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       Starters, p.10

           Lissa Price
 
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  Helena didn’t have a Page, but that wasn’t unusual. A lot of Enders erased their Pages once they passed a hundred. Guess they thought they were too mature for that kind of nonsense.

  What was strange was that Emma’s Page came up as deleted. I ran a search on her name and found an announcement of her funeral. Two months ago. No mention of cause of death.

  I remembered the teen bedroom I had seen the first night I was exploring. I got up and crossed the hallway, then entered Emma’s room.

  The sadness came over me like a fog. Sunlight filtered in through brittle-thin white curtains, frozen in the still air. Less a bedroom than a memorial. Something flickered in my peripheral vision. I turned to the nightstand. A holo-frame cycling through memories, displaying them 24/7 to no one.

  I sat on the edge of the bed to get a closer look. I felt a pang inside as I remembered our holo-frame, now gone forever. The inscription on the base of this one read “Emma.” She bore a resemblance to her grandmother, the same strong jawline, same willful expression. She had the confident, relaxed air of a rich girl, although she was not rental beautiful. Her skin was vibrant, but her proud nose was just a bit too long. The images boasted of a lush, privileged life—playing tennis, attending opening night at the opera, vacationing in Greece with her arms around her parents.

  My eyes scanned her room. It had only been a couple of months since her death. Looked like Helena kept everything the way it had been. I would have done the same for my parents, if I’d had the luxury of staying in our house.

  One thing was missing, though: no computer.

  I went to the closet to look for secrets. That was where people usually hid them. I saw a high shelf filled with hats and acrylic storage boxes. I pulled over a chair to stand on and began my search through Emma’s memories.

  I looked through everything on that shelf, as well as under the bed and in every drawer, spreading everything out. I came up empty. I sat at her desk, chin in hand. My vision settled on one thing I hadn’t examined: the jewelry box on her dresser. I didn’t expect to find any clues there, but it was the only thing left to inspect, other than her makeup.

  Inside the box, I found gold, silver, a mix of precious and costume jewelry appropriate for an impossibly wealthy sixteen-year-old.

  And one thing that I never would have expected to find: a charm bracelet.

  Not just any charm bracelet, a silver one with little sports charms. A digi-tennis racket, air skis, ice blades.… I touched them and saw the familiar holo of the spinning ice blades.

  I put it next to the bracelet on my wrist, the one Doris at Prime had given me.

  It was exactly the same.

  How could Emma have this? There was only one answer, and it made my face burn.

  Emma had been so stinking rich, living in this palace, she could have had anything she wanted. Why would she sell her body to the body bank?

  That night I arrived at Club Rune in the small blue sports car, Emma’s car. I stepped out wearing a designer microdress I had found in Emma’s closet, my accessories—heels, necklace, and designer bag—also thanks to Emma. I had styled my hair the way she had in her photos, pulling back the top and securing it with one of her diamond clips. No one would mistake me for her from the front, but in a dark nightclub, and certainly from the back, I figured it couldn’t hurt. Maybe I would draw out someone who had known her.

  It was early, and the music was at a level where you could still hear people talking. I felt more in control this time around. I walked slowly, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. I tried to re-create Madison’s stride as I paraded across the room, doing the Madison real-or-renter test on each person I passed.

  I glanced at the astrotech bar area and saw that all the stools were taken. So were the antigrav chairs in the nearby lounge area. I stood by a mirrored column for a moment before a girl came up to me. Time for the Madison test. She was amazing, with long, straight red hair, green eyes, and porcelain skin that looked like it was lit from within. Renter.

  “Well.” She looked me over. “That’s quite a body.”

  “Thanks,” I said. “I like it.”

  “Hello, Helena, guess who?” She leaned closer, her voice low.

  She held up her cell phone. The hearts at the top of the screen were flashing. Helena’s name was next to them.

  “You can’t hide from my Sync,” she said.

  I took out my/Helena’s phone. The hearts were also flashing. The name beside them read “Lauren.”

  “You sent the Zing,” I said. “The other day.”

  “Of course I did, who else?” She sounded annoyed.

  So not only was this Ender a close friend of Helena’s, but she might be the only person who knew Helena was renting, other than the housekeeper. It seemed odd that Lauren had tried to talk Helena out of renting when she was also renting.

  “Well, I had made up my mind,” I said, winging it. “And you know how I am.”

  “More stubborn than Kate in Taming of the Shrew.”

  I decided to return her earlier compliment. “You look great. Good choice.”

  “How can you say that?” She put her hand on her perfect cheek. “May heaven strike us both down. I feel horrible doing this, using this poor little girl’s body this way.” She looked down at the torso that she had on borrowed time. Her red locks shimmered in the bar’s neon lights as she raised her head. “But as you always said, if they’re going to victimize thousands of hapless teens, then we may have to use a few of them ourselves to stop them.”

  It sounded like Helena had a plan and Lauren knew about it. “You always had a good memory, Lauren.”

  “Don’t call me that.” She leaned in closer. “I’m Reece now.” She raised her brows to make sure I got that. “We shouldn’t risk talking too long. Someone might see us and figure it out.” She glanced around. “You must not have done anything rash yet, or I would have read about it online.”

  “No. I didn’t.”

  “Don’t.” She touched my arm. “I beg of you. You and I are coming from the same place, but this is not the way to solve anything. It will only make it worse.”

  She was talking all around it but not saying what “my” plan was.

  She let go of me. Her eyes scanned the room. “I should go. I have a lead to follow up on.”

  I put my hand on her shoulder. “Can we get together tomorrow? Someplace quieter?”

  She moved back a step, leaving my hand in the air. “On one condition: that you listen to reason.”

  “I might surprise you.” I might surprise myself, I thought.

  She tilted her head as if intrigued. She took another step back and then stopped, looking me up and down.

  “Isn’t that Emma’s dress?” she asked.

  Since she thought I was Emma’s grandmother, this must have seemed really tacky. But there was no hiding it. “Yes.”

  “And her necklace?”

  “And the shoes.” My stomach tightened. I was about to lose this Ender and I needed her, needed her answers. “I thought I might attract them this way.”

  She nodded. “Clever.”

  She left me alone in the crowd. I scanned the others, wondering if Blake was there. There was one empty seat in the lounge section. It was the last of four deeply cushioned chairs surrounding a caffeine table. The others were taken by two guys and a girl. The girl saw me staring and casually motioned to me.

  “No one’s sitting here.” The girl moved her purse off the chair and patted it, the way you would for a poodle.

  I joined them because they were clearly renters. They looked like a fashion spread. Two handsome guys—one dark and sporting a European-cut suit, the other a smoldering Asian in black leather—and a girl with lustrous ebony skin and long, straight hair. Their faces and bodies were 100 percent perfect.

  Maybe they could tell me something about Emma. But I had to be careful not to slip and give away my secret.

  “Would you like a drink?” the suit asked me. He had t
he lilting accent and smoky eyes of stars I’d seen in old Bollywood musicals.

  “No, thank you.” I tried to sound older and sophisticated.

  “My name’s Raj. At least, it is here.” He glanced sideways at the other guy and they both laughed.

  They all looked at me, waiting for my introduction. “Call me Callie.” I rolled my eyes. “Still can’t get used to using that name.”

  “I can’t get used to this accent,” Raj said, gesturing to his throat. That started another round of laughter between the guys.

  The girl nodded at me. Her name was Briona, and she looked like a model, her long limbs shimmering from Glo-Dust. The Asian guy with high cheekbones was called Lee. I had to remind myself that they were really creepy old Enders.

  “So, this your first time, Callie?” Raj asked.

  “It’s that obvious?” I said.

  They all chuckled.

  “We’ve never seen this body before,” Briona said. “It’s nice.”

  “Yeah, it’s great,” Lee said.

  “How are you doing so far?” Raj asked.

  I shrugged. “Good.”

  “What have you done?” he asked. He had a little smirk. “Or is this your first night?”

  “Not much. I went horseback riding.”

  They smiled. “That’s fun,” Lee said. “Where?”

  “Someone’s private ranch.”

  “A renter?” Raj asked.

  “No.”

  They exchanged looks.

  “A real teen?” Raj asked.

  My eyes flicked from Briona to Raj to Lee. They looked concerned. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

  “It’s just that, well, that sort of thing is frowned upon,” Raj said.

  Briona reached over and touched my arm. “Never mind that. You paid to have a good time. Haven’t we all earned it?”

  “Speaking of which, let’s blow this joint and go have some real fun,” Lee said.

  He leaned forward, a wicked grin on his face.

  Raj finished his bottled water and slammed it on the table. “Great idea.”

  Everyone stood. Briona hooked her arm in mine. “Come. We can have a girl gabfest. I love helping first-timers. Do you crochet? Knit?”

  Maybe it was just because I was the odd man out and they were all friends, but I kept getting the feeling that they knew something I didn’t.

  Maybe if I tagged along, they would fill me in.

  The wind whipped my hair as we rode in Lee’s convertible. I sat in the back with Briona; Raj was up front with Lee.

  “Where are we going?” I asked.

  “Who knows?” Briona said. “I’m sure it’s something dangerous and quite stupid.”

  “Joyriding,” Lee said.

  “This isn’t your car?” I asked.

  Raj stifled a chuckle. “A different kind of joyriding.”

  Lee drove the streets with abandon. “We’re almost there.”

  He whipped around a sharp corner and I saw an arroyo with a bridge crossing it. Several cars were parked there. I caught a flash of something moving away from the bridge.

  “There they go.” Lee pointed.

  “No.” Raj shook his head. “Not on your life.”

  “You mean not on his life.” Lee pointed to Raj’s belly and then poked it.

  Both guys laughed.

  “That’s where we’re going?” I asked.

  “This isn’t funny,” Briona said.

  “It’s not funny, it’s fun,” Lee said.

  Soon we were parked on the bridge with the other cars.

  The guys ran out of the car to a crowd of people in the middle of the bridge. I grabbed Briona’s arm.

  “What is this?” I asked, confused.

  “Band-bounce. Idiots jump off a bridge and the only thing that keeps them from turning into pancakes is a thin tech strap. Supposedly, it’s intelligent enough to adjust for your weight and velocity.” She paused. “Supposedly.”

  “Sounds dangerous,” I said.

  She shrugged. “Well, at least it’s not your body.”

  We held on to the railing separating us from a long fall into a canyon below. The wind blew our hair as we watched some guy throw himself over the side, plunging into the arroyo. I gasped and closed my eyes.

  “No, watch,” Briona urged, peering downward.

  He fell and fell, coming dangerously close to kissing the dirt, but his tech strap stopped him at the last moment, just as Briona had said it would. He bounced back just the right distance for the guys on the bridge to pull him in.

  Raj and Lee were several yards away, against the railing, having an argument.

  “Briona …” I turned to her. “I need to ask you something.”

  “Yes, honey, anything.”

  “Did you ever meet a donor body named Emma?”

  Briona stared back at me. Maybe she was trying to remember.

  “She was tall, blond curls, strong features,” I said.

  “Doesn’t sound familiar. Did she do something to you?”

  “No. I’d just like to find someone who knew her.”

  “Sorry. Wish I could be more help. After a while, most of these donors begin to look the same, you know?”

  “What about your friends? Could they have known her?”

  “Doubt it. In spite of all their bravado, they really haven’t rented much.” She looked over at Lee and Raj. Lee was getting ready to jump. “I don’t believe it.”

  In a second, Lee’s body became a black bullet arcing into the air and falling in slo-mo.

  So much for contracts and rules.

  CHAPTER NINE

  After Lee survived his crazy techno bounce, he drove us back to Club Rune. Raj stayed in the car while Lee kept the engine running. Briona got out with me to say goodbye. I smoothed my windswept hair.

  “Definitely keep in touch, Callie. We could have so much fun together. Do you play bridge? Listen to me, only thinking of spinster games. Never mind that. We could go shopping. Or dancing. Or z-blading.”

  She gave me a long hug. When we pulled apart, I opened my wallet to look for a card for her. Instead, I was surprised to see a wad of cash. I had emptied my purse yesterday, so Blake could give it all to Michael.

  “What are you doing?” Briona asked.

  “Getting a card to give you.”

  “You don’t need that, silly. That’s just for ol’ Enders.” She winked.

  I’d never heard an Ender call themselves that, but then, she was in her pretend-teen mode.

  She held up her cell phone. “I grabbed your number. Gave you mine. If you’re about to do something fun—”

  “Or dangerous,” Lee interrupted, his hand resting on the back of the car seat.

  “—call me,” Briona continued. “Call me for any reason. I do want to see more of you. I feel like we’re old friends already.”

  Old is right, I thought.

  She got back in the car and waved her lovely jeweled hand as they drove away.

  All I could think about was the cash in my purse. Once I was in my car with the doors locked, and before I pulled away from the safety of the valet zone, I counted the bills in my purse. It was exactly the amount I had given to Blake.

  The next morning, I drove a few blocks away from the house and pulled over to the curb. I called Blake but got his voiceZing.

  “Hey, it’s Blake. You know what to do.”

  “Hi, Blake. It’s Callie. Can you call me, please?”

  After I disconnected, I wished I had said more. But I wasn’t about to call him back. He hadn’t called me since our date.

  I wouldn’t have called at all if it weren’t for my brother.

  I met Lauren at a Thai restaurant she chose. It was in the Valley, tucked deep in the corner of a minimall with way too many signs. Not really a hangout for a rich Ender like Lauren. But I knew she had picked it because the chances of running into anyone who would know us were next to zero. Not that we were recognizable, but we didn’t want someone t
o hear us talking.

  We sat at a booth in the back. The Ender bus boy brought us water and checked us out. The working Enders had no idea that the exclusive body bank even existed. They didn’t know that the hot young “Reece” was really the hundred-plus-year-old Lauren, or that my drop-dead looks were not thanks to Mother Nature but to state-of-the-art technology. It wasn’t part of their world. They were just happy to have jobs to carry them into their older old age.

  And it made the chaotic transition after the Spore Wars somewhat easier that the Enders were already back in the workforce, due to their extended lifetimes.

  After we ordered, Lauren glanced around, her glossy red hair swinging. The closest party was two booths over, and the recorded Thai music covered whatever they were saying. She seemed satisfied that no one could hear us.

  “Helena, are you still going to go through with it?” She stared at me with those mesmerizing green eyes.

  I sipped my water. I needed to say something that didn’t give away the fact that I had no clue what Helena’s plan was.

  Finally, I settled on “I don’t know.”

  She straightened and her eyes brightened. My words gave her hope.

  “It’s wrong,” she said. “You know it’s wrong.”

  “I suppose so.”

  “Of course it is.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Murder is always wrong.”

  Murder?

  I did my best not to show the shock that hit my gut like an unfriendlie’s fist. I placed my elbows at the edge of the table and dropped my forehead into my hands, trying to cover my surprise as Ender angst.

  Inside, I was reeling.

  I had to know more. But I couldn’t ask her straight out. I bit the inside of my cheek. Then I remembered what Lauren had said yesterday.

  “But victimizing Starters”—I caught myself—“teens … is wrong too. Don’t you think?” I asked.

  “Of course it’s wrong. Every day, I wake up thinking about my Kevin. With my daughter and son-in-law gone, he was all I had left.”

 
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