The stupidly loud bang made Sonne’s eardrums pop. She flinched as Purple dropped. Purple’s blood and brains splattered Green, hitting him like a plate of spaghetti.
Green rolled away screaming, flailing at unexpected gore. Bits of gray, red, and white covered his ski mask. Purple’s body dropped to its knees, then fell forward with a wet thump. Still on the ground, Green shoved his hands up. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
“Don’t cause problems,” Gray suggested.
“I won’t, I promise! I hacked the car and that’s it, I’m done!”
“Let’s hope so.” Gray glanced to Sonne and smiled. “Are you all right, Samantha?”
Sonne ignored the ringing in her ears and nodded, trembling where she sat. Gray had just shot a man in the face like it was nothing. Like he was nothing.
“I’m going to let you go, Samantha,” Gray said.
Mister Green blinked on the warehouse floor. “But wait, didn’t we—”
Gray’s gun snapped to cover Green, and Green balled up. “We’re cool! We’re cool!”
“You’re still getting paid, Mister Green. You’re getting Purple’s share.”
Green blinked and kept his hands raised high. “Really?”
“I wouldn’t lie to you.”
Gray knelt before Sonne. He rested his pistol on his knee and stared at her with an earnestness that was even more terrifying than his prior cold indifference. What was he thinking? What was going on behind those calm, almost tranquil blue eyes?
“I’m going to grip your arms and help you stand,” Gray said. “I won’t touch you in any other manner, and I will release you once you’re standing safely. Do you agree to that?”
Now he was asking her fucking permission? Who was this psycho? After a moment, Sonne nodded. She might drop her heel if she got up without him.
Gray gripped her upper arms and pulled. He had a firm grip, and he showed no exertion as he lifted. Did he have cybernetic implants, like Lucy? Gray set her upright, steadied her, and stepped back like he’d promised. She kept her hands hidden behind her back.
Gray looked to Green. “Get up, please.”
Green got up.
“The suitcases Vasser gave us are all loaded in the van?”
Green glanced at it. “Yes?”
“Would you mind checking for me?”
“Sure.” They both waited a moment.
“Now?” Gray added.
“Right, okay.” Green had to step over Purple to get to the van. He opened its back doors. “All there.” He twitched, visibly, and stared. “Who are they?”
“Don’t concern yourself with the additional bodies in the van, Mister Green. It’s no one you know.”
“Okay,” Green said.
“Now, help me with Mister Purple. He’s leaving with you, the money, and the van.”
Sonne felt something odd in her throat. Pity? Did she actually feel sorry for Mister Green? He was just trying to survive now, to get the hell away from Gray and whatever he planned, and she could relate to that. The two of them loaded Purple into the van.
After Green shut the doors, he looked to Gray. “Where do I go now?”
“Anywhere you like, Mister Green.”
“Okay then.” Green hopped into the van. “Later.”
The van and Mister Green rolled toward a retracting garage door. The van drove out. The last Sonne saw of it was its taillights, flashing as the garage door closed.
Gray turned on her. “Samantha, I’d like your heel now.”
Sonne flinched. “What?”
“The metal heel you were saving to saw through your bonds. Please drop it on the floor and step away from it.”
Gray had known she had that heel stashed away. He had known since the autocar. Why hadn’t he warned the others?
“I won’t ask again,” Gray added.
Sonne dropped the heel. She stepped away and Gray retrieved it, looked it over, and frowned. “There’s blood on it.”
“Cut myself trying to break the tape.”
Gray walked around behind her and sawed through the duct tape with her bloody metal heel. “What was your plan when you broke free?”
A wave of weariness filled Sonne’s body. “I don’t know. Steal the van, maybe?”
“Not a bad plan.” He snapped the tape and released her hands. “You’re free to go.”
She spun on him and backed toward the door, toward safety. “I don’t believe you.”
“Because you just shot your partner in the face?”
“Mister Purple was a problem. Mister Green is a solution.”
“Distracting the gathered forces of the CID and VCD while my partner and I make our escape. Very soon, the VCD will corner Mister Green on a freeway. He’ll surrender.”
Gray couldn’t be that stupid. “Won’t he tell them you led this whole thing?”
“No, because his van will explode. In the wreckage, the VCD will find four bodies.”
Jesus, how many people had this psychopath killed? “Where’s Cowan?”
“Alive. He answered my questions honestly, after I broke his knee.”
Fresh guilt stabbed Sonne in the chest. “That wasn’t necessary!”
“It was,” Gray said, “and he’s otherwise intact. Cowan will soon send a distress call to the CID. It will lead them to focus on a stretch of the 805 ten kilometers away.”
Why was Gray letting them go now? He had to have some reason for it, some method to his madness. “You planned to give me to Vasser, right? Knowing what he’d do?”
“Then why kill Purple? Why piss off Vasser?”
“Because I don’t work for Oleg Vasser, Samantha. I work for myself, and I have another client whose commission is worth far more than the amount Vasser offered for you. Cowan offered a lead on that commission in exchange for your life. It seems he’d rather die here with us than allow us to sell you to Oleg Vasser. I can respect that.”
The weight in Sonne’s chest grew, but she refused to cry. She didn’t want to cry in front of Mister Gray. It had been a shitty night, but she wasn’t going to cry about it.
“Here he is now,” Mister Gray said.
Sonne spun to find two men approaching them, Mister Yellow and Cowan. Cowan hung off Yellow and hopped on one leg, which might have been funny if she wasn’t so pissed at practically everything. She was also still worried Gray might kill them both.
“Sonne!” Cowan shouted, looking way too happy. Yellow just shook his head.
Sonne hugged herself. She had done everything to save Cowan’s life and, apparently, he’d done everything he could to save hers. All in all, she’d been on worse dates.
Yellow helped her get Cowan settled against the wall. Sonne sat down beside him, her shoulder touching his, and without another word, Mister Gray and Mister Yellow just strolled out of their lives. The two of them left the warehouse without an autocar, or a helicopter, or a boat or anything else. They were simply going to walk free.
The CID wasn’t searching for two random pedestrians. They were searching for a manually driven vehicle big enough to hold two hostages and four men. Sitting against the wall, Sonne pressed her shoulder against Cowan’s. They’d been through something terrible together tonight, and she needed something not terrible. Cowan felt not terrible.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have been more careful.”
He glanced at her. “How is any of this your fault?”
“I fucked with the Russian mob, and I thought they wouldn’t retaliate.”
His eyes widened a good bit. “What did you do to the mob?”
It all came out in a rush. Sonne told Cowan all about Second Chance and the work they did to help trafficking victims, not to boast, but because he deserved to know why they’d been attacked tonight. He seemed suitably impressed. She liked that he was impressed.
“Anyway,” Cowan said, “apparently abducting us was just a side job to Gray. He was really interested in someone else.”
“His other commission.” Sonne remembered. “He mentioned that. Who’s he hunting?”
Sonne blinked. “He wants to dig up some dead astronomer’s body?”
Cowan smiled like she’d complimented his hair or something. “It’s the darkSim handle of some super secretive puppetmaster. He puppeted loose circuits into shooting rampages, and he also killed a grayDoc who was working with him. Anton Barkov.”
That name sounded Russian. “Was that doctor Russian?”
“Totally. I think Gray is Russian too, because he was really interested in Doctor Barkov’s murder. Gray knew Galileo worked with Barkov. Maybe even suspected he killed him.”
“So who is he?”
“I think Gray’s an enforcer or something. Maybe Barkov was connected to the Russian mob, or some other criminals, and they want Galileo dead. That’s Gray’s commission.”
Sonne glanced down at Cowan’s legs, wincing. “Why did he break your knee?”
“I lied to him. Then he smashed my knee and gave me the torture speech.”
Sonne remembered the torture speech. “So that’s it? He just lets us go?”
“Pretty much. Oh, I’m also convinced Galileo scripted a paralysis script for the Sim. That ringu girl used it in your pleasurebox to paralyze Jeb, then me.”
Sonne almost grabbed him arms and shook him. “Through admin mode?” Could he be talking about what happened to Kate’s father?
“Yeah. The script got me—”
She punched him in the arm. “You lied to my face!”
“I couldn’t let you know about it!” He winced, but she hadn’t really hit him that hard. “The CID can’t let anyone know. If I’d told you, they’d have redacted your memories.”
“I lied to protect you. You’re not supposed to be able to drop full stem barriers through the Sim, and you’re certainly not supposed to be able to do it through admin mode. I know, because I worked on PBAs. But somebody’s figured out how to do that.”
“Black magic.” Sonne gingerly touched his knee. “Does it hurt?”
Cowan hissed. “Please don’t.”
Sonne jerked her hand away. “So this Galileo guy is paralyzing people in the Sim? Why?”
“No idea. I thought these thugs were working for him, so I called out Mister Gray. But it turned out, hey, he was hunting Galileo. Enemy of my enemy and all that.”
She couldn’t believe he could be that stupid. “He could have murdered you!”
“Sure, I guess, but I couldn’t let them deliver you to Vasser.”
Sonne leaned over and kissed him, pressed close and hugged him tight. She didn’t do it long, just long enough to see what it felt like. It felt good. She pulled away.
“Hey,” Cowan said. He was blushing bright red.
“Idiot.” Sonne shoved him again, just to make sure he was paying attention. “I can take care of myself, and I don’t need you risking yourself for me. Understand?”
“You’re one to talk.”
“I mean it!”
“So do I. Can’t we just protect each other, you know, as a team? Like partners?”
Sonne rolled her eyes and pushed up against him again, enjoying the warmth of an arm against hers. She didn’t want to argue with Cowan right now, and she didn’t really want to do anything, honestly. She just wanted to sit here, arm against arm, and not think.
“Oh,” Cowan said, after a moment. “There’s something else I need to tell you.”
“What?” Given her luck, he was probably cheating on his girlfriend or something.
“We won’t remember this. Any of it.”
That didn’t really make sense. “Why?”
“I made a deal with Gray, the deal Yellow was watching to make sure I completed. I scripted a delayed memory deletion script. Yellow was checking my work.”
“Checking your … what?” Was he serious?
“It’s got a countdown to give Gray and Yellow time to get clear, but there’s no stopping it.” Cowan pulled a linkline from his pocket. “You’ll need it too. We have to redact everything after they pulled us out of the autocar. That’s the only way Gray lets us live.”
But Gray had already let them live, hadn’t he? “He’s gone, Cowan.”
“No, he’s here.” Cowan tapped the side of his head. “He’s watching through my eyes right now.”
Sonne recoiled like he’d just tossed a bunch of spiders at her. “You could have told me!”
“But … you kissed me!”
“So my brain stopped working!”
That might have been a line from anyone else, but not Cowan. He really was that easy to please. That didn’t make her any less mad about his omission.
Cowan popped one end of the linkline into the port behind his ear and offered the other end. “Take it. I’ll upload the script to your PBA. It’ll permanently redact your memories of tonight, the same time it redacts mine. It’ll also tell the CID where we really are.”
That still put Gray in jeopardy. “Why can’t we just run out and find a phone?”
“The script is GPS locked. If either of us leaves the warehouse, my PBA scrambles my brain. We agreed on a time delay so I could convince you to down the script.”
Sonne glared at Mister Gray through Cowan’s eyes, but what would Gray do if she refused? Would he come back? Would he hurt them, kill them?
“Gray won’t come back,” Cowan said, “but that doesn’t matter, because my script will also scramble my brain if you don’t down it in the next five minutes.”
“You agreed to all that?” He had, of course. He’d agreed to save both their lives, because Gray hadn’t given him a choice. She huffed and shook her head. “Next time, we negotiate together.” She popped the linkline into the port behind her left ear.
Her head tingled. Her PBA projected an augmented reality timer before her eyes, counting down, and that was just rubbing it in, really. This sucked. She’d forget everything that had happened tonight, kissing Cowan and hugging him tight. But she’d also forget watching Purple beat the shit out of him, so, plusses and minuses.
Cowan blinked. “Gray’s out of local wireless range.”
“Good.” Sonne sat back against the wall. “I’m still pissed about this.”
“We can still cuddle.”
Cowan jerked like something had bitten him.
* * *
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