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Crimson Death(Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #25)(7) by Laurell Kaye Hamilton

7
 
I’D MANAGED TO ask the two guards’ names by the time we were walking past the group showers. Brunette was Barry, Barry the Brunette, and pale brown was Harris. I wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name, and I didn’t ask. They both felt like a lot of the new guards, interchangeable, as if someone had hired them from the same pool of tall, athletic, younger men, mostly white, though not all, and unfinished in a way that the guards that Rafael’s people hired weren’t. In an effort to get a greater variety of wereanimals into our personal guards, we’d let other groups besides the wererats offer up candidates for guard duty; so far no one was better than Rafael’s rats, some of the werehyenas, and the Harlequin. They were the personal guards of the old queen of vampires and they were the best of the best, but then they’d had hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to practice their skills. It was hard to compete with that when you were under thirty like most of the new guards; but still Barry and Harris didn’t fill me with the same confidence that some of our longer-term guards did.
 
I had no intention of us using the group showers. We’d use the shower in the room that Nathaniel and I shared with Micah. We could hear the noise from the group showers down the hallway. Men laughing, calling out to each other, and just the energy of so many athletic and professionally competent violent men contained in good-natured rivalry, because that was always an underlying energy to the guards. The type of men who are good at the job description are always speculating who’s the best, the fastest, the strongest; who will win. Add that they were all wereanimals, and the testosterone level could be enough to drown in; normally I was okay with that, but not today.
 
I felt Nathaniel flinch on the other side of Damian, and that was about how I felt, too. It was like it was too much energy to deal with while all three of us were still raw from the dream.
 
We were almost past the showers when I realized the noise inside was a lot less. It was reduced from a rollicking noise fest to almost silence. It was like being in the forest when the birds and crickets stop singing—you know something’s wrong. I had left the bedroom with only my Browning in my hand, because lingerie sucks for places to put weapons. I fought the urge to point the gun at the door, and the fact that the two guards with us didn’t react to the sudden silence made me take points away from them.
 
The guards inside the shower spilled out of the doorway in front of us, some low to the ground on their knees, others standing; some of them took cover around the edge of the doorway, and others just filled the hallway, weapons in hand and mostly nude. There was a moment when you almost felt them hesitate as they saw us, and then the weapons steadied—all pointing at Damian. It was interesting that they just assumed Nathaniel and I were innocent of whatever carnage had happened.
 
“Ease down,” I said.
 
They all ignored me; not good.
 
“It’s Damian’s blood, not mine.”
 
That made some of them glance at each other, as if looking for a clue, but most of them stayed with their guns nice and steady. One gun moved a fraction and was pointing at me; how could I tell? When you’ve had enough guns pointed directly at you, you get very sensitive to that kind of thing.
 
It was Ricky again. He’d used up all my goodwill at Danse Macabre last time I saw him. “Unless you’re going to shoot me, move the gun off me, now,” I said in a low voice.
 
“If that’s Damian’s blood, then you’re more dangerous than he is.” His voice was as steady as his hand, but there was an edge of anger to that calm.
 
One of the other guards, naked in the doorway, said, “Ricky, are you pointing your gun at one of our main protectees?”
 
Harris moved in front of us to act as a meat shield. Barry had his gun out, but neither of them wanted to draw down on this many of their fellow guards. I sympathized, but I also knew I’d be reporting their lack of enthusiasm for protecting my life. Since that was one of their main jobs, it wasn’t reassuring.
 
I called out over the broad shoulders of my meat shield. “Ricky, the last time I saw you, Echo was telling you you’d fucked up, and now you’ve pointed a gun at me. You just don’t want this job, do you?”
 
“You show up covered in blood and tell us it doesn’t belong to the vampire—what are we supposed to think?” he asked. He even sounded like he might believe it. Maybe I had scared him more the first time we met than I realized. Sometimes, once you’ve used basically vampire powers on someone and let them keep the memory of what you did, they never get over it. I know I’ve held grudges against real vampires for shit like that.
 
I heard other sounds and knew the guards were closing around Ricky. They’d report what he’d done, because the only thing that hurts a bodyguard’s reputation worse than having a client die on their watch is one of their own security specialists killing the client.
 
“You all smelled the fresh blood, but we were right on top of you before you reacted to it.”
 
“Yeah.” It was Bobby Lee wearing a pair of boxers and holding a Smith & Wesson M&P loose in his hands. His body was lean and muscled in that way that long-distance runners get sometimes; there was almost no body fat to him, so he looked impressively cut, each muscle showing under his skin, but it was a little too lean, and I wondered if he was eating enough. Bobby Lee was one of the men most likely to be sent out of country on mercenary work for the wererats that had nothing to do with us, and everyone deals with the stress of that kind of work differently. His short blond hair was still on end, but his gold-framed glasses showed that his medium-brown eyes were steady. He was always steady, was Bobby Lee, but I’d be talking to some of the other guards I trusted to see if he was doing okay.
 
“I didn’t make Damian bleed. I just woke up in the mess with him.”
 
“Well, darlin’, if you didn’t hurt him, who did? Because this is too much blood to be losing.” He always had a slight Southern accent, and every woman was darlin’; when he was under stress, the accent got thicker and he started adding honey chile and sugar.
 
“It’s a long story, Bobby Lee, but if you want to help these two walk us to Nathaniel and Micah’s room so we can use the shower, I’ll fill you in.”
 
“Happy to help, ma’am. Can you give me a minute to get dressed and rearmed?”
 
“Sure.”
 
He smiled, and then his brown eyes swam to black. His rat eyes in his human face. “Just so you know, darlin’, the blood doesn’t smell like vampire. It smells warmer than that.”
 
I felt the jump of energy through the guards as their beasts flashed through them. I was suddenly looking at amber, orange, red, brown, and more black—wolf, lion, hyena, rat. I fought with everything I had not to shiver or show any sign of fear. Damian had gone so still that if I hadn’t been holding his hand I wouldn’t have been able to feel him there at all. I felt more from Nathaniel on the other side of him, even though we were both holding hands with the vampire and not each other.
 
The guards’ energy whispered through me and I could see my own beasts inside me the way you see dreams in your head. My wolf, my lion, my hyena, my leopard, and my newest beast, rat, all looked up and their energy ran over my skin and spilled out toward the energy in the hallway. I had enough control now to make sure that was all that happened, and I was happy for that as I looked at them all, because smelling like fresh blood around a bunch of wereanimals isn’t always good for your health, even if you had your own monster to throw back at theirs.
 
“And just like that, we don’t know whether to fight you, fuck you, or eat you.” Ricky again, though he was unarmed now with other guards on either side of him in a way that they usually reserved for bad guys.
 
“Two out of three isn’t happening, Ricky boy, but that first one, maybe we should meet on the practice mats and see what happens.”
 
“And when I start to win, you’ll use your magic and cheat.”
 
“If we meet on the mats, I promise not to eat your anger, or raise the ardeur.”
 
“You’d fight me fair?”
 
“You’re six feet plus to my five-three, so I’m not sure there’s any way to have a fair fight between us, but if you mean I won’t use any preternatural abilities that we don’t both have, then yeah—a fair fight.”
 
“Yeah, I’d like that, a lot.” He gave me a look that held something close to hate. I’d humiliated him the first time we met. Yes, he’d started it, but I might have taken it too far, and if I did, then his reaction to me today was my fault. I was supposed to be his boss, so I’d try to fix it the only way I knew how, by letting him win. He was a big guy, and he was training with our guards, so I didn’t expect to win; and because I didn’t expect it, losing in a match with someone to call it before he hurt me didn’t risk any ego on my part, and it might restore some of his. But this was the last chance for Ricky; if he ever stepped out of line after I saw him on the practice mats, either he was gone or he’d keep pushing until he got dead, and that was about as gone as you could get. I felt vaguely like it was my fault for messing with him the first time, so I’d literally go to the mats with him.
 
“Let me get this thing with Damian fixed, and we’ll set something up,” I said.
 
“Tomorrow?” Ricky asked.
 
“I don’t think my problem will fix that soon,” Damian said, and he managed to sound disdainful and sad at the same time.
 
“No,” Nathaniel said, “it won’t be tomorrow.”
 
Ricky frowned at us, and just like the first time I’d met him, I wasn’t sure he was the brightest bulb in the box. It was one of the things that had contributed to our misunderstanding. I had overestimated how much he understood of what I was saying until it was too late.
 
“It may be a few days,” I said, “but you’ll get your chance on the practice mat with me.”
 
“You promise?” he said.
 
“I already did.”
 
Ricky nodded and for the first time I saw something on his face besides fear, or hatred. I wasn’t sure that his being eager to beat the shit out of me was really an improvement, but some days you take what you can get.