“That sounds . . . incredible,” I said.
“Incredibly terrifying,” J.C. said, pointing at the kid with his knife. “Sounds a little like using a smarkwat to fight a viqxuixs.”
“A what?” Ivy asked, sighing.
“Classified,” J.C. said. “Smet, this steak is good.” He dug back into the food.
“Yeah, well,” Dion said. “I was going to help him, you know? Go to school, eventually start a new biotech company with him. I guess that dream is dead too.” He stabbed at his food. “But you know, each day he’d come home and Mom would ask, ‘Did you do any good today?’ And he’d smile. He knew he was doing something important, even if she couldn’t see it.”
“I suspect,” I said, “that your mother was prouder of him than she let on.”
“Yeah, probably. She’s not as bad as she seems sometimes. When we were younger, she worked long hours in menial jobs, supporting us after Dad died. I shouldn’t complain. It’s just . . . you know, she thinks she knows everything.”
“Unlike your average teenager,” Audrey said, smiling toward Dion.
I nodded, toying with my food, watching Dion. “Did he give you the key, Dion?” I asked him directly.
The kid shook his head.
“He doesn’t have it,” Ivy said. “He’s too bad a liar to hide this from us, in my professional estimation.”
“What you should be doing,” Dion said, digging back into his burrito, “is looking for some crazy device or something.”
“Sure,” Dion said. “He’d have built something to hide it, you know? All that maker stuff, you know? He was always gluing LED lights to things and making his own name badges and things. I’ll bet he hid it like that. You pick up a potato, and it knocks over a penny, and a hundred geese fly into the air, and the key drops on your head. Something like that.”
I looked at my aspects. They seemed skeptical, but maybe there was something to this. Not a device like Dion described, but a process. What if Panos had set up some sort of failsafe that would reveal the truth if he died—but it hadn’t been tripped for some reason.
I forced myself to eat a bit of omelet, just to be able to tell Wilson I’d done so when he inevitably asked. Unfortunately, my phone still hadn’t beeped by the time we finished. I stalled as best I could, but eventually felt it would look suspicious to Zen if we stayed any longer.
I led the way back out to the SUV, and held open the side door for my aspects before rounding to the driver’s seat. I’d just settled in, planning my next move, when I felt the cold metal of a gun barrel press against the back of my neck.
Dion climbed into the passenger seat, oblivious. He looked at me, then froze, going all white. I glanced at the rear-view mirror and caught a glimpse of Zen squatting behind my seat, gun pressed against my head.
Damn. So she hadn’t been as willing to wait as I’d hoped. My phone hung in my pocket like a dead weight. What was taking Wilson so long?
“Join me in the back, if you would please, Mister Leeds,” Zen said softly. “Young Maheras, remain in place. I assume that I needn’t warn you how willing I am to resort to violence?”
Sweating, I noticed J.C. in the rear-view mirror, his face red. He’d been sitting in the seat that Zen now squatted before, but hadn’t seen her until now. Twice she’d gotten the drop on us, and J.C. hadn’t been able to do a thing. Her skill at this was far better than my own.
J.C. took out his gun, for all the good it would do, and nodded for me to obey Zen. Getting into the back would put me into a better position to engage her.
She moved to the far back seat—scrunching Ivy and Audrey to the sides—as I moved, her gun on me at all times.
“Your weapon,” she said.
I removed it, just as I had in the alley, and placed it before me on the floor. Why was I even carrying the blasted thing?
I passed it over.
“Good job on finding the bug,” she noted to me. “We will discuss the matter further, Mister Leeds, as we go for a stroll together. Young Maheras, you are not involved in this. Move to the driver’s seat of the car. Once we are out, you are to leave. I don’t care what you do—go to the police, if you wish—but stay away. I don’t like killing people I haven’t been hired to hit. It’s bad business to . . . give away too many freebies.”
Dion was all too quick to move, scrambling into the driver’s seat, where I’d left the keys.
“This is good,” J.C. said softly. “She’s letting the boy go and is moving us out into the open.” He scrunched up his face. “I can’t figure out why she’d do either one, but I think it indicates that her superiors have demanded she not actually kill anyone.”
I nodded, sweat trickling down the back of my neck. Zen waved with her gun and I opened the side door, letting my aspects file out, J.C first, then Ivy, then Tobias. Audrey rested a hand on my arm encouragingly and I nodded, then moved to climb out before her.
Zen snapped forward, grabbing me by the shoulder and throwing me back. She snatched the door and slammed it closed.
“Maheras,” she said, turning the gun on him. “Drive. Now.”
“Go or you’re a dead man!”
The kid floored it, running over a parking lot divider. I lay stunned against the side of the car, blinking, tracking what had happened. Zen . . .
I cried out, turning and pressing my face against the window. Ivy and Tobias stood out in the parking lot, looking baffled. Zen instructed Dion to pull out of the parking lot onto the street, and then told him to continue at a normal speed—no trying to get picked up by cops, please.
I barely listened. She’d lured my aspects out, then isolated me from them. Only Audrey was left, and that was by a fluke. Another moment, and she’d have been gone too. I turned, stunned, to look at Zen, who had settled into the seat by the now-closed door, her gun held on me.
“I do my research,” she said. “As a side note, the amount that has been written about you in psychological journals was quite useful, Mister Leeds.”
Audrey sank down onto the floor between us, wrapping her hands around her knees, whimpering. She was all I had, for now, and—