Cowan snapped awake cuffed to a bed, wrists stretched above him while more cuffs spread his legs below. A single hanging bulb lit the room. Besides the bed to which he was bound, his cell held a pair of rusted, empty shelves. There was no other furniture.
He used the privacy to check his PBA: active, but offline. He checked his hidden partition, opening every last one of its passive archivers of the twenty minutes he’d been out. They couldn’t have known he could still record while he was unconscious. Perhaps these men had said something incriminating, like who they were or where they were.
There was shouting in the distance on one archive, indistinct, like a woman who was very pissed off. That would be Sonne. There was another conversation he couldn’t make out, muted tones, and the sound of a bed creaking and cuffs snapping. A door closed.
Useless. Dammit. At the least, Cowan verified no one had implanted spyware or downloaded his ghostlink after Mister Gray stunned him. His captors hadn’t been able to get past his numerous firewalls, which was why he kept his PBA locked up tight.
Yet he was still captive, still chained to a bed. Still all alone in an empty concrete room. His heart hammered as he flipped to his headdesk and scripted a shoddy but serviceable firewall. Firewalling fear. If he wasn’t scared out of his mind, that’d make this easier.
There. He felt his heart slowing, felt his mind focusing on something other than why someone would cuff him spread eagle to a bed. He had to figure out what these men had done with Sonne, and how he was going to get her out.
His captors. That’s where he’d start. Sonne had been smart. She’d made these men admit they worked for Oleg Vasser, and confirmed they were after her, not him. There was no way he’d let them send her off to Russia somewhere, but how could he stop it?
The metal door to his cell screeched roughly, one edge scraping the cement. The same man who had stunned him walked inside, still wearing his gray ski mask. Mister Gray had brought a machete, and Cowan’s heart hammered right through his shoddy firewall.
This wasn’t a pleasurebox. This was reality, and Cowan knew what people could do to each other, in meatspace, when one had a sharp object and a great deal of time. Why was Mister Gray carrying a machete? What was he going to do with a machete?
Mister Gray stopped beside the bed, staring down. “How are you feeling, Mister Soto?”
Cowan focused on talking. “Do you really care?”
“No, just being polite. You work for the CID?”
Cowan remembered everything he’d ever learned about interrogations, which wasn’t much. “I work for the Office of Mental Health.” OMH employees didn’t get Krav Maga packages installed, which might let him surprise Gray if he got out of these cuffs.
“And what do you do for the Office of Mental Health, Mister Soto?”
So Gray was just asking questions. Cowan could answer questions. His firewall steadied, his heartrate evening out. This was a situation he could still control.
“I help people,” Cowan said. “People who’ve suffered loss or traumatic events.”
“Is that what you were doing on your date?”
So Gray had interrogated Sonne, and was now interrogating him. He was checking to see if their stories matched. Had Sonne told the truth?
“It wasn’t a professional engagement,” Cowan said. “We were heading to a club, for dancing.” Gray already knew that, so it was a safe place to start talking.
“Club Sylvan? It’s in the Gaslamp Quarter, somewhere.”
“An expensive date.” Gray slammed the machete down on Cowan’s hand.
Cowan screamed as his firewall flew apart, unleashing all the terror he’d tried futilely to block away. His fingers throbbed like they’d been chopped off, but when he looked down they were still there, just curled up. Gray had used the flat, blunt top of his machete, not the sharp edge. Why? Cowan hadn’t lied about the club!
Gray strolled around the bed, eyes calm. “You’re asking yourself, why did I hurt you?” He brought the machete down again, and blinding pain split Cowan’s knee.
“Stop!” Cowan screamed. He wanted to curl up, to shield himself, but the cuffs kept him mercilessly extended. His fingers throbbed and his knee felt like it had popped right off.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Gray said. “I don’t actually enjoy hurting anyone, but I have tortured when the situation required it. Do you understand why I’m telling you this?”
“You want to terrify me!” Which he had just done.
“Terror fades. Torture lingers. Those in psychiatric circles believe extended torture causes PTSD equal to or more significant than experiencing heavy combat.”
“I understand.” God, did Cowan understand.
“I’m going to ask you some questions now, Mister Soto. If you lie, I may hurt you.”
“May?” Gray didn’t seem the type to second guess himself.
“Pain when you lie is terrifying enough, but you can control that. You choose when you lie, and thus when you hurt. However, when one experiences pain repeatedly, randomly, and without warning … that is the worst pain, Mister Soto, because it is pain you cannot control.” Gray tapped the machete in his other palm. “Who do you work for? Tell me.”
“The Cybercrimes Investigation Division.” This man was absolutely terrifying, but Cowan had to focus on his goals here, on Sonne. “Where’s Sonne?”
He remembered that name from the back of the truck. “That’s her real name?”
“You haven’t been dating long, I trust. She’s alive and unharmed, for the moment. Now I’m going to ask you another question, and then I may hurt you or not. My choice.”
Cowan’s knee pulsed. “What’s your question?”
“Does the CID know where you are right now?”
Cowan hesitated until Mister Gray raised his machete. “No.” He only had one other kneecap, and he couldn’t run away if he lost both kneecaps.
“Thank you.” Gray walked to the metal door. “We won’t speak again.”
Wait, that was it? All that build up, and just one question? “Hold on!” Cowan strained his neck as he watched Gray walk over to the door. “Where’s Sonne? Samantha?”
“She’s no longer your concern.” The door screeched open.
“That really doesn’t work for me!”
“Someone will be here in a few hours to release you. You’re free, Mister Soto.”
“I won’t let you take her!” Cowan thrashed against the restraints, even though that sent pain screaming through his knee. “I’ll come after you! I won’t stop looking, ever!”
The door slammed. He couldn’t let Gray just take Sonne away to die somewhere. He needed another approach, and as his mind scrambled for any answer, one came.
These men worked for Oleg Vasser. Oleg Vasser was Russian. Galileo was Russian, or working with the Russians, so if Cowan pretended to have information on Galileo…
“Wait!” Cowan shouted. “I can tell you what the CID has on your boss!” He took a breath and shouted as loud as he could. “I can tell you everything we know about Galileo!”
Silence from the hallway, then footsteps, toward and not away. It had worked. God, it actually worked! The bolt rattled again. The door opened a crack, then swung wide, screeching all the while. Mister Gray walked inside, without wearing his ski mask.
Cowan gasped and looked away, but too late. He’d seen Gray’s face: tan, lightly freckled, with an odd, C-shaped scar on one cheek. Gray had short blond hair and soft blue eyes, and Cowan knew what it meant to see Gray’s face. Gray couldn’t let him live, now.
He’d overplayed his hand. He’d just gotten himself murdered, and that really sucked, but could he have done anything different? He couldn’t just let this madman take Sonne.
“Tell me.” Gray walked back over to the bed, tapping the flat of his machete idly against his thigh. “What do you know about Galileo?”
Cowan was well past fucked now, so no more holding back. “He’s a puppetmaster on the darkSim. He was working with a grayDoc, Anton Barkov, a man who—”
“What do you know about Doctor Barkov?” Gray asked.
Wait. He sounded … excited? That was weird, but whatever. Cowan rolled with it. “Galileo worked with Barkov, or blackmailed him. We’re not sure which. But he—”
“Do you know how Doctor Anton Barkov died?”
Doctor Barkov’s name had hooked Gray. Why? Wasn’t Galileo his boss? Or was Galileo working with the Russian mob, but not for them? Was he selling invasive scripts to them, like he’d sold to Joseph Dunn and Sarah Taggart and others on the darkSim?
“Yes,” Cowan said, as his temples throbbed and his knee ached. “He planted a killswitch in Barkov’s brain.”
“And this is how Doctor Anton Barkov died? Because of this killswitch?”
“That’s right.” Where was this going? “When Barkov tried to betray Galileo, the switch kicked in and locally puppeted his body. Barkov put his own revolver to his head, and then he pulled the trigger.” Cowan remembered the bang and all the gray parts.
“Thank you, Mister Soto.” Gray smiled. “You’ve been more helpful than you know.”
“Seriously?” How the fuck was any of this helpful?
“You are correct, of course. Galileo is my primary target, and now that you’ve pointed me in his direction, risking my freedom to sneak your friend through a corporate perimeter is no longer in anyone’s best interest. You’ve earned yourself a deal.”
His target? Galielo was Gray’s target? Okay. Whatever meant they didn’t get killed.
“Here’s what we’re going to do next,” Gray said.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Purple Mask marched Sonne across the cold warehouse floor, barefoot. She saw a new unmarked black van waiting, so they were switching vehicles again. Mister Gray was interrogating Cowan, and Sonne prayed he wouldn’t hurt him.
Yellow and Green waited at the van. Green was pacing, clutching his Party Box, and Yellow leaned against the van’s side. He looked bored. Purple gave Sonne a shove.
Sonne grunted and kept her feet, resisting the urge to bite his nose off. Of course, biting Purple wasn’t within her parameters right now, nor was punching him, or kicking him in the balls. She couldn’t even tear his ear off with her teeth. Green had shut down her PBA’s wireless functions, somehow, but left her behavioral algorithms active.
Fortunately, even her PBA’s restrictive behavior algorithms allowed strong language, and Sonne had used that liberally to keep Purple at bay as he escorted her to the back of the warehouse, to the restroom. At least he hadn’t insisted on coming inside.
Those few precious moments of privacy gave her the opportunity to slip the metal heel from her underwear into her bra strap. So long as no one ripped her dress off — which they hadn’t, yet — she could drop it through the open diamond at the small of her back, into her hands, and use it to saw through her bonds. She could rescue Cowan.
“It’s been too long.” Green blinked once, probably checking his headdesk. “Gray should be done by now.”
“He’s right,” Purple said. “Go get him.”
Just before they reached the van, Purple shoved Sonne again, hard. She banged into something metal before she could react. Spots danced before her eyes as she dropped on her ass by the van. She turned and scooted up against it, hiding her back and hands.
“Idiot.” Yellow advanced on Purple. “We do not damage the package.”
Purple shrugged a very relaxed fuck you. “She’s not hurt.”
“Yellow’s right.” Green hurried over and looked down at her with worried eyes. “Look at her temple! You left a bruise. The contract distinctly said ‘not a mark on her.’”
“It’ll fade,” Purple said.
“You’re a dick, you know that?” Yellow stepped past Green, staring Purple down. “Next time she needs a restroom break, I’m taking her.”
Yellow’s feigned concern only made her more angry with the lot of them, and Sonne forced a mocking smile. “You realize you’re all still assholes, right?”
She’d expected Yellow to scowl at her. Instead, he winked and offered an almost charming grin. “Comes with the job, sweetheart.”
Sonne hated that grin, hated the algorithms that kept her from hopping up and smashing all their noses with her head. Yet if she didn’t find a way to escape, all she had to do was play dumb and wait. Kate would find her. Kate always did. And if she didn’t, well … Sonne wasn’t being trafficked. Falling on her metal heel would see to that.
“Who cares if she gets scuffed up?” Purple said. “She’ll get worse when Vasser drops her into one of his brothels.”
“Go get Mister Gray,” Yellow told Green.
“Why do I have to get Mister Gray?” Green said. “I’m not your errand boy.”
“Jesus.” Yellow threw up his hands. “Fucking amateur hour in here.” He strode into the warehouse. “You put any other marks on her, Purple, it comes out of your cut.”
Sonne flexed her shoulders and subtly arched her back. The heel slipped lower, then lower again. If they’d just stop watching her so closely, she could—
Purple crouched before her. “Why the closed legs, Samantha?” He knew that name irritated her. “You scared of a real man?”
“If you’re a real man,” and Sonne smiled real big, “I’m the fucking Tooth Fairy.”
Purple punched her hard enough to knock her head against the van, again. She forgot where she was, and when she remembered she was well and truly pissed. “Dickhead!”
“Goddammit!” Green grabbed Purple’s hand and pulled him up. “Stop hurting her!”
“Her face hit a panel when the car stopped.” Purple shoved Green hard enough that he almost fell on his ass. “Don’t be a pussy.”
“Right,” Sonne said, because a pissed off Purple was better than a lecherous one. “A pussy wouldn’t slug a bound woman half his weight.”
“Fuck you, woman!”
“No, fuck you. You’re shit, and your whole family is shit, and when you’re dead in a gutter no one will care.” She wasn’t going to die a quivering mess.
“I need this money, you ass!” Green pushed up. “You need to stop. Yellow said stop!”
“Make me,” Purple said. “Dumb shit.”
Green hissed and threw a punch, an actual punch, and it was so unexpected that it clocked Purple in the chin. Yet Purple just laughed and slugged Green in the stomach, doubling him over. He choked Green out as Green batted at Purple’s side, gasping and spitting. As the two of them played grabass, Sonne dropped her heel into her hands.
The sharpened edge quickly cut her fingers, which stung, but she ignored pain and sawed at tape. She felt it splitting, felt her wrists parting. She was going to escape!
“Mister Green!” Gray’s voice boomed across the open warehouse. “Mister Purple! Stop that right now.”
Dammit! Gray always showed up at the worst times. He strode over at a decent pace and Sonne stopped sawing, certain he would figure out what she was doing. She could wait. She felt blood on her hands now, and the tape. She hoped it wouldn’t drip anywhere.
Purple dropped Green and stepped away, chuckling. Green rolled onto his back and wheezed. Gray glanced at Green, at Purple, and at Sonne. “What happened to her head?”
Purple shrugged. “Bumped it on the way to the potty.”
“And her cheek?”
“How should I know what some bitch does on the pot?”
Gray sighed and put a hand to his forehead, idly rubbing his temples with his eyes closed. “Accidents happen?”
“That’s right.” Purple grinned through his ski mask. “Accidents happen.”
“Thank you for your help today.” Gray opened his eyes and drew a real gun, metal, not the knockout variety. “Your services are no longer required.”
He shot Purple in the face.
* * *
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