The room was a featureless eight-by-eight, relieved by a single chair and the door pad softly glowing in the recessed overhead lights. Pulling up from a stretch, Peri stifled a shudder as a feeling of electricity crawled over her skin, pooling where the training suit pinched.
Concerned, she passed a hand over the spiderweb of white stress lines in the otherwise black leather, frown deepening when her hand turned to pinpricks as the electric field in the fabric phased. Seriously? The slick-suit ran from her neck to the top of her boots, elevating her slight form to dangerous and sexy, but a wardrobe malfunction would slow her down.
“Hey! Excuse me?” she called toward the ceiling, her high voice laced with demand. “I’m getting excessive feedback from my slick-suit.”
A soft chime fell flat in the tiny room as the audio connection opened. “I’m sorry,” a man’s voice said, the hint of sarcasm telling her they knew it. “Possible suit malfunctions are acceptable under the parameters of the exercise. Begin.”
Again the chime rang. Adrenaline surged with her quick intake of breath. She didn’t see the cameras, but people were watching, comparing every move to an unattainable perfection. Squandering a cocky three seconds, she stretched to show her confidence along with her lithe shape. Challenge one: technological fence, she thought, glancing at the locked door pad.
In a swift motion, she grasped the back of the wooden chair, flinging it into the wall. It hit with a startling crack of wood, and she knelt before the pieces. Nimble fingers bare of the slick-suit’s gloves sifted through until she found a metal pin. Rising, she padded to the locked door and used it to wedge open the door pad.
This task is mine, she thought, then walled it off, concentrating on the maze of wires until she found the one she wanted. Hand fisted, she tensed to yank it free, then hesitated. With her “malfunctioning” suit, she might end up on her ass, blowing out smoke as she tried to remember how to focus. Not worth the risk, she thought, following the wire back to the circuit board and shorting the door with the pin instead. The ceiling chimed her success. Peri saluted the unseen cameras, smug as the door slid open. Eleven seconds.
Pin set between her fingers to gouge, she dove into the cooler air and into a spacious, spongy-floored room. The ceilings were higher, the light brighter, and at the far end, a closed door beckoned, the light on the lock already a steady green. Beyond it was everything she’d been working for, everything she’d been promised. She just had to get there.
A faint whisper of air gave her warning. Peri ducked, lashing out with a back kick to send a man pinwheeling into the wall. Shit, he’s huge! she thought as his slick-suit flashed white. But it was fading to black even as she watched. He wasn’t out of it—yet.
“Nothing personal, right?” she said, her eyes jerking from his holstered weapon to the two men sprinting to her. Three against one wasn’t fair, but when was life ever?
They attacked together. Peri dropped, rolling to take out the closest. He fell and she swarmed him, jabbing his throat with her elbow. There was the telltale thump of a pad, but she’d struck hard enough to make him gag. His slick-suit flashed white as she rolled to her feet. One down.
The second grabbed her, a glass knife at her throat. Screaming in defiance, she stabbed his ear with the chair pin. He howled in real pain, and she threw him over her shoulder and into the first man, now recovered.
Following them both down, she scrambled for his blade, running the glass training knife across both their throats. The glow of the technological blade against their skin flashed, indicating a kill, and their slick-suits turned white. Gasping, they went still, paralyzed. Real blood, looking alien in the training floor, dripped from the one man’s ear.
Peri straightened, keeping the pin as she turned her back on the men and walked confidently to the distant door. No more of their lame excuses, she thought, the adrenaline high still spilling through her, though shifting to a more enduring burn of anticipation. She’d been working toward this for months. How many times did she need to prove she was ready?
With a heavy thunk, the lights went up. At the door, the pad shifted to a locked red.
Peri jerked to a halt. “Excuse me?” she directed at the ceiling, and the audio connection pinged open.
“You failed to demonstrate proficiency with projection weapons,” the man said again, but she could hear an argument in the background.
Peri cocked her hip, knowing the time was still running, ruining her perfect score. “You mean a gun?” she asked with disdain. “Handguns are noisy and can be taken away, and then I have to do more damage to fix it.”
“Your time is still running,” the man said, smug.
“How can I prove my value if you keep changing the rules?” she muttered, stomping back to the three men, still paralyzed in their white slick-suits. Jaw clenched, she snatched the nearest man’s handgun. “I already killed you,” she said when the man’s eyes widened, and she spun, shooting out the cameras in the corners instead: one, two, three.
“Reed!” the man shouted as his screens undoubtedly went black.
Peri dropped the weapon and waited, shaking the pinpricks from her fingertips. The audio channel was still open, and a smile quirked her lips as she caught some argued phrases, “best we have” and “it’s that shitty attitude of hers that makes her perfect.”
Glancing at her watch, Peri shifted her weight. “So am I going, or do you want me to try it again with feeling? I have stuff to do today.”
There was silence, and then a younger voice took the mic. “You will report to medical tomorrow at nine. Congratulations, Agent Reed. It’s yours.”
Her breath caught, the quick intake lighting a fire all the way to her groin, and then she steadied herself. “Friday,” she countered, ignoring the men behind her, groaning as their slick-suits returned to a black neutrality. “I want to say good-bye to my mother.”
Again the silence, and Peri’s good mood tarnished as she caught a whispered “Might not remember her when she gets back.”
“Friday,” the young voice came back, and Peri’s jaw clenched at the pity in it. Her mother didn’t deserve anyone’s pity, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to say good-bye.
But the door lock had shifted green, a solid thump echoing as it opened onto an empty, white hallway. Her thoughts already on a shower and what was in her closet that her mother might actually approve of, Peri paced forward into the light.
Five years later
Peri Reed reclined in the plush leather chair across from the CEO’s desk, her feet up on the coffee table, enjoying the adrenaline pooling as she waited in the dark for Jack to find what they had come for. His mood was bad, but that wasn’t her fault. Bored, she helped herself to a foil-wrapped, imported chocolate from a nearby dish.
Really, Peri?” Jack said, looking up at her mmm of appreciation.
“So hurry up.” Licking her lips, she deftly folded the foil into a tiny hat, which she jauntily set on the statue of the naked woman holding the dish. “This guy knows his chocolate.”
“I prepped for glass. Wave technology isn’t even on the shelves yet,” Jack complained, his tan face pale and distorted through the holographic monitor. The touch-screen projection hazed Jack’s athletic shape and black Gucci suit, and Peri wondered whose ass the CEO of Global Genetics was kissing to get the new holographic touch-screen technology.
“My good heels are in the car. Waiting. Like me,” she prompted, and he hunched, his jabbing fingers opening and closing files faster than a texting fourteen-year-old.
Impatient, Peri stood and ran a quick hand through her short black hair. Her mother would hate its length, insisting that a woman of quality kept long hair until she was forty, and only then allowed a shorter length. Moving to the window, Peri smiled at her manicure in perverse satisfaction. Her mother would hate the color as well—which might be why Peri loved the vibrant maroon.
Shaking her hem down to cover her low-heeled boots, she exhaled her tension and focused on the hazy night. The jumpsuit wasn’t her favorite, even if it had been tailored to fit her precisely and was lined with silk to feel like ice against her skin when she moved. But add the pearls currently in the car with her heels, and it would get second and third glances at the upscale pool hall she’d picked out as a spot where she and Jack could decompress.
If we ever get out of here, she thought, sighing dramatically to make Jack’s ears redden.
The projected monitor was the only spot of light in the office suite with its heavy furniture and pictures of past CEOs. Surrounding buildings were lit by security lights dimmed to save power. Low clouds threw back the midnight haze of Charlotte, North Carolina. This high up, the stink of money had washed away the stink of the streets. The corruption, Peri thought, stretching to run a finger over the lintel to intentionally leave a fingerprint, was harder to hide.
“One of these days, that’s going to bite you on the ass,” Jack said as she dropped back to her heels. Her print would come up as classified, but it would also tell Opti that they’d been successful—or at least that they’d come and gone. Success was beginning to look questionable. Five minutes in, and Jack was still searching for the encrypted master file of Global Genetics’ latest engineered virus, the hidden one that made it race-specific.
The faint clunk and hum of the elevator iced through her. Her head tilted to the cracked door, and she shocked herself with the sweet candy still on her lips. She never would’ve heard it had the floor been busy, but in the silence of a quasi-legal, government-sanctioned break-in . . .
“Don’t leave my sight,” Jack demanded as he hooked the rolling chair with his foot and pulled the leather throne toward him to sit. His fingers hesitated, jabbed the holo monitor, then waved the entire field to the trash. His brow was furrowed, and the glow of the projection made his face appear gaunt and his blue eyes almost black. Feeling sassy, Peri sashayed to the door, liking being paid to do what anyone else would be jailed for. Jack looked too sexy to be good at the computer stuff, but in all fairness, he was as proficient as she in evasion and offense. Which is why we’ve survived this long, she thought as she slipped the flexible, palm-size wafer of glass out of her pocket and powered it up. Her Opti-augmented phone was glass technology, and up until seeing the CEO’s wave, she’d thought it was the best out there. Hitting the app that tied into the building’s security, she brought up the motion sensors.
The screen lit with a harsh glow. Dimming it, she crouched to peer into the secretary’s office. One wall of the outer office was open to allow for a view of the common office area beyond. Intel said the night guard was cursory, but intel had been wrong a lot lately.
The app finished its scan and vibrated for her attention. No movement, she thought as she looked at the blank screen, not trusting it. “I can’t do my job from here,” she whispered, tensing when the elevators hummed to a halt and a beam of light lit the ceiling. Keys jingled. The translucent screen in her palm lit up with a bright dot. Shit.
“I can’t do mine if you leave my sight,” Jack said. “Stay put, Peri. I mean it.”
Arcs of harsh light played over the ceiling—closer, coming closer. Adrenaline coursed through Peri once more, and the soles of her feet began to ache. “Catch,” she said, rolling the phone into a tube and tossing it at him. He scrambled for it, his silhouette tight with anger against the city lights.
“Let me know if we get more than one,” she said as she yanked on her pendant, jerking the tiny felt marker from its cap. “Otherwise, keep working.”
“Don’t go out there without me,” he said, his sudden fear at the click of the pen uncapping jerking through her.
“Just find the files. I’ll be right back.” J in office she wrote on her palm, avoiding him as she blew it dry, recapped the pen, and tucked it behind her top.
“Peri . . .”
“I wrote a note,” she said, nervous at his angst, and she slipped out, easing the door nearly closed behind her. Dropping to the flat carpet, she wiggled across the receptionist’s office and peered around the end of the desk, propping herself up on the flat of her arms to wait for a visual on the guard. Jack was right to be concerned. He had to witness a draft to anchor her. But to fail meant the deadly virus might reach an already decimated Asia.
That’s why they were there, to find and remove the files concerning the virus before a second wave of death washed through what had once been nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. Opti had commissioned the first wave three years ago, when Asia’s political hierarchy thumbed their noses at the new CO2 levels set by the United Nations and therefore threatened the entire world with continued rising global temperatures. But this second wave of tactical bioengineered population reduction was illegal, funded by the Billion by Thirty club with the sole intent to broaden their financial interests in Europe. Peri thought it amusing that she and Jack had helped almost half of its members gain their admission.
The light on the ceiling became focused. Warning prickled her skin as the jingling keys grew louder and a uniformed man came around the desks. Slowly her brow furrowed.
It wasn’t the guard that Bill, their handler, had told them would be here. This man was younger and thinner, and wasn’t singing along with his phone. As Peri watched, he tucked his flashlight under his arm and used a card reader to go into one of the private offices ringing the floor. Lips pressed, she waited until the guard came out with a square bottle of something sloshy.
Damn. He was a lifter: familiar with every office and comfortable with treating the building as his personal, no-card-required shopping mall. The best case would have him on the alert for anything out of the ordinary as he strove not to get caught. The worst case would have him in the CEO’s office sampling the chocolate.
Breath held, Peri crept back to the CEO’s office. Jack looked up from her phone as she eased the door shut, frowning when the lock clicked on and a green light from the door pad glowed in the dark. “Don’t leave my sight!” he whispered, yelling at her in a soft hush.
“We got a lifter,” she said, and Jack’s fingers hesitated.
“He coming in here?”
“Give me a second, I’ll go ask him.”
Frowning, he returned his attention to the crystalline projection. Peri padded over for her phone, breathing in the light scent of his sweat as she tucked it away. Her mind drifted to the sensation of his touch on her skin as his quick fingers searched folders and files. “Maybe the files have a biometric lock?” she suggested.
“No. I simply think it’s not here. We might need to hit the labs downstairs,” Jack grumbled, doing a double take when he realized her lips were inches from his ear. “Peri, back up. I can’t work when you’re that close.”
“The labs? Good God. I hope not.” Peri leaned to put her arms across his shoulders. Her bag—filled with all sorts of interesting things that needed an artist’s touch to get past TSA—rested on the desk, and she wondered if she should get something out of it—but everything was noisy. “Why don’t you shut it down. He’s just shopping, and we’ve got all night.”
“It’s not here,” he muttered, and she pushed off his shoulders and went to listen at the door. She roughly gestured for Jack to cut the light. Grim, Jack stood, fingers still flicking files about the screen. “I thought wave had a sleep corner,” he whispered.
Peri tensed. Footsteps. In the hall. Coming closer. “Shut it off. Now!”
Jack’s face was creased in the dim glow. “I’m trying.”
The guard was in the secretary’s outer office, and she settled into a balanced readiness beside the door. He was coming through it—she knew by the prickling of her thumb and the itch in her feet. “Damn it, Jack. I haven’t drafted in six months. Don’t make me do it now.”
“Got it!” he whispered, fingers waving across the monitor as he found the off switch.
“Got it” wasn’t good enough, and with a tiny beep from the locking pad, the door clicked open and the security guard came in, flashlight searching.
He was a cool customer, she’d give him that. Silent, he took in Jack, standing behind the desk like a guilty teen found looking at his dad’s porn. Expression twisting, the man dropped the bottle and reached for the pistol on his belt.
Peri moved as the bottle clunked on the carpet. The man yelped, shocked when her crescent kick slammed out of the dark and into his wrist, knocking his handgun into the secretary’s office. Hand to his middle, the security guard dropped back. His shock turned to anger when he saw Peri’s slim figure cloaked in chic black. True, it looked suspicious, her in the dark and in an upper office where she had no right to be, but add some jewelry and Louboutins, and she was ready for a five-star restaurant. “You’re nothing but a little bitty girl,” he said, reaching for her.
“I prefer the term fun-size.”
Grinning, Peri let him grab her, spinning around and levering him up and over in an over-the-shoulder roll. He’d either go where she sent him or he’d dislocate his arm. He went, hitting the carpet with a muffled thump.
“Ahhhhoow!” the guard groaned as he pulled the unbroken whiskey bottle out from under him. The flashlight rolled, sending shiny glints across the black panes of glass.
Jack frantically worked at the computer, his head down and blond hair hiding his eyes.
Enjoying the chance to take the big man down, Peri gathered herself to fall on him. Eyes wide, the guard rolled and she changed her motion into a heel jab that never landed, then fell into a ready stance between him and the handgun. We have to get out of here, like now.
The guard spun upright, fumbling for the radio on his belt. “Put a wiggle in it, Jack!” she exclaimed, lashing out with a crescent kick, front kick, then a low strike to his knee as she drove the guard back—anything to keep him from his radio. She loved the adrenaline, the excitement, the knowledge that she had what it took to beat the odds and walked away without reprisal.
The man shook it off, and she lashed at his ear, lurching when she hit his jaw instead. A solid thump on her right shoulder sent her reeling. Peri stumbled, feeling the oncoming bruise. Anger fueled her smile. He was good and liked to cause pain. If he landed a clean strike, she’d be out—but that would only make her win more satisfying.
“Quit playing with him!” Jack shouted.
“I need to burn off some calories if I want cake tonight,” she said, as the guard felt his lip, thoughts shifting behind his eyes when his fingers came away wet with blood. Suddenly he ran for the door and his handgun.
“We’re having pie, not cake, and stay where I can see you,” Jack called. “Peri!”
She jumped at him, snagging a foot before he reached the door. He went down, dragging her across the carpet. Chin burning and eyes shut, she let go when he kicked. Peri jerked away, gasping when the guard turned, looming over her with his fist pulled back.
“No!” Jack shouted as the guard struck her full in the face and her head snapped backward. Dazed, Peri wavered where she sat.
“Don’t move! Or I fucking shoot her!” the guard shouted.
She couldn’t see straight. The gun pointed at her held no meaning as she tried to figure out what had happened. Dizzy, she felt her face, jerking when the pain exploded under her fingers. But it focused her, and she looked at Jack behind the desk. Eyes meeting, they silently weighed their options. Jack had a handgun and she had a blade in her boot. They’d never needed extraction from local authorities in their entire three years together. She wasn’t planning on starting now, and certainly not by a dirty rent-a-cop.
“You at the desk!” the guard barked, and Peri’s gaze on his handgun narrowed as she estimated the distance. “Come here where I can see you,” he said, one hand fumbling behind his back for his cuffs. “Hands up. You make a move to lower them, and I shoot her.”
Hands in the air, Jack edged out from behind the desk. He coughed, and the barrel of the guard’s gun shifted to track him.
“Bravo!” a clear, masculine voice exclaimed from the doorway.
The guard turned, shocked. Peri lashed out in a spinning kick. Impact against the guard’s hand vibrated through her even as she finished and rose into a crouch and from there to a stand, the flat of her swinging foot slamming into the guard’s head.
Spittle and blood sprayed and the guard crashed into the coffee table. His handgun fell, and she kicked it to the far windows. Jack went for the man in the doorway. Knowing he had her back, Peri followed the guard down, fist clenched to hit him somewhere painful.
But the guard was out, his face bloody and his eyes closed. Resisting the urge to hit him anyway, she looked up as Jack shoved an older man in a suit into the office at gunpoint.
“Impressive,” the man said, nodding to the guard. “Is he dead?”
“No.” Peri stood. What the hell? Peri looked at Jack’s tight expression, unable to read it. This couldn’t be a test. They’d already had their yearly “surprise” evaluation job.
“Good. Keep it that way,” the man said as if he was in control, regardless of having no weapon, if Jack’s hasty but thorough pat-down was any indication. “I’ve been meaning to take him off the payroll, but I’d prefer unemployment over a death benefit to his wife.”
This isn’t how we do things, Peri thought as Jack shoved the man into one of his cushy chairs, where he fixed his tie, affronted. Peri looked from the slightly overweight man to his photograph on the desk, posing with a stiff-looking woman in too much makeup. This was his office. Bloody toothpicks, Bill will have a cow if I off a CEO.
“I have what you came for,” the manicured, graying man said, his soft fingers reaching behind his coat to an inner pocket.
Peri lunged. Her knee landed between his legs and he gasped at the near miss. One hand forced his head back, the other pinned his reaching hand to the arm of the chair. “Don’t move,” she whispered, and irritation replaced his shocked pain.
He wiggled, wincing when she shifted her knee a little tighter. “If I wanted you dead, I wouldn’t be here myself,” the man said, his voice strained but angry. “Get off me.”
“Nah-uh,” she said, fingers digging into his neck in warning, then louder, “Jack?”
Jack eased close, the scent of his aftershave familiar as he reached behind the man’s coat to slip free an envelope. It had Jack’s name on it, and Peri went cold. He’d known we’d be here?
“Get off,” the older man said again, and this time, Peri eased back in uncertainty.
Jack passed the handgun to her, and she retreated to where she could see both the CEO and the downed guard. The crackle of the envelope was loud, and the older man readjusted himself, giving Peri a dark look. “What is it?” Peri asked, and Jack unfolded the paper inside and shook a pinky-nail-size memory chip into his hand. “Is it the files?”
Her attention shifted back to the CEO when he palpated his privates as if estimating the damage. “No. I printed out the highlights to justify my request. You tell Bill what I found warrants more than a paltry three percent,” he said, shaking his arms to fix the fall of his coat. “Three percent. I just saved his ass and he thinks I’m going to take three percent?”
“Jack?” Peri whispered, disliking her uncertainty. He knows Bill? What’s going on?
Face white, Jack angled the paper to the faint light coming in the window. Fingers fumbling, he shook the chip onto his glass phone. It lit up as the data downloaded, and Jack compared the two, going even more pale as he verified it.
The man leaned toward the side table, his gaze lingering on the foil hat before taking a chocolate from the dish. “You’re very good, missy. Watching you . . . I’d believe you myself.” He smiled, white teeth gleaming in the ambient light.
Jack put his phone away, looking more angry than confused. Peri’s gut knotted. He knew Bill. Was he proposing a deal?
“You made a mistake,” Jack said as he folded the paper around the chip and tucked it away.
The man snorted and put an ankle on a raised knee. “The only mistake is Bill thinking he can get something for nothing. He can do better. I only want a fair price for what I have.”
Shit, Peri thought, her fear mutating to anger. He was trying to buy them. They were Opti agents. Drafters and anchors had to be trustworthy to a fault or the government who trained them would kill them. Drafting time was too powerful a skill to hire out to the highest bidder, especially now.
But fear settled in her like old winter ice, cracked and pitted, as Jack tucked the paper and data chip into a pocket. His head was cocked at the angle he always had when he was thinking hard, and a weird light was in his eye.
“Jack?” she said with sudden mistrust. “What’s that list?”
His expression cleared. “Lies,” he said blandly. “All lies.”
The CEO bit into a chocolate. “The truth is more damning than anything I could invent. It’s a list, lovely woman, of corrupt Opti agents,” he said as he chewed. “Your name is on it.”
Peri’s finger tightened on the handgun, and she forced her finger away from the trigger. Shock raced through her, doubt and anger close behind. “Liar!” she cried, jumping at him.
Don’t!” Jack shouted, and she landed on the man, pinning him to the chair and wedging the muzzle of the gun under his chin.
“You made that list up!” she exclaimed, and the man’s head jerked as she shoved the gun harder against him. “Tell him! Tell him!”
“Peri, get off!” Jack exclaimed, and Peri gasped at the echoing blast of a gun fired in close quarters. Pain was a four-foot stake of iron pounded into her chest, and she looked at the man under her, his eyes fixed on hers and his face unblemished. She hadn’t shot him.
Peri took a breath, agony stabbing her again. Oh shit, she thought, and then she fell back as Jack pulled her to the carpet. The guard she’d downed. He’d shot her. Damn it, she was dying, and she choked, bloody froth gathering at her lips as pain made it hard to breathe.
“What the hell are you doing!” Jack shouted at the CEO, Peri’s head cradled in his lap.
The CEO stood, and she could do nothing, pinned by a thousand-pound weight. Oh God, it hurt. But Jack was here. She ’d be okay if she could hold it together long enough . . . to draft.
“She’s on that list,” the man said, pointing down at her like God’s avenging angel. “She can’t walk out of here knowing she’s been marked. I’m doing you a favor. Bill owes me. He owes me big.”
“You cretin,” Jack snarled up at him. “She won’t remember any of this in about thirty seconds. You don’t think we know her past? Who she is? That doesn’t mean she’s not useful! She’s a goddamned drafter! You know how much she’s worth? How rare she is?”
What . . . What is he saying? He thought she was . . . corrupt? Selling her skills to the highest bidder? Oh God. Her name was on the list?
And then the pain grew too much. Adrenaline pooled, tripping her over the edge and jumping her brain into a synaptic hyperactivity. She was going to draft. She couldn’t stop it—and it would save her life. Again.
Eyes widening, she felt the tingle of sparkles gather at the edges of her sight, flooding her as she breathed them in, swirling through her mind until she breathed them out—and with a soft hush of gathered energy, she jumped into the blue haze of hindsight.
Peri’s vision flashed blue and settled as her mind fell into knowing. Her breath came in without pain, and she knew it for the blessing it was. She was drafting, and she stood before the CEO, watching as he reached for a chocolate. Fear made her aim shake. Her name was on Jack’s list? But how? She knew who she was, and she wasn’t a dirty agent.
Peri looked at Jack, his expression tight as he held that damned list. He was frustrated and angry, but at the CEO, not her. As an anchor, he knew they were rewriting the last thirty seconds, unlike everyone else, who would never even notice the small blip. Until time meshed, she’d remember everything. Afterward, she’d remember nothing until Jack returned the final timeline to her—and now, she had a doubt.
“Jack?” she whispered, terrified of what her gut was telling her. He was angry, not shocked—as if he’d already known. But how could she be something she knew she wasn’t?
Jack turned away, and her fear redoubled.
“The truth is far more damning than anything I could invent,” the older man said as he bit into a chocolate, oblivious to the new timeline forming. “It’s a list, lovely woman, of corrupt Opti agents. Your name is on it.”
She was not corrupt. A fire lit in her. Screaming in anger, she pivoted to the guard crawling slowly toward the windows and his forgotten handgun.
“Peri, wait!” Jack lunged to knock the gun spinning from her.
Panicking, the guard scrambled for his weapon. Peri shoved Jack out of her way. The guard scooped up the Glock, and she kicked him into the window. Snarling, he brought his gun down on her and she snapped a front kick to his wrists. The gun went flying.
Face ugly, the guard grabbed her around the neck and slammed her to the floor. Peri’s eyes bulged as she tried to breathe. One hand clawed at his grip, the other reached for the knife in her boot. Stars spotted her vision as she jammed it into him, angling it up under the ribs. If she died in a rewrite, she’d be dead. It was him or her.
Gagging on his own blood, the guard rolled away, hands clenched to his chest.
Free, Peri sat up, hands on her neck as she rasped for air. The strong scent of whiskey wafted from the guard. Gagging, bile-tainted chocolate bloomed bitter at the back of her throat.
“How am I supposed to explain this!” the CEO shouted, standing over the guard, spilling bubbly blood from his mouth as he panicked and began to choke.
Jack stomped back to the desk and scooped up Peri’s purse. “Haven’t you ever heard of the chain of command? We know who she is. We always have. You really fucked this up.”
“Me?” the man exclaimed, voice rising. “I’m not the one who killed him.”
“I don’t kill anyone who doesn’t kill me first,” Peri wheezed. Beside her, the guard gurgled, not quite suffocated in his own blood yet—but close.
The CEO spun to stare at her. “What?”
“Get out,” Jack said, and Peri jerked away when he reached to help her stand. “Go hide under your secretary’s desk. I don’t want to have to explain you when she snaps out of it.”
“Snaps out of what?” The CEO’s eyes widened. “Then it’s true? She can change the past? Are we in a draft? Right now? But it feels real.”
“That’s because it is.” Pissed, Jack picked up the gun—the one that had killed her. “It’s the first draft that’s false—or will be, rather, after she finishes writing this one.”
“You know who she is and you still trust her?” The man hunched over with his hands on his knees as he peered at her. She hated his wonder, his amazement—but if he knew about drafters, he was dead.
“With my life.” Jack checked the pistol and snapped the cylinder closed. “In about ten seconds, she’s not going to remember anything but what I tell her. Now will you go hide? I don’t want to have to explain you.”
Peri sat on the floor, her fingers clenched in the flat carpet as she shook. She’d thought she was capable. She thought she was strong. But she was vulnerable. People were the sum of their memories, and apparently hers were whatever Jack told her. They hadn’t come here to find the virus files. There were here to secure a list of corrupt Opti agents—and Jack didn’t have a problem that her name was on it. Maybe she was corrupt. How long? How long had this been going on?
“Who else has the list?” Jack said, glancing at his watch.
“No one. I assumed Bill would be . . . reasonable,” the CEO said, voice faltering, and Peri’s eyes flicked up with knowledge of what was going to happen. He knew about drafters, and that was unacceptable. Jack would contain the information—whatever the cost.
The CEO’s eyes widened as Jack aimed the guard’s pistol at him. Peri watched, numb, as the older man lurched for the door, almost making it. The sound of the gun firing jerked through her. She gasped, the burst of air clearing her thoughts and sending her hand to her middle. Legs askew, she leaned against the desk as her lungs ached. She’d been shot in the original timeline, but that’s not why her chest hurt. They thought she was corrupt? She’d given Opti everything!
Jack vanished into the outer office. She could hear him dragging the suited man away, and still she sat. “Stupid deserves to die,” Jack said in anger, and then he was back, avoiding her eyes in the dim light as he wiped her print from the top of the lintel. The gun was next, set carefully in the guard’s outstretched hand after he wiped it clean.
She looked up as Jack extended a hand for her to rise. Scared, she recoiled. She’d know if she was a dirty agent—wouldn’t she? “Jack,” she whispered, wanting to believe there was another explanation. “I’m not corrupt. He’s lying.”
Jack dropped to kneel beside her, his arms enfolding her like a warm promise. “Of course you aren’t, babe. That’s why I killed him. You’re safe. No one will know. I can fix this.”
Shocked, she stared into his eyes as she felt time overlap and begin to mesh. For an instant she saw herself on the floor as she bled herself out in the original timeline. The guard was standing, and the man in the suit watched it all as Jack held her head in his lap.
“This is very bad for my asthma,” both she and her shadow-self whispered, one dying of confusion, the other just dying confused.
And then time mended and everything flashed the most beautiful blue, scrubbing it away.
Peri pushed back, her heart pounding as her shoulder thudded against the leg of the desk. Jack was kneeling before her, and she looked at a door and the green light blinking on the locking panel. She was on the floor of a midnight-dark corner office. Her chin hurt, but the rest of her face was agony. A bloody knife lay beside her, and a man in a security uniform twitched not three feet away, his life’s blood soaking the carpet.
“It’s okay, Peri,” Jack soothed, and she scrambled to her feet before the blood could reach her, slowing when she realized everything hurt. “It’s done.”
I drafted, she thought, looking at her palm to see J in office. She’d left him? Heart beating fast, she picked up her sticky knife, conscious of Jack’s sudden wariness. She’d left him but she’d made it back, obviously, and he would return her memory of the night’s events.
A security guard was dead. Her knife thrust had killed him—she recognized the entry wound as one she knew. A handheld radio hissed, and a Glock lay in the guard’s grip. She smelled gunpowder. They were in a building, the thirtieth floor at least. It was night. They were on task. She’d drafted to rub out a mistake, and in doing so, had forgotten everything. Charlotte? she wondered, feeling the heavy humidity and spotting the crown building out the window.
“Did I die again, Jack?” she whispered.
“Pretty close. We gotta go,” he said, and she winced when he touched her elbow. Her short-job bag was under his arm and she took it, feeling unreal.
“Did we get what we came for? How long did I draft?” Peri said, numb as she looked at the dead man. She only killed someone when they killed her first. Damn it all to hell, she hated it when she drafted.
“Not long, and it’s in my phone.” Jack hit the code for the door, and it beeped open. Eyes pinched, he stuck his head out, and looked around. The office beyond was quiet. “What do you remember?”
Less than I like. “Wait.” Peri knelt beside the dead guard, cutting a button from his uniform with the knife still bloody from his own death. It wasn’t a trophy, but re-creating a memory would be easier with a talisman to focus it on: blood, the feel of the sticky blade, the scent of gunpowder, and the taste of . . . chocolate?
“You have reservations, right?” Jack asked, looking awkward in his concern. “Did you write it down? I don’t know why you insist on keeping our post-task date a secret.”
“Because it’s fun to watch you squirm,” she said softly, still trying to find herself. He was overly anxious, wanting to move and keep moving, but as she glanced at the dead man, she didn’t wonder why. Pulse fast, she felt the new aches settle in, clueless as she looked out the huge windows at the dark city. “What day is it?” she said, and heartache marred Jack’s handsome face as he realized how deep the damage was.
“We’ll check your phone. I bet you wrote it down,” Jack said, avoiding her question as he took her elbow and carefully helped her through the secretary’s office and into a maze of low-partitioned offices. “Do you remember where the elevators are? I have a lousy sense of direction.”
“I don’t remember the friggin’ task, Jack. What day is it!” she snapped, and he stopped.
Facing her, he gently turned her right hand up to show her a watch. She didn’t wear a watch. Ever. “February the seventh. I’m sorry, Peri. It was a bad one.”
Peri stared at the watch. It looked like something Jack might have given her—all black and chrome, having more functions than a PTA mom with twins, but she didn’t remember it. “February?” The last she knew, it was late December. “I lost six weeks! How long did I draft?”
Emotion flashed over Jack, relief and then heartache. “Thirty seconds?” he said, putting a hand on the small of her back and getting her moving again. “But you created a massive potential displacement. You were going to die. The guard? He was the one who did it.”
And now she was alive instead of him. That was a lot of change to absorb. She was lucky she’d lost only six weeks in those thirty seconds. She’d once drafted forty-five seconds, but the changes made had been so small that she’d lost only the time her draft had created. There were rules, but so much impacted on them that it felt like a potshot.
“The car is outside,” Jack said as he let her through the dark to the elevators. Jack walked just a shade faster than she, falling into a well-practiced role of filling in the gaps in a way that wouldn’t make her feel stupid. If she didn’t move too fast, she could at least look as if she knew where they were going. There was an art to it, and they’d both had time to practice. “We fixed the camera on the south car, right?” he asked as he hit the down button.
His nervous chatter was starting to get to her, but it was because he was worried, and so she bit back her sharp retort, not wanting to make Jack feel any worse. Her body ached from a beating she didn’t remember getting, and her face felt as if it was on fire. Dancing was out, but they could still play some pool, relax before they turned to the task of rebuilding her memory. It was a tradition that stretched back almost to their first meeting.
They stepped into the elevator together, and she jerked when Jack was suddenly there, his arms around her and his lips beside her ear. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t your anchor. Seeing you get beaten up is hard enough, but being the only one to remember it is misery.”
He pulled back, and they shared a weak smile. Peri steeled herself against the wave of emotion that washed over her. She could cry later. But she wouldn’t. Holding the world together while a new timeline formed was her job. Witnessing and rebuilding her memory was his job—and had been for the last three years.
She took a slow breath as the elevator halted with a cheerful ding. She would have written down their reservation. The night was not entirely ruined, and she would appreciate a good wine and the release that flirting with Jack would bring. “What were we getting, anyway?”
Immediately Jack relaxed. “Remember that virus that Opti used to reinforce the United Nation’s pollution limits three years ago? It had an ugly stepsister,” he said. “I’m sorry, Peri. At least you didn’t lose the summer.”
A faint smile eased her worry, and she twined her fingers in his as they got out of the elevator. No, she hadn’t lost the summer, but if she had, she knew that she could’ve fallen in love with him all over again.