Fade Out

Chapter Four


Michael was playing guitar in the living room of the house when Claire stomped down the hall, dumped her backpack without much care for the electronic feelings of the laptop inside, and threw herself full length down on the sofa. Michael stopped in mid-chord, and she sensed he was staring at her, but she didn't look. Eventually, he started up again. The music spilled over her, beautiful and complicated, and as Claire lay there and just concentrated on breathing, she felt some of the awful tension inside her start to ease up. Still a horrible day, but she could never feel too angry when Michael was playing.
"So," he said, not looking up from the frets as he tried out a complicated new flood of sound, "I'm thinking of going electric. What do you think?"
"Eve dumped me. I've been best-friend dumped."
Michael's playing stuttered, then smoothed out again. "Huh. I'm guessing that's a no?"
"There's this girl, Kim? You know who she is?" Michael nodded, but didn't say anything. Claire felt her hands curl into fists, and deliberately, carefully straightened them out. "So this Kim, she's like perfect and all. Ooooh, she's an artist. And all of a sudden she and Eve have everything in common and I'm just - the stranger who doesn't get the jokes."
"I've met Kim," Michael said. His voice was neutral, and he kept his gaze on his guitar. "She's like a black hole; she just pulls people right out of their orbits. Eve's still your friend. She's just crushing on Kim because Kim never wanted to hang with her before."
"So what's the story of the fantastic Kim, anyway?"
He shrugged, and shot her a quick, unreadable look. "She went to OLOM, so I didn't know her all that well."
"OLOM?" Claire repeated.
"I forget you didn't grow up here. Our Lady of Mystery. Catholic school across town run by the scariest nuns you've ever seen. Anyway, Kim bailed on school when she was fourteen, I think. She's our resident funky-artist type, I guess - more likely to flip you off than shake your hand."
"I'll bet she sucks."
It looked like Michael was trying hard to hide a smile. "Art's always subjective. She may suck to you."
"She doesn't to you?" Claire felt a little sinking sensation. Oh, great, of course Michael would like Kim, too. Shane probably not only liked her, but had dated her, and was secretly still in love with her. Claire Danvers, New Girl, was probably the only person in Morganville who didn't think Kim was all that, supersized.
Michael stilled the strings on his guitar with the flat of his palm and sat back, finally looking right at her. "You should get to know her," he said. "She's - interesting. Just don't get too close."
"She treated me like crap."
"She does that," he agreed. "Did you know she survived a vampire attack when she was homeless and sixteen?"
Claire swallowed whatever she'd been about to say, which would have been snarky and sarcastic. Instead, she said, "Survived how?"
"Killed the vamp trying to drain her. She could have been executed - town rules. Instead, she was acquitted. No jail time. Brandon wasn't happy about it - he was Amelie's second-in-command at the time - but he had to swallow it. So really, there are only two humans in Morganville who've ever killed a vampire and gotten away with it."
"Kim and who else?"
Michael raised his eyebrows. "You didn't know?"
"Know what?"
"Richard Morrell," he said.
"Seriously?" Because Richard Morrell was now the mayor of Morganville, one of the three most important people in town, and it boggled Claire's mind to think that the vamps had allowed him to just . . . walk away from that. "When?"
Michael didn't have time to answer, because his cell phone started playing "Born to Be Wild," and he pulled it to check the screen. "Got to get ready," he said. "Sorry. Story time later. Hey, trust me, Kim's a force of nature, but like a storm, she moves on. Eve will be fascinated for a while, but Kim will find somebody else soon enough. It's how she rolls."
Claire had the really strong impression that he wasn't telling her everything. Or anything, really. But he didn't give her time to go into it, either, just storing his guitar in the case and heading upstairs.
"Get ready," she repeated, still simmering. "Yeah, everybody's got somewhere to be but me. You should get to know Kim; she's interesting." Claire put a load of mockery into her Michael impression. "Yeah right."
The back door opened and closed, floorboards creaked in the kitchen, and Claire smelled the delicious wood-smoke aroma of barbecue. She couldn't help but smile, because hey - barbecue.
And, of course, the one bringing it.
"Hey," Shane said, and leaned over the couch to stare down at her. His hair was getting longer, and even more slacker-messy, as if he'd gone after the most annoying bits with a pair of scissors. Or garden trimmers. It should have looked horrible, but on him, somehow . . . it looked hot.
Not that she was in any way prejudiced.
"Hey," she replied, and held up her hand for him to smack. Instead, he took it and kissed it lightly.
"Why the mopey face? Did I forget to say something?"
"From you, hey is good enough." She sighed. Complaining about Kim hadn't been the great release she'd thought it would be; Michael had been on the fence, at best, and she had no reason to think Shane would be any different. "I'm just in a terrible mood."
"This I've got to see." Shane leaned over and stared into her eyes. "Wow. Yeah, that's terrifying. I can see that you're one second from snapping, Hannibal Lecter."
She sighed. "Nobody's scared of me."
"Nope. Nobody. That's a good thing, Claire."
"Says the guy who scares everybody."
Shane considered that and smiled slowly. She loved the way one side of his smile pulled higher than the other, and the little dimple that formed there. "I don't scare you."
"Well. Only a little, maybe."
"I'll have to work on getting rid of that little bit," he said. "Speaking of scary, how's your freaky boss?"
"Don't know, didn't go, don't care," she said. "My face hurts."
"So you're moping because your face hurts?"
"I'm ugly and nobody loves me."
"Wrong," he said, "and really wrong." He kissed her fingers again, and this time, his lips stayed warm on her skin for a long time. "Michael's getting ready?"
Claire let out an annoyed breath. "Yeah. Everybody's got somewhere to go but me, and - what?" Because she was getting an odd look.
"The theater at TPU? He's playing tonight? Packed house? Remember?"
Oh crap. No, she'd forgotten all about it, and now she felt - if possible - even worse. "I'm an idiot," she said. "Oh man. I've been whining like a two-year-old about Kim. I forgot he was trying to get himself together for the show."
"Kim?" Shane's attention snapped into bright focus. "Kim. Goth Kim?"
"Yeah, what's her last name, anyway? Weird Kim. That one."
"Where'd you meet Kim?"
"Eve. I guess they're in the play together?"
"Oh, crap," Shane said. His expression changed, went guarded. "So you talked to her."
"I wasn't worth talking to."
Was she wrong, or was that a little flicker of relief? "Probably a good thing. She's kind of a flake."
"Kind of?" Claire's eyes narrowed. "Did you date her?"
His eyes went wide, and there was a fatal second of silence before he said, "Not - exactly. No. I - no."
"Did you hook up?"
He started to answer, then shook his head. "I've got no good options here," he said. "Whatever I say, you're going to believe I did, right? But even if I did, it was a long time ago, and anyway, I'm with you now. All right?"
"All right," she said. She felt as if pieces of herself were breaking off, and somehow, it was all Kim's fault. I'm an adult, she told herself. Adults don't get stressed out about ex-girlfriends or ex-hookups or whatever. Except she wanted to go find Kim and punch her out, which was not good, because she was pretty sure Kim would punch back, and harder. "Sure. It's all good."
Shane didn't believe that for a second, but she saw him decide to fake it. "Right," he said. "So. Barbecue. You in?"
"I can't believe you eat barbecue after you serve it all day long. Doesn't that get old?"
"It's barbecue," he said. "What's your point? Come on, mopey. Come eat."
He half dragged her off the couch, tickled her into giggles, and chased her into the kitchen.
He was right. Barbecue really was kind of a magic cure for the mopeys.
Claire dressed up for Michael's show at TPU, but given the state of her sunburn, she wasn't sure it was worth the effort - at least, until she got downstairs. Shane and Michael were standing together, talking, and wow. Claire lingered on the stairs, admiring.
"What?" Shane asked, catching her.
"Nothing. You guys look great."
Michael shrugged, as if it were no big thing. So did Shane, even though he'd taken the time to put on his good black shirt and black leather jacket, and even sort of comb his hair.
Michael, though - rock star. Not in the glam hair-band sense, no, but he just looked . . . important. Claire wondered if Eve had picked his clothes for him; if she had, she really loved him, because they were completely perfect. Speaking of which - "Where's Eve?"
"Running late," Michael said. "She's meeting us there."
Eve passed up barbecue? That was odd. Claire came down the rest of the steps and did a little inspection twirl for Shane. "Okay?"
"Spectacular," he said, and kissed her - carefully, because of the sunburn. "You know I love that skirt."
She blushed under the burn. "Yes. I know." It was a short, pleated skirt. Plaid. The shoes she had on with it were the ones that Eve had bought for her last Halloween - funky, but cool and kind of sexy. Claire still felt a little uncomfortable with her body in general, but there was something about the signals Shane was giving her that made her feel less awkward. More - confident.
"You guys going with me?" Michael asked, juggling his car keys. "If so, the bus is leaving."
They were, of course; with Eve MIA, they had no other car, and walking in the dark was still not the best idea in the world, even in the new, calmer Morganville. It wasn't a long trip, and Michael drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as if he were practicing fingerings for his guitar; nobody said much. Claire leaned against Shane in the back, her head on his shoulder, and his presence went a long way toward making her forget about how bad her day had been.
At least, until she remembered that he'd once sat like this with Kim, back in undefined olden times. "Hey," she said. "About Kim - "
"Oh man, I knew it. You're not letting it go, are you?"
"I just want to know - did you guys date, or - "
"No," Shane said, and looked away. He'd have been staring out the window, except that the dark tinting prevented him from actually seeing anything out there. "Okay, I took her bowling once. She was pretty good at it. Does that count as a date?"
"It does if you hooked up after."
He hesitated, and finally sighed. "Yes," he said. "Guilty. Dated. Hooked up. She moved on to the next guy. Anything else?"
Claire was totally unprepared for how awful that made her feel. "Did you - did you really like her?"
"Do we need to have this talk now, with witnesses?" Michael held up his hand. "I want it on the record that I'm not paying attention."
"And . . . yet."
"Dude, you got yourself into this; don't blame me." Michael sounded definitely amused, which didn't make Claire feel any better.
"I'm sorry," Claire said miserably. "I guess - we can talk about it later. It doesn't matter, anyway." Except it did. A lot.
Shane turned back to look into her eyes. His pupils were huge in the faint glow of the dashboard. "I was looking for a girl," he said. "Kim wasn't it. You are, so stop worrying about that. But to answer the question, yeah, I liked her. Really liked her? Probably not. I wasn't exactly brokenhearted when she moved on. More like relieved."
Claire blinked. "Oh." She didn't know what to do with that. It made her feel better, and also, a little confused and childish and ashamed. Being jealous of a girl he'd been happy to let go? It seemed wrong, somehow.
"Hey," he said, and carefully traced the line of her cheek, avoiding the burned spots. "I like that you care. I do."
She pulled in a deep breath. "I just don't want to share you," she said. "Not ever. Even before I met you. I know that doesn't make sense, but - "
"It does," he said, and kissed her. "It really does." Michael was smiling, she could see it in the rearview mirror. He caught her watching him, and shook his head.
"What?" she challenged.
"It's a good thing I've got to live with the two of you," he said, "or I'd be putting this on YouTube later. And mocking you."
"Don't forget bloodsucking ass."
"Also, undead bloodsucking ass," Shane said. "That's kind of critical, too."
Michael stopped the car. "We're here." He grabbed his guitar case and got out, looked in on them, and flashed them a knowing grin. "Lock it when you leave. Oh, and remember - vampires can see through the tinting. I'm just saying."
"Ugh," Claire sighed. "And there goes the mood."
Michael disappeared into the artists' entrance, walking as if he owned the stage already; Claire and Shane walked, hand in hand, through the parking garage toward the front. There were a lot of other people parking, talking, walking in groups toward the entrance to the theater. Like most of TPU's buildings, it wasn't exactly pretty - a product of the blocky 1970s, glass and concrete, solid and plain and functional, at least on the outside.
The lobby was warmer, with dark red carpet and side drapes that looked only about ten years out of fashion. Claire saw people staring at her and wished she'd worn her cap, but since she hadn't, she held her chin up and clasped Shane's hand more tightly as he checked their tickets and led her up to the balcony. On the way, Claire spotted a lot of familiar faces - Father Joe, from the church, standing out in his black shirt, white collar, and red hair. People she recognized from classes, who probably had no idea they were coming to hear a vampire play guitar. Oh, and a ton of vamps, blending in except for the glitter in their eyes and the slightly hungry way they scanned the crowd. Some of them even dressed pretty well.
She didn't see Amelie anywhere, or Myrnin, or Oliver, and they were all pretty notable by their absence. She did see the unpleasant Mr. Pennywell, though, looking smug and remote and sexless in his plain black jacket and pants. He was sitting at a small table near the stairs, watching everyone pass. She had the strong feeling he was like those people who stood in front of the lobster tank to choose what was going on their plate.
"Everything okay?" Shane asked her, and she realized that he wasn't talking about the vampires or anything else like that. He quickly amended, "You know, between us?"
"Oh. Uh - yeah. I guess so." She must not have seemed too confident, because he stopped climbing the stairs, looked around, and headed her toward a small group of chairs off to the side at the landing. Nobody near them. It was a darker corner, kind of intimate in the glow of the light on the wall. People moved past in a stream, but nobody seemed to look.
"I need to be sure," he said. "Because I don't want you to think Kim is competition. She's not. Until today, I hadn't thought about her twice."
But, by implication, he was thinking about her now - comparing her to Claire. And Claire couldn't be totally sure she was winning, either. "It's just that everybody thinks she's so interesting. And I'm just - you know."
"A supersmart apprentice to a bipolar vampire, not to mention just about the only person in town Amelie listens to these days? Yeah. You're dead boring." Shane's warm hands cupped her face and tilted her chin up so he could meet her eyes in the dim light. "There. That's better."
"Why?" The word trembled on her lips, a restrained wail of bitterness. "So you can see how ugly I look, compared to Kim?"
"You got some layers of skin burned off," he said. "Big freaking deal. In a week you'll have a killer tan, and everybody will be wondering where you got the spray-on stuff. It doesn't matter. Not even a little. Get me?"
She didn't want to cry, and for a wonder, she didn't. She gulped in one hitching breath, held it, and let it slowly out, and that was it.
Then she smiled. "I get you."
"All right then. Because I love you. Remember?"
Warmth zipped through her nerves and took up a hot glowing spot somewhere just below the pit of her stomach. "I remember," she said. "I love you, too."
He kissed the tip of her nose. "Jealous. I kind of like it."
Hand in hand, they headed for the concert hall.
Mr. Pennywell blocked their path.
There was something really, unpleasantly wrong about Pennywell, in ways Claire couldn't put her finger on; the vampire looked awkwardly built, female in one light, male in another, but that wasn't the thing that made him frightening.
It was the complete, soulless absence of feeling in his expression and eyes. Even when he smiled, nothing happened in the top half of his face. It was just muscles, not emotion.
"Move," Shane said, and Claire felt his hold on her hand unconsciously tighten. "Dude, you are not crazy enough to go after us in the middle of neutral ground, in front of witnesses. Right?"
"That would entirely depend on what I planned to accomplish," Pennywell said. "But I am not here to threaten you. I am here to summon you."
"To our seats? Thanks. Don't need an usher." Pennywell stayed right in their path. The crowd was thinning out around them. The last thing Claire wanted was to be alone out here with him, everyone else inside and cheering and clapping and covering up her all-too-likely screams. She traded a look with Shane.
"Oliver would like a word," Pennywell said, and made a graceful gesture to his left. "If you please."
"He is not taking appointments. Yes. Now."
There didn't seem to be many options available, but Claire could see that Shane was tempted to tell Pennywell to beat it. That would be bad. Pennywell wasn't someone who took rejection well.
It didn't come to that, and for the worst possible reason.
"Shane? Shane Collins? Are you kidding me?" A girl's voice came from over Pennywell's shoulder, and was followed by the girl sliding around the vampire and throwing herself all over Shane. He dropped Claire's hand in surprise, and to catch the girl before they both toppled over.
It took a second to put the dyed-black-and-pink hair and voice together, but Claire knew even before her brain supplied the name.
Kim. Oh, perfect.
And Kim was kissing Shane.
It wasn't like he was kissing her back . . . more like he was trying to push her off his lips. But still. Her lips. Touching Shane's.
Even Pennywell looked thrown.
"Hey!" Claire protested, not sure what she ought to do, but she wanted very badly to grab a handful of that black hair and yank, hard. She didn't need to. Shane picked Kim up, bodily, and set her at arm's length - and held her there.
"Kim," he said. "Uh - hi."
"How's it going, Collins? Wow, it's been a while, huh? Sorry about the family stuff, that sucks, man. Oh, did you hear I've got a loft now? I'm selling on the Internet. Very cool." Kim's wide eyes were fixed on Shane's face, and there was a sickeningly delighted expression on her face. "I just can't believe it's you, Shane. Wow. So great to see you."
"Yeah," he said, and looked at Claire, just a quick (and panicked) glance. "This is Claire. My girlfriend." He stressed the word. It didn't seem to register, or if it did, Kim shrugged it off. She barely glanced at Claire at all.
"Cool," she said. "Hey, you're the one from the coffee shop. Eve's friend. Small world, right?"
"Claustrophobic," Claire said. "What are you doing here?" She knew she sounded angry; she just couldn't help it. Pennywell looked from her to Kim, clearly trying to decide whom he should kill first. From his expression, he was leaning toward Kim, which didn't distress Claire much at all.
"I came to hear Michael Glass," Kim said. "I mean, Eve told me all about it. Michael's always been the coolest guy in town - present company excepted." She winked at Shane. Winked. Claire wanted to vomit. "I just wanted to show my support."
"I'm not interested in you," Pennywell said to her. "Go away."
Kim blinked and turned to look at the vampire for the first time. Then she reacted as if she hadn't even known he was there. Seriously? She got a part in the play? Because that was the worst reaction Claire had ever seen, outside of really old silent movies. "Oh my God! What the hell are you? I mean, yes, obviously - " She held up two fingers in what Claire thought was a peace sign before realizing it was probably a V - for vampire. "But damn, you're freaky."
Pennywell had no idea what to do, from the frown that grooved that smooth, high forehead. He cocked his head and looked at Kim without saying a word, just studying her.
Then he said, "You are the historian."
Kim smiled. "Bingo, dude. I'm the historian. And you're kinda new, am I right? I have got to get you on camera. Make an appointment, okay? Here. Here's my number." She dug in the small black bag strapped to her wrist, came out with some kind of business card, and handed it to him. Pennywell took it - mostly in self-defense - and tucked it in his coat pocket. "Word of advice? Nehru jackets went out with the groovy sixties. Go for Brooks Brothers. You do not want to be preserved for posterity in a bad look, right? Also, maybe some work with the hair, butch you up some. Think about it."
While she was talking, Shane took Claire's elbow and quietly hustled her around Pennywell, whose eyes remained fixed on Kim as she chattered. By the time the vampire realized what was happening and thrust Kim aside, Shane and Claire were slipping through the door into the hall, out of his reach.
"Did she do that on purpose?" Claire asked.
"Don't know," Shane said. "But I wasn't about to waste the chance. Call Oliver. Find out if he was really wanting to see us."
Claire nodded. The crowd in the hall was still buzzing around, and the noise level was high. Nobody would notice her on the phone; there had to be a hundred or more of them glowing like jewels in the tiers of seats as people caught up with their friends, gossiped, made dates.
Claire speed dialed a vampire and got voice mail. Oliver didn't bother to identify himself, but just told the caller to leave a message, which she did, and then she put her phone on vibrate.
Shane kept looking at the closed doors they'd come through. Claire suppressed the urge to grit her teeth. "You're worried about her?" she asked, and tried to keep her voice neutral.
"We left her alone with Pennywell," he said. "Dammit. I thought she was following us."
Well, Kim hadn't followed them. Claire tried to be more worried, but the best she could really summon up was a dim sense of annoyance. And that really wasn't like her; she was always trying to find excuses for the worst people, and somehow, she just couldn't get on Kim's side, no matter what.
But she knew the right thing to do. "We should go look for her."
"No," Shane said. "You stay here. I'm just going to see if she's out there. I just want to be sure she's all right."
Because you don't at all care, Claire thought, but had enough sense to keep it to herself. She just nodded. Shane let go of her hand and moved to the doors, which he eased open and looked out. After a moment of hesitation, he let it close and came back. "Not there," he said.
"Which one?"
"Both." Shane sounded tense, and she couldn't blame him. He tended to take a lot on himself, and if something ended up going badly with Kim, he'd see it as his failure, which was nonsense, but it was how Shane rolled. "I need to - "
"Need to what?"
Kim again, coming up from right behind Claire. Claire squeezed her eyes shut and almost screamed in frustration - not relief - but she managed to control herself, turn, and say, very calmly, "Need to be sure you were okay. Which you are. Obviously."
Kim looked at her for a moment; then a knowing smile slowly spread over her lips. "Obviously," she almost purred. She transferred the look to Shane. And the smile. "You were worried about me? That's sweet, but gender-bender vamp back there wasn't about to hurt me."
"Why not?" Claire asked.
Kim shrugged. "Eh, you know. Damn, I really haven't seen you in forever, Collins. What you been up to?"
"Not much," he said, and reached out for Claire's hand again. "We've got seats down there. Sorry. Thanks for the intervention out there."
"Sure," Kim said. "Catch you later, then."
Their seats were close to the front, and by the time they'd reached them, the lights were going down. Claire looked back, but couldn't see Kim anywhere in the shadows.
"I think I might really hate that girl," she said.
Shane kissed her fingers lightly. "Don't be jealous. I'm not into her. Now or later."
Claire wished she could believe that, but there was still some small, difficult part of herself that was too aware of her own flaws.
Then the spotlights came up, the house lights went down, and Michael walked onto the stage, to a sudden rush of applause, and he wasn't the Michael Claire knew - he wasn't the one who hung out in the living room and played video games and noodled around on his guitar and picked terrible Westerns for movie night.
This was someone else.
Someone almost frightening, the way he grabbed and held the spotlight. He'd looked good earlier, but now Claire saw him the way that Michael Glass had always been meant to be seen . . . center stage. The light turned his hair brilliant gold, made his pale skin glow like moon-stone, turned him into something exotic and fabulous and untouchable - and, at the same time, something you wanted to touch. Badly.
Someone pushed into the chair next to Claire. Eve. She'd put on her best, mostly backless black velvet gown, fixed her hair into a chic, gleaming black cap, and when she crossed her legs, the slit in her dress revealed an acre of leg and stiletto heels.
She was out of breath.
"Oh God, I thought I'd never make it," she whispered to Claire, and snapped open a black silk fan, which she fluttered to cool herself off. "That's my boyfriend, you know."
"I know," Claire said. She'd been prepared to not talk to Eve, but in two sentences, she found herself smiling. There was something so happy in sharing her joy. "He's okay, I guess."
Eve smacked her with the folded-up fan. "Bite your tongue. My boyfriend is a rock god, baby."
And this, with the first few notes of his song, Michael Glass proved vividly to the entire hall.
The concert was great. The after-party was overwhelming, mostly because Claire hadn't really known there would be one, and she wasn't up for being stared at by a few hundred strangers who were all pressing around, trying to get to Michael and wondering why she was so special that she got to be behind the autograph table, instead of in front of it. Michael had barely had time to say hi since he'd come out the stage door into the lobby; he'd been mobbed, and not even Eve, standing there looking gorgeous and movie-star sleek, could get private time with him while the fans circled. There was no sign of Kim. The vampires didn't bother to mix with the crowd, but as each of them left the building, they stopped to look at Michael, and nod. Claire supposed that was their version of a standing ovation.
As the number of autograph seekers finally died down, there were only a few people left. One was Pennywell, leaning against a marble pillar a hundred feet away, looking bored but eternal, as if he could wait another ten thousand years if necessary without a change of underwear. One was Kim, who was locked in animated conversation with a couple of TPU guys who looked, to Claire's eyes, like liberal arts students. She kept casting glances at their little group, and Claire figured that any minute she'd kick her holding-pattern boys to the curb and make straight for Shane.
The last person, though, was a human - an older guy dressed in a black tailored leather jacket and jeans - kind of like business tough, if there was such a thing. He had great hair, and one of those nice, even, white smiles people had on TV shows - and a tan.
"Michael, great show," the man said, and leaned over to shake Michael's hand. "Seriously, that was out of the park. My name is Harry Sloan, my daughter, Hillary, goes to school here. She wanted me to come and check you out, and I have to say, I was very impressed."
"Thanks," Michael said. He looked a little tired, no longer the mighty god of guitar that he'd been onstage, and Claire thought he just wanted to get this done and get home. "I appreciate that, Mr. Sloan."
Mr. Sloan produced a business card, which he slid across the table toward Michael's hand. "Yeah, here's the thing. I think you've got real potential, Michael. I work for a major recording company, and I want to take a demo CD back with me."
There was a moment where they all stared at him, and then Michael said, blankly, "Demo CD?"
"You don't have one?"
"No. I've been - " Michael didn't know how to finish that sentence. "Busy." Busy getting killed, then being made into a ghost, then turning into a vampire. Fighting wars. Et cetera.
"You really have to get in the studio, man, right now. I'll set it up - there's a good place in Dallas. I'll book the time for you if you tell me dates. But I want to take your stuff into our next discovery meeting. I think we can really do some business. Think about it, will you? First thing is to get that demo CD done. Call me."
He held out his hand again, and Michael shook it. He looked pale, and a little vacant, Claire thought. Mr. Sloan flashed them all that Hollywood smile again, slid on a very expensive pair of sunglasses, and left.
"He can't be," Eve said. "It's a joke, right? Monica's idea of a joke or something."
Michael held up the business card. Eve examined it, blinked, and passed it to Shane, who passed it on to Claire.
"Vice president," Claire read. "Oh. Wow."
"It's not a joke," Michael said. "There was an article about this guy in Rolling Stone about six weeks ago." Michael slowly got to his feet, and it really hit home. "He wants to sign me. As a musician."
Shane held up his hand, palm out, and Michael slapped it, then grabbed Eve and spun her around in a rush of velvet and squeals. He went still, buried his face in the soft shine of her hair, and just held her. "All my life," he said. "I've been waiting for this all my life."
"I know," Eve said, and kissed him. "I'm so proud of you."
Across the gap of a hundred feet of outdated carpet, Mr. Pennywell started clapping. It had the crisp, startling sound of gunshots. The two boys Kim was chatting with discovered they had places to be, and hit the doors to flee into the night; Kim, just as Claire had feared, walked back over toward them. Pennywell finished clapping and said, "You do realize, of course, that they'll never allow you to leave?"
Michael raised his head, and it felt to Claire like the rest of them faded out of the world. It was just Michael and Pennywell.
"They?" Michael said. "You mean Oliver and Amelie."
"They want all vampires here, under their control. Under their care." Pennywell's sneer was like a slap across the face. "Two frightened little pups trying to control a pack of wolves. Are you a pack animal, Michael? I myself am not."
"What do you want?" Michael asked.
"Of you? Nothing. You are only a dog running to heel." His empty gaze moved away from Michael and fixed with a snap onto Claire. "I want her." Shane, Michael, and Eve closed ranks in front of her before Claire could draw a breath. Pennywell clicked his tongue. "No, no, no, children. This is a waste of blood. I will kill you all - yes, even you, fledgling - and take what I want in any case. You, girl - do you want to see your friends dead on this rather unpleasant carpet?"
"Fat chance," Shane said. "We already fought your punk ass once, remember? Go ask Bishop how that went for him if you're scared to think about it."
Pennywell sent him a scorching look of contempt. "You were not alone, boy. You had allies. Here, you have - " He turned a slow circle, and focused on Kim. "Her. Perhaps not your most persuasive argument." His tone went eerily quiet, and very serious as he moved his gaze back toward Claire. "I have been alive seven hundred years, and I have been a killer since I was old enough to hold a sword. I have hunted witches and heretics down across Europe. I have destroyed stronger than you, in harder times. Do not mistake me when I tell you that I will not give you another chance."
Claire swallowed and stepped out from behind Shane. He tried to grab her arm, but she twisted away, never taking her eyes off Pennywell. "Don't hurt them," she said. "What do you want?"
"I want you to come with me," he said, "and I am entirely out of patience. Now."
Claire held out her hands, palm out, to her friends - Michael, in his rock-star clothes, looking pale and focused and dangerous; Eve, dressed in a fall of black velvet, looking like a silent film star, right down to the look of fear on her face.
Shane was practically begging her not to go. His need to protect her pulled at her like gravity.
She said, "He won't hurt me. I'll call as soon as I can. You guys go home. Please."
"Claire - "
"Shane, go."
To her utter dismay, she saw Kim move over to her friends and stand next to Shane. Kim put a hand on his arm, and he looked down at her. "Let her go," she told him. "She'll be fine."
Claire knew that this was not the right time to be wanting to scream, Take your hands off my boyfriend, bitch, but it was all she could do to hold the words inside. Pennywell's hand closed around her wrist, cold and strong as a handcuff, and as he began to pull her away, Claire met Shane's eyes one last time.
"I'll be back," she said. "Don't do anything crazy."
He probably thought she meant fighting vampires.
What she really meant, deep down, was Don't fall in love with Kim.