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Huntress (Chapter 4)

Rule Number One of living with humans. Always wash the blood off before coming in the house.

Jez stood at the outdoor faucet, icy-cold water splashing over her hands. She was scrubbing- carefully-a

long, slim dagger made of split bamboo, with a cutting edge as sharp as glass. When it was clean, she

slipped it into her right knee-high boot. Then she daubed water over several stains on her T-shirt and

jeans and scrubbed them with a fingernail. Finally she whipped out a pocket mirror and examined her

face critically.

The girl who looked back didn't much resemble the wild, laughing huntress who had leaped from tree to

tree in Muir Woods. Oh, the features were the same; the height of cheekbone, the curve of chin. They

had even fined out a bit because she was a year older. The red flag of hair was the same, too, although

now it was pulled back in an attempt to tame its fiery disorder. The difference was in the expression,

which was sadder and wiser than Jez had ever imagined she could be, and in the eyes.

The eyes weren't as silvery as they had been, not as dangerously beautiful. But that was only to be

expected. She had discovered that she didn't need to drink blood as long as she didn't use her vampire

powers. Human food kept her alive-and made her look more human.

One other thing about the eyes. They were scarily vulnerable, even to Jez. No matter how she tried to

make them hard and menacing, they had the wounded look of a deer that knows it's going to die and

accepts it. Sometimes she wondered if that was an omen.

Well. No blood on her face. She shoved the mirror back in her pocket. She was mostly presentable, if

extremely late for dinner. She turned the faucet off and headed for the back door of the low, sweeping

ranch house.

Everyone looked up as she came in.

The family was in the kitchen, eating at the oak table with the white trim, under the bright fluorescent

light. The TV was blaring cheerfully from the family room. Uncle Jim, her mother's brother, was munching

tacos and leafing through the mail. He had red hair darker than Jez's and a long face that looked almost

as medieval as Jez's mother's had. He was usually off in a gentle, worried dream somewhere. Now he

waved an envelope at Jez and

gazed at her reproachfully, but he couldn't say anything because his mouth was full.

Aunt Nanami was on the phone, drinking a diet Coke. She was small, with dark shiny hair and eyes that

turned to crescents when she smiled. She opened her mouth and frowned at Jez, but couldn't say

anything, either.

Ricky, who was ten, had carroty hair and expressive eyebrows. He gave Jez a big smile that showed

chewed-up taco in his mouth and said, "Hi!"

Jez smiled back. No matter what she did, Ricky was there for her.

Claire, who was Jez's age, was sitting primly, eating bits of taco with her fork. She looked like a smaller

version of Aunt Nan, but with a very sour expression.

"Where have you been?" she said. "We waited dinner almost an hour for you and you never even

called."

"Sorry," Jez said, looking at all of them. It was such an incredibly normal family scene, so completely

typical, and it struck her to the heart.

It was over a year since she had walked out of the Night World to find these people, her mother's

relatives. It was eleven and a half months since Uncle Jim had taken her in, not knowing anything about

her except that she was his orphaned niece and that her father's family couldn't handle her anymore and

had given up on her. All these months, she had lived with the Goddard family- and she still didn't fit in.

She could look human, she could act human, but she couldn't be human.

Just as Uncle Jim swallowed and got his mouth clear to speak to her, she said, "I'm not hungry. I think

I'll just go do my homework."

Uncle Jim called, "Wait a minute," after her, but it was Claire who slammed down her napkin and

actually followed Jez through the hall to the other side of the house.

"What do you mean, 'Sorry'? You do this every day. You're always disappearing; half the time you stay

out until after midnight, and then you don't even have an explanation."

"Yeah, I know, Claire." Jez answered without looking back. "Illtry to do better."

"You say that every time. And every time it's exactly the same. Don't you realize that my parents worry

about you? Don't you even care?"

"Yes, I care, Claire."

"You don't act like it. You act like rules don't apply to you. And you say sorry, but you're just going to

do it again."

Jez had to keep herself from turning around and snapping at her cousin. She liked everyone else in the

family, but Claire was a royal pain.

Worse, she was a shrewd royal pain. And she was right; Jez was going to do it again, and there was no

way she could explain.

The thing was, vampire hunters have to keep weird hours.

When you're on the trail of a vampire-and-shapeshifter killing team, as Jez had been this evening, chasing

them through the slums ofOakland , trying to get them cornered in some crack house

where there aren't little kids to get hurt, you don't think about missing dinner. You don't stop in the

middle of staking the undead to phone home.

Maybe I shouldn't have become a vampire hunter, Jez thought. But it's a little late to change now, and

somebody's got to protect these stupid- these innocent humans from the Night World.

Oh, well.

She'd reached the door of her bedroom. Instead of yelling at her cousin, she simply half turned and said,

"Why don't you go work on your Web page, Claire?" Then she opened the door and glanced inside.

And froze.

Her room, which she had left in military neatness, was a shambles. The window was wide open. Papers

and clothes were scattered across the floor. And there was a very large ghoul standing at the foot of the

bed.

The ghoul opened its mouth menacingly at Jez.

"Oh, very funny," Claire was saying, right behind her. "Maybe I should help you with your homework. I

hear you're not doing so great in chemistry-"

Jez moved fast, stepping nimbly inside the door and slamming it in Claire's face, pressing the little knob in

the handle to lock it.

"Hey!" Now Claire sounded really mad. "That's rude!"

"Uh, sorry, Claire!" Jez faced the ghoul. What was it doing here? If it had followed her home, she was in

bad trouble. That meant the Night World

knew where she was. "You know, Claire, I think I really need to be alone for a little while-I can't talk

and do my homework." She took a step toward the creature, watching its reaction.

Ghouls were semi-vampires. They were what happened to a human who was bled out but didn't get

quite enough vampire blood in exchange to become a true vampire. They were undead but rotting. They

had very little mind, and only one idea in the world: to drink blood, which they usually did by eating as

much of a human body as possible. They liked hearts.

This ghoul was a new one, about two weeks dead. It was male and looked as if it had been a

body-builder, although by now it wasn't so much buff as puffed. Its body was swollen with the gas of

decomposition. Its tongue and eyes were protruding, its cheeks were chipmunk-like, and bloody fluid

was leaking from its nose.

And of course it didn't smell good.

As Jez edged closer, she suddenly realized that the ghoul wasn't alone. She could now see around the

foot of the bed, and there was a boy lying on the carpet, apparently unconscious. The boy had light hair

and rumpled clothes, but Jez couldn't see his face. The ghoul was stooping over him, reaching for him

with sausage-shaped fingers.

"I don't think so," Jez told it softly. She could feel a dangerous smile settling on her face. She reached

into her right boot and pulled out the dagger.

"What did you say?" Claire shouted from the other side of the door.

"Nothing, Claire. Just getting out my homework." Jez jumped onto the bed The ghoul was very big-she

needed all the height she could get.

The ghoul turned to face her, its lackluster bugeyes on the dagger. It made a little hissing sound around

its swollen tongue. Fortunately that was all the noise it could make.

Claire was rattling the door. "Did you lock this? What are you doing in there?"

"Just studying, Claire. Go away." Jez snapped a foot toward the ghoul, catching it under the chin. She

needed to stun it and stake it fast Ghouls weren't smart, but like the Energizer Bunny they kept going and

going. This one could eat the entire Goddard family tonight and still be hungry at dawn.

The ghoul hit the wall opposite the bed. Jez jumped down, putting herself between it and the boy on the

floor.

"What was that noise?" Claire yelled. "I dropped a book."

The ghoul swung. Jez ducked. There were giant blisters on its arms, the brownish color of old blood.

It rushed her, trying to slam her against the chest of drawers. Jez flung herself backward, but she didn't

have much room to maneuver. It caught her in the stomach with an elbow, a jarring blow.

Jez wouldn't let herself double over. She twisted and helped the ghoul in the direction it was already

going, giving it impetus with her foot. It smacked into the window seat, facedown.

"What is going on in there?"

"Just looking for something." Jez moved before the ghoul could recover, jumping to straddle its legs. She

grabbed its hair-not a good idea; it came off in clumps in her hand. Kneeling on it to keep it still, she

raised the sum bamboo knife high and brought it down hard.

There was a puncturing sound and a terrible smell. The knife had penetrated just under the shoulder

blade, six inches into the heart.

The ghoul convulsed once and stopped moving.

Claire's voice came piercingly from behind the closed door. "Mom! She's doing something in there!"

Then Aunt Nan's voice: "Jez, are you all right?"

Jez stood, pulling her bamboo dagger out, wiping it on the ghoul's shirt. "I'm just having a little trouble

finding a ruler…." The ghoul was in a perfect position. She put her arms around its waist, ignoring the

feeling of skin slipping loose under her fingers, and heaved it up onto the window seat. There weren't

many human girls who could have picked up almost two hundred pounds of dead weight, and even Jez

ended up a little breathless. She gave the ghoul a shove, rolling it over until it reached the open window,

then she stuffed and maneuvered it out. It fell heavily into a bed of impatiens, squashing the flowers.

Good. She'd haul it away later tonight and dispose of it.

Jez caught her breath, brushed off her hands, and closed the window. She drew the curtains shut, then

turned. The fair-haired boy was lying perfectly still. Jez touched his back gently, saw that he was

breathing.

The door rattled and Claire's voice rose hysterically. "Mom, do you smell that smell?"

Aunt Nan called, "Jez!"

"Coming!" Jez glanced around the room. She needed something… there. The bed.

Grabbing a handful of material near the head of the bed, she flipped comforter, blankets and sheets over

so they trailed off the foot, completely covering the boy. She tossed a couple of pillows on top of the pile

for good measure, then grabbed a ruler off the desk. Then she opened the door, leaned against the

doorframe casually, and summoned her brightest smile.

"Sorry about that," she said. "What can I do for you?"

Claire and Aunt Nan just stared at her.

Claire looked like a rumpled, angry kitten. The fine dark hair that framed her face was ruffled; she was

breathing hard, and her almond-shaped eyes were flashing sparks. Aunt Nan looked more worried and

dismayed.

"Are you okay?" she said, leaning in slightly to try and get a look at Jez's room. "We heard a lot of

noise."

And you'd have heard more earlier if you hadn't been watching TV. "I'm fine. I'm great. You know how

it is when you can't find something." Jez lifted

the ruler. Then she stepped back and opened the door farther.

Aunt Nan's eyes widened as she took in the mess. "Jez… this does not happen when you can't find a

ruler. This looks like Claire's room."

Claire made a choked sound of indignation. "It does not. My room's never been this bad. And what's

that smell?" She slipped by Aunt Nan and advanced on Jez, who sidestepped to keep her from getting to

the pile of blankets.

Claire stopped dead anyway, her face wrinkling. She put a hand to cover her nose and mouth. "It's you,"

she said, pointing at Jez. 'You smell like that."

"Sorry." It was true; what with all the contact she'd had with the ghoul, and the dirty knife in her boot,

she was pretty ripe. "I think I stepped in something on the way home."

"I didn't smell anything when you came in," Claire said suspiciously.

"And that's another thing," Aunt Nan said. She had been glancing around the room, but there was

nothing suspicious to see except the unusual clutter-the curtains hung motionless over the shut window;

the pile of bedding on the floor was still. Now she turned to face Jez again. "You didn't call to say you

were going to miss dinner again. I need to know where you go after school, Jez. I need to know when

you're going to be out late. It's common courtesy."

"I know. I'll remember next time. I really will." Jez said it as sincerely as possible, and in a tone she

hoped would close the subject. She needed to get rid of these people and look at the boy under the

blankets. He might be seriously hurt.

Aunt Nan was nodding. "You'd better. And you'd better take a shower before you do anything else.

Throw your clothes in the laundry room; I'll put them in the wash." She made as if to kiss Jez on the

cheek, but stopped, wrinkled her nose, and then just nodded again at her.

"And that's it? That's all?" Claire was looking at her mother in disbelief. "Mom, she's up to something,

can't you see that? She comes in late, smelling like dead skunk and sewage and I don't know what, and

then she locks herself in and bangs around and lies, and all you're going to say is Don't do it again'? She

gets away with everything around here-"

"Claire, quit it. She said she was sorry. I'm sure she won't let it happen again."

"If I did something like that you'd skin me, but, no, if Jez does it, it must be okay. Well, I'll tell you

something else. She cut school today. She left before sixth period."

"Is that true, Jez?" a new voice asked. Uncle Jim was standing in the doorway, pulling at his chin with

long fingers. He looked sad.

It was true. Jez had left early to set up a trap for the vampire and shapeshifter. She looked at her uncle

and made a regretful motion with her head and shoulders.

"Jez, you just can't do that. I'm trying to be reasonable, but this is only the second week of school.

You can't start this kind of behavior again. It can't be like last year." He thought. "From now on, you

leave your motorcycle at home. You drive to school and back with Claire, in the Audi."

Jez nodded. "Okay, Uncle Jim," she said out loud. Now go away, she added silently. Thin curls of

anxiety were churning in her stomach.

"Thank you." He smiled at her.

"See?" Claire jumped in, her voice hitting a note to shatter glass. "This is just what I'm talking about! You

never yell at her, either! Is it because you're afraid she'll run away, like she did from her dad's relatives?

So everybody has to walk on eggshells around her because otherwise she'll just take off-"

"Okay, that's it. I'm not listening to any more of this." Aunt Nan waved a hand at Claire, then turned

around to shoo Uncle Jim out of her path. Tm going to clean up the dinner table. If you two want to fight,

do it quietly."

"No, it's better if they do their homework," Uncle Jim said, moving slowly. "Both of you, do your

homework, okay?" He looked at Jez in a way that was probably meant to be commanding, but came out

wistful. "And tomorrow come home on time."

Jez nodded. Then both adults were gone, but Claire was staring after them. Jez couldn't be sure, but she

thought there were tears in her eyes.

Jez felt a pang. Of course, Claire was dead on about the leeway Aunt Nan and Uncle Jim gave her. And

of course, it wasn't fair to Claire.

I should say something to her. Poor little thing. She really feels bad….

But before she could open her mouth, Claire whirled around. The eyes that had been wet a moment ago

were flashing.

"You just wait," she said. "They don't see through you, but I do. You're up to something, and I'm going

to find out what it is. And don't think I can't do it."

She turned and stalked out the door.

Jez stood for an instant, speechless, then she blinked and closed the door. She locked it. And then for

the first time since she'd seen the ghoul, she allowed herself to let out a long breath.

That had been close. And Claire was serious, which was going to be a problem. But Jez didn't have time

to think about it now.

She turned the clock radio on her nightstand to a rock station. A loud one. Then she flipped the covers

off the foot of the bed and knelt.

The boy was lying facedown, with one arm stretched over his head. Jez couldn't see any blood. She

took his shoulder and carefully rolled him over.

And stopped breathing.

"Hugh."

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