There’s something deeply creepy about an unlit Ferris wheel in the dark. It looks like the skeletal remains of something large that once rolled across the earth scooping up screaming victims in its buckety jaws. Or at least, it looked like that to me, but I naturally have a pretty macabre imagination. “Wow,” I said, looking up at the outlines of the black girders against the fading dark blue of the sky. “You take me to the nicest places. I am so lucky to have a guy like you.”
“Eve! Shhhh,” whispered Michael, my significant sweetie, as we crouched down between a blown pile of trash and the iron-shuttered side of some kind of cheesy win-a-toxic-stuffed-animal booth. This one specialized in rabbits. They all looked manic and a little diseased. I couldn’t help but fill in the old-time Elmer Fudd voice in my head. We’re hunting wabbits. It made me giggle a little breathlessly, with a nice knife-edge of terror, because we were in a closed amusement park, looking for a vampire, and hey, who doesn’t get the giggles now and then under those circumstances?
Don’t answer that.
Michael was giving me his I’m concerned and a little disturbed look, which was adorable. I’m not a fragile flower. Hell, I was born and raised in Morganville, Texas, which is likely the only place vampires can call home; if you grow up human there, you learn how to deal with life-threatening danger the way other, luckier people learn to deal with those annoying telemarketers. I don’t eat danger for breakfast, because it’s really just a tiny little bite size snack in hometown terms.
Michael, meanwhile, was the same … but different. He’d also grown up human in Morganville, but unlike me, he’d had the seriously bad misfortune to actually be bitten, almost two years ago. It hadn’t gone well for him, and now, my all-time best guy ever was … well, fanged. But fighting to stay the Michael I’d always loved, which was nice, because we were, well, married now. Fangs and all.
He couldn’t have looked less bloodsucker-y, really. Gorgeous blond hair, clear blue eyes, the face that in earlier ages they would have put on a really hot marble angel … not vampire material, generally. He even dressed like he was a regular dude who was looking forward to being of legal drinking age … I wondered if he ever lamented the fact that he was going to be carded for all of his immortal life. Probably.
Me, I looked like I was aspiring to be what he actually was, what with my Goth black hair (temporarily streaked with electric blue, because, why not?), and the baggy black cargo pants and stomp-em boots. My shirt was tight, sheer, black over black, and had a particularly cool dark-blue-on-black embossed skull on it. Fighting clothes, although Michael had just shaken his head when he’d seen what I decided to wear for our middle-of-the-night tour of the scary carnival grounds. He just didn’t know what was stalking-appropriate, obviously. Men. No fashion sense.
“Over there,” Michael whispered, and nodded toward – od course — the haunted ride. It was what the carnies called a dark ride, which I thought was awesomely appropriate, especially tonight, what with all the creepy skulking around. The structure featured an absolutely gigantic Grim Reaper leaning over the top of it, gripping his scythe in one bony hand as the other reached down for the would-be riders. It probably looked super cheesy in the daylight, but tonight, I could practically see those black, flowing robes ripple in the cold wind.
If I believed in omens, that would probably be a really bad one.
“We’re looking for Death? Found him,” I said. I got another look, but also a smile. “Right. Stealth mode, engaged.” I made a zipping motion across my mouth. He did me the favor of not quite rolling his eyes.
We crept from the cover of the toy shed to that of a greasy-looking shack that dispensed hot dogs of doubtful meat content (oooh, but they had funnel cakes!), and then made it to the shadows next to the dark ride itself. The roller coaster was making a thin, high, creaking sound in the wind, and across the way, a shadowy carousel’s painted horses leered at me with wild eyes.
God, I loved this place. I wondered how Michael would feel about running away to join the circus.
Michael had paused, listening, doing that vampire senses thing; I was content to wait for him to get back to me with a plan. I was just glad he’d asked me to come along as his backup. Usually our mutual buddy Shane got that job; to be fair, Shane was big, strong, and built for quality mayhem, but he was trying to cut down on the fighting, and I was happy to help that along. I’d seen all of us wearing sporty black and blue too much lately. Not the Goth kind. The bruise kind. Much tougher to accessorize.
We were operating on a bona fide secret mission, dispatched by the Founder of Morganville herself, the vampire Amelie — an ice-cold queen of a lady, and I was not on her list of Most Favorite right now, but I was incidental to this plan. Michael was her agent. Hmmm, he’d looked so nice in a James Bondian tuxedo at our wedding …
I had to shake myself and put away the hot mental image for later. We — or he, more precisely — had work to do. This carnival was two towns over from Morganville, so we had to be on serious best behavior … this wasn’t home, with its peculiar rules and dangers. It was the real world, which was in many ways more dangerous for us, because whatever the rules might be, we probably didn’t fully understand them.
This was one of those no-name traveling shows that still honored the old tradition of “novelty acts” … or, more properly, freak shows, which I’d read about in books. Books that responsible adults frowned upon, but I’d lapped up as a kid. Said “novelties” usually included ancient mummies that were usually fakes or so badly mauled it’d take that dog-headed Egyptian god a week to put it back together … and, of course, the usual set of human oddities. Real tall, real short, real fat, fake facial hair, fake shapeshifting acts … and this one had one actual, real vampire, locked in a cage just like the mangy tiger and the totally depressed lion. That was a “special” freak show, only for high-rolling customers who got off on seeing what they assumed was a guy in makeup biting the neck of a partner in crime … only he was a real vampire, and those were real victims, and Amelie wanted it stopped, immediately.
She wasn’t concerned about the human lives being lost, of course. That was never going to be any vampire’s primary concern. She wanted to rescue the neck-muncher, and make sure nobody ever caught a clue that there was such a thing as a real, genuine vampire in their midst. Oh, the carnies knew, of course … if they hadn’t known before grabbing said bloodsucker, they certainly had by the time they started feeding him victims.
If Michael had received instructions on what to do about that situation, he didn’t tell, and I didn’t ask.
Right now, we were paying attention to one of the carnies making the rounds, checking to make sure everything was locked up and turned off. He was a big, burly guy — a roustabout or strongman — and he was carrying a flashy knife on his belt, plus a wooden baseball bat, the better to beat you with, my dear. From the look on his face when he came out of the dark ride, it didn’t seem that security was his favorite job in the world when nothing happened. He looked more like he hoped to find an excuse to use the bat on something that would beg him to stop.
Michael suddenly cocked his head. In the moonlight, his eyes still had small pupils, like I would have had in full sun. Great night vision, vampires. One of the many depressing advantages they had over the breathing version of humanity. He squeezed my hand, gently, and nodded toward the ride that Batty McMurder was just leaving. Oh, great. Perfect.
No, I really meant that. Perfect! I practically wiggled with excitement. I loved haunted house rides, because hello, mechanical scares, nothing actually dead and lurching in there. Well, normally. Tonight might very well be an exception.
We hurried across the open ground. Michael didn’t make any noise, and I tried to minimize mine, but the thump of my combat boots still sounded way too loud. He stopped me before I jumped up on the deck of the ride, urgently making a shushing motion; I eased up carefully, and immediately saw why … it creaked, a lot. Moving slowly made the creaking sound more like the general creepy noise made by the wind, and less a neon we’re up in your business, sneaking around sign.
Michael kept hold of my hand, and led me under the leering glare of the Grim Reaper into a darkness that smelled like mold and engine oil. And boy, I mean darkness … it was a close, claustrophobic kind of inky emptiness, and except for the tight grip of Michael’s cool hand on mine, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from space. No, I lie. At least in space, there are stars.
From the feel of the floor under my boots, we were on some kind of raised wooden walkway — probably a maintenance area. I felt a rising panic as we kept walking — what if something fell on me, like a giant hairy spider? It was Texas, after all, home of all kinds of stinging, biting, poisonous creatures. I wanted to hold up my free hand and sweep the air in front of me, but that was kind of useless; Michael was going first. He’d keep me safe.
It was a bit of a shock when I saw that the darkness was going a little gray, and at first I thought there was something wrong with my eyes, but no. There was a thin strip of light up ahead, on the left, like what would escape under the bottom of a door. It revealed an upright coffin with — appropriately enough — a cheap-looking mechanical dummy dressed in vintage Dracula drag that would probably launch out at the creaking, trundling carts when the power was on.
There was a hidden door behind Dummy Drac.
We crossed the tracks, and I stepped carefully to avoid tripping any switches or getting my boots caught in the rails. I was glad I’d worn the heavy things, because a rat ran out of the dark and raced over my laces, heading for cover on the other side. I managed not to squeak, though there might have been a dry rattling in my throat. Might.
Michael took hold of the knob of the door and lightly turned it, then shook his head. Locked, obv. That posed no serious issues for him, but it’d make some noise; the glow of the light under the door made me less of a blind human liability, so I pulled my hand free of his and pulled the snub-nosed revolver out of my belly pack. I didn’t like guns, particularly, but they were real useful around humans who meant me no good. I had a knife, too, but if it came to hand-to-hand with Mr. Batty out there, it wasn’t going to be an even match, and I liked advantages.
Michael twisted, hard, and broke something metallic inside the door with a harsh snap. The knob slid out, and he reached into the hole and manipulated things until there was a click, and the door yawned open, letting loose a flood of what seemed like a 500-watt spotlight … but it was just one bulb, not even remotely bright. My eyes adjusted quickly, and I shut the door behind us. Without the lock, it wasn’t going to do much good, but I followed Michael’s lead and reached into the empty hole where the knob had been to push on metal until the tongue slipped back in place. It’d slow them down, at least.
When I turned to look, I saw we were in a plain metal room. The one bulb was on a swinging chain hanging in the middle of the open space. There was a miniature viewing stand of seats that would hold maybe twenty people, if they were really friendly, and then there was the cage. It was the size of something you’d use for a lion or tiger act, big enough to move around in; it held a cot with a blanket and a pillow, and some kind of pot under the bed I assumed was their version of a portable toilet. Apart from that, it was just iron bars coated with silver, and a single stoutly built wooden chair that was bolted to the floor at the center of the cage.
There were stains on the floor around it, and a few soaked into the wood. Dark stains. I told myself it was chocolate, and left it at that. I was too busy staring at the vampire in the cage.
Because he was just a kid.
I mean, a KID. Maybe twelve, thirteen years old at the most — a thin boy with long legs that he had tented up as he lay on his back, staring at the ceiling of the room. He must have heard us coming, but he hadn’t moved, not an inch. From the still way he lay, I’d have thought he was regular dead, but he was the special kind. The kind that still had motion.
“Hey,” Michael said softly. “You need out of there?”
That made the kid sit up, with a sudden fluidity that made me glad there were bars between him and me; Michael didn’t move like that. Most vampires in Morganville didn’t, because they were trying to fit in, be less alarming to the people they farm for money and blood. (To their credit, most of the blood donations are voluntary, through the blood bank. It’s sort of like the Mafia, but with fangs.)
Seeing a vampire move like the pure predators they are … that was a bit scary. So was the emptiness in this kid’s eyes, the utter lack of interest or emotion. He could have been the lion the cage was meant for, only at least a lion would have more of an opinion.
“Open it,” the kid said, and rattled the door. It was extra sturdy; he couldn’t hold it for more than a second before the silver began to burn him. He was only wearing a ratty, dirty pair of khaki shorts that were two sizes too large for him — no shirt, and his thin chest was as pale as ivory. Veins showed blue underneath the skin, like one of those see-through anatomy dolls. “Open it.” He didn’t even sound angry, or hopeful, or desperate. The words were just as emotionless as his eyes. Most vampires were faking it, to some extent or other, but this kid — I had the eerie idea that he might never have been human at all.
Michael was considering him thoughtfully, although he was putting on the leather gloves he’d brought along in the event of silver. Unlike the kid, I could read emotion in my honey’s expressions … and he looked just as startled and worried about what we were facing as me. “In a second,” he said. “What’s your name?”
The kid blinked, a slow movement like he’d learned it from observation, not nature. “Jeremy,” he said. “My name is Jeremy.”
“Okay, Jeremy,” Michael said, in a soft calming voice, the way you’d speak to a particularly dangerous-looking wild dog. “Are you hurt?” He got a head shake. “Hungry?”
That got a flat stare for a second, and then Jeremy turned it on me. “Let me have her, and I’ll be fine.”
“Uh, no, creepy kid, really not happening,” I said. “I’m not your lunch.”
Jeremy didn’t even bother to blink this time. Honestly, the kid was scarier than anything I’d seen out there in the carnival.
“Jeremy,” Michael said. He sounded colder now, with an edge; it got the kid’s attention in a flash. “I’m here to get you out, but you so much as look at her again, much less touch her, and I’ll walk away and leave you to rot. Understood?”
Jeremy tilted his head a little to the side, considering Michael, and then said, “If that’s what you want, then I won’t touch her.”
“Swear,” I said. “Pinkie swear.”
He shrugged. “I swear.” I didn’t hear any particular meaning in it, which wasn’t good, but we didn’t have a wealth of choices. Amelie’s instructions were to bring the weird kid back with us, not leave him here. Michael was doing his best.
“Go watch the door,” Michael said to me, and I nodded and backed off to stand next to it. That not-so-coincidentally put a lot of space between me and Jeremy, with Michael in the middle between us. I watched as Michael put gloved hands on the bars, got a firm grip, and applied pressure. He was strong, but the bars just groaned and held. Jeremy watched with interest but no emotion as Michael panted, shook off the strain, and tried again. I winced when I saw the pain on his face; the stuff was burning him even through the gloves.
“Michael,” I said. “Did you see any tools out there?” Because this crew didn’t seem like the type to be neat about put things away. He took a step back from the cage, stripped off his gloves, and I saw that beneath them his hands were swollen and pink with burns. Ouch. Very high silver content.
“Maybe,” he said. “Look, this silver’s pretty soft, but I can’t get a grip even with the gloves. I’ll go get the tools. It’ll just take a second.”
“A second,” I repeated. “Promise?”
Our eyes locked, and he smiled just a little. “Cross my heart,” he said. “Jeremy, you back off and sit on your bed. Eve’s going to stay with you.”
Jeremy said nothing, but he walked back to his cot and stretched out, looking bored with the whole thing. I considered him for a second, then nodded. “I’ll be fine. Go.”
Michael was a blurred flash that paused to get the door open, and then it swung shut behind him with a soft thump. I took a deep breath and wished I’d worn something warmer — all of a sudden, it seemed much colder with him gone. I walked over to the cage and considered it. It didn’t look so hard. The silver was wire, and it was wrapped around the bars tightly, but when I found an end of the wire and grabbed it, it bent easily enough – high content silver, pretty soft. I was concentrating on unwinding it so hard that for a second I didn’t realize that Jeremy had moved, until I glanced up.
He was standing only a few feet away, staring at the point where I was unwinding the silver. NOT at me, which I supposed fell under the letter of the law. I swallowed and said, “Michael told you to stay on the bed.”
“No,” he said. “He told me to go to the bed. He didn’t tell me to stay there.”
Wonderful, he had a kid’s built-in ability to parse orders and find loopholes. That was just great. “Yeah, well, why don’t you just sit down over there? It’ll take a little time to do this.”
He didn’t move. Evidently, I didn’t have the same kind of authority as Michael wielded. Up close-ish, Jeremy’s eyes were not black, they were a very dark brown, with a central ring of amber. They’d have been nice if they’d been in a face that moved like a human being’s, but as it was, they reminded me of glassy doll’s eyes. I like a good creep-out as much as any self-respecting Goth, but this kid was giving me a serious freaking.
“You smell nice,” he said.
“As long as I don’t smell like dinner,” I muttered, and unwrapped another length of silver. Michael was taking an awfully long second to get back here with the tools. I had to ask myself what was going to happen when I stripped the last of the silver away and Jeremy decided that I had a fabulous aroma of roast beef, blood rare. Okay, I didn’t really have to ask. Nothing good.
Jeremy suddenly moved, and his cold hands folded over mine, waking an instant, instinctive shriek that I just barely managed to check to a weak little chirp … but it wasn’t an attack. He leaned forward, pressed his forehead against the iron bars, and said, “They’re coming in. You need to hide now.”
Crap. I yanked back and stumbled backwards, pulling the last of the silver free on that one bar; it snapped into a tight coil like the world’s most expensive Slinky as I looked around for someplace to go. The only obvious place was under the bleachers, and it was a tight squeeze to get by, but better hurt than death was my motto. I jammed myself through the narrow opening and crouched down in the darkness beneath. Michael, I was thinking, where are you? Because this didn’t bode well, not at all.
I heard the voices first. The words were muffled, but the music was clear — they were upset about the missing knob on the door. I heard metal scrape as they pushed their way inside, and moved around a little to find a good vantage point to peer through the slats between the bleacher seats.
Mr. Batty was one of the men, which somehow failed to surprise me; he was still carrying around the baseball bat, swinging it like a nightstick. Next to him was a sleek, thin man in a black turtleneck sweater and dark pants; he had a GQ look going on, and under other circumstances I might have thought he was eye-worthy, but not now. Not when I saw him rattle Jeremy’s cage, testing the lock, and say, “You’ve had visitors, haven’t you, Jeremy?”
Jeremy didn’t say anything, just stared at Mr. Slick with cold, dead eyes. Mr. Slick didn’t seem nearly as bothered as he should have been, and he shrugged and turned to Batty. “Harry, make a thorough sweep. I want everybody on their feet and checking every corner. If they see anybody who doesn’t belong, I want any intruder’s body dumped right here, dead or alive, clear?”
“Clear, boss,” Harry said. He sounded happy with the assignment, and strolled off swinging his big stick. As he left, another guy came in … and man, he was massive. This was undoubtedly the carnival’s strongman-slash-big-guy … he was seven feet at least, and broad as a truck. Wearing a wifebeater tee assured that everyone could see the steroid-thick bulge of his muscles. He had a shaved head, lots of tats that seemed to feature overly endowed women, and nasty little beady eyes. Not too smart, but plenty mean, and from the state of the t-shirt, personal hygiene wasn’t high on his list.
I reached into the pocket of my cargo pants and pulled out my cell phone — sensibly on silent — and frantically texted Michael’s. WHR R U? TRBL!! I shielded the screen with one hand, in case someone noticed the unearthly glow coming from under the bleachers, but nobody was looking my way except Jeremy.
Skinhead walked up to the bars and slammed a giant forearm into them. Jeremy didn’t flinch, and he didn’t back up, which made Skinhead laugh. He had a voice that didn’t match his exterior at all — high as mine, sounded like. “Your pet rat looks hungry, boss,” he said. “Got anybody to feed it?”
“Later,” the boss-man said. “Right now, we’ve got a bigger problem, because Jeremy here has had some friends drop by, haven’t you, Jeremy?”
Jeremy stood there staring at him for a long, silent few seconds, and then he smiled, and swear to God, I felt ice forming along my spine in sharp little stabby crystals. That was not a vampire’s smile, as awful as those could be … it was something else completely, something I didn’t get at all.
And then Jeremy said, “She’s under the bleachers,” and I couldn’t hold back a gasp. I backed away, but that wasn’t going to help … not like there were any secret exits back here, and Skinhead was grinning and heading my direction. God, why had he done that? Did that idiot not understand that we’d come to help him?
No, of course he did, I realized … but he just didn’t give a damn. He was on fire, and he liked to see everything else burn.
I texted Michael again with a lightning-quick 911!!!!!, which might not matter since he hadn’t responded yet to my first text for help anyway. Something was wrong, and not just with Jeremy … this whole thing felt utterly bad. Drastically wrong.
I had the gun, and it felt heavy in my head. Shane hadn’t just given the thing to me, he’d forced me go to the range with him many times, practice target shooting, practice loading and unloading it in the dark; he’d even tested me (with an empty gun) in an deserted house where he’d popped out of a closet at me to see what I’d do.
I’d screamed and shot him six times, theoretically, in the face. He’d approved.
All well and good, but now I was facing firing that gun into actual flesh and bone. Into Mr. Skinhead, who looked like he could chew small-caliber bullets and spit armor-piercing ones back; this was not his first pistol rodeo, for sure. One good thing: he wasn’t going to fit through that narrow opening I’d wedged myself into … but he was more than capable of pulling the entire bleachers out, which he began doing, with harsh metallic shrieks of protesting, creaking metal. He paused and shined a flashlight into the gaps, playing it around until it spilled over my pale face.
He grinned, or at least I thought he did, behind the glare of the light in my eyes. “Hello, girl,” he said. “Let me help you get out of there. Lots of scary things under there, you know. Black Widows and Brown Recluse spiders, snakes, scorpions …”
I hadn’t even thought about it, but now it sounded sickeningly likely … the very poisonous spiders he was talking about like the shadows, the scorpions were badass and went anywhere they wanted, and the snakes would crawl in here to cool off. Damn. Now I didn’t even want to back up. Vampires, I can deal with. Creepy crawlies in the dark, not so much. “Back off, gorgeous,” I said, and tried to make myself sound tough and mean. “I’m armed and dangerous.”
He giggled, high as a little girl. “Do your best with that little gun,” he said. “I’ve been shot before, it don’t scare me.” For proof, he yanked aside the neck of his wifebeater tee, and I saw star-shaped scars in his skin right below the collarbone. Wow. He wasn’t kidding. I had the weapon in my hand, but my hand was shaking, and I knew I’d miss if I fired. Better to wait and make it count …
He pulled the bleachers out at an angle with a final yank, leaving a narrow space against the wall that he could squeeze through – but didn’t. He bent and looked through it at me. No smile now, nothing but serious menace. “You put that popgun away and come on out of there,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you unless you do something stupid, like pull the trigger. Got me?”
Shane had told me before, a gun is not a magic shield, it’s not a bulletproof vest, and it’s not a defense. It’s an offensive weapon, but I’d never really appreciated how true that was before. If you’re going on offense with someone like Mr. Skinhead, you’d better put him down hard, and I was shaking too badly. He was careful not to give me too good a target, either.
I took a deep breath, holstered the gun in my pants, and held up my hands. Probably useless effort, but I tried to look harmless now as I walked toward him. He grunted in satisfaction and squeezed himself under the bleachers a little more, ready to grab me as I got close. In the process, he pretty much immobilized himself.
And that was what I’d been hoping he’d do. As he wedged himself in solidly, I pulled the silver-edged knife from the sheath on my wrist, under my shirt, and leaped forward to slam him against the hollow wall of the metal room. He hit with a resonating thud, and I got my forearm against his Adam’s apple with my knife resting just off to the side, over his fast-beating veins. “Hey,” I said. “I put the gun away, just like you said.”
He laughed, a thin and kind of crazy sound. Up close, he smelled sour and damp, as if he’d worn the same clothes for weeks without so much as going out in the rain. Ugh. “I’ll break your arm, little girl. For starters. I’ll bet I can get real creative with you …”
I let the knife slip a little and gave him another scar. “Whoops,” I said. “Sorry about that.” I kept the knife steady on his throat as he froze, and pulled out the gun with my left hand. “I’m not a great shot with this hand,” I said, “but you know what? Good enough to hit the broad side of a piece of barn like you.” I shoved the muzzle against his chest. “Back up.”
He did, moving slowly, and his massive muscle-bound arms raised as far as they could. I’d impressed him, at least this far. He might not take a .38 seriously, but he knew I couldn’t miss if I fired it into his heart from that distance. He could have grabbed my arm and broken it in two shakes, but that left the knife at his throat.
So we did the dance, moving backwards, until we were out of the bleachers … and that was when Michael said, from behind Mr. Big, “Need any help?”
I grinned tightly. “Well, I think I’ve got this, but sure. I wouldn’t want you to get bored.”
Michael grabbed the guy by the scruff of the neck and swung him around like a bag of cotton balls, slammed him face-first into the cage bars with stunning force, and Mr. Big dropped to the dirt floor limp as overcooked pasta. (I know about overcooked pasta. I am so not a cook.)
That left Mr. Slick, but he wasn’t just standing around, as it happened.
He’d unlocked Jeremy’s cage, and stepped back to pull the silver bars in front of him as protection from attack. I decided, from the way he moved, that he was the local lion tamer. Or, more likely, lion-abusing a-hole. “This is your chance,” he said to Jeremy. “Kill them and go.”
Jeremy looked at him through the bars, close range, and said, “What if I want to start with you first?”
You’d think Mr. Slick would be freaking scared, but this was – unfathomably, to me – a guy who’d managed to capture a sociopathic machine like Jeremy and keep him under control for what looked like quite a while. He didn’t seem scared, or even ruffled. “You won’t,” he said. “You can keep the girl, I know you like to play with them first.”
“Hey!” I said, and pointed the gun at Slick. “Standing right here!”
Jeremy hadn’t moved his gaze away from his – I guess? – jailor, but somehow, in less time than it took for me to register the blur, he was moving toward me. I didn’t have time to get the gun or knife up in my own defense, he was just that fast.
And then, he was past me.
Jeremy came to a sudden stop next to the unconscious bruiser Michael had left lying on the floor, picked him up like a rag doll, and – before even my vampire husband could stop him – had his fangs buried in the man’s neck.
Michael tried. He grabbed Jeremy by the shoulder and yanked hard, trying to separate victim from predator, but it was useless; the kid’s wiry strength wasn’t going to give, and anyway, it was over fast.
When Jeremy dropped the corpse formerly known to me as Mr. Batty, it was paper-white and drained of every drop of blood.
Mr. Slick didn’t move for a second, clearly stunned, and then as Jeremy licked his lips clean of the thin smear of red that remained, he dashed around the cage door, threw himself inside, and slammed it behind him. Then he cowered in the center of the cage, eyes as big as headlights and just about as shiny. He’d thought he’d broken this lion he’d caged, but he’d just discovered that was completely wrong.
Michael was looking spooked, too, but he spoke gently. “Hey, man, Amelie sent us. She wants you to come with us, back to Morganville.”
“Morganville,” Jeremy repeated, without so much as a flicker of emotion. He’d just killed somebody, and he didn’t seem to have really cared at all, beyond looking a little less pallid. “Never been there.”
“You’ll be safe there. No one will hurt you.” Michael was being unaccountably gentle; maybe he hadn’t seen the flat, shark-worthy shine of the boy’s eyes as he drank up Mr. Batty. “Trust me, man. Please. We need to leave here.”
“You forgot something,” Jeremy said, and pointed one long, skinny, dirty finger at Mr. Slick cowering inside the cage. “He just heard where we’re going. Can’t be safe if he knows. Got to get rid of him.”
“No, we don’t,” Michael said. He moved to the bars and crouched down, and when he spoke next, I heard that scary vampire tone in his voice. He didn’t use it often, but when he busted it out, he had real power. “Look at me.”
He waited, and after a long few breaths, Mr. Slick uncovered his face and met Michael’s eyes. I couldn’t see them, but I knew how they would look – glowing, red, terrifying if you weren’t drowning in that pool of crimson and unable to feel anything at all.
Michael had one of the most powerful forget-about-me abilities Amelie had ever seen, apparently, and he proved it now, because he said, in low, measured tones, “Poor Jeremy starved to death in this cage. Say it back to me.”
“Poor Jeremy starved to death in this cage,” the man repeated in a dull, calm voice.
“And you’re feeling very bad about that.”
“I’m feeling very bad about that.” I watched Mr. Slick’s eyes suddenly fill up with wet, hot tears that spilled over and down his cheeks in messy trails. “Oh God …”
“You feel so bad that you’re never going to run this kind of show, ever again. Not with anyone who doesn’t sign up and get paid. And there are no things such as vampires. No real ones.”
“No real ones,” he echoed. His voice was shaking now, and so were his shoulders. Wow. Michael had really rocked his world, and not in a good way. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry …”
“How many others knew about Jeremy?”
Mr. Slick named them, but it was a small, tight circle of insiders – himself, Mr. Dead Batty, and one other woman named Isis, who was asleep in her trailer near the Ferris wheel.
“Do you have a key to this cage?” Michael finally asked. When the man nodded, he said, “Throw it out to me.”
Mr. Slick tossed it, and Michael effortlessly shagged it out of the air. He dropped it on Mr. Batty’s body and frowned down at Jeremy’s handiwork. “We need to make it look less – vampire,” he said.
I slowly held up the gun and the knife. “Man, I’m going to regret this,” I said, “but I think I’ve got that covered.”
Best to skip what came next, except to say that I made Mr. Batty’s body look like he’d been attacked with a knife to the neck, then shot. A decent coroner – like the ones on TV, say – would have figured out the wounds were post-mortem, but it was doubtful that this little burg would have anything like a coroner, much less a good one. If the carnies actually reported the death, which I thought was doubtful.
It’d pass. I felt faint, after, and Michael grabbed me when I staggered while trying to get up. He put his arms around me and held me tight for a few long seconds, and then whispered, “Eve – “
“I’m okay,” I said, and swallowed the nausea that threatened to bubble up. “Just another frakking day in Morganville.”
“You watch way too much TV.”
“Yeah, probs. So? What about this Isis lady?”
“I’ll take care of it,” Michael said, and loosed his hold just enough to put some air between us, but he didn’t let me go. I loved him for that, for knowing just what I needed, and when. “I love you.”
I managed a grin. “Back atcha, stud. You only love me for my body mutilation skills.”
His smile disappeared, and there was no trace of vampire in his blue eyes, none at all. He looked just like the boy I’d fallen so hard for in high school. An avenging angel, this one. And not a fallen one at all. “No,” he said. “I love you for you. Always.”
I kissed him, which was probably weird, given the circumstances, but I needed to feel his arms around me again, and the solid, safe weight of his body, and the cool, sweet taste of his lips. I needed to know it was okay.
He said, without words, that it was.
Then he stepped back, looked at Jeremy, and said, “I’m here to help you, but I swear to God, if you lay a finger on her, I’ll rip you apart. Are we clear?”
Jeremy shrugged, which I guessed was his version of a yes, and Michael glanced back at me. The silent exchange went something like this: You okay? Yeah. Love you. Love you too. Etc. Oh, and somewhere in that glance, he also warned me to keep the knife and gun handy, which I wasn’t about to give up anyway.
“We should go,” Jeremy said, as Michael blurred off through the open doorway. “Don’t want my boss man here to remember anything.”
He was right, but I felt bad leaving – Michael hadn’t said to stay put, but I was uncomfortable with the idea he might not be able to immediately locate me if I got into trouble. Because Jeremy was trouble. He gave off a kind of dark smoke around him – something shadowy in my peripheral vision, as if he clouded himself with it. I had to concentrate and watch him straight on to feel he was there at all. Useful skill, probably, but really scary when I felt like the warm-blooded prey to his cold-blooded, hungry predator.
He kept his word, though. He didn’t touch me, and he walked about three paces ahead, knowing I didn’t want him at my back. Once we were out of the room, though, I stopped, because I’d totally forgotten that this was a dark ride … that I’d only found this room in the first place because of Michael’s dark-adapted eyes.
I couldn’t see a damn thing.
I heard Jeremy’s faint, whispery chuckle from a few feet away, and I saw a flash of something that might have been his eyes. Creepy.
“No flashlight?” he asked. “Should be one on the dead guy.”
I went back for it, and didn’t look at Mr. Batty’s face while I pilfered it out of its holster. It was a heavy Maglite, which was good – one more weapon, though I had to put away the gun to hang on to it. The knife was of more use against Jeremy, anyway.
The Maglite had a brilliant beam, and it revealed all the monsters in their tacky glory – Dracula, in his threadbare cloak and dusty coffin; the Wolfman, whose fake fur was molting away; a large spider overhead made of Styrofoam and cloth and real spiderwebs, recently woven by some very ambitious arachnid. The place was filthy, and full of rats and cockroaches, and I was real glad of my stomping boots, again.
The worst, most real monster in here was Jeremy, who looked the color of exposed bone, and whose eyes were as alien as anything you’d find on earth. His smile was something he’d learned, not something he felt, and even though he was small and wiry and looked pathetic in his baggy khaki pants, I was so afraid of him it was hard to breathe.
But he kept his word.
We made it out, into the cold, sharp wind; overhead, the rusty Grim Reaper creaked as he swayed. I saw nothing moving outside except some rolling tumbleweeds and blowing trash.
Jeremy walked off a few feet, then stopped, staring up at the sky. He closed his eyes, and took in a deep, slow breath, as if he wanted to drink in the world around him. For that moment, he looked his physical age – I had no idea how old he really was, but he looked maybe a growth-spurt thirteen, maybe fourteen. Really young to become a vampire, but depending on when that had happened, thirteen or fourteen might have been adult, pretty much.
But my heart went out to him, anyway. He’d been locked away in a cage for peoples’ entertainment, for God’s sake. No matter how scary he was, how divorced from human emotions, he didn’t deserve that. Nobody did.
Jeremy said, without opening his eyes, “You’re wondering how old I am.”
Well, THAT was uncomfortable. “Yeah,” I said. “Kinda.”
“I died when I was fourteen,” he said. “But that was a really long time ago. I’m not a kid.”
“You know I could kill you and be gone before your boyfriend could catch me, right?”
“Husband,” I said, and held up my left hand, because I knew that even in the dark he could see the ruby wedding ring. “Newlyweds.”
I’d managed to surprise him, a little, because it looked like his eyebrows rose up just a touch. “Huh,” he said. “So you’re one of those who thinks vampires are some kind of sex gods, right?” He coupled that with a little, creepy laugh.
“No, I’m someone in love with a guy who happens, unfortunately, to be a vampire,” I said. I’d had lots worse hazing from lots worse people than him, especially after marrying Michael. “Personally, I think vampires are the opposite of sexy, mostly. Being dead and all. But he’s my guy, and he’s different.”
“We’re all different,” Jeremy said. “And deep down, we’re all the same. We’re alive because we didn’t want to die and we were ruthless enough to make it happen. Your man’s a killer too. Sooner or later, he’ll realize it, and so will you. Probably be kinder just to kill you now.”
“Try it,” I invited softly, and made sure I had the knife in a firm grip. “I grew up in Morganville, sonny. I’m not Bambi.”
That made him smile enough to show teeth. Wow, so not an improvement. “Even wolves get eaten,” he said. “Especially when they’re away from their pack – ah. He’s back.” He sounded a little disappointed, but in the way that someone might be at a restaurant when they learned the kitchen was out of their favorite dessert. I didn’t hear Michael coming back, but all of a sudden he was there, staring at Jeremy with flickering red eyes. Wary.
“Eve,” he said, and held out his hand. I went over and took it, and his fingers felt cool and strong as they closed over mine. “He’s got the ability to cloud himself. Most vamps do, to a certain extent, but he’s really strong. You’d never see him coming.”
“You either,” Jeremy said. He took in another deep breath and held it, as if he was enjoying the smell of the desert air. He let it out slowly, and said, “Tell Amelie I’ll be by when I feel up to it. Got to get some space around me right now. Ain’t fit for friendly company.” He looked sharply at Michael, suddenly. “Don’t you even think about stopping me. Ain’t got no reason to hurt you, but I will if you get in my way. You make Isis forget?”
“Good. Better get going, then.”
Michael frowned, and pulled me closer. “Jeremy? What are you doing?”
“I’ll be to Morganville someday,” he said. “Not now. Tell her. Now leave unless you want to lose your wife. She’s a pistol, and she’d taste real good right about now.”
Michael had made Amelie a promise, but he wasn’t about to risk that. “We’re going,” he said. “I’ll tell her what you said.”
“Good.” Jeremy walked back to the dark ride, to the Grim Reaper with his cheap tin scythe looming overhead. He looked weirdly at home there, and even though I was watching him, focusing in, he seemed to just … blend into the darkness. “I’ll be around.”
He must have pushed a button, because suddenly the creepy organ music boomed out of the speakers, and lights flashed on and off, making the Grim Reaper look like he was all raved out. Cars began to shuttle forward, all empty.
He was waking up the whole carnival with the racket.
“Let’s go,” Michael said, and we ran for the car. I didn’t ask any questions until he’d put it in reverse and raised a cloud of dust around us as he drove for the farm road access, made the turn, and headed for Morganville. Not for safety, but at least for familiar territory. I didn’t breathe easier until I saw the white glow of the Glass House, our home, in the headlights, murky through the vampire-thick tinting.
I don’t think either of us wanted to know exactly what Jeremy had in mind, but I Google-flagged articles with the name of the carnival. There was an eerie silence for a few weeks after we got back, and then the mentions started appearing, slowly.
The haunted dark ride. Missing people. Investigations finding nothing.
He was out there, moving with the carnival, haunting it like a hungry ghost.
It was pretty selfish, but frankly, I hoped he’d stay out there.
I didn’t want him in Morganville.
And that was the last time I’d ever take a chance on one of those rides, however cheesy, however safe.
“Hey,” Michael said from behind me. I shut the lid on the laptop, and Jeremy’s latest missing person, and leaned back as he put his hands on my shoulder and bent to kiss my neck – not in a vampy way, just in a sexy way. “You’ve been on there for hours. Ignoring me?”
“Never,” I said, and stood up to face him. “Real life’s so much better than internet life.”
He agreed with a kiss, a long one, sweet and cool, hot in ways that had nothing at all to do with body temperature, although his mouth took on heat from mine the longer they touched. I loved that, seeing the effect I had on him. I could change him, at least briefly; sometimes, when I woke up in bed with him, my body heat had transferred to him so effectively that he felt alive again. He loved that, too. It made him feel connected, alive, and … human.
“Bed,” he said, in a whisper that vibrated against my skin. “You and me. Now, Mrs. Glass.”
“Right now,” I agreed.
And I left all the dark rides behind for something much wilder and better.
If you’re smart … you will, too.