It was a weekend night, the place was packed, but quiet. They'd had to turn off the music, and the DJ's endless prattle was mercifully absent. In fact, the room seemed wrong this quiet, as if the noise was part of the decor. There were men, and more women than you'd think in the audience, huddled now all together like mourners at an unexpected funeral. The dancers were all in one corner with a plainclothes detective that I didn't recognize. A big man in a uniform that matched Officer Douglas's strode toward us, with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. He still had his hat on, as if his round face would have been incomplete without it.
"Douglas, what the f**k are you bringing me another stripper for? We got all the girls that were in the club tonight over there." He motioned with his thumb over his shoulder. He had small, beady eyes, or maybe I was just tired of being called a stripper, and discounted like I didn't matter, just because I happened to be a girl and not in uniform. "Unless, you saw somethin' outside. Did you, girlie, see anything?"
I raised my badge so he could see it, and stepped around Douglas so I was facing what had to be his boss. "Federal Marshal Anita Blake, and you are?"
I could see his face darken even in the odd lighting. "Sheriff Christopher, Melvin Christopher." He looked me up and down, not the way a man will if he thinks a woman is pretty, but like he was sizing me up, and wasn't impressed. "You know, if you don't want people thinking you're a stripper, you should dress better, miss."
"That's Marshal Blake to you, Sheriff, and in the big city, this is called date clothes. Dresses down to your knees went out of style a few decades back."
His face got a little darker, his eyes went from unfriendly to hostile. "You think you're funny?"
"No," I said, and I took a deep breath in and let it out slow. "Look, you stop calling me a stripper, and I'll stop making cute remarks at you. Let's both pretend we're here to solve a crime, and just do our jobs."
"We don't need federal help here."
I sighed. I looked around the room and didn't see anyone I knew. "Fine, you want to do it this way, we can do it this way. If you prevent me from questioning all the vampires before dawn comes, I will charge you with obstructing a federal officer in the performance of her duties."
"Some of them your friends, that it? I heard you were coffin bait."
I shook my head and walked wide around Douglas, which put me out of reach for the sheriff.
"Where the hell are you going?"
"To question the witnesses," I said, and I kept a little bit of an eye on the sheriff, because I wasn't sure what he would do.
"How do you know where they are?"
"They aren't out here, or out in the parking lot, so they've got to be in the Sapphire Room." I was almost to the little raised platform in front of a pair of nice wooden doors. There was another uniformed officer in front of the doors. I had been in there before, so I knew the sound was muffled inside the room. That's why I hadn't yelled for Zerbrowski already.
I unzipped the leather jacket as I went up the steps. I had my badge in my left hand, held where the uniform on the door could see it clearly. I wasn't really sure what I was going to do if the sheriff told his man not to let me in. I'd learned that just because I had the legal right to be somewhere, didn't mean the local police would make it easy. They wouldn't actually lay hands on me, or boot my ass out, but if they wanted to be uncooperative, they could be.
"Please move aside, Officer."
He actually started to step to the side, but the sheriff said, "You don't work for her. You move when I say you move."
I sighed and thought, Well, shit. Then I had an idea. I reached into the pocket of the leather coat.
"Be careful what you reach for," the sheriff said from far too close behind me.
I turned so I could see him and the other officer. I held up my cell phone. "No need to get excited, Sheriff. Just going to make a phone call."
He had his hands on his h*ps above his Sam Brown belt. He hadn't unsnapped his gun, so he wasn't serious. He was just trying to see if I'd spook. If he thought this kind of shit could intimidate me, he'd been playing in the shallow end of the pool for too f**king long.
I hit the buttons, keeping an eye on the officers in the room. A lot of them had stopped questioning or guarding or whatever they were doing, to watch our little show. Zerbrowski answered on the second ring. "I'm in the club, just outside the doors."
"And why aren't you inside the doors?" he asked, sounding puzzled.
"The sheriff has ordered his man not to move away from the doors."
"Not true," the sheriff yelled, "but you sure as hell can't order my man to do shit."
I sighed loud enough so Zerbrowski could hear it. "A little help here."
Zerbrowski opened the door with the phone still in his hand. "Thanks, Sheriff Christopher, I think Marshal Blake and I have it from here." He clicked the phone shut, smiled at everybody, and moved aside enough for me to pass through, but not enough for the sheriff, who stood at the bottom of the steps glaring at him. I finally realized that the pissing contest had started before I got there, and I'd just gotten caught in it.
Zerbrowski shut the door behind us, and leaned against it shaking his head. He's 5'9", with short black hair going more and more gray every year. When his wife makes him get it cut, the hair is short and neat. When he forgets, or she's busy, it's curly and wavy, and as untidy as the rest of him. His suit was brown, his tie was pale yellow, and so was his shirt. I think it was the first time I'd seen all his clothes match in all the years I'd known him. Okay, match and not have food stains on them.
His glasses were silver and helped hide that his eyes were tired, but not that he was pissed. He took me off to one side by the fountain with a once-real-live stuffed lion crouching beside it. The Sapphire Room is a cross between a hunting lodge, a safari room, and other things people think men think is masculine. Most of the room was carpeted in leopard print, so that my first thought was, always, Oh, no, a leopard blew up and plastered itself all over everything, but hey, animal prints are in this year. People pay hundreds of dollars a night to be back here, so they must like it.
Zerbrowski turned his back on the room and motioned for me to move in front of him so that no one would see us talking. "Welcome to the party."
"Why are you keeping out all of the sheriff's men?"
"When we pulled up, they had the vampires in here and were using crosses on them. They didn't touch them, just made the crosses glow like hell, and basically said, you talk, or we keep crosses out."
"Shit, use of a holy item on a vampire for questioning was ruled assault, what, three months ago in federal court?"
"Yeah," he said, and he raised his glasses up and rubbed at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
"Every vamp here could press charges," I whispered.
He nodded and readjusted his glasses. "Like I said, welcome to the party."
Before the ruling, a lot of police departments had holy items as part of their uniform, like lapel pins or tietacks, but now they were back to carrying them undercover somewhere on their bodies. Holy items were now considered weapons when dealing with vampires. Which meant what the sheriff had done constituted assault with a deadly weapon.
"Was it just him, or his men, too?"
"Some of his men. Before we got here, they were all wearing little cross-shaped lapel pins. I got them to remove them, but only after I threatened to call the closest FBI office."
I looked at him, because no cop likes to call in what they so affectionately call the Feebies.
"I'd rather let the FBI take this entire case away from us than let crap like this go down. The vampires are scared shitless now. If there are any guilty ones here, I can't tell it, because they're all either royally pissed, or scared. Most of them won't even talk to us, and legally they don't have to." It didn't really show in his voice, but he was as angry as I'd seen him. I could see it in the tightness around his eyes, the way his hands kept stiffening up. Zerbrowski was usually one laid back guy, but everybody has their limits. "We got a hit from New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Very similar crimes. Two in Pittsburgh, five in New Orleans, then they moved here."
"Lucky us," I said.
"Yeah," he said, "but that means we have at least three more bodies to look forward to. We need these nice citizen vamps to talk to us."