The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 4~6

4

I sat in a straight-backed chair at a small, scarred table in an interrogation room. Oh, sorry, interview room. That's what they were calling it now. Call it what you will, it still smelled like stale sweat and old cigarettes with an overlay of disinfectant. I was sipping my third cup of coffee, and my hands were still cold.

Detective Sergeant Rudolph Storr leaned against the far wall. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he was trying to be unobtrusive, but when you're six foot eight and built like a pro wrestler, that's hard. He hadn't said a word during the interview. (Just here to observe.)

Catherine sat beside me. She'd thrown a black blazer over the green dress, brought her briefcase, and sat wearing her lawyer face.

Detective Branswell sat across from us. He was in his mid-thirties, black hair, dark complected, with eyes as black as his hair. His name was English, but he looked Mediterranean, like he'd just stepped off the olive boat. His accent was pure middle Missouri.

"Now, Ms. Blake, go over it just one more time for me. Please." He poised his pen over his notebook as if he'd write it all down again.

"We'd helped my neighbor carry up her new television."

"Mrs. Edith Pringle, yeah, she confirms all that. But why did you go to your apartment?"

"I was going to get a screwdriver to help install the television."

"You keep a lot of tools, Ms. Blake?" He wrote something on his notepad. I was betting it was a doodle.

"No, detective, but I've got a screwdriver."

"Did Mrs. Pringle ask you to go get this screwdriver?"

"No, but she'd used it when she bought her stereo system." Which was true. I was trying to keep the lies to an absolute minimum.

"So you assumed she'd need it."

"Yes."

"Then what?" He asked like he'd never heard the answer before. His black eyes were intense and empty, unreadable and eager at the same time. We were coming to the part that he didn't quite buy.

"I unlocked my door and dropped my keys. I squatted down to pick them up and the first shotgun blast roared over my head. I returned fire."

"How? The door was closed."

"I shot through the hole in the door that the shotgun had made."

"You shot a man through a hole in your door and hit him."

"It was a big hole, detective, and I wasn't sure I hit him."

"Why didn't the second shotgun blast take you out, Ms. Blake? There wasn't enough left of the door to hide behind. Where were you, Ms. Blake?"

"I told you, the blast rocked the door inward. I hit the floor, on my side. The second blast went over me."

"And you shot the man twice more in the chest," Detective Branswell said.

"Yes."

He looked at me for a long moment, studying my face. I met his eyes without flinching. It wasn't that hard. I was numb, empty, and distant. There was still a fine ringing in my ears from being so damn close to two shotgun blasts. The ringing would fade. It usually did.

"You know the man you killed?"

Catherine touched my arm. "Detective Branswell, my client has been more than helpful. She's told you several times that she did not recognize the deceased."

He flipped back through his notebook. "You're right, counselor. Ms. Blake has been helpful. The dead man was James Dugan, Jimmy the Shotgun. He's got a record longer than you are tall, Ms. Blake. He's local muscle. Someone you call when you want it cheap and quick and don't care how messy it is." He stared at me while he talked, studying my eyes.

I blinked at him.

"Do you know anyone who would want you dead, Ms. Blake?"

"Not right offhand," I said.

He closed his notebook and stood. "I'm going to recommend justifiable homicide to the DA. I doubt you'll see the inside of a courtroom."

"When do I get my gun back?" I asked.

Branswell stared at me. "When ballistics is done with it, Ms. Blake. And I'd be damn grateful that you're getting it back at all." He shook his head. "I've heard stories about you from some of the cops who answered the last call from your apartment. The one with the two killer zombies." He shook his head again. "Don't take this wrong, Ms. Blake, but have you considered moving to a new jurisdiction?"

"My landlord is probably going to suggest the same thing," I said.

"I'll just bet he is," Branswell said. "Counselor, Sergeant Storr."

"Thanks for letting me sit in on this, Branswell," Dolph said.

"You said she was one of yours. Besides, I know Gross and Brady. They were the first officers on scene for the zombies. They say good things about her. I've talked to half a dozen officers that say Ms. Blake saved their butt or stood shoulder to shoulder with them under fire and didn't blink. It cuts you a hell of a lot of slack, Blake, but that slack isn't unlimited. Watch your back, and try not to shoot up any innocent bystanders." With that, he left.

Dolph stared down at me. "I'll drive you back to your place."

"Richard's waiting for me," I said.

"What's going on, Anita?"

"I told Branswell everything I know."

Catherine stood up. "Anita has answered all the questions she's going to answer tonight."

"He's a friend," I said.

"He's also a cop," Catherine said. She smiled. "Isn't that right, Sergeant Storr?"

Dolph stared at her for a minute. "That is certainly true, Ms. Maison-Gillette." He pushed away from the wall. He looked at me. "I'll talk to you later, Anita."

"I know," I said.

"Come on," Catherine said. "Let's get out of here before they change their minds."

"Don't you believe me?" I asked.

"I'm your lawyer. Of course I believe you."

I looked at her. She looked at me. I got up. We left. I wondered if Richard would believe me. Probably not.

5

Richard and I walked toward his car, through the police station parking lot. He hadn't said a word to me. He'd shaken hands with Catherine and headed for the car. He got into his side. I slid into the passenger side. Richard started the engine and backed out of the parking slot.

"You're mad about something," I said.

He eased out onto the street. He always drove carefully when he was angry. "What could I possibly be mad about?" The sarcasm was thick enough to eat with a spoon.

"You think I knew there was a hit man in my apartment?"

He flashed me a look that was pure rage. "You knew, and you let me go inside and set that damned TV up. You got me out of harm's way."

"I wasn't sure, Richard."

"I bet you had your gun drawn before he fired."

I shrugged.

"Dammit, Anita, you could have been killed."

"But I wasn't."

"That's your answer to everything. If you survive, it's all right."

"It beats the alternative," I said.

"Don't make jokes," Richard said.

"Look, Richard, I didn't go out hunting this guy. He came to me."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"And you would have done what? Go through the door first? You'd have taken a chest full of buckshot and survived. How would you have explained that? You'd have been outed as a lycanthrope. You'd have lost your job, at the very least."

"We could have called the police."

"And told them what? That Custard sniffed at the door? If they had investigated, they'd have gotten shot. The guy was jumpy as hell. He shot through the door, remember? He didn't know who he was firing at."

He turned onto Olive, shaking his head. "You should have told me."

"What would it have changed, Richard? Except maybe you'd have tried to play hero, and if you survived, you'd have lost your career."

"Dammit, dammit." He smashed his hands into the steering wheel over and over. When he looked at me, his eyes had gone amber and alien. "I don't need you to protect me, Anita."

"Ditto," I said.

Silence filled the car like ice water. Nobody but the bad guy had died. I'd done the right thing. But it was hard to explain.

"It wasn't that you risked your life," Richard said, "it was that you got rid of me before you did it. You didn't even give me a chance. I have never interfered with you doing your job."

"Would you have considered this part of my job?"

"Closer to your job description than mine," he said.

I thought about that for a minute. "You're right. One of the reasons we're still dating is you don't pull macho crap on me. I apologize. I should have warned you."

He glanced at me with eyes that were still pale and wolfish. "Did I just win an argument?"

I smiled. "I admitted I was wrong. Is that the same thing."

"Exactly the same thing."

"Then give yourself a point."

He grinned at me. "Why can't I stay mad at you, Anita?"

"You're a very forgiving person, Richard. One of us has to be."

He pulled into my parking lot for the third time that night. "You can't stay at your place tonight. The door is in pieces."

"I know." If I'd been kicked out of my apartment because it was being painted, I had friends I could stay with, or a hotel, but the bad guys had proven they didn't care who got hurt. I couldn't risk anybody, not even strangers in the next room at a hotel.

"Come home with me," he said. He parked in an empty space closest to the stairs.

"I don't think that's a good idea, Richard."

"The shotgun blast wouldn't have killed me. I'd have healed, because it wasn't silver shot. How many of your other friends can say that?"

"Not many," I said quietly.

"I've got a house set back in a yard. You won't be risking innocent bystanders."

"I know you have a yard, Richard. I've spent enough Sunday afternoons there."

"Then you know I'm right." He leaned towards me and his eyes had bled back to their normal brown. "I have a guest room, Anita. It doesn't have to be more than that."

I stared at him from inches away. I could feel his body like a force just out of reach. It wasn't his otherworldly wolf powers. It was simply sheer physical attraction. It was dangerous agreeing to go to Richard's house. Maybe not to my life, but to other things.

If Jimmy the Shotgun had had a partner inside the apartment tonight, I'd be dead now. I'd been so busy concentrating on killing him that a second perp could have blown me away. Edward had told his contact no by now, and it takes a little while to find another hitter of Edward's caliber. So, instead of waiting, they hired cheap and local, taking the chance that cheap might take me out and they'd be saved several hundred grand. Or maybe they wanted me dead really quickly for some reason that I didn't understand. Either way, they wanted me dead pretty damn badly. Usually, when someone wants you dead that badly, they succeed. Not tonight or tomorrow, but unless Edward and I could find out who had put the contract

out on me, the line of talent would just keep coming.

I stared into Richard's face, almost close enough to kiss. I thought about never seeing him again. About never touching him again. About never satisfying that growing hunger that perfumed the air whenever I was with him. I touched his face, lightly running my fingertips down his cheek. "Okay."

"You look so serious. What are you thinking, Anita?"

I leaned in and kissed him. "Blood, death, and sex. What else is there?"

We got out of the car. I filled my automatic fish feeder full of enough food for a week. In a week's time, if the assassin was still after me, and if I was still alive, I'd have to come back. All the bad guys had to do was stake out my fish tank, and they had me if they were patient enough. Somehow I didn't think they would be.

I packed a few things, including my stuffed toy penguin, Sigmund, every weapon I owned, a few clothes, an outfit for tomorrow's date with Jean-Claude. Yeah, probably I wouldn't be going, but I didn't want to come back to the apartment, not for anything. I left a message on Ronnie's machine. We usually worked out together on Saturday morning, but I didn't want Ronnie in the line of fire. She was a private detective, but Ronnie wasn't a shooter, not like I was. She had a certain respect for life that could get you killed.

Richard waited while I changed. Black jeans, a royal blue polo shirt, white jogging socks with a blue stripe, black Nikes, and I felt more myself. I laid the Browning's shoulder holster in my suitcase. The Browning was my main gun, and I missed it. I'd have missed it under normal circumstances, but now my hand ached for the gun.

I guess that's what backup guns are for. The Firestar 9mm is a good gun and fits my hand well. My hands are small enough that a lot of 9mms are just too big. The Browning was about the limit of a comfortable grip. I wore the Firestar in an inter-pants holster, set for a forward cross draw, which meant you could see the gun. I wasn't sure I cared tonight.

I put on wrist sheaths and both knives. These were the last two of a foursome that I'd had custom made for my hands, with the highest silver content possible in the steel. I'd had to have two of them replaced; monsters ate them. I put the two new knives in the suitcase still in their felt-lined box. They were pretty and sharp enough to cut your skin if you ran a thumb along the edge.

While I was having the lost knives replaced, I'd ordered a new one. It was nearly a foot long, more a sword than a knife. I'd had a leather harness made that let me carry it down my spine, with the hilt under my hair. I hadn't used it before, but I'd seen it in a catalog and couldn't resist.

I had a Derringer, a sawed-off shotgun, two full-sized, pump-action shotguns, a twelve gauge, and a mini-Uzi. The Derringer, the Uzi, and the sawed-off shotgun were all gifts from Edward. Not Christmas or birthday gifts. No, we'd be out hunting vampires together, and he'd give me a new toy. I'd asked for the shotgun.

The full-sized shotguns wouldn't pack in either the suitcases or the gym bags. I put them in their individual carrying cases, with straps. The gym bags held my vampire hunting kit and my zombie paraphernalia. I put extra ammo in both bags for temporary keeping. Heck, I shoved extra ammo in the suitcase, too. You could never have too much.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The gun was pretty obvious against the bright blue of the shirt. I finally put a black jacket over it, what they call a boyfriend's jacket, because it's sort of big through the shoulders and body. The sleeves rolled back to expose the silky lining. I liked the jacket, and with one button fastened, it hid the Firestar, though not completely. You'd still catch glimpses of it when I moved, but maybe people wouldn't run screaming.

I felt naked without the Browning, which was kind of funny, considering I had an Uzi in my suitcase. But hey, I slept with the Browning.

Richard never said a word about the two shotguns. Maybe he would have complained about the rest if he'd seen them, but he picked up one suitcase, put one gym bag over his shoulder, one shotgun carrying case on the same shoulder, and let me pick up my share.

"Can you carry both suitcases?" I asked.

"Yeah, but I'm shocked you asked. The last time I tried to carry something unasked, you nearly handed me my head in a basket."

"I want one hand free for my gun."

"Ah," he said, "of course." He took the other suitcase without another word. He really is a very wise man.

Mrs. Pringle stepped out of her door as we were leaving. She had Custard in her arms. He growled briefly at Richard, and she hushed him. "I thought I heard you out here. Are you all right, Anita?"

I glanced at the hole by her door. "I'm fine. How 'bout you?"

She hugged Custard, raising his tiny furry body near her face. "I'll be all right. Are you going to be charged?"

"It doesn't look like it."

"Good." She glanced at the suitcases. One for clothes, one for weapons. "Where are you going?"

"I think I'm a little too dangerous to be around right now."

She searched my face like she was trying to read my mind. "How bad is this mess, Anita?"

"Bad enough," I said.

She gently touched my hair, "You be very careful out there."

I smiled. "Always. You take care of yourself, too."

"Custard and I will take care of each other."

I petted Custard, rubbing his little fox ears. "I owe you a box of doggie treats, furball." He licked my hand with a tiny, pink tongue.

"When you can, give me your new phone number," she said.

"When I can, I'll come back."

She smiled, but her pale eyes stayed worried.

We left because we had to. My imagination has always been too good for my own peace of mind. I had a very clear image of Mrs. Pringle splattered against the wall, that lovely, aging face blown away. If she had opened the door at the wrong moment, I wouldn't be imagining it. Too close, too damn close.

6

Richard's house was a one-story, half-brick ranch. It looked like a house for children, and Mommy baking cookies in the kitchen. It wasn't even set that far back off the road, but it had plenty of yard on either side and the backyard was an acre of woods. You could look out both the sides and the back and not see a neighbor, except in winter when the bare trees revealed distant glimpses across the valley. From the front picture window, you could see the corner of the next house half obscured by overgrown shrubs. No one had lived in it the entire time I'd been visiting. The place was a little isolated. Richard liked that, and whether I did or not, I needed it now.

The place looked like an invitation for an ambush, but neighbors would have been cannon fodder. Most bad guys try not to take out innocent bystanders. It's not moral outrage, just bad for business. The cops tend to put the heat on if you waste a lot of bystanders.

Richard hit the garage door opener and eased the Mustang into the garage. His four by four was already inside. I followed him in my Jeep. I idled out on the street, waiting for him to move the four by four out so I could put the Jeep in. Parking my Jeep out in front of his house seemed like making the bad guys' job a little too easy. He pulled out. I pulled in. He parked behind me in the driveway and walked into the garage. I unloaded the suitcases, and he hit the button by the interior door.

The door opened into the kitchen. The walls were lined with Hogarth prints of dogs and more modern hunting scenes. A Warner Brothers canister set; Bugs to Tweety Bird sat on the off-white cabinets. The countertops were off white. The cabinets light honey colored oak. There were dishes draining on a towel by the sink, even though Richard had a dishwasher. A glass, a bowl, a spoon; he'd washed his breakfast dishes before he left for work this morning. I'd have poured water in them and left them in the sink. Of course, I never ate breakfast.

Richard walked through into the living room, carrying one suitcase. I followed, carrying the suitcase with the weapons in it. I also had the two gym bags.

The living room had deep forest green carpet and pale yellow walls. Cartoon lithographs took up the far wall. The near wall was taken up with a wooden entertainment center that Richard had built himself. There was a large-screen TV, a miniature stereo system that made mine sound like humming through a comb, shelves of books, and closed doors that hid part of his extensive video collection and a portion of his CDs. The rest of his books were in the basement, set in shelves along every wall. There were still boxes he hadn't unpacked because he ran out of shelf space.

There was a large couch and a heavy wood coffee table. The couch was green and brown, patterned with a yellow afghan thrown across it that his grandmother had made. A small antique armoire sat against the far wall. There was no other furniture in the room.

He'd set the suitcase in the smaller bedroom. It had a twin bed, a nightstand, and a lamp. The walls, the drapes, and the coverlet where all white, like he hadn't really decided what to do with the room yet.

I laid the gym bags on the bed, put the suitcase on the floor, and stared at it all. My life sitting in little bags on the carpet. Seemed like there should have been more.

Richard came up and hugged me from behind, arms wrapping around my shoulders. "I think this is where I'm supposed to ask what's wrong, but I know the answer already. I'm sorry the bad guys invaded your house."

That was it exactly. The bad guys were not supposed to come home with you. It should have been against the rules. I knew it wasn't, it had happened before, but not like this. Not where I knew I couldn't go back. Even when this was over, I couldn't risk Mrs. Pringle and my other neighbors again.

I turned in his arms, and he loosened them so I could do it. I hugged him around the waist. "How did you know that was exactly what was bothering me?"

He smiled. "I love you, Anita."

"That's not an answer."

He kissed me on the forehead. "Yes, it is." He kissed me gently on the lips and stepped back. "I'm going to get out of this tie. Change into your jammies if you want to." He left, closing the door behind him.

I opened the door and called after him. "Can I use the phone?"

He answered from his bedroom. "Make yourself at home."

I took that for a yes, and went into the kitchen. The phone was on the wall. I got a card out of my fanny pack, which I'd been forced to carry like a purse. You couldn't fasten the jacket over the fanny pack, and the open jacket would have shown off the gun.

The card was white with a number printed in black script, nothing but the number. I dialed and got Edward's twenty-four-hour answering service. I left a message, saying to call me ASAP, and Richard's number.

Richard's answering machine sat on the counter, connected by wires to the wall-mounted phone. The message light was blinking, but it wasn't my machine, so I didn't check it.

Richard came into the kitchen. His hair fell around his shoulders in tight, foaming waves, curlier from the French braid. His hair was brown, but light of almost any kind brought out golden highlights, hints of bronze. He was wearing a flannel shirt, forest green, with the sleeves rolled above his elbows, showing the fine muscles in his forearms. I'd seen the shirt before. It was high-quality flannel, soft as a blanket to touch. He had on jeans and no socks. He padded barefoot towards me.

The phone rang. It was nearly one o'clock in the morning. Who else could it be but Edward? "I' m expecting a call," I said.

"Help yourself."

I picked it up, and it was Edward. "What happened?" he asked.

I told him.

"Somebody wants you dead quick."

"Yeah. When you said no, they went out and bought some cheap local talent."

"You get what you pay for," Edward said.

"If there'd been two of them, Edward, I wouldn't be here."

"You aren't going to like my news."

"How much worse could it get?" I asked.

"I answered a message just before yours. They upped the offer to five hundred thousand dollars, if you were dead within twenty-four hours."

"Sweet Jesus, Edward, I'm not worth that kind of money."

"They knew you blew away their hitter, Anita. They knew the hit had failed."

"How?" I asked.

"I don't know yet. I'm trying to find out who's putting up the money, but it'll take a little time. The safeguards that keep me out of it protect the client, too."

I was shaking my head back and forth. "Why twenty-four hours for the hit?"

"Something's happening that they want you out of the way for, something big."

"But what?"

"You know what it is, Anita. You may not be aware that you know, but you do. Something worth this kind of money that you could put a stop to. There can't be that many choices."

"I can't think of a single thing, Edward."

"Think harder," he said. "I'll be there as early as I can tomorrow. Watch your back. Don't drive your car."

"Why not?"

"Bombs," he said.

"Bombs," I repeated.

"For half a million dollars, Anita, they'll get someone good. A lot of professionals will do you from a nice, safe distance. A bomb, a high-powered rifle."

"You're scaring me," I said.

"Good, maybe you'll be careful."

"I'm always careful, Edward."

"I apologize. You're right, but be more careful. I didn't expect them to try a local hit."

"You're worried," I said.

He was quiet for a second. "We can keep taking out the hitters, but eventually we've got to get to the man with the money. As long as the contract's out there, somebody'll keep taking it."

"It's just too much damn money to pass up," I said.

"A lot of professionals won't take a hit with a time limit on it," he said. "Some of the best are out of the running because of the deadline. I won't take a hit with special circumstances."

"I hear a 'but' coming up," I said.

He laughed, quietly. "For half a million dollars, people will break their rules."

"Not comforting," I said.

"Not meant to be," he said. "I'll be at Richard's tomorrow early."

"Do you know where it is?"

"I could find it, but let's not play games. Give me directions."

I did. "I would tell you to stay indoors, but you've been dating Richard for months. A good hitter will be able to find you. I don't know if you're safer inside or on the move."

"I'll pack extra firepower and be more paranoid than usual."

"Good. See you tomorrow." He hung up, and I was left holding the buzzing phone.

Richard was staring at me. "Did I hear you say twenty-four hours for the hit?"

I hung up the phone. "I'm afraid so." I hit the message button on his machine out of habit. It whirred as it rewound.

"Why, for God's sake?" Richard asked.

"I wish I knew."

"You mentioned money twice. How much?"

I told him.

He sat down in one of the kitchen chairs, looking shocked. Couldn't blame him. "Anita, don't take this wrong. To me you're worth any amount of money, but why would somebody pay half a million dollars to kill you?"

For someone who knew nothing about assassins, he'd grasped the big question quite nicely. I walked over to him. I ran my fingertips through his hair. "Edward says I must already know what the big event is, that I wouldn't be worth this kind of money, with this kind of deadline, unless I was already intimate with the situation."

He looked up at me. "But you don't know, do you?"

"Not a clue."

He laid his hands on either side of my waist, pulling me against him, wrapping his arms completely around my waist.

The message machine clicked to life and made us both jump. We laughed nervously, not just from fear. There was a heat to his eyes as he stared up at me that made me want to blush or kiss him. I hadn't decided which.

Two hang-ups, his younger brother Daniel, sorry Richard had canceled their rock climbing tomorrow.

I leaned towards Richard. His lips were the softest I'd ever kissed. The taste of him was intoxicating. How could I be thinking of giving him up?

The last message began playing: "Richard, this is Stephen. Oh, God, pick up. Please pick up. Please be there."

We froze, listening.

"They're trying to get me to do one of those movies. Raina won't let me leave. Richard, where are you? They're coming. I've got to go. Oh, God, Richard." The phone clicked dead. A mechanical voice said, "End of messages."

Richard stood up, and I let him. "I thought Raina had stopped making pornographic movies," I said.

"She promised not to make snuff films, that was all." He replayed the message. The time on it was 12:03.

"That's less than an hour ago," I said.

"I can't leave you alone here tonight. What if another killer comes?" He paced in a tight circle. "But I can't abandon Stephen."

"I'll go with you," I said.

He shook his head, walking for the bedroom. "I can survive the games that the pack plays, Anita. You're human, they'll tear you up."

"They'll tear you up, too, Richard."

He just kept walking. "I can handle myself."

"Are you at least going to call some of the pack that's on your side? Get some backup?"

He sat down on his bed, pulling on socks. He glanced up at me, then shook his head. "If I take my army, this'll turn into a war. People will get killed."

"But if you go in alone, you only endanger yourself, is that it?"

He glanced up at me. "Exactly."

I shook my head. "And what happens to Stephen if you go out there and get killed? Who rescues him?"

That stopped him for a second. He frowned, fishing his shoes out from under the bed. "They won't kill me."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because if Marcus kills me outside the challenge circle, he doesn't retain leadership of the pack. It's like cheating. The pack would turn on him."

"What if you accidentally died in a fight with someone else?"

He was suddenly very interested in tying his shoes. "I can handle myself."

"Meaning if someone else kills you in a legitimate fight, Marcus is off the hook, right?"

He stood up. "I guess."

"Raina is Marcus's mate, Richard. She's afraid you're going to kill him. This is a trap."

He shook his head stubbornly. "If I call in the wolves on my side and we go over there in a mass, they'll be slaughtered. If I go over there alone, I may be able to talk my way through it."

I leaned against the doorjamb and wanted to yell at him, but bit it back. "I'm going with you, Richard."

"You have enough problems of your own."

"Stephen risked his life to save mine once. I owe him. If you want to play politician, fine, but I want Stephen safe."

"Going out where the assassin can find you isn't a smart idea, Anita."

"We've been dating for months, Richard. If a professional assassin hits town, it won't take him long to find me here."

He glared at me, jaw tight enough that I could see the small muscle on the side. "You'll kill someone if I take you."

"Only if they need killing."

He shook his head. "No killing."

"Even to save my own life? Even to save Stephen's?"

He looked away from me, then back, anger turning his dark eyes almost black. "Of course you can defend yourself."

"Then I'm coming."

"All right, for Stephen's sake." He didn't like saying it.

"I'll get my jacket." I got the mini-Uzi out of the suitcase. It was amazingly small. I could have shot it with one hand, but for accuracy, I needed two. Though accuracy and machine guns were sort of mutually exclusive. You pointed it a little lower than you meant to hit and held on. Silver ammo, of course. I slid the strap over my right shoulder. It had a little clip that attached to my belt at the small of my back. The clip kept the Uzi from sliding all over the place, but left enough play for me to slide the gun out and fire it. The gun rode at the small of my back, which was irritating, but no matter what I told Richard, I was scared, and I wanted at least two guns with me. The police had the Browning. I didn't have a holster big enough for the sawed-off, not to mention it was illegal. Come to think of it, wasn't the machine gun? I had a permit to own it, but they didn't hand out carry permits for fully automatic weapons, not to civilians, anyway. If I got caught with it, I might be going to court after all.

I put the jacket on and whirled around. The jacket was bulky enough that it didn't show. Amazing. The Firestar was more noticeable in its front-draw holster.

My pulse was beating hard enough that I could feel it thrumming against my skin. I was scared. Richard was going to play politics with a bunch of werewolves. Shapeshifters didn't play politics much, they just killed you. But I owed Stephen, and I didn't trust Richard to save him. I'd do whatever it took to see him safe; Richard wouldn't. Richard would hesitate. It would almost surely get him killed one day. Tonight, for the first time, I realized it might get me killed.

No way should we walk into one of Raina's little shows without more people. No way. Jean-Claude would never have tolerated Raina and Marcus's games. They'd be dead by now, and we'd all be safe. I would have trusted Jean-Claude at my back tonight. He wouldn't flinch. Of course, he'd have brought his own little army of vampires and made it a true battle. The shit could hit the fan tonight and be over before morning. Richard's way, we'd rescue Stephen, survive, escape, and Raina would still be alive. Nothing would be settled. It may have been civilized, but it was a bad way to stay alive.

Richard was waiting by the front door, keys in hand, impatient. Couldn't blame him.

"Stephen didn't say where he was. Do you know where they make the films?"

"Yeah."

I looked a question at him. "Raina took me to watch the filming a few times. She thought I'd overcome my shyness and join in."

"You didn't." It wasn't a question.

"Of course not. Let's go get Stephen." He held the door for me, and just this once I didn't tell him not to.