Books · Journalism · Information
|The Prey Series|
The Singular Menace: Outrage
She stalked across the Home Depot parking lot: a West Coast punk with brutally cropped black hair, a black tank top, muscles in her shoulders and arms, wearing jeans and lace-up boots. At her knee, a wolf-dog wearing a phony "service" tag.
Like a raven-haired, bad-news version of Alice in Wonderland, she led the animal through the store, past shelves that rose to the ceiling: cleaning liquids, paper towels, paint, insect killers, tree trimmers, and tools walls of wrenches, hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, tape measures... and bolt cutters.
Everything from hand-sized cable nippers to four-foot-long monster jaws that could slice through the roof of a truck. Momentarily bewildered by the choices, she reached up and selected a tough-looking twenty-four-inch H. K. Porter general-purpose bolt cutter for $44.97.
She had plenty, she thought. She slipped the fingers of her right hand into her jeans pocket and touched the wad of bills there... and her fingers came away with the sticky, rusty stains of drying blood.
The sight of the blood struck her like a thunderbolt. She brought her hand close to her face, could smell the coppery scent of blood and death and was instantly transported to a makeshift prison a hundred and thirty miles away, back in time by half a day, a bleak, concrete box of locks and bars and tiny cells, screaming, desperate, mutilated inmates, the stink of torture and human waste....
The images tumbled through sixteen-year-old Shay Remby's mind: her brother Odin's beaten face, the torture room with its tub and hoses, the Asian girl with the grotesquely wired-up scalp. Beneath all those thoughts, the image of a handsome black man, Marcus West, lying in a pool of his own blood. Down the hall, in another puddle of blood, the man he'd shot in self-defense.
West still had a gun in one hand. Shay was kneeling by his side, trying to lift him, while he pleaded with her to run. There were armed men coming, he said, killers who'd shoot her as well. Then Cruz pulled her from the floor, away from West, and half carried, half dragged her out into the night.
Then it started over again, like a bad film loop playing through her mind....
Shay had no idea how long she stood there, frozen by the images. She came back from the nightmare and found X anxiously licking her left hand her right hand, the one with the blood, was still crooked in front of her face.
She whispered, "Shit, shit," and looked down at her pocket: she hadn't seen it earlier, but there was a palm-sized bloodstain on the denim. The contact point with West's bleeding rib cage. Down her leg, she saw more of the rusty blood spots.
She shuddered, put the bolt cutters back in their bin, and looked wildly around, then hurried X down the aisle toward the back of the store. The restrooms were always in the back of the store....
The ladies' room was big and clean but not quite empty an elderly woman was pushing a walker from the handicapped stall to the sink. She flinched away from the punk and her tethered wolf, and made straight for the exit; Shay heard the yellow tennis balls on the walker's front legs swishing. She locked herself and the dog into the stall at the end of the row and pulled the money out of her pocket.
A wad of fifties, and every bill had been touched with West's blood. For some, the blood extended into Ulysses S. Grant's bearded face. Others had only minor stains.
She stuffed the bloodiest bills into her left front pocket and took the rest to the sink. The blood had been nearly dry, but the water seemed to reanimate it, a thin red stream that seeped out of the bills and curled down her fingers. She teared up as she worked, watching West's blood flow down the drain.
X whimpered at her, and when the water finally ran clean, she dried the bills as best she could by blotting them against paper towels, then carried them to the hand dryer to blast them with hot air. The bills came out limp, but clean. She took a second to throw cold water on her face and said to X, "Let's go."
She went back to the bolt cutter aisle, got the H. K. Porters, and carried them to the self-checkout counter. She kept the blood-dappled side of her jeans to the counter, nodded to the woman supervising the checkouts, and went out to the Jeep.
West's Jeep... She opened the door and saw a smear of dried blood on the driver's seat, where she'd been sitting. She dug into the backseat, found a pack of insect-repellant wipes, pulled one out, and used it to scrub the blood off the gray leather. She dropped the wipe in the parking lot and turned the leather key fob in her hand as she was about to start the ignition. More damn blood: West had been clutching his side and laid down a complete thumbprint when he thrust the keys at her....
She flashed back to the basement again, could see her own face reflected in the shine of West's brown eyes... desperate to get her moving, thinking only about her safety, not about himself. Insisting that the wound wasn't fatal he knew that from his past as a soldier. He said the police would get him to a hospital and into surgery....
And then, when she'd landed back safely with her friends, they'd given her the bad news. West had died.
The anger came suddenly, bursting over the sadness, the guilt at leaving him behind. Singular had murdered him, and the anger enveloped her, and she began to tremble, to shake, until she had to grip the steering wheel to keep herself from shaking to pieces.
Then the trembling subsided, and she started the truck.
"No mercy," she vowed to her wolf. "No mercy."
Odin Remby held a rolled-up washcloth in the young woman's mouth as she thrashed in chains on the narrow motel bed. Cade Holt had thrown his torso across her bucking legs, and Cruz Perez was trying to restrain her flailing arms. The harder she struggled against her bindings, the more she'd bleed, and the yellowed sheets were already striped with blood.
"Careful, careful, let's not make it worse," said Twist. He was standing back from the bed, leaning on a gold-headed cane, watching the struggle. The curtains were drawn, and the TV was turned up. "It's okay, sweetheart, you're almost through it."
Another seven or eight seconds, and the woman's thrashing limbs began to slow. She went still for a moment, then began to tremble, went still again, suffered another fit of trembling, and finally went still and stayed that way.
She was wearing a gray hospital smock and sweating heavily, and the stink of her sweat saturated the room. When he was sure the fit had ended, Odin pulled the washcloth from between her teeth. Her lips were crossed with healing wounds made when she'd bitten herself in earlier, unprotected fits. Cade and Cruz both backed away.
Twist looked at Odin. "We've got to get the chains off her. Where in the hell is your sister?"
"She'll be back," Odin said. He was thin and pale, breathing heavily. There were vicious purple bruises across his cheeks and hands, as if he'd been patiently and thoroughly and repeatedly beaten as he had been.
"She's been gone for almost an hour," said Twist. "If she needed to cry, that's fine but we've got things to do and crying's a luxury right now. We don't know what Singular's doing, we don't have any communications, we..."
A key rattled in the lock, and the door banged open. Shay was there with X, backlit by the Reno sun, carrying an orange Home Depot bag. She kicked the door shut with the heel of her boot and pulled a heavy set of bolt cutters from the sack. Her eyes were dry.
"Let's cut her loose," she said to the men in the room, who were all thinking a version of the same thing: the red-haired, camera-friendly beauty of a week ago was gone. Standing before them was a fugitive with a harsh black hack job of a haircut and a smoldering fury in her hazel stare.
Twist tipped the head of his cane toward her. "Don't leave us in the lurch like that."
They locked eyes, and after a few seconds, she nodded, snapped open the blades of the bolt cutters, didn't bother to apologize. "We've got things to do."
"Like what?" asked Cade. He was a tall, tanned kid, seventeen, with shoulder-length Jesus hair.
For a long moment, everyone in the room just looked at her. Then Odin slowly stood, body stiff, moving as though his bones hurt, and did something he hadn't done in weeks he smiled.
Cruz, the ex–gang member from East L.A., simply held out his hand, and Shay passed him the bolt cutters.
"These'll work," Cruz said, snapping the heavy jaws.
Shay was studying the woman on the bed. She was Asian, with delicate features gone gaunt from months of stress and pain. "She looks worse than when I left."
"She had another seizure," Odin said. "They're so violent. That was the third since..."
The chained woman was coming around: she tilted her head up at Odin and whispered, "Water." Odin grabbed a cup off the nightstand and held it to the woman's lips. She drank it all, greedily, then lay back on the bed.
"Where're we cutting?" Twist asked.
The woman was bound in a twelve-foot chain, a cold metal boa constrictor that circled her slender waist and looped like handcuffs around her wrists and ankles. Each set of loops was cinched with a U-shaped padlock.
"Start at her waist," Shay said to Cruz. Shay pulled the chain as far off the woman's body as she could, about three inches, and Cruz carefully gripped a link in the blades and squeezed. It broke in half with a quiet pop.
Twist: "Cade, pick up the chain and the padlocks, wipe them, stick them in a pillowcase. We'll dump it in the trash somewhere."
Cade grabbed a pillow, and Cruz moved on to the woman's wrists and then ankles.
"Please don't move," Cruz said, positioning the blades on the chain. "I don't wanna cut you...."
When the woman's chafed and bloodied wrists were free, she groaned in relief and said, "Thank you" and "More water, please?"
Odin got her another cup of water. Twist packed a pillow behind her back and said, "Better?"
She took another long drink and looked around the bed at the six of them: four men, a girl, and a dog with mismatched yellow and blue eyes. The dog sat away from her, but his nose was working hard, sniffing at the blood on her ankles.
As a group, her rescuers looked more than a little tattered: teenagers, mostly, the girl had a swollen lip, the long-haired kid had recently been hit in the face, the heavily muscled Hispanic had a bandage wrapped around one hand, the older man, perhaps thirty, was leaning on a cane. Her grateful gaze settled on Odin Odin, the boy with gingery whiskers who'd been imprisoned in the same Singular warehouse. He'd cradled her head in the back of a truck as they'd fled from the scene. Now he patted her arm awkwardly and said, "You're safe."
Twist asked, "Can you talk?"
She nodded and put the cup down. "Yes."
Shay: "What did they do to you?"
"They put an American woman into my mind," she said in precise, heavily accented English.
"Into your mind? You mean... What do you mean?" Twist asked. He sat on the end of the bed, his cane between his knees.
The woman rubbed at her sore wrists and said: "I have memories that are not my life, I know things that are not my knowing.... I am unable to think only for myself."
The rescuers looked at each other, and Twist said, "They're that close. This is science fiction."
"It's depraved," Odin said. "They drilled into her head just like they did all those poor monkeys..."
"Monkeys?" the woman asked.
Shay gave her brother a look that said not now, but the woman had a flicker of understanding.
"Yes, I think I am like a monkey an experiment," she said. "But I do not think the experiment worked. Not completely. If the experiment worked, she would have taken over my brain and driven me out. I think only pieces were successful. I do not know.... There is much confusion."
They'd all been staring and trying not to stare at the woman's horribly mutilated head. Now, as if suddenly realizing what it meant to have her hands free, she reached up and probed her skull. Spread across the whole dome of her depilated scalp were dozens of tiny brass caps, each sprouting a wire as thin as thread. The wires swept back and ended in pigtail-like connectors at the back of her neck.
"I have not felt my head since before the operation," she said, answering their faces. "I was chained, to keep me from pulling these things out. Please, may I see a mirror?"
Twist didn't think that was a good idea, not now or for the rest of her life.
"Why don't you wait until you've rested," he said.
She arched her eyebrow and said: "I am not so afraid that I cannot see the truth."
An iPad belonging to West, sticking out of his leather briefcase, pinged. Shay said, "Just a second," and stepped over to the table to check it, then turned back to the others, agitated. "It's a note on BlackWallpaper." That was the Facebook account West had set up to communicate with them but obviously it wasn't West posting....
"From them?" Cade asked. He went over to view the screen and nodded. "Yeah. Singular."
Last night can be forgotten. Return the copied flash drives and we're done.
A warning: You are associating with a Chinese spy who came here illegally to attack government officials. If you help her, you will be equally guilty of espionage. The FBI is looking for her and won't stop until she's in custody.
"Last night can be forgotten?" Shay seethed. "They murdered West. They murdered him. They think we're going to let them forget it?"
Twist put a hand on her shoulder. "Let me show it to..." He turned to the girl on the bed. "I don't even know your name."
"Let me show it to Fenfang," Twist said. "Can you read English?"
She took the slate, frowned as she read the message. "I am not a spy! I am a university student. My cousin Liko and I, they... they..." She touched her head again, and her eyes began twitching and then rolled upward. Twist said, "She's seizing again. Get the washcloth...."
Fenfang fell back on the bed, shivering, her teeth beginning to chatter, and she moaned as if someone was indeed fighting her from inside.
Odin knelt next to her, grabbed the washcloth off the nightstand, and thrust it between her teeth. She began to gnaw at it and struggle, and he said, "Help, hold her arms...."
The spasm went on for two minutes, peaking a minute after it started and gradually subsiding. When it ended, she opened her eyes and said, "I can't..." She closed her eyes and seemed to fall asleep.
Odin, staring at the woman's scalp, sickened by it, said, "We need to get her some kind of treatment."
"What kind would that be?" Shay asked. The anger was thick in her voice. "They made her into a lab rat. If she's like those monkeys you turned loose, or like X, her brain is full of wires. Where do you go to get that fixed?"
"I don't know," Odin said. "But leaving her like this is not an option. We've got to do something."
Fenfang's eyes fluttered: she'd been unconscious for no more than a few seconds. She said, "You cannot cure me. I think I will die soon. Or I will kill myself."
Odin crouched beside her. "Don't give up. Please. Don't."
Fenfang focused her eyes, which were dark brown, almost black. "I have no control. These things they put in my head... I see things. I do things. They connect me to a machine."
"No machine here," Cade said.
"No machine ever again," said Odin.
Twist leaned in. "The note from Singular said you're a Chinese spy...."
"I am not a spy."
"We're under the impression Singular might be dealing with North Koreans. Are you Chinese or Korean?"
"I am Chinese, from Dandong," she said. "I was a university student there. My cousin, Liko, and I, we studied together."
Cade's fingers rapped across the keyboard of his laptop, and he checked a map. "Dandong is on the border, across the Yalu River from North Korea."
"Yes. We made money for school, trading with North Koreans," Fenfang said. "Then an American man came, he was a Christian man. He wanted to go across to do research on the suffering, and we took him. On the third night, we were captured."
There was a flurry of glances between Shay and the others. One of the videos from the encrypted flash drive Odin had cracked showed a robotic Asian man speaking as though he were an American Christian aid worker who'd gone missing a year earlier along the Chinese–North Korean border.
"Was it Robert G. Morris?" Cade asked. "Robert G. Morris from St. Louis?"
The young woman seemed startled when she heard the name. "Yes. You know Robert?"
"No," Twist said. "But we found... evidence of him on a Singular video. We also found news reports that no one had seen him for months."
Cruz, who'd stepped back and was petting X, asked, "How did you get from North Korea to here?"
"On a ship," she said, her voice trembling with effort. "There were other people with me, also experiments. One of them was my cousin. Everything was clouds. They gave me drugs, all of us had drugs, to keep us quiet, almost to the end. The last four or five days, they did not give us drugs because they wanted our blood to be clean for the examinations. One man died when we were on the ship. We were in a metal box, he was sick, and then he did not move, and they came and took him out. We never saw him again."
Shay jumped in: "Fenfang, we don't know who the other prisoners were at the facility we broke into last night. Do you?"
The young woman squeezed her eyes shut, as if trying to see inside the cells where Shay and West had spied several catatonic men in the moments before they found Odin.
"No," she said. "I heard crying, but I only ever saw Odin."
Odin said, "They were dragging me down the hall to my cell after waterboarding me. I couldn't walk, I was just hanging off them. Fenfang was being taken the other way. One of the guards said, 'Water Boy meets the Girl with Two Brains,' and the other guards laughed."
"Not laughing now," Cruz said.
Fenfang nodded and looked at the group again, scrutinizing each of their faces: Shay, Twist, Odin, Cade, Cruz, and X. Then she asked, "Who are you?"
Shay said, "That's a complicated story."
"I am a good listener," Fenfang said.
Odin ran his hands through his hair and started at the beginning: "I don't like animal experimentation in research laboratories. Most of the time, it's unnecessary and cruel, and if you'd seen the messed-up monkeys with their heads cut..."
Shay squeezed Odin's arm, gave him a quick shake of her head that said spare her the details. "My brother's got a very kind heart, but basically, what happened is, he and some extreme animal rights people raided a lab to wreck their experiments, and they got away with a lot of computer files and our dog here. Turns out the company that owns the lab wasn't just experimenting on animals, they were experimenting on people, like you. We think they're trying to find a way to make people... immortal."
Odin broke in: "The problem is, they can't create a brain or a body, so they have to use one that already exists. They kidnap a living person, try to erase her memories, and then they try to move the mind of another person into her brain."
"And that is me," Fenfang said.
Odin nodded. "It makes me so angry. The worst thing you can do is kill a living being; they killed hundreds of animals trying to figure out how to do it, the monkeys I was telling you about..."
Shay touched his arm again: "Anyway, Odin and his friends stole computer records, and the company, it's called Singular, went after them, trying to get back the files."
"And the dog," Odin said, nodding at X. "He was one of their experiments, and I took him, but God, I forgot the poor little three-legged rat. Then Shay came looking for me and met Twist..."
"I'm Twist," Twist said.
Odin continued: "And I gave her the dog and copies of the files I stole, and then Singular kidnapped me."
"We put some of the files Odin gave me on the Internet," Shay said, "and we caused them some trouble." She smiled ruefully. "One of the Singular people, a man named West, changed sides to help us. He was with us when we found you and Odin, and they killed him.... And that's where we are. We got Odin back, and you, and we lost West."
"We fight," said Twist.
"They'll be coming for us," Shay added. "They know we can expose what they are really doing so they've got to get rid of us."
Fenfang had questions, lots of them: how Odin got into the lab, how Cade and Cruz got involved. They explained about Twist an affluent artist who lived and worked in a hotel of sorts that sheltered street kids in Los Angeles. Shay had been lucky to land there in her search for Odin, as Cade and Cruz had been when they'd needed shelter from their own messy lives.
When Fenfang asked how long they'd been fighting Singular, Shay was stunned to realize that it had been less than two months. These people who'd helped her rescue her brother, these people she'd lay down her life for she'd known them less than two months.
Fenfang said, "I would kill myself rather than go back there. Are we secure now?"
Twist said, "Maybe. When we ran out of Sacramento, we were acting almost randomly. We didn't know where we were going so I don't know how Singular could know."
Odin shook his head at Twist. "Don't underestimate them. They found me and the group I worked with after we trashed the lab, and we were really careful. They're probably doing psych studies on us, and who knows what other resources they have? All kinds of places have license plate scanners, and if they can tap into that... Shay came here in West's Jeep."
Twist nodded then. "We need to move soon. We're too close to Sacramento."
"Where to?" Shay asked.
"We should talk about that," Twist said. He looked at Fenfang and then Odin. "First... you guys must be hungry."
"I hadn't thought about it, but I am," said Odin. "They never gave me anything to eat except some rice and biscuits."
Fenfang nodded. "I would eat anything. But steamed fish and zongzi especially."
"Zongzi?" Cruz asked.
"Hmm... rice that is wrapped in bamboo leaves? You know? With maybe salted duck eggs or pork bellies."
"I don't know if Reno does Chinese that authentic, but we'll see what we can find," Twist said. "We can talk about where to go while we eat."
Suddenly Fenfang's eyelids began to flutter, and she slipped back on the bed and began to shake. Twist said, "Oh, Jesus, here she goes again...."
But after less than a minute, the shaking stopped, and her eyes popped open, with a disoriented look that slowly came to focus on the group.
"That wasn't so bad," Cade said.
"Maybe they're subsiding... the fits," Twist said.
Fenfang rubbed her forehead, as if thinking over the possibility. "Maybe."
There was a loud slapping noise, and Shay turned to see that her brother was flapping his arms, something he'd done since childhood when he was upset. His face grew flushed, and one of his legs started to stomp in time with his arms.
"Odin, everything's all right," Shay said, trying to soothe him. "Odin..."
"I...I... I can't stand what they did! What they did to Fenfang, and to the monkeys, and to the rats, and to X, and to the Xs they hurt before him. He's X-5, that's what they tattooed on his ear what if they started with A and they experimented on ten or fifty or a hundred dogs for every letter? X is the twenty-fourth letter..."
"Odin, stop," Shay said, and turned him away from Fenfang to mouth more emphatically, You're scaring her, stop. That got Odin's attention, and his face screwed up with effort as he pulled in his arms and unclenched his fists.
Shay turned back to Fenfang, expecting to have to explain, but instead, Fenfang was busy propping herself up against the pillow. Twist reached in to assist her, and she said, "I want to stand up."
Shay: "Are you sure?"
Twist pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to Cade. "You and Cruz hit a Chinese takeout. Shay and Odin and I will stay with Fenfang."
Cade and Cruz went out, and Shay and Odin helped Fenfang to her feet and walked her around the motel room. Eventually there was no avoiding it she stopped and looked at herself in the tall dresser mirror, Shay and Odin reflected on either side.
"This isn't how I thought it would be," she said, almost to herself. "I'd like to see the back." She turned sideways and sighed at the cap of wires and the bundle at her neck. Then she turned again, toward the center of the room, done.
"If you don't mind," she said, and unhooked her elbows from Shay and Odin, "I can do this myself." She started another loop around the room, solid enough on her feet to not fall down, though always using a chair, a bed, or a wall to keep herself upright. She sat down a few times and stood up and touched her head, the connectors sparkling in the overhead lights.
Shay said to Twist, "I can tell you one thing: she needs a wig. Like, right now."
"We need to find one of those cancer places," Odin said.
Shay took a prepaid phone out of her back jeans pocket, and the knife she'd carried since Eugene out of her waistband. She tossed them both on the opposite bed and then sat down with West's iPad to search for a wig shop.
While Twist and Odin watched over her shoulder, Fenfang picked up a motel guide from the desktop. "Where are we?" she asked.
Shay answered, "Reno, Nevada. Where there are a surprising number of wig shops. Let's figure out which one is the closest."
Fenfang said, "I need to..." and walked carefully toward the bathroom.
Twist told Shay and Odin he'd been thinking of calling Lou, one of the two women he'd left in charge of his hotel for street kids. He had a stash of cash hidden in his studio, and he was trying to figure out how Lou could get it to them.
Shay put a finger to her lips. "Listen."
Faintly, they could hear Fenfang in the bathroom, talking in a low voice. Shay looked over at the other bed and said, "She's got my phone . . . and my knife."
She jumped off the bed and stepped over to the door, Twist right behind her. Together, they heard the young woman they'd rescued saying:
"Hurry. Something bad is happening to this body, you have to hurry. Get me away from these people...."
"What the hell?" Twist said, and rapped his cane on the door. "Fenfang? Open up."
She didn't answer him, but went on talking, her voice going to a whisper. Shay reached out to try the knob "Is it locked?" and when it turned, she pushed inside....
"Careful," Twist said from behind, "the knife..."
Fenfang, sitting on the toilet lid, tried to get to her feet but staggered, nearly losing her balance. Shay lunged for the phone, but Fenfang swung her other arm around with the knife, and Shay jumped back just enough to avoid being slashed, then Twist hooked Fenfang's knife arm and wrenched it until she screamed in pain and dropped the knife. Shay snatched the phone.
"Who'd you call?" Twist asked as he held Fenfang from behind, pinning her arms.
"I won't tell you a thing," she sneered.
Shay, checking her phone and the last number dialed, said, "It's a California number, the same area code as West's phone number. The same prefix... Did she call Singular?"
"Jesus," Twist said. "Fenfang, did you call Singular? Fenfang?"
"It's not Fenfang," said Odin, who'd come up behind them.
"Don't you get it? The other woman made the call. The one fighting for control."
The young woman looked up at Odin and smiled. She said, "And I have..."
Then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she started thrashing against Twist's arms.
When Sync and Harmon entered the suite at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, Thorne was standing at the living room window, staring out over the city, hands in his pants pockets. Micah Cartwell, the CEO of Singular, was sitting on an easy chair in the bedroom, behind closed French doors, talking on a cell phone with military-grade scrambling software.
Sync, Harmon, and Thorne were big men with scars showing lives of conflict they might have been professional athletes, tall, tough, competent. Cartwell was shorter and rounder, but had the same alpha-male aura. Sync was Singular's security chief, and worked directly for Cartwell. Harmon was an intelligence coordinator, Thorne ran the enforcement section, and both reported to Sync.
A silver tray of carefully cut triangle sandwiches sat on a round table at one side of the room, with a half-dozen bottles of Perrier in a silver ice bucket. The room had been rented for one night with a credit card that would bill Boeing Aircraft, though Boeing didn't know about it, and never would.
Sync nodded at Thorne and said, "Where are we in Sacramento?"
Thorne stepped away from the window. Early thirties, with close-cropped hair and narrow-set pale eyes, he was at least a decade younger than the other men, and aggressively ambitious. He was limping, but his expression gave nothing to the lingering pain in his leg.
"Basement's remodeled and scrubbed, new doors up and down the hallways," he said. "As soon as the cops left, we brought in a couple of semitrucks full of lab equipment and some door plaques from Staples that say Secure Storage. Some smart-ass on the crime scene crew wanted to keep us out of the lobby for a while, but we talked to his boss...."
"The cops didn't hear anything from the Rembys?"
Thorne shook his head. "No. Nobody's heard from them. If they'd told the cops that the shootings were down in the basement, and not up in the lobby, and the cops had gone down there and found the cells... we'd be toast."
"We're good for now," Thorne said. "We're blaming everything on West. He had a drug problem, result of his war wounds, went a little crazy.... The media's buying it. We might have trouble with his father, but his father doesn't know anything about the media. We can send out signals about the grieving father being a bit unbalanced, and contain that."
Sync nodded and said, "Good. That's good. We've started playing down the Remby connection. We don't want the wrong cops picking them up, especially not if the Chinese girl is with them."
Thorne kept talking: "We've got to come up with another solution for the experimental subjects. This was too close. We survived by the skin of our teeth."
Sync asked, "How in the hell could a couple of kids and some flaky artist pull us under?"
Thorne bristled: "We can't think of them that way. They're not kids or flakes; they're the enemy. Same mistake we made when we went into the Twist Hotel and got our asses kicked."
The fight in the hotel had given Thorne the gimpy leg.
"That might be overcooking it a little," Harmon said. Harmon was wearing a conventional blue business suit and dress loafers, in place of his usual jeans and cowboy boots. Here, two blocks from the financial district, the idea was to look like everyone else, even if Harmon, with his desert-weathered face and hands, and the mirrored aviators, looked like a stockbroker who could pull your arms off.
"Maybe what we need is negotiation," Sync offered. "If we can talk to them, impress them with how unbeatable we are, every resource on our side, maybe we can get the flash drives and make them go away. Without any outside proof, anything they could tell the police would sound like a fantasy."
Cartwell had gotten off the phone and pushed through the French doors in time to hear the last of Sync's suggestion. He was wearing a thin pair of reading glasses, which he took off and slipped into the breast pocket of his suit. "You're half right," he said. "We need to find them and the experimental subject, and do what we can anything we can to get the flash drives. We know that Odin Remby cracked at least one. Now that he's back with them, they might be able to crack the rest. So, if they'll talk, we'll talk. If they'll negotiate, we'll negotiate. If they won't do any of that, we'll hunt them down."
Thorne: "How can we trust them? Odin Remby's an animal rights maniac, and he has some pretty heavy computer skills. If he has the chance to get more videos out there, he'll do it. He's a hard case: didn't even crack under the waterboarding."
Cartwell broke in, impatient: "We don't trust them, not a goddamn inch. We talk if we can, we negotiate if we can. We promise them everything they ask for, and we get the drives, and then we get rid of them."
This was why they'd rented the room with the Boeing credit card: so nobody, ever, could put them here, together, talking about murder.
After a moment of silence, Harmon said, "That might be problematic."
Cartwell snapped: "You going soft on us, Harmon? Like West did?"
Harmon had been a Special Forces sergeant in Afghanistan. There was nothing soft about him, and the comment burned. West had been a good man, a soldier who lost his legs in the same crappy war.
"I'm not soft on anybody," Harmon said. "But killing people a whole group of people is not easy to pass off in this country. If it's not done all at once, the survivors will be screaming bloody murder to the press. You might have noticed, they've got some media skills, too. The artist does. On the other hand, if you kill them all at once, we're talking about a massacre. That tends to catch the eye."
Cartwell waved a hand at him. "You guys get paid to sort these things out. We almost got our ship sunk this morning. This group the enemy they're dangerous. We can't leave them out there."
Sync said, "I agree they've got to go. It'll take some staging, but we can work it out. A van goes into a canyon, the artist maybe overdoses.... It can be done."
Thorne nodded. "First we've got to find them."
Harmon started to speak, "I'm not so..." but Sync cut him off: "About those flash drives, the copies that Odin Remby made. The originals were DARPA specials, which is about the only thing Janes got right. They have two levels of encryption Remby got lucky with one level when he found the decryption software on Janes's office computer. The second level he broke with... well, he somehow worked through Janes's personal password.
"But the files are embedded in software that only allows one copy. So, if we get the copies they have, there won't be any more of them. That threat would be over. Janes said that at least three of the flash drives had been copied once, so those are already dead."
"That helps," Cartwell said.
Sync continued, "There's a possibility, a remote possibility, that they'll contact Janes to try to break the other passwords if they can't do it themselves. We can't put full-time surveillance on Janes's house, because of where he lives it'd be noticed by the neighbors and there'd be questions. But if the Rembys go there, we've set up a little surprise for them."
They talked about that, and Cartwell asked, "What about this Chinese girl? If anybody outside the company stuck her head in an X-ray machine, we'd have a problem. If the Chinese government ever found out that the Koreans had kidnapped Chinese citizens and used them as lab subjects... the problem might be unstoppable."
Sync said, "I've been working on that. We've got no direct control over her, so my thought is, we build a backtrail for her. One that doesn't involve us. We've got her Chinese passport. We fly it into Canada with a look-alike, with an appointment with a neurosurgeon.
Then she tries to walk it across the border to the U.S., without the right documents. They turn her around and she disappears. Maybe leaves some personal stuff in a Canadian hotel room. If she turns up here, it'll look like she crossed the border illegally..."
"The point being?" Cartwell asked.
"The point being that we didn't have her and never did. She'll have a trail that the cops can follow. If she turns up with the Rembys or this Twist character, and they try to connect her to us, we'll have evidence that they hooked up long after Sacramento. That we had nothing to do with the shit in her head."
Cartwell peered at him and scraped his top teeth over his lower lip a few times, a nervous tic. Then he said, "That's not optimal, but it's better than anything else I've heard. Get that going."
"I already have," Sync said. "A Chinese woman will fly into Vancouver tomorrow morning with the girl's passport. If you need to veto it, you've got about" he checked his watch "two hours. She should be heading for the Hong Kong airport about now."
Cartwell nodded. "Good. Go with it." He turned to Harmon. "What are we doing to locate them?"
"We're looking for West's Jeep. We're looking at the phone numbers we know, but they're staying off the phones. And we're doing all the other routine checks for credit cards and Internet accounts that they're known to use. The problem is, we don't know which way they went. I figure they either headed back to Los Angeles, where they've got support, or they just took off. If they just took off, it's most likely they headed for Nevada. It would be a logical move for them, if they thought the police were looking for them, to get across a state line or two."
"You think it's possible that they headed back to Oregon?" Thorne asked.
"Possible, but less likely," Harmon said. "Our early research showed that the Rembys didn't have the kind of personal connections that would provide them with hideouts, other than Odin Remby's connection to Storm. Most of the group's members are now in jail, except for Rachel Wharton, and she hasn't gone back to Oregon. No, I think they went east or south. I've got guys watching the Twist Hotel, and depending on what we decide here, I could send some men to Nevada or wherever else they might turn up. Right now, my guys are mostly looking at computer screens."
Cartwell: "Computer screens. What about this website they set up, Mindkill?"
"We blocked it," said Sync. "They can get it back up, but they haven't, yet. Our problem is, they ran it through a Swedish Web provider that mostly supports pirate sites. The provider has very tight controls. We don't have the technical ability or the political clout to eliminate the site altogether. But we can keep messing with it."
Cartwell said, "Okay. We've sealed off the Sacramento problem, we're distancing ourselves from the missing experimental subject, we're hunting down the Rembys. Now, what are we going to do about the other experimental subjects? We need a secure facility."
They'd been standing up as they talked, and now they moved to the chairs, and Cartwell and Sync picked up sandwiches. Sync said, "There are a whole lot of conflicting requirements when you start talking about a dedicated holding facility. First of all, you need anonymity. There are a couple of different ways you can go with that...."
They talked about it as the sun went down, running the company, and the search, from their encrypted cell phones. Since the holding facility would function as a disguised prison, and would require armed guards to move the experimental subjects when needed, Cartwell delegated the search for a new facility to Thorne, who would run it, with oversight from Sync. Sync suggested that Thorne look closely at Stockton, California, a large but nearly bankrupt city with a tiny police force. Stockton was convenient to Singular's San Francisco–area headquarters, as well as the Sacramento research center.
They were still talking about it when Cartwell's phone buzzed. He looked at the screen of his secure phone and frowned: the number was unknown. That just didn't happen. He hesitated, then punched answer. "Hello."
A woman's voice, weak, thready, tentative. "This is Charlotte. Help me. Help me."
Cartwell said, "Who is this?"
He listened for another twenty seconds, heard commotion on the other end, and then the connection broke off.
Cartwell said, "Jesus," and stared at the phone.
Cartwell looked at the others. "She said she was Charlotte Dash. Dash has this number but it wasn't her. She sounded foreign."
Sync blurted, "It's the Chinese girl! She was implanted with the Dash persona. We know some of it took; the whole reason we brought her here was to try to figure out how much."
Harmon: "With the Rembys. Could the implanted personality have enough control to call us? Or is that crazy?"
Cartwell said, "It's somewhat crazy, but not entirely. We've had hints of things like this. Oh, Christ, she said something about her bones...."
Harmon said, "Give it to us, word for word. Best you can."
"She was so damn hard to understand. She said she was Charlotte, but she sounded... Mandarin," Cartwell said. "But she would... wouldn't she?"
Sync nodded. "Language and accent are separate...."
"Then she said 'Help' or 'Help me,' " Cartwell said. "She said that a couple of times. And then something about... her bones? The bones? Something like that."
"Bones," Thorne repeated. "Could that be code for something?"
Cartwell cocked his head. "Code? I don't know, maybe. Nothing I know about. But we know the girl has seizures maybe she's hurt."
Sync pressed his hands together. "This could be a break."
Cartwell was less certain. "If it really was this escapee . . . can we figure out where she was calling from?"
Harmon said, "Give me ten minutes." He took Cartwell's phone and walked into the bedroom, pulling a laptop from his briefcase.
Cartwell turned to Sync. "Should I call Charlotte?"
"You know her better than I do," Sync said. "If she knew there was a Dash double out there, how would she react?"
Cartwell rubbed the side of his face, thinking, then said, "I don't know. She's got half a billion dollars with us so far, and she's already had two rounds of chemo, so she knows we're working on her as a priority. But the reality of what that means..."
"Is she stable?" Sync asked. "Mentally stable?"
"She's got a lot going on. The cancer, the stink from her husband's hedge fund, and trying to work out his estate..." He did the lip-scraping thing again, then: "Maybe we'll let it go for now. Admitting we lost the girl won't inspire a lot of confidence."
They were still talking about it when Harmon came in from the bedroom and handed Cartwell his phone back. "She's in Reno," he said. "The Bones Motel and Casino. Some kind of low-rent place on the edge of town."
Sync: "The Bones?"
"Like in 'rolling the bones' rolling the dice," Harmon said.
Thorne punched the air with his fist, then looked past Sync and Harmon at Cartwell. "Give me the jet, Micah, I can have a team there in two hours."
"You've got it," Cartwell said. "Let's get this done."
"We will," Thorne said, and walked away, already on his phone.
The seizure on the bathroom floor lasted ninety seconds, with Twist holding Fenfang's wire-plaited head in his lap and twice taking a bony elbow to the windpipe: like getting hit with a fire poker. Both jabs hurt, and when she finally went still and her eyelids fluttered, he croaked, "What'd you tell Singular? Are they coming?"
"I... What?" she said. Her eyes were cloudy, dazed. "How am I here?"
Odin, crouched to one side of her with the spit-soaked washcloth, looked back and forth between Twist and his sister, who'd held down the young woman's legs, and said, "She didn't make the call, okay? It's not her fault."
Shay said, "Hey! Odin! Singular murdered our friend. They tortured you, and you almost died. I don't want to hear any crap about whose fault is whose. If she's on their side, we're gonna drop her in a ditch and keep going."
"I am on your side," she said softly.
Shay glared at the Chinese girl and held out her recovered knife. "Yeah? Who used my phone? Who tried to stab me?"
Cade and Cruz came crashing through the door, called back by Shay during the seizure. Fenfang struggled with her question and said, "I do not know about a knife. I would not hurt you; it is my promise. This must be Charlotte. I am Fenfang."
Odin, his face reddening, tried again. "It's like when that beaten-down Asian guy on File 12 says he's Robert G. Morris of St. Louis that's who he is. Whether he exists as himself anymore, or they killed those memories, we don't know. One thing we do know" he touched the center of the young woman's forehead "Fenfang from Dandong is still here."
Fenfang clasped his hand in gratitude. "Yes," she said.
Twist said, "All right. But... who is Charlotte?"
Fenfang turned toward him. "I do not know. I know Charlotte. I know some things about her, but they are more facts than memories. Names... and many numbers... she is one hundred thirty-six pounds, her house is 524. I know her house security codes, her business security codes; she has passwords, she has telephone numbers."
Odin took Shay's phone out of her hands, found the last outgoing call, and showed it to Fenfang: "You know this number?"
She squinted at it and said, "I know the name with it: Cartwell."
Twist said, "Cartwell is Singular's CEO. She went right to the top." Cade glanced at the door and said, "We gotta get out of here."
"Yes, but not in two minutes," Cruz said. "We have a little time before he could do anything."
Twist said, "If she's got all these security measures, if she's talking to Cartwell, she's probably one of Singular's backers."
"I do not know this Cartwell, only the number," Fenfang said. "I know another important number has the name White. Another important number is Jackson. I know eight of these numbers with names."
Cade opened his laptop. "Fenfang, give me those phone numbers."
She was getting some strength back and pushed herself up on her elbows and rattled off a string of eight phone numbers. Cade typed them, and Odin went to stand over his shoulder. Odin asked, "Where are you?"
"Twenty-two Hornet," Cade said.
Odin patted his shoulder. "Okay."
A minute later, as Twist and Shay got Fenfang to her feet, Cade said, "That White number? That's the office phone for Harry White, the U.S. Senate majority leader."
"Shit," Twist said.
"Got her," Cade said. "Charlotte Coulter Dash..."
"Holy cats," Twist said. "Senator Dash?"
"Yup," said Cade, who was already skimming her Wiki page. "Charlotte Coulter Dash is the senior U.S. senator from New Mexico. Second-term Democrat, age forty-eight. Her husband, Huck Dash, ran a hedge fund called Hondo Investments until last December, when he croaked. Dude was like the forty-ninth-richest human on the planet. Says she's a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; there's a photo of her on Fox News."
Twist slapped his forehead. "She's in charge of our spies."
"Merry Christmas and happy birthday," Cruz said. "Now let's get out of here before the FBI arrives." He surveyed the room. "If you guys pack, I'll wipe everything down."
"Fingerprints," he said. He turned to Shay and asked, "Where's the phone she used?"
"It's the one I bought this morning," Shay said.
Cruz took it from her, got the steel bolt cutters, and used them to snap it in half. The others watched, caught a little off guard by the destruction, though X, standing next to Cruz, seemed completely calm about it. Cruz said, "We won't make the mistake of using it again."
"Where we going?" Odin asked.
Twist was already on the iPad, looking at maps. "Las Vegas. We can be there in seven hours."
"Why Vegas?" Cade asked as he began gathering up computer gear.
"Because it's big and it's full of tourists coming and going and it has about a million motels," said Twist. "Plus, it's only about four hours from L.A., where we've got help if we need it."
"Maybe we should dump the Jeep," Cade said. "West's plates could give us away."
"I'd like to keep it if we can," said Shay, and Twist heard the slight choke in her voice. "It's got some capabilities you don't have in a Camry. No offense, Toyota."
Cruz caught Shay's eye and spoke to her directly: "Plates won't be a problem. I'll take care of it."
They were ready to go in ten minutes. Cruz, the tattooed, muscular ex–gang member, sounding like a mom "Don't touch that. Don't touch that, Jesucristo, don't touch that!" and wiping behind them.
"Fenfang's awfully visible," Odin said. The Chinese girl was watching them all from the bed, still barefoot and wrapped in the dead-gray hospital smock.
"Wig shop," Shay said. "I'll go in; her head's about the same size as mine. Then we'll stop at a mall I saw one on my way here. Anybody needs anything, we can get it there."
"I'll need to swing by the airport," said Cruz.
Shay tilted her head at him, but Twist understood the purpose right away and answered: "Plates." Cruz nodded and Twist said, "Okay, then, who's driving what?"
Cruz, X, and Shay took the Jeep, headed for Reno-Tahoe International, while the others, in the sedan and the pickup, drove to the mall.
The second level of the airport garage was long-term parking; Shay cruised it until they spotted another Jeep Rubicon, but Cruz said, "Keep going."
"Because it has Nevada plates. If we look, we'll find one from California."
"Because we've got California plates," he said. "If we stick with the same state, it'll take the owner of the other car longer to notice the change."
They found a California Rubicon in the next row. Cruz changed out the plates and climbed back in.
The next stop was fast and expensive. They paid four hundred dollars for a jet-black natural-hair wig that fit snugly over Shay's thick, chin-length hair. Shay said that her mother had lost her hair to chemotherapy and didn't want to go anywhere until she had some hair back.
"She doesn't have to be embarrassed, honey," said the nice lady who ran the shop. "We deal with this all the time. We've put wigs on the showgirls here, and nobody ever knew."
When they got to the shopping center, they found Cade, Odin, and Twist leaning against the pickup. Cruz pulled into a parking space as close as he could, and Shay and X climbed out, with Cruz a few steps behind them. "Where's Fenfang?" Shay asked.
Twist poked a thumb toward the Camry. "Trying her new clothes."
Shay leaned toward him. "There're no phones in there?"
"No. We made sure of that."
Behind them, the back door of the Camry opened, and Fenfang, wearing a yellow shirt, khaki pants, and red high-tops, struggled to get out. Odin hurried over to help, and she told him, "My legs... the nerves... something is not correct."
"Hey, don't get out yet," Shay called. Fenfang sat with her legs dangling out of the door, and Shay helped her with the wig. After a few twists and tugs, they got it in place, and Fenfang, straight, shiny hair falling to her shoulders, said, "Yes?"
Shay stepped back. "Yes."
Fenfang rubbed a lock between her fingers and said, "It is only a costume, but... I feel better."
"I'm glad," Shay said.
Odin gave a thumbs-up over Shay's shoulder, and for the first time, Fenfang smiled.
Cruz said he needed to grab something inside the mall. Cade nudged Shay and asked, "When was the last time you ate anything? Like, maybe, yesterday morning?" Shay shrugged: since losing West, she hadn't thought about food except to get a burger for her dog.
"C'mon," Cade said. "You won't be any good to us if you don't put something in your stomach." Shay reluctantly agreed to go to the food court with him, they'd get sandwiches for everybody. Odin said he was coming, too, that Shay wouldn't know a vegetarian sandwich "if it bit her in the butt."
Twist said he'd keep Fenfang company and took charge of X's leash.
"You wanna sit or you wanna practice walking a bit with a gimp and a mutt?" Twist asked Fenfang. Fenfang pushed herself off the backseat and said she'd like to walk. Twist worked the leash and cane in one hand and offered her the crook of his other elbow. She held on lightly and asked, "What is your problem for this cane? You had it when you saved us, so it is from before, yes?"
"Yes, but it's nothing, really. An old... sports injury," he said. "Now let's talk about you."
They took a lap around the parking lot, with Twist gently probing about her life back in China. She told him that she'd grown up working seven days a week with her parents on the family rice farm, that they'd never been more than a few months out of debt. There'd been a brother, the firstborn, but he'd died as a toddler. She'd been studying computer science at university and hoped to get a "dream job" with an American-based company in Dandong that would pay her enough that her parents could retire.
"We live with my grandparents, my other relations, too. My best friend from when I was little is always Liko. We were born on the same day."
Twist had been preoccupied with so many details about the raid and their escape over the last few hours, it hadn't occurred to him that Fenfang might have family back in China that they should contact. He stopped and turned to her.
"Your parents is there a way to contact them? Email? Phone?" He held up his phone. "We'd have to get you a different phone, one that allows international calls."
Fenfang let go of Twist, and after some serious thought, she said, "My family will think I am dead, it has been so long. If I contact them now... I do not want to make danger for them."
Twist nodded. "I understand. But... think about it. You might send them a message of some sort to ease their minds. Let them know you're alive."
Fenfang looked at him and said, "We will see how my life develops."
She took his arm to walk again, and turned the conversation back on Twist. "It is very strange that you should be with Shay and Odin. As if they are your family. But you do not know each other long."
Twist was taken aback by Fenfang's directness but liked it.
"You're right. It is very strange, but Shay isn't somebody you brush off. Never met anyone quite like her. She's got a nose like granite."
"It's a rock."
"I do not understand your idiom," Fenfang said.
"She's tough. She's made herself tough. Odin... he's what is called a high-functioning autistic. That means..."
"I know this," Fenfang said. "That may be true with me, also."
"Okay. Well, their parents got killed, and they were taken in by their grandmother, and when she died, they were moved along to a state agency that takes care of orphans. Odin got involved with computers as a child, and with that peculiar focus that autistic kids can bring to their interests, he's... sort of a genius, I guess. But he's not very socially adept. Shay had always looked out for him, you know, and when he took off after the raid on the lab, she worried he couldn't handle it out in the world, especially not in hiding from Singular. She followed him to L.A., and that's where I met her. They are very unusual people. Both of them."
"I think you are, too," Fenfang said.
"Weird's more like it," said Twist. "I don't try to be, but that's just the way it is. If you're weird, you gotta live with it."
"I think I am also weird."
"Good," said Twist. "Because you know what? When any worthwhile thing is done in the world, it's usually done by somebody weird."
Fifteen minutes later, Cade, Cruz, Shay, and Odin were back at their cars with bags of food, a pillow, and an evolving plan. Cade would leave the group and drive to Salt Lake City, where he would send a reply to the message on the BlackWallpaper Facebook page. Singular's security experts would track it and, with any luck, conclude that the Rembys, the artist from L.A., and the girl with two brains were hiding out in Salt Lake.
"Need to decide exactly what we want to say," Cade said.
Shay scowled. "What's there to say besides 'Go to hell'?"
"I'm not sure it matters what we say," said Twist. "The point is just to ping them from a state we're not in."
Cade said, "They were careful and cryptic in their note to us because they're afraid we'll go to the police, and they want deniability. We should think the same way."
"No. Tell them the truth," Odin broke in. "Tell them I'm going to crack all the flash drives and spam the FBI and the CIA and the networks with them."
"Let's not do that just yet," said Twist. "We need to think about what we'll do next. So, Cade, let's string them along in this first contact. Like Odin says, we tell them the truth, something that they'll buy tell them we need time to think things over."
Cade raised an eyebrow at Shay, and she shrugged. "Yeah, sure, tell 'em that."
"Gotta fly," Cruz said, and jingled a set of keys.
"Who's the pillow for?" Twist asked, eyeing a bag in Cruz's hand.
Cruz tipped his head at Shay. "She's gotta sleep sooner or later."
Cade would take the pickup; Twist, Odin, and Fenfang, the car; and Shay, Cruz, and X would go in the Jeep. After a round of hugs, they drove in a convoy back to I-80, then east on I-80 to Fernley, where Cade went his lonesome way up the interstate and the others turned south on Highway 95.
Cruz and Shay talked about Singular for a while, and about Fenfang, then Shay yawned and said, "You got me figured out. Where's that pillow?"
She hadn't slept in two days, and when her head hit the pillow, scrunched against the window, she was out. But not in peace. The scene in the prison, with West bleeding on the floor, looking up at her, pain in his eyes, urging her to save herself, ran through her subconscious like a tangled loop of film, in full Technicolor and surround sound.
She moaned in her sleep, and shook, and Cruz was tempted to wake her, but he didn't; he rested a hand on her leg and drove on. When Shay opened her eyes, finally, it was to more Technicolor and surround sound. This time, for real.
X was in the back, looking out the window. He'd slept as soundly as Shay. He yawned at her, turned again to the window, and yipped at all the brilliant lights outside.
13 August 2018
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
All original content on the website (excluding some other specifically disclaimed text) is copyright © 1997-2018 by Roswell Anthony Camp. Please do not steal anything from these pages. If you want to borrow something, write and ask first. Help keep moofs happy.