Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Page 24

Behind us, Wilson pulled the SUV away—I’d given him instructions to keep driving until I called him for a pickup. I didn’t want Zen deciding to apply a little interrogation to my servant. Unfortunately, if she was determined, simply driving away wouldn’t be enough to protect him. Perhaps I should have told Zen we didn’t have her information. Yet my instincts said that the less she knew about what I’d discovered, the better off I’d be. I just needed to have a plan in place to deal with her.

Dion led us up to the house, glanced over his shoulder at me, then sighed and pushed open the door. I grabbed it and held it for my aspects, then slipped in last.

The house smelled old. Of furniture that had been polished over and over, of stale potpourri, and of burned wood from an old hearth. The careful clutter offered a new oddity on each wall and surface—a line of photos in novelty frames down one hallway, a collection of ceramic cats in a shadow box near the door, a sequence of colorful candles on the mantel with a religious tone to them. The house didn’t look lived in, it looked decorated. This was a museum for a family’s life, and they’d done a lot of living.

Dion hung his coat beside the door. The only coat there; the rest were stored neatly inside an open coat closet. He walked down the hallway, calling for his mother.

I lingered, stepping into the living room, with its rug on top of carpet and its easy chair with worn armrests. My aspects fanned out. I stepped up beside the hearth, inspecting a beautiful wall cross made from glass.

“Catholic?” I asked, noticing Ivy’s reverence.

“Close,” she said. “Greek Orthodox. That’s a depiction of Emperor Constantine.”

“Very religious,” I said, noting the candles, the paintings, the cross.

“Or just very fond of decoration,” she said. “What are we looking for?”

“The decryption code,” I said, turning. “Audrey? Any idea what it might look like.”

“It’s digital,” she said. “For a one-time pad, the key is going to be as long as the data being stored. That’s why Zen was after the flash drive.”

I looked around the room. With all of this stuff, a flash drive could be hidden practically anywhere. Tobias, Audrey, and J.C. started looking. Ivy remained beside me.

“Needle in a haystack?” I asked her softly.

“Possibly,” she said, folding her arms, tapping one finger against the opposite forearm. “Let’s go look at pictures of the family. Maybe we can determine something from them.”

I nodded, walking over to the hallway that led to the kitchen, where I’d spotted pictures of the family. Four in a row were formal photos of each member of the family. The picture of the father was old, from the seventies; he’d died when the boys were children. The mother’s picture and Dion’s picture had what appeared to be pictures of saints hanging beneath them.

No saint beneath Panos. “A symbol that he’d given up on his faith?” I asked, pointing to the empty spot.

“Nothing so dramatic,” Ivy said. “When a member of the Greek Orthodox Church is buried, a picture of Christ or their patron saint is buried with them. That picture would have been taken down in preparation for his funeral.”

I nodded, walking on a little further, searching for pictures of the family interacting. I paused beside one that showed a smiling Panos from not too long ago. He was holding up a fish while his mother—in sunglasses—hugged him from the side.

“Open and friendly, by all accounts,” Ivy said. “An idealist who joined with friends from college to start their own company. ‘If this works,’ he wrote on a forum a few months back, ‘then any person in any country could have access to powerful computing. Their own body supplies the energy, the storage, even the processing.’ Others on the forum warned about the dangers of wetware. Panos argued with them. He saw all of this as some kind of information revolution, a step forward for humankind.”

“Is there anything about those posts of his that doesn’t add up?”

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“Ask Audrey about that,” Ivy said. “I’m focused on Panos the man. Who was he? How would he act?”

“He was working on something,” I said. “Curing diseases, is that what Dion said? I’ll bet he was really annoyed when the others pulled him off of his virus research because of the cancer scare.”

“Yol knows that Panos got further in his research than he let on. It’s clear to me. Yol was spying on Panos and is really, really worried about all of this. That implies he’s worried about a danger even more catastrophic than their little cancer scare. That’s why Yol brought you in, and why he’s so desperate for you to destroy the body.”

I nodded slowly. “So what about Panos? What can you guess about him and the key?”

“If he even used one,” Ivy said, “I suspect he’d give it to a family member.”

“Agreed,” I said as Dion finally headed out the back doors, calling for his mother in the backyard.

I felt a moment of concern. Had Zen been here before us? But no. Stepping into the kitchen, I was able to see the mother outside pruning a tree. Dion walked out to her.

I delayed a moment, stepping up to Audrey and J.C.

“So,” Audrey was saying, “in the future, do we have flying cars?”

“I’m not from your future,” J.C. said. “I’m from a parallel dimension, and you’re from another one.”

“And does yours have flying cars?”

“That’s classified,” J.C. said. “So far as I can tell you, my dimension is basically like this one—only, I exist there.”

“In other words, that one is way, way worse.”

“I should shoot you, woman.”

“Try it.”

I stopped between them, but J.C. just grunted. “Don’t tempt me,” he growled at Audrey.

“No, really,” Audrey said. “Shoot me. Go ahead. Then, when it doesn’t do anything because we’re both imaginary, you’ll have to admit the truth: That you’re crazy, even for a figment of a deranged man’s psyche. That he imagined you as a repository for information. That, in truth, you’re just a flash drive yourself, J.C.”

He glared at her, then stalked away, head down.

“And,” Audrey shouted after him, “you—”