Claire started to call Professor Anderson to tell her about her night-time visitors, but she realised that it was probably a very bad idea ... if the government really was involved, they had the power and the ability to monitor cell communication as easily as breathing. In fact, her conversation with Michael and Eve, even encrypted on the Morganville system, was probably vulnerable in some way, though she imagined that Amelie's paranoia was a pretty decent firewall against such things. Some things needed to be said in person, though. In a secured environment.
So, even though she slept remarkably little, and felt hungover from lack of sleep, Claire got up early and jogged to the lab. It was very quiet at that hour - just after dawn, really - and she passed a few students sleepily heading to early sessions. The hallways of the secured area were deserted and silent. Claire quickly badged into Anderson's area, and found the professor already there, sitting at the desk in the corner, typing away. Anderson turned around, frowning, when she heard the warning chime of the security door, and her eyes widened when she saw Claire.
'Is everything all right?' she asked, and got up to come closer. 'You look pale.'
'Long night,' Claire said, and took a deep breath. 'Can I talk here?'
'Give me your cell phone.' Claire handed it over, and Anderson took it over to the computer. She linked it on with a cable and did some key-clicking, and handed it back about a minute later. 'I've installed an app to block anybody trying to snoop. They'll get playback of innocuous conversation instead, so they won't be able to tell there's anything wrong. Now you can talk freely.'
'My house was searched last night by two men. I think they thought I'd gone out, like my roommate. Professor - they didn't break in. They let themselves in, like they had keys.'
'Did you get a look at them?'
Claire nodded. Anderson sat down in her computer chair and brought up a screen. More mouse movement and key clicks, and suddenly Claire was looking at an album of surveillance photos ... not the grainy kind, either. These were sharp and clear as high-res stills. 'See anyone you recognise?'
Claire pointed over her professor's shoulder at one of the men pictured there. 'He was one of them, for sure. I'm not sure about the other, I just got a quick look. Could have been one of the others, but I'm really not sure at all. Who are they?'
'Well, they're not from the people I work with directly, but there are plenty of players on the board. Best to be careful. Do you have an alarm system?'
'No, I told my housemate we need to get one.'
'Convince her. It wouldn't hurt for you to learn to use that knife I gave you, either.'
'I know how to use it,' Claire said, pretty calmly she thought, given that suddenly she was hip-deep in government agencies and foreign spies when she'd thought all that she was getting into were vampire politics. 'Professor - are you sure that we're not in over our heads, somehow? Is this related to VLAD?'
'I have no way of knowing what it's related to,' Anderson said, which was just logical, Claire guessed. 'I am under contract to several government and privately funded groups; any one of them could have decided that you should be carefully checked out. Let's not read too much into it, shall we?'
'They came into my house!'
'And left you and your possessions unharmed. Let's not call in an air strike quite yet.' Anderson gave her a warm, comforting smile. 'Now, I'm glad you're here early. There are some things about VLAD that still puzzle me, and I'd like to go over them before our test today.'
'Test?' Claire had a blinding moment of panic; nobody had warned her there was a test coming.
'Not for you,' her professor said, laughing, because the panic must have been visible. 'We're testing VLAD on a live subject at noon.'
'By subject, do you mean-'
'Vampire, yes, that's exactly what I mean.'
'There are vampires here?'
'Not in the school per se, no. But close by. Because, of course, Amelie doesn't trust anyone to leave Morganville without a little oversight, especially someone who's been so deeply into Myrnin's confidence. Luckily, I'm a friend of my particular minder, and she's agreed to keep the secret - for now. I'd rather not involve her, but we do need a live subject, and she's the only one I have at hand.'
'But - I thought you were scared of Amelie finding out about VLAD!'
'I was. But the fact is, she's going to find out. It's more important for us to make quick, efficient progress than to go carefully. Myrnin would take my side, and yours; I think he'll be able to contain her paranoia, at least for a while. And so while this will be a risk, it's probably one we have to take. Now. Let's go over the questions.'
Dr Anderson brought VLAD out from the secured area, and Claire answered about an hour's worth of detailed questions on the internal workings. Some of the questions startled her, led her off on tangents that started discussions about better ways to channel and concentrate the energy being generated. It was ... well, exciting. Problem solving was always thrilling for Claire, and clearly it was for Anderson, too.
Finally, her professor nodded and stowed VLAD away, and Claire got ready to do something even more exciting.
She was disappointed.
'Sometimes, being my assistant isn't going to be action-packed,' Anderson said, and pointed to a huge bin full of paper. 'Shred all that, then take the pieces to the incinerator at the end of the hall for burning. I like to be thorough.'
'What is all this?'
'Old projects,' her professor said. 'Don't read it. Just shred and burn, or your eyes will melt.' She said it so matter-of-factly that Claire had a moment's hesitation, before the other woman laughed. 'Don't worry. I haven't perfected that eye-melting technology quite yet. Shredder's over there.'
That commenced a vividly exciting morning of sitting in a chair feeding paper into a machine that spit out shreds, and putting the shreds into a giant plastic bag when the bin was full. It took a full three hours to go through the stack of paper, and Claire quickly learnt that shredded paper might be more volumetric than the flat kind, but it wasn't really that much lighter in total weight. She struggled with the bag down the hall, located the incinerator room, and dumped the paper down the chute before she pushed the big red button to fire up the oven.
She couldn't help but think that it was awfully convenient, having a thing like this so close to the lab. Or to labs that did all sorts of mysterious, biological things. She imagined grisly scenarios in which mistakes had gone down this chute, and shivered.
When she turned around, empty bag in hand, Jesse was standing in the incinerator room watching her. The sudden appearance of the woman made Claire's hackles rise on the back of her neck, and at the same time she felt an uncomfortable flush on her skin. Something about Jesse invited contradictory impulses, seemed like. She looked just as calm and composed as she had the night before, though she wasn't wearing leather just now; she'd changed into a loose black shirt, jeans, and heavy boots that Eve would have swooned over, considering all the buckles. Her red hair was twisted back in a loose, sloppy bun and fixed with a pair of chopsticks.
'Hey,' Jesse said. 'Irene sent me to find out if you were done. Looks like you are.'
Claire rattled the bag. 'Looks like.'
Jesse was sizing her up in an odd sort of way, she thought, and as the two of them walked back toward the lab through the clean white hall, Claire finally said, 'Do I have a big ink stain on my face, or ...?'
'No,' Jesse said, and smiled slowly. 'I was just thinking that there's more to you than meets the eye, that's all. You inspire a certain reckless passion in others, did you know that?'
'I do? In who?'
Jesse didn't answer that. She badged through into Anderson's lab, and Claire had to wait to follow; by the time she was inside, Jesse was at the table with the professor, and the device - VLAD - was laid out on a lab table on top of a foam cushion. 'Doesn't look like much,' Jesse said. 'You're sure, Irene?'
'No, of course I'm not sure, or I wouldn't have asked you here,' Anderson said, a touch impatiently. 'And I don't like doing it, either; I don't really know what the outcome's going to be. But we need to have a baseline, and like it or not, you're the only game I have in town.'
'Only game in ...' Claire repeated, and felt the truth hit home with a vengeance. She fixed her gaze solidly on Jesse. 'You're a vampire?'
'The kid's sharp,' Jesse said. 'Yes, sweetie, I'm a card-carrying member of the undead. Remember how I didn't come into your house, but Pete did, to get the box? I thought that would tip you off, being a Morganville kid and all, but you didn't seem to suspect anything.'
'I would have, if we'd been back home, but I didn't expect to find ... one of you here.'
'Mistakes like that get you killed,' Jesse said. 'There aren't a lot of us out in the wild, sure, but there are still a few, and most of them aren't as nice as I am.' She flashed Claire a grin that wouldn't have been out of place on Eve's face. 'Relax. I don't bite.'
'Oh, she does,' Anderson said. 'Just not unless she's invited to.'
'Well, you should know,' Jesse purred, and laughed when Dr Anderson's cheeks turned pink.
'All right, now that you've made your point, sit over there, Jesse. What's going to happen is that I'm going to point this weapon at you and press the trigger, and you should report to me exactly what it feels like. It shouldn't hurt you.'
'Shouldn't?' Jesse's eyebrows climbed higher. 'Not sure I like the variable in that statement. Claire, you tried this on any other vampires before?'
'Myrnin,' Claire said.
'Did it hurt him?'
'I don't think so.'
'Well, I'm not Myrnin, and I'm not so willing to hop on the crazy train, but all right. Just for you, Reenie.'
Anderson rolled her eyes. 'God, please don't call me that name. Just go sit in the chair. I promise, it'll be a very brief exposure.'
Jesse crossed the room to the plain aluminium chair that sat against the wall, put her hand on it, and said, 'Here?'
Jesse sat down, crossed her legs, and folded her hands in her lap like a church lady, which she was most certainly not. 'Ready, aim, fire.'
'Not funny,' Anderson said softly, but she raised VLAD, sighted and pulled the trigger.
Nothing came out of the gun - no rays or smoke or visible sign of any kind - but Jesse sat up very straight, eyes opening wide. Anderson immediately let go of the trigger and replaced VLAD on the foam pad. 'Are you all right?' she asked, and took a step forward. 'Jesse?'
'Stop,' Jesse said, and held her hand out. She looked ... odd, and her face was utterly expressionless. 'Irene, stop right there, please.'
Dr Anderson did, looking very worried, until Jesse finally dropped her hand back to her lap and relaxed. 'That was ... interesting.'
'Apparently,' Dr Anderson said, and smiled, though it was clearly a troubled sort of smile. 'What just happened to you?'
'I'm not really quite sure. I can tell you that when I sat down, I was feeling a little nervous about what was about to happen, and I was also feeling a little' - Jesse cut her glance toward Claire for a second, and probably amended what she was going to say - 'a little amused, I suppose. And all of a sudden I was both those things, still, but ramped up to eleven. It was ... disconcerting, because those are not two emotions that go very well together. You understand?'
'It amplifies,' Claire said. They both focused on her. 'The way I set it up to start with, whatever the vampire feels, it's amplified by the device. I think it kind of works on humans, too. But more on vampires, obviously.'
'Well, if your question was, did it work ... it works.' Jesse started to stand up, and - incredibly - suddenly faltered and braced herself against the wall. 'Whoa. It also makes you wicked dizzy, in case you didn't know that.'
'I didn't,' Claire confessed. 'Are you okay?'
'Fine. Just have to shake it off.' Jesse pushed away from the wall and smiled at Dr Anderson. 'I'm not a wilting flower, unless that gets me extra special treats.'
'It might,' Dr Anderson said. 'I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you to do that, but I needed to know if this was something that had potential, or just another empty promise.'
'Oh, it's got potential all right,' Jesse said. 'If I'd been hungry and that thing had hit me, I'd have gone for your veins, and you'd have had to stop me any way you could. So be warned. It's not a toy, and it might make an angry vampire damn angry.'
'The idea is to reverse those emotions,' Claire offered. 'To make an angry vampire less angry, a hungry one less hungry ... and like you said, it's disconcerting. I suppose it could be used kind of like a vampire stun gun, I guess.'
'You're looking for something non-lethal to use to defend yourself,' Jesse said. 'Well, that's not a bad goal, and it's not a bad start. I suppose I'd be okay with testing it for you when you take it to the next step. But just remember: I'm not the usual vampire, either. I've got a pretty good grip on myself. The next one you run into might not be quite so in control.'
'Jesse - I'm not ready to report to Amelie about this thing. Myrnin kept it from her for a reason when Claire was working on it; I'm quite sure she'd have shut it down if she'd known. I'd really like to proceed with this line of enquiry, but I'm afraid that she would object. So can we agree to keep it quiet, for now? Please?'
Jesse was silent for a long, long moment, frowning. She crossed her arms and paced a bit, and then finally bit her lip and nodded. 'For a while,' she said. 'But you know I can't keep it from her for long. And if she asks me a direct question about it, I can't lie.'
'I know,' Anderson said. 'You've always made it quite clear where your real loyalty lies.'
There was something strange in her smile, something almost a little angry, and she and Jesse locked stares for a moment that stretched on too long for comfort.
Then Jesse smiled, too. 'You know, this is super fun, but I actually have to go sling some drinks tonight, and I need to get ready. Being this gorgeous ain't easy, you know.'
'So you tell me,' Anderson said. 'Go on, and stay out of the sun.'
'Nag. I'm wearing the super sunblock, don't you worry.' Jesse stuck her tongue out, just like a three-year-old, and Claire had to laugh. There was something oddly childlike about her, considering she was also capable of turning cold at a moment's notice, like any vampire. She was certainly old to be so nonchalant about roaming around during the day, and she wasn't even wearing the thick layers of protective coats and hats that most vampires preferred. 'You two don't get up to anything funny around here. I'm done bailing people out of trouble for the next couple of days. It's been busy.'
'Yeah? Who'd you bail out today?'
For no apparent reason, Jesse smiled, and made a locking motion at her lips. 'Can't say,' she said, 'but he was real, real cute. Maybe I'll tell you the story later.'
Jesse waggled her fingertips and swiped her badge to get out of the lab, and it felt like half the light had left the room, somehow. She was ... intense, Claire thought. And really, kind of cool.
Dr Anderson certainly thought so; she stared at the door for a full ten seconds after Jesse was gone, then snapped out of it and cleared her throat, put on her glasses, and walked back to stare down at VLAD. 'Right,' she said. 'We have some work to do. First step is that we disassemble, label and scan every part of this so that we can make a virtual model. I want to be able to prototype this on the 3-D printer next time.'
'The - what?'
'3-D printer,' the professor repeated, and pointed to a big, strange-looking thing in the far corner of the lab. 'It takes a solid block of paper, plastic or metal and repeats a design. With good enough specs, you can print anything. The guys down the hall are working on 3-D printing of human organs. You remember the replicators on Star Trek that could make anything you wanted, from a roast beef sandwich to a phaser? We're working on it. And actually, we've made a daunting amount of progress.'
That was ... new. Claire thought about Myrnin, clinging to his antique microscopes and time-tested tools, and wondered what he'd think about all this. He'd probably feel it was too far from nature and the cycles of the moon and sun; that's what he always said about things that he didn't quite grasp. For all his brilliance, and he was brilliant, he just couldn't shake off the bonds of his background in alchemy.
Maybe he'd change his mind if she brought back a new, shiny, 3-D printed, working copy of VLAD. It might solve the weight problems, too, if they could machine it out of some very lightweight materials. Maybe, with enough imagination, they'd even be able to model a vampire brain and print an artificial one to fit inside Myrnin's computer, eliminating the need for anyone to die for science ever again in Morganville.
Well, she could dream, anyway.
Dr Anderson was putting out a wide selection of tools for the disassembly, and pointed Claire toward a rolling 3-D scanning device; her job, as each piece was disassembled from VLAD, was to tag it with a number and description, scan it individually, and put it in a bin. Dr Anderson was very careful; when she got to the little vials of bubbling liquid - Myrnin's addition, along with all the whirling gears - she kept the liquid as well, though she siphoned off a bit for testing. Bit by bit, the device came apart into its component pieces, and the lab began to smell like hot solder and cooling metal.
By the time it was done, Claire yawned, stretched and glanced up at the clock. It was already five o'clock. She hadn't intended to stay so long, but there was still more to be done; the scanner had to download into the mainframe, so that Dr Anderson could begin to work with the component pieces in wireframe form.
'You should go,' Dr Anderson said, and yawned. 'Sorry. I got up early, and I know it's been another long day for you. I can handle reassembly tonight.'
'Want me to put the parts away?' The bin was full now, and just as heavy as the whole device had been. Dr Anderson nodded, and Claire carried it back to the concealed panel, which was still open. She slid the bin inside and, on Anderson's instruction, pressed her hand to the panel on the side. It lit up red, and the door slid shut.
'I programmed it for your palm print,' Anderson said. 'You can open and close it on your own now. But only if there's no one else in the room but me. If someone tries to force you to open it, it'll simply stay closed, so you just tell them you don't have authorisation. Without authorisation, you wouldn't be of any use to them.'
She'd thought ahead, Claire thought, and it was a little chilling that she'd thought as far as someone holding a gun to Claire's head and forcing her to try to open the hiding place.
But that was someone from Morganville for you - always thinking of the worst-case scenario.
Claire said goodnight, and started for home.
She was walking down the street from the Mudd Building, dodging excited groups of students who were apparently headed to the Biopolymer Lab, when her phone rang - no, it hadn't, actually, because she had a voicemail, not a call. Dodgy reception in the lab, she guessed.
The call was from Liz, as were the three text messages. All were alerting her, with cheery good humour, that Liz had invited someone to dinner, and to please come home on time, before six.
Claire checked her watch. She just had time to make it.
Elizabeth met Claire at the door, which swung open before she'd even reached for the doorknob. She was wearing a fancy dress, nice shoes, earrings, a glittering necklace, and she even had on lipstick.
Claire blinked. 'I thought we were just having somebody over for dinner.'
Liz dragged her inside and closed the door. She leant closer to whisper, 'We are, but put on something nice. I want to impress him, okay? It's important!'
'Um ... okay.' Claire wasn't sure why she had to dress up to impress Elizabeth's date, but she was willing to meet her halfway for the sake of good roommate karma. Up the stairs, and into her room. She dumped her backpack on the still-unmade bed and sorted through her limited clothing choices, settling on a fitted white shirt and some black pants. Plain, but nice. Adding one of the necklaces Eve had given her - a Day of the Dead skull, enamelled in all kinds of bright colours - jazzed it up a little. Claire fluffed her hair in the mirror and decided that she wasn't going to resort to make-up; after all, it was Liz's date, not hers.
When she made her way downstairs, she heard Elizabeth laughing, and she opened the door to the kitchen and saw her in an actual apron over her fancy dress, stirring a pot. A man was sitting at the small kitchen table - not a college boy at all, a man of about forty, probably, with little grey threads at his temples and sparkling blue eyes in a suntanned face. Even sitting down, he seemed tall. He was wearing a denim work shirt with the collar open, and a sports coat, and he had a little smile on his face that Claire somehow didn't really like.
She'd rarely taken an instant dislike to anyone, but ... she might have to make an exception, she decided.
'Claire, this is Patrick,' Elizabeth said. Which caught her by surprise. Somehow, Claire had thought that she'd introduce the man as her father, which he was certainly old enough to be. Or an uncle, or something. But just plain Patrick? 'Dr Patrick Davis, I mean. He's one of my professors.'
'Really?' Claire raised her eyebrows and carefully nodded to him. 'Which class?'
'Biology,' Patrick said. 'Elizabeth's a very bright student. I hope you don't mind that she invited me over for a meal.'
Claire avoided answering that by joining Liz at the stove. 'What are you making?'
'Chicken and stuffing, peas, and carrots,' her housemate said. Her smile looked excited, but it trembled a bit in the corners. 'Sound okay?'
'Delicious. What can I do?'
'The bread? Just put it to warm in the oven.'
Claire did that, and fetched herself a glass of Coke from the fridge. She didn't ask Dr Davis if he wanted anything, because as she was putting ice in the glass she caught him staring at Liz in a way that was not very professorial. More predatory.
Oh, God. Seriously? Gross.
'Funny,' Claire said, 'but I don't think I ever invited any of my professors home for dinner. Not even the ones I liked.'
Liz gave her a pleading look. 'Well, that's too bad. You haven't had the fantastic teachers I have, I guess,' she said. 'Patrick is great.'
'I'm sure.' Claire sipped her Coke for a minute, thinking about it, and then said, 'You know what, I think I really should be studying, and-'
'Oh, no, please, don't let my presence drive you away,' Patrick said. He sounded earnest and kind, and he even had a hint of a gentle Irish accent, which threw her off her wary game. 'Liz assures me that she doesn't cook very often; I want you to share in the bounty. I'd very much like to talk; Liz tells me you're doing quite interesting work.'
'I - excuse me?' Claire paused in the act of picking up the bread tray to turn to look at him. Liz kept her gaze fixed steadily on the pot she was stirring, as if she hadn't heard a thing. 'What interesting work?'
'Well, I hear you're enrolled in an individual study programme at MIT. I don't think there's been more than a handful of people who could claim that in the entire history of the university. Tell me, how did that come about?'
Claire forced herself to move - to set the stove dial, open the door, shove the tray inside on the rack. But she knew she looked awkward and nervous. Very awkward. Her brain was scrambling to keep up with the changing scenery. She'd pegged Dr Davis as one of those teachers ... the ones who used their jobs to pick off the easy prey, like Liz, who craved acceptance and protection. She was sure he was on a quest to seduce her housemate, if he hadn't already.
So this seemed like a very sharp left turn, at best. And in a worrying direction.
He was clearly waiting for her answer, so she said, 'I'm actually just here temporarily. It's sort of a special project. I'm working with one of the professors. They do those kinds of visiting student projects all the time. Maybe you heard about the boy from Africa who powered his village's technology from found objects ...'
'Oh, yes, I know all about the public relations projects,' he said. 'But I think what you're doing is a great deal more ... interesting. Isn't that right?'
Claire jerked and knocked a lid from the counter; it fell to the floor and rang like a bell, and it provided a nice sonic distraction from what she was sure was going to be a very telling silence. She fumbled for the pot lid, and Liz bent down at the same time, and in the confusion Claire whispered, urgently, 'What the hell does he want?'
'What? Nothing!' Liz snatched the pot lid from her hands and rinsed it off in the sink before slamming it down on the pot she'd been watching. 'If I'd known you'd be so judgemental I wouldn't have asked you in!'
'You didn't ask,' Claire hissed back.
'Everything all right, ladies?' Dr Davis asked, and Liz turned, took a deep breath, dried her hands on the apron, and smiled like a plastic mannequin as she carried the pot over to the table and set it down.
'Just fine, Patrick,' she said. When Claire gave her a look, she got defensive. 'He told me to call him that. I know it seems strange to call a professor by his first name, but-'
'But I do like to be informal,' he broke in. He rose from the table and took the pot holders from Liz to move the chicken breasts to the table, and then the peas. 'Please, let me help. Be seated, ladies. May I get you another drink, Liz?'
'Oh, just water,' Liz said. As he busied himself at the sink with glasses and ice, Liz grabbed Claire's shoulder in an iron-hard grip. 'Do not screw this up for me. I need a good grade, and I like him!'
'And he likes you,' Claire whispered back. 'Probably a little too much, don't you think? He came to dinner? Who does that?'
Liz's eyes turned furious, and she squeezed tighter. Deliberately pinching flesh. Claire bit back a wince. 'Like I said, don't screw this up,' she said. 'I deserve something good for a change. I've had enough bad things in my life.'
Maybe she did deserve a good time, but Claire was one hundred per cent convinced that this wasn't it. Dr Davis was pleasant and casual, but he was also oily and manipulative, and he creeped her out. And what was that dig about her personal study programme? What did he know?
Maybe a lot. Maybe too much. Claire felt as if she was playing a deadly game without knowing the rules or the players. It made her long for the straightforward violence of home.
'Now then,' Patrick said, and deposited the cold glass of water in front of Liz, patted her shoulder, and walked over to his own chair in a triangle between the two of them. 'What were we talking about? Ah, yes-'
'The chicken looks delicious,' Claire said. 'How did you cook it?' That elicited a nervous flood of cooking info from Liz; Rachael Ray would have been proud, because Liz seemed to have memorised the entire recipe, start to finish, and it had a lot of steps. Same for the stuffing. Dr Davis's smile grew fixed and grim, but he waited out the tidal surge of information. His gaze mostly held on Liz, but Claire felt it when he shifted to her.
She didn't like it.
The business of serving out the chicken and vegetables took most of the time, and then when Dr Davis tried to reframe his question, Claire jumped up to get the bread from the oven and passed that around, too. Liz nervously chattered on, clearly scared to death that Dr Davis would think he wasn't wanted (and he wasn't, on Claire's part), which had the nice side effect of blocking his attempts at boxing Claire into conversation again.
For a while, he gave up, preferring to trade idle chatter with Elizabeth - none of it invited or required any participation from Claire, so she ate dinner with single-minded focus. The chicken really was good. She really needed to learn how to make that.
By the time her plate was empty, the other two at the table were only half finished, and Claire drained the rest of her Coke and rose to take her plate to the sink. 'Thanks, Liz,' she said. 'I really have to go study.'
'Oh,' Liz said. 'Really? Well, if you have to.' It was the token protest, with an undercurrent of please go away and leave us alone now. Which was a relief, and Claire headed for the kitchen door.
She didn't quite get there before Dr Davis said, 'I understand that you're studying with Dr Irene Anderson. She has quite the reputation as - let's say, an eccentric, even at MIT. How do you find working with her?'
It would have been rude to keep on walking, but she opened the door and stood in the threshold as she answered. 'Fine. Look, I really have to-'
'I'm very intrigued by Dr Anderson's research.'
'You know her?'
'Quite well, actually. She has a great interest in cryptobiology - projecting the abilities and vulnerabilities of imaginary creatures. Such as, say, werewolves, zombies, vampires. We debate the subject often. It's a lively discussion topic. What would you say the primary vulnerability is for a vampire, say?'
Claire smiled thinly back at him. 'Sorry, I hadn't really thought about it. I don't have time for that kind of thing. I have way too many real-world things to worry about right now.' She intended it as a total shutdown and dismissal, but he didn't take the hint. Of course.
'Well, hypothetically - you're a very smart young lady, Claire. Hypothetically, do you think that vampires could be controlled and put to good use as, say, soldiers? Or secret agents? I suppose they'd be great at all sorts of dangerous occupations that humans would hesitate to do. Provided one could totally ensure their compliance.'
'I suppose.' She really didn't like where this was going. 'Liz, thanks for dinner.'
'It was lovely to meet you,' Dr Davis said. 'Miss Danvers.'
'Sure,' she said flatly, and let the door swing shut behind her.
She went up the stairs to her room and locked the door, put on her headphones, and tried to block out the world. If he came knocking, she'd ignore him. And she'd damn sure be telling Dr Anderson about this. And maybe Amelie, too.
An hour later, she stripped off her headphones, yawned, and pressed her ear to the door to see if the coast was clear to go to the bathroom. It was. The kitchen was silent, and the bathroom was empty. After her visit, though, she heard sounds coming from Liz's room on the second floor, and she went up the stairs, fast.
Dr Davis was definitely taking advantage of more than just the chicken dinner. And from the sound of it, Liz was enjoying every minute of it.
Claire put the headphones back on and turned the music way up, just to be sure she didn't hear any part of that. It didn't really help. And it made her fidgety, angry, worried, frustrated ... in all kinds of ways, actually.
Shane hadn't called. Why hadn't he called? She checked her phone, and yes, the battery was still good. Everything was fine.
She angrily stripped the headphones off and, driven by a mix of emotions she really didn't want to examine too closely, selected his number and pressed call.
And this time, he answered. 'Claire?'
He sounded ... he sounded close. And out of breath. As if she might be able to reach out and touch him, just ... collapse in his arms and let all this go away for a while. Make everything right again. And she wanted it, wanted it so so much. So much that for a long, shaky moment she couldn't even make her voice work right.
'Claire ...?' His voice was softer now, almost a whisper. 'God, please talk to me.'
'I'm here,' she whispered back. Somehow she didn't want to raise the level of her voice; it sounded intimate this way. Close. Personal. 'I called you. You didn't answer.'
'I know. I'm sorry. Please - it doesn't mean that I don't care, I just-' He moved, and she heard his breath catch. And she heard that his voice wasn't quite right, either. 'I just couldn't call you back.'
She sat up straighter, because all her alarm bells were ringing now. 'Shane, are you all right? What happened? Are you hurt?' Because he was. She could hear it, especially when he tried to laugh.
'You're not, don't even try to tell me that. What happened?'
'Got my ass kicked,' he said. 'It's not exactly breaking news. Except oddly enough it had nothing to do with vampires, can you believe it? Well, it did, because a vampire saved me from getting stomped to death. So there's that. It's a fun story. I'll tell it to you sometime.'
She wanted to cry, it hurt her so much not to be with him. To not take care of him when he needed her. 'You don't sound good. How badly are you hurt?'
'Cuts, bruises, a pretty nice concussion that rang my bell. Nothing broken, which is a miracle. I've had worse. Hell, Claire, you've had worse. Don't worry, I'm all right. I really am.' His voice lowered again, into that low purring whisper. 'Are you? Okay?'
'Yeah,' she whispered back. 'I miss you. I miss Eve and Michael. I miss home. Is that bad? It's probably bad. You're going to think I'm whining like a little kid.'
'No. I-' She had the weird feeling that he was about to confess something too, but then ... then he sighed. 'I think you're amazing. And I think it's good that you're doing this. It's your dream, Claire. I wouldn't want to stand in your way.'
'Do you think you did? You didn't. I was standing in my way. And ... I'm not so sure that this is my dream after all. It's turning out to be ... kind of a nightmare.' A particularly loud moan came up through the floorboards, and Claire buried her head under her pillow with the phone cradled close to her ear. 'I really hate living with Elizabeth. And she's getting it on with a skanky professor right now.'
'One floor down. It's gross. I can't even tell you how gross it is. There are no words.'
'Okay, then listen to my voice,' he said. She closed her eyes, and fell into the sound of his breathing. 'You don't have to listen to anything else, just talk to me. Tell me what's going on in your life.'
'I'm just-' Her voice choked, and she told herself very firmly that she would not, absolutely would not cry. She cleared her throat. 'My professor and I are working on the thing I brought. You know? But it's not like it was back home. I feel as if I can't really trust anyone here. I don't know if anyone has my back. There's Liz, but she's turned out to be a total flake; honestly, I don't even know if I like her at all any more - I mean, I feel for her, she's had a rough time of it and all, but we're nothing alike, Shane. Nothing. My professor - I don't even know. I don't know if I can trust her or not. Sometimes I know I can, and then ...'
'So, really, no different than your last job, right?'
She laughed a little, but it felt wretched. 'And I don't really know anybody, and the people I do know, the people I want to fit in with - I just don't, and I can't. What's worse is ... I don't matter here, Shane. I feel like I just don't matter. Stupid, right?'
'No,' he said. He sounded so gentle it broke her heart. 'It's how most people feel most of the time, Claire. You've grown up being special, and this is how most people live their lives ... alone. On their own. Unnoticed. And they get used to that feeling. It's just new for you.'
'Yeah,' she whispered. 'I'm sorry, I shouldn't complain. That's really selfish and I don't mean it that way, I don't ...'
'Shhh.' The breathy sound he made gave her chills, and she curled up tight under the covers, imagining the warmth of him next to her, imagining his hands sliding down her arms. Comforting and sweet and tender, and safe. So safe. It was hard to think he was so very far away when she needed him so much. And he needed her. She could feel it coming out of the phone like a fever heat. 'Don't do that. You're the least selfish person I've ever met, Claire. You teach me every day how to be a little bit better. And I miss you, you know that? I can't stand not seeing you, not touching you ...' His voice was soft, and it was shaking, and she felt shivers now in deep, secret places. 'I love everything about you. Did I tell you that before? Everything.'
She managed, somehow, a fragile little laugh. 'You've had a concussion for sure.'
'No, I mean it. Claire, I - look, my life is one long series of screw-ups and bad decisions, and I know that. I own that. But you ... I just want you to be happy. And it cuts me when you're not.'
'I'm happy with you,' she whispered, very very quietly. 'And I love you. Leaving Morganville wasn't about you, you know that. It was about me. And maybe I'm finding out that all these dreams I had ... maybe they're not really what I want after all.'
'Yeah?' She heard the smile in his voice this time. 'So what do you really want? A storybook life in Vampireville, with your life on the line every day and a half?'
'I'm considering it.'
'Good,' Shane said. 'That's good. So ... are you saying you're pulling up stakes? Coming back?'
God, she was tempted. So tempted. 'I - look, you know how I am, don't you? I don't like quitting. I don't like running away. And I'm not sure it's a good time to leave Liz here alone.'
'I thought you didn't like her.'
'Well ... I don't, but it's still pretty cruel of me to run off and leave her with a giant rent payment when she's got a stalker after her.'
'Stalker?' His voice sharpened. 'Tell me.'
'No. Because you'll just come charging to the rescue.'
'No. It's fine. We can handle it.' She managed to sound firm, and after a long silence, he sighed, and she took that as surrender. 'Tell me about your day,' she said. 'Not the getting beat up part. What you did. Normal stuff. I want to know.'
'I've got a job,' he said. 'I know, what are the odds, right? It's okay. Hard work, but I'm not afraid of that. Long hours, low pay, but nobody's coming after me with a knife or a gun or fangs so far, so it's a step way up. Also, I don't have to clean out sewer blockages. Remember that job? That was fun.'
'You lasted thirty minutes.'
'Which was twenty-nine minutes more than it deserved. So, what's your favourite thing about Cambridge?'
'The people,' Claire said. 'They're quirky. I like them. MIT's full of awesome nerdy people and I feel at home with them. It's just ... everything else. I feel like I'm some kind of fugitive here, like I'm hiding from something. Maybe myself.'
'See, I thought you were going to say your favourite thing was the beans. Don't they make baked beans in Boston? Who doesn't like those?'
'And pizza. They make good pizza.'
'Now we're talking. You know how I love a good pizza.'
'You should come up here.'
He hesitated for a long, long moment, and said, 'Do you mean that?'
'I don't know.' She curled tighter into a ball; suddenly, the room felt cold, and she pulled the covers around her. 'If you did, I don't know what that would mean. I couldn't let you stay in the apartment; Liz would freak out. Again.'
'This is the same Liz currently banging her professor downstairs?'
'Okay, fair point. But I'd be at the lab all day, and you'd be-'
'Out of place,' he finished for her. 'Excess. Yeah, I get it. You don't need me hanging around and making things awkward, with my non-MIT-ness.'
'No, no, I didn't mean-'
'Claire, it's all right. You wanted space, I'm giving it to you. When you're ready for me to come there, I'll be on your doorstep faster than you can imagine. But not until you're ready. I promised you that, and I'm keeping the promise.'
'Okay.' She took in a slow breath and let it out. 'Is Michael looking after you? Making sure you don't have any kind of brain haemorrhage or something?'
'Oh, I have people watching me like hawks. I can't even get up to pee without an escort. It's super fun.'
'Good. I'm glad they're taking care of you. Please take care of yourself, too. I wish - I wish I could be there.'
'Wish you could, too. Want to make it up to me?'
'What are you wearing?'
She smiled in the darkness of her little pillow cave. 'Footie pyjamas and a chastity belt.'
'You know that's not playing by the script, right?'
'I thought you said you loved everything about me.'
'Not the chastity belt. Listen, I'd better-'
'Yeah,' she said. 'Yeah, I know. Get some rest. Heal. Shane - I love you.'
'I love you too,' he said. 'Watch your back.'
He hung up first, but it didn't really matter by then; she felt he was so close to her that he might as well have been right there in the room.
She carefully took the pillow off her head and listened.
Blessed silence. Maybe Professor McCreepy had already departed, but if he hadn't, at least the gymnastics were over.
She fell asleep with the phone in her hand, held close to her heart.
Elizabeth didn't come out of her room the next morning when Claire knocked; she got a muffled, tearful 'go away' through the door, and Claire shook her head. Yeah, she'd seen that coming. Professor Douche Bag had almost certainly had his way and told Liz not to call him again; he'd have plenty of other college-age girls to charm. Claire had met a few older professors like him, and they had made her feel more than a little ill. It might not be illegal, but it felt badly wrong.
And it might have been nothing but coincidence, how he'd landed on the subject of vampires, but it still creeped her out.
'Can I get you anything?' Claire asked. 'Liz, are you going to be okay?'
'I'm fine,' Liz said, and burst into more wet tears. So, the only injury was probably to her heart, and her ego. 'I'm sorry. I should have known better, shouldn't I?'
'Everybody makes mistakes,' Claire said. 'You won't make that one again.'
'No.' Liz made a strangled gulping sound and blew her nose. 'I'm never looking at another man again. Ugh. They're all evil. Evil!'
Claire knew some who weren't, but this wasn't the moment to disagree. It was the required Friend Solidarity moment. 'All evil,' she agreed. 'Can't trust them. Look, are you sure you're okay? You're sure he didn't hurt you or anything?'
'He ripped my heart out!' Liz cried, and more blubbering ensued, and Claire assumed that meant a no, at least in the physical assault sense. 'You go on. I'll be fine.'
Liz said that last in a theatrical, heroic whisper. Claire rolled her eyes, because she knew that her role was to insist on staying, make her some breakfast, dry her tears, listen to the story of the Great Failed Romance over and over again, get her chocolate, and not say anything that wasn't total agreement. She'd done it with Liz before, in high school, and she just couldn't face it. Not today. Not missing Shane the way she did.
So she took Liz at her word and said, 'Okay, then, I'll see you tonight! Are you going to class?'
'No!' Liz wailed.
Claire escaped while she could.
She was halfway toward campus when her cell phone gave a chime, and she checked the message. It simply said, DON'T COME IN 2DAY. Not Professor Anderson's phone, weirdly enough; it was some unknown and blocked number. Probably, Claire realised, Jesse's ... which maybe wouldn't be associated with Professor Anderson, and therefore not monitored. More intrigue. It made her head hurt.
Well, on the plus side, she had a free day, since Anderson had demanded she devote all her credit hours to independent study. Not a bad thing, really. But no way was she going to stay penned up in the house with Liz, either. She knew how that day would go, and she really wasn't up for rewatching The Notebook and getting sugar-blitzed on ice cream.
Instead, she spent a completely stress-free afternoon of wandering the campus, buying coffee, hanging out at the cafeteria and surfing the 'net ... and running into Nick.
He was sitting by himself, studying, and as she walked past him with her mocha she didn't think he'd seen her ... until he looked up and smiled.
She stopped. It wasn't a decision, exactly, more of an instinct she couldn't control. He had a very sweet, and slightly unhinged, smile. Like Myrnin's actually. 'Hey,' she said. 'What's up?'
'The opposite of down is the dumbest possible answer I can come up with,' Nick said. 'Or, you know, nothing. Which would also be true.' He kicked out the chair across from him. 'Need a seat?'
She hesitated, as if she was committing to something, even if it was just sharing a table. 'Sure,' she finally said, and settled. She didn't relax, though. Nick nodded, and kept his expression completely neutral - she supposed he was afraid he might scare her off. Which was true. If he'd done anything else, she might have just picked up her mocha and bolted. 'Are you studying?'
'Trying,' he said. 'But funnily enough, all I can think about is pizza. You ever have days like that? Pizza days?'
'Pizza days, ice cream days, hamburger days ... why don't we ever crave things that are good for us?'
'Nobody sane has broccoli days. That's crazy talk.'
They chatted for a while, awkwardly but calmly, and then a third person arrived to break the tension, and her friendly banter made things seem okay. Before too long, two more people arrived, and it was a group, and the group was just ... fun.
Before she realised it, they'd ordered pizza (for Pizza Day) and had debated the merits of nerd favourite films, and discussed what kind of roof and tunnel hacks were being planned for the semester in their various dorms, and a ton of other things that just made her feel ... at home.
Until the phone rang.
She didn't even really pay attention to the caller ID, she just answered it, still laughing over something that the black-haired girl Jacqui had said, and then had to block her ear from Simon laughing about it to say, 'Hello?'
'Claire?' It was Eve, and she sounded stressed. 'Hey, uh, sorry to bother you, but I'm just giving you a quick heads-up ...'
'Um, things are kind of a little bit crazy here right now. So, apparently Myrnin sort of disappeared? And he might possibly be heading toward you. Just so you know.'
Claire sat up straight, then picked up her backpack and took the phone away from the still-laughing table full of people to a quieter corner. 'What happened?'
'All I know is that Myrnin got pissed off and left, and Amelie's not in a real good mood. She's scary when she's angry. So, she wants Michael to go after and make sure Myrnin comes home fast, and safe. And of course be sure that he doesn't do something crazy enough to make the wrong people pay attention. And I guess I'm going with Michael? Because why not. You have any guest beds?'
'I've got floor space,' Claire said. She felt a completely conflicting mixture of elation and terror ... Myrnin, on his own, wandering in the world? And why was he heading toward her? But it meant she'd see Michael and Eve again, and that could only be a good thing. 'When are you coming?'
'Uh, we're actually in the car right now. It's a road trip, because, y'know, vampires don't do really well with the flying, surprisingly. I guess it's the fear of people opening up the window shades and all the frying and screaming. Plus, it seems like a lot of them have a fear of heights.' Claire heard Michael's indistinct voice in the background, and Eve added, 'Not him, though. He says.'
'Tell him I said hi.'
'He's blowing you a kiss. Okay, actually, he isn't, but he ought to, so I'm saying he did. But the point is, we'll be there in a couple of days, since Michael says he doesn't plan to sleep. If Myrnin pokes his crazy head up before then, call me and try to keep him, you know, stable.'
'Is he unstable?'
'I don't know, how can I tell? You're the crazy whisperer!'
She had a point. Claire couldn't help but smile about that. 'So, Shane's coming with you?'
There was a long moment of silence on the other end. Too long. And then Eve said, 'He - he's working, sweetie. I'm sorry, it's just going to be us ... Um, Michael, honey, is that a cop car? ... Oh shit. Okay, gotta go, love you, 'bye!'
Before Claire could say anything else, Eve was gone into the wireless void.
Working? Shane was working, and he wasn't coming with them? That didn't make any sense. He'd have blown off any job to get a ride out of town with his two best friends. Especially if they were heading toward her.
It was upsetting. And worrying.
Claire put her phone away and hitched her backpack to her shoulder. She cast a wistful look back over at the table. They were all talking animatedly, unaware she'd even stepped away. It had been kind of a false friendship, she thought; she'd felt like she was one of them, but really, she wasn't. They wouldn't miss her.
Nick did. He was watching her, and he raised his eyebrows and mouthed, you okay?
She nodded and pointed a thumb toward the exit. Gotta go.
He looked as if he might get up, but then Jacqui said something to him, and he answered her, still watching Claire, and settled back down in his chair.
She walked away. That was a good thing, she was thinking; it was a good thing that he didn't feel like he had to follow her. She wasn't interested.
Dammit, she missed Shane. Why wasn't he coming?
What was it they weren't telling her?
The next couple of days passed in a blur, because Claire kept trying to get Michael or Eve or Shane on the phone, and none of them answered. It was like they were ducking her. She didn't even have work to keep her occupied; Dr Anderson called her to tell her, in a calm but firm way, that she needed some time alone to complete a special project, so she'd assigned Claire some online reading to catch up on. It was complicated stuff, and it was the only thing Claire could really be grateful for; she'd rarely been challenged before by a professor, but this was definitely next difficulty level. Dr Anderson was not underestimating her.
Liz finally emerged from her room, and - of course - demanded a girls' night in with pizza and a romantic movie. Claire countered by suggesting Kill Bill, because that probably would make her feel better in the end. Liz agreed. She wasn't tearful any more; she'd gone past shock to anger, and anger was a good thing, in Claire's opinion. Liz being angry meant she wasn't going to make a similar mistake anytime soon. It also, oddly, made her more likeable. And more like the girl Claire remembered from school.
Claire went out for the pizza. Boston was ripe with excellent pizza choices, and there was one only a couple of blocks from the house; she reflexively looked around for Derrick, and spotted him in his usual spot across the street. He was sitting down on a bus stop bench, reading a book. Or pretending to. When he saw Claire, he waved.
She flipped him off. It seemed to amuse him, which was too bad; she'd been hoping to really make him angry enough to do something he could get arrested for.
She picked up the hot pie and was walking back with it when she spotted the creepy Professor Davis sitting at an outdoor cafe, enjoying a coffee with a girl young enough - again - to be his daughter. She looked captivated, too. Starry-eyed and naive, and willing to believe that Professor Davis was that missing daddy figure in her life that would solve all her problems.
Claire couldn't resist.
She changed course.
Dr Davis and his new conquest were so into each other - or at least, she was breathlessly into him, and he was enjoying it - that it took at least a full minute for either of them to notice Claire when she paused at their table. Dr Davis even pushed his coffee cup toward her, as if she was the waiter, before looking up in annoyance, then confusion, and then - gratifyingly - worry. He straightened up in his chair, and she smiled at him.
What would Eve do?
It was easy enough to channel her best friend's talent for snarky destruction.
'You're not returning my calls, Patrick,' Claire said, in her best injured, pouting voice. 'I thought you were going to come by to talk about our problems.'
'Claire,' he said, which was an obvious and rookie mistake; it meant he knew who she was, and she saw the chagrin settle over his face as he realised it. He turned toward the girl he was with, no doubt to protest his innocence.
Claire didn't give him the chance. 'I ran into your wife at the mall and she says she is not going to give you a divorce, so what am I supposed to do about the babies? Just you wait. I'm going to make sure you step up and be a good father to our twins! You promised!'
She didn't wait to see the results of the bomb she'd thrown; she just held her head high and walked on with the pizza and didn't look back. She didn't have to. The scrape of the girl's wrought-iron chair legs on pavement, and Patrick's injured, wounded protests were as good as any picture. It might not matter, and probably wouldn't; she'd torpedoed one date, but he'd have another one tomorrow, or the next day.
Still. It felt good to have a little payback for Liz.
Claire was humming under her breath as she jogged up the steps, reaching for her keys ... but she stopped dead when she saw that the door was already open. Not just open ... left open by inches, and swinging gently in the breeze.
'Liz?' Claire stepped inside, heart pounding, and dumped the pizza box on the floor as she turned on the overhead light in the entry hall. The cheap yellow bulb flooded it with harsh light, but what it told Claire was that nobody had broken in here ... instead, all the locks had been neatly clicked back, including the deadbolt. Liz had opened the door. 'Liz!'
She burst into the kitchen, but there was nothing strange there. Liz must have washed the dishes, because they were sitting neatly in the drain board, and the counters had been cleaned.
Claire ran up the steps, but she slowed as she approached the landing to Liz's room. The bedroom door was open, and the square of darkness seemed oppressive and scary to her. She reached around the facing of the door, found the light switch, and flipped it on.
Liz's unmade bed. Clothes strewn on the chair in the corner. Make-up toppled randomly on top of the dressing table. An electric candle burning on the nightstand.
And on the floor a foot inside the door, blood, still fresh. It wasn't just a drop. It was splashes and smears, indistinct shapes printed into the stains. Blood on the wall next to the light switch, too.
Claire stepped over it carefully and checked under the bed, then the closet. There was no sign of her friend. She backed out onto the landing, took her cell phone out with shaking hands, and forced herself to look around with fresh eyes. There were smears of blood out here, too - not as many, but now that she was looking for them, she saw where Liz had been taken out of the room. They disappeared in a few feet, as if she'd been wrapped in something, or picked up and carried.
Claire raced upstairs and checked her own room, just to be sure, but it seemed undisturbed. While she was doing that, she dialled the number that had sent her the text message earlier in the day.
'Holla,' said a warm, smoky voice on the other end. There was a rustle of cloth, and then the lazy tone went away as Jesse said, 'Claire?'
'Somebody took my roommate,' Claire said. 'Was it you?'
'I - what?'
'You're a vampire. Did you take her?'
'Hell no, I didn't take her.' Jesse's voice had gone tight now, and Claire could almost picture her standing up and pacing in that fluid, predatory way vampires had. 'What do you mean, someone took her?'
'I mean she's gone, the door's hanging open, and I think there's blood in her room,' Claire said. She was starting to shake now, a delayed reaction that meant it was hard to hold on to the phone. She gripped it tighter. 'I'm calling the police.'
'Dammit. No, don't do that, not yet. Stay there.' There was a murmured voice off the phone, and Claire suddenly realised that Jesse might have a visitor, a personal kind of visitor. 'Tell me exactly what happened, Claire.'
'I went out for a pizza. My roommate was here by herself, as far as I know, but when I came back the door was open and there's blood in her room. She was hurt. And she's not here.'
'Is there a sign of a break-in?'
'No,' Claire said. 'It was unlocked, and-' In a flash, she remembered the black-clothed men entering the house the other night. Unlocking the doors. 'Oh, God. Did Dr Anderson tell you about the men who broke in the other night?'
'Yes. Claire, is there any possibility they might have mistaken your roommate for you?'
She honestly hadn't thought about it until Jesse said it, but her stomach knotted up, and she let out a trembling breath. 'Maybe.'
'Okay. Here's the deal: stay right where you are. Don't touch anything, don't shut the door, don't try to solve the mystery yourself. I need to see it just as it is. I'm three minutes out. I'll alert Irene.'
She hung up, and Claire hesitated a few seconds before sitting down on the steps. She shivered. The house felt cold and empty, and she hated leaving the front door open like that; she half expected to see the creepy face of Derrick, Liz's stalker, peering in.
No Derrick, though. That was strange. Wasn't he almost always hanging around waiting for Liz to come and go? And he'd been up on the steps before, Claire had seen him. Could this be Derrick, finally working up his courage to hurt Liz? But would she have ever let him in? Claire's instincts said no, but maybe there had been some kind of faked emergency, or Derrick had used some other way to gain entrance ... Claire's mind was whirling, and her finger hovered over the emergency call button on her phone while the seconds crawled by with torturous intensity. If she's more than three minutes, I'll call the cops, she promised herself. And what if it really had been Jesse, after all? And Jesse was just coming by to clean up the mess and make Claire herself disappear, too?
She was on the verge of pressing the 911 button when suddenly, there was a shape standing in the doorway. Not coming in - just waiting. Oh, God, Claire thought in alarm, and bolted to her feet ... and then realised it was Jesse. She had on a hoodie that she'd pulled up over her head, and a baseball cap under the hood that shaded her pale face, and she had her hands in her pockets; it was a normal look for a town like this, nothing that would get a second glance. A lot less obvious a sun-cover than the extravagant leather coats and big hats that Morganville vampires seemed to favour.
A second later, though Jesse didn't speak, Claire realised what she was waiting for, and said, 'Come in.'
Jesse didn't reply, just stepped into the entry hall. She glided with the eerie, silent speed that Claire was accustomed to, but never okay with, and she pushed the hood back, took off the hat, and looked around the entry hall with methodical calm. Her eyes - a muddy, dim red now - swept over Claire, but didn't pause. She made a fast walking circuit of the limited area, then crossed to the stairs and knelt down to put her face close to one of the steps. Then she came up a few stairs and did it again. Jesse worked her way quickly up to the second-floor landing, examined the blood there, and then went into Liz's room.
It was all accomplished in eerie silence. Jesse didn't speak to Claire, or acknowledge her in any way, until she finally stepped out of her friend's room and looked up the stairs at her. The expression on the vampire woman's face was blank - blank enough that Claire wasn't sure if she ought to wait, or run.
Then Jesse said the thing that Claire least expected to hear. 'It isn't your roommate's blood.'
'What? But - it has to be!' Unless Liz had fought back, maybe cut one of the intruders ... she supposed that could happen, but the idea of Liz actually scoring a hit was pretty far out there. 'Can you tell whose it is?'
'Not easily. If I'd already tasted that blood, I'd know it, but from what's smeared around in here, I'd have to say that it's a male in his late twenties who drinks too much Red Bull.' Jesse shrugged when Claire stared silently at her. 'It has a certain smell to it. So does coffee and strong liquor. But I can definitely tell you that it wasn't a girl your age who was hurt here. You said the door was open. Maybe she fought with someone, hurt him, and ran for it. That would explain the open door, if he took off in pursuit.'
'Can you - can you track them?'
'Not them. Just him. And only if he keeps bleeding. What the hell, we can give it a try, I guess.' Jesse pushed her cap back on and flipped up the black hood. 'Come on. We've got as good a chance of solving this as the police right now, and I don't really want the cops involved in anything if it traces back to me, or to Irene.'
'But - what if Liz-'
'Trust me,' Jesse said.
Claire hated it when vampires said that, and she was just about to say so, when someone else darkened the doorway at the bottom of the stairs. Tall, broadly built, and she instantly thought Derrick, and felt a surge of fury.
It wasn't Derrick.
Shane was standing there on the doorstep, staring up at her. His face was set and pale, and his whole body said that he was braced for a painful impact, but he just nodded to her and said, 'So, I've got no doubt that we're going to talk about this later, and that will be hard, but for right now, you're going to need my help.'
Jesse frowned at him. 'Shane?'
Claire somehow descended a whole flight of stairs without even realising she'd done it. All of a sudden she was on the landing outside of Liz's door, and her hand was hurting from the strength with which she was clutching the railing. Her knees were trembling, but the rest of her felt ... numb. 'Wait,' she said. 'You know him?'
'Yeah, of course I do. He's the dishwasher at Florey's.'
Claire's mouth opened and closed, but she couldn't sort out the whirl of words flying around in her mind. I wasn't wrong. I did see him there.
That meant that Shane had been here for days. Maybe longer.
Long enough that he'd lied to her about it, and so had Michael. So had Eve.
'Oh, we're going to talk,' she said then, and the chill in her voice surprised her. 'But for right now, you'd better tell me what you think you know about this.'
'Outside,' Shane said. 'We need to get moving. Now.'
'Why?' Jesse asked.
'Because the people who took Claire's friend might come back.'