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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Page 5

“Founded by engineers,” Yol said, “run by engineers, and—unfortunately—named by engineers. They’re waiting for us inside. Note, Steve, that what I’m asking you to do goes beyond friendship. Deal with this for me, and our debt will be settled, and then some.”

“If a hit woman is really involved, Yol,” I said reluctantly, “that’s not going to be enough. I’m not going to risk my life for a favor.”

“What about wealth?”

“I’m already rich,” I said.

“Not riches, wealth. Complete financial independence.”

That gave me pause. It was true; I had money. But my delusions required a lot of space and investment. Many rooms in my mansion, multiple seats on the plane each time I fly, fleets of cars and drivers whenever I wanted to go somewhere for an extended time. Perhaps I could have bought a smaller house and forced my aspects to live in the basement or shacks on the lawn. The problem was that when they were unhappy—when the illusion of it started to break down—things got . . . bad for me.

I was finally dealing with this thing. Whatever twisted psychology made me tick, I was far more stable now than I had been at the start. I wanted to keep it that way.

“Are you in personal danger?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” Yol said. “I might be.” He handed me an envelope.

“Money?” I asked.

“Shares in I3,” Yol said. “I purchased the company six months ago. The things this company is working on are revolutionary. That envelope gives you a ten percent stake. I’ve already filed the paperwork. It’s yours, whether you take the job or not. A consultation fee.”

I fingered the envelope. “If I don’t solve your problem, this will be worthless, eh?”

Yol grinned. “You got it. But if you do solve it, that envelope could be worth tens of millions. Maybe hundreds of millions.”

“Damn,” J.C. said.

“Language,” Ivy said, punching him in the shoulder. At this rate, those two were either heading for a full-blown screaming match or a makeout session. I could never tell.

I looked at Tobias, who sat across from me in the limo. He leaned forward, clasping his hands before him, looking me in the eye. “We could do a lot with that money,” he said. “We might have the resources, finally, to track her down.”

Sandra knew things about me, things about how I thought. She understood aspects. Hell, she’d taught me how they work. She’d captivated me.

And then she’d gone. In an instant.

“The camera,” I said.

“The camera doesn’t work,” Tobias said. “Arnaud said he could be years away from figuring it out.”

I fingered the envelope.

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“She’s actively blocking your efforts to find her, Stephen,” Tobias said. “You can’t deny that. Sandra doesn’t want to be found. To get to her, we’ll need resources. Freedom to ignore cases for a while, money to overcome roadblocks.”

I glanced at Ivy, who shook her head. She and Tobias disagreed on what we should be doing in regard to Sandra—but she’d had her say earlier.

I looked back at Yol. “I assume that I have to agree before I can know about the technology you people are involved in?”

Yol spread his hands. “I trust you, Steve. That money is yours. Go in. Hear them out. That’s all I’m asking. You can say yes or no afterward.”

“All right,” I said, pocketing the envelope. “Let me hear what your people have to say.”

4

I3 was one of those “new” technology companies, the kind decorated like a daycare, with bright walls painted in primary colors and bean bag chairs set at every intersection. Yol popped some ice cream bars out of a chest freezer and tossed one to each of his bodyguards. I declined, hands behind my back, but he then wagged one at the empty air between us.

“Sure,” Ivy said, holding out her hands.

I pointed, and Yol tossed one in her direction. Which was a problem. Those who work closely with me know to just pantomime, letting my mind fill in the details. Since Yol actually threw the thing, my ability to imagine broke down for a moment.

The bar split into two. Ivy caught one, sidestepping the other—the real one—which hit the wall and bounced to the floor.

“I didn’t need two,” Ivy said, rolling her eyes. She stepped over the fallen ice cream bar and unwrapped hers, but she looked uncomfortable. Any time a flaw appeared in my ability to mediate between my imaginary world and the real one, we were in dangerous territory.

We went on, passing glass-walled meeting rooms. Most of these were empty, as one would expect at this hour, but every table was covered in small plastic bricks in various states of construction. Apparently at I3, business meetings were supplied with plenty of Legos to accompany the conversation.

“The receptionist at the front desk is new,” Ivy noted. “She had trouble finding the visitor name badges.”

“Either that,” Tobias said, “or visitors are rare here.”

“Security is awful,” J.C. growled.

I looked at him, frowning. “The doors are key carded. That’s good security.”

J.C. snorted. “Key cards? Please. Look at all of these windows. The bright colors, the inviting carpets . . . and is that a tire swing? This place just screams ‘hold the door for the guy behind you.’ Key cards are useless. At least most of the computers are facing away from windows.”

I could imagine how this place might feel during the day, with its playful atmosphere, treat bins in the halls and catchy slogans on the walls. It was the type of environment carefully calculated to make creative types feel comfortable. Like a gorilla enclosure for nerds. The lingering scents in the air spoke of an in-house cafeteria, probably free, to keep the engineers plump and fed—and to keep them on campus. Why go home when you can have a meal here at six? And since you’re hanging around, you might as well get some work done . . .

That sense of playful creativity seemed thin, now. We passed engineers working into the night, but they hunched over their computers. They’d glance at us, then shrink down farther and not look up again. The foosball table and arcade machines stood unused in the lounge. It felt like even in the evening this place should have born a pleasant buzz of chatter. Instead, the only sounds were hushed whispers and the occasional beep from an idle game machine.

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