Bloodshifted Page 12

I had a lot of questions for him about how House Grey was “protecting” humanity by having him get people for Natasha to kill, but I knew they’d have to wait. “So all the bodies get lye’d afterward?”

“Yeah. But there haven’t been any new ones for about a month.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not sure. The cages are empty, and Natasha keeps needing new people—maybe she’s doing her own cleanup now. There’s more than one key to the lye chamber.” He shrugged.

“Were all the bodies that you disposed of … intact?”

He gave me a surprised look. “No. Why?”

I shrugged. “No reason.” I had a feeling I knew who was now feeding the prisoner, intermittently. The plot thickens, baby. I wondered what had changed with her research during the past month, though.

We were almost at the crossroads. I knew we wouldn’t be going down the darker path I’d taken last night, and since I still wasn’t sure about the Shadows, my search might be on my own. I didn’t think I could ask for a flashlight, but maybe I could get away with a little less. “Jackson, can I borrow a lighter?”

His attention was back on me in an instant, perhaps imagining Celine’s bed going up in flames like a pyre. “Why?”

“I used to smoke,” I lied. “Might as well start again while I’m invulnerable now.”

“No, you didn’t. Your teeth are too nice. And you don’t need to be going down dark hallways, besides. You have an assignment,” he said with a tone. To spy on Natasha on House Grey’s behalf. Right.

We reached a metal door, and Jackson opened it with one hand.

CHAPTER TWELVE

The doorway led to a short hall, and I could hear the whirring of ventilation ducts. “Negative air pressure?” How’d they manage that down here?

“Only the best for Raven’s princess,” Jackson said with a nod. He opened up the next door, and the stone floor changed to tile.

Natasha’s room was a lab. It was twice as big as Celine’s room, and had partitions with shiny fume hoods and brown glass light-proof jars of chemicals. Several machines thrummed—I recognized some of them from biology lab, centrifuges and a spectrometer, but others I couldn’t name. Levered refrigerator doors lined one wall.

I’d been imagining something medieval-torture-chamber-esque, not white floors and shining metal. Then again, some of the worst atrocities known to man had been done in the name of science—and revenge, if you counted the Maraschino.

“Natasha! Delivery!” Jackson shouted beside me, then, more quietly, “She doesn’t like it when I wander around in here.”

“Of what?” Natasha yelled back.

“A co-scientist!”

Not hardly. I stuck my hands in my new pockets and waited for her to appear.

When she rounded the corner she was wearing a lab coat. Her hair was in a high ponytail again, safety goggles perched on top, and her lipstick was a childish shade of fuchsia pink, the only pop of color against the rest of her black. When she saw my outfit, she broke into an amused grin. Rompers were pretty nonthreatening; I’d accidentally made a good choice. She waved her hand in dismissal at Jackson. “I’m done with you now, janitor.”

“I’m supposed to take her back whole at nightfall,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah,” she agreed, and kept waving.

Jackson’s face wasn’t as positive, but he left the way we’d come without comment. One of the machines in the room picked up speed, like a washing machine finishing its cycle.

I hadn’t realized until right then how alone we’d be. The last time I’d been alone with her father he’d brutally dislocated my shoulder. Fear surged inside me at the memory—Nathaniel’d hurt me, he’d hurt Asher, and he’d killed four thousand people, all to rescue her. A tar-black flower blossomed in my heart, a petal for each dark idea of how to make her pay me back for what he’d done—

She leaned in, startling me from my line of thought. “I said, at least you have closed-toe shoes!” she shouted as though I were deaf.

I blinked and looked down. I was still wearing my trusty tennis shoes. The ones I’d been through hell and back in. “Yeah.” Reality was back and the darkness was gone. I wanted to keep it that way. I curled my hands into fists, biting my nails into my palms.

“I’ll order you safety goggles and a lab coat. Try to find some pants, okay? Sometimes we use phenol, and I don’t want you melting spots into your legs. You won’t need them today, I’ve already done all the work with the last sample batch.” She turned and walked away, still talking, assuming I was following after her. The light caught the charm bracelet I’d seen before on her wrist and made it sparkle.

Natasha paused and looked back at me. “Well? Come!” she said expectantly. I trotted up to her like an obedient dog without thinking. I’d forgotten Raven had told me to do whatever she’d said until that exact moment.

She watched the surprise on my face and frowned. “I forgot he tied you to me, sorry. I’ll try not to use it, as long as you don’t go crazy, okay? What I’m going to show you next might startle you.”

It felt weird to have her sympathy after I’d been guilty of such dark thoughts. “Okay,” I said with trepidation.

She nodded and pushed the door open, revealing what was inside. “Meet test subject sixty-four.”

I walked into a room that had a prone woman shackled to an autopsy table near one wall. She was naked and covered in wires on a table that had a basin at one end and a drain at the other. She was bound wrist and foot, with lockable leather restraints, and I bet Natasha had the only key.

It was odd that she was strapped down and still connected by cables to an ECG. All the leads on her chest were hooked to one monitor, showing a series of completely flat lines. There was another monitor beside it, one that I was less familiar with, and leads from her shaved head were connected to it, and I realized it was an EEG machine, for electroencephalography—brain, instead of heart. Its monitor was white and had twenty or so lines, just as flat as the others. An arm from the EEG jutted out, holding a camera. I’d only seen one of these twice before, both times in a hospital setting, on patients who’d had profound brain damage due to hypoxia after heart attacks or strokes. When family members couldn’t believe that their loved ones were blinking just to blink, and wanted to read patterns into the spastic movements of the brain dead, doctors set up EEGs to prove that there was no controlled brain function left.

I was so used to seeing people with wires on them and over them, it took me a moment to process how profoundly strange all this was: Natasha was monitoring someone who was completely, head and heart, dead.

I looked back to her, and found her watching me. “So you really are a nurse,” she said. I gave her a questioning look. “You didn’t freak out,” she explained.

Only on the inside. “What’s going on here?”

“I’m running some delicate tests,” she said coyly.

“On people.”

“I’m not asking for your approval.” She sounded bemused.

“Good, because you wouldn’t get it.”

She actually laughed at this. “You’re sassy. It’s refreshing. The others are mostly scared of me.”

Just like I probably should be. I need to stop thinking with my mouth, baby. I looked at her. She was young, yes, a little too pretty for her own good, yes, but she didn’t look like a serial killer—which was probably test subjects one through sixty-three’s last thought. “What’s the EEG for?”

“So I know the exact moment when things work. Raven’s right—I haven’t gotten more than four hours of sleep in a row in months. I do need a helper, and I don’t trust the rest of them. I don’t trust you either,” she said with a snort, “but you might actually be competent. Jackson’s just a butcher, you know? And Celine’s too obsessed with being pretty to be smart, and Lars—” She rolled her eyes. “He thinks he’s too good for this because he’s been Raven’s servant longer than I have.”

I looked to the monitors. There was a blood pressure cuff set up, reading question marks, and a blue oxygenation monitor cable stuck to the woman’s right big toe, reading zero. At least all the alarms were off; otherwise everything that could be beeping a warning, would be. “But she’s dead,” I said.

“Yeah, she is. That’s the whole point.” Natasha gave me a smug smile. “Ever drawn blood from a dead person?” I shook my head, and she went on. “Of course not. Whatever, I can teach you. It’s not that hard—and it’s not like they’re a moving target.” She handed me gloves and a face shield. I’d learned in the past that if someone ever offered you a face shield, you put it on immediately. But I didn’t think Miss No-Pulse here was going to start spitting. Natasha read the confusion on my face. “It won’t spurt out at you—no heartbeat means no blood pressure. I just don’t want you shedding skin cells and germs into my sample. Lean in and see.”

I watched her work with the efficiency of someone who had done this sixty-three times before, possibly multiple times per patient. She swiped a cleaning agent over the woman’s chest, and I saw several other tiny holes there in among the leads and cords.

“I try to go into the same hole, but the heart only has so much blood in it—it doesn’t matter which ventricle you use. You don’t just randomly jab in the torso—even if you do get blood, you’ll get too many other tissues and by-products of decay. If you run out—sometimes Jackson gets lazy and the test subjects are small and their hearts don’t hold that much—you can milk it from a subclavian or the fem, but then you have to squeeze their leg or arm while you’re pulling the syringe plunger out—that’ll be easier with extra hands, for sure. I tell him not to get women with fake breasts too, but this is LA.”

By the time she was done talking, she’d pulled out ten ccs of blood. The charms on her bracelet dangled as she held up the syringe. There were only two of them, a heart with a C engraved on it, and ballet shoes. It didn’t match the rest of her hand, holding up a syringe of a dead person’s blood.

The question I wanted to shout to the heavens was, Why? I assumed we were continuing her father’s illegal research into creating blood substitutes. If so, there might be some value in blood samples, yes, but not in leaving all these leads hooked up—or shackles on. People who’d been poisoned by off-brand fake blood didn’t wake up.

“I think from here on out, you’ll be doing all the body work. I’ll show you how to prep the subjects, shave the heads, affix the leads—both machines have diagrams on them to show you where the stickers go—”

“I know where to put ECG leads.” There was probably value in letting her think I was dumb, but I still had some nursing pride. “What I don’t get is why you’re killing people.”

She looked at the blood in the syringe she held and then at me. “Would you believe me if I told you it was for a greater good?”

Not in the least. But if I told her that, our conversation would shut down and I wouldn’t discover anything. “I’m listening.” It wasn’t hard to sound realistically reluctant.

Natasha gestured at the body with the syringe. “You already know what vampire cells do for us. What if we could use them for other things? Like, say, to cure cancer?”

That struck remarkably close to home, and my mom. To think that once upon a time I’d tried to sign her up for this. With Dren, of all vampires. “But you’re killing people.”

“Be honest, Edie. If she was here, she probably wasn’t going to amount to anything. I know everyone wants to think their kid’s going to do something remarkable, but how often is that really the case? Your kid excluded, of course. I’m sure yours will be quite the special snowflake.”

I tried not to react, but it was too late. She shook her head. “Raven doesn’t hide anything from me—and I don’t hide anything from him.”

“So you’re saying he wants you to cure cancer?” I found that hard to believe, and I wanted to get the topic off me and my baby.

“Among other things. But first I have to know fully how vampirism works. How the cells transfer and take hold, how they propagate—why they kill first, how they revive later, and what happens in between.” Intellectually, I could see how that would be fascinating, apart from the killing-people part. She waggled the syringe between us. “Honestly, she wasn’t going to amount to anything in the scheme of things.”

“But how do you know?”

Natasha snorted. “Statistically, I think I’m pretty safe.”

I frowned. “So you think only big things count?”

“Yeah. That’s why they’re big. Besides, why should life be more fair to someone else than it was to me?” She tossed the syringe into the air and caught it with the preternatural agility of a daytimer. “I’ve got to go start the cycle. I’ll be right back,” she said, and left me alone with the corpse.

* * *

Natasha’s “body work” didn’t involve washing the woman off—she still had on the smoky makeup she’d arrived at the Catacombs with, plucked eyebrows, and tastefully nude lips. Her arms ended in delicate fingertips with clear nail polish on them, and her toenails were painted red. If she hadn’t had the leads on, she would have made the perfect mannequin. I assumed Natasha had just cut her clothes off her instead of wrestling her out of them.

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