I am a lie in a red dress. I’d say I’m an expensive lie, given that the heels on my feet and the purse at my wrist are both designer, but that doesn’t truly get at the extent of it. My whole life is a lie. From the lab that tweaked my DNA to bolster my immune system to the technicians who inserted computer chips in my brain to give me perfect recall, I am nineteen years and millions of dollars of lies in one compact package.
And I’m an attractive lie, judging by the way the security guard at Noble and Reese looks me up and down.
Good. May the overworked, underpaid help give more attention to my ass than my face. The low-level encryption on Nobel and Reese’s staff database meant inserting my photo into their system should have been easy, but even easy assignments can go wrong. Something I know all too well.
My gut tightens with the thought of how I ended up here and of what I’m about to do, but I push these worries aside. Literally compartmentalize them somewhere in the mass of chips in my brain so I don’t have to deal with them. I don’t know how I do it, but the ability was beaten into me until I could.
Also literally. Unfortunately.
The cologne on the man in front of me is strong, the scent of gin faint. A thin sheen of sweat glistens on his forehead. Yes, the building is overheated, but that he’s been drinking before arriving at the party suggests he’s more nervous than warm. Glad as I am that I don’t have to deal with nerves in such a crude way, I can’t help but wish my body hadn’t been altered to give me a super-powered liver. I wouldn’t mind knowing what it felt like to be intoxicated.
“You’ve had five shots in the last hour and you’re not even a little drunk?” the blonde girl in a T-shirt with the letters RTC on it shrieks at me. “Oh, my God. How is that possible?”
I close my eyes against the unwanted memory, trying to bury it under the jazz version of “White Christmas” that fills the lobby. Remembering scenes like that does me no good, and might do the opposite if it distracts me from my mission. I need to focus on work, not on memories and certainly not on the nervous guy ahead of me. Maybe he just wants to go home with the dark-eyed accountant two cubes over. If he’s not a threat to me, and I have no reason to believe he is, then it’s not my job to care.
Nervous guy passes the security check, and the guard beckons me closer. I let security’s machine scan my stolen ID, and my face and the name Gillian Altman flash briefly before me in a fancy display. I have to not snort.
This part is such ridiculous security theater, but the action is showy and reassuring. I’m sure Gillian feels safer each time she passes through the checkpoint, but she’s at home sick tonight. Her foray into a coffee shop this morning resulted in her picking up a very nasty stomach virus that will last exactly twenty-four debilitating hours before self-destructing, leaving her permanently undamaged.
Well, except for the part about missing out on the Noble and Reese corporate holiday party this evening, and the hassle of finding her company ID badge is missing on Monday morning.
The security guard is still assessing my backside rather than my face, so I can’t help but feel all the work of swapping out Gillian’s photo for mine was pointless. But whatever. After my purse is X-rayed, I’m in, and I have to actually work.
“I’ve got eyes on Jurek,” Cole says in my ear, apparently noticing that I’ve cleared the security desk. He’s hacked into the office’s cameras and is watching me. It’s both reassuring and scary. Of all the people I can’t let down, Cole is the one whose opinion means the most to me. “He’s by the bar.”
“Copy,” I whisper, resisting the urge to poke at the annoying transmitter in my ear.
I hand over my jacket to the woman in charge of the coat check and cross the marble lobby floor. Although the party takes place in an office building, the high ceilings and artwork make for an attractive space, and no expense has been spared in the decorating.
Before seeking out David Jurek, I press my back against a cool, stone wall to take in as much of the room as I can. Seventy-four employees and their guests, all in various stages of fancy attire, mill about the floor. More are likely hidden in the conference room to my left where the food is. One security guard mans the ID check while a second tries not to yawn by the main doors. They don’t concern me anymore.
The most dangerous threats are the ones you can’t see. Three hundred twenty-eight variations on this theme over the course of my training.
I’m well aware that the five stories in this tower that belong to Nobel and Reese are crawling with security I can’t see. Human guards patrol the executive office level, and technological devices have been installed to keep me from reaching them. That’s why I have Cole.
Nobel and Reese is not the largest international banking firm on Wall Street, nor the best known. In fact, its smaller size and more discreet reputation are part of its attraction to a certain clientele. Those people are the reason I’m here.
Still, I have to admit the company is throwing a nice party for its mid- and low-level employees. Sure, it’s at their office, but the jazz band by the Christmas tree sounds good, and there’s an open bar. No doubt the executives party better elsewhere, but that’s how the world works.
“You must be Lance’s girlfriend.”
I’m jolted from my assessment of the security cameras by a thirty-something man with beer breath. The top two buttons on his shirt are undone, and his silk tie is loose. Someone’s been hitting the open bar, clearly.
“Am I right?” The man grins, revealing disturbingly white teeth. “I didn’t believe him when he said his new girl was barely legal, but I guess that was my mistake.” He laughs as though this is somehow funny, and his gaze drifts to my neckline.
I grit my teeth and hold down all the retorts I’d like to make. Must blend in. Must stay as unmemorable as possible. “You’re right. Now excuse me. I need to go find Lance.”
I’ve procrastinated long enough by scanning the security, if drunk men have the opportunity to examine my cleavage. My heels clack against the checkerboard tiles, the straps digging into my ankles. With all the enhancements I’ve been given, I wish someone had shown the foresight to give me blister-free skin.
“He’s wearing a hideous tie,” Cole tells me. “On your left, ten o’clock.”
I’ve memorized David Jurek’s face, but Cole’s direction helps me navigate through the crowd. “Found him.”
David Jurek is one of the firm’s three senior vice presidents and the only executive present. Unfortunately for him, he must have drawn the short straw and gotten stuck attending tonight’s party so everyone could pretend the executives care about the grunts. He seems to be making the most of it though, holding a glass of champagne and smiling at a woman who can’t be much older than I am.
I spin the ring on my right hand so the fake jewel is palm-side. Then, with my thumb, I release the catch, and the ruby-colored crystal slides over. The thinnest of needles is exposed. It’s so thin that, theoretically, Jurek shouldn’t notice when I stab him with it.
I put a little extra sashay in my hips as I approach. “Mr. Jurek?” I smile shyly.
Jurek turns his attention from the blonde woman to me. “Why, hello. I don’t believe we’ve met. Are you one of our new interns?”
His expression makes me very glad I’m not. “Yes, I’m Amy.” The name is short and ubiquitous enough that after a few more drinks, he might not remember it.
I offer him my hand and hold my breath. Here’s the moment of truth. If he feels the needle’s scratch, I could have a problem.
“I was reading all about your work with Russia in the Journal this week,” I say to keep him distracted. “So fascinating. I feel kind of presumptuous introducing myself, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
Cole makes a gagging noise in my ear. “Stop showing off how much homework you did. Did you get the DNA sample?”
Cole might not be interested in my stupid flattery, but Jurek preens. If he felt a scratch when he shook my hand, he gave no indication. I’m stuck talking to him about volatility in Eastern European markets for three more minutes. It’s long enough for me to no longer understand what he’s saying, and by that I don’t mean the terrible Russian accents he adopts to make a joke.
Finally, I’m released from the ruse, and I surreptitiously check my ring as I wander away. The needle is coated in a faint red. Letting out a sigh of relief, I slide the fake ruby back in place and move on to phase two of the plan.
“One guard,” Cole says. “Currently, he’s on the other side of the floor. I’m looping the elevator camera now.”
I dart away from the crowd. The elevators are on the opposite side of the lobby, far from the band and the bar. I press the elevator’s up button, trying not to fidget, but my fingers flip my stolen ID card around and around. From the corner of my eye, I see the guy who thinks I’m Lance’s girlfriend weave toward me.
Shit. I will the elevator to arrive faster. I’d have taken the stairs, but the stairwell’s modern, glassy design exposes anyone using them to all of the office’s five floors.
When the elevator doors open, I slip inside and let the machine scan the ID card. My heart beats faster as the lobby disappears from view. Normally, this sort of mission is so routine that it’s almost calming. I’ve trained for things like this my whole life. But this particular mission is not routine. I had only a little prep time, and there are parts of it—like waiting for an elevator—that I can’t control.
“You okay?” Cole asks.
I’m wearing a heart-rate monitor, so he can tell I just panicked. “I’m fine. I thought I was going to be seen getting in the elevator.”
“You’re fine. Still clear.”
The elevator arrives on the office’s third floor, depositing me in front of a sea of gray cubicles, which are identical under the low security lights. Across the floor, a wall of glass overlooks New York City’s dazzling skyline. I’m on the third floor of Nobel and Reese, but the twenty-second floor of this building.
The view is amazing, and for a split second I indulge in the fantasy of dancing across the landscape of rooftops, of vanishing in the glow of a million lights. Of escape. Of running and running through this steel forest. It seems impossible that anyone would ever find me.
Then I shake off the crazy notion and the way my feet twitch with it. Escape is a dangerous word.
Three rows, two turns, fourth closet from the left. I count, relying on Cole to warn me if the security guard on this floor approaches. Unlocking the supply closet is simple, and I turn on my phone’s flashlight app. Biting down a curse, I squeeze into the limited space, shut the door and get to work. Having extra rod cells in your eyes is damn useful when people expect you to function in near-dark conditions.
From within a shipping box that was hidden here yesterday, I pull out a small machine. It’s similar to what medical labs use to grow organs and replace body parts. Only this machine is way more advanced than most. This one is more like what RedZone—the organization that created and trained me—uses to produce its should-be-illegal clones.
I say should be because no one knows they’ve mastered the science behind it yet. It’s hard enough to get laws for things people do know about passed, but I’ve no doubt someone would try if they ever found out.
Subconsciously, I count the seconds while the scanner analyzes Jurek’s DNA. If a guard is patrolling, he should be passing by this part of the floor soon. The machine isn’t noisy, but it’s not silent either.
I hear footsteps at last, and shadows shift in the sliver of light beneath the door. I don’t move or breathe, but the scanner makes a clicking noise, alerting me that it’s finished its analysis and is starting the replication sequence. I cringe at the awesome timing, but the shadows shift again, and Cole confirms the guard has moved on.
One hundred ninety seconds later, I have what I need—a perfect replica of the skin on Jurek’s right hand. I shut off the scanner, pack it and slap the shipping label that was with it on the box. It will be carried away by someone else on Monday. Phase two is finished.
“Am I clear?” I ask Cole.
“Crystal. You’ve got a straight path to the elevators.”
I’m relieved to crawl out of the cramped closet, and I fit Jurek’s fake hand over my own. The stolen ID gets me access to the office’s fifth floor without incident. But the moment the doors open, Cole yells in my ear.
“Guard coming! Hide!”
My eyes fly open wide as I search for a spot. This floor isn’t laid out like the others. Instead of a cubical maze, I’ve got a seating area in front of me and several locked doors. I dive behind the nearest sofa and wait, my heart thudding against my rib cage.
A minute later Cole tells me I’m clear. Sighing, I hurry past the security chief’s office and over to the glass doors. The heavy cuff bracelet on my left wrist hides the junction where a computer cable exits my arm. I plug myself into the nearby keypad and upload the cracking program required to override the numeric lock. That takes only a few seconds. Once done, I place my hand with Jurek’s skin over the scanner.
The door unlocks, and I unplug myself and scurry through. Entering Jurek’s office requires the same trick I pulled by the glass doors, and soon I’m in there too.
His office is far homier than the rest of the building’s sleek décor would suggest, and one wall is windows. Ignoring the view this time, I start up his computer and, for what I hope is the last time tonight, plug in.
Not only is Jurek’s computer password protected, the files I’m looking for are hidden in an encrypted directory. Jurek’s office is one of the few places within the bank from which they can be accessed. That’s what happens when you’re dealing with accounts maintained by terrorists and the politicians they secretly fund.
Closing my eyes, I sit on the edge of Jurek’s desk and cut myself off from the outside world. Octavia, one of my unit members, calls it “becoming one with the code”, and it does help as I work my way through the layers of security.
Once the private directories appear on Jurek’s monitor, though, the tedious business of searching out the right ones becomes my task. I’m a fast reader and know what I’m looking for, but I’m well aware of the minutes ticking by.
“Jurek’s on the move,” Cole says. “He got a message on his phone, and he’s heading to the elevator.”
“Shit.” Why is Jurek going to his office during the party? Way to be a workaholic.
I take a charm, which is actually a modified data stick, off my ankle bracelet. It’s designed to be plugged into my cable so I can download the files right into external storage. Although I could just upload them to the storage in my brain, getting clean data off my implants has always proven tricky. This is less convenient but easier in the long run.
“Get out of there.”
I dig my nails into my palms. “I’m not done downloading yet. Sixty percent.”
“Jurek’s in the elevator.”
“I’m almost done.” I can’t fail. Not this time. There’s far too much at stake.
“He’s on the floor.”
Go, my sense of self-preservation is screaming at me. I clench my fists, determined to ignore it.
Not yet. I can’t go yet.
The tracking bar reaches 100%, and I yank my cable from Jurek’s computer. Although I’ve finally become anxious enough to feel sweat bead on my neck, my actions are smooth and well-rehearsed. I patch myself back together, return the data stick to my anklet and shut down the computer.
I can hear Jurek’s voice outside. Is he on the phone or talking to a guard? Growing more worried by the second, I glance around the office. “I need an alternate exit.”
“You’ve got nothing in his office unless you can get into the ceiling vent.”
I groan and glance up. The vent is on the other side of the room. If I can slide Jurek’s desk over and stack a chair on it, I should be able to reach it. Although it’s not like security won’t know where I went, it should give me a head start.
I don’t get the chance to try though. The office door opens, and I dash around the back, delusionally hoping I might be able to sneak out behind Jurek. But luck isn’t with me.
Luck is a poor partner. Damn if Fitzpatrick didn’t love to tell us that.
Jurek sees me, and he freezes, startled.
I knock him down on my way through the door, but he cries out. Seven meters down the hallway, the guard hears him and turns around. It’s my mistake for not silencing Jurek, but something within me stilled my hand. Something that I know shouldn’t exist.
There’s no time to think on it. Cole is swearing as I charge the security guard. His gun is less my concern than his radio, but either way, I can’t reach him in time. He whips out both, clearly thinking he can hold me at bay.
Instead, I duck low and knock him to the floor. He fires far too late, and the bullet misses by several inches, but the sound does enough damage. Backup will be coming any second, alerted by the gunshot or Jurek.
In three moves I’ve disabled the guard and taken control of his side arm, and I race toward the lobby. “Tell me where to go.”
The elevators are a bad idea. Security will lock them down any moment if they haven’t already. Meanwhile, the glassy stairwell shows me three new guards charging upstairs, weapons drawn.
“Elevator shaft?” I ask.
“No, turn back around and go left. The fire escape.”
I’m certain throwing open that door triggers a silent alarm which we didn’t bother to disable, but it’s not as if my presence is a secret anymore. My damn shoes cut into my feet, and their ridiculous soles cause me to skid across the concrete stairs. Cursing, I yank them off as I run.
I take the stairs two at a time, my bare feet slamming into gritty concrete. My heart rate steadies. I’m good at running. Jumping too, and I glance down the center of the well as the door slams open two floors above me. I could probably fit between the railings, but twenty-two stories is a good twenty too many, even for me.
“Stop right there!” one of the guards yells.
Annoyed, I fire a single shot upward. The angle makes it impossible to hit anyone, but it might make them think twice about continuing to charge. Hearing them scramble, I return to running.
Eighteenth floor. Sixteenth. I start to get dizzy from the circling. My world has been reduced to a never-ending industrial gray loop.
“Two more, coming up from the basement,” Cole says.
By the ninth floor, we’re all in range of each other, and this time, when someone opens fire, I fling myself against a wall, and the world dissolves.