Serpentine (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 26) - Page 72

Tyburn cut him off. "Take them to the body, Lin."

"Captain--"

"Now, Detective!" It was a growled shout.

Lin didn't jump or salute, though I saw his arm flex like he was going to do the latter. He just looked from Tyburn to Dalton and then said, "Do any of you know how to get ahold of Marshal Horse?"

I laughed--I couldn't help it--and turned it into a cough.

"It's Marshal Spotted-Horse," Edward corrected.

Olaf narrowed his eyes at me. "Why was that humorous?"

I shook my head, not trusting myself to talk, because though I'd never had sex with Bernardo, I had seen him nude once, and he was very well-endowed. How I had never shortened his name even in my own head to the appropriate nickname, I had no idea, but I hadn't. Now that Detective Lin had put it in my head, I was going to have to struggle not to think Marshal Horse or Marshal Hung-Like-a-Horse or a half dozen other inappropriate noms de plume.

Edward called Bernardo on his cell phone, as Micah and Nathaniel came up to us with the rest of our parade fanning out around them. The looks on their faces were serious enough to help me regain control of myself. "How bad was it?"

"She thought she was in love with Rankin," Micah said, voice low.

"He brainwashed her somehow," Nathaniel said, "and almost me."

I took his hand in mine. Micah was already holding the other one.

"Dalton seems free of him now," I said.

"For now," Ru said, "but I don't know if it will last if we aren't there to touch her and share some of our resistance to his powers with her."

"We can't hold hands with her forever," Rodina said.

"No, we can't," Nathaniel said.

"Hold hands with who forever?" Olaf asked. It startled me. I hadn't heard or felt him coming up on us. That was careless--not fatal yet, but I couldn't afford to let the metaphysics blind me to the real world that badly.

Olaf leaned over me and I felt a flare of his beast's energy as he whispered, "What are you talking about so secretively?"

I took a step back from him and closer to all my people. It helped chase the warmth of his energy back, though I caught a flash of amber eyes deep inside me as my lioness awoke enough to stare upward and wonder about that warmth.

"Ted will fill you in," I said.

Edward took him to one side to tell him what he'd missed.

Bernardo came striding into the lobby, and I had a moment to watch the crowd react to him. Any women who were there and some of the men followed his progress like they'd never seen anyone who was tall, dark, and handsome. Some of the other police looked at him in that "if the shit hits the fan, is he a danger to me?" way. Bernardo was tall and obviously in shape; he moved in a graceful long-legged stride halfway between the male version of a female model on the catwalk and the way most big, athletic men move. He was like a sexy predator. I thought that, even though I was standing with three men who were literally predators in one form or another.

Nathaniel leaned in and whispered, "Tell me again why you never slept with him."

Ru leaned in from behind me, resting his chin on my shoulder, and said, "I was thinking the same thing."

Rodina said, "You didn't see him by the pool with all the other women. You'd understand if you had."

We'd forgotten about Olaf having better-than-human hearing now, because he spoke low, but not quite a whisper, as he said, "Anita is not moved by the same things that move most women."

I didn't know what to say to that, because in a way he was right; if I had been, then Bernardo and I would have crossed the sexual divide the first time we met. Now I had no plans to cross it. We were work friends, maybe battle buddies, but we would never be lovers. Watching him come closer, I could admit to a tiny bit of regretful curiosity about whether he was as good as he looked, but mostly I was relieved that we'd dodged the bullet of each other. He was a womanizer of epic proportions, and when we'd met I'd still been trying for a monogamous, white-picket-fence kind of life. It would have been a disaster, and possibly ruined our working relationship. Work friends was better.

Lin put his sunglasses on and started walking toward the doors.

Then I had a thought: Rankin was going to the same hospital as Peter and Donna.

I told Ru and Rodina to make sure they were okay. Nicky and Bram stayed with Nathaniel and Micah.

I usually made it a point not to kiss my boyfriends in front of the other cops, but if I hadn't had them to rely on, Rankin would have rolled me. It didn't feel right to leave them in the lobby with just a hug. I wrapped my arms around Micah and Nathaniel and then kissed them one after the other. I turned to Nicky, but he gave a slight shake of his head. I looked at Ru. He smiled and looked hopeful. I started to kiss his cheek, but he moved so that our lips met, and I got a taste of Jean-Claude, as if he were a wine that lingered on Ru's lips, or a perfume ghosting through a room after the wearer has gone. Whatever it was, I kissed that echo of Jean-Claude, because I was suddenly missing him so much.

Edward barked, "Anita, we're moving." It startled me and helped me pull away from Ru, who looked pleased and a little dazed. I had to trot a little to catch up with everyone's longer legs, but once I got to them I could keep up. I'd been walking with taller people most of my life.

"Where are we going?" Bernardo asked.

"Crime scene," Edward said.

"How did you swing that?" he asked.

"Rankin picked a fight with Otto," Edward said.

"Who cleaned his clock," I said.

Bernardo looked from one to the other of us as if waiting for us to say we were joking. When we didn't, he said, "And that got us an invitation to their crime scene?"

Edward and Olaf said, "Yes."

I said, "Apparently."

"Glad I'm not the only one wondering what the hell is going on," Lin said, "but my captain tells me to take you to our crime scene, so I'll take you, but I don't have to like it."

"No, you don't," I said.

"I don't have to like any of you," he said.

"No, you don't," Edward said.

He looked from one to the other of us, as if wondering if we were kidding him by repeating each other. We gave him blank, innocent eyes, or I did. Edward said, "We've been partners for a while."

"You work long enough together, it's like a married couple--you start finishing each other's sentences," Lin said.

"They say married couples start looking alike," Bernardo said.

Edward and I exchanged a look. "I always wondered what I'd look like as a blond," I said.

He smiled. "Maybe you'll get taller."

I smiled back, and then Lin led us through the doors into the blinding flashes of the smartphones. Lucky we all had sunglasses.

50

I FOUND OUT THERE was a linking bridge from Kirke Key to the rest of the Keys, but the boat was considered romantic for the wedding guests. We weren't guests anymore, so we got to drive from Kirke Key to Little Coppit Key. It was my first crime scene at the edge of the ocean. The waves spilled across the small stretch of sand, rocks and shells like hungry hands trying to pull the body back out to sea. They hadn't been able to leave the body where they found it, because the ocean wanted it back, as if it were a shell washed up on the shore for someone to find, but only until the next wave came to snatch it back. So the body was laid out on a black tarp in the parking lot above the beach, though that last word conjured images of miles of pale sand stretching out and out, but it was more like a pale sand thread between the ocean and the smooth lumps of rocks, and there weren't a lot of rocks. It was as if the ocean was closer here in the Keys, a lot closer than in California, where the beach seems to give the land space to be separate from the water. Here in the Florida Keys the ocean was even more intimate, as if it wasn't sure it was finished with the land and might take it back at any minute.

It would have been easier if I had not seen the "body" when it was alive. One of the ways I stay sane is by creating a verbal distance: it's a body

, not a person, not a woman; just an it, not a her. It helps me look down at what people do to other people without wanting to run screaming or throw up. I tried to stay detached so I could see and catalog anything that might help us figure out what happened. I was looking for clues, and I couldn't do that if I was emotionally involved, but all I could think as I stared down at the body on the black tarp was what Bettina had looked like by the pool. She'd been shallow and unpleasant and jealous for very little reason. I hadn't even liked her. She'd seemed so unfinished, so . . . young. We all get older, we learn our lessons, we grow, we change, hopefully we get wiser or better in some way, but Bettina Gonzales would never get older, never learn the lesson that might have kept her safe from her killer, never have a chance to grow out of the unpleasant competitiveness with other women over a man. Though, honestly, she'd struck me as one of those women who never outgrew that kind of damaging thinking that made a boyfriend, a lover, more important than friendship with another woman. When I last saw her alive I wouldn't have given her the benefit of the doubt. Staring down at her dead body, I was willing to cut her more slack, not that she cared--not that she'd ever care about anything ever again.

Her brown eyes were wide-open and staring at nothing. Her long black hair was in a tangled mass at the back of her head, as if the hair had been snagged on something, or maybe her killer had balled it up in his fist while it was getting wet. She hadn't been in the water, or even dead long enough, for much color change in her skin. From about the waist up she looked like the person I'd seen by the pool, except she was missing the top to her bikini so that her breasts were exposed, falling full and useless toward her arms. What might have been erotic if she'd been alive was just part of the horror show now, because just inches below the breasts, just below her waist, she'd been gutted. Not the way a butcher would do it, or even a hunter with a deer, but as if she were a piece of melon that the killer had hollowed out all the pulp and good stuff from, leaving only the rind behind. Enough skin was gone or peeled back that I was pretty sure I could see part of her spine. The sunlight showed everything so that there were no shadows, nothing to hide the awfulness of it, and that was with my sunglasses on. Damn, I hoped she'd been dead before he started on that part. I prayed that she'd been dead before that happened to her.

Did the same killer have Denny now? Was he doing this to that tall, athletic body right this minute? Was she screaming her life away while we stared down at the dead girl? I prayed, Please let her be safe. I closed my eyes and prayed about as hard and fervent a prayer as I'd done in a while. Please let us find her in time, before she's hurt. Please, God, don't let this happen to anyone else. I got that small warm feeling that I sometimes got when I prayed. I always thought of it as God's way of saying, It will be all right. I took comfort from it, but I also knew that sometimes God's definition of all right wasn't the same as mine.


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