The team glanced at each other, all sensing that the beast was inside Jose's head, cracking his skull with its call. Damali's heart hurt from watching her teammate writhe in emotional agony. But the situation was too delicate. Nobody made a move, lest they catch the living lover, Jose, their teammate, in the crossfire.
It was clear that he'd make a lunge to try to spare her the stake. This had to go down smooth to save their brother.
Jose stepped forward slowly. "Dee Dee, baby. Nobody is going to hurt you. We're going to help you. You're still one of us."
Like hell...Damali glanced at Marlene and the fellas and shook her head. Even though it was eating her up inside to watch Jose battle this thing, there was no other way. She almost couldn't watch him calling to the woman he loved like one would call to a beloved house pet that had been hit by a car and had hidden under a parked vehicle to die alone in fear. It was pitiful.
There was only one focus, however. Get Dee Dee in range. As soon as Dee Dee's clawed hand reached out, and a glimmer of her fang-distorted face showed past the next set of Dumpster shadows, Damali gave the order. "Fire!"
The stake released, sending a whooshing sound past the group, nearly grazing Jose's shoulder, but connecting with a screaming target that instantly combusted where it once stood. Rider was still trying to fire rounds from his jammed gun when Jose dropped to his knees and covered his face with his hands. Damali watched his shoulders shake as Big Mike tried to help Jose up, only to have him shrug away.
"He'll be all right in the morning," Marlene said in a distant tone.
"Dirt - shit! You can't even find good hallowed earth these days!" Rider yelled, spitting again and attempting to reload his jammed gun. "He ain't gonna never be all right."
"Were any of us?" Shabazz added solemnly, collecting Jose under his arm so he'd stand, and then shaking Big Mike's hand. "Your brother just saved your life - even though right now you just wanna curl up and die. Was hard for him to take that weight so you wouldn't have to. Recognize, and let this go."
Jose nodded, wiped his face, and pounded Big Mike's fist.
"Told you I gotcha back," Mike reminded Jose, throwing an arm over his shoulder.
But the fact that Big Mike warily appraised Jose's skin from head to toe first, was not lost on the group.
"He's clean," Big Mike finally muttered, offering Jose a fast male embrace, then handing him back his 'weapon.
"I can't get her voice out of my head," Jose whispered.
"And you won't," Shabazz said in a harsh tone, collecting their gear and still surveying the perimeter beyond the group. "That's why you can't afford to fall in love, let somebody get under your skin like that - their voice will be in your head until the main vamp is dead. You'll be in hell, and want to take your own life every night when one of them assumes her voice to fuck with you ... or tries to climb into your bed to make you forget she's dead. That's why I wanted Wizard to kill her - so he'd remember that when the succubus comes for him. His hell is brand-spanking-new. Ask me how I know."
"Leave him be," Marlene warned. "One step of awareness at a time."
"Maybe you haven't noticed, Mar, but we seem to be running out of time."
Marlene and Shabazz held each other's gaze in a deadlock before Shabazz turned away and looked up at the sky.
"We need to move out," Damali said quietly, sensing the environment, and then she looked up at the sky. "But I don't think it's safe yet." She glanced at her group and they nodded their agreement. The team •was wired, still breathing hard, and pumped from the battle. "I know we all wanna get out of here, but we need to be strategic, and not just run headlong into another setup."
"She's on-point," Shabazz said, nodding in agreement. "Our slayer is coming into her own."
Marlene glanced at Shabazz and looked away.
What was that about? Damali assessed her team with caution. "We should hold up for a moment, and make sure we're clear. I can hear sound coming back, but it's not all the way back, yet. Soon as it does, and traffic can be clearly heard, we move." Again, her gaze went to the heavens.
Mike nodded. "She's on about the sound."
"When we get back to the compound, we need to have a meeting." Damali glanced around at her battle-weary team. "Anybody notice the death-wounds these things sustained to turn 'em?"
Damali's question was met with silence.
"Did anyone get a good look at their throats before they flamed?" she asked, repeating the question more slowly. She let her breath out hard when her team just shook their heads. "Well, it wasn't the normal two-hole vamp bite that turned these things into whatever they are, that's for sure." She wiped her hands off on her backside and picked up a walking stick.
"Yeah. Baby girl is coming into her own," Shabazz muttered as the team collected their ammo.
Marlene glared a Shabazz. "That's enough!"
"Talk to me, Marlene," Damali ordered. "What's up with the vibe?"
"How's everybody's ammo?" Shabazz's question was an open diversion, a tension release valve, more so than an actual need to know.
Damali looked at him and Marlene hard and let it go. Later.
"Low, and fucked up," Rider retorted, still angered by his jammed magazine. "Well, this has been fun."
"Crossbows are on E," J.L. said, his expression worried.
"Almost out of grenades," Mike added, throwing Marlene her walking stick after retrieving it from a pile of smoldering, putrid ash on the ground.
"Sound's back. We're clear to move out," Big Mike announced.
"Let's roll," Shabazz said, throwing Damali a stake he'd picked up. "Time to call the limo."
Marlene and Shabazz glared at each other, but didn't say another word as they walked. All Marlene did was grab her cell phone out of her satchel and punch in a code and hang up. But it was the way the seer had flung the cell phone into her bag that Damali noted.
"Shabazz is right," Damali chimed in, taking the lead between her sparring mentors. "This alley is hot territory now that we have sound back in it. We've kicked up a lot of dust, made a lot of noise, and the cops are sure to be here soon. Let's gather weapons, the limo will be here in a second, and we can get Dan, then jet. We can do damage-to-equipment accounting in the limo, and repack everything so it passes muster at the airport."
"We didn't get all of them," Rider reminded the group as they neared the alley's exit. "Look alive."
"Page the limo again, somebody," Marlene said, her voice monotone. "Then, Big Mike, you sweep it before we get in - use the remaining grenades for that. Just splash a load of holy water in there, as per usual. If something's in the limo that shouldn't be, we'll know as soon as it catches fire."
Mike nodded. "Right, boss lady. We're real low on my holy water that burns 'em up like fossil fuel, though. From there, it'll be hand-to-hand." Big Mike took out his cellular, punched in the code, and sighed.
"J.L., can you spare a stake for everybody from your grip?"
The group turned their attention to J.L. at Damali's comment.
"I've got two," J.L. said, tossing one to Shabazz. "Jose, what-chu got?"
"One," he said, laughing sadly, and then handed it to Damali. "Use it to do me if you have to."
Damali shook her head, and handed it back to Jose. "You're clean, and didn't get nicked by a vamp. Just because she was jacking with your head, doesn't mean you'll turn. It'll just hurt your soul... So, keep the stake. I don't need it. Protect yourself while we walk. Peace?"
"Oh, I get it," Rider said. "Just dog the white boy in the group. Just leave him assed out with a fucked-up clip that won't fire, nothing in his hand - "
"I gotcha back." Damali chuckled, walking up beside Jake and elbowing him. She patted her waistband that contained the drum anchors and handed him one of the chimes from her back pocket. "Never even got to use them."
"Now I feel better." Rider outstretched his arms and then slapped the center of his chest. "Chimes and drum anchors bring a man up close and personal - I prefer long-distance relationships with the vamps. Dig?"
"You cool," Big Mike said with a grin, tossing Rider a vial. "Feel better, now?"
"Much improved, good brother," Rider replied with a nervous laugh as he caught the vial and kissed it.
"I hope you saved a bullet for Dan, just in case," Marlene said quietly.
The group stopped walking for a moment.
"Yeah," Shabazz muttered and checked his jammed weapon, firing once to be sure it would again. "Been thinking about that - he was away from sight, you know."
"This shit can get to anybody," Rider said, now growing somber. "There but for the grace of God go any of us at any time."
"That's what makes this all so ludicrous." J.L. ran his hands through his sweat-slicked black hair. His dark brown, almond-shaped eyes held an intensity that made Marlene acknowledge his unspoken comment.
"I know," Marlene whispered, placing a hand on his shoulder, and forcing him to keep walking with the group. "We're in too deep to get out, but we're all still human. One day this will all be over."
"Don't promise the man a check that will bounce, Mar." Shabazz looked at Marlene hard.
"When we find the main lair, it'll be over, right?" Damali's question hung between them as the limo approached. A hundred questions also ran through her mind. What kind of lair were they searching for? These creatures were different than regular run-of-the-mill vampires, but their weapons still worked against them as though they were normal vamps, albeit it seemed to take twice as much of the auxiliary-type weapons to put one of them down. Stakes had been effective, but the hallowed earth and even the holy water had been slower to take effect. Too weird.
The group backed up when the driver opened the door and a smiling Dan leapt out.
"What in Hell's name was taking you guys so long to page us?"
Dan's upbeat persona made the tension ease its way from Damali's shoulders. She said a silent prayer as Big Mike approached him. Please God, no more tonight.
"Hey, what's with the water thing?" Dan laughed and batted at Mike's ministrations. "The show's over, I don't need to be anointed by the spirits," he added, chuckling.
Mike ignored him and turned to the driver. "Step away from the vehicle."
"Why?" Seeming indignant, the driver opened up his coat to allow what he obviously thought was going to be a frisk, only to swear under his breath as Mike flicked water at him. "Crazy bastards. Damn."
"All clear," Mike called out, after having administered the test to the inside of the vehicle, also spraying the trunk and under the chassis. He helped Damali in first, saw to it that J.L, Jose, and Shabazz were also inside safely, and then got in himself, while Rider took Marlene's elbow.
"This ain't no way to live," Rider murmured to Marlene, whose gaze still scanned the horizon.
Marlene only nodded, but Rider's firm hold made her pause. He dropped his voice and spoke quickly as the group assembled themselves within the vehicle and their attention was on Dan, who was chatting away, keeping them distracted.
"What was that soundproof thing about? Was like what happened down South, right? You've seen this before, or am I wrong?"
"Yes. It was just what I was afraid of - and we'll talk about it later."
The two older warriors climbed into the vehicle and shut the door behind them.
"Anybody hungry?" Dan said in a cheery voice as their limo puUed off. "Chinese, ribs?"
The mention of food made Damali cover her mouth and fight to swallow down the immediate nausea the suggestion brought.
All eyes had turned to Dan, and he just shrugged, totally confused.
* * *
"Piles of dust, broken glass, empty rhino shell cases with crosses on them, dirt splattered everywhere - freakin' wooden spikes all around ... and the stink. What do you make of it?"
"I don't know, Malloy," Detective Berkfield muttered, stooping down to study an empty shell case. "It looks like somebody was back here firing enough ammo to start World War Three, but as per usual, nobody heard anything, everybody was supposedly partying inside the club, and down here there's no residences with neighbors close enough to have seen anything from a window. Godammit, these music-and-drug sons of bitches are involved somehow, and I'm going to pin their rich, slippery asses soon - or die trying. Plus where's our backdoor squad cars, anyway?"
Detective Malloy shrugged, lit a cigarette, and inhaled slowly, allowing the smoke to escape from his bulbous, pale nose. "Same place as they always seem to be when this crap goes down - diverted. Doesn't it seem strange to you that they always show up just after everything goes down?"
"Don't start with the conspiracy theory, Malloy. I can't deal with that, too, right now. All we need is an Internal Affairs investigation going parallel with this bull."
Malloy leaned his angular form against the wall, considering the red ember as he took another steady drag. "Eventually, we might have to stake out their shows with our boys, and put one of our cars in the alleys, and one to two of our own men inside. Tonight, everything was jake in-house, but we definitely missed the action out here. Sooner or later the action behind the scenes will out. It's just a matter of time. Problem is, if these kids keep dropping like flies, and then the bodies keep disappearing from the morgues, we're gonna be on the media and department hot seat."
His short stocky partner stared back at him with a scowl.
"That's a lot of resources," Berkfield said with a grunt, standing up slowly and brushing off his wrinkled navy suit. "We've already got our team spread thin from that drug bastard, Rivera, in L.A., to a squad watching Warriors of Light Production there, to a stakeout near Fallen Nuit's supposed base of operations in Beverly Hills for Blood Music, as well as monitoring one of his holdings in New Orleans. We might have to cut some of that back, especially the New Orleans detail. That place is probably a vacation home, and there's been no activity near it for months. Now we're supposed to expand the mission to run around the country following all the hip-hop concerts - when a lot of our boys are still on terrorist detail?"
Berkfield let his breath out hard and shook his head, grime and sweat plastering wisps of brown hair to his shiny, balding scalp. "I'm getting too old for this bullshit, Paul. Honest to God. I need to get a life."
carlos riveralooked out over the chrome balcony of his North Hollywood club. Saturday night was prime time for Club Vengeance, and again, the place was loaded. Techno, hip-hop, salsa, it didn't matter. The people came. The artists came. They all waited in line outside, hoping to get in. It was the place to see and be seen, just like he'd told his boyz it would be. The crowd brought product. Once again, it was time to expand.
Making his usual rounds through his establishment, a sense of vitality pulsed in him with the beat of the music. There was nothing like the feel of money, except power.
"Yo, Carlos," a regular patron shouted as he passed.
Oh, yeah, he was king.
He nodded and signaled to the bartender to give the man a drink, even though he couldn't remember the man's name. Smiles from gorgeous, scantily clad women graced his path. He smiled back, but kept walking while trying to decide which one of the harem he'd have tonight. His bouncers gave him a deferring nod as they kept their posts. This was a helluva long way from East L.A. ... a long way from souped-up Chevy's, gang-banging in the streets for turf, drive-bys, and listening to his mother and grandmother's wails as his sister died like a dog in a crack house. He'd told them all that he'd get everyone of his own out of that madness, or die trying. Oh, yes, it was great to be the king.
"What's the count?" Carlos leaned in toward his head bouncer as he assessed the size of the throng.
"Twelve hundred bodies and rising," his employee muttered with a sly grin.
"And product sales?"
"Through the roof."
Carlos exchanged a fist pound, nodded, and then threaded his way back through the crowd. Where was Alejandro?
If his little bro and his cousin could just grasp the understanding and commitment it took to run a business - a series of businesses. Pure disgust picked up his tempo as he briefly spoke to patrons, and headed back toward his office. Street product turned into Laundromats, corner stores, and then converted into apartment buildings. The nineties had been good to him. Real estate bought a man leverage, just like firepower did.
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