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       Enders, p.3

           Lissa Price
 
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Relax. Find it.

  But I stopped. Pulled back.

  No.

  It wasn’t.

  He pulled away too and looked off in the distance. We sat back, side by side, not touching each other. He ran his hand through his hair. I looked at my phone. No Zing yet.

  “You seem eager to go,” he said, looking resigned.

  “No, sorry, it’s really important.” I put the phone down.

  “So what did you want to tell me?” he asked.

  I turned to him. Finally, I could do what I came to do. “You’re in danger. We both are.”

  “What?” He looked at me as if I’d said the world was flat.

  I needed to start with something he already knew. “You’ve heard the news about the bombing at the mall?”

  He frowned. “Bombing? They just said it was an explosion on the news. A gas leak.”

  “It was a bombing. And it could have been you or me who got killed.”

  He leaned away from me. It wasn’t going to be easy to convince him.

  “I made a promise to your grandfather that I wouldn’t tell you,” I said. “He wants to protect you, but you have to know now. That building that we watched being destroyed in Beverly Hills, Prime Destinations?”

  He nodded slowly.

  “You were kidnapped and brought there. They implanted a chip in your head. Your body was used—inhabited—by the head of Prime. It’s called transposition. That’s why you have no memory of that picture. It wasn’t you then.”

  “Where was I?”

  “It’s like your brain was asleep.” I waved my hand as if to dismiss that. “The important thing is, you want to keep away from him—he’s called the Old Man. You’ll know him because he has an electronic mask for a face and he’s got this creepy artificial voice. He had a plan to make thousands of Starters permanents—so we’d never wake up. But we stopped it.”

  Blake let out a sound that was half laugh, half huff. “This is crazy.”

  “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s real. I have the chip too.” I touched the back of my head.

  He rubbed his temples, as if it hurt to think about all this craziness. My phone flashed a Zing from Senator Bohn’s office.

  Obtained the search warrant. Call me.

  “That’s him. I have to go,” I said.

  “Already?” He slumped. “But I’ve got a million questions.”

  “I’m sorry, but we have to stop him. Ask your grandfather. Just do me a favor and don’t say I told you.”

  I hated leaving him there after giving him the mind-boggling news. But they were waiting for me.

  “Don’t talk to anybody until you talk to your grandfather,” I said.

  As I rushed off, I felt an aching pain in my chest, as if my heart had been ripped out. I couldn’t lie to myself—I missed Blake.

  Just not this Blake.

  But that meant I missed … No. What that meant, I didn’t want to think about. It was too horrible. Disgusting. I needed to push that out of my mind and focus on how we were going to stop him.

  I sat in the back of the limo with the senator’s chief of staff and Lauren. Before the bombing, Senator Bohn had been heading up a Congressional investigation of Prime Destinations, but it had run dry. The computers that had been confiscated from Prime had been wiped clean, so there was nothing to learn from them. The team was hitting dead ends.

  But the bombing had reenergized our drive to find the Old Man. With the search warrant the senator obtained for us, we headed off to the one place we knew had done business with him. The only snag was that because this was done so quickly, our search warrant was conditional: for inspection only. When we reached our destination, we could only examine their files and computers, not copy anything. That made my role all the more essential, as I was the only one of the three of us who had spent time there.

  “Horrid about Reece,” Lauren said. “I feel terribly responsible.”

  “It’s not your fault,” I said. “Reece chose to be a donor before you came to rent her.” Then I wondered, why did the Old Man do this? Was it a coincidence that he picked my guardian’s donor body to sacrifice? I kept this to myself, not wanting to make Lauren feel any worse.

  “You said she was acting strangely?” Lauren asked.

  “I think she was being controlled. But they weren’t doing a very good job. Her expressions and movements were jerky. She looked unnatural.”

  Lauren shivered.

  “And then there was this Ender,” I continued, “this man she spoke to, right before the explosion.”

  “What man?” the chief of staff asked.

  “A tall Ender, fit, maybe a hundred,” I said. “With a leopard tattoo on his neck. He was following her through the mall right before it happened.”

  “How long did they talk?” he asked.

  “A few seconds.” I swallowed. “It happened in a mall, of all places,” I said. “With little kids.”

  “He wanted to show that we could shut down Prime,” the chief of staff said, “but we couldn’t stop him.”

  So it wasn’t Lauren’s fault, it was mine. The Old Man targeted the mall I would be going to, used my guardian’s donor body, the Starter I knew, and showed me he was still capable of hurting us. It was my fault those people were injured and Reece was killed.

  I closed my eyes a moment.

  The driver pulled over. We’d arrived. I didn’t move.

  “You don’t have to come in,” Lauren said.

  “I do. It’s why I’m here,” I said. “I know him better than any of you. There might be a clue, something that relates to something he said to me. You can’t copy anything, so you need my eyes.”

  I didn’t really want to go inside, but I had to. I got out of the car and looked up at Institution 37. The massive gray walls made my heart feel heavy. The complex looked like the prison that it really was, with heavy iron gates and a security booth. The walls mocked and challenged, daring me to return. Was I an idiot to come back? The last time I had, I’d lost my best friend on those walls.

  Lauren stood beside me. She smiled, and gentle wrinkles formed around her eyes.

  “It’s okay, Callie. We’ll be right beside you.”

  The driver stayed with the car while the three of us walked toward the gate. I was safe, wasn’t I? We had the power and the money, much more than these horrible people in this place. Much more than that vile head of security, my old prison guard—Beatty.

  So why were my hands shaking?

  Lauren noticed and touched my shoulder.

  “Don’t worry. You’re not going to see her. We’re only going to speak to the headmaster.”

  I nodded. Even though Beatty haunted my memories, odds were we wouldn’t run into her there. She was probably off in that dungeon of a confinement cell, torturing some poor Starter.

  The gates opened with their awful grinding noise that made my jaw clench. I looked down and noticed that my hands had stopped shaking.

  Soon we were in the main office, waiting for the headmaster’s arrival. The chief of staff and Lauren sat in old leather chairs. I was too fidgety to sit. I paced the room. There wasn’t a bit of color in it. On the wall hung a faded painting of an English hunting scene. One hunter proudly held up a dead fox. Fitting, I thought.

  On the desk, a glint drew my attention. It came from a stiletto letter opener with a handle shaped like a snake and emerald-green stones for eyes. Next to it, the airscreen’s screensaver was not the usual waterfalls and wildlife but a screenshot from Huntdown, a first-person shooter game where unclaimed Starters were hunted. I knew better than anyone how brutal this place could be, but that shocked even me.

  I felt sick to my stomach. I hated being there. I just wanted to get our answer and go. All we really needed was an address, a contact number, maybe even a bank account. Some sure way to find the Old Man.

  “Callie? Don’t you want to sit down?” Lauren asked.

  The door opened and I tensed. Instead of the headmaster, I found myself
face to face with none other than Beatty.

  “Callie,” Beatty said in her raspy voice. “So nice to see you again.”

  She extended her gnarled hand to me. The moles on her face had grown bigger, it seemed. I folded my arms. If the hate in my eyes could have started a fire, she’d have been burned to a crisp.

  The chief of staff stood and came to my side. “We’re expecting the headmaster.”

  A small smile crept across one side of Beatty’s face. “Yes. You’re looking at her.”

  “You?” I blurted out.

  “Yes. I’ve been promoted.”

  I took a step back. I think I gasped, because the chief of staff put his hand on my shoulder. How could that be? She should have been arrested for ordering the marshals to shoot Sara with Tasers. She knew about Sara’s heart.

  “You’re the headmaster?” I said.

  “That’s correct, Callie.” She emphasized my name as if I had just been called for execution.

  Her white hair was cut close at the sides, and the rest reached for the ceiling. She no longer wore her severe gray uniform or badge. Instead, she had on an expensive-looking wool suit with an orange scarf tucked in at the neck.

  I wanted to take that scarf and pull it until her face turned blue.

  “We’re here to discuss the CEO of Prime Destinations,” the chief of staff said.

  “What about him?” Beatty asked.

  Lauren joined us as the chief of staff continued. “We have a subpoena for the Senate investigation,” he said, taking out an envelope. “To examine any records that have to do with Prime Destinations and the institution.”

  “What are you looking for?” Beatty asked as she opened the envelope. “Specifically?”

  “We need to find where he’s hiding,” I said.

  “The institution must know how to get in touch with him,” Lauren said. “Since they were doing business with him.”

  Beatty shook her head as if we’d asked for a million dollars. “He always initiated contact with us. The previous headmaster had no way of getting in touch with him.”

  “Perhaps there’s someone here—the assistant to the past headmaster—who might know more?” Lauren asked.

  “She is gone as well.” Beatty’s lips formed a smug little smile as she handed the envelope back to the chief of staff.

  “People just disappear right and left around here.” I couldn’t help myself.

  “You would know,” Beatty said, leaning in much too close to my face.

  I wanted to slap her.

  Three tall Ender marshals entered the room. Each one positioned himself behind one of us. One of them passed Beatty a piece of paper, which she handed to the chief of staff.

  “What’s this?” the chief of staff asked.

  “A writ of prohibition,” Beatty said smoothly.

  “What does it mean?” I asked Lauren.

  “It means this case will be tied up in court before we’ll ever get any answers,” the chief said. Then he looked up from the paper to Beatty. “You must have friends in high places.”

  A smile crept across her face. “You have no idea.” She turned to the guards. “Get everyone out of here.”

  The chief and Lauren were escorted out first. My marshal took me by the elbow and followed them to the door. But Beatty whispered to him. At the last moment, he let go of me and exited alone, shutting the door behind him and leaving me inside.

  I stood there alone with Beatty. My heart raced. She pulled me by the wrist away from the door, over toward her desk.

  “How dare you come back here and think you can peer into my private files?” she said. “You should have left well enough alone, you with the mansion in Bel Air.”

  She knew where I lived. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a threat. She gripped my wrist harder.

  “Let me go!” I shouted. The door was too far and too thick for anyone to hear.

  “You have so much to lose now, Callie.” She stared at me with her mole-ridden face. “And you will. It won’t be long before you slip. And I’ll see you’re locked up in here again, where you belong.”

  My hand was turning white. I tried to pry off her fingers, but she dug her fingernails into me. I could have bitten her arm to get loose, but that was what she wanted. She’d have them throw me in the cell again, and Lauren would have to use more than one lawyer to get me out. With Beatty’s connections, I might never get out.

  I looked at the snake-handled stiletto letter opener on her desk. I knew I couldn’t use it. But I kept looking, to draw her attention away, a trick I learned on the streets. She fell for it and took her eyes off me.

  In that moment, I was able to get free.

  I ran to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked. I banged on it. “Let me out!”

  The door opened and Lauren and the chief of staff stood beside the marshal putting away his key. Lauren put her arm around my shoulder.

  “Are you all right, Headmaster?” the marshal asked.

  Beatty smoothed her suit as she walked up to us. “Escort them to the exit.”

  As the marshals led us away, I turned my head to get one last look at Beatty. I wished I hadn’t. She leaned in her doorway, a vicious and victorious smile spread across her face.

  There was no way I could beat that look. Score one for Beatty.

  We all huddled in the back of the limo as the driver took off—Lauren and I and the chief of staff.

  “How can she be the headmaster? After what she did?” I asked. The car was silent. “So now we give up? Can’t we get a judge to reverse this?”

  The chief of staff shifted in his seat. “It’s possible they didn’t even have his information. The Old Man might have insisted on face-to-face contact—using secondaries. No digital footprints that way.”

  I sank back in my seat, defeated. “But how are we going to find him, then?”

  No one had an answer.

  When they let me off at the house, I knew that was as far as they were going to take it. Lauren got out of the limo to hug me.

  She held me tightly, then pulled away.

  “Now what?” I asked.

  She shook her head. “Just stay safe.”

  “I have a potential bomb in my head. I’ll never be safe now, and neither will any of the other Metals, including your grandson, Kevin. You can’t give up.”

  She stared into my eyes.

  “Callie, I’m a hundred and sixty-one years old. I’ve been searching every day for seven months. I managed to resurrect some hope for today, but now …” Her voice cracked. “I’m not saying I’m giving up, but you can’t imagine how empty I am inside. There’s nothing left.” She paused. “You’re young. You have the fire in your belly. Use it for me.”

  Her eyes pleaded with me. Then she turned and got back into the limo.

  I watched as it pulled out of Helena’s curved driveway, the iron gates automatically closing behind it.

  They aren’t going to help you. They can’t help you. You are alone.

  CHAPTER THREE

  He was in my head again, the Old Man. Here, at my home. I didn’t want him to see anything through my eyes. It was too creepy.

  Callie?

  I hurried into the garage and closed the door. I turned the lights off and stood near the wall in the darkness.

  “So who’s next? Who are you blowing up today?”

  No need to be in the dark. I don’t have to see where you are. I can send a signal to your chip. I thought I demonstrated this quite well at the mall.

  “So you can blow up anyone’s chip by sending a certain signal to it?”

  Something like that. I’m not going to give up my secrets.

  “You wouldn’t blow up my chip.”

  So you understand that your chip is special. And so are you.

  “What I understand is that you are a monster and a killer. And I can’t trust anything you say.”

  I will tell you one thing that is true. And will be true for all time. Are you listenin
g?

  I wanted to kill him and his metallic voice. “Yes.”

  His words came out slowly. Trust no one but yourself. After a long pause, he added, And then question that.

  “That makes no sense.”

  And remember, I may not want to blow up your chip, but there’s nothing special about Michael’s chip. Or Michael, for that matter.

  I clenched my fists.

  Or Tyler’s chip.

  What was he talking about? “Tyler doesn’t have a chip.”

  Yes, he does.

  “You’re lying. I checked him.”

  Sweat formed on my neck. I thought back. We were so glad to find Tyler, so grateful to see he was in good condition, better than before the Old Man kidnapped him. He was healthier. In the excitement and relief, I hadn’t checked him right away, but I did later.

  How did you check him?

  “The back of his head. There was no scar.”

  We’re always making improvements in our technology. We lasered his incision point. Good job, don’t you think?

  Could it be true? I slid down the wall I was leaning against until I rested on my haunches. My head fell forward. I hoped this was a trick. Otherwise, it would be the worst news ever and, like me, Tyler was tethered to the Old Man.

  “You killed Reece, you chipped my brother,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Stay away from him,” I said to the floor.

  That’s up to you.

  I lifted my head.

  You are going to meet me at a location I choose.

  My mouth went dry. I licked my lips. “Where?”

  You are not to tell anyone, alert anyone, Zing anyone. If you do, I will do to Michael what we did to Reece. And then Tyler. Do you understand?

  What could I say? “Yes, it’s clear.”

  You’re in the garage already. Get in your car.

  I didn’t see any way out. I wasn’t dealing with some enemy I could fight—he was inside my head. I walked over to the blue car and got in. He gave me a street number I didn’t recognize.

  I started the car and the garage door opened. I pulled out of the garage, went down the curved driveway. The gate opened automatically and I turned onto the street.

  I gripped the wheel and drove in silence, my heart pounding.

 
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