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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Page 31

Wait.

J.C. I hadn’t seen J.C. out the window. I turned, searching, and there he was! Charging along the sidewalk at a full run, gun in one hand, look of determination on his face. He kept pace with us, barely.

Bless you, I thought toward him. He’d reacted when the other two were caught flat-footed. He dodged around some people on the sidewalk and leaped a bench in an almost superhuman move.

Audrey perked up, looking out the window. “Wow,” she whispered. “How is he doing that?”

The car was moving at around forty miles an hour. Suddenly, I couldn’t pretend any longer. J.C. ran out of breath, lurched to a stop on the sidewalk, his face flushed. He collapsed, exhausted from a run he shouldn’t have been able to manage.

The illusion. I had to keep the illusion. Audrey looked at me, then seemed to shrink upon herself, realizing what she’d done. It wasn’t her fault, though. I’d have eventually noticed how fast we were going.

“You,” Zen said to me, “are a very dangerous man.”

“I’m not the one holding the gun,” I said, turning to face her. How was I going to do this without Ivy and Tobias to help me interact? Without J.C. to pull me out of a deadly situation?

“Yes, but I can only kill the occasional individual,” Zen said. “You bring down companies, destroy hundreds of lives. My employers are . . . concerned about what you’ve done.”

“And they think having you grab me is going to help?” I asked. “I won’t find Panos’s key for you at gunpoint, Zen.”

“They’re not worried about the body anymore,” she said, and sounded faintly troubled. “You’ve toppled their fortunes and sent the government after them. They don’t want to be associated with this hunt any longer. They just want . . . loose threads to be pulled out and disposed of.”

Great. My plan was working.

Too well.

I tried to come up with something more to say, but Zen turned from me, giving Dion a series of driving instructions. I tried to get her talking again, but she refused, and I wasn’t about to try anything physical. Not without J.C. to give advice.

Maybe . . . maybe the other aspects would find their way to wherever we were going. Given time, they probably would.

I wasn’t sure how long that would take.

Audrey spent the ride seated in the middle of the floor between our two seats, arms wrapped around her legs. I wanted to talk to her, but didn’t dare say anything with Zen watching. The assassin thought she’d isolated me without any aspects. If I let her know that one was still here, I would lose a big advantage.

Unfortunately, our drive took us to an area on the outskirts of the city. There were some new housing developments out here, as the city’s creeping expansion slowly consumed the countryside, but there were also big patches of fields and trees waiting for condos and gas stations. Zen had us pull into one of these large wooded spots, and we drove on a dirt road up to a solitary house of the “my fathers farmed this land for generations” variety.

This was far enough from neighbors that shouts would not be heard and gunshots would be attributed to the removal of vermin. Not good. Zen marched Dion and me to a cellar door set in the ground and ordered us down the stairs. Inside, sacks slumped against the wall, spilling potatoes so old they’d probably witnessed the Civil War. A bare lightbulb glared where it hung from the center of the ceiling.

“I’m going to go report,” Zen told us, taking Dion’s phone from him. “Get comfortable. My expectation is that you’re going to be living down here for a few weeks while things blow over for my employers.”

She walked up the steps and locked the cellar door.

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19

Dion let out a deep breath and put his back to the cinder block wall, then slumped down to a sitting position. “Weeks?” he asked. “Trapped in here with you?”

I paused a moment before speaking. “Yeah. That’s going to suck, eh?”

Dion looked up at me, and I cursed myself for hesitating before giving my reply. The kid looked frazzled—he’d probably never been forced to drive at gunpoint before. First time is always the worst.

“You don’t think we’re going to be down here for weeks, do you?” Dion guessed.

“I . . . No.”

“But she said—”

“They’re trained to talk that way,” I said, fishing out Zen’s bug from under my collar, then smashing it just in case. I walked around the chamber, looking for exits. “Always tell your captives they have more time than they do; it makes them relax, sets them to planning, instead of trying to break out immediately. The last thing you want to do is make them desperate, since desperate people are unpredictable.”

The kid groaned softly. I probably shouldn’t have explained that. I was feeling the lack of Ivy’s presence. Even when she didn’t guide me directly, having her around made me better at interacting with people.

“Don’t worry,” I said, kneeling down to inspect a drain in the floor, “we probably won’t be in real danger unless Zen decides to take us individually into the woods ‘for questioning.’ That will mean she’s been told to execute us.”

I prodded at the grate. Too small to crawl through, unfortunately, and it looked like it just ended in a small pit of rocks anyway. I moved on, expecting—despite myself—to hear commentary by my aspects analyzing our situation, telling me what to investigate, theorizing on how to get out.

Instead, all I heard was retching.

I spun on Dion, shocked to find him emptying his stomach onto the floor of the cellar. So much for the breakfast burrito he’d so stubbornly paid for. I waited until he was done, then walked over, taking an old towel off of a dusty table and draping it over the sick-up to smother the smell. I knelt down, resting my hand on the young man’s shoulder.

He looked awful. Red eyes, pale skin, sweat on his brow.

How to interact? What did one say? “I’m sorry.” It sounded lame, but it was all I could think of.

“She’s going to kill us,” the youth whispered.

“She might try,” I said. “But then again, she might not. Killing us is a big step, one her employers probably won’t be willing to make.”

Of course, I had made them very desperate. And desperate people were . . . well, unpredictable.

I stood up, leaving the kid to his misery, and walked to Audrey. “I need you to get us out of this,” I whispered to her.

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