The ambulance came to a stop, and for a moment she thought Carl’s head would roll off the gurney, but it stayed in place. That was a strange relief that evaporated as she heard the engine shut off, the driver’s door open, and footsteps move around to the doors.
Get ready, she told herself. But how did you get ready for this final moment when all hope was gone? It seemed crazy and absurd, that she’d survived Jane only to die like this, for no good purpose.
The doors opened, and the paramedic climbed in. He pulled off his cap and crouched down next to Bryn, and she was treated to a big, toothy smile…
From Fast Freddy Watson. The man she’d shot at the marina. The one who’d killed, and then kidnapped, her sister, Annalie.
Her own original murderer.
“Hey, Bryn,” he said. “What’s shakin’, bacon?” He flipped open a long-bladed knife, hesitated for a few seconds with his gaze on her face, and then neatly began slitting open her Velcro restraints. “Welcome to your rescue party.”
She sat up fast as he methodically finished with the last of the straps, ready to defend herself if he decided to go psycho on her…but after Jane, Freddy weirdly seemed quite normal. Her scale of crazy had definitely undergone some vast expansion.
He cast a look at Carl and said, “Guess we’ll be leaving him.” He patted Carl’s bloodless cheek. “Sorry, buddy. Sucks for you, I know.”
With that, Freddy folded his knife and jumped down from the back, and Bryn followed, feeling shaky with a toxic mix of adrenaline, relief, uncertainty, and decaying nanites. The ambulance was parked on a small side road off the main one leading down the hill; they were surrounded on three sides by swelling dark hills.
And they weren’t alone. A blue sedan idled nearby, and Freddy walked over to it and opened the back door. When she hesitated, he said, “The ambulance is stolen. If you go joyriding around for long, especially with your headless friend in the back, you’ll be having some fun with the local yokels real soon. C’mon, Bryn. Could have hurt you already if I was going to do it—oh, and if I leave you here, Jane’ll find you soon. You don’t want that. Trust me.”
She really didn’t. After another second or two, she slid into the backseat of the sedan. Freddy shut the door and got into the passenger seat.
The man in the front seat said, “Hello, Bryn,” and she realized that it was no surprise, really.
Jonathan Mercer was driving the car. Fast Freddy’s boss…
And the inventor of Returné.
“I came to save your life,” he said. “How am I doing so far?”
“Great,” Bryn said. She lunged forward over the seat, put him in a headlock, and said, “Give me your cell phone or I’ll break your fucking neck, you psycho.”
He choked, flailed, and pointed wildly at Fast Freddy…who dug a phone from his pocket and held it out. Bryn let go of Mercer’s chicken-thin throat, took the phone, and sank back against the cushions as she dialed with lightning-fast fingers.
Patrick answered on the first ring, this time.
“It’s Bryn,” she said. “I’m out. They’re coming for Joe and his family. Get everyone safe, right now. Don’t worry about me.”
“Does Mercer have you?” Patrick asked. She could hear the tension in his voice.
“Did you hear me? Kylie and the kids—”
“Are safe,” Joe said, clicking in on another line. “Liam’s okay, too. So’s your dog, in case you’re wondering, although he’s getting a little pissed at you for all the inconvenient abductions. It’s hell on his routine. Does Mercer have you?”
This was so confusing it made her head hurt. “Is he supposed to have me?”
“Yes,” said Patrick. “It was the best way we could get you out of there safely. They were looking for us. Not for someone we’d shoot on sight.”
She was feeling a little out of her depth, suddenly. Back was front. White was black. And Jonathan Mercer and Fast Freddy, apparently, were allies. “How the hell…?”
“Long story,” Fast Freddy said, and plucked the phone out of her hand. “No time. We’re coming in,” he said into it, and hung up the call. “You can chat all you want later, but right now, we need to go. When Jane gets where she’s heading and figures out it’s a trap, she’s going to come looking for us, and I really don’t want to be found.”
Mercer turned around and glared at Bryn. “It probably goes without saying, but try grabbing me again and you’ll end up headless in a ditch. Got it?”
Bryn glared back at him in the rearview mirror and didn’t make any promises.
“Seat belt,” he said. “And shut up. You too, Freddy.”
It was a silent drive.
It was a long drive, as they veered northeast from San Diego and out into the desert landscape.…Not much traffic in the predawn hours, especially as the car headed into what wasn’t much more than wilderness. Bryn watched the sky turn from cobalt blue to lapis as the sunrise drove away the night. Now that she had time to think without the masking veil of adrenaline clouding everything, she couldn’t believe she was still alive—well, still functioning.
She’d met a true, nearly soulless psycho killer and walked away. For now, some part of her whispered. And you’ll never really leave that room, in a whole lot of ways that matter. She could feel it, the damage Jane had done to her. Not physically—that would heal—but in other, subtler, more awful ways. The idea of being touched by anyone made her feel sick and light-headed. She could feel her body trying to process out the stress in random twitches and shakes, but they were like the lightest possible surface tremors, and deep inside, tectonic plates were shifting, crashing, re-forming. The damage had to go somewhere, and it turned inward.
She thought that was what Jane had been trying to tell her, there at the end. It changes you.
Bryn had a new, desperate fear that it would change her, rip her apart and cobble her back together into something that was human only on the outside, like Jane—something that had lost all sense of what it meant to love and be loved in return. Something that understood only pain. Because right now, that was all she could see, smell, hear, touch, taste, be. Psychic, raw pain.
Bryn leaned her forehead against the cool window glass and stared blindly out at the dawn. Mercer and Fast Freddy tried to talk to her, but she ignored them; eventually, Freddy settled on an oldies rock station on the radio, and that was oddly soothing. She might feel like an alien in a human suit just now, but the Rolling Stones were always relevant.
The car passed a billboard reading SALTON SEA RECREATION AREA. It was an ancient, decaying, leprously peeling artifact of a far different era: 1950s hopeful families, finned cars, and a would-be resort that now existed only in faded postcards…and ruins.
Bryn leaned forward, but not enough to put a headlock on Mercer. Yet. “Where are we going?” She’d expected to head back to the estate, or, failing that, some locked-down location in the city. Instead, they were heading out to the literal middle of nowhere.
“Bombay Beach,” Mercer said.
“Isn’t that abandoned?”
“For years now, except for addicts and thrill seekers,” he said. “You know, you haven’t asked anything yet. Not even why I’m suddenly your best friend, coming to your rescue.”
“I don’t figure you’ll tell me the truth,” she said.
“Oh, Bryn, after all I’ve done for you? That hurts.”
“I don’t think you’ve earned any trust points. You sent my own sister to try to kill me.”
“Granted, but things have changed. It’s not a fight for market share for my product; it’s survival. Jane’s employers are taking away my customers, not just targeting your Pharmadene drones on the government dole. I need my customers.” Jonathan Mercer had, she’d heard, started out as an idealistic scientist, but something about Returné had broken him, too—not in the literal sense, because he wasn’t on the drug (and was still alive), but because he’d lost that rosy glow of belief. He’d been betrayed by his own, and his response had been to betray them back, over and over.
The only thing that really mattered to him now was money, lots of it, acquired as quickly as possible. He was the one who’d started illegally running Returné in a blackmail scheme with Lincoln Fairview, Bryn’s former boss; indirectly, he was responsible for Bryn’s murder and rebirth.
And directly responsible for Annie’s.
Mercer stared at her in the rearview. Pharmadene’s brand of psychotic idealism meant using the drug to turn all the best people—in their opinion, of course—into the Revived, living forever, and owing their very existence to the great corporate god. The only good thing that Bryn could say about Mercer was that he wasn’t a kingmaker; he didn’t try to judge who should get the drug and who shouldn’t. He believed that if you could pay, you should play.
It wasn’t egalitarian, except in the very commercial sense, but at least it had been better than Pharmadene’s “new world order” plans.
Mercer had gotten tired of her silence. “The point is, I have no quarrel with you personally, Bryn. Nor with Mr. McCallister. My fight with the government’s control of my business will have to wait for a better time, because they have absolutely no clue about what they’re facing.”
“Do you?” Bryn asked.
“Oh yes,” Mercer said. “Quite a bit of one, and trust me when I tell you that however afraid you are right now, you are not afraid enough.” He glanced over at Freddy. “We’ve arrived. Make the call.”
Freddy pulled out a cell phone and dialed, and just said, “Ready,” before hanging up again.
“This seems very spy-friendly,” Bryn said. “Please tell me if I’ve joined the Impossible Missions Force.”
“I think you did that the day you died,” Mercer said—and sadly, she thought, he was probably right. “You’re looking quite gray, you know. If you want a shot, then be quiet and do as you’re told. If all works well, you should have most of your answers in under an hour. I don’t think you’ll enjoy them, but you will have them.”