Damali Richards could still feel the electricity of the crowd and the adrenaline rush of her spoken-word performance pulsing through her veins as she entered the backstage dressing room. The club was jumping so hard it seemed like even the walls were sweating. The bass thumping from the extensive speaker system was like an insistent heartbeat that she could feel vibrating through the floor and smoke-thickened air until it entered her body through the soles of her feet. Dirty aqua-colored paint peeled at the corners of the cramped space, as though it was trying to escape the throbbing scene.
She glanced around at the ugly, stained brown sofa, and the sparse collection of wooden and metal chairs, immediately opting to stand rather than flop on any of the seating choices. How many performers' body funk had been permanently tattooed on that sorry excuse for a couch, she wondered? Even the one mirror in the room was covered with a white, filmy layer of grime. Yuck. And people thought this was the glamorous life? She, Marlene, and a five-man squad crammed into a dump. Pullease.
Sweat, icy yet burning, made her clothes stick to her skin. Her heavily beaded, Nzinga queen warrior headdress had suddenly become an intolerable weight on her damp scalp. Damali roughly removed it, tossing it onto a chair, and she held her shoulder-length locks up off her neck to give her overheated body a much-needed waft of air. The semiprecious stone and lion's teeth adornments, affixed to her locks with silver and copper wire, gently clinked as she moved her hair. She grimaced at the sound that was now too close to her skull. All five feet seven inches of her felt on fire. Being an artist was great, but this was no way to live.
"Lot of activity on radar tonight," Marlene said in a near whisper, as though talking to herself. "Most times we get a visit from one or two vampires. I'm sensing many."
"Yeah," Damali croaked. Her vocal chords still ached from the intense performance, so she kept her response short. Besides, what else was there to say to her manager, who was like a surrogate mother to their group?
i0Damali and Marlene shared a glance. They both knew what had to be done. Things were heating up. Before, one vamp might follow them, at most two. But ever since they'd turned the tables and went on the offensive a couple of times, seeking out the action instead of waiting for it to come to them, nothing had been the same. The rare random ambushes were now becoming a regular phenomenon. Valuable junior team members had been lost because if it. Irritation coiled within Damali. She'd told Marlene this shit would go down like that once they started hunting. Shoulda let sleeping dogs lie.
Marlene shot her a look that said don't start. Screw Marlene and her pious yang. Not tonight. Sure, she loved Mar like a mom and all, but wasn't feeling sister-girl right now. Yeah, they only went after vampires that were acting up. But that wasn't the point.
"You didn't hear me, did you?"
Damali cut Marlene a hard glance, then looked away. "No. What did you say?"
Marlene waited until the two women's eyes met again. "I didn't say anything. I thought it, and you didn't hear me in your head. But I'm able to read you loud and clear. That concerns me."
Total annoyance wrapped itself around Damali and she gave Marlene another glare to make her back off. She felt invaded. "I'm just tired, that's all. The past is the past. It's done now, anyway. Drop it."
"You need to tell us when you're having sensory blackouts. They're becoming more frequent, aren't they? You could have sent that to me without a word."
The other members of the team gave Damali a quick look of concern, but were wise enough not to get in the middle of the brewing dispute. More than likely they'd let the bullshit pass, because she and Marlene were always at it. Whatever.
Instead of answering Marlene, Damali forced her attention toward the Native American flutes, cowbells, and chimes that rested against large conga drums in the corner of the room. Her gaze scanned the sharp, titanium-based, silver-plated anchors that held the drumhead skins in place. She refused to answer Marlene's question. She didn't feel like dealing with that crap right now. There was something making the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
Tonight, the drum anchors were going in her belt, even if that music gear was Jose's, a.k.a. Wizard. He was da bomb in concert, but he didn't know how to use the disguised weapons as well as she did out in the streets. Summoning inner strength, Damali blocked Marlene's intrusion into her thoughts. She'd give Marlene a mental blank to consider while taking her time to figure out how to better arm herself.
The crew was so quiet it was eerie. Nobody said a word, and all were simply packing gear. That was not her team's normal behavior after a gig. The walls of the tiny room felt like they were closing in on her, swallowing her crew whole. Damali studied her weapons options.
Maybe a few silver-plated chimes would be a safe bet, too? Jose could do his thing on crossbow, his favorite weapon anyway. A sister could back somethin' up off her with the dagger-edges off the drum anchors and chimes, if it got crazy out there-same deal with the cymbals. Even though she reminded herself that when a cymbal disc was thrown dead-aim the edge was sharp enough to slice paper without hearing it rip, that fact didn't make her feel better tonight. Why not?
Her gaze instantly went to the Fender-Jake Rider's electric guitar, and to Shabazz's bass, and then to Marlene's electric violin. Marlene's line of vision followed Damali's for a moment before Marlene began assisting the others with equipment breakdown.
As Marlene moved to work with Shabazz, renewed tension wound its way up Damali's spine. Yeah, they'd better restring the instruments and put in the steel cables across the reinforced metal bridges. Tonight felt like a crossbow-necessary night, and the string instruments were easier to roll with. She might even get Wizard to hook up the light poles through the phony strap loops to lock and load additional crossbows. But Marlene needed to give up the walking stick as her only protection. Sistah better recognize, and deal with her violin like it had been designed-put the steel-based bow across the bridge and be ready to rock.
It felt like they'd need the light cannons out there, too, although at the moment, she couldn't exactly say why. Nah ... this was no way to live.
She walked over to the drums and ignored the look Marlene cast in her direction. The dense scent of frankincense, sage, and myrrh had trailed into the room behind her from the stage. Damali licked her parched lips, tasting salt on them, and tried to inhale the protective fragrance, but felt herself almost retch.
Usually the aroma calmed her, its elements anointing her stage space-a required opening before a purple haze of dry-ice smoke was released as she'd enter a performance and claim it. The ring of holy water which had been poured around her in libation to bring forth the ancestors to channel-speak through her, and to encircle her while she spat out the truth of injustice, did not infuse her marrow with unshakable confidence tonight. Heavy bass still throbbed in her skull, now cranking the growing headache to a new decibel level with the ongoing club music that quaked the walls. Being a vampire huntress was no way to live.
"You all right?"
Marlene's question hung in the air as the other crew members paused in their tasks for a moment, considered her, and glanced at each other as though waiting for the green light to continue their equipment breakdown.
Damali just nodded. The crew resumed motion, but kept glancing at her from the corners of their eyes. She wanted to get back to the compound, where they stowed off the hook weapons. The equipment they took on the road was disguised enough to get through new airport security screenings, which meant it wasn't the real heavy artillery. And, yeah, it would be enough to stop a few predators. But if her senses were right, they were in for sho 'nuff action tonight.
The problem was, she couldn't half see. Her normal sight was fine, but inside her head, everything was blurry. Her third-eye was down. Had been that way for a couple of weeks, like static on a television. Intermittent static. Sometimes her mental radar was crystal clear, but at other times, like tonight, it was all snow. She hated this bull.
"We need to hurry up," Damali said out of the blue. Her crew stared at her. One by one they nodded, but nobody said a word. Damn, it was hot in there.
For some reason, the air-conditioned confines didn't cool her off either. Her skin-tight, thigh-slit leather pants felt like they were suffocating her, while the ropes of semiprecious amulets and stones set in thick silver around her wrists, and especially about her neck, began feeling like a humid noose. She began stripping them off, ignoring Marlene's expression of disapproval. The necklaces were practically strangling her. She'd have to chance having her throat exposed, just so she could breathe.
Unable to bear the weight of it, Damali cast off her wide silver belt, and the clatter of it against a nearby coffee table almost made her cringe from the piercing sound of metal connecting with the wood. The ankh earrings of amber and silver and onyx had to come off-they were all too heavy, no matter what Marlene said about the protective talismans that hung as guards to her jugular. Everything felt like it was holding on to her, grasping at her. She couldn't breathe!
"You're sure you're all right?" Marlene had stopped working over an equipment bag to hold her in a steady gaze.
"I'm cool, y'all. For real, for real," Damali finally muttered. There was no need to bring her foul vibe to the group. It wasn't their fault. Why alarm them if this was only a case of raw nerves? She studied the drum anchors one last time and then walked away from them. "Guess I'm just tired from giving it a hundred and fifty percent tonight."
The others in the room simply stared at her, their silence filling in the gaps with quiet apprehension. Yeah, they all felt it, she could tell. Oh, well, shit happens. They knew that, too. None of them wanted to do this destiny thing, especially her. They were trapped as guardians, just like she was trapped as a vampire huntress. There was only one choice that they'd all learned the hard way-band together or die, or worse.
"Let's just keep moving, people. Anybody seen my Tims?"
Marlene extracted the flat-heeled, amber-colored suede boots Damali had requested from a corner in the room and tossed them to her. Damali caught each shoe and bent to put them on. Slowly, her crew resumed their packing.
The sleek high-heeled boots she'd worn during the performance had become like anvils on her legs. This was not a high-heel, be fly and cute kinda night. This was a possible kick ass after a show deal. Despite the sheerness of the color-splashed, tie-dyed duster and embroidered midriff brassiere she performed in, they too felt like they were cutting off her blood flow, and made her want to scream. Her breasts, which she had always believed to be too small, now felt oddly pendulous, heavy, too constricted by her costume. The fragile silver waist-chain she donned seemed to push bile up from her gullet and into her throat. If she weren't almost twenty-one years old, and in top athletic form, she would have sworn that she was having a mild heart attack.
Damali peered in the mirror, appraising her once-bronze complexion that now seemed pallid-but was eerily relieved to see that at least she still had a reflection. What the hell was wrong with her?
"Somebody throw me a T-shirt."
Shabazz complied, and flung a shirt with the band's logo on it in her direction.
"Thanks." Damali gave her crew her back and stripped off the offending sheer top of her stage costume. The guys averted their eyes, as was normal, and as soon as she pulled on the cotton, she sighed. "That's much better. Now I'm good."
"You put a lot of energy into the show," Marlene said after a long pause while the group resumed breakdown. But she spoke in a calm voice, one almost too calm.
"Got a reputation to maintain, Mar." Damali made eye contact with Marlene and held her with s20a brief stare. Read the double meaning in that, sis. Don't front on me-not with my crew standing around. Address it later.
Marlene nodded but said nothing.
Cool. Damali relaxed a bit.
Oh, yeah. Everybody was on edge and needed to chill. She now wondered what Marlene, their seer-guardian, had sensed. When Marlene had visions, she got real cool-scary calm. Damali tossed her knowledge of Marlene's capabilities around inside her head and watched her mentor's body language. Only having a portion of one's skills to rely on was a bitch.
Maybe she should have just told Mar that she was going blind again tonight. But she hated the concept. What, and have the guys go back to treating her like a young buck? A newbie? Hell, no. This was her crew, and whatever was going wrong with her was temporary. All she had to do was look at Marlene hard to know it was gonna be on when they left, no doubt. Didn't need second sight to pick that up.
Jose glanced from crew member to crew member, his nerves also seeming raw. The fact that no one else had said a word had to be jacking with him. Their percussion man's dark eyes shifted nervously between Damali and Marlene Stone. "Yeah, you brought it to 'em, D," he confirmed after a hesitant glance up from his task of packing away equipment.
Small talk, a sure sign of nerves. She hated small talk. "Thanks, Wizard."
"You owned New Energy tonight. The club will never be the same-Warriors of Light Productions and you, lady, should get some good ink from this one in the press tomorrow."
Tomorrow? Assuming they made it through the night. Damali glanced at Jose and then toward Marlene. That crazy Mexican Indian always started babbling when he was hyped. She loved him just the same, but if their ace tracker was trippin'-then damn. Marlene blanched. Obviously Marlene got that message, too.
"Sho 'nuff, we brought it, Wizard," Damali said in a short pant, giving Jose a fist pound, trying to make him feel better as she did so. It was obvious that her mental wall against Marlene wasn't even working. But she also couldn't seem to completely catch her breath. Forget that, Wizard always talked a lot and his voice got louder when nervous. Tonight was no different. It made her head hurt.
She glanced at Marlene again.
Copyright © 2003 by Leslie Esdaile Banks
L. A. Banks is the author of the Vampire Huntress Legend series and the Crimson Moon Novels. She had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and a master’s in fine arts from Temple University. Banks considered herself a shape-shifter. She wrote romance, women’s fiction, crime and suspense, and of course, dark vampire huntress lore. She lived with her daughter in an undisclosed lair somewhere in Philadelphia.