Bloodshifted Page 16

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

I hung out in the back of Hell feeling like a mime. There was no work for me to do until people started to drink—but the announcement of two-for-one specials on all levels of the club was getting out; I could see people sending texts to tell friends. And music started to pound at the level you could feel in your chest when you walked by the speakers. Hope this isn’t giving you hearing damage, baby. Although it’s never too early to learn to appreciate a good beat.

I used to frequent clubs, back in the day. I’d met Asher at one, in fact, although I hadn’t known it at the time. It was hard not to think of him when I saw people dancing, remembering how once upon a time he’d watched me.

Soon the crowds meant I was too busy to reminisce. Girls swirled out first, braver boys followed, and then I was having to press through them to get back and forth with payloads of glassware for the bar. I swept through one level at a time, and then started over again. It wasn’t so bad and people were more interested in themselves—my clothes marked me clearly as unimportant, so I was completely ignored.

Celine and Estrella kept their eyes on me in their respective habitats, and I made sure to wave to Jackson each time I passed through Purgatory. By my twentieth pass even he began to look slightly more relaxed.

And I didn’t have time not to work—people were drinking with abandon. On a round through Hell, someone pushed a door open, and a wave of smoky air flew in. I’d found the smokers’ deck. Made sense that it was down in the inferno.

I glanced over at Estrella—she was dressed far more elegantly than anyone else in Hell, with her otherworldly beauty. Men and women were attracted to her, and she circled the bar like a shark, gracing groups of people with her presence, even dancing hypnotically at the edge of the floor to pull more people in. For someone who wasn’t technically alive, moving among humans made her seem full of life, as if she were a mirror, reflecting their life back at them.

I waited three more passes as the crowds grew, until I was sure she couldn’t see me, and then I bolted outside.

The smoking deck was protected from wind by buildings with brick walls on either side—it had a Garden of Eden theme, metal trellises supporting winter-dry vines, giving me a chance to see the bronze snakes that’d been welded on. Bushes circled the edges of the patio, and in the back were two large topiaries trimmed to look like genitalia, one carefully shaped penis with testicles on each side, the other a vulva with a spotlight pointed at its most sensitive part.

There were heat lamps at regular intervals, which girls in sleeveless club gear congregated around like moths. Ashtrays overflowed and small tables held an assortment of glasses from each of the floors, giving me a good excuse to be there. I picked up glasses slowly while scanning desperately for forgotten lighters.

If I did my job right, I’d be out here several times tonight—but Estrella or Jackson could come out at any moment and forbid me from leaving the Catacombs again, assigning a bouncer to the chore. I got an idea, and chose my mark.

“Trade you a pass up to Heaven for your lighter.” I shook one of the Heaven-themed glasses in front of him. Hell had normal barware, sturdy and strong. Heaven’s was more delicate, appropriately.

“I already get up there, thanks,” he said, brushing me off. Entirely possible—since this was the only smoking deck, people from all levels were forced to mingle.

“I don’t suppose I could just have your lighter?” I pressed. I needed it, to see in dark hallways to look for prisoners to help free me, and maybe also to light dusted vampire remains on fire.

“Nope.”

My shoulders sagged, and I picked up the glasses I’d collected, looking for another mark, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

I jumped, almost dropping the glasses I held as I whirled. I’d been caught, this was it—but no, it was a strange conventionally handsome man standing behind me, not Jackson or, worse yet, Estrella or Wolf.

“I heard you needed a light,” he said, his voice kind, offering a lit lighter out with an expectant look on his face. I didn’t recognize him, but something about him seemed familiar—oh, God, I wanted so badly to hope.

“I actually needed a lighter,” I clarified. “For someone else,” I went on to lie badly.

His face broke into an easy grin. “That’s good, because smoking would be really bad for our baby.”

My eyes went wide. It was him—Asher—wearing someone else’s form. I didn’t dare say his name, because if I did I would tackle him and cry. He stepped closer to me. “Did you honestly think I got back on some plane?”

I shook my head. “I hoped you had, though. You don’t know how dangerous it is here—”

“All the more reason I should stay.”

“If something happened to you, though—” I cast another nervous look around before turning back to him. “I couldn’t do this without you.” Where this was the next thirty minutes, or thirty years.

“I’m going to be fine. It’s you that I’m worried about.”

Says the shapeshifter who came into a vampire enclave, unarmed. After watching Raven dispatch Rex—I shook my head to dispel the thought.

“What do you need this for?” he asked, handing the lighter over. I took it from him, fingers thrilling at the slight touch.

“To go places I shouldn’t. And also maybe set things on fire.”

His lips pursed. “And you’re worried about me?”

“Asher.” I lowered my voice so that only he could hear. “It’s bad. They’ve come up with some way to speed up the changing process, to turn someone overnight.” I saw the look on his face and went on. “Don’t tell me it’s impossible—I saw it happen with my own two eyes.”

His face turned grim. “That changes things.”

“I know.” As desperately as I wanted to be saved by him right now, this very instant, Natasha’s experiment trumped everything else. “I have to get back and figure out how so we can stop it.”

“Don’t do anything foolish,” he warned, his voice low.

“I’ll be as careful as I can,” I said, taking a step back, even though I wanted to throw my arms around him and never let him go.

“You’d better be. We’re coming for you.”

“I know.” I bit my lips together so I wouldn’t say anything more, and then turned around quickly and counted to ten. When I looked back after that, he was gone. The only thing I had to prove he’d ever been there was the lighter in my hand. I pushed it into the cleavage Estrella’s bra gave me, and scooped the bar glasses back up.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

A girl was puking into a bush outside the entrance to Hell and I stopped to help her to the bathroom—it gave me the perfect excuse for why glass retrieval was taking so long.

By the time I did make it back to Hell’s bar to drop off its corresponding glasses, Estrella had noticed my absence. “Where’ve you been?” she asked, sniffing the air before stepping away.

“Someone puked. I had to clean it up.” It was hard not to grin at her displeasure. Your dad’s coming for us, baby.

She was still frowning, but I knew there was no way for her to monitor all three floors, much less their bathrooms. And smelling of puke was better than smelling of lighter fluid.

The rest of the night it was easy to stay busy. I worked without complaint through closing, and helped check the bathrooms for drunks and herd the last few of them out the door.

“Good job tonight,” Jackson said after paying the last of the DJs out.

“Thanks, boss,” I said with more than a little sarcasm.

He snorted. “Go change, and we’ll get to vacuuming.”

Nice to see that the industry standard for cleaning up vampire dust hadn’t changed while I’d been trying to have a normal life.

I’d hardly seen Celine all night, she’d been so busy celebrating her “birthday” upstairs. She’d beaten me back to the room, though, since as soon as the bar closed all of her chores were done.

She’d showered and changed into something frilly, and was blow-drying her hair in front of her mirror. She hardly noticed me when I came in, and I changed quickly, middle-school-locker-room-style, not showing any skin. I managed to shift the lighter from my cleavage to the pocket of the rompers without her seeing it in her vanity.

Celine finished with the blow dryer, set it down, and opened up a makeup bag. She touched a roller ball of perfume to the inside of her wrists. It was such a subtle scent that I could hardly smell it.

“Why’re you doing that?” The club was closed. Who cared anymore?

Celine looked back in the mirror at me. “So I don’t smell like you.”

“Sorry. I got puked on. And now I have to go clean up dust.” I could see myself in her mirror now—after a night of hustling in the club I looked bedraggled.

She set the perfume down and pulled out lipstick instead. “He’s never going to want you, looking like that.” She dabbed a fingertip against the red, and then patted it against her own lips, giving them a calculated natural flush.

“What do you mean?”

“They’re not just interested in blood. They’re interested in life—what goes with the blood when they drink it, the life, the soul, the fragile part of you that wants to stay alive. That’s what they like—and it’s something only humans can give them.” She smeared the same color from her fingers on her cheeks, livening herself up. “It’s easy for us to forget that sometimes. We try to be too much like them, when that’s not really what they want.”

I bit my lips in thought. “Thanks.” Baby, I’d say we should always try to be uninteresting to vampires, but I’m afraid that it’s too late. “I’ll try to be quiet when I get back.”

She waved me off, and I headed for the door.

* * *

Jackson was waiting for me in Natasha’s lab, where everything was just as we’d left it. They’d always wanted us to wear masks on Y4 when we were dealing with ash, but I hadn’t seen any when I’d scouted the drawers earlier, which pissed me off. I was a daytimer now, true, but I didn’t want particulate vampire crap in my lungs. I’d be really sad if I came down with mesothelioma later, and I didn’t want to think about what it could do to my child.

Jackson had brought a vacuum cleaner with a long attachment, and I used paper towels and cleaning solution to start cleaning off the loose wire leads for the EEG and the ECG. Because each of the pad’s sticky surfaces were completely bonded to vampire dust, there was none of that tape-sticking-to-fingertips-or-gloves action you got at the hospital. I put as many as I thought I could get away with in my pocket. Between them and the lighter, I could make a rudimentary bomb. If the Shadows could find the prisoner and his silver grate, I might actually be able to set him free.

“Jackson,” I began when he’d turned the vacuum cleaner off, hoping talking would distract him from my last palmed handful of stickers. “Celine told me something just now.”

“I’m sure it was profound.” He was scrubbing at the tabletop angrily.

It sort of had been. “About vampires being more interested in life than blood.”

He paused, mid-arc. “I suppose that’s true.”

“Is life blood? Is blood life? Where’s the line?” Dren had once wanted to murder me for my soul. Was that the same sort of thing?

“I couldn’t say.”

“Do vampires have souls? Or lives, really? As daytimers, do we?” I didn’t ask what I really wanted to know—if I was losing my soul because of vampire blood, what did it mean for my baby? I wouldn’t have ever believed in a soul if vampires hadn’t once threatened to take it from me.

“I don’t know, Edie.” Jackson sounded exasperated, and started scrubbing again. “I feel alive. Do you?”

“So far.” Alive, but not the same as I had been before I’d gotten Raven’s blood. I’d never been violent before—or been in helpless thrall.

“Then I think there’s more important topics to discuss. Did you figure anything out while you were shuffling glasses around?”

“No. I’m hoping Natasha will want to brag tomorrow, though, now that the cat’s out of the bag.”

“I wish the cat had swallowed the bag and then choked on it.” He finished the table with one last swipe and leaned over to look at his own reflection, just like Celine had—maybe wondering the same as her about his future—then hoisted the vacuum cleaner again. “One down, one more to go.”

* * *

I waited until we’d reached the war room to keep bugging him. “Who does Wolf feed on?”

“Usually the drunks at the end of the night. A little here, a little there, then he shoos them out the door. He’s not like the others, he doesn’t put on airs. He learned not to be picky in his past life.” Jackson sounded like he agreed with the philosophy. “And speaking of past lives—” Jackson looked at Lars, sprawled out in the middle of Rex’s dust, snorted in disgust, then started unspooling a really long extension cord.

Lars had been left where he’d landed, facedown. Now that he was helpless, I almost felt bad for him. I lifted his head and saw ash on his forehead, nose, and tongue from his last bite of Rex. Mouthwash wouldn’t even begin to cover it once he woke up. “Can I put him on the couch?”

“Sure,” Jackson said, from his expedition to find an electrical socket at the edge of the room.

I picked Lars up and settled him the way I would a sedated patient at the hospital, heels up, arms up, pillow behind his head. Except for the smears of dust across his face and staining his clothing, he looked like a king in repose.

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