He was closer to her now, and she didn’t see him move. He was just . . . closer. Watching her. She didn’t like that. Inside the calm cocoon, something in her twisted and pushed and tried to break free of the sticky, syrupy layers of calm she’d become wrapped in.

Please don’t do this.

He was too close now. She could have reached out and put her hand on his chest, and what was her hand doing rising like that, as if she had no real control over it, and why were his eyes turning so red . . .

“Michael. ”

The voice was low and cold, and Claire felt the tone stab straight through that cocoon that wrapped her so tightly and rip it open. The air suddenly felt heavy on her skin, and too thick, and she couldn’t get her breath. Her pulse kick- started faster again, and she stumbled backward until her shoulders touched a wall.

Jesse was in the doorway. She looked wild and dangerous and angry, and when Michael took another step in Claire’s direction Jesse came at him, wrapped a fist in the fabric of his T- shirt, and threw the younger vampire ten feet toward the exit. When he tried to lunge for Claire again, Jesse caught him, steadied him, and held on when he tried to pull free. “Nope,” she said, and patted his shoulder. “You’re going to thank me later when you have a chance to think about it. Not your fault, kid. Believe me. But you’d take it hard if this went badly.”

“I wouldn’t hurt her,” he growled, and Claire saw his fangs then, down and sharp and glittering. “She’s my friend. I know what I’m doing. I’d only take a little. ”

“Just a sip. Yeah, I know. But it doesn’t work. At times like these, the only thing to do is just say no.”

He didn’t like it, but he let Jesse turn him around and lead him away. She shut the door behind him as she pushed him.

Jesse looked frustrated and angry, and there was a flash of red in her eyes, like distant lightning on the edge of a storm. She began stalking the room with long, restless strides. As she walked, she gathered up her long red hair and twisted it into a rope at the back of her head, then ripped a piece of her shirt off to tie it in place. It wasn’t in the best repair, her shirt. Claire wondered how many times she’d cannibalized it for hair ties already.


“They’re dosing our blood,” Jesse told her. “I’m not certain what they’re using, but it seems to cut the effectiveness of our meals to almost nothing. We eat, but it doesn’t nourish, and the hunger . . . the hunger won’t stop. I’m not sure why they’re doing it, and it worries me. Why would they want ravenous vampires?”

It was a very good— and scary— question. “I don’t know.”

“Why in the world did you decide to throw yourself in the middle of all this?”

“Well,” Claire said, and tried a smile, “it was this or jail.”

“Were they actively trying to eat you in jail?”

“Myrnin has a job for me, and he seemed to think you could keep me safe,” she said. “Can you?”

Jesse let out an entirely humorless dry chuckle. “Depends on the circumstances,” she said. “But against most of my fellow vampires I have a better than average chance, yes. The only ones able to shut me down would be Amelie and Oliver, and neither one of them seem likely to come against me. Amelie’s vanished, and Oliver . . .”

“Fallon’s got him,” Claire guessed. “Downstairs. What is he doing to him?”

“Nothing Oliver can’t endure,” Jesse said. “He’s been through worse— I can almost guarantee it.”

“What about Eve? Fallon has Eve. He brought her—”

“I saw her through the door,” Jesse said. “Outside, still locked in his car. She seems . . . impaired?”

“Drugged,” Claire shot back, angry on Eve’s behalf. “She’s okay?”

“So far.” Jesse was grasping her hands behind her back as if she felt the need to be restrained, and Claire wondered just how hun- gry she actually was. Probably quite very hungry. Myrnin would have fed outside, but Jesse hadn’t had a chance, and that meant she was just as hungry as Michael— maybe even more. Oliver wouldn’t have fed, either— even if he’d had the chance, he’d have made sure others went first, because he was the ruler, even if a temporary one, of this very sad little kingdom. “It’s lucky that you have so little blood in you to go around, you know. That helps make you less . . .


Finally, a use for being smaller than normal. “I thought you needed me. Myrnin said he needed human hands to help him dis- able your shock collars.”

“He’s dreaming,” Jesse said, and shook her head. “They’re fit- ted with sensors from those monitors modern courts force felons to wear under house arrest, but significantly modified. If you so much as try to open the case, it’ll stun a vampire into submission— and probably flash- fry a human brain.”

“Myrnin said he could handle the shocks.”

That made Jesse smile, but it was a sad sort of expression.

“That’s because he’s mad as a hatter.”

“I never understood that. Hatters, I mean.”

“In the old days, people who made hats used mercury to pro- duce felt,” Jesse said. “They often went mad. And Myrnin’s just as crazy if he thinks you can help us get these things off. At best, he’d electrocute you. At worst, he’d blow his head and your hands right off.” She came closer as she circled the room, and an expression of disgust twisted her face as she retreated. “Right, we need to get you washed off. You smell like what a sewer would vomit up as too disgusting.”

That was a tremendously colorful image, and Claire was glad her nose had gone too numb to notice anything. “Myrnin told me to wait here,” she said.

“Myrnin did indeed, and you obeyed,” Myrnin told her, just as he walked through the doorway. He was wearing some kind of threadbare floral silk robe held together by a leather belt— with studs— along with an untied pair of oversized rain boots. But he was clean. Just . . . ridiculous. “Go on, then, girl. He’s right about the stench. Jesse will stand guard for you. You’ll come to no harm.

Shoo.” He let out an exasperated sigh when she hesitated, then took her firmly by the shoulders and steered her to the door, where Jesse waited with her arms crossed. “Out,” he said.

“Myrnin,” Jesse said, “that wasn’t too bright, was it? Now you’ve got slime all over your hands again.”

“Oh,” Myrnin said, staring crestfallen at his palms. “Damn.”

Jesse grinned, but it looked more feral than friendly right at this moment. “Come on, Claire, before he tries to wipe it on me and I have to remove his limbs.”

Outside the little room— which turned out to be what must have been some kind of staff room for a store, Claire guessed— there were more cots. Some were messy, some were neat, and a few were occupied . . . but the vampires lying there didn’t so much as stir as they passed. Jesse was, Claire noticed, keeping an eye on them anyway. Maybe, she was afraid that they, like Michael, could smell the fresh blood under the stench of slime and decay.

What am I going to do when I’m clean? she wondered, and it was a valid question, but the truth was she wanted to be clean so badly that it really didn’t matter what came after. She just had to trust that somehow Myrnin and Jesse could protect her.

And what about Oliver? What is Fal on doing to him?

The washroom was just that— a toilet with multiple sinks and stalls, not showers. There were stacks of faded old towels in the corner, all colors and sizes as if they’d come from some Goodwill bag, and she grabbed a couple and began to strip off the sticky layers of her clothing. Jesse held out a plastic bag at arm’s length as Claire put in shirt, pants, and then underwear, face turned away as if she couldn’t even stand the sight of the mess, much less the smell.

“Well,” Jesse said, “I feel like I hardly know you, Claire, but would you like me to pick you out some clothes while you wash?”

“Thanks,” Claire said. She felt icy cold now, and incredibly vulnerable. She watched Jesse tie the plastic bag, and move away to a bin where— evidently— old clothes were kept. Claire took a ragged washcloth and wet it in the water— cold, of course— then scraped it over the old soap in the dish until it was brimming with suds. Cleaning off the slime wasn’t so bad, but washing her hair was awful; it meant bending over the sink naked and scrubbing soap through it, all the while terrified that a vampire, any vampire, might be silently drifting up behind her to take a bite.

None did, though. Claire finished wringing out her hair, flipped it back with a wet slap against her neck, and grabbed a towel to dry herself off.

Jesse was sitting in a folding camp chair, blocking the doorway in case anyone else tried to intrude. “Clothes are on the second sink,” Jesse said. “Sorry, the choices weren’t great.” They really weren’t. The panties were too big, the bra threadbare and stretched, and the shirt looked like something even a grandmother might have thought too boring. At least the pants fit, even if they were several inches too long; Claire pegged the hems, shoved her feet into old, frayed once- blue Keds that lacked any kind of laces, and said, “I guess I’m done.”

Jesse put aside the book she was reading and looked over her shoulder. Her eyebrows rose just enough to make Claire think she was struggling not to laugh. “Good look for you, kid. Kind of a homeless hipster thing going on.”

“Are you really some kind of— lady?” Claire asked her. “Be- cause no offense, but you don’t sound like one.”

“I was once. I was a queen, too,” Jesse said. “Don’t take that too seriously; it didn’t last long. But I spent my entire life talking as every one thought I should, dressing to everyone else’s standards, never having an opinion or a thought of my own. It was exhaust- ing, being everyone’s dress- up doll, and once I got the chance to be my own person, I never looked back. Myrnin likes the thought that I used to be a lady, but don’t let it fool you. I’m not one. Not anymore. And in truth, I think that’s what he likes about me the most— the change.”

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