The Harlequin / Chapter 3-4

Chapter 3-4


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Chapter Three

I WAS RUNNING too late to even go home first. A phone call and Nathaniel agreed to just meet me at the theatre. There was no reproach in his voice, no complaint. I think he was afraid to complain, afraid I'd use it as an excuse to cancel the almost-anniversary. He was probably right. I was dating, at last count, six men. When you're dating that many people, anniversaries seem hypocritical. I mean, wasn't an anniversary something you did for your special someone? I still hadn't worked my way through the squirming discomfort of dating this many men. I still couldn't get rid of the idea that with six men to choose from you couldn't have a special sweetie. I was still struggling with the idea that they could all be special. When I was alone, not with any of them, not looking at them, or all covered in their metaphysical stuff, I could be all uncomfortable, and feel stupid. I felt stupid and grumpy right up to the moment that I saw Nathaniel standing just inside the doors, waiting for me.

He was five foot six and a half now. He'd grown half an inch in the last month. At twenty, twenty-one in the spring, he was growing into the broad shoulders, filling out in the way that most men do at a slightly earlier age. I actually got carded more at clubs than he did now, which irritated me, and pleased him. But it wasn't height that made me stop and stare.

I stood in the midst of the Friday night crowd hurrying around me, and for just a few minutes I forgot that something bad enough to scare Jean-Claude and Malcolm had come to town. Yeah, Jean-Claude had told me we were safe, but still, it wasn't like me to be careless in a crowd.

Nathaniel wore a leather trench coat and a matching fedora. The hat and coat hid most of him, and still managed to emphasize the body underneath. It was like hiding and asking for attention at the same time. He'd added the hat to his winter gear because without it, he had gotten recognized a few times. Customers from Guilty Pleasures had spotted him as Brandon, his stage name. Once we covered the hair, it didn't happen again.

His hair was in some kind of tight braid, so that it looked like his auburn hair was cut nice and standard short. It was illusion. His hair fell to his ankles, totally impractical, but God, it was pretty.

It wasn't just the standard ooh, isn't he pretty that made me stop. It was that suddenly in his new leather trench coat and hat, with his hair all covered, he looked grown-up. He was seven years younger than me, and I'd felt vaguely like a child molester when he first hit my radar. I'd fought long and hard to keep him out of the boyfriend box, but in the end, it hadn't worked. Now I looked at him like a stranger might, and realized that the only one who still thought he might be a child was me. Standing there looking like a fetish version of Sam Spade, he didn't look twenty. He looked very over twenty-one.

Someone bumped me, and that made me jump. Shit, that was too careless. I started moving, dressed in my own black leather trench coat, but no hat. I didn't do hats unless it was freaking freezing. Even with Christmas only weeks away, it wasn't that cold. St. Louis in the wintertime: freezing one day, nearly fifty the next.

My trench coat was unbuttoned from the waist up, only belted in place. It was colder that way, but I could still reach my gun. Going armed in winter was always full of fun choices like that.

He spotted me before I'd gotten through the outer doors. He gave me that smile that made his whole face glow, so happy to see me. Once I would have bitched, but I was too busy fighting off my own version of the same smile. One of my other boyfriends said I hated being in love, and he was right. It always felt so stupid, like your insurance rates should go up, because you're impaired. Romantically handicapped.

The face under the hat was too pretty to be handsome. He was beautiful, not handsome. Apparently, no matter how tall he got, or how much he muscled up, that wasn't going to change. But it wasn't a delicate face, the way Jean-Claude's was, or Micah's was; it was stronger boned than that, higher cheekboned. Something a touch more male in his face - I couldn't put my finger on it, but something - and when he looked full at you, you never thought feminine, but always male. Had that changed in the last few months? Had I not noticed that, or had it always been like this and I just was so determined to marginalize him that I couldn't let his face be more masculine than Jean-Claude's or Micah's? Did I still equate strength and being a grown-up to being male? Me, of all people? Surely not.

His smile had faded around the edges. "What's wrong?"

I smiled and went to hug him. "Just wondering if I'm paying enough attention to you."

He hugged me back, but not like he meant it. He pulled me back so he could see my face. "Why would you say that?"

I finally let myself look full into his eyes. Tonight I was so distracted by him that I'd avoided his eyes almost like he was a vampire with a gaze and I was some tourist human. His eyes were lavender - really, truly the color of lilacs. But it wasn't just the color; they were large and perfect, and crowned his face with that final touch that just made your heart hurt. Too beautiful, simply too beautiful.

He touched my face. "Anita, what's wrong?"

I shook my head. "I don't know." And I didn't. I was attracted to Nathaniel but this was excessive. I looked away so I wouldn't be staring directly into his face. What the hell was wrong with me tonight?

He tried to draw me into a kiss, and I pulled away. A kiss would undo me.

His hands dropped away from me. His voice held the first hint of anger. It took a lot to make Nathaniel angry. "It's just a movie, Anita. I'm not even asking for sex, just a movie."

I glanced up at him. "I'd rather go home and have sex."

"Which is why I asked for the movie," he said.

I frowned at him. "What?"

"Are you embarrassed about being seen with me in public?"

"No." I let my face show how much it shocked me that he'd even have to ask.

His face was very serious, hurt, ready to be angry. "Then what is it? You won't even kiss me."

I tried to explain. "I forgot everything but you for a minute."

He smiled, his eyes not quite catching up to it. "Is that so bad?"

"In my line of work, yes." I watched him try to understand. He was beautiful, but I could look at him without being stupid-faced. I moved closer to the smell of the new leather coat. I hugged him, and after a second's hesitation he hugged me back. I buried my face against the scent of leather and him. Sweet, clean, and underneath that the smell of vanilla. I knew now that it was only partially him, that some of that sweet scent was bath products and cologne, but the scent he wore didn't smell so lusciously of vanilla on anyone else's skin. One of those tricks of skin chemistry that changes the scent of the really good perfumes.

"We need to get seats." He whispered it against my hair.

I drew away from him, frowning again. I shook my head and that only partially cleared it. I reached into my coat pocket for a small, padded velvet bag. I opened it and dug the padding out until a cross spilled into my hand. It lay there silver and inert. I'd half expected it to glow, to show me that some vamp was messing with me. But it lay there, innocent and untouched.

"What is wrong, Anita?" Nathaniel looked worried now.

"I think someone's messing with me."

"The cross isn't showing it."

"You're scrumptious, Nathaniel, but it's not like me to lose focus this badly in public."

"You think Mommie Dearest is trying again?" he asked.

Mommie Dearest was my nickname for the head of the vampire council, the creator of vampire culture. The last time she'd messed with me, a cross had burned into my hand and had to be pried out by a doctor. I had a permanent scar in my left palm from it. Up to now the cross, in a bag or under my bed, had kept her at bay.

"I don't know, maybe."

"There aren't that many vamps that can get through your psychic shields," he said.

I slipped the chain over my neck, the silver glittering against the thin silk sweater.

"You sure that's enough cloth between your skin and the cross?"

"No, but I don't think it's Mommie."

He sighed and tried to keep the frown off his face. "Do you need to skip the movie?"

"No, Jean-Claude said we'd be safe tonight."

"Okay," Nathaniel said, "but I don't like the way you said that. What's gone wrong now?"

"Let's find seats and I'll tell you what little I know," I said. We managed to find two seats in the back row so my back was to a wall and I could see the rest of the theatre. I wasn't being paranoid, or at least not more paranoid than usual. I always sat in the back row, if I could manage it.

By the time the previews had finished, I'd told him everything I knew, which wasn't much.

"And that's all Jean-Claude would tell you?"

"Yep."

"Way too mysterious."

"Understatement," I said.

The music came up, the lights went down, and for the life of me I couldn't remember what movie we'd decided to see. I didn't ask Nathaniel, because it might have hurt his feelings, and besides, in moments, the question would answer itself.

Chapter Four

THREE HOURS AND some change later, I knew the movie was the new version of King Kong. Nathaniel liked the movie better than I did. The special effects were great, but I was way ready for the ape to die long before he did. Which was a shame, since some of the movie was amazing. My cross hadn't glowed once, and I hadn't been more than normally fascinated with Nathaniel. Normally fascinated meant that sitting in date seats in the dark was intimate and fun, but it didn't make me lose control. I thought about letting my hands wander, and with the other men in my life, I might have, but Nathaniel had less inhibitions than most. I might start something I wouldn't want to finish in the theatre. Besides, you can't watch the movie and grope your boyfriend, or at least I can't.

One thing I had to do after a movie that long was take a restroom break. Riddle me this: Why is it that there is never a line for the men's room, but the women's always seems to have one? I did my bit in line, then finally got into the stall. At least it was clean.

The noise died away and let me know I was alone. Long damn line. I tucked and buckled everything back into place. One of the things I liked about shoulder holsters as opposed to carrying on the hip is that you don't run the risk of dumping the gun in the toilet. Inner pants holsters that don't go through a belt loop are some of the most precarious for bathroom use. Guns, unlike pagers, do not float.

I smoothed the stockings in place, glad that I wasn't having to struggle with pantyhose anymore. Garter and stockings really are more comfortable. The bathroom was empty as I pushed the door open. I started for the sinks when I saw the box sitting across one of them. "Anita" was printed on the box in black block letters.

That little dickens. How had Nathaniel gotten in here to leave a present? If he'd been caught in the ladies' restroom, it could have gone badly. I washed and dried my hands, then opened the box. I had to fold back layers of white tissue paper before I found a mask. It was white and would have covered everything but the eyes from forehead to chin. It was utterly plain, a blank white face staring up at me. Why would he buy me this? If it had been leather and fetish-looking, I might have guessed something more adventurous on the sexual front, but this didn't look like that kind of mask. Of course, I wasn't an expert on that kind of mask, so maybe that was what it was for. If so, he hadn't sold me on the idea. I didn't like masks, and I was far from comfortable with bondage and submission. The fact that I had leanings that way myself hadn't made me like it more; on the contrary, it scared me more because of it. You hate most in others what you're afraid of in yourself.

I tried to find an expression that was neutral, but pleased, and walked out carrying the box. Nathaniel was waiting against the far wall, holding both our coats and his hat. The leather hat got hot indoors. He smiled when he saw me and walked toward me with a quizzical look on his face. "Did someone leave that in the bathroom?"

I showed him that it had my name on it. "I thought you were trying to surprise me."

"You hate surprises," he said.

My pulse sped up, not a lot, but a little. I moved us so that the wall was at my back. I was suddenly looking at the people near us, looking hard; but everyone looked innocent, or at least not guilty. Couples holding hands, families with kids in tow: it all looked normal.

"What's in there?" Nathaniel asked.

"A mask," I whispered.

"Can I see it?"

I nodded.

He moved the lid and tissue paper, while I kept searching the happy moviegoers for evil intent. There was a couple staring a little too hard at us, but that could be other things.

"It looks like someone started to make a mask and stopped before they finished," he said.

"Yeah, it looks too blank."

"Why would someone give you this?"

"Did you see someone carry this in?"

"It's a big box, Anita. I'd have noticed."

"Did anyone carry in a bigger-than-average purse?"

"Not one big enough to hide this."

"You were standing right there, Nathaniel. You had to see."

We exchanged a look. "I didn't see this."

"Shit," I said low and with feeling.

"Someone was messing with you earlier, and they messed with me to get inside the bathroom," he said.

"Did you sense anything?" I asked.

He thought about it, and finally shook his head. "No."

"Double shit."

"Call Jean-Claude, now," he said.

I nodded and handed him the box so I could use my cell phone. Nathaniel wrapped the mask back up while I waited for Jean-Claude to pick up. This time he actually answered his office phone himself. "I got a present," I said.

"What did our pussycat buy you?" he asked, not offended that I hadn't said hello first.

"Nathaniel didn't buy it."

"It is not like you to speak in riddles, ma petite."

"Ask me what it is," I said.

"What is it?" and his voice was sliding into that blankness he did so well.

"A mask."

"What color is it?"

"You don't sound surprised," I said.

"What color is it, ma petite?"

"What does that matter?"

"It matters."

"White, why?"

He let out a breath I hadn't known he was holding, and spoke softly and heatedly in French for several minutes, until I could get him calmed down enough to speak English to me.

"It is good news, and bad, ma petite. White means they have come to observe us, not to harm us."

I moved so that my hand covered my mouth as I talked. I wanted to keep an eye on the drifting crowd, but I didn't want some human to overhear what promised to be a tricky conversation. But I didn't want to go outside until I found out how much danger we were in. The crowd was both a danger and a help. Most bad guys are reluctant to start cutting people up in a crowd. "What color would mean harm?" I asked.

"Red."

"Okay, who is they, because I assume this means we've been contacted by the mystery whoever."

"It does."

"So who are they, what are they? And why the hell this cloak-and-dagger shit with the mask? Why not a letter or a phone call?"

"I am not certain. They would normally have sent the mask to me, as Master of the City."

"Why send it to me, then?"

"I do not know, ma petite" He sounded angry, and he didn't usually get angry this easily.

"You're scared."

"Very."

"I guess we come to the Circus tonight, after all."

"Apologize to Nathaniel for this ruining his date with you, but oui, you must come here. We have much to discuss."

"Who are these guys, Jean-Claude?"

"The name will mean nothing to you."

"Just tell me."

"The Harlequin, they are the Harlequin."

"Harlequin, you mean like the French clown?"

"Nothing half so pleasant, ma petite. Come home and I will explain."

"How much more danger are we in?" The couple was still staring at us. The woman nudged the man, and he shook his head.

"White means they will observe only. This could be the only contact we have with them, if we are very, very lucky. They will watch us, then leave."

"Why tell us at all, if that's all they plan to do?"

"Because it is our law. They may pass through a territory, or hunt someone across a territory, much as you hunt wicked vampires across state lines, but if they are planning to be within an area for more than a few nights, then they are bound by law to contact the Master of the City."

"So this could be all about Malcolm and his church."

"It could."

"You don't believe that."

"It would be too easy, ma petite, and nothing about the Harlequin is ever easy."

"What are they?"

"They are the closest thing to police that we vampires have. But they are also spies, assassins. It was they who slew the Master of London when he went mad."

"Elinore and the other vamps didn't say that."

"Because they could not."

"You mean, if they had told anyone who killed their master, they'd have been killed?"

"Yes."

"That's crazy, they all knew it."

"Among themselves, oui, but not to outsiders, and once the Harlequin leave town the secrecy takes effect once more."

"So we can talk about them now, but later, when they leave, it's forbidden to mention them?"

"Oui."

"That's insane."

"It is law."

"Have I told you recently that some of the vampire laws are stupid?"

"You have never put it quite that way."

"Well, I'm putting it that way now."

"Come home, ma petite, or better yet, come to Guilty Pleasures. I will tell you more of the history of the Harlequin when I have you safe with me. We should be safe. It is a white mask. We are expected to act as if there is nothing wrong. So I will finish my work night."

"You've fed the ardeur. You're done for the night."

"There are still acts to manage and my voice to lend to a microphone."

"Fine. Well be there."

Nathaniel whispered, "They're coming over."

I glanced up to find the couple that had been staring so hard walking toward us. They didn't look dangerous, and they were definitely human. I whispered into the telephone, "Are all the Harlequin vamps?"

"To my knowledge, why?"

"We've got a pair of humans walking toward us."

"Come to me, ma petite, and bring Nathaniel."

"Love ya," I said.

"And I you."

We hung up so I could give my attention to the couple. The woman was petite and blond, and embarrassed and eager at the same time. The man was grumpy, or embarrassed.

"You're Brandon," she said to Nathaniel.

He admitted it, and I watched his stage smile come on line. He was happy to see her, and all the worry was just gone. He was on.

I didn't really have an "on" face. I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to do while strange women came up and said things to my boyfriend.

"But you were on stage, too," she said, turning to me. I'd been recognized as Anita Blake, vampire hunter, zombie raiser, but never from that one night I'd gone on stage at Guilty Pleasures. Nathaniel had picked me out of the crowd instead of some stranger. I'd agreed to it, but I hadn't wanted to do it again.

I nodded. "Once." I felt Nathaniel tense beside me. I should have just said yes. Nathaniel worried that I was embarrassed by him, and I wasn't. It was fine that he was a stripper, but it wasn't my gig. I was not nearly exhibitionist enough for it.

"I'd finally persuaded Greg to go with me to the club, and he was glad he came, weren't you?" She turned to the grumpy boyfriend.

He finally nodded, and he wouldn't look at me. Definitely embarrassed. That made two of us. None of my clothes had come off on stage, but I still didn't like being reminded of it.

"It was so erotic, what you did on stage together," she said, "so sensual."

Nathaniel said, "So glad you enjoyed the show. I'll be on stage tomorrow night."

Her face glowed with happiness. "I know. I check the website. But it doesn't mention your friend." She nodded at me. "Greg wants to know when you'll be back, don't you, Greg?" She was looking at me when she said it.

What I thought in my head was, When hell freezes over, I don't know what I would have said out loud, because Nathaniel saved us. "You know how you had to persuade Greg to come to the club?"

She nodded.

"I had to persuade her to get on stage."

"Really?" she said.

"Really," Nathaniel said.

Greg finally spoke. "Was it your first time on stage?"

"Yes," I said, wondering how to get out of this conversation without being rude. I'd have been rude, but Nathaniel wouldn't be. Bad for business, and rude just wasn't one of the things that he did much.

"It didn't seem like your first time," and he looked at me then. The look was the kind you never want a strange man to give you. Too much heat, too much sex.

I looked at Nathaniel. The look said clearly, End this conversation, or I will.

Nathaniel understood the look; he'd seen it enough. "I'm glad you enjoyed the show, and I hope to see you both again tomorrow. Have a wonderful night." He started to move away, and I followed.

Greg moved closer to us. "Will you be there tomorrow night?"

Nathaniel smiled, and said, "Of course."

He shook his head. "Not you, her. What's her name?"

I didn't want to give him my name. Don't ask me why, but I didn't. Nathaniel came to the rescue again. "Nicky."

I gave him a look, but my back was to them, so they couldn't see it. Greg said, "Nicky?"

Nathaniel took my arm and kept us moving, balancing the box in his other hand. "When she's on stage," he said.

"When will Nicky be at the club?"

"Never," I said, and walked faster. Nathaniel kept up with me. When we were clear of his, our, fans, his face showed dread. Dreading the fight that was coming.


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