Everyone in the room stood silently in place, staring at Zoey, as if the universe had finally created a moment so awkward that it had stopped time itself. Echo Ling was there, wearing glasses and holding a long metal probe, as if she had been interrupted in the process of prodding at the severed hand. The wall behind her was covered in projections of X-rays and schematics. Zoey’s eyes bounced around the room, involuntarily etching what was surely incriminating information directly into her brain, seeing things these people would not allow to be shared with the world. Stench Machine meowed and that sprang Zoey into action, running over and grabbing him from the clutches of the bald guy with the cop eyes. She edged back toward the door, slowly, as if nobody in the tiny room would notice her leaving if she did it gradually enough.
She heard herself ask, “W-whose hand is that?” but she didn’t actually want to know, knowing would only doom her, as if she wasn’t doomed already. And what possible difference did it make?
From behind her, Will answered, “You don’t recognize it?”
That did it. In a blind, spastic panic, Zoey spun and shoved past Will again, through the hologram door, down the hall, through the dining room and into the foyer with the skyscraper Christmas tree. She ran right for the huge front doors, pulled a cold bronze handle—
Candi the holographic stripper blinked to life next to her, pouted dramatically and in a babytalk voice said, “Ooh, I’m sooo sorry but house security isn’t allowing exits through the front doors, for your own safety. To make up for the inconvenience, Mr. Livingston will compensate you with a free bottle of champagne or a sexual favor of your choosing!”
Candi giggled and blinked away. From behind Zoey came the steady click of footsteps on the marble floor. Will was in no hurry as he emerged into the foyer, his face an uncanny valley of calm. Trying to scare her, Zoey thought, with how calm he was. It was working.
Zoey’s voice trembled as she said, “Unlock it. I’m leaving.”
The bald guy in the black turtleneck strode up behind Will. Two more men in black overcoats and hats appeared behind them, carrying guns that looked laughably overpowered for a Zoey-scale threat. Will Blackwater had henchmen.
Will said, “No, you’re not.”
“I-I won’t tell anybody. I don’t care about this place, I don’t care about you, I don’t care about what happens here or who you kill. Just let me go, let me go back home and I won’t tell anyone, I won’t tell the police, my mom, anybody. I don’t even want the fifty thousand, just let me go.”
“And we will do just that. As soon as you open the vault.”
And all at once, Zoey was sure she would never see the sky again.
“Zoey,” Will said. “Think. What are your options here?” As he spoke, two more overcoats appeared—some silent call had been sent out to the house guards. “This is not your world. Now I agree that your father could be a real abscess and dragging you into this was unconscionable. But there is literally nothing else to be done but for you to open that damned vault and stop wasting our time.”
But you see, Zoey thought, what is wasted time to you, are my precious last moments on earth.
Zoey never answered, and Will took it for consent.
He nodded to the bald man and said, “Kowalski, escort her to the vault room.”
The man took Zoey by the upper arm and pulled her along like a little kid. He was dragging her toward another arched door, leading to the opposite wing of the estate. She did not resist. Zoey, her bald escort, Will, and an entourage of armed men in trench coats filed down a hallway, taking her into what under other circumstances would have been the most relaxing room she had ever been in—it was some kind of library or reading room, walls of leather-bound books surrounding ancient leather armchairs and, right in the center of the floor, a crystal-clear koi pond. Fish bearing iridescent scales of orange and white zipped around in the water, the room filled with the soothing trickle of a babbling brook.
From behind Zoey, Will said, “Grab the gold one.” Zoey tried to process those four words into some kind of meaningful command and finally noticed a single, gold fish darting around among the others. “The fish, Zoey. Reach down and grab it. It’s not real.”
She tentatively stuck her hand into the water and once again found that it was just a three-dimensional projection. She tried to grab the golden holographic fish as instructed, which turned out to be exactly as hard as catching a real one. She flailed at it and was starting to think she was the victim of an elaborate prank, but eventually she closed her hand around the image of the fish, at which point it instantly disappeared, along with the rest of the pond. The now-empty basin split apart, revealing a spiral staircase straight down.
Zoey said, “Okay, I did it. Just let me—”
“That’s not the vault. That’s just the entrance to the vault room.” Will gestured toward the stairs. “After you.”
Zoey descended, clanging down the spiral of stairs with one hand on the curved rail, the other clutching Stench Machine to her chest. A sprawl of gold coins came into view, as if the room below her was just piles of treasure, like Scrooge McDuck’s vault. Then she reached the bottom and realized that was just the flooring—it had been tiled with actual coins. Forget the vault, you could come down here with a chisel and scrape up enough money to retire on. And in Arthur Livingston’s world, this was how you decorated the entrance to the room the real riches were stored in. The vault itself was set in the wall in front of her, a perfect circle of ornate brass from floor to ceiling, the door probably weighing as much as twenty cars. There was no handle or hinges, just a giant, cartoonish keyhole in the middle about three feet tall and a foot wide.
The spiral stairwell had finished draining everyone into the room. The bald man, Kowalski, grabbed Zoey again and shoved her toward the vault door, the site of a future bruise throbbing a ring around her upper arm. She imagined some medical examiner noting it in her autopsy.
Will said, “See the keyhole? You’re the key. Go unlock it.” “But . . . how? I don’t—”
“Stick your head in the keyhole. Keep it still, it has to scan your brain and match it to the print it has on file.”
Zoey walked tentatively up to the door, let out a breath, and stuck her head in the lock. A mechanism inside whirred and clicked ...