Dancing With Werewolves Chapter 5557

Chapter Fifty-Five

The moon is as pale as a fingernail tip in the black, starry sky.

The battle has come down to two forces: the double whammy of ruthless human mobsters unleashing their lethal animal natures, and me surrounded by wolves who should be extinct, and maybe are spirit wolves. I don't know. Those moonlit fangs look pretty solid.

So far I'm safe within a circle of the spirit wolves with their eerie lightning halos snapping and crackling. Thoughts of Ric dart through my every move as the wolves and I leap to repel any were that reaches us.

Still, several werewolves dance two-legged toward this intruding wolf pack, but retreat from that cold blue burning aura and the snarling jaws on four paws with hunched backs. Their fur is matted and gray, and now red-streaked, but the werewolves seem beyond pain, determined to reach me no matter how wounded.

The battle is an endless draw. What we need is the cavalry, not that ghostly desert wolves are anything to sneer at.

Instead, by the light of my guardian wolves, I see one man marching up an incline into view.

For a moment I think I see Ric, but it's not him. It's a man, weaponless, walking tall on two legs, coming on strong, not hesitating, making not for us, but for the werewolves!

In the moonlight, as I watch, another dark head breasts the rise forty feet behind the first man. Our reinforcements number two! Or are these unchanged mob bosses come to insure my end? Something relentless and swaggering drives their gait, a sense of arrogant, accustomed power.

Yet another dark head crests the hill and stalks onto the killing ground.

And another!

It's an army of heads, their eyes gleaming white and fixed on their objective.

Me!

Where's my silver familiar? I try to sense its place on my body, and fail. Has it deserted me? As good as! No, it's still here, all right, coiled into a girly, spindly ’’Hello Kitty’’ bracelet around my left wrist. Not only girly, but also juvenile. Child's play.

Rather like Snow and his games.

I try to rip it off out of sheer betrayed fury, but the thin chain cuts my fingertips, so I channel my rage forward and wade through the wolves. Impressive ghosts can't help me either.

I walk through them as into a mirror, I wade through a warm mist past their snapping jaws that give me mild electrical shocks. My electric personality doesn't deter the latest wave of werewolves, which leap for me with huge bounds now that I've left my charmed circle of conjured wolves.

I see a wolfish snout howl and then plummet from sight among the mobster pack, as if trampled. Another goes down screaming, under the wave of wolfish muscle and bone and fur and ferocity that is Cicereau's human-killing pack. The full moon illuminates the scene like liquid silver.

On the edges, on the fringes the oncoming forces wear... business suits and camo-pants and leather jackets. They sport razor haircuts and ponytails. I'm seeing corporate headhunters side-by-side with gang-bangers. And they all wear faces as white as Snow's.

It can't be just the ghostly moonlight playing tricks on my vision. What are these things, besides eager-beaver werewolf-beaters?

Someone brings up their rear, comes charging over the incline, then stops to watch them. Supervise them. Herd them.

The dazzling moon glow reflects off the only white shirtfront in the vicinity to spotlight a familiar face.

Ric! Still alive! Then I shout it aloud. ’’Ric!’’

His hands hold something dark as he watches from above, a general who's loosed the dogs of war and now sees his orders unfold. These must be Feds, FBI men and undercover agents, mustered from the Mexican border operations and flown in.

’’Ric!’’ I wave to show him I'm all right.

I doubt he even heard me. He's intent upon the actions of his troops. The reinforcements who, coming closer, grim and expressionless, give me the chills.

These aren't faceless bureaucrats and cookie-cutter agents.

They're our new supernatural allies in the Werewolf-Law Enforcement War. Finally I understand who they are, what they are.

Zombies!

What perfect soldiers they make, the empty dead-eyed, implacable, endlessly moving. Harried and confused werewolves turn and leap upon them as if expecting Happy Meals. These terrifying killers fall beneath the undead strength of the oncoming zombies'limbs. The werewolves'attacks leave shredded skin but can't stop the marching legs and feet, the dead-zone zombie eyes, zombies as relentless as robots. Mindless. Soulless. Heartless.

Werewolves retreat before them. Some seemed to have vanished. The gray spirit wolves surround me again, howling like Quicksilver at the full moon. I look up at that always-present wonder. It's no longer totally full and round, but slightly lopsided, the way I feel right now.

It's waning. Only the merest sliver of a wane, but it's waning!

At that moment everyone, everything halts. Some unseen celestial director who had cast every creature here into the same terrifying, fatal script, has shouted, ’’Cut!’’

Everything takes new measure of the fading night. Every entity, unhuman or human, sees the delicately withdrawing moonlight, ebbing like a lady inching a long white skirt across a black marble floor far away and high above.

The night itself declares a truce.

The wolves that circle me push inward no farther. Such beautiful creatures! All lean, lovely legs, all wise yellow eyes. Ghosts. Sages. Friends and lovers.

Why did I think that?

As I watch, they dissipate into silver fur and golden eyes flashing through a silvery sagebrush mist.

And the silver snake that made like a kiddie bracelet? I sense a metallic chill somewhere. Oh. It's now just a thin chain at my neck, a docile barrier, all sterling and no snap. Right.

The zombies have dragged down or run off all the werewolves. Now they're heading unchallenged toward me.

I lift my dukes, stomp my feet, hiss like an angry lynx. They split when they reach me, and make a second circle around me. This is when I get a good look at them. Not your ordinary working stiffs, for sure. I spot some famous faces, a couple from the silver screen. Most reek of mob muscle or street gangsters.

Then I get the full, ghastly picture.

What kind of living dead would surround the Starlight Lodge? Previous victims of the werewolves. It didn't pay to skip out on your gambling debts or irritate a mob boss in Vegas once the werewolves won the Werewolf-Vampire War. Instead of getting concrete booties in Lake Mead, you'd get sand between your dead toes in the desert. I was witnessing eighty or ninety years of anti-werewolf troops in the making, dead and buried all around them, just waiting for the right opportunity, the right moment to dig out, stand up, and take no prisoners.

Maybe not even me.

Something has stopped the zombie march, not just the retreat and defeat of the werewolves.

The zombies were waiting, unknowing, like I was, for just the right man.

I hold my breath.

Ric's finally walking all the way toward me in the moonlight.

When silver bullets weren't enough, he'd known just where to find fresh ammunition. Under the desert sand and rocks, waiting for a liberator. Like I had been.

’’Ric! My God, Ric, we're safe. You did it.’’

I eye the zombies, their expressionless faces. Some are... more realistic than others. More whole. But, hey, handsome is as handsome does, and these guys have saved my butt, my bacon, my life. Nice of them, since they won't ever have any life again themselves.

Ric's face is strangely transfixed too.

His eyes focus on me, only me, and in them is recognition, triumph, and despair.

’’I'm okay, Ric. Let's bid our underground buddies goodbye and get off this mountain. The weres didn't touch me, hurt me. Honest.’’

Well, they had, a little, but why dwell on the negative?

Ric stopped m front of me, his eyes on my face, as mine had fixed on his since he'd appeared again. In some deep part of my mind, I'd given him up for dead. I couldn't believe we'd made it. That we had both survived and still had each other, give or take a few dozen zombies.

Something more touched Ric's expression, something more than all the good things I had read. There was one bad thing I hadn't read, hadn't wanted to read.

His face, his body, had adopted some of that zombie rigidity, something so new for Ric of the flowing words and gestures and emotions that had given my own zombie heart a new Latin beat.

I eyed the dark thing at his center, his waist, where his hands held not a gun anymore but a dowsing rod. Right?

It wasn't the shadow of night and dark deeds I'd seen, sensed in him.

It was the shadow of suffering.

Below the elbows, his dark suit coat, probably donned for a quick trip to D. C, was sopped with a deeper darkness... blood. His hands bore a simple tri-limbed object. And they, his hands and arms, the dowsing rod, were drenched in blood.

A follow-spot of moonlight poured down on that red ruin, painting it black, the black-and-white of a vintage film.

I shrieked.

’’It's all right,’’ Ric said. ’’The zombies drove off the werewolves. Anything human remaining ran.’’

’’Zombies. Our allies. How?’’

’’I dowsed for them, one by one.’’ He spoke with slow, almost painful reluctance. ’’I swore never to do that again. Once I raise them, they obey me until I release them.’’

He moved past me, gazing at his fresh-raised troop.

’’The killing dance of the werewolves roused them, the scent of fresh, flowing blood. You have no idea how many souls are buried out here, burning for vengeance. This is just a fraction of the dead bodies out here.’’ He was keeping cool, removed, instructive.

’’Your... hands,’’ I said. ’’The blood.’’

Ric was still lost in explaining everything, almost to himself.

’’That's what I realized when the ammunition ran out. They had to be here for the raising. The werewolf mob was shortsighted, so secure in being killers in both human and wolf form. They'd defeated the vampires, the undead, decades ago. What could the dead do to them? No one knows how the dead wait. Unseen. Unremembered. Think how many there are, just a few feet under this shifting sand. Just a few clawing handfuls from resurrection. We're all so quick to forget those we've wronged. Now, after the Millennium Revelation, all bets are off. The walking dead and the dead walk. All I had to do was dowse for their gravesites, call them up, and they came. I could have raised more.’’

’’These were enough, Ric.’’

As we spoke, the zombies ranged around the area, lifting dead werewolves now metamorphosized into a half-were form, wrenching off arms and heads with a sort of aimless curiosity. I looked away from them, shuddering.

’’What happened to your hands?’’ I asked Ric again. ’’Did it take shedding some of your blood to raise them?’’

Ric lifted the raw pieces of meat at the ends of his jacket sleeves and I felt myself grow faint.

’’Only a drop of blood needed. This was overkill. I guess my hands got chopped up a little.’’

’’Ric! What on earth! Tell me! What did this to you? Why?’’

He shrugged. ’’Once I ran out of ammunition, I needed to raise the zombies to fight the werewolves. They were killed by werewolves, so now they're invulnerable to them. I needed a dowsing rod to do that. This is high desert. There's nothing suitable out here I could find but barbed wire.’’

Oh, my God! ’’You dredged up zombie after zombie with barbed wire?’’

’’Not enough maybe.’’ He looked around, dazed and self-critical. ’’These were all I could bear to raise.’’

Nothing I'd said so far had seemed to get through to him, but what he said just now wrenched me to the core.

I felt every searing instance of it. Ric moving methodically over the desert ground, waiting for the dowsing rod to burn through his palms and point downward. The twisting, intense force grinding the rusty barbs into his hands... Each zombie clambering out of the ground, eager to follow Ric to the person... creature, who had put him there. Ric, dripping blood onto sand and scrub, moving to the next spot where the barbed wire would tear at the hearts of his hands to tell him a zombie lies there. And on to the next.

I pulled his jacket shoulders down on his arms, and eased his hands as carefully as I could out of the sleeves. He hardly seemed aware of that, but stood there docile as a child. I should have recognized shock: blood loss and horrendous pain. I hung the jacket over one arm and took hold of his upper arm with the other hand.

’’I'll get you to an emergency room, a hospital, a micro surgeon.’’

That snapped him out of his daze.

’’No! Can't go to the ER. That gets on the record. None of this can be on the record.’’

I sighed my extreme frustration, which was a form of fear. We were alive, but what did that mean if Ric was mangled?

The hair-snake was still sleeping and had nothing to offer. The gray spirit wolves of an older era had melted into the dark, for wolves had been hunted to extinction in this part of the country for decades.

So where else could I go for help? The cottage. Godfrey. Hector might know a good star-quality doctor from the silver screen days...

’’Just get us out of here,’’ Rick said, sounding a bit more like himself.

I guided him down the steep trail. ’’Where's your car?’’

’’Below the lodge in a stand of firs just off the road.’’

Madame Moon was generous with her light, even though her lopsided face made it look like she'd taken her lumps tonight too.

I ached in more places than I knew I had. Ric's right arm across my shoulders was heavy enough to drag me down and dripped blood onto my breast, but we tottered down the empty mountain to the road. The lodge was lit, but deserted, and the stillness was eerie. I wondered where the surviving werewolves and mobsters had gone to ground and what the zombies would do now that they were free.

The Corvette was well hidden, so low it blended with a stand of sage, but Ric guided me to it. I wrestled him into the passenger seat. My usual place. I wrapped his black, bloody hands in his lap, using his jacket like a muff. His Washington-white shirt was now spattered with blood.

I caressed his face once he was seated, and felt his lips kiss my fingertips in passing. At least he was conscious. At least I have fingertips. Tears seared my cheeks.

Above us, the sloppy-drunk moon was grinning down. The moon had to answer for a lot of crimes against persons tonight.

When I lowered myself into the driver's seat and started the powerful engine with a peace-shattering rumble, I could turn on the interior lights. I could see his face well now, but not his hands.

’’How bad?’’ I asked. ’’The cuts.’’

Ric winced. ’’To the bone, I think.’’

’’Madre de Dios! You must have the cajones of a chupacabra.’’

His look was rueful but his skin-tone was a sick sepia color. ’’That street Spanish book is improving your vocabulary, mujer mia.’’

Mujer mia. Woman mine. All right. What was I going to do about this? Ric's hands. With which he dowses for the dead. No more. Those hands, with which he dowses for my heart. No more.

’’How do I drive this thing? I haven't driven stick shift for almost ten years.’’

Ric smiled, palely. He told me what to do and I did it. A couple minutes later we were barreling down a narrow mountain road in the dark in third gear. I tried to coast and ride the brake, but momentum pushed us faster and faster.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. The steel-toothed grille of a HumVee was barreling wildly down the mountain road after us. Suddenly I didn't dare brake at all anymore. I steered for my life. Our lives.

The needle pushed up to ninety as we slithered down that mountain road. I was trapped in a nightmare video game, moving my eyes and arms by raw instinct. Dodging and swerving until we skidded onto flat straight highway, where I put the car into fourth gear and spurred the Corvette up to one-twenty in no time. The highway was flat and straight and no lumbering HumVee would catch this baby now.

Maybe a state trooper would spot us and pull us over, then see the emergency and escort us, siren shrieking, to safety.

No. No one was out here in the desert tonight but ghost wolves and werewolves and zombies, oh my. Also a lot of enemies and damn few and very dicey allies. Now no one could help us but me.

Chapter Fifty-Six

The bright lights of Vegas in the distance seemed to mock our dark, desperate circumstances. I tried to take Ric's mind off his injuries by keeping him talking.

’’How did you know where I was?’’ I asked.

His head lay against the headrest as he watched the off-full moon race us through the blue-tinted glass roof panel.

He smiled, thinly.

’’When I could check my cell phone, I found your message and was alarmed enough to go to your guest house on Nightwine's premises.’’

I smiled. Premises. He still talked law enforcement despite being a free agent now.

’’It's a cottage.’’

’’Whatever, it still has the Hound of Hell for an unwelcoming committee of one. He was howling and snarling and bounding at the front door. I was standing there about to get out a credit card to B and E into the place-’’

’’Break and enter? Could you?’’

’’Sure. This CinSim in black tie and tails who talks like a British butler shows up, only he's American. He lets me in, then orders 'Master Quicksilver'back from the door and into the closest corner to be 'a good bad dog.'Then he tells me he's 'most concerned.'Seems a cousin of his at the Inferno has a friend who sometimes hangs out at the Gehenna. He told him that 'Mr. Cicereau and some of his less savory associates have taken our Miss Street for a ride'out to someplace called the Starlight Lodge near the Paiute Golf Club on Spring Mountain, and that it would 'behoove'me to look into that 'post haste.'’’

’’The butler dude was Godfrey, Nightwine's major domo. He looks after everything around the estate, including me.’’

What I don't explain, because I can't just yet, is how and why the CinSims have a secret communication network. Nor can I imagine why an Inferno CinSim would haunt the rival Gehenna, but I know who it was. That farewell butt pinch on being escorted from Cicereau's office makes sense now. My really, really secret admirer and the CinSim tattletale had been Claude, the Invisible Man. Curiouser and curiouser.

’’I'm glad you looked me up,’’ I told Ric, eyeing his face as the city streetlights swept it rhythmically.

His normally warm complexion was still a cold gray color as the Corvette slowed to the speed limit and lurched onto Sunset Road under my iffy in-town shifting, although the knack was coming back fast. I knew if I pulled up to an emergency room Ric would never forgive me and I didn't know where any were in this town, anyway.

There was no place to go but home.

Wait! Shouldn't that mantra be: there's no place like home?

I finally punched in the security code to my private entry gate and drove into Nightwine's ultra-secure estate. Ric could barely walk into my enchanted cottage, and I could barely hold him up. Like head wounds, hand wounds bleed profusely, and the flesh on Ric's hands had to be hash.

Not one freaking grumpy helpful domestic dwarf was in sight. Things could be worse. I was alive when I wasn't supposed to be, but the only person I deeply cared about was damaged beyond repair.

Ric swayed as he stood in the entry hall, dripping blood on the slate tiles. He was still shaky, more cream than coffee in his face color.

Before I could install him on the couch and call Nightwine to send a doctor, I heard a thump at one of the cottage's windows. Next came a scrabbling sound, and then Quicksilver bounded into the main room, limping and looking ragged.

Not another victim to tend simultaneously!

Before I could even acknowledge his presence, Quick made one great arching leap toward Ric, knocking him onto his back on the floor. Ric lifted his crossed arms just in time to keep Quicksilver from lunging onto his neck, taking the brunt of the dog's weight on his forearms.

Oh my God! Two wounded alpha males, still at each other's throats! Just what they, and I, didn't need!

’’Get this monster off me, Del!’’ Ric yelled through gritted teeth. ’’This damn dog has never liked me and now that I'm down-I can't use my hands to fight him off!’’

I was crawling on top of Quick, grabbing for the dog's massive shoulders, ordering him to leave Ric, to get off... ! Bad dog!

Quicksilver ignored me. He was too busy sniffing at Ric's bloody hands, a true bloodhound, and whimpering at me in-between, licking my hands with soft wet swaths of tongue. One canine swipe managed to give Snow's bracelet such a thorough slobbery bath that it migrated to my upper arm and coiled there like a scared snake.

I grabbed Quick's collar;if I half-throttled him the dog would have to back off.

My fingers curled around the thick black leather, over the round silver medallions circling it like little moons. Before my eyes, those medallions, as liquid as quicksilver, changed shape, going slightly off circle. Like they were... waning. With the moon! Of course! Quick probably did have wolf in him. Which made him... what? Lethal?

Before I could get clear on what this might mean, the silver snake on my upper arm split into dozens of hair-fine chains and slithered back down to my wrist, binding my hands. Why? I didn't know, but I sensed intent and urgency. Was this familiar mine, or Snow's? For me or against me? It had never hurt me, although it had taunted me. Okay, so who am I to argue with a silver-tongued Devil?

’’Ric! Give Quicksilver your hands.’’ I can't believe I'm urging this.

’’Are you crazy?’’

’’No. Maybe. Moon madness. Give Quicksilver your hands. That's what he wants, what he needs.’’

’’Del, he wants to eat me!’’

’’He's not that kind of wolf. He's a wolfhound. Unless you're a closet werewolf, let him at you.’’

Ric, shocked, stared into my eyes. In that strange, mesmerizing moment, Quicksilver slipped my grip on his transformed collar and strained forward to lick a swath up Ric's raised right hand.

Somehow moonlight had entered the room, maybe when Quicksilver had busted through his usual window. A silver aura blossomed in the air. The unearthly light made Ric's bloodied white shirt fabric gleam again like chain mail. It made my bracelet of many chains lightning-bolt bright. It made the off-round metal moons on Quicksilver's collar glow in the semi-dark.

I heard a ghastly searing sound of flesh melting. No! What have I done? What have I permitted to be done?

Ric's hands burned white-hot under the passage of Quicksilver's fire-red tongue... He screamed, despite himself and probably a lot of training.

My tears must have looked silver as they sizzled down my face. I screamed too.

The only one who didn't scream was Quicksilver. He was busy licking Ric's hand, as dogs will.

Even shouts of pain and dismay were not enough to express our human anguish at this ignorant assault. The gruesome dog-lapping sound stopped as the silver effusion of moonlight faded. I gazed at Ric's mutilated hands, cringing. One palm gleamed with saliva where Quicksilver had licked. The skin was... fresh, unbloodied. Whole.

Ric saw where I was looking, at what I had seen.

He eyed Quicksilver's muzzle, as big as a young bear's, all white fangs and overheated red tongue, all grin that can be either canine friendliness or canine threat.

Ric bit down hard on his lower lip and nodded.

The moments of uncertainty were over. Time was moving again. The minute frozen in a net of quicksilver slipped into a new minute.

I sat back on my heels, exhausted by fear and wonder, to watch Quicksilver lick Ric's wounds clean, stroke by stroke, banishing bloody silk and shredded flesh, leaving healed skin behind.

’’Dogs lick their wounds,’’ I told Ric, I told me, told the damn dog who knew better than both of us combined what had happened here. Maybe it wasn't any of us, but the enchanted cottage. Then there was the rational explanation, and I'm sticking to it. ’’There's a bacteria-banishing element in dog saliva. It works in the wild.’’

’’On dogs and wolves,’’ Ric pointed out.

The skepticism told me his hands were feeling better.

’’Maybe you've got some canine DNA.’’

’’No.’’ Ric sat up, pushing Quicksilver back on his haunches. Dogs always overdo it. Ric wiped his hands on his shirttails. They came away clean, whole, perfect.

’’Ick! Poison dog lips!’’ I said, quoting Lucy from the Charlie Brown strip for comic relief. Charles Schulz was with us again. The Kennedy Center Awards now reanimated a ’’national cultural treasure’’ each year as well as honoring those in their first lives.

’’Right.’’ Ric was watching Quicksilver wash his own hairy body with an amazingly large, supple tongue, especially the private area.

I moved to help Ric up. Instead, he pulled me down against him on the floor for a long, penetrating kiss. He wasn't too shabby in the tongue department either.

I heard a faint, muffled growl.

’’Ric. The dog might be... um, you know. Jealous.’’

Ric's hands on me were strong and certain. ’’He doesn't like this, I don't like his public grooming habits. He'll just have to get used to it.’’

’’Maybe you'll have to get used to each other.’’

’’Yeah. Maybe.’’ Ric's voice had become a soft, possessive growl.

I heard the click of Quicksilver's nails fade and then thump as he leaped out of his doggie door. This scene was obviously way too mushy for a wolfhound to witness.

Ric ran his hands down my arms, relishing their flexibility and strength as much as the feel of me. That had to stop. Right here, right now. I took hold of his wrists.

’’You need to rest those hands. Recover.’’

’’They're fine now. I'm fine.’’

I didn't answer, just pushed his wrists to the floor above his head and held them there.

He stilled beneath me, his eyes questioning.

’’Rest,’’ I said. It was an order. I must have developed this irresistibly firm bedside manner since my brief stint as a nurse.

’’I'm fine, Del. No one laid a finger on me when I showed up with the reinforcements. My hands only caught it from holding onto a whirligig of barbed wire for so long.’’

’’Are you sure you're fine? Everywhere? I'll have to see. Just don't move.’’

I felt a triumphant surge of life restored in every cell. I felt strong and alive. I felt... very hot. I had to have something right now, and I knew what it was. And according to Ric, it was fine.

I rolled over to wriggle out of my black stretch leggings and pull out the precious Cicereau photo saved on the small flash drive, which had stayed put and come through everything without any visible damage. Spandex rocks!

I rolled back over to straddle Ric's hips and unclasped his belt, unhooked his pants, ripped down the zipper, pushed all that aside, and pulled what I wanted through the slit in his silken shorts. It was still in that delicious state of becoming all that it could be, but I was far from through.

I lay atop him and stopped whatever he'd been about to say or do with a fingertip to his lips. Despite all he'd been through, only his top shirt button was undone. I undid another two and put my left hand over his heart. My right hand pushed the shirt collar aside until I could see the faint blue bruise at the side of his throat. When I'd exposed it, his heart rate quickened.

’’Tell me about this.’’ I whispered, stroking it with my forefinger.

’’It's a love bite. You ought to know. You did it the first day you met me, mi tigre hembra’’

Calling me ’’tigress’’ was only inciting me tooth and nail. ’’Why is it such a turn-on for you, mi hombre?’’

’’Lord, Del, you were there, in the park when that bolt of sheer se* coursed through us. You didn't even remember turning your head into me and biting my throat. That made me come. No woman's ever done that, given me an orgasm that way.’’

’’I must be pretty potent.’’ I ran a fingernail over the mark and felt his heart leap against the palm of my hand. Something else leapt against me.

’’Del ¨C ’’ His voice and breath were ragged.

My own pulses thundered to feel him ready but pinned beneath me. But he kept his arms and hands still, giving me the lead I'd asked for. Demanded.

’’We know now it was earth magic,’’ he said, ’’borrowed lust, but it worked to bond us.’’

’’No woman has ever bitten you in passion before? Anybody or anything else I should know about?’’

He smiled slowly, flirting in foreplay. ’’I said no woman had ever bitten me there before.’’

I let my fingernail trail hard over ’’there.’’ His heart rate doubled again, fluttering like a caged hawk in my hand.

’’Who has then?’’

’’Are you jealous?’’

’’Madly. I want to know why you want what you do, so I can give it to you better.’’

His face sobered. No more teasing evasion. I took my finger from his throat, my hand from his heart, kissed the flutter, and laid my head on his chest to hear the deeper hollow thud of his heart through his body.

’’I was a boy,’’ Ric whispered finally, though we were alone and Nightwine's devices were disabled and no one else could overhear. He was speaking from a place he'd never wanted to go back to. I knew that place well.

’’In Mexico. Dirt-poor Mexican desert. Still, there were cattle, burros, goats, and peasants to try to live off the bitter land. I was... an orphan, like you. I slept with the burros at night. I used to see visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe sometimes. I could even smell the roses that are her sign. She comforted me like a mother come to give her son a goodnight kiss.

’’I never could remember such a... legendary thing as a kiss. I grew up among evil men and brutalized animals. But I was on the fringe of manhood, maybe twelve. One night the burros were restless. I slept and dreamed and something came to me and kissed me on the neck. My first kiss. It was long and sweet and I sensed it in my sleep and didn't ever want to wake up. When I did, my neck and throat ached. I was glad to feel that, to prolong the mother's kiss I longed for. I touched the place, the site of the miracle, of the Virgin's compassion, smelling roses. My fingers came away wet with my own blood.’’

I'd heard this with tears welling behind my eyes ¨C who would dream that Ric Montoya's successful, attractive present was built upon such a barren, hurtful, lonely past? His last sentence chilled my soul, though, and even my surging libido.

I jerked my head up to face him. ’’You'd been visited by a vampire!’’

My heart almost stopped. No! Once vampire-bitten, a human was forever susceptible to the breed's spell. It couldn't have been worse if he'd told me he had cancer.

He nodded, and lifted an arm to catch my first falling tear on a fingertip. ’’Yes, Delilah.’’ He smiled tenderly. ’’But it was a vampire bat.’’

’’A real bat?’’ What did that mean? Was that better or worse? ’’Are you sure it was the real thing?’’

’’In the Chihuahua desert? What else? It was a bat, the same blood-sucking parasite that was named after real vampires, a Mexican bat. There are millions of them. I was mistaken for a burro, probably because my hair was uncut and covered my neck.’’

’’Then you're not... infected by an undead human vampire bite?’’

’’No.’’ He stirred under me, lifted his hips and my weight with the move, the gesture saying se*y things again.

’’No. But the next night I was visited by a vision of a dancing girl with writhing hips and naked breasts and she kissed me on the neck in that very same spot, and I had become a man.’’

I got it. That had been his first turn-on. Wet dream. Weird maybe, but harmless, right? And my heart ached for the lonely boy in the desert, sleeping with donkeys and goats. There must be more, much more, to Ric's story, but this whispered confession had soothed my immediate panic.

He watched me accept that and put his arm back down. I wriggled up his body and placed my hand on his heart again. The rate had quieted nicely and he was half-soft between my legs again. If pseudo-vampire dancing girls and vampire bats did it for him, I was ready to throw myself into the part.

I breathed hotly on his neck, my hand gauging his pulse rate. I ran the tip of my tongue over the bruised spot, and then my lips. My many kisses added up to a month of goodnight visitations. He was breathing hard and his heart was racing, boy and man ready for so much more. So I bore down hard and sucked a series of moans out of him, then teased his skin with my teeth. I was a very bad batgirl.

’’Delilah!’’

I sat up and pushed him into me and tore my Spandex top over my head. Luckily I was wearing a bra I'd bought during my post-Sunset Park shopping spree. I have to admit that Irma's taste has always been way sleazier than mine, and she'd been in firm control that day. Ric's hands twitched, but remained out of play. I was in control now, in control of the vertical. I moved up and down slowly, my body swallowing that tantalizing length again and again, rocking and rolling.

Ric was gasping. ’’You've never been so aggressive before, mi tigre hembra.’’

’’I've never almost lost you before.’’

’’It was worth it, then. We'll have to do that again,’’ he panted, caught between a moan and a laugh. ’’I'll have to do this again too.’’

I could feel him on the brink of explosion;I collapsed down upon him, sinking my teeth hard into the vampire bat spot. My spot.

We came together, I screaming, Ric adding an inciting basso of satisfaction to the clan vocalizations. Los Lobos had seen to it there'd always be a call of the wild in our encounters.

I pushed myself back up finally, looking down at him. And he finally moved his arms, his hands on my hips, his fingers toying with the thin sterling silver hip-hung chain I wore for him under everything, impaling me gently down deep onto him one last time. For now.

Sweat evaporated slowly and sweetly on our bodies. Ric's face gleamed like a golden idol's in the funky old-fashioned cottage lamplight. I could feel him softening in me, a sensation as engaging as a thick milk chocolate bar melting in your mouth.

Ric reached a hand up to brush my hair off my damp neck. ’’Te amo,’’ he said softly.

I'd never said, ’’I love you’’ to another person, only to Achilles.

And I'd never yet said it to Quicksilver, although I did.

I'd always had a mental block about saying it and had never had anyone much worth saying it to, except for the occasional transient stranger in my life who might have done me a small, unexpected kindness, and saying that would have been overkill, although I did silently love him or her for it.

Ric had done far more for me than that, but I still had a block about saying the words now. I love you.

’’Te amo,’’ I heard myself telling Ric, smiling. In Spanish the words came much more easily. Te amo, te amo, te amo, I thought.

We stayed there, locked together, smiling at each other for a long time.

Like gourmet coffee and chocolate, it was almost better than se*.

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Okay. Woman. Man. And Dog. Silver mirror-medium, corpse-finder, and walking, trotting first-aid kit. I guess we're the new Triad in town.

Las Vegas, place your bets, figure your odds, and hang on to your secrets as best you can, because we are here to break your bank!

That's what I thought when I woke up alone in my cottage bed the morning after the face-off in the Spring Mountains. Ric had left long before morning. He needed to get back to the mountains by night to round up his zombies.

’’They only respond to me for now,’’ he explained. ’’I don't want any zombie wranglers capturing them. In the old days, they had to be fresh. Then the big combines had them flash-frozen and shipped to the States for assignment.’’

’’Like fish sticks?’’ Ewww.

Ric nodded, steel-jawed. ’’Today the Immortality Mob has preservatives for the harvest. They scour mass death sites, preferably those due to natural disaster. War and massacres tend to chop off limbs. It gets more expensive.’’

’’Who is the Immortality Mob? Nightwine used that phrase.’’

’’We don't know. We can guess. Listen. I've got to go. I shouldn't have left them there unclaimed earlier tonight. But-’’

Now the zombies sounded like lost luggage. I could understand Ric's fury in wanting to end this trade in human skin and bone if not souls. ’’Can't you... put them back?’’ He took my hand, held it to his beating heart. ’’There's no going back. For any of us.’’

I closed the cottage door behind Ric just before Quicksilver returned from his run nattily groomed and not limping any more.

Ric had noticed the rakes on my legs and arms before he left and said, ’’If Wonderdog wants to lick you all better, I don't want to be here to see it.’’

I hadn't considered substituting Quicksilver's healing tongue for Neosporin, but did after Ric left. Quick sat quietly, gazing limpidly at me with those Tiffany gift box-blue eyes. Maybe his healing gift had been exhausted on Ric and himself. His tail dusted the floor with a touch of eagerness. Maybe I'd better let Quick keep his tongue to himself in my case.

I took a shower, anointed my wounds and hit the bed, dreading nightmares.

They came with a vengeance: a harrowing rerun of vamp boys with my blood on their fangs, of me/Lilith levitating nude and snake-bound and vampire-bit, of running, running, running through a rocky wasteland, of hurting, burning, falling, of a Paiute Indian shaman bending over me, chanting alien words and dripping the soothing, warm balm of a dessert succulent plant on my wounds. Weren't they the tribe that invented the famous and ultimately tragic Ghost Dance?

I awoke and stretched, determined to think only of the happy outcomes of the night before. Despite the nightmares real and dreamed, this one morning all was right with my world.

Snow's silver familiar chose that moment to make its move from a limpid chain around my neck into a cold silver garter at the top of my right thigh.

Garter belts and silk stockings, Snow? You and Howard Hughes wish! It'll be a cold day in Hell.

Which I am really looking forward to making come true in your case.

But first I had to report to my boss, Hector Nightwine.

The black-and-white photograph of Cicereau with his teenage daughter occupied the huge center screen of Nightwine's media wall.

’’Excellent,’’ he gloated. ’’That copyright-stealing thug! Try to rip off my rights to Maggie, will he? I'll smear Cicereau's messy supernatural private life all over the world's television sets. Child murder is not popular anywhere, even these days.’’

’’We have no proof,’’ I pointed out.

He hauled out a pair of half glasses with iridescent frames, and then snapped off the enlarged image I'd taken from Cicereau's computer.

’’Las Vegas CSI V is a fictional show,’’ he said.

’’You're as liable for being sued as anyone, and Cicereau might go farther than that.’’

Nightwine chuckled and grabbed a fistful of what looked like mixed nuts from a crystal bowl on his desk. ’’Have some?’’

’’I'm on a new diet.’’

My new diet was based on eating food that didn't try to crawl away on you.

’’Tsk. You certainly don't need to lose an ounce. I managed to get some black-market footage of your act at the Gehenna.’’

’’What!’’

’’You can never underestimate Maggie fans. I must watch them like a hawk. They were ready to burn a million DVDs and hustle them internationally. Naturally, I waited until their job was done and unofficially seized the lot. They'll go like hotcakes and Cicereau can't do a thing about it.’’

’’Hector! I haven't given permission, and I never will.’’

’’Who's to say it wasn't really Lilith herself? I'd give you a generous cut, of course.’’

’’I've gotten enough cuts in your service, thank you. No. Absolutely not, not if you want any more work out of me. And don't whine. I also want the recording of Rick and me in Sunset Park. The enlarged, close-up and personal version you made from the distant spy camera footage.’’

’’Have mercy, Delilah. That is one of the best cinematic 'meets'ever, and I did the final cut on it. Let me keep a copy for my private collection.’’

’’No.’’

Actually, I think he liked it when I put my foot down. He pouted instead of whining and slaked his congenital greed with three fistfuls of nuts. They crunched like walnuts, but I didn't like the jointed black leggy ’’crumbs’’ that fell to his desktop.

’’Agreed on the recordings,’’ he grumbled through his gluttony. ’’For a yummy-soft bit of female you drive a hard bargain.’’

’’Back to the case,’’ I said. ’’We don't know everything yet.’’

’’Of course not, but I can go to script on this. The existence of a series of Inferno chip designs prove someone-if not Christophe himself-was keeping the concept alive all these decades. I love the hunky vampire prince getting whacked and someone else getting the Inferno hotel and casino off the ground decades later. A real weeper for the supernatural set.’’

’’This is all still speculation, Hector. Christophe may not like that.’’

’’I'll make the Inferno owner black, maybe a warlock, and call the place the... the Snake Pit. As for the true facts, what else is there to know?’’

’’There's got to be more to it, that sad hit and secret burial of two young lovers. Cicereau didn't banish all the vampires just by killing a couple of lovesick kids, even if one of them was his own. And why kill them?’’

’’He's a very, very bad man, and wolf?’’ Hector asked archly, cracking open a nut with his teeth and gobbling the wriggling white meat inside. ’’But I like it, Delilah. You think like a movie mogul.’’

So I started thinking like a screenwriter. I stared at the photo of Cicereau with the daughter who had come calling in my cottage mirror ever since Ric and I had found her body, but whose name I didn't even know. Yet. She deserved a name on a gravestone.

The shock of Cicereau's paternity had kept me from even noticing others in the group shot until I viewed them life-sized on Nightwine's seven-foot screen.

The three guys in pinstriped, broad-shouldered suits were obviously nameless bodyguards, two in fedoras. The young one with the slicked back dark hair and pencil-thin mustache had a roguish Clark Gable forelock falling onto his forehead. Close-up, I spotted a thin streak of silver running through it. One-two-three, woof! Sansouci didn't look a day older today, except for the heavier silver streak job. Hmm. He'd shown me a flicker of humanity. Him I might be able to deal with.

And since when had werewolves become so long-lived? It was much easier to off a marauding werewolf with silver bullets than to find a vampire's sleepy-time lair, dig him or her up by night, and then do the stake routine. Everyone figured that nowadays full-blooded werewolves were rare, shot to extinction all over the globe like the wolves themselves, rather than dying of old age. But what if they weren't?

At the photo's edge stood one of those tall, glam chorus-girl types as common to Las Vegas as palm trees and with about the same IQ I tended to notice them as much as I do the trees. But her clothes were a hoot.

She wore a long white crepe gown. Its huge forties shoulder pads sparkled with rhinestones. The neck was high... but a narrow open slit ran from the hollow of her throat to her waist, and I bet the back was wide open. The skirt was draped toward her left hip in the Grecian goddess style popular in that era, and a spangled dark crimson flower pinned it there. A matching exotic bloom nestled above her right temple amid her elaborately upswept dark hair.

That's when it struck me that a lot of women in the forties looked like the Black Dahlia, that I could do a great job of it myself. Hmmm. Samba, rumba, tango. Chichi Latin dances and clubs. I bet Ric would flip if he saw me in that getup.

Look at you! Irma interrupted. Used to avoid your own image in mirrors and dress only for work. Now you're walking through mirrors and morphing into the Vamp of Las Vegas. You go, girl!

Hector too was gazing on beauty bare and having his own private thoughts, which he now said aloud.

’’I've decided to launch a new spin-off,’’ he announced. ’’Las Vegas CSI: The Vintage Collection. It'll unearth all the unsolved crimes of the Werewolf-Vampire War era, use the music of the period.’’

’’That's such a rip-off of Cold Case,’’ I pointed out. The crime show was in its umpteenth year.

Hector's huge shoulders shrugged off my comment. ’’I can do an extended miniseries too. Dead and Alive: The Making of Las Vegas. ’’

I turned to stare at him.

’’Don't look so surprised, Delilah. Your vintage clothing, has inspired me. You dig up the past crimes;I film 'em. I could even cast you in some juicy bit parts.’’

I sure hated to hear the words ’’juicy bits’’ and me in the same sentence from Nightwine. Still, the role of Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator, on and off the screen appealed to me.

’’It'd pay way better than a non-speaking role.’’ His rum-raisin-brown eyes gazed dreamily into the distance. ’’A cameo role would keep Lilith's image alive.’’

And such a role would perpetuate the obsession of the creeps who were out to capture, debase, and destroy her. No wonder she'd gone missing, if she wasn't already really and truly dead, and I had my doubts. On the other hand, my doing this for Hector might draw out Lilith... I was curious about her. Surely she'd be curious about me. Meanwhile, Hector was screenwriting aloud.

’’You'd be... the Black-and-White Dahlia, a misty, mysterious glamorous noir film dame glimpsed in distant shots, like Alfred Hitchcock always showing up as a passing extra in his films. All you'd have to do is look good, do some moody voice-overs, and float around.’’

’’I'm not Hitchcock and I doubt you are, either.’’

’’Who could be? He was the master of nuanced black-and-white film suspense and even managed to do some fairly interesting things in color. And, Delilah, I could hire your dead-dowsing swain as a consultant. Might reduce those pesky out-of-town trips of his, hmmm? Keep him here in town more.’’

Okay. How did Nightwine know about Ric's trips? The charming vintage cottage dial-phone must be tapped! Fine. Ric and my calls would be all-cell phone all the time from now on.

But Hector's grand vision had hit a nerve with my reporter's instincts.

Everybody accepted Las Vegas as a fantasy destination, as larger than life. Nobody had reexamined the city and its tawdry criminal past since long before the Millennium Revelation, when the addition of supernatural to the landscape had seemed like just another entertaining Vegas excess.

A Cirque du Soleil for creatures of the night.

’’You don't have to okay the whole vision just now, Delilah.’’

I could hear Hector crunching contentedly on something disgusting behind me.

’’If you reveal their past to the public,’’ I turned to point out, ’’every shady human and unhuman in town will be out to get you. Me. Us.’’

’’Just keep looking at what's going on, what went on, and you'll find something I can use on my shows.’’

’’Or... something really, really bad will find me.’’

Nightwine shrugged and smacked his lips.

’’Every modern girl's looking for Mr. Right.’’


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