Bloodshifted Page 8

I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to give him an out, for making something so awful sound so commonplace.

“Sorry if I sound clinical,” Jackson said, after a long silence, looking back in the rearview mirror at both of us. “I realize this is your first time with it—but this sort of shit is my every night. Most times their victims are convinced, the way vampires are good at convincing people, that they were lucky to be chosen and that they had an amazing time. They got picked to go to Heaven and drank top-shelf drinks and danced with beautiful girls, and they got a little overdone. Sometimes there’s sex, even willingly, and sometimes there’s not. And sometimes I get to put on a plastic apron and cut corpses up with chain saws and put body parts into buckets of lye.”

“So where are we going now?” If he said we were going to a chain-saw-and-lye-atorium, I would have to jump him.

But then what? Wreck the car and fight out by the roadside? If it were only me I could risk that—I wouldn’t think twice. But not with you here, baby. I looked down at the slender cool wrist in my hand.

This boy beside me had been someone’s baby once, too.

“Relax. We’re getting him somewhere safe. And then we’ll call him in. Between the drugs and the narcotics in vampire saliva, he won’t remember what happened to him enough to explain it to the police.” He took a right-hand turn. “You don’t know how lonely this town is, Edie. And Rex has a way of picking out people who just got here—with no connections, no friends, no past.”

“And sometimes no future,” I said.

“I don’t kill them, I just dispose of the bodies.”

“And that makes it better somehow?”

He took his eyes off the road to look at the rearview mirror again. “What do you think you are now? What do you think you’ll grow up to be?”

My lips thinned into a line. I hadn’t gotten a choice. Natasha’s dad had taken that away.

* * *

Jackson pulled over to a desolate side road in a bad neighborhood and put the car into PARK. I opened up the backseat door and got out, and he took the man out, laying him carefully on the side of the road. He flipped back a corner of the man’s shirt. “See? One bite’s self-sealing. There’s no reason for anyone to find it. And they’ll test what little blood he has left and find out that he went out and got drugged, only he won’t remember where he was going.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. I listened to him report hearing a gunshot and seeing someone fall by the side of the road, sounding like a gruffly concerned bystander too nervous to get out and check on his own, and I waited until he’d hung up to speak.

“You do this every night?”

“No—most of the people go home happy with strange hangovers they can’t quite explain, and feel strangely exhausted the next day. They stumble out of the Catacombs on their own two feet—some of them even come back the next night. But our Masters live on blood, and it’s either them, or donors—which we have precious few of right now, thanks to Natasha—or us.”

He got back into the car, and I took the seat beside him this time. He kept speaking while he disassembled the cell phone. “I doubt they’ll be here soon, but the system works. He’s young, and if he’s managed to hold on this long, he’ll make it a few more hours.” I was surprised when he turned the ignition key and slid the car into drive.

“Aren’t we staying here? To make sure he’s safe?”

“Can’t be seen.”

“But—”

“Edie, no matter your relationship with the Beast, you’re a good person, I can tell.” He pulled out and hit the gas. “I really like you. But in the Catacombs, having a heart is an expense you can’t afford.” When we hit the highway, he rolled down the window and flicked out the phone’s sim card onto the asphalt like so much cigarette ash.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Looking out the window, I realized I’d been so involved in being worried about the boy that I’d missed my chance to run.

I already knew all the reasons why running would be a bad idea, and none of them had changed since I’d thought about them last. I reached for the door, for the window switch—and found it locked. Go figure. Jackson snorted and released it with a button on his door, and I set the window down a few inches so I could feel the night breeze. Los Angeles’s air was much drier than Port Cavell’s. We were cruising past what I assumed was downtown, where old roads that hadn’t been built for such a big city were looped over one another like concrete shoelaces.

“I’m sorry. I know your last twenty-four hours have been rough.” He sounded sincere.

“You could say that.” I brushed my hands through my hair. If this was my safe chance to ask him questions I needed to hurry up. “So why did Anna save you?” he asked—and I realized I wasn’t the only one in a querulous mood.

“We’re friends.”

“Friends,” he repeated, like he didn’t believe me. I shrugged.

“She moved heaven and earth to get blood for you. She warned it might take a lot. Many of the Houses were unwilling to risk it. If you give blood to someone, and you can’t cure them or bring them over, then you have to take that blood back … and Anna said if anyone killed you, they’d die.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “You’re sure you’re not related somehow? Distantly?”

“No.” I plucked at the elastic edge of my skirt. I’d saved Anna’s life twice. The first time was after I’d accidentally killed her sickly guardian at work. With his dying breath, he’d asked me to find her—and I’d found her chained up and being abused, and saved her when he couldn’t.

The second time wasn’t so much a saving as just being willing to go back. I didn’t run away from her when I could have—when I probably should have, since it might have saved me from getting stabbed. But I tried to save her and proved that someone cared, and that had been enough. She’d saved herself in the end, breaking free from the other vampires who’d chained her, but she might not have done it without me being willing to risk my own life for her first. There was no good way to put all that into words, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to share it with Jackson besides.

“Do you know what she’s been up to while you’ve been apart?”

I frowned. “I heard you all call her the Beast last night.”

“Yeah. Other names for her haven’t been quite so kind. She’s consolidating her power. Either Houses and Thrones pledge to her and take her blood—so she knows where they are at all wakeful times—or they die. In less than a year the Rose Throne, under her leadership, has come to completely dominate the East Coast.” He swung us into a wide turn. “You do know what she is, right?”

This time I nodded. “She’s alive.”

“Like the rest of them aren’t. She can make an infinite amount of blood. Which gives her the ability to create an infinite number of vampires,” he said.

I nodded again.

“And that doesn’t worry you?”

“Should it?” I said. As much as I trusted Anna, an infinite number of vampires did sound bad.

Jackson wheeled over to the side of the road and parked, putting hazard lights on, then turned so he could look at me. “I’m going to take a big risk here, Edie, because this might be the only time we can get away from them to talk. You were horrified by what you did to Lars, and you didn’t kick Celine out afterward. Hell, you didn’t even make her sleep on the floor. And you tried to save that kid just now—you’re not like one of us and you don’t want to be. So I think that even if you disagree with what I tell you next, you can manage to keep it a secret.”

I wondered what confession my agreement would bring. “I can’t promise but I can try.”

“I get the feeling you take your tries more seriously than most.” He gave me a halfhearted smile, and then his expression became worried. “I’m not just with Raven—I’m not just black and white. I’m Grey. With House Grey.”

“No. No no no—” I backed up physically in the car seat, pressing against the door. Members of House Grey had tried to ruin Anna’s ascension to the Rose Throne’s ruling body. They were some secret organization inside the vampire Houses and Thrones that had their own obscure agenda—one that had it out for Anna and hadn’t minded trying to kill me along the way.

“If I was going to hurt you, I wouldn’t be telling you about it now, would I?”

I got my legs up on the seat so that if I had to I could kick him back. “Why are you telling me at all?”

“I know you’ve had some run-ins with us in the past, and I’m sorry for that. But we had reasons for doing what we did. Anna’s messing up the game—the field, the ecosystem, whatever you want to call it. It’s not supposed to be like this for us. There’s only supposed to be scattered pockets of vampires, groups in urban areas, loners out in the rural ones. We’re conniving and we’re jealous as hell, and that keeps us self-policing. And when that doesn’t work, House Grey steps in and starts killing to keep the numbers down.” The sound of cars driving by at speed five feet away from us punctuated every other word of his.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I want you to understand. House Grey isn’t your enemy, Edie. We’re here to maintain balance. Anna’s not the first living vampire, you know. One comes along every few hundred years, blood runs in the streets, and we’re almost discovered—or we are discovered, and hunted down. Back in the day our wars could be written off as plagues or genocides—but the world has changed now, there’s too much technology. We won’t get a second chance to hide this time around when things explode—and if we fight, we’ll take a fair chunk of humanity out with us.”

“But she’s not like that—she’s my friend—” I protested, shaking my head.

“You’re right, she seems to be. But there might come a time when you’re the only thing standing between her and her vampire army. I just want you to think about that.”

I hugged my folded-up knees, trying not to think at all. “How can you claim that House Grey is on the side of humanity?”

“I know it’s hard to believe, but we are. Or at least on the side where vampires stay the same. Vampires kill a few thousand people a year, or a few tens of thousands. It’s less than heart disease or cancer. But an army of vampires, led by a dictator, no matter how benevolent, has to feed. And God forbid something does happen to her, and all of them are set free from their bonds—what then?”

“I’m not hurting her.”

“I’m not putting a stake in your hand. I just want you to start to think. Please don’t make me regret talking to you like this.” He looked so earnest—I knew he believed what he was telling me.

I just hoped I wouldn’t start believing it too. Anna was my friend. She’d saved me. She had to have her reasons for grabbing power back home—and hopefully she’d thought out all the repercussions of her actions. “I won’t.”

“Good.”

I bit my lip. “Is Wolf Grey too?”

“Not in the least. He’s Raven’s lapdog, hook, line, and sinker.”

“Then why are you?”

“I got into one hell of a bar fight back in the day. Wolf saw me brawl and decided to ‘save’ me.” Jackson said the word as sarcastically as possible. “Never mind the fact that I had a wife and kid. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to get out.” He saw the look of horror on my face and shook his head. “What, you think you’re the first daytimer who wasn’t happy about all this?”

“No,” I lied. I’d actually never, ever considered that before. “When was that?”

“’Seventy-three.” My guess about his age was right. Was I going to be trapped now, too, like he was, always thinking that the best of my life was behind me?

Maybe it was. I pushed that thought away. “What happened then?”

“House Grey said they could free me. Although it turns out their timetable’s a lot longer than mine.” His hands tightened around the steering wheel, and he turned the car back on.

* * *

We drove for five more minutes before I broke our silence. “You know you talk as if you’re already one of them, even though you haven’t changed.”

“I’m close enough,” he said, pulling us onto an expressway. “We have to get back. If I take any longer they’ll notice, and I still have work to do tonight.”

“Getting test subjects,” I said with a frown.

“Right.”

“What happens to them?” As much as I hoped Natasha’s research was fruitless, I didn’t want her to kill anyone to prove it.

“I don’t rightly know. So far they’ve all died—but I’m not sure what goes on before that. It’s why none of our Masters is allowed to kill anyone without permission—and why we don’t have many donors anymore. Raven went through them first. Easier to keep things quiet.”

“But you don’t know what she does with them?”

“I’m not allowed to help in the lab. I don’t know how.” He shrugged. “I could learn, but she’s not willing to teach me—and I was turned into a daytimer before science got so hard. I go in there to empty her trash cans, and deliver boxes of glassware, but that’s it.”

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