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       Starters, p.15

           Lissa Price
 
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  But I couldn’t leave. Not yet.

  “Stop,” I said.

  Enders stared at us. Briona and the guys let me go, but they circled me, corralling me like a lone calf.

  “You can’t stay here, darling,” Raj said in a low voice.

  “Senator Harrison called you out,” Lee said.

  Briona put her lips close to my ear. “He knows you’re a renter.”

  “We all have to get out of here,” Raj said. “He’s talking to security now.”

  “But Blake will be looking for me.” I unclasped the antique bracelet.

  “What are you doing?” Briona hissed. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

  “I have to give these back to Blake.” I removed the earrings.

  “I’ll do it,” Lee said, taking the jewelry.

  “There’s no time,” Briona told him.

  “We can’t let the senator catch her with his grandson—he’ll go neutron ballistic. I’ll be quick.” Lee pocketed the jewelry.

  “Please be careful,” I said. “They’re heirlooms.”

  “With us seniors,” Raj said, “what’s not an heirloom?”

  “No worries,” Lee said to me. “I used to be a banker forty years ago. I’m good with valuables.”

  He turned and snaked through the crowd. Briona hooked her arm through mine. “Come on, sweetie, let’s hustle.”

  Raj took my other arm. Guards eyed us, mumbling to each other.

  “Hurry,” Briona said.

  We went out one of the many exits and turned left, rushing to the grand stairway, which faced a mirrored wall. Others were leaving too, and we blended into the crowd going down the stairs. My high heel twisted on the stairs in the rush and my left shoe came off.

  “My shoe.” I turned back to see it lying there.

  Raj held me up to keep me from falling. “Don’t stop.”

  I followed Briona’s gaze and looked up. Security guards leaned over the railing above, looking down on us.

  “Go!” she said.

  We ran across the marble entranceway, me rising and falling with only one heel. At the last exit door we had to let go of each other to fit through. Briona went in front of me and Raj behind me, pushing me all the way. Once outside in the plaza, I removed my remaining shoe. Briona grabbed my hand and we ran past the fountain to the street.

  “Where are we going?” I shouted.

  “There!” Briona pointed to a silver SUV waiting by the curb. “Keep running.”

  I looked back and saw people, guards, running after us. Briona and I jumped into the backseat; Raj got in the front. Lee was already inside, sitting in the driver’s seat.

  “How’d you beat us?” Briona asked.

  “Side exit,” Lee said.

  As my seat belt whirred into place, I looked out the tinted windows and saw several uniformed guards and some plain-clothes people slowing, realizing they were seconds too late. And then I saw him—Blake—running up behind them, alone.

  I started to lower the window so I could shout to him, but Briona reached over and stopped me.

  “No.”

  The windows and doors locked with a loud click as Lee pressed the master lock.

  I wanted to say something, at least wave goodbye. Blake couldn’t see me through the dark-tinted windows. All I could do was watch him stare at the windows, searching, finding nothing. Deep disappointment fell across his face as our car pulled away.

  It wasn’t until we had a little distance that I noticed he was holding something in his hand.

  My shoe.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  I pressed my hands against the window and watched Blake until he became a small blur. Raj and Briona both barked at Lee to drive faster—but the senator’s guards weren’t chasing us, so who were we running from? The marshals? Were renters afraid of the marshals the way unclaimed minors were? I figured renting was technically outside the law, but I’d always assumed that vast quantities of money in the right palms could solve anything.

  Apparently not, or Briona, Lee, and Raj wouldn’t have run out of the Music Center so fast.

  Briona sat beside me, holding my hand tightly. I figured it was an Ender thing.

  “How are you feeling, Callie?” Her mocha eyes searched my face.

  “Okay.” I gently wriggled my hand away.

  Raj leaned his arm on the back of Lee’s seat and turned around.

  “You sure? You look a little pale,” he said.

  “Yeah, she looks pale,” Lee said, “compared to us.” He smiled at me in the rearview mirror.

  I couldn’t manage a return smile. I turned to the window, my mind still on Blake.

  Once we were on the freeway, with no sirens to be heard, everyone took a collective breath and sat back.

  “So now where?” Raj asked.

  Ask them about Emma.

  It was Helena. I knew she was angry that I hadn’t killed Harrison. Maybe I could help find out something about her granddaughter.

  “Raj, did you ever meet a renter who went by the name of Emma?”

  “That was her donor’s name?”

  “Yes.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Remember?” Briona turned to me but said in a voice loud enough for the guys to hear. “Last time you asked me that, I told you the guys wouldn’t know.”

  “You sure?” I asked Raj. “Blond, tall. Here, I’ve got her photo.” I pulled out my cell phone and held it up.

  “Wish I had met her,” he said. “But nope.”

  “What about you, Lee?” I held up the phone.

  He looked in the rearview mirror and shook his head.

  “Well, I tried,” I said, mostly for Helena’s benefit.

  Thank you.

  She sounded sincere but disappointed.

  We drove around the city for a while. I thought it was funny that they didn’t ask me why I wanted to know about Emma.

  Briona put her fingers on her temples and groaned.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

  “Just started getting these awful headaches. Never had them before. I think they’re from the donor body’s chip implant.” She stopped rubbing and leaned her head back. “Do you ever get them?” she asked.

  “No,” I lied. “I don’t have any problems.”

  When it was time to call it a night, I asked them to drop me off on Madison’s street.

  “Night.” I got out and they drove off.

  I looked up at Madison’s house. I was too drained to go back inside and face her. When I’d left earlier, after calling Blake, I’d just snuck out the side door. It wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but I’d been in a hurry.

  I turned and walked to my car.

  Back home, I lay in Helena’s bed, staring up at the silken canopy, thinking about the mess I was in. Blake was on the plane to Washington, with his grandfather telling him I was really an old woman renting a young body.

  He would never want to see me again. Who could blame him? And even if he knew the true story, that it was really me inside, could he forgive me for lying and pretending to be wealthy when the whole time I was really a street kid?

  I clenched the sheets in my fists. The whole reason I was in this mess was because I was just trying to make a life for Tyler.

  Tyler.

  What was I going to do for him if Helena was right about the body bank? I probably wasn’t going to see any payment from them. Helena had offered to pay more, and give me a home.

  If I killed Harrison.

  I loved my brother, and I wanted him safe and warm and healthy. But murder wasn’t even in my vocabulary, never mind that the person in question was Blake’s grandfather and a senator. I was a Starter, not an assassin. I didn’t know what to make of Helena. How much of what she said was true? I understood she was angry over losing Emma, but lots of kids went missing these days. Some ended up dead. Was it really the body bank’s fault?

  Although Senator Harrison had mentioned Tinnenbaum.…

  I
sat up in bed. The senator had been upset by the thought that Tinnenbaum had sent me there. If Helena was right and the senator was going to talk to the president about some agreement between the body bank and the government, why would he be so upset thinking that Tinnenbaum might have sent me? To do what? To cancel the deal?

  Callie?

  I stiffened. Helena’s voice in my head startled me. She hadn’t spoken to me since we got home. “What?”

  Why did you sign up at Prime?

  “My brother’s not well.”

  I’m sorry. She paused. And you have no grandparents.

  “No.”

  So he’s the one you wanted to give the money to before. Through your friend.

  “Yes, exactly.”

  I wish we could bring him here, but it wouldn’t be wise. But I will do something for you.

  I waited, eager to hear.

  Go to my dresser and open the bottom drawer.

  I crawled out of bed and padded over to the antique dresser. I pulled out the last drawer.

  Reach underneath the bottom of the drawer.

  I felt a packet taped there. I pulled it off and saw that it was an envelope.

  Open it.

  It was filled with money. My arms felt tingly.

  Get your brother a place to stay for now. A hotel.

  “Minors can’t do that.”

  I will tell you where to go, whom to talk to.

  “I can’t go to him. The body bank knows the address. If they track me and see I went there, they’ll say I broke the contract.”

  There’s a fix for that. Open the top drawer and look for the blue box.

  I pulled out a small blue box and opened it. Inside was a pendant, a circle with a blue and green stone.

  “Pretty.”

  It’s a reception blocker. It jams the signal. It’s not always consistent.

  I started to put it on.

  Don’t. We have to limit the time you wear it; otherwise Prime could notice they’re being blocked.

  “Who made it?”

  My tech. Once I’m out of Prime, I’ll take you to meet him.

  There had to be a price. “Why are you doing this?”

  I still need your help. I want to find out what happened to Emma. If I can learn that, I might have the proof I’ll need to shut down that horrid place. And our deal still stands.

  “How could we do something like that? Even if we found out what happened to Emma?”

  We have an advantage now. No one knows I can talk to you. We are two brains in one body.

  She sounded so different, calm and thoughtful. Her frantic tone was gone now that she’d given up on the assassination plot.

  Get some rest. We’ll start in the morning.

  I put the necklace on top of the dresser and climbed back into her big, soft bed. But I didn’t feel like sleeping. My mind was filled with images of Tyler in a hotel room, with a real bed and heat and room service.

  I turned off the lamp, and moonlight cast the room in a silvery blue.

  “Helena, what do you see when I dream?”

  Nothing.

  At least my dreams and my thoughts were still my own. I lay there in silence for a few moments.

  Callie? What was your mother like?

  My mother. I pictured her smiling face. I didn’t know what to tell Helena about her—there was so much.

  Was she like you?

  “No. She was one of those people everyone instantly liked.”

  I’ll bet people like you.

  “Not the way they liked her. People treated her like their long-lost sister. She fit in everywhere. She was on the archery team in the Olympics one year.” A little childhood memory flashed into my brain. “She used to make me macaroni and cheese when I was sick.”

  It was funny, the things you remembered.

  “What was Emma like?”

  Emma was headstrong and determined. Maybe all sixteen-year-olds are, but she was especially defiant. Knew what she wanted. It was hard for me, trying to take over raising her after the war. I couldn’t be her mother or her father. And she was angry about all that. Who could blame her? You remind me of her, a little.

  Helena didn’t seem half as crazy as before.

  I felt my eyelids close. I was exhausted.

  Good night, Callie.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  I parked on the side street near Michael’s building and checked the area for renegades. It looked empty, but anyone could be hiding in a doorway. I grabbed the pack of food, water bottles, and meds I’d brought and rushed out of the car. I hoped Helena’s necklace really would work and prevent Prime from tracking me.

  I entered the lobby. Would Michael and Tyler still be there? With life on the street, sometimes we had to bolt. I tiptoed to the reception desk to be sure no one was hiding, ready to attack.

  No one was there. All clear. I turned to the stairs in the middle of the lobby.

  As I climbed the windowless stairway, I realized I didn’t have my handlite anymore. It was too dark to see. How could I have forgotten so quickly what it was like to live this way? I felt my way down the hall. Then I remembered—I had Helena’s cell phone. I pulled it out of my purse and used it to light my path. When I got to the end, I looked at my choices. Was their room to the left? I turned and walked down the long corridor.

  A scruffy guy popped out of a doorway, holding a metal bar. My heart skipped a beat until I realized he was just as surprised by my clean appearance as I was by his hairy one. You don’t see clean, well-dressed people in dark squatter buildings.

  “I’m a friendlie,” I said. “Here to see Tyler and Michael.”

  He pointed to the end of the hall.

  “Thanks.”

  The last time I had been there had been almost two weeks ago, when Tinnenbaum had allowed Rodney to escort me. But that felt like another lifetime. As I entered, I saw that they had made changes. They’d moved the furniture and collected a lot more stuff. It felt homier. There was a scrap of yellow fabric draped over the table and a jar with acrylic flowers. More fabric scraps were stapled over the windows, giving a muted golden glow to the room.

  “Tyler?” I called out.

  I walked around the fort. He was sitting there with a girl bent over him. I dropped the backpack.

  “What are you doing?” I said. My tone was accusatory. On purpose.

  The girl turned her head to me. “Just handing him some water. Have a problem with that?”

  I recognized her. Florina. The girl Michael had introduced me to just as I’d been leaving for the body bank. She looked like she was about to throw that cup at me, but Tyler called my name. I ran in and fell to my knees in front of him, throwing my arms around him and holding him close.

  “I missed you so much.” I stroked his soft hair.

  “You’re back,” he said. “Finally.”

  I pulled away to look at his face. “I wish.”

  “Not again. You said that last time.”

  “I know, Ty, but this time we’re almost done.”

  Florina looked at him. “You can be patient, can’t you, sport?”

  What was she doing, butting in like this?

  “That’s Florina.” Tyler tilted his head toward her.

  I looked at her. “We met before I left. Where’s Michael?”

  “Not sure.” Her eyes focused on the floor.

  An uneasiness turned in my stomach. But I ignored it because Tyler was there, playing with my hand. “And you. I have a surprise for you.”

  “What?” he asked.

  “If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”

  He groaned.

  “How are you feeling?” I pushed his hair away so I could see his brown eyes. He looked pale, but it was hard to tell in this dim yellow light.

  “We’ve had some rough days,” Florina said.

  So Florina had been taking care of him for a while. “You okay now?” I asked him.

  He nodded and pinched my arm. “You got fat.” He pull
ed on Helena’s necklace I was wearing.

  “No, don’t touch that. Look, I brought your favorite yummies.” I raised my brows to Florina. “So how long has Michael been gone?”

  “He didn’t come home last night,” Tyler said.

  That wasn’t like Michael. I didn’t want to ask the obvious in front of Tyler, but Florina and I traded looks. Had the marshals picked him up?

  “We had a little spat,” she said. “He stormed out.”

  “Then maybe he’s cooling off somewhere.” There were endless possibilities. Maybe he ran into someone he knew, maybe he was beaten up and lying in an alley. Maybe …

  “What did you guys argue about?”

  “Nothing important.”

  “Then why didn’t you go after him?” I asked. “Did you look for him at all?”

  She shook her head. Then she motioned with her eyes to Tyler. I realized she couldn’t have chased after Michael because Tyler would have been alone. I felt like a jerk for being so cool to her before.

  “I’m grateful you were here for my brother,” I said. “It means a lot to me.”

  She stroked his hair. “Of course. We’re old friends now, aren’t we, Tyler?”

  “We play games,” he said.

  “I’ll bet she beats you,” I said.

  “No way. I beat her.”

  After Tyler and Florina had eaten the little feast of cheese and fruit and sandwiches I’d brought, Florina and I sat on the stairs to talk privately. From this position, we could see if anyone entered the building, so we felt safe leaving Tyler. And with that hairy friendlie on our floor, Tyler had some protection.

  “Last week Tyler ran a fever,” Florina said. “We were able to get children’s pain reliever—Michael had some money hidden away.”

  That must have been the money I had given to Blake to deliver.

  “Still, it was bad. I kept changing the cold cloths on his forehead because they heated up instantly.”

  I put my head in my hands. “I’m getting him out of here, tonight.”

  Florina straightened. “Really? Where are you going?”

  “To a hotel. You come too.”

  “But you said you weren’t done. Where’d you get the money?”

 
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