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       Starters, p.11

           Lissa Price
 
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  “Like me.”

  “But you’ve given up. I still have hope that my grandson’s alive out there somewhere. That’s the great difference between us.”

  If she only knew.

  It was strange hearing such refined words coming from those pouty teen lips.

  “This is a horrible puzzle … tracking down people who saw him, clawing for bits and scraps of information.”

  “Did you find out anything last night?”

  She shook her head. “It was a dead end. They never even saw Kevin.”

  The food arrived, but neither of us was very interested in it.

  “He was always a cute boy.” She contemplated her plate of pad thai. “He didn’t need that makeover.”

  I looked at her, my mind racing to catch up in this crazy guessing game. She put her hand to her mouth.

  “Oh, Helena. I’m truly sorry. You know I didn’t mean that Emma needed …”

  I didn’t have the whole picture, but I was beginning to get a corner of it. “Emma was never conventionally pretty,” I said, taking a risk. “I know that.”

  “Until she got her makeover,” Lauren said softly.

  Was that why she did it? To get the makeover?

  “I guess … I guess she really wanted it,” I said, looking for confirmation.

  Lauren reached across the table and patted my hand.

  “It’s not your fault. How many things have our grandkids asked for that we had to say no to? Just like our children? Guardians have to be able to say no.”

  I leaned my chin on my palm and nodded, encouraging her to say more.

  “We both thought we were doing the right thing,” she said. “Titanium plastic surgery, green laser sculpting at sixteen? How could we possibly condone that?”

  “But Emma found her way to get it.”

  “As did my Kevin.” She pulled her hand away and sat back. “Who knew boys could be as vain as girls?” She shrugged.

  So I was wrong. Emma—and Kevin—might have lived in luxury, but they didn’t have everything they wanted. They wanted physical perfection. And the only way they could get it was through the body bank.

  “So they must have lied,” I said.

  “Of course. Prime wouldn’t have taken them if they’d known they had relatives. They want the unattached, unencumbered, disenfranchised. The kids with no families to investigate if they don’t come home. Prime releases some of the kids to enlist more bodies, but ours weren’t the lucky ones.”

  I could have sworn I saw a hint of her weary age behind those green eyes.

  So the puzzle picture formed. Some rich, spoiled teens lied to the body bank, using fake last names so they could pretend to be poor orphans. They didn’t want the bucks. They wanted the free laser makeovers their grandparents wouldn’t allow. Then they never came home.

  “Lauren—”

  She interrupted. “Practice calling me Reece, will you?”

  “Reece, about killing. It does concern me.” I looked down. I didn’t have to fake the angst anymore. “I’ve been thinking.… It is wrong.”

  “Really?”

  “But Prime Destinations …” I had to get her to tell me who I was going to kill. Somebody at the body bank was my best guess. “I do blame them.…”

  “You’re not alone.”

  “Yes, you, me …” I let my voice trail off, hoping she’d pick up the slack.

  “… and the Colemans, the Messians, the Posts,” she ticked off on her fingers. “The other grandparents we found blame Prime. But none of them are talking about shooting anyone.”

  Now it was my turn to look around. I caught the waitress two tables over staring at us.

  “Don’t worry, I’ve kept my word,” Lauren said. “Haven’t told anyone. Yet.”

  “The head of Prime Destinations …” It must be him.

  “Don’t start that again. The Old Man’s impossible to find.”

  “He’s tall. And wears a hat,” I said, remembering seeing him from the back that day at Prime. “And a long coat …”

  “So we’ve heard. But I’ve never seen him.”

  I had. Arguing with Tinnenbaum at Prime. But Lauren seemed certain he was not Helena’s target. If the head of Prime wasn’t the man she planned to assassinate, then who?

  Lauren leaned closer, looking me straight in the eye. “Just tell me, Helena, who is it? Who do you want to kill?”

  She didn’t know.

  “I can’t say.” I looked away. It might have been the only true thing I’d said.

  “This target of yours isn’t the only one who’ll die. This poor girl you’re inside, that lovely young body?” Lauren reached over and gave my hair a flick. “She’ll be shot dead on the spot.”

  The world went silent.

  That’s me! I wanted to shout. My body! Me! But any words were stuck somewhere deep inside my throat. The pungent smell of lemongrass and fish sauce was making me queasy. All I could do was look down at my bowl of yellow curry, the first food in a year that I had no stomach to eat.

  What a great appetite suppressant, finding out your renter is an assassin. And that you’ll probably be killed too.

  I drove the freeway as fast as I could without pulling a ticket. So Helena didn’t want to go surfing or jump off bridges, she was going to use me to murder someone. Kill and be killed. That must have been why target shooting was one of her requirements.

  I saw my phone flashing. Blake had Zinged me while I was in the restaurant.

  The message read: What’s left to say?

  That was weird. I pressed the call button in the car and got him on the line.

  “Blake, meet me at Beverly Glen Park in thirty minutes. I’ll explain everything.”

  “Thirty minutes,” he said. His voice was dry.

  I walked through the park, past Enders lounging on lawn chairs and sunbaked benches. Two sat on the swings, gently rocking. Children were scarce outdoors ever since the war. Many Enders who didn’t have grandchildren didn’t want to be around small kids, maybe because they’d all lost their grown-up children. And people were paranoid about residual spores in the air, vaccinations or no.

  A private armed guard wearing sunglasses stood watch, hands on hips. I flinched when I noticed her gun, thinking of the Glock. I noticed another Ender couple, both with shoulder-length white hair, arguing under a tree. The woman poked her finger into the man’s chest repeatedly.

  It reminded me of my parents, a year and a half ago. It was summer. We’d just finished dinner, and Tyler and I were watching the airscreen. News coverage of the war broke in. The grim-faced announcer said the war had escalated to the spore-head missile attacks that had been rumored. They were focused on the northwest. I ran back to the kitchen to tell my parents, but it sounded like they already knew. I paused just outside the door when I heard them arguing.

  My mother stood by the sink, a dishcloth in her hand. “Why can’t you get it for us? With all your government connections?”

  My father wiped his face with his palm. “You know why. The protocols.”

  “We need that vaccine, Ray. This is your family. Your children.”

  He leaned on the counter. “Those protocols are for everyone’s protection.”

  “Celebrities are getting it. Politicians are getting it.”

  “That doesn’t make it right.”

  She flung the dishcloth to the counter with a snap that made him flinch. “What’s right about abandoning our children to be orphans with no one to protect them? Condemning them to starvation or murder or worse?”

  She poked her finger into his chest several times to punctuate her questions. Angry tears welled in her eyes.

  My father grabbed her by the shoulders and held her a moment to calm her. Then he pulled her into an embrace. She melted into him and rested her head on his shoulder. At that moment she saw me.

  She had looked so scared.

  I pushed the image of her frightened face out of my mind and scanned the park for the Ender coupl
e. They were walking away.

  Where was Blake? Then I spotted him sitting on top of a concrete picnic table. I walked over and sat next to him.

  Like the guard, he wore sunglasses, a barrier between us.

  “What’s up?” His tone was icy.

  “Did you see my friend?” I felt awkward asking him about Michael, but I needed to know.

  “No,” he said with an exasperated tone, like I should already know. “You told me not to.”

  My skin prickled. “I did?”

  “Yeah. Remember? When you got really mad and demanded your money back?”

  I’d been afraid of that. Helena. “What else?”

  He shook his head. “Don’t make me go through all this. You know what you said.”

  “Actually, I don’t. I know that sounds weird. Please tell me.”

  He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Not to call, not to Zing. You never wanted to see me again.”

  I sighed. Helena had said that.

  “I’m so sorry.” I touched his arm. It was warm. “It was a mistake. Really.”

  “I thought … I thought we had a good time.” He didn’t respond to my touch, but he didn’t move away either.

  “It was a wonderful day.” I ached inside. “One of the best ever.”

  He looked out at the Enders swinging. “So then why …?”

  “I wasn’t myself. I get like that sometimes.” I reached into my purse and pulled out the cash. “Haven’t you ever had a bad day you wish you could do over? Can I have a redo? Please?”

  I extended the cash. He hesitated. “You’re sure you want me to give this to your friend this time?”

  “Yes. I couldn’t be more sure.”

  “And you really don’t want to do it yourself? Or come with me?”

  And have the body bank see me go back home? “I wish I could, but I really can’t go there. And he needs this now.” I pushed the money closer, touching his shirt with it. “Please, Blake,” I said.

  He took the cash and curled it in his fist. Finally, he looked me in the eye. “I guess everyone has bad days sometimes.”

  Then I remembered the drawing. It wasn’t back in my purse, the way the cash was.

  “You know that piece of paper I gave you?” I asked.

  “You mean this one?” He pulled it out of his pocket, still folded.

  I hoped he wouldn’t unfold it now. I didn’t want any questions. “Yes. Just give it to him. With the money.”

  He slipped the cash and the paper into his wallet. I tried not to show my relief.

  “He’s really talented,” he said. “Your friend.”

  So he had looked at it. I detected the faintest note of jealousy in the way he said “friend.” And I had to admit, it gave me a little thrill.

  CHAPTER TEN

  I drove away, making a U-turn that started Emma’s fuzzy green alien bouncing from the rearview mirror. As it swung back and forth, I thought about my choices. If I hadn’t needed this money so much, I might have been tempted to give up. But it wasn’t that easy. I had a chip in my head. I couldn’t just walk away. If I returned to Prime, what were the chances that the Enders there would believe me over a wealthy renter? I could see myself getting into an argument that ended with me being sent to an institution. My year on the streets had taught me how to survive day by day. That was how I was going to deal with this.

  Back in Bel Air, I parked the car and slipped into the house without Eugenia spotting me. I went into Helena’s bedroom and shut the door.

  I went to the closet and pulled back the carpet, exposing the hidden compartment. I removed the case and looked at the Glock.

  Where to dump this? As much as I would have liked to have a weapon again, I couldn’t keep it. I had to get rid of it so Helena wouldn’t have it the next time she took over my body. Hiding it someplace in the mansion wasn’t good enough, because Eugenia might see me and tell Helena when questioned. Helena could try to get another gun, but any delay might help prevent a murder. She’d have to sit out the weeklong waiting period—a new law since the war—or spend the time and money shopping on the black market. Helena didn’t strike me as a black market type, although she had proven to be a goody bag of surprises.

  Where did people toss guns, I wondered? The shoreline was still war-ravaged and blocked to the public. If I gave it to anyone, there would be questions I couldn’t answer. I would have liked to have gotten it to Michael, but I couldn’t ask Blake to do that. And really, I didn’t want it to be anywhere Helena might track it, once she was back in my body.

  I went into the bathroom and poured makeup remover on a towel. I used that to wipe the Glock and silencer for any DNA residue, just like I’d seen in the holos. Then I put the gun back into the case and slipped it into a Bloomingdale’s brown paper bag from Helena’s closet.

  I drove to a megamarket and cruised through the large parking lot. The store’s armed guard was patrolling the front entrance. I passed all the parking spots up front, choosing one midway down the lane. I picked up the bag and folded over the top to form a seal. Act normal, I told myself.

  I got out of the car. An Ender eating air yogurt on a bench in front of the store stared at me as I passed.

  There were two large garbage bins. I picked the one on the right and lifted the corner of the lid. It was heavier than I’d expected. I had to use both hands, and before I knew it, the bag slipped out and fell to the ground.

  The case slid out halfway.

  I snatched up the bag, opened the lid, and threw the bag into the bin. It made a loud clunk that echoed as it hit the metal bottom. Just my luck, the bin had recently been emptied.

  I turned around and headed for the car. The Ender stared as if she knew I was doing something wrong. They always had that attitude toward Starters, whether we were rich or poor. She got up and waved to the guard, who was on the other side of the building.

  By the time they connected, I was exiting the parking lot.

  With the gun taken care of, I could focus on finding out who Helena was planning to kill. I parked the car in front of a convenience store and went through her cell phone. Her z-mails didn’t offer up any clues. Nothing stood out, no references to point me to the assassination target.

  Her phone calendar. The entries were filled for every day until she’d gone into the body bank. The date of the transfer was marked “P.D.,” with various entries after that.

  Before I could go any further, a noise interrupted me. I looked up and saw a small gang of street kids, renegades, running toward my car. At least I wasn’t in a convertible this time. I floored it and sped away, leaving them standing in the street, tossing rocks that probably made a few dents on the back of the car.

  I grinned. Last time this had happened, I had been terrified. But finding out you’re supposed to be an assassin puts everything else in perspective.

  About ten blocks away, I stopped at a red light. I glanced back at the phone calendar while I waited for the green. November 19, 8:00 p.m., was marked with a check. All the dates after that were blank.

  The assassination day.

  If that was true, I had two days to figure this out. Less than two days, really. I had the what and the when. Now I needed the who and the where. And a way to stop it.

  The light changed, and I turned onto the freeway. I merged and wasn’t afraid to speed up. I was getting more confident with my driving. I gripped the wheel as I crossed over to the fast lane. My hands felt tingly. I wiggled my fingers, but it didn’t help.

  Then I felt dizzy.

  No.

  That sinking feeling was coming over me. And it was winning.

  I was going seventy miles per hour, and I was blacking out.

  When I came to, my head was throbbing, but nothing as bad as that first headache I’d had. I leaned my back against a wall. I was in the lobby of an occupied office building. Black marble walls, silver trim. I didn’t recognize it.

  The Ender guard at the desk at the other end of the lobby was sta
ring at an airscreen car zine. The colors were reflected on his features.

  I looked up at a wall clock and saw that it was almost four-thirty. I was wearing the same clothes as before I’d blacked out. Only an hour had passed.

  My cell phone rang. I pulled it out of my purse. The caller ID said Memo Return. I pressed the memo button and listened. A mechanical voice, a woman’s, read the announcement.

  “You have a memo to yourself, set for four-thirty p.m.”

  The voice that followed wasn’t mine. It was an Ender. A woman.

  “Callie, this is Helena Winterhill. Your renter.”

  My heart pounded. I recognized her. She was the Voice. I turned up the volume.

  “There’s so much to say, but I have no idea how long I have before I’m back into my own body. As you may have guessed, we don’t have a consistent connection. There is a glitch in the system. I hope it will soon be repaired. Until then, do not contact Prime under any circumstances. I hope that is clear.”

  I put my hand over my other ear so I wouldn’t miss a word. There was a nervous tone behind her strength.

  “In the meantime, I ask that you not wear my granddaughter’s clothes. It breaks my heart when I am suddenly back in your body and find I have them on.” Her voice cracked. “But that’s not the reason I am leaving you this message. I want to assure you that if you continue as planned with our contract, no matter what happens, you will receive a bonus when this is over. A most generous bonus, as long as you cooperate fully.”

  The message ended.

  I was stunned. She obviously had no clue that I knew about her assassination plot. Of course, she only knew what she learned in those brief periods when inhabiting my body. She was in the dark about my conversation with Lauren.

  A generous bonus, she had said. But I’d likely end up dead. Pretty easy to promise bonuses to dead girls.

  Since I had only been out for an hour, Helena wouldn’t have had time to go home. She didn’t know that I had thrown away her gun. That was good. What was bad was that I was trapped in her plan.

  I looked up and saw the guard watching me. I’d been standing there too long. I turned around to face the directory. The wheels of his chair squeaked as he pushed it back to get up.

 
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