Guilty Pleasures is in the heart of the vampire district. Its glowing neon sign bled into the night sky, giving the blackness a crimson tint like a distant house fire. I hadn't come to the district unarmed after dark for a very long time. Okay, I had the knife, and it was better than arm wrestling, but against a vampire, not much better.
Stephen was beside me. A werewolf wasn't a bad bodyguard, but somehow Stephen didn't look scary enough. He was only an inch or two taller than me, slender as a willow with just enough shoulder definition to make him look masculine. To say his pants were tight wasn't enough. They were leather and looked painted on like a second skin. It was hard not to notice that his derriere was tight and firm. The leather jacket cut him off at the waist, so the view was unobstructed.
I was wearing my black trench coat again. It had a little bit of blood on it, but if I cleaned it, it would be wet. Wet would not keep me warm. My sweater, one of my favorite sweaters, was torn off one shoulder down to the line of my bra. Too cold without a coat. Gretchen owed me a sweater. Maybe after I got my guns back, we'd talk about that.
Three broad steps led up to closed doors. Buzz the Vampire was guarding them. It was the worst vampire name I'd ever heard. It wasn't great if you were human, but Buzz seemed all wrong for a vampire. It was a great name for a bouncer. He was tall and muscle-bound with a black crew cut. He seemed to be wearing the same black T-shirt he'd worn in July.
I knew vampires couldn't freeze to death, but I hadn't known they didn't get cold. Most vampires tried to play human. They wore coats in the winter. Maybe they didn't need them the same way Gretchen hadn't needed to take the knife from her throat. Maybe it was all pretend.
He smiled, flashing fangs. My reaction seemed to disappoint him. "You missed a set, Stephen. The boss is pissed."
Stephen sort of shrank in on himself. Buzz seemed to get larger, pleased with himself. "Stephen was helping me. I don't think Jean-Claude will mind."
Buzz squinted at me, really seeing my face for the first time. "Shit, what happened to you?"
"If Jean-Claude wants you to know, he'll tell you," I said. I walked past him. There was a large sign on the door: No Crosses, Crucifixes, or Other Holy Items Allowed Inside. I pushed the doors open and kept walking, my cross securely around my neck. They could pry it from my cold dead hands if they wanted it tonight.
Stephen stayed at my heels, almost as if he were afraid of Buzz. Buzz wasn't that old a vampire, less than twenty years. He still had a sense of "aliveness" to him. That utter stillness that the old ones have hadn't touched the bouncer yet. So why was a werewolf afraid of a new vampire? Good question.
It was Sunday night and the place was packed. Didn't anyone have work tomorrow? The noise washed over us like a wave of nearly solid sound. That rich murmurous sound of many people in a small space determined to have a good time. The lights were as bright as they ever got. The small stage empty. We were between shows.
A blond woman greeted us at the door. "Do you have any holy items to declare?" She smiled when she said it. The holy-item check girl.
I smiled when I said, "Nope."
She didn't question me, just smiled and walked away. A male voice said, "Just a moment, Shelia." The tall vampire that strode towards us was lovely to look at. He had high, sculpted cheekbones, and short blond hair styled to perfection. He was too masculine to be beautiful, and too perfect to be real. Robert had been a stripper last time I was here. It looked as though he'd moved up into management.
Shelia waited, looking from Robert to me. "She lied to me?"
Robert nodded. "Hello, Anita."
"Hello. Are you the manager here now?"
I didn't like it, him being manager. He'd failed me once, or rather failed Jean-Claude's orders. Failed to keep someone safe. That someone had died. Robert hadn't even gotten bloody trying to stop the monsters. He should at least have gotten hurt trying. I didn't insist he die to keep people safe, but he should have tried harder. I'd never completely trust him or forgive him.
"You are wearing a holy item, Anita. Unless on police business, you must give it to Shelia."
I glanced up at him. His eyes were blue. I glanced down, then up, and realized I could meet his eyes. He was over a hundred years old, not nearly as powerful as Gretchen, but I shouldn't have been able to meet his eyes.
His eyes widened. "You have to give it up. Those are the rules."
Maybe being able to look him in the eyes had given me courage, or maybe I had had enough for one night. "Is Gretchen here?"
He looked surprised. "Yes, she's in the back room with Jean-Claude."
"Then you can't have the cross."
"I can't let you in then. Jean-Claude is very clear on that." There was a hint of unease in his voice, almost fear. Good.
"Take a good look at my face, Bobby-boy. Gretchen did it. If she's here, I keep the cross."
Frown lines formed between his perfect brows. "Jean-Claude said no exceptions." He stepped closer, and I let him. He lowered his voice as much as he could and be heard above the noise. "He said if I ever fail him again in anything large or small, he'll punish me."
Normally, I thought statements like that were pitiful or cruel. I agreed with this one.
"Go ask Jean-Claude," I said.
He shook his head. "I cannot trust you to stay here. If you get past me with the cross, I will have failed."
This was getting tiresome. "Can Stephen go ask?"
Stephen sort of hung by me. He hadn't recovered from Buzz's remarks. "Is Jean-Claude mad at me for missing my set?"
"You should have called if you couldn't make your set," Robert said. "I had to go on in your place."
"Good to be useful," I said.
Robert frowned at me. "Stephen should have called."
"He was taking me to a doctor. You got a problem with that?"
"Then bring the great man out and let's ask him. I'm tired of standing in the door."
"Anita, how good of you to grace us with your presence." Gretchen was practically purring with anticipation.
"Robert won't let me pass."
She turned her eyes to the vampire. He took a step back. She hadn't even unleashed any of that impressive magic yet. Robert scared easy for a century-old corpse.
"We have been awaiting her, Robert. Jean-Claude is most anxious to see her."
He swallowed hard. "I was told that no one came inside with a holy item other than the police. No exceptions were to be made."
"Not even for the master's sweetheart." She put a lot of irony in that last part.
Robert either didn't get it or ignored it. "Until Jean-Claude tells me differently, she doesn't go through with a cross."
Gretchen stalked around us all. I wasn't sure who looked more worried. "Take off the little cross and let us get this over with."
I shook my head. "Nope."
"It didn't do you a lot of good earlier tonight," she said.
She had a point. For the first time I realized I hadn't even thought of bringing out my cross earlier. I'd gone for my weapons, but not my faith. Pretty damn sad.
I fingered the cool silver of the chain. "The cross stays."
"You are both spoiling my fun," she said. The way she said it made that sound like a very bad thing. "I'll give you one of your weapons back."
A moment before I'd have agreed, but not now. I was embarrassed that I had not gone for my cross earlier. It wouldn't have kept her from jumping me at the beginning. She was too powerful for that. But it might have chased her off Louie. I was going to have to stop skipping church even if I didn't get to sleep at all.
"Is this your way of getting out of our bargain?" Her voice was low and warm with the first stirrings of anger.
"I keep my word," I said.
"I will escort her through, Robert." She raised a hand to stop his complaining. "If Jean-Claude blames you, tell him I was going to tear your throat out." She stepped into him until only a breath separated their bodies. It was only standing that close that you realized that Robert was taller by a head and a half. Gretchen seemed bigger than that. "It isn't a lie, Robert. I think you're weak, a liability. I would kill you now if our master did not need us both. If you still fear Jean-Claude, remember that he wants you alive. I do not."
Robert swallowed hard enough that it had to hurt. He didn't back up. Brownie point for him. She moved that fraction closer, and he jumped back as if he'd been shot. "Fine, fine, take her through."
Gretchen's lip curled in disgust. One thing we agreed on: we didn't like Robert. If we had one thing in common, maybe there'd be more. Maybe we could be girlfriends. Yeah, right.
The noise level had dropped to a background murmur. We had everybody's attention. Nothing like a floor show. "Is there supposed to be an act on stage right now?" I asked.
Robert nodded. "Yes, I need to introduce him."
"Go do your job, Robert." The words were thick with scorn. Gretchen gave good scorn.
Robert left us, obviously relieved. "Wimp," I said softly.
"Come, Anita, Jean-Claude is waiting for us." She stalked away, long pale coat swinging out behind her. Stephen and I exchanged glances. He shrugged. I followed her and he trailed behind as if he were afraid of losing me.
Jean-Claude's office was like being inside a domino. Stark white walls, white carpet, black lacquer desk, black office chair, black leather couch against one wall, and two straight-backed chairs sat in front of the desk. The desk and chairs were Oriental, set with enamel pictures of cranes and Oriental women in flowing robes. I'd always liked the desk, not that I would admit it out loud.
There was a black lacquer screen in one corner. I'd never seen it before. It was large, hiding one entire corner. A dragon curled across the screen in oranges and reds, with huge bulbous eyes. It was a nice addition to the room. It was not a comfortable room, but it was stylish. Like Jean-Claude.
He sat on the leather couch dressed all in black. The shirt had a high, stiff collar that framed his face. It was hard to tell where his hair left off and the shirt began. The collar was pinned at his throat, with a thumb-size ruby pendant. The shirt was open down to his belt, leaving a triangle of pale, pale skin showing. Only the pendant kept the shirt from opening completely.
The cuffs were as wide and stiff as the collar, nearly hiding his hands. He raised one hand and I could see the cuffs were open on one side so he could still use his hands. Black jeans and velvet black boots completed the outfit.
I'd seen the pendant before, but the shirt was certainly new. "Spiffy," I said.
He smiled. "Do you like it?" He straightened the cuffs, as if they needed it.
"It's a nice change from white," I said.
"Stephen, we were expecting you earlier." His voice was mild enough, but there was an undertaste of something dark and unpleasant.
"Stephen took me to the doctor."
His midnight blue eyes turned back to me. "Is your latest police investigation getting rough?"
"No," I said. I glanced at Gretchen. She was looking at Jean-Claude.