Last Breath

Chapter Fifteen


"Dammit," Shane said. He'd been saying that for about five minutes straight, like some kind of mantra. "Hand me the wrench. Dammit!"

I crouched down and handed him the tool out of the box in the back of the hearse. Even Shane's strength was having trouble with the bolts on the tire.

The flat one.

So not my fault.

"You know - dammit! - if you actually got these things changed out before the tread is showing - "

"Zip it right there," I told him. "Really not the time to lecture me about my car-maintenance habits. Just get it changed."

"Yeah, working on it," he said. "Dammit. We're late already. Michael's going to freak."

"Hey, good, because if he shows up, we can have this fixed in thirty seconds," I said.

Shane sent me a glare from under his rain-drenched hair, which was ratted around his face. He needed a shave, I thought. And a tranquilizer. "I don't need help," he snapped. He stood up and stamped on the wrench, and the bolt turned with a horrible metallic shriek. Now that he had it started, he was able to muscle it off and start the next one.

At this rate, we'd be thirty minutes in the freezing downpour. Sitting ducks for any passing vamp with a plasma craving.

Or worse, whatever worse was this week in Morganville. One thing was certain: it was not safe to be out with a flat tire after dark, even on the town's best day ever. Which this most assuredly wasn't.

I was trying to be the old Eve. I really was; I'd even zinged Shane a couple of times with wisecracks, but nothing felt the same. I kept seeing flashes in front of me, vivid as camera shots, of how Claire had looked lying there on the floor, her eyes open, head turned to the side.

Of how I'd known, even before I'd touched her, that she was gone.

Nothing was the same now. The rain was all wrong for Morganville; it never poured like this, especially not this time of year. The streets were flooding, again, and even under the hooded jacket I was wearing I felt chilled and soaked. And so many stores were shut - not just closed for the night, closed, with whited-out windows and notices on the doors.

It felt like the whole population was suddenly deciding Morganville was no longer safe.

Which, duh.

I shivered again and stamped my feet, which was a bad idea. I sent splashes of freezing water up my legs.

Shane had moved on from dammit up the cursing food chain as he struggled with the third bolt. Stomping on the wrench wasn't cutting it, but he was doing it with so much enthusiasm I wouldn't have been surprised to hear a bone break. Finally, the bolt creaked over, and Shane collapsed to his knees again to unscrew it.

Three down, three to go, and we really were very late. Michael would be out looking for us, but in this rain, it'd be hard for him.

A bolt of lightning ripped the sky in half, and a couple of blocks down, I saw someone watching us. The flash gave me only impressions - human-shaped, pale, nothing special. But anybody who would be standing idly around in this weather deserved special alarm.

"Speed it up," I told Shane. "Seriously. Go faster."

"Hey, princess, don't make me break a nail."

"I'm not kidding."

He glanced up at me, shook hair out of his eyes, and said, "Yeah, I know. I'm moving it. Get the tire ready."

I didn't like the idea of leaving him alone to go to the back of the hearse and drag the spare out of its compartment, but I really didn't have much of a choice; it would speed things up, and I'd just been ragging on him to count seconds. I waited until the next jagged flash of lightning.

The corner where I'd seen the man standing was empty. Good news? Probably not.

It took thirty seconds to unlatch the compartment, grab the spare, and haul it out. Shane was still unscrewing the last bolt when I rolled it over. He lifted the flat clear and passed it to me, then took the replacement and slotted it on with speed a NAS-CAR pit crew would have envied. "Five minutes," he shouted.

"Less would be better!"

"Just watch our backs."

I was, even while I threw the flat tire into the back of the hearse. The street looked deserted. We'd lucked out in being able to pull under an actual working streetlamp to fix the tire, but that also made us about as obvious as the last pork chop at the all-you-can-eat buffet. I had been given watchdog duty over Shane's precious canvas bag, and now I grabbed out my two favorite weapons - a silver stake, and my slightly upgraded fencing epee, which had a coating of silver on it, too. My coat pockets had two squirt bottles full of silver nitrate.

"Trouble?" he asked me without looking up from screwing on bolts. He was working fast. "Four more minutes."

"I don't know," I told him. "It's just real exposed out here."

"Yeah." He tightened bolt two and went on to three. "Believe me, I'm feeling it."

Lightning stabbed again, so bright it practically sizzled my eyeballs. Close, too, real close. It must have struck a transformer about a block away; I saw something flare up in hot blue sparks.

Our streetlight went dead with a sad little fizzle and zap.

"Shit," Shane said. "Can't see a thing! Flashlight!"

I grabbed one from the back, but that meant dropping one of my two weapons. I debated, then left the stake on the seat. The flashlight worked, at least, and I focused it so he could continue bolt three.

By bolt five, I was feeling pretty good. We were almost back on the road. Yes, we were - yikes - half an hour late, but at least we were in one piece....

I felt something brush past me.

The wind was blowing, and rain was thrashing, and the feeling was so subtle, I shouldn't have been able to pick it out of the general chaos around us, but there was something about that touch. Something very bad.

I spun around, throwing the light all directions, but I didn't see a thing.

"Sorry," I said, and turned back toward the car, and Shane, who was - against all character points - waiting patiently for me to stop freaking out.

Only he wasn't waiting.

He was standing up. The light hit his face, and it was pale, dead pale, his brown eyes almost all pupil.

I yelped and scuttled back, and the light slipped and lit up someone standing behind him.

My mind fried, just like the streetlight, as if it couldn't make that work, couldn't process, couldn't deal. It was like a shadow, but -

"Hey!" I shook it off, mostly by refusing to look at whoever that was behind Shane. "Shane, get out of the way. What the hell are you doing?"

He just stared at me. It was as if he was gone, like Claire had been gone, only he was still standing there.

Then he turned and started to walk away. He passed the shadow, which rippled black like a standing-up puddle of oil, and I felt something horrible and cold well up inside me.

Whatever this thing was, it had Shane, and now it was taking me, too.

Hell with this.

I yelled, closed my eyes, and lunged.

It was a perfect lunge, the fencing move of a lifetime - razor-straight extension, weight balanced, every bit of my reach forward into the silver-coated steel of the sword.

And it caught the thing dead center.

Problem was, it didn't feel like I'd punctured anything real. It was more as if I'd hit a balloon, one filled with gelatin and water. The give was way too easy, way too wrong, and I snapped my head up to see the thing - because it damn sure wasn't a man, and wasn't a vampire - collapsing in on itself.

Whatever was inside it splashed to the wet ground a second before the thin, empty oil-black skin collapsed.

I shrieked and scrambled backward, shaking my sword free of the ick. There was no sign of blood on there, or anything I could see in the dim light from my fallen flashlight.

The black stuff was flooding away in the water.

Shane had fallen face-first to the street, as if he'd just been turned completely off. I gave that dead skin a wide margin of respect as I ran for him and grabbed his arm. "Shane! Shane!" God, flashbacks, I couldn't lose him, too. I couldn't. . . .

And I didn't, because in the next instant he coughed, spraying water, and rolled up to his feet. He almost went down again, so I steadied him. "What the hell was that?" He vomited, and way too much water came out of him. It was as if he'd been drowning, which he couldn't have been, could he? No way.

"I don't know what that was," I said. "But I like it like cancer. Come on, we have to get out of here!"

Shane definitely didn't argue. I dragged the skin-heap over to the side, well away from us, using only the point of my epee. That was more sickening than your average vomit-inducing event. Seriously, I would rather kiss Monica, or lick a toilet bowl, than ever, ever do that again.

Shane tightened the fifth bolt and got the sixth in and tightened in less than a minute, hit the release on the jack, and thumped the car back to the pavement, fast. He grabbed all the tools and tossed them in the back, yelled, "Go!" and I didn't wait for a second opinion. I was in and starting up the hearse before his door was closed.

And now I could hear something. It sounded like - singing? Confused, I fiddled with the stereo, but it was off. Nothing coming out of it.

I realized, as I accelerated, that Shane was trying to get out of the car. Holy floating Moses, that was - insane. I grabbed him by the hair and pulled, hard, and he yelped and slammed his door again and turned to glare at me. "What?"

"You were leaving!" I shouted back. He looked utterly lost for a second, then nodded, as if he'd just realized something. "God, what is going on? Because even for Morganville, this is totally whacked!"

Shane, ever practical, reached in the glove compartment, pulled out some tissues, and tore them into strips. "Can you hear it? The music?"

I nodded. I could, and it was making me sweat. Hard to keep my hands on the wheel, my foot on the gas. I was feeling more and more - relaxed. Distracted.

"Here," Shane said. He was jamming rolled-up pieces of tissue in his ears, and handing me some. I didn't really want it, but I took one and stuffed it in on the left.

I instantly felt better. Sharper. And much, much more scared. I grabbed the other piece and got it in my right ear, pressed the accelerator, and ripped through the red light at top speed. Bill me for the ticket, Morganville, because I knew that stopping right now was an insane idea.

Shane was breathing easier now, too, but he looked pale and wild-eyed. We didn't talk - well, considering we'd just jammed up our ears, it probably wouldn't have been productive, either. I drove too fast for the heavy rain, but the streets seemed deserted, and anyway, I was way too freaked-out to slow down.

Lot Street showed up suddenly, and I swerved into a left turn, tossing Shane into the passenger's door (but not, thankfully, out of it). When I slithered the hearse to a stop in front of the house, we looked at each other, and Shane pointed from me to the bag in the back, then from his chest to the items scattered on the backseat. I nodded and did a silent three count.

I hit the back, grabbed the weapons bag, threw the stake inside, and raced through the gate and up the walk. I fished for my keys as I ran, and had them out and ready. The door swung open right on cue as Shane pounded up the steps behind me carrying his load, and we rushed inside, slammed the door, and locked it, hard.

We stood there breathing hard for a few seconds; then Shane yanked tissue out of his ears and turned away. When I got mine out, I heard him yelling for Michael as he carried his items toward the living room.

There was a black doctor's bag and two bottles of liquid sitting there, and damp footprints on the carpet - but no Michael. "Michael!" I yelled up the stairs, adding to Shane's voice as he checked the kitchen. "Michael, we're back - "

No answer. I tried not to look directly at Claire's still form as I headed to the kitchen. I met Shane as he came out.

"Nothing," he said. "He's not here."

"He went out after us."


"Well - we should - "

"Nothing," Shane said. "We should do nothing but wait. Eve, it's really freaking nuts out there. He'll have to get back on his own. Look, he'll be fine; you know Michael. He's tough."

I nodded, but I felt short of breath. We were more than thirty minutes late. Even if he'd gone out, surely he should be back soon.

But he wasn't. The minutes slid by, greasy and way too fast, and with each one, my panic got a little stronger. I kept wanting to fiddle with my cell phone, but there was no point; the lines were still out. The TV stations were dark. What I could pick up on the radio were ghostly out-of-town signals, nothing local.

It had been an hour when Shane said, very quietly, "I think we have to assume something happened."

I was trying very hard not to lose it. "Then what are we going to do?" I asked him. "Please. Tell me. We can't call for help. It's too dangerous to go out there. What the hell do we do? Jesus, Claire is - Claire is right there on the couch. What are we doing, Shane?" That last tipped over from distress into real terror, and Shane grabbed me and held on for both our lives. He was scared, too. Really scared.

There was a knock at the back door.

We sprang apart like we'd been caught doing something totally illegal, and I felt a surge of relief so intense it was like being soaked in a hot bath. "Michael," I said, and raced to let him in.

Rationality caught up one step later, as did Shane, who said, "Michael has keys."

I hit the reality wall face-first, and skidded to a stop.

Shane eased the curtain aside. I saw his shoulders stiffen, then slump. He unlocked the door and stepped aside.

And Myrnin swept in, all giant leather swirling coat and dramatic swooping hat. Rain fell off both in a miniature fountain as he shook himself, then took it all off. Despite all that cover, he still looked half-drowned. "We don't have much time," he said. "They're looking for me. Did you get everything?"

"I don't know," Shane said. "It's in here."

He led the way back and indicated the stuff piled on the dining table. Myrnin pushed him out of the way and, with quick, able gestures, opened the doctor's bag and pulled out all kinds of tubing, needles, some kind of pump . . . and made a little aha! sound as he grabbed a gear-studded machine covered with brass. He plugged the end of one tube into it, and the other into the pump.

I watched as he set up a complicated, inexplicable device there on our dining room table, mixed chemicals together into a test tube, and poured the result into a funnel on the brass machine.

It started up with a barely perceptive hum.

"Where is Michael?" Myrnin asked, as he fitted a needle on the end of one of the tubes. "He should be here. I will need his help."

"He - " Shane cleared his throat, and didn't look at me. "He didn't make it back. We don't know where he is."

Myrnin's hands stilled for a second, and then he nodded. "Very well," he said. "I have a blood connection to Claire, but none to the house; this will be trickier without that. You two are residents, so you have some standing. I'll need vials of your blood." He grabbed syringes and those rubbery tie things, which he pitched to each of us. "It's best if you draw it yourself."

I held the capped needle - at least he was using a modern syringe - and the tourniquet and glared at him. "I'm sorry? What?"

"Apparently I have not made myself clear," he said, speaking the way vampires did when they thought you were drunk, stupid, or just deeply worthy of a smack. "If I do not have the blood of someone attuned to this house, then all this is busywork and window dressing. So please, stop following your usual extremely useless agenda of jabbering questions and put the needle in your arm!"

"Are you high?" I blurted it out spontaneously, because the light had caught his eyes, and they looked seriously weird, in a medically induced kind of way.

Myrnin blinked. "Amelie thought it best to calm me," he said. "Given my distress." His gaze darted toward Claire's body on the couch, and suddenly I did understand. Of course he'd been distressed - too rattled to work. So Amelie had given him happy pills.


I wanted to catch Shane's attention and get some solidarity going on this, but he had quietly, without fuss, dropped his coat and rolled up his sleeve, and was fastening a tourniquet around his arm.

"Here," I said. "Let me help."

"Got it," he said, and tightened the rubber strap with his teeth in a way that made me wonder if that was actually the first time he'd tried it. Probably not. Shane had done some bad things out there on the road with his dad. "Let me do yours."

I didn't want to - boy, did I not want to - but I stripped off my coat, sat down in a chair, and shivered while he rolled up my sleeve, fastened the tourniquet, and told me to work my fist. I have good veins - not a major plus, in Vamptown - and it took only about half a minute for him to find one, slip the needle in, and fill up the tube. "Just one?" he asked Myrnin, without looking up.

"Two would be better," Myrnin said. "Three would be extremely nice."

Shane silently pulled the crimson-sloshing tube from the syringe and slotted another one in. It hurt, and he touched my hand in silent apology as the blood bubbled up. He was better on the third vial, and then we were done.

Myrnin reached in the bag and found a couple of premoist-ened antiseptic swabs and cotton balls. Shane finished me up and sat down next to me. His arm was turning red from the tourniquet, and it must have hurt, but he didn't seem to mind. I could see the veins standing out in the bend of his elbow from three feet away.

"Need me to - "

"No," he interrupted me, which was a relief, because I was even more squeamish about putting needles into people than I was watching them stick into my own skin. He rested his forearm on the table, palm up, and did the whole thing with his left hand, including changing tubes, which was . . . scary impressive, really.

He smiled a little, while he was doing it.

"What?" I asked him. "You're freaking me out now."

"Claire," he said. "She had to come with me to the blood bank so I wouldn't freak out and leave. And here I am, drawing my own blood and handing it to a vamp. She'd appreciate the crazy."

Myrnin was waiting impatiently on us, and when Shane handed him the blood, he gave us a quick nod, ripped the plastic diaphragms off the ends of the tubes, and poured them one by one into his weird little spinning machine.

The house took on an absolutely horrible smell that burned my eyes and made me cough. Shane, too.

Then Myrnin took a syringe and vials and - without bothering with a tourniquet - drew some paler-than-normal blood out of his own veins. He put two vials of it into the machine, but kept the third attached to the syringe, which he capped and put in his pocket.

"Right," Myrnin said. "Sit her up."

Shane gave me a confused look.

"Not her, her! Idiot. Never mind." Myrnin stalked to the couch, pulled the afghan away, and . . . stopped. Just for a second. His back was to us, so I couldn't see his expression, but I didn't really need that to understand what he was feeling. I felt the same thing every time I so much as glanced toward her body - the black, horrible knotting inside, dread and anxiety and grief and horror all tied up together.

He picked Claire up and moved her limp form into a sitting position on the couch. Her head tried to roll off to the side, and he carefully, gently adjusted it. Then he took one of the tubes, the one he'd fitted the needle to, and deftly inserted it into her forearm, like an IV. He flicked a switch on the machine on the table, and a sickly greenish liquid began flowing through the tubes, and into her arm.

Nothing happened.

"All right," he said. "What I'm about to attempt is - dangerous. Very dangerous, not only for me and for the two of you, but also for Claire. If her spirit has been trapped by the house, it's as if the house is a filter, but the pressure on her spirit remains, trying to pull her free and out to - whatever comes beyond this. We have to break the filter, and grab her spirit as it flies, and pull it back into her body. It will not be easy."

"But - " I licked my lips and risked a quick look at Claire's silent body. God, she looked so pale. "Her neck. What about her neck?"

"What about it?"

"It's broken."

"Ah, that," Myrnin said. "Yes. Well, I can fix that. You won't like how that occurs, but I don't think we have much of a choice." He took the syringe out of his pocket and held it up. The pale, watery blood glimmered in the light. "This will heal her physical damage, and it will also strengthen the bonds between the two of us. It will allow me to try to pull her back."

"Wait, hang on a second," Shane said. "You're putting your blood into Claire? Isn't that how you make someone a vampire?"

"Yes." Myrnin uncapped the needle. "It's exactly how I would make a vampire. The process is the same; those who cross over die, and only their vampire maker can lead them back across that line, back to their bodies. This will let me try to do the same for Claire."

Shane lunged out of his chair and grabbed Myrnin's arm as he positioned the needle over Claire's neck, right where she had two faint, faded scars from where Myrnin had once bitten her. "No! You are not making her into - "

Myrnin shoved him, and Shane went down. It was a gentle push, for a vampire. He didn't even hit a wall. "Do you want her back or not?" Myrnin almost spat it at him. "If there's any chance to reclaim her, any chance, don't you want to take it?"


"Oh, you'd rather she was dead and gone forever?"

Shane was chalk white now, as if he'd taken up the Goth lifestyle. He didn't try to get up. It was as if he didn't have the strength, all of a sudden.

He didn't answer.

"That's what I thought," Myrnin said, and plunged the needle home in Claire's neck. I expected a flinch, but of course she didn't move, didn't react at all. I watched the pale blood press into her neck.

No reaction. None at all.

Myrnin knelt down and put his hands on her forehead. "Eve," he said, in a careful, controlled, calm voice. "Please press the button on the side of the machine now."

"Don't," Shane whispered. He was looking at a nightmare, I realized. He loved Claire, and he wanted her back, but the idea of having her back as a vampire . . . that had to rip him apart, right at the core.

He shut his eyes.

I reached out and pressed the button.

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