Claire wasn't sure that the police were actually after Shane, but if they were, staying in plain view was a bad idea. She bought (over his protests) an MIT hoodie for Shane from one of the souvenir shops, and he put it on with an annoyed sigh. She pulled the hood up for him. 'Just trust me,' she said. 'You really need to lay low. These police aren't going to be the kind that you can call off with a plea to the Founder; they're serious stuff. And don't forget, my own place is a crime scene. If they've connected me to you and found your weapons, it looks even worse.'
'Okay,' he said, 'I can see your point. So where are we going to go? Got any friends who don't mind hiding wanted fugitives? Because it usually takes a little longer than a few days to make those.'
Shane had a point, and she didn't really have an answer, but it didn't really matter. Shane had already pulled out his phone and checked something. He scrolled and hit keys, and put the phone to his ear.
'Who are you calling?' she asked.
'Pete,' he said. 'Look, the guy hangs out with a vampire chick and is some kind of midnight vigilante. He probably isn't too judgemental when it comes to hiding other people's secrets.'
'You think he knows about Jesse?'
'Yeah, I'm sure he does. Hold on ...' Shane turned partially away from her, focusing on the new voice in his ear. 'Hey, man, it's Shane - yeah, I know about the cops. Speaking of that, I need someplace to get out of sight. You got any suggestions?' He listened for a few seconds, then made a scribbling gesture to Claire, and she dug out a pen and paper and handed it over. Shane wrote something down and handed it back to her. It was an address. 'Got it. I owe you, Pete. Big time.'
He hung up and dropped the phone in his hoodie's pocket. Claire held up the address. 'Where's he sending us?'
'His place,' Shane said. 'It's not far.' He offered her his elbow, and she threaded her arm through the crook, and they set off toward the south, down the tree-lined street. Funny how it felt so familiar, too ... just another street in another town, but the two of them were together, and that made it home. Even knowing what she did - Liz missing, the police after Shane - she felt oddly peaceful now. Whatever was coming, they'd be facing it together.
Shane winced and let go of her to rub at his arm beneath the hoodie's sleeve. 'It's nothing,' he said before she could ask. 'Itches like crazy, and it burns. I've never been allergic to anything, but maybe that's what it is. Maybe I'm just allergic to hot, smart college girls.'
'Ha, ha,' she said, and reclaimed his other arm. 'Maybe you're allergic to being in trouble all the time.'
'Nah, I'm completely inoculated against that one. It's in the genes.' Shane checked his piece of paper, then his phone's map, and nodded up the street. 'One block up, then right. His place will be on the left.'
There was no sign of police presence, at least, as they made the final turn and spotted the address on the note. It was a squat brick building dwarfed by the taller, more elegant row houses on either side, and to Claire's eyes it looked more like a storage shed than a home. The front door was a faded green, plain wood, no design. She didn't see any windows on this side of it.
'Is he here?' she asked.
'No, but he told me how to get in.' Shane walked up, counted bricks, and pulled one out. Behind it, he found the key, and used it to open the door. 'After you.'
'No, seriously, you go first. I hardly know this guy. What if he's working with the people who took Liz?'
'Pete?' Shane shook his head, evidently finding the whole thought funny, though Claire felt it had been a pretty reasonable caution. 'Never happen. But okay. I'll protect you.'
She hit him in the shoulder. 'I don't need you to protect me.'
'Then why am I going first?'
'So you can take the first punch while I throw the second?'
'So I'm bait? Ouch. You've been in Morganville way too long, girl.' But he was grinning when he said it, and he went in first, alert and ready for anything. She came in behind him and shut the door - always cut off the ability of an enemy to sneak up behind you, if you can - and locked it. 'Pete? Anybody here?' He shook his head at the continued silence. 'He said he doesn't have any roommates. I think we're good.'
They came down a short, narrow hall into one largish room that served as the entire house. It had been fixed up with some kind of portable dividers on wheels into a sleeping area with a neatly made bed (Pete, Claire thought, was a much better housekeeper than Shane ever had been), a clean little kitchenette with a two-person table, and a small living area with a couch and TV. Not much else, except books. Pete had stunning amounts of them, lining every inch of the walls in custom-built cases. Shane whistled when he looked around, and shook his head. 'Okay, I thought I knew Pete, but I would have pegged him for a magazine guy, at best,' he said. 'And only Sports Illustrated, at that. Think he's read all these?'
'I would have,' Claire said. She wasn't very often jealous, but somehow, this little, neat, clean place seemed perfect to her. The only thing that had its own separate walls was the bathroom, tucked into a corner - it held a toilet, sink, counter, tiled floor, and corner shower. She peeked in, feeling like an intruder and, at the same time, a tourist in somebody else's life. She liked it. Pete looked like an orderly, calm, interesting kind of guy.
'I'm going to have to give him shit for all this,' Shane said, as he wandered around. 'He lives alone and makes his bed? Who does that?'
'People who like things neat?'
'It's not natural.' Shane turned as she walked toward him. The light from the windows on the sides of the house caught his face, and she winced a little at the sight of the bruises - they were getting spectacular now, but probably didn't hurt nearly as much as before. He looked a little tired, she thought, and although he was trying not to show it, a little worried, too. He knew how alone they were here, away from home. And how vulnerable. Plus, he'd be missing his weapons, most likely.
'So,' he said. 'Here we are.'
'Yes. Here we are.' She didn't give him anything more than that, and he continued to watch her warily, as if he was no longer sure what she was thinking. She took a step closer, and then another one, until she had to look up into his face. His brown eyes were half closed, and she knew that look ... sharp with longing.
'Claire - we're both in the same place, but ... are we together?'
It was a brave question. A lot of people wouldn't have asked it, Claire thought; it would have been easier to just assume things, pretend, gloss it over. But that wasn't Shane. And he didn't flinch when she said, 'I want to be. Do you?'
'I can safely say that there is nothing I want more in my life,' he said. 'Problem is, you have to want it too. Both magnets have to attract.'
'Opposite poles,' she agreed, and took that last step forward, until she was pressed against him. His arms slowly went around her ... not like they had on the street, full of confidence and strength, but testing her. Seeing what she was going to do. 'We could talk all day about magnetism and poles and the Pauli exclusion principle and spin glass effect, or I could just do something about it.'
She rose up on tiptoes and kissed him. The second their lips met, she felt his tense muscles go slack, and she could almost feel the relief that washed through him. And the laugh that vibrated against her lips from his. 'I love it when you talk dirty physics,' he said, and then the tension was back in his muscles, but it was the good kind, and he picked her up and collapsed backward to Pete's neatly made bed, which bounced and creaked in protest. Claire let out a surprised burst of laughter, too, and straddled him to lean over and kiss him again, deeply, sweetly, with a core of heat that never failed to scorch but didn't burn. It wasn't that she'd forgotten how amazing this was, but that her body had deliberately hidden the memory from her to protect her from the longing, and now all those nerve endings were awake, remembering, and craving it again. His big hands held her shoulders, then slid up to caress her face in warmth, and as she unzipped his hoodie and pulled his T-shirt up, he shivered and arched against her. He let out a sigh as her own hands moved up over his abdomen and up to his chest. His skin felt amazing - soft and warm as satin against her palms.
He hooked a finger on the collar of her shirt, just about where the buttons started, and as she sat up, he said, 'Mind if I help you with this? Because I think I need to see what you're wearing under there.'
She smiled and moved his hand away, and unbuttoned the first button. 'There,' she said. 'How's that?'
'I think I need at least - how many buttons do you have? Six more.'
She nipped gently at his full lower lip. 'Only if you take off the shirt.'
He sat up as if he'd been jolted with a cattle prod, and the hoodie and T-shirt came off so fast she was afraid he'd pull a muscle. Oh God, he was lovely; even with the bruises, which made her ache inside, he was so incredibly gorgeous. It made her breath catch in her throat. So did the luminous light in his eyes as he settled back down on the pillows.
'Your turn,' he said, and put his hands behind his head. 'Six buttons.'
'Only if you don't want to keep that last one on the shirt.'
She smiled, and started unbuttoning. One at a time, slowly, watching the fire intensify in his eyes, feeling his body tensing under hers even as he tried to look utterly relaxed.
The cool air kissed her shoulders as she slipped off the blouse. 'Pretty,' he said. His voice sounded different now, low and rough as a cat's tongue. 'I guess I have to see if that bra has a matching set of panties.'
Neither of them stayed on very long, though.
Lying there, drowsy and warm in Shane's arms, Claire couldn't imagine how she'd walked away from him. From this. She'd had lots of frank discussions with the more worldly Eve about sex, about what could be good and bad about it. The worse, Eve had always said, was when the guy was all about getting his own thrills and treated the girl like a posable doll. Sure sign of a going-nowhere relationship.
Shane wasn't like that, not at all. It was a collaboration, and a partnership, and he left her feeling joyous and sated and utterly, utterly calm. They had plenty to worry about, but not here. Not between them. She made a sleepy, happy sound and pressed herself closer to him; his arms were around her waist, and he made a solid, hot blanket that pressed against her back. Sometime during the afternoon they'd managed to pull the covers up over them, which was good, because their clothes were somewhere scattered on the floor in entirely random order.
Shane kissed the back of her neck, drawing a delighted shiver. 'I missed you,' he whispered.
She giggled a little. 'I could tell. That first time was a little bit fast.'
He groaned. 'You're killing me.'
'Only a little. The second was much better.'
He licked her ear, which made her let out a little shriek of protest, and she twisted around to face him. He propped up on one elbow, looking down at her. His hair was a mess, and she pushed it out of his eyes. 'I love you.'
'I know.' He took her hand in his, and kissed the palm; his lips felt warm and damp and soft on her skin. 'And I let you down. I know that. I'm not saying I won't make mistakes; I will. But I promise that I won't make that particular one again.'
'Fair enough,' she said. 'I make plenty of mistakes, too, you know.'
'You mean, besides getting involved with me?'
She shook her head and kissed him. It was a drowsy, lazy kiss this time, full of honey and joy. 'I wish it could be like this. Just ... this. All the time.'
'Life doesn't work that way, you know that.'
'What if it did?'
'We'd be living in a cardboard box and starving to death?'
'Wow, you really know how to take the sexy away, don't you?'
'It's a gift.' Shane's fingers stroked down her back, then up, in a mesmerisingly random pattern. 'We should probably get up and make some dinner. Plus, I guess we should wash the sheets before Pete comes back. Seems like good manners.'
'I'm amazed you even thought of it.'
'I'm on my best behaviour.'
'Mmm, I could easily argue with that. Oh ...' She caught her breath, suddenly, because he tried to prove her right. He kissed her shoulder, then her neck, then her mouth, and then the lazy peace turned intense again, for a while. This time, though, they were truly exhausted, and it took at least another half an hour of sleepily murmuring to each other before Claire finally managed to convince him to get up, dress, and help her strip the sheets and pillowcases from the bed. Pete had one of those tiny little washer/dryer combo units tucked in the corner, and she put everything in with detergent, then showered and left her hair wet as Shane squeezed in after she stepped out. There wasn't room for two, which was probably good, considering how sore her muscles already felt. A good kind of sore, but still.
They were both dressed, if just barely, when the door rattled, the lock turned, and Pete stepped inside. He flipped the deadbolt behind him, and stopped dead at the end of the hall. Claire and Shane were sitting innocently on the couch; she was reading one of Pete's books, a science fiction classic by Isaac Asimov she'd been meaning to find, and Shane was flipping channels on the TV.
Pete said, 'Why are the sheets off my bed?'
'Just trying to help you out, do a little housework,' Shane said blandly. 'Hey, man. Thanks for letting us stay for a while.'
'If by a while you mean until dawn, then yeah, cheers,' Pete said. 'You've got serious heat on you, man. I'm not just talking about the cops. Scary suit-wearing types, you know the ones, Claire. You've seen them before. They were looking for you, and they came looking for Shane, too. Whatever you're in, you're in deep. About my bed, did you two-?'
'Look at it this way, we did laundry,' Shane said. 'If it was the couch ...'
'This is why I hate house guests,' Pete said. 'So. Pizza okay?'
They both nodded. Claire said, 'I'm sorry about the bed, Pete. Thanks.'
'I'm just messing with you. Hell, that's the most fun that bed's had in ages. If you're about to ask if I've heard from Jesse, no, I haven't. She never showed for her shift, which bugged the crap out of Mick, believe me; he was already stressed enough about you and your big bag of fun illegal weapons you were keeping on his property, Shane. Why the hell didn't you tell me about that?'
'What would you have done?'
'That's why I didn't tell you. Look, man, it's not that I'm some nutcase with a gun collection; everything I have in there goes toward keeping me and Claire safe from what you already know is out there.'
Pete wasn't stupid, and his eyes narrowed and turned flinty-dark as he reached for the telephone. 'Jesse's not the problem here.'
'Jesse's a vampire. Whether or not she's trouble, she's proof that there could be others out here who aren't so well behaved. You hang out with her ... you know how dangerous she can be. Right?'
'She's one of the least dangerous people I know, because she does exactly what she means to do, every time. She's never lost control of herself, not even once. Can't say that for a lot of humans.' He held up a finger to pause the conversation, and ordered a pizza delivery. He didn't ask what they wanted, which Claire thought was probably fair enough; they'd abused his hospitality a bit, though he probably hadn't expected anything else. Once he'd hung up, he went right back to the subject at hand. 'I swear to God, if your troubles drag her out into any kind of real trouble, the ass-kicking you got last night will be a love tap, and I will use your skull for a hockey puck.'
Shane considered that for a second in silence. Claire could tell he took Pete seriously, despite the differences in their height. Whatever fighting skills Pete had, clearly Shane had seen them and respected them. 'Understood,' he said. 'But I don't think any of it's Claire's fault. It seems like Jesse's in deep with this Dr Anderson, and the government piece is coming from there. Cops, I've got no idea. I didn't break any laws.'
'She did,' Pete said, and nodded toward Claire. 'They're saying you might have killed your roommate. And that Shane helped you. And by the way, your weapons stash doesn't make you look any less guilty of that.'
'I didn't kill anybody,' Claire said. 'Liz was abducted. Shane saw them. And Jesse's trying to trace the van. Look, Shane's got pictures.'
Shane pulled them up on the phone and held them out, and Pete looked them over. He seemed accepting of that, at least; he handed it back without comment except a nod. Then he went into the kitchenette and got out paper plates. 'Beer?' he asked them. 'I'm not going to card you. That's the day job.'
'I'll have one,' Shane said, just as Claire said no; it wasn't that she was some kind of anti-alcohol crusader, she just didn't like beer, overall. Pete brought her a Coke instead, and then he settled in the small armchair off to the side of the couch. They all watched the TV flicker on in silence, a cold substitute for a fire, and finally Shane said, 'So, I guess you two already know each other, but Pete, this is Claire, my-'
'Fiancee,' Claire said. She wasn't sure why she felt compelled to say it now, of all times and places, but she was. Shane turned his head and stared at her, and the surprise (and pleasure) in his face made her smile. 'Hey, you asked me, remember? And I said yes? Months ago. I just thought it might be time to get on with saying it.'
'Fiancee,' Shane repeated. 'As in, I'm going to marry her.'
'Yeah?' Pete asked. 'Congrats. When?'
'We haven't talked about that yet,' Claire said. 'Soon?'
'Soon,' Shane agreed. Their fingers twined together, and he moved closer to her on the couch. 'Of course, it could be a jailhouse romance if we're not careful. And that would suck. We already did that a whole bunch, early on. Me in a cell, you outside ...'
'Well, for variety, maybe it'd be me in the cell this time, and you out there figuring out how to get me free. Although I'm just afraid that you might do something crazy to make that happen.'
'It might involve illegal activity, yeah,' Shane said. 'I wouldn't even mind ending up in jail with you, but they'd probably separate us. And that wouldn't be what I had in mind. I guess our only option is to stay out of the cage, then.'
'I think it's a goal,' she agreed. 'Did you hear anything at all from Jesse, Pete?'
'I got a text, she said she was following a lead. That was it. I'm hoping she'll end up here soon ... she usually just drops in without notice. Vampires aren't real respecters of personal privacy, seems like.'
The washer dinged to let them know the cycle was done, and Claire quickly rose and took care of loading the wet sheets into the dryer. It seemed like the least she could do. Pete and Shane didn't chat. It wasn't like Shane and Michael, who had an easy, almost unconscious connection that neither of them really had to think about much; Shane had to read Pete, try to figure out what he really meant and felt. Maybe that connection would develop, over time, but for now, Pete just seemed a little guarded, a little wary.
Maybe that was just his default setting.
There was a knock on the front door, and Pete headed for it. Shane got up, too, frowning. 'That was too quick for pizza,' he said. Pete nodded without pausing; he had a baseball bat hidden in the shadows near the doorway, and he grabbed the length of wood on his way. Then he checked the peephole.
'Is it the police?' Claire asked. She felt a little short of breath, suddenly, because if it was, there didn't seem to be an easy way out of this place. Defensible, but limited retreat. And they couldn't fight their way out, not against regular human police. It would be wrong on every level, even if they weren't guilty.
'No,' Pete said. There was an odd tension in his voice, and he stepped back from the door, opened it, and said, 'Get in, quick.'
It happened fast - one second he was standing alone on the doorstep, and the next ... the next, there were three people crowding the hallway with him. Two supporting a limp, maybe unconscious third.
As Pete slammed and locked the door, Claire bolted forward. So did Shane.
And Eve let out a strangled little sound that was half glad cry, half sob.
She and Jesse were supporting the dead weight of a very pale, very still Michael Glass.
With a wooden stake in his heart.
'Christ, is that guy dead?' Pete blurted out, when he saw the stake. Shane ignored him, grabbed Michael's weight by the shoulders, and helped Jesse carry him over to the couch. Eve followed, and Claire hugged her hard when she paused to try to catch her breath. She was shaking all over.
'He's okay,' Claire said, and rubbed her back. 'Eve, it's okay, it'll be okay ...'
'Pull it out,' Shane snapped at Jesse, who had crouched down beside the couch to stare at the stake in Michael's chest. 'Hurry up, he's too young, it could really hurt him.'
'Stop! Don't touch it. It's spring-loaded,' Jesse said, and pointed to a symbol burnt into the side of the wood. 'I know this mark. It's a Daylight Foundation inventory sign. It's got a silver payload built in. If you try to remove it, it'll flood his heart with silver. It'll kill him.'
Shane had reached out for the stake, but now he pulled back, eyes narrowed and simmering with fury. 'Who the f**k is the Daylight Foundation?'
'Trust me, nobody you need to screw around with,' Jesse said. 'There's a method for disarming this thing, but we need to be very careful. I've got some experience. Let me handle it.'
'What the hell happened out there?' Shane demanded. No one answered him, not even Eve; she was staring down at Michael, her face ashen. Claire held on to her, because it seemed that, after having made the single-minded effort to get Michael to safety, Eve had completely lost all strength to keep herself upright. She wasn't crying. She wasn't doing anything, except ... waiting, with a kind of fatal, desperate patience. The ruby wedding ring flashed and trembled on her clenched left hand. 'Claire. Claire. Go check the door, make sure nobody's coming after them.'
She didn't want to leave Eve, but he was right; it was important. Pete seemed rooted to the spot, staring at the completely unexpected second vampire in his living room; he seemed to be rethinking his whole life strategy, in that single moment.
'Go,' Eve whispered. 'I'm okay.' She stood on her own, somehow, and Claire squeezed her arm and rushed to the door to look through the peephole.
There was a streetlight conveniently situated outside that cast a harsh glow over the sidewalk, which seemed deserted except for Jesse's car, parked across the street. The peephole didn't offer much of a glimpse off to the sides, but Claire was pretty certain that everything was clear. She turned back and gave a thumbs-up sign to Shane, who nodded and looked down at Michael again with tense, desperately still silence.
Then the door behind Claire's back vibrated under a sudden, very strong volley of knocking. Too strong. Claire yelped and whipped around to stare out the peephole again, and saw a pallid face under a shock of wildly windblown black hair. No human being was naturally that pale.
She unlocked it and said, 'Get in, quick!' because it was Myrnin ... and behind him, Oliver.
The two vampires entered in a rush of displaced air, and Oliver quickly shut and locked the door again. He leant against it, seeming tired - weirdly - and Claire had a chance to think, Why is Oliver here? Because even though he'd been exiled from Morganville by Amelie, she didn't think he had any reason to be poking around this part of the country. Oliver looked ragged, too - and dressed down, in worn blue jeans grimy with oil, a faded, loose T-shirt with some kind of wolf design on it, and his long, salt-and-pepper curly hair worn in a loose, sloppy ponytail in back. It didn't seem to have had a wash recently. Neither did he.
And Myrnin ... well, at least he wasn't dressed any worse than he usually was, but he seemed very pale, and not any cleaner than Oliver. They'd both been travelling hard, she guessed, although vampires didn't really smell bad, unless they came in contact with things that did. From the general miasma around the two of them, they'd been around rotting garbage for a while.
Myrnin stared at her for a long few seconds, then scraped his disorderly hair back from his face, and said, 'They don't have you, then. But do they have it?'
'It? What does that mean?' Claire asked. He didn't answer her. He just hugged her, suddenly and violently, and before she could even make a surprised sound he was gone. It was like being hugged by a snowman, only less ... moist. And more unpleasantly fragrant.
Oliver said, 'We went to see Irene Anderson. Myrnin has a good relationship with her, even now. However, she was ... unhelpful. She had no idea where you had gone, only that you had taken the device with you from her laboratory.'
'I - wait, what? I didn't take anything!'
'Oh,' Myrnin said, and turned back toward her from where he stood next to Eve. 'Oh, that is such very, very bad news. Because if you didn't, someone did. Someone with laboratory access, since I personally reviewed the records.'
Myrnin sounded ... sane. Despite the tangled hair, the dirty homeless-style clothes, the smell of garbage and the whiff of things much worse. He looked taut, worried and paranoid, but not crazy.
So, things were very, very bad, then. Claire sometimes thought of him as only recreationally crazy; when things were life and death, her boss (and friend) seemed to make a concerted effort to view things with icy precision. He paid for it later, but she'd never been less than grateful to him for making the effort.
'You're saying someone broke into Dr Anderson's lab and took VLAD.'
His eyebrows rose. 'VLAD?'
'The - the device. Vampire Levelling Adjustment Device.' She realised, belatedly, that Oliver, who was decidedly not in her inner circle of people she trusted, was listening, but he refrained from comment. His attention was fixed on Michael, as if he actually cared.
Which, knowing Oliver, he actually might, though he'd no doubt deny it.
She was almost sure Myrnin would glower at her for naming her pet project after a famous vampire - Vlad Tepes, commonly thought to be the historical inspiration for Count Dracula - but he only shook his head in impatience. 'We must go, and quickly. We can't stay here,' Myrnin said. 'Oliver and I are being hunted.'
'Whom, my dear girl, whom, grammar really has descended to the lowest-'
'I have no idea.' His tone was flat, and there were dangerous embers of red in his eyes. 'When I do, there will be reckoning for Michael.'
'He took a blow meant for me,' Oliver said. 'Stupid. I could likely have avoided it if he'd given me the chance.'
That made Eve spin around and level him with a white-hot glare. 'Likely? Likely? You ass**le, he saved your life!'
Normally, having a human use that tone with him would have made Oliver snarl, show fangs and 'teach her a lesson'... but he did none of that. He only looked away, and Eve glared a moment more before kneeling down at Michael's side and taking his limp, pallid hand in hers.
'He feels cold,' she told Jesse. 'Please, if you're going to do something-'
'I'm thinking,' Jesse snapped. 'Just quiet, all of you. I've only seen this twice before.'
'What happened?' Shane asked. 'The other two times?'
She didn't answer, which meant, Claire thought with a cold shiver, that the vampires who'd had those stakes in their hearts likely hadn't survived.
Jesse finally said, 'Right. There's no safe way to disarm it. Oliver, I need you.'
He didn't move until she turned her head, frowning at him, and then moved to Michael's side. 'Yes?'
'You're faster and stronger than I am,' Jesse said. She didn't say it as a compliment, just a simple statement of fact. 'I need you to pull that stake out, straight and as fast as you can. I will put my hand over the wound in case the silver triggers; I may be able to stop it from entering his bloodstream.'
'At the cost of your hand,' he pointed out.
'No other choice,' Jesse said. 'I'm old enough. I can survive. Daylighters haven't killed me yet.'
Claire held her breath as Oliver nodded, reached down, and took hold of the stake. He locked his gaze with Jesse's, and she counted down. Three, two, one.
On one, Oliver moved in a blur, faster than the human eye could catch, and Jesse's hand slapped in place, covering the still-open wound as the wooden stake pulled free. Or at least, that was what Claire presumed happened, because she didn't actually see it, only Jesse's hand on Michael's chest, and the stake moving at bullet speed to hit and shatter on the far brick wall.
It splattered liquid silver all over the wall.
Jesse didn't move, though she made a sound - a small one, in the back of her throat. And then Claire realised why.
Her hand was covered in silver. Dripping with it. And she couldn't move until Michael's wound healed, or he'd be poisoned, and at his young age, likely die quickly.
Her hand was burning. Sizzling. Claire clapped her hand over her mouth to hold in the nausea as she saw skin erode and tendons working beneath, and still Jesse sat very still, unmoving, pale as a marble statue.
'I think it's closed,' Jesse finally whispered, and just ... collapsed. Oliver moved, but - surprisingly, Claire thought - Myrnin was already there, grabbing her as she fell backward and easing her to the colourful area rug beneath.
Eve threw herself forward and frantically checked Michael's pale chest for any sign of damage. 'He's okay,' she said. 'Michael? Michael!'
He opened his blue eyes, blinked, and said, 'Eve?' His voice was shockingly faint, but he was alive.
Myrnin fumbled in the pockets of his oversized coat - there were a lot of pockets, some flapping loose - and brought out a small stoppered vial of powder. He supported Jesse's head and shoulders on his knees as he pulled the cork with his teeth and emptied the powder over her burning hand.
She cried out and arched up into the air, and he held on to her as she writhed and fought. 'Easy, dear lady, easy, it will stop, the pain will stop, it will halt the silver and heal your wound, though the scars may take some time - easy, Lady Grey, be easy ...'
Lady Grey? He knew Jesse - well, of course, he would, wouldn't he? Because she'd been sent by Amelie from Morganville in the first place. Still. Claire blinked, because she'd never seen Myrnin act quite so ... gentle. Or so formal. And Jesse let out a long, trembling breath and smiled up at him. Whatever he'd given her had worked. The damage was still pretty serious, but from the smile, and the way its wattage increased second by second, the pain was subsiding. Myrnin put his hand on her cheek in a small, comforting caress - something Claire couldn't remember him doing before. Not quite that way.
'Well,' Jesse said, with a lilt in her voice that hadn't been there before. 'It's a rare sweet day that brings you out of your cave, little spider.'
'And a rarer one that sees you brought low, Lady Grey. A brave act. Very brave.'
'Foolish, if the boy doesn't make it,' she said. 'Oh, bother it, leave my hand alone. The silver's still burning, but it'll pass. I'm too old for it to do much more damage.'
'You don't look a day over a thousand,' Myrnin said. My God, Claire thought. Was he actually flirting? Well, if he was, she couldn't really blame him. Jesse was ... kind of a stunner.
Michael was trying to sit up on the sofa, something Shane and Eve were trying to prevent; Claire joined them, and when it became clear that 'no' was not a viable option, she helped prop him upright. 'Hey,' she said to him, 'weren't you supposed to stop trouble, and not be so much in the middle of it?'
'Best laid plans,' Michael said, and coughed. It had an alarmingly wet sound. Eve grabbed a handful of tissues from a box on the coffee table, and when he stopped coughing and took them away from his mouth, they were soaked in fresh, red blood. But he seemed to be feeling better. 'I think that might have been about as close as I could have come to dead.'
'Just about,' Shane agreed. 'You ever heard of someone putting a silver injector inside a stake before?'
'Never,' Michael said, 'but it seems like a damn great idea, except when it's in my chest.'
'Yeah, that's kind of what I was thinking.' Shane squeezed his shoulder and crouched down to eye level. 'You good, bro?'
'I'm good. And it's good to see you've kept up the tradition of getting the holy shit beat out of you, even when you're in a nice, civilised place.'
'It was not my fault.'
Michael just shook his head. He still looked very pale, and his eyes were red-rimmed. He was holding Eve's hand, and he tugged on it, bringing her down to whisper in her ear. She nodded and turned to Pete - who was still standing exactly where he'd been, looking utterly overtaken by what had crashed in on them. As well he might, Claire thought. He'd been worried about sexed-up sheets, and suddenly there were wounded vampires and a big splash of silver dripping down his brick wall. Even for someone who'd known Jesse, this sudden onslaught of the undead might be a little tough to handle.
'Excuse me,' Eve said to him. 'Do you have any, ah, plasma? In bags?'
Pete gave her a blank look, and finally just turned around and walked to the armchair. He sat down, put his head in his hands and checked out of the current reality.
'Guess that's a no,' Eve said. 'All right. Sorry, you guys, but he needs to feed, and I'm going to volunteer a vein. So if you're squeamish, turn around.'
Claire did, not so much because she was faint at the sight of blood, but because it seemed uncomfortably intimate to her. Shane turned, too, and took a look around the room. Oliver was examining the remains of the wooden stake, though he was being very careful not to touch any of the remaining silver leaking out of it. Myrnin and Jesse seemed to be very cosy. 'Well,' Shane said, 'at least we're not alone on the run any more. Apparently, the cops may be the least of our worries right now.' He put his arm around her waist and pulled her closer, and she willingly went. 'You all right?'
'Fine,' she said, and shivered. 'That was sudden. And intense.'
'I think Pete's having a migraine. And I'm not sure the silver's coming out of his rug, either.'
Jesse had climbed to her feet before he'd finished the sentence, and she walked to the small bathroom and came back in a moment with a thick roll of gauze bandage. She carried it to Myrnin and held it out with her eyebrows raised. 'Do you mind?' she asked him.
He bowed a little, took the gauze, and held her hand steady as he wrapped the bandages. He was good at it, Claire realised; he'd definitely had lots of practice at treating injuries, and for this one, it didn't matter whether it was a vampire or human. The bandages were all the same. He ripped one end of the gauze in two, wrapped it snugly, and tied it off; that, Claire was sure, came from experience in eras where such things as sticky tape had yet to be invented. Once he was done, he smoothed the bandages down, and his hand lingered on hers.
Jesse gave him a slow, bright smile, and Myrnin's pale cheeks reddened, just a touch. He let go. 'All better,' he said. 'My lady.'
'My lord,' she said, and did a pretty fair curtsy, considering she was wearing blue jeans and a low-cut black knit shirt. Her dark red braid swung forward over her shoulder in a thick rope, and as she looked up through her eyelashes at him, Claire thought that Jesse had probably practised the art of flirting for at least a few hundred years. Poor Myrnin.
He was definitely outclassed, and way out of practice, because he cleared his throat and turned his back on her - not the most graceful end to that conversation - and said, 'Claire. With me.'
She automatically moved to follow him as he headed for the kitchen, but Shane didn't let go of her; his strong grip pulled her to a halt, and Claire looked up at him, frowning.
'I'll be okay,' she said. What she saw in his face was not jealousy, or worry, or anything like that; it was caution, pure and simple. This was all wildly strange, today. She understood exactly how he felt, wanting to slow it down and make things a little more understandable. 'Let me talk to him and see if I can make sense of any of this.'
'You're talking to Myrnin,' Shane said. 'I think that might be a little too much to ask.' But he let her go, and she followed her friend, her boss and her headache into the little kitchen area. She glanced over at Michael and Eve as she did so; he'd finished drinking from Eve's wrist, and was using the leftover gauze from Jesse to put a neat bandage around the small wound. The look in his eyes as he watched Eve's face was vulnerable, grateful and more than a little heartbreaking.
Anybody who believed vampires couldn't feel things like living people did had never met Michael Glass.
They got as far from the others as it was possible to be, within the walls of Pete's small apartment, and Claire tried to put at least a few feet between her and Myrnin. Ugh. Where had he been hanging out, the city dump? But it was clear that hygiene wasn't his biggest issue at the moment, from the fiery intensity of his gaze on her. 'You and Irene,' Myrnin began. 'What have you done?'
Claire was taken aback, because she hadn't expected him to accuse her like that. 'Nothing!' she said, and crossed her arms over her chest. She knew it looked defensive, and she didn't care. 'You're the one who told me to work with her, Myrnin, so don't blame me if something's gone wrong in all this. I just wanted to come to college!'
'And it's working out so well!' he said. 'I trusted Irene implicitly. She has been my agent here in the world for some time, and she has helped conceal our true nature from those who come looking.'
'Like the government?'
Myrnin didn't answer that. He couldn't stand still, and now he stopped moving uneasily from one foot to another to move toward the counter and restlessly open and close the drawers. Claire caught a glimpse of random junk in one, forks and spoons in another. He wasn't looking for anything, he just needed to fidget. 'Irene has always had ties to the federal government,' he said. 'But that never concerned us directly, until recently.'
'Just tell me what happened! What made you leave Morganville and come all the way out here in the first place? I know Oliver was already on the road - did you run into him, or did he find you?'
'That is a great many questions in a row. Oh, look, he has peanut butter. Do you like peanut butter?'
'But it's crunchy ...' She stared at him with inarticulate frustration, and he put the jar back in the pantry and closed the door. There were some rubber bands dangling from the knob, so he picked a couple off and began playing with them. That was good. It would be less distracting, for both of them. 'I left Morganville because I intercepted a communication that claimed to be able to prove, without any doubt, the existence of vampires in the world.'
'Oh, God, Myrnin, did you find this on the Internet? Because you can't believe everything that's on there.'
'I know that! And no, I did not believe it. Not at first. But this was no excitable fan of films posting to his friends; it was a doctor, who was preparing a scholarly paper. It was a Google alert, by the way.' He seemed ridiculously pleased that he had figured out how to set one. 'He was located in Boston. I felt there had to be some reason that such a revelation would be located so close to Irene, and I phoned her. She did not answer.'
'People do that sometimes. It doesn't mean-'
'I sent you here, Claire. I sent you to Irene, for safety. And I was afraid ... I was afraid that she might have betrayed us. Perhaps even accidentally. If word of vampires was out, and taken seriously, then it would only be a matter of time before word of Morganville would be circulated as well. We control these kinds of events; we must, or be wiped from the earth. Normally Oliver would have dispatched agents to see to it, but Oliver was, ah, indisposed ...'
'Exiled, you mean.'
'Yes, yes, but I couldn't wait for Amelie to decide who best was ready to deal with this crisis. I know Irene, and I had a good sense of where to locate Oliver. I thought the two of us together could easily handle things.'
'And how did that go?'
He snapped one of the rubber bands in a convulsive movement, and dropped it to the floor. The second one was tougher, but he was pulling on it way too hard. 'Not ... very well,' he admitted. 'I still haven't been able to locate this doctor that Google found so easily. The human world is much more confusing than I recall. And Oliver was not terribly cooperative. Then Amelie tried to recall me to Morganville. It's all been very stressful.'
Claire sighed and resisted the almost impossibly attractive impulse to shake him. 'Tell me what happened today.'
He blinked at her and restlessly snapped the rubber band around his wrist. 'Oliver and I attempted to track down this doctor at his offices, but he was not there. Oliver got into a dispute with someone who called us homeless bums and attempted to spit upon us. I managed to prevent him from doing anything too foolish, but it wasn't a very good few moments for our tormentor, I'm afraid. And then we went to the doctor's home, but again, he wasn't there. I was somewhat at a loss how to proceed. I'm not generally used to putting out so much effort.' He went to the faucet and turned the taps on and off. Claire had a faint hope that he might use the opportunity to wash up, but evidently it didn't occur to him. 'Michael found us just as we were trying to see Irene; we were again barred entrance to the university because of our clothing and general dishevelment, and he promised to help us get a motel room where we could wash. Eve said she would secure us new things to wear.'
That would have been interesting. Claire would have paid money to see what Eve would have bought for Oliver, much less Myrnin. It would have, at the very least, been crazy amazing.
'I'm guessing things didn't get that far,' Claire said, 'since you're still stinky and wearing rags.'
Myrnin looked down at himself and sighed. 'My apologies. Life can be harsh. Yes, we were followed as we left the university by men in some sort of large vehicle. When we stopped at the motel and obtained our room key, we were attacked without warning. Michael managed to put himself in the way when the one with the stake came for Oliver, who was busy fighting another; we did not immediately know that the stake was anything but wood. But Oliver had seen something like it before, and stopped me before I tried to pull it out. I remembered that Lady Grey was here, watching over Irene, and I begged her help. And she brought us here.'
'And did they follow you?'
'No.' Myrnin seemed very certain of it, and Claire wondered why for a moment, until she knew. They wouldn't have left anybody behind capable of following. 'But we didn't think it wise to wait for the police to arrive. Jesse thought this would be the safest place. I did not expect to find you here.'
'It's been an eventful morning for us, too,' Claire said. 'My friend's been abducted, and the police think Shane and I might have had something to do with it.'
'Really? Did you?'
'No! Why would I?'
Myrnin shrugged. 'I don't know, but it had to be asked. This friend of yours, does she have any knowledge of vampires?'
'Not a bit. She doesn't believe in them. Not even in that "maybe it's real" way that a lot of college kids seem to have.'
'Hmmm. Then her vanishing might have nothing to do with us, and therefore, it's of no concern.'
'Excuse me? No concern? She's my friend!'
That seemed to surprise Myrnin, who frowned at her and stopped stretching the rubber band as if she'd captured his full attention, at least for a moment. 'We stand in danger, Claire. Very real danger. Irene says that your device has disappeared from her lab; someone with real credibility in the world intends to produce evidence of vampirism, perhaps including actual captured specimens. These are things that we can't allow, for our own health and survival. We must locate these people, stop them and erase all knowledge of this event; when these things happen, they are cancers, and must be cut out. You understand?'
'I understand that there's more going on here than just what you're into,' she said. 'Dr Anderson's been dealing with some scary spy people, who have - probably not coincidentally - been in my house when they thought I wasn't there, looking for something that might have been VLAD. And then my friend gets taken by men in a van? Sounds as if they've gone to the next level, to me. Maybe it's connected to your doctor's publication plans.'
'If it is, if there is governmental involvement in all this, it's grave, Claire, grave indeed.'
'So, not like a cancer then.'
'No, still very much like one. But I will need a much larger scalpel.' She hoped he didn't mean it literally; with Myrnin, you could never exactly be certain. 'None of that matters just now. We must leave this place, and find Irene. She is exactly the thing that our enemies, if enemies they intend to be, will need - a human with deep knowledge of all things vampire. One with ties to the community, and credibility. We can take no chance that she falls into the wrong hands.'
Myrnin's logic was often fuzzy, but this time it seemed right on the mark. Dr Anderson was vulnerable; if so many pieces were moving on the board, she needed to be made safe before anything else happened. Before Liz's rescue, part of Claire mourned, but she knew she couldn't help Liz, not immediately.
It occurred to her, then, to ask Myrnin the all-important question. 'What's the name of the doctor? The one who has the proof about vampires?'
'A Dr Patrick Davis,' he said. 'I doubt you'd know anything of him.'
'Well,' Claire said, 'you'd be wrong about that.'
And she began to see how all the disparate pieces of this fit together, to make a not-at-all pretty picture.
Oliver moved toward them, and gave Myrnin an impatient frown. 'If you're done gossiping with your little friend, we need to leave this place,' Oliver said. 'Now. Apparently that idiot boy Shane's gotten himself in trouble with the police. They'll surely track him sooner or later, as they're not the complete fools one might wish.'
'Perhaps we should leave Shane behind, then,' Myrnin said casually. 'It would simplify our troubles considerably.'
'No!' Claire said sharply. 'Leave him, and you leave me. And I don't think Eve and Michael will be too happy with that, either. You're welcome to take it up with them.'
Myrnin looked as if he might be inclined to try, but Oliver shut him down decisively. 'We leave no one behind. And Shane knows as much, if not more, about Morganville than anyone else; we don't dare leave him behind. He'd be a gold mine of information.'
'He'd never talk,' Claire said.
'Everyone talks,' Oliver said. 'The question is, do they tell the truth when they do? I don't trust the boy's lineage. There are glimmers of his father in him, still, and I'm not certain he wouldn't glory a little in bringing Morganville down, once and for all, in his family's memory. So he comes with us, and there's no more on the subject.'
All of a sudden - and Claire had to confess to herself that she'd forgotten all about him - Pete stood up. It was such a sudden move that it drew all their attention to him. He looked pale, tense, and grim, and he said, 'Jesse, I know I said I was down with all this vampire crazy shit, but this is next level. What am I supposed to do, just ... roll with it?'
'Yes,' Jesse said. She sounded gentle about it, but firm. 'I'm sorry, Pete, but you do. I don't want to see you hurt.'
'You think you could hurt me?'
'I think I wouldn't have to,' she said. 'And again, I'm sorry. Come with us. Staying here means that we leave you vulnerable to the people hunting us, and you've already seen the lengths to which they will go. Claire's friend, and the attempt on Michael's life ... their questions to you will not be gentle. If you come along, I will look after you.'
Pete grinned, all of a sudden. It was a bleak sort of amusement, but at least it had some kind of relationship to humour. 'Not used to getting that from a girl, you know.'
'I'm not a girl,' Jesse said, and canted one eyebrow high. 'Am I?'
'Hardly,' Myrnin said. He seemed embarrassed, in the next instant, and strode decisively for the front door. 'Onward.'
Claire paused next to Eve and Michael, and exchanged a quick, warm hug with Eve, and one with Michael too. 'Are you feeling okay?' she asked him. Michael gave her a nod. 'Good enough to keep up?'
'I'm fine,' he said, which was probably as much of an overstatement as the kind of thing Shane was prone to say. 'Shane, dude, who kicked your ass for you?'
'Your grandma,' Shane said. 'Come on.'
Claire had actually forgotten all about her cell phone until it rang - and then she panicked, because if the police were on the lookout for her, a cell phone was as good as a neon sign saying HERE I AM, COME ARREST ME. She grabbed for it and checked the screen, and then answered when the number registered as unknown. 'Hello?'
Any hope it might be a wrong number vanished when she heard the fast, terrified breathing on the other end. 'Claire?' It was a bare whisper, but it was Liz's voice. 'Claire, are you there?' Her friend's voice was thready and shaky, and she was clearly afraid of being overheard.
'Liz? Liz, I'm here! Where are you?' Claire plugged her free ear as Shane started asking her something, and turned away from all of them to concentrate on listening. 'Liz, can you hear me?'
'You have to get me, please, Claire, please come get me ...' Liz's voice was quietly desperate, and full of fear. 'They took me out of the house. Derrick tried to stop them, but-'
'Was Derrick with them?'
'No, no, he saw it and he tried to stop them, but they took him away and they put me in the dark with - with something that - I feel weak, I'm so dizzy, please, you have to come and get me ...' She started to cry, and Claire's heart went out to her. There was something so little-girl desperate in it that it ached.
'I will,' Claire promised. 'Tell me where you are, honey.'
'I-' Liz drew in a sharp, hard breath, and for a long second she was silent. When her voice came back, it was even softer, and the words rushed faster. 'I got the phone from one of the guys who came to check on me, but they'll miss it, they'll know ... I'm in the tunnels, the steam tunnels, under the library storage annex ... oh, God, they're coming ...' That last was said in a breathless whisper, and then Claire heard a sharp cry, and a clatter, and the phone went dead on Liz's end.
When she turned, all of them were looking at her. Shane, Eve and Pete: the humans. Oliver, Myrnin, Michael and Jesse: the vampires. Waiting to hear her news.
She said, 'Library storage annex tunnels. Now. My friend's in real trouble.'
'Have you considered the possibility that it could be a very deliberate trap?'
'Yes,' Claire said. She opened up the back of her phone and took out the SIM card, which she held up. 'If they allowed her the phone to call me, they'll be tracking this. I need to get it as far away from us as possible.'
'One moment,' Myrnin said, and then the door was open and he was gone. They all looked at each other, waiting, and in another moment he was back again. Holding a very pissed-off pigeon. Claire was afraid what he intended to do with the poor thing, but he handed the bird to Eve to hold - she did it at arm's length, grimacing - and he retrieved the gauze that he'd used to wrap Jesse's hand and used the last of it to wrap the SIM card in a snug little packet, which he then tied around the pigeon's scaly leg. 'One does learn something from years of communicating by flying birds.' He retrieved the pigeon and disappeared outside again, then came back in with a self-satisfied smile as he dusted his hands on his pants. Ewww, pigeon crap. 'She'll take it miles to get away from me.'
'You do have that effect upon people, too,' Oliver said. 'Wash your hands.'
Myrnin gave him a narrow look, but Claire mouthed please, and he went to do it after all.
Then, without any more discussion, they headed out.
For the tunnels.
The MIT tunnel system was byzantine, and legendary; students used the wider ones for shelter and travel during the harsh Massachusetts winter, and the roof and tunnel hackers regularly explored and mapped in them. But even so, there were always new areas to be found - some long forgotten and sealed, like the famous bricked-up showers, or the tomb of the forgotten ladder. Claire checked the online maps through Michael's borrowed phone, but didn't find any sign of a tunnel beneath the library storage annex, which was at the far edge of campus ... and that didn't mean there weren't any. Just that they had been cut off from the others.
In short, an ideal place to hide someone, because in her brief visits to the steam tunnels, Claire had quickly learnt that they were noisy. A few random shouts wouldn't be drawing any particular attention, even if there was anyone around to hear.
'Bother this nonsense,' Oliver said, as they stood outside the darkened building; it was late, and little enough was stirring outside. 'False caution breeds failure. Come.' He headed straight for the doorway, which Claire was least inclined to do, but there really wasn't much of a choice - follow, or don't, and Oliver had the gravity trail of a born leader.
Jesse, however, had the brain of a tactician, and she pulled Pete and Michael and Shane aside. 'Back door,' she said. 'Claire, you, me and your strange friend-'
'Eve,' they both said, simultaneously, and Eve held out her fist for a bump. 'Or, you could call me Eve the Great, Mistress of All She Surveys. But Eve for short.'
Jesse smiled at that, a real smile, lively eyes crinkling. 'Very pleased to meet you, Mistress Eve. Ah, you'd be the one who married the vampire, then?'
'Am I that famous?'
'Famous enough, among the undead, we're terrible old gossips. Also, we're terrible gamblers, so it might not surprise you to hear the odds against you making it to an anniversary are not fantastically good. I hope that doesn't bother you.'
'Not much,' Eve said, 'although it will unless I can put down a bet myself. I'd like to make a little money on my own survival for a change.'
'I believe I might just like you, girl.'
'You too, Red. You don't seem to suck fangs as much as some of the others I have to hang around with. Honestly, why are so many young-looking vampires such blue-haired old biddies inside, anyway?'
'Because vampires are born of being selfish, and we only get worse over the years,' Jesse said. 'It leads to a dreadful conservatism.'
'Um - Jesse, about these Daylighters you were talking about earlier ...' Claire said.
'A deep and weighty subject we have no time for right now,' Jesse said. 'And I hope that they are not behind this. But suffice to say that they are a group who believes in the existence of vampires, and believes that we are better off dead. Something they have been quite expert at accomplishing over the past few years.'
'Look, this is interesting, but before we have a pyjama party and braid our hair, maybe we should, y'know, show the boys how this gets done?' Eve suggested.
'Excellent idea.' Jesse reached into her leather jacket, and came out with an astonishingly intimidating knife - about six inches, with a wicked curve to it. It had a distinctively gleaming edge to it that seemed sharp enough to shave titanium ... and it looked very familiar. Claire had one just like it in her backpack. Jesse held it in her unbandaged left hand. 'After you, ladies.'
'Do you have any impressive weapons?' Eve whispered to Claire, as they headed after Oliver.
'Yep,' she said, and grinned. Eve looked crestfallen.
'Well, I can throw a mean comeback, so there's that. I will crush them on wit.'
Oliver was all business at the door, where he opened up the building simply by smashing in the thick glass door with a single punch. Not subtle, but effective enough, and although alarms probably went off somewhere, Claire didn't hear a sound inside in response to the intrusion. Oliver stepped inside, and she followed, shoes grinding raw on the broken pieces. 'Look for some kind of mechanical closet,' she said. 'It might not be marked. Listen for the sound of air handlers, compressors, that kind of thing.'
'This way,' Oliver said, and struck off down the hall in a confident, loose-limbed stride. He found a set of stairs down, and took them; at the end of the concrete landing lay an unmarked set of double doors, painted a dull beige. There wasn't a handle, only an inset keyhole. He frowned at it for a few seconds, then - once again - took the most direct method of dealing with the problem. He punched the door. His fist went entirely through the thin metal, and he took hold of the jagged opening and yanked. Something broke, probably the lock, and the doors sagged open.
All the punching was, Claire realised, not without some cost to him; his hand was bloody, and the knuckles looked misshapen. He winced a little and pressed down on some of the knuckles until bones snapped back into place, then wiped the cuts clean on his filthy clothes. They'd already closed up. He met Claire's wide-eyed stare for a moment, and gave her a sinister little smile. 'Well?' he asked. 'It's your friend we're after. Perhaps you should get on with it.'
'Don't mind him,' Jesse said. 'He's always been a mean, narrow man. I really don't know what anyone sees in him.'
'Quiet. You were only queen for nine days. And you only survived your own execution by Amelie's intervention, or you'd not be here berating me. Beheading is final for humans and vampires.'
That, Claire thought, was the beginning of an interesting story that didn't seem to match with Jesse's vibrant modern outlook, but there wasn't time to ask questions.
'Shouldn't we wait for the others?' Claire asked.
'Do you want your friend alive?' Oliver asked, which settled the question, pretty much. Pete, Shane and Michael would have to catch up.
The mechanical room was dark and cool, but Eve had handily brought along some small LED flashlights, which she and Claire used to good effect as the vampires went ahead through the dark. The noise from the air handlers, which had been soft outside, rose to a dull roar as they edged past rows of colour-coded pipes and metal conduits; after a brief, burning brush with the uninsulated curve of one of the pipes, Claire got a lot more careful. There were plenty of sharp edges, too. It would be a dangerous place to have a fight - too many things you could bang into, and burn flesh on. Clumsiness would be just as deadly as an opponent.
But no opponents presented themselves. It was just pipes and conduits, control panels, softly glowing indicators and lights, and not much else. It wasn't even dusty. Claire did spot a rat staring at them in surprise (and probably outrage) from the top of one cluster of conduits; it ran off as soon as she looked at it, probably to spread the word among the Kingdom of Rats that probably existed down here ... and her chattering brain was momentarily distracted by the image of a King Rat sitting on a throne, with a giant crown, surrounded by a bunch of other rats all secretly plotting to kill him and take his place. Because if she'd learnt anything from being in Morganville, it was that a ruler could never, ever relax.
Oliver suddenly paused, and so did Jesse, who'd moved up next to him; her pale, slender hand came up in a clenched fist, in a gesture that Claire knew from hanging out with Shane meant stop right now and hold. She and Eve paused and stood ready for anything, and after a moment Jesse nodded to Oliver and pointed to her own chest, then off to the right. He nodded back. She flitted away into the shadows.
Oliver turned and pointed to Claire, then gestured imperatively for her to go ahead of him.
It didn't seem like the moment to have an argument, since everything was being done in such silence. Claire edged out ahead of him with her LED light pointed down toward her feet; it served only to make the darkness around her seem more dense and choking. She narrowly avoided a dangerous eye-level collision with a protruding metal corner, ducked, and crept forward. The ceiling was getting lower, it seemed, and she could hear a faint squeaking sound that she assumed was more rats sounding an alarm.
Claire swept the light forward, trying to see where she was going, and ... and there was Derrick.
Derrick was dead. Drained white. And there were huge, unreal puncture marks in his neck, and ragged skin around them. One single drop of red had trailed down his neck and dripped on the concrete underneath, and his eyes were open, wide and surprised. They'd gone dull and filmed with grey - dried out from exposure to the air.
Claire gasped and jumped backward. She couldn't help it; coming up on a dead man here, in the creepy zone, was something that woke instincts she couldn't control no matter how hard she tried. She almost banged her head on the sharp metal corner she'd avoided, but Oliver's outstretched hand stopped her cold. 'Quiet,' he whispered, and his voice was about as sharp and uncaring as the metal. 'He's been dead for hours, beyond anyone's help. There's something in here with us.'
'Yes. It doesn't smell like a vampire, though it moves like one.' That sounded ... ominous. Claire paused to unzip her backpack and take out the sharp, shiny knife that Dr Anderson had given her. She wished she had something more long-range, like Shane's flamethrower, but she stopped the thought almost immediately; Shane had always told her, you fight with what you've got, not what you want to have. 'There's a door beyond the body. Go open it. We may need to move through quickly.'
Again, she was bait - warm, pulsing bait that anything even remotely like a vampire would find tastily attractive. And she knew that he meant her to be just exactly that, but at the same time, it was a decent strategic move. Jesse was somewhere in the shadows with her own killer knife; Oliver was a deadly force even without a weapon. And Eve, somewhere beyond him, was more than capable of helping out, even unarmed. It wasn't just her wit that could be deadly.
Claire stepped carefully over Derrick's body - and didn't that give her a nightmare flash from every horror movie, ever - and moved toward the single, small door that was set low in the wall. It was too small to go through standing up. She put the flashlight in her teeth and pulled the door handle, and it protested - not locked, just a tight fit. Her second yank got it free, and it swung open with surprising silence. She'd expected an appropriately eerie creak, at the very least, but someone had - ominously - oiled it to ensure it didn't make noise.
And then something hit her, hard and stunningly without warning, from the left, and the flashlight spun away.
Claire didn't even have a chance to cry out; her breath was driven out of her in a soundless burst an instant before her vocal cords responded, and then she was flat on her back with her head ringing from impact with a metal pipe, and she couldn't understand what had happened, and there was something leaning over her, something pale and naked and awful with eyes like a cesspool on fire, and she felt the cold dribble of its saliva on her throat. It was only an instant, but it was a snapshot of a nightmare: a distorted mirror of a human being, with a hugely exaggerated jaw open far too wide with vampire fangs wider and longer than she'd ever seen extended and ready to cut. The nose was smashed and shrunken like a bat's, the ears shrivelled little clumps at the sides of the head, and if the thing had ever had hair, it was long gone. Impossible to say if it was male or female; Claire couldn't even imagine thinking of it that way.
And then it was lunging for her throat.
She reacted instinctively, shoving the knife deep into its chest. That helped - it kept it away from her throat. But it was still snapping at her, not dying nearly fast enough. She shut her eyes convulsively, and that was good, because she didn't see what happened next, though she inferred it later. Instead of the icy bite on her neck, she felt a sudden chilly splatter of liquid flood over her that smelt rancid, like raw meat left in the fridge for months on end. The weight on her convulsed and fell away, and Claire balled up in a protected fetal curve toward the wall, retching.
The thing's head bumped against her hip and rolled away. Decapitated, by Jesse's extremely sharp knife. 'Claire. Claire!' Jesse's calm, cool voice, and her hand on Claire's shoulder. 'Up. We need to go, quickly.'
It was almost impossible to shake that horrible event off that easily, but Claire somehow managed ... she accepted Jesse's help in standing and retched again, emptily, at the stench of the dead thing that had tried to kill her. It was a vampire, she guessed, but not any kind of vamp she knew about. Even Myrnin's lab mistakes - and he'd made more than a few of them - weren't quite that disgusting. It was like some kind of a bastardised DNA merger of bat, human and spider. She tried not to look at it too closely as Jesse hustled her back to the now-open small door. Thankfully, Jesse didn't ask her to go first; the vampire woman, although taller, easily bent and moved fluidly through the narrow opening. Claire followed her, scrambling on hands and knees in the claustrophobic concrete space. No conduits in here, at least. Claire realised she'd dropped her flashlight in preference to keeping hold of her knife, but even as she did, Eve moved in behind her and flipped hers on to light the way. 'You okay?' Eve mumbled - and when Claire glanced back, she realised Eve was holding the flashlight in her mouth, the better to crawl forward.
'No,' Claire said, and coughed again. She couldn't risk throwing up in here, that would be disgusting for everyone, but the stench ... Eve was coughing, too. It wasn't just her. The vampires seemed immune, and she briefly, violently hated them for it. 'I will be, though.'
The tiny tunnel seemed unnaturally long, but that was probably just Claire's nightmarish shock taking hold; she felt weirdly unsteady, and her whole body felt the after-effects. It would hurt later, she assumed, but just now, she mostly felt numb and clumsy. She also knew that there were things in this tunnel she would later regret touching; she could feel tiny bones crunching under the press of her hands and knees, for instance. But right now, she really didn't care.
The world narrowed to that dark, concrete tunnel, and the rapidly disappearing form of Jesse ahead of her - how did she crawl so fast? - and then, suddenly, it opened up again, into a big, echoing room. Claire heard the harsh scritch of glass embedded in the bottom of her sneakers when she slid out and stood, and for a moment she was blind until Eve crawled out after her, and directed her flashlight around.
'Wild,' Eve said, and wiped her mouth with one forearm. 'Yuck. Drool. What the hell is this?'
This, it looked like, was someone's hack project, long abandoned ... in the grand tradition of MIT, someone had discovered this place, and started tiling the big room, which had probably started as some kind of storage area. The mosaic started in the middle of the room in swirls of black misty white, and spun out in a dizzying pattern toward the edges. Claire couldn't decide if it was meant to be hypnotic, or a representation of a black hole, but it made her feel as if she was standing on stars. It was unfinished toward the corners, and the tools and pieces of cut tiles were untidily stacked next to the large bulk of an ancient bunch of pipes that burst out of the wall like a frozen iron octopus.
Handcuffed to the pipes was Liz. Unlike Derrick, she was still alive, but she looked pale and terrified, and there was an open wound on her throat - not as bad as Derrick's, but it was still trickling blood, and there was a lot spread around her. She was shivering and only half-conscious. Eve rushed over to her and clamped a hand over the wound, and Jesse used her knife to cut a piece from her shirt to use as a bandage.
'Can you break these?' Eve asked, and pointed at the cuffs. Jesse nodded and snapped the metal apart without too much of an effort; whoever had put them on hadn't taken the precaution of coating them with silver, which was lucky. 'Okay, let's get her up.'
Claire took Liz's other side, and working together she and Eve managed to lift the third girl up. Jesse could have helped, but at this point, Claire preferred to have her free and ready to fight.
Because there was no way this was so easy.
Sure enough, there was a heavy, metallic sound from behind them, and as Eve turned the flash that way, Claire saw that a solid grating had come down over the doorway to the narrow little tunnel out - a heavy barrier, coated with a nice, shiny layer of silver. Jesse and Oliver wouldn't be moving that one, not easily, anyway. And Jesse was already at a disadvantage, since her burnt hand couldn't have healed so quickly.
'Stay with her,' Claire said to Eve, and took the flashlight to look around the rest of the room. It was pretty bare: concrete walls, the explosion of piping where they'd found Liz, and some concrete cubicles off to one side. Nothing they could use. 'Maybe the other guys can get to us and help us out of here.'
'Assuming that the bad guys aren't already on them,' Jesse said. 'And since I doubt all of this was run remotely, I can almost guarantee you they've got troubles of their own. We need to get out on our own.'
'Bugger this,' Oliver growled, and stripped off his shirt. He wrapped it tightly around his hands and moved to the silver grate, took hold, and tried to force it upward. As he did, though, a jet of liquid silver activated, and sprayed over him.
His bare chest took the brunt of the attack, and he spun away with a cry; in the glare of Claire's flash, his chest looked bone white, then spotted with red flares and blisters as the silver ate into him. It wasn't fatal, but it had to be really painful. He scrubbed the shirt over his skin to get the liquid off before more damage was done, but it seemed pretty obvious that the booby trap wasn't done yet; another try would only douse him further, unless they could find a way to block the jet set somewhere above. Claire angled the light up and found the canister and jet, and traced the activation circuit.
She pulled the wire out from the dull mud that had been smeared over it to conceal it, and quickly cut it in two with her knife. 'Safe,' she said.
'Again, then,' Oliver said. His chest looked scarred, and from the red glimmer in his eyes it still hurt incredibly badly, but he stepped up, wrapped his hands, and took hold again of the silver-coated grate.
It groaned, and strained, and shook, but it didn't move. He was forced to back off and let his stinging hands recover.
Claire stared at the grate, then used her flashlight to get up close. It had come down on tracks. Was there some kind of release? There had to be, probably on the other side where it couldn't be seen. Somebody had come in here to work; they wouldn't want to risk being sealed in with no way out.
'Eve,' she said. 'I need something stiff, but flexible. Do you have anything that can-' Before Claire finished the sentence, Eve was holding something out to her - the leather collar she'd been wearing around her throat, studded with silver. Basic anti-vamp defence stuff. Claire dashed over to get it and came back to the grate. If I designed this, where would I put the trigger? She imagined it as a design in her head, then spun it around. Right. Back of the track, where it would be hidden from view, but reachable. Not easily reachable, because that would defeat the whole purpose. But Claire took hold of the collar - which was perfect, really - and carefully ran it down one side of the track.
One of the studs caught on something - just a slight break in the friction, but enough to tell her where the release could be. Claire reversed her hold on the collar and used the buckle this time. It took six tries before the silver hooked on, but she got a firm contact, and yanked straight down.
Claire took hold of the bars and tried to raise them. They slid up an inch, then two, before her trembling muscles gave up the fight. She felt something pull in her back, and winced.
'Here,' Oliver growled, and bumped her aside. 'Leave it to those with the power to manage it, for God's sake.' His hands were burnt, she could see the lurid red streaks vivid in the glow of the flash, but he used his shirt again as a cushion and grabbed on. One strong heave, shoulders bunching and a surprising number of muscles flexing under the paper-white skin, and the grate shrieked slowly upward. It got to the top, and there was a second click. He let go. It held in place, concealed with just the sharp tips of it sticking down. If she hadn't known it was there, she wouldn't have known to look.
Oliver fell back, chest heaving as he pulled in breath after unneeded breath; the burns had gone all the way up to his shoulders, and the bright red flesh looked unhealthy and extremely tender. But Oliver was old. Why was it so hard on him? Amelie could handle the stuff, after all. Then again, Jesse had been badly burnt, too. Was it just that some vamps were less sensitive to it than others? Or maybe even something in the lineage - Bishop's bloodline being more resistant. Interesting problem, and part of her brain chewed away on it even as she asked him, 'What can I do?'
'Go away,' he snapped, and shut his eyes. His face was taut with effort, and Claire backed off. Most vampires with silver burns had to have blood, quickly. She didn't necessarily want to be Oliver's portable life support unit.
Jesse moved forward with her arm around the still-almost-limp Elizabeth. 'Come on,' she said. 'You can collapse later, but for now move your ass, Oliver. Help will be on the other side, if our friends aren't in bigger trouble than we are. Claire, you go first. I'll take care of your friend. But we can't stay here. You don't build a trap unless the hunter comes to take his prize, sooner or later.'
Claire dived into the narrow, concrete tunnel. Her knees and elbows and palms were already abraded from the earlier journey, and this time it hurt like hell. She, or all of them, had shed little slivers of door glass along the way, and she could feel the shards stabbing into her skin. One big exercise in pain, and exhaustion, and claustrophobia, and she was very glad to see the metal of the door at the end.
We didn't close that, she thought, and put the flashlight in her mouth so she could lean forward and throw her weight against it. Nothing. Not even a budge. No handle to turn on this side, and even if there was, Claire thought that it might have been nearly impossible to get the right amount of leverage at the awkward, bent-over angle she had to use. She remembered it had been tough to open before.
Staying where she was didn't seem like much of an option. Neither was backing up; behind her, Jesse was somehow managing to balance Liz's head and shoulders and crawl backward, dragging the girl with her; Eve must have been trying to support Liz's legs.
Which, from the length of the tunnel, would have left Oliver either in the other room, or dangerously close to those silver spikes on the gate.
Claire lunged forward and slammed her shoulder into the door - once, twice, three times ... and it suddenly gave, spilling her out into the other room. She rolled through a pool of congealing, rotten blood, and the nausea welled up again as she spotted the severed head of the bat-thing, and Derrick's body ... and then a brilliant beam of light swept over her, blinding her, and she heard Shane say, 'Claire!' in a breathless tone that made her shiver from the bottom of her soul. Next thing she knew, she was swept up in his arms, and lost in a strong, enveloping hug. 'God, the blood-'
'Not mine,' she said. 'And it smells disgusting.'
'I wasn't going to mention it,' he said, and laughed a little, holding her close. 'I'm guessing it came courtesy of that thing there?'
'Yeah. Whatever it is.'
'Nasty. Did you kill it?'
'That would have been awesome, but Jesse did the honours ...' Claire's voice faded as she pulled back, and she glanced back at the tunnel. Jesse was out, and Myrnin was helping her pull Liz free. Michael, standing ready, grabbed Eve's reaching, flailing hand and yanked her out, too, and straight into his arms.
Nobody hugged Oliver. Not surprisingly. Although Michael did frown at the sight of him. 'What the hell happened to you?'
'What does it seem?' Oliver growled, as he settled his shirt back on over his silver-abraded arms. It must have hurt. 'Someone built a very nice rat trap with the girl as its cheese. And although it pains me to admit it, without Claire's cleverness we might have been stuck there.'
'Bad news, then, because we might be stuck here, too,' Pete said. He was farther back - covering their asses, Claire guessed. 'We've got company, folks. And I'm a little short on firepower up in here. Jesse?'
'Coming,' she said. She still sounded unruffled, a total contrast to the tension everyone else seemed to feel; it was as if none of this bothered her a bit.
And Myrnin seemed quite taken with that, Claire thought; she'd never seen him look at anyone with quite that much admiration. It surprised her that it made her feel a little ... what was that? Jealous? Couldn't be.
'What've we got?' Shane asked. He stepped forward, too, because if there was any kind of a fight, Shane Collins had to be on the front lines of it; Claire rolled her eyes and pulled him back. 'What? It was just a question!'
'Looks like six guys out there,' Pete said. 'Six I could spot, anyway. All armed. The four of you might be bulletproof, but I'm not in the mood to try dodging semi-auto rounds today. Any ideas?'
'It's the only way out,' Claire said. 'At least, that I know of. Eve, you take that wall, look for something we didn't see before. I'll go this way.'
But it was actually Shane who found the exit - a rusted iron grate just big enough for a person to fit through, set in the floor in the corner next to an equally rusty water main. Flood control, Claire guessed; it must go directly into a run-off tunnel. Well, that was a good thing. Run-off tunnels generally spilt out somewhere, and if they didn't, there would be other ways out. Maintenance crews regularly came down to clean out brush and debris that collected in them.
As Jesse pried up the grate - too heavy for anyone else except Oliver, and his hands were pretty much shot for the moment - Pete called back to them with a new, tense note in his voice. 'Okay, they heard that. They're on their way, I can hear them talking. Look, they're probably going to spray and pray, unless they've got some kind of anti-vamp devices.'
'Spray and pray?' Claire asked Shane, who shrugged and mimed firing an automatic weapon in a circle. 'Oh. Not good.'
'Nope.' He bent and added his muscles to Jesse's. Between the two of them, they managed to get it up and over, and it fell with a heavy, loud boom on the other side. 'Okay, Jesse, you first.'
'No,' she said. 'I'll stay. Michael, you go, make sure the way is clear. I'll help Eve down.'
He didn't protest; Michael jumped down, and Claire had no idea how far down it was, but it sounded like a long drop. No way any of them could make it without vampire help, or risk broken bones at the least. It'd be pretty dumb to die of a broken neck, after all this trouble.
'Ready,' Michael's voice echoed up. Jesse braced herself over the hole and held out her hands to Eve. Who hesitated.
'Maybe there's some other way,' she said.
'Maybe you'd like to see if you're bullet resistant,' Jesse said. 'But I believe your husband won't let you fall.'
'Yeah, but I don't know about you,' Eve said. She sighed and held out her hands. 'Fine. If I die, I'm coming back to haunt you.'
'That'll be fun.' Jesse took Eve's weight easily, even with her silver-wounded hand, and lowered her down, then released. Eve's surprised cry echoed back up, followed by a breathless laugh.
'All good,' she called up. 'Nice catch, handsome.'
'Anything for you,' Michael said. They may have even kissed. 'Ready, who's next?'
'Claire,' Shane said, and Myrnin nodded. She didn't like it, but nobody looked like they were going to take no for an answer this time. She held out her hands, and Jesse took hold, winked at her and gave her a reassuring smile, and swung her out over nothing. Claire had a dizzying moment of terror, because even though she knew intellectually that Michael was down below her in the dark, ready to catch her, it didn't much matter. Humans feared the dark, and they feared falling into it, and wow, it was scary.
Before Jesse could let go, Pete yelled, 'Down!' and Claire felt herself being swung away from the hole, thrown toward cover, and a lot of things happened all at once. A deafening, ear-shredding burst of gunfire in the enclosed space. Bright flashes. Yelling and screaming. Bodies moving against the bursts of light.
The only thing Claire could do was curl up and try to make herself small.
Shane fell on top of her, driving her breath away, but he wasn't hurt, just shielding her from the chaos; she could feel the hot press of his breath against her neck. 'Are you hit?' he yelled, and she said no, but she wasn't sure he could hear her.
A sudden, ominous silence fell. The smell of burnt metal and gunpowder was choking, and Claire coughed a little, even as she tried not to draw attention. Stay small, stay safe, her instincts were telling her. Don't move.
And then Shane moved, rolling away and up to his feet, because Pete was shouting and tossing him something that Claire recognised seconds later as a large gun. Some kind of assault rifle, she guessed. Shane held it like he'd fired something like it before - and he probably had, knowing his dad's paramilitary training - and fell in beside Pete. 'Call out!' he yelled. 'Let me know you're okay!'
'Fine,' Claire heard Oliver say. Then Jesse, in a clipped, tight way, affirming that she and Liz were both fine. Pete was all right. Claire said the same.
But Myrnin didn't answer.
Claire found him lying still on the ground, eyes shut, and she thought she might have actually screamed; he was lying like Derrick, pale and still and bloodied, and the blood that was on his face dripped to the concrete.
Then he opened his eyes and said, in a small, annoyed voice, 'Ouch. I haven't had that happen in ages. I still don't favour it.' And a bullet literally pushed its way out of his forehead.
Claire fell to her knees. She watched the bullet tumble off the slope of his skin and hit the concrete in slow motion; it left a little splashed trail of blood as it went, until it made a loop and rolled to a stop against a wall. She saw it, but she didn't exactly believe it ... she'd seen vampires heal, but she'd never actually thought about bullets, and where they might have gone.
But they had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was out.
'Glad it was you and not me,' Shane said, and offered Myrnin a hand up. 'Any brain damage?'
'Since the bullet actually passed through his brain, then yes, idiot boy, there's certainly brain damage,' Oliver said. And sure enough, as Myrnin tried to rise, his left side didn't function properly, and he stumbled and pitched into a drunken fall on the floor. Oliver sighed in annoyance and helped him rise, again, and this time held on as Myrnin staggered. One foot didn't seem to be responding. 'It will pass. And his brain's the least fragile thing about him, in any case.'
'You say the nicest things,' Myrnin said. He was slurring his words, and he threw an arm around Oliver's neck. 'Marry me.'
'Exactly what part of the brain did that bullet hit?' Shane asked, hovering on the edge of manic laughter.
Oliver sighed. 'He means carry me. And no. I won't.'
Claire shook herself out of the strange fugue she seemed to be in, got up, and went to Pete, who was at the doorway. There were two dead men there. Both were wearing suits, and there were gold pins on their lapels - some kind of horizon, and a stylised sun rising over it. Pete was kneeling down with his eyes on the entrance while patting down the corpses - at least, Claire assumed they were corpses. They weren't moving, and there was a hell of a lot of blood. Or, in vampire terms, wasted dinner. She supposed she ought to feel shocked about it, but these same two men had been intent on killing her, and Shane, and if Myrnin hadn't been a vampire he'd have been lying just as dead.
She couldn't work up much emotion at the moment.
'Anything?' she asked. Pete shook his head.
'No ID,' he said. 'But I don't think it matters right now. Two down, and four more still out there. Those aren't bad odds, but the problem is that they have us exactly where they need us - we make any attempt to break out through the door, and they can just pick us off.'
'Not the vamps,' she said.
'They're not stupid. They know how to place a head shot; they did it on your friend back there. The vampires can't get to them before a bullet in the brain takes them down, at least temporarily.'
'But we're not going out through the door - are we?'
'No. But somebody has to stay and make sure they stay out until we're clear.' Pete gave her a brief, funny smile, and she was struck all of a sudden by how oddly cute he was. 'Odds are it isn't going to be one of the vampires. They like to leave humans for that kind of time-buying exercise.'
'Not true,' Jesse said. Claire didn't know where she'd come from, but suddenly she was there, standing next to Pete. It was gratifying that Pete evidently hadn't seen her coming either; he flinched the way Claire knew she had about a thousand times, out of sheer surprise. He sent Jesse an exasperated look. She recognised that, too. 'I'll take the last train out, Pete. You go and help get everyone else to safety.'
'Just go,' she said. 'And give me the gun. I can shoot, you know. I learnt when firearms were still as simple as powder and shot, and I've certainly survived far worse people than these.' She sounded utterly sure of it, as calm as if she was discussing a simple stroll in the park. If she took strolls with an assault rifle. She turned to face the door, and raised the gun and placed four quick, competent shots. 'There. That'll give them something to think about for a bit.'
Pete pushed Claire back toward the hole, where Shane was urgently gesturing; Myrnin was already gone, dropped down for Michael to catch, she assumed. Oliver was lowering Elizabeth down. 'Careful with this one,' he called to Michael. 'Don't want her bleeding out. We might need her later.' That sounded ... less than altruistic, although Claire hoped Liz didn't catch the reference.
She didn't seem to. She was so woozy she didn't even scream as she was dropped, or as she was caught.
And then it was between Shane and Claire. 'You first,' he said.
Shane and Pete exchanged looks. 'Seriously?' Pete asked.
'Yeah, she's like that.' Shane turned to her. 'Because you're my girlfriend, and I'm not going until you're safe. How's that?'
'Good enough,' she said, and then Oliver was holding her and dangling her like tasty bait over the abyss ...
... And she was falling
She somehow managed not to scream, though every instinct told her to; it seemed to take forever, but then she was landing in a strong pair of arms that cushioned her, expertly adjusted her weight, and settled her on her feet as neatly as if she'd just floated to a graceful stop. 'Shane!' Michael said. 'Jump!'
'I hate this,' Shane said. When Oliver tried to reach for him, he held out his hand in a direct refusal. 'Ready?'
'Ready,' Michael said.
Shane jumped. Michael caught him, and tossed him onto his feet as neatly as if it was a regular acrobatic act. Cirque du Soleil, only with vampires, Claire thought. Then again, how could anyone be sure those bouncy people weren't vampires already?
Pete wasn't that self-sufficient; he took advantage of Oliver's reach to lower him down, and seemed grateful to be on the stone floor of the run-off tunnel once he was safely landed. It was mostly dry, Claire realised; a thin, dark trickle of moisture ran down the centre, but it had been parched recently in Cambridge, unseasonably so. At least they didn't have to worry about keeping their heads above water.
Oliver jumped, and Michael stepped aside to give Oliver space to land; as with all vamps, he did it gracefully and effortlessly.
Above, Jesse's gun suddenly let loose with a murderous volley of shots, all growing louder and louder. And it was covered up by a much louder, more sustained roar of returning fire. 'She's coming,' Oliver said from where he was still supporting Myrnin, who was giving them a lopsided, loony grin. 'Be ready!'
Even with the warning, they weren't, and Michael had to scramble to get out of the way as Jesse dropped suddenly down the hole, red braid twisting and waving in the air as she plummeted. She was out of breath, the tip of the assault rifle's barrel was hot and smoking, and she was smiling as if she was having the best possible day of her life as she landed like she had shock absorbers for legs, rising smoothly back up to an unruffled, relaxed stand. 'Time to go, children,' she said. 'Now.'
'This way,' Oliver said, and strode off in his chosen direction. There wasn't much to do but follow. He dragged the still-reeling Myrnin with him. Jesse let them all go first; she stood staring up at the hole, ready to shoot any face that appeared overhead, but it seemed as if for the moment, their opponents were either baffled, or cautious, or both.
She was right behind Claire as they ran down the tunnel. No way could they run vampire speed, burdened by humans, but Jesse seemed to have practice in regulating her speed to an easy cruise; she didn't overtake Claire even when Claire had to slow down to avoid the dimly seen debris that littered the run-off tunnel. The bones of a large dog tried to trip her up once, and Jesse's pale, strong left hand grabbed her arm to steady her. 'Careful,' Jesse said. She sounded amused. 'Wouldn't want you to break a leg when you're almost safe.'
Claire knew there was no assuming safe until they were far, far away from here, and she started to say it - and then it was obvious, because the trap sprang shut.
Claire didn't really notice the dark offshoot tunnel as they approached it; the glow of streetlights at the end was much too alluring. It was only when a group of figures stepped out of it, into her path, that she was forced to skid to a halt. There were three of them facing her - two armed men, and one standing still in the centre who didn't fit the template she'd become used to seeing.
A man, but carrying something different. Bulky.
Jesse hardly paused at all. 'Trap!' she yelled, a sudden and shocking sound that echoed from the tunnel's concrete like thunder. At the same time, she pushed Claire out of the way, up against the far wall, to get her out of the line of fire.
As Jesse brought up her assault rifle, utterly unconcerned with being outnumbered, the figure in the middle raised that bulky, clumsy thing he was holding, aimed, and fired. Or at least that was what Claire assumed happened - there was no light, no sound, nothing but a shiver that went through Claire's nerves as if she'd stood close to lightning.
And Jesse gasped, dropped her weapon, and staggered backward, hands clapping to her head as if she'd been stunned. She let out a sharp, agonised cry, and suddenly dropped down into a crouch - a fear position, a child's futile attempt to hide from her tormentors.
She was sobbing.
And it hit home to Claire with a white-hot surge of rage what was going on. That was VLAD. Her VLAD, being used on her friend.
But it works, some ice-cold part of her said. The field test is successful. She told that part of her to shut up and die, and lunged off the wall, trying to get to the man holding her creation and pointing it at Jesse.
It was Dr Davis, and he looked elated. In fact, he was grinning in triumph.
Claire yelled in inarticulate fury, and lunged toward him. She saw one of the armed men standing next to Dr Davis turning toward her, and the barrel of his gun swung with him ...
... And then Michael was in the way, grabbing the gun and slamming it up with stunning force into the man's face. Her would-be shooter dropped like a sack of mud ... but then Dr Davis hit Michael point blank in the back with a shot from VLAD, and Claire, rushing at him, saw Michael's face go alabaster white, his blue eyes terrifyingly wide as he pitched to his knees.
Like Jesse, he curled into a protective ball, shivering. Unlike Jesse, he was making a hoarse, faint, screaming sound.
Myrnin was lurching toward Dr Davis, and he - through accident or design - fell before he could be shot. Behind him, though, came Shane. He'd picked up a thick, splintered length of tree branch, and he stepped up and swung it like he was planning a home run with the second gunman. Score. That one fell, too, as unconscious as the one Michael had clocked.
Dr Davis focused not on Shane, but on Oliver, the last vampire standing. Claire leapt over Michael's curled-on-its-side body and put all her strength into a shove on Dr Davis's shoulder as she landed.
It was just enough that he missed. But Dr Davis wasn't done, not by a long shot; he yelled, slammed an elbow back into her ribs, and simultaneously with the eruption of white-hot pain, Claire heard Shane yell, too.
Only Shane's cry was a warning. 'Reinforcements!' he said, and grabbed Claire's arm on the fly to shove her toward the exit. 'Just go, get the hell out of here!'
Pete, Liz and Eve were already gone, though if Claire knew Eve at all, she knew that Pete would have his hands full trying to stop her from plunging back in to defend Michael. There were more men pouring out of the tunnel, and Michael and Jesse and Myrnin were down, and Oliver was leaving ...
'Get Myrnin!' Shane yelled. He paused to grab Michael's arm and pull him up. It was like pulling a sack of wet noodles - wet noodles that weakly resisted the help. 'Claire, get out of here!' There were too many coming, and Shane knew it. He'd already made one command decision ... Jesse knelt helpless and out of it farther down the tunnel, and he knew they couldn't reach her and get out in time. She realised with horror that he'd already written her off. He was saving what he could.
But he was right. She had to save one of them, and it had to be Myrnin.
Claire helped him up, and although he was clumsy, he kept himself moving as they ran/stumbled for the end of the run-off tunnel where Oliver had already gone. She looked behind her. Shane had dragged Michael's weight into a fireman's carry, and was moving as fast as he could, face contorted with effort. Michael was as limp as a corpse.
Claire saw men with guns forming up behind him, and knew with heart-stopping certainty that she was about to see Shane die. If they wanted Michael, which she thought they did, then it wouldn't mean much to them to shoot them both. Shane wouldn't make it. Michael would.
She screamed in horror, because she could see it, as inevitable as a train crash - the roar of the guns, the blood, Shane going down in a lifeless heap.
But it didn't happen.
'Hold fire!' Dr Davis said sharply. 'Let them go. We've got what we need.'
They needed only one vampire, then. It didn't matter which one.
And as Shane reached her and passed her, Claire realised with a sick and heavy heart that they were going to have to totally abandon Jesse.