“It’s okay, babe,” Jack said, seeming to take an extra-long step to suddenly be there.
“Yeah?” Startled, she sniffed back a tear, shocked to see it. “I always liked this neighborhood,” she added as she turned to her old apartment.
“Me too. Ahh, I hate to say this, but you’re being followed. Ever since the train.”
Of course I am, she thought sourly, scrambling for a lie that Opti would believe and wondering where she’d slipped up.
But there was no fear, only anger. Eager for it, she took a quick left into an alley, putting her back to the wall and fishing out her pen. Cap between her teeth, she scrawled GO TO ALLEN’S to hide Silas’s number in case she drafted. She didn’t need an anchor. She could function alone.
Jack peeked around the corner as she recapped the pen and tucked it away. Hands in fists, she planted her feet firmly on the stained concrete. Masculine, fast-paced steps were coming, and she clenched her teeth so she wouldn’t bite her lip.
Silent, she attacked as the man spun into the alley, planting her foot into his gut. He fell back with a surprised grunt, and she followed it with a fist to his chest, knocking him into the wall. Teeth clenched, she grabbed his shoulder and shoved him upright so she could see his face.
“Ow-w-w-w-w,” Silas groaned, and shocked, she let him go.
“Silas?” Face warm, she backed up. Silas was hunched over, his back to the brick wall; then he slid to the cold concrete to look like a mugged businessman in his dressy coat, pressed shirt, and tie. Silent electric cars and Sity bikes passed at the end of the alley, not seeing them.
“I didn’t throw Allen over the balcony,” he rasped, one hand on his middle, the other out in an attempt to placate. “Let me explain. God bless it, I think you cracked a rib.”
Embarrassed, she winced. “I thought you were Opti. And I didn’t hit you that hard.”
He looked up, his eyes holding recrimination, and she belatedly reached to help him. He waved her off, refusing to take her hand as he pulled himself upright, expression sour as he brushed his coat off with short, angry motions.
“Hey, um, are you okay?” she said. “I’m sorry I hit you. Both times. You should know better than to follow me.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Silas felt his ribs. “What are you doing here? Jesus, you look like a pirate with all that eye makeup.”
“It helps throw off the facial recognition,” she said. “And I was looking for a clean phone to call you on.” Her fingers curled to hide the message to herself. “There’s one in the lobby of my old apartment, and they won’t give me any guff about using it. I want asylum.”
His gaze sharpened on her. “You believe me that Opti is corrupt?”
“Enough to be talking to you.” Her heart thudded, her thoughts going to the bell on her key chain. “I think I found the chip you wanted.” He had said it would end everything. She didn’t care who was corrupt anymore—she just wanted out.
“I watched them burn your apartment.” Silas’s expression was thick with irritation as he looked out the top of the alley and into the bright sun. “I doubt what you found is what we need.”
Peri’s lip twitched … and then she let the anger go. Her talismans didn’t matter anymore. Her past didn’t matter anymore. “It was in the bell on my cat’s collar. Jack gave me that cat. He’s not a stray; he found me. I don’t know why Opti let me keep him.” Peri glanced at Silas, seeing a cautious hope. “Maybe they thought he was just a cat.”
He went still in thought, then slowly put his arm in hers. Together they stepped out into the bright light and sporadic foot traffic. It was a beautiful spring morning, the wind off the nearby engineered lake cleanly lifting through her hair. Their feet struck the sidewalk in exactly the same cadence, and she wished she could enjoy it like everyone else shopping around her.
“You found the chip on your cat?”
His brow was high in disbelief, bothering her. “Yes. Last night while ransacking Allen’s apartment looking for something to cut the LoJack out of my ass,” she said, sarcasm thick. “And if you laugh, I’ll hit you again. You said you’d give me asylum if I could find the chip. Well?”
“Mmmm,” he said lightly, his pace never changing. “You owe me a coat.”
His response took Peri by surprise. “I what?”
“Owe me a coat,” he repeated, angling her across the busy commons to the shops and weaving around the dog walkers and couples having breakfast at the fountain. “This one has someone’s slushy on it.”
She leaned to look. “Sorry,” she said, meaning it, and then a wide smile came over her as she saw where they were headed. “Mules?” she said, liking the upscale men’s and women’s clothier. “You got enough for this, pretty man?”
“You’re paying,” he said, reaching out to open the door for her as the simulated mannequins in the window “saw” and responded to them. “Besides, you need a cover story in case you get caught. You could buy yourself a new blouse. You should buy yourself a new blouse,” he amended, and she looked down at the patterned monstrosity.
“Yeah,” she said softly as the young woman in her skintight office dress rose from a round table covered in swatches and several open laptops. The boutique looked more like a redecorating store than a clothier, with drapes of fabric artfully arranged between the clusters of couches. A refreshment bar and two low stages were set in the center of the store, roughly dividing it into his and hers.