Master of Chaos
Book Three in The Unredeemables
She’s as beautiful as a fallen angel…
I don’t know how long I’ve been locked in Halliwell’s dungeon. That psycho billionaire is still trying pry my brother Ethan’s all-powerful algorithm, SmokeScreen, out of me. The only escape is death. I’m ready. More than ready.
Then the redhead sneaks in. Smart, sexy, smoking hot, even through a six-inch wall of reinforced glass. She’s doing me no favors. Making me feel again when I’m better off numb. Maybe she’s acting, maybe I’m hallucinating, but now Halliwell has decided to put me down … and just when I start wanting to live again.
The redhead might be my way out—but only at a price I can’t afford to pay …
He’s as deadly as a caged tiger …
I shouldn’t be poking around in the secret depths of Owen Halliwell’s headquarters. The guy might be my biological father, but I’d known that he was a monster even before I saw Shane Masters, the prisoner down in Level Eight. Before my knees started to quake, and my heart to gallop like a herd of wild horses.
I’m stuck in this hellhole for my own reasons. My little sister has a rare disease, and Halliwell has strong-armed me into writing malware for him in exchange for a cure. It’s keeping her alive, yes, but this place is next-level toxic.
Even multiple layers of security and the obscene shock collar can’t diminish the power emanating from that man. Then I discover that the algorithm Shane refuses to reveal could save my sister…and that Halliwell has scheduled his execution.
That can’t happen. I have to break him out. He’s a commando warrior, furiously angry, completely unpredictable. He could be my salvation. He could be my ruin.
All I can do is roll the dice …
Read an Excerpt
I couldn’t stop clinging to my little sister Reggie’s hand.
I managed to move away from that hospital bed and its beeping machines for long enough for the doctors and nurses to do their thing, but I stayed close by while they did it, ready to pounce as soon as they were done and resume clutching Reggie’s limp, clammy hand. I was hanging on to that kid like a screw-on clamp, afraid even to run to the bathroom to pee. I’d drastically reduced my fluid intake to make it less of an issue. There was a solution for everything, right?
Right. Like I could tether Reggie to this earthly plane through sheer force of will. One would think I would have learned how pointless that was two years ago, when Mom died, but I could be selectively stupid AF when I wanted to be. I’d certainly failed at keeping Mom tethered. She’d drifted away while my back was turned.
I wasn’t turning my back on Reggie for one second. She was my pal, my companion, my accomplice, in spite of me being sixteen years older than her ten years. It was Reggie and me against the world. Reggie was the whole point to all this nonsense.
Without her, I was nowhere. Nothing. I flinched from the thought of the echoing emptiness that would be my world if she were to slip out of my grasp.
Reggie croaked, and I leaned to put my ear to her lips. “What’s that, baby?”
“Mommy,” she whispered. “Here.”
“No, honey-babe. It’s Cass.”
She tried to speak and started to cough. I grabbed some tissues, held them up to her mouth. “Spit out the gunk so you don’t have to swallow it,” I urged. “I know your throat is sore.”
Reggie turned her head and weakly spat out a clump of bloody mucous. This was a new and freshly horrible symptom of Varen’s Disease. Mom had died of Varen’s, but it had carried her away before she got around to this particular symptom.
Shrimpy little Reggie didn’t look it, but she’d always been tougher than Mom.
I threw away the tissue, wiped her mouth, and reached for the water, positioning the straw for her. Reggie drank and smiled her thanks, crooking her fingers for me to bend close again. I did so. “What is it, sweetie?”
“I know it’s you, not Mommy,” she whispered. “I was just saying, Mommy was here before. I saw her.”
I jolted up, electrified, and looked around as if I might catch sight of her myself. Unlikely, since she was two years dead. No, no, no, Mom. Don’t come for Reggie. Not yet. Go back to where you came from, alone and unaccompanied. Please.
“Um… what did she want?” I asked carefully.
“To see us,” Reggie said, is if it were obvious.
“Who? Me, too?”
Reggie gave me a ‘duh’ look, and rolled her eyes.
“Is she here now?” I asked.
Reggie scanned the room and shook her head.
I was desperately relieved. Of course, as far as ghosts went, I was sure that Mom’s would be a benevolent one, but I wanted to have a sharp conversation with Ghost Mom about her timing. Namely, that she was here way, way too soon. She could come back for Reggie in, say, ninety-odd years. Not before. Off you go, Mom. Scoot.
But it seemed disrespectful to be such a bitch to someone who had gone to the trouble of visiting from the other side of the veil, so I forced a smile. “That’s wild, sweetie,” I said. “I wish I could see her, too. Tell her hi for me, if she comes back.”
Reggie’s giggle turned into another coughing fit. We did the whole tissue-spitting-water routine again, and she smiled at me. “Don’t worry,” she whispered.
“About what, babe?”
“You think she came to take me with her, right?”
I stared at her, bug-eyed. “Uhhhh…”
“I told her I couldn’t go yet,” Reggie confided.
“Oh,” I said slowly. “So… she wanted to take you away with her?”
“She said I could go if I wanted to,” Reggie said. “I told her, not yet.” She sucked in a hiccupping breath. “I have to look after you. Keep you out of trouble.”
Oh, thank God. My eyes stung and watered. “And she was okay with that?”
“She just kissed me on the forehead,” Reggie said. “And then she was gone.” Her lower lip trembled. “I wish she could have stayed. I miss her so much.”
“Oh, baby. Me, too.” I fished out the tissues in time for another coughing fit.
When the spasms eased down, Reggie lay there trembling, breathing as shallowly as she could, to not provoke another one. She reached out a finger, and stroked my wrist, where I had tattooed her name onto myself. It was a fine-line tattoo, in an old-timey, graceful cursive script, and it reached halfway up my inner arm. Regina.
“Not fair,” she whispered.
“What?” I asked.
“That I can’t tattoo ‘Cassandra’ on my arm, too. Just because I’m only ten.”
I laughed soggily. “In a few years you can get your own tattoo, if you still want to. In the meantime, I’m glad you mentioned it, because I have a surprise for you. Things got so crazy when you got sick, I forgot all about them, but check this out.”
I dug into my big purse and pulled out an envelope. In it were a handful of long strips of stiff paper, about the size of standard bookmarks. I had asked the artist who did my own tattoo to design a corresponding one for Reggie and print them up as temporary tattoos. “I have ten of them,” I told her. “When one wears off, you can just stick on another. Every time you look at it, you’ll remember how much I love you.”
Reggie’s eyes shone. She held out her arm eagerly, and I peeled off the film and pressed the sticky side to her inner arm. I dampened a handful of tissues from her water bottle and smoothed them over her pale arm until the sodden paper clung to her skin.
Then I peeled it off, leaving the delicate tracing of the stenciled ‘Cassandra’ on her arm. Just like my own tattoo. The same type of lettering. A sister set, but the lettering reached much further up Reggie’s skinny little arm. Almost to her elbow.
“This should tide you over until you’re old enough to get real ink,” I said. “When you finish them up, I’ll have more made for you.”
I gathered up all the soggy tissues, the wet paper strip, the plastic film, and by the time I had tossed it all into the waste basket, Reggie was sound asleep. That brief interchange had exhausted her.
“Excuse me, Ms. Clarke?”
I turned to see two of Reggie’s team of doctors in the room. The tall dark one, Dr. Lukas, and a shorter, chubbier guy with curly brown hair, Dr. Cirillo. “Yes?”
“We need to talk to you about your sister’s case,” Dr. Lukas said. “Can you come with us for a moment?”
That sounded ominous, but it wasn’t the kind of request a person could refuse. I followed them down the hospital corridors until they led me into to a room that had a pale lavender and gray color scheme, muted décor, blandly soothing art, soft chairs.
That, too, struck me as ominous. This was a room designed to soothe frightened, grieving people. I was a lamb being led to the slaughter, and this was going to hurt.
“Is Reggie going to be okay?” I demanded. “Is that what this is about? Do you have any more info for me?”
“Well,” Dr. Lukas said reluctantly. “We don’t, really. The truth is, there isn’t much more we can do for Regina, other than keep her comfortable. There are no treatment options for an acute case of Varen’s Disease like your sister’s. All we can do is manage her symptoms, as best we can. And… I am really sorry to tell you this, but we estimate, based on how quickly things are deteriorating, that she has one to two weeks. At most.”
“You mean until she…” I choked on the unsayable words. “No. That’s not possible.” I struggled to string words together. “She’s only ten! She was fine just a few weeks ago! Aren’t there any clinical trials, experimental treatments?”
Lukas exchanged mournful glances with Cirillo. They shook their heads.
“Varen’s is extremely rare,” Cirillo offered, his voice apologetic. “It occurs in one in two million—”
“I know the stats. My mother died of Varen’s two years ago. I’m an old pro.”
“Ah. I see. Well, there may be a genetic component to Varen’s Disease, but there hasn’t been enough research done on it yet to gather any meaningful statistics. I’m sorry to give you such bad news, Ms. Clarke. But hospice is available to help you deal with the end-of-life choices you need to make for her. I promise, we’ll make your sister as comfortable as possible, and there are support groups for—”
“She’s only ten! She can’t be dying! It’s just not possible!”
Cirillo and Lukas droned on, their voices soft with professional sympathy, but I couldn’t make out their words over the crackling roar of panic in my head. My sweet, affectionate, goofy little Reggie, who loved Star Wars and science and peanut-butter and jam sandwiches. Reggie, who had been my whole world since Mom checked out.
I got up and ran out. I couldn’t understand what they said anyhow. My heart banged against my ribs, and my stomach lurched. I was furiously angry, as if someone had struck a spiteful blow at my baby sister, and I wanted to hit back. And hit hard.
But my anger had nowhere to go, except at myself. Varen’s was random, rare. Possibly genetic. It had clobbered me when it took Mom. It was back to finish the job.
I sprinted for the bathroom. Thank God it was unoccupied, because I just barely made it to the toilet as it was, to toss the espresso I had chosen at the bar this morning, based on its high caffeine-to-liquid ratio. It tasted awful coming up, but at least there was no food along with it. There hadn’t been for a while. Having Reggie gasping for air in a hospital bed was a real appetite-killer.
Who knew, maybe I’d get Varen’s, too. Maybe there was an evil puppeteer up there in the sky, fucking with our lives. Maybe I’d have a whole lot of free time in my future to contemplate big philosophical questions like that. Lonely, pointless, quiet time to rail at God, whoever and whatever God might be. Not my friend right now, that was for damn sure.
I rinsed my mouth out. I didn’t have time for freak-outs in the bathroom. I had counted minutes to spend with Reggie. It was all about Reggie now.
I walked out and headed back toward her room, picking up my pace until I was almost running toward my sister, not looking to the right or the left.
“Cassandra.” A low, oily baritone voice as I ran by made me freeze in irrational terror, almost pitching forward onto my face. For a second, I couldn’t move. The hairs prickled up, on the back of my neck. I got control of my muscles and turned around.
Yes. I was looking at the one person on earth who could inspire knee-quaking, bowel-weakening, blood-pressure-dropping terror in me. He had found me at last, in spite of Mom’s and my best efforts. Owen Halliwell, business mogul, billionaire, sociopathic monster, asshole extraordinaire.
And also, incidentally, my biological father.
He held out his arms with a big smile, as if he expected me to run into them.
I stared at him, blank and horrified, my open mouth still bitter from having thrown up. Jangled and confused at the still-unprocessed nightmare; Reggie with two weeks to live, lying in a hospital bed she would probably never leave, plugged full of tubes, gasping for air. Hospice about to call. End-of-life choices.
And then, pow, this guy shows up. The fucking cherry on top of my shit sundae.
My mother and I had dodged this man for eighteen years. He was insane, narcissistic, terrifying, controlling, and he had literally destroyed my mom. She’d done her best, after we got away, to pull herself together and be a parent to me. She’d even bravely tried romance again with Reggie’s father, but that had petered out fast.
She had never recovered from her time with Owen Halliwell. And when Varen’s Disease came for her, on some level, I sensed that she was glad for an excuse to go, even after eighteen years of detoxing. Halliwell was like a long-acting poison.
“What do you want?” I asked.
His smile froze. “No need to be rude, Cassandra.”
I swayed on my feet. He looked just like I remembered, if not quite so gigantically tall and looming. I’d only been eight the last time I saw him in the flesh. He was stringier than I remembered, but he looked good for a guy well over sixty. Tall, fit, wiry, with snow-white hair and a neatly trimmed white beard. Mom had always said that I looked like him, but I disliked hearing it. My curly, dark-red hair and abundant freckles were from Mom, but she said that it was the wide-set green eyes, the sharp cheekbones and the pointy chin that I had gotten from Halliwell. I couldn’t see the resemblance myself, which was a good thing, because the sight of him made my stomach flop like a fish out of water, about to suffocate to death.
Not what you want to have happen every time you look in the mirror.
I saw Halliwell’s face all over the news. He was one of the three or four richest human beings on the planet, so that self-important smirk was on every magazine cover. He had his fingers in every pie; political, economic, academic, cultural, philanthropic. There was no avoiding Owen Halliwell’s mug. His malevolent pale-green eyes twinkled at me from every newsstand and supermarket check-out line.
“I was concerned for my long-lost daughter,” he said. “I was devastated to hear of Laurel’s passing two years ago. Even more distressed to hear that your little sister has now been stricken with Varen’s, too. Terrible luck. My sympathies.”
“That’s private,” I snarled. “You have no right to snoop into my sister’s medical records. Only her doctors and I should know the details of her illness!”
He rolled his eyes. “This is no time to be childish.”
“You have no idea how childish I can be,” I blurted, my voice getting louder. “You’re not welcome. You never have been, and nothing has changed. So get lost.”
He put on a hurt face. “What did your mother say about me, Cassandra? Because I can assure you, most of it was a lie. Laurel had psychological problems, and she—”
“None of your damn business what she told me. Get out of here.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” he said, almost apologetically. “I’m sorry to distress you, but you really can’t throw me out. Essentially, I own this place. I’m on the Board of Directors of this hospital, and I donated a hundred and fifty million dollars for the new children’s wing three years ago, specifically so that cures for diseases like Varen’s can be researched and defeated. I believe in the triumph of science, the march toward the truth. But it takes time, and unfortunately, poor little Regina is out of time.”
“I’m not discussing her with you,” I said. “She is none of your damn business. Leave her alone. Forget that she even exists.”
“Do you want to spit bile, Cassandra, or do you want a successful treatment for your sister’s illness?”
My heart started to thud heavily. “Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.” My voice shook. “I’m not an idiot. They said there was nothing they could do.”
Halliwell made an airy flicking gesture with his fingers. “And that is literally true. There is, in fact, nothing they can do. But they are not me. I have tricks up my sleeve that they don’t have. And contrary to what Laurel told you, I do take pleasure in helping my fellow man. I feel genuinely responsible for making the world a better place with my vast resources. And yes, I can get Regina the treatment that she needs.”
“How?” I demanded. “If these doctors have no clue? How can you know more about a treatment for a rare disease than they do? You’re not a doctor.”
“No, but I employ armies of them. Cutting-edge pharmaceuticals have always been a big part of Halliwell Enterprises. It’s possible. I swear it, on my honor.”
That was not reassuring, knowing what I did about his honor, but I pressed onward. “Then let’s tell her team,” I said. “Let’s talk to Cirillo and Lukas, this minute.” I pulled out my phone. “We’ll see what they say. Has this treatment been tested? Have there been human trials yet?”
He cleared his throat. “Well, how could there be, with a disease so rare? I admit, it’s an experimental treatment, but I have seen astonishing results with my own eyes. Bear in mind, Cirillo and Lukas have no idea how the treatment works. They’ll be worried, suspicious, they’ll drag their feet and cover their asses. They’ll slow things down and cost Regina precious time she can’t afford to lose. But I have doctors on call who can treat her right now. No delays. No learning curve.”
I pulled out my phone. “So? Call these doctors in. Let’s get this moving.”
His lips curled into a self-satisfied smirk. “It’s not so simple. Regina would have to be discharged and admitted to one of my private clinics. You would have to sign waivers, a non-disclosure agreement. The whole thing must be discreet.”
“Why? Are you working on a patent?” I demanded. “Jesus, are your hundreds of billions not enough? Would anything ever be enough to satisfy you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped. “There is zero money to be made from researching Varen’s Disease, Cassandra. I pursue it because it’s the right thing to do, and no other reason. Projects like that are a stress-reducing side gig for me. Hail Marys, lost causes. They’re my guilty pleasure. I find cheating death very stimulating.”
“Are you trying to redeem yourself for all the shitty things you’ve done? You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
He looked pained. “I would never have guessed how judgmental and unpleasant you are up close, Cassandra. You weren’t that way the last time I saw you.”
True thing. The last time we were together, I was a terrified little kid, and the man I remembered, with his hair-trigger temper and his huge, inflamed ego, would have crushed me like a bug for being so disrespectful.
But he hadn’t done that so far. So he must have an agenda.
“What do you want from me?” I demanded.
His eyebrow slanted up, wryly amused. “Filial respect, to start with?”
“Dream on,” I retorted.
His nostrils flared. “Fine. Forget that. Baseline common courtesy is mandatory, however. I’ll just lay it out for you. I want you to come work for me, Cassandra.”
I blinked. “You are the last person on earth I would ever work for,” I blurted. “If I were working right now at all, which I’m not. If you haven’t noticed, I have more important things to think about at the moment. So that’s a hard no.”
“You’re referring to your sister?” His voice was soft and insinuating. “So am I. She’s your top priority, of course. But I need your particular skills. I also need an exclusive licensing deal for Glow-worm.”
I gasped, startled. How could he know about Glow-worm? No one knew about it, not even my most trusted employees at Red Queen. It was my private, off-hours home project, and I wasn’t even finished with the structural design, let alone all the code. Glow-worm wasn’t even meant to be its final name. It was just a working handle.
“Did you hack me?” I demanded. “How did you know about Glow-worm?”
“We’ll talk about how I arrived at my intel another time. Your malware is brilliant, Cassandra. Glow-worm, in particular, is incredibly powerful and innovative. I need it urgently, and I need you along with it. Glow-worm will require its own creator to get it up and running. You’re the only one in the world who can do it. That, more than anything, shows that you’re my daughter. You make yourself irreplaceable. Which gives you power. Just like me. As if I’d coached you myself. It makes me very proud.”
“Don’t be,” I snapped. “And don’t try to butter me up. I legally can’t do what you’re asking, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I already have a client that I’ve promised first crack at Glow-worm, so as soon as I—”
“That is a lie,” he said calmly. “It’s still completely secret. And I know the players who will be jockeying to license Glow-worm when it’s finished. You haven’t offered it to them yet. But even if you had, I can outbid them all. By a huge margin.”
“It’s not about money,” I said.
He waved that away impatiently. “I’ve followed your career. You’re known all over the world in certain circles, young as you are. You’re on the radar of defense contractors, arms dealers, government intelligence agencies, and probably terrorist organizations as well, through no fault of your own, of course. You demand astronomical fees. You get that sense of your professional worth from me. I need that get-it-done energy. It’s so hard to recruit that quality. I’ll pay top dollar for it.”
“No,” I said flatly.
“My payment, of course, includes access to my resources to treat Regina.”
The implications hit me all at once. “Wait. But… I can pay for Regina’s care myself,” I said stiffly. “Whatever it costs. I’ll cover every penny. I don’t bargain with that coin.”
“I do,” he said coolly. “And I will accept nothing less than your exclusive professional services as payment for Regina’s treatment. That’s my offer.” He started to laugh at the dread in my eyes. “Oh, don’t you worry. You’ll still get the money you’re due for the licensing deal, the whole massive sum. But I get Glow-worm, and I get you. For as long as I need you. That’s the deal Cassandra. Take it or leave it.”
I felt the walls closing in around me. I thought of my mother, her empty eyes, her broken will. Her horror stories about this man’s twisted mind, his grotesquely swollen ego that was never satisfied. How being in his sphere of influence was like a terminal illness. It truly had been for her, in the end.
“I… I can’t do it,” I whispered.
“Ah.” He pulled a sad face. “Well, then. I’ll leave you to make those end-of-life arrangements. Will you scatter Regina’s ashes in the redwoods with Laurel’s? I’m sure she would want to be with her mother in death.”
How…? Reggie and I had told no one where Mom’s ashes were scattered. “How the fuck did you know that?” My voice was getting shrill. “Are you having us followed? You’re blackmailing me with Reggie’s illness, you asshole!”
“You won’t be permitted to use that kind of language when you are working for me,” he lectured. “I find it distasteful.”
“I don’t give a shit what you find distasteful!”
“You will finish Glow-worm under my watchful eye, and license it to me, for an obscene amount of money,” Halliwell went on. “You will work for me for an obscenely large salary while your sister is treated in one of my private facilities. My clinic will treat her with drug compounds no one on earth has ever heard of, and she will get stronger by the day. A fact you will be able to verify with daily video calls. It’s a win/win/win, for everyone concerned. See? It’s a very lucky day for you and Regina.”
I hated the tears that were filling my eyes. I didn’t dare to be vulnerable and needy in front of this bastard who had ruined my mother’s life and left a smoking hole in my own. But he was dangling hope in front of me. I was helpless not to lunge for it.
“Think about it, Cassandra.” His voice was oily and satisfied again, as he felt his absolute power over me, and liked the hell out of it. “Accept my advantageous bargain. Or prepare to scatter your sister’s ashes in the redwood grove. The choice is yours.”
“You evil, manipulative son of a bitch,” I whispered. “I hate your guts.”
“I don’t mind that,” he said. “As long as you work well and give satisfaction.”
I could feel the jaws of the trap closing around me, but I was helpless not to take the bait. “So, ah… how long would you need me to work for you?”
His teeth flashed, unnaturally white, as he came in for the kill. “How could I possibly know? Until we’re done. My lawyers will get to work this very night on a contract for you, but the job is a good one. Stratospheric pay. Perks of every kind. Luxury accommodations in my headquarters on the Washington coast. A private ocean-view apartment, two minutes from your workplace. Room service at your fingertips when you don’t feel like cooking. Every comfort and amenity, day and night.”
“I don’t give a shit about that,” I said. “I need to stay with Reggie. Right at her side. I’ll work for you, but only after she’s well and strong. That’s non-negotiable.”
“I’m afraid I can’t wait,” he said. “You must start tomorrow. Regina will be taken by helicopter to the clinic tonight. You can accompany her there, but you can’t stay with her, unfortunately. My own schedule won’t allow it. You say your goodbyes, and the helicopter will bring you directly to my Washington coast headquarters. I need you to hit the ground running. Tomorrow morning early.”
“Deal’s off, then,” I said. “I have to stay with Reggie. I can’t budge on that point.”
His eyes sparkled. “Aww. Look at you, so tough, driving your hard bargain. Like watching a kitten hiss at a German Shepherd. You’re just like me, you know? You dictate terms and walk away if they aren’t met. But not this time, my dear. The only power you have right now is your willingness to walk away. Are you willing?”
I gulped, willing my burning eyes not to overflow. That bastard.
He saw the answer in my face and nodded. “Good choice, Cassandra.”
“I go by Cass,” I said. I’d never liked the name Cassandra, not since I read the story in the Greek epic about Cassandra’s curse. Doomed to predict the future, but to never be believed. Crazy-making frustration at its worst. “No one calls me Cassandra.”
“I do,” Halliwell said softly. “And as you will soon realize… I am not no one.”
Nine weeks later…
“Hey!” I heard a muffled knocking sound. “Shane? Are you awake?”
The low alto voice was caressingly soft, even distorted by the microphone. I was deep in a meditative state. Usually I was able to resist when those assholes tried to break my concentration and command my attention. All of my energy was spent trying to detach myself mentally in every way from this place, this situation, these murderous pricks and what they had done to me. I was pretty good at it by now, all things considered.
But I would come to the surface for Red.
For some reason, I couldn’t help but respond to Red’s voice. Velvety, sparkly, soft. Feminine. It wasn’t good that she had that much power over me. It felt intimate, compromising, risky. I had no idea in what way, but I still sensed the danger.
My eyes opened, wondering what her power over me was. Probably just because she was so fucking pretty, and not an evil, torturing asshole like the others. Banal, but there it was. It was embarrassing, to be so predictable, but fuck yeah, I’d change the frequency of my brain waves and emerge from a meditative state to look at Red. Who could blame me? I’d been locked up for months here, and I’d been in Victor and Nicole’s clutches before that, getting all fucked up. After the coma, I’d stopped trying to track the time I spent in here. I had no reference points, so who cared? It felt like eternity in any case.
One thing was for sure. I was never leaving this room. They would keep trying to pry the access to my brother’s super-algorithm out of me until I died.
So the hours crawled by, all grim, boring, agonizing sameness… until Red showed up one night. Effectively blowing my sensory-deprived mind.
She stood on the other side of the thick glass wall, gazing at me with those big, worried eyes. She wore jeans and an oversized men’s tee-shirt, and a shapeless sweater over that, like she was trying to be sexless. Nice try. Useless effort.
Her curly red hair was twisted into a long, thick braid, and a halo of fuzzy little corkscrews escaped around her face, dangling below her jaw, floating above her head. Her big, wide-set green eyes were luminous in their paleness, like a cat. No makeup. Her lips were naturally pink and luscious. Her eyes looked shadowed. Haunted.
Red had been down to see me six times, if my memory was to be trusted. This was the seventh time. Other women had come down here from time to time to ogle me, some men as well. But none of them had glommed onto my imagination like Red.
Red seemed… angelic.
Confusing, to see an angel down here in the bowels of hell. She was so beautiful. Face, eyes, body, voice. I was starved for it. A beautiful girl, sneaking down to my dungeon to chat with me? It sounded too good to be true. So it definitely was.
My sexy fallen angel was just a sneaky new attack on my defenses. Had to be.
But I was exhausted from keeping my defenses up. Besides, what was I defending? I was all fucked up. My mind was blank. There was nothing for her to find in there. So what harm could she do to me? Why not play along? What could it hurt?
Red’s visits had to be scripted, so even pretending to fall for it, just for the entertainment value, might give them an opening into my head somehow. I had no idea how, but in my reduced condition, Halliwell was definitely smarter than me.
Look at me, second-guessing myself, staring, salivating, sweating for her. If they meant to destabilize me, they had succeeded. And I wished she wouldn’t keep reminding me of my former name. I was trying really hard to forget it.
I had to forget everything. My family, all the knowledge I had worked to acquire in my life, even my baby girl. It all had to go, into the mist, into the smoke, to keep them safe, shielded. To deny that asshole access to my memories… and SmokeScreen.
Red was no angel, fallen or otherwise. She was just a new attempt to drill into my mind. I had to remember that at all times. Halliwell was like a strip-miner constantly using new angles, new methods for digging for traces of SmokeScreen, leaving a wasteland of poison and slag behind himself.
Yeah, that pretty much summed up my current state of being.
“Sorry to disturb you, but I can’t stay much longer, and I was hoping to talk to you,” she said.
“I’ve got nothing to say.” My response came out in a croak, thickened from scar tissue and long silence. And the screaming, from back in my time with Vincent and Nicole. I’d damaged something in my throat while they were breaking my bones.
I’d been sitting cross-legged on the cold tile floor for hours. No way to know how many. I couldn’t gauge time passing here. There was no natural light, and no regular light-and-dark cycle. The lights were always on. But I could tell from the stiffness in my muscles and the fullness in my bladder that it had been a long time.
I rose to my feet, sucking in a breath while numb muscles remembered that they existed. Blood pumped through the sore parts. Bones that had been broken ached and throbbed. A souvenir from Nicole and Vincent, from before Halliwell had “saved” me.
Halliwell had been at me ever since, but with different methods. He didn’t use whips, clubs, or stun rods, the tools that Nicole and Vincent had favored, but he was just as relentless in his own way. He’d tried all the old mind-fucking classics; the heavy-metal music blasting for days at a time, the sleep deprivation. When I was properly softened up, they strapped me onto a cot, hooked me up to a bunch of diagnostic machines, drugged the living shit out of me, and interrogated me for hours, while analyzing my reactions, left, right and sideways.
They measured everything. How fast my pupils dilated, my heart rate fluctuations, my sweat, my rate and depth of breathing. Every fucking physiological response I’d ever imagined, and a lot that I never even thought of.
But Red here… well, wow. She was stimulating a physiological reaction that they had not bothered to measure yet. And my response was off the fucking charts.
I gazed through the six-inch wall of reinforced glass, wondering how this could possibly play out. She was so fucking pretty, she practically hurt my eyes. So tall. Long and willowy and lithe. Haunted eyes ringed with thick sooty lashes. That full, sad, sexy mouth that rarely smiled. That wavy, glossy dark-red hair. Freckles on every part of her that I could see, making me wonder about all the parts that I couldn’t.
Just eye contact sent a tingling rush straight to my dick. As if she’d stroked me.
“I can’t stay much longer,” she said. “I brought you some fruit. I put it in the drawer. If you want it.”
Fruit? I went over to the drawer and pushed the button. The mechanism hummed as the shallow steel drawer slid on its rails to the other side of the massive titanium wall.
I slid open the box and gazed down at her offering. A paper bowl of berries, grapes, melon chunks. What were those red things? Currants? All those vitamins and antioxidants and polyphenols were wasted on a guy doomed to die under glass, but hey, it was a sweet thought, even if it was just a sinister plot to peel my brain open like a sardine can. Plus, I admired the way the light behind her lit up her hair, a fuzz of reddish light around her. “Thanks,” I croaked. “Looks nice.”
“My pleasure. Are you, um… okay?”
I shot her an eloquent look, turned, and went to take a long piss.
I was light years past being embarrassed about her watching me do it. For months, I’d had cameras trained on me while I slept, ate, exercised, showered, screamed obscenities, pounded walls. I didn’t concern myself anymore. Let ’em watch, the sick fucks.
And I had a shock collar around my neck. A relic of my time with Vincent. It was one of his hellish designs; capable of zapping me with electricity and also administering any injectable drugs loaded into the chambers. Plus, as a bonus, it featured a strand of strong wire that would tighten on command at the touch of a remote, to the point of slicing my jugular. Should anyone care to do that, at any time.
Back in the day, using the wire on me had gotten Vincent hard. He’d hook the collar to a chain dangling from the ceiling and drag me up off my feet with a pulley. I had to clutch the chain with both hands to keep it from garroting me, and Vincent would stand below, staring up, massaging his crotch as I struggled and swayed, blood pattering down. Fucking pervert. And Nicole had been even more depraved, if possible.
But Halliwell beat them all. He was smarter, more patient, and much more methodical. I’d been in a coma when he retrieved me from Nicole and Vincent, but Halliwell had kept the collar on, even after I woke up. A constant reminder that I was kept alive only by his sufferance. He got off on that.
No, I was not okay. But hey, it was tricky to think of non-triggering things to say to a half-naked guy in a shock collar rigged with garrote wire, trapped behind six inches of glass. She got points for trying.
The poison gas canister mounted up in the top corner didn’t help, either. A tap of a button and my cell would fill with death fog. Halliwell liked to remind me of that fact, when he came down to talk to me. He was just a barrel of laughs, that guy.
Didn’t bug me, though. I was ready for the death fog. Bring it the fuck on.
I kept my back to Red as I fastened my pants and washed my hands, trying to think clearly. Okay, so she was a trap. A pretty girl coming to my prison cell, giving me a fresh fruit arrangement. Friendship. Sweet words. Very improbable.
Then again, there was another possibility I had to consider. Maybe she wasn’t there at all. Maybe she was a recurring hallucination. Maybe Halliwell’s mystery drugs had built up in my system, or I was just having a psychotic break from the strain of solitary confinement, etc., etc. Fortunately, most of my memories were still buried since the coma, and I was careful not to even try to access them. I kept my head as empty as a fucking gourd. I cultivated stupidity the way a gardener cultivated rare plants.
I favored bland, striking images of the natural world to fill my mind, drive out thoughts of the past. Starry skies, ocean waves, jagged snowcapped mountains. A moonscape with shadows as sharp as knives. I had my standbys, always at the ready.
I tried a currant. It was more tart than I expected. Wouldn’t a hallucination respect my own expectations? Why would it occur to my subconscious mind to include currants in a fruit bowl? I’d barely known what they were, let alone how they tasted.
Who the fuck knew. I was a soldier, a mechanic, an engineer. I had never studied neuroscience or psychology like my brother Ethan—
No. Even a glancing thought about Ethan was risky. I had to stay in the moment. No past, no memories. As few articulated thoughts as possible. No future, either.
The only big question left for me was when the death fog would flow.
I leaned my forehead on the glass, studying the freckles on her narrow nose. “You’re wasting your time,” I told her. “I’ll never tell Halliwell anything. I’m brain damaged. I can’t put out, even if I wanted to. Even if a pretty girl pouts at me.”
The soft lips in question tightened. “I’m not pouting. I’m just a human being, interacting with another human being. I’m not trying to trick you, Shane. I swear.”
Human, my ass. Not anymore. And hearing her say my name bugged me. It was an outdated name, belonging to a person who was long gone. I was nameless now.
Still and all. I might not be human, but my animal parts were in working order, and they stirred eagerly as I looked her over. My stare brought a blush to her cheeks.
Sweet detail. Maybe Halliwell had hired her for her acting ability. He was definitely convoluted enough to organize a complicated mind-fuck like that, just to amuse himself.
“Please,” she whispered into the mic. “I swear. I’m on your side.”
I laughed, a painful wheeze of irony that jolted my sore muscles. This girl was not on my side. A person had to be someone, with a name, a life, a personality, an agenda, to have a side. I had let all of that shit go.
That was my only defense. To have no side, no self. I was invulnerable, as long as there was no ‘me’ to defend. Maybe that was the nature of Halliwell’s gambit. A sexy girl, to coax me into having a side again. A self, again. It opened up dangerous doors, and I had to keep all the doors shut up tight. Even to myself.
Some time ago, Halliwell had taunted me with a video of a little girl, blonde, about ten. My daughter, he’d said. If I drove him to it, he’d have to “collect” her, to make me talk. He was just fucking with me, because if he could have gotten his hands on her, he would have done it. Sadistic old fuck.
I knew my daughter existed, but I didn’t really remember her. It was more like I remembered remembering her. It was much safer for her if I stayed in the fog. The only way to protect the poor kid was to forget her. Which was fucked up.
The worst thing was, I had pushed the memories away, but I couldn’t push away the pain. The ache. It was still there, just not attached to anything tangible.
My brother and sister would keep her safe. That was a comfort, but I was trying to forget them, too. Memories were all strung together, like beads on a string. If I gave them one, they could start yanking them all out. And if I slipped up and somehow gave Owen Halliwell a handle on SmokeScreen, well. It was game over.
That would be an extinction event for humanity.
“Please,” she said. “Shane? Talk to me.”
“What the fuck do you want me to say, Red?”
“They all tell me about how he wants to get his hands on some super-powerful algorithm, and you’re the only one who can get into it. Why does he want it? What does it do? I’m trying to see the bigger picture, so I can figure out what to do next.”
“Why should I help you?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Because we’re in the same boat,” she told me. “I’m a prisoner, too. He’s holding my sister hostage. She needs medical care only he can provide. In return, I license my software to him, and work my ass off in the guts of his machine. He’s got me pinned, but I’m not like the others. I am not his bitch. I swear. I want out of here.”
Same boat, hah. “No.” I pointed at the wire biting into the scar-tissue and scabs over my throat. “You and I are not in the same boat. You aren’t wearing a shock collar. You are not in a cage. Your skull was not fractured. You were not tortured. We are not fellow prisoners.”
She studied the burn scars on my chest and shoulders, the multitude of scars on my throat. “Did Halliwell do that to you?” Her voice was small.
“Not all of it. Some of it was Nicole and Vincent. His mad dogs.”
“Nicole and Vincent are dead, by the way,” she said. “Did anyone tell you that?”
Well, fuck a duck. I squinted at her, considering my reply. “I think I’m just going to assume whatever you tell me is a lie, Red. It’s safer that way.”
“It’s not a lie. The others told me what happened. It was before I came here. Those two got into it with your family. They tried to abduct your daughter and your brother’s girlfriend. Your sister and brother rescued them. Wiped them and their team out. Very bloody, very public. Halliwell was beside himself. But she’s okay. Your little girl, I mean. Your brother and sister, too. So? Score: one for the Masters family, zero for Halliwell. Yay, right?”
I suppressed a shudder of emotion that I did not dare to examine. “Great bedtime story, beautiful. I’ll cherish it. Now get lost. I don’t want any more news out of you.”
“And that shock collar? I hacked into Vincent’s files after the first time I saw it, found his specs. He had eight different versions. The one you’re wearing was his latest model. He finished it just before your sister shot him to death.”
I deliberately ignored the lure she was throwing out about my family, but the collar info was too much to resist. “You have the specs for this fucking thing?” I touched the collar clamped around my neck. It itched and chafed when it wasn’t shocking or stinging me or slicing me with the wire. It was a small preview of hell.
“Yes. I’ve been studying it. If you try to take it off, or move out of range, the system triggers the wire to tighten, and the shock amps up to lethal.”
“Sweet.” My jolt of laughter made the wire against my throat sting. “Great to know. Thanks for that tidbit. I’ll sleep like a baby now.”
“I swear to God, I’m not trying to pry that algorithm out of you. I just want to know why he’s so obsessed. It’s all anyone here has worked on for months. What does he want with it? I need to know, Shane. I don’t want blood on my hands.”
“I can’t comfort you, Red. I can’t give you any information. But not because I won’t. I literally can’t. My head was bashed in. My brain’s all fucked up. So if he sent you here to sweet-talk me, you’re wasting your breath. End of story.”
“No. I’m here on my own. Secretly.” She held up a blank silver card with a string of lights on it. “I cloned Halliwell’s passcard a couple weeks ago. So far, no one seems to have noticed the movement in the logs. Fingers crossed. We’re alone. For real.”
I gestured at the video cameras in the high corners of the room. “There’s a recording of every second that passes in this place from five different vantage points.”
She looked back over her shoulder, then leaned close enough to the glass that her breath fogged it. “No,” she whispered. “I hacked into their security system and embedded a program I wrote. I call it ‘Invisibility Cloak.’ It swaps in alternate loops of video and audio for whatever camera or mic that I’m walking past, in real time. The signal covers me for twenty meters, coming and going. It’s safer at night, because the lighting is more consistent, and the corridors are deserted, and people would notice if people started winking out of existence on the monitors, or if noise suddenly cut out. For the cameras in this room, I have a loop of you meditating, and one of you sleeping. If anyone looked right now, they would see you, sitting cross-legged, in complete silence. So I can visit you secretly. Anytime, in the night. If you want.”
I stared at her for a minute. Wow. So my dream girl was a laser-sharp computer whiz, as well as beautiful. Scary, how Halliwell knew just how to yank my chain.
“I don’t want,” I said flatly. “I’m done with wanting. Don’t fuck with my head. The floor show is over for tonight.”
“I swear, I’m not—”
“Fuck off, Red. It’s past your bedtime.”
She straightened up, her mouth pressed tight, and turned. She marched out, head high, her round, gorgeous ass twitching in those worn jeans. Her thick braid swaying.
The dead silence after she left was smothering.
Strange move, on Halliwell’s part. A pretty girl offering fellowship, secrecy, confidence, intel. Halliwell must think I was a pathetic slob, to fall for it.
And maybe I was. Damn. I regretted throwing her out. I missed her already.
Whether Red was real or a fantasy, I had a creeping sense that Halliwell was ready to toss me in the shredder. Red might be the last beautiful thing I’d ever see.
If I ever laid eyes her again, I better make it count.