The Laughing Corpse (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #2)(16)


by Laurell K. Hamilton

"We must catch up with the Señora." He made a gracious motion like a maître d' showing me to a chair. I went where he pointed. Where else was I going to go?

The hallway fed into a large rectangular chamber. It was painted the same startling white as the cell had been. The whitewashed floor was covered in brilliant red and black designs. Verve it was called. Symbols drawn in the voodoo sanctuary to summon the lao, the gods of vaudun.

The symbols acted as walls bordering a path. They led to the altar. If you stepped off the path you messed up all those carefully formed symbols. I didn't know if that would be good or bad. Rule number three hundred sixty-nine when dealing with unfamiliar magic: when in doubt, leave it alone.

I left it alone.

The end of the room gleamed with candles. The warm, rich light flickered and filled the white walls with heat and light. Dominga stood in the midst of that light, that whiteness, and gleamed with evil. There was no other word for it. She wasn't just bad, she was evil. It gleamed around her like darkness made liquid and touchable. The smiling old woman was gone. She was a creature of power.

Manny stood off to one side. He was staring at her. He glanced at me. His eyes were showing a lot of white. The altar was directly behind Dominga's straight back. Dead animals spilled off the top of it to form a pool on the floor. Chickens, dogs, a small pig, two goats. Lumps of fur and dried blood that I couldn't identify. The altar looked like a fountain where dead things flowed out of the center, sluggish and thick.

The sacrifices were fresh. No smell of decay. The glazed eyes of a goat stared at me. I hated killing goats. They always seemed so much more intelligent than chickens. Or maybe I just thought they were cuter.

A tall woman stood to the right of the altar. Her skin gleamed nearly black in the candlelight as .if she had been carved of some heavy, gleaming wood. Her hair was short and neat, falling to her shoulders. Wide cheekbones, full lips, expert makeup. She wore a long silky dress, the bright scarlet of fresh blood. It matched her lipstick.

To the right of the altar stood a zombie. It had once been a woman. Long, pale brown hair fell nearly to her waist. Someone had brushed it until it gleamed. It was the only thing about the corpse that looked alive. The skin had turned a greyish color. The flesh had narrowed down around the bones like shrink wrap. Muscles moved under the thin, rotting skin, stringy and shrunken. The nose was almost gone, giving it a half-finished look. A crimson gown hung loose and flapping on the skeletal remains.

There was even an attempt at makeup. Lipstick had been abandoned when the lips shriveled up but a dusting of mauve eye shadow outlined the bulging eyes. I swallowed very hard and turned to stare at the first woman.

She was a zombie. One of the best preserved and most lifelike I had ever seen, but no matter how luscious she looked, she was dead. The woman, the zombie, stared back at me. There was something in her perfect brown eyes that no zombie has for long. The memory of who and what they were fades within a few days, sometimes hours. But this zombie was afraid. The fear was like a shiny, bright pain in her eyes. Zombies didn't have eyes like that.

I turned back to the more decayed zombie and found her staring at me, too. The bulging eyes were staring at me. With most of the flesh holding the eyes in the socket gone, her facial expressions weren't as good, but she managed. It managed to be afraid. Shit.

Dominga nodded, and Enzo motioned me farther into the circle. I didn't want to go.

"What the hell is going on here, Dominga?"

She smiled, almost a laugh. "I am not accustomed to such rudeness."

"Get used to it," I said. Enzo sort of breathed down my back. I did my best to ignore him. My right hand was sort of casually near my gun, without looking like I was reaching for my gun. It wasn't easy. Reaching for a gun usually looks like reaching for a gun. No one seemed to notice though. Goody for our side.

"What have you done to the two zombies?"

"Inspect them yourself, chica. If you are as powerful as the stories say, you will answer your own question."

"And if I can't figure it out?" I asked.

She smiled, but her eyes were as flat and black as a shark's. "Then you are not as powerful as the stories."

"Is this the test?"

"Perhaps."

I sighed. The voodoo lady wanted to see how tough I really was. Why? Maybe there wasn't a reason. Maybe she was just a sadistic power-hungry bitch. Yeah, I could believe that. Then again, maybe there was a purpose to the theatrics. If so, I still didn't know what it was.

I glanced at Manny. He gave a barely perceivable shrug. He didn't know what was going on either. Great.

I didn't like playing Dominga's games, especially when I didn't know the rules. The zombies were still staring at me. There was something in their eyes. It was fear, and something worse--hope. Shit. Zombies didn't have hope. They didn't have anything. They were dead. These weren't dead. I had to know. Here's hoping that curiosity didn't kill the animator.

I stepped around Dominga carefully, watching her out of the corner of my eye. Enzo stayed behind blocking the path between the verve. He looked big and solid standing there, but I could get past him, if I wanted it bad enough. Bad enough to kill him. I hoped I wouldn't want it that bad.

The decayed zombie stared down at me. She was tall, almost six feet. Skeletal feet peeked out from underneath the red gown. A tall, slender woman, probably beautiful, once. Bulging eyes rolled in the nearly bare sockets. A wet, sucking sound accompanied the movements.

I'd thrown up the first time I heard that sound. The sound of eyeballs rolling in rotting sockets. But that was four years ago, when I was new at this. Decaying flesh didn't make me flinch anymore or throw up. As a general rule.

The eyes were pale brown with a lot of green in them. The smell of some expensive perfume floated around her. Powdery and fine, like talcum powder in your nose, sweet, flowery. Underneath was the stink of rotting flesh. It wrinkled my nose, caught at the back of my throat. The next time I smelled this delicate, expensive perfume, I would think of rotting flesh. Oh, well, it smelled too expensive to buy, anyway.

She was staring at me. She, not it, she. There was the force of personality in her eyes. I call most zombies "it" because it fits. They may come from the grave very alive-looking, but it doesn't last. They rot. Personality and intelligence goes first, then the body. It's always that order. God is not cruel enough to force anyone to be aware while their body decays around them. Something had gone very wrong with this one.