Claire saw me.
For a split second, all I could think was there she is, and I froze, because I'd wanted so badly to catch another glimpse of her ... and then reality set in, because she was across the room from me, in Florey's, and she was staring right at me.
I didn't think about what I was going to do, I just did it: I moved, fast, and blocked her view with a bunch of noisy, clamouring patrons bellied up to the bar. Then I dumped the load of glasses on the ledge where the bartenders could easily grab them, and yelled in Jesse's ear, 'My girlfriend Claire is in the bar. Don't let on that I'm here, okay? I'm not supposed to be in Cambridge!'
She sent me a wide-eyed, disbelieving glance, but she hardly had time to argue; she was popping the top on a beer with one hand (without a bottle opener, she had some kind of crazy thumb technique that was much faster) and mixing a rum and Coke with the other. The two other servers behind the bar were equally busy. They'd go through the load of glasses I'd delivered in about an hour, and I already had two industrial-sized dishwashers running and was doing the overflow by hand. It was definitely the busiest day Florey's had seen since I'd arrived.
I grabbed the tub with the dirty glasses in it, hoisted it on my left shoulder, and used it to mask myself as I headed back into the kitchen. My arm - the one that had been bitten and healed up - twinged when I did that, but there was nothing wrong with it that a little exercise wouldn't cure. It still burned, from time to time. And yeah, it worried me. I'd been bitten by a devil dog, after all. There could be side effects. But I wasn't running a fever, or feeling sick or anything like that, and I knew that going to a traditional doctor wasn't going to reveal anything.
The last thing I wanted to be was at the mercy of the vampires, even their resident doc, who was a pretty good guy as bloodsuckers went. I shuddered at the thought.
Once I made it to the back, I dumped the bin on the counter and drew fresh hot water, and tried not to think about what the hell Claire, of all people, was doing at a bar on game night. She must have been with someone. Who? Friends, maybe. Yeah, it had to be friends. This wasn't her kind of scene, and I knew that. She wasn't just here on her own, and she wasn't here to make new drunk friends, either.
Then why did every bone in my body demand I walk out, take off the apron, grab her and march her out of there? She wasn't in any danger, except of being trampled in the crowd. Nobody would hurt her. Pete ran a tight ship, and anybody who got out of line answered to him. Nobody was eager to do that.
Why was she here?
She couldn't be looking for me. She couldn't.
I washed up ten glasses, then dried my hands, took out my new phone, dialled, and propped the thing up on the counter away from the dishwater, on speaker. It took three rings, but Michael finally answered. 'Hey,' I said. 'No time to talk, but did you tell Claire where I was?'
'What? No, man. You made me promise. I won't tell her. That's your business.'
'Eve? Would Eve tell her?'
'No. She wants to, but she won't.'
'Crap. Well, Claire's here.'
'In the bar. Where I'm working. Oh, and living. In the room upstairs. The job kinda comes with room and board. So it isn't like I can permanently duck her if she catches on.'
'Did you talk to her?'
'Hell no, I didn't talk to her! I'm washing dishes in the back!' That, and I was scared she'd hate me for following her. Scared she'd think I'd broken my promise, although I really hadn't - I was keeping away. Just ... within reach, if she needed me. 'Look, just - I don't know if she saw me or not, but if she asks to talk to me, just tell her I'm at work. It won't be a lie.'
'You're sliding over the line from best friend to friend who asks me to cover up for him,' Michael said. 'Just flashing the warning sign, man. Asking somebody to lie to your girlfriend is never a good step in a relationship.'
'I know. I just - look, I'm going to tell her, but I want her to have the time she wants, that's all. I'm trying to stay out of her way-' I was interrupted by a yell from the bar area; they were out of beer mugs, again. I yelled back that they were coming, and sure enough, Luis, the other dishwasher, picked up the slack and took them out. 'Look, I've gotta go. We good?'
'We're good,' Michael agreed. 'Watch your back.'
'I hear ya. My worst problem right now is dishpan hands.'
'I'll send you some lotion and nail polish. Want me to buy you a mani-pedi, too?'
'Mother-' He hung up on me before I could get the rest of it out, which was probably for the best. I shook my head and scrubbed glasses - damn, I hated lipstick, at least in this context - for another twenty minutes or so before Jesse suddenly tapped me on the shoulder. I jumped and almost dropped a martini glass, which would have come out of my not-so-great pay, but she caught it on the way down. She had great reflexes.
'Your girlfriend is Claire Danvers?' she asked me, and set the martini glass in the clean tray.
'Yeah. Is she still here?'
'No, I never saw her in there, but I got a message she'd be waiting in the back. Do you want to talk to her?'
Yes. I wanted to talk to her so badly it made my stomach churn. 'No,' I said. 'Just don't tell her I'm here, okay? It's complicated.' Dammit, my arm twinged again, and the muscles burned and contracted. I rubbed it, frowning, and wondered if I'd been overworking the recovery just a little.
'Copy that, friend. All right, she asked for me, so I'm going. Keep up the good work.' She winked at me, and yeah, she was hotter than just about any girl who'd ever winked at me, at least in a theoretical sense. But I'd had plenty of experience around hot vampire chicks, and it had never ended well for me. So I sent back a non-committal nod, and tried not to watch her ass as she headed for the door. I was the only one managing to resist, looked like. She drew male attention the way pitcher plants draw bugs ... and the outcome would be the same.
You could drown in that honey.
Jesse was gone her full fifteen for her break, and when she came back in she gave me a quick thumbs up. 'She's okay,' she told me. 'Heading home. So, although you haven't said so, I'm guessing you're also from her hometown.'
I nodded without committing to anything; I didn't know if Jesse actually knew where Claire was from, after all. But she must have, because she glanced around the kitchen to be sure Luis was neck-deep in his own work before turning back to me with her eyes flaring a brief, bloody red. Her lips parted just enough to show me the tips of her fangs, sliding smoothly down, sharp enough to pierce steel.
In response, I showed her my left wrist, which was covered by a thick silver chain bracelet. It looked like fashion, but it was also a weapon, and a good one. Then I pulled down the neck of my T-shirt to show her the matching necklace.
She laughed softly, and the glow and fangs were immediately banished. 'I'm just messing with you,' she said, and gave me a quirky, in-on-the-joke smile. 'You're a cool one, Shane.'
'As long as I don't have to be a cold one.'
'I knew I liked you. You've got' - she licked her lips, not at all suggestively. Okay, maybe a little. Or a lot - 'spice.'
'It's my body spray, it's real manly. Don't take it as an invitation. I've got nothing for you, Jesse.'
'Don't sell yourself short, handsome, but in any case, you're not my preferred flavour of snack. And I'm not one of those who go in uninvited, if you take my meaning.'
'I get it. You like to think you're a nice vampire.'
The smile vanished, and what was left in its place was just ... dangerous. 'Let's not call each other names. Someone might get hurt. What are you doing here? Hunting? Because if that's your thing, we can work it out somewhere else. I have to earn a living here.'
'Just pulling down a pay cheque, same as you,' I said. 'Look, I really didn't expect to run into any vam-very nice ladies such as yourself in a city like this. My understanding was they were all concentrated back home, where the Founder kept an eye on them.'
'She does love to keep her hand on us,' Jesse agreed. 'I left town thirty years ago, and I did some travelling - finding others and bringing them home. When Professor Anderson came here, I was assigned by the Founder to watch over her.'
'Or just watch her?'
She shrugged. 'They're not mutually exclusive, as it turns out.'
That was uncomfortably close to what I was doing with Claire, so I decided to let that part go. 'You're assigned here, then. Officially.'
'Yes.' She cut her gaze around one more time, and checked her watch. 'And because you understand the score, we never had this conversation, or I'll have to get in contact back home and ask what they want me to do about you and your adorably blabby mouth. Clear?'
'Clear,' I said. 'If I find out you're hunting here, though, I'm not going to be happy.'
'Well, wouldn't want that, now, would we?'
'No, we wouldn't,' I said, 'since I'm Frank Collins's boy.'
That caused her to pause and reassess me, carefully. Then the smile came back, tempered a little. 'I met your father once, when he was about your age. I liked him,' she said. 'He was always direct. And I see you're just like him.'
'No,' I said. 'I'm not. But enough that you know where I'm coming from, and I don't deal in bullshit. If anything happens to Claire because of you, this will be a real different conversation.'
'I have no interest in seeing anything happen to her,' Jesse said. 'I like the world out here the way it is. I've got no nostalgia for pitchforks and torches, and so I have a willing mate to provide for my needs, and if I get peckish for a little different fare, there are always people willing to make a donation. You just have to know where to go, and when to stop.'
It sounded good, but I was still wary. She was suitably wary of me, too; I saw it in her last look at me as she went through the door to the bar area. Well, that was out in the open, at least. Now I would have to watch my back around her, and Pete too, if Pete was in on Jesse's secret. I had to assume he was.
Then one of the other bartenders bawled out that he was running low on shot glasses, and I had to get back to work.
The glamorous life.
Closing time was when all the patrons went home, or staggered out the door, anyway, but it wasn't the end of shift for the rest of us. The battle-weary troops in the kitchen cleaned up there, then bussed tables and loaded the rest of the glasses into the dishwashers before heading out. The bartenders tallied their registers, deposited the take with the manager, and counted out their tips, yawning and bleary-eyed. Pete and his other two bouncers helped with the trash pickup and general straightening, and by the time we were done it was after three in the morning, the streets were cold and empty, and I took out the trash to the dumpster before heading upstairs to bed. Hated the accommodations, but damn, the commute was great.
The mattress was cold and lumpy, and the whole place (and me) smelt like industrial soap and beer, an uneasy and toxic mixture. Mick, the manager of Florey's, let me know that if a brew went missing out of the cooler from time to time, well, that was probably just breakage, but if it got too extensive he'd have to start checking.
The beer I took upstairs was the first one I'd snagged. It was a dark brew, imported, and it tasted much better than the rough, cheap whiz that Michael and I had started out drinking back in Morganville when we were stealing it from my dad's fridge. When my dad had a fridge. And a house. And a family.
I'm living just like my dad, I thought, and took a swig of the beer. It burned a little going down - hoppy and malty and dark, like my mood. I've got nothing but a backpack and some stashed weapons and a bad attitude. And I keep running into vampires. Must be the Collins luck.
That brought up way too many things I'd bolted down over the last few years. The Collins luck. Yeah, we were a lucky tribe, all right. My sister burnt with the house. My mother died in a bathtub of blood, maybe at the hands of the vamps, maybe not. My dad had gotten turned into a vampire, plugged into a computer, and died back in Morganville, or at least I hoped he had. You never could tell, with those bastards.
I had no family left. Well, except for Michael and Eve, who had adopted me and all my traumas ... and Claire, who I'd thought was going to be my home, forever. Only she had made it really clear that home had boundaries, and I'd crossed them, and now I was outside looking in. It hurt. It hurt really deeply, in a self-pitying, angry kind of way. I knew I was guilty, and it was my own damn fault, but that didn't stop some little-boy part of me from blaming her for freezing me out. She was supposed to forgive me, right? The way your mom forgave your dad when he hit her? Is that what you want? God, I hated that damn voice of reason, the one that kept the selfish little angry boy in check most of the time.
I took another pull from the beer, and another, and before too long all the walls I'd built so carefully around my pain were mud, soft and flowing and sticky. I remembered seeing Claire for the first time, fragile and wounded and needy. I remembered the first time I'd kissed her, and the trembling intensity of it. I remembered the first, breathless, anxious time in bed with her, the beautiful imperfection of it, terror and lust and joy all mixed together. I remembered a thousand wonderful things, and then all the bad things invaded right after them, because when the wall comes down it's too late to try to build it again.
Pandora's box was open.
The bottle was empty. I went to the cooler and got a six-pack, and worked my way through that while trying to forget about my dad's furious disappointment with me, his abuse, his willingness to sacrifice me for the cause ... and then once I'd pushed that back, all the times that I'd been at the mercy of a pair of fangs, and helpless. Too many times, in Morganville.
And then, I brooded about the draug.
They were the worst, the draug - creatures in the water, creatures that were worse than the vampires and more alien than anything I could really imagine. They didn't have feelings, except cold hunger, and they'd had me for a long time in their tanks. Feeding on me. Trapping me in dreams, and nightmares, until I wasn't sure I could tell the difference between the two any more.
By the time I'd managed to work through that trauma, I was out of beer, and stumbling drunk, and I felt ... empty. Just empty. No more anger, no more fear ... just a vast vacuum that needed filling with something other than all the fury I'd held inside, and finally released.
I needed Claire. Needed her.
And so I clumsily unlocked Florey's, reset the alarm as I left, and weaved along the silent sidewalks heading for her apartment. I didn't think ahead to what I was going to say to her. I guess in my beer-soaked mind it would all just magically work out, and she'd be so happy to see me she'd forget about everything else. Because everybody loves having the drunken self-pitying boyfriend banging on their door at Jesus, four-thirty in the morning. At the time, hey, it seemed like a fabulous idea.
I never got there.
See, I forgot all the lessons that had been drilled into my head in Morganville: first, never get stumbling drunk, because you never know when you're going to need your wits and reflexes about you. Second, see the first rule.
And third, never ever do it after dark.
For some reason, I thought that Morganville was the equivalent of Dead Space Level Twelve, and having survived that, I didn't rate the nerdy, vampire-free streets of Cambridge at more than a Level Two.
Turns out that it wasn't vampires I had to worry about. It was just a gang of guys who'd finished off their night badly and were looking for somebody to blame, and I was staggering down the wrong damn street. There were six of them, and approximately one quarter of me, and those weren't good odds in any game.
In real life, you don't get a reset, and you don't get extra lives, and I got the crap pounded out of mine. I don't really know how it happened; I saw them coming, whooping and hollering and high-fiving, and then they went quiet when they saw me and I guess they didn't like the T-shirt I had on, or maybe they thought I was some rich, stupid kid out for a stroll, but after the first punch it was all just a blur because there wasn't any way to fight six guys at once. It was more a matter of going down, curling up, and trying to survive it while being dimly aware that the beer wasn't making it any less painful, and that one of them had a really high, shrill, ragged voice as he yelled faggot in my ear and kicked me in the liver.
And then I heard the ring of metal on concrete, and I went cold, because one of them had found a piece of rebar lying around, and I knew with sudden certainty that these guys were going to kill me right here on this stupid sidewalk, for nothing, without even the reason of knowing my name or hating my politics. They were just going to kill me because they needed to kill something, and I was handy.
At least zombies would have had a reason.
I would have been dead if Team Vampire hadn't swooped in and saved my drunken ass.
I didn't see a lot of it, given that I had a pretty good concussion and blood in my eyes, but I saw pale skin, a killer smile, whipping hair that flared red in the streetlight, and curves that would be fairly impossible to forget. Jesse had come to my rescue, and so had Pete; my fireplug of a friend had taken the rebar and was strategically applying it to arms and legs with dispassionate calm. There was a lot of screaming, and within seconds, seconds, it was all over and there were seven guys on the concrete.
Then Jesse helped me stand up, and there were six.
'Don't worry, they're not dead,' she said, and gave me a merciless appraisal. 'You look like shit, Collins.'
'Thanks,' I mumbled. I didn't mean for the compliment. 'Well, that walk sucked.'
She laughed as I spat out a mouthful of blood, and if she thought I was wasting food, at least she didn't say so. Pete brought the rebar along with us, and we went to a car parked about a block down. It was a long walk. I passed the time by wondering (probably aloud) why Pete had brought along his iron stick. I know it was aloud because he finally said, 'Fingerprints,' as he tossed it in the trunk of the car and helped Jesse pile me into the back. 'You're drunk.'
'You're perceptive,' I said, and slid sideways until my already-sore head collided with window glass. 'Ow.' That wasn't adequate to the situation, but I didn't think it was manly to cry like a little girl. I pulled myself into a leaning position and breathed deeply, trying not to think of how the world was spinning. 'It was only a six-pack.'
'Russian imperial stout.'
'Oh, honey,' Jesse said from the driver's seat, clearly amused. 'The Russians have nothing to do most of the winter but drink as a hobby. You really should work up to that stuff. Take it from me, I was around when Gregory Rasputin was still the man to beat in a drinking game. You're going to regret that.'
'He's going to regret it a lot more,' Pete said. He was poking and prodding me, a fact I realised late, and when I ineffectively slapped at him to stop, I missed and smacked myself in something that was already bruised. Not sure what. 'Might have to take him to the ER. He could have internal bleeding.'
Jesse cocked her head and glanced back at me, and I saw that red glow in her eyes again. Weirdly, it seemed comforting right now. Homey, even. 'He might have, but he doesn't,' she said. 'I could tell if he did. Oh, he's got plenty of haemorrhages, but they're not life-threatening. And he's no stranger to cuts and
bruises. Watch his head, though. I saw them get in a good shot at least twice.'
'He'll have a hell of a headache from the contrecoup, but doesn't look like anything too bad. Might want to get an X-ray, though.'
I was starting off my time in Cambridge pretty much the same way I had my return to Morganville: with hospital visits. 'What the hell,' I sighed. 'I haven't had a good X-ray in a long time. Could be fun.' Because unlike most drunken tough guys, I'd seen enough to know that head injuries were nothing to fool around with. You could look and feel fine for a day, then drop dead of the swelling and exploding veins.
'I think you're confusing X-rays with something from a porn movie,' Jesse said, 'but sure. One ER visit, coming up. I hope that whatever you had going with those guys was worth all the trouble. What did they do, kick a puppy, insult your mother ...?'
'Nothing,' I said. 'I didn't do anything. They just wanted to hurt someone, and I was there.'
After a moment of silence, she said, 'Yes, I know how that can happen.' She sounded grim, like she personally knew it, and hey, she probably did. She might have even been on the receiving end, but you could never assume that kind of thing with vampires. 'Why were you wandering around in the dark, Shane? I'm assuming that coming from Morganville you know better.'
'I thought it'd be safer here.'
Pete laughed. He had an odd kind of laugh, one that hitched in the middle. 'You don't get out much, Shane. That's kind of cute. Take a walk in a genocide zone and tell me humans can't be worse than bloodsuckers. We're hardwired to be bastards, take it from somebody who did volunteer work in the Congo.'
Thing is, I already knew that perfectly well, because I knew what Amelie, the Founder of Morganville, was afraid of. She was most afraid of us. Humans. And our tendency to kill whatever we feared and/or hated.
Our ability to target things that were different.
I wasn't any better, I thought. I'd hated vampires most of my life, and I still didn't feel totally comfortable around them, even if Jesse had just joyously kicked some ass to save me.
Hardwired. Pete was probably right about that.
They got me into the somewhat deserted ER, and it took only about four hours (some kind of record, I was assured) to get me into X-ray and find out that yes, I still had a functioning, if lightly bruised brain, and that nothing important was busted in the rest of me. By that time, the beer's comfortable cushion had evaporated, and with the cold light of dawn coming, Jesse had taken off and left me to Pete. He didn't seem especially upset about losing his beauty sleep; maybe he was used to staying up until dawn, given the bar job and his clear alliance with Jesse, which seemed to be more about business than pleasure. Jesse had left him the car and gone her way on foot; she must have had some bolt-hole put away nearby, because she seemed pretty casual about the sunrise. Unless she was pretty old, she'd still be susceptible to the burns delivered by the daylight ... and even if she was old, she wouldn't enjoy being out in it.
Once I'd paid the bill (which ate up all my free cash, plus a loan from Pete, silently offered) I collapsed back in the car and let him drive me back to Florey's. We passed Claire's row house along the way, and I remembered the foggy, ill-formed plan to stagger up to her door and let her forgive me and drag me upstairs to bed. Wow. That had not been smart. It was almost good I'd wandered into a beating instead. At least I'd preserved my self-respect.
Because now, sober, I knew exactly how it would have played out. Claire would have been kind, and pitying, and given me aspirin and a blanket and pillow, and I'd have slept it off on some direly uncomfortable couch with her upstairs and unattainable. And then I'd have had the awkward awakening, the explanations, the apologies, and ... what?
I was afraid that there would be nothing, afterward.
'What were you guys doing?' I asked Pete, as he pulled to a stop in front of Florey's. 'How did you find me?'
'Didn't,' he said tersely. 'We were looking for those jackasses. They'd already beaten up a gay guy two blocks down. Cops don't always get on this stuff quick in our neighbourhood, so we do. It's kind of a hobby.'
I paused in the act of opening the door and looked at him with what were probably cartoon-wide eyes. 'Wait a second,' I said. 'So, you're best friends with a hot vampire chick who likes leather.'
'And together, you fight crime?' I couldn't help it. I cracked up.
'Everybody needs a hobby, man,' Pete said. 'Now go inside, because you're going to start throwing up soon and I don't want it on my floorboards.'
He was right about that, too.