Dating the undead is a bad idea. Everybody in Morganville knows that—everybody breathing, that is.
Everybody but me, apparently. Eve Rosser, dater of the undead, dumb-ass breaker of rules. Yeah, I'm a rebel. But rebel or not, I froze, because that was what you did when a vampire looked at you with those scary red eyes, even if the vampire was your hunky best guy, Michael Glass.
None of them were fluffy bunnies at the best of times, but you really did not want to cross them when they were angry. It was like the Incredible Hulk, times infinity. And even though my sweet Michael had only been a vampire for a few months, that just made it worse; he hadn't had time to get used to his impulses, and I wasn't sure, right at this second, that he could control himself.
Controlling myself seemed like the least I could do.
"Hey," I breathed, and slowly stepped back from him. I spread my hands out in obvious surrender. "Michael, stop."
He closed those awful, scary eyes and went very, very still. Eyes closed, he looked much closer to the Michael I'd grown up around... tall, dreamy, with curling blond hair in a surfer's careless mop around a face that made girls swoon, and not just when he was on stage playing guitar.
He still looked human. That made it worse, somehow.
I tried to decide whether or not I ought to totally back off, or stand my ground. I stayed, mainly because, well, I've been in love with him since I was fourteen. Too late to run now, just because of a little thing like him being technically, you know, dead.
I wasn't in any real danger, or at least, that was what I told myself. After all, I was standing in the warm, cozy living room of the Glass House, and my housemates were around, and Michael wasn't a monster.
Technically, maybe yes, but actually, no.
When Michael's eyes opened again, they were back to clear, quiet blue, just the way I loved them. He took another breath and scrubbed his face with both hands, like he was trying to wash something off. "I scared you," he said. "Sorry. Caught me by surprise."
I nodded, not really ready to talk again quite yet. When he held out his hand, though, I put mine in it. I was the one in the black nail polish, rice-powder makeup and dyed-black hair; what with my fondness for goth style, you'd think that I'd have been the one to end up with the fangs. Michael was way too gorgeous, too human to end up with immortality on his hands.
It hurt, sometimes. Both ways.
"You need to eat something," I said, in that careful tone I found myself using when speaking about sucking blood. "There's some O neg in the fridge. I could warm it up."
He looked mortally embarrassed. "I don't want you to do that. I'll go to the clinic," he said. "Eve? I'm really sorry. Really. I didn't think I'd need anything for another day or so."
I could tell that he was sorry. The light in his eyes was pure, hot love, and if there was any hunger complicating all that, he kept it well hidden deep inside.
"Hey, it's like being diabetic, right? Something goes wrong with your blood, you gotta take care of that," I said. "It's not a problem. We can all wait until you get back."
He was already shaking his head. "No," he said. "I want you guys to go on to the party, I'll meet you there."
I touched his face gently, then kissed him. His lips were cool, cooler than most people's, but they warmed up under mine. Ectothermic, according to Claire, the resident, scholarly nerd girl in our screwed-up little frat house of four. One vampire, one goth, one nerd, and one wannabe vampire slayer. Yeah. Screwed up, ain't it? Especially living in Morganville, where the relationship between humans and vampires is sometimes like that between deer and deer hunters. Even when vampires weren't hunting us, they had that look, like they were wondering when open season might start.
Not Michael, though.
Not usually, anyway.
He kissed the back of my hand. "Save the first dance for me?" he asked.
"Like I could say no, when you give me that oh-baby look, you dog."
He smiled, and that was a pure Michael smile, the kind that laid girls out in the aisles when he played. "I can't look at you any other way," he said. "It's my Eve look."
I batted at his arm, which had zero effect. "Get moving, before you see my mean look."
"You bet it is. Go on."
He kissed me again, gently, and whispered, "I'm sorry," one more time before he was suddenly gone.
He left me standing in the middle of the living room of the Glass House, aka Screwed-Up Frat Central, wearing a skin-tight, shiny pleather catsuit, cat ears, and a whip. Not to mention some killer stiletto heels. Add the mask, and I made a super-hot Catwoman.
The costume might have been the reason for Michael's shiny eyes and out-of-control hunger, actually. I'd intended to push his buttons for Halloween ... I just hadn't intended to push them quite that hard.
I heard footsteps on the stairs, and Shane's voice drifted down ahead of him. "Hey, have you seen my meat cleaver—holy shit!"
I turned. Shane was standing frozen on the stairs, wearing a lab coat smeared with fake blood and some gruesome-looking Leatherface mask, which he quickly stripped off in order to stare at me without any latex barriers. What I was wearing suddenly felt like way too little.
"Eve—jeez. Warn a guy, would you?" He shook his head, jammed the mask back on, and came down the rest of the stairs. "That was not my fault."
"The leering? I think yes," I said. And secretly, that was pretty cool, although hey, it was Shane. Not like he was exactly the guy I was hoping to impress. "Totally your fault."
"It's a guy thing. We have reactions to women in tight leather with whips. It's sort of involuntary." He looked around. "Where's Michael?"
"He had to go," I said. "He'll meet us at the party." No reason to tell Shane, who still couldn't quite get over his anti-vamp upbringing, that Michael had gone to snag himself a bag of fresh plasma so he wouldn't be snacking on mine. "Seriously—do I look okay?"
"No," Shane said, and flopped down on the sofa. He put his heavy boots up on the coffee table, sending a paper plate with the dried remains of a chili dog close to the edge. I rescued it, gave him a dirty look, and dumped the plate in his lap. "Hey!"
"It's your chili dog. Clean it up."
"It's your turn to clean."
"The house. Not your trash, which you can walk your Leatherfaced-ass into the kitchen to throw away."
He batted his long, silky eyelashes at me. "Didn't I tell you that you look great?" Shane said. "You do."
"Oh, please. Chilidog. Trash. Now."
"Seriously. Michael's going to have to watch himself around you. And watch out for every other guy in the room, too."
"That's the idea," I said. "Hey, it was this or the Naughty Nurse costume."
Shane sent me a miserable look. "Do you have to say things like that?"
"You think?" He held out his plate to me, looking so pitiful that I couldn't help but take it. "You just destroyed my ability to get off this couch."
I had to laugh. Shane teased, but he wasn't serious; the two of us never were, and never would be. He was thinking of someone else, and so was I.
I saw the change in his expression when we heard the sound of footsteps upstairs. He looked up and there was a kind of utter focus in him that made me smile. Boy, you have got it bad, I thought, but I was kind enough not to point it out. Yet.
Claire practically floated down the stairs. Our fourth roommate—our booky little nerd, small and fragile enough that she always looked like you could break her in half with a harsh word—looked even more ethereal than usual.
She was dressed as a fairy—a long, pale pink dress in layers of sheer stuff, glitter on her face, her hair streaked with blue and pink and green. Soft pink fairy wings. It made her look both younger than she really was, which was still a year younger than me and Shane, and yet, also older.
But maybe that was just the look in her eyes that got more mature with every day she spent in Morganville, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the vampires.
Claire paused on the steps, looking at Shane. Her mouth fell open, ruining her ethereal fairy look. "Seriously? Leatherface? Oh God."
"You were expecting something out of Pride & Prejudice?" Shane shrugged and held up the mask. "You don't know me very well."
Claire shook her head, and then caught sight of my own outfit. Her eyes widened. "Holy—"
I sighed. "Don't say it. Shane already did."
"That's really—wow. Tight."
"Catsuit," I said. "Kind of the textbook definition of tight."
"Well, you look… wow. I'd never have the guts." Claire wafted over in her layers of pink to sit next to Shane, who gallantly moved his Leatherface mask to make room.
"You look fabulous," he told her, and kissed her. "Oh, crap, now I've got glitter, right? Leatherface does not do glitter. It's not manly." Claire and I both rolled our eyes, right on cue. "Right. Small price to pay for the privilege of kissing such a beautiful girl, what was I thinking? Sorry."
Shane was an idiot, but he was a good idiot, mostly. He'd never hurt Claire intentionally, I knew that. I wondered, though, if she knew that, from the look of concern that flickered across her expression. "Do you like the costume? Really?"
He stopped goofing and stared right into her eyes. "I love it," he said, and he wasn't talking about the costume. "You look beautiful."
That erased some of the worry from her eyes. "It's not too, you know, little girl or something?"
I realized that she was comparing herself to my Catwoman suit. "It's Halloween, not Hello, Slut," I said. "You look fantastic, CB. Hot, but not obvious. Classy." I, on the other hand, was starting to think I looked like a little too obvious, and not at all classy. "So. Are we going, or are we going to waste our amazing fabulousness on this B-movie fool?"
"Hey, Leatherface is an American classic!" Shane objected. Claire and I both smacked him, then she took the right arm, I took the left. "No fair double teaming! Don't make me hit you with my rubber cleaver!"
"Speaking of double teaming, until Michael catches up to us, you're both our dates," I said. "Congratulations. You can be Hefner tonight, if you go throw on a bathrobe and slippers."
He stared at me, blinked, and then tossed the Leatherface mask over his shoulder as he bounced to his feet. "Awesome. Back in a minute," he said, and dashed upstairs. Claire and I exchanged a look of perfect understanding.
"They're just so easy," I sighed.
It was the one-year anniversary of the Worst Halloween Ever, aka The Dead Girls' Dance party at Epsilon Epsilon Kappa's frat house on campus ... and they were throwing it again, although this time it was a rave at one of the abandoned warehouses near the center of town. We'd gotten special invitations. I'd wanted to skip it at first, but Michael and Shane had both assured me that this time, things were under control. The vampires of Morganville were working security, which meant that the human frat boys wouldn't be slipping anything into anybody's drinks, and any would-be incoming trouble would be stopped cold, probably at the door.
Not that the EEK boys knew who (or what) they were hiring, of course. Students either didn't know, didn't want to know, or were in the know from the beginning, because they'd grown up in Morganville. I thought there were maybe six guys total in EEK who had insider knowledge, and none of them were stupid enough to talk.
Well, not too loudly. Unless the keg was open.
I parked my big, black sedan at the curb between a beaten-up pickup and a sun-faded Pontiac with so many bumper stickers on it I couldn't tell what their actual causes were. Guns, looked like. And God. And maybe puppies.
"House rules," I said, and unlocked the doors. "Stay together. No wandering off. Shane, no fights."
"Aww," he said. "Not even one?"
"Are you kidding me? You've racked up enough medical frequent flyer miles to get a permanent bed in the emergency room. So no. Not even harsh words, unless somebody else throws the first punch."
He was happy about that last part. "No problem." Because somebody else always threw a punch in Shane's direction when trouble brewed. He had a rep, one that he'd worked hard to acquire, as a badass. He didn't look particularly badass tonight, wearing a moth-eaten old tapestry-patterned bathrobe fifty years out of date, old man slippers, silk pajamas that I know he must have found in a box in the attic, and a classic '50s pipe. Unlit, of course.
He made a surprisingly good Hefner, and as he offered us his elbows, I felt a rush of the giggles. Claire was blushing.
"I am such a stud," Shane said, and swept us into the rave.
As the resident dude, Shane was responsible for the acquisition of party favors, like glow-in-the-dark necklaces and drinks. Non-alcoholic drinks for Claire, of course, because I am a stern house mother even if I suck as a role model. One thing I had to watch out for was the other kind of party favors being passed around, stranger to stranger—white pills, mostly, although there were the light-em-if-you-got-em kind, too. I let people pass things to me, then dumped them in the trash. It wasn't because I was Miss Self Restraint; it was more because I knew better than to trust most people in Morganville.
We'd had hard lessons about that last year. Especially Claire. This year, she was still polite, but fending off the weirdos with much more ease. Of course, having her own personal shaggy-haired Hefner at her side might have had something to do with that.
I started to worry about Michael. Usually, a side trip to the blood bank didn't take up more than thirty minutes, but by the time an hour had passed, he still wasn't in the house.
I went in search of a quiet corner to call him. My mistake was that I didn't tell Shane or Claire, who had their arms wrapped around each other and were dancing their hearts out. No, I struck out on my own.
Hear that sound? It's Eve Rosser and her backup band, The Spectacular Lapse of Judgment.
The warehouse was loud, tinny, and crowded; dark spaces were already filled with the make-out brigade. I kept going, down a narrow little hallway, until the noise was only a thud, not a roar, and took out my phone from its hiding place (yes, in my costume, and I'm not telling you where). I started to dial Michael's phone.
Something touched my shoulder. It felt like an ice-cold electric shock.
"Hey!" I yelped, and whirled around. There was a vampire facing me.
My heart rate went from sixty to five hundred in two seconds flat, because I knew this guy, and he wasn't exactly Mr. Congeniality. "Mr. Ransom," I said, and carefully nodded. I knew him because he was one of Oliver's crew, but I'd rarely seen him, even at Common Grounds, the coffee shop where the vampires felt free to mingle with the humans according to strict ground rules. He avoided humans as much as possible, in fact.
"Eve," Mr. Ransom said. He was a tall, thin guy with straw-brittle hair and a kind of vague look in his eyes. Tonight, he was dressed in a black jacket, black shirt, black pants, all straight out of the Goodwill box. Nothing quite fit him.
Mr. Ransom owned the funeral parlor, although he didn't work there. He was kind of a vampire hermit. He didn't get out much.
"Sorry, I'm on the phone," I said. I waved the phone for evidence, pressed DIAL, and listened. Come on, come on ...
He didn't pick up.
"He will not answer," Mr. Ransom said. "Michael."
I quietly folded the phone and stared at him. "Why? What's happened?"
"He has been delayed."
"And you came all this way to tell me? Um, thanks. Message received." I decided to try to tough it out, and walked right past him.
He grabbed me again. I spun, meaning to smack him good (a super-bad move on my part), and he caught my hand effortlessly in his. Now I was face to face with a vampire I hardly knew, with my hand restrained, and the noise from the rave had kicked up again to metal-melting levels, which meant screaming would get me nowhere but hoarse, and dead.
"Let me go," I said as calmly as I could. "Now, please."
He raised pale eyebrows, staring right into my eyes. His were dark, like puddles of oil, full of shine but nothing else. It looked like he was searching for something to say. What he came up with was, "Do you want to become a vampire?"
"Do I—what? No! Hell no!" I yanked, but I couldn't break his grip. "And even if I did, it wouldn't be you doing it, Mister Creepy!"
"Then do you wish Protection?" he asked, and reached into his jacket. He took out a bracelet, standard Morganville issue—a plain silver thing with a symbol engraved on the front of it. Mr. Ransom's symbol, I guessed, which would mark me as his property. If I took the bracelet, I'd be free from casual fanging by all the other bloodsuckers, but not from him, if he took a notion.
I made a throwing-up sound. "No. Let go, you ice-cold moron freak!"
He did let go. It surprised me so much that I scrambled backwards, tottering on my high heels, and bounced into the wall behind me. Great, I thought. The one time I don't wear vampire-killing accessories. Maybe I could use the shoes? No, wait, that would mean bending over in the catsuit. Really not possible. I settled for sliding against the wall, heading for the safety of the crowds.
Ransom slowly sank down to a crouch, his back to the wall, and put his head in his hands. It was so surprising that I stopped moving away and just stared at him. He looked ... sad. And dejected.
"Ah—" I wet my lips. "Are you okay?" What a stupid question! And why did I even care? I didn't. I couldn't care less about his bruised feelings.
But I wasn't leaving, either.
"Yes," he said. His voice was soft and muffled. "I apologize. This is … difficult. Moving among humans in this way. I thought you wished to be turned."
He raised his head and mutely indicated his face, then mine, which was made up very pale under my Catwoman mask. "You seem to playing at being one of us."
"Okay, first, I'm goth, not a vampire wannabe. Second, it's a fashion thing, okay? So, no. I don't. Ewwww." My pulse was slowing down some as I realized that maybe I'd read the situation all wrong after all. Mr. Ransom was a refreshing change from the vampires that tried to eat me first, talk later. "Why offer me Protection?" That was the equivalent of becoming part of a vampire's household. He would have to provide certain things, like food and shelter, and in return, the human paid part of their income to him, like a tax. Also, at the blood bank, their donations would be earmarked for him.
In short: ugh. Not for me.
"You don't have a bracelet," he said. "I thought perhaps your Protector had died in the late unpleasantness. I was being polite. In my day—"
"Well, it isn't your day," I snapped. "And I'm not shopping for a vamp daddy, so just … leave me alone. Okay?"
"Okay," he said. He still looked dejected, like some shabby street person whose bottle of booze had run out.
I thought of something less uncomfortable to ask. At least, I thought it was. "You said Michael had been delayed," I said. "Where? At the blood bank?"
"Near there," Ransom said. "He was taken away."
I forgot all about Ransom and his weirdness. "Taken away where? How? Who took him?" I advanced on the vampire, and all of a sudden the leather catsuit didn't seem ridiculous at all. I was practically channeling the soul of a supervillain. "Hey! Answer me!"
Ransom looked up. "Five young men," he said. "Wearing the jackets with the snake."
Five guys wearing Morganville High letter jackets. Jocks, probably. "Did he want to go?" I asked. Michael had never been part of the jock crowd, even in high school. This was just odd.
"At first, they wanted me to go," Ransom said. "I didn't understand why. Michael told them he would go with them instead, and told me to tell you that he would be delayed." Ransom gave a heavy sigh. "That I have done." In about half a heartbeat, he went from a sad little man crouched against the wall to a tall, dangerous vampire standing up and facing me. Never underestimate a vampire's ability to change moods. "Now I will leave."
I worked it out a second too late to stop him from going. I guess five jocks had been hassling this sad, weird vampire, and he hadn't even realized what they were doing because, like he said, he wasn't out in the human world that much. He hadn't realized the danger he was in—he literally hadn't.
Michael definitely had. That was why he'd stepped in, sent Ransom to find me, and gone off without a fight.
Saving somebody, as usual. Although I wondered why he hadn't just flattened the creeps outright. He could have. Any vampire could.
"Wait, can you tell me where exactly—" But I was talking to the empty hall because Ransom had already beat it. Anyway, my words were just about lost in the thunder of a new tune spinning at the rave on the other side of the bricks.
I hurried out of the hallway, back to the rave, and found Shane and Claire still so into each other they might as well have been dancing at home. I dragged them out of the building, past impassive vampire bouncers, into the cool night air.
"Hey!" Shane protested, and settled his bathrobe more comfortably with a shake. "If you want to leave, all you have to do is say so! Respect the threads. Vintage."
"Michael may need help," I said, and I got their attention, immediately. "You want to come with?"
"I'm not exactly dressed for hand-to-hand," Shane said, "but what the hell. If I have to hit somebody, maybe they'll be too embarrassed to trade punches with Hugh Hefner—guy's got to be about a hundred years old or something."
I was more worried about Claire. Fairy wings and glitter weren't exactly going to intimidate anybody ... but then again, Claire had other skills.
"You drive," I said to Shane, and tossed him the car keys. He fielded them with a blinding grin. "Don't get used to it, loser."
The grin faded just as quickly. "Where am I going?"
"Around the blood bank. Five Morganville High guys in letter jackets picked Michael up around there. I don't know why, or how, or why he went without a fight."
Shane's face went hard. "You think they lured him off?"
"I think Michael wants to help people. Just like his grandfather." Sam Glass had always put others ahead of his own safety, and I figured Michael was walking the same path. "It may be nothing, and hell, Michael can handle five drunk jocks, but—"
"But not if they've got a plan," Claire finished. "If they know how to disable him, they could hurt him."
Neither of them asked why a bunch of teens would want to hurt somebody they hardly knew; it was in teen DNA, and we all knew it, deep down. On Halloween, a bunch of drunk assholes might think it was fun and exciting to hurt a vampire. And then, as they sobered up, they might imagine that they'd be better off killing him than leaving him to identify them later. The Morganville powers-that-be didn't look favorably on vampire bashing.
"Maybe they needed his help," Claire said, but she didn't sound convinced.
We got into the huge black sedan without another word, and Shane peeled rubber.
"What do you think?" I asked aloud, as we started driving through the more unpleasant parts of Morganville. "Where should we start?"
"Depends on whether or not Michael's picking the place, or the jocks are," Shane said. His voice sounded low and harsh—Action Shane, not the one who arm-wrestled me for the remote control at home. "The jocks will go someplace they feel safe."
"Like?" Because I had no idea how jocks thought, in any sense.
Shane did. "Nobody at the football field this time of night. No games this evening." Because although Morganville paid lip service to other sports, like most Texas towns, football was where it was at. To know Michael was with five guys in letter jackets meant football was surely involved, if not at the center of things. "I'd say stadium. Maybe the press box or the field house."
I nodded. Shane took that as permission to hit warp speed. The engine roared as we shot down quiet streets, past derelict houses and empty businesses. Not a fantastic part of town these days. At the end of the street, he took a left, then a right, and we saw the columned expanse of Morganville High School at the crest of a very small hill. To the left and below was the stadium. It wasn't much, not compared to professional arenas, but it was a respectable size for a small Texas town. The lights were all off.
Shane piloted the car into the parking lot and killed the headlamps. There were a few cars parked here and there. Some had steamed-over windows—I knew what was going on in there. Kids. I wanted to run over, rap on the window and take a cell phone picture, but that would have been rude.
There was a cluster of vehicles, mostly battered pickups, at one end of the lot. The windows were clear. Claire pointed wordlessly over my shoulder at them, and we all nodded.
"What's the plan?" Shane asked me. I looked at Claire, but she didn't seem to be Plan Girl tonight. Maybe it was the fairy glitter.
"I'm the one with the stealthy outfit," I said. "I'm going to go take a look. I'll keep my phone on, you guys listen in and come running if I get into it, okay?"
Shane raised eyebrows. "That's stealthy? That outfit?"
"In terms of being black, yes. Shut up."
"Whatever, Miss Kitty," he said. "Call me."
I dialed his number, he answered it and put it on speaker. I slipped out of the car, wondering how anybody could scramble over rooftops dressed like this.
Once I was in the shadows, I felt more at home. Nobody around that I could see, and as I did my best to creep along without being spotted, I felt more and more foolish. There was nobody here. I was skulking without any reason.
I heard voices. Male voices. They were coming from the field house, which contained the changing rooms for the teams, the gym, the showers, that kind of stuff. One of the windows was open to catch the cool night air. This was probably how they'd gotten into the building in the first place.
I sprinted—as much of a sprint as I could manage in the heels—across the open ground to the shadows on the side of the field house, and slid down the wall toward the window. "Shane," I whispered into the phone. "Shane, they're in the field house."
I heard a screech of tires in the parking lot, and retreated to look around the corner. On either side of my big, black sedan, two pickup trucks had pulled in, parking so close that there was no way Shane or Claire could open the doors, much less get out. Another truck parked behind them.
They were trapped in the car.
"Shane?" I whispered into the phone. I could hear the drunk jocks high-fiving and booyahing each other in the trucks from here. A couple rolled out of the back and began to jump around on the hood of my car, rocking it on its springs.
"Well, the good news is you drive a damn tank," he said, but I heard the tension in his voice.
"Can you get out of there?" I asked.
"Sure," he said, much more calmly than I would have. "But I think the longer we let them play on the bouncy castle, the fewer of these guys you've got to deal with on your end." He paused. "Bad news, I can't back you up in person if I do that."
I swallowed hard and went back to my original position on the side of the field house. "Stay put," I said. "I'll yell if I get in trouble. Rescue is more important than moral support."
If he answered, I didn't hear him, because just then a big, beefy guy rounded the corner of the field house carrying a case of beer. He dropped it with a noisy crash of glass at the sight of me.
Shane had been right. The costume was not stealthy.
"Look what I found prowling around," my jock captor announced, and shoved me into the doorway of the field house. My heels skidded on the tile floor, and I lost my balance and fell ... into Michael's arms.
"Oh," I breathed, and for a second, even given the circumstances, being in his arms felt wonderful. He held me close, then pushed me away from him.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he asked.
"Awesome job so far."
"Fine, criticize ... hey!" Beefy Jock Guy, who'd dumped the case of empty beer bottles outside, had plucked the phone from my hand, peered at the screen, and shut it off.
He looked tempted to do the macho phone-breaky thing, so I snapped, "Don't even think about hurting my phone, you jackass." He shrugged and pitched it into the far corner of the room.
"She's cute," the jock said to Michael. "Bet she likes to party, right?"
I ignored him, and looked around to see what I'd gotten myself into. Not good. Mr. Ransom's assessment had been right. Big guys, all wearing Morganville jock jackets. The smallest of them was twice the size of Michael, and he wasn't exactly tiny.
I still couldn't figure out what Michael was doing here, though. He was just standing there, and he could have wiped the room with these guys, right? But he hadn't.
"What's going on?" I asked. Michael slowly shook his head. "Michael?"
"You need to go," he told me. "Please. This is something I need to do alone."
"What? Kick jock ass? Shane is going to be very disappointed." Looking into Michael's eyes, I saw the red starting to surface. I blinked. "Did you, ah, snack?"
"No," he said. "I was on my way in when they tried to take Ransom off with them."
"And you just had to get in the middle of that."
Michael's eyes were turning an unsettling color, almost a purple, as the red swirled around. It was pretty. From a distance.
"Yes," he said. "I kind of did. See, they wanted Ransom to come bite somebody."
My own eyes widened. "Who?"
For answer, Michael turned, and I saw a frail young girl sitting on a bench at the back of the room, dressed in a cheap-looking Cleopatra costume. I recognized her after a long couple of seconds. "Miranda?" Miranda was sort of a friend, in that uncomfortable not-quite way. She was about ninety pounds of pure crazy, fragile as glass, and I knew from personal experience that sometimes she could see the future. Sometimes. Sometimes she was just plain nuts.
She'd been under Protection by a vampire named Charles, until recently. I didn't know for sure, but I strongly suspected that Charles had gotten more than just blood out of the kid. I was glad he was dead, and I hoped it had hurt. Miranda didn't need more screwed-up sprinkles on top of her utterly boned life.
"Mir?" I stepped back from Michael and walked over to her. She was very quiet, and unlike most other times I'd seen her, she wasn't bruised, or shaking, or otherwise in distress. "Hey. Remember me?"
She gave me an irritated look. "Of course. You're Eve." Wow. She sounded completely normal. That was new. "You're not supposed to be here." What, according to her visions?
"Well, I am here," I said. "What's going on?"
"They were supposed to find me a vampire," Miranda said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. I looked around at the jocks, an entire backfield of muscle, with blank curiosity.
"Why them?" And why, more importantly, would they be willing to do a favor for a kid like Miranda?
She knew what I was thinking, I saw it in the weird smile she flashed. "Because they owe me favors," she said. "I've been making them money."
Oh God, I could see it now. Morganville had a small, but thriving, betting underworld. What better to put your money on in a Texas town than football? The jocks had used Miranda's clairvoyant abilities to pick winners, they'd cleaned up, and now she was asking them to pay her price.
A vampire? That was her price? Even for Mir, that was just plain weird.
"Why Michael?" I asked, more slowly. Miranda frowned.
"I didn't ask for Michael," she said. "He just came. But it doesn't matter who it is. I just need to be turned."
I refused to repeat that because it would taste nasty in my mouth. "Mir. What are you talking about?"
"I need to be a vampire," she said, "and I want one of them to make it happen. Michael will do fine. I don't care who turns me. The important thing is that if I change, I'll be a princess."
I was wrong. She really was crazy.
For about fifty years in Morganville, none of the vampires had been able to create new ones—except Amelie, who'd turned Michael to save his life. Now ... well. Things had changed, humans had more rights, and the rules weren't so clear anymore. Why did people want to be vampires? I didn't see the appeal.
Miranda obviously did. And she was going about it in a typically sideways Miranda-ish way. With my boyfriend.
I wheeled on Michael. "Why didn't you just say no?"
He glanced over at the football guys. The defensive line was between us and the door, kicked back with a new case of beer but still looking like they'd love the chance to do a little vamp hand-to-hand.
Idiots. He'd absolutely destroy them.
"I was trying to," he said. "She isn't listening. I didn't want to hurt anybody, and I couldn't walk away and leave her like this. She needs to understand that what she's asking … isn't possible."
"I know what I'm asking," Miranda said. "Everybody thinks I'm stupid because I'm just a kid, but I'm not. I need to be a vampire. Charles promised me I'd be one." That last line came out like the petulant cry of a first grader who'd had her crayons taken away. I was willing to bet her vampire Protector (in name only—more like vampire Predator) had promised her a lot of things to get what he wanted. It made me feel even more sick.
"Mir, you're what, fifteen? There are rules about this kind of thing. Michael can't do it, even if he wanted to. No vamps under the age of eighteen. Town rules. You know that."
Miranda's chin set into a stubborn square. She would have done well in Claire's fairy costume. Fairies, as Claire had explained to me in the car, weren't kindly little sprites at all. Right now, Miranda looked like a fey come straight from the old, scary stories.
"I don't care," she said. "Somebody's going to do it. I'm going to make sure they do. My friends will make sure."
"Miranda, they can't make me do anything," Michael said, and it sounded like an old argument already. "The only reason I haven't blown out of here already is because of you."
"Because I'm so screwed up?" Miranda's voice was dark and bitter. As she moved, I saw scars on her forearms, marching in railroad tracks up toward her elbow. She was a cutter. I wasn't surprised. "Because I'm so pathetic?"
"No, because you're a kid, and I'm not leaving you here. Not with them." Michael didn't even look at the jocks, but they got the point. I saw their beery good humor start to evaporate. Some set down bottles. "You think they're doing this because they like you, Mir? What do you think they want out of it?"
For a second, she looked honestly surprised, and then she slipped her armor back on. "They got what they wanted already," she said. "They got their money."
"Yeah, drunk, bored football types are always fair like that," I said. "So tell me guys, was this going to be a party night? You and her?"
They didn't answer me. They weren't drunk enough to be quite that cold about it. One finally said, "She told us she'd make it worth our while if we got her a vampire."
"Well, she's fifteen. Her definition of worth your while is probably a whole lot different from yours, you asshole." Man, I was angry. Angry at Miranda, for getting herself and us into this. Angry at the boys. Angry at Michael, for not already walking away. Okay, I understood now why he hadn't. He'd already known he'd be throwing her to the wolves (and the bats) if he did.
I was angry at the world.
"We're leaving," I declared. I grabbed Miranda by a skinny, scabbed wrist and pulled her to her feet. Her Cleopatra headdress slipped sideways, and she slapped her other hand up to hold it in place even as she decided to pull back from me. I didn't let her. I had pounds and muscle on her, and I wasn't about to let her stay here and throw her own vamptastic pity party, complete with dangerous clowns.
Up to that point, Miranda had been all talk, but I saw the look that came across her face and settled in her eyes when I grabbed onto her. Blank, yet focused. I knew that expression. It meant she was Seeing—as in, seeing the future, or at least something the rest of us couldn't see.
The hair shivered on the nape of my neck under my Catwoman cowl.
"It's too late," she said, in a numbed, dead sort of voice. I drew in my breath and looked at the door. "Oh dear."
The door slammed open, bowling over a couple of football players along the way, and three vampires stood there. One of them was the vague Mr. Ransom.
Another was a particularly unpleasant bit of work named Mr. Vargas, who had the looks of one of those silent film stars and the temperament of a rabid weasel. He'd always been one of the dregs of vampire society. Oliver kept him around, I didn't know why, but Vargas was one of those you had to watch for, even if you were legally off the menu. He was known to bite first, pay the fine later.
The last one, though, was the one who really scared me. Mr. Pennywell. Pennywell had come to town with Amelie's father, the scary Mr. Bishop, and he'd stuck around. I knew he'd sworn all those promises to Amelie, but I didn't believe for a second he really meant them. He was old. Really old. And he looked like some androgynous mannequin, with no emotion to him at all.
Pennywell's cold eyes looked around, dismissed the jocks, and focused in on three things:
Miranda, Michael, and me.
"The boys are yours," he said to Ransom and Vargas.
Vargas's teeth flashed in a white grin. "I've got a better idea," he said, and stepped aside, out of the door. "Run, mijos. Run while you can."
The jocks weren't stupid. They knew the odds had shifted. They were severely in trouble. Not a one of them was willing to stand up for Miranda, or for us, and that didn't shock me at all. What shocked me was that they didn't take their beer with them when they broke for the door and stampeded out into the night.
Vargas watched them go, and counted it off. "Twenty yard line. Thirty. Forty. Ah, they've reached mid-field. Time for the opposing team to enter the game, I think."
He moved in a blur, gone. I resisted the urge to yell a warning to the football guys. It wouldn't do any good.
Pennywell said, "You, girl. I hear you want to be turned." He was looking at Miranda.
"No, she doesn't," I said, before my friend could say something idiotic. "Mir, let's get you home, okay?"
Faced with the alien chill that was Pennywell, even Miranda's great romantic love of dying had a moment of clarity. She gulped, and instead of pulling free from my grip, she put her hand in mine. "Okay," she said faintly. I wondered exactly what her vision had shown her. Nothing that she wanted to pursue, clearly. "Home's good."
"Not quite yet, I think," Pennywell said, and shut the door to the field house. "First, I think there is a tax to be paid. For my inconvenience, yes?"
"You can't feed on her," I said. "She's underage."
"And undernourished from the look of her. Not only that, I can smell the witch on her from here." He sniffed, long nose wrinkling, and his eyes sparked red. He focused on me. "You, however ... you're of age. And fresh."
That drew a growl out of Michael. "Not happening."
Pennywell barely glanced his way. "A barking puppy. How charming. Don't make me kick you, puppy. I might break your teeth."
Michael wasn't one to be baited into an attack, not like Shane. He just got calmly in Pennywell's way, blocking the other vampire's access to me and Miranda.
Pennywell looked him over carefully, head to toe. "I'm not bending any of your precious rules," he said. "I won't bite the child. I won't even swive her."
Leaving aside what that meant (although I had a nasty suspicion), he wasn't exempting me from the whole biting thing. Or, come to think of it, from the other thing, either. His eyes had taken on a really unpleasant red cast—worse than Michael's ever got. It was like looking into the surface of the sun.
Miranda's hand tightened on mine. "You really need to go," she whispered.
"Back this way."
Miranda pulled me to the side of the room. There, behind a blind corner, was the open window through which I'd originally heard the boys partying.
Pennywell knew his chance was slipping away. He sidestepped and lunged, and Michael twisted and caught him in midair. They'd already turned over twice, ripping at each other, before they hit the ground and rolled. I looked back, breathless, terrified for Michael. He was young, and Pennywell was playing for keeps.
On our way to the window, Miranda ducked and picked up something in the shadows. My cell phone. I grabbed it and flipped it open, speed-dialing Shane's number.
"Yo," he said. I could hear the jocks pounding on the car. "I hope you're insured."
"Now would be a good time for rescue," I said, and yanked open the window.
"Well, I can either ask real nice if they'll move the cars, or jump the curb. Which do you want?"
"You're kidding. I've got about ten seconds to live."
He stopped playing. "Which way?"
"South side of the building. There's three of us. Shane—"
"Coming," Shane said, and hung up. I heard the sudden roar of an engine out in the parking lot, and the surprised drunken yells of the jocks as they tumbled off the hood of my car.
I began to shimmy out the window, but an iron grip closed around my left ankle, holding me in place. I looked back to see Mr. Ransom, eyes shining silver.
"I was trying to bring you help," he said. "Did I do wrong?"
"You know, now's not really the time—" He didn't take the hint. Of course. I heard the approaching growl of the car engine. Shane was driving over the grass, tires shredding it on the way. I could hear other engines starting up—the football jocks. I wondered if they had any clue that half their team was doing broken-field running against a vampire right now. I hoped they had a good second string ready to play the next game.
Mr. Ransom wanted an answer. I took a deep breath and forced myself to calm down. "Asking Pennywell probably wasn't your best idea ever," I said. "But hey, good effort, okay? Now let go so I'm not the main course!"
"If you'd accepted my offer of Protection, you wouldn't have to worry," he pointed out, and turned his gaze on poor Miranda. Before he could blurt out his sales pitch to her—and quite possibly succeed—I backed out of the window, hustled her up, and neatly guided her out just as my big, black sedan slid to a stop three feet away. The back door popped open, and Claire, fairy wings all a-flutter, pulled Miranda inside. It was like a military operation, only with one hundred percent less camouflage.
Mr. Ransom looked wounded at my initiative, but he shrugged and let me go. "Michael!" I yelled. He was down, blood on his face. Pennywell had the upper hand, and as Mr. Ransom turned away, he lunged for me.
Michael grabbed the vampire's knees and held on like a bulldog as Pennywell tried to get to me.
"Stake me!" I yelled to Shane, who rolled down the window and tossed me an iron spike.
A silver-coated iron railroad spike, that is. Shane had electroplated it himself, using a fishtank, a car battery, and some chemicals. As weapons went, it was heavy duty and multi-purpose. As Mr. Pennywell ripped himself loose from Michael's grasp, he turned right into me. I smacked him upside the head with the blunt end of the silver spike.
Where the silver touched, he burned. Pennywell howled, rolled, and scrambled away from me as I reversed my hold on the spike so the sharper end faced him. I released the catch on my whip with my left hand and unrolled it with a snap of my wrist.
"Wanna try again?" I asked, and gave him a full-toothed smile. "Nobody touches up my boyfriend, you jerk. Or tries to bite me."
He did one of those scary open-mouthed snarls, the kind that made him look all teeth and eyes. But I'd seen that movie. I glared right back. "Michael?" I asked. He rolled to his feet, wiping blood from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. Like me, he didn't take his eyes off Pennywell. "All in one piece?"
"Sure," he said, and cast a very quick glance at me. "Damn, Eve. Hot."
"What? The whip?"
I felt a bubble of joy burst inside. "Out the window, you silver-tongued devil," I told Michael. "Shane's wasting gas." He was. He was revving the engine, apparently trying to bring a sense of drama to the occasion.
Michael didn't you first me, mainly because I had a big silver stake and I obviously wasn't afraid to use it. He slipped past me, only getting a little handsy, and was out the window and dropping lightly on the grass in about two seconds flat.
Leaving me facing Pennywell. All of a sudden, the stake didn't seem all that intimidating.
Mr. Ransom wandered in between the two of us, as if he'd just forgotten we were there. "Leave," he told me. "Hurry."
I quickly tossed my whip through the window, grabbed the frame with my free hand, and swung out into the cool night air. Michael grabbed me by the waist and set me down, light as a feather, safe in the circle of his arms. I squeaked and made sure to keep the silver stake far away from him. It had hurt Pennywell, and it'd hurt Michael a whole lot worse.
"I'll take it," Shane said. He shoved the spike back under the driver's seat. "Well? Are you two just going to make out or what?"
Not that we weren't tempted, but Michael hustled me into the car, slammed the door, and Shane hit the gas. We fishtailed in the grass for a few seconds, spinning tires, and then he got traction and the big car zoomed forward in a long arc around the field house, heading back toward the parking lot. Oncoming jocks dodged out of the way.
Pennywell showed up in our headlights about five seconds later, and he didn't move.
"Don't stop!" Michael said, and Shane threw him a harassed look in the rear view.
"Yeah, not my first night in Morganville," he said. "No shit." He pressed the accelerator instead. Pennywell dodged aside at the last minute, a matador with a bull, and when I looked back he was standing in the parking lot, watching us leave. I didn't blink, and I watched until he turned his back on us and went after someone else.
I didn't want to watch, after that.
We'd only gone about halfway home when Michael said, raggedly, "Stop the car."
"Not happening," Shane said. We were still in a not-great part of town, all too frequently used by unsavory characters, including vamps.
Michael just opened the door and threatened to bail. That made Shane hit the breaks, and the car shuddered and skidded to a stop under a streetlight. Michael stumbled away and put his hands flat on the brick of a boarded-up building. I could see him shuddering.
"Michael, get in the car!" I called. "Come on, it's not far! You can make it!"
"Can't." He stepped back, and I realized his eyes were that same scary hell-red as Pennywell's. "Too hungry. I'm running out of time." And so were we, because Pennywell could easily catch up to us, if he knew we'd stopped.
"We really don't have time for this," Shane said. "Michael, I'll drop you at the blood bank. Get in."
He shook his head. "I'll walk."
Oh, the hell he would. Not like this.
I got out of the car and stepped up to him. "Can you stop?" I asked him. He blinked. "If I tell you to stop, will you stop?"
"Don't even start with all the angst. You need it, I have it, I just need to know you can stop."
His fangs came out, flipping down like a snake's, and for a second, I was sure this was a really, really bad idea. Then he said, "Yes. I can stop."
"I—" He didn't seem to know what to say. I was afraid he'd think of something, something good, and I'd chicken right out.
"Just do it," I whispered. "Before I change my mind, okay?"
Shane was saying something, and it sounded like he wasn't a fan of my solution, but we were all out of time, and anyway it was too late. Michael took my wrist, and with one slice of his fangs, opened the vein. It didn't hurt, well not much, but it felt very weird at first. Then his lips closed softly over my skin, and I got the shivers all over, and it didn't feel weird at all. Not even the buzzing in my ears, or the waves of dizziness.
"Stop," I said, after I'd counted to twenty. And he did. Instantly. Without any question.
Michael covered the wound with his thumb and pressed. His eyes faded back to blue, normal and real and human. He licked his lips, making sure every spot of blood was gone, and then said, "It'll stop bleeding in about a minute." Then, in a totally different tone, "I can't believe you did that."
"Why?" I felt a little weak at the knees, and I wasn't at all sure it was due to a sudden drop in blood pressure. "Why wouldn't I? With you?"
He put his arms around me and kissed me. That was a whole different kind of hunger, one I understood way better. Michael backed me up against the car and kissed me like it was the last night on earth, like the sun and stars would burn down before he'd let me go.
The only thing that slowed us down was Shane saying, very clearly, "I am driving off and leaving you here, I swear to God. You're embarrassing me."
Michael pulled back just enough that our lips were touching, but not pressed together, and sighed. There was so much in that sound, all his longing and his fear and his need and his frustration. "Sorry," he said.
I smiled. "For what?"
He was still holding his thumb over the wound on my wrist. "This," he said, and pressed just a little harder before letting go. It didn't bleed.
I purred lightly, and nipped at his mouth. "I'm Catwoman," I reminded him. "And it's just a scratch."
Michael opened the car door for me, and handed me in like a lady.
Like his lady.
He got in, shut the door and slapped the back of Shane's seat. "Home, driver."
Shane sent him a one-fingered salute. Next to him, Claire gave me a completely non-ethereal grin and snuggled in close to him as he drove.
Miranda said, dreamily, "One of us is going to be a vampire."
"One of us already is," I pointed out. Michael put his arm around me.
"Oh," she said, and sighed. "Right."
Except that Miranda never forgot a thing like that.
"Hey," Michael said, and squeezed my shoulders lightly. "Tomorrow's tomorrow. Okay?"
"Tonight's tonight," I agreed. "And tonight's good for me."