Chapter Eleven

 

WELL. HOW PERFECT.

It took us a while to decide our next course of action. We tossed around a few feeble ideas to track Robert and Victor, all of which we eventually shot down. Robert's phone was a cell, and while the CIA could trace those kinds of things, we certainly couldn't. Even if Robert's address was listed in the phone book, I knew Victor wouldn't have let them go back there. And while Adrian and Lissa could spot a spirit user's aura, we could hardly go wandering aimlessly in a city and expect to find something.

No, we were out of luck with those two. There was nothing to be done now but head back to Court and face whatever punishment awaited us. We--I--had screwed up.

With sunset approaching--and seeing as we no longer had a known criminal to get us in trouble--my group glumly decided to head to the Witching Hour to make our travel plans. Lissa and I had the potential to be recognized over there, but runaway girls weren't quite in the same category as fugitive traitors. We decided to roll the dice (no pun intended) and hang around guardians rather than risk more Strigoi attacks before we could get out of Vegas.

The Witching Hour was no different from any of the other casinos we'd been to--unless you knew what to look for. Humans there were too interested in the allure of the games and glitz to notice that a lot of the other patrons were uniformly tall, slim, and pale. As for the dhampirs? Humans couldn't tell that we weren't human. It was only the uncanny sense Moroi and dhampirs had that let us know who was who.

Sprinkled throughout the cheering, chattering, and--at times--wailing crowd were guardians. As in demand as guardians were, only a handful could be allocated full-time to a place like this. Fortunately, their numbers were reinforced by the wealthy and powerful who'd come to play. Excited Moroi whooped over slot machines or roulette while silent, watchful guardians hovered behind them, keeping an eye on everything. No Strigoi would come here.

"What now?" asked Lissa, almost yelling over the noise. It was the first time any of us had spoken since deciding to go here. We'd come to a halt near some blackjack tables, right in the thick of everything.

I sighed. My mood was so dark, I didn't even need any spirit side effects. I lost Victor, I lost Victor. My own mental accusations were on an endless loop.

"We find their business center and book tickets out of here," I said. "Depending on how long until we can catch a flight, we might have to get a room again."

Adrian's eyes were scanning the action around us, lingering longest on one of the many bars. "Wouldn't kill us to spend a little time here."

I snapped. "Really? After everything that's happened, that's all you can think about?"

His enraptured gaze turned back to me and became a frown. "There are cameras here. People who may recognize you. Getting hard proof that you were in this casino and not Alaska is a good thing."

"True," I admitted. I think Adrian's typical blase air was masking discomfort. Aside from learning why I'd really come to Las Vegas, he'd also run into Strigoi--Dimitri among them. That was never an easy experience for any Moroi. "Though we've got no alibi for when we were actually in Alaska."

"So long as Victor doesn't get himself spotted around here, no one's going to make the connection." Adrian's voice became bitter. "Which really shows how stupid they all are."

"We helped put Victor away," said Lissa. "No one would think we'd be crazy enough to let him out."

Eddie, staying silent, gave me a pointed look.

"Then it's settled," said Adrian. "Somebody go book us tickets. I'm going to get a drink and try my hand at some games. The universe owes me some good luck."

"I'll get the tickets," said Lissa, scanning a sign that pointed out the directions for the pool, restrooms--and business center.

"I'll go with you," said Eddie. Whereas before his expression had been accusatory, he now seemed to be avoiding my eyes altogether.

"Fine," I said, crossing my arms. "Let me know when you're done, and we'll find you." That was to Lissa, meaning she'd tell me through the bond.

Convinced he was free, Adrian headed straight for the bar, me trailing after him.

"A Tom Collins," he told the Moroi bartender. It was like Adrian had a mental cocktail dictionary in his head and just checked them off one by one. I almost never saw him drink the same thing twice.

"You want it spiked?" the bartender asked. He wore a crisp white shirt and black bow tie and hardly appeared older than me.

Adrian made a face. "No."

The bartender shrugged and turned around to make the drink. "Spiked" was Moroi code for putting a shot of blood into the drink. There were a couple of doors behind the bar, ones that probably led to feeders. Glancing down the bar, I could see happy, laughing Moroi with red-tinged drinks. Some liked the thought of having blood with their alcohol. Most--like Adrian, apparently--wouldn't take blood unless it was "straight from the source." It supposedly didn't taste the same.

While we waited, an older Moroi standing next to Adrian glanced over at me and nodded with approval. "You got yourself a good one," he told Adrian. "Young, but that's the best way." The guy, who was either drinking red wine or pure blood, jerked his head toward the others standing at the bar. "Most of these are used and washed-up."

I followed his shrug, even through there was no need. Interspersed among the humans and Moroi were several dhampir women, dressed very glamorously in silk and velvet dresses that left little to the imagination. Most were older than me. Those who weren't had a weary look in their eyes, despite their flirtatious laughter. Blood whores. I glared at the Moroi.

"Don't you dare talk about them like that, or I'll smash that wineglass in your face."

The guy's eyes widened, and he looked at Adrian. "Feisty."

"You have no idea," said Adrian. The bartender returned with the Tom Collins. "She's had kind of a bad day."

The asshole Moroi guy didn't look back at me. He apparently didn't take my threat nearly as seriously as he should have. "Everyone's having kind of a bad day. You hear the news?"

Adrian looked relaxed and amused as he sipped his drink, but standing so close to him, I felt him stiffen a little. "What news?"

"Victor Dashkov. You know, that guy who kidnapped the Dragomir girl and was plotting against the queen? He escaped."

Adrian's eyebrows rose. "Escaped? That's crazy. I heard he was at some maximum-security place."

"He was. No one really knows what happened. There were supposedly humans involved... and then the story gets weird."

"How weird?" I asked.

Adrian slipped an arm around me, which I suspected was a silent message to let him do the talking. Whether that was because he believed that was "proper" blood whore behavior or because he was worried I'd punch the guy, I couldn't say.

"One of the guards was in on it--though he claims he was being controlled. He also conveniently says it's all a haze and he can't remember much. I heard it from some royals who are helping with the investigation."

Adrian laughed, taking down a big gulp of his drink. "That is convenient. Sounds like an inside job to me. Victor'd have a lot of money. Easy enough to bribe a guard. That's what I think happened."

There was a pleasant smoothness to Adrian's voice, and as a slightly dopey smile came over the other guy's face, I realized Adrian had pulled a little compulsion. "I bet you're right."

"You should tell your royal friends," added Adrian. "An inside job."

The guy nodded eagerly. "I will."

Adrian held his gaze a few moments more and then finally glanced down to the Tom Collins. The glaze-eyed look faded from the man, but I knew Adrian's order to spread the "inside job" story would stick. Adrian gulped down the rest of the drink and set the empty glass on the bar. He was about to speak again when something across the room caught his attention. The Moroi man noticed too, and I followed both of their gazes to see what had them both so starstruck.

I groaned. Women, of course. At first I thought they were dhampirs since my kind seemed to be making up most of the eye candy here. A double take revealed a surprise: The women were Moroi. Moroi showgirls, to be precise. There were several of them, clad in similar short, low-cut sequined dresses. Only, each one wore a different jewel-toned color: copper, peacock blue... Feathers and rhinestones glittered in their hair, and they smiled and laughed as they passed through the gaping crowd, beautiful and sexy in a way different from my race.

Which wasn't a surprise. I tended to notice Moroi men ogling dhampir girls more often, simply because I was a dhampir. But naturally, Moroi men were attracted to and infatuated with their own women. It was how their race survived, and though Moroi men might want to fool around with dhampirs, they almost always ended up with their own kind in the end.

The showgirls were tall and graceful, and their fresh, brilliant appearances made me think they must be on their way to a performance. I could just imagine what a glittering display of dancing they must make. I could appreciate that, but Adrian clearly appreciated it more, judging from his wide-eyed look. I elbowed him.

"Hey!"

The last of the showgirls disappeared through the casino crowd, off toward a sign that said THEATER, just as I'd suspected. Adrian looked back at me, turning on a rogue smile.

"Nothing wrong with looking." He patted my shoulder.

The Moroi standing next to him nodded in agreement. "I think I might take in a show today." He swirled his drink around. "All this Dashkov business and that mess with the Dragomirs... makes me sad for poor Eric. He was a good guy."

I put on a dubious look. "You knew Lissa's fath--Eric Dragomir?"

"Sure." The Moroi gestured for a refill. "I've been a manager here for years. He was here all the time. Believe me, he had an appreciation for those girls."

"You're lying," I said coolly. "He adored his wife." I'd seen Lissa's parents together. Even at a young age, I'd been able to see how crazy in love they were.

"I'm not saying he did anything. Like your boyfriend said, nothing wrong with looking. But a lot of people knew the Dragomir prince liked to party it up wherever he went--especially if there was female company." The Moroi sighed and lifted his glass. "Damn shame what happened to him. Here's hoping they catch that Dashkov bastard and leave Eric's little girl alone."

I didn't like this guy's insinuations about Lissa's dad and was grateful she wasn't around. What made me uneasy was that we'd recently found out Lissa's brother Andre had also been kind of a party boy who fooled around and broke hearts. Did that kind of thing run in the family? What Andre had done wasn't right, but there was a big difference between a teenage boy's exploits and those of a married man. I didn't like to admit it, but even the most in-love guys still checked out other women without cheating. Adrian was proof. Still, I didn't think Lissa would like the idea of her dad flirting around with other women. The truth about Andre had been hard enough, and I didn't want anything to shatter the angelic memories of her parents.

I shot Adrian a look that said listening to this guy any longer really would come down to a fistfight. I didn't want to be standing here if Lissa came searching for us. Adrian, always more astute than he appeared, smiled down at me.

"Well, my sweet, shall we try our luck? Something tells me you're going to beat the odds--like always."

I cut him a look. "Cute."

Adrian winked at me and stood up. "Nice talking to you," he told the Moroi.

"You too," the man said. The thrall of compulsion was wearing off. "You should dress her better, you know."

"I'm not interested in putting clothes on her," Adrian called as he steered me away.

"Watch it," I warned through gritted teeth, "or you might be the one with a wineglass in your face."

"I'm playing a part, little dhampir. One that's going to make sure you stay out of trouble." We stopped near the casino's poker room, and Adrian gave me a head-to-toe assessment. "That guy was right about the clothes, though."

I gritted my teeth. "I can't believe he said those things about Lissa's dad."

"Gossip and rumors never go away--you of all people should know that. Doesn't matter if you're dead. Besides, that conversation was actually to our--by which I mean your--advantage. Somebody else is probably considering the inside-job theory already. If that guy can help get it around even more, it'll ensure no one even thinks the world's most dangerous guardian could have been involved."

"I suppose." Forcibly, I pushed my temper down. I had always been trigger-happy, and I knew for sure now that the bits of darkness I'd gleaned from Lissa in the last twenty-four hours were making things worse, as I'd feared. I changed the subject, steering to safer ground. "You're being pretty nice now, considering how mad you were earlier."

"I'm not all that happy, but I've done some thinking," Adrian said.

"Oh? Care to enlighten me?

"Not here. We'll talk later. We've got more important things to worry about."

"Like covering up a crime and getting out of this city without being attacked by Strigoi?"

"No. Like me winning money."

"Are you crazy?" Asking Adrian that was never a good idea. "We just escaped a bunch of bloodthirsty monsters, and all you can think about is gambling?"

"The fact that we're alive means we should live," he argued. "Especially if we've got the time, anyway."

"You don't need any more money."

"I will if my dad turns me out. Besides, it's really about enjoying the game."

By "enjoying the game," I soon realized that Adrian meant "cheating." If you considered using spirit cheating. Because there was so much mental power tied into spirit, its users were very good at reading people. Victor had been right. Adrian joked and kept ordering drinks, but I could tell he was paying close attention to the others. And even though he was careful not to say anything explicitly, his expressions spoke for him--confident, uncertain, annoyed. Without words, he was still able to project compulsion and bluff the other players.

"Be right back," I told him, feeling Lissa's call.

He waved me off, unconcerned. I wasn't worried about his safety either, seeing as there were a few guardians in the room. What concerned me was the possibility some casino official would notice his compulsion and throw us all out. Spirit users wielded it the most strongly, but all vampires had it to a certain extent. Using it was considered immoral, so it was banned among Moroi. A casino would definitely have reason to be on the lookout for it.

The business center turned out to be near the poker room, and I found Lissa and Eddie quickly. "What's the report?" I asked as we walked back.

"We've got a flight in the morning," said Lissa. She hesitated. "We could have gone out tonight, but..."

She didn't need to finish. After what we'd faced today, no one wanted to risk even the slightest chance of running into a Strigoi. Going to the airport would only require a taxi ride, but even still, that would mean we'd have to risk walking out into the darkness.

I shook my head and led them toward the poker room. "You did the right thing. We've got time to kill now.... Do you want to get a room and get some sleep?"

"No." She shivered, and I felt fear in her. "I don't want to leave this crowd. And I'm kind of afraid of what I'd dream...."

Adrian might be able to act like he didn't care about the Strigoi, but those faces were still haunting Lissa--especially Dimitri's. "Well," I said, hoping to make her feel better, "staying up will help get us back on the Court's schedule. You can also watch Adrian get thrown out by casino security."

As I'd hoped, watching Adrian cheat with spirit did indeed distract Lissa--so much so that she grew interested in trying it herself. Great. I urged her to safer games and recapped how Adrian had planted the idea of an inside job in the Moroi guy's head. I left out the part about Lissa's father. The night miraculously passed without incident--either of the Strigoi or security type--and a couple of people even recognized Lissa, which would help our alibi. Eddie didn't speak to me the entire night.

We left the Witching Hour in the morning. None of us were happy about losing Victor or the attack, but the casino had soothed us all a little--at least until we got to the airport. At the casino, we'd been flooded with Moroi news, insulated from the human world. But while waiting for our plane, we couldn't help but watch the TVs that seemed to be everywhere.

The headline story that night was all about a mass killing over at the Luxor, one that had left no clues for the police. Most of the casino guards involved had died from broken necks, and no other bodies were found. My guess was that Dimitri had tossed his cronies outside, where the sun would turn them to ash. Meanwhile, Dimitri himself had slipped away, leaving no other witnesses behind. Even the cameras had recorded nothing, which didn't surprise me. If I could disable surveillance at a prison, Dimitri could certainly manage it at a human hotel.

Whatever mood-improvement we'd achieved instantly disappeared, and we didn't talk much. I stayed out of Lissa's mind because I didn't need her depressed feelings amplifying my own.

We'd arranged a direct flight to Philadelphia and would then catch a commuter flight back to the airport near Court. What we'd face once there... well, that was probably the least of our concerns.

I wasn't worried about Strigoi boarding our plane in the daytime, and without any prisoners to watch, I allowed myself to fall into much-needed sleep. I couldn't remember the last time I'd gotten any on this trip. I slept heavily, but my dreams were haunted by the fact that I'd let one of the Moroi's most dangerous criminals escape and allowed a Strigoi to walk free and gotten a bunch of humans killed. I held none of my friends responsible. This disaster was all on me.

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