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Phony People, Come To Prey

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There’s a spot on the roof of the mansion; a corner, facing almost due east, which is in exactly the right place to watch the sun come up.

Nadia makes a point of being there, when she can. One of these days is going to be her last day, and she’ll never get to do this again. She’ll have eternity to play in the dark, to make herself useful, to stay out of Mira’s way, to learn and grow and figure out what the hell is really going on in the world: but she won’t always have the sunrise.

She leans back against the poolhouse roof, wriggling her shoulders against the cool metal strut and resting her arms on the glass, and props her feet against the edge of the roof proper. There hasn’t been a night like this in nearly nine years. A night so… peaceful. A night not spent looking over her shoulder wondering if this is the night Mira loses her shit for good and all time.

Tonight, though? Tonight she’s winning. Tonight she’s spent long hours referencing and cross-referencing, weaving a sleepless web from tome to tome, theory to theory, and in the back pages of Cosetta Giovanni’s diary she’s found something that’s worth taking a risk for.

She should probably tell him.

Nadia takes her eyes off the horizon long enough to find her phone.

“Hey - ”

[“What the hell do you want?”]

“Lovely to speak to you too, Cleaver.”

[“It’s been a long dark night of the soul, dear - get to the point or get fucked. Either’s fine by me.”]

“Ugh. Fine. I’ve tested your little sample. It works. It’s the good shit. It’s all true.”

[“Re-e-ally?”] The studied, airy indifference is gone from his voice. It’s dripping, cloying, creeping like a slow wound, and it leaves a silence Nadia can’t help but fill.

“Yeah, I thought that would get your attention. I spiked Madam - gave her everything you gave me - and she’s been acting weird ever since. Like she’s on a contact high. She smiled at me earlier.” Nadia pauses, her eyes flicking back and forth from the horizon, and she smiles sadly. “Shame you can’t get me any more…”

[“Who says I can’t?”]

“I thought Therese was going crazy over this girl?”

There’s a pause, and then: [“Queen Bitch was born crazy. Aren’t we all? But yes - she’s been out auditioning tonight, and I’m… thinking about the future.”]

Nadia runs her tongue over her teeth and lips. There’s an opportunity here. She can feel it. There’s motive, and a weapon, and a way out for Vandal and for her. All she has to do is say it. Take the next step. Demand the death. What’s watched and studied, what’s cradled and caressed, becomes what’s ordered. Business and pleasure.

“Don’t do anything yet. I want to check something out. I think we can use this.”

[“We, Miss Milliner? I know not we. We is unusual.”]

Nadia drops her voice down low, chasing his drawl through the mess of threats and references that pass for his mind. She can do this, probably. “You mean ‘we are unusual’. And we are… strange and unusual.” She gives herself a beat, lets that sink in, and then: “Come on, Vandal. Please? If it gets us both out of the mess we’re in, won’t it be worth it?”

Maybe a little soft high breath escapes her - or maybe she let it go on purpose. In any case, she hears the catch in his voice, almost lost in the line noise, before he chokes out his horrible little laugh and says: [“Talk dirty to me later, darling. When you have something substantial on the table. I’ll sit on my hands, for now.”]

And then: click. Silence. God damn him.

Still, the sun’s coming up. Nadia leans her head back further, welcoming the light, breathing out a deep sigh. One day, there’ll be no more days. One day soon.


 

Chloe wakes up slowly. There’s… sunlight. A faint smell of… coffee? Frying? And a strong smell of last night, that special last night smell when you know you did something booze-fuelled and unwise. If she moves, she’s dead. Not in the peril sensitive ‘someone’s gonna kill you’ way, but in the more common or garden ‘my fucking head’ kind of way.

“Oh hey girrrl,” someone says, and thank fuck, it’s Rachel, crossing the floor of their shitty apartment, in T-shirt and boyshorts, grinning fit to raise the dead. Everything is as it should be. Everything is normal.

Chloe tries to sit up and kiss her. It’s a mistake. “What the… oh, fuck. Ow.” Back she goes, rubbing her temples and wiping the drool from her cheek.

“Good morning to you too, sunshine, and what were you up to last night?” Rachel smirks, and if Chloe had the energy to do anything but growl and flail at the hangover fog she’d throw a pillow at that stupid sexy smug face of hers. “You were dead to the world when I came in.”

“Oh, God… ’m sorry, Rache. The guys dragged me out after work. I said ‘one fucking drink, OK’…”

“Chloe. You’re a shitty liar and you know it. You do not pass out like that after ‘one fucking drink’.” Rachel’s mouth turns down at the corners, her eyes roll theatrically, and she offers a credible stab at Chloe’s Oregon drawl.

“I was weak.” Chloe props herself up on an elbow and owww, the rolling wave of pain and sickness in her heavy head practically scatters her brains out on the duvet. “I am paying. Life is pain.”

“Oh, poor baby. You’re lucky I find that weed-and-bourbon cologne of yours so sexy.”

Chloe’s memory throws up something treacherous, something that takes the words out of her mouth and throws them back down her throat, turning her stomach over. Red hair. Grey eyes. Had she… met someone? Had someone made a move on her?

“Are you going to ask how my evening went?” Rachel’s smile grows a little wider, and she brushes her hair back over her shoulder. Who’s this together in the morning? Why is she like this? “Full disclosure: your bacon privileges are at risk here.”

“Unh. Yeah. Sorry. How was your… total non-interview situation… thing?”

“Ms. Voerman loves my ass.”

“Sounds like you got lucky last night…” Rolling onto her side, Chloe squints at her phone - Saturday, ten-thirty-three in the a.m. - and rubs her neck. Smooth and slightly sleep-sticky, like the rest of her. Why doesn’t it hurt? Why doesn’t her hand come away bloody? Why does she think it should? She’s heavy-headed with the hangover but there’s something else, like she’s still drunk - but still happy-drunk, even though she feels like shit.

“How many times do I have to say it? Winners make their own luck.”

This time Chloe does throw the pillow. Her aim’s awful and it hurts to move that fast, but still: worth it. Even if Rachel bats it out of the air. By the time she’s stopped laughing, Chloe’s in the shower - one mad dash and hoping her insides stay inside - and wondering what the hell she did get up to last night.

Halfway through her shower, she remembers, and it’s all she can do to keep herself from retching.

When Chloe’s out of the shower, she has every intention of just laying it out there. This girl came onto me last night, and I was drunk, and… we just made out. I woke up here. I swear I didn’t do anything… serious. But Rachel looks so goddamn happy and the sun through the window makes Chloe’s eyes ache and she still feels sick and all she can smell is sweet, nourishing grease.

After breakfast.

“You know what you need?” Rachel says to her, twenty minutes later, after a stack of bacon and French toast have been effectively demolished.

“Time maffine,” says Chloe with her mouth full, “fo I can” - she swallows - “go back to last night and tell myself to stay in like a good girl?” There’s your lead in. Just let her take it, please, God…

“Nuh uh. Medication, baby. When’s the last time you were greened up?”

“Last time we could afford it, which was… fuck. Before we left Arcadia Bay…” Three weeks? It’s the longest Chloe’s gone without a good honest toke in forever.

“Right. So let’s put some of my Voerman dollars to good use.”

“Voerman dollars? You just said she loved your ass. Does she have plans for it? ‘Cause I called shotgun on that years ago.”

“A: you’re gross. B: yes she does. It sounds like she’s looking for some kind of apprentice, which is… too good to be true, almost. She said… acting career while I can, but maybe building up to take the reins of her business when she steps down.”

“So what, star of stage and screen and major property player? Sounds like… everything you ever wanted.” Chloe puts down her fork, staring into the pan rather than meet Rachel’s eyes. Thursday night is still running through her head, and in the back of her mind, she can hear working at the diner forever in her voice and her mother’s. Was it her or was it Joyce? Which of them was first to say it like it was a bad thing? Is it worth her dragging all that up again, or could she just… keep her mouth shut?

“Hey, don’t look so down. I solemnly swear not to let fame and fortune change me. Tell me you wouldn’t want to be a kept woman.”

Chloe smirks, forces herself to snort in a way that sounds a bit like a chuckle. “I’d get bored eventually. There’s only so much fine wine and ogling poolgirls a gal can handle…”

“Pool girls? No way. My millions, my minions.”

“I’m the one who has to look at ‘em all day. No boys please.”

Fine.” Rachel rolls her eyes, liberates the last of the bacon, and continues: “But anyway. I’m supposed to be meeting Ms. Voerman Monday night to discuss scheduling, and she asked if I have a suit, and I must have hesitated or something, because she gave me one hell of an advance.”

“You know what you said about ‘too good to be true’?”

“I know. But… I trust her.”

“How come?”

“I was nervous at first, but after ten minutes around her I… didn’t really feel much of anything. She’s so… steady. And… nobody can get to where she is without fucking people over, but I can’t see what she’d get from fucking with us. And in the meantime…” Rachel taps her purse, which is lying on the corner of the table, and does seem a little… fatter… than Chloe remembers. Or a lot fatter.

She’s never lied to Rachel. She never will. But it’s not lying if Rachel never asks. All she has to do is stay the fuck away from the Last Round, find out how she got home - probably Tommy and Thunder - and hope they don’t remember. Or don’t care. Or can be stunned into silence with a well-applied pizza roll each.

Whatever keeps that smile on Rachel’s face is fine by her.


 

xxx_jEAnEttE: are you happy, sister blister?

She rolls her eyes, as one handset slips from her fingers and another settles into her palm, and her mind slides like mercury between gearwheels and she’s Therese again, and isn’t rolling her eyes just what Therese would do? Of course it is. She knows herself. Who else is there to know? Really, why do people waste time with these absurd speculations?

Therese: As it happens, yes, I am… satisfied with the state of affairs. And I can tell you’re happy, because you’re being especially insufferable.

Insufferable. Insalubrious. Lewd to the very bone - and sweetmeat, wouldn’t you be? If God had reached down with the shiniest fickle finger of fate and blessed you with a body like Jeanette’s, wouldn’t you make the most of it? Of course you would, cutiepie, so turn that frown upside down and get your hands down your pants instead of playing with that boring Blackberry. Jeanette’s is better. It’s got accessories. And a really good vibration.

Also, you said ‘bone’. Hashtag-giggles.

xxx_jEAnEttE: wouldn’t you be if you had this much to look forward to?

Therese: No details. Please. I had a very successful evening, and I love you just enough to say “don’t ruin it for me.”

xxx_jEAnEttE: oh fine, sour-pussy. i'll be over here getting ruined, mm-mm. don’t forget about our deal, though…

Therese: I haven’t forgotten.

xxx_jEAnEttE: you get a night with your new girlfriend and i get a WHOLE WEEKEND with my boyfriend

Therese: I said I haven’t forgotten!

xxx_jEAnEttE: then go to sleep and let me get laid already, why doncha?

Therese: Ugh. Fine. I’ll talk to you on Monday. But please, have a shower before you wake me. A long one.

Jeanette blinks her mismatched eyes. Is that - is she - are they - am I - very good, very very good! Better than bubblegum and sex on the beach, baby!

She catapults herself upright, throwing the bedclothes across their apartment, and slaps her thigh to Daddy on the wall, glaring out of the painting. Every night she comes out on top is another birdie flippedie-doo-dahed to the old bastard, and tonight’s her night. Shame about Therese’s girlfriend’s girlfriend, but maybe she can lean on B and swing something out of security’s creepy little fingers. He’s such a grateful boy.

Now. Golden rule. Don’t forget.

Boots, then corset.


 

Thomas and Rodney Sears are not small men. They are quite the opposite. Large, imposing, heavily tattooed, rough hands; they look like they can throw down if they have to, and like they’ve had to.

The other man in the trailer-turned-office with them is a small man. He’s drowning in an overlarge hoodie, stretched too tight over his head; there are blotches the size of burst oranges showing through the heavy fabric. There’s a cheap, threadbare Goodwill suit over the top of it: ugly Seventies style, bad cut, shiny with wear. And he reeks: the air around him seems tainted, like it should be discoloured by gasoline and still water and mould.

The brothers Sears are careful to keep the table between him and themselves. They are on one side of it, and he is on the other, and the four feet of space between them simmers with tension.

“What’s up, B?” Tommy says, finally. “You usually call, so…”

“Relax, Tommy.” The visitor’s voice is throaty, corrugated with catarrh: his tone’s light enough, but nothing could bubble up through that and sound anything close to pleasant. “I was in the neighbourhood, and I passed by your gates and I thought, why not stop in and say hi?”

“Good to see you, dude.” Thunder nods, but his eyes don’t move - they stay fixed on a point that keeps B firmly out of his sight line.

“I’m sure.” Two hands - lumpy, arthritic things, distended clubs in heavy gloves - hover over the desk, flicking through the in-tray almost absent-mindedly. “How did yesterday go? Any trouble?”

“No trouble.” Tommy tugs at his collar, sliding a finger inside and wheezing without trying to. “She’s not as tough as she acts. Got white girl wasted and got lucky; we had to prise her off some chick and she passed out in the car. You, uh. You cleared up her… problem?”

“We’ll find out tonight. I can have someone keep an eye on her, though. For safety’s sake.” The gloved hands stop, plucking a flimsy third-copy sheet from the pile. “And, ah,” B sniggers, holding up the flimsy like it was there in his hand all along, “I’m sure you can do something for me. It won’t find its way back to you, but neither will the car. I need a wreck - something you won’t mind losing. This’ll do. Runyon Canyon; get it up there by, let’s say Tuesday.”

“That’s just a hull. How come you’re moving into scrap metal?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” B sets the paper down on the table, and neither of the Sears is prepared to comment on the blotches, or the way it’s almost translucent where his fingertips have been. “Just… lose it in transit. These things happen. I’ll write you a buyer’s note. No blame attaches: no C.O.D.”

“B, this sort of thing gets around. I don’t mind hiring out to you, but we can’t afford to…”

The hooded head bobs up. There’s a glimpse of something underneath it; a dull metal gleam, a hint of a flat nose and sallow, lined face. Something drips down a heavy cheekbone.

“Disappoint your customers?”

“We’re a three man show. It’s hard for something to fall off the back of a truck.” Tommy’s holding his breath, trying not to show it; he coughs like he’s just lit up his last cigarette.

“Your reputation is your problem. Now, I’m running late, and I don’t want to keep a lady waiting, so you two are just gonna have to make up your own cover, if you don’t like mine. I’ll see myself out.”

It’s a full ten seconds between the click of the door closing and Tommy daring to breathe out again.

“Fuck me, he stinks.”

Thunder opens the desk, tugs out a canned air-freshener, blasts the path between the desk and the door. As he opens the latter, leaning out to take a hit of fresh air, he chuckles.

“Did he say he was meeting a girl? Man. It’s her I feel sorry for.”

Chapter Text

Later, in the dark, the clicking ticking fingers go to work.

Pillow talk isn’t usually how Bertram stays ahead of the game. It’s not a luxury he normally has - not with boils the size of goddamn tangerines on his head and skin like something you line your shoes with - but he’s adapted well. And Jeanette’s lips are pretty loose, so is it his fault if a few ships get sunk as a consequence?

He doesn’t have much time, and while he’s good with tech, his fingers aren’t exactly mobile and touchscreens are a curse at least as bad as what happened to Bertram’s face - so he keeps this one short. It’s for the best anyway: the dumbasses he’s trying to reach are too paranoid for email, so he has to go through this one-hand-washes-the-other Cold War crap, play his cards close in.

FROM: B
TO: Carson
DATE: Saturday, September 27, 2013
SUBJECT: October 1 good for you?

Contact Rodriguez and co. Set up a meeting. Face to face. Tell him it’s about the media baron. In those exact words. ASAP. Before Tuesday.

And that’s that.

There’s a muffled thud from the bathroom, and Bertram stuffs the garbage-tier smartphone under the mattress (it’s amazing what some people are dumb enough to throw away, even when they’re told the ocean’s full of plastic and you can recycle any old shit these days).

Sounds like she’s tanked up and ready to go again, and sure enough, the door swings back and Jeanette’s there in the doorway. She’s wearing the bellhop’s cap and jacket, straining at three buttons on a figure it really wasn’t cut for, and less than fuck-all else. The poor dumb kid himself’s slumped in the bathtub where she’s dropped him, and - classy as ever - she’s smearing a mouthful of him across her lips and the back of her hand.

“You all done with room service, baby?”

“Mm-mm-mm! I’d prefer Chinese, but bleeders can’t be choosers. I left a little itty bit for you, if you’re… hungry…” One garish neon-purple nail flicks a button, and she shimmies her hips as she sits on the dresser and smirks. God, she’s transparent. Bertram knows she’ll fuck anybody who looks at her twice, of course; he’s not stupid, and even if he was stupid, he’s seen his own face recently. But that’s the point. Anyone. Anyone who’ll make the effort can find heaven between those legs, and Bertram tries hard.

“I’ll, eh-heh. I’ll clean up when we’re done.”

“Attaboy. Now c’m’ere, won’t you?”

Lust among the Kindred is a matter of choice. They’re fucking dead, even with the emphasis on fucking, and it’s an act of will that makes them sit up and beg. But it does still feel pretty good, especially if - like Bertram - you didn’t get much when you were breathing and you got jack shit after you stopped. So he’s thinking hard as he slides out of bed and stalks across the room - lights out, because he doesn’t want to look at himself while he does this, it’ll break his concentration after all - and he’s consciously saying to himself God I want to fuck Jeanette right now - which, to be fair, he’d have been saying if he was alive, but there’s a distinction between admission and decision and that makes all the difference.

He has to think about staying hard as she welcomes him in and wraps her legs around him and clasps his face hard against her stolen jacket and squeals “Mmm, bite it off, baby, do it with your teeth…”

It’s so fake, but fuck it, it’s fun, and she’s crazy enough to let him do it and he’s sick enough to want it and somehow they’re getting off on this, they have to be, somewhere underneath her yelps and his growls as he locks his mouthful of needles around the buttons and yanks once, twice, punctuating with hard thrusts and holds, rubbing his hollow cheeks between her tits as the jacket gives and sets them free.

They both want it, so there has to be something in it for them, even if it’s all pretend. Even if every bump and grind, every giggle and gasp, is all for nothing. It feels like it should do: wet and tight, hard and hungry. But the rush and the pulse isn’t a patch on the trickle from her into him when he opens wide and latches leech-thirsty onto her left tit and sucks, and she’s only feeling it when she slides down the length of him and, like the ending to every porno this hotel room’s ever featured in - and knowing Santa Monica that’s quite a figure - he fills her throat, and for the first time all night, she’s silent.


 

This is how it’s done.

You could, if you have a mind, follow the request from a seedy room in a beachfront hotel in downtown Santa Monica - owned and operated by Voerman Property and Development, who have personnel on the staff to deal with all manner of nocturnal goings-on. You could watch it ping across town to an apartment block tucked away on Ninth Street, between Colorado and the Boulevard; uptown, black marble, four spacious suites in one low building. Not many actual rooms - but a lot of space. High ceilings and wide floors and buttresses inside - you could hide a lot of secrets in this house, and plenty of people have.

The message alights in the mind of a man named Carson. He has, we’ll say for the sake of argument, dark circles under his eyes, a thin hard nose, a thinning widow’s peak in reddish-brown, and - this part’s important - a missing finger on his right hand. It’s the index finger, the trigger finger, and it’s why he types a little slowly on the Nokia he uses because it’s easier to hold. It’s also why he’s in Bertram Tung’s back pocket; he lost his finger and his vocation in a hurry, and it’s Tung who pulled the strings that got him back in his boss’ good books. Now he’s a bondsman working the early evening shift, and after work, before the bars close, he takes care of the little things that are beneath a nasty man’s notice.

He’s a little bitter, but not much. If his eyes are a little deeper set and his jowls a little thicker than they should be, at least he’s kept his hairline for longer than he should; and if he has to fetch and carry a little more than he’d like, at least he doesn’t have to do the really dangerous jobs. Even if he misses them a little.

This job is like an echo of the old days, he thinks as he places a call. In that there’s an outside chance someone’ll get shot before the night is over.

Follow Carson, and you’ll follow the message too, as he makes his brisk sooner-I-get-this-over-with-sooner-I-can-hit-the-clubs way to a bus, and then another, drumming his heels all the way like he doesn’t want to be cooped up, cursing LA’s eternal traffic all the way to a McDonald’s on East Olympic.

For reasons he’s not privy to, this is where the magic happens. The gist is clear - it’s busy, it’s open 24/7, there’s an ATM next door and an open lot in front so you can see most of the shit coming your way - but he doesn’t get why McDonald’s. It just doesn’t seem very… insurgent.

He supposes, in the minutes before his counterpart arrives, that’s the point. This is the last place you’d expect to find anyone answering to whatever the hell Nines Rodriguez is.

His counterpart - let’s call him Rico - is a skinny slice of nothing in careful, nonchalant workshirt-and-jeans and a Dodgers cap. Handful of cheap bling and hair that’s not seen a wash in a week. He looks about as good as Carson feels.

They exchange a few pleasantries, over the top of an Egg McMuffin that doesn’t have the time to go cold. Carson’s had the trip, so Rico buys. It’s only fair, after all. Just two guys, who don’t look like they should be friends but hey, maybe they’re both Dodgers fans. Who knows?

And in the course of that exchange, Carson happens to mention it’s a shame Rodriguez ain’t here, and what’s the big guy doing Sunday night?

Rico says he doesn’t know, but he figures after the bar closes up it’s anyone’s guess. What’s Carson doing?

Your mom, says Carson, and she’s coming all the way down to my place, and Rico laughs and throws a French fry at him and says if Carson wants Rodriguez in on that then he, Carson, is a bigger perv than he, Rico, had thought.

Hell no, says Carson, but he may find it worth his while to hit up Park Drive Park at oh, call it three a/m. Be sure to say it’s about the media baron, Rico.

Maybe he will, says Rico, and he steals Carson’s coffee on the way out. He did pay for it, but still; asshole.

And then Rico, who is to a guy named Sanchez what Carson is to Bertram Tung, hup-hups back to the Midnight Mission on San Pedro and he says to Sanchez hey, man in Santa Monica wants to see Rodriguez, three a/m Monday night at Park Drive Park, something about a media baron. That mean anything to you, chief?

And then Sanchez, who knows what’s what, calls in at the Last Round an hour after closing time.

And this is how it’s done.


 

On Sunday night there’s a man in the dark, alone, waiting.

Armando Rodriguez - but call him Nines to his face, if you know what’s good for you. First among equals. Baron in all but name. The heavy brow and the colourless eyes, the neat little beard, the worn-out sports jacket he threw on at sunset - it’s all studied and honed, broadcasting a loud and clear don’t give a fuck but someone has to. Rodriguez has survived seventy years and three total shitshows and he’s never once backed down or given in. He’s not a leader but he’s a survivor and that’s put him in charge whether he wants to be or not.

Nines is not a prince. No penthouse, no snug study, no grandstanding on a deserted theatre stage. Nines is not even a baron; no back office, no henchmen, no you come to me and you show some respect.

Nines’ revolution runs from the upstairs room of a dive bar in Skid Row, and if it has to be his revolution, he’ll lead it from the front and he’ll do his own donkey work.

And right here, right now, that’s what he’s doing.

Right here is Park Drive Park. One of LA’s little ironies; Park Drive is a tiny street and Park Drive Park is a tiny slice of green in overbuilt Santa Monica, a vacant lot fenced in and gone to seed for ‘urban renewal’, a knot of silver birches and neat green grass and one crooked sycamore that Nines leans against, arms folded and eyes narrowed.

Right now is the eternal three a/m. One hour after closing time. Just enough to put the pressure on Nines’ masque, get him hurrying down to Santa Monica, getting questions asked - but not so late that he can’t get back cleanly. And if Tung’s intel is as neat as his timing, this could be worth Nines’ time after all.

“I know you’re here, Tung,” he says at three minutes past. “Don’t leave me talking to thin air. Guy can get a reputation from that kind of thing.”

There’s a throaty, phlegmy chuckle from the other side of the tree, and where there was no man standing a minute ago, there’s a man standing now. He’s small, he’s straight-backed, and he’s swollen at the head with knots of meat and bone and gristle, and wouldn’t you just hate to be him.

“I hear you. Enough crazies in Santa Monica already. Can’t have you dragging your good name down.” Bertram chuckles again, at his own joke. “Guessing your guy’s in the condo across the parking lot. Nice view from the balcony.”

“I’m guessing yours is in the goddamn garbage cans.”

Bertram gurgles to himself. “You’re good. But you still showed up. Much obliged.”

“This isn’t a social call, Tung. Matter of fact, I’m not sure what it is.”

Nines’ voice is a drawl on a choke chain. It doesn’t take much to suggest his time’s being wasted; doesn’t take much to rouse that deep Brujah temper. His poker face cracks from the inside, and every time a card turns, the born loser in him comes a little closer to the surface.

“It’s a warning.” Bertram keeps to his side of the sycamore, faces away from the streetlights, backs up in the boles and doesn’t look the block behind in the windows. “I’ll keep this simple. There’s a hit coming. Tuesday night. Runyon Canyon. I’m sending a hull up there and when it goes up in smoke it’s taking someone you know with it.”

“I assume,” says Nines, chewing the words over to see how they taste, “that you won’t say who dialled this. Or why.”

That would be too much like helping, and Bertram’s not on Nines’ team even if he’s not exactly on the opposition’s either. The double agent doesn’t show their hand to either side. They get the job done, they pass on what they can, they take care to be unspectacular, and they never let on too much about where their allegiance really lies. But when Nines is in the mood for gambling - and showing his face in Santa Monica is never not a gamble - he’d put money on a simple truth.

Blood is thicker than water, even in the sewers.

“I’ve been asked to do this, but I don’t like it. I have to wonder who’s making a hit in Hollywood and why. And I keep coming back to the local baron - sat there in his office with his head in his hands,” and Bertram doesn’t add and his shoulders open, ready for the knife - but he’s thinking it, and the tic around Nines’ eyes says he is too.

“I can think of a dozen people who’d want Isaac dead. Half of them work for him.” Nines shrugs, minimalistic, closed-in, tamped down. “But are you asking me to guess?”

“I’m not asking you for anything. Except, if you do work it out, I wanna know.”

“I’m wondering how one of Golden’s boys doesn’t know before I do. Isn’t that your deal?” The facade cracks, chips, but it’s a smirk and not a snarl that peeks out. Underneath, the wheels are turning. He’s covering. Maybe Golden’s calling the shot - but Golden likes Isaac, as far as the twisted son of a bitch likes anyone. Like I’ve got anything but Tung’s guess that it’s Isaac. Like I’ve got anything but Tung’s word that there’s anything to chase here. “Unless there’s no hit at all, and this is some kind of Nosferatu fuckaround,” and Nines' smirk turns down at the corners, instinct pulling at his lips, the Blood simmering through them like it always does.

“I’m just the cover-up, Rodriguez. And it’s all gone through go-betweens. I can tell you it’s not Regency, because they’d come to me directly. I know it’s not you because you wouldn’t come through me and you wouldn’t shit on Abrams’ doorstep unless you had another backer. Which means someone else just walked up to the table and said they wanted in. I’m not going to find out who if I screw them on the first deal, am I?”

“So you want me to play detective. For you. A Cam shill.”

“That’s low. I respect you enough to warn you that the last real Baron in the Anarch Free State could be in the firing line from someone he won’t see coming. That’s respect you. Personally. And I don’t think much to Regency.” Nines can’t see Bertram’s face, and he doesn’t care to, but there’s a deeper rasp in it; he says Regency like he’d say a mouthful of earthworms. “They’re filling a void. But we both know who really owns Hollywood, and I don’t care to bleed my own people just to help you out. You start pushing back for real and maybe you’ll be worth the risk. Get me?”

“You sly fuck. You’re telling me you are - ”

“I’ll tell you what I tell everyone, Rodriguez. I’m loyal to my clan, my primogen, and my sect.”

In that order? Nines doesn’t say. Instead, he buries his smirk, puts the poker face back into position, clamps down on the line of his mouth and the set of his jaw.

“Then I guess I’m done here. Unless you want to show your hand and walk out with me, but…”

“Guess again,” says Bertram, and when Nines cracks and looks around the tree a handful of seconds later, the ugly bastard’s been and gone.

“Didn’t think so,” says Nines, who finally gives in and thumps the tree.


 

Across the lot from Park Drive Park, Damsel sits in the driver’s seat of a beaten-up yellow cab and drums her fingers on the wheel, beating out the tune inside her head. Which tune doesn’t matter. It’s all the same where it counts; high-octane and angry, wounded by the world and ready to fight. There’s three sets of lyrics in her head and the worm of her own doubts crawling through them and the ever-present smoulder that, tonight, is asking where the fuck is Nines? if that Nossie ratfucker set him up I’m gonna march down there and… agh!

This is life, when you’re Brujah. What you’re mad about doesn’t matter. You’re always mad. Every fair fight you shouldn’t have lost, every injustice the world racks up, every lucky break you get that keeps you doing another night. You’re a red line seared into history, a hair trigger ready to blow all the pain away just as soon as you know where to shoot.

The smart ones find a cause. They lean into something that gives their fury a direction, a structure, a perennial target so there’s always someone out there to go for and their nearest and dearest are spared the worst. There’s a reason the Brujah are balls-deep in the Anarch Free State, and the Movement before that, and the Party and the Rebellion and the Revolt years and decades and centuries before them.

The real smart ones have a sense of direction beyond that. They get shit done. They’re more than a bad attitude and a book’s worth of slogans and a fury that comes and goes like the tide, rolling up the beach and breaking back without ever wearing the land away. They have a sense of the long term.

Nines is real smart. Which is why he’s the one who scraped Elizabeth Beckman off the streets back in ‘92 and put her back together, and why she’s never been a goddamn damsel in distress ever since, and that’s why she’s gonna be mad as all hell if Tung’s pulled some shit and she’s left to hold shit together, and…

Three knocks on the roof of the cab snap her out of it, and she’s back in her head and growling as Nines through the window.

“What in the ever-loving - Nines, don’t do that! Fuck’s sake!”

“You’re supposed to be on a stakeout. I shouldn’t be able to surprise you at all.”

Damsel swallows her snarl, chokes it down, counts to five, and still says “Two seconds, OK? I was worried about you and I got distracted for two goddamn seconds. Figures that’s when you’d come back.” She snorts, put out, calling herself to heel, and folds her arms. “What gives, then? What does the nastiest dude in Santa Monica want to bend your ear over so bad?”

“Whole pile of horseshit.” Nines’ fists are twitching - there’s a scrape on the roof as he moves. “But I think there’s something in it. He’s trying to sell me on Isaac being in danger, which I don’t believe for a minute, but he wouldn’t haul my ass out here for nothing. I think there’s something up in Hollywood.”

“Well, yeah, there’s always something up in Hollywood. Fucking Isaac’s gonna defect any night now. The sack of shit acts Cam. Goddamn favour-trading old-money movie-business asshole with his goddamn favour trading and goddamn investments - ”

“You damn God any harder he’ll come down here and smite you. And I ain’t getting smote for you, Damsel.” Before she can object again, he steps back from the door and opens it. “Step out.”

“We’re junking the cab? Don’t tell me that piece of shit got an ID on the cab!”

“You need to stick around Santa Monica, ‘cause we need our own take on this. I’m not buying what Tung’s selling.”

“And you can’t get, I’unno, Killian or someone on this?” Damsel turns in the seat, glowering up at Nines; his grey eyes meet her green ones, and something flares behind the both of them, and Nines bobs his head so and Damsel breaks and rolls her eyes. “Fuck, we need more boots on the ground.”

“That I won’t argue with.” Nines rests his palm on the roof of the cab and motions her out. “Maybe you can do something about that while you’re down here too.” It’s not an order, because he’s not a Baron and she’s not a subject and they don’t give orders. But it’s not a request either, and Damsel slides out of the cab.

“Where the hell are you going, then?” she says, because she’d be a shitty den mother if she didn’t ask.

“I’m going to talk to Isaac.”


 

FROM: bertram@schreck.net
TO: ggg@schreck.net
DATE: Sunday, September 28, 2013
SUBJECT: Re: Downtown Man

I think he took the hint.

So, amuse me. What’s really going on up there?


FROM: ggg@schreck.net
TO: bertram@schreck.net
DATE: Sunday, September 28, 2013
SUBJECT: Re: Downtown Man

Need to know only, boss.

Apropos of nothing, though: give ole Gary’s regards to the Misses Voerman, next time you see them.

;)

Chapter Text

By the time Chloe’s day is done, it’s been dark for an hour or two. It’s been a hard, cold, jagged shit of a day, and she’s cut her hand opening a buckled-up Chevy by herself. Thunder’s not been around to help her out - he turned up in the truck, barely said a word, and made his way out with more hulls than he usually tows - and Tommy acts chill but this morning’s still hanging around and maybe she bitched him out about Friday a bit more than he deserved - but then, he wasn't the one who had to lie about it.

Fuck ‘em both.

So she’s been in one of those moods. Counting down the hours till she gets off, but knowing she’s going home to nobody, ‘cause Rachel’s doing her bigshot scheduling plan-to-conquer-the-world thing tonight, and not wanting to be home alone either.

And one fuck ‘em leads to another, and she ends up sat in the Surfside alone at eight-thirty on a Monday night, because there’s a whole world of feelings that bubble up in her when she’s on her own, and nowhere feels like belonging, and everyone she knows is busy, and it all builds up to a bitter hollowness in her mouth that just makes her want to howl and she needs the taste of home if she can’t have anything else.

The Banshee Screams For Diner-Grade Meat, basically. Even if this place smells like sour cream and old leather. Even if there are goddamn bullet holes in the wall, and her order goes around twice ‘cause of all the shit they don’t have, and the soundtrack’s all KROQ-FM all the time. It has booths, and tables, and if Chloe shuts her eyes and pretends and tunes out old Doris’ one-day-I’ll-retire rasp, it’s almost like being back in Arcadia Bay, almost like things haven’t gone to hell yet.

Funny how living the dream still means she ends up feeling like shit.

While she drinks her tinny coffee and waits for whatever the fuck it is she’s actually ordered, her hands automatically take out her crappy third-hand phone. Her thumbs hover. TFW you want to scream at someone, but everyone you want to scream at is everyone you want to scream about. And it’s not like she knows half these people any more, really. Steph would listen, if she picked up, but Steph’s always busy. Mikey wouldn’t get it, Drew wouldn’t let himself. Justin’s too chill to deserve this big a dumping-on. And there’s a hole where a real friend used to be, and no matter how much she loves Rachel, sometimes Rachel’s the problem and wouldn’t it be nice if someone who had Chloe’s back no matter what was still around? Just now and then? And in the meantime, she’s on her own and listening to whatever second generation dad rock this place thinks is cool and she can’t even bitch about that to anyone.

My eyes are blind but I can see
The snowflakes glisten on the tree
The sun no longer sets me free
I feel the snowflakes freezing me

Chloe wipes her eyes on her sleeve, because fuck is she going to cry over this. Something goes thud, and it’s not the cheap plates on Formica kind of thud, it’s the thud of someone throwing their butt down opposite you when you’re clearly dining alone. Chloe’s head snaps up and the words “hey, asshole” are already halfway out of her mouth before she realises who’s just thrown herself down there, in a whoosh of camo and electric red hair and a sharp you sure about that grin plastered over her face.

“’Sup?” says Damsel. If that is her real name.


 

Tonight was supposed to be straightforward. Meet and greet the suspiciously generous Ms. Voerman. Impress her with an Anne Klein suit that’s as close to hers as two fifths of her advance can achieve. Get some idea what she’ll get and what she’ll give, and how to not fuck this up.

Instead, there’s been a hasty apology, two hours’ drive in a Mercedes C just old enough to not be new and black as the morning’s first coffee, and the Cavioletti Café at the far end of Santa Monica Boulevard, and an easy night’s become… whatever the hell this is.

Which is fine. Rachel wouldn’t be Rachel if she didn’t like a challenge.

Which is why she’s sat behind Ms. Voerman, trying to read this room, trying to figure out what secret these people share that’s hanging over the conversation like a thunderhead. None of them are saying it, but they’re all so glassy and so careful; there’s something here that would flip the whole meeting or encounter or whatever it is on its head if any of them let it slip.

There are three of them around this table out back of the Cavioletti, and three more - including Rachel - by their sides, like everyone’s brought a witness just in case.

On the left there’s a sad man with a lined face and deep eyes; he looks about fifty but he acts a hundred or more, moving so slow it’s like he’s miming. This, she’s been told, is Mr. Isaac Abrams; old school Hollywood. He talks like Jack Nicholson and he walks like he owns the place, but there’s something in his hollow cheeks and the negligent hang of his hands that says he doesn’t want to.

The woman behind him is too-good-to-be-real beautiful. If Abrams is fronting, she’s a fake all the way down; everything from the slinky red leather coat to the figure underneath it, everything from the dye job to the husky purr of a voice. And nobody’s really called Velour. She has a hand on Abrams’ shoulder and it never leaves; it’s like she’s steering him.

On the right there are two women who could be sisters, maybe seven years between them. Sallow Italian-American good looks, jet black hair; neat framing bangs in front, studied and shielding mess behind. Miss Giovanni is wrapped up tight, sheer collared dress and a simple little crucifix; Miss Milliner looks awkward in her high D&G shoulderpads, and she’s been staring at Rachel ever since Ms. Voerman introduced her to the table and then proceeded to act like she wasn’t there.

“I won’t apologise for bringing you together like this,” says Mr. Abrams in that ponderous film noir drawl, “only for disappointing you. You both wanted to see me, and I have the same thing to say to both of you. The… property… is not for sale. Hollywood is not for sale.”

“I don’t want to buy out Hollywood, Mister Abrams,” says Ms. Voerman, with a brittle and polite precision in her steepled fingers. “I want to enhance it. Provide a place where our select little community can come together, in significantly more safety than - well, this. You’re aware of the Asylum’s success in Santa Monica; I have a track record in this area.”

“Isaac,” says Miss Giovanni, leaning in with a familiar smirk that says, to Rachel, we know one another and you do not, “I’m aware of what the club means to you, what it represents. How conflicted you must be feeling. That’s precisely why you can’t let it become a franchise for Ms. Voerman’s organisation — ”

“I don’t intend to — ” says Mr. Abrams, but he cuts himself off; Miss Giovanni’s hand is on his, and she’s looking up at him with transparent charm. Rachel can see right through it - so clearly it may not be there at all.

“I’m offering to preserve your memorial, breathe new life into it - and guarantee its neutrality and safety.”

“We’re well aware,” says Ms. Velour, in that studied bedroom contralto of hers, “of how your family treats memorials.” Her hand flexes on Abrams’ shoulder, her nails glisten, and he stirs, drawing his hand away from Miss Giovanni’s.

“That’s uncalled for, VV. But you have both misunderstood me. When I say something is ‘not for sale’, I do not mean ‘oh please, pitch again’. Wilful ignorance and Fisher-Price bargaining tactics will not win me over. I will not be persuaded to sell my child’s gravestone, dammit — ”

And the so-fake-it-hurts redhead’s nails flex again, curling in the air to brush the old man’s cheek, and Rachel realises she’s been watching Ms. Velour the whole time he’s been talking, and as she stirs and makes herself read the room properly she realises only one other person isn’t.

Miss Milliner is watching her. And she’s still watching as Mr. Abrams collects himself, and turns his tired old gaze in Rachel’s direction, and it’s only out of the corner of her eye that Rachel sees Miss Milliner’s gaze shift and narrow as her arms fold and push those shoulderpads up even higher.

“My apologies, Miss Amber. This is no kind of first impression; I don’t like to be trifled with, but I don’t like to be considered rude either.”

OK. Go time. Rachel thinks she’s got his number. He needs to be flattered, but not sucked up to. Straight talking, implicit respect. Feed him the ideas and let him think he’s in the lead. After all, he has what you want and you’ve got to convince him you’re worth it.

“It’s alright, Mr. Abrams. I just wish I understood the situation - you’ve obviously lost someone, and it’s in the past for everyone else here, but…”

She lets that sentence hang, but the words are behind her eyes, like she can beam them straight into his head if she thinks them hard enough. For you and me.

“… it’s old news for these vultures.” He smiles, weakly, huffs a heavy and deliberate breath, and puts his hands back on the table, settling his weight lower in his seat. “The Asp Hole belonged to Ash Rivers. You’re probably a little too young to remember him, but back around the turn of the century, he was the next big thing. I put a lot into Ash - he was something very like a son to me. But he wanted the legend; live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse. When he gave up on the movies I bought him the club - just to keep him where I could look out for him - but he had one near miss too many. Nine years ago this week.”

“I’m sorry. I know it sounds tacky, but I really am.”

Mr. Abrams gives her the longest, coldest, most appraising look she’s been given in her life. Those hollow eyes bore through hers; he stares with a statue’s intensity.

Rachel blinks first, but she doesn’t break.

“You know what? I believe you. I don’t think you mean it, but I believe you.” Mr. Abrams’ eyeline flicks sideways, and Rachel makes a fist under the table and allows herself a little silent yes as he addresses Ms. Voerman. “Where’d you find her, Therese?”

“My sister’s club, a mutual acquaintance, a chance question at the right time. Really, she found me.”

Abrams mm-hmms to himself, and his companion’s hand withdraws, and he says: “I’ve another appointment tonight, but the two of you — ” Therese and Rachel, indicated with a sideswipe of his fingertips across their eyeline — “should stop by next week. Bring her portfolio,” he adds, addressing Therese directly, and then he rises with an old man’s point-by-point care. “Goodnight ‘til then, and until then: goodnight.”

Ms. Velour rolls her eyes, and as they make their way down from the patio, she flashes one last look over her shoulder. Rachel smiles back; it’s a smile she’s been practicing all her life, the what, me, I would never, and shame on you for thinking it smile.

Miss Giovanni watches them leave, her head tracking like a viper’s while the rest of her stays so still - she’s barely even breathing. Then her head snaps back to Ms. Voerman, and she almost growls:

“What the fuck are you even doing here?”


 

“What the fuck am I doing here? What the fuck are you doing here? This place is dead.” Damsel picks up Chloe’s coffee cup, looks into the bottom like she’s after secrets, and for a second she looks like she’s going to throw it away.

“I mean what the fuck are you doing here? You’d better not be… I have a girlfriend, OK, and I don’t know what I was doing that night…”

“Getting lucky. That’s all life is to some people, y’know? A chain of lucky breaks, one two three and something good happens. Like running into you tonight.” Damsel’s head tilts, the beret lining up with the edge of the cup, and there’s something dumb and silly and sad about it even before she says, “But I’m sorry, OK? I just saw a cute girl who looked like she needed a good time, and maybe I came on too strong. I do that a lot.”

Chloe rests her elbow on the table and her forehead in her palm and huffs to herself and finally gives up. It’s been a fuck-’em-and-forget kind of day, after all. “I guess I didn’t exactly say no. But I hated myself in the morning.”

“You hated you and not me for leading you astray? God, you’re too good for your own good.” Damsel’s palm slams into the tabletop, and everything shakes - spoons, shakers, dregs of the coffee.

“Yeah. Well. You weren’t bad.” Chloe can’t quite look her in the eye, and thank fuck her meatloaf manifests when it does. Her mouth’s full through Doris’ grating “you want anythin’, darling?” and Damsel’s “nah, I already ate” and Doris’ needle-eyed silent GTFO then as she shuffles away. Gives her time to stop fucking blushing, anyway. “But I mean it. Not doing it again.”

“Never say never,” says Damsel, and grins. “But, yeah, OK, I’ll be good. And don’t worry, I’m not stalking you or something. I’m… I guess I’ve got work to do in the People’s Republic. Passing by, saw you in here, thought I’d come’n’bug you. You still look like you need a good time.”

“The what?” Chloe manages to say, between mouthfuls, and Damsel smirks.

“The People’s Republic of Santa Monica. That’s what the papers called it when I was a, well, when I was a kid. Liberal values, laissez-faire law enforcement, haven for the homeless, y’know? All the things we lost along the way. I don’t exactly miss people shitting in the streets, but they didn’t have to sell the whole city out over it.” Her face twists up, furrowing into a snarl that weirdly suits her, and she thumps the creaking leather of her seat.

What is it with me and girls who get smashy? I’ve got a fuckin’ type.

“Fuck, you’re telling me I missed the golden age of street shitting?” Chloe stabs down with her fork, and gives the table a light thump of her own. “I was born too late.”

“You’re what, twenty?”

“Nineteen this year. Don’t tell any barkeeps.”

“Yeah, you missed all the fun. Serial killer. Terrorist attack. Turf wars. These days it’s all… well, same kinda stuff really, with a nice side in police corruption.” That snarl again, and this time Damsel gives a strangled little growl in the back of her throat to go with it.

“Never met a cop I couldn’t buy back home, either. Guess the world sucks all over.”

“What kind of defeatist crap is that? OK, it’s true, but you sound like you accept it.”

“You don’t even know me, Damsel. I’m a drop-out and a fucking runaway with a barely legal shit-tier labor job, no fucking friends any more, and OK, a super hot girlfriend I’m crazy about, but Rachel’s… what you were saying earlier about dumb luck? That’s her and me. That’s all the luck I ever got.” Chloe pushes her plate away, and puts her hands on the booth back, ready to stand up. “Of course I fucking roll with it.”

“Wait. I… shit, I did the thing again. I didn’t want you to - look, I just want people to get mad and stay mad. If you let yourself get used to this shit it becomes normal and you give up fighting and become part of it, and you’ve - look, you say your life sucks but I see someone who told school where to get off, told her whole town where to get off, and took the one good thing in her life and ran with it. And that’s a good start, so… don’t feel like you’re losing.”

“You think?”

“Swear on my father’s grave.”

“Huh. You too?” That has Chloe sinking back into her place again, settling down. Maybe she is OK, after all. “Dead dad girls of the world unite: you’ve got shit all to lose you ain’t lost already.”

“That was bleak.”

“Bleak’s my middle name,” says Chloe, “or it would be if I could afford the deed poll,” and they both laugh, and she digs in again, ‘cause she’s paid for this mediocre meatloaf and there’s no way in hell it’s not getting eaten now, and even if it’s a little creepy sitting there with someone watching her eat, it beats the fuck out of being alone.


 

That, as one might imagine, has put an unfortunate spin on the evening. Rachel’s only met Ms. Voerman twice, but she has not presented herself as a woman who likes to be asked what the fuck in any capacity, nor a woman who answers to the likes of Miss Giovanni, whoever she is, and the cold in her “Doing business: much like you” and her swift departure have been testament to her estimation.

She doesn’t give instructions to Rachel, or to the driver, but once they’re in and turned back onto the Boulevard, she stirs and breaks the silence with a clipped: “You did well, at least.”

“Thank you. I did my best: they were a tough crowd.” Rachel lets herself relax a little, as some of the tension winds out of the air. “I’m sorry if this is out of line, but I couldn’t - I felt like I was missing part of the script all the way through that. Mr. Abrams and Ms. Velour I can figure out, but what’s Miss Giovanni’s deal?”

“Miss Giovanni? She’s a speculator. She’s meddling in things she’s not supposed to. There’s an arrangement between our respective organisations, and she’s found a loophole. A way to antagonise me without breaking the terms. I should be impressed. And relieved. At least she’s a challenge I can handle - nothing I haven’t dealt with before.” Ms. Voerman adjusts her glasses, pushing them firmly back against the bridge of her nose; straightens her lapels; sits back, firm and upright and immovable. “I understand the play, at least. The terms of our arrangement don’t cover Hollywood, and that transparent display of funeral-home empathy was supposed to whisk Abrams’ club into her hands, check me, put her on the board - and establish her credibility with her revolting associates.”

Rachel gives the most astute, knowing, what on Earth are talking about look she can manage. “She’s got some, ah, disreputable backers, then?”

“That’s a good word for them, yes. The Giovanni family are…” Ms. Voerman shudders, scowls, chews on her words like they taste too sour. “Very, very old money. Older than Los Angeles, older than the United States; Italian aristocracy in exile. Filthy claws in every pie, and some unsavoury habits. Did you see the way that horrible girl with her was staring at you?”

“I assumed she was jealous: that suit was not working for her. And it meant she wasn’t paying attention to you.” And in the privacy of her own head, Rachel adds: Does that bother you, Ms. Voerman? I wonder what your deal is…

“There’s that, yes. As I said, you were admirable, even underbriefed. Abrams likes you, and you put my rivals off balance. I’d have preferred to walk out with the deeds in hand, but I suppose we’ll have to play the long game.”

There’s a silence, as the lights of the Boulevard go by. Rachel occupies herself with the file, paging back and forth - nothing in there on the Giovanni family, she notes, and only the vaguest hints at ‘the ongoing situation in Hollywood’. And a few printouts of correspondence that hint at something bigger than Ms. Voerman - something she has to answer to…

“What’s ‘Regency’?” Rachel asks, almost thinking aloud.

“Regency Public and Human Relations. They’re… a consultancy, of sorts. In certain quarters it’s almost impossible to get anything done without their… involvement. Permission is too strong a word, but - suffice it to say that for a certain kind of business, like mine, Regency are essential people to have on side.” Ms. Voerman actually smiles - it’s quick, thin, and the neatness of her black-lined lips make it look a little artificial, but it is there. “Now that I know you can survive contact with the enemy, I’ll have to introduce you to them. But that’ll have to wait. We’re going home.”


 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Chloe takes another swig of her coffee - her third, because this shit is too much to handle when she’s feeling sleepy. “This is some grade-A conspiracy theory shit. ‘S this true?”

“Swear on my honour as a Dead Dad Girl,” says Damsel, looking her dead and deadpan in the eye. “Nobody gets shit done in this town without going through dark and secret ways and all the dark and secret ways in Santa Monica lead to the Asylum, sooner or later. It’d be a lot worse if the owners kept their shit together.”

“And you’re what, some kind of private investigator? That’s so cool,” and Chloe all but kicks herself under the table ‘cause she said the inside voice part outside.

“Something like that. I could tell you — ”

“But you’d have to kill me?”

“Nah, I like you too much. But I’d have to swear you to secrecy. And not just a pinky swear. We’re talking spill-and-your-life-won’t-be-worth-shit blood oath.” Damsel doesn’t grin, smile or smirk - in fact, this is the most level, the most serious, she’s sounded all evening. Even her anger feels like a show - like the thing Chloe does, lean into maximum pissed because people back down - but this is genuine.

“Shit, now I’m torn. I wanna know. I really don’t wanna know. But I really do. Rachel’s working for those people.”

“Your girl works for the Voerman twins?”

“One of ‘em. The one I haven’t met. The one who dresses like Sluticia, Queen of Sluts freaks me out, though.”

“Jeanette? She’s the good one.” Damsel bobs her head and wrinkles up her cheek in that way people do when they’re about to say well something, and says: “Well, she’s the more right-on one, anyway. Total freakshow, but she has a heart. Therese is corporate evil. You know what I said about selling out? That’s her game. Buying up and gentrifying Dogtown, block by block. And she’ll do anything to get what she wants. Your girl’s probably OK, though. The Voermans look after their own.”

“And what, you’re investigating her? Bringing her down?”

“I wish, but no. Therese is not the priority right now.” Damsel looks left, looks right, and leans in. “I mean it, Chloe: I tell you what I’m doing here, you’re involved, like it or not. Your girl can’t know, the creepshow twins sure as hell can’t know, nobody can know. But - maybe you need to.”

Chloe bites her lip. Her hands tip more sugar into her coffee, stir, an automatic bit of time-filling while she looks Damsel up and down and tries to figure out a world where this girl who’s maybe got five years on her is some kind of… what is she? She can’t be a cop: nobody who talks up old-school Santa Monica liberalism can be. It can’t be corporate: one look at Damsel says unhireable. Is it fucking eco-terrorism? Communism? There’s that fucking beret…

“OK. Give me… like, give me the safest ‘if I don’t know I don’t have to lie’ version you can.”

“It’s murder. Someone in Santa Monica’s calling a hit on… someone I know. And if there’s a trail to pick up, ten bucks says it runs through the Asylum, and one of the freakshows in that place knows someone who knows something.”

“And you’re still sitting here talking to me because…”

“Three reasons. One: the Asylum opens its doors late. Two: I can see the doors from here.”

“And three?”

“Three… maybe I need a little help.”

And as Damsel says it, her eyes drift over Chloe’s shoulder, and Chloe follows her gaze to the sleek black car that’s pulling away from the Asylum doors, and the two figures walking into the dark; two waves of blonde in dark suits.

“Shit,” says Chloe, and Damsel says: “Go time.”


 

The first thing Rachel wonders is why the hell they’ve come back here.

It’s not that she hates the Asylum, per se. It’s just: doesn’t Ms. Voerman have someone to run this place for her?

It’s still dark inside - not fired up for the night yet, the only lights behind the bar and in the DJ booth. Ms. Voerman doesn’t cross the dancefloor - she beelines to the right like she’s in a hurry to be out of here, and calls an elevator Rachel didn’t know was there.

“Come up to my office,” she says. “Please.”

Isn’t somewhere a little less stick-to-the-carpet tacky a more fitting seat for the empire? Not that Rachel’s going to say it. There’s something about Ms. Voerman that’s - different here from the way she was in the Bungalow, the Cavioletti, even the car. Off-centre; less brutal and brittle than before; something that spins her wheels a little faster.

The elevator grinds down, and up again; it’s a cramped plush velvet antique, and like the rest of the Asylum, it seems decades out of place, from everywhere and everywhen except now.

And Ms. Voerman’s office? That’s the crowning weirdness. It’s taller than it is wide. The walls are a deep, sultry red; they’re framed and contained by tall, wiry statues, spindly wrought iron things that reach up like they’re begging for rain. And yes, there’s a leather-topped desk and a leather-backed chair and a laptop, but there’s a double bed as well, and - all in, this is an apartment. For someone who never cooks. Rachel and Chloe’s shitbox is better tooled than this.

“You seem confused. It’s understandable. I probably should move somewhere a little more upmarket, but - well, the Asylum is where it all started. It feels like home.”

This woman makes less and less sense - or maybe more and more. There’s something hanging in the air as Ms. Voerman hovers by the desk, toying with her glasses like they’re bothering her, like there’s something she doesn’t want to see. Rachel turns her back, because it’s either laugh or throw up and neither’s going to get her points here, because it’s all starting to fit.

At least, until she sees the painting.

It’s colossal; it dominates the entire room, stretching almost all the way from floor to ceiling. Gilt frame, swirling oils. A tall man in an old-school suit, with his hands on the shoulders of two little girls. They’re supposed to be angelic - white dresses, long blonde hair - but there’s something twisted up in all their faces, a silent horror in theirs and a hunger in his. Something unpleasantly Elektra, and the Charles Addams background isn’t helping.

Therese Voerman, you have some serious issues.

But then… don’t I?

Rachel leans in to read the little plaque at the foot of the frame. One word. Five letters. That’s all the explanation it deserves, apparently. And as she leans back, she feels a brush of fingernails up her back, and God, it hurts being right all the time. It’s like she’s inside Ms. Voerman’s - Therese’s - head. Like she can see her thoughts unfold. She hates herself. Closet case. Basket case. She locks herself up in here because she thinks she’s sick in the head, and she’s… did she get jealous of that whatshername, that Miss Milliner? Is that what this is?

“Janus,” Rachel says, buying time. “Roman god of… time. Am I right? Time, doorways, dualities - one face looks back in time and one looks forward?”

“Very good,” Therese says back, and there’s something different about her in here, something a little looser in the way she moves and warmer in the way she talks. The glasses are off and her hair’s half down. One hand settles on Rachel’s shoulder, and her hip brushes against Rachel’s back. “Do you like it?” she asks, and Rachel can feel the question behind the question.

“It’s a little bleak,” she answers, because it is, and she’s curious, and she’s got to ride this moment out, let Therese lead because if she doesn’t she’ll falter, “but it reminds me of something. American Gothic, maybe. Who’s the artist?”

“It was a gift, from someone who was like a father to my sister and I,” and Rachel turns her head and looks Therese in the eyes and it’s the perfect opportunity, and Therese takes it. She lays a finger to Rachel’s lips, and brushes Rachel’s hair back over her shoulder. Her hands are smooth, and cold, and they don’t tremble, but there’s a shiver running through her voice. “Don’t ask how long I’ve had it. Please. This is already - fascinatingly difficult.”

And of course, she’s insecure about her age. And her position. But this is what it takes to get ahead. And she’s - different, in here. She feels safe. And this is how the world works, right?

“I didn’t think - I didn’t expect this was that kind of arrangement,” Rachel says, making herself slow it down, playing the ingenue so Therese doesn’t have to, “but I’m not… I’m not saying no.” She pecks a little kiss onto Therese's fingertips, closes her hand around the back of Therese's, and Therese laces their fingers together and draws Rachel’s hand away from their faces.

She tastes cherry-liquor sickly-sweet, and her fingers knot in Rachel’s hair, and she traces a line down Rachel’s cheek, and just as Rachel’s about to turn this moment on its heel and set the terms, Therese kisses her throat deep and hard, raking with her teeth, and the words die on Rachel’s lips as her heartbeat fills up the world.

 

Chapter Text

Fire.
Fire in her eyes, fire in her veins. Aurora dancing behind her screwed-down lids; St. Elmo in her arms, every fine hair on them standing, burning cold; and laid on her bed, the embers, glowing and guttering.

Life, and death, and love in vain - in vein, you mean - and it’s so hard to think, so hard to feel anything but bliss - we’ve gotta do something about her - and she’s alive, but only just - sorry, baby, but who are we to judge?

In this searing moment she’s welded together, we’re welded together, and it’s not real but it’s not a lie either, and we’ve gotta get out before it’s too late, and to open her eyes and be one again would feel so small.

But needs must, when the devil drives and death is on the menu, and Jeanette opens her eyes.

Daaang, sister. I never knew you had it in you!

And isn’t this a turn-up for the books? Here she is, and here’s Therese’s little girlfriend, and this is opportunity knock knock knocking on heaven’s door. What to do, what to do?

Can’t just eat her all up. Tempting as it would be to see the turn-up on Therese’s nose, this ain’t the old days and fucking with her sister ain’t the done thing no more. And in the meantime there’s a detente, an understanding: what’s been taken must be given in return.

So Jeanette steps out of Therese’s skirt and blazer and banishes them with a delicate kick, and she picks up the flick-knife she keeps by the bed and with a deep breath and another and a wicked smile she drives it into her left breast.

It hurts, and it doesn’t; it pierces, and it burns, and Jeanette giggles out loud at the feeling of it as she slips the knife between her hip and her briefs and sinks to her knees. And then it’s simple; cup the sleepy empty girl’s head in her hands and open her mouth for her and clasps her close and tight, nursing her back over the edge, and as Rachel stirs she stiffens in Jeanette’s arms but she doesn’t stop. She suckles harder, drawing more of Jeanette - more of them, now - back into her.

“God,” Rachel breathes when she finally breaks away and she can come up for air, struggling even for that one syllable, and Jeanette purses up a sweet little smile and through bloody lips she murmurs: “Guess again.”

“Oh. God, I feel…” She lolls back, not so much pulling away from Jeanette as falling, letting her eyes drift shut. “Amazing. I… are we really doing this?” She’s mazed with blood - moved inside and out of her - tripping on her sweet self filtered through Jeanette - her voice says she’s somewhere far away watching herself, and that’s delicious.

“You’re in heaven, honey, and you’re stopping to ask questions?” Jeanette shifts her weight, straddles Rachel’s hips more firmly, and bites her lip as she wills the wound shut - she’s dripping all over the sheets, and she’ll just have to take the girl wonder’s mind off it. “But we can forget all about it, if that’s what you want; make like it never happened…”

“Mmm, no. I don’t think so. Not when it feels like this.” Rachel’s hands curl around her, run down the lines of her suit as they scour for the buttons, and Jeanette all but snaps her teeth in the girl’s face right there.

The floor’s shaking a little as the sound system fires up; the Asylum’s doors are swaying open for another night; but the lunatics can take care of themselves for a while.


 

It doesn’t take much to make an unhappy ride with Mira. As she sinks into the back of their car - Bruno’s car, with Bruno’s driver, so Mira can’t drive away and leave Nadia to make her own way home (again) - Nadia makes the mistake of thinking aloud.

“You seem pleased” is all it took: a cautious essay, a flattering invitation, but Mira’s off - staring at Nadia like she’s something Mira tracked in off the street.

“You didn’t think I was pleased with you, did you?” Mira’s laughter is vulture sharp; it sits on Nadia’s chest and rips and rips and rips like she’s carrion already. “God, no. I’m pleased with Abrams. Did you see the state he was in?” She wriggles back in her seat, stretches an arm across the back, and brings her head back down, favouring Nadia with a triumphant grin. “He’s coming apart. There can’t be much left of the asshole, and when he’s gone, it’s me against his bleeding-heart stripper childe.”

Nadia lets that hang, ums and ahs a bit before she answers, because she’s seen the flaw but it doesn’t do to say “What about Therese Voerman?” straight out, like Mira hasn’t thought of it. She has to play the dim bulb - the frightened ingenue Mira can correct.

“What about her? She’s out of her league. Abrams wouldn’t sell to her in a million years; he hates her, hates everything she stands for. The only thing of hers he doesn’t hate is that girl you were drooling over all evening.” The flash in Mira’s dark eyes says it all; the humourless quirk of her lips is mere punctuation. “What do you think she’ll do? Propose a trade?”

Eyes left. Eyes right. Little pout of confusion. No words required. Mira’s eyebrows jerk up savagely; all blanks filled in.

“Oh God. She really would, wouldn’t she? She is actually crass enough to - the blood-peddling little bitch!” Mira’s hand slaps down on the seatback, and doesn’t leave - it’d be difficult with her nails sinking into the leather, black on black and digging deep.

Nadia averts her eyes, keeps herself tucked in safe and steady - on the surface. Inside: oh God is on her mind too. To tell, or not to tell? To fix, or not to fix? It’s a simple decision - but a complex process. She could make all Mira’s problems go away; deliver her the divine Miss Amber, dead or alive, and either would do the trick in this fucking familia of theirs. But that’s counting on Mira wanting rid of her more than she wants to burrow further into Bruno’s good graces, more than she wants to get ahead of poor sad Luciana or the exile on Venice Beach - and Mira may hate Nadia but she loves being served. Would she take the credit? Absolutely. It has to be Nadia’s show. Fait accompli.

The Blood’s tugging at her heartstrings. Tell her. Tell her you’re a phonecall away from tearing the deal down and giving her Hollywood. Tell her what she could have if she could steal this girl. Tell her you’ve got the in and you can do whatever she wants. Only that’s a little too sophisticated; that’s Nadia’s mind putting words around a deep dark desire to serve, to please, to do anything for just one sweet syringe’s worth.

Nadia bites her lip. Absolutely fucking not.

“What are you sitting on? You think I’m about to kill your new girlfriend?”

“No!” The word’s on the top of Nadia’s mind, as she talks herself down inside her head - and her heart, and every inch of vein and vessel in between - and it’s out of her mouth before she can stop herself. “I mean - no, she’s not - I don’t - ”

“Shut up, diga. You’re so obvious. But you’re also safe. Abrams will fuck himself before he gets to fuck with her. He’s marked. Why’d you think I touched the old sinner in the first place?”

Nadia doesn’t have to fake indignation - she knows why she was staring at Therese’s cute little bloodbag, and yes, fine, she is cute, but Mira has to think so little of her all the damn time. “Is that important?”

“Only if you pay attention.” Mira crosses her legs, and turns her softening glare out of the window, and adds: “You know what your real problem is? You think nigramantia is for the books. You don’t see how we can use it. Watch and learn.”


 

“What the hell are we even doing here?” Chloe asks, realising she’s half-asleep where she stands, draped over the balcony that overlooks the Aslyum’s dance floor. She’s the kind of tired where nerves are all that’s keeping you awake but you can’t sleep until the nerves are settled. The kind when you’ve been awake sixteen hours, at work for ten, and you just want a reefer and some goddamn rest before you get up and do it all again tomorrow. But you can’t. Because life’s just gotten interesting.

“Relax, OK?”

That’s a joke. There’s some grade-A sworn-to-secrecy spy bullshit going on in this club, and Rachel’s in there somehow and Chloe just knows in the pit of her soul that she’s mixed up in it somehow, despite all Damsel’s reassurances, and it’s hard to fucking relax at a time like this.

Damsel keeps talking. “I’m gonna talk to a few loose links in the chain and see what rattles. That’s all. I didn’t come here to make trouble for your girl.”

“She might have another idea. Rachel… likes to get in trouble.”

The music swells, in an electric whine, and Damsel’s answer gets eaten alive. She’s watching the crowd, and Chloe’s watching with her - not that she has a fucking clue who she’s looking for in the expanding cloud of bodies, each one carving out a little space for itself to wave and bob, swaying to and fro in the dirge. At least this shit has guitars.

“See that guy down there?” Damsel points to a spot by the bar, and Chloe follows her gaze. The guy propping up the corner is in double denim (dubious), faded black tee his only attempt at the Asylum’s aesthetic (like Chloe can talk - dad’s jacket and bruised fingers and wrecked-Pontiac stains she can’t wash out). Like every football bro she’s ever known, trying to go dark ‘cause he likes chicks in corsets, and Chloe says so. Damsel grins. “He’s obvious, isn’t he? He’s watching me, and I’m watching him, and - ”

“And the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by,” says someone behind them - a voice like sour honey, a voice with a twinkle in its toes and a twirl in its eye, “who solemnly convene to make a scene. Tell me, eye to eye, is that what you’re doing down here, Damsel in dis-dress? Or undress. Either works.”

Chloe rolls her eyes, and as they both turn in to turn around, she sees Damsel’s rolling hers too. How the hell does Jeanette do that? Boots with soles like bricks, skirt that touches the floor more than her legs, nothing but straps from the waist up - and she still moves like a goddamn ninja. She’s first off the mark, though: “Har de har, Harley Quinn. I’m just here to pick up my girlfriend - your sister’s PA or whatever - and go home.”

Jeanette clasps her hands to her bosom, because of course she does, and she pouts at Chloe over the top of them. “And I thought you’d be here for me, baby blue! She stopped in, as she does, and she stepped out, as she also does. Am I my sister’s keeper?”

“She’s yours,” Damsel snaps back, “and she’s with me,” and she steps up between Chloe and Jeanette. Chloe must be looking kinda gormless, because Jeanette laughs and tosses her pigtails and flounces her hands in a spectacular shrug.

“Don’t test me, shortstack. You’re cute when you’re all righteous, but you’re trouble, and we ain’t seen you for so so long. What gives?”

“You haven’t seen me because you sold out, and I’m only showing my face here because one of our guys is in trouble and the chain goes right through your door.”

“O-ho-ho! But what makes you think it leads to me, red?”

Damsel lets her scowl go a bit, settles her hackles, shifts her position, and Chloe’s aware of how close she is right now - a human shield inches shorter than her. What does she know that Chloe doesn’t? Why does Chloe need protecting, right now? “Did I say that? No. But the trail starts in Santa Monica. It leads to you, or your sister, or Tung, and if I want to find any of you, here’s where I’ve gotta be.”

Jeanette twirls her fingers in the air, sways a little as the beats match and the song changes, rolling her shoulders with a lascivious little mmm-mm. Then, all smiles that don’t reach her off-colour eyes, she looks down at Damsel and says: “Well now. For old time’s sakes, I’ll give you this much. I know someone’s covering something up. A little bee let slip to me that someone in Hollywood’s not long for this world. But nobody in Santa Monica dialled it, o Damsel fair. The chain you’re pulling isn’t mine, and it’s not my sister’s either, and Bertram doesn’t rock the boat as a rule.” Her hands twirl in, and she runs the backs of her nails down her ribs and turns them out to settle on her hips. “You’re in the middle of the story, and all the fun’s at either end.”

Damsel’s face screws up, like she’s just swallowed a lemon. “And assuming you’re telling the truth - what do I owe you? That’s how you work now you’re true-blue Cammie, right?”

Jeanette’s face falls, and she leans in closer and closer as she answers. “There’s a lot T and I don’t agree on, sourpuss. If you cut me, I bleed red like anyone else. Sister blister’s on the way up, and if she gets to where she wants to be, you may find these streets a little sweeter. I never screwed your party, more’s the pity, and you oughta remember that. Say hi to daddy Nines for me; give him a big, big kiss.” Her lips purse, a slice of an inch from Damsel’s face, and she plants a smooch on the air that Chloe can hear even above the music.

“You’d better not be playing me.” Damsel narrows her eyes, and this close to her, Chloe can practically see her shaking, suppressing - something. Whatever the hell Jeanette’s talking about, whatever turf war these people are tied up in, it’s making Damsel angry, and it’s making Chloe scared, and the words are out of her mouth before she can stop them:

“Your sister. You sure she didn’t say where she was going? With Rachel?”

“The good cop speaks,” Jeanette straightens up and stretches down, looking at Chloe across her own shoulder. “Is that really your deal in all this? Looking out for your lady friend? I only ask ‘cause you came in with her - ” a white hand flicks imaginary dust in Damsel’s face “ - and she and T are not bestest buds. Danger’s all around you, bluebird. I’m dangerous, and she’s dangerous, and you’d better believe your girlfriend’s dangerous. But don’t worry; she’s cuddled up in the office, going through the motions, safe and sound. You’ll get her back by morning, if you want her.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chloe snaps, right as Damsel growls: “Don’t touch me, and don’t fuck with her, Jeanette. She’s a bystander.”

“Not a lot,” says Jeanette, winking her green eye at Chloe, “and not for long. Now darlings, you’re getting grumpy and I have a club to run, so please - go poop someone else’s party.”

Damsel huffs. “Fine. C’mon, Chloe. I’ll walk you home.”


 

“What do you mean, he won’t see me?”

Nines’ teeth are on edge, because - Lord, so many reasons. Hollywood always does this to him. This is the belly of the beast; the dream factory that drowns America in lies and bullshit stories. But down here on the streets between the boulevards it’s drab low buildings and seedy little stores and it’s the same world everyone lives in, except it thinks it’s so much more, and that attitude puts another load on Nines’ temper. And then there’s the Kindred it attracts.

Nines isn’t prejudiced. He’s not. People don’t get to choose their blood; they’re brought into this world and then they pick their side and that’s what makes them good or bad by him. But there’s something about the people the Toreador pick, or something in the Toreador blood, that just sweeps up everything he hates about Hollywood, all the sentiment and all the pretentiousness, and concentrates it.

Isaac is bad enough, with his Fifties kingpin charm that’s not even skin deep and his my-way-or-the-high-way angle on everything going, but VV grinds his gears. She’s a faker. A pole dancer who acts like a movie star and thinks she can lead everyone around by their dick or their heartstrings. Her whore-with-a-heart-of-gold routine runs about as deep as Isaac’s goodwill. And it’s not that she’s a bad person. Compared to most Kindred she’s practically a saint. But she acts like she’s got hidden depths and in all the long decades Nines has known her she hasn’t ever shown them. Take off the mask and there’s a mask behind it. She’s gone method, and there’s nothing left of who she used to be beneath. Assuming there was ever anyone else anyway. But that’s what she does: makes you wonder about the real her.

All this flashes through him in an instant - and what it does is make him fight not to bare his fangs right now. Which he won’t do. Not even in VV’s VIP room, a.k.a. the tacky little mezzanine above her club, with its underfloor heating and its low orange lighting and its goddamn pole. Sex sells; but he ain’t buying. He’s just standing there while she lounges there, powerful from below, utterly at home.

“I mean he won’t see anyone, Nines. We came back from his big meeting with those vultures, and he shut himself into the store and sent me home.” Her porcelain face doesn’t seem to move - expressions just appear on it, faster than Nines’ eyes can see them change - and this one’s a sweet-eyed frown, all lashes and curls as she toys with a just-so stray strand of her hair. “I don’t know any more than you do. But we both know you rushing back there and beating his door down won’t get you what you want.”

“What I want is to warn him, dammit!” Everything in this room is fake. The rocks are plaster, the lava’s plastic, the walls are probably goddamn plywood. Stamp a foot and you’ll go through the floor. It’s a hard room to be angry in. “Someone’s out for his head and I don’t know who the hell it is - ”

“Name me a Kindred in this town who isn’t,” VV murmurs. It’s always a murmur. She never rushes; never raises her voice; never seems moved by anything. “Isaac makes a lot of enemies. None of them have amounted to much.”

“One of them’s about to. I hoped you’d give a shit about that, at least.”

The mask falls away and here’s another; the perfect eyebrows furrowed, the rich red lips pulled in. “Don’t ever accuse me of that, Nines. I care. But we don’t live your life, up here. We keep our streets safe, we hide in plain sight. We’re not at war.”

“You’re at war if someone else thinks you are. All you do is choose not to fight. You leave that to us.” Nines grunts, clenches and unclenches his fists and jams them into the crooks of his elbows as he folds his arms. “I didn’t come up here to fight you, Velvet. If Isaac’s gone to ground already that’s fine by me. Mission accomplished. Can you make sure he stays that way?”

“If he’s in danger, of course. But you know how he is; he won’t take anyone’s word alone. I need more.” She lingers on the word; always luring, always leading. It’s so goddamn hard to talk politics with this woman, so hard to take her seriously, and then her theatrics take the film-noir turn and one realises this is what seriously is like for her. “Who’s your source? Who rattled your cage so bad you had to rush up here and play protector?”

“Tung. And I know what you’re gonna say,” he says, and he means it, holding up a peacemaking hand palm-out, “but he called the meeting and gave me the info straight out, for free. None of the usual Nossie bullshit - no other bidders, no escalation. He was freewheeling. Surprised.”

“That is strange.” VV kisses her own knuckle - or at least, her lips part around it, and close again when she speaks again, balling her fingers in close. “Why would he come to you, though? It’s not as if Gary and Isaac aren’t old friends.”

“Maybe he’s going behind Gary’s back? Gary’s Cam. Tung led me to believe he might be… less so.”

“Or maybe you’re being set up again. I don’t want to rake the coals, Nines, but you’ve… been played before.”

Nines closes his fist slowly, holds it tight, makes himself breathe. In and out. In and out. “I thought of that,” he says at last, folding his arms again. “But it feels different. Isaac’s had my back for years, and the world knows it. I wouldn’t move on him, and he wouldn’t move on me, and if someone wanted to nail me - god, they could do it in the street. Who stands to gain?”

VV shifts her weight, straightens up - a long graceful movement that stirs her robe, and she wraps it tighter around herself with one hand while the other toys with her hair again, a little more insistent - a tug, not a twirl, as though switching on the mind Nines knows is in there somewhere.

“I can think of a few people. Two of them showed up tonight.” There’s a crack in the mask, a flicker around the eyes and the contoured cheekbones. Nines waits, lets the silence ache, and sure enough: “I wouldn’t put it past those ghouls.”

“Who are we talking about here, VV?”

“Therese Voerman and Mira Giovanni. They’ve hounded Isaac over Ash’s club for years now. As if Isaac would ever sell.”

Nines’ tongue, quite without his intent, rolls from side to side behind his lips, gracing teeth that are pushing harder and harder. “The Voermans or the Giovanni. Shit. That makes… a scary amount of sense.”


 

“This doesn’t make any goddamn sense.”

Damsel’s setting one hell of a pace down the alley she’s dived into; Chloe doesn’t even know the way, she’s half-running just to keep up with her, and the words are coming half-formed in the night air, but she pushes on regardless. “Hey. Hey. Help me out here.”

“What?” Damsel stops, spins, scowls, so fast; abrupt and alarming, a wildcat caught on the hunt.

“What the,” and Chloe pauses to catch her breath and get between Damsel and the alley mouth, “what the hell was all that about? All that fuckin’ ‘keep your friends close’ stuff.”

“I can’t tell you, OK?” Damsel takes a step back, a step sideways, moving like a boxer with her fists held down. “You shouldn’t have heard that. I shouldn’t have let you hear that.”

“No. Nope, sorry. Not buying it, Damsel. No more ‘I could tell you but I’d have to kill you’. You’re in this, the Voermans are in this, Rachel’s in this, that means I’m in this, and this, by the way, is not my first rodeo. Rachel and I have been through shit like this before, and you know what? One man dead, two men in jail, and an eighteen-year marriage in ruins, but I’m still alive and so is Rachel. So you’re not walking out of here until you explain.”

It’s about this kind of time that Chloe would expect someone to take a deep breath. Damsel doesn’t. She’s not out of breath from the speed she’s been moving. In fact - it’s hard to tell, with the baggy combat jacket and the hunched posture and the half-light in this dank fucking alley - but she doesn’t seem to be breathing at all.

“You wanna try and stop me? You think you can do that?” Damsel half-turns away, with s sharp little laugh and a shake of her head, and something about the sheer bro-ness of that cuts through Chloe’s layers of sick-and-tired and hits right down to the core.

“You think you’re that much of a hardass?” is what she’s about to say, and midway through the sentence she realise she’s off her feet, moving backwards so fast the world’s blurring, and she smacks into the wall hard, her head cracking against the concrete back of a building at the far end. Her eyes screw up and the last word out of her mouth gets tangled up in a squawk and as that red rush of pain clears she realises Damsel’s got her pinned, with an arm across her chest that feels like it’s got an iron core. There’s a light overhead, and stars in Chloe’s eyes, and a groan in her mouth, and she has to force herself to focus at all. Damsel grins, and the grin comes to four points, and suddenly those are all Chloe can see.

“Yeah,” says Damsel. “I do. Now I can’t tell you everything you wanna know out here, or before the sun comes up. So. Are you gonna let me take you home?”


 

And when the sun rises, on the last day of this pale September, it rises on a cracked desert road, high up in the Hollywood Hills. It rises on a burned-out Trans Am that’ll never drive again; just a skeleton, corrosion locked into corrosion. It rises on the man who sits transfixed behind the wheel, his tired eyes looking on what they’ve not seen for real in seventy years. It rises on the rosary tangled in his unmoving, unyielding fingers, and the sheen on the gold stays pure and bright as the flames rise, and the gold still gleams as the ashes settle.

Chapter Text

Death, he cries with one voice, death. Who hath murdered sleep, innocent sleep? It sure as hell wasn’t him. He fumbles, in the dark; his feet plant themselves on the deck; his hand alights upon the weapon, still trembling from the impact in her pure, nocturnal form. Who in hell’s name -

[Nadiamantic]

Oh.

Vandal sighs, runs a hand through his hair, regrets it, and answers the phone.

“What do you want?”

[“Look,”] she says, [“I’m sorry I woke you, but this is important. It can’t wait. Your boss is in trouble. I think - I think mine is trying to set her up. Frame her.”] Even down the cellphone, Miss M’s voice sounds off - thicker and faster - like she’s struggling to speak. Like she’s scared. Through the shrouds and clinging veils of slumber, Vandal’s head-meat starts to quiver and come alive, and he realises she sounds hotter when she’s struggling - but this is hardly the time.

“Uh-huuuh. And you’re telling me because?” Playing for time, balled fist in the eye, rub away the muck o’ the morning light. This could actually matter.

[“Because - why do you think? You know how I feel about Mira, V. This is her big play, and I - I don’t - look, I just need to get a message to - to Therese, before…”]

“Easy, easy, lemon pie. You’re pulling a knife from the Queen Bitch’s back: that’s good enough for little me. Just give me the shape of it. Point the handle at my hand.” His voice sounds ragged, even to him; he gets up, shakily, crosses the floor to fill his palm or whatever else presents itself. Light lances thin and feeble through the windowpanes and through the blinds. A drink, while Miss Milliner makes good…

[“It’s Abrams. Isaac Abrams. He’s dead, and - and - and I think Therese is supposed to take the blame. They were meeting up to discuss - this club. Mira wants it too. Isaac isn’t - wasn’t selling. Therese had the girl with her - Rachel. That girl. Mira thinks - Mira… trade. Like, trade the girl for the club. She panicked.”]

“Back up. You think the Queen Bitch was offering her little bloodbag to Abrams? For property?”

[“Mira does. And Mira - ”] There’s a strangled sound on the line; words dying in a throat that won’t countenance such treason. The Blood breeds loyalty; it’s easy to resent one’s master’s voice, a lot harder to talk back to it. Loyal slaves do not slip the leash, do not go running to another’s call. This must, it occurs to Vandal, be hard for her. At least as hard as he is.

“Would rather do the worst than be outbid. I hear you. I hear what you’re not saying.”

[“Will you - ”]

“Take action, on a clear and present threat? What would you have me do?”

Nadia laughs, or maybe chokes; maybe she’s crying. Maybe all three. [“I don’t want to know, OK? If I don’t know, I can’t - I can’t do it again, Vandal. It’s all I can do not to run and tell her right now.”]

Lips pull back over teeth, this side and that. What do you say to stop them crying, when you can’t dope ‘em or shock ‘em or stuff a sock in their throats? Being friends with people’s so damn difficult.

“It’s in God’s hands now, don’t worry. God’s hands and mine. We’ll do right by you. And. Uh. Stay safe up there. I’ll miss you if you die.”

[Beep.]

Well, that wasn’t it.

What the hell’s to do now? The sun’s up, and Queen Bitch will be safe abed; she won’t think clearly and she won’t thank him (as if she ever does). But this doesn’t seem something he can sit on. Abrams is a name in the main: he’s someone from the movies, someone who’ll be noticed when he’s gone. And then there’s the girl. That girl. The one who gets Queen Bitch all a-quiver, and now it seems she’s hired on. Not that Vandal thinks she’s a giveaway. He’s not stupid, at least not as stupid as the skanketti a la morte who pulls Nadia’s chain. He knows an addict when he sees one. But it’s a concern that she’s on the staff, that the middleman’s been cut out and is being cut out further, and Vandal being the middleman in this equation means he’s not at all keen on cutbacks.


 

The first thing Chloe thinks, when the shitbox door clicks and jiggles under the hand of someone who knows you have to kinda lift the door to get it open, is oh thank fuck it’s Rachel.

The second thing is wait I fell asleep oh fuck.

The third thing is Damsel is still here oh double fuck.

The fourth thing, which arrives in her mind as she lurches upright, pushes herself a way from the desk, stumbles bleary-eyed to the door, almost trips over her own boots where she left them last night, is that’s not Rachel.

“You didn’t lock your door,” says asshole Vandal, stood there in that robe that doesn’t suit him - what Goodwill bin did he scrape that up from anyway - with his perma-stoned eyes and his lippy smile that stops Chloe dead in her tracks. “Not exactly safety in the home and workplace, neighbour.”

“What the hell do you want?” Buying time, Chloe shrugs her suspenders back over her shoulders, grabs her jacket off the foot of the bed - armour, that’s important, don’t let him see you anything less than dressed, fuck’s sake - and squares up, zero to sixty in seconds and less.

“Hey hey, my my - not a fight, that’s for damn sure. ‘M lookin’ for your girlfriend.”

“Cool. So: what the hell do you want with Rachel?”

His eyes rove anywhere but Chloe’s face, usually, but just for a second he meets her gaze head-on and says, in a deep-freezer-door-clangs-shut-in-the-night tone, “Chill.” And Chloe’s there, held in that gimlet gaze just for a second, before she shakes her head and breaks herself free.

“Explain and I’ll think about it.”

“I just - wondered if she was at home. We’ve an acquaintance in common, who called me last night in some distress. She’s concerned for Rachel’s safety. That do anything for you?” Vandal sways, craning to and fro around her; Chloe moves to block his line of sight, instinctive and on guard. Can she swallow this? Does he even have friends, let alone friends who know who Rachel is, let alone friends who give a shit about her or Rachel? Sounds fake as fuck, and Chloe says so.

“Who do you know who knows Rachel?”

“The que- Therese. Therese Voerman. But she’s not - who I’m here for. My friend’s name is Nadia. Look, bluebird, all I need is a 'no she’s not here' or a 'she’s at work' or whatever and I’m gone like a thief in the night. I’m not stalking her or something.”

Chloe narrows her eyes. She doesn’t know everyone Rachel knows, even back in Arcadia Bay, a town you could spit across if you started on a tall building. And there have been those days when Rachel’s hit the bricks in Hollywood. But it’s hard to imagine this mutant knowing anyone who’s anything close to the movies - or someone on Therese Voerman’s level. Maybe it’s the headache, maybe it’s sleeping face down on her desk, maybe it’s that she’s kinda sick with worry and a late night, but:

“I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means ‘no’.”

“I do go to the movies, you know. Or bring them to me.” Vandal snorts, sticks his hands in his pockets. “Look, maybe she’s asleep or maybe you’re just en garde for the hell of it, but can you get her to call me tonight? You both know where I work. And she can decide whether or not to take me seriously. But I know what goes on in this town. I know what circles she’s moving in. And they’re not safe.”

“You’d be a lot more trustworthy if you’d just tell me shit.”

“My head’s on a spike if I say jack-all out here, mm-kay? These people keep secrets.”

That pulls her up sharp. Maybe, just maybe, he does know something real. But like fuck is she going anywhere alone with him, just to grill him for vampire facts. That’s a job for later, when she’s caught up with Rachel - or at least for after dark.

“I get you. Maybe we’ll see you later. But don’t wait up.”

Chloe shuts the door on his scowl - locking it, this time, and making damn sure he hears the click - before she turns and looks down at the bed.

Inertia. Just a bundle of blankets, wrapped double-thick around a body that’s not breathing, not moving, and just slept right through a conversation two feet away.

Even if she didn’t already have a headache, this would be giving her one. She slumps down on the bed, shrugs her jacket off, and contemplates the bundle again.

A less awesome person would be severely tempted right now.


 

This morning is… definitely one of Rachel’s weirder mornings.

If it is morning. In this lightless, windowless boudoir-slash-office, it could be the middle of the night for all she knows. It could be tomorrow or a hundred years from now and Rachel could still wake up in this deep bed in this red room with these creepy-ass statues all around and that damn painting leering down at her.

The weird thing is… she might be OK with that.

Are these her hands? Is this her, lying here? It’s like - like the first time she got high. Like the day she found out who her father wasn’t. Like waking up in hospital with Chloe holding her hand. Like shock; watching herself watch herself lying here. But nothing’s wrong.

Rachel blinks, and comes a bit closer to what’s real.

Nothing’s wrong at all. Sure, she feels a little light-headed. It’s to be expected. It’s not every night that your new boss comes on to you, and you… basically faint, even though you totally led them on, which is weird because you do not faint, but it seemed to work, because here you are in what’s totally their bed, and you remember -

red red red and her heart smashing against her ribs, wanting like she’d never wanted anyone in her life before, skin on fire and the only cold in all the world in those long white hands and the smeared lips roaming over her -

Oh. That’s what Rachel remembers.

Which is presumably why she’s in bed with Ms. Voerman, who is sleeping so deeply she might never wake up. God, she’s cold -

- so so cold, and Rachel murmurs as much; she laughs and they kiss again; Rachel feels the flush of warmth and life through the whole length of their coiled bodies -

- and something in the back of Rachel’s head stirs and before she can quite fathom out why, she’s out of bed. She wants a shower. She needs a shower. A shower is a thing she should have right now. And she should definitely text Chloe and at least say she’s OK. But it’s imperative, absolutely imperative, that she doesn’t go home. She’s got to stay here.

There’s a door opposite the foot of the bed; Rachel opens it on impulse, hoping or expecting and yes, it’s an ensuite bathroom, thank God, and thank God she can shower somewhere that isn’t the shitbox she lives in. It’s glorious; the Asylum’s an old building but Ms. Voerman’s spared no expense. Long mirror, underfloor heating, not stark white but dark and beautiful. A girl could really get used to this.

Rachel is dimly aware that she’s a mess. Her lipstick - and Ms. Voerman’s - is all over her face, and neck. Who’d have thought a little red could go so far?

- teeth and lips and fingers tease at the edges of her and Rachel whines, actually whines, because she’s burning up all the more now, and the gentlest nudge between her legs could end the world, and finally it comes and, in short order, so does she.

And afterwards, those fingers cradle her head and smooth her hair, and she looks deep deep deep into a pair of off-colour eyes, and everything finally makes sense.

Perfect sense.

She needs to be here when Therese wakes up.


 

“Hey.”

“Whu? Fuck. What time is it?” It’s a struggle to get the words out. Chloe’s head still hurts - pretty sure you’re not supposed to sleep on a head wound, jackass - and it’s full of broken sentences and thoughts and dreams smouldering like cigarette ends and things she half remembers as dumb movie tropes that might now be seriously fucking important.

It’s dark outside, the streetlights and the crappy TV that came with the apartment are both on, and she’s… right, she’s on her bed, under her jacket… because her blankets were full of…

Damsel. Damsel who’s now sitting on her desk, feet on the chair, staring at the TV like it’s offended her. The light plays across a face that’s straining from the inside - a pretty mask with narrow, angry eyes. Now that she knows what Damsel is, Chloe can see she’s not human; she reflects too much of the light that falls on her, and she moves too fast and too deliberately. There are no tics, no involuntary twitches or fidgets. Everything she does expresses something. And in repose, she’s perfectly still.

“‘Bout seven,” Damsel says, finally looking around. “How’s your head?”

“Hurts like balls. I… Did last night really happen? I was… kinda hoping I’d dreamed it.”

“Sorry. I’m the real thing.”

Chloe groans. It seems like the right thing to do. “Crap.”

“Listen,” says Damsel, as Chloe shuffles her jacket off herself and trawls through pockets full of papers and dead bodega lighters and loose change, for… “I really am sorry. I know it’s a lot. And it’s gonna get worse, because - ”

“Hold that thought,” says Chloe. Cellphone. Finally. She squints, unlocks, scrolls: three messages. Thank fuck.

[baechel: The master plan is working. Meeting a major league producer in Hollywood on my first night. I am powerful beyond imagining.]

A sting of guilt at that: she didn’t answer.

[baechel: This could take a while. Don’t wait up, OK? Get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.]

Hours later, another message.

[baechel: bb i’m sorry. sky’s falling. gonna stay over.]

That’s from tonight, about three a/m; and it’s weird. Rachel sinks to lower case when she’s in a hurry, but ‘bb’?

“That’s not… like her.” The words are dancing in her head. Dancing in front of her eyes, too. Chloe fumbles with the touchscreen, dials, and on the third ring:

[“Chloe! Oh, babe, I was just about to call you, I swear. I got caught up - I’ve been in the office all day. I - I had to be. I’m sorry. Last night was insane.”]

“Fuck, I’m just glad you’re - OK, listen. This is going to sound totally nuts, but - ”

[“Ms. Voerman is hella into me. I mean hella into. It’s flattering. I thought she was acting weird, but I wasn’t expecting her to - Oh. Shit. I’ve gotta go. I’m sorry.”]

“Rachel, no! Listen! I - fuck!” Chloe shoves the dead, rung-off phone into her pocket and slumps forward. “She hung up on me. And she sounded out of it. Like - she was leaving me a message, not actually talking to me. And like everything was perfectly normal.” There’s a scraping slide, the soft thud of boots on the floor, and the bed creaks beside her, and then Damsel’s arm is around her shoulders. It’s cold - of course it is - but through Chloe’s teeshirt, it’s not unbearable. “What the fuck is happening?”

“If I had to guess: some bullshit. There’s… OK. The Voermans, and Kindred like ‘em? Masters of the mind whammy. They fuck with your head on four different levels. Read minds, write minds, make it so you can’t even see ‘em right unless you know they’re there. So as far as your girl’s concerned, everything is normal.”

Fucking hell. That shakes Chloe down to the soles of her feet. How the hell do you talk sense into someone who can’t even see the trouble they’re in? Rachel’s enough trouble when she’s just being Rachel… when she thinks she knows how the world should be and she’ll smash it into shape with whatever she can reach…

She’s leaning into Damsel before she knows it, and strangles out half a sentence: “What do I even…” The arms tighten around her shoulders. So fucking strong. “D’you all do shit like this? Did you do that to me?”

“Fuck. No. Not like that. Even if I could I never would. It’s sick. But - look, what we do, my clan? It’s not control. I can scare you, I can catch your eye in a crowd, I can make myself look so cool you can’t not say hi to me, but - it’s all you. Your mind stays your own.” Damsel takes a breath - deeper than Chloe thinks she needs, but it’s somehow reassuring.

“My fucking mind?” Trying not to shake, Chloe sits up a little straighter. “My head feels like it’s gonna split right open… and this is - the personal stuff’s bad enough, and then you tell me ‘oh hey, we’re vampires’… and now my fucking neighbour’s in on it. I can’t…” Nope. Down again. Down like she’s gonna throw up on her own feet. Curling up so the world doesn’t fucking see her break.

“Yeah. I fucked this up. There’s gotta be a better way to bring someone into all this. I didn’t want to shit all over your life, but…”

“It’s not that. At least you told me. I mean - if you hadn’t shown up when you did… the rest of this would still be happening. And I still wouldn’t know.”

“That’s the thing. I told you.” Damsel sighs, and pulls Chloe in a little closer. “And I hurt you. I want to fix that. And there is something I can do. It’s not exactly - it’s not cool, but it’ll fix your head, and it’ll give you an edge if - if you need it. But it’s got a downside. It’s… kinda addictive.”

“Better not be PCP.” Chloe tries to stretch her neck out - it’s not the world’s best feeling. “That’d be too simple, though. Am I right?”

“Way too simple.” Damsel’s arm slips down Chloe’s back, and her fingers squeeze Chloe’s collarbone. “I wasn’t kidding about the blood oath thing.”

“You do not mean - ” The words die on Chloe’s lips as she looks around. Damsel’s face is deadly serious, deathly still. “You do mean, don’t you?” Damsel nods. “OK. Break this down. It fixes my head. What else?”

“You can do… something I can do. Might be stronger. Might be faster. Might be scarier. You heal faster, and you’ll live through a lot more. But you’re gonna want more. And the more you get, the more you want - the more into it you are. It is seriously, fundamentally, not cool. Which is why I’m asking you.”

“And there’s… I guess this is a thing you all do, right? So… if that bastard across the hall is… working for the Voermans…” Chloe’s forehead rests in the palms of her hands. She’s in too deep already. Any fucking lifeline that’s going. And if nothing else, it’ll be one last little bit of proof that all this shit is for real. And maybe it’ll help her save Rachel, somehow. Even if she can’t save herself.

That’s what all this is about, isn’t it?

“OK,” Chloe says. “Fuck it. I’m in. For good or ill.”

She keeps her head down, and so she feels Damsel’s weight shifting around her and settling behind her. She hears the soft crunch somewhere over her head and she doesn’t look up; she shuts her eyes tight. Damsel guides Chloe’s lips to her wrist, one hand on her jawline, and then -

The first time Chloe drank whisky, she was barely eighteen years old. It was her dad’s: a set of three miniatures she’d found in the attic. Like fuck was she letting David get his hands on this. She’d catch hell for being drunk in the house - being drunk at all - but she’d raise hell if David drank another of her memories, and Rachel was in one of her fucking moods, worn out by the final push to her glorious 4.0. This was hers, dammit. So she’d lifted up the little bottles and sunk them one by one, to a memory and a ghost and a future that was still half a year away. And it sank down inside her and it burned, but she had willed it down…

… and the first time Rachel got her off was in the back of the truck, because of course it was, parked high up in the backwoods where they could see the whole Bay because Rachel’s always been extra like that and fucking her senseless in front of the whole town - even on a technicality - was the kind of symbolic bullshit that Chloe always caught onto a little bit too late, but god, Rachel’s tongue had flicked in and out of her for what felt like forever under the late autumn sun and she’d screamed like a condor when she finally came…

… and this moment and that and the high shriek of steel strings at the first gig she’d been to since her dad died, perched on Eliot’s shoulders, crying and laughing at the same time ‘cause he could hardly lift her and she was taller than him anyway … and the time Max had dared her to ride her bike all the way down through the woods from Otter Point without touching the brakes, and all too briefly she’d flown …

All these moments, lost in time and back and drowned in a rush of blood that’s cold when it touches her lips and searing by the time it’s in the back of her throat. Her hands lock around Damsel’s wrist and they’re still clinging on tight as Damsel pulls this way and that and separates them.

And sure enough, the ache in the back of her head is fading, and her mind’s eye is full of Damsel’s wicked grin and Rachel - scared, angry, screaming in Damon’s face and James’ and Victoria’s and everyone else who’s ever tried to come between them, but she’s always smiled for Chloe, ever since that first day when she tried to push Chloe away… and ever since then, she’s been fighting Rachel’s instincts, trying to prove she’s worthy of her, keeping the smile on her face… or keeping the scream away.

She’s breathing faster. Shallower.

“Holy shit.”

Damsel’s arm moves inexorably away, and Chloe lets her hands fall.

“You OK? Riding this out?”

And that’s when she twists around and rises on her knees and kisses Damsel, full on, holding it until she can hardly breathe and then, finally, her eyes open and she pulls away.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?” Damsel grins at Chloe, and Chloe grins back. She’s bouncing. She hasn’t been this wired in fuck-knows-how-long. Like - there are problems. Of course there are problems. There are problems in the north, south, east and west. But problems are solvable. They can do this. They can absolutely do this. Get Rachel back. Keep her safe. Maybe clue her in to what’s really going on. She’ll come back around, if the two of them - if Chloe and Damsel - can just talk to her.

“Fuckin’ A,” says Chloe. “So. What’s the plan?”

Damsel licks her lips, and looks out the window. “Step one: food. For me, too. It’s gonna be a long night, and it’s been a while.”

“Guessing you can’t just bite me again?” Chloe’s joking. She’s ninety per cent sure she’s joking. Maybe eighty-five. But as she follows Damsel’s gaze, she’s very aware that Damsel is right there with her, and it’s a fight to keep her hands to herself; a fight to stop that rush that takes her back a few days that feel like forever; a fight not to turn her neck to one side and slip the straps away and beg.

“Nuh uh. We gotta be topped off and ready for this. Both of us. Which means we’re gonna go see a nasty little man in a nasty little booth and I’m gonna choke down some of the cold shit so we can get going.” Damsel looks down at her and frowns, resting her hands on Chloe’s shoulders. “You gonna be OK with this?”

“Hell yeah. Need to talk to the asshole again. Bastard came knocking on my door this morning - I mean yesterday - what fucking ever. He knows about Rachel, and he dropped a bunch of hints about the whole v-word thing, and something about someone he knows who knows something about Rachel being in danger…”

“Which we know. But - yeah. Could be worth it. Most of us buy from Cleaver if we’re in Santa Monica. He probably has heard something. But first, we’re talking to Trip.”


Darkness, and voices.

Therese drifts upward through a crimson haze, deep and dark and smouldering, rising and rising toward - clearer waters, brighter lights, something cold and white and conscious.

“Well, sister, I never knew you had it in ya! I’m so proud. My heart may burst.”

“Please. I led her along, and then I panicked. I… You did well, I assume in my stead.”

“Oh lady fair, I did my very best, and so did she.” Therese twitches as she scowls; green and blue flash, a pair of eyes so very like her own blinking in the haze, vast as the sun and moon. “But I mean it. It’s big and brave of you to bare those little fangs at last. Even if I did have to clean up.”

“What… did you actually do?”

“Took the necessary steps. Made sure she’d be here after dark. I think she thinks she’s had you, bless her soul.”

“One step at a time.” Therese laughs - brutal, brittle, bitter. “It - doesn’t horrify me. But - ”

“You’re scared. But not as scared as you used to be. I think this one’s good for you! And I’ll be good to her too, I pinky-promise! I know you don’t like it, but if it keeps her around…”

“Yes. If it keeps her with us.” It’s getting easier now - now that they agree more. “So she doesn’t know, yet?”

“Oh, she’s a smart cookie. She’ll figure it out sooner or later. But you’re gonna have so much to tell her, right? The plan’s still go? You’re not gonna call the Wonderful Wizard for a backsie now?”

“I don’t know.” Disjunction; discord. Therese’s head flashes - bisected. Wire descends. Comes down. Snicker-snack. Their thoughts uncurl and fold together again. “She’s… wonderful the way she is. I can’t decide, Jeanette, and that’s the truth. I don’t know if I ever will. I want to feel like this forever - I want her in our corner forever - and all right, I want a childe. Don’t ask me to choose until I have to.”

The light pours in around her, the mist falling away - smoke in a cocktail glass…

Therese sits up sharply, and looks around to see Rachel at her desk, putting her phone down. Occupying a space. Left and right brain, in unison.

“You did the right thing.”

The look on the girl’s face - the look of her soul - is worth last night. There’s a wild light in her eyes, and if Therese bats her own lashes she sees the same fire outlining her in space, a tiny dark solid shape outlined in flames. And it burns in Therese too, radiating through veins she never even thought were cold - that she hadn’t felt in a hundred years and change.

God, it feels good. Is this what she’s been missing all along?

“Glad to hear it,” says Rachel - all professional, but a little too fast, a little too hungry, and Therese likes it. It’s a good sign. “I didn’t want to wake you, but I’ve taken a couple calls, and your personal phone’s been ringing.”

“Good girl.” Therese scoops her hair back over her shoulders. Better - but she can’t be herself yet, not until it’s pinned and ponied, not until she’s washed away what went before. “I - good grief, I need a shower. And then - there’s something we need to discuss. Over dinner, if you’ve been in here all day. Wait just a little longer, would you?”

“Of course. Whatever you say.”

 

Chapter Text

Rolling with Damsel’s an education in itself. From the minute she walks into Trip’s pawnshop - open all night, no questions asked - she’s in charge, and Chloe’s finding it hard to keep her mouth shut and her eyes on the guy. Maybe it’s vampire mind mojo, maybe it’s the blood or the crush Chloe does not have, shut the fuck up, or maybe it’s the way Trip visibly shits a brick once he’s focused enough to realise who she is. He umms and ahs his way through a short conversation while Chloe checks out the merch and before she knows what’s going on Damsel’s pressing a worn thirty-eight into her hand.

“Open secret,” says Damsel when they’re outside and Chloe’s working out how to walk with a gun wedged through her belt. It’s harder than it looks. “Trip’s good people. Not as connected as the other side’s old dealer, but you take what you can get and he doesn’t give you shit over it. Now that’s ninety per cent for looks, right? You don’t shoot unless you need to and you don’t expect much. That’s assuming you can shoot.”

“I’ve seen videos. And my step-dick taught me. Well, I say he taught me. He saw me checking out his guns and gave me a basic-bitch lecture on home defence and ‘it’s my responsibility, not yours’, but I got something out of it.”

Damsel looks her up and down, with a little half-shrug that says so you can’t without saying it. “Have to do, I guess. Keep it in your pants unless you need to, though. Most of us can eat six shots unless they’re real good ones. But it’ll help some of these jackasses take you seriously.”

It’s not a long walk to the medical centre - block and a half at most - but it feels like a lot further with the metal poking into her gut.

Damsel walks right past the front door and down an alley that ends, sharply, against the back wall of a taller, older building. Generations of flyposters below, yellowing old brick above.

“That,” says Damsel, “is the ass end of the Asylum, and this,” addressing a fire door with its emergency exit sign long burned out, “is the other half of Therese Voerman’s little empire.” Reaching around, she hooks her fingers around the edge of the door and tugs - looking closely, Chloe can see the chip in the wall and the buckle in the frame that allows it.

They move swift and sharp across the hallway - they’re in a back stairwell, grey climbing upon grey, up and down, and Damsel leads them down a flight, around and down again. At the bottom there’s a long corridor signed LAUNDRY and MORGUE and BLOOD BANK on their side of the glass door and STAFF ONLY on the other. It’s dark - half the flourescent lights are out - and it’s aircon cold and antiseptic bitter.

“Your one-stop shop for parts, repairs and scrap?” Chloe whispers, once they’re in.

“You joke, but there’s at least two Kindred got out of town through this place and at least one died down here. Lotta mysteries come through that door.” Damsel strides ahead, a little faster than someone that short should move, but it’s easier to keep up tonight, somehow. There are doors along the right hand wall, and there’s a little window a little way along; the sign here, faded with time and Sharpied back into legibility, says NIGHT PORTER. The same handwriting, a little further down the wall, adorns a little board with space for eight photos and only three inside. EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH it says, scribbled under the neatly printed ‘Vandal Cleaver’.

Damsel raps her knuckles on the glass. Once. Twice. Thrice. With her free hand she motions Chloe back, against the wall. There’s a creak and a grumble and a weary “Putting down, or - o-ho-ho,” it says, the pitch picking up, “or taking away? Haven’t seen you in a while, downtown girl. What brings you to Ess-and-Emm beside the seaside, mm?”

“Favour for a friend. Wouldn’t be seen dead here otherwise. And I need a top up before I get the fuck out here and away from you. You selling?”

“Not to you. You’re on the black list. Queen Bitch’s orders - nothing for anyone who ain’t in the in-crowd. And you ain’t nobody’s idea of the in-crowd.”

Damsel’s hand slams against the glass. “Big talk for a guy who’s one bad night from death row. One day you’ll be too expensive for your bitch queen to bail out.”

“Fat chance. I’m indispensable.”

“Not what I heard. I’m hearing there’s a new face on T.V.’s screen. Care to comment, Cleaver?”

Chloe hears a hiss of breath and the squeak-squeak-squeak of rubber soles on rubber tiles, and then Vandal answers, as airily as he dares.

“Queen bitch has her little fancies. She’ll get tired of a pretty face. Or she’ll get thirsty. No threat presented.”

The bile wells in Chloe’s throat, and she steps around Damsel and into his line of fire. “Not what you told me, jerkwad.”

“Well ho-ho and ha-ha, the plot thickens - but I see oh so clearly now. You traded up pretty fast, didn’t you? Ah-ah-ah - ” Vandal wags an admonishing finger as Chloe’s hand drops to her belt. “Nothing you’re carrying gets through this and your life won’t be worth spit if you snuff mine out, so let’s be civil, shall we? Your girl’s no trouble to me, but she’s in deep shit with someone all right.” Vandal’s lips shake - he licks at them, like a snake tasting the air, and his knuckles shiver and shudder. “I shouldn’t say. She’ll be - she won’t like it. But watch out for Hollywood. The Boulevard sings for blood tonight, and your featherhead? She’s a taste they’ll go far to acquire.”

“Cryptic. Bullshit.” Damsel thumps the glass again. “Give me something substantial, Cleaver. Give me a name.”

Something screws itself up inside Vandal then, his head bobbing from side to side with the pressure of it, a crooked spring tensing up and all of a sudden coming loose. With a spasm of his neck and an audible crack, he stage-whispers: “Giovanni. OK? That’s a name. That’s the name in the frame. But you didn’t hear it from me. You were never here, and nor was I. Nor was I. Never was I ever.” Vandal holds his head in the palms of his hand and shudders like he’s going to throw up. “You’ve - you’re not here. You were never here…”

Damsel turns away from the glass, starts to walk away. “Weren’t you gonna - ” Chloe starts to ask, but Damsel shakes her head.

“He won’t break twice in one night. Especially not if she’s told him I’m in her bad books. I bet her fucking sister put her up to this after last night. God dammit!”

“What did you even do to him?”

“Nothing.” Damsel picks up her pace again, slapping the outer wall and slamming the door behind her. “Absolutely nothing. That little screwup’s been tripping on liquid crazy for ten years plus.”

“That’s what’s gonna happen to Rachel?”

“Maybe. Maybe she’s stronger. Maybe he was psychotic to begin with. But it takes time. We can still get her back, cut her off. And we’re gonna have to. I do not envy her what’s gonna happen if they get to her first.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” Chloe’s walking faster and faster, keeping up - it’s an effort to breathe, but she can take the stairs two at a time and still get the words out, even has a little energy to make bunny ears around the word.

“The Giovanni.” Damsel shoves the door open again, stalks out into the alley, and scowls like she wants to spit. “They own North Hollywood and Venice Beach - and I do mean own. Rich fucks. Vampire gangsters with some spooky black magic in their pocket. We don’t mess with ‘em and even the capes steer clear. One of ‘em shows up to our meetings sometimes, all smiles and sunglasses indoors and anything-I-can-do - makes me wanna puke.”

“So what do we do?”

Damsel huffs and puffs and looks this way and that, turning left - the Surfside’s over the road, and Chloe can see the sign for Brothers Salvage further down the block. Man, anything to go back to to a day job and a quiet night, after this. But Damsel’s talking at her again, and the words cut across her - her head swivels like an owl’s and she hangs on the redhead’s every word. “If this goes back to the Giovanni then we’re going to Hollywood. I know just the place to start. You’ll like it.”

There’s a cab parked on the kerb just down from the diner. Lights off, nobody in, and Chloe ignores it right up until Damsel raps on the roof and snaps her attention back around again. “You mind driving? I need to call someone.”

“Sure thing,” says Chloe, and Damsel throws her the keys. “Cool.” She says. “Can I use your phone?”


 

The air’s different, somehow - charged with a current she can feel but can’t see. It swims through the stale smell - and God, can she ever smell it now! LA: it’s heaven on Earth but it stinks like hell.

The feeling’s - it’s like a ball bearing on a sheet - that metaphor for gravity and density and the way black holes work. Something heavy’s come down and space is deformed around it, and everything starts to spiral in and down. Only “down”, in this case, is “up”. Toward the lift shaft. Toward Ms. Voerman. Taking a step away is hard. Another, and another, and for some stupid reason Rachel wants to run right back inside and never leave. The lead-heavy air hangs lower with every yard she moves away. There’s a thunderstorm hum to it, and she rubs the backs of her arms, convinced the hairs are standing on end. She shouldn’t be out here. She was told to stay. That snags her attention, trips her over her tongue, and she actually says out loud: “Yes, Rachel, she’s hella hot and hella into you and you won. Now: Be. A. Fucking. Professional. Go home.”

But her feet aren’t walking the walk, no matter how much her mind’s talking the talk. She’s pacing back and forth on the Asylum floor. She’s tired. She’s lightheaded. She’s fucked her boss. She’s fucked a woman she’s known less than a week. She’s on top of the world. She’s lower than she’s ever been. She’s shaking and she’s pacing and the club’s going to open up soon and -

The elevator clanks and whirrs into life, old machinery lowering the plush cage down. Rachel turns on her heel, practically runs to the gate, almost stumbling in her heels for the first time since she was eight and figuring out how to walk in them. She’s practically tugging at the sliding door as the solid one opens and Ms. Voerman steps out, pristine and precise and herself again, and the tide rises and Rachel doesn’t know if she wants to grab the woman’s lapels and kiss her face off or sob into her jacket or sink to her knees but whatever it is it’s for Therese, it’s all for her.

And then she speaks.

“Rachel. Good. You’re - I apologise about this, but it seems we’re on a war footing again tonight. This isn’t at all how I intended - ” Ms. Voerman cuts herself off, and Rachel notices there’s no sigh, no deep breath, no sign of what’s going through her head at all. Poised and perfect. “I wanted to break you in more gently than this, but circumstances are changing. Minute by minute. I have to prioritise. You understand?”

Rachel’s absolutely not going to say or do anything unprofessional, but fuck, she can’t not draw in and at least stifle a breath, let herself feel she’s going to sob and then cut it off. Where the hell did that come from? And now she’s angry at herself for feeling something so dumb and now that’s tamped down and she can answer: “Of course. What do you want me to do?”

“I need you to trust me. Something has happened to Isaac Abrams, and we need to close ranks, keep our distance, and remain safe. You’re safer not knowing. What you don’t know you can’t be made to tell - and you don’t have to lie about it, either.”

“I don’t - I mean, what do we have to lie about? We’re not involved - are we? Are you?”

“Rachel.” There’s steel in Therese’s voice now, cold and grey and unyielding. “I mean it. You are only safe as long as you do not know. I am not responsible for what happened to Isaac, but there are people in this city who will believe I was, and they are dangerous people when they’re on the warpath. I’m taking steps to ensure we are all protected - you, me, my sister - but you need to trust me. I need to count on your absolute, unquestioning loyalty and obedience. Do I have it?”

Rachel looks into her eyes - blue so faint it may as well not be there, spiralling deep down into the black at their heart.

There’s only one thing she can say.


 

The cab takes some getting used to - Chloe doesn’t usually drive anything that small, or in this kind of traffic - but it’s a long straight-ish run up the Boulevard to Hollywood, and she doesn’t have to try too hard. The hard part’s keeping her hands on the wheel and out of fists when the lights change; the hard part’s keeping her eyes on the road and off Damsel.

Her passenger - looks more realistic that way, apparently - is hunched over the phone, and most of what she’s saying is uh-huh, uh-huh, woven through with cusses and muttering. She’s keeping secrets? That fucking hurts. Or she’s keeping Chloe a secret. Like she’s ashamed. Fuck’s sake - and then a horn blares and Chloe snaps back to and puts her foot down, her nails ticking and tapping the wheel. Damsel’s right, of course she is; the headache’s gone but Chloe’s still feeling cranked, wound too tight - in that mood where everything that happens is shit waiting to start. It’s too hot in the cab, and Chloe takes her hands off the wheel to rub under her beanie. It’s not the cab. It’s her. The heat’s sinking down through her; she’s the kind of mad where she wants to shut out the world, get high and jill off, and the specific kind of mad where there’s a whole day of the usual between her and that. The skip-class-and-fuck-shit-up kind of mad. The kind of mad she’d hoped was buried in Arcadia Bay, back with Blackwell High and Mister-and-Missus-Madsen and everything else… ‘cause now she’s here, and she’s got Damsel, and she’s -

She’s got Rachel. That’s what she means. Obviously. This is means to an end. Like taking PCP so you can beat up a bar full of assholes and still be walking afterwards.

“Hey.” Damsel sticks her head up close to the grille. “Turn right here, then go along a couple blocks - keep going downhill.”

Chloe swallows. It’s just directions. She’s driving. It’s fine. It’s not like Damsel’s giving her orders. “Sure.”

It’s easier when they’re walking. Chloe takes her phone back, even cracks a weak joke like “six bucks and change” when Damsel gets out, and she can take strides and pretend there’s a breeze to feel in the still October air. At least it’s cooler than in there. She pulls off her beanie and sticks it in her belt, opposite the gun. Damsel leads her uphill, up a narrow alley to the back of the Boulevard, too narrow to fit the cab down. There’s a motel or something on one side - Chloe can hear splashing and someone’s shitty R’n’B turned up too loud for phone speakers - and on the other there’s a long dark building she can just about strain her ears and hear the bass coming out of. Neon lights out front, facing the street; dead bricks back here, all painted black. Damsel lets herself in the side door, and Chloe follows her, and -

“Whoa.”

She wasn’t expecting a strip club. And that is, most definitely, what it is. Two poles, very very occupado, and whoever runs this place likes their dancers leggy. Long leather seats lined up with the walls to either side of them - they’re in a kind of covered corridor that runs around the outside - and another row of love seats closer in. Everything’s rich red and orange, and the stage is done up like a volcano, all fake rocks and orange underlighting.

Chloe wafts her hand next to her cheek. It’s definitely getting hot in here.

“Told you you’d like it.”

“It’s cool. We’re cool.” Chloe shrugs out of her jacket too, drops it over the back of a love seat. It’s kinda tacky, but no way is she going to say so. “Not… exactly what I’d expected.”

Damsel smirks at her, but before she can say anything, her eyes snap-to across the room and Chloe’s follow them. Someone’s unfolding from the leather love seat that looks across to both doors. Someone who looks like the original to the dancers - like they’re cheap copies of her. She’s tall, she’s seriously stacked; she’s white as snow and her hair falls down her back in a red wave. She moves like a dancer too; every step under control, all long legs and shiny vinyl. She smiles at them, and Chloe realises she’s biting her lip just in time to smile back and not show it.

“Damsel. Darling.” Her voice is… exactly what Chloe was expecting. It’s a thousand hookers with a heart of gold, a thousand bad girls wanting to show you a good time. Just husky enough to turn you on and just warm enough to keep you safe and just sad enough to make you want to save her. “And I see you brought a date.”

“VV.” Damsel sounds… awkward. Hesitant. She turns her toe down and rubs her foot on the carpet, doesn’t meet the other woman’s eyes until the quip, and then she looks up sharply. “This is Chloe. She’s with me, OK?”

“Of course she is.” The dancer holds out a hand angled down, like she’s expecting Chloe to take it and kiss it. “I’m Velvet Velour. My friends call me VV.” Chloe shifts, tenses, her shoulders rising - those pale eyes steal the words out of her mouth, looking into her like there’s nothing she can say they haven’t read before. VV’s hand turns turtle, the backs of her nails on Chloe’s cheek like they belong there. “I do hope we’ll be friends.”

“Why are you like this?” Damsel rolls her eyes, shrugging theatrically, and the spell’s broken.

“What do you mean, D?” VV’s arm snakes away from Chloe, and her hand settles on her hip. “Is there something I should know?”

“Can we - god, I am really bad at this kind of shit, OK? I’ve got bad news and questions and I’m running on empty here…”

“Take your time.” VV leans in closer to Damsel. “Go see Kristal. She’s had a quiet night, and she could do with the money.”

“Wait, what?” Chloe snaps out of it, finally. “’S this what I think it is?”

“It’s not like that,” says Damsel, but VV cuts across her. “Let me, Damsel. You get crankier when you’re hungry anyway.”

It’s weird. VV doesn’t lay a hand on her, doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but Chloe finds herself stepping back and sitting down like she’s been pushed; VV lowers herself to sit beside her, half-turned so they’re eye to eye.

“I’m assuming I can trust you, since you know enough to be angry with me. It’s a little like that. But I treat my girls kindly, I keep them safe, I pay them well, and I don’t ask them to do anything I’ve never done. It’s a lot safer than the streets - and I do mean safer for everyone, day people or night people. I own the motel down the block - or rather, the man who does would do anything for me - and whatever trouble you’re in stops at my doors. You get a safe haven and a warm hand and a peaceful night, no harm done. Would you rather Damsel had to grab people off the kerb, or break in while they’re sleeping and… well. Think about it. There are so many worse ways to be what we are, do what we do…”

“I’m not… I get it.” Chloe gulps. “’S it wrong that I’m, I dunno, jealous?” The words are out of her before she can bite them back - there’s something about those eyes, those lips, that cool soft hand on the back of hers, that says she’s safe, she can trust VV with her life, and worse than that - with her secrets.

“It’s only natural. You’re her favourite, after all - I guess that’s why she chose you.”

“Wait, what?”

VV’s soft smile curls downwards, just for a moment, and she turns her head and sways back. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m out of line. I thought you were - never mind. You’re just so like her. Angry and afraid, and strong. I can see why she likes you…”

“I have a girlfriend. If that’s what you mean. She’s in trouble. Damsel’s just helping me… I don’t know. Find her. Save her.” The music shifts - something electronic, something with the scratches built in, something with a shivery beat that has the dancers coiling into newer poses. VV’s frown comes back to stay.

“And she brought you to me? I can guess what kind of trouble your lady friend is in. Tell me about her. If I can help, I will.”

“Her name’s Rachel. She’s, uh, she’s working for Therese Voerman…”

“Pretty girl. Hair like caramel. Blue feather earring and a Long Beach accent.”

“You’ve seen her?”

“Mm-hmm. She was here, with Therese, the night before last. I thought Therese brought her as a bargaining chip - that must sound so crass. I’m sorry. Therese was here to negotiate with someone very dear to me - he’s a movie producer, he likes to make a star now and then, and your Rachel was certainly quite the performer, so I thought - oh, my.”

The eyes are shuttered behind her lashes, and Chloe leans in closer. “Thought what? Look, I’m scared shitless here…”

“Ain’t we all?” Damsel’s voice snaps them both out of it; she’s leaning over the back of the seat and looking down, one arm craned around to Chloe’s shoulder, and Chloe leans into it with a sigh of relief. Something in her’s still tense - still drawn out like she hasn’t slept for days - but it’s pulling her toward Damsel now, away from VV’s eyes and her hands and her smile, as Damsel starts to talk again, lower than usual and too fast for comfort. “VV, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but you’re in trouble and so are we and so’s Chloe’s girlfriend. And I’m really, really fuckin’ sorry - I don’t know how to say it if you don’t know - I’m sorry about Isaac, OK?”

“Isaac?” VV’s head snaps up, her hair cascading around it. “What happened to Isaac?”

And that’s when the main door slams open, and Velvet turns in her chair, and Damsel grabs Chloe and pulls her off her feet, and things start going to shit and back again.


 

Nines is out of his goddamn depth, and it’s not even midnight yet.

He’d walked into Vesuvius fresh from the crisis - a first-thing-after-dark run up into the hills with Skelter and Sanchez and Dahlia, four of them just to go and make sure a dead body was really who they thought it was and nobody was hanging around ready to whack them for checking. Dahlia’s hands didn’t lie. Isaac Abrams had seen his last sunrise. Which opened up a whole bunch of cans full of big damn worms, because someone went after Isaac and not after Nines, and part of him takes that personally. Not just because he’s the guy who’s been rattling the Camarilla’s cage for eighty years, although yeah, maybe a little, but -

- the fact is he’d promised the old man. That was the nature of it. Nines was a footsoldier in his soul, and Isaac was a general. He wasn’t the one who was meant to go first. And someone had got past Nines and done it anyway - cut the LA Movement off in spite of all their efforts to keep the bedrock of their freedom safe, to keep the money moving and the secrets secure. And Nines hadn’t seen it coming. And he’d promised he would. Isaac may have been a piece of shit sometimes but he was their piece of shit and Nines had promised to take the bullets for him. And that was that.

He’d needed a moment. There were a whole bunch of rocks up on that high road that weren’t the shape they’d been at sunset, and Nines’ fingers were still scabbing over as their cramped four-by-four rolled downhill into Hollywood proper.

If they’d got to Isaac, VV could be next. And someone would have to step up to fill those shoes; someone who knew Hollywood, who could play the game, and that sure as hell wasn’t Nines or any of his crew.

So he’d walked past her token ‘security’ with a growl and past her stupid goddamn merch desk without a word and into the club. She’d been there. She’d been curled up on one of those big leather sofas talking to some skinny chick with bright blue hair and tears in her eyes, and of fucking course Damsel had been standing there because you tell Damsel to stay in a place and pay attention and she does the exact opposite. And that’s where they are.

“VV.”

She jumps - and she can really move, even in those vinyl pants and long latex gloves and whatever the hell that basque thing is meant to be - but she’s cool and charm and composure again by the time she’s crossing the floor, her hands fluttering to shush and settle the handful of customers who’ve jumped out of their skins.

“Nines. What’s happening? Damsel says something’s happened to Isaac, and - what happened to your hands?”

“Isaac’s dead.” He steps up and takes her hands in his, bloody knuckles be damned. “I’m sorry, God I'm sorry. I tried to warn him, and you...”

“No. No, that’s - he was…” VV shakes her beautiful head, hair waving to and fro. Between his palms, her hands are shaking, twitching, trying to close and open again. “He can’t be. How can you know?”

“Rico called it in this morning. I’ve just been to check it out. Found a burned out car up in the Hills, facing east. Don’t wanna draw you a picture.”

She won’t meet his eyes. She’s looking to and fro, eyes darting; if she needed to breathe she’d be hyperventilating. Damsel’s there beside her now, towing the girl with the blue hair in one hand, and another night Nines is gonna have to mop that up, but right now - there’s a big enough problem in front of him.

“He’s right,” says Damsel. “I caught the tail end on the news. Wasn’t much, but… we all know a Regency cover-up when we see one, right? All the tells were there, all the fuckin’ euphemisms.”

Damsel’s girl seems pissed - she tugs her hand back as Damsel lays one of hers on VV’s shoulder, and she snarls at the back of Damsel’s head: “What are you - I thought we were here for Rachel! Now you’re telling me the guy she’s just met’s been fucking murdered?” And that’s Skelter’s cue to muscle in: “Who the hell’s this, D, and how does she know who Abrams is? You dragged some ghoul into this?” And Nines is in the middle of holding VV’s hands close and telling her she’s not safe, she needs to come with them, they’ve got to come together and protect their own because she might be next, and she’s still shaking her head and she’s pulling away from him and then -

“That’s enough!”

It shouldn’t sound so good. It shouldn’t work. That warm, soft, husky bedroom voice shouldn’t be raised, let alone in anger. The honey shouldn’t burn as it slides down. But when VV steps up and shouts, everyone in the room freezes. Damsel’s girl drops to her knees. Skelter’s jaw snaps shut so hard he nearly takes his tongue off, and he snaps to attention like he’s back in Vietnam. Even Damsel shuts up for a minute. Nobody can take their eyes off Velvet Velour at the best of times, and this isn’t the best of times. Nines feels his jaw and his forearms and his legs locking as he tries to move, tries to impress, tries to push back, but she washes over him in a cold wave.

“I know what you’ll do to ‘protect’ me, Nines. You’ll fill my club with your people - armed and dangerous. You’ll bring war to my door and make me into a target.” Her voice drops sentence by sentence, word by word. She’s still magnetic. The silence pulls in around her, clings to her like satin. Her eyes are deep and sweet and hollow as she looks Nines in the face and her words wrap around him and he can almost ignore that what she’s saying is: “You couldn’t protect Isaac. You can’t protect me. Please… get out.”

“VV. Listen to me.”

Get out!

The words all but burst his eardrums. Her skin tightens and she stands up straight and for a second the Beast in her rises and pushes off that mask of a face. Sanchez yelps and scampers like a coyote, Skelter backs out like he’s seen a ghost, and Damsel recoils as if she’s been burned. Nines rocks back, the Blood rising in his throat, and he hawks it back down, clenching his fists tight.

You think shouting’s gonna save you, when whoever did for Isaac comes for you?

Chapter Text

Chloe had had plans. Sort of. By the time she’d come back down the Boulevard, alone and hurting way more than she’d expected, half wanting to turn back and grab Damsel and cry into her hair and never let go, she’d sifted it down to a few things. A few ideas. Coffee, if she could stop her hands from shaking. A long shower, to wash Damsel and VV and the club stink off herself. A voicemail for Tommy to say, fuck knows, death in the family, but she wouldn’t be at work and she still wanted to the job but she had some serious shit to work through.

And that’s what she had running through her head when she climbed the last of the stairs to the shitbox and jiggled the door to make it recognise that her key actually existed, and - thank fuck - it hadn’t even been locked.

Rachel was home.

Tired and spaced out, like she’d pulled three all nighters on the go, and still wearing her first-day-at-work suit she’d spent three hundred bucks on, and her case and gym bag were both open and her shit was all over the apartment.

“Oh my fucking - thank God, Rachel!”

Chloe was over the floor in seconds, kicking the chair down, locking her arms around Rachel’s neck and her lips onto Rachel’s and breathing her in and hanging on for grim death.

“Where were you? What happened? Where the - what are you doing?”

“Chlo. God. I don’t even know. I’ve got to - I’ve got to go. I’ve got to collect my stuff and go. Someone’s after Therese - after Ms. Voerman - I’ve gotta go. You should too. It’s not safe. She’s not safe. We’re not safe.” The words are spilling out of Rachel, piling up like that time Chloe broke a videotape apart because what the hell else was it good for, and it had just kept spooling out.

“Listen. Rachel. You’re right, someone is after her. She’s bad news. We’ve got to get out of here, maybe out of LA, I don’t know, just not here.”

“What? No. I’ve got to go back to her. She needs me. I’ve got to go back to her. She needs me.” Rachel throws a pair of sweatpants into the case, looking around wildly, lunges for her half of the floordrobe again, and Chloe actually grabs her and turns her around, holding onto her wrists.

“Stop saying that! Just listen. OK? Stop doing things, put your stuff down, and listen to me.”

Rachel’s face tics and twitches, her hands tremble, but she nods, finally. Her lips move, like she’s trying to say something - or to not say it.

“This is going to sound nuts. Totally fucking cray cray. You’ve gotta trust me too, OK? I wouldn’t make up something like this. Everything I’m gonna say has happened to me has happened to me, and you’re gonna hate me when I tell you, but you have to believe all of it, every word. Especially the first one.”

Rachel nods, swallows. “OK. I’m listening.”

“Vampires.”

“Oh, fuck, no. What are you - ”

“This from a girl who started a forest fire by screaming?” Chloe hangs on to Rachel’s wrists and she can feel the tension building in them, feel the rage mounting up. They haven’t talked about this in two years; they’d pretended it hadn’t happened. But the bombshell seemed to hit home. Rachel was loosening up again.

“Keep going,” she said, finally.

“Vampires. Exist. You’re working for one. I’ve met a bunch more. One of them - I met one the night you were with Ms. Voerman, and I don’t know if I was just drunk or pissed off or if she did something to me but we made out and I let her bite me and I woke up back here. And I met her again, in the Surfside, and… I’ve seen how fast she moves and how hard she hits and I’ve drunk some of her fuckin’ blood because she nearly broke my fuckin’ head open and - ”

“God, Chloe, if you want to admit you cheated on me just say so - ”

“Every word! I told you, every word of this is true, even the bits that make me sound like a cheatin’ fuckin’ douchecanoe. This is just the start. I’ve seen stuff. There’s a whole nightclub full of them in Hollywood. And here. The Voermans are vampires, Rache. Remember what Jeanette did to me the first night we were here? Vampire mind whammy. Think about what you’re doing right fucking now…”

“I’m listening to you going full Lost Boys on me! Get a grip - ”

“I’ve fuckin’ got one,” and Chloe holds up Rachel’s hands, “and I’m not letting go. Think about the last three nights. Think nights. How come you only get to meet your new boss after dark? Think about who introduced you: a chick who works in a blood bank! C’mon, Rachel, you’re supposed to be the smart one, you’re the straight-A student and the DA’s daughter, think!”

And Rachel’s thinking. Her arms are coming down slowly. “And there are no windows in her apartment. And… who tries to buy property at midnight? And… god, they were all so weird. I could tell there was something else there, something they were all talking around. And… there’s something… God, Chloe, I’m sorry. I, I…” Rachel’s shaking now, and Chloe lets go of her wrists and wraps her up in her arms again. “I slept with her. Ms. Voerman. I didn’t even remember for hours, and then I saw her again and it just… it all made sense, it slipped away again, like it was a dream, or a fantasy, or something. I mean - I knew that’s why she was taking me home, I realised in the car she was some kinda closet case, that’s why she’s so weird… and she owns a nightclub. Business hours. Of course she has her meetings at night…”

It’s all Chloe can do not to shake her - but she’s shaking enough for both of them as she grabs Rachel’s face in hers and turns her eyes up and scurries around to stay where Rachel’s looking.

“Look at me. Listen to me. You’re doing it now. She’s done something to your head and she’s making you forget, she’s making you want to forget what you did and why you did it say it’s all OK - ”

“And - Chloe, it’s Hollywood, this is how it works. And she’s so - God, she’s beautiful, and you should have seen her with those other losers, she didn’t crack once, she’s running rings around them, that’s why they’re framing her like this…”

“Rachel!” This time, Chloe does shake her, holding her at arms’ length. “You had it, fuck, you remembered, you understood, and you’re losing it again! Like when I called you, the night you didn’t come home. You remember that?”

“You… yeah. Yeah. We spoke on the phone. But I had to stay. There’s a whole business empire I have to get my head around. And she was waking up…”

“At! Fucking! Sunset! Because she is a vampire, and whoever’s after her is one too, and so’s her fucking sister and so’s Damsel - ”

“Who calls themselves Damsel?” Rachel laughs out loud. “You met some goth chick downtown, you got high, she told you she was a vampire… hell, maybe you got into the good shit again. I have got to try some. But… later. I promised she could trust me. Ms. Voerman needs me. I’ve got to go back to her. You can come with - she didn’t say you can’t - maybe you’ll be safer there - but she needs me. I’ve got to go back to her.”

Rachel bends down to pick up her gym bag, zips it shut, slings it over her shoulder. What does it take to make her see? God, what do I have to - and Chloe’s reaching out, grabbing her bag, half-formed words spilling out but what it sounds like is formless frustration, and Rachel turns around and her eyes are wide and her face is flushed and she screams, screams like it’s two years ago and her dad’s photo is burning in the garbage in front of her, only now it’s Chloe burning, staggering back, letting her go as screens crack and doors fly open and the four windows looking down on the back-ass of Santa Monica Boulevard shatter all at once and rain glass down on the sidewalk, and by the time Chloe’s head has cleared and she’s found her feet and she’s wiped the blood from her lips and nose she can see Rachel’s trail through the scattered shards of their lives and it’s all too late.


 

There’s a house in downtown Los Angeles, midway along Fifth Street, just down from the corner with South Hill. It’s framed on both sides by taller, newer buildings, seven storeys to their twelve and fifteen. They’re chrome and concrete; it’s old brick, painted a deep dark shade of green, standing back between the other buildings like it’s embarrassed by them, somehow. There’s one round window at the top and in that window the shaded light is always on, day or night, 24/7, looking down like a murky shrouded sun about to set.

This is the Regency.

And this is where, graceful and elegant and something like dressed - the skirt is split and the cut is low but it is definitely a dress and not an outfit - VV is stepping out of her hire car and gliding across the pavement like there’s a red carpet laid down just for her. You’d have to be really watching, and really know her well, to spot the slight unsteadiness in her step, the slight flutter in her eyeline, the nerves that, to the right kind of eyes, are radiating out of her.

With a buzz and a click and a clack of artificial nail she’s inside, and inside is a simple staircase leading up and corridor leading along and a little office, all trimmed in dark wood and papered in rich Victorian-Gothic frill and flourish. It’s a little oppressive; not gloomy - but dark and heady and close - and VV’s never quite liked being in here, but… where else is there to go?

She doesn’t make for the stairs. She’s only ever seen two floors, and one of those only the once. Try to climb those stairs when they don’t want to be climbed, and you find yourself turned around the landing and back down. The same’s true of the hallway that runs past the office. All the corridors look the same, and it’s easy to get lost if you don’t have directions, and after decades in the Regent’s confidence she’s still convinced the damn things move around.

The slight young man behind the desk gives her a nervous smile, under tousled hair and round glasses. He’s pale and pretty and another time she might have stopped to charm him properly, but this is a crisis, so she can only smile and say she’s here to see the Regent, and it’s important. She knows the way, but she needs to be told. It’s part of the magic, probably. Down the hall, turn right, then second left, and through the double doors. He stutters a little, and she smiles again and thanks him and says give her regards to his young man, and down the hall she goes. It beats dusty derelict theatres and corporate tower blocks, at least.

The Regent’s study is like the man himself; out of time. It’s a long room where the blinds are always lowered and there’s just enough light that you want a little more. It’s a long way to the top, but somehow you feel like it’s lower. Bookcases and armchairs are old dark leather; panels and desk and low table are mahogany; carpet is European and older than VV. There’s always a fire burning in the grate, and there are always two chairs facing it and one right beside. Because that’s part of the magic too. He can stand it. You, Kindred, might not.

And there he is. The man himself. If ever a man was born to be the kind of vampire he’s become - in VV’s humble opinion, Maximillian Strauss is that man. Tall, slender, stiff and out of time in his brocade and his corduroys, all tiepins and cufflinks perfectly in place, just so. The light gleams off the curve of his shaved head, off the heavy lines of his face, off the little round glasses set just so he can peer at you over the top of them, which he’s doing right now.

“VV.”

She takes a breath. Melts in the sound of his voice a little. And then her courage steps into her again and she says, out loud:

“Maximillian. Thank you for seeing me. May I assume you know why I’m here?”

“I believe you’re here for Isaac - or possibly yourself.” He crosses the rug, joins her in two swift steps. “I’m sorry about what happened. Isaac was a good man. I never saw him as an enemy.”

“I know.” VV wraps her hands together, and his close around hers. “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have come to you at all, but - here I am.”

He nods. Pauses, just long enough to say-without-saying that he’s listening, and then: “There’s a problem of jurisdiction, of course. If you want me to-”

“Of course I do, you silly ass.” VV shrinks a little into herself, lets herself relax. There. It’s out. She’s said it. “Nines is out for blood in any case. He wanted to see Isaac the night before - stormed into my club the night after and said he’d…” The quaver in her voice, the shiver and the shake - they’re for real. “Said he’d seen. Said he knew. Please, understand, I don’t want you to think - ”

“I don’t think Rodriguez killed Isaac Abrams.” The words should fall on her like lead, but there’s something in the way he says it - straight out, settled, already decided. “He’s a firebrand, but he’s loyal to his allies, and I’m not prepared to think less of him merely because he’s… inconvenient. Don’t worry. I am not my predecessor. I won’t be calling the hunt - or sending an assassin.”

“Good. I know…” VV can’t quite bring herself to laugh, and she has to close her eyes to crack the joke at all, but crack it she does: “I know you’ve got one on the payroll, after all. How is she?”

“On the job, as it happens. It was brave of you to come here, but if all you wanted was an investigation, I’m afraid it’s already begun.”

Part of her wonders who called it in. Therese Voerman, the arch-loyalist, the first to jump ship and cosy up to the Camarilla back in the Nineties? Maybe her sister, though - maybe Jeanette knows something, maybe that old sibling rivalry has flared up again. Maybe Gary? He and Isaac had been close - golfing buddies when they were alive, hotshot producer and up-and-coming star, before time and the Embrace divided them and they settled into a cool detente, kingpins of Hollywood above and below ground.

But the greater part of her is done with asking, done with politics, done with anger and death and men with Colt 45s and angry eyes demanding blood and money, and she looks up a little - he’s taller than her, which is rare - and shuts her eyes and shakes her head a little.

“I’m here for protection. I can’t stay out there, and I don’t have - I don’t have Isaac’s courage, or his conviction. I need to keep the girls safe, and the club, and…”

Maximillian nods, again, saying-without-saying. She is understood. She doesn’t have to say it. He knows. And she can move closer to him, feel his arms settle hesitantly, awkwardly around her, and she knows for the time being that she’s safe.


 

The Ocean House.

To a few dozen ears, the name’s enough to send a shiver down a spine.

Some people say it’s haunted. There was certainly trouble there - fire, murder, long dereliction, construction crews signing off after a week of accidents. It was open for a grand total of eight days, and closed for nearly half a century.

You’d have to be mad to buy out a lot like that. But then, plenty of people will tell you Therese is mad. Shows what they know.

The old Ocean House is long gone. Its ghosts have been laid to rest, full fathom five beneath the Pacific Ocean, and the new building is fresh and clean beneath its Gilded-Era facade, and there’s no trouble but what the guests bring with them.

Here on the balcony of the suite she never lets them book, looking down at Santa Monica in the middle distance, Therese feels proud of a job well done. Not that she can take all the credit, of course. What happened nine years ago in this hotel - and the Asylum - and on the streets of Santa Monica - is as far as she knows three people’s secret. All of them are dead, and all of them are in this room.

She drains her glass - room service are very discreet, especially for their employer’s private affairs - and turns to face her companion.

To a tactless and well-buried part of Therese’s soul, Jennifer Pale will always be that damn fledgling; a skinny girl with bad eyes and a bad haircut, still rubbing her neck and wondering what the hell just happened. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe the same girl turned LA upside down in a fortnight. But sometimes, you put your money on a rank outsider, and you end up - well, in the good books of your friendly neighbourhood assassin. Even if, for all the steel rims and tailored red-pleather jackets and the straps criss-crossing the silk shirt, she still has that stupid half-shaved mess on her head. But then, nobody can help how they’re Embraced.

“Thank you for coming.” Therese flashes the Regency’s enforcer a half-smile - she’s earned that much.

“Thank you. Answering Max’s email gets boring after a while, you know?” The accent always throws her. Therese did ask where the girl was from once, and apparently it’s some backwater town in Vermont where everyone talks like a private-school pirate.

“There’s a Chinese curse, isn’t there? ‘May you live -’”

“‘In interesting times.’ I’ve heard it. And don’t worry, I’m not saying I want another war. One was enough.” Jennifer tugs the long side of her hair, flips it back over her shoulder. “It’s just… weirdly familiar.”

“Try not to enjoy yourself too much. Peace isn’t the only thing on the line here. My reputation is at stake, after all.”

“Relax. Calling an investigation into yourself isn’t your kind of crazy. And last time I checked, you actually liked Isaac.” Jennifer’s tongue pokes between her lips, at the corner, and she looks out at the ocean for a second, then back to Therese. “But you’ve got to admit, it’s convenient. You’re expanding operations, you’ve petitioned for a childe, and then a guy who’s stonewalled your plans and is on the other side of the party line turns up dead.”

“Oh, come along, Jennifer. We’ve known each other long enough - ”

A placating hand, palm up and out. “Yeah. Long enough to know that if you want someone dead, Jeanette makes boo-boo eyes at the Bloods and one drive-by later…” Jennifer’s hand turns, makes a finger gun with two barrels, and lines it up with Therese’s throat. “Pew pew.”

“I don’t like what you’re insinuating.”

“I’m saying you don’t strap people into a car and leave them facing the sunrise and burn it out to be on the safe side. It’s too… theatrical. But I can’t take that back to Max.” Jennifer sighs, curling her fingers away and holding out her palms. “Tell me what’s up, Therese.”

“I met with Isaac the night before - and yes, it was about the club. I won’t say he wasn’t frustrating as ever, but he asked me to come back in a week, and bring Rachel’s portfolio - he was coming round to me.”

“Rachel? I thought she was your childe-to-be.” Jennifer’s voice climbs a tone and a half, and she gives Therese a sudden, toothy smile. “Is she here?”

“No. She’ll be joining me tomorrow night.” Therese sets her jaw, polite half smile over teeth that want to clench. The thought of the Regent’s hired gun eyeing Rachel up and down is not pleasing to her in the slightest.

“Shame. I’d like to meet her. Was she - you met with Isaac the night before he died. Was anyone else there?”

“Yes, Rachel was with me. Ms. Velour was with Isaac, and I hope you don’t expect me to call her Velvet.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Can’t stand the woman anyway. Anyone else?”

“Only the Giovanni contingent. The new girl - Mira or whatever her name is - and her assistant, who spent most of the night staring at mine.”

“Nadia.” Jennifer folds her hands behind her back, sets her shoulders, not a tease or a quip in sight, and Therese wonders if there’s something going on there. Is she the only Kindred in this town who can be professional about these things and keep her hands in her own affairs? And it’s that thought, about her own affairs, that turns her mind to Vandal and his voicemail and his parade of inane babble… he’d told her about Isaac, and he’d suggested, not his place, he didn’t know how he knew, but the name of Giovanni was the black mark at the bottom…

“You know, little Miss Giovanni was very hands-on with Isaac. I didn’t make anything of it at the time, but all manner of black magic goes on inside that house of theirs…”

“I know. I’ve been inside.” The deadly-serious stance, the narrowed eyes - all that spoils it is her awful hair, and that tell, the flicker of the tongue at the corner of the mouth. No poker face at all. But that’s the point of Jennifer. The Regency sends her when bluff and counter-bluff are over, and it’s time to put the cards on the table. “So. Casa Giovanni again. Hours of fun. And you decided to hole up out here, in case - what? In case they came for you?”

“Of course. Don’t be where your enemies expect you to be.”

“You know what, Therese? I believe you. If I wanted to hide from the Giovanni, I can’t think of anywhere better than a hotel that used to be haunted.” Jennifer smiles, bouncing her eyebrows. “It’s been a pleasure, as always. Give my love to Jeanette. I’ll see myself out,” and right then the door clicks shut behind her.


 

Bruno Giovanni’s house is exactly what you’d expect from a man like Bruno Giovanni. It has class, in a stark, garish, modernist kind of way - all white marble and black wood and big windows and nothing at all easy on the eyes. It’s a place you build to make a statement, rather than to be comfortable living in. But then, none of them are comfortable with one another. This fucking familia love each other. They’re each others’ only friends. But they’re not safe around each other. They’re their own worst enemies. And Nadia, standing behind Mira in the ugly white and red dress that Bruno likes her to wear, cut low in the front and barely there behind, rues the day they reached out to their cousin from the East Coast and asked her to stay forever.

Not that she can let it show on her face. She can’t let anything show. She’s a walking accessory here; Mira wants every asset she can get in her corner and she wants Bruno licking his teeth, thinking about putting the bite on Nadia. Because that’s how Mira is. She’d climb on the old man’s cock in a heartbeat if his cock worked or if she had a heart at all. That kind of attitude got Mira into the mess she’s in, and put Nadia in the mess she’s in, and…

… Nadia brings herself back into the room. Bruno’s study. Big desk, rounded window, so he can sit in here and feel presidential. One door everyone knows about, and one door she shouldn’t. Only the family intimates get to know about the door - and the one nosy cousin who was too smart for her own good.

Bruno is behind the desk, suited and booted in the same black as the desk itself and the leather under his ass, hands and face stark white, no effort made to look like anything other than what he is. The lines in his face sway like hawsers as he moves his jaw to and fro, chewing over his words before he chews his relatives out. And God, that accent. She’d laughed when she first met him. Are you a gangster, she’d asked, and he’d smiled and said I’m a businessman. Little had she known. Clichés become clichés because they’re true.

And tonight the gang’s all here. Riccardo, chewing on the cigars he never lights indoors because Bruno doesn’t care for the smell, like a bearded mirror-image of his brother, white suit and greying hair to Bruno’s jet-black. Luciana beside him in her wheelchair, all long gloves and scarves hiding the kink in her shoulders and the twists in her arms and legs; he rests a hand on the back and strokes her hair when he’s thinking, and sometimes Nadia envies them and sometimes she wonders if they’re for real. There are the twins - Riccardo’s ghouls, proxies and agents, and Nadia can’t tell them apart when Cici’s not wearing her glasses and Gigi’s at the wrong angle to see her beauty spot. Santino stands on the other side of them, with his back to the door like he’s going to bolt any second; he’s the most out of place here, his suit hanging a little loose and his tie absent without leave, looking like he fell off the back of a bus - and he probably did. Nadia didn’t even know he was in town. And then there’s Mira, the baby of the family, three years dead, little black dress and smug little smile. And there’s her.

“Do you know,” says Bruno at last, gesturing to the old-style cradle-and-cord phone on his desk, “do you know who spoke to me this evening? Who called me up and said our friend Mr. Abrams from the movie biz was dead, and asked me - me! - if I knew anything about it?” He pauses, for theatrical effect as much as anything, resting his elbows on his desk. “Everyone. Everyone from the LAPD to KABC to the Regency.” Bruno claps his hands together, once, and Nadia finds herself looking for dust. “And I had to say I knew nothing. I had to admit I knew nothing. And I don’t wanna sit here tomorrow and say I lied to the police and I lied to the news and I lied to the Camarilla. So I wanna know what you all know. I wanna know what I missed.”

“It’s out of my remit.” Riccardo sounds bored - he’s not even looking Bruno in the eye. “I deal in funerals and real estate. Who’s Abrams to me?”

“You deal in missing persons and stolen property.” Bruno turns his gimlet gaze on the old world couple, and Luciana’s head sways slowly round to meet it. “And Luciana. Bella Luciana. Your spettri told you nothing?”

“I didn’t ask.” Luciana’s voice is beautiful; rich, staccato Venetian that seems too strong for that body to bear. She doesn’t talk much; Riccardo usually takes the lead for both of them. “What’s Hollywood to us?”

“I wasn’t even here,” Santino mumbles. He’s always insecure without his sunglasses; his left eye’s a mess of milky white and old scars, something Riccardo did to him on the night he took the Kiss. “I didn’t hear anything about a hit, though. Whoever dialled this, they’re, uh, they’re in LA. And they’re not, y’know. This isn’t a Sabbat thing.”

“Of course it’s not. They’d hardly stop at one, would they?” Bruno waves his hand irritably. “Which leaves Mira. You know Abrams, don’t you? You were negotiating with him. Tell me you haven’t done something we’ll all regret.”

“I didn’t have him killed for shutting me down, if that’s what you mean, uncle.” Mira clasps her hands together. “All I did was… take the initiative. And a hair from the back of his hand. Just to test his resolve a little…”

“You opened his ears to the dead.” Bruno’s fingers lock together. “What was your plan? ‘Sell me the club and the nightmares will stop?’”

“I didn’t think it would be like this!” Mira bursts out. “It’s not like I set a spook on him or something! I didn’t even - ”

“You didn’t think. You didn’t think a man with a childe nine years dead, the last Baron of the Free State, might have more ghosts than he needed to hear?” Bruno’s palm slaps the table, suddenly - the old guy can move when he’s angry. “What possessed you, childe?”

“I wasn’t myself,” Mira says, and suddenly Nadia realises it’s true. She really wasn’t. She’d been tripping balls on Rachel Amber’s blood. Witch blood. She’d been out of it the night before. Exactly in the kind of mindset where this sort of thing seems like a plan.

My God, Nadia wonders, hands trembling as she makes the poker face of a lifetime. Did I do this?