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       Starters, p.14

           Lissa Price
 
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  “I’d be happy to be here no matter how they treated me.”

  He led me to a patio love seat. We sat side by side.

  “Don’t we have to get to the awards?” I asked.

  “We’ve got time.”

  The bartender brought out two sodas. He placed them on the side table and then left.

  “So, Callie, how do you feel?”

  I looked up at the fluffy clouds in the blue sky. I felt like telling him everything.

  “I’m all right.”

  He reached over and leaned his hand on the back of the love seat. He stroked the top of my head. He started to run his hand over the back of my head, but I stopped him.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

  “Nothing,” I said, letting go of his hand.

  “Callie, come on.” He leaned closer. “What is it?” He looked at my head.

  “Just not there,” I said.

  “Why?” He seemed almost amused. He held his hand over my head like some game, and I grabbed it.

  What to say? I went for the truth. “I had some surgery.”

  His smile faded. “What kind?”

  I tried to think of a believable lie. It wasn’t coming. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  I looked at him. He was so concerned for me.

  “It’s … personal,” I said.

  He took my hand. “I know we haven’t known each other very long, but I thought you trusted me.”

  “It’s not that, it’s just that everything is so good between us.”

  “And you’re afraid if you tell me what kind of surgery you had that I won’t like you anymore? You think I’m that shallow?”

  My lip quivered. “No, of course not.”

  He squeezed my hand. “There’s nothing you could tell me that would change how I feel about you. I want to know you. Everything about you.”

  He had no clue how big this lie was. “Please don’t make me talk about it. Okay?” I pleaded with my eyes. “It’s just that sometimes, you do things you wish you hadn’t.”

  “I don’t think there’s anyone who can’t say that. You’re not alone.” He ran his thumb over my hand.

  He was trying to be nice, backing off from pushing me to explain. If only things were simple. If only I had never gone into that body bank. But if I hadn’t, I never would have met him.

  Past the cityscape, the sun was making its exit. “Shouldn’t we be going soon?” I asked.

  Blake took my hands and pulled me to my feet. “Follow me.”

  He led me inside, down a hallway, and opened a door. The room was a girl zone, decorated in soft shades of pink.

  “Consider this your personal boutique.” He threw open the closet doors, revealing a shimmering rainbow of evening dresses, from gowns to little cocktail numbers.

  “Whose are these?” I asked.

  “My sister. She likes to shop.” He rolled his eyes.

  Many of the dresses were the latest in fabric technology, featherlight miracles of physics that changed colors. Others were retro gowns inspired by old films from the last century. On the shelf above, glittery heels and purses sat in clear cases.

  Blake waved his hand over a sensor, and the cases rotated so that more came into view.

  “I didn’t know you had a sister.”

  “She’s up north, with my great-aunt.”

  I ran my hand over the fabrics. “What’s she doing there?”

  “Shopping.”

  He leaned against the wall, near my shoulder. Looked straight into my eyes. I could tell he was about to pick up where he’d left off a moment ago.

  His face was inches from mine. “Don’t worry.” He held up one hand and wiggled the fingers before putting it behind his back. “No hands this time.”

  I couldn’t help but smile. He moved his face lower, slowly, and kissed me. And kissed me. I didn’t want it to stop, ever. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. I wrapped my hands around his neck and didn’t let go.

  Then he did hold me, slipping his hands around my waist. I pressed my back against the wall, pulling him closer, feeling breathless and dizzy. I leaned my forehead against his.

  “We’d better go,” I whispered. “Or we’ll be late.”

  He nodded. We released each other and he slowly backed out of the room. “Call when you’re ready.”

  I touched my lips after he left. They were warm and puffy.

  I ran my other hand across the fabulous clothes. How could I choose? It was like picking only one flavor of ice cream. But there wasn’t time to waste. I put on a sleeveless blue gown with a matching shawl. The dress shimmered all the way to the floor but weighed less than a handkerchief. It was pretty and appropriately unrevealing. I wanted the senator to believe me. I remembered hearing once that blue was a color that made people trust you.

  After a few minutes, Blake knocked at the door.

  “Come in.”

  Blake was wearing a tux. He looked fantastic. His eyes got big when he saw me, but he switched to cool mode. He picked up a metal wand that was hanging in the closet and waved it over my dress.

  “We don’t have time to play,” I said.

  “Just watch.”

  An airscreen in the closet came on. An image of the dress appeared in 3-D, twirling. Images of shoes, a purse, earrings, and a bracelet also popped up.

  The clear cases of shoes rotated until the pumps shown on the airscreen were in front. I took them out—heels decorated with a small silver whale clipped to each shoe.

  “Whales. Your favorite,” he said.

  “Wow.” I slipped into them. “We’re the same size. They’re perfect.”

  He handed me the purse and then held up a beautiful antique bracelet, filigree with blue stones, and matching earrings.

  “You sure she won’t mind me wearing her things?”

  “Look at all this stuff. We could clear out half of it and she wouldn’t notice.”

  “No, but the computer would definitely remember.”

  He reached for my wrist and saw the charm bracelet. “Pretty.”

  I offered my other wrist and he put his bracelet on it.

  I turned to the mirror to put on the earrings. When I caught Blake’s eye, the look on his face was worth memorizing. First the left side of his lip curled up slowly. Then his eyes crinkled and sparkled as his mouth went into a full-on grin.

  “You look so amazing, you’re going to steal my grandfather’s thunder.”

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  As we approached the Music Center plaza that night, I felt like a princess making her entrance at a royal ball. It was like a dreamscape, with tiny lights sparkling in the trees, larger ones highlighting the buildings, and spotlights illuminating the sculptural waterfall that danced in the center of the plaza.

  We entered the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where chandeliers as big as minicars glistened over our heads. We climbed the grand staircase to the second level. The pre-awards party was in full swing. Ender waiters weaved through the glittery crowd with trays of champagne and punch. The guests were mostly rich Enders, but there was a sprinkling of wealthy teens like Blake.

  And then there was me.

  “Where’s your grandfather?”

  Blake handed me a glass of punch. “I’ll go find him. You’ll be okay here?”

  “I’ll be fine,” I said, looking at the buffet table.

  He craned his neck to look over the sea of silver heads and then disappeared into the crowd. I walked up to the buffet laden with shrimp and crab and lobster. Tyler’s eyes would’ve bugged out of his head.

  I was tempted to taste something when a voice surprised me.

  Callie. You went after all.

  It was inside my head. Helena. So she hadn’t left the body bank.

  “You’re back,” I said quietly. “I need an exorcism.”

  Everyone around me was too busy socializing or eating to notice me talking to myself. I didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved.

/>   I’m glad you saw the light.

  “Don’t thank me. I’m not here to kill anyone.”

  The senator is a monster. You let him get away, he’ll be on that plane to Washington tomorrow, and the fate of thousands of teens will be sealed.

  Her drama was not working on me. “You don’t know that.”

  They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. Well, the senator is in cahoots with the man who heads up Prime Destinations. The Old Man. He’s the worst excuse for a human being in the universe.

  “Then maybe I should kill him.” I hoped the sarcasm was drippy enough for her.

  You should. But he has too much protection. The senator is our immediate concern.

  Sounded like her kill list was getting longer.

  By stopping the senator from getting on that plane tonight, we can prevent this thing from exploding. I’ll pay you five times what Prime offered you. And I will give you a home.

  I made a point of not reacting. I stepped out onto the balcony. I walked past the red glow of cigars held by Enders no longer afraid of early death. When I reached the far end, I stopped and looked at the evening skyline. Beyond the borders of our luxurious surroundings, the graffiti-ravaged buildings were a harsh contrast.

  That was some offer Helena had just given. I hated even considering it.

  “Even if I wanted to do what you’re asking, I don’t have a gun.”

  You do. I planted it earlier. This was my original plan, remember?

  I felt sick to my stomach. This was Blake’s grandfather she was talking about.

  I’ll tell you where it is.

  “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.” I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and sing nonsense syllables, but that wouldn’t block her out.

  I heard footsteps coming up behind me. I turned around to see Blake.

  “Here she is,” Blake said. “Grandfather, this is Callie.” Senator Harrison.

  This was my chance. I could warn him. But I couldn’t just jump in. I’d sound like a lunatic.

  “We’ve been looking for you everywhere, young lady,” the senator said, extending his hand.

  Not the best introduction, having to be hunted down. As I shook his hand, I noticed he had the oddest expression. It was almost pained, as if he felt sorry for me.

  “So where did you meet my grandson?”

  “At a nightclub,” I said.

  He turned to Blake. “Nightclub? Which nightclub?”

  “Grandfather—” Blake said.

  “Club Rune,” I said, probably too hastily.

  “Club Rune.” The senator stiffened.

  I guessed he didn’t approve. I should have let Blake answer. I glanced at him but he was poker-faced.

  Blake turned to me. “Aren’t you freezing out here?”

  I shook my head. Then I looked into his face. Had I missed a cue to go inside?

  The senator cleared his throat. “Lovely dress you’re wearing.”

  “Thank you.” I looked down and smoothed the fabric.

  “And those earrings. The bracelet? Heirlooms? Very familiar.”

  “Your grandson picked them out for me.”

  The senator shot Blake an angry look. “Yes indeed. Take good care of that jewelry tonight. It’s been in our family for several generations.”

  An aide approached and whispered in the senator’s ear.

  “We have to go backstage now. The ceremony starts in thirty minutes,” Senator Harrison told Blake.

  “I’ll be right there,” Blake said.

  The senator huffed out a breath of air. “Appearances, Blake. Appearances.”

  “I’ll be there.”

  The senator turned on his heel without a goodbye.

  “I don’t think he likes me,” I said to Blake.

  “Nah. That’s his ‘I’m really excited about her’ face. Couldn’t you tell?”

  He squeezed my hand.

  I had to smile.

  “You’ve got your ticket. I’ll meet you after the awards. There’ll be a dessert reception in the ballroom.” Blake stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth and rubbed his stomach before running off.

  So now you know what the senator looks like. Don’t let his charm fool you. He’s a politician; they charm you in their sleep.

  “You were there the whole time?” I asked Helena. The thought gave me the creeps. I had zero privacy.

  Now listen carefully. The gun is in the last stall on the right in the women’s bathroom on the second level.

  And that’s where it will stay, I thought but didn’t tell Helena. Of course she could see that I wasn’t heading that way.

  You’ve got to get the gun, Callie.

  “I’m not going to use it.”

  You can’t leave it there.

  “Why not?”

  Because it has your fingerprints on it.

  I stood in line at the women’s bathroom on the second level. Elegantly dressed Enders primped in the wall-to-wall mirrors as they pretended they weren’t holding their stomachs in. Ahead, to the left, were two rows of stalls, each with its own line.

  Go to the right.

  I moved to the right and waited. I counted four stalls, the last one a handicapped.

  The middle stall opened up first.

  No. It’s the last stall.

  I let the Ender behind me go ahead. Finally, the last stall opened and I went in. I locked the door and looked around. “I don’t see it.”

  I whispered to Helena.

  Look under the little trash bin.

  There it was, low on the wall. I crouched down, trying my best not to get my beautiful gown in the toilet. I reached underneath it and felt a bulge.

  She’d taped a small handgun to the bottom.

  There.

  I had to work at it to break through the tape. Chimes began to sound, alerting us that the ceremony was about to begin. Finally, I got the gun loose and put it in my purse.

  As I rushed out of the restroom, I realized that I hadn’t taken the bullets out of the gun. The ushers were closing the doors. I slipped my hand into my purse and clicked on the safety lock just as I entered the theater.

  That’s not necessary.

  “Safety first,” I whispered.

  I sat by myself through the awards ceremony speeches. The senator was presented as a respected statesman. He went on about how his mission in life was to keep young people out of trouble by keeping them active. Helena added her running commentary, turning around every phrase to reveal Senator Harrison’s true, malicious meaning.

  She wasn’t going to give up.

  You have the gun. Shoot him.

  If I could have spoken back to her, I would have told her to shut up. All through the world’s longest presentation ever, the gun felt like it weighed a hundred pounds in the purse on my lap.

  Once the ceremony was over, I poured out with the crowd.

  “One question, Helena,” I asked under my breath. “Why here?”

  The bigger the scene, the better to expose the body bank.

  I wandered around the ballroom waiting for Blake. Helena went silent, which gave me a break. I admired the mountain of desserts at the buffet table. I had no appetite, though, and I seemed to be in everyone’s way, so I moved off to the side by the large windows.

  I’d been there a few minutes when someone tapped me on the back. I turned to see the senator. Alone.

  “Callie, isn’t it? Enjoying yourself?”

  This was my chance; I could warn him. “Mmm, not exactly. I—I wanted to talk to you.”

  His eyes narrowed. “You’re so beautiful.”

  Somehow, he made it seem like an insult. It wasn’t just that he was so direct, it was his tone that put me on edge. He stepped closer, way beyond the comfort zone, and examined my face like a doctor. I felt like a bug under a microscope.

  “Something wrong?” I asked.

  “No, you’re just about perfect, in fact.” He took my face in his hand and turned it to one side
.

  My heart was pounding. I wanted to move to the center of the room, where there were more people.

  “You are perfect.” He picked up both my hands and examined the backs. “Not a single scar, mole, or cut.” He looked back at my face. “Not even the memory of a pimple.” His lip curled.

  He moved even closer, his face so near I could smell the residue of bitter cigar smoke on his breath.

  “I know what you are.” He gripped my arm.

  I tried to pull away, but he held on too hard.

  “Why are you here? Did Tinnenbaum send you?”

  “No.” I struggled.

  “Who else is here?”

  “No one, just me.”

  “I want you to get out of here, now. And stay away from my grandson.” He shook me. “What kind of woman are you?”

  “You don’t understand. I have to tell you something important.”

  “Nothing you could tell me would change anything.” The veins in his temples bulged like worms under his skin.

  Where we stood in the corner, only a few people were close enough to notice us. An Ender woman maneuvered through the crowd with purpose. I recognized her face from somewhere.

  “Senator Harrison, that’s the girl who came into your office,” she said.

  That was where I had seen her before. Great.

  An elegant Ender accompanied her. Blake’s grandmother, I guessed. The one he didn’t like.

  “Clifford,” the grandmother said with warning eyes. “Don’t.” She grabbed his arm.

  As she tugged, he released me. He took the elbow of the office woman and led her away.

  “Excuse us,” Blake’s grandmother said.

  As they left, it felt like the room was closing in on me. I stared back at all the eyes and rubbed my throbbing arm. My heart was pounding.

  You see? You see his temper? You’re foolish to trust him.

  I saw it. And felt it. But I was pulled away from my thoughts as new hands grabbed me, tugging on my arms. I was sure it was guards.

  “Let go of me.” I struggled to pull away.

  “Calm down, Callie, it’s me. Briona.”

  It was the trio of renters I had met at Club Rune, the ones I had gone to the bridge with. Briona, with Lee and Raj, both in black tie. The three of them were trying to escort me toward the exit.

 
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