Zoey Ashe had forgotten to tell the Toyota’s navigation to stop for food, so she had already missed the turn by the time she was able to convince it to deviate from its route by screaming repeatedly at the windshield. The car reluctantly circled the block and pulled into a food distribution center that people in the future call “the Wendy’s drive-thru.” Her Toyota’s heater had stopped working weeks ago, which was bad news in a Colorado winter, so she needed something hot inside her. Zoey pulled up to the window and ordered a small container of a semisolid, protein-rich foodstuff that the people in her time call “chili,” hoping it would warm her up a couple of degrees (at least before the heat left her body a few minutes later in the form of several dozen hot farts). She then urged the lethargic compact car back onto the deserted streets, where the autopilot took over once more. The Toyota whined its way through the darkness, heading directly toward the Zombie Quarantine Zone, which was the name of the topless bar where Zoey’s mother worked.
The radio had stopped working years ago, and so Zoey made up for it by singing a hit pop song from her time called “Butt Show (and I Don’t Charge Admission)” while she plugged in the strand of Christmas lights she had tacked around the top of the car’s interior. She peeled the lid off her chili, watched steam waft into the frigid air, and decided that things really could be worse. Zoey always tried to appreciate the little things in life, like the fact that just a generation ago you couldn’t devote both hands to eating a bowl of fast-food chili while the car drove itself (how did people use to eat car chili? With a straw?). She had also recently upgraded her phone to one that displayed a little holographic image of the caller, but so far she had found this feature was only useful for terrifying her holophobic cat, which hardly justified the cost of the upgrade. However, a moment later that feature did allow her to see that the call that saved her life came from a man who was fond of wearing fancy suits.
When her phone rang, Zoey was only a few blocks away from the trashy, zombie-themed bar where she was supposed to pick up her mother at the end of her shift (that is, the point in the evening when the younger girls were rotated in for the lucrative nighttime crowd). When the phone’s hologram blinked to life it startled the crap out of her, as she had forgotten the phone was in her lap and for one terrified moment thought a tiny ghost had emerged from her crotch. Zoey flinched, cursed, and splattered chili everywhere before she figured out that she was not in fact going to have to undergo an incredibly awkward and invasive exorcism. She groaned and tried to scoop hot chili off her pajama pants with her fingers, and panicked when she saw she had also gotten it all over her new phone. She licked chili off the screen and, in the process, accidentally swiped the “Answer” slider with her tongue.
The little hologram man floating above the phone looked puzzled and said, “Hello? Is this Zoey Ashe?”
“Hold on. I got chili all over my car.”
“I— Are you there? What’s that sound?”
“It’s the sound of me eating chili off my phone. Who’s this?”
“Zoey, my name is Will Blackwater. You are the— I’m sorry, are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m listening. Are you actually wearing that suit or do you just have your phone set to display you wearing it?”
“Please pay attention. You are the daughter of Arthur Livingston, correct?”
“No. I mean, yeah he is my biological father, but we have nothing to do with each other. Is he in jail again? Are you his lawyer? Is that why you’re all dressed up?”
“No. Listen to me, Zoey. A man is coming to abduct you. Right now. His car is one block behind you.”
“Wait. What? Who is this again?”
“I’m going to take control of your car. Don’t touch the wheel or the pedals, or do anything else to disengage the self-drive. Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t understand. How can you—”
“Please buckle your seat belt.”
Headlights loomed in her rearview mirror. Zoey, her hands shaking, tried to latch the seat belt as the Toyota abruptly lurched to the left, jumped the curb, flattened a row of shrubs, and plowed across a lawn.
“HEY! JESUS CHRIST!”
Zoey grabbed the dash and held on for dear life as her car smashed through two fences and a child’s swing set before it thumped over another curb and turned left onto a residential street.
The hologram man on her phone, Will, said, “I apologize for that, I’m not driving the car. My associate, Andre, has the controls and I’m afraid he’s had several drinks.”
From somewhere in the background she heard another voice in the phone say, “Hey, I drive better when I got a few in me.”
Zoey was thrown against the door as the Toyota went power sliding around a turn. She twisted around in her seat and saw the headlights of her pursuer streak through the yard they had just left, sweeping onto the road behind them. Zoey’s Toyota abruptly turned into a too-narrow alley, missing a brick wall and a dumpster by half an inch on either side. Her side-view mirror exploded when the car clipped the corner on the way out.
The man on the phone said, “I’m terribly sorry to tell you this, but your father was killed. It happened last week.”
“So? I didn’t even know him! I assumed he died years ago. Who are these people?!?”
The Toyota jumped off the road again and plunged into a grove of pine trees, branches raking the doors with a noise like frantic predators clawing to get in.
Over the phone, Zoey faintly heard Will say, “Cut the lights.”
The headlights blinked out, along with all of the dashboard lights and the navigation overlay on the windshield. Zoey was now hurtling through the darkness of the trees, completely blind.
The little hologram man on her phone, which was now located somewhere on the back floorboard, told her to calm down. The car emerged from the trees onto a lawn, fishtailed in the snow-covered grass, then shattered somebody’s solar panel array with an explosion of sparks.
Another hard left turn, and they were on a paved street once more. Exactly four seconds later, the tailing sedan was behind them again.
Will said, “Don’t let this question alarm you, but do you have any weapons in the vehicle?”
“No! Why would I— Wait, I have a spatula . . .”
“Well, we have no indication your pursuer is a pancake, so we’ll abandon that angle for the moment. Now I will need you to stay calm. We can’t outrun him in this vehicle. I’m going to have you get out.”
“How is that possibly going to help?”
“We need to pick a spot where he’ll be forced to follow on foot. Otherwise he could simply run you over with his car, obviously.”
“Obviously. Who is he again?”
“It’s a hired thug. You don’t know him.”
“Hired by who? What does he want?”
“I can explain later. I can assure you that knowing the fine details won’t enhance your survivability and it certainly will do nothing to ease your panic. Let me just say that this particular thug took the contract for a reason, which is that he likes when the targets are women. And he likes to take his time. He’s calling himself The Hyena, according to his feed.”
“Does he give birth through his penis?”
“What? Zoey, listen to me—our map shows a pond about two hundred yards ahead, but does not show us if it’s frozen over. Is that a safe bet this time of year, where you are?”
“It . . . I don’t know! I don’t go ice skating! I know the kiddie pool our neighbors left out in their yard is frozen, but—”
Zoey was thrown against the door again. Another hard right was taking her off the road once more, this time through a pasture. The car swerved to miss a single cow that was lazily grazing in its path. It mooed at her, probably telling Zoey she should turn her headlights on.
Will said, “It’s our only option. Hang on.”
“What’s our only option? What are you going to—”
Zoey was thrown forward against her seat belt as the Toyota slammed on its brakes, skidding across the rough carpet of frozen grass.
Will said, “Go! Get out onto the ice! It will support you but not his car, if he wants to follow he’ll have to get out on foot.”
“But then wha—”
Zoey grabbed the phone, threw open the door, and ran toward the frozen pond. Before her was a moonlit sheet of snow that Zoey thought was like the thin frosting on a cake made of filthy water and dead fish, the bitter wind having frozen the part of her brain that thought up metaphors. She didn’t even know she had made it to the ice until her sneakers slipped and sent her down to her knees, the surface below her crackling and popping a warning in response. As Zoey climbed to her feet, her shadow suddenly stretched across the ice—headlights looming behind her. She tried to move quickly but gingerly, but after three steps, she slipped again and this time fell hard on her butt.
She heard a car door close behind her. She risked a look back and saw only a silhouette backlit by the twin bluish shafts of headlights. Zoey pushed herself up, her hands swiping aside fresh snow to reveal black ice underneath, her stumbling path across the pond leaving a row of haphazard streaks like Chinese calligraphy. Two more steps—now the ice was making wheezing complaints like a squeaky door hinge each time she lowered her foot. She thought she could hear liquid water sloshing up ahead—she had no idea how thick the ice beneath her was, but knew that not far up, that thickness became “zero.”
She had stuffed her phone into her coat pocket at some point and, from inside, she heard Will say, “Are you still there?”
Zoey dug out the phone with numb fingers and whispered, “He’s coming. He’s coming and I can’t go any farther. What do I do?”
“Let me do all the talking. Just hold out your phone.”
Through the wind, Zoey could barely hear her pursuer say, “I’ve reached the edge of the pond.” Then after a dramatic pause, he declared, “She has nowhere left to run.”
Zoey asked Will, “Who is he talking to?”
“He’s streaming this live, he has a Blink camera pinned to his jacket. You don’t want to know how many people are watching. Let me talk to him.”
Zoey held her phone out toward the menacing shadow in the headlights. The foot-tall holographic ghost of Will Blackwater said, “Stay on the shore, Lawrence, the ice isn’t thick enough to support the weight of both of you. You’re a beefy guy and you’ll notice Zoey here is not what one would call ‘willowy.’ ”
The shadow took a few strides onto the pond and said, “Come back off the ice, sweetie. You’re going to come with me one way or the other, and you won’t like ‘the other.’ ”
Will’s hologram replied, “Talk to me, not to her. We both want Zoey for the same reason, with the minor difference that I do not want to also eat her flesh on a live video feed. Your advantage is that she is worth more to us than she is to you. Our advantage is financial. It appears this leads to easy compromise—we’re more than happy to compensate you for what you lose by forgoing the contract on Zoey here. No authorities will be notified. You know my word is good, Lawrence.”
“Call me by my true name.” He paused, as if thinking. “The . . . Bite . . . Master. And you left out several important points. First of all, there is the fact that I’m here in person, where you appear to still be in the city, six hundred miles away. Second, there is the fact that you and I both know the girl is worth much more than that contract. And third, as you mentioned, I have a personal use for her afterward, which means more to me than any financial reward.”
“I am actually aware of all of those factors. I am, however, still confident that an arrangement can be reached. Mr. Livingston had substantial resources, as you well know, and again we’re more than willing to ameliorate whatever perceived losses you may incur by turning Zoey over to us. As for your . . . personal predilections, surely some dollar amount could be assigned to the loss of visceral pleasure. Perhaps, even, we could offer a substitute for Ms. Ashe here. We dare say we could produce a subject you would find even more satisfactory.”
The man laughed. A fake laugh, Zoey thought. For the camera.
“You are a piece of work, Will. But let me ask you—if you were to take a gazelle from the jaws of a lion, could you satisfy it by substituting a hundred and fifty pounds of Cat Chow? No, because as an apex predator, the lion doesn’t just want to eat. It wants the prize it won in the hunt. That is why you are to call me The Lion from now on.”
Will’s hologram, appearing completely unperturbed by this conversation with a serial killer, said, “I understand perfectly, and I see no reason we should permanently deprive you of your prize. We only need Ms. Ashe’s services for about forty-eight hours. And after all, is there no greater pleasure than that sweetened by delayed gratification?”
Zoey tried to process what Will had just offered the man, but the howling, frozen wind and the sound of ice clicking and wheezing under her made it difficult to think of anything but a sudden splash followed by endless darkness and paralyzing cold.
The silhouette in the headlights said, “If I was amenable to such an arrangement, I would of course need guarantees that my property would be returned to me at the agreed upon time. And I would need compensation immediately to make up for delaying my gratification.”
Will said, “I would suggest nothing less. How about a nice used Toyota Furia?”
Zoey’s driverless car came flying onto the ice, smashing into the man and throwing him onto the hood. A split second later, man and car went crashing through the ice, sinking into the frigid pond so close to Zoey that the splash threw freezing droplets onto her stunned face.
Will said, “RUN!”
Zoey did not need those instructions. She took off in the opposite direction of the car-sized hole in the ice, praying there was a solid path between her and the bank of snowy dead grass that marked the shore. She took a step, fell, crawled, stumbled to her feet, nearly fell again, then slid and skidded her way incrementally forward. She made frustratingly slow progress, like one of those nightmares where you run and run but the light at the end of the hall just stretches farther and farther away. She was about ten feet from the shore when she heard the ice below her shatter once and for all.
She was in freefall, the world gone beneath her feet. It happened in slow motion—first she felt the stabbing freeze of the ice water swallowing her feet, then her calves, then her knees. Then the bitter, frigid depths engulfed her knees, and then her . . . knees. This was when Zoey realized the water this close to shore was only knee-deep. She sloshed through the broken ice and climbed onto dry land, and only then turned back to see her poor Toyota gurgling as it pushed its nose deeper into the depths, taking the psychopath with it.
From the phone in her hand, Will said, “Are you all right?” Zoey faintly heard the other voice in the background, the man remotely operating the car, say, “I can’t believe that shit worked.”
Zoey said, “I’m hanging up. You offered to let that guy eat me to death.”
Will said, “That wasn’t a genuine offer, it was a delaying tactic. Half of negotiation is about dealing with people on their level. Speaking of which, we need to have a word.”
“I’m not negotiating with you. Go piss a centipede.”
“Right, overcoming resistance to negotiation is the other half of negotiation. Can you get somewhere where we can talk?”
“I’m freezing and I’m stranded. I have no idea where I even am.”
“Circle around the pond and take The Hyena’s car. He won’t be needing it.”
HOLY SHIT! ORDER THE BOOK