Kiss of Death
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Two hours later, they were lying on the beds, propped up, groaning and wincing and yelling stuff at the screen. The sound was turned up loud, and what with all the screaming and chain saws and such, it took a few seconds for the sound outside the room to filter through to any of them. Michael heard it first, of course, and nearly levitated off the bed to cross the room and pull back the curtains. Eve scrambled to mute the TV. "What? What is it?" Out in the parking lot, Claire could now hear hoots, drunken laughter, and the crash of metal. She and Shane bounced off the bed, too, and Eve came last. "Hey!" she screamed, and Claire winced at the rage in her voice. "Hey, you assholes, that's my car!" It was the three jerks from the truck stop, only about a case of beer more stupid, which really didn't seem possible, in theory. But they were going after Eve's car with a great big sledgehammer and two baseball bats. The glass in the front window shattered at a blow from the sledgehammer, which was swung by Angry Dude. Orange Cap swung a baseball bat and added another deep dent to the already horribly damaged hood. The last guy knocked off the side mirror, sending it to left field with one hard blow. Orange Cap blew Eve a gap-toothed kiss, reached in his back pocket, and pulled out a glass bottle filled with something that looked faintly pink, like lemonade.... "Gas," Michael said. "I have to stop them."
"You'll get your ass killed," Shane said, and flung himself in the way. "No way. This ain't Morganville, and if you end up in a jail cell, you'll die. Understand?"
"But my car!" Eve moaned. "No no no ..." Orange Cap poured gas all over the seats inside, then tossed in a match. Eve's car went up like a school bonfire at homecoming. Eve shrieked again and tried to lunge past Shane, too. He backed up to block the door and dodged a slap from her. "Claire! Little help?" he yelped, as Eve actually connected. Claire grabbed her friend's arms and pulled her backward. It wasn't easy. Eve was bigger, stronger, and more than a little crazy just now. "Let go!" Eve yelled. "No! Calm down. It's too late. There's nothing you can do!"
"I can kick their asses!" Michael had already come to the same conclusion as Shane, and as Eve broke free from Claire, he got in her way and wrapped his arms around her, bringing her to a fast stop. "No," he said, "no, you can't." His eyes were shimmering red with fury, and he blinked and took deep breaths until he was himself again, blue-eyed Michael, under control--barely. The three men in the parking lot whooped and hollered as Eve's car burned, then scrambled for their big pickup truck as the motel's office door slammed open. Grandma Linda stood there, looking like the wrath of God in an apron. She had a shotgun, which she pointed at an angle at the sky and fired. The blast was shockingly loud. "Get lost, you morons!" she yelled at the retreating three men. "Next time I see your taillights I'll give you a special buckshot kiss!" She racked another shell, but she didn't need to reload; the truck was already peeling out, spitting gravel from tire treads as it flew out of the parking lot, did a quick, drunken U-turn, and headed back inside Durram's town limits. Grandma Linda shouldered the shotgun, frowned at the burning car, and went back into the office. She returned with a fire extinguisher, and put the blaze out with five quick blasts of white foam. Shane opened the door and got immediately mowed down by Eve, who blew past him, with Michael right behind. Shane and Claire followed last. Claire felt physically sick. The car was utterly trashed. Even with the fire put out, the windows were shattered, the bodywork dented and twisted, the headlights broken, tires flat, and the seats were burned down to the springs in several places. She'd seen better wrecks at the junkyard. "Those three ain't got the sense God gave a virus," Linda said. "I'll call the sheriff, get him out here to write up a complaint. I'm sorry, honey." Eve was crying, violent little jerks of sobs that came with shudders as she stared at the wreckage of the car she'd loved. Claire put her arm around her, and Eve turned and buried her face in Claire's shoulder. "Why?" she cried, full of rage and confusion now. "Why did they follow us? Why'd they do that?"
"We scared them," Michael said. "Scared people do stupid things. Drunk, scared bullies do even stupider things." Linda nodded. "You got that right, son. It's a damn shame, though. Hate to see something like this happen to nice kids just minding their own business. People like that, they just got to pick on somebody, and everybody around here's had enough of 'em. Guess they figured you for the new toys."
"They figured wrong," Michael said. His eyes glittered briefly red, then faded back to blue. "But we've got problems. What are we going to do for a car?"
"Just be glad we got our stuff out of it," Shane said, and Michael, knowing what he was getting at, looked briefly sick, then nodded. "Eve and I will do some shopping tomorrow. See what we can get in town." Eve sniffled and wiped at her eyes, which made a mess of her mascara. "I don't have the money for a new car."
"We'll find a way," Shane said, as if it made sense and happened to him on a regular basis. Claire guessed, with his history, it probably had. "Come on, moping around out here isn't fixing anything. Might as well go in for the night. We're not going anywhere." Linda sighed. "Hate to see this kind of thing happen," she said again. "Damn fools. You wait here a second." She went back into the office, carrying the fire extinguisher, and came back out with a small ceramic bowl full of... "Cookies," Shane said, and accepted it from her. "Thanks, Linda."
"Least I can do." She kicked a rock, frowning, and shook her head. "Damn fools. I'll sit up the rest of the night, make sure they don't come back here." Somehow, Claire didn't think they'd take the chance. Linda had looked pretty serious with that shotgun.
The joys of the movie party were over, but the cookies were warm, fresh, and delicious. Eve's tears dried up and left a feverish anger in their place. She took a long shower to burn it off, and when she came out of the bathroom, wreathed in steam, she looked small and vulnerable, stripped of all her Goth armor. Claire hugged her and gave her a cookie. Eve munched it and hugged her black silk kimono around herself as she climbed onto the bed. "Boys gone?" she asked. "Yeah, they're gone," Claire said. "Mind if I--?"
"No, go ahead. I'll just sit here and watch my car smoke." Eve stared moodily at the curtains, which were closed, thankfully. Claire shook her head, grabbed her stuff, and went in to take her own bath. She did it at light speed, half convinced that Eve would find some way to get herself in trouble while she was gone, but when she emerged pink and damp and glowing from the hot water, Eve was exactly where she'd left her, flipping channels on the TV. "This is the worst road trip ever," Eve said. "And I missed the end of the movie."
"Jigsaw always wins. You know that." There was a soft sound at the motel room door. Something like a scratching sound; then a thud. Eve came bolt upright in bed. "What the hell was that? Because I'm thinking serial killer! "
"It's Shane, trying to freak you out. Or maybe it's those guys again," Claire said. "Shhh." She went to the curtains and peeked out, carefully. The light was dim in front of the door, but she saw someone slumped against the wall. Alone. "Just one guy--I can't really see him."
"So the serial killer option's still on the table? New rule. The door doesn't open." They both jumped as a fist thudded once on the door. "Let me in," Oliver's voice commanded. "Now."
"Oh," Eve said. "In that case, new rule. Also, technically, he is a serial killer, right?" Claire didn't really want to think too much about that one, because she was afraid Eve might have a point on that. She slipped back the locks and opened the door, and Oliver came into the room. He made it two steps before his knees gave out on him, and he fell. "Don't touch him!" Claire said as Eve slipped off the bed to approach him. She could see cuts and blood on him. "Get Michael. Hurry." That wasn't a problem; Michael and Shane were already opening their own door, and the four of them were standing together when Oliver rolled over on his side, then to his back, staring upward. He looked bad--pale, with open wounds on his face and hands. His clothes were cut, too, and there was blood soaked into them. He didn't speak. Michael dashed back into his room and came back with the cooler. He knelt next to Oliver and looked over his shoulder at the three of them. "You guys need to leave. Go next door. Now. Hurry." Shane grabbed the two girls and steered them out, closing the door behind him and leaving Michael alone with Oliver. Claire tried to turn around. "No, you don't," Shane said, and shepherded them into his room. "You know better. If he needs blood, let him get it from the cooler. Not from the tap."
"What happened to him?" Eve asked the logical, scary question, which Claire had been at some level trying not to face. "That's Oliver. Badass walking. And somebody did that to him. How? Why?"
"I think that's what we have to ask him," Shane said. "Providing he's not having a serious craving for midnight snacks."
"Damn," Eve said. "Speaking of that, I left the cookies. I could use another cookie right now. How screwed are we, anyway?"
"Given the car and whatever trouble Oliver stirred up? Pretty well screwed. But hey. That's normal, right?"
"Right now, I wish it really, really wasn't." They sat around playing poker until Michael came back, with Oliver behind him. He was upright and walking, though he looked as if he'd put his clothes through a shredder. He didn't look happy. Not that Oliver ever really looked happy when he wasn't playing the hippie role, but this seemed unhappy, plus. "We need to leave," he said. "Quickly."
"Well, that's a problem," Shane said, "seeing how our transpo out there is not exactly lightproof anymore, even if we didn't mind sitting on half-burned seats." Not even the trunk, anymore, thanks to the sledgehammer's work. "Plus, we've got t-minus two hours to sunrise. Not happening, anyway." Michael said, "Oliver, it's time to tell us why we came here in the first place. And what happened to you."
"It's none of your business," Oliver said. "Excuse me, but since you dragged us into it with you, I'd say it is our business now."
"Did my business destroy your car? No, that was your own idiocy. I say again, you don't need to know, and I don't need to tell you. Leave it." He sounded almost himself, but subdued, and he sat down on the edge of the bed as if standing tired him--not like Oliver. "Are you okay?" Claire asked. He looked up and met her eyes, and for a second she saw something terrible in him: fear--overwhelming, tired, ancient fear. It shocked her. She hadn't thought Oliver could really be afraid of anything, ever. "Yes," he said, "I'm all right. Wounds heal. What won't is what will happen if we remain trapped here. We can't wait for rescue from Morganville. We must get on our way before the next nightfall."
"Or?" Claire asked. "Or worse will happen. To all of us." He looked... haunted. And very tired. "I need to rest. Find a car."
"Ah--we're not exactly rolling in cash." Without a word, Oliver took out a wallet from his pants, grimaced at the scratches and tears in the leather, and opened it to reveal a bunch of crisp green bills. Hundreds. He handed over the entire stack. "I have more," he said. "Take that. It should be enough to buy something serviceable. Make sure it's got sufficient trunk space." After a second's hesitation, Eve's fingers closed around the money. "Oliver? Seriously, are you okay?"
"I will be," he said. "Michael, do you suppose there is another room in this motel I can occupy until we are ready to leave?"
"I'll get one," Michael said. He slipped out the door and was gone in seconds, heading for the office. Oliver closed his eyes and leaned back against the headboard. He looked so utterly miserable that Claire, without thinking, reached out and, just being kind, put her hand on his arm. "Claire," Oliver said softly, without opening his eyes, "did I give you permission to touch me?" She removed her hand--quickly. "Just--leave me alone. I'm not myself at the moment." Actually, he was pretty much like he always was, as far as Claire could tell, but she let it go. Eve was fanning out the money, counting it. Her eyes were getting wider the higher she went. "Jeez," she whispered. "I could buy a genuine pimped-out land yacht with this. Wow. I had no idea running a coffee shop was this good a job."
"It's not," Shane said. "He probably has piles of gold sitting under his couch cushions. He's had a long time to get rich, Eve."
"And time enough to lose everything, once or twice," Oliver said. "If you want to be technical. I have been rich. I am currently ... not as poor as I once was. But not as wealthy, either. The curse of human wars and politics. It's difficult to keep what you have, especially if you are always an outsider." Claire had never really thought about how vampires got the money they had; she supposed it wouldn't have been easy, really. She remembered all the TV news shows she'd seen, with people running for their lives from war zones, carrying whatever they could. Oliver would have been one of those people, once upon a time. Amelie, too. And Myrnin. Probably more than once. But they'd come through it. They were survivors. "What happened out there?" Claire asked, not really expecting him to answer. He didn't disappoint her. 6 Once Oliver had his own room--room three, of course--at the motel, Claire, Eve, and Shane set out lightproofing the rooms Michael and Oliver would be staying in during the day. That wasn't so hard; the blackout curtains in the windows were pretty good, and a little duct tape around the edges made sure the room stayed dim--that and a DO NOT DISTURB sign on each knob. "Dead bolt and chain," Shane told Michael as the three of them left the room. Dawn was starting to pink up on the eastern horizon. "I'll call when we're at the door again, on your cell. Don't open for anybody else."
"Did you tell that to Oliver?"
"Do I look stupid? Let him figure out his own crap, man." Michael shook his head. "Be careful out there. I don't like sending the three of you out by yourselves."
"Linda's riding shotgun with us," Eve said. "Literally. With an actual, you know, shotgun."
"Actually, Linda's driving us. We said we'd buy her breakfast and haul some heavy stuff for her at the store. Kind of a good deal, plus I think everybody likes her. Nobody's going to come after us while she's with us." It might have been wishful thinking, but Michael seemed a little relieved by it, and he knocked fists with Shane as they closed the door. They heard the bolts click home. "Well," Eve said, "it's the start of a beautiful day in which I have had no sleep, had my car burned, and can't wear makeup, which is just so great." The no-makeup thing was Shane's idea, and Claire had to admit, it was a good one. Eve was, by far, the most recognizable of their little group, but without the rice powder, thick black eyeliner, and funky-colored lipsticks, she looked like a different person. Claire had lent her a less-than-Gothy shirt, although Eve had insisted on purple. With that and plain blue jeans, Eve looked almost... normal. She'd even pulled her hair back in a single ponytail at the back. Not a skull in sight, although her boots still looked a little intimidating. "Think of it as operating in disguise," Shane said. "In a hostile war zone."
"Easy for you to say. All you had to do was throw on a camo T-shirt and find a ball cap. If we can find you some chewing tobacco, you're gold."
"I'm not in disguise," Claire said. Eve snorted. "Honey, you live in disguise. Which is lucky for us. Come on, maybe Linda's still got some cookies left."
"I never said I was the Nutrition Nazi." Linda was up--yawning and tired, but awake--when they opened up the office door. She was sipping black coffee, and when Eve said good morning, Linda waved at the plate of cookies on the counter. Eve looked relieved. "Ah--could I have some coffee, too?"
"Right there on the pot. Pour yourself a big one. It's already a long day." Linda had put on another shirt--still checked, but different colors--but otherwise, she looked pretty much the same. "So, you kids get any sleep at all?"
"Not much," Shane mumbled around a mouthful of cookie as Eve poured a chunky white mugful of coffee. He held out his hand in a silent demand for her to get him some, too. She rolled her eyes, put the pot back on the burner, and walked past him to the cookie tray. "Hence, Miss Attitude."
"The attitude comes from someone not even wanting to fetch his own coffee." Shane shrugged and got his own, as Eve raided the cookie tray and Claire nibbled on part of one, too. She supposed she ought to feel more tired. She probably would, later, but right now, she felt--excited? Maybe nervous was a better term for it. "So," she ventured, "where do you go to buy a car here?"
"In Durram?" Linda shook her head. "Couple of used places, that's all. Any new cars, we go to the city for them. Not that there's many new cars round here these days. Durram used to be an oil town, back in the boom days, pumped a lot of crude out of the ground, but when it folded, it hit the ground hard. People been leaving ever since. It never was huge, but what you see now ain't more than half what it was fifty years ago, and even then a lot of those buildings are closed up."
"Why do you stay?" Shane asked, and sipped his coffee. Linda shrugged. "Where else I got to go? My husband's buried here; came back dead from the war in Iraq, that first one. My family's here, such as they are, including Ernie, my grandson. Ernie runs one of the car lots, which is why I figure we can find you what you want at a good deal this early in the morning." She grinned. "If an old woman can't make her own grandson get out of bed before dawn to do her a favor, there's no point in living. Just let me finish my coffee and we'll be on our way." She drank it fast, faster than Shane and Eve could gulp their own, and in about five minutes the four of them were piling into the bench seat of Linda's pickup truck, with more rust than paint on the outside, and sagging seats on the inside. Claire sat on Shane's lap, which wasn't at all a bad thing from her perspective. From the way he held her in place, she didn't think he objected, either. Linda started up the truck with a wheezing rattle of metal, and the engine roared as she tore out of the gravel parking lot and onto the narrow two-lane road heading toward Durram. "Huh," she said as they passed the town limits sign, barely readable from shotgun blasts. "Usually there's a deputy out here in the mornings. Guess somebody overslept. Probably Tom. Tom likes those late nights at the bar, sometimes; he's gonna catch hell for blowing it again."
"You mean fired?"
"Fired? Not in Durram. You don't get fired in Durram ; you get embarrassed." Linda drove a couple of blocks, past some empty shops and one empty gas station, then took a right turn and then a left. "Here it is." The sign said HURLEY MOTORS, and it was about a million years old. Somebody had hit it with buckshot, too, once upon a time, but from the rust, it had been a while ago--maybe before Claire was born; maybe before her mother was born. There was a small, sad collection of old cars parked in front of a small cinder-block building, which looked like it might have been built by the same guy who'd built Linda's motel. Come to think of it, it probably had. The cinder blocks were painted a pale blue with dark red trim on the roof and windows, but the whole thing had faded to a kind of pale gray over time. As Linda stopped the truck with a squeal of brakes, the front door of the shack opened, and a young man stepped out and waved. "Oooh, cute," Eve whispered to Claire. Claire nodded. He was older, maybe twenty or so, but he had a nice face. And a great smile, like his grandma. "Oh, he is cute!" Shane said in a fake girly voice. "Gee, maybe we can ask him out!"
"Shut up, you weasel. Claire, hit him!"
"Pretend I did," Claire said. "Look, he's bleeding." Shane snorted. "Not. Okay, out of the truck before this gets silly." Linda, ignoring them, had already gotten out on the driver's side and was walking toward her grandson. As they hugged, Claire scrambled down from Shane's lap to the pavement. He hopped down beside her, and then Eve slithered out as well. "Wow," she said, surveying the cars on the lot. "This is just--"
"I was going more for horrifying, but yeah, that works, too. Okay, can we agree on nothing in a minivan, please?"
"Yep," Shane said. "I'm down with it." They wandered around the lot. It didn't take long before they'd looked at everything parked in front, and from Eve's expression, Claire could tell there wasn't a single thing she'd be caught dead driving--or, more accurately, caught with the dead, driving. "This sucks," Eve said. "The only thing that has decent trunk space is pink." And not just a little pink, either; it looked like a pink factory had thrown up all over it. Linda's grandson wandered over, trailed by her. He caught the last bit of Eve's complaint, and shook his head. "You don't want that thing, anyway," he said. "Used to belong to Janie Hearst. She drove it fifteen thousand miles without an oil change. She thinks she's the Paris Hilton of Durram. Hi, I'm Ernie Dawson. Heard you're looking for a car. Sorry about what happened to yours. Those fools are a menace--have been since I was a kid. Glad nobody was hurt."
"Yeah, well, we just want to get the heck out of town," Eve said. "It was my car. It was a really nice old classic Caddy, you know? Black, with fins? I was hoping maybe somebody could tow it in, fix it up, and I could pick it up later on, maybe in a couple of weeks?" Ernie nodded. He had greenish eyes, a color that stood out against his suntanned skin; his hair was brown, and wavy, and got in his face a lot. Claire liked him instinctively, but then she remembered the last cute stranger she'd liked. That hadn't turned out so well. In fact, that had turned out very, very badly, with her blood getting drained out of her body. So she didn't smile back at Ernie-much. "I think I can set that up," he said. "Earle Weeks down at the repair shop can probably work some magic on it, but you'd have to leave him a pretty good deposit. He'll have to order in parts."
"Hey, if you can make me a good deal on a decent car that isn't pink, I'm all good here."
"Well, what you see is pretty much what you get, except--" He gazed at Eve for a few long seconds, then shook his head. "Nah, you won't be interested in that."
"Something that I keep out back. Nobody around here will buy it. I've been trying to make a trade with a company out of Dallas to get it off my hands. But since you said big classic Caddy--" Eve jumped in place a little. "Sweet! Let's see it!"
"I'm just warning you, you won't like it."
"Is it pink?"
"No. Definitely not pink. But"--Ernie shrugged--"okay, sure. Follow me."
"This ought to be good," Shane said, and reached into his pocket for a cookie he'd hidden there. He broke it in half and offered it to Claire. "Can't wait," she said, and wolfed it down, because Linda was world-class with the cookies. "I can't believe I'm eating cookies for breakfast."
"I can't believe we're stuck in Durram, Texas, with a burned-out car, two vamps, and the cookies are this good. " And... he had a point.