The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 2~3

2

There were three kinds of people at Catherine's dinner party: the living, the dead, and the occasionally furry. Out of the eight of us, six were human, and I wasn't sure about two of those, myself included.

I wore black pants, a black velvet jacket with white satin lapels, and an oversized white vest that doubled for a shirt. The Browning 9mm actually matched the outfit, but I kept it hidden. This was the first party Catherine had thrown since her wedding. Flashing a gun might put a damper on things.

I'd had to take off the silver cross that I always wore and put it in my pocket because there was a vampire standing in front of me and the cross had started glowing when he entered the room. If I'd known there were going to be vamps at the party, I'd have worn a collar high enough to hide the cross. They only glow when they're out in the open, generally speaking.

Robert, the vampire in question, was tall, muscular, and handsome in a model-perfect sort of way. He had been a stripper at Guilty Pleasures. Now he managed the club. From worker to management: the American dream. His hair was blond, curly, and cut quite short. He was wearing a brown silk shirt that fit him perfectly and matched the dress that his date was wearing.

Monica Vespucci's health club tan had faded around the edges, but her makeup was still perfect, her short auburn hair styled into place. She was pregnant enough for me to have noticed and happy enough about it to be irritating.

She smiled brilliantly at me. "Anita, it has been too long."

What I wanted to say was, "Not long enough." The last time I'd seen her, she had betrayed me to the local master vampire. But Catherine thought she was her friend, and it was hard to disillusion her without telling the whole story. The whole story included some unsanctioned killing, some of it done by me. Catherine's a lawyer and a stickler for law and order. I didn't want to put her in a position where she had to compromise her morals to save my ass. So Monica was her friend, which meant I had been polite all through dinner, from appetizer all the way to dessert. I'd been polite mainly because Monica had been at the other end of the table. Now, unfortunately, we were mingling in the living room and I couldn't seem to shake her.

"It doesn't seem that long," I said.

"It's been almost a year." She smiled up at Robert. They were holding hands. "We got married." She touched her glass to the top of her belly. "We got knocked up." She giggled.

I stared at them both. "You can't get knocked up by a hundred-year-old corpse." Okay, I'd been polite long enough.

Monica grinned at me. "You can if the body temperature is raised for long enough and you have sex often enough. My obstetrician thinks the hot tub did us in."

This was more than I wanted to know. "Have you had the amnio yet?"

The smile faded from her face, leaving her eyes haunted. I was sorry I'd asked. "We've got another week to wait."

"I'm sorry, Monica, Robert. I hope the test comes back clean." I did not mention Vlad syndrome, but the words hung on the air. It was rare but not as rare as it used to be. Three years of legalized vampirism and Vlad syndrome was the highest rising birth defect in the country. It could result in some really horrible disabilities, not to mention death for the baby. With that much at stake, you'd think people would be more cautious.

Robert cradled her against him, and all the light had faded from her face. She looked pale. I felt like a heel.

"The latest news was that a vampire over a hundred was sterile," I said. "They should update their information, I guess." I meant for it to be comforting, like they hadn't been careless.

Monica looked at me, and there was no gentleness in her eyes when she said, "Worried?"

I stared at her all pale and pregnant and wanted to slap her anyway. I was not sleeping with Jean-Claude. But I was not going to stand there and justify myself to Monica Vespucci--or anyone else, for that matter.

Richard Zeeman entered the room. I didn't actually see him enter. I felt it. I turned and watched him walk towards us. He was six foot one, nearly a foot taller than me. Another inch and we couldn't have kissed without a chair. But it would have been worth the effort. He wove between the other guests, saying a word here and there. His smile flashed white and perfect in his permanently tanned skin as he talked to these new friends that he'd managed to charm at dinner. Not with sex appeal or power but with sheer good will. He was the world's biggest boy scout, the original hail fellow, well met. He liked people and was a wonderful listener, two qualities that are highly underrated.

His suit was dark brown, his shirt a deep orangey gold. The tie was a brighter orange with a line of small figures down the middle of it. You had to be standing right next to him to realize the figures were Warner Brothers cartoons.

He'd tied his shoulder-length hair back from his face in a version of a french braid, so the illusion was that his brown hair was very short. It left his face clean and very visible. His cheekbones were perfect, sculpted high and graceful. His face was masculine, handsome, with a dimple to soften it. It was the kind of face that would have made me shy in high school.

He noticed me watching him and smiled. His brown eyes sparkled with the smile, filling with heat that had nothing to do with room temperature. I watched him walk the last few feet, and felt heat rise up my neck into my face. I wanted to undress him, to touch his bare skin, to see what was under that suit. I wanted that very badly. I wouldn't, because I wasn't sleeping with Richard, either. I wasn't sleeping with the vampire or the werewolf. Richard was the werewolf. It was his only fault. Okay, maybe one other: he'd never killed anybody. That last fault might get him killed someday.

I slid my left arm around his waist, under the unbuttoned jacket. The solid warmth of him beat like a pulse against my body. If we didn't have sex soon, I was simply going to explode. What price morals?

Monica stared at me very steadily, studying my face. "That's a lovely necklace. Who got it for you?"

I smiled and shook my head. I was wearing a black velvet choker with a cameo, edged by silver filigree. Hey, it matched the outfit. Monica was pretty sure Richard hadn't given it to me, which meant, to Monica, that Jean-Claude had. Good old Monica. She never changed.

"I bought it to match the outfit," I said.

She widened her eyes in surprise. "Oh, really?" like she didn't believe me.

"Really. I'm not much into gifts, especially jewelry."

Richard hugged me. "That's the truth. She's a very hard woman to spoil."

Catherine joined us. Her copper-colored hair flowed around her face in a wavy mass. She was the only one I knew with curlier hair than mine, but its color was more spectacular. If asked, most people described her from the hair outward. Delicate makeup hid the freckles and drew attention to her pale, grey green eyes. Her dress was the color of new leaves. I'd never seen her look better.

"Marriage seems to agree with you," I said, smiling.

She smiled back. "You should try it sometime."

I shook my head. "Thanks a lot."

"I have to steal Anita away for just a moment." At least she didn't say she needed help in the kitchen. Richard would have known that was a lie. He was a much better cook than I was.

Catherine led me back to the spare bedroom where the coats were piled in a heap. There was one real fur coat draped over the pile. I was betting I knew who owned it. Monica liked being close to dead things.

As soon as the door was shut, Catherine grabbed my hands and giggled, I swear. "Richard is wonderful. My junior high science teachers never looked like that."

I smiled, and it was one of those big, dopey smiles. The silly kind that say you're in horrible lust if not love, maybe both, and it feels good even if it is stupid.

We sat down on the bed, pushing the coats to one side. "He is handsome," I said, my voice as neutral as I could make it.

"Anita, don't give me that. I've never seen you glow around anyone."

"I don't glow."

She grinned at me and nodded. "Yes, you do."

"Do not," I said, but it was hard to be sullen when I wanted to smile. "All right, I like him, a lot. Happy?"

"You've been dating him for nearly seven months. Where's the engagement ring?"

I did frown at her then. "Catherine, just because you're deliriously happily married doesn't mean everyone else has to be married, too."

She shrugged and laughed.

I stared into her shining face and shook my head. There had to be more to Bob than met the eye. He was about thirty pounds heavier than he should have been, balding, with small round glasses on a rather nondescript face. He did not have a sparkling personality, either. I'd been ready to give her the thumbs down until I saw the way he looked at Catherine. He looked at her like she was the whole world, and it was a nice, safe, wonderful world. A lot of people are pretty, and clever repartee is on every television set, but dependability, that's rare.

"I didn't bring Richard here to get your stamp of approval; I knew you'd like him."

"Then why did you keep him such a secret? I've tried to meet him a dozen times."

I shrugged. The truth was because I knew she'd get that light in her eyes. That maniacal gleam that your married friends get when you're not married and you're dating anyone. Or worse yet, not dating, and they're trying to fix you up. Catherine had the look now.

"Don't tell me you planned this entire party just so you could meet Richard?"

"Partly. How else was I ever going to?"

There was a knock on the door.

"Come in," Catherine said.

Bob opened the door. He still looked ordinary to me, but from the light in Catherine's face, she saw something else. He smiled at her. The smile made his whole face glow and I could see something shining and fine. Love makes us all beautiful. "Sorry to interrupt the girl talk, but there's a phone call for Anita."

"Did they say who it is?"

"Ted Forrester; says it's business."

My eyes widened. Ted Forrester was an alias for a man I knew as Edward. He was a hit man who specialized in vampires, lycanthropes, or anything else that wasn't quite human. I was a licensed vampire hunter. Occasionally, our paths crossed. We might even on some level be friends, maybe.

"Who's Ted Forrester?" Catherine asked.

"Bounty hunter," I said. Ted, Edward's alias, was a bounty hunter with papers to prove it, all nice and legal. I stood and went for the door.

"Is something wrong?" Catherine asked. Not much got past her, which was one of the reasons I avoided her when I was ass deep in alligators. She was smart enough to figure out when things were off-center but she didn't carry a gun. If you can't defend yourself, you are cannon fodder. The only thing that kept Richard from being cannon fodder was that he was a werewolf. Although refusing to kill people made him almost cannon fodder, shapeshifter or not.

"I was just hoping not to have to do any work tonight," I said.

"I thought you had the entire weekend off," she said.

"So did I."

I took the phone in the home office they'd set up. They'd divided the room down the middle. One half was decorated in country with teddy bears and miniature gingham rockers, the other half was masculine with hunting prints and a ship in a bottle on the desk. Compromise at its best.

I picked up the phone and said. "Hello?"

"It's Edward."

"How did you get this number?"

He was quiet for a second. "Child's play."

"Why did you hunt me down, Edward? What's up?"

"Interesting choice of words," he said.

"What are you talking about?"

"I was just offered a contract on your life, for enough money to make it worth my while."

It was my turn to be quiet. "Did you take it?"

"Would I be calling you if I had?"

"Maybe," I said.

He laughed. "True, but I'm not going to take it."

"Why not?"

"Friendship."

"Try again," I said.

"I figure I'll get to kill more people guarding you. If I take the contract, I only get to kill you."

"Comforting. Did you say guard?"

"I'll be in town tomorrow."

"You're that sure someone else will take the contract?"

"I don't even open my door for less than a hundred grand, Anita. Someone will take the hit, and it'll be someone good. Not as good as me, but good."

"Any advice until you get into town?"

"I haven't given them my answer yet. That'll delay them. Once I say no, it'll take a little time to contact another hitter. You should be safe tonight. Enjoy your weekend off."

"How did you know I had the weekend off?"

"Craig is a very talkative secretary. Very helpful."

"I'll have to speak to him about that," I said.

"You do that."

"You're sure that there won't be a hitter in town tonight?"

"Nothing in life is sure, Anita, but I wouldn't like it if a client tried to hire me and then gave the

job to someone else."

"You lose many clients at your own hands?" I asked.

"No comment," he said.

"So one last night of safety," I said.

"Probably, but be careful anyway."

"Who put the hit out on me?"

"I don't know," Edward said.

"What do you mean, you don't know? You have to know so you can get paid."

"I go through intermediaries most of the time. Keeps down the chance that the next client is a cop."

"How do you find wayward clients if they piss you off?"

"I can find them, but it takes time. Anita, if you've got a really good hitter on your tail, time is something you won't have."

"Oh, that was comforting."

"It wasn't supposed to be comforting," he said, "Can you think of anyone who hates you so badly and has this kind of money?"

I thought about that for a minute. "No. Most of the people that would fit the bill are dead."

"The only good enemy is a dead enemy," Edward said.

"Yeah."

"I heard a rumor that you're dating the master of the city. Is that true?"

I hesitated. I realized I was embarrassed to admit the truth to Edward. "Yeah, it's true."

"I had to hear you say it." I could almost hear him shake his head over the phone. "Damn, Anita, you know better than that."

"I know," I said.

"Did you dump Richard?"

"No."

"Which monster are you with tonight, bloodsucker or flesh-eater?"

"None of your damn business," I said.

"Fine. Pick the monster of your choice tonight, Anita, have a good time. Tomorrow we start trying to keep you alive." He hung up. If it had been anybody else, I'd have said he was angry about me dating a vampire. Or maybe disappointed would be a better word.

I hung up the phone and sat there for a few minutes, letting it all sink in. Someone was trying to kill me. Nothing new there, but this someone was hiring expert help. That was new. I'd never had an assassin after my butt before. I waited to feel fear wash over me, but it didn't. Oh, in a vague sort of way, I was afraid, but not like I should have been. It wasn't that I didn't believe it could happen. I did believe. It was more that so much else had happened in the last year that I couldn't get too excited yet. If the assassin jumped out and started shooting, I'd deal with it. Maybe later I'd even have an attack of nerves. But I didn't get many attacks of nerves anymore. Part of me was numbing out like a combat veteran. There was just too much to take in, so you stop taking it in. I almost wished I had been scared. Fear will keep you alive; indifference won't.

Somewhere out there, by tomorrow, someone would have my name on a to-do list. Pick up dry cleaning, buy groceries, kill Anita Blake.

3

I stepped back into the living room and caught Richard's eye. I was sort of ready to go home. Somehow, knowing an assassin was out there, or would be soon, had put a damper on the evening.

"What's wrong?" Richard asked.

"Nothing," I said. I know, I know, I had to tell him, but how do you tell your sweetie that people are trying to kill you? Not in a room full of people. Maybe in the car.

"Yes, there is. You've got that tension between your eyebrows that means you're trying not to frown."

"No, I'm not."

He smoothed his finger between my eyes. "Yes, you are."

I glared at him. "Am not."

He smiled. "Now you are frowning." His face sobered. "What's wrong"

I sighed. I stepped closer to him, not for romance but for privacy. Vampires had incredibly good hearing, and I didn't want Robert to know. He'd tattle to Jean-Claude. If I wanted Jean-Claude to know, I'd tell him myself.

"It was Edward on the phone."

"What does he want?" Richard was frowning now, too.

"Someone tried to hire him to kill me."

A look of total astonishment blossomed on his face, and I was glad his back was to the room. He closed his mouth, opened it, and finally said, "I would say you're kidding, but I know you're not. Why would anyone want to kill you?"

"There are plenty of people who would like to see me dead, Richard. But none of them have the kind of money that's being put out for the hit."

"How can you be so calm about this?"

"Would it solve anything if I had hysterics?"

He shook his head. "It's not that." He seemed to think for a second. "It's that you're not outraged that someone's trying to kill you. You just accept it, almost like it's normal. It isn't normal."

"Assassins aren't normal, even for me, Richard," I said.

"Just vampires, zombies, and werewolves," he said.

I smiled. "Yeah."

He hugged me tightly and whispered, "Loving you can be very scary sometimes."

I wrapped my arms around his waist, leaning my face against his chest. I closed my eyes, and for just a moment I breathed in the smell of him. It was more than his aftershave; it was the smell of his skin, his warmth. Him. For just a moment, I sank against him and let it all go. I let his arms be my shelter. I knew that a well-placed bullet would destroy it all, but for a few seconds, I felt safe. Illusion is sometimes all that keeps us sane.

I pushed away from him with a sigh. "Let's give our regrets to Catherine and get out of here."

He touched my cheek gently, looking into my eyes. "We can stay if you want."

I nestled my cheek against his hand and shook my head. "If the shit hits the fan tomorrow, I don't want to spend tonight at a party. I'd rather go back to my apartment and cuddle."

He flashed me that smile that warmed me down to my toes. "Sounds like a plan to me."

I smiled back because I couldn't not smile back. "I'll go tell Catherine."

"I'll get the coats," he said.

We did our various tasks and left early. Catherine gave me a very knowing smile. I wished she was right. Leaving early to jump Richard's bones beat the heck out of the truth. Monica watched us leave. I knew that she and Robert would report back to Jean-Claude. Fine. He knew I was dating Richard. I hadn't lied to anybody. Monica was a lawyer at Catherine's firm--frightening thought all on its own--so she had a legitimate reason to be invited. Jean-Claude hadn't arranged it, but I didn't like being spied on, no matter how it came about.

The walk to the car was nerve-racking. Every shadow was suddenly a potential hiding place. Every noise a footstep. I didn't draw my gun, but my hand ached to do it. "Dammit," I said, softly. The numbness was wearing off. I wasn't sure it was an improvement.

"What is it?" Richard asked. He was suddenly scanning the darkness, not looking at me while he talked. His nostrils flared just a little, and I realized he was scenting the wind.

"Just jumpy. I don't see anyone out here, but I'm suddenly looking too damn hard."

"I don't smell anyone close to us, but they could be downwind. The only gun I smell is yours."

"You can smell my gun?"

He nodded. "You've cleaned it recently. I can smell the oil."

I smiled and shook my head. "You are so blasted normal, sometimes I forget you turn furry once a month."

"Knowing how good you are at spotting lycanthropes, that's quite a compliment." He smiled. "Do you think assassins would fall from the trees if I held your hand right now?"

I smiled. "I think we're safe for the moment."

He curved his fingers around my hand, and a tingle went up my arm like he'd touched a nerve. He rubbed his thumb in small circles on the back of my hand and took a deep breath. "It's almost nice to know that this assassin business has unnerved you, too. I don't want you afraid, but sometimes it's hard to be your guy when I think you may be braver than I am. That sounds like macho crap, doesn't it?"

I stared up at him. "There's a lot of macho crap out there, Richard. At least you know it's crap."

"Can this male chauvinist wolf kiss you?"

"Always."

He leaned his face downward, and I rose on tiptoe to meet his mouth with mine, my free hand against his chest for balance. We could kiss without me going on tiptoe, but Richard tended to get a crick in his neck.

It was a quicker kiss than normal because I had this itching in the middle of my back, right between the shoulder blades. I knew it was my imagination, but I felt too exposed out in the open.

Richard sensed it and pulled away. He went around to the driver's side of his car and opened his door, leaning across to unlock mine. He didn't open the door for me. He knew better than that. I could open my own bloody door.

Richard's car was an old Mustang, sixty something, a Mach One. I knew all this because he had told me. It was orange with a black racing stripe. The bucket seats were black leather, but the front seat was small enough that we could hold hands when he wasn't using the gear shift.

Richard pulled out onto 270 South. Friday night traffic spilled around us in a bright sparkle of lights. Everybody out trying to enjoy the weekend. I wondered how many of them had assassins after them. I was betting I was one of the few.

"You're quiet," Richard said.

"Yeah."

"I won't ask what you're thinking about. I can guess."

I looked at him. The darkness of the car wrapped around us. Cars at night are like your own private world, hushed and dark, intimate. The lights of oncoming traffic swept over his face, highlighting it, then leaving us in darkness.

"How do you know I'm not thinking about what you'd look like without your clothes on?"

He flashed me a grin. "Tease."

I smiled. "Sorry. No sexual innuendo unless I'm willing to jump your bones."

"That's your rule, not mine," Richard said. "I'm a big boy. Give me all the sexual innuendo you want, I can take it."

"If I'm not going to sleep with you, it doesn't seem fair."

"Let me worry about that," he said.

"Why, Mr. Zeeman, are you inviting me to make sexual overtures to you?"

His smile widened, a whiteness in the dark. "Oh, please."

I leaned toward him as far as the seat belt would allow, putting a hand on the back of his seat, putting my face inches from the smooth expanse of his neck. I took a deep breath in and let it out, slowly, so close to his skin that my own breath came back to me like a warm cloud. I kissed the bend of his neck, running my lips lightly up and down the skin.

Richard made a small, contented sound.

I curled my knees into my seat, straining against the seat belt so I could kiss the big pulse in his neck, the curve of his jaw. He turned his face into me. We kissed, but my nerves weren't that good. I turned his face away. "You watch the road."

He shifted gears, his upper arm brushing against my breasts. I sighed against him, putting my hand over his, holding it on the gear shift, keeping his arm pressed against me.

We stayed frozen for a second, then he moved against me, rubbing. I scooted out from under his arm, settling back into my seat. I couldn't breathe past the pulse in my throat. I shivered, hugging myself. The feel of his body against mine made places all over my body tighten.

"What's wrong?" he said, his voice low and soft.

I shook my head. "We can't keep doing this."

"If you stopped because of me, I was enjoying myself."

"So was I. That's the problem," I said.

Richard took in a deep breath and let it out, sighing. "It's only a problem because you make it one, Anita."

"Yeah, right."

"Marry me, Anita, and all this can be yours."

"I don't want to marry you just so I can sleep with you."

"If it was only sex, I wouldn't want you to marry me," Richard said. "But it's cuddling on the couch, watching Singing in the Rain. It's eating Chinese and knowing to get that extra order of crab Rangoon. I can order for both of us at most of the restaurants in town."

"Are you saying I'm predictable?"

"Don't do that. Don't belittle it," he said.

I sighed. "I'm sorry, Richard. I didn't mean to. I just . . ."

I didn't know what to say because he was right. My day was more complete for having been shared with Richard. I bought him a mug that I just happened to see in a store. It had wolves on it, and said, "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world--the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness." It was a quote from John Muir. No special occasion, just saw it, knew Richard would like it, bought it. A dozen times a day I'd hear something on the radio or in conversation, and I'd think, I must remember and tell Richard. It was Richard who took me on my first bird-watching trip since college.

I had a degree in biology, preternatural biology. Once I'd thought I'd spend my life as a field biologist like a preternatural version of Jane Goodall. I'd enjoyed the bird-watching, partly because he was with me, partly because I'd enjoyed it years ago. It was

like I'd forgotten that there was life outside of a gun barrel or a grave side. I'd been neck deep in blood and death so long; then Richard came along. Richard who was also neck deep in strange stuff, but who managed to have a life.

I couldn't think of anything better than waking up beside him, reaching for his body first thing in the morning, knowing I'd be coming home to him. Listening to his collection of Rodgers and Hammerstein, watching his face while he watched Gene Kelly musicals.

I almost opened my mouth and said, let's do it, let's get married, but I didn't. I loved Richard; I could admit that to myself, but it wasn't enough. There was an assassin after me. How could I involve a mild-mannered junior high teacher in that kind of life? He was one of the monsters, but he didn't accept it. He was in a battle for leadership of the local werewolf pack. He'd beaten the current pack leader, Marcus, twice, and twice refused the kill. If you didn't kill, you didn't get to be leader. Richard clung to his morals. Clung to values that only worked when people weren't trying to kill you. If I married him, his chance at any kind of normal life was gone. I lived in a sort of free-fire zone. Richard deserved better.

Jean-Claude lived in the same world that I did. He had no illusions about the kindness of strangers, or anyone else for that matter. The vampire wouldn't he shocked at the news of an assassin. He'd simply help me plan what to do about it. It wouldn't throw him, or not much. There were nights when I thought that Jean-Claude and I deserved each other.

Richard turned off onto Olive. We were soon going to be at my apartment, and the silence was getting a little thick. Silences don't usually bother me, but this one did. "I'm sorry, Richard. I am truly sorry."

"If I didn't know you loved me, this would be easier," he said. "If it wasn't for that damned vampire, you'd marry me."

"That damn vampire introduced us," I said.

"And he's regretting it, don't think he isn't," Richard said.

I looked at him. "How do you know that?"

He shook his head. "All you have to do is see his face when we're together. I may not like Jean-Claude, and I hate the thought of you with him, but we aren't the only two hurting here. It's a threesome, don't think it's not."

I huddled in my seat, suddenly miserable. I'd have almost welcomed a hit man appearing out of the darkness. Killing I understood. Relationships confused me. Admittedly, this relationship was more confusing than most.

Richard turned into the parking lot of my apartment building. He parked the car and turned off the engine. We sat there in the dark, the only illumination the distant glow of a street light.

"I don't know what to say, Richard." I stared out through the windshield, concentrating on the side of the building, too cowardly to look at him while I talked. "I wouldn't blame you for just saying to hell with it. I wouldn't put up with this kind of indecision from you, and I wouldn't share you with another woman." I finally looked at him. He was staring straight ahead, not looking at me.

My heart sped up. If I was truly as brave as I thought I was, I'd have let him go. But I loved him, and I wasn't that brave. The best I could do was not sleep with him. Not take the relationship that next step forward. That was hard enough. Even my self-control wasn't limitless. If we'd been planning a wedding, I could have waited. With an end in sight, my self-control would have appeared endless, but there was no end in sight. Chastity works better if you don't keep testing it quite so often.

I unbuckled the seat belt, unlocked and opened the door. Richard touched my shoulder before I could get out. "Aren't you going to invite me up?"

I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding and turned back to him. "Do you want to be invited up?"

He nodded.

"I don't know why you put up with me," I said.

He smiled. He leaned into me, a light brush of lips. "Sometimes I'm not sure, myself."

We got out. Richard held his hand out to me, and I took it.

A car pulled in behind us, beside my own Jeep. It was my neighbor, Mrs. Pringle. She had a huge television box tied into her trunk.

We walked to the sidewalk and waited for her to get out. She was a tall woman, stretched almost painfully thin with age. Her snow white hair was done in a bun at the back of her head. Custard, her Pomeranian, jumped out of the car and stood yapping at us. He looked like a golden powder puff with little cat feet. He bounced forward on stiff legs. He sniffed Richard's foot and looked up at him with a small growl.

Mrs. Pringle tugged on his leash. "Custard, behave yourself."

The dog quieted, but I think it was more Richard's steady glare than Mrs. Pringle's admonishments. She smiled at us. She had the same light in her eyes that Catherine had had. She liked Richard and made no bones about it.

"Well, now, this is advantageous. I need some strong young arms to carry that monstrous television up the stairs for me."

Richard smiled at her. "Happy to oblige." He walked around to the trunk and started trying to undo the knots.

"What'd you do with Custard while you shopped?" I asked.

"I carried him with me. I've spent a great deal of money at that store before. The salesmen fairly salivate when I come through the doors, so they indulge me."

I had to smile. There was a sharp twang as the ropes broke. "I'll help Richard." I walked back to the trunk. The rope was an inch thick and flopped, broken, onto the pavement. I raised eyebrows at him and whispered, "My, my, Grandma, what strong hands you have."

"I could carry the television up alone, but it might arouse suspicions."

It was a thirty-inch wide screen. "You could really carry it up the stairs by yourself?"

"Easily," he said.

I shook my head. "But you're not going to because you are a mild-mannered science teacher, not an alpha werewolf."

"Which is why you get to help me," he said.

"Are you having trouble undoing the rope?" Mrs. Pringle asked. She'd walked back to us with Custard in tow.

"No," I said, giving Richard a look. "We've got the rope." If people found out Richard was a lycanthrope, he'd lose his job. It was illegal to discriminate, but it happened all the time. Richard taught children. He'd be branded a monster, and most people didn't let monsters near their children.

Mrs. Pringle and Custard led the way. I went up backwards, sort of steadying the box, but Richard took all the weight. He walked up the stairs like the box weighed nothing, pushing with his legs, waiting for me to go up another step. He made a face at me, soundlessly humming under his breath as if he was bored. Lycanthropes are stronger than your run-of-the-mill human being. I knew that, but it was still a little unsettling to be reminded.

We made it to the hallway, and he let me have some of the weight. The thing was heavy, but I held on, and we kept moving towards Mrs. Pringle's apartment, which was right across the hall from mine.

"I've got the door opened," she called.

We were at the door, starting to maneuver through, when Custard darted between us, underneath the box, trailing his leash. Mrs. Pringle was trapped behind the television. "Custard, come back here."

Richard lifted with his forearms, taking the weight. "Get him. I can get inside."

I let him pretend to struggle inside the apartment and went for the dog. I expected to have to chase him down the hall, but he was sniffing at my door, whining. I knelt and grabbed the end of his leash, pulling him back towards me.

Mrs. Pringle was at her door, smiling. "I see you caught the little rascal."

I handed her the leash. "I've got to get something out of my apartment. I'm sure Richard can help you set up the TV."

"Thanks a lot," he called from inside the apartment.

Mrs. Pringle laughed. "I'll give you both some iced tea, unless you have better things to do." There was a knowing look in her blue eyes that made me blush. She winked at me, I kid you not. When the door was safely closed with her and Richard on the other side, I walked toward my apartment. Three doors down, I crossed the hallway. I took the Browning out and clicked the safety off. I eased back towards my door. Maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe Custard hadn't smelled anybody in my apartment. But he'd never whined at my door like that before. Maybe Edward's phone call was making me jumpy. But better jumpy than dead. Paranoid it was.

I knelt by the door and took a breath, letting it out slowly. I took my keys out of my jacket pocket left-handed. I scrunched down as low as I could get and still have a decent shooting stance. If there was a bad guy in there, he'd probably shoot at chest level. On my knees I was a lot shorter than chest level. I pushed the key in the lock. Nothing happened. The apartment was probably empty, except for my fish wondering what the hell I was doing. I turned the knob, pushed the door inward, and a hole exploded out through the door, thundering over my head like a cannon shot. There was no sound for a second. The door swung closed with the force of the shot, and through the hole in the door I saw a man with a shotgun raised to his shoulder. I fired once through the hole. The door bounced open, still reverberating from the shotgun blast. I threw myself onto one side, gun pointed through the open door.

The shotgun fired again, showering the hallway with bits of wood. I fired twice more, hitting the man in the chest both times. He staggered, blood blossoming on his coat, and fell straight back. The shotgun fell to the carpet near his feet.

I got to my knees, back pressed to the wall near my kitchenette. All I could hear was a roaring in my ears, then dimly my own blood rushing through my head.

Richard was suddenly there in the doorway, like a target. "Get down! He may not be alone!" I wasn't sure how loud I was yelling. My ears were still ringing.

Richard crouched beside me. I think he said my name, but I didn't have time for it. I pushed upward, my back to the wall, gun in a two-handed grip. He started to stand. I said, "Stay down." He did. Point for him.

I could see that there was no one in front of my apartment. Unless there was somebody hiding in the bedroom, the hit man had been alone. I approached him, slowly, gun pointed at him. If he'd twitched, I'd have shot again, but he didn't move. The shotgun was by his feet. I'd never seen anybody use a gun with their feet, so I left it where it was.

He lay on his back, one arm thrown up over his head, one down at his side. His face was slack with death, his eyes wide and unseeing. I didn't really need to check for a pulse, but I did it anyway. Nothing. There were three holes in his chest. I'd hit him with the first shot, but it hadn't been a killing blow. That had nearly cost me my life.

Richard came up behind me. "There's no one else in the apartment, Anita."

I didn't argue with him. I didn't ask if he knew this by smell or by hearing. I didn't bloody care. I checked the bedroom and bathroom just to be thorough and came back out to find Richard staring down at the dead man.

"Who is he?" Richard asked.

It occurred to me that I could hear again. Bully for me. I still had a faint ringing in my ears, but it would pass. "I don't know."

Richard looked at me. "Was he the . . . hitter?"

"I think so." There was a hole in the door big enough to crawl through. It was still open. Mrs. Pringle's door was closed, but the doorjamb was splintered like something had taken a big bite out of it. If she'd been standing there, she'd have been dead.

I heard the distant wail of police sirens. Couldn't blame the neighbors for calling them. "I'm going to make some phone calls before the cops get here."

"Then what?" he asked.

I looked at him. He was pale, the whites of his eyes showing just a little too much. "Then we go with the nice police officers down to the station to answer questions."

"It was self-defense."

"Yeah, but he's still dead on my carpet." I walked into the bedroom, searching for the phone. I was having a little trouble remembering where I'd left it, as if it ever moved from the nightstand. Shock is always fun.

Richard leaned in the doorway. "Who are you going to call?"

"Dolph, and maybe Catherine."

"A friendly policeman I understand, but why Catherine?"

"She's a lawyer."

"Oh," he said. He glanced back at the dead man, who was bleeding all over my white carpet. "Dating you is never boring, I'll give you that."

"And it's dangerous," I said, "Don't forget dangerous." I dialed Dolph's number from memory.

"I never forget you're dangerous, Anita," Richard said. He stared at me and his eyes were amber, the color of a wolf's eyes. His beast slid behind those eyes, peering out. Probably the smell of fresh blood. I stared into those alien eyes and knew I wasn't the only dangerous thing in the room. Of course, I was armed. The dead man could vouch for that. Laughter tickled the back of my throat. I tried to swallow it, but it spilled out, and I was giggling when Dolph answered the phone. Laughing was better than crying, I guess. Though I'm not sure Dolph thought so.