The platform was now crowded with onlookers recording the scene from dozens of tiny cameras, people probably watching their viewer counts skyrocket as word spread across Blink that someone was about to be lightninged to death by an escaped mental patient. No one made to intervene, they just watched in detached curiosity as if Zoey, Jacob, and Homeless Zeus were behind the glass at a zoo enclosure. Doll Head stalked up and down the aisle of the train car, glaring out of the windows at the crowd. Zoey realized he wasn’t trying to scare the onlookers away, but was instead making sure all their cameras had a chance to get a clear shot of him in all of his menacing glory. At one point he stood in the open doorway, raised his hand, and with a crackle that made the whole crowd flinch, did that lightning trick with his fingers. The audience was impressed. Zoey wondered if she had lost her freaking mind.
Something else that was weird, which had almost gone unnoticed by Zoey due to the other, weirder things happening in her life at the moment, was that there were a lot of armed people in that crowd. Scattered among the gray-jumpsuited rail staff, white-shirted security guards, and hundreds of gawkers, Zoey could see half a dozen of the Co-Op guys in their black coats and ties, looking like Secret Service agents with their little machine guns pointed at the air. Then she counted at least five more men and women in black vests full of pockets, wearing amber wraparound shades and black backward baseball caps, clutching assault rifles with fingerless gloves. And then there were the armed loners—the odd man or woman who didn’t seem to be part of any team. There was one guy in a tank top with two pistols in shoulder holsters, beside him was a bald Japanese guy in a leather jacket with a katana on his back, then a woman with pink hair and a short double-barreled shotgun strapped to each thigh. They hadn’t shown up in response to the developing hostage situation—they hadn’t had time. They must have been waiting there, but why?
“I have to say,” thundered Doll Head, striding up the aisle, “they were wise to hide you on the train. But I found you, as was my destiny. Now you have seen the power inside me. You know what I can do to you.”
Zoey replied, “Okay, don’t, uh, go into a psychotic rage here or anything, because I’m more than happy to cooperate. But right now I have no idea what you’re talking about. Okay? I know there’s some kind of contract. But here’s the thing: I don’t know who wants me, or what they want me for, or anything else. And I don’t want to know.”
Doll Head grinned. “You are truly Arthur Livingston’s daughter. I should have expected nothing less.”
“Did he owe you guys money? Is that what this is about? Did he screw you on a drug deal or something? Whatever it is, I don’t care—if you want me to call the guy I talked to earlier and tell him to pay, I’ll do it. But I didn’t know Arthur Livingston. He tried to give me a car for my sixteenth birthday, I gave it back. His money was dirty, I wanted no part of it.”
“Good. So you will open his vault for me.”
“I would absolutely do that, if I knew where it was, or what it was, or how to get into it. But I swear, this is the first I’m hearing of it.”
“I want you to know that I am not surprised, nor disappointed. In fact, I would have been disappointed in anything less. After all, you have no reason to respect me. Like all who have power, you only respect others who have it. You need me to demonstrate my power to you. So that you can respect me, and deal with me as an equal.”
“No, no, you really don’t—”
Doll Head reached out with his left hand and grabbed Jacob by the throat.
Jacob thrashed and tried to twist out of the man’s grip. His perfect hair tumbled down into his eyes as he choked out the words “Hey! No! What are you— Let go!” Doll Head was not choking him. Just keeping him in place. “Zoey!” hissed Jacob, tendons straining in his neck, face turning red with panic and exertion. “Just do . . . what he says . . .”
Doll Head said, “Shhhhhhhh,” and, continuing to pin Jacob to the seat with his left hand, reached out and laid the other hand gently on Jacob’s forehead. He held his palm against Jacob’s brow, pressing his thumb against one temple and his middle finger against the other, gripping his skull like a bowling ball.
“Zoey . . . tell him . . . how to . . .”
“Shhhhhhhhh. The only human destiny is to succumb to one stronger.”
There was a pop, and a sizzle, and smoke. Jacob’s body went rigid, his hands clenched and flew to his chest, his feet kicked the seat in front of him. One shoe flew off. There was a stink like steamed broccoli. Zoey’s cat howled and hissed and tried to claw his way out of the crate. Doll Head withdrew his hand and Jacob slumped back, his eyes open but blank, his mouth hanging slack. A low gurgle escaped from deep in his throat, a line of drool ran from his mouth, a pool of urine spread across his lap. In Jacob’s temple was a smoking hole left by the electrical current that had fried his brain.
Zoey screamed. “WHAT DID YOU DO? WHAT DID YOU DO?!?!”
In a theatrical voice, Doll Head Man said, “I have freed him from that weak husk. He has joined me, become part of something far more powerful. Only the limp vessel remains. I have added him to my collection.”
It was chaos out on the platform. A TV camera crew was now covering the situation live, and Zoey heard the soft drumming of helicopters outside the station. A huge screen that ran along the rear wall had flipped away from the local weather report and switched to live coverage of the scene. The headline that crawled along the bottom was not, as Zoey expected, “Crazy man holds up train” or “Hobo harnesses the power of lightning.” No, what it said was: "LIVINGSTON DAUGHTER HELD HOSTAGE"
Zoey clinched her teeth and wondered how many times she was going to have to pay for her mom having chosen a scumbag for a sperm donor. Jacob, his half-closed eyes twitching aimlessly around the cabin but seeing nothing, slumped over against her. Zoey pushed him off and screamed through her window at the people on the platform.
“HELP ME! HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!”
Once more, they just stared. Up until that point in her life, Zoey had lived every moment with the unspoken assumption there was always somebody she could call if things went to hell. Her mom, a teacher, the police, God. But now she was trapped in this giant steel tube—just her, and this man, and death. Maybe everyone feels like this at the end. The ice breaks under your feet and you realize that there had never been anything below you but cold and darkness. It was the point at which things could not get worse.
There was a stir in the crowd. People started to turn, to look back at the main entrance of the station. Then the crowd parted, slowly, as if a wild animal had wandered in and no one wanted to startle it with sudden movements. From the split in the crowd emerged first a huge black man, with a perfectly bald, polished head Zoey thought looked like a Whopper, the chocolate candy. She didn’t know if that was racist or not, but all of the progressive attitudes in the world wouldn’t change the fact that his head looked exactly like a Whopper. Behind him was a stunning but stern-looking Chinese woman, walking with the gait of someone whose skirt is too tight to be practical, but who is quite used to it. Behind her was a man in a cowboy hat with bushy eyebrows and a red nose who looked like he had popped out of a cartoon. Looming behind them was one more man she couldn’t see clearly. But the crowd knew who he was, who they all were, and wanted no part of them. No one in the group was visibly armed, but not even the men with machine guns would make eye contact with them. Everyone just stood down.
Doll Head Man, aka The Soul Collector, reached out a hand and pressed it against Zoey’s brow, digging finger and thumb into her temples.
He whispered, “I can take your treasure, or I can take your soul. I desire no outcome over the other. You choose. You have three seconds. One.”
“PLEASE! I’LL TAKE YOU TO THE SAFE OR WHATEVER IT IS WE’LL FIGURE IT OUT I’LL DO WHATEVER YOU—”
“Stop. I’m here.”
At the door stood a striking, pale man in an overcoat and fedora. He had cold blue eyes and sharp cheekbones. His suit jacket, vest, shirt, and tie were all shades of gray and silver—Zoey thought it made him look like a robot. There were no wrinkles, it was as if the suit was part of the skin he was born with. Zoey immediately thought that she could not imagine this man wearing anything else.
She had seen him once before, projected through her phone.
The Soul Collector turned to face the man, arms loose at his sides, blocking the aisle with his body, putting himself between the silver suit and his prey.
Will Blackwater glanced around the train car as if assessing the situation, then calmly said, “First thing’s first—are you all right?”
Zoey was about to answer, when she realized Will was asking that of the Soul Collector, not her.
He smiled and said, “I wondered when you would arrive, Will.”
Will stopped where he was and removed his hat. His hair was a black helmet that looked ready to withstand a hurricane.
“How are you doing, Brandon? Are you still taking your medication? You’re not, are you?”
“I’m free of all that now. Thanks to Molech, I have become my destiny. I am the Soul Collector.”
“Yes, I can see that. The boy in the back there, is he dead?”
“His soul is with me now.”
Will nodded thoughtfully, as if doing some minor math in his head. “All right. That complicates things. I can get you out of here. But we have to go now. The girl looks unharmed. Is that correct?”
“All right. That’s good. I’m sure you’ve noticed we’ve drawn quite a crowd here.”
The Soul Collector cast a scornful glanced toward the platform. “I possess a power that can reduce all of them to ashes.”
“Well, I don’t want to get ashes all over my suit, so let’s go ahead and do this as cleanly as possible. We have a car outside and we can get you through this crowd without incident if we move soon.”
He looked past the Soul Collector and said to Zoey, “You’re coming with us. We’re taking you to your father’s estate. That’s where his vault is. Do I need to tell you that your best—and only—course of action is to comply?”
Zoey glanced at the brain-dead man slumped next to her, thin tendrils of smoke still drifting out of the burn holes in his temples, stinking like piss.
She said, “Please. Just . . . let me go. Whatever shady business Arthur Livingston was into, whatever money he had, the vault, I don’t care about any of that.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re involved because your father involved you, and now you’re a hunk of meat in a kennel. If you don’t do what I say, things will get bad in ways you cannot comprehend.”
Will stood straight, placed his hat back on his black helmet of hair, straightened his sleeves and addressed them both.
“Now, the situation is this. You see what’s happening out on the platform. In the absence of an actual organized police department in this city, what we have instead is a gaggle of grossly unqualified and often mentally unstable hired guns. Every single one of them knows Livingston’s daughter is here, each of them thinks they can get a payday out of this. It’s a lot of very stupid people, pumped up on adrenaline, who know their every move is being broadcast to a live audience. We have to make it clear to them, and to everyone who may be lying in wait between here and our destination, that we are now in charge of this situation. Now, I’m going to walk out that door first. Zoey, you’ll be next. The Soul Collector will be right behind you. The moment we step out, we will be swarmed. Zoey is going to address the nearest camera and say the following. Listen carefully. Are you listening?”
Zoey nodded. Beside her, Jacob let out a guttural sound while his cloudy, unblinking eyes shifted lazily around the car. In a flash, a whole alternate future played in her head, one in which Zoey and Jacob arrive at the station without incident, the two of them shuffling off the train together . . .
He carries her bag for her. On the platform, she gives him her number. They agree to meet on Saturday night. The day comes and Jacob picks her up at her hotel. Her handsome stranger has a convertible and even though it’s December they put the top down and cruise through the chill air, the fifty-story video screens flashing ads and brand logos overhead. They go to a fancy restaurant, maybe one at the top of a tall hotel that looks out over the new city, and there’s a long line but of course Jacob can get right in because he knows people. They eat and drink and laugh. She sees the way he looks at her, Jacob knowing he can get someone thinner, and prettier, but he sees who she really is. He sees what’s inside, and wants it. And afterward, they’re waiting for the valet to bring the car around and the night air is cold and she’s a little bit drunk and Jacob drapes his coat over her shoulders . . .
Zoey said, “I’m listening.”
“You’re going to say, ‘My name is Zoey Ashe. I am Arthur Livingston’s daughter, and I am being held hostage. I have—’ ”
“Held hostage by the Soul Collector,” said the Soul Collector.
“Right. ‘I am being held hostage by the Soul Collector. I have been told that if anyone tries to intervene, he will kill me. Please do not interfere with this process. All other bounties have been rescinded.’ Got it? It doesn’t have to be those exact words but the idea has to come across. Everything is under control, there is no money to be made if they interfere.”
Zoey nodded. She stuck a finger into the cat crate and scratched Stench Machine’s head. “Let’s get out of here.”
She stood, and realized Jacob’s silver flask had fallen into her lap. It was wrong to take it, she barely knew the guy. But she took it anyway, and stuffed it into her purse. Something to remember him by, if she lived through this. The moment Zoey stood, a buzz went through the crowd outside, everyone trying to muscle into position to get a shot of the hostage and captor emerging from the train. Will wrestled her carry-on from the overhead bin and stood by the door. Zoey followed as instructed, carrying Stench Machine’s crate by her side.
Zoey felt a hand on her back, and flinched. Even through her jacket she thought she could feel a buzz from the Soul Collector’s fingers, a jittery vibration like ants crawling between her shoulder blades. The door slid open and the noise hit her like a wall—reporters crowding around and screaming questions, gray uniforms trying to shove back the rubberneckers. All of the screens on the back wall were now tuned to the local news, and the local news was showing the three of them, creating a jarring House of Mirrors effect. Zoey watched their situation play out on the monitors a split second after it occurred in real time—the tall man in the overcoat and fedora, followed by all five feet two inches of Zoey, looking pale and frazzled with black and blue bangs dangling out of her wool cap. Behind her, the strapping savage in the loincloth. The crowd backed off at the sight of him.
No, that wasn’t right. They were backing away from Will.
The trio edged out onto the platform, into the massive unfinished building that Zoey had only glimpsed from inside the train. She saw another train on the next platform over, the line from Las Vegas. All roads lead to Tabula Ra$a, a place that didn’t even exist when she was born. A TV news crew rushed up, and then another. She was famous. It sucked.
Behind them, the guys in black vests and sunglasses prowled into position. The Co-Op men in overcoats with their little machine guns edged toward the door, to block the path. Will glanced back at Zoey and nodded. There were cameras all around now—hell, even the random onlookers were essentially walking cameras—so Zoey didn’t look at any particular one.
“Um, can everyone be quiet? I’m supposed to say something.”
She gave the commotion a moment to die down. She glanced back at the train car and saw paramedics rushing inside to tend to Jacob. She wondered if his family was here in the crowd, or if they even lived in town.
“Okay, um, listen. I am being held hostage, by—” She couldn’t bring herself to say his stupid name. “The scary-looking man behind me. He has told me that if anyone tries to interfere, he will kill me.”
A stir went through the crowd. Gasps. What the hell did they think was going on here? Zoey looked back at the TV screens again and saw that the cameras had zoomed in on the Soul Collector’s face. He was baring his yellow teeth, inscrutable eyes behind the bug-eye goggles, TV monitors along the back wall reflecting back his own face in their pure black lenses. He was soaking up the attention. Zoey realized she was watching the greatest moment of this man’s life. She bit her lip so hard it bled.
Zoey cleared her throat and continued, “His name is the Soul Collector. He has magic powers.”
Zoey turned to face the man and said, “Show them.” She held up her thumb and forefinger. “Show them the trick with the lightning. So they know you’re serious.”
The Soul Collector thought this was a fantastic idea. He bared his teeth again and raised the hand, letting all cameras focus in. Zoey, feeling like now would be the perfect time for some liquid courage, unscrewed the cap on Jacob’s flask and tipped the rest of its contents into her mouth. The Soul Collector leered at her, held his hand in front of her face, fingers spread, and let the piercing arc of blue electricity leap from thumb to forefinger.
Zoey spat half a flask of whiskey at him, the mist flying through the arc and igniting into a fireball. She had aimed at his face, but the ball of fire instead descended and engulfed his crotch. The Soul Collector shrieked like a man whose nuts were on fire, and fell hard on his ass. Zoey grabbed Stench Machine’s crate and sprinted through the crowd.