The Laughing Corpse (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #2)(12)

by Laurell K. Hamilton

He made Manny lean against the porch railing like a police frisk. Antonio knew what he was doing, but it was an angry search, lots of quick jerky hand movements, as if just touching Manny's body enraged him. A lot of hate in old Tony.

It never occurred to him to pat me down for weapons. Tsk-tsk.

A second man came to the screen door. He was in his late forties, maybe. He was wearing a white undershirt with a plaid shirt unbuttoned over it. The sleeves were folded back as far as they'd go. Sweat stood out on his forehead. I was betting there was a gun at the small of his back. His black hair had a pure white streak just over the forehead. "What is taking so long, Antonio?" His voice was thick and held an accent.

"I searched him for weapons."

The older man nodded. "She is ready to see you both."

Antonio stood to one side, taking up his post on the porch once more. He made a kissing noise as I walked past. I felt Manny stiffen, but we made it into the living room without anyone getting shot. We were on a roll.

The living room was spacious, with a dining-room set taking up the left-hand side. There was a wall piano in the living room. I wondered who played. Antonio? Naw.

We followed the man through a short hallway into a roomy kitchen. Golden oblongs of sunshine lay heavy on a black and white tiled floor. The floor and kitchen were old, but the appliances were new. One of those deluxe refrigerators with an ice maker and water dispenser took up a hunk of the back wall. All the appliances were done in a pale yellow: Harvest Gold, Autumn Bronze.

Sitting at the kitchen table was a woman in her early sixties. Her thin brown face was seamed with a lot of smile lines. Pure white hair was done in a bun at the nape of her neck. She sat very straight in her chair, thin-boned hands folded on the tabletop. She looked terribly harmless. A nice old granny. If a quarter of what I'd heard about her was true, it was the greatest camouflage I'd ever seen.

She smiled and held out her hands. Manny stepped forward and took the offering, brushing his lips on her knuckles. "It is good to see you, Manuel." Her voice was rich, a contralto with the velvet brush of an accent.

"And you, Dominga." He released her hands and sat across from her.

Her quick black eyes flicked to me, still standing in the doorway. "So, Anita Blake, you have come to me at last."

It was a strange thing to say. I glanced at Manny. He gave a shrug with his eyes. He didn't know what she meant either. Great. "I didn't know you were eagerly awaiting me, Señora."

"I have heard stories of you, chica. Wondrous stories." There was a hint in those black eyes, that smiling face, that was not harmless.

"Manny?" I asked.

"It wasn't me."

"No, Manuel does not talk to me anymore. His little wife forbids it." That last sentence was angry, bitter.

Oh, God. The most powerful voodoo priestess in the Midwest was acting like a scorned lover. Shit.

She turned those angry black eyes to me. "All who deal in vaudun come to Señora Salvador eventually."

"I do not deal in vaudun."

She laughed at that. All the lines in her face flowed into the laughter. "You raise the dead, the zombie, and you do not deal in vaudun. Oh, chica, that is funny." Her voice sparkled with genuine amusement. So glad I could make her day.

"Dominga, I told you why we wished this meeting. I made it very clear. . ." Manny said.

She waved him to silence. "Oh, you were very careful on the phone, Manuel." She leaned towards me. "He made it very clear that you were not here to participate in any of my pagan rituals." The bitterness in her voice was sharp enough to choke on.

"Come here, chica," she said. She held out one hand to me, not both. Was I supposed to kiss it as Manny had done. I didn't think I'd come to see the pope.

I realized then that I didn't want to touch her. She had done nothing wrong. Yet, the muscles in my shoulders were screaming with tension. I was afraid, and I didn't know why.

I stepped forward and took her hand, uncertain what to do with it. Her skin was warm and dry. She sort of lowered me to the chair closest to her, still holding my hand. She said something in her soft, deep voice.

I shook my head. "I'm sorry I don't understand Spanish."

She touched my hair with her free hand. "Black hair like the wing of a crow. It does not come from any pale skin."

"My mother was Mexican."

"Yet you do not speak her tongue."

She was still holding my hand, and I wanted it back. "She died when I was young. I was raised by my father's people."

"I see."

I pulled my hand free and instantly felt better. She had done nothing to me. Nothing. Why was I so damn jumpy? The man with the streaked hair had taken up a post behind the Señora. I could see him clearly. His hands were in plain sight. I could see the back door and the entrance to the kitchen. No one was sneaking up behind me. But the hair at the base of my skull was standing at attention.

I glanced at Manny, but he was staring at Dominga. His hands were gripped together on the tabletop so tightly that his knuckles were mottled.

I felt like someone at a foreign film festival without subtitles. I could sort of guess what was going on, but I wasn't sure I was right. The creeping skin on my neck told me some hocus-pocus was going on. Manny's reaction said that just maybe the hocus-pocus was meant for him.

Manny's shoulders slumped. His hands relaxed their awful tension. It was a visible release of some kind. Dominga smiled, a brilliant flash of teeth. "You could have been so powerful, mi corazón."

"I did not want the power, Dominga," he said.

I stared from one to the other, not exactly sure what had just happened. I wasn't sure I wanted to know. I was willing to believe that ignorance was bliss. It so often is.

She turned her quick black eyes to me. "And you, chica, do you want power?" The creeping sensation at the base of my skull spread over my body. It felt like insects marching on my skin. Shit.

"No." A nice simple answer. Maybe I should try those more often.

"Perhaps not, but you will."

I didn't like the way she said that. It was ridiculous to be sitting in a sunny kitchen at 7:28 in the morning, and be scared. But there it was. My gut was twitching with it.

She stared at me. Her eyes were just eyes. There was none of that seductive power of a vampire. They were just eyes, and yet . . . The hair on my neck tried to crawl down my spine.