Fade Out

Chapter Eight


The rest of the day passed quietly enough. Claire dropped in to see Eve at the coffee shop, but all Eve could talk about was the play, how cool it all was, how she was so going to rock as Blanche DuBois, and how she had this plan to wear a black skull-patterned slip instead of the white one that the costume people wanted . . . and when she wasn't enthusing about the play, she was all about Kim. Kim, Kim, Kim.
"Cool necklace," Claire said, out of desperation, and pointed at the one around Eve's neck. It was cool - kind of a tribal dragon thing, full of angles and sinister curves. Eve touched it with her fingertips and smiled.
"Yeah," she said. "Michael got it for me. Not bad, right?"
"Not bad at all. Hey, did you clean Shane's room?"
"Actually? I just vacuumed and dusted. He picked it up himself. Why, did he tell you it was all me? Boys lie."
"About cleaning?"
Eve ate a bite of blueberry muffin and swallowed some coffee. "Why not? They think cleaning makes them look non-manly. Eek, sorry Claire Bear, gotta motor. Boss-man, he no like breaks. See you later?"
"Sure." Claire slid out of her seat and picked up her book bag. "See you at home."
"Oh, you should totally swing by rehearsal! Three o'clock at the auditorium. You know where it is?"
Claire knew, although she'd never been there - it was kind of a town civic center, and it was off Founder's Square - aka, Vamptown. Like most humans in Morganville, she'd never been really interested in traveling there at night.
Three in the afternoon, though . . . that sounded reasonable. "I'll try," Claire said. "So - I know you were worried about Oliver. Is that going okay, having him in the play?"
"Oh, actually, yeah. He's not bad! I almost believe he isn't a controlling jerk. Most of the time." Eve looked over her shoulder, made a scared face when the boss beckoned her, and waved good-bye.
Claire decided she couldn't put it off any longer, and pulled out her cell phone. She'd written and uploaded a program that allowed her phone to track and display available portals; according to the theory she'd been reading up on in Myrnin's lab recently, it wasn't such a good thing for humans to force a portal open, the way vampires could without too much effort. Over time, things happened - to the human. And Claire decided she liked her normal arrangement of eyes, ears, and nose - she liked Picasso okay, but she didn't want to become one of his paintings.
So she looked for a portal that was open - open meant that it was at a low level of availability, not active. The one open at the university just now was in the Administration Building.
She headed over there, blending in with all the other students, and as usual, the part of the Administration Building where the portal was located was empty. The chain-smoking dragon lady secretary at the front desk nodded her in without argument; apparently there'd been some kind of memo since Claire had begun doing this kind of thing - a convenient development.
Moving through the portal was a little like taking a microsecond-long ice bath; it felt like every cell in her body received a shock, woke up, screamed, and then went immediately back to normal. Not exactly pleasant, but . . . memorable. It didn't usually feel that way, and Claire felt some distinct uneasiness. If the portal system went out of balance . . .
"Myrnin?" She stepped away from the portal door of the lab, shoving aside a box of books he'd left lying around, probably for her to shelve. No sign of him here just now. The lab still looked clean and moderately organized, which wasn't like Myrnin at the best of times; she wondered if he'd gotten some kind of maid service. Who cleaned mad scientist lairs, anyway? The same people who did villain lairs and bat caves?
No Myrnin, but he'd left her a note, written in his spiky antique hand, that asked her to - wait for it - sort the box of books he'd left to trip her up. And to feed Bob the spider. Ugh. Why was she even surprised? Claire began unpacking, sorting, and shelving the books, which was surprisingly fun, in the hopes that the universe would end before she had to actually feed a spider.
She was in the middle of doing that when Ada's two-dimensional ghost formed in front of her. Claire's heart rate doubled, and she wondered if she ought to just make a dash for the portal . . . but Ada made no threatening moves. In fact, Ada was being polite - she rang Claire's cell phone. She didn't actually have to do that before using the speaker. It was her version of knocking.
Claire swallowed an acidic mouthful of fear, and peered at the fading spine of the heavy book in her hand. German. She wasn't sure what it said. "Do you know German?"
Ada raised her chin and gave her a haughty look, smoothing down the front of her gray scale gown. "Of course," she said. "It's hardly a vanishing tongue."
I have to feed spiders and put up with a bitchy, homicidal computer. My job really does suck. Claire didn't say that out loud, and as far as she knew, Ada couldn't read minds. Yet. "Good. Can you tell me what this means?" She held out the book, spine toward Ada. The ghost leaned forward.
"Alchemical Experiments of the Great Magister Kleiss," she read, and the tinny voice sounded a little sad as it vibrated from Claire's cell phone speaker. "Myrnin already has a copy. I remember buying it for him in a little market outside Frankfurt."
Claire put it aside. Ada seemed to be in an odd mood - fragile, confrontational, and oddly nostalgic. "You tried to kill me," Claire said. "You lied to me, and tried to get me to step through the portal to get eaten. Why?"
A very odd expression fluttered over Ada's smooth, not-quite-human face. If Claire hadn't known better, she'd think it was . . . uncertainty? "I did not," she said. "You are mistaken."
"It's not the kind of thing you get wrong," Claire said. "I've got a pole lamp that got cut in half when I had to slam the portal closed for proof. Remember now?"
Ada just - shut down. Not literally: her ghost still hung there in the air, bobbing ever so slightly as if gravity were just a bothersome suggestion, not the law. A flicker like static ran through her image, then another one.
Then she smiled. "You should see a doctor," she said. "I believe you're ill, human."
"You don't remember." Claire heard the flat disbelief in her voice, but what she really was feeling was . . . fear. Pure, cold fear. Ada could lie - she had before - but this didn't feel like deception.
It felt like something was very, very wrong. And if something was wrong with Ada, it was wrong with Morganville.
"There's nothing to remember," Ada said coolly. "Do you wish more translation done, or may I get on with my duties now?"
"No, I'm good. Where's Myrnin?"
Ada paused in the act of turning her back - stopping edge-on, almost disappearing from Claire's perspective - and slowly rotated in place. Her dark eyes looked like burned holes in her pale face.
"That's none of your business," she said.
"Myrnin is mine. And you can't have him. I'll kill you first!"
And then she just - vanished.
Claire gaped at the space where she'd been, half expecting her to show up again, but Ada stayed gone. Claire replaced the book she was holding back on the worktable, and walked around toward the rear of the lab. The thick Persian carpet had been rolled back there, and the trapdoor Myrnin had installed - a clever job of painting the door to match the stone floor - was closed. Claire gritted her teeth and clicked the release, which was a book on frogs in the nearby bookcase. The lock released with a snap, and Claire hauled the trap to the catch position.
Myrnin never kept any lights on down there, in the basement/cave where Ada really lived. Claire grabbed a flashlight, checked the batteries, and then looked down into the darkness. "Myrnin?" she asked. No reply. She heard water dripping in the distance. "Myrnin, where are you?"
Great. This made feeding Bob the spider look like a day at the park.
No way am I going down there alone, she thought, and flipped open her cell phone. Michael answered on the second ring. "Yo," he said. "I'm guessing you don't want to go to a movie, or anything fun like that."
"Why would you say that?"
"Because that would be Shane's job. When you call me, it's usually an emergency."
"Well - okay, fair point. But this isn't. Not an emergency, anyway. I just need - some hand-holding. Can you come to Myrnin's lab?"
Michael's voice turned a lot more serious. "Is this crazy maintenance, or is something really wrong?"
Claire sighed. "I don't know, actually. I just don't want to go down into the dark without a big, strong vampire."
"You mean you can't get down there without my help."
"Well, actually, I can't get out without your help, since Ada's not letting me do the portal thing near her. It's still a compliment, right?"
"Except the part where you drag me into potentially deadly trouble? Yes. Stay put. I'll be there in ten minutes."
"Be careful," she said. She had no idea why she did; it wasn't as if Michael had anything much to be scared of, especially in Morganville. But it was something her mother always said, and it made her feel better to express a little concern for her friends.
"No exploring on your own, Dora," he said.
She felt lonely and exposed, even here with all the lights burning brightly, once his voice was gone from the call. She considered calling Shane, but honestly, what good would it do? He'd come running, but he needed his job, and Michael was already on the way.
Ten minutes.
Claire decided to get the Bob thing over with. Bob's terrarium sat on Myrnin's rolltop desk, amid stacks of books and some pens - quills, fountains, and rollerballs. Bob looked bigger than she remembered. And blacker. And hairier. Claire shuddered, looking in at him; all eight of his beady eyes looked back. He stayed very still.
There was a small bottle on the table that contained insects - live ones. Claire made a retching sound and tried not to look too hard; she just opened the top of the terrarium and tipped the contents of the jar into the cage.
Bob leaped on her hand.
Claire shrieked, and the bottle went flying to shatter against the wall. Bob didn't budge when she violently shook her hand, trying to get rid of him; he clung to her like Velcro, and he felt different, somehow - heavier. Yes, he was larger. Claire batted at him with her right hand, and his fangs glittered as he lunged for her, skittering up her left arm.
She grabbed a book in her right hand.
Bob leaped from her arm, headed to her face.
She smacked him out of the air with the book, and he landed on his back, all eight legs wriggling in the air. Before she could slam the book down on top of him, Bob flipped himself over and skittered underneath the table.
It was not her imagination. Bob was getting bigger. In the space of just a few seconds, he'd gone from the size of a walnut to her palm, and now he was almost as big as the book she'd used to smash him out of the air.
"Ada!" she screamed. "Ada, I need you!"
Her cell phone came on, and gave an unearthly screeching noise . . . and then a soft, ghostly laugh.
Something knocked over a pile of papers at the edge of the table, and Claire saw a long black leg waving in the air. She backed away, fast.
When Bob climbed up on top of the table, he was the size of a small dog. His fangs were clearly visible, and if she'd thought he was ugly at small size, he was terrifying now.
"Hi - Bob - ," Claire said. Her voice was shaking, and sounded very small. "Nice Bob. Heel?"
Bob bounced off the table, landed lightly on the floor, and skittered toward her, racing incredibly fast. Claire screamed and ran, knocking over anything she could behind her to slow him down. Not that it did, but when she looked back as she reached the stairs, Bob had stopped chasing her.
He was sitting on a table in the center of the lab, trembling. She could actually see him shaking, as if he were having some kind of a fit . . . and then he rolled over on his back, and his legs curled in, and . . .
And he was dead.
"Bother," Ada said. Claire jumped in reaction, bit back a curse, and saw Ada glide out of a solid wall to her left. Ada's image went right up to Bob's motionless body, leaning over him, and shook her head. "So disappointing. I truly thought he'd be able to sustain the change."
"Change?" Claire swallowed hard. "Ada, what are you doing? What did you do to Bob?"
"Unfortunately, I believe I exploded his organs. So fragile, living things. I forget sometimes."
"You did this. Made him grow."
"It was an experiment." Ada's image slowly revolved toward Claire, and her smile was small and cold and terrifying. "We're both scientists, are we not?"
"You call that science?"
"Don't you?" Her hands folded primly at her waist, Ada was the image of one of those schoolteachers from the old days. "All science requires sacrifice. And you didn't even like Bob."
Well, that was true. "Just because I don't like something doesn't mean I want to see it die horribly!"
"Really? I find that . . . not very interesting at all, actually. Sentimentality has no place in science."
Just like that, poof, Ada was pixels and vapor, gone. Claire ventured slowly forward, to where Bob the Giant Spider was curled up on the table. She half expected him to suddenly flip upright in true horror-movie style, but he stayed still.
Claire wasn't falling for it. No way. She backed up to the steps that led out of the lab, and sat down on the cold stone, wrapping her arms around her for warmth.
Minutes ticked by.
The dead spider didn't move, which meant that either he wasn't faking it, or he was really, really good at it.
She shrieked and jumped, and Michael, standing about a foot behind her, jumped backward, as well. Being a vampire, he somehow made it look cool. She, not so much. "God, don't do that! Warn me!"
"I did!" He sounded wounded. "I said your name."
"Say it from across the room next time."
But Michael wasn't looking at her anymore; he was staring past her, at the dead spider. "What the hell is that?"
"Bob," she said. "I'll tell you later. Come on."
"Ada's cave."
Which was why she'd called him, because, of course, there were no stairs. Vampires didn't need them. They could jump twelve feet onto solid stone and not even feel a twinge; Claire figured she was sure to have a broken bone, at the very least. She wasn't a superhero, a magical vampire slayer, or even a particularly coordinated athlete. Michael was her way in - and, hopefully, out.
Of course, having a friend with her going down into the dark, that was a plus, too.
Luckily, Michael didn't seem too bothered at being asked to stand in for a ladder; he looked down into the darkness for a few moments, craning to see every detail of what, to Claire, was pitch-blackness. "Looks clear," he said. "You're sure you want to do this?"
"She won't say where Myrnin is. Well, he's not up here, and the carpet was rolled back. He must have gone down there."
"And there's a reason why we can't just wait for him to come back?"
"Yeah. Ada's tried to kill me twice now, and who knows what she's tried to do to him. There's something wrong with her, Michael."
"Then maybe we should call somebody for help."
Claire laughed a little wildly. "Like who, Amelie? You saw her at the cemetery. You really think we should rely on her right now?"
Whether Claire had a point or not, Michael must have realized that debating wasn't getting anything done. He shrugged and said, "Fine. If you get me killed, I'm haunting you."
"Wouldn't be the first time."
He winked at her, and stepped off the edge, dropping soundlessly into the dark. Claire rushed forward, grabbing up the flashlight along the way, and shone its glow down into the trapdoor. A dozen feet below, Michael's pale face looked up. His blue eyes looked supernatu rally bright as his pupils contracted in the glare.
"Right," he said. "Jump."
She'd been through this with Myrnin, but it still never felt exactly comfortable. Still, it was Michael, and if any vampire was trustworthy . . .
She shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and plummeted, straight into his cool, strong arms. Michael let her slide down, already looking past her into the dark. "There are things down here," he said.
"Not - sure I'd call them vampires. Things is pretty accurate." Michael sounded a little nervous. "They're just - watching us."
"They're sort of guard dogs. Watch them right back, okay?"
"Doing that, yeah. Which way?"
"This way." It was easy to get turned around in the dark, but Claire had a pretty good memory, and there were enough strange shapes in the rocks of the walls that she'd picked some out as signposts. Her flashlight's beam bounced and glittered on granite edges, and pieces of broken glass scattered on the floor. There were some bones. She didn't think these were human, though that was probably wishful thinking.
"Whoa," Michael said, and held her shoulder as the room opened up. She knew what he was seeing - the big cavern where Ada was housed. He'd been here before, but not through the tunnel; it was kind of a shock, the way it opened up into this vast, echoing space.
"Lights," Claire said. "To the left, on the wall."
"I see them. Stay here."
She did, clutching the metal of the Maglite more tightly, until a sudden hum of power accompanied the dazzling arrival of lights overhead. Claire blinked away glare and saw that Ada - the computer, not the flat, generated image she liked to present - was in full-power mode, gears clanking like giant teeth, steam hissing from pipes, liquid bubbling here and there in huge glass retorts.
Myrnin was slumped against the giant keyboard, face-down.
"Oh no," Claire breathed, and raced to his side. Before she could touch him, Michael flashed to her and caught her hand.
"No," he said, and picked up a stray piece of metal from the floor, which he flicked at Myrnin's back, where it landed, electricity arcing, and sizzling. "I can smell the ozone. She's got him wired. If you touch him, it'll kill you."