Death's Rival

 Faith Hunter

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Free Dick Dot Come
I took the back way to Katie's Ladies - over the back brick wall. Troll opened the door for me before I knocked, as if expecting me. "Little Janie," he said, his voice like two rocks grinding together.
"Morning, Troll," I said as I passed him. "Your scalp needs shaving."
He rubbed his hand over the pale dome as he closed the door on the morning's predawn light. "When I get time. George said you wanted to talk to the new guest."
"Yeah. It's all my idea. Where is he?"
"Upstairs with Christie."
I stopped and looked back. "Not . . ."
"Not. Christie came home this morning and took a liking to the newcomer. He needed to be fed and she was willing, but that's over with now." He grinned at me. "You won't walk in on anything."
I shook my head and went through the twisting hallways to the back stairs and up. Walking in on something with Christie could be detrimental to my sexual well-being. Christie was the resident S&M practitioner, with a penchant for whips, chains, and pain, able to play the part of top or bottom in BDSM games. The fact that I now understood what that meant was kinda scary. Not my thing. I knocked on her door and entered when she called out.
The inside of Christie's room was decorated like a gym, but without the charm. Bare mattress on a plain, steel bed, the four corners and headboard adorned with flex-straps and chains and cuffs. Bare white walls, bare wood floor, plastic rolled up in the corners. I didn't want to know what that was used for. Steel shutters and padded blinds were over the windows, blocking out the coming dawn, the latest vamp fad.
Christie was lying on the mattress with a dark blond vamp curled around her. Both were dressed, but only barely, Christie in a sheer top that exposed steel chains through her nipple rings - ouch - and the vamp in black silk pajama shorts. Seemed that Corpse had a name after all. The vamp looked vastly different from the way he had looked the last time I saw him, covered in blood and burns. Now he was clean, his hair combed, and his face stretched in a contented, well-fed smile as I looked him over. His silver cross burns were healed, and that kind of burn usually took a long time to heal. I'd burned Leo with one once and really ticked him off.
"Christie. Callan," I said.
Callan roused enough to lift his head from Christie's shoulder and I could see the tiny pinpricks on her throat that marked the constricted vamp bite marks. "You're my new master's Enforcer," he stated, his accent Southern, maybe a mill-town accent from the piedmont of South Carolina. He climbed slowly from the bed, moving like a feral animal, all smooth muscle and grace. Callan stood in front of me and slung the hair back from his face, holding my gaze, letting me look my fill. He was pretty. Dang pretty. And he knew it. Like a lot of vamps, he'd been turned for his looks, no doubt about that. He had a boxer's shoulders, a cyclist's thighs, and a painter's long, slender fingers, with an angel's face on top. But something about him made me think he wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier - maybe the fact that he was posing. He held the pose a moment longer and then dropped slowly to one knee, like an old-fashioned bow, but with a dancer's sense of balance. He bent forward, curling his spine so his hands and his hair fell forward to the floor, exposing his back, which was a swimmer's back, tapering to a tiny waist.
"Get up," I said. Before he could rise, I asked, "How did your former master infect you with the disease?" I expected him to say that he had dated a sick human at Blood-Call.
Callan stood, his shoulders back, a sculptor's model on display. I held in an exasperated sigh. "My former master fed me a woman. He feeds her to lots of us."
"One woman?" I said, not sure I heard correctly.
"Yes, ma'am."
My amusement vanished. A Typhoid Mary? A human with a disease that infects vamps? A prisoner, kept to be fed upon? Like a slave? I thought I had it all figured out, that sick humans were being passed around. I wasn't sure how a single sick human connected. Not sure at all.
"Against her will?"
"She's his prisoner. We all were."
"Crap." So what now? I'd have to kill de Allyon and rescue all the vamps and the blood-servants? I didn't say it, but I could feel the need burrowing under my skin. Saving people, fighting for people, is what skinwalkers do, when we aren't torturing them. "Is she here in Louisiana?"
"No. She is in Atlanta, in my mas - my former master's lair."
"So how did de Allyon infect all the vamps in Sedona, Seattle, and other places? Does he fly her around?"
"Lady, I got no idea how he did his thing. It ain't like I was up high in the pecking order or nothing. But I will say that he never let that woman out of his compound. Like not never."
I felt my hope deflate. "Is de Allyon in Louisiana?"
"Do you know where?"
"No. Somewhere north, and maybe west. In a little town on a river. I'm not good with directions."
The comment was so unexpected I almost laughed. Was the guy really dumber than a box of rocks, or was he dissembling, somehow hiding his true mind even from whichever old master vamp had fed him to heal him? That would have made Callan the best spy in history. Nope. He was no spy; Callan smelled of truth. And Callan was intellectually challenged - pretty, but dumb. Nearly every place in the state was north and west of New Orleans. "How did de Allyon know about me? How did he know I was Leo's Enforcer?"
Callan shrugged. "I don't know. Somebody tells him things."
"Yeah. I was afraid of that." A few more questions convinced me that I had discovered everything that Callan knew. Which was sad in all sorts of ways. Leo had a mole, a dissenter, a spy in his camp. I wanted it to be someone who recently joined the ranks, but it had to be someone who was in Asheville with the parley there, which limited the number of people involved. I had to study the Kid's deep background search info on the Vodka Boys and the Tequila Boys. I had to unearth the mole. Unfortunately, Callan would be no help at all.
* * *
It was nine a.m. when I got back to the freebie house. I'd stayed and eaten breakfast with Deon. My meal had consisted of eggs Benedict, Caribbean-style, with spices and peppers and some really melty, gooey, fabulous Hollandaise sauce. Totally delicious and totally sinful. Eli would have turned up his nose at the fats. I scraped my plate clean.
Back at my house, I found a postal box on the front porch, filled with the CS canisters. They were plain metal canisters, like spray paint cans, but with a lever system on top to lock them on, so they could spray until empty or be stopped at will by the wielder. "Cool," I said, and packed them away.
Sitting on the couch, I booted up my laptop and opened the file containing the English translation of the Vampira Carta. I scrolled down to the part about the Blood Challenge between masters and checked the footnotes for other info. There were four codicils to the challenge and three histories, none of which were in English. It looked like Latin, probably from a millennia ago. "Crap," I muttered.
"Anything I can help you with?" Eli asked.
Instantly, I remembered his predawn comment about how I looked in bed. I was pretty sure I blushed and didn't raise my head for him to see. "Not unless you speak Latin from the tenth century."
"Free dick dot come."
I lifted my eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
He laughed and bent over the laptop, typing "" in my browser. I'm pretty sure my blush was visible even through my Cherokee coloring. He smelled good, all pheromones and self-confidence and man. "Oh. Thanks," I muttered. Still grinning, he wandered away, leaving behind his scent and the echo of his laughter.
I went to that site and three others, subscribing to two that looked reasonable. I typed out the Latin info and started getting translations, none of which matched exactly. To be on the safe side, I sent snippets to all four sites and compared and contrasted the translations, taking the ones that seemed to match best. I quickly discovered that the VC's Blood Challenge was instituted in direct response to a blood-feud that took out nearly two thousand humans and vamps in southern Italy in the mid-tenth century. The descriptions of the dead in that history were horrible, humans and vamps drained, torn apart, discarded, their bodies left to see the dawn. It was wanton destruction, leaving even the children of blood-slaves drained and dead in the streets. And a blood-feud was what we had here, what had been staring us in the face all this time, and I hadn't really understood.
I went back to the date. If the history of Lucas Vazquez de Allyon was correct, he would have been alive back then. Just because his name was Spanish now didn't mean he hadn't traveled, or even been Italian - Roman - originally. As I worked, the smell of coffee filled the house, rich, dark, and wonderful. Too bad that coffee smelled so much better than it tasted to me.
Trying to block out smells and the small sounds made by men moving around in my house, I translated segments on blood-feuds, spending two hours before I realized that, basically, a blood-feud was a no-holds-barred free-for-all with winner take all. This one would be blamed on me for killing a man who had likely been intending to murder me the first chance he got.
"Jane," Alex called from the kitchen. "I got something."
I put the laptop to sleep and went to the kitchen, stretching on the way in. In the kitchen, I discovered where the coffee smell originated. The men taking over my life had purchased an espresso coffeemaker, a fancy stainless steel version by DeLonghi. According to the box at the back door, the thing cost nearly a thousand bucks. I hoped I hadn't paid for that.
Before I studied the info Alex had, I put tea together. While the tea water sizzled on the stove top, I pulled up a chair near Stinky. Who definitely was not getting any fast food today. "Show me," I said.
"Lucas Vazquez de Allyon purchased property in several states, including Louisiana last year. He has property in New Orleans, in Lafayette, and in some little towns between Lafayette and here. I put them on a map."
It was a melded map, showing topo, streets and street names, bayous, rivers, airports, bus stations, and a lot of other stuff I would need if I had to go to each of them hunting him. "Have you found de Allyon yet?"
"No, but I'm close."
"Good. Now go take a shower. You're living up to your nickname." At his puzzled look, I said. "Stinky. I've named you Stinky and it'll stay Stinky until you remember to shower every day."
"And when I remember?" he asked, sounding belligerent.
"Then it'll be Kid."
"Like Kid Rock?"
"More like Billy the Kid, Cisco Kid, the Durango Kid." When he still looked puzzled, I said, "Do an Internet search. And it's a crying shame when an American teenage boy doesn't know his gunslingers." I slapped him on the back of the head. "Good work, Stinky."
I finished making my tea and went back to my laptop. Shortly, I heard footsteps up the stairs and then shower water going. "The Durango Kid? He's a modern-day shooter."
I looked up to see Eli standing in front of the open bookcase. He had a habit of standing with his arms loose, one hand near the spot where a military sidearm might go, the other on his thigh where he might wear a military knife. "Yeah. A cowboy six-shooter. There was an old black-and-white film about the Durango Kid."
"You watch old black-and-white cowboy films." It was said with a hint of disbelief.
"Yeah. The kind where your people kill off my people and steal our land, and somehow make murder and theft seem heroic."
A hint of amusement twinkled into Eli's eyes in response to my sarcasm. He said, "My people? You mean the mongrels of society? I have ancestors who were slaves and ancestors who owned slaves."
He was of mixed blood, mixed race, which I had suspected from his skin tone. Alex was much paler than Eli. Maybe they were half brothers? I brought my mind back to the conversation and tilted my head to show he had made his point.
"You're good with Alex," he said. "We were doing nothing but fighting about him showering." The twinkle bled away. After a moment he said, "We were fighting about everything, actually."
"Yeah. You treat him like a son or a soldier, instead of like a brother. He wants you to like him and admire him and love him. Maybe in that order."
"Hmmph," Eli said. "And you know this about families when you were raised in a children's home?"
That could have been intended to be snide or even hurtful, but the look on his face was simply puzzled. I squelched the retort budding on my lips. I didn't explain about my early years very often, mainly because it sometimes brought the memories back, like a tsunami, overwhelming, overpowering, visceral, and intense. With Alex's ability to ferret out info on the Web, it wasn't a surprise that the brothers knew about my history. "I came out of the woods at age twelve, give or take, with no language, no social skills, no nothing. I watched the body language and interactions between the kids and the adults in the home long before I could understand what they were saying. Tone and intent were clear enough even to the outsider. Your tone and body language say you don't trust him. Your tone and body language say you are the boss and he better listen to you or else."
"Yeah? So?"
"What do you mean So?" Men can be so obtuse sometimes. "He's not a soldier under your command. This is family, not the army. And Alex doesn't understand that you love him and want to protect him and that's why you are all over him like white on rice. Tell him you like him. Tell him you admire what he can do. And back off and let him make mistakes. He'll respect you more for it. Sheesh." I went back to my research. Eli tucked his thumbs in his pockets and meandered up the stairs, I hoped to play nice-nice with his baby brother.
Before dark, Alex sent me an e-mail with an attachment, and stood over me with a half-proud, half-sheepish grin as I opened the document he'd sent. As I studied the file, he fidgeted, sitting down, standing up, roaming around and around the room. Without looking up, I said, "Stop. Light somewhere. Explain this to me."
"It's how Lucas Vazquez de Allyon is making some vamps sick when they to go Blood-Call for a date, without letting his Typhoid Mary out of his sight."
I felt lighter, as if someone had just taken a lead overcoat off me. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Proof that Blood-Call has everything to do with the sick master vamps."
I leaned back in my chair and said, "Okay. Shoot. Convince me."
An hour later, I realized that the Kid had hacked into another government agency and found something in the CDC's employee files that might help lead us to someone who could heal all the sick vamps in the nation - proof of what the plague really was, and how it had been developed - because it wasn't something that had appeared naturally. Alex was grinning like a trained monkey, and I smiled back. "Not bad. Not bad at all."
"So, do I rate a Big Mac?"
"Nope. The lady had to tell you to shower," Eli said from the opening to the safe room. "But you did good, kid. Real good. I'm proud of you." Eli turned back without waiting to see what effect his words had on Alex. The Kid glowed pink from his palms to his ear tips. I managed not to grin, which might have spoiled it for him, and nodded instead, my eyes on the screen. "What he said. Good work."
"Okay. Okay, then." Alex stood, bristling with energy, with purpose, with poorly concealed delight. "I'll have a cup of coffee. You want one, Eli? Jane, you want tea?"
"Sure," we both said at the same time. Eli tipped his head around the door just enough to see his brother go into the kitchen. When the Kid was gone, Eli tilted his head at me in thanks. And I realized that, maybe, we had just become a team. Turning away, I called a high-level parley at Katie's.
* * *
Alex, showing his nerves by the way one knee jerked spasmodically, stood in front of a specially picked small group of vamps and humans. I stood over to the side, where I had a good view of every person in the group. Leo, who I wanted to stake on sight or curl up at his feet, sat front and center in a padded chair that looked like a throne. Katie, his heir, Gregoire, his second heir should Katie predecease him, Troll, Gregoire's B-twins, Brandon and Brian, all the clan heads still alive after the battle, and a smattering of humans and servants sat or stood around the walls. The room was crowded, even with the silver cages removed and the furniture back in place, and over it all rode the half-muted tingle of power and the scent of Leo Pellissier, peppery parchment, still tainted with the faint, fermented hint of too much blood. It made me grind my teeth, and I had to breathe slowly to keep my heart rate from speeding and betraying my emotional state. The MOC didn't look my way, to see if I was okay, or still hurt from his attack.
The room fell silent for long, awkward seconds and finally Leo turned his head and met my eyes, his own guileless and superior. Even though my brain said to ram a silver stake through his black heart, I still wanted to fulfill his wishes, the result of the dregs of the binding that still trapped me. I wondered fleetingly how bad it would be if I had no way to resist, if the binding was permanent, and not something that Beast and I could destroy eventually. I didn't want to think about what a person would do or become if she had no will at all. Rather than do what I wanted most, I broke the master's gaze and nodded to Alex.
He cleared his throat. "Hi. I'm Alex." He wiped his sweating palms on his pants. "Okay. Well. Yeah. Okay." He took a breath and launched into his spiel. "The disease is from a mutated strain of the Filoviridae ebola virus, one that can be safely carried by humans," Alex said, opening with a bang. It was clear from Leo's reaction that even old vamps knew of the Ebola virus. The MOC sat back in his chair slowly, as if putting distance between himself and Alex. The other vamps took a collective half step back.
"The only human known to have contracted the virus," Alex said, oblivious of the vamps' reactions, "was one Tanya Petrov, a virologist who worked at Greyson Labs. Two weeks after she contracted the virus, the lab was purchased by de Allyon's company, and the victim vanished from a level-four containment facility, while under lockdown, something that was not supposed to be able to happen. Subsequent electronic forensics showed the disappearance took place between four a.m. and four-ten a.m., when there was a disruption in the digital security system.
"A few years earlier, a boutique pharmaceutical company called DeAli, owned by our head evil dude, announced trials for a new drug that was supposed to help an existing cancer chemotherapy drug locate and penetrate cancer cells with the help of a deactivated virus. This drug was never released to the general market, though it went through all the trials with excellent results and has been in production for months in small batches. The drug never got a market name, and goes by the moniker VR1389. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll call it VR." Alex grinned when he looked up, seeing all the vamps concentrated on him. To me it looked like a pride of African lions fixated on prey, but the Kid seemed immune to that imagery.
"This part is guesswork, but what I think happened is that de Allyon - whose base is the same city as the CDC, by the way - wooed some top people from them. A virologist, a microbiologist, and a couple of people who specialize in genetic recombinant studies left within the last couple of years." He looked at me quickly and back to the room before adding, "They all disappeared, like totally, literally." He wiped his hands down his pants again. "I think that one of de Allyon's pet virologists or microbiologists discovered that the new cancer drug, VR, worked like cocaine on vamps, making them all mellow and buzzed. I think that after he got all his medical team together, they discovered that it also would bond with the new strain of Ebola. De Allyon kidnapped Tanya Petrov, injected her with VR, and made a vamp . . . ire," he added, "drink from her.
"The combo of the virus and the drug seem to work like a highly addictive narcotic on vampires. They are both sick and stoned. They need more of the drug, which is available only in a virus combo cocktail. And they eventually die. Meanwhile, it looks like de Allyon discovered that a very few of his humans, who had been dinner to vampires infected with the VR combo, were able to pass along the disease and the addiction for several days before falling really sick themselves and developing antibodies to the virus. If what I think is true, de Allyon now had a disease and a treatment. If the sick vampires drank from these humans, and no longer drank from a recently infected host, the vampire would survive."
It was a lot to take in, and I had heard it already once. The small crowd in Katie's sat in silence. A lot of what Alex had pitched to the vamps had started out as thinly supported conjecture on our part, but Reach had contacted a researcher at CDC and managed to confirm most of it. This scenario was the only thing that explained why the Seattle humans had gotten sick, then better, and then been taken away. It also explained why the new MOC had left only one human antibiotic factory in Sedona for Ro to drink from.
Alex looked at me for his cue. We had planned the timing of this part of the lecture carefully, to allow the vamps and humans time to take it all in without panic, and for me to study them all while they did. When I thought there had been enough time, I lifted a finger to Alex.
"There is also a new nationwide corporation called Blood-Call," he said. The attention of several vamps sharpened at the name. "VR," Alex said, "may be administered to unsuspecting vampires on a Blood-Call appointment. A vampire drinks from a Blood-Call lady or man of the evening, one who is freshly injected with the drug and virus combo. The vampires who drink from the infected humans get a feeling of euphoria, driving them back again and again. After a few visits, they begin to bleed internally. They need more drug and they need the treatment, and they'll give anything to get it."
I figured that VR was the metallic scent I had detected early on, in victims of the disease, but saw no point in saying so. I could identify the drug by its smell. Not that it would ever do me any good.
A vamp raised his hand, and I covered a snort with a fake cough at the sight of an elegant undead requesting permission to speak, like a kid in class. Gregoire asked, "Are all of the blood-meals offered by Blood-Call infected?"
"No. Most of the humans are healthy," Alex said. "I've traced indications that special transportation is arranged to the city of choice when de Allyon is ready to make a move on it. He uses a charter company based in Atlanta, and flies his infected humans into the city for dinner."
Gregoire, Leo's secundo and heirs' heir, nodded, one finger in the air. "So, perhaps we can trace the location of the next attack by the movements of this special charter service, oui?"
"Good idea," Alex said, typing into his little electronic tablet thingy. "I'll see if I can get into the system and trace down the accounting. That way we can tell when a flight is being activated by de Allyon. In fact, I can take a look-see and find out how many have been sent here." The silence in the room was intense at that, as the vamps all considered who they had sipped from recently who might not be in their own personal menagerie.
Into the worried silence, Katie said, "Leo owns two small research laboratories, one in Arizona, one in Houston. They are currently working on a cure to the disease and an antidote to this drug. We have Sabina and Bethany, two of very few priestesses in his land, both of whom have the power to heal, even to cure this disease. Few masters of the city have such outclan at their disposal. We also have the Mercy Blade, with the power to heal. This new information will accelerate the process of finding a cure. Our people need not worry, should any become ill with this plague. We will care for our own."
Alex looked up from his keying. "Sorry. Okay. So. How does the virus work? The vampire immune system is attacked by the Ebola variant and VR combo, and other bacteria quickly take over," Alex went on, "the same way that bacteria would break down any dead body."
I almost groaned. He had just called some of the most powerful vamps in the nation dead. Which they were, but still. I glanced around, gratified that none of them seemed to be taking offense. I'd hate to have to stake someone for hurting Stinky, and I was already in enough trouble with the vamps.
"It makes the victims look like plague victims. The important thing to remember is that the vamps are addicted and sick. That's why the masters of the city in Sedona, Seattle, and Boston gave up without a fight. De Allyon owns them undead body and soul."
I spoke up. "And do we know who from Asheville, um . . . dated a Blood-Call escort?" All the vamps in the room turned as one to me and stared.
Finally Leo said, his voice all Frenchy and stilted, "An internal investigation will take place. Those who need to be notified of the results will be informed. Please continue, young man."
Ah, I thought. As in "not me." Gotcha.