Chapter Six

"Me, you, our old friend Jack Daniels, and anybody else who doesn't have second sight can play poker with us, and I challenge you to shots." Rider leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Times like these, whiskey is a man's best friend."

"As soon as it gets light outside, I'm finding me some barbecue ribs, potato salad, greens, and a cold beer," Mike said, sitting heavily in an armchair. "Then, I'm calling up this fine sister who - "

"How can you think of food at a time like this?" Marlene just shook her head. "Or anything else? You guys don't need to pollute your bodies, either. Everyone needs to focus, and keep their systems clean - "

"Been telling you that pork will kill you, brother," Shabazz warned, taking off his gun and examining the clip. "And be careful about the sister you decide to spend some time with."

Big Mike laughed his deep, rolling-thunder chuckle. "Takes my mind ofFa thangs, Mar. Shabazz, you know I can't eat that vegetarian bird food y'all keep pushing. 'Sides, a brother needs a little TLC, if you get my drift."

"But you need to lose the pork, Mike." Shabazz shot Big Mike a disapproving glance.

"A man who hunts vampires for a living is not trying to tell Big Mike to worry about pork killing him, or did I hear wrong?" Rider slapped his forehead and let his arms fall to the back of the sofa. "Put me out of my misery."

"It's bad for your health," Shabazz countered.

"I need some real food ... might even have me a taste for some Creole."

Rider opened his eyes and gave Big Mike a scowl. "Do not even talk to me about anything that has to do with Louisiana. That topic is off-limits."

Damali chuckled and before she could open her mouth to ask the question about the dreaded city, Marlene had held up her hand.

"Girl, you don't even want to know."

"But I hear you, Mike. We all need a break after what just went down tonight." Shabazz shook his head. "Me, I'm going to find my jazz spot." He glanced at Jose. "Man, some cool-out music might help. We can hang, if you want? We can go find us a brew, maybe?"

Damali watched the interaction, quietly assessing how each team member was talking about everything but what needed to be discussed. "I might go shoot some pool, then find Rider and J.L. and whip their butts at some cards - as long as the joint you hit has my extra-hot barbecue chips."

"You can shoot pool, but you can't play cards with us, darlin'. You and Marlene have been permanently banned from all games of chance, even Scrabble - because you ladies cheat with your gift."

"We do not!" Damali laughed and hopped off the table to stand in Rider's face.

"We're just good," Marlene chuckled. "But I'll leave you guys to your games. I have some research to do."

Just as quickly as it had erupted, the mirth slid away from the group.

"Marlene is right," Damali said with a sigh. "There's a new entity out there that we've never dealt with before. So, I suggest you all get some more rest and play hard when the light comes up, because we're gonna have to work hard come nightfall."

All team members nodded agreement, except Jose, who just continued to stare at the steel-covered windows.

"Work hard, play hard, and carry some serious heat," Shabazz muttered.

"Correct." Damali cast her attention toward Marlene. The subject was on the floor, and it was time. "These things die like vampires, and suck blood. But they hiss, not a normal characteristic of vampires. They leave a horrible signature bite - "

"They ain't smooth at all," Shabazz added. "Normal vamps talk a lot of shit. You don't even see the bite coming till it's too late - but from what Damali described, they totally jack up their prey."

"Can't be demon, though, can it?" J.L's gaze went from teammate to teammate as he spoke. "Each one of the people we lost had been attacked in a different location - just like Blood Music's people, according to the newspapers. Demons are usually linked to a place - a house, an abandoned facility, or inside a host body."

"Right, J.L. And the host body doesn't incinerate on impact. The demon flees, and it will torch, but the human body just dies a normal death." Damali waited, her focus on Marlene.

"Marlene, tell her," Shabazz urged. "Tell her about the house in New Orleans."

Everyone watched the team matriarch slowly stand and walk over to the sealed window. Marlene leaned against the steel beam and spoke in a low tone. "There was a mansion down there that had what we all assumed, for years, was a demon sighting. Same thing happened - the absence of sound, and one hell of a fight to put the thing down. It slithered into nothingness, and we thought it had been destroyed. The host body was unfortunately killed."

"How long ago?" Damali's arms were folded over her chest. For some strange reason the information was making her breathe hard, and again, her second sight was wavering. "And why didn't I hear about this before?"

"It happened a little more than twenty years ago," Marlene murmured, and then her gaze slid away from Damali's. "I thought it had to do with my own coming of age as a guardian, with no bearing on what's been going on here. Every one of us has their own private tale about how they were summoned to this destiny, I'm no different."

Nervous glances shot between her crew members, and then each of them looked away. She didn't like it. "Fine. But what did that thing from twenty years ago look like? How did it manifest?"

Marlene took in a deep, cleansing breath and exhaled slowly. "We thought it was an Amanthra demon - ugly things that look like a cross between a snake, a huge spider, and a panther, hence the scaly facial appearance and fluid movements and power. The hiss is like a snake's, but it also has big cat properties, like a panther, and growls low in a rumble. Jaws unhinge to attack -  the snake part. Its fangs and bite are deeper than a regular vampire's. Retractable claws, moves fast - the panther aspect. Joints able to turn backward and give it scurry motion like a spider's. Eats flesh. Hideous creatures."

"Now where did some shit like that come from?" Rider was wide-eyed, his expression incredulous.

"Demons have to be released, or conjured up, brother." Big Mike rubbed his jaw and stared at Rider. "You and I both know that."

"Right. New Orleans." Rider sighed. "Need some black magic to bring them to the surface. Vamps can just do their thing and don't have to be called. Guess that's why they're at the top of the food chain - or the bottom of it, as the case may be."

"Vampires are incredible creatures, if you really think about it."

This time the entire team just stared at J.L. for a moment, stunned.


"Hear me out, Rider," J.L. argued. "Think about it. What makes a vampire so deadly is they have the ability to blend in with humans. They can transform into bats, wolves, mist, smoke, leave no real odor trail, can invade dreams, and feed without detection. Leave the body drained with only two puncture wounds - but most of the time they cover up the kill and make it look like an accident to keep authorities at bay. As an entity, they are extremely effective."

"Smooth, like I said," Shabazz muttered. "Most times they're cool, don't cause a lot of static. They stay on the down low to keep the public unaware."

"Sexy, too," Big Mike said in a distant voice. "Can make you wanna slap your momma."

"I told you, we were not going to get into that discussion," Rider said with a scowl. "Almost got yourself bitten that time."

"Yeah ... I did, didn't I?" Mike chuckled. "Guess I been cooped up too long."

"People, can we stay focused?" Darnali walked in a tight circle. "What brought this Amanthra thing up from Hell?"

"This demon is one that has province over revenge."

"All right, Mar, but that's another difference. Vampires aren't just bent on revenge. They're about power and feeding."

All eyes were on Marlene as she spoke.

"There's a South American legend, and another similar one from ancient Kemet... the three creatures' aspects of the demon are found in those respective regions. Hence why it has to be released using incantations from those cultures."

When the group looked like their understanding had glazed over, Marlene pressed on. "Big snakes like anacondas and cobras, and jaguars - a cousin to panthers - are found in South America, and the Kemetians were always partial to the big cats. Spiders, I can only assume, had the South American influence. No matter. Someone conjured up that particular revenge demon, or made it, or whatever, in some dark-arts ritual long ago. We thought we'd dealt with it years ago, and now it appears to be back. That's what I need to research. So, while you guys are drinking and carousing, I will be in the occult bookstore and scanning the shelves at the Botanica to get answers."

"But the eyes," Damali persisted. "These things had vamp eyes, and from all the police accounts and the stuff in the papers, they said the bodies were drained of blood. That's vamp action. Plus, a wooden stake wouldn't do a revenge demon. Would it? That's a vampire weakness."

"I know," Marlene murmured. "That's what concerns me. It's almost like a hybrid."

"You have got to be kidding me!" Pvider leaned against the back of the sofa and closed his eyes. "Now I know I need a drink."

"Think I'll skip the ribs and the fine sister and join you, brother," Big Mike said.

"Jazz ain't calling me like Rider's bottle of Jack Daniels, right through here," Shabazz agreed.

"How about if I just make a package-store run and we open up old Jack right here in the compound, dudes?" J.L. glanced at his monitors. "If Mar is breaking out the dusty black books, I'll need a shot. Hell, I'll even stop off and pick up some chips for Damali, too."

For a moment, no one said a word. Damali began pacing, as the group remained silent. Revenge?

"Oh, God ..." she finally muttered. "We have to figure out how these things multiply, how to kill them at the source - did you see the jaws on those things? And they're strong as shit!"

"Yeah," Rider agreed. "Not to mention the smell. Vamp breath smells like walking death - but not sulfur. That's a demon thing. That's what was throwing our noses off track. We couldn't figure it out. Normal vamps are too cool to stink until the moment fangs are out and they're two inches from your jugular, which I might add, is when it's too late for you to worry about their hygiene or post-morning breath. But it's not a sulfur stench."

"Stop it!" Jose was off his metal stool and headed for the door. "I need a day before I can dissect this shit. Dee Dee is dead, people, and you're talking about her like she was an animal!"

Mike moved aside as Jose pushed past him. Quiet settled on the group. No one stopped Jose as he stormed down the hall and slammed his bedroom door behind him.

Damali turned toward the window as she heard the steel gates engage and begin to lift. Weak golden light began to filter into the room around them. Blessed sunlight. It was dawn. She wrapped her arms about herself and closed her eyes. "Everybody take a shower, crash ... go out, and get your heads right. This was a tough one."

* * *

Rose-orange dawn filtered through Damali's private bathroom window, framing the lush indoor ferns and glinting off the rock garden surrounding them. Morning. The only time when she felt safe to undress, be vulnerable, and be unarmed long enough to wash the heat of battle off her. Thank God the compound sweep showed no invasion here. She didn't have it in her to go one more round. There was just too much to think about, so she let it go for now.

Damali allowed the steam to claim her as she stepped up the slate bricks and then down into the tub of the Jacuzzi, facing the shower spray and closing the etched-glass doors behind her. She plunged her face into the pummeling water, covering her eyes with her palms, breathing deeply and willing away a sob. What the heck was wrong with her? Ready to cry? Over what! The Dee Dee thing was over, and she had to shake it.

The beauty of the room that had been designed as a haven for her within the compound now made her feel like a kept exhibit at the zoo. All of it was a magnificent, gilded cage.

Trying to steady herself, she turned and allowed the hot water to beat away the tension from her shoulders, neck, and back. She had to think of the positive - just like Marlene had taught her. Had to stop trippin', as her crew would say. Yes, it looked like Eden in her bathroom. Yes, they had ensured there was plenty of light everywhere, albeit through four inches of impenetrable glass. Yes, she was blessed to have people around her to protect her, and to have money, even fame. But God in Heaven, this was no way to live.

Her breath came in short bursts mixed with anger and despair, and she leaned her head back to allow the water to rinse through her locks. She remembered her martial arts training. Breathe deep. Relax. Find your center without struggle. She could almost hear Shabazz's voice in her mind as the knots in her shoulders began to unwind.

But that was easy enough for the team to say, when they could each go out alone. All of the guys got to go out by day to undisclosed locations, and return relaxed ... kicking secret smiles between themselves. Joking with each other in guy code that anyone could read. She grabbed the soap and began lathering her hands as well as the sponge she'd picked up. After Raven was history, Marlene had Shabazz. Nobody was stupid. Some days they'd be gone for hours, and come back all glimpses and sighs. And she was locked in a gilded cage - most times with a zookeeper on her hip if she did venture out of it.

Damali took her time, soaping away all the anger as she made huge circles with the natural sponge on her skin, enjoying the texture of it as it slid against her. Where would she go anyway, even if she did sneak off alone? There was no one to make her secretly smile. There wasn't a soul she knew that she could risk putting in danger, just by association. Her thoughts immediately went to Jose, and it made her shoulders drop as she let out her breath fast in pity for him.

Tears came from a source within that she couldn't explain even to herself as they ran down the bridge of her nose and dropped into the swirling abyss of the drain. They were so happy, he and Dee Dee. They had a right, didn't they - to live and love and be as one? Now look at this shit. One of her guardian brothers was all screwed up and dying inside. She flung the sponge at the shower wall and it left globs of soap against the bright Moroccan tiles. The sound of the splat made her close her eyes, and she grabbed the shampoo, blindly feeling her way to open the bottle, squeeze a large blob into her palm, set it down again, and apply the lather to her locks.

Blues and yellows from the colors of the tiles hovered as an image inside her lids and then disappeared. Yeah ... where would she go anyway? She was living with the equivalent of five brothers who could kill with their bare hands, and Marlene who was no slouch as a perpetual guardian den mother, either. Damali chuckled sadly and let her breath out more slowly. Her twenty-first birthday was in a few days, and this ragtag family would celebrate it. That was cool. It was a blessing, she supposed ... to even have people around her who cared. At one time she didn't.

But there would be no quiet table in the corner of a restaurant, there would be no roses coming from anyone she could call special. And there would be no evening out, ever. No nights like she was beginning to fantasize about. The only person she knew that wasn't afraid of her brother-squad was history - Carlos was old news.

That his name even popped into her mind made her begin to roughly rinse the soap from her hair. She was not going there ever again. Damali kept her eyes shut tight, allowing the pulsing water to beat sense into her brain. That was five years ago. She was fifteen. She hadn't met the Guardians. Was living life on the edge and in the streets, then. Had narrowly missed sleeping with the man too many times.

Picking up the conditioner more slowly, she opened the bottle, studying the light lemon-colored fluid and the fragrance of it as she poured it into her palm. Once she'd set down the bottle, she played with the slick texture between her hands, and shut her eyes again as she bent over, throwing her locks before her, adding conditioner to her nape and working it out to the ends of her locks with care. What if?

She turned and faced the spray, noticing that it was beginning to cool. But the change in temperature as it gradually went from piping hot to lukewarm felt good on her body and clean scalp. At one time, they were from the same world. She could remember him taking her by his people's house to get a grub on. Regular, nice folks.

He'd been the one to tell her to run away, and had had her back when her drunken foster father tried her one, and only one, time. Even she didn't know that by the time of puberty she'd become as strong as a grown man. How would she have known, especially when her body still looked like a regular kid's? But she'd kicked that old, perverted bastard's ass - then had to jet the scene. Carlos had been there, waiting for her... arms opened wide. And he'd teased her about being a church girl in hip-hop gear. Had made fun of her for not giving it up during his many attempts to break her in ... but was also very cool about it, in a strange, respectful sorta way.

The thought made her laugh. Before he'd blown up in the drug world, she remembered thinking how he might have been the one. Had she not been so scared after that foster care attack, maybe she would have given in - but Carlos had messed up. Rumors of a shootout had been enough to make her back off. A shiver ran through her and she quickly doused her hair under the water, half chuckling at herself for being so stupid. Fate had conspired to keep his boys ever present, or to always have his pager go off with a 911, just when things could have gone too far. She'd made it to fifteen without incident - a long time in her world. But she'd seen too many of her girls from 'round the old way get pregnant, die, or be hurt, or all of the above. That had kept her cool. Made her wary. She wasn't going out like that.

Yeah, a cold shower was probably in order. Anytime she was back to putting Carlos's face on a fantasy lover. Thank God Marlene had found her. Thank God she'd never slept with anybody, or gotten pregnant. She'd seen so much in other people's houses that there was a definite link in her mind between men and disaster. Who needed a man? What was all the fuss about sex, anyway? Probably just like another drug. Thank God she always argued street politics with Carlos and didn't go down that slippery path of dealing and jail with him. But, what if? Nah.

He wasn't the one; when she would finally make that decision it would be a righteous brother - and she hadn't run up on anybody yet that was worth the risk of satisfying that one curiosity she had. Marlene said be patient. Marlene was wise. Marlene had helped her get herself together and launch her career. Marlene would know ... Yeah, but, Marlene was old, too. On the other hand, though, Marlene was gettin' some.

Why she was even thinking about this was beyond her. They'd just been through a high-stress situation; Jose was all messed up, and now there was some new entity to contend with. Maybe she was like Big Mike: just wanted the basics to relieve stress. Good food, good loving, and go to sleep. Mike was a trip.

Damali felt the temperature shift in the water again, but it had oddly warmed up. Probably one of the fellas got out. Cool. That meant she had a little more of the tank to herself. Today she didn't feel like being as one, a team, or sharing. She'd just stand here until the water got cold enough to chase her out of it on its own.

Besides, at the moment, it felt just as good as someone massaging her shoulders. Carlos used to do that for her. Now nobody did... .

Damali lolled her neck, the rhythmic pummel against her skin making it tingle. Thick rivers ran down her naked form and just the flow across her breasts, past her abdomen, down her legs sent a tremor through her. He'd been the one to listen to her rap, said he'd make enough money one day to showcase her in his own club. Somebody to dream with ... but that was before she fully understood that she could never go there, not the way he made his money. Ever. Knowledge was power, he'd always say; the guardians said that, too. But at the moment it was a bitch.

She let her breath out hard. Damn, those were some good old days, though, when everybody was scramblin', but could be free, and laugh despite all the tragedies the streets offered. Same diff. Hanging out at rave parties, free styling on open mics, dancing until sweat poured off them and they could practically wring out their clothes. Eating barbeque chips with a soda pop in her hand, dropping the bandana for souped-up cars drag racing at night... the night. Her man's red Chevy bouncing, engine gleaming set up high and mounted in a cut out of the hood -  Carlos wasn't scared of shit. She missed the freedom of it all. That's what she missed about him, he wasn't scared of shit.

"You will not go there," she whispered into the rain of the shower, using the words to help stave off the memory of his touch.

Yet the temporal awareness pulled her deeper into the pulsing spray, making her close her eyes once more. The sound of the water became a blanket against any other noise in the compound. They had come so close. They had been talking, had become all deep and philosophical, down by the beach, right about dusk, his boys weren't around, and his pager was off His finger had traced her jaw on that one particular day. She remembered. Yeah ... and it had trailed across her collarbone, the edge of his finger nudging away her light blouse, finding a point on her breast that had made the tips of both sting. The memory washed over her like the water from the shower, warming her. If people hadn't walked by; if his boys hadn't found him. If his sister hadn't OD'ed later. She'd wanted him so badly that night, if he'd only known.

Unable to stop the torrid memory that beat on her hard, just like the spray, she allowed it to seep into her pores and take over her thoughts. How could she get it out of her head, when it was the closest she'd ever come to being conquered - different worlds notwithstanding? He'd been the only one to touch her like that, or make her feel anything like that. Especially when he'd brushed her mouth, and had followed the invisible trail of his finger, replacing the path with kisses at points along the way. Then a sudden heat had covered one of the stinging pebbles, a tongue, then the gentle graze of teeth, pulling at it with warmth that soaked through her sheer top, made her lean into the lips that suckled her as the sensation soaked her panties.

Without permission her palms cupped her breasts, creating tiny waterfalls at the edges of her hands. A slight shudder forced a quiet moan. It happened so fast, so out of the blue, so crazy. She squeezed her thighs together, feeling her own inner river spill over the thickened lips between her legs. This was nuts, she told herself, as her palm slid down her wet belly toward the heat-slicked source. For weeks she'd been in this perpetual agony. She swallowed away another moan, letting it come from inside her throat when her finger touched a part of her that now craved something she'd never had.

Trembling, the returned coolness of the water didn't bother her. What if... Then she felt it, an awareness of being filled from behind, a shaft of heat traveling up her center, quaking her uninitiated womb.

The sensation was so real that she found her hands flat against the tiles, the texture almost boring into her palms as her head dropped back and her hips writhed to a rhythm that even the unexplored could comprehend. Phantom pleasure dipped her spine into a deep sway; she couldn't get enough air. Her back felt like it was being anointed by kisses, a bite at her shoulder. Her head tilted of its own accord, exposing her neck in offering, the sensation of a deep, passionate bite sent indescribable delirium through her whole system. Her lips parted to give way to ragged inhales and exhales that transformed into a staccato pant. Just once ... Please ...

A burn like fire ringed the engorged delta that she now opened her thighs to allow full entry to ... from behind, something invisible but that felt so real... pleasure so unthinkable that it literally buckled her knees and made her cry out.

Carlos's face blurred and new intense eyes, intoxicating, drank her in. The tight rim of her valley ached so much that it began to spasm as she moved her body to draw friction from the shower wall, her vertebrae separating as she flipped over and her back hit the tile and the water beat against her face, her collarbone, her breasts, her stomach. Shards of ice-hot need tore away shame, transforming it to liquid anguish that ran down her legs. Her quick gasp reverberated back as an echo, and she could feel it cast prisms of energy through her bloodstream. The burn was all-consuming, and she wasn't even touching herself. Her hands were splayed against the wall, her nails beginning to dig at the tile as her mind grappled with the explosive sensations. If this was what it felt like ... Oh my God ...

Years of wonder, frustration that had made sleeping at times torture ... Had turned her pillow into a lover until she gasped alone in the quiet. Movements often so frantic that she feared her bed would be heard by the others. Hot tears streamed from the corners of her eyes, mixing with the spray that pelted her. A sudden weight felt like it was crushing her, making her skin ignite as it slid against her, again causing her to turn her head for the sensation at her neck, exposing her jugular, wanting to feel that force against her throat. She didn't care. Profound, erotic heat swept through her. Then it was gone.

Breathing hard, she glanced around the empty room. The shower, now freezing, made her immediately shut it off and wrap her arms about herself and shiver. Then she rocked, her eyes closed, one hand over her mouth. Unable to stop shaking as aftershock tremors slid between her legs, gently petting the molten surfaces as though a good-bye kiss, and evaporating like the stream, she wept.

* * *

For a long while she sat on the edge of her bed, staring out at nothing. This thing that had happened was so private, so humiliating, but so gloriously paralyzing that she couldn't even tell Marlene. What could she say? How did one explain something like this, especially to someone who was practically your mom? What - so the team could whiteboard it and draw a weapons diagram for the shower? She was only glad that Marlene's second sight had been spotty lately, and she could put up a wall against her when these feelings manifested. But she still strained to sense whether this private invasion had been detected. Damali became very, very still. No. Whew. She let out a sigh of relief.

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