The Morganville Vampires#9 "Ghost Town"
Its my lucky day. I have not been on the web in awhile so i find myself playing catch up today. (One of my only days off.) So you can imagine my delight when I found that a sneak peek of "Ghost Town" was released. OH JOY!
“Oh, this doesn’t sound like a good idea,” Claire said, looking down at the paper that had been shoved into her hand by a passing student. She paused in the shade of the Science Building porch to read it. Only idiots stood around in full sun at Texas Prairie University in the middle of the afternoon – well, idiots and football players – and angled herself into a corner so she wouldn’t get buffeted by the streams of people pouring out after the end of class. There were a few hardy salmons trying to swim upstream, but she didn’t think they’d make it.
People all around her were carrying the same goldenrod sheet of paper she had – stuffed into pockets, crammed into books, held in hands.
She was one of the last ones to get pamphleted, she guessed. She was just a little surprised anybody had bothered at all, given the fact that she, Claire Danvers, was small for her age, looked younger than her mid-seventeen-going-hard-on-eighteen years, and tended to blend into the crowd at the best of times. Even though her ultra-fashion-conscious housemate Eve – with all the best possible intentions – had made her sit down in the bathroom and get her brown hair all highlighted so it glowed red in the sun. Still. She just wasn’t – noticeable.
She’d learned it the hard way: early admission to college sucked.
Someone stopped next to her in the relative quiet of the shade. It was a tall, good-looking boy, and he dropped his backpack on the tiled floor with a thump as he looked over the same flyer she held. “Huh,” he said, and glanced over at her. “You going?”
Once she got over the dazzle of his good looks (truthfully, it didn’t take that long, her boyfriend was just as cute), she checked his wrist. He was a Morganville native; he was wearing a bracelet around one wrist, made out of copper and leather, with an ornate-looking symbol engraved on the central plate. It meant he was vampire property – property of Ming Cho, who was one of those vampires that Claire had never directly run into. She liked it that way. Really, her circle of vampire acquaintances was way, way too large as it was.
“Hey,” he said again, and rattled the paper in front of her face. “Anybody in there? You going?”
Claire looked down at the paper again. It had a bunch of pictures and symbols on it, no words. A musical note, which meant a rave was on the menu. Some pictures of party favors, which meant that mostly illegal stuff was going to be floating around. The address was coded in the form of a riddle, which she solved easily enough; it was an address on South Rackham, among all those decaying warehouses that used to be thriving businesses. The time was pretty obvious: midnight. That was what the graphic of the witch was for – the witching hour. The date was tonight.
“Not interested,” she said, and handed him her copy. “Not my thing.”
“Too bad. It’s going to be out there.”
He laughed. “You a training wheels partier?”
“I’m not much of a partier at all,” Claire said, and couldn’t help but smile; he had a really nice laugh, one that made you want to laugh with it. He wasn’t laughing at her, at least. That was different. “Hi, by the way. I’m Claire.”
“Alex,” he said. “You coming from Chem?”
“No, Computational Physics.”
“Oh,” he said, and blinked. “And I have no idea what that is. Right, carry on, Einstein. Nice to meet you.”
He picked up his backpack and moved off before she could even explain about many-body and non-linear physical systems. Yeah, that would have really impressed him. Instead of walking away, he’d have been running.
She felt a little hurt, but only a little. At least he’d talked to her. That was ninety-nine percent better than her usual score with college guys, except the ones who wanted to do something terrible to her. Those guys were very chatty.
Claire squinted against the bright sunshine and looked out onto the courtyard. The big open brick space was clearing, although there were, as always, a knot of people around the central column where flyers were posted for rides, rooms, parties and various services and causes. She had time before her next class – about an hour – but hiking all the way in the unseasonably late heat to the University Center coffee bar didn’t sound attractive. She’d get there, have maybe half an hour, and then she’d have to walk another long way to get to her next class.
TPU really needed to look into mass transit.
The Science building was closer to the edge of campus than most others, so it was actually a shorter walk to one of the four exit gates, across the street, and then to Common Grounds, the off-campus coffee house. Of course, it was owned by a vampire, and not a nice one, either, but in Morganville, you couldn’t be too choosy about those kinds of things if you valued your caffeine. Or your blood.
Besides, Oliver could mostly be trusted. Mostly.
Decision made, Claire grabbed her heavily laden book bag and set off in the withering sunshine for Vampire Central.
It was always funny to her now – walking through town she could tell which people were “in the know” about Morganville, and which weren’t. The ones who weren’t mostly looked bored and unhappy, stuck in a nothing-doing small town that rolled up the sidewalks at dusk.
The ones who did know still looked unhappy, but in that hunted, haunted way. She didn’t blame them, not at all; she’d been through the entire adjustment cycle, from shock to disbelief to acceptance to misery. Now she was just ... comfortable. Surprising, but true. It was a dangerous place, but she knew the rules.
Even if she didn’t always obey the rules.
Her cell phone rang as she was crossing the street – the Twilight Zone theme. That meant it was her boss. She looked down at the screen, frowned, and shut it off without answering. She was pissed at Myrnin, again, and she didn’t want to hear him go on, again, about why she was wrong about the machine they were building.
He wanted to put a human brain in it. So not happening. Myrnin was crazy, but normally it was a good crazy, not a creepy crazy. Lately, he seemed to be pushing the far end of the creep-o-meter, though. She wondered if she seriously ought to get some vampire psychologist to look at him or something. They probably had someone who’d been around when Dr. Freud was just finishing medical school.
Common Grounds was blessedly dim and cool, but mercilessly busy. There wasn’t a free table to be had, which was depressing; Claire’s feet hurt, and her shoulder was about to dislocate from the constant pull of her book bag. She found a free corner and dumped the weight of knowledge (potential, anyway) with a sigh of relief and joined the line at the order window. There was a new guy, again, which didn’t surprise Claire much; Oliver seemed to go through employees pretty quickly. She wasn’t sure if that was just his strict nature, or whether he was eating them. Either one was possible, but the latter wasn’t likely, at least. Oliver was more careful than that.
It took about five minutes to reach the head of the line, but Claire put in her order for a cafe mocha without much trouble, except that the new guy spelled her name wrong on the cup. She moved on down the counter, and when she looked up, Oliver was staring at her from behind the espresso machine as he pulled shots. He looked the same as always – aging hippie, graying hair pulled back in a classy-looking ponytail, one gold stud in his right ear, a coffee-splattered tie-dyed apron, and eyes like ice. With all the details, you didn’t tend to notice the pallor in his face, or the coldness of his stare.
In the next second, he smiled, and his eyes changed completely, like another person had just stepped into his body – the friendly coffee-shop guy he liked to pretend to be. “Claire,” he said, and finished dumping shots into her mocha cup. “What a nice surprise. Sorry about the lack of seating.”
“I guess business is good.”
“Always.” He knew how she liked the drink, and added whipped cream and sprinkles without asking before handing it over. “I believe the frat boys by the window are about to leave. You can get a seat if you hurry.”
He was right, she could see the pre-leaving preparations going on. Claire nodded her thanks and grabbed her bag, pushing between chairs and apologizing her way to the table so that she arrived just as the last frat boy grabbed his stuff and headed out the door. She was one of four headed for the vacancy, and missed it by the length of one outstretched, well-manicured hand.
“Excuse me, our table,” Monica Morrell said, looking down at her with unconcealed delight. “The junior skank section is over there, by the bathroom. Beat it.”
The Mayor of Morganville’s sister sank down in one of the four chairs, flipping her shiny dark hair back over her shoulders; she’d added some blonde highlights to it again, but Claire didn’t think they did her any favors. She’d accessorized with arm candy, though, in the form of a big linebacker type guy with one of those faces that was beefy but still handsome. He was blond, which seemed to be Monica’s new type, and dumb, which was always her type. He was carrying her coffee, which he put down in front of her before taking a seat next to her, close enough to drape his big arm around her shoulders and stare down her cleavage.
It would have been the safe thing to just back off and let Monica claim her petty victory, but Claire was really not in the mood. She wasn’t afraid of Monica anymore – well, not normally – and the last thing she wanted to do was let Monica spoil the one thing she’d been looking forward to during the entire walk over.
So Claire put her cafe mocha down at the third place and sat down, just ahead of Jennifer, who was making for the space. Gina, Monica’s other ever-present girlfriend/minion, had already taken the third seat.
Monica, oddly, didn’t say anything. She stared at Claire as if she couldn’t quite figure out what the hell that was doing sitting down at her table, and then, once she got over the shock, she smiled, as if it occurred to her that maybe this could be fun. In a nasty sort of way.
Jennifer stood there glaring down at Claire, clearly not sure what to do, and Claire was acutely aware that she had her back to the girl. Never a good plan. She didn’t trust any of them, but she trusted Jennifer these days least of all. Gina had kind of discovered humanity, in a vague kind of way, and Monica – well, Monica could usually be counted on to do what was good for Monica.
Jennifer was unpredictable, and six of the worst kinds of crazy. Gina was mean, and Monica could be vicious, but Jennifer didn’t seem to have any sense of boundaries at all. Plus, Jennifer had been the first one of the three to push her. She hadn’t forgotten that.
Claire sensed a movement at her back, and almost ducked, but she forced herself not to flinch. Nothing will happen, not here. Not in front of Oliver.
Monica’s eyes went to Jennifer – wide and a little odd, as if Jennifer spooked her, too. “Jesus, Jen, get a grip,” she said, which made Claire want to turn around and see if she was getting out a knife, but she managed to resist. “Just get another chair. It’s not rocket science.”
Jennifer’s tone of voice made it clear she was still glaring at the back of Claire’s head. “There aren’t any.”
“Well? Go scare somebody out of one. It’s what you do.”
That was cold, even for Monica, and Claire suddenly felt uneasy about this. Maybe she should just – move on. She didn’t want to be in the middle, because if Monica and Jennifer really went at it, the middle was going to get killed.
But before she could decide what to do, she heard Jennifer walking away, toward a team of people studying in the corner with books and calculators and notes spread on every available table inch. She zeroed in on the biggest guy, tapped him on the shoulder, and whispered in his ear. He stood up. She grabbed his chair and carried it back with her, as he stood there in complete bafflement.
It was, Claire realized, a really good strategy. The guy didn’t seem like the type to come and pick a fight over something that small, especially with a girl of Jennifer’s size (and reputation). So he finally shrugged and stood there awkwardly, resigned to his fate.
Jennifer jammed the chair in between Monica and Claire and sat down. Monica and Gina clapped, and Jennifer, finally, stopped glaring and grinned, proud to have earned their approval.
It was just ... sad.
Claire shook her head. It wasn’t worth the small victory to be part of this. She stood up, grabbed her chair, and towed it across the crowded room to slide it next to the guy Gina had stolen the chair from, who was still standing. “Here,” she said. “I’m leaving anyway.”
Now he really looked confused. So did Monica and her Monickettes, as if the concept of give-backs had never crossed their path before. Claire sighed, shifted the weight of her backpack, and prepared to leave, mocha in hand.
“Hey!” Monica’s grip on her elbow dragged her to a stop. “What the hell? I want you to stay!”
“Why?” Claire asked, and jerked her arm free. “So you can needle me for an hour? Are you really that bored?”
Monica looked even more confused. Nobody ever turned down being part of the Queen Bee’s inner circle. After that second of vulnerability, though, her face hardened into something that Claire recognized. “Don’t diss me, Danvers. I’m warning you.”
“I’m not dissing you,” Claire said. “I’m ignoring you. There’s a difference. Dissing you implies I think you’re actually important.”
As she walked out, she heard someone behind her laugh and clap. They were quickly hushed, but it still warmed her just a little. She didn’t often get up in Monica’s grill that directly, but she was sick of the games. Monica just needed to move on and find somebody else to poke her pins into.
The mocha was still delicious. Maybe even just a little bit more delicious for being outside in the open air, come to think of it. Claire nodded to a few people she knew on the street, all of them permanent residents, and strolled down the block. She wasn’t in the mood to shop for clothes, but the little, faded bookstore farther down beckoned her.
Book Mad was a dusty little hole in the wall, crammed floor to ceiling with stacks of books in – as far as Claire had ever been able to tell – only a vague sense of order. Generally, nonfiction was at the front, and fiction at the back, but you really could never tell. The stacks never seemed to get any smaller, or the dust ever disturbed, but she was always finding new stuff she hadn’t seen before.
That was weirdly entertaining.
“Hi, Claire,” said the proprietor, a tall guy about her father’s age. He was thin and a little nerdy, but that might just have been the glasses, which were either retro or seriously lame, Claire could never decide. He had on a funny t-shirt, as usual. Today’s featured a cartoon figure running from a giant T-Rex that said, underneath, Exercise: some motivation required. She tried not to smile, but lost the battle. It really was funny. “Got some physics stuff that just came in. It’s over there.” He gestured vaguely off into the distance. Claire nodded.
“Hey,” she said. “Where do you get the books? I mean, they’re old. Some of them are really old.”
He shrugged and looked down at the antique register on the counter, and brushed some dust off the keys. “Oh, you know. Around.”
“From a storage room in the library? Maybe on the fourth floor?” She had him. He looked up at her, eyes narrowing, as if she’d stuck him with a pin. “I’ve been in there. I was wondering what they were going to do with all that stuff. So, who gives you the books?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, and all the warmth was gone, suddenly. He looked uncomfortable and suspicious, and the funny t-shirt didn’t fit his mood at all. “Let me know if you find anything you want.”
The fourth floor of the school’s library had been a locked maze of boxes of old books, gathered from who-knew-where by the vampires. At the time Claire had visited – well, broken in – they’d been combing through looking for one particular book. She’d wondered what they’d planned to do with all the rest once their quest was finished.
Naturally, they were making money off of them. Vampires were nothing if not practical.
As Claire was thumbing through the dusty stacks, squinting to read faded titles, occasionally sneezing from the smell of old paper, she found a slim, leather-bound volume that was still in pretty good condition. No title on the spine, so she pulled it out and looked at the front. Nothing on the front, either.
Inside, on the first page under a sheet of old onion paper, was a black and white photograph of Amelie. Claire blinked and took her time looking; yes, it really was Amelie. The Founder of Morganville looked young and fragile, with her white-gold hair piled up in a complicated style on top of her head that showed off her very long, elegant neck. She wore a black dress, something from the 1800s, Claire guessed, with lots of sleeve and tons of skirts and petticoats. There was something about her eyes – the photograph had made them even lighter than the icy gray they usually were.
It was deeply spooky.
Claire flipped a page, and read the title:
A HISTORY OF MORGANVILLE
Its Important Citizens and Events
A Chronicle of Our Times
She blinked. Surely they hadn’t meant for this to end up in the used bookstore, where anybody could pick it up and find it. She’d never seen anything like it before.
And of course, she had to have it. She’d been burning up with curiosity about Amelie ever since she’d met her; the Founder seemed to have so many secrets that it was hard to know where they started and stopped. Even though Amelie had, from time to time, helped her out, and had given her Protection that had saved her life at one time, Claire really didn’t know that much about her, except that she was old, regal, and scary.
The penciled price on the inside of the cover was only five dollars. She quickly found a few more obscure science titles, buried the history in the stack, and hauled it up to the front.
He snorted. “You’re never going to cram all that in your backpack.”
“Yeah, probably not,” she agreed. “Could I have a sack?”
“What do I look like, Piggly Wiggly? Hang on.” He rooted around behind the counter, sending up choking clouds of dust that made even him cough, and finally handed over a battered old canvas bag. She started counting out money, and he quickly flipped open the books and added up the totals. He wasn’t paying attention, which was good; he just added it up and said, “Twenty-seven fifty.”
That was an awful lot, pretty much all she had at the moment, but she kept smiling and handed it over. As soon as the cash had left her palm, she grabbed the bag and started stuffing things inside.
“What’s your hurry?” he asked, counting out the fives and ones. “It’s not close to sundown.”
“Class,” she said. “Thanks.”
He nodded, opened the register, and put the cash inside. She felt him watching her all the way to the door. It occurred to her that she didn’t know which vampire owned this business, or how they might feel about the sale of the book ... but she couldn’t worry about that now.
She really did have class.
It didn’t take long at all to read the book. She stopped in a park on the way home, sitting in a sun-faded rubber swing seat, rocking slowly back and forth as she flipped pages.
It was about people she’d never heard of ... and people she knew. Amelie, for one. Amelie’s disputes with various vampires. Amelie’s decisions to sentence that person for their crimes, spare that one. There were other vampires profiled, too. Some she’d never heard of; she supposed that they’d died, or left, or maybe they were just reclusive. Oliver wasn’t in the book, because he was a latecomer to town. Neither, curiously, was Myrnin. She supposed Myrnin had been a closely guarded secret from the very beginning.
It was weirdly interesting, but overall, she didn’t know what good it was going to do her to know that Amelie had once filed a complaint against a man who owned a dry goods store (what was a dry goods store?) for cheating the human customers. And that the complaint had gotten his store taken away from him, and he’d opened the town’s first movie theater.
In the end, Claire dropped the book into her backpack, and thought about mailing it anonymously in to the library. Maybe that was where it really belonged, anyway. She thought about it on the way home, but she ended up worrying about whether or not vampires could somehow sense she’d handled it. CSI: Vampire. Not a comforting thought.
“You’re late,” Michael remarked, as she walked into the Glass House through the kitchen door. He was standing at the sink washing dishes; there was nothing odder to her than seeing her housemate, who was all kinds of smoking hot, not to mention all kinds of vampire, up to his elbows in suds at the sink. “Also, it’s not my day to do kitchen. It’s yours.”
“Is that your passive-aggressive way of trying to get me to pick up your laundry duty?”
“I don’t know. Is it working?”
“Maybe.” She put her bags down at the table and went to join him at the sink. He washed plates and handed them over, and she rinsed and dried. Very domestic. “I was reading. I forgot what time it was.”
“Bookworm.” He flicked suds at her. Michael was in a really good mood, no question about that; he had been for the last couple of months. Getting out of Morganville and recording his music with a real, genuine recording company had been good for him. Coming back had been hard, but he’d finally settled back into the routine. They all had. It had been a crazy, weird vacation, almost like something they’d dreamed, Claire decided.
But damn, it had felt good to be out there with her friends, on the road, without the shadow of Morganville hanging over them. Much.
Michael abruptly stopped laughing, and just looked at her with those big blue eyes, and she felt momentarily dizzy, and felt a blush coming on. Not that he was flirting with her – not more than normal – but he was looking at her a lot more deeply than usual, and he didn’t blink.
Finally he did, turning his attention back to the sink, and washed another plate before he said, “You’re nervous about something. Your heartbeat’s faster than normal.”
“You can hear – Oh. Of course you can.” He hadn’t been staring at her so much as the blood moving through her veins, she thought. And that was kind of creepy, except it was Michael. He made creepy adorable, most of the time. “I ran part of the way home, that’s probably it.”
“Hey, if you don’t want to tell me, don’t. But I can tell when you lie.”
Okay, that was super creepy. “You can?”
He smiled grimly down at the dirty dishwater. “Nope. But see? You fell for it anyway. Careful, or I’ll read your mind with my super vampire powers.”
She sighed and wiped her hands as he pulled the plug on the dishwater and let it swirl away into the dark. The kitchen looked like someone actually cared. She really did owe him laundry, probably.
Claire tossed him the dish towel. “That was a mean trick.”
“Yeah, still a vampire. Spill it.”
As he wiped his hands and arms free of suds, she opened up the bag on the table, rooted around to find the slim volume, and handed it over. He sank into a chair. As he looked it over, his eyebrows went up, and up. “Where’d you get this?”
“The used bookstore,” she said. “I don’t think he knew it was there. Or if he did, maybe it’s – I don’t know – full of lies? But that’s a picture of Amelie, right?”
“I didn’t know there were any, but that’s definitely one.” Michael closed the book and handed it back. “Maybe it’s Morganville propaganda. They’ve done that from time to time, in which case, no big deal. But if it’s not – “
“If it’s the real history of Morganville, then I should take it to Amelie before I get in trouble, yeah, thanks Dad. Already figured that one out.”
He leaned forward on his elbows and grinned. “You are a difficult kid. But a smart one.”
“Not a kid,” she said, and shot him the finger, just like Eve or Shane would have done. “Hey, who’s on dinner patro—“
Before she could finish the last word, the front door banged open, and Eve’s cheery voice echoed down the hall. “Hellooooo, creatures of the night! Put your pants back on! Food’s here, and I don’t mean me!”
Michael pointed mutely that direction.
“Tell me she’s not bringing leftover sandwiches from the University Center,” Claire moaned, as Eve burst into the kitchen door with a white paper bag in hand.
“I heard that,” Eve said, and opened the refrigerator to dump the bag inside. “I got you the bacteria special, I know how much you like that. The UC kitchen staff sends their love. Whassup, dead guy?”
“Not dead yet,” Michael said, and rose to kiss her. Except for the cool bluish tone to his skin, he looked like any other boy of nineteen; the sharp, pointy teeth were folded up, like a snake’s, and when he was like this Claire actually kind of forgot he was a vamp at all. Although he was wearing a faded t-shirt that had a happy face on it, with vampire fangs. Eve had probably bought it for him.
Eve herself had to stand just a bit on tiptoe for the kiss, which went on about five seconds too long for it to be just hi-honey-welcome-home, and when they parted, Eve’s cheeks were flushed even under the white Goth makeup. After a hard day of pulling shots at the TPU coffee shop – she alternated now between there and Common Grounds – she still looked cheerful and alert. Maybe it was all that caffeine. It just soaked right into her body without even having to drink it. She was wearing black tights with orange pumpkins on them – left over from Halloween, Claire assumed, but Halloween was a year-round holiday for Eve – and a tight black skirt, and three layers of thin shirts, each different colors. The one on top was sheer black, with a sad-eyed pirate skull printed on it.
“I like the new earrings,” Claire said. They were silver skulls, and the little eye sockets lit up red whenever Eve turned her head. “They’re you.”
“I know, right? Couldn’t be cooler,” Eve beamed. “Oh, and actually, they were out of the bacteria special, so I got you the turkey and cheese. That’s usually the safest one.”
Safe being a relative term, when it came to UC food. “Thanks,” Claire said. “Tomorrow I’m making spaghetti. Yes, before you ask, with meat sauce. Carnivores.”
Eve made a chomping sound with her teeth. Michael just smiled. The smile faded as he asked, “You don’t have to go see Amelie tonight, do you?”
“No, probably not. The book’s been sitting in that shop for who knows how long. It can wait until tomorrow. I have to go to the lab, anyway. Amelie will be a nice break, after my mandatory crazy boss time.”
Eve got herself a cold Coke from the fridge and popped the top as she dragged Claire’s bag off of a chair and dumped it in the corner. “How is crazy boss man, anyway?”
“Myrnin’s – well, Myrnin, I guess. He’s been getting a little weird.”
“Sweetie, coming from you, that’s alarming.”
“I know.” Claire sighed and sat down, propping her chin on both fists. She debated how much to say, even to her friends, but honestly, there weren’t any secrets. Not in the Glass House. “I think he’s under a lot of pressure to get the machine fixed, you know the one – “
“Ada,” Eve said. “Ugh, seriously, he’s not bringing that back to life, is he?”
“Not – exactly, no. But Ada wasn’t all bad, you know. Well, Ada was, the personality, but the machine did all kinds of things that the vamps need, like maintain the borders of the town, give alerts when residents leave, wipe memories when they want it done ... and run the portals.” The portals were the dimensional doorways that ran through town. Myrnin had discovered some freaky way of accelerating particles and constructing stable tunnels through space/time, something that Claire was still struggling to understand, let alone master. “It’s important. We’re just trying to, you know, take the Ada factor out of the equation.”
“Killer computers,” Eve sighed. “Like we didn’t have enough trouble in Morganville already. I’m not so sure any of those things you’re talking about are good for us, Claire Bear. You feel me?”
“If by us you mean the regular humans, yeah, I know. But – “ Claire shrugged. “Fact is, it lets them trust us, and trust is all the keeps this town going.”
Eve didn’t have a comeback to that. She knew Claire was right. Morganville existed on a teetering, dangerous balance between the paranoia and violence of the vampires, and the paranoia and violence of the humans. Right there, at the balance point, they could all coexist. But it didn’t take much to tilt things to one side or the other, and if that happened, Morganville would burn.
Claire chewed her lip and continued, “We’re getting it done, really, we are, but he’s got some kind of deadline he’s not telling me about, and I’m worried he’s going to – do something crazy.”
“He lives in a hole in the ground, dresses funny, and occasionally eats his assistants,” Eve said. “Define crazy.”
Claire closed her eyes. “I think he wants to put my brain in a jar and wire it into the machine.”
Dead silence. She opened her eyes. Michael was staring at her, frozen in the act of opening the refrigerator door; Eve had put her Coke down, her eyes as wide as anything ever drawn in animation. Michael finally remembered what he was doing, reached in, and grabbed a green sports bottle, which he carried to the table and sat down. “That’s not going to happen,” he said. “I’m not going to let it happen. Neither will Amelie.”
Claire wasn’t so sure about that last part, but she was sure Michael meant what he said, and that made her feel a little better. “I don’t think he’s serious about it,” Claire said weakly. “Well, not most of the time. But he keeps going on how the brain is a much better CPU ...”
“Not going to happen,” Michael repeated flatly. “I’ll kill him first, Claire. I mean it.”
She didn’t want Myrnin dead, but it did make her feel better to have her friend say it. Michael was a sweetheart most of the time, but the truth was, there was something cold inside him – and it wasn’t just that his heart didn’t beat. It was ... something else. Something darker. Mostly, it didn’t show.
Sometimes, she was grateful it did.
“Shane’s late,” Eve said, changing the subject. “Where’s Mr. Barbecue McStabby?”
“Working late,” Claire replied. “Somebody canceled on the night shift, so he had to work dinner service. He said it was okay, he could use the overtime. And he doesn’t like you to call him Mr. McStabby, you know.”
“Have you ever seen him cutting up that meat? He is like an artist with slicing. And that knife is as long as my arm. Mr. McStabby it is.”
They debated it for a while, with Michael staying out of it and sipping his sports bottle of – probably – blood, until Eve got the sandwiches out and they ate a cold, and somewhat mushy, dinner. After that, Claire fidgeted around, too restless to study, missing Shane, until Eve finally snapped at her about pacing and moving stuff, and she went up to her room.
On an impulse, she didn’t go there; she stopped in the hallway, reached out, and found the hidden catch to the secret room. The paneling clicked open, and she went in and shut the door behind her. No knob on this side, but that was okay, she knew where the release was. She ran up the narrow flight of stairs and came out in the windowless, dusty room that they’d always figured had been Amelie’s retreat, when she’d once lived in this house. It looked like her, somehow – old Victorian furniture, tapestry hangings, multicolored Tiffany lamps that were probably worth a fortune. It was always a little cold in here, for some reason. Claire stretched out on the old velvet sofa, staring up at the ceiling, and thought about how many times she’d come here with Shane. It was their private place, where they could just get away from everything, and the blanket draped over the back smelled like him. She pulled it over her and smiled, feeling like the ghost of Shane was here with her, snuggling up close.
She had no idea she’d fallen asleep at first, and then she thought she was dreaming, because someone was touching her. Not molesting her or anything, just a fingertip being drawn down her cheek, across her lips ... a slow, gentle sort of caress.
She opened her eyes to see Shane crouched down next to her. His hair was – as usual – mussed, hanging long around his face, and he smelled like barbecue and wood smoke, and his smile was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” he said. “It’s three in the morning. Eve thought vampires stole you, but that’s only because you didn’t make your bed this morning. I think I’m a bad influence.”
Her lips parted, and his finger paused there, tracing her mouth slowly. She didn’t speak. His smile got wider.
“No,” she said. “I wanted some peace and quiet. I didn’t even know you were gone.”
He clapped his hands over his chest like she’d shot him, and fell on the floor. Claire rolled off the couch on top of him, but he refused to open his eyes until she kissed him, long and thoroughly. She licked her lips as she pulled away. “Mmmm, barbecue.”
“Eve brought UC sandwiches.”
Shane made a face. “Yeah, glad I missed that. But I wasn’t exactly talking about midnight snacks.”
“Boys. Is that all you think about?”
“Is that what the cool kids are calling it these days?”
He laughed, and she felt the rumble of it through her skin. Shane didn’t laugh often, except when they were together; she loved the light in his brown eyes, and the wicked way his smile curled up on the ends. “Like I would know,” he said. “I never was one of the cool kids.”
“Such language, Miss Danvers. Oh, wait, shit, I’m a bad influence.”
She settled her head down again, ear against his chest, listening to the rush of his breathing. “Tell me what you were like in school.”
“Because I missed it.”
“You didn’t miss much,” he said. “Me and Mikey hung out a lot. He was Mr. Popular, you know, but really shy. Girls, girls, girls, but he was pretty choosy. At least, up until our junior year.”
“What happened in your junior year?” she asked, before she thought.
Shane’s fingers kept stroking through her hair as he said, “House burned, my sister Alyssa died, my family went on the run. So I don’t know how Mikey was the last two years of school. We caught up some when I came back, but it wasn’t the same. Something happened to him. Sure as hell something happened to me. You know.” He shrugged, even with her weight on him, but then, she wasn’t much of a burden, and he was a strong guy. “There’s not a lot to say about me. I was a pretty boring dumbass.”
“Were you in sports?”
He laughed. “Football, for a while. I liked hockey better. More chances to hit people. But I’m not really a team player, so I ended up in the penalty box about twice as much as everybody else. Not as much fun.” He was quiet for a few seconds, then said, “I guess you know Monica was after me for a while.”
That surprised her. “Monica Morrell? You mean, after you, in the sense of – “
“I mean she slipped me really dirty notes and tried to rip my clothes off in a closet. Which I guess to her was love. Not so much for me.” His face got hard, for a moment, and then relaxed. “I blew her off, and she got pissed. You know the rest.”
Shane believed – and Claire had no reason to doubt it – that Monica had set the fire that had burned his home and killed his sister, and destroyed his family’s life. That wound was never going to heal; he was always going to hate Monica with a burning passion that was two seconds from violence. Not that Monica did much to try to close the gap, either.
Claire couldn’t think of much to say, so she kissed him again, and it felt sweet, warm, a little distracted on his part. She shouldn’t have brought it up, she thought. He didn’t like to think about those days at all. “Hey,” she said. “I didn’t mean – “
“I know.” His smile came back again, and she thought he was back in the here and now, with her, instead of in the bad old days. “Glad you weren’t here for all that, actually. I wasn’t really all that good to know then. Plus, if you want to know the truth, I was kind of a jerk in junior high.”
“All boys are jerks in junior high. And mostly in high school. And then they grow up to be jerks.” She kissed him again. “But not you, Mr. McStabby.”
“Oh, man, Eve’s not letting that go, is she?”
“Not remotely.” She felt herself smiling, too. Shane always brought out some crazy streak in her she didn’t think she had – that was probably what worried her parents so much about the two of them. But Claire liked it. When she was with Shane, she could feel – feel the blood pounding in her veins, feel every nerve awake and alive and hungry to be touched. Everything was brighter, clearer, cleaner. A little crazy was a good thing. “Want to make out?”
“Maybe I should take a shower. I smell like sweat and barbecue.”
“You smell great,” she said. “I love the way you smell.”
“You’re getting sappy, you know that? And maybe a little creepy.”
“Oh, shut up, you like it.”
He did, she could tell, especially they were under the blanket, curled together on the couch, and Amelie’s refuge was their own, their private, sweet, warm heaven where nothing could intrude.
Well, except for Claire’s cell phone alarm, which was set for seven a.m.
Morning was hard, partly because neither one of them had slept much, and partly because Claire just didn’t want to ever leave the room, but she finally managed to kiss her way free and get down the stairs to the closed door.
It didn’t open. “Shane!” she yelled. “I have to go!”
His evil laugh drifted down to her, movie-campy, but he pushed the button and let her out. She beat Eve to the shower, of course; Eve was not voluntarily an early riser, and it was her day off, so Claire could take her time in the hot water, and get herself pulled together without knocks rushing her along. When she opened the bathroom and stepped out, she found Shane sitting on the floor next to it, blocking the hallway with his legs. He had on his rumpled jeans, but he’d left off the shirt.
So not fair. She loved looking at his chest, and he knew it.
“We have got to get a second bathroom in this monster,” he said, and kissed her on his way in the door. “You take way too long.”
“Do not!” she said, outraged, but the wood had already closed between them. “I take half the time Eve does!”
“Still too long!” he called from inside. “Girls.”
She banged on the door, not loudly enough to wake Eve or Michael, and went down the hall to her room. Shane had been right; she had never made the bed, but she did it today, putting the pillows right and everything. Then she pulled out old, ratty clothes and her worst high tops for the day.
There was no sense in wearing good clothes to Myrnin’s lab. They were just going to get splashed with icky stuff, or stuff that burned holes, or stuff that never came out, no matter how creative you got with laundry add-ins. Claire gulped a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, standing over the sink, and started to wash the bowl – but it was Shane’s kitchen day, and with a grin, she put the dirties down unscrubbed.
Served him right for trying to make her late.
She dumped most of the contents of her backpack, except for the things that were relevant to her project with Myrnin, then added in the slim history book, and took off.
It was a beautiful morning. She’d missed sunrise, but it was still a little cool, and the sky was a beautiful clear blue with only a few scrubby clouds on the horizon. At this hour, the sun seemed friendly, not like the scorching monster it would get by noon. Claire skipped down the steps and out the gate, and set off for Common Grounds first.
Coffees in hand, she headed for Myrnin’s lab.
Morganville was busy at this hour, with practically everybody who wasn’t a vampire taking advantage of the sunshine and the safety it afforded. Kids walked in groups, even so; most adults didn’t go alone, either, but go they did. Claire met several people she knew as she walked along.
It felt like home. That was actually a little sad.
A police car pulled up next to her on the street, idling and crawling along, and Claire saw Hannah Moses wave at her. The police chief of Morganville rolled down her window. “You need a ride, Claire?”
Hannah was ... impressive. She just had this completely competent air about her, and there was a scar on her face that should have looked disfiguring, but on her, it just made her look even more intimidating – until she smiled. Then she looked beautiful. Today, she was wearing her cornrowed hair back in a loose knot, which looked elegant and kind of formal. For Hannah, anyway.
“No thanks,” Claire called back. “I appreciate it, but it’s a really nice day. I should walk. And you’re probably busy.”
“Busy is vampires fighting over the snack supply,” Hannah said. “This isn’t it, trust me. Okay, then, have a nice day. If you see Myrnin, tell him I said I want my slow cooker back.”
“Your – you let him borrow something you put food in?”
Hannah’s smile disappeared. “Why?”
“Um, never mind. I’ll make sure it gets disinfected before you get it back. But don’t lend anything to him again unless you can put it in some kind of sterilizer.”
That made even Hannah look nervous. “Thanks. Tell crazy boy I said hey.”
“I will,” Claire promised. “Hey, if you don’t mind me asking – when did he borrow it from you?”
“He just showed up at my door one night about a week ago, said hi, nice to meet you, can I borrow your crock pot. Which I understand is pretty typical Myrnin.”
“Very,” Claire agreed. “Well, I should go, the coffee’s getting cold – “
“Be safe,” Hannah said, and accelerated away. Claire increased her pace, too, walking faster as she passed through a couple of neighborhoods and arrived in the street with the Day House – a mirror of Michael Glass’s, because they were both Founder Houses, the original houses built by Amelie and Myrnin. The Founder Houses not only looked the same, they had the same kind of energy to them, Claire had found; in some it was stronger than others, but they all had that slightly unsettling sensation of ... intelligence. It was strongest in the Glass House, almost a personality of its own.
The Day House was at the end of the cul-de-sac. Hannah’s relatives lived there, or at least Gramma Day still did; Claire didn’t know where Lisa Day had gone, except that she’d chosen wrong during Morganville’s civil uprisings of a few months back, gotten jailed, and been released after a couple of weeks. She’d never come back to the Day House, that was certain. Claire knew Hannah was still looking for her cousin. There were only a few possibilities – Lisa had managed to escape Morganville, or she’d gone into hiding, or she’d never made it out of jail alive. For Gramma Day’s sake, Claire hoped Lisa had escaped. She wasn’t the friendliest person, but the old lady loved her.
Claire wasn’t planning to stop to the Day House, although Gramma Day, an ancient little old woman sitting outside in a big rocking chair, called to her and asked if she wanted any breakfast rolls. Claire smiled at her and shook her head – Gramma didn’t always hear too well – and got a friendly wave in return as she turned right, down the narrow fenced allow between the Day House and the anonymous tract home on its other side. It was too small for a car, this alley, and it got narrower as it went, like a funnel. Or a throat. It was suspiciously clean, too – not a lot of trash blown in, and even the tumbleweeds had stayed away.
And here she was, walking right into the lion’s den.
The door to the rickety shack at the end of the alley banged open before she could reach it, and the lion himself charged out, grabbed his coffee out of her hand, and dashed back inside at vampire speed before she could say a word. From the glimpse she had of him, he’d been wearing black cargo-style pants that were too big for him, flip flops with daisies on top, and some kind of satin vest with no shirt, which he did sometimes mainly because he just forgot to put one on. Myrnin didn’t dress for vanity. More completely at random, really, like he just reached into the closet blindfolded and put on whatever pieces he touched first.
Claire went human speed into the shack and down the steps, and emerged into the big room that was Myrnin’s lab, and sometimes his home. (She thought he had a separate one, but she rarely caught him absent from this one, and there was a room in the back with castoff clothes he rummaged through when the mood took him.) Myrnin was bent over a microscope, studying who-knew-what. He had all the lights on, which was nice, and the lab looked clean and cool today, all its steampunk-y elements gleaming. She wondered if he had a mad scientist cleaning service.
“Thank you for the coffee,” he said. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Claire said, and dumped her backpack on a chair. “How did you know which coffee was yours?”
“I didn’t,” he shrugged. “You haven’t been returning my phone calls. And you know how much I dislike making them in the first place. Telephones are so cold and impersonal.”
“I didn’t answer because I didn’t feel like re-running the argument, again. We’re not getting anywhere with it, are we?”
He looked up from the microscope, shoved old-fashioned square spectacles up on top of his long, curling black hair, and looked at her with a devastating smile. Myrnin was – for a vampire who looked twice her age, but was thousands of years older than that – pretty hot, but she wasn’t interested, and she didn’t think he was, either. Hard to tell with Myrnin, though. He could be sweet and affectionate one minute, cold and predatory the next, and she really thought that even if she’d been crushing on him he’d make a terrible, possibly fatal, boyfriend.
“But I love arguing with you, Claire. You always surprise me. And occasionally, you make even sense.”
She could have said the same about him, but not in a flattering kind of way. Instead, she took her coffee over to the granite-topped lab table. He was using a modern microscope, digital, that she’d ordered for him special. He seemed happy with it, for now, though he’d probably go back to his old brass-and-glass monstrosity soon. “What are you doing?”
“Checking my blood,” he said. “You’ll be happy to know that there’s still no trace of the Bishop virus.”
The Bishop virus was what they’d named the cruel sickness that had attacked the vampires long before she’d arrived – a manufactured virus that Amelie’s father Bishop had released, because only he had the cure. Unfortunately for him, since he’d first used the cure on himself, his blood had been the cure for everybody else, and now the evil old vampire was locked down, under maximum security, somewhere in Morganville. Nobody knew where, except Amelie and the people guarding him.
Claire liked it that way. The last thing she wanted to think about was Bishop getting away and coming after all of them for revenge. She’d met some nasty vampires, but Bishop was, as far as she was concerned, the worst.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she said. The Bishop virus had caused vampires to lose themselves, their memories, their self-control. It had happened slowly for most, which made it worse – like human Alzheimers, only a vampire stripped of all of those things was an unpredictable, dangerous beast. Unlike the others, Myrnin hadn’t recovered completely – or, more likely, he’d always been a little crazy anyway. “Can I see?”
“Oh, certainly,” Myrnin said, and stepped back to let her squint into the eyepiece of the microscope. There, in vivid color, was the busy life of Myrnin’s drop of blood – which wasn’t his own blood, really, so much as that of others. There was a lot of difference between vampire blood and human, and Claire was still fascinated by how it worked. “See? I’m in fine shape.”
“Congratulations.” She shut down the microscope – no sense in running up the lab’s probably horrible electric bill – and sipped her coffee while he drank his. “What are we doing today?”
“Oh, I thought we’d take a day off. Go to the park, stroll, watch a film ...”
“You know me too well. Since you weren’t talking to me, I designed some new circuitry. I’d like to see what you think of it.” He darted over to another table, this one covered by a white sheet. For a horrible few seconds she thought there was a person under there ... but then he whipped it off, and it was just piles of metal, glass and plastic. It didn’t look like circuitry. Most things Myrnin built didn’t look right. They just worked.
Claire came over and tried to figure out where to start – probably there, at the open pipe, that wound around and led to some kind of vacuum tube arrangement, then into what looked like a circuit board scrounged from something more rational, then into bunches of wire, all the same color, that exploded out like spaghetti to other things buried under more coils of tubing.
She gave up. “What is it?”
“What do you think it is?”
“It could be anything from a lawn trimmer to a bomb, for all I know.”
“I would never build a lawn trimmer,” Myrnin said reproachfully. “What did the lawn ever do to me? It’s an interface. For the computer.”
“An interface,” Claire repeated slowly. “Between what and what?”
He gave her a long look, one of those don’t ask me questions you already know the answer to looks, and she felt her stomach clench.
“I’m not going to let you do that,” she said. “No building brains into your machines. No. You can’t kill someone just to power your stupid computer, Myrnin, it’s wrong!”
“Well, I kill people for blood, you know. I thought this would be more like conservation – waste not, want not and all that. If I’m killing them already.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “You don’t kill people for blood, not in Morganville. I know for a fact that since you got better, you haven’t – “ Well, did she know that, actually? Was she sure? “I’m pretty sure you haven’t.”
He smiled, and it was a sad, sweet smile, the sort that broke her heart from him. “Oh, Claire,” he said. “You think me a far better man than I am. That’s kind, and flattering.”
“Are you saying that you – “
“Donuts!” Myrnin interrupted her, and darted away, to zip back in seconds with an open box. “Chocolate glazed. Your favorite.”
continued in GHOST TOWN -- released October 26, 2010!