The Laughing Corpse (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #2)(15)

by Laurell K. Hamilton

"I do not trust you, Dominga."

She laughed. "But it is her choice, Manuel. I have not forced her."

"You have blackmailed her, Dominga. Blackmailed her with the safety of others."

She looked back over her shoulder. "Have I blackmailed you, chica?"

"Yes," I said.

"Oh, she is your student, corazón. She has your honesty. And your bravery."

"She is brave, but she has not seen what lies below."

I wanted to ask what exactly was in the basement, but I didn't. I really didn't want to know. I've had people warn me about supernatural shit before. Don't go in that room; the monster will get you. There usually is a monster, and it usually tries to get me. But up till now I've been faster or luckier than the monsters. Here's to my luck holding.

I wished that I could heed Manny's warning. Going home sounded very good about now, but duty reared its ugly head. Duty and a whisper of nightmares. I didn't want to see another butchered family.

Dominga led Manny from the room. I followed with Enzo bringing up the rear. What a day for a parade.

Chapter 6

The basement stairs were steep, wooden slats. You could feel the vibrations in the stairs as we tromped down them. It was not comforting. The bright sunlight from the door spilled into absolute darkness. The sunlight faltered, seemed to fade as if it had no power in this cavelike place. I stopped on the grey edge of daylight, staring down into the night-dark of the room. I couldn't even make out Dominga and Manny. They had to be just in front of me, didn't they?

Enzo the bodyguard waited at my back like some patient mountain. He made no move to hurry me. Was it my decision then? Could I just pack up my toys and go home?

"Manny," I called.

A voice came distantly. Too far away. Maybe it was an acoustic trick of the room. Maybe not. "I'm here, Anita."

I strained to see where the voice was coming from, but there was nothing to see. I took two steps farther down into the inky dark and stopped like I'd hit a wall. There was the damp rock smell of most basements, but under that something stale, sour, sweet. That almost indescribable smell of corpses. It was faint here at the head of the stairs. I was betting it would get worse the farther down I went.

My grandmother had been a priestess of vaudun. Her Humfo had not smelled like corpses. The line between good and evil wasn't as clear cut in voodoo as in Wicca or Christianity and satanism, but it was there. Dominga Salvador was on the wrong side of the line. I had known that when I came. It still bothered me.

Grandmother Flores had told me that I was a necromancer. It was more than being a voodoo priestess, and less. I had a sympathy with the dead, all dead. It was hard to be vaudun and a necromancer and not be evil. Too tempting, Grandma said. She had encouraged my being Christian. Encouraged my father to cut me off from her side of the family. Encouraged it for love of me and fear for my soul.

And here I was going down the steps into the jaws of temptation. What would Grandma Flores say to that? Probably, go home. Which was good advice. The tight feeling in my stomach was saying the same thing.

The lights came on. I blinked on the stairs. The one dim bulb at the foot of the staircase seemed as bright as a star. Dominga and Manny stood just under the bulb, looking up at me.

Light. Why did I feel instantly better? Silly, but true. Enzo let the door swing shut behind us. The shadows were thick, but down a narrow bricked hallway more bare light bulbs dangled.

I was almost at the bottom of the stairs. That sweet, sour smell was stronger. I tried breathing through my mouth, but that only made it clog the back of my throat. The smell of rotting flesh clings to the tongue.

Dominga led the way between the narrow walls. There were regular patches in the walls. Places where it looked like cement had been put over--doors. Paint had been smoothed over the cement, but there had been doors, rooms, at regular intervals. Why wall them up? Why cover the doors in cement? What was behind them?

I rubbed fingertips across the rough cement. The surface was bumpy and cool. The paint wasn't very old. It would have flaked in this dampness. It hadn't. What was behind this blocked up door?

The skin just between my shoulder blades started to itch. I fought an urge to glance back at Enzo. I was betting he was behaving himself. I was betting that being shot was the least of my worries.

The air was cool and damp. A very basement of a basement. There were three doors, two to the right, one to the left that were just doors. One door had a shiny new padlock on it. As we walked past it, I heard the door sigh as if something large had leaned against it.

I stopped. "What's in there?"

Enzo had stopped when I stopped. Dominga and Manny had rounded a corner, and we were alone. I touched the door. The wood creaked, rattling against its hinges. Like some giant cat had rubbed against the door. A smell rolled out from under the door. I gagged and backed away. The stench clung to my mouth and throat. I swallowed convulsively and tasted it all the way down.

The thing behind the door made a mewling sound. I couldn't tell if it was human or animal. It was bigger than a person, whatever it was. And it was dead. Very, very dead.

I covered my nose and mouth with my left hand. The right was free just in case. In case that thing should come crashing out. Bullets against the walking dead. I knew better, but the gun was still a comfort. In a pinch I could shoot Enzo. But somehow I knew that if the thing rattling the door got out, Enzo would be in as much danger as I was.

"We must go on, now," he said.

I couldn't tell anything from his face. We might have been walking down the street to the corner store. He seemed impervious, and I hated him for it. If I'm terrified, by God, everyone else should be, too.

I eyed the supposedly unlocked door to my left. I had to know. I yanked it open. The room was maybe eight by four, like a cell. The cement floor and whitewashed walls were clean, empty. It looked like a cell waiting for its next occupant. Enzo slammed the door shut. I didn't fight him. It wasn't worth it. If I was going to go one on one with someone who outweighed me by over a hundred pounds, I was going to be picky about where I drew the line. An empty room wasn't worth it.

Enzo leaned against the door. Sweat glimmered across his face in the harsh light. "Do not try any other doors, señorita. It could be very bad."

I nodded. "Sure, no problem." An empty room and he was sweating. Nice to know something frightened him. But why this room and not the one with the mewling stench behind it? I didn't have a clue.