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Portrait of a marshal th.., p.2
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       Portrait of a Marshal: The 2nd Unhidden Story, p.2

           Lissa Price
 
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  He gives me the time off. He’s been good ever since Jenny. He probably figures I’m doing my own investigation. But I’m positive he has no clue how I’m doing it.

  #

  When I return to Prime the next morning, I’m treated like a star in a process as smooth as my best hundred-year-old scotch. A nurse, the most beautiful Ender I’ve ever seen, with upswept white hair, her face delicate and calm, escorts me into a room they call my transition room. It’s about the size of a small hotel room but resembles a luxury spa. Shakuhachi music plays, the birdlike notes of the flute encouraging me to relax. The nurse tells me to change into the silk nightshirt and cashmere robe hanging inside the bathroom, and then she leaves. Not exactly my style, but they feel nice against my skin.

  I emerge from the bathroom and inspect the room. A plush reclining chair takes up a good one-third of the space. There’s also a small table with an orchid on it. The walls are covered with bamboo, giving the space a Zenlike feeling.

  But something’s missing.

  No medical supplies.

  I look around, see a door, and open it. Inside is a shallow closet filled with IVs, bags of fluids, injection guns, tape, and miscellaneous medical instruments. What else is hidden here?

  I spot a cabinet beside the reclining chair. I open it and see an airscreen and a bunch of colored wires connected to small square pads. I hold one of the pads between my fingers as if it were some child’s toy.

  Someone knocks on the door.

  “May we enter, Mr. Walsh?” the nurse asks.

  I put away the pad, close the cabinet, and go to the door. The nurse stands there with an Ender tech, judging by his white lab coat.

  “This is Trax,” she says. “He will assist you.”

  He has long white hair. Heavy black-framed eyeglasses balance on his nose.

  “Hello.” He nods somewhat awkwardly.

  I notice he’s unable to meet my eyes, which doesn’t inspire confidence. He goes to the cabinet I was in just seconds before.

  The nurse takes my arm with her soft hand and guides me to the recliner. She smells sweet, like some kind of flower, but it’s faint. Subtle. Lavender? It relaxes me.

  “Make yourself comfortable,” she says as I sit back. She puts a silk sheet and soft blanket over me. “Isn’t that nice?”

  “Like a baby,” I say.

  Trax approaches with the bunch of wires in his hands. “I’m going to place this connecting device on you. It won’t hurt. You’ll barely feel it, in fact.”

  “That connects me to the computer?” I ask.

  “Exactly,” he says. “This way we don’t have to do anything invasive.”

  He sticks the pads to various spots on my head and neck.

  “It helps that your hair is so short,” he says.

  “So what do these do?” I ask.

  “The mother pad receives a wireless transmission from the computer. She talks to the other pads. They all communicate to parts of your brain via omicron waves.”

  “All you have to do is close your eyes,” the nurse says, rolling up the sleeve of my robe. She stands on the other side of my chair. She rubs my upper arm in a kind of caress, but I realize she’s applying a numbing cream.

  “I’ll be seeing through the eyes of my donor body,” I say.

  “Exactamundo,” Trax says. “The donor’s eyes can see, and that information is sent to your brain via the computer. You’ll speak words that you think of—but through the lips of your donor.”

  “All you have to do is relax.” The nurse’s voice is like honey.

  It almost distracts me from the injection gun she holds an inch from my upper arm. It sprays a blue light and then she presses it to my skin. I barely feel it.

  I’m fading. All that’s left is the memory of lavender.

  #

  I dream, with total awareness that it’s a dream. At first I wonder if this is something from the mind or memory of the Starter I’m about to inhabit. A sense of dread closes in like a heavy fog. I’m chasing the killer. I think it’s a man, but I’m not sure. It could be a Starter, could be a woman, but I decide it’s a man because of the coat and hat he’s wearing. The killer climbs up a fire escape to a rooftop. I follow. I do the impossible as I chase him, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, landing in a roll, getting up, running again. I get closer. He’s about to jump again, but I grab his foot.

  He falls over the side, held back by my grip. I grab a pole with my other hand so I don’t go down with his weight. I still can’t determine the killer’s identity as he dangles upside down. His hat falls off and floats two stories to the ground. A muffler hangs around his face, hiding it.

  I try to pull him up with one hand, but he’s heavy. I dig my feet in against the wall. As I start to lift him, the killer reaches up and removes his shoe. He falls through the air, his coat flapping like broken wings. I grip the shoe in my hand and wonder why I feel so empty, as if I’ve lost another victim.

  I open my eyes.

  I’m awake, but in a new room. It’s not like the one I left my body in. It’s basic, more like a hospital room or doctor’s office. I smell lavender.

  I turn to my right and see the nurse coming closer.

  “How are you feeling?” she asks.

  “Great.” I jerk my head back. I sound different. My pitch is higher. Younger.

  She giggles. “Everyone does that, don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.”

  I realize she’s looking at someone to my left. I see Trax.

  “Can you lift your left arm, please?” Trax asks me.

  I comply. And notice how young that arm looks.

  “And your right?”

  I lift my right arm. Equally young. The hand smooth. Wrinkle-free.

  “You can put them down. Wiggle your left foot. Now your right.”

  I pass all of his tests as he continues to examine me, shining a light in my face, asking me to follow it with my eyes, asking a series of questions. But what I really want to do is look in a mirror. I see one on the wall and I am dying to get to it.

  The nurse assists me out of the chair. Is it my imagination, or is her smile different? More … flirty?

  “I know what you want,” she says.

  She walks me over to the mirror. My legs are just a little shaky, but when I get to the mirror I’m not thinking about them. The image in the mirror has me riveted. It’s a handsome young Starter, about seventeen years old, with a full head of wavy brown hair, a perfect, handsome face, brilliant blue eyes. I saw his picture, but that was nothing like seeing him in the flesh.

  “It can’t be …,” I say, staring at my reflection.

  “Move your arm,” the nurse says.

  I make my right hand move up to my face and I touch my chin. And the guy in the mirror does the same exact thing.

  I laugh and so does he.

  “This is so …” I can’t find the word.

  “Wonderful? Amazing?” the Ender nurse offers.

  “Bizarre,” I say as I watch the lips of the Starter move in the mirror.

  #

  I walk my new body out of Prime Destinations. I’m getting smoother by the minute, swinging my arms, only misjudging the distance once, slamming my hand into a wall. Outside, in the bright light of Beverly Hills, I test my voice.

  “Hello. Hello,” I say to no one but myself.

  I’m wearing a nice black sports coat over a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of new black jeans. I feel in my pocket and they’ve put my wallet in there, with my car keys. I open the wallet. The driver’s license has my new picture and my new name, Trace Walsh—my real last name, and the first name of my donor body.

  I walk to the city garage where I parked my car and get in. Even the new eyes in the rearview mirror spook me.

  I drive out of Beverly Hills, heading south and east. I stop at a used-clothing store. I find exactly what I need, change there in the store, and emerge wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt with a hoodie over it, and beat-up jeans with worn knees.
I have an old handlite around one wrist and a water bottle across my chest. Once I’m back in my car, I open the glove compartment, push aside my badge, and take out my gun. I slip it into my waistband. I also pull out my Swiss Army knife and make cuts in the T-shirt, the hoodie, and the lower legs of the jeans. I grab the fabric at each cut and pull to fray the edges.

  #

  I park my car several blocks from Indie’s building so no one will see. Walking down the street, I feel almost naked without my uniform. I plan to get rid of the gun as soon as I can. I can’t risk having it discovered during a fight. I take long strides. It feels so good in this body. My knee doesn’t hurt; I feel like my spine is made of rubber, it’s so loose.

  I could get used to this.

  When I get to Indie’s building, I try the main door. It used to be a commercial building, three levels, with heavy double doors on the ground floor. I go around to the side and find another door. I see a piece of tape sticking out where the lock is. I pull open the door.

  I’m in a side hallway. I walk like I belong there and head to the back, looking for the stairs. I find them. They stink, and I take them two at a time to get out of there quickly. I exit at the second level.

  I listen, don’t hear anyone. I’m facing a set of cubicles. No chairs are left and the desks are empty, but the cubicle walls remain. It feels wrong, like a ghost town, especially because I know squatters live here. I walk around the edge of the cubicles, looking in the offices that face them. If I were a Starter, I’d pick one of those to hole up in. Those rooms have doors.

  The first one I pass looks unoccupied. I wouldn’t pick that one either—too close to the entrance. I pass the second one and see that someone lives there. An old tennis ball. Some T-shirts.

  I sense someone watching me from behind. I stop and listen.

  “Don’t move,” a girl says.

  I hold up my hands in the universal gesture of surrender. “Okay.”

  I turn my head to look.

  “I said don’t move.”

  “All right.”

  She comes up beside me. I see in my peripheral vision that she’s pointing a gun at my torso. I can’t let anything happen to Trace. The girl’s breathing is ragged, a heartbeat away from an accident. I do a quarter-turn spin on my heels and reach back, grabbing her gun. I don’t need to turn it on her. She’s thin and frail.

  I examine the gun. “This thing isn’t even loaded.”

  “I don’t have bullets. Found it in an alley.”

  Her hair is brown, wispy around her face. Her clothes are dirty and torn, baggy pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt, but she’s attractive. Not the perfection of Indie, though. A few freckles dot her cheeks.

  “How old are you?” I ask.

  “Why do you want to know?” She scrunches her face.

  I remember that I don’t look like a marshal. I don’t look like an Ender. I’m a Starter, and I need to sound like one.

  “Give it back, okay?” she asks, grabbing for her gun.

  I hold it behind me, out of her reach. “What’s your name?”

  She sighs. Looks down. “Lonnie. You?”

  I have to think a second to remember my new name. “Trace. How long have you been living here?”

  I scold myself for sounding so much like a marshal. Have to get better at that.

  “Cool place,” I say.

  “Been here a couple of weeks,” she says.

  “I lost my last place this morning. Marshals.” I shake my head.

  She nods. “They’re the worst.”

  I hand her the gun. “Be careful.”

  “Well, it’s not loaded, you saw that.”

  “Exactly.”

  She looks at the floor. Then I see that her hands are shaking. She’s crying.

  “Hey.” I put my hand on her arm. She doesn’t pull away.

  “It’s just that … I’m kinda scared.”

  She’s about to open up. I ask softly, “Why?”

  The words get caught in her throat.

  “It’s okay.” I almost whisper the words. “You can tell me.”

  She wipes away the tears. “A girl got shot yesterday.”

  I fold her into my arms and comfort her a moment. She sobs into my chest.

  “Did you know her?” I ask.

  “Her name was Indie. She’d gone to that body bank place.”

  She had to mean Prime Destinations. “Do you think that had anything to do with her getting killed?”

  She shrugs. “Who knows? She said they gave her a makeover.”

  “A makeover?”

  “You know, green laser, the works. She looked hot.”

  It made sense that Prime would want their donor bodies to be as appealing as possible. My mind flashes to the other girls.

  Dawn. Lena. And then Jenny.

  The other three who had gotten killed in the last two months were all pretty, which suggests a male murderer. And of course my Jenny was beautiful; she always was.

  “I was going to go tomorrow,” Lonnie says. “Birthday present to myself. They pay a lot.”

  “What happened to Indie’s payment?”

  “I guess her killer stole it.”

  That made sense. All these girls were getting paid large sums of money. Because they were unclaimed minors, they would have to get paid in cash or by cashier’s check, which could quickly become cash. That’s like a “kill me” flag on the streets today.

  “Do me a favor?” I ask her.

  “What?”

  “Wait until your next birthday to go there.”

  “You don’t think it’s safe?”

  “Look what happened to Indie. And she’s not the first.”

  “But I’ve got a gun,” she said, twirling it on two fingers.

  “A gun with no bullets is worse than no gun at all.”

  #

  I spend the next couple of days investigating from morning until midnight. What little sleep I get is on the floor in the office next to Lonnie. She’s sweet. Several of us squatters celebrate her birthday by giving her a Supertruffle with a candle on top. She likes me, I know, but she has no clue I’m almost seven times her age. There’s a moment when she wants to kiss me, but I can’t see myself taking advantage of a sixteen-year-old girl who wouldn’t know she was really kissing an Ender. Much as I might like to.

  I think I hurt her feelings.

  She’s kept her promise not to go to Prime Destinations. But it’s time for me to go back there. My rental is up and I haven’t gotten any closer to finding the killer. I’ve talked to a lot of Starters, some of them Prime donors, some just normal kids, but haven’t found a lead. Anything that looked promising—like a Starter with a sudden influx of cash—turned out to be a dead end. But just moments before I say goodbye to Lonnie, she remembers something else.

  “A few days ago, Indie was talking to some other girls. I overheard them,” Lonnie says. “She was talking about memories. Bad memories. And the others seemed to understand. I think they were all body bank donors.”

  Before I return to the place she calls the body bank, I stop at a public restroom to change back into the shirt, jeans, and jacket they first dressed me in. At Prime, the receptionist tries to direct me to the transition room, but I insist on speaking to the CEO. I overhear her refer to him to another employee as the Old Man, which seems oddly disrespectful.

  I’m not sure what to call him, so I don’t call him anything. He wears the image of a famous real estate mogul on his mask today.

  “Everything work out?” he asks with that strange voice.

  I pull out my badge. I see his body tense. He walks toward me with deliberate steps.

  He grabs my badge and flings it across the room. “You used our services under false pretenses.”

  I want to retrieve my badge, but he’s standing in my way. “I’m looking for a killer. One of his victims was a body donor for you.”

  “Unclaimed minors get killed.” He shakes his head, leaving blue trails of light. “
It’s a dangerous lifestyle.”

  “They get killed in fights, but this is different. Young girls are being slaughtered. We think it’s for the money you give them.”

  “Prove it.”

  “I need more time to stay uncover.” I shiver. Can’t help it; the room is freezing.

  “How much?”

  A week. A month. But I know he won’t go for that. “Three more days.”

  The Old Man shakes his head. “I never agreed to rent to a marshal.” He points at me. “That body is my property and you’re putting it in jeopardy.”

  “I want this kid to stay alive more than you do.” I gesture to Trace’s body with my thumb. “Starters are dying out there and nobody else cares. You think marshals have time for unclaimed minors? Most Enders would just as soon have them eliminated like cockroaches.”

  Silence. His mask makes a quiet hum, broken only by small sizzles, electronic crackles like a bug zapper.

  The silence is brutal.

  “You’re not on official business,” the Old Man says. “Are you?”

  “No.”

  He thinks for a long minute.

  “I’ll let you do this. But you’ll owe me,” he says. “And someday, I’ll collect.”

  I stare back at that creepy electronic face. What am I getting myself into?

  “Three more days,” he says like it’s a threat.

  I know enough to shut up when I’ve won. I nod, just barely.

  “Take care of that body,” he says, pointing at me.

  I should just leave. But I suspect he might have information I need. I pull out my phone and show him the picture of Indie.

  “Do you recognize her? Her name is Indie,” I say.

  He glances at the picture. “There are rules protecting the privacy of our employees.”

  “And you’re following all the rules here, I’m sure.”

  “Don’t,” he says, turning his head sharply. “I have your body, don’t forget. All I have to do is pull the plug.”

  He puts his mask so close to my nose, I see my reflection in it. I’m barely concealing the fear that runs through me.

  The Old Man spins and goes to his airscreen. He presses a few of the buttons that float in the air, typing in Indie’s name. A renter’s name appears.

 
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