The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 1

1

The most beautiful corpse I'd ever seen was sitting behind my desk. Jean-Claude's white shirt gleamed in the light from the desk lamp. A froth of lace spilled down the front, peeking from inside his black velvet jacket. I stood behind him, my back to the wall, arms crossed over my stomach, which put my right hand comfortably close to the Browning Hi-Power in its shoulder holster. I wasn't about to draw on Jean-Claude. It was the other vampire I was worried about.

The desk lamp was the only light in the room. The vampire had requested the overheads be turned out. His name was Sabin, and he stood against the far wall, huddling in the dark. He was covered head to foot in a black, hooded cape. He looked like something out of an old Vincent Price movie. I'd never seen a real vampire dress like that.

The last member of our happy little group was Dominic Dumare. He sat in one of the client chairs. He was tall, thin, but not weak. His hands were large and strong, big enough to palm my face. He was dressed in a three-piece black suit, like a chauffeur except for the diamond stickpin in his tie. A beard and thin mustache lined the strong bones of his face.

When he'd entered my office, I'd felt him like a psychic wind tripping down my spine. I'd only encountered two other people who had that taste to them. One had been the most powerful voodoo priestess I'd ever met. The second had been the second most powerful voodoo priest I'd ever met. The woman was dead. The man worked for Animators, Inc., just like I did. But Dominic Dumare wasn't here to apply for a job.

"Ms. Blake, please be seated," Dumare said. "Sabin finds it most offensive to sit when a lady is standing."

I glanced behind him at Sabin. "I'll sit down if he sits down," I said.

Dumare looked at Jean-Claude. He gave a gentle, condescending smile. "Do you have such poor control over your human servant?"

I didn't have to see Jean-Claude's smile to know it was there. "Oh, you are on your own with ma petite. She is my human servant, so declared before the council, but she answers to no one."

"You seem proud of that," Sabin said. His voice was British and very upper crust.

"She is the Executioner and has more vampire kills than any other human. She is a necromancer of such power that you have traveled halfway around the world to consult her. She is my human servant without a mark to hold her to me. She dates me without the aid of vampire glamor. Why should I not be pleased?"

Listening to him talk you'd have thought it was all his own idea. Fact was, he'd tried his best to mark me, and I'd managed to escape. We were dating because he'd blackmailed me. Date him or he'd kill my other boyfriend. Jean-Claude had managed to make it all work to his advantage. Why was I not surprised?

"Until her death you cannot mark any other human," Sabin said. "You have cut yourself off from a great deal of power."

"I am aware of what I have done," Jean-Claude said.

Sabin laughed, and it was chokingly bitter. "We all do strange things for love."

I would have given a lot to see Jean-Claude's face at that moment. All I could see was his long black hair spilling over his jacket, black on black. His shoulders stiffened, hands sliding across the blotter on my desk. Then he went very still. That awful waiting stillness that only the old vampires have, as if, if they held still long enough, they would simply disappear.

"Is that what has brought you here, Sabin? Love?" Jean-Claude's voice was neutral, empty.

Sabin's laughter rode the air like broken glass. It felt like the very sound of it hurt something deep inside me. I didn't like it.

"Enough games," I said, "let's get it done."

"Is she always this impatient?" Dumare asked.

"Yes," Jean-Claude said.

Dumare smiled, bright and empty as a lightbulb. "Did Jean-Claude tell you why we wished to see you?"

"He said Sabin caught some sort of disease from trying to go cold turkey."

The vampire across the room laughed again, flinging it like a weapon across the room. "Cold turkey, very good, Ms. Blake, very good."

The laughter ate over me like small cutting blades. I'd never experienced anything like that from just a voice. In a fight, it would have been distracting. Heck, it was distracting now. I felt liquid slide down my forehead. I raised my left hand to it. My fingers came away smeared with blood. I drew the Browning and stepped away from the wall. I aimed it at the black figure across the room. "He does that again, and I'll shoot him."

Jean-Claude rose slowly from the chair. His power flowed over me like a cool wind, raising goose bumps on my arms. He raised one pale hand, gone nearly translucent with power. Blood flowed down that gleaming skin.

Dumare stayed in his chair, but he, too, was bleeding from a cut nearly identical to mine. Dumare wiped the blood away, still smiling. "The gun will not be necessary," he said.

"You have abused my hospitality," Jean-Claude said. His voice filled the room with hissing echoes.

"There is nothing I can say to apologize," Sabin said. "But I did not mean to do it. I am using so much of my power just to maintain myself that I do not have the control I once did."

I moved slowly away from the wall, gun still pointed. I wanted to see Jean-Claude's face. I needed to see how badly he was hurt. I eased around the desk until I could see him from the corner of my eye. His face was untouched, flawless and gleaming like mother of pearl.

He raised his hand, one thin line of blood still trailing down. "This is no accident."

"Come into the light, my friend," Dumare said. "You must let them see, or they will not understand."

"I do not want to be seen."

"You are very close to using up all my good will," Jean-Claude said.

"Mine, too," I added. I was hoping I could either shoot Sabin or put the gun down soon. Even a two-handed shooting stance is not meant to be maintained indefinitely. Your hands start to waver just a bit.

Sabin glided towards the desk. The black cloak spilled around his feet like a pool of darkness. All vampires were graceful, but this was ridiculous. I realized he wasn't walking at all. He was levitating inside that dark cloak.

His power flowed over my skin like icy water. My hands were suddenly steady once more. Nothing like having several hundred years worth of vampire coming at you to sharpen your nerves.

Sabin stopped on the far side of the desk. He was expending power just to move, just to be here, as if like a shark, if he stopped moving he'd die.

Jean-Claude glided around me. His power danced over my body, raising the hair at the back of my neck, making my skin tight. He stopped almost within reach of the other vampire. "What has happened to you, Sabin?"

Sabin stood on the edge of the light. The lamp should have cast some light into the hood of his cloak, but it didn't. The inside of the hood was as smooth and black and empty as a cave. His voice came out of that nothingness. It made me jump.

"Love, Jean-Claude, love happened to me. My beloved grew a conscience. She said it was wrong to feed upon people. We were once people, after all. For love of her, I tried to drink cold blood. I tried animal blood. But it was not enough to sustain me."

I stared into that darkness. I kept pointing the gun, but I was beginning to feel silly. Sabin didn't seem at all afraid of it, which was unnerving. Maybe he didn't care. That was also unnerving. "She talked you into going vegetarian. Great," I said. "You seem powerful enough."

He laughed, and with the laughter, the shadows in his hood faded slowly, like a curtain lifting. He threw it back in one quick flourish.

I didn't scream, but I gasped and took a step back. I couldn't help myself. When I realized I'd done it, I stopped and made myself take back that step, meet his eyes. No flinching.

His hair was thick and straight and golden, falling like a shining curtain to his shoulders. But his skin . . . his skin had rotted away on half his

face. It was like late-stage leprosy, but worse. The flesh was puss-filled, gangrenous, and should have stunk to high heaven. The other half of his face was still beautiful. The kind of face that medieval painters had borrowed for cherubim, a golden perfection. One crystalline blue eye rolled in its rotting socket as if in danger of spilling out onto his cheek. The other eye was secure and watched my face.

"You can put up the gun, ma petite. It was an accident, after all," Jean-Claude said.

I lowered the Browning, but didn't put it up. It took more effort than was pretty to say calmly, "This happened because you stopped feeding off of humans?"

"We believe so," Dumare said.

I tore my gaze away from Sabin's ravaged face and looked back at Dominic. "You think I can help cure him of this?" I couldn't keep the disbelief out of my voice.

"I heard of your reputation in Europe."

I raised my eyebrows.

"No modesty, Ms. Blake. Among those of us who notice such things, you are gaining a certain notoriety."

Notoriety, not fame. Hmmm.

"Put the gun away, ma petite. Sabin has done all the--what is your word--grandstanding he will do tonight. Haven't you Sabin?"

"I fear so, it all seems to go so badly now."

I holstered the gun and shook my head. "I honestly don't have the faintest idea how to help you."

"If you knew how, would you help me?" Sabin asked.

I looked at him and nodded. "Yes."

"Even though I am a vampire and you are a vampire executioner."

"Have you done anything in this country that you need killing for?"

Sabin laughed. The rotting skin stretched, and a ligament popped with a wet snap. I had to look away. "Not yet, Ms. Blake, not yet." His face sobered quickly; the humor abruptly faded. "You school your face to show nothing, Jean-Claude, but I read the horror in your eyes."

Jean-Claude's skin had gone back to its usual milky perfection. His face was still lovely, perfect, but at least he'd stopped glowing. His midnight blue eyes were just eyes now. He was still beautiful, but it was a nearly human beauty. "Is it not worth a little horror?" he asked.

Sabin smiled, and I wished he hadn't. The muscles on the rotted side didn't work, and his mouth hung crooked. I glanced away, then made myself look back. If he could be trapped inside that face, I could look at it.

"Then you will help me?"

"I would aid you if I could, but it is Anita you have come to ask. She must give her own answer."

"Well, Ms. Blake?"

"I don't know how to help you," I repeated.

"Do you understand how dire my circumstances are, Ms. Blake? The true horror of it, do you grasp it?"

"The rot probably won't kill you, but it's progressive, I take it?"

"Oh, yes, it's progressive, virulently so."

"I would help you if I could, Sabin, but what can I do that Dumare can't? He's a necromancer, maybe as powerful as I am, maybe more. Why do you need me?"

"I realize, Ms. Blake, that you don't have something specifically for Sabin's problem," Dumare said. "As far as I can discover, he is the only vampire to ever suffer such a fate, but I thought if we came to another necromancer as powerful as myself--" he smiled modestly "--or nearly as powerful as myself, perhaps together we could work up a spell to help him."

"A spell?" I glanced at Jean-Claude.

He gave that wonderful Gallic shrug that meant everything and nothing. "I know little of necromancy, ma petite. You would know if such a spell were possible more than I."

"It is not only your ability as a necromancer that has brought us to you," Dumare said. "You have also acted as a focus for at least two different animators, I believe that is the American word for what you do."

I nodded. "The word's right, but where did you hear I could act as a focus?"

"Come, Ms. Blake, the ability to combine another animator's powers with your own and thus magnify both powers is a rare talent."

"Can you act as a focus?" I asked.

He tried to look humble but actually looked pleased with himself. "I must confess, yes, I can act as a focus. Think of what the two of us could accomplish together."

"We could raise a hell of a lot of zombies, but that won't cure Sabin."

"True enough." Dumare leaned forward in his chair. His lean, handsome face flushed, eager, a true convert looking for disciples.

I wasn't much of a follower.

"I would offer to teach you true necromancy, not this voodoo dabbling that you've been doing."

Jean-Claude made a soft sound halfway between a laugh and a cough.

I glared at Jean-Claude's amused face but said, "I'm doing just fine with this voodoo dabbling."

"I meant no insult, Ms. Blake. You will need a teacher of some sort soon. If not me, then you must find someone else."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Control, Ms. Blake. Raw power, no matter how impressive, is not the same as power used with great care and great control."

I shook my head. "I'll help you if I can, Mr. Dumare. I'll even participate in a spell if I check it out with a local witch I know first."

"Afraid that I will try and steal your power?"

I smiled. "No, short of killing me, the best you or anyone else can do is borrow."

"You are wise beyond your years, Ms. Blake."

"You aren't that much older than I am," I said. Something crossed over his face, the faintest flicker, and I knew.

"You're his human servant, aren't you?"

Dominic smiled, spreading his hands. "Oui."

I sighed. "I thought you said you weren't trying to hide anything from me."

"A human servant's job is to be the daytime eyes and ears of his master. I am of no use to my master if vampire hunters can spot me for what I am."

"I spotted you."

"But in another situation, without Sabin at my side, would you have?"

I thought about that for a moment. "Maybe." I shook my head. "I don't know."

"Thank you for your honesty, Ms. Blake."

Sabin said, "I am sure our time is up. Jean-Claude said you had a pressing engagement, Ms. Blake. Much more important than my little problem." There was a little bite to that last.

"Ma petitehas a date with her other beau."

Sabin stared at Jean-Claude. "So you are truly allowing her to date another. I thought that at least must be rumor."

"Very little of what you hear about ma petiteis rumor. Believe all you hear."

Sabin chuckled, coughing, as if struggling to keep the laughter from spilling out his ruined mouth. "If I believed everything I heard, I would have come with an army."

"You came with one servant because I allowed you only one servant," Jean-Claude said.

Sabin smiled. "Too true. Come Dominic, we must not take more of Ms. Blake's so valuable time."

Dominic stood obediently, towering over us both. Sabin was around my height. Of course, I wasn't sure if his legs were still there. He might have been taller once.

"I don't like you, Sabin, but I would never willingly leave another being in the shape you're in. My plans tonight are important, but if I thought we could cure you immediately, I'd change them."

The vampire looked at me. His blue, blue eyes were like staring down into clear ocean water. There was no pull to them. Either he was behaving himself or, like most vampires, he couldn't roll me with his eyes anymore.

"Thank you, Ms. Blake. I believe you are sincere." He extended a gloved hand from the voluminous cloak.

I hesitated, then took it. His hand squished ever so slightly, and it

took a lot not to jerk back. I forced myself to shake his hand, to smile, to let go, and not to rub my hand on my skirt.

Dominic shook my hand as well. His was cool and dry. "Thank you for your time, Ms. Blake. I will contact you tomorrow and we will discuss things."

"I'll be expecting your call, Mr. Dumare."

"Call me, Dominic, please."

I nodded. "Dominic. We can discuss it, but I hate to take your money when I'm not sure that I can help you."

"May I call you Anita?" he asked.

I hesitated and shrugged. "Why not."

"Don't worry about money," Sabin said, "I have plenty of that for all the good it has done me."

"How is the woman you love taking the change in your appearance?" Jean-Claude asked.

Sabin looked at him. It was not a friendly look. "She finds it repulsive, as do I. She feels immense guilt. She has not left me, nor is she with me."

"You'd lived for close to seven hundred years," I said. "Why screw things up for a woman?"

Sabin turned to me, a line of ooze creeping down his face like a black tear. "Are you asking me if it was worth it, Ms. Blake?"

I swallowed and shook my head. "It's none of my business. I'm sorry I asked."

He drew the hood over his face. He turned back to me, black, a cup of shadows where his face should have been. "She was going to leave me, Ms. Blake. I thought that I would sacrifice anything to keep her by my side, in my bed. I was wrong." He turned that blackness to Jean-Claude. "We will see you tomorrow night, Jean-Claude."

"I look forward to it."

Neither vampire offered to shake hands. Sabin glided for the door, the robe trailing behind him, empty. I wondered how much of his lower body was left and decided I didn't want to know.

Dominic shook my hand again. "Thank you, Anita. You have given us hope." He held my hand and stared into my face as if he could read something there. "And do think about my offer to teach you. There are very few of us who are true necromancers."

I took back my hand. "I'll think about it. Now I really do have to go."

He smiled, held the door for Sabin, and out they went. Jean-Claude and I stood a moment in silence. I broke it first. "Can you trust them?"

Jean-Claude sat on the edge of my desk, smiling. "Of course not."

"Then why did you agree to let them come?"

"The council has declared that no master vampires in the United States may quarrel until that nasty law that is floating around Washington is dead. One undead war, and the anti-vampire lobby would push through the law and make us illegal again."

I shook my head. "I don't think Brewster's Law has a snowball's chance. Vampires are legal in the United States. Whether I agree with it or not, I don't think that's going to change."

"How can you be so sure?"

"It's sort of hard to say a group of beings is alive and has rights, then change your mind and say killing them on sight is okay again. The ACLU would have a field day."

He smiled. "Perhaps. Regardless, the council has forced a truce on all of us until the law is decided one way or another."

"So you can let Sabin in your territory, because if he misbehaves, the council will hunt him down and kill him."

Jean-Claude nodded.

"But you'd still be dead," I said.

He spread his hands, graceful, empty. "Nothing's perfect."

I laughed. "I guess not."

"Now, aren't you going to be late for your date with Monsieur Zeeman?"

"You're being awfully civilized about this," I said.

"Tomorrow night you will be with me, ma petite. I would be a poor . . . sport to begrudge Richard his night."

"You're usually a poor sport."

"Now, ma petite,that is hardly fair. Richard is not dead, is he?"

"Only because you know that if you kill him, I'll kill you." I held a hand up before he could say it. "I'd try to kill you, and you'd try to kill me, etc." This was an old argument.

"So, Richard lives, you date us both, and I am being patient. More patient than I have ever been with anyone."

I studied his face. He was one of those men who was beautiful rather than handsome, but the face was masculine; you wouldn't mistake him for female, even with the long hair. In fact, there was something terribly masculine about Jean-Claude, no matter how much lace he wore.

He could be mine: lock, stock, and fangs. I just wasn't sure I wanted him. "I've got to go," I said.

He pushed away from my desk. He was suddenly standing close enough to touch. "Then go, ma petite."

I could feel his body inches from mine like a shimmering energy. I had to swallow before I could speak. "It's my office. You have to leave."

He touched my arms lightly, a brush of fingertips. "Enjoy your evening, ma petite." His fingers wrapped around my arms, just below the shoulders. He didn't lean over me or draw me that last inch closer. He simply held my arms, and stared down at me.

I met his dark, dark blue eyes. There had been a time not so long ago that I couldn't have met his gaze without falling into it and being lost. Now I could meet his eyes, but in some ways, I was just as lost. I raised up on tiptoe, putting my face close to his.

"I should have killed you a long time ago."

"You have had your chances, ma petite. You keep saving me."

"My mistake," I said.

He laughed, and the sound slid down my body like fur against naked skin. I shuddered in his arms.

"Stop that," I said.

He kissed me lightly, a brush of lips, so I couldn't feel the fangs. "You would miss me if I were gone, ma petite. Admit it."

I drew away from him. His hands slid down my arms, over my hands, until I drew my fingertips across his hands. "I've got to go."

"So you said."

"Just get out, Jean-Claude, no more games."

His face sobered instantly as if a hand had wiped it clean. "No more games, ma petite. Go to your other lover." It was his turn to raise a hand and say, "I know you are not truly lovers. I know you are resisting both of us. Brave, ma petite." A flash of something, maybe anger, crossed his face and was gone like a ripple lost in dark water.

"Tomorrow night you will be with me and it will be Richard's turn to sit at home and wonder." He shook his head. "Even for you I would not have done what Sabin has done. Even for your love, there are things I would not do." He stared at me suddenly fierce, anger flaring through his eyes, his face. "But what I do is enough."

"Don't go all self-righteous on me," I said. "If you hadn't interfered, Richard and I would be engaged, maybe more, by now."

"And what? You would be living behind a white picket fence with two point whatever children. I think you lie to yourself more than to me, Anita."

It was always a bad sign when he used my real name. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, ma petite, that you are as likely to thrive in domestic bliss as I am." With that, he glided to the door and left. He closed the door quietly but firmly behind him.

Domestic bliss? Who me? My life was a cross between a preternatural soap opera and an action adventure movie. Sort of As the Casket Turnsmeets Rambo.White picket fences didn't fit. Jean-Claude was right about that.

I had the entire weekend off. It was the first time in months. I'd been looking forward to this evening all week. But truthfully, it wasn't Jean-Claude's nearly perfect face that was haunting me. I kept flashing on Sabin's face. Eternal life, eternal pain, eternal ugliness. Nice afterlife.