Last Breath

Chapter Three


Crazy or not, Myrnin was trying.

For one thing, he'd cleaned up the lab, meaning that he'd moved the leaning stacks of books up against the walls instead of leaving them as trip hazards between the tables. He'd even uncovered the surface of one of the marble-topped tables, and had set up . . . God, what was that? A genuine china tea service?

He was standing next to it, wearing his somewhat clean white lab coat with the patch on it that said EVIKL GENIUS union KLOCAKL 101 on it, and there were goggles dangling around his neck. For a vampire, he was surprisingly versatile in his wardrobe, in a cracked-out way. From a purely objective viewpoint, Myrnin was a good-looking guy - frozen at the age of maybe his mid-twenties, with dark hair and a ready smile. A sharp but handsome face.

If only he didn't crazy it up all the time.

"Have you been watching Dr. Horrible again?" she asked him, as Myrnin poured tea into two delicate floral cups. "Not that I don't love it, but . . ."

"Thank you for coming," Myrnin said, and offered the first serving to Shane, saucer and all. Shane blinked and took it, not quite sure what to do with it; the fragile porcelain looked particularly endangered in his large hands. "It's very nice to see you both. And how have you been? Please, sit down."

"Where?" Shane asked, looking around. Myrnin looked momentarily panicked, and then just . . . disappeared, in a vibrating flash. He was back before Claire could draw in a startled breath, and he was carrying two large armchairs, one in each hand, lifting them like they were made of Styrofoam. Myrnin thumped them down on the floor and indicated them with outstretched palms.

"There," he said.

Well, he'd gone to a lot of trouble, really. Shane sat, then jumped back up with a yelp, splashing tea in a pale brown wave.

"Oh, sorry," Myrnin said, and picked up something that looked like a surgical saw from the seat. "I wondered where that had got off to."

"Should I even ask?" Claire said.

"You know I do the occasional research," he said. "And in answer to your question, quite likely you should not. Milk?"

That last was directed at Shane, who was still recovering. He slowly settled into his chair. "Dude, we live in Texas. Hot tea is not our thing. Iced tea, sure. I have no idea. Is milk supposed to be in there?"

"I give up trying to civilize you," Myrnin said, and turned to Claire. "Milk?"

"No, thank you."

"Much better." Myrnin set down the cream pitcher and leaned against the lab table, hands in his pockets. He'd stuck the surgical saw in there, too; Claire hoped he wouldn't slice something off accidentally. "I've thought of a few improvements to make to our system, Claire. Just a few. Nothing that will cause concern, I promise. And by our agreement, I am not making them on my own without peer review. Well, not peer, as I have no peers, but you do understand what I mean."

"All that, and modest, too," Shane said. "Is Frank around?"

They all three paused for a moment, waiting. Frank Collins - Shane's dad - was more or less a ghost, to all intents and purposes. In fact, he was only a little dead.... His brain had been saved, and wired into Myrnin's alchemical machine that ran a lot of the stranger things in Morganville. But sometimes Frank paid attention, and sometimes he just didn't want to respond. Maybe he was asleep. Brains needed sleep.

But after a long stretch of seconds, there was a flicker at the end of the lab, like an old cathode-ray tube television starting up . . . and then a slowly stabilizing image of a man walking toward them. Frank always manifested in gray scale, not color, and it was a paper-thin two-dimensional image. Limitations of the system, though Claire had never been able to figure out why. Then again, she didn't altogether understand the whole mechanism of how he projected the image at all.

Frank had chosen his avatar to look a lot like his old physical self: middle-aged (though not quite as beaten-up as Claire remembered him) with a scar on his face, and a perpetual bad-tempered scowl. He even wore the same old motorcycle leathers and stomping boots.

The scowl eased up as he saw Shane sitting in the chair. "Son," he said. "That girl's got you drinking tea now?"

Shane very deliberately took a sip of tea Claire absolutely knew he didn't want. "Hi, Frank." He was trying on this front, too; dealing with his dad alive had been a struggle, and dealing with him as a vampire had been worse. But now at least there was one thing settled between them: Frank couldn't physically abuse him. And from Shane's perspective, things were looking up. "How's living in a jar these days? Fulfilling?"

"Been better." Frank shrugged. "I see you're still together. Good. You could do worse."

"Frank," Myrnin said, and all the fussiness was gone from his voice, leaving it flat and cold. "If you wish to be insulting, I can just mute you for a few days until you learn manners. These are my guests. Granted, I don't really like your son, but I tolerate him, and you can do the same."

"I was talking to the girl. I meant she could do worse. Like you, for instance."

Myrnin stared at Frank's flickering image with dark, unreadable eyes for a few long, unsettling seconds. "Crawl back in your cave," he told him. "Now."

"Can't," Frank said. "You had me set to alert you if anything happened on my side of town. Well, it's happening. Somebody just tried to run the southern border of town in a van. It's disabled by the side of the road. I dispatched the cops."

"And?" Myrnin said. "What about it?"

"And someone just walked up to the eastern edge of town and is waiting there for permission to enter. Thought you'd like to know, it being daylight and all."

"Who is it?"

"I don't know, but he's a vampire. He's sitting in a pop-up tent right now."

"Well, that's odd."

"Seems so," Frank agreed. "He doesn't match any of my databases, so he's never been in Morganville. We've got us a genuine newcomer."

"A newcomer who knows enough to wait at the border for permissions," Myrnin said. "That's unusual."

"That's why I brought it up."

Myrnin tapped a finger on his lips for a moment, then suddenly whipped around to face Claire. "You could go," he said. "Ask him what he wants."

"Me? I'm not the vampire welcome wagon!"

"It's daylight," he said. "And while many of us can go out, we'd prefer not to risk it; wearing layers of protection in Morganville tends to mark us as . . . unusual. With the current unrest among the human population, it's safer if we send someone like you."

"Send the cops," Shane said. "That's what you own them for."

"I'd prefer to know exactly who or what we are dealing with before I involve bureaucracy," Myrnin said. "Oh, very well, since you're reluctant, I will come with you. I should get out anyway."

Claire hastily downed the rest of her tea and put the cup and saucer down; Shane gratefully dumped his out on the stone floor. Myrnin did that fast-motion thing again, and zipped back again adjusting a spectacularly badass black leather duster, a wide-brimmed leather hat, and gloves.

And a long, multicolored scarf he looped around his neck about six times.

"Too much?" he asked, pointing at the scarf. Claire didn't have the heart to tell him yes, so she shrugged.

"What about Bob?" she asked.

"Oh, Bob's fine. I think he's shedding his exoskeleton, which is why he didn't want to eat. Our Bob is a growing boy, you know."

Frank gave him an unpleasant smile and said, "You know, I think I'll call and get an exterminator in here. There's a real problem with creepy-crawlies. Present company not excepted, of course, since I consider leeches to be creepy-crawlies as much as spiders."

Frank Collins had been an ass when he was alive, and he wasn't any better dead and living in a machine. Claire didn't like Bob, but that didn't mean she wanted him chemically murdered, either. And referring to Myrnin as a leech . . . Well, that was just rude.

So she frowned at Frank, then turned to Myrnin and said, "I'm ready if you are."

Shane said, very quietly, "I hope you know what you're getting us into."

"Would you really rather drink more tea and chat with your dad?"

"Right," Shane said. "Let's roll."

It was bright enough outside - barely - that Claire commandeered the keys to Myrnin's sleek black car and had Shane drive. Yes, it was dangerous; vampire cars weren't meant to have human drivers, and the window tinting made it like driving at night without headlights, even in full sun. But she'd been driven by Myrnin before, and it was an experience she really didn't care to repeat. Shane was careful, and the roads heading to and from Morganville were, as always, relatively deserted, except for mail and delivery trucks that were just passing through.

He pulled off the road on the dusty shoulder near the KLEAVING US SO SOON? sign. It had a 1950s-era sad clown painted on it that had been rendered almost a ghost by sun and time. Someone had decorated it with a spray of shotgun pellets, but it had happened long ago; the whole sign leaned and creaked in the wind, about one gust away from collapsing completely.

And in its shade was a pop-up tent, and inside the shelter sat a young man wearing a sports hoodie, with BKLACKE TIGERS written across it in raised embroidery in black and red. As the three of them got out of the car, he scrambled to his feet, looking anxious; that got worse when he saw Myrnin's outfit, but Claire held up a hand to calm him down. "He's harmless," she said. "You're from Blacke?"

The boy nodded hesitantly, watching her with wary dark eyes. She didn't remember him, but she remembered Blacke very well. It was another little isolated town, one that had been overrun with infected vampires a few months back. With Oliver's help, Claire had managed to cure the sick ones, and a group of Morganville vampires had settled in there as a kind of satellite colony. Blacke's citizens had good cause to support them, because so many of Blacke's own people had been turned during the initial chaos caused by the sick vampires.

"How's Morley?" Claire asked, still trying to sound calm and reassuring. The boy looked like he might bolt at any moment. Morley had spearheaded the group that had left Morganville and settled in Blacke; he was definitely an old-school vampire, but he was oddly entertaining, sometimes. She respected him, a little.

"Morley sent me," he replied, looking just a little relieved she'd found the magic word - or name, anyway. "He and my aunt - Mrs. Grant. They kind of run the town now."

"I'm Claire." She stuck out her hand, and he took it and shook.

"Graham," he said. "Hey."

"Graham, this is Shane." Shane shook hands, too, and Claire finally got around to Myrnin, but she didn't need to; he stepped forward decisively, whipped off his hat, and bowed.

"I am Myrnin," he said. "I'm in charge."

Claire rolled her eyes and mouthed, behind his back, Not really. Graham almost smiled, but he managed not to, and gave Myrnin an awkward bow back. "Uh, hi, sir," he said. "How's it going?"

"That all depends on what you're here to convey," Myrnin said. "Did you walk all this way from Blacke?"

"No, sir," Graham said. "I ran. But mostly during the night. It's not bad. Kind of restful, actually."

That settled the question of which sport Graham had been - or still was? - part of in school before he'd been turned vampire.... It had to be cross-country. "So what's so important you'd run more than fifty miles over the desert, but Morley couldn't pick up a phone?" Claire asked.

In answer, Graham unzipped his hoodie and took out a sealed envelope, which he showed her. On it was written, in a spiky antique style, For the eyes of the Founder only. "He said what he had to say couldn't be done over the phone, that it was too sensitive. So he wanted me to run it over and put it in the hands of either the Founder, Oliver, or - well, you, I guess. Claire."

Wow. Claire blinked, amazed that Morley would have put her in that particular company. "Uh, okay," she said, and accepted the envelope. It felt light - maybe one sheet of paper inside. "Do you know what it is?"

"Not a clue, and from the look on his face when he gave it to me, I want to keep it that way," Graham said. He zipped his hoodie up again. "So, that's it. It's clouding up, probably will be overcast in the next hour. It'll only take a couple of hours to get back."

"Don't you think you should wait for dark?"

"Nah, I'm good," Graham said, and flashed her an unexpectedly flirty grin. "Morley sent me because I'm a freak, anyway. High tolerance for sunlight. He says it's unusual or something."

"Oh, it is," Myrnin said, and looked thoughtful, and interested. "Would you mind providing me a blood sample, boy? I've been conducting a study these past few hundred years of the relative immunity of younger vampires to the influence of the sun. . . ."

Graham looked alarmed, which was probably wise. "Uh, maybe later?" he said, and put his hood up. It shaded his face well, and when he pulled the sleeves down over his hands, he was as covered as Myrnin, if not quite as flamboyantly. "Thanks. See you, guys."

"Be careful!" Claire said, but she was telling it to the wind, because Graham was fast. She saw a flutter of motion at the edge of her vision, and sand drifting, and he was gone.

"Whoa," Shane said, impressed. "Boy's got some skills."

And they'd been put to a very curious use . . . because picking up the phone would have been easy for Morley, and Oliver, at least, would have taken his calls even if Amelie still held a grudge against the tattered old vampire for running away from Morganville. Still, older vamps didn't trust technology much. Maybe he just felt that paper and pen were safer.

Still, something labeled For the eyes of the Founder only didn't seem to bode well.

"Are you going to open it?" Myrnin asked her.

"No," she said. "It's not for me. It's for Amelie."

He looked crestfallen. "But you could accidentally open it."

"Accidentally how, exactly?"

"Tripping. A rock could - "

"It's not a glass jar, Myrnin. It's not going to just break open."

He snatched it from her hand before she could stop him, and held it up to the light. "I can almost make it out," he said. "Morley has horrible handwriting. It looks like he learned to write in the time of Charles the Second and it went downhill from there.... Oh."

He fell silent, and slowly lowered the envelope. He stood very still, staring after the boy's fading trail of dust, and there was something in Myrnin's expression that woke shivers of goose bumps on Claire's skin. Graham had been right about the clouds; some skidded dark across the sky, high and fast, and blocked out the sun. The wind suddenly whipped colder, stinging Claire with blown sand, and she instinctively reached out and found Shane's warm hand.

"What is it?" she asked. She wasn't sure she wanted to know.

Myrnin handed her back the unopened envelope and, without a word, jammed his hat back on his head and walked back to the car. He got into the backseat and slammed the door.

Shane looked at her and said, "What the hell is this all about?"

"No idea," Claire said, "but it really cannot be good. Not at all."

Myrnin rolled down the window and said, "We need to go. Now. Shane, I assume you can pilot this vehicle at higher speeds than you used to get here."

Shane lifted her fingers to his lips and kissed them, just a brief brush of his lips against her skin, but it steadied her. Then he said to Myrnin, "How fast do you want to go? And where, exactly?"

"Founder's Square," Myrnin said. "And quickly. Quickly."

Shane couldn't go quite as fast as Myrnin wanted, but that was good; as it was, Claire felt she was hurtling uncontrollably down a dark tunnel, like something flung out of a slingshot. It was a deeply unsettling feeling. As short a drive as it was, she was relieved when Shane hit the brakes and slid to a stop at the Founder's Square guard post, manned by a uniformed cop. He was starting to explain when Myrnin rolled down his window and snapped, "Call Amelie and tell her I'm coming. Tell her to be waiting."

"Sir!" the cop said, and practically saluted. Not because Myrnin was so commanding, generally, but right now, he sounded very focused.

He was actually very scared, Claire thought. And that raised her personal terror scale all the way up into the red zone. "Myrnin, what's in the envelope?" she asked.

He didn't answer, but then, she didn't really expect him to. "There, take a left," Myrnin said, leaning over the seat to point.

"Get your hands out of my face, man," Shane said, but he followed the directions, and steered the car down the ramp into the parking garage beneath Founder's Square. It was crowded today, and as he looked for a parking space, Myrnin growled in impatience, opened his door in the back, and bailed.

"Hey!" Claire called. Shane found a parking spot and pulled in. They got out at the same time, and caught up with Myrnin as he punched the elevator's call button for about the hundredth time in thirty seconds. "Chill out, Myrnin; you're going to break it. Listen - it's coming."

He was practically vibrating with tension, and she couldn't understand why. She'd seen him in many bad situations, and even in the worst, even with Bishop, he hadn't been this freaked. When the elevator doors parted, he shoved his way in and jammed the floor button just as frantically as he had the one outside. Claire finally put herself physically between him and the control panel, out of a very real fear he was going to shove his finger through the button and short out the electronics altogether.

Myrnin took in a breath - unusual, except when he was talking - and slumped against the back wall. He pulled off his hat and wiped his forehead with a trembling hand, as if he were sweating, though Claire was pretty sure he couldn't, physically. "It was only a matter of time," he said, but it was in a whisper, and Claire didn't think he meant for her to hear. "Inevitable."

"Myrnin, what the hell is going on?" She looked at Shane, and saw that he was watching her boss with a worried frown, too. He knew this was freaky, too. "What's in the envelope?"

"A word," he said. "Just a word."

"Must be a hell of a word," Shane said.

"It's a short one," Myrnin said. He was watching the lights climb on the elevator display, and finally, the car lurched to a stop and the doors slid open. "I'll take it to her. You two - go home. Now."

"Wait!" The elevator doors started to close after him, and Claire slapped a hand in place to stop them. "Myrnin, what's the word?"

He turned to look at her, and that look - that look chilled her, all the way down.

"Run," he said. "It says run. Now go home." And he moved, vampire speed, down the hallway.

She let go of the rubber bumper and stepped back, leaning against Shane. He put his arms around her, and reached past to push the button for the ground floor as the doors rumbled shut.

"What the hell does it mean?" she asked him. He pulled in a deep breath, then let it out.

"I don't know," he said. "But Myrnin does. And it's bad, whatever it is."

They held hands on the walk back home. It was colder now, the sun covered over with scudding dark clouds, and there was a mass on the horizon that had to be a storm. The wind felt damp, edged with ice, as if Morganville had been magically transported to a much colder, wetter place. The humidity felt incredibly high; ten percent was the norm for this area of the desert, and on a really bad day it might rise to forty. But this felt like ocean waves against her skin. Even the air seemed heavy, more like mist than the light, clean stuff she was used to here. Despite the chill, she felt as if she was sweating. As if the whole world was sweating, and it was all over her skin.

Morganville residents were still out on the streets, doing their daily business; some were casting anxious looks at the sky and hurrying up about it, wanting to get home before the rain arrived. Claire was starting to wish she'd brought an umbrella, but really, who needed one in this town? It rained two days a year, if that, and never for long - or if it did rain hard, the wind was so fierce an umbrella was useless. But this storm . . . this one looked nasty, with that green edge to the clouds that tokened real trouble.

As they passed Oliver's coffee shop, Common Grounds, Shane said, "Hey, are you cold? I'm freezing. Let's get something."

That sounded good, actually. Normal. And maybe - Claire knew he was thinking this as well - maybe Oliver would be there, and would have some kind of clue as to what was going on.

You knew things were bad when you were actually looking forward to seeing Oliver.

But . . . no Oliver behind the counter. Instead, Eve was there, just fastening on her tie-dyed apron over her black outfit. She looked tired, but she put on a bright smile for the two of them. It was made about five thousand watts brighter by the shade of lipstick she'd used, which was a shocking bright blue, to match the stripes in her skirt. "Hey, rooms," she said. "How'd the flyers go?"

Flyers? God, Claire had forgotten all about that. "Uh . . . okay," she said. "We got them up in a lot of places, anyway."

"That's good, because my morning? Not so fabulous." Without asking, Eve started a mocha for Claire, and a plain tall coffee for Shane. "In celebration of the fact that my occasional part-time boss just tore out of here like his ass was on fire, coffee's on the house."

"He just left? We didn't see him," Claire said. Eve jerked a thumb at the back, which had a trapdoor tunnel exit.

"He took the shady street. What crawled up his ass? Because I know Bishop's no longer the big, bad boogeyman. Did Amelie break a nail or need a pipe fixed or something?"

"Wish we knew," Claire said. "I was going to ask. Because he's not the only one freaking today."

"No?" Eve cocked a black eyebrow at a wicked, inquisitive angle. "Spill."

"Myrnin," Shane said, and reached over to grab the cup she shoved over toward him. "Not that the guy's stable any time, but today he's extra-crispy crazy."

Eve leaned over, resting her elbows on the counter, as the milk hissed and steamed in its pitcher, heating to the proper temperature. "You think it's because of us? Me, and Michael?"

"Look, I know that you two getting engaged is somehow worse than him turning you - and no, don't ask me to explain that; it's just popular theory - but I don't think it's creating quite this level of drama," Claire said. "And Myrnin doesn't have any opinion, anyway. He's happy you're having a party, and he doesn't care what it's for. He wouldn't be getting all grand mal about it."

"Shit," Eve said. She retrieved the milk and began expertly blending Claire's mocha. "I was kind of hoping it was just about us, because at least that would be stupid. Now I'm scared it's actually smart to be worried."

"You and me both," Shane said. "And when the two of us agree, something is definitely wrong."

Things were busy at the counter, so Eve couldn't talk longer; Claire and Shane took their drinks to an empty table and sat, savoring the warm beverages and watching the clouds flow by overhead through the big plate glass window. Wind whipped the scalloped fringe on the red awning, and Claire could feel the glass of the window humming slightly in the gusts.

"Run," she said. "What do you think that means, Shane?"

He shrugged. "Who the hell knows? Maybe it's a message from an immortal bill collector, and she forgot to pay her rent for the last two hundred years or something. Maybe someone's reminding her that exercise is important."

"You don't really think that."

"No." He took a long sip of coffee, eyes hooded and dark. "No, I guess I don't. But we can't figure this out without more intel, Claire. And whatever it is, it doesn't look like the end of the world."

"Yet," she said softly. "Yet."

She caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye, something that made her cringe and recoil and go weirdly dizzy inside, as if what she was looking at was so deeply wrong it made her physically ill. It was outside the window, just passing . . . but when she looked, she saw nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Just a man, walking.

She knew him, she realized, or at least recognized him; it was that guy, the one she'd seen come into Marjo's Diner. Mr. Average. He wasn't hurrying like the other people on the street; he was walking calmly, hands in the pockets of his coat.


It shouldn't have looked so odd, but it made the hackles rise on the back of her neck.

"What?" Shane was watching her, and he stared out the window, too, trying to see what was alarming her. "What is it?"

"Nothing," she said, finally. The man had passed out of sight. "Absolutely nothing."

Which was the weirdest thing of all, she thought.

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