Chapter Six


In an hour, the blush of dawn was already on the horizon, bringing an eerie blue glow to the night world. Somewhere out there, vampires all over town would be getting ready for it, finding secure places to stay the day--whatever side they were fighting on.

The ones in Common Grounds seemed content to stay on, which made sense; it was kind of a secured location anyway, from what Oliver and Amelie had said before--one of the key places in town to hold if they intended to keep control of Morganville.

But Claire wasn't entirely happy with the way some of those vampires--strangers, mostly, though all from Morganville, according to Eve--seemed to be whispering in the corners. "How do we know they're on our side?" she asked Eve, in a whisper she hoped would escape vampire notice.

No such luck. "You don't," Oliver said, from several feet away. "Nor is that your concern, but I will reassure you in any case. They are all loyal to me, and through me, to Amelie. If any of them `turn coats,' you may be assured that they'll regret it." He said it in a normal tone of voice, to carry to all parts of the room.

The vampires stopped whispering.

"All right," Oliver said to Claire and Eve. The light of dawn was creeping up like a warning outside the windows. "You understand what I want you to do?"

Eve nodded and gave him a sloppy, insolent kind of salute. "Sir, yes sir, General sir!"

"Eve." His patience, what little there was, was worn to the bone. "Repeat my instructions."

Eve didn't like taking orders under the best of circumstances, which these weren't. Claire quickly said, "We take these walkietalkies to each of the Founder Houses, to the university, and to anybody else on the list. We tell them all strategic orders come through these, not through cell phone or police band."

"Be sure to give them the code," he said. Each one of the tiny little radios had a keypad, like a cell phone, but the difference was that you had to enter the code into it to access the emergency communication channel he'd established. Pretty high tech, but then, Oliver didn't really seem the type to lag much behind on the latest cool stuff. "All right. I'm sending Hannah with you as your escort. I'd send one of my own, but--"

"Dawn, yeah, I know," Eve said. She offered a high five to Hannah, who took it. "Damn, girl, love the Rambo look."

"Rambo was a Green Beret," Hannah said. "Please. We eat those army boys for breakfast."

Which was maybe not such a comfortable thing to say in a room full of maybehungry vampires. Claire cleared her throat. "We should--"

Hannah nodded, picked up the backpack (Claire's, now filled with handheld radios instead of books), and handed it to her. "I need both hands free," she said. "Eve's driving. You're the supply master. There's a checklist inside, so you can mark off deliveries as we go."

Myrnin was sitting off to the side, ominously quiet. His eyes still looked sane, but Claire had warned Oliver in the strongest possible terms that he couldn't trust him. Not really.

As if I would, Oliver had said with a snort. I've known the man for many human lifetimes, and I've never trusted him yet.

The vampires in the coffee shop had mostly retreated out of the big, front area, into the betterprotected, light proofed interior. Outside of the plate glass windows, there was little to be seen. The fires had gone out, or been extinguished. They'd seen some cars speeding about, mostly official police or fire, but the few figures they'd spotted had been quick and kept to the shadows.

"What are they doing?" Claire asked as she hitched her backpack to a more comfortable position on her shoulder. She didn't really expect Oliver to reply; he wasn't much on the sharing.

He surprised her. "They're consolidating positions," he said. "This is not a war that will be fought in daylight, Claire. Or in the open. We have our positions; they have theirs. They may send patrols of humans they've recruited, but they won't come themselves. Not after dawn."

"Recruited," Hannah repeated. "Don't you mean strongarmed? Most folks just want to be left alone."

"Not necessarily. Morganville is full of humans who don't love us, or the system under which they labor," Oliver replied. "Some will believe Bishop is the answer. Some will act out of fear, to protect their loved ones. He will know how to appeal to them, and how to pressure. He'll find his human cannon fodder."

"Like you've found yours," Hannah said.

They locked stares for a few seconds, and then Oliver inclined his head just a bit. "If you like."

"I don't," she said, "but I'm used to the front lines. You got to know, others won't be."

Claire couldn't tell anything from Oliver's expression. "Perhaps not," he said. "But for now, we can count on our enemies regrouping. We should do the same."

Hannah nodded. "I'm out first, then you, Eve. Have your keys in your hand. Don't hesitate, run like hell for the car, and get it unlocked. I'll get Claire to the passenger side."

Eve nodded, clearly jittery. She took the car keys out of her pocket and held them in her hand, sorting through until she had the right key pointing out.

"One more thing," Hannah said. "You got a flashlight?"

Eve fumbled in her other pocket and came up with a tiny little penlight. When she twisted it, it gave a surprisingly bright glow.

"Good." Hannah nodded. "Before you get in the car, you shine that in the front and backseats. Make sure you can see all the way down to the carpet. I'll cover you from the door."

The three of them moved to the exit, and Hannah put her left hand on the knob.

"Be careful," Oliver said from the back of the room, which was kind of warmly surprising. He spoiled it by continuing, "We need those radios delivered."

Should have known it wasn't personal. Claire resisted the urge to flip him off.

Eve didn't bother to resist hers.

Then Hannah was swinging open the door and stepping outside. She didn't do it like in the movies; no drama, she just stepped right out, turned in a slow half circle as she scanned the street with the paintball gun held at rest. She finally motioned for Eve. Eve darted out and headed around the hood of the big, black car. Claire saw the glow of her penlight as she checked the inside, and then Eve was in the driver's seat and the car growled to a start, and Hannah pushed her toward the passenger door.

Behind them, the Common Grounds door slammed shut and locked. When she looked back, Claire saw that they were pulling down some kind of steel shutters inside the glass.

Locking up for dawn. Claire and Hannah made it to the car without any problems. Even so, Claire was breathing hard, her heart racing.

"You okay?" Eve asked her. Claire nodded, still gasping. "Yeah, I know. Terror Aerobics. Just wait until they get it at the gym. It'll be bigger than Pilates."

Claire choked on her fear, laughed, and felt better.

"That's my girl. Locks," Eve said. "Also, seat belts, please. We may be making some sudden stops along the way. Don't want anybody saying hello to Mr. Windshield at speed."

The drive through predawn Morganville was eerie. It was very . . . quiet. They'd mapped out a route, planning to avoid the most dangerous areas, but they almost had to divert immediately, because of a couple of cars parked in the middle of the street.

The doors were hanging open, interior lights were still shining.

Eve slowed down and crawled past on the right side, two wheels up on the curb. "See anything?" she asked anxiously. "Any bodies or anything?"

The cars were completely empty. They were still running, and the keys were in the ignition. One strange thing nagged at Claire, but she couldn't think what it was. . .

"Those are vampire cars," Hannah said. "Why would they leave them here like that?" Oh. That was the odd thing. The tinting on the windows.

"They needed to pee?" Eve asked. "When you've gotta go . . ."

Hannah said nothing. She was watching out the windows with even more focus than before.

"Yeah, that is weird," Eve said more quietly. "Maybe they went to help somebody." Or hunt somebody. Claire shivered.

They made their first radio delivery to one of the Founder Houses; Claire didn't know the people who answered the door, but Eve did, of course. She quickly explained about the radio and the code, and they were back in the car and rolling in about two minutes flat. "Outstanding," Hannah said. "You girls could give some of my buddies in the marines a run for their money."

"Hey, you know how it is, Hannah: living in Morganville really is combat training." Eve and Hannah awkwardly slapped palms--awkwardly, because Eve kept facing front, and Hannah didn't turn away from her post at the car's back window. She had the window rolled down halfway, and the paintball gun at the ready, but so far she hadn't fired a single shot.

"More cars," Claire said softly. "You see?"

It wasn't just a couple of cars, it was a bunch of them, scattered on both sides of the street now, engines running, lights on, doors open.

Empty.

They cruised past slowly, and Claire took note of the heavy tinting on the windows. They were all the same type of car, the same type Michael had been issued on his official conversion to vampire.

"What the hell is going on?" Eve asked. She sounded tense and anxious, and Claire couldn't blame her. She felt pretty tense herself. "This close to dawn, they wouldn't be doing this. They shouldn't even be outside. He said both sides would regroup, but this looks like some kind of fullon panic."

Claire had to agree, but she also had no explanation. She dug one of the radios out of her backpack, typed in the code that Oliver had given her, and pressed the TALK button. "Oliver? Come in."

After a short delay, his voice came back. "Go."

"Something strange is happening. We're seeing lots of vampire cars, but they're all abandoned. Empty. Still running." Static on the other end. "Oliver?"

"Keep me informed," he finally said. "Count the number of cars. Make a list of license numbers, if you can."

"Er--anything else? Should we come back?"

"No. Deliver the radios."

That was it. Claire tried again, but he'd shut off or he was ignoring her. She pressed the RESET button to scramble the code, and looked at Eve, who shrugged. They pulled to a halt in front of the second Founder House. "Let's just get it done," Eve said. "Let the vamps worry about the vamps."

It seemed reasonable, but Claire was afraid that somehow . . . it wasn't.

Three of the Founder Houses were piles of smoking wood and ash, and the Morganville Fire Department was still pouring water on one of them. Eve cruised by, but didn't stop. The horizon was getting lighter and lighter, and they still had a couple of stops to make.

"You okay back there?" Eve asked Hannah, as they turned another corner, heading into an area Claire actually recognized.

"Fine," Hannah said. "We going to the Day House?"

"Yeah, next on my list."

"Good. I want to talk to Cousin Lisa."

Eve pulled up outside of the big Founder House; it was lit up in every window, a stark contrast to its dark, shuttered neighboring residences. As she put the car in park, the front door opened and spilled a wedge of lemoncolored light across the immaculately kept front porch. Gramma Day's rocker was empty, nodding in the slight wind.

The person at the door was Lisa Day--tall, strong, with more than a slight resemblance to Hannah. She watched them get out of the car. Upstairs windows opened, and gun barrels came out.

"They're all right," she called, but she didn't step outside. "Claire, right? And Eve? Hey, Hannah."

"Hey." Hannah nodded. "Let's get in. I don't like this quiet out here."

As soon as they were in the front door, in a familiarlooking hallway, Lisa slammed down locks and bolts, including a recently installed iron bar that slotted into place on either side of the frame. Hannah watched this with bemused approval. "You knew this was coming?" she asked.

"I figured it'd come sooner or later," Lisa said. "Had the hardware in the basement. All we had to do was put it in. Gramma didn't like it, but I did it, anyway. She keeps yelling about me putting holes in the wood."

"Yeah, that's Gramma." Hannah grinned. "God forbid we should mess up her house while the war's going on."

"Speaking of that," Lisa said, "y'all need to stay here, if you want to stay safe." Eve exchanged a quick glance with Claire. "Yeah, well, we can't, really. But thanks."

"You sure?" Lisa's eyes were very bright, very focused. "Because we're thinking maybe these vamps will kill each other off this time, and maybe we should all stick together. All the humans. Never mind the bracelets and the contracts."

Eve blinked. "Seriously? Just let them fight it out on their own?"

"Why not? What's it to us, anyway, who wins?" Lisa's smile was bitter and brief. "We get screwed no matter what. Maybe it's time to put a human in charge of this town, and let the vampires find someplace else to live."

Dangerous, Claire thought. Really dangerous. Hannah stared at her cousin, her expression tight and controlled, and then nodded. "Okay," she said. "You do what you want, Lisa, but you be careful, all right?"

"We're being real damn careful," Lisa said. "You'll see."

They came to the end of the hallway, where the area opened up into the big living room, and Eve and Claire both stopped cold.

"Oh, shit," Eve muttered.

The humans were all armed--guns, knives, stakes, blunt objects. The vampires who'd been assigned to guard the house were all sitting tied to chairs with so many turns of rope it reminded Claire of hangman's loops. She supposed if you were going to restrain vamps, it made sense, but--

"What the hell are you doing?" Eve blurted. At least some of the vampires sitting there, tied and gagged, were ones who'd been at Michael's house, or who'd fought on Amelie's side at the banquet. Some of them were struggling, but most seemed quiet.

Some looked unconscious.

"They're not hurt," Lisa said. "I just want 'em out of the way, in case things go bad."

"You're making one hell of a move, Lisa," Hannah said. "I hope you know what the hell you're about."

"I'm about protecting my own. You ought to be, too."

Hannah nodded slowly. "Let's go," she said to Claire and Eve.

"What about--"

"No," Hannah said. "No radio. Not here."

Lisa moved into their path, a shotgun cradled in her arms. "Going so soon?"

Claire forgot to breathe. There was a feeling here, a darkness in the air. The vampires, those who were still awake, were staring at them. Expecting rescue, maybe?

"You don't want to do this," Hannah said. "We're not your enemies."

"You're standing with the vamps, aren't you?"

There it was, out in the open. Claire swallowed hard. "We're trying to get everybody out of this alive," she said. "Humans and vampires."

Lisa didn't look away from her cousin's face. "Not going to happen," she said. "So you'd better pick a side." Hannah stepped right up into her face. After a cold second, Lisa moved aside. "Already have," Hannah said. She jerked her head at Claire and Eve. "Let's move."

Outside in the car, they all sat in silence for a few seconds. Hannah's face was grim and closed off, not inviting any conversation.

Eve finally said, "You'd better tell Oliver. He needs to know about this."

Claire plugged in the code and tried. "Oliver, come in. Oliver, it's Claire. I have an update. Oliver!"

Static hissed. There was no response.

"Maybe he's ignoring you," Eve said. "He seemed pretty annoyed before."

"You try." Claire handed it over, but it was no use. Oliver wasn't responding. They tried calling for anyone at Common Grounds instead, and got another voice, one Claire didn't recognize.

"Hello?"

Eve squeezed her eyes shut in relief. "Excellent. Who's this?"

"Quentin Barnes."

"TinTin! Hey man, how are you?"

"Ah--good, I guess." TinTin, whoever he was, sounded nervous. "Oliver's kind of busy right now. He's trying to keep some people from taking off."

"Taking off?" Eve's eyes widened. "What do you mean?"

"Some of the vamps, they're just trying to leave. It's too close to dawn. He's had to lock some of them up."

Things were getting weird all over. Eve keyed the mike and said, "There's trouble at the Day House. Lisa's tied up the vamps. She's going to sit this thing out. I think--I think maybe she's working with some other people, trying to put together a third side. All humans."

"Dude," TinTin sighed, "that's just what we need, getting the vampire slayers all in the mix. Okay, I'll tell Oliver. Anything else?"

"More empty vampire cars. You think they're like those guys who were trying to leave? Maybe, I don't know, getting drawn off somewhere?"

"Probably. Look, just watch yourself, okay?"

"Will do. Eve out."

Hannah stirred in the back. "Let's move out to the next location."

"I'm sorry," Claire said. "I know they're your family and all."

"Lisa always was preaching about how we could take the town if we stuck together. Maybe she's thinking it's the right time to make a move." Hannah shook her head. "She's an idiot. All she's going to do is get people killed."

Claire was no general, but she knew that fighting a war on two fronts and dividing their forces wasn't a great idea. "We have to find Amelie."

"Wherever she's gotten herself off to," Eve snorted. "If she's even still--"

"Don't," Claire whispered. She restlessly rubbed the gold bracelet on her wrist until it dug into her skin. "We need her."

More than ever, she was guessing.

By the time they'd dropped off the next to last radio, at their own home, which was currently inhabited by a bunch of freakedout humans and a few vampires who hadn't yet felt whatever was pulling some of them off, the dawn was starting to really set in. The horizon was Caribbean blue, with touches of gold and red just flaring up like footlights at a show. Claire delivered the radio, the code, and a warning to the humans and vampires alike. "You have to watch the vamps," she pleaded. "Don't let them leave. Not in the daylight."

Monica Morrell, who was clutching the walkietalkie in her redtaloned fingers, frowned at her. "How are we supposed to do that, freak? Give them a written warning and scold them really hard? Come on!"

"If you let them go, they may not get wherever it is they're being called before sunrise," Hannah said. She shrugged, a fluid flow that emphasized her muscles, and smiled. "Hey, no skin off my nose or anything, but we may need 'em later. And you could get blamed for not stepping up."

Monica kept on frowning, but she didn't seem inclined to argue with Hannah. Nobody did, Claire noticed. The former marine had an air about her, a confidence that somehow didn't come off at all like arrogance.

"Great," Monica finally said. "Wonderful. Like I needed another problem. By the way, Claire, your house really sucks ass. I hate it here."

It was Claire's turn to smile this time. "It probably hates you right back. I'm sure you'll figure it out," she said. "You're a natural leader, right?"

"Oh, bite it. Someday, your boyfriend won't be around to--" Monica widened her eyes. "Oh, snap! He's isn't around, is he? Won't be back, ever. Remind me to send flowers for the funeral."

Eve grabbed the back of Claire's shirt. "Whoa, MiniMe, chill out. We've got to get moving. Much as I'd like to see the cage match, we're kind of on a schedule."

The hot crimson haze disappeared from Claire's eyes, and she took in a breath and nodded. Her muscles were aching. She realized she'd managed to clench just about every muscle, ironhard, and tried to relax. Her hands twinged when she stretched them out of fists.

"See you soon," Monica said, and shut the door on them. "Wait, probably not, loser. And your clothes are pathetic, by the way!"

That last part came muffled, but clear--as clear as the sound of the locks snapping into place.

"Let's go," Hannah said, and herded them off the porch and down the walk toward the white picket fence.

Walking on the street, heading vaguely north, was a vampire. "Oh, crap," Eve said, alarmed, but the vamp didn't seem to care about them, or even know they were there. He was wearing a police uniform, and Claire remembered him; he'd been riding with Richard Morrell, from time to time. Didn't seem like a bad guy, apart from the whole vampire thing. "That's Officer O'Malley. Hey! Hey, Officer! Wait up!"

He ignored them and kept walking.

Claire looked east. The sun's golden glow was heating up the sky, fast. It wasn't over the horizon yet, but it would be in a matter of seconds, minutes at most. "We've got to get him," she said. "Get him inside somewhere."

"And do what, babysit him the rest of the day? O'Malley's not like Myrnin," Eve said. "You can't stake him. He's not that old. Seventy, eighty, something like that. He's only a little older than Sam."

"We could run him over," Hannah said. "It wouldn't kill him."

Eve sent her a wideeyed look. "Excuse me? With my car?"

"You're asking for something nonlethal. That's all I've got right now. The three of us aren't any kind of match for a vampire who wants to get somewhere, if he fights us."

Claire took off running toward the vampire, ignoring their shouts. She looked back. Hannah was after her, and gaining.

She still got to Officer O'Malley first, and skidded into his path.

He paused for a second, his green eyes focusing on her, and then he reached out and moved her aside. Gently, but firmly.

And he kept on walking.

"You have to get inside!" Claire yelled, and got in front of him again. "Sir, you have to! Right now! Please!"

He moved her again, this time without as much care. He didn't say a word.

"Oh, God," Hannah said. "Too late."

The sun came up in a fiery burst, and the first rays of sunlight hit the parked cars, Eve's standing figure, the houses . . . and Officer O'Malley's back.

"Get a blanket!" Claire screamed. She could see the smoke curling off him, like morning mist. "Do something!"

Eve ran to get something from the car. Hannah grabbed Claire and pulled her out of his way.

Officer O'Malley kept walking. The sun kept rising, brighter and brighter, and within three or four steps, the smoke rising up from him turned to flames.

In ten more steps, he fell down.

Eve ran up breathlessly, a blanket clutched in both hands. "Help me get it over him!"

They threw the fabric over Officer O'Malley, but instead of smothering the flames, it just caught fire, too.

Hannah pulled Claire back as she tried to pat out the flames. "Don't," she said. "It's too late."

Claire turned toward Hannah in a raw fury, struggling to get free. "We can still--"

"No, we can't," Hannah said. "There's not a damn thing we can do for him. He's dying, Claire. You tried your best, but he's dying. And he's not going to take our help. Look, he's still trying to crawl. He's not stopping."

She was right, but it hurt, and in the end, Claire wrapped her arms around Hannah for comfort and turned away.

When she finally looked back, Officer O'Malley was a pile of ash and smoke and burned blanket.

"Michael," Claire whispered. She looked at the sun. "We have to find Michael!" Hannah went very still for a second, and then nodded. "Let's go."

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