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 часть  #15 серии  Anita Blake

 

The Harlequin ab-15
 


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The Harlequin ab-15


  The Harlequin

  ( Anita Blake - 15 )

  Laurell K. Hamilton

  Laurell K. Hamilton

  The Harlequin

  To Jonathon, who never freaks about my choice of research. He took away my serial killer books, at my request. When I was ready he gave them back. He's helping me understand that just because someone else thinks you're a monster doesn't mean you are. Even if that person says they love you. Here's to finding love that builds you up, instead of breaking you down.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  To the Staff: Darla, Chief Operations Officer, and Lauretta, who assists her; Sherry, Chief Domestic Officer, and Teresa, who assists her; Mary, Comptroller and Grandma extraordinaire; and Charles aka Gru, Chief Security Officer. For those who are wondering, Jon's official title is Chief Information Officer.

  Merrilee Heifitz, my agent, who has worked hard as we've pushed boundaries and entered new territory.

  To Bev Leveto, thanks for your wonderful donation to Granite City. Hope you enjoy being a victim in this book.

  To everyone at DBPro and Marvel, who helped bring Anita to life in the comic-book world. Special thanks to Les and Ernst Dabel for being gentle. Extra special thanks to our artist, Brett Booth, who did an amazing job and listened.

  As always thanks to my writing group: Tom Drennan, Deborah Millitello, Rett MacPherson, Marella Sands, Sharon Shinn, and Mark Sumner. You guys help keep me going.

  Chapter One

  MALCOLM, THE HEAD of the Church of Eternal Life, the vampire church, sat across from me. Malcolm had never been in my office before. In fact, the last time I'd seen him, he'd accused me of doing black magic and being a whore. I'd also killed one of his members on church grounds, in front of him and the rest of his congregation. The dead vamp had been a serial killer. I'd had a court order of execution, but still, it hadn't made Malcolm and me buddies.

  I sat behind my desk, sipping coffee from my newest Christmas-themed mug: a little girl sat on Santa's lap saying, "Define good." I worked hard every year to find the most offensive mug I could so that Bert, our business manager, could throw a fit. This year's mug was tame by my usual standards. It had become one of my holiday traditions. I'd at least dressed for the season in a red skirt and jacket over a thin silk sweater—very festive, for me. I had a new gun in my shoulder holster. A friend of mine had finally persuaded me to give up my Browning Hi-Power for something that fit my hand a little better and had a smoother profile. The Hi-Power was at home in the gun safe, and the Browning Dual Mode was in the holster. I felt like I was cheating but at least I was still a Browning girl.

  Once upon a time, I'd thought Malcolm handsome, but that had been when his vampire tricks worked on me. Without vampire wiles to cloud my perception, I could see that his bone structure was too rough, almost as if it hadn't quite gotten smoothed out before they put that pale skin on it. His hair was cut short and had a little curl to it, because to take the curl out of it he'd have had to shave it. The hair was a bright, bright canary yellow. That's what blond hair does if you take it out of the sun for a few hundred years. He looked at me with his blue eyes and smiled, and the smile filled his face with personality. That same personality that made his Sunday morning television program such a hit. It wasn't magic, it was just him. Charisma, for lack of a better word. There was force to Malcolm that had nothing to do with vampire powers and everything to do with who he was, not what he was. He'd have been a leader and a mover of men even if he'd been alive.

  The smile softened his features, filled his face with a zeal that was both compelling and frightening. He was a true believer, head of a church of true believers. The whole idea of a vampire church still creeped me out, but it was the fastest-growing denomination in the country.

  "I was surprised to see your name in my appointment book, Malcolm," I said, finally.

  "I understand that, Ms. Blake. I am almost equally surprised to be here."

  "Fine, we're both surprised. Why are you here?"

  "I suspect you have, or will soon have, a warrant of execution for a member of my church."

  I managed to keep my face blank, but felt the stiffness in my shoulders. He'd see the reaction, and he'd know what it meant. Master vampires don't miss much. "You have a lot of members, Malcolm; could you narrow it down a little? Who exactly are we talking about?"

  "Don't be coy, Ms. Blake."

  "I'm not being coy."

  "You're trying to imply that you have a warrant for more than one of my vampires. I do not believe it, and neither do you."

  I should have felt insulted, because I wasn't lying. Two of his upstanding vamps had been very naughty. "If your vampires were fully blood-oathed to you, you'd know I was telling the truth, because you'd be able to enforce your moral code in entirely new ways."

  "A blood oath is not a guarantee of absolute control, Ms. Blake."

  "No, but it's a start."

  A blood oath was what a vamp took when he joined a new vampire group, a new kiss. He literally took blood from the Master of the City. It meant the master had a lot more control over him, and the lesser vamps gained in power, too. If their master was powerful enough. A weak master wasn't much help, but Jean-Claude, St. Louis's Master of the City and my sweetie, wasn't weak. Of course, the master gained power from the oath, as well. The more powerful a vamp they could oath, the more they gained. Like so many vampire powers, it was a two-way street.

  "I do not want to enforce my moral code. I want my people to choose to be good people," Malcolm said.

  "Until your congregation is blood-oathed to some master vampire, they are loose cannons, Malcolm. You control them by force of personality and morality. Vampires only understand fear, and power."

  "You are the lover of at least two vampires, Ms. Blake. How can you say that?"

  I shrugged. "Maybe because I am dating two vampires."

  "If that is what being Jean-Claude's human servant has taught you, Ms. Blake, then it is sad things he is teaching you."

  "He is the Master of the City of St. Louis, Malcolm, not you. You, and your church, go unmolested by his tolerance."

  "I go unmolested because the Church grew powerful under the previous Master of the City, and by the time Jean-Claude rose to power, we were hundreds. He did not have the power to bring me and my people to heel."

  I sipped coffee and thought about my next answer, because I couldn't argue with him. He was probably right. "Regardless of how we got where we are, Malcolm, you have several hundred vampires in this city. Jean-Claude let you have them because he thought you were blood-oathing them. We learned in October that you aren't. Which means that the vamps with you are cut off from an awful lot of their potential power. I'm okay with that, I guess. Their choice, if they understand that it is a choice, but no blood oath means that they are not mystically tied to anyone but the vamp that made them. You, I'm told, do the deed, most of the time. Though the church deacons do recruit sometimes."

  "How our church is organized is not your concern."

  "Yes," I said, "it is."

  "Do you serve Jean-Claude now, when you say that, or is it as a federal marshal that you criticize me?" He narrowed those blue eyes. "I do not think the federal government knows or understands enough of vampires to care whether I blood-oath my people."

  "Blood-oathing lowers the chance of vamps doing things behind the back of the master."

  "Blood-oathing takes away their free will, Ms. Blake."

  "Maybe, but I've seen the damage they can do with their free will. A good Master of the City can guarantee that there is almost no crime among his people."

  "They are his slaves," Malcolm said.

  I shrugged and sat back in my chair. "Are you here to talk about the warrant
, or to talk about the deadline Jean-Claude gave your church?"

  "Both."

  "Jean-Claude has given you and your church members their choices, Malcolm. Either you blood-oath them, or Jean-Claude does. Or they can move to another city to be blood-oathed there, but it has to be done."

  "It is a choice of who they would be slaves to, Ms. Blake. It is no choice at all."

  "Jean-Claude was generous, Malcolm. By vampire law he could have just killed you and your entire congregation."

  "And how would the law, how would you, as a federal marshal, have felt about such slaughter?"

  "Are you saying that my being a federal marshal limits Jean-Claude's options?"

  "He values your love, Anita, and you would not love a man that could slaughter my followers."

  "You don't add yourself to that list—why?"

  "You are a legal vampire executioner, Anita. If I broke human law, you would kill me yourself. You would not fault Jean-Claude for doing the same if I broke vampiric law."

  "You think I'd just let him kill you?"

  "I think you would kill me for him, if you felt justified."

  A small part of me wanted to argue, but he was right. I'd been grandfathered in like most of the vamp executioners who had two or more years on the job and could pass the firearms test. The idea was, making us federal marshals was the quickest way to grant us the ability to cross state lines and to control us more. Crossing state lines and having a badge was great; I wasn't sure how controlled we were. Of course, I was the only vampire hunter who was also dating her Master of the City. Most saw it as a conflict of interest. Frankly, so did I, but there wasn't much I could do about it.

  "You do not argue with me," Malcolm said.

  "I can't decide if you think I'm a civilizing influence on Jean-Claude, or a bad one."

  "I saw you once as his victim, Anita. Now I am no longer certain who is the victim, and who the victimizer."

  "Should I be offended?"

  He just looked at me.

  "The last time I was in your church you called me evil, and accused me of black magic. You called Jean-Claude immoral, and me his whore, or something like that."

  "You were trying to take away one of my people to be killed with no trial. You shot him to death on the church grounds."

  "He was a serial killer. I had an order of execution for everyone involved in those crimes."

  "All the vampires, you mean."

  "Are you implying that humans or shapeshifters were involved?"

  "No, but if they had been, you would never have been allowed to shoot them to death with the police helping you do it."

  "I've had warrants for shapeshifters before."

  "But those are rare, Anita, and there are no orders of execution for humans."

  "The death penalty still exists, Malcolm."

  "After a trial, and years of appeals, if you are human."

  "What do you want from me, Malcolm?"

  "I want justice."

  "The law isn't about justice, Malcolm. It's about the law."

  "She did not do the crime she is accused of, as our wandering brother Avery Seabrook was innocent of the crime you sought him for." He called any of his church group who joined Jean-Claude "wanderers." The fact that Avery, the vampire, had a last name meant he was very recently dead, and that he was an American vampire. Vampires normally only had one name, like Madonna or Cher, and only one vamp per country could have that name. Duels were fought over the right to use names. Until now, until America. We had vampires with last names, unheard of.

  "I cleared Avery. Legally, I didn't have to."

  "No, you could have shot him dead, found out your mistake later, and suffered nothing under the law."

  "I did not write this law, Malcolm, I just carry it out."

  "Vampires did not write this law either, Anita."

  "That's true, but no human can mesmerize other humans so that they help in their own kidnappings. Humans can't fly off with their victims in their arms."

  "And that justifies slaughtering us?"

  I shrugged again. I was going to leave this argument alone because I'd begun to not like that part of my job. I didn't think vampires were monsters anymore; it made killing them harder. It made executing them when they couldn't fight back monstrous, with me as the monster.

  "What do you want me to do, Malcolm? I have a warrant with Sally Hunter's name on it. Witnesses saw her leave Bev Leveto's apartment. Ms. Leveto died by vampire attack. I know it wasn't any of Jean-Claude's vampires. That leaves yours." Hell, I had her driver's license picture in the file with the warrant. I have to admit that having a picture to go with it made me feel more like an assassin. A picture so I'd get the right one.

  "Are you so certain of that?"

  I blinked at him, the slow blink that gave me time to think but didn't look like I was thinking furiously. "What are you trying to say, Malcolm? I'm not good at subtle; just tell me what you came to say."

  "Something powerful, someone powerful, came to my church last week. They hid themselves. I could not find them in the new faces of my congregation, but I know that someone immensely powerful was there." He leaned forward, his calm exterior cracking around the edges. "Do you understand how powerful they would have to be for me to sense them, use all my powers to search the room for them, yet not be able to find them?"

  I thought about it. Malcolm was no Master of the City, but he was probably one of the top five most powerful vampires in town. He'd be higher, if he weren't so terribly moral. It limited him in some ways.

  I licked my lips, careful of the lipstick, and nodded. "Did they want you to know they were there, or was that part an accident?"

  He actually showed surprise for a moment before he got control of his face. He played human too much for the media; he was beginning to lose that stillness of features that the old ones have. "I don't know." Even his voice was no longer smooth.

  "Did the vamp do it to taunt you, or was it arrogance?"

  He shook his head. "I do not know."

  I had a moment of revelation. "You came here because you think Jean-Claude should know, but you can't let your congregation see you going to the Master of the City. It would undermine your whole freewill thing."

  He settled back into his chair, fighting to keep the anger off his face, and failing. He was even more scared than I thought, to be losing it this badly in front of someone he disliked. Hell, he'd come to me for help. He was desperate.

  "But you can come to me, a federal marshal, and tell me. Because you know I'll tell Jean-Claude."

  "Think what you like, Ms. Blake."

  We weren't on a first-name basis anymore. I'd hit it on the head. "A big, bad vamp checks your church out. You aren't vampire enough to smoke him out, and you come to me, to Jean-Claude and all his immoral power structure. You come to the very people you say you hate."

  He stood up. "The crime that Sally is accused of happened less than twenty-four hours after he, it, they came to my church. I do not think that is a coincidence."

  "I'm not lying about the second order of execution, Malcolm. It's in my desk drawer, right now, with a driver's license picture of the vampire in question."

  He sat back down. "What name is on it?"

  "Why, so you can warn… them?" I'd almost said her, because it was another female vamp.

  "My people are not perfect, Ms. Blake, but I believe that another vampire has come to town and is framing them."

  "Why? Why would someone do that?"

  "I don't know."

  "No one has bothered Jean-Claude or his people."

  "I know," Malcolm said.

  "Without a true master, a true blood-oathed, mystically connected master, your congregation are just sheep waiting for the wolves to come get them."

  "Jean-Claude said as much a month ago."

  "Yeah, he did."

  "I thought at first that it was one of the new vampires who has joined Jean-Claude. One of the ones from Europe, but it is not. It i
s something more powerful than that. Or it is a group of vampires combining their powers through their master's marks. I have felt such power only once before."

  "When?" I asked.

  He shook his head. "We are forbidden to speak of it, on penalty of death. Only if they contact us directly can we break this silence."

  "It sounds like you've already been contacted," I said.

  He shook his head again. "They are tampering with me, and my people, because technically I am outside normal vampire law. Did Jean-Claude report to the council that my church had not blood-oathed any of its followers?"

  I nodded. "Yes, he did."

  He put his big hands over his face and leaned over his knees, almost as if he felt faint. He whispered, "I feared as much."

  "Okay, Malcolm, you're moving too fast for me here. What does Jean-Claude's reporting to the council have to do with some group of powerful vamps messing with your church?"

  He looked at me, but his eyes had gone gray with worry. "Tell him what I have told you. He will understand."

  "But I don't."

  "I have until New Year's Day to give Jean-Claude my answer about the blood-oathing. He has been generous and patient, but there are those among the council that are neither of those things. I had hoped they would be proud of what I had accomplished. I thought it would please them, but I fear now that the council is not ready to see my brave new world of free will."

  "Free will is for humans, Malcolm. The preternatural community is about control."

  He stood again. "You have almost complete discretion on how the warrant is executed, Anita. Will you use some of that discretion to find the truth before you kill my followers?"

  I stood up. "I can't guarantee anything."

  "I would not ask that. I ask only that you look for the truth before it is too late for Sally, and my other follower, whose name you will not even give me." He sighed. "I have not sent Sally running out of town; why would I warn the other?"

  "You came through the door knowing Sally was in trouble. I'm not helping you figure the other bad guy out."

 
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