I can’t even breathe.
I feel my body hit the hallway wall and begin to slide down, the world tilting as I pivot to the left. Then the tipping point comes and I’m laying on my side with hotel carpet geometry trying to climb up out of the floor and into my face. I’m going to die here. That’s not the daemon whispering, it’s the cold fact.
In the hotel room, the girl is standing over Vakha’s corpse, cutting into the back of his neck with her razor sharp fingernails. No. That’s not right. My eyes focus on the bloody surgery and I can just see that a blade has slipped out from beneath the nail of her right index finger and she’s using it to deftly flense the skin from Vakha’s skull and neck, exposing the implant above his left ear and a second cluster of wires wrapped around his vertebra.
I catch a breath and haul it deep into my lungs. My mind flicks rapidly between staccato prayers and profanity.
There’s a pill in the left inside pocket of my coat. If I can just reach it and swallow it, all of this will have to start making sense. I keep that pill there, a temptation held within reach so I can prove to myself that I do not need it to get through the day. A reminder of who I was before and everything that I lost.
But I need it today.
But will she kill me if I reach for it? I still don’t know how she killed Vakha.
“Get up Talbot,” she says, not looking away from her work.
How does she know my name?
“I need you to be on your feet and helping me,” she says. Her voice is high and sweet, like you would expect from such a young child, but something in the cadence of her words carries the force of experience.
Maybe she isn’t going to kill me. But who is she? And why did she kill Vakha?”
“Get off your ass and call the elevator. You need to get out of the hotel before anyone notices this bastard’s blood on the walls.”
I manage to push myself up on one elbow. I still can’t get enough air, but at least my bowels have stopped churning like they’re about to let loose in my pants. I reach for the pill in my coat, but my fingers fumble against my chest, seemingly unable to find the opening of my jacket.
“I said, get up,” she mutters, punctuating her words with disturbingly adorable grunts of effort as she reaches into Vakha’s flayed neck with both hands, cracks the vertebra with a distinctive pop like a chef removing the tail of a crawfish, and rips a mass of gore out from the wound.
I lurch to my feet and stumble towards the elevator.
Why didn’t she kill me? Not that I’m complaining. I mean, yesterday morning I would have thanked her for putting a bullet in my head, but right now, having witnessed the alternative, I am feeling somewhat attached to the top of my skull. Why would the girl not kill me when she shot Vakha in the face without a second thought?
And what’s with the impromptu surgery in the entryway?
And what in the bloody fires of hell did Ethie get me into?
I hammer the call button on the elevator.
I haven’t prayed this hard for time to pass since Tamar asked me to lead a bible study for some of her girls a few years back when she had a client on the other end of town. You want cognitive dissonance, try being a refugee from the Federal States leading a dozen dancers and manikins through the book of John. Tamar thought I’d be able to handle it, that maybe it would be a nice return to pre-plague normalcy. Instead, I ended up having a panic attack and locking myself in my rooms for four days before emerging, a modern Lazarus called forth from my self imposed grave by the lure of bourbon and a stack of chits.
I turn just in time to see the girl toss something at me. Catching it, I discover that I am holding a small nest of wires and sealed microchips. It is still dripping with sticky blood and slick translucent spinal fluid.
“Take that to Schuster. She ought to be able to tell you what it does.”
“Um…” I try to speak, but my mouth is working soundlessly.
“Don’t just stand there holding it. Put it in your pocket before someone else sees it.”
I do as she says. I tuck the bloody wires into my left coat pocket and start trying to clean my fingers on the side of my pants. I don’t have what you could properly call a fashion sense, but I there’s a definite practicality to wearing dark clothing: it’s good at hiding blood stains.
“You need to get out of the hotel quickly, and don’t go back to Tamar’s. Lay low for a day or two then have Schuster look at that implant. I’ll be in contact.”
The elevator bell dings and the doors open, providing us a view that stretches away for miles. The city sprawls across the hilltops beneath the gathering clouds, the office towers and hotels poking up above the greenscaping like sullen hikers hurrying across a rolling field before lighting strikes. As I watch, the first drops of rain splatter against the elevator window.
We step into the elevator together. I’m still numb. My heart is racing but I have regained enough control that I ought to be able to calm myself with breathing exercises. The pill can wait for another day, if I live another day.
The girl presses the button for the lobby, then uses her fingernails to pry the locked panel off of the elevator control board, revealing several more buttons.
“Don’t worry about the security footage. After you leave I’ll head to the control room and wipe the hotel servers.”
“What…” I manage to say before my voice gives out again.
“There’s no time now. Just get out of the hotel and find a place to stay until the storm passes. I’ll find you then.”
“But, Vakha… Ethie… all the blood…”
“Don’t worry about any of that.”
My stomach lurches and the elevator doors glide open.
“Here’s your stop. You should hurry.”
I walk forward and promptly collide with a potted fern a dozen feet from the elevator door. That knocks some sense into me I guess, because as I brush the fronds away from my face I realize that I’m standing in a hotel lobby with evidence that could pin a murder on me just sitting in my pocket. I’ve got to get out of here.
The hotel doors slide open in front of me and, just as I step into the atrium, I hear the fire alarm begin to ring. A breath later there’s a sudden wet hiss and I look around to see that the sprinklers have been triggered. Water pours down on the expensive recovered wood paneling, pools on the stylishly fractured floor, and soaks all of the guests sitting in the open lounge.
At least I won’t look out of place stumbling from the hotel in a daze.
Five minutes later I’m sitting in a bar across the street from the hotel, sipping a bourbon that I’ve had to buy on credit because this place doesn’t take chits. Probably stupid of me, since the credit system is continually subject to monitoring, but who am I kidding. This is a high end business district. There are electronic eyes watching everything in the public streets, all hooked up to behavioral analysis restrillects and identity databases. Anyone who is going to hassle me about being here at this time, be they corporate, city security, or even Feds, already knows that I’m here. If anything the credit purchase makes me look more legit. I can just say that I was at the hotel to meet a potential private client, but he never showed. Pierce isn’t going to talk. If she talks she has to implicate Darby and god knows that’s the last thing most of his people want to do.
The bar is crowded, especially for so early in the afternoon. As I begin to come out of my personal fog, I realize that many of the other alcoholics in training are complaining about their hotel rooms being flooded.
Outside, the pregnant clouds finally reach term and burst, pouring heavy drops of rain down on the city. It starts slow, but the raindrops are so large that they sound like hail when the wind whips them against the window. This is only the beginning. I need to make it back to Tamar’s before the hurricane hits.
A woman in a long yellow coat dashes across the street, slowing to pick her way along a rocky path that crosses the broad median, and pushes the bar door open. It’s Pierce. She declares that the New Leaf Hotel has been closed due to a computer malfunction and management is arranging shelter for everyone at neighboring establishments.
Her announcement is met with an angry chorus from the stranded patrons, especially when she asks them to return to the hotel lobby so management can begin retrieving their belongings.
I stand on the rungs of my bar stool so I can see Pierce’s face across the crowd. She looks remarkably put together for someone who’s just had her day drenched in cold water. I catch her eye and wave for her to come talk to me, holding up my glass and pointing to it as incentive. After an instant of hesitation, she nods to me and goes back to shepherding angry customers out the door into the rain. When the last of them is out the door she steps closer and stands in front of me, her yellow coat still dripping, her perfectly styled hair plastered across her forehead.
“Where’s your partner?” she asks, eying the length of the bar with suspicion. “Somebody find a clutch of kittens that needed to be drowned?”
That’s enough to get a laugh out of me. I wave for the bartender and raise my nearly empty glass. “Another of these and whatever she wants.”
“I can’t,” she protests, half-heartedly.
“You can. Your boss just sent you through a hurricane to tell a bunch of bedraggled customers that they have lost their rooms. They can spare you ten minutes for a drink.”
“Twist my arm why don’t you.” She drops onto the bar stool beside me and orders a tequila. “Did you ever find the girl?”
My brain flashes back to the seventh floor. The door clicking open. The sound of smashed melon as whatever integral weapon the girl had built into her arm took the top off of Vakha’s head. The tangle of gory wires still stuffed in my pocket.
I drain my old bourbon, shove the glass down the counter, and am already drinking from the new one before the bartender can throw me an angry look. “Yeah, I found her.”
“Is she alright? I mean, you didn’t turn her over to Darby, did you?”
“Nah.” I shake my head. Take another sip. “Nah, I think it’s safe to say that she’s… safe.”
“You off the hook to Darby now?”
She squirms uncomfortably and shakes water from her yellow jacket. Her face like that reminds me of an inquisitive rabbit.
“Ahh, so it’s like that,” I say.
We exchange quiet nods and I wave for another round of drinks. The bartender delivers them promptly, but lingers like spot of grease at my elbow until I take the hint and pass him my empty glass. We’re both half way through our next glass before either of us dares to speak up.
“I owe him a lot,” Pierce says. “And if I’m ever going to get my family a position…” She fades out, head shaking. A minute later she downs her glass and drops off the stool. “I’d best be getting back before they notice that I’ve been gone.”
“How bad is it over there?”
She laughs and starts to button up her jacket against the wind that’s now whipping rain against the glass. “Just between you and me, the hotel is ruined. Fire sprinklers have gone off on every floor and they had to shut the water main manually to stop them. Then there’s the computers. Every damn drive’s been wiped. I mean completely obliterated. Only thing we can do is load a network boot from offsite.”
“Yeah. Everything. Thanks for the drink.”
By the time I pull myself out of my own head she’s already left the bar.
The girl did say that she had to take care of something. Is it too much to imagine that she might have caused the fire alarm? That somehow a little girl could have gotten into the hotel computers and erased not just the security footage of us walking down the hall together, but the entirety of the network? It seems impossible, but then I recall the image of her standing in the doorway, flayed palm held open towards Vakha like the petals of a deadly flower.
If that memory is real, I suppose the rest of this could be.
My handy vibrates in my pocket. An instant later the bar erupts in an ear-splitting chorus of alarm tones as every handy in the place beings to scream the citywide emergency alert. I throw my handy on the bar and glare at the screen.
“Folks, this’ll have to be last call. Looks like Jasmine’s going to hit the city by nightfall,” the bartender shouts.
As soon as the alert clears I tap at my phone screen and open a call to Schuster. If anyone can work out what this thing in my pocket is, it’s her, and I might be able to make it to her place before the city shuts down.
The call connects within a few seconds and I see Schuster’s face silhouetted in front of a background of multifaceted displays. “Hey Tal, what you need?”
“Got some antiques I need appraised. Any chance you can take a look before the storm hits?”
She glances away from the pickup for a second and I watch as multicolored lights play across her hair. She purses her lips and shakes her head. “I don’t know buddy. It’s getting pretty bad out there. Did you get the alert?”
“Yeah, that’s what made me think of hurrying over. If it’s too late I can wait until after.”
“Where you at?”
“Hilltop South. Our friend in the basement gave me a tip.”
“That’s a haul. Forty minutes on a good day and the rain is starting to come down heavy.”
“I’ll come by after the storm then.”
“Probably for the best. I’ve already told Emit and Hannah to close up the shop and go home. About to head down to my rooms and wait it all out.”
I nod and hover a finger over the disconnect icon. “That’s fine then. I’ll see you after the storm.”