Touch of Madness
By C. T. Adams, Cathy Clamp
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2007 C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp
All rights reserved.
Something was lurking behind the clean white paint and tasteful carpet of the hospital hallway where I walked. It raised the hairs on my neck and tingled right at the edge of my psychic senses. My mind screamed vampires, even though I couldn't see them. But that was to be expected. After all, despite my better judgment, the Thrall were the reason I was here.
"Hey, Reilly! Kate!"
I started at the sudden noise hard enough to nearly stumble, and realized just how tightly strung I was today. Denver Detective John Brooks was walking toward me, looking natty, but uncomfortable. While I hadn't expected to see him here, when I thought about it I realized I shouldn't be surprised. After all, he's Not Prey, just like me.
He smiled, but underneath was the same tension I was feeling. I knew he couldn't sense the Thrall parasites that had nearly killed us both a few months before, he was too head blind for that. But that didn't mean he was any happier to be here than I was.
"I was hoping I'd know at least one other Not Prey here today. How you doing?"
"Better than last time you saw me." I raised my arm over my head and wiggled my fingers. "See, I've got use of the shoulder again. Definitely an improvement. How about you?"
"Well, I'm still employed and haven't been demoted — which is saying something after the fallout of Queen Monica's death." He raised up the corner of one snow-white cuff, with a real gold cufflink attached, reminding me he looked good today, better than me. Despite being a large man, made of muscle, not fat, he's one of those almost impossibly well-groomed people. Today his suit was a dark charcoal that wasn't quite black. His shirt nearly gleamed under the fluorescents, and his perfectly knotted tie was red with charcoal stripes that matched the suit. He's shorter than I am, but is almost as broad as he is tall. It made me wonder if somewhere in the background there was a Mrs. Brooks who took care of getting his suits specially tailored and his shirts starched. I'd never asked. There hadn't really been the opportunity when we'd first met, and it hadn't come up since.
I could see three pale, shiny lines against his ebony skin that disappeared up under the cloth. "Your fingernails left a nice set of scars down one arm, though. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed the ribbing about that down at the station." He snorted and it made me laugh. First time today, which is why I like the man.
"Well, it's not my fault you only had one set of handcuffs to hold me down while that thing tried to turn me into the freaking new vampire queen." I paused for a moment and fought off a shudder. Maybe a subject change, even though it wouldn't be much of one. "So, how did they drag you into this?"
Brooks's eyes darkened. He gave me a look of utter disgust. "Office politics. The Chief of Police called me personally. He went on and on about how we need to do everything we possibly can to reassure the public under the circumstances."
"Under what circumstances?"
"We had a hundred and fifty corpses, Kate, including political bigwigs. The whole mess was on the national news, complete with photos. All the people who'd tried to pretend vamps don't exist came face to face with the ugly truth. Now they expect us to do something about it." He gave a derisive snort. "How about you?"
"Familial blackmail," I answered dryly.
He laughed loudly enough to draw the attention of several of the nurses who stood down the hall leaning against the raised counter, their brightly colored cotton scrubs still immaculate. One or two of them waved, still cheerful and energetic. It was early, the beginning of a new shift. I could tell. Everybody was too clean, too happy. That shiny good humor usually wears off about the first time they wheel a gunshot wound or accident victim through the doors.
"My brother Joe — you remember him, don't you?" When Brooks nodded, I continued. "Well, he works here at St. Elizabeth's, and he's been getting a lot of pressure from higher up in the food chain. They pushed him to convince me to participate in this stupid research study. Naturally, I told him where to go and how to get there, so he finally had to resort to emotional blackmail to get me walking down this hallway." I paused. "The last thing I ever wanted to do again in this lifetime was deal with those damned parasites."
Brooks nodded and his whole body took on a serious-as-death stance. "It almost was the last thing you did. But we don't have any choice — not really. As two of only a dozen or so humans acknowledged as Not Prey we get a certain level of hard-earned respect, but there's a price."
"I'll admit that it's useful that the Thrall have to treat me as an equal, that they can't lie to me and have to negotiate. But if I could have that without the psychic side effects of having been bitten it would be so much better." Shaking my head, I turned and we started toward the elevator, side by side. We garnered more than a few nervous glances as we did. I'm six foot one, a redhead, and was clad in thick black leather with plenty of snaps and zippers. I was keeping a brisk pace with an obviously annoyed black man who is built like a brick wall, and has that undefined quality that screams cop.
"It's more than that, Reilly. When you're Not Prey there are rules. The queens may have set them, but all the Thrall have to follow them or risk getting killed by their own or cut off from the hive. It gives you a handle on the situation — a little bit of control."
"Yeah, yeah. I know. You'd think being bitten but avoiding infestation would be enough, wouldn't you? My natural psychic abilities have given me a near-permanent connection to the hive. Only three things seem to help shut them out."
"Yeah?" he asked as he pushed the button to call the elevator. "What works?"
The bottom of my braid had gotten caught in one of the sleeve zippers again, so I yanked it free. "The first, heavy metal or hard rock music played loud."
"Better you than me. I can't stand rock. I'm a jazz and blues sort of guy."
I laughed, because I could actually imagine Brooks hanging out in a smoky Harlem speakeasy in the '20s. "The second is shielding — something I'm just beginning to learn. The third, and most effective by far, is to stay in the presence of a lycanthrope."
His eyebrows rose slightly and he fought not to smile. "I'll bet I know your preferred choice of werewolf, too. How is Mr. Bishop lately?"
I did smile, because he was right. The werewolf I met when Queen Monica targeted me as her replacement, and who had risked his neck to save me from losing my mind to the hive, was pretty much my steady date now. So far, we're pretty happy. "Tom's doing well. He kept his job, too, and is hoping to get into smokejumping school. The jury's still out on that."
Brooks checked the heavy gold watch on his wrist and frowned. "That elevator had better get moving. We're going to be late."
The bell rang and the doors opened with a soft whoosh. We rode up in silence. A moment later the doors reopened and we stepped into the brightly lit hall with a faint antiseptic smell. I felt ... something, a much stronger something than downstairs. I stopped, laying my hand on Brooks's arm.
"Do you feel that?"
"Feel what?" His eyes narrowed. He looked from one end of the hall to the other, his expression cautious.
I shook my head. There was something stirring. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I felt my skin begin to crawl under the heavy leather of my biker jacket.
"I'm not sure," I admitted. "You don't feel anything?" I knew I shouldn't expect him to, but the sensation was so strong.
"Nah." He snorted instead of laughing. "But I never do."
"Lucky bastard." I meant it. My latent psychic abilities were what had drawn the Thrall to me in the first place. They'd tried twice now to make me the local queen. If I'd been as head blind as Brooks they might have left me the hell alone.
"Oh, I don't know. It might be handy having an early warning system."
It was my turn to snort. "That advantage is so outweighed by the problems it isn't even funny."
"Let's get this over with." He loosened my grip on his suit coat and started down the corridor, turning left and following the little black and white sign glued on the wall at eye level. I followed a few steps behind. I tried to convince myself there was no reason to be nervous. Even I didn't believe me. Brooks sure as hell didn't. I could tell from the tension in his shoulders and the way his eyes darted suspiciously around the hall, missing nothing.
Dr. Miles MacDougal was waiting in the corridor outside the conference room. He's a small, slender man standing five foot six or so with a huge, bushy moustache that unkind souls would say is meant to compensate for the thinning dark hair that barely covers his head. He kept checking his watch, then looking down the hall impatiently.
When he saw the two of us approaching his homely face broke into a satisfied smile.
"Kate! John! You came!" He sounded both delighted and relieved. I could tell he'd had his doubts about whether Joe could deliver me as promised ... money or no. Actually, I'd lied a little to Brooks. The truth was, money had swayed me — especially since the money from selling my motorcycle was nearly gone.
He turned, pulling open the door and holding it open for us.
"Samantha, they've arrived."
A stunningly beautiful woman stepped forward. She had dark hair and wide blue eyes set in a heart-shaped face. The body beneath her white lab coat was slender, but perfectly proportioned. She turned, giving Dr. MacDougal a dimpled smile that would've melted a heart of stone. His reaction was typical. There was a good three-second pause before Miles collected himself enough to make introductions..
"Kate, John, this is Dr. Samantha Greeley. Dr. Greeley is in charge of the study —"
"I thought —" I started to interrupt, but he talked over me, as if he'd actually expected the interruption.
"She's managed to gather together Not Prey from all over the world to participate." He gestured to the oblong conference table. Eight of the seats were taken by a remarkable variety of people, all of whom were eyeing Brooks and me with interest as they munched on their bagels or sipped the drinks they'd selected from a refreshment table tucked discreetly into the corner of the room. Next to it was a young black man half-hidden behind a tripod and video equipment.
"Ms. Reilly, Mr. Brooks, it's a pleasure. I've heard so much about you both." She gestured for us to take a seat as she began making introductions around the table. "Mr. Yakimoto is visiting us from Japan." I gave a brief nod to a tall, elderly Japanese man with thick rimless spectacles and a crisply pressed navy pin-striped suit and received a similar nod in return.
Greeley continued down the table, introducing a teenaged girl wearing an oversized letter jacket of green wool and white leather as Antonia Webster, who was here with her mother, Julia. Next were Digby Wallace, a redheaded Aussie with a broad freckled face, and a 350-pound, bleachedblonde biker chick named Rikki Jacobs.
She sat silently, staring into space, her eyes vaguely unfocused. I recognized the gang logo on the sleeveless vest she wore over her black Harley-Davidson tee-shirt. There were elaborate "sleeve" tattoos on each of her arms, beautiful work if you appreciated such things. She turned slowly at the sound of my name. The look she gave me was ... unsettling. I didn't have time to dwell on it, though. Samantha Greeley had moved on to introduce Mrs. Emily Patterson, a prim little schoolmarm of a woman in a pretty floral print dress with a white lace collar. I wondered what might have caused her to earn the Not Prey title. She didn't seem capable of much more than attending a quilting bee.
Last, but not least, was Henri TanÃ(c), a small, withered black man with liquid brown eyes and a stiff new suit. Something in the shape of his face made me think of Jamaica or one of the other tropical islands.
Haiti. A voice leapt into my head, thick accent and all. It is a true pleasure to meet you, Kate Reilly. I have heard much about you, though perhaps from unusual sources. He smiled, showing slightly crooked white teeth.
Following good meeting etiquette, Brooks pulled his seat forward and turned toward the screen. I, on the other hand, was much too unsettled to do anything of the sort. I'm paranoid by both profession and nature. It's served me well over. the years. I took my chair and pulled it away from the table until I sat with my back to the corner with a clear view of the door. While his eyes were focused steadily on Dr. Greeley, Henri continued speaking to me mind-to-mind while I poured a glass of water from the sweating pitcher on the large black tray in the center of the table.
You felt it as well? I do not know what it is she plays at — but it is a dangerous game. We shall be cautious, you and I.
I couldn't help but glance at him. I'm just not accustomed to talking without looking at the person. I'm always cautious.
Which is why you are here — and why they fear you.
I somehow doubted the Thrall feared me — or much of anything else. Although things had certainly changed in the past few months. The Thrall had always been a fact of life, existing mostly in the shadows, in the larger cities. The nests and herds had generally been kept small and secret enough that most people had considered them to be yet another "urban legend." The previous queen of Denver had changed all that. She'd increased the size of both the nest and the herd, and had chosen prominent, highly placed people. The plan had worked to a point. Under her "rule" herd members lived longer, healthier lives. The nest, too, had prospered. But she'd made two major mistakes. Ignoring her own mortality, she left off breeding her replacement queen until almost too late. As her host body weakened so had her hold on her nest, so that a few of the strongest and most desperate had gone against the orders of the queens and attacked me directly.
Her second mistake was to choose me as the replacement host. It had been touch and go, but with the help of my friends and family I'd managed to kill the eggs and hatchlings — — causing the death of the Denver nest and mostof its herd. I gave an involuntary shiver and pulled my jacket tight around me to fight a chill that had nothing to do with the breeze blowing down from the air-conditioning duct.
Did you notice, all of us here are from the Western nations? Do you know why? Henri's voice in my mind was pleasant, almost amused.
I hadn't noticed until he mentioned it. I shook my head no, ever so slightly, while fighting to keep my eyes on Dr. Greeley at the front of the room.
When you destroyed the nest the pictures were shown all over the world. In those countries less sensitive to human rights issues anyone even suspected of being host or herd was hunted down, executed.
I snorted lightly and took a sip of water to cover it. Bet quite a few political dissidents were accidentally eliminated in the process.
No doubt. But the queens, they are afraid now. They were few, now fewer. They fear extinction.
Aw damn. Wouldn't that just break my heart?
I saw Henri's shoulders shake with silent laughter. Brooks might not be psychic enough to have heard the conversation, but he's observant as hell. He noticed the old man's mirth and gave me a warning look just as Dr. Greeley turned to glare at me.
I didn't wilt. Then again, I never do. I went to Catholic schools for twelve years. Far as I've been able to determine nobody, and I do mean nobody, can give you a worse glare than a pissed-off nun.
"Now that everyone is here," she said the word to have double meaning, "I'll begin the presentation."
I gave her my brightest smile. It wasn't sincere, but it was sweet enough to rot the teeth out of her head. It didn't take a psychic gift to know I had thrown her off her game. "Mason, get the lights ... and hurry it up." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Touch of Madness by C. T. Adams, Cathy Clamp. Copyright © 2007 C. T. Adams and Cathy Clamp. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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