Zoey sat shivering in the serial killer’s Changfeng sedan, a cheap rental that nonetheless had a wonderful working heater that was pure bliss against her soaked pajama pants. She had driven away from the pond and parked in the shadowy rear of a building downtown that was marked as a real estate office but, by its shape, had clearly once been a Pizza Hut. Zoey put her head in her hands and tried to gather herself. The hologram man in her phone was now sipping from a glass of scotch, while under him scrolled a notification that her mother had tried to call.
Zoey said to her phone, “All right. Who are you again?”
“Will Blackwater. I worked for your father.”
“Right, and he’s dead? Did I hear you say that?”
“Yes. In an accident. There was … an explosion.”
“What, was it a meth lab or something?”
“No, nothing like that. Or maybe it was, no one is quite sure. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. He was … a great man.”
“Mr. Blackwater, I only met that man like two times in my entire life. The first time I ever saw him was when I was eight. It was my birthday. He gave me a football, because somebody told him I was a tomboy. The last time I was sixteen, so it’s been … six years at least. He was a total stranger to me. So why would him getting exploded to death cause people to come after me?”
“It’s just a misunderstanding. But there is a contract out on you and you’ll be in danger until we clear it up.”
“A contract? As in, whoever kills me gets paid a bunch of money?”
“They actually need you alive.”
“Oh, well, at least there’s that.”
“But the contract specifies that after you’ve served your purpose, they can have their way with you. It’s difficult to explain and also moot, as long as we’re both in agreement we don’t want you falling into their hands. Zoey, we you need to come to the city. Have you ever been to Tabula Rasa?”
The actual spelling of the city’s name was Tabula Ra$a, with a dollar sign instead of an “S,” because that’s what happens when a bunch of rich douche bags build a brand-new city in the desert and reserve the right to name it themselves.
“I’ve never been, and I’m not going now. I’m going to the police. And then I’m going to bed.”
“That would be a mistake. We’ve already made plans for accommodations here, we already have a car on the way. It will be there in a few hours. We’ll give you a location and a limousine will—”
“Wait, a limo? How many drugs did Arthur Livingston have to sell to afford one of those?” She was never going to refer to the man as her “dad,” since the connection was genetic only and she would disavow even that if she could.
“Listen, Zoey, this must be done quickly, for everyone’s sake. There could be other bad guys en route right now.”
“I … I’ll think about it. I have to talk to my mom.”
“It’s dangerous to involve her. You shouldn’t even go back home.”
“I’d need to pack a bag. And I have to tell her something.”
“Tell her that your father unexpectedly passed and his estate has requested that you make an emergency trip to meet with his associates. Tell her you were so stunned by this news that you drove your car into a pond. Tell her that to compensate you for the inconvenience, the estate is prepared to pay you fifty thousand dollars. That last part is true, by the way.” He paused, to let that sink in, then added, “That should cover the damage to your car plus pay you the equivalent of a year’s salary in addition.”
Zoey had a solid line of reasoning in her brain that demonstrated with perfect clarity why she should refuse, but it was quickly obscured behind a chorus line of dancing dollar signs. Fifty thousand was actually way more than one year’s salary—she worked at a coffee bar, after all. It was the kind of money that could get her and her mom both out of the trailer park, or to a nicer trailer park, anyway. It could get her back into school. She could get a degree in some lucrative field, like nanotechnology. Then she could open a quaint little nanotechnology boutique in Fort Drayton, next to the bait shop. Still, Arthur Livingston was a criminal, which meant this man who “worked” for him was also a criminal, regardless of what kind of fancy little suit he wore in his holograms. That meant the chase that had just occurred was really between two factions of bad guys—he had, after all, just told her not to go to the police.
She asked, “If I leave, how do I know more bad guys won’t come after my mom while I’m gone?”
“If you leave, they’ll have no reason to. The contract is on you, not her. But if you stay, then I guarantee you that more of them will come, which means that just by delaying, you’re putting both you and your mother in danger. Making this trip is literally the only safe option.”
Zoey remembered the psycho’s soft call—come back off the ice, sweetie—and shuddered.
She said, “All right, how do I know you’re not just more bad guys trying to collect on this ‘contract’ yourselves?”
“Honestly? We don’t need the money. And if we meant you harm, couldn’t we have just driven your car into an abutment earlier?”
That made sense, she supposed. Still, she wasn’t getting into a car with any of these people. Even if she decided to make the trip to Tabula Ra$a—which on some level she knew would be incredibly stupid and reckless—she’d find her own way there.
Will said, “Are you still there?”
“Prove the money offer is real.”
“Hold on. All right, check your account. I just sent you five hundred dollars.”
Zoey logged into her bank account and found he wasn’t lying—she now had a total of five hundred and seventeen dollars in her savings. Zoey sucked in a breath and thought, We can get the refrigerator fixed.
Will said, “The rest I can put into an escrow account, give me twenty minutes and I’ll set it up … if you agree to make the trip.”
“I’ll think about it. But don’t bother with the car, if I go, I’ll take the train.”
“Ms. Ashe, I would strongly, strongly advise you not to—”
She hung up.
It was seven PM; if she took the train out of Denver, she could be in Tabula Ra$a by midnight. She pulled into traffic, not realizing that a tiny camera The Hyena kept on his dash had recorded her entire conversation, or that more than 1.5 million people were watching.
Zoey didn’t want to be paranoid, but there was something about the man in the loincloth made of charred doll heads that made her nervous.
He was at the opposite end of the train car, standing in the aisle muttering to himself, his only other item of clothing a pair of blacked-out welder’s goggles that made him look like he had bug eyes. When he had boarded at Salt Lake City—the last stop before Tabula Ra$a—Zoey had immediately assumed he was another crazy who had come for her, but then he had just silently taken a standing spot at the other end of the car and she felt bad for prejudging him. Still, Zoey studiously avoided looking in his direction; as any mass transit commuter can tell you, the only way to counter the dark powers of the mentally ill is to avoid eye contact. She gazed out of the window at the scrub brush blurring past at 250 miles an hour. She wondered if her head would go flying off if she stuck it out the window. Her cat meowed a complaint from inside the plastic carrier on her lap.
Zoey’s nerves were eating her alive. For the tenth time she pulled out her phone and logged into the escrow account, mostly just because she liked seeing the $49,500.00 displayed on the screen. She dropped her phone back into her purse and nervously started scraping black polish off her thumbnail with her bottom teeth. It was her first time on the high-speed rail and for about five minutes she had been awed by the speed, and then she had quickly gotten bored and started to notice how much this particular car smelled like pee. She had bought her ticket at the gate and the only open seat was this one at the very rear of the car, next to the restroom. Whoever designed the train had put the seat about three inches too close to the restroom door, so it bumped her seat every time somebody went in or out. It had happened exactly nineteen times so far, and what was worse was that each person who did it would stop and look down at her like, Whose idea was it to put this weird girl in the way?
Someone said, “What’s your cat’s name?”
Zoey gave a start, because for a moment she thought the male voice was the crazy homeless guy with the doll heads on his crotch. But it wasn’t; it was the stranger in the seat next to her, a fancy young man in an old-fashioned suit who had spent the entire ride constantly checking his e-mail via a pair of wired-up eyeglasses. She looked him over and got the sense that this kid had taken vacations that cost more than she made in a year.
Zoey forced what she hoped was a friendly smile and said, “Excuse me?”
“Your cat. What’s his name?”
“Really? That’s mean.” He grinned, flashing perfect teeth.
“Have you smelled him?”
“No, but still.”
Zoey finger-petted Stench Machine through a slot in the crate. He was a Persian, white except for his face and chest, which were black fading to brown. He looked like somebody had thrown a cup of coffee in his face and the fur around his mouth gave it a downturned expression that made it look like he wasn’t at all happy about it. He wore a black leather collar encircled with silver spikes. It made him look like a punk rock cat, Zoey thought.
Jacob asked, “Does he answer to that name?”
“Cats don’t answer to anything.”
“My name is Jacob, by the way.”
“Good to meet you.” Zoey realized she was supposed to give him her name at that point, but even when she wasn’t a target for abduction, she didn’t go trusting train strangers that easily.
Jacob asked, “Is this your first trip to Tabula Rasa?”
“Yes, and I’m already a little freaked out. I grew up in Colorado, a tiny place called Fort Drayton. It’s way out in the boonies. Just to give you an idea, at the entrance of the—” She almost said “trailer park” but caught herself in time. “—uh, subdivision where we live, there’s this big statue of an elk, made of concrete. And the whole thing is chipped with bullet holes where over the years drunken hunters have shot it by mistake.”
Jacob laughed, showing those perfect teeth. Zoey squashed the jealousy she always felt toward people whose parents had actually taken them to the dentist as a kid. She was missing a lower canine due to a skateboarding accident when she was eleven, and had a chipped incisor due to an encounter with a drunken stepdad. She suddenly wished she had more than just the one amusing anecdote about Fort Drayton to share with Jacob. She could tell him about that time the high school basketball team made it to the state finals and one of the players got diarrhea during the game …
Another person shuffled down the aisle toward the restroom, and they also glanced down at her, an act that was starting to seem intentional—Zoey swore everyone who passed was doing it. Did she still have chili stuck to her face? This time it was a black teenage girl with wired-up glasses like the ones Jacob was wearing, which meant for all Zoey knew the girl had the built-in camera on and was broadcasting a feed, maybe one called The Worst Hair Dye Jobs on Mass Transit Daily (today’s episode: “The Cat Girl in the Back Row with Cyan Bangs”).
Jacob said, “Well, you’re about to enter a whole new world out here. How much do you know about it?”
“I know it didn’t exist twenty years ago, that it was just an empty patch of desert in Utah. Then a bunch of rich people started putting up skyscrapers and suddenly there’s a city there. There’s no government, right? That’s all I know. Oh, and every picture I see of Tabula Rasa looks like the Blade Runner universe is holding a Mardi Gras parade.”
Jacob laughed again. “Yeah I’d say you’re in for a bit of culture shock. There is no place like it on earth. Your phone will never die, though, there’s wireless power coils under everything. Charges the cars as they drive.”
“Great, maybe I’ll get cancer while I’m there.”
Zoey glanced at Doll Head Man again, and thought she had caught him staring at her—it was hard to tell behind his bug-eye goggles. She watched as the man stuck a filterless cigarette between cracked lips. He then casually lifted his hand, touched the end of the cigarette with his finger, and lit it. With his finger.
Jacob said, “There’s construction everywhere. After dark, it looks like the half-finished buildings are full of fireflies, all the crews in there working through the night, welding the metalwork—”
“Did you see that? What that man just did?”
Jacob glanced toward Doll Head Man. “Yeah, there’s no smoking on these trains. You want to tell him or should I?”
“No, he … nevermind.” Zoey decided the guy must have had a match hidden in his palm or something.
Jacob stared at the guy in amusement and asked, “Are those tiny heads glued to his crotch?”
“You know what the scariest part is about people like him? Everything he’s doing makes perfect sense in his own mind.”
“Ha! Though I guess that’s true of all of us.”
No one else had noticed the Doll Head guy doing his cigarette trick. Yet just in the time Zoey was looking in that direction, two other passengers had craned their heads around to look at her. She knew she wasn’t just being paranoid now—one at a time they would glance around their seat or raise up a bit to see over, peer back, then quickly turn around again when they saw she was meeting their gaze. The bathroom door bumped Zoey’s seat. The black girl shuffled past and she made a point to look down at Zoey again. She felt to see if there was something in her hair, but then remembered she was still wearing the knit cap she had pulled down over her ears during the bus ride to Denver. Were they making fun of the hat? Or maybe they were looking at Jacob? Was he a celebrity?
“Anyway,” Jacob said, “it’s amazing how fast they can build them now. You leave for vacation, and when you come back a week later there’s one less gap in the skyline, you have to stare at it for a minute to figure out what they added. They’re amazing to watch, the way they work. They never stop.”
“‘They’? What, like robots?”
“No, Mexicans. All of the crews are immigrants on work visas. Great workers, though.”
“Oh … that’s kind of racist, isn’t it?”
“Is it? I mean, I guess some of them are probably bad workers. Anyway, it’s kind of mesmerizing to watch them go, they have these huge fabricators right there on the job site, like big 3D printers that just ride up the side of the building and stamp out whole sections of wall, ready to assemble.”
Zoey tried to figure out if Jacob was hitting on her or if he was just bored from the train ride. She imagined the scary doll guy coming back and pulling a weapon or something, and Jacob punching him out like one of those old-timey boxers.
Jacob continued, “One Friday on the way home from work, I made an offhand comment to my friend about how I wished we had a Falafel Fusion joint in our neighborhood. Then, when I was on my way home from work Monday evening, there it was! They had built it over the weekend, almost like they had heard me say that. It went from vacant lot to open business in less than seventy-two hours. That’s Tabula Rasa in a nutshell—you blink and the landscape changes around you. It’s like an American Dubai, back when Dubai was Dubai.”
Zoey mumbled, “Yeah, that’s weird,” and she knew Jacob picked up on the fact that she wasn’t really paying attention. He fell silent.
Thinking desperately of something to fill the lull in the conversation, Zoey said, “Do you like your glasses? My ex-boyfriend couldn’t live without his, but they always give me a headache when he let me put them on.”
Occasionally Jacob’s eyes would dart up and to the right and she knew he was refreshing an inbox that was only visible to him, otherwise she had no idea what he was actually seeing out of the glasses. They made games where you could bounce a little rubber ball off the faces of the people in the room (the ball was only visible to you, of course) or that would obscure everything with a fantasy world and leave you blind to your surroundings, which if you did it on the bus, was a good way to get your purse stolen. But either way, any time you talked to a person who was wearing the glasses, you never knew if they were actually seeing you.
Jacob said, “You get used to them. They leave kind of an afterimage when you take them off, and you find yourself constantly looking around for your notifications.”
“My boyfriend downloaded an app that would superimpose a cartoon mustache on anyone he was talking to. He’d laugh and laugh. The glasses got broken when he got hit in the face with a football and I was kind of glad.” She realized she was now talking about her ex-boyfriend a little too much, and in fact had forgotten to add the “ex” just then. She quickly added, “He was stupid. We broke up two months ago.” That was pretty subtle, right?
Jacob said, “If you’re free over the weekend I’ll show you around the city. There’s tons to do.”
Huh. So he was probably another serial killer. Still, this was Thursday night, she wondered if she could lose twenty-five pounds or gain four inches in height by Saturday. Then she realized that, while she was thinking about it, she had neglected to actually answer his offer and had created an awkward moment by leaving him hanging.
Jacob, trying to cover for it, said, “So what brings you into the big city, Zoey?”
“My father—my biological father—died.” Wait—when had she told Jacob her name?
“Oh, I’m sorry. When’s the funeral?”
“I’m, uh, not sure. They said they needed me for some other stuff, legal paperwork or something. It’s pretty weird.”
“What happened? He couldn’t have been very old, you’re only—”
“Twenty-two. It was an accident. I don’t know anything yet. They said something blew up.”
“Oh, was it that warehouse explosion?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Unless there was more than one. You heard about it?”
“Everybody did, it was big news. So you’re Arthur Livingston’s daughter? I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Was he famous?”
“Around the city, yeah. Probably could have run for mayor, if the city had a mayor.”
“Well, good for him.”
Jacob picked up on her cold tone and went quiet, creating the second awkward silence in Zoey’s five-minute relationship with him. She pictured bringing him home to her trailer in Fort Drayton, this kid in his three-piece tweed suit with the silk tie and dainty gold pocket-watch chain dangling across his vest. She imagined him pulling up in a restored classic car that rolled in silently on battery power, then getting out with a walking stick and striding to the door. Then Zoey would invite him to sit on a sofa that was covered in cigarette burns and frayed wounds inflicted by cat claws. At that point she pictured him either running for his life, or staying and offering to rescue her from the squalor. She didn’t know which would be worse.
Zoey noticed a tiny pinprick of blue light at the corner of his glasses near the hinge, and said, “Oh, is that on? Were we live this whole time?”
The wired glasses all came with forward-facing video cameras that could be left on around the clock, broadcasting everything you did. If you didn’t want to wear the glasses but still wanted to livestream your life to the world, you were in luck—you could get those tiny cameras in any accessory you could imagine—pocket watches, necklaces, earrings, tie clips, hats, little copper dragonflies that teenage girls clipped to their hair, whatever. You didn’t need a viewfinder, the camera captured a panoramic view of everything in front of you, with software that automatically zoomed and focused on faces and other points of interest—you just turned it on and it recorded your life. The kids these days never left the house without a live feed running (and ever since she got out of high school, Zoey had thought of everyone under twenty as a “kid”).
So who was watching their broadcasts? Nobody, or everybody—if they left the feed public, anyone could jump in and watch. The cumulative cloud of all of these millions of connected camera feeds was referred to as the Blink network, or just “Blink.” As in, “Did you see the fight between Ayden and Madison at Isaac’s party?” “No, but I saw the Blink.” Occasionally you’d hear someone use it in past tense, saying they “Blunked” their whole vacation and that you should totally watch it. If you obstructed their feed they’d say you “Blanked” them, and they’d refer to their Blink followers as their “Blinkers,” at which point Zoey usually felt the urge to stab them. The point being that the little blue light on Jacob’s glasses meant a thousand people could have been listening in on their conversation this whole time. She tried to remember if she had said anything embarrassing.
Jacob put a hand to his glasses and said, “Oh, yeah, I’m so sorry. Jesus, I should have told you it was on. I don’t even think about it. Don’t worry, I don’t have any followers, and lately it’s just my mom and a couple of guys from Pakistan who want to see what America is like. The only people watching right now are an old couple who jumped in when I boarded, they’re planning a trip and wanted to see how clean the train was.”
“Oh. Did you tell them it smells like pee?”
“I did not, but I assume they heard you say it just now.”
He tapped his glasses and the little blue light blinked off. The light was mandated by law, so pervs couldn’t sneak them into locker rooms without everybody knowing they were part of a live broadcast. But Zoey didn’t think the light was near prominent enough, considering she hadn’t noticed it until just now. Her eyes drifted toward the window again. The scrub brush and occasional mountains had been replaced by a dirt field growing rows of wood frames that would eventually bloom into a housing development. Black ribbons of newly paved roads undulated between the rows in gentle curves, sometimes ending abruptly where they met an empty space that would probably be another development a year from now. Zoey noticed that as they got closer to the city, the houses became more finished and had less motion blur—the train was slowing down. She looked around for the Doll Head guy. He had moved a few rows closer; he had finished his cigarette and was now smashing the butt under a bare foot, grinding it into the carpet.
Eager to restart the conversation with Jacob, Zoey said, “So, what’s it’s like living in Tabula Rasa?”
He thought for a moment and said, “Overload.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ll see. The population sign comes with an epilepsy warning. Oh, and you can fight a bear, if you want.”
“You can what a what?”
“You can pay twenty bucks and a guy will let you fight a bear. In the park, there’s a roped off area and you get five minutes to fight a grizzly bear.”
“How is that legal?”
He shrugged. “Everything’s legal when there’s nobody to enforce the law. Three months ago half the cops went to jail in this big bribery scandal. Most of the rest walked off the job. Paychecks were bouncing. It’s a huge mess. They’ve got such a backlog that nothing gets prosecuted.”
“Wait, really? Who do you call if a psychopath breaks into your—”
He was nodding toward her window. Zoey looked and thought, overload.
On the horizon was a cylindrical skyscraper with a gigantic serpent curling around it. The snake writhed and twisted and turned menacing red eyes toward the train. It opened its mouth and hissed. Below it appeared the words “COMING DECEMBER 23.” The building, Zoey realized, was wrapped in crystal-clear video screens from roof to foundation, every single window flashing one continuous animation—an ad for a movie. The huge, computer-animated snake snapped around and writhed off onto the building next to it, twisting its massive emerald body around letters five stories high that said “JADEN SMITH IN…” The serpent slithered along the skyline, and Zoey realized that every structure in downtown Tabula Ra$a was synced to carry a continuous video along every inch of its surface, the snake sliding smoothly from one building to the next, the ad playing to the people on the arriving train. The serpent then crawled onto the front of the domed roof of the train station they were about to pull into, wrapping its body around red block letters that spelled “JADEN SMITH FIGHTS A GIANT SNAKE.”
Jacob said, “I like how literal they are with the titles now, you know exactly what you’re getting.”
The animated snake then burst out of the ceiling of the station, climbing into the night sky—Zoey gasped, startled for a moment before she realized it was just a hologram set up on the roof of the building, positioned to give the illusion the snake had broken free of the ad. A couple of people on the train gasped and laughed and took pictures. Zoey noticed Jacob had a big stupid grin on his face. He had seen her jump. She elbowed him and told him to shut up, but she knew she was smiling too, and had to remind herself to keep her lips closed so as not to show off her substandard teeth. And then the train slipped between skyscrapers and suddenly downtown Tabula Ra$a was puking gaudy colors all over her window.
Looming over them was a crystal canyon of towers in various stages of construction—they passed a hotel that blasted a Sony ad into the heavens, then a building that was just a darkened framework of girders topped with cranes that stuck out like a spiky haircut. Zoey looked down and saw that below the rail was a gleaming, blinking river of cars. Swimming in the slow current of cabs and fleet vehicles were the flamboyant, tricked-out rides of the kind of people who were (a) rich enough to drive and park in the city and (b) hadn’t been rich long enough to develop any taste. There was a bright red motorcycle whose body had been molded in the shape of a dragon, the rider an Asian guy in a green suit with a six-inch-tall pompadour wig. Hulking in the next lane was a monster truck on tires as tall as a man, a jet of blue flames pouring out of completely unnecessary chrome pipes. Behind it was a Ferrari from the 2020s with an LED paint job flashing undulating colors that rippled across its body in beautiful psychedelic patterns. Behind it, a massive retrofitted 1960s Cadillac convertible, sporting a white leather interior and a huge black man in a white cowboy hat.
Just off the pavement on one side of the street was a deep trench where work crews in orange vests were laying some kind of underground cable. Their project was slicing right through a construction site where someone else was trying to dig out a foundation for yet another building, pallets of brick and bags of cement scattered like islands in the dirt, a flow of tire tracks swirling around where forklifts and Bobcats had scurried to and fro.
And swarming over all of this: the people. With no finished sidewalks to speak of, pedestrians leaked out into the gridlocked traffic, shuffling between bumpers. There were drunk girls in tiny dresses and fake hair giggling and leaning on each other, packs of burly guys off to construction jobs, Japanese kids in sunglasses and glue-on sideburns, Indian families with double-digit packs of kids. Every fifth person wore one of those irritating blinking shirts, fabric that flashed brand logos, obscene sayings, or cartoon characters performing the same looping animation over and over. Flickering, pulsing torsos floating around taillights, everyone screaming for attention in a cloud of light and noise. Zoey had to remind herself that this is what the city was like at eleven PM, on a Thursday.
Zoey asked Jacob, “Do you like it here?”
He laughed. “That’s a complicated question. All I know is that now I can’t tolerate living anywhere else.”
The train was gently penetrating the station now, brakes whining against the rail. They passed a parking garage bearing glowing signs promoting all of the standard car rental franchises. Standing on each side of the entrance were men in black trench coats and ties, which Zoey thought brought a nice touch of class to a parking garage, until she noticed they were carrying machine guns.
Zoey said, “Tell me those guys are cops.”
Jacob leaned over to see out her window, casually pressing his body against hers, and said, “Private security. Those guys are probably Co-Op, you can tell by the trench coats. A bunch of the bigger companies pooled their money to fund their own security when it became clear the city’s police were worthless. It’s a good thing, you call the cops here, you get voice mail telling you to leave a message.”
“Oh, wow. So you get in trouble, you call those guys instead?”
“You probably can’t afford those particular guys, Co-Op is more for corporate customers. But yes, private security is who you call. There’s a big board online where you can post jobs and they bid on them. It gets kind of crazy, half of the guys are freelancers who either got their private security licenses by taking a five-day gun-safety class, or by paying forty bucks for a fake one. It’s a little bit Wild West out here. That’s what I was saying, somebody like you shouldn’t walk around alone.”
Jacob was still leaning against her and she smelled aftershave and hair gel. He let out a breath that Zoey felt on her neck and then settled back into his seat. He reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a sterling silver flask, and took a sip.
He held it out to Zoey and said, “It’s going to be cold out there, this’ll warm you up.”
As far as she knew, she had never in her life taken a drink from an unmarked container from a stranger. She didn’t like germs and she didn’t like getting slipped date rape drugs, but how often do you meet a rich, handsome stranger on a train? She took a drink and felt lava ooze down her throat. Whiskey. She coughed and they both laughed, and she felt like she was in some dumb movie. They were in the station now, a half-finished geodesic dome that Zoey thought, when completed, would be absolutely stunning, or the ugliest building in America—it was too early to tell. The finished parts were all glass arches with art deco flourishes, alternately futuristic and old-fashioned. The rest was a tangled mess of exposed steel skeleton and bundles of wiring that dangled like innards, as if the building had been in a knife fight.
Just off the platform, behind the hundreds of waiting travelers, was a row of fast-food and drink franchises Zoey had never seen before. She was a little ashamed of how excited they made her, but Fort Drayton only had five places to eat, and one of them was a gas station. Tabula Ra$a’s train station alone had twice that many. Just from her seat she spotted an AwesomeChanga franchise, where according to the ads you could get just about anything as long as it could be wrapped in a thick tortilla and deep fried to a crisp. Next to it was a Waffle Burger, which is just what it sounds like, and then a Go-Juice bar serving a long line of exhausted passengers waiting to pay nine dollars for a mixed fountain drink containing four hundred milligrams of caffeine and twelve percent alcohol. Next to it was a From-the-Oven cookie stand with a clear glass oven under the counter where you could watch them bake chocolate chip cookies right in front of you. Then they’d pull them out and shove them into your hand, still warm, the chips melting all over the wax paper. Zoey decided after she got off the train she would stand over there and just smell that place for half an hour. At the end there was a beverage joint called Spiked Ice, selling sugary fruit smoothies that, according to their sign, were laced with “fuel shots” that sounded illegal as hell—Codeine, Lithium, Hash Oil, DXM, Modafinil. She half wondered how such a place could just operate in the open, cops or no cops, but mostly she just wondered how much the drinks cost and which one she would get. The line in front of it was the longest of all.
Stench Machine meowed and stuck a paw through a slot in the crate, getting restless. He had never been put in an enclosed space for this long and he was probably wondering where the stink was coming from. The train finally bumped to a stop and Zoey heard the passengers up by the door stand and start wrestling carry-on bags out of the overhead bins …
And easily half a dozen of the passengers glanced back at her as they did it.
And yes, they were looking at her, not Jacob. She had an urge to stand up and ask them what they were staring at, but decided she was being silly. She needed to find her hotel, and was about to ask Jacob for a ride. But right as she opened her mouth, a new voice said, “You know what’s the difference between you and me?”
It was Doll Head Man, shouldering his way through the departing passengers. Looking right at her.
“You,” he said, to Zoey. “With the blue streaks in your hair. Do you know what’s the difference between you and me?”
He edged up until he was looming over them in the aisle. The rest of the passengers were shuffling away behind him, grateful to be on the other side of the crazy man’s attention.
Jacob said, “Come on.”
He made as if to stand and bring Zoey along with him, but Doll Head put a hand on Jacob’s shoulder and pushed him firmly back into his seat. The man was not huge, but had a body like leather stretched over bundles of steel cable.
Jacob said, “Buddy, we don’t want any trouble, just move along or we’re gonna have to call the—”
“Shut up. I’m talking to her.” He rested his hands on a pair of seat backs, arms and torso forming a bridge across the aisle. He squeezed the seat cushions and veins throbbed under his biceps. Zoey saw her own pale face reflected in the man’s pitch-black goggles. “And I asked her a question. Do you know what’s the difference between you and me?”
Exasperated, Zoey said, “I don’t know. What?”
Doll Head Man smiled. “The difference,” he whispered, “is that I would never have let a stranger intimidate me into answering such a question.”
Jacob said, “Now you listen here—”
Doll Head Man, without looking at him, raised his right hand to Jacob’s face. He snapped his fingers and there was a crackle and a piercing flash of bluish white light, like the man had just spawned a tiny lightning bolt from his fingertips. Stench Machine hissed and thrashed inside the crate.
Jacob recoiled and said, “What the—”
The man shushed him. “I am talking to her. There is a long, long line waiting to feed off this chubby little piglet. Please wait your turn.”
Yep, her first instinct had been right. This psychopath was here to finish the job that had been left undone by the last psychopath, both presumably sent by someone who had an endless ready supply of them. And here she thought she was being open-minded by not judging him. It hit Zoey all at once that she had just traded a gruesome death for fifty thousand dollars—not even enough for her mom to buy a nice car later, even if Livingston’s people followed through with payment, which they almost certainly wouldn’t.
Zoey peered around the man to see if there was a guard, or conductor, or burly passenger, or anyone paying any attention to what was happening in the back of the train. But no one in uniform appeared, and none of the shuffling passengers wanted any part of whatever was going on with the crazy naked hobo and the young couple he was tormenting. This man, Zoey realized, now had absolute power in this tiny corner of the world.
She was going to die on this train.
“Do you know what these are?” He gestured toward the doll heads. Zoey didn’t answer.
He said, “It is rude not to answer direct questions.”
“They look like doll heads that you’ve melted with a lighter or a blowtorch. Because you thought they would make you look scary.”
The man grinned. “They are souls. Each represents a soul I have taken. I am the Soul Collector. They will serve me in eternity.”
Before Zoey could even begin to formulate a reply, a bored but authoritative voice said, “You need to clear out the car, pal…”
Finally. All three of them looked up to where a balding man in a gray uniform was leaning in the sliding door. His eyes met Doll Head’s inhuman black goggles and all the color drained from his face.
“N-now we don’t want any trouble here. Whatever business you got with those folks, just clear out and take care of it elsewhere, all right? No need to hold up the train.”
Zoey glared at him. “Are you kidding me? Call the cops!”
Doll Head Man turned away from the uniform to face his hostages again.
He smiled and said, “I agree with the blue-haired piglet completely. Call the police. Call Co-Op. Call the black vests. Call the LoB. Tell them all that the Soul Collector has Arthur Livingston’s daughter. If anyone tries to enter this train, or if she does not give me what I want, I will add her to my collection.”