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       Starters, p.12

           Lissa Price
 
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  So who was Helena there to see? She had just walked in, because I was facing the lobby when I came to.

  I scanned the alphabetized names on the directory list. There were mostly lawyers, some accountants. About a third of the way down the list, I found a name that stood out.

  SENATOR CLIFFORD C. HARRISON.

  Blake’s grandfather.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  I stared at the directory listing as the guard approached. Did Helena know Blake’s grandfather? It had to be more than a coincidence. Blake must not have been aware of the connection; otherwise, wouldn’t he have said his grandfather knew “my” grandmother?

  “Can I help you, miss?” the guard asked.

  From the tone of his voice, it was clear he was one step away from kicking me out. I scanned the rest of the directory. No other name rang a bell.

  “I’m speaking to you.” His voice was last-straw stern. “Minor.”

  He’d used the dreaded M-card that was ten seconds from the final M-card: marshals. I turned to him.

  “I’m going up to the sixteenth floor. To Senator Harrison’s office.”

  “Do you have an appointment?”

  “No. I’m just going to speak with his assistant.”

  Maybe it was the defiance in my voice, or maybe it was Prime Destination’s drop-dead makeover magic, but he nodded. Then he pointed to the electronic logbook built into the counter. “Sign there. And print.”

  I signed and pressed my thumb next to it. The elevator dinged open and I rode it up to the sixteenth floor. I hoped to learn what the relationship was between my renter and Blake’s grandfather. Something wasn’t right here.

  When I got out, I was greeted by a set of double doors labeled with laser-cut metal letters: DISTRICT OFFICE, SENATOR HARRISON.

  Inside, an Ender male receptionist looked up with a smile on his lips and condescension in his eyes.

  “Is Senator Harrison in?”

  “Sorry, he’s at a fund-raiser. Anything I can help you with?”

  I glanced around. There was a hallway that led to several offices. Harrison’s was probably at the end.

  “When will he be back in the office?”

  “He sees constituents only by appointment.” He looked me over. “You’re a bit young to vote, aren’t you?”

  He grinned as if his joke were funny. They could do all kinds of medical improvements on Enders, but they couldn’t fix their lame sense of humor.

  “Maybe I’m older than you think,” I said.

  His grin faded to puzzlement. But he recovered. “Here’s what you can do.” He handed me a card. “That’s his website. You can contact him through that.”

  I took the card, knowing no one but a bot would ever read my z-mail. “Actually, I should have explained. I’m doing a story for my private tutor and I was hoping to get a quote from the senator. Could I get a short appointment? I only need a few minutes.”

  He softened. “The senator is a pretty busy man,” he said. “He’s up for re-election, you know.”

  A severe Ender woman stormed out of the first office and stood behind him.

  “It’s you.” She glared at me. “Didn’t I tell you never to come back here again?”

  “Me?” I said. “I’ve never been here before.”

  “I didn’t realize …,” the man said to her, palms up.

  “You were out sick that day,” she said to him. She kept her eyes on me but spoke to him. “Call security. This time we’re holding her for the marshals.”

  He picked up the phone.

  This wasn’t the first time Helena had been to this building. My body had been here, with Helena inside. “When was I here?”

  “Don’t insult my intelligence.” The Ender marched toward me as I backed away.

  I backed into the office door. I turned, opened it, and ran down the hall. I waved my hand over the elevator pad but the elevator was on another floor. I turned to the stairway door, pushed it open and ran down the stairs. Cobwebs got tangled in my face, my hair, my mouth. I cursed the Enders who wouldn’t use stairs. I wondered if I could outrun the security guard in the lobby. I pictured him waiting for me with autocuffs.

  When I got to the first floor, I stopped to catch my breath. Then I peeked out the door. The guard was facing the elevator, waiting for me to come out. I made a dash for the main doors. By the time he turned around, it was too late for him to catch up; his old legs were no match for mine. I was halfway down the block before he even made it to the door.

  “Helena, what have you done with my life?”

  But if we had a connection, she wasn’t answering.

  I sat at the computer in Helena’s bedroom suite, frantically searching the Pages for any information on Senator Harrison. This was my life we were talking about. What had Helena said to the senator? Since she’d said it in my body, it must have been just days ago. It would help to know as much as I could, in case the senator’s people had called the marshals.

  I worked as fast as possible. As a senator, Harrison was involved in a lot of programs involving Starters, but his pet project seemed to be something called the Youth League. Could that have anything to do with Helena’s granddaughter? Had Helena tried to enlist his help regarding Emma’s disappearance?

  Maybe he had refused to get involved. Helena could have gone to the senator for help, maybe looking to stop the body bank, and been rejected. And then maybe she’d ended up blaming him for her granddaughter’s death.

  Enough to kill him?

  I was doubting my theory until I found a key date on the Pages. Harrison was going to be a guest of honor at the Youth League Awards on the nineteenth, the same date as the last entry on Helena’s calendar. That was just a couple of nights away. And the time was the same as Helena’s notation—8:00 p.m.

  I knew the person who could give me the best insight into the senator. I phoned Blake.

  When I got to the lookout point on Mulholland Drive, it was dusk. Blake’s red sports car was the only one parked in the turnout. I pulled in and parked next to it.

  Blake sat on a guardrail fence, watching the sun sink behind the mountains. “Hi.”

  He gave me a hand and pulled me up to sit beside him. I locked my feet into the lower railing and held on to the top one. The hill below was steep.

  “I saw your friend.” He looked out at the view. “I gave him the money.”

  I felt my shoulders relax. “What’d he say?”

  “He wanted to know who I was. I told him I was a friend of yours.”

  “Did you see anyone else?”

  He shook his head. “Then he wanted to know why he hadn’t met me before.”

  “What did you tell him?”

  “The truth. That we just met a few days ago.” He looked down. “Can you believe that? Feels like longer. Anyway, the truth usually works best. You know?”

  I swallowed. I searched his face. How much did he know? “What did he say when you asked about everyone?”

  “He said everyone was good.” He stared at the canyon. “So what’s the story on this guy?” he asked.

  My throat tightened as if an unfriendlie had his dirty hands around it. “He’s just had some bad luck. His parents were killed in the war. His grandparents are dead.”

  I looked down. The fence felt wobbly. I was dizzy.

  Trees and rocks and dirt swirled in my vision as I tilted forward. Blake caught me, one hand on my belly, the other on my back.

  “Careful,” he said. “You okay?”

  My heart pounded. His touch felt caring. Protective.

  “I’m not sure.”

  “We’d better get you down.” He held my shoulder as he dismounted, making sure I was steady. Then he took me by the waist and helped me down.

  “Want to sit in my car?” he asked.

  I nodded. As we walked to his car, a couple of Enders parked and got out to see the view. Blake put his arm lightly around my shoulder to steady me. It felt good.

  Once inside Blake’s
car, I felt better. Safe. The world stopped spinning.

  I was torn as to whether I should tell him about his grandfather. How would it help? To explain my theory about how the senator might be in danger, I’d have to explain the body bank, since it wasn’t common knowledge. And to explain that, I’d have to admit who I really was. There was a good chance he wouldn’t believe me and would just think I was crazy. I’d started with a lie, and now it was just about impossible to untangle it without breaking something.

  Blake looked into the distance, toward the city below. “I think you’ve been hiding something, Callie.” He turned to me. “Something important.”

  I felt my mouth open, but nothing came out.

  “That’s true, isn’t it?” His eyes searched me. “I can see it in your face.”

  My heart was like a hummingbird trapped in my chest.

  “You’re sick, aren’t you?”

  I blinked. “What?”

  “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me everything. It’s obvious you have some condition. Getting dizzy, then blacking out. And then you’re like an entirely different person.” He was quiet for a moment. “But don’t worry, I won’t push. Just do me one favor?”

  “What’s that?”

  “Promise me you’ll say something the next time you start to feel bad. We can keep you from falling off cliffs and stuff.”

  He smoothed the hair away from my face; then he ran his hand down the back of my head. I flinched.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “It’s okay.” I had to keep him away from my chip wound. I took his hand and held it. It was warm and strong and smooth. There he was, so concerned for me, and then happy because I held his hand. And there I was, totally lying to him.

  I took a breath. “Blake?”

  “What?”

  “You said you weren’t very close to your grandmother.”

  “That’s right.”

  “What about your grandfather?”

  He squinted and stared into space. “He’s all right. He’s busy. Away a lot.” He looked at me. “But I think he’s trying. He never really got over losing my dad, so he tries to be close to me. I don’t always make it easy for him.”

  I looked down at our hands. They were still clasped. Neither of us made a move to release.

  “What’s it like for him, being a senator? Does he have a lot of enemies?”

  “Oh yeah. Hate mail. Hate packages. Anything we didn’t order goes right to the marshals. There’re some freaky seniors out there with weird ideas.”

  “I’ll bet.” I rolled my eyes. Then I turned to him. “I’d really like to meet him.”

  He pulled his head back. “You would?”

  I nodded.

  “I don’t know if we can find a break in his schedule. He’s crammed in a ton of appearances before he heads off to Washington to see the president.”

  “The president?”

  “Yeah, he wants me to go with him,” Blake said. “Says it’s an opportunity to build character.”

  I pushed my hair back with my free hand. “Is your grandfather doing something special on the nineteenth?”

  Blake cocked his head. “How’d you know? That’s his last appearance before he takes off. The Youth League Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Music Center.”

  “Downtown L.A.” The last date Helena had marked on her calendar. Everything was pointing to the senator being her target. “Let me guess, it starts at eight o’clock?”

  “Yeah. I have to be there to present an award. How did you know about it?”

  I needed to figure out what I could do to prevent this. “Sorry, I gotta go now.”

  “Wait.” He used the hand holding mine and pulled me to him until our faces were so close I could feel his breath on my cheek. “I’ve been wanting to tell you something.”

  That close, his eyes made the world disappear. He smelled clean. Like summers before the war. Like sanctuary.

  “What?” I asked.

  “Callie.” His eyes examined my face, traveling over my cheeks, my eyes, my lips. “I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, but I feel connected to you.”

  “I know. Me too.”

  “But do you know why?” he asked.

  I didn’t know. I just felt it inside. “I guess sometimes there isn’t a reason for everything.”

  “It just is.”

  “It just is.” My heart was beating so hard, he must have been able to hear it.

  He held my face with his hand. It was warm and smooth.

  “You are really something special,” he said. Then he leaned in and kissed my lips.

  Tentative.

  Gentle.

  He pulled away with a boyish smile, like a five-year-old at the fair who had just won a goldfish bot.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  I went back home and slipped into Helena’s bedroom. I knew it was a luxury and a distraction to think about Blake. But I was drawn to him. He had the manners and easy ways of someone who had never had to scrounge on the streets. Maybe that was what I liked about him, that he brought me back to the civilized life I used to have. Not that we were ever wealthy, but we had structure. Stability.

  But I refused to think of myself as being that shallow. I liked Blake because he was kind and thoughtful, good to me and to his great-grandmother Nani. My mother always said, look to how a boy treats his mother to see how he’ll treat you one day. I guess how he treated his great-grandma worked just as well.

  I really wished Blake’s grandfather hadn’t been mixed up in this, but at least it wasn’t my fault. Helena must have gone to him in her own body first, to appeal for help when Emma went missing several months ago.

  I went to Helena’s desk to try to find some evidence that she knew Senator Harrison would be at the awards event at the Music Center. Nothing in her computer about it, but I found a folder in a drawer. Inside was an envelope. I pulled out two tickets for the Youth League Awards, 8:00 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center.

  That confirmed it. I gripped the tickets with both hands. If I was still in control of my body, then no problem. But if I blacked out, Helena would try to go through with her plan to kill the senator.

  Blake’s grandfather.

  I tore the tickets into two pieces, then four. I ran to the bathroom, shredding them in my hands, and dumped them into the toilet.

  With one touch, I flushed away Helena’s opportunity to kill the senator.

  I didn’t want to be sitting around the house when the awards were going on in two days. That would make it too easy for Helena in case she was able to get inside my body. I needed a plan.

  I went to the closet and pulled out the dressy purse I’d had at the nightclub. Inside was the card from Madison, or rather, Rhiannon. The hot, funny girl who was really a frumpy, funny Ender.

  I was glad Rhiannon was still using her Madison body rental, because it made it easy to spot her the next morning. I showed up at our arranged meeting place, a super-blading rink.

  It was freezing inside, with all that ice. Only the wealthiest of teens and a few courageous Enders were skating, all in state-of-the-art skating suits designed for maximum speed and body safety. Not that they needed any help. Super blades, the sign explained, had tiny lasers mounted right above the ice, controlled by buttons in the gloves. These melted the ice slightly so the skater could get better speed. But the real fun was in the jet-stream buttons, which drove a blast of air that made you slightly airborne. They could only be used for a few seconds at a time, and only raised you a couple of inches, but the sensation was compared to flying.

  The things you could do if you were rich. The cost of one day here could feed ten friendlies for a week.

  I spotted Madison doing spins in the center. She stopped, and I waved to her. She waved back and glided over to the side of the rink.

  “Callie, this is so much fun. I feel so limber. Put on some skates and try it.”

  “Some other time. Madison, I need to ask a f
avor.”

  “Anything.” She leaned forward. “We renters have to stick together.” She pulled back and laughed. “What can I do for you?”

  “You live alone, right?”

  “Sweet pea, who’d want to live with me?” She laughed. “My housekeeper has her own place.”

  “Could I come over tomorrow? And stay overnight?”

  “At my place?”

  I nodded.

  She clapped. “Girly slumber party!”

  “That’s great, thank you.”

  She grinned. “So, are we, like, best friends, then?” She extended her pinky.

  I felt like a child, but I put mine out too, and we shook on it.

  I sat in my car at a drive-thru, third in line to pick up my flash meal. Madison was the perfect choice to keep my body out of trouble on the slim chance that Helena regained control the night of the awards. She was ditzy enough not to figure out that something was wrong with my rental. I did like her, but making friends with a 150-year-old wasn’t at the top of my list of priorities. I just wanted to finish up the two weeks left on my contract without any snags, like assassinations.

  The car in front drove away with its order, and I moved up in the line. I eased my car forward, reached in my purse to get money. Then I felt it.

  The dizziness. The fainting.

  It was happening again.

  When I came to, I had an assault rifle pressed against my cheek, my eye aiming down the scope. My finger started to squeeze the trigger, pulling it in slow motion. I was leaning against a wall, by an open window, aiming at a crowd of people below.

  No. No, no, no!

  My breath stopped. I carefully eased my finger off the trigger, letting it slowly move back to a neutral position. The world—and all its sounds—stopped for a frozen moment. Then I noticed a noise, like some demon hammering. It was my pounding heart.

  A single bead of sweat escaped from my forehead and stopped at my eyebrow.

 
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