Hit list, p.31
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         Part #20 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
Chapter Thirty-One

  SOCRATES STAYED WITH Laila to explain to her and her family what it might mean for her to be a werewolf. I went to get her clean clothes from the motel. Nicky was at my back and we were within sight of the big outer doors when someone called, "Anita. " I knew that voice.

  "Damn it," I said under my breath, and turned around to see Olaf. He was striding toward me with Bernardo hurrying to catch up. There probably weren't many people that made six-foot-one Bernardo have to trot to keep up. The nurses watched Bernardo openly, admiring the view as he went past. They watched Olaf with sideways eye flicks, as if afraid to stare. Some of the looks were nervous - he was a very big guy - and some were the kind a woman gives an attractive man, just a little less bold than with Bernardo, as if even though they had no words for it, they sensed something different about Olaf. If they only knew his idea of sex, they'd have been running the other way, but like most serial killers he didn't look like a monster most of the time. He had that predator energy toned way down as he came toward us. He also had a bright blue wrist cast on his right arm. Fuck.

  Nicky and Lisandro moved to either side of me, and a little ahead. It was to give us all room to maneuver and to put them first in line if it was a fight. They were my bodyguards in their day jobs, but hiding behind Edward was one thing; hiding behind anyone else might be enough to make Olaf put me in the girl box, and once he thought of me as just another girl who needed men to protect her, I would become just another potential victim in his eyes.

  I did what I had to do: I stepped in front of them. Nicky didn't argue, just stepped back and let me lead. Domino hesitated, but with Nicky moved back, I was up even with him, so it was good enough. I wasn't cowering behind either of them.

  But Lisandro saw what I'd done, and he gave me that extra step in front. He and Nicky were secure in their manhood; they'd let me stand in front, because neither of them had anything left to prove to anyone. I liked that about both of them.

  I wasn't so sure of the big man standing in front of us. He should have been as secure as they were, but he wasn't. It wasn't just being a shapeshifter that made them secure, or Olaf insecure. I stood there staring at the big man, and knew if he'd really been my friend there were questions I'd have asked him, but we weren't friends. Real friends trust that you won't kidnap, torture, and rape them, and I really didn't know that about Olaf. It put a real crimp in the idea of being buddies with him.

  Bernardo had caught up, and said, his words a little too fast, "Is someone else in the hospital?" He was standing so he faced us both but was still vaguely in the middle of us, without actually crossing that line.

  "We're here visiting Marshal Karlton," I said, but kept my attention on Olaf.

  "The one that's got lycanthropy," Bernardo said.

  "Yeah," I said.

  Olaf just stared at me with those dark deep-set eyes like two caves in his face, with a glimmer in his eyes like a distant light in the dark.

  "How's she dealing with losing her badge?" Bernardo asked, and there was a hint that he really cared about that question.

  All the preternatural branch marshals lived with the idea that we could be next. When you hunted shapeshifters, death was just one of the things you risked.

  "They can't technically take her badge yet," I said.

  Bernardo frowned. "Most marshals give it up when they come back positive. "

  "But they don't have to," I said.

  It was Olaf who said, "You told her to come hunting with us. " His voice was lower than normal, a rumbling in his chest, as if some emotion were dragging his voice down.

  "Yep," I said, and fought the urge to put my hand nearer any of my weapons. He hadn't done a damn thing to threaten me. He was just standing there, looking at me. For him, it wasn't even a bad look, just intense.

  "I do not want another woman on this hunt, only you. "

  "It's not your call who comes. The warrants are mine and Edward's. He's got Newman with him now. "

  "The boy has to learn," Olaf said, "but the girl will be a werewolf in a month's time. Training her is a waste of effort. "

  He was right, as far as it went. "She needs this, Otto," I said, remembering just in time that his official name was Otto Jefferies. Marshal Otto Jefferies.

  "She will slow us down," he said. He kept staring at me, but it was eye contact. I couldn't accuse him of staring at my breasts or anything. I normally like eye contact, I give great eye contact, but there was something about Olaf's attention that made holding his gaze feel like work, as if his eyes were weight that I had to hold up just to stay standing there. If he'd been a vampire I'd have accused him of doing some vampire mind shit that I hadn't heard of, but it wasn't that. It was just him. Just the weight of his personality and our growing shared history. Shit.

  "Maybe, but she's still coming. "

  "Why?" he asked, and I think it was a real question. A real attempt to understand what I was doing and why, so it deserved a real answer.

  "This has really shaken her confidence, and she feels like a monster already. Her father wouldn't even touch her hand, as if just that would contaminate him. " I shook my head and didn't try to keep the anger off my face.

  "Why do you care about her? She is a stranger to you. "

  "I'm not sure I can explain it to you," I said.

  "Once I would have thought you meant I was too stupid to understand, but I know you do not think me stupid. "

  "No," I said, "I never think that. "

  "Then explain to me why you care. "

  "We're supposed to take care of each other, Otto. " I spread my hands wide, almost a shrug, showing that I just didn't know how to say it better than that.

  "If they are an asset in the field, you want them healthy so they can give you backup. That is common sense, but the new marshal will not be helpful. She is traumatized, and that slows most people down. She will make bad decisions. "

  "You don't know that," I said.

  He gave an arrogant smile. "I do know that. "

  "You don't know Karlton. You don't what she'll be like in the field now. "

  "She is a woman. She will be weak. "

  I suddenly had no trouble meeting his eyes, at all. Anger makes so many things easier. "Do I point out the obvious?" I asked.

  "If you like," he said.

  "It wasn't a man who broke your wrist. "

  Bernardo stepped a little more between us, so we both looked at him. "Let's take this outside. "

  "Why?" I asked.

  He leaned in close enough that his long, straight hair spilled up against mine. I had a whiff of expensive cologne, something spiced and musky, but just a hint, not too much, and you had to be close to notice it. Unlike some men who seemed to bathe in it. No matter how nice the cologne, if the man put too much on it smelled horrible; Bernardo didn't smell horrible.

  He whispered, "What you just said doesn't match the story we told the emergency room staff. "

  Oh. Out loud I said, "Sorry, yeah, let's take it outside. "

  We all moved for the big doors and the outside world. A woman in a white coat with her short brown hair in a tiny ponytail got my attention. It took me a second to recognize her from when I got stitched up. She was one of the interns. I couldn't think of anything she needed from me, but I stopped like you're supposed to; I was girl enough not to keep walking.

  The men stopped with me, waiting. She seemed a little flustered at that, and motioned me away from them. I wondered if she was going to ask me more questions about my healing abilities, or even ask to see the wound. I'd had other medical professionals ask to see injuries that they'd helped treat.

  She was only a little taller than me, maybe five-five, though I glanced down as she leaned in, and saw she was wearing at least two-inch heels on her low boots.

  "Marshal Forrester had a wife and family, but how about the other marshals with you?"

  I didn't try to explain that he wa
sn't legally married to Donna. They'd been living together longer than Micah, Nathaniel, and me, and only a couple of years less than Jean-Claude and I had been dating.

  "The one with his hair back in a ponytail is married with kids. " I hesitated about Nicky. Technically he was free to sleep with other women. I wasn't monogamous, so it seemed unfair to make him cleave only unto me, but he was here to feed the ardeur and guard my back, so I said, "The blond is with me. "

  "Lucky you," she said.

  I smiled automatically. "Thanks. To my knowledge neither Marshal Spotted-Horse nor Marshal Jefferies has a girlfriend. " Then I realized I was talking to a petite dark-haired woman. The hair was a little less dark than he preferred, but she was close enough to his victim profile for me to think of it. If I thought of it, so might he. Crap.

  "Oh, sorry, Marshal Jefferies, the tall guy, is involved with someone. It's new, I keep forgetting. "

  "How new?" she asked.

  I smiled. "Trust me, what was your name again?"

  "Reed, Patience Reed. "

  I crooked an eyebrow at that.

  She laughed, and it was a good laugh, happy, light. She seemed younger just from the sound of it. "I know it's a terrible name for a doctor. " She rolled her eyes, and again I thought, young, innocent. So, had to keep her away from Olaf.

  I smiled, and pushed it all the way up into my eyes, so she wouldn't see me worry. "Patience is pretty funny for a doctor. Anyway, Olaf is pretty serious about the new woman in his life, but Bernardo is free and clear for dating. "

  "Bernardo, is that his name?" She looked behind me as she said it, and I was pretty sure without turning around that she was looking at him.

  "Yep, Bernardo Spotted-Horse. "

  "He's Native American?" she asked.

  "Yep. "

  She looked away hastily and blushed just a touch. I was betting that Bernardo had favored her with one of his killer smiles. The one that made the drive-through girl tell him what time she got off work.

  Patience Reed said, "He's almost too beautiful to ask out. "

  "You should ask him out," I said.

  "You think he'd go out for coffee, or drinks?"

  I nodded. "I don't know if any of us are going to have time to socialize much, but you should give him your number or something. We might have some down time, you never know. "

  "Oh, I couldn't just ask him like that. " Then her eyes narrowed at something behind me. It made me glance back to find a couple of nurses talking to Bernardo. He was smiling and talking to them.

  "I'd give him your number before they do," I said.

  Patience began to walk very purposefully toward the growing crowd. She moved up to join the circle around Bernardo. The hesitation was gone as she pushed her way through the now three other women. Lisandro was fending off an admirer by raising his left hand and showing off his wedding ring, which meant she'd gotten pushy. God she was fast, from zero to making him flash the wedding band in less than five minutes.

  Nicky was against the other wall being charming with a blonde pretty enough that even I thought words like beautiful. She was a little short on curves, but when they're almost six feet tall a lot of women seem to lose curves, as if it all goes to those long, long legs. I was almost sure the blond curls spilling over her pale blue scrubs were her natural color. I was betting on blue eyes to match the scrubs.

  Nicky turned as I came closer. One minute he was smiling and flirting with the blonde and the next he was focused on me. He wasn't rude, and even introduced us. "Anita, this is Michelle. "

  I smiled and did my best to be friendly. She didn't disappoint me on the eyes, flashing big, soft blue ones at me, but the look in the eyes wasn't soft. She'd had all his attention, or so she thought, and then I walk up, and it was like the sun turning away to shine on someone else. I knew Nicky could be charming. He'd told me once that his ability to flirt had helped him do better undercover work, and even get information from women by seduction. Pillow talk was supposed to be very good for gathering intelligence. Most of the time he didn't bother flirting with the female shapeshifters and vampires at home. He'd explained that he could have fuck buddies among them, but they all knew he was mine, and he preferred me to them. Harsh, but now I saw it for myself. Even I had thought he was genuinely interested in the blonde. Had he been, or had it all been an act?

  He smiled at me, and though we didn't touch each other, not even to take hands, we were just together. I wasn't sure how to explain it, but one minute he was giving off signals that he was available and the next he was aware of me and he was just no longer on the market. The blonde's eyes flicked from one to the other of us. She had a moment of letting it show on her face that she wasn't used to losing out to other women once she'd started trying for a man.

  I smiled, not quite sure how to react. I tried to keep it friendly, but it was as if she felt cheated somehow. Nicky had been giving all the signs of flirting and saying yes to at least coffee, if not more, and then it was suddenly turned off, gone, and he made his allegiance to me very clear. He'd flirt, he might even do more if he got the chance and I was okay with it, but he was mine. There were other women who would have been angry about him flirting, and maybe I would have been a little jealous if he'd kept flirting, but he'd reacted instantly to me, and made it clear, subtly, that he wasn't really on the market. He was window shopping, when she wanted to buy.

  Nathaniel, Jean-Claude, Asher, Dev, Jason, and Crispin all flirted more and even better than Nicky, but all of them but Jason did the same thing that Nicky did. Jason was just a close friend with benefits and had a steady girlfriend in another state, so it was good he didn't react that way. He wasn't mine. The fact that Damian did react that way was one of the bones of contention between him, me, and his steady in-town girlfriend, Cardinal. She hated me just a little because of it, and I didn't entirely blame her.

  I totally did blame the blonde, Michelle, for disliking me so instantly. She'd talked to him for a few minutes; that was too quick to get possessive, but I'd noticed it with other strangers. I'd seen it before with Jean-Claude and Nathaniel and women at the clubs, but I'd thought it was because they were just both so damn beautiful. Nicky was handsome, yummy, but either I didn't see him the way others did, or it wasn't the level of pretty of the man in the situation but something else I was missing completely. I shrugged and let it go. So a strange woman was jealous that Nicky liked me better, not my problem.

  Then I realized that we were a man down. Where was Olaf?

 
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