The cops did shout something at Robert, but through the overall cacophony he had no idea what it was.
He dropped the gun when he saw them and kicked it to his right. Away from himself and away from the gangbanger who might scramble for it.
He kept his eye on the thug as the cops advanced and shouted. There were now four of them. The increase in numbers seemed to make them even more belligerent.
They shouted at the two girls as one cop entered the apartment to shout at whoever was left inside. The girls were too frightened to obey orders, so they were given the same treatment as the real criminal. They cried about what had happened and the way they were being treated while the thug cried about his allegedly dead hand.
Robert knew the drill. Keeping quiet, he unblurred his face, dropped to the ground, and did as instructed with his hands as he kept a close eye on everyone. Cops or no cops, any one of these people could turn extra hysterical, go berserk, and get loose, becoming a violent danger to everyone. And, understaffed and overwhelmed, the cops in this area weren’t known for staying within legal limits. With Fire Virus–carriers, it was usually shoot first, ask questions never.
He was all for obeying the law, but above all he was for surviving to see the next day. The manner of these men and women in blue and black wasn’t giving him any confidence about tomorrow. Their manner changed, however, once they confirmed his identity.
One of the female cops pulled him to his feet and escorted him down the hall toward the lobby of the building. She said nothing coherent to him beyond “come on” before mumbling something that sounded like “buttered bullshit.” It was time to get his ears examined—Robert couldn’t have heard that right. And he almost couldn’t believe what he saw waiting for them in the lobby.
Heartland Security agents, fine. They were the rank-and-file employees of the federal agency that had been keeping him under lock and key for the past ten days, monitoring his every movement; their temporary camera in his apartment recorded every time he got up to take a piss. But he didn’t expect to see and be greeted by one of the Agency’s top officials. And certainly not warmly.
“Mister Goldner,” Cyrus Shahrooz said. “Welcome back to the land of the free and happy.” The stout six-foot man in the porkpie hat spoke with a grin, looking at Robert as if he were his best pal, and as if Robert were a sixteen-year-old boy who’d just lost his virginity. A strange expression, and stranger words.
“Free, Mister Shahrooz? I’d think you’d be here to slap me with an even longer sentence.”
Cyrus modified his expression to one more professional but no less friendly. “I’m not here to slap. Just to shake the free hand of a valuable man.”
Robert discreetly rolled his eye at what was probably a bad pun on his surname as Cyrus motioned toward a subordinate agent. The subordinate produced keys and approached.
Tensions had lately been growing between some at the Heartland Security Agency and the Isaac-Abraham Institution. As a member of the latter, Robert had been expecting a smackdown and had readied himself for it. He stood motionless, uncomprehending, as the agent unlocked the collar around his neck. This was serious. He was being released early. He held up his wrists, allowing the agent to remove the bracelet monitors.
“I’m truly sorry you had to go through all this,” Cyrus said.
“Through no fault of my own.” Robert flexed his feet in every direction after his ankle bracelets were removed. He could now go wherever he wanted without being tracked.
“Oh no? Breaking and entering, armed assault…”
“It was a rescue operation, sir.” He was careful to keep his tone respectful. “The kind I’d been trained for.”
“It was a home invasion,” Cyrus said. “Not that I’m not sympathetic, mind you, considering the targets. But we still have laws.” He put two fingers on the brim of his porkpie, tipping it slightly. It seemed to Robert like a slightly less obvious wink. “I’m not knocking what you do, mind you, or even what you did in the halls back there. Pure heroics. All of it. But you have to remember, even when you think you’re operating in secret, the public’s eye has a way of seeing through veils. What you do reflects on your allies. All of them. You’re aware we can and will shut down the IAI if we’re left with little choice?”
“They—” Robert paused, making a conscious effort to stay respectful while he stuck up for himself. “Those terrorists kidnapped my partner, sir. I had to get him back. And I did. Alive. No one else could’ve gotten to him in time.”
“Right. No one else. Except you weren’t working alone that night.”
Robert didn’t respond. He only looked to his side, out through the glass double doors that served as the building’s main entrance. He was dying for some fresh air. Cyrus seemed to take the hint.
“Walk with me, son.”
Robert followed him and the two other agents, neither of whom had said a word since he’d laid his eye on them. On their way out, he nodded at the elderly lady standing behind the receptionist’s desk. Eunice only stared back at him, her eyes almost the size of half-dollars. They’d exchanged hellos and small talk in the past, but Robert had never explained to her exactly what he did for a living. He’d only painted over his job description with phrases like “social work” and, with a coy smile, “a duty, sacred and secret.” Eunice probably didn’t want any elaboration after what had just taken place. Behind those wide eyes watching him exit the building, she was probably calculating schemes on how to get him kicked out of the complex for good. Oh, well. He could use a change of scenery.
The parking lot was certainly a sight for Robert’s sore eye. It was in pretty bad shape, with its numerous potholes, faded parking-space lines, and the usual broken-glass remnants of dropped or thrown beer bottles. But it was a familiar sight, not seen in so long. Refreshing if nothing else.
Cyrus dismissed the junior agents and asked, “Might I offer you a ride to The Burrow?”
Robert looked over at his Mustang. Last time he’d seen it, the three-year-old vehicle had looked almost three times its age. The additional dings and dents it’d taken on over the past two weeks didn’t make it appear any younger. The expected results of careless or malicious drivers parking too close and banging their doors against his. Nothing serious enough to trigger the car alarm but bad enough to leave visible marks. It wasn’t pretty, but Robert was itching to get behind the Stang’s wheel, rev up the V-8 engine, and roar it down Northern Virginia’s highways and back roads. But that was just an itch. He was practically aching to catch up on community affairs. He’d been out of the loop for far too long. A Watcher agent was duty-bound to stay up on the latest information on the gangs, cults, terrorists, and other types of plagues prevalent in the world, especially those too close to home.
He followed Cyrus to the nondescript white van that appeared to have never been washed and to have defied every rainstorm since its first purchase. Hundreds of vans sharing its make and model were all over the Washington metro area. Most were cleaner. Few if any were driven by someone as vital to the nation’s security as Cyrus. A good man to know. A dangerous man to piss off. Robert refrained from suggesting they make a detour to a Mr. Wash.
He settled himself in the front passenger’s seat as Cyrus locked the doors and started the engine. After they pulled out of the lot, he heard Cyrus chuckling to himself.
“Miss ’em, huh?”
Robert said, “Sir?” When Cyrus chuckled again, Robert figured out what he was referencing before he even said it.
Cyrus must’ve seen him rubbing his wrists, absentmindedly, like succumbing to a nervous tic. Robert couldn’t help it. His wrists felt naked. He knew something was missing from his life, something that needed to be returned. And Cyrus was smart enough to see he wasn’t feeling nostalgic for the monitor bracelets that had just been removed.
The watches he’d worn constantly before his detention told the correct date and time only as a secondary function. They were first and foremost communication devices: one exclusively used to communicate encrypted messages to his superiors at the Isaac-Abraham Institution, the other used to communicate directly with his unit partner. Watcher Agent Darryl Ridley. His partner for three years. The friend who was no longer his partner.
“How’s Darryl doing, sir? They wouldn’t even let me make a phone call to the hospital, you know. I wasn’t allowed to call anybody. Not even Mister Smith.” And the HSA medical specialist who’d stopped by Robert’s apartment every two days to check on his health and medication supply wasn’t much for chitchat. “How’s he been making out?”
“He was out in three days,” Cyrus said. “After the beating he’d taken, the condition he was in, the fact his body stitched itself back together so quickly—with minimal assistance from medical science—was nothing short of remarkable. Mister Ridley said his good-byes at the IAI and reported for work at the Agency the next day. I just love a man who’s hurtin’ to get down to business!”
“Yeah, well,” Robert said with a shrug, “he’d been hurtin’ to be a part of the HSA for a while now.”
“Believe me, his enthusiasm was never a secret.” Cyrus chuckled again, as if at a joke he wasn’t willing to share.
“So what exactly is he doing?” Robert asked. “He fitting in okay?”
The man’s face fell. His jaw hardened. Robert didn’t need to shift his vision into the range of x-rays to see Cyrus was grinding his teeth.
The big man didn’t say a word. He just sat in silence, waiting for the light to change, waiting patiently for the pedestrians to clear the crosswalk before he turned the van.
Robert knew not to push it. He instead looked out the window, not really focusing on anything but the feeling of freedom. That feeling grew tighter, however, at the sight of the men and women, middle-aged and older, wearing ragged pants and open shirts, carrying what was probably their entire world in duffel bags on their backs or pushing it before them in wobbly shopping carts. Others, more pressed and clean-shaven, walked quickly around them, careful to keep at least two arms’ distance. This corner wasn’t known for harboring the homeless, and certainly not a half dozen of them. Could the recession have gotten so much worse in the little time he’d been locked up?
Apparently. As Cyrus turned the corner, two shufflers exchanged blows and two others rushed in their direction to either break it up or join in. The situation was little better on the next street.
There were a lot more For Lease signs than Robert remembered seeing two weeks ago. At the stoplight, his stomach tightened when he saw his favorite sandwich shop had closed. He focused his vision, telescoping it to read the crooked sign taped to the door. Rather than coming into focus, the letters, the sign, even the door itself, danced out of his view; shuddering into its place was a landscape, not from Northern Virginia or even from this world. Trees, rocks, and unnameable structures plucked from some old Warner Bros. cartoon about Mars. Much like a cartoon character, Robert blinked and shook his head until the scene returned to normal. The stoplight turned green, and he looked straight ahead. To hell with what the sign said.
“When we hired Darryl, and a few others like him,” Cyrus said finally, “my sources had told me the President was behind us. All the way. They told me that, in spite of the unfortunate state of our economy, our dear President was in support of doing whatever it took to secure the country from domestic threats, of every stripe and flavor. That information turned out to be false.” He spoke in a tone noticeably different from the one Robert was accustomed to hearing him use; it was stripped of personality and ethnic accent. “Our dear Madam President wouldn’t give the go-ahead. I still don’t understand the damned problem. Congress needn’t even be involved. And I…”
Cyrus shook his head and cleared his throat.
“Well, your former partner has been given a desk job for the time being.” His voice had returned to normal. “Right now, he’s in West Virginia, attending a seminar so excruciatingly boring I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies. Assuming he can stay awake, I’m sure his thoughts are occupied with the unjustness of him having to return here to fill a position he didn’t want and for which he and I both believe he is grossly overqualified. All I can tell you right now is that I’m damn well looking forward to that grand, glorious Tuesday in November. I’m rootin’ hard for that Indian fellow. He knows how to play ball. Pleasant riddance, Madam Sagan.”
It wasn’t as if she had a choice to stay or go. The second of President Sagan’s two terms was ending, and the election was in less than six weeks. Robert thought she’d been a pretty good President, even if the sagging economy had failed to support that opinion.
As they drove, Robert kept an eye out for other unnatural changes of scenery—a sign, he hoped, of his own fatigue. All the while he counted and compartmentalized the economy’s victims: the druggies, the homeless, the packs of kids either searching for trouble or destined to have it find them. He did the same with the litter; there was more garbage and recyclables on the ground than in the overfull bins. No doubt about it—things looked seven times worse than they had just two weeks ago.
Manipulating his vision as he scanned the scenery again, he saw a pack of teenage boys harassing a couple of girls no older than twelve two blocks ahead. In low-hanging jeans, fluorescent-colored thongs, and glittering halter tops, the girls apparently weren’t showing enough for the boys’ tastes; two boys had already lowered their own jeans as their pals surrounded and snatched at the girls. Cyrus would see it all soon, stop the van, and put an end to the bullshit.
Robert had long ago wearied of dwelling on the root of modern problems; he wanted solutions. Society was deteriorating. The environment was suffering. If he were still religious, he’d pray for change. Spontaneous change.
That had been the theme of the decade after all. Spontaneous change, anytime and any place. Like last year’s Fourth of July, when teenager riots spontaneously erupted all over the district. He and Darryl had happened to be in the city at the time, enjoying a production of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, when they’d gotten caught up in the biggest and most violent riot in the area. The duo had been instrumental in helping to restore normalcy. Cyrus, grateful and grinning, had personally thanked them. Since then, their paths had crossed on a seemingly random basis.
He’d never been shy around Robert. Although they were affiliated with different and sometimes head-butting organizations, Cyrus had more than once said he felt they were kindred spirits, blood warriors. But Robert’s duties were much more limited than his. The Watcher agent was only tasked with locating and, when allowed, recovering missing children, the truest and most valuable of treasures. As the head of the HSA’s Office of Operations Coordination and the guru of its massive surveillance program, Cyrus had broader responsibilities.
Too broad apparently to help the two little girls whose halter tops had been ripped off. He drove by without so much as turning his head.
Robert quickly looked into the side-view mirror, lined up the angles as easily as taking a breath, and concentrated. Shots of infrared radiation pelted each boy in his face, enough to hurt and disorient, giving the girls time to scamper away. Robert just hoped none of the punks decided to give chase. He then wondered about his driver’s callousness.
Cyrus was mumbling something, but he couldn’t make it out. For several reasons, Robert thought it best not to question him or his decision. Kindred spirits or not, you don’t poke a bear. But the big man was already stoked. That was clear when he started grousing about the election again.
Whether it was Cyrus’s official duty or not, Robert was sure he’d thoroughly vetted both major candidates, as well as the minor ones.
“You know,” Robert said as they merged onto the highway, “there’re a lot of questions out there about Senator Sinha’s citizenship—”
“Imbeciles,” Cyrus said. “Goddamned idiots.”
Fantastic. Robert hadn’t meant to get him riled up further. He was just uneasy with one-sided conversations. But he’d swerved this one down a path he really didn’t want to travel.
“How can so many people believe something so stupid?” Cyrus said. “So evidently false? That someone could get elected to the Senate without a background check? That a presidential candidate could get this far in the process without actually being a citizen of the United States?”
Anything was possible in this day and age, but politics—the so-called art of the possible—wasn’t one of Robert’s favorite subjects. He decided to just agree with Cyrus, hopefully shutting him up before steering him back onto a topic of greater interest.
“Because they want to believe it,” Robert said. “They’ve got a prejudice. Or an agenda. But rather than being up front about it, they wall it behind lies and illusions. Painted obstacles. We as a species improve, proceed through the gauntlet of evolution, dodge the metaphorical minotaurs, by training ourselves to see our way through to the end.”
Cyrus raised an eyebrow and then grinned. “Well, well, well—some rather interesting turns of phrase. Has someone been making a special effort to improve his vocabulary these last two weeks?”
“Uh, well, no,” Robert said. “Not intentionally. I just did a lot of reading. And thinking. And push-ups. Not much else I could do.”
“Oh? Who did you read?”
“No particular authors. Just the usual. Some books on physics. Math. And poetry.”
He regretted his last word even before Cyrus got the weird, sneering look on his face.
“You never exactly struck me as the artsy-craftsy type,” he said.
“No—I’m not.” Robert was more likely to frequent a natural history museum than the painting kind. And although he loved what some jazz vocalists did with words, he said, “I hate poetry.”
“Then why were you reading it?”
Because it appeared the greatest terrorist threat in the history of humankind seemed to have an affinity for it. Over the past few years, he, Cyrus, and all the other good guys and gals had been fighting an idea—or rather the lack of one. Robert felt theories of the creative arts—poetry in particular—made up one small but vital piece to the puzzle of the enemy, and the enemy had to be understood fully in order to be stopped completely. “Just seemed to make the time pass quicker,” he said. He didn’t think it appropriate to share mere hunches with the man. They were on the same side and had some of the same enemies, but they dealt with them in different ways. “It induces sleep, you know.”
“Well, don’t think you’re going to start sleeping any more soundly now that you’re a free man on this morning,” Cyrus said. “Not if you have the good sense I believe you do.”
The man sighed and shook his head. Robert hoped he wasn’t about to launch into yet another longer rant about the election.
“I suppose I shouldn’t tell you before your Institution’s chairman does,” Cyrus said, “but the IAI Board has decided to welcome Stavan ‘Ava’ Darden as a trainee for its Watcher program. Not unanimously, I might add.”
Robert wasn’t sure he shared the man’s dismay. He’d his own misgivings about her motivations, but Robert knew Ava cared deeply about missing kids and would probably make a decent agent. She’d also been placed under house arrest for accompanying him on the mission to recover his partner after Darryl had been taken hostage and tortured by a cult of Sprytes. She’d been confined to an apartment at The Burrow, the main office of the IAI, for two weeks, the same amount of time as Robert. Since she was parentless, homeless, and missing most of her memories of the previous eighteen months, Ava’s options were limited. Robert guessed there was really nothing else they could do with Ava but keep her with the Institution after she’d served her time, even if she wasn’t exactly like the other orphans there.
“Does she know?” Robert asked.
“I’m sure,” Cyrus said. “She was released this morning. I’m sure whoever let her out of her cage told her the wondrous news.”
Cyrus sighed again. “All I will say is I pulled a string or two to get you released early because the decision was made to release her early—for saintly behavior. I have no say in your Institution’s internal affairs, unfortunately. But you, Mister Goldner, you’ve formed some sort of relationship with this girl.”
“Me?” He wasn’t sure what Cyrus was insinuating, but he didn’t like it. “Not really. Just because she was with me when—”
“Exactly what I mean. She was with you when you embarked on obviously illegal activity. She wasn’t against you. She probably trusts you, or thinks you trust her. Whichever, more than anyone else, you’ve established a bond with her. It may be only tenuous now, but I’m asking you to maintain it. In fact, I’m asking you to strengthen it. I don’t know how well your instincts work on her, but I don’t trust the girl. Not one bit. Nor should you.”
Of course he didn’t. Not fully. Robert hadn’t trusted her from day one—or, more precisely, day two. On day one, he and Darryl had found the battered girl and had her delivered to a private hospital for a long recovery. On day two, she’d escaped from the secure hospital, evading all detection, made her way to Robert’s apartment, broke in, bypassed all his alarms, and took a near-complete inventory of his studio’s contents before he’d arrived to be surprised by her presence. Even though his trust in her had increased as they’d worked together to find the kidnapped Darryl, Ava wasn’t exactly on Robert’s best friends list. He’d a few good excuses to be wary of her. But Cyrus?
“Any particular reason?” Robert asked.
Cyrus sighed even deeper this time. “Starting less than two weeks ago, the day after you and she were confined, the Agency began to detect patterns…”
He trailed off, cueing Robert to ask, “What kind of patterns?”
“Washington, DC, has always had a higher concentration of Virus-carriers than any other US city. But it has suddenly become a beacon. More are trekking this way. Anyone who’s not imprisoned or secure in one of our hospitals or other facilities. The homeless, the orphans, and runaways of all ages.”
“Why?” Robert asked.
“We don’t know, but my best sources tell me it has to do with Miss Darden.”
Robert couldn’t see the connection, other than the fact Ava had lived in a homeless shelter before he and Darryl had found her.
“And, as you well know,” Cyrus said, “if the average sick-and-tired carriers are working their way here, so are The Infinite Definite. Agents around the nation are monitoring, and fighting when necessary, but…”
Yes, but…With the types of extraordinary plagues and supernaturally gifted terrorists spreading across the face of the planet, the world could crack open at any second. The ID were waging a silent and, up until now, mostly invisible war for all Creation. Robert hoped Cyrus would give him some good or useful news before they made it to The Burrow.
“As I’m sure you’ve noticed,” Cyrus said, “even without the contributions of Virus-carriers, the situation on the streets are worse than ever. Legitimate law enforcement is stretched thin. I need my most trusted allies targeted on my most mysterious enemies.”
Robert had no response. And Cyrus apparently felt he’d said enough. He waved at the car opposite him, signaling the other driver should make the turn before he did, then turned on the radio. It was set on a classical music station playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Cyrus pressed the Tune button until he found another classical music station playing something unfamiliar to Robert, something much more dissonant, much more modern.
He remained silent until he pulled the van up alongside the parking garage. They’d arrived. He didn’t shut off the engine, but he turned on the emergency lights to tell drivers coming from behind to go around.
“Open the glove compartment and take out what’s on top.”
Robert removed a black leather carrying case for a smartphone, with the phone inside. He handed it to Cyrus, guessing he wanted to call someone. Cyrus shook his head.
“It’s yours,” he said with an expression that was half sneer and half grin. “Consider it a welcome-back gift.”
The fact he didn’t own a cell was well-known and often ridiculed by his friends. Just another unnecessary object to carry. He was usually carrying plenty enough when he was out in the field. And having one at home or The Burrow would’ve just been redundant.
Before he could say “thanks but no thanks,” Cyrus told him, “It’s an Agency issue. Most secure phone on the planet. Best of all, that red button in the center there acts as a speed dial to my phone. In an emergency, even if you can’t talk, push it and I’ll locate you and respond with whatever assistance fits the situation. Keep it with you at all times. Never let it out of your sight.”
It was generous, but…“Why, sir? Why are you giving this to me?”
“I like you,” Cyrus said. “I have faith in you. I don’t like seeing you in trouble. And I don’t like the idea of Miss Darden.”
No, of course not. Not if everything he’d hinted at was a possibility. Ava believed she’d transcended humanity, that she was divinely gifted. Most other carriers Robert had met faced the truth: that they’d in one way or another contracted the sexually transmitted White Fire Virus.
Almost all Virus-carriers were extremely sensitive to radiation falling within select ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum. Nothing spectacular in and of itself; a lot of sick people were highly sensitive to light, noise, and certain colors. But at least half of surviving Virus-carriers possessed the limited-range ability to manipulate some of the properties of electromagnetic radiation. By skillfully coordinating their semiconscious thoughts, reflexes, and voluntary actions, certain sections of the spectrum were available to them, notably visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, and x-rays. All at a price, though. Always at a price.
Robert and other Watcher agents used their training and abilities in service of the Institution’s mission while trying to forget or push back the thought that the billions of microscopic parasites infecting each of their bodies, the very creatures that enabled their abilities, could at any moment violently consume their bodies, giving them an epileptic fit and leaving them lifeless husks. The thought of that never crossed the mind of blessed Ava.
In the little time he’d spent with her, Robert had surmised Ava had not only a fractured mind but also a fragile one. Her missing eighteen months’ worth of memories was most likely not the result of an accident. Robert swore she’d been programmed for some nefarious purpose. There was no other way to explain how she didn’t know she had a virus that had been in existence for eight years.
The Virus had claimed more than eight million lives in less than a decade. It was estimated that, at any given time, there were about 150,000 Virus-carriers on the planet, living in constant pain with the promise of even more torture to come in the moments before death. Most of them, apparently, were now headed his way.
“Your chairman was insistent about quite a lot of things,” Cyrus said. “Much of which I disagree with. But he’s connected to better men than me. Still, between you and me, he’s not as wise as he is smart. Miss Darden may be the devil for your Institution, and—Heaven help us—the region.”
Robert remembered he’d had the same fear about the girl, right after she’d broken into his apartment. He’d almost immediately informed the IAI’s chairman, and in turn the chairman had insisted Robert bring her to The Burrow. The chairman had even gone further, insisting without good reason that everyone affiliated with the Institution continue to let Ava believe she truly was an angel; the Virus was not to be mentioned in her presence. Ava wasn’t like an Infinite Definite terrorist, but Robert had suspected from the beginning that she probably had other affiliations.
“Remember your creed,” Cyrus said. “And don’t be afraid to reach out.”
Cyrus unlocked the van’s passenger’s side door. A wordless way of saying, “We’re done here. Get out.”
“Thanks for the lift,” Robert said as he stepped onto the sidewalk. “And for the phone. Hopefully you won’t be hearing from me anytime soon.”
Cyrus smiled and nodded at him, as if he knew they’d be in touch much sooner than Robert thought. “Take care, son.”
The van pulled away from the curb. When it turned the corner, Robert walked toward the door to the nearest stairwell.
The parking garage was ostensibly for the convenience of the shopping center’s customers; their numbers had been dwindling as more and more people lost their jobs and homes. But empty, half-packed, or full, very few who parked there knew the garage contained the primary entry point for the secret structure located deep underneath it.
The Burrow comprised three secure floors of apartments, conference rooms, offices, and workshops, all for the exclusive use of members of the Isaac-Abraham Institution, a not-for-profit organization whose members firmly believed in the strength of the human family, that it should be preserved and its treasures—its children—should be empowered, encouraged, and recovered when lost. Many of the adults affiliated with the IAI believed a childless family was a broken family. Robert believed, whether in their parents’ sight or out of it, the thoughtless actions of some children broke the stability of entire communities.
Lost kids; kids, lost. Robert was tasked with finding the former, but too often found himself facing off against the latter. This morning, he’d tangled with a man in his mid-twenties, but more often over the past couple of years he’d faced off against hooligans and terrorists in their mid-teens. His life was a tangle of contradictions and complications. It had only taken a few years for him to see and learn far too much about the antisocial relationships making up society, and compromising it. A model citizen in a society sicker than he was.
If he’d been a bright-side-of-life type of guy, Robert would’ve admitted a nice consequence of the White Fire Virus was that it seemed to spur or at least correspond with an artistic renaissance in the areas in which it was most prevalent. In spite of his reticence on the subject when speaking with Cyrus, he certainly had nothing against artistic expression, controlled or guerilla-style. But he still felt it hard to excuse the ubiquitous graffiti. The signatures of bored kids and aiming-low street artists, the tags of vagrants and gangbangers, and—worst of all—the red-flag-waving phrases and words like those confronting him as he topped the third flight of stairs.
alVa loVes Valentinus.
He wasn’t sure what it meant. Maybe a boast. Maybe a threat. But Robert was focused more on three letters than three words.
V and V and V.
V.V. was the signature of the two angel-Sprytes who’d captured and tortured Darryl two weeks prior. Veronica Blake and Vanessa Blight. The two had been taken into custody, but there were more of their kind that hadn’t been caught. Less than two weeks later, three Vs, painted close—too close—to the entrance of The Burrow…
Whatever it was, whatever it meant, it wasn’t a good sign. Just once, he’d like to see a good sign.
He walked away from the graffiti, lost in his thoughts until he had good enough reason to refocus. The reason was someone in front of him, someone he might have recognized if they hadn’t smacked him across the left cheek before he could get a good look.
On any other occasion, he would’ve recovered by swinging his fist first and looking at the fallen body afterward. But something—instinct maybe—told him to just take a step back and take no other action.
He followed instinct, and he saw one pissed off angel in front of him.
Ava was wearing the exact same clothes she’d been wearing the last time Robert had seen her. The black ballet flats, the black capri pants, and the cream-colored tank top were wearing out their welcome. The dime-size diamond pendant on her necklace, however, would always capture Robert’s attention, at least until he could figure out how a prisoner of identity thieves had managed to keep it hidden and safe from the crooks. Ava’s auburn hair had grown a little past her shoulders; it had been combed or brushed recently, but not with a lot of effort or attention. Robert also saw she still hadn’t gotten her eyeglasses properly adjusted. She had to push them up on her nose—twice—before either of them spoke.
“You’re welcome,” Robert said.
She stared at him for a moment—her brow furrowed, her lips slightly parted—until she finally said, “What?”
“A nonsensical response to a nonsensical action. You could’ve just said hi. Or given me the finger.”
“I should give you a fist.”
“Want to tell me why?” he asked. “Or should we just go at it?”
“I want you to tell me why—why didn’t you tell me you found Marie-Lydia?”
“Marie-Lydia McGillis. Remember?”
Yeah, he remembered. She was the fifteen-year-old girl he and Darryl had been searching for when they’d found nineteen-year-old Ava instead. Days later, when Robert and Ava were searching for the missing Darryl, Robert had found Marie-Lydia; both Darryl and Ava were unconscious by that point. He hadn’t had the opportunity to tell Ava the good news before he was outfitted in anklets, bracelets, and a collar.
“Are you kidding? I haven’t even seen you awake since then. When the hell was I supposed to tell you?”
“Angels share a bond, Robert. When there’s mutual trust and respect, we can communicate subconsciously.”
Robert sighed. “What are you doing up here anyway?”
“Waiting for you. Partner.”
“Uh-huh.” That was some leap. He hadn’t even been officially told the news of her joining yet, and here she was already part of his Watcher unit. Or at least she thought she was. “How long you been waiting?”
“About an hour, hour and a half.”
“Just for me? I feel special.”
“You shouldn’t. It was my first taste of fresh air in two weeks. I wasn’t just going to take three quick breaths, then hurry back into The Burrow. Plus, they’re giving me Darryl’s Miata. Zel promised to customize it for me in the next week or two, but I wanted to take a look at it now.”
She hadn’t even been free for a full day yet and they were already promising Ava his old partner’s car? Things were moving just a little too fast. Robert had a bad taste in his mouth. He needed some water, he needed to speak to the Institution’s chairman, and it was about time to take his Virus medication.
“Well, I hope you got a good enough look,” he said, “because we need to go back down. I’ve got to speak to Adam, plus say a few other hellos.”
Ava followed him toward the elevator bank. “You were missed. Both Zel and Vince were asking about you, said they had something to give you. And Sam—she was pretty upset they wouldn’t allow her to visit you at your place.”
He shouldn’t have been surprised Sam and Ava had spoken. Out of all the IAI personnel, the Institution’s chief medical specialist seemed to take the most interest in Ava—after the chairman of course. Robert could see Sam being miffed she wasn’t allowed to check up on him, unhappy someone above her had decided it’d be best to send some impersonal HSA nurse instead. He would’ve loved to have been a spider on the wall, eavesdropping on the conversation between Sam and Ava, the doctor and the angel, watching the expressions on Sam’s face as she danced around any mention of the Virus.
The first elevator that arrived for them was empty. Perfect. No need to wait for another one.
Ava held up a key and smiled as they stepped inside. Robert smiled back. “A key to the kingdom?” he said as he reached into his jeans pocket. “Congratulations. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to try mine, just to be sure it still works. And to make sure I’m really welcome back.”
He inserted his special key into one of the many slots near the buttons. Ava pushed the button for the top floor; the cab ascended. The keys wouldn’t work if used on any level below six. An extra measure of security for The Burrow.
“I just told you people were asking about you,” Ava said. “Why wouldn’t you be welcome back?”
“Maybe they found out about some other things I’ve done,” he said, only half joking. “Maybe they have some new punishments they want to dish out.”
“Wasn’t so bad being cooped up,” Ava said. “I had a lot of time to think and plan.”
“Oh yeah? Plotting against us?”
It just slipped out. An absentminded comment that under other circumstances would’ve been a little joke at best. But from Cyrus’s intimations, through Robert’s nagging thoughts, out of his mouth, and into Ava’s ears, it couldn’t have sounded that way.
“Don’t start that junk again,” Ava said. “Don’t even start. After everything we went through together—”
“I know, I know—I’m sorry. Just a witless witticism.”
Neither said anything more as the elevator reached the top floor, hummed, then rattled and shook as it turned around. After completing a 180-degree spin, the elevator doors slid open onto an opaque darkness. Robert adjusted his eyesight in order to see through a blackness no normal human’s eyes could ever penetrate. He and Ava then stepped off the elevator and approached the one a few feet ahead of them.
“You can do the honors this time,” he said, making a meager attempt to get them back on warm-and-friendly footing. No need to get smart-mouthed or accusatory till he had a good and hard reason to do so. Adam seemed to have placed full trust in her, and, for many reasons, Robert tended to fall in line with the IAI chairman over any HSA employee.
After giving him a look indicating she hadn’t quite warmed back up to friendly yet, Ava took off her glasses. She inserted her key into the hole near the button and looked into the retina scanner. Robert heard the sound indicating it had worked. The elevator cab was approaching their level from far below.
“Zel or Vince explain how the watches work?” Robert asked.
“Zel did,” Ava said. “I only saw Vince in passing. He just popped his head into Zel’s workshop when I was there. He didn’t seem like he wanted to discuss anything with me.”
“Well, he’s no chatterbox,” Robert said. “More the philosophical type.”
“It was more than that,” Ava said. “He gave me a funny look when he saw me. Reminded me of a few of the looks you used to give me after we first met.”
“Must just be in your head.”
“Whether it is or not, I’ll get to the bottom of it,” Ava said. “He’s got something I want. So he’s going to have to talk to me sooner or later.”
Before that, Robert thought, someone should have a talk with her about the IAI’s hierarchy. Vince was a Board member. Ava was just a Watcher trainee. The folks in charge of the cleaning and maintenance of The Burrow had more authority than her.
“One thing at a time,” he said. “First, you and I are going to respectfully request an audience with Adam, hear what the chairman has to tell us about our alleged partnership.”
“I can tell you a few things—”
Ava stopped short when the elevator doors opened.
Neither of them made a motion to step inside the waiting cab. They only looked down. One of them gasped—Robert wasn’t sure if it was him or Ava—but they both saw it, they both reacted, and they may or may not have been thinking the same thing.
Chairman Adam Smith would certainly grant them an immediate meeting. He’d want to discuss everything the two of them knew—or suspected—about the dead Watcher agent in the elevator.
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