Landed on a Limo Floor

Angel asked his handler to meet him to pass along some hard copies of the location of the New Orleans vamps' lairs that Angel claimed he had stolen from me. He asked for five thousand dollars for the pages, not such a high number that the anonymous person might have to go to a higher-up for approval, and not so low that the handler would think the pages could wait. The handler took the bait, which told us something about him. He had some autonomy, he had ready access to funds, and, because it was still daylight, he wasn't a vamp, which made our plan much less dangerous and much more feasible. If he showed.

Minutes before we left the house, I dialed a number I hadn't called recently. "NOPD, Jodi Richoux," she answered.

Jodi was my contact with the New Orleans Police Department's supernatural crimes unit, in charge of all things paranormal and woo-woo. We were friends of a sort, but like most of my pals, we were going through a tough patch. My job was hard on friends. Or I was. "I might have a package for you soon."

"Jane Yellowrock. Why should I accept anything you throw my way?"

"Because you want to avert a vamp war in your town and I don't have a place to store a high-ranking enemy blood-sucker."

"War?" she said, half question, half demand.


I filled her in, and when I was done, Jodi said, "I wish I'd never laid eyes on you, Yellowrock," and hung up the phone.

We left the house at different times, took three separate vehicles, and arrived at the rendezvous site from different directions. I was the most conspicuous of us - six-foot-tall Cherokee women are not common even in a city where racial and ethnic markers were all over the place - so I stayed in the van that Derek and his crew used for security gigs. I didn't like being out of the action, but I knew the others could handle a human.

Only, the handler didn't show. A woman did. And Angel didn't know her. As she approached, his spine straightened and his fingers curled under, the telltale actions of a trained fighter facing the unknown. I watched through the smoked windows as she approached Angel Tit, who was sitting on a bench, away from the tourists, on the Moonwalk. She was tiny, efficient, and brisk: all of five feet, business suit, rapid walk, and when Derek and Eli - both wearing ball caps with the brims pulled down low - raced in to take her, she put up a serviceable fight, though her defensive measures were no match for two guys trained by Uncle Sam. They picked her up, whisked her to the van, dumped her inside, secured her limbs with zip strips, taped her mouth shut with clear surgical tape, and flipped her over, all in the seconds it took us to pull sedately away from the curb. The woman, who was maybe forty-five and matronly, inspected the blade held under her nose, which was sucking breath so hard it whistled.

"Any lookouts, any witnesses?" I asked into the mic.

The three lookouts responded, "Clear Alpha." "Clear Beta." "Clear Delta."

I opened the woman's pocketbook to find a .22 with an illegal suppressor. The end of the barrel was attached to the end of the purse with a swiveling coupler like nothing I'd ever seen before. I maneuvered the gun. It didn't come lose. The .22 was hooked in, but attached in such a way that she couldn't have gotten her hand around the grip. Which was just plain weird. The only other things in the bottom of the purse were an extra magazine, a pair of reading glasses, and a tube of L'Oreal lipstick. I twirled the lipstick up. "Coral. An interesting shade. Sedate, maybe just a little bit saucy. A good choice for a woman who's looking less and less like Angel Tit's best pal."

I held the purse up, inspecting it closer, and accidentally slid my fingers through the side panel. I pushed on the panel and held it up to her. "Nice. Very nice. I like. You can be walking along, an office clerk on her lunch hour, maybe getting close to a guy on a park bench, shove your hand into the purse through here" - I showed the guys the panel, which was hinged with tiny brass jewelry hinges - "aim this little gun, swiveling it in the coupler, give a two-tap through this small hole on the other end" - I tapped my finger on the barrel - "and walk on."

I looked at Derek and Angel. "The handler sent someone to take Angel out. Seems he's become a problem, somehow. Let's drive." I handed Derek the purse, turned off the radio system, and took off the headpiece.

"You know who I am?" I asked the woman. She nodded once, jerkily, angry eyes above the tape. "You know what we'll do to you if you don't volunteer the info we want?" Her pupils dilated and her sweat smelled of fear, but she didn't look away or shrink back. She had moxie, I'd give her that.

To Derek I asked, "Who is she?"

He was going through her bag now and held up a respiratory rescue inhaler. "That's it. Except for - " He snapped open a side pocket on the purse and pulled out a set of keys. One was an electronic key with a remote engine start. Derek grinned. It was a rookie mistake. "Circle the block," he instructed the driver. "Then if we don't find what we're looking for, we'll widen the search perimeter." We circled back and drove around for ten minutes, Derek pressing the key, looking for lights blinking on parked cars. We found the woman's car in a small private lot on a side street up from Decatur.

Derek pulled off his T-shirt to reveal another one underneath and jumped out. I watched as he tossed the stoner watching the lot a twenty, climbed into the running car, and drove it away. We followed. The stoner went back to sleep.

Derek wove slowly through the Quarter, through traffic, and pulled into a hotel on St. Charles Avenue. He tossed the keys to the valet and went into the hotel. Moments later he jogged around from the back and jumped into the van. He pulled on the original T-shirt and hat and grinned, handing me the contents of the car and its glove box in a grocery store plastic bag. Derek was having fun. The woman we had kidnapped, however, was not, and I could see why. There were three different .22 handguns in the bag - two pistols and one semiautomatic. Twenty-twos were the weapons of choice for made men and contract killers. I was betting on contract killer for our tiny, not-so-efficient hostage. Our enemy liked hit men. If he had sent a hit man to take out Angel, then we could no longer use the former marine to draw him out. Checkmate. Dang it. I'd never gone up against someone who was always one step ahead of me.

I gave the driver an address on South Broad Street, suggesting that he ride around some more and get there in fifteen minutes. He looked at me funny, but I ignored it and pulled on nitrile gloves to open the bag. "So. Sophia," I said, paging through the papers Derek had lifted from her car. "Sophia Gallaud."

"Guh-lode," Derek said, correcting my pronunciation.

"Gallaud. Sorry," I said. Seemed like Derek was going to be good cop to my bad. "Local address on a Louisiana driver's license, local dry cleaning stub." I held it up. "Local shooting range membership. I've been to that one. I like the black-painted floors. It's easy to police your brass. Goodness, congrats on the nephew's Catholic thingamajiggy." I passed the invitation to Derek.

"Confirmation," he said. "It's a Roman Catholic rite of passage. Like laying on of hands."

"Like a special Mass or something?" I asked.

"Seems so." To Sophia he said, "I was raised Baptist, myself. None of that Latin stuff or rolling in the aisles either. Now, Yellowrock, here, she's Cherokee. They practice blood rites. The Injuns ever use human sacrifice? Scalping or stuff?"

"We didn't scalp. That was a white man thing. And no sacrifice in religious practices. Cherokees were known to use knives to great effect in other ways, however, like killing enemies. Yeah, we were real good at that." If I sounded bitter, no one called me on it. I handed him my biggest vamp-killer, a new knife to replace the eighteen-inch blade destroyed in Asheville. "Like this one."

He took it gingerly. "You ever killed anyone with it?"

"Not yet." The words brought me up short. They said awful things about my job, but it was the truth. "But the blade that one replaced . . ." I looked away, unable to hide my reaction to the memory of the silvered blade sliding into Evangelina's belly. The feel of the hotter than human blood pulsing out. "That was a bad one," I said more softly.

"Anything else in there?" Derek passed the knife back.

I sheathed it. "Cell phone. Let's see." I paged through the text messages, and then through the received calls, jotting down numbers, names, times and frequency of calls onto a paper tablet with a regular pen. "Our Sophia has been a bad girl, as well as a stupid one," I said a moment later. "She took a gig from someone. They put five K into an account for her just two hours ago. She gets another five K when the gig is finished. Our Sophia is a hired killer. Which means she knows nothing. Now that we have the phone, we can dispose of her."

Sophia started to hyperventilate in earnest, her nostrils whistling high and fast. I smiled. I bent forward and peeled off the tape over her mouth. "You want to talk to us? Give us a reason to keep you alive?"

"You'll let me go? You'll leave my family alone?"

"Your family is safe. I won't kill you," I said. "Talk."

Sophia knew little except that she was between a very jagged rock and a very sharp blade. She told us everything. Sophia - if that was her real name - had been contacted two days ago to be available at a moment's notice to take care of three problems, two high-ticket problems - George Dumas and Jane Yellowrock - and one floater, fees to be discussed later. Unfortunately for her, she didn't have my freebie house address, and the address she had for George was now a lump of soggy charcoal briquettes. What she did have was Katie's address.

I glanced at Eli and he nodded once, his eyes hard. We had to move the vamps, and safe houses were getting few and far between. I looked out the window, saw we were on South Broad Street, pulled my new throwaway cell, and hit REDIAL.

"NOPD, Jodi Richoux," she answered.

"That package I told you I might have for you?" I said. "It's a little different and it eats its dinner cooked, but it's still interesting. We'll be out front in a sec."

"This better be good."

"All I can do is deliver. It's up to you boys in blue to make good on the package." I ended the call.

Sophia closed her eyes. "Bitch," she said around the tape that dangled from her cheek.

I showed the hit woman my teeth. It wasn't a smile. "I promised to let you live and to leave your family alone. Free her hands and feet, Derek." To the driver, I said, "See that woman running out of NOPD up ahead? Pull over to her." I emptied the guns and as much info as I thought would help Jodi into a zip-lock baggie and sealed it.

When the van slowed enough, I slid open the side door and pushed the contract killer out into the street. She bounced twice and rolled a bit, probably scuffing her knees and elbows. I dropped the plastic baggie containing her little toy guns into the street next. They bounced too, but I had removed the magazines. Protecting the surfaces from my fingerprints, of course. We pulled away. My last sight was Jodi Richoux picking up the tiny woman and directing a uniformed guy to watch the guns. Oddly enough, Jodi looked irritated.

* * *

When we got back to the house, Alex was waiting, shaking like he had been mainlining espresso, like a bunny in the sights of a pit bull. "I think I found him. The fanghead you're looking for." He grabbed my arm and pulled me into the kitchen. A map was open on the laptop. "The problem is that we've been looking in all the wrong places. In Louisiana. But he's in Mississippi, in the territory of Hieronymus."

Big H was the vamp we had expected to be targeted next. Seems we were too late; he'd already been hit, long before our enemy targeted us. The upside? De Allyon had a power base only an hour away, and it was more than likely that he was making his forays from there. I nodded for Alex to continue.

"There's a business in Natchez, in the old downtown, near the main street, three stories, built in the eighteen thirties. The building changed hands two months ago, and has been under renovation, and it just passed a building code check and is ready for occupancy.

"The county requires all renovations of historic buildings to submit a floor plan, and this one fits what vamps are looking for. The building was originally a bank, and the vault is still there. The new owner ordered a safe room built, adjacent to and in front of the vault. No windows, no doors. All the internal rooms are no-window, no-door rooms too. Three stories' worth. And the reason the building was so hard to find? It was purchased by Ramondo Pitri a week before you shot him in your hotel room. It was listed under the name of a dead man. And it just went into probate - to the new owner, de Allyon."

Finally. We had the tie-in between Ramondo Pitri and Lucas Vazquez de Allyon. I took a breath and it filled my lungs with a fresh, blissful delight. "You, Kid, are good," I said. And then it hit me. We had to go after de Allyon, had to beard the lion in his den in a preemptive attack, which would be either the smartest thing we'd ever done or the dumbest.

The history of the Natureleza vamp suggested he didn't have both oars in the water, and the whacked-out old vamps were always the worst. Any vamp taking out masters of cities, infecting humans and vamps with a disease, and targeting Leo had to be crazy, meaning I'd need a plan that allowed me to take the attack to our antagonist before he got his forces realigned after the battle in Leo's fields. And I'd need lots of backup. And maybe a tank. And air support. Derek was put in charge of vamp security by day and ordered to move the blood-suckers somewhere safer before dawn. Katie's had been compromised. Eli was put to work gathering supplies, and I added my own gear to the equipment that would be delivered to Natchez via separate vehicle.

His work on the safe room would become a long-term project, not something to use for today's crisis. Leo and his vamps had other places they could hole up tomorrow, like the warehouse where Leo had attacked me. I still got an empty feeling at that thought, but Beast, the pragmatic one, simply yawned and milked my mind with her claws. We are not dead. We are not caged. We will soon be free of him, she thought. Which was the truth, as cats saw it, and would be something I could live with, eventually. And if he needs to be staked, she added, we will stake him. And eat his heart.

Which was a whole 'nother kettle of fish entirely.

* * *

Leo's old limo was a charred shell, and so we borrowed Gregoire's brand-new, heavily armored, slightly stretched Lincoln. I had helped design the bespoke limo from the ground up, taking ideas from a limo owned by one of Leo's scions, and from the latest defense industry specs. It had a three-quarter-inch steel plate underneath to protect the occupants from possible bombs, and dark, polycarbonate-armored glass windows to protect them from daylight and gunfire. The car had a special braking system and heavy-duty suspension to accommodate the weight.

Inside, it was a work of art, with a long U-shaped steel-construction seat covered with cream-colored, butter-soft leather, a bar, flat-screen TV, satellite phone and Internet uplink, and cool weaponry that would rival anything Q would have designed for James Bond, including a Mossberg 590 twelve-gauge shotgun mounted under the longest section of window seat that ran along the driver's side. There were three handguns on mounts near the bar, hidden along the passenger-side windows, all of them nine millimeter, with plenty of extra magazines secured in pockets along the sidewall.

The limo was black, low-slung, and totally cool. It only got about six miles to the gallon, but I hadn't been worried about being green; I had been worried about being alive. I also hadn't thought this through or I'd have ridden Bitsa. Or ridden in the gear truck that followed, just me and the driver. Instead, it was Eli and Alex. And Bruiser. And me. In a limo. Together. Driven by Wrassler.

Alex rode shotgun, occupied with video games and a music collection of head-banging rock, playing while search programs ran in the background on three laptops. I took the far backseat, facing forward, slouching, with my legs half on the seat, one foot on the floor. Studying the two men. They were as different as possible and all I could do was compare and contrast them.

Bruiser, on the long side seat, was wearing brown dress pants that had been made to order, polished Italian leather dress shoes, with a starched dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to reveal tanned, corded arms. He was even wearing a tie, silk, of course, though it was loose at the neck. His legs were stretched out, crossed at the ankles, and he sat with his hands laced together across his lap. He was wearing a tiny gold pinky ring, and he was the picture of elegance, marred only by the compact handgun under his arm.

Eli took the seat facing backward, and was wearing button jeans, scuffed combat boots, and a skintight T, with a shoulder holster, an ankle holster, and probably three or four blades concealed on him somewhere. A wrinkled denim jacket lay on the seat near him. All in black. He looked dangerous and in control. Yet, in a hand-to-hand fight, Bruiser would win. Despite his casual and relaxed demeanor, he was full of vamp blood. He'd be faster, stronger, meaner, and though I'd never fought Bruiser - except the first time I ever saw him, when I'd gotten the drop on him - he'd had a hundred years to practice martial arts, and I was betting he fought like he danced. Perfectly balanced, and totally in control.

As we pulled away from the curb, Bruiser swiveled his head to me. And looked at the floor. Reminding me of the times we had landed on a limo floor. And almost done something I'd likely never regret. I tilted my head and slammed down hard on the blush that wanted to rise. Eli looked back and forth between us, taking in everything and drawing his own conclusions.

Fortunately, before I could feel too uncomfortable, Eli reached for the remote and turned on the television to Fox. The two men started into a discussion of politics and I closed my eyes and feigned sleep as we hit the road out of New Orleans.

The surfaces of most major highways in Louisiana are horrible, composed of concrete with expansion joints every ten feet or so. The joints rose in the heat of summer and stayed deformed forever, creating a rocking, bumpy ride, noisy and unpleasant even in the limo. But for me, it felt soothing, like a rocking chair, and my fake sleep quickly turned into real sleep. We were rolling into Natchez when I woke and I stretched, touching my mouth to make sure I hadn't drooled in my sleep.

I didn't know much about the town. Natchez, named after the tribe of Indians sold into slavery by the Europeans, was the first major Mississippi port city north of New Orleans, and had once been a major hub of steamboat travel and trade. It had been a bigger place before the war - the Civil War - and had struggled to hang on since. union   troops hadn't burned it to the ground, and after the war ended, Natchez had been left with swamp, forest, bayous, a checkered and notorious past - all set high upon a bluff above the Mississippi. It also had lots of fancy, prewar buildings, antebellum homes, churches, graveyards, and old live oak trees swathed in moss. After the war, the town also had hundreds of freed slaves needing work and carpetbaggers by the dozens bringing in an influx of cash. Its location and history allowed it to survive and thrive when most other towns around the South had suffered.

Natchez was rife with gossip. The locals knew everything. When we stopped for gas, Wrassler chatted up a local girl working inside behind the counter. In minutes, he'd learned most everything that had happened to the town in the last twenty years. Back in the limo, Wrassler moved his massive bulk into the car, shut the door, and said, "You were right, Kid." To the rest of us, he said, "De Allyon has been hiding in plain sight here, having taken over from the local MOC, Hieronymus - who owes Leo allegiance and loyalty and who did not call his boss to report the presence of an enemy." He started the limo and pulled into the street. "Funny how Leo's research guy didn't know any of this. Not you, Kid," he said to Alex, "but that other guy the master uses."

I laid my head back on the leather upholstery and thought about our leak. Leaks. Whatever. Not only was someone sharing info with our enemy, but our own intel sources had left us high and dry on what was happening in Leo's organization. That needed to be addressed, eventually, once this crisis was over. With vamps, there was always something.* * *

As for this little out-of-town gig, the possibility that there was more than one leak - Angel Tit and a snitch in Leo's camp - came back and perched in the forefront of my brain, like a buzzard over roadkill. Was there a chance that the spy was Reach himself? Reach had electronic fingers in everything, and he was nearly paranoid about security. If he was the spy, he'd already have taken down Leo's security and finances and, well, just about everything. Reach had that kind of . . . reach. I let a bit of humor bubble up through my worries and forced my shoulders to relax. They had crawled up my neck to my ears with tension at the thought of Reach as a traitor.

"It isn't Reach," I said politely. "Go on, please?" Who said I didn't have class?

Wrassler met my eyes again in the rearview, and I couldn't see enough of his face to tell what he was thinking, but he went on. "According to my date, Hieronymus initially billed himself as a producer, which was a new one for vamps, but fit the town perfectly."

"How so?" Eli asked.

"Look around," Wrassler said, his eyes back on the road. "On the backs of slaves and then cheap manual labor, the town fathers kept the place looking both spiffy and old. To supplement tax revenues, the good-ol'-boy town fathers have always looked outside farming, shipping, and transportation. Mississippi might be rife with the usual blunders and nepotism and thievery of any bureaucratic government, but their film commission pushed the beauty of the town to the outside world."

My brows went up at his vocabulary. I'd had no idea Wrassler could pronounce the words, let alone use them right.

"Natchez made a name in Hollywood. Movies, TV, and documentaries have been made here and the politicians were hoping that the new residents would bring another - the new residents being the owners of a newly renovated three-story building in the middle of historic downtown. Or maybe they call it uptown here." He glanced up at me again and this time I could see his grin. "All that and I get to go dancing. I am a happy man."

Wrassler danced? Somehow the muscle-bound burly guy didn't strike me as the dancing type. "Wrassler, you have a way with words and a way with women," I said.

We rode toward town, past shacks, trailer parks, and advertisements for tours of plantation homes, and took in the sights. The place was like something out of a Civil War movie, and we spotted some magnificent antebellum homes between the huge trunks and trailing limbs of live oaks. Most of the old homes were the traditional, Tara-in-Gone-with-the-Wind - style of whiteboard with lots of pediments and architectural elements made out of marble and wood, and wraparound porches. Two-story, sometimes with fancy gabled windows in the roofline. Some of the sprawling monstrosities had iron or brick privacy walls, horses prancing in the whiteboarded fields out back, and multicar garages with living space - presumably for servants - overhead. Even in town we saw homes that belonged on the covers of magazines.

We started at Canal Street and worked our way in. For blocks, the town had businesses in old buildings from the eighteen hundreds: art galleries, restaurants, grills, boutiques, a bookstore, and in the middle, we passed by the town's most recently refurbished three-story building, restored, revamped (pun intended), and once owned by Hieronymus, Blood Master of Clan Hieronymus, now owned by a dead man, and being refurbished by Lucas Vazquez de Allyon, who was soon to be a true-dead vamp.

As we circled the block, Eli slid down the window and took dozens of shots of the building with a camera set on burst mode. The old windows on the ground floor were swathed in silver velvet draperies, hiding the building's interior. The windows in the two upper stories had functioning copper shutters, all closed. If not for the plans on file with the county, we'd have no idea what the interior was like.

We circled back around and followed GPS instructions to the bed-and-breakfast we had rented on the outskirts of town. It was a huge, three-story place landscaped with the ubiquitous live oaks and magnolias, acres of pecan trees, azaleas, and even flowering trees, which was odd for this time of year. Bruiser leaned close to the dark-tinted windows and said, "Japanese apricot and Higan cherry. Lovely."

Eli grunted and said, "This place is gonna be a bugger to secure."

"Yeah," I said to them both. That's me, full of chatter.

I left the men to unload and I knocked on the door. I was let in by the owner, a skinny, wrinkled woman with shocking red hair and no fashion sense. She was wearing gray velour elastic-waist pants pulled up over her tiny, rounded belly, a purple shirt, yellow house shoes, and an olive green scarf printed with red and blue flowers. A string of pearls that had to be at least fifty inches long was wound around her neck and rested across her belly.

"You must be Esmee," Bruiser said from behind me. He leaned past to take her hand and insinuated himself into the foyer. "I'm George Dumas."

"Ohhhh, Mr. Dumas," she twittered. "I am so honored to meet you. Anyone who knows the president is always welcome here."

"He was very complimentary about your home and domestic servants, and I understand that you took very good care of him and Nancy while they were here."

"Such a nice couple," she said, her voice high-pitched and girlish. "And even though they were Hollywood types, they seemed quite well bred."

A Hollywood president, married to Nancy? The Reagans? And Bruiser knew them? Sometimes I forgot that he was over a hundred years old. While he took care of the particulars, I reconnoitered the house. The downstairs was something like out of a movie set or the way really rich people lived, with antique wood furniture juxtaposed with more modern comforts, parquet floors in tri-colored woods, silk rugs, copper-coffered twelve-foot ceilings, and a maid and chef, which meant we wouldn't leave a mess or have to cook. There was a living room, dining room, kitchen, butler's pantry, wine closet, coffee bar, wet bar, billiards room, music room, TV room, servant's toilet, powder room for guests, a coat closet bigger than a small garage, and a mudroom with a full bath off the back entrance. I stuck my head out and saw a six-car garage to the left and a pool in the center of the enclosed garden. The wall around the backyard was over eight feet tall. No one would be getting in unless they could jump like I could or pole-vault in. The upstairs had eight bedrooms and five baths, and slept sixteen easily, more in a pinch - plenty of room for the rest of the men when the gear truck got here. The third story, up under the eaves, was where the servants slept and I backed out quickly when I realized I was in private quarters.

The place was amazing. I did not fit in here. Not at all. But I wasn't complaining.

I picked the smallest room and crawled into the bed. It was like lying down on air, and I punched the mattress. It swallowed my fist and then slowly returned to a flat plane. It was that memory foam stuff. I kicked off my boots, tossed my bra to the side and my weapons on the bed, curling up next to them. I had a feeling that I would get no sleep while I was here, so I was going to catnap when I got the chance. I was asleep in minutes.

I woke to the sound of gunfire, my hands grabbing for weapons.

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