Damali smiled. "Rider, hang here and try to chill. I'll come back and get you, and then we'll do the Coroner's Office together - but you keep tabs on the hospital morgue, see if they moved Dejesus downtown yet for an autopsy. Turn on the monitor and your transmitter if you leave here for any reason, so J.L. and the team can stay with you. We don't want to lose you either, Jake Rider. You're a perpetual pain in the ass, but we still love you."
"Now I have to be Lojacked like a car? Aw, man, gimme a break." Rider let out a resigned sigh and ran his fingers through his hair.
"And where are you going, HI' sis?"
Mike's question made Rider stop complaining, as both guardians looked at her hard with concern.
"You know where I'm going," she said.
"Be back at Rider's side, or mine, before dark," Mike said, his tone telling her that he'd brook no argument. "We're not trying to lose you, either."
* * *
Damali shrugged off the security frisk as the bodyguard completed it. Bastard didn't need to feel her up, just check for a weapon. She didn't have a gun, so what the hell?
"You can follow me," he told her, smiling too much for her liking.
She let the irritation pass and steadied her line of vision to focus on Carlos's office door, looking beyond the guard's too-tight black T-shirt, which strained against the muscular bulk that made up his stocky frame. When she entered the room and saw Carlos, his silent appraisal both grated her and worked on a section of her emotions that she'd turned off. She didn't even want to name the conflicting sensations in her head right now. This was business.
He rose briefly, sitting after she had. "Long time no see," he said in a quiet voice. "It's cool," he told the bodyguard who had ushered Damali in. "Practically family."
Damali watched the man leave them with a nod, and returned her attention to Carlos. He looked healthy. Color was good. It was still daytime. All good signs. She glimpsed the reflective surfaces in the room. He gave off an image. But the question was, could he have become one of the vampire helpers - human traitors that sold off his friends and family for power? He'd risen awfully fast.
She studied the lines of tension in his face; he still wore his silver cross. And, Lord help her, the man was still fine ... had the body of life, showing every rock-solid definition in it through his turquoise silk shirt... the color looked good on his bronzed skin. Leather pants. She would try her best not to remember those black leather pants.
"You look good, too," Carlos said after a moment of surveying her again with a knowing smile. "Life seems to be treating you well."
"This isn't a social call, Carlos." She kept her voice even like her gaze. Arrogant bastard. He got on her nerves.
"I knew it wouldn't be," he replied, leaning forward on his desk, but still seeming relaxed enough to be amused. "Your people called and wanted to book a gig here. I figured that with Blood Music blowing up large, and doing this worldwide simultaneous concert, maybe you'd finally changed your mind about never performing in the hottest club network in L.A.?"
"Yeah. Saw the news about the international concert in the papers, and every entertainment show has been blasting it." She stared at him as his smile broadened.
"I told your manager that it was cool for you to perform here." Carlos took his time choosing his words, his gaze holding Damali's. "What I didn't tell her was that, since the sons-of-bitches have snubbed my clubs repeatedly, I would love to see somebody else pull some of their profit - maybe move on their territory one day. Then I heard from you - the only one who could do it. Welcome."
Damali shook her head. "That's not why I'm here, either." She watched him carefully ease back and assess her. "I'm here because of what happened to your boys."
Something in his expression shifted. A deep sadness registered in the depths of his eyes - pain, remorse, guilt - it flickered past her so fast that she almost didn't see it. Then he lowered his gaze, smoothed the front of his silk shirt, and looked up. Pure, chilling fury reflected back at her now from his handsome face. Any sign of vulnerability was gone.
"I appreciate that you came to pay your respects, and wanted to book an event here as a peace offering between you and me. Thank you. You've always been cool people, D. Always had my back, even though we've had our philosophical differences."
She watched as he stood and walked to his bar. She wouldn't correct him, however. If he thought she was here as a mourner, so be it. If he thought the gig was her way of paying homage to his crew - so be it. And yet, she wrestled with that knowledge.
"Do you want a drink? I need one to talk about this shit."
"No. I'm good."
"Yes ... you always were," he murmured, pouring a drink for himself, studying the glass with a chuckle, and then returning to his chair behind his desk. "Still holistic, my barrios church girl. Amazing."
"Carlos, what happened?" Her voice was a murmur as she tried to shake off the effect of his intense appraisal.
"You've read the newspapers." He smiled.
"I wanted to hear it from you."
He took a sip of his drink and let the liquid roll over his tongue. "I know about as much as they know. But I'm glad that you finally came to me ... without my having to call you ... at least not in the traditional way."
She cocked her head to the side.
He chuckled and took another sip of his drink. "Let's say you've been on my mind lately ... been calling you from here." Carlos tapped his temple. "Perhaps, since all this went down. Who knows?"
She remained very, very still as her fingertips began to tingle, all senses keened and readied with adrenaline.
He briefly closed his eyes with another sip of the dark liquor and breathed in deeply, then smiled sadly as he swallowed. "What are you wearing?"
Almost rendered mute by the question and the expression on his face, she raised an eyebrow.
"The perfume? The scent. Name it for me."
"Just name it, so I can remember it."
"Okay, look," she said, standing quickly and walking to a far end of the room. "This is way off track. I wanted to ask you - "
"My bad," he cut in, his smile widening, then tapering off as she leveled a warning glare at him. "I've lost a lot of hombres. My inner family. Juan this morning... . Then you walked through my door unannounced... . And I wanted to just forget about everything but you for a while."
"I'm not a drug, Carlos. Never was, and never will be." It was odd, but she'd meant to use a harsher tone when she told him off. She had to find something else in the room to stare at besides him.
"Then I guess you still don't know your own power ... one that can leave a man strung out. It's dangerous not to know one's own power." His voice was quiet, and his expression tender before he looked away.
"Did you get high this morning or something? You're talking crazy, and we're way off the subject of why I'm here." Her comment was sarcastic, but just didn't have the desired effect upon him. It was supposed to piss him off, get him to stick to the subject, and not make him look at her like that... not with the expression that allowed her to see his soul beneath the hard "You know I never touch my own product. That's how I stay in control and wealthy." His tone was calm, but there was a slow, intense smolder of offended dignity within his eyes.
She could feel her breaths coming in quick bursts of fury. His cool demeanor was messing with her head, and he was so blind! "You are not in control of what's going down here, Carlos. You need to get with that."
"Sit down," he ordered, now standing himself. "What do you know that I should know?"
All sexual tension vanished. Again, like a shape-shifter, his expression had instantly changed; giving way to the hardness of spirit that had driven her from him in the first place. He rounded his high-backed leather chair, abandoned his glass on his desk, and walked toward her so quickly that she reflexively went into a fight stance.
"What is wrong with you?" He seemed absolutely appalled that she was prepared to defend herself from a strike as though he'd hit her. Taken aback, he moved away.
She blinked and relaxed.
"You think I would hit you? Why?" Hurt and stunned anger filled his eyes. "Have I ever hurt you?"
He circled her and she matched his motion as they both walked counterclockwise to each other.
"If you know something, D, then tell me. Who did my boys? I know you'd come to warn me if you knew ... heard something on the streets, right? But you're so jumpy that now you're making me wonder. Don't fuck with me, baby. You know me well enough to know better than that - it would break my heart to have to ... •well. Lemme just say, don't go there. Talk."
"You're threatening me, now, huh, Carlos?" She'd stopped walking. "Did I just hear you right?"
He looked away toward the glass wall that overlooked his club. "I didn't mean it like that. We're all on edge."
"Your boys," she said, nearly speaking through her teeth, "chose a lifestyle - your lifestyle - that constantly puts them in danger. It puts other people in danger, and it weakens our community from the inside out."
Carlos chuckled and his shoulders relaxed. He walked further away from her and collected his drink, and then sat down heavily in his plush leather chair. He let out a breath and took a sip.
"Oh, baby ..." He shook his head and laughed harder, the tone becoming sadder. "You came all the way down here to preach at me? God bless you, you haven't changed a bit. I miss our arguments about my business." He took another sip from his glass and chased the ice in it with his finger. "I really do."
His melancholy rooted her to the middle of the floor. It was an inexplicable dance, hers and his. He opened up very tender places in the center of her chest, and could just as quickly send a steel cage of protection crashing down around it.
"Listen," she whispered. "I am sorry about your family. No one should have died that way."
He looked up at her and simply nodded, but when he swallowed hard, suddenly it was difficult for her to speak. She found herself drawn to sit back down in the chair in front of him, leaning forward on her forearms with her hands folded. His hand covered hers and they both closed their eyes for a moment, allowing a long ago-memory presence before they both sat back.
"I did come to warn you," she murmured, holding his gaze.
"Talk to me," he told her in a quiet tone, no threat in his voice.
"I'm glad you're still able to wear a cross."
"I use to wear the little gold one that was a gift from my grandfather, given by my grandmother ... you know I used to never take it off. This one replaced it. That's all."
Damali nodded. "Promise me you won't stop wearing one, though. And, if you ever see anything ... unusual that frightens you - "
He laughed, cutting off her words and opening his desk drawer. Carlos shook his head as he reached in it and produced a huge, custom-designed silver automatic magnum. Setting it down carefully between them, he then slid it toward Damali with a grin.
"I don't do fear. But I do vengeance very, very well. Named my club for the skill."
"That won't work, Carlos. You can't shoot what you can't see. You have to use a higher - "
"Still trying to save my soul, baby ... and make me give all this up. What's in the center of this desk is what keeps the balance of power, not this," he chuckled, holding his cross out from his chest. "This is jewelry." He pointed to the gun, and returned it to the drawer. "That is power. And we all make choices... the subject of our running debate. Maybe one day we'll see eye to eye?"
She inhaled slowly and let it out even slower, the tightness around her heart became so heavy that she needed to stand, needed fresh air. She turned away and walked over to the wide glass and cast her gaze down to watch the club readying for the evening onslaught. "You took one path, I took another a long time ago. I just wish you could see. Every day that you stay in this, the less chance you have to get out, and the more in danger you are, just like everyone around you - dark draws to dark ... and it's already eating your boys, alive."
Her back was to him when she heard him stand and come toward her. She didn't flinch when the heat of his palms touched her shoulders as he massaged them. Nor did she pull away when he placed a gentle kiss against her neck. To her surprise her head tilted to yield to his mouth. She watched his reflection in the two-way mirrored glass and then shut her eyes. Just this morning ... if only. God help her.
"I'm already in too deep, and you know that, Damali. It would take a miracle ... it's a way of life once you choose this road, and there's no turning back - until you die." He inhaled deeply, sending a hidden tremor through her.
"Then, you go to Hell. It's so simple. Why fight it? Hell now, or Hell later. There's only a few choices for a man in my position," he murmured.
He'd breathed his statement behind his kiss, and she could still feel his breath as it swept the moist marker of where his lips had been.
"Not always," she whispered. "Sometimes miracles happen, if you believe."
He rubbed her arms and then stepped away. The loss of his heat sent a shiver through her and she unfolded her arms to wrap them around herself.
"Maybe you're right," he said. "You are here ... you cared enough to come to ask about my family, and even still try to chastise me about my lifestyle. After all these years, I guess some prayers do get answered."
As she stood watching him lean against the edge of his desk, his words knifed into her. Guilt spread and fused with old memories, becoming a palpable pain that made her palm find the center of her own chest. She had to make him understand her true purpose, and yet never give away her team. But, from way, way back, she also owed him enough information to keep him from an attack. If he perished from his lifestyle, that would be hard, but she could live with it. That had been his path, his choice. Yet, she couldn't have him stalked by something beyond his comprehension.
"There's something not human going after your family - and I'm not sure why, Carlos. And regular ammo doesn't work."
His gaze was tender when he considered her words and his smile wasn't haughty, just weary. "I know," he said. "Whoever did this wasn't human. Even in turf wars, there are rules."
"No," she corrected, still trying to get through to him. "I mean, it's not from this world. It's a demon."
He chuckled sadly and shook his head. "Now you sound like the grandmothers. Damali, go home. Baby, I got this. When you come to perform, I promise you I'll have men at every door, and won't let anything happen to you. Thanks for agreeing to a gig here to bring back the crowds ... and for the condolences. I'm cool."
It was useless. There was no way that his mind could absorb what she was trying to say. She let out a long breath, and gave up.
"Just keep your cross on."
He nodded and smiled at her.
"You be well."
"I will. Tell your mom and your family I asked for them."
"I will, baby. I'll walk you out."
As he neared her again, she stopped, and put her hand in the center of his chest. Her mind sealed it with a prayer. It didn't matter if he wore a cross, a Star of David, a star and crescent, a medicine wheel, a Yoruba amulet, a crystal, a Buddha, whatever ... each member of her team was protected by these symbols of faith because they believed. They all came from various cultures, and brought their ideologies with them. He had to understand that the symbols were powerless without the faith behind it and an affinity toward the light.
"Oh, Carlos ... you have to listen. This is worse than anything you could imagine."
"I'll be all right."
"I wish you were on our side." She looked away, not able to gaze into his eyes any longer, and not able to be this close to him.
"So do I, sometimes," he whispered with another deep inhale of her.
"If you do find yourself in a situation that you've never encountered before ... and if your gun fails, do one thing for me at the very end."
"You know the only way I'll go down is fighting." He took her hand, found the middle of her palm and pressed a kiss into her hand, then folded the kiss away within it.
"Say a prayer to God if you find yourself going down. Make that the last thing you do, if it comes to that. Promise."
He nodded, and released her hand. "If is a mighty powerful word. I don't plan on going down. That much, I'll always promise."
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