"Welcome to Trash Castle," my mother said as she gave me and Fabian the tour. "They had to drag me in here against my will when I first saw it. I'm sure your scurvy husband chose it just for revenge."
So was I, but I wasn't going there. "Bones isn't my husband, as I'm sure you've been told."
She gave me a shrewd look. "You don't believe that."
Six minutes, ten seconds. That's all it took to make me want to run out of here screaming.
Bones wasn't here. He'd dropped me off with a comment that he had business elsewhere. It had been all I could do not to yell, "Why did you risk your life taking me from Vlad's if you still can't stand to be around me?" But that would let on about how much I cared. So I didn't say a word. I watched Bones leave without once asking when, or if, he intended to come back. Would I rather rot under a huge trash heap than admit how much it hurt to see him again, let alone see him walk away? You bet.
After three days at Trash Castle, I decided it was the perfect place to be if you wanted to go crazy but had a limited amount of time to do it in. Being fifty feet under a dump locked in the equivalent of a cellar with a listless ghost and an outspoken mother, all while thinking about the man who'd left me, was bound to bring on insanity faster than any circumstance I'd experienced before. Soon the idea of banging my head against a wall seemed like a fun way to spend ten minutes, and I fantasized about near-death experiences like they were a chocolaty dessert. Puberty had been an aromatherapy session compared to this.
Despite the smell, I took to going topside and clearing out sections of the junkyard just to do something. Fabian had his own way of dealing with the situation. He watched endless TV. My mother read or did crossword puzzles, in between comments about how if I would have listened to her, I wouldn't be here today. Was it any wonder I preferred spending my time around stinky garbage?
I'd been sweeping up the far section of the dump when I heard the thrum of the automobile. Even though I knew it couldn't be a lost tourist, since it was clear that we were on the ass-end of nowhere, I hadn't waited to see if it was friend or foe before climbing to the top of the nearest garbage heap. Death? Didn't scare me. It would be a vacation from Smell Central.
"Who came up with the password Quasimodo?" Spade muttered as he got out of his car.
"Hello, Spade," I called out, shaking the debris off the rake I'd made from thin strips of metal and a truck axle.
Spade stared up at me, revulsion and disbelief competing on his handsome face.
"Lucifer's hairy ball sack. You've become a Morlock."
Seeing Spade looking so suave in his white shirt with his shiny black shoes and creased pants reminded me that I was covered head to toe in dirt and probably smelled like a bad case of flatulence.
"I've been buried underneath a junkyard for days, what did you expect?"
Spade slammed the door to his car. Just looking at it, I fought an impulse to jump in and drive until I passed out at the wheel.
"I can't sit back and watch you and Crispin drown in your own stubbornness any longer. Good Christ, Cat, just die already and be done with it."
I blinked. "Fuck you too, pal."
"Move back to your vehicle, you're not expected," Techno, one of the vampires stationed there, said. He'd come around from the side of the building and had an Uzi that was loaded with silver bullets pointed at Spade.
"I'm on the list, you imbecile," Spade barked. "Now turn around before I break that toy off in your arse."
Spade's back was to me. I grabbed a nearby tire and chucked it at him, smiling to see tread marks ruin the perfection of his white shirt. "Don't talk to him that way, he's doing his job."
Spade recovered from the tire beaning him in the back and was in front of me with nosferatu swiftness.
"For God's sake, Cat, take the leap, what are you waiting for?"
For a second, I wondered if I'd really lost it. It sounded like Spade was trying to taunt me into killing myself.
"Did I do something to piss you off?"
Spade spun around, balling his fists. Techno looked at me in confusion, as if questioning whether I was in danger.
"Want me to shoot him?" he inquired.
"Do you want to incite things? You're barely human now; why do you persist in clinging to your last useless, mortal shred?"
"Don't shoot," I said to Techno, who'd raised the Uzi with purpose. "In fact, go away."
"He's not - " Techno began to sputter.
"Not what?" Spade asked. "Not supposed to tell her about it, I'll wager? That's why she's looking at me like I'm barmy, right? Because she doesn't have a clue what I'm talking about."
My jaw clenched. Techno's face confirmed it all. Son of a bitch.
"Is it the ghouls again?" I asked, inwardly cursing that I'd been so wrapped up in my own problems, I hadn't been suspicious about the lack of word on that front.
Spade gave Techno one last threatening look before folding his arms.
"Yes, it's the ghouls. Their rhetoric is growing bolder. In certain areas, Masterless vampires have begun to disappear. It could be they're stupid and got shriveled by one of our own kind, but there's reason to believe it might be something more."
I stared at him. Spade's tiger-colored gaze was uncompromising. Gregor is behind this, I realized. The more paranoia about me becoming a vampire/ghoul hybrid, the more support he garnered for his cause to get me back so he could control me.
"Why wasn't I told?"
Spade rolled his eyes. "Can't you guess? Crispin doesn't want this to influence your decision whether to turn into a vampire."
"He doesn't care about me," I muttered before I could stop myself.
"You're an idiot."
I could feel my eyes turning angry green. "Excuse me?"
"Idiot," Spade repeated, drawing the word out for emphasis. "Why do you think he fetched you from Vlad's? Crispin knew if it came to a choice between you or Vlad's people, you'd lose. Tepesh might be fond of you, but he's beastly protective of his people."
I had to glance away for a moment. Then I shook my head. "If Bones cared about me, f**king his way up and down New Orleans was a funny way to show it."
Spade regarded me with cynicism. "If you thought Crispin was yours, and you didn't care for his actions, why weren't you waiting for him after New Orleans instead of jetting off with Tepesh?"
My jaw dropped. "Do you hear yourself?"
"You're not thinking like a vampire," Spade muttered. "The sooner you're done with your human perceptions, the better. Look, can we discuss your reasoning inadequacies later? If I have to smell this rancid air a moment longer, I'll dry heave."
"Inadequacies? Screw you!"
Spade gave me an arch smile. "You should be less concerned with what I'm saying and more focused on what you'll say to Crispin when you try to convince him to change you into a vampire."
That made my heart skip a beat. Spade heard it and snorted. "Got your attention now, don't I? Crispin's the one who has to do it. I certainly wouldn't dare. He'd kill anyone who changed you, make no mistake."
"How do you know I've decided to cross over, anyway?"
The sarcasm and flippancy were wiped from Spade, and he gave me the most serious look he'd bestowed on me.
"Come now, Reaper. We both know you've been hanging on to your humanity too long. You just needed a push, didn't you?"
So many different things ran through my mind. I remembered all the years of my childhood, hiding my growing inhuman abilities so I didn't upset my mother. Later in school, how out of place I'd felt pretending to be "normal" when nothing about me was normal. And later still, in my teens and early twenties hunting vampires, hadn't my humanity been more of a disguise than how I felt inside? Then there was now, how frustrated I was that I was too weak to take Gregor on myself. With no element of surprise about my dual nature, I'd always be too weak to battle the really old, mega-Master vampires - as long as I stayed part human, that was.
But more than that, even if Bones and I were through, the situation with Gregor magically disappeared, and there were no ghoul rumblings, could I ever go back to living among humans, pretending to be just like them?
No. I couldn't pretend anymore that all the things inside me weren't there. Even if I walked away from the undead world for good, I'd still be more vampire than human. And if I wasn't going to walk away or try to pretend to be human again, then why was I still hanging on to my heartbeat? God, was Bones right? Had it really been just my deep-seated prejudice that held me back from taking this step before? There were a lot of reasons to change over. Did I have even one to stay the way I was?
"I'll ask Bones to do it," I heard myself say. "But he'll probably say no."
Spade didn't have headphones to keep me from hearing where we were going. No, instead he whacked me a good one to make sure I stayed asleep for the majority of the trip. Spade was a Master vampire, so when I came to, damn, my head hurt.
"You should shower straightaway before you see him," was Spade's comment once I was awake. "You still smell dreadful. Crispin might refuse to sire you just because he won't be able to stand getting close enough."
I mentally cursed Spade up one side and down the other. Something cool brushed over my hand. Without opening my eyes, I knew it was Fabian, giving me his version of a sympathetic pat. He'd tagged along on this trip. Guess even a ghost couldn't stand life at Trash Castle. At least Fabian never commented on my smell, one of the perks of not having a real nose.
"Ah, there it is," Spade said. "No peeking; can't have Gregor seeing a mailbox number in your sleep."
I was so sick of being blinded wherever I went. If Bones refused to sire me, I knew where I was going next - straight to Vlad's. I'd already called him and asked if he'd be willing to do the honors. His response had been an instant yes. I didn't know what about me had inspired Vlad's friendship, but I was grateful for it.
After another minute of driving, the car came to a stop. "Stay here," Spade said. "I'll announce us, then come get you."
"You mean you'll find out if he's even going to let me step foot out of this car," I replied with my eyes still closed.
"No worries about that. You're getting out to wash even if I have to wrestle Crispin to the ground long enough for you to do it."
"Thanks," I said. Spade just shut the door, laughing. As Bones's best friend, all his loyalty was to him, so Spade didn't care about how hard this was for me, even without all his Smelly Cat comments.
Outside the car, I heard many voices, presumably from those in the house. I strained to pick up one in particular. It was hard to filter over the din, however. There were a lot of people here, wherever here was.
"...Crispin..." Spade's voice, raised for a second.
"...brings you...?" Bones, the rest of it snatched away.
"...outside..." Spade was saying. "...see you..."
Why can't everyone shut up for a minute so I can hear? I thought.
"...by all means..." From Bones.
That settled it. I sighed. "Looks like we're going in after all, Fabian."
"Good," he said at once, then paused. "If that's what you were hoping for, of course."
In fact, a part of me had hoped Bones would refuse to even let me get out of the car. No such luck for my emotional well-being, though.
Moments later Spade opened my door. "Straight into the showers with you, he'll see you afterward. I told him it would be in his best interests to wait."
"Another comment about how I smell, and I'll stab you through the heart," I said, meaning it.
He clucked his tongue. "Vicious girl. Come along, take my arm - not so hard!"
I'd squeezed for all I was worth. Hearing Spade's yelp made me smile. "You'll have to get my clothes out of the trunk so I have something else to wear afterward, or showering will be a waste."
"We're inside," Spade commented. "You can open your eyes."
I did. Fabian floated in front of us as we walked along a very lovely foyer. Not a hint of crushed cars or garbage in sight. So this was where Bones was staying, while I'd been stuck under a trash mountain? You're so wrong, Spade, I thought. Bones could obviously care less about me.
We walked farther down the hallway. An unknown vampire gave the three of us a curious look as he passed by.
"What's that smell?" he wondered.
Fabian dematerialized, but not before I saw his grin. Spade began to laugh.
"Mind your own business," I snapped, then lashed myself when the vampire blanched. God, how rude of me!
"I'm sorry," I said. "Please don't mind me, I've been stuck in an underground garbage can."
Spade was still cracking up, so I elbowed him none too gently in the ribs.
"Can we get on with it?"
"Right away," he agreed, wiping the pink from his eyes. "Carry on, young man," he said to the dumbfounded vampire.
I walked away with as much dignity as I could muster, which in my case, was zero.
AFTER AN HOUR OF VIGOROUS SCRUBBING, I didn't have any stench left on me. Of course, that was probably because I had hardly any skin left, either. I'd washed my hair no fewer than four times, too, then conditioned it twice. Anyone whose nose was offended now could just kiss my shiny-clean ass.