AFTER THE BITCHING I'D DONE to Abe about always going to remote, crappy places, I should have been excited about the prospect of going to Sin City. Alas, I had a few reservations about my next epic trip. First of all, somewhere like Las Vegas was the last place I would expect a semi-crazy recluse to be. From the bits and pieces I'd heard, Robert had dropped off the radar and wanted to be alone. A busy, tourist-filled city didn't really fit that description. Second, cities like that were perfect feeding grounds for Strigoi. Crowded. Reckless. Low inhibitions. Very easy for people to disappear--especially when most of them were out at night.
Part of me was certain it had to be a trick on Victor's part, but he swore up and down that it was true. So, with no other leads, Las Vegas became our next destination. We didn't have much time to debate the matter anyway, knowing the guardians would be searching Fairbanks for us. Admittedly, Lissa's charms had altered our appearances enough that they wouldn't be looking for people with our descriptions. They knew what Victor looked like, though, so the sooner we were out of Alaska, the better.
Unfortunately, we had a slight problem.
"Victor has no ID," said Eddie. "We can't take him on a plane."
It was true. All of Victor's possessions had been seized by prison authorities, and in the midst of disabling surveillance and taking out half a dozen guardians, we'd hardly had time to go searching for his personal stuff. Lissa's compulsion was phenomenal, but she was exhausted after wielding so much at the prison. Besides, guardians would likely be watching the airport.
Our "friend" Bud the car rental guy provided the solution. He hadn't been thrilled to see his car returned with all the scratches from Eddie's daredevil driving, but enough cash had finally stopped the human's muttering about "renting to a bunch of kids." It was Victor who thought of an alternative plan and suggested it to Bud.
"Is there a private airport nearby? With flights we might charter?"
"Sure," said Bud. "But it won't be cheap."
"It's not an issue," I said.
Bud eyed us askance. "Did you guys rob a bank or something?"
No, but we were packing a lot of currency. Lissa had a trust fund that doled her out monthly money until she was eighteen, as well as a high-limit credit card. I had a credit card of my own, leftover from when I'd sweet-talked Adrian into funding my Russian trip. I'd let go of the rest of my assets, like the huge bank account he'd set up. But, wrong or not, I'd decided to keep one card on hand, just in case of emergency.
This was certainly an emergency, so we used the card to pay for part of the private plane's cost. The pilot couldn't take us as far as Las Vegas, but he could take us to Seattle, where he was able to connect us with another pilot he knew who could go the rest of the way. More money.
"And Seattle again," I mused, just before the plane took off. The little jet's interior had a set of four seats, two on each side facing each other. I sat next to Victor, and Eddie sat across from him. We figured that was the best protective configuration.
"What about Seattle?" asked Eddie, puzzled.
Little private jets aren't nearly as fast as big commercial ones, and our trip took a large part of the day. During it, I continued asking Victor about his brother's role in Las Vegas and finally got the answer I wanted. Victor would have had to tell us eventually, but I think he'd gotten a sadistic thrill out of prolonging the answer.
"Robert doesn't live in Las Vegas proper," he explained. "He has a small house--a cabin, I suppose--out by Red Rock Canyon, miles outside the city."
Ah. Now that was more what I'd expected. Lissa stiffened at the mention of a cabin, and I felt unease through the bond. When Victor had kidnapped her, he'd taken her to a cabin in the woods and tortured her there. I gave her as reassuring a look as I could. It was times like these I wished the bond worked both ways so that I could truly send her comfort.
"So we'll go out there?"
Victor snorted. "Certainly not. Robert values his privacy too much. He wouldn't let strangers come to his home. But he'll come to the city if I ask."
Lissa eyed me. Victor could be setting us up. He had lots of supporters. Now that he's out, he could call them instead of Robert to meet us.
I gave her a tiny nod, again wishing I could respond back through the bond. I'd thought of this as well. It was imperative we never leave Victor alone to make unsupervised calls. And actually, this plan to meet in Las Vegas itself made me feel better. For our own safety from Victor's henchmen, it was better to be in the city than out in the middle of nowhere.
"Seeing as I've been so helpful," said Victor, "I have the right to know what you want with my brother." He glanced at Lissa. "Looking for spirit lessons? You had to have done some excellent investigative work to find out about him."
"You have no right to know about our plans," I retorted sharply. "And seriously? If you're keeping track of who's been the most helpful here, we are totally beating you on the score-card. You've got a ways to go to catch up after what we did at Tarasov."
Victor's only response was a small smile.
Some of our flight time took place at night, which meant it was early morning when we landed in Las Vegas. The safety of sunlight. I was surprised to see how crowded the airport was. The private one in Seattle had had a fair amount of planes, but the Fairbanks airport had nearly been deserted. This strip was chock-full of little jets, many of them screaming "luxury." I shouldn't have been surprised. Las Vegas was the playground of celebrities and other wealthy people, many of whom probably couldn't lower themselves to fly commercial with ordinary passengers.
There were taxis there, sparing us the ordeal of another rental car. But when the driver asked us where we were going, we all stayed silent. I turned to Victor.
"The middle of the city, right? The Strip?"
"Yes," he agreed. He'd been certain Robert would want to meet strangers somewhere very public. Somewhere he could easily flee.
"The Strip's a big place," said the driver. "You got any place in particular or should I just drop you off in the middle of the street?"
Silence fell over us. Lissa shot me a meaningful look. "The Witching Hour?"
I considered it. Las Vegas was a favorite place for some Moroi. The bright sun made it less appealing for Strigoi, and the windowless casinos created comfortable, dark atmospheres. The Witching Hour was a hotel and casino we'd all heard of. While it had plenty of human customers, it was actually owned by Moroi, so it had lots of clandestine features to make it a great getaway for vampires. Feeders in back rooms. Special Moroi-only lounges. A fair number of guardians on patrol.
I shook my head and glanced sideways at Victor. "We can't take him there." Of all the hotels in Las Vegas, the Witching Hour was the last we'd want to go to. Victor's escape had to be breaking news all over the Moroi world. Taking him into Vegas's largest concentration of Moroi and guardians was probably the worst thing we could do at this point.
In the rearview mirror, the driver's face looked impatient. It was Eddie who finally piped up. "The Luxor."
He and I were in the backseat, with Victor between us, and I peered over. "Where did that come from?"
"It puts distance between us and the Witching Hour." Eddie suddenly looked a little sheepish. "And I've always wanted to stay there. I mean, if you're coming to Vegas, why not stay in a pyramid?"
"You can't fault that logic," said Lissa.
"The Luxor it is," I said to the driver.
We rode in silence, all of us--well, except for Victor--staring at the sights in awe. Even in the daytime, the streets of Las Vegas were teeming with people. The young and glamorous walked side by side with older couples from Middle America, who'd probably saved and saved to make this trip. The hotels and casinos we passed were huge, flashy, and inviting.
And when we reached the Luxor... yup. It was just like Eddie had said. A hotel shaped like a pyramid. I stared up at it when we got out of the car, trying hard not to let my jaw drop like the starry-eyed tourist I was. I paid the driver and we headed inside. I didn't know how long we'd be staying, but we definitely needed a room as our base of operation.
Stepping into the hotel was like being back in the night-clubs in Saint Petersburg and Novosibirsk. Flashing lights and the overwhelming scent of smoke. And noise. Noise, noise, noise. The slot machines beeped and rang, chips fell, people yelled in dismay or delight, and the low thrum of conversation filled the room like humming bees. I grimaced. The stimuli grated on my senses.
We passed through the casino's edge to get to the front desk, where the attendant didn't even blink at three teenagers and an old man getting a room together. I had to imagine that around here, they saw it all. Our room was average-size, with two double beds, and somehow we'd lucked out with an amazing view. Lissa stood at the window, entranced by the sights of people and cars on the Strip below, but I jumped straight to business.
"Okay, call him," I ordered Victor. He'd settled down on one of the beds, hands crossed and expression serene, as though he truly were on vacation. Despite that smug smile, I could see the fatigue etched on his face. Even with his blood refill, the escape and long trip had been exhausting, and the effects of his slowly returning disease were naturally taking a toll on his physical strength.
Victor immediately reached for the hotel's phone, but I shook my head. "Liss, let him use your cell. I want a record of this number."
She gingerly handed the phone over, as though he might contaminate it. He took it and gave me a nigh-angelic look. "I don't suppose I could have some privacy? It's been so long since Robert and I have talked."
"No," I snapped. The harshness in my voice startled even me, and it occurred to me Lissa wasn't the only one suffering from all the spirit used today.
Victor gave a small shrug and began dialing. He'd told us on one of the flights that he had Robert's number memorized, and I had to take it on faith that that was who he was calling. I also had to hope Robert's number hadn't changed. Of course, even if Victor hadn't seen his brother in years, Victor had only been imprisoned a short while and had probably kept tabs on Robert beforehand.
Tension filled the room as we waited while the phone rang. A moment later, I heard a voice answer through the phone's speaker--though I couldn't make out the exact words.
"Robert," said Victor pleasantly, "it's Victor."
This received a frantic response on the other end. I only could hear half of the conversation, but it was intriguing. Victor first had to spend a lot of time convincing Robert that he was out of prison. Apparently, Robert wasn't so removed from Moroi society that he was out of touch with current news. Victor told him that the details would be revealed later and then began making his pitch for Robert to come meet us.
It took a long time. I got the feeling that Robert lived in fear and paranoia, which reminded me of Ms. Karp when she'd been in the advanced stages of spirit's insanity. Lissa's gaze stayed fixed on the scene outside the window during the entire call, but her feelings mirrored mine: fear that this could someday be her fate. Or mine as well, if I siphoned away spirit's effects. The image of the Tarasov sign flashed briefly through her mind: WARNING--NOW ENTERING PRISONER AREA (PSYCHIATRIC).
Victor's voice turned surprisingly cajoling as he spoke to his brother, gentle even. I was reminded uneasily of the old days, before we'd known about Victor's demented plans for Moroi domination. Back then, he'd treated us kindly too and had practically been a member of Lissa's family. I wondered if at some point he'd been sincere or if it had all been an act.
Finally, after almost twenty minutes, Victor convinced Robert to come see us. The unintelligible words on the other end of the phone were filled with anxiety, and at this point, I felt convinced that Victor truly was talking to his crazy brother and not one of his accomplices. Victor set up a dinner meeting at one of the hotel's restaurants and at last disconnected.
"Dinner?" I asked when Victor set the phone down. "Isn't he worried about being out after dark?"
"It's an early dinner," Victor replied. "Four thirty. And the sun won't go down until almost eight."
"Four thirty?" I asked. "Good God. Are we getting the senior citizen special?"
But he made a good point about the time and sun. Without the safety of Alaska's nearly nonstop summer light, I was starting to feel suffocated by the pressure of sunrise and sunset boundaries, even though it was summer here. Unfortunately, a safe early dinner still meant we had hours to pass.
Victor leaned back on the bed, arms behind his head. I think he was attempting an unconcerned air, but my guess was that it was actually exhaustion driving him to seek the bed's comfort.
"Care to try your luck downstairs?" He glanced over at Lissa. "Spirit users make remarkably good card players. I don't have to tell you how good you are at reading people." She made no response.
"Nobody's leaving this room," I said. I didn't like the idea of us all being cooped up here, but I couldn't risk an escape attempt or Strigoi lurking in the casino's dark corners.
After showering the dye from her hair, Lissa pulled up a chair by the window. She refused to get any closer to Victor. I sat cross-legged on the second bed, where there was plenty of room for Eddie to sit too, but he remained upright against a wall, in perfect guardian posture as he watched Victor. I had no doubt Eddie could maintain that position for hours, no matter how uncomfortable it got. We'd all been trained to endure harsh conditions. He did a good job at looking stern, but every once in a while, I'd catch him studying Victor curiously. Eddie had stood by me in this act of treason but still didn't know why I'd done it.
We'd been there a few hours when someone knocked at the door. I leapt up.
Eddie and I mirrored each other, both of us straightening to rigid attention, hands going for our stakes. We'd ordered lunch an hour ago, but room service had long since come and gone. It was too early for Robert, and besides, he didn't know the name our room was under. There was no nausea, though. No Strigoi at our door. I met Eddie's gaze, silent messages passing between us on what to do.
But it was Lissa who acted first, rising from her chair and taking a few steps across the room. "It's Adrian."
"What?" I exclaimed. "Are you sure?"
She nodded. Spirit users usually only saw auras, but they could sense each other if they were close enough--just as she had at the prison. Still, none of us moved. She gave me a dry look.
"He knows I'm here," she pointed out. "He can feel me too."
I sighed, still keeping my hand on my stake, and strode to the door. I squinted through the peephole. Standing there, his expression amused and restless, was Adrian. I could see no one else, and with no indication of Strigoi to be found, I finally opened the door. His face lit with joy when he saw me. Leaning in, he gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before stepping into the room.
"You guys didn't really think you could go off on a party weekend without me, did you? Especially here of all places--"
He froze, and it was one of those rare moments when Adrian Ivashkov was caught totally and completely off guard.
"Did you know," he said slowly, "that Victor Dashkov is sitting on your bed?"
"Yeah," I said. "It was kind of a shock to us too."
Adrian dragged his gaze from Victor and glanced around the room, noticing Eddie for the first time. Eddie had been standing so still that he practically seemed like part of the furniture. Adrian turned to me.
"What the hell is going on? Everyone is out looking for him!"
Lissa's words spoke to me through my bond. You might as well tell him. You know he won't leave now.
She was right. I didn't know how Adrian had found us, but now that he had, there was no way he'd go. I glanced hesitantly at Eddie, who guessed my thoughts.
"We'll be fine," he said. "Go talk. I won't let anything happen."
And I'm strong enough again that I can compel him if he tries anything, Lissa added.
I sighed. "Okay. We'll be right back."
I took Adrian's arm and led him outside. As soon as we were in the hallway, he started in again. "Rose, what's--"
I shook my head. In our time here, I'd heard enough noise from other hotel guests in the hall to know that my friends would hear our conversation if we talked out there. Instead, Adrian and I took the elevator and headed downstairs, where the noise of the casino would mask our words. We found a slightly out-of-the-way corner, and Adrian practically pushed me against the wall, his expression dark. His light attitude annoyed me sometimes, but I preferred it to when he was upset, largely because I feared spirit would add an unstable edge.
"You leave me a note saying you're sneaking off for one last party weekend, and instead I find you holed up with one of the most notorious criminals ever? When I left Court, that's all everyone was talking about! Didn't that guy try to kill you?"
I answered his question with a question. "How did you even find us?"
"The credit card," he said. "I was waiting for you to use it."
My eyes widened. "You promised me when I got all those that you wouldn't go snooping!" Since my accounts and cards had come with his help, I'd known he had access to the records but had believed him when he'd said he'd respect my privacy.
"When you were in Russia, I kept that promise. This is different. I kept checking and checking with the company, and as soon as the activity with the charter plane showed up, I called and found out where you were going." Adrian's arrival here so soon after ours wasn't that unbelievable if he had been monitoring the card. Once he'd had the information he needed, he could have easily booked a flight. A nonstop commercial jet would have made up the time on our slower, multistop trip. "There was no way I could resist Vegas," he continued. "So I thought I'd surprise you and show up to join in the fun." I'd used my card for the room, I realized, again tipping off our location. No one else was linked to my or Lissa's cards, but the ease with which he'd tracked us made me nervous.
"You shouldn't have done that," I growled. "We might be together, but there are boundaries you've got to respect. This is none of your business."
"It's not like I was reading your diary! I just wanted to find my girlfriend and--" It was a sign of Adrian's distress that his mind was only now beginning to backtrack and put pieces together. "Oh lord. Rose, please tell me you guys aren't the ones who busted him out? They're all looking for two human girls and a dhampir guy. The descriptions don't match at all..." He groaned. "But it was you, wasn't it? Somehow, you broke into a maximum-security prison. With Eddie."
"Must not have been all that secure," I remarked lightly.
"Rose! This guy has fucked with both of your lives. Why would you free him?"
"Because..." I hesitated. How could I explain this to Adrian? How could I explain that which, by all evidence in our world, was impossible? And how could I explain what goal in particular was driving this? "Victor has information we need. Or, well, he has access to someone we need. This was the only way we could get it."
"What on earth could he possibly know to make you do all this?"
I swallowed. I walked into prisons and nests of Strigoi, but saying what I did next to Adrian filled me with apprehension. "Because there might be a way to save Strigoi. To turn them back to the way they were. And Victor... Victor knows someone who might have done this."
Adrian stared at me for several long seconds, and even in the midst of the casino's movement and noise, it was like the world grew still and silent.
"Rose, that's impossible."
"It might not be."
"If there was a way to do that, we would know."
"It involves spirit users. And we only just found out about them."
"That doesn't mean it's--oh. I see." His deep green eyes flashed, and this time, they were angry. "It's him, isn't it? This is your last crazy attempt to get to him. To Dimitri."
"Not just him," I said vaguely. "It could save all Strigoi."
"I thought this was over!" Adrian exclaimed. His voice was loud enough that a few people at nearby slot machines glanced over. "You told me it was over. You told me you could move on and be with me."
"I meant it," I said, surprised at the desperate note in my voice. "It's something we only just found out about. We had to try."
"And what then? What if this stupid fantasy works? You free Dimitri in some miraculous act, and you drop me like that." He snapped his fingers.
"I don't know," I said wearily. "We're just taking this one step at a time. I love being with you. Really. But I can't ignore this."
"Of course you can't." He turned his eyes heavenward. "Dreams, dreams. I walk them; I live them. I delude myself with them. It's a wonder I can spot reality anymore." The weird sound of his voice made me nervous. I could recognize one of his slightly crazy, spirit-induced lapses. Then, he turned from me with a sigh. "I need a drink."
Whatever pity I'd felt for him turned to anger. "Oh, good. That'll fix everything. I'm glad in a world gone mad, you've still got your old standbys."
I flinched at his glare. He didn't do it very often, and when he did, it was a powerful thing. "What do you expect me to do?" he asked.
"You could... you could..." Oh God. "Well, now that you're here, you could help us. Plus, this guy we're meeting. He's another spirit user."
Adrian didn't betray his thoughts, but I had a feeling that I had piqued his interest. "Yeah, that's exactly what I want. To help my girlfriend get her old boyfriend back." He turned away again, and I heard him mutter, "I need two drinks."
"Four thirty," I called after him. "We're meeting at four thirty."
There was no response, and Adrian melted into the crowd.
I returned to the room in a dark cloud that had to be obvious to everyone. Lissa and Eddie were smart enough not to ask questions, but Victor, of course, had no such reserves.
"What? Mr. Ivashkov isn't joining us? I'd so been looking forward to his company."
"Shut up," I said, crossing my arms and leaning against the wall near Eddie. "Don't speak unless you're spoken to."
The next couple hours dragged by. I was convinced that any minute, Adrian would come back and reluctantly agree to help us. We could use his compulsion if things went bad, even though he couldn't match Lissa. Surely... surely he loved me enough to come to my aid? He wouldn't abandon me? You're an idiot, Rose. It was my own voice that chastised me in my head, not Lissa's. You've given him no reason to help. You just hurt him again and again. Just like you did Mason.
When four fifteen came around, Eddie looked over at me. "Should we stake out a table?"
"Yeah." I was restless and upset. I didn't want to stay in this room any longer, trapped with dark feelings that wouldn't go away. Victor rose from the bed, stretching as though getting up from a relaxing nap. Still, I could have sworn there was an eager glint hidden in the depths of his eyes. By all accounts, he and his half-brother were close, though I'd seen no indication that Victor displayed love or loyalty to anyone. Who knew? Maybe somewhere there was true affection for Robert.
We formed a sort of protective configuration with me in the front, Eddie in the back, and the two Moroi between us. I opened the room's door and came face-to-face with Adrian. His hand was raised as though he'd been about to knock. He arched an eyebrow.
"Oh, hey," he said. He had the standard laid-back Adrian expression on his face, though his voice was a bit strained. I knew he wasn't happy about any of this. I could see it in the tight set of his jaw and agitation in his eyes. Nonetheless, he was putting on a good front for the others, for which I was grateful. Most importantly, he'd come back. That was what mattered, and I could ignore the scent of alcohol and smoke wreathing him. "So... I hear there's some party going on. Mind if I join you?"
I gave him a weak, grateful smile. "Come on."
Our group now up to five, we headed down the hall toward the elevator. "I was cleaning up at poker, you know," Adrian added. "So this better be good."
"I don't know if it'll be good," I mused. The elevator doors opened. "But I think it'll be memorable."
We stepped inside, off to see Robert Doru. And what might be Dimitri's only salvation.
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