Jean-Claude and I knelt by Asher. He had gained enough from that first small taste to manage a smile. The smile was the barest phantom of what he had been, but I was so relieved to see it that it made me smile, too.
I gripped Jean-Claude's hand in my left hand, and laid my right on Asher's cheek. The moment I touched him, he was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Nothing mattered but to touch him. Nothing mattered but to be with him. Nothing mattered but Asher. It was as if the world had narrowed down to his eyes, his body. The sun revolved around him, I just knew it.
In a dim part of my brain I realized that Asher hadn't been using vampire powers on me. That whatever I'd felt before this had been real. Because this was unreal. I'd never felt for anyone like this, because it wasn't love, or even lust, it was obsession. It was the sure knowledge that if I did not touch him I would die. Even as I thought it, I knew it wasn't true, but it felt true. God help me, it felt true.
I fought to free my left hand, something was holding it so I couldn't touch Asher with both hands. I needed to touch him with both my hands. I laid my body on top of Asher and caressed my hands down him.
His hands trapped my face between them, and in some part of me I knew they felt like old leather and sticks with things underneath them, but for the first time when dealing with vampire trickery, I didn't fight it. I let Asher's power turn what might have been horror into something erotic and beautiful.
I opened myself wide and let Asher roll through me like a stream, long dammed, flowing, flooding, filling up a land that has been too long without water. I did not ride his power, his power engulfed me, rolled me under with a weight of a thousand waves, pressed me to the bottom of the sand and held me at the bottom of the ocean. It wasn't that I didn't drown, it was that I didn't care that I drowned.
I woke, if wakingwas the term, with his body pressing me to the hard stone floor. I was staring up at a waving cloud of his hair, the lights sparkled through it like a golden veil. I ran my fingers through it, and it was soft, and alive again. The edge of his cheek was full and rough with scars again. I touched those familiar marks, and he turned to face me fully, and the sight of him caught my breath in my throat.
From the curve of his forehead, to the line of his cheek, the fullness of his lips, he was perfect once more. His eyes sat in that face like icy sapphires set among pearls and gold.
I laughed when I saw him, a joyous burst of sound. He cupped my face in his hand, and I turned to lay a kiss against his palm. The weight of his body against mine was one of the best feelings I'd ever had, because it was proof that he was back, that he was well, and that he was whole.
He half-rolled, and half-raised me to a sitting position in his lap, with his back to the wall. He turned with me held in his arms, to look across the room at Belle Morte. I didn't have to see the look on his face to know that it was not an entirely friendly one.
"Impressive, wouldn't you say?" Jean-Claude said.
"No, I would not. He can only feed on the energy of those whom he has taken blood from, and rolled their poor minds. You know as well as I do, Jean-Claude, that you can't allow Asher to roll the mind of every victim. It would be a parade of love-besotted fools following him everywhere."
I resented the love-besotted fool part, but I let it go. We were winning tonight. Never argue when you're winning.
"Be that as it may, Belle, Asher is restored to his glorious self. We have no more need of you tonight, so you, and yours, must be gone from our territory before tomorrow night."
"You would truly slay all of us?" She made it a question.
"My vengeance would be terrible."
"Non,Belle, by council law you cannot chastise another sourdre de sangas you would a vampire of your line. Your hatred would be terrible, but your vengeance would have to wait."
"Not if the head of the council agrees with my vengeance," she said. "I've touched her, Belle, she doesn't care about your vengeance. She doesn't even care about you, or me, or much of anybody," I said.
"The Mother has been asleep a very long time, Anita, when that sleep ends she may retire from the council."
I laughed, and it wasn't joyous now. "Retire! Vampires don't retire. They die, but they never retire."
It wasn't something that showed on her face, it was more a stillness to her shoulders, a movement in an arm. I don't know what made me see it. Asher's power, or something else. But I did see it, and I had a wonderful, terrible idea.
"You plan to kill her. You plan to kill the First Darkness and make yourself head of the council."
Her face was perfectly blank as she said, "Do not be absurd. No one attacks the Gentle Mother."
"Yeah, I know, and there's a very good reason for that. She'll fucking kill you, Belle. She will roll over you and destroy everything you are."
She fought, but she couldn't keep the arrogance off her face. I guess if you've been alive longer than Christ has been dead, you can't help but be arrogant.
"If you declare war on anyone now, Belle, as a sourdre de sangin my own right, neither I nor any of my people have to come when you call. You will find no aid here," Jean-Claude said.
"Aid from you, my two petite catamites?I have found other men to serve your purposes." She turned with a swish of Musette's skirts. "Come, my poppets, we will leave and shake the dirt of this provincial town from our shoes."
"A moment, my mistress." It was Valentina. She gave a very low curtsy in her stiff white and gold dress. "Bartolome and I have had our honor besmirched by Musette's trick."
"What of it, poppet?"
Valentina stayed down in the low curtsy, as if she could have held the position forever. "We beg your indulgence to remain behind and make amends to the shape-shifters."
"Non," Belle said.
Valentina raised her gaze to the woman. "They were abused as I was abused, and we have made it worse. I beg permission to remain behind and make it better."
"Bartolome," Belle said.
Bartolome came forward and dropped to one knee, head bowed. "Yes, mistress."
"Is this what you wish?"
"Non,mistress, but honor demands that we remedy this error." He looked up then, and there was something on his face of the boy he might once have been. "They have grown into men, but the scars laid on the boys that they were are deep. Valentina and I have made them deeper. This I do regret, and you know, above all others, that I do not regret much."
I expected Belle to tell them, no, to gather her people up and leave, but she didn't. She said, "Stay until honor is satisfied, then return to me." She glanced at Jean-Claude. "If you will allow them to remain that is?"
Jean-Claude nodded. "Until honor is satisfied, oui."
I didn't agree with this, but something in Belle's face, something in Jean-Claude's face, something in the tightness of Asher's body, let me know that things were happening that I probably didn't understand.
"If the wolves would be so kind as to escort our guests to their rooms to pack, then to the airport."
Richard seemed to startle awake, almost as if he, too, had been under some spell. I didn't think that was it. He was staring at me in Asher's lap, with Micah leaning against the wall beside us. Nathaniel had crawled towards us, and I raised a hand, let him lay his head and shoulders in my lap.
"We'll escort them out," he said, but his voice sounded empty. He opened his mouth as if to say more, then he turned, and his wolves moved with him. They gathered up Belle's people and began to escort them back towards the front and the main rooms.
Belle glanced back once at Valentina and Bartolome as they stood in their shining white and gold clothes. That one glance back said worlds. I'd never be certain, but I think that Belle Morte felt guilty not just about Valentina, but about Bartolome. Valentina I understood because a vampire of Belle's making had done the unspeakable. But bringing Bartolome over as a child had been simply good business. I hadn't thought Belle Morte lost any sleep over good business. But she'd still condemned him to an eternity in a child's body. A child's body with a man's appetite forever. Belle let them stay, though the excuse was weak. Belle let them stay because guilt is a wonderful motivator even among the dead.
I woke in the dark with the comforting weight of bodies around me. I knew by the quality of darkness and the faint light from the nearby bathroom that I was in Jean-Claude's bed. I remembered Jean-Claude giving us the bed, because it was near dawn, and I don't think that either of us wanted a repeat of yesterday morning. Strangely, what had happened with Asher seemed to have sated my own ardeur.Or maybe I was just too tired. Once I would have assumed it meant I was gaining more control, but I'd stopped trying to second-guess the ardeur.I was wrong too often.
There really wasn't enough light to see clearly, but the tickle of curls along my cheek let me know it was Micah's face pressed into the hollow of my neck. His arm lay heavy and warm across my upper stomach, his leg entwined with my thigh. There was another arm across my hips, a second face pressed into my side, a second body curled into a tight ball against me. I didn't really need to touch the top of Nathaniel's head to know it was him.
The sliver of light from the bathroom showed a pale slender arm flung carelessly across Micah's one outstretched leg. The arm was all that was visible out of the covers. I knew the arm, and I knew somewhere under all the covers they'd stolen was Zane, and the rest of Cherry. I didn't mind sleeping in big warm piles, but I did mind sharing a large bed with such outrageous cover hogs. Cherry wasn't bad on her own, but put her with Zane, and you either fought for every inch of covers, which was not restful, or you gave up. I'd found that the silk sheets at Jean-Claude's were especially hard to keep track of in my sleep.
I wasn't sure what had awakened me, but I knew that the wereleopards had better hearing and better sense of smell than I did. If it hadn't alerted them, it was probably a dream.
Then I heard it, very, very faint. It was my phone, sounding like it was ringing from the bottom of a deep well. I tried to sit up, and couldn't. I was pinned by the two men.
There was a groan, and the slender arm across Micah's leg vanished under the dark bulk of sheet. The next moment there was a slithering sound, a thump, a curse, and the sound of clothes being pawed through. Cherry's voice was groggy as she said, "Yes."
Silence, then, "No, this isn't Anita, just a minute." Her other hand poked the dark bulk of the sheet at the foot of the bed. Zane's voice, "What!"
"Phone," she groaned.
His hand grabbed the phone, and before I could say anything, he said, "Hello."
Zane was quiet for a second, then, "Just a minute, she's here, hang on." A pale more masculine hand appeared out of the welter of sheets and handed the phone vaguely in my direction, but I was still pinned. The phone dangled just out of reach.
I finally had to push Micah's arm off me, and try and sit up. "Micah, move, I have to reach the phone."
He made a small inarticulate noise and rolled off me, to give me the long line of his back. Nathaniel took the phone from Zane's hand, before I could take it.
His voice was the most awake, "Whom may I say is calling?"
I was finally sitting up. "Give me the phone," I said.
Nathaniel handed me the phone with a, "It's Zerbrowski."
I hung my head for a second, sighed, and put the phone to my ear. "Yeah, Zerbrowski, what's up?"
"How many people you got in bed with you, Blake?"
"None of your business."
"One of them sounded like a girl. Didn't know you swung that way."
I pressed the button on my watch, so I could see the time on the light-up dial. "Zerbrowski, we've had about two hours of sleep. If you just called to check up on my sex life, I'm going back to sleep."
"No, no, sorry. It just," he laughed softly, "just caught me off guard. I'll try to keep the teasing to a minimum, but, damn, you don't usually give me this much ammunition. Can't blame me for getting distracted."
"Did I mention the two hours of sleep?"
"You did," he said, sounding depressingly wide awake. I was betting he'd had coffee.
"I'm counting to three, if you haven't said something interesting by the time I'm finished, I'm hanging up, and I'm turning off my cell phone."
"We've got a fresh murder scene."
I scooted up so my back was against the headboard. "I'm listening." Micah stayed curled on his side, back to me, but Nathaniel cuddled up close so he was still pressed around me. Cherry and Zane were motionless under the pile of sheets. I think they'd gone back to sleep.
"It's the shape-shifter rapist again." The humor was leaking away from his voice, and he sounded tired. I wondered how much sleep he'd gotten last night.
I was wide awake now, my pulse fast in my throat. "When?"
"She was found just after dawn. We haven't been here long."
"I'll be there regardless, but is Dolph going to be there?"
"No," Zerbrowski said, "he's on leave." He lowered his voice, "Top brass told him he either takes voluntary leave with pay, or enforced leave without."
"Okay, where are you?"
It was Chesterfield again. "He's staying in a pretty small geographic area," I said.
"Yeah," Zerbrowski said, and that one word had so much tiredness.
I almost asked how he was holding up, but it's against the guy code. You're supposed to pretend you don't notice anything's wrong. Pretend, and it will go away. Sometimes, because I am a girl, I'll break the guy code, but today I let it stand. Zerbrowski had a long day ahead of him, and he was the man in charge. He couldn't afford to look at his feelings right now. It was more important that he held together than that he understood what he was feeling.
Zerbrowski started to give directions, and I had to tell him to wait until I had a pen and paper. There was no pen and paper anywhere in the room. I was finally reduced to writing directions in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Zerbrowski was laughing his ass off by the time I found the lipstick and started drawing on the mirror.
He gasped a little, and finally managed to say, "Thanks, Blake, I so needed that."
"Glad I could brighten your day." I crawled back on the bed.
I thought about what Jason had said about a werewolf being able to follow the scent trail. I bounced the idea off of Zerbrowski.
He was dead silent for a minute. "There is no way I could get anyone to agree to letting another shape-shifter near this scene."
"You're the man in charge," I said.
"No, Anita, you bring another shifter around, and they're going to end up being questioned just like Schuyler did. Don't do it. This whole thing is going to turn into a witch hunt soon."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they're starting to bring in all known shape-shifters for questioning."
"The ACLU is going to be up in arms," I said.
"Yeah, but not until they've held a few people over, and questioned them."
"It isn't one of the local lycanthropes, Zerbrowski."
"I can't tell the upper brass that our perp doesn't smell like the local werewolf pack, Anita. They'll say that of course the local wolves would say that, they don't want to be blamed for this shit."
"I believe Jason."
"Maybe I believe him, too, maybe I don't, but it doesn't matter, Anita. It really doesn't matter. People are fucking terrified. There's a rush bill in the state senate right now to declare varmint laws legal again in Missouri."
"Varmint laws, Jesus, Zerbrowski, you don't mean like some of the Western states still have on the books?"
"Yeah, kill it first, then if a blood test proves it's a lycanthrope, it's self-defense, not murder, and there's no trial."
"It'll never get into law," I said, and I was almost certain when I said it.
"Probably not right now, but Anita, we get a few more women torn up like this, and I don't know."
"I'd like to say people aren't that stupid," I said.
"But you know better," he said.
He sighed. "There's something else." He sounded really unhappy.
I sat up a little straighter against the headboard, forcing Nathaniel to recuddle.
"You sound like you're about to give me really bad news, Zerbrowski."
"I just don't want to have to fight with you and Dolph and the top brass all at the same time."
"What's wrong, Zerbrowski? Why am I going to be mad at you?"
"Remember, Anita, Dolph was still in charge until now."
"Just tell me." My stomach was strangely tight like I was dreading whatever he'd say."
"There was a message at the first rape scene."
"I didn't see a message."
"It was by the back door, Dolph never gave you a chance to see it. I didn't know about it until later."
"What was the message, Zerbrowski?" A lot of thoughts went through my head. Was it a message for me, about me?
"First message read, 'We nailed this one, too.'"
It took me a few seconds to get it, or think I got it. The first murder, the man nailed to his living room wall. There had been nothing to connect that death with the shape-shifter killings. Except maybe for an odd message.
"You're thinking of the first man in Wildwood," I said. "The message could mean anything, Zerbrowski."
"That's what we thought until the second rape, the one Dolph wouldn't let us call you in on."
"There was another message," I said, voice soft.
"'Nailed another one,'" he said.
"It could still be a coincidence, nailedis a euphemism for sex."
"Today's message was, 'There wasn't enough left to crucify.'"
"The maniac that's slaughtering these women is not methodical enough, or neat enough, for that first murder."
"I know," he said. "But we didn't release the nails and the fact that our first vic was crucified. Nobody but the killer would know."
"One of the killers," I said. "The man's death was a group effort." I thought of something. "Is there more than one type of sperm at the scenes?"
"So what, the rapist wants us to know the crimes are connected, why?"
"Why do any of these crazy buggers want us to know anything? It amuses him, Anita."
"What background did you dig up on the first vic?"
"You don't get that house and the indoor pool on retired military benefits."
"He was an importer. Traveled around the world and brought back stuff."
"Not that we can find."
I had another thought, a record after only two hours sleep. "Name me the countries he frequented."
"Why?" he asked.
I filled him in on what he hadn't heard through the grapevine about Heinrick.
"If the dead man frequented the same countries, it might mean something."
"A clue," Zerbrowski said. "A real live clue, I don't think I'd know what to do with one."
"You've got lots of clues, they just aren't helping."
"You noticed that, too," he said.
"If Heinrick knew the dead man, I still don't know what it means."
"Me either. Just get here as soon as you can. And don't bring any shape-shifters with you."
"I understand," I said.
"I hope so." He spoke away from the phone for a second, "I'll be right there." Then he spoke directly to me. "Hurry," he said, and he hung up. I think Dolph had taught all of us not to say good-bye.