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       Enders, p.12

           Lissa Price
 
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  “No,” Hyden said sadly. “He’s right.”

  “Hyden … ,” I said, wanting so much to reach out.

  He picked up his box. “Go ahead, Callie. We’ll wait for you outside.”

  He left. Michael looked at me. “Take your time,” he said before he followed him.

  I sighed as I stood in the middle of my father’s office. What to do with my last precious minutes? I wanted something of his, but what?

  One of his watches lay on a stack of papers on his desk. It was old-fashioned, like from his old movies that he loved. He had a couple of these; they were rare. Collector’s items.

  I put it on my wrist. It was too big. Heavy. I slipped it off and put it back. My eyes desperately scanned the room and stopped on his bookcase. At the top, hanging on the edge, was his old fedora. I used a fishing pole to get it down. I put it to my nose and breathed in. It still smelled like him, a tweedy, woodsy scent. I held it there, pretending he was with me.

  Could I remember that scent? Memorize it so I could call it up when I ached for his arm around my shoulders?

  I pulled my face away from the hat and stroked the felt. It still had his shape. But it wasn’t him.

  I left it by the watch so they could be together.

  Downtown L.A. at night varied from street to street in terms of the crowds. Mostly it was quiet, but we made a point of avoiding the camping protestors around City Hall.

  When we arrived at our destination, Hyden squeezed his vehicle past the line of empty parked cars and cruised to the valet pickup zone.

  “That’s it?” Michael asked.

  I nodded and looked up at the club where so much had happened to me. I never imagined I’d see it again.

  “Welcome to Club Rune,” the cheerful Ender valet said.

  “We don’t need to valet it,” I said to the Ender as I got out. “He’s just letting us off.”

  I gestured toward Hyden as Michael and I got out.

  “Have fun,” Hyden said out the window and drove away.

  I wondered what he was thinking. He—and Michael—had made zero reference to their argument at my house.

  Guys.

  We’d stopped to buy the latest tech clothing to be sure we would pass the rope test. Michael had on a great black shimmer jacket that changed color and texture when he moved. I wore a short 3-D illusion dress. When the light hit it a certain way, the design moved and transformed. Green leaves were falling right now, changing to fluttering red butterflies.

  Even though Prime had closed and the rental business was gone, the look of the crowd hadn’t changed. Two kinds of teens made up the clientele: those with bad skin and flyaway hair and those who looked laser-sculpted, lacking in imperfections. That could have been due to makeovers from their families or Prime. Or they could have been naturally beautiful.

  An ultra-hip Ender with sculpted silver hair, wearing a sleek black turtleneck and pants, spoke into his wire-thin earpiece as he stood at the velvet rope blocking the entrance. He stopped talking and looked us over.

  “First time here?” he asked.

  “Very funny,” I said in such a dry, entitled way that the Ender had to let us in.

  Two Ender doormen in uniforms opened the massive entrance doors for us. It always felt like you were entering some Egyptian temple. Until you got inside.

  Lasers cut through the darkened room, jewel-colored slashes piercing the large dance hall. The newest hybrid fusion music throbbed, making it hard to think.

  “Still the same,” I said over the music.

  “I can see why Hyden sat this one out,” Michael said.

  Hyden couldn’t handle the crowd. But it wasn’t for Michael either. He’d rather have been sketching this crowd than be part of it.

  A server of indeterminate gender passed carrying a tray of drinks that glowed blue and left a trail of white smoke. Off to the side, a girl in a bathing suit crawled out of a fountain against the wall. The water looked like gold oil, and when she emerged, her skin was covered in it, making her look like a gilded statue.

  We headed past the astrobar to the lounge. It wasn’t as packed as the main hall, but it was still pretty active. The antigrav chairs were filled with gorgeous Starters. But they could have just been born that way.

  “See anyone you recognize?” I asked Michael.

  “No. And no one I want to know.”

  We’d decided that in addition to looking for clues as to why my father would have been there, we’d also pick up any good Metals that we found. Would we just be collecting them for Brockman again? We hoped not.

  We walked around the lounge.

  “What about her?” He nodded in the direction of a stunning, willowy girl with straight blond hair.

  She leaned up against one of the mirrored columns. I remembered her face. She was one of the donors who had come in when we were shutting down the body bank. Of course, it was really her renter then.

  “You talk to her,” he said to me.

  “Come with me.”

  “It’ll be easier if it’s just you. Less chance of scaring her.”

  He went over to the bar. I walked closer to the girl. I peeked at my phone in my purse. It identified her phone as belonging to Daphne. I moved closer and smiled.

  “Hey, Daphne,” I said.

  She sized me up with a bored expression. “Am I supposed to know you?”

  So she wasn’t the nicest Starter in the club.

  “Sort of. We’re body bank sisters,” I said.

  “Oh.” Her eyes widened. “There. Man, I don’t want to think about that slimy place.”

  “I know.” Then I decided to press a bit. “But I do think about it sometimes. I can’t help it. I have memories. Do you?”

  “Of my renter? Yeah,” she said, and sipped her bottle of sparkling water. “I keep getting these flashbacks I’m walking a tightrope over a canyon. I’m a gymnast, not a tightrope walker. Can you imagine they let her do that? My renter obviously didn’t have a fear of heights, but I sure do.”

  “Not good,” I said. “Maybe someday we’ll get the chips removed.”

  “I’d take a knife and do it myself if I thought I’d live through it.”

  A gymnast and gutsy.

  “How are you doing since you finished Prime?” I asked. “Living okay?”

  “I was smart. Saved my money.”

  Her clothes looked new, she looked healthy, and she managed to pass the inspection to get in the club. Whatever she was doing, she was all right.

  “How long have you been coming here?” I asked.

  “A few months. I learned about it after working for Prime.”

  She wasn’t going to be much help to me in terms of finding out about my father, since she’d only started coming here recently. But she was one of the few remaining Metals we could maybe rescue.

  “Let me introduce you to my friend,” I said.

  I brought her over to Michael and left the two of them to talk. I went to the one person who usually knew everyone in a club—the bartender. Like all the employees, he was a white-haired Ender. He was tall and slender, wearing an earring. His friendly face looked so familiar. Maybe from my first time at the club, when Helena was renting me? No, more recently. From Helena’s memory. The memory she had of showing the bartender Emma’s holo.

  I ordered a soda and showed him the holo-frame of my family that we’d pried off my front door. “Do you recognize this Middle?”

  “Hard to forget a Middle,” he said as he wiped a glass. “We get so few.”

  My heart started racing, but I tried to keep calm. “You’ve seen him?”

  He took the holo from me and stared at it a moment. Then looked at me. “You’re his daughter?”

  “Yes.”

  “What’s your name, sweetheart?” he asked.

  “Callie Woodland. His name is Ray.”

  The bartender leaned closer and examined my features. “I see it in your eyes.” He put down the towel. “I’ve been waiting for someone
to show up. Come with me.”

  I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I waited while he came around from the back of the bar. I wasn’t sure I should be following this Ender I didn’t know.

  “It’s all right,” he said quietly, as if he read my concern. “We’re just going a few steps. I have something from your father.”

  What could he have from my dad? I followed him through the club to a side door. This was the backstage area of the club, with unpainted walls and concrete floors. We went into a small, plain office space, and he closed the door behind us.

  I tensed.

  He knelt down and pulled out a key attached to his belt. He unlocked a file cabinet and reached way in the back for something. He got it, relocked the cabinet, and stood.

  “Take this,” he said.

  He handed me a small white object, about two inches long. It was made from a hard material with a glossy surface and was shaped like a flattened egg. A silver-colored design that looked like a feather decorated one side.

  “What is it?”

  “Don’t know. But I’m mighty glad to get rid of it.” He flopped into a chair. “You don’t mind if I rest my feet, do you? When I’m standing all night, they swell up like baby pigs.” He sighed. “Your dad was a good tipper. I used to see him come in here a lot.”

  “Why?”

  He shrugged. “He’d order a bourbon and just watch people.”

  I cradled the egg in my palm. “But how did you get this?”

  “One night, about a year ago, your father was sitting at the bar when he turned and saw some men coming through the club.”

  “Enders?”

  He nodded. “But they looked strong. Your father slipped that to me with some big bills and said three words—‘Keep it safe.’ I put it in my pocket and went about my business.”

  So this egg was that important. “And my father?”

  “He got up to leave but the men surrounded him. They left together.”

  “What did they look like?”

  “Like all us Enders—white hair. They were tall, beefy, and wore shades even though it was night.” He grimaced a little.

  I looked down at the egg. “I don’t know if he’s alive.”

  “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I wish I could tell you he was.” He stood and patted my shoulder, but his eyes were on the egg. “Be careful. Those men who wanted it were nasty fellows. Maybe you should find someone else to keep it.”

  He gestured toward the door for me to go first. I slipped the egg into a zippered compartment inside my purse and left. As we made our way back to the main part of the club, I tried to make sense of all this.

  It didn’t prove anything. It didn’t prove he was alive, didn’t prove he was dead.

  Guilt rose in my throat. Of course, if there was even the slimmest chance that it really was my father in my head, I would be willing to live with the uncertainty for decades, until we found him. But that didn’t mean it was easy.

  I went back to the lounge and found Michael sitting alone.

  “Find out anything?” he asked.

  I was dying to tell him, but not inside the club. “Where’s Daphne?”

  “Gone.”

  “You lost her?”

  “She got paranoid and took off. Maybe we should too.”

  I sent Hyden a Zing and he came to get us out front. Now I could show both of them what I’d found.

  “My father left something at the club,” I said as soon as I closed the passenger door.

  Hyden drove away from the valet area. “What?”

  I took the egg out of my purse. “This.”

  “What is that thing?” Michael leaned forward to see.

  “I have no idea.”

  Hyden pulled over and stopped. We were still on the club property, at the end of the long, circular entrance.

  “Let me see.” He held out his hand.

  I handed it to him. He examined it and then gripped the egg at both ends. He pulled but nothing happened.

  “Don’t break it,” I said.

  Hyden looked at me with a grin. “I think I can handle it.”

  He twisted it and I watched in horror as it came apart in his hands. Then he held up the main part of the egg, revealing a metal end. “It’s a triple z-drive. Massive information storage.”

  “A drive?” I said. “Why?”

  Hyden motioned for Michael to move aside and he climbed to the back of the vehicle.

  “Can’t you use the scanner airscreen?” I asked.

  “Not powerful enough.” He opened the back computer, the one that could be used for transpositions, and inserted the drive.

  The airscreen popped up. A lot of junk came across it.

  “It’s encrypted,” Hyden said. “I’m not surprised. Your father wasn’t stupid.”

  “So can’t you uncrypt it?” Michael asked.

  “Decrypt. It’s not a coffin,” Hyden said as he plucked at the screen. “I’m setting it up now, but it could take a long time.”

  “How long?” I asked.

  “Hours. Days.” He shrugged. “We just have to wait.”

  The screen became a stream of numbers and letters flashing by at lightning speed.

  I wondered what my father could have had on that drive that was so important. That those dangerous Enders wanted. The bartender was so relieved to hand it off—he was scared of them. What did they do to my father? Was he not taken to the treatment facility when we were told?

  “Is it safe to be doing this here?” Michael asked.

  “You’re right,” Hyden said, getting ready to move.

  I looked back to see if the way was clear and saw the Starters waiting for their cars. One tall girl with blond hair to her shoulders got in her convertible and the valet shut her door. She looked like someone I recognized.

  No. Really?

  I pulled out my phone and aimed it at her. Across the top of the screen, it read: EMMA.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  I kept my eyes on her as she started up her convertible. “That’s Emma!”

  “That blonde?” Hyden said.

  “Yes.”

  He closed the airscreen and got out of the car.

  “Emma!” he shouted as she drove right next to our car.

  She turned, looked at Hyden, and sped away.

  “Now you’ve scared her,” I said, leaning out the window.

  “Did she see you?” he asked me.

  “I don’t think so,” Michael said.

  “Don’t lose her.” I pointed in her direction.

  Hyden jumped back into the driver’s seat and followed. At that late hour, there weren’t too many other cars, so it only took a moment until we saw her taillights glowing ahead.

  “That’s her,” I said. Another car got between us, a minivan. “Don’t let her get away.”

  “Don’t worry, we’ll get her,” Hyden said.

  “It’s not just that she’s a Metal,” I said. “I owe it to her grandmother. She doesn’t know her grandmother’s dead, and she’s inherited half her estate.”

  “You’d think she’d want to know that,” Michael said.

  “I have her number, but … ,” I said, holding my phone.

  “Don’t think she’d answer,” Hyden said. “We have something better, anyway.”

  “The tracker,” Michael said.

  Hyden got the scanner going. Soon I could see her signal glowing on the airscreen.

  “Got her,” he said.

  Hyden eased up on the pedal now that we had her signal. The few cars on the freeway helped keep us hidden, but also allowed us room to maneuver and keep sight of her, in case the airscreen lost her signal.

  “How far can she be before she won’t show on the screen?” I asked.

  “About a quarter mile. Depends on whether there are buildings around.”

  She drove east for about twenty-five minutes. Then she changed lanes to the right.

  “There she goes,” I said.

  “I see her.”
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  She got in the far right lane. We waited a beat and then did the same. After a while, she exited the freeway.

  “Stay back,” Michael said.

  “You want to drive?” Hyden looked over his shoulder. “I know how to follow someone.”

  “You think I can’t drive this thing?” Michael asked. “It’s got a steering wheel and pedals.”

  “Guys,” I said. “Focus.”

  Emma turned left. We let two cars slip in front of us, and then we followed. It was an iffy area of small stores with barred windows and signs in foreign languages and boarded-up auto shops.

  “What’s she doing here?” I asked.

  Michael nodded. “Strange neighborhood for a rich girl.”

  “Did it occur to you she might be jacked?” Hyden asked.

  “Could she be?” I touched the back of my head. “What makes you say that?”

  “Only that it’s possible. You always have to keep that in mind.”

  I thought how that would be. If she was jacked, it would have had to be by Hyden’s father, or one of his people. Wouldn’t they have used her better? Had her talk to me?

  “I don’t think she’s jacked,” I said.

  She drove down a side street. We kept our distance.

  “Dear Emma, where are you going?” Hyden asked.

  “There.” I pointed straight ahead.

  In the middle of a row of barred stores was one place that was open. A small neon light flickered in the window. A café. A tiny place, kind of a dive.

  “That café, see?”

  “The princess goes slumming,” he said.

  We stayed back, double-parking in the street while Emma pulled into the small lot on the side of the café. It had a chain-link fence, but the gate was open for customers. She got out of her car and went inside.

  “Callie, we’ll get out here,” Hyden said to me. “Michael, take the wheel. Park it a couple of blocks away and meet us inside.”

  We got out and walked to the café.

  “Now, don’t scare her,” I said just before we entered.

  “Don’t worry, we’ll play this low-key.”

  Inside, dusty maroon half curtains hung above windows thick with dust. Some blues played softly from cheap speakers that muddied the sound. The floors were unfinished concrete. It seemed like the kind of café you’d only go to if you needed to cry into your cappuccino.

 
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