Two blocks away, and a lot of turns and back alleys later, their little group re-formed again. It was a deserted open-area warehouse that hadn't been used in years, from the dusty smell of it. Oliver peeled back the broken fence, punched open the padlocked door, and hustled them all inside.
As soon as Shane eased Michael down to a sitting position, he crouched down to look at his best friend. Michael was silently weeping, face concealed behind his shaking hands. He was a mess, and Claire swallowed hard when she saw how badly VLAD had affected him. Whatever adjustments Dr Anderson had made to it when she'd reassembled it, she'd ramped it up to eleven.
Shane put his hand on Michael's shoulder, squeezed gently, and then bolted to his feet with his fists clenched as he advanced on Oliver. 'What the actual hell, man? You left Jesse behind! You left us behind!' He didn't stop. He got right up in Oliver's face and shoved him. It was like shoving a stone wall, and it was Shane that got pushed back a step. That didn't make him calm down. If anything, Shane's face grew a deeper shade of red. 'You son of a bitch, you ran!'
'Yes,' Oliver said coldly. 'I did. That is a tactic called retreat, perhaps you've not heard of it. When the odds are against you and victory is impossible, strategic retreat in order to regroup is the favoured option. And you, stupid boy, are what we used to call cannon fodder. Of course I left you.'
'Yeah, you know what, Sun Tzu, running's also called cowardice. You think you're so much better than humans, but you know what? We don't abandon our friends, we go back. Asshole.'
Oliver ignored him, which was an impressive accomplishment, since Shane was angry, in his face, and well within punching distance. He focused instead on Claire. 'The device,' he said. 'That was yours. The one that disappeared from Anderson's lab.' He shoved Shane out of his way as if he were a buzzing, annoying fly, and strode toward Claire. 'Did you give it to him? Did you know what he would do with it? Do you know what you've done?' Shane tried to get in his way, again, but Oliver wasn't having any. He slammed Shane back with one hand, grabbed Claire, and towed her to where Michael was huddled against the wall, with Eve holding him in her arms. 'Look at him. Look! Do you know what you've done to him? How long it could last? Do you have any idea what kind of destruction you've unleashed against us? It's the death of us, do you understand? The death of us!'
It wasn't Shane this time, but Myrnin who stepped in. He was obviously feeling better; he seemed steady enough as he took hold of Oliver's shoulder, and unlike Shane's merely human effort, Myrnin's wiry, deceptive vampire strength forced the other man around toward him. 'Don't yell at her,' he said, and for all his occasional goofiness and erratic behaviour, in this moment he was utterly steady. 'If you want to vent your spleen, face me. I allowed her to build and test it. I allowed her to remove it from my custody. I sent her to Irene. All of this is my fault, not hers. And if you lay a hand on her, I will rip it off.' That last bit was delivered with such dead-level seriousness that Claire got a chill. 'Stop portioning the blame and begin solving the problem, Oliver. Done is done, and dead is dead, but Jesse is still alive, and so is Michael. We must reclaim the device, reverse these effects, control the damage that this vampire expert whom none of us foresaw has wrought. That is the plan. Now, it is up to you to produce the strategy, my lord.'
Oliver snarled, and his fangs came down; his eyes glowed an unholy shade of red, and for a moment Claire really, genuinely thought he was going to rip into Myrnin with everything he had ... but he stopped. He stopped and stood quietly for a moment, eyes closed, before he said, 'You may well be insane, but you're not wrong. Those are the goals we should focus on. Very well. First, we need blood. And being that we are very far from friendly territory, or withdrawals from our own blood bank, I would suggest you coach our humans as to how they can best help us. Michael especially will need blood, if he is fighting this ... influence. And you look weak as a kitten.'
'Do I?' Myrnin asked, and smiled slowly. It had a sharp edge of lunacy to it. He made a purring sound low in his throat. 'Do try to pet me, then. You can report back how sharp my claws might be, once your throat grows back.'
'You thieving, insolent Taffy-'
'Enough!' Claire shouted, sharply enough that they all looked up. 'We're not fighting each other. Myrnin just said it, and you agreed: we get Jesse back. We get VLAD. We stop Dr Davis. Yes?'
Oliver unwillingly nodded. Myrnin smiled.
And Eve said, from where she sat holding tightly to Michael's shaking body, 'And we help Michael. We help him, Claire.'
'Yes,' Claire said softly. 'We help him. I'm so sorry. I never meant-'
Eve's dark eyes fixed on her, red from crying. 'I don't want to hear it,' she said. 'Science doesn't fix everything. Sometimes, it just screws everything up, okay? He wouldn't have hurt you. He'd never have hurt you. Why does it have to be him?' Michael was reacting to Eve's anger and distress, rocking back and forth now, and Eve held on, rubbing his back, soothing him like a restless child. 'Shh, it's okay, honey. I'm here. I'm here with you. It's all going to be okay.'
Her stare dared Claire to make that happen. Now.
Liz was basically unconscious, still; she'd lost a lot of blood, and Claire thought that her coping mechanism was to just try to sleep until everything set itself right. Not a bad plan, really, but it didn't help anyone else deal with the issues. She also wasn't fit to donate any blood, which left her, Shane, Pete and Eve. Eve, however, had already devoted blood to Michael, and he was going to need more; Claire knew that would be her responsibility. It ought to be, because she was the reason Michael was so badly hurt.
She felt the guilt of it bubbling in her stomach, like acid.
There was trouble among the potential donors, because Pete wasn't having any of that. 'Hell no,' he said, from where he sat with Liz. His voice was tight and utterly firm. 'No vampire's getting a fucking drop out of me. Especially not these vamps. They left Jesse behind. She trusted you, and you let her down.'
'Pete-' Claire began, but Shane put a hand on her arm, silencing her.
'Look man, I don't exactly like it either,' Shane said. 'But if we want to get her back at all, we're going to need their help. Did you see what Davis had on his side? That had to be ten guys, all armed. Sure, we might have put down some, but I have the feeling he can get more. He's got outside resources, something we need to shut down fast and hard, for everybody's protection, including Jesse's. It isn't just that they've got her. It's what they're planning to do with her that's the problem.'
That got to him, Claire saw; Pete flinched a little, and finally nodded. 'Fine,' he said. 'I'll put up with this shit for a while longer. But I'm telling you, man, the day hasn't come yet that I'll let a vampire bite me. Never going to happen.'
'You've never - what about Jesse?'
'Jesse's not like that. She doesn't go around biting people. She has a code.'
'And it's never failed?'
Pete evaded Shane's eyes for a second. 'Almost never. Anyway. Never with me.'
'You like her, right? You trust her? You want to save her?'
'Of course I do!'
'Then this is the best way,' Shane said. 'And trust me, I never, ever thought I'd be arguing to let a vampire bite somebody, but honestly, we need this. She needs it, and we all need it to give us the edge, because we don't know what we're dealing with. Pete, you're a tough guy - hell, I'm not so bad either. But we don't come with shades and secret spy crap and semi-auto weapons, either. So let's not give away the only advantage we have, all right?'
It was a good argument, and Pete unwillingly, finally, nodded. Shane gave him a good-for-you kind of nod in return, and they tapped fists. Then Shane walked straight over to Myrnin, looked him in the eye, and said, 'Here.' And offered him his arm, skinning up his sleeve to show the veins. 'Doesn't mean we're going steady.'
Myrnin stared at him a few seconds, then glanced at Claire; she could see the confusion in him, and the wish to trade Shane for her, but she held still and didn't make the offer. Mostly, she had to admit, because she was curious to see how it worked - how the antipathy between her boyfriend and her boss/friend played out in this really oddly intimate exchange.
And Myrnin wasn't in any position to be choosy; he was still weak and shaky, and the hot red embers in his eyes were flickering faster than before. So he took hold of Shane's arm and, without any visible change of expression, extended his fangs and bit, hitting the vein with effortless ease.
Shane winced and closed his eyes as Myrnin's mouth closed over his skin, and she could see the cell-deep urge to pull away boiling up in him. Somehow, he controlled it, though he looked like it took everything he had to stay patiently still. Myrnin, for his part, was polite enough to stop after less than thirty seconds, and even put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding before stepping back. Not a drop had escaped him, and his mask-like expression never shifted at all. 'Thank you,' he said, with perfect courtesy - or at least, it would have been courteous if you didn't know how he usually said such things. Like his face, his tone was perfectly blank.
Shane, on the other hand, was so easy to read he was practically a flashing neon sign. And what it spelt out wasn't good, but he nodded in return. Bare politeness minimum, and they both took giant steps back to put space between them.
Claire shook her head, went to Oliver, and presented her wrist.
He gave her a long, narrow look and said, 'No, thank you.'
'I'm not good enough for you?'
'Don't be a git, blood is blood. But I'm not presently in quite that much need. Don't worry, I'm sure there will be a further catastrophic disaster for which we will be woefully unprepared, if our luck holds.'
'Damn, Oliver, that is some industrial strength sarcasm,' Shane said. 'I'm surprised. I thought you were saving it for something special, like the Apocalypse, or at least tea time.'
'I can easily avoid tea time. It's a perk of being vampire. No one asked you.'
Myrnin held up his hand. 'I did.'
'And we won't ever discuss that again,' Oliver said. 'Feeling better?'
'Pish, I only lost part of my brain. It wasn't even the most important part.' Clearly, Myrnin did not want to say anything the least complimentary about Shane, or his blood. 'Yes. I'm restored. Now, let's go rescue Lady Grey.'
'Your inability to comprehend the vaguest notion of priorities has always astounded me,' Oliver said. 'We attempted a frontal assault last time, as you recall. This time, we shall send a scout to examine the situation, instead of stumbling onward like drunken fools into a cathouse.'
Wow. Oliver really was busting out the weapons-grade sarcasm. Which meant, Claire thought, that he was also seriously rattled by events - and maybe by Jesse's capture, since he didn't seem to despise her nearly as much as he did most other people. 'I'll go,' Claire said.
'No, you won't,' Shane said, 'since I'm the logical choice to be doing the scouting. Not afraid of the dark, able to shoot pretty much any kind of weapon, can punch a vampire in the face, have training in scoping out the enemy ... and also, I have a pulse, which means I'm not really valuable to the bad guys like one of you might be. So I'll go.'
Eve held up a hand. 'You forgot the downsides. Can't see in the dark, aren't as bullet-resistant as a vampire, can't punch as hard-'
'Hey, I thought you were on my side!'
Eve shrugged. 'I'd rather you not die.' She looked down at Michael again, and the implication felt like a dagger in Claire's guts. She hadn't, after all, objected to Claire's going. Michael stirred a little, and made a soft, protesting sound, and Eve hugged him tighter. 'Hush, honey, it's okay, it's okay, nobody's going to die. You're all right.'
It broke Claire's heart to see that. It was her fault, and Eve was right to be angry ... Claire hated herself for bringing this whole situation together. She wished she'd never even thought of the stupid damned device.
But it works, the cold science-y part of her brain noted. He's out of the fight. What if you had it, and pointed it at a vampire attacking you? Any gun can be used in a wrong way, but if you use it the right way it saves lives ...
She didn't want to hear it, not while she was staring down the barrel of the consequences.
'I want to go,' Claire said. 'Please.' She must have sounded as wretched as she felt. 'I need to go.'
They both looked at Oliver, who was definitely the one in charge just now; he'd been a general long ago, and he still had the ruthless clarity of one. 'Shane goes,' he said. 'He's expendable, in the great scheme of things, and presents less of a temptation to our enemies.'
'Expendable was not the word I was looking to hear to boost my morale, but whatever. Good call.' Shane was already moving to pick up weapons, including a knife that Myrnin silently produced from within his battered waistcoat and handed over.
'Wait,' Oliver said. 'I've not finished. Claire also should go.'
'Wait a second-' Shane said, but it was Claire's turn to nod. She moved in and snagged the knife from Myrnin. 'Look, if they want anybody, they'd want Claire. She can tell them all about how the device works, right? Doesn't make any sense to send her in there! I don't agree about the expendable thing, but at least I don't have a lot in my brains for them to pick over.'
'They already know too much - enough to use the device, anyway,' Claire said, and tested the weight of the knife. It felt heavy and cold in her hand, but it would do. No silver edge on it, which made sense for a vampire's personal weapon; it would do just as good a job against human enemies, though. 'And they won't get me. But I'm not going to let them get you either, Shane. We watch each other's backs, Morganville style.'
He didn't like it, but he flashed her a quick, unwilling smile. 'You can take the girl out of the town, but you can't take the town out of the girl,' he said. 'Outstanding. Let's do it.'
Claire lowered her voice and shot a glance toward the other human still with them, who was leaning against the wall of the warehouse, head down. 'What about Pete? Should we take him?'
'Not sure Pete could handle it, honestly. He's a good guy but he's a little out of his depth. Being a bouncer never really required a whole lot of stealth. Kind of the opposite, actually.'
She hugged Shane then, and he hugged her back, and then they spun away to collect other things - a flashlight from Eve, and last, Claire got a clip of bullets from Pete. Pete, she couldn't help but notice, hadn't volunteered to mount up. Hadn't even tried. Shane was right - being a bouncer, even in a reasonably tough bar, wasn't any kind of prep for the kind of industrial-strength risk-taking that was a typical Morganville afternoon.
And then they were on their way. Liz slept on, curled at Pete's feet; Michael and Eve stayed huddled together. Myrnin waved forlornly, and Oliver ... Oliver looked regal, like a king bidding farewell to troops he never expected to see again.
'I hate that son of a bitch,' Shane said, and smiled and waved back.
'I heard that,' Oliver said, just loudly enough to be heard.
And then they were out, jogging down the alley. Claire said, 'He's sending us as bait, isn't he?'
'Yeah,' Shane said. 'Really, scouting? He's not even trying to hide it this time. I think we're the diversion. Fine. Let's get to diverting.'
Night was starting to give way to the faint and distant suggestion of morning, but the alleyway was still drowning in oddly shaped shadows. Claire used the flashlight carefully, just quick presses to show them the obstacles, and then Shane led the way through. He had her hold up a couple of times, either out of too much caution or because there really still were minions chasing them ... and instead of going back to the run-off tunnels - they had no chance of jumping up the way they'd come down, anyway - he took them the long way around, through mostly deserted streets. When a police car cruised by, headlights splashing over them, Shane casually put an arm around her, and she snuggled into him. It also concealed the weapons they were carrying.
The police moved on.
They arrived back at the front entrance to the Library Annex, and Claire had expected that the cops would be all over it - after all, Oliver had shattered the front door getting in. But instead, a neat plywood replacement had already been installed, the glass swept away, and there was no sign the police had been there at all.
'Your buddies don't want company,' Shane said. 'Which confirms why there wasn't any alarm. They'd just kidnapped somebody, and the last thing they wanted was the police busting in on them. Plus, there's that weird bat-thing and Dead Derrick to explain.' He tried the door - locked, of course. 'Hang on a second.'
'Do you need the flashlight?'
'Don't need light to pick locks,' he said cheerfully. She didn't know how he did it, but about thirty long seconds later, he gave a satisfied sigh, and she heard the padlock that secured the broken doors click open. 'New personal best. Okay, inside, but go careful. Enemy territory.'
Inside, the building was silent, just as it had been before; she moved past the offices and storage areas to the door of the mechanical closet, which was tightly closed again.
And a voice - Dr Davis's voice - said, 'Nothing to find down there, kids. If you're looking for your friend, she's in good hands.'
He was standing at the dog-leg end of the hall, flanked by two men with weapons. And yes, the weapons were aimed straight at Claire and Shane, which didn't surprise her, but did give her heart a little kick-start of fear.
Dr Davis was holding VLAD. He'd been expecting a vampire rescue. She and Shane, alone, were likely a surprise.
Shane kept his hands down at his sides. 'Can't we talk about this?'
'I don't see why not, but the fact is, your red-headed friend isn't going anywhere. Where are the other vampires? The males?'
'Males,' Shane repeated. 'I'm guessing you refer to Jesse as the female.'
'Well, yes, clinically; they're very far from human, you know, though they can certainly simulate it easily enough when they wish. Do you have any concept of what you're involved in, either of you? How dangerous it is to trust these creatures? You can't. They will kill you.'
'You're the ones with guns,' Claire pointed out. 'And you're the one who killed Derrick.'
'Derrick was none of your concern, and certainly wasn't mine,' Davis said. 'I don't suppose taking the two of you as hostages will gain me anything from the immortals. They don't have any regard for humans.'
'Sure they do,' Shane said. 'They regard us as walking meal deals. But don't worry, they especially wouldn't come running to rescue me. My dad was a genuine vampire killer.'
'Really?' That got Davis's full attention. 'I always suspected that there would be such a thing, with its own lore and skills ... Stoker's novel hinted as much. I assume the business was not passed down. You don't seem terribly motivated.'
Shane gave him a humorless grin. 'Oh, I don't know. I have my days.'
'You came after Liz to get to me,' Claire said. 'Didn't you?'
'I like redundancy in all that I do,' he said, and rested a proprietary hand on VLAD. 'You developed an object we badly needed in order to keep any captives we managed to secure in line. The immortals are very dangerous, as I'm sure you already know. So, I suppose the answer to your question is yes. Liz was a means to an end, the end being your acquisition for our project.'
'By immortals, you mean vampires.'
'It's the common word for them, but the important thing about them from a biological standpoint is that their tissues simply don't age. They are - petrified, in a sense. And yet also alive. There are a few other organisms capable of this kind of extraordinary behaviour but-'
'Not really here for the biology lesson, professor,' Shane said, interrupting what was sure to be a Myrnin-worthy gush of information. Claire was a little disappointed, actually. 'We want Jesse released. Now. And that thing you're holding doesn't belong to you, so we'd like it back, too.'
Dr Davis and his two minions actually exchanged amused glances before he said, 'You're playing well out of your league, boy. Please don't bluff. It's just embarrassing.'
'He's not bluffing, professor,' Claire said. 'Really.'
Shane shook his head. 'Ah, come on, don't call him professor, he's got no right to that. He's a scumbag who gets college girls to bang him for grades. Right, Claire?'
'Definitely. By the way, Liz cried all night. In case you were interested, professor.'
'Here's a tip,' Shane said. 'If you leave a girl crying, you're probably not doing your Don Juan routine right, asshole.'
Dr Davis said nothing, but his expression compressed into an angry mask, and his eyes bored holes into the two of them. His grip tightened on VLAD.
And that was exactly the moment that the two men standing next to him just ... vanished. Not literally, in a dramatic puff of smoke, but more of a now-you-see-them, now-you-don't blur of motion. Davis didn't even notice for a few seconds, and by then it was too late; Oliver was there, teeth bared, facing him.
Davis's startled cry and stumbling backward retreat was almost fun to see. Almost ... and then Myrnin was behind him, shoving him forward into Oliver's embrace. Oliver spun the man around, and Myrnin stripped the device from Davis's hands.
Then Myrnin froze, looking at Claire with a blank, odd expression, and said, 'Did you build another one already? Because this most assuredly is not the working model.'
And that was the moment when Dr Irene Anderson stepped out from the closed doorway behind them, aimed with the VLAD weapon that she was holding, and shot Oliver with it.
The effect was immediate, and drastic. Oliver flung Dr Davis away from him, cried out, clapped his hands to his head, and sank down against the wall, shaking. Weeping. He got to his hands and knees, tried to rise, and she shot him again, and this time ... this time Oliver didn't get up.
Claire, open-mouthed, stared at her professor, and didn't know what to do. What to say. Maybe she misunderstood, maybe ...
Dr Anderson turned toward her, and the look in her eyes was flat, cool and very scary. 'That's three of them out of commission,' she said. 'But I know Oliver didn't come here alone. Where is Myrnin?'
Claire involuntarily glanced aside at the place Dr Davis had been standing, but the area behind him was vacant now. Myrnin was nowhere to be seen. 'You played me,' she said. 'You played me all along. You agreed to take me on as a student not because Myrnin asked you, but because you found out I had something you could use. Something your crazy friends wanted. He trusted you, but you-'
'I got the hell out of Morganville, Claire, just as you did, so please don't pretend that there is some higher moral ground on which you're standing. The vampires used me just as they used you; they found a young, impressionable and bright girl and fed her to the monster. You and I survived that. Not everyone did.'
Everything Dr Anderson was saying was true, but - but it didn't describe Myrnin, not really. It wasn't his fault. He tried, tried hard, to be a good person, a real person, not just a soulless monster sucking blood out of people.
But when he failed, he failed spectacularly, like a doomed meteor plunging to Earth.
Claire suddenly realised that a shadow off to the side, about six feet away from Shane, wasn't empty any more. Myrnin had managed to make his way there. He didn't have the weapon any more; his hands were empty, and he stood very quietly, utterly immobile. Waiting for a chance to strike.
But any second, Dr Anderson might notice him. So Claire kept talking. 'That doesn't give you the right to-'
'To do what?' the woman snapped, eyes blazing. She took a step forward, then another, and Shane instinctively shoved Claire back as he got in the way. It also put Anderson closer to Myrnin, and Claire expected him to lunge for her ... but he didn't. He was waiting for her guard to drop completely. 'To do exactly what you were planning to do - develop a weapon that would allow humans the chance to really defend themselves from a vampire attack? To create a nonlethal solution to the problem you know exists? Because you are the one who put us in this position, Claire. You solved the problem of the disease that was destroying them; you helped them defeat the only things that they feared. You put the top predators back on top, and you were right to think we needed a way to stop them.' Dr Anderson touched VLAD's casing with a light, almost reverent hand. 'I'm just the one who pointed it at them first.'
All that sounded right, but at the same time, wrong, all wrong, but the passion of Anderson's words robbed Claire of the ability to argue ... until Shane did it for them.
'Bullshit,' he said, with a strange, tight little smile. 'Man, you sound just like my father. He was really good at this, too; good at justifying all the lying, stealing, beating and killing he needed to do. Oh, it's all for a higher cause, kid. Don't you sweat the details. We're fighting monsters, we have to get our hands dirty. But you used Claire to get the weapon here, and then you used her to get Myrnin coming to the rescue when he heard there was trouble. Then you used Liz, because you knew Claire would come for her, and we'd all help. You weren't picky about who got hurt. Still aren't. So don't preach at us like you're some kind of saint. You're just another sinner.'
Claire nodded. 'You could have taken Myrnin when you talked to him about the missing gun - which was never missing in the first place. But you waited.'
'Of course I waited. I wanted them all. We need to have as large a sample size as possible to conduct our tests, document results and present it all to the agency that Dr Davis and I work for. And no, Claire, it is not the government that I'm working with. Sorry to disappoint you. But those who employ me are well funded, and they do have the best interests of humanity at heart.' Dr Anderson's eyes turned colder, and she aimed the device straight at Shane's chest. 'I know Myrnin is here, somewhere. You probably have a good idea how to find him; you seem to have him on a leash. This won't kill your boyfriend, but it'll damage him for hours, maybe days. Maybe even permanently. I've set it on its highest intensity. Want to see what it does to a human? I imagine it won't be too pretty.'
She had reinforcements coming. Dr Davis was missing, and he'd be coming back with plenty of help. Oliver was helpless. So was Jesse, somewhere, and Michael and Eve wouldn't have anywhere to go that was safe, either. They'd had strength in numbers, but that strength was gone, all gone. Shane couldn't take her before Anderson took the shot, and Claire was sick with horror at the thought that something she'd built, something she'd intended to be a positive thing, could do so much damage to those she loved.
She shut her eyes for a long second, and then opened them and said, 'You don't have to do that. Maybe you're right after all. I've seen how much harm vampires can do. I've seen how much death there's been. I'm not naive, Dr Anderson; I designed that thing for a reason.'
'Then help me,' Anderson said. 'Don't make me hurt you or Shane. Tell me what I need to know.'
It was the moment of truth, and Claire didn't hesitate. She pointed at the corner where Myrnin was hidden in shadow. 'He's right there. I'm sorry, Myrnin. I'm sorry!'
That last part came out in a wail, because he was moving out fast, but not fast enough.
Irene Anderson was quick on the trigger, and VLAD's blast caught him no more than three feet from his hiding place. Claire watched, feeling suddenly cold and numbed, as Myrnin cried out, pitched forward to the floor, rolled on his side, and stared up at her with a tormented, dark expression. Not angry. Just ... disappointed.
'I'm sorry,' she whispered, as Anderson shot him again, and all that was Myrnin just ... vanished out of those eyes.