Authors: Jus Accardo
Tags: #Romance, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #teen, #young adult, #denazen, #Speculative Fiction, #ya, #Paranormal, #touch, #toxic, #jus accardo, #tremble
I hadn’t felt Kiernan hit me with the knife at the party, and I couldn’t be sure if it was Supremacy—or stress—but lately I found myself easily distracted, my mind wandering to nonsensical things. Other than the little Mom knew, we had no one to ask about the stages of the Supremacy decline. We just had to wait it out and take things as they came. Finding Penny Mills
the logical first step.
Still, doing nothing about Kale, when Kiernan was throwing him right under our noses, would be hard—if not impossible. At least for me.
I stuffed down the lump threatening to crawl up my throat and tried one last time. “He’s not safe with Denazen.
is safe with Denazen. What about the damage he does before we get to him? How will he live with himself? He
someone last night.”
“Do you really think he’d want you pursuing him if there was a cure to be found? He’d want you to find it first.” Mom leaned forward. I didn’t miss her hand resting atop Dax’s and I felt an irrational pang of envy. My hand was cold. And empty. “He won’t be able to live with himself if we don’t find it in time because you went after him instead.”
Again, I wanted to argue, but they all made sense. Annoying, piss-me-the-hell-off sense, but still. Sense. This was hard for my mother, too, even if she wasn’t showing it. She’d raised Kale inside Denazen like her own child. But one of the few things I’d learned about Mom in the short time we’d been together was that she was coldly logical when it came to sizing up dangerous situations. Emotion took a backseat. It made sense. So many years with Denazen taught her to push her feelings aside to get through tough situations.
I sighed and kicked at the edge of the chair. “Fine. Where do we start?”
“Penny Mills will take some time. She’s deep underground and Denazen, with all its resources, has been searching unsuccessfully for her since October.” Ginger pulled out another picture. Scribbling an address on the back, she handed it to me. “In the meantime, we start tracking down the others.”
The girl looked about my age with an infectious smile and bright blue eyes. Her long brown hair was twisted into an artful knot with a pair of wooden sticks to hold it in place, and there was a blue smudge across her right cheek. Paint. She looked happy, and I wondered how long ago the photo had been taken. Where was she now? Did she even know about Supremacy?
Was she even alive?
“Deznee, I’d like you to take Alex and go to Kelpsbergh. That’s the address we have for Ashley Conner.”
“What’s her 411?”
“Looking over the bit of information Henley provided, it would seem she’s a remote viewer.”
“What’s that mean?” Alex asked, taking the picture from me.
“Ashley sees things that are happening in other places. She’s living with foster parents who I assume are Denazen agents, but I can’t be sure, so proceed with extreme caution.”
I stood and took the picture from Alex. “We can save time if I check out Ashley and Alex beats down the door of another. Two birds in half the time.”
Ginger narrowed her eyes. “You’re not going alone. I’m not asking you to make out with him, for Christ sake.” A truly wicked smile slipped across her lips. “I suggest you leave now before I insist you take Jade along as well.”
That was all the motivation I needed. As much fun as it was to watch them snipe at each other, I wasn’t in the mood. I grabbed Alex’s arm and headed for the elevator.
It took us almost an hour with traffic, and I laid into Alex in the car for siding with Ginger about Kale. He and I once had an intense relationship—until he cheated. I found out later it had been an act, staged to keep me safe, but there was no going back. He insisted he still loved me and nothing could ever change that, but if we couldn’t be
he wanted me in his life as a friend. Friends, though, didn’t side against you. They had your back. Apparently, Alex hadn’t gotten the memo.
We arrived on Ashley Conner’s doorstep a little after ten in the morning. There weren’t any cars in the driveway, but I saw someone moving around in one of the rooms upstairs when we pulled in.
Alex raised his hand to knock, but I grabbed it and pulled back. “Wait a sec. Ginger said she thought they might be agents. This chick’s foster parents.”
? If they’re agents, wouldn’t they know who we are and why we’re here? They’re not exactly gonna want to invite us in for cake and cookies, then spill their secrets.”
He stuffed both hands into his pockets and sighed. “You think Denazen has your picture plastered all over a Most Wanted list? You’re hot, but come on now—”
“I’m being serious.”
He hesitated, then stepped back and took a long look at the house. The downstairs was quiet and dark, but the room in the corner on the second floor had the light on. “Well, either way, they’d be Nix, right? Agents are always Nix. Easy to take out.”
“Let’s check things out first.”
Rubbing his hands together, Alex waggled his eyebrows. “Play Peeping Tom? Twist my arm. The girl in the pic is a hottie. Maybe we’ll catch her doing something naughty.”
I rolled my eyes and shoved him back down the stairs. “You’ve been hanging out with Curd a little too much lately.”
We crept along the side of the house and around to the kitchen window. The lights were off, and there appeared to be no one around. From there, we peeked in the small, grime-covered window on the side door of the garage. No cars.
The backyard was also deserted. The only things in sight were an old tire swing hanging from a questionable-looking branch, a peeling picnic table missing a leg, and a lawn with small patches of snow from the first storm of the season.
We circled the house, coming back around the other side with the intention of knocking on the door. “Wonder which one is her room. Maybe she’s in there undressing?” Alex said. He clasped his hands together and flashed me an impish grin.
“Not likely, since she’s standing behind you,” a girl’s voice snapped.
We whirled around, nearly knocking each other over. The brunette from Ginger’s picture, complete with various colored paints splattered across her T-shirt and an extremely annoyed expression stood, arms folded and glaring at us. “U-Um,” Alex stuttered. “Yeah, so about that—”
“You have twenty seconds to tell me why you guys are skulking outside my house or I’m calling the cops.”
I pushed Alex aside. “Are you Ashley?”
She narrowed her eyes. “If Carl sent you, you’re wasting your time. It’s over. I don’t do cheaters.”
I smiled. “Neither do I. See? We have something in common already. My name’s Dez.” Hitching my thumb over my shoulder, I said, “The perv is Alex. We need to talk to you.”
She didn’t look like she was in a conversational mood. Glaring from me to Alex, she asked, “About?”
When Kale and I hunted for the Sixes on Denazen’s hit list over the summer, I’d developed a whole spiel to break the news gently, and for the most part, it worked. But this situation was a little different. We didn’t have a lot of time, and every second I wasted here was another I wasn’t looking for Kale or the cure.
It was probably a little selfish, and a part of me felt bad, but I decided the best thing to do was dive right in. “We’re here because if you don’t let us help you, you’re going to die.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Alex groaned.
Ashley blinked. I thought maybe I’d scared her silent, but when she yanked out her cell phone and I heard a distinct three-number call, I knew maybe I’d approached this the wrong way.
Alex swiped the cell from her and held it out of reach when she made a move to take it back. “Okay, so Dez is lacking decorum today—more so than usual, anyway—but what she said is true. We
here to help you.”
I rolled my eyes. Since when had he been Mr. Compassion? “Do you know what a Six is?”
She sucker punched Alex and grabbed her phone, dancing out of reach as he tried to steal it back. I liked this girl more and more every passing second. Hitting me with the evil eye, she took another step back and said, “Six? Yeah. It’s a number. Comes after five and before seven.”
“It’s a person, actually,” I corrected. “A
of person. Like you and me.”
She looked me up and down and snorted. “Sorry. I don’t think we’re exactly the same brand of crazy, girlfriend.”
“No one is her brand of crazy. Trust me.” Alex chuckled. “But we
like you.” He waved his right hand and Ashley’s cell shot from her grasp. It hovered for a moment between us, then zoomed straight up and landed on the roof with a clatter.
She gasped, staring after it, and turned to Alex. “How—how did you do that?”
“The same way you can do what you do,” I said, nodding to the house. “Are your parents home? Can we talk for a few minutes?”
The wonder drained from her face, replaced by caution. “Now you want me to let you into my house?”
“It won’t take long,” I prodded. “I promise.”
She was still wary, but after a moment, she nodded up to the roof. “As soon as I get my phone back.”
“Sure thing.” With another wave of Alex’s hand, her cell shot off the roof and back into his palm. He handed it over.
Ashley led us around to the front of the house and up to the door. Every few steps she’d glance over her shoulder like she was afraid we might tackle her or something. Mainly, she watched Alex. I didn’t blame her. To anyone who didn’t know him, he came off kind of shifty. Maybe it was the spiky white-blond hair or the weird happy face labret bead we’d named Fred.
When we got inside, I had to tell myself not to stare. Her place reminded me of my old house. Pristine hardwood floors, ugly furniture, and a fireplace mantel complete with pictures to make it look nice and homey. A part of me wondered if this was standard Denazen issue. The cookie cutter mold used to raise their crazy little army.
“You can sit if you want,” Ashley said, sinking into the couch. I didn’t miss how she settled next to the telephone or how there was a plate on the table next to it with a fork and knife waiting conveniently. “But don’t get too comfortable. My dad will be home soon.”
Since meeting Kale, I’d become more aware. Some of it was his coaching, while some was simply observation. The fingers on her right hand twitched as she spoke and her foot began to tap. Her dad wasn’t on his way home. If I had to guess, she’d be here alone for hours. It was winter break. School was on hold, but people still had to work. It was all an act.
Alex settled in the armchair across from her, but I stayed standing. Like she said, there was no reason to make myself comfortable. I had no plans of hanging for chips and dip. “I’m not gonna beat around the bush, ’cause honestly? There’s not a hell of a lot of time. We were sent here today to warn you. I’m gonna give you two choices and the truth. What you do with it is your call. No one’s here to force you to do something you don’t want to.”
“Dez,” Alex warned.
I ignored him. During the summer, Kale and I had to literally drag a couple of the Sixes, kicking and screaming, back to the hotel for their own good. I was over it. If they wanted the help, then great. We’d be there. If not, we had no right to force them. Denazen was all about taking away free will. I wouldn’t do the same.
“This thing you can do—the ability you have to see things happening someplace else—has made you a target. Before you were born, your mother—your real mother—was given a drug. It was supposed to enhance your ability so you’d be stronger. More powerful. She was part of a science project called Supremacy just like my mom.”
“The problem is,” Alex cut in with a harsh sidelong glance in my direction, “it has a nasty side effect that eventually leads to death.”
“Or murder,” I added. Ashley looked a little green. Good. She needed to understand this wasn’t a game. “What do you know about your parents?”
She picked up something on the table next to the couch and began fidgeting with it. A paintbrush. “My real parents? Nothing. I was adopted two weeks after I was born.”
How was I supposed to tell this girl her adoptive parents were probably going to kill her in her sleep? It wasn’t something that rolled off the tongue. “Think of this house as—as a zoo.”
“A zoo?” she whispered, pale.
“You were raised in captivity by people hoping to breed a monster.”
Her eyes bugged out and she dropped the paintbrush. It hit the floor and bounced, ending up under the coffee table between Alex and her. “Breed— Wha—?”
I thought my analogy was pretty sharp, but Alex didn’t agree. In hindsight, it might have been a
too graphic. Accurate, but graphic. He shot me a look that threatened violence and continued in a more neutral tone. “We think your parents—the people who adopted you—work for a company called Denazen. They’re supposed to watch you for signs of development.”
“Development?” she squeaked, fingers gripping the edge of the cushion. “What are you talking about? My mom is an artist and my dad works in construction.”
“Have you noticed anything strange about your abilities lately? Anything abnormal or new? Maybe something you couldn’t do before but can now?”
Her eyes narrowed and the fingers on her right hand started picking at the fabric on the couch cushion. Bingo! She’d given herself away.
“Look, I wasn’t kidding. There’s no time to play games. Not for you and definitely not for us. Cut the crap and just be straight.”
“Sorry, Alex. No one coddled me when I found out. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid.
Just do it
“That’s the Nike slogan, not Band-Aids,” he said with an exasperated sigh.
I always knew I was different from everyone else, but it wasn’t until I met Kale that I learned
different that was. The truth of it had turned my universe inside out. But I adapted. I had to. It was the only way to survive. Ashley was either going to sink or swim.
“Whatever good-cop-bad-cop routine you two have going, I’m not really interested.” Ashley stood and pointed to the door. “I think you guys should go.”
“There’s no good-cop-bad-cop. Only the truth. And if you don’t let us help you before it’s too late, you’re going to die. Maybe it’ll be a stranger. Maybe it’ll be your own
. But you’ve been scheduled for termination. You and me—we’ve officially become obsolete.”
“You know you sound insane, right?” She threw both hands into the air. She might not believe us 100 percent, but we’d planted a seed. Sometimes that was all we could hope for.
“We know how this sounds, but it’s the truth,” Alex said. He flashed her a smile that, at one time, would have made my heart stop. He’d always been good at putting people at ease. Maybe it was the way he looked at you. Like you were the only one in the room and he was totally absorbed in anything and everything you were about to say.
“These people want to use your ability to do some really messed-up things. The problem is, the drug they used to boost your power is toxic. As you get older, your body can’t handle it.” He tapped the side of his head, frowning. “Screws up your mind. The signs come on slowly, but they probably would have started by now. You turn eighteen soon, right?”
“A little more than four months.”
“Humor me for a sec,” I said, balancing myself on the arm of the couch as she sat back down. “Hallucinations, paranoid delusions, unsteady mood swings… Any of that ring a bell?”
Ashley’s brow furrowed. “As in, have I experienced any of them?”
“These are just some of the more common warning signs. There are others,” Alex said. “Please. Just give us a few more minutes?”
From the way she kept looking from Alex to the door, I didn’t think she’d agree, but after a moment, she nodded. “How can you even be sure I’ve got one of these—”
“Abilities?” Alex flashed her his patented Elvis smile and leaned a little closer. “We know you can see things that are happening in other places. It’s called remote viewing.”
She hesitated for a moment before sighing, then stood. “You showed my yours, so I guess I could show you mine…” Ashley bent over and pulled open the red backpack on the end table. She rifled through, withdrawing several loose pieces of notebook paper. Handing one to Alex, she said, “I did this a week ago.”
I leaned over to get a better peek. It was a pencil drawing—if you could even call it that. It
like two guys arguing in traffic. The figures were borderline stick with overly large heads and exaggerated features. All it was missing was the big, yellow, smiley face sun, and it would take first prize in the kindergarten refrigerator art awards. “It’s, um,
Ashley rolled her eyes and snatched the picture back, cradling it protectively. “It’s horrible.” She flopped on the couch beside Alex. “I’ve been drawing and painting since I was eight. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do was become an artist like my mom.” She waved the paper back and forth. “But I suck. No matter how much I practice, I suck.”
“I wouldn’t say
,” Alex said encouragingly. “You might need a little more—”
“Practice? No.” She thrust one of the other sheets at him. “Not anymore.”
Alex stared down at the paper, mouth falling open as Fred, the happy-faced labret bead, wobbled from side to side. Holding it up so I could see, he asked, “Dez, do you see what I see?”
This drawing was nothing like the first. It was shaded in black and blue ink, giving it an eerie noire quality, with crisp lines and flawless, almost photographic, detail. “