“This isn’t how I wanted to do this, babe,” Jack said as he shifted to stand between her and Frank.
“Not my first choice either,” she said, then started when the sound of keys drew her attention to Sandy returning from the back door. It was padlocked, the excess chain still swinging. Frank pulled a handgun from the small of his back and tossed it to her.
“You know the old saying, too smart for her own good?” Sandy said as she checked the clip, and Peri grimaced. She’d thought Sandy was her friend. Lies, it was all lies.
The front door opened, and Peri looked at the thirtyish man coming in and stomping the light snow off his shoes. His long face was red from the cold and his coat too thin for the weather. A gray scarf was around his neck, and Peri stiffened when his brown eyes found hers and his thick fingers unwound the gray wool. Though his black slacks and shirt were casual, she could tell he was Opti. It was his grace, the way his eyes traveled the room, lingering on her in what might be guilt as he flicked his curly black hair from his thick black glasses.
“I told you she was verging on one of her epiphanies,” Sandy said as the new man caught the keys that Frank tossed him and locked the front door before pulling a chair from a table to sit in it, his feet spread wide and his confidence absolute. “That intuition of yours is both your saving grace and your Achilles’ heel, Peri,” Sandy continued. “I blame Bill. He’d rather believe Jack’s fairy tales than split you two up. You’re his best operatives. Three years. I don’t know if I should congratulate you or decide that you’re especially stupid.”
Peri tried to get in front of Jack so he could draw his gun, but he wouldn’t let her.
Still holding that infuriating, sweet smile, Sandy eyed Jack with appreciation. “But if I had a man like Jack waiting on me hand and foot, I might be keen on a little self-blinding, too.”
Heart pounding, Peri thought of her knife, peeved at bringing it to a gunfight. She suddenly realized how fit Sandy and Frank were. Overdraft was a trap.
“We’re going to have to get that furry orange mouse-eating bug back into your apartment,” Sandy was saying coyly, as she sashayed closer. “We could have lost you on your ‘evaluation mission.’ ”
They bugged my cat? Peri flicked a glance at the man by the door. “Jack?” Peri muttered. “I’m open to suggestions here.”
“Play it out,” he said grimly.
“Frank, let’s get this going,” Sandy said, a new, ugly look on her face. “Shoot her.”
“Not me,” Frank said indignantly. “I want her to like me tomorrow. You do it.”
Sandy sighed. “Maybe you’re right. Can you shoot Jack?”
“Oh, hell yes,” the big man said, bringing up his rifle.
“No!” Peri screamed, lunging forward. The rifle fired, stunning her ears. Jack fell into her arms, his hands across his stomach. Together they hit the yellow parquet floor, both staring at his middle as blood seeped past his fingers. It was a gut wound. It would kill him, not right away, but it would kill him. Even getting him to the hospital might not save him.
“You shot me!” Jack said, voice high. “Frank, I can’t believe you shot me!”
“Why are you doing this!” Peri raged, Jack’s head in her lap as she held him tight.
“Because you’re valuable, honey, and he’s just firmware,” Sandy said sweetly, and Peri hated her all the more. “Now. Either draft to save his life and become who we need you to be, or let Jack die. Your choice. Tick-tock.”
Somehow they’d found out, but how? Frantic, Peri wadded up her scarf, using it to stanch the blood. Jack was okay. He had to be! They’d survive this.
I will. He won’t.
Peri’s teeth clenched. Jack’s blood stained her fingers as it soaked through her scarf and he made a heartrending gasp. “Fuck, that hurt,” he moaned, face white.
“Suck it up, Jack!” Sandy barked. “You knew the risk.” Turning back to Peri, she smiled. “Go ahead and draft, honey. We’ll scrub you back to where you don’t have any disturbing thoughts about Bill, or me, or Frank here. Everyone wins,” she said brightly.
Peri’s arms began to shake, the stress of holding her and Jack together beginning to tell. “It doesn’t work like that,” she said, terrified. “You can’t predict a draft’s mental damage.”
“Sure you can,” Sandy said, and Peri’s fear coalesced when the man by the door came forward. “This is Allen Swift,” Sandy continued. “He can scrub your memories until you forget everything I say. I’m thinking … four months? The six weeks Jack managed weren’t enough.”
They can’t do that! she thought, and then her mind seemed to jump. Jack took me back? As in intentionally? Had all those lost days and weeks been engineered? On purpose?
Peri looked at Jack as her hands pressed into him. A wash of nausea flooded her, and the world seemed to turn inside out. Frightened, she stood, and Jack’s head hit the parquet floor with a thunk. He’s in on it, she realized as Jack yelped. He always has been. He’d told her exactly what he needed to in order to get her to come here tonight.
She wasn’t corrupt—but Jack was.
“Ow!” Jack sat up, annoyance joining his pain as he rubbed his head with a bloody hand—clearly not dying. “Way to go, Sandy.”