Minion (Vampire Huntress Legend #1)

Chapter 14

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"Was I the only one left out of the loop on this Nuit character?" Damali suddenly asked, not needing her team to answer her. She already saw what she needed to know in their eyes.

Damali's skull felt like it was splitting. Her focus went to Marlene, who had to be the one to give the hush order. "Why didn't you just be straight up and tell me who owned Blood, especially if you had a run-in with this Fallen Nuit years ago? Why'd you give me some bull about some millionaire in Beverly Hills?"

The group looked at Damali and then Marlene.

"I needed to be sure myself, first. Blood Music is listed under some high roller in Beverly Hills, who's probably just a vamp helper. Fits the profile. But, when their artists started dropping, I started researching and digging. I found out that Blood was under a dummy holding company in New Orleans. Once I dug through the layers of publicly traded holding companies, and waded through the boards of directors, and dredged deep enough, the same company kept popping up," Marlene said quietly.

"That still does not explain why you didn't tell us once you found out."

Again the two women's eyes met.

"Simple. I didn't want you to go to New Orleans."

"Why, because you don't think I'm ready to clean out a lair?"

"Partly."

"Then what's the other part, Marlene? What's the damned address in New Orleans?!"

Marlene's eyebrow arched in a challenge, but she kept her voice even. "When you're strong enough to get through my psychic block, then you'll know, because then you'll be ready. If you can't read it on your own, then, baby girl, your stubborn behind ain't ready to deal with what's in New Orleans. Perhaps none of us are."

Tension thickened the silence that surrounded the group. Finally, Jose tried to stand, but couldn't. It made everyone start, as though they wanted to catch him before he fell, but they allowed him his dignity by keeping their reactions in check.

"You know, Blood Music has this whole Stars D'Nuit PR thing going – -the stars of the night. Their whole goth motif -  even the recent murders around their bands – have been drawing kids in like flies to the mystery and danger of it all. Marlene, I know you had your untold reasons for holding back the info from the Neteru, but we should have known that part about a master vampire's presence. You and Shabazz should have told the rest of us sooner. It might have saved Dee Dee."

Jose's angry whisper made Marlene and Shabazz look away. No one wanted to think about Dee Dee and the pain of that loss, but it was impossible not to. Damali went to him and touched his arm, and then her unanswered touch fell away. She understood where Jose was now. The vampires had driven their own kind of stake right through Jose's heart and had impaled him with a level of anguish that maybe a lifetime wouldn't erase. The only thing she could think of to help him cope with his grief was to not allow Dee Dee's death to have been a sacrifice made in vain. She would take up her argument with Marlene later, and get answers then.

"So, his artists are possibly vampire helpers covering for vamps? Or just unaware pawns, right? Maybe a few of them were even turned, who knows? At least three incidents got reported about Blood Music concert victims not being in the morgue the next day, so we can assume they're undead." Damali walked and talked, rounding the table and staring at the map.

When her group only nodded, Damali kept brainstorming out loud. "Okay, so we have a master vampire in our midst. But then, that only explains the teenagers murdered after the shows -  which has become this dare to attend the concerts, the stupid rites of passage that is PR hype. Most of those kids died and didn't turn, and weren't left in a state to turn – like our people and Carlos's people were. And it still doesn't explain this international thing, which wouldn't be possible if only vamps were running it – because of territorial lines … unless something major was going on in the vamp world that would make them galvanize across borders."

"Yes. Something like that." Marlene stared at her, then glanced at the guardians.

"There's a significant piece missing," Damali said in a low voice. "They could have fed from the edges of Carlos's team, or ours – but they went for his inner core. Doesn't make sense."

"Brotherman, Carlos, rose in the ranks awful fast, D," Big Mike replied. "How many dealers you know get to his level by twenty-three without being shot, or locked up? Feeding from his edges might have been the original plan, but he also could have reneged on a part of the deal… like the mob, vamps have ways of making their helpers pay with severe interest – if something goes wrong."

"Fine, Mike, but then there would be bodies that "wouldn't be in jeopardy of turning."

Rider nodded. "Point well taken."

"That's why we don't want you over there, especially not alone," Marlene said, her voice firm. "We just don't know completely what's up – and not having the full story is a dangerous position for any of us to be in. I'm opposed to the idea of even doing the gig at his club, and the only reason I agreed to go along with it, is because we'd all be there as a fighting unit."

"I say we go to New Orleans, then, and get this done." Damali stood and stared at the telephone console. She sensed that Marlene was about to say something more, but Marlene had cast a glance that quieted the group.

"The choice is hers, Mar. Back off," Shabazz warned.

"She's not ready," Marlene said quietly. "Neither is the team.

We need to curb our language – the cursing has to cease. I've said it a million times, if ever. All thoughts have to be pure. Our bodies need to be cleansed out and inviolate. We're in the last phases – and words, thoughts, and actions all have power. She's a lightning rod, now."

"You have one choice, Marlene. Give me the address, or I'll get on the Internet, or go to New Orleans alone and find it. Either way, whatever you're supposedly protecting me from is gonna come out in the wash. So, if you want to help, try finding out if we're dealing with vamps or demons or both! Research that." Damali stared at Marlene hard and then glanced at the telephone again.

When the phone rang, everyone looked at Damali. She crossed the room, and calmed herself enough to sound nonchalant before she answered it. "Hey, Dan. What's up?"

MpT"hey, damali," Dan said in a cheerful tone. "Check it •i out. I know you guys don't need my services anymore, but I was wondering if you could hook me up with a reference – if you think my work was all right… I mean, Marlene said it was only a financial thing, but – "

"No, no, Dan. It was a financial thing," she lied, glancing at the team. "Sure. We can give you a reference. Let me put you on speaker – I'm working and need my hands. Talk to me, dude. What's up?" She placed the phone on speaker and gave the team a look to remain silent.

"Great. But, uh, look, no offense, and I know they're your biggest competitor and all, that's really why I'm calling, but, uh, Blood wants me to do a little work for them, and I was wondering if that was cool – especially if I promise not to – "

"Dan. Blood Music asked you to work for them?" Damali forced her voice to remain calm, even though pure alarm was cascading through her system. The members of her team froze. She could feel the stillness that came over them, could feel their worried gazes pressing down on her. She ignored them. She had to, in order to coax Dan into divulging more.

"It was the weirdest stroke of luck. I floated out my resume and work samples, and started making calls, and then this guy from Blood called me right back and said they needed me. So, I was like, yeah, sure, but let me talk to the folks I used to work for first – because we all left on cool terms. He was like, 'Cool. Make it happen.' So, really, D, I'm just trying to earn a living, not hurt you."

"Daniel, listen to me," Damali said, quietly but firmly. "Do not go over there, and not just because of us. Those guys are …" Her gaze searched the group for the right word. "Barracudas."

Dan laughed, his upbeat voice pouring through the speaker of the phone. "Aw, D, I know you've always got my back, but the whole industry is infested with sharks. I can handle myself. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."

As he continued to laugh, Damali shut her eyes. Her mouth spoke before her eyes or brain had a chance to get a sanctioning nod from the group. "Dan, if it's the money, we'll figure out a way to pay you – just don't go over there by yourself, especially at night."

A quiet gasp came from Marlene, who paced away from the table. Big Mike shook his head no and folded his arms over his huge chest. J.L. pulled back from his computers and sighed. Jose's shoulders slumped as Rider slapped his own forehead and Sha-bazz slowly shook his head no. She knew the team was sending a silent warning to keep Dan clueless, and to also keep him as far away from their operation as possible. But the poor guy was about to walk into a possible vampire pit, and she wasn't about to let an innocent go out like that.

"See, I knew you were cool people from the moment I met you, D. That's why it was so hard to leave the team. All those guys at Light are cool. But don't worry; I'll be fine. In fact, I •was kicking this idea around with the guy who wants to hire me. It could represent a real opportunity for you guys, too."

The team became very still and all eyes were on Damali.

"Talk to me, Dan," she murmured, putting her finger to her lips to remind them not to interrupt.

"Like, this feud is silly. I mean, it loses money for both sides. They haven't been able to find a female lead to challenge you, D, and for whatever reasons, they've snubbed one of the biggest, hottest club networks in entertainment out here in L.A. – Club Vengeance – but I told them you had an inside track there, and already had a gig lined up in a coupla weeks."

"What did you propose to them, Dan?" Damali could feel her blood pulsing so quickly that her ears were beginning to ring.

"Check it. They have this worldwide concert, right?"

"Yeah." She looked at the team hard as they became restless, the nervous anxiety almost making the air around them crackle.

"Well, what if you moved up your gig date, and one of the big Blood concert sites was broadcast from Club Vengeance – as one of the highlights? That would put you on the international map, heal the feud, give both sides crazy audience share, you'd hit places around the world, the club would be fat paid, Blood would have their needed female star … all artists' differences and BS aside, we could all go home fat, dumb, and happy. Then, later, if you guys want to go at it again, you could. Whaduya say?"

"Whose idea was it, Dan – yours, or this guy's?"

Dan laughed again. "Okay, okay, so Blood proposed it to me, and said my ability to get you to consider it had a lot to do with my condition of employment. You outted me. But I was just trying to – "

"The idea has merit," Damali said, holding up her hand as Shabazz almost lunged for the phone. "Tell them that we are seriously interested … but do me a favor."

"Wow, Damali, that is so cool of you. Just name it," Dan said fast, his excitement blaring through the speaker.

"I want you to put on your Star of David that you were bar mitzvahed with, go to the synagogue, and I want you to stay away from there at night – they've had a few police-related incidents."

"That's it? No problemo! But … uh … why the – "

"You know how spiritual our crew is over here, and I'm sure by now you know our way of making deals … some things, are uh – "

"You don't have to explain, Damali. I know you guys anoint everything and anything. Guess you wanna be sure I won't end up a turncoat. Hell, for this deal, Marlene and Big Mike can splash me with holy water any day."

"We might need to when he comes back," Mike whispered, ignoring Damali's stern glance.

"What was that?" Dan asked, still chuckling, and sounding overjoyed that he had the group's support.

"Nothing," Damali sighed. "Bye, Dan. You're good people. Stay that way. I'll get back in a day or two after I run this by the team."

She hung up the telephone and the group erupted at once.

"What, are you crazy?" Rider hollered, toppling his stool as he leapt from it.

"Too much of a risk!" Shabazz boomed, walking in a circle around her.

"I won't allow it," Marlene said.

"She's lost her mind," Jose said. "Gone completely loco."

"Go into the belly of the beast – are you insane?" J.L. pushed back in his chair and unfolded then refolded his arms over his chest.

"Are you all finished?" Damali sat down on a high stool and looked at the map.

A collective, angry "No!" returned to her.

"It gets us inside during the concert," she said in a controlled voice. "It allows us to possibly get close to figuring out what's going on."

"No," Marlene cut in. Her expression was so tense that Mar-lene's complexion had practically gone ashen. "Do you know the date of the concert?"

"It doesn't matter, Mar, we were already going to do a gig at Carlos's – "

"It does matter!" Marlene was breathing hard as she rushed to Damali and grabbed her arm. "The damned concert is on your birthday!"

"What does that – "

"If not now, when, Mar?" Shabazz stopped Damali's rebuttal with a deadly glare aimed at Marlene.

Marlene dropped her hold on Damali's arm and walked away. "Not now."

"Why not?!" Shabazz was on Marlene in a flash, and the two squared off. Everyone seemed to hold their breaths.

"Because the choice is hers! You know that is the law. The Neteru must choose, and must fight that first battle alone, so it resides within her to know how to have the ultimate gift of discernment. If she doesn't learn the lesson well, she'll be at risk for second-guessing her own judgment for the rest of her life! She makes that choice. Not me, not you. Got it? And I'm in charge of such highly volatile lessons – it's a woman thing, and you just wouldn't understand, brother."

Shabazz dropped Marlene's arm, and he grudgingly walked away from her and went back to looking at the map.

"If the choice to find the lair is mine, then I can't think of a better birthday present – to end all of this," Damali said in a sarcastic tone designed to bait Marlene.

Shabazz cast a glare at Marlene that was so intense, Marlene looked away.

"She's a baby, and doesn't even know what she's dealing with." Shabazz began looking at weapons choices, and shoved a pile of stakes off of the table. "We need more than this. J.L., Jose, this shit is pitiful. Make her something she can go down swinging with – with some pride as a Warrior of Light. Fuck this!"

Marlene nodded but didn't speak. Damali peered at Shabazz, awed at the way Marlene hadn't flinched when he, of all people, lost his cool and used the big "F" word that Mar hated so much. Okaaaay.

"Look, you guys, I'm grown – and while I may be just coming into my own as a Neteru, so to speak, I want this done with, finished once and for all, for everybody's sake. I want to help Carlos. Don't ask me why, but he doesn't deserve to get eaten … and I don't know where he is right now. I want to keep Dan safe, but he – "

" – Might already be compromised as a new recruit for the vamps." Rider spat on the floor and shook his head.

Big Mike shook his head. "Rider, I know you gotta clear your sinuses, as a nose, but can you give the compound floor a rest?"

"No, Rider," Damali said with conviction, ignoring Big Mike's comment. "I don't think Dan's compromised, not yet. I didn't sense that from him. We can't keep anybody truly safe, though, unless we get to the root of it. And that's my point. I say the sooner we get to New Orleans, the better. If we clean out the lair, then the concert won't be a problem. If we miss in New Orleans and get back home safely, then the concert gives us another run at them. Plus, agreeing to do the concert could make them think we have no clue about a possible lair in New Orleans. Is everybody following me?"

When a series of disgruntled replies followed her questioning, Damali folded her arms. "The sooner we start flushing the nest, the better. If the choice is mine, then let's do this."

When still no one answered, she let her breath out hard. "I'm going to get dressed, and while it's still daylight, I'm going to try to head off Carlos. I promise to take Madame Isis with me, and I'll be back way before dusk – if I can't find him, I'll have to just live with that."

Again, none of the team challenged her when she left the room, and she made it down the hall with a thousand thoughts on her mind. If it was going to be bad, so be it. Bring it.

The mountains north of Beverly Hills were always his favorite place to think. It was where wealth and its owners secluded themselves and did their unseen little deeds. The temperature even dropped here, and darkness was a cloak. Trees stood like giant pillars. Crickets and other things of the night made their own music.

He'd gone everywhere, and threatened every council, and had probably brought a war upon himself. But his weapons remained unfired. Carlos looked into the blackness as he sat alone in the northern hills listening to the night. A double-barrel shotgun leaned on the floor and on the gear shaft beside him, and an AK-47 nestled in the passenger seat like his favorite sweetheart after a night out on the town. He held his custom-made, silver-plated magnum in one hand and the steering wheel ot his black Lexus sedan with the other. He would drop a body tonight or be damned.

The Asians had been traditionally gracious, as expected, and even offered to professionally assist him – of course his hundred-thousand-dollar bounty helped raise their pledge to help in his search. They understood the situation was a matter of honor; that was their way. Their territories didn't encroach – they moved heroin and women, he moved everything else. What had happened was bad for everyone's business. It was a cool truce; all wanted it kept that way – better for business. Small bills, one briefcase. Easy money for info to turn over a few bodies – the law of the jungle, done for lesser offenses, albeit smaller payouts. Let the bounty and the punishment fit the crime.

He'd told them all that, with each day that passed now that the offer was made, the bounty figure would decrease by ten grand. Expediency was, therefore, in everyone's best interest. The Russians had shrugged, and he'd almost taken one of them out. Their blase demeanor had been disrespectful – then he'd reconsidered it, since that was their style … besides, a lower henchman was not worth jail time. He needed to be on the outside to exact his revenge. The Italians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, and the brothers, all had the same response – for a hundred Gs, they'd do the Pope. So, he waited – without a weapon fired. This would take time.

He thought of sending a message the old-fashioned way. Just flat blast a few establishments his competitors owned. Take out several lower levels and wait like bait for the fight to come to him. But he needed to get to the dons to tell them what was interrupting business at the lower levels, rather than have his message diluted by a level below them. That had been the message. He wanted a meeting. This situation warranted a breach in protocol. He had a right to come before them to state his case. Someone had done his brother and his inner circle. Someone would pay.

Carlos breathed out slowly and watched his breath turn to steam in the frigid night air within the car. Patience was not his virtue. It never had been. But shrewdness had argued with him as he sat calming himself in the quiet. Money – the root of all evil – always turned evidence and he knew how to grow a tree from it.

"Yes, Alejandro … I pledge to avenge your death." He closed his eyes and let the sound of his own voice echo back to him. They didn't just take his brother's life. They'd mutilated him.

Carlos thought over the options. A shootout would not only send the slime scattering and into hiding, it would also create new vendettas against him, clouding the issue, making the perpetrators harder to find. Word was already on the street that he was looking for those who'd committed the unpardonable sin of killing his family – and he'd bankrolled the hunt, very publicly, within the circles of those who needed to know. He just wanted to see the look in the man's eyes who had done this, and had ordered it. His bounty would have to draw out the offenders to his brother's honor. Then he would hunt them down, and give them a slow death.

He sat with the plan, frustrated, shivering from the cold and hatred, but blanketing himself with the satisfaction of the horrific tortures he'd visit upon the ones that would be finally given up. He'd unearth them, and make them know that there were things worse than death. His cell phone rang and he let his lips curl into a cold half smile. The digital display showed the code he had given to the hunters in order to collect their bounty.

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