The only guarantee Bryn really had was Patrick. He wouldn’t flinch from doing whatever was necessary to ensure her continued survival. She trusted that.
She trusted him.
It wasn’t the time to say anything, or even for a kiss, so she just smiled at him and said, “See you in a couple of hours. I’ll bring back Chinese.”
“I knew you delivered.”
That earned him a kiss, just a quick one. She got into her car, started it up, and watched him in the rearview as she drove away. He didn’t wave, but he was still right there, staring after her, until her car made the turn to the road.
“Feeling kind of alone now,” she said. “Testing, testing…I hope this damn thing works, Joe.”
“Working fine,” Joe’s tinny voice said in her ear. “Feel free to sing along with the radio if that makes you feel better.”
“Trust me, it wouldn’t make you feel better.” She tried humming, though, until he winced. “See? I have a tin ear.”
“Ouch. Too bad for me I don’t,” he said. “Okay, radio silence from me unless you say the panic word, but I’m monitoring and recording. Starting…now. Say your name, date, and time.”
“Bryn Davis, September ninth, oh nine fifty.”
“Joe Fideli, monitoring. Okay, we’re good to go. See you soon.”
The nav system had been programmed to her destination from Zaragosa’s information, and it led her straight there without any unnecessary complications. She kept an eye out for Joe’s nondescript wheels, but saw nothing, just as he’d promised. For all she knew, he’d beat her to the area and parked somewhere out of sight. The street address was a low-rent office building sandwiched between a donut shop that emanated the aroma of stale sugar and worse coffee, and a dollar store that looked as if it might be going out of business. It was a bad sign for any economy, Bryn thought, if the damn dollar store couldn’t stay afloat.
There was a tenant list on the aged felt sign in the lobby; only a few names were listed. Most were bail bondsmen clustered on the bottom floor of an almost entirely empty building. Her eyes rested on the last listing, for the top of the building: GRAYDON INDUSTRIAL WASTE SERVICES. It was on the top floor, the eighth. There was probably a reason for the mass upper-floor tenant exodus, which Bryn found as she pressed the button for the elevator. When it opened, the floor of it was about two feet below ground level, and it made an alarming grinding noise.
She took the stairs.
Those weren’t much safer, mainly because the lights were dim (or out) on the stairwell; it clearly had been used as a toilet from time to time by passing drunks, and there may have been a dead animal somewhere. She tried holding her breath as she jogged up, and, after that became impossible, drawing in shallow gasps. By the time she arrived at the door to the eighth floor, her lungs were aching, and so were her calf muscles. Right, she thought. More jogging, less lounging. She stepped out into the hallway—also dimly lit, but blessedly urine free—and took a second to compose herself. Her breathing smoothed out, and she took long, confident strides past shut doors until she saw one in the middle that had a glow bleeding out from under it. There was no sign on the door, but the number was the same as had been listed on the sign below.
She knocked, then tried to turn the knob. It opened.
Inside was a standard, cheap reception area with thin, stained carpet and the dead skeleton of a potted plant leaning against the corner. Two plastic chairs, the kind sold at the dollar store neighbor, most likely. The receptionist’s empty station had a high counter and thick glass that looked bullet-resistant. From the dust on the desk, it wasn’t too likely anyone had been answering the phones in a while.
There was an interior door. Locked. Bryn tried the polite thing first, knocking and calling out in her most inoffensive voice. No response. She pulled out her cell and tried the phones, which rang on the other side of the glass and went to voice mail.
Enough Ms. Nice Lady, she thought, and hoped her shoes were up to it.
Her kick landed squarely where she aimed it, and the cheap lock shattered like glass, throwing the door open and back with a boom. That didn’t draw any more attention than her knocking or phone-ringing. Not a good sign.
She stepped into the hallway beyond it. Right or left? It looked like there were offices in both directions. No sound of anyone at home. She listened, turning her head each way, and when she directed her attention right, she got a hit.
Not a sound. A smell. Just a bare hint of it, ripe and rotten.
God, no. Not again. She had a flashback of walking into a rich woman’s house on the hill, and hearing the storming buzz of flies, stepping over the march of ants, seeing the moving, rotting thing on the bed.
Sack up, she told herself. You’ve seen it before. She had. She wasn’t frightened of the dead, and decomp didn’t shock her. What had shocked her back in that house had been seeing the spectral ghost of her own future, of being dead and still living, still knowing as her body fell apart around her.
But that wasn’t the case here.
She found the staff of Graydon Industrial Waste Services gathered in the break room, if it could be dignified by that name—there was a cheap old TV in the corner with broken antennae and a coffeemaker still grimly reheating a carafe of days-old undrinkable sludge. There were also seven bodies, each wrapped neatly in plastic tarps and secured with duct tape, envelope folds at the ends. It smelled chokingly vile. They’d been dead awhile, no doubt about that. The blood that had been spilled on the walls and floor was long dried to a bitter brown.
Hand over her nose, Bryn said, “You getting this, Joe?”
“Copy,” he said. He sounded grim. “Get out. I’m calling the cavalry.”
“Not yet,” she said. “I’m checking the offices. They died for something.” She had a briefcase with her, and opened it to remove and don a pair of disposable gloves. She hadn’t touched the break room doorknob; the door had been cracked open already, so there’d been no need. She retraced her steps to the left and began opening doors. The first was an office. There was no nameplate, no pictures, nothing personal…just a desk, a dead computer monitor with no PC attached, some junk in the drawers, and a few emptied-out file drawers. She checked around. Nothing hidden.
The next was another office—again, stripped bare. The third door led to a file room with ten cabinets. She checked the drawers. Empty, again. A small safe was built into the floor, but it had been cracked, too.
The next door opened onto a bathroom. The killers must have used it for cleanup; she saw drips of dried blood on the sides of the sink and a pale stain on the porcelain. The trash can was overflowing. She forced herself to search anyway.
That was how she found the thumb drive.
It was a small silver thing, wrapped in a clean paper towel and shoved down the side. It wouldn’t have wound up here by accident, not wrapped that way. It spoke of panic and fear and a last-ditch effort to hide something.
She was, in effect, holding someone’s last testament in her hand.
Bryn said, “Joe?”
“Yeah, I see what it is. Come out, Bryn. We need to get the cops in on this.”
She had no pockets in this suit, which hadn’t annoyed her until now; the briefcase she had with her was her only purse. She propped it on the sink and started to open it, but one of the combination locks had spun, and the left side stubbornly refused to open. Screw it. She took the thumb drive and stuffed it into her bra.
“One more door to go,” she said, and went out and down the hall.
She knew the second that she opened it that something was wrong; it just felt wrong. In one sense it was the same as the others…emptied-out desk, missing computer, no personal effects.
But there was a square, dark shape sitting on the desk, just a dim outline in the flickering fluorescents.
It had a blinking red light that sped up as she stared.
“Get out!” Joe’s voice exploded in her ear, and her own instincts screamed it a half second later.
She was out the door and in the hall when the bomb went off with a violence that threw her ten feet, limp as a rag doll. Fire rolled overhead, and the fact that she’d fallen flat was all that saved her from the ball bearing antipersonnel shrapnel that shredded the walls at waist level. It was a Wrath of God explosion, shaking the building, blowing out glass, shattering walls, and she was buried in a fall of brick and drywall.
No time for a damage assessment of her body; she clawed her way free of the debris and saw that there was a murderously hot wall of burning rubble behind her, and a mound of burning debris that totally blocked the way to the reception room.
“I think we’ve got a magenta situation here,” Bryn said, and had the wild impulse to laugh. Shock. She had blood in her mouth and spit it out in a vivid red rush; something was broken inside, but that would heal. She got up, but her legs wouldn’t hold. Something broken there, too. She crawled instead, heading for the far end where the fire wasn’t yet taking hold. The smoke—black, thick, terrifying—billowed out and up. In seconds it had formed a thick layer over her head, and the stench of plastics melting made her retch up more blood as she crawled. Keep going, she told herself. You’ve had worse.
Not really. Magenta, magenta, magenta…She was back in Iraq, with her supply convoy under heavy attack. IED, we hit an IED, the truck rolled.…She’d survived that, survived with only minor injuries. She could survive this.
Hell, she couldn’t die.…
No, she could. She could burn.
The fire terrified her, and the fear forced her to keep crawling even as the nanites rushed to the injuries and began the cattle-prod pain of repair. Joe was two minutes out, he’d said—he might be even closer.…
He can’t get to you, said a cold little logical voice. You have to get out by yourself. Now, before it’s too late. The smoke was lowering, thickening to the consistency of black water. She’d drown in it, pass out, and then the fire…She might be alive and aware for that part of it. The nanites would struggle to keep her going, even while she was burning.