sort things out?”

“You won’t get in without a warrant. The Master of Vegas is old-time mob; it makes him cautious,” Memphis said.

“We’ll apply for several,” Edward said.

Memphis looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“We have a lycanthrope kill confirmed. Nevada still has varmint laws on the books. We’ll be able to get a warrant of execution on the lycanthrope that did this.”

“But you don’t have a name for the lycanthrope,” Memphis said.

Edward smiled, I smiled, even Bernardo smiled. Olaf just looked sinister. “You know we don’t need a name. The warrant will read a little vague. I keep forgetting about the varmint laws in the western states; it makes it actually easier to get a vague warrant for a shapeshifter than for a vampire,” I said.

“I still believe it’s a legal excuse for murder,” Memphis said.

I stepped close to the doctor, and he held his ground. “Randall Sherman was your friend, not mine. Don’t you want his murderer caught?”

“Yes, but I want to make sure it’s the right weretiger, not just the one that pisses you all off.”

I grinned at him, but could feel it was more a snarling flash of teeth. The tigers were still a little close. “If you don’t like the way I do my job, then file a complaint. But in the dark when the big bad monsters come to get you, you always want us. You see us standing here. You know what we are, what we do, and it makes you feel uncivilized. Even with your friends on gurneys in the morgue, you flinch. Well, we don’t flinch, doctor. We do what the rest of you are afraid to do”-I leaned in close and whispered-“we’ll be your vengeance, doc, so you can keep your lily-white hands clean.”

He stepped back as if I’d struck him. “That’s not fair.”

“Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want vengeance for what it did to your men? Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t look forward to weighing their murderer’s liver on a scale?”

His eyelids flickered behind his glasses. He opened his mouth, closed it, licked his lips. He finally said, “You are a hard woman, Blake.”

I shook my head. “No such thing as a hard woman, Memphis, just soft men.” With that, I turned, and the others followed me. We went for the doors, and a phone, and a judge who would give us warrants.

Edward said, “What did the doctor do to piss you off that badly?”

“Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

“Then what’s with the super bitch act?” Bernardo asked.

I laughed. “Who was acting, Bernardo, who the fuck was acting?” The tigers swirled inside me, happy that I was angry, looking forward to more anger, more emotion. They wanted out. They wanted out so badly.

20

I GOT OUTSIDE in the breath-stealing heat, and Edward grabbed my arm, swinging me around to face him.

I stared up at him.

“Anita, are you all right?”

I started to say Fine, but Edward didn’t ask questions like that unless something wasn’t right.

I looked at his hand on my arm until he let me go. “I’m fine.”

He shook his head. “No, you’re not.”

I opened my mouth to argue, then I forced myself to stop and take a few deep breaths. I tried to think past the feeling of eagerness and anger. I was angry. Why? Memphis had done nothing to piss me off that much. So he was a liberal who didn’t approve of DPEA; so what? There were lots of people who felt that way. So why had I pulled him up by the short hairs?

Why was I angry? Okay, scratch that, I was almost always angry. Rage was like fuel for me. It always bubbled just below the surface. It was probably one of the reasons that I could feed on other people’s anger. It was my drink of choice. The real question was, why was I being a shit to someone who hadn’t earned it? That wasn’t like me.

I was about to run off and see the weretigers; a lot of them. The tiger energy inside me was happy about that and just a little too eager. Just because I hadn’t shapeshifted for real didn’t mean I wouldn’t. The only other person I’d met with this many different kinds of lycanthropy in his body had been able to shift to all the forms. He’d also been insane, but that may have been from other things.

What would happen if, with my tigers that close to the surface, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a whole bunch of weretigers? I wasn’t sure, and that was reason enough to take it slower.

“Thanks, Ed… Ted. I needed that.”

“You seem calmer now.”

I nodded. “You made me think. First, I’ll go back inside and apologize to Dr. Memphis. Second, I’ll see if he knows where we can find Officer Randall Sherman’s high priestess.”

“Why?” he asked.

I told them about the pentagram and my theory that Sherman had been trying a spell when the weretiger killed him.

“Spells don’t work against wereanimals,” Bernardo said.

“No, they don’t,” I said.

“A practicing witch would know that,” Edward said.

“He would.”

“Which means something else besides vampires and weretigers may have been in that warehouse,” he said.

“My thoughts exactly.”

“If Memphis doesn’t know Sherman’s high priestess?”

“Then we find someone who does. You call Washington and get started on those warrants. One for a wereanimal that killed Sherman, and the other for searching homes and businesses of the Master of Vegas.”

“That second one may be tricky; Max is pretty well connected here and is one of the major funders of the pro-vampire lobby in DC.”

I hadn’t known that last part. “Then he should want to cooperate with the police.”

Edward gave me that smile of his. “He’s a vampire, Anita, they always have something to hide.”

I smiled back. “Don’t we all.”

To that, he didn’t answer, just got his cell and started working on the warrants. Me, I went for the door back inside.

Olaf followed me, but I stopped him. “You stay with Edward, I mean, Ted.”

“The vampire Vittorio made a threat against you. You really shouldn’t be alone, not if he has wereanimals on his side.”

I couldn’t fault his logic. “Bernardo,” I called, “you’re with me.”

Bernardo gave Olaf a speculative look but came to my side. “Anything you say, little lady.”

“Don’t call me that, ever again,” I said, and reached for the door.

“Why him and not me?” Olaf said.

I glanced back at the tall, black-clad man. He’d put the black wrap-around sunglasses back on. He stood there, looking like a Hollywood idea of a bad guy. “Because he doesn’t creep me out, and you do.”

“I am better in a fight than he is.”

“I’ll let you guys debate that some time, but for right now, I have an apology to make.”

“You’re really going to apologize to the doctor?”

“Yes.”

“An apology is a sign of weakness.”

“Not if you’re in the wrong, and I was.” I actually got to the door before he interrupted again.

“You were short with him, but not wrong.”

I finally looked at the big guy. “What’s with all the chatter, Otto? Afraid you’ll miss me?”

That did it. He turned and walked away. Bernardo came up to stand next to me like a tall, dark, handsome shadow. I pressed the button to let someone know we needed inside.

“Otto isn’t better in a fight than I am. He’s better with explosives, and he’s got me beat all hollow when it comes to interrogation, but he’s not better in a fight.”

“I didn’t say he was.”

“I just wanted you to know.”

I glanced up at him, that nearly heartbreakingly perfect bone structure. He had his long dark hair pulled back in a braid. With the heat, I was beginning to debate what to do with my hair, too.

“I know you’re good in a fight, Bernardo. Edward doesn’t hang with people who aren’t good.”

We had to press the button again and wait to be let inside. “Then why don’t you like me?”

I gave him a frowning glance. “I don’t dislike you.”

“But you don’t like me either.”

The door opened. It was Dale, with his short brown hair and his glasses. He let us in but wasn’t entirely pleasant. I couldn’t blame him. “You forget something?” he asked.

“An apology to Dr. Memphis. The case is getting to me more than I thought.”

Dale’s face softened. “It’s getting to all of us.” He let us go past and told us where to find Memphis.

I turned to Bernardo. “I don’t not like you.” I wasn’t sure on the grammar, but it said what I meant.

“Okay, then you’re neutral. You don’t like or dislike me; that’s weird.”

“Why is it weird?”

He actually stopped walking to spread his hands and do a voilà movement. I realized he was showing himself off. “I’ve had women not like me because I’m too ethnic for them. I’ve had women not like what I do for a living. Some chicks hate the violence. But that’s not it for you. You don’t care about any of that.”

“Are you asking why I don’t think you’re scrumptious?” I couldn’t help smiling.

“Don’t make fun of me.”

I shook my head and fought not to smile more. “I’m not, but I just find this an odd thing in the middle of a murder investigation.”

“I know, business first, and I’d have behaved myself if you hadn’t started getting all sexual tension around the big guy.”

“I am not reacting to Otto,” I said.

He held his hands up, like he was surrendering. “No offense meant.”

“I do not like him like that.”

“I didn’t say you liked him; I said you’re reacting to him.”

“And what’s the difference between liking and reacting?”

“You like Ted, but you don’t react to him. I know you’re getting all cuddly, but it’s to get Otto off your back.”

I gave him a hard look.

“Hey, I won’t spoil it. I agree that it’s creepy that Otto likes you the way he does. I can’t even argue with what you and Ted said at the crime scene.”

“Then what are you bitching about?”

Two women in the little gowns walked by. One stared outright, and the other did a more covert checking out as she walked past us. I might as well have been invisible. Bernardo wasted a smile on them both, then turned back to me as if nothing had happened.

I had a clue. “You’re used to women reacting to you, and I’m not reacting, and that’s bugging you.”

“Yeah, I know it’s shallow as hell, but it’s like you don’t see me, Anita. I’m not used to that.”

“I’m dating or living with six men, Bernardo.”

He gave me raised eyebrows.

“My plate is beyond full, okay? It’s nothing personal.”

“I don’t want to date you, Anita, I just want you to react to me.” He smiled, and it was a good smile. “I mean, sex would be great, but I think Ted would kill me, and that takes a lot of the happy out of it for me.”

“You really think he’d kill you for sleeping with me?”

“He might, and might is good enough from him.”

“So, if I just tell you how beautiful you are, then we can go back to work?”

“If you mean it,” he said, and sounded offended.

“You know, this is usually a girl problem.”

“I’m vain, so sue me.”

I smiled, and it was my turn to hold my hands up. I took a deep breath and made myself look at Bernardo. I started at his face. His eyes were that dark solid brown, almost black, darker even than mine. The hair was shiny and black, and I knew it had blue highlights in the right light. The skin was that nice even dark that only certain genetics can give you. But it was the curve of those perfect cheekbones, the line of that nose that plastic surgeons only gave movie stars after lots of money changed hands, the lips full and wide, kissable. His neck was long and smooth, and I could see his pulse in the side of his neck like something that needed kissing. The broad shoulders under his white shirt were nice, and the chest looked like he’d been hitting the gym; so did the arms. My gaze slid to the slimness of his waist, and then the hips. I let myself linger, and had to admit to myself that the bulge in his pants was distractingly bulgy. I knew that the bulge got bigger because I’d seen him nude once. I knew he was actually so well endowed that even I might find it a bit much, and I didn’t say that about most men.

I forced myself to keep going down the muscular legs in their jeans, to the boots. I came back up to his eyes.

“You’re blushing,” he said, but he was smiling.

“I was remembering that time in the bar.”

He grinned wider, obviously pleased. “Thinking about seeing me naked.”

The blush that had been fading flushed back to life. I nodded and started walking. “Happy now?” I asked.

“Very,” he said, in a voice that showed it. He glided beside me, to the stares of every woman we passed, and some of the men. I would have thought they might be looking at me, but Bernardo was a treat both coming and going. I’m used to being the plain Jane when it comes to the men in my life. If it had bothered me to be less pretty than a man, I could never have dated Jean-Claude… or Asher… or Micah… or Richard, or Nathaniel. Hell, Bernardo made me feel right at home.

21

I APOLOGIZED TO Dr. Memphis and got the name of Sherman’s high priestess. She was in the phone book. We hit the heat outside, sunglasses sliding over our eyes like some sort of science fiction shield. The gesture was already automatic, and I hadn’t been in town a day.

There was music playing, and it took me a few seconds to realize it was my phone. It was playing “I’m Not in Love,” by 10cc, but it was not a ring tone I’d chosen. I was really going to have to learn to do my own ring tones. Nathaniel’s sense of humor was beginning to get on my nerves.

I hit the button and said, “What’s with the choice of songs, Nathaniel?”

“It is not your pussycat, ma petite,” and just like that, I was standing in the Vegas heat talking to the Master Vampire of St. Louis and my main squeeze. He never called me when I was working with the police unless something really bad had happened.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. My pulse was suddenly in my throat.

Bernardo looked at me, and I waved a hand, shaking my head, moving toward Edward and Olaf by the car.

“Why should anything be wrong, ma petite?” But his voice held anger, which it didn’t usually do. He could say nothing was wrong, but his voice said otherwise, and since he could make his voice as empty of emotion as a blank wall, either he wanted me to know he was angry, or he was so pissed that he couldn’t hide it. He was more than four hundred years old; you learned to hide a lot of emotion in that much time. So what had I done to piss him off? Or what had someone else done?

I suddenly wanted privacy for the call. So I got in the SUV and the men stood out in the heat. I offered to do it the other way around, but Edward had insisted, and when he insists there’s usually a reason for it. I’ve learned not to argue when he insists; we all live longer.

I turned on the air-conditioning and got comfortable while the three men seemed to be talking, quietly but intensely. Hmm.

Ma petite, I wake and find you far away.”

“I’m not happy about it either,” I said. I thought about him, and that was enough to see him lying in our bed, the sheets draped carelessly across his body, one long leg clear of the sheets. One hand held the phone, but the other was playing idly along Asher’s back. He would be dead to the world for hours yet, but it never bothered Jean-Claude to touch another vampire when they were still “dead.” I found it disturbing. Maybe I’d been at one too many crime scenes.

He looked up into the air, as if he felt me watching him. “Would you like to see more?”

I drew my mind and attention back to the SUV, the Vegas heat pressing against the car. “I think it would distract me.”

“There are those who would give all they have to be distracted by me.”

“You’re angry at me.”

“We work so hard to make the vampire community think you are truly my servant and not my master, and then you do this.”

“Do what, my job?”

He sighed, and the sound eased over the phone and down my skin like a shiver of anticipation. “Leave without my permission,” but he made the last word sound dirty, as if asking permission could have been so much fun.

“Stop that, please. I’m working, or trying to.”

“I find that not only are you gone, but you have taken no food.”

“I fed this morning.”

“But tomorrow will come, ma petite.”

“Crispin is here.”

“Ah, yes, your little tiger.” He didn’t try to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

I ignored the sarcasm. “I took your call in the middle of a murder investigation.”

“I am so grateful that you could be bothered.”

It was way too petty for Jean-Claude, but there it was, his voice, his call. What the hell was going on? But one of the good things about Jean-Claude is I didn’t have to protect him from the horrors of my job. He’d seen worse, or close to it, in his centuries of life. So I told the truth. “I’ve just been to the morgue and seen what’s left of some of the Vegas PD’s finest. I don’t need to fight with you, on top of that.”

He sighed. The sound shivered through my mind, down my body as if he were right there, just behind me, whispering, touching.

I threw metaphysical shields in place, though shielding from my master wasn’t easy. He had the keys to my shields if he wanted to push it. Today, he let me wrap my shields and my anger around me. “What the fuck was that? I am trying to solve a multiple homicide. I do not need your mind games.”

“My apologies, ma petite. I think my feelings are hurt.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, voice still angry, but the rest of me was calming down. I wasn’t sure he’d ever said out loud that his feelings were hurt.

“It means, ma petite, that I thought we had made progress in our relationship, and I find that the ground we had gained is not as secure as I had thought.”

I said the truth, again. “I have no idea what you just said. I mean, I heard it, and it was English, but I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” I rested my forehead on the steering wheel, closing my eyes, and trying to breathe in the coolness of the air-conditioning. “But I feel sort of vaguely like I should apologize, anyway.”

He gave that wonderful laugh. The one that made my body react as if he’d touched way too intimate a part and fed me candy at the same time. His laugh wasn’t just about sex; it felt so good, it should have been fattening.

I sighed, but it was just a sigh. I couldn’t do his voice tricks. “Please, stop messing with me. God, Jean-Claude, I can’t work like this.”

He gave a more ordinary chuckle. “I think I needed to hear that you missed me.”

“How can you posssibly be insecure? That’s my job.”

“You make me insecure, ma petite, only you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, but I tried. “I’m sorry.”

“I know you mean that, and it does help.”

How did I get off the phone without hurting his feelings again? I had no clue. Shit. It wasn’t like him to call when I was off with the police. I hoped, desperately, that it didn’t become a habit.

I realized I was hunching over the steering wheel. I made myself sit up straight and avoid looking in Edward’s direction.

Jean-Claude’s voice, when it came again, was almost neutral. “When I woke and heard where you had gone, I was not idle. There is a swanmane in Las Vegas. The Swan King, Donovan Reece, has already offered him to be at your disposal for feeding if the need arises.”

“Thank Donovan for me, and I do appreicate that you’re willing to share me with yet one more man. I know we’ve talked about not adding any more.”

“It’s not the feeding, ma petite, it’s that you seem incapable of sex without emotion. If you could fuck and feed, then I would have no problem with a hundred lovers. Feed, then never see them again, but you collect men, ma petite. You can fuck a dozen men, but you cannot date them all.”

“I’m sort of aware of that,” I said.

“Are you?” There was that edge of anger again.

“I’m just not good at casual sex. I’m sorry.”

“No, you are not,” and the anger was a little more.

I didn’t know what to do with his anger, or this fight, so I ignored it. Men will let you do that sometimes in a relationship because they’re not girls. “I may need something not feline that is one of the beasts I carry inside me. I don’t carry swan.”

“I tell you that I am tired of sharing you with other men, and that you collect them, and you ask for more?”

He was going to be the girl. Great. Fucking great. “I promise when I get back to St. Louis, we can have this fight. I swear. But right now, help me survive this case.”

“And how may I do that?”

“The weretigers are a little too much sometimes because of how many different flavors I’ve got inside me.” I’d been attacked by one tiger, but carried five different metaphysical colors of them. No one had been able to explain how that had happened. “Did you happen to find any wolves I could borrow while I’m here?”

“No wolves; the local pack seems to fear that you will be a disrupting influence on them, ma petite.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that the news has gotten out that sex with you can be like a vampire’s bite. One taste and they belong to you.”

“That’s not true,” I said, but my pulse had sped.

“You lie to yourself, ma petite.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“You have not asked me to give up your pet name in many years.”

“It’s the way you’re saying it, like you’re angry and trying not to show it.”

“I am angry, because I am afraid for you. Vittorio was vicious in St. Louis, and it has been all over the news that three of their SWAT have been killed. They are not easily killed, your SWAT.”

What did I say to that? He was right. “I’m sorry I had to leave without talking to you first.”

“I hear true regret in that phrase. What would you have told me, if I had said it was too dangerous? What would you have done if I had said, do not go?”

I thought about that, then finally said, “I would have come anyway.”

“You see, you are not my servant. You will never be a servant.”

“I thought the idea was to make the vampire community think I was a good little human servant. I didn’t know you still thought I’d toe the line for you.” I had a little heat in my words, again. It was a trickle of anger to warm me. Of course, it was warm enough that anger might not be what I needed.

“That is not what I meant.”

“It’s what you said.”

He made a soft, exasperated sound. “Perhaps I am still fool enough to believe that you will truly be mine.”

“And what the hell does that mean?”

He was quiet for so long that it was unnerving. Vampires didn’t have to breathe on the phone, and only years of practice made me sure he was still there. I waited, and finally he spoke. “You need some of our people with you. You need your own leopard, and wolf, or lion.”

“I don’t have a lion of my own, yet.”

“Our local Rex would be yours if you would allow it.”

“Yeah, and his Regina would hunt me down and kill me. I’ve met her. She’s pissed I’m sleeping with him. If I make him my lion to call, she’ll see that as a challenge. I’m good, Jean-Claude, but I’m not good enough to win a fair fight with a werelion of her power.”

“Then do not fight fair,” he said.

“If I cheat, then by lion law others can gang up on me and kill me for that. I’ve studied up on it since I met the new Regina of the St. Louis clan. Trust me, Jean-Claude, I have thought about this.”

“Do you truly believe she would kill you if you had a stronger claim on her king?”

“Yep,” I said, “because she told me that she would share him. That I could be his mistress but not his wife. She was his wife.”

“You did not mention this to me.”

“It’s lions, not wolves. My animal, not yours.”

He sighed, and it wasn’t his teasing sigh, just tired. “Ma petite, ma petite, when will you learn that what is yours is mine. Any danger to you, I need to know.”

“I’ll tell you all my secrets when you tell me all yours,” I said.

“Touché, ma petite, a fine deep cut that one.” He was back to being angry.

“Why are you angry with me?” I asked.

“You are right, I am being childish, but I don’t know how to help you. I don’t know how to keep you safe in Vegas. Do you understand that, ma petite? I do not know how to keep you safe from Max and his queen. I cannot help you from hundreds of miles away. I cannot send you our guards because you have a badge, and the police will not let our guards guard you. What do you want me to do, ma petite? What the hell do you want me to do?” He was yelling now. He almost never yelled. His losing his temper helped me keep mine. I’d never heard him use the word hell before. In fact, hearing him that out of control let me know just how scared he was for me. That scared me.

“It’s okay, Jean-Claude, I’ll think of something. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what, Anita?” He never used my name; it was a very bad sign.

“I’m sorry that you’re afraid for me. I’m sorry that I’ve made you feel helpless. I’m sorry that I’m here, and you’re right, I can’t be a marshal and your human servant at the same time. I have to choose, and once the police are involved it means I have to choose the badge. Which may be exactly what Vittorio planned. I’m sorry that Edward may be right, and this is like the ultimate trap for me.”

Ma petite, I did not mean to lose my temper, but it is not just Vittorio that you need fear.”

“I know that being around the weretigers is going to test my ability to control the beasts inside me.”

“I fear so.”

“Is there anything you haven’t told me about Max or his tigers?”

“Shall I be coy, and say that you know all?”

“The truth would be nice.”

“Recently, Max wanted you to visit his city and sleep with more of his tigers. They want, very much, to see if the new psychic powers that Crispin and the red tiger, Alex, gained from you feeding the ardeur was a onetime thing or can be shared with others of their clan.”

“I’m not sure those were my powers at all. The Queen of All Darkness, Marmee Noir, possessed me for a couple of days. With the help of my inner wolf, I kept from being consumed by her, but I still think any extra powers that the tigers gained came from her, not me.”

“That may be, but Max and his queen would like to test the theory.”

“I thought they were afraid I’d take over any tiger I fed on and that he was pissed how devoted Crispin is to me?”

“All that is true, but in the last few weeks, Maximillian has asked for a visit, or to send tigers to you for feeding.”

“And you were going to tell me all this when?”

Ma petite, I am already sharing you with eight other men, or is it nine? You have enough food here in St. Louis; we do not need more in your bed. I do not really wish to add to your lovers.”

Just hearing him say it that way made me feel squeegy. “Do I apologize again?”

“No, for it is my ardeur that you carry. I cannot fault you for gaining my hunger.”

“Why do you think Max changed his mind about letting me have some more tigers?”

“I believe it is his wife, Bibiana. By the way, ma petite, knowing your sense of humor, I will caution you that only Max calls her Bibi. She is Bibiana, or Chang-Bibi.”

“You gave me this lecture before Max visited us last time. Chang, depending on pronunciation, is the name of a moon goddess. I won’t say it to her face, but it does make me dread meeting her a little to know that it’s not enough to be queen; her title has to mean goddess.”

“It is a traditional title, not one she chose, ma petite.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

“Okay, I’ll do my best not to use her husband’s nickname for her, if it’s like a serious faux pas.”

“It is. She is a very powerful weretiger, and she seeks more power. If she could have other tigers with the new ability that Crispin has, then it would be good for her clan.”

“He can call like static electricity, Jean-Claude; it’s like a little ouchy, but it’s not a weapon. It works best when he has metal to touch, so it’s really limited without metal around him.”

“Crispin is one of her weaker tigers. The tigers she offered to us recently were not so weak.”

“She’s hoping that if they’re more powerful shapeshifters, then their ability to do the lightning thing will be greater.”

“Oui.”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“I do not understand, ma petite.”

“Do you want me to avoid feeding on her tigers while I’m here?”

“What will you feed on, if not the tigers?”

“I’ve got the swanmane, thanks to you, and I can feed on anger now.”

“If you can avoid feeding on any but Crispin, I think that would be wise.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Of that, ma petite, I have no doubt.”

“Thanks.”

“It is the truth. I may not always enjoy your choices, and they are certainly not mine, but you always try your hardest and do your best. I do understand that, ma petite.”

“I’m sorry you don’t like the choices, but thanks for noticing that I’m trying.”

“You are welcome.”

“But if I do have to feed on other tigers, is it okay with you? I mean, will it affect the balance of power among the tiger clans if the white clan suddenly has this uber-version of Crispin’s power?”

“A wise question, ma petite, but I have a better one.”

“Shoot.”

“Would you truly sleep with strangers?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t met the strangers yet.”

He laughed then, and it had the first edge of that caressing energy. “So terribly you, that comment, ma petite.”

“Well, it’s the truth. If feeding off a few of his tigers will make Max and his wife happier with me and you, then it’s not a fate worse than, whatever.”

“You have always been practical, even ruthless, in violence, but this is the first hint I have had that you may be growing practical in the bedroom.”

“You aren’t here to keep me safe, so I’ll have to use what you’ve taught me to do it for you.”

“And what have I taught you, ma petite?”

“That sex is just another tool in the arsenal.”

“Do you believe that?” he asked.

“No, but you do.”

“Not with you, ma petite, never.”

“Not true; when we first met, you tried to seduce me.”

“All men try to seduce the women they want.”

“Maybe, but you did teach me that a little sex isn’t a fate worse than death.”

“Very wise, ma petite.”

“But cheer up, Jean-Claude, if the weretigers are involved in the murder, then maybe Max and his queen are part of the group that murdered the policemen. If I can prove them guilty, then I can kill them, legally, not as your human servant but as a U.S. Marshal.”

“We killed the Master of the City of Charleston and have put our own vampire in his place. If we slay another Master of the City, the vampire council could use it as an excuse to discipline us.”

“Discipline how?”

“We have enemies on the council, as you know.”

“I remember.”

“Also, Max and Bibiana’s death would leave a huge vacuum of power in Vegas,” he said.

“Is that our problem?” I asked.

“Not if you have no choice, and they have truly murdered all these police officers, but if we could avoid leaving such a vacuum of power, it would be better.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“But do not hesitate, ma petite. Do whatever you must to come back to me.”

“Count on it,” I said.

“I do. Would you, how do you say, frame Max and his queen?”

“No, but I might fudge a bit.”

“What does that mean in this context, ma petite?”

“It means that we might have enough proof to execute, then find out we were wrong. I’d still be in the clear legally.”

“Truly?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“Your warrants of execution can be very frightening documents, ma petite.”

“A license to murder is what one lawyer called it.”

“I will trust you to be as practical as you need to be, ma petite. I will find others to send to Vegas, for other business reasons.”

“What sort of other business?”

“There is always business to do, ma petite.”

“Like what?”

“Max has asked for some of our dancers to come and guest-star in his show.”

“Bear in mind that Vittorio may have had people watching me in St. Louis. He may know who’s special to me. Don’t give him hostages, Jean-Claude. So whomever you send, make sure they can handle it.”

“I will choose carefully, ma petite.”

“How soon will you get some of them here?”

“Tomorrow, at the latest.”

“Okay, but I’m going to push to see the tigers before nightfall. They live in a high-rise, so Max doesn’t have the underground to help him wake early like you do. I’m going to try to question the tigers while it’s just the queen. She’s his animal to call, which means separated by his daytime sleep, she’s not as powerful.”

“Do remember in chess, ma petite, that the queen is far more dangerous to your men than the king.”

It was my turn to laugh. “I never forget that a woman can be dangerous, Jean-Claude.”

“Sometimes you do forget that you are not the most dangerous woman in a room.”

“Are you saying I’m arrogant?”

“I am saying, the truth. Je t’aime, ma petite.”

“I love you, too.”

He hung up then, and I guess he was right. We were done, but it still felt like the conversation had gone badly, or like he hadn’t said everything he needed to say. I loved Jean-Claude, and Asher, but I missed my house. I missed living with Micah and Nathaniel in our house. I also missed my alone time with Jean-Claude. Asher, or someone, was always with us, because we finally realized we had a spy in our midst. Or maybe that was too harsh; we had gossip. Vampires love to gossip. You’d think living so long would make them great philosophers or scholars, and a few do that, but most are just people with very long lives, and they love a good rumor. So we had to make sure the rumor mill said that Jean-Claude was spending a lot of time with the men. Which meant that suddenly I was never alone with anyone. I liked, or loved, everyone, but a little alone time with them individually would have been nice. But how the hell do you date that many men and have any privacy? No clue. And forget me having alone time with myself; that just didn’t happen anymore. It was to the point that the only time I was alone was in the car going from one job to another. Things had to change, but I wasn’t sure how.

But for today, all I had to do was find a serial killer. I knew I needed to see a Wiccan priestess, and the queen of all the weretigers in Vegas, or excuse me, Chang of all the tigers. I needed to do the tigers before it got too dark. I had clear-cut goals and a time constraint. When a murder investigation this awful is simpler than my love life, something has gone horribly wrong. The problem was, how did I fix what had gone wrong, and exactly what was wrong? I just knew I wasn’t entirely happy, and neither were some of the men. I was beginning to realize that unhappiness might include Jean-Claude. Not good.

I got out of the car and watched the three men come toward me, their faces showing that they’d been arguing, too. Great, we could all be grumpy together.

22

EDWARD HAD BASICALLY been telling Olaf to stay the fuck away from me. Olaf had been telling him that unless he was fucking me, it was none of his business. Oddly, if Edward had been doing me, then Olaf would have accepted that I was off limits. Apparently, it had never occurred to Edward to lie about that. I was just as glad because I could never have pretended that. Not to mention that if the rumor got back to Donna, she’d be heartbroken, and their son, Edward’s stepson, Peter, would never forgive either Edward or me. It was all too weird and Freudian for me.

The good news was that the warrants would be coming soon. Edward had a fax number for the local police. “You really have worked Vegas before,” I said.

He nodded.

Something occurred to me that hadn’t before, and I felt stupid for not thinking of it sooner. “Did you know the local executioner?”

“Yes.” So, Edward, one word, simply yes.

I studied his face and knew that the sunglasses probably didn’t hide anything useful in his eyes, but… I had to ask. “Did you like him?”

“He was competent.”

“Not good, just competent,” I said.

“He had more rules than you and I do. It limited him.” His voice was utterly cool, no emotion.

“So, you’d met the dead operators, too?”

He shook his head. “Only Wizard.”

“Wizard?”

“Randy Sherman.”

I studied his face. “You just saw a man in the morgue who you knew, had worked with, and it didn’t…” I waved my hands, as if trying to grab the right word out of the air. “Didn’t it move you?” The question was inadequate, but it would have been too stupid to ask Edward if he cared.

“Only a woman would ask that,” Olaf said.

I nodded. “You’re absolutely right, but I am a woman, so I get to ask. It would bother me more to have looked at a man who I knew in there. It was bad enough as a stranger. I kept thinking about the SWAT guys I’d met earlier, and knew that all the dead in there had been just as tall, just as professional, just as vital, and now it was all gone.”

“You’d have cared more,” Edward said, “but it wouldn’t have stopped you from doing your job. Sometimes you work better when you’re upset.”

“Do I say thanks?”

“My reaction bothers you, I get that, Anita, but I’ve seen a lot of men die who I knew. After a while you either deal with it better or get a desk job. I don’t want a desk job.”

I wanted to yell at him. Yell that I knew he cared for Donna and the kids. I was pretty sure he even cared for me, but his lack of emotion about the men in the morgue reminded me that Edward was still a mystery to me, and maybe always would be.

“Don’t overthink it,” Bernardo said.

I turned to him, ready to be mad, because being mad at him would be easier than yelling at Edward. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re being a girl, and you need to be the guy I know is in there, or you’re going to weird yourself out about Ted here. You need to trust him, not doubt him now.”

“I do trust him.”

“Then let it go, Anita.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it, then turned back to Edward. “I’m not going to get this, am I?”

“No,” he said.

I did a pushing-away gesture. “Fine, fine, let’s do something useful.”

“When we serve the warrant, they’ll insist that SWAT go with us. They’re very serious about that here in Las Vegas.” His voice was still empty, as if his emotions hadn’t caught up wth him.

“We aren’t hunting them. We’re just gathering information. You and I both are pretty sure Max is too mainstream to approve of his people killing policemen.”

“One, if we’ve got a warrant in hand, SWAT goes with us in Vegas. They mean that. Two, Max is well connected, Anita, which means the local cops don’t want us walking in on his wife and family with a warrant of execution, and no one watching us.”

“Do they really think we’d just go in there and start shooting?” I asked.

Edward looked at me. It was the most emotion I’d seen on his face in the last few minutes.

“Is my rep that bad?” I asked.

Bernardo said, “Most of the police see us as bounty hunters with badges. Cops don’t like bounty hunters.”

“There are going to be things that I need to say that I can’t say in front of Grimes and his men,” I said.

“The lieutenant probably won’t be coming personally,” Edward said.

“You know what I mean, Edward.”

“We’ll see if we can distract them for you,” Edward said.

“If I am not allowed to hurt them,” Olaf said, “then I will not be good at distracting them.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

Bernardo grinned at me. “I’ll do my best, but I’m better at distracting the ladies.”

“I’ll see if I can get you some privacy,” Edward said, and frowned at both the other men.

“Hey,” Bernardo said, “I’m just being honest, but frankly I think the SWAT team is going to glue itself to Anita.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“Deputy Lorenzo is friends with the woman who works in the front office for their SWAT. Did you really do a one-arm curl of two hundred sixty pounds?”

I fought to give him full eye contact. “No.”

“Then what did you do?” he asked.

“A two-arm curl,” I said.

Edward and Olaf were looking at me now, too. “Why would you draw that much attention to yourself?” Edward asked.

“You’ve seen them, Edward; if you didn’t know me, would you let me serve a warrant with them?”

“You’re a U.S. Marshal, Anita. It’s our warrant. They’re backing us up.”

I shook my head. “I needed to prove to them that I could handle myself. The weights were right there. It seemed like the quickest way to settle it.”

“How did you explain that you could curl almost three times your own body weight without falling over or busting something?” He sounded disgusted.

“I don’t need this from you, Edward, Ted, whatever. You don’t know what’s it like to be the girl. To always have to prove yourself. You get tired of it.”

“What did you tell them?”

“The truth.”

He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “What does that mean?”

“That I’m carrying different kinds of lycanthropy. Grimes had read my file, Edward, it’s in there now. The Philadelphia police outed me when I ended up surviving and healing after having my skull cracked.”

“You don’t have a scar,” he said.

“No, I don’t, just like I don’t have a scar from the weretiger attack in St. Louis. You’ve seen Peter’s scars from the same beastie. It gutted me, remember?” I pulled my shirt out of my pants enough to flash my smooth, untouched stomach. “I can’t play human anymore, Edward.”

23

BERNARDO AND OLAF both moved away a little, as if the emotion were too much for them, or they were leaving the hysterical woman to Edward. There was more than one reason he was the unofficial leader. When you do the hard things, you get to call the shots.

He looked at me for a moment, then asked, “Are you all right?”

It was such a weird thing to ask that I wasn’t angry, just puzzled. “What the hell does that mean?”

“It means what I said. You seem on edge.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I’ve got a serial killer mailing me body parts. I had Lieutenant Grimes actually ask me if I was Jean-Claude’s human servant. My blood test alone should have gotten my badge yanked, but no one’s come to talk to me about it. I’ve been living with Jean-Claude and the guys at the Circus for months, and I miss my house. I miss my stuff. I miss being alone with Nathaniel and Micah. I miss being alone with anybody. There are too many damn men in my life, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

“You don’t want dating advice from me, Anita.”

That made me smile, in spite of myself. “I guess not.”

“But you aren’t the only preternatural branch marshal who’s been attacked on the job. I think unless you actually shift and they could prove you a danger in court, they aren’t going to bitch. I think they’re afraid of getting sued, workman’s comp or something like that. They certainly don’t want the first of us in court fighting to keep their badge to be you.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“You’re a woman. You’re pretty. You’re petite. You’d look like the poster child for being picked on by the big bad government.”

I frowned at him. “I’m no one’s victim, Edward.”

“I know that, and you know that, but the media won’t know that.”

“So you’re saying that if I were a man, they’d have asked for my badge by now?”

“Not necessarily, but being a girl helps you here; don’t begrudge that.”

I shook my head. “Fine, fine, whatever, fuck it. Do you really think that SWAT will insist on coming with us?”

“If we’re serving an active warrant, yes.”

“Well, then a trip to the tigers is almost useless. I can’t talk freely enough in front of them.”

“We can see the priestess first, but you’re not going to avoid Grimes and his men.”

“Damn it.”

“Most of the time it’s nice to have that much extra firepower and technology behind us. Just for you, me, Otto, we can do and say things on our own that we don’t want SWAT to see or hear. You for all the secrets, and us for practical solutions.”

“I’m pretty practical myself, Edward.”

Ted, Anita; you need to work on that and use the right name.”

“Fine, Ted, I do my share of practical solutions.” I took a deep breath in and blew it out, slowly. “We can see the priestess while we’re waiting for the warrants. It’ll give me the illusion we’re doing something useful.”

Bernardo and Olaf had sidled back over. The fact that I hadn’t realized they were within hearing distance said I was a lot more distracted than was good for my job.

“You sound bummed, babe, did your undead boyfriend not come through for you?” Bernardo said.

“Do not call me babe, or any other term of endearment, okay?”

Bernardo spread his hands, as if to say, Fine.

“Did your vampire lover disappoint you?” Olaf asked, and whereas it had been pure teasing with Bernardo, Olaf made it sound way too serious.

“My relationship with Jean-Claude is none of your business.”

He just looked at me, and even through sunglasses I could feel his stare, heavy and uncomfortable.

“What?” I demanded.

Edward stepped between us, literally blocking my view of the other man. “Drop it, Anita. We’ll go see Sherman’s priestess; by then the warrants will be up. We’ll deal with our police escort when the time comes.”

I realized that Edward probably needed to know some of the potential problems with the weretigers. But I didn’t owe the other two men the explanation. “We need to talk, Edward,” I said.

“Talk,” he said.

“In private.”

“You just had a private discussion,” Bernardo said.

“No, I got upset, and both of you bailed on the hysterical woman, and left Ed… Ted to deal with me. Now I need to tell him things that really are private.”

“We are your backup; don’t we need to know what’s going on?” Bernardo said.

“I’ll tell… Ted, and then if he thinks you need to know, I’ll tell you.”

They didn’t like it, but when they got to sit in the car with the air-conditioning, Bernardo liked it better. Olaf went because he had no choice, but he didn’t like it.

When we were alone in the pounding, bright heat of the Vegas desert, I told Edward. I told him about Max and his queen wanting me to sleep with their tigers. I told him about accidentally giving powers to Crispin.

Edward took off his hat, wiped the area of the sweat band, and settled the hat back on his head. “You do have the most interesting problems.”

“Is that a complaint?”

“Just an observation.”

“You know everything I know now; do we need to tell the other two?”

“Some of it.”

“I’ll let you tell as much, or as little, as you think we need.”

“What if I tell them all of it?”

“If you think that’s best; I trust your judgment.”

He nodded, and started for the car. “Let’s get out of the heat, and I’ll tell them something while we go see a witch.”

“She’s a Wiccan high priestess; not all Wiccans like to be called witches.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“You already know that,” I said.

He smiled at me. “You know, if we really were sleeping together, Olaf would back off.”

I gave him the look the comment deserved. “You aren’t serious?”

“About doing it for real, no. Donna would never forgive either of us, and it would destroy Peter. Besides, it would just be…” He made a waffling motion with his hand. “Wrong.”

“Like doing family,” I said.

He nodded. “Something like that. It’s not what we are to each other.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“How close are you to this tiger Crispin?”

“Biblical,” I said.

He smiled and shook his head. “Is he dominant or weak?”

“Weak.”

“That won’t make Olaf back off. It’s got to be someone that Olaf can respect.”

“Can’t help you there. Wait, he knows I’m doing Jean-Claude and Micah and Nathaniel. Are you saying none of them measure up to his standards, but you would?”

“He doesn’t respect any man he thinks might be gay, Anita.”

“Yeah, Otto is an all-around prejudiced bastard. But they’re all doing me, regardless of who else they’re doing; that makes them like girls?”

“Otto is like a lot of people; bisexual is still gay, if you’re doing guy-on-guy.” He grinned suddenly, and it was pure Ted Forrester. “Of course, girl-on-girl is just one guy away from a fantasy.”

“Please, don’t tell me you think that’s true?”

His grin softened around the edges, and the real Edward leaked into his face, even around the sunglasses. “I have to be Ted while we’re here, Anita. We’ve got too many cops around to be myself.” The grin came back, wide and good ol’ boy. “And Ted thinks that lesbian means you just haven’t met the right man.”

“I’d like to introduce Ted to my friend Sylvie and her partner. Trust me, neither one of them thinks they need a man in their life, not in any way.”

“We good ol’ boys need our illusions, Anita.” We were almost to the car.

I spoke low. “You’re about as much a good ol’ boy as I am… Ted.”

“I’ll have to be Ted if SWAT is with us, Anita.”

I stared at him. “Shit.”

He nodded. “You aren’t the only one who has to be careful with an audience.”

“When having police around makes you have to lie all the time, Edward, maybe we aren’t the good guys?”

He opened the passenger door for me, which he never did. I let him, for Olaf’s sake, but it bugged me. Edward leaned close and whispered in my ear so that Olaf would think he was whispering sweet nothings, but what he actually said, was, “We aren’t the good guys, Anita. We’re the necessary guys.”

I settled into the seat, with Olaf and Bernardo wondering what Edward had said to me. I couldn’t make my face match his smiling one. I couldn’t play along that he’d whispered something naughty in my ear. I could only sit and let my sunglasses hide my eyes and help me lie to the people who were supposed to be helping me.

I was lying to the police, lying to my backup; the only person I wasn’t lying to was Edward. Funny how that was usually the case when we worked together. He explained that the weretigers’ queen might try to fix me up with some of her people in a bid to bind themselves closer to Jean-Claude’s power base. True, as far as it went. I just stared ahead and kept the glasses on.

Edward turned in his seat so he could see both men better. He started by explaining to all of us. “I arranged for the warrant to be dropped off here, at the coroner’s parking lot. We can chat while we wait.”

“Chat?” Olaf said, suspicion plain in his voice.

Then Edward started in with no preamble, just straight to the point. “Anita has a lover among the weretigers. He’ll probably be friendly to her, so let him.”

“How friendly?” Bernardo asked.

I laughed, I couldn’t help it. “Let’s just say that Crispin is a little… eager.”

“How eager?” Olaf asked, and he didn’t sound happy at all.

I turned in the seat so I could see them both. “You guys know I need to feed the ardeur; well, Crispin will probably be my food either tonight or tomorrow morning.”

“Feed, how?” Olaf asked.

“Sex, Olaf, I’ll feed during sex.”

“So the rumors are true-you really are a succubus, then?” Bernardo said.

“Yeah, I guess I am.”

“You don’t have to go to the monsters to feed,” Olaf said.

“I’ve fed on Crispin before, so he knows what to expect.”

“I would be happy to help,” Bernardo said.

“No,” Olaf said, “if she feeds on any of us, it will be me.”

I shook my head. “I know your idea of sex, Olaf; I don’t think I’d survive long enough to feed.”

“For you, I would try.”

I stared at his sunglass-covered eyes with my own. I tried to see past that impassive face. I understood that he had offered me sex, just sex, not violence, and that for him, that was almost unheard of. It was a positive step for Olaf, but I so did not want to be that step.

I looked at Edward for some help.

“You’d really just have sex with Anita, not tie her up or cut her up?”

Olaf nodded. “I would try.”

Edward licked his lips, a sign of nervousness, though in this heat, maybe not. “I didn’t think you thought of sex without the violence.”

“For her, I would try,” he repeated.

“Edward,” I said, “help me out here.”

“It’s a big step for him, Anita. You have no idea how big.”

“I have some idea, but…”

Edward lowered his glasses enough to give me his eyes, and those eyes told me something. They told me to be careful and not blow this. It took me a second, then I realized he was right. It was a hell of a lot better that Olaf wanted “normal” sex than to go all serial killer on my ass. It was a lesser evil, so I tried to say something that wouldn’t crush his attempt at being better.

“I don’t know what to say to that Olaf. I’m… flattered and entirely creeped all at the same time.” Mostly, in truth, I was just freaked, but I didn’t want him to think that I rejected his idea that sex could be about something other than death. I mean, maybe if he thought that about me, he might find someone else whom he could actually have a relationshp with. Too weird, too entirely weird, that Olaf might be salvageable. But who the hell would I trust in his bed? Who the hell would I risk, on the chance that he might not go apeshit on her? There were no good answers here, just strange ones. I had that feeling of falling down the rabbit hole, except there’d never been serial killers in Alice in Wonderland, though I guess you could make a case for the Queen of Hearts. Off with their heads!

24

I FILLED UP the awkward silence by asking Edward questions about his last time in Vegas, and what he knew about the men on SWAT here. It was only minutes later that a big SUV pulled into the parking lot. I caught the green uniforms on broad shoulders before I noticed exactly what faces went with the shoulders.

“Don’t uniforms or flunkies deliver warrants in Vegas just like everywhere else?” I asked.

“Did I mention that I vanished on them last time I was here?” Edward asked.

I glared at him. “So this is your fault, not mine.”

“Oh, I think we’ll share.”

Warrants were usually delivered by whomever they could spare. Instead, it was Sergeant Hooper and one of the practitioners. The moment I saw them, I knew Edward had been right; they weren’t going to let us serve the warrant on our own. Crap. Hooper was all serious. The practitioner with him seemed more relaxed. This was the one with brown hair so curly that even the short haircut couldn’t hide the fact. What was his name? Spider, that was it. If Santa could tell if you were naughty or nice, and Cannibal could eat you, what the hell did Spider do? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

We all got out of our trucks and walked toward each other. They were both still in their green uniforms, black boots, no concession to the weather. I wondered what it would have to do in Vegas for them to add to or subtract from their wardrobe.

“Sergeant,” Edward said, in his Ted voice, managing to put more positive emotion in one word than in most conversations. He walked forward, smiling, hand out.

Hooper took the hand and almost smiled. “Ted.”

Edward turned to the other operator. “Spider.”

“Ted.”

Edward introduced Olaf and Bernardo. Handshakes all around. I joined the ritual, wordlessly, though Spider and Hooper both said, “Anita,” as we shook. Edward had explained that not everyone got nicknames; some just used their first names, like Sanchez, whose first name turned out to actually be Arrio.

I hadn’t asked Edward what Spider’s talent was, but I would when we had some privacy. If we ever had privacy in Vegas again. I was beginning to worry that Bernardo had been right, and SWAT was going to be our new best buddies.

“We thought we’d bring the warrant personally, Ted,” Hooper said. He smiled then. “Wouldn’t want another misunderstanding.”

Ted did an oh-shucks shrug. “It was my first time in Vegas; sorry about the confusion on where we were meeting up, but once the vampire showed up, there wasn’t time to call you guys.”

“Right,” Hooper said, not like he believed it, really.

“All the marshals in your department have a reputation for being the Lone Ranger,” Spider said.

“He was a Texas Ranger, not a U.S. Marshal,” I said.

Spider frowned at me. “What?”

“The Lone Ranger was a Texas Ranger, not a marshal.”

Spider smiled, shaking his head. “Okay, I’ll try to be more precise.”

That’s it, Anita, correct the man’s conversation, that’ll win him over. I couldn’t apologize-one, I hadn’t really done anything wrong; two, apologizing would draw attention to the fact that I’d been awkward. In man land, the less said, the better. If Spider had been a woman I’d have needed to say something placating, but one plus to working with men was that they didn’t expect, or want, that. I’d been working with so many more men than women for so long, I was actually getting a little rusty on girl talk. I’d had several female clients complain that I was abrupt.

Ted was reading the warrant over. He handed it to me, and I knew that he hadn’t liked something in it. Now that the warrants were all federal and run through DPEA, pronounced Dopa by our friends and Dopey by our not-so-friends, you didn’t have to sweat different judges and wording as much, but… there were still different people giving them out.

I stood in the heat between the two cars and read. Edward read over my shoulder, waiting for me to get to whatever bothered him. Olaf and Bernardo waited, as if they didn’t need to read it.

The warrant was broad in its wording, like usual, then I got to the part I didn’t like. “The warrant covers the lycanthrope that killed your operators, but specifically excludes weretigers.” I looked up at Hooper and Spider. “I’ve never had a federal warrant that took into consideration local politics before. Your Master of the City has some serious pull in Washington.”

Hooper’s face was unreadable. Spider’s face was still pleasant in a neutral sort of way, and I realized that was his version of blank cop face.

“Apparently,” Hooper said, “but the warrant covers the damage to Wizard. That’s proven shapeshifter death. You wanted the weretigers included because you smelled tiger on the body. No one’s going to give you a warrant to target the Master Vampire of Vegas’s wife and sons just because you said you smelled tiger.”

I nodded. “Okay, fair enough. Even if I were a full-blown wereanimal, my sense of smell wouldn’t be admissible in court. But it’s another thing to exempt the tigers from the search warrant.” I folded the warrant up and Edward put it in the pocket of his navy windbreaker that had U.S. Marshal in big letters on it. I’d left my windbreaker at home. Vegas was almost too hot for clothes; coats were out, well, until it got dark. Deserts can get cold at night; weird, but true.

“The warrants from DPEA are pretty broad, Anita. I think they were afraid what we might do with it. Your reputation, all of you, is pretty high on the kill count, and we’ve just lost three of our own. They trust us to back you guys up, and maybe to be a civilizing influence.” He took a breath deep enough that it raised all that chest and fluffed out the gray mustache. “I think the powers that be are afraid we might not be so civilized under the circumstances.”

“You guys have all been very controlled since I’ve been here. They should have trusted you.”

“Control is what we do, Anita, but trust me, it’s not easy on this one.”

“It’s never easy when you lose your own,” Ted said.

We all had a moment of remembering. Not the same losses, or the same dead friends, but we all had names, faces, that would never come through a door again. They talk about moments of silence for the dead, but when you have enough of them behind you, you do it automatically.

“You’re taking this well, Anita,” Spider said.

“You sound like you expected me not to.”

“I did.”

“Why?”

“Some people said you had a temper, especially if you didn’t get your own way.”

“I have a temper, but not about stuff like this. If you got a warrant on the tigers because of the smell, it might not hold up in court later. We don’t want to kill upstanding wereanimals of Vegas on a bad-faith warrant, now do we?”

“No, we do not,” he said.

I sighed again. “But now you’ve put me in an awkward situation. I have a badge but no warrant for the tigers, so they can keep me out of their home, badge or no badge.”

He nodded. “True.”

Then I had an idea, a good idea, an almost happy idea. “Serving this warrant won’t get us in to see the tigers.”

“No,” Hooper said.

“This means I’m going to have to charm my way in and not flash the badge. That means that I’ll be going in not as a U.S. Marshal.”

“What does that mean?” Spider asked.

“It means that as the girlfriend of the Master of the City of St. Louis, I can ask for an audience with Max’s wife, and I’ll probably get it.”

“On what grounds?” Hooper asked.

“On the grounds that Max’s wife, Bibiana, would expect me to visit her before I left town. It would be a courtesy that if skipped would be a grave insult. I wouldn’t want to insult the Chang of your local weretigers, now would I?”

Hooper was studying my face. “I guess not.”

“Without a warrant, all you can do is ask questions,” Spider said, “no hunting.”

“Trust me, guys, I don’t want to throw down the gauntlet to Max and his crew while I’m here. I think if it was one of their tigers, they’d be eager to help solve this; they’re mainstream monsters. Killing cops is bad for business.”

Hooper was getting his cell phone out. “We’ll have everyone else meet us at Max’s place,” Hooper said.

“Hooper, if we can’t go in there as marshals, and I have to make this a girlfriend coffee klatch, then I sure as hell can’t take in a tactical assault team. Without a warrant, you guys are not getting in the door. Hell, I’ll be lucky to get Ted and me through the door.”

“And me,” Olaf said.

Bernardo raised his hand and said, “Oh, pick me, pick me.” Then he gave me a look so unhappy that I wondered what I’d done wrong now, but I just didn’t care enough to ask. Maybe I’d care later, or maybe I wouldn’t.

“Ted?” I made it a question.

“I’d feel better if all the marshals went in, but I don’t know how the tigers will feel about that.”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable going in by myself, to be honest.” As soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have. One, it sounded weak; two, I wasn’t sure how to explain my real reasons for being nervous around the weretigers with Shaw.

The two operators gave me serious faces. Hooper said, “We heard about the weretiger attack in St. Louis.”

I realized that he’d take that as a reason why I shook my head. I jumped on it. “Yeah, getting cut up by an animal will make you a little leery of them.”

“We’ll go in with you, Anita.”

“There is no way that Max’s security will let me take you guys inside their home on a social visit. I’m sorry, you guys are just too much what you are.”

I wasn’t sure that made sense, but they accepted it, or understood it.

“I’ll still call ahead. We’ll wait for you in the parking lot. You give the signal that you’re in danger, and we’re allowed to go in and save your asses.”

“Why, Hooper, you did read the standard clauses in the warrant, didn’t you?”

Hooper’s mouth gave a tight, unpleasant smile. It was close to the one I had, and Ted had. It was not a good look to have aimed at you, but he didn’t mean to aim it at me; he was thinking about the people who killed his friends. “It’s Sonny, Anita, and I did read it. You, meaning the marshals, are allowed to use all force up to and including deadly, if you feel that you or a civilian are in imminent and life-threatening danger. It further allows any officers who are with you, or acting in a backup capacity, to use any and all force to protect your lives and the lives of any civilians.”

I nodded. “They added that last bit after a pair of vampire hunters got killed, and the police with them defended themselves, saved the human hostages, but ended up on trial. They were acquitted, but it was a mess.”

“It’s one of the things that led to DPEA,” Hooper, I mean Sonny, said.

“Yes, so if we’re attacked, then legally we’re in the clear because we can make a case for the dead lycanthrope being in league with the rogue on our warrant. Hell, Sonny, it’s Nevada, you still have varmint laws on the books.”

“I wouldn’t want to be quoting varmint laws if we have to shoot Max’s entire family.”

“Me either, but if they throw down first, legally we won’t have broken any laws.”

“Is it true that you don’t even have to have a hearing after you shoot someone?” Spider asked.

“There’s more paperwork now that we’re federal officers, officially, but no, no lawyers, no hearings, nothing really. But then if they tied us all up in legalities, who would do all the monster slaying?”

“So, really,” he said, “excluding the weretigers from the warrant doesn’t keep them safe if they start the fight with you guys?”

“Not really,” I said.

“If they start the fight, we’ll help you finish it,” Sonny said, “but make damn sure they start it, because you may get out of jail free with your federal badge, but we live here.”

“I give you my word, if this all goes up in flames, we won’t have started it.”

He studied my face-they both did-and then Sonny nodded, as if he’d decided something. He offered me his hand. I took it. “Shake on it.”

We shook on it, and Sonny was old enough and guy enough that the handshake meant more than it would have to, say, Spider or Bernardo-or maybe Vegas Metro SWAT was all like this. Your word meant something, and you could still pledge your life to someone’s decision with just a handshake. It was like an echo of a time when words like loyalty and honor really meant something. Since they still meant something to me, that was just dandy.

25

I MADE TWO calls from the car as Edward drove us out of the industrial/ business area where the coroner’s office was located, through businesses that were Anywhere, USA. One was to Chang-Bibi, to the personal line that Max had made sure Jean-Claude had. A cultured female voice answered on the first ring. I said, “Chang-Bibi, this is Anita Blake…”

“Anita Blake, we are glad that you have called, but I am not Chang-Bibi. My name is Ava; I am Chang-Bibi’s administrative assistant.”

“Sorry, I thought this was the private number.”

“It is, but”-she made a small laugh-“a queen does not answer her own phone.”

Oh. “Sure,” I said, “my mistake. I’m in Vegas, and I was wanting to speak with Bibiana.”

“We are aware of the tragedy that has befallen our police. Is this official police business, Marshal Blake?”

“I would like to talk to you all about the murders, yes.”

“Is this official police business, Marshal Blake?” she asked again, in a voice that was a little less pleasant.

“I am in Vegas on official police business, yes,” I said.

“Do you have a warrant that forces us to let you into our home or business establishments?”

I hated to say it, but… “No, I don’t.”

“Then it’s a social call,” and her voice was much happier.

“Yes, from one master’s… mate to another,” I said.

“Then Chang-Bibi will be happy to receive you.”

“I do need to talk to her about the murders, though, in an unofficial capacity.”

“You are extending us the courtesy of speaking off the record to us?” Ava asked.

“I’m trying to.”

“I will explain that to Chang-Bibi.” The way she said it made it sound like Bibiana might have trouble with the concept.

“Thank you, Ava,” I said.

“My pleasure, Anita. Chang-Bibi will prepare a welcome for you. We hoped you would visit us, if you had time in all your crime-fighting.”

“What kind of welcome is she preparing?” I asked, and I couldn’t keep the suspicion out of my voice. Years of hanging out with shapeshifters had taught me that their society could have some odd ideas on welcoming guests.

Ava laughed again. “Now, now, that would spoil the surprise.”

“I don’t really like surprises,” I said.

“But Chang-Bibi does, and you are visiting her house and asking for her help.”

“Maybe I’m offering to help her.”

“Are you?”

“I could have come with a warrant, but I’m not,” I said.

“You could not get a warrant on the evidence of smelling weretiger, Anita,” and there was nothing friendly in the voice now.

“You have a mole in the department, or is your spy more federal?” I said.

“We have our sources.”

“Fine, I couldn’t get a warrant, but I still need to talk to the weretigers.”

“Our clan did not do this.”

“Of course not.”

“You do not believe we are innocent.”

“I believe everyone is guilty of something; it saves time.”

She laughed again. “I will go and help prepare. I assume you are coming alone, since this is a social visit of one master’s mate to another.” There was the slightest edge of humor, as if she knew she was making fun of me.

“Actually I have some other U.S. Marshals with me.”

“Now, Anita, that’s not very friendly.”

“I’m allowed attendants when I visit another Master of the City; in fact, denying my attendants entrance would be a grave insult.”

“Oh, good,” Ava said, “you do know how to play the game. Some of the younger, human wives don’t understand the old rules.”

I didn’t correct her on the “wives” comment. If they treated me like a wife, I’d have more status, and it wasn’t like I could ever “divorce” Jean-Claude. Vampire marks between servant and master were a hell of a lot more binding than any legal document. “Jean-Claude made sure I’d be able to do proper honor if I visit Chang-Bibiana.”

“How many of your attendants have guns and badges?”

“By the rules of hospitality, I’m allowed security.”

“But only two, on a surprise visit. Beyond that you must have another purpose for them. Are there more than two bodyguards with you?” Again, I heard that hint of laughter in her voice. But I’d been laughed at by better and scarier than Ava.

“Jean-Claude is Belle Morte’s line, so I’m allowed food.”

“Chang-Bibi is eager to supply all your needs.” Was it my imagination, or did she sound a little angry about that? Hmm.

“I appreciate the hospitality, and I will avail myself of the Chang’s generosity before I leave your fair city, but since I didn’t expect to have time in the middle of a murder investigation to visit you today, I brought my own snack.”

“So, you have two guards and one pomme de sang?”

“Not a pomme de sang, just a lover.”

“They say your pomme de sang is another vampire, is that true?”

She was referring to London, who was a vampire, and one of Belle Morte’s sex-oriented line, but his gift was to be the ultimate snacky-bit for someone with the ardeur like me or Jean-Claude. The only upside to it was that London gained power from the feeding and wasn’t exhausted by it. I just wish I liked him better. Good lover, bad boyfriend, if you know what I mean. “I haven’t given the title to anyone officially yet,” I said.

“We heard that you had, but now he seems to be your leopard to call. Nathaniel, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t stop my pulse from racing. I knew all the masters spied on everyone-hell, I knew Jean-Claude had his own network-but it was still unnerving to hear it.

“Yeah.” I hoped I wasn’t giving away any state secrets. I mean it was pretty well known, wasn’t it? Oh, hell.

“You have how many animals to call now, Anita?”

I really didn’t like the way this conversation was going. I wasn’t sure how much was general knowledge, how much their spies had discovered, or how much would be really bad to share with them. I had to get off the phone. “I’ll play twenty questions with Chang-Bibiana, but not with her assistant.” Yeah, it was rude, but it did the trick.

“Then, by all means, come ahead, Anita. Come talk to our queen. I’m sure her questions will be much more interesting than mine.” She hung up. Yeah, she was mad.

I couldn’t apologize. I guess we just both had to live with it. I hoped I wouldn’t regret pissing her off later. I got off the phone to find we were on the edge of not being in Kansas anymore.

The first hint was wedding chapels scattered alongside the more ordinary stores. Most of the chapels looked tired, and more depressing than romantic, but maybe that was just me. I’m not big on weddings.

Then there was Bonanza, the largest gift store in the world. One building that took up most of one block. It’s the kind of place you stop on family vacations. There was a huge empty lot, with a sign leaning by it that read ontier. I realized they’d demolished the Frontier. That big cowboy that you see in all the movies was no more. The Vegas Hilton sat across the road from another empty lot that was under construction.

Edward said, “Vegas doesn’t save its history; it demolishes and builds on top of it.”

“How many times have you been here?” I asked.

“Only once as a marshal,” he said.

“On other business?” I asked.

“None of your business.”

I knew that was all I would get on the subject, so I let it go.

Circus Circus loomed up on the right-hand side; it looked sort of tired in the bright sunlight, like a carnival that’s been in one place too long. The Riviera was across the street, then more open space where something else had been torn down. Signs for the Encore were next, but it wasn’t there yet. Then something called the Wynn that looked too tall and too modern for the rest of Vegas, though it had a huge billboard where an animated pixie was pushing words on a huge moving screen. It was a commercial for the Wynn. Suddenly there were moving, brilliant billboards every few feet, or so it felt. In daylight they were eye-catching; I wondered what they looked like at night. An odd collection of shapes across the street turned out to be the Fashion Show Mall. The building was ugly; it made me fear for the choice of stores. Then there were casinoes in fast profusion: on the left side the Palazzo, the elegance of the Venetian, right across the street from Treasure Island with its huge pirate ship out front; Casino Royale, Harrah’s, and then across from that was the Mirage and Caesars Palace. Caesars was huge and took up a big chunk of real estate. The Bellagio looked elegant, too, as we drove past, then across the street was Paris, complete with a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower and a huge fake hot-air balloon, but it was still dwarfed by the tower, even though I knew it was smaller than the real thing. There was huge construction and a sign that read CityCenter, then the Monte Carlo, which seemed tired, then New York New York, with a miniature version of the Manhattan skyline rising above little shops and restaurants. There was nothing tired about New York New York. The MGM Grand was across the street, and it looked upbeat, as well. The Tropicana sat beside it, then the Excalibur. Edward got stopped at the stoplight, so I had time to read that the Excalibur boasted three shows: Tournament of Champions, with knights and jousting; the comic Louie Anderson; and Thunder from Down Under, which was male strippers. Apparently, you could take the kids to see the jousting, Dad could see the comic, and Mom could go have beefcake. It was very well-rounded entertainment-wise compared to the mostly girlie-oriented shows that most places were boasting. Though there had been more comics, and Cirque du Soleil seemed to have more different shows at different places than anybody. The Luxor, the big pyramid with a Sphinx out front, was next. Across the street from faux Egypt was faux India. It was the New Taj, which was Max’s casino, hotel, and resort. The building was obviously based on the Taj Mahal, but there were white stone sculptures of animals scattered throughout the lush jungle-like landscaping. There were monkeys and an elephant and birds I couldn’t recognize in white, but there were a lot of tigers peeking out and strolling among the rest. The statues were actually almost unnervingly lifelike. Well, I guess they’d had real-life models to work from.

The moving billboard out in front of the Taj boasted a magic act with more of the real-life version of the animals, and two revues. One was beefy-looking men, and I recognized one of the faces, though I was thankful that most of him was hidden behind the other men. The other show was all girls. Max was trying to maximize his resort’s appeal as well.

Edward didn’t pull into the circular driveway but went past it to a smaller, less landscaped road. I saw signs that promised a parking garage. I guess we weren’t going to valet.

“The first time you see it, you either think it’s gaudy and awful, or you love it. There’s almost no halfway about this town,” Edward said.

I realized he’d kept quiet so I could enjoy the view. “It’s like Disneyland on crack, for grown-ups,” I said.

“You’re not going to hate it,” he said.

“They don’t call it Sin City for nothing,” Bernardo said.

I turned and looked at him as Edward slid into the shade of the parking garage. “Have you been here before, too?”

“Yeah, but not on business.”

I was debating on asking him what he had come for, and if I’d like the answer, but Edward said, “You sound like you’ve acted as Jean-Claude’s representative before.”

“This is the first time doing it without more help from home.” The ceilings always seem low to me in parking structures when I’m in an SUV.

“Who will play your lover?” Olaf asked it. I should have known he would.

“You didn’t behave yourself well enough at the coroner’s. I don’t trust you to be able to play the part in the way I need.”

“Tell me what you need,” he said.

I glanced at Edward, but his eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses, and he didn’t look my way. I wanted to call him a coward, but that wasn’t it. I think, for once, he was as confused about how to handle the situation with Olaf as I was. Not good when Edward is out of his depth with his serial killer playmates.

“Hold that thought,” I said, and I dialed the only other number in Vegas that I had programmed into my phone. It was the man whose face I’d recognized on the billboard.

26

CRISPIN ANSWERED THE phone on the second ring; his voice still held that edge of sleep, but it was a happy edge. He worked nights, so his sleep pattern was close to mine. “Anita,” and that one word was way happier than it should have been.

“How did you know it was me?”

“I programmed a song for you, so I know it’s you.” I heard the sheets roll as he turned.

Was I the only person who didn’t know how to program my own damn phone? “I’m about to park in the garage at the New Taj.”

I heard the heavy slither of sheets across skin. Was he sitting up? “Right now?”

“Yes, I should have called you sooner, I’m sorry. I got distracted by the pretty lights.”

“Crap, Anita,” Crispin said, and I heard other noises on his end of the phone.

“You sound worried,” I said. “Why?”

“Chang-Bibi is my queen, but I’m your tiger to call.”

“Do I apologize for that again?”

There were more noises, and I realized he was getting dressed. “No, I’d just rather you let me move in with you, or at least move to St. Louis, but we’ll have that talk some other time.”

“You sound freaked, Crispin. What is wrong?”

Edward pulled into a spot, and Hooper’s SUV drove past ours, looking for his own parking spot.

“Let’s just say that there are guests here that Chang-Bibi wants you to meet, and you’ll want me within touching distance.”

“Don’t make me ask why again, Crispin.”

“Other tigers from other clans, Anita. They want to know if you can bring their powers online, too.”

“I’m not coming to feed the ardeur, Crispin, just to talk about the murders.”

“If Max were awake, that’s what you’d talk about. He’s business, but Chang-Bibi may think first about the tigers, second about business.”

“Are you actually saying that she wants me to… do some of the tigers before she’ll talk business?”

The phone fell, hit something, and made me take it away from my ear. He came back on, “Dropped the phone, Anita, sorry. I’ll meet you downstairs in the casino before you meet anyone else.”

“If you do that, won’t Bibiana question your loyalties?”

“Maybe, but I don’t want you meeting the new tigers without me.”

“Jealous?” I asked, and probably shouldn’t have.

“Yes,” he said, and that was Crispin. He didn’t play, really. If he felt something, he told you. It made him very uncomfortable to deal with sometimes.

“Do I apologize for that, too?” I asked, and my voice was less than friendly.

“If you didn’t want the truth, you shouldn’t have asked,” and now he didn’t sound happy. When we first met, I’d thought Crispin was uncomplicated, and just about sex and food. I’d learned different. It was like I couldn’t be attracted to a man who wasn’t difficult in some way.

“You’re right; if I didn’t want the truth, I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry.”

He was quiet for a few breaths, then said, “Apology accepted.”

“Get off the phone, Anita. We need to talk before we get there,” Edward said. He’d turned the engine off, and we sat in silence as the air-conditioning died away.

“Crispin, I’ve got to go,” I said into the phone.

“I’ll see you downstairs in the casino.”

“Will this get you in trouble with your clan?” I asked.

“I don’t care,” he said, and he hung up. He was twenty-one, barely, and most of the time he seemed younger. This was one of those times. I knew how harsh some of the wereanimal groups could be if you didn’t follow orders. Crispin might not care now, but the weretigers could make him care. They could make him care a lot.

“Crispin will meet us in the casino downstairs. He says Chang-Bibi may try to fix me up with some new tigers before she’ll talk about the murders.”

“Fix you up, you mean have sex with them?” Bernardo asked from the backseat.

“Feed the ardeur on them,” I said.

“You mean have sex with them,” Olaf said, as if to drive the point home.

“I can feed without intercourse,” I said, in a very grumpy voice.

“Good to know,” Edward said, and his voice didn’t sound much happier than mine.

“You told us that the weretigers might want you to feed on them, but not that you’d have to do it before they’d talk to us,” Bernardo said.

“I didn’t know,” I said.

“Do you mean that we might have to watch you have sex with some of the weretigers?” Olaf asked.

I fought not to squirm in my seat. “Not if I can help it. The tigers are very big on fidelity, marriage, all that. I’m hoping if one of you plays my lover that Bibiana will see it as cheating for me to do one of her tigers. Also, it’s a way to get all three of you inside with me. Two as security, and one as food.”

I heard a noise and Olaf was suddenly looming over the back of my seat. Height didn’t usually intimidate me, but as his arms slid around the sides of the seat, as if to pin me… “Back in your own seat, Olaf. No touching.”

“If I am to play lover, then I must touch.”

“And that is exactly why you aren’t doing it,” I said.

“I don’t understand.”

“I believe that, and that’s another reason that you are going to be security and not food.”

“I’ve frightened you again, haven’t I?” he asked.

“Nervous, you’ve made me nervous again.”

“What do you like to do on a date?”

I turned in my seat so I could see his face. “What?”

“What do you like to do on a date?” He repeated it, looking right at me, his face very neutral. At least he was controlling his face now, though the weirdness factor wasn’t lessening for me. No, weird was definitely on the rise.

“Just answer the question, Anita,” Edward said in a quiet voice.

“I don’t know. See movies, eat dinner, talk.”

“What do you do with… Edward?”

“We hunt bad guys and kill things.”

“Is that all?”

“We go out shooting, and he shows me bigger and scarier weapons.”

“And?” he asked.

I frowned. “I don’t know what you want me to say,… Otto.”

“What do you do on a date with Ted?”

“I don’t date Ted.” In my head I thought, It would be like dating my brother, but part of what we hoped would make Olaf leave me alone was the idea that Ted felt less brotherly toward me. So, what to say? “He’s with Donna, and they’ve got kids, and I don’t date people who are taken. It’s against the rules.”

“Honorable for a woman,” he said.

“What the hell does that mean?” I said. “I know plenty of men who don’t obey that rule, either. Bastards come in both sexes.”

He looked at me for a long time, then finally blinked and looked away. He nodded. “Bernardo has no such rules.”

“I guessed that,” I said.

“I am sitting right here,” Bernardo said.

Olaf said, “It bothers him that you don’t like him better.”

“Bernardo and I had this discussion, and we handled it.”

“What does that mean?” Olaf asked.

“It means that Anita let me know she thinks I’m cute, so my ego is secure.”

Olaf was frowning from one to the other of us. “I don’t understand.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Edward said, with a sigh. “Who plays what role?”

“Whoever I pick for a lover may have to do more than hold hands to convince Bibiana that it would be rude to offer up one of her tigers.”

“So not Olaf,” Edward said.

“And not you,” I said.

“I weird you out,” Olaf said. “I understand that, but why not Ted?”

“Pretending is too close to doing, and it would make me feel funny the next time I visited his family.” That was actually the truth.

Bernardo leaned forward, smiling. “Does that mean that I’m the lucky guy?”

I scowled at him. “I’m giving you another chance to play my boyfriend; don’t make me regret it.”

“Hey, it wasn’t you who ended up being forced to strip half naked at gunpoint last time.” He wasn’t teasing when he said it.

“Why did they want you to strip?” Olaf asked.

“They asked me a trick question, to see if he really was my lover.”

“What question?”

“Whether I was circumcised,” Bernardo said, and now he had a touch of amusement in his voice. “They wanted to see if her answer was the right one.”

“Was it?” Edward asked.

“Yes.”

“How did you know whether he was circumcised?” Olaf asked, and he actually sounded indignant.

I undid my seatbelt and turned in my seat. “Stop it, just stop it. You haven’t earned the right to sound jealous or hurt.”

Olaf scowled at me.

“Sonny and Spider are watching us argue,” Edward said.

I’d forgotten that the two policemen were trailing us. That was beyond careless. “Great, fine, but I mean it, Olaf. I’m flattered that you want to try to date me like a normal guy, but a normal guy doesn’t get jealous before he’s even kissed a girl.”

“Not true,” Edward and Bernardo said together.

“What?” I asked.

They exchanged a look, then Edward said, “I had a crush on a girl, the first serious one. I never kissed her, or even held her hand, but I was jealous of every boy who got near her.”

I tried to picture a young, insecure Edward and couldn’t, but it was nice to know that once he’d been a boy. Sometimes it felt like Edward had sprung full grown from the head of some violent deity, like a vicious version of Athena.

“I’ve been jealous of women who were dating good friends. You don’t poach from good friends, but sometimes it cuts you up to watch them be cute together.”

“Anita and I thought you would poach,” Olaf said.

“Hey, just because I like women doesn’t mean I have no scruples. No friends’ serious girlfriends, and no wives of people I like.”

“Good to know you have scruples.” I tried for sarcasm and succeeded.

“Hey,” Bernardo said, “what’s the old saying about glass houses, Anita?”

“I don’t do husbands.”

“I don’t do vampires,” he said.

Point for him. Out loud, I said, “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“I don’t like sleeping with anyone who can bespell me with their eyes. It’s too hard to remember not to gaze.”

“So it’s not morality but practicality.”

“That, and sometimes there’s a moisture problem.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they’re dead, Anita, and dead women need lubricant.”

“Stop, just stop, before I get visual to go with that.” Then I added, before I had time to think about it, “That’s not true of the female vampires I know.” I knew it was true, knew it through Jean-Claude’s and Asher’s memories that they’d shared with me metaphysically. Knew it through Belle herself visiting my dreams.

“And how do you know that the female vampires you’ve met don’t need lubricant?” he asked.

I tried to think of an answer that wouldn’t raise more questions and couldn’t come up with one.

“You are blushing.” Olaf didn’t sound happy.

“Oh, please tell me that the visual I’ve got in my head is true,” Bernardo said, and he sounded very happy. In fact, he was grinning ear to ear.

Edward was looking at me over the lowered rims of his sunglasses. “I haven’t heard any rumors about you and the female vampires.”

“Maybe you can all just wait outside and I’ll talk to the tigers alone.” I got out of the car, into the dimness of the parking garage.

Sonny and Spider got out of their SUV, but I didn’t want to talk to any more men. I slammed the door and started for the spot marked Elevator. I heard the doors opening and shutting. If I got to the elevator first, I was going up to the casino without them. Maybe it wasn’t the smart thing to do, but the thought of Edward watching the doors close without him gave me a certain shallow satisfaction. Maybe he understood that I’d had enough teasing, because he hurried to catch up with me in front of the elevator.

“Going up by yourself would be stupid, and that is something you aren’t,” he said, and sounded angry.

“I’m tired of explaining myself to you or anyone else.”

“I’ve sent Bernardo and Olaf to talk to SWAT, so you can talk to me. Is there something else I should know?”

“No,” I said.

“Liar,” he said.

I glared at him. “I thought it was just Ted who fantasized about lesbians.”

“You’re Jean-Claude’s human servant; how closely tied are you metaphysically, Anita?”

And just like that, he’d guessed what I didn’t want to tell them.

“I’ve never been to St. Louis,” Bernardo said, from just behind us. “What female vamps does Jean-Claude have?”

“They didn’t seem to like Anita enough to sleep with her,” Olaf said.

The doors opened, and I said, “One more word about this topic and I’m getting in this elevator by myself.”

“Touchy,” Bernardo said.

“Drop it,” Edward said, “both of you.”

They dropped it, and we all got in the elevator. Bernardo was smiling all over himself. Olaf was scowling. Edward’s face had gone to unreadable. I leaned against the back wall and fought to find an expression that wouldn’t make it worse. Was it better that two of them thought I’d been with another woman than that I shared detailed memories with vampires? Yeah, it was. It would have been even better if Edward had believed it.

27

OLAF WAS WILLING to throw his leather over everything, but Edward passed out the dark windbreakers with U.S. Marshal on them to all of us. “If this is a social visit, won’t this be the wrong message?” Bernardo asked.

“The new law makes it almost impossible for any of us to pass for civilians,” Edward said. “We can’t enter a casino packing this much firepower without badges showing. The first time they see us on the security cameras, they’ll think something bad is happening.”

We couldn’t argue with that, actually. It took us a few minutes to get jackets over our clothes so that most of the weapons were hidden. I was really going to have to remember to pack my own nifty dark blue windbreaker next time. I always remembered the weapons and the badges, but I did keep forgetting some of the other stuff. Olaf slid everything out of sight in his leather jacket. “It is invisible under this jacket.”

“You don’t like having a badge, do you, big guy?” Bernardo asked, as he fluffed the jacket over all of his own weapons.

“I like some of it, but I don’t like the jacket.”

I had to take the backpack off, and just slid the MP5 on its sling so it was under the jacket, and put the backpack on over the jacket. The MP5 was the thing most likely to freak the mundanes and the casino security.

Edward had replaced his own Heckler amp; Koch MP5 with the new FN P90. It was very science fiction looking, but he swore once I fired it, I’d trade in my MP5. He’d said the same thing about the mini-Uzi that had been the gun that the MP5 had replaced for me, so I didn’t argue. Edward knew more about guns than I ever would.

We stepped out of the elevator and into the casino. It was bright, but oddly elegant in its gaudiness. The Indian theme continued, with more animal statues and painted plants on the walls, with real plants huddled under full-spectrum lights, so it gave the illusion of sunlight coming through a jungle canopy. Then there were the slot machines. Rows and rows of them. There were blackjack tables, and craps being rolled farther in; people were everywhere. The noise was not as much as you’d think, but it was still a room full of movement and that energy people get when they’re on vacation and trying to enjoy every minute of it, as if trying to make up for all that work.

Edward shook his head, bending over me, so he could be heard over the noise. “It’s too open, and too many places to hide, all at the same time. Casinos suck for bodyguard work.”

I looked around the crowd of people, the slot machines, the noise, the color. There was so much to look at that it was hard to actually “see” anything.

Bernardo and Olaf seemed to have picked up some signal from Edward, so that they were suddenly on high alert. I realized, watching us, that any policeman or good security would know we weren’t tourists in a heartbeat. It wasn’t the guns or the U.S. Marshal on the jackets. It was that strange metamorphosis that cops can do. One minute they’re joking with you, looking sort of ordinary; the next they’re “on”-they are cop, they are alert-and no amount of civilian clothing can hide that they are different from everyone else. We were all doing it. So much for covering the weapons; if I’d been security, I’d have been all over us.

I didn’t see anything to be afraid of; what had spooked Edward? I moved back so I could look up into his pale blue eyes. I searched his face. His face was solemn, and his eyes as serious as I’d ever seen them.

I leaned in, and he leaned down, because I couldn’t reach his ear without help. “I’ve never seen you like this, Edward, not without people shooting at us.”

“It’s just hard security in a place like this.”

I put a hand on his arm to steady myself, because we were too close. He slid a hand around me, turning it into something that looked more intimate. It reminded me that we were still trying to work out what to do with Olaf. Great, another problem.

“I’m not your body to guard, Ted. I’m just a fellow vampire hunter.” I looked up into his eyes, and we were too close. It was kissing close, but his eyes, this close I could see his eyes, and there was nothing about kissing in them. The look in his eyes scared me.

“There’s just too much that can go wrong, Anita, and this is a terrible location for protection.”

I couldn’t argue with that. I just nodded.

He put his hand on the back of my hair and kissed my forehead. He did it for Olaf’s benefit, but it was what we were doing when the weretigers walked up. Perfect.

28

I FELT THEM like a wind on my skin-a tickling breeze of energy that raised goose bumps on my skin and made me shiver in Edward’s arms. Most men would have taken credit for that shiver, but Edward looked up and around. He knew I’d sensed something.

His reaction put Olaf and Bernardo on alert. Olaf’s hand was actually hovering near the edge of his jacket, where it barely covered one of his sidearms. We were just all back to that “cop” moment.

Edward and I moved apart, enough room to go for weapons if we had to. Enough room that we wouldn’t get in each other’s way. Bernardo and Olaf did the same thing. Without talking to each other, or even looking at each other, the four of us formed points of a square to watch the room. I made sure my point was watching the coming tigers, but we all knew our jobs. I might have issues with Olaf, and even Bernardo, but it was nice to work with people who knew how to deal. We covered the room, not like cops but more like soldiers. No, we covered the room like people who were used to pulling guns and shooting first. None of us were really cops. Cops save lives; we took them. Four executioners standing in a room; best to be elsewhere.

There were two uniformed and armed security guys at the back of the group, but I didn’t give them much of a look. It wasn’t guns I was worried about. I trusted Edward to watch the guns. The woman in front had red hair, and that pale skin that goes with it. As she got closer, I saw the dusting of freckles underneath her base makeup. Her eyes were brown and human looking. In fact, she radiated goodwill and humanity. The two men on either side of her didn’t waste energy trying to pass for human.

They were both tall, about six feet. The one on her left was the taller by an inch or two; he had white hair cut short and close to his head. His eyes were icy blue but not human. White tigers have blue eyes, and the man in front of me had the eyes he’d have in animal form in his human face. In any other wereanimal, it would have been a punishment brought on by being forced into animal form too often, and for too long, but in the tigers it showed purity of bloodline. They were born with the eyes.

The man on her right was just under six feet, with curly hair; some of those curls were black, some white. His eyes were a brilliant orange, like staring into fire.

The woman held her hand out. “I’m Ava, and you must be Anita.” She smiled, and you would have thought we were a group of visiting businessmen. I took her hand automatically.

Energy jumped between us like a small electric shock. It made her eyes go round, and her mouth made a little O of surprise. I took my hand back and fought not to wipe my palm on my pants to take the insect-crawling sensation away. Mustn’t let them see you flinch. We might be on a social call, but it was going to be about power, too. We’d be doing a more dangerous version of what happened when I met the SWAT practitioners. There, the worst that would happen was it might be scary, but no one would have hurt me. Here, I wasn’t sure of that.

Ava did wipe her hand on her dress. “I think we might wait until we’re upstairs for any more introductions.” Her voice was a little breathy.

“I wouldn’t suggest anyone pushing power into me, just to test the limits,” I said, low.

“I’m just following orders, Anita,” she said.

“And what were your orders, exactly?” I asked.

She ignored the question and answered a different one. “This is Domino, and this is Roderic.”

Domino had to be a nickname from the hair. He just nodded at me, and I nodded back. White Hair smiled and said, “Rick, I prefer Rick.”

I nodded and answered the smile with a small one of my own. I didn’t blame him on the name choice. “Rick,” I said.

Then I felt something else. Something more. It was Crispin, and he was agitated. I fought to keep my eyes on the security tigers because the two tigers with Ava were so much muscle. Maybe not professional muscle, but they had the feel to them of people you wouldn’t want to fight, not if you didn’t have to. I’d been the smallest person in violent situations for years now. I knew how to judge potential. They had potential, and not all of it good. But it was an effort not to look away from the danger zone, a real effort not to scan the crowd for Crispin. He was my tiger to call, which meant that sometimes I could feel his emotions. He was upset, scared, nervous, just wrong in his head.

But just as I could feel his agitation, I could also feel him getting closer to us. I fought to keep my attention on the weretigers in front of me, but they had picked up on my… body language, tension, maybe even my scent had changed. I was more tense because try as I might, I was picking up some of Crispin’s agitation. Wereanimals with some training are like uber-cops. You can’t hide much from them.

Edward spoke low. “What’s wrong?”

“Ask them,” I said.

Rick was no longer smiling; even Ava wasn’t as happy. But it was Domino who said it. “He was ordered to go upstairs and wait for us there.”

“He’s a little conflicted,” I said.

“You can’t serve two masters,” Ava said, trying for a soothing voice, but her words held an edge of that tension, as if Crispin were leaking over them as well as me.

“Who’s conflicted?” Bernardo asked.

“Crispin,” I said, and as if his name had conjured him, he was there. Walking through the crowd of humans, moving through them too swiftly, too easily, as if he were made of water and the crowd were rocks to flow and glide around. But glide implied grace and ease, and there was nothing easy about his movements. Swift, near dance-like, but too jerky to be graceful. What was wrong with him?

The tigers felt him, too, because Domino turned to watch him. Were they picking up his scent or his emotion? Rick kept his attention on us, but there was a tension to his shoulders that seemed to scream that he wanted to turn around and face Crispin. Rick assumed that the greatest danger was another wereanimal. Normally, he’d be right.

Crispin was wearing a T-shirt almost as pale a blue as his eyes, jeans, and no shoes. He hadn’t bothered with shoes. Most of the wereanimals would leave clothes off if you didn’t make them behave.

He held his hand out toward me. I took a step toward him without meaning to. Domino stepped between us. A sound came out of my throat that I hadn’t meant to make, either. I growled at him. It rolled up my throat and across my tongue and between my teeth and lips. The growl vibrated on the roof of my mouth like a taste. I saw the white tigress inside me, and we looked at Crispin and he was ours. You do not stand between us and what is ours.

I felt Bernardo and Olaf shift around me, as if they weren’t sure what to do. Edward was Edward, and stayed still. I knew he would back my play whatever it was.

Domino looked at me, and there was anger in those orange eyes. “You are not my queen, not yet.”

“Get out of our way,” I said, and my voice held that note of growl that I’d come to associate with wereanimals. Outwardly, I was human, but the sound in my throat wasn’t.

Ava touched Domino’s shoulder. “She smells of tiger.”

He jerked free of her hand. “You are not my queen, either.”

Rick said, “Don’t make a scene. Bibiana was clear on that.”

“She has no right to order me about.” I wasn’t sure if he meant me or Ava.

Crispin tried again to move around the other men and come to me. Domino started to grab him, but Crispin simply wasn’t there to grab. He might not be professional muscle, but he had the reflexes of a cat. And apparently, he was a quicker cat than Domino.

Domino tried to move forward, with that we’re-about-to-have-a-fight energy. Rick grabbed his shoulders, and Ava moved in front of him, facing us. Crispin came to my outstretched left hand, and I moved him behind me, so I’d have both hands free, but he’d be protected. He was quick, and he could fight when he had to, but this was a fight he could not win. The black-and-white tiger had the feel to him of death contained and waiting. I knew that with a certainty that made me want to go for a gun.

“You should have gone upstairs as our queen told you to,” Ava said.

“Anita needed me,” he said, and his six-foot-plus frame towered over me, just a little. It seemed wrong that so much tall, athletic grace was hiding behind my short, not so athletic, and definitely not so graceful self.

“You’re hiding behind her,” Domino growled. Rick’s pale hands tightened visibly on the other man’s shoulders. They both had to look up at Crispin, which should have lessened their tough-guy act but didn’t, because it wasn’t an act.

“She doesn’t need any help with violence,” Crispin said.

Edward said, “We’re attracting a crowd.”

He was right. The tourists were getting a show, or anticipating one. We were drawing them away from the slot machines, and that takes a lot in Vegas. I didn’t think we’d done anything that interesting yet. Of course, it could be the three of us in our U.S. Marshal windbreakers and badges, with weapons peeking out all over the place; yeah, that might be enough to attract some attention. Olaf would have looked dangerous anywhere with all the black clothing and leather.

“Let us continue this upstairs,” Ava said, and motioned us all farther into the room, in the general direction of the elevators.

I looked at Domino still in Rick’s grasp, so angry. Was it a good idea to get in the elevator? Probably not, but nothing scary enough had happened yet to make me willing to back down.

“Fine,” I said, “lead the way.”

29

DOMINO CALMED DOWN enough to stand beside Rick and Ava in the big elevator. It was one marked Private, and seemed to go only to one floor. The penthouse, I was assuming.

“Sorry,” Rick said, and sounded like he meant it, “but they can’t go into the private chambers with this many weapons on them.”

“We can’t leave the weapons in the car,” I said. “New rules. Once a warrant is in play, we have to be able to do our jobs at full capacity at any minute, and we are not allowed to leave our weapons in a place where civilians could get hold of them.”

“You lie,” Domino said.

The black and white tigers growled inside me. It was hint enough. The tigresses didn’t like me backing down to any of the males. I took a step closer to him, which put Ava between us. Rick put a hand back on the other man’s arm, just sort of automatically. “Domino, if you can’t smell that I’m telling the truth, then you aren’t dominant enough to be this much trouble.”

He growled at me, low and rumbling, like close thunder. “I will not answer your call, little queen.”

“I haven’t called you anywhere.”

“You did,” he said, “you called us all.”

Rick put an arm across the other man’s chest, moving smoothly into a more solid hold. “You did, Ms. Blake. A few months back, you did do that.”

I sighed, and the anger began to fade, until the tigers inside me swatted at me from the inside out. I flinched, couldn’t help it. I was getting used to the sensation of invisible claws cutting me up, but it was almost impossible not to react a little. It wasn’t real damage. I knew it was metaphysical pain. It hurt, but it did not bleed me. They’d actually put me through medical tests to make certain of that, at one point. It was just pain. I could ignore it, sort of. When the tigers got this bitchy, I had to pay some attention, or it got worse.

The elevator, which I’d expected to be quick but wasn’t, opened. Two more uniformed security guards were there, replacements for the two we’d left downstairs. None of the tigers stepped out; they were all looking at me.

“I didn’t mean to put out the welcome mat to everyone, but I won’t apologize for it either.” The tigers were creeping closer inside me. I said what I hoped they wanted to hear. “If I was queen enough to call you, then it’s not up to you if you answer that call.”

Ava and Rick sandwiched Domino between them, as he tried to move forward. “You bitch.”

There was another swat inside me, as if the white and black tigers were trying to play basketball with my spine. Fuck, it hurt.

Crispin touched my shoulders, and the touch helped. The white tiger eased back. He wasn’t as dominant as she wanted, but he was one of hers. The black tiger, and I mean black, like a black leopard, with stripes showing only in bright light, came forward, growling and hissing, flashing those huge canines.

“Please, tell me that Domino here isn’t the only black tiger you’ve got.”

“The black clan is nearly extinct,” Ava said.

I drew one of Crispin’s hands across my face until I could smell the warm scent of his wrist. I rubbed my cheek against the heat of him. The white tiger rose closer to the surface and pushed the black one down. There were other colors of tiger inside me. I had a damn rainbow, impossible colors that had never occurred in any zoo, though I had learned that every tiger inside me had once existed as a real animal. It had just been a few thousand years for some of the subspecies. They were just legends now.

“Maybe if we get out of the elevator and get a little more room,” Edward said.

“You do not order us about, human,” Domino said.

“He’s got a badge; you don’t,” I said, still being too up close and personal with Crispin’s arm and hand. It was hard to be tough as nails when kissing someone’s hand, but some days you do the best you can.

“The marshal is right, let’s step outside.” Rick’s voice sounded just a little strained, which meant he was holding on to his friend even tighter than it looked. That wasn’t good.

“What will your friend do once we’re somewhere without security cameras?” I asked around the sweet smell of Crispin’s arm.

“He’ll do what Chang-Bibi tells him to do,” Ava said.

“And that would be what?” I asked.

“What?” Ava asked.

“What does she want him to do? Obviously he’s not happy about it, whatever it is.”

“You,” Crispin said.

Ava said, “Crispin!”

I said, “What?”

“You,” he repeated from behind me, “our queen wants them both to do you.”

“Crispin,” Ava said, and her face wasn’t friendly anymore, almost angry.

Bernardo leaned in and said, “I’d really rather have more room for the fight than the elevator.”

I stepped out of the elevator, and everyone followed. I knew why Crispin and the other marshals waited for me, maybe, but I finally realized that at some level the weretigers were treating me like what Domino had said, a little queen. They weren’t doing it on purpose, I’d have bet on that. It was all unconscious, which made it both useful and a little scary.

The hallway was white and cream, and much more elegant than the casino or the elevator. I waited until everyone was standing in the cool, wide hallway.

“Look, Domino, this is news to me. I’ll make you a deal. You tone it down and I’ll promise you won’t be on the menu for sex.” In my head, I thought, Food for anger, maybe, but not sex.

He frowned at me.

Crispin tried to help. “She means she won’t do you if you don’t want to do her.”

“You can’t speak for anyone,” Ava said.

The uniformed guards were looking at us, with their hands on the butts of their guns. They saw the badges, but they saw the guns, too, and they’d picked up that we might not be getting along with the weretigers. It would be interesting to see where their loyalties would divide.

Edward leaned in. “Either we leave or we go with them. Your call.”

I sighed. Leaving was such a good idea. But the bodies in the morgue would still be dead. The head they’d mailed to me would still be waiting to come back to its body for burial. I had smelled tiger on the body in the morgue here. I wasn’t wrong, and for clues about weretigers, this was the place to come.

“Anita,” Edward said, softly.

“With them, we go with them.”

“What about their weapons?” Domino said.

“We have a gun room, if we could lock up some of them?” Rick said.

“We don’t give up our weapons,” Olaf said.

“Your warrant excludes us, and you don’t have other police with you. You do not go before our queen with automatic weapons on you,” Rick said, and it was matter-of-fact.

“Would you let someone see your Master of the City armed like this?” Ava asked.

I thought about it, then shook my head. “Probably not.”

“Let’s get some privacy, and we’ll discuss the weapons,” Edward said. He’d glanced up at the hallway, near the ceiling. His gaze had found the security cameras. I wondered if it was a law in Vegas, the cameras?

“Sure.”

I put Crispin’s hand more firmly in my left hand. He squeezed back. I said to Domino, “I’m not into rape; if you don’t want me, fine. I’m not crazy about you either.”

He almost snarled, and Rick suddenly had a two-armed grip on him. “I must obey my queen,” Domino growled. The energy of his beast pushed off him. I braced for it to hit me like a kidney punch thrown from inches away, but it was completely different. No violence, no electric rush. It was like being bathed in a pool of warm, expensive perfume. Except the scent didn’t hit my nose. Can something have a scent that hits your brain but not your nose? It was as if the “perfume” hit something deeper inside me. The white tigress and the black paced closer to the surface, opening their mouths in that grimace/growl, so they could taste the scent on the tops of their mouths where the Jacobson organ is located. He smelled… good.

I backed up and slid my arm around Crispin. His arm hesitated at the touch of the MP5 on its sling, then just kept moving until he held me close, our bodies touching all the way down side to side. Touching Crispin helped clear my head, but the tigers growled at me. They liked Domino better now.

Domino had gone quiet in Rick’s grip. Those orange-fire eyes were looking at me differently now. “You smell… like home.” He didn’t sound angry now, more puzzled.

I needed to leave. It was a bad idea to get closer to any of the tigers. But… all that seemed at risk was my virtue; somehow that didn’t seem worth another cop’s life. If I got a clue here that saved lives, would it be worth it? Hell, yes. Did I want to add another man to my menu? Hell, no. But sometimes a girl’s got to do what a man’s got to do, or something like that. In that moment, I was angry. Angry that metaphysics would probably help solve the crime, but it was going to fuck me up again. Probably literally.

30

THE ANTECHAMBER HAD white tile and white walls; it was all so pale it was almost disorienting. The only thing that saved it was that the white had more wallpaper on it. The paper had raised designs in silver and gold. It was like standing inside a delicate Christmas ornament. It was almost too elegant for comfort, as if I were afraid I’d break something just by breathing too hard. The chairs were all those delicate, spindly-backed ones that only very small people fit into, if at all, and even if you fit, they won’t be comfortable.

We’d come through a big door from the hallway, and there was another set of double doors in the far wall. Behind them, where Ava and Domino had gone, was Bibiana and her inner circle. Ava went to talk to Bibiana, but I think Domino went because they didn’t trust him around me and all the guns. Rick was adamant that we weren’t going before his queen armed to the teeth.

Crispin was sitting, waiting for us all to finish the debate. He seemed peaceful with all of it, as if it didn’t matter to him what we decided. If the delicate chair was uncomfortable, it didn’t show. He seemed more at ease than he had in the casino.

“The warrant excludes the weretigers, so you can keep us out of the inner room. But you can’t force us to disarm,” I said.

“Then you don’t get in,” Rick said. “But frankly, I thought at least one of you wouldn’t be armed. Ava said one of these guys was supposed to be food. We don’t arm our food.”

“I’ve been personally threatened by a serial killer here in your town; I thought it was smart to bring food that could take care of itself.”

He made a can’t-argue-with-that face and said, “Fair enough, but you still don’t get inside with all the shit you’re carrying.”

There were two more uniformed guards by the double doors. The two who had met us at the elevator were still outside in the hallway. Four armed guards, cool, but all human; interesting. If I had a choice of guards, I’d have picked weretigers to guard weretigers. I thought it was an interesting decision to use regular human guards like you’d see at any casino. There were more of them than normal, but still, it was pretty ordinary for the Master Vampire of the City.

“Then we’re at an impasse,” I said. “You won’t let us in without the weapons, and we won’t give them up.”

“Then you leave,” Rick said, “sorry.”

Edward said, “What if two of us strip off most of our weapons, while the other two keep the weapons and stand at this door?”

I looked at him.

“You said we needed to come here, Anita. How badly do you want this interview?”

I met his eyes, so blue, so cold, so real. I nodded. “I want it. I want it before dark when the vampires will hunt again.”

“Tactical units do this sometimes, when they have to negotiate,” he said.

I wanted to say, But you had a bad feeling downstairs, but I couldn’t say that out loud in front of the guards from the other side. I sighed. “Okay.” I took off the windbreaker and lifted the MP5 in its sling over my head. “Who gets to hold for me?”

Edward held out his hand.

I gave him wide eyes. “No, you’re going in with me.”

“No,” he said, “I’m staying out here with all my weapons, so that if you yell for help I’ll come through like the cavalry.”

We stared at each other for a minute. I thought about what he’d said, tried to be logical, instead of paying attention to my suddenly speeding heart rate. I gave him the MP5.

“Thank you,” and I knew he meant not the gun but the level of trust that the gun represented for me.

“You’re welcome, but how will you hear me when I yell for help?”

“I’ve got earbuds and radios.”

Of course he did. It was Edward; he always brought the right toys for the play date. I stopped stripping off weapons and said, “Wait, who goes in with me, if you stay here?”

“Shit,” Bernardo said, with real feeling to the word. He started taking off the jacket.

“Hold a minute,” Edward said. He turned to Rick. “How clean do you want them to be?”

“They can keep the knives and one handgun.”

“Thanks for the handgun,” I said.

Rick grinned. “You’ll do a hideout anyway. This way I know where the gun is.”

“You could just search us,” I said.

“I waited for you to get out of the elevator. All of us did. I don’t think I want to touch you, little queen. In fact, the less I have to do with you physically, the better.”

“You aren’t on the meal plan?” I asked.

“I was, but I’m going to ask to be reassigned.”

“Should I be offended?”

“No, it’s a compliment. If you were just good sex, then no problem. I like sex. But you aren’t just good sex. You’re power. You’re things I can’t even name. But I know one thing for damn sure: you are dangerous, and it isn’t the guns and badge that make you dangerous to me and Domino, and even Crispin.” He nodded toward where he was sitting patiently in one of the uncomfortable chairs. “His gaze follows you like he’s a devoted dog.”

I glanced at Crispin, who gave me a peaceful face, as if the comment didn’t faze him. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” was all I could think to say.

“I believe that. You’re like a survivor of an attack by one of us. You don’t know what you are yet.”

“She’s gaining powers as if she were a born tiger,” Crispin said, from his chair.

Rick nodded. “I noticed that. Now, whoever is going inside, take off the weapons.”

I started taking stuff off and handed it to Edward. Bernardo did the same, handing his gear to Olaf.

Edward handed earbuds and waist radios to the four of us. Rick never protested the radios. Again, not doing what I thought he’d do.

“I’ve got it set to broadcast continuously, so Otto and I will hear whatever is going on.”

I had a thought. “What’s the range on these? I wouldn’t want just anyone to overhear.”

Edward smiled. “I’d rather not say in front of our host.”

Rick said, “Don’t mind me.”

“But it’s small enough that if our local friends are trying to listen in, they’d have to be standing in the room with us to overhear.”

“Okay.” I understood that he didn’t want to tell Rick, and thus all the weretigers, how far they’d have to take Bernardo and me so that we could yell for help and not be heard, but… I’d have liked to know the range. But I trusted Edward. I trusted him with my life and my death. I had no higher compliment to pay to another executioner.

I had to readjust my straps on the holsters, to settle the guns again without all the other stuff to get in the way, and with the addition of the radio. Adjustable holsters are a wonderful thing. Bernardo was doing similar things to his guns and knives.

“How did you know Edward was going to pick you to go in with me?” I asked, as I checked the last knife.

Bernardo gave me a look. It wasn’t a happy one. In fact, those dark eyes were downright sullen. He straightened up, hands doing one last check on the new location of all his weapons, automatically. “Because if it’s the cavalry you want, the heavy hitters stay out here, and neither of you thinks I’m a heavy enough hitter.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Edward saved me. “If I didn’t trust you, Bernardo, I wouldn’t send her in with only you as backup.”

Bernardo and he exchanged a long look, and then finally the other man nodded. “Fine, but we both know you’d send Olaf if you didn’t think he’d eat her.”

“I thought we were the only ones who ate people,” Rick said, with his hand on the door.

I gave the weretiger the look the comment deserved. He smiled at me.

Crispin had moved up beside me, just waiting for us to finish the weapons. Apparently, he had no qualms about following me anywhere. He’d already done enough to get him in trouble in most of the wereanimal groups that I was familiar with. Insubordination isn’t tolerated among the furry.

Rick touched Crispin’s arm. “You must either wait here with her other friends, or go ahead alone.”

“I want to stay with Anita.”

“You have already refused one direct order from your queen and master. Do not make it two, Crispin.” Rick’s face softened. “Please, stay here, or go ahead.”

I didn’t argue for Crispin to stay with me because Rick was right. Crispin had already gotten himself in potential trouble. I didn’t want to make it worse.

He turned to me. “What do you want me to do?”

I blinked at him. What I really wanted him to do was not to have asked that. I really wanted him to make the decision on his own in case it came back and bit him. But either you’re the dominant or you aren’t. Fuck.

If he stayed here, he’d be safer. If he went ahead, they might punish him, but I might also be able to get him back at my side and help me control the tigers.

“If he goes ahead, what happens to him?”

“He has earned discipline, but since he is your white tiger to call, he falls under vampire rules.”

“You can’t hurt him because he’s mine.”

Rick nodded. “As long as you’re in Vegas, yes.”

We looked at each other. I didn’t know Rick well enough to know that look this well, but I did. The look said, plainly, that if I left Crispin in Vegas, bad things might happen to him. Jean-Claude was not going to like me coming home with extra baggage, but I couldn’t leave him to be hurt, could I?

“Go ahead, Crispin. We’ll be right behind you.”

Crispin looked from me to Rick, then finally nodded. He went through the far, whooshy doors, and we were one man down.

Olaf finally spoke. “Do you wonder why I did not protest Bernardo going with you?”

I turned and looked back at him. His face was its old mask of anger and arrogance, and things I could not read. “I thought you might argue about Bernardo, yes.”

“If you are Ted’s woman, then it’s his choice who goes in with you. It’s his job to protect you, not mine.”

I let the “Ted’s woman” comment go, and concentrated on something I could understand. “I don’t need anyone to protect me, Otto. I do a fine job on my own.”

“All women need protection, Anita.”

Bernardo touched my arm. “We don’t have time for you to win this argument.”

I took a deep breath, let it out, then turned back to the big guy. “You might ask Edward which of the three of us he’d trust most to protect his back.” Then I nodded at Rick. He swung the door open. Bernardo gave me a sideways glance. I stepped forward, and he followed me. Or maybe he just didn’t want to be the first person through the door.

31

WE STEPPED FROM the waiting room into a box. Okay, maybe it was a room, but it was smaller than the elevator we’d come up in, and the walls were solid and gray. I knew metal when I saw it, and something about it felt wrong. As the doors were sliding closed, I said, “I think you’ll lose the signal for a few minutes.”

“Why?”

“I think it’s a quiet room.” Then the doors closed, and there was static in my ear. I tried anyway. “Edward, Edward, say something if you can hear me.”

“He can’t,” Bernardo said, and he sounded disgusted. He looked at Rick. “That’s why you didn’t protest the radios; you knew they wouldn’t do us a damn bit of good.”

Rick shrugged, smiling like he was enjoying our discomfort. “The radios will work once we get into the room beyond. Promise.” He even made the Boy Scout salute.

“Were you really a Boy Scout?” I asked.

His eyes widened a little, and then he nodded. “Max wanted us to have the all-American experience, so he started a troop just for us, so we wouldn’t scare the humans.”

I tried to picture an entire troop of little weretigers, and was both amused and impressed. “Is the troop still active?” I asked.

“You’re looking at the current scout leader.”

Bernardo said, “Muscle by night, scout leader by day; who are you, Clark Kent?”

Rick just grinned, and said, “Now what else is different about this room?”

“It’s a test, isn’t it?” I said.

“What kind of test?” Bernardo asked.

“The walls are reinforced metal of some kind. I’m betting they’ll stand up to wereanimal and vampire strength, so no one can batter their way through.”

He nodded and looked pleased. “Very good.”

Bernardo took the next part. “That’s why you wouldn’t let us have the heavy artillery, because that might get through the far door.”

“Another point for you.”

“Are we going to be graded on this pop quiz?” I asked.

He nodded, and the smile faded. “Oh, yes, you’ll get a grade.”

“But you aren’t the teacher, are you?”

He was solemn now. “No.”

“Have we passed?” Bernardo asked.

“I’d hate for our backup to get too jumpy with the radio silence,” I said.

“Good point,” Rick said. “What else do you sense in here, Marshal Blake?”

“It’s a metal box. It’s proof against electronics. It’s strong enough to stop most preternaturals, or at least slow them down.”

“What else?” he asked.

I glared at him. “What do you want from me?”

“I want the energy that made us all wait for you to get off the elevator first.”

“You want me to use the tigers to sense something.”

“Yes, please.”

“That’s why you didn’t want me to have Crispin with me, because as a vampire I could use the abilities of my animal to call, and you wouldn’t be able to tell how much was me and how much was Crispin.”

“Exactly,” he said.

I sighed. I couldn’t say out loud that I didn’t want to call tiger energy when we were about to step through into a room full of them, but there were other things inside me. I reached down into that dark, quiet place and called wolf.

She came padding up through that dark, tree-filled place that was what my mind had made of where the beasts waited. It wasn’t really where they waited inside me, but my human mind needed something concrete for them to stand on, and this was it. The she-wolf was white and cream, with black markings. She was huge and beautiful, and seeing her always made me remember where huskies and malamutes and a dozen other breeds had come from. You could see it in her, but once you looked past the beauty of the fur and saw her eyes, the illusion of dog was gone. Those eyes were wild and had nothing in them that would curl up by your fire at night.

“You smell like wolf,” Rick said, and he grimaced, either trying to get a better scent or not enjoying what he was smelling. On a tiger face, it was tasting the scent; on a human face, it was disgust. He looked human, but I had no way of knowing how much like a tiger he thought in this form.

I started to walk close to the walls, but I didn’t have to scent them. With the wolf so close to the surface, it had peeled down some of the shields I kept up automatically. Some of my metaphysical shields had become like a bulletproof vest for most cops. You put it on every day before you went out the door. You put it on so automatically that you forgot sometimes that you needed to take it off to do certain things. I could now shield so tight that magic I should have sensed easily didn’t get through. I was shielding too tight if I had stepped into this space and not felt this. Which proved just how nervous I truly was about being surrounded by this many weretigers, with no other physical animal to back me up.

The magic in the walls crawled over my skin. I broke out in goose bumps from it. “What the fuck is in the walls?” I asked.

“Can’t you tell?”

I shook my head and guessed. “Magic to keep magic out.”

“Very good.”

“Seriously,” Bernardo said, “if we keep radio silence much longer you’re going to find out how well that door stands up to heavy artillery.”

“Are you making a threat?” Rick asked, and was very serious again.

“Not me,” Bernardo said, spreading his hands wide, “but I know my friends outside. They aren’t patient men.”

Rick looked at me.

I shrugged, and nodded. “Ted will want to know what’s happening to us.”

“You, he wants to know what’s happening to you,” Bernardo said.

“You’re part of his team, too.”

“Yeah, but I’m not his ‘woman,’ ” and he made little quotation marks around the word with his fingers. Was Bernardo starting to believe the lie that we were feeding Olaf?

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I kept my mouth shut. When in doubt, shut the fuck up.

Rick was looking from one of us to the other. It was way too thoughtful an expression for muscle. But then, I hadn’t believed that Rick was just muscle. If he had been, I didn’t think his queen would have wanted him on the feeding list.

“Have we passed your tests?” I asked.

“One last question,” he said.

“Shoot.”

“Why do you smell like wolf?”

I realized that the she-wolf was still just below the surface. I had called her energy, but had not had to put her back in her box. She seemed content to be ready to manifest more, but not to make a nuisance of herself. I had a spurt of pure happiness. I’d been working really hard with the beasts inside me, to be able to work with them and not fight them.

The wolf looked at me, as if she were standing in front of me. I had a moment of staring into her dark amber eyes, then I wanted her gone, and she just vanished. I didn’t have to watch her walk down the path inside my head. She just went. For a second, I thought she was truly gone, but a moment’s thought found her pale and distant in that not-so-real forest. She was still there, but I could bring her out and send her back with that little fuss.

I fought to control my emotions and not be as happy as I felt, or not show it. Bernardo was too observant, and wereanimals were way too observant.

“You don’t smell like wolf anymore,” Rick said. “How can you smell of tiger one moment and wolf the next?”

“Your Master of the City knows the answer to that question. If he didn’t share with you, not my problem.”

He nodded, as if that made perfect sense.

I didn’t hear Edward bang on the door, I felt the vibration of it. Rick glanced at the doors, then pressed his hand on a panel he’d been standing in front of; it was a fingerprint scanner. The doors leading farther into the penthouse whooshed open.

32

EDWARD WAS YELLING in our ears. “Anita, Bernardo! Damn it!”

“We’re here,” I said.

“We’re cool,” Bernardo said.

“What happened?” Edward asked.

“The first room is a box that’s soundproof and electronics proof. We had to play twenty questions before they let us in.” I was looking around us as I spoke. It was a living room, just a living room. It was white and elegant, with windows that gave an amazing view of the Las Vegas Strip. There were huge white couches with cream and silver cushions. There were even a few touches of shiny gold in small cushions. The coffee table in the middle of the couches was glass and silver. I realized that it looked like a bigger version of Jean-Claude’s living room. It didn’t make me feel at home. It actually kind of creeped me.

“Talk to me, people,” Edward said in my ear.

“We’re in the living room,” I said.

“Nice view of the Strip,” Bernardo said.

“Thank you,” Rick said. He walked back to a hallway that was on the other side of the room. But before he got there, Ava walked out. They spoke low together, then she came on into the room, and Rick walked back until he vanished through the door at the end of the short hallway. It was like a changing of the guard.

I called after Rick and to Ava. “Where’s Crispin?”

“He’s safe,” Ava said, “I promise. We just want to talk to you without him for a few moments.”

“More tests?” Bernardo said.

“Not exactly.”

“Ava,” I said, partially so Edward would know she was here, “when do we get to talk to Chang-Bibiana?”

“Rick will tell her what you said in the outer room. Then either she will come out to meet you, or we will take you in to meet her.”

“What decides who goes where?” I asked.

“Chang-Bibi does.”

“When does Crispin join us?”

“When Chang-Bibi wishes him to.”

“She is the queen,” I said, and fought to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I probably failed.

“She is,” Ava replied. “Would you like to sit down?”

Bernardo and I exchanged glances. He shrugged. “Sure,” I said.

We took opposite corners of the couch. It put neither of our backs to a door, and it gave us the maximum view of the surroundings. We did it without asking each other. Bernardo looked at me as we settled into the overstuffed couch, and I looked back. He gave a small smile, not his flirting smile, but I think a smile at how we’d divided the room up.

“Would you like coffee, tea, water perhaps?” she asked.

“Coffee would be great,” I said.

“Water for me, if it’s bottled.”

“Of course.”

She left us alone in the huge, pale room, with the Vegas sun beating against the nearly solid wall of windows. Even with the air-conditioning blasting, you could feel the heat pressing in against the room, like something almost alive and with malevolent intent.

“Why bottled water?” I asked.

“Because if you travel, the new water is the thing most likely to make you sick. Stick to bottled and you can eat almost anything.”

“Makes sense, I guess.”

Bernardo began to report the room through the headset. Which direction the windows were, the lay of the land, including doors and all exits.

Edward spoke in my ear. “You want to add anything, Anita?”

“Nope. He covered everything I see.”

“Thank you,” Bernardo said.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

A disgusted sound came through the earbud. “I wish you were in here with us, big guy,” Bernardo said.

“Yes,” was all that deep voice said, but it was enough to make me shiver, and not in a good, happy way.

“How do you really feel about Otto?” Bernardo asked.

I gave him a disgusted look. “Oh, right, like I’m going to discuss my personal feelings about team members over an open radio.”

He grinned at me. “I had to try.”

“Why?”

Whatever his answer was, I never heard it, because Ava came back from the hallway. Rick was with her, and Domino was back. Bernardo and I both stood up.

Ava spoke in a clear, ringing voice. “Chang-Bibi of the White Tiger Clan!”

The doors at the end of the short hallway behind the tigers opened. Chang-Bibi strode through the door, with Crispin on her arm. She was taller than me, because her head was a little above his shoulder, and then I had to revise that, because I saw her heels. Four-inch spike heels, and I was back to being unsure of her height. But other things were very sure.

White hair fell to her waist in perfect waves. She was wearing makeup that emphasized the pale, perfect blue of her tiger eyes in that human face. Her eyes tilted up at the edges, and there was something in the bone structure. It was as if her face held some genetic link to the long-ago Chinese origins of her ancestors. But, as I’d learned a few months back, the weretigers had been forced to flee China many centuries ago, in the time of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. He’d seen all the preternatural races as a danger to his authority and had them slaughtered on sight. The weretigers had fled to other countries and been forced to marry outside the purity of their race, so most of them looked like the country they’d fled to.

There was something very exotic about Bibiana, and though they had similar hair and eyes, Crispin came off looking more ordinary. If you could have changed the eyes to human, he would have looked at home at any bar or club on a Saturday night. Chang-Bibi would have stood out anywhere, as if the aura of her difference was something that couldn’t be hidden.

She wore a white dress with long silky sleeves, and a V-neck so it showed off the spill of white breasts. The belt at the waist emphasized how tiny her waist, how curvy the body. She came from a time when being too thin was not in, and she looked voluptuous. That was the only word I had for it. She was voluptuous.

Someone touched my arm, and it was Bernardo. I looked at him, startled. “You okay?” he asked.

I nodded, but had to take a shaky breath. Fuck, she had bespelled me like some kind of vampire, but it hadn’t been eye contact. It was as if her very being attracted me. Fuck, again.

I called wolf again, but the white tiger snarled in front of the wolf. I didn’t want the beasts to fight inside me. One, it hurt-a lot. Two, I didn’t want the weretigers to know that I didn’t have perfect control of my beasts.

I let the wolf slide back inside. I was left with white tiger pacing inside me, and she was going to be no help against the fascination of the white queen.

“I am Bibiana, wife of Maximillian, Master Vampire of the City of Las Vegas, Nevada.”

Bernardo touched my arm again, and I nodded. “I am Anita Blake”-I hesitated-“girlfriend of Jean-Claude, Master Vampire of the City of St. Louis, Missouri, and U.S. Marshal.”

“Ava said you come on a social visit.”

“I do, but I would ask questions about the crime we are here to investigate. Solving it helps both your people and the humans.”

“Have you come here to visit with me, Anita, or to interrogate me, as a marshal?”

I licked suddenly dry lips. Why was I having such trouble concentrating? What was she doing to me? I’d never had this kind of trouble around a wereanimal that wasn’t one of the men in my life.

“I…” Why couldn’t I think?

Bernardo touched me again. That helped. I moved around so that I could take his right hand in my left one. It left both our gun hands free. He raised eyebrows at me, but didn’t take his hand back. I was just glad it was Bernardo; anyone else on our little team, and one of us would have had to compromise their gun hand. The moment his hand was warm and real in mine, I could think a little more clearly. Interesting. I hadn’t even had to call up the ardeur, just another human hand to touch, and Chang-Bibi’s fascination was less.

“I am honored that you agreed to see me, but would you honor me with answering some questions that are more my job than social? I beg your indulgence, but it is a most… frightening crime.”

“It is most sad that our good policemen have been so slaughtered.” Her face showed distress, and she hugged Crispin’s arm a little tighter to her. She moved first, and he escorted her to the couch opposite us. She sat down, smoothing her skirt out.

Crispin took a step toward me. I let go of Bernardo and held out my hand. Crispin started for me with a smile.

“Crispin,” she said, “sit by me.”

His face looked less happy, but he did what she told him. He sat beside her, and the moment she laid her hand on his thigh, I was fascinated again. I could almost feel the weight of her hand on my own thigh.

“Shit,” I whispered, and took Bernardo’s hand again. The touch helped steady me, but I was beginning to realize what was wrong.

“What’s wrong?” Bernardo asked.

“I think she’s using Crispin to get to me.”

“Very good, Anita. I am his queen, and though he is your tiger to call, I am still his queen. Through your tie to him, I am your queen, too, so it seems.”

I shook my head. “I need your help to solve these crimes. Your husband, Max, told the police here that I’d help sort things out.”

“Max wanted you here, and so did I,” she said. She began to trace small circles on Crispin’s thigh. I could feel it on my leg. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“She’s not going to help us,” I said, and turned for the far door, Bernardo still hand in hand with me.

“I have every intention of helping you, Anita,” she said.

I turned back, putting my other hand higher on Bernardo’s arm. The reality of his muscled warmth helped me think. I wasn’t sure why, but it was almost as if anyone and anything that wasn’t tiger was useful. Then I had a thought: was it tiger, or was it white tiger?

“Then stop the mind games.”

“I needed to know if Crispin was more yours than mine. But not only can he not resist my touch, but through him, I also have a door into you. Very nice.”

“Why do you want a door into me?” I asked.

“Because it is there,” she said, and looking into her face, there was nothing there to talk to. It was a human face, but the expression in it gave me the feeling I’d gotten a couple of times when I stared into the face of a wild animal. There was that same neutrality. Bibiana didn’t want to hurt me, but she didn’t not want to hurt me either. It didn’t move her either way. It’s not the same thing as being a sociopath, but it’s close. It meant that she wouldn’t think like a human being. She’d think more like a tiger with a human brain. It changed everything about this interview. It meant that I couldn’t reason with her the way I could have with Max. It might mean I couldn’t reason with her at all.

“What’s happening, Anita?” Edward said in my ear. It startled me, made me jump.

“If your friends wish to join us, by all means bring them in. Listening devices are so impersonal,” she said.

I licked my lips again and tried to fight down my rising heartbeat. “The other marshals are holding our weapons for us. Rick didn’t want us to bring in an arsenal.”

She glanced back at Rick. “Are they that dangerous?”

“Yes, Chang-Bibi, I believe they are.”

She nodded, and turned back to us. “I trust Roderic’s judgment on such things.” She touched Crispin’s bare hand, and the power jumped like an electric charge through me.

Bernardo jumped, too. “What was that?”

“Power,” I said, “her power.”

“She sent it through the kid, to you?”

I didn’t argue with Crispin being “the kid”; it wasn’t just his age but the feel of him. “Yeah,” I said.

“Will you stop the power games long enough to answer some questions?” I asked.

“I will, if you do one thing first,” she said.

I knew it was a bad idea, but… “What do you want me to do?”

“Call Crispin to your side. If you can call him away from me, then I will answer your questions with no more games.” She smiled as she said it, but it was like watching the tiger in the zoo smile. You knew it didn’t mean it.

I squeezed Bernardo’s hand, then let go. He leaned in and whispered, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not,” I said.

“Then why do it?”

“Because she’ll keep her word. If I can call Crispin to me, away from her, she’ll answer our questions.”

“It’s still a bad idea,” he said.

I nodded. I took the Browning BDM out of its holster and handed it to him. “Bibiana seems to fascinate me like a master vampire, sort of. Just in case she decides to try to see how much control she has over me, I’d rather you have all the guns.”

“You think she’s going to mind-fuck you that badly?” he asked.

“I think she’s going to try.”

Edward was in my ear. “Just get out of there, Anita. We can find this information out somewhere else.”

I said, “Excuse me” to our hosts, and turned my back to talk out loud to Edward. “Night is going to come, Edward. Whatever killed these cops was deadly in the daylight. When you add their vampire masters to the mix, it’s going to be even worse. There is nowhere else to go for weretigers in Vegas.”

“Can she roll you, completely?”

“I don’t know.”

“Bernardo,” Edward said.

“Yeah, boss,” he said.

“If she goes, don’t be a hero, yell for us.”

“Don’t worry, Ted, I’m no hero.”

“Fine, we’ll be listening. Be careful, Anita.”

“As a virgin on my wedding night.”

There was a sound, I think it was Olaf. Maybe I had amused him, or maybe he just thought I was being stupid. He might be right on that second part.

33

I DIDN’T USUALLY try to call the wereanimals that were tied to me metaphysically. It just sort of happened. My psychic mentor, Marianne, told me that my natural abilities were so strong that I did most things without thinking about it first. That could be good and powerful, or bad and a weakness. But I’d been learning how to be a grown-up psychic and do stuff on purpose. It was the difference between driving really fast on a public street, or driving really fast on a track with professional drivers. One was for kids; the other was for grown-ups.

I tried simple first. “Crispin, come to me.” I held my hand out.

He stood up. Bibiana’s hand fell away. He actually took a step my way before her power breathed through the room. It stopped my breath in my throat, made me taste my pulse on my tongue. Crispin’s face was almost pained. His eyes looked at me with such longing, but he didn’t move closer.

But the white tiger inside me did move. She began to pad eagerly up along that well-worn path inside me. She began to trot, and I knew once she started running, when she hit the “surface” of my body, it would feel like getting hit by a truck from the inside out. I hadn’t had it happen in months, and I had seconds to stop it, if I could.

I tried to call wolf, but tiger was too close. The tigress was running full out, a white blur, streaking toward me.

“Fuck,” I said.

Rick and Domino had moved closer to us, as if they couldn’t help themselves. Only Ava seemed able to resist, but then she wasn’t the same… color.

I called black tiger, I called it with a scream and a roar inside my head. The black form smashed into the white inside me and sent me spinning across the room. I ended up on the floor near the windows, with the two tigers snarling inside me, trying to tear each other apart, but my body was their battlefield.

I cried out. I couldn’t help it.

Crispin yelled, “Anita!”

Bernardo was beside me, kneeling. I heard Edward yelling in my ear. “Anita, talk to me, or we’re coming in.”

“Don’t… don’t come. Not yet.” My voice held the pain I was feeling. There was nothing I could do about that.

Crispin was halfway across the room, but she was beside him. I could not force him to me with the white queen beside him. Domino was walking toward me with a scowl on his face. The black tiger and the white hesitated in their battle. They looked up and used my eyes to see him. They both liked him.

I said, “Domino, come to me.”

He shook his head, but the black tigress broke free of the fight, and the white tigress let her. The black began to stalk closer to me. I put that energy into the man I could see. I called him with images of dark fur and eyes like fire in the night.

He came to me as if each step hurt. He came to me with a look on his face that mirrored Crispin’s when Bibiana kept him from me. But I didn’t have time to care or think it through. I had to satisfy the tigers or risk becoming one for real. That was the real danger of what I was, that I might finally pick an animal that wasn’t Jean-Claude’s animal to call. If I did, then I might end up controlled by someone else, like Bibiana and her Max. To keep that from happening, I would mind-fuck Domino. Was it evil to think it all the way through and still do it? Maybe. Was I still going to do it, if it would keep the white queen from mind-fucking me? Oh, hell, yes.

34

BIBIANA TRIED TO call his white side, but the black tiger was so hungry. So hungry to find another black-furred side to rub up against. So lonely, so terribly lonely. The black tiger didn’t try to burst out the way the white was trying to with Bibiana’s urging. The black was sniffing the air and making low eager noises as Domino came to us.

He dropped to his knees beside me, as if someone had cut his strings. He just fell to his knees beside me on the white tiled floor. His face was a mask of anger and fear and longing.

His voice came out strangled. “You are a black queen. You really are.”

I held my hand out to him. He reached out to me. Bibiana yelled, “Roderic, stop him!”

But it was too late. Our fingers touched, and the black tiger made a sound that spilled out of my throat. Domino let me pull him in against my body. He stared down at me, and those fire-colored eyes were still afraid, and still angry, but underneath that was a glimpse of something that felt better.

He whispered, “You smell like home.” He lowered his face, not to kiss me but to rub his cheeks, his mouth, his nose, against my skin. He drew in the scent of the black tiger inside me, like a cat trying to roll in catnip. Except that this catnip was me, my body.

I felt the black tiger want to take him. There was sex in there, but also to force him into his tiger form, but the black tiger was content, happy even, just from his closeness. I think I could have calmed things down. It would have been all right, but then the power of the white queen breathed through the room like the wind from the open door of hell. Bibiana’s energy hit us both. It made the white tiger snarl and begin to creep forward.

“No,” and I yelled it. The white tiger hesitated. I stared up into Domino’s face. “Give me permission to feed on you.”

“What?” he asked.

The white tiger leapt onto the black, and they started trying to tear me apart again. I writhed and struggled not to scream in Domino’s arms. I knew if I screamed, Edward and Olaf would come through those doors.

Domino said, “My Queen, if by my flesh or my seed I can feed you, then feed.”

I didn’t understand everything he said, but the tigers stopped fighting. They panted and stared up at him, through my eyes. The black tiger growled low and soft, and it spilled from between my teeth.

I had a few moments to realize that among the tigers, when they said feed, they meant either flesh or sex, or both. Domino had given me permission to take his life. The black tiger understood that, but she and I were in agreement. It had been so long since we’d found another of us. We didn’t want to eat him. We wanted to save him. We wanted to keep him.

Bibiana sent another wave of power over us, but this time the black and I were ready. We were both angry with her. Angry that she interfered in this. She had no right. He was ours. Ours!

The anger became rage, the rage became my beast, but I had other uses for anger now. It didn’t translate into shapeshifting for me. I called that part of me that was vampire powers, that was the ardeur, and there was a moment where it could have spilled to sex, but it wasn’t sex I wanted. I was pissed, and now I could feed that anger. I’d tasted Domino’s anger earlier in the casino. I knew it was in there. All I had to do was throw my anger into him.

I let my rage spill into him. He screamed, head back, and the rage was so great, so long inside him. His beast began to rise with that anger. I drew him down into a kiss, and I fed through the touch of his mouth on mine, through the bruising grip of his hands on my arms, through the struggling of his body against mine. I held him and I breathed in his rage through his lips, his skin, his body. I breathed in his anger and let it join that seething mass of rage inside me.

I fed on Domino’s anger, and with that anger came knowledge. I got glimpses of what had filled him with such rage. I saw him as a child, alone in a foster home, crying. I saw the other children making fun of the eyes and the hair. I saw him saved by Bibiana, but even here, he wasn’t white enough. He belonged, and he didn’t. He was like the others, but he wasn’t. Always, he was not quite home.

He stopped struggling, and by the end of it, he was crying in my arms. I held him, and the black tigress snuggled close, so that we both held him.

I saw Bernardo standing over us, uncertain, as if he wasn’t sure if I was all right or not. I spoke to the uncertainty on his face. “I’m all right, Bernardo.”

“Your eyes,” he said, “they’re all brown and black light, like a vampire.”

I kissed Domino’s forehead and tested the truth of his words. I could taste Domino’s pulse like candy on my tongue. I had that urge to plunge teeth into flesh and see if the candy squirted red. You can’t be a living vampire, but whatever I was becoming was close.

But I didn’t just taste blood and food. I felt the other tigers. Not just the one lying in my arms. I felt them all. I turned my head, and the moment Bibiana saw my eyes, she was afraid. Her fear appealed to both the vampire part of me and the beast. Fear means food. If something is afraid of you, you can control it, or kill it.

I called Crispin to me. Not by using tiger powers, but the way a vampire calls its animal to call. “Crispin, come to me.”

Bibiana tried to hold him by the hand. I said, “Let him go, or I’ll see how many tigers I can call today.”

“You would not dare try to steal the animal of another master vampire.”

“You mean, like you didn’t try to steal away the human servant of another master vampire.” I sat up, and Domino curled around me, utterly passive, utterly content.

She didn’t let go, so I reached out to her as a vampire would. A vampire that could call tigers. She let go of Crispin, and held her hand as if his skin had burned her.

Bibiana’s power reached out, but not to us. Rick came to her hand, and the far door opened, and more of the white tigers came to stand with their queen. But I didn’t care. Crispin had taken my hand. I sat there with his hand in mine, and Domino curled around my waist, and it was nearly perfect, like being wrapped in your favorite blanket at the end of a long day’s work. I’d learned that the ardeur could be about friendship and not just romance. In that moment, it was even more than that. It was about that feeling of belonging, of being home.

Then I felt a different energy, in all that sea of white tiger power. I felt a thread of something new. Something unique. I didn’t know what it was until the blue tiger inside me stepped from the shadows and started to pace forward.

She was truly blue with black stripes, a deep cobalt color, almost a black, but it wasn’t. She was true blue, and she’d smelled something that belonged to her.

He stepped out from the rest, a puzzled look on his young face, because he was young. Young enough to make me start to swim up to the surface of myself. Young enough for me to know that whatever I had just done to Domino might destroy him.

I stared at the short dark blue hair, a perfect match to the tiger inside me. I stared into his eyes that were two shades of blue, as if Crispin’s eyes had married with Jean-Claude’s, and knew he was mine to call.

I asked, “How old are you?”

“Sixteen,” he said.

“Shit,” I said.

35

EDWARD’S VOICE IN my ear said, “We’ve got Max’s son, Victor, out here with bodyguards. We’re letting Victor through, but we’re keeping the bodyguards.”

“We’ve got another half-dozen tigers in here with us. They came out of the far rooms,” Bernardo said.

“This just keeps getting better,” Edward said, and the sarcasm came through the earpiece loud and clear.

The blue tiger inside me pressed closer to the surface of me. I had an image of her face against mine, trying to get closer so she could sniff the air.

The doors opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man in an expensive tailored suit strode through. His white hair was cut very short, and in one of those cuts that looked like it had been done one hair at a time. He actually wore those pale yellow sunglasses over his eyes. The glasses weren’t dark enough to do a damn thing against the Vegas sun. Was he trying to pass for human? If that was the idea, then he needed to tone down the energy that boiled off him.

That wash of energy turned the blue tiger snarling toward him. I would have fallen forward if Domino and Crispin hadn’t caught me.

“You’re going to bring her beast, Mother,” he said, and he kept coming toward us. The blue tiger didn’t like that. The white one did. Black was just content to cuddle Domino. The blue tiger tried to turn me toward the boy. The white liked Victor. The black was fine. It was like having three different roommates inside me, and all of them liked different guys.

“You have no right to interfere,” Bibiana said.

“Father warned you against this,” he said, and he was at our side. He knelt in the dark suit, his eyes hidden behind the glasses, but no amount of colored glass could hide the power spilling off him. The power was enough that the white tiger knew what we’d find behind the glasses.

I came to my knees. Crispin had to let go of my hand, but he touched my shoulder. Domino slipped lower down my body like a reluctant piece of clothing. My hands went to those glasses.

Victor caught my hands in his. He stared into my face as if he were trying to see through me. He raised my hands to his face and sniffed my skin. “Impossible.”

“I told you, Victor, she carries them all,” Bibiana said.

He rose up from my skin. I could see his eyes clearly, but the pale yellow lenses stole what I needed to see. My voice sounded like a stranger in my head when I said, “Take them off.”

He blinked at me. “What?”

I repeated it. “Take them off.”

“Why?” he asked, and let go of my hands.

I shook my head because I wasn’t sure, and then the answer came, “I have to see your eyes.”

“Why?” he said, again.

I reached upward, and this time he didn’t stop me. I touched the thin wire frames of his glasses and pulled them gently down, until I was looking into pale blue tiger eyes. They were a deeper blue than Crispin’s eyes, but still a color and a shape that you wouldn’t mistake for human unless you wanted not to see what was there.

I knelt in front of him, with his glasses in my hands, and stared up into those eyes. But it wasn’t just the eyes; they were only a sign of what my tigress needed. It was the power in him. I hadn’t understood until that moment how weak every other weretiger I’d touched had been.

Victor stared down at me with those perfect eyes. He swallowed hard enough that I heard it. His voice was a little shaky as he said, “You really are another queen, aren’t you?”

I leaned in toward him. I wasn’t aiming for a kiss. It was more as if there were gravity to his power, and it drew me in.

He stood up, stumbling a little. I reached for him, and it was Crispin who drew me back. He and Domino pulled me back into their arms, but it was like I could hear music in my head that I’d never heard before. Victor’s power drowned out their touch.

Victor put the glasses back on and turned to his mother. “Father expressly forbade you from calling her power until he had met with her.”

“I am Chang here, not you,” she said.

“You rule the clan of the white tiger. I have never disputed that, but Father has put me in charge of other parts of his domain. When you put the tigers’ power above the good of this city and the other citizens, then you have broken your master, my father’s, rules.”

“Would you deny Domino and Cynric the only queen of their clan they may ever meet?”

“I would never stand in the way of another clan’s destiny, Mother, but you cannot feed Cynric to her. Look at what she has already done to Crispin and Domino.”

Something about the way he said it made me look at the two weretigers still beside me. Crispin had looked at me with that devotion before, but to see it in Domino’s face was just wrong. A look of puppyish devotion in that angry, arrogant face; it hurt my heart to see it. Not because I cared for him, because you can’t care for someone you’ve just met, but because no adult should look at anyone like that. It was a look I’d seen before, on the faces of vampires. I was a true necromancer and called to all the dead, but I wasn’t supposed to call to the wereanimals like this, not like this.

“Oh, God,” I said, and tried to stand up. Domino clung to me, and I fought the urge to slap at him in a kind of panic. “I fed on your anger, damn it. I fed on your anger so you wouldn’t look at me like that!”

He gave me calm eyes, and he shouldn’t have.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Talk to me, Anita, Bernardo. What’s happening?” Edward asked.

“Wait, Edward, just wait.” I turned to Victor. “Can you fix this?”

Bernardo said, “Anita has it under control.” The look on his face didn’t match the surety of his words, but he was giving me the benefit of the doubt.

Victor looked where I was pointing, at Domino. “You mean undo your possession of him?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You are queen,” Bibiana said, “you do not ask any male for such help.”

“Fine, can you undo it?” I asked.

Victor studied me some more. “You said you fed on his anger. I thought the ardeur was all about sex.”

“I can feed on anger, too. I thought if I didn’t feed on lust, or love, for your people that I wouldn’t bind them to me. I don’t want any more men, damn it.”

“Jean-Claude can’t feed on anger, can he?” Victor asked.

That was a little too close to truths we didn’t want to share with anyone. That I had powers that my master didn’t share. I tried to be cool about it, but my pulse had sped. Weretigers are like living lie detectors. They can sense, smell, all those little involuntary body functions.

“Can either of you make it so he isn’t”-I waved a hand at Domino-“like this?”

“It may pass on its own,” Victor said.

“Are you sure?”

He smiled. “No, but what you’ve done seems to be a combination of vampire and Chang tiger. You’ve rolled him. If you leave him alone, he may recover. If it’s more vampire than wereanimal, then you know that you’ll be able to repossess him anytime you want.”

I licked my lips and said the only truth I had. “I don’t want to possess anybody.”

“I felt your power. I felt you shove it into my mother. I felt it blocks away.”

“Would it sound childish to say she started it?”

He gave a quick smile. “It’s a little childish, but I know my mother.”

“Victor,” Bibiana said.

“You know you tried to raise her tigers, Mother. You know you provoked her power. Don’t deny it.”

“I would never deny it,” she said.

Bernardo said, “Chang-Bibiana promised that if Marshal Blake could call Crispin away from her, she would answer our questions.”

Bibiana wouldn’t look at anyone in the room.

“Did you promise the marshals that, Mother?”

She gave a little nod, still not looking at anyone.

“Then answer her questions, like you promised.”

I did my best not to glance at the blue boy. “I think a little privacy would be good before we start discussing an ongoing police investigation.”

“I don’t want to leave,” he said.

Ava tugged on him. “Come on, Cynric.”

“No,” he said, and pulled away from her. “You’re not pure. You don’t know how it feels to be part of a clan.”

“Cynric,” Bibiana said, and her anger cracked like a hot whip through the room, “you will show Ava the respect she deserves. One of our brethren attacked her. He broke the most sacred rule among the clans. She is not one who sought this life.”

He looked sullen for a moment, then guilty. “I’m sorry, Ava. I didn’t mean it.”

She smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “It’s all right, Cynric, but let’s leave the marshals to talk to Bibiana and Victor.” He let her lead him through the far door, but he looked back as the doors closed, and the disturbing thing was that I was there to meet his eyes.

Bernardo touched my arm, made me look at him. “You all right?”

Was I all right? That was an excellent question. What I needed was an excellent answer. I said the only thing I could think of. “We have work to do, Marshal Spotted Horse.”

He gave me a look that raised one eyebrow, then nodded. “Yes, we do, Marshal Blake.”

“Ask your questions, then get the fuck out of there,” Edward said, “I do not want Anita in that room when Max joins his wife.” Edward was absolutely right. Bibiana had almost rolled me on her own, without her master at her side. There were so many reasons to want this thing cleared up before the vampires rose for the night.

The fact that there was no way on God’s green earth to solve this crime before dark was not only disappointing but getting more dangerous every minute.

36

ONE OF THE white female tigers with hair the color of pale buttermilk, and eyes like a spring sky, came and took Domino deeper into the penthouse. He didn’t want to leave me, but between me and Victor, he did what we wanted. If he got out of my physical presence and started breaking free of the fascination, then I could leave him here to his life. If it didn’t start to wear off at all, then I’d have to take him with me. What I’d do with him after that, I had no bloody idea. Other people pick up stray puppies; I kept collecting men. Crap.

The rest of us settled down on the overstuffed couches. Bernardo and I sat far enough away from each other on our couch that we wouldn’t get in each other’s way if things went south. Crispin sat as close to me as any boyfriend, an arm across the back of the couch touching my shoulders, one hand on my leg. I could have told him to back off because I was working, but it would have hurt his feelings, and I knew enough about lycanthrope society to know that touching was just what they did.

Bibiana sat across from us, with her son and Rick. No one touched her much. Maybe tigers were different from the other animal groups I was familiar with? I’d ask later.

“What do you know about what happened to the police here?” I asked.

“Only what we heard on the news,” Victor said.

Bibiana simply looked at me with those uptilted blue eyes. Her silent scrutiny might have been unnerving, but between the morgue, Olaf, and what had just happened with my inner tigers, her stare just didn’t have enough weight to move me.

If this had been a normal interrogation, there would be rules, methods. I should have volunteered little and asked repetitive questions. But we were burning daylight. Once the vampires rose for the night, and Vittorio added his power to his daytime servants… I had no idea what he would do. Slaughtering the SWAT team like that and mailing me the head was throwing down a serious gauntlet. I thought that if it was Vittorio and not someone framing him, or even if it were, then when darkness fell, all hell was going to break loose. We didn’t have time for hours of questions.

Crispin began to move his hand on my thigh in small circles. He’d picked up my tension and was trying to soothe me. It didn’t really work, but I appreciated the effort.

“Anita?” Bernardo said, making a question of my name. He looked at me, trying for blank, and failing to hide some concern around the edges. He’d seen some seriously weird shit from me in the last hour. In fact, he’d been a damn good sport about all of it. Did I owe him, like, flowers? What did you get a coworker for not freaking when you went all metaphysical on him? A card? Did Hallmark make a card for that?

Crispin leaned over me, his breath warm against my hair. “Anita, are you all right?”

“Anita,” Bernardo said again, and this time he didn’t try to keep the worry out of his voice.

Edward joined in my ear. “Bernardo, what’s wrong with Anita?”

“I’m fine,” I said, “I’m just thinking.” I turned back to the weretigers on the other couch. “We’re running out of daylight, so I’m going to talk to you like one master’s lady to another.”

Bibiana gave a regal nod. “I am honored.”

“One, I need you to listen to Victor and Max, and not screw with my inner tigers until after this investigation is over.”

“You could tell her just to leave your inner tigers alone,” Victor said. He smiled, but his eyes were just visible behind the yellow glasses. Part of me was really bugged by the glasses, but I was trying to be human here, not all tigerish, so he could keep the glasses.

In the interest of being a little more human, I leaned away from Crispin, putting myself on the edge of the couch. All I had to do was lean back and he’d be there, but I needed to think, and something about a man you’ve had sex with doing little circles on your thigh isn’t always conducive to clear thinking.

“I’m trying to negotiate in good faith here. I’m not going to start by asking Bibiana to promise something she won’t deliver. I don’t understand everything that she wants from my inner beasts, but I heard her say that I may be the only queen of their clan that Domino and the blue boy, Cynric, will ever see. Bibiana isn’t going to let me walk out of Vegas without wanting to explore that again, are you?” I looked at her when I said the last.

She smiled and dipped her head, very demure. “No,” she said, simply.

I smiled. “Good, no denials. I like that. Two, do we all agree that these murders are bad for business for both the vampire and lycanthrope communities?”

They all agreed.

“Then I need to know, honestly, if you know anything about the animal that helped this vampire kill these police officers.”

“You say animal, but you come to us,” Victor said.

Bibiana said, “You think it is one of our tigers.” There was something about the way she said it that made me say the next.

“You think so, too,” I said.

“I did not say so,” she said.

I licked my lips, but not because they were dry this time. “You taste like the edge of a lie,” I said.

“What does that mean?” Olaf asked in my ear.

Edward told him, “Let her work.”

Bibiana smiled up at me. It was almost a flirtatious look. “I am not lying,” she said.

I smiled at her. “Okay, then answer this: Do you suspect that one of your weretigers was involved with these killings in any way?”

She wouldn’t look at me now, but concentrated on her small, neat hands that were clasped so ladylike in her lap. Her ankles were crossed. She was so prim and proper, but I knew it was a lie. She was one of those people that no matter how buttoned up they are, you can simply feel that if you scratch them hard enough, get them in the right place at the wrong time, there would be absolutely nothing proper about them. Women tend to give off that vibe more than men, but I’ve seen men do it, too. Some of them don’t even know how much heat they’re hiding behind the mask of civility. But Bibiana knew; she knew that human and prim was not really what she was at all.

“Do you want me to answer the question, Mother?”

She gave him a look so fierce, so vicious, that it turned that pretty face into something frightening. There, the masks were coming down. “I am still queen here, or do I have to remind you of it more forcefully?”

“Father told us that if asked, we were to answer Marshal Blake honestly and completely.”

“Until he rises for the night, I rule here,” she said.

I fought not to glimpse back at Crispin. He wasn’t good at hiding his face. Instead, I glanced at Rick and found him visibly uncomfortable. I got the impression that this squabbling was common, maybe even growing worse. I knew enough about weretiger society to know that they were all run by queens. It was one of the few wereanimal groups that was always female run. Some groups had women that got to be top dog, or cat, but it was the exception, not the rule. So Victor, no matter how powerful, couldn’t rule the White Tiger Clan. But he was certainly acting as if he wanted to be in charge.

“Bernardo reminded you of your promise, Chang-Bibiana. Now I remind you again that I have called Crispin to me from your side. You said if I could do that, that you would answer my questions. Is the word of the Chang of the White Tiger Clan to be depended on, or is there no honor in Vegas?”

I felt the couch move before Crispin put a hand on my back. It was a careful touch, not too sexual, but it was a physical reminder to be careful. I didn’t resent it. If I didn’t take Crispin back with me to St. Louis, this was his pond I was shitting in, and he’d be left alone to swim in it.

Bibiana turned those angry eyes to me. Her power started to pour toward me, in a nearly visible roil of heat. Victor stood up. He moved between that power, her, and me.

It hit him, and his head went back, his arms to the sides, as if it felt good. His breath came out in a long sigh. He shuddered and said, “Your Master of the City gave you express orders not to bring her beasts. I obey his orders, even if you do not.”

She made a snarling sound. Crispin tucked himself up closer to me, as if afraid. Or was he afraid of what I’d do? I fought not to stiffen at his touch or look too nervous. I tried for calm, though I felt anything but at ease.

Bernardo had moved forward to the edge of his piece of couch, too. Rick was still sitting back, but the tension showed in every muscle.

“You are your father’s tool and nothing more.”

“I am my father’s instrument in the daylight. I am his right hand, and I will not betray him.”

“It is not betrayal to seek power for our clan and our people.” I couldn’t see her because Victor was still standing between us.

“You can seek power after the marshals have killed the traitor and his master.”

“What traitor?” I asked.

Victor turned, giving his mother his back. I’m not sure I would have done that, but then she wasn’t my mom. “The first murders were strippers, just like the ones in your city. But the last one had claw marks and vampire bites.”

I cursed the Vegas PD for not mentioning this little fact to me. It would have been nice to know that the last victim had shown claw marks. That was a change from all the other cities that Vittorio had hunted in. It proved that some part of the Vegas force didn’t trust me. That was going to make solving crime, any crime, harder here. Crispin picked up my anxiety again. His hand on my back began to make those soothing circles.

“What makes you think it’s a weretiger?” I asked.

“Mother,” Victor said, and stepped aside to let us see each other again.

She gave him a not entirely happy look, but spoke. “I have felt another vampire’s pull on my tigers. As you tried today to call me to you, and ended by calling some of my children, so this other vampire was seeking. I thought I had prevented it, but now I believe that he managed to steal away one of mine. Or perhaps a different clan, but tiger, he was calling tiger.”

“Do you know for certain that the vampire was a he?” I asked.

She nodded. “The energy was male.”

“Ask her how she knows that for certain,” Edward asked in my ear.

I held my hand out to the weretigers. I moved a little away from Crispin’s hand, too. He took the hint and let his hand drop away from me. “Excuse me, she knows it was male, Marshal Forrester, because the energy tasted or smelled male to her.”

“You can tell from energy if a vampire is male or female?” Bernardo asked.

I nodded. “Sometimes.”

Bibiana smiled at me, as if I’d said a smart thing. “Yes, he tasted of men, but…” She frowned.

“But what?” I asked.

“You are of the line of Belle Morte?”

“Jean-Claude is,” I said.

She waved it away as if I were quibbling. “Most vampire lines are cold things, but not hers. You are closer to the warmth of the wereanimal, I think. Can you taste someone’s sexual energy from a distance?”

I thought about that. “Sometimes.”

Again, she smiled like I’d said the right thing. “There was something wrong with this vampire’s energy. Something stunted, or thwarted in some way. It was as if his sex had become rage.”

“Have you ever felt something similar from anyone else?” I asked.

“We had a weretiger that came to us. We tried to discipline him, save him, but in the end he had to be destroyed for everyone’s sake.”

To his mother’s explanation, Victor added, “He was a serial rapist. The attacks became more violent.” He sighed.

“Ava’s attacker?” I asked.

He gave me a startled look. “Did you look at her case file?”

I shook my head. “Just a guess.”

“It was not a guess,” Bibiana said. “You read his body posture. You smelled his scent.”

I shrugged because I didn’t want to argue, and wasn’t entirely sure I could. “But you’re saying that this vampire’s energy felt similar to the serial rapist that you’d sensed before?”

“Yes, but…” She shivered, and this time I could taste her fear.