Bite (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #8.5)(12)

by Laurell K. Hamilton

I thought about asking him what he was, but that seemed kind of tacky. Instead, I asked Bubba if he’d round up some folding yard chairs so we could all sit down, and while that was being arranged, I went in the house and heated up some TrueBlood for the three vampires and iced some Mountain Dew for Mr. Cataliades, who professed himself to be delighted with the offer.

While I was in the house, standing in front of the microwave and staring at it like it was some kind of oracle, I thought of just locking the door and letting them all do what they would. I had an ominous sense of the way the night was going, and I was tempted to let it take its course without me. But Hadley had been my cousin. On a whim, I took her picture down from the wall to give it a closer look.

All the pictures my grandmother had hung were still up; despite her death, I continued to think of the house as hers. The first picture was of Hadley at age six, with one front tooth. She was holding a big drawing of a dragon. I hung it back beside the picture of Hadley at ten, skinny and pigtailed, her arms around Jason and me. Next to it was the picture taken by the reporter for the parish paper, when Hadley had been crowed Miss Teen Bon Temps. At fifteen, she’d been radiantly happy in her rented white sequined gown, glittering crown on her head, flowers in her arms. The last picture had been taken during Hadley’s junior year. By then, Hadley had begun using drugs, and she was all Goth: heavy eye makeup, black hair, crimson lips. Uncle Carey had left Aunt Linda some years before this incarnation, moved back to his proud New Orleans family; and by the time Hadley left, too, Aunt Linda had begun feeling bad. A few months after Hadley ran away, we’d finally gotten my father’s sister to go to a doctor, and he’d found the cancer.

In the years since then, I’d often wondered if Hadley had ever found out her mother was sick. It made a difference to me; if she’d known but hadn’t come home, that was a horse of one color. If she’d never known, that was a horse of a different one. Now that I knew she had crossed over and become the living dead, I had a new option. Maybe Hadley had known, but she just hadn’t cared.

I wondered who had told Hadley she might be descended from Marie Laveau. It must have been someone who’d done enough research to sound convincing, someone who’d studied Hadley enough to know how much she’d enjoy the piquancy of being related to such a notorious woman.

I carried the drinks outside on a tray, and we all sat in a circle on my old lawn furniture. It was a bizarre gathering: the strange Mr. Cataliades, a telepath, and three vampires—though one of those was as addled as a vampire can be and still call himself undead.

When I was seated, Mr. Cataliades passed me a sheaf of papers, and I peered at them. The outside light was good enough for raking but not really good for reading. Bill’s eyes were twenty times stronger than mine, so I passed the papers over to him.

“Your cousin left you some money and the contents of her apartment,” Bill said. “You’re her executor, too.”

I shrugged. “Okay,” I said. I knew Hadley couldn’t have had much. Vampires are pretty good at amassing nest eggs, but Hadley could only have been a vampire for a very few years.

Mr. Cataliades raised his nearly invisible brows. “You don’t seem excited.”

“I’m a little more interested in how Hadley met her death.”

Waldo looked offended. “I’ve described the circumstances to you. Do you want a blow-by-blow account of the fight? It was unpleasant, I assure you.”

I looked at him for a few moments. “What happened to you?” I asked. This was very rude, to ask someone what on earth had made him so weird-looking, but common sense told me that there was more to learn. I had an obligation to my cousin, an obligation unaffected by any legacy she’d left me. Maybe this was why Hadley had left me something in her will. She knew I’d ask questions, and God love my brother, he wouldn’t.

Rage flashed across Waldo’s features, and then it was like he’d wiped his face with some kind of emotion eraser. The paper-white skin relaxed into calm lines and his eyes were calm. “When I was human, I was an albino,” Waldo said stiffly, and I felt the knee-jerk horror of someone who’s been unpardonably curious about a disability. Just as I was about to apologize, Mr. Cataliades intervened again.

“And, of course,” the big man said smoothly, “he’s been punished by the queen.”

This time, Waldo didn’t restrain his glare. “Yes,” he said finally. “The queen immersed me in a tank for a few years.”

“A tank of what?” I was all at sea.

“Saline solution,” Bill said, very quietly. “I’ve heard of this punishment. That’s why he’s wrinkled, as you see.”

Waldo pretended not to hear Bill’s aside, but Bubba opened his mouth. “You’re sure ’nuff wrinkled, man, but don’t you worry. The chicks like a man who’s different.”

Bubba was a kind vampire and well-intentioned.

I tried to imagine being in a tank of seawater for years and years. Then I tried not to imagine it. I could only wonder what Waldo had done to merit such a punishment. “And you were a favorite?” I asked.

Waldo nodded, with a certain dignity. “I have that honor.”

I hoped I’d never receive such an honor. “And Hadley was, too?”

Waldo’s face remained placid, though a muscle twitched in his jaw. “For a time.”

Mr. Cataliades said, “The queen was pleased with Hadley’s enthusiasm and childlike ways. Hadley was only one of a series of favorites. Eventually, the queen’s favor would have fallen on someone else, and Hadley would have had to carve out another place in the queen’s entourage.”

Waldo looked quite pleased at that and nodded. “That’s the pattern.”

I couldn’t get why I was supposed to care, and Bill made a small movement that he instantly stilled. I caught it out of the corner of my eye, and I realized Bill didn’t want me to speak. Pooh on him; I hadn’t been going to, anyway.

Mr. Cataliades said, “Of course, your cousin was a little different from her predecessors. Wouldn’t you say, Waldo?”

“No,” Waldo said. “In time, it would have been just like before.” He seemed to bite his lip to stop himself from talking; not a smart move for a vampire. A red drop of blood formed, sluggishly. “The queen would have tired of her. I know it. It was the girl’s youth, it was the fact that she was one of the new vampires who has never known the shadows. Tell our queen that, Cataliades, when you return to New Orleans. If you hadn’t kept the privacy glass up, the whole trip, I could have discussed this with you as I drove. You don’t have to shun me, as though I were a leper.”

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