Serpentine (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 26) - Page 20

"If it will get us the most information with the least amount of fuss, sure," I said.

"You know her better than we do," Micah said. "We'll follow your lead."

"You'll have to let me see the pictures from Florida, so I know what I'm talking about."

Micah nodded. "I know, and I'll have to break confidence to show Melanie as well."

"Aren't you going to have to check with your clients to do all that?" I asked.

"I'm making an executive decision that they're being insane about this level of secrecy. I need information to be able to help them, and I can't get that without telling people the truth."

"Great. That means we can show Edward when we see him."

"No, I promised I wouldn't show the pictures to anyone who might hunt them down for execution without their permission."

"Damn it, Micah."

"That is a reasonable fear, Anita. Even you don't share everything with Edward, because you don't want to endanger some of us."

"Fine, but I do share most things now."

"Good to know," he said.

Nicky said, "If you want to catch Melanie the Lamia between shows, we need to hustle."

"Are we going to have to run the stairs again?" Ru asked, sounding sad.

Nicky grinned. "Not if we hurry."

Suddenly, we were all willing to hurry. Nice to know even the immortal hated extra cardio.

12

MELANIE DID HER show in one of the tent-fronted areas to the side of the midway. It was designed to look like the food stand and game area of a traveling carnival that would go through the middle of the country in the summer. We even had rides: Tilt-a-Whirl, Ferris wheel, mirror maze, and the fun house, though the rides weren't really why people came to the Circus of the Damned. You could get more spectacular rides elsewhere. You could get cotton candy and a corn dog, play ring toss, and win prizes like a big, flappy rubber bat or a stuffed toy wolf that howled when you squeezed it. You could do everything you did at traveling fairs without the heat and dust, but that wasn't why we had lines out the door and around the block. The permanent big top, with its striped tent entrance, was just to the left of the main doors. Its one-ring show was definitely one of the reasons for the crowds. The sideshow was more than halfway into the huge warehouse space, because if the line for the big top converged with the one for the sideshow, it became an impassable mass. So now the tented fronts of the sideshow attractions didn't start until you'd walked through the games, food stalls, and rides. It also meant people did more impulse buying, which was nice for the bottom line, but the main reason to move the two main attractions farther away from each other was crowd control. The security people had requested it, along with the fire marshal.

Melanie's area was the last in the line, closest to the back door that led to the underground, which made our bodyguards' jobs easier since there was less crowd to wade through. Nicky led the way, Bram brought up the rear, and Rodina and Ru took left and right, so the three of us moved in a bubble of their arms suddenly moving outward to stop people from getting too close. We didn't really expect a problem that the three of us couldn't have handled on our own. The four of them were mainly helpful getting through the crowd and discouraging anyone who might know us through the media. Micah was on the news a lot representing the lycanthrope community, and I'd become a social media darling since the proposal and wedding announcement to Jean-Claude. Nathaniel under his stage name, Brandon, had gotten stopped by fans for years. He'd actually had less of that since his hair was cut, which was one of the few pluses to it for me. There were more of our guards scattered throughout the midway. You could pick them out by the bright orange shirts with Security in large white letters on the back; smaller letters on the front read, Circus of the Damned Security. They were keeping the crowds in line outside the sideshow from blocking the food and gaming booths across from them. It was also part of the deal with the fire marshal to keep the aisles free. It was one of the places where we actually needed more security.

Nicky started us wading through the line. Some people complained, but he glared at them and they thought better of it. One of the security guards came toward us, saying, "No line cutting." He was tall and athletic-looking like most of them, built closer to Bram's body type than Nicky's. I couldn't put a name to the strong, lithe-looking man. The fact that he didn't recognize any of us on sight might mean that I had never known it.

It was Rodina who called out, "We're working."

He looked at her and then at Ru, and then at the rest of us. His eyes widened when he got to me and Micah. I think he recognized us from TV and social media, if nothing else, or maybe Claudia had started showing our pictures to the new hires.

"Sorry, Roe, Ru, I didn't see you behind the big guy here."

The new guy tried to get introductions, but Nicky and I both shook our heads. We were in a crowd of strangers. They didn't need to know our names. If you had enough threats to your safety to need bodyguards, anytime you could be anonymous was good, and bodyguards don't like people to know their names, because then strangers can yell out their names and distract them at the wrong moment.

The new guy's name was Jamie and he looked like a hundred other college-age guys across the Midwest. He wasn't unattractive, but he was attractive in a way that was so generic that it left no impression. He'd have been a great spy because he could have blended in so many places. He'd have been killer at undercover on a college campus, but instead he was working security for us, which meant he was a wereanimal, because he wasn't a vampire and we only hired supernaturals for security. Jamie hid his energy well; I got only the smallest flare of power from his anxiety about dealing with three of the primary people security was supposed to guard. Nicky and Bram made him a little nervous, too, but I think that was just him doing the big, athletic guy math of, if there was a problem, he wasn't sure he would win a fight against them. The fact that neither Rodina nor Ru nor the three of us made him do the math made me take more points away from him. Bigger didn't always mean tougher in a fight. It sure as hell didn't mean it when some of the smaller people were armed.

Jamie did escort us through the line and hold the tent flap so we could go through into the lamia's lair, which is what the poster above her tent called it. There was a small entryway / waiting room with another tent flap in front of us.

"Let me go see where she's at with the people ahead of you," Jamie said. He didn't wait for us to say yes or no; he just disappeared through the next tent flap and left us standing there. There were a handful of chairs against one soft cloth wall, a rug on the floor that looked Persian, and a small table in one corner with what looked like little catalogs and pamphlets. There was a price list attached to the tent wall. I moved close enough to see that it was a price list for pictures and signatures from the lamia. It was extra to get your picture taken with her above and beyond the price of both the unsigned picture of your choice and the signature itself. I knew that you had to pay for a ticket to watch Melanie just stand in front of you and change from human shape to half snake, but I hadn't known that there were so many other ways Melanie made money for herself and us. The last time I'd paid attention to the lamia, she'd just stood on a raised stage so everyone had a good view and then changed shape. She hadn't talked to the crowd or answered questions or much of anything. Apparently, she was much more interactive now.

Jamie opened the tent flap and leaned in, whispering, "She's almost done; just keep your voices down."

He held the flap open for us and we were suddenly inside The Arabian Nights, or what Hollywood thought the interior of The Arabian Nights would have looked like. It was all Persian rugs on the floor and wall hangings and cushions in brilliant colors and a wide variety of cloths and textures. There was a small knot of people near the middle of the room. Two security staff stood to either side of the people, so I was pretty sure that Melanie was the center of all the small group's attention, but I couldn't see her at first. Then movement near the floor caught my at

tention and I realized it was her tail trailing through a pile of multicolored cushions; the pattern of her scales had been strangely camouflaged until she twitched the tip of her tail. The rest of her was still hidden behind the small group of fans. They had to be fans if they were willing to pay not just to see her transform but extra for an intimate meet-and-greet, the price sheet had said. I realized that the crowd had to move through this "intimate" room to get to the main stage. I'd have thought it would be the other way around, but then I saw the lounging couch on the far side of the room. It was made up like a bed in a harem costume drama, and I think that was the point. They'd take the crowd through and let them build up their own fantasy about what intimate might mean, if they were willing to pay to find out.

There was a small table to the left of the door where a woman wearing an orange shirt with a cartoon version of the fanged clowns on the roof done large across the front of it was ready to sell us things. The Halloween shade of orange marked her as staff, but the image was one of the ones we sold as souvenir T-shirts in other colors. I knew the staff were issued two shirts in that shade of orange, but with designs that we sold. We had two different fanged-clown shirt designs.

The woman at the table wasn't selling shirts, though; she was selling pictures and a pen, all with Melanie's image on them. There was another price sheet pinned to the wall behind her. The woman started to smile at us and offer us a chance to buy, but Jamie explained we weren't here for that.

Micah whispered to me, "Lamias are Greek; Mediterranean, not Mideastern."

"I know that and you know that," I whispered back.

Nathaniel leaned in and said, "They tried Greek at first, but white togas and a faux Greek temple made people think she was supposed to be Medusa. It confused people."

"So they didn't believe her real origins?"

"The only half snake that most people know about is Medusa."

Micah cursed softly and got his phone out. "You need to see the pictures before we talk to her."


Tags: Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Horror
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