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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Page 20

In some ways, I often feel like my White Room. A blank slate. The aspects have all the character. I try very hard to not stand out. Because I am not crazy.

I dried my hands and waited for Tobias to wash up, then we rejoined the others outside and walked toward the security station. It consisted of a circular desk with an open center, the type you’d find at a mall beneath a sign proclaiming “Information.” I walked up and the security guard looked me over—like I was a piece of pizza and he was trying to decide how long I’d been sitting in the fridge. He didn’t ask what I wanted. Liza had called him to tell him to prepare camera footage for me.

The desk really was too small for this hulk of a man. When he leaned forward, the inside front of the desk pressed into his gut; I was left with the impression of a grape being squeezed from the bottom.

“You,” the guard said with a deep baritone voice, “are the crazy one, aren’t you?”

“Well, that’s not actually true,” I said. “You see, the standard definition of insanity is—”

He leaned forward farther, and I pitied the poor desk. “You’re armed.”

“Uh . . .”

“So am I,” the guard said softly. “Don’t try anything.”

“Okaaay,” Ivy said from beside me. “Creepy guy manning the security station.”

“I like him,” J.C. said.

“Of course you do.”

The guard slowly lifted a flash drive. “Footage is on here.”

I took it. “You’re certain the security system was on that night?”

The man nodded. His hand made a fist, as if me even asking something so stupid was an offense worthy of a pounding.

“Uh,” I said, watching that fist, “Liza says you leave it on during the day now, too?”

“I’m going to catch him,” the guard said. “Nobody breaks into my building.”

“Twice,” I said.

The guard eyed me.

“Nobody breaks into your building twice,” I said. “Since they did it once already. Actually . . . they might have done it twice already, since the first time they placed the tape on the door—but you might call that more of an infiltration than a break-in.”

“Don’t give me lip,” the man said, pointing at me, “and don’t make trouble. Otherwise I’ll thump you so hard, it’ll knock some of your personalities into the next state.”

“Ouch,” Audrey said, flipping through a magazine she’d found on his desk. “Ask him why, if he’s so amazingly observant, he hasn’t noticed that his fly is down.”

I smiled, then made a quick exit. Liza watched me go from the doorway of her office.

Outside, I held up the flash drive, then began moving along the side of the building. I waved to Wilson, who was still in the car. Panos’s brother sat sullenly in the front passenger seat, drinking a glass of lemonade.

I rounded the building, aspects trailing, so we could get a good look at the exterior. It had small windows, maybe large enough to fit through. No fire escape. I approached a back door; it was locked tight. I gave it a good shake anyway.

“Someone impersonated a priest,” I said to the aspects, “and slipped in to inspect the body and place the tape. Then they came back at night to extract the corpse. So why didn’t they just take a sample of the body’s cells when they were first there, in the room with it?”

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I looked toward the others, who all seemed baffled.

“I guess they didn’t know where on the body the modified cells were to be found,” Tobias finally said. “There are many, many cells in the body. How were they to know which place held the information they wanted?”

“Perhaps.” I folded my arms, dissatisfied. We’re missing something, I thought. A very important piece of all this. It—

The back door burst open. The security guard stood there, puffing, hand on his sidearm. He glared at me.

“I just wanted to check,” I said, inspecting the now-open doorway. Tape wouldn’t work here; the door had a deadbolt. “Nice response time, by the way.”

He poked a finger at me. “Don’t push me.”

He slammed the door. I continued on my way, rounding the corner into a little alleyway between this building and the next, looking for other entrances. I was about halfway down it when I heard the soft click behind me.

I spun, as did my aspects. There stood Zen Rigby beside a large trash bin, holding a paper bag with one hand inside of it, her posture innocent.

“SIG Sauer P239,” J.C. said softly, looking at the bag, which undoubtedly held a gun.

“You can tell the type of gun by the way it sounds to cock?” Ivy asked.

“Well yeah,” J.C. said. “Duh.” He looked embarrassed as he said it, though, and gave me a glance. He felt he should have spotted Zen sneaking up on us. But he could only hear or see what I did.

“Mister Leeds,” the woman said. Like last night, she wore a pantsuit and white blouse. She was dark and short with straight black hair. No jewelry.

I inclined my head toward her.

“I will need you to divest yourself of your sidearm,” Zen said. “With attention and care, please, lest an unfortunate incident result.”

I glanced at J.C.

“Do it,” he said, though he sounded reluctant. “She probably won’t try to kill us here.”

“Probably?” Audrey asked, looking pale.

I slowly slid my gun out, then leaned down and set it on the ground before kicking it away. Zen smiled, sack still carried in a way that would make it easy to raise and shoot me.

“You called me earlier,” she said. “A ploy which I must commend. I assume the purpose was to determine if I was following you or not?”

I nodded, hands at my sides, breathing quickly. I found myself in situations like this far too often. I wasn’t a soldier or a cop; I wasn’t cool under fire. I did not like having a gun pointed at me.

“Control the situation, Skinny,” J.C. said from beside me. “The people who end up dead are the ones who lose control. Don’t let your nerves determine how this plays out.”

“Now,” Zen said, “I’ll need that flash drive.”

I blinked. The flash drive . . .

She thought the flash drive contained the code to unlock Panos’s data. How must it look to her? I got hired by Yol, then spent the night working. I headed to the coroner as soon as possible in the morning, then walked out with a flash drive.

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