Authors: Francine Pascal
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A footstep on the stairs. Another.
She raised the gun. Two-hand stance. One foot pushed slightly back. Well balanced. Just as her father had taught her.
Gaia aimed the gun at the level of the doorknob. Waist-level for Natasha. That was another of her father's instructions. Always keep a gun aimed at the center of the body. Don't go for anything fancy like a head shot; just make sure you connect with the target. If Natasha rushed her, Gaia could drop the gun and fight. If Natasha was carrying a weapon, Gaia could shoot.
She was ready.
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First Simon Pulse edition May 2002
Text copyright Â© 2002 by Francine Pascal
Cover copyright Â© 2002 by 17th Street Productions, an Alloy, Inc. company.
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To the best fans: Emily, Kathryn, Lucy, Maddy, Meg
Instead of life with Gaia, it had turned out to be the start of life After Gaia. Ed
GAIA UNFOLDED THE NOTE AND squinted at the words for the twentieth time. She had to take a few steps down the sidewalk and hold the note up under a streetlamp before she could see well enough to read.
TOM MOORE, APT. 1801, ABERDEEN BLDG.
Pretty sketchy note. Whoever had slipped the piece of paper under Natasha's front door was a long way from Tolstoy.
Since finding the paper that night when she'd come home, Gaia had folded and unfolded the sheet so many times that the little piece of paper was already starting to wear thin along the creases. Another couple of hours and she'd have nothing left but some ragged confetti.
Gaia raised the note and squinted at the sloping handwriting in the poor light, trying to see if there was some secret she might decipher from the six short words. Had her father written the note? Maybe. She couldn't tell. The letters were scribbled, which could mean whoever had written the note had been in a hurry. That could mean someone was after the note writer, and that could mean it had been written by her father. Sure. And it could have been written
by Santa Claus. Maybe with a little help from his pal, the Easter bunny.
Gaia scowled at the letters until the message started to blur. Was this an invitation? Was her father asking her to meet him at this location? It was just as likelyâprobably
likelyâthat her uncle had written the note and that the thing was nothing but an invitation to get herself neatly dissected under a microscope. That was, assuming her uncle really was the killer Loki. Gaia didn't know that. Not for sure. She took one last look at the note, then jammed the paper into the pocket of her jeans. She wasn't sure of a damn thing these days.
If mysterious people were going to drive her crazy with cryptic notes, Gaia wished they could at least leave a decent address. It had taken two hours online before Gaia was able to locate the Aberdeen Building. By the time she'd climbed up out of the subway on the west side of Central Park and hunted through the maze of apartment buildings and brownstones, it had been close to five in the morning. Even with an address, it had taken another twenty minutes to identify the Aberdeen as a skinny, twenty-story affair that looked out of place among a crowd of newer and much shorter duplexes.
Gaia stopped on the corner and watched the building as cabs rolled slowly by on the narrow street. Despite its height, the Aberdeen had a weary,
worn-down look about it. The building was faced with some kind of gray stone, which had grown smeared and dark from years of air pollution. There were carvings at the corners. Big gray faces. They might have been faces of presidents, or famous explorers, or rich old farts who had put up the cash for the building. Whoever they were supposed to be, they all had a serious case of acid rain acne and were too eroded for Gaia to make out much more than hollow eyes and grim expressions.
She counted narrow balconies along the flat front of the building until she found the eighteenth floor. Most of the rooms were dark, but some were light. Gaia wondered who would be awake at this crazy pre-dawn hour. Maybe her father. Or a killer. Or both.
Either way, Gaia hoped for some answers.
She hustled through the traffic and up onto the sidewalk in front of the Aberdeen. When she reached for the worn brass handle on the front door, it unexpectedly flew open, and a man in a dark red uniform stepped out. “Yes?” he said through a muffled yawn. Clearly, Gaia was interrupting his nap. “Can I help you?”
Gaia studied the man for a second. There was some kind of unwritten rule: The shoddier the building, the more elaborate the doorman. This guy looked like he was ready to lead French forces at the
Ardennes. Or maybe the British in the Boer War. He looked almost old enough to have been at both battles. His red wool uniform was several sizes too big for his buzzard shoulders, and the long, sweeping coat brushed the tops of his boots. Gold braid spilled off the brim of a ridiculous felt hat. There was even something that looked like medals jangling against the man's pocket. Gaia wondered what kind of medals a doorman might get. The Silver Star in taxi hailing? The Purple Heart for bad Christmas tips?
The doorman stepped completely out of the old apartment building and let the door swing closed behind him. “You want something here?” he asked, folding his thin, uniformed arms across his thin, uniformed chest.
Gaia shrugged. “Just visiting.”
“And who is it you were visiting at this hour?”
“My father. He has to catch an early flight and I'm here to see him off.”
“Your father, is it? And what would his name be?” The doorman had an accent that sounded like Dublin by way of a decade in Brooklyn.
Gaia started to say something, stopped, and tried to think. What name would her father have used?
“What's wrong there, miss? Don't you know your own father's name?”
“Moore. His name's Tom Moore.”
The doorman's colorless lips puckered. “I've not heard of him.”
“What about Oliver?”
“No, Oliver Moore.”
The man shook his head, sending the gold braid on his cap into a dance. “Never heard that name, either.” He squinted at Gaia with pale gray eyes. “You sure you've come to the right building, miss?”
Gaia gritted her teeth and stared through the glass door behind the man. She could see a long, marble-floored hallway leading back to a pair of elevators and the old metal button between them that would take her up to her father. “This is the right building,” she said. “My father lives here, and I want to see him.” She started to move around the doorman, but the old man stepped back against the door and shook his head again.
“You can't come in. Not unless someone inside says it's okay.”
“I don't know your father,” said the doorman. “You give me a name I know and I'll ring a bell, see if someone wants you on the inside; otherwise you need to get out of my door.”
The muscles in Gaia's jaw tightened into a painful
knot. The pleasant idea of kicking the man's bony ass down the street came and lingered for a few moments in her mind. Reluctantly she shoved it away. She had no doubt that she could take this guy out with both hands behind her back and blindfolded. But the doorman was just an old guy doing his job. A sour old guy, yeah, but that didn't mean he deserved to get his ugly wrinkled face turned inside out.
Gaia turned away from the door without another word and marched back along the sidewalk. She heard the old man give a grunt behind her. He sounded awfully satisfied with himself. Maybe he would get another medal. The Medal of Doorman Honor for keeping ignorant kids out of the building.
As soon as she was around the corner, Gaia stopped. She tipped back her head and looked up the long side of the building. She could see the first few floors well enough, but the top was nearly lost in dingy gray fog and darkness. Eighteen floors wasâ¦ what? Two hundred feet? Something like that.
It was one of those moments when fear would have been handy. It would have been nice to know if the decision she was about to make was very brave or just really, really stupid. But there was nothing. Not even one of those gut-grabbing jolts she'd been having ever since her uncle had tried to cure her of fearlessness.
Gaia crouched down, her fingers touching the cold
surface of the sidewalk. Then she jumped up, reaching for the gray face at the corner of the building. Her left hand closed on the damp, worn stone and she pulled herself up. It wasn't until she was looking into the hollow eyes of the oversized face that she realized she was holding on to the carved nose.
Gaia laughed, which cost her a foot of climbing. She worked her fingers into a gap between two of the building's sandstone blocks and scrambled against the stone with the toes of her sneakers. A few seconds later she was standing on the face and reaching up for the lowest of the balconies. From the second floor to the fourth she clung to a rusty drainpipe. It made Gaia think of how she used to climb up the drainpipe into her bedroom at George and Ella's brownstone by Washington Square Park That was, what? Three months ago? Less? It seemed like forever.
The drainpipe headed off at the wrong angle above the fourth floor, but Gaia found a crack barely big enough for a finger jam and a narrow band of marble that ran along the building between floors. The marble strip made for a treacherous ledge, barely more than a fingernail wide, but Gaia was able to jump from there and catch the bottom of the fifth-floor balcony. She pulled herself up and rested for a moment. Through the window she could hear someone's radio alarm blaring the weather report. They were expecting rain.