Minion (Vampire Huntress Legend #1)

Chapter 2

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Cool. Damali relaxed a bit.

Oh, yeah. Everybody was on edge and needed to chill. She now wondered what Marlene, their seer-guardian, had sensed. When Marlene had visions, she got real cool – scary calm. Damali tossed her knowledge of Marlene's capabilities around inside her head and watched her mentor's body language. Only having a portion of one's skills to rely on was a bitch.

Maybe she should have just told Mar that she was going blind again tonight. But she hated the concept. What, and have the guys go back to treating her like a young buck? A newbie? Hell, no. This was her crew, and whatever was going wrong with her was temporary. All she had to do was look at Marlene hard to know it was gonna be on when they left, no doubt. Didn't need second sight to pick that up.

Jose glanced from crew member to crew member, his nerves also seeming raw. The fact that no one else had said a word had to be jacking with him. Their percussion man's dark eyes shifted nervously between Damali and Marlene Stone. "Yeah, you brought it to 'em, D," he confirmed after a hesitant glance up from his task of packing away equipment.

Small talk, a sure sign of nerves. She hated small talk. "Thanks, Wizard."

"You owned New Energy tonight. The club will never be the same – Warriors of Light Productions and you, lady, should get some good ink from this one in the press tomorrow."

Tomorrow? Assuming they made it through the night. Damali glanced at Jose and then toward Marlene. That crazy Mexican Indian always started babbling when he was hyped. She loved him just the same, but if their ace tracker was trippin' -  then damn. Marlene blanched. Obviously Marlene got that message, too.

"Sho 'nuff, we brought it, Wizard," Damali said in a short pant, giving Jose a fist pound, trying to make him feel better as she did so. It was obvious that her mental wall against Marlene wasn't even working. But she also couldn't seem to completely catch her breath. Forget that, Wizard always talked a lot and his voice got louder when nervous. Tonight was no different. It made her head hurt.

She glanced at Marlene again. The colors of her manager's royal purple Afrocentric robe and glittering gold-patterned embroidery that matched her lame pants were now too bright, and Damali briefly shut her eyes to that regal countenance. Jose's sleeveless black T-shirt and jet-black jeans stabbed into the center of the color array that danced beneath her lids. Silver from his large cross turned into a pinpoint of light just as she'd glanced away, and now she could feel herself taking in breaths in short sips.

"Get her some water," Marlene ordered, dispatching Jose from his semi-stooped position over a light kit bag.

Damali accepted a new bottle of spring water from him; she broke the seal of it with her eyes still closed and took a deep, cleansing swig. A metallic taste covered her tongue. The taste of nearby death made her appraise her crew with a wary eye. They couldn't afford to lose another soul in their group. By now she could definitely tell that they'd sensed the danger, too.

Everyone was too quiet, too laid-back, too methodical in the way they'd quickly dispensed with courtesies with the club management, fended off groupies, and then immediately began to break down the equipment to pack up to leave the club without a word. There wasn't the normal backstage revelry; there wasn't any discussion about getting something to eat, or general conversation even. Just a strange nothingness stood between them as they worked like robots at their tasks.

"I'ma go help Rider get the rest of the gear," Jose finally said in a low tone, leaving Damali's side. "Won't be too long."

"You cool?" Marlene asked again, giving her artist a level glance as she gathered up Damali's cast-off costume pieces and thrust them into her mud-cloth satchel. Marlene then looked at Shabazz, who didn't utter a word.

Damali only nodded in Marlene's direction. She noted that J.L., their lighting/keyboard man, also hadn't said two words since they'd entered the room. What was that about?

"Damali's always cool," Shabazz murmured.

Damali stared at him for a moment. Okay, Shabazz was always chill as the group's Aikido instructor/choreographer/bassist. Brother smooth, the director of ice. Martial arts warrior of few words, unless it was much rhetorical philosophy. However, Shabazz had murmured without looking up from helping Joe Leung disassemble and pack sections of the lighting grips and the digital keyboards that masked the vital computer tracking systems they needed. J.L. hadn't looked at Shabazz either, and those two were always in sync and made eye contact. No. Something deep was up.

She studied her crew hard. Marlene, their manager and the guardian seer on violin, normally bristled at the slightest trace of movement and saw everything coming with eagle eyes. What was wrong with Mar tonight? Plus, Marlene wasn't givin' up the tapes. She just kept trying to act like everything was cool, but it wasn't. Shabazz and J.L., also pair sensors – they could actually feel things coming, and could detect a location by simply touching something evil left behind – were tense, on guard, but weren't talking.

Jose and crazy Jake Rider, their guitarist and sharpshooter, shared the capacity to pull the taste and the scent of danger out of the air. They were the noses – and they hadn't been right all night. Then there was Big Mike, their soundman/music director, who could hear what nobody else could, and could also blow the mothers up, literally. An unmatched explosives expert from the era of 'Nam, tonight he was jumpy. That wasn't Big Mike's style. Brother was always laid-back, and the voice of reason in the group.

Together they possessed all five senses, plus the sixth of clairvoyance through Marlene, and yet she was supposed to be the omni-voyant one – possessing all six natural wonders as a vampire huntress, so they'd said. Yeah, right. She hadn't seen any of that grandeur materialize lately. For a while, she was all that. But as of a couple of weeks ago, she felt her gifts, as Marlene referred to them, sliding away from her fast. First her sight, and then some of her physical endurance. Her nose wasn't worth shit as a tracker these days. Taste and sound were off-kilter, too. Then, without warning, each attribute would come back stronger than it had been before. Like power fluctuations during a brownout. Go figure.

All she knew right now was that she was good at kicking ass when she had to – the streets had taught her that, although she'd give props to Shabazz for the Aikido refinement. But if the crew was buggin' this hard, then it was large, whatever it was. That was real.

"Where's Dan?" Damali finally asked. "I don't think it's a good idea to leave him behind this time. He's not a guardian, and if there's trouble out there tonight, he'll be at extreme risk."

"Weinstein is settling with the club owners, and going ahead of us to book a venue in New Orleans before we meet up with him in L.A. Probably the safest bet for his life is to stay away from all of this. The less he knows about this, the better," Mar-lene replied gently. "Daniel's a good man, but he's no guardian, and he definitely isn't a hunter. He has no skill, other than being a fantastic business manager. He should've stayed on the administrative side of things. I told him I had the other aspects of managing the band, but everybody wants to do the glitz and glamour thing."

"Yeah," Damali agreed. "Problem is, he came to an evening performance. Usually he just works the phones by day, ya know? It's getting too hot for him to be out with us, at any time, especially at night."

"I know," Marlene murmured, her gaze going toward the door. "He insisted this time. Wanted to personally experience the phenomenon of Damali so he could better promote her in contract negotiations, he said. I argued with him about it, and thought it was settled, and then he shows up tonight anyway, unannounced. Not good. Too dangerous."

"Every-damned-body wants to be in the mix," Shabazz said with a disgusted sigh. "The limelight. If they only knew."

"When we get back to L.A., I'm going to have to sever him for his own good. Let's just get our innocent home safely. We clean up whatever's out there tonight, and then page the limo to pick Dan up in the front, first, before the limo comes to pick up the team. I'll have to go back to doing the promoting as well as the books, I suppose. But in the meanwhile, I just have to think about what to tell Dan. I'll give him a nice exit package, though. It's at the point where we can't even expose a limo driver to this." Marlene chuckled sadly and addressed Shabazz. "Looks like you'll be driving our limo again, too, after tonight." "No problem." Shabazz shrugged. "It's better that way. Just like old times."

J.L. gave a slow nod of agreement in response to Shabazz. "Yeah, man, but what's taking Rider and Jose so long to break down the set? It's time to bounce. We need those mics – stat." "They ain't breakin' it all the way down," Mike reported in his deep Southern drawl.

"No, not tonight," Rider concurred as he reentered the small space followed by Jose.

Damali didn't comment. Mike Robert's dark face held a nondescript, poker-player blank expression that Damali was used to reading by now. Being an audio-sensor, she wondered if he'd heard anything in the charged atmosphere. That possibility was not lost on her. It was all in the way Big Mike kept stopping and tilting his head like a hunting dog straining to hear something, and then going back to his task. His vibe didn't improve her nerves. Nor did Rider's or Jose's actions help cool her out when they came in the room, breathed deeply, stopped for a beat, and then began moving quickly to convert some of the gear.

Again Damali's gaze scanned the room, returning to Marlene Stone's eyes. Her manager hadn't changed her expression; it contained the same barely concealed tension that it had ever since they'd arrived at the club. Marlene tightened the beaded strap that held back her waist-length, silver-gray locks, and then picked up her walking stick, casting a second one in Damali's direction.

Catching the carved ebony quickly, Damali felt a renewed wave of adrenaline course through her. She needed her long blade, Madame Isis, but this would have to do. Marlene had promised she could have it when she turned twenty-one, but she didn't see why Marlene had put up such a fuss about her taking it a few days early. Marlene was getting on her nerves.

Damali walked over to the drums and put three titanium anchors in her waistband, and a razor-sharp chime in both back pockets of her leather pants. "No time to change outta stage gear, huh?"

"You know the drill," Marlene said in a firm voice. "Shabazz, you're lead point. You're out front to feel the vibe as we move. I'm right behind you, next to Damali – to keep an eye on any sudden movement."

Again, she and Marlene shared a stare. This one felt like a standoff. What the hell was Marlene doing giving her and her crew the move-out logistics?

"I decide when we roll." Damali glanced around the room at her team and allowed her line of vision to settle on Marlene. "Everybody clear?"

Marlene only nodded and spoke in a tense, quiet voice. "If you're up to it, fine."

"Yeah. I'm up to it, so long as you're clear."

"Very."

"All right. Normal formation, then. Everybody ready?"

Shabazz opened his one-button, black leather suit jacket and smoothed his washboard abs beneath the turquoise silk shirt, flashing a ceramic Clock nine stashed in his waistband, and then toyed with the small gold star and crescent dangling about his neck. His jaw was set hard. "I'm always ready."

Marlene cut a vicious glance at Shabazz. They all knew what that look was for. They had all agreed – no incidents that could further raise suspicion with authorities. It was hard enough trying to get out of Dodge after an attack without getting hung up in a search, or have it come out in the media that one of them was carrying a concealed weapon.

Damali smiled. She knew that both Shabazz and Rider were carrying. Neither had ever been comfortable with the crossbows. Well, a man had to do what a man had to do. She could appreciate that. Next time she'd smuggle her sword along, too, just like Shabazz had claimed his nine.

"Ceramic," Shabazz explained. "Breaks down and rode stowaway in Big Mike's FX case along with what appears to be stage smoke bombs, et cetera. Felt I needed Sleeping Beauty this time. As long as everything stays beautiful, she'll stay sleeping. Anyway, they can't detect the ceramic pieces in the airport X-ray equipment – it's all good. Special-effects gear was a solid cover… Chill,"

Rider and Shabazz exchanged a fist pound, while Mike chuckled low in his throat. Jose and J.L. gave a nod of agreement. Mutiny against Marlene's rules was in full effect.

"We'll take this up back at the compound," Marlene muttered. "Anybody else got any contraband that can get us nailed by the police – if we make it to daylight?"

If?Aw, shit… Marlene didn't do "if." Homegirl was always sure – positive. If was not a good thing.

Everyone shook their heads and Marlene let out a long breath, closed her eyes, and then shook her head, too. "We move out." As soon as the words escaped her lips, she opened her eyes and briefly glanced at Damali. "On Damali's order."

All of them were silent as they waited for Damali to give the word. However, a sense of dread coiled in the pit of her stomach as she witnessed the oldest members of the Warriors of Light Productions team take a familiar stance. It was on her to lead the potential battle, but it was also on her to make sure she didn't lose any of her people. Tension threaded through the room with a palpable static charge as the group watched her for the move-out signal.

The traces of gray in Shabazz's dark locks, and at the temples of Rider's brownish-blond spike cut, made her wonder how long these warriors could keep up their protective vigil. Marlene was a fifty-year-old enigma, driven by something Damali realized she'd probably never fully understand. Sure, Jose and J.L. only had her by ten years, and were a decade or more younger than the core team members, but how long would it be before they either got nicked, or wanted a real life and defected from the group – just like the other guardians who'd tried to give this up, and then wound up worse than dead? She loved these crazy people. They were family, like brothers and a mom. Fuckin' A. Not one of them was expendable.

She looked at Jose's handsome amber-hued face, and J.L.'s lithe, Jackie Chan-type athletically honed body. Damali shook her head as she wondered how men as fine as Shabazz and Big Mike had never found permanent solace in someone's arms. This was no way to live. The money, the fame; none of it could be totally, freely, normally enjoyed. Sooner or later, they, too, might be lost, one way or the other. It was on her as the Neteru to see that that didn't happen. But what could she do, really, to indefinitely protect them all as they guarded her? Damned catch-22, as Rider always said.

As though sensing her unspoken question, Rider swaggered over to a chair and turned it around, propping his cowboy boot in the center of it, and then leaned on his knee as he spoke. "We're ready to rock when you are. Everybody here is grown. We know the deal. Fresh-packed the rhino bullets this morning with hallowed earth," he announced with a wide grin. "Put crosses on the blunt end to leave a brand on whatever's left."

"Got something for 'em in the rear," Mike said in a blase manner, unfurling his six-foot-seven-inch frame from the task of packing small vials in his vest on the coffee table. The slow, easy action belied the power and speed that he could unleash from his huge, muscular structure. "Got enough of these holy-water grenades to make it look like a C-4 hit 'em. Picked up a lot of activity on my soundboards during the show, thanks to the computer rig J.L. hooked up. Comes in blips like radar. Cold body readings. It's more than one of 'em tonight. Problem is, though … can't tell you how many – just many."

"Me and Jose are ready," J.L. announced, receiving a nod of confirmation from Jose.

"All right, Mike. Then, no sense in having Wizard and J.L. put those stage lamp kits away, completely." Damali let her breath out hard. "Leave the instruments, though. We've gotta travel light, and we can't carry it all while armed. The club will send in a couple of bouncers or security guys to load up the limo and equipment van in the front. But we do need two bows, and ultraviolet Fresnel lamps out back. Keep the UV lamps near. So, gentlemen, you're on flank, with crossbows ready. One of you wear the battery-vest to light it up on cue."

"That's why I didn't fully pack everything away," Jose replied, locking together the last bolts to transform the stands from their lighting gear into weapons. Tossing a converted bow to J.L., Wizard caught a return volley of wooden ammunition and began loading it.

"You're pretty nice on the lights, man," Joe Leung said with a sly grin. "Like the new design."

"Let's wrap this discussion up," Marlene said. "Like Damali told you guys. Shabazz walks point with Rider at his back; both sharpshooters go first. J.L. and I flank Damali with a crossbow and my stake, and then Big Mike and Jose are bringing up the rear – with our lights, crossbows, and explosives. Look alive, stay alive. There's only seven of us left."

"Yeah, and we strut out there in a giant human cross formation, like that'll help."

"Save it, Rider," Marlene warned. "Not now. Nobody's in the mood for the sarcastic commentary."

"Truth," Mike agreed, making Rider scowl.

"We ain't got time for the jokes, man." Shabazz checked his gun without looking at Rider.

"Let's just everybody chill," Jose said in a weary tone.

J.L. nodded. "Word."

Again, silence settled on the group, albeit a strained type of quiet. Still one primary question nagged Damali as she studied Marlene. Together they had all the elements that could bring down a small army of vampires. What could have spooked Marlene to the point where she was double- and triple-checking basic stage exit protocol? Something was definitely not right.

"Hold up," Damali said, her hand on Marlene's shoulder. Even her mentor's toned form was wound way too tightly for explanation. "What's out there tonight that hasn't been out there before, Marlene?"

"I don't know," Marlene murmured. "That's the problem."

"Talk to me," Shabazz said, moving behind Marlene and getting her to face him. "I'm walking point, Mar. Have for you for years. Would die for you, baby – but want to know that I will die, you feel me? I'm first out the door, so I have a need for clarity."

Damali watched the strain lace its way through Marlene's expression and draw her mouth to a tight line as she struggled to answer Shabazz. He reached out and pushed one of Marlene's silver-gray locks over her shoulder. Damali could only stare at the two as their eyes held a private conversation, something unfathomable between them that obviously went back a long way, and probably had more to do with an unspoken personal commitment than what was happening tonight.

"I don't know," Marlene finally whispered.

"Your old friend, Raven?" Mike asked, his question sounding like an apology when he asked it.

Marlene shook her head. "No. She hasn't come to me like that in a while. When she does, the vision leaves emotional pain, grief. But it's not this level of intensity. The problem is… I can't see anything tonight."

The revelation made the group go still. Marlene couldn't see?

"Mar, that's too freakin' deep," Damali whispered after a moment. She had to process what Marlene had said. Earlier, Marlene was reading her like a book. Now Marlene was blind? Just as they were about to go out the door? Oh shit…

"Yo, Mar, I'm blind, too, okay? Like, I can sense things aren't right, but can't put my finger on it. You knew that earlier, so what's up now?"

Her guys passed concerned glances between them. The admission was uncomfortable, and Damali had cast her gaze toward the back door as she'd spoken. Saying it out loud was like giving the flaw energy, and that produced a feeling of impotence like she'd never experienced. The cat was out of the bag, and it unnerved her.

"I don't know why I can't see right now, Damali." Marlene walked away from Shabazz and faced the wall.

"But how can you be blind when you were inside my head just a few minutes ago?" At this point, Damali was pacing and using her hands as she talked.

"I was all right until we were about to leave. It's like I've suddenly got no internal radar. Normally I can call stuff on a dime, like you can, Damali." Marlene turned around and her gaze swept the group. "Even Big Mike says he thinks there's multiple predators out there, but can't be sure. Big Mike is always sure."

"That's how I've been all day," Damali said, agitated. "You feel me? Plus, the whole crew is jumpy, like their specialty is off or something. I don't like this bullshit at all. I'm not having it."

"Damali, relax," Shabazz ordered. He went to Marlene's side, his hand briefly touching and leaving Marlene's cheek. "You, too, Mar. Be still. Relax. Concentrate. If both seers are blind, then what's outside is too big to jack with. This is out of Marlene's league. It's on you, Damali. We get a word, first, then we move out. Breathe, baby. Then speak on it."

Damali let her breath out slowly and closed her eyes, taking in a very deep inhale. She focused on her diaphragm, forcing it to regulate to a relaxed rhythm, and then she tried to imagine the blood flowing through her veins one cell at a time. The base of her spine became warm and fleeting images flashed in colors across her inner lids. Her fingertips tingled, as did the little San-kofa tattoo over her base chakra. She felt each vertebra in her back connect and fuse by the cord threaded through it, and then she opened her eyes, nauseated.

"Strong. Higher numbers than we've seen before," Damali said, dry heaving. "I think we're going to see some people we know. That's what's going to mess with our heads. That's probably what's making me sick."

Damali worked the knots out of her neck as she began to pace again. She shrugged her locks off her shoulders in annoyance, and then leaned against the wall. "I can't explain it. But, it's not clear. Everything is messin' with me – nothing smells right, nothing feels right, and my tongue tastes like it was dipped in metal and even spring water tastes like crap. All during the performance the sound seemed off-key, sharp, in my head, like nails down a blackboard, and my skin … everything I touch feels like it's clinging to me. I want to just get out of here. Now."

"Oh, fuck me!" Jake Rider raked his fingers through his hair, wiped his hand over his face, and then pulled his Clock from his waistband, checking the magazine one more time for good measure. "First it was Di'Giovani – and Gio was so close to making it to full guardian status. Then Kid Cruz – we lost his ass almost as soon as we started working with the punk, God rest his talented soul… when we can finally drive a stake through his heart. Then, fuckin' Dee Dee Henson – that bullshit was criminal. The poor girl was only nineteen. The way they died didn't make any sense."

The mention of Dee Dee made everyone in the group freeze then glance at each other. They all looked at Jose, and then down at the floor. Yeah, it was criminal. Rider was right. A damned sin what happened to their band sister and their newbie brothers. A damned shame.

Rider suddenly kicked the chair, toppling it with a loud clatter of metal that reverberated off the walls and through Damali's skeleton, and walked back and forth as he appeared to get fired up again just thinking about it all.

"Imhotep's island ass is probably down in Jamaica some-freakin'-where turning his whole family into a tribe of moth-erfucking vampires. Then, Hans Koehler, last week, just before that kid was about to blow up on the music scene as a part of our band? And not a body in the morgue – feds and local authorities all over our ass, and we've probably gotta psycho blast up an alley on Third and Market Street in Philly's historic district tonight? Kiss my natural ass, I tell you! Just kiss my ass! I'm ready to go back to L.A., folks – and all of us are working double duty on everything – there were supposed to be twelve of us, not seven. Shit!"

"Chill," Shabazz ordered.

"Chill? I'm forty-five and getting too old for this bullshit, y'all. This is no way to live. We need to find the main lair, soon, before we all go fuckin' nuts. Let's do this."

"Chill," Shabazz ordered again, his tone lethal. His expression was no-nonsense, and he didn't blink as he looked at Rider. "That's just the kind of hysteria that will get you iced. I don't want to have to roll up on you one day, just because you panicked and got nicked. I'd hate to have to do any of you, but…"

"For real, for real." J.L. laughed nervously. "I'd rather take on the Asian mob, or the freakin' Russian dealers. I can handle a drive-by," he added, tucking in his khaki T-shirt, hoisting up his fatigues, rolling his neck, and then checking the laces of his army boots before he straightened himself again. "Been there, seen it, done that growing up in Laos. I mean, we don't even know what we're dealing with out there tonight." He shook his head. "I've got a bad vibe. I've never seen Damali or Marlene look like this after a gig. Your run-of-the-mill demon, one or two vamps, are one thing, but this vibe is freaky. Don't wanna have to do nobody I know, you know what I mean?" He looked at Wizard, and then looked away.

"True dat," Jose added with a melancholy tone. "They call me Wizard because I can design some def shit, but I ain't no magician. Dis ain't da barrios either, man. Ain't the Columbians or da Dominicans tonight, boss. I jus' … I jus' hope Dee Dee's not out there."

Damali and Marlene glanced at each other. Everybody knew the Dee Dee situation was going to be the hardest one to cope with. When Rider had mentioned her name, everybody had paused. How did one put a stake in a teammate's lover and then have things go back to normal? Wasn't possible. Jose would be messed up for a long time if his dead girlfriend was out there. Before she'd gotten nicked, Dee Dee had been like family to all of them. Poor Jose didn't even have a chance to ID her body at the morgue, because like the rest of their dead crew, the bodies had vanished from the slabs before they could get there.

Damali's glance ricocheted around the group. Yeah, they all knew it.

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