Authors: Rachel Caine
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Vampire, #Urban Fantasy
“Thanks,” Michael said. He looked a little tired, no longer the mighty god of guitar that he’d been onstage, and Claire thought he just wanted to get this done and get home. “I appreciate that, Mr. Sloan.”
Mr. Sloan produced a business card, which he slid across the table toward Michael’s hand. “Yeah, here’s the thing. I think you’ve got real potential, Michael. I work for a major recording company, and I want to take a demo CD back with me.”
There was a moment where they all stared at him, and then Michael said, blankly, “Demo CD?”
“You don’t have one?”
“No. I’ve been—” Michael didn’t know how to finish that sentence. “Busy.” Busy getting killed, then being made into a ghost, then turning into a vampire. Fighting wars. Et cetera.
“You really have to get in the studio, man, right now. I’ll set it up—there’s a good place in Dallas. I’ll book the time for you if you tell me dates. But I want to take your stuff into our next discovery meeting. I think we can really do some business. Think about it, will you? First thing is to get that demo CD done. Call me.”
He held out his hand again, and Michael shook it. He looked pale, and a little vacant, Claire thought. Mr. Sloan flashed them all that Hollywood smile again, slid on a very expensive pair of sunglasses, and left.
“He can’t be,” Eve said. “It’s a joke, right? Monica’s idea of a joke or something.”
Michael held up the business card. Eve examined it, blinked, and passed it to Shane, who passed it on to Claire.
“Vice president,” Claire read. “Oh. Wow.”
“It’s not a joke,” Michael said. “There was an article about this guy in Rolling Stone about six weeks ago.” Michael slowly got to his feet, and it really hit home. “He wants to sign me. As a musician.”
Shane held up his hand, palm out, and Michael slapped it, then grabbed Eve and spun her around in a rush of velvet and squeals. He went still, buried his face in the soft shine of her hair, and just held her. “All my life,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this all my life.”
“I know,” Eve said, and kissed him. “I’m so proud of you.”
Across the gap of a hundred feet of outdated carpet, Mr. Pennywell started clapping. It had the crisp, startling sound of gunshots. The two boys Kim was chatting with discovered they had places to be, and hit the doors to flee into the night; Kim, just as Claire had feared, walked back over toward them. Pennywell finished clapping and said, “You do realize, of course, that they’ll never allow you to leave?”
Michael raised his head, and it felt to Claire like the rest of them faded out of the world. It was just Michael and Pennywell.
“They?” Michael said. “You mean Oliver and Amelie.”
“They want all vampires here, under their control. Under their care.” Pennywell’s sneer was like a slap across the face. “Two frightened little pups trying to control a pack of wolves. Are you a pack animal, Michael? I myself am not.”
“What do you want?” Michael asked.
“Of you? Nothing. You are only a dog running to heel.” His empty gaze moved away from Michael and fixed with a snap onto Claire. “I want her.” Shane, Michael, and Eve closed ranks in front of her before Claire could draw a breath. Pennywell clicked his tongue. “No, no, no, children. This is a waste of blood. I will kill you all—yes, even you, fledgling—and take what I want in any case. You, girl—do you want to see your friends dead on this rather unpleasant carpet?”
“Fat chance,” Shane said. “We already fought your punk ass once, remember? Go ask Bishop how that went for him if you’re scared to think about it.”
Pennywell sent him a scorching look of contempt. “You were not alone, boy. You had allies. Here, you have—” He turned a slow circle, and focused on Kim. “Her. Perhaps not your most persuasive argument.” His tone went eerily quiet, and very serious as he moved his gaze back toward Claire. “I have been alive seven hundred years, and I have been a killer since I was old enough to hold a sword. I have hunted witches and heretics down across Europe. I have destroyed stronger than you, in harder times. Do not mistake me when I tell you that I will not give you another chance.”
Claire swallowed and stepped out from behind Shane. He tried to grab her arm, but she twisted away, never taking her eyes off Pennywell. “Don’t hurt them,” she said. “What do you want?”
“I want you to come with me,” he said, “and I am entirely out of patience. Now.”
Claire held out her hands, palm out, to her friends—Michael, in his rock-star clothes, looking pale and focused and dangerous; Eve, dressed in a fall of black velvet, looking like a silent film star, right down to the look of fear on her face.
Shane was practically begging her not to go. His need to protect her pulled at her like gravity.
She said, “He won’t hurt me. I’ll call as soon as I can. You guys go home. Please.”
To her utter dismay, she saw Kim move over to her friends and stand next to Shane. Kim put a hand on his arm, and he looked down at her. “Let her go,” she told him. “She’ll be fine.”
Claire knew that this was not the right time to be wanting to scream, Take your hands off my boyfriend, bitch, but it was all she could do to hold the words inside. Pennywell’s hand closed around her wrist, cold and strong as a handcuff, and as he began to pull her away, Claire met Shane’s eyes one last time.
“I’ll be back,” she said. “Don’t do anything crazy.”
He probably thought she meant fighting vampires.
What she really meant, deep down, was Don’t fall in love with Kim.
Pennywell marched her outside of the concert hall, into the chilly night. There was a smell of rain in the air, and thunder rumbling far off in the distance. Lightning shattered across the sky, briefly turning Pennywell almost luminous, and as Claire blinked away the glare, she saw that he was pulling her in the direction of an idling limousine parked at the curb.
“In,” he barked, and shoved her at the open back door. She stumbled, caught herself, and crawled in. It was dark, of course. And it smelled like cigar smoke. Pennywell clambered in behind her, agile as a spider, and slammed the door behind him. The big car accelerated away from the curb.
“Where are we going?” Claire asked.
“Nowhere,” said a voice out of the dark—Oliver’s voice. The lights in the back slowly came up, revealing him sitting on the bench seat opposite her. Next to him was the source of the smoke, who smirked at her as he took a long pull on his cigar. Myrnin had put on a wine red jacket for the evening, something with elaborate embroidery on it. He looked almost normal, actually. He was even wearing the right shoes.
There was nothing normal about his smile, though.
“Cohiba?” he asked, and took an unlit cigar out of his pocket to offer it to her. She shook her head, violently. “Pity. You know, daring women used to smoke.”
“Cancer isn’t sexy.”
He raised his shoulders in a lazy shrug. “You all die of something,” he said. “And we all pay for our pleasures, one way or another.”
“Myrnin, what the hell is going on? You send this freak to abduct me. . . .”
“Actually,” Oliver said, “I sent Pennywell. It seemed to me he would be the one of us you and your friends would be least likely to argue with.”
Pennywell laughed. “There you are wrong.”
“I never said it would be easy.” Oliver slammed the door on that conversation, and focused back on Claire. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and she tried not to be intimidated. “Myrnin and I wish to ask you about Amelie.”
“Amelie.” Claire stared back at him blankly, and then she felt the first tinglings of alarm. “What about her?”
“That display of foolishness last night. How did you know what she was doing? I didn’t.”
“I think it’s the bracelet. I don’t know. Maybe—” Maybe it’s Ada, she thought, but didn’t say. Myrnin stared at her thoughtfully through half-lidded eyes and blew smoke in a cloud at the roof. “Maybe she wanted me to know. Deep down. Maybe she wanted someone to stop her.”
“Was she surprised to see you?” Myrnin asked. Claire slowly nodded. “Then she didn’t summon you, consciously or unconsciously. Interesting.”
“Theories?” Oliver asked.
“Not at present.” Myrnin shrugged; then he spoiled his cool by catching sight of something outside of the limousine windows and brightening like a three-year-old with a new toy. “Oh, an all-night drive-through! I could murder a cheeseburger. Don’t you just love this century?”
“Focus, you fool,” Oliver growled. “What is Amelie up to? Is she fit to remain in control?”
“What makes you think she is in control?” Myrnin asked absently, then shot Claire a frown. “What happened to your face?”
“You,” she snapped. “Remember?”
“I certainly did not order you to stand out in the sun. What possible good would that do?”
“Box? UV bomb? Ringing any bells?”
“Oh.” Myrnin considered this carefully, then sighed.
“Yes. Quite my fault. So sorry. What were we talking about?”
“Amelie,” Oliver said, almost growling. “Is she fit to lead?”
Myrnin stubbed out his cigar in the wineglass. “Careful, my old friend,” he said.“You come very close to saying something you would regret. I’m not your creature.”
“No,” Oliver agreed. “You’re her creature to the bone. You built her this madhouse of a town. I would assume you could destroy it, if you chose.”
Myrnin’s attention seemed to be focused on crushing the cigar into submission. “Your point?”
“Amelie said herself that Morganville was built as an experiment, to see if it was possible for vampires and humans to live openly, and in peace. Well, I think that after all this time, we know the answer to that question. The only way to control humans is through fear, intimi dation, and appeals to their greed. This exercise hasn’t made us stronger; it’s made us weaker.”
“We were dying already,” Myrnin said. “Out in the world.”
Pennywell, who hadn’t spoken since entering the limo, let out a derisive laugh. “Some of us,” he said. “And some of us were killing.”
“Any fool can kill. It takes genius to create.”
“Hey!” Claire broke in. “Why me? Why grab me?”
“We’re still debating that,” Myrnin said.
Oliver looked frustrated enough to claw steel. “No, we are not debating it. The girl clearly has a connection to Amelie. It’s the one way we can guarantee she will come to us.”
“Don’t be stupid. Amelie may have a connection to her, but Claire is eminently replaceable,” Myrnin said. “No offense, my dear, but you’re human. Humans are, by definition, replaceable.”
“So are vampires,” Pennywell said. “Including you, you bedlamite wretch.”
“I was never in Bedlam,” Myrnin said. “Although I hear you picked off inmates there when the rats ran scarce.”
That must have been a serious vampire insult or something, because Pennywell launched himself across the space to latch his hands around Myrnin’s throat.
Myrnin didn’t even bother to react. He yawned. “Oliver,” he said, “control your beast before I am forced to.”
Pennywell snarled. His fangs snapped down.
Myrnin’s eyes sparked red, and he grabbed Pennywell’s wrist in his hand and twisted.
Bones snapped. Pennywell howled, clearly shocked at Myrnin’s strength. From the look on his face, Oliver hadn’t exactly expected it, either. Myrnin shoved Pennywell back to his place, pointed a finger at him, and smiled. “Next time, I will take your fangs,” he said. “Then you’ll be a toothless tiger. I don’t think you’d enjoy it. Play nicely, witchfinder.”
“Boys,” Oliver said coolly, “the question at hand is an important one: Do we allow Amelie to continue to run Morganville? Or do we use the girl to take it from her control, once and for all?”
Myrnin sighed. “You do understand that Amelie is aware of your intentions? That she’s planned for your eventual rebellion? Because it was plain as the moon that you’d betray her, sooner or later.”
“I’d hate to disappoint,” Oliver said. “And she has become weak. The weak can’t lead.”
“I’ve known Amelie a very long time, and I would never describe her as weak.” Myrnin lit up another cigar, with much puffing and use of a lighter with a hot blue flame. Claire almost choked on the smoke. Her eyes burned and teared, and she had to wipe them clear. “Wounded, perhaps. Less certain of herself than before. But not weak, which you will discover if you think to push her.”
Oliver frowned at him. “I thought you were with me in this.”
“Did I say that? Well, I’m not very reliable, as you know.” Myrnin closed his eyes in delight as he drew in the smoke from the cigar. “You very nearly succeeded in bribing me with these excellent Cubans. I haven’t had the like since Victoria was still Queen of England. But in the end, I must remain loyal to my lady. And I really can’t allow you to torment my apprentice. After all, that’s my job.”
“I thought that might be the case,” Oliver said.
He pulled a stake from inside his coat and slammed it into Myrnin’s chest.
Claire screamed and lunged for Oliver, or at least she started to—the limousine violently swerved, sending them all flying, and Claire ended up on the carpeted floor with Myrnin’s deadweight on top of her. Something hit them, hard, and Claire felt the car lift, twist in the air, and slam down on its top, sending her and Myrnin in a tangle to the roof of the limo.
Oliver and Pennywell had somehow stayed in their seats—holding themselves in by main force, apparently. Claire fought free of Myrnin’s body, panting and disoriented. She wasn’t hurt, or at least she didn’t feel hurt, but everything seemed a little odd. Too bright. Too sharp. Pennywell’s eyes were bright red, and his fangs were out.
Oliver was looking at her like lunch, too.
The side window had broken out when the car rolled. Claire grabbed Myrnin’s shoulders, crawled backward through the wrecked window, and dragged him along with her. As soon as she had his chest clear of the limo, she wrapped both hands around the stake and yanked it free with a wrench.
“Ahhhhhh!” Myrnin screamed, and came bolt upright, both hands slapping at his chest. “My God, I hate that!”
Pennywell dropped down onto his legs like some pale jumping spider. Myrnin slammed a boot into his face and crawled free of the wreckage, grabbing Claire as he rose to his feet. There was blood staining his shirt, and some on his face where he’d been cut by flying glass, but he looked fine, really.
Angry as hell, though.
Pennywell crawled out of the limo. His expression was no longer empty; it was full of hate. “Heretic,” he hissed. “Witch. I’ll see you burn, you and your familiar.” He cast a venomous look at Claire, too, and she swallowed hard.
“What’s a familiar?” she asked Myrnin.
“A demonic spirit who aids a witch,” he said. “Usually in the form of a black cat, but I suppose you’d do. Although in my experience you are not nearly demonic enough.”
“Don’t mention it.” Myrnin raised his eyebrows and thrust his chin at Pennywell. “Well? Are you waiting for your lynch mob to bring your spine?”
Claire had a very nasty flash of intuition. “Where’s Oliver?”
And then a cold hand closed around her neck, choking off her breath and igniting blind panic inside. She was pulled away, completely off balance and out of control, and saw Myrnin spinning toward her but not quickly enough; she was moving away from him, off into the dark. . . .
It all freeze-framed for her: Myrnin, bloody and wide-eyed, reaching out for her. Pennywell smirking from where he stood near the wreckage of the limo. The smoking sedan that had sent the limo rolling—hood crumpled like used tinfoil.
That was a vampire car.
And the driver’s side door was open.
Claire choked, gasped for breath, and tore at the hand holding her throat closed. No good. Her fingernails didn’t concern him any more than her heels when she kicked backward.
“Hush,” Oliver chided her, and squeezed harder. “I’d like to say this will hurt me more than you, but that wouldn’t be strictly true—”
He broke off with a stunned gasp, and his hand slid away from Claire’s throat. She stumbled forward two steps, both hands holding her aching neck, and then looked back.
Oliver was staring down at his chest, where the point of a stake had emerged from his rib cage.
“Damn,” he said, and pitched down to his knees, fighting it all the way.
Michael was behind him.
Michael had just staked Oliver.
He dashed around the older vampire and grabbed Claire. “You okay?”
She couldn’t get words out through her bruised throat, but she nodded, eyes wide. In seconds Myrnin was there, too, picking her up and dumping her unceremoniously into Michael’s arms. “Take her,” he said. “Oliver is not going to be pleased, boy. Better go.”
“I had to,” Michael said. “I had to stake him. He was going to kill her.”
“In point of fact, he wasn’t; he was going to hurt her so badly that Amelie would feel it, that’s all. But that’s not what I meant. You crashed a car into the limousine. Oliver loves his limousine.”
Michael opened his mouth, then closed it without thinking of anything to say to that.
Myrnin, watching Pennywell, said, “Michael, take the girl and go. I have things to do here. Do leave the stake where it is—I can’t have Oliver interfering just yet. The witchfinder and I have old debts to settle.” When Michael hesitated, Myrnin’s dark eyes flashed toward him in command. “Take her.”
Michael nodded, and Claire lost all sense of where she was, except that she was held firmly in his arms, and moving fast. Lights flashed by, moving too quickly for her to focus on. The burning in her throat died down from a bonfire to a slow broil, and she tried clearing it. It felt like gargling with glass, but she got a weak sound out.
Michael slowed to a normal human-speed run, then a walk, and Claire saw that they were back at the TPU theater. Eve, Shane, and Kim were standing in front of Eve’s car. Two of them looked shocked; Kim just looked like none of it was much concern of hers.
“Claire!” Shane got there first, taking her out of Michael’s arms and easing her to her feet. When she faltered, he held on to her, anxiously looking her over. “What the hell happened, Michael?”
“Crash,” Claire whispered. “Car crash. Hi.”
“Hi,” Shane said. “What do you mean, car crash? Jesus, Michael, you crashed your car?”
“Into the limo,” Claire said. It seemed important to get it right, for some reason. “Saved me.”
Sort of, anyway. She really wasn’t sure what would have happened to her if Oliver had managed to take Myrnin out and had time to do whatever unpleasant thing he’d had planned, or if Pennywell had gotten hold of her. There were so many nasty possibilities.
“We need to get out of here,” Michael said. “Right now. Eve?”
She pulled her car keys out of her tiny black purse, hiked up her velvet skirt, and climbed behind the wheel of her big boxy sedan. Kim smoothly claimed the front passenger seat, leaving Claire in the back, sandwiched between Shane and Michael—which was not at all a bad place to be. She was shaking, she realized. She supposed that was shock or something. Shane held her left hand, and Michael her right, and she closed her eyes as Eve peeled rubber out of the parking lot, heading home.