Dumber Than Dirt

After Bruiser hung up the phone with Sabina, the tension in the limo was as sharp as lightning, all of us staring at Bruiser. I said, "Let me get this straight. I just got accused of the murder of Ramondo Pitri, and according to vamp law, I have to go to trial. Like now."

Bruiser nodded, his lips pressed tight. "Not tonight. But soon. Within two days."

"But that murder accusation could prove to be a political error on the part of de Allyon, who was angry, probably ticked off by the attack on his Natchez property. But for whatever reason, he blamed me and is using the death of Pitri to get back at me."

The men reacted to the "for whatever reason" part of the statement with various amounts of amusement. I ignored them and went on. "By accusing me of murder, de Allyon opened the door to forcing his blood-feud back under the Vampira Carta. Right so far?"

When Bruiser nodded, I said, "And so, based on that accusation, you got Sabina to call a parley, under the flag of truce, with de Allyon, ostensibly to iron out details about my trial. But at the parley, Sabina intends to force him back under the rule of the Vampira Carta, all by her lonesome. Oh. And I can't refuse the trial. Is that about right?"

Bruiser chuckled, the sound unamused and harsh. "Yes. Not that anyone expects the trial to go against you. But during the parley, which should last two hours, Leo will be getting a feel for de Allyon's forces, while Leo's scions will rescue Katie."

I sat back in my seat at that one. "Ah," I said, finally understanding. Everything about the parley was a feint except that last part - finding Katie. The limo had been idling in front of my house for five minutes while Bruiser detailed the facts of our current situation, and my place in it all, to our small crew.

"If I go to trial and get convicted, the penalty is death."

"No," he said gently "The penalty for this particular charge is to be turned by the accuser, and to serve under him for all eternity."

I thought about that for a moment. About being de Allyon's plaything forever. About the risk of Leo using a parley to rescue his heir. About the fact that Sabina would not be informed of the subterfuge. It was audacious. It was sneaky and devious. I liked it. Well, I liked everything except the part about me having to go to a trial. Crap.

I looked out the tinted windows at my house. I'd called it my freebie house for ages, refusing to claim it. But lately I'd been calling it what it was. My house. My place. I was part of the world of vamps whether I liked it or not, and that meant being part of vamp politics. I hate politics.

Jane wants to be first with all her mates, Beast thought at me, smug. And Jane needs good den.

"And . . ." Bruiser took a slow breath and I tensed. "If you'll bond with Leo properly, and not do whatever you did to loosen the bond when he tried last time, he will be able to use you in the parley," he finished.

And theeeeere it was. I knew my face changed, because Eli said to him, "Man, you are dumber than dirt. To have lived as long as you have, you really have no clue about women."

I could smell Bruiser's sense of insult, tart and bristly on the air. I didn't look away from the house. "You need to get Leo and the other vampires to a safe haven for daybreak," I said, barely moving my lips, "someplace not on any record, and with lots of protection around. Protection armed with high-caliber weapons. Bazookas if you have them. I think Gregoire has a lair in the Garden District. I also think there may be a lair beneath the Nunnery in the Warehouse District."

"I know my duty," Bruiser answered, confusion in his tone. "Leo and all his remaining personal possessions have been moved to a safe location."

"Well, goody for you," I said, and my tone was adult and understanding and gracious. Not. I opened the door and left the limo, stomped to my house, and let myself in. I slammed the door. "He really has no clue. He is dumber than dirt," I said to the empty house. I went to my room and closed the door. Turned the small lock, though I knew it was no impediment to Eli.

Once I shifted, my flesh wasn't dirty or bloody anymore, but my clothes were still grotty. I stripped in the dark, tossed my ruined clothes into one pile and the ones that were just bloody into another, showered, and dressed quickly in the dark, pulling on jeans, boots, and a long-sleeved knit T-shirt under my armored, vamp-fighting leather coat. I didn't expect to be fighting anyone, but the last few days had been hard on my wardrobe. I didn't have a lot of fashion choices left.

I could hear the guys moving around in the house, one upstairs showering, one in the kitchen. I left without seeing either, kicked Bitsa on, and took off. I had no desire to check out the security at Gregoire's place - the Arceneau Clan Home - but it was part of the job whether I liked it or not. I'd left the Pellissier Clan Home in the hands of Leo's true Enforcer and primo blood-servant, and that just got the place burned down. It wasn't going to happen again.

I got to the clan home in the Garden District near two a.m. and pulled through the six-foot-tall, black-painted, wrought-iron gate, the twisted bars in a fleur-de-lis and pike-head pattern at the top. As I braked at the back bumper of the black limo, one of Gregoire's identical twin blood-servants stepped to the porch holding what looked in the night like a small Uzi. I killed the engine, unhelmeted, and unwound my legs from the bike.

"Little Janie. I assumed you would be by here sometime tonight."

"Security check. Will Leo and Gregoire be close by day? Close enough to be protected by you guys?" I asked as I walked up to the porch.

"Close enough," the B-twin agreed. "And the lair is hard-wired in to the security here at the clan home." The three-story house was larger and deeper than it looked from the street, forty-six feet across the front and nearly twice that deep, taking up most of the small lot. It entered into a foyer with dining room and parlor on opposite sides and a wide staircase to the right leading up to the second floor, the stairs carpeted with a blue, gray, and black Oriental rug.

Nothing decorwise had changed since my last visit except the clutter in the dining room. Stacked on the floor and on the hand-carved cherrywood dining table and chairs was a bunch of junk. By the sour stench of smoke, it was Leo's junk, which meant expensive art and collectibles. Over the scent, I smelled tea and coffee and something sweet, like freshly baked pie or cake. My mouth watered.

The twin, who had no mole at his hairline, thus identifying him as Brian, closed the door and murmured into his mic, "Janie inside. Resume patrols."

"How many do you have patrolling?" I asked.

"Two shooters in the attic at front and back, five on the grounds. Brandon is at the back entrance, and I have the front."

I let a small smile form on my lips. "You know what I like about you and your ugly brother?" He cocked his head in question. "You don't get your panties in a wad when I ask questions."

"Boxers, not panties," he said, showing his teeth in what could only be called a rakish grin.

"Whatever," I said, laughing. I pointed to the dining room. "I didn't think anything had survived the fire."

"The servants got everything out of the library, all the paintings off the walls, and most of Leo's more valuable collectibles out before the fire spread. Gregoire had them transported here until we can arrange for storage elsewhere. Until Leo can rebuild. Sabina wanted you to have this. The Master of the City agreed."

Brian was holding a leather-bound book and a pair of white cotton gloves. I looked the question at him and he said, "Gloves. To protect the book."

I slid them on and took the small, very heavy book. I didn't know much about old books, but I had a feeling that this one was very old. The leather felt slightly slimy even through my gloves, the paper inside was thick, like paper handmade out of old cloth, and there were pictures in the margins. The print was weird too, with lots of curlicues. Then I realized it was hand-scribed, not printed, each letter and each painting inked by hand. This was a really old book. Maybe from the Middle Ages. I saw a few words that might have been Spanish or maybe Latin. What did I know? I couldn't read a word. "What is it?" I asked Brian.

He reached around me and opened it. On the right-hand page was a stylized drawing of a vampire. There was no title on the cover or the spine, but I did find one on the third page. "La Historia De Los Mithrans en Las Americas," I said. I might not read Spanish, but I got this one. "Oh, crap," I whispered.

Brian chuckled. "Yeah. Those Mithrans love to see themselves in print and paintings," he said, sounding very upper-class New Orleans in that moment. "It's for interesting reading. Sabina, the priestess, thinks you will find page 134 of particular interest."

I turned to page 134 and found a drawing that slowly stole the breath from my lungs. It was a drawing of a Spanish conquistador, his plate armor shining, one boot resting on the fallen form of an Indian. The man beneath his boot was naked, his hair unbound and tangled on the ground. He was dead, his blood leaking into the dirt from a large throat wound. And his hands were furred and clawed. Silently I mouthed the word "Skinwalker."

There were other naked Indians on the ground at the feet of the Spaniard; two had yellow eyes like mine, one was a woman. She was alive, fear etched on her face in stark black ink lines. "Can you read this?" I asked, tapping the text on the page.

"I am possessed of a classical education," Brian said with a pretentious sniff, "but that book isn't Latin, Greek, French, Italian, or modern Castilian Spanish. It's some archaic form of Spanish. I can make out the name of this vampire, however."

He reached around me, his body heat enveloping me like a warm blanket, and turned one page back. I had sparred with the B-twins once and their body heat had made the windows of the room sweat. I was cold now and wanted to lean into him. But I didn't. I couldn't. Gregoire's blood-servant pointed at the subtitle on the top of the page. "'Lucas Vazquez de Allyon. El Rival de la Muerte.' Death's Rival."

I took a slow breath, the air painful against my tight throat tissues. Lucas had known skinwalkers. Had killed skinwalkers. De Allyon was not just Leo's enemy. He was mine as well.

"I have to get back to the door," he said. "You'll need to talk to Leo about the text. He can read it." Brian walked away.

I remembered seeing books in the Pellissier Clan Home before it burned, secured in small, locked cases in his library and in his music room. How could I ask Leo about the text without having him see the yellow eyes of the prostrated Indians and draw a conclusion I wanted him to avoid? He had already seen me in a partial shift. He knew I was some kind of supernatural cat, though not a were. I didn't smell like a were. Unless I left the vamps, and the hefty paychecks they offered, the time was coming when my secret would be made public, whether I wanted that to happen or not. But I wanted it to be a time of my choosing, not something that I let happen with no direction, no control.

I studied the small painting beneath de Allyon's name. It was a pen-and-ink miniature of a vampire in his fully human guise, his eyes and hair dark brown, his nose large and Roman, jaw firm, forehead wide, with a beard and mustache in the style that used to be called a Vandyke. He wasn't pretty, not even handsome, but he looked powerful, forceful, domineering, a man who never took no for an answer. The artist had managed to catch the brutal curl of his lips, and his disdain for anything and anyone who wasn't him.

The heavy paper moving stiffly, I turned the page back to the picture of the conquistador and his dead prey, staring at the yellow-eyed woman, terrified at de Allyon's feet. I realized that he wanted all of his enemies beneath his feet, and probably all his women. Captive and fearful.

On the next page was another miniature, but now de Allyon was wearing cloth pants and an animal skin over his shoulders. It was a mountain lion pelt, the puma's head propped on one shoulder, showing killing teeth. The chill I was feeling spread and my fingertips tingled. Lying dead at his feet were more mountain lions. One had a human head. Another had human hands and feet. One was a black panther, the melanistic Puma concolor, a mythical beast as far as science was concerned. All were bound and bleeding from many wounds, but the largest wounds were at their throats where fangs had torn them out. De Allyon had killed my kind and drunk their blood.

Sabina had said, "Your enemy will know you by your smell." She knew.

The protectors of the Cherokee had been captured and slaughtered to feed the blood appetite of a Naturaleza vampire. I felt tears prick at the back of my eyes and I breathed deeply to control my reaction, but my hands grew icy and my breath came short and fast.

The vamp was sitting in a gilded chair, vamped out, fangs down, his eyes black and scarlet, and he was holding a golden bowl, filled with blood. Blood streamed from his mouth and down his naked chest. De Allyon looked odd. It took a moment to figure out why he looked so different from any other vamp I'd seen. He was . . . not fat, but not cadaverously skinny. Most vamps looked . . . starved. Yeah. That was the difference.

Things started to click into place in my mind as I stared at the bloody, violent creature on the page. With the blood flowing down his chin and chest, it was clear the artist had been trying to show us that de Allyon had been drinking blood. A lot of blood. When vamps drank a lot of blood, they were well fed and powerful. Only the Naturaleza drank as much as they wanted.

I had fought a Naturaleza once, but the fight had been too fast, too violent for me to pay attention to his body. That and the fact that he'd nearly killed me. I closed my eyes and thought back to the kaleidoscopic images from the day. Thomas had drained and killed several humans. When I killed him, he had been mostly naked, but I hadn't seen any ribs, stark through his flesh. No jutting collarbones. No chiseled jaw or sharp cheekbones. Yeah. Vamps got flesh on their bones when they drank a lot of blood. This vampire drank whatever and whoever he wanted. This vampire was why there were so few of my kind left in the world. He had killed them. Killed them and drunk down their blood.

Before, the fight against de Allyon had been a job. Now it was something far more. This thing that threatened me and my charges needed to be killed. And that was what skinwalkers did. We fought for our people.

Skinwalkers took vengeance on our enemies. I didn't think that when God said vengeance was his, he meant for skinwalkers to act in his behalf. But I was. I was going to be the hand of God that took down Death's Rival.

I turned another page and saw the last drawing, this one too tiny to see details. I looked around the room but didn't see what I was looking for. I had been in Arceneau's Clan Home and there was a library in the back, on the other side of the stairs. I hadn't been invited to roam, but I carried the book with me, back to where I had once smelled books and the mold that clings to them. I opened the door to find the library empty and looked around. Books lined the walls from floor to the twelve-foot-high ceiling; comfortable reading chairs with low tables and ottomans were scattered around. A gas fire crackled merrily in a small hearth. There was a large magnifying glass on a bronze-hinged arm clamped to an antique desk, and I crossed the hardwood floor to it, holding the book's page beneath. It was a drawing of a priest holding a sword in one hand, a cross in the other. He was running, his dark robe flying out behind him. The cross was blazing like a torch. In the distance a black horse raced, a man perched on its back. De Allyon outracing the Inquisition, maybe? It would explain why the man had disappeared so often. I wandered back through the house, the book in both gloved hands, one finger holding my place.

I was back in the dining room, surrounded by Leo's priceless things and the stench of smoke, when I realized the most important thing of all. Lucas Vazquez de Allyon would know what I was the moment he saw me. The moment he smelled me.

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