File: INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: NOAH C. LIVINGSTON (“NL”)
Date: MARCH 30, 2017
Specialist: DR. GERALD LOWELL (“GL”)
Subject: TEST PATIENT B, BETA RUN, SESSION 15-C4
NL: I was so desperate not to fall asleep.
GL: Understandable, given your previous dreams. I know you don’t like talking about your twelfth birthday, Noah, but we must treat that dream the same as the others.
NL: [SUBJECT SHUDDERS] It was so . . . surreal. [PAUSE] I was home, but not alone. Carol was there, my father’s third wife. She was downstairs the whole time. At least, I think she was. How could I have gotten past her in my sleep? How did I dry off, or get my clothes on?
GL: Take me through what you remember.
NL: [SUBJECT SIGHS] I was upstairs, watching movies. All I could think about was bedtime. Being alone in my room, with the dream coming. I planned to stay awake all night. It was already dark out, but not late, maybe an hour past dinner.
NL: Working. The new housekeeper was in her room. I thought Carol was downstairs watching Real Housewives.
GL: How did you feel about Carol?
NL: About her? I felt nothing, really. She was my dad’s third wife after Mom died. I was numb to the process by then. Carol was just a lady living in my house.
GL: I see. Please continue.
NL: For some reason, I decided to take a bath. [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD] So, so stupid. Of course I passed out. That’s what baths do to you.
GL: Do you remember falling asleep?
NL: [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD] I closed my eyes a few times, but thought I stayed awake. I had music blaring and all the lights on. Obviously I didn’t, because suddenly I was looking up and . . . and . . . he was there. In the bathroom. Standing over the tub, with no place for me to run.
GL: You knew by then that the man wasn’t real. How did you react?
NL: I squeezed my eyes shut. Told myself I was dreaming. But when I opened them again, he was still there. I remember his sunglasses fogging in the steam. The damn black suit. Nothing different about him, not a single detail.
GL: What did you do next?
NL: Nothing. I . . . I just sat there. I didn’t move. Or scream, or run, or fight back. [SUBJECT PAUSES] I knew he was there to kill me, but I just waited for it. I made it easy for him.
GL: It’s okay, Noah. Remember, the experience wasn’t real.
NL: It felt real, okay!?
NL: [SUBJECT LAUGHS HARSHLY] Not much else to tell. Something dropped from his sleeve into his hand. A black metal rod. He stuck one end in the water and pressed a button. Who knows how many volts I dreamed up? Enough to kill me fast! I guess I should thank myself for that.
GL: Anything else?
NL: I might’ve yelled for Carol at the last minute. Didn’t matter, though. Only difference this time was, everything went white instead of black. Something new for your notes.
GL: Does it bother you that I record details? I hope you know by now what I seek to accomplish by reviewing these dreams now that you’ve reached adolescence.
NL: [SUBJECT WAVES A HAND] I woke up in the cave. I was dry, with clean clothes on, so add sleep-getting-dressed to my subconscious skill set. But this time my father caught me sneaking in from the yard. Carol was crying, but she went upstairs when he started yelling. That was the first time I realized he knew I was crazy.
GL: I’ve never shared our conversations with him, Noah. Please believe me when I say that. I’m bound by ethics to never discuss what we talk about, not even with your father. When we first began treatment, I gave him a broad diagnosis and told him you and I needed to meet regularly in order to work on the underlying issues. He was made aware of your sleepwalking, but that was a safety concern I couldn’t withhold from your legal guardian. But I haven’t shared any details of your dreams. Not the murders. Not Black Suit. Not any of it.
NL: Well, he knew enough. Dad ripped into me. Called me a coward. A “mental defective.”
GL: That’s terrible. Those words must’ve been very painful to hear.
NL: He said I wasn’t a “Livingston man,” whatever the hell that is. Drunk a-hole seems closest.
GL: I’m sorry he said those things. Did you respond?
NL: I ran up to my room and locked the door. Downed my pill. Then I called you. I remember you answered on the first ring. I was so grateful.
GL: I’m glad you made that call. Truly.
NL: Happy birthday, right? Twelve years old, and a lunatic.
The doors were locked.
Security system activated. I sat behind my father’s desk, staring at a computer monitor.
I didn’t want to think about earthquakes, tsunamis, Portland, or any of that awful stuff. Instead I was watching video feeds from fourteen different cameras positioned in and around my house. A loaded Beretta M9 pistol was resting on my lap.
I couldn’t remember how long I’d been sitting there. Hours, at least. The sun had gone down, and all the lights in the house were off. I wanted it to look like no one was home. Only the greenish glow of the screen betrayed my presence.
My mind cringed every time I thought it, but the truth was inescapable.
I saw him. In broad daylight, on a Wednesday, in the middle of freaking town.
How can that be? If the murders aren’t dreams, how am I still alive?
I laughed out loud. Found I couldn’t stop. A part of me knew I was barely holding on—one small slip from really losing it—but I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t process Black Suit as a living, breathing person.
Was he coming for me again? He’d said it was the last time.
I shivered, realizing that conversation had actually taken place, out in my driveway three nights before. I didn’t remember falling asleep because I hadn’t. Not then, or any time before.
A stranger has been killing me over and over and over. How? Why?
A dog barked and I shot to my feet, the Beretta tumbling to the floor. I grabbed it and set it on the desk. The gun was my father’s, one of many he kept in a case. He thought I didn’t know the combination, but of course I did.
With a moan, I dropped into the soft leather desk chair. Thought about popping a dozen blue pills, then angrily dismissed the idea.
The pills came from Lowell. Lowell was a goddamn liar.
I wasn’t crazy. I was being played.
But wasn’t that even worse? At least crazy made sense.
“Stop,” I said aloud in the dark, empty office. I liked the feeling of control it gave me, so I kept it up. “Don’t panic. Think.”
The truth was overwhelming. A man who regularly slaughtered me just had a secret meeting with my principal, my psychiatrist, and the head of law enforcement in my county.
I wiped a hand across my face.
Was I really sure?
The whole thing was impossible. The assassin of my nightmares was a living, breathing person, and spent his time in a secret conspiracy with a bunch of local nobodies? Oh yeah, side note—apparently I couldn’t die. Come on.
Did I imagine the whole thing? A new level of regression?
My eyes shot to my cell phone, charging by the door. I was seeing things that weren’t possible. Dr. Lowell would have answers. He’d know what was wrong and tell me what to do. Maybe he had another pill I needed.
Lowell could make it all go away.
I walked over and unplugged it. Pulled up Lowell’s number.
I was having a breakdown. He would fix me. I didn’t have to deal with this alone.
The AC kicked on, and chilled air ruffled my sweaty hair. Traces of diesel smoke tickled my nose.
I dropped the phone as if snakebitten.
No. I’d been there. I’d seen it. This wasn’t a hallucination, or dream, or whatever other BS story Lowell wanted me to believe.
Min’s face popped into my head. She’d wanted to tell me something.
I felt a jolt of adrenaline.
Did she know about Black Suit?
Something zipped by the window. Heart in my throat, I crept over and peered outside.
My next-door neighbor was running up the street in a bathrobe.
I blinked. A Labradoodle puppy wandered onto my driveway, marking the ground every couple of feet. The woman overtook her dog, snatching, scolding, and hugging the animal all at the same time. As she turned for home, I could tell she’d been crying.
I turned on the TV, was instantly bombarded with heartbreaking images. People had talked about the Big One for years, but it was always California. The news was making clear that the Northwest had taken the knockout punch instead.
Flipping around, other news was just as bad. A twin tsunami caused by the quake had pummeled eastern Japan, leaving half of Hokkaido underwater. In Manitoba, stampeding cattle had trampled a mining town, charging north at full speed until the herd collapsed from exhaustion. Even the experts were stumped.
Eventually, I couldn’t take it. The walls began closing in, a familiar claustrophobia tightening its grip around my neck. I had to get out of there. Needed to be somewhere I felt safe.
I switched the alarm to “away” and snuck out the back door.
Ever since I was little, I would hide there.
As the moon rose in a cloudless sky, I was high in the branches of a cedar. Only five minutes from my home, but it felt like a thousand miles.
My fort originated as a hunting platform. The ladder had rotted away, but the tree limbs were close enough to climb up by, if you knew the route. The hide was thirty feet off the ground, with room for three. Moss-covered sides made it virtually invisible.
Somewhere no one could find me. The only place I ever truly relaxed.
Gazing out over the valley, I chuckled softly.
Sixteen years old, and hiding in a tree house.
I thought back on what I’d witnessed in the alley, and a shudder ran through me. I didn’t fight the sensation. It felt appropriate, so I let it have its moment.
Was he a killer? I shifted, uncomfortable with the thought.
I was alive, obviously. Whatever was happening to me, I kept recovering from it. I refused to travel down the road of thinking I was actually dead. I’d believed myself crazy for too long to go there.
I straightened, remembering the guy in the uniform. A general? Why was he there? At first he’d seemed in charge, but only until Black Suit showed up. So was this a military thing, or something else?
Engine sounds. Down on Shore Point Road, headlights appeared in a line.
I peeked over the sill as heavy trucks rumbled around the lake. Soldiers hung from the bumpers, weapons glinting in the moonlight.
“What in the . . .” A group of vans passed with black starburst symbols on their sides. Then eight mammoth big rigs. I couldn’t imagine how they’d gotten over the Plank.
There’d been talk of trucks cutting through town on Announcement night, but I hadn’t seen them. Rumors said they drove onto the government land at the eastern end of the valley. As I watched, these vehicles disappeared into those same woods.
I sat back, perplexed. Troops and trucks were piling up, hiding in the one spot nobody ever went. Something was going on.
Suddenly, I felt very alone. I was up a damn tree, a thousand yards from anyone, all by myself. No one knew I was there. No one was waiting for me to return.
I slipped from the fort and climbed to the ground. Crouched, listening, one hand straying toward my pocket. A twig snapped, and my nerve broke. I ran as fast as I could, certain I’d feel a hand on my shoulder at any moment.
I unlocked my front door and leapt inside. Then nearly wet myself when the security system demanded a code. With trembling fingers I input the numbers, then slammed and locked the door, reactivating the alarm.
I was alone in the house. Dad was still in Europe—I’d gotten a text that afternoon griping about foreign food and canceled flights.
Black Suit could be hunting me at that very moment.
I stumbled to the living room and slumped down on the couch. Pulled the Beretta from my jeans. Holding it with both hands, I watched the door, preparing for a sleepless night.
File: INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: NOAH C. LIVINGSTON (“NL”)
Date: JUNE 8, 2017
Specialist: DR. GERALD LOWELL (“GL”)
Subject: TEST PATIENT B, BETA RUN, SESSION 15-F2
GL: Today I’d like to talk about your fourteenth birthday, if that’s okay with you.
NL: [SUBJECT SHRUGS]
GL: It’s been almost two years since that day. You told me what happened when I found you in the woods, but please remember what we’re trying to accomplish when we discuss your dreams. Details are important. Consider it a mental housecleaning.
NL: I’m not feeling any better.
GL: Excuse me?
NL: About the dreams. We’ve gone over nearly all of them, and they bother me just as much. I’m still nervous all the time. I still don’t feel safe. If you thought I’d be cured by rehashing them, you were wrong.
GL: These things take time, Noah. If you lance a boil, the wound itself still must heal. I think you’ll find that this process achieves great results over time. Now, may we get started?
NL: [SUBJECT SHRUGS]
GL: This one was different from the others, was it not?
NL: No. That’s the problem.
GL: But, more so than on your other birthdays, that day you actively tried to resist.
NL: [SUBJECT SIGHS] I woke up at dawn and took my father’s fishing skiff out onto the lake. It’s just a rowboat, really, nothing special. I thought, if I can get out in the middle of the water, and stay there all day, I’d be alone. Nothing could distract me. I’d stay awake. I hate boats, so how would I fall asleep on one?
GL: And you took further measures, correct?
NL: Yes. I traded Toby for some of his ADHD medication, the kind that’s supposed to keep you awake. I also had a four-pack of Red Bull, and enough food for a week.
GL: Taking medication that isn’t prescribed to you is dangerous, Noah. I understand why you did it, but I feel obligated to bring that up. Further, mixing a controlled substance with even something as common as caffeine can have unexpected side effects.
NL: I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to sleep for twenty-four hours, period. I’d stay out in the boat all day, then go to this bowling-alley birthday thing my friends we throwing that night. If I didn’t nod off, I couldn’t dream. And you can’t sleepwalk across a frigging lake. Then I’d surround myself with people at the party. I’d beat my condition for once. Then . . . maybe . . . maybe it’d be over.
GL: [PAUSE] But it didn’t work.
NL: [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD]
GL: I know this is hard to hear, Noah, but your condition can’t be cured by external measures like drugging yourself to stay awake. There’s a switch inside your brain that is tuned to your even-year birthdays. You will sleep no matter how hard you fight it. Our job is to disable that switch by finding out what created it in the first place.
NL: You give me drugs. Why are they supposed to work?
GL: Your prescription is highly targeted to the complex chemistry of brain function. It aims to ease a path to an internal fix, not overpower the disorder, as you attempted to do with stimulants. But we’re getting off track. Tell me what happened.
NL: There was no clear break. I was out there for hours. I put on sunscreen twice. Fished some. It was incredibly boring. Still, right up to the moment I heard the engine, I felt totally alert. [PAUSE] But it must’ve happened. Because suddenly there’s another boat headed right for me.
GL: Did you recognize the vessel?
NL: [SUBJECT SNORTS] It was my dad’s speedboat. I’m not allowed to touch it. Suddenly, I’m stuck in a rowboat in the center of the lake, and I realize how idiotic I’ve been. I can’t escape a speedboat with two paddles, and—
GL: It’s a dream, Noah. Don’t beat yourself up. You can’t outrun your brain in any sort of contraption.
NL: [SUBJECT NODS] You’re . . . you’re right. It’s just, it was such a bad idea. You can barely see land from the middle of Fire Lake, much less hear anything. I’d made it so easy for him.
GL: Please continue.
NL: It was laughable. Black Suit cruised up right next to the skiff. He only looked at me once—like, just to verify he was killing the right person—then he tossed something into my boat.
NL: Boom. I barely had time to think before a wave of heat tossed me from the boat. I hit the water. Tried to swim, but my legs weren’t working. I looked down, and the left one . . . my left leg wasn’t—
GL: Move on from that, Noah.
NL: It wasn’t there! I . . . sank. The light fell farther and farther away . . . only I knew the light wasn’t moving . . . I was the one . . . dropping into the cold . . . I stopped fighting . . .
GL: Let’s stop for a moment.
NL: [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD] No! Why?
GL: I don’t want to upset—
NL: [SUBJECT LAUGHS] Don’t want to upset me, Doctor? We’re talking about the day I was blown up and drowned. This was never going to be fun.
GL: You’re distressed. We can pick this up another time.
NL: No. [PAUSE] Please. I’m sorry. I just want to finish. This is the last one.
GL: Very well. Tell me what you remember about waking up.
NL: It was just after sunset. I rolled over and cried. For a full hour. In a way, the cave has become a comforting place for me. Strange, isn’t it? But I’ve never been hurt in there. And it’s always over. I don’t have to worry. [PAUSE] How could I have slept? I was in a boat, out on the water. How could I have rowed all the way back to shore while unconscious? It doesn’t make any—
GL: Let’s finish the details, please.
NL: You know them. You were there. Next thing I knew, you were kneeling beside me on the cavern floor. Telling me I was okay.
GL: I was worried about you. It was your birthday, but I couldn’t get in touch. I went to your house first, but your father wasn’t home.
NL: Of course not.
GL: I found your iPad. I know I shouldn’t have, but I decided to use it to track your iPhone, just to be sure you weren’t thinking of harming yourself. The program led me to the pond, and the cave where I found you.
NL: [SUBJECT NODS] Do I need to go over the rest? You took me home. I never said a thing. I even went to the stupid party, chilling with my friends while this silly girl drama played out, like some normal-Noah robot. That night was the first time I ever got drunk. Carol put me to bed and promised not to tell my father. I don’t think she ever did.
GL: Was there anything else?
NL: I . . . Yes. I never told you the last part.
GL: Please do, Noah. We can’t know what might be crucially important until we discuss it.
NL: [PAUSE] I woke up later that night and got sick. Then I snuck out, down to our boathouse. The skiff was there, just like always. I . . . I cried again. For a while.
GL: That must’ve been difficult. I know how certain you were that you hadn’t slept. You stated it repeatedly on our drive to your house. Proof of the opposite couldn’t have felt good.
NL: [SUBJECT NODS] I went back to my room and took my pill. Emptied my pockets. Found everything just like I’d carried it onto the boat, even Toby’s pills. Then . . . then I . . .
GL: [PAUSE] Then you what?
NL: [SUBJECT FAILS TO RESPOND]
GL: Noah? Is something wrong?
NL: [SUBJECT FAILS TO RESPOND]
GL: Noah, what is it?
NL: [PAUSE] It’s . . . nothing, I guess. I just remembered something.
NL: Right before I went to bed, I . . . I tried to check my phone. You said you’d called and left messages. But . . . it was completely dead. I remember now that the battery died sometime around noon, out on the boat.
GL: The messages were there. You told me you listened to them the next morning.
NL: Yeah. [PAUSE] Yeah, I did. But . . .
GL: Please, Noah. Tell me.
NL: How did you know where to find me again? In the cave, I mean. You can’t track a dead cell phone that way.
NL: [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD] But . . . No . . . I . . . I remember being mad about forgetting to charge it. It was the only mistake I made in preparing, and it was a pain in the ass not having a working phone at the party. I’m almost sure—
GL: I’m so sorry, Noah, but we’re going to have to stop now. I just remembered I have another appointment. We’ll pick this back up another time.
I awoke in a cold sweat.
Sprang up from the couch. Despite everything, I’d zonked out. First time in days.
Nightmares. Real ones this time.
Black Suit, creeping up the stairs, and me with nowhere to run. Black Suit, stalking me through the halls of Fire Lake High, whistling tunelessly as I scrambled for a hiding place. He was everywhere. Inescapable. Implacable.
I hurried to my father’s office. Checked the security feeds. Nothing. All clear. I collapsed into an oversized reading chair. Blowing out a ragged breath, I tried to think rationally. Black Suit was alive, but that didn’t mean our pattern was suddenly meaningless. There was no reason to think he’d show up for a special “bonus” slaying tonight.
Then another thought struck me, and I sat up straight.
Black Suit was a real person. Which meant he had to eat, and sleep. Which meant, logically, he had to be staying somewhere. In the valley, almost certainly—it was thirty miles to the closest town with guest rooms.
I can probably find him.
My father owned the largest resort in Fire Lake, and could access the integrated booking system used by every bed-and-breakfast and hotel in town. Normally that wouldn’t help much—most places stayed at least half full, even in fall—but this year the Anvil had kept nearly everyone at home. Active reservations were scarce.
I logged in as my father. His password was a joke: EQUITY. The name of his first boat. Though forced to use them, Hunter Livingston disdained computers and the silly “online webs,” mainly because he was hopeless with technology. Despising things he didn’t understand was one of his favorite pastimes.
Inside the system, I found what I’d expected: blank ledgers across the grid. There were less than a dozen reservations, and half had been canceled. The rest were easily dismissible to someone familiar with our town. I didn’t know much about Black Suit, but you couldn’t keep a low profile at Waterfront Court, especially when no one else was staying there.
Disappointed, I tapped a few more keys. Nearly gasped.
There was a single booking at Powder Ridge Ski Lodge.
My father’s resort.
“What is this . . .” I pulled the listing. A one-bedroom suite was blocked out by special code. Indefinitely. Even more strangely, the reservation was in the boutique chalet at the top of the slopes rather than the main lodge at the base of the mountain.
My fingers drummed the desktop. Rooms up there weren’t usually available out of season. Known as Chimney Rock, the facility was summerized from June until the first good snow, usually sometime in mid-October.
I sat back. Why would anyone be up there now? It was well out of the way, and there were cheaper places by the lake. Plus, the mountaintop village was closed. Literally everything you’d need was ten minutes downslope.
My shoulders tensed. The more I considered logistics, the less sense it made. There was no good reason for anyone to stay there this time of year. Unless you’re trying to go unnoticed.
My hands began to tremble. This was it. I’d found him.
New questions dog-piled. Who made this reservation? It didn’t follow the proper format. Which meant my dad had probably keyed it in personally, something he rarely did.
I went cold.
Had my father booked a room for my killer?
My breathing quickened. It all felt too big for me. Like I was juggling thirty knives at once. What did I know about conspiracies? I was the dope who’d listened to Dr. Lowell for years!
Min didn’t. She figured that bastard out.
I had a sudden impulse to find her. Min said she had information that something big was going down. Maybe we could figure it out together.
You mean she could figure it out for you.
The self-reproach was like a slap. I didn’t know anything yet. Had nothing but a hotel reservation. What would I actually tell Min? That I maybe sorta kinda thought a bad guy was staying on the mountaintop? That I needed her to check on it for me?
I stood abruptly, terrified by my snap decision. But the idea firmed in my mind.
Black Suit always came for me. Found me. Killed me.
He was always the hunter.
But this time the story would be different. Screw the consequences.
I was coming for him.
• • •
I took the Tahoe. It’s black with tinted windows, and runs quiet. The drive is longer heading counterclockwise around the lake, but I didn’t want to be seen. Even that early—the dashboard said 6:58 a.m.—people might be up and about in town.
Plus, there was a loaded Beretta M9 resting on the passenger seat.
I’d waited two hours before leaving, anxiously pacing the house, timing my drive up the mountain so that the sun would crest as I reached its apex. I wanted to catch Black Suit unaware. See him in the flesh a second time. But perhaps even more than that, I wanted to catch him doing something basic. Something human. Watching my nightmare assassin engage in as simple an activity as combing his hair, or eating a breakfast burrito, might help chase away the terror still lurking in my brain.
I reached the eastern end of the lake and turned north. My eyes strayed to the woods on my right. I thought of the trucks I’d spotted from my tree house, one more unfathomable development in a week full of them. But I put that mystery from my mind. I was heading to my father’s ski resort to intercept a serial killer, and I still didn’t have a plan.
The gates were closed, but I knew the code. I pulled into a parking lot facing the main pavilion. All quiet. No lights or other vehicles. The place could not have looked more shut down.
I turned onto a narrow strip of blacktop winding up the mountain and killed the headlights, familiar enough with the road that I could drive it blind. The sky was morphing from charcoal to ash as I reached the summit. I pulled around behind the shopping village and parked out of sight. Turned off the engine. Then my movements grew stilted as I ran out of things to do inside the car. This is where my genius ends.
A glance at the gun. My stomach did a cartwheel.
Why’d I bring it? Sitting there in the parking lot, I became uneasy with my intentions. Back at home I’d had some troubling thoughts. Whispers of a dark idea. But up here in the rapidly growing light, it all seemed crazy.
I shouldn’t be here.
I almost left. Turned the key, punched the gas, and fired downhill with my tail between my legs. Instead I shoved the gun into the glove box, opened the door, and stepped out. A footpath led to a small plaza in the center of the complex. I scurried forward in a crouch, feeling both foolish and exposed at the same time. The stores were all empty, with jaunty door signs saying things like, “Closed until . . . SNOW!”
Something caught my eye—a shiny object between two wooden benches. I crept over, discovered a small satellite dish on a mobile pedestal. As I watched, it swiveled sharply, making me jump.
I whirled to see if anyone was around. I knew for a fact this wasn’t resort equipment—cable and Internet uplinks ran through a cell tower on the back side of the mountain. Whoever was up here had impressive hardware for company.
Light struck my eyes and I flinched, but it was just the sun topping the mountains. The world brightened. I shrank back, then hurried toward the slopes. As I emerged from the shops, the valley spread out below me. The view was breathtaking, even with the slopes naked and dry. A part of my mind whispered what a great surveillance point it made. Another voice gloomily noted how well you could see the front gate. Had I turned off my headlights before pulling in?
Stop wasting time. If you’re going to spy, do it. Then get out of here.
The chalet was to the right of the village, set slightly back in a stand of the pine trees. I crept toward it as ski-lift chairs rattled in the breeze, haunting and lonely.
At the far end of the complex, I peered across a stretch of grass separating the buildings. The suite in question was on the slope-facing side. No cover if someone happened to be looking.
My hands began to sweat. I wiped them on my pants. Ran a palm across my face.
I can’t do this. What a stupid idea.
An engine coughed to life. I pressed close to the wall, ready to bolt as soon as I figured out which direction to run. Squeaking tires, slowly fading. Someone had just left the Chimney Rock parking lot.
Go look. Find out if it’s him. Then get the hell gone.
I sprinted across the grass. Ducked into a thicket, gulping air, exhilarated and terrified at once. This was so unlike me. I never risked anything. But today I was risking everything.
The suite was directly before me. A ski-out accommodation, it had a ground-floor patio accessed by a sliding glass door. For five solid minutes I watched it as the sun rose behind me. No sound. No movement. But I couldn’t see inside.
Finally, I rose and bolted onto the patio, flattening myself against the wall and praying like hell no one was inside. When nothing happened, I reached out and pushed the door’s handle. It slid open soundlessly.
Blood pounding in my ears, I took a peek. Let out a breath. Empty.
The room was tidy, but lived in. The bed had been hastily made. A towel hung on the bathroom door. Someone was staying there, but nothing indicated who it was.
I walked to the closet and opened it.
Three black suits hung in a row.
Swaying slightly, I looked down. Shiny boots lined the floor.
I was right. It’s him. It’s him, and I’m standing in his freaking hotel room.
I don’t know what I’d been thinking, coming here. I couldn’t do a damn thing about anything, but I could definitely get myself killed. As I spun for the door, I spotted a black iPad sitting on the nightstand.
Almost against my will, I crossed the room and picked it up. Pressed the home key. It sprang to life instantly, a program already running, tight lines of text scrolling down one side of the screen. I scanned the feed, eyes narrowing. The information consisted of real-time updates from around the globe.
As I watched, a seismic reading from Manila appeared, followed immediately by a series of tweets about volcanic activity in New Zealand. Next came a classified NSA report detailing fatalities from a CO2 outgassing in Petaluma, California. On and on it went, a detailed summary of recent disasters and ominous reports.
In the center was a world map with arrows and links, cross-referencing events in the timeline. A digital clock occupied the bottom of the screen, counting down: “6 days, 15 hours, 54 minutes, and 12 seconds.” A new report popped up: details of a whirlpool in the South China Sea. The clock changed in a blink, reducing the remaining time by eight hours.
“What the hell?”
I tapped the timer, but nothing happened. So I pressed the home button, closing the program. The screen beneath was blank except for an icon named “Project Nemesis.” I tapped it, and a familiar landscape appeared. It took me a moment to grasp what I was seeing.
“The valley,” I whispered.
An option at the bottom of the map was labeled “Beta Subjects.” I pressed. Four glowing dots appeared onscreen. Two red. Two blue.
One of the blue dots was high in the northern slopes.
Directly over Chimney Rock Lodge.
It’s me. I’m the blue dot.
He can track me.
The other blue dot was to the west, behind Miner’s Peak.
“Min,” I whispered.
Growing frantic, I checked the two red dots. They were right next to each other, somewhere in town. I was trying to figure out exactly where when I heard a door open inside the building.
I bolted onto the patio and across the grass. Was halfway to my car before realizing I hadn’t shut the door behind me. I reached the Tahoe, slammed the starter button, and peeled out, roaring down the access road at breakneck speed.
“Let this be a dream,” I mumbled. “Let this be a dream. Please, please, I don’t want this. Let this be a dream.”
I didn’t stop driving for anything.
I woke to the smell of frying bacon.
Mom had put away the photo albums and washed her scotch glass. The shades were up, and warm sunlight filled the trailer.
Last night, she’d basically kept me prisoner. We’d sat and watched the news. Beyond the earthquake horror to the west, there’d been a story about a mass beaching in Thailand—hundreds of whales, swimming into the shallows and getting caught on sandbars.
I’d risen to wander outside, but Mom had forbidden it, perched in her rocking chair with red eyes. She rarely drank, and never more than one. But she’d refilled her glass several times as the TV looped footage of the devastation by the Pacific, paging through old pictures and mumbling about God’s judgment.
The whole time I’d watched her from the corner of my eye, thinking three words.
Breakfast was tense. Mom wouldn’t meet my eye, seemed ashamed of her behavior. She barely responded to my feeble attempts at conversation.
Which made me mad. Because I had many questions, and desperately needed answers.
Numbers ran through my head. 091817. Monday’s date.
If I was right, Virginia Grace Wilder had reported on me three days ago.
The day of the Announcement.
She still hadn’t asked about my birthday. Where I’d been overnight.
For two days I’d carried the riddle of Project Nemesis inside me. I’d nearly demanded a reckoning a half-dozen times, but the signature in that Nemesis file always stopped me cold.
But I will get answers. And soon.
When I looked up, she was watching me, absently stirring her eggs, pushing things around on her plate rather than eating. I felt like she wanted to say something but couldn’t bring herself to do it. I put down my glass.
Her hand froze.
“If something was going on . . . you’d tell me, right?”
For an instant she remained absolutely still, eyes unreadable. Then she looked away, busying her fingers once more. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Mom rose and reached for her coat. “I have to go now. I’m late for work.”
She wasn’t. But before I could speak, there was a knock at the door. Our heads swiveled in unison.
“Yes?” Mom called out in a strained voice. The door opened and Tack stepped inside. We both relaxed, though Tack’s usual smirk was absent. His jaw was as tight as when we’d fled Dr. Lowell’s office two nights before.
I flashed back to that night—sitting on Lowell’s floor, Nemesis folders piled all around me. The slamming doors had been our only warning. Tack had leapt to the window, then lurched away. Two gray jeeps, stamped with the black starburst symbol.
Military vehicles. In Lowell’s parking lot. There was no mistaking why.
Luckily, I knew the place better than the men outside. We’d raced into the lobby and down a short corridor to a service door in the rear, firing into the bushes before our pursuers thought to circle. There we’d hidden like terrified rabbits as four soldiers charged inside, then hurried back out, shining flashlights into the trees as a pock-faced officer barked orders. It’d been ten minutes before we could sneak away.
Soldiers protecting Lowell’s office. Soldiers!
Then yesterday had been a disaster. I’d rushed to school looking for Noah, but he’d been useless, meekly standing aside when Ethan and those jerks showed up.
I don’t know why I thought he’d be useful.
Tack and I had met again after school, but with no idea what to do next. Then I’d made the mistake of checking in, and Mom had locked me down for the night.
“Morning, Tack.” Mom seemed to welcome the distraction. “You want some breakfast before school?”
“No, thanks. I was just wondering if you’d heard.”
“Heard what?” No chance it was good.
“Sweet Lord in heaven,” Mom whispered, covering her mouth.
I gaped at the screen, too stunned for words. An asteroid had struck India, and the devastation was . . . catastrophic. CNN was showing images from the International Space Station.
“Happened thirty minutes ago,” Tack said quietly, squeezing his forehead. “Hundreds of thousands might be dead.”
“Where is that?” I demanded, trying to grasp the magnitude of the disaster.
“Calcutta.” Tack cleared his throat. “A bad spot. Lots of people there. They’re saying this one was way smaller than the Anvil—the size of a motorcycle—but traveling faster. No one saw it coming. It hit like a nuclear bomb.”
“Turn it off,” my mother said.
I turned to face her, still numb. “What?”
“I said, turn it off.” Her head was in her hands. “I don’t want to see any more.”
I was about to argue—how could she turn a blind eye? First Portland, now this—but Tack switched the TV off. I gave him a look and he shrugged.
The door slammed. I jumped. My mother had gone outside. I guess she didn’t want me to see her upset. With her gone, Tack switched the news back on, which was now showing close-ups of the damage. Most of Calcutta was burning. Tears filled my eyes as I watched the horror taking place half a world away. Then Tack seized my shoulder, his face draining of color. “Min, look!”
He rewound, then paused, freezing an image of destruction onscreen. I noticed two vans that were parked near the edge of the impact crater. Men in gray uniforms appeared to be taking samples of some kind. Black starbursts were stamped on both vehicles.
I gawked like the witness of a traffic accident. “That symbol! Just like the convoy!”
Tack nodded, anxiously licking his lips. “I spent two days trying to ID that. Didn’t find a thing, which makes no sense. Unit designations are supposed to be recognizable. That’s how they function.”
I grabbed the sides of my head.
Troops in Fire Lake. Vans in Calcutta. Project Nemesis. Me. Noah.
Whatever this conspiracy was, it spanned the globe. Maybe it was even related to the disasters.
“Nemesis,” I hissed.
Tack looked at me sharply. “We don’t know for sure that these troops are tied to the project.” He frowned. “Though why else would they show up at Lowell’s office?”
I was barely listening. I knew it all connected. The scale of things was beginning to terrify me. “Myers said the project was almost complete.”
“So did that memo we found in Lowell’s spymaster boxes.”
“Time is running out.”
“So what do we do?” Tack asked in a small voice.
That question had been vexing me from the moment we’d fled Lowell’s office.
Pieces on the board were moving. In a shadow war, you need intel to survive.
I thought of Mom, standing outside our trailer at that very moment. She knew something, I was sure of it. I could walk out and confront her. Fling everything we’d uncovered in her face, and demand the truth.
With a suffocating feeling, I realized I didn’t trust her. Didn’t know which meant more to her, Project Nemesis or me.
She’d informed on me three days ago. Where did her loyalties lie?
If I asked questions, what would she do? File another report? Turn me over to them?
That I didn’t know nearly broke me. I damn sure wasn’t ready to find out.
It’ll have to be another way.
I shook off the bleak thoughts. Locked them away for another time.
“We take the fight to them,” I said finally. “Let’s find out what our enemies know.”
• • •
“Come on!” I hissed. We hurried around the corner to Principal Myers’s office.
“This is insane,” Tack whined. He was right, but I didn’t care. Myers was part of Project Nemesis, same as Lowell. Maybe he had files, too.
Our diversion was simple, executed during Mrs. Ferguson’s break. An anonymous call reported truants by the equipment shed. Worse, they were smoking. Myers hated that, had gotten so mad, he’d hobbled out there himself. Round-trip should take him at least ten minutes.
Get in, get a look, and get out. Hopefully no commandos would show up this time.
Tack frowned at the file cabinets behind Myers’s desk. “That’s a lot of paperwork.”
“Then get moving.”
The first two were a bust—personnel records and student discipline. On another day those might’ve been interesting, but we weren’t there to play. I wanted Nemesis docs, and would have bet my life Myers had some close at hand.
Tack finished rifling the desk. “Nothing here. And I doubt he’d put anything sensitive on a school-issue computer.”
I finished the second cabinet, with the same result. “Shoot.”
I spun, scanning the room. There was nothing else to search.
“Maybe the conference room?” Tack suggested. “That’s where he took the call, right?”
“No, wait!” I slunk outside. Across the hall was a locked file closet.
“Did you see any keys?”
Tack ducked back into the office, emerging moments later with a heavy set. “Sorry—there are like thirty of them.”
I grabbed them and began trying until one finally turned. Inside, the room was long and narrow, with shelves along both sides. It’d take a week to search everything. “Look for something secure,” Tack whispered. “He wouldn’t store secret files where another administrator might see them.”
“Yes, good!” Most of the boxes were old and dusty, but there was a cleaner section in back with a small safe. “Of course.” I smacked the handle in frustration. Was surprised when the door swung open.
But my hopes were quickly dashed. The safe was empty.
“We’re too late. Myers must’ve cleared out his files. He said things would be happening soon. Let’s go before we get caught.”
Tack held up one finger, then aimed it over my shoulder. “Those look familiar to you?”
Two plastic storage boxes were tucked into the corner.
“Tack, you’re the smartest man alive!” I squeezed his arm, watched his pride swell. In seconds we had both down on the floor with their lids off.
Watch check. Myers could return at any second.
Inside were folders like the ones in Lowell’s office, though in better condition. I flipped through them quickly, deflating once again. “It’s the same stuff. Lowell must’ve made a copy set for Myers.”
It was something—the boxes tied Myers to Lowell and Project Nemesis—but I already knew that much. I’d been hoping for another piece of the puzzle.
Then I found it.
At the back of the second box was a slim yellow folder. I flipped it open. Nearly wet my pants. “Tack, look!”
I handed him a routine cover letter from Lowell to Myers, but with one qualifier. Tack read that part aloud. “The two beta patients under my jurisdiction—Melinda Wilder and Noah Livingston—are not included in this set. Their information has been sent directly to Control.”
Tack shook himself. “Holy crap, Min.”
I nodded. Noticed a blue folder in the other box.
Kneeling, I pulled it and looked inside. At first, it made no sense. “A bus schedule? Why would Project Nemesis be interested in . . .” I trailed off, considering the information. “Tack, what do you make of this?”
Tack had drifted toward the door and was listening. He hurried back. “Weird.” He scratched his nose, eyes narrowing. “Seems to be what it says—a bus schedule. But why only sophomores?”
“Same as the background files. And it’s not just that—there’s too much info here. Names and addresses, sure. But why physical descriptions? And it’s timed to the second.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m not sure.” I chewed my lip, trying to make sense of the document. Then it came to me. “Tack, this is a collection schedule. And look who authorized it!”
I pointed to a name scrawled at the bottom.
Sheriff Michael T. Watson.
Tack put a hand over his face. “Ah man, not the cops too! I can’t take any more of this!”
I blinked. Almost couldn’t believe it. Pieces were sliding together, but I still couldn’t see the picture being formed.
Noah again. We have to talk, whether he wants to or not.
A bang carried from the lobby. Footsteps down the hall. Tack and I cringed like hunted animals as Myers’s voice boomed through the door. “Buncha nonsense, Delia. Might be I got pranked. I’ll be in my office.”
I felt sick. If Myers noticed his keys were missing, we were dog meat. As quiet as humanly possible, Tack and I put the boxes back together and placed them on their shelf. Then we stared at each other, without the slightest idea what to do.
“Delia? Mrs. Ferguson?” Myers’s chair squeaked, mutters flying as he trudged down the hall. I frantically waved Tack forward. Now was our chance.
Hearts in our throats, we crept out. Myers had his back to us, near the swinging door beside the counter. “How do you hook an incoming message?” he grumbled to himself, fighting with the machine.
I closed the door behind us, locked it, then tossed the keys under Myers’s desk. Best I could do. Then I shoved Tack into the conference room.
“That way!” I pointed to the other door, accessing the outside corridor.
“Delia? You back there?”
We burst into the hallway, slammed the door, and fled in panic. Myers had to have heard, but I didn’t care. I was out from under his grasp.
I intended to stay that way, whatever it took.