I shut the door behind me, leaned into it, and fought to take a breath that didn't shake. My world had been more solid an hour ago.
I was still leaning against the door, shaking, when Nathaniel came up to me. I didn't see him at first, even though he was standing right in front of me. I was staring at the floor, and I saw his jogging shoes, his legs, his shorts, before I looked slowly up and found his face. It felt like it took a long time to look up his body, and find that familiar face with those lilac eyes.
"Anita . . ." his voice was soft.
I held out a hand, because if anyone was nice to me, I was going to fall apart. I couldn't afford that right now. If Asher was up, then probably so was Musette. Normally, the thought would have been enough to let me check on a nearby vampire. Today, it was empty. I was empty. I was what Marianne, my psychic teacher, called head blind. It happens sometimes if you've had a shock; physical, emotional, whatever. I wouldn't be worth shit for metaphysical stuff until this wore off--if it wore off. Right that second it felt like the world should open up at my feet and swallow me down the great black hole that was eating through my heart.
"What is it, Nathaniel?" My voice was a bare whisper. I cleared my throat, sharply, to repeat it, but he'd heard.
"The two men that were following us in the blue Jeep are outside watching the back parking lot. They've got a different car, but it's still them."
I nodded, and the black hole at my feet began to close. I still hurt, and I was still head blind, but for this it didn't matter. Guns don't care if you're psychically gifted. Guns don't care about anything. They don't bitch at you about the rules in your personal life, either. Of course, neither does a dog, but I don't have to use a pooper-scooper after I'm through shooting my gun. Sometimes a body bag is needed, but that's not usually my job.
I was feeling better. Steadier. This I could do. "Find Bobby Lee, I want the best people he's got for car work."
"Car work?" Nathaniel made it a question.
"We're going to box them in and find out why they're following us."
"What if they don't want to tell us?" he asked.
I looked at him as I slipped into the shoulder holster and unthreaded my belt, so I could rethread the holster. I didn't say anything as I readied the gun, got it exactly where I wanted it. I had to carry the butt of the gun a little lower than I might have wanted for speed, but hitting your breast with the edge of the gun slows your fast draw even more. So a little lower angle, to avoid the chest. Legends say that the Amazons chopped off a breast to make them better at archery. I don't believe that. I think it's just another example of men thinking a woman can't be a great warrior without cutting away her womanhood, symbolically, or otherwise. We can be great warriors; we just got to pack the equipment a little differently.
Nathaniel was looking very solemn. "I didn't bring a gun."
"That's great, because you're not coming."
"Anita . . ."
"No, Nathaniel. I taught you about guns so you wouldn't hurt yourself, and so in an emergency you could defend yourself. This isn't an emergency. I want you to stay inside out of the line of fire."
Something flitted over his face, something that might have been stubbornness. It faded, but stubborn wasn't something that I'd ever seen on Nathaniel. I wanted him more independent, but not stubborn. He was about the only person in my life that did what I asked, when I asked. Right that second, I valued that.
I hugged him, and I think it caught us both by surprise. I whispered in his ear, against the sweet vanilla scent of his cheek, "Please, just do what I say."
He was quiet for a heartbeat, then his arms wrapped around me, and he whispered, "Yes."
I drew back from him, slowly, searching his face, wanting to ask him if he found my "rules" a burden, if I'd taken half the pleasure out of his life, too? I didn't ask, because I didn't really want to know. It wasn't that my courage failed me, it was more that my cowardice overwhelmed me. I'd had about all the truth I could stand for one day.
I kissed him on the cheek and left to find Bobby Lee. Him, I trusted to be in the line of fire. But it was more than that; I wasn't sleeping with Bobby Lee. I didn't love him. Sometimes love makes you selfish. Sometimes it makes you stupid. Sometimes it reminds you why you love your gun.
I was looking through a pair of binoculars at a car parked at the far corner of the Circus of the Damned employee parking lot. Nathaniel was right, it was the same two men, but now they were in a large gold Impala dating to the 1960s, or some such. It was big, old, but in good shape. It was also very different from the shiny new blue Jeep that they'd been in before. They'd switched so the blond was driving. With the binocs I could see that he looked youngish, under forty, over twenty-five. He was clean shaven, wearing a black mock turtleneck and silver frame glasses. His eyes were pale, gray, or grayish blue.
The dark-haired man had put a billed cap on and changed to a larger pair of sunglasses. His face was thin, clean shaven, with a good-sized mole at one corner of his mouth. What they used to call a beauty mark.
I watched them sitting there and wondered why they weren't at least reading a newspaper, or drinking coffee, something, anything.
They'd done everything they were supposed to do, according to Kasey Krime Stoppers 101. They'd changed vehicles. They'd made small changes to their appearances. All this might have worked, if they weren't sitting outside Circus of the Damned, doing nothing. No matter how clever you disguise yourself, very few people sit in a car in the middle of the morning and do nothing. Also the employee parking lot was almost empty before noon. Once darkness fell, they could probably have parked and not been noticed so quickly, but this time of morning there was no hiding.
Bobby Lee was explaining all the Kasey Krime Stoppers tips and more to me. "If they hadn't changed cars, and they hadn't done anything to change their appearance, it might mean they didn't care if you spotted them. Or even that they wanted you to spot them. But they've changed enough I think they really are trying to follow you."
I handed him back the binoculars. "Why are they following me?"
"Usually, when people start following you around, you know why."
"I thought they might be Renfields working for Musette and company, but I don't think Renfields would have taken the trouble to change their appearance like this. Most Renfields aren't the brightest of people."
Bobby Lee grinned at me. "How can you be friends with so many bloodsuckers, and still be so damn disdainful of them?"
I shrugged, and my shrug wasn't graceful. It never had been. "Just lucky, I guess."
The smile stayed, but the eyes began to go serious. "What do you want to do about these two?"
For a second, I thought he meant Asher and Jean-Claude, then I realized he meant the two yahoos in the Impala. The fact that even for a second I thought he meant something else said just how bad my concentration was. Concentration like that will get you killed in a fire fight.
I took a deep breath, another, let them out slowly, trying to clear my head. I needed to be here, now, not worrying about my increasingly complex personal life. Here and now with men and women with guns, about to risk their lives because I asked them to do it. Maybe the two men in the car weren't dangerous at all, but we couldn't count on that. We had to treat them like they were. If we were wrong, no harm done. If we were right, well, we'd be as prepared as we could be.
I couldn't shake the feeling of impending disaster. I looked up at Bobby Lee's tall frame. "I don't want to get any of you guys killed."
"We'd kind of like to avoid that ourselves."
I shook my head. "No, that's not what I mean."
He looked at me, face suddenly very serious. "What's wrong, Anita?"
I sighed. "I think I'm losing my nerve for this shit. Not for my own safety, but for everyone else's. The last time the wererats helped me I got one of you killed, and another one cut up pretty badly."
"I healed up pretty good." Claudia walked towards us all six feet six and serious muscle. Her long black hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail leaving her face clean and unadorned. I'd never seen her wear makeup, and maybe because I'd never seen her in any, she didn't need it.
She wore a navy blue sports bra and a pair of dark blue jeans. She usually wore sports bras, I think because she had trouble finding shirts that fit over the spectacular spread of her shoulders and chest. She was a serious weight lifter, but not to that point where you'd ever mistake her for masculine. No, Claudia was definitely all girl.