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       Portrait of a Marshal: The 2nd Unhidden Story, p.1

           Lissa Price
 
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Portrait of a Marshal: The 2nd Unhidden Story


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2012 by Lissa Price

  Cover art copyright © 2012 by Michael Wagner

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

  Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

  randomhouse.com/teens

  STARTERSBOOKS.COM

  eISBN: 978-0-307-97852-3

  A Delacorte Press eBook Edition

  v3.1_r1

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  First Page

  About the Author

  Poor little Starter, what happened to you?

  I look down at the body of this girl on the ground. She should be safe in her home, or dancing, or doing her homework. But she’s here, on the cold concrete of this abandoned underground parking structure that smells of mildew and oil spills.

  Her clothes are torn: the pants and T-shirt, even the sweatshirt that slipped off her shoulder is ripped. Starters style. When you fight a lot, your clothes will show it. And they’re always fighting, because everyone wants to fight them. Renegades, Ender shopkeepers, other Starters. Even marshals like me. So which of these rips were already there and which were made by her killer?

  I pull my scanner out of my pocket, crouch down, and run it over the rips. It comes up with dates on the small airscreen.

  The most recent rip was made a month ago. Thought so. No help there.

  And the bullet hole in her heart isn’t talking either. Clean entry, from a distance. All the scanner admits is that it was created two hours ago. The anonymous tip from a passerby came in ten minutes ago.

  A memory flashes through my mind. Another bullet hole, another girl, another time. I push it out of my thoughts.

  I focus on this girl, this Starter. She looks about fifteen. Probably been out on the streets for a year. Most Starters lost their folks about then in the Spore Wars. I run the scanner over the ends of her brown hair, which reaches past her shoulders. Last cut approximately sixty days ago. Odd. Where did she get the money for that? Maybe it was a trade. Or a friend good with scissors.

  Another flash: Jenny. Blond hair, past the shoulders. Tangled.

  I blink myself back to the present, squatting, holding my scanner. I scan her complete body. I watch to see if the screen blinks red for something unusual. I flick the audio switch and the readout speaks as I run it over her stomach.

  “Scar from accidental trauma, five years ago. Probable cause: fall.”

  I run it over her clothes from her belly button to her thighs.

  “No sign of trauma.”

  Nothing special comes up, so I just store the information. I choose not to use the scanner’s image capture, setting it on the ground as I take out my phone. I shoot a picture of her, then slip the phone back into my pocket so I can search the folds of her clothing. Starters often carry some small pouch. But all she has is her water bottle still slung over her shoulder and a handlite on her wrist. I scan the bottle and handlite, come up empty. I undo the handlite. Sometimes they hide paper inside the thick band.

  Nothing. I hear something skitter away in the dank garage. A mouse? I stand and stretch the kinks out of my back. Oh, for the days when I was limber.

  I bend and remove her shoes.

  Blue athletic shoes. They’re so small, hardly bigger than my hand. It breaks my heart.

  Flash: Another pair of shoes, this time pink. Torn. A few rhinestones left. A hole in the toe. Jenny’s shoes, the ones she wanted so much it hurt. I bought them for her.

  I shake the pain away. I will focus.

  Most Starters have almost nothing. Who thought this girl was worth an expensive bullet?

  Finally, I let myself examine her face. It’s surprisingly beautiful. Her skin flawless. Starters usually have sunburns, freckles, cuts from fights.

  I look at her hands. Also pale and perfect. I didn’t run the scanner over her face. The wound is the obvious cause of death, but my gut says to check. I pick up my scanner.

  It tells me she’s had green laser surgery. A nose job. Also sixty days ago, the same time she had the haircut. Strange.

  I lift her head and feel something on the back of it, under her hair. Carefully, I turn her head to the side and run the scanner.

  “Neurochip.”

  Neurochip?

  “Inserted sixty-one days ago.”

  I examine the rough spot of skin and see a small, slightly raised scar. I turn the scanner to magnifying mode for a closer look. A scar, all right, and two months seems right.

  She’s the third victim in a month. I didn’t examine the others. Bet no one scanned the backs of their heads.

  A noise like someone kicking a can pulls me away from my examination. I lower the girl’s head gently and stand. I pull out my gun.

  There are no cars here on the bottom level, nothing for some crimie to hide behind. The building is abandoned, like so many after the wars. Squatters eke out existences in the empty office building above.

  I look at the ramp that leads up to the next level. The noise came from there.

  I take measured steps up the ramp, gripping my weapon with both hands. I feel my heart rate increasing.

  No matter how many times you do it …

  As I rise and can see the new level, I look one way—no cars, no people—then the opposite. There. Someone. I see a small, thin Starter. A boy, maybe fifteen, crouching in the corner.

  I can’t tell if he’s about to rise or sit; he hovers on his haunches. Does he have a gun? I have to act as if he does.

  “Freeze,” I say, aiming my gun at him. “Don’t move. Stay where you are.”

  He stares at me. Even from this distance, I can see his eyes are wide.

  I walk toward him. “Put your hands over your head.”

  He doesn’t move.

  I know I’m scary. Over six feet tall, muscled, tan, a full head of white hair. I’m in good shape for an Ender 108 years old, and in my uniform complete with holo-badge, I have a presence. Of course, the ZipTaser and gun accessories don’t hurt.

  But this kid is either petrified or scheming to make some dumb move, because he isn’t obeying my order.

  “Can’t you hear me?” I say. “Hands up.”

  He scrambles off to his left. His hands appear empty.

  “Stop!” I shout.

  But he keeps going. I shoulder my gun and race after him. He’s blessed with young legs that don’t ache, but he’s undernourished and weak.

  He’s also hesitating, thinking, wondering which way is better—up or down? That hesitation gives me catch-up time. I throw my body at him, and just before he’s out of reach, I grab his legs.

  “Let me go!” he screams as we struggle on the ground.

  I hold on to his belt and reach for the smartcuffs hanging from my waistband.

  “Hey, man, don’t …,” he says.

  I get a chance now to look at his face. He’s so thin his cheeks are sunken. His teeth are rotting. He might’ve looked okay a year ago, but the kid has been starving.

  “How old are you?”

  “Sixteen. Almost.”

  I let go of my cuffs and pull him up as I get to my feet. I keep one hand on his shoulder.

  “Did you know that girl down there?” I ask.

  “What girl?


  I read his face. After eighty years on the job, I can tell.

  “You don’t know?” I say. “Then I’d better show you.”

  I take his elbow. He doesn’t move. He stares into my eyes a moment. I know he’s reading me, to see if I’m on to him.

  “Don’t,” he says softly, “please.”

  “Come on.” I pull him along and we head down the ramp.

  He doesn’t flinch when her body comes into view. I watch for his reaction when we stand over her.

  He shakes his head. “I don’t know her. I mean, she lived here, in the building, but—”

  “What happened to her?”

  “How do I know, man?” His face is twisted in anguish.

  I stare at him with my stony expression so he sees I mean business. “When did you find her?”

  “Just before you.” He runs his hand through his hair. “I came down to go outside and heard something. Saw her lying there. I called out … she didn’t say nothing. I got closer and saw she was shot.”

  “She was beautiful, wasn’t she?”

  “Let me go.” His eyes plead. “I didn’t have nothing to do with this. It’s just bad luck.”

  I release him. He has a moment; I know he’s thinking of darting.

  “You hungry?”

  He doesn’t answer. Eyes me warily.

  I reach into my pocket and pull out a Supertruffle. “Here.” I toss it to him.

  “Wow, thanks.” He unwraps it partway and takes a bite.

  He closes his eyes a second to savor the chocolate. He rocks on his heels. “That’s me, unlucky Kyle. Come across a dead girl in the morning.”

  Truth is in the tone of his voice.

  “How many Starters live in your building?” I let my eyes look up to the ceiling.

  “This place’s pretty empty. Smells like they sprayed it. Just five of us.”

  I nod. Sometimes government squads come in and spray to eliminate any active spore residue. It’s toxic for at least a month.

  “That stuff will kill you. You should move on,” I say.

  He finishes the Supertruffle, licking the wrapper.

  “Anyone up there know more about her?” I ask. “If she had friends, family?”

  “Would you live here if you had family? She just moved in a few days ago. All I know, she called herself Indie. That’s it.”

  I figure he’s telling the truth. If he weren’t, he’d palm me off on someone else, suggest another Starter to talk to.

  “Okay,” I say. “Get out of here.”

  He doesn’t hang around. He wraps his arms around himself and backs away, too distrustful to turn his back on me. I don’t blame him, the way some marshals are.

  “You’re all right,” he says.

  “Stay out of trouble.”

  He nods and keeps backing up. When he gets to the ramp, he turns and runs.

  I look back at Indie, lying there without her shoes.

  Flash: The most painful one—Jenny, the complete picture, lying there, blond hair tangled, wound to the chest, her pink canvas shoes with the rhinestones and a hole in one toe.

  Shoes. Indie’s blue shoes.

  I pick up one of them and lift the insole.

  There, I see a corner of white.

  I tear out the insole and find a card underneath. A business card.

  I hold it up and a holo springs forth of teens dancing. The title projects into the space in front of the holo.

  Prime Destinations—Be Somebody … Else!

  The address: Beverly Hills.

  “I’ll find who killed you,” I say under my breath. “I promise.”

  #

  I go home to my Glendale bungalow, past my barbed-wire fence. Home, sweet home. I keep the shades down. Don’t bother to turn on any lights. I wave my hand over the airscreen and check the investigating reports to see if there’s any notation of a neurochip in the three other victims. Nothing. They probably assumed the bullet wound was the cause of death. And detectives aren’t known for spending a lot of time investigating unclaimed minors.

  I can’t find anything about Prime Destinations on the Pages. Strange. Maybe it’s a new company. Sounds like a travel agency, maybe one that specializes in fantasy vacations, role-playing. What would a Starter like Indie have to do with a place like that?

  I cancel drinks I’d planned with an Ender lady friend. I don’t have to tell her it has to do with Jenny. She guesses. Nice to have friends who understand you.

  I peel off my uniform and put on my best suit, remembering to leave my badge on the dresser.

  When I get to the address, a building so shiny I’m glad I’ve got shades, I see it’s in the heart of Beverly Hills, some of the most expensive real estate around. I haven’t been here in a while. I see boarded-up shops, economic casualties of the wars, as expected. But the eye-popping jewelry stores are still there to fulfill the retail therapy needs of wealthy Enders.

  The doorman lets me in. The place smells expensive. Big. High ceiling. Marble floor. The receptionist at the desk, an attractive Ender wearing red lipstick, smiles at me as I enter.

  “Can we help you, sir?”

  I lean on her shiny counter. I grin at her, hoping she won’t care whether this sounds like the truth.

  “Maybe you can. I happened to be walking by, and I was curious about what kind of services you provide. I could use a change of pace.”

  “We’d be delighted to explain it all.” She taps on her airscreen. “Our sales manager is out to lunch. Do you want to leave your number?” She holds up a small phone, waiting for me to lift mine.

  I feel my pockets for my phone. I don’t really want to leave my number, but I go through the motions. A voice from a side office calls out. An electronic voice.

  “I’ll see him,” it says.

  “Oh. Our CEO himself will see you.” The receptionist pushes back her chair. “Right this way.”

  She rises and escorts me to the office. I can’t help but notice what good shape she’s in, for her age. When we get to his door, she stops and smiles.

  “Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Calm Water?”

  “No, I’ll be fine, thank you.”

  She leaves me at the door.

  The CEO wears an overcoat and a hat. Indoors. This place is getting weirder by the minute. His back is to me. I enter his office and he turns.

  Instead of a normal Ender face, he has an electronic mask molded to his skin. Thousands of pixels move across his features, making his face into a screen. There’s a blue cast to the light.

  I try not to react, but it’s hard. The mask displays the face of a past president.

  “I know,” he says with that metallic voice. “It’s a bit of a shock. But everyone gets used to it eventually.”

  I walk closer and extend my hand. He doesn’t take it. Instead, he motions for me to sit. I realize he’s also wearing gloves.

  “So you’re interested in finding out more about our services?”

  His voice … I know people who suffered damage and had to use an electronic voice box. I wonder what his story is?

  I nod. “If I can afford them.”

  The face doesn’t smile. I guess it can’t. Wonder how he does that?

  He flicks on the airscreen above his desk and a display pops up of a healthy-looking Starter.

  “Would you like to be young again? Play any kind of sport you used to? All day long, with no soreness the next day?”

  “Who wouldn’t?” I say.

  “This donor can z-blade, ski, play tennis—you name it, he does it.”

  “He looks strong enough,” I say.

  “How would you like to be him? For a few days? A week?”

  I wonder if he’s joking now. “How?”

  “We have a proprietary process that can make it happen.”

  “Sounds expensive.”

  “But worth every dollar.”

  He gives me the full sales pitch and I’m a complete sucker for it. If I were
rich, I’d be signing up right here, right now. Not to feel my aching legs. Man, to feel young again.

  “It’s completely seamless,” he says. “You’ll be accepted and believed to be a teen again. It’s truly a fountain of youth, only better.”

  He shows me more images of various teens. “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t look this good when I was their age.”

  “Could I be any one of them?”

  He nods. “Take your pick. Be somebody … else.” He gestures to the images of the Starters.

  “And these guys are compensated?”

  He hesitates. “They’re more than satisfied. They’re elated.”

  As I stare at the pictures of the handsome, strapping young men, I realize something that makes my heart beat faster. I should have seen it earlier.

  This could be the perfect way for me to go completely and truly undercover in the world of Starters. What better way to search for the murderer of my granddaughter … and Indie, and the others?

  I could never get the department to authorize this kind of expense. I would have to cover it myself.

  “How much?” I ask.

  I watch as he writes a figure on a contract, filling in the blank. I see the amount and for the second time in his office do not succeed in hiding my reaction. I breathe in an audible gasp, giving me away. He chuckles.

  “That’s for a week,” he says.

  He writes another figure, one with fewer digits.

  “This would cover three days.”

  It’s still high, but possible. It will wipe out my savings.

  But if I find the killer, it will be worth it.

  #

  I return home and consider calling the friend to see if she wants a late meal. But I hang up before we connect. It’s late. I pour myself a scotch and think about tomorrow, when I get to be somebody else.

  In spite of the hour, I call my supervisor and ask to take the next few days off.

  “You sick, Walsh?” my boss asks.

  “Yeah, I’m a sick puppy, all right.”

 
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