I sunk down on the floor next to Kat, and wrapped my arm around her shoulders. She was gasping for breath, rocking back and forth and trembling. “Oh my god,” she whispered. “What did you just do?”
“Exactly what you think I just did,” I said softly. “Remember when we were kids and we used to stay up late at night telling each other scary stories trying to freak each other out?”
She nodded her head mutely.
“Well, what if I were to tell you that some of them are actually true?” I whispered, looking at her with grave seriousness.
She stared up at me with shock and awe. “That’s impossible!” she protested, in denial. Denying reality right in the face of it. It reminded me of me, a week ago. Oh, if only I could go back to that ignorant state of bliss again.
I shook my head. “You honestly believe that after your trip here?” I asked her gently.
She shook her head. “I don’t know what to believe,” she said, screwing her eyes shut. “Rhi, what’s going on?”
I sighed and patted her on the back. “The world is bigger and badder than you or I ever knew.” I paused for a moment, thinking. How much did I dare to I tell Kat? I needed my best friend. I needed to confide in her. I couldn’t bear to keep secrets from her. “I’m in trouble kitty, kat. I need your help. Please,” I added desperately. Kat finally stopped rocking, and looked at me, an air of calm descending over her at last. “It has to do with my mom and dad’s murder. I think whomever is involved with their death is after me, too.”
“Oh Rhi, what have you gotten yourself involved in?” She furrowed her brows and looked at me in concern.
I cringed. “How much do you want to know?”
She looked at me indecisively for a moment and bit her lower lip. “Everything,” she finally said with a sigh. “Lay it on me, and then tell me how I can help you.”
So I began at the beginning. “Last week when I wrecked my car,” I started, “Andreas saved my life.”
I told her everything. I held nothing back. I glossed over none of the more personal details. I embellished nothing. From the night of the car accident, to waking up at the vampire’s lair this morning, I told her everything that had happened to me. To Kat’s credit, she didn’t interrupt me once. She gasped in astonishment. Her mouth gaped open in disbelief. She clucked with sympathy. She shook her head. And in the end, when I had wrapped up my tale, she buried her face in her hands in silence.
“Wow,” she said finally. “That David Walker is such a tool!” She looked up at me with a small smile. Leave it to Kat to have a practical response.
I let out a peal of laughter. “You can say that again!”
“So I guess you didn’t need that pepper spray after all, huh? Can I have it back?” she asked. Chuckling, I pulled it out of my purse, and one-upped her by handing it to her along with one of the tasers that I had been amassing in bulk lately.
“So the dud stud turned out to be a vampire, huh? That’s… well, I gotta tell you, Rhi, if anyone else had told me this story, I would have accused them of lying. This is just too much for reality.” She shook her head. “How much of a dud is that vampire after all?” she said slyly, elbowing me in the ribs. “Sleep with the enemy much?” she asked with a mischievous grin.
I gasped. “I do not! There were extenuating circumstances, Kat! Last night was a huge mistake.”
She nodded her head. “Uh huh, that’s not what I’m hearing from over here,” she teased. “So was it good?” She leaned back.
That was Kat, always wanting to know the dirty details, even in an unbelievable situation. I grinned at her and let out a long and languorous sigh. “You have no idea.” I shook my head ruefully. “But I’m not going to do that again,” I shook my head.
She laughed. “Oh please, Rhiannon, why the hell not? I would, if I were you. Give up a little bit of blood to screw a gorgeous and rich 800-year-old vampire who has his own personal jet? Who wouldn’t?” she snorted. “He’s probably learned a few tricks over the centuries.”
I shot her a dirty look. “Get your mind out of the gutter, please.”
She flashed me a mighty grin. “Rhiannon’s dating a vampire,” she said in a sing-song.
“I am not!” I retorted, shoving her childishly.
“Oh, let’s see now,” she said thoughtfully. “He took you to the opera, took you to his club, flew you to Portland, took you out to dessert, picked you back up from Portland, and screwed your royal brains out. I’d say that’s dating.” She nodded her head emphatically.
I stuck my tongue out at her. “Thank you Dr. Ruth, but it was a one-time deal, I am not going to repeat that again.”
She rolled her eyes. “Live a little, Rhi. You’re in a position I never knew existed and could never have dreamed possible. Take advantage of it while you can.” I loved Kat for being so well-adjusted she could even accept the impossible with aplomb. I wondered how long it would take, though, for the other shoe to drop and for her to freak out.
I sighed. “We’ll discuss this later. For now, I seriously need your help, please,” I said plaintively.
“Absolutely,” she agreed.
I sighed in relief. “Thank you,” I said. I grabbed my carry-on from my desk and pulled out the stack of files. “These are files about people that are all connected in some way or another with TerraGen Industries and Marshall Lewis. Lewis, in turn, is somehow connected with the people who are after me. I don’t have all the pieces yet, so I don’t know how they fit together. I flipped open the first file and pulled out the DVD. “I have a feeling that one of the pieces is on this disk.” I waved the disk. “This is filled with DNA mumbo jumbo; all As, Ts, Gs and Cs. I can’t make heads or tails of it, so I don’t know what any of it means!”
A light of understanding dawned in Kat’s eyes. She took the disk from my hands thoughtfully. “Without a lab or the right software I don’t know how much I can help you,” she cautioned.
I gave her a gravely serious look, trying to impress upon her the importance of the situation. “We nearly got blown up trying to get these files, Kat. There is something important here, I know it, I just don’t know what it is. Please Kat, you at least have to try.” I picked up the stack of files and placed them on my desk next to my computer.
She sighed, and walked around my desk, sitting in my chair. “All right. Turn on this dinosaur of a machine and get me a pad of paper, and I’ll see what I can do. You do have internet access, right?”
“Thank you,” I whispered. I flipped the switch and my desktop computer powered up. I pulled a pad of paper out of one of my drawers, logged her in, and stepped out of her way.
“TerraGen owns the company I work for,” she said quietly as she put the first DVD into the disk drive. “I just thought you should know.”
There was a knock at my office door. Grant opened the door and stepped in. “I’ve got lunch!” He said, holding up bags that smelled of Chinese take-out.
Kat looked up at him. “I can’t believe you’re mixed up in this too.” she accused him.
He shrugged, setting the food on the edge of my desk. “Where Rhi goes, I go. Do you need any help? It’s been a while, but I still remember compiling genetic profiles back in the day. Granted, they were for Douglas firs, but the theory’s still the same, right?”
“Yes, and yes,” Kat said gratefully.
“Excellent!” Grant grabbed a chair and pulled it over by Kat. “I’ve closed the nursery for the day, Rhi,” he informed me. “It seemed like a good idea. Now get out of here, and let us get some work done,” he ordered, pointing me towards the door.
I stepped out of my office, grabbing my purse as I left, and closed the door behind me, feeling useless. I walked back into the main nursery and found Andreas and the fairies. The fairies were flitting about, frolicking, doing aerial acrobatics. I envied them their freedom at that moment. To be so carefree would be a blessing. I set my bag on the counter. Andreas was seated behind it, near the cash register eating egg rolls. He looked half miserable, and half pissed off. I slowly walked up to him. “I’m sorry, Andreas,” I said softly. “It was the only way I knew to get her here safely and quickly.”
“You have no idea what you are messing with,” he fumed. “We have spent thousands of years protecting ourselves from humans who consistently destroy what they don’t understand, and yet you’ve foolishly risked exposure without a hesitation! It wasn’t your only option!”
I tossed my arms up. “Well, I’m sorry if I’m in a hurry, but I only have until tomorrow before your stupid council whimsically decides my fate for me, and I want some answers before then, so I didn’t want to waste the time on public human transportation which could have turned into a disaster anyway, so it seemed like the best option at the time!” I yelled, as furious with him as he was with me.
He sneered. “Do you have any idea of the burden you’ve placed on your best friend’s shoulders now? What she now knows could cost her her life.”
Her life? I gasped, and grabbed the counter, as suddenly my knees didn’t want to support me anymore.
He smiled grimly. “So the neophyte doesn’t know everything after all,” he said sarcastically. “Yes, that’s right. If she tells anyone, she will be killed, and they will be killed, and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. We have laws and rules protecting us and governing us, and just like in your human world, ignorance is no excuse!”
I pounded the counter top in fury and frustration. I picked up a pot and threw it as hard as I could. It hit the far wall and shattered, sending a cloud of dirt up into the air. “Damn you!” I cried. I sunk to the floor, choking back a sob, my thoughts in turmoil. Tears spilled unbidden down my cheeks. “This is all your fault!” I sobbed. A week’s worth of frustration, anger, confusion and helplessness came pouring out of me. “Why did you have to be in the middle of the road?” I gasped. If he had never been there, I would never have had the accident, and he would never have saved me, and none of this would have ever happened!
He bent down and gently pulled me back up. His anger had vanished. He wrapped me in his arms. I pounded my fists on his chest, wracked with grief over my lost innocence. I could never go back to the person I was before, my life would never be the same again. He had irrevocably altered the course of my existence when he saved me. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for him. I could have been happy in my ignorance. “Damn you,” I cried.
He just held me while I cried, and his kindness cut deeper than his anger did. “I know, I know. I’m so sorry,” he whispered, burying his face in my hair. “If I could undo it I would. Believe me, Rhiannon. I had no idea. Please forgive me.” He wiped the tears off my cheeks with his hands and looked me in the eyes. His bright blue eyes swam with sympathy and guilt. “I won’t let the council lock you up. I won’t let Lewis or TerraGen get their hands on you. I promise you.”
He kissed me fiercely, desperately, and I clung to him, letting him wipe away all of my fear and anger with his lips, and my tears flowed anew with the knowledge that he didn’t hate me and had forgiven me. He kissed my wet cheeks, and my eyes, tasting my tears. “Be brave,” he whispered in my ear, stroking my hair.
I nodded my head, and calmed down. I extricated myself from his arms, and reluctantly stepped away. I touched my lips with my fingers in confusion and wonder. I wanted him to kiss me again, but this was neither the time nor the place to consider that. He knew it, too. With an imperceptible nod, he got back to business. “Now why don’t we take a look at your hospital file,” he suggested, going back to his stool.
I pulled the envelope out of my bag, and we went through the papers. There was an itemized bill for everything from the ambulance ride to the toothbrush that I didn’t even use. X-ray reports and a lab report were included. I snatched up the lab report, trying to interpret what it was about. Sure enough, they had drawn my blood and sent it to the hospital lab for analysis. I didn’t even remember the needle, but that whole night had been a bit of a blur.
“How much do you want to bet that TerraGen has a stake in that hospital lab?” Andreas asked grimly.
I agreed. “They seem to have their fingers in everywhere. They even own the lab Kat works for.”
“Your lab results don’t show anything unusual,” he commented, after reading them over closely. “I’m no expert, but I think they only ran a couple of standard tests.” He looked up at me. “What do you suppose happened to the rest of the sample?” he asked darkly
I narrowed my eyes. “I’d bet money it was processed by TerraGen, and someone there knew to look for something unusual.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Ok, so what do we know, now?”
I thought about that, and started ticking off points. “We know that TerraGen is involved in genetic research. We know they know about my… recent upgrades,” I said dryly, smiling at him. “We know that someone has been watching me, probably for a while, since they had an empty file with my name on it and the date of the accident, and since they sent someone to date and spy on me even before then,” I added bitterly. “We have two dozen files of seemingly random people that are all connected to Marshall Lewis or TerraGen in one way or another. We know that someone killed my parents, and it could be related to his research in neuro-engineering. The spy who dated me miraculously disappeared into thin air after being captured, which certainly speaks of something unnatural. And finally,” I said, pausing to catch my breath, “We know that someone talked a vampire into killing my parents in a decidedly unvampiric way.”
“Ok, what do we know about that vampire?” Andreas asked thoughtfully.
I jumped up. “I almost forgot!” I exclaimed. “Lucas couriered the information over! It’s got to be here somewhere.” We searched underneath the counter. “Milly and Ida generally stick packages down here,” I muttered, tearing through the shelves. I found the envelope in question on the bottom shelf sitting on top of a box of shopping bags.
I tossed it on the counter and Andreas ripped it open. We hurriedly went through the papers. Warren O’Dell was born in 1949, and “reborn” in 1991. He had a criminal record as a mortal, spending time in jail for burglary and petty theft, but all non-violent crimes. “He didn’t seem the type to murder,” I mused.
“Vampirism changes people,” Andreas pointed out.
Oh, I knew that only too well. I didn’t comment on that, not wanting to stir up any bad feelings. “Since becoming a vampire he seemed to be a fairly social creature,” I said, reading further into Lucas’ report. I looked up at Andreas. “Then again vampires are fairly social creatures by nature.” Lucas wrote that O’Dell was considered an ‘ideal’ vampire, never crossing the line, never broke the rules. Sure, a couple of mortals associated with him disappeared, as Lucas put it, but that happens.
“The last time anyone saw him was the day before my parents were murdered.” I read. Lucas had already told us that, though. He had also included written statements from O’Dell’s known associates, both mortal and non-mortal, although only one living mortal associate could be found. All in all, it was a very thorough investigation.
“What alarms me the most,” said Andreas, “Is that his bank accounts were never touched again. Credit cards in his name and aliases were never used, his home was abandoned, he just up and disappeared.”
“Just like David,” I whispered, lost in thought. “And David knew his name!” I sighed, and leaned on the counter, resting my chin on my fist. “What’s the connection? What are we missing? How can two people, one human, one vampire, both be associated with the same situation, and both up and disappear into thin air? And what’s the connection to me?”
Frankincense zoomed down and joined the discussion, hovering at shoulder level. “No one can disappear into thin air!” he chimed in.
“Except for angels and fairies, of course,” added Myrrh, doing a fly-by in between Andreas and I.
I looked at Myrrh sharply. “You mean teleporting?”
Frank snorted, a seemingly odd sound coming from a fairy. “Only angels teleport! Fairies just disappear.”
Andreas shook his head. “We’re talking about a human and a vampire, anyway. Not fairies and angels, so it’s irrelevant.”
Frankincense laughed, and flew circles around my head. “Watch!” he shouted, and with a blink of sparkling glitter, he vanished in midair, right in front of my eyes as he flew past them.
I gasped, amazed. “How do you do that?” I asked, mystified, and curious, wondering suddenly if I could learn how to do it.
Myrrh, landing on the counter, looked miffed. “Like we’d tell you in front of him,” she drawled, gesturing towards Andreas.
Andreas folded his arms and rolled his eyes. “We don’t have time for this, Rhiannon. You can learn how to be a fairy later. They are masters of distraction.”
I sighed, disappointed, but knowing he had a point. “You’re right. Another time, you two,” I said with a frown.
Frank reappeared with a slight pop a few feet away. “Spoil sport,” he pouted. He folded his arms across his chest and sulked.
I heard a door slam in the back room. Both of the fairies vanished into thin air with the faintest of glimmers as soon as they heard noise. Kat came tearing through the employee’s only door. “You guys!” she shouted, excitement shining on her face. “I think we’ve got it!” She grinned.
Andreas and I both jumped up, and ran, following her back into my office. My heart pounded with excitement.
My office looked like a paper factory had exploded. All the folders were opened and scattered about. Kat and Grant must have wasted an entire ream of paper printing out all the mumbo jumbo code, which was taped all over the walls like some weird homage to Watson and Crick, the crackers of the genetic code. Karyogram images of chromosomes lined up in order like a well-trained marching band printed on paper were scattered all across my desk top.
Grant and Kat were both filled with excitement, and very animatedly started talking simultaneously about genes and protein sequencing, their worlds spilling over each other’s in a cacophony of scientific confusion that I couldn’t follow. “Wait, wait,” I stopped them, holding a hand up. “Slow down! And in English please, Andreas is going to get lost!”
Kat looked up with a sigh. “Ok. Humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, right?” She handed Andreas a copy of a karyogram so he could examine the 23 pairs. “Each chromosome is comprised of a double helix of nucleotides, bound together by a backbone of phosphate groups and deoxyribose sugar groups. It looks kind of like a ladder. Each rung of the ladder is a pair of nucleotides. A matches with T, and C matches with G.” She paused to look at us, and make sure we were following. I nodded my head. This wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. “Each chromosome can have anywhere from fifty million to two-hundred and fifty million pairs of them. These nucleotides code for all the proteins in your body, and you inherit half from your mom, and half from your dad. Follow?” She gave Andreas a droll look. He nodded.
“Good. Now usually I work with genetic profiles, which is a basic map of specific genes that code for specific proteins on each chromosome. What we generally look at isn’t a map of every single nucleotide. That’s what was on these disks, though.” She looked over at me, excitedly. “Do you have any idea how complicated and costly it is to map somebody’s entire genetic code? Whoever did this has a lot of money to waste. Anyway, these DVDs contained all that and then some. Now these twenty-four files…” she paused, and looked at Grant, who gave her a nod to continue. “Their genetic profiles were all perfectly normal. One-hundred percent ordinary everyday healthy human, some male, some female, no noteworthy genetic disorders, and none of them were related to each other. We were stumped. Why would somebody who’s supposedly after you spend so much money on such ordinary people? And then I took a closer look at the karyograms.” She grinned triumphantly. She handed me one. “Take a look at chromosome number two, at the short arm.”
I looked at the picture, but it meant nothing to me. I looked up at her and shrugged. “What on earth am I looking at, Kat?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like teaching children,” she muttered, shaking her head. “The second chromosome is the longest one in the human body,” she explained. “It alone contains almost eight percent of your genes.”
“Except for these people,” Grant jumped in excitedly. “It contains a full twelve percent!”
I looked at Andreas, and he looked at me, and we both shrugged. “So?” I asked, not grasping what they were getting at.
“So?” Kat shrieked, in excited repetition. “That’s an extra four percent of DNA! Do you know what that means?” she demanded, her face flushed with excitement.
I looked at Andreas again. We both slowly shook our heads in ignorance. “Sorry, Kat, I have no clue,” I said with a shrug.
She laughed. “Neither do I,” she admitted, “except that there are at least twenty-four people out there who can code for four percent more proteins and enzymes than any other human.” Her eyes gleamed. “Who knows what they can do? It could be nothing, it could be everything! I won’t know until I have time to analyze their full code in a real lab,” she finished in a hot whisper. She was practically shaking with contained energy.
I think I understood what she was trying to tell me. It made sense. Suddenly everything started to make a little more sense. “So,” I said slowly, “What you’re saying is that there are at least two dozen humans out there who are four percent more than any other human?”
“What I’m saying,” she said, her voice very controlled, “is that there are at least two dozen people out there who are as much related to humans as chimpanzees are.”
I gasped, and the answer hit me, like a freight train, and all the pieces fell into place, and I saw and understood with crystal clarity exactly what she meant, and exactly what was going on. I stepped backward, trembling, in shock. Andreas grabbed my arm to steady me.
“Whatever these people are, they aren’t human,” Kat said, a tremor in her voice. “They look human, they act human, they sound human, but they aren’t human!”
I slowly sunk to the floor and sat, as goose bumps coursed across my flesh, and I had the strangest sense of déjà vu.
“Rhiannon?” Andreas asked, kneeling down next to me. “Are you alright? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
I looked up at Andreas with wide eyes. “Oh my god, Andreas. I know what they are. I know what I am.” I trembled with the certainty of it. It was the only thing that made sense. “Skin-walkers,” I whispered.