A few days passed without incident, which was apparently too much for my old pain in the ass, Jessica, and my new pain, Marc. The excitement of my return from the dead had died down, no vampire baddies had come knocking, my relationship with my stepmother and father remained the same (she ignored me, he sent checks), and that was just too darned staid for my pals.

I introduced them and, after they bristled at each other for an hour, they decided to share me. I stayed the hell out of it. As long as they weren't fighting, I didn't care what the arrangements were.

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Jessica is strong-willed, duh, but she's also weirdly protective of me. She's always threatened when I make a new friend. I've tried to explain that, no, I did not love all my friends equally, she was my absolute favorite and would be forever, amen, but it usually fell on deaf ears. And it was strictly a one-way street, at my insistence: Jessica had loads of society friends who wouldn't know me if I slapped them in the face.

Marc, on the other hand, for all his renewed sense of purpose (and proposed conspiracy to assault child abusers), was still fragile and I wanted nothing said or done to him that might send him back up on the roof. He was staying with me while he looked for a new place, an arrangement that suited us nicely: I wanted a roomie who could move around during the day, and he needed a bed.

Before I'd died I never would have done such a thing. Not because I didn't care, but because I wouldn't dare. You just couldn't know about people, what was really in their hearts and what hid behind a smile. But along with an endless thirst for blood, I now had a pretty good radar. I just knew Marc was an all right guy. And frankly, I had never cared for living alone-which is why I had rescued Giselle from the animal shelter. I'd watch too many scary movies and stay awake all night in terror, flinching at every creak. The thing that terrified me the most were zombie movies. After watching Resident Evil I had nightmares for a week. It was ironic, because now I was one of the unkillable monsters. Still didn't like living by myself, though.

The three of us were adjusting, but there was a kind of balancing act for me to maintain between Jess and Marc. And so, because I wanted to keep the two neurotics happy, midnight found me in a private exam room at Minneapolis General, instead of checking out the Midnight Madness Shoe Sale at Neiman Marcus. "Only for you," I had said to Jessica. "And I guess you," I'd added to Marc.

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There was one thing they both agreed upon: I was not your garden-variety vampire, and the more we knew about my abilities, the better. Marc wanted to get a "baseline," whatever the hell that was, and Jessica was just plain curious, so Marc got us a room at the hospital and the exam began.

"I'm not taking off any of my clothes," I warned him.

Marc rolled his eyes. "Aw, gee, I guess no big thrill for me tonight."

"For any of us," Jessica said dryly. "The girl's the color of a toad's belly and she needs her roots done."

"I do not!" I said, shocked. "I had those done two weeks before I died. My roots are fine."

"I wonder what would happen if you cut your hair?" Marc asked thoughtfully, slipping a thermometer under my tongue. "Would it stay short forever? Would it grow back? Could it grow back? Would it magically reappear the next night?" He was staring so thoughtfully at my hair I leaned as far away from him as far as I could.

"So this Sinclair...he wants to take you under his wing?" Jessica asked. She was rocketing around the exam room on the doctor's stool. She'd zoom up to a wall, kick off, and careen to the other side. Marc was obviously used to odd antics during an exam, but it was making me claustrophobic as hell. She had officially given up mourning colors for me, and tonight she was sporting green leggings, a buttercup yellow t-shirt, and a salmon-colored raincoat. "Teach you the vamp ropes?"

"God, he is so hot," Marc muttered. By contrast, he was a moving pile of rags in torn jeans and a faded t-shirt with the logo "Come Along Quietly"-an alarming choice for a physician.

He peered at the thermometer, cleared it, then promptly stuck it in my mouth again. "By the way, I tested all the equipment on myself before you guys got here, so we know it works...now what were we talking about? Oh, yeah-Sinclair. You should see this guy, Jessica. He looks like the Prince of Darkness and he moves like a matador. I was sweating just looking at him."

"Yum," Jessica said, impressed.

"Don't forget, he's a hundred years old," I sneered.

"More like sixty-three, so he's got a lifetime of wisdom and street smarts, not to mention years of experience fucking every which way a guy can think up, to go with a nice, hard, powerful, eternally young body. Jesus, I'm gonna have to quit talking about this before I need to sit down."

"Please," I said thinly. I hadn't thought about the experience factor minus the ick factor of a wrinkled, decrepit body. Which was probably hiding under those superbly tailored suits! "Besides, it doesn't matter a purple crap what Sinclair wants. I'm not playing vamp politics. I'm minding my own business, and he sure as shit better mind his."

"Or you'll throw him through a concrete cross again," Jessica added. "I wish I could have seen it!"

"No you don't. The whole thing was alternatively stupid and frightening. If that's what I can expect from being in a vamp tribe, count me out."

Twenty minutes later, Marc was finished. He was looking at me a little strangely, which I pretended not to notice. He had watched me climb a building with little surprise, handled being my dinner well enough, and insinuated himself into my home with no fuss, but the scientist in him was finally facing black-and-white facts, and that was a little daunting.

"Well." He cleared his throat. "Your blood pressure is ten over five, your Babinski reflex is nonexistent, your temperature is eighty-which is why your handshake is so darned clammy--respirations are four, and your pulse is six. All incompatible with life. Which means you have to watch your ass, Bets-if you're found during the day and somebody freaks and calls an ambulance, a doctor is going to pronounce you at the scene, and then it's hello, morgue."

Jessica was staring. "You only take a breath four times a minute?"

"I guess," I said defensively. "I don't think about it. I mean, c'mon...do you think about your breathing, unless you've got a cold or something?"

"And she's not clammy," Jess said loyally. "Touching her is-is like lying in a cool shade."

"Clammy," I said glumly. "Nice save on the shade thing, though."

"But. Although your vitals are incompatible with life, you're super strong, inhumanly agile, and on a liquid diet. There's very little activity at a cellular level-so you've stopped aging. Not to mention excreting. You haven't taken a piss since you died-which makes no sense, because you drink liquids all day long-you don't sweat, and you don't cry. Jessica said you can't drink canned blood. So there must be something about fresh-living-blood that keeps you going. Is it the electrolytes? The pure energy found in living cells...? I wonder if you harness the--"

"You can't use science to explain everything," Jessica broke in. "There's probably some mystical shit going on, too."

I laughed. "Mystical shit? Is that a technical term?"

We were shrugging into our coats, shutting off the lights, and heading out a side door as quietly as possible. Marc wasn't scheduled to work tonight, and he didn't feel up to answering awkward questions about the talking dead girl on the exam table.

"I don't know. I've never believed in this stuff. Not ever...shit, I don't even read science fiction. But some of the stuff I've seen at the hospital...as a species, we're incredibly adaptable. We can survive a lot of stuff that would kill just about anything else. Maybe you're a mutation. Maybe a vampire is just another word for--"

"Mutant freak. Very comforting."

"Man oh man, the paper I could write about this," Marc said. "I'd be famous...right before they checked me into the psych ward for a pleasant year of pureed apricots and finger painting."

That gave all of us the giggles. The door slammed behind us and we started walking through the alley toward the street, when all hell broke loose.

I sensed the problem before Jessica and Marc did-those two didn't have a clue until the bitch was on us-but I wasn't fast enough. There was a blur and then a small, dark-haired woman with the bluest eyes I'd ever seen had Marc. She'd locked a forearm across his neck and was bending him back so his throat was at the level of her mouth. Jessica was facedown in the snow-while grabbing Marc, Shorty had shoved her into the wall, knocking her out.

"The infamous Betsy," Shorty purred. She was small, probably about five feet tall. Maybe ninety pounds. And clearly as strong as an ox on steroids. Her face was unremarkable, even plain-average nose, bare bump of a chin, narrow forehead-but her eyes were astonishing and lovely. Large and the color of a spring sky, they were fringed with dark, sooty lashes. Her canines were growing while I watched. "At last we meet." Annoyingly, she did not lisp.

"Friend of yours?" Marc managed. Half of his air was being cut off and he was bent so far back he was staring at the stars. He had to be scared shitless, but his tone was just right: casual, unconcerned. I was very, very proud of him. Frankly, I hadn't known he was brave until just now. "Maybe an old school-glkk!-chum?"

"I've never seen her before. Listen, Tootsie Roll, you want to let go of my friend before I jam a cross up your ass."

She laughed and tightened her grip. Marc gasped, but didn't say anything. She licked the side of his throat and he shuddered while at the same time leaning into her. "Oh-ho, this one's had a taste, yes? No wonder you're keeping him close."

"He's my lunch. Go grab your own." I took a casual step forward, and she bit him. Savagely-there was none of my tentativeness or care. She ripped off an inch-wide swath of skin, spit it out, then gulped back the blood like a dog sucked down water on a hot day. Marc screamed.

I did a little screaming of my own. "Stop it!" I was reeling from the suddenness of the confrontation. A minute earlier we were just stepping outside, for God's sake. Even the cemetery meeting hadn't been this alarming. "What do you want?"

She stopped drinking. "You, of course. Your presence is requested by my master."

"Nosehair?"

Her nostrils flared. Blood gleamed on her chin. I actually wanted to lick it off, how's that for sick and disgusting? I could feel my teeth growing, seeming to fill my mouth. I was so embarrassed I couldn't look at Marc. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"

"No! I'm jutht really bad at nameth."

"What's wrong with your voice?"

"Never mind. You were thaying about your mathter...?"

"Nostro desires your company. He told me to use any means to persuade you. Now, I will..."

"Okay."

She faltered a bit. "What?"

"Okay, I'll go with you. We can go right now."

"Oh." She considered for a long moment. Obviously she'd expected more resistance. She released Marc, who just about broke something scrambling away from her. He went immediately to Jessica, knelt, and fumbled at her neck for a pulse. "Very well. Come with me now."

"Marc." My fangs were retracting...thank God. "You find a pulse?"

He looked up at me, shivering from the adrenaline rush. "Yes, I think she's all right-just knocked out."

Congratulations, Short Stuff, maybe you'll live through the next hour. "Okay. Take her to the ER. Get her looked at, and have somebody take a look at your neck. I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. I'll make up something good. I'll tell the attending we were mugged, or something."

"I'm sorry." I started walking out of the alley. Shorty watched, a look of amused scorn on her nasty little face. "I'll be back later."

"Not necessarily," Short Stuff tittered.

"Shut the fuck up, you cunt." I'd never used the C word before tonight, but she seemed an ideal representation of it. And the shocked look on her face-as if I'd slapped her, which I sort of had, only with a word instead of my hand-was almost worth how awful I felt about what she had done to my friends. And oh, sweetie, you want to watch out if I catch you with your guard down...

But she was a spear-carrier, a soldier. Nostro had sent her to me, had told her to do whatever she could to gain my attendance. His was the hash I had to settle first.

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