ladydeathfaerie: (Jean Claude)
[personal profile] ladydeathfaerie posting in [community profile] marysuevirus
Title: The Mary Sue Virus: Beyond Death
Chapter Thirty Eight: Visitations
Fandom: Anita Blake universe
Rating: 18 and up
Warnings: graphic sex and violence, language, anything else i can toss in.
Disclaimer: the recognizable characters and places contained herein are the property of LKH. i'm merely borrowing for the sake of entertainment. no money is being made from this venture. the Sues are the sole property of their originators, Ginevra, Dazzledfirestar, Nanaea, SilverFoxChan and ladydeathfaerie. the concept and title of The Mary Sue Virus are used with permission from Dazzledfirestar.

Author's Notes: this one also went to unexpected places. someone got a bug up their butt and, well, here we go

The Mary Sue Virus: Beyond Death - Index Link

The RPIT squad room was bustling. People were on the phones, paper was being shuffled, and there was a general sense of urgency on the air. It was a welcome change of pace. Because if the squad was bustling with activity, the underground lair of the Master of the City and his entire kiss was moving at the speed of light. Janika had never seen so much activity in one place in all her life. Asher had told her a little bit about it, enough to know that there was to be some kind of party and that the vampire council had pretty much mandated it. Something to do with Anita's death and Aedan having taken her place as Jean Claude's human servant. Though the vampires were all very adept at hiding their feelings about the subject, Janika suspected that none of them were happy. And if they were happy, she could only imagine how Aedan felt about it.

Thinking of the other woman made Janika realize that imagining was all she could do because she hadn't actually seen Aedan in a couple of days. Normally, Janika saw her in passing in the mornings, before Aedan went to sleep, and in the evenings, before she headed out to work. she hadn't realized until just then that the two of them hadn't crossed paths at all the past couple of days. Weird.

"Miss Odon." The voice belonged to a cop in plain clothes that she hadn't met yet. Janika was pulled away from her thoughts to find that the officer in question was motioning toward the door she had been through once before. Janika smiled and started forward. The cop followed closely behind her, reaching past her to open the door that would take her into the hallway where all of the offices were located. When she stepped into it, she found Zerbrowski waiting for her. The outfit for the day was as mismatched as any other she'd seen him in, the bright yellow of his tie not quite going with the dark brown of his suit. The dress shirt he wore was robin's egg blue and it mostly worked with the rest of the man's clothes.

"Miss Odon," Zerbrowski smiled and offered her his free hand. The other one was occupied with a pastry of some sort. She returned his smile and took the offered hand. "Dolph is waiting for you in his office. If you'll follow me."

"Of course," she nodded and allowed him to move ahead of her. Janika had learned that you could tell a lot about a person by the way they moved. Zerbrowski moved with purpose, though he didn't move with any kind of rush to his steps. He didn't lumber or sway. That told her he was comfortable in his skin, sure of himself. More than capable. Given the fact that he was working on the spook squad, it was likely someone else had thought so, too.

When he reached the door to Dolph's office, sitting slightly ajar, he put his hand to it and pushed it open. Then he stepped back and allowed her to enter before him. Janika gave him a smile of thanks and stepped into Dolph's office. The detective was behind his desk, head bent as he looked at some cramped writing on a pad of paper. A thick file was open next to him, one finger pressed to the top sheet hard enough to leave the tip white. "Dolph. Miss Odon is here," Zerbrowski informed the other man.

Dolph looked up from his pad of paper and offered her a strained smile. She could tell by the file on the desk that he was looking into a case. The strain in his smile suggested he was not having any luck with whatever he was looking for. Maybe she could help ease some of that strain. "Detective Storr. Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice. I'm sorry I haven't been in touch before now, but things have been a little hectic for me the past few days."

Hectic was a good way to describe recovering from a gun shot wound, right? Even with Asher giving her the first mark, he'd insisted that she take a few days to heal up completely.

"Understandable, Miss Odon. I take it you've got something for me?" Dolph asked, only partially focused on their conversation.

"I do," she responded and reached into her bag. Dolph stared blankly at the thumb drive she set on his desk. "I've gone through all of the files you sent to me. Every last one of them. I separated them into groupings based on similarities that weren't immediately noticeable. I found at least six individual criminals and then the pair. This is, of course, based on the reports that were filed. How many crimes went unreported is unknowable. So there could be more attackers than just the ones I've picked out of these files. And it is entirely possible that the crimes started before vampires attained legally alive status. Which could potentially add even more attacks and murders to the list."

"Vampires?" Dolph asked. His voice made it obvious he didn't quite understand why she'd mentioned them.

"Some of the attacks were against vampires. Not many because most people wouldn't get very close without special training. But there were a few in the files I went over. If any of the attacks succeeded... Well, we wouldn't know because there would likely be no one to file a report." Janika tried very hard not to think about the picture of the dagger that had nearly ended Asher's life and what touching it had done to her.

"Do you have any idea how long these crimes might have been going on?" he asked. She could tell he was filing away the information she was giving him, even though it was all laid out for him in the electronic copy of her work.

"Not with any accuracy. But based on what I found in the files you forwarded to my office, several years. I can't give you a real date because I don't believe the files are complete. Between the attitudes people hold toward the lycanthropes to the relatively recent change in the vampires' status, it is beyond possible that the attacks and killings stretch back further. There could be victims who didn't come forward. There may be victims who did come forward, but weren't taken seriously."

Dolph chewed on that news a moment, the nodded his head and made some notes on the pad before him. Janika noticed that the cramped writing covering the page was his own. "Okay. Did you find anything in the files that would be helpful?"

"I did." Janika reached into her bag again and pulled out her own legal sized pad of paper. Flipping a few pages over, she consulted the notes she'd made. "I started by making five different piles. One for the pair of killers whose crime scenes you've visited here and four for individual attackers. Then, once I had them split based on my initial findings, I started a second read through of the individual files. And split those down even further. As of this moment, I'm more than certain that there were at least six individuals committing attacks and murders on the preternatural population in and around St. Louis. This was done by examining each individual file for key words or phrases mentioned during the attack. And by looking at small actions that might be considered unimportant to the untrained eye."

He gave her a sour look there, suggesting he thought she was saying the cops weren't trained to handle this kind of crime. In reality, they weren't. Not by any stretch of the imagination. He and his team were unique. And they had had the benefit of someone with preternatual expertise to help them during their cases. That made a difference. But there were so many people who felt that lycanthropes didn't even qualify as second class citizens that it was highly likely their stories were discounted or even ignored. If they were reported at all. And it would be wrong to suggest that the cops never let their prejudices influence their performance while on the job.

"Not everyone has a squad like yours, Detective Storr. And not everyone has the benefit of having someone with preternatural experience to help them on their cases. You were lucky to have Ms. Blake consulting for you. And now you've got Miss Kinkade. There aren't enough people with the kind of knowledge they possess. That gives your men an edge." She gave voice to her thoughts in the hope that they would smooth his ruffled feathers. What sounded like a choking cough came from the other occupant of the room, letting her know that Zerbrowski was amused. At least one of them was enjoying this encounter. For now.

"You said at least six. Does that mean you think there might be more?" There was a touch of gruffness in Dolph's voice, but he seemed to be all business once again.

"I think its highly probable," Janika nodded. "I've laid out all of my reasons for sorting as I did on that drive I handed you. There are inconsistencies between some of the attacks that are so minute... I almost didn't see them all. As it stands right now, the only thing that ties everything together is that symbol."

"Back to that damn symbol. It has to mean something," Dolph muttered.

"I have some news for you on that front. But before we get into that, I wanted to talk about the one anomaly I found in the files." Janika reached into her bag one more time to carefully pull out a last item. She handed the file to Dolph, her fingers tingling with remembered images. He took it and flipped it open, glanced at it briefly and set it down.

"Tell me why this one is an anomaly," he instructed. She didn't think it was so much laziness on his part that saw him issuing such an order. Rather, it was a test to see why she felt the way she did. The man had been a cop for a long time. No doubt he could figure why she felt it was odd just by glancing at the information provided. This was his way of delving into her thought processes, seeing how she came to her conclusions. Checking her reasoning.

"Well, for starters, that case is the only one in the whole slew of files you sent me that has been closed. None of the other cases have been closed. None of the other cases have any solid leads to help the police close them." Janika motioned toward the file on his desk with one hand. "Also, there was a witness to this crime. None of the other cases had any solid, reliable witnesses listed. And this one did. A witness who conveniently attested to the fact that the perpetrator was insane. That he was sprouting gibberish as he attempted to end a vampire's life. But a glance at the signature turned up nothing helpful. It isn't really a name. Just a series of loops that look like someone's name. Lastly, there was no mention of the symbol in that file. Which means either that attack has nothing to do with the other cases you're looking into now or the symbol hadn't been added to the ritual of the attacks."

Dolph shot her a curious look. "Ritual? That's an odd choice of words to use, isn't it?"

She shook her head. "No. It really isn't. Based on what I've found in the files, what some of the victims describe happening, there is a ritualistic aspect to the attacks. Which leads me to believe that someone is... training these people to do these things. Maybe brain washing. I don't know. If the attackers are almost all indigent, brain washing would be a better word for it."

"Indoctrination? Some kind of outreach program or something? People who claim they're helping the homeless?" It sounded to her as if Dolph was trying each of those sentences out to see how they fit more than asking her opinion, so she gave no responses and let him come to his own conclusions. Though, if he were to ask, she'd have to go along with his instincts. An outreach program meant to help the homeless would make a good front for a hate group. Far too many of the people on the streets were mentally ill and it would be so easy to brain wash them. And no one would be looking for a homeless person, much less be able to find them.

Her thoughts flashed to the night she'd almost lost Asher. She hadn't seen his attacker, had come out after the man had left. But she knew that the man responsible for it was the same man who had shot her. She'd overheard talk about those two events one night. She'd also heard that the man was homeless. Given the things she knew he'd said when he'd been caught, the man was very probably mentally ill and had been manipulated into his actions by someone else. There were quite a few outreach programs and aid organizations that were founded by religious leaders. It would be so easy for those people to push an anti-preternatural agenda.

Dolph must have come to the same conclusion because, just as Janika was thinking about that, his gaze lifted to hers and she could see it there in his eyes. "A religious group?"

"I suspect that is very likely, Detective Storr. Which brings me to this." She paused and reached into her bag once again. This time, she pulled a single picture out and handed it across the desk to the man. She knew what he'd find when he looked at it. It was a graphic illustration of a large, bright red heart. A crown of thorns sat atop it, coaxing a few droplets of blood from the heart. Bright yellow beams of what was meant to be light circled the heart, shining out from around it.

Dolph stared at the image for a moment, then fished a glossy print from his file. Janika was sure he was comparing the image she'd given him to a copy of the image that had been carved into the victims' backs. That had been carved into the knife used to try and kill Asher. "They're almost the exact same."

"They are," Janika nodded. "The image I handed you belongs to a moderate sized ministry called the Pure Heart Ministries. It seems to be a fairly popular ministry, run by a man named Carter Solomon. I had my friends at the FBI dig this up for me. All accounts say that Carter Solomon is a devout and pious man. He took over a small, local ministry and grew the size of the congregation in a short amount of time. I thought the similarities between the symbols was worth checking out."

"Thank you for all of your help, Miss Odon," Dolph said, setting the photos down so that he could rise to his feet. Janika knew a dismissal when she saw one. She smiled and stood, then put her hand in his so that they could shake.

"Of course, Detective Storr. If there's anything else I can do to help, please don't hesitate to call." He nodded and released her hand. Janika turned for the door. She flashed a smile at Zerbrowski, who was already heading for the closed panel. "Good to see you again, Detective Zerbrowski."

"Thanks for everything, Miss Odon," the other man said with a good-natured smile. He didn't offer to shake her hand, but he did hold the door for her. Janika nodded and slipped out into the hallway. Time to head to her place to shower and change clothes. She just had time to get dolled up before Asher took her out for a night on the town.


"What are you going to do? Bite me?" The voice was ragged and rough. It was also filled with defiance. The owner was on his knees on the cold, rough stone of the room's floor. His head was bowed, hiding his face. But that didn't matter. She didn't need to see his face to know what it looked like. She knew that voice, hoarse as it was.

"Not my thing," she replied. The hollow, metallic echo of the gun cocking back brought his gaze up so that he could see her face. She knew he knew who she was by the way the skin around his eyes tightened.

"Are you going to kill me with your evil powers? Abomination!" he spat.

She considered it. Would something come up from under the stone if she tried to call it up? Maybe she'd try another time. "It has its draw. But no. I'll just shoot you. One bullet in the middle of your forehead. You'll be gone and I'll be that much closer to true freedom."

"You would kill an innocent soul in cold blood."

"I see no innocent soul here. I do see an attempted murderer, though. It would be my right to end your life before you can kill anyone."

"It isn't your place to pass judgement. Only God can pass judgement. And He will see that I am righteous." He sounded so sure of himself. She stepped closer, put the muzzle of the gun against his head. Felt him quiver. Just a bit.

"This isn't God's house. He doesn't live here. But I do. I'm God in this house. As well as judge, jury, and executioner."


"All I have to do is pull the trigger and you'll find out just how much I'm afraid of your words." Killing him would be a mercy. At least, it would be one for her. For him... Not so much. She didn't care what it meant for him. Then again, pulling the trigger and splatting his grey matter across the walls was far too easy for him. No suffering. He needed to suffer. He needed to linger in fear, worrying that his next breath would be his last. Afraid of her coming around the corner to finish him off. She wanted him to piss himself every time he thought about her.

"You'll go to Hell."

"Too late. I've already been. I'm not going back."

"There's nothing you can do to me that will shake me. Nothing."

"Nothing? Brother?" She smiled down at him and eased the hammer on her gun back into place. Then she ran a loving hand over the barrel, caressed it as if it was something other than a weapon. "That's where you're wrong. I'm going to leave you here. To rot. And I'm going to leave you to think about when you'll see me again. When you'll hear the soft click of my gun as I cock the hammer back. I want you to spend every waking moment worrying about when I'm going to come for you. Because I will come. And I will kill you. If you're lucky, it'll be quick and painless. If not... I've learned a few things and I know how to take my time torturing someone. I know how to make the pain last and last. I know how to kill you slowly. Painfully. And, when I'm done, no one will ever be able to find your body. Think on that while you rot away in here. Brother."

She ignored the insults he hurled her way as she turned her back on him. She crossed the room and stepped out the door.


Dolph stared at the building before him and frowned. Something wasn't quite right. It was a church, like the old fashioned ones you could still find in small town America, with one big room for the whole congregation and a single bell tower at the front of the building on the right side. There was even a cross standing proudly atop the tower. There were two sets of doors set into the front for the congregation to enter and exit through. One set was just to the left of the tower, the other set on the left side of the building. A row of windows marched down the side of the building he could see, allowing a good deal of light to shine on the interior. Dolph had no doubt that there was a matching row on the other side. There was a smaller, more modern building at the back, part of it jutting out to the side of the church. No doubt that was where the offices were located. Both buildings had been painted stark white. The cross on the top of the tower gleamed a golden color in the sun's rays. It looked humble and unassuming. But something felt off. He just couldn't put his finger on it.

He tugged the keys from the ignition and pocketed them, then glanced over at Zerbrowski. The other man was silent, staring at the rather plain church before them with a look that suggested he was having the same thought as Dolph. Finally, the man shook his head and unhooked his seatbelt. The two of them climbed from the vehicle together.

There were few cars in the lot this time of day, just four. It was early afternoon, the sun high and bright in the sky. The marquee sign by the road announced that there would be a prayer meeting that night, starting at seven sharp, with a potluck to follow in the church basement. At the back and slightly to the right of the church was a fenced in playground for children, complete with swings, slide, and a sand box. There was a garden area to the left, with a few colorful blooms still lifting their heads to the sun. It would have had a very homey kind of feel to it. If not for that off feeling that Dolph was getting.

The two of them climbed a set of about a dozen steps and made for one of the doors. It opened before they could reach it, a woman with dark brown hair pulled back into a severe bun standing in the doorway. She offered them a smile, though it didn't really seem very warm, and motioned toward the interior of the church. "Good afternoon, gentlemen. Reverend Solomon is awaiting you in his office. If you'll follow me."

Dolph had a moment to see a touch of dullness in the woman's hazel eyes before she turned away to step back into the church. He exchanged a look with Zerbrowski, then followed the woman into the interior of the building.

Warm light flooded through the windows, just as Dolph suspected it would. The woman, clad in a plain blue skirt and a beige sweater, was heading toward the rear of the church. There was a door set to one side of the pulpit and Dolph thought it was likely that's where she was going. No doubt it would take them to the reverend's office.

Where the church had been bright and welcoming, the hallway was dark and closed. Secretive. Dolph wondered if he was imagining the opposing feelings the two areas evoked. A quick glance toward Zerbrowski suggested that the other man was thinking along the same lines. Curiouser and curiouser.

The woman stopped before a door and knocked on it gently, waited until a voice on the other side bade her enter before turning the knob and letting the three of them into the room behind the door. It was, indeed, an office, though it was unlike any office Dolph had been in before. The walls were nearly the same shade of beige as the woman's sweater. There was a cross on one wall, a copy of "The Last Supper" on another. A painting of Christ was hung behind the desk. There was a single bookshelf in the room, loaded down with texts. Probably all about theology. The floor was polished wood without any carpeting on it. The desk and chairs were wooden, worn with age, and not very fancy.

The man sitting behind the desk was wearing a plain suit in a dark blue. Dolph had been a cop long enough to know a cheap suit when he saw one. The tie was imitation silk. His blonde hair was combed into a forgettable style, one hand curled around a pen while the other pressed gently against an open book. Dolph was fairly sure it was a bible and the man was working on a new sermon. It was, all in all, the picture of a humble, pious man. Dolph wasn't quite sure he bought it.

"Bring us some coffee, Ruth Ann. Please?" the man behind the desk asked as he lifted his head from his writing. The woman, who had stopped at the door and hadn't stepped any deeper into the room. nodded her head and escaped without saying a word. The woman's name sounded familiar, so Dolph took a moment to recall what he knew of Carter Solomon. All of it had come from a Google search. It was something of a surprise when he realized that Ruth Ann was his wife. There seemed to be nothing warm between the two of them. Well, wasn't that interesting? "Good afternoon, gentlemen. Welcome to Pure Heart Ministries. I'm Carter Solomon."

"Good to meet you, Reverend. I'm Detective Storr. We spoke on the phone earlier," Dolph said, then motioned to the other chair. "My associate, Detective Zerbrowski. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to speak with us."

"I would never refuse to speak to the police, Detective. And you made it sound important that we meet as soon as possible." Solomon spread his hands in a manner that silently said 'And here we are.'

"Even so. I realize that you must have a great deal of work to do. So I appreciate that you've spared us a few minutes." Dolph had barely finished his last word when there was a knock at the door. Ruth Ann entered the room carrying a tray. It was loaded down with a coffee urn and three cups, plus a small plate of cookies. She set the tray on the desk, poured out three cups of coffee which she passed around, then once more made her escape. Dolph found it interesting that she didn't seem to want to be in the same room as her husband.

"Now. What matter is so important that it brings the St. Louis police to my doors? What can I possibly help you gentlemen with?"

Dolph glanced over at Zerbrowski. He brought a glossy photo out of the file he'd carried in with him. Dolph knew that it was a copy of the image Miss Odon had dug up for him, the one that belonged to the church. Zerbrowski stood and closed the distance between his chair and the desk, then handed the photo to Reverend Solomon. After that, he handed over a second glossy photo. Dolph knew that this one would be the artist's recreation of the symbol that had been carved into their victims' backs. And that had been on the knife. Zerbrowski returned to his seat. Dolph watched Solomon's face to gauge his reaction.

"The first photo is one I'm sure you recognize," Zerbrowski began, one hand motioning to the photo Solomon held in his left hand.

"The emblem of Pure Heart Ministries," Solomon replied. "Ruth Ann's father designed it when he established this church."

"The second image is one we've found on murder victims. They were werewolves. There was even one of those symbols found in conjunction with the attempted murder of a vampire. You can see how the police would be concerned." Zerbrowski fell silent. Dolph didn't need to look to know that the other man was watching Solomon with a detective's eye, the same way Dolph himself was watching. They were looking for any kind of sign or tell that would tell them the good reverend was involved in the murders.

To his credit, he took his time looking at the images. And there was little by way of emotion to read on his face. Either he had a heaven-sent poker face or he legitimately hadn't seen the second image before. Guess which one Dolph was leaning toward? Finally, he set the photos down before him and gave Dolph and Zerbrowski his best apologetic look. "I'm sorry, gentlemen. I've never seen the second symbol before. I would never condone the taking of life. I'm a man of God and, as such, I value all life. God created every living thing on this planet, even those that some would view as dark creatures from the depths."

"Is it possible someone from your church could be behind these murders?"

Solomon spread his hands again in a gesture that really could have meant anything. "Our symbol is found on all of our literature. Anyone could take that literature with them and pervert the Pure Heart."

"Have you had anyone unfamiliar around lately? Anyone who struck you as odd?" Zerbrowski asked.

"I'm sorry, Detective. We are a small congregation. I know every face that sits in my pews. I would know if there were someone new to us. I have seen no one who could possibly be responsible for such horrible acts."

There was a note of finality in the man's voice that told Dolph they wouldn't get anything else from him. Oh, he might answer more questions, but he wasn't going to give them anything more to work with. Not that he'd really given them much to work with now. Still. Dolph held on to his sigh and gave the good reverend a brief smile. "If you could maybe keep an eye out for someone you think might be doing this things? Someone you might not have noticed before. Someone who doesn't quite fit with the rest of your congregation. Give us a call and let us know. We would appreciate it."

Dolph rose from his seat and set one of his cards on the reverend's desk. Solomon reached for it with one hand, picking it up to glance at it before slipping it into his desk drawer. "Of course, Detective Storr. Anything I can do to help the fine men of the St. Louis police department and to protect the lives of the innocent."

"Thank you. And thank you for your time. We'll see ourselves out," Dolph said before the reverend could rise from his seat. The man nodded his head. "Good afternoon, Reverend Solomon."

"Good afternoon, detectives. God be with you," Solomon replied. Dolph went out the office door, Zerbrowski right behind him.

Ruth Ann was waiting for them when they entered the hallway. She said nothing, simply motioned them up the hallway. Dolph noted it was not the way they came in and it made him wonder if she was trying to keep them from seeing something or if she'd chosen this way simply for expediency's sake. Either way, they were back out in the sunshine in only moments. Years of working together kept them from speaking until they were back in the car, the engine running and the wheels turning on the pavement. Dolph waited until they were a good distance from the church before he muttered a curse under his breath.

"You think he's lying, too?" Zerbrowski asked, gaze flicking Dolph's way.

Dolph sighed, grip on the steering wheel relaxing just a bit. "I don't know if he's actually lying, but I do think he knows more than he's letting on. The question now is what does he know?"

Zerbrowski chuckled softly. "If we knew what he knew, this case would be closed. You should know by now that our lives and our jobs aren't that easy. Not by a long shot." Zerbrowski fell silent a moment or two, long enough for Dolph to flick his gaze toward his passenger. He could tell that the other man was lost in thought. Dolph gave his attention back to the road, knowing that Zerbrowski would spit it out when he was ready. "Did you get the feeling that there wasn't something quite right with all that back there?"

Most people tended to underestimate Zerbrowski. Dolph knew that no one wanted to take him seriously. Had to do with the bad dresser thing he'd cultivated. Dolph also knew that the bad dresser thing hid a sharp mind, which gave Zerbrowski and edge. It let him do his police work with little interruption or distraction. It was one of the many things he liked about the man. "Not right, how?"

"Well, Mrs. Solomon sure seemed glacial toward Reverend Solomon. There's something about it that doesn't sit well with me. Then there's Solomon himself. He was too quick to be pious and humble. I don't know what it means, but it means something. And it bugs me."

"And that church," Dolph added. Something had felt off about the church, too.

Zerbrowski considered it a moment, gave a slow nod of his head. "Either that or we've been cops too long and we see shit where there isn't anything to see."

"Us? Suspicious?" Dolph snorted his words out. His response brought wheezing laughter from Zerbrowski.



Aedan felt him come long before he got there, his power flowing out before him like water rushing along a long dry creek bed to fill it up. She wasn't surprised that he'd sought her out. It had been a couple of days since they'd last spoken. Which was just fine by her. In fact, she could have gone longer without talking to him. She'd done her best to avoid him, slipping in and out of the Circus when the sun was high and she knew he was dead to the world. But it wasn't to be tonight. She'd gotten to the Circus later than she'd planned. And then she'd been side tracked by one of the lycanthropes asking questions. Damn her luck.

She really didn't want to see him. Didn't want to talk to him. Didn't want to have anything to do with him. Sadly, there was no where to go now. He was almost upon her and he was blocking her escape. There was no other way out of this section of the Circus. She had no other recourse but to speak to him, so she tried hard to keep his presence from affecting her. Tried to steel herself against him. The feel of his power was like coming home, though, a welcoming sense of belonging after being away for a long while. She couldn't let it touch her. Couldn't let it soothe her. She was still angered with him for lying to her about the homeless man.

And now there was the fire bug.

"You should not be here, ma poupette," he said, voice washing over her like a lover's caress. It made her want to shiver in response. It made her want to seek solace in his arms from the storm of emotions swirling within her. Damn him for doing that to her. She forced herself to focus on the reason they were even having this discussion.

"Why not?" she asked quietly, holding onto her anger with everything she had in her.

"This does not concern you," he replied. He said it so matter of factly, as if she should know it. As if she wasn't the great protector of his empire. As if she didn't really matter.

So much for holding onto her anger. She turned to glare at him, to let him know exactly how she felt. He looked unimpressed with her burning rage, which only angered her more. "How does someone trying to bomb a vampire church, full of your people, not concern me? Am I not one of your people? Does that not mean I'm involved?"

"Aedan--" he began. She put a hand up to stop him before the cajoling tone in his voice could drive away her reasons for being mad. She wasn't going to let him do that to her. No one was ever going to take her will away again.

"Don't. Don't treat me like a child. And don't try to protect me. I am supposed to be working with you to keep the preternatural community safe. So this!" She spun and threw an arm out toward the cell where the fire bug was being held. "This concerns me! Why is the piece of shit even still here? Why isn't he with the police? Why isn't he dead, Jean Claude? Why?"

Why had he kept all of this from her?

Jean Claude stared at her for several long moments. "Why do you feel he needs to die?" His voice was soft and there was nothing in it to let her know what he was thinking. He'd even shut himself off from her to keep her from catching any wind of what he might be feeling. Not that she cared. Not about his feelings. Not about what he was thinking. Not about anything. She was too angry to care. The anger had been building for too long and there was no holding it back now.

"Why shouldn't he? He tried to kill innocent people for no other reason than they're different than he is. He tried to kill them because of pure, unadulterated hate. People like him don't deserve to live. Because his kind only breeds more hate. He'll never stop until someone stops him!"

"And you feel you should stop him?" His voice was empty.

She shot him a sour look. "If you're not going to do it, why shouldn't I?"

"You do not simply execute people, Aedan." The way he said it suggested he felt she wasn't capable of such an act. Well, wasn't he going to be disappointed?

"And how the fuck would you know that? You don't know me! You think you do, but you don't," she snapped.

"How am I to know you when you hoard your secrets as a dragon hoards its gold? You tell me nothing despite being tied to me. You have built a wall around you, around your heart and your mind, and it is impenetrable. The only time I see a softer side of you is when you have had too much to drink and the alcohol has lowered your inhibitions. You share nothing of yourself with me," he countered.

"What do you need to know beyond the fact that I'm your human servant and I apparently live to serve you because of the power I hold? You don't care to know anything else. Because its all just easier in the end, isn't it?" Her words were sharp, cut across the air like a knife. She didn't care. She was tired. Tired of being used, tired of being a pawn. The only person in her life who had never treated her as a tool was Minette. Aedan was done. Just fucking done. She had to get out of there before she did something stupid. Like tell him all those secrets he accused her of hoarding.

Pulling her anger in around her, she stepped past him. She was going. Leaving. Going where, she didn't know. Just going. She could technically go to her apartment. He couldn't follow her there, had never been past the front door. She'd never had cause to invite him in. She could hide out there for a while, until she could get herself back together. She shot him a look and stalked up the hall.

"Aedan." His use of her name brought her to a halt. Not because there was power in his voice that compelled her to do so, but because there was some small amount of raw emotion that caught her attention. Brought her to a stand still. She turned and looked at him, trying her hardest not to give in and soften. They stared at one another for several long moments, all of the things she wanted to say to him clogging up the air around her. She wasn't sure if it was the same for him, but the way he watched her left her uncomfortable. Eager to be away. Part of her hoped that he would say something - anything - that would help put an end to the painful whirlwind of her emotions. "Leave the prisoner to me."

It was not what she expected.

"Like I left the man who tried to kill Asher and Janika to you?" she asked quietly.

Her words saw him go still and his gaze pinned her where she stood. She refused to squirm under his intense study, refused to let him see how deeply he affected her. And then he was closing the distance between them, until he stood directly in front of her. "What have you done, Aedan?"

"What you refused to do. He should have died that night. I should have put a bullet in his head and ended it then. But, no. I listened to you. I let you convince me that you knew best how to handle the situation. That was a mistake I will not make again."

"What have you done, Aedan?" he asked again. This time, his hands came to rest on her shoulders. He wasn't quite holding her in place, but the promise was there in the weight of his hands. If she moved before answering him, he would restrain her.

"Why was he still alive? He almost killed your second! Your oldest friend. He almost ended Asher's life. And you did what? Considered turning him? To what end? What would that have accomplished?"

"What I chose to do with him was my business." The way he spoke the sentence made Aedan believe he really felt that way. She stared at him as if she was only just now seeing the real him.

"I see. I'm just the arm candy. The battery to fuel your power base. A brainless bimbo that you can flash to the world to prove that everything is fucking peachy. No need to worry. Nothing to see here," she said, every last trace of emotion wiped from her voice. "Why not just get me knocked up and keep me barefoot and pregnant? That's all you really want me for anyway. Not an equal or a partner or anything. Just a toy. A thing. A fucking possession."

"Aedan--" he began, but she cut across him before he could say anything more.

"Oh, wait. You can't! Isn't that too bad for you?"

"Aedan." This time, there was a warning in his voice. She ignored it.

"I can stand being arm candy. I can put up with being a stand in for a dead woman. I can even handle being an object that helps you stay where you are. What I cannot stand is being lied to!" she snarled out. She took a step back, out from under his hold, and glared at him. "You promised me that the homeless man would be dealt with. You promised me that he would not be allowed to get away with trying to kill Asher and Janika. You promised! And you lied! You fucking looked me in my fucking eyes and you lied to me."

"What did you do with him?" His voice had lost any warning it had held and he tried pinning her with the depth of his blue gaze.

"What would Anita have done to him?" she countered.

Her question saw him frowning. "Anita is dead."

"What would Anita have done to him?" she asked again.

"You are not Anita," he reminded her softly. As if she needed him to tell her that. Didn't she fucking know already? Didn't she fucking live every day with her inadequacies and the fact that she was nowhere near as good as the infamous Anita Blake?

"No. I'm not. But that doesn't answer the question. What would Anita have done to him?" she asked a third time, voice a little more forceful than it had been previously.

"It is irrelevant."

Aedan reached up and tapped her temple. "Doesn't matter if you answer or not. I know what she would have done. I have it all. Right up here. She would have shot him on sight. And you wouldn't have raised one of your perfectly formed eyebrows in response. So why the fuck is it any different for me? Why do you treat me like I am too young and innocent and pure to know these things?"

"I am trying to protect you."

He really seemed to believe that. Aedan stared a moment before huffing out a pained laugh. "Protect me from what?"

"From falling too fast and too far into the type of life that eventually stole Anita's from her," he replied quietly. It always came back to her, didn't it. Aedan had known, somewhere deep in her heart, that she was a cheap knock off of the real thing and that was the only reason he really kept her around. His words sounded to her like a confirmation of that fact. She wanted to cry but the tears wouldn't come. She was just too drained to bother. "I do not wish to lose you as I lost her."

"No doubt," she said, voice flat. "It would be a bitch to try and find another human servant who can fill every need. Once was a fluke. Twice was a miracle. Three times... It would be fucking impossible. Wouldn't it?"

"That is not what I meant," he shot back. There was a slight bit of heat in his voice. She didn't know if she should believe that heat. Because, if she did, it meant that he actually did care. And she wasn't sure she was ready to face that can of worms. So she pulled back into her anger to save her sanity, sent him a withering look.

"Save me any declarations of love. We'll both know them for the lies they are."


"Look, I'll make this easy for you. Don't try to protect me. I don't need you to protect me. I don't need your help. I'll do the human servant thing, look like a happy, star-struck groupie for the public. But its just a job. One of many. So just... don't." She stared at him a moment longer, to make her point, then turned and went up the hall.


They had been given the same booth at The Hanging Gardens that they'd had that first night they'd gone out. The gentle smell of flowers was pleasing and relaxing, while the quiet buzz of conversation around them helped create an enjoyable atmosphere. She had quit wondering some time ago how Asher got them what was undeniably the best table in the place on a moment's notice. No doubt it had to do with his being a vampire and his position within Jean Claude's kiss. Maybe someday he'd tell her the secret.

She watched as Asher poured her a glass of the wine he'd ordered to go with her meal. She still couldn't believe how attentive and loving he was. Especially knowing how cold and bitter and biting he could be because of the scars. Getting ready for their date had been difficult, her mind easily distracted from the tasks she'd set for herself. By the time he'd risen and sought her out, she'd worked herself into a ball of nerves. His presence had been just the thing to soothe her frazzled nerves after her meeting with Detectives Storr and Zerbrowski.

It was always that way when she consulted on a case, though. Compiling information for the profile took so much out of her and left her sensitive to any influences around her. It was far too easy for her to get lost in her gifts, to be consumed by the energies to which using them left her open. And something about Asher just... filled in all the openings and helped calm her so that she could function. It was both delightful and disconcerting at the same time.

"You look especially lovely tonight, Janika," his voice cut across her thoughts and brought her back to their table. The smile he was giving her was soft and beautiful, reminding her that she was sitting in the most incredible restaurant with the most incredible man. His words gave life to her own smile and she reached out to pick up the glass of wine he'd poured for her.

"Thank you," she replied and sipped the wine. It was mellow and sweet, with a fruitiness to it that danced on her tongue long after she'd swallowed the liquid down. "You look quite handsome yourself."

And he did. Tonight's choice of attire was a dress shirt of linen in a blue so deep, it looked like the sky just before full darkness settled over the land. The buttons and tiny accents were in a pale, frosty gold that caught the light and winked like stars. The shirt had been paired with a pair of black trousers, so perfectly tailored to his body that the material clung to the curves of his ass. She knew. She'd studied his rear in great detail earlier.

"It pleases me that you think so," he returned. His smile broadened just a bit. Their server arrived just then, settling the appetizer she'd chosen off the menu before her. It was a hot spinach artichoke dip peppered with bacon and cheese served with a side of freshly fried tortilla chips. Janika stared at it a moment, then picked a chip and scooped up some dip. She hummed appreciatively when she swallowed.

"This is divine. I've never had such a great dip before," she told him after another sip of wine.

"I will have to let the chef know that his menu is a success," Asher replied.

"You know the chef?" she asked curiously. This was the first he'd mentioned anything of the sort.

"I do. He came here from New York City to interview for the position. His credentials are very impressive and he has studied in some of the best kitchens all over the world. Hiring him was one of the best decisions I made."

She blinked at him. "You own The Hanging Garden?"

His smile was knowing. Perhaps a bit smug. But he inclined his head in response. "I do. It was, at first, a way to pass my time when Anita denied me those things that I wanted and needed from both her and Jean Claude. Then it became something I was passionate about. The waiting list is so long that people must make reservations at least four months in advance."

"So that explains why you were able to get such an amazing table on such short notice." She shook her head. She should have realized it before now. The Hanging Gardens were just on the edge of the vampire district, making it a safe choice for those people who didn't want to step foot amongst the undead.

"A little mystery between us is a good thing, no?" he asked, eyes twinkling with mischief.

"Well, the mystery has been solved. So now what?"

"Now I will leave you to guess where I plan on building the second Hanging Gardens," he remarked with a grin.

The news made her smile. "You're opening a second location? That's wonderful! Will it be here in St. Louis? Or are you going to open it in another city like Los Angeles or New York? Oh!" she paused, eyes going wide as she considered it. "Maybe London or Paris. That would be amazing! Tell me where you're going to build the next location. I don't dare guess because there are far too many places you could build it."

He smiled at her enthusiasm and watched as she nibbled at another scoop of dip. "Perhaps I will give you a hint or two. Later. For now, there is something I think we should discuss."

The sudden seriousness in his voice brought forth a drop in her mood and she felt her appetite leaving her. "Should I be worried?" she asked quietly.

"No, my sweet. No." He reached out and laid his hand over hers. "Nothing for you to worry over. Nothing involving us. I have spent centuries looking for you. I will not give you up now that I've found you."

The honest sincerity in his voice immediately put her at ease and she felt her shoulders relax. Leaning back in her seat, she stared at him. "I know I should be calm now. But something in the way you're approaching this subject is putting me on edge. So spill it. Tell me what's going on."

"You remember I told you before that Jean Claude has been in contact with the council," he began. She knew he meant the vampire council without having to ask. Janika got the feeling that neither Asher nor Jean Claude had any great love for the council. Then again, after having met both Padma and Belle Morte, she could understand why they wouldn't be jazzed about having the council poking their collective noses into St. Louis.

She nodded her head. "Yes. You mentioned this party or whatever. What else is there? Please tell me they're not coming back." Once was enough. She didn't think she could sit through another dinner like the one they'd had with Belle and Padma.

"I have not mentioned the reason why Jean Claude is throwing a party."

She frowned. "That sounds kind of ominous."

Her words earned her a smile. "Nothing quite so terrible as all that."

"Then what?"

"There have been... grumbling with some of the Masters. Word has spread across the globe that Anita has been killed. And it is circulating that Jean Claude is not as stable in his power as he once was. This rumor, or whatever you wish to call it, was brought to the council's attention. And they have decided that it is in Jean Claude's best interests if he allows some of the American Masters of the City to come to St. Louis. To see for themselves that the power base here is as strong and as stable as ever." The look on his face and the tone of his voice told her exactly what Asher thought of the idea.

"But... Doesn't that pose a threat to everyone here? Having a bunch of Masters and their retinues all in one place at one time. That's asking for trouble. Isn't it?"

"Jean Claude has been in constant, frequent negotiations with those who wish to attend. And his terms are strict. There will be precautions set in place, of course." He paused here and she got the distinct idea that he wasn't sure the precautions were good enough. His next words confirmed her suspicions. "But that does not mean that something will not go amiss. Or someone."

"So, what? They're all going to come here and check things out?"

"There will be a party. The one I mentioned to you earlier. It is typical of Jean Claude to throw a party in the face of such dangers." Asher smiled at that last bit. Perhaps he was remembering something from his and Jean Claude's shared pasts. Perhaps it was something else. "All of the Masters and their people will be in attendance. And Jean Claude will, during the course of the event, announce to one and all that Aedan is his new human servant."

She considered that a moment. "The council is making him tell, isn't it? He has to out her to the other Masters to prove his power is stable." That wasn't going to sit well with Aedan. Not at all. Janika couldn't think of anyone she knew who valued their privacy more than Aedan did.

"Oui, cherie. He must tell them." Asher took a moment to consider what else he was going to say. Which allowed Janika's brain to wander into territory she'd only barely brushed earlier today. Maybe this was the reason Aedan had practically been a ghost at the Circus lately. Surely Jean Claude had already told her about the council's decision. And if he'd mentioned that he had to tell everyone she was his new human servant, it was no wonder that she was avoiding the Circus and, by extension, Jean Claude. "You will be required to attend. As my companion. As my human servant. As my love."

Her heart warmed on his last addition. His love. She liked that.

"I would ask that you stay near me, though." His voice was more subdued. It reminded her of when they'd first met and he'd been so serious.

"You expect trouble?" she asked softly.

"Oh, yes. I expect a great deal of trouble."

Janika had to wonder just what kind of trouble he expected. And who he expected to be making it. "Of course I'll stay near you. Will I be able to bring a weapon?"

He gave a half-smile at that. "I would imagine that all depends on what theme Jean Claude has chosen. And what costumes he is imagining for us all. Which reminds me. He would appreciate it if you could meet with his costumer for fittings."

"He's already got something in mind? Should I be scared?" she teased.

Asher laughed at that, a rich, throaty sound that went straight to her very center. "Perhaps. I have known Jean Claude a long, long time. And he is devious is many different ways. I can only hope that whatever he has in mind for you, it does not bring an army of young men upon us. I do not think I've dueled over a woman in two or three hundred years."

The hint of teasing in his voice made her snicker and she couldn't help but try to imagine him dressed up in the rich trappings of a nobleman, powdered and curled wig perched upon his head, trying to pretend he was merely human in order to not give himself away. She couldn't stop the laugh that escaped at that. "I suspect you are more than capable of winning any such duel. No matter how many young men you think I'm going to draw the attention of at this party. You are the only one I have eyes for."

"Such a sweet talker," he said, leaning toward her. "Tell me more.

Janika laughed, her worry about the party and her friends pushed aside for the moment. Tonight was for Asher. She could worry about everything else later. For now, all she wanted to do was get lost in his eyes and spend the rest of the evening rolling around in every inch of him. Everything he had to give her, both physical and emotional. She was going to enjoy it all. And she was going to give as good as she got.


He made no noise as he came up behind her. Nothing that would have told her he was there. Not a single sound or anything. Still, she knew he was there. Knew it like she knew the feel of the dead beneath her. She let him come, let him think he had the drop on her. Let him get close enough that she could imagine him standing over her. And when he dropped his hand on her shoulder...

Aedan spun and put the muzzle of her Glock in his face, only scant inches from his forehead. The Glock that he knew she hadn't just been holding because her empty hands had been at her sides. Rarely had she ever seen Edward startled or impressed. But she caught a glimpse of it just then, briefly, before he put it away behind his cold assassin face. Her hand didn't waver and she thumbed the hammer back to emphasize that she was more than willing to pull the trigger. "Put it down, Aedan. Before someone gets hurt."

"Fuck off. I don't answer to you," she told him. She didn't answer to anyone anymore. No one but herself. "Go away now and I won't put a hole in you."

Edward stared at her, face impassive, and did a lot of not going away. "I think you forget who you're talking to."

"Oh, no. I know exactly who I'm talking to. You're the man who got me all mixed up in this shit and I'll never forgive you for that. Ever. So fucking go away and leave me alone." She needed to be alone. Needed desperately to be with someone or something that wouldn't be able to threaten her or sweet talk her or just generally fuck her head up more than it was.

"Jean Claude said you were acting strange. I didn't want to believe him. Looks like he was telling the truth for once."

She grit her teeth and let everything fall away from her. She should have known. Interfering son of a bitch. "You shouldn't have come. You should have told him to fuck off. He shouldn't have even called you."

"As it happens, I called him. I was going to check in and see if you had any leads.. He sounded worried about you," Edward admitted.

She rolled her eyes. Let her finger caress the trigger of the gun. "Just get back in your car and go, Edward. Don't come back. Forget you knew me. Forget about all of this. Just... fucking leave me alone."

"You aren't making any sense, Aedan," he replied. The look he gave her could have meant anything for all the emotion that wasn't in it. "Besides, it looks like you've forgotten that I can end all of this with one phone call."

"How can I forget that when you rub it into my face every opportunity you get? If you're going to give me up, then do it. Just fucking get out of my life. Shoot me. Do whatever you have to do. I'm done. With you. With him. With all of it. I'm fucking done."

There must have been something in her voice. Maybe it was on her face. Maybe he both saw and heard it. Whatever. Edward stepped around her gun and toward her. "What's going on, Aedan? You didn't sound like yourself the other day when I called you. You're certainly not acting like yourself. What's going on?"

"Its none of your fucking business. Now do me the favor of getting the fuck out of my life," she whispered, stepping back and into him so that the gun was once more in his face. This time, she actually pressed it against his forehead. "Get out of my life or I swear to whatever higher power you believe in. I will shoot you."

It was there on her face. In her eyes. Her intent. She knew it because his gaze widened, just the tiniest bit, when he saw it and recognized it as being the real thing. And then he pulled a frown. And she saw his intent, but she saw it too late. His arm came up and slammed against her forearm, forcing her to lower her arm and the gun in her hand. At the same time, he ducked down and to the side, came up with his hand balled into a fist to land a solid punch against her jaw. There was enough force behind it to knock Aedan on her ass. Edward took the gun from her as she went down. She heard a soft thud as he ejected the magazine from the grip.

"If you're going to shoot someone, don't threaten them. Just shoot them," he said. His tone was almost social, as if he was commenting on the weather. Then he reached a hand down as an offer to haul her to her feet. She slapped it away and climbed to her feet, testing her jaw as she did so.

"Go away," she said again. Why wouldn't he listen? Why didn't he just forget about her and go fuck up someone else's life?

"I don't know what's going on. Its obvious something is going on. And its obvious its eating you up inside. You need to talk to someone. Let it out before it swallows you whole. I wouldn't be much of a friend if I ignored the warning signs and fucked off without trying to help."

"We aren't friends, Edward," she said quietly, her gaze locked on to his. "I'm an investment. One you expect to pay off for you. A thing. Just like I am to everyone else. Don't confuse that with friendship."

He said nothing, simply stared at her. Hard. To her credit, Aedan didn't squirm. She was beyond letting him intimidate her. Finally, he bent and retrieved the magazine for her Glock. Slapped it back into place before handing her the gun. Then he took her by the arm and pulled her along after him. "When was the last time you ate a real meal? When did you last sleep? Why are you so fucking determined to drive yourself into the ground?"

Aedan tried to pull her arm from his hold. His grip only tightened until she knew she'd have bruises from his fingertips. "Let go of me."

"Not until we talk. Something is wrong. You're going to tell me what it is," he said. Then his voice lowered and the assassin crept into it. "Even if I have to beat it out of you."

He dragged her to his car and shoved her into the front seat, giving her a look that told her he would absolutely shoot her if she got out and tried to run. Then he got in himself, drove them out of the cemetery and to a nearby hole in the wall diner that was open all night. He ordered them both meals and drinks. When the food arrived, he bullied her into eating. And then, when she'd sated one hunger, he bullied her into telling him what had set her off.

Much against her will, she told him. About how no one had thought to inform her about the attempted bombing at The Church of Eternal Life. And about how they'd discovered a clue at the latest demon killer crime scene. And finally about how she'd gone to that cheery little house in the middle of suburbia to look at a dead family. How the father had been a man of the cloth. And how the family had appeared to be happy, if a little bit religious. And about how whoever had committed the murders in that house had ended the life of a young girl named Katherine.

She told him about the message they'd left, that they'd written a book, chapter, and verse from the Bible on a piece of paper they'd tucked into the girl's hands.

She told him everything she knew about the crime scene and the family that had died there and how it made her feel.

In the end, Edward sat back in his seat and stared at her across the table. He was silent for a long, long time. Finally, he spoke. "Shit."

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