Read Fade Out Online

Authors: Rachel Caine

Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Vampire, #Urban Fantasy

Fade Out (4 page)

BOOK: Fade Out
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“And you’ve come down from your ivory tower, my lady,” he said. “And here we are, meeting in the midden where humans discard their trash. And you brought lunch. How kind.”

Ghostly chuckles came from the dark. Michael turned, tracking something Claire couldn’t see; his eyes were turning red, and she could see him shifting away from the Michael she knew into something else, something scarier—the Michael she didn’t know. Eve sensed it, too, and stepped back, closer to Shane. She looked calm, but her hands were balled into fists at her sides.

“Do something,” she said to Amelie. “Get us out of here.”

“And how do you imagine I will do that?”

“Think of something!”

“You really are a very trying child,” Amelie said, but her eyes stayed fixed on Morley, the scarecrow next to the marble tomb. “I don’t know why I bother.”

“I don’t know why you do, either,” Morley said. “Confidentially, your dear old da had the right idea. Kill them all, or pen them up for their blood; this living as equals is nonsense, and you know it. They’ll never be our equals, will they?”

“Right back atcha,” Eve said, and shot him the finger. Shane quickly grabbed her arm and forced it down. “What, you’re Mr. Discretion now? Is it Opposite Day?”

“Just shut up,” Shane whispered. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re outnumbered.”

“And? When are we not?”

Claire shrugged when Shane looked at her. “She does have a point. We usually are.”

“You’re not helping. Michael?” Shane asked. “What cha got, man?”

“Trouble,” Michael said. His voice sounded different, too—deeper than Claire was used to hearing it. Darker. “There are at least eight of them, all vampires. Stay with the girls.”

“I know you didn’t mean that how it came out. And you need me. Amelie’s weak, and you’re way outgunned, bro.”

“Am I?” Michael flashed them a disconcerting smile that showed fang. “Just stay with the girls, Shane.”

“I’d say you suck, but why state the obvious?” Shane’s words were banter, but his tone was dead serious, tense, and worried. “Go careful, man. Real careful.”

Amelie said, “We’re not fighting.”

At the top of the hill, with the big white mausoleum glowing like bone behind him, Morley cocked his head and crossed his arms. “No?”

“No,” she said. “You are going to walk away, and take your friends with you.”

“And why would I do that, when you have such delicious company with you? My people are hungry, Amelie. The occasional rat and drunken stranger really don’t make a well-balanced diet.”

“You and your pack of jackals can come to the blood bank like any other vampire,” she said, just as if she were in charge of the situation, even though Claire could see she was weak and exhausted. “All that’s stopping you is your own stubbornness.”

“I won’t bend my neck to the likes of you. I have my pride.”

“Then enjoy your rats,” Amelie said, and cast a commanding look at the rest of them. “We’re going.”

Morley laughed. “You really think so?”

“Oh yes.” Amelie smiled, and it felt like the temperature around them dropped by several degrees. “I really do. Because you may like your games and your displays, Morley, but you are hardly so stupid to think that crossing me comes without a price.”

This time, it wasn’t laughter coming from all around them; it was a low rumble of sound, picked up and carried all around the circle.

Growling.

“You’re threatening us,” the ragged vampire said, and leaned against the tomb behind him. “You, who reeks of your own blood and weakness. Who stands with a newborn vampire as your only ally, and three juicy snacks to defend. Truly? You’ve always been bold, my highborn lady, but there is a boundary between bold and foolhardy, and I think that if you look, you’ll find it’s just behind you.”

Amelie said nothing. She just stood there, silent and icy calm, and Morley finally straightened up.

“I’m not your vassal,” he said. “Turn over the prey, and I’ll let you and the boy walk away.”

Claire guessed, with a sick sensation, that the prey meant her, Eve, and Shane. Shane didn’t like it, either; she felt him tense at her side.

“Why would you think I’d do such a thing?” Amelie asked. She sounded only vaguely interested in the whole problem.

“You’re a chess master. You understand the sacrifice of pawns.” Morley smiled, revealing brown, crooked fangs that didn’t look any less lethal for never having seen a toothbrush. “It’s tactics, not strategy.”

“When I want to be lectured on strategy, I’ll consult someone who actually won battles,” Amelie said. “Not one who ran away from them.”

“Snap,” Eve said.

“You know what they’re talking about?” Shane asked.

“Don’t need to know to get that one. She smacked him so hard his momma felt it.”

Morley felt it, too; he took a step toward them, and this time when he bared his teeth, it wasn’t a smile. “Last chance,” he said. “Walk away, Amelie.”

“I can open a portal,” Claire whispered, trying to make it quiet enough that Morley, twenty feet away, couldn’t hear. Amelie shot her a look, one of those looks.

“If I simply leave in that fashion, even with all of you, he can claim to have driven me away in defeat,” she said. “It isn’t enough to simply escape.”

“Exactly,” Morley said, and clapped. The sound was shocking and loud as it echoed off the tombstones. A flock of birds took off from the trees, twittering in alarm. “You must show me the error of my ways. And that, my dear liege lady, will be difficult. You’re all hat and no cattle, as they like to say in this part of the world. Unless you count the three with you as cattle, of course. In which case you are short a hat.”

“I’m bored with this. Attack, or do nothing as you always do,” Amelie said. “We are leaving, regardless.” She turned to the rest of them and said, in exactly the same cool, calm voice, “Ignore him. Morley is a posturing coward, a degenerate, a liar. He skulks here because he is afraid that standing with the rest of us will only show him for the sad, lacking beggar that he—”

“Kill them all!” Morley shouted, and blurred into motion, heading for Amelie.

Michael hit him head-on, and the two of them tumbled over headstones. Claire whirled as shadows appeared out of the darkness, moving too fast to see clearly. Her pulse jumped wildly, and she tried to get ready to fight.

And then Amelie said, “Oliver, please demonstrate to Morley why he has been so badly mistaken.”

One of the shadows came forward into the moonlight, and it wasn’t a stranger at all. Oliver, Amelie’s second-in-command in Morganville, was in his kindly shopkeeper disguise—the tie-dyed shirt with the Common Grounds logo on the front, and a pair of blue jeans—and with his graying hair clubbed back in a ponytail, he looked like a typical coffeehouse radical.

Except for his expression, which looked like he was not pleased to be here at Amelie’s beck and call, and even less pleased to be dealing with Morley. The shapes coming out of the darkness behind him weren’t Morley’s people after all, but Oliver’s . . . neatly groomed, polished vampires with an edge of chill and distance that made Claire shiver. They were polite, but they were killers.

“Michael,” Oliver said. “Let that fool go.” Michael seemed just as surprised as Morley—or as Claire felt—but he let go of the other vampire and backed off. Morley lunged to his feet, then paused as he took in the sight of Oliver and all his backup. “Your followers—if one can dignify a starving pack of dogs by such a name—have been persuaded to leave. You’re alone, Morley.”

“Checkmate,” Amelie said softly. “Strategy, not tactics. I trust you see the point.”

Morley did. He hesitated a moment, then darted between the cover of tombstones and shadows, and then he was just . . . gone.

Crisis over.

“Well,” Eve said. “That was disappointing. Usually in the movies there’s kickboxing.”

Oliver turned his head slightly, looking at Amelie in a fast, comprehensive glance that fixed on the blood on her hands. His mouth tightened in what looked like disgust. “Are you finished here?” he asked.

“I believe so,” Amelie said.

“Then may I offer you an escort home?”

Her smile turned cynical. “Are you worried for me, my friend? How kind.”

“Not at all. I am so gratified that I could be of use to defend your honor.”

“Michael defended me,” Amelie said. “You showed up.”

Claire thought, Snap, again. She could see Eve thinking the same thing. Neither of them was quite brave enough to say it, though.

Oliver shrugged. “Strategy, and tactics. I do know the difference. And I have won battles, unlike Morley.”

“Which is why I rely on you, Oliver, for your counsel. I trust I can continue to count on you for that.”

Their gazes locked, and Claire shivered a little. Morley was bluff; Oliver wasn’t. He was the kind of guy who’d do what he said, if he thought he could get away with it. He also wanted Morganville. Maybe not quite enough to kill Amelie to get it, but the line was pretty thin.

In fact, Claire could see the line right now, in the faint and fading scars on Amelie’s wrists.

“Michael and his friends were kind enough to offer me an escort to the blood bank,” Amelie said. “I will go with them. Perhaps you can summon my car to meet me there.”

Oliver’s smile was sharp as a paper cut. “As ever, I exist to serve.”

“I sincerely doubt that.”

Michael fell in next to Amelie, and the five of them moved down the rambling path toward where they’d left the car. When Claire looked back, there was no sign of Oliver and his people, or of Morley. There was just the silent cemetery, and the gleaming mausoleum at the top of the hill.

“Anybody else think that was weird?” Shane asked as they got into the car. Eve sent him an exasperated glance; the three of them were, of course, in the backseat. Amelie had the front, with Michael.

“Ya think? In general, or in particular?”

“Weird that we got through the entire thing, and I didn’t have to hit anybody.”

There was a moment of silence. Michael said, as he started the car, “You’re right, Shane. That is strange.”

When Michael parked at the blood bank, Amelie’s security detail was already in place, with the limousine parked at the curb. Claire half expected to see those little devices the Secret Service wore curved around their pale ears, but she supposed the vampires didn’t really need technology to hear one another. They did wear snappy black suits and sunglasses, though, and the second Michael’s car came to a stop, one of them was opening the passenger-side door and offering Amelie a hand. She took it without a bit of awkwardness, graceful as water, and looked back before the door closed to say, “I thank you. All of you.”

That was it. From Amelie, though, that was kind of a lot.

“Shotgun,” Eve and Shane said at the same time, and promptly launched into rock-paper-scissors to settle things. Shane won, then got an odd look on his face.

“You take it,” he said to Eve, who was still holding her scissors position, which had lost to his rock.

“Seriously?” Her eyes widened. “You’re giving up shotgun? I mean, you did win.”

“I know,” he said. “I’d rather stay back here.”

Meaning, with Claire. Eve didn’t waste any time; she bailed and slipped into the front passenger seat, wiggling in satisfaction. Michael smiled at her, and she took his hand.

Shane put his arm around Claire, and she rested her head on his chest. Warm, finally. Warm, safe, and loved. “Man, dinner must be cold,” he said. “Sorry. I know how much you like tacos.”

“Cold tacos are good, too.”

“Sick.” He meant that in a good way. “So, after the tacos, you want to watch a movie or something?”

Claire made a vague sound of agreement, closed her eyes, and without any conscious decision to do it, fell asleep in his arms. She remembered waking up, vaguely, to Shane saying, “Better take her home,” and then another very fuzzy memory of his lips pressed against hers. . . .

Then, nothing.

Morning dawned, and she woke up in her twin bed, at her parents’ house. The first few seconds she felt nothing but a vague sense of disappointment that she’d wasted the opportunity to stay with Shane, but then all that was wiped out by the incredible heat she felt on her face. It was as if she’d fallen asleep under a sunlamp, except the room was pleasantly dim.

Claire slid out of bed, stumbled over the pile of clothes on the floor—she didn’t remember taking them off, but she was wearing a mom-approved cotton nightgown, which meant Shane hadn’t taken them off—and made her way into the bathroom.

The blinding lights came on, and they were cruel. Claire whimpered as she stared at the red blotch of her face, with white patches that must have been forming blisters underneath the first layers of skin. She pressed on her face, tentatively; it hurt—a lot. “Really going to kill you, Myrnin,” she said. “And laugh, too.”

The shower was horrible; hot water turned nuclear when it hit the burns, and she got through it mainly by gritting her teeth and chanting a variety of gruesome and creative ways she could kill her boss. Afterward she felt a little better, but she thought she looked worse. Not a great exchange, really.

She ran into her mother in the hallway, as Mom climbed the last few steps with a neatly folded stack of sheets and towels in her arms. “Oh, you’re up, sweetie,” Mom said, and flashed her a distracted smile. “Want me to change your—oh lord, what happened to your face?”

Mom fumbled the laundry, and Claire caught the toppling stack. “It’s not that bad,” she lied. “I, ah, fell asleep. In the sun.”

“Honey, that’s dangerous! Skin cancer!”

“Yeah, I know. Sorry. It was an accident. These go in the linen closet?”

“Oh—wait, let me take those. I have a system.” The threat to take her mother’s neatly folded laundry and mess it up had the desired effect; Mom left the subject of Claire’s sunburn and focused on the task at hand. “Breakfast is ready downstairs, honey. Oh, dear, your face—can I get you some lotion?”

“No, I’ve got it already. Thanks.” Claire went back to her room, finished dressing, and opened up her backpack. Truthfully, the backpack itself had seen better days; the nylon was ripped and frayed in places, there were stains that Claire was queasily sure were blood over part of the back, and the straps were starting to work their way loose, too. Probably that was because of the amount she crammed into it. She wiggled the books until she was able to pull out her Advanced Particle Physics and the sadly lame Fundamentals of Matrix Computations, which was just about the worst text ever on the subject. Behind that was the giant, backbreaking book of English lit, and all her color-coded notebooks. Behind that was the other stuff. Alchemy and the Hermetic Arts, which wasn’t so much a textbook as an analysis of why the whole field was crap. Myrnin hadn’t recommended it; Claire had ordered it off the Internet from a Web site run by a guy who was creepily paranoid. Of course, if he knew what she knew, he’d probably run screaming, so maybe paranoia was the right attitude.

BOOK: Fade Out
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