CHAPTER FIVE

There was no reconciling the rage. No escape from it. Fury had burrowed itself so deeply within him that he could literally feel it pulsing through his spinal fluid. How was he just supposed to let some shit like this go? He'd delivered someone a near vegetable-who was as close to his natural father as it gets into the hands of the man's clerical brethren. For a warrior like Father Pat, for any man, as far as he was concerned, that was an indignity worse than deathitself . . . and the Darkness knew that.

"It'sgonna be all right, man," Rider said, landing a supportive palm on Carlos's shoulder.

Carlos gave him a searing sideways glance that made Rider slowly remove his hand. "How you figure?"

"All right, partner," Rider said, keeping his voice low within the assembled group. "It might not be all right.Ever." He stared at Carlos, trying to reach through the rage to reestablish their team bond. "But we've got your back, though."

"Where I might have to go," Carlos said between lengthening fangs, "I can't ask you to have my back."

"Aw'ight, man," Shabazz said, stepping into the inner ring of senior Guardians.

Shabazz looked around at the assembled team, noting that Dan and Bobby were still with the clerics, gathering last-minute details. Only the female team members were present. He cut a glaze toward Marlene, who subtly nodded. Yeah, this was man business. Shabazz gave the others the eye to back off so that only he, Rider, Jose, Berkfield, and J.L. remained. Even Marlene stepped back, reading Shabazz's expression.

"Listen to me real good. Where you're at right now is an extremely dangerous place for a man like you to be," Shabazz said in a quiet but firm tone.

"You have no idea," Carlos shot back in a very even voice.

"You're about to allow your anger get you played. Go back toThe Art ofWar, man . . . warfare is the Tao of deception. You've got to be strategic and make them think they got you to your core-then come up with a plan . . . not go in there swinging buck wild because fury's got the best of you. That's basic, brother. Even though they did your family-which is all the more reason to fall back and lay for their asses."

Shabazz waited a beat, breaking through in tiny increments. "Your eyes are glowing red at the edges of the silver, and I haven't seen that since you were dead.Bad combination. I want you to think about this place where you're at right now, because we both know it wasn'tno accident that you wound up here."

"But wherever this shit takes you,hombre, we wit you all the way.Even if you decide to go after you-know-who."

Jose pounded Carlos's fist, but Carlos looked away after the exchange. No. It wasn't about that, taking Guardians up against the beast. That was pure Neteru action, no matter that they were crazy enough to ride or die with him. Problem was,they probably wouldn't die . . . at least not right away. That reality jarred him enough to make him begin to amp down.

Rider landed a hand on Carlos's shoulder again. "This is the rough ride part, dude. We all know they're coming for our family, next of kin, if they can figure out who they are. There's never a way to reconcile a casualty, especially not losing somebody as close as Father P . . . we're all fucked up with you, bro."

"But just like when your partner gets shot . . . and this is what they do, you know they went out their way. Not from some shit like cancer or a worthless DUI car accident." Berkfield stared at Carlos as their gazes locked. "He went down in the line of duty, doing what he devoted his life to. God have mercy on him, and maybe the clerics can do something. But for now, we can't let this rattle our cages so bad that we lose position."

"When it's time, man, we'll rig some real wicked shit like we always do to shove down their throats to leave a smoking black hole," J.L. said, fury simmering in his eyes.

Carlos finally nodded and rubbed both palms down his face, retracting his fangs. It messed with his head no end that, instead of him being the one to give this rally speech, the brothers had to keephim from losing it. All this shit was out of order, and he hated every minute of it.

He glanced around the small marble and stained-glass-ensconced foyer that hid the team from prying eyes on the street. "We need to make it over to Phat G's place inHarlem ."

He didn't want to talk about Father Patrick's quickly deteriorating condition. He didn't want to say good-bye to a man who didn't know if he was there or not, or even who he was. Rabbi Zeitloff had him, Monk Lin and Imam Asula were en route, and this place was a prayer citadel as far as he could tell. That would have to be enough for now. There was nothing else he could do-and that was perhaps the most damning part of it all.

"I got G on a prayer-secured sat phone, will make sure we get us a table in the back," J.L. said. "Will do everybody some good to refuel and get our heads together."

"I buy the first round," Berkfield said, slinging an arm over Carlos's shoulder. "I'll show you how we used to do this when I was on the force."

Carlos nodded, his vocal cords wouldn't work. Now they were about to have a good old-fashioned Irish wake. How fitting.

Lilith rolled over and sighed. The warm Vampire Council Chamber floor met her nude back, and she idly pushed the blood along one of the veins within the black marble while staring up at the transporter cloud of bats in the vaulted ceiling. Sebastian lifted himself up on one elbow, stroking one of her Harpies that had scuttled between them. The small, gargoyle-like creature fawned at the attention beneath Sebastian's long fingers, nipping him every so often to get a treat of blood.

"Give me your candidates," Lilithcooed, her voice drifting. "Your style is so much different than Lu's that I often forget how relaxing a primarily cerebral screw can be."

Sebastian smiled and kissed her bare shoulder. "Thank you, Your Highness." He hesitated, anticipation building as he studied her profile to gauge her mood. "I've thought of this for you for some time now . . . I think you'll be pleased."

"I'm growing more curious by the second to see who you'd propose. As one of the most adept necromancers, and now that Lu says I can raise whomever I want from the Sea of Perpetual Agony, I'm sure I'll also enjoy your enlivening demonstration when you bring them back."

"To be sure," he breathed, nipping her shoulder and shooing the stray Harpie away."Lilith . . . what about Lucrezia Borgia?" He waited as she turned to stare at him.

A slow smile spread across Lilith's face.

"You approve?"

She arched her neck, causing her onyx tresses to spill in a fan across the floor as she laughed hard. "Oh, that is so rich!"

Nervous, Sebastian sat up and snapped twice, causing a golden scroll to appear out of thin air and to hover near her face. "This lush, redheaded, Italian beauty had three husbands-two murdered, one cuckolded and disgraced-plus a number of affairs . . . a true black widow. She is the queen of poisons. The Borgias were notor-"

"Oh, put that thing away," Lilith said, waving her hand and sitting up. "I know her vile resume all too well. Her brother, acardinal with the nameCaesar, how fitting, was her lover and sired her illegitimate heir, while her first husband was dispatched for allegedly being impotent, which made thingsso messy to annul, unless she would admit to the affair-not. I loved the duplicity in her style. Ah, yes, then they also went about murdering her second husband . . . all the while her father was apope, for crying out loud. I do believe she was also his lover, too . . . and I think she was engaged twice by the age of eleven. In any event, as I recall, she had a passion for white arsenic dispensed from gorgeous rings . . . such a jewelry slut if ever I saw one, but a true Renaissance woman in every sense of the word. I definitely approve."

"I am glad you're happy . . . I think Fallon will like this treacherous European beauty, too."

Lilith chuckled. "I'm sure he'll admire her for her adept utilization ofpoudre de succession . . . inheritance powder, as they say inFrance . We could also use a poisons specialist to work hand-in-glove with your magnificent spell-casting abilities. But don't get jealous . . . when I'm sure Fallon wins her from you. Prepare your nerves in advance, darling. I can see the handwriting on that particular wall, and she's not even reanimated yet."

Sebastian didn't move as Lilith stood and slowly began to materialize her black gown to cover herself.

"Oh, come now-don't pout," she crooned. "He is, after all,French, she's Italian. . . . Both are very passionate, thus you must resign yourself to the inevitable. But the one thing I cannot allow is any further dissension in our ranks at this delicate hour."

"I am already resigned and actually chose her for him." Sebastian smiled as Lilith sat down in her throne carefully, watching him with the element of surprise subtly shaping her expression.

"Now I am intrigued," she said, taking up her golden blood goblet and sipping from it slowly. "If you chose such a luscious candidate for Fallon, whom you openly abhor . . . then this next candidate must be very special."

"She is," Sebastian admitted quietly, standing and robing in one lithe motion. He began to pace with his hands behind his back. "Initially I thought of Wu Zetian from the sixth century . . . for her power-"

"Oh, hell no!"Lilithscreeched, standing and sloshing blood. "That bitch and I would literally lock horns in chambers from the onset." Lilith set down her goblet and folded her arms over her chest as Sebastian gazed at her, seeming amused. "While I definitely admire her ruthlessness . . . to murder one's own infant daughter just to frame the Empress with the crime in order to take her husband, not to mention to ultimately depose her own sons to rule an empire-thatI can respect. But her ambitions would be-"

"Unmanageable. That is why I'm not suggesting her."

Lilith shook her head and arched an eyebrow. "Toy with me again, Sebastian, and I might turn ugly this afternoon."

He walked to his throne and sat. Lilith raked him with her gaze.

"The thought of this candidate is so titillating that it's given you an erection . . . oh, this one I must know immediately."

"Elizabeth. I want Vlad'sElizabeth ."

Lilith's eyes widened as she covered her mouth. "You are insane! And I love it!"

"Vlad the Impaler, our own Dracula, made her his mate a hundred years beyond his death-she is fromHungary, Lilith. She is from my same earth, the same Carpathians . . . her hair deep brunette, her features like fine porcelain, oh, Lilith," he said, standing and beginning to pace again. "Fallon cannot have her if I raise her for you. Do you know her triumphs?"

Sebastian stopped at the table's edge and closed his eyes with a shudder. "She murdered over fifty virgins andbathed in their blood . . . records at her trial said she'd tortured six hundred and fifty maidens in Castle Csejthe within the province of Transylvania. Her woman servant, Dorothea Szentes, was a witch-Lilith, this candidate knows black magic from the original chasm of Dracula's lair. Then the human betrayers walled this gorgeous, brilliant blood hunter in her bedroom lair within her own castle. They literally put her behind brick dust and mortar, surrounded her with prayer lines so she could not feed, and they allowed her to starve to death. It was an atrocity,a blight on the history of vampirism!"

"Let me think about this," Lilith said with a smirk.

Sebastian dropped to his knees. "Lilith, I have never begged you for anything such as this . . . but she even bit the skin off their faces."

"You know Fallon is a superior lover to you, correct?" Lilith shrugged.

"ButElizabeth is more of a sadist than a sexual being-that's why I want her!"

"Dracula was an excellent lover-insanely creative . . . I was at his coronation." Lilith pressed a finger to her lips for a moment. "Two issues trouble me. One, she may really resent that you aren't her dead husband when she awakens, which gets us right back to the dissension dilemma. Two, Fallon has more of Dracula's style, and she may ultimately go to him of her own volition."

"Not if you help me," Sebastiansaid, his eyes desperate. "You could enhance my capacities . . . you know my failings."

"You must really want her, my friend, to strike such a deal like that one in hell."

"I do . . . I have fantasized about her since she was created." He looked at Lilith without blinking and spoke inDananu . "Name your price."

"Let me get back to you with a rain check-I want an open ticket to claim what I desire later," she murmured inDananu , staring at his groin.

"Done."

Lilith tilted her head. "Lucrezia is a better match for him . . . but to raise Liz Bathory without her mate will create such a stir, politically. By rights, Vlad, for all his valor, should be raised, but-"

"Since when have you been politically correct, Lilith?" Sebastian stood and swept over to his throne, fuming. "He was finally defeated and turned to ash. To the victor goes the spoils of war, and I still stand in the end of days! I have dreamt of her,lusted for her,for centuries . . . but no one would dare cross Vlad while he was in power. I can raise her, as well as her sorceress."

"Oh, now, calm yourself. I just wanted to see you beg . . . of course I approve. Just don't forget you owe me." Lilith sat down with a flourish. "But my next question is a very simple one, as my goal is still to keep down all dissension at council, like I said. What about Yolando? You know he's had two mates ripped from him very recently; you don't think this will cause unnecessary challenges at the table? And although he is somewhat more traditional in style . . . my, my, my, he is a natural wonder. MightElizabeth take it in her head to-"

"Fuck him," Sebastian snarled, and then took a healthy swig from his goblet. "He doesn't do sadists and she doesn't do vampires with a predilection for humans after what she's been through. There are only two open seats at council, and he's not old enough to appreciate the beauties of the past. Besides, Yolando likes to indulge in cheap human vanities inTijuana , last I'd heard. Let him pick one of them to turn."

The storage area in the back of Phat G's joint was just barely large enough to hold the team. Jose caught a metal rack of canned goods and BBQ sauce before it fell. The scent of grilled meats filled the air as they exited the pantry into the galley kitchen in the back. A massive, ebony-hued chef wielding a butcher's knife and hacking beef ribs glanced up, but never stopped chopping.

"What's up, family?"

"It's all you, Mo," Carlos said, pounding fists with the chef.

Fry cooks, grill chefs, and waitresses nodded to the team, and the Guardians took in the stainless-steel environment that was loaded with razor-sharp cutlery and interesting panels that drew J.L.'s attention.

"Yeah," Mo said, chuckling deep in his throat. "We hot-wired up in here. It's all good."

Rider inhaled deeply with Jose. "Mike oughta see this."

"Naw, 'cause he might never leave."Jose motioned to a vat of greens and long metal trays of macaroni and cheese and candied yams as the fry cook dropped a load of battered green tomatoes into a vat. "We got a brother who would definitely appreciate the cuisine."

"The problem would be detoxing both him and Inez after coming through here," Marlene said with a smile.

"Oh, don't worry," Mo said, laughing. "We gonna feed you like family up in here, and we gonna introduce you all around-that's Oscar, Keith, Ty." He motioned toward the kitchen exit with a greasy butcher knife. "Phat G is up front at the bar. It's the weekend, so the joint is jumpin'. Bikers hit us Friday and Saturdays, cops come in during the week . . . families on Sunday, so you know, like I said, it's all good."

A half-smile pulled at Carlos's cheek. There was something comforting in the chaos of the kitchen in a way that felt like home.

"I've gota coupla vegetarians in the group and a couple of brothers that don't do pork." Carlos looked around the kitchen for a moment knowing it was time to water his horses. A menu hit him in the chest and he caught it, still feeling a tactical Guardian's charge coming off it.

"Up here at Monsta Burgers, we got da Big Ass Pulled Pork Platter for those who indulge, the Big Ass Beef Rib Platter, Big Ass BBQ Chicken Platter, and none of the sides are made with meat, so need I go on?" Mo said.

"Thanks, bro-I'm straight," Shabazz said, pounding his fist. "Nice tactical sling, too."

Mo nodded. "Phat gonna introduce you to the team. Mostly tacticals and seers-but we can tune this kitchen up and sling this shit in here like it's a Ginsu knife commercial, feel me. Weslices and dices mofos who ain't cool."

"I feel you," Carlos said, nodding. "That's good to know."

"Chantay gonna take y'all to a VIP table we put aside. It's nice to finally meet the legend, you know?" Mo smiled widely, one gold tooth reflecting the overhead lights. Then with a swift pivot that should have belonged to a much thinner man, he sucked in a deep breath and hollered, "Chantay!Yo, git dese folks a table!"

Dan pored over the menu as they walked toward the kitchen door. "It really says Big Ass Pulled Pork Platter." He glanced at Bobby and J.L. "I mean, in writing.Literally."

But before anyone could comment, the kitchen doors swung wide open. A petite, brown-skinned waitress with shoulder-length braids and a sexy, beef-fed figure strutted into the kitchen with one hand on her hip. Annoyance flared in her big brown eyes, and her mouth was pursed in a pout.

"Mo-what I tell you about hollering for me like that?It ain't professional!"

"We got VIPs up in here, girl . . . don't get all new."

"Who VIP?"She crossed her arms and resumed chewing her gum, looking the team up and down, unimpressed. "What group y'all with?"

"You get your e-mail this morning?" Mo countered, frowning.

"No. I pulled a double last night, so?"

"Hi," Marlene said, stepping forward and extending her hand. "Open a channel and I'll send, sis."

The young woman's eyes widened as her gaze shot from Guardian to Guardian."Oh, my Gawd! Does Phat know y'all are here? Oh, I got your table. Oh, my Gawd-which one is Damali?"

"My wife will be here shortly with some more fam," Carlos said, swallowing a smile.

"Oh, no!Carlos Rivera's up in da house?" Chantay ran to the kitchen doors and burst through them. Her yell mixed in with the din of the lively crowd and the blare of muddy water blues. "Lisa! Nyya, Carmen, Adrienne-y'all are gonna die! Go git Annette and Roshida and tell TayTay to leave the bar for a minute!Where's Anthony and Rene? Make sure Rodriguez blesses those tables good, yo!"

Chantay came back to the chuckling group with a wide grin. "I just wanna shake your hand, brother.Heard all about your squad." Carlos didn't have a chance to answer her before she turned onMo. "You ain't say VIP-type VIP, man! I swear!"

Marlene winked at Carlos."So much for a low-key reception."

Damali set them down on the building's roof. She knew coming out of her first fold-away,Mom Delores was going to scream bloody murder. She and Inez waited for the distraught woman to slump against Big Mike's steady hold, but Ayana loved it and simply clapped her hands.

Gently laying the older woman down, they waited. That's all one could do. The poor woman had fainted and it was best to allow her to slowly come to, gather her wits, and then they could open the huge metal door to walk down the steps. From there, they could find a ladies' room to splash some cold water on her face. In the meanwhile, they had to pass entrance inspection protocol.

Mike and Damali nodded at the large Guardian sentry that was obviously already prepared for their arrival. He lowered the assault weapon and smiled, rushing over to them.

"You got injured, sis? I'll get a medic evac stat-how bad is she? Is she nicked?"

"No, this is her first flight," Damali said. "But thanks, brother."

Mike pounded the man's fist. "Even though wefam , under the circumstances jumping off these days, you might wanna make us recite something from a holy text . . . just my recommendation."

"Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, sho' you right," the rifleman said. "But I saw her wings and I figured that was a sign."

"Under normal circumstances," Mike countered."But like I said, we in some strange times. Seen some new entities with feathers but they ain't hardly on our side."

"I feel you, bro.Good lookin' out. I'll pass the word." The Guardian smiled, his pecan complexion catching the late-afternoon sun. Nodding, he straightened his urban guerilla beret that was jauntily cocked to the side, causing the brass and copper Ankh he wore like dog tags to swing against his fatigue jacket.

"You're Damali, right? Phat G said you'd be here-your family is downstairs. I'm Anthony."

"Pleased to meet you," Damali said, turning to introduce the others. "This is Big Mike, Inez, her Ayana, and . . . well, Mom Delores, who is having a real hard time with all of this."

"You hold tight, I'll get her some water-and will get a couple of brothers up here to help her downstairs . . ."

"I got her, man," Mike countered. "Shedon't weigh more than two-fifty, two-sixty-I'm good."

Anthony looked from Mike to the large, prostrate woman on the ground, and then his ripped-up T-shirt and jeans that bore bloodstains. "But you bleeding, man . . . dayum-I heard about the Neteru team.Y'all straight, gangsta."

"Thanks so much," Inez said and then lifted her braids off her neck. "My momma's been through a lot . . . shedon't need all this, but there's nothing we can do."

Anthony nodded again and then shrugged as he pulled out a cell phone. "End of days, what can youdo ? She's still standing and ain't nicked, so you blessed, sis. We'll make sure Momma is okay." He turned away from them and spoke quickly into the phone. "Send Rodriguez and Rene up here with some water and a triple-XL T-shirt so the team's strongman won't cause a buzz in the crowd-we've got the rest of the Net squad with two civilians . . . and the momma ain't feeling none of this. Go light on the weapons, ya mean. If she sees heavy artillery, you might have to thump on her chest."

Mom Delores groaned and began to come to. Inez and Mike tended to her and the baby while Damali's thoughts drifted. They were a family within the larger family. The stakes had risen yet again. She briefly closed her eyes and blotted perspiration from her brow. God walk with her husband. His nerves were shot, his father was dying. When was it ever going to stop?

It was only a few moments to wait for water and Mike's fresh shirt, but time was doing funny things in her mind. It was still the same day, and yet it felt like it had been a yearlong siege. The bombardment began at dawn with daywalkers and hadn't let up since. If she wasn't so wired, she would have done what Mom Delores had done and just laid down on the flat roof.

Damali scanned the horizon, watching the low-hanging sun cast late-afternoon gold on the monstrous skeletal structure of train tracks looming above. Long gray columns of steel, stories-high, bisected wide boulevards by the river. Dinosaur bones, they seemed. At one time that species roamed freely, so they say. The bones told the story. That was all that remained. Now they were gone. It left dizzying questions for a thinking mind.

She wondered if humans would finally be wiped out, and if so, then what? A new Genesis as promised? And who would be that first man and first woman to step out of the primordial pool, or out of the clay? Would God even bother again after all this madness? Would husband and wife still share a rib? After the Armageddon, who would tell the story . . . or would the epic be left in the bones and ashes, fossils pieced together by a curious alien species that wouldn't begin to have a clue. Damali looked up as the metal door to the roof opened, thinking about what the last dinosaurs on earth would have told paleontologists about their finals days before the apocalypse.

"This is Minister Rodriguez-he blesses us up and keeps us tight . . . and this is the Professor, Rene . . . brother is tight on the research we need. Lisa, our Guardian sister, also got a son, Rene. It's allfam , you know."

Fists got pounded, bear hugs shared. It was good to be home, and a safe house was just that-a home. Seeing other seemingly regular people helped Mom Delores, as did the bottled water. Damali glimpsed Ayana, who held her mother around the neck, taking it all in.

"The whole building is sealed in prayer," Minister Rodriguez said. "We own the whole thing, every floor. The restaurant on the bottom keeps us going, keeps us in ammo and supplies."

"Minister, we can't thank you enough-"

"No, just Rod.And it's our pleasure to have you in our house." He beamed at Damali and then looked up at Mike. "You're gonna love the grub here, man. Downstairs they told me you put a hurtin' on ribs."

"That be true, that be true," Mike said, laughing.

"Imagine cooking for him and the team," Inez said with a growing smile.

Laughter poured over the small retinue as they walked, serving as balm to everyone's tattered nerves. It was perfect medicine, a necessary release.

"There's a false half floor between the first floor and second," Rene said as they walked through the redbrick structure. "UV hot-wired, ammo stashed, leads out in case this joint gets crashed. We've got a Situation Room on three, backup generators to the backup generators . . . me and your technical man need to do a walk-through. Then we've got suites-just apartments hooked up for incoming family and permanent residence for our squad."

"This is primo real estate, bro," Mike said, impressed.

"Historic, too," Anthony said proudly. "Practically around the corner is the Cotton Club, so like, we ain't trying to blow up this end of Harlem orHarlem period. Our tacticals work with the trains; can show your squad how we jump the cars and pull power off the third rails in a tight spot to hot vamps that come too close to home."

"That isbrilliant, " Damali said, quietly monitoring Mom Delores's composure. "But right now, how about we all fall back, eat, and rest."

Just like they all did, Inez's mother needed a moment of normalcy to balance her mind. Food at a down-home eating establishment would go a long way.

They were ushered into a huge ground-floor dining facility. Damali and Inez glanced around with Big Mike. Inez slipped her mother's hand into hers. As they passed tables, they noticed a huge wall rack being used as a seating divider that was filled with fireplace logs that were suspiciously filed down to stake points. Colorful designer graffiti graced the walls, with scenes of dinosaurs and monsters riding bikes.

"Monsta Burgers," Damali said, pointing out a sign and a menu header before Inez's mom could pass out again.

She watched the older woman release a deep breath and hold Mike's arm tighter.

"Oh . . ." Mom Delores sighed and briefly closed her eyes. "I feel likeAlice through the looking glass."

"I feel like that a lot of days myself, Mom," Damali said, keeping her moving toward their destination tables in the back.

It was like walking a skittish racehorse to the starting gate; one needed blinders to accomplish the task. Hells Angels bikers were parked out front. Couples sat at the long, family-style picnic tables set haphazardly outside on the sidewalk, waiting to get inside. The bar was packed, seven to eight deep, with high plank wood tables in clusters that encouraged one to talk to people they didn't necessarily already know.

Between the music thumping and the servers running mega platters from the kitchen to the tables, not to mention the volume of conversations, one look at Mrs. Filgueiras and the word overstimulation came to mind.

"I think I'm going to be sick," she said quietly to Damali.

"Y'all go sit with the team-lemme get her to a ladies' room."

Hustling past a shoulder-to-shoulder press in the bar, Damali broke through with Inez's mother in tow. She hit the door and whirled around, just in time to catch Mom Delores before she screamed.

She clapped her hand over her mouth and held her tight. "Breathe," Damali said softly in her ear. "It's just wall art. You okay?"

Inez's mother nodded as Damali slowly lowered her hand. Both women stared at the wall for a moment. Every inch was covered with bold graffiti, scribbles, splashes of red paint, you name it. But what had drawn the near shriek was the life-size, buxom, female demon riding a motorcycle on the back of the open stall.

"What would possess them to put something like this on thewalls! " Mrs. Filgueiras gasped, fanning herself.

Damali turned on the tap. "After a while at this, people get a little twisted. Sorta like painting shark teeth on the nose of a WWII fighter plane when you know you have a fifty-fifty chance of crashing in theAtlantic Ocean , I guess? The name of the restaurant is Monsta Burgers, Mom . . . so I think it's a play on words-you know, we eat them for lunch and dinner . . . er, uh, the way they try to feed on us. I'd put money on it."

She handed Mom Delores a wet paper towel. "You'll feel better in a little while, and I want you to talk to Marjorie Berkfield. She had this happen to her and had to leave the suburbs and join the team with her two teenagers overnight, along with her husband. I think she'll be able to share some of her early fears and how she coped best."

What else could she say? If she sat the poor woman down with any of the old heads, or even some of the newbies, they'd terrorize her already embattled mind with war stories. Hell, even Jasmine would be talking about growing up in Philippine brothels and being indebted to a witch who became a vampire after being bitten by the Devil's wife.

Damali tore a paper towel from the rack and wet it for herself, leaving it on her face for a moment.Juanita-nope. 'Nita's visions even scared her sometimes.Heather, aw hell no . . . a Stonehenger? Krissy . . . maybe-a telekinetic wasn't too bad. But any wizard stuff in that line would freak her out for sure. Marge and Marlene; someone who'd been in her shoes, and an older sisterraised in the south, whom Mom Delores could relate to.

"Baby . . . can I ask you something?"

Damali took the paper towel off her face as though suddenly remembering Mom Delores was even in the room.

"Sure, Mom."She leaned against the sink and stared at the woman's tear-glistening eyes.

"That day you ran away from my house . . . because of what my husband tried to do to you . . ." She looked down and hugged herself, her voice faltering. "Did he kill you and you came back as an angel? Is this why I'm being punished . . . because I didn't see the signs and-"

"No, no, no, no, no. Oh, Mom," Damali whispered, going to the woman and hugging her. Soft sobs pelted her chest. "I never died. I'm alive. And this isn't happening to punish you-you aren't responsible for what he did behind your back."

"Then why do I feel like maybe I never really woke up this morning or that maybe I had a heart attack in the kitchen while making lunch for Ayana . . . and this is how it is when you cross over? I keep asking myself if I'm really alive, not dead . . . not trapped in hell like you hear about lost souls, not realizing I'm already gone?"

Tight fists clutched the back of Damali's T-shirt as bitter sobs rained on her neck and shoulders. All she could do was rock the woman, understanding exactly where she was. But there'd be no waking up from this reality, and all she could do was ride it out with her.

"Everything I believed, everything normal is gone," Mom Delores wailed. "I feel like I'm losing my mind and the only thing keeping me glued together is prayers in my head and seeing you with angel wings."


Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires
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