Hit list, p.4
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         Part #20 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
Chapter Four

  THE MARSHAL I needed to sweet-talk out of her warrant was female, so we got to split a hotel room. Marshal Laila Karlton was five-six and built solid. I don't mean she was fat, I mean she was all muscle and curves. In too much clothing she looked like it might be fat, but when you saw her just in a T-shirt and jeans, you realized the "bulk" was half curves and half solid muscle. It wasn't lean muscle and that was the reason it could fool the eye, but when she picked up her backpack of vampire-hunting gear, which probably weighed the same fifty pounds that mine did, her biceps bulged, and you realized it was all camouflage for the fact that she was strong. She didn't see it that way, though.

  "God, you're tiny. I bet I can put my hands around that little white-girl waist, and you still have boobs and an ass. That is not fair, girlfriend. "

  She'd taken the I'll-cut-myself-down-and-compliment-you-beforeyou-beat-me-to-it tack. I had the choices of ignoring it, complimenting her in some way, or agreeing that I looked good without complimenting her back. The last choice would make her dislike me more. She'd already let me know, nicely, that my being a few sizes smaller than her made her predisposed not to like me. One of the good things about working with men was that they didn't do this shit.

  I tried, but I sucked at these games. "I know men who prefer your body type to mine. "

  "Bullshit," she said, and was ready to be angry.

  "I hang around with a lot of older vampires. They don't like the really thin girls. They like women to look like women, not preadolescent boys with boobs sort of stuck on as an afterthought. "

  "You don't look like that," she said, her voice a little less angry, but still not friendly.

  "Neither do you. We both look nice and curvy the way God intended grown-up women to look. "

  She thought about it and then grinned at me. It lit her whole face up, and I knew we'd be okay. "Ain't that the truth. But that booty is not white-girl booty. "

  "I'm told I look like my mother, except paler. She was Hispanic. "

  "That explains it. I knew you were too round in the right places to be white bread. " She laid out her clothes in a neat line on the bedspread, and then said, "What do you mean, 'told you' you look like your mother?"

  "She died when I was eight. "

  "I'm sorry. " And she sounded like she meant it. In fact, there was an awkward pause as we each unpacked on our side of the room. I had the bed nearest the bathroom and farthest from the door. We hadn't discussed it; I'd just entered the room first.

  "It's okay," I said, "it was a long time ago. "

  "What about your dad?"

  "German, as in his was the first generation born in this country. "

  "What does he think of you being a marshal and vampire hunter?" she asked, as she dumped her clothes in a pile on the bed and began to sort them.

  "He's okay with it. My stepmother, Judith, on the other hand, doesn't like it much. " I must have smiled because Laila laughed, a deep, throaty laugh. It was dark, and sensual like Guinness in a glass. It was a good laugh.

  "Oh, yeah, I've been my mom's despair since I could walk. My dad's a football coach and I just wanted to be like my brothers and my dad. "

  "No sisters?"

  "One and she's the girl. "

  "Yeah, I've got a stepsister; she was the girl. I went hunting with my dad. "

  "No brothers?"

  "One half brother, but he's a little too gentle for hunting. I was my dad's only boy. " I made quote marks in the air with my fingers.

  She laughed again. "I was always competing with my brothers and losing. They're six feet and up like my dad. I'm short like Mama. "

  "I've always been the smallest kid in class. "

  "I'm not the smallest, just not as tall as I wanted to be. "

  "So, does your dad like your job?"

  "He's proud of me. "

  "Mine, too," I said. "He just worries. "

  "Yeah, mine, too. " She looked at me sort of sideways and then said, "They talk about you in the training. Anita Blake, the first female vampire executioner. You still have the highest kill count of any marshal. "

  "I've been doing it longer," I said.

  "There's only eight of you from the early days," she said.

  "There were more of us than that," I said.

  "They either retired early like your friend Manny Rodriguez, or they . . . " She was suddenly very interested in getting her clothes in a drawer. "Is it okay if I take the top drawer?"

  "Fine, you're taller. "

  She smiled, a little nervous around the edges. "It's okay, Karlton," I said. "I know the mortality rate was high when the vampire executioners first started serving warrants. "

  She put her clothes in the drawer, closed it, and then looked at me, sort of sideways, again. "Why did the mortality rate among the executioners go up after the warrant system was put in place? The books all say it went up, way up, but it doesn't explain why. "

  I knelt down and she gave me enough room to put my clothes in the bottom drawer. I thought about how to answer her. "Before warrants, vampire hunters weren't always particular about how they killed. We didn't have to defend it in court, so we were a little more trigger happy. After the warrant system some hunters hesitated, worried about what would happen if they couldn't defend it in court and ended up on murder charges. Remember, back then we had no badges. Some of us went to jail for murder even though the vampire killed was confirmed as a serial killer. It made some of us hesitate to kill. Hesitation will get you killed. "

  "We have badges now. "

  "Yeah, and officially we're cops, but make no mistake, Karlton, we are still executioners. A policeman's main job is to prevent harm to others. Most of them go twenty years and never draw their gun in the line of duty, not matter what you see on television. " I laid shirts on top of bras and underwear in the drawer. "Our main job is to kill people; that's not what cops do. "

  "We don't kill people, we kill monsters. "

  I smiled, but knew it was bitter. "Pretty to think so. "

  "What does that mean?"

  "How old are you?"

  "Twenty-four, why?"

  I smiled, and it still didn't feel happy. "When I was your age I believed they were monsters, too. "

  "How old are you?"

  "Thirty. "

  "You're only six years older than me, Blake. "

  "Cop years are like dog years, Karlton, multiply by seven. "

  "What?" she asked.

  "I may only be six years older than you chronologically, but in dog years I'm forty-two years older. "

  She frowned at me. "What the hell is that even supposed to mean?"

  "It means, how many vampires have you executed?"

  "Four," she said, and it was a little defensive.

  "Hunted them down and killed them, or morgue stakings where they're chained to a gurney and unconscious while you do it?"

  "Morgue, why?"

  "Talk to me after you've killed some of them awake, while they're begging for their lives. "

  "They beg for their lives? I thought they'd just attack. "

  "Not always; sometimes they're scared and they beg, just like anybody else. "

  "But they're vampires, they're monsters. "

  "According to the law we uphold they're legal citizens of this country, not monsters. "

  She studied my face. I don't know what she saw there, or wanted to see, but she finally frowned. I think a blank face wasn't what she'd been hoping to see. "So you really do believe that they're people. "

  I nodded.

  "You believe they're people, but you still kill them. "

  I nodded again.

  "If you really believe that, then it would be like me killing Joe Blow down the block. It would be like me putting a stake through a regular person's heart. "

  "Yeah," I said.

  She frowned and turned back to unpacking. "I don't know if I could do my job if I thou
ght of them as people. "

  "It does seem a conflict of interest," I said. I began debating on where to put the weapons I'd want easy access to, just in case. Knowing that the Harlequin might be planning to try to kidnap or kill me made me more than normally interested in being well armed.

  "Can I say something without you taking it wrong?" she asked, and sat on the edge of her bed.

  I stopped with one gun and two knives laid out on the bed. "Probably not, but say it anyway. "

  She frowned again, putting that little pucker between her eyes. If she didn't stop frowning so much she'd have lines there before too many years. "I don't want to get off on the wrong foot with you. "

  I sighed. "What I mean, Karlton, is anytime someone asks me, 'Can I say something without you taking it wrong?' it usually means it will be something insulting. So say it, but I can't guarantee how I'll take it. "

  She thought about that a minute, serious as a small child on the first day of school. "Okay, I guess that was a stupid thing to say, but I want to know the answer enough to be stupid. "

  "Then ask," I said.

  "We had some of the other vampire executioners come and give lectures. One of them said you'd been one of the best before you got seduced by the master vampire of your city. He says that women are more likely to be seduced by vampires than men, and you're proof of that. "

  "It was Gerald Mallory, the vampire hunter assigned to Washington, DC, wasn't it?" I said.

  "How did you know?"

  "Mallory thinks I'm the whore of Babylon because I'm sleeping with vampires. He might forgive shapeshifters, but he hates vampires with a depth and breadth of hate that's frightening. "

  "Frightening?" She made it a question with a upward lilt of her voice.

  "I've seen him kill. He gets off on it. He's like a racist who has permission to hate and kill. "

  "You say race because I'm black. "

  "No, I say racist because it's the closest thing I can imagine to his attitude toward vampires. I'm not joking when I say after seeing him stake vampires that he scares me. He hates them so much, Karlton. He hates them without reason, or thought, or any room in his mind for a reason not to hate them. It consumes him, and people consumed by hate are crazy. It blinds them to the truth, and makes them hate anyone who doesn't agree with them. "

  "He also says that you should always stake a vampire. He doesn't approve of using silver ammunition. "

  "He's a stake and hammer man. " I knelt by my backpack and came up with the Mossberg 500 Bantam shotgun. "This is my favorite for shooting them in their coffins. All you need to do is destroy the brain and the heart, but don't just shoot them in the head and chest and think you've got the job done. You need to make sure the brain is leaking out on the floor, or the head is completely detached from the body, and then you need to see some daylight through the chest. The older the vampire, the more completely you need to destroy the heart and head. "

  "He said just staking the heart was enough. "

  "If I see daylight through the chest and the heart is completely destroyed, you're probably okay, but if I have time I destroy the brain, too, just to be safe, and I want you to know that's safer in the field. I'd still go back and shoot them in the head after the heart was taken out in a field situation. "

  "You mean on a hunt," she said.

  "Yeah. "

  "This is my first hunt. "

  In my head, I thought, Well, fuck. "You mean you have never participated in a hunt?"

  "No," she said.

  "I know you said you'd only done morgue stakings, but I thought you'd gone on at least one hunt as the junior marshal. You've never even seen a vampire hunted and killed in the field?"

  "I can handle myself. "

  I shook my head. "Now I need to ask you something without you getting insulted," I said.

  She sat on the side of her bed. "That's fair; what do you want to know?"

  "This is a bad case, Karlton. It's not a hunt for a first-time field agent. "

  "I know it's a bad one," she said.

  "No, you don't, not yet. " I sat on my bed and faced her. "I want you to sign the warrant over to me, please. "

  She was angry and didn't try to hide it. "I can't. I'm the girl, and if I back down on this the other marshals will never trust me again. "

  "It's not about being a girl, Karlton, it's about being new and inexperienced. "

  "I'll have your back, Blake. "

  "I'm not worried that you'll get me killed. "

  She frowned again. "Then what are you worried about?"

  I looked into those dark brown eyes, that earnest face and said, "I'm worried you'll get yourself killed. "

  There was no more girl talk after that. We just got ready for bed. I went into the bathroom to get dressed. I had packed my weapons, but not my clothes. Nathaniel, one of my live-in sweeties, a wereleopard and my leopard to call, had. He was the most domestic of us all, and I was fine with the jeans, T-shirts, boots, and jogging shoes, but the pajamas, well, I'd be talking to him about the pajamas. It was a camisole and boy shorts except they were both black lace and stretchy fabric that fit like a second skin. There was enough lift to the fabric that the camisole actually supported my breasts enough for it to fit right. The skimpy pj's looked great on me, but were so not appropriate marshal jammies. But they were the most appropriate of what he'd packed. Soooo going to talk to him about that.

  When I came out, Karlton said, "Nice pajamas. Sorry to disappoint that you're not bunking with the boys. "

  I didn't bother to glare at her. "My boyfriend packed my clothes while I packed the weapons. "

  "You let a man pack your clothes?"

  "He's usually pretty good at it, but I think he picked the pajamas for what he wanted to see. "

  She snorted. "That's a man. "

  I sighed. "I guess so. "

  The oversized T-shirt she was wearing had someone I didn't recognize singing into a microphone stand. I slid between the covers, and the sheets were the cheap cotton that had been in every hotel or motel on this trip. I missed the silk sheets of Jean-Claude's bed, and the highthread-count cotton of the bed that Micah and Nathaniel and I shared. I was sheet spoiled.

  "Do you always sleep with that many weapons?"

  "Yes. " It wasn't entirely true. I always slept with a gun close at hand, but I didn't normally sleep in the wrist sheaths with their slender silver-edged blades. They weren't that comfortable for sleeping in, but if the Harlequin were faster than normal vampires and shapeshifters, then there might not be time to reach under my pillow for a gun. The knife draw from the wrist sheaths was quicker, because any gun under my pillow either had the safety on or stayed in a holster, so either way it was a few seconds slower than just drawing the knives. I put the big knife that usually rode along my spine beside the bed, on top of the backpack, so that I could reach it if I had to, though honestly if the two knives on me and the gun under my pillow didn't take care of the problem I'd be dead before I got the third blade, or the other guns. With that cheerful thought, I turned off the light on my side of the room.

  The room was suddenly very dark, only a thin line of artificial light sliding between the slightly crooked curtains that led to the balcony, which was just a sort of walkway with a railing. The door led directly out into the night. Vampires couldn't come into the room without permission, but wereanimals could, and bespelled humans could, and . . . I was less than happy with the room, but it was cheap and I'd learned that if you were traveling on the government's dime they pinched their dimes; pennies didn't even figure into the equation.

  Her voice came out of the less-than-perfect dark. "Is Gerald Mallory right - are women more likely to be seduced by vampires than men?"

  "No. "

  "Then why are you the only marshal who's living with them?"

  "Have you ever been in love?" I asked.

  I couldn't see her face, but I felt her go still, and then th
e sheets rustled. "Yes. "

  "Did you plan on falling in love with him?"

  The sheets moved again, and then she said, "You don't plan love, it just happens. "

  "Exactly," I said.

  Sheets sighed in the dark as she turned over. "I get it. I have seen pictures of your Master of the City; he's pretty if you like white boys. " And she laughed.

  It made me laugh, too. "I guess so. Good night, Karlton. "

  "Call me Laila; all the guys call me Karlton. I'd like to hear my name sometimes. "

  "Okay. Good night, Laila. "

  "Good night, Anita. "

  I heard her roll over a couple more times, the sheets stretching and moving with her, and then her breathing evened out and she slept. Edward and I would play by the book until they consolidated the warrants, and then we'd try to take over the hunt; until then, we waited for a warrant to be reassigned. The trouble was, the only way it got reassigned was if one of the other marshals was too injured, or too dead, to finish the hunt. I lay awake in the dark, and thought, Please, God, don't let her get killed.

 
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