The Harlequin / Chapter 31-32

Chapter 31-32


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Chapter Thirty-one

CISCO AND PETER both had their guns out. I'd have loved to go for a gun or a knife, but wrestling the weretiger took both my hands. She wasn't trying that hard to close on my throat, and the hand at my belly was almost immobile except for the fact that the hooked claws she'd conjured from her skin had pierced my side.

She called to the boys, "Don't yell for help or she's dead. I don't want her dead. Just let me leave with her and I won't hurt her."

"You've already hurt her, I can smell the blood," Cisco said. His gun was very steady on us, but she'd taken all his kill shots. If they only wounded her, she would have time to kill me before they could kill her.

"A little prick, that's all. She likes pricks, don't you, Anita?"

My voice was a little strained from keeping her hand from my throat. The claws weren't as big as they seemed, they only looked huge because the human flesh didn't cover the bone of the tiger claw. But they were plenty big enough to tear out my throat. I might survive the gut wound, but the throat would be fatal. I managed to say through gritted teeth, "If you're going to kill me, do it, but don't make fun of me, too."

She laughed, a throaty sound. Her power flared, hot, so hot, almost burning. Hot liquid burst over my back and hair. My first thought was blood, but I knew better. It was that clear liquid that shifters lost when they changed. When the change was smooth it was like heated water; when it wasn't smooth it was gelatinous and chunky. This flowed like water. She never hesitated, or stumbled, as her body re-formed around me. Fur and muscle flowed under my hands. Her power ran over my body like biting insects, so much power, it hurt. Had she thought I'd panic and let go? She had the wrong girl for panic. I kept my grip on her as fur replaced bare skin. I didn't let go even as my skin danced and jerked as if she'd laid a live wire against me. Jesus, the control she had, to be able to shift this smoothly. She was better than Micah, and that was saying something. It would have been impressive if I hadn't been wondering how close her new fangs were to my spine. Part of me noticed that her fur was the wrong color. She was striped pale lemon gold and white. Weren't tigers orange and black? If I lived, I'd ask someone.

"You're one of the Harlequin's animals to call," Cisco said.

She growled, "Yes."

"You'll never make it out of here if you hurt Anita," Cisco said.

"She knows where my mistress rests in the day; I can't let her share that knowledge, can I, Cisco?"

He flinched at her using his name. Always harder to kill someone you know.

"Because if your master dies, you die." Peter said it. He was pointing his gun at the floor, as if he knew he didn't have a shot he could take. Remus had told me that Cisco had some of the highest scores on the gun range of any guard. I was about to bet my life on his skill.

Her hand strained toward my neck again, and I put a lot of effort into holding it off. Her arm was a steady push; mine was shaking. "You belong to Mercia," I said.

"No," she growled, and eased a few sliding steps backward. Cisco and Peter moved the same space forward. It was like an awkward dance.

"Nivia," I said.

"How do you know the names?"

"Does it matter?" I asked.

"Yes," she whispered. "Tell me who's talked to you."

"Jesus, Soledad, don't make me do this," Cisco said.

Soledad stopped whispering to me and called to Cisco, "You're a good shot, Cisco, but are you that good? Are you sure you're that good?"

It was plain on his face that in that moment he wasn't sure. I guess I wouldn't have been either. I'd have given a great deal for Edward in that moment. Or Remus, or Claudia.

Peter said, "What's the rule?"

Cisco almost glanced at him, but remembered and kept his eyes on us, his gun steady, but he didn't have a killing shot and he knew it. Soledad began to back down the hallway with me in her arms. Just a few steps, but slow and steady.

Cisco and Peter moved with us. Cisco had his gun pointed, but frankly he was as likely to hit me as the weretiger. No, more likely. Peter's gun was still pointed at the floor. He didn't seem to know what to do.

Peter said, "The rule is that if they have a weapon and want to take you someplace else, it's so they can kill you slower." His voice was almost a monotone, as if he were reciting.

I thought I understood what he meant. I hoped I did, because I was about to encourage him. "You're right, Peter," I said.

He looked up. His eyes met mine. Cisco said, "God." I threw my head back, used all that long hair to cover her eyes for a second. Peter dropped to one knee and shot at her legs. The shots reverberated in the hallway. Soledad dropped abruptly to her knees, but claws curled deeper inside me, her other hand trying for my throat for real this time. I made a choice. I let go of the wrist at my stomach and used both hands to keep her from tearing out my throat. Two-handed to her one and I was losing. She clawed at my side and stomach. It felt like she'd hit me with a baseball bat, so much damage, like a blow. It stole my breath, or I'd have screamed.

Cisco and Peter were there, standing over us. There still wasn't a clear shot. She tried to crawl backward on her wounded legs, while I held on to her hand, and held it a fraction away from my throat. Cisco was still trying to find a shot. Peter threw himself onto us, he just jumped us, and we were all on the ground with her underneath us. She stopped trying for my throat and reached for Peter. I was suddenly trying to wrestle her hand away from him instead of me. Her hand wasn't on my stomach anymore. Peter's body reacted as if something hurt. But I kept her off his throat. It was all I could do. I had a moment of being pressed between them, and then the gunshots exploded just behind my head. It was insanely loud that close to me. I kept my grip on her as the inside of my head rocked with the sound of gunfire beside it. Her body jerked, and still she tried for my throat again. The change of angle startled me, and she might have nicked me, but I didn't feel it.

Peter kept firing; his gun must have been pressed into her head. We ended up on the ground in a breathless, deaf heap. He was up on one arm, his gun still shoved into her face. Peter's T-shirt was in rags over his stomach. Cisco was above us; his lips were moving, but I couldn't hear him. I rolled free of the pile. I had my gun out and pointed before my back hit the wall, before I could truly see what was happening.

Soledad's head was a red mass. There was no face left. Brains were leaking all over the floor, her brains. Even for a weretiger, this was dead. Peter was still over the body, his gun pumping into that mass of tissue. I think he was dry-firing by now, but I couldn't hear well enough to say. Cisco knelt beside him, his lips moving, but I couldn't make out the words. He got Peter to stop firing into the body, then tried to ease Peter off her. Peter let him ease him back onto his knees, then Peter popped his empty magazine out, put it in his left jacket pocket, got a spare clip out of his right-hand pocket, and reloaded. His stock was pretty high with me right then; the reload made it go higher. Maybe we wouldn't get him killed.

Cisco tried to get him to stand up and move away from the body. I think Cisco was worried about how Peter would react when the shock wore off. It made me think better of Cisco. Then a lot of things happened at once. I couldn't hear it, but I must have seen movement out of the corner of my eye, because I turned to see Edward and company come barreling down the hallway, guns drawn. The door to Richard's room was open, and he was leaning in it. His beautiful chest was a mass of scars on one side. He was pale as death, and looked as if the only thing keeping him upright was the doorway. The scars showed where the bullets had taken a chunk out of all that nice muscled flesh. Sometimes silver scars. He mouthed something, but I still couldn't hear anything but the ringing silence in my own head. Gunshot too close to the ear. I'd be lucky if my hearing wasn't permanently damaged.

I felt movement nearer to me, and turned, but I was slow. I think Peter wasn't the only one in shock. Cisco was pulling Peter to his feet by the collar of his jacket. Cisco was shouting something. I couldn't see what the problem was - there was nothing but Soledad's body. Then I looked at the body and realized that she was still in tiger form. Her body hadn't reverted to human form. Dead shapeshifters always revert to human form. I raised my gun and had it aimed, when the "body" sprang up and threw itself at Peter and Cisco.

Chapter Thirty-two

CISCO FOULED PETER'S shot by throwing his body in the way of the claws. I got off two shots before the faceless body brought them to the floor. And I was suddenly having the same problem they'd just had, trying to find a place to fire into that fur that wouldn't hit the two boys underneath it. They had saved my life and I still thought, Boys.

Claudia and Remus got there first, because you just can't outrun a shapeshifter. Edward and Olaf were close behind, but they didn't get there first. It was Claudia and Remus who joined me around the struggling pile. A gun fired up through the tiger's chest. Claudia actually pushed me out of the way hard enough that I fell against the wall. Too many guns in too small a space; friendly fire was as dangerous to us as Soledad.

Whoever was shooting was trying to make a hole through her chest. Her body jerked and jumped with the power of it. She staggered to her feet. I swear that I could see the hallway through the hole in her lower chest. But even as I watched, the muscle began to flow like water, healing. Shit. It was Peter who had shot a hole through her. Cisco was trying to breathe through a throat that wasn't there anymore.

Edward and Olaf were beside each other, firing into Soledad's body like they were on a shooting range. So cool, so professional, so accurate. It was a little hard to miss her at this range.

Some of the guards had gone to their knees around Edward, Olaf, Remus, and Claudia, some standing, some kneeling so they wouldn't get in each other's way, a very organized slaughter. The tiger's body jumped and danced with the bullets like some sort of spasming puppet. But she didn't go down. I fired from the wall where Claudia had thrown me. I emptied my clip into Soledad and watched her body and fur flow over the wounds. It was fucking silver and she was treating it like it was ordinary bullets. I'd never seen a shapeshifter able to do that. Even fairies, once you opened a hole in them that big, didn't heal like this. I emptied my clip and did almost exactly what Peter had done earlier, except that my extra clip was attached to my belt. She wasn't acting like a wereanything. She was acting like a rotting vampire, that special kind of undead that were rare in the United States. Of course, her master wasn't from around here.

My hearing was coming back in my left ear, because I could hear screaming, distantly, as if they weren't all standing right next to me. My right ear was still a buzzing silence. I yelled, "Fire, we need to set her on fire!" I must have yelled it too loud because they all looked at me. I yelled, "Burn her!"

Olaf took off running back down the corridor. Seeing him run away actually distracted me enough that I jumped when the guns started firing again. I turned back to the action, and found the body up and moving again. The face had grown back, but the chest was a gaping wound. Her lungs had to be gone, but she moved; she jumped at me in one of those long arcs that made her body a golden smear of light. I fired at that blur until my gun clicked empty. I dropped the empty gun and went for a blade, and knew I'd never make it.

A second blur was in front of me, and we were crashing back into the wall, hard enough that I saw stars before I realized that the second blur was Claudia. She'd thrown her body in the way, and was slugging it out hand to claw. She must have been out of ammo, too. Those claws sliced up her chest, and she went into a defensive crouch, protecting herself as well as she could. The tiger screamed, or roared at us, and then turned and ran the other way. It was almost funny, because for a breath we all just stood there. Then almost as a mass we ran after her. My stomach didn't so much hurt as twinge, as if the muscles weren't working quite right. It made me stumble, then I found my feet, and I ran. If I could run, I couldn't be that hurt, right? I could feel blood flowing down the front of me, soaking into my jeans. If Soledad got out, she might move the vamps, or warn someone, or set up an ambush. We had to stop her, had to. But we couldn't run like the shapeshifters ran. Remus and the others passed Edward and me as if we were standing still.

They bayed her at the double glass doors. They bayed her within sight of the parking lot, in sight of freedom. Remus was cut up now, too. They formed a circle around her, double thick in front of the doors. She crouched in the center of that circle, snarling at them. She was all gold and white, and even after everything I could still see that she was beautiful. Graceful in that way that the cat lycanthropes seemed to be. Her tail twitched, tight and angry.

Edward popped a fresh magazine home. He pulled the slide back and put one in the chamber. The sound echoed around the circle. Not everyone had more clips; some, like me, were out, but enough of them did that it was eerie and businesslike.

Soledad snarled with her tiger fangs. "My death will not stop the Harlequin from killing you. My mistress's death will not protect you from the wild hunt that is coming."

"You didn't give us a black mask," I said.

Her orange-yellow eyes turned to me. She made a noise that was between a growl and a purr. The sound of it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. "You will die."

"The vampire council is all about rules, Soledad. It's against your own laws to kill us when you've only given us white masks, something about fair play and all that."

I wasn't great at reading even people I knew in animal form, but I thought she looked afraid. "If you kill us, the rest of them will hunt you down, Anita. It is against vampire law to slay the Harlequin."

"I'm not killing you as Jean-Claude's vampire servant. I'm killing you and your mistress as a federal marshal and a legal vampire executioner."

"I know your laws, Anita. You have no warrant for us."

"I have two warrants for two vampires that look a damned sight like your Mercia and your mistress."

Again there was that flinching through her alien eyes. I was just getting better at reading furry faces. Bully for me.

"The warrants list names of church members," Soledad purred.

"But the warrant is worded sort of vaguely. It states that I can kill the vampire responsible for the death of the victim, and that I can, at my discretion, kill anyone who assisted in that death. It also allows me to kill anyone who tries to impede me in carrying out my court-appointed duty." I looked into that strangely beautiful face. "Which means you."

Olaf was beside Edward. He had a can of WD-40 in his hand and a torch made of rags bound to what looked like the end of a metal mop handle. There was a sharp oily smell from it all. He said in that deep voice, "I was going to go for the ordnance in the car, but the janitor's closet was closer."

I almost asked what he meant by ordnance, but was probably glad I didn't know. Though maybe what they had in their car would have been quicker than what we were about to do to her. Olaf had Edward light the torch. Apparently he'd soaked it in something, because it burned clear and bright.

Claudia told the people on the far side of the room to clear a space. They parted like a curtain and left Soledad in a clear kill space. The guards formed two lines, one kneeling and one standing. They took their stances, and Edward joined them.

Claudia yelled, "Head or heart!"

Soledad leapt, not toward the double line of doors and freedom, or the firing squad, but the thinner line that led back down the hall. The guns all seemed to sound at once. That liquid leap of gold and silver crumbled to the floor. She could heal, but the initial injury was real. They fired into her until she twitched, but didn't try to rise again.

Olaf turned so I could see the gun tucked in the back of his belt. "Cover me."

I kept expecting my wound to catch up with me, but the adrenaline was carrying me. I'd pay for it later, but right now I felt fine. I wrapped my hand around the gun and pulled it free of the inner pants holster. I'd expected Olaf to go for something big, but it wasn't. It was an H & K USP Compact. I'd looked at one before I settled on the Kahr. I clasped it in a two-handed grip and aimed it at the fallen weretiger. "Ready when you are," I said.

Olaf glided into the circle with his torch and his squeezy can of accelerant. I didn't glide, I just walked, but I was at his side when he got to her. I was at his side when he sprayed accelerant over her ruined face and chest. The world suddenly smelled thick and oily. She reacted to the liquid or the smell, reaching out at us. I shot her in the face. The gun jumped in my hands, so it was pointed at the ceiling before it came back down to point at her.

"What the fuck is in this?" I asked.

He shoved the torch into the wound I'd made, and she started to scream. The smell of burning hair was strong and bitter. It began to overwhelm the scent of the accelerant. He set her afire. He covered her in the thick oily liquid and burned her. She was too hurt to do much, but she could scream, and writhe. It looked like it hurt. It smelled like burning hair, and finally, when she stopped moving, it smelled like burning meat, and oil. She made a high-pitched keening noise for a very, very long time.

Edward had moved up beside me to aim his gun with the one Olaf had loaned me. The three of us stood there while Soledad died by pieces. When she stopped moving, stopped making noise, I said, "Get an axe." I think I actually said it in a normal voice. I could hear out of one ear at least. The one that Peter had shot beside was still out for the count. It made sound echo oddly in my head.

"What?" Edward asked.

"She heals like one of the vampires that descends from the Lover of Death."

"I do not know this name," Olaf said.

"Rotting vampires, she heals like one of the rotting vamps. Even sunlight isn't a sure thing. I need an axe, and a knife, a big, sharp one."

"You will take her head," Olaf asked.

"Yeah, you can do the heart, if you want."

He looked down at the body. She was human now, lying on her back, legs spread. Most of her face was gone, and her lower chest; one breast was burned and blasted away, but the other one was still pale and perky. One side of her hair, the yellow of her tiger fur, was still there. There was no face, no eyes to stare up at us. I might have been grateful for that except that staring into the blackened, peeling ruin of her face wasn't really an improvement.

I swallowed hard enough that it hurt. My throat burned as if breakfast might be trying to come back up. I tried a deep breath, but the smell of burnt flesh also wasn't an improvement. I ended up breathing shallow and trying not to think too hard.

"I will find her heart for you," Olaf said, and I was glad my hearing wasn't quite working right. It made his voice sound flat and lose a lot of the inflection. If I'd heard all the longing in his voice that I saw on his face I might have shot him. I was betting his special ammo would have made a really big hole in a human body. I thought about it, I really did, but in the end I gave him back his gun. He extinguished his torch. Someone brought us an axe and a freshly sharpened knife. I was really missing my vampire kit, but it was at home, no, at the Circus.

Her spine was brittle from the fire, easiest decapitation I'd ever done. Olaf was having to dig in her chest to find the pieces of burnt and bloody heart. We'd made a mess of her. I kicked the head a little ways from the body. Yeah, I wanted to burn the head and heart and scatter the ashes over moving water, but she was dead. I kicked the head again, so that it skittered across the floor, too burned to bleed.

My knees wouldn't hold me anymore. I collapsed where I was standing with the axe still in my hands.

Edward knelt beside me. He touched the front of my shirt. His hand came away crimson like he'd dipped it in red paint. He ripped my shirt open to my chest. The claw marks looked like angry, jagged mouths. There was something pink and bloody and shiny bulging out of one of the mouths like a swollen tongue.

"Shit," I said.

"Does it hurt yet?" he asked.

"No," and my voice sounded amazingly calm. Shock was a wonderful thing.

"We need to get you to a doctor before that changes," he said, and his voice was calm, too. He wrapped his arms around me and stood, cradling me. He started back the way we'd come at a fast walk. "Does that hurt?" he asked.

"No," I said again, my voice distant and too calm. Even I knew I was too calm, but I felt sort of distant and unreal. Let's hear it for shock.

He started running down the hallway with me in his arms. "Does it hurt now?" he asked.

"No."

He ran faster.


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