by Laurell K. Hamilton
Malcolm, the head of the Church of Eternal life, the vampire church, sat across from me. He'd never been in my office before. In fact, the last time I'd seen him, he'd accused me of doing black magic, and being a whore. I'd also killed one of his congregation members on church grounds in front of him and the rest of his congregation. The dead vamp had been a serial killer. I'd had a court order of execution, but still, it hadn't made Malcolm and me buddies.
I sat behind my desk, sipping coffee from my newest Christmas themed mug. A little girl sat on Santa's lap saying "Define good." I worked hard every year to find the most offensive mug I could so that Bert, our business manager, could throw a fit. It had become one of my holiday traditions. I'd at least dressed for the season in red skirt and jacket. The shirt was blue, instead of green, but it was still very festive, for me. I had a new gun in my shoulder holster. A friend of mine had finally persuaded me to give up my Browning Hi-Power for something that fit my hand a little better. The Browning was at home in the gun safe, and the Heckler and Koch P200 was in the holster. I felt like I was cheating.
Once upon a time, I'd thought Malcolm handsome, but that had been when his vampire tricks worked on me. Without vampire wiles to cloud my perception, Malcolm was good looking in a way, but not handsome. His bone structure was too rough, almost as if it hadn't quite gotten smoothed out before they put that pale skin on it. His hair was cut short and had a little curl to it, because to take the curl out of it he'd had to have shave it. The hair was a bright, bright, canary yellow. It's what blond hair does if you take it out of the sun for a few hundred years. He looked at me with his blue eyes, and smiled, and the smile filled his face with personality. That same personality that made his Sunday morning television program such a hit. It wasn't magic, it was just him. Charisma for lack of a better word. There was force to Malcolm that had nothing to do with vampire powers and everything to do with who he was, not what he was. He'd have been a leader and a mover of men even if he'd been alive.
The smile softened his features, filled his face with that zeal that was both compelling, and frightening. He was a true believer, head of a church of true believers. The whole idea of a vampire church still creeped me out, but it was the fastest growing denomination in the country.
"I was surprised to see your name on my appointment book, Malcolm," I said, finally.
"I understand that, Ms. Blake. I am almost equally surprised to be here."
"Fine, we're both surprised. Why are you here?"
"I suspect you have, or will soon have, a warrant of execution for a member of my church."
I managed to keep my face blank, but felt the stiffness in my shoulders. He'd see the reaction, and he'd know what it meant. Master vampires don't miss much. "You have a lot of members, Malcolm, could you narrow it down a little. Who exactly are we talking about?"
"Don't be coy, Ms. Blake."
"I'm not being coy."
"You're trying to insinuate that you have a warrant for more than one of my vampires. I do not believe it, and neither do you."
I should have felt insulted, because I wasn't lying. Two of his up-standing vamps had been very naughty. "If your vampires were fully blood-oathed to you, you'd know I was telling the truth, because you'd be able to enforce your moral code in entirely new ways."
A blood-oath was what a vamp did when he joined a new vampire group, a new kiss. He literally took blood from the Master of the City. It meant the master had a lot more control over them and the lesser vamps gained in power, too. If their master was powerful enough. A weak master wasn't much help, but Jean-Claude, St. Louis's master of the city and my sweetie, wasn't weak. Of course, the master gained power from the oath, as well. The more powerful vamp they could oath, the more they gained. Like so many vampire powers it was a two way street.
"I do not want to enforce my moral code. I want my people to choose to be good people," Malcolm said.
"Until your congregation is blood-oathed to some master vampire, they are loose cannons, Malcolm. You control them by force of personality and morality. Vampires only understand fear, and power."
"How can you say that? You are the lover of at least two vampires, Ms. Blake. How can you say that, and mean it?"
I shrugged. "Maybe because I am dating two vampires."
"If that is what being Jean-Claude's human servant has taught you, Ms. Blake, then it is sad things he is teaching you."
"He is the Master of the City of St. Louis, Malcolm, not you. You, and your church, go unmolested by his tolerance."
"I go unmolested because the Church grew powerful under the previous master of the city, and by the time Jean-Claude rose to power, we were hundreds. He did not have the power to bring me, and my people to heel."
I sipped coffee and thought about my next answer, because I couldn't argue with him. He was probably right. "Regardless of how we got where we are, Malcolm, you have several hundred vampires in this city. Jean-Claude let you have them because he thought you were blood-oathing them. We learned in October that you aren't. Which means that the vamps with you are cut off from an awful lot of their potential power. I'm okay with that, I guess. Their choice, if they understand that it is a choice, but no blood-oath means that they are not mystically tied to anyone but the vamp that made them. You, I'm told do the deed, most of the time. Though the church deacons do recruit sometimes."
"How our church is organized is not your concern."
"Yes," I said, "it is."
"Do you serve Jean-Claude now, when you say that, or is it as a federal marshal that you criticize me?" He narrowed those blue eyes. "I do not think the federal government knows or understands enough of vampires to care whether I blood-oath my people."
"Blood-oathing makes sure the vamps don't do things behind the back for the master."
"Blood-oathing takes away their free will, Ms. Blake."
"Maybe, but I've seen the damage they can do with their free will. A good master of the city can guarantee that there is no crime among his people."
"They are his slaves," Malcolm said.
I shrugged, and sat back in my chair. "Are you here to talk about the warrant, or to talk about the deadline Jean-Claude gave your church?"
"Jean-Claude has given you and your church members their choices, Malcolm. Either you blood oath them, or Jean-Claude does. Or they can move to another city to be blood oathed there, but it has to be done."
"It is a choice of who they would be slaves to, Ms. Blake. It is no choice at all."
"Jean-Claude was generous, Malcolm. By vampire law he could have just killed you and your entire congregation."
"And how would the law, how would you, as a federal marshal, have felt about such slaughter?"
"Are you saying that my being a federal marshal limits Jean-Claude's options?"
"He values your love, Anita, and you would not love a man that could slaughter my followers."
"You don't add yourself to that list, why?"
"You are a legal vampire executioner, Anita. If I broke human law, you would kill me yourself. You would not fault Jean-Claude for doing the same if I broke vampiric law."
"You think I'd just let him kill you?"
"I think you would kill me for him, if you felt justified."
A small part of me wanted to argue, but he was right. I'd been grandfathered in like most of the vamp executioners that had two or more years on the job and could pass the firearms test. The idea was making us federal marshals was the quickest way to grant us the ability to cross state lines and to control us more. The crossing state lines and having a badge was great; I wasn't sure how controlled we were. Of course, I was the only vampire hunter that was also dating their Master of the City. Most saw it as a conflict of interest. Frankly, so did I, but there wasn't much I could do about it.
"You do not argue with me," Malcolm said.
"I can't decide if you think I'm a civilizing influence on Jean-Claude, or a bad one."
"I saw you once as his victim, Anita. Now I am no longer certain who is the victim, and who the victimizer."
"Should I be offended?"
He just looked at me.
"The last time I was in your church you called me evil, and accused me of black magic. You called Jean-Claude immoral, and me his whore, or something like that."
"You were trying to take away one of my people to be killed with no trail. You shot him to death on the church grounds."
"He was a serial killer. I had an order of execution for everyone involved in those crimes."
"All the vampires, you mean."
"Are you implying that humans or shapeshifters were involved?"
"No, but if they had been, you would never have been allowed to shoot them to death with the police helping you do it."
"I've had warrants for shapeshifters before."
"But those are rare, Anita, and there are no orders of execution for humans."
"The death penalty still exists, Malcolm."
"After a trial, and years of appeals, if you are human."
"What do you want from me, Malcolm?"
"I want justice."
"The law isn't about justice, Malcolm, it's about the law."
"She did not do the crime she is accused of, as our wandering brother Avery Seabrook was innocent of the crime you sought him for." He called any of his church group that joined Jean-Claude, wanderers. The fact that Avery, the vampire, had a last name meant he was very recently dead, and that he was an American vampire. Vampires only had one name like Madonna, or Cher, and only one vamp per country could have that name. Duels were fought over the right to use names. Until now, until America. We had vampires with last names, unheard of.
"I cleared Avery. Legally, I didn't have to."
"No, you could have shot him dead, found out your mistake later, and suffered nothing under the law."
"I did not write this law, Malcolm, I just carry it out."
"Vampires did not write this law either, Anita."
"That's true, but no human could have mesmerized other humans so that they helped in their own kidnappings. Humans couldn't fly off with their victims in their arms."
"And that justifies slaughtering us?"
I shrugged again. I was going to leave this argument alone because I'd begun to not like that part of my job. I didn't think vampires were monsters anymore, it made killing them harder. It made executing them when they couldn't fight back monstrous with me as the monster.
"What do you want me to do, Malcolm? Sally Hunter's has a warrant with her name on it. Witnesses saw her leave the dead woman's apartment. The woman died by vampire attack. I know it wasn't any of Jean-Claude's vampires. That leaves yours." Hell, I had her driver's liscene picture in the file with the warrant. I have to admit that having a picture to go with it made me feel more like an assassin. A picture so I'd get the right one.
"Are you so certain of that?"
I blinked at him, the slow blink that gave me time to think, but didn't look like I was thinking furiously.
"What are you trying to say, Malcolm? I'm not good at subtle, just tell me what you came to say."
"Something powerful, someone powerful, came to my church last week. They hid themselves. I could not find them in the new faces of my congregation, but I know that someone powerful, immensely powerful was there." He leaned forward, his calm exterior cracking round the edges. "Do you understand how powerful they would have to be for me to sense them, use all my powers to search the room for them, yet not be able to find them?"
I thought about it. Malcolm was no master of the city, but he was probably in the top five of the most powerful vampires in town. Maybe higher, if he wasn't so terribly moral. It limited him in some ways.
I licked my lips, careful of the lipstick, and nodded. "Did they want you to know they were there, or was that part an accident?"
He actually showed surprise for a moment before he got control of his face. He played human too much for the media, he was beginning to loose that stillness of features that the old ones have. "I don't know," and even his voice was no longer smooth.
"Did the vamp do it to taunt you, or was it arrogance?"
He shook his head. "I do not know."
I had a moment of revelation. "You came here because you think Jean-Claude should know, but you can't let your congregation see you going to the Master of the City. It would undermine your whole free will thing."
He settled back into his chair, fighting to keep the anger off his face, and failing. He was even more scared than I thought, for him to be loosing it this badly in front of someone he disliked. Hell, he'd come to me for help. He was desperate.
"But you can come to me as a federal marshal, and tell me. Because you know I'll tell Jean-Claude."
"Think what you like, Ms. Blake."
We weren't on first name basis anymore. I'd hit it on the head. "A big, bad, vamp checks your church out. You aren't vampire enough to smoke him out, and you come to me, to Jean-Claude and all his immoral power structure. You come to the very people you say you hate."
He stood up. "The crime that Sally is accused of, happened less than twenty-four hours after he, it, they, came to my church. I do not think that is a coincidence."
"I'm not lying about the second order of execution, Malcolm. Its in my desk drawer, right now, with a driver's liscene picture of the vampire in question."
He sat back down. "What name is one it?"
"Why so you can warn . . . them?" I'd almost said, she, because it was another female vamp.
"My people are not perfect, Ms. Blake, but I believe that another vampire has come to town and is framing them."
"Why, why would someone do that?"
"I don't know."
"No one has bothered Jean-Claude or his people."
"I know," Malcolm said.
"Without a true master, a true blood-oathed, mystically connected, master, your congregation are just sheep waiting for the wolves to come get them."
"Jean-Claude said as much a month ago."
"Yeah, he did."
"I thought at first that it was one of the new vampires that has joined Jean-Claude. One of the ones from Europe, but it is not. It is something more powerful than that. Or it is a group of vampires combining their powers through their master's marks. I have felt such power only once before."
"When?" I asked.
He shook his head. "We are forbidden to speak of it, on penalty of death. Only if they contact us directly can we break this silence."
"It sounds like you've already been contacted," I said.
He shook his head, again. "They are tampering with me, and my people, because technically, I am outside normal vampire law. Did Jean-Claude report to the Council that my church had not blood oathed any of it's followers?"
I nodded. "Yes, he did."
He put his big hands over his face, and leaned over his knees, almost as if he was faint. He whispered, "I feared as much."
"Okay, Malcolm, you're moving too fast for me here. What does Jean-Claude reporting to the council have to do with some group of powerful vamps messing with your church?"
He looked at me, but his eyes had gone gray with worry. "Tell him what I have told you. He will understand."
"But I don't."
"I have until New Year's Day to give Jean-Claude my answer about the blood-oathing. He has been generous and patient, but there are those among the council that are neither of those things. I had hoped they would be proud of what I had accomplished. I thought it would please them, but I fear now that the council is not ready to see my brave new world of free will."
"Free will is for humans, Malcolm. The preternatural community is about control."
He stood again. "You have almost complete discretion on how the warrant is executed, Anita, will you use some of that discretion to find the truth before you kill my followers?"
I stood up. "I can't guarantee anything."
"I would not ask that. I ask only that you look for the truth before it is too late for Sally, and my other follower, whose name you will not even give me." He sighed. "I have not sent Sally running out of town, why would I warn the other?"
"You came through the door knowing Sally was in trouble, I'm not helping you figure the other bad guy out."
"It is a man then?"
I just looked at him, glad that I could give full eye contact. It had always been so hard to do the tough stare back when I couldn't look a vamp in the eyes.
He straightened his shoulders as if only now aware that he was slumping. "You won't even give me that, will you? Please tell Jean-Claude what I have told you. I should have come to you immediately. I thought morals kept me from running to the very power structure I despise, but it wasn't morals, it was sin; the sin of pride. I hope that my pride has not cost more of my followers their lives." He went for the door.
I called after him. "Malcolm."
"How big an emergency is this?"
"Will a couple of hours make a difference?"
He thought about it. "Perhaps, why do you ask?"
"I won't be seeing Jean-Claude tonight. I just wanted to know if I should call him, give him a head's up."
"Yes, by all means, give him his head's up." He frowned at me. "Why would you not see your master tonight, Anita? Aren't you living with him?"
"Actually, no, I stay over at his place about half the week, but I've got my own place still."
"Will you be killing more of my kindred tonight?"
I shook my head.
"Then you will raise my other colder brethren. Who's blissful death will you disturb tonight, Anita? Who's zombie will you raise so some human can get their inheritance, or a wife can be consoled?"
"No zombies tonight," I said. I was too puzzled by his attitude on the zombies to be insulted. I'd never heard a vampire claim any kinship with zombies, or ghouls, or anything but other vamps.
"Then what will keep you from your master's arms?"
"I've got a date, not that it's any of your business."
"But not a date with Jean-Claude, or Asher?"
I shook my head.
"Your wolf king then, Richard?"
I shook my head, again.
"Who would you abandon those three for, Anita. Ah, your leopard king, Micah."
"I am amazed that you are answering my questions."
"So am I, actually, I think it's because you keep calling me a whore, and I think I want to rub your face in it."
"What, the fact that you are a whore?" His face showed nothing when he said it.
"I knew you couldn't do it," I said.
"Do what, Ms. Blake?"
"I knew you couldn't play nice long enough to get my help. I knew if I kept at you, you'd get snotty and mean."
He gave a small bow, just from the neck. "I told you, Ms. Blake, my sin is pride."
"And what's my sin, Malcolm?"
"Do you want me to insult you, Ms. Blake?"
"I just want to hear you say it."
"Why not," I said.
"Very well, your sin is lust, Ms. Blake, as it is the sin of your master and all his vampires."
I shook my head, and felt that unpleasant smile curl my lips. The smile that left my eyes cold, and usually meant I was well and truly pissed. "That's not my sin, Malcolm, not the one nearest and dearest to my heart."
"And what would your sin be, Ms. Blake?"
"Wrath, Malcolm, it's wrath."
"Are you saying I've made you angry?"
"I'm always angry, Malcolm, you just gave me a target to focus it on."
"Do you envy anyone, Ms. Blake?"
I thought about it, then shook my head. "Not really, no."
"I will not ask about Sloth, you work entirely too hard for that to be an issue. You are not greedy, nor a glutton. Are you prideful?"
"Sometimes," I said.
"Wrath, lust, and pride, then?"
I nodded. "I guess, if we're keeping score."
"Oh, someone is keeping score, Ms. Blake, never doubt that."
"I'm Christian, too, Malcolm."
"Do you worry about getting into Heaven, Ms. Blake?"
It was such an odd question that I answered it. "I did, for awhile, but my faith still makes my cross glow. My prayers still have the power to chase the evil things away. God hasn't forsaken me, just all the right wing fundamentalist Christians want to believe he has. I've seen evil, Malcolm real evil, and you aren't that."
He smiled, and it was gentle, and almost embarrassed. "Have I come to you for absolution, Ms. Blake?"
"I don't think I'm the one to give you absolution."
"I would like a priest to hear my sins before I die, Ms. Blake, but none will come near me. They are holy, and the very trappings of their calling will burst into flames at my presence."
"Not true. The holy items only go off if the true believer panics, or if you try vampire powers on them."
He blinked at me, and I realized his eyes held unshed tears, shimmering in the over head lights. "Is this true, Ms. Blake?"
"I promise it is." His attitude was beginning to make me afraid for him. I didn't want to be afraid for Malcolm. I had enough people in my life that I cared for enough to worry about; I did not need to add the undead Billy Graham to my list.
"Do you know any priests that might be willing to hear a very long confession?"
"I might, though I don't know if they're allowed to give you absolution since technically in the eyes of the church you're already dead. You have ties to a lot of the religious community, Malcolm, surely one of the other leaders would be willing."
"I do not want to ask them, Anita. I do not want them to know my sins. I would rather . . ." he hesitated, then spoke, but I was pretty sure, it wasn't the sentence he started to use, "quietly, I would rather it be done quietly."
"Why the sudden need for confession and absolution?"
"I am still a believer, Ms. Blake, being a vampire has not changed that. I wish to die absolved of my sins."
"Why are you expecting to die?"
"Tell Jean-Claude what I have told you about the stranger, or strangers in my church. Tell him about my desire for a priest to hear my confession. He will understand."
"Malcolm . . ."
He kept walking, but stopped with his hand on the door. "I take back what I said, Ms. Blake, I am not sorry I came. I am only sorry I did not come days ago." With that he walked out, and closed the door softly behind him.
I sat down at my desk and called Jean-Claude. I had no idea what was going on, but something was up, something big. Something bad.
Excerpted from The Harlequin by Laurell K. Hamilton.
Copyright © 2007 by Laurell K. Hamilton. All rights reserved.
Excerpted by permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced
or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.