Kiss of Death
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"Oh, just shut up and follow," Oliver snapped. "I am tired of debate. There will be no more." Claire knew a door slamming when she heard it. She twisted around a little and pulled up the pant leg over her left ankle. It was puffy and starting to bruise. Yep. That was sprained. "Do we have any first aid stuff in here?" Oliver dug out a box and passed it through the torn grate on Michael's side. She found some of that rubberized wrapping bandage stuff, and tried to do it herself, but Michael took it away from her, removed her shoe and sock, and wrapped it for her without saying a word. "Thanks," she said softly. It felt better, once that was done, although there was still a dull red ache that flared up every time she moved. "Is there anything--"
"I'm healing," Michael said. He put the medical kit down and let his head fall back against the seat. "Man. This has not been the trip I planned."
"Really?" Oliver's voice was dry. "It's exactly what I expected. Sadly." 9 They drove for what seemed like a very long time, but according to the clock built into the cruiser's dashboard, it was only a couple of hours. The bus kept taking crazy back-road turns, as if they were searching for something. Finally, though, the dot stopped moving. "What is that?" Jason asked, and tapped the screen. It magnified. "Is that a town?" Claire couldn't see through the grate, other than a dot on a map. "It's tiny, if it is. Smaller than that last place where you got yourselves jacked."
"No other roads in," Oliver said, looking at the display. "They'll see us coming in any case. The land is as flat as a griddle. And just as hot."
"Yeah, who ever decided to locate Vampireville in Texas, anyway? Whose good idea was that?" Jason asked. "Amelie's," Oliver said. "And none of your business why she chose it. It'll do us no good to wait until dark--they will only have sharper senses with which to detect us. Better to strike in the day, if we can. Unfortunately, my army consists of one unreliable criminal, one girl with a disability, and one incredibly foolish young vampire with a tanning issue. I am not confident."
"We don't have a choice," Claire said. "We have to go. Eve and Shane--"
"I am more concerned with what Morley is doing," Oliver interrupted. "He's defying Amelie. Defying me. I can't allow that to go unanswered." It boiled down to the same thing, luckily--they didn't have a choice, and Oliver had to help. He thought about it in silence for a few minutes as the cruiser continued on its path to the dot on the map, then nodded sharply. "All right," he said. "We go in. Now. But when we do, you must be fast, and you must be ruthless. Michael, since you're so hell-bent on saving the girl and your friend, that will be your mission. Claire, Jason, you will stay with me. I may require someone to act as distraction."
"He means bait," Michael said. "You're not using Claire."
"She's a wounded deer," Oliver said. "She's perfect."
"You're not using Claire. And that's not optional. I don't care if you think you're the boss; you're not using her." Michael sounded utterly, completely dedicated to that proposition, and Oliver, after a second's frozen silence, nodded. "Very well. I'll use the criminal. He's serviceable, I suppose." Jason cleared his throat. "Do I get the shotgun if you're staking me out for bait?"
"No," Oliver said. "Not ever." Claire was struck by a random thought, which was proof her brain was finally shaking off the effects of bailing out of the bus at speed. "Hey," she said. "It takes hours to get here from Morganville. How did Jason--"
"Jason says shut up," Eve's brother snapped. "It's none of your business, okay? Let's just say I was in the neighborhood." Oliver said nothing. That meant that either Jason had tried to get out of Morganville and managed to get himself caught, by Oliver--or he'd been on Oliver's business errands. Either way, there was some kind of relationship there that Claire was sure hadn't been in force a month ago. In fact, Oliver had been pretty definitely on the "Let's execute the jerk" team. So why was Jason suddenly part of his crew--and a trusted part, if Jason had gotten some kind of permission to leave Morganville? Claire figured she would probably never know. Jason was angrily not talking; Oliver was never Mr. Great Communicator even when he was in a good mood, and this wasn't one. He looked angry, focused, and very, very dangerous. "Take us in," Oliver said. "You all know what's required. Do it. Get allies from Morley's people if you can, by whatever means you can. Intimidate if you can't persuade. Don't allow yourself to be surrounded. Arm your friends, destroy your enemies, and whatever the cost, win. Are we understood? I will take care of Morley." Michael nodded. His face was healing faster than Claire had expected, but she guessed it wouldn't last, not if they were going out in the daylight again. She wondered how much he could really take, before the pain and damage got too much and just overwhelmed him. She hoped she wouldn't have to find out. Jason drove way too fast, gunning the engine to race-car levels, chasing dust devils down the road, and grinning like the maniac he was, from Claire's glimpses of his expression. He looked more than ready for a fight. She'd never exactly seen him like this, and it was more than a little frightening. Next to her, Michael was closed off, focused on controlling the pain he had to be feeling, and the worry. Oliver probably didn't feel anything. He'd sneer at the idea of being worried. Claire wanted to throw up, but she was determined to hang on and be as strong as she could. She rooted through the first aid box and found a couple of extra-strength pain relievers, not that they would help much. She also asked Michael, quietly, if he had any kind of weapon he could give her. He silently dug a silver-coated stake out of his pocket and handed it to her. It had a wicked- sharp tip, enough to slice as well as stab, and it felt cold and solid in her hand as she gripped it hard enough to leave sweat prints on the shiny surface. "Last resort," he told her. "Don't get close enough to need it, okay?"
"Okay," she agreed, and tried for a smile. She thought she actually managed to pull one off. "Does it hurt? Never mind; stupid question. Of course it hurts. I'm sorry." His pale hand, with its vivid red burns at the wrist, gripped hers tightly for a few seconds. "You're a good person, Claire. You know that, right?"
"So are you."
"Technically not really a person anymore, as Shane likes to remind me."
"Shane can be an idiot."
"But a good friend."
"That, too." She sighed. "We have to get them back, Michael. We have to."
"And we will," he said. "I promise." He might have said more, but just then the car's acceleration slowed. Jason eased off the gas and said, "Okay, we're here. Looks like about three blocks' worth of town, if that. Maybe thirty buildings total? What's the plan?"
"Find the bus," Oliver said. "They won't have gone far."
"Because Morley is a lazy sod, and he won't want to put himself out. Look for the biggest building, and you'll likely find the bus parked right in front of it." Sure enough, as Jason turned the sharp corner into town--if you could call it a town; it was more like a random collection of buildings--the bus was immediately and obviously parked right in front of what looked like a miniature version of the Morganville Courthouse--sort of Gothic, with towers and peaked roofs, and constructed of gray stone blocks. It looked about twenty years out from any kind of maintenance work; the iron fence around the place was leaning, rusted through, and the grass inside was ragged and overgrown. The sign said BLACKE TOWNSHIP CIVIC HALL AND COURTS. In front of the entrance sat some kind of civic monument--a big, not very good greenish bronze statue of an old man wearing an antique suit, looking very self-satisfied. The plaque at his feet, visible even from the street, said HIRAM WALLACE BLACKE. Hiram hadn't fared too well. There were dents in his bronze form, and the whole thing leaned a little to the left, as though built on unsteady ground. Another few inches, and the whole thing was going to do a faceplant of Hiram into the overgrown grass. The bus looked deserted. The doors were wide-open. There was no sign of Morley, his people, or anybody else. "How do you blow this screen up? Oh yeah, I see," Jason said. "Okay, the phone is inside the building. That's where they've got Eve, anyway."
"You know what to do. Michael, when you find your friends, bring them back here if you can. If you can't, find a defensible position and hold it, and wait for me."
"What are you going to do?"
"Find Morley," Oliver said. "And explain to him why it is a terrible idea to make me come after him. This will be over quickly. Morley's not a brave man, and he'll order his people to comply. The only risk is that something could happen before I find him and ... convince him." The way he said that last part made Claire shiver. Oliver was capable of a lot of things, and some of them were really not very civilized. She'd seen some of it. It still woke her up at night, heart pounding. But right now, at least he was pointed in the right direction. Kind of like a cannon. "Go," Oliver said. He didn't yell it, and there wasn't any special emphasis to it, but Claire heard the absolute flat command in the word. He flung open his door, opened Michael's side in the back, and then he was moving toward the door, walking, not running, moving with deliberate speed, as if he had all the time in the world, and couldn't be stopped by anything or anyone. Jason scrambled out and scurried to keep up. He forgot to open Claire's side, but that was okay; Michael zipped around in less than two seconds, opened it, and flung Oliver's extra coat over his head to give himself extra protection from the fierce afternoon sun. "Check the bus!" he ordered. "Wait, where are you--" Too late. Michael was gone, racing at an angle across the overgrown grass, heading for the leaning shadow of the building. He got there and slammed his back against the stone, bent over and shaking, and finally stripped off the coat and shattered one of the windows that led into the courthouse. It was odd, Claire thought, that there wasn't a single person coming out of the buildings to see what was going on--not even out of the Civic Hall and Courts. There wasn't a soul anywhere in sight. Blacke couldn't have very many people in it, but it must have at least a hundred or so. They couldn't all be completely clueless, especially if Morley had been his usual obnoxious self. Claire lurched for the bus, hobbled up the steps, and found the whole thing deserted.
None of the prisoners were still in their seats, and the floor was littered with cut plastic ties in the back. She left the bus at a limping run, crossed to the broken window--Michael hadn't waited--and groaned when she realized it was almost head-high for her. With no time to complain about it, she jumped, grabbed the sill, and ignored the cuts she got from the broken glass. Michael had swept away most of it; what was left was irritating, that was all. Her arms trembled with the strain, but she managed to lift herself up, get the toes of her right foot into one of the cracks in the stone, and boost up onto the window's broad ledge. From there it was easy enough to swing her legs in, but it was a longer drop to the floor than she'd thought, and she hit too hard. Her left ankle let out a fiery burst of pain, and she paused to brace herself against the cold stone wall, panting and waiting for the agony to subside. She was in some kind of office, but it hadn't been used in recent years; the desks looked like something left over from the turn of the century, but these weren't antiques; they were junk. The wood was rotten, drawers were cracked and hanging loose, and in some cases the legs had actually broken off. She surprised a mouse in one of the broken drawers, and nearly screamed as it zipped across the dirty floor in her path. Deep breaths. Come on, keep it together; they need you. Shane needs you. Claire pulled the heavy silver-coated stake out of her pocket and held it in her left hand as she opened the door with her right, ready to attack if she had to ... but the hallway was empty.
She could hear running footsteps, though. Noise upstairs. That didn't mean there weren't bad guys down here, however. Thanks to a thorough education in Morganville--Survival 101-- she always assumed there were bad guys around every corner. There was a lot of chaos going on upstairs--furniture crashing, thumping, running feet. People yelled--Claire tried not to think of it as screaming--and it sounded like that might be where Oliver had chosen to go after Morley. But where was Michael? Claire opened another door and found an office, with a desk and a computer and an old cup of molding coffee sitting on top of some papers. Nobody there. She tried the next door--same result, only no coffee. In the third one, she found a woman slumped in the corner. She was unconscious, not dead, thankfully, as Claire discovered on checking her pulse, which proved to be strong. Claire moved the woman into a more comfortable position, rolled over on her side; recovery position, it was called.
Shane had taught it to her--he was good at first aid. The woman was older, kind of heavy, and she looked tired and pale. Pale. Claire checked her neck on both sides, but found nothing. Then she checked the woman's wrists and found a slowly bleeding wound, and not a neat one, either. Claire shuddered, breathed in a few times to steady herself, and then looked around for something to use to tie up the wound. There was a scarf on the woman's desk; Claire carefully wrapped it around her wrist and tied it tight, and checked the woman again. She was still unconscious, but didn't seem to be in any trouble. "It'll be okay," Claire promised, and went on. The thing that was worrying her now was that while she certainly wouldn't put it past Morley and his crew to be snacking on random people, this hadn't just happened. The blood streaking the woman's hand had been mostly dried and flaking off, the wound had been half healed, and Morley's party bus had only just arrived in town. That didn't sound right at all. Out in the hall, the fight was still going on upstairs, and as Claire carefully edged toward the stairs, trying to get a look, there was a sudden thump-rattle-crash, and a body came flying into view, hit the wall, and tumbled down the big, scarred wooden steps to sprawl at her feet. It was a vampire. It was not one of Morley's vampires. She'd gotten a look at every one of them on the bus, and they'd all been typical Morganville folks. None of them had looked Shane's age, or been wearing a bloodstained, tattered old football jersey that smelled like dead feet even from twenty yards away. This was not a Morganville vampire. This was something else. And it rolled up, bared terrifying lengths of fangs, and came after her with a roar full of fury, hunger, and delight. 10 Claire yelped, backed up, and got the stake level just in time to bury it in his chest. His momentum drove him onto the silver-coated wood, and pushed her into the wall behind her with a bruising slam. Her head hit the bricks, and she felt a hot yellow burst of pain, but she was more concerned by his bloody red eyes, crazy with rage, and those sharp, sharp fangs....
Then he slumped against her; she shoved, and he toppled off her and down to the floor with a crash, hands thumping out to either side. Man, he really stank, as if he hadn't bathed or washed his clothes in a year. And he smelled like old blood, which was sick. His eyes were open, staring at the ceiling, but Claire knew he wasn't dead--not yet. The silver in the stake was hurting him, and the stake itself was keeping him immobilized for now. Whether or not the silver would kill him was a question of how old he was, but somehow she didn't think he was one of the ancient ones, like Amelie and Oliver and Morley. He was more like some bully who'd turned vamp a few years back, if that. The silver was burning him. She saw black around the wound now. He tried to kill me. She swallowed hard, her hand tentatively touching the stake, then dropping away. I should let him die. Except she really needed that stake. Without it, she was unarmed. And she knew--because Michael had told her--that getting staked was painful. Getting staked with silver was agony. Claire reached for the stake to pull it out. She'd just grabbed hold when a voice behind her said, in a rich, rolling English accent, "You don't want to be doing that." Morley. He must have come down the stairs while she was otherwise occupied. He was bloody, clothes ripped even worse than they had been before, and he had open scratches across his pale face that were healing even as Claire turned to stare at him. She tightened her grip on the stake and yanked it free as she rose out of her crouch, turning to fully face him. Morley sighed. "Do any of you fools actually ever listen? I said don't do that!"