"Babe, why don’t you wear that clingy black top any- more? I like how it makes your little breasts into gotta-have handfuls.”
"Stop. Right there.” Brow furrowed, Peri eyed Jack over the noisy schuuuck of the milk steamer as he sat before the coffee shop’s cash register and worked a crossword puzzle on his tablet. Beyond him through the large windows, a January snow sifted down in a sedate hush, the unexpected pristine white beautiful until it hit the ground and was churned into a slushy brown by steady foot traffic and slow cars. She knew the top in question, and though she’d never wear it again, she couldn’t throw it away. It was good for dinner out and breaking in all at the same time. Finding that combination was hard—even if it had been ages since she’d done either.
“That apron isn’t hiding anything,” Jack continued, clearly enjoying her irritation as she looked down at the cream-and-black cotton that said uniform. “You think these suits are here for your glass four-gen connection?”
“I said stop.” She hadn’t seen Jack in three weeks—not since some fool kid had tried to pull a stab-and-grab. She’d thought Jack might be gone for good. Yet there he sat at her counter, looking like sex incarnate, his expression earnest in question as his blue eyes watched her, half-lidded behind his tousleable blond hair. His stubble was thick—just the way she liked it—and she could imagine the whiff of elec- tronics he so excelled in. My God, he’d been good. They both had been. Maybe he’s here because I saw Silas.
That had been four days ago, but her diary—hidden among her cookbooks for the first three days—had kept him at the forefront of her thoughts until she’d given into the nauseating will-I, won’t-I and cracked the binding last night. That she’d found nothing in the first few pages but classes and grades had been both a shock and a relief. Just the briefest mention of Allen and Silas. Apparently Silas had been so stricken by his girlfriend’s death that he hadn’t seen her as anything other than a chair that wasn’t empty. It was obvious her naive self had been honored to have been chosen to help rout out the corruption in Opti, perhaps a little egotistical even. But most special ops agents were. They had to be to survive.
Embarassed by her past gullibility, she took the to-go cup, sashaying around Jack to pluck a sheet from the store’s printer in passing. “Leave,” she muttered as she headed to a window table.
Did someone make a pass at me and I didn’t notice? she wondered, her fingers rising to touch her felt-pen pendant as if it were a security doll. The one time that had happened, she’d nearly broken the man’s wrist, catching herself before causing permanent damage; the man’s lawyers made more than he did, which was saying a lot. Hand clenched around the pendant, she went over the last few hours. They were all accounted for. Every last second.Why is Jack here?
Chuckling, Jack returned to his crosswords, ignored by the impeccably dressed business clientele scattered about the upscale coffeehouse.
Peri had worked hard to divorce herself from her past, and yet she still found herself breathing in the expensive cologne of the suits she served as if it were a drug. She eyed their leather briefcases and high-end purses, knowing their cars were as shiny as the fob resting beside their state- of-the-art phones and tablets, all so new they smelled of factory. She knew the simplicity she’d built around herself was a lie as she lured in everything she missed, all the while pretending she’d made a clean break from what she didn’t want to be, what she couldn’t be. Even so, she’d been able to ignore it until Silas had shown up.
I’m sick, she thought as she stopped before a thin man in a suit. “Headed out, Simon?” Peri asked, and he glanced up from his tablet, startled. It was hard to tell by looking, but he was worth between eight and ten million depending on the day. She’d done a search on him the first time he’d come in, worried he might be someone he wasn’t. “How about a refill?”
The early-forties man waved closed the weather map on his tablet, his brow still holding his worry for the coming rain. “Yes, thanks, Peri. You know me better than my wife.”
She set the cup beside the rental-car fob, her focus blur- ring when his faint Asian accent brought a flash of memory of hot sun and smelly river. Bringing herself back with a jerk, she glanced at Jack. He’d been there. She was sure of it. Even if she didn’t remember it.“That’s because I see you more than she does. Going home this weekend?”
The man blinked as he rolled his tablet into a tube and tucked it in a front pocket. “How did you know?”
Smiling, she handed him his ticket from the printer, and he laughed. “I almost forgot that. Your phone dies one time at the terminal and you never trust it again. Thanks. I’ll see you on Monday.”
But she’d known he was leaving before the printer had come alive. His socks were the same he’d worn yesterday, his hotel card wasn’t in his phone case when he’d paid, and his hat was in his satchel, not sitting on the nearby chair with his coat like it had been every other morning. The scent of his cologne rose as he began to gather his things. A longing—an ache almost—filled her, and she reached for his coat, the lapels still damp from the snow. Anyone watching would assume she was angling for a big- ger tip as she held it for him and slipped it over his shoulders, but her eyes closed as she breathed in the smell of linen, stifling a shiver at the sound of it brushing against silk and the clicks of his weather-inappropriate dress shoes on the worn oak floor. She was a God-blessed junkie, and she took sips of her poison where she could. First class from Detroit to New York will have breakfast.
“See you next week,” Simon said, saluting her with his coffee and heading for the door.
“Watch yourself out there. It’s a jungle,” she said in fare- well, but he was gone, the door chimes jiggling behind him. In an instant he was lost in the snow-slow maze of cars and foot traffic. She smiled at the big-engine cars pushing their way through the snow. The electric vehicles Detroit was known for tended to vanish in winter, replaced by the beefier combustion engines she’d grown up with until the temps pulled out of the negatives. Seeing them on the road, getting the job done, made her feel connected, home.
An emergency vehicle went past, lights flashing but siren off, and she felt her past creep up behind her.
“He’s not your type,” Jack said, standing too close to be ignored.
Peeved, she turned and walked through him, muttering, “How would you know?”
She shuddered as she passed through the hallucination, the structured mental scaffold designed and implanted to keep her from going insane when two conflicting timelines had been left to fester in her mind. Whether Silas’s fix-on- the-fly had worked was debatable. After all, she was hallucinating. That the illusion was familiar was beside the point. That it took the form of her old partner, the one she’d put in jail for corruption before she went ghost, was a bad joke.
Illusion Jack had been present on and off for almost a year, the hallucination so complex and intricately tied to her intuition that it had developed a weird, independent intelligence of sorts, causing him to show up when she was stressed and searching for answers.
And it bugs the hell out of me he’s right most of the time, she thought, her motions abrupt as she rinsed the few pas- try dishes before piling them in the bin to return to the restaurant next door. It wasn’t Simon she was lusting for. It was the scent of untried electronics, the whiff of exclusive perfume, the confidence a big bank account and a golden parachute bought. God help her, but she missed it.
Jack slipped up behind her, breathing in her ear to make the lingering scent from Simon and the sight of his and her hands together in the soapy bubbles bring back an unex- pected memory. It was night; she had been feeling good. Jack had been especially clever. There’d been danger . . . soap on her fingers, a fast car, pulled shoulder, an adrenaline-fueled smile on Jack’s face, a folded printout in his hand—it was what they’d come for. She hadn’t cared what or why, only that they’d done something insanely cunning to get it.
Pulse fast, she rubbed the white porcelain with a cold rag as if she could wipe the images away. She’d made a memory knot of that to survive when everything else was gone. Why?
“Because you loved me,” Jack whispered. “And you don’t want to forget it. Ever. It’s what you are. Stop trying to be this small thing. We were unstoppable. Tell me it wasn’t good.”
She couldn’t say that, even to herself. Lips in a thin line, she rinsed her hands, wishing the guilt would sluice away with the cold. Jack was a crutch: the planner, her security net, a link to a life she wasn’t going to live again. She wouldn’t be the person she was good at being. The power and charisma were toxic. The status had been an illusion. Her life had been a lie, and it was too easy to use her and give her a shake to erase it all like a living Etch A Sketch.
Peri snapped a clean towel from the rack, and Jack dropped back to recline against the register. His face was suddenly clean-shaven now, and he was wearing something trendy and expensive that showed off his narrow waist. “Go away,” she muttered, glancing over the coffeehouse as rush-hour traffic began luring her clientele into the slushy streets. “No one needs you anymore.”
“You need me.” Jack followed her gaze to the buses and taxis. “Or I wouldn’t be here. Something is wrong, you just don’t know what yet.”
Carnac, the store’s cat, jumped onto the counter, and Peri absently fondled his ears as she sourly remembered her enthusiasm from her diary’s pages, eager for the chance to prove herself and use her skills to do something no one had done before. She had changed so much that it was like read- ing someone else’s thoughts.
“You look sexy when you bite your lower lip, you know that?”
Peri’s brow furrowed. “Go. Away.”
Jack blew her a kiss. “You don’t really want me to leave, or I’d be gone already. I’m bringing everything back, babe. So slow it hurts. You want to remember. It’s who you are, who you have to be. This?” He flicked a coffee mug. “This will kill you.”
She knew her face still held her anger when the door chimed a greeting and her attention went over Jack’s shoul- der. Breath held, she turned away. Allen. Effin’ fantabulous. That’s why Jack is here.
Sighing, Jack pulled himself straight and turned to the door. “Son of a bitch. Just once I’d like to warn you that you’re in real danger, not that one of your old boyfriends is back.”
“Allen was never my boyfriend.” She was talking to her- self, but she couldn’t stop.
Jack was gone when she looked up, and Allen had taken a seat at one of the window booths, the snow still on his shoulders. His back was to her to give her the illusion of control, but his neck showing from under his short haircut gave away his tension. She must have seen his silhouette or the car he drove earlier. And Jack, her intuition made real, had come to warn her. Thanks a hell of a lot, Silas. But it was unlikely Silas would have told Allen where she was.
Carnac stared at at the man, tail switching. He’d never liked Allen. Hands steady, she poured a cup of coffee, put- ting it in a to-go cup because Allen wasn’t staying. Light brew: the man was a wuss when it came to coffee. Damn it, if he was trailing trouble, she was going to be pissed.
“I should have opened a flower shop,” she muttered, weaving through the tables.
Her breath came in fast when a young woman suddenly stood, knocking the coffee. Both of them gasped, Peri from the surprise, the woman from twelve ounces of hot coffee down her pristine white blouse.
At the woman’s flash of pain and shock, instinct kicked in.
The world blinked a sharp-edged blue, and suddenly Peri was three steps back, the woman still sitting as she leaned to get her rolling pen, accidently pushing it just out of her reach. Breathing the blue sparkles of hindsight deep into her lungs, Peri held the unspilled coffee tight to her chest, stepping on the pen to stop it, then giving it a little nudge to roll back to the woman’s reach before she could stand.
“Thanks!” the woman said. Her relief was a little too much for the small courtesy, and Peri’s intuition pinged. But then the world flashed red as time caught up—and she forgot.
Peri blinked, finding herself standing before a woman smiling up at her. She had Allen’s coffee pressed against her chest—and no clue why she’d stopped. “Ah, all set?” she asked, scrambling. She’d drafted and rewrote the last three seconds, maybe four, losing them. Why?
“Yes, thank you,” the woman said, holding her pen up as if it meant something.
From behind the register, Jack put a hand to his fore- head, dramatically wailing, “Oh, you spilled coffee all down your front and spotted my brand-new pumps! You stupid coffee girl!”
Half-understanding filled her, and Peri frowned. Great. Allen shows up, and she drafts. He would have seen it, being an anchor and trained to not only remember but bring the rewritten timeline back into her memory as well. Resolute, she crossed the floor as the woman put on her coat and left. Jack didn’t know anything she didn’t, but he—or Peri, rather—was getting good at piecing things together from the smallest of clues.
Silent, she stood across from Allen and set the cup down hard enough to spill. His brown eyes held nothing as he looked from the CNN broadcast at the ceiling to wipe the puddle away, his thin hands knobby from being broken and made strong in hand-to-hand. He was in a suit, but he wore it uncomfortably, as if he’d rather be in a BMX racing kit or a harness to climb a rock or jump out of a plane. His dress shoes were soaked and salt-rimed . . . and he smelled fantastic.
Hand passing once over his snow-damp black hair, he leaned back to look her up and down, no smile on his nar- row, long face. “You do know you just drafted?”
She hated looking ignorant. “I didn’t want coffee down my front.”
A smile threatened. “It was her front, but close.” Concern pushed out his hint of pride in her. “Are you okay? How many unfragmented drafts do you have making holes in your brain?”
How about I use a bullet to make a hole in yours?
Her shop was emptying as it grew closer to nine, most of the patrons using the at-table option to settle up using phone cash, the p-cash app made for their high-tech glass devices both easy and secure. He’d timed it perfectly. “How did you find me?”
He lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “Process of elimina- tion. I know Detroit is your city and you’re sitting over an old medical dump.”
I should have stuck with sipping the barium syrup, she thought, but at least she knew the residual contamination from the illegal dump had covered the radiation marker Opti had given her. Her year would be over come June, and then she’d truly be free.
“I’m not looking right now to hire help to wash dishes,” she said loudly, ticked he might have blown her cover. “Thanks for stopping in. Have a nice day.”
He grabbed her sleeve as she turned, and she stifled the urge to palm-break his nose. She’d only end up drafting to fix it. She’d always been a softie like that.
“Jack is missing,” he said.
Peri reached for the table, slowly sitting as vertigo threat- ened. Missing? The real Jack, not the hallucination based on him. Possibilities she’d denied pushed to the forefront, and she shoved them back down. “H-how long?” she stam- mered, putting a cold hand to her warm face.
“Two days. He was recently moved to a government facility and was boosted in transit.”
“Bill?” she said, but her mind was on Jack, not their han- dler. The bear of a man had vanished cleanly when Opti fell apart. Damn it. Damn it all to hell. She’d said no. Why did she have to keep saying it?
“That’s my guess.” Allen’s hands were in his coat pockets. He was waiting, just waiting. “I could use some help cleaning this up.”
“Not my problem.” Emotion pushed her to her feet, panic not because Jack was free, but because a tiny glowing spot of want had fanned to life, faint from having been denied, but growing stronger.
“You’ve been marked,” he said, stopping her again. “You aren’t safe anymore. The alliance is gone, but I’ve been working with the government to try to bring Bill in. If we can—”
She put a gentle hand on his shoulder that was all threat. “I don’t do that anymore.”
Unwilling to be bullied, he pushed her hand off. “You have skills no one else does.”
“Go find another one. The psych wards are full of us,” she said bitterly. The few remaining patrons were leaving fast, girding themselves against the snow and finding the door as traffic thickened. “I’m not going to work for the govern- ment, not even to tuck the bad back into hiding.” She was flushed, hating it.
“Bill wants you,” he said. “That’s why he boosted Jack. He wants you, and he’s not afraid to send a drafter to bring you in.”
Fear slid through her, and her focus sharpened on Allen’s worry. You never sent a drafter after another drafter. The risk was too great that one of them would end up dead, and they were too rare to waste like that.
“You ever hear of Michael? Michael Kord,” Allen asked. “He was a rising drafter when you were in Opti. Here, I’ve got a picture of him.”
The name was familiar, and curiosity drew her eyes down. “I remember this guy,” Allen said as she scanned the grainy surveillance photo of a tall, clean-shaven man with short black hair. It had been taken in Detroit; she could see the elevated rail in the background. “Bill was grooming him to take your place. Encouraging all sorts of interesting behavior.”
Peri’s brow furrowed, a slim finger hovering over the photo as a memory tickled the top of her head. Something about birds . . .
“Bill is a manipulative bastard,” Allen said, still looking at the photo. “But he doesn’t discard someone who might make him money someday.”
Like me, she thought, shaken. “I remember him,” she whispered, the photo bringing her thoughts into focus. He was a dark man, thin but not gaunt. Attractive. Hispanic? He liked his sunglasses and his car. Birds. The single memory she had of him was of him drafting to kill the pigeons who’d spotted his ride.
“You remember Michael?” It was a shocked utterance. “That was in the year I erased. Do you remember . . .”
Her gaze lifted from the photo. “Anything about you?” she asked dryly. “No. I didn’t make any memory knots of you.” She backed up, not knowing what to do with her hands. Michael must have really pissed her off for her to have made a memory knot that would survive a wipe. “You want anything else? I like to mop before the lunch crowd comes in.”
“Memory knots?” he questioned. “Jeez, Peri, you know better than to play with those.”
He needed to leave. She could be out of here in forty- five seconds if she had to, but a more gracious exit—one with the money to move fast—required some privacy. “That will be fifteen-eighty for the coffee,” she said, hip cocked.
Allen’s lips parted. “Are you kidding?” he said loudly, and the last patron gathering his things snorted. It was Cam— Scottish descent but all American, ruggedly beautiful and with a sharp mind and enough personal charisma to draw her. He was heading for the register, unusual for the tech- loving man. For some reason, he didn’t like using his p-cash app to pay at the tables anymore, but maybe that was her fault.
Hand on her hip, Peri pointed to the very obvious sign over the register. Everything was fifteen-eighty: every size, every variety, every day. No refills unless she felt like it. She was a lousy bookkeeper, and this made it easy as well as keeping the place smelling of money. “You’re not buying a cup of coffee, sir,” she said mockingly. “You’re buying a secure place to check your email in a pleasant setting.” And it was secure. She made sure of it every day.
“I bet you still take cash, don’t you?” he said as he reached for his wallet. “Good God, I’m in the wrong business.”
“Then why do you keep trying to get me to come back to yours?” she said pointedly. “I’ll get you your change.” Taking the proffered bill, she strode to the register.
Flustered, she barely acknowledged Cam when he slid his own twenty across the stainless steel counter and she absently made change. “Thank you,” she said when he dumped it all in the tip jar. “Do you want one to go?”
“Peri, is everything okay?”
She looked up, truly shocked at the concern in his melo- dious voice. Following his nod to Allen, she slumped. “Oh. Yes. He’s an old business associate trying to lure me back. He gets under my skin is all.”
Cam’s eyebrows rose. “Oh!” Oh? Head tilted, Peri eyed him. “Oh, what?” The young stock market analyst smiled faintly, too confident to be embarrassed, but close.“I thought he was an old boyfriend you might need help encouraging to leave. I still could help—if you want.”
A smile, real and grateful, spread across her face. The kindness felt anything but small. “Thank you,” she said, touching his hand so he’d believe her. “I’ll be fine. It’s just business.”
He frowned, clearly not convinced. “I’ll call you later.”
She shut the register, Allen’s change in her grip. “You don’t have my number.”
Cam’s expression became crafty. “I would if you’d give it to me.”
At that she laughed, the clear, unusual sound bringing Allen’s head up in surprise. “Out. Go make money. But thank you. You totally just made my day.”
He sighed in playful regret, giving Allen a sharp look as he headed into the snow. Slowly Peri’s smile faded. Change in hand, she crossed to Allen and dropped it on the table. “Have a nice day. Bye-bye now.”
“Who was that?”
She watched Cam cross the street and hail a cab, its solar-gathering paint white to indicate it was available. Even as she watched, it shifted to black as he slipped in and was gone. All Detroit cabs had the controversial paint job, illegal outside of the city but standard on her first-year Mantis. Detroit did what it wanted. “I stole his car once. He’s no one.”
“You stole his car?”
“Yeah, but he never found out because I put it right back.” Seeing Allen waiting, she added, “His p-cash PIN is the same as his door lock. It was an Audi. This year’s. I borrowed the fob and drove it around the block while he drank his coffee and watched his CNN. No harm, no foul.” God, it was nice. Not as nice as her Mantis, but nice.
Allen rose, his lanky athleticism looking disheveled after Cam’s precise business attire. “Why didn’t you try one at the dealership?” he asked as he stacked the coins atop the paper bills.
“Because they check your name against your address, and if I’d given them my real one, they would’ve sent me literature.”
“Peri, why won’t you help me?” he asked suddenly, and her tension slammed into her. “You’re good at this. We need you, if for nothing else than tucking Michael away. No one but you has even a chance at it.”
“No thanks.” She went behind the counter, finding strength there.
“Peri Reed!” Allen exclaimed, clearly frustrated. “You tell me why you won’t come back, and I’ll leave forever. The truth.”
“The truth?” she echoed, not sure her soul could handle any more truth. “It’s too easy to use me,” she added, back- ing up a step, arms over her middle. “Why do you think I’m hiding over a medical dump? Jesus, Allen. I trust Bill more than some new governmental task force. With Bill, I know it would be all about the profit, sent to assassinate some poor schmuck who invented a new way to make electricity so Bill could sell it to the highest bidder. At least Bill would make me think I’d offed a drug dealer. If I go back to work for the government, even for one job, they will wipe me back to my sixteenth birthday and fill my head with whatever past they want. Either that, or they’ll tuck me away in a cell until they need me again.”
“I wouldn’t let them do that to you,” he said, sounding insulted, but the fear was too real, tingling in her fingertips. Behind him, rush-hour traffic started and stopped, awkward from the rising snow. No wonder Cam had taken a cab today.
Peri reached for a dishcloth, agitated. “Don’t take it per- sonal. I don’t trust anyone. This is not my fight, and I’m not going to draw attention to myself. As long as I don’t play the game, I’m not a threat. Everyone leaves me alone. Right?” Which was debatable, but she was going to stick with it—at least until Bill showed up, a smiling, flirting Jack in tow. But she’d be long gone by then.
Her attempt at pretending she was normal had failed. Normal people didn’t worry about chunks of time being destroyed and replaced by false truths—manipulative and damaging truths.
“You’re afraid?” he coddled, and her face warmed. “Maybe I just don’t care.” Allen’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. You can keep the change,” he said tightly, pace stiff as he strode to the door, yanked it open, and vanished into the busy street.
Her shoulders slumped as she listened to the door chimes clink and the secondary alarm system click on in the silence. “I generally do,” she said. She didn’t mind lying to Allen; the guilt was because she was lying to herself.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She did. But she couldn’t risk going back. The lure was too much, the fear too real. She teased herself with the power she’d once had, existing on the fringes, hoping that with little shots of it she might build up her resistance—all the while knowing it was a lie, that the ache would never go away, waking her in the small hours when only Carnac lay purring to distract her.
The truth was she’d liked working for Opti. She needed the thrill of lives being in the balance of her skills and chance; lived for the fast cars, sexy clothes, rigorous train- ing that pushed her to her limits, and the smart man at her elbow. She liked it so much that for three years she ignored the signs that she was someone else’s weapon until it was rubbed in her face—and as much as she hated it, she still mourned the loss of everything she had once had.
She had become a part of the corruption at Opti without even realizing it. Because of her, people had died—they died so someone she’d never met would have a fraction bet- ter profit, or buy an election, or bring virus-carried death to a region another country wanted to exploit.
And even knowing all of that, even steeled against it, she didn’t know whether she could resist the choice if it was put to her again, the risk of being manipulated into something foul aside.