Authors: Eliot Peper
The control panel. She should have thought of it right away. That was the problem with operating on so little sleep—it decelerated your thinking. Each Fleet vehicle was equipped with a dashboard interface where you could manually adjust speaker volume for music, map your route, and whatever else it was you needed. She could just check that and adjust the parameters to get her back home. She might even be able to submit a ticket to customer support and find out why she’d been sent on a wild goose chase to begin with.
Treasure Island rose up in front of the windshield, the road diving into the dark maw of the tunnel burrowing through it. She scooted forward to one of the front seats and tapped the panel. Her own reflection stared back at her from a dark screen. She touched the panel again, leaving her index finger on it for a few extra seconds to make sure the sensors registered. The screen stayed blank. Her stomach tightened, and a bead of cold sweat trickled down her spine. This definitely wasn’t normal.
She was thrown back against the seat as the car made a sharp left turn. Sticking out an arm, she braced herself before she lost her seat. She hadn’t put on a seatbelt after moving up here. She’d been so focused on the dashboard, she hadn’t been looking out the windshield at where they were going. Now she peered out through the windows, trying to get her bearings.
The Fleet had taken the left exit onto Treasure Island. Now it was curving around the island on a narrow road that was wet with morning dew. Trees flashed past on either side. No other cars were visible.
Lilly punched every button on the dashboard. Panic ripened in her gut. Nothing was responding. She couldn’t even turn on the damn radio. Changing tactics, she tried to open her window. But the glass didn’t budge. She yanked the door handle, trying to open it even as the car rounded a corner and passed over the San Francisco side of the bridge. The door was locked. She pulled at the lock mechanism but it stayed in place. The Fleet had locked her in. She pried at it, but only managed to crack a fingernail. Fuck, that hurt. She sucked the blood that oozed from it.
She was trapped. Scrambling to the back of the vehicle she pounded her fists on the rear window and shouted for help. But the passengers flying by on the bridge below her couldn’t hear or see her and receded into the distance as the Fleet negotiated down the north slope of the island. It dropped into an area that was filled with waterfront warehouses and industrial buildings. Treasure Island had been a naval facility before the land and facilities were sold off. Fears of toxic contamination had held back the tide of ambitious real-estate developers that had colonized the rest of the Bay Area.
Something was very wrong. Wherever this Fleet was headed, she didn’t want to go. If she punched out the window, she could wait for the car to slow and then squeeze through it and try not to kill herself when she hit the ground. Wait. If she punched out the windows, she’d probably cut her hands to shreds. Better to kick. Her feet were more protected and legs were stronger anyway.
She slid onto the back seats and lay on her back with her feet propped up against the far door. She could feel the Fleet making a turn and ascending a short ramp. Enough of this bullshit. She tensed her core, pressed her palms into the door behind her for leverage, and kicked the opposite window with all her might. Pain jolted up through her heels. Damn, the window was strong. Pulling her feet back, she kicked again. And again. And again. On the third kick, something gave, and a fractal network of cracks appeared in the glass. She was breathing heavily. One more would do it. This time, her feet went clear through and the window crumbled into nuggets of safety glass.
The Fleet came to a smooth stop. Lilly pushed herself up to a sitting position. All four doors opened of their own accord. Then everything went insane. The horn blared in a randomized pattern. All the interior and exterior lights and the dashboard monitor flashed with seizure-inducing rapidity. The seats reclined and straightened. The engine revved. Hot air blasted from every vent. Death metal roared from the speakers at maximum volume and pain seared through Lilly’s eardrums.
Raising her hands to cover her ears and squinting to keep out the lights, Lilly threw herself from the deranged vehicle. A grunt escaped her as her shoulder hit cement. Rolling onto her back, she scooted away from the Fleet on her ass, trying to put distance between herself and the madness. Some removed corner of her mind hoped that this was all some kind of mental breakdown, that the psychosis was in her head and not her environment.
Then her shoulders hit two poles, stopping her retreat. No, not poles. Legs. One of her hands butted up against the edge of a shoe. All light and sound from the Fleet ceased, leaving an eerie silence in their wake. She tilted her head back, looking up.
Her heart froze in her chest, and the smell of bougainvillea flooded her sense memory.
“I would apologize again for being forward,” said Sara’s killer, his expression mild. “But it appears you were the one who had me at a disadvantage.”
the duct tape from her mouth. It left behind a red rectangle of irritated skin around her full lips.
“Frederick O’Livier.” Her voice shook as badly as her body.
He looked down his nose at her. Plucking up a pair of surgical scissors from the side table, he cut loose her T-shirt and bra, and let the fragments fall to the floor. Goose bumps prickled on her pale skin. He unscrewed a small jar and dipped a finger in to scoop up some gel. Reaching out, he gently rubbed the gel onto each of her nipples. Oh, how he wished the circumstances were different. Her areolae were dark against the soft mound of each breast. He felt himself stiffen against his jeans. She struggled to twist out of his way, but plastic zip ties secured her wrists, elbows, and ankles to the steel chair that stood alone on the open expanse of concrete floor.
“I swear to God,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I’m telling you the truth.”
Ignoring her, Graham attached electrodes to each nipple. The conductive gel would ensure a good connection. He wiped his hands off on a neatly folded towel and ran a finger along the line of her jaw. Her eyes were wide open, but to her credit, she didn’t flinch.
“Lilly.” He shook his head. “You must forgive my skepticism. Perhaps I’m simply close-minded, but I have a hard time believing a slumlord like Frederick O’Livier would be the man pulling the strings behind your little, ah…
. He certainly has a knack for drug distribution and community engagement. But I can’t seem to imagine him running an op this complex.”
Her face twisted. “What do you
? I saw you leaving Sara’s and followed you because I knew you’d shot her. That’s it. That’s all. Frederick paid for all the billboards and stuff. But that was afterwards. Once I met him and Henok.”
In a flash, he had his hand at her throat and thrust his face toward her so that their noses were only a few centimeters apart.
Are you working for the Agency?
” He injected every ounce of poison he could muster into the words.
She shook her head, unable to speak. His eyes searched hers as her pupils dilated. He saw fear there. But not duplicity. He needed to keep his emotions out of this conversation. This was an interrogation. He was a professional. He knew how to extract information. He had once broken a
-trained agent. In the end, the man had begged Graham for the opportunity to reveal their operational intel. He would deconstruct Lilly’s mind one phobia and nerve ending at a time. Whoever it was who was trying to stab him in the back didn’t know how dangerous it was to cross him. They may have succeeded in co-opting his plans, but he could still drag them kicking and screaming to the grave alongside him.
Releasing her throat, he straightened and considered his options.
The flicker of her eyes gave him a quarter second of warning.
But Graham had already snatched his sidearm from the table and dropped into a crouch. Lilly was the only cover. He torqued his body around the chair and popped behind her to look over her shoulder with the gun to her temple.
“Help.” Lilly tried to scream, but it came out as more of a croak.
Two figures had ducked under the wide corrugated-steel door at the end of the warehouse where Lilly’s Fleet had entered earlier. The horizontal bar of morning light that entered the empty warehouse under the door backlit them so that Graham couldn’t make them out clearly. They were shadows against the glare.
“Drop the weapon and raise your hands.” A man shouted. He knew that voice. What was his name? Karl. Karl Dieter.
As they approached, Graham’s eyes adjusted and—fuck. Karl strode forward, keeping his pistol trained on Graham. Huian walked beside him, black leather flight jacket over designer blouse and slacks. He had never seen such intensity packed into a stare. Why the hell were Karl and Huian here? How had they found him? Could she have revoked his Ghost Program privileges and geolocated him? This situation was deteriorating rapidly. He just needed a little time. Enough to sort things out and create a new set of contingencies.
“Stop right there or she dies,” said Graham and felt Lilly stiffen.
“Lilly?” Huian looked down at his hostage in astonishment. Then her eyes perused the screws, scalpels, electrodes, car batteries, chemicals, hypodermic needles, and other bits of espionage accoutrement arrayed on the table.
“Huian!” Lilly gasped. “Get me out of here. My Fleet went crazy, he kidnapped me with it and brought me—”
It was Graham’s turn to do a double-take. They
each other. They knew each other. And here was Huian showing up with her pet mall cop in tow. Dominos started to fall. His erection wilted, and bile rose in his throat. He had underestimated her. The whole time he had thought Huian was oblivious to how he was subverting her organization. She always focused on the surface of things, never tried to read between the lines. He had trusted that analysis because it resonated with the other engineers he’d worked with. Earnest people who took problems at face value and immediately focused on finding solutions rather than seeking advantage. But the whole time she’d been running a counterintelligence op against him, keeping him in check. With one hand, she’d signed off on the Ghost Program, and with the other, she’d signed Lilly as an agent to track him and report back on his activities. Lilly must have found some way to report her location to Huian.
“Honey,” said Huian. “Slow down.”
“Shut the fuck up,” said Graham. “Both of you.”
Huian’s gaze snapped back to him, twin almond-shaped infernos.
“I said, drop the weapon.” Karl’s voice was strained.
Without looking, Huian placed a calming hand on his shoulder.
“You,” she said to Graham. She let the word hang in the air for a moment where it accrued layers of inference like a magnet attracting metal shavings. “Leave the poor woman alone and tell me what the
Graham’s laugh was higher pitched than he wanted it to be. “Oh, come on,” he said. “Lilly’s no innocent. She’s working for you. You’ve had her following me for who knows how long. We’re all grown-ups here. She needs to deal with the consequences of her actions.”
Huian’s eyes narrowed. “If that’s what you actually think, then paranoia really has gotten the better of you. You think Lilly was acting on
orders? Then, pray tell, why the fuck would I have told her to put Cumulus at risk by writing a Ghost Program exposé and pasting your pathetic face all over the damn city?”
Graham didn’t have an answer for that. His arm ached where he had mutilated it with the shard of cereal bowl. His breath came hot and fast. Lilly’s hair smelled like smoke.
“Now,” said Huian. “What the hell were you doing with Dr. Corvel?”
Graham stared at her for a moment. Her question confirmed her story. The biggest tech mogul in history really didn’t have a clue. No counterintelligence after all. He still found the hubris startling. People wielded immense power with so little regard for security. If she didn’t know how he’d coerced Corvel, then maybe his insurance plan was still intact. He could spring his trap and finally put a leash on Huian. Lilly had destroyed his cover and trashed his plans, but he could still flee and pull Cumulus’s strings from an overseas safe house. He could hold Cumulus hostage just as he now held Lilly.
“You will arrange for a private jet to deliver me to Mexico City this afternoon,” said Graham. “You will hold a press conference and announce that this was a new kind of cybersecurity breach by an unknown party.” His voice gained confidence as his words created their own momentum. “You will promise to conduct an in-depth investigation, which Karl will lead. I will supply the evidence you need to demonstrate that Sara was killed by someone hurt by one of her previous cases. Your investigation will conclude that the killer was himself murdered in a bar fight in Tijuana. I will provide the evidence there as well. You will both leave now so that I can dispose of this particular loose end.” He jammed the barrel of the pistol into Lilly temple, and she hissed. “I will issue additional orders once this is settled.”