viernes, 2 de febrero de 2018


“My name is Andre Knox, and I’m alone and unarmed,” he said, politely but with some urgency. “If you want to frisk me, I’ll let you, but you got to hurry because there’s a lot of me and we don’t got much time. And don’t be alarmed if I get aroused.”
Zoey made no move to do this, so instead the man opened his jacket, showed there were no guns dangling in holsters, then lifted the tail and gave a twirl, to show no weaponry was stuck down his pants. The interior of his suit jacket was the same garish purple silk as his tie. He faced Zoey again and looked past her, at the nervous men standing behind her. He nodded and splayed his hands, as if to confirm that everyone agreed he was unarmed.
He straightened his lapel and said, “Now, I know that assurances mean nothing from a stranger, even one with as honest a face as mine, but I got reason on my side. You do know why we need you, right?”
“The thing with the vault. It has to scan my head to unlock.”
“That’s right. And it only works if you’re alive, it will not unlock for a dead brain, by design. That means that my associates and I care more about keeping you alive than perhaps anyone on earth, aside from you and your momma. As far as assurances go, that’s about as good as you’re gonna get in this town.”
Zoey met the huge, brown eyes of the man, then glanced back at Rico and his crew.
She said, “I’ll go along on one condition. I want it made official that the guy behind me caught me and brought me in. His name is Rico Hierra. I want him to get the bounty.”
“The five million, I mean.”
“Done. Come on.”
Rico started to voice a nervous objection behind her, but she was already moving, Andre ushering her along toward an elegant black sedan. He opened the passenger-side door for her and she plopped into a leather seat that immediately conformed to her lower back and butt, like sitting in a punchbowl full of jello. Without her touching a thing, the seat raised her up and forward two inches. The dashboard lights blinked on and a navigation overlay on the windshield made it look like the road in front of her was glowing yellow, tracing the route they would take. Zoey nervously looked behind her—through the rear window she saw headlights bouncing across the construction site, headed right toward them. The van of the heavily armed freelancers who called themselves the League of Badass was coming to collect the bounty that would make their careers.
Andre glanced back at them and said, “You mind if we lose them first?”
“I … guess not?”
“Hold on.” Andre picked up a coffee cup from the console and sipped it, then said to the car, “Bentley, lose these guys.”
The Bentley was way, way better at car chases than Zoey’s half-dead Toyota had been. The sedan launched itself down the dirt lane wrapping around the rear of the toppled building. They were rolling across ruts and gravel and debris, but no bumps or even noises made it into the interior of the car. Floating along, a bubble of luxury isolated from the world. One of the crazies behind them leaned out of the van and fired a machine gun, little gleaming brass shells twirling away into the night. Zoey yelped but Andre just sighed and sipped his coffee. A spray of bullets left a row of little spiderweb marks on the rear window. As Zoey watched, the wounds in the glass healed themselves, the circular cracks shrinking to white pinpricks before disappearing completely. The Bentley found the street along the park and merged into traffic, dodging in and out of taxis and scooters and garish custom vans.
Andre sniffed and said, “What’s that smell? That your cat?”
“He has some kind of skin problem.”
“You don’t look hurt, but I should’ve asked you anyway. Are you hurt?” She shook her head. Andre continued, “Now, this is perfectly understandable, but I’m thinkin’ you misconstrued what occurred on the train. Will is the best negotiator I’ve ever known, and you got to understand that to have any chance, he needed to get on the scumbag’s side.”
“Right. Just like you’re trying to get on my side now.”
The Bentley smoothly took a corner at top speed, the rear wheels sliding, then regaining traction and launching them forward again. Andre had to momentarily pause his coffee drinking.
Behind them, the van tried to take the same curve and flipped over, smashing through a storefront. Zoey was disappointed that the van didn’t explode into a fireball like in old action movies, but that was one of the downsides of electric car technology. Andre glanced back, satisfied at the outcome, then settled back into his seat and rubbed his Whopper head.
He said, “My point is, none of that stuff on the train was supposed to happen. We sent a car, like we told you on the phone. We couldn’t come up with a limo, but we sent a nice sedan. Not as nice as this one but still a better ride than the train. Car showed up, you weren’t there.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t know if I could trust you. Still don’t. I wanted to find my own way.”
“I guess there’s no point in tellin’ you why we didn’t want you to do that? Seems pretty apparent now, right?”
“Because you offered every violent nutjob in America a huge pile of money to find me?”
“Well, in fairness to us, the moment word got out about the vault situation, some of the city’s shadier characters put out a contract to bring you in. Our contract was simply us tryin’ to outbid them. We were telling the truth, though. The city really is the safest place for you. You saw for yourself, the bad guys own cars and maps and your daddy’s place has a hell of a lot better locks than your trailer.”
“Why not leave me out of it completely? Why couldn’t that man just leave me alone?”
“The only one who could answer that question is no longer with us. And his passing, well, it has thrown things into turmoil. More than you know, even. If on the day of the Lord’s judgment you want to find your daddy and punch him in the gut, I’ll hold his arms back while you do it.”
“So this vault has, what? All his money in it?”
“Rich people don’t actually have big physical piles of cash they keep around. Especially somebody like your daddy. He’s got stocks, bonds, commodities, and land on top of land, far as the eye can see. Plus there’s offshore accounts, shell corporations, Lord knows what else. And I mean literally, only the Lord knows. What’s in the vault are … other assets. That’s probably all I should say.”
“So it is criminal stuff.”
“You really didn’t keep up with news about your daddy at all? He was a pretty famous dude.”
“No, I avoided all mention of him like the plague.”
“Well, he wasn’t as bad as you think. Mostly he just owned land. Got in on the ground floor of Tabula Rasa, he owns a lot of them towers downtown, half the casinos, all of them housing developments out east—we’re talkin’ land that doubles in value every six months. And it’s all legit. He was kind of the Bugsy Siegel of Tabula Rasa.”
“I don’t know who that is, but don’t bother trying to sugarcoat Arthur Livingston. I know he ran prostitutes. It’s how he met my mom. I know he skated on prosecution over and over because the witnesses disappeared.”
“All that was true in his youth, I don’t deny it. But he was tryin’ to get out of all that. He was a big political donor, ran a bunch of charities. We’re mostly just the real estate now.” There was a pause, and Andre sipped his coffee. “Mostly.”
“So you get enough dirty money and you can just spend yourself clean?”
“Well … yeah. This suit is Hugo Boss. That’s not just the name of a brand, it’s the name of a dude—a German dude who got his start making uniforms for the Nazis. Ferdinand Porsche—as in, the fancy sports cars—same thing. I could take you back home to South Carolina and show you the fancy homes of rich folk who got rich six generations ago off slave labor. And guess what—they’re still rich.”
“It’s weird how you think those examples are supposed to make me feel better.”
“System don’t care how you feel about it. It is what it is. Bentley, take us home.”
The car confidently followed the glowing path in the windshield and soon the city gave way to suburbs and the suburbs gave way to the rich people enclave of Beaver Heights, which featured a golf course and palatial mansions with sprawling lawns and imposing fences. They followed a winding road designed to prevent anyone from driving faster than fifteen miles an hour, until they arrived at a massive wrought-iron gate set into stone pillars carved into the shape of dragons.
The moment they rolled to a stop, a holographic woman in stripper garb appeared outside Andre’s door. Ornate glowing letters appeared across the gate that read CASA DE ASS-A.”
Andre rolled down his window and the holographic stripper said, “Welcome, visitor! I’m Candi! Sorry I’m not decent, I accidentally locked myself out of the house wearing nothing but this tiny thong. Mr. Livingston says he wants to know who’s here, and what size kimono you wear.”
To Zoey, Andre said, “It’s a recording.” To the stripper he said, “Andre Knox with Zoey Livingston.”
“Sorry. Zoey Ashe.”
A moment’s pause. The stripper looked into the air as if she was hearing instructions, and then said, “Arthur says he will see you now. And he wants to see all of you, if you know what I mean. Please leave your inhibitions at the door.”
The stripper vanished and the gate slid open. Zoey said, “This is going to seem like kind of an odd question, but was Arthur Livingston thirteen years old?”
Andre grinned and said, “Take a look around the world, girl. Men don’t never grow up. Get a bunch of us together with no ladies around and it’s all boner jokes and headlocks. Your daddy just had enough money that he didn’t have to hide it like the rest of us.”
The Bentley drove itself through the gates and instantly a million points of colored light exploded into view. The cobblestone drive wound through a sprawl of manicured landscaping that at the moment was nothing but a support system for a constellation of Christmas lights. Every twenty feet or so along the path was a statue of a knight holding a sword, each wearing a red Santa Claus hat. The path was circling around a sprawling enclosure housing two white Siberian tigers, one gnawing on some huge hunk of meat that Zoey hoped was not a human being. As they neared the end, they passed a life-size Christmas nativity scene in which the traditional figures had been replaced with characters from Die Hard. Finally the Bentley floated to a stop in front of a huge, dignified mansion that had clearly been designed and built by someone other than Zoey’s father, a sprawling Gothic thing that would be referred to as Something Manor in one of those old movies about English aristocrats.
“This house is a hundred years old, but has only been sitting on this plot of land for five. It was originally on the north shore of Long Island, the Gold Coast. Arthur had it shipped across the country and reassembled here, brick by brick.”
Andre led the way up to a pair of massive charcoal gray metal doors that were decorated with an etching depicting a tangle of nude women.
“Those doors are solid bronze. They weigh seven tons. Each.”
The huge doors swung squeakily open for them as they approached, Zoey following Andre and cradling Stench Machine. Standing at the door was a terrifyingly thin, balding man in butler clothes who look about two hundred years old.
“Welcome back, Andre. A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Ashe.”
Andre nodded toward the man and said, “Zoey, this is Carlton.”
They entered a cavernous foyer, at the center of which was a Christmas tree easily four times as tall as Zoey. Carlton led them around the tree, shoes clicking on the marble tile, toward a dual grand staircase that split off to opposite wings of the mansion. On the landing at the top of the stairs they were suddenly accosted by a ghost, rising from the floor in an eerie bluish glow. Zoey almost tumbled backward down the stairs, and Stench Machine thrashed in her arms. The ghost was a hologram of Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, clanging his chains together and saying “Scrooooooge!!! I wear the chain I forged in life … I made it link by link, and yard by yarrrrd…”
Andre said, “I’m gonna apologize right now, your daddy had a thing for holograms. He knew they were tacky, but said they made him feel like he was living in the future.”
Carlton the Butler led them up the stairs and to the left. The house smelled of pine and varnish and floor wax. They reached an open door and passed into a room full of rich, brown leather furniture arranged in front of a fireplace large enough to roast a horse. Above the mantel was a gigantic stuffed and mounted buffalo head, wearing a Santa hat and a white fake beard.
Carlton stopped at the doorway and said, “Ms. Ashe has arrived.”
Up until that night, Zoey had no experience being either famous or infamous, and as such, she was unfamiliar with the feeling of meeting a group of people who didn’t know her and yet hated her. In this alien realm that seemed to have been entirely handcrafted in rich wood and leather, she was greeted by dismissive eyes, condescending smirks, and sideways glances that said, This ought to be good. It was clear that no matter what she did or said, everyone in this room intended to laugh about it later. Zoey was suddenly aware that her nose was running. She sniffed. The sound was deafening.
There were three of them in the room, besides Zoey and Andre, all of whom were already standing when she entered. She spotted the silver suit and lacquered black hair of Will Blackwater right away, holding a glass of scotch because, of course, he was that kind of man.
Next to him was the beautiful but annoyed-looking Chinese woman Zoey had seen on the platform with him earlier, wearing a pitch-black outfit that straddled the line between smart business suit and business-themed sex fetish costume. Hair pulled back to show off her neck. Pearls, brazenly short skirt, calf muscles, heels.
Leaning against the far corner with an empty scotch glass was the guy who earlier Zoey thought looked like he’d stepped out of a cartoon—jowly face with grin lines between a white cowboy hat and a suit that had been tailored to not fit quite right. His body language said that corner was his leaning spot, that he’d spent many a long meeting or brainstorming session there, always with a glass in his hand. A spot where he could see the whole room and take it in, while listening to the fireplace crackle and pop to his left.
Zoey, on the other hand, had arrived there wearing a pair of muddy tennis shoes, the left one ruined by wet cement that was rapidly drying to a crust. She wore too-long jeans that were frayed at the bottom, which were also too tight in the hips even though they hadn’t been when she had bought them last summer. She was carrying her denim jacket and wearing a black cardigan she inherited from her mother over an orange T-shirt bearing the logo for a band called Awesome Possum. A gray wool stocking cap was hiding a rats’ nest of black and blue hair. She was clutching an angry, smelly cat and was wearing half a pound of its shed fur all over her torso. Fortunately, no one in the room knew she was also wearing a pair of pink underwear that said “BUTT SHIRT” across the back.
The moment Andre stepped through the door, soft music faded in—a wokka-wokka guitar that Zoey somehow recognized as the theme from Shaft. Like it was Andre’s personal theme song.
Will looked annoyed and waited for the music to fade before he said, “Zoey, glad you could make it. This here is Echo Ling, in the corner back there is Budd Billingsley. You’ve met Andre. We all worked closely with your father and—I’m sorry, please have a seat.”
Zoey let Stench Machine down and shuffled over to sit in a vast leather armchair that probably claimed the lives of twenty cows in its creation. But no one else sat, so she was now seated with her hands knotted in her lap like a nervous little girl, while the four suits loomed over her. She saw Andre had acquired a scotch on the rocks. She wondered if there was a chute somewhere that just fired them into your hand the moment you walked in. She stared down at her ruined tennis shoes. These were the only shoes she had brought and, in fact, were the only tennis shoes she owned. Her nose started dripping again and she sniffed and wished everyone would turn their backs so she could wipe it.
The butler, Carlton, said, “Can I get you anything, Ms. Ashe?”
“Could you get me a new pair of shoes?” She tried to laugh but everyone just pursed their lips and shared their quick sidelong glances. In the distance, a wolf howled.
Finally Carlton asked, “Is there anything else?”
“No, I’m fine. Or, maybe some water.” She felt like she needed to ask for something, and that was the only thing that occurred to her.
“Very well.”
Carlton exited. Zoey tried to remind herself to breathe.
Andre said, “Look, we made a terrible first impression. Specifically, Will made a terrible first impression. We all owe you an apology, your departed daddy included. So let me say it, for everybody here—it was good of you to come down and help us take care of this, and we’ll make sure you’re compensated for every terrible thing that has happened today. More than compensated. Right, Will?”
“Nobody should have to go through what you went through back in Fort Drayton, and on the train earlier—”
“What was that? Who was that guy? I mean, I know he was after me because of, well, all this, but what was he? He could … summon electricity or something.”
More glances. A silent decision was made to let Will explain. Or rather, to decide what not to explain.
“We don’t know. That’s actually the issue at hand. Would you mind if we asked you some questions about that?”
“I doubt I know anything useful.”
“Did you see any kind of device hidden on him? Even something small, like something that could fit on his belt?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“How many times would you say he did it? Made the electrical current arc between his fingers like that?”
“I don’t know. He liked to do it, to show it off. I’d say at least five times.”
He shot a glance at the Chinese woman, Echo. This was important, apparently.
“So?” Zoey asked. “Who was he? What was he?”
“Just a man, with some kind of gadget, a weapon, we think he had it augmented into his hand.” He shrugged, as if this was an unimportant oddity that was worth no further thought. “All of that—don’t concern yourself with it. He’s certainly not going to bother you anymore, and this room, right now, is the safest spot in the city for you. Maybe the safest spot in the whole world. Your father had enemies, as you know, but he spared no expense in protecting his home. The moment a foot bends a blade of grass anywhere on the grounds, a dozen armed guards spring into action. You will not be disturbed.”
Carlton emerged from behind her and placed onto an end table a sterling silver tray on which was arranged a pitcher of ice water, a glass, a bowl of lemon wedges, some sprigs of mint, a candy cane, and a box of Kleenex. He poured her a glass of water. The ice cubes were perfect spheres.
Will continued, “So, you know what you’re here to do.”
“There’s a vault and only I can open it. It scans my brain or something.”
“That’s correct. There is no way to fake it, it has to be you.”
“And once I open the vault, it’s all over, right? All the contracts and bounties and stuff disappear? I’m just a regular person again?”
There was a pause—ever so slight—from Will before he said, “Absolutely.”
He was lying. Zoey knew she wasn’t going to get the truth by just asking, so instead she said, “And we have no idea why he designated my brain as the key instead of yours, or hers, or … literally anyone else’s??”
Will shook his head and said, “Trust me, no one is more surprised than we are. In fact, as far as we know this is your first visit, so we’re not even clear how the vault can be set with your brain’s imprint if he never brought you in to let it scan you.”
Zoey started to say, “I have no idea…” but trailed off halfway through, when a memory suddenly popped into her head. “In the fall my mom made a doctor’s appointment for me, she said it was something they had to do for the life insurance. But it was weird, they put me in something like an MRI machine and I was in there for a solid hour. They told me they were checking for early Alzheimer’s or something, but … I don’t know. It seemed fishy. Like they wouldn’t answer direct questions. Could Arthur have arranged that?”
Echo glanced at Will and said, “Well, there’s one mystery solved.”
Will asked, “And how long ago was this?”
“September, early October, around there.”
Glances. Traces of confusion and alarm. This was a bombshell, apparently. Zoey tried to think of why, then it occurred to her that this meant she wasn’t here due to some drunken last-minute decision or a mix up with the vault’s programming. Her father had planned all of this months in advance—in other words, he had known he was going to die. Or at least, he was making preparations for the eventuality. And no one in this room had known.
Echo shook her head and muttered to Will, “I keep imagining him up there, laughing at us while we scrambled around the country trying to figure out exactly which trailer park he spilled his DNA in.”
Budd adjusted his cowboy hat and said, “‘Up there’? Echo, I don’t know exactly what religion you believe in that has Arthur Livingston makin’ it to Heaven, but I reckon I wanna join.”
Andre said, “Eh, probably just bribed his way in.”
Will, raising his voice to cut off the banter, said, “It doesn’t matter. The daughter’s here, let’s get this over with.”
The daughter. Zoey realized he had already forgotten her name. She sniffed, wiped her nose with her sleeve and took a drink from her water glass. She glanced around the room—a wreath on every wall. The stuffed and mounted buffalo, wearing its stupid Santa hat and beard. Yet another Christmas tree in the corner. Zoey and her mom had a plastic artificial tree they put together every year. It had a bare spot where two of the branches had broken off, so they had to keep that part facing the corner. Her estranged father, she observed, apparently had a real tree in every room. Zoey suddenly realized that her yearly salary would not even pay to decorate this place for Christmas, and that her entire trailer wasn’t big enough to serve as off-season storage for all of the ornaments, lights, and holiday tchotchkes that encrusted the walls of this place.
Once, as a teenager, she had spent all of Thanksgiving and Christmas with a cracked tooth. She endured the throbbing molar for six weeks, due to the wait list to get into a dentist that accepted Medicaid. Every day at work with this pain stabbing like a shard of glass when she bit down on anything harder than pudding. The cost of one bottle of whatever scotch these people were drinking would have paid for her appointment. And now, here were Arthur Livingston’s people, in suits that could probably put her through college, looking at her like she was a muddy dog running through their wedding reception. Her ears were getting hot. She pulled off her cap and shook her bangs out of her eyes.
Zoey let out a breath and said, “And then what?”
Will answered, “Then for us begins a very long and tedious task of sorting out the contents of the vault, whatever they are. But that’s our problem, not yours. We will release the fifty thousand dollars from escrow, and send you back home in whatever mode of transportation you prefer. Hell, we’ll rent you a private plane. Or let you take the company helicopter, if you like. After that, we will never bother you again.”
“And what if I see something in that vault I’m not supposed to see?”
Glances. Will clenched his jaw a little tighter. Echo pressed her lips together. The oilman in the corner—Budd—grabbed a bottle from a nearby cart and poured himself another glass of single malt or bourbon or whatever it was. He seemed to be trying to suppress a laugh.
Will, who was trying very hard to hide the fact that he clearly wanted to strangle Zoey, said, “‘See something’? Like what?”
“Arthur Livingston was a mob boss. You’re the mob. Maybe the rumors were right. Maybe there’s bodies in there, or stolen stuff, or drugs. Maybe just knowing the vault is here is dangerous information.”
“Don’t let your imagination get away from—”
Bzzzt! Stop. Don’t play the ‘hysterical woman’ card here. I’ve been through three attempted kidnappings in the last five hours. I mean, I’m the vault key, right? Well, why are you any different from all the other crazies that keep coming after me? Because you’re wearing Armani? Maybe you don’t want the key to your vault just walking around out there.”
Andre said, “Come on, now. It’s not like that…”
“And despite the fact that you people all supposedly worked with my father, I still can’t get over the fact that he didn’t make any of you the key. Why not, if you’re so trustworthy? Hey, for all I know, you’re the ones he was specifically trying to keep out of the vault. For all I know, you’re the ones who had him killed.”
She wanted to see what Will’s reaction would be to this. The reaction was barely suppressed rage.
“Maybe,” said Will, “all of this is the result of nothing more than the fact that your father, despite extreme wealth and power, had a history of making terrible decisions.”
Echo smirked at the inference that Will was in fact looking at one of Arthur’s terrible decisions right now. Zoey literally bit her tongue, and took a moment to gather herself.
“So,” she said, evenly, “my question is, how do I know that after I’m done, the sedan I climb into isn’t going to take me out in the woods where Tex over there will pull out a little gun and shoot me in the back of the head? See, I know for a fact you won’t do that right now, because I haven’t opened your vault yet, and as you said, it doesn’t open for a corpse. As long as it stays closed and you want what’s inside, I’m safe. But the moment it opens, the value of my life drops to zero. And I, unlike you, care nothing whatsoever about what’s in there. So. Mr. Blackwater. I need you to sit down and explain to Arthur Livingston’s bad decision how you’re going to make it worth my while to open that vault for you, and how you can guarantee my safety after.”
Silence. Something popped in the fireplace.
In the corner, Budd laughed from around his drink and said, “I like her!”
Echo Ling, on the other hand, made an expression that could suck the laughter out of a child’s birthday party. She turned on her heels and said, “Well, she’s definitely Arthur’s daughter.”
Zoey stared into Echo’s back and said, “If I hear anybody say that again, I’m never opening that vault.”
Zoey grabbed a tissue from the tray and loudly blew her nose.
Will gathered himself and said, “I understand your concerns completely—”
“I said I want you to sit down and explain it to me. Stop looming over me. It’s rude.”
Will took a breath and seemed to count to ten in his head, then took a seat on the leather sofa in front of her. Probably a hundred cows murdered for that one.
“Let’s just approach this logically. What you’re asking is impossible—you want me to negotiate with you while you maintain the assumption that I’m operating in bad faith. After all, if we were the kind of people you just accused us of being, then my role would be to say whatever it takes to placate you, knowing we’d never have to follow through on whatever offer is made. So instead, how about you tell me what you want in the way of assurances, and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you? But keep in mind, time is very short.”
“Why is time short? I don’t have to be back at work until Monday.”
“You don’t under—”
“No. Listen. Everything you said is right—the problem isn’t what you’re offering or failing to offer me. The problem is you. I don’t trust you. So before I can even begin to think about this, I need to convince myself that you’re on the level.”
“All right. And … how will we go about doing that, precisely?”
“I don’t know. But it’s late. And I’m tired. Is there a spare bed in one of the thousand rooms of this house?”
“We were really hoping to have this resolved tonight.”
“Well, to get over this disappointment, you’ll just have to console yourself with the fact that you have absolutely everything else you want in life.”
Will started to speak again, but Andre put a hand on his shoulder and said, “How about you don’t piss her off, eh? The world will still be here when the sun comes up tomorrow.” He turned toward the doorway, where Carlton had materialized at some point, and said, “Can you get a room ready for Zoey?”
“It is already done, sir. Her suitcase is up there as well.”
“Of course it is. See? It’s all good. Zoey, we even retrieved your bag—you left it on the train platform when you set that dude’s dick on fire. So get a good night’s rest, have Carlton make you some waffles in the morning, and we’ll figure this all out tomorrow while I nurse the hangover I’m about to cause.”
Andre smoothed his lapel and walked out, while Zoey silently planned how she was going to escape this terrible place.

The guest bedroom suite they set Zoey up in had its own bathroom, media room, and minibar. The covers were turned down on a king-size four-poster bed that would not have fit in her bedroom back home unless it was folded up like a taco shell. There was a touchscreen on the end table that, after tinkering with it, Zoey realized controlled the firmness, texture, and temperature of the mattress. Her suitcase was placed neatly on the bed next to a stack of white bath towels, the one on top folded into the shape of a swan. Carlton had found a cat bed, somewhere, and had sat it in the corner of the room. Stench Machine was curled up asleep on the floor next to it.
Zoey sat on the bed and stared at the door. She got up and locked it, but that was stupid because surely they had a key—it was their house. She scooted over an end table that had an expensive-looking table lamp on it so it blocked the door. The table wouldn’t delay someone breaking in for long, but would maybe give her a few seconds to try to escape out the window. Plus she would die knowing she had made them break one of their expensive lamps, so screw them. She looked around the room for a weapon, the closest thing she could find was a bag of golf clubs that was propped in one corner. She pulled out the heaviest-looking driver and sat on the bed with it across her lap. It didn’t make her feel any safer.
She had let Andre bring her here to get her away from the crazies in the van and the much larger group of crazies known as All of the Citizens of Tabula Ra$a. But she had no illusions about opening Livingston’s stupid vault and then riding off into the sunset with the escrow money. She wasn’t some little princess from the suburbs who just graduated college with a humanities degree, she knew what people were really like. They’d kill her just to save the price of a plane ticket. So her plan was to wait for everyone else to leave or go to bed (did they all live here?) and just slip out of the house.
She sat there, gripping the club, and listened. There was something very off about the sound this place made, and Zoey eventually figured out that the weird sound was what other people knew as “peaceful silence.” Zoey had been living in her mom’s trailer, because she’d had to move out of Caleb’s place when they broke up (Caleb being the guy she thought at one time she was going to marry and have babies with). So for two months she had been sleeping on a futon next to an aluminum wall, near a window that had been cracked by an errant fist and repaired with Scotch tape. All of the trailer park noises bled through into the room as easily as if she had been sleeping in the yard—always somebody revving a gasoline motor, a couple arguing or having loud sex, a barking dog or, more likely, twenty barking dogs. But the Casa de Ass-a was dead silent. She could hear her own breathing. So this was what a house sounded like when it had solid walls and, beyond them, acres of gated land onto which the poor were not allowed.
Zoey hated it.
She didn’t have much of a plan beyond escaping the grounds of the estate. Maybe she would get out and find some hole to hide in, maybe find the Tabula Ra$a slums and make some friends. “Lay low,” like they say in the movies. Maybe the mob would eventually decide it was more trouble to go after her than to just get somebody else to break into their stupid safe. She hadn’t witnessed them do anything illegal—they didn’t have anything to fear from her running to the FBI or whoever was still enforcing the law around here.
Zoey grabbed Stench Machine and curled up with him on the bed, feeling warmth and annoyance radiating off him as he meowed and made halfhearted attempts to wriggle free. She closed her eyes and immediately saw Jacob, his brain fried in his skull, staring blearily and drooling. She felt so stupid. Handsome rich kid flirting with dumpy trailer trash, to win money and a day as a Blink celebrity. Millions of people listening in while she swooned and giggled and tried to impress him. A vast constellation of strangers she’d never meet, laughing at her.
That prompted Zoey to turn on the wall feed in the bedroom (they had one of those projection units rich people have, a fist-size dome in the ceiling that could project the feed on any wall you wanted) and tune into the “Hunt for Livingston’s Key” Event, to see what was going on in the fascinating lives of the various people who were trying to capture, kill, or torture her. The most popular feed at the moment belonged to the League of Badass—the ragtag group of morons who had chased them in their van earlier. They were back at their headquarters, which appeared to be somebody’s garage—leaning over a table in front of their busted-up van, going over strategy. Their leader—the muscle guy with a red Mohawk and sleeves of tribal tattoos—was explaining to the camera that Zoey was safely in her father’s estate and, as far as they knew, could be opening Livingston’s vault as they spoke. But then he explained why this was by no means the end of the Hunt.
Sure enough, Will Blackwater had lied.
The five-million-dollar contract this “Molech” guy had put out on her, it turned out, was not just about abducting her so he could stick her into the keyhole of Arthur Livingston’s vault. No, it was also about getting revenge for Doll Head guy. He had been an employee of Molech’s, and he was now dead. Zoey was startled to hear this (could a person actually die from a small whiskey-fueled crotch fire? Maybe he had a prior medical condition), but more importantly, it meant that escaping the estate would change nothing about the fact that there was still a multimillion-dollar bounty on her head—in fact, it would only double the number of people who were looking for her. Her whole plan had fallen apart in ten seconds.
Zoey closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. She supposed someone with more experience dealing with this kind of thing would know how to work this to her advantage—after all, if Molech’s people wanted her dead, but her father’s people needed her alive to open the vault, then her father’s people had motivation to protect her from Molech’s. But how long would she be able to keep that up before they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble? If she was alive but refusing to open their vault, then she was no more useful to them than if she was a corpse.
Zoey flipped around the “Hunt” feed and found someone had assembled a highlight reel of the “players” involved. She brought up one labeled “Arthur Livingston: The Suits.” There was a video of the four of them exiting a black sedan in slow motion, while ominous music played.
A gravelly voice said, “Arthur Livingston’s death has left behind a power vacuum, with four members of his ruthless inner circle vying for control. In the criminal underworld, they are known as The Suits. Andre Knox, aka, Black Mountain—Livingston’s deadly enforcer. Michelle ‘Echo’ Ling, the Chinese computer expert and sexy seductress. Budd ‘the Regulator’ Billingsley. And finally, Will Blackwater, The Magician—Arthur Livingston’s cold-blooded right-hand man.
“Seven years ago, when a cartel hit man went rogue and made an attempt on the life of Andre Knox, the dismembered corpse of the guman was found on Arthur Livingston’s doorstep twelve hours later … along with an apologetic note from the head of the cartel. When a Ukrainian mob tried to horn in on Livingston’s territory a year later, Livingston asked for a face-to-face to avoid all-out war. Witnesses say the Suits met behind locked doors with a dozen mob captains. After only four minutes, both groups filed out of the room. By nightfall, the Ukrainians had left the city, never to return. Not a single shot was fired.
“But, strangest of all, when a federal indictment came down for a fifth member of Livingston’s inner circle named Logan Knight, Arthur Livingston gave a press conference in which he made the bizarre assertion that no such man had ever existed. With no further explanation, all charges were dropped soon after.”
Well. That was terrifying, and not at all helpful. Zoey noticed they had made one of these profiles/trailers for her, and she couldn’t resist. She told it to play:
“Twenty-two-year-old Zoey Ashe, a devious and busty—”
She quickly swiped it off the screen.
Zoey fell back onto the bed and covered her eyes. She had no idea what do now, and couldn’t think straight. The long trip, the roller-coaster adrenaline rush, the cold night, the warm bed. She lay on her side and felt herself melting into the mattress. Stench Machine was now prowling around the room, then Zoey finally realized he was looking for food because she hadn’t fed him, because she was horrible at everything. She dug out two cans of cat food from her suitcase—yes, she traveled with cans of cat food in her luggage, like the crazy cat lady she was destined to become—and looked around for a fork. Stench Machine ate a mixture of two different brands and she had to mash them together. She was pretty sure it was some kind of chemical reaction from the combination that made him smell so bad, but it was the only thing he would eat without following the meal with two hours of disapproving looks that would devastate Zoey in her current emotional state.
The room was forkless. Logically she could just mix the stuff together with her fingers or whatever random object she could find in the room, but she had no desire to put her fingers in cat food and, to be honest, there was something else tempting her out of the bedroom, and that was curiosity. So, telling herself she was doing it for her cat, she scooted the table and lamp away from the door and stepped cautiously into the hallway, trying to imagine how a person would find a common eating utensil in a sprawling palace like this. She thought about going back for her golf club and decided if the situation deteriorated into a golf club duel to the death, she probably was already screwed. She tried to see in the darkened hall and took a step, wincing at the sound of the squeaky floorboards trying to rat her out. As stealthily as possible, she took a left toward the stairs and immediately crashed loudly through a low pile of boxes.
Shoes went spilling everywhere. She squinted in the darkness and saw nine boxes containing nine pair of shoes—three different styles similar to the pair she had ruined, each in three different sizes ranging from 6½ to 7½. She found a note from Carlton the butler apologizing for not asking her size first, but saying that he had tried to give her a range of choices and that she should let him know if none were satisfactory. Zoey imagined a pair of goons forcing some Foot Locker manager to open his store at gunpoint in the middle of the night, to get their boss’s daughter a new pair of sneakers.
Zoey picked up the cat again and padded down the stairs, then almost screamed when once again Jacob Marley’s ghost came oozing out of the floor when she reached the landing.
Stench Machine jumped out of her arms and bolted down the stairs, across the foyer, zipping through an arched doorway on the ground floor. Zoey followed him through the arch and found herself in a long dining room with a table that could seat probably fifty guests. The cat darted through chair legs and prowled cautiously through a doorway at the other end. Zoey followed him into a hallway.
At one end of the hall was a boarded-up door with red tape crisscrossed over it that said “WARNING: MOLD—DO NOT ENTER.” She headed in the other direction, but Stench Machine wouldn’t follow. Instead he prowled around the Mold door, sniffing and pawing at it, as if there was a mouse or something behind it. As Zoey went to go pick him up, Stench Machine took a step forward and passed through the door. Partly, anyway—his butt and tail were sticking out. Zoey went to the Mold door and passed her hand through it—the door was yet another hologram. She could see the little projector on the ceiling, and waving her hand in front of it could make entire vertical slices of the “door” vanish where she was blocking the beam. The illusion had been hiding a real door, another heavy one made of bronze, a foot beyond the fake one. She tried the handle but it was locked, because of course it was. Was this the vault?
She didn’t care to find out. She picked up Stench Machine and headed down the hall, then the big door clicked and squeaked behind her.
A stern voice said, “Who are you? How did you get in here?”
A guy she had never seen before had leaned out through the hologram, looking like a disembodied head had been nailed to the Mold door like a hunter’s trophy. Then the man stepped out toward her, a bald guy with a gun in a shoulder holster over a tight black turtleneck. He had cop eyes.
A voice from inside the room behind him said, “That’s the girl. Arthur’s daughter.” That voice was Will. Zoey had assumed everyone had left, but apparently Will had business in their secret room. The bald guy retreated back inside the room and Will leaned out past the hologram, his posture suggesting he was holding the door closed behind it. They were probably having an orgy back there. Again, Zoey had no intention of knowing either way.
He asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing. I was just trying to find a … it doesn’t matter. Is that … is that the vault?”
“Yes, this is the vault, that’s why we’re all standing inside it and the door is open.”
“I don’t—”
“The vault’s in the basement. This is a private conference room. Finish doing what you’re doing and go back to bed. We’ll come get you in the morn—Hey!
Stench Machine had twisted out of Zoey’s grasp and darted through the hologram and through the gap in the real door beyond. Zoey ran in after him, shoving past Will, through the metal door.
Will yelled “STOP!” then grabbed her wrist and twisted. Zoey went to one knee. The room had flown into chaos, as the cat had jumped up onto a table, trying to make off with what looked like a hunk of gray meat. The bald guy who had met Zoey at the door snatched the cat by the scruff of the neck and looked like he was going to tear him in half with his bare hands. Zoey screamed at Will to let go of her, but he was dragging her backward, back out of the door. Her wrist felt like it was going to break.
From her knees, Zoey twisted her body around and bit the first thing on Will she could find—his thigh. He cursed and let her go. Zoey got to her feet and was about to demand her cat back, then she saw what was sitting on the table, and everyone saw that she saw, and everything ground to a halt.
Lying on the table was a severed human hand.

Everyone in the room stood silently in place, staring at Zoey, as if the universe had finally created a moment so awkward that it had stopped time itself. Echo Ling was there, wearing glasses and holding a long metal probe, as if she had been interrupted in the process of prodding at the severed hand. The wall behind her was covered in projections of X-rays and schematics. Zoey’s eyes bounced around the room, involuntarily etching what was surely incriminating information directly into her brain, seeing things these people would not allow to be shared with the world. Stench Machine meowed and that sprang Zoey into action, running over and grabbing him from the clutches of the bald guy with the cop eyes. She edged back toward the door, slowly, as if nobody in the tiny room would notice her leaving if she did it gradually enough.
She heard herself ask, “W-whose hand is that?” but she didn’t actually want to know, knowing would only doom her, as if she wasn’t doomed already. And what possible difference did it make?
From behind her, Will answered, “You don’t recognize it?”
That did it. In a blind, spastic panic, Zoey spun and shoved past Will again, through the hologram door, down the hall, through the dining room and into the foyer with the skyscraper Christmas tree. She ran right for the huge front doors, pulled a cold bronze handle—
Candi the holographic stripper blinked to life next to her, pouted dramatically, and in a babytalk voice said, “Ooh, I’m sooo sorry but house security isn’t allowing exits through the front doors, for your own safety. To make up for the inconvenience, Mr. Livingston will compensate you with a free bottle of champagne or a sexual favor of your choosing!”
Candi giggled and blinked away. From behind Zoey came the steady click of footsteps on the marble floor. Will was in no hurry as he emerged into the foyer, his face an uncanny valley of calm. Trying to scare her, Zoey thought, with how calm he was. It was working.
Zoey’s voice trembled as she said, “Unlock it. I’m leaving.”
The bald guy in the black turtleneck strode up behind Will. Two more men in black overcoats and hats appeared behind them, carrying guns that looked laughably overpowered for a Zoey-scale threat. Will Blackwater had henchmen.
Will said, “No, you’re not.”
“I-I won’t tell anybody. I don’t care about this place, I don’t care about you, I don’t care about what happens here or who you kill. Just let me go, let me go back home, and I won’t tell anyone, I won’t tell the police, my mom, anybody. I don’t even want the fifty thousand, just let me go.
“And we will do just that. As soon as you open the vault.”
And all at once, Zoey was sure she would never see the sky again.
“Zoey,” Will said. “Think. What are your options here?” As he spoke, two more overcoats appeared—some silent call had been sent out to the house guards. “This is not your world. Now I agree that your father could be a real abscess and dragging you into this was unconscionable. But there is literally nothing else to be done but for you to open that damned vault and stop wasting our time.”
But you see, Zoey thought, what is wasted time to you, are my precious last moments on earth.
Zoey never answered, and Will took it for consent.
He nodded to the bald man and said, “Kowalski, escort her to the vault room.”
The man took Zoey by the upper arm and pulled her along like a little kid. He was dragging her toward another arched door, leading to the opposite wing of the estate. She did not resist. Zoey, her bald escort, Will, and an entourage of armed men in trench coats filed down a hallway, taking her into what under other circumstances would have been the most relaxing room she had ever been in—it was some kind of library or reading room, walls of leather-bound books surrounding ancient leather armchairs and, right in the center of the floor, a crystal-clear koi pond. Fish bearing iridescent scales of orange and white zipped around in the water, the room filled with the soothing trickle of a babbling brook.
From behind Zoey, Will said, “Grab the gold one.” Zoey tried to process those four words into some kind of meaningful command and finally noticed a single, gold fish darting around among the others. “The fish, Zoey. Reach down and grab it. It’s not real.”
She tentatively stuck her hand into the water and once again found that it was just a three-dimensional projection. She tried to grab the golden holographic fish as instructed, which turned out to be exactly as hard as catching a real one. She flailed at it and was starting to think she was the victim of an elaborate prank, but eventually she closed her hand around the image of the fish, at which point it instantly disappeared, along with the rest of the pond. The now-empty basin split apart, revealing a spiral staircase straight down.
Zoey said, “Okay, I did it. Just let me—”
“That’s not the vault. That’s just the entrance to the vault room.” Will gestured toward the stairs. “After you.”
Zoey descended, clanging down the spiral of stairs with one hand on the curved rail, the other clutching Stench Machine to her chest. A sprawl of gold coins came into view, as if the room below her was just piles of treasure, like Scrooge McDuck’s vault. Then she reached the bottom and realized that was just the flooring—it had been tiled with actual coins. Forget the vault, you could come down here with a chisel and scrape up enough money to retire on. And in Arthur Livingston’s world, this was how you decorated the entrance to the room the real riches were stored in. The vault itself was set in the wall in front of her, a perfect circle of ornate brass from floor to ceiling, the door probably weighing as much as twenty cars. There was no handle or hinges, just a giant, cartoonish keyhole in the middle about three feet tall and a foot wide.
The spiral stairwell had finished draining everyone into the room. The bald man, Kowalski, grabbed Zoey again and shoved her toward the vault door, the site of a future bruise throbbing a ring around her upper arm. She imagined some medical examiner noting it in her autopsy.
Will said, “See the keyhole? You’re the key. Go unlock it.”
“But … how? I don’t—”
“Stick your head in the keyhole. Keep it still, it has to scan your brain and match it to the print it has on file.”
Zoey walked tentatively up to the door, let out a breath, and stuck her head in the lock. A mechanism inside whirred and clicked. There were annoyed murmurs behind her. It hadn’t worked.
Zoey pulled her head out. A monitor off to the side of the door had blinked on at some point. In red letters it said: OVERRIDE: COERCION.
A female voice behind Zoey said, “Told you.” It was Echo. Zoey didn’t even realize she had followed them down. “You can’t coerce the vault’s owner into opening it. The software is programmed to stay locked if the owner shows emotional distress, so they can’t be made to open it at gunpoint. See, Will, because that would completely defeat the point of paying eight figures for a vault.”
Will rubbed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and said, “Zoey, we are not forcing you to do this. You want to leave here. You want this to be over. You are sticking your head in that giant keyhole willingly. Just … think that thought, in your mind.”
Echo said, “It doesn’t work like that.”
Zoey said, “I know you’re not going to let me leave the city alive.”
Will growled, “I promise you will be allowed to leave if you make that vault open. In fact, I will throw you over my shoulder and fling you over the goddamned border—”
Echo said, “Will…”
Zoey said, “You have no reason to let me go and every reason to shoot me and toss me in the river.”
To Echo, Will said, “Is there something we can give her to calm her down?”
“What, like a joint? Some Valium? It won’t open if it detects she’s intoxicated, either. This is Arthur Livingston’s vault we’re talking about, the first instructions he gave to the contractor was to make sure it wouldn’t open for him if he was drunk or stoned. Otherwise some call girl would have wound up owning the contents years ago.”
Zoey said, “It won’t open until I have some reason to think I’ll be allowed to leave here. I need some guarantee. If this thing can read my thoughts or my emotional state or whatever it does, it knows I think I’m going to die.”
“Well, what can we do to reassure you?”
Zoey turned toward the bald man, Kowalski. She eyed his shoulder holster and said, “Give me a gun.”
Will had heard her clearly, but still said, “What?
“Give me a gun. I point the gun at you, I open the thing, and then I keep pointing the gun at you as I walk out.”
Will said, “There are six other guns in this room, you’d still have no chance against them if it came to a shootout.”
“I wouldn’t try to win a shootout. I’d only try to shoot you.”
Will clenched his jaw. Zoey let go of Stench Machine and held out a hand.
She said, “Consider it a gesture of good faith.”
“We’re obviously not doing that.”
Zoey crossed her arms. “Great, the longer we put this off, the longer I live. We’ll all stand in this room and grow old together.”
Zoey thought she could actually hear the man’s jaw clench. She said, “I can see it in your eyes. You so wish you could just torture me into this. Slap me around. Threaten me. Put a gun to my head. But you can’t. The harder you push, the more locked that door gets. And Arthur knew it. He knew you would try this, and he knew the vault would stop you. It’s so funny watching you try to match wits with a dead man, and losing. Well, you want me to trust you with my life, you trust me with yours. What’s it going to be, Clenchy?”
Will met her eyes, let out an annoyed breath, then glanced at Kowalski and nodded. Kowalski raised an eyebrow as if to say “Really?” but then pulled his pistol from his holster, pulled back on the top of it to cock it or load it or whatever, and spun it around on his finger so the handle was pointed toward Zoey. He looked amused.
As Zoey took the gun, Kowalski said, “There’s no safety. You pull the trigger, it goes bang.”
“How do I know it’s loaded?”
He shrugged. “Point it at the ceiling and shoot. And hope nobody is standing up there.”
Zoey pointed it up, flinched, squeezed the trigger, and was shocked at how loud it was. Plaster rained down on her head. A little brass shell clinked off the coin floor and rolled away. Her ears rang. Everyone in the room looked like they had just soiled their pants.
She took a deep breath, turned, and pointed the gun at Will’s face. She saw something strange in Will’s eyes. Not fear—he looked like he had been on this end of a gun before. Not anger, either—the frustration that flared up earlier was gone. What she saw in his eyes, above the quivering sights of the gun, was a mind that was reconsidering her. Or maybe just considering her for the first time.
All four of the trench coats immediately raised stubby little machine guns at her, the men apparently having gotten a grossly exaggerated report of Zoey’s combat skills. Kowalski whipped another pistol from the back of his pants and brought it to bear, and she wondered how many guns he kept on his person at any given time. Will did not draw a gun. He only adjusted his cuff links and gestured toward the vault.
With the pistol still pointed at Will’s uncanny valley stare, Zoey took a calming breath, leaned over, and stuck her head into the vault once again. For a moment there was only silence. She took another deep breath, and let it out.
Finally, there was an approving chime, then a click and a squeak of hinges.
Everyone in the room but Zoey let out a gasp. Zoey pulled her head out and moved out of the way of the swinging vault door. She put her back to the opening and told herself not to turn around, since once again seeing what was in there would only shorten her life span.
The gun still trained on Will, she kneeled down and picked up her cat and said into his ear, “If they kill me, run.”
But no one was looking at her anymore. Will had forgotten about Zoey and even the gun, and was staring into the vault, mouth agape (which in his case, meant there was an opening between his lips of about a quarter of an inch). He rushed forward, brushing past Zoey. And that’s when she made her mistake: she turned to follow him with her eyes, looking into the vault.
It was empty.

Or at least, it was empty of treasure—the metal room was perfectly vacant save for a single, silver coin lying on the concrete floor, mockingly. Just behind the coin, was a man. In his late fifties, in a pinstripe suit with an elaborate mustache, standing placidly in a vault that had been locked airtight for days. It took a moment for Zoey to recognize that it was, in fact, her biological father, Arthur Livingston.

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario