This Side of the Grave

Page 26

"If Cat is still being used as the focal point behind this fang oppression rhetoric, you'd think more of his followers would question why Apollyon doesn't just unite them together to kill her," Vlad noted, as if he were discussing squashing a bug. If he hadn't proved himself to be a good friend many times over, I'd be insulted.

"Oh, they have an answer for that," Dave said dryly. "Scythe's stating that if anyone kills Cat, then the vampire nation will know ghouls are onto them. Which is why ghouls have to rise up now, while the vampires least expect it and the scales are tipped in our favor. Then, Apollyon's first act once he wins the war will be to kill Cat publicly. That way, it will have the maximum crushing effect on the surviving vampires' psyche." Scheming murderouspricks, I thought in disgusted fury, but kept it to myself this time.

A low growl sounded to my right. I turned, surprised to see it was coming from Fabian.

"Not once did the question of what my people would do during all this come up for discussion, did it?" Fabian asked, his voice sharp.

Dave looked as surprised as I felt at that. "Uh, no, no one mentioned ghosts," he answered, sounding both uncomfortable and apologetic.

Fabian's transparent features were as angry as I had ever seen them. "We might not have the same abilities as the rest of you, but ghosts are not without power, and we. Are. Many," he said, emphasizing the last three words.

"Remnants and wraiths I can see being able to tip the scales in battle, but what can the average spectre do?" Vlad asked, sounding a bit impatient. "Your species can provide valuable intelligence and carry messages before a conflict starts, true, but once the fighting begins, your usefulness ends."

Part of me wanted to chastise Vlad for being so cold in his assessment of ghosts, but the other part guiltily agreed with him. Remnants? Scary. Wraiths? Scary. Ghosts? Not scary, unless maybe you were a human and you happened to glimpse one in a graveyard. Or you were a kid and one screamed, "Boogie woogie woogie!" while popping up from under your bed.

"There are those of my kind that are more powerful than others," Fabian insisted. "Why do you think humans who aren't psychic have been able to see ghosts? Why some are caught on film or voice recorder? Why some have even attacked people, leaving visible scratches and other injuries? Some ghosts are strong enough to manifest themselves into solid form, sometimes for several hours. Aside from that, when you have enough of my people united in a common purpose, we can manifest enough energy to turn it into an effective weapon." I was startled. Dave pursed his lips in thought. Mencheres's expression was its usual hooded mask, but Vlad eyed Fabian with open challenge.

"If ghosts can do all that, why do you waste your time haunting old homes and cemeteries, or scaring humans with random strange noises and useless cold spots? You're squandering your worth."

"Vlad, enough," I said shortly. Whatever his thoughts on ghosts' peculiar habits, Fabian was still my friend. I wouldn't just stand there while his whole race was being put down.

Fabian didn't flinch under Vlad's harsh analysis. "You have no idea what it's like, existing between worlds," he said, floating closer instead of backing away. "We are neither the living nor the undead. It takes years to cope with the fact that even though over ninety-nine percent of everyone who dies crosses over to the next place, you are left behind. Years to accept that everything you worked for in your life is gone, and the shell of memory is all that remains.

Years to recover from hopelessly trying to communicate with loved ones, only to fail time and again because no one except the crazed, psychics, the undead, or other ghosts can see you. Years to accept - even if you don't understand why - that vampires and ghouls will treat you worse than they do vermin, even though they are no more human than you are." Fabian advanced again, until his finger disappeared into Vlad's chest. "I'd dare the strongest of your race or any other to say that they've conquered the same hardships my people have overcome. So think again before you question a ghost's worth, or judge those younger ones who are still in the process of becoming tougher than anyone tied to flesh will ever be!" Stunned silence filled the air once Fabian was finished. I wanted to break out into apologies and applause all at the same time, but I was still recovering from my shock at how my mild-mannered, Casper-esque friend had just unloaded a truck full of I-dare-yous onto one of the scariest vampires in existence. Damned if I would ever underestimate a ghost's chutzpah again, or question their fortitude. Being noncorporeal clearly didn't equate to lacking a pair of balls.

I wasn't the only one taken aback. Dave's mouth hung open, and Mencheres gave Fabian a once-over that showed he was considering him in a whole new light. As for Vlad, his expression had changed from bored disdain to speculative interest as he stared at the finger still jabbed half through his chest.

"If there are more ghosts like you who can channel the same impressive anger into something tangible, then you're right. Ghosts would be a valuable asset to have in a fight," Vlad said, inclining his head.

Fabian acknowledged the gesture with a nod of his own, pulling his finger and then the rest of himself back to float by me. I didn't give him a high five - that didn't work very well with ghosts - but I did flash him a discreet thumbs-up. So much for me needing to defend him or his species. I couldn't have done half as good a job as Fabian had.

"All right. If things go even more south with Apollyon, good to know we can potentially add ghosts to our list of allies, if Fabian can act as ambassador between his people and ours," I said, bringing things back to the original subject. "Dave, where was this fun little rally held, anyway?"

He grimaced. "You're really not going to like this part. From the bits of conversation I overheard, Apollyon is the owner of a few large chains of funeral homes and cemeteries, using humans as figureheads for investors and board members. The rally was behind a funeral home that bordered a cemetery. Lots of room there, and they had guards around the area to keep anyone away who wasn't on the guest list."

Damn Apollyon. The short, balding shit was clever. No one would think twice about a large group gathered at a graveyard. They'd just assume someone rich or from a big family was being buried. Most people didn't visit cemeteries for cheery reasons, so it wasn't the place where striking up impromptu conversations was the norm. Not to mention it would take a really ballsy person to go up to a group gathered around a gravesite with the opening line of "So what are we talking about, anyway?"

Vlad let out a bark of laughter. "He's found a way to make money from eating, not to mention have a network of secure locations for meetings."

"Make money from . . . oh," I said as the rest of what Apollyon was doing became clear.

"He's not burying all the bodies brought to him, but eating some instead?"

"Not just some," Dave supplied grimly. "Lots. If you're a member of Apollyon's line, either by blood or membership through his extremist group, then your food's supplied to you for free. If not, Apollyon has an underground supermarket for ghouls who would rather buy their own food than go out hunting and gathering for it."

I couldn't throw up anymore, but I thought I might dry heave. Most of the times, ghouls ate raw meat of the animal variety, like uncooked steak or pork roast. But at least a couple times of year, they needed to add some Homo sapiens to their diet in order to maintain their strength.

Don supplied Dave's extra dietary requirements from bodies donated to science or left unclaimed at hospitals. It didn't take much. One corpse on ice parceled out in small amounts could last a ghoul a year or two, easy.

But taking money from grieving families to bury their loved ones, then turning around and selling those loved ones like so much deli meat while burying an empty casket instead? That was just . . . wrong.

"Apollyon makes those pension-stealing Wall Street crooks look like amateurs," I said, shaking my head.

"That's damn straight," Dave muttered.

"It does give us a new way to attempt to track him," Mencheres noted, logical as always.

"I'll have some ghouls in our line start investigating places rumored to sell human meat. Perhaps we can find one connected to Apollyon. In the interim, Dave, tell me where this funeral home is.

I want to go there."

"Why?" I asked. "I'll have Tate start watching it from satellite and tapping into their phone lines and Internet to see if we can luck out and snag Apollyon that way, but all of us showing up there is too risky."

Mencheres gave me a faint smile. "I agree. That's why I'll be going alone."

"Haven't you had enough of risking your life to play lone hero lately?" Vlad asked, making an exasperated noise.

"One vampire stands a far better chance of avoiding notice than three," Mencheres pointed out. "I agree that everything Cat outlined should be done, but that's not enough. If I'm close, I can listen to the thoughts of any humans they might employ, as well as scent the area to see if Apollyon's been there - and before you tell me you can do all these things, of the three of us, I am better equipped to escape should my presence be detected." I'd love to argue with him, but he was right, and the tight line of Vlad's mouth said that he knew it, too.

"When are you intending to do this?" I asked, glancing out the window. It would be dark in a couple hours, and we were supposed to be cruising the bar and club scene as usual, hoping Apollyon or one of his close aides was in a partying mood.

"Now," Mencheres said, nodding at Dave. "Direct me."

Dave gave him the location of the funeral home/cemetery, and Mencheres walked away without another word, heading up the stairs to weapon up, I guessed.

"You'll call us when you're done, right?"

"Yes," his voice floated down.

Dave glanced at his watch. "I gotta get back. Don't want them swinging by my apartment early and wondering why I'm not there."

I gave him a final hug, resisting the urge to tell him to be careful. He was a smart, tough soldier and he already knew that.

"I'll see you guys soon" was what I said to Dave and Fabian, hoping I sounded confident and not like it was a prayer. Fabian might be able to slip away unscathed to warn us if Dave's spying was discovered, but even at our fastest, we might not be able to rescue Dave in time, and he knew it.

"Say hi to Tate and the rest of the guys," Dave said.

"Will do."

I kept my smile until they left, and then it dropped from my face like a fallen bridge. Vlad turned away, saying something about checking in with his people.

He wasn't the only one who had to make a phone call. I sighed, then picked up my cell to call Tate and give them the location of the latest place to put under surveillance - and hope he had no awful news to relay about my mother or uncle.

Chapter Twenty-seven

I stared out the window, lost in mythoughts, barely noticing the blur of buildings that we drove past. Most of Memphis had recovered from the terrible flooding last year, but here and there, you could still see signs of the water's ravages. The people had bounced back, though, reopening businesses and rebuilding homes. Ghosts might have proved to be a surprisingly tough bunch, as Fabian pointed out, but my species - or former species, I guess - was pretty resilient, too.

I frowned when Vlad turned the corner and went down a long street that didn't look like it was anywhere close to the bar we were supposed to go to.

"You're not lost, are you?"

He glanced at me, one side of his mouth ticked up in a sly smile. "Field trip," he said, taking the next right.

I took one look at the wrought-iron arch at the end of the road and shook my head.

"A cemetery? We agreed that Mencheres was doing recon on Apollyon, not us!"

"We're not here looking for Apollyon or any other ghouls," Vlad replied evenly. He parked at the farthest spot from the entrance before turning to fully face me. "We're here because you're going to try that new trick you picked up from Marie." For several seconds, I was speechless, torn between wondering if I should lie and say I didn't know what he was talking about, or demand to know who told him. I couldn't imagine that Bones would have said anything to Tepesh. They certainly weren't close.

"What do you think you know about that?" I settled on at last, giving him a hard look. No way would I start babbling out a confession, even if he was drilling me with the ol' Dracula knowing stare.

"I know you didn't start wearing garlic and weed just to make a bold fashion statement, and that your sudden popularity with ghosts didn't start until after you saw Marie," Vlad said, his mouth twisting. "Hadn't quite worked it all out until this morning, when I heard you mention being able to stand the 'freaky ghost juju' from Marie during that unutterably sappy conversation you had with Bones. Then I realized what was going on. Very impressive, being able to absorb powers from ghouls, too."

"Are you crazy?" I hissed, looking around. "What if this cemetery is crawling with you-know-who's people and they overheard you?"

He snorted. "It's not. I'd feel it if there were ghouls here. I'm a lot older than you, so my range is stronger. The only dead things around for a mile in any direction are you, me, and everyone buried under the dirt."

That mollified me, but I still remembered the warning Bones had relayed from Marie about what would happen if we told anyone that I'd drunk her blood. "It's not just the dead or undead we need to worry about overhearing," I said, jerking my head toward the window.

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.