The Drafter

Page 28

“Someone hit me.” Peri looked into the oily, rank depths of the coffee. Sandy’s coffee invariably sucked. “I hit him back. What’s to tell? Especially when you don’t remember.”

“You always remember, you just don’t recall,” Sandy said, and Peri blinked fast at the pity in her voice. Sandy put a hand to her mouth. “You killed someone, didn’t you. I can tell.”

Peri’s thoughts touched upon the man twitching on the floor as stuff that should be inside leaked out through a hole the size of her knife. Both hands around the mug, she took a sip of coffee. It was old, bitter, and burnt. “Jack tells me he killed me first,” Peri said softly. Guilt pulled her shoulders down, but it wasn’t from killing the guard. No, her unease was that she would have to work Sandy over. She had to know if she was in on it. She had to get her reacting.

And the best way to do that is to start a rumor, one that accounts for Bill’s erratic behavior in a nonthreatening way. “Sandy, is there talk about splitting Jack and me up?”

The woman’s eyes widened. “Oh, honey, I’m not supposed to say even if I know—and I don’t. Why would you even think such a thing?”

Peri looked down as she worked over her friend. “Bill showed up five minutes after we got home. They’re watching us.” She took another sip, gauging Sandy’s expression over the rim of her mug. “It’s so unfair. Bill has us going out again on task already. It’s got to be one of those stupid evaluation ones, and if they don’t like what they see …” Peri made a small sound.

Sandy held her thick-walled mug of untasted coffee before her. “Already? You’re supposed to get two weeks after a draft—especially if you’re being evaluated. I’m glad you came here for your debrief and orders, otherwise I’d assume you were on leave. You want some Baileys for your coffee? You’re tense enough to crack eggs on.”

Sandy touched her shoulder, but Peri had gone still, looking at the wall where pictures of retired drafters and their anchors hung in the shadows. “No, I’m driving,” she whispered, but something Sandy had said had pinged in her intuition.

Two weeks. Frank and Sandy would be the only people to know she and Jack were out on a new task. Everyone else would assume they’d taken their break and gone to a sunny beach to recover—no one would suspect they were doing anything outside Opti’s legal parameters—and Sandy didn’t seem upset about it.

She should have been.

Shit. Peri looked at Frank and Jack still talking. Their own psychologists … We have to get out of here. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” Peri said as she put her coffee down.

“Sure. Go ahead, honey.”

Peri crossed the room, her boots leaving puddles of melted snow on Frank’s dance floor. Her back was to Sandy, and for the first time, she didn’t like it. The men turned to include her, and she forced a smile. The big bear of a man was both the bartender and the bouncer, but he had a past, like everyone else connected with Opti. “Hi, Frank,” she said, heart pounding as he gave her a one-armed hug that made her feel like a little girl.

“Hey, sweet pea.” His voice rumbled through her slow and easy, and whereas it usually calmed her, it was all she could do not to jerk away. “How you doing?”

“Fine.” She smiled convincingly. “I need to ask Jack something. Can we have a sec?”

“Sure, hon.” Giving her a grin, Frank ambled to the bar.

Peri’s breath came in slow, shaking on the exhale. Taking Jack’s arm, she turned him so they couldn’t read her lips. “We gotta go. Now.”

Jack’s focus sharpened on her. “Huh? Why?”

“Because they’re in on it. Both of them.” Peri pulled him back around when he tried to look over her shoulder at them. “If we go on a non-Opti-sanctioned job, right after I drafted and lost time—no one will think twice about our absence. We’re supposed to be gone. Sandy doesn’t care that we lost our downtime. Neither does Frank. They’re our psychologists, for God’s sake.”

His eyes widened in understanding. “We have a problem.”

“You think?” She had a bug-out bag in the trunk. So did Jack. Getting to them was step one.

From the bar, Frank’s gruff voice called out, “Either of you want a beer?”

Peri turned to see him holding a cell phone to his ear. Looking tiny beside him, Sandy pulled a chopstick from the water glass on the top of the bar. Hips swaying, she wound her hair up as she paced a slow path to the back door. With a last acknowledgment, Frank said something and ended his call.

A sliver of fear wedged into Peri, driven by Frank’s knowing look. Sweet adrenaline poured in behind it. By the front door, the floor cleaner finished with a cheerful ding and shut down. “We’re fine,” she said, but she knew Frank heard the lie.

Jack’s expression when he turned back to her was thick with concern. “Any ideas?” he muttered, lips hardly moving.

“Working on it.” Peri gave his cold hand a squeeze. Bill wasn’t here yet. They had a chance.

Jack’s eyes flicked over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Peri.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said when Jack reached inside his coat to touch his handgun.

But the sure and steady snick-snack of a rifle cocking cracked through her and he froze.

Peri cursed her slow understanding when Frank came out from behind the bar with that squirrel rifle he kept hidden, now pointed at them.

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