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Excerpt

Excerpt

Bite Club: The Morganville Vampires, Book 10

INTRODUCTION

WELCOME TO MORGANVILLE. YOU'LL NEVER WANT TO LEAVE.

So, you're new to Morganville. Welcome, new resident! There are only a few important rules you need to know to feel comfortable in our quiet little town:

Yeah, we said vampires. Deal with it.

As a human newcomer, you'll need to find yourself a vampire Protector—someone willing to sign a contract to keep you and yours from harm (especially from the other vampires). In return, you'll pay taxes . . . just like in any other town. Of course, in most other towns, those taxes don't get collected by the Bloodmobile.

Oh, and if you decide not to get a Protector, you can do that, too . . . but you'd better learn how to run fast, stay out of the shad­ows, and build a network of friends who can help you. Try con­tacting the residents of the Glass House—Michael, Eve, Shane, and Claire. They know their way around, even if they always end up in the middle of the trouble somehow.

Welcome to Morganville. You'll never want to leave.

And even if you do . . . well, you can't.

Sorry about that.

* * *

ONE

Looking back on it later, Claire thought she should have known trouble was coming. But in Morganville, anything could be trouble. Your college professor doesn't show for class? Probably got fanged by vampires. Takeout forgets to put onions on your hamburger? The regular onion-delivery guy disappeared—again, probably due to vampires. And so on. For a college town, Morganville had a remarkable lot of vampires.

Claire was an authority on those subjects: Texas Prairie Uni­versity and, of course, the vampires. And mysterious disappear­ances. She'd almost been one of those, more often than she wanted to admit.

But this problem wasn't a disappearance at all. It was an appearance—of something new, something different, and some­thing cool, at least in her boyfriend, Shane's, opinion, because as Claire was sorting through the mail for their weird little frater­nity of four into the "junk" and "keep" piles, Shane grabbed the flyer she'd put in "junk" and read it with the most elated expression she'd ever seen on his face. Scary. Shane didn't get ex­cited about much; he was guarded about his feelings, mostly, ex­cept with her.

Now he looked as delighted as a little kid at Christmas.

"Mike!" he bellowed, and Claire winced and put her hands over her ears. When Shane yelled, he belted it out. "Yo, Dead Man, get your ass down here!"

Michael, their third housemate at the Glass House, must have assumed there was an emergency under way—not an unreasonable assumption, because, hey, Morganville. So he arrived at a run, pushing the door back and looking paler than usual, and more dangerous than usual, too. When he acted like a regular guy, he seemed quiet and sweet, maybe a little too practical sometimes, but vampire Michael was a whole different, spicy deal.

Yeah, she was living in a house with a vampire. And, strangely, that was not the weirdest part of her life. Michael blinked the tinges of red away from his blue eyes, ran both hands through his wavy blond hair, and frowned at Shane. "What the hell is your problem?" He didn't wait to hear, though; he walked over to the counter and got down one of their mismatched, battered coffee mugs. This one was black with pur­ple Gothic lettering that read poison. The cup belonged to their fourth housemate, Eve, but she still hadn't made an appearance this morning.

When you sleep later than a vampire, Claire thought, that's probably taking it a little too far.

As he filled the mug with coffee, Michael waited for Shane to make some sense. Which Shane finally did, holding up the cheaply printed white flyer. It curled at the edges from having been rolled up to fit in the mailbox. "What have I always wanted in this town?" he asked.

"A strip club that would let in fifteen-year-olds?" Michael said.

"When I was fifteen. No, seriously. What?"

"Guns 'R' Us?"

Shane made a harsh buzzer sound. "Okay, to be fair, yeah, that's a good alternate answer. But no. I always wanted a place to seriously train to fight, right? Someplace that didn't think aerobics was a martial art. And look!"

Claire took the paper from Shane's hand and smoothed it out on the table. She'd only glanced at it when sorting mail; she'd thought it was some kind of gym. Which it was, in a way, but it wasn't teaching spin and yoga and all that stuff.

This one was a gym and martial arts studio, and it was teaching self-defense. Or at least that was what Claire took from the graphic of some guy in a white jacket and pants kicking the crap out of the air, and the words defend yourself in big, bold letters at the bottom.

Slurping coffee, Michael leaned over her shoulder. "Huh," he said. "Weird."

"Nothing weird about people wanting to learn a few life-preserving skills, man. Especially around here. Not like we're all looking forward to our peaceful old age," Shane said.

"I mean, it's weird who's teaching," Michael said. "Being that this guy"—he tapped the name at the bottom of the page—"is a vampire."

Vassily was the name, which Claire made out only when she squinted at it. Small type. "A vampire's teaching self-defense," she said. "To us. Humans."

Shane was thrown for just about a minute, and then he said, "Well, who better? Amelie put out a decree that humans were free to learn this stuff, right? Sooner or later, some vamp was bound to make some cash off it."

"You mean off us," Claire said. But she could see his point. A vampire martial arts instructor? That would have to be all kinds of scary or awesome, or both. She wouldn't have gone for it, personally; she doubted she had half as much muscle or body mass as it was going to require. But Shane . . . Well, it would be natural for Shane. He was competitive, and he didn't mind taking some punishment as long as he enjoyed the fight. He'd been complaining about the lack of a real gym for a while now.

Claire handed the flyer back to him, and Shane carefully folded it up and put it in his pocket. "Watch yourself," she said. "Get out of there if anything's weird." Although in Morganville, Texas, home of everything weird, that wasn't an entirely reason­able request. After all, there was a vampire teaching self-defense. That in itself was the strangest thing she'd heard of in a while.

"Yes, Mom," Shane said, but he whispered it, intimately, close to her ear, and then kissed that spot on her neck that always made her blush and shiver. "Eat your breakfast."

She turned and kissed him full on, just a sweet, swift brush of lips, because he was already moving . . . and then he did a double take and came back to kiss her again, slower, hotter, better.

Michael, sliding into a seat at the kitchen table with his coffee cup, flipped open the thin four-page Morganville newspaper and said, "One of you is supposed to be somewhere right about now. I'm just saying that, not in a dad kind of way."

He was right, and Claire broke off the kiss with a frustrated growl low in her throat. Shane grinned. "You're so cute when you do that," he said. "You sound like a really fierce kitten."

"Bite me, Collins."

"Whoops, wrong housemate. I think you meant that for the one who drinks plasma."

Michael gave him a one-fingered salute without looking up from his study of the latest Morganville high school sports disaster. Claire doubted he was actually interested in it, but Michael had to have reading material around; she didn't think he slept much these days, and reading was how he passed the time. And he probably got something out of it, even if it was just knowledge of local football to impress his girlfriend, Eve, with.

Claire grabbed her breakfast—a Pop-Tart just ringing up out of the toaster—and wrapped it in a napkin so she could take it with her. Book bag acquired, she blew Shane and Michael an air kiss as she hit the back door, heading out into a cold Morganville fall.

Fall in other parts of the world was a beautiful season filled with leaves in brown, orange, yellow. . . . Here, the leaves had been brown for a day and then dropped off the trees to rattle around the streets and yards like bones. Another depressing season to add to all the others that were depressing in this town. But at least it was cooler than the blazing summer; that was something. Claire had actually dug out a long-sleeve tee and layered another shirt over it because the wind gusts carried the sharp whip of approach­ing winter. Pretty soon she'd need a coat and gloves and a hat, and maybe boots if the snow fell hard enough.

Morganville in summer was dull green at best, but all the grass had burned dry, and most of the bushes had lost their leaves. Now they were black skeletons shivering in the cold. Not a pretty place, not at all, although a few house-proud people had tried some landscaping, and Mrs. Hennessey on the corner had put out weird concrete animals. This year, she had a fake gray deer sipping from an empty stone fountain, and a couple of concrete squirrels that looked more menacing than cute.

Claire checked her watch, took a bite of her Pop-Tart, and almost choked as she realized how little time she had. She broke into a jog, which was tough considering the weight of the bag on her shoulder, and then kicked it to a full run as she passed the big iron gates of Texas Prairie University. Fall semester was a busy time; lots of new, stupid freshmen wandering around confusedly with maps, or still unpacking the boxes from their cars. She had two or three near collisions, but reached the steps of the Science Building without much incident, and with two whole minutes to spare. Good—she needed them to get her breath back.

As she munched the rest of her breakfast, wishing she had a bottle of water, others she knew by sight filtered past her: Bruce from Computational Physics, who was almost as out of place here as she felt; Ilaara from one of the math classes she was in, but Claire couldn't sort out which one. She didn't make close friends at TPU, which was a shame, but it wasn't that sort of school—especially if you were in the know about the inner workings of Morganville. Most of the just-passing-through students spent the year or two they were here with the usual on-campus partying; except for specific college-friendly stores that were located within a couple of blocks, most students never bothered to leave the gates of the university. And that was probably for the best.

It was dangerous out there, after all.

Claire found her classroom—a small one; nothing at her level of study had big groups—and took her usual seat in the middle of the room, next to a smelly grad student named Doug, who apparently hated personal hygiene. She thought about moving, but the fact was there weren't many other places, and Doug's aura was tangible at ten feet away, anyway. Better to get an intense dose close-up so your nose could adjust quickly.

Doug smiled at her. He seemed to like her, which was scary, but at least he wasn't a big chatterbox or one of those guys who came on with the cheesy innuendos—at least, not usually. She'd certainly sat next to worse. Well, maybe not in terms of body odor. "Hey," he said, bending closer. Claire resisted the urge to bend the other way. "I hear he's springing a new lab experiment on us today. Something mind-blowing."

Given that she worked for the smartest guy in Morganville, maybe the entire world, and given that he was at least a few hundred years old and drank blood, Claire suspected her scale of mind-blowing might be a little bigger than Doug's. It wasn't unusual to go to Myrnin's secret lair/underground lab (yes, he actually had one) and find he'd invented edible hats or an iPod that ran on sweat. And considering that her boss built blood-drinking computers that controlled dimensional portals, Claire didn't anticipate any problems understanding a mere university professor's assignments. Half of what Myrnin gave her to read wasn't even in a living language. It was amazing what she'd learned—whether she wanted to or not.

"Good luck," she said to Stinky Doug, trying not to breathe too deeply. She glanced over at him, and was startled to see that he was sporting two spectacular black eyes—healing up, she realized after the first shock, but he'd gotten smacked pretty badly. "Wow. Nice bruises. What happened?"

Doug shrugged. "Got in a fight. No big deal."

Someone, Claire thought, disliked his body odor a whole lot more than usual. "Did you win?"

He smiled, but it was a private, almost cynical kind of smile—a joke she couldn't share. "Oh, I will," he said. "Big-time."

The door banged open at the far end of the room, and the prof stalked in. He was a short, round man with mean, close-set eyes, and he liked Hawaiian shirts in obnoxiously loud colors—in fact, she was relatively sure that he and Myrnin shopped at the same store. The Obnoxious Store.

"Settle down!" he said, even though they weren't exactly the rowdiest class at TPU. In fact, they were perfectly quiet. But Pro­fessor Larkin always said that; Claire suspected he was actually deaf, so he just said it to be on the safe side. "Right. I hope you've all done your reading, because today you get to do some applications of principles you should already know. Everybody stand up, shake it off, and follow me. Bring your stuff."

Claire hadn't bothered to unpack anything yet, so she just swung her backpack onto her shoulder and headed out in Profes­sor Larkin's wake, happy to be temporarily out of the Doug fug. Not that Larkin was any treat, either—he smelled like old sweat and bacon—but at least he'd bathed recently.

She glanced down at the professor's wrist. On it was a braided leather band with a metal plate incised with a symbol—not the Founder symbol Claire wore as a pin on the collar of her jacket, but another vampire's symbol. Oliver's, apparently. That was a little unusual; Oliver didn't personally oversee a lot of humans. He was above all that. He was the don in the local Morganville Mafia.

Larkin saw her looking and sent her a stern frown. "Some­thing to say, Miss Danvers?"

"Nice bracelet," she said. "I've seen only one other like it." The one she'd seen had been around the wrist of her own personal nemesis, Monica Morrell, crown princess (she wished!) of Morganville. Once the daughter of the mayor, now the sister of the new mayor, she thought she could do whatever she wanted . . . and with Oliver's Protection, she probably could, even if her brother, Rich­ard, wasn't quite as indulgent as Daddy had been.

Larkin just . . . didn't seem the type Oliver would bother with, unless he wasn't what he seemed.

Larkin clasped his hands behind his back as they walked down the wide, almost empty hallway, the rest of the class trailing behind. "I ought to give you a pass from today's experiment," he said. "Confidentially, I'm pretty sure it's child's play for you, given your . . . part-time occupation."

He knew about Myrnin, or at least he'd been told something. There weren't many people who actually knew Myrnin, and fewer still who'd been to the lab and had any understanding of what went on in there. She'd never seen Larkin there or heard his name mentioned by anybody with clout.

So she was careful with her reply.

"I don't mind. I like experiments," she said. "Providing they're not the kind that try to eat me or blow me up." Both of which, un­fortunately, she'd come across in her job at the lab.

"Oh, nothing that dramatic," Larkin said. "But I think you might enjoy it."

That scared her a bit.

As she arrived at the lab room, though, there didn't seem to be anything worth breaking a sweat over. Some full-spectrum incandescent  lights like you'd use to keep reptiles warm; on each table, some small, ranked vials of what looked like . . .

Blood.

Oh, crap. That was never a good sign in Morganville (or, Claire thought, anywhere else, either). She came to a sudden stop and sent Larkin a wide-eyed look. The rest of the class was piling in behind her, talking in low tones; she knew Doug had arrived be­cause of the blanket of body smog that settled in around her. Of course, Doug took the lab stool beside her. Dammit. That blew, as Shane would have said; Claire covered her discomfort by sending him a small, not very enthusiastic smile as she dropped her back­pack to the ground, careful of the laptop inside. She hated sitting on lab stools; they only emphasized how short she was. She felt like she was back in second grade again, unable to touch the floor from her chair.

Larkin assumed his position in the center of the lab tables and grabbed a small stack of paper from his black bag. He passed out the instructions, and Claire read them, frowning. They were simple enough—place a sample of the "fluid" on a slide, turn on the full-spectrum lighting, observe, and record results. Once a reaction was observed, mix the identified reactive blood with control blood until a nonreaction was achieved. Then work out the equations explaining the initial reaction and the nonreaction, to chart the energy release.

No doubt at all what this is about, Claire thought. The vamps were using students to do their research for them. Free worker bees. But why?

Larkin had a smooth patter, she had to admit; he joked around, said that with the popularity of vampires in entertain­ment it might be fun to apply some physics to the problem. Part of the blood had been "altered" to allow for a reaction, and part had not. He made it all seem very scientific and logical, for the ben­efit of the eight out of ten non-Morganville residents in the room.

Claire caught the eye of Malinda, the other one in the room who was wearing a vampire symbol. Malinda's pretty face was set in a worried, haunted expression. She opened her eyes wide and held up her hands silently as if to say, What do we do?

It'll be okay, Claire mouthed. She hoped she wasn't lying.

"Cool," said Stinky Doug, leaning over to look at the paper. Claire's eyes watered a little, and she felt an urge to sneeze. "Vam­pires. I vant to drink your bloot!" He made a mock bite at her neck, which creeped her out so much, she nearly fell off the stool.

"Don't ever do that again," she said. Doug looked a little sur­prised at her reaction. "And by the way, showers. Look into them, Doug!"

That was a little too much snark for Claire's usual style, but he'd scared her, and it just came out. Doug looked wounded, and Claire immediately felt bad. "I'm sorry," she said very sincerely. "It's just . . . you don't smell so great."

It was his turn now to look ashamed. "Yeah," he said, looking down at the paper. "I know. Sorry." He got that look again, that secret, smug look. "Guess I need to get rich enough nobody cares what I smell like."

"That, or, you know, showering. That works better."

"Fine. Next time I'll smell just like a birthday bouquet."

"No fair just throwing on deodorant and aftershave or some­thing. Real washing. It's a must."

"You're a tough sell." He flashed her a movie-star grin that looked truly strange with the discoloration around his eyes. "Speaking of that, once I take that shower, you interested in go­ing out for dinner?"

"I'm spoken for," she said. "And we have work to do."

She prepped the slide, and Doug fired up the lamp. The in­stant the full-spectrum lighting hit the fluid, there was a notice­able reaction—bubbling under the glass, as if the blood were car­bonated. It took about thirty seconds for the reaction to run its course; once it had, all that was left was an ashy black residue.

"So freaking cool," Doug said. "Seriously. Where do you think they get this stuff? Squeeze real vampires?" There was something odd about the way he said it—as if he actually knew something. Which he shouldn't, Claire knew. He definitely shouldn't.

"It's probably just a light-sensitive chemical additive," Claire said. "Not sure how it works, though." That was true. As much as she'd studied it, she didn't understand the nature of the vampire transformation. It wasn't a virus—exactly. And it wasn't a contaminant, either, although it had elements of that. There were things about it that, she suspected, all their scientific approaches couldn't capture, try as they might. Maybe they were just measuring the wrong things.

Doug dropped the uncomfortable speculation. He wasn't so bad as a lab partner, if you forgot the stinky part; he was a good observer, and not half bad with calculations. She let him do most of the work, because she'd already done much of this with Myrnin. It was interesting that Doug came up with a slightly different formula in the end than she had on her own, and, she thought, his was a little more elegant. They were the first to come up with a stable mixture of the blood, and the second to come up with calculations—but Doug's, Claire was confident, were better than the other team's. You didn't have to finish first to win, not in science. You just had to be more right than the other guys.

All was going okay until she caught Doug trying to pocket a sample of the blood. "Hey," she said, and caught his wrist. "Don't do that."

"Why not? It would be awesome at parties."

Again, there was that unsettling tone, a little too smug, a lit­tle too knowing. Whatever it was he intended to do with it, she doubted he was going to show off at parties with it.

"Just don't." Claire met his eyes. "I mean it. Leave it alone; he might be checking. It might be . . . toxic." Fatal, she meant, because if the vamps discovered that Doug was sneaking out samples . . . Well, accidents happened, even on the TPU campus. Stupidity wasn't covered by the general Protection agreement, and Doug seemed to have caught a little bit too much of a clue.

Doug grudgingly dropped it back to the table. Professor Lar­kin came around, checked out the sample bottles, and recorded them against a master sheet. As he walked away and she and Doug packed their bags, Claire said, "See? I told you he'd be checking."

"Yeah," Doug whispered back. "But he already checked us out."

And before she could stop him, he grabbed a couple of the vi­als, stuck them in his bag, and took off.

Claire swallowed the impulse to yell, and a second one, to kick the table in frustration. She didn't dare tell Larkin; he was Pro­tected, and Doug had no idea what he was getting into. She had to get him to give the vial back. Dumb-ass wouldn't have any idea what to do with it, anyway.

She hoped.

Excerpted from BITE CLUB: The Morganville Vampires, Book 10 © Copyright 2011 by Rachel Caine. Reprinted with permission by NAL Hardcover

. All rights reserved.

Bite Club: The Morganville Vampires, Book 10
by by Rachel Caine