Brimstone Kiss Chapter Thirty Five

Trust Snow's eternal, twisted sense of irony to give Ric and me the Inferno's bridal suite.

Of course, we needed the lavish extra bedrooms not for the reception celebration, but for the around-the-clock nurses.

Ric was still on blood transfusions. Not mine. Having infused breath into him, I was ready to contribute blood, but my type wasn't compatible, they said.

In fact, they said I should never be a blood donor. This was bitter news, now and for the future. They said my blood had an unknown trace element that might be lethal to others. Could have been from a childhood illness. So, if the vamp boys in the group homes had succeeded in biting me, would they have gotten a case of whatever my unorthodox anonymous blood could pass on? And what about Undead Ted, the vampire newscaster whose blood had poisoned my dog, Achilles? He'd sucked down a drop of my tainted blood. Had he paid a price?

Someone had notified Hector Nightwine that Quicksilver and I were necessary guests for now. A messenger had brought over Quicksilver's dishes and food and my laptop. There was a suitcase of comfortable clothes that even matched. I suspected Godfrey's fine CinSim hand had supervised the Enchanted Cottage staff for this task and felt strangely comforted by this care package from ’’home.’’

Quicksilver stayed by my side, by Ric's imported hospital bed. He'd lay his long nose on the hospital blanket near the foot for hours, and whine occasionally. He sensed my weariness, my despair at Ric's ordeal.

Those pale blue eyes would turn my way, a sickle of white along each pupil like a waning moon, under a worry-wrinkled sky of silver fur. Dog-loyal. Keeping watch with me.

I knew his problem. The constant coming-and-going of medical personnel kept Quick from using his healing lick therapy.

I was determined to spare Ric more scars to remind him of being helpless and tormented. When the nurses took a break or changed shifts, I pulled back the covers to let Quick swipe a lick or two over Ric's arms.

The myriad puffy red sores from the vampire tsetse fly bites were scabbing over, so this hit-and-run licking kept the nurses murmuring satisfaction that Ric ’’was healing nicely,’’ without alerting them to the outside help.

The doctor had been relieved that Ric didn't test positive for being ’’infected’’ by ’’sleeping sickness’’ from the fly bites, unaware that these vampire tsetse flies didn't carry any parasites to infect his system.

Ric murmured awareness when Quicksilver braced his huge paws on the mattress edge to lave his face with warm, wet swipes. Quick's big tongue made an ideal canine washcloth.

Finally, one quiet hour when we were alone, I pulled the sheets down to Ric's hips and the usual green hospital gown up to his neck. Quicksilver immediately braced his paws on the mattress again to thoroughly lave the almost solid carapace of scabs forming on Ric's abdomen.

The leech marks on his groin and legs had already faded. I was relieved. I doubt Ric would have appreciated a crotch bath from Quicksilver, conscious or not.

Ric's neck was another matter and no job for Quick. The gauze bandage awkwardly taped to the spot leached Rorschach blots of blood and required changing hourly. The nurses wouldn't let me touch the dressing, nor Ric, who was drugged into a twilight state.

I watched each clean bandage slowly darken with leaking blood and studied the resulting blot like Caressa Teagarden reading tea leaves. Once the image reminded me of the African continent. Once it looked like the profile of John Barrymore, no, Johnny Depp. Another time like a teapot. Another like a starfish. Then the wad of gauze would be changed and a fresh canvas was taped to his neck without my glimpsing the wound beneath.

Seeing it once had been enough. I'd eyed a huge, bloody hole, not a mere double-fang gash, but a gouge. I hated to think how many vampires had supped there.

I held my own hands as I leaned forward in the bedside chair after the nurse left, wringing them in an agony of guilt. Had the small sensual ritual of our love affair opened a road to an empire of vampires?

Had I, playing mock-vampire at that easily excited site, somehow extended an invitation to the unhuman? The ancient Egyptian vampires had used that small bruise, used the blood beneath the skin as a highway to Hell, playing on Ric's sleeping innocence, plundering his lifeblood bit by bit as torture, draining him to the brink of death. If I hadn't, if we hadn't, maybe...

’’Let him sleep and your conscience as well. You both need a long rest.’’

For a moment I thought it was Irma, back from going underground during the battle with the undead. I appreciated the lack of distraction.

No such luck. I turned to see Grizelle looming behind me in her imposing human form.

’’What are you doing here?’’

’’I've returned from taking your dog out. He refuses to relieve himself here and spirit cannot conquer body forever.’’

I'd been so hypnotized watching Ric that I'd never noticed any comings and goings except as remote irritations.

’’He is a valiant warrior,’’ she went on matter-of-factly, ’’but even great warriors must piss.’’

’’A valiant warrior?’’ I wasn't surprised because I'd seen Quicksilver at the attack, but I was amazed the great Grizelle would bestow any praise on me and mine.

’’For a canine,’’ she added with a wave of her ebony hand. The long lacquered fingernails for an instant seemed to lengthen into actual, awesome claws.

I glanced at Quick, worried. He was giving Grizelle that mischievous canine grin that said he reveled in her grudging respect.

I was so worried about everyone and every thing I loved now, maybe because I loved only two-and one lay like a sleeping prince in a forest of metal stands and snaking plastic tubing.

’’I carried him naked from that dungeon,’’ Grizelle continued a low whisper.

’’I know. Thank you,’’ I whispered back with that same sickroom intensity.

’’I don't need your thanks. You need to understand what I know.’’

’’What you know?’’

’’His wounds, except for the throat tear, were superficial, but his back is a maze of whip welt scars.’’

I tensed to realize that what Ric had fought to keep secret from me was casual knowledge to this bizarre unhuman shapeshifter and Snow flunky.

’’I know, but he can't know that.’’

’’Those are old, outer scars,’’ she went on, ’’but they still sear his mind. He now has new, inner scars, and they have seared his soul. You have only revived him to feel them fully.’’

’’So he should be dead, unfeeling, or undead, with no soul to feel anything instead?’’

’’You've no idea what you've done, have you?’’

’’I saved him, I hope, maybe at the cost of my own soul. I don't know yet what that demonic Brimstone Kiss did to me, and I don't care. I'll deal.’’

’’I meant, what you've done to my master.’’

I embraced myself to contain a shiver. I didn't know which scared me more: this intimidating goddess of a woman-cat calling Snow her ’’master,’’ or her hints and allegations about the state of Ric's and my mere human souls.

’’What I've done to him! Your 'master'has forced me to taint everything I hold most dear just to slake his own ego.’’

Grizelle was silent for a long while. When she spoke, it was closer to a growl than a whisper.

’’If you're strong enough to wrest this man back from the Land of the Wandering Dead, you're strong enough to undo the damage you've done. If you live long enough yourself.’’

I guess she meant that as a pep talk.

I had plenty of time to think, sitting there beside Ric's hospital-style bed. My discovery of the hidden vampire empire at the Karnak and its interest in raising truly ’’ancient’’ vamps would shake the city to its supernatural foundations.

Cesar Cicereau and his werewolf mob were the biggest losers. They'd won the werewolf-vampire war for the city decades ago, but a powerful vampire strain had been building secretly and subterraneously all along. The Karnak was far more than a new hotel-casino on the Strip. It was a visible announcement that the vamps were back, big-time: not assimilated vamps, or pseudo vamp wannabes, or even newly evolved ’’daylight’’ vamps like Sansouci. These were ruthless, Old World, blood-thirsty, power-hungry vamps with ambition and access to new Millennium Revelation methods of blended science and magic to raise more of their kind.

By sending Sansouci and support forces to Snow, Cicereau admitted the times were changing. I could see a lot of new alliances, and contentions, arising between everyone from Snow and Cicereau to Hector Nightwine and the CinSims to Howard Hughes and everyone else.

And Snow? If I could get my head around our personal wrangle, I'd admit he'd probably been the most up-and-coming force in pre-Karnak Vegas. In some ways he struck me as a kind of guardian, but one whose hands were tied. He hadn't played Brimstone Kiss with me as simply a se*ual game, which was some comfort. It was a ’’job interview’’ of sorts. He was searching for a woman unsusceptible to the orgasmic kiss. I, with my virginal and murky non-se*ual background, must have seemed a darned good candidate for resisting the Kiss. Which I had, but not enough to suit him, and not enough to avoid passing it on as a life-restoring force.

Lucky for Ric you agreed to the smooch, Irma said softly in the back of my mind, but we didn't totally resist the ecstasy, sister. My toes are still curling.

Shut up, I told her. I'm thinking.

As soon as Ric is recovered, I had a lot of things to do, like settle what's happening with the CinSims, who violated their set boundaries to help me. And I must find Lilith. Is she a Snow kissee who failed the test too? They knew each other before I hit town. Does she know about me? Or care?

And now Snow thinks I've perverted the Kiss to a function it should never have had. Can I kiss just anyone back from the dead? Kinda doubt it. The emotional mojo I poured into Ric was love and desperation-driven. It came from the connection we formed inadvertently dowsing for the dead together in Sunset Park. Is Snow right? I have I doomed Ric to become some quasi-alive zombie monster?

No, honey. Irma broke into my thoughts again. Even the mighty Snow can't know that for sure. How do you think he got all that long white hair? Dude's obviously a worrywart.

She made me laugh at last. Why borrow trouble? Ric and I would cope with whatever this second chance at life and love offered.

’’Tomorrow,’’ I told myself firmly in the immortal words of Scarlett O'Hara, ’’is another day.’’

’’He won't be fully conscious for another day or two,’’ said someone behind me what may have been minutes or hours later.

I felt my shoulders tighten even more at the sound of Snow's vibrant stage-seasoned voice.

’’We won't know what you've made of him until then,’’ he added.

I lashed myself around in the bedside chair. ’’And what about what you've made of me?’’

Snow wore a black velour jogging suit. He'd had the forethought not to appear in the costume that would forever remind me of my humiliation.

’’You're not dead,’’ he pointed out.

’’And he is? They take his blood pressure every hour. It's low, but steady.’’

’’There are many ways to be dead and undead these Millennium Revelation days, Delilah. You may have invented a new one.’’

’’What? Me? Only me? It was your supposedly potent Brimstone Kiss I may have passed on. Maybe that was all you, and nothing to do with me.’’

’’And you'd like to think 'love'revived him? That's why you're so angry with me?’’

’’That's as likely as a proxy kiss from... whatever you are. Besides, I thought you didn't do men.’’

A small smile touched those pale lips. ’’You don't know who or what I do. I just came up to see if you needed anything.’’

’’Less of you. If it didn't make sense to treat Ric here, I'd have him out of the Inferno in no time.’’

’’This suite has been donated to him, not for your sake. I only came to warn you that you'll need to be prepared. We have no idea what's come back in Ricardo Montoya's body. Not even Grizelle.’’

’’I do. Ric Montoya. He'll need time to mend, and more time to come to terms with that vicious torture, but I can tell you he never cracked. He never conceded anything, not his services in raising the dead, not a clue to how he did it. Nothing. Nada.’’

Snow moved forward to put a hand on Quicksilver's head. The dog growled softly but never took his eyes off Ric, with rapid sideways glances to myself. If I gave the word, he'd tear Snow's hand off.

It was his guitar slashing right hand, too. I was tempted. I deserved something back for my useless exercise in self-humiliation.

’’This one probably knows better than we do what he'll be like,’’ Snow said, not moving his hand. ’’But he can't speak.’’

Quick gave a short, sharp bark. Snow removed his right hand and lifted his left.

A small blindingly iridescent object was in it. A computer flash drive. He handed it to me. A peace offering? As if ever!

’’You might want to stop publicly insisting on tracking down the killer of my groupie after you see that.’’

’’Why?’’

’’Just look at the recording, Delilah.’’

’’It's the hotel security record of the night of the murder?’’ I guessed, curious at last. ’’From the Dumpster area where the body was left? You kept it secret?’’

’’It's my hotel, my Dumpster, my security recording, my groupie. I didn't think the police needed to see it.’’

’’You are so bad.’’ I took the thumb drive, eagerly. This could exonerate me.

By the time I'd opened up and turned on my laptop computer on a nearby table, Snow had left as silently as he'd come. He wasn't nicknamed Snow for nothing. For soft and silent snow.

It took me a couple minutes to move my mind from Ric to tasks like operating a computer, but I finally clicked the drive into the proper port.

The first image spotlighted the empty delivery area and the Dumpster. I fast-forwarded until I spotted a person in the frame. Two persons. I recognized my groupie, even in the dim black and white light of night. She was facing the security camera and mauling someone whose back was to me.

The groupie was pleading, grabbing, begging. Her hands were reaching for the other person's neck, almost as if to tear off the face, pull out the hair.

I got the shivers, remembering her clinging assault inside the Inferno after Snow had left me that evening. That crazy woman was like glue, invading my space. I saw the object of her obsession lift an arm and bat her away. The elbow caught the groupie in the forehead.

She fell hard and crashed the back of her head into a metal dolly leaning against the Dumpster side.

The other person turned to leave, face caught by the camera.

Myself, reaching up to pin my disheveled hair back into a French twist.

I stood up.

Lilith!

Then she really wasn't dead!

But we are, honey, Irma said, emerging again. At least legally.

And how! Lilith was a murderer?

That babe's gotta be taken for you, unless you can find and produce Lilith to clear yourself. You'd turn her over to Homicide to face the gas chamber after going to all that trouble to find her? No way.

I slapped my palms hard on the desktop, until they stung, trying to feel something. Snow had admitted he kept a lot of things from me. Now I knew he kept them from the police as well.

Something about the recording bothered me, but I was too exhausted to name it.

Was this a bone thrown to a woman who'd failed the Brimstone Kiss test and had almost lost her lover? Or something to hold over her head? Because, surely, he had kept the original.

I glanced to the bed and Ric, my sleeping prince.

The doctor had assured me the coma would lift soon. ’’He's young, vigorous. It's best he 'sleep'while he's recovering from nearly total exsanguination.’’

Perhaps a kiss-my newly empowered kiss-would awaken him. First, I needed to mentally purify my lips and mind and emotions.

I went over, knelt, put my hand on his cool, pale one.

I felt a chill circling my ankle. I hadn't even noticed where the silver familiar had ebbed during all the tumult. It now slithered softly up my leg and then my side and finally down my arm to become a simple braided-chain bracelet on my wrist.

Ric always loved me wearing silver.

Quicksilver, whimpering, laid the soft furred length of his muzzle on my hand.

I leaned, leaned, leaned slowly inward, until I could kiss Ric's cool, pale cheek. The dark lashes fluttered on his skin, then lifted slightly like a curtain of black snow.

’’ Del. ’’ The word was a croak, but even with his eyes closed he knew me, knew I was there.

The joy was overwhelming.

His face turned at last toward mine, eyelids struggling open.

How I thirsted for the glimpse of recognition and recovery in those dark Spanish eyes that I loved...

And I got it, my heart thumping with triumph...

Except...

I slowly realized that one dark iris had turned bright reflective silver, like a mirror.


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