"What do you mean, work?" the guy with the prison tats said.
Lash put his elbows on his knees and looked his new best friend in the eyes. How the two of them had gone from loudmouth loggerheads to cozy as kittens was a testament to the powers of seduction. First you hit head-on to establish equality. Then you showed respect. Then you talked about money.
The other two, the 'banger with, Diego RIP, around his collarbones, and Mr. Clean with the chrome dome and the combats, had inched in and were listening, too. Which was another part of Lash's strategy: Draw the toughest one in and the others will follow.
Lash smiled. "I'm looking for help with enforcement."
Prison Tat's stare was full of dirty deeds done dirt cheap. "You run a bar?"
"Nope." He glanced at RIP. "Guess you could say it's territorial."
The 'banger nodded like he knew all the rules of that board game.
Prison Tat flexed his arms. "What makes you think I'd carry on anything wichu? I don't know you."
Lash leaned back so his shoulders were against the cinder blocks. "Just thought you'd like to make some green. My bad."
As he closed his eyes like he was going to sleep, he heard voices that popped open his lids. An officer was bringing another offender down to the holding cell.
Well, what do you know. The guy with the eagle jacket from Screamer's.
The newbie was let in, and the three hard-asses pulled their glaring, watch-yer-ass welcome wagon. One of the junkies looked up and offered a watery smile like he knew the guy in a business capacity.
Interesting. So the guy was a dealer.
Eagle Man sized up the crowd and nodded to Lash in recognition before taking a seat on the other end of the bench. He looked more annoyed than scared.
Prison Tat leaned into Lash. "Didn't say I weren't interested."
Lash shifted his eyes over. "How do I find you to talk terms?"
"You know Buss's Bikes?"
"It's that Harley rehab place on Tremont, right?"
"Yeah. Me and my bro own it. We ride."
"Then you know more people who could help me."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"What's your name?"
Prison Tat's eyes narrowed. Then he pointed to a depiction of a Harley low-rider that was inked on his arm. "You call me Low."
Diego RIP's foot started tapping, like he was holding something in, but Lash wasn't ready to tango with the gangs or the skinheads. Not yet. Starting small was safer. He'd see if he could add a couple of bikers to the Lessening Society mix. If that worked out, then he'd go trolling. Maybe even get his ass arrested again as an entr¨¦e.
"Owens," a cop called out at the door.
"Laters," Lash said to Low. He nodded at Diego, the skinhead, and the dealer and left the druggies to their conversations with the floor.
Out in central processing, he waited while an officer explained page after page of "here are the charges against you," "this is the public defender's office number¡ªyou need to call them if you want to get assigned an attorney," "your court date is in six weeks," "if you fail to show, your bail will be forfeited and an arrest warrant will be issued," blah, blah, blah...
He signed the name Larry Owens a couple of times, and then he was let out into the hall he'd been led down while handcuffed eight hours ago. At the end of the linoleum stretch, Mr. D was sitting in a grotty plastic chair, and as he got to his feet he seemed relieved.
"We're going for food," Lash said as they headed toward the exit.
Lash walked out of the front of the CPD's building, too distracted by the things he needed to do to think about the time. When the sunshine hit him square in the face, he reared back with a scream and slammed into Mr. D.
Covering his face, he scrambled back for the building.
Mr. D caught him by the upper arms. "What¡ª"
"The sun!" Lash was almost back through the doors when he realized... nothing was happening. There was nothing up in flames, no great ball of fire, no horrible burning demise.
He stopped... and turned around to face the sun for the first time in his life. "It's so bright." He shielded his eyes with his forearm.
"You're not supposed to look straight into it."
Falling back against the building's stone facade, he couldn't believe the warmth. As the rays beat into him, they radiated through his skin into his muscles.
He'd never envied humans before. But, God, if he'd known how this felt, he would have all along.
"You okay?" Mr. D asked.
"Yeah... yeah, I am." He closed his eyes and just breathed in and out. "My parents... they never let me go out. Pretrans are supposed to be able to handle sunlight up until the change, but my mom and dad never wanted to risk it."
"Can't imagine not havin' no sun."
After this, neither could Lash.
Tilting his chin up, he closed his eyes for a moment... and vowed to thank his father the next time he saw him.
This was... magnificent.
Phury woke up with a burning, foul taste in his mouth. Actually it was all over, like someone had sprayed the inside of his skin with oven cleaner.
Eyes were glued shut. Stomach was a lead ball. Lungs were inflating and deflating with all the enthusiasm of a pair of stoners the day after a Grateful Dead binge. And leading the charge on going absolutely nowhere was his brain, which evidently had flatlined and not been resuscitated along with the rest of his body.
Actually, his chest was pretty much a closed shop as well. Or...no, his heart must have still been beating, because... well, it had to be, didn't it? Or he wouldn't have thoughts, right?
An image of the gray wasteland came to him, the wizard silhouetted against that vast gray horizon.
Welcome back, sunshine, the wizard said. That was such bloody fun. When can we do it again?
Do what again, Phury wondered.
The wizard laughed. Oh, how easily they forget the fun times.
Phury groaned and heard someone move.
"Cormia," he croaked.
That voice, that deep, male voice. So like the one that came out of his own mouth. In fact, it was identical.
Zsadist was with him.
As Phury turned his head, his brain sloshed in his skull, his bone dome nothing but a fish tank that had water and plants and a little treasure chest with bubbles, but nothing with fins in it. Nothing that actually lived.
Z looked as bad as Phury had ever seen him, with dark shadows under his eyes and his lips drawn tight and that scar more visible than ever.
"I dreamed of you," Phury said. God, his voice was just a rasp. "You were singing to me."
Z's head slowly went back and forth. "That wasn't me. Not up for singing anymore."
"Where is she?" Phury asked.
"Cormia? The Sanctuary."
"Oh..." That's right. He'd driven her there after having sex with her. And then he'd... Shot. Up. With. Heroin. "Oh, God."
That happy little realization brought his eyes into proper focus and had him looking around.
All he saw, everywhere, was pale lavender, and he thought of Cormia coming through the closet in the office in her white robe with that rose in her hand. The rose was still there, he thought. She'd left it behind.
"You want something to drink?"
Phury turned back to his twin. Across the way, the guy looked like he felt, worn-out and empty.
"I'm tired," Phury murmured.
Z stood and brought over a glass. "Lift your head up."
Phury did what he was told, even though it made the water level in his tank shift and threaten to spill over. As Zsadist held the glass to his lips, he took one pull, then another, and then he was gulping with desperate thirst.
When it was gone, he let his head fall back down on the pillow. "Thank you."
Zsadist put the glass back on the bedside table and then settled once more in the pale lavender chair, his arms crossing, chin resting almost on his chest.
He'd been losing weight, Phury thought. His cheeks were beginning to stand out again.
"I had no memory," Z said softly.
"You. Them. You know, where I came from before I was stolen, then bought."
Whether it was the water or what Z had just said, one of the two brought Phury into full consciousness. "You wouldn't have remembered our parents... our house. You were just an infant."
"I recall the nursemaid. Well, I have one memory. It was of her putting jam on her thumb and letting me nurse on it. That's about all I have. Next thing... I was up on the block with all these folks looking at me." Z frowned. "I grew up as a kitchen boy. I washed a lot of dishes, cleaned a lot of vegetables, fetched ale for the soldiers. They were good to me. That part of it was... okay." Z rubbed his eyes. "Tell me something. What was it like for you? The growing-up part."
"Lonely." Okay, that sounded selfish. "No, I mean¡ª"
"I was lonely, too. I felt like I was missing something, but didn't know what it was. I was half of a whole, except there was only me."
"That's how I felt. Except I knew what was missing." The you went unsaid.
Z's voice went utterly flat. "I don't want to talk about what happened after I went through the change."
"You don't have to."
Zsadist nodded and seemed to retreat into himself. In the silence that followed, Phury couldn't even imagine what he was remembering. The pain and the degradation and the rage.
"Remember before we joined the Brotherhood," Z murmured, "when I took off for three weeks? We were still in the Old Country and you had no idea where I'd gone?"
"I killed her. The Mistress."
Phury blinked, surprised at the admission of what everyone had always guessed at. "So it wasn't her husband."
"Nope. Sure, he was violent, but I was the one who did it. See, she'd taken another blood slave in. Put him down in that cage. I..." Z's voice wobbled, then became rock solid again. "I couldn't let her do that to someone else. I went back there... found him... Shit, he was naked and in the same corner I used to..."
Phury held his breath, thinking this was everything he had wanted and feared knowing. Odd that they were having the conversation now.
"You used to what?"
"Sit. I used to sit in that corner when I wasn't being... Yeah, I sat there, because at least I knew what was coming at me. The kid, he had his back to the wall and his knees up, too. Just exactly how I'd done it. He was young. So young, like just out of his transition. He had pale brown eyes... and they were terrified. He thought I was there for him. You know... like, there for him. As I came in, I couldn't speak, and that scared him even worse. He shivered... he shivered until his teeth rattled, and I still remember what the knuckles of his hands looked like. He was holding on to his skinny calves, and the knuckles were nearly popping out of his skin."
Phury clamped his teeth down, remembering when he'd gotten Zsadist out, recalling the sight of him chained naked to the bedding platform in the middle of that cell. Z hadn't been afraid. He'd been used too much and for too long to be rattled by anything that could be done to him.
Zsadist cleared his throat. "I said to the kid... I told him that I was going to get him out. He didn't believe it at first. Not until I pushed up the sleeves of my coat and showed him my wrists. After he saw my slave bands, I didn't have to say another word. He was with me all the way." Z took a deep breath. "She found us while I was taking him through the castle's lower level. He was having trouble walking, because I guess the day before had been... busy. I had to carry him. Anyway, she came up on us... and before she could call for the guards, I took care of her. That boy...he watched as I snapped her neck and let her fall to the ground. After she was down, I cut off her head because... see, neither of us really believed she was dead. Shit, man, I was in that rabbit warren of tunnels, where anyone could have caught us, and I couldn't move. I just stared down at her. The boy, he asked me whether she was truly dead. I said I didn't know. She wasn't moving, but how could I be sure?
"The boy looked up at me, and I'll never forget the sound of his voice. ¡®She'll come back. She always comes back.' Way I figured it, he and I were living with enough shit, we didn't need to worry about that. So I cut off her head, and he held it by the hair as I got us the fuck out of there." Zsadist rubbed his face. "I didn't know what to do with the kid when I got him free. That's what those three weeks were about. I took him way down to the tip of Italy, as far away as I could get him. There was a family there, one Vishous knew from his years working for that merchant in Venice. Anyway, that household needed help, and they were good people. They took him in as a paid servant. Last thing I heard, about a decade ago, was that he'd had his second young with his shellan."
"You saved him."
"Getting him out didn't save him." Zsadist's eyes drifted over. "That's the point, Phury. There isn't any saving him. There isn't any saving me. I know that's what you keep waiting for, living for. But... it's never going to happen. Look... I can't thank you, because... as much as I love Bella and my life and where I am now, I still go back there. I can't help it. I still live it every day."
"No, let me finish. This whole drug thing with you... Look, you didn't fail me. Because you can't fail at the impossible."
Phury felt a hot tear ease out of his eye. "I just want to make it right."
"I know. But it's never been right and it's never going to be, and you don't have to kill yourself because of that. Where I ended up is where I am."
There was no promise of joy in Z's face. No potential for happiness. The lack of homicidal mania was an improvement, but the absence of any sustainable satisfaction in being alive was hardly cause for celebration.
"I thought Bella had saved you."
"She's done a lot. But right now, with the way the pregnancy's going..."
He didn't have to finish. There were no words adequate to describe the horrible what-ifs. And Z had made up his mind he was going to lose her, Phury realized. He'd decided that the love of his life was going to die.
No wonder he didn't want to throw around the thankyous for being rescued.
Z went on, "I kept the Mistress's skull with me all those years not out of some sick attachment. I needed it for when I had nightmares that she was coming back for me. See, I'd wake up, and the first thing I'd do is check and make sure she was still dead."
"I can understand that¡ª"
"You want to know what I've been doing for the last month or two?"
"I wake up and panic whether you're still alive." Z shook his head. "See, I can reach out through the sheets for Bella and feel her warm body. But you, I can't do that with you... and I think my subconscious has figured out that both of you are probably not going to be around a year from now."
"I'm sorry... shit..." Phury put his hands to his face. "I'm sorry."
"I think you should go. Like, to the Sanctuary. You're going to be safer there. If you stay here, you may not even make it for a year. You need to go."
"I don't know whether that's neccessary¡ª"
"Let me be a little clearer. We had a meeting."
Phury dropped his hands. "What kind of a meeting."
"The closed-door kind. Me and Wrath and the Brotherhood. The only way you stay here is if you quit using and become a friend of Bill W's. And no one thinks you're going to do that."
Phury frowned. "I didn't know there were vampire NA meetings."
"There aren't, but there are human ones at night. I looked it up on the Web. But that doesn't matter, does it. Because even if you said you'd go, no one believes you would, and I don't think... I don't think you believe you would, either."
That was hard to argue, considering what he'd brought into the house and put into his arm.
As he thought about quitting, Phury's palms grew sweaty. "You told Rehv not to sell red smoke to me anymore, didn't you." Which was why Xhex had gone after him when he'd dropped in for that last buy.
"Yeah, I did. And I know it wasn't him who sold you the H. There was an eagle on the package. He marks his with a red star."
"If I go to the Sanctuary, how do you know I won't keep using?"
"I don't." Z stood up. "But I won't have to watch it. And neither will the rest of us."
"You're so damn calm," Phury murmured, almost as an afterthought.
"I saw you dead next to a toilet, and I've had the last eight hours to watch over you and wonder how in the fuck to turn this all around. I'm exhausted and my nerves are shot, and if you haven't tweaked to it, we're all washing our hands of you."
Zsadist turned away and slowly went to the door.
"Zsadist." Z stopped, but didn't turn around. "I'm not going to thank you for this. So I guess we're even."
As the door shut, Phury had a strange, disassociative thought that considering all that had just been said was arguably inappropriate.
With Zsadist no longer singing, the world had lost a treasure.