Eventually, they all went home. Or at least homeward . . . Shane announced that he was starving, and Eve agreed, and Michael steered his car to one of Morganville's two all-night diners. This one was Shane's favorite, Marjo's, although Claire guessed that Marjo herself--the rudest waitress ever--was off duty, since a woman with the nameplate HELEN came to take their orders. She wasn't nearly as rude as Marjo, but she wasn't nice, either. Claire supposed that being nice was against the rules. Or maybe being on the night shift in an all-night diner in Morganville tended to make you bitter.
The food, though, was delicious. Juicy burgers, crisp fries, milk shakes to die for, although Michael skipped that and ordered something in a covered to-go cup that Claire thought was probably not ice cream. The diner was packed with late-nighters . . . college students, although they were pushing the curfew, as well as lots of quiet, pale people who sat in groups and, when they looked at the humans, had a special glitter in their eyes.
Marjo's, like Oliver's Common Grounds, was a place where the two halves of Morganville had a kind of unofficial truce. Besides, who didn't like hamburgers? Vegetarians, Claire supposed. But she didn't think there were any vegetarian vampires. That would be like an atheist priest.
Speaking of priests, Father Joe came in and looked around for a seat. Michael gestured for him to come over, and he did, stopping to say hello to people (and vamps) along the way. Father Joe wasn't a very large man, but he was . . . well, kind of cute. Eve had once had a monster crush on him (check that--from the wide-eyed look Eve was giving him now, she still had one). She'd claimed it was the cassock. Claire thought it was more the wavy red hair and cute smile.
"How's your father, Claire?" Father Joe asked, even before he'd sat down in the chair he'd pulled over to their table. "I was planning to stop by again tonight before I went home."
"He's doing better," she said. "They're taking him to Dallas tomorrow."
Father Joe nodded and sat back as Helen came over to take his order. Not surprisingly, he was having a hamburger, too. Claire wondered why they bothered to even have a menu, really. He favored strawberry milk shakes, which put him in solidarity with Eve. "I'll keep your father in my prayers," the priest said, handing his menu back. "And your mother, of course. And you. I assume you're staying in Morganville?"
Claire sighed. "For now, anyway."
"I hope to see you on Sunday, then, at the evening services. Amelie comes quite often."
Huh, Claire had never considered that Amelie might be a churchgoer. "And Oliver?"
Father Joe chuckled, then sipped on the strawberry milk shake Helen thumped down on the table before him. "Oliver has . . . theological differences with the Roman Catholic Church. He attends a more nondenominational service we hold on Saturdays. Although he usually argues with me about formats."
She could see Amelie in church, but Oliver? Really? That was . . . new.
Father Joe must have seen the confusion in her face, because he said, "Most of them attend some sort of service. After all, in the times they were born and lived, religion was a vital part of life and society. It's a little less so today, but for many of them, it's hugely important to still feel they have a path to God." He grinned. "But I'm off duty right now. Seen any good movies lately?"
"Do not ask Shane," Eve said. "He's got awful taste."
"Are you kidding? That last thing I took you to was totally sick!"
"If you mean, made me throw up, then yeah. Would it kill you to watch something where heads don't explode?"
"Probably not, unless it's one of those movies where everybody's wearing poofy skirts and corsets and nobody does anything. That might actually kill me."
Eve looked at Claire. "Really? Is he running for Worst Boyfriend Ever?"
"In the subcategory of Completely Awesome," Shane said, and stole some of her fries. Eve stabbed at him with a fork, but missed.
The bell over the door chimed, and it wasn't that Claire was really looking, exactly; she was too busy laughing. But something about the woman who came in caught her eye. Maybe it was because she was clearly a vampire, and from the way she dressed and the hair, she'd probably last cared about fashion in the 1940s. She looked eerily out of place here, where most of the vamps were wearing casual, modern clothes, even if their hairstyles seemed a little iffy.
She looked around the diner as if she were trying to locate someone. The waitress Helen steered in her direction, and must have asked her if she needed help, because the woman focused in on her immediately.
And then she attacked her. Just . . . cold, flat-out bit her. It was so fast Claire couldn't react at all, at first; it seemed so totally random, so wrong that her brain kept insisting she wasn't seeing it.
Other people reacted, though. Father Joe, for one; he jumped up and raced to help. So did a tableful of vampires seated near the door. It took all of them to wrestle the vamp off of Helen, who collapsed back against the counter, holding a shaking hand to her bleeding throat. Her knees buckled, and she fell. Other diners bent down to check her as the vamps continued to fight with the stranger. She was acting crazy now, yelling in a language Claire didn't recognize at all. Finally, they got her out the door and off into the night.
For some reason, Claire hadn't moved at all. Most of the people hadn't. Maybe they'd been afraid to draw attention. She felt, suddenly, like a small, defenseless animal in a room full of predators.
"Uh, Mike?" Shane asked. "What was that?"
"I don't know," Michael said. "But it was freaking weird."
Helen was okay, it appeared, although she wouldn't have been if the vamp had been able to do her worst. Father Joe offered to drive her to the hospital, and the cook came out of the back to keep order and make sure nobody ran out on their checks. He was a vampire, which for some reason struck Claire as immensely odd. A vampire fry cook just seemed . . . wrong. But then again, they were really great burgers. Being immortal gave you lots of time to perfect your grilling technique, Claire guessed.
As they paid their check and headed for the door, Claire overheard one of the vampires saying to another, "Did you understand what she said?"
And the other vampire said, "She was screaming that it was all wrong."
"What was all wrong?"
"I don't know," he said, and shrugged. "The world? She's off her head."
And once again, Claire felt that shiver.
Something wasn't right in Morganville.
She just knew it.
She woke up early the next morning, and felt as if she could've slept for a dozen more days. Nobody else was stirring, and Claire decided not to wake them up; she showered and dressed as quietly as possible, and sneaked out the front door while the mist was still on the ground outside, and the sun was just coming up.
Morganville was pretty at this time of day--still, quiet, cleaner somehow than it seemed in full light. She'd always liked early mornings here better than any other time.
Mostly, though, she liked the fact that sunrise signaled most vampires to head for their beds. Except Myrnin, who hardly ever seemed to rest at all.
She walked the streets as lights came on in houses, cars began to move again, and people started their usual days. A construction crew had gotten busy early, lots of guys in flannel shirts, jeans, and work boots hammering and sawing in the clean morning light. It felt . . . new. And good.
There was a car parked in the middle of the street up ahead. Claire frowned and slowed, watching it--it wasn't pulled to the curb; it was just sitting there, blocking whatever traffic might eventually come by. As she watched, a girl only a little older than she was--maybe nineteen or twenty--opened the driver's-side door and got out. She stood there next to the car, looking around.
It was eerily familiar. It was like Alex, sitting by the side of the road, seeming so lost.
But this girl had clearly been heading somewhere. She was dressed for an office. Claire could see a laptop and a purse in the passenger seat. And there was a sealed cup steaming the scent of coffee into the air from the cup holder in the door.
The girl caught sight of Claire, and waved her over. Claire hesitated, remembering what kind of reception she'd had from Alex, but finally went. She stopped out of grabbing range and said, "Are you having car trouble?" Because that made the most sense, obviously.
The girl looked at her and said, "I can't find my mom's office."
"I . . . Excuse me?"
"I know it's around here somewhere. My God, I go there all the time! It's ridiculous! Look, can you help me?"
"Uh . . . sure," Claire said cautiously. "What's the name of the office?"
Claire had never heard of it. "You're sure it's around here?"
"I'm sure. It was right there. But the sign's gone, and there's nobody inside. I've been up and down the street. There's not even a note. It's ridiculous! I was there yesterday!"
A man came out of another building down the street, carrying a briefcase. The girl yelled at him. "Hey, mister! Where's Landau Realty? Did they move?"
He hesitated, frowning, and then walked over, tucking his newspaper under his arm. "Excuse me?"
"Landau Realty," the girl repeated. "God, really? Has everybody gone crazy?"
"You're . . . Laura, right? Iris's daughter?"
"Yes! Yes, Iris is my mom." Laura breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Now we're getting somewhere. Look, her office was right here, and I don't understand. . . ."
The man was looking at her very oddly. He also looked at Claire, as if she ought to be doing something. She had no clue. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, "Laura, look--I don't know what happened, but you know where your mom is. She . . . she died last year. The office was closed up. I attended the funeral. So did you."
Laura stared at him, wide-eyed, and shook her head. "No. No, that's not true. I'd remember--"
She stopped. Just . . . stopped. It was like someone hit a reset button in her head, because all of a sudden she looked older, and her face just crumpled with the weight of misery. "Oh, God," she said, and put both hands to her mouth. "Oh, God, I remember that. I remember--What was I thinking? Why did I . . . ? Oh, God, Mom . . ." She burst into tears and got back into her car, slamming the door as she fumbled for a tissue out of her purse.
The man hesitated, then decided he really didn't want to hang around to be a shoulder to cry on. He walked away quickly, like whatever had gotten into Laura might be contagious.
Claire hesitated. She felt like she ought to do something, but suddenly getting to Myrnin's lab seemed much more important.
Her conscience was cleared by Laura Laudau blowing her nose, wiping her eyes, putting her car in drive, and heading off down the street, still crying.
Something was very, very wrong.
It's the machine, Claire thought.
It had to be the machine.
When she went to see Myrnin about it, though, things didn't go as she'd planned. Not at all.
First, as she descended the stairs, she found that the lights were all off. That wasn't like him; Myrnin had no real concept of energy conservation, and he couldn't be bothered to turn things off if they were already on. Power failure, Claire thought, but when she located a switch on the wall and threw it, all the sconces on the walls lit up with a reassuring golden glow, spilling color and life through the room.
Myrnin was lying stretched out on one of the lab tables, wearing a crimson dressing gown that had seen better days--at least fifty years ago. His eyes were closed, and he seemed . . . dead. Asleep? But Myrnin didn't sleep, not really. She'd seen him nap occasionally, but he'd wake at the slightest sound.
She'd just clomped down the steps and switched on the lights, and he hadn't moved.
"Myrnin?" She said it reasonably loudly, but he didn't stir. "Myrnin, are you okay?" She was getting a sick, strange feeling about this. He looked . . . posed, almost. Like a corpse laid out for burial.
After what seemed like an eternity, his eyelids slowly raised, and he stared blankly at the roof of the lab. "I think I was dreaming," he said. His voice sounded drugged and slow. "Was I dreaming?" He turned his head and looked at her with strange, luminous eyes. "I thought you were gone." "I went home," she said, and her uneasiness intensified to a prickling all over her skin. "Don't you remember?"
"No," he said softly. "No, I don't remember. I've been feeling . . . tired. I wish I could sleep. Sleep must be a very nice thing." In the same distant, contemplative voice, he said, "I loved her, you know."
Claire opened her mouth, then closed it without saying anything. Myrnin didn't seem to care either way. "I loved her and I destroyed her. Don't you ever wish you could take something back, Claire? Something terrible that you wish never happened?"
He really wasn't well. She just knew it. She could feel it. "Maybe I should call Dr. Mills," Claire said. "Or Theo. You like Theo. You can talk to him."
"I don't need a doctor. I'm perfectly fine. I checked my blood for any signs of degeneration, and I'm free of any sign of the disease that afflicted us before." He shut his eyes again. "I'm just tired, Claire. Tired and . . . tired of everything. It's a mood. It will pass." To prove it, he sat up and hopped off the lab table--from depressed to manic in one leap. His heart wasn't in it, but he rubbed his hands together and smiled at her. "Now. What do you have for me, my little mechanic?"
She hated to say it now, because she knew it was absolutely the worst time to try to talk to him, but she had no real choice. "I think there's something wrong with the machine," she said. "I think maybe we did something wrong."
His eyes opened very wide. "And why would you say such a thing? I've run all the tests, I tell you. There's nothing wrong."
"It's not something that's obvious; it's just that--" She couldn't quite think how to phrase it, so she just blurted it out. "People are acting crazy. I think it's the machine."
"Don't be ridiculous. It's not the machine; it can't be," Myrnin said. "Don't be so overdramatic, Claire. People in Morganville regularly go around the twist, normally in fairly spectacular ways. It's really not all that unusual. Perhaps it's unusual to see so many acting oddly at once, but odder things have happened here." He smiled and spread his hands. "There. All explained. No cause for alarm."
"Well--but there was this boy, Alex. I saw him yesterday morning. He didn't know where he was. It was really weird, and he was really upset."
"Don't young men these days constantly seek new ways to obliterate their brains? They certainly did in my day, although the most they had to work with were fermented beverages and exotic herbs. Young Alex almost certainly had a blackout that can be perfectly explained by drugs and alcohol." Myrnin turned away to pick up his Ben Franklin spectacles, balanced them on his nose, and looked over them to say, "Don't do drugs. I feel I ought to say that."
"I don't," Claire said, exasperated, and sat down across from him on a pile of boxes. "Okay, then, never mind Alex. Michael actually thought I was his mother! How weird is that?"
"Hmm. Less explainable, but when did this happen?"
"Don't you ever wake up and think yourself in a different place, a different time? It happens to vampires fairly often, actually. It even happens to me occasionally, when I manage to sleep." Myrnin studied her for a few long seconds. "He's fine now, I assume."
Claire hesitated, then had to nod. Michael had been absolutely normal ever since. So maybe she was putting things together that didn't belong. It might even explain the vamp in the diner, if vampires were prone to sleepwalking. . . . "There was another one at the hospital," Claire said. "He said he was a doctor, but he wasn't. Michael said later that he used to be a doctor, before he had a breakdown." "Aha, a breakdown. I believe that might be called a clue."
It was so frustrating. She just knew . . . but Myrnin's arguments were so logical and practical that she felt stupid. "And this morning," she said. "Laura Landau. She was looking for her mom's office. But her mom's been dead for a year. And Laura went to the funeral and everything. It was like she just woke up and . . . forgot."
That made Myrnin pause for a moment, considering. He touched his earlobe, tugged it, and finally said, "I acknowledge that I have no explanation for that. I'll run another set of diagnostics and review the logs, I promise you, but I can't see any way that these incidents could be connected with our efforts. The machine is designed to have an effect outside of town, not inside. I can assure you that, strange as this may seem, it could be complete coincidence."
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Are you really, totally sure?"
"Yes," he said. "I am sure. I double-checked everything after you went home yesterday. I even made a few improvements, just in case."
The first part of that reassured her. The second part . . . not so much. "What kind of improvements?"
"Oh, nothing, really. Mostly just streamlining. You really did very well; I certainly don't want you to think that I am one of those people who has to be in control all the--Oh, well, I suppose that's actually true--I do have to be in control all the time. But only because I am in charge, of course." His manic chatter wasn't fooling her; there was a strange look in his eyes, and something was off about his behavior, too. "It's all fine, Claire. You should just leave it to me."
She swallowed a mouthful of dread. "Can I take a look? Not that I don't trust you. Only because I'm really worried about my friends."
"Aren't I your friend?" he asked, very softly. There was a cold light in his eyes, something that seemed so alien to her, it was like seeing him possessed. "Friends trust each other. There's nothing wrong with the machine. In fact, for the first time in years, I actually feel . . . rested. I feel better."
But five minutes ago he'd said he was tired. This was scaring her. "Myrnin, you are my friend, but there's something not right about this. Please. Let me see it."
He debated it for a moment, and then nodded. The cold light was gone from his eyes when he blinked, and his body language shifted back, subtly, to the Myrnin she knew. "Of course you can. I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. Well, I moved it downstairs and installed it below," he said. "I'll show it to you just this once. I put in safety protocols to protect it against any unauthorized tampering, so be warned. I don't want you down there alone, all right?"
"All right," she said. The "safety protocols" were, no doubt, something that would eat her or burn her face off. She wasn't eager to go poking around downstairs. "I just won't feel good about it until I check for myself."
He tapped his pen on his lips. "I heard your father is unwell."
"He's in the hospital. They . . . they were moving him and my mom today to Dallas, to a heart hospital."
"And yet you're here, talking to me about all these vague suspicions," he said. "I would have thought that you'd be at his side, still."
She felt terrible the instant he said it; she'd been feeling guilty about it all morning, but her dad had texted her at four a.m. and said, No need to come, they're already getting me ready. Love you, sweetheart. And she'd texted him back first thing when she woke up, but the ambulance had already left.
"He's already gone," she said. "And I want to make sure this thing didn't make him sick in the first place." That was a little more of an attack than she'd planned, but she did mean it.
He stood there watching her in silence, and then bowed his head. "Perhaps I deserved that," he said. "I haven't been myself; I know that. But I know the machine is working correctly. I can feel it. Can't you?"
"I can't feel anything," Claire said. "I wish I could."
He led the way to the trapdoor in the back of the lab, and she stood back while he entered the code and pressed his hand to the plate. The hatch popped open with a hiss of escaping cool air.
"Right, down you go," Myrnin said, and, without any warning at all, grabbed hold of her, wrapped his arms around her, and jumped into the dark.
It wasn't a long fall, but it was way longer than she'd ever like to jump by herself. Myrnin landed with hardly a jolt. For a second, he held on to her, which made her feel . . . weird, in a lot of wrong ways. And then all of a sudden he let go and was across the room, turning on overhead lights with the flip of a switch. "I really ought to install one of those marvelous things. You know, the ones that turn the lights on when you clap?"
"You could get motion sensors."
"Where would the fun be in that? This way. Stay close. There are a few new things lying around that it wouldn't be good for you to, ah, encounter."
Right. Myrnin was the master of understatement, because from what Claire had seen of his downstairs playhouse, it was full of things that no sane person would want to run into. And now there were new things.
Claire stayed so close she might as well have been grafted to him. He seemed back to normal now, which was a relief.
At the end of a long, rough-hewn tunnel studded at not-very-regular intervals with lights lay a big, open cave that held the remains of the computer Claire had once known as Ada. Ada had been mostly machine, but partly vampire: Myrnin's former vampire lab assistant, and--although Myrnin never quite got around to telling the details--almost certainly his girlfriend, too, at some point. But Ada, like the rest of the vampires in Morganville, had contracted a disease that had made her slowly go insane--and unlike the rest of the vampires, they hadn't been able to treat her. It hadn't been so much the disease, Claire thought, as being stuck inside that mechanical thing without a body that had finally driven her completely crazy.
Ada was gone now, but the whole idea of her still scared Claire.
Her instant impression, when Myrnin turned on the overhead lights in the cave, was that Ada was back. The tangle of pipes, wires, hoses, screens, and keyboards that sprawled over half the cave was working again, hissing steam, clanking as its gears turned.
The screens on the sides of it were all dark. The one in the middle showed Claire's custom graphic interface, the one that had been hooked up to the parts on the lab table.
As she studied it, she realized that the parts she and Myrnin had developed and tested were actually welded into the machine, just below the big, clumsy typewriter-style keyboard. Liquid bubbled. Steam escaped in wisps of mist. She could see the clockworks turning.
"It's working just fine," Myrnin said, and walked to the screen. It was a bizarrely out-of-place touch of high tech among all the retro brass and tubes. "Here, I'll show you." He deftly brought up the system logs and dials, and just as he said, there was nothing odd about how it was performing. Well, for a machine that killed car engines on command, and changed the memories of those who drove past the borders of town.
Changed the memories. Alex had forgotten where he was. Michael had called her his mom. Laura had thought her own mother was still alive. Claire knew she was looking at the core of the problem, whatever "the problem" really meant. But until she had proof, solid proof, there was no way Myrnin would believe her. He was feeling too fragile.
"Can you show me what improvements you made to it?" she asked. He gave her a frowning look, and she forced a smile. "I just want to learn. You know, understand what it was I left out."
That soothed him a little. He started to touch the mechanism under the keyboard, then pulled his hand back with a snap. "Ah," he said. "Must deactivate the security. . . . Turn around, please."
"Turn around, Claire. It's a secure password! "
"You have got to be kidding."
"Why ever would I joke about that? Please turn."
It was stupid, because she could always figure out Myrnin's passwords; she didn't think he ever used more than three, and they were all ridiculously simple. He didn't remember his own birth date, so he didn't use that, but he either used his name, Amelie's name, or Ada's.
She tried to count key clicks, but vampires typed really fast.
"Done," he said. She turned; nothing looked any different. He pointed at a tiny LED diode on the corner of the keyboard. "Green means it's off. Red means it's armed. Don't get them confused."
She sighed and shook her head, then got on her hands and knees and crawled under the keyboard with him. It was murky underneath, but she could just make out what he was touching. "It occurred to me that we could control the reaction in our departing guests more finely," he said. "I installed a variable switch. Should you wish to take more of their memories, you simply turn it up. It can be targeted to an individual, you see, or set as the general field around the town. But only outside of the borders."
"What's it set on right now?"
"Three years. According to my research, most who leave Morganville do it within three years. We can, of course, exempt certain people from the effects if we choose."
Claire's mouth went dry. "What about my mom and dad? Did you--"
"Oliver brought me the waivers last night, and I programmed in their exceptions," he said, and met her eyes in the dim, flickering light. "Your parents will remember everything. That's a risk, a great risk. It would be safer, and kinder, if I had been allowed to take their burdens away."
"They won't remember that I'm here if you do that. They'll think I--" She could hardly bear to say it out loud. "They'll think I ran away. Or that I'm dead."
He kept staring into her eyes. She couldn't read his expression at all. "And you don't think that would be kinder, in the end?"
"No," she snapped. "Why would you?"
He didn't answer, just slithered out from under the console. Before she could get out, he'd tapped his password in again. The LED on the keyboard glowed red.
"Don't touch it," Myrnin said, and there was a certain chill in his voice she hardly recognized. "Only I can alter the machine from this point on. I don't want you down here. Do you understand?"
"From now on, the machine is my responsibility," Myrnin said. "Only mine."
That did not make her feel any better. Claire swore to herself that she was going to figure out the password. She had to understand what was going on, and somehow, this machine was the key.
Everything seemed quiet the rest of the morning. Claire walked home, after promising Myrnin she'd deliver doughnuts the next day. She didn't see any crazy people, or even confused people. Everyone seemed to have a purpose and understand where they were going.
Was it possible that she'd really just blown it all out of proportion because she was so scared by the fate of poor, doomed Kyle, and so tired from the brutal repair session on the machine? Things looked different today. Better, somehow. She felt a little foolish, really, after she'd stopped in a couple of stores and talked to perfectly normal (for Morganville) people, who didn't seem to have noticed anything odd at all.
Outside of the used bookstore, she ran into another familiar--and unwelcome--face. He stepped out of the mouth of an alley in front of her, keeping to the shadows, and she pulled herself to a sudden halt as she realized that she was facing Frank Collins.
Shane's dad looked just the same as before--pale, with that scar disfiguring his face. She couldn't tell what he was thinking or feeling, but he looked menacing as hell. It was his default expression.
"Stay away from me," Claire said, and started to walk around him. He stepped in her path. She went off the curb into the sunlight, and that stopped him. "Just leave us alone, okay?"
"I need to talk to my son," Frank said. "I need to explain some things. He trusts you."
"Yeah, and I don't trust you. Why should I?"
"I saved your life," Frank said. "That ought to buy me a few minutes of your time."
"Well, it doesn't," Claire said, and kept on walking. "Don't follow me anymore."
He stood there watching her go, and when she finally looked back at the corner, he was gone. She shivered. There was something feral about Frank Collins now, something that made her hope she never ran into him in the dark.
She decided not to tell Shane about any of it.
She got a call from her mother just as she entered the swinging gate in the picket fence around the Glass House, and sat down on the steps in the warm sun to talk. Her dad was in the hands of some of the most expert heart doctors in the world, Mom assured her. He was resting comfortably, and she'd checked into a hotel nearby. Oliver had sent money to allow them to get an apartment until her father was well enough, and then he'd promised to refund the money they'd spent on the house in Morganville, although Mom was still hell-bent on coming back as soon as Dad was out of the woods.
It seemed very out of character for Oliver to do something that nice; Claire thought it had probably been an order, a pointed one, from Amelie, and she'd made Oliver do it because she wanted him to remember who was in charge. She and Oliver were often like that--Oliver wasn't a comfortable choice for her second in command, but he was good at it. He just didn't think he deserved to be only second, and Amelie had to watch her back with him, always.
It felt good to hear her mother's voice sound so strong and confident for a change. Her parents hadn't been right, here. The stress had hurt her dad, and her mom had . . . withered, somehow. She'd always been strong out there, but in here she'd seemed weak and lost.
This was better. Claire had to believe that it was better.
"Should I come this weekend?" she asked. "To see Dad?"
"Maybe give it another week, honey; he's still going through a lot of tests with these new doctors. I'm sure he'd like to wait and see you once he's not being pulled away for new adventures in science every few minutes." "Are you doing okay?"
"Of course I am, Claire. This isn't the first time he's been in the hospital, and I'm booked in a very nice hotel. They even have a spa. I might just go get a massage later."
"You should," Claire said. "You really should. You deserve it, Mom."
Her mother laughed a little. "Oh, baby, you are the sweetest girl in the world." The laughter faded. "I hate to see you stay there. You put yourself at so much risk. But I promise you we will come back for you. I'm not leaving you alone there."
"I'm not alone; I have lots of friends. And I'd risk a lot more right now if I tried to leave; you know that. It's better if I stick it out here for a while. I can learn a lot from Myrnin, anyway. He's better than a whole roster of teachers at MIT." When he's sane, she thought but didn't say.
"And MIT doesn't have Shane," her mother said dryly. "Yes, I know. Believe me, I know. When I met your father I would have done anything to stay with him. Everyone thought I was crazy, too. But, sweetie, you have to promise me that you'll call me every day."
"Mom! Every day? How many minutes do you think I have on this cell phone?"
"Well, then, at least every few days. And absolutely once a week, no matter what. If I don't hear from you--"
"I know, you'll send the National Guard."
"That's my girl," her mom said, and made kissy noises. "I love you, honey. Stay safe."
"You, too," Claire said. "I love you both very much."
She hung up and sat there in the sun for a little while longer, thinking. She felt alone in a way that she hadn't before; although she'd worried about her parents, felt that they were a burden to her here, there had been something weirdly comforting about knowing they were only across town. That she wasn't on her own, not really.
She wondered if this was what it felt like to really, truly grow up.
Eventually, that feeling faded, mostly because the day felt wonderful sitting outside--it was deliciously warm in the sun. She thought about dragging out a lounge chair and reading in the glow, but that seemed like a lot of work. Instead, she leaned back against a pillar on the porch, closed her eyes, and took a nap.
When she woke up, she smelled tacos. Really smelled them, as if she was sleeping in a taco store. She came awake, stomach rumbling, and opened her eyes to see a plate being held right under her nose.
When she reached for it, Shane snatched it back. "Nuh-uh. Mine."
"Share!" she demanded.
"Man, you are one grabby girlfriend."
She grinned. It always made her feel so fiercely warm inside to hear him say that--the girlfriend part, not the grabby part. "If you love me, you'll give me a taco."
"Seriously? That all you got? What about you'll do sexy, illegal things to me for a taco?"
"Not for a taco," she said. "I'm not cheap."
"They're brisket tacos."
"Now you're talking."
He held the plate out, and she took one. He took another, sank down next to her on the steps, and they munched in silence, enjoying the day. He'd brought cold Cokes, too. She popped the top on hers and tried to sneak a second taco--he'd brought six, after all. She managed, but just barely. When she went for the third one, Shane put down the plate and tackled her to the grass, and she used their momentum to keep them rolling until she came out on top. He didn't fight, exactly. He looked surprised, but pleased. "Well," he said. "That's new. Now what, cowgirl?"
"Now I get the rest of your tacos," she said, and leaned forward to brush her lips teasingly against his. "And maybe your Coke. And maybe something else."
"What else? You've cleaned me out. I don't have dessert," he murmured. The words were coming from somewhere deep in his throat, a kind of growling purr that made her feel nuclear hot inside. "Unless you were thinking--"
"I don't know; what am I thinking?" She smiled slowly at the look in his eyes, and felt absolutely wicked. "Any guesses?"
"I think I just became psychic," he said. "Holy crap."
"You want romantic? Date--"
She put two fingers on his lips, hushed him, and then kissed him, long and warm, with tongue. When she was finished, she let him breathe. "You were saying?"
"Not a damn thing," he said, and used both hands to hold her hair back from her face. "How'd you get to be so good at this?"
"I had a good teacher."
"Better not have been Myrnin or I'll have to kick his predatory ass."
"I mean you, dummy."
"Oh." He kissed her back, and somehow they rolled over again, and this time she was on the bottom. It could have felt like suffocation, but he was good at this. It just felt . . . sexy. "How am I doing now?"
"I'm learning all the time."
"Well, you're a scholar." He trailed a finger down her neck, into the open part of her shirt, to where the first button held it closed. It felt like every nerve in her body paid attention to that, to the pressure, the slow speed at which his finger moved, the tug of fabric where he stopped. "Oh, damn, sorry." The button slipped out of the hole. "You're undone."
She looked down. The top of her cream-colored bra was showing, but only the top. It wasn't X-rated yet. It wasn't even PG, except that they were outside, and anybody could walk by and see them. Somehow it didn't feel like that, though. Here, with him, she felt like there was nothing else in the whole world except the two of them.
"Um, Claire?" Shane said. His finger had moved down to touch the skin right at the top of her bra. "Maybe we should finish our tacos inside."
"Eve and Michael are at work. I go in at two."
Oh. "That might be a good idea, then."
He stood up and helped her rise, and they gathered up the plate and Cokes and went inside.
Best. Lunch. Ever.
Claire spent the rest of the afternoon humming around, ridiculously happy; when Eve came home and saw her, she put down her coffin-shaped purse and said, "You look mussed. If I wasn't a total lady, I'd guess that you and Shane--"
"Excuse me? You're a lady?"
"I bought a title on the Internet. I own one square inch of Scotland, you know. And you're changing the subject." Eve gave her a sharp grin and grabbed her hand. "Give, already. Deets."
"I'm not telling you details." "Sure you are. We're girls. It's what we do!"
"If we were guys, that would be gross."
"Wait, checking . . ." Eve held an invisible phone to her ear. "Nope. We're still girls, and the referee says that makes it okay. So give it up, Danvers. You look starry-eyed. It must have been fantastic."
Claire might have actually told her, at least up to the parts that made her blush, but just then, Michael came in the front door toting his guitar, tossed his keys into the tray on the hall table, and yelled, "Eve's got dinner duty!"
"Hey!" Eve yelled back, and stomped her foot. "Your timing sucks, Michael!"
"Why, was there hot wild-girl action--"
"Shut up, you perv."
"Can't catch a break," he said, and flopped down in the chair. "I was just speaking for Shane, since he's off heroically chopping barbecue for money. Hey, you guys notice anything weird happening the last couple of days?"
Claire forgot all about the fun she'd just been having, and focused in on him with laser intensity. "Other than the vampire going nuts at the diner, you mean?"
"Yeah, I see your point, but I mean . . . more people acting weird. More than usual. Two of my guitar students didn't show up. When I called one of them, he said he didn't know what I was talking about, and he wasn't learning the guitar. Which is definitely strange, because he's already paid me for the whole month."
Michael had noticed it. It wasn't all in her head. Claire swallowed and glanced at Eve, who was frowning, too. "I guess," Eve said slowly, and crossed her arms over her black and pink striped rugby shirt, with a skull where the logo should have been. "When I got to the coffee bar on campus, there was this girl wandering around, asking everybody if they'd seen her roommate. Trouble is, she doesn't have a roommate. She hasn't for, like, years. But she was describing her like she actually existed."
"That's what I'm talking about." Michael nodded. "Weird shit. I met at least two other people today who thought it was a couple of years ago. What the hell, right?"
"Right," Claire said softly. Her good feelings, intense though they'd been, were officially gone now. Whatever was happening in Morganville, it wasn't in her head, and it was spreading.
She was going to have to go to Amelie if Myrnin didn't want to believe it. They had to take the system offline, run a full diagnostic. There was just nothing else to do.
Amelie wouldn't like it. Oliver really wouldn't like it.
"It's probably nothing big," Eve said, and both Michael and Claire looked at her like they'd never seen her before. "I mean, it's Morganville. Not like anybody here is ever far from the borders of Psychoville. I mean, I want to go nuts about twelve times a day."
Michael stood up, facing Claire. "You know something about what's going on, don't you?" he asked, and she saw a flicker of vampire red in his blue eyes--just a spark, but enough to let her know he was serious. "Is it what you and Myrnin were working on? Is that it?"
"I don't know," Claire admitted. "But I'm going to find out."
She just had no idea how to do that without Myrnin's help.
When she got up, Claire checked the calendar and saw that there was another Elders' Council meeting scheduled for noon. That was the best time, she thought; she could probably get in, and once she laid it all out, Richard would be on her side, and Hannah. Hannah probably had more info about the weirdness than anybody else. Amelie and Oliver would have to act. Going to the Elders' Council wasn't something Claire took lightly. She took a shower, fixed her hair carefully, dressed in her best black shirt and pants, and added the delicate cross necklace that Shane had given her, back when they'd first started all this. She had his mother's claddagh ring on, too. It made her feel stronger.
Downstairs, she turned on the TV while she ate her breakfast--eggs wrapped in a flour tortilla, with salsa. She tuned to the local Morganville station. Usually it was full of town propaganda about how great everything was, but not today; today, somebody had decided to put on some actual breaking news.
FAMILY OF FOUR KILLED IN MURDER/SUICIDE
Claire choked on her breakfast burrito. She didn't know the names that flashed on the screen, but it was awful enough, anyway; the kids were fourteen and twelve. The dad had freaked out yesterday, gotten hospitalized in the crazy ward overnight, then been sent home.
That had been a mistake, and now there were dead people. Dead kids.
Claire called up the Morganville Police Department and asked to be put through to Chief Moses. Hannah wasn't in the office, but the switchboard put the call through to her in her patrol car. She sounded stressed. "What is it, Claire? It's a busy day."
"I understand, but I need to get into the Elders' Council today. Can I go with you?"
"Why would you want to do that?"
"Because I need to tell them about what I think is causing these problems around town."
Hannah was quiet a moment, then said, "All right. I'll come get you in half an hour. Stay there. Don't go outside."
Claire felt a stab of unease. "Why?"
"Things are getting worse. We lost a whole family last night, and there are plenty of other problems. Just stay where you are, all right? This is important."
"I'll be here." Claire hung up and stared down at her blank cell phone screen as if it might contain the secrets of the universe. Then she went to the window and looked out.
At first, she couldn't see anything odd at all, but then she saw flashing police lights three streets over. She could just make out struggling shapes.
One of them was on fire. Like a vampire who'd decided to stroll around in the daylight.
Claire stepped back from the window and ran into Michael, who was standing behind her. She whirled, slammed her hand into his chest, and pushed him back. "Hey!" she said sharply. "Creep much, Michael? Man, don't do that!"
He stared at her as if he'd never seen her before. "What?" she demanded. Her heart was still pounding from the shock. She was waiting for him to say boo or laugh or shove her back, like they normally would.
He said, "What are you doing here?"
"Looking out the window?"
"I don't know what you think you're doing, but you can't just . . ." He hesitated, and seemed to waver a little, as if he'd gone dizzy. "Can't just--"
"Can't just come in here and--"
He put a hand to his head, as if he hurt, and squeezed his eyes shut. Then he took a deep breath, looked at her, and said, "Oh, hey, you're up. Is there any coffee?" She just stared at him, trying to see any more signs that something was going wrong with him. She remembered the vampire at Marjo's Diner--and how suddenly she'd flipped out on that poor waitress. Could it happen to Michael? Could she end up fighting him off any second? Not that she'd be able to fight him off. Michael was tall, strong, and very, very fast. She'd have a better chance of punching a speeding truck.
"I'll take that as a no," he said. "Okay, I'll make the coffee. What's up with the window?"
She wordlessly pointed out to the flashing police car lights. They'd thrown a blanket over whoever was on fire. Michael looked, and then said, "What do you think? International spy ring? Meth lab? People who pissed off Oliver this week?"
He sounded so normal now. And he obviously didn't even remember having that little . . . glitch. Claire cleared her throat and said, "I'll make coffee." It gave her an excuse to walk away from him, although he followed her into the kitchen. She got out the filters and the coffee and started loading the machine while Michael got down two mugs and put them on the table. "Hannah's picking me up," she said. "I'll ask her about your international-spy-ring theory."
"I'm betting on meth lab."
Claire poured the water in and started up the machine, which hissed and gurgled and immediately reminded her of the gutted, reworked mechanical zombie of Ada under the basement of the lab. "Did you sleep okay?"
"Yeah, why? Didn't you?"
She had, but now she wanted to crawl back in bed and pull the covers over her head. "Did . . . ah, did you have any dreams?"
Now he was really looking at her as if she was a mental case. "Sure, I guess. Why do you want to talk about my dreams all of a sudden? What did you dream? Am I going to be embarrassed I asked?"
She'd been hoping maybe he'd casually say, Yeah, I had this weird dream where I didn't know you, but instead, she'd made him think there was something wrong with her. Perfect. The coffee machine started filling the pot, to her relief. Michael was easily distracted with coffee. Sure enough, as soon as there was enough for a cup, he got up, took it off the burner, and poured half in his mug, half in hers. That was nice of him. "Claire?" he asked, as he slotted the glass carafe back in its spot. "Anything you want to tell me?"
"Not . . . specifically."
"Why is Hannah picking you up?"
Oh, that. She was almost relieved. "I need to go to the Elders' Council today, that's all. Nothing dangerous, I promise."
"You're not trying to get that kid Kyle out of the cage, are you? Because that would be dangerous on a lot of fronts."
Well, she might try to talk Amelie out of it, but she didn't think Michael necessarily needed to know that. "I'm not going to do anything crazy," she said, which was safe, because crazy these days was definitely open to interpretation. "I just want to talk to her about the machine. I don't think it's working right, Michael. And now people are--"
"Dying," he said softly. "I saw the news. You think he killed his family because of whatever's going wrong with the machine?"
"It's like the vampire in the diner who went crazy. I think that man knew something was wrong, and he couldn't deal with it." Claire shuddered. "It must seem like a nightmare, and you can't wake up. I tried to tell Myrnin, but he . . . he was weird about it. Weirder than usual, I mean."
That made Michael pause in sipping his coffee. "He's not doing anything he shouldn't be doing, right?"
"Like hitting on you."
"Ew. No, of course not. He doesn't see me that way." Michael shook his head and went back to his coffee. "What? You think he does?"
"Sometimes he looks at you a little . . . oddly, that's all. Maybe you're right. Maybe he just wants you for your blood."
"Again, ew! What's with you this morning?"
"Not enough coffee." The pot was filled now, so he got up and refilled his mug. She didn't get a second free service, but, Claire reflected, maybe she didn't need more coffee this morning. She was plenty jittery.
They got off of the subject of Myrnin, which was a relief, and onto things Michael liked to talk about, like the new songs he was writing. His demo CD was going to be out in the next two months, and he was supposed to see the packaging for it soon, too. That was cool.
He was telling her all about it when the doorbell rang. Hannah. Claire dumped out the rest of her coffee, told Michael she'd call if anything happened, and bounced.
Hannah was dressed in her cop uniform, looking serious and intimidating, even though she was lounging against a pillar on the porch with her arms folded. She turned her head as Claire came out and locked the door. She'd gathered up her braided hair, tied it, and put it up in a kind of bun; it looked cool, but then, Hannah always looked cool. It was something she just radiated, like body heat. "Morning, Claire."
"Hey." Claire nodded. "Do you want some coffee? We just made a pot."
"I've got some in the car. Let's go." Hannah was already heading down the walk toward her cruiser, so Claire hurried after her, taking two steps for every one of Hannah's longer legs. "Thanks for staying inside."
Claire got in on the passenger side of the police car and put on her seat belt. As Hannah started the car, she said, "What was happening?"
"Over there." Claire pointed in the approximate direction where she'd seen the other police cars. "Something happened."
"Nothing you need to worry about right now." That wasn't like Hannah Moses at all. She was usually relaxed, calm, confident, and she was hardly ever evasive. Now she sounded tense.
Claire tried for humor. "Michael and I had a bet. He said meth lab. I say international spy ring."
"Neither," Hannah said, and pulled the car away from the curb. "What are you going to tell the council?"
"I . . . don't want to talk about it yet."
"You should," Hannah said. "My lover woke up this morning and didn't recognize me."
Claire blinked. "Your . . . what?"
"Yes, get over it, Claire; women older than you have boy-friends. But he didn't know who I was. He said he'd never met me." Hannah was crying. Not a lot, just a shimmer of tears in her eyes, but it was chilling. Claire didn't know what to say. "It lasted a while, and then he was fine. It's been happening all over town, but only to some people. For some it's worse than others, and it doesn't seem to go away. You heard about the murders?" Claire nodded. "Do you know something about what's causing it?"
"I--" Claire swallowed hard. "Maybe. Yeah. I think so." Hannah pressed harder on the gas. "Then let's get you to the council, because I want this stopped. I never want to feel that again, and I never want to work another murder scene like the one I saw last night."
Claire shuddered, and changed the subject. "Is . . . is he human? Your boyfriend, I mean."
"Yeah, he's human. Why?"
"It's not just humans who get it, whatever it is. Vampires do, too." Claire hesitated, then plunged on. "I think Michael forgot who I was this morning. Not for long, just for maybe a minute or two. But I don't think it's the first time he's forgotten."
Hannah looked, if possible, even grimmer. "That's not good news. Not at all."
"I know." Claire couldn't shake the memory of the vampire in the diner, who said the world was wrong, and then tried to kill the first person who came close. What if that happened to Michael? To Oliver? God, to Amelie? "That vampire who went crazy, the one from Marjo's Diner the other night--how long did it take for her to come out of it?"
Hannah gave her a sideways look as she made the last turn toward Founder's Square, and slowed for the security station they had to pass. "She didn't," she said. "Best we can tell, she never will."