That didn’t sound quite as positive as Claire would have pre- ferred, really, but she couldn’t expect much better. “How do we get inside?”

“Same way I got out,” Myrnin said. “Through the waste chute.

Come on, then. Park this ridiculous thing and let’s make all haste.

I do hope those aren’t your best clothes.”

She should have known it would be something horrible.

Getting in by the waste chute was even worse than Claire had ex- pected. When the mall had been abandoned, the chute— leading from the second floor through a claustrophobic metal tube that angled down at a ridiculous slope straight into a long- neglected, rusted- out trash bin— the chute had apparently never been cleaned. The layers of ancestral rotten food, decay, and generally horrible filth were enough to make her seriously reconsider going at all, but Eve was inside, and she needed help. “I can’t,” Claire said. She wasn’t talking about the slime, though. “I’m only human, Myrnin. I can’t climb up that!”

“You won’t need to,” he said, and offered her a cool, strong hand. “Up you go. I’ll push.”

He shoved her up into the tiny, tinny opening without giving her time to get ready, and she felt a moment of utter panic and nausea that almost made her scream— and then his palm landed sol- idly on her butt as she started to slide backward. “Hey!” she whispered shakily, but he was already pushing her steadily for- ward, up the angle. One thing about all the awful slime, it did make her progress faster. She tried not to think about what she might be sliding through. Really, really tried. The smell was inde- scribable. “Watch the hands!”

“It’s entirely propulsional,” he whispered back. “Quiet, now.

Sound carries.” She had no idea how he was managing to climb, or to push her ahead of him, but she thought that he sank his nails deep into the ooze and anchored them in the metal to do it— like climbing spikes. Each push drove her steadily on. She gave up fu- tilely trying to feel for handholds and instead focused on keeping her hands outstretched ahead, to shove utterly unknown and very disturbing blockages out of the way before she met them facefirst.


It was both the shortest and longest minute of her life, and she had to hang on tight to all of her self- control to keep herself from cav-ing in under the stress and giving away their position with helpless, girlie shrieks of revulsion.

And then it was over, and she slid at an angle out of the metal pipe, and a pair of strong, pale hands grabbed her flailing wrists to pull her up and onto her feet. Claire blinked and in the dim light made out the glossy red hair and razor- sharp smile of her friend from Cambridge, Jesse. Lady Gray, as Myrnin called her. She’d been a bartender when Claire had met her, but that was before Claire had realized she was a vampire. She’d probably been a lot of things during her long, long life, and nearly all of them interesting.

“Well,” Jesse said, raising her eyebrows to a skeptical height. “I admit I didn’t really expect this.” She let Claire go, and turned toward the pipe again to offer a helping hand to Myrnin, who was clambering out under his own power. Claire was sorry to lose the support, because her legs were still shaking, and she grabbed for a handy plastic chair to collapse into. What did I just crawl through? She supposed it really was better that she didn’t know, but she desperately needed a shower, a scrub brush, and some bleach. And new clothes, because no matter how hard she washed these, she would never, ever wear them again.

Jesse was talking as Myrnin came sliding the rest of the way out of the pipe. “You brought her here? I have to ask, did you just crave a snack, or do you have some clever plan to save her life? Because you know the mood in here.”

“I do,” he agreed. “I also know her life wasn’t worth a dried fig out there in Morganville. Better here where her allies might be able to protect her than out there, dodging enemies all alone.”

“As if she doesn’t have any enemies here?”

He shrugged. “None that matter. Oliver is not unfond of the girl, and there are many who have some graceful experience of her.

She might have a few who’d be happy to feast, but not so many we can’t stop them.”

“We?” Jesse crossed her arms and stared at him, her head cocked. “Assuming a lot, aren’t we, dear madman?”

“A fair amount,” he admitted. “But needs must, from time to time, assume things. And I believe that I can count on you, my lady.” He gave her a very elegant bow that was only a little spoiled by the slime that covered him. Jesse, for her part, didn’t laugh.

Much. She responded with a curtsy only a little spoiled by the fact that she was wearing blue jeans and a tight T- shirt instead of fancy court clothes.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll play along and help keep fangs out of our little friend. Bad news: Fallon’s here. He blew in like a bad wind a few moments ago. I think he’s discovered that Amelie made it out alive.”

“Then he’s not pleased.”

“Oh, no,” Jesse said, with a broad, tight smile. “We’ve all been summoned to the bottom floor for questioning. You’ll need to clean yourself off before they discover how it is you’re getting out, though I think you’ve ruined all the extra clothes by now.”

He shrugged that off with magnificent indifference. “I’ll find something.”

“I’m quite sure you will,” she agreed. “Let me scrounge some- thing for you. I might do a better job of matching colors, at least.”

He gave her a wry slice of a smile, and between one blink and the next, Jesse was just . . . gone. It was her and Myrnin, alone in a room that was, Claire realized, sort of a bedroom. There were two camp beds in it, at least, each with a neatly folded thin blanket on it. Nothing else in the room, though— no personal effects of any kind. It could have been anybody’s room, or no one’s.

“Jesse will be back in a moment,” Myrnin said. “She’s right. If they’ve ordered us below, then I need to clean up quickly. If anyone comes to bite you while I’m gone— well, try not to attract attention. Die quietly.”

“I can defend myself, you know.”

“With your bare hands, against hungry, bored, angry vam- pires? Claire. You know I think well of you, but that is really not your best problem- solving work.” He shook his head as if very disappointed with her lack of vision. “At least the offal you’re covered in will disguise the scent of your blood for now. Just stay quiet and still, and you ought to be fine. Besides, I doubt anyone’s hungry enough to bite you while you’re quite so . . . filthy.”

She was pretty sure there was something insulting in there, but it was also comforting.

Myrnin disappeared, just as Jesse had, and Claire was left standing alone in the dim, quiet room. She hadn’t seen him do it, but Myrnin had replaced the grate over the pipe they’d used to en- ter; she went over and tested it, but it didn’t budge, and she realized that he’d bent it into place. Nobody would realize it was anything but solid, not even on close inspection. It would take vampire strength to even begin to pry it loose.

Was that how Amelie had gotten out? Through the slime?

Somehow Claire couldn’t imagine Her Immaculateness sliding through the ooze on her way out, or making her way across Mor- ganville looking like a refugee from the Nickelodeon Awards. One thing vampires were big on was dignity.

She was deep in contemplation of the vent and its implications when she realized that she had a visitor. It wasn’t Myrnin. It wasn’t even Jesse.

It was Michael.

She flinched, because he was just right there, no warning, no sound. He wasn’t usually like that, so . . . vampiric. In the house, Michael always took special care to make sure they heard him coming, and she’d never bothered to wonder before if that took a lot of extra effort for him— if he felt as if he was forced to be embarrassingly clumsy around them, just to avoid scaring the crap out of them in the kitchen or the hallway.

Then in the next split second she realized that he certainly hadn’t bothered this time, and there was something in the way he was watching her— the utter stillness of his body and face— that made her feel deeply uneasy.

“Michael?” She almost blurted out you scared me, but that was blindingly obvious from the way she’d jumped and from the no doubt deafening sound of her racing heartbeat. Her pulse should have been slowing down after the first instant of alarm/recogni- tion, but instead it continued drumming right on, as if her body knew something her mind didn’t.

She didn’t move. That took a lot of effort, actually, because those same instincts insisting to her that she was scared were also wanting her to take at least a couple of steps back. Large steps, at that.

Michael said, “I lied to Eve.”

As totally confusing openings went, that was a new one— both unexpected, and ominous. “Um . . . okay. About what?”

“I said they were feeding us, but they like us weak. The weaker, the better. They do give us blood, but it’s soured, somehow.

Drugged. It doesn’t really help,” Michael said. His soft, measured voice sounded oddly soothing to her, and she felt her heartbeat slowing down, finally. He was her friend, after all. One of her very best and sweetest friends. “I heard your voice. I knew you were here.”

“It’s good to see you,” she said. Her own voice sounded strange now, oddly calm and flat. “Are you okay?”

“No,” he said. “He brought Eve. He’s going to use her against me. I’m very hungry. And you shouldn’t be here, Claire. I don’t want you to be here, because . . .” A twitch of a smile, like a spasm of pain, came across his lips and then was immediately gone again.

“You smell terrible, you know.”

“Sorry. It’s the slime.”

“But I still want you.”

She opened her mouth and realized she had nothing to say to that. Nothing at all. Because it was shocking and wrong and so very wrong and this was Michael saying it, and despite the fact that everything seemed weirdly okay, as if she was soaking in a soothing bath and everything was a dream . . . she understood two things: he didn’t mean it as sexually as it sounded, and also, it was so not okay.

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