Serpentine (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 26) - Page 10

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"What made you excited and happy, just then?" Nathaniel asked as he and Nicky joined me. Millie stayed beside me and Custer fell in behind us like a walking body shield. I was pretty confident at our safety in the parking lot because I knew there was a hidden observation post near the roofline of the Circus, complete with a trained sniper, most of the time. Even we didn't have enough snipers for 24-7 coverage. Tonight, the guards in the crow's nest, which was our current guard-speak for it, were probably watching us through the scopes of their long guns.

"I may have thought of something that could help Micah out with the latest shapeshifter issue."

Nathaniel reached out for my hand, but it was my right hand and he knew in public I liked that free for weapons. "I think you're safe to hold hands for a few yards," Nicky said.

"That has to be Anita's call," Nathaniel said.

If he'd just taken my hand because someone else told him it was okay, I'd have probably protested, but he'd said just the right thing. "I think we can chance it," I said, smiling at him and holding out my hand.

The smile that Nathaniel gave me made it all worthwhile, made me wish that I was less pedantic about keeping my gun hand free more often. We made it safely to the back door of the Circus hand in hand, grinning at each other like there was no one else in the world in that moment.

"Kitten has a Robin to deliver," Nicky said, apparently to the air, but I knew it was actually into the earpiece he'd slipped on when we got closer to home.

"I hate that call sign," I said.

The lock made a thick thunk sound, and then the back door to the Circus started to swing open.

"You wouldn't pick a code name," Nicky said.

"Everyone picked one but you, Anita," Nathaniel said, smiling. He'd chosen Robin after Batman's boy-wonder sidekick. I guess anything was better than the code names based on chess pieces. I'd been the black queen, Jean-Claude the black king, and so on . . . It had all seemed too obvious who was who, so we'd decided to let all the protectees choose a code name. Everyone had had fun doing it except me. I couldn't decide. They all seemed silly, or not right, but almost anything would have been better than Kitten.

The door opened and I couldn't see anyone through it, which meant it wasn't one of the newer guards, or one of the ones from "civilian" backgrounds. If the police and the military kept their policy of kicking people out if they tested positive for lycanthropy, we were going to have enough of their exes to field our own small army.

"All you have to do is pick a different one, and we'll use it," Nicky said as Millie moved up so that he'd go through the door first.

"Oh hell, Nicky, if it was that easy, I'd have done it already."

We finally stepped into the small area between the door that led into the Circus and the door that led to the underground where Jean-Claude lived and where I spent more than half my time. One direction was bright lights, carnival games, food booths, rides, and the sideshow where Melanie the Lamia would be entertaining her fans. I must have started toward the door toward the midway instead of the one that led to the underground apartments, because Nicky said, "Jean-Claude and Micah are waiting for us."

That stopped me from doing anything stupid. If Micah didn't want me to share the pictures with Edward, he certainly wouldn't want me to share them with Melanie. "I didn't realize Micah was already here."

"Jean-Claude's jet doesn't have mechanical issues," Nicky said.

"Right," I said, but I was already thinking that I could run the idea of talking to Melanie by him. Surely the shapeshifters in Florida would give the okay. Hell, Melanie was from ancient Greece originally, or maybe even older than that, but lamias were part of Greek legend, so she might have answers that no one else would.

Nathaniel tugged on my hand. I looked at him and then at the door Nicky was holding open. I couldn't do anything until I talked to Micah, so I let him lead me to the other door. Besides, we had about a mile of stairs to walk down before we reached the last door into the underground. I wasn't joking about the mile, and the steps were carved from the bedrock, so they weren't perfectly square, or perfectly even, and they were oddly spaced, as if whatever they were original designed for hadn't moved on two legs like a person. If you couldn't do the cardio, you'd be exhausted before you ever got to the big door at the bottom. I wondered if anyone had ever broken in and just given up before they finished the stairs.

As if he'd read my thoughts, Millie said, "My wife says I'm in the best shape she's ever seen me, and the only difference to my exercise regime is these stairs."

"These damned stairs, you mean," Custer said.

"I thought SEALs never complained," I said.

Custer laughed. "Oh hell, no, who told you that?"

Nathaniel and I laughed with him. Nicky remained happily stoic beside me. "Fair enough. I thought SEALs didn't complain about physical hardships," I said.

"We don't," Millie said.

"You just did," Nathaniel said, smiling and glancing from one to the other of the men.

"This isn't hardship," said Custer.

Nathaniel and I digested that thought for a second or two. "Some SEALs bitch, some don't," Nicky said.

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"I used to work with a lot of contract workers; that runs high to special teams, even Navy SEALs."

"Contract workers, contractors," Custer said, "sounds like temporary office help. What happened to soldier of fortune, mercenary, and all the other cool names I remember from old movies?"

"Try putting soldier of fortune down on your tax return and see how well that works," Millie said, smiling back at us all.

"Have you tried?"

"No, and I'm not going to. I've got a wife and kids. I don't need to play fuck-fuck games with the IRS."

Both of the SEALs had relaxed once we got on the stairs, which said, clearly, they thought we were safe here. They were probably right, but it was still interesting seeing them start to loosen up on the job. When they first came to us from the military, they'd barely speak when they were working. I preferred chattier to silent. Millie and Custer had both adapted to that preference. It was one of the reasons they were doing more guarding for me.

Once we got our cardio on the stairs, there was a locked door that looked like it led to a dungeon or a smallish castle. If it was locked, even Nicky, with all his strength, enhanced by being a werelion and the weight lifting, wouldn't get through the door easily. He'd have to pound or tear his way through it, which would give more guards on the other side a chance to get ready for whatever was strong enough to get through the door. There was another pair of guards on the inside of the door to the underground and another pair on the other side of the living room / receiving area. There was another pair of bodyguards guarding the long hallway that had been carved out of bedrock and the natural caves that had been down here eons ago. Then there was another set of bodyguards outside one of the doors before we finally got to the pair outside of Jean-Claude's bedroom door. They let us in, saying, "Renard and Wolverine said to let you in without announcing you first."

Renard was Jean-Claude, and Wolverine was Micah. I did not like the new call signs, which was probably part of the reason I was having such trouble choosing one for myself. The guards opened the door to Jean-Claude's bedroom, and Milligan and Custer were dismissed, not officially in a military way, but they'd delivered Nathaniel and me to our "base."

The door closed behind us, and I for one let out a long breath and the tension between my shoulder blades that had been building up somewhere between all the guard checks. I'd agreed to Claudia trying out a new guard rotation, but I hadn't quite realized what it might mean for just everyday life inside the Circus. If Micah had been feeling overwhelmed by the number of people in our lives before, this wasn't going to help. I'd expected to find Micah and Jean-Claude in the custom-made orgy-size bed that dominated the bedroom, but the glow from a single bedside lamp showed the bed empty. It was even still neatly made up: Today's comforter was roya

l blue, with pillows in matching colors interspersed with deep red ones at the head of the four-poster bed, which probably meant the silk sheets underneath it all would be red to match the accent pillows. The lamp left most of the room in shadows, but it gave enough light to see by. The faux fireplace against one wall, a fur rug and grouping of chairs in front of it, was empty, too. Usually I was disappointed not to find Jean-Claude waiting for me first thing, but today an empty room seemed good. It was as if seeing more people right that moment would have been too much, no matter who it was.

"They're in the bathroom," Nicky said.

"You can hear them?" I asked.

"And smell the bubble bath."

Nathaniel sniffed the air. "Lavender," he said.

I couldn't smell a damn thing from that far away, but then, when it came to scent tracking, I was only human.

"Before we go into the bathroom, can we talk about all the guards that we just went through?" Nathaniel asked.

"Sure," I said.

"Do we need that many guards?" he asked.

"No," Nicky said.

"Claudia talked to me about trying out a new heightened security guard rotation," I said.

"Is there a new threat I don't know about?" Nathaniel asked.

"No, and that's the point. She wanted to try out the new heightened security before we needed it, so we could work out the bugs," I said.

"It's not just the Circus," Nicky said.

"I know, we're testing the new security across all the businesses," I said.

"You could have mentioned it to us, or did you tell everyone but me?" Nathaniel said.

I squeezed his hand, which was still in mine. I was happy he hadn't pulled away. "I didn't think to mention it to anyone in our poly group, Nathaniel. I'm sorry--you're right. I should have given all of you a heads-up, but between trying to do three weddings, work at Animators Inc., and being a marshal, plus the poly group, I think I'm just losing track of it all."

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