The Hunted

Chapter Two

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Chapter Two

Damali rested her forehead on the steering wheel of her black Hummer. Berkfield's questions, the constant monitoring from the team, and now she was being followed to clubs? It was bad enough that Berkfield had rolled up on her in the streets, and had opened a horrible wound, a gash that wouldn't close - then poured Drano in it. But the look in the man's eyes was the last straw. He was afraid of her.

She could feel moisture build beneath her shut lids, and she sniffed hard, tasting salty tears. Damn, damn, damn! It was not supposed to go down like this. Carlos had saved a cop. A cop. Had saved her entire team, and her. Not to mention, however many people by dusting Nuit. The man had even saved her from a lecherous old bastard back when she had been in foster care... he'd done so much good; why wouldn't the light give a brother a break? It just wasn't right.

Damali pushed herself off the steering wheel and turned the key in the ignition. She reached for the radio and put on the loudest music she could find, 50 Cent worked, and she pulled away from the curb. Motion. She needed motion. She had to keep moving. What was done was done. Big Mike had told her about some of his experiences in 'Nam... that sometimes the good died young and that it always hurt when it was one of yours. Truth.

She wasn't really paying attention to where she was going; she was just driving. It wasn't about going back to the compound, back to the state pen. That's the last thing she wanted to do and the last place she wanted to be - where there were eyes.

Eyes.

She was constantly dealing with eyes. Had to deal with eyes that held pity and worry and a hint of fear for her state of mind. Eyes were everywhere. People stared at her onstage, prying when she went certain places. Eyes wanted things from her, a little siphon of fame.

Cop eyes had just stared at her like she was one of the monsters. Terror-filled eyes that didn't know shit about who she was. Eyes that had judged her. If Berkfield only knew. He was probably standing in the safest spot on the planet - right next to a fully matured Neteru. A fucking huntress! Eyes of the teammates watched for signs of weakness, signs that she might break down. Eyes had kept careful watch to be sure she didn't go to Carlos when he needed her... Carlos who had the most intense, wonderful, deep brown eyes before the vampires had turned him... but even after he had been turned they had been awesome. She would never forgive the vamps for taking him from her. She wanted blood.

Swallowing hard, Damali wiped angrily at the building moisture in her eyes. She needed someone who knew her before she became what she was - a rising star, the huntress, the savior of the freakin' world! She needed friendly eyes. Laughing eyes. Tender eyes. Nonjudgmental eyes. Marlene's eyes always saw too much. She needed girlfriend eyes. Eyes that didn't see monsters around every corner.

A bitter sob threatened to break though she held it tightly in check.

Damali jerked her wheel swiftly to the left and stepped on the gas, veering away from the beach. She had to get out of there, get away from the old 'hood. What had she been thinking to come there? It was like walking over a grave.

She blew through the red light. She couldn't stop, sit, wait. She'd done that all her life, and for what? The road was blurry anyway. Apartment buildings and houses all melted together as the tears began to form and threatened to slip down her cheeks. She would not cry. Never again. She'd done that all the way home from the Raise the Dead concert. Had done that for a month in her room alone. Tears did not bring back the dead, neither did prayers.

Finally sitting quietly at a curb, she allowed the bone-jarring music to stamp out all thoughts. She let the heavy bass line become her pulse. Right now she was so numb it was like the only one she had. Breathing deeply, she calmed her too-fast heartbeat. What was death like, she wondered. Had to be better than this. Yeah, being a Neteru was no way to live.

Then she laughed. It was a hollow, brittle, sad sound that bounced off the walls inside the vehicle, bonding with the music. She should have let Carlos just fucking bite her. The light didn't have shit to fight with, compared to the forces of darkness.

What did she have? A blade. A rag-tag team of old warriors and a few priests. All she was really was a sistah who hadn't even had a chance to fully live. This was their squad? Pitiful. The light needed to take a walk down to Hell with her next time and really see what was in the dark, then maybe they'd send in some serious reinforcementóSpecial Forces, not some crazy Neteru. This was bullshit. Matter of fact, Hell was topside, didn't they know? Could've just asked her, because she was living it.

Oh, God, you let the man die...

She covered her face with her hands and ignored the teenagers gathered on street corners and hanging on her girlfriends' apartment-building steps. Tinted windows were her only salvation while she struggled for composure as curious glances scoured her souped-up Hummer. She had to get it together. As soon as she stepped out, the neighborhood kids would make her - she was their star.

They'd rush her worse than vamps, seeking autographs, wanting her attention, just to touch a little bit of fame off her, to get close to what they considered a sister with serious bling bling... they'd want her to let the magic of new stardom run off her fingertips and onto their palms, hoping for instant discovery. They'd never understand that it just didn't work that way, you had to earn it, and even then there was no guarantee. Fame was a crapshoot, and all that glittered wasn't gold.

And she couldn't go up to Inez's joint all broke up, crying and wailing and sobbing her heart out about how her man had turned into something terrible. Another brittle chuckle escaped Damali's lips and flushed her hands hot with sudden breath. Her best girlfriend. The only one who'd had her back in foster care, and she couldn't even tell Inez about the worst heartbreak of her life.

But Inez would have kind eyes, a soft hug, some chips, some wine, a video, some laughs. That was sanctuary. The compound was just a hard reminder of what she really was - trapped.

Sucking in a deep breath, Damali let it out slowly, sat back, and checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. She touched up her light eyeliner, just using the pads of her thumbs to wipe away the damage the tears had done, and threw her locks over her shoulders. It was a performance. That's what she had to tell herself as she braced her nerves to open the door and prepared for the onslaught of kids.

"Yo," she shouted, jumping down from the Hummer and walking up to the building.

Recognition was instantaneous, and just as soon as she'd taken ten paces, she was mobbed.

"Hey, D! You back in the old neighborhood?"

"You got CDs with you? Can we ride in your Hummer?"

"That's bangin', gurl - go 'head wit your bad self!"

"Daaayum... will you look at the rims on that sweet bitch. Aw, man, with the fog lights up top."

"Your last concert was all that - the video is off da chain, sis!"

"Off da heezy fo' sheezy. Tight."

"Who you know up in here? Dey wit your band?"

"I got dis tape, sis, I want you to hear - hoi' up, I'ma go get it and be right back. Cool?"

She smiled, she nodded, she signed T-shirts and bare arms. She gave the right answers and passed the huddle slowly, giving encouragement, good wishes, laughing with them, but she kept walking. Her goal was singular. Make it to sanctuary. Get to Inez's door. Don't cry. This is a performance. This is what all those young eyes want to see. She was reaching icon status. Keep the light and hold up your torch. As soon as the inner words hit her, it reminded her of what Carlos had said: "Raise your Isis, baby."

Keep walking. Don't you dare cry, gurl. Not here. Not now. Not in front of the crowd. Keep walking. Keep smiling. Keep from dropping to your knees weeping. Ring the bell. Don't look too long at that young boy with the dark eyes, leaning on your car talking about "Yo, que pasa?" Inez, be home, please, girl, don't do me like this. Open the door, now!

"Damali!"

She didn't even see Inez's face as she barreled into her arms, hugging her tightly, tears now flowing freely, almost hiccuping sobs that she made sound like laughter. Forcing a smile, she allowed Inez to hold her back from her, and then squeeze her hard again.

"Y'all go 'head, now. This is my girl, and I haven't seen her in a minute," Inez said, laughing and shooing the neighborhood away as she shut the door behind them.

Damali's hands were shaking as she wiped away the tears and took deep breaths.

"Look at us," Inez said, wiping her eyes, too. "Crying and laughing and snottin' and shit. This don't make no sense. It hasn't been that long."

Damali swallowed hard, making herself chuckle, and a part of it was no act. It was release laughter. She'd made it to a sanctuary that had not changed. Inez was her girl. As she looked at the deep brown eyes set in a dark walnut face framed by beautiful braids, and her best friend in the whole wide world standing there in a yellow sundress like old times, hands on thick hips, saucy pout, she lost it.

Next thing Damali knew, her arms were around Inez again, just rocking her almost off her feet, laughing to keep from screaming.

"Oh, gurl, I missed you!" That was the truth, as well as the only thing she could say to cover what was really wrong.

It seemed like holding Inez this way was sucking every unshed tear up and out of her. She could almost feel her skin siphoning comfort out of Inez's warm, plump frame. So much had happened, where did one begin? But she'd never put her girl in harm's way by disclosing any of that. Not here, not ever, no matter what.

"Whew," Damali said, as she finally let Inez go and got herself together, still chuckling as she wiped her eyes.

"Girl, get yourself in here and tell me what's been going on," Inez said, looping her arm around Damali's waist and guiding Damali into the kitchen.

All Damali could do was shake her head as she passed through the small, well-kept little apartment. She dropped into a plastic kitchen chair with all her weight, closed her eyes, and leaned her head against the wall. Sanctuary. "Oh, girl, I hate the road. You just don't know."

Inez went right for the wine in the fridge, and went up on her toes to fetch down some chips. The blare of the television was balm to her tattered nerves, just like Inez's voice was. Peace, was the small TV on the counter, street traffic, loud music, kids hollering at each other outside. Peace. Normalcy. Damali could hear her girlfriend working to play hostess, knew exactly what she was doing even with her eyes closed as Inez rooted through her cabinets. More tears slipped down her cheeks.

Here her friend was of such humble means, and the kitchen of her ultra-modern, totally fortified guardian compound could swallow Inez's entire apartment whole by ten times, but Inez was giving to her. The tragic part of it all was, she couldn't even invite her best friend to her place. What, show Inez around the weapons room; show her rocket-propelled grenade launchers? Hook her up with one of her sharpshooter big brothers, all so her girl could be vamp bait and go out like Dee Dee had? No, it would never happen.

Damali's chest was so tight that she almost couldn't breathe as Inez came back to the table, excitement glittering in her eyes, and made the most gracious offering from what little she had.

"Here, sweetie. You know I ain't got much, but mi casa es su casa, always. I know this isn't the good stuff," she said, unscrewing the bottle of wine. Her voice held a bit of shame in its timbre, "If I knew you were coming... but if I've got fifty cents, you'll always have a quarter."

Damali smiled brightly, breathed in deep, and accepted the glass of wine that had been presented in a Dollar Store glass. Didn't Inez know that to her it was Waterford crystal? The cheap wine poured by Inez was better than Cristal, any day. "Girl, you know the same holds true, and I'm not like that. I haven't changed."

Then Inez messed around and put a kiss on Damali's forehead. "That's why I love you so much, and why I'm so proud of you. We all are. You're real, and you haven't changed at all."

"If you ever need anything," Damali whispered, her throat too raw to speak louder. Oh, God, if Inez only knew how much she had. "Just - "

"No, girl. I ain't tryin' to be in your pocket. That's not what our friendship has ever been about." Inez sat down, her eyes holding Damali's the whole time. "Right? We go waaaay back. You made it out. You're living the life we always talked about." Inez clasped Damali's hand across the table. "The demons didn't get you, girl. You made it."

Damali immediately stiffened, then forced herself to relax. "Demons?" Shit. She had almost drawn her blade. If some fucking demons had sniffed out her girl, it was on!

"Chile," Inez laughed. "The entertainment industry demons. You ain't still that superstitious, are you?" Inez laughed harder. "Remember when we were kids and you would swear you always saw some guy in an alley with glowing eyes as we'd pass by? You so crazy, that's why I love you, with your paranoid self."

Making herself laugh along with Inez, Damali sipped her wine. "They almost did get me, though, gurl. I've had some close calls. I went right down into the belly of the beast - you, have no idea." It was the truth, but not a comprehended confession. However, just saying it, and letting a bit of her life out, felt like an anvil was being lifted from her shoulders. "Tell me what's been going on, catch me up."

"The neighborhood ain't changed since you left, except it's gotten worse. But my life is an easy read. I go to work, I type and answer the phone for a nasty old bastard called my boss, and stay one step ahead of bill collectors. Then I go pick up my daughter from day care, come home, make dinner, clean up, put her to bed, and crash and burn to do it all over again. Girl, don't you let no man talk you into having his baby - I love my daughter, don't get me wrong. But she's going through the terrible twos, money gets funny, and life is one long drama trying to get my baby's daddy's trifling ass to act right. We broke up, but that was bound to happen. The relationship was hell. I'm over it."

Damali could only nod and sip her wine. Hell was a matter of perspective.

Inez sighed, her voice going soft as she looked over Damali's shoulder toward the bedroom that she and her daughter shared. "I'll let you peek in on her, but you don't want to wake up that little monster. Her bad ass is possessed, but I love her to death." She brought her gaze back to Damali. "Nothing in the world like having kids. But," she added, taking a liberal sip of her wine, "I'm being selfish, and just want you all to myself for a little while."

Damali reached across the table and covered Inez's hand. "I hear you," she murmured, but wanted so badly to tell Inez not to call her child a monster, not to say that the child was possessed. Words had power. Didn't her girlfriend know?

"All right, chica. I just took you on a brief tour of single-mother hell. Boooring. Now, pleeaaase tell me the latest of diva-hell." She laughed warmly and richly, making Damali join in. "Unlike my story, I know the men are fine! Start there, and work your way out."

Damali sat back in her chair and shook her head, and began munching on chips. "All demons," she said, then laughed hard at the truth in her statement. "Fine and demons. That's all I've met on the road. What can I say?"

"But I know they're rich as shit," Inez said, leaning in. "Gurrrlll... talk to me."

"Wealthy enough to make a sistah act stupid. Crazy, ridiculous amounts of money - spent on pure bullshit. Decadent, girl. I swear to you." Damali laughed, battling not to cry, and slurped her wine. The truth, even a half-truth hidden behind double entendre and the known lack of comprehension of her friend, felt so good. She had to get some of it out, so she chose her words with care.

"Girl, I've seen some mansions that would make the hair stand up on your arms. Chile, please... seen some brothers so fine they could talk your drawers off from across the room. But, you know me, right? Had to drive a stake in one motherfucker's heart. Poof," she said, flicking her fingers in the air. "His ass was dust. What can I say?"

Inez put her head down on the table and screamed, then sat, laughing hard with Damali, and slapped her a high five. "Oh, my God, Damali, what did you do to the man - and tell me all about him."

"In truth... he was tall, like six somethin', had jet black wavy hair, looked like a tall version of Prince... gurl, had it all, even a panther in his house - "

"Shut. Up!"

"Yup. Crazy. A security entourage that was not to be messed with... the brother was fine. I'll give him that. Old New Orleans money." Damali shook her head. "Uhmmph, ummmph, ummph. I almost went down for the brother."

Inez's eyes sparkled. She let her voice drop to a low whisper, looked around the kitchen like there might be someone listening, and giggled. "Fifty-million-dollar question. Did you give him any?"

Damali leaned her head back on the wall and laughed, and shut her eyes. "You know me better than that." She sat up and winked at Inez. "He almost took the draws - I'm not gonna lie. But, I wasn't having it."

Inez folded her arms over her chest. "Gurl, I could never figure your ass out. If it had been me - shit. Especially if he was all that."

She was laughing, but it was a weak chuckle. What her friend said made her blood run cold for a moment. Yeah, if Inez had been there, Nuit would have, no doubt about it - then her girl would have been dinner. Time to change the subject.

"All right. So, that one was a bastard. But, I know there's got to be somebody special on the horizon by now... fine as you are? So, who's the latest?"

The question made Damali pause and become very, very still as she sipped her wine more carefully. "You know me. Working all the time, getting ready for gigs. Working on new cuts... there's, well, there's just never time for that. I have to stay focused. Got a lotta people depending on me."

The frown on Inez's face wasn't one of disappointment; it was one of concern. "Girl, seriously, all work and no play will make you snap."

"Yeah, I know. I take breaks, go to the clubs, hang out and stuff and - "

"All them fine men around you, when's the last time you had some?"

Damali just stared at her girlfriend and then at the table. A loose piece of linoleum captured her interest and made her pick at it. "I haven't... I mean... I don't go there, don't take myself through changes like that over no man. My work is... girl... you know me."

A pair of wide eyes stared at her as Inez put her hand over her heart and stood up fast, almost toppling the chair behind her. "You mean you still haven't... Damali, stop lying!"

"I'm into my music, my work, you know... when the right person, or situation... girl, it ain't no thang."

Damali watched her girlfriend's eyes fill as Inez backed up to the kitchen sink.

"Oh, my God," Inez whispered. "You never got over it, did you?"

"No, I - that's not the reason I haven't found anybody..." Damali's gaze locked with her girlfriend's as Inez's tears began to fall.

For a brief moment, neither woman spoke. All the noise, and even the blare of the small kitchen television on the counter sounded like silence. It was only the two of them, breathing, staring, remembering, and holding the secret. Then suddenly Inez broke down in tears.

"It's all my fault!"

Damali was on her feet in seconds and had Inez in her arms, stroking her hair.

"No, it's not," she said, her voice mellow, healing, trying to chase away Inez's pain.

The foul image immediately slithered into her mind despite her efforts to banish it. She was in a basement, bent over the washing machine. She was jamming to her music, hadn't even heard him come up behind her. Something male and strong and reeking with liquor held her like an anchor around the waist. She pivoted instantly and saw a pair of reddened, bloodshot eyes. He smiled. He was so tall, so much bigger, and he loomed over her tiny frame.

Her mind had processed the threat in milliseconds as his grip tightened and his sweaty hands pulled her closer, sealing the gap between them. Terror zinged to her shoulder, lifted her arm, and wrenched her waist into another hard pivot. Her elbow connected with his Adam's apple. In an instant, a lead pipe from the shelf was in her hands. From some unknown reservoir of survival instinct, she went for his jaw, swinging the pipe like a baseball bat when he stumbled backward, pipe connecting with bone and shattering it, then she'd gone for the forearm that had extended with rage. Blood from his mouth splattered the floor, and she ran. Basements, lairs, bloodshot eyes, gleaming eyes, massive strength against the smaller female form, human jaws, vampire incisors, they were one and the same.

Damali shut her eyes for a moment, remembering the terror that had coursed through her as a girl, and what she'd experienced in Hell. Something tall and huge and deadly and aroused, with a steel jaw and red eyes had come up behind her in tight, subterranean confines... only she didn't try to hurt the one that had fangs - even with a blade in her hand. All she'd try to do was reason with him and get away.

She rubbed Inez's back harder and held her closer. No, this wasn't Inez's fault at all.

But Inez broke Damali's hold and went to a far side of the kitchen with her arms wrapped around her waist. "I should have told you how my uncle was," she murmured, her voice rising with hysteria through mucous and tears in her throat. "But I couldn't tell even Momma. She'd left me there with my aunt and uncle until she could get enough money to come to the States and get me. She had a good job in Rio, but... after Poppi left her, she needed time to get the money. I will never forgive myself - if I had just told."

"I know, I know," Damali said, but not going to her friend. She understood space. "Inez, baby, we've been over it a hundred times, if once. You don't owe me. And I never told anybody what he did to you before I came... how long it went on."

"My uncle was a demon, a nasty, perverted, sick bastard who beat my aunt, so she was afraid, and I was there all alone for months until you came. I swear I didn't want anything to happen to anyone else like what was happening to me. He wanted to make money on foster care, and my aunt was so afraid of him, they didn't have kids... and Momma thought - " Inez drew a shaky breath. "She thought I was safer, had better schools, more chances here. He had a good job. They were respectable people. If it weren't for you... he would have kept doing what he did to me."

"Baby, listen, it was not your fault. You were just a kid, like me. Stop blaming yourself."

Inez closed her eyes and turned away from Damali. "As soon as you came, two weeks, that was it. I could see him plotting, trying to bide his time - but it kept him off of me." Inez spun around. "I am so sorry."

Her voice was so quiet that Damali almost couldn't hear her. "He got to you, didn't he? That's why you're messed up - don't trust any of them. You were younger than me."

With that Inez crossed herself and fetched more wine, took a swig of it out of the bottle, and then set it down hard on the counter. "I should have been protecting you. I was too scared, though. In a new country. Momma had said behave, I didn't want to let her down... I thought I did it, made him act like that. And I saw how he beat my aunt. He was strong, but God forgive me. I couldn't warn you."

"Listen to me, Inez," Damali said very carefully, coming to her slowly and extracting the bottle of wine from her grip. She lifted Inez's chin with her finger to force her friend to look her in the eyes. "You were sixteen. I was fifteen. The man was as strong as an ox. That was your family. I was in foster care. Nobody had your back. He didn't get to me. I kicked his ass and ran. Remember?"

She folded Inez into her arms, hugged her tight, and whispered to her like a mother would speak to a hurt child. "I should have never left you in there. I should have killed the bastard. Period. But I ran, and I vowed to never run from a fight like that again, or to leave my own behind in danger. I'm sorry I didn't get there for you earlier, Inez. Trust me."

For a long while they just stood there like that, holding each other and allowing the memories to wash over them while their tears washed away the grit, horror, and hurt they'd shared. Yeah, there were demons and predators in the world - inhumane humans as well as the living dead. Wasn't much difference between the two entities. Both stole lives, shattered futures, broke spirits, and twisted healthy minds.

"You had to live on the street for a month, until Momma could come get me. She asks about you all the time." Inez's voice was a ragged whisper, and she sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "Damn, this shit takes me back. We were supposed to be laughing and having fun tonight. I don't know why I went there."

"I was all right," Damali said. "This conversation was probably good for both of us." She pulled back from Inez, and wiped her girlfriend's tears. "I kicked his ass good, though. Left his ass jacked up and in the hospital so he couldn't mess with you while you waited for your mom. Right? You got out, I got out. We survived. It's all good."

"You saved my life, D," Inez murmured, her gaze tender with gratitude. "And your crazy ass had the balls to call my momma long distance, using his stolen credit card, and you told her everything. Just confessed." Inez shook her head. "And then told everybody about him coming for you - even called foster care on the run, and charged his plastic until it melted."

Damali smiled sadly and took Inez by the arm and brought her to the table to sit down. "It was reparations," she said quietly. "Fair exchange is no robbery." She then retrieved the wine and poured two new glasses for them both, and plopped into a chair across from Inez. "Girl, you know me. I'd been in foster care all my life. I knew how to survive - so, by rights, I was really older than you, experience-wise. Gotta let it go. I ain't mad at you, never was. If we never talk again, for whatever crazy reason - 'cause life ain't promised, please, Inez, you gotta believe that."

"You're scaring me, girl. Don't even say we might never talk again. I've seen so many of us from the old neighborhood die young..." Inez shook her head. "Don't even say it; words have power." Then she shivered and looked at Damali hard. "Not my girl. You cannot die on me, hear?"

She held Inez's gaze. "I have a sixth sense about when bastards are plottin' on a sister. It's always in the eyes. That's why I don't have anybody yet. Until I can look a man in his eyes and see his soul - see no malice of intent..." Damali shook her head. "Nah. I ain't going out like that. Neither one of us are. It's settled."

She took a sip of her wine and allowed her gaze to travel out the window once Inez had squeezed her hand in agreement.

"Girl, you pray this house up good, hear? Like your momma taught you, she's a good woman," Damali murmured. "Your uncle tricked her into thinking he was cool, and your poor aunt, bless her soul, was trapped. So, you put down some salt and sage and incense and shit around you and your baby girl. There's all types of demons in the world. Predators. Fucking vampires. Goddamned werewolves. Snakes in the motherfucking grass, sis. Trust me. And I don't want you going out like that, either." She looked at Inez hard. "I have seen them. Ask me how I know."

Her girlfriend only nodded. "I hear ya."

Damali nodded, and looked out the window again. Inez had heard her, but hadn't heard the pure truth.

"Well," Inez sighed, "I guess if you made it a month on Rivera's mom's sofa without anything happening to you, then you're gonna be all right. The music industry ain't got nothin' on that. You were always a fighter, D."

"That was so crazy," Damali said, chuckling as the bittersweet memory threaded through her on another sip of wine. She couldn't fight it, had to relive just a little of it within the safe haven of Inez's kitchen. Memories locked so deep inside her began to surface, coming out of hiding in the sunshine of Inez's sad smile. Marlene couldn't even help them escape. The more she battled to keep from speaking, the more the memories fought with her, making her soul ache until she gave in.

"Inez, girl... feels like it was yesterday that I was standing under that bridge, all amped, a pipe in my hand, looking crazy and wild in the eye, clothes half ripped off, then these guys rolled up on me and were hollering out a car window and were probably about to gang-bang me..." Damali's voice trailed off as a red, souped-up Chevy came into her mind's eye. She swallowed hard. A street knight in shining armor, damn. She shook her head and chuckled again quietly to herself, her gaze going to the floor.

Inez looked at her and smiled, but said nothing. She was glad that her friend allowed a reverent moment of silence. She needed the time to just wrap that warm part of the memory around herself like a much-needed hug. It was so long ago and yet felt like it had happened yesterday. He'd jumped out of his car wearing a black muscle shirt, black jeans, a red bandanna wrapped around his head, pointing a huge silver Glock toward a pack of wolves. Her very unlikely hero had seemed insane.

It was the way he did it, and the wild look in his eyes. Crazy... crazy for her. She'd seen that look not so long ago. That I'll-take-a-bullet-for-her stare of ready-to-die-with-honor expression... the muscles in his outstretched arm corded so tightly the weapon in his hand shook with sudden fury. Then his arm had snapped back and he'd motioned for her to come to him with a nod. It had been reflex; she knew which way to run - toward him. And he'd gotten back into his gleaming red car on a leisurely stroll as the danger disbanded and drove off. He'd moved with casual authority, unafraid. His eyes were on the road, the muscles in his jaw pulsing, and once deep inside his territory where the music changed and the language on the corners was native to him, he'd pulled over, stopped, and looked at her hard.

Damali tried to keep the tears from rising beneath her lids as her mind refused to come back to Inez's kitchen. She'd been so afraid of him, then, too. But he reached out and touched her hair to move it off her shoulders. He'd fingered her micro-braids and cocked his head to the side with a lazy smile. She remembered flinching, her breath catching in her throat, wary of a possible new predator... but he wasn't one at all. Not when he dropped his voice to a tender murmur and said, "Don't. I won't bite you. What's your name... where's your momma's house?" Oh, God, he'd been so sweet to her... she had even kept his bandanna after all these years.

Seeing it in her mind's eye, secretly stashed in her dresser, she opened her eyes and tried to act like none of it mattered. She made her voice falsely upbeat as she spoke to Inez. There was no reason to allow her girl to see her bleeding to death on her kitchen floor.

" 'Nez, I was totally outnumbered, and would have gotten my ass kicked for sure. Then Rivera happened to roll up 'cause he was making a delivery and patrolling his territory; he jumped out his car, went off, cussed them out in Spanish, and pulled a nine." She covered her eyes with her forearm and leaned her head back against the wall and laughed hard to keep from sobbing. "Crazy, Latino, wild man. Oh, man, I miss his ass, girl."

"I thought for sure you two were gonna hook up," Inez said in a faraway voice. "Damn shame he got caught up in the life, and they got him."

"Yeah," Damali said, her tone flat as she dropped her arm and poured more wine. This was definitely a get-fucked-up-and-sleep-on-your-girl's-couch kinda night.

"My mom was hysterical after she got your call," Inez said quietly, her voice sounding even further away. "Sent a bunch of cousins over to my auntie's house to protect me and her, and to visit my uncle after he got out of the hospital," Inez added with a slow smirk. "He left the house mysteriously until my mother got there, and could get her own place with her sister. Never came back, fancy that. Reparations, I suppose?" Then Inez's face went serious. "Why didn't you come back with us till - "

"I couldn't walk back into that house," Damali said fast, standing. She just needed to move. Why was Inez going here tonight? They'd been over a lot of this stuff before.

"But you were lucky. It was dangerous where you were. Once Momma got to LA, it was okay to come back. My uncle was gone. I know you told me, but I never really understood that. I kept thinking it was because, down deep, you never really forgave me." Inez's eyes searched Damali's face now, looking for forgiveness that wasn't required.

"Girl, it wasn't you. I didn't forgive you," Damali said firmly, "because there was nothing to forgive. You didn't do anything wrong!"

Pacing in the small confines, Damali gestured with her hands as she spoke. "You're my girl, my tight. And, yeah, Mrs. Rivera had a lot of crazy shit happening in her house, but, oddly, I felt safe there - like I was supposed to be there, even if for just a short time." She ran her hands through her locks.

"The poor woman and her mother prayed day and night, worked like dogs, Inez. Her crazy-assed sons had taken over the house, were distributing right from it... had all kinds of foot traffic, if you know what I mean. But, shit, as long as Carlos was around, wasn't nooooobody messing with me - not even Alejandro, with his wild, off da hook self."

Inez chuckled. "You mean with his fine, off da hook self. Them Rivera boys was fine, chile. And their cousins wasn't no slouches, either. Guess if I had my choice of where to be..."

"It wasn't even like that, girl," Damali said, chuckling, but frustrated by the reality that Inez might never understand. "His sister gave me a lot of rags to wear, was cool, but strung out like a mug. None of her shit didn't fit her; she'd gotten so skinny. His mom, at first, was like, 'You ain't bringing no Negro punta to my house, Carlos. You loco? Oh no, we don't live like dat.'" Damali put her hands on her hips, approximating the older Latina, designed to make Inez laugh. Designed to make herself laugh.

"Said it to my face, gurl. I was standing right there, my shit all ripped up, dirty, bruised, looking crazy - I wouldn'ta let my son drag nobody home to my house like that, either. Then it was on. They went into this flurry of arguments I couldn't understand, and whatnot. All I could do was stand in the corner and watch. Brother didn't even know me, but dragged me by the arm, pushed me up in his momma's face and said, 'Her foster father tried to molest her, Momma. You gonna go to church and tell the priest in confession that you turned away a child - she's fifteen. Talk to me!' Then he swung his arm around and pointed to a statue of the Blessed Mary and said, 'What the fuck, Momma? You a believer, or what?'"

Damali threw her head back and laughed with Inez and wrapped her arms around her waist tight. Hers was a brittle sound next to Inez's warm melodic tone. She needed to laugh to keep from crying, just as much as she needed to relive the past like a wake. Thinking about Carlos made her whole body hurt.

"I knew I was in, Inez, when the woman started fussing and walked away, grabbed a pile of clothes and a pillow and threw it in my face."

"That's deep, D, for real. We been gurls a long time, and I know you crashed there, but I thought Carlos took you in 'cause, well... and that you didn't really wanna say, 'cause..."

"Noooo," Damali said, her laughter sliding away as new tears formed and fell against her will. "Went against his mom for me, stood up. Then his mom went into this thing about nobody was screwing under her roof, blah, blah, blah - drugs were cool, right, but not screwing."

Damali suddenly chuckled again, and sucked up the tears with an angry sniff, wiping her nose hard with the back of her hand. She walked to the sink and snatched down a paper towel, forcefully blew her nose, and crumpled up the damp paper, then took a deep breath as she cast it into the trash. "That was revenue that Mom Riv turned a blind eye to and just prayed would convert into legitimacy, I guess. Whateva. But her son was not gonna screw no Negro tramp in her house."

Damali slapped her forehead and closed her eyes as she stood in the middle of the kitchen floor. "Heaven help me, it was crazy. She made him actually swear he wouldn't touch me in her house as a condition of me being there - on the Bible - okaaay. And that fool did it - for me."

"Stop lying, D," Inez said, shaking her head and chuckling. "Carlos Rivera put his hand on the Bible, for you? Gurl... you never told me that!"

"At first, I was like, yeah, whateva. That'll hold up for twenty-four hours, till his mom went to work." Damali smiled sadly and let the memory run through her like clean rain. "I thought he'd done it just to get the old bat out of his face. But the more I came to see how he rolled, and how much he cared about his mom... and how truly a sweet lady she was, I knew he wasn't playing. Gave her his word, so that was that."

"D... for real, now. We go way, way back. Brother never tried you?"

Damali just shook her head. "Not over there," she whispered, then found her voice again and spoke louder, but her tone was introspective as she really thought back. The magnitude of what he'd truly sacrificed as a matter of honor, and just for her, hitting her hard..

"I slept on the sofa in my clothes for a month, Inez, and when Alejandro pushed up on me, like he always did any of Carlos's territory, Carlos gave me a nine and said, 'Shoot the bastard if he gets in your face while I'm out handling my business.' Oh... shit... Inez. I have lived a wild life! I cleaned that woman's house from stem to stern every day to keep her off my back and a roof over my head - when she walked in from work, I practically fucking genuflected and brought her a lemonade."

Damali bent over and forced an even harder chuckle as Inez's laughter collided with hers. The floor became blurry and she sucked back new tears along with what was fast becoming hysteria. Oh, shit... they'd killed him. He mighta been a lot of bad things, but he didn't deserve to go out like that.

After a moment, she stood. "Girl... your mother saved my life. Debt cleared, even though there never was no debt between us." Her gaze held Inez's tenderly. "She didn't go to the police, didn't tell where I was."

"Momma understood immigration issues," Inez said, smiling. "She came from Mexico, but Poppi was from Rio - Portuguese, that's why she was there. She got stuck there after he left her." Inez's expression became serious. "Momma understood about being a young woman stuck somewhere with a man, somewhere you might not want to be, but had to stay until you could make your break." Inez sighed hard, the weight of it filling the room. "She hated the authorities, still does, so as long as you said you were okay, she was good with that. Knew if you weren't, you'd tell the world." Inez chuckled softly. "I'm glad you came back to her - us, though, after she got her apartment."

"Me, too," Damali said quietly.

"Glad Mrs. Rivera didn't tell on you."

Damali smirked. "She got to like having a maid, and wasn't about to bring any authorities to her house. Plus, the way I kicked your uncle's ass, they would have tried to pin it on one of her sons. It was all good. It was only a month - but it was a great month." Damali sighed and walked to the tiny window and looked out. "I had so much fun. His sister and her friends were so cool... so nice to me. And even if his boys woulda been game if I was, they chilled and became like a bunch of big brothers, ya know?"

Her voice became very far away as she spoke, suddenly realizing that if she hadn't lived with Carlos briefly, she might not have ever agreed to go into a community-living situation with the guardians. The sheer irony of it made her weary. "I learned a little bit of Spanish, watched the fellas race." She shrugged. "Carlos even taught me how to shoot a nine. Deep. When you think back, it's amazing the things you remember."

"Yeah, girl."

She could tell Inez was going back to the past, too. Inez stood and came by her side so they could both peer out the window together. She had crazy-good things to look back on, things to warm her soul when life got cold and real; her girlfriend didn't. In an odd way, despite all the trauma, she felt blessed. Damali said a silent prayer that Inez's future would make up for everything stolen from her girlfriend's childhood.

"How about if I peek at your princess?" Damali said. "I know she's more beautiful than her pictures."

"She is," Inez said, and then she slung her arm over Damali's shoulder.

They walked the short distance through the kitchen and living room, going down the hallway, and Damali took in all the things that made Inez's apartment a real home. A crooked picture on the wall. Dirt smudges from sticky little fingers marring the ivory-hued paint. A light blue carpet that needed vacuuming. An overflowing laundry basket. A faucet that dripped. Sanctuary, just like Mrs. Rivera's house had been.

Not perfect, but filled with family, love... Crazy sons, wild activities, drugged-out daughter, but laughs. A full house, a superstitious grandma that finally relented and gave her the a-okay from a vision. Damali smiled just thinking about the old dolls. It had a lot of things the compound had, as well as a lot of things it didn't.

Dinners that were a noisy gathering of people eating from plates while standing up because they had things to do, business to handle, all crammed in the kitchen, tossing beers to each other, talking shit, laughing, and laughing, and cussing each other out, coming home the next day after catting around... women falling by and sitting on the sofa to wait for some man like sparrows on a telephone wire, guarding their territory over whichever fine brother they were trying to hook up with. The kitchens were the same, in that way, but the living room was devoid of outsiders - a closed environment. Even though all of it was insane, part of her knew that she'd do it again any day. By comparison, Mrs. Rivera's house wasn't all that bad.

Inez pushed open the bedroom door, and in the middle of her queen-sized bed slept an angel. Damali covered her mouth to keep from gasping. She went to the side of the bed and knelt, watching the tiny body shudder with peaceful inhales and exhales. Unable to stop-herself, she traced the soft, caramel cheek, and brushed back the fuzzy, thick plaits twisted with multicolored, plastic barrettes. "Oh, God, Inez, she's so gorgeous."

There was no way to stop the new tears from forming in her eyes as she glanced up at her girlfriend who was beaming with pride.

"Job well done," Damali said, kissing the toddler's butter-soft cheek. "Well done." Then she stood, allowing her fingers to linger in the dark brown nest of cottony textured hair, and then tiptoed out of the room with her friend.

"I know you didn't like his lifestyle," Inez murmured as they walked down the hall with Inez's arm around Damali, "but you should have had one for Carlos. Mighta changed him a little?"

Damali felt her back stiffen. "You know how I feel about that," she said, trying to find the line between preaching and not offending her girl.

"Yeah, you're right," Inez said as they reentered the kitchen. "His lifestyle was dangerous, especially when he moved out and got his own place and moved up. Then, with your career..." She shrugged.

It hurt her soul that her girlfriend had so completely missed the point. You didn't have a baby for someone. Lord help her. A baby didn't change a man, nor did it seal a relationship, and that was the last reason you had one. A child wasn't a hostage, or a choker chain. New, innocent life wasn't supposed to be created for those reasons. Only the spirit could bind a person to another, and the mind had to clearly sort that all out in the flesh.

Damali suddenly felt tired. There were so many things she wanted to tell Inez's deaf ears. But tonight was not the night for that old debate. "He lived a dangerous life," was all she could say to terminate the discussion. Again, salt in the wound.

"It's a shame, though, that y'all never got a chance to hook up," Inez said with a yawn, glancing at the near-empty bottle. "Then, all his boyz got shot up bad, and then his brothers and cousins - man, the guys who assassinated them did them ritual-style. Wasn't right, closed casket funerals... their moms didn't even get to see them good before saying good-bye. I don't know whose money they jacked, but dayum. And they still can't find Carlos to bury him. That's messed up. Think he's - "

"He's dead. They all made a deal with the Devil," Damali said flatly, and kept her gaze on the television. "A lotta fine men went to waste."

She had to tune Inez out for a moment. Mentally retracing a path to the Rivera house one last time, she remembered how she stayed tight with Carlos and his people even after she'd moved back to stay with Inez for a little while. That part of it all really hurt. She'd watched Carlos climb the street-money ladder almost to the top, and then fall - hard.

If it hadn't been for Marlene tracking her down, hearing about what happened with Inez's uncle from the word on the streets, she would have lived with Inez as her sister till they were grown. If she hadn't told on her foster father, if he hadn't reached for her and drawn back a nub... if she hadn't been so outraged that she called everyone she knew in Inez's family to protect Inez by telling the truth, bringing the light to that dark, scary, secret shit going on over there, the guardians might not have found her. Not being found maybe wouldn't have been so bad. Maybe then she could have stayed with Inez and lived a normal life.

But then again, by being there, Damali also knew that, if vampires were looking for her, Inez and her whole family might have been turned. The universe had a perverse sense of humor. Damali poured the last of the wine into her glass as the television droned on and she and Inez sat hypnotized, watching nothing.

All of it was a closed circle, now she understood why. Inez's mom told all her people in Rio, and the male cousins mounted a revenge posse, stateside. Marlene's friends from overseas had heard about it... bullshit traveled all the way from South America to LA by the grapevine. One of Shabazz's old boys knew who was in the hit squad, and told him. Then one night while she was free-styling on an open mic, Marlene had walked up, gave her a business card, and a supposed record deal - if she would come and live with her, and get groomed while laying down tracks in her studio. Inez's mom had relented, because Marlene had credibility and money. Full circle. Yes, the universe was a trip.

Crazy... just like Carlos, Damali had to admit that she'd been seduced into a new lifestyle by the lure of the brass ring. Had left the safety of Inez's people's home to go on an adventure, and now it had become a roller-coaster ride she couldn't get off.

Suddenly she just wanted to go home.

Damali stood, totally sober. She embraced her friend who was like a sister.

"I have to go home and handle some business. You kiss your daughter for me, and tell her Auntie Damali is gonna send her something soon... and kiss your mom for me, hear?"

Inez nodded and hugged her tighter.

"I'll visit soon, and you know I always write."

"Stop sending money, girl. Hear?" Inez said, stroking her back. "You gonna be all right getting home safe this late?"

"I'll call you when I get in - but tonight is not the night anybody wants to start some shit with me."

"Damali, the world has gotten worse since we were kids and hanging out. I'm just worried. Don't start no shit with anybody tonight. 'Kay?"

She kissed Inez on the cheek. "Lock the door and say your prayers. You know me. I got this."

In the darkness of her lair she watched through her inner vision. Her eyes narrowed to cruel, green-glowing slits. Pure jealousy sent her own claws into her palms. If she were free to move about... were she not shackled to a region... just one false step, just one mistake, and she'd have the young Neteru's head on a pike.

It wasn't fair; she'd been robbed. They didn't make Neterus like they used to. This one, from this era, was weak, had no sense of purpose. This one cried. This one believed she had the right to bear the Isis. This one had challenged two very eligible master vampires, and due to a fluke in cosmic law, won. That's why this lucky little bitch had to be dealt with soon. This one would not be allowed to ruin her plans!

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