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       Starters, p.7

           Lissa Price
 

  “See, you don’t know either,” he said. “I obviously failed Madison’s test. When I didn’t know the answers, she just turned and left. I came to dance, not to audition for a game show.” He looked at his feet and then at me. “Would you like to …?”

  “Me?” I realized the music had restarted, but quieter, slower. “No. I can’t.”

  “Sure you can.”

  I thought about Michael, back there, taking care of Tyler for me. It didn’t seem right. I had no business dancing. I still had no idea what had happened, or where I was, or how I had gotten there, and I really wasn’t myself.

  “I’m just too woozy.”

  “Maybe later?” he said, sounding hopeful. He raised his brows.

  “Sorry. I’m gonna be leaving soon.” I knew it was blunt, but there was no sense giving him false hope.

  He hid it well, but his eyes reflected the disappointment I felt. He looked like he was about to make some other move, but just then Madison returned, a cup in one hand, a cocktail in the other.

  “Here, the java is for you. I hope black is okay.” She handed me the cup and then noticed the guy. “Oh, Blake, right? Hi again.”

  Blake nodded but didn’t take his eyes off me. We shared a smile, a secret moment, at Madison’s expense. One of those “she doesn’t know we talked about her” bonding experiences. She didn’t seem to notice, too busy freeing a piece of pineapple impaled on a tiny sword from her drink.

  “Better get back to my friends,” he said.

  Madison swallowed the fruit and gave a polite smile. “So nice to see you again, Blake.”

  “Night, Madison.” Then he smiled at me. “See you later, Callie.” He cocked his head and turned on his heel in a kind of dance spin.

  I had never told him my name. Somehow, he had found out.

  I watched him walk away, hands in his pockets. I was feeling a little better.

  Listen … please …

  A chill went up my spine. No. That Voice again. In my head. If I was imagining it, I was doing a great job, because it sounded so very real. This was all wrong. I had to get out of here.

  Wherever the Voice was coming from—from my mind or from someone else—the next words stabbed at me like needles.

  Listen … important … Callie … do not return to … Prime Destinations.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  I stood in the club, frozen. Was this some reaction to the drug Prime had given me? Or maybe it had to do with the chip.

  I turned to Madison.

  Don’t say anything to her.…

  She gripped my arm. “Don’t. Forget. The. Rules. About. Boys.” She punctuated each word with a wag of her finger.

  Madison brought me back to the physical world. She looked like a pop star but acted like a granny.

  “Pay attention,” she said, her slant-cut bangs falling over one eye. “This is important.”

  “Which rule are we talking about?” I asked neutrally.

  “You know.” She lowered her voice. “No s-e-x.” She raised her brows. “Especially with real teens.”

  “What do you mean ‘especially’? If it’s a rule, then there’s no ‘especially’ clause.”

  “You know what I mean.” She rolled her eyes. “Just forget about that boy.”

  With voices in my head, I had much bigger things to worry about. “What boy?” I asked.

  That made her laugh.

  Blake hung with his male friends at the far end of the club. “So he doesn’t know we’re renters?” I asked.

  “Did you not read your contract, missy? Of course he doesn’t know! We’re not supposed to tell any outsiders.”

  “Who reads contracts anymore?” I shrugged. Blake looked back at me from across the room, pulling me with his eyes.

  Madison folded her arms, sparkling from glitter dust. “You better finish that coffee.”

  I drained my cup, wincing from the bitterness. Maybe it would clear my head. Maybe it would make the Voice go away completely.

  “What’s the matter, you don’t take it black?” she asked.

  My mouth felt itchy. “No. Never.” The only coffee I’d had was in lattes with lots of sugar and whipped cream, before the war.

  “Consider it necessary medicine.” Madison looked at her watch. “Heavens, it’s late. I must go.” She opened her tiny purse and pulled something out. “Here, Callie dear. My card.”

  She handed it to me. Before I could look at it, she asked, “Where’s yours?”

  I opened my purse and didn’t see one. There was a valet ticket, a universal ID, a phone, and a wad of cash. I tried not to gasp at the sight of all that money.

  “I must’ve run out,” I said.

  “That’s okay, just send me a Zing. Well, I’m going. Big day tomorrow. How about walking me out?”

  She linked her arm with mine. As we passed Blake, I felt his eyes on me. I didn’t look back. I kept my focus on Madison, noting how she walked with long, confident strides, how she let stares from admirers bounce off her as if she were surrounded by a force field.

  Two Ender doormen opened the tall metallic doors for us. We stepped out into the chilly night air, where a cluster of teens waited for their cars. Madison handed her ticket to the valet and then turned to me.

  “From the voice of experience.” She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked on her heels. “Take it easy your first time out. Nothing too wild. Don’t let anything happen to that body, because the fines are simply atrocious.”

  She didn’t need to tell me to protect this body. I kept quiet, knowing we’d soon say goodbye and I’d never see her again.

  She tilted her head. Her hoop earrings dangled. “I remember my first rental. It was nine months ago.”

  “How many have you done?”

  “Sweet pea, who’s counting?” She smiled. “So many different bodies to try. I spend more time young than old now.”

  The Ender valet pulled up in a flashy red convertible, all curves and grooves. He looked over at Madison and waved.

  “That’s yours?”

  “It’s just my ‘teen’ car.” She winked.

  I walked with her to her car and admired the glossy, dimensional paint. The illusion of layers was so real, you felt like you were looking into a canyon.

  “To the edge.” I nodded to her car.

  Madison’s brows furrowed. “Callie, are you sure it’s your first time?”

  I tensed. “Why?”

  “Because you sound like the real deal. I still have to think about what I say, when I’m trying to pass.”

  Trying to pass—that was exactly what I was trying to do, only the other way around. I wanted to leave her convinced I was a renter, like her. What could I do? Of course. Go the other way.

  Leaning in, I touched her arm, the way she had touched mine earlier. I deepened my voice slightly and spoke slowly, deliberately. “I made the greatest effort to study voices before I began my rental. Besides, I am truly young—only ninety-five!” I winked.

  “I hate you.” She tipped the valet. “Just kidding. You’ll have to teach me your tricks sometime.”

  Another car pulled up behind hers. “Must go. Pleasure meeting you, Callie. Tomorrow, I go parasailing!” She threw her arms in the air. “Have fun with your new body.”

  Madison got in her car, revved the engine, and roared off. Nothing old about her driving.

  “Miss.” The valet held out his hand. “Your ticket?”

  I pulled it out of my purse. I’d waited until Madison left in case I had trouble driving. How was I going to do this? My palms felt clammy. The last time I’d driven had been two years ago, when Dad had me practice in a school parking lot. What was it he had said? Hold the wheel at ten and two o’clock. Slow down before braking. Never Zing while driving.

  Some guys exited the club and undressed me with their eyes. Total teens, from the look of their zits. I turned away. I didn’t want them discovering who I really was. I just wanted to get out of here.

  I realized
the Voice hadn’t returned. No one was talking to me and the Voice hadn’t come back. That was good.

  I needed to recall everything I knew about driving, but the more I tried to remember, the faster my heart beat. Please let the car be something easy to drive, I thought.

  Then the valet drove up in a yellow mega–sports car that looked like a spaceship.

  No. Not that one.

  Sure enough, the valet stopped in front of me. The car was twice the machine Madison’s was. The top was down. Even here, with all the spoiled, rich teens, murmurs rippled through the waiting crowd.

  I felt every eye on me as I walked to the driver’s side. I tipped the valet like Madison had, slid into the plush leather seat, and faced more gauges and buttons than a jet pilot. The valet shut my door and I held up my hand so he wouldn’t leave.

  “Wait,” I whispered. “Where are we?”

  “Where?” He looked puzzled.

  “What city?” I kept my voice low.

  “Downtown. You’re in downtown L.A.” He pointed to something on my dashboard before running off to the next car.

  I realized he was pointing to the navigation system. I pressed the button to turn it on. The airscreen lit up in the space between my face and the windshield. I saw the word “home” floating there and I touched it.

  Home. That was what I wanted. The car knew where I lived, even if I didn’t.

  I put the car in drive and released the brake. Unlike Madison’s, my grand exit was in total turtle mode. As I inched away, I heard a guy saying goodbye.

  I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Blake standing there, one hand in his pocket, the other waving at me.

  Once I was out of sight, a few blocks from the club, I pulled over to the curb by an office building. My heart raced, my legs shook. But at least I hadn’t crashed the car … yet. I hadn’t been drunk tonight, just disoriented, because my head was getting clearer by the minute. I had to figure out what was going on. How could I hear voices inside my head?

  At this late hour, the streets were empty and quiet. If that Voice was going to return, this would be the time. I listened, holding my breath, afraid of what I might hear.

  Silence. Thankfully. The mystery voice was gone.

  What had Prime done to my head? Maybe when they inserted the chip, something had happened to my brain. Could it have been the chip itself? I never should have trusted them with my body.

  I needed to pull myself together. I stared at the car controls. The engine purred like a tiger while I reached for the purse on the passenger’s seat and pulled out the universal ID. It had my holo on it, which rotated to show my profile. I recognized the pictures—they were the ones they’d taken at the body bank. But the name on the ID was Callie Winterhill, not Callie Woodland. The address matched the one on the GPS airscreen navigator.

  The body bank probably printed up IDs for all the renters. My stats would be encoded in the card—my DNA, fingerprints. “Winterhill” was probably the renter’s last name. That way, she could pretend to be a relative if stopped by any authorities. She could pose as her own grandniece or granddaughter.

  So I had this great car to take me anywhere. I really wanted to go see my brother. But I remembered how Tinnenbaum said they could track me via my chip. They knew where Tyler lived; Rodney had driven me there. If they saw my chip go there, they’d know it wasn’t my renter inside, but me. And they might accuse me of breaking the contract.

  I could return to the body bank—wasn’t that what they’d want me to do? But the Voice—Don’t return to Prime—had sounded so ominous. I shivered. What would happen to me if I did?

  The club had been so loud that I couldn’t hear the Voice clearly. But the more I thought about it, the more the Voice seemed like it was an Ender. Could it have been somebody at the body bank, speaking to me via the chip somehow? Doris, maybe? But why would she tell me not to return to Prime? Did she want me out in the field because this would be fixed soon? Or maybe there was some other reason not to go back.

  If I let the car take me to the home of my renter, I might be able to find some answers. If my rental had ended early for some reason, maybe she would be there. I glanced at my watch—well, Winterhill’s super-fancy diamond-studded timepiece. It was past midnight.

  I also saw that it was November 14. It had been a week since my rental started. I still had three whole weeks to go.

  What had happened?

  Just then, movement flashed across my rearview mirror. Soft footsteps rushed closer, athletic shoes pounding pavement.

  Renegades, running at my car from behind.

  Five of them, with chains and pipes and angry eyes.

  My blood froze. I scanned the buttons. Drive. Where’s drive?

  One of the creeps leapt onto the back of the convertible. Shaved head covered with tats.

  I found drive and slammed the car into gear hard. Floored it. The renegade flew back and fell off.

  The view in the mirror showed him getting up. His pals were giving me the finger. I shuddered.

  This was a whole new game. Just because I had a car didn’t mean I could let my guard down. In fact, now that I looked rich, I needed to be more alert than ever.

  I took a deep breath and exhaled.

  From then on, the navigator was my only company. He had an Australian accent and a voice so relaxed that it helped calm me. I followed his instructions to the freeway. It was much easier driving on the straight highway, and this late, there were few cars in my way. I passed a couple of work corps crews, about twenty Starters doing road construction. A wave of guilt washed over me as I whooshed past them in that expensive car, with my designer clothes and diamond watch. I wanted to shout out that none of this was mine.

  But they were already white dots in my rearview mirror.

  After a half hour heading west, the nav took me to the community of Bel Air. I remembered how, before the war, lots of celebrities had lived there. I passed a private security guard who stared at me as he drove by. I passed dream mansions, some with guards. Then the nav said I had arrived home.

  He hadn’t warned me it was going to be a mega-mansion.

  There was no guard that I could see, but there were big iron gates. I drove up to them and stopped, braking so hard I lurched. I sat back and looked for the opener. A tiny black disc sat in the cup holder. I pressed it, and the gates opened like they must in heaven.

  I drove up the cobblestone driveway. To the left, the driveway curved around to the front of the mansion. To the right, it led to a five-car attached garage. The garage doors had opened when the gates did, revealing three parked cars: an SUV, a limo, and a small blue sports car. I pulled into one of the two empty spots and turned off the engine.

  I went limp. I hadn’t hit anything. I had gotten Mrs. Winterhill’s priceless car safely back where it belonged. I sure hoped she appreciated that.

  Now what? I realized there were some strange possibilities here. I hoped Mrs. Winterhill would be home so she could explain what had happened. Maybe everything would get straightened out and we could start over. If I was lucky, I’d get credit for my days so far.

  A door inside the garage served as a side entrance to the house. I knocked on it. No one answered. It was close to one a.m. I looked at the touchpad by the door but had no idea what the code was.

  I walked through the garage and went out a door at the back. My stilettos tapped on the cobblestones as I walked toward the front of the house past super-lush landscaping—rolling lawns, flowering bushes, stately trees. Winterhill’s water bill had to be humongous.

  I climbed two slate steps to the massive front doors. My presence set off the bell sensor, and I heard chimes from inside the house.

  After a minute, I heard footsteps. The door opened.

  A thin, sleepy Ender gripped her robe and stepped aside to let me in. “So you finally decided to come home.”

  CHAPTER SIX

  My mouth went dry as I entered the impressive foyer of Winterhill’s mansion. It
was like something from an old-time movie. Antique furnishings, a ceiling that reached to the clouds, and a grand staircase to take you there.

  The Ender shut the door.

  She glared at me for an awkward moment. If she was waiting for me to go first, she was going to wait forever.

  Finally, she spoke.

  “I trust you enjoyed yourself, Mrs. Winterhill?” She tightened her robe’s sash as if it were a noose.

  With that question, I knew there was zero hope of finding the real Mrs. Winterhill at home. If I told this stern Ender the truth, I’d either be thrown out or taken back to the body bank. Maybe I’d get in trouble. Maybe they’d fire me and I’d never get our house money.

  I was not in any shape to make a quick decision. I needed sleep.

  “Yes,” I said. “It was fabulous.”

  She examined my face. Or maybe I was just being paranoid.

  “Forgot your key again?” I nodded.

  “You’ll find it in the car, I’m sure. Would you care for anything?” she asked. “I made some of your favorite cookies.”

  I wanted to avoid any interaction with her. My brain was fried from having had to lie all night.

  “You must be as tired as I am,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. Go to bed.”

  “All right. Good night, Mrs. Winterhill.”

  She turned toward the corridor to the right. Then she stopped.

  “I almost forgot,” she said. “Redmond called.”

  “Thank you.” Whoever.

  I watched as she continued down the hallway to her room. I glanced around the grand foyer. My old house, our family home, had been nice enough, a modest ranch in the Valley. Winterhill’s mansion had me awestruck. It was like stepping back in time or being in some museum. An antique marble table dominated the center of the foyer and served as a base for a massive display of white flowers that would have thrilled my mother. Their fragrance added to my floaty sense of intoxication.

  I looked up at the grand mahogany staircase that led to the second floor. Her bedroom had to be up there. I held on to the buttery-smooth banister and climbed the stairs.

 
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