It wasn’t being shot that was the problem. Or the fact that someone had apparently decided to beat the crap out of me beforehand. Or afterward. Or, considering the way I felt, possibly both.
I wasn’t sure, as I couldn’t seem to remember the fight that had left me bloody and bruised, with a bullet hole in my right thigh and another in my left shoulder. I couldn’t seem to remember much of anything else, either, including who the hell I was. But that still wasn’t the problem.
No, the problem was that I’d woken up next to a vampire.
One who was maddeningly hard to kill.
“If you would but listen to me for a moment,” he said, as I slammed his pretty red head against the concrete floor for the sixth freaking time.
“Okay,” I panted, wondering what the hell his skull was made of. Granite? “Let’s chat.”
Of course, that would be difficult since I’d just changed tactics, grabbing his throat and squeezing for all I was worth.
I wasn’t trying to choke him to death. That doesn’t work with creatures who don’t breathe, and the bastard’s neck was too muscular for me to close my hands around anyway. But most vamps have instincts left over from their human days, and they don’t like being grabbed there. It distracts them, messes up their concentration, makes them panic.
At least, I really hoped it did, since otherwise I was screwed.
He didn’t have fangs in me yet, but he didn’t need them, because Hollywood had gotten it wrong. Even plain old vamps could leech blood molecules through a simple touch. As a master, this one could probably do it without even that, just by being in my vicinity, assuming he could concentrate. Which, judging by the bulging eyes, was probably not the case.
But then he got a leg over mine and flipped us.
Okay, then, I thought grimly. It looked like the choking thing wasn’t providing enough of a distraction. Fortunately, he’d left me a hand free.
So I used it to break his nose.
“Damn it!” He actually looked surprised. “Stop fighting me!”
“Sure thing,” I grunted, struggling for a foothold. “I’ll just lie here and let you drain me.”
“I’m not draining you!”
“Then why do I feel like shit?”
He stared down at me, exasperation and what looked weirdly like concern shimmering in liquid blue eyes. “Because you took two bullets in the last hour?”
For a second, dizziness and an odd sense of familiarity combined to mess with my head. I stared up at the stranger, trying to place him. It should have been easy; he wasn’t exactly the sort of guy you forgot.
The hair was actually more auburn than red, and there was an absurd amount of it for a man, flowing over his shoulders and my hands. It should have made him look girlie, but somehow it didn’t. Maybe because it framed a strong, aristocratic face—high cheekbones, sensuous lips, hard jawline—that managed to be arresting even covered in blood from the broken nose. A nose that was already twitching back into place, like the smear of red was sinking back into the pale perfection of his skin, leaving him looking as if he’d never been injured at all and—
This is how they operate, I told myself harshly. They drained you until your brain didn’t work so well, then turned on the innocence or beauty or charm, confusing the hell out of you until you blacked out and they could finish the job. Only that so wasn’t happening this time.
Of course, that would be a lot easier to manage if I had a stake. Or a knife. Or anything remotely weapon-like, because hand-to-hand against this bastard was starting to look like a gesture in—
I paused, noticing the shackle dangling off my right wrist.
“I’m trying to help you,” he rasped, somehow getting a hand under the chain before it decapitated him.
“Sure you are.” I grunted, really putting my back into it. “Next you’ll be telling me you’re my boyfriend, come to get me out of this.”
He burst out laughing, since clearly he was off his head.
Or maybe that was me, because now I was hearing voices.
“Status.” The word rang in my ear as clearly as if someone were looking over my shoulder. My head whipped around, but the only occupants of the iron-barred cage I’d woken up in were me, the vamp and a desiccated rat.
“I have . . . ugh . . . located her.”
“Estimated extraction time?”
“That is . . . still being determined.”
“There is a problem?”
The vamp’s hand flailed out and grabbed one of the cage bars. I smashed my foot—the one in the steel-toed Cat—down on it. He cursed and let go. “Yes, well . . . a few.”
And suddenly things went from weird to super-ultra-weird as a picture flashed through my head as vivid as a movie. It was upside down and jiggling, but as best I could tell it showed some chick wearing a blood-splattered tank and a crazed expression. Her short dark hair was spiky with sweat, her face was livid with bruises and her weird golden eyes were slitted with effort as she—
Oh. I guessed that was me.
Wow, I look like shit, I thought, right before I noticed something else. I looped the slack of the chain around the bar behind me for leverage and—
Oh, yeah. That worked better.
“What the hell is she doing?” That was someone new, a crabby voice with an English accent.
“With respect, Lord Marlowe,” the vamp snapped, “what does it look like?”
“And she is trying to remove your head because . . . ?”
“She doesn’t recognize me. I believe drugs may have been involved. She—”
“Drugs have no effect on dhampirs.”
“I will be sure to tell her that, my lord. As soon as my vocal cords knit back together!”
“What about Laurence?” That was the first voice again.
“I found him at the dock. He is dead.”
“You are sure? He’s first level—”
“Quite sure.” The vamp’s mental voice was dry. I got another flash—this time of a vampire, or what was left of one, the pieces arranged almost artistically on a patch of bloody concrete—and then it was gone.
Someone cursed. Maybe one of them, maybe me. I couldn’t tell anymore. The longer they talked, the more my head ached. By now waves of pain were stabbing my brain with every word, like needles through the eye.
“Where are you?” the voice asked. “We were tracking you, but lost the signal—”
“Because they took her into one of their labs.”
And suddenly I was in freaky visual number three, running through what looked like a time-lapse film of a city at night. For a couple of seconds, my brain took me on a crazy ride over mangled fences, under trash-strewn bridges and through a maze of alleyways that zipped by so fast, all the graffiti streamed together into one long, obscene snarl. It ended in what looked like a warehouse out of some dystopian nightmare, except even postapocalyptic ruins don’t usually feature a bright orange hell-mouth swirling away in the middle of a wall.
“What is that?” the English guy demanded.
“The other problem,” the vamp rasped as the cage blinked into view again.
The transition left me dizzy and nauseous, and royally pissed off. Whatever kind of trick this was, it wasn’t going to work. I growled and got serious.
“That is why we have had difficulty finding their test sites,” voice number one said. “They’ve begun hiding them outside our world.”
“Yes,” the vamp strangled out. “It would appear that the Black Circle . . . is somewhat more inventive . . . than we had thought.”
“Are they folding space?” the English guy asked. “Or did you actually pass through to another—”
“Do you know, my lord, somehow I haven’t had time to look!”
“Don’t take that tone with me when we’re trying to—”
“We will have operatives at your location in ten minutes.” Voice number one cut in smoothly. “Attempt to contain the situation until then.”
“Under . . . stood.”
Great. The guy was like freaking Teflon; every time I thought I had a grip, he slithered out of it. He should have been dead a couple times over by now, but he didn’t even seem to be getting tired, while I was panting like a steam engine and sweating like a pig. And now he was about to have backup?
Of course, that might not matter, since I was going to be dead from an aneurysm soon if they didn’t shut the hell up.
“And Louis-Cesare—be careful.” That was voice number one again, sounding grim. “I can control her fits, but not until she reenters our world. And the fact that she does not recognize you is a bad sign—“
“Oh, do you really think so?”
“Listen to me! The two halves of her nature do not communicate. Therefore the fact that she does not know you may indicate that her vampire nature is perilously close to assuming control—”
“Yes, I have seen it before. I can handle—”
“You have not seen it before! You have seen it nearer the surface, perhaps, but still partly diluted by her human side, which tends to be—”
“—dominant mentally. But when she perceives herself in mortal danger, her vampire half—”
“Lord Mircea!” The vamp had somehow managed to croak that out loud, but it didn’t help. The needle was an ice pick now, jabbing merrily around the inside of my skull. I made a sound between a snarl and a mewl, and smashed the vamp’s head into the floor again.
It didn’t help, either.
“—can assume full control and it is physically far stronger. It is also ruthless, cunning and five hundred years old. You must not—”
“What I must, my lord, is be able to concentrate!”
“Listen to him, you arrogant fool!” The English guy broke in. “He’s trying to tell you that nobody knows what a dhampir that old can do because they’re always put down before then! But if you’re not careful, you’re going to find out the hard—”
“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” I screamed, unable to take it anymore. It was mental, because I didn’t have enough breath left for anything else. But it had an effect anyway. I got a flash of a couple dark-haired vamps sitting at a table; one winced as if in pain, while the other let out a curse and stumbled backward, knocking his chair over.
But the biggest reaction came from the vamp beside me. He went suddenly, rigidly still. I didn’t know if he was dead or just as freaked-out as I was, and right then I didn’t care. I just wanted out of there.
Fortunately, the door of the cage we were in was hanging half off its hinges, the bars twisted in ways iron wasn’t supposed to bend. I looped the chain around the vamp’s neck another time, and through the sturdiest bar I could find. Then I pulled it tight, smashed it shut and ran like hell.
I couldn’t see much; the windowless room was dim and there was a bunch of junk in the way—cargo crates, broken pieces of metal and machinery, and tarp-covered cages piled high and stacked like a maze. The only light came from a naked bulb swinging from a wire overhead, throwing leaping shadows against the walls. It would have been an accident waiting to happen even if I hadn’t been staggering about like an old drunk.
As it was, it took about five seconds to stab myself in the side with something, and to bark my shin on something else. Not that it mattered; even breathing sent burning signals shooting along my nerves, lighting up a constellation of oh-shit points. I grabbed the side of a cage, pulse pounding fiercely, nausea roiling in my gut, and wondered if the light was really fading in and out or if that was me.
And then I saw it.
As a door, it left something to be desired. Like everything, since it was just a dark rectangle set into a wall of peeling paint and rot. It would have looked perfect on one of those old B-movie sets, the kind with the dippy blonde edging slowly toward certain doom.
Only it looked like I was a brunette. And I’d already met the monster. And right now, I’d take it.
Or, you know, maybe not.
I pulled up abruptly after a couple seconds, but not because the vamp had caught me. That’s just how long it took to round the side of the cage. And to find myself in the devil’s own operating room.
The low light glinted off a rusty metal table sitting all alone in a cleared space near the door. It looked oddly like the trash heaps were trying to get away from it. I didn’t blame them.
It had a high lip, presumably to catch slippery organs, and leather restraints heavy enough to have held Frankenstein. He wasn’t on it at the moment, but there were weird stains on the restraints and around the drain underneath, and it reeked like a skunk dipped in sulfur. And if that wasn’t enough to make the point, there were saws and clamps and assorted nasty things piled on one end. There were also more cages heaped around, many with clawlike gouges in the bars.
Oh, yeah. There were also some creatures.
It looked like whatever had been in the cages hadn’t been too successful at getting out. Because jars of their not-so-spare body parts lined the room in shelf after shelf of formaldehyded nightmares. Most were just dark squiggles against the glass, or pale globules of what-the-hell preserved by somebody who probably slept with the lights on. But a few . . .
A few were staring back.
Ooookay, I thought, gawking at something that looked like an eye on a stalk. Dead things in jars were clearly a level seven on the creep-o-meter. But the operative word here was dead, and I didn’t think that something bobbing about in formaldehyde was exactly a huge—
The eye abruptly spun and looked at me.
And then the milky iris turned black as the pupil blew wide.
And then I don’t know what happened, because I and my suddenly full bladder were limping like mad for the door.
“Dory!” Somebody shouted a name behind me, but it didn’t mean anything. Not when my brain was busy doing a montage of scenes from the kind of movies they show at two a.m. And apparently, whoever I was, I liked old monster flicks way more than was healthy, because it had a lot of fodder.
“Damn it! Listen to me!” The voice came at the same moment that a hand latched onto my ankle. I was moving too fast to stop, not that I would have anyway—there are worse things than hitting the floor chin first. But it still hurt like a bitch, and my bitten tongue flooded my mouth with copper.
That was oddly appropriate, since a red haze had descended over my eyes, like maybe I’d cut my forehead, too. But it didn’t seem to interfere with my vision when I flipped over, jerked my foot back and then plowed it into the vamp’s pretty face. And broke his nose.
He cursed and I cackled, because it was funny. And because I was a little tense. Which wasn’t helped when I noticed the long white hand that was still wrapped around my ankle.
The bastard gave a jerk, sliding me underneath him in a move so fast I barely realized what had happened. Until I looked up into the bloody face of death, swift and sure, glaring down at me. For a second, before I did the only thing I could.
And kneed death in the nuts.
Death, it turned out, knew a lot of French curse words. I was treated to most of them as we rolled around the floor, me trying to throw him off, him intent on draining me. And it looked like he was winning. At least, I assumed that was why the room kept trying to gray out at the edges, and why my attacks were batted aside like the antics of an overly energetic puppy.
Until I made a sudden lunge to the side, snatched a fire extinguisher off a trash pile, and smashed it into his stubborn head. Which would have been great, except that it gave Red a chance to get a foot on the floor. He did something balletic that was too fast for my eyes to track, but it ended with me flipping over his head and then him flipping over mine, only to land five or six yards away.
On his feet, facing me.
“Who the hell are you?” I demanded. “Spider-Man?”
“No.” He swiped a hand across his bloody face. “Your boyfriend, come to get you out of this!”
“In your dreams!”
“Frequently,” he growled—from all of an inch away.
Shit. I hadn’t even seen him move. And then he fisted a hand in the front of my tank, jerked me up to his face and—
As crazy as it sounds, that’s what the lunatic was doing. In the middle of a mad scientist’s lab, watched by all the creepy things in their little jars. And it looked like crazy was catching, because for a second there I was kissing him back, sucking on a bloody lower lip that tasted like heaven, tasted like candy, tasted like the best thing ever. Until I came to my senses and abruptly wrenched away, freaked-out and furious and turned on and—
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You are. Tu me rends fou!”
“Fou, fou!” He made some weird gestures in the air. “You make me the crazy!”
I stared at him. “Buddy, I got news for you. I don’t think you need any help.”
The vampire looked offended, but he didn’t get a chance to respond. Not with the place taking that moment to start coming apart. The ground rumbled under our feet, a bunch of little jars shook their way off the shelves and a big red light started revolving by the door.
Because, yeah. What this place had really needed was a bloody strobe.
But that wasn’t half as bad as the ear-piercing alarm that split the air a second later. Or the fact that a nearby tarp-covered cage started shaking violently. Something in there really wanted out, and I really wanted to be gone before it managed it.
But it didn’t look like the door was an option, since it was currently being used by a bunch of G.I. Joe look-alikes. Or they would have been, if Joe dressed in black body armor and slung bandoliers of potions over the parts of him that weren’t already occupied by guns. War mages, I realized half a second before all hell broke loose.