The guest bedroom suite they set Zoey up in had its own bathroom, media room, and minibar. The covers were turned down on a king-sized four-poster bed that would not have fit in her bedroom back home unless it was folded up like a taco shell. There was a touchscreen on the end table that, after tinkering with it, Zoey realized controlled the firmness, texture, and temperature of the mattress. Her suitcase was placed neatly on the bed next to a stack of white bath towels, the one on top folded into the shape of a swan. Carlton had found a cat bed, somewhere, and had sat it in the corner of the room. Stench Machine was curled up asleep on the floor next to it.
Zoey sat on the bed and stared at the door. She got up and locked it, but that was stupid because surely they had a key—it was their house. She scooted over an end table that had an expensive-looking table lamp on it so it blocked the door. The table wouldn’t delay someone breaking in for long, but would maybe give her a few seconds to try to escape out the window. Plus she would die knowing she had made them break one of their expensive lamps, so screw them. She looked around the room for a weapon, the closest thing she could find was a bag of golf clubs that was propped in one corner. She pulled out the heaviest-looking driver and sat on the bed with it across her lap. It didn’t make her feel any safer.
She had let Andre bring her here to get her away from the crazies in the van and the much larger group of crazies known as All of the Citizens of Tabula Ra$a. But she had no illusions about opening Livingston’s stupid vault and then riding off into the sunset with the escrow money. She wasn’t some little princess from the suburbs who just graduated college with a humanities degree, she knew what people were really like. They’d kill her just to save the price of a plane ticket. So her plan was to wait for everyone else to leave or go to bed (did they all live here?) and just slip out of the house.
She sat there, gripping the club, and listened. There was something very off about the sound this place made, and Zoey eventually figured out that the weird sound was what other people knew as “peaceful silence.” Zoey had been living in her mom’s trailer, because she’d had to move out of Caleb’s place when they broke up (Caleb being the guy she thought at one time she was going to marry and have babies with). So for two months
she had been sleeping on a futon next to an aluminum wall, near a window that had been cracked by an errant fist and repaired with Scotch tape. All of the trailer park noises bled through into the room as easily as if she had been sleeping in the yard—always somebody revving a gasoline motor, a couple arguing or having loud sex, a barking dog or, more likely, twenty barking dogs. But the Casa de Ass-a was dead silent. She could hear her own breathing. So this was what a house sounded like when it had solid walls and, beyond them, acres of gated land onto which the poor were not allowed.
Zoey hated it.
She didn’t have much of a plan beyond escaping the grounds of the estate. Maybe she would get out and find some hole to hide in, maybe find the Tabula Ra$a slums and make some friends. “Lay low,” like they say in the movies. Maybe the mob would eventually decide it was more trouble to go after her than to just get somebody else to break into their stupid safe.
She hadn’t witnessed them do anything illegal—they didn’t have anything to fear from her running to the FBI or whoever was still enforcing the law around here.
Zoey grabbed Stench Machine and curled up with him on the bed, feeling warmth and annoyance radiating off him as he meowed and made halfhearted attempts to wriggle free. She closed her eyes and immediately saw Jacob, his brain fried in his skull, staring blearily and drooling. She felt so stupid. Handsome rich kid flirting with dumpy trailer trash, to win money and a day as a Blink celebrity. Millions of people listening in while she swooned and giggled and tried to impress him. A vast constellation of strangers she’d never meet, laughing at her.
That prompted Zoey to turn on the wall feed in the bedroom (they had one of those projection units rich people have, a fist-sized dome in the ceiling that could project the feed on any wall you wanted) and tune into the “Hunt for Livingston’s Key” Event, to see what was going on in the fascinating lives of the various people who were trying to capture, kill, or torture her. The most popular feed at the moment belonged to the League of Badass—the ragtag group of morons who had chased them in their van earlier. They were back at their headquarters, which appeared to be somebody’s garage—leaning over a table in front of their busted-up van, going over strategy. Their leader—the muscle guy with a red Mohawk and sleeves of tribal tattoos—was explaining to the camera that Zoey was safely in her father’s estate and, as far as they knew, could be opening Livingston’s vault as they spoke. But then he explained why this was by no means the end of the Hunt.
Sure enough, Will Blackwater had lied.
The five-million-dollar contract this “Molech” guy had put out on her, it turned out, was not just about abducting her so he could stick her into the keyhole of Arthur Livingston’s vault. No, it was also about getting revenge for Doll Head guy. He had been an employee of Molech’s, and he was now dead. Zoey was startled to hear this (could a person actually die from a small whiskey-fueled crotch fire? Maybe he had a prior medical condition), but more importantly, it meant that escaping the estate would change nothing about the fact that there was still a multimillion-dollar bounty on her head—in fact, it would only double the number of people who were looking for her. Her whole plan had fallen apart in ten seconds.
Zoey closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. She supposed someone with more experience dealing with this kind of thing would know how to work this to her advantage—after all, if Molech’s people wanted her dead, but her father’s people needed her alive to open the vault, then her father’s people had motivation to protect her from Molech’s. But how long would she be able to keep that up before they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble? If she was alive but refusing to open their vault, then she was no more useful to them than if she was a corpse.
Zoey flipped around the “Hunt” feed and found someone had assembled a highlight reel of the “players” involved. She brought up one labeled “Arthur Livingston: The Suits.” There was a video of the four of them exiting a black sedan in slow motion, while ominous music played.
A gravelly voice said, “Arthur Livingston’s death has left behind a power vacuum, with four members of his ruthless inner circle vying for control. In the criminal underworld, they are known as The Suits. Andre Knox, aka, Black Mountain—Livingston’s deadly enforcer. Michelle ‘Echo’ Ling, the Chinese computer expert and sexy seductress. Budd ‘the Regulator’ Billingsley. And finally, Will Blackwater, The Magician—Arthur Livingston’s cold-blooded right-hand man.
“Seven years ago, when a cartel hit man went rogue and made an attempt on the life of Andre Knox, the dismembered corpse of the guman was found on Arthur Livingston’s doorstep twelve hours later . . . along with an apologetic note from the head of the cartel. When a Ukrainian mob tried to horn in on Livingston’s territory a year later, Livingston asked for a face-to-face to avoid all-out war. Witnesses say the Suits met behind locked doors with a dozen mob captains. After only four minutes, both groups filed out of the room. By nightfall, the Ukrainians had left the city, never to return. Not a single shot was fired.
“But, strangest of all, when a federal indictment came down for a fifth member of Livingston’s inner circle named Logan Knight, Arthur Livingston gave a press conference in which he made the bizarre assertion that no such man had ever exist. With no further explanation, all charges were dropped soon after.”
Well. That was terrifying, and not at all helpful. Zoey noticed they had made one of these profiles/trailers for her, and she couldn’t resist. She told it to play:
“Twenty-two-year-old Zoey Ashe, a devious and busty—”
She quickly swiped it off the screen.
Zoey fell back onto the bed and covered her eyes. She had no idea what do now, and couldn’t think straight. The long trip, the roller-coaster adrenaline rush, the cold night, the warm bed. She lay on her side and felt herself melting into the mattress. Stench Machine was now prowling around the room, then Zoey finally realized he was looking for food because she hadn’t fed him, because she was horrible at everything. She dug out two cans of cat food from her suitcase—yes, she traveled with cans of cat food in her luggage, like the crazy cat lady she was destined to become—and looked around for a fork. Stench Machine ate a mixture of two different brands and she had to mash them together. She was pretty sure it was some kind of chemical reaction from the combination that made him smell so bad, but it was the only thing he would eat without following the meal with two hours of disapproving looks that would devastate Zoey in her current emotional state.
The room was forkless. Logically she could just mix the stuff together with her fingers or whatever random object she could find in the room, but she had no desire to put her fingers in cat food and, to be honest, there was something else tempting her out of the bedroom, and that was curiosity. So, telling herself she was doing it for her cat, she scooted the table and lamp away from the door and stepped cautiously into the hallway, trying to imagine how a person would find a common eating utensil in a sprawling palace like this. She thought about going back for her golf club and decided if the situation deteriorated into a golf club duel to the death, she probably was already screwed. She tried to see in the darkened hall and took a step, wincing at the sound of the squeaky floorboards trying to rat her out. As stealthily as possible, she took a left toward the stairs and immediately crashed loudly through a low pile of boxes.
Shoes went spilling everywhere. She squinted in the darkness and saw nine boxes containing nine pair of shoes—three different styles similar to the pair she had ruined, each in three different sizes ranging from 61/2 to 71/2. She found a note from Carlton the butler apologizing for not asking her size first, but saying that he had tried to give her a range of choices and that she should let him know if none were satisfactory. Zoey imagined a pair of goons forcing some Foot Locker manager to open his store at gunpoint in the middle of the night, to get their boss’s daughter a new pair of sneakers.
Zoey picked up the cat again and padded down the stairs, then almost screamed when once again Jacob Marley’s ghost came oozing out of the floor when she reached the landing.
Stench Machine jumped out of her arms and bolted down the stairs, across the foyer, zipping through an arched doorway on the ground floor. Zoey followed him through the arch and found herself in a long dining room with a table that could seat probably fifty guests. The cat darted through chair legs and prowled cautiously through a doorway at the other end. Zoey followed him into a hallway.
At one end of the hall was a boarded-up door with red tape crisscrossed over it that said “WARNING: MOLD—DO NOT ENTER.” She headed in the other direction, but Stench Machine wouldn’t follow. Instead he prowled around the Mold door, sniffing and pawing at it, as if there was a mouse or something behind it. As Zoey went to go pick him up, Stench Machine took a step forward and passed through the door. Partly, anyway—his butt and tail were sticking out. Zoey went to the Mold door and passed her hand through it—the door was yet another hologram. She could see the little projector on the ceiling, and waving her hand in front of it could make entire vertical slices of the “door” vanish where she was blocking the beam. The illusion had been hiding a real door, another heavy one made of bronze, a foot beyond the fake one. She tried the handle but it was locked, because of course it was. Was this the vault?
She didn’t care to find out. She picked up Stench Machine and
headed down the hall, then the big door clicked and squeaked behind her.
A stern voice said, “Who are you? How did you get in here?”
A guy she had never seen before had leaned out through the hologram, looking like a disembodied head had been nailed to the Mold door like a hunter’s trophy. Then the man stepped out toward her, a bald guy with a gun in a shoulder holster over a tight black turtleneck. He had cop eyes.
A voice from inside the room behind him said, “That’s the girl. Arthur’s daughter.” That voice was Will. Zoey had assumed everyone had left, but apparently Will had business in their secret room. The bald guy retreated back inside the room and Will leaned out past the hologram, his posture suggesting he was holding the door closed behind it. They were probably having an orgy back there. Again, Zoey had no intention of knowing either way.
He asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing. I was just trying to find a . . . it doesn’t matter. Is that . . . is that the vault?”
“Yes, this is the vault, that’s why we’re all standing inside it and the door is open.”
“The vault’s in the basement. This is a private conference room. Finish doing what you’re doing and go back to bed. We’ll come get you in the morn— Hey!”
Stench Machine had twisted out of Zoey’s grasp and darted through the hologram and through the gap in the real door beyond. Zoey ran in after him, shoving past Will, through the metal door.
Will yelled “STOP!” then grabbed her wrist and twisted. Zoey went to one knee. The room had flown into chaos, as the cat had jumped up onto a table, trying to make off with what looked like a hunk of gray meat. The bald guy who had met Zoey at the door snatched the cat by the scruff of the neck and looked like he was going to tear him in half with his bare hands. Zoey screamed at Will to let go of her, but he was dragging her backward, back out of the door. Her wrist felt like it was going to break.
From her knees, Zoey twisted her body around and bit the first thing on Will she could find—his thigh. He cursed and let her go. Zoey got to her feet and was about to demand her cat back, then she saw what was sitting on the table, and everyone saw that she saw, and everything ground to a halt.
Lying on the table was a severed human hand.