Kiss of Death
Chapter Fourteen

 Rachel Caine

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They stood there for a moment, watching the car and bus burn, and for a few seconds nobody said anything. Then Michael said, "Morley didn't do that. Morley isn't that stupid."
"It damn sure wasn't Oliver," Shane added. "So what the hell is going on around here?"
"You should tell us. You were riding with Morley; we just got here."
"Yeah, funny thing, getting tied up and hustled around by hungry vampires made me not notice the little things. All I know is that we got into the building, Morley was making some speech, and next thing I knew, one of Morley's crew was yelling that we were being attacked. I grabbed Eve and tried to get her under cover, but she got clocked by Morley when she got between him and some guy he was fighting. She hit her head." Shane paused and glanced at Michael. "What's your excuse?"
"I lost track a while ago," Michael said. "Right about the time Oliver detoured us into Crazytown for no good reason. Unless this is what he was looking for all along."
"What, a town full of sick vampires?" When Claire said it, suddenly it made sense. "He was. He knew they were here. Somewhere, anyway. He was looking for them!"
"He thought they were in Durram," Michael agreed. "That's why he went off in the middle of the night searching. But if they ever were there, they moved on, to here. Smaller town. Easier to control, before they got too sick to care."
"But these dudes are not exactly historical," Shane said, and nodded toward the kid in the football jersey. "That's not some vintage outfit he's wearing; he can't have been vamped more than a few months ago, a year at the most. So how did he--"
"Bishop!" Claire interrupted. "Bishop was looking for Amelie. And he was making new vampires all the time, just making them and leaving them." She shuddered. "He must have come through here, or someplace close." Bishop was Amelie's father--both physically, and in a vampire sense, apparently. And in neither sense was he going to win a Father of the Year award. Or get a humanitarian plaque, either. He'd snacked on necks, and this was what he'd left behind him. Scary, and disgusting. "If Oliver was looking for them, he must have some kind of plan," Eve said. She was leaning against the wall now, holding one hand to her must-be-aching head, and she still looked kind of vague and unfocused. "Find him. He'll know what to do."
"He might have had a plan, but that was before Morley and his merry bunch of idiots crashed into it," Shane said. "Now we're in the middle of a three-sided vampire war. Which would be an awesome video game, but I'm really not interested in playing for real. I like my reset buttons."
"Then we have to find another car," Michael said. "One that runs."
"No, man, I have to find another car," Shane said. "And black out the windows. And get it back here so you don't combust strolling around town shopping for one. So here's an idea: You take care of the girls; I'll get the wheels."
"Did you just tell me to stay with the girls?" Michael said, and grinned. Shane did, too. "Yeah," he said. "In your face, man. How does it feel?" They tapped fists. Eve sighed. "You are both morons and we're all going to die, and my head hurts like crazy," she said. "Can we please just get out of here? Please?" Michael went to her and put his arms around her, and Claire heard her let out a little, sad sob as she melted against him. "Shhh," he whispered. "It's okay, baby."
"So not," Eve said, but she'd lost her edge. "And where the hell were you while I was getting dragged along on the party bus, nearly getting fanged?"
"Racing after you," he said. "Jumping onto the bus? Breaking out windows? Almost rescuing you?"
"Oh yeah," Eve said. "But I was unconscious for all that part, so I couldn't really appreciate how brave you were. This is all right, though. Being with you." Shane exchanged a look with Claire, made a gagging sound, and got her to laugh. Then he took her hand, held it for a second, then lifted it to his lips. His mouth felt so warm, so soft, that she felt every muscle in her body shiver at the touch. His thumb brushed over the claddagh ring, their secret little promise. "Wait for me," he said. "Any requests on the kind of car?"
"Something with armor?" she said. "Oooh, and headrest DVD. Bonus for surround sound."
"Rocket launchers," Michael said. "One hot yellow Hummer with optional mass destruction package, coming up." Shane squeezed her fingers lightly, one more time, then ducked out the window. Claire watched him drop to the grass, roll to his feet, and take off at an angle through the afternoon glare. The glare, she realized, was at a lower level than before. It was late afternoon, and the sun was heading west, fast. "Nightfall," she said. Michael stepped up near her, out of range of the sun still flooding the window. "We don't have too long before it gets dark, right?"
"Right," he said. "But if we stay here in this building, I think we're going to have even less time. There are a lot of these... other vampires. And they're not exactly shy." He grabbed the two fallen vampires and dragged them out into the hallway, where he dumped them next to the one still decorated with Claire's silver stake--that one was definitely dead now, burned by the silver. She tried not to look too closely. Michael barricaded the doors again and sat Eve down in a somewhat-secure chair, in the corner. "Stay," he told her. "Rest." He ripped down the other half of the dusty, thick curtain and wrapped it around Eve; one of those cute romantic gestures that was a little spoiled by her bout of uncontrollable sneezing as a gray cloud floated up around her face. Claire stayed by the window, staring out. Not that it would help; even if she saw Shane, even if she saw he needed help, what was she going to do? Nothing, because she was human, slow, and had a torn-up ankle on top of all that. But somehow, it was important that she stand there and watch for him, as though it were some agreement they'd made, and if she didn't keep it, something bad would happen. Superstition. Well, I'm standing in some kind of pseudo-Gothic castle thingy with a bunch of vampires fighting in the halls. Maybe superstition just makes sense. "Did you see Jason?" Eve was asking Michael. "Was he okay?" Michael acted as if he didn't hear her. He came to join Claire at the window, although just to the dark side of the sunlight. "Anything?"
"Nothing yet," she said. "Did you see him? Jason?"
"Not really."
"That's not really an answer, is it?" Michael shot her a look. Whatever he was about to say was interrupted by a thump from overhead--a hard one, followed by what sounded like scratching. Lots of scratching, like very sharp claws. Maybe knives. Like something was digging down through the floor-boards from the second floor. "Okay, that's not a good sound," Eve said. "Michael?" He was standing very still, staring upward, his face marble white in the shadows. Dust filtered down from the ceiling. Pieces of old plaster rained down in flakes, like snow. Claire backed away from the window, away from that sound--all the way back to the heavy desk blocking the door leading into the room. Suddenly the door shoved against her, as someone outside the room hit the door with a shocking crash and howled. More scraping, this time at the wooden door. Michael lunged forward and slammed the desk back in place and held it there as the door shook under the force of the battering. "Dammit," he hissed. "Where is he?" Overhead, something snapped with a dry crack--boards, being broken and peeled away, ripped free, and tossed aside. They were digging through. Eve stood up, bracing herself on the wall, and kicked loose the leg of a rickety smaller table lying near her chair. It broke loose with a splintered end, not as sharp as a spear, but not as blunt as a club, either. She gripped it in both hands, dividing her attention between the ceiling, which was now snowing plaster like a blizzard, and Michael, who was struggling to hold the desk in place as a barricade at the door. We're going to die here, Claire thought. It came to her with terrifying clarity, as if she'd already seen the future through an open window in time. Eve would be lying there, her eyes wide and empty, and Michael would die trying to protect her. Her own body would be a small, broken mess near the window, where Shane would find it.... No. The thought of Shane's finding her, more than just the dying itself, made Claire refuse to accept it. He'd seen enough; suffered enough. Adding this on top of it--no. She wouldn't do it to him. "We have to live," she said out loud. It sounded half crazy. Michael glanced at her, and Eve outright stared. "Well, duh," Eve said. "And I'm the one who got clocked today." The ceiling gave way with a low groan of wood and a flood of plaster and debris, and three bodies, covered in blood where they weren't white with plaster dust, dropped through the opening. They looked like monsters, and as the taller one turned to Claire and she caught the glint of fangs, she screamed. The scream lasted for about a heartbeat, and then recognition flooded in--and relief. "Oliver?" Great. She was relieved to see Oliver. The world was officially topsy-turvy, cats were living with dogs, and life as she knew it was probably over. Oliver looked ... well, like a monster--like a monster who'd fought his way out of hell, inch by inch, actually, and, weirdly, loved every minute of it. He grinned at Claire, all wickedly pointy fangs, and whirled toward Eve as she lunged at him with the business end of her broken stick. He took it away from her with contemptuous ease and shoved her into Michael, who had checked himself before attacking, but was clearly just as stunned as Claire felt. "At ease, soldiers," Oliver said, and it was almost a laugh. Next to him, Morley slapped white dust from his clothes, raising a choking cloud that made Claire's eyes water as she coughed. "I think we're still allies. At least for now."
"Like Russia and England during the Second World War," Morley agreed, then looked thoughtful. "Or was that the first? So difficult to remember these things. In any case, enemies with a common worse foe. We can kill each other later." The third person in the group was Jason, who looked just as bad as the other two, and not nearly as fine with it. He was shaking, visibly shaking, and there were rough bandages wrapped around his left wrist and hand that were soaked through with blood. Eve finally, belatedly, recognized her brother, and reached out to grab him into a hug. Jason stayed frozen for a moment, then patted her on the back, awkwardly. "I'm okay," he said. That was a lie, Claire thought, but a brave one. "You've got blood on your face."
"Hit my head," Eve said. "Oh, so, no damage, then," Jason said, which was such a brother thing to say that Claire smiled. "Seriously, that looks bad, Eve."
"No broken bones. My head hurts, and I feel dizzy. I'll live. What the hell happened to you?"
"Don't ask," Jason said, and stepped away. "Need some help, man?" Michael had grabbed hold of the desk and shoved it back against the door again, and he was now struggling to keep it in place. "Sure," he said. Not that Jason's muscle power was going to work any miracles, Claire thought; he was stringy and strong, but not vamp-strong. "Let them in," Morley said, and finished redistributing dust from his clothes to the rest of them with a final slap. "It's my people. Unless you don't trust us?"
"Now, why wouldn't we?" Eve said sweetly, and turned to Michael. "Don't you dare!"
"You'd rather leave them out there to be torn apart?" Morley asked, without any particular emphasis, as though it didn't really matter to him one way or the other. "I would have thought someone with so much compassion would be less judgmental."
"Excuse me, but you tied us to seats. And put needles in our arms. And drank our blood. So no, I'm not really seeing any reason to get all trusty with you!" Morley shrugged. "Then let them die. I'm sure you'll have no problem listening to their screams." Someone was, in fact, shouting on the other side of the door now, not so much battering on it as knocking. "Michael! Michael, it's Jacob Goldman! Open the door! They're coming!" Michael exchanged a quick look with Claire, then Eve, then Oliver. Oliver nodded briskly. Michael grabbed the desk and pulled it backward, nearly knocking Jason to the ground in the process. "Hey!" Jason protested. "A little warning next time, man!"
"Shut up." Michael shoved him back as the door pushed open from the outside, and vampires started flooding into the room. Morley's people. They, like Morley, hadn't come through this unharmed; every one of them, including Jacob and Patience Goldman, looked as if they'd fought for their lives. A few were wounded, and Claire knew from experience that it took a lot to hurt a vampire, even temporarily. Jacob was cradling his right arm, which was covered in blood. Patience was supporting him from the other side. Even Eve looked a little concerned at the sight of his ice white face and blind-looking eyes. He seemed to be in serious pain. Patience settled him against the wall and crouched next to him as Morley and Oliver, with Michael's help, engineered some kind of barrier for the door when the last of Morley's people were crammed into the small room. There weren't nearly so many as before. "What happened?" Claire asked Patience. The vampire girl looked up at her, and there was a shadow of fear in her face that turned Claire cold inside. "They wouldn't stop," Patience said. "They came for our prisoners. They wouldn't--we couldn't make them stop. Even when we destroyed one, two came out of the shadows. It was --we couldn't stop them." She looked down at Jacob, who had closed his eyes. He looked dead--more dead than most vamps. "Jacob almost had his arm torn off trying to protect them. But we couldn't help." She sounded shocked, and deeply distressed. Claire put a hand on her shoulder, and Patience shuddered. "You're okay," Claire said. "We're okay."
"No, we're not," she said. "Not at all. These are not vampires, Claire. They are animals-- vicious beasts. And we--we are just as much prey for them as you are."
"Right," Morley said, raising his voice over the rising babble of conversation. "Everybody, shut it! Now, we can't stay here--"
"The bus is burning," someone said from near the window. Morley seemed to pause, obviously not expecting that, but he moved past it at light speed. "Then we don't use the bus, clot-for-brains. We find another way out of this accursed graveyard of a town."
"In the sunlight?" Jacob asked. His voice was soft and thready with pain. "Not all of us will survive for long, and those who do will suffer. You know that."
"Your choice--go and burn; stay and be torn apart." Morley shrugged. "For my part, burns heal. I'm not sure that my disconnected pieces would, and I'd prefer not to find out."
"Something's coming," a voice called from the window. "A truck. A delivery van!" Claire shoved through the crowd of vampires, ignoring the cold touch of skin and the hisses of annoyance, and managed to get a clear space right in front of the window, where a solid couple of feet were still bathed in sunlight. Eve had already claimed it, but she let Claire squeeze in beside her. The van was a big yellow thing, some kind of bread truck, with a boxy, windowless back. As Claire watched, it jumped the curb and bounced up onto the lawn, charged forward, and knocked down the leaning iron fence around the Civic Hall. It missed the statue of what's-his- name, the town's patron saint, but the vibrations caused the whole thing to wobble uncertainly, and as Claire watched, it toppled over that last couple of inches, and gravity took over, slamming the smug statue's face into the grass once and for all. Thankfully, not in the way of the van. The van reversed, turned, and then backed up fast toward the window. It stopped a few feet away, and Shane hopped down from the driver's side. He ran to the window and grinned at Eve and Claire. His grin faded fast as his eyes adjusted to the shadows, and he saw all the vampires in the room. "What--"
"Morley's people," Claire said. "I guess we're all in this together right now."
"I'm ... not loving that."
"I know. But we all need to get out of here." Shane shook his head, shaggy hair sticking in damp points to his face, but he turned and opened up the back doors of the van. Inside, there wasn't much space, but there was enough to hold all the vamps--maybe. "I'll take as many as can fit," he said. "But seriously, once they're out of here, all bets are off."
"Agreed," Morley said, and stepped forward into the sun. If it bothered him, it was only to make him narrow his eyes a little. He grabbed the frame of the window and, with one hard pull, ripped it right out of the stone and tossed it out into the overgrown grass. "Right, youngest first. Go, now." There was a hesitation, until Morley gave a low-decibel growl, and then vampires started stepping up, quickly throwing themselves out into the sunlight and moving fast to the sheltering darkness of the van. In only a few seconds it was just her, Michael, Jason, Eve, Morley, and Oliver, with Shane standing outside the window. "I said youngest first," Morley said, glowering at Michael. Michael raised pale eyebrows at him. "Idiot."
"I stay with my friends."
"Then it would appear you get to tan with them, as there's no more room in the back."
"No," Oliver said. "Michael goes in the back. You and I ride outside." Morley let out a black bark of a laugh. "Outside?"
"I'm sure you're familiar with the concept." Oliver, without even looking at him, grabbed Michael by the shoulder and almost threw him across the open space to the back of the van. Michael crashed into the small open space left and was pulled inside by Patience Goldman, who looked anxious, almost frightened. Shane slammed the back doors of the truck and ran to the front. "Right. Move it, ladies." Jason didn't wait for girls first; he jumped out and went. Oliver boosted Eve up to the window, and she ran for the cab of the truck, where Jason was already climbing inside. Claire followed, avoiding any help from Oliver, and as she pulled herself up on the truck's mounting step, she saw Oliver and Morley jump out of the building and flatten themselves on top of the truck, in full sun, arms and legs spread wide for balance. She banged the door shut behind her and squeezed in next to Eve, with Jason on the other side next to Shane. "We couldn't have done this boy/girl?" Shane complained, and started up the car. "Back off, freak!" That last was for Jason, who was pushing too close for Shane's comfort, evidently. Claire tried wiggling closer to the passenger door, but the cab wasn't made for four, no matter how relatively skinny they might be. And Shane wasn't small. "Just drive, smart-ass," Jason snapped. Shane looked like he was considering hitting him. "Unless you want the two on top baked golden brown."
"Crap," Shane spat, and glared at the steering wheel as if it had personally offended him. He put the truck in gear, ground the gears, and got it roaring through the grass. It bumped hard over the curb, sending Claire into the dashboard, and she flailed to regain her balance as the truck slewed back and forth, got traction, and roared off down the street. "Where the hell are you going?" Jason yelled. "Your sister gets to talk. You don't."
"Fine," Eve said. "Where the hell are you going, Shane?"
"The library," he said. "I promised I'd bring the truck back." Claire blinked, looking over at him, and Eve, wide-eyed, shook her head. "You know it's desperate," she said. "Shane is going to the library. " And in spite of everything, that was actually funny. 11 The library was about a block down, on the left. They passed a lot of empty, blank buildings, broken windows, destruction that seemed like the aftermath of a good looting. It didn't seem recent, though. The library's windows were all intact, and there were people patrolling outside it--the first living people Claire had seen in Blacke, actually. She counted four of them, armed with shotguns and crossbows. "My kind of library," Shane said. "What with all the weapons and everything. I tried to boost the truck, and they finally let me have it, but I had to bring it back. This looks like the place to be. At least we can find out what the hell is going on, maybe get a bus or something." The guards outside the library were certainly paying attention. The guys with shotguns tracked the truck as it approached, and they looked really serious about firing, too. Claire cleared her throat. "Uh, Shane--?"
"I see it," he said. He slowed the truck to a crawl. "So, I'm guessing, Hi, we're friendly strangers with a bunch of vampires in your bread truck probably isn't the way to go here." He put the truck in reverse. "Guess this wasn't as good an idea as it looked at a distance."
"Maybe we should--" Whatever Eve was about to suggest became useless, because two police cruisers, carrying more armed bubbas, came screaming out of alleys on either side of the library building and blocked Shane's exit. Shane hit the brakes. In seconds, Claire's door was yanked open, and a huge man with a shotgun glared at her, grabbed her, and dragged her out onto the hot pavement. He pressed fingers to her throat for a second, then yelled, "Live one!"
"This one, too!" yelled his buddy, who was pulling a fighting, screaming Eve out of the cab. "Watch it, girl!"
"You watch it, you pervert! Hands!"
"Hey, leave her alone!" That was Jason, flinging himself out after Eve, looking every bit the feverish little maniac Claire remembered from the first time she'd seen him. Maybe a little cleaner. Maybe. He must have moved too fast for the armed guard's comfort, because he got hit in the guts with the stock of the shotgun, and collapsed to the street. Eve screamed his name, and got picked up and bodily carried into the library, along with Claire. "No!" Claire screamed, and looked back at the truck. Shane was getting wrestled out of the driver's side, and Jason was being dragged to his feet. This was not going well. And where the hell were Oliver and Morley? They weren't on top of the van anymore.... Oliver dropped from the overhanging roof of the library and drop-kicked the bubba holding Claire. He shoved Claire out of the way as the one holding Eve aimed a crossbow and fired; Oliver snatched the arrow right out of the air and snapped the thick shaft with a twist of his fingers, grinning. "Let the girl go," he said. "I've played this game with many better than you. And they all died, friend." He was looking pink from exposure to the sun, but not burned. Not yet. Uncomfortable, maybe. The guard's eyes darted around, looking for support, and found it in the form of two more cowboy-hatted men racing to the rescue. With shotguns. Claire threw herself forward, throwing her arms wide. Eve let out a warning cry, but Claire stepped in front of Oliver as the shotguns came up. "Wait! " she yelled. "Just wait a second! He's with us!" The shotguns focused on her. Oh, crap. "You're running with the bloodsuckers?" one of them said in a soft, dangerous voice. "Little girl like you?"
"He's not like--like those things at the courthouse," she said. She put her hands up in the surrender position and took a step toward them. "We're not supposed to be here. We just want to leave, okay? All of us. We want out of town."
"Well, you ain't leaving town," the guy holding Eve said. "You or any of your fanged little friends. We're not letting this thing spread any farther. Blacke is under quarantine." The heavy library doors opened, and a small, gray-haired woman stepped out. She didn't look much like a leader--Claire wouldn't have picked her out of a crowd at first glance--but immediately, everybody looked toward her, and Claire felt the gravity of the scene shift in her direction. "Charley?" the woman asked. "Why are you pointing a shotgun at this pretty little girl? I heard somebody say she was a live one."
"She's with them!"
"There are no collaborators, Charley. You know that. Either she's infected, or she's not.There's no in-between. Now lower your gun, please." The woman's pleasant voice took on a steely undertone. "Lower it. Now."
"That one behind her, he's infected," Charley said. "Guaranteed."
"Actually," Oliver said, "in the sense you mean it, I'm not infected. Not in the way you're thinking." The older woman, without so much as a pause, un-slung a strap from her shoulder, loaded a crossbow bolt, and fired it right into Oliver's chest. He toppled over and hit the ground with a heavy thud. Claire screamed and ran to his side. When she reached for the bolt to pull it out, the woman grabbed her arm and pulled her back, struggling. She shoved Claire at one of her guards, who held her securely. "You know what to do," she said to another one of them, nodding toward Oliver. "Let's get these kids inside. I don't want them to see this."
"No, you don't understand!" Claire shouted. "You can't--"
"I understand that he's a vampire, and for whatever twisted reason, you want to protect him," the woman said. "Now be quiet. You're not in any danger here." Claire thought about all the vampires locked in the back of the truck. Michael. She couldn't tell them about that. If they were going to kill Oliver, just like that, she couldn't imagine what they might do to a whole, confined load of vampires. It'd probably be way too easy. The sun was sliding steadily toward the horizon. Maybe, when it was blocked by the eastern buildings and there was enough shadow, they could get out of the truck and scatter. The woman looked at her sharply. "You seem to be thinking very hard," she said. "About what?"
"Nothing," Claire said. "I see. What's your name?" When Claire didn't answer, the woman sighed. "All right. I'm Mrs. Grant. I'm the librarian. I'm what passes for authority in Blacke these days, since all our peace officers and elected officials are dead. Now, let's be friendly. I've told you my name. What's yours?"
"Claire," she said. "And where are you from, Claire?" Claire looked her right in the eyes and said, "None of your business." Mrs. Grant's graying eyebrows hitched up, but under them, her faded green eyes didn't seem surprised. "All right. Let's get you and your friends inside, and you can tell me why you thought that vampire was someone you ought to be caring about." Claire looked back over her shoulder as she was pushed/pulled along. Oliver was being carried away, limp as a bag of laundry. And there was nothing she could do about it. The inside of the library was cool and dark, lit mostly by the natural sunlight trickling in the windows, although there were some camp-style fluorescent and LED lanterns scattered around, and even some old-fashioned oil lamps on the tables. The Blacke library was larger than Claire would have expected, with rows and rows of books, and lots of rooms off to the sides. In the middle was a kind of command center, with a small desk, a laptop computer, and some kind of small pedal-powered generator. Ranked on the shelves nearby were weapons, including a pile of silver chains--jewelry, Claire guessed, ransacked from all over town. There were a lot of first aid supplies, too. Inside the library there were about twenty or thirty people; it was hard to see, because they were scattered around on cots between the aisles of books. Claire heard a small voice, then someone crying; it sounded like a little kid, maybe four or five. "What is this?" she asked, looking around. Mrs. Grant led her over to a long reading table and pulled out a chair for her. "This is what's left of our town," she said. "The survivors. We're a tough bunch, I'll tell you that."
"But"--Claire licked her lips and settled into the seat--"what happened here?" Mrs. Grant waited while the others--Eve, Shane, and Jason--were deposited in chairs around the table, with varying degrees of gentleness. Shane was furious, and he looked as if he were seriously thinking of grabbing a fistful of weapons from the racks. Mrs. Grant evidently saw that, because she pointed at two of her burly cowboy guards and had them stand behind Shane, blocking him in at the table. "Blacke's never been what you might call a cross-roads," Mrs. Grant said. "Most folks living here were born here. Their families have been here forever; we don't see new people real often out here." That was, in fact, pretty much like Morganville, minus the attraction of Texas Prairie University. It was pretty much like every other small town in the area, too. Claire nodded. "One night, we got us some visitors. An old man in a suit, and his niece and nephew. Foreign people. French, maybe." Claire looked at Eve and Shane. Eve mouthed Bishop. Confirmation for what they already had guessed--Mr. Bishop had hit Blacke on his way through to Morganville. And he'd had fun. "They stayed at the Iron Lily Inn," Mrs. Grant continued. "It's the closest thing we've got to a hotel. Or had, anyway. Mrs. Gonzalez owned it. She made the best apple pie in the world, too." She slowly shook her head. "Next morning, Mrs. Gonzalez was missing; never showed up at the school--she worked in the office up there. Sheriff John went around to the hotel and found her dead. No sign of those ... people." That couldn't be the whole story, Claire thought; she knew how vampires were made, and if Mrs. Gonzalez had been drained to death, she wouldn't have come back. So she just waited. Mrs. Grant seemed to want to take her time, and Claire was trying hard not to think about what might be happening outside, with Oliver. Morley had run off, she supposed. And she had no idea what would happen to the vampires still in the back of the truck. "We thought the murder of Mrs. Gonzalez was the end of it--shocking, first serious trouble this town had seen in close to thirty years, but still, the end. And then the next night Miss Hanover just vanished from her store--gas station, right up the street. Best we can tell, those two women were the first victims. We know the three strangers left town that night; somebody saw them driving that big, black car of theirs like a bat out of hell. Didn't matter. They left this behind." Mrs. Grant looked down at her hands, which were spread out on the table in front of her. Strong and scarred, they suggested she hadn't always been a librarian. "It started slow. People started disappearing, maybe one every few weeks. Disappearing, or dying. Then it got bad, fast, just--in days, it all of a sudden seemed like half the town was gone. Sheriff John didn't call for help soon enough. Next thing we knew, we saw them for the first time, in force. Terrible things, Claire. Terrible things happened. And we had to do terrible things to survive."
"Why didn't you just--," Eve began to ask, but was interrupted as Mrs. Grant's head came up sharply. "Leave?" she snapped. "Don't you think we tried? Phones were out, landlines and cells. Internet went down with the power the first day; they ripped the power station apart while they were still thinking. We sent everybody we could out of town on the school buses. They never made it. Some kind of trap on the road, blew out all the tires. Some made it back here. Most didn't." It was like some horror movie come to life. Claire had thought Morganville was bad, but this --this was beyond bad. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "But why stay here? Why don't you just--try again?"
"You know how many people used to be in Blacke?" Mrs. Grant asked. "One hundred seventy-two. What you see here in this building is what's left. What's left still breathing, anyway. You think we can just walk away? These were our friends, our families. And if we leave, what happens? How far does this spread?" Mrs. Grant's eyes hardened until they were like cold green ice. "It stops here. It has to stop here. Now, you explain to me how you're traveling around with one of them."
"What's more important is that Oliver wasn't--like those people you're talking about. They're sick. He's not." Mrs. Grant let out a sharp laugh. "He's dead. That's as sick as it gets, Claire from nowhere."
"Look," Shane said, leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table, "I'm not saying the vampires aren't the essence of freaky; they are. But they're not like this. Not--normally. They can be--"
"And how do the four of you know anything at all about vampires?" Mrs. Grant asked. None of them answered, and her eyes narrowed. "There are more out there. More of them. Even if we finish here, there are more."
"Not like these!" Claire said again, desperately. "You have to believe me; they're not all--"
"Not all bad," said Morley, who stepped out of the shadows of one of the racks of books, looking terrifying and bloody and as unreassuring as possible. "No, we're not. Although some of us are no doubt better than others." And Oliver appeared on top of the bookcase, looking down. In his long black coat, he looked very tall, very strong, and even more intimidating than Morley. More came out of the shadows, too. Claire spotted Patience and Jacob, near the edges of the group. And Michael, golden Michael, who smiled at Eve as though it would all be all right, somehow. Mrs. Grant came out of her chair and lunged for the weapons. Shane slammed his chair backward, throwing the two guards behind him off balance. That was all the time Oliver needed to jump from the bookcase to the table, then to the floor, and take the guns out of their hands. He didn't hurt them. He didn't have to. Morley did that way-too-fast vampire thing and was suddenly at the weapons rack ahead of Mrs. Grant, baring his fangs and grinning. He made a little finger-wagging gesture, and she skidded to a stop and backed off, breathing fast. Scared to death, of course, and Claire didn't blame her. Michael, meanwhile, was already at Eve's side. She threw her arms around his neck. "How did you get out?" she asked, her voice muffled against his shirt. He rubbed her back gently and rested his chin against her hair. "The building across the way casts a pretty big shadow," he said. "We bailed as soon as we could. From there it wasn't hard. They thought they had everybody they needed to worry about."
"You didn't--"
"No," Michael said. "We didn't hurt anybody. Patience made sure of that." The townspeople of Blacke--all twenty or thirty of them--were gathering together in a tight block now, with their kids safely in the center. They looked about to make their last stand. Not one of them, Claire realized, thought they were going to live through this. "Hey," she said to Mrs. Grant. "Please. Don't be afraid. We're not going to hurt you." Morley laughed. "We're not?"
"No, we're not," Oliver said, and piled the weapons on the table. "Shane, get the silver."
"Can I keep some?" Oliver smiled grimly. "If it makes you happy."
"You have no idea."
"Distribute the chains to everyone else. Make sure they're wearing silver at their necks and wrists. It'll help protect them, should some of us, Morley, suffer a lapse of character." He checked each shotgun for shells, and tossed them to specific individual vampires, who snatched them out of the air with lazy accuracy. "Right. I'm afraid Mrs. Grant is quite right; we can't allow this infection--and it is an infection--to spread any farther than it has already. We must hunt down and dose everyone who's contracted the disease, or destroy them. That's as much for our kind as yours, you see."
"Dose them?" Mrs. Grant blurted. "What are you--" Patience Goldman opened up a small black satchel--her father's doctor bag, Claire realized-- and inside were dozens of vials of liquid, as well as some bottles of red crystals. Claire herself had helped develop those; the liquid contained a cure for the bloodborne disease that Bishop had spread here, or at least she hoped it did. The crystals would help restore people's sanity, temporarily. It worked best doing the crystals, then giving the shot. It had for the far-gone vampires in Morganville. "They can be saved," Oliver said. "Your family and friends can be restored to sanity, we believe. But they can't be restored to human. You understand? What's done is done on that score. But you can have them back, if you can adjust to that small difference."
"This is insane," one of the guards said, a little wildly. His crossbow was now in the hands of one of Morley's vampires, a little guy with a lined, twisted face and a limp. "We have to fight! Lillian--"
"We're not here to fight you," Oliver said. "And we're not here to save you. I am here to stop the spread of this infection by any means necessary, which, as I see it, aligns with your goals. My other friends," he said, putting some irony into that last word, "are just passing through your fine town. None of us have any reason to want to harm you."
"You're vampires," Mrs. Grant said blankly. "Well, obviously. Yes." Oliver snapped another fully loaded shotgun closed and tossed it through the air. To Mrs. Grant. "Any questions?" he asked. She opened her mouth, closed it, and looked around. There were a lot of vampires--just about as many as there were humans. And none of them were making threatening moves. Shane walked around, handing out silver chairs to people, smiling his best I'm-a-nice-guy smile. Even Jason seemed to be doing his best to be non-threatening, which wasn't exactly easy for him. "Then let's sit down," Oliver said, and pulled out a chair at the table. "I, for one, have had a very hard day." 12 Night fell as tensions gradually eased; the people of Blacke never quite got comfortable, but they loosened up enough to put on some stew in the library's small kitchen, which had a miniature stove that ran on gas. Apparently, the gas was still flowing, even though the electricity was out. As the light faded outside the windows, Mrs. Grant and three of her burly cowboy-hatted guards--Claire guessed the cowboy hats were a kind of uniform--made the rounds to barricade the doors and windows. Morley joined them, and after a long, uncomfortable moment, Mrs. Grant decided to ignore his presence. The guards didn't. Their knuckles were white on their weapons. "May I assist?" he asked, and put his hands behind his back. "I promise not to eat anyone."
"Very funny," Mrs. Grant said. Morley gave her a grave look. "I wasn't joking, dear lady," he said. "I do promise. And I never make a promise I don't intend to keep. You should feel quite secure."
"Well, I'm sorry, I don't," she said. "You're just--"
"Too overwhelmingly dashing and attractive?" Morley grinned. "A common problem women face with me. It'll pass. You seem like the no-nonsense sort. I like that." Claire smiled at the look on Mrs. Grant's face, reflected in the white LED light of the lantern she was holding. "You are really--odd," the older woman said, as if she couldn't quite believe she was even having the conversation. Morley put his hand over his heart and bowed from the waist, a gesture that somehow reminded Claire of Myrnin. It reminded her she missed him, too, which was just wrong. She should not be missing Morganville, or anyone in it. Especially not the crazy boss vampire who'd put fang marks in her neck that would never, ever go away. She was doomed to high- necked shirts because of him. But she did miss him. She even missed Amelie's dry, cool sense of power and stability. She wondered if this was a kind of vacation for Amelie, too, not worrying about Oliver, or Claire, or Eve, or any of them. Probably. She couldn't imagine Amelie was losing any sleep over them--presuming she slept, which Claire really wasn't sure was the case, anyway. "Hey." Shane's hip nudged her chair, and he bent over, putting his mouth very close to her ear. "What are you doing?"