Lover Avenged Chapter 3~4

Chapter THREE

You ready for your juice, Father?"

When there was no response, Ehlena, blooded daughter of Alyne, paused in the process of buttoning her uniform. "Father?"

From down the hall, she heard over the dulcet strings of Chopin a pair of slippers moving across bare floorboards and a soft waterfall of tumbling words, like a deck of cards being shuffled together.

This was good. He was up on his own.

Ehlena pulled her hair back, twisted it, and put a white scrunchie on to hold the knot in place. Halfway through her shift, she was going to have to redo the bun. Havers, the race's physician, required his nurses to be as pressed and starched and well-ordered as everything in his clinic.

Standards, he always said, were critical.

On the way out of her bedroom, she picked up a black shoulder bag she'd gotten from Target. Nineteen bucks. A steal. In it was the shortish skirt and the knockoff Polo sweater she was going to change into about two hours before dawn.

A date. She was actually going on a date.

The trip upstairs to the kitchen involved only one flight of stairs, and the first thing she did when she emerged from the basement was head over to the old-fashioned Frigidaire. Inside, there were eighteen small bottles of Ocean Spray CranRaspberry in three rows of six. She took one from the front, then carefully moved the others forward so that they were all lined up.

The pills were located behind the dusty stack of cookbooks. She took out one trifluoperazine and two loxapine and put them in a white mug. The stainless-steel spoon she used to crush them up was bent at a slight angle, and so were all the others.

She'd been crushing pills like this for close to two years now.

The CranRas hit the fine white powder and swirled it away, and to make sure the taste was adequately hidden, she put two ice cubes in the mug. The colder the better.

"Father, your juice is ready." She put the mug down on the small table, right on top of a circle of tape that delineated where it needed to be placed.

The six cupboards across the way were as orderly and relatively empty as the fridge, and out of one she grabbed a box of Wheaties, and from another she got a bowl. After pouring herself some flakes she grabbed the milk carton, and as soon as she was finished using it, she put the thing right back where it went: next to two more of its kind, the Hood labels facing out.

She glanced at her watch and switched into the Old Language. "Father? I must take my leave."

The sun had set, and that meant her shift, which started fifteen minutes after dark, was about to kick off.

She glanced at the window over the kitchen sink, although it wasn't as if she could measure how dark it was. The panes were covered with sheets of overlapping aluminum foil that were duct-taped to the molding.

Even if she and her father hadn't been vampires and unable to handle daylight, those Reynolds Wrap blinds would have had to be in place over each window in the house: They were lids on the rest of the world, sealing it out, containing it so that this crappy little rented house was protected and insulated...from threats only her father could sense.

When she was finished with the Breakfast of Champions, she washed and dried her bowl with paper towels, because sponges and dishcloths weren't allowed, and put it and the spoon she'd used back where they belonged.

"Father mine?"

She propped her hip against the chipped Formica counter and waited, trying not to look too closely at the faded wallpaper or the linoleum floor with its worn tracks.

The house was barely more than a dingy shed, but it was all she could afford. Between her father's doctor visits and his meds and his visiting nurse there just wasn't much left over from her salary, and she'd long ago used up what little was left of the family money, silver, antiques, and jewelry.

They were barely staying afloat.

And yet, as her father appeared in the cellar's doorway, she had to smile. His fine gray hair radiated out of his head, a halo of fluff making him look like Beethoven, and his overly observant, slightly frantic eyes also gave him the look of a mad genius. Still, he seemed better than he had in a long while. For one thing, he had his fraying satin robe and silk pajamas on right-everything facing forward, with the top and bottom matching and the sash done up. He was clean, too, freshly bathed and smelling like bay rum aftershave.

It was such a contradiction: He needed his environment spotless and precisely ordered, but his personal hygiene and what he wore were not an issue at all. Although perhaps it made sense. Caught up in his tangled thoughts, he got too distracted by his delusions to be self-aware.

The meds were helping, though, and it showed as he met her eye and actually saw her.

"Daughter mine," he said in the Old Language, "how fare thee this night?"

She responded as he preferred, in the mother tongue. "Well, my father. And you?"

He bowed with the grace of the aristocrat he was by blood and had been by station. "As always I am charmed by your greeting. Ah, yes, the doggen has put out my juice. How good of her."

Her father sat with a swish of his robes, and he picked up the ceramic mug as if it were fine English china. "Whither thou goest?"

"To work. I am going to work."

Her father frowned as he sipped. "You are well aware I do not approve of your industry outside of the home. A lady of your breeding should not be tendering her hours as such."

"I know, father mine. But it makes me happy."

His face softened. "Well, that is different. Alas, I do not understand the younger generation. Your mother managed the household and the servants and the gardens, and that was plenty to engage her nightly impulses."

Ehlena looked down, thinking that her mother would weep to see where they had ended up. "I know."

"You shall do as you will, though, and I shall love you e'ermore."

She smiled at the words she'd heard all of her life. And on that note..."Father?"

He lowered the mug. "Yes?"

"I shall be a bit late in getting home this evening."

"Indeed? Why for?"

"I am going to have coffee with a male-"

"What is that?"

The change in his tone brought her head up, and she looked around to see what-Oh, no...

"Nothing, Father, verily, it is nothing." She quickly went over to the spoon she'd used to crush the pills and picked it up, rushing for the sink like she had a burn that needed cold water stat.

Her father's voice quavered. "What...what was it doing? I-"

Ehlena quickly dried the spoon and slipped it in the drawer. "See? All gone. See?" She pointed to where it had been. "The counter is clean. There's nothing there."

"It was there...I saw it. Metal objects are not to be left...It's not safe to...Who left it...Who left it out...Who left the spoon-"

"The maid did."

"The maid! Again! She must be fired. I have told her-nothing metal is left out nothing metal is left out nothing metal is left out-they-are-watching-andtheywillpunishthosewhodisobeytheyarecloserthanweknowand-"

In the beginning, when her father's attacks had first occurred, Ehlena had reached out to him as he got agitated, thinking a pat on the shoulder or a comforting hand in his own would help. Now she knew better. The less sensory input into his brain, the faster the rolling hysteria slowed: On the advice of his nurse, Ehlena pointed out the reality to him once and then didn't move or speak.

It was hard, though, to watch him suffer and be unable to do anything to help. Especially when it was her fault.

Her father's head shook back and forth, the agitation frothing his hair up into a fright wig of crazy frizz, while in his wobbling grip, CranRas jumped out of the mug, splashing on his veined hand and the sleeve of the robe and the pitted Formica tabletop. From his trembling lips, the staccato beats of syllables increased, his internal record getting played at an ever-higher speed, the flush of madness riding up the column of his throat and flaring in his cheeks.

Ehlena prayed this wasn't going to be a bad one. The attacks, when they came, varied in intensity and duration, and the drugs helped shrink both metrics. But sometimes the illness bested the chemical management.

As her father's words became too crowded to comprehend and he dropped the mug on the floor, all Ehlena could do was wait and pray to the Scribe Virgin that this would pass soon. Forcing her feet to stay glued to the crappy linoleum, she closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her rib cage.

If she had just remembered to put the spoon away. If she had just-

When her father's chair scraped back and crashed to the floor, she knew she was going to be late for work. Again.

Humans really were cattle, Xhex thought as she looked over all the heads and shoulders packed in tight around ZeroSum's general-population bar.

It was like some farmer had just grained up a trough and the milking stock was jockeying for muzzle space.

Not that the bovine characteristics of Homo sapiens were a bad thing. The herd mentality was easier to manage from a security point of view, and in a way, like cows, one could feed off of them: That crush around those bottles was all about wallet purge, with the tide flowing only one way-into the coffers.

Liquor sales were good. But the drugs and sex had even higher profit margins.

Xhex walked by the bar's outer rim slowly, dousing the hot speculation of heterosexual men and homosexual women with hard looks. Man, she didn't get it. Never had. For a female who wore nothing but muscle shirts and leathers and had hair cut short as a infantryman's, she caught attention as much as the half-dressed prostitutes up in VIP area did.

Then again, rough sex was in fashion these days, and volunteers for autoerotic asphyxiation and ass-crack whippings and three ways with handcuffs were like the rats in Caldwell's sewer system: everywhere and out at night. Which resulted in over a third of the club's profits every month.

Thank you very much.

Unlike the working girls, however, she never took money for sex. Didn't really do the sex thing at all. Except for Butch O'Neal, that cop. Well, that cop and...

Xhex came up to the VIP section's velvet rope and took a glance inside the exclusive part of the club.

Shit. He was here.

Just what she needed tonight.

Her libido's favorite eye candy was sitting in the far back at the Brotherhood's table, his two buddies flanking him and thus buffering him from the three girls who were also crowded into the banquette. Damn, he was big in that booth, all decked out in an Affliction T-shirt and a black leather jacket that was built half biker, half flak.

There were weapons under it. Guns. Knives.

How things had changed. The first time he'd made an appearance, he'd been the size of a bar stool, packing barely enough muscle to bench-press a swizzle stick. But that was not the case anymore.

As she nodded to her bouncer and went up the three graduated steps, John Matthew lifted his stare from his Corona. Even through the dimness, his deep blue eyes glowed when he saw her, flashing like a set of sapphires.

Man, she could pick 'em. The son of a bitch was just out of his transition. The king was his whard. He lived with the Brotherhood. And he was a damned mute.

Christ. And she'd thought Murhder had been a bad idea? You'd have figured she'd learned her lesson over two decades ago with that Brother. But nooooooooooooo...

Thing was, as she looked at the kid, all she could picture was him spread out naked on a bed, thick cock in his hand, palm going up and down...until her name left his lips on a soundless groan and he came all over his tight six-pack.

The tragedy was that what she saw wasn't a fantasy. Those fist pneumatics actually happened. Often. And how did she know? Because, like an asshole, she'd read his mind and caught the Memorex, good-as-live version.

Sick to shit of herself, Xhex went deeper into the VIP section and stayed away from him, checking in with the floor manager of the working girls. Marie-Terese was a brunette with great legs and an expensive look. One of the big earners, she was a strict professional and therefore exactly the kind of HBIC you wanted: She never fell into catty crap, always showed up for her shifts on time, and never brought whatever was wrong in her personal life to work. She was a fine woman in a horrible job, making money hand over fist for a damn good reason.

"How we doing?" Xhex asked. "You need anything from me and my boys?"

Marie-Terese glanced around at the other working women, her high cheekbones catching the dim light, making her look not just sexually alluring, but downright beautiful. "We're good for now. Two in the back at the moment. It's been business as usual, except for the fact that our girl is not here."

Xhex snapped her brows down. "Chrissy again?"

Marie-Terese inclined her head of long, black, and lovely. "Something needs to be done about that gentleman caller of hers."

"Something was, but it didn't go far enough. And if he's a gentleman, I'm Est¨¦e fucking Lauder." Xhex fisted both hands. "That son of a bitch-"


Xhex looked over her shoulder. Past the mountain of bouncer who was trying to get her attention, she caught another full-on of John Matthew. Who was still staring at her.


Xhex refocused. "What."

"There's a cop here to see you."

She didn't move her eyes from her bouncer. "Marie-Terese, tell the girls to relax for ten."

"I'm on it."

The head bitch in charge moved fast while seeming to just saunter in her stillies, going to each of the girls and tapping them on the left shoulder, then knocking once on each of the private bathroom doors down the dark hall to the right.

As the place emptied of prostitutes, Xhex said, "Who and why."

"Homicide detective." The bouncer handed over a card. "Jos¨¦ de la Cruz, he said his name was."

Xhex took the thing and knew exactly why the guy was here. And Chrissy was not. "Park him in my office. I'll be there in two."

"Roger that."

Xhex brought her wristwatch up to her lips. "Trez? iAm? We've got heat in the house. Tell the bookies to chill and Rally to stop the scales."

When confirmation came through her earpiece, she did a quick double check that all the girls were off the floor; then she headed back to the open part of the club.

As she left the VIP section, she could feel John Matthew's eyes on her and tried not to think about what she had done two dawns ago when she got home...and what she was likely going to do when she was by herself at the end of tonight as well.

Fucking John Matthew. Ever since she'd barged into his brain and saw what he'd been doing to himself whenever he thought about her...she'd been doing likewise.

Fucking. John Matthew.

Like she needed this shit?

Now, as she went through the human herd, she was rough, not caring when she hard-elbowed a couple of dancers. She almost hoped one complained so she could toss them out on their ass.

Her office was up on the mezzanine floor in the back, as far away as you could get from where the sex-for-hire happened and from where the beat-downs and the deals rolled out in Rehvenge's private space. As head of security, she was the primary interface with the police, and there was no reason to bring the blue unis closer to the action than they had to be.

Scrubbing the minds of humans was a handy tool, but it had its complications.

Her door was open and she sized up the detective from behind. He wasn't too tall, but he had a thick build she approved of. His sports coat was Men's Wearhouse, his shoes were Florsheim. Watch peeking out of his cuff was Seiko.

As he turned to look at her, his dark brown eyes were Sherlock-smart. He might not be making a lot of paper, but he was no dummy.

"Detective," she said, shutting the door and going past him to take a seat behind her desk.

Her office was all but naked. No pictures. No plants. Not even a phone or a computer. The records in the three locked fireproof filing cabinets pertained only to the legitimate side of the business, and the wastepaper basket was a shredder.

Which meant Detective de la Cruz had learned absolutely nothing about anything during the 120 seconds he'd spent alone in the room.

De la Cruz took his badge out and flashed it. "I'm here about one of your employees."

Xhex pretended to lean across and look at the shield, but she didn't need the ID. Her symphath side told her all she had to know: The detective's emotions were the correct mix of suspicion, concern, resolve, and pissed off. He took his job seriously, and he was here on business.

"Which employee?" she asked.

"Chrissy Andrews."

Xhex eased sat back in her chair. "When was she killed?"

"How do you know she's dead?"

"Don't play games, Detective. Why else would someone from Homicide be asking about her?"

"Sorry, I'm in interrogation mode." He slipped his shield back into his inside breast pocket and sat in the hard-backed chair across from her. "Tenant below her apartment woke up to a bloodstain on his ceiling and the guy called the police. No one in the apartment building will admit to knowing Ms. Andrews, and she has no next of kin that we can locate. While we were going through her place, though, we found tax returns listing this club as her employer. Bottom line, we need someone to identify the body and-"

Xhex stood up, the word motherfucker banging around her skull. "I'll do it. Let me get my men organized so I can leave."

De la Cruz blinked, like he was surprised she was so quick. "You...ah, you want a ride down to the morgue?"

"St. Francis?"


"I know the way. I'll meet you there in twenty."

De la Cruz got to his feet slowly, his eyes sharp on her face, as if he were searching for signs of trepidation. "I guess it's a date."

"Don't worry, Detective. I'm not going to faint at the sight of a dead body."

He looked her up and down. "You know...somehow that doesn't concern me."

Chapter FOUR

As Rehvenge drove into the Caldwell city limits, he wished like hell he were going directly to ZeroSum. He knew better, though. He was in trouble.

Since leaving Montrag's Connecticut safe house, he'd pulled his Bentley over to the side of the road and shot himself up with dopamine twice. His miracle drug, however, was failing him again. If he'd had more of the shit in the car, he'd have fired up another syringe, but he was out.

The irony of a drug dealer having to go to his dealer at a dead run was not lost, and it was a damn shame there wasn't more of a demand for the neurotransmitter on the black market. As it stood now, Rehv's only supply was through legitimate means, but he was going to have to fix that. If he was smart enough to funnel X, coke, weed, meth, OxyC, and heroin through his two clubs, surely he could figure out how the hell to get his own vials of dopamine.

"Ah, come on, move your ass. It's just a goddamned exit ramp. You've seen one before."

He'd made good time on the highway, but now that he was in town, traffic slowed his progress, and not just because of congestion. With his lack of depth perception, judging bumper distances was tricky, so he had to go far more carefully than he liked.

And then there was this fidiot in his twelve-hundred-year-old beater and his overactive braking habits.

" all that is holy don't change lanes. You can't even see out your rearview mirror as it is-"

Rehv punched on the brakes because Mr. Timid was actually thinking he belonged over in the fast lane and seemed to think the way to get into it was to come to a dead stop.

Usually, Rehv loved to drive. He even preferred it to dematerializing because it was the only time when he was medicated that he felt like he was himself: fast, nimble, powerful. He drove a Bentley not just because it was chic and he could afford one, but for the six hundred horses under the hood. Being numb and relying on a cane for balance made him feel like an old, crippled male a lot of the time, and it was good to be...normal.

Of course, the no-feeling thing had its benes. For example, when he banged his forehead into the steering wheel in another couple minutes, he was just going to see stars. The headache? No prob.

The vampire race's stopgap clinic was about fifteen minutes past the bridge he was just getting on, and the facility was not sufficient for the needs of its patients, being little more than a safe house converted into a field hospital. Still, the Hail Mary solution was all the race had at the moment, a bench player brought in because the quarterback's leg was snapped in half.

Following the raids over the summer, Wrath was working with the race's physician to get a new permanent location, but like everything it was taking time. With so many places sacked by the Lessening Society, no one thought it was a good idea to use real estate currently owned by the race, because God only knew how many other locales had been leaked. The king was looking to buy another place, but it had to be secluded and...

Rehv thought of Montrag.

Had the war really come down to murdering Wrath?

The rhetorical, initiated by his mother's vampire side, rippled through his mind, but triggered no emotion whatsoever. Calculation carried his thoughts. Calculation unencumbered by morality. The conclusion he'd reached as he'd left Montrag's did not waver, his resolution only growing stronger.

"Thank you, dearest Virgin Scribe," he muttered as the beater slid out of his way and his exit presented itself like a gift, the reflective green sign a tag with his name on it.


Rehv looked around. The red wash had started to drain out of his vision, the other colors of the world reappearing through the two-dimensional haze, and he took a deep breath of relief. He didn't want to go juiced to the clinic.

As if on schedule, he started to feel cold, even though the Bentley was no doubt a balmy seventy degrees, and he reached forward and cranked the heat. The chills were another good, if inconvenient sign the medication was starting to work.

For as long as he had been alive, he'd had to keep secret what he was. Sin-eaters like him had two choices: They either passed as normals or they got sent upstate to the colony, deported from society like the toxic waste they were. That he was a half-breed didn't matter. If you had any symphath in you, you were considered one of them, and with good reason. The thing about symphaths was, they liked the evil in themselves too much to be trusted.

For fuck's sake, look at tonight. Look at what he was prepared to do. One conversation and he was pulling the trigger-not even because he had to, just because he wanted to. Needed to, was more like it. Power plays were oxygen for his bad side, both undeniable and sustaining. And the whys behind his choice were typically symphath: They served him and no one else, not even the king who was a friend of sorts.

This was why, if an everyday, average vampire knew of a sin-eater who was out and about in the gen pop, by law they had to report the individual for deportation or face criminal action: Regulating the whereabouts of sociopaths and keeping them away from the moral and the law-abiding was a healthy survival instinct for any society.

Twenty minutes later, Rehv pulled up to an iron gate that was downright industrial in its function over form. The thing was without any grace whatsoever, nothing but solid shafts bolted together and topped with a curly wig of barbed-wire coil. To the left there was an intercom, and as he put down his window to hit the call button, security cameras focused on the grille of his car and the front windshield and the driver's-side door.

So he was not surprised at the tense tone of the female voice that answered. "Sire...I was not aware that you had an appointment?"

"I don't."

Pause. "As a nonemergency walk-in, the wait time could be rather long. Perhaps you would like to schedule-"

He glared into the closest camera eye. "Let me in. Now. I have to see Havers. And this is an emergency."

He had to get back to the club and check in. The four hours he'd blown already this evening were a lifetime when it came to managing the likes of ZeroSum and the Iron Mask. Shit didn't just happen in places like those, it was SOP, and his fist was the one with Buck Stops Here tatted on the knuckles.

After a moment, those ugly-ass, rock-solid gates slid free, and he didn't waste time on the mile-long driveway.

As he came around the last turn, the farmhouse up ahead didn't warrant the kind of security it had, at least not if you took it at face value. The two-story clapboard was barely a colonial, and it was totally pared-down. No porches. No shutters. No chimneys. No plantings.

Compared to Havers's old crib and clinic setup it was the poor relation to a garden shed.

He parked opposite the detached bank of garages where the ambulances were kept and got out. The fact that the cold December night made him shiver was another good sign, and he reached into the Bentley's backseat to take out his cane and one of his many sable dusters. Along with numbness, the downside of his chemical mask was a drop in core temperature that turned his veins into air-conditioning coils. Living out his nights and days in a body he couldn't feel or warm was not a party, but it wasn't as if he had a choice.

Maybe if his mother and his sister hadn't been normals, he might have Darth Vadered himself and embraced the dark side, living out his days fucking with the minds of his comrades-in-harm. But he'd put himself in the position of being head of his household, and that kept him in this stretch of neither here nor there.

Rehv walked around the side of the colonial, pulling the sable in close to his throat. When he came up to a nothing-looking door, he rang the button that was tacked onto the aluminum siding and stared into an electronic eye. A moment later, an air lock popped with a hiss, and he pushed his way into a white room the size of a walk-in closet. After he stared into a camera's face, another seal popped free, a hidden panel shifted back, and he descended a set of stairs. Another check-in. Another door. And then he was in.

The reception area was every clinic's patient-and-family parking lot, with rows of chairs and magazines on little tables and a TV and some plants. It was smaller than the one at the old clinic, but it was clean and well-ordered. The two females sitting in it both stiffened as they saw him.

"Right this way, sire."

Rehv smiled at the nurse who came around the reception desk. For him, a "long wait" was always one in an exam room. The nurses didn't like him spooking the folks in those rows of chairs, and they didn't like him around themselves, either.

Worked for him. He wasn't the socializing kind.

The exam room he was led down to was located on the nonemergency side of the clinic, and it was one he'd been in before. He'd been in all of them before.

"The doctor is in surgery and the rest of the staff are with other patients, but I'll have a colleague come take your vitals as soon as I can." The nurse left him like somebody had just coded down the hall and she was the only one with paddles.

Rehv got up on the table, keeping his coat on and his cane in his palm. To pass the time, he closed his eyes and let the emotions in the place seep into him like a panoramic vista: The walls of the basement dissolved away and the emotional grids of each individual emerged from out of the darkness, a host of different vulnerabilities and anxieties and weaknesses exposed to his symphath side.

He held the remote to all of them, instinctually knowing what buttons to push on the female nurse next door who was worried that her hellren wasn't attracted to her anymore...but who had still had too much to eat at First Meal. And the male she was treating who had fallen down the stairs and cut his arm...because he'd been into the booze. And the pharmacist across the hall who up until recently had been lifting Xanax for his personal use...until he'd found the hidden cameras put in place to catch him.

Self-destruction in others was a symphath's favorite reality show to watch, and it was especially good when you were the producer. And even though his vision was now back to "normal" and his body was numb and cold, what he was at his core was just banked, not spent.

For the kind of shows he could put on, there was an endless source of inspiration and funding.


As Butch parked the Escalade in front of the clinic's garages, Wrath's mouth did some more pull-ups on the curse bar. In the headlights of the SUV, Vishous was spotlit like some frickin' calendar girl, all sprawled out on the hood of a very familiar Bentley.

Wrath unclipped his seat belt and opened his door.

"Surprise, surprise, my lord," V said as he straightened and knocked on the sedan's hood. "Musta been a short meeting downtown with our buddy Rehvenge, huh. Unless that guy's figured out how to be in two places at once. In which case, I need to know his secret, true?"

Mother. Fucker.

Wrath got out of the SUV and decided the best course was to ignore the Brother. Other options included trying to reason his way out of the lie, which would suck because of all V's failings, none were intellectual; or in the alternative, instigating a fistfight, which would be only a temporary diversion and would waste time when they both had to get their Humpty Dumptys put back together.

Going around, Wrath opened the rear door of the Escalade. "Heal your boy. I'll deal with the body."

As he lifted the civilian's lifeless weight up and turned, V's stare locked on a face that was beaten beyond recognition.

"Goddamn it," V breathed.

At that moment, Butch stumbled out from behind the wheel looking like a hot mess. As the smell of baby powder wafted over, his knees went loose and he barely caught the door for support in time.

Vishous flashed over and took the cop into his arms, holding him close. "Shit, man, how you doing?"

"Ready...for anything." Butch clung to his best friend. "Just need to be under the heat lamp for a bit."

"Heal him," Wrath said as he started for the clinic. "I'm going in."

As he walked off, the doors of the Escalade shut one after the other, and then there was a glow like clouds had broken free of the moon. He knew what the two were doing inside the SUV, because he'd seen the routine once or twice: They were wrapped around each other, the white light of V's hand suffusing them both, the evil that Butch had inhaled leaching out into V.

Thank God there was a way to cleanse that shit out of the cop. And being a healer was good for V, too.

Wrath came up to the first door of the clinic and just stared up into the security camera. He was buzzed in immediately, and the instant the air lock had resealed, the hidden panel to the stairs popped open. It took no time at all to get down into the clinic.

The king of the race with a dead male in his arms wasn't stopped for a nanosecond.

He paused at the landing as the last door lock was sprung. Looking into the camera, he said, "Get a gurney and a sheet first."

"We're coming right now, my lord," said a tinny voice.

No more than a second later, two nurses opened the door, one turning a sheet into a privacy curtain while the other rolled a gurney right up to the bottom of the stairs. With strong and gentle arms, Wrath laid out the civilian as carefully as if the male had been alive and had every bone in his body fractured; then the nurse who'd handled the gurney flapped another sheet out of its folded square. Wrath stopped her before she draped the body.

"I do that," he said, taking it from her.

She gave the thing over to him with a bow.

Speaking sacred words in the Old Language, Wrath turned the humble cotton sheath into a proper death shroud. After he was done praying for the male's soul and wishing it a free and easy carry unto the Fade, he and the nurses had a moment of silence before the body was draped.

"We don't have ID on him," Wrath said quietly as he smoothed out the edge of the sheet. "Do either of you recognize his clothes? The watch? Anything?"

Both nurses shook their heads, and one murmured, "We'll put him in the morgue and wait. It's all we can do. His family will come looking for him."

Wrath hung back and watched as the body was rolled away. For no particular reason, he noticed the wheel on the front right wiggled as it went along, like it was new on the job and worried about its performance...although this was not because he saw the thing clearly, but rather from the soft whistle of its miscalibration.

Out of whack. Not pulling its weight.

Wrath could so relate.

This fucking war with the Lessening Society had gone on too long, and even with all the power he had and all the resolve in his heart, his race wasn't winning: Holding steady against your enemy was just a case of losing by increments, because innocents kept dying.

He turned around toward the stairs and smelled the fear and awe of the two females sitting in the plastic chairs of the waiting area. With a mad shuffle, they got to their feet and bowed to him, the deference resounding in his gut like a kick in the balls. Here he was delivering the latest, but far from the last, casualty in the fight, and these two still paid him respect.

He bowed back to them, but couldn't marshal any words. The only vocabulary he had at the moment was full of George Carlin's best, and all of it was directed at himself.

The nurse who'd been on shield duty finished folding up the sheet she'd used. "My lord, perhaps you would have a moment to see Havers. He should be out of surgery in about fifteen minutes? It appears you are wounded."

"I have to get back to the-" He stopped himself before the word field slipped out. "I've got to get going. Please let me know about that male's family, okay? I want to meet with them."

She bowed at the waist and waited, because she wanted to kiss the massive black diamond that rested on the middle finger of his right hand.

Wrath squeezed his weak eyes shut and held out what she was seeking to pay homage to.

Her fingers were cool and light on his flesh, her breath and her lips the barest of brushes. And yet he felt flayed.

As she righted herself, she said with reverence, "Fare thee well this night, my lord."

"And you with your hours as well, loyal subject."

He wheeled around and jogged up the stairs, needing more oxygen than there was in the clinic. Just as he hit the final door, he ran into a nurse who was coming in as fast as he was busting out. The impact knocked her black shoulder bag off, and he barely caught her before she hit the ground along with it.

"Oh, fuck," he barked, dropping to his knees to get her stuff. "Sorry."

"My lord!" She bowed deeply to him and then obviously realized he was picking up her things. "You mustn't do that. Please, let me-"

"No, it's my fault."

He shoved what seemed to be a skirt and a sweater back into the bag and then nearly cracked her with a head butt as he shot to his feet.

He grabbed onto her arm once more. "Shit, sorry. Again-"

"I'm fine-honest."

Her bag changed hands in a messy scramble, going from someone who was in a rush to someone who was flustered.

"You got it?" he said, ready to start begging the Scribe Virgin to get outside.

"Ah, yes, but..." Her tone shifted from reverent to medical. "You're bleeding, my lord."

He ignored the comment and took his hand away from her experimentally. Relieved that she stood steady on her feet, he bade her good night and farewell in the Old Language.

"My lord, shouldn't you see-"

"Sorry I plowed into you," he called out over his shoulder.

He punched open the last door and sagged as the fresh air seeped into him. Deep breaths cleared his head, and he allowed himself to lean back against the aluminum siding of the clinic.

As the headache started up behind his eyes again, he popped his wraparounds up off his face and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Right. Next stop...the addy that had been listed on the lesser's fake ID.

He had a jar to collect.

Dropping the glasses back into place, he straightened and-

"Not so fast, my lord," V said, materializing smack in front of him. "We've got to talk, you and me."

Wrath bared his fangs. "Not in a conversating kind of mood, V."

"Tough. Shit."

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