Halfway to the Grave

Page 58

This bewildered me. "What does she mean, her Master?" I asked Bones. Was Francesca a slave? Just when I thought Hennessey couldn't sink any lower in my opinion.

"Vampires operate under a form of pyramid scheme," Bones explained. "Each line is ranked by the strength of its head, or the Master, and every person the Master sires is under the Master's rule. Feudalism would be another example of it. There you had the lord of the manor, and they were responsible for the welfare of all those on their lands, but in return, their people owed them loyalty and part of their income. Such is the way with vampires, with a few more variations."

This was news to me, and it sounded barbaric. "So. In other words, vampire society is like Amway and a cult rolled into one."

Francesca muttered something in Spanish that didn't sound complimentary.

"Speak English, and without the sarcasm," Bones said to her curtly.

Big dark eyes blinked in anger. "If I didn't know you to be the man you are, I'd leave right now."

"But you do know me," Bones replied smoothly. "And if I choose to detail our world to the woman I'm with, that shouldn't suggest I take your position less seriously. You really should show Cat a bit more respect. It was because of her your fondest wish was nearly granted and Hennessey was almost dust."

At that, Francesca laughed. "You're the vomiter!"

I didn't know if that was technically a word, but I got her drift. What a way to be referred to.

"That's me."

She was still smiling. It made her even more radiant. With that faint dusky tone to her flesh, she looked like she was made of colored diamonds. "Well, ni?a, that does afford you some latitude. Hennessey didn't say very much about you. He was too incensed, and so humiliated. It was truly a pleasure to witness."

"Does he know how much you hate him?" I asked with skepticism. "Because if he does, how are you going to get close enough to help us?"

She leaned forward. It opened up her cle**age even more. I tried not to look, but my God! They were so bouncy.

"Hennessey knows very well that I hate him, but I've managed to hide things from him before." She paused to give Bones a knowing smile, and I almost lost it again. "He enjoys keeping me, knowing how much I despise being his. Vampires can only leave their sire's domination if they win in a duel against them, get ransomed by another Master, or are released as a gesture of goodwill. Hennessey is too strong for me to beat, there is no goodwill in him, and he will never let another vampire ransom me. Yet not for a moment does he believe I'll betray him. He thinks I fear too much what he would do to me if I were caught."

The purr of her voice made it all the more chilling. She knew firsthand what he was capable of, and despite that, she hated him enough to risk it anyway. Maybe I shouldn't be so quick to disparage her. You had to admire that kind of determination. Whether or not it came with under-pants.

"Then you and I have something in common," I said, before glancing at Bones and letting out a bark of ironic laughter. "Well, something else. I want Hennessey dead, too. That's all we really need to know about each other, isn't it?"

She gave me a rake of her cognac eyes and then her shoulder lifted in a shrug. "Si. I suppose it is."

Bones and Spade exchanged a glance. I thought I saw the spiky-haired vampire smile.

"Aside from the obvious, Francesca, what do you want in return for supplying information?" Bones asked, getting back to the subject.

"You to take me," she replied at once.

"Not gonna happen!" I spat, squeezing him possessively.

Three sets of widened eyes fixed on me. That's when I realized that what I had a firm grip on was no longer his hand.

Spade started to laugh even as I turned beet red again, yanking my hand back and fighting the urge to sit on it for my own good. Dear God! What had gotten into me?

Bones's lips twitched, but he didn't join in the growing chuckles that had Spade dabbing at his eyes.

"That's not what she means, luv," he said in a carefully neutral tone. "Francesca means that with the head of her line deceased, she wants to be under another vampire's protection. I could claim her as one of mine, thereby 'taking' her. Although I'm still under Ian's yoke, he hasn't exercised any of his authority over me in a very long time, which is why I haven't bothered to challenge him to be on my own. I've had more freedom this way, and because of our understanding, I wouldn't need his consent to take Francesca on. Though under normal circumstances, getting his consent would be the proper way."

Thankfully, this was complicated enough to distract me from groping him further. "Why wouldn't you want to be on your own?" I wondered out loud to her.

"Masterless vampires are open game, ni?a. There's no accountability for any cruelty done to them. Like with your nations. If you are a man or a woman with no country, who do you appeal to when you're in need? Who defends you?"

"That's a damn brutal system you people operate under," I said, glad to have a heartbeat.

"Don't be so na?ve," she said sharply. "It's a far kinder structure than the one you're in. How many humans starve to death each day because your nations refuse to care for their own? Even still, how many Americans die from illnesses when treatment is readily available but withheld if they can't afford it? Vampires would never allow any of their people to go about hungry or in poverty. Even Hennessey, who is a beast, would consider it a personal insult to have anyone belonging to him in such a condition. Consider that. The worst of our kind treats his people better than your countries treat their citizens."

"Francesca..." Spade had stopped laughing.

She waved at him. "I'm finished."

I wasn't.

"If you bloodsuckers are such paragons of virtue, then why haven't any of you stood up to stop Hennessey from plowing through my kind? I mean, Bones tells me about how five percent of everyone walking isn't alive, so there's a lot of you! Or is it that the kidnapping, rape, murder, and consumption of humans doesn't rank as important?"

Bones smoothed his hand on my arm. "Kitten, perhaps-"

Francesca bolted out of her chair. "Wake up! What Hennessey's doing is nothing compared to what humans do! Each year, over fifty thousand teenage Colombians are sold into slavery across Europe and Asia, and that isn't by vampires! In the Congo, over a hundred thousand women have been brutalized-by the rebels, and the soldiers in their own military! Pakistan still has areas where 'honor' rapes and killings of women are ordered by the courts, and yet your country and the rest of the world do nothing about it! Vampires may tend to their own business first, but if we were to truly start policing this planet, we'd get rid of the humans, who are the greatest evildoers-"

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