Kiss of Death
Chapter Eighteen

 Rachel Caine

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Dallas was amazing. All the lights, the dizzying buildings, the crazy amounts of traffic, the noise, the people. After a long morning of shopping, Claire was dog-tired, too tired and dazed to even properly admire how awesome their hotel was, with all the glass and marble and fancy furniture. Michael wasn't due to be in the studio until eight p.m., so she fell into bed and slept in her clothes, for a long time. When she woke up, Eve was just finishing her makeup--back to Goth Girl Gone Wild--and checking her lace skull-patterned minidress in the mirror. Her legs looked taller than Claire's entire body. "Wow," Claire mumbled, and sat up. The mirror showed her just how horrible her bed head could be. "Ack."
"The shower is amazing," Eve said, and turned to the side, smoothing down her dress. "Is it too much?"
"For Morganville? Yeah. For Dallas? No idea. But you look fantastic." Eve smiled, that secret little smile, and her eyes glittered brightly. She was thinking about Michael, obviously. Claire yawned, slipped off the bed, and went to try the shower. Thirty minutes later, her hair fluffed into relative cuteness, she was clean, dry, and dressed in jeans and her best cute blue top, the one Shane said he liked. She even stopped for a little makeup, although she knew it was a lost cause, considering Eve's outfit. Shane rapped on their door ten minutes later, and when she answered, he looked sleepy but relaxed. Freshly showered, which was always a look she loved on him; his hair was even more insane than usual, as if he'd toweled it dry and then forgotten about it. She smoothed it down. He kissed her and called, "Yo, Eve? Crazy train's leaving the station!"
"I'm coming!" Eve yelled breathlessly, and came out of the bathroom, again, smoothing down her dress. Shane blinked, but he didn't say anything. "Michael's waiting. He's freaking out that he's going to be late."
"Well, he won't be," Eve said. "Do I look okay? Like a rock star's girlfriend?"
"No," Shane said, and when she looked hurt, he laughed. "You look much better than that, scary girl." She blew him a kiss and set off down the hall. Michael was pacing next to the elevators, crackling with nervous energy; his gear was piled next to the wall, and he had a strange, closed expression on his face that disappeared the second he saw Eve. Claire sighed in sympathetic happiness as Michael kissed his girlfriend and leaned over to whisper something in her ear--something that made Eve laugh and cuddle even closer. Shane rolled his eyes. "I thought you were in a hurry, man."
"Never in that much of a hurry," Michael said, and picked up one of the guitars. Shane picked up the other and offered him a fist to bump. "Let's go rock it, Mikey." Michael just looked at him for a second. Shane held steady, and said, "Michael. You can do it. Trust me." Michael took a deep breath, returned the fist bump, and nodded as he pushed the elevator call button. There was a car downstairs--a big black town car, like a limousine only not as fancy--with a driver in a black jacket. He gave Eve a hand in, then Claire; Michael and Shane took the facing bench seat. The guitars, Claire assumed, went in the trunk. Michael was looking pale, but then, when didn't he? He reached across the open space and took Eve's hand as the car began to roll. "Love the dress," he said. "Love you," she said, very simply. His eyebrows rose a little, and he smiled. "I was getting to that part."
"I know." Eve patted his hand. "I know you were. But you're a boy. I thought I'd just cut to the chase. You're going to be great, you know." They didn't say anything the rest of the short drive; the roof overhead was clear, and it gave them an amazing view of the tall buildings and the colored lights. Claire felt her heart pounding. This was really happening. She couldn't imagine what was going on in Michael's head--or heart. It seemed like a dream. Morganville seemed like a dream, one that had happened to someone else, and the idea that they'd leave this reality and go back to that one... Shane didn't have to, Claire thought again. Of the four of them, he was the one who could walk away, and there was nothing in Morganville to hold him. Nothing but her, anyway. At the studio, which was in a plain-looking industrial building at the edge of downtown, the driver unloaded the guitars and saw them inside, where two people waiting immediately focused on Michael. Claire, Eve, and Shane suddenly became his entourage, which was funny and kind of awesome, and trailed along as the two recording people explained the process to Michael. Shane carried both the guitars. He did it with a smile, too, that said clearly how proud he was of his friend. Michael looked fierce--he was concentrating on every word, and Claire could see him already putting himself into performance mode, that place that made him so different when he was onstage. At the studio door, one of the two studio guys turned and held out a hand to Eve, Claire, and Shane. "You guys need to wait in the box," he said. "Through that door." He pointed to a thick metal door with a window inset, and took the guitars from Shane. Then he flashed them a quick grin. "He'll be great. Trust me, he wouldn't be here if he wasn't."
"Damn right," Shane said, and led the two girls into the box--which, it turned out, was the recording studio's control room. A big man with frizzy hair was sitting at the mixing board, which looked more complicated than the inside of the Space Shuttle. He said hello and gestured for them to take a seat on the big, plush couch at the back of the room. It was an amazing place, the studio, full of people who were all just really, really great at their jobs. The engineer behind the giant, complicated mixing board was relaxed, calm, and very easygoing, and the two on the other side of the glass helped Michael get set up, did some sound checks, and then left him alone to join the rest of them in the control room. "Right," the engineer said, and nodded to his two assistants--if that was what they were; Claire wasn't sure. "Let's see what he's got." He flipped a switch. "Michael ? Go ahead, whenever you're ready." He started out playing a slow song, head down, and Claire felt the mood in the room change from professional to really interested as he settled into the music. It flowed out of him, silky smooth, beautiful, as natural as sunshine. It was an acoustic guitar thing, and it put tears into Claire's eyes; there was something so soft and sad and aching about it. When he finished, Michael held the chord for a long moment, then sighed and sat back on his stool, looking through the glass toward them. The engineer's mouth was open. He closed it, cleared his throat, and said, "What's that called, kid?"
"`Sam's Song,"' Michael said. "It's for my grandfather." The engineer closed the microphone, looked at the other two, and said, "We've got a live one." How darkly hilarious, Claire thought. If only he knew. "He's great," Shane said softly, as if he'd never actually realized it before. "Seriously. He's great. I'm not crazy, right?"
"You're not crazy," the engineer said. "Your buddy has insane skills. They're going to love him out there." Out there. In the world. In the real world. Where Michael couldn't really go for long. The booth door opened, and Oliver walked in. He was in a normal human mode, looking fatherly and inoffensive. The aging hippie, complete with tie-dyed T-shirt and faded jeans and sandals. Claire bet that if she'd told the engineer Oliver was a vampire, he'd have laughed and told her to lay off the crack. Oliver perched on the arm of the sofa, listening. They all scooted over, because even Claire didn't really want to lean against him, no matter how nice he was apparently being. He said nothing at all. After a while, they all relaxed a little, as Michael continued to pour out the amazing rivers of music on the other side of the studio glass. Fast, slow, hard rocking--he could do it all. When the last song was over, two hours later, the engineer hit the microphone into the studio and said, "Perfect. That was perfect; that's a keeper. Okay, I think we're done. Congratulations. You are officially on your way, my man." Michael stood up, smiling, holding his guitar in one hand, and caught sight of Oliver watching him. His smile almost faded, but then he moved his gaze over to Eve, who was on her feet, blowing him kisses. That made him laugh. "Rock star!" Eve yelled, and clapped. Claire and Shane stood up and clapped, too. Oliver sat quietly, no expression at all on his face, as they celebrated Michael's success. It was their last night in Dallas. Oliver had allowed them to have a nice dinner out, at a fantastically expensive restaurant where all the waiters were better dressed than Claire ever had been. He didn't go, of course, but somehow Claire could feel his presence, feel him watching. It was still an amazing meal. She tried everything on her plate, on Shane's, even off Michael's and Eve's. They laughed and flirted, and after the dinner--which went on Oliver's credit card --they went to a dance club across the street, full of beautiful people and spinning lights. No liquor allowed for them, thanks to the glowing wristbands they didn't get, but they danced. Even Shane, although he mainly held on to Claire as she danced--which was fantastic. Hot, sweaty, exhausted, happy, the four of them piled into a cab and headed back to the hotel. It was on the elevator ride up when Shane asked, "Are we really going back?" It was a long ride; their rooms were on the very top floor of a very tall building. Nobody spoke, not even Michael. He rested his chin on top of Eve's head and held her close, and she put her arms around him. Shane looked at Claire, the question plain in his eyes. She felt the heavy weight of it, the absolute vital importance of it. The claddagh ring on her right hand felt cold, suddenly. "Seriously," Shane said. "Can you leave all this? Just go back to that? Michael, you've got a future out here. You really do."
"Do I?" Michael asked. He sounded tired and defeated. "How long do you think I could last before something went wrong, man? Morganville's safety. This is--beautiful, but it's temporary. It has to be temporary."
"It doesn't," Shane insisted. "We can figure it out. We can. " Before Michael could answer, the floor dinged arrival, and they had to get out. Oliver was standing in the hallway, wearing his leather coat and serious expression. No more Mr. Nice Hippie, obviously. He was standing as if he'd been waiting for them for a while. Creepy. All four of them came to a sudden halt, staring at him; Claire felt Shane's arm tighten around her waist, as if he was considering moving in front of her. To protect her from what? There was something odd about the way Oliver was looking at them--because he wasn't looking at them, exactly. It was not his normal direct stare at all. Instead, he silently dialed a number on the cell phone in his hand and put it on speaker, right there, standing in the middle of the hotel hallway. All the plush carpet and lights and normal life seemed to fade away as Claire heard a calm voice on the other end of the phone say, "Do you have them all?" Amelie. Cool, precise, perfectly in control. "All except Jason," Oliver said. "He's on an errand. He's not involved in this in any case." Silence for a few seconds, and then Amelie said, "I want you to know I take no pleasure in this. I have made it clear to you, Claire, that I value your service to me and to Morganville; that you are important to us. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Her throat felt dry and tight, and her skin cold. "Michael," Amelie continued, "I have spoken with you in private, but I will make this public: you must return to Morganville. This goes equally for Claire. You must return. There is no argument, no mitigation. Oliver understands this very well, and he is standing as my enforcer in this matter. No doubt the lights are very bright in Dallas, and Morganville seems far away. I assure you it is not. I don't doubt you have spoken of running away, of securing your freedom, but you must understand: my reach is long, and my patience is not infinite. I would much rather your parents continue in blissful ignorance of their danger, Claire. And yours, Eve. And even yours, Michael--even though they have left Morganville, they remain under my control, and always will."
"You bitch," Shane muttered. "Mr. Collins, I will tolerate much from the four of you, including your occasional rudeness. I will allow you a great deal of freedom and latitude. But make no mistake: I will not let you go free. Make your peace with it as you can. Hate me if you must. But you will come back to Morganville, or suffer the consequences. You of all people know that I am quite serious about that." Shane went pale, and Claire felt every muscle in his body draw tighter. "Yeah, I know," he said hoarsely. "Found my mom floating in a bathtub full of her own blood. I know how serious you can get." Amelie was silent again, and then she said, "Morganville may not be paradise, and it may not be the future you believe you deserve. But in Morganville, you and your families will remain safe and alive while it is within my power to ensure it. I give you my word, as Founder, that this will be so. Is this understood?"
"You're holding our families hostage," Claire said. "We already knew that."
"And I wanted you to hear it from my lips, so there would be no mistakes," Amelie replied. "And now you have. I will expect you back tomorrow. Good night." Oliver shut the phone off and put it away. He said nothing to them, just moved out of the way. For a few seconds the four of them just stood there, and then Shane said, "So that's it."
"Yes," Oliver said. "Tomorrow, we return. I suggest you make the most of the time you have tonight." He turned to leave, and then looked back over his shoulder--just one, fast glance. "And I am sorry." Shane, without another word, took Claire's hand and led her to his room.
In the morning, with the sunlight falling over the two of them as dawn rose on their last day of freedom, Shane rolled over to look at her, propped himself up on an elbow, and said, "You know I love you, right?"
"I know."
"Because I suck at saying it," he said. "It's a work in progress, all this relationship stuff." She hadn't really slept all night. She'd been too busy thinking, worrying, wondering. Imagining all kinds of futures. Imagining this moment. And she felt as if she were falling from a very tall building as she asked, "Shane? Are you--are you going to come back? To Morganville?" Apart from Frank, his now-vampire dad, there was nobody Amelie could hold over his head ... nobody but Claire and Eve and Michael, and, anyway, Amelie had never really needed Shane. Claire needed him, though. With every heartbeat she needed him more. He looked at her, holding the stare for so long it felt as if the fall would go on and on, falling forever.... And then he said, very quietly, "How can I not go back? How can I let you go, Claire? We all stay, or we all go back. I'm not letting you go on your own." He touched a fingertip to her nose, startling a laugh out of her. "Somebody's got to be your bodyguard." She kissed him, and their skins warmed together in the sunlight; silently, Shane raised her right hand to his lips, and kissed her fingers and kissed the claddagh ring glittering there, that promise of the future that had so much meaning for him, in the past. And then, one more time, while they were still completely free, he told her how much he loved her. Afterward, going back to Morganville didn't seem so dark. TRACK LIST As always, music drives the creative bus for me, so here are some songs that rocked this little road trip. Feed the artists, please. They deserve your support. "Good 2 U"
"Guilty as Charged"
"Call in the Cavalry"
"Troubled Land"
"Luisa's Bones"
"Looking Pretty, Pretty"
"Post Blue (Dave Bascombe Mix)"
"Running up that Hill"
"Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)"
"Circle the Fringes"
"I Can't Do It Alone"
"Wish We Were Older"
"That Dress Looks Nice on You"
"Kill Kill"
"I Love You Good-bye"
"Prime Mover"
"I Don't Live in a Dream"
"Down Boy"
"People C'mon"
"The Future's Nothing New"
"Snakes and Lions"
"World Can't Have Her" Dave Mason Daniel Lanois Gym Class Heroes The Shys John Mellencamp Crooked Fingers TAB The Band Placebo Placebo Noisettes The Gutter Twins Coconut Records 30H!3 Metro Station Sufjan Stevens Lizzy Grant Thomas Dolby Steve Stevens Jackie Greene Yeah Yeah Yeahs Delta Spirit The Alternate Routes Melpo Mene Curve Cobra Verde "Go My Way (The iPod Song)"
"Don't Let the Devil Take Your Mind"
"Lonely Ghosts"
"Mama Told Me (Not to Come)"
"Wild Life"
"On Fire"
"I'm Good, I'm Gone"
"Disappearing" Bacon Brothers Jackie Greene Butterfly Boucher O+S Three Dog Night Yeasayer Bacon Brothers Bacon Brothers JJ Grey & Mofro Lykke Li Simon Collins