Jesse and Pete walked Claire up to the building, through the regular nonsecured hallways, and then, as they approached the secured hallway and Claire dug the pass out of her pocket, she hesitated. 'Um, maybe you'd better give me the box,' she said. 'I don't think you can go in without an ID card ...' Her voice trailed off, because Pete balanced the box one-handed as if it was filled with nothing but packing peanuts, pulled a pass out of his pocket, and looped the cord over his neck. Jesse had one, too. 'Oh. Never mind.'
Jesse winked at her as she slid the pass through the card reader. 'Don't sweat it,' she said. 'We're officially unofficial. Like you, only without the crushing tuition burden.'
'I'm on scholarship,' Claire offered.
'So I heard,' Jesse said. 'Friends in low places, and all that. Again, like us. Come on, let's go see the wizard.'
Claire wasn't sure if she was referring to The Princess Bride or - more likely - The Wizard of Oz; she supposed that in the latter case she'd be Dorothy, and that made Jesse the ... Scarecrow? Not with those curves. Likewise, Pete seemed a bad choice for Cowardly Lion. He looked cuddly, but he worked as a bouncer, which seemed like the opposite of cuddly.
Jesse and Pete seemed utterly out of place here ... Jesse for her Goth pallor and blazing hair, and Pete for his muscular frame. Here in Scienceland, people tended to be less attention-getting, and the lab coats they passed gave them second looks of either admiration or fear, or maybe both. Jesse seemed to know it, from the smile on her face and the spring in her step; Pete shuffled along with the box, and didn't seem to notice or care how people saw him.
Claire wondered what made the two of them friends. Maybe nothing, except a mutual liking for Dr Anderson.
They already knew the one-at-a-time-through-the-lab-door protocol, and Claire ended up going last in line, though Pete tried to politely wait for the honour. Once she was in, Claire followed him to the back of the lab, where Dr Anderson had cleared off a worktable, and as she arrived, Anderson had already folded back the wings of the box lid and was reaching in to lift out the device.
No ... in Anderson's competent, strong hands, as she cradled its weight, it definitely looked like a weapon, not a device. A futuristic ray gun sort of weapon, sure, but if you spotted a character in a film carrying it, you'd know what it was, instantly.
Something to hurt people.
Claire swallowed. She'd been so into the details of what she was doing that she hadn't really looked at it, just looked, in a long time ... and even though others had held it, she'd been assessing the weight, the balance, the structure.
Dr Anderson made it look dangerous. She handled it competently, carefully, and then set it down on a soft foam layer she'd put on the table next to the box. Then she looked up, met Claire's eyes, and said, 'Have you checked it out? Any damage?'
'No damage I can see,' Claire said. 'It still powers up.'
'Excellent.' Dr Anderson took a deep breath and nodded. 'Right. Thanks, Jesse, Pete ... I think we've got it from here. I know you need to get to work. Thanks for helping us out.'
'You were right to be worried,' Jesse said. 'Someone's watching her house. Big guy.'
'That's Derrick,' Claire offered. 'My housemate's ex. It's a personal thing. I don't think he's got any interest in what I do.'
'Maybe not, but it's worrying nevertheless,' Dr Anderson said. 'Someone could be using him as a stalking horse. He could even be passing his surveillance details along to a third party.'
Claire hadn't thought of that; she did wonder how Derrick could afford to follow Liz here, and apparently spend all his time hanging out on the sidewalk. Didn't he work? Surely he wasn't wealthy enough to be that maliciously idle. It was a great question, she realised; it was something that wouldn't have occurred to her in Morganville, but out here in the real world, it could be significant.
'I'll check him out,' Jesse offered. 'I didn't like his vibe, Irene. Freaky. Not that standing around outside a house with two young women in it isn't creepy on its own, of course.' She smiled a little, and Dr Anderson smiled back, and Claire was struck by how ... comfortable it seemed. As if they'd known each other a long time. There was also a little bit of challenge in it, too. That was a complicated friendship.
'Want me to take the box away, Doc?' Pete asked. It was the first thing he'd said, and Dr Anderson's gaze broke off from Jesse's and landed on him. 'I mean, unless you want it for something. I can use it at the bar. We use 'em to put the recycling in.'
'Commendable,' Dr Anderson said, and when she smiled at him, it didn't have half the wattage, though it was friendly enough. 'By all means, unless Claire's got some need for it ...'
'I've got boxes stacked to the ceiling,' she said, and shook her head. 'Take it.'
Pete grabbed it off the table with a little too much force, and packing peanuts exploded into the air in a spontaneous snowfall. Jesse laughed and grabbed at them as they fell, and then they were all scooping up the feather-light foam chunks, chasing them around the floor since the slightest breath could move them, and generally laughing like fools as they did. It was weirdly relaxing, and by the time the mess was back in the box, and the box in Pete's big hands, Claire felt breathless and more at ease than she'd been in days. Shared laughter did that, even when you didn't really know the people you were sharing it with.
'We should go,' Pete finally said, and nodded to Dr Anderson. 'Irene. See you at the bar sometime?'
'Soon,' Anderson agreed. She nodded back to Pete, then to Jesse. For Jesse, she added a wink. 'Both of you, take care. I don't know why, but my instincts tell me we're going to be up against it pretty soon. And I always listen to my instincts.'
'Hell yeah.' Jesse winked at her, smiled at Claire, and strode out of the lab, all long legs and swinging long hair. Pete waited for the door to cycle and followed, and in the sudden silence, the place felt very empty, quiet and sterile.
Although a lone packing peanut had escaped to roll around on the floor, which made Claire feel a little bubbly giggle inside. She kept it down, though, because Dr Anderson's smile had disappeared, and she was all business as she peered at Claire's device.
'What do you call this thing?' Dr Anderson asked her, and gently touched some of the oddly angled gauges and gears.
'The Vampire Levelling Adjustment Device,' Claire said. 'VLAD, for short. Well, that was what I was considering calling it, anyway.'
'VLAD,' Anderson repeated, and smiled. 'Really.'
'My boyfriend liked it.'
'Your boyfriend has a questionable sense of humour.'
'He'd be the first to agree with you about that,' Claire said. She'd rolled her eyes when Shane had popped out with that name, off the cuff, but now she thought it was spectacularly appropriate. VLAD. She could totally see it.
So could Dr Anderson, it seemed, because she slowly raised an eyebrow and drew a manicured fingernail along the barrel. 'VLAD,' she said again. 'Yes. I think it seems like the right thing, after all. So. Break it down for me, Claire. How exactly does this work?'
'I'm not sure it does. I mean, it does something, but not necessarily what I want it to do, yet. The goal is to be able to tune in to a specific vampire broadcast emotion - like hunger - and cancel it out. Make the vampire not hungry. Theoretically, it could stop an attack, or at least drastically slow it down and lessen the intensity.' She swallowed hard, because she had Anderson's full and unwavering attention now. 'In theory, it should also be able to cancel out the specific projections that vampires can do to make other people obey them on command, wipe out memories, etc. It levels the playing field. That's why I called it VLAD.'
'You think that it would stop them from attacking someone.'
'Or at least slow them down - at the very least, it would throw them off balance. And it's possible that it would seriously disable them.'
'I don't know about that. Probably temporary?'
'What trials have you run?'
'Not many,' Claire admitted. 'I used it on Myrnin kind of accidentally, but he didn't give me a lot of feedback about it. I think it disturbed him, though. Right now, I'm just calibrating the device to try to locate the specific wavelengths where vampire powers resonate. If I can pin that down, the theory is that I can then create a counter-wave to cancel them.'
'So when a vampire projects fear at his prey - which is one of their key hunting abilities - it would nullify that.'
'Well, it wouldn't stop you from being afraid. I mean, vampires are scary all on their own. But they have a way of pushing you from fear into panic.'
'And their mental abilities - to conceal themselves, to cloud memories, to compel people to do things ...'
Not every vampire had any of those abilities, and as far as Claire had been able to tell, none of the vampires, not even the very strongest like Amelie, had all of them in equal measure. But she nodded. 'Theoretically, it should work,' she said. 'But there's a power problem to solve, and right now VLAD is way too heavy and bulky. Some of that is Myrnin's attempt to help me. He likes - gears.'
'Always has,' Anderson agreed, with a smile that was almost fond. 'First things first - we deconstruct, we test each piece of it, design more streamlined versions ... and we construct a simulation to run in the array to show us exactly what the response is. Once we do that, we test it on a live subject, but not before.'
'On a vampire? For that, we'd have to go back to Morganville.'
'Not at all,' Anderson said. 'This thing, if it works, is far too dangerous to be in Morganville, or anywhere that Amelie can get to it. In fact, there's a strong possibility that-' She paused, because a soft musical tone sounded in the lab, and she swivelled to face a computer monitor set in the wall behind them, concealed from easy view by a half wall. On the monitor, striding down the hallway, was a tight knot of four people, all dressed identically - no, not really, but all in dark suits that seemed identical at first glance. Three men and a woman. Her suit had a skirt, and midheel shoes, and she lacked a tie, but that was really the only way the four of them differed.
'Claire, take VLAD,' Anderson said. She kept watching the monitor for a few more seconds, then nodded as if she'd confirmed her suspicions. 'Come on.'
Claire scooped up the heavy weight and hustled after Dr Anderson as she moved around lab tables to a blank white wall ... and then pressed her hand to an almost invisible panel that was set in it, white on white. It lit up with a shimmering silver glow, and a panel slid open.
There were shelves behind it. Most were crowded with labelled boxes and bottles, but there was a large empty shelf in the bottom, and Claire quickly knelt and slid VLAD into the space. As she pulled back, Anderson pressed her hand on the locking mechanism again, and the door slid shut with barely a whisper.
'Say nothing,' Anderson said. 'If they ask you a direct question, just tell them you don't know anything about the research, you just arrived. It's true. Whatever you do, don't lie to them, but tell them as little as you can possibly get away with.'
'But - who are they?'
'Let's hope you never need to know. I sincerely don't want to involve you in things above your pay grade.'
That was all there was time for, because the outer door slid open, and the first of the four stepped through. They obviously knew the protocol, too. The tallest man came through first, and nodded to Anderson as he stepped aside. He had cool, assessing brown eyes that flicked over Claire briefly before focusing back on the professor.
The other three came in quick succession, each nodding and politely waiting until the last had joined them. The last was a midsize man in a pale blue shirt and bright blue tie - just a shade more unconventional than the others in the group. He walked forward, extending his hand to Dr Anderson.
'Irene,' he said, and smiled. 'Good to see you again.'
'You too, Charles. To what do I owe this visit?'
'Just a spot check, the usual stuff.' He shrugged. 'You understand how it goes. Protocol.'
'I know that having four people assigned is a little heavy for a spot check,' she said. 'Isn't that something you only need one agent for?'
'For you, Dr Anderson, the royal treatment,' he said. 'How are the biologics coming along?'
'Fine,' she said, and flicked a glance at Claire. 'Let's discuss this in private.'
'Just a minute,' said the dark-suited woman, stepping forward. 'Your name is' - she made a show of checking her phone - 'Claire Danvers, correct?'
'She's my lab assistant,' Dr Anderson said. 'What's the point?'
'Well, we're doing background checks,' the agent said. 'I'll need to schedule an in-depth interview.'
'An interview? What for?' Claire asked.
'For security reasons,' said the main guy. 'That's all you need to know. Is she read in on your projects?'
'No, she just arrived,' Dr Anderson said. She turned toward Claire. 'I do some work for these people. They tend to be just a little bit paranoid, I'm afraid, even though what we're working on is pretty mundane. Nothing to worry about.' She sent a smile toward the other woman. 'Look at her, she's eighteen. You seriously think she could be a spy?'
'I think kids younger than eighteen have done amazing and terrible things,' the woman said. 'Miss Danvers, I'll be in touch for your interview. Until then, she has no access to anything related to your projects with us. Understood?'
'Completely understood,' Anderson said. She nodded to Claire. 'You'd best be on your way, Claire. This doesn't concern you.'
'Okay,' Claire said, and hesitated for a second. There was a very weird feeling in the air, in the way these four official types were facing off with her professor. 'Are you sure you don't need me to call anyone, or ...?'
The woman looked irritated. 'Who do you think you're going to call? Beat it before I find a security reason to make you stay.'
Dr Anderson gave her a look that Claire interpreted as go ahead, and Claire collected her backpack and headed for the door to badge out. As she did, she turned back and said, 'Oh, Dr Anderson, should I let your next appointment know you'll be delayed?'
'Yes,' Anderson said, without any hesitation at all. 'Just call Dr Florey and let him know.'
'I will,' she said.
Dr Florey. Jesse and Pete had said they worked at Florey's Bar and Grill. And of course, Jack Florey himself was an entirely imaginary person, the mascot of Fifth East. So there was definitely a message in that.
The door opened, and Claire exited before any of the agents could ask her anything else. She walked quickly down the hall, expecting to hear fast footsteps behind her; she half expected her badge to fail at the next security station, but it flashed green as she swiped it, and she escaped into the academic side of the building.
She had a million questions firing off in her mind, but until she found Dr Anderson alone and able to answer them, there wasn't much point in considering them. Still, the fact that Anderson was apparently neck-deep in spy science was ... well, chilling. More chilling than the vampire stuff, since Claire was accustomed now to thinking of it as normal.
Claire ducked into one of the student lounge areas, found a worn-out, battered couch that didn't have anyone currently napping on it, and took out her phone to look up the number for Florey's. She found it on the Internet, called and asked for Jesse.
The roar on the other end of the phone indicated it was definitely happy hour. 'She's busy,' said the man who'd answered; he had to shout to be heard over the noise. 'Call back later.'
'Wait - I-'
No good. The phone went dead. She called back, and it rang a long time, but no one picked up. Not too surprising. She supposed that they probably couldn't hear it over the shouting. Must have been some kind of sport on TV, from the cheering.
Just call Dr Florey and let him know, Anderson had said. There wasn't any doubt in Claire's mind that she meant Jesse and Pete.
Well, if they wouldn't answer the phone, there was only one thing to do:
Claire had never been to Florey's - she wasn't old enough to legally drink, and exploring places full of ominous strangers after dark ... well, in Morganville, that would have made her survival-deficient. Here, she supposed, it just made her more socially inept, but she was okay with that. She hadn't felt any urge to explore the local party places favoured by students, and Liz wasn't the going-out-to-party type, either. Given the stalking, she was way too paranoid for that.
That didn't mean Claire didn't know where the bars were, though; it was just part of the landscape, like the textbook stores and bubble tea shops and Laundromats. Alcohol was an essential student service, she guessed. At least for some.
She didn't dare take time to walk, so she flagged down a cab and paid the fare to Florey's; once she got there, though, she was more than a little taken aback, because the place was packed. There was a football game on TV, and through the open door she could see that the small space inside was packed with drinking, cheering people. She couldn't even glimpse the bar, much less see if Jesse was working behind it.
There was a guy sitting on a three-legged stool outside of the single wide door. It wasn't Pete, but he was obviously an official bouncer; he gave Claire a blank, assessing look as she walked up, and said, 'ID.' That was all, no hello how are you. Not the chatty type.
She quickly took her wallet out and showed him her identification, and he glanced at it and nodded. 'Drinking age is twenty-one,' he said. 'In case you're a foreign student. No, we don't care if it's sixteen in your home country. Five bucks cover.'
He held out his hand.
'I just need to go in and talk to somebody.'
'Really? Never heard that one before, cutie. Five bucks or get out of line.' Because there were people queued up behind her now, she realised; they were all older than she was. Claire fumbled in her wallet, pulled out a five dollar bill, and passed it over, and he reached down and grabbed a bright neon-green armband out of a box, and snugged it tight on her wrist. 'Water, soft drinks, tea, coffee. Got it?'
'Yes,' she said.
'Go on with you.'
'I - I'm looking for Pete. Or Jesse.'
That got her an entirely different look, one of surprise; the bouncer leant forward a little and studied her again. 'Not a good time,' he said. 'It's busy in there. Jesse's up to her neck in bottle caps and booze, and Pete needs to keep an eye on everything inside. He doesn't need distracting.'
'I have a message for him,' Claire said. It sounded as if Pete would be easier to get to than Jesse, anyway. 'Where do I find him?'
'Beats me. Good luck finding him. Next!'
She had no real option but to push forward into the crowded room, where she was instantly lost in the roar of conversation, clinking bottles and glasses, the sharp smell of spilt beer and sweat and old wood. The glare of the TV screens washed over her, and turned everyone in the darkened room odd colours, with twisted and distorted faces. If she knew anyone here, she probably wouldn't recognise them. Bodies crowded hot against her and surged forward as a runner sprinted forward on the TV; the roar that washed over her was deafening.
I'm never going to find them, she thought in despair, and then she caught sight of Jesse's red hair on the far side of the bar, which was on the far side of the room. It was just a flash, but definitely her - not just the hair, but the pale skin and the self-assured smile.
Finding Pete in this mob looked like a lost cause, but at least Jesse was stationary. Claire swam against the tide, heading for the bar, and then ran into a solid knot of young men and women all waiting three or four deep for their own turn. Claire felt suffocated; she was too short and too thin to make her own space against a horde of people who were either drinking, impatient to be drinking or drunk.
'Hey,' a voice next to her said, and Claire saw a tall young man standing close by, leaning in. 'You need to order something? Let me be your hero.'
'If you want to be my hero, tell the red-headed bartender that Claire needs to see her out back,' Claire said. 'Please?'
He grinned. He was a good-looking guy, cocky and confident of his ability to get anything he wanted. 'As long as you promise to have a drink with me later.'
'I'm not your type,' she said, and gave him a mysterious smile. He raised his eyebrows, looked over the sea of heads and focused on Jesse, then back on Claire.
'Oh,' he said. 'Right. Sorry. Well, what kind of hero would I be if I didn't help out with a hot bartender hook-up? Gotcha covered. You sure I can't bring you back a drink or anything?'
'I'm sure,' Claire said. She'd been to enough parties in Morganville to know that she shouldn't let strangers get her drinks, ever. 'Thanks.'
'Brian,' he said. 'Brian Taylor. Of the Boston Taylors.' He said that last in a funny drawling accent, and - as much as possible, in the crush - gave her an old-fashioned from-the-waist bow. He didn't do it very well, when measured up against Myrnin and his old-school elegance, but she gave him points for effort. 'And you are ...?'
'Claire Danvers, of the nobody in particular,' she said. 'Thanks, Brian. I appreciate it.'
'No worries. Go on. I'll have her meet you out there.'
He pressed forward toward the bar, and Claire let the current of people sweep her back the other way. Something bad must have happened on the screen, because there was a collective groan, followed by violent shouting and gesturing, and she had to duck to avoid getting either a beer in the face, or an elbow in the head.
In the process of ducking, she caught sight of someone in a long white apron coming through the double doors behind the bar, carrying a gigantic tray full of - she assumed - freshly washed bar glasses. And for a second she froze, because everything about that split-second glance, everything, told her she knew him.
It was a flash, nothing more, and the guy carrying the tray was moving fast to deliver the glasses, but she could have sworn, however irrationally, that ...
That it was Shane.
But of course it wasn't. In the next few seconds she stood on tiptoe and tried to get another look, but there were too many people in the way, and besides, Shane was in Morganville. It was a tall guy, broad shoulders, brown hair. There were probably hundreds of thousands of guys fitting that description in Cambridge and Boston. She was missing him so badly that she was projecting his face onto others who just fit some template.
God, she missed him. Suddenly she felt short of breath, flushed, frightened by the intensity of her reaction; she wasn't even sure what she was feeling, really. Sadness, and longing, and a need that just cut the strength out of her.
The tide carried her right, left, finally back to the centre, and she was within striking distance of the door, finally. She had to wiggle her way between incoming patrons, some of whom were high-fiving their buddies, and finally gained the free air on the other side.
The bouncer looked at her, checked his watch, and said, 'Had a good time?'
'Fantastic,' she said. 'Thanks.'
He gave her a wolfish grin, and went back to checking IDs.
Claire made sure he wasn't watching before she turned the corner and headed through the narrow, not very pleasant little walkway between Florey's and its east-side neighbouring building; it was deserted, but it felt ancient and oppressive, and the bricks looked as if they were probably at least as old as the Civil War, if not older. Cambridge, and Boston, had an impressive amount of history that she was only just starting to appreciate.
She wasn't so trusting that she just assumed Brian Taylor (of the Boston Taylors) was willing to help her out of the goodness of his heart, so she loitered in the angle at the edge of that narrow walkway and the wider alley, where the back door of Florey's was, next to a big industrial dumpster that stank even from here of old booze and rotting food. Nobody was there. She waited, and waited, and checked her watch: fifteen minutes, and still no sign of Jesse.
Maybe Brian had blown the whole thing off. Or maybe Jesse just didn't care.
It was another fifteen minutes, and Claire was preparing to try her luck with the bouncer again, when finally, the back door banged open, and Jesse stepped outside. She stretched, all sinuous curves and long legs and arms, and then pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shook one out, and put it in her mouth as she flicked a portable lighter.
'That's a bad habit,' Claire said, stepping out. Jesse took a deep drag, let out a cloud of smoke, and smiled.
'I know,' she said. 'So. What was so urgent I have to spend my precious break time on it? Please don't tell me it's that guy watching your house. I don't have the time right now.'
'Dr Anderson got a visit from some government types while I was still there,' Claire said. 'She wanted you to know about it.'
'Huh.' Jesse frowned and took another long pull on the cigarette, held the smoke, and then let it slowly trickle out in a grey fog. 'Anything particular they seemed to be looking for? Did they ask what she was working on?'
'What do you work with her on? Because no offence, a bartender doesn't seem to be the world's most likely team-up with a physics professor.'
'Hey, I have depth,' Jesse said. 'We have things in common.'
'Yeah, I get it, you're friends, but why would she call you about a visit from the CIA, or whatever they are? She also didn't specifically ask for you. She told me to call Dr Florey. Which means you, or Pete. Right?'
Jesse took her time answering. She took one last drag and stubbed out the cigarette on the brick and finally said, 'It means one of us, yeah. Look, this is really none of your business, Claire, you get that, right? So why are you in it?'
'Because I work with Dr Anderson, and if there's one thing I've learnt about working for scary scientists, it's that you'd better stay aware of exactly what they're into if you want to avoid troubles of your own,' Claire shot back. 'I'm not saying I'm doing it out of general altruism. It's selfish.'
That earned her a glance that was, at least partially, admiring. 'Okay, then. Consider your ass covered. Now. Tell me exactly what she said. Word for word. Can you do that?'
'She said, Call Dr Florey and let him know. That was all.'
'It's a general heads-up,' Jesse said. 'Not run-for-cover DEFCON 4 phrasing. So we're still good. I'll break Pete loose to go over and make sure she's okay.'
'I thought you'd go.'
'It's easier for Pete to cut out than it is me. People notice when I'm gone. Speaking of' - Jesse checked her watch - 'time to water the stampede again. God, I hate game nights, except that my tip jar runneth over.'
Claire nodded. 'Okay. Is there anything you want me to do?'
'Go home,' Jesse said, and winked at her. 'Unless the hot boy you had giving me the message is waiting for you. In that case, hop on that. He was polite.'
'He was just doing me a favour,' Claire said, and felt her cheeks growing a little warm. 'I'm going home.'
'Your loss. Watch your back,' Jesse said. 'If Anderson's got eyes on her, you probably will too, not that they really expect to see anything. You're an eighteen-year-old from Podunk, Texas, after all. They don't know you're secretly a badass.'
'Am I?' Claire asked. Jesse didn't know anything about her - or at least, she'd assumed that to be true.
'Oh, yeah,' Jesse said, and smiled off into the darkness. 'You couldn't possibly have survived Myrnin if you weren't.'
With that stunning comment, she went back inside, and the back door slammed shut behind her. Claire stared after her, thoughts tumbling around in chaos, but what finally stuck was she knows about Myrnin. And Morganville.
Just who was she, anyway?
It was a mystery Claire knew she was going to have to solve ... but not tonight. It was dark, and the alley was creepy, and she suddenly wanted, very badly, to retreat to the safety of their little row house, lock the doors, and call Shane.
She needed to hear his voice.
Feeling safe, as it turned out, wasn't in the cards for her, because when she got home there was an official-looking card stuck to the front door, and when Claire pulled it off she saw that it was from the police department. The note with it said that there had been an attempted break-in reported by a passer-by, and to double-check all interior spaces and locks to ensure that no one had entered.
Derrick wasn't at his usual post, which was nice, because the note made Claire feel even more paranoid, and she rushed in, locked the door, and yelled for Liz. Useless, because of course Liz wasn't home; she would have gotten the note if she had been. It was still and dark inside, and Claire methodically made the rounds, checked all the windows, and finally ended up in her top-floor room with the door shut and all the lights burning brightly. She made an effort to unpack a few more boxes (she was rapidly running out of space for what she'd brought) and finally called it quits, fired up her laptop, and tried to reach Shane on Skype. No answer. After she'd tried his phone and gotten the same nonresponse, she instead tried Eve.
And Eve answered so quickly it was as if she'd been sitting there waiting. Her image came on the screen, face turned pale blue by the computer's reflected glow, and the sight of her was enough to make Claire feel a rush of tears. 'Hey,' Claire managed to choke out. 'Thought I'd check in and see how it was going.'
'Claire Bear!' Eve bounced up and down in her chair, twisted around, and yelled, 'Michael! Get your undead ass in here, guess who's calling?'
'I don't have to guess, and you don't have to yell,' Michael said. Claire hadn't seen him approach, but all of a sudden he was there, leaning over Eve's shoulder to give her a light, sweet kiss. 'Hey, Claire, how's your new place? Are you settling in?'
'Not so much, and it's-' She couldn't think how to describe it, so she picked up the computer and panned it around. 'It's like that.'
'Yow,' Eve said. 'Who picked that paint, a drunk colour-blind frat boy? Because a drunk colour-blind sorority girl would have better sense.'
'I know.' Claire sighed. 'This whole thing ... it's - a lot to take in. I started meeting with my new professor. I like her, I guess. But it looks like it's going to be complicated.'
'Oh, we are so not going to waste time talking about dusty professors and boring classes, unless they're sexy, sexy classes. Let's get to the important info. Do you hate it enough to come running back here to us yet? And yes, I'm actually kind of hoping that will happen, sorry, but we miss you loads, Claire.' Eve, always quick to cry, had a glimmer of tears in her eyes. 'It's not the same around here with you gone.'
'She's right,' Michael said. He would have probably gone on, but Eve put her hand up in front of his mouth.
'Sorry, just need to clarify ... what was that you said?'
'That you were right.'
'Ah. I thought you said that. Just wanted to be sure. Although I think you left out the word always, there, and I know you meant to add it in,' Eve said. 'Just trying to be helpful.'
He managed to hold back his sigh, but only just, and leant forward into the camera. 'Hey,' he said, 'could you please tell my lady here that she doesn't have to harass me all the time?'
'Sorry, I do have to. It's part of the marriage vows. Didn't you read the fine print? To have and to harass.'
'Honey, I hate to break it to you, but you need glasses.'
Eve smacked him, which meant exactly nothing to a vampire; he did her the courtesy of making it seem like he actually noticed. When she tried it again, he caught her hand, held it, and kissed it. Well, that was hotly romantic, and Claire felt the temperature notch up a couple of degrees between them. 'Um, you guys, get a room.'
'Got one,' Eve said, and smiled so serenely she looked like the Mona Lisa. 'Got several, and trust me, we're working on breaking them allllllll in ...'
Claire put her hands over her ears. 'La la la, can't hear you!' Then she took her hands down and said, 'Wait a second, my bedroom?'
'Couldn't exactly use Shane's, could we? It smells like sweat socks and Mentos in there. Besides, if he found out about it, that would be a whole lot more strange conversations around the dinner table than anybody really needs.' Eve waved it away. 'Okay, enough about our luscious sex life, about which you don't want to hear anyway. Amelie invited us to be on the new Morganville City Council. Takes the place of the old vampire-themed one, and it has to be more than fifty per cent humans. I guess they figured including me and Michael would send a message about how seriously she was taking this whole new let's-be-nice-to-each-other thing.'
'So how's that going?'
'So far? Pretty well. Since she came out with her new plans, everybody's been quiet. The vamps don't love it, but so far they're playing by the rules even if they're gritting their teeth while they do it.'
'And Captain Obvious?'
'Silent so far. I get the sense that he's giving this the chance to work out.' Michael automatically referred to Captain Obvious as he, even though the latest incarnation of the pro-human resistance leader was, in fact, female. And their friend. 'Let's hope everybody can keep it together this time.'
'Let's hope,' Claire said. 'And like Shane always says, pray all you want, but keep the shotguns loaded.'
It was, in fact, a favourite saying of Shane's, and they all smiled at it ... but then Michael and Eve's smiles faded, and they exchanged a look.
A look Claire didn't like. 'What?' she asked. Neither of them answered. 'Where's Shane?'
'Working,' Michael said, before Eve could answer. 'Sorry. He's a little hard to get hold of right now or I'd link him in. He misses you, though.'
'Yeah, I can tell, he's been really texting me all the time.'
Eve's eyes got round. 'Really?'
'Well, in his defence, his hands are really big,' Eve said. 'He's never been that good at it.'
'I hope you're just talking about texting,' Michael said.
'Well, you can hope,' Eve said calmly, and Michael choked back a laugh. Eve sobered, then, and said, 'Seriously, Michael's right. Shane doesn't do anything but miss you. All the time. But he promised you he wouldn't bug you, and he isn't. He's just ... giving you space. Takes a lot of strength.' Michael put a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up at him and smiled. 'If it was Michael telling me to wait, I couldn't do it. I'm just not that strong. Or that patient.'
'You forgave Shane awfully fast,' Claire said. 'Both of you.'
Michael shrugged. 'I lied to him, and he's hardwired to trust me, from all the time we've spent together growing up. So I don't blame him for believing me. I hear I was pretty convincing.' He looked grim about that, and she knew it still hurt like a raw open wound inside him. He'd been controlled by another vampire, made to push away those who loved him, like Eve and Shane and Claire. He'd done it in one bold move, just by kissing Claire and telling them all he'd been doing it for a while.
They'd believed him. For a while.
But they hadn't believed Claire.
'I still owe you,' he told her quietly. 'Believe me, I haven't forgotten.'
'Better not,' she said, but she smiled as she said it. 'I'm not still mad, Michael.'
'I know. But it doesn't matter whether you are, or aren't. I still owe you.'
She left it at that, because he wasn't going to yield, and moved the conversation on to other things. Eve had been invited to join an exclusive Morganville club of the wealthiest ladies in town, all of whom were snobs; she'd turned it down (although she had considered joining just to cause them grief). Then she'd accepted an invite from the vampires to join some kind of tea association. 'I figure that if the living dead have any kind of blue-haired old ladies, it would be the tea association,' Eve said. 'They're too polite to be rude to me to my face. So, that'll be fun. I'll just pretend not to understand when they're all subtle about their dissing.'
'And she's going to be on her best behaviour,' Michael said. Eve mouthed silently, not likely, and Claire covered her smile with her hand. 'Listen, I know it's late, so you get to bed. Anything you want me to tell Shane ...?'
'Are you really going to tell him all the sexy romantic things I want to say?'
'Then just tell him to call me when he can,' she said. 'Or text. If he can get his big fingers on the tiny little keys.'
She needed a hug, but she settled for extravagant air kisses from Eve, and a movie-star fond smile from Michael, and then she logged off to face the empty, cold house that had less personality than a broom closet in what she still thought of as home: the Glass House.
Still not sleepy, Claire unpacked some posters, unrolled them, and pinned them up on the walls. One was a gift from her parents, a poster of Hawkeye from the Avengers movie, because they knew she thought he was cute, and she wanted that bow and arrow, badly. A couple of her favourite band posters. Another movie one-sheet, this one from The Hunger Games. Katniss was cool, and again, she coveted the bow and arrows. Definitely of use in her normal life. Well, life before MIT ...
She froze in the act of pushing the thumbtacks in on that one, because she heard the downstairs door rattle. Then, a knock.
Claire slipped down the steps, careful to walk on the edges near the banister to avoid creaks, and risked a quick peek out through the peephole. She expected loathsome Derrick, but what she saw surprised her - a group of people, boys and girls, talking among themselves.
And in the front of the group was Nick, who'd walked her home.
She unlocked and swung the door open. 'Hey, Nick,' she said. 'Guys.'
Most of them smiled at her. A few were too deep in their own things to bother. Nick's smile was especially bright.
'Hi, Claire. Look, I'm sorry to bother you, but we were on our way to crack some books at the coffee shop. You like coffee? And books? I figure you would, since you enrolled here, and it's kind of a prerequisite.'
'That's his idea of logic flow,' one of the girls said - a cute African-American girl, wearing a knitted cap with earflaps and dangling yarn balls. She rolled her eyes. 'No wonder he needs to crack books, because he sucks at critical path. I'm Kass, by the way.'
'Hi, Kass. Um, thanks, Nick, that's really nice of you, but I - I'm waiting for my housemate. We've got dinner on tonight. Maybe some other time?'
'There's a party later, is what Nick the Quick is failing to mention,' one of the other boys said. He was a weedy kid about Shane's age, very self-assured and hipster-chic with his tight, too-small buttoned sweater, jeans with the hems turned up, and pork-pie hat he'd probably stolen from the character on Breaking Bad. 'So you should blow off dinner and come with.' He had his arm around a plump blonde girl who had pink streaks in her hair and matching cat-eye glasses, and a retro cotton-candy-pink dress. 'Right, Sarah?'
'Right!' she agreed, and grinned. 'We might get tattoos, too. I was thinking about a dragon.'
'Tattoos,' Claire said, and pretended to think it over. 'Well ... that sounds fun, but honest, I have to stay home. You guys have a good time. And Nick-' Never going to happen, she wanted to say, but she couldn't, in front of his friends. Which was probably why he'd brought them, to be honest. 'I'll see you later, okay?'
'Okay,' he said. 'One more time: study, books, party, tattoos. Sold?'
'No,' she said. 'But thanks. Have a good time.'
'Oh, we will,' the other boy said, and kissed Sarah, who giggled. 'Your loss, Tex - what's her name again?'
'Claire,' Nick said, still watching her. 'Her name is Claire.'
'Right. Well, mine's Robert, but everybody calls me Drag. Don't ask.'
'I won't,' she said, and stepped back over the threshold. 'Good night. Be safe, you guys.'
'You too!' It was a chorus, and the group wandered off with their backpacks and enthusiasm, and for a moment, she badly wanted to change her mind and join them. Just be part of something again, and not stuck here in the dark.
But she closed and locked the door, and went back upstairs instead.
No Liz. Claire did her e-mail, called her parents, and finally changed into her pyjamas. She was worried enough by that time to call Liz's cell, and got an answer, finally.
Liz was drunk. Epically. From the sound of it, she was either at a bar, or a very noisy party. Claire couldn't get much out of her except that she wasn't planning on coming home soon, and yes, she'd take a cab.
'Everybody's having fun but me,' Claire muttered, and threw her cell onto the nightstand in annoyance as she wrapped the covers tight. She turned the lights off, and tossed and turned, unable to sleep for the unfamiliar creaks and pops of the old house.
She slid out of bed and padded downstairs to the kitchen without turning on the lights, opened the fridge and pulled out the carton of milk to pour herself a glass. She'd just put the milk back and shut the door when she heard the sound of the front door opening, and almost said, How drunk are you, anyway, but something stopped her.
Something subliminal that she didn't realise until a full ten seconds later: she hadn't heard a car, or Liz stumbling up the steps, which she assumed Liz would be doing.
This was utterly quiet.
Claire grabbed her milk glass and backed away into the narrow pantry closet, where she crouched down, bathed in the aroma of old spices; there were some big packs of toilet paper and paper towels in here, bought from some big-box outlet store, and she quickly moved them in front of her, just in case. She hadn't shut the pantry door completely, so she knew she'd see when the lights came on ...
But the lights didn't come on. Instead, she saw the glow of a flashlight sweep across the kitchen, and then the pantry door whipped open and the flashlight bored straight in. She ducked behind the wall of paper towels, and after a heart-stopping second, the flashlight moved away, and the pantry door swung shut.
It was all done so quietly.
Claire waited until she heard the stairs creaking, and then moved the paper wall out of the way to move to the doorway. She couldn't see much, but she thought the kitchen was empty. Whoever it was had gone upstairs; she heard footsteps overhead, so they'd gone into Liz's room.
The thought made her heart race, and she slid a butcher knife out of the block, just in case. Shane had taught her the right way to knife fight, but that didn't mean the idea didn't terrify her; if Derrick got his hands on her, she was done. He was too big, and too crazy.
Stay away, Liz. Just stay where you are.
Claire picked up the kitchen phone and got a blessedly clear dial tone. She dialled 911 with shaking fingers, and whispered the information to the operator that she was hiding in the kitchen with a knife, and there was someone in the house. The operator sounded unimpressed, but professional about it, and promised the police were on the way, and to hide until they arrived but keep the phone on.
Which Claire intended to do, but then she heard a man's voice from upstairs, and static, like there would be on a walkie-talkie. She edged to the kitchen door, looking up at the stairs, and saw a black-clothed man walk out of her room, and another come out of Liz's. She ducked back inside and flattened against the kitchen wall, but it didn't seem like either of them had spotted her.
One of them was talking. '-Nothing. Nobody home, and we didn't find anything. Looks like a normal college girl to me, sir. She's got Hunger Games on the wall and textbooks and clothes, not a lot else here. Bed was unmade but she's not here, we looked. Went through all the boxes, nothing ... no, sir, I'm sure. She's probably out with friends.'
He was talking about her. And this wasn't Derrick, not even if Derrick had brought a friend. This sounded calm and professional. The two men came down the steps and went out the front door without pausing, and closed it quietly behind them.
Then they locked it.
Claire rushed to the peephole and stared out. In the glow of the streetlights, she saw two completely normal-looking guys in dark shirts and pants heading down the steps. Athletic, mid-twenties to early thirties. Short haircuts. They could have been Jehovah's Witnesses or CIA, she had no idea.
But either way, they were able to enter and leave the house without leaving a mark.
Dr Anderson had been right to move the device to safekeeping, because Claire was almost sure that whoever these guys were, they were looking for evidence that the little student from Morganville was something else again.
And she knew, somehow, that it would mean a lot of trouble if they found out the truth.
The phone was still on, and the operator's voice buzzing like a bee. Claire held it up to her ear and said, 'Sorry, false alarm - it was my roommate. We're okay here.'
There was more to it, because the operator was worried Claire was under duress, and the police still showed up to check, but Claire assured them it was all okay.
It wasn't though.
It really wasn't.
And then Liz came home, too drunk to make it up the steps on her own, and vomited all over the bathroom, and Claire had to clean it up and put her to bed and deal with the pitiful hangover that came later ... but all the time, what she was really thinking was, who's after me? Why?
And, from time to time, why hasn't Shane called?