Chapter Seven

She couldn't fathom fixing her mouth to describe a sudden onset of severe horniness, that's all it was. She glanced at her pillow with disdain, total inner shame making her face feel hotter. Once in a while had become too regular. That's all it was. The mood just descended on her followed by a mind-blowing fantasy about an old lover who was now practically an enemy. Oh shit.

She rocked. Because she wanted more of what that had felt like, regardless of what prompted it. The awareness was sobering, even if her body didn't want to comply.

Not Carlos Rivera, ever. She rocked. But her body was still trembling and on fire. She rocked. Because she now had an idea of what it felt like. If he walked in the room right now, it would be over. No. She rocked. The incident in the shower had left her thirsty for more, hadn't released her. It just made it hurt worse. She rocked, trying to breathe steady through a new wave of want that licked a coating of memory between her legs. She groaned, closed her eyes, and stopped rocking ... knowing that one day, no matter what Marlene said, she wouldn't be able to say no.

Then she became very still. It felt so good that she had offered her throat?

Oh shit...

Damali covered her face with her hands, leaning over until the back of them rested against her thighs. She breathed slowly. The plush terry cloth towel felt too heavy on her wet hair, and she snatched it off and tossed it, not caring where it fell. She had to get out of here, get some air. Go for a drive. Clear her head. See some people from the old neighborhood who still lived normal lives. Buy some chips and soda pop, and chocolate. Go Roller-blading on the pier at the beach. Eat tacos. Laugh to keep from crying, or running screaming into the fucking night!

Spying her black jeans and a peach tank top she'd laid out, she stood. She was outta here.

* * *

It was late afternoon when she returned. Damali glanced around at her ragtag team. Rider was leaning to the side, as was J.L., and both appeared to be trying to hold themselves upright in their chairs. Big Mike was sprawled out on the sofa with his eyes closed, snoring, and his burly hand over his stomach. Shabazz was nodding in the armchair, and Marlene looked pissed off enough to spit nails. Guess everybody had a good time. She sure did. Kicked some butt at pool, had her a taco, chips, and even a brew.

"How is he?" Damali nodded and signaled with her head toward Jose's room within the compound when she fully entered the weapons area.

"Messed up," Rider muttered sullenly. "How the hell do you think he is?"

"All right. That's enough." Marlene walked over to the sofa, kicked Mike's foot to rouse him, and glanced at the metal bench that stretched twelve feet long. "Big Mike, go in there with him and make sure Jose keeps the shades open. Give our man plenty of sunlight."

Mike yawned, stretched, nodded, then got up and left the room. Marlene sat on a stool and looked at Shabazz and Damali for a moment and then cast her gaze around the team before sending it out the large double-reinforced, bulletproof window toward the hills. "Why don't you all get some real rest? The redeye flights are tough, Rider and J.L. are dead drunk, and we don't know what nightfall will bring."

"I'm going out again for a few hours - alone."

Damali ignored the glances of concern that ricocheted around the room. She needed space. Period. Five years of this was like Alcatraz.

"We'll discuss that in a moment, but first we need to deal with Jose's situation."

Damali stretched and moved toward the beige leather sofa by the wall that Big Mike had abandoned and flopped down on it, while Shabazz got up and took a high metal stool facing Marlene. Rider let his breath out in a long, weary exhale as he turned a ladder-back chair around the wrong way and sat with a thud. J.L. just glanced up from his laptop computer and stared.

She needed to know Jose was all right, but she also needed to break camp again. The streets were calling her. A little bit of sunlight just hadn't been enough.

Damali tried to keep her fingers from drumming on the side of the sofa with impatience. What the hell was wrong with her? Jose was her boy! Damali looked at Marlene, willing her with her mind to speak, but hurry up.

"Poor bastard was talking to her in his sleep, just like he was the whole ride on the plane," Rider said after a moment, shaking his head. "If he didn't get nicked, I can't figure it out."

"You see the paper?" J.L. folded up the newspaper and tossed it toward Shabazz like a Frisbee.

"Yeah," Shabazz muttered, catching it with one hand and passing it to Marlene to inspect without looking at it.

"Dee Dee was pregnant," Damali whispered, swallowing hard, her gaze trailing to Marlene's and then out the window. She didn't even respond to the newspaper that had been tossed around. She wanted to clear her conscience about Dee Dee, first. She hated secrets, and had hoped Jose and Dee Dee would have told their own tale. The team shouldn't have had to learn about their baby this way.

"Our sister asked me not to mention it when she found out." Damali sighed hard in frustration and sadness. "They were so happy, and didn't want to blow their high if the group had a negative reaction. Wanted something private of their own to keep between them for a little while. That's part of why Jose couldn't do her last night." She swallowed again and shut her eyes briefly. "The other part is because he loved her."

"Aw, shit..." Rider stood and began pacing. "Then you know what we're dealing with, right?"

Marlene just nodded as Shabazz wiped his palms over his face and let out a loud breath.

"We gotta find the lair, soon. Jose's energy is dying... Dee Dee had a part of him inside her when we toasted her." Rider stopped and studied the group. "How long does that give us, Mar? Weeks, days, months, before our man just buys it as his energy drains away? Plus, Dee Dee didn't look like a normal vamp- - so what are we dealing with, in terms of time, to either send the main demon back where it belongs with a ritual, or kill a master vampire? This is crazy!"

"I don't know." Marlene tossed the newspaper to Damali without even opening it. "We're down a guardian - and we need to address that, first. You know that."

"Maybe you haven't been counting, Mar," Rider shot back, "but we ain't exactly in a position to win friends and influence others to join this crap. Not after what was in the papers."

"What about Dan?" Shabazz's question made the group go still.

"Dan is an innocent," Damali whispered. "I don't want to see another one go out like the others did. They died before they even got a quarter through basic training - they hadn't even gotten to the compound, and we thought just keeping them on the edges of the activity would make them safe. No, Shabazz. Bad plan. We need somebody who can hang."

When the group nodded, Damali relaxed a bit and sat back. All of this was beyond insane. Both activity and the attacks had mounted. Why, even if it was a demon, was it targeting artists?

She wouldn't even allow herself to imagine what had taken place in her shower.

Damali opened the paper and looked at the headline news. She nearly gasped. Her gaze momentarily stopped to assess Car-los's eyes, and then she read on. An immediate chill swept through her and she struggled not to cover her mouth with her hand. The team didn't need to see how much she was still concerned about him. That wasn't their business. But this was horrible. His best friends, and cousin... . Damn, she knew all of them. Her gaze went back to his eyes, and she touched his photo and immediately closed the paper. When she looked up, everyone was staring at her.

Marlene's gaze again went around the group and she allowed her line of vision to linger on each face for a moment before she went on. But she held Damali in her sight a little longer than she'd peered at the others, and then eventually sighed. "Because a few of our own have been compromised, J.L. will need to come up with some new gear."

J.L. nodded. "I'm on it... I just hope Jose can assist - "

"That's just it," Rider argued. "If his mind is locked with the bloodline of suckers that bit him, then he is a walking breach. And, truth be told, we aren't even sure it is a vamp that got Dee Dee ... we don't know what that demon Marlene was talking about can do!"

"He hasn't been bitten!" Damali corrected. Her voice had escalated unintentionally and her skin was crawling. She needed to get into the sunlight, outside, and get real air.

Again the group fell silent, and slowly one by one they nodded.

"Look," J.L. added after a moment, "we have made this place as tight as we can. We've got UV floods surrounding the com-

pound to light it up like a stadium at night. Freaking planes mistake it for LAX, already. Every window is bulletproof glass for the strength.

"We've got infrared motion detectors lacing all entrances, windows, even the vents. Steel grates shut this place down like a tin can at dusk, with reinforced steel doors and frames mounted into a foot-thick of cinder block, with ultraviolet lights in every room that can go on with a panic button - plus with sprinkler system trips in all the halls, in case one gets in here and we have to dose the joint with holy water ... and we've got motion detectors and computer visuals to not just track human intruders, but we've rigged the capacity to pick up forms that don't show up on infrared - but just give off cold. It picks up a form that's lower than environmental temp and shows a blip. However, as we know, people ..."

"We can't stay in here twenty-four/seven." Damali let her breath out and stood. "I'm ready to do this thing, ya know. Like, when's the last time I could just hang out down the way at night, and kick it with the kids at the rec center - which is what we're supposed to be trying to do? Helping people. Giving back. I miss -  people."She spun on Marlene and looked at her mentor hard.

"Mar, for real. When's the last time Big Mike could go do his thing with the kids in the church basements, or Shabazz could go do his thing helping ex-offenders transition? Hell, when's the last time Rider's been able to go play some poker, or J.L. could go hang out in the spy shops to make some new yang, without anybody worrying about what time they had to get back here? Huh? Now he's gotta come up with some new gear and tracking systems all by himself. We won't even talk about this bullshit that just happened to Jose. All he wanted to do was sit outside and sketch and be with his woman and play his music, and our poor brother's been so messed up since they turned Dee Dee that he doesn't even draw anymore! Hell, I can't concentrate -  can't deal with the spoken word thing right through here - and that's our bread and butter!"

Shabazz gave Marlene a look, and she stilled it. The silent communication between them grated Damali so badly she wrapped her arms around herself to keep from choking them. "The guys should be able to get tore the hell up, play poker ... Mike should be able to spend the night with some sister and eat till fried chicken comes out of his ears, Shabazz should be able to go to a real jazz club at night, Jose should be able to fall in love, and I should be able to go party my ass off at a club of my choice  - especially when I turn twenty-one. Demon or vamp, I'ma get lit. Tore up. I'ma dance, act crazy, and have a blast... might even get laid, okaaay."

Her team looked stunned, and Rider seemed to instantly sober up.

"Thank you for trying to get us all a weekend pass, Sergeant." Rider laughed tensely as Damali circled the weapons table. "But somehow I don't think the general is going for it. I can pass up Vegas."

They all kept giving each other fishy glances, but for a moment, none of them spoke. Whateva. She was too serious. Fuck this living in prison with little outings to make it seem like they had real lives.

"This destiny is a hard sacrifice," Shabazz finally murmured, his eyes holding Marlene's gaze as he spoke. "None of us have been able to totally do what we used to do. And as a seer, dropping your guard under the influence of alcohol or get-high won't be pretty. Think you've seen some scary shit before ..."

"I know, I know, that's why I don't go there," Damali snapped. "But all the other rules are draining the life out of the team. And I, for one, am not going to live the rest of my life in a jail cell - techno pop as it is!" Her hands had found her hips and she glared at Shabazz, and then at Marlene. "Don't we have some damned barbeque chips, or some soda in this joint?"

They all stared at her.

"Oh, pullease, spare me with 'the body is your temple' speech. If I'm gonna die, then whateva. At least I can have some fun before I buy it. I'm going out."

"That's not advisable," Marlene warned, her voice low and tense. "It's late."

Damali turned her attention to J.L, ignoring Marlene. "Hook a sister up with some crazy-mad-shit to take out on the street. I am sick of this living scared, but acting like everything is cool. The damned vampires have us hiding, even in daylight now. Was a time when one or two chased us - then we flipped the script and went after a few of them. Now, apparendy, it's on. L.A. is hot - crawling - and we don't have to look for them, they're finding us on the road now. And we've got demons? Sheeeiit." Damali glanced at the clock and pointed toward it. "You call this late, Marlene? Litde kids go out in the street later than this!"

Shabazz stood and retrieved the cast-off newspaper, and opened it. "Club Vengeance is smoking," he murmured. "A body dropped there a litde while ago, and now it appears that an old friend of yours just lost two compadres, with one in the hospital about to turn, too."

Rider cocked his head to the side as Damali slowed her exit. "Thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Thinking that maybe Marlene might want to get us booked at Vengeance?"

Rider nodded at Shabazz. Damali kept her alarm in check. That was the last place she wanted to do a gig, for more than one reason.

Big Mike's fast entry to the room drew everyone's attention, and his eyes studied the floor as he walked. "Gotta get him to a hospital."

Marlene was on her feet. "What's wrong?"

"He's gray, Marlene," Mike murmured. "Looks like a drug addict going through the DTs. He's incoherent, breathing is irregular ..." Mike paused and cast his gaze toward the sun beyond the window and then closed his eyes. "If he dies here, they'll sweep the place. Litde brother ain't gonna make it through the night if we don't get him some type of medical attention."

"That's just it," Marlene whispered. "They can run tests, put an IV drip in his arm to rehydrate him ... but in the end, what's killing him isn't in the medical books. Not theirs anyway."

"Mike is right, though," Damali said quietly. "We have to at least get him help while we look for this thing. Nobody in here is a doctor. We do soldier stuff, can do some healing, can pray, but this might be beyond the laying on of hands."

"I agree with Damali," J.L. commented, his voice a soft murmur. "Can't just wait this one out."

"Might buy him a few days, or more, while we do our thing, and it will keep the authorities from going for a search warrant to come in here, maybe ... but how are we going to secure him in the hospital? At night?"

Rider's question made the group simply stare at Big Mike. "They already have one in there that's about to turn," Shabazz reminded the group. "If Dejesus dies today, then in three days he'll wake up."

"So, what do we do, just watch Jose die in here?" Damali began pacing again. Her mind shredded the options and she leaned her forehead against the wall in frustration. "Maybe that's our lead, and we should follow it when it wakes up and turns.

Let's take Jose over to the hospital while we still have some light. Just three of us - me, Mike, and Rider. We can post one man -  Mike - by Jose until they run whatever battery they can on him there. Rider and me can see if we can find Carlos's boy and lay low until dusk. They always mark one about to turn, so something will come for Dejesus, and maybe me and Rider can track it."

"Why do I always get involved in the - "

"Because you're a nose, Rider," Damali argued. "Jose is down. That leaves you." She blew out her breath hard. They were all getting on her nerves. "Two of you guys, J.L. and Sha-bazz, stay here and work on weapons and keep it tight here. Marlene, you work the phones and get us booked with Club Vengeance - and leave a message for Carlos that I want to have a word with him, one on one. He might talk to me."

She pushed herself away from the wall and let her breath out fast again in disgust. "Don't even say it. I know. Me and Rivera go way back. Chill."

Wf"the doctorssaid he was extremely dehydrated, like his •i fluid levels had been siphoned out of him. Plus, he had too many white blood cells in his system, same as if our boy was fighting off a virus." Big Mike sat down heavily in the hospital waiting-room chair, leaning his huge forearms on his thighs, his head dropped and his massive hands clasped.

"He is fighting a virus," Rider sighed, leaning his head against the wall while in his seat and rubbing his palms over his face. "How long's he got?"

"Damn, Rider," Damali whispered. She stood and walked in a short back-and-forth pace before her team members. "Don't go there. Okay? If we have to bring him to the hospital every few days to get him dosed up, then that's what we do. But don't ever talk about one of our own in the past tense."

Rider cast his line of vision to the bank of elevators and offered no further comment.

"They're gonna put him on IV fluids and heavy doses of antibiotics for a few days, then, if he responds, he can come home." Big Mike glanced up at Damali. "When he responds. My bad."

"A few days," Rider said, his tone far-off and quiet. "That kid is like a little brother to me. Guess I'm just trying to brace myself ... seen the inevitable too many times not to go there. I hate surprises."

"Okay," Damali murmured, her voice more gentle as she went to Rider to place a hand on his shoulder. "I hear you. I'm sorry. This situation is messing with all of us. It's too close to our core."

Rider nodded and covered her hand with his and closed his eyes.

"Did you find out anything about Dejesus?"

Damali's question made Rider look at her.

"He bought it, first light at dawn this morning, before we got here."

"Takes three days, usually, for one of them to fully turn." Big Mike stood, making Rider stand with him. "That means we have a few days before he climbs off a morgue slab."

Damali and Rider nodded a quiet acknowledgment of what had been learned the hard way. It was going down just like she'd thought.

"Then he's gonna try to go find Poppa - or Momma. Whatever bit him."

"Rider's right." Damali leaned against the wall. "All we can do is hope that Jose comes around before this one starts going back over old ground." She let her breath out hard. "They always track back to where they'd last been before turning."

"Just like bloodhounds, trying to pick up the scent to find their maker - to find and identify their pack, their own particular vampire family line," Rider said in a weary tone.

"Yeah," Mike whispered. "Then that group marks off it's own territory. But that's what's been so weird about the recent activity. At first, it seemed random ... like no order to it. Just a vamp here or there that would pop up, find us, and then we'd dust it.

Or, we'd find a small nest and get to them first. Now, there's a pattern, almost - "

"That's because it's concentrating, like nests are forming alliances or something ..." Damali said thoughtfully. "And the dangerous part is, we don't know why. They might all be vamps, but vamps are very clear on feeding grounds, and whose turf is whose, right? Like the drug dealers."

"Okay," Rider said. "What's the plan - or dare I ask?"

"Big Mike, you stay with Jose, like we talked about. I'm not going to lose him ... or you, Mike. So stay sharp. Promise." She waited until Mike nodded and he pounded her fist. "Rider. You do the morgue detail with me later."

She laughed when Rider started shaking his head.

"I know, I know, Rider. Not your favorite place to be - but we need to keep a tail on Dejesus. That's why we took the four-by-four and the Hummer. We'll take the Jeep, and leave the Hum for Mike. Cool?"

"Aw'right. Shit."

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