Home was theirs again. The refugees were all out now, leaving a house that badly needed picking up and cleaning-- not that anybody had gone out of their way to trash the place, but with that many people coming and going, things happened. Claire grabbed a trash bag and began clearing away paper plates, old Styrofoam cups half full of stale coffee, crumpled wrappers, and papers. Shane fired up the video game, apparently back in the mood to kill zombies. Michael took his guitar out of its case and tuned it, but he kept getting up to stare out the windows, restless and worried.
"What?" Eve asked. She'd heated up leftover spaghetti out of the refrigerator, and tried to hand Michael a plate first. "Do you see something?"
"Nothing," he said, and gave her a quick, strained smile as he waved away the food. "Not really hungry, though. Sorry."
"More for me," Shane said, and grabbed the plate. He propped it on his lap and forked spaghetti into his mouth. "Seriously. You all right? Because you never turn down food."
Michael didn't answer. He stared out into the dark.
"You're worried," Eve said. "About Sam?"
"Sam and everybody else. This is nuts. What's going on here--" Michael checked the locks on the window, but as a kind of automatic motion, as though his mind wasn't really on it. "Why hasn't Bishop taken over? What's he doing out there? Why aren't we seeing the fight?"
"Maybe Amelie's kicking his ass out there in the shadows somewhere." Shane shoveled in more spaghetti.
"No. She's not. I can feel that. I think--I think she's in hiding. With the rest of her followers, the vampires, anyway."
Shane stopped chewing. "You know where they are?"
"Not really. I just feel--" Michael shook his head. "It's gone. Sorry. But I feel like things are changing. Coming to a head."
Claire had just taken a plate of warm pasta when they all heard the thump of footsteps overhead. They looked up, and then at each other, in silence. Michael pointed to himself and the stairs, and they all nodded. Eve opened a drawer in the end table and took out three sharpened stakes; she tossed one to Shane, one to Claire, and kept one in a whiteknuckled grip.
Michael ascended the stairs without a sound, and disappeared.
He didn't come back down. Instead, there was a swirl of black coat and stained white balloon pants tucked into black boots; then Myrnin leaned over the railing to say, "Upstairs, all of you. I need you."
"Um . . ." Eve looked at Shane. Shane looked at Claire.
Claire followed Myrnin. "Trust me," she said. "It won't do any good to say no."
Michael was waiting in the hallway, next to the open, secret door. He led the way up.
Whatever Claire had been expecting to see, it wasn't a crowd, but that was what was waiting upstairs in the hidden room on the third floor. She stared in confusion at the room full of people, then moved out of the way for Shane and Eve to join her and Michael.
Myrnin came last. "Claire, I believe you know Theo Goldman and his family."
The faces came into focus. She had met them--in that museum thing, when they'd been on the way to rescue Myrnin. Theo Goldman had spoken to Amelie. He'd said they wouldn't fight.
But it looked to Claire like they'd been in a fight anyway. Vampires didn't bruise, exactly, but she could see torn clothes and smears of blood, and they all looked exhausted and somehow--hollow. Theo was worst of all. His kind face seemed made of nothing but lines and wrinkles now, as if he'd aged a hundred years in a couple of days.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but we had no other place to go. Amelie--I hoped that she was here, that she would give us refuge. We've been everywhere else."
Claire remembered there being more of them, somehow--yes, there were at least two people missing. One human, one vampire. "What happened? I thought you were safe where you were!"
"We were," Theo said. "Then we weren't. That's what wars are like. The safe places don't stay safe. Someone knew where we were, or suspected. Around dawn yesterday, a mob broke in the doors looking for us. Jochen--" He looked at his wife, and she bowed her head. "Our son Jochen, he gave his life to delay them. So did our human friend William. We've been hiding, moving from place to place, trying not to be driven out in the sun."
"How did you get here?" Michael asked. He seemed wary. Claire didn't blame him.
"I brought them," Myrnin said. "I've been trying to find those who are left." He crouched down next to one of the young vampire girls and stroked her hair. She smiled at him, but it was a fragile, frightened smile. "They can stay here for now. This room isn't common knowledge. I've left open the portal in the attic in case they have to flee, but it's one way only, leading out. It's a last resort."
"Are there others? Out there?" Claire asked. "Very few on their own. Most are either with Bishop, with Amelie, or"--Myrnin spread his hands--"gone."
"What are they doing? Amelie and Bishop?"
"Moving their forces. They're trying to find an advantage, pick the most favorable ground. It won't last." Myrnin shrugged. "Sooner or later, sometime tonight, they'll clash, and then they'll fight. Someone will win, and someone will lose. And in the morning, Morganville will know its fate."
That was creepy. Really creepy. Claire shivered and looked at the others, but nobody seemed to have anything to say.
"Claire. Attend me," Myrnin said, and walked with her to one corner of the room. "Have you spoken with your doctor friend?"
"I tried. I couldn't get through to him. Myrnin, are you . . . okay?"
"Not for much longer," he said, in that clinical way he had right before the drugs wore off. "I won't be safe to be around without another dose of some sort. Can you get it for me?"
"There's none in your lab--"
"I've been there. Bishop got there first. I shall need a good bit of glassware, and a completely new library." He said it lightly, but Claire could see the tension in his face and the shadow in his dark, gleaming eyes. "He tried to destroy the portals, cut off Amelie's movements. I managed to patch things together, but I shall need to instruct you in how it's done. Soon. In case--"
He didn't need to finish. Claire nodded slowly. "You should go," she said. "Is the prison safe? The one where you keep the sickest ones?"
"Bishop finds nothing to interest him there, so yes. He will ignore it awhile longer. I'll lock myself in for a while, until you come with the drug." Myrnin bent over her, suddenly very focused and very intent. "We must refine the serum, Claire. We must distribute it. The stress, the fighting--it's accelerating the disease. I've seen signs of it in Theo, even in Sam. If we don't act soon, I'm afraid we may begin to lose more to confusion and fear. They won't even be able to defend themselves."
Claire swallowed. "I'll get on it."
He took her hand and kissed it lightly. His lips felt dry as dust, but it still left a tingle in her fingers. "I know you will, my girl. Now, let's rejoin your friends."
"How long do they need to be here?" Eve asked, as they moved closer. She asked not unkindly, but she seemed nervous, too. There were, Claire thought, an awful lot of nearstranger vampire guests. "I mean, we don't have a lot of blood in the house. . . ."
Theo smiled. Claire remembered, with a sharp feeling of alarm, what he'd said to Amelie back at the museum, and she didn't like that smile at all, not even when he said, "We won't require much. We can provide for ourselves."
"He means, they can munch on their human friends, like takeout," Claire said. "No. Not in our house."
Myrnin frowned. "This is hardly the time to be--"
"This is exactly the time, and you know it. Did anybody ask them if they wanted to be snack packs?" The two remaining humans, both women, looked horrified. "I didn't think so."
Theo's expression didn't change. "What we do is our own affair. We won't hurt them, you know."
"Unless you're getting your plasma by osmosis, I don't really know how you can promise that."
Theo's eyes flared with banked fire. "What do you want us to do? Starve? Even the youngest of us?"
Eve cleared her throat. "Actually, I know where there's a big supply of blood. If somebody will go with me to get it."
"Oh, hell no," Shane said. "Not out in the dark. Besides, the place is locked up."
Eve reached in her pocket and took out her key ring. She flipped until she found one key in particular, and held it up. "I never turned in my key," she said. "I used to open and close, you know."
Myrnin gazed at her thoughtfully. "There's no portal to Common Grounds. It's off the network. That means any vampire in it will be trapped in daylight."
"No. There's underground access to the tunnels; I've seen it. Oliver sent some people out using it while I was there." Eve gave him a bright, brittle smile. "I say we move your friends there. Also, there's coffee. You guys like coffee, right? Everybody likes coffee."
Theo ignored her, and looked to Myrnin for an answer. "Is it better?"
"It's more defensible," Myrnin said. "Steel shutters. If there's underground access--yes. It would make a good base of operations." He turned to Eve. "We'll require your services to drive."
He said it as if Eve were the help, and Claire felt her face flame hot. "Excuse me? How about a please in there somewhere, since you're asking for a favor?"
Myrnin's eyes turned dark and very cold. "You seem to have forgotten that I employ you, Claire. That I own you, in some sense. I am not required to say please and thank you to you, your friends, or any human walking the streets." He blinked, and was back to the Myrnin she normally saw. "However, I do take your point. Yes. Please drive us to Common Grounds, dear lady. I would be extravagantly, embarrassingly grateful."
He did all but kiss her hand. Eve, not surprisingly, could say nothing but yes.
Claire settled for an eye roll big enough to make her head hurt. "You can't all fit," she pointed out. "In Eve's car, I mean."
"And she's not taking you alone, anyway," Michael said. "My car's in the garage. I can take the rest of you. Shane, Claire--"
"Staying here, since you'll need the space," Shane said. "Sounds like a plan. Look, if there are people looking for them, you ought to get them moving. I'll call Richard. He can assign a couple of cops to guard Common Grounds."
"No," Myrnin said. "No police. We can't trust them."
"Some of them have been working with Bishop, and with the human mobs. I have proof of that. We can't take the risk."
"But Richard--," Claire said, and subsided when she got Myrnin's glare. "Right. Okay. On your own, got it."
Eve didn't want to be dragged into it, but she went without much of a protest--the number of fangs in the room might have had something to do with it. As the Goldmans and Myrnin, Eve and Michael walked downstairs, Shane held Claire back to say, "We've got to figure out how to lock this place up. In case."
"You mean, against--" She gestured vaguely at the vampires. He nodded. "But if Michael lives here, and we live here, the house can't just bar a whole group of people from entry. It has to be done one at a time--at least that's what I understood. And no, before you ask me, I don't know how it works. Or how to fool it. I think only Amelie has the keys to that."
He looked disappointed. "How about closing off these weird doors Myrnin and Amelie are popping through?"
"I can work them. That doesn't mean I can turn them on and off."
"Great." He looked around the room, then took a seat on the old Victorian couch. "So we're like Undead Grand Central Station. Not really loving that so much. Can Bishop come through?"
It was a question that Claire had been thinking about, and it creeped her out to have to say, "I don't know. Maybe. But from what Myrnin said, he set the doorway to exitonly. So maybe we just . . . wait."
Robbed of doing anything heroic, or for that matter even useful, she warmed up the spaghetti again, and she and Shane ate it and watched some mindless TV show while jumping at every noise and creak, with weapons handy. When the kitchen door banged open nearly an hour later, Claire almost needed a heart transplant--until she heard Eve yell, "We're home! Oooooh, spaghetti. I'm starved." Eve came in holding a plate and shoveling pasta into her mouth as she walked. Michael was right behind her.
"No problems?" Shane asked. Eve shook her head, chewing a mouthful of spaghetti.
"They should be fine there. Nobody saw us get them inside, and until Oliver turns up, nobody is going to need to get in there for a while."
"What about Myrnin?"
Eve swallowed, almost choked, and Michael patted her kindly on the back. She beamed at him. "Myrnin? Oh yeah. He did a Batman and took off into the night. What is with that guy, Claire? If he was a superhero, he'd be Bipolar Man."
The drugs were the problem. Claire needed to get more, and she needed to work on that cure Myrnin had found. That was just as important as anything else . . . providing there were any vampires left, anyway.
They had dinner, and at least it was the four of them again, sitting around the table, talking as if the world were normal, even if all of them knew it wasn't. Shane seemed especially jumpy, which wasn't like him at all.
For her part, Claire was just tired to the bone of being scared, and when she went upstairs, she was asleep the minute she crawled between the covers.
But sleep didn't mean it was restful, or peaceful.
She dreamed that somewhere, Amelie was playing chess, moving her pieces at lightning speed across a blackand white board. Bishop sat across from her, grinning with too many teeth, and when he took her rook, it turned into a miniature version of Claire, and suddenly both the vampires were huge and she was so small, so small, stranded out in the open.
Bishop picked her up and squeezed her in his white hand, and blood drops fell onto the white squares of the chessboard.
Amelie frowned, watching Bishop squeeze her, and put out a delicate fingertip to touch the drops of blood. Claire struggled and screamed.
Amelie tasted her blood, and smiled.
Claire woke up with a convulsive shudder, huddled in her blankets. It was still dark outside the windows, though the sky was getting lighter, and the house was very, very quiet.
Her phone was buzzing in vibrate mode on the bedside table. She picked it up and found a text message from the university's alert system.
CLASSES RETURN TO NORMAL SCHEDULE EFFECTIVE 7 A.M. TODAY.
School seemed like a million miles away, another world that didn't mean anything to her anymore, but it would get her on campus, and there were things she needed there. Claire scrolled down her phone list and found Dr. Robert Mills, but there was no immediate answer on his cell. She checked the clock, winced at the early hour, but slid out of bed and began grabbing things out of drawers. That didn't take a lot of time. She was down to the last of everything. Laundry was starting to be a genuine priority.
She dialed his phone again after she'd dressed. "Hello?" Dr. Mills sounded as if she'd dragged him out of a deep, probably happy sleep. He probably hadn't been dreaming about being squeezed dry by Mr. Bishop.
"It's Claire," she said. "I'm sorry to call so early--"
"Is it early? Oh. Been up all night, just fell asleep." He yawned. "Glad you're all right, Claire."
"Are you at the hospital?"
"No. The hospital's going to need a lot of work before it's even halfway ready for the kind of work I need to do." Another jawcracking yawn. "Sorry. I'm on campus, in the Life Sciences Building. Lab Seventeen. We have some roll away beds here."
"My wife and kids are with me. I didn't want to leave them on their own out there."
Claire didn't blame him. "I've got something for you to do, and I need some of the drug," she said. "It could be really important. I'll be at school in about twenty minutes, okay?"
"Okay. Don't come here. My kids are asleep right now. Let's meet somewhere else."
"The oncampus coffee bar," she said. "It's in the University Center."
"Trust me, I know where it is. Twenty minutes."
She was already heading for the door.
With no sounds coming from any of the other rooms, Claire figured her housemates were all crashed out, exhausted. She didn't know why she wasn't, except for a suppressed, vibrating fear inside her that if she slept any more, something bad was going to happen.
Showered, dressed in her last notverygood clothes, she grabbed up her backpack and repacked it. Her dart gun was out of darts anyway, so she left it behind. The samples Myrnin had prepared of Bishop's blood went into a sturdy padded box, and on impulse, she added a couple of stakes and the silver knife Amelie had given her.
It was the first time Claire had been on foot in Morganville since the rioting had started, and it was eerie. The town was quiet again, but stores had broken windows, some boarded over; there were some buildings reduced to burned out hulks, with blind, open doorways. Broken bottles were on the sidewalks and spots of what looked like blood on the concrete--and, in places, dark splashes.
Claire hurried past it all, even past Common Grounds, where the steel shutters were down inside the windows. There was no sign of anyone within. She imagined Theo Goldman standing there watching her from cover, and waved a little, just a waggle of fingers.
She didn't really expect a response.
The gates of the university were open, and the guards were gone. Claire jogged along the sidewalk, going up the hill and around the curve, and began to see students up and moving, even so early in the morning. As she got closer to the central cluster of buildings, the foot traffic intensified, and here and there she saw alert campus police walking in pairs, watching for trouble.
The students didn't seem to notice anything at all. Not for the first time, Claire wondered if Amelie's semipsychic network that cut Morganville off from the world also kept people on campus clueless.
She didn't like to think they were just naturally that stupid. Then again, she'd been to some of the parties.
The University Center had opened its doors only a few minutes before, and the coffee barista was just taking the chairs down from the tables. Usually it would have been Eve on duty, but instead, it was one of the university staffers, on loan from the food service most likely. He didn't exactly look happy to be there. Claire tried to be nice, and finally got a smile from him as he handed her a mocha and took her cash.
"I wouldn't be here," he confessed, "except that they're paying us triple to be here the rest of the week."
"Really? Wow. I'll tell Eve. She could use the money."
"Yeah, get her in here. I'm not good at this coffee stuff. Give me the plain stuff. Water, beans--can't really screw that up. This espresso is hard."
Claire decided, after tasting the mocha, that he was right. He really wasn't cut out for it. She sipped it anyway, and took a seat where she could watch the majority of the UC entrances for Dr. Mills.
She almost didn't recognize him. He'd shed his white doctor's coat, of course, but somehow she'd never expected to see someone like him wearing a zipup hoodie, sweatpants, and sneakers. He was more the suitandtie type. He ordered plain coffee--good choice--and came to join her at the table.
Dr. Mills was medium everything, and he blended in at the university just as easily as he had at the hospital. He'd have made a good spy, Claire thought. He had one of those faces--young from one angle, older from another, with nothing you could really remember later about it.
But he had a nice, comforting smile. She supposed that would be a real asset in a doctor.
"Morning," he said, and gulped coffee. His eyes were bloodshot and red rimmed. "I'm going back to the hospital later today. Damage assessments, and we've already reopened the trauma units and CCU. I'm going to catch some sleep as soon as we're done, in case any crash cases come in. Nothing worse than an exhausted trauma surgeon."
She felt even more guilty about waking him up. "I'll make this quick," she promised. Claire opened her backpack, took out the padded box, and slid it across the table to him. "Blood samples, from Myrnin."
Mills frowned. "I've already got a hundred blood samples from Myrnin. Why--"
"These are different," Claire said. "Trust me. There's one labeled B that's important."
"I don't want to say. I'd rather you took a look first." In science, Claire knew, it was better to come to an analysis cold, without too many expectations. Dr. Mills knew that, too, and he nodded as he took possession of the samples. "Um--if you want to sleep, maybe you shouldn't drink that stuff." Dr. Mills smiled and threw back the rest of his coffee. "You get to be a doctor by developing immunity to all kinds of things, including caffeine," he said. "Trust me. The second my head touches the pillow, I'm asleep, even if I've got a coffee IV drip."
"I know people who'd pay good money for that. The IV drip, I mean."
He shook his head, grinning, but then got serious. "You seem okay. I was worried about you. You're just so . . . young, to be involved in all this stuff."
"I'm all right. And I'm really--"
"Not that young. Yes, I know. But still. Let an old man fret a little. I've got two daughters." He tossed his coffee cup at the trash--two points--and stood. "Here's all I could get together of the drug. Sorry, it's not a lot, but I've got a new batch in the works. It'll take a couple of days to finish."
He handed her a bag that clinked with small glass bottles. She peeked inside. "This should be plenty." Unless, of course, she had to start dosing all over Morganville, in which case, they were done, anyway.
"Sorry to make this a gulpandrun, but . . ."
"You should go," Claire agreed. "Thanks, Dr. Mills." She offered her hand. He shook it gravely.
Around his wrist, there was a silver bracelet, with Amelie's symbol on it. He looked down at it, then at her gold one, and shrugged.
"I don't think it's time to take it off," he said. "Not yet."
At least yours does come off, Claire thought, but didn't say. Dr. Mills had signed agreements, contracts, and those things were binding in Morganville, but the contract she'd signed had made her Amelie's property, body and soul. And her bracelet didn't have a catch on it, which made it more like a slave collar.
From time to time, that still creeped her out.
It was getting close to time for her first class, and as Claire hefted her backpack, she wondered how many people would show up. Lots, probably. Knowing most of the professors, they'd think today was a good day for a quiz.
She wasn't disappointed. She also wasn't panicked, unlike some of her classmates during her first class, and her third. Claire didn't panic on tests, not unless it was in a dream where she also had to clog dance and twirl batons to get a good grade. And the quizzes weren't so hard anyway, not even the physics tests.
One thing she noticed, more and more, as she went around campus: fewer people had on bracelets. Morganville natives got used to wearing them twentyfour/ seven, so she could clearly see the tan lines where the bracelets had been . . . and weren't anymore. It was almost like a reverse tattoo.
Around noon, she saw Monica Morrell, Gina, and Jennifer.
The three girls were walking fast, heads down, books in their arms. There was a whole lot different about them; Claire was used to seeing those three stalking the campus like tigers, confident and cruel. They'd stare down anyone, and whether you liked them or not, they were wicked fashion queens, always showing themselves off to best advantage.
Monica, who usually was the centerpiece, looked awful. Her shiny, flirty hair was dull and fuzzy, as if she had barely bothered to brush it, much less condition or curl. What little Claire could see of her face looked makeup free. She was wearing a shapeless sweater in an unflatteringly ugly pattern, and sloppy blue jeans, the kind Claire imagined she might keep around to clean house in, if Monica ever did that kind of thing.
Gina and Jennifer didn't look much better, and they all looked defeated.
Claire still felt a little, tiny, unworthy tingle of satisfaction . . . until she saw the looks they were getting. Morganville natives who'd taken off their bracelets were outright glaring at Monica and her entourage, and a few of them did worse than just give them dirty looks. As Claire watched, a big, tough jock wearing a TPU jacket bumped into Jennifer and sent her books flying. She didn't look at him. She just bent over to pick them up.
"Hey, you clumsy whore, what the hell?" He shoved her onto her butt as she tried to get up, but she wasn't his real target; she was just standing between him and Monica. "Hey. Morrell. How's your daddy?"
"Fine," Monica said, and looked him in the eyes. "I'd ask about yours, but since you don't know who he was--"
The jock stepped very close to her. She didn't flinch, but Claire could tell that she wanted to. There were tight lines around her eyes and mouth, and her knuckles were white where she gripped her books.
"You've been Princess Queen Bitch your whole life," he said. "You remember Annie? Annie McFarlane? You used to call her a fat cow. You laughed at her in school. You took pictures of her in the bathroom and posted them on the Internet. Remember?"
Monica didn't answer.
The jock smiled. "Yeah, you remember Annie. She was a good kid, and I liked her."
"You didn't like her enough to stand up for her," Monica said. "Right, Clark? You wanted to get in my pants more than you wanted me to be kind to your little fat friend. Not my fault she ended up wrecking that stupid car at the town border. Maybe it's your fault, though. Maybe she couldn't stand being in town with you anymore after you dumped her."
Clark knocked the books out of her hand and shoved her up against a nearby tree trunk. Hard.
"I've got something for you, bitch." He dug in his pocket and came up with something square, about four inches across. It was a sticky label like a name tag, only with a picture on it of an awkward but sweetlooking teenage girl trying bravely to smile for the camera.
Clark slapped it on Monica's chest and rubbed it so it stuck to the sweater.
"You wear that," he said. "You wear Annie's picture. If I see you take it off today, I swear, what you did to Annie back in high school's going to seem like a Canc?n vacation."
Under Annie's picture were the words KILLED BY MONICA MORRELL.
Monica looked down at it, swallowed, and turned bright red, then pale. She jerked her chin up again, sharply, and stared at Clark. "Are you done?"
"So far. Remember, you take it off--"
"Yeah, Clark, you weren't exactly subtle. I get it. You think I care?"
Clark's grin widened. "No, you don't. Not yet. Have a nice day, Queenie."
He walked away and did a high five with two other guys.
As Monica stared down at the label on her chest in utter disgust, another girl approached--another Morganville native who'd taken off the bracelet. Monica didn't notice her until the girl was right in her face.
This one didn't talk. She just ripped the backing off another label and stuck it on Monica's chest next to Annie McFarlane's photo.
This one just said KILLER in big red letters.
She kept on walking.
Monica started to rip it off, but Clark was watching her.
"Suits you," he said, and pointed to his eyes, then to her. "We'll be watching you all day. There are a lot more labels coming."
Clark was right. It was going to be a really long, bad day to be Monica Morrell. Even Gina and Jennifer were fading back now, heading out in a different direction and leaving her to face the music.
Monica's gaze fell on Claire. There was a flash of fear in her eyes, and shame, and genuine pain.
And then she armored up and snapped, "What are you looking at, freak?"
Claire shrugged. "Justice, I guess." She frowned. "How come you didn't stay with your parents?"
"None of your business." Monica's fierce stare wavered. "Dad wanted us all to go back to normal. So people could see we're not afraid."
"How's that going?"
Monica took a step toward her, then hugged her books to her chest to cover up most of the labels, and hurried on.
She hadn't gotten ten feet before a stranger ran up and slapped a label across her back that had a picture of a slender young girl and an older boy of maybe fifteen on it. The words beneath said KILLER OF ALYSSA.
With a shock, Claire realized that the boy in that picture was Shane. And that was his sister, Alyssa, the one who'd died in the fire that Monica had set.
"Justice," Claire repeated softly. She felt a little sick, actually. Justice wasn't the same thing as mercy.
Her phone rang as she was trying to decide what to do. "Better come home," Michael Glass said. "We've got an emergency signal from Richard at City Hall."
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com