Minion (Vampire Huntress Legend #1)

Chapter 9

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"I know," she said softly, walking beside him. "None of us ever do."

She sat beside Rider saying nothing for a long time, just staring at the horizon as the sun set. Dusty mauves and muted blues formed a blanket covering the sky, which tried to hold its own with violent golds, pinks, and oranges, battling for the last of its light against evening. Night would not be kept at bay, no matter how hard the sun fought against it. Even the largest planet in the heavens had to follow what was natural law. Damali shook her head and sighed. How was she supposed to fight a pull that strong – indefinitely?

"Been a long time since the team did two-by-two detail. Just two from the team on a stakeout so a person could talk, really get to know the other guy whose back you're watching," Rider said in a quiet tone, his gaze fastened to the building across the street as he toyed with the jade cross at his neck.

"I know," Damali murmured, still looking at the sky. "Shame that we haven't had much breathing room ever since Marlene started us hunting. Liked it better when we left shit be. If something rolled up on us, then fine. If not, that was most cool. Today was the first time in a couple of months any of us went out alone."

"Yep. Was a time when I rode solo – got a bottle of whiskey, found a good poker game, selected a beautiful woman, and paid my tabs in the morning. Now, I'm rolling with the Magnificent Seven, or what used to be the equivalent of the Dirty Dozen, to God only knows where, or why. Nobody coulda told me this, then. Ain't life ironic?"

She nodded, checking the weapons in her belt and the Isis blade in her hand. Rider had made her smile despite her sullen mood. "Was a time when I had a bunch of girlfriends, and we all hung out and partied, and the biggest thing we were worried about was what to wear to the clubs- – or if our fake IDs would get us in. Then again, some of us did have more than that to worry about. Don't get sentimental, Rider – it wasn't all good. Foster care was a bitch. So was being a runaway." She laughed and then swallowed hard as she looked at her sword.

"Ain't life ironic."

She didn't answer him and just allowed her fingers to trail the multiple blood grooves of the silver-plated triple blade, and eased it back into its ancient mahogany scabbard, holding it with both hands between her knees while she and Rider waited.

The ornate gold handle commanded her attention as she studied the goddess cast from Kemetian pyramid metals that slayed a serpent, wondering how many high priests had used it to de-

fend themselves. Running from the authorities as a kid, fending off drunken adults, even running from a gang shootout was deep, but not as off the hook as this.

"You like her?" Rider asked. "She suits you."

"Thanks… yeah … she's beautiful."

"I remember being your age once," Rider said in an unusually gentle voice. "Had me a girlfriend and a Harley, was doing the all-American thing and rode all over creation, screwing, having fun -  that was the seventies." When Damali chuckled, he laughe'd. "Honest to God's truth. I wasn't always a sharpshooter, just like Shabazz wasn't always an Aikido master. Wore my hair in a long ponytail, didn't worry about taking a bath, the weed was good -  no bullshit in it like now – got in more bar fights than I care to remember, was locked up a time or two … the good old days."

"You're crazy, Rider, you know that, right?"

He laughed. "Yep, I am. That's why I lifted Madame Isis for you from Marlene's footlocker. That old bird got it from the Knights of Templar, and knowing those guys, it probably came from the Vatican. You weren't supposed to take it off the compound until after you turned twenty-one, lest it fall into the wrong hands. But, I figured, what the hell? A few days early won't hurt. You're as good as grown. Plus, I've seen you fight; it won't get taken from you, that's for sure." They both stared at each other. "All right, I admit it. I can pick a good lock. Don't ask."

She studied his face, the way the lines were starting to form in it from the wear and tear of life, and the way the edges of his eyes crinkled with mischief. He still wore cowboy boots and a seventies relic, fawn-colored suede jacket. All that was missing was the ten-gallon hat. "You're good people, Rider."

"Why thank you, darlin'. You ain't such bad people yourself."

He blew out a long breath. "And, although you're strong as shit, and have all these abilities, you're still young and human. Just so you know, we've all been working on Marlene for you."

Damali looked at him with a questioning gaze.

Rider nodded. "I don't need second sight to know that soon you're going to have to ride solo a while yourself. You can have the blade and the Far East contraptions. It would make me feel better if you had an equalizer, though, dig?"

She smiled.

"Like I told you, I do the all-American thing, a Harley and a gun. This white boy ain't trying to go out with a crossbow or guitar planted in his chest. Period. That's the one thing me and Shabazz agree on – like the fact that J.L. needs to tighten up the vamp detection rigs at the compound. I told Far East he was all that and two bags of chips, but J.L. has gotta recognize that things are heating up – all over. Can't be casual these days, ya know? Things are changing."

She nodded, but sensed that Rider was trying to work his way around to another deeper conversation. It was all in the way he was going on and on in what seemed like circles. "We've got a HI' somethin' for 'em. Don't worry. I hear you."

"Some shit is just natural law," he pressed on, "and Marlene is gonna have to deal with that." He turned around in his seat to face her. "Do you know what I'm saying to you?"

She glanced out the window and nodded. Her smile faded. She had to remember that Rider was a sharpshooter, and sometimes he was patient to hit his target dead-aim. But there was no escaping what he really meant. On the surface, the conversation could go one way, while they avoided speaking on the layer right under it. Very cool. It allowed both parties room to decide to go deeper, or not, and also save face.

"It's wearing you out, kiddo."

"I know," she whispered, half embarrassed, and half relieved, and yet totally unprepared to be having this conversation with Rider, of all people. Life was weird. Go figure.

"If you need to … uh … well… I say, get the Carlos thing out of your system. Or, if it's somebody else, hell, you're young. Just use a condom. There. I've said it. I've weighed in on it." Rider glanced at her and shot his gaze out the front windshield as he turned back around in his seat. The color had drained from his face as though saying those four words had been more embarrassing for him than for her.

"I'm not sure why Shabazz and Marlene are so dead set against you doing what's normal with anybody," he rattled on, talking a mile a minute to obviously cover his discomfort with the subject. "They keep looking up at the stars and pacing around like nervous parents." Rider paused and rubbed his hand over his jawline. "I don't claim to understand what they're so uptight about – but maybe you oughta just ask them outright, ya know? Stop beating around the bush and dropping coy hints. Shit, you ain't shy about anything else."

Rider had hit her right between the eyes with his own direct brand of truth, and for a moment, no words formed in her stunned brain. Then, out of nowhere, she laughed hard. "Why are you all up in my business tonight, Rider?"

For a while he just stared out the window and then closed his eyes. The shift in his mood worried her.

"Because I love you, sweetheart. You're the closest thing I have to a sister. You remind me so much of Tara, too."

"Tara?"

"Yeah," he whispered. "She was the one who used to ride on the back of my Harley."

She studied the way the muscle pulsed in Rider's jaw. Curiosity drew the question from her. "What happened to her?"

"I had to put a stake in her heart in Arizona." Rider looked at her with a sideways glance.

Damali opened her mouth and then closed it. What could she say? That was the last thing she'd expected him to tell her. Damn …

"I know. There are no words. And thanks for respecting my privacy … for not just bum-rushing my psyche to find out."

"I don't like it done to me, so I don't do that to any members of our team."

He nodded. "You need to tell Marlene that, too. She's too nosy."

"I will," Damali promised with a sad smile.

"Well, don't get all down in the mouth. The Tara thing is history. That's how I met Jose, and probably why I, more than anybody, know where he's at. Long story." Rider wiped his hands over his face. "I don't want to talk about it." He gripped the steering wheel and focused his attention on the morgue. "The last thing I'm gonna say about it is: life is short, unpredictable, and at times, fucked up. So have a blast while you can, kiddo. Taste it all before your number is up. Sermon is done, pass the plate, discussion over."

"Thanks, Rider." She touched his arm and then removed her hand. The pain that she registered in his system brought tears to her eyes, but she blinked them back to preserve both their dignities. She only hoped that she'd transmitted healing empathy when her palm had grazed him.

He nodded and looked away to the building again while she focused her attention on the precious gemstones in the blade's handle. She didn't know what else to say to Rider, and companionable silence seemed to be the safest haven now.

She peered at the seven stones that Marlene had said each represented a color of the chakra alignment described in Eastern philosophy – the invisible energy fields that governed a part of the body and spirit, denoted by a specific hue running up the human spine, and so placed on the sword, made grip-ridges that were perfect for her hand. Three blades each etched with Ad-rinka symbols down the lengths formed a unified trinity that came to a fierce point. The stuff of legends, and now it was hers.

By design, its triangular shape had the ability to open a hole in a body that couldn't be closed. Made of Vatican and North American silver, and South American alloy cast with Dogon steel from the motherland, it had been fired in Samurai furnaces, parts of it passed around the world from female Neteru to Neteru until it was completely constructed. That's what she'd been told. Fascination claimed her as she studied the object that had been created era by era, religion by religion, each culture represented within it, so they said. An early birthday present, according to Marlene, ever since the planets aligned. What did that mean? But she was glad that Rider had swiped it and thought to bring it along. Madame Isis was something she knew could get the job done.

However, the fact that it had been "borrowed" from Marlene worried her. She tried to make herself feel better by using the word "liberated" to describe what Rider had done, and to define what she had accepted as a coconspirator. Damali laughed softly to herself. Marlene was gonna have a cow. In fact, where the heck did Marlene get a blade like this? There were so many questions, and so few answers… and who were the freakin' Knights of Templar?

"Maybe you shouldn't have taken this, even though I was complaining about wanting to try it out." She'd kept her gaze on the windshield when she'd spoken. Too many thoughts were battling for dominance in her head at once. "Marlene said it wasn't time yet."

"You know," Rider said, laughing, "if Marlene didn't want me to give it to you yet, she would have stopped me. Nothing gets by that old girl. She's smooth."

Damali smiled. "What did she say?"

"To be careful, like she always does – and to have a good time. Then she sighed and left the room."

Damali sat quietly again, thinking about Rider's comment for a moment.

"Did Shabazz say anything?"

"No, like the rest of us, he knew sooner or later it would be time."

She looked at Rider now. "What's this time thing? Ever since the planets lined up, the team has been talking in code – acting weird. I feel like there's this big secret and nobody's telling, and I don't like it."

"Did you ask Marlene?" Rider now looked out toward the horizon, his smile becoming gentler.

"I've asked Marlene, and all she says is that when I'm ready, I'll know."

"Just what a mom would say." Rider chuckled and leaned his head on the steering wheel. "It's not my place. And it's definitely not my forte. Ask Shabazz about the alignment."

Damali found herself laughing, amused as her teammate squirmed under her questioning. "Rider, c'mon. You are the bluntest person I know. Frogs leap out of your mouth daily -  and your style is straight with no chaser, right between the eyes. Give it up."

He laughed, sat back, and shook his head. "Not on this whole slayer subject. Mar let you have the sword because you wanted it bad enough to sneak it. She left the room smiling. That's all I'ma say. Let it rest."

"All of us are acting weird, though," she whispered, the amusement gone from her tone as her thoughts drifted with her gaze. "It's like something within the team is changing. Getting stronger, or I don't know, but it's different … and it's changing the whole dynamic. Even the music is stronger; the crowds at the shows are getting bigger. Hell, I feel different, too, and I can't explain it. Everything is getting on my nerves."

"Okay," Rider finally said, making Damali look at him again. "What happened back at the club? I know we're all worried about Jose, and this graveyard shift ain't happening – but you seem beyond concentrating, or worried. Like, this Carlos thing."

"There's not much to say, Rider." She pulled her gaze from his and sent it out of the car window, sweeping the terrain for the slightest movement. "The sun's going down, you need to stay focused – like you said, we haven't done a two-by-two in a long time." The last thing she wanted to discuss was Carlos, or the primal pull that came with him.

"So, is Carlos a source, or what?"

"No. He doesn't know anything. He's bent on going after whoever did his posse. He's been attacked, but I don't believe he's a source. Whoever – "

"More like whatever."

"I tried to tell him that."

Her comment made Rider sit back, and it brought her attention away from the window momentarily. Her teammate's expression flickered between indignation, concern, and possibly a tinge of jealousy. It was amazing to watch.

"I didn't give us up. I told him to keep his cross on and pray if he went down. Period."

"Oh," Rider said, with a sigh of relief. "For a minute there I thought the handsome bastard might have messed with your head."

She would not dignify the comment. Her gaze returned to the building. "This place is crawling with police. They're expecting a break-in at the morgue. They think it's some ritualistic message system of turf warfare between the gangs. Remember what the newspaper speculated, and the police comments said?" She stopped and waited for Rider's nod before continuing. "Dejesus won't turn for at least forty-eight more hours, given he died earlier this morning … and vamps don't wake up till the third nightfall."

"So, what are we doing here, then?"

"Frankly, I don't know. We should go back and get Big Mike – and stand watch over our own, with him."

Rider stared at her for a moment. "You haven't been making clear-cut decisions lately, have you noticed that?"

"Oh, bullshit. We're all jangled. There's a lot coming at us at once. So, my bad … I miscalculated the turn time – but nobody else caught it, either. But we do know that they always send one to mark their victim. So gimme a break, Rider."

"Aw'right, aw'right. Chill. Just an observation, Damali. You can loosen your grip on Madame Isis now."

"No, I can't," she whispered, her head nodding in the direction of the building.

Her arms immediately pebbled with gooseflesh as what felt like an electric current ran through her. Blurred images flashed through her head, making her temples throb. Her tongue became covered with a metallic taste, and her vision became keen enough to see the grains of sand within the concrete steps across the street. Damali blinked twice. She heard a bird rustle in the trees, and the cicadas sounded way too loud. What in the world … ?

For a moment Rider stared at her. "Talk to me."

"Can't you smell it, taste it?"

Rider leaned forward, closed his eyes, and breathed in. "Sulfur." He opened his eyes and looked at Damali hard. "You picked it up before I did, li'l sis."

"Yeah. I did," she murmured, the new awareness making her grip tighten on the handle of her blade.

"You're growing up on us," Rider finally said, his expression tender, his voice soft. "Soon, you won't need a chaperone."

A companionable silence enveloped them for a moment.

"What do you think of the sulfur, kiddo?"

"A newer one – the scent isn't strong enough to be the master of the line. Remember how Shabazz and Marlene described it? I personally never ran up on a head vamp, or a head demon, but they have. Said once you got it in the back of your throat, you wouldn't forget it. Whatever came here is probably checking on their newest member so they can report back. When the new vamp or demon thing wakes up, they'll take it back to their lair."

"A damned vampire escort service." Rider glared out the window. "Now what?"

"We follow the stench when it leaves this area, and hope it materializes into a solid form so we can see it. Right now it's moving through the air, staying masked in an invisible form so it can get inside the morgue past the cops, but I can smell it. Sooner or later, it has to materialize, because it's gotta feed tonight, then go back to a lair, somewhere."

"Sounds like a plan, li'l sis. Let's rock and roll."

storefronts packedtightly together squeezed as much commerce as they could out of the available space. Upper floors were made into tattoo dens, beauty parlors, massage parlors, secondary restaurants, and apartments roomed above fresh-fish and produce stands, eateries, and dingy but interesting shops. People milled about still bargain-hunting, couples strolled hand-in-hand, groups of young partygoers laughed loud and traveled in huddles, while tough teenagers and dirty-apron-wearing waiters hung in doorways or on the corners catching a smoke. It was chaos; it was bustling activity; it was life.

Spices from exotic Asian cuisine mingled with the heavy smells of old cooking oil from Chinese fast-food takeout joints. Splashes of colors, smells, writing in a language she didn't understand, foreign tongues, known words, drug dealers, gamblers, upstanding citizens, mothers with children, little kids, wealthy people, street urchins, a morass of humanity wedged itself into a few square blocks of mayhem. From somewhere roosters crowed. Garbage reeked. Traffic horns blared. Rap music fought for attention against world music and the whiny, high-pitched Chinese mandolins. Sound came from everywhere: cars, opened doors, restaurants, people's living quarters. Men argued over cards, a baby cried, lovers grunted as bedsprings squeaked, a junkie vomited in a rooming house, a dispute erupted over the price of fabric, cell phones beeped. All of it pummeled Damali's heightened senses. She was near nausea, but she pointed the way for Rider – who was cool enough to just drive.

"We're a long way from the hospital and Mulholland Drive up in Hollywood Hills, li'l sis," he finally complained when she signaled him to pull over. "Chinatown ain't no place to be jacking around in the alleys on a hunch."

"Save it, Rider. I know what I'm doing. Sit tight. Just keep a visual." Damali climbed out of the four-by-four before he could answer her, unsheathed her blade, and narrowed her gaze within the dark passageway she'd entered at a full dash.

In the distance, she could hear Rider contact the compound on the Jeep radio, but her nerve endings were on fire. Adrenaline and something else she couldn't describe made the blood flowing through her veins feel like lava. Her ears strained in the quiet so hard that she was sure they had lain back against her skull. Her grip tightened around Madame Isis.

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