Misguided Angel Page 43

"Listen, I know what you're thinking: you want to wipe my memory or something, right?

Stuart and Victoria wanted to as well, but I managed to talk them out of it. Please don't."

Deming fiddled with the chopsticks in her hair. "No, a memory wipe won't take care of it.

You know too much. If I did it, you could have . . . brain damage."

Paul glanced at the locked car door. "Then you're going to do the other thing. But maybe there's another way. I don't want that. Maybe I can be one of those human . . . what do you call it

. . . Conduits or something."

"Conduits are born, not made. It's not an open position. The Coven would never allow it.

I'm sorry. There's only one way." She knew what she had to do. Something that should have been done by someone a long time ago. Maybe that's why she had been so attracted to him, because she knew in the end, she would have to do this.

"Don't," Paul said, holding her hand. "Don't make me lesser than you. Treat me as an equal, as you have been. I'm just human, but it's our blood that keeps you alive. Without us, you are nothing."

He put a soft hand to her cheek. "Meet me on my own terms. Share yourself with me as a person. I know about the Sacred Kiss. I know what it does. What it will do to me."

His affectus pulsated with the blue of the open sea and of the endless sky. Blue was the color of truth. He loved her. That was why she'd felt her stomach churn when she'd seen Victoria Taylor in his car. She had trusted him and he had lied to her. But he had only lied to protect his friends. He was so heartbreakingly lovely, she could weep. Deming touched his neck and whispered, "I love you too."

THIRTY-NINE

Puppetmaster

Just as Paul had said, it was all a big fake. That evening the Venator team swarmed his small bedroom. Sam was searching the glom memory while Ted and a tech aide worked on the computer.

"Take a look," Ted called, pointing to the screen.

Deming leaned over and read the e-mail. It was from Victoria Taylor.

Paul, Thank you for everything. The European Coven has agreed to take us. I cannot wait until Stuart and I are together again. You are a true friend. --Victoria Everything had been staged as meticulously as a small theatrical production. Victoria had procured a corpse from the morgue. That was the body of the girl who had burned in Newport.

There were dozens and dozens of e-mails from Stuart and Victoria. They had planned to leave the country the day of Stuart's alleged burning. The whole thing was a hoax, an escape plan hidden within a conspiracy threat.

Luckily, it had all worked out for the best. No vampires had been harmed. Everyone thought Suck was a movie. The Red Bloods were still in the dark.

"You guys picking up Victoria and Stuart?" Deming asked.

"According to this they're meeting at JFK in an hour. We'll be there," replied Ted.

"The attic?"

"Checked out. His fingerprints were all over the computer, and fibers from the trunk of the car matched Stuart's DNA."

Deming realized Stuart had likely been in the trunk the night they had left Rufus King's party. So that was why Paul had looked so nervous when she'd asked him for a ride.

Sam Lennox returned from the glom. "Nothing here but boredom and loneliness," he said. "No sign of any violence or agitation. Looks like the kid was telling the truth."

It was just as she'd thought. Deming nibbled on her cuticles. Unlike the pretty story Paul had told her about Piper, in this one, everything had been as he'd described.

Deming felt relieved. She had gotten to the truth this time. Or had she? A nagging doubt remained. Everything fit too well, too simply . . . whether it was because it was the truth or because Paul had prepared another elaborate lie, she just wasn't sure. She had to cover all her bases.

"It's too easy," she muttered.

"What are you thinking?" Sam asked.

"Look, you guys kept those ashes from that burning, right? Have the bloodline checked.

Just confirm that it wasn't Victoria."

"Done." Ted nodded and called into the Venator team back at the Repository to order the test.

"Keep a team on Rayburn," Deming ordered. "He'll be waking up soon enough. Then when you guys are done here, meet me back at Bleecker. I want to take another look at those masking spells. Make sure everything checks out."

FORTY

DeathWalk

Then the Lennox brothers met Deming back at Venator quarters, one look at their drawn faces told her all she had to know. Sam sunk into the nearest battered armchair. "You were right.

The bloodline is unmistakable. Victoria Taylor is dead. She's been dead for weeks."

"And we checked the bond records," Ted added. "Victoria didn't have a bondmate in this cycle. Stuart didn't either. They were free agents. At least in this lifetime. But in any event, they weren't together, and they never were. It was all a lie. All the e-mails were faked."

Deming kept her calm, but her hands were shaking. "Stuart Rhodes?"

Sam shook his head. "The only thing we found at the airport terminal was an urn with remains. The lab's going through it now, but I have a hunch it's Stuart. Looks like the body's been dead for three days. The video was a lie. There was no saving him from the beginning."

"Where's Paul?" she asked.

If it were possible to look more desolate, Ted Lennox managed it. "The team lost him a few hours ago. He slipped away; they don't know how. Look, whoever or whatever this guy is, he's dangerous. He's not one of us, and he's killed two vampires already. He's able to conjure a doppelganger. That's real dark magic right there." The Venators had found no trace of the girl in Paul's car in the glom memory, which meant she had never existed.

"And according to you he's able to manipulate his affectus. You'd better be careful down there," Sam warned. "Are you sure we can't talk you out of this?"

"No. I need to do this," Deming said. What had Paul said to her? I heard about you, that you were coming. He had been able to prepare. He knew all about her. He knew that she relied on her talent, her facile way of knowing what was so hard for other Venators to read. He knew she would be proud of it, arrogant even. He had found a way to use her talent against her.

But he hadn't counted on her ability to learn from her mistakes. She might have been fooled once, but he was wrong to think she would fall for a love story again.

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