Bitter Blood (The Morganville Vampires #13)

4,592
05.03.2019

CLAIRE

As they got closer to the van, Claire realized it was big-Texas-style big, with a high roof. It looked more like something to haul equipment than people. The logo on the side of the van was on a magnet backing, and it was red on black. There was some kind of skul with a microphone and hard-to-read letters, not that she was paying a lot of attention.

Monica's target was clearly Mr. Man Candy, who, Claire had to admit, did not suffer from closer inspection. He was tal (as tal as Shane), and broad-shouldered (like Shane)…but with an expensive-looking style to his thick dark hair, and perfect golden brown skin. Whether it was airbrushed or natural, it looked good on him. He had on a tight knit shirt that showed off his washboard abs, and his face was just…perfect.

"Hi," Monica said, and held out her hand to him as she came to a stop about a foot away from him. "Welcome to Morganville."

He smiled at her with dazzlingly white teeth. "Wel ," he said, and even his voice was perfect, with just a little hint of a Spanish accent to give it spice. "Morganville gets points for having the loveliest welcoming committee yet. What's your name, lovely?"

Monica was not used to being one-upped in the flattery game, Claire guessed, because she blinked and actually looked a little taken aback. But it lasted only an instant, and then she smiled her biggest, brightest smile and said, "Monica. Monica Morrel . And what's your name?"

His smile lost a little of its luster, and those sparkling dark eyes dimmed a bit. "Ah, I thought you knew."

Monica froze. Shane muttered, "Thank you, God," and took out his cel phone to start recording. "It's like arrogant matter meets arrogant antimatter."

Monica unfroze long enough to snap, "Put that away, Shane. God, are you six?" before focusing back on Mr. Man Candy. "Don't mind him-he's the vil age idiot. And she's the vil age Einstein, which is nearly as bad."

He accepted that as an apology, Claire guessed, because he took the girl's hand and bent over it to plant his lips on her knuckles. Monica looked dazzled. And a little scared. Her lips parted, her eyes widened, and for a moment she looked like a normal, regular girl of nineteen who'd been knocked off her feet by an older, slicker man. "My name is Angel Salvador," he said. "I am the host of the show After Death. Perhaps you know it?"

It sounded vaguely familiar-one of those ghost-hunting shows Claire never watched.

Shane pivoted and focused on the girl. "And you are…"

"His cohost," the woman standing a few feet away said. She was just as pretty as Angel, but she was frosty…. Even her hair was a pale, watery blond, and her eyes were very light blue. Unlike Angel, she looked uncomfortable in the harsh sunlight. "Jenna Clark."

The other guy snorted and said, "Since nobody's going to ask my name, it's Tyler, thanks. I'm just the one who does allthe work and hauls all the equipment and-"

Jenna and Angel said, in perfect, bored synchronicity, "Shut up, Tyler." Then they threw each other poisonous looks. Clearly, there was no love lost there. Or maybe some gone bad.

"After Death?" Shane asked. "Don't you guys do some kind of spirit-hunting thing?"

"Yes, exactly," Jenna said, and seemed to focus on Shane as an actual human being for the first time. She smiled, but to Claire's relief it was more of a professional kind of attention, not a Wow, you're hot kind of thing. "We're looking for the permits office."

"Permits?" Monica had recovered her composure, at least a little. Angel had stopped kissing her fingers, but he hadn't let her hand go, and Claire thought her voice sounded a little higher than usual. She was also a little more blushy than normal. "Permits for what? Are you moving your business here?"

Angel laughed, low in his throat-a sexy laugh, of course. "Alas, no, my lovely. Our studio is out of Atlanta. But we are interested in filming some local sights here. Perhaps conducting a nighttime investigation of your graveyard, for instance. We always pay a visit to the local offices for our filming permits. It avoids so many problems."

Claire could not even count how many ways this was a bad idea…. Television people. In Morganville. Filming at night. She was mesmerized by the flood of horrible possibilities that ran through her brain.

Luckily, Monica wasn't one for deep thought. "Oh," she said, and smiled so warmly that Claire was almost fooled. "I see. well , I wouldn't waste my time. Morganville doesn't have anything special for you. Not even a decent ghost to hunt. We're just really…boring."

"But it's so scenic!" Angel protested. "Look at this courthouse. Pure Texas Gothic Renaissance. We passed a cemetery that was perfect- elaborate tombstones, wrought iron, and that big dead white tree-such a striking color, very photogenic. I'm sure we'l find something."

Shane muttered to Claire, "If they hang around there at night, they definitely wil , but I don't think it's what they're hoping for."

"Ssssshhh!"

He cleared his throat and raised his voice. "Monica's right-it's very boring." He sounded like he was still struggling not to laugh. "Unless you want the world's least interesting reality show. The weirdest thing that happens around here is old Mr. Evans running around naked at midnight and howling, and he only does that on special occasions."

"That's unfortunate," Jenna said. "It does seem perfect."

"Wel , it won't hurt to get the permits. At least we'l contribute to your local economy, yes?" Angel said, and flashed them allan impartial movie-star smile. "Adios. I'm sure we'l meet again." He gave Monica's hand another brief kiss, and then he and Jenna were striding up the walk toward City Hal , with Tyler scrambling in their wake while carrying a smal camcorder-though what kind of filmable drama there'd be in applying for a permit, Claire couldn't imagine.

"Crap," Shane said. He still sounded way too amused. "So. Any bets on how long they last before the vamps make them go away?"

"No bet," Monica said. "They won't last long." Looking dreamy-eyed, she sighed and cradled her hand. "Too bad. So pretty. And totally manscaped under that shirt, I'll bet."

Shane sent her a revolted look, then put his arm around Claire. "And on that note, we're out."

"Really?" Claire said, and couldn't help but smile. "That's what creeps you out. Waxing. You can take on vampires and draug and kil ers, but you're afraid of a little chest-hair pul ing?"

"Yes," he said, "because I am sane."

They walked on a bit, and it took a few minutes for Claire to realize that although they'd left behind the ghost hunters, they still had an unwanted visitor: Monica. She was keeping pace with them. Uninvited. "Yes?" Claire asked her, pointedly. "Something we can help you with?"

"Maybe," Monica said. "Look, I know I've been historically kind of a bitch to you, but I was wondering…"

"Spit it out, Monica," Shane said.

"Teach me how to do that stuff you do."

"What, be awesome? Can't do it."

"Shut up, Col ins. I mean…" She hesitated, then lowered her voice as she brushed her hair back from her face. She slowed down and stopped on the sidewalk, and Claire stopped, facing her. Shane tried to keep going, but eventually he looped back, defeated. "I mean that I want to learn how to fight. In case I need to do that. I always sort of thought-my father always said we didn't need to worry about the vampires, because we worked for them. But Richard never trusted that. And now I know I shouldn't, either. So I want to learn how to make weapons. Fight. That kind of thing."

"Oh hell no," Shane said. "And we're walking."

He started to, but Claire stayed put. She was studying Monica with a frown, feeling conflicted but oddly compel ed, too. Monica looked serious. Not defiant, or arrogant, or any of her usual poses. Her brother had told Claire before he'd died that he thought Monica could change-and had to change.

Maybe she was starting to understand that.

"How do we know you won't sel us out at the first possible opportunity?" she asked.

Monica smiled. "Shortcake, I probably would if it got me anywhere, but these days, it wouldn't do squat. The vampires aren't looking at us like col aborators and enemies anymore. We're alljust…snack foods. So. I understand what a stake is for, but you guys seem to have allthe kil er toys.

What do you say we work out a sharing arrangement?"

"We'l take it under advisement," Shane said, and grabbed Claire's elbow. "We're going. Now."

They left her, and when Claire looked back, she thought Monica had really never looked lonelier. The other girl finally walked to her red convertible, got in, and drove away.

"We are not getting cozy with her," Shane said. "She's got vamp problems? Boo hoo. She spent her whole life siccing them on anybody who pissed her off. Smel s like justice to me."

"Shane."

"C'mon, this is a girl who tormented me most of my life. Who beat you up and tormented you. She's a bully. Screw her."

Claire gave him a long look. "You're the one who was nice to her when Richard died. And she saved your life."

"Yeah, don't remind me," he said, but after a moment or two, he sighed. "Fine. She'l always be an ass, but I guess it doesn't hurt to teach her to use a stake or something. Basic self-defense."

"That's my guy." She squeezed his arm. "Besides, if you teach her self-defense, you get to smash her into the floor when you tackle her."

"Suddenly, I am allabout this plan."

They got about half a block before Shane stopped in front of the used-parts store to talk to the guy who ran it-something about needing a new hose for Eve's always-being-rebuilt hearse. Claire lost interest after the conversation began sounding like a foreign language, and she ended up staring into a store two windows down. It was a junk store, really, ful of discarded stuff (some of it actually good), and she got on the creepy track of wondering if people had actually brought it here to resel , or if it had been scavenged from abandoned houses after the owners' disappearances.

Maybe both.

The storefront was blessedly in dark shade, and so was the narrow brick alley next to it…which was why she didn't see the attack coming. It happened so fast, she saw nothing but a blur out of the corner of her eye, and then felt the sensation of hands crushing her shoulders, and then a rush of dizzy motion. When she caught her breath to scream, she was slammed up against the brick wal , and a cold hand pressed over her mouth to seal in the sound.

"Hush!" Myrnin said urgently. "Hush, now. Promise me."

Claire didn't want to promise anything, because there was a manic gleam in her vampire boss's dark eyes, and he looked…especially disheveled today. Myrnin was prone to eccentric dressing, but this outfit looked as if he'd picked it out in pitch-darkness by feel-some kind of moth-eaten velvet trousers that would have been deemed too out-there for the 1970s, a loose-fitting lemon yel ow shirt that was buttoned up wrong, and a vest with cartoon characters. He'd matched it up with a hat that a Pilgrim might have worn and, just to top it alloff, neon Mardi Gras beads- three strands.

He was also-she cringed to see it-totally barefoot. In an alley. That was disturbing.

She nodded, which wasn't so much a promise really, but he accepted it as one and took his hand away. She finished drawing in the breath, but held off on the scream, just in case he wasn't crazy at the moment, bare feet aside.

"I heard that you spoke with Mayor Moses?" he asked.

"You forgot your shoes."

"Bother my feet! Moses?"

"Yes, we talked to her."

"Did she tellyou that Amelie has just announced an election?"

Claire blinked. "For what?"

"For mayor, of course. She has removed Hannah from office, effective tomorrow, since Hannah has refused to agree to sign some of her more- aggressive new decrees. The election wil be held next week to appoint someone more…friendly to the new agenda." Myrnin seemed not just agitated, but really worried. "You see why I object."

"Uh…" Not really. "You do remember you're a vampire, right?"

He gave her an utterly sane and baffled look. "The fangs and the fact I crave blood do give me a general clue, yes. And being a vampire, I am naturally interested in the survival of my species. Therefore I feel I ought to stop Amelie and that damn Roundhead from ruining everything we've accomplished of value here."

"Myrnin, you're not making any sense."

"Oh, aren't I?" He let go and stepped back from her, and she had to admit, despite the haphazard wardrobe, he looked a whole lot more together than he often did. His eyes were steady, dark, and focused; he held himself still , with no more than a minimum of fidgeting. "I came to Morganville to create something unique in the history of the world…a place where humans and vampires could coexist in relative safety, if not always peace. I wil not allow Oliver to pervert that achievement into nothing more than his own personal…hunting preserve! It's a perversion of what Amelie intended here. And if she won't recognize it, I must do it for her."

Shane must have just noticed she'd gone missing, because she heard him cal her name, a sharp and urgent note of alarm in his voice. He knew how easily people could vanish here, even in broad daylight. It didn't take him more than a few seconds to identify the alley as the most likely peril, and she saw his broad shoulders block out about half the murky light.

"Bother, it's your overprotective young man." Myrnin sighed. "Remember this: we must have a plan of how to counter Oliver's influence. Perhaps another human on the council. If not Hannah Moses, then someone in opposition to Amelie's agenda. Preferably someone sane, of course. Work on that. I'll be in touch soon." He sent a blistering look down the alley as Shane approached, then briefly bared thin, razor-sharp eyeteeth before just…vanishing. He didn't actually disappear in a mist, Claire knew; he just moved faster than her eye could track, so the human brain filled in something similar for reference.

And then Shane was there, staring first at her, then around at the shadows. "What the hel , Claire?"

She pulled in a deep breath, and wished she hadn't. alleys. Disgusting. She thought of Myrnin's bare feet, and shuddered. "Let's get out of here."

A phone cal to Michael sorted out her vampire escort problem for her upcoming audience with Morganville's Founder; he was wil ing-in fact, eager-to talk to Amelie along with her. Claire was especially grateful, since if she hadn't been able to land his support, Shane would have insisted on going with her, and she could foresee how that would turn out. She didn't need to be a psychic to know Shane's mouth would get them both in

trouble, especially with Amelie's own attitude these days.

Michael brought his car and picked Claire up on the street in front of the Glass House. It was a standard-issue vampire sedan; having fangs in Morganville came with wheels, for free, as well as a membership on the withdrawal side of the town's blood bank. The downside of riding in Michael's car was that Claire couldn't see anything out the windows, since it was vampire custom-tinted.

"So," she said after they'd driven a couple of blocks in silence, "are you guys okay? Eve seemed…"

"She's okay," he said in a tone that meant he wasn't going to go over the details with her. "She's not happy with me for not tel ing you guys about the cards, but having a heads-up wouldn't have done anything but given you room to complain more. I was trying to keep the peace as long as I could." He shot her a look, eyebrows up. "Was I wrong?"

She shrugged. "I don't know, honestly. Everything's so weird these days, maybe you were right. At least we got to have some nice argument- free evenings out of it."

"Yeah," he agreed. "But those days are over."

Claire thought he was probably right.

Hannah might have cal ed ahead, but that didn't mean word had gotten down to the level of the guards on duty near Founder's Square-two vampires, both wearing police uniforms, only this time they were female…a tal one and a short one. The tal er one wore her white-blond hair in a thick braid down her back. The shorter one wore hers cropped close to the skul .

ID cards were the first thing they asked to see. Michael silently produced his gold card, but the two cops hardly even glanced at it. They wanted Claire's.

The tal er one smiled as she looked it over. "Good blood type," she said, and handed it to her partner, who admired it in turn. "You take care of yourself. Wouldn't want to see it wasted."

Claire felt particularly weird about that. It was like being exposed, as if she'd had some kind of privacy taken away. Michael must have felt it, too, because he said, in a dangerously soft voice, "You've checked her out. Knock it off."

"You're no fun," the shorter one said, and winked at him. "Just like your grandfather. And look where that got him."

"Dead," the tal er cop agreed. "Al for trying to treat humans like equals. Seems like the Glass family members just never learn their lessons."

Michael's eyes flickered a sudden, bright crimson, and he said, "I'l take any comparison to my grandfather as a compliment. And you really need to stop screwing with us now."

"Or?"

"Viv, dial it down," the other cop said, and handed Claire's ID back to her. "We're done. They're cleared for the Founder's office."

"I'm sure we'l see you again," Viv said, and grinned, showing fangs. "Both of you. Hunting season starts soon."

Michael rolled up the window and put the car in gear. Claire let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, and finally said, "That was completely creepy."

"Yeah," Michael agreed. "I'm sorry. It was." He seemed to be almost apologizing for the two women, or maybe for vampires in general. "This might not have been such a great idea, coming out here. It's not like it was before."

"I have to try."

"Keep this short, then. I don't want you out here once the sun sets. Not even if I'm with you."

That was very unusual to hear from him, and unsettling, too. Claire looked straight ahead-at nothing, because the view was pretty much pitch-darkness. Michael's pale face and golden hair were tinged a little with blue from the dashboard light, and he glowed like a ghost in the corner of her eye. "What's happening to us?" she asked. She didn't mean to; it just came out, and it revealed way too much of the growing dread she was feeling.

"They looked at me like meat in a supermarket. I know there have always been a few vampires like that, but…they were police. That means they're supposed to be the best at holding back their instincts."

Michael didn't answer her. Maybe he didn't know how. The dig they'd thrown about Sam Glass, his grandfather, had hit home, and she knew it. Michael's grandfather had physically looked about like Michael did now, only with more reddish hair. He'd been a sweet man, probably the most human of allof the vamps Claire had ever met. Sam had been a force for good in Morganville, and he'd paid for it with his life. Michael hadn't forgotten that. Claire wondered whether he thought about what might happen to his own life, if he kept trying to stay in the middle, squarely between humans and vampires, and whether he thought about being killed.

Of course he did. Especially now that he'd married Eve, against the wishes of both sides. They both had everything to lose.

Michael eased the car down, following the curve of the ramp as it led below Founder's Square. The vampires had excel ent parking, allcovered. When he'd pulled to a stop and turned off the engine, he finally said, "It's going to get bad, Claire. I know it. I feel it. We've got to do everything we can to stop it."

"I know," she said, and held out her hand. He took it and held it lightly-a good thing, because he could have easily shattered bones. "Glass House gang forever."

"Forever," he said. "If we're going to be a gang, we need a good sign to flash. Something intimidating."

They tried a few silly, strange attempts at flashing signs, but the efforts looked awkward. "We," Claire said, "are the worst gang ever."

"Bad idea," Michael agreed, straight-faced. "Shane's the only one of us with real street cred anyway."

They got out of the car, and Claire was watchful of the shadows; so was Michael, but he must not have spotted anything out of the ordinary, because he nodded and escorted her to the elevator. While they waited for it to descend, Claire kept looking behind them, just to ensure that nobody had decided to stalk them.

Nobody did.

Someone had decided the elevator music had needed a change, so this time up, Claire was treated to an orchestral version of "Thril er," an oddly appropriate choice. Even vampires had a sense of humor, though it was mostly atrophied. Either Michael didn't think it was funny, or he was too focused to notice-probably the latter, because he seemed very self-contained just now. He must have been gearing up for whatever would be waiting for them.

The doors opened on a dead-white vampire, bald as a cue bal and dressed in formal black. Claire didn't know if he was security or just a very intimidating greeter, but she took a step back, and Michael tensed beside her.

The man looked them both over in silence, then abruptly turned his back on them and walked away. As he did, one hand snapped up to give them a follow-me gesture.

"Do you know him?" Claire asked as they trailed their black-suited guide into the paneled hal ways. Vampires seemed to deliberately design all their buildings to confuse people, but the two of them didn't really need a personal escort; they'd spent a lot of time here, over the past couple of years. "And is he always this friendly?"

"Yes, and yes." Michael put his finger to his lips, asking her for silence, and she complied. They were passing closed, unmarked doors and watchful portraits of people she recognized as still walking the streets of Morganville, even though they'd been painted in ancient styles of clothes. Their escort moved fast, and Claire realized that even though it was tough for her to keep up, it was probably just standard vampire walking speed. It was oddly tel ing that the vamps no longer felt they needed to slow down to accommodate mere mortals.

She saved her breath and hurried, while Michael strode along beside her, matching her speed but not pushing her. He was watching the doorways, she realized. She'd never seen him quite this alert before, at least not here, in what should have been a safe place for them both. It allbecame clear when a vampire slid out of the shadows ahead, lowered his chin, and bared his teeth. Claire knew him slightly, but he'd never looked quite so…inhuman. He was bone white, and his eyes were flaring crimson, and he gave off waves of menace that made her slow down and look at Michael in alarm.

Because that menace wasn't (for a change) aimed at her.

It was directed purely at her friend.

"You're not welcome here," the vampire said in a low, silky voice that was somehow worse than a growl. "Those who consort with humans use the servants' entrance."

"Ignore him," Michael said to her, and kept going. "Henrik's not going to hurt you."

"What's this one? Another little wife-pet you're planning to marry when you tire of the one you have?" Henrik's grin was ful of cruel amusement.

"Or won't you bother with the church's blessing next time? It's perfectly fine to eat them, you know. You don't need to sanctify them first. They still taste delicious."

Michael's eyes fixed on the other vampire, and his own eyes started turning red. Claire saw his hands flexing, trying to knot into fists. "Shut up," he said. "Claire, keep walking. He'l move."

This time there was something like a growl, or a rattling hiss, and Henrik's eyes turned even darker red. "Wil I? Not for you, boy. Certainly not for your pet."

Claire kept walking, but she also reached into her pocket and pulled out a smal glass vial. It had an easy-open pop-top, and she flicked it with her thumbnail, never taking her eyes off Henrik. "I'm not a pet," she said. "And I bite." She held up the vial. "Silver nitrate. Unless you want to spend a couple of hours nursing your burns, back off. We're here to see Amelie, not you."

His eyes fixed on her for the first time, and she felt a shock of fear; there was something really violent inside him, something she could only barely understand. It was a blind, unreasoning instinct to hurt-to kil .

But his teeth folded up into his mouth, like a snake's, and his smile took on more human proportions…though it remained intimidating. Serial-killer intimidating. "By allmeans," he said. "Pass. I'm sure we'l meet again, flower."

He made an elaborate bow and retreated into the shadows. Claire kept her eyes on him as she edged through, but he didn't move at all. When Michael followed, though, there was a sudden burst of movement, a blur punctuated by a soft outcry from Michael…and then the other vamp was walking calmly away in the other direction.

"Michael?" Claire turned toward him, crying out when she saw the damage to his face. The blood was bad, but it was flowing from claw marks down the side of his face from temple to jawline. They were deep gouges-nothing that wouldn't heal, but still …

Michael stumbled and caught himself against the wal , shut his eyes, and said, "Maybe you'd better go on without me. I'm going to need a minute." His voice was shaking, both from pain and-she assumed-from shock. "It's okay. I'll be fine."

"I know." Claire put away the silver nitrate and rummaged in her pockets, coming up with a pack of tissues, which she handed over. "Here."

He looked at her, gave her a weak flash of a smile, and took the packet from her. One after another, the tissues soaked red, but each successive one did so more slowly. By the time he'd used most of them, the wounds were sealed over-gruesome still , but steadily better.

"This isn't the first time, is it?" she asked. "You were expecting this. I could see how tense you were. It's about your marrying Eve. They're bullying you because of it."

Michael shrugged and scrubbed the last of the damp stains off his skin. "We allknew how they felt about it. Pretty much like Captain Obvious and his crew of humans-only believers feel, too. Everybody sees us as traitors to whatever their cause is."

"That's stupid. You two-you've been together for years!"

"Not married together. They're funny about that. In vampire circles, marrying someone is a huge deal…vampires being immortal and all. It hardly ever happens, and when it does, there's-power involved. The lesser partner gets elevated up to the status of the greater. So now Eve's technically got allthe rights and powers and privileges that I do. And being Amelie's direct bloodline, that's kind of a big deal." He stuffed allthe bloody tissues in his pocket and nodded to her. "Let's keep going. I don't like being a sitting duck around here."

Their escort hadn't waited for them, but he was standing in front of Amelie's office when they arrived, and he opened the door to shoo them inside. He didn't follow, and Claire heard the latch click shut with a finality that made her wonder if they were, in fact, locked in.

If they were, the receptionist inside gave no sign of it. Her name was Bizzie, and she'd been with Amelie a long time. She gave Claire a cool, impartial nod, and ignored Michael almost completely, though her gaze flicked quickly to the wounds on his face. She didn't ask what had happened. In fact, she didn't speak at all, which in Claire's experience was a little unusual; Bizzie had always been cordial in the past.

Things had changed.

Claire and Michael waited silently in the armchairs lining the smal wood-paneled room, and Claire spent her time studying the portraits hanging high on the wal s. Amelie was in one of them, looking just as she did now but with a more elaborate hairstyle that reminded Claire of movies she'd seen in high school about the French Revolution. Elegant in white satin, Amelie was shown lit by candles, and in her right hand was a mirror dangling negligently by her side. The fingers of her left hand rested on top of a skul .

Creepy and beautiful.

"The Founder wil see you," Bizzie said, though Claire hadn't heard any phone or intercom. As Claire rose to her feet, the inner door swung open without a sound.

Deep breaths, Claire told herself. She didn't know why she was so nervous; she'd met with Amelie dozens of times, probably nearly a hundred by now. But somehow, this felt strongly like walking into a trap. She glanced back at Michael, and their eyes met and held.

He felt it, too.

Deep breaths, Claire thought again, and took the plunge.

The office looked eerily the same: high bookcases, big picture windows treated with anti-UV tinting to reduce damage from the sunlight, candles burning here and there. Amelie's desk was massive and orderly, and behind it, the Founder of Morganville sat with her hands folded on the leather blotter.

Behind her stood Oliver.

The two vampires couldn't have been more different. Amelie was polished, silky, pale haired, every inch a born ruler. Oliver, on the other hand, had the angular toughness of a warrior, and with his graying hair and ruthless smile, he might as well have been wearing armor as a turtleneck and jacket. Amelie's pantsuit was a pristine white silk, and it contrasted completely with his all-black-deliberately; Claire was certain of it.

Amelie was also wearing her hair down in flowing, gorgeous waves. Very not the old Founder.

Oliver had his hand on Amelie's shoulder, a gesture of easy familiarity that would have been odd in the time before the arrival, battle, and defeat of the draug. He and Amelie had been enemies, then unwil ing allies, and then, finally-something else.

Something more dangerous, obviously.

Claire looked around, but the chairs that had once been in front of Amelie's desk, the ones for visitors, were gone. She and Michael would be expected to stand.

But first, apparently, they were expected to do something else, because Oliver watched the two of them for a moment, then frowned and said, "Pay proper respect, if you wish to speak with the Founder."

Amelie said nothing. She'd always been a bit of an ice queen, but now she was unreadable, allpale, perfect skin and cool, assessing eyes.

There was no tel ing what she felt, if she felt anything at all.

Michael inclined his head. "Founder."

"I see you've been recently injured," she said. "How?"

"It's nothing."

"That doesn't answer my question."

"It's my problem. I'll handle it."

Amelie sat back in her chair and cast a glance upward at Oliver. "See to it that Henrik understands I do not condone this kind of behavior within these wal s. Michael, you'd do well to answer my questions when I ask them next time."

"Since you already knew the answer, I don't see the point." He was almost as good at hiding emotions as Amelie. "If you really cared about stopping him and the others like him, you'd publicly acknowledge our marriage and put a stop to it."

"You didn't obtain permission from me, and it's my right as your blood sire to give or withhold it," she said. "I don't have to acknowledge anything you do without my blessing. And we've traveled this road before, to no good purpose. What brings you here, then?"

Claire cleared her throat and took a step forward. "I-"

Oliver interrupted her. "Greet the Founder properly, or you'l not utter another word."

Amelie could have quel ed that; she could have just waved it away as she normally would have…but she didn't. She waited, her gaze on Claire's face, until Claire swal owed hard and bent her head forward just a little. "Founder," she said.

"You may speak, Claire."

Gee, thanks, Claire wanted to say with a liberal dose of sarcasm, but she managed to choke it back. Shane would have said it, which was why she hadn't let him come along on this little venture. "Thank you," she said, and tried to make herself sound truly grateful. "I came to talk to you about the identification cards."

Amelie's face did show emotion after all-anger. "I have heard allof the arguments that I am prepared to endure," she said. "The measure ensures that allMorganville residents have proper care in case of emergency, that their Protectors are properly identified, that they can be found in case they go missing. Whatever resentments you have come from a false sense that you are free to do as you wil . You are not, Claire. No one is in this world."

"I thought you took Sam's goals seriously. You told me you'd make humans equal partners in Morganville, that we had rights just like vampires.

You told me that!"

"I did," Amelie said. "And yet I find that where humans are allowed a little freedom, they wil take more, until their very freedom destroys our way of life. If it comes to a choice, I must choose the survival of my own. Yours are certainly far too numerous as it stands. What is the count now, seven bil ion? You'l excuse me if I believe we might be at a slight numerical disadvantage."

"Is that why you're allowing hunting again?"

Oliver laughed. "A tempting side benefit, but no. Hunting is buried as deep in the vampire nature as the need to reproduce is in humans. It is not simply a thing we can turn off. For some, hunting allows them to control a dark and violent side that would be much more damaging. Think of a dammed-up river, with a flaw in the structure. Sooner or later, that torrent of water wil break free, and the damage it does wil be considerably worse than a slow and control ed release."

"You're talking about water! I'm talking about people's lives!"

"Enough," Amelie said flatly. "This is not a human concern. You and your friends need have no fear; the law does not touch you. The things you've done in Morganville have ensured my personal patronage for you, as you can see on your cards. And any vampire is free to refuse to hunt. Michael has done it. No doubt many wil do so."

Somehow, relying on the goodwil of individual vampires wasn't what Claire could see as a positive solution, but it was pretty clear that Amelie wasn't interested in her opinions. "Then the humans need to know," Claire said. "They need to understand that going without a Protector means they're being hunted again. Let them at least have a chance to defend themselves!"

"Tel them if you wish," Oliver said, and smiled. "If it makes you feel safer to be prepared, tel them to go armed. Tel them to stay in groups. Tel them whatever you wish. It wil not make any difference but to make the hunt more chal enging."

"This is your doing, isn't it?" He just watched her without replying. Claire turned her attention back to Amelie. "You're going to let him destroy everything," Claire said, and locked her gaze on the Founder's. That was dangerous; Amelie had power, a lot of it, and even when she wasn't trying to project it, there was something truly frightening about looking deep into her eyes. "You're really going to let him turn this town into his own personal hunting preserve."

"You're always free to leave town, Claire," Amelie said. "I've said so before, and I've given you more than generous terms. I urge you to take the opportunity before you make me regret having given you so much…consideration. Remember, I can always withdraw Protection."

"Maybe I wil leave! And what are you going to do then? Because I don't think Myrnin really likes any of your new ideas, and you can't control him, can you? But anyway, they're not really your ideas." Claire transferred her stare to Oliver. "Are they?"

Oliver went from standing still as a statue-if statues could smirk-to rushing at her ful speed, a blur she instinctively flinched away from.

Michael got in the way, and shoved Oliver violently off course, into a side table, destroying a probably priceless antique vase. Oliver rolled to his feet, hardly slowed at allby the fal , and came at him.

"Enough," Amelie said, and Oliver just…froze. So did Michael. Claire felt a crushing sense of pressure in the room and realized that Amelie had just made them stop. It must have hurt, because even Oliver's face contorted in pain for a second. "I've had quite enough peasant-style brawling in my presence. Michael, your loyalty is misguided, and I've had enough of your thinking that your personal choices outweigh your duty to me. You owe me your life. If a choice is to be made, be very careful how you make it. A vampire alone is vulnerable to many things."

"I know," Michael said. "You can quit trying to threaten me. I'm not giving up the people I love, no matter what you do. And in the words of my best friend, bite me. Come on, Claire. We're not getting any favors from her."

She reached out to him, but in the next instant, his blue eyes went wide and desperately blank, and he went straight to his knees-driven there by the force of Amelie's fury. It felt like a storm, lashing over Claire as an afterthought, and she found herself on her knees next to him, reaching for his hand and holding it with shaking strength. He was trying not to crush hers, but it still hurt.

Amelie rose from behind her desk, took an elegant silver-coated letter opener from her desk, and walked to look down on Michael. As she turned the knife in her hand, thin wisps of smoke escaped; she wasn't invulnerable to the silver, just stronger than most.

"Don't test me," she whispered. "I have survived my father. Survived the draug. I wil survive you. Learn your place, or die where you kneel, right now."

Michael somehow managed to laugh and turn his face up toward her. For the first time, Claire thought, he really looked like one of them.

Like a vampire.

"I know who I am, and I'm not one of you," he said. "Screw you."

She drove the letter opener down, and Claire had time to gasp in horror; she had a terrible, vivid flashback to the time she'd seen someone else stab Michael-in the earliest days of their friendship. He'd survived that. Not this. Not with silver. No, I can't tell Eve this. No, please… Amelie drove the silver knife into the floor, to the hilt, an inch from Michael's knee. She rose gracefully, turned her back, and walked away, dismissing them both with a flip of her hand.

Oliver, after a long look at her that Claire couldn't read, said, "Count yourself lucky. Both of you, get out. Now."

Claire stumbled to her feet, still holding Michael's hand, and managed to get him up. He leaned heavily on her. He looked dazed, but his eyes were as crimson as the blood dripping from his nose and ears. He was, Claire thought, ready to go for Oliver's throat, so it was lucky he was too weak to try it. "Come on," she whispered to him. "Michael! Come on! You're supposed to be the calm one, remember?"

He closed his eyes, which was about allshe sensed she was going to get from him in terms of agreement, so she half carried him to the door.

Which remained closed.

Behind her, Oliver said, "If you come here, you come as supplicants. Anything else, and next time, the knife won't miss."

Claire was smart enough to keep her Screw you to herself.