The Hunted

Chapter Twelve

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Chapter Twelve

The sun was so bright, Damali squinted as she tried to peer out the plane's window. She gave up and lowered the shade. She blinked and finally closed her eyes, the sun's golden glow permanently affixed to the insides of her eyelids. Carlos hadn't answered her calls. After the incident in the woods, had he just walked? Even when she'd left word with Father Patrick that it was urgent, and had told him that she was heading to Rio on tour, Carlos had actually gone AWOL knowing she was going to Brazil - when they both knew that something serious was lurking there?

It was over, big time. She didn't care what Marlene had said about the man being worried for her safety. That was bullshit. Marlene didn't understand that she'd opened herself up fully, had let Carlos into every section of her mind, her being, her very essence. She'd had nothing to hide, no fantasy or secret that she had been ashamed to share with him. But his brain had dark corridors, entire compartments blocked to hers. Now she knew why.

His shutting her out, keeping critical information from her, keeping her from a hunt, maybe even costing a few innocents their lives, was a betrayal to everything she was as a Neteru. Before she'd become his lover, she was the Neteru! Still was, and she'd let the team know how much she seriously didn't appreciate them not pulling her coat. Yeah, Marlene had said that she'd divined that no innocents would be harmed if Damali came to these conclusions before the next full moon. But the simple fact was, all of them still thought of her as a child to be led in baby steps, not as the Neteru who must lead. And the truth was, she had been acting like a child, a silly young girl, blind to everything except the boy she loved. They should have called her on it, as they would have for any other member of the team.

But it was Carlos's lies that hurt the most. Her team had waited for her to wake up and trusted she would do the right thing when she did. Carlos had deliberately kept the knowledge from her, taking advantage of her feelings for him because he didn't believe in her abilities as the Neteru. He didn't believe in her ability to handle what was going on in Brazil, and he didn't believe in her ability to handle whatever burdens he was carrying. How could she be with a man like that? Shabazz's philosophical rhetoric about every man having some things better left in the dark had truly pissed her off. The fact that the team's rock had come to her, quietly trying to fix what was too broken to glue back together had unnerved her. Every damned body was all in her business. She was just thankful that Dan had played a hunch and played it right, and had booked this venue first... then, again, Dan was probably already hip and following Mar's lead, which really irked her. The most junior member on the squad even had insight for a while that she didn't!

It was time to regain control of her title, her mission, her life, and her private mental sanctuary. That was the only thing Marlene had been right about.

Hurt and anger shared the same space within her. They took up inseparable residence within her soul. No, she didn't care what Father Patrick said about having faith, and it still burned her up that he refused to say more, regardless of his vow to honor any confessions. If he wanted her to have faith, then he needed to tell her where Carlos was, if he knew. Period. She needed closure, needed to tongue-lash that bastard.

Damali willed away the tears. They were useless anyway. She'd never let some man take her there again; she had things to do.

Damali listened distantly to the airplane captain announce their pending arrival into Rio de Janeiro, his Portuguese phrases dipping and turning, being translated into English by a stewardess, while their jumbo jet descended into Aeroporto Santos Dumont.

She opened her eyes and took in the spectacular view of mountains carpeted with lush, emerald green, valleys with inlaid ribbons of white sand beaches, and jewel-toned waters below her. The cariocas—what they called the ten million citizens of Rio she'd been told—were right. This was "the marvelous city," the cidade maravilhosa. But Carlos would never see it by day, and perhaps never by night. So be it. It didn't have to happen like this.

She had to shake this feeling of dread as the plane touched down. She'd been over it all a thousand times in her mind. He had never come back. He left no message and no trace. Not even Father Patrick knew where he had gone, supposedly. Just like before, Carlos had vanished into the darkness. But this time was different; she didn't care.

Answering only perfunctory questions, she remained quiet as her team disembarked and entered into a hot, not-so-scenic urban chaos that shamed Manhattan in terms of its utter crush of humanity. It was only a matter of minutes before her natural, Egyptian white linen slacks and matching sleeveless duster were clinging to her skin. Her sunglasses kept sliding down the bridge of her nose, and her sleek, gold-toned shoe-boots felt like they were asphyxiating her ankles. She adjusted the spaghetti strap of her white silk camisole and lifted her chin, resigned to the long internment of heightened airport security exit protocols.

Languages from all nations spoken loudly, vibrant colors, pungent body scents, and every hue of skin imaginable filled the teeming airport as people fought to claim luggage and go through customs checkpoints while enduring the heat. But the traffic outside the airport was a scene in and of itself. Even her rugged warrior team seemed skeptical about the prospect of ever driving here.

Brazilian traffic was outrageous! Cars ignored traffic lights, drove at maddening speeds, cut off pedestrians and other drivers. Wild. Instead of braving it, all agreed to have two minibuses ordered for limousine service to collect them. She hated that it reminded her of the vamp drag race, and chastised herself for wishing she was riding with Carlos through the mayhem at night so they could fight side by side. She had to stop going there. Had to get herself in check.

A blur of noise, insane motorists, sandal-wearing pedestrians of all ages swept past the windows of the vehicle while she looked on, mentally removed. She watched an old couple, both had to be past their sixties, leisurely stroll through what looked like downtown New York wearing only the thong-like bathing suits called tangas. Rio was definitely deep. She'd never grow old with Carlos. He wouldn't age. He was history. She averted her gaze.

The vans carrying her and the team precariously dodged in and out of traffic along Avenida Beira Mar on the way to the luxury beachfront resort area, Copacabana, carting the team and their equipment to the ritzy Avenida Atlantica. If she weren't so numb, she would have sobbed. Her man should have been here with her. He should have been honest, and they could have fought this new threat together... he shouldn't have sided with the vamps against her. He'd succumbed to a call that wasn't hers. Damn...

Yet, everything Carlos had told her about this section of his territory had been truth, straight without a chaser. Rio was sensual, wild, seductive. Her erotic music threaded through you the moment one got off the plane. Pan pipes, reed flutes, and birdcalls were infused in the vibrations to combine nature with man-made percussion sounds. The rain forest and jungle permeated Damali like the humid air seeped into her pores carrying the berimbau.

In her mind's eye, she could see the instrument's bow and string made of wire, or leather, and hear the twangy sound it issued when tapped with a stick or stone. A perfect weapon for disguise; a proficient archer's delight. Just like the cuica box could be alternatively used for defense, as it was covered with a sheet of skin on top, perforated by a small stick that could double as a stake. She could hear the cuica instrument wail from somewhere she couldn't detect, imitating the call of a jaguar with reed pipes blended in. This was no way to live, thinking about weapons and battles in this paradise. But she had to.

Damali released a bitter, quiet chuckle and settled back in her seat. Two reasons she had to keep her focus on going to war: one was because she wanted to kick Carlos's ass in the worst way right now, and secondly, because there was something out there dropping bodies. All right, she hadn't totally lost perspective.

Wide mosaic sidewalks, cafes, hundreds of bars, choperios issuing spicy exotic smells that made her stomach growl, lounges, vendors walking, hawking, in a city that also never slept. Until now, she'd believed New York held the title, but Rio was something else. Good thing Dan and Marlene had teamed up on her, had signed contracts, and begun promo way before she'd come out of her daze. At least somebody had been handling her business, even if she temporarily hadn't been. Now that was deep... she hadn't even known what was going on in the compound all around her. Stupid. How could she have been so wrapped up with Carlos that she didn't even know what venues the group had slated?

She tried to wrest her mind from the clutches of worry. Homeboy would be cool. Maybe something else had gone down, and he was handling things... shit, maybe he was out there hurt? She shook it off. She wasn't going to be a really blind fool and begin making excuses for the man. It was what it was, abandonment. Betrayal. She didn't feel danger around him when they parted, just a constant nagging erotic pull.

Her guys were experiencing visual stimulation overload. Every female that walked by looked better than the next, and wore less, and drew their attention. Damali shook her head. Just like Carlos. The guys were gonna get whiplash before it was all over. Rider practically had tears in his eyes he seemed so happy, and Big Mike appeared faint. The two of them held each other upright as devastating beauty after devastating beauty passed them by with a smile. Her boys were done. She overheard Mike say something about this being better than New Orleans. She couldn't even laugh. Yeah, brother... Finally she truly knew what that look in a man's eyes meant. Hated it every time she saw it, now.

Shabazz's eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark shades, but she could make out that pulse in his jaw. Yeah, he was into it while trying to maintain some level of cool in front of Mar. Men...

But JL and Dan looked like excited puppies - heads turning with no cool or suave whatsoever. However, Jose only glanced at her and looked away as if he were embarassed. Marlene glanced at her and then looked away. Okay, what was that about?

Marlene's eyes sought hers again, and this time they held empathy. Damali thanked her silently for understanding. Yeah, this was not a town for a master vamp who was supposed to be living on rations. Carlos would take a body here for sure, and probably not hers. This was best. She didn't need to have that mess in her face. Plus, she had work to do, she reminded herself.

Damali kept her gaze fastened on the traffic and let out a sigh of relief when the limo pulled up to the hotel. Peace. She could finally get out of the public eye, away from the team, and just chill.

The Copacabana Palace was sumptuous. Damali shook her head in awe. It would most definitely not have been a good idea for her and Carlos to check in here. The joint felt like one of his plush lairs. Luxurious touches of inlaid agate graced the hotel lobby, as did gold leaf, high vaulted ceilings, crystal chandeliers, hand-carved mahogany... a place that drew the likes of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Robert De Niro, Eva Peron, and Princess Di. She had to stop thinking like that; she and Carlos were done. No matter how much she missed him, she wasn't allowing him to touch her again. "Oh, I don't think so," Damali whispered.

"What?" Marlene asked as they assembled to check in.

"Nothing," Damali responded, trying to tuck her private thoughts away.

The scents were driving her nuts, too, as was the music, the very pulse of this place, and it was broad daylight. Her palms went moist, just thinking about him here. She could only imagine his agony of restraint in a paradise of opulent decadence like this.

What would happen at night? The clubs had to be off da freakin' chain! Samba was already etching a permanent tattoo in her soul. Brazilian beer was calling her name. Fresh juices from the kiosks not far away on the beach made her lick her lips, and she could taste caipirinha drinks too... crushed lime, crushed ice, with potent sugar cane liquor in it - cachaca. Her mouth went dry. As soon as they unpacked, she'd be on it. If Carlos had been here, they'd get into something again for sure, and with temptation like this, he'd be in the streets—then it would get really ugly. Not to mention, here, she'd have to see him break ranks with the clerics and lose his soul. The thought gave her pause. What if he already had?

For a moment, she couldn't breathe.

The scent wafting from the hotel's posh restaurant was maddening, and it pulled her away from the sobering concern while they waited for check-in. Spicy, al dente oil-grilled vegetables, coconut milk-sweetened breads, papaya crème puddings topped with a bit of cassis, seasoned smashed white beans, black beans, fried palm hearts... but even being vegetarian, the seafood was calling her name - bacahhau, cod, and the seafood medley, sinofonia marittima... Yeah, sin... Instant desire slammed her, and she felt consumed by need. Damali briefly closed her eyes, and then just as abruptly stopped fantasizing and glanced around, dazed.

Wait. She didn't know the language, much less any names for the foods or drinks. And where was this - this, desire coming from? Oh, no, not here, and not now. Marlene looked at her hard.

"When we get our room, we need to talk. Cool?"

Damali nodded.

Everything seemed to happen here at a leisurely pace, a no-one-is-in-a-rush-so-chill type of schedule. But eventually she and Marlene were able to shut the door, feigning fatigue, to let the boys off the leash to go play in the bars and at the beach.

"What are you feeling?" Marlene's question was direct, calm, and unwavering as she sank down on the edge of one of the room's soft, queen-sized beds.

Damali went to the terrace. She watched teams of perfect bronzed bodies below play soccer-volleyball using their feet, toddlers run from waves and dig in the sand, lovers openly neck on towels, and older folks put sunscreen on each other, while others read books. It was like staring at a tiny city within a city. She wondered if God looked down at all the ants of humanity, not knowing the individual struggles of the specks He surveyed.

"We're gonna have a harrowing ride for several miles to get to the soccer stadium tomorrow night, Mar. Maracana Stadium is on the other side of the city, but I figured the fellas needed a break so we'd come to this side of Rio, and - "

"Damali," Marlene said gently, "I know the logistics of the concert. That's not what I'm asking you. How's your head?"

This time Damali turned around and faced her friend. "I miss him so bad, Mar... and I'm scared. We argued about him going home, he dropped me off and promised he'd go to the Covenant. He only stayed in the cabin with the Covenant for one more night, then lied to them and said he was coming to see me, and was history."

Marlene nodded. "I know. Father Pat said he was pretty messed up, emotionally. He's not sure what he'll do. Said Carlos refused to be shipped here, and the clerics stayed behind at the cabin rather than join us, to wait for him, and hope and pray for his return. Father Pat said they might join us after the concert for the hunt, if Carlos doesn't show. But he's not coming, only Asula, Lin, and Manuel."

"Why not?"

"Some past history went down over here within the Templar situation," Marlene said with a sigh. "Father Pat said that as a guy with an old European bloodline, it might be best not to confuse things... plus, he's getting up there in years. His main concern is Carlos. If he shows, they'll be just as worried as if he doesn't."

"Yeah," Damali murmured, and sat heavily on the adjacent bed. She didn't quite follow what Mar was saying about Father Pat's lineage, but it didn't matter. Whatever the old dude's reasons, Carlos and whatever was out there were her main worries at the moment. "This isn't the place for somebody who has to restrain himself."

"No," Marlene agreed. "There's something else I want to talk to you about, too. Several things, in fact. But I wanted to allow things to cool off before I told you about a few of the concerns I've been having."

Damali shrugged without looking at Marlene. "Sure."

"Ever since the tunnels, and the Raise the Dead concert... your music has changed."

Damali stared at her.

"That's not a bad thing, but it's richer, more... frankly, I don't know how to put it, but it's more sensual."

This time, Damali laughed, relieved that Marlene wasn't going to go deeper. "You're talking about that new cut, 'When You Call,' right? And I know that cut, 'In the Dark,' is over the top. But it works for Brazil."

They both laughed.

Marlene rubbed her hands over her face, trying to blot the oil and perspiration away. Despite the air conditioning, the heat from the travel still stuck to them.

"But Damali, you've got three thumpin' cuts that are about kicking evil's butt, then you have one so sad, girl, the guys can barely play it. But, 'When You Call'... chile! Uh, you're gonna get an NC-seventeen rating on the CD. That's a bit of a departure from what we've been doing, and will draw a bunch of different energy out. 'In the Dark' is commercial and sexy as hell, and it'll be off the charts, but child!"

Damali shook her head. "Y'all wanted a chart-buster, right?"

"Well," Marlene sighed, resigned, "the concert will be a media magnet, that's for sure. Warriors of Light will have more platinum, but that's not necessarily the point. I just want to be sure the media is the only thing we attract. And the things that song is gonna do to men, girl..."

Damali didn't formally answer the charge, but chuckled with Marlene knowing exactly what she was talking about. Being called on it, though, made her blush a bit. A couple of those songs went down on paper during the month before she knew Carlos was still alive - or better stated, existed. "Piece of My Soul" was so sad it was practically morbid. And "In the Dark" came after his awakening, so to speak, as they referred to it. Hell, after he'd blown her mind and made love to her like he did, it had been her awakening, too. But "When You Call"... shit... that came out as reflex. Damali smiled and looked at the floor. "If there's another master in this territory, the new music should draw him." What else could she say? "You always told me to work with my experiences."

Marlene just gave her a knowing smile, but remained silent.

Damali thought of one song's sultry, sad, wailing sound filled with desire. The first song she'd written after they'd made it out of the tunnels entered her bloodstream. She could feel it, and hear the refrain as it drifted through her mind and painted a renewed ache inside her. The words were true: You've got a piece of my soul buried within you. Why you gotta take us both through pure hell? Would go there again for one more night. Don't leave me hanging. Lost a piece of my soul without you.

But the other song was totally about the insanity of wanting someone so badly it hurt.

Every time she sang it, thought about it, performed it in the studio, she could see Carlos, newly turned, outside her compound, calling her till he dropped to his knees, aching for her to step beyond the barrier and come to him.

She hadn't been sure she could do "When You Call" for the show, but had to now. Marlene was talking, saying something, but the song had taken over her brain.

When you call, I can't say no. 'Cause when you call, I just gotta let go... wanna feel your arms around me... Oh! And when your eyes burn into me, I flash fire instantly. 'Cause when you call me, baby - I just come... to you... Call me, and I'll be there. When you call... Call me. I don't care. When you call... Anytime, anywhere -

"Uh, yeah," Marlene chuckled, apparently locked in on the lyrics, too.

"I can't help it," Damali easily laughed with her as she shook off the pain. "That's what was in me at the time, and I had to stay true to what I was feeling as an artist, make what I'm going through make some sense."

"Yeah," Marlene countered, "even though you can save that canned sound bite for the press, I have no issues with that - but have you noticed the instruments in your work?"

"I'm not following." Damali was about to flop back on the bed, but she leaned forward instead.

"Close your eyes and listen to 'In the Dark' in your head, and put the music behind it."

She didn't struggle with Marlene, although she struggled with herself. That song always messed her up, and she was wondering how she was going to stand on the stage and give that one all she had without bugging herself out. It was so personal, so close to the bone... so reminiscent of the things she shared with Carlos in the dark. Yet, this song also made her feel strong. She could see the performance as she allowed her mind to slip into it.

Brazil, yeah, the Carnaval headdress thing, she'd give them Carnaval, baby... sheer, peacock-feathered dress with gold running through it, goddess-level head piece - lights black out, then step out onstage into an azure-blue sheath of light from the darkness, and wail a lover's croon of agony... Shabazz's heavy bass kickin', Rider sensually walking his lead guitar to make the hair stand up on your neck, berimbaus, reed flutes, conga drums, cow bells, chimes, keyboards... awwww sookie, sookie, they was gonna rock da house! No... she'd save the blue for the other slow song. For this one, she'd wear a sheath of pure blood red. Sheer, with embroidery barely covering where it counted, and she'd step out into a splinter of crimson light. Yeah. Even though her baby wasn't there and hadn't told her what he should have, that was his color. She was a performer and would get through this. Just ride it out. That's what you had to do with pain.

Damali leaned her head back and belted out the ballad, husky, low, sensual, like her voice had recently become, unable to keep it inside her head or her heart any longer.

"In the dark, where you do what you do what you do to me, baby ... In the dark, blood... running through my deep rivers, baby ... In the dark... sissss... ohhhh... in the dark ... In the dark, yeah... you feel it with me, baby ... In the dark ... no shame in begging for what's so good to ya, baby - "

"Ya know what?" Marlene said laughing and standing up. "Do that song like that, and we'll have every freaking vampire in the hemisphere topside."

"Oh, please, Mar. It's not that bad. But it does sound good when Shabazz and Big Mike harmonize with me on the parts after I sing the in the dark part, right? Have you heard the way Shabazz just jams on his bass on that song, lady? Rider's ax just screams on it, too."

"Yes, I have to admit that this one is the one."

"Okay, then, we have no problem. We'll draw whatever came up from Hell and deal with it." Damali flopped back on the bed and let her breath out hard. Dang, she needed a shower.

"Oh, really?" Marlene sat down slowly again, sharing a sly smile. "Oh, with your costume, the stage speaker system blasting that out on however many watts per channel in an open-air stadium before a sold-out crowd, sending shock waves subterranean, crooning like that, girl - sheeeeit, the old vamps might come up from Hell for this concert! I'm not sure we have enough ammo."

All Damali could do was laugh. But it did give her an idea. Maybe Carlos might hear it? Maybe he'd already heard it? Naahhh... She disallowed the thought. His ass didn't need to be in Rio. Besides, it was over. "Okay, so what about the instruments? You asked if I had noticed the instruments."

"You've already incorporated this African-Brazilian sound in the music, well before we got a definite booking for this concert - it's infused in the latest cuts we just laid down for the gig. 'When You Call' has it, 'In the Dark' has it. Fine. But I kept watching your reaction to the environment... you blended into it like a chameleon, like you already knew it. You'd put it into your music even while you were still blind. Maybe we need to rethink that; maybe you weren't as blind as we thought? So, what happened in the lobby? The color drained from your face."

All she could do was stare at Marlene. Yeah, she knew Rio blind.
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