Doctor Xu stepped back, revolver shaking in her arms. Even if she didn’t mean to shoot him, she might do it anyway. What if she missed? Should he go for his stunner?
She huffed, screamed, and tossed the revolver at him. “Idiot!”
Cowan dived just in time to avoid getting clocked in the head. Her gun bounced off his wall and spun across his hard floor. It didn’t fire, but of course it didn’t. Guns only fired when you pressed the trigger.
Xu fell to her knees and started sobbing. Just sobbing. Actual tears slipped down the sides of her nose, down her cheeks and onto her shaking lips. Cowan stared at her crocodile tears, one last trick from a hardened criminal. She was lying. She was evil.
She had almost been murdered in her own home.
Xu shuddered, stood, and stomped over to her revolver. She picked it up, staring at it, and Cowan knew he had lost his chance to run. Would she shoot him now?
Xu hitched up her skirt, tucked the revolver into her garter holster, and wiped her eyes. She pulled on her blonde wig and walked for his apartment door.
“Hey.” Cowan’s stupid legs went after her. “Where are you going?”
“Somewhere pleasant.” Xu’s voice was quiet now. “Maybe a park, with trees. I’d like to see real trees before I go, smell leaves and grass and nature.”
“Before you go?”
“The only place Galileo can’t come after me.”
Why was she so scared of him? “If you’re that worried, turn yourself into the CID.”
She glanced back and narrowed her dark eyes. “I won’t be rewritten. And just so you’ll know how much of an asshole you are, I never intended my last bullet for you.”
The calm in her tone chilled him. He couldn’t let her commit suicide. He pondered trying for her gun, and wondered which of them might get shot.
“That butcher knife at the back of my head?” Xu said. “That was a mercy.”
He remembered the knife he found imbedded in her study wall. “How is that a mercy?”
“By escaping, I’ve made Galileo look foolish. He’ll rewrite me as a caution to others now, erase all I am and all I have done. Doctor Huan Xu will simply cease to exist.”
She was sounding more paranoid by the second. “How do you know Galileo has access to a rewriting center?”
“It was just a foolish bet.” Xu looked somewhere only she could see. “I only learned Galileo’s nature later from rumors, gossip.” She gripped his door handle. “Goodbye.”
Cowan ordered his apartment’s VI to lock the door. Xu tugged, grunted, and threw up her hands. “What do you want? Must I prostrate myself?”
“No.” Cowan saw a way out for them both, finally. “I’m going to help you.”
“You don’t have the balls to help me!”
“I’m not hurting anyone to save your life. But I might know another way out.”
“What could you possibly offer that I haven’t thought of?”
Cowan checked his sleep loop. Still sleeping. “Do you have a car?”
She glared for a moment. “Yes?”
“Is it the Tesla?”
“I’m not an idiot! I abandoned the Tesla.”
“Then let’s go. I’ll tell you the rest on the way.”
* * *
September 30, Just Past Midnight
As Cowan and his scantily-clad blonde friend emerged from the front door of his apartment complex, Jeb glanced at his analog watch. The woman had been in there for thirty minutes, more than enough time if you were lonely enough, but this illicit liaison seemed too brazen for a man like Cowan. It felt out of character.
Jeb had gathered enough clues to know someone in Cowan’s life had hurt him, badly, which was why he was so hesitant to date. That still didn’t explain why he’d risk soliciting an actual prostitute in meatspace. Simsex was almost as good, cheaper, safer, and most importantly, absolutely legal.
Beside him in the passenger seat, David leaned forward. “Is he giving her a ride home?”
David wore a thick leather jacket with a concealed stunner. Without the ability to activate his HARM switch, the support Jeb’s husband could offer was limited, but Jeb still liked having him here. He hadn’t hidden anything from David in a long time.
Jeb tapped his fingers on the steering wheel of his 2082 Toyota Camry, a classic he kept for days off. “I don’t see why. Heading to an in-call, maybe?” His Camry had no GPS and no wireless devices of any kind, which made it immune to routine tracking methods.
“How much longer before you have to turn your PBA back on?” David asked.
“We’ve got another couple of hours. We’ll be home long before I have to hop back on the network.”
One of the advantages of twenty years with the CID was that, at night, Director Stanton allowed Jeb to deactivate his PBA’s in-eye surveillance when he wanted private time with his husband. Jeb had been using that time to surveil Cowan, instead. Puck’s claim that Cowan was a loose circuit remained stuck in Jeb’s brain. He couldn’t dismiss it.
Cowan and the woman hopped into her waiting autocar. It passed the corner where Jeb had parked. He pulled out after the car and followed, gripping the big wheel tight.
* * *
“Stop here,” Cowan said.
The autocar pulled over. He’d up’d a destination across town, to throw off anyone monitoring the autocar, but the route went by Sonne’s Sanctuary. They were now a block away, and Xu’s MySelf bracelet was fully charged. It was time to execute his very bad plan. They left the car and started walking.
Once they reached Sonne’s Sanctuary, Cowan knocked on the closed door. After a long moment, he knocked again. Finally, Mick the bouncer opened the door and blocked the frame. “Full.”
Cowan opened his jacket and flashed his badge. “CID.” He had changed into his work clothes before they left.
Mick didn’t move. Then his head tilted, like he’d heard a dog whistle or something, and he stepped out of the way. Sonne stepped into view and frowned at them. She wore a tight shirt with a Triforce on it and ripped blue jeans right out of the 10s. She looked really good, but Cowan couldn’t think about that now. Xu’s life was at stake.
“Detective Soto.” Sonne’s formality was a bit disheartening. “What did I do now?”
“We need asylum.” Cowan glanced at Xu, now staring at the ground and looking miserable. “I’ll explain inside.” He gave Sonne his best pleading look. “It’s important.”
Sonne frowned and leaned out her door, looking first left, than right. “Well, get in here.” She stepped back inside. “Before someone sees you.”
Cowan walked inside and made sure Xu was right beside him, a poor Swiss woman trafficked into prostitution in California. Sonne said nothing, didn’t look back, as she led them through the parlor and down the hall with its flickering lights. They entered Sonne’s office, which felt secure enough, and she closed them inside. Her holo-projection was disabled, her desk unremarkable. There were no waterfalls this time.
Sonne turned and leaned against the closed door of her office, arms crossed. “Explain.”
Cowan had dug into Sonne’s tax records on the drive over, using his CID credentials to snoop, and he had a decent idea what to do next. “You donate to a number of Benzai Corporation charities, one of which is called Second Chance. You fly women home.”
“We help sex-trafficking victims. Is this woman a sex-trafficking victim?”
“Yes, from Switzerland. She—”
“Stop.” Sonne raised a hand. “Please, let her talk.”
Cowan nodded. Xu better pull it together now. She had to be an actress one last time.
“I came for a job,” Xu said. “It was for a model, for two months.” Her Ws were more like Vs, her Fs drawn out. “I figured, easy money.” She paused. “None of it was easy.”
Xu actually sounded Swiss, even better than her Russian. Did her PBA have an accent algorithm installed? How many accents could she do, convincingly?
Sonne’s whole demeanor changed when she looked at Xu. Her shoulders relaxed, her gaze softening. “Who held you here? Did he give you his name?”
They’d discussed Xu’s pimp on the ride over. Cowan had picked a man named Oleg Vasser, because Jeb’s report the night they were abducted stated Vasser was the most likely person to have ruined his date. One small bit of revenge.
“He was a thin man,” Xu said, “pale. Like a ghost. He did not give his name.” Good touch.
“Did he wear hoop earrings?”
Xu shook her head.
“Did he have a scar?”
“Yes.” Xu shuddered convincingly. “Purple and disgusting. He was a disgusting man.”
Sonne uncrossed her arms and straightened, mouth a firm line. “I can’t get you back to Switzerland until the end of the week, when we launch our next flight, but you’re safe here, understand? You’re staying here until we can get you out.”
Crap, that complicated things. Xu’s myself wouldn’t last that long. She’d have to ask for privacy, maybe, only come out when it was done charging. This could still work.
“No, you must…” Xu caught herself. “Please. If there is any way, a flight tonight…”
“There’s not,” Sonne said, “but I won’t let anyone take you. Trust me.” She glanced at Cowan. “I won’t ask where you found her. All I’ll say is thank—”
The door to Sonne’s office opened abruptly, bumping her rear and sending her stumbling. “Hands in the air, please.” A huge shadow loomed beyond the door.
Cowan drew his stunner and aimed, heart pumping. Was it Galileo? “Stop!”
“Really?” Six feet of Jeb Forrester stepped inside, stunner raised. “Really, Cowan?”
“Fuck!” Xu stumbled back, hitched her dress, and yanked her gun from her garter holster. She slammed the revolver to her temple as her MySelf projection flickered out.
Sonne’s face went pale. “Doctor Xu?”
“Dammit, stop moving!” Cowan’s weapon moved to track Xu as Jeb’s weapon moved to track him. “Everyone stop moving!”
“Drop the gun, Cowan,” Jeb said. “Xu can’t actually shoot herself.”
“I can!” Xu shouted. “I’ll do it!”
“She’ll do it.” Cowan swung his stunner to cover Jeb. “She’s a loose circuit, Jeb. She’s suicidal.”
“Mexican standoff,” Jeb said. “Always wanted to try a Mexican standoff.” He glanced at Sonne. “Hey, you got a gun on you?”
She blinked. “No.”
“Want us to wait while you get one?”
“I think I’m fine.”
“You think this is a joke?” Xu screamed. “I won’t lose my mind! I will die as I am now!
Xu smiled as she looked somewhere far away, as her body relaxed and her face did too. She was content. She was ready.
Cowan tackled her just before the gun went off.
The blast left his ears ringing and a tiny hole in Sonne’s ceiling, but didn’t touch Huan Xu. She was on the floor under Cowan now, gasping.
“No!” Xu shouted. “No no no!”
“Guess I was wrong,” Jeb said.
“Release me!” Xu fought and wriggled.
“Cowan, get clear.” Jeb stepped forward, stunner aimed.
“No Jeb, stop!” Cowan rolled between them and spread his arms. “You can’t take her in to the CID.” He realized, then, that he believed Xu. “Galileo’s after her. He wants to put her through a total rewrite, erase her entire personality.”
“As long as Xu hasn’t murdered anyone, they’ll just mod her.” Jeb grimaced as he sucked in his breath, glaring. “Don’t make me shoot you. Don’t make this harder.”
Xu thrashed beneath Cowan’s weight. “Don’t let him rewrite me!”
“Detective Forrester?” Sonne pressed a small stunner to the back of his bald head. “I’d like you to lower your weapon, please.”
“Huh.” After a moment, Jeb lowered his gun. “I honestly did not see that coming.”
* * *
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