Chapter Twelve

"You didn't fucking think, Rider!" Marlene began pacing. Even Shabazz looked at her with trepidation. "I want the very best, and only the best, for that girl. I want her body cleansed of all toxic substances, like chips, and preservatives, and other crap - so her physical transition can happen as quickly as possible. I don't want her high, or drunk, or love-dazed - I want her to be a lean, mean, fighting machine so she can ward off what-ever's coming for her! I want her consciousness raised, her spirit focused - it's a trinity transition, fellas, a mind, body, and spirit thing she's dealing with." Marlene was breathing hard, but as she paused, her eyes dared anyone in the room to speak.

"That's why,until she's ready, she needs to be with us. Got it? After that, she can go where she pleases, sleep with whomever she wants. She'll be able to protect herself. Until then, I will rip out the throat of any member of this team who sabotages my authority as her primary guardian again."

"We've all been practically living like monks for a reason," Shabazz finally said in a forceful tone. He glanced at Marlene and waited for her nod as she calmed down. "Marlene hasn't been tripping for no reason."

"Damn, Mar. I'm sorry," Rider said again. "I just didn't know."

"Me neither," J.L. said quietly. "Sorry for giving you the blues."

"Now you've been schooled, so no more team dissention. We clean up our act until Damali fully transitions. Right now, she's vulnerable to a master vamp attack. She's wide open, sensing everything in her environment ... learning, cataloging, growing so fast internally it's wearing her out."

"You mean we brought on her outburst earlier?" J.L. asked in a near-whisper. "When we were all feeling rammy, and needed to get out ... and she started ragging about everything?"

Shabazz held the team enthralled with a steady gaze. "Yeah, brother. And what that means is, if you feel something, Damali will inadvertently pick it up from you. You go out and indulge in anything, you bring the vibration back to a Neteru in sensory transition. Get drunk, she's slightly lit. Get pissed off, and start cursing and causing chaos, her fight instincts kick in. Get - "

Marlene held up her hand. "Oh, Shabazz ... don't even say it."

* * *

Alejandro leaned his weight against his front door as he inserted the key in the lock. Giving the unmarked squad car the finger, he entered his beach house, and began taking off his suit jacket. It was all fucked up. Everything about the situation. Carlos was tripping, was about to start a war on three fronts - blaming the Asians, the Russians, and the Dominicans, possibly even the Jamaicans, without proof positive, and their ranks were too thin to bring it on. They couldn't bury their boys until the police were finished with the bodies, then it would be a closed casket deal for all of them. This was no way to live.

Pure disgust filled him as he passed through the foyer and stepped down, into the sunken living room. Spanish tiles echoed in complaint under his heavy footsteps. They had made their money, and had come up from the bottom. Now it was time to go totally legit and chill - but Carlos was always pressing for more power, more territory. Alejandro crossed the living room to his private bar and poured a drink, and then stood before the sliding glass doors that led to the deck. His gaze scanned the horizon. Beach was in front of him, a pool to the left, a Jacuzzi to the right, white on white was behind him, leather everything, a sound system to die for, and a fine woman upstairs in his bed. He sipped deeply from his glass, allowing the fumes of the fifty-year-old scotch to burn the back of his throat with bitter sweetness.

Life was bittersweet. He took off his tie and threw it on the glass coffee table behind him. Was a time when he couldn't have dreamed of owning a seventy-five-dollar tie, let alone all of this. And Carlos wanted to start a war? To what end? Their cousin and their best friends were already dead. Enough was enough. He was out.

Alejandro finished his drink, considered the stars, then pulled a small package out of his silk pants pocket. He took a hit of coke, allowing the sting of the drug to blast his nasal passages with a burn that became another bitterness on the back of his tongue. Good product. He made a sound and cleared his throat with it, setting the glass down by his tie as he left the room to head toward the bedroom. He hoped Sophia was awake, and wouldn't start no shit. Tonight he didn't need to hear a bunch of bull - just needed to get laid and go to sleep.

Thank God. She was sleeping quietly on her side. In the dark he could tell that she was naked under the sheets when he'd entered the room. He glimpsed her briefly and turned to take off his clothes. Alejandro went to the chair and kicked off his leather slip-ons, and began undoing his belt when he heard her stir.

"Glad you're home early," she whispered.

"Yeah, me too," he murmured, noting that the sound of her voice was unusually smooth. That's why he kept this one around - she knew how to read her man.

He walked to the side of the bed and sat down, slipping off his pants and placing his pager/cell-phone on the nightstand. She rubbed his back and he closed his eyes. God, her hands felt so good, and her breath was so warm against his cheek. Tension drained from him as she stroked away the stress in every muscle.

"Come to bed, baby," she whispered. "Whatever it is, you won't solve it tonight."

He covered her hand at his shoulder with his eyes still closed, feeling the softness of her skin under his palm. "I know. Cops are outside, and Carlos... well. A lot is going on right now, and you're making me forget all about it."

He could feel the bed shift as she moved against his back.

"Take off your jewelry, baby."

Her breaths were coming more like rasps, her tone wanton, sexy - yes, that's why he kept this one around.

"I never take off my cross," he murmured, allowing her kisses down his spine to send a shudder through him. Yeah, she could do that down the front, too, in a minute. His body was ready for her, just from the thought of it.

"I don't want it to break when I ride you." She laughed from a low place in her throat.

"You plan to rock my world hard enough to break my chain?" He chuckled.

"See for yourself - you be the judge," she whispered. "I know that piece is special to you, because it came from your brother when you joined his squad ... but if you want to really see what I can do, take it off. It's your choice."

He smiled, sitting up just enough to reach behind his neck, find the clasp, and open the thick chain, dropping the silver jewelry on the nightstand without looking at it. "I don't do this for everybody, you know."

"I know. That's what makes it all so special."

He moved around her and laid on his back, smiling up at her pretty face as she straddled him. The moonlight coming through the window gave her an aura like that of an angel. Wet, hot woman surrounded him and made his eyes roll to the back of his skull. He shuddered as she moved against him in a low, grinding circle.

"It better be worth it," he murmured, admiring her naked breasts that jiggled ever so slightly each time she circled his groin.

"Oh, it will be, I promise you." She chuckled, throwing her head back.

"Yeah, work it, baby," he breathed, his eyes closing to slits as he glimpsed her riding him in the wall of mirrors by the bed -  and froze. No fucking reflection?

A scream lodged in his throat as he watched her head tilt forward and her jawbone unhinge under its skin. Her fingers dug into his flesh, her French manicure becoming retractable claws surrounding his arms with an iron grip. His member was locked in a freezing, slimy cavern, and then acid began to burn away the skin of his groin. Pain so intense sent him into immediate shock; he shook and gulped air, eyes wide, and a silent scream strangled him as he watched massive incisors rip through her gums like they were giving hideous birth.

She smiled. An acid drool ran down a fang, burning his chest where the drop splattered it. Her pupils began to glow red, the shape of her eyes changing to slits... and a low growl emanated from deep within her chest.

"It's worth it," the thing on him hissed, slowly lowering its face to his. "Bring me your brother. I have my own debt to settle with Fallen Nuit, and you're perfect for the job. I need Carlos. I plan to ride him like this, too."

The last sound he heard was his own cry for mercy as his Adam's apple left his throat.

in thedistance she heard the phone ringing. The sound of it carved a hole into her skull, and she flopped over on her belly and jammed a pillow on top of her head, trying to keep the sound out along with the sunlight.

Judging from the sun's position, it had to be past noon. Ravenous hunger drew her out of bed, as well as the fast footsteps coming down the hall. She could tell by the weight of their fall and the stride that it had to be Marlene. Damali's stomach growled. She needed something salty. High carbs. Chips. Health food was out this morning.

She got up, holding her head with her hands as she found her secret stash of contraband. The sound of the bag ripping open sent another shard of pain through her temples. This had to be the absolute worst hangover she'd ever experienced in her life. Not even after a forty of Old E, when she was a teenager and had tried her hand at drinking, did she wake up like this! Damn.

The door opened and Damali cringed as she shoved a handful of chips into her mouth. Her own crunching made pinpoints of light form behind her tightly shut lids. Marlene's inhale to speak became another blade through her brain. Damali held up her hand, tears beginning to form from the agony.

"In the equipment room. Now. Carlos is on the business line."

For a moment her stomach did a flip-flop and she could feel her pulse quicken. All she could do was open her eyes and stare at Marlene for a second, and then follow her.

With her hand deep in the open bag of chips, Damali paced behind Marlene, munching and squinting, and ignored the assembled team's stare. She gulped down the salty flavor, which was staving off the nausea, wiped her greasy hand on her yellow robe, leaving an orange trail, and accepted the telephone while her crew continued to stare at her.

"They did Alejandro," the deep male voice on the line murmured. "I just wanted to tell you - before it hit the papers. But then, it probably already has."

"Oh, my God," Damali whispered, not caring that members of her team were still staring at her and listening to every word she said. She set down the bag of chips slowly and walked in a circle, clutching the receiver. "How?"

"In his own home." Carlos's voice quavered and then became steady upon a deep inhale. "My mother has taken to her bed... . We have to close the casket. My grandmother ... there are no words."

She heard him breathe in deeply, and she covered her mouth with her hand.

"I can't even explain what they did to my brother. Blood was everywhere. His throat gone. He'd been disemboweled. His forearms, shoulders, chest ripped to shreds like he tried to fight them off him. Even his... they used acid to burn away what made my brother a man - left a bloody, black hole. Madre de Dios ___"

"Whaaaat?!" Damali closed her eyes, images flashing through her head so fast that she weaved where she stood, Shabazz catch-

ing her under her elbow. She shrugged off his hold, her grip tightening on the telephone. She'd seen it last night. The one that got away on the beach. "Where are you?"

"Just left the morgue."

"I'll be there."

"No, Damali," Marlene warned quietly. "No."

"Tell me where you're at, Carlos. I'll be there," Damali restated, ignoring Marlene.

"I gotta go," Carlos murmured. "It's on, and where I'm going ain't no place for you to be. I just wanted to tell you goodbye - and to ask you to make sure my mother and grandmother get everything I own ... my lawyer has been advised to break you off something, too, baby ... but you never know how these things work out. Can't trust a soul - but maybe only just you."

"Carlos, wait!" The phone went dead in her ear. Damali glanced around at her crew's expressions.

She started to run toward her room to change, but four pairs of hands grabbed at her, and she could feel Big Mike's arms anchor her waist.

"Slow your roll, li'l sis," Big Mike drawled, his tone soothing. "This could be a setup, and we all need to keep a cool head to protect brotherman."

It was his mention of protection for one outside of the group that made her cease struggling. Each of them slowly removed their hold on her, and Shabazz pushed her down to sit on a stool.

"Make her some green tea, Mar," Shabazz said, keeping his gaze on Damali.

"I am not going to sit here wasting precious daylight drinking tea!" Frustration beyond her comprehension gripped her as her gaze tore around the room.

"You woke up feeling like you had the worst hangover of your life, didn't you?" Shabazz kept his gaze steady on her and his voice mellow.

"Yeah," Damali finally admitted, bringing her hands to her temples as Shabazz backed away. "Feel like I just got hit by a Mack truck."

"Aftermath. You're coming down. Your metabolism is shifting back to normal levels after a sudden hunt surge. All the neurotoxins in your body are flushing, and your system is regulating. Sugar, salt, fatty carbs are just quick fuel - and will make you hit bottom harder later. Your body needs a slow burn to replace what just got stripped from it last night. Won't always hit you like this."

"Okay, okay, whatever." Damali wiped her hand against her robe again, glanced at the chips, but heeded Shabazz's warning. If this was anything like the next-morning jitters, then she knew she'd never do drugs.

"This is the crash and burn part, baby," Rider said too loudly.

Damali squinted at the sound of his voice and reached for the chips despite herself.

"Ahhh ... trying to bite the snake that bit 'cha. Always works for me."

"Shut. Up. Rider." Damali let her breath out hard and tried to focus on Shabazz, then threw the bag across the room when he shook his head. "What is going on?"

"First hunt," Shabazz replied as Marlene slid a cup of green tea beside her on the weapons bench.

"Bullshit. I mean ... aw, y'all know what I mean. Sorry, Mar. I've been on how many hunts, though, as you call it? We've been kicking vampire butt for five years, and I've never felt like this in the morning ... even the body blows hurt worse than before."

The group stared at her.

"Better have that birds-and-bees talk with girlfriend, Mar." J.L. stood. "I'm going to see how Jose is feeling."

"Jose's back?" Damali tried to stand but thought better of it, and reached for her tea instead. She sipped it slowly and grudgingly. It then dawned upon her that Big Mike was in the room. "He's okay, right?" Her voice caught and held the rest of her question.

"That's the only reason I'm here," Big Mike said in a mercifully quiet voice. "They said to monitor him, keep plenty of fluids in him, and if his condition dips again, bring him back. He's on oral antibiotics, so he could come home."

Damali nodded and relaxed, bringing the tea to her lips.

"What did Carlos say?"

Damali tried to focus her attention on the original subject. It was like her synapses weren't firing on all cylinders. It was hard to stay focused on any topic at one time, plus there were too many issues that required her brain to assimilate. Vibes and tension were zinging around the group, but she couldn't put her finger on why.

"They did his brother - horribly," she finally whispered. "Carlos said good-bye, like he was going on a suicide mission. We've gotta go get him before he either kicks off a war by blowing away the wrong people, or goes out alone and gets himself vamped. I just can't figure it out. Why is vampire activity beginning to concentrate around our people, our biggest competitor, Blood Music, and Carlos's operations? It doesn't make sense. I didn't really start to notice it until they went after his people, too. I thought they were just going after artists. What's the link? None of us even speak."

"Big Mike, go see if you can help J.L. bring Jose in here. We all need to talk," Marlene said.

Mike nodded and left the room. Marlene cleared a space on the long table, and rolled out a map in the center of it. When Jose walked in slowly, Damali stood and went over to him to hug him, holding his hand to bring him back to where she'd been sitting, giving him the stool. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against her waist as she smoothed his hair back from his forehead.

"I'm sorry," he murmured.

"Don't talk crazy," Damali said softly, kissing the top of his head. "Woulda went to Hell and back to get you back."

"Might have to one day," he chuckled sadly, squeezing her hand.

The group passed nervous glances between each other, studying Jose's frail condition. He looked like he'd dropped twenty pounds in twenty-four hours and his eyes were beginning to sink into the dark circles around their sockets. Damali just stroked his hair.

"We all have a story ... ," Marlene said in a faraway voice. "When this first started for me, it began in New Orleans. I was just a young woman. Then it spread to South Carolina, Gullah country. Then it was cool for almost twenty years after."

"That was just before I was born," Damali said in a quiet voice. She glanced around as everyone else nodded.

"Last night," Rider said, his voice now quiet, "you went after a female vampire."

The group went still again and each of them glanced at the others in the room, their line of vision terminating on Damali.

"Mar, I'm sorry about how I treated you," Damali whispered. She looked at Rider. "Sorry that I might have put you in harm's way, too."

Marlene shook her head and sent her gaze beyond the group toward the window. "Wasn't your fault. Only a first- or second-

generation vampire can bring on blood lust like that in a Neteru. Instinctively, you'll go after the head of the hydra."

"Mar," Damali murmured, glancing around the group to try to better understand, "I've never done anything like that before." She looked at Marlene who held her with a concerned gaze, her expression unusually tender. "In all our battles, I've never flipped like that."

"You'll stabilize soon."

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